Memphis did his grocery shopping in the middle of the day, when the aisles were uncrowded and shoppers walked lazily between displays, taking too long to eye weekly specials, putting items into their carts and then taking them out again. He pushed a cart with a crooked wheel past an older couple standing in front of a selection of taco seasoning.
“I think it was the yellow one,” the man said, his finger tapping his chin.
“I’ll call him,” the woman said, taking a cell phone from her purse.
“Don’t bother him. Get the yellow one.”
“I’ll just call him. It’s no bother.”
Memphis put a jar of pickled jalapeños in his cart. As he turned the corner, the couple was still facing each other silently, the woman holding a phone to her ear, the man watching her with his arms crossed.
In the dairy aisle, Memphis stood behind an overweight woman in a flowered dress. She shifted gently from foot to foot, indecisive. He could see the milk through the freezer door, but couldn’t reach around her, so he tapped her on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” he said. The woman didn’t respond. Memphis leaned to look into her face and saw her eyes moving rapidly from side to side. Her jaw tensed and released. Memphis stepped back.
“Over here, boys.” A manager in a red vest led two teenage employees around the corner. He put his hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I’m back,” he said to her. “I’ve got two stock boys here with me. We’re going to make you more comfortable.”
Memphis watched the woman’s face in the glass freezer door.
“We just happen to be in need of additional help at the moment,” the manager said to the woman. One of the boys wheeled a dolly closer to her.
“Excuse us, sir,” the manager said to Memphis. “We’ll have this cleaned up in just a minute.”
One of the boys positioned the dolly directly behind the woman’s heels as the other one knelt down beside her. “I’m going to move your foot,” he said, and lifted her foot, placing it on the dolly. The woman’s eyes continued to move quickly from side to side. He moved her other foot onto the dolly and then stood up, taking her hand in his. “How are you doing? Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”
The woman seemed to speak. It sounded like air escaping a tire.
“That’s fine, that’s fine,” the manager said. “Tilt her back, boys, gently now. She’s getting off balance.”
The stock boys leaned the dolly back, bending their legs and squaring up against the woman’s weight as she angled away from the refrigerated cases.
“Over by the cleaning supplies,” the manager said, “on the endcap.” The manager turned to Memphis and handed him a coupon for one dollar off whole-wheat rotini. “I’m sorry for the delay, sir. Please take this for your inconvenience.”
Memphis backed away without getting milk. As he approached the cash register, he saw they had placed the woman in front of a display of glass cleaner, and hung a sign around her neck reading “Special of the Week: 25% off.” Her eyes shifted from side to side, her mouth silently opening and closing, fingers twitching, knees shaking. The flowers on her dress looked withered and dry.
“Blessed are the shallow of lung, for their every breath is a slip nearer the abyss. Blessed are the restricted of diaphragm, for their muscles spasm in the presence of the Lord. Blessed are the hoarse, for their rasping is the sound of God, and their sore throats shall be his persecuted messengers, forever and ever, amen.”
Memphis mopped the lobby of the radio station as the pastor took off his headset and opened the studio door. As always, five members of his congregation stood around the coffee table in the waiting area, listening to his nightly sermon in a tight circle, holding hands, heads bowed and eyes closed. Without speaking, the members of the prayer circle lifted their heads and followed the pastor out the glass door of the radio station toward a small church bus in the side parking lot, leaving muddy tracks on Memphis’ freshly mopped floor. A public service announcement played over the speakers in the lobby.
Memphis’ favorite show was up next. It had been on the air for almost twenty years. The DJ played upbeat music for people who worked the graveyard shift. Memphis ran his mop over the muddy footprints as the DJ’s voice came over the speakers.
“This one’s for the truck drivers. Have another cup of coffee and try not to tap your toes on the gas pedal. It’s going to be another beautiful Tuesday morning out there, sunrise at six forty-two, and it should be a stunner. Lots of particulate matter in the air, as they say, so keep your eyes on the road and your ears on the radio.”
After he finished mopping, Memphis straightened the desks of the news crew who would be in just before dawn. He emptied their trash cans and pushed in their chairs. He sprayed disinfectant on the surfaces of their desks, careful to avoid stacks of papers and manila folders. He wiped down the windows that looked out over the parking lot, where his rusty silver sedan and the DJ’s small green pickup sat under the only streetlight. On the window, his cleaning chemicals fogged and cleared. Condensation from the air conditioning gathered and dripped down the glass in small streams. It was the middle of summer and hot, even at night.
Memphis finished his shift before the DJ’s show was over. He waved to him on his way out. From the other side of the soundproof glass, the DJ smiled and waved back while reading a public service announcement about brain-eating amoebas. “Remember,” he said, “stagnant water may seem warm and inviting, but it’s not worth the risk.”
The streets of Memphis’ town had been orange groves when he was a boy. He remembered as, one by one, the groves were bulldozed to make room for neighborhoods, for the people from up north, finally tired of the long winters, to settle into their respiratory diseases and neurological disorders. When a developer bulldozed an orange grove, they would burn all of the trees. Memphis remembered great piles of them, stacked up to the sky and blazing. He remembered the sweetness in the air on those days, the way it smelled like oranges but not really, more like cheap candy.
Slowly the town filled up with strip malls and gas stations. The streets were expanded from two lanes to four, then six. The new houses were spaced respectful distances from each other, giving families just enough room to feel like landowners, a little space to take pictures of and fill up with swimming pools and play sets.
Young families bought the new houses, then bought newer ones when the new houses weren’t new anymore. Memphis’ family lived on the edge of town, which stayed the edge of town even after the development boom consumed all the woodland between their house and the closest grocery store. His parents had hoped to sell and capitalize on the growth, but they had been smokers for too long and the cancer grew quicker than the real estate market.
The house Memphis had bought with his fiancé was small. His whole neighborhood was full of similar houses. Two- and three-bedroom places, laid out awkwardly, the living rooms too close to the kitchen, the bathrooms too close to both. The day they had signed the contract his fiancé had stood in the living room and stretched her arms out, smiling wider than he’d ever seen her smile. They were homeowners. This validated something that he couldn’t exactly point to.
When Memphis got home from the radio station, he sat in front of the upright piano he had taken from his parents’ house before the foreclosure. He stretched his fingers out and let them hover over the keys, imagining the chords he could play, but dropped them back into his lap and rubbed the coarse material of his work slacks instead. His uniform shirt was open and he fidgeted with the lowest button, poking it through its hole and then popping it back out.
The songs of his childhood were beginning to fade. He could remember pieces of the melodies, parts of lyrics, but they were becoming indistinct from one another. He closed his eyes and stretched his fingers out again, then lifted them to his face and rubbed his eyes. The callouses on his palms were rough, and his hands smelled like disinfectant. He inhaled deeply.
The streetlights outside his window flickered off and then on and then off again as sunrise broke over the horizon. He looked around at the empty house. Six weeks earlier, his fiancé had rented a moving truck while he was at work. When he came home most of the expensive items in the house were missing. She left a note on the refrigerator: “I might have a brain inflammation.” The only large pieces of furniture she left behind were the couch, the dining table, the twin bed from the spare bedroom, and the piano. All of it looked out of context and unfamiliar now. It was like being in someone else’s house.
Memphis took his shirt off and stood in front of the bathroom mirror. He leaned in to look at his face. A small pimple was beginning to form in the corner of his mouth. He squeezed the white bulb between his two pointer fingers and it erupted onto the surface of the mirror. He closed his eyes. An ache lingered where the pimple had been, but the pressure was released.
He turned his attention to a sore behind his earlobe. It was scabbed over and inflamed. Pressing his ear down to the side of his head, he dug at the sore with the tip of his fingernail, picking against the edge of the scab until it pulled away from his skin. He let the scab drop into the sink and looked at the tip of his finger, covered in blood, before holding it under his nose and inhaling. The chemical smell of disinfectant mixed with the smell of blood. He turned on the hot water and rubbed his hands together under the stream.
It was seven in the morning. He lay down in bed with his inflamed ear against the cool pillow and stared at the sunlight leaking around the edges of his black curtains.
The pastor’s church was just around the corner from Memphis’ house. It was a white building with a modest steeple. It was called First Elemental Church of Christ the Soft-Spoken. Every evening at sundown a member of the congregation blew a single long trumpet blast. Memphis was sitting at his dining table drinking coffee when he heard the trumpet. He looked at the clock. His shift started in fifteen minutes.
On the way to the station, Memphis turned his radio off and kept his windows down. It was a community station with a limited broadcast range. Its signal barely reached the suburbs. The limited broadcast power made him feel better about being so close to the tower every night. He sometimes worried about the effects on his health, and occasionally convinced himself he could feel the radio waves vibrating in his chest, spawning cancer cells in organs he could point to but not name. As he got closer to the station he reached up and scratched at the pimple in the corner of his mouth. He knew he should leave it alone, but the scab came off and he pressed the collar of his shirt against it to stop the bleeding.
The station’s tower jutted from the top of the building and rose over the tops of the shotgun houses lining the street. As Memphis approached, he leaned forward to see the top of it through his windshield. It was the smallest tower in town but it still seemed impossibly tall. He liked to imagine climbing it, what the city would look like from up there.
When Memphis got to the radio station, a white van was parked next to the church bus in the parking lot. Black letters on the side read “FCC.” Federal agents had the authority to visit the station at any time, but during his two years as a janitor Memphis had never seen an inspection. He turned the car off and sat for a moment in silence, pressing the collar of his shirt against the corner of his mouth until it no longer left spots on the fabric. Through his open windows he could hear someone yelling, “Federal Communications Commission. Open up!” He got out of the car and walked to the front of the station, where a woman was banging on the glass door. Her free hand clutched a clipboard and a lit cigarette was wedged between her fingers. Inside the lobby, just on the other side of the door, the pastor’s congregation held hands around the coffee table. A spread of entertainment magazines sat undisturbed on the table in front of them.
The woman turned to Memphis. “Do you work here?” she asked, looking down at his name tag.
“Sorry,” Memphis said, gesturing to the congregation in the lobby, “they don’t talk.” He swiped his keycard and held the door open. The woman dropped her cigarette and crushed it beneath the toe of her shoe.
“Memphis?” she asked, tapping his name tag with her pointer finger. “I’m Cincinnati. Let’s get started.”
Inside the lobby Cincinnati immediately began taking notes. She circled around the congregation, looking closely at each member’s face before moving to the next. “Obstruction of a federal agent,” Cincinnati said. “Disrupting the process of a legally required inspection. Endangering the public safety by interfering with an unscheduled emergency broadcast test.” She scribbled on her clipboard. “Anything to say for yourselves?”
The congregation moved their mouths silently, eyes closed and heads lowered as always.
“You can expect a letter outlining these infractions.” She looked up at the glass separating the studio from the lobby. Inside, the pastor spoke into the microphone with his eyes closed. His voice came through the lobby speakers.
“And what is the way to the Kingdom of Heaven? Loud mufflers and heavy bass? I’m no expert, dear listeners, but I don’t think the Lord our God calls to us from clouds of exhaust. I don’t think the Son of Man beckons from the back of a club filled with half-deaf dancers. We must plug our ears if we want to hear the sounds of Heaven, we must be so quiet that we hear the blood flowing through our veins, so quiet that we can make out the ringing of our poor decisions, the aftermath of our mistakes.”
Cincinnati made notes on her clipboard. “How long does his show last?” she asked Memphis.
Memphis looked up at the clock, though he already knew the answer. “He just started.”
At home in bed, Memphis lay on his back looking through the paperwork Cincinnati left with him after her inspection was complete. The overhead light bled through the forms, making Cincinnati’s handwritten letters seem thin and disconnected from each other. She had walked through the entire studio, pointing out pieces of equipment that Memphis had never noticed. There were important-looking black boxes covered in green and red lights tucked away in small rooms where Memphis had been specifically instructed not to touch anything. Cincinnati had touched things, though. She pressed buttons and initiated diagnostic cycles. She swept her finger through dust on the tops of the machines and showed it to Memphis. “Aren’t you the janitor?” she asked. Memphis hung his head and touched the scab behind his ear. Now, as he lay in bed, he wished he had come up with something more to tell her. Cincinnati was beautiful in a way he didn’t know people could be beautiful, like an empty seat in the back of a crowded restaurant.
The sun was coming up but Memphis couldn’t sleep. His chest was tight with regret. He pulled his clothes back on and went out for a walk.
Memphis’ neighborhood was full of houses that looked almost the same. A few blocks from his house the street became a dirt road that ran through a diseased orange grove. Withered orange trees in various stages of dying lined either side of the path. The fruit no longer turned the color it was supposed to. Oranges hung from branches, half-green and half-yellow. Memphis picked one, looked at it, then threw it out into the grove. He couldn’t hear where it landed.
He walked in the loose sand until he came to a kidney-shaped pond. At the water’s edge, a girl with an orange plastic bucket in one hand and a fish net in the other knelt in front of a hole. Tiny silver fish flopped around in the drying mud at the bottom of the hole.
“Those fish need water,” Memphis said.
The girl looked up at Memphis, then back down at the hole. She picked up a fish that had stopped moving and held it up to her face. “This fish is dead,” she said as she tossed it back into the pond. It floated on the surface of the water. She picked up another. “This fish is dead,” she said, tossing it into the pond, picking up another. “This fish is dead, and this fish is dead, and this fish is dead,” she said as their mouths opened and closed and opened again, their tiny chests expanding and compressing, then staying compressed.
We survive on subscriptions
from adventurous readers like you.
For $60, Subscribers directly support our publishing program, putting more money into our authors’ pockets and allowing us to take more artistic risks with what we publish.
In return, Subscribers receive all the books we publish in a given year, name recognition in each book and on our site, free ebooks, free shipping, and membership into our not-so-secret society “the illiterati.”
Florida isn’t known as a bastion of literature. We embrace this misperception with good humor. That’s why we refer to our subscribers as “the illiterati.” Subscribers (aka illiterati members) receive random and delightful perks through the year.