Memphis Minnie's Ashes
He’s innocent, eager, in awe of Lucy. She’s lusty, world-weary,a blues-mama wannabe. Together they bring the graveyard to life.
Illustration by Mike Benny
A breeze blew through the cemetery at dusk, mussing the leaves of ancient oaks. Shadows up and danced, and it felt like rain.
It had been silent for some time, and I was kind of liking that. I thought it meant we’d be leaving soon, before dusk gave way to dark. But Lucy was just settling in. “I want to be a blues mama,” she said. “But I’m too skinny. I’m in grave danger of blowing away. Hold me tight and hang on, Billy Heavens.”
My given name is William True Heavens. It was only Lucy Miles who called me Billy. She called me Billy Heavens, the Lost Boy Out of Time. She said if I ever took to writing the story of us, to be sure and capitalize that, like it was a title duly bestowed. She used those words, a title duly bestowed. She talked like that sometimes. She had some ways that were fanciful and she had some other ways that weren’t. You just never did know with Lucy Miles.
I turned to hold her, but I did more turning than holding, and Lucy said, “That’s not what I call tight.”
Lucy spoke quickly in a soft, low voice that had some lilt to it when she slowed it down. But she rarely ever did. She was in a rush to be rid of the words, as if she had no patience for the ones she’d just said but had boundless hope for the next batch. She spoke in batches, I guess is the way to say it. Words came out of Lucy’s mouth like birds out of an open cage – not so much spoken as sprung. But birds weren’t quite the effect she was going for. She wanted them to be stunt planes. She wanted them to swoop and plummet and do the old loop-de-loop.
“I don’t see what weight has to do with it, Luce. I – ”
“Oh, my young, innocent Billy Heavens,” she said, and that reminded me why we were here, in the cemetery at dusk.
Lucy lay on her back, looking dreamily to the stars and planets and the new moon in the blue-black sky. “A blues mama needs to have some weight to throw around,” she said. “She needs curves and heft. She needs to be a lot to look at. She needs to be able to throw her big leg over. Don’t you listen to the blues, Billy Heavens?”
I lay there beside this strange girl, brushing against the bare paleness of her skin, not because I moved against it but because I didn’t, because I was still like those cemetery stones were still and so was handy to be moved against. And I thought again about why we were here, in the cemetery at dusk.
I said no, I didn’t listen to the blues, but Lucy Miles said, “Memphis Minnie. Her real name was Lizzie Douglas. She sang about her ice man and her butcher man and her strange man and another man who was a sandhog in the sea. I don’t know what a sandhog is, but anyway he died. He drowned. I suppose he drowned while being about the business of being a sandhog. Memphis Minnie had men enough to fill this cemetery, with some need to stack certain corpses double.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Well, Minnie could play guitar better than most men and Minnie was glamorous. My, oh.” Lucy seemed to be moving not just side to side now but up and down; she seemed to float and hover and touch down again beside me. “Minnie wore dresses with slits up to here” – Lucy made a throat-slitting motion – “and she showed fine brown thigh flesh and she wore big hoop earrings on which larks and larger birds came to rest.”
They were doing it now. Her words, I mean. They were swooping and plummeting and they were doing the old loop-de-loop. And I just listened. If I’d’ve said anything, it would have been, “Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. Oh Lord, Lucy.” But I didn’t say anything. I just listened.
“Minnie sang songs about black cats and roosters and good biscuits. She sang songs about Joe Louis the Brown Bomber. She sang them soft and she sang them hard. She tapped her high-heeled foot in time.” Lucy sighed, let a sad lull fall between her last words and the next ones. “There were others. There was the Devil’s Son-in-Law, the Mississippi Sheiks, and more blind men than you could find dogs for. There was Muddy and the Wolf and a couple of Sonny Boys. But Minnie is my one most favorite, Good Lord rest her soulful soul and fingers bejeweled. I say we go see her sometime. She’s almost to Memphis, about to the state line, on the Mississippi side of things.”
We were an hour or more down from Memphis, in a sad, little town called Roost. I was staying the summer there with my grandparents in their big, white house just off the square, which was mostly empty storefront windows and padlocked doors and for-lease signs. My grandfather, rich off of cotton, owned most of them. He owned most of Roost, even the poor part where Lucy Miles lived with her house-painting daddy and more brothers and sisters than I could ever get an accurate count on.
We were fifteen, Lucy Miles and I. If we couldn’t get to a place by foot or bike, it hardly existed. Memphis might as well have been the new moon in the blue-black sky. But I didn’t say that, because surely Lucy would have taken it as a dare. Lucy would have gone to the new moon, on a dare. So I said, “Over what?”
“Huh, Billy Heavens?”
“You said something about throwing your big leg over. If you had one, I mean. A big leg.”
I wasn’t so big myself. I was a yellow-haired, blue-eyed stalk of American boyhood, all bone and freckle, held together by wonder and doubt and questions that wanted no part of answers. That’s why we were here, in the cemetery at dusk. Those questions that wanted no part of answers, is why.
There was more to Lucy’s fifteen than mine. I had scarcely sinned. Lucy couldn’t believe it when I told her. She said I wasn’t like the other boys. That’s why she called me the Lost Boy Out of Time. That, and I liked to hear old stories about dead people like Minnie and Muddy and the Devil’s Son-in-Law and those Sheiks. “And you,” she said, “a writer.” I said I wasn’t a writer yet; I just wanted to be one, someday. I had never put lips to cigarettes nor tongue to hooch – hooch is what Lucy Miles called it – nor ever touched, until now, so odd and wondrous a thing as a girl, but in particular this girl, who wanted to be a big-leg blues mama, this girl who was no more fifteen than the moon in the sky was new. Lucy was introducing me to what she called the exquisite literary vices. She said she’d do that for me. She said she’d be my muse. She said all writers had muses, and some more than one.
“Over what?” she said. “Over I don’t damn know, Billy Heavens. Over the world. Or a boy in question.”
I’d never said a cuss word. I wondered how they tasted on your tongue. Tart, I imagined, with an aftertaste that soap wouldn’t wash out. I wondered if words kicked when you said them, like guns when you shoot them. I’d never shot a gun. I thought of asking Lucy about all that. I thought of asking Lucy if she’d ever shot a gun. But I just looked at the girl without saying anything.
Then she said those words again, and some others besides. “Oh, my young, innocent Billy Heavens,” she said. “He does so need to get his ashes hauled.”
Lucy Miles had a plain face, but not so you’d notice. By the time you saw the plainness of it, it didn’t matter. She had you. You’d have stacked dictionaries in one stack, Bibles in another, and you’d have burned the one stack and sworn on the other that plain was the one true ideal of human beauty. That’s how it was with Lucy’s pale skin, too. You’d have thought pale was something rich folk would pay good money to get their golden skin to be.
I thought it again. I thought, Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. Oh Lord, Lucy.
But all I said of that was, “Oh.” Then I stuck a finger through one of her belt loops and listened for what she might say next.
“I want to have river hips, whatever they are,” she said. “Heard about them on those old records my Uncle Till plays.”
Lucy wore loose bib overalls and one strap was hooked and one strap wasn’t. She wore a red T-shirt under. Written in white script on the red T-shirt were the words “Sweet to Mama,” the name of a bar where Lucy’s Uncle Till had played music for money. Till Miles played guitar and sang in a band called Cherry Ball. He was good with that guitar. I’d heard him play. I’d never known fingers could dance a stomp and tiptoe, too, but his did. He had a scratchy, low voice that I’d’ve hated to hear in the cemetery at dusk, but I liked it just fine in the broad light of day. He’d sing the dirty blues and then he’d smooth it all over with a gospel number. He’d tempt lightning like that and think nothing of it. Then he’d tell us tales of faraway towns and the bars he’d conquered, places like the Sweet to Mama and the Stomp that Thing and the Dog Me Around. He’d tell us tales of Memphis and Belzoni and New Orleans, and some places without names. Then he’d flash us what even I in my young innocence knew to be a whiskey grin.
I wondered about the taste of whiskey, too. Did it take the tartness out of cuss words, make them easier to say? I wondered what else the taste of whiskey made easier. I thought of bank robbery and jumping off of bridges and I thought of sins of the flesh, too.
I turned again to face Lucy. I let my eyes take in her red hair; it was long and the color of sundown. When she stood it went down to about where those river hips, whatever they were, would have been. Then I turned away and said it.
“I think you’re perfect, Luce,” I said. “Every square inch of you.”
She shook her head at the new moon, as if they were in cahoots, as if only the new moon, which was given to growing big and round – voluptuous, Lucy said – understood her notions. “No! See! I don’t want square inches. You’ve got to pay attention, Billy Heavens.” She was up on one elbow now, leaning over me. That hair of sundown red fell long over her little bit of shoulders. Her shoulders were not much more than coat hangers. “I want curves to make the river straighten up and take notice,” she said.
Dusk was taking its leave from the cemetery. Darkness stepped out from the shadows, looking to make a night of it. That breeze picked up and I thought I might have felt one thin drop of rain.
“We’d best go, Luce,” I said. “A storm’s coming. Let’s not get carried away by it.”
Lucy rustled through a backpack that lay on the cemetery grass, pulled from it a pack of smokes and a pint of hooch, and then she said, “No. Let’s do.”
She slowly lifted the cigarette to her lips, struck a match and lit it.
Her head tilted back and her eyes began to close. I watched to see if her lids quivered, to see if this was just a show, a demonstration for my benefit, and not something she was feeling deeply. But they did not quiver nor otherwise move. They closed to stillness, and I thought of the sacraments. She puffed on that cigarette, and then made smoke. She blew clouds and then the clouds became wisps and the wisps left a layer of dust, of ash, on the cemetery stones. That’s how it seemed to me as Lucy Miles smoked that cigarette.
“Like so,” Lucy said.
She took that cigarette in her hands, held it out in front of her. The way she held it there in the cemetery at night, you’d never have thought a cigarette was something that was packaged and sold and bought by the general public and smoked in broad daylight and flicked out car windows and crushed underfoot. She motioned for me to move in on it.
“Like so,” she said again.
I wasn’t going to say it, but I did.
“Cigarettes stunt your growth,” I said. I leaned back, resting on my arms, my hands flat on the cemetery ground. It’s true. My mother told me. I didn’t figure there was any disputing that.
“Who told you that?”
“I read it.”
Lucy smiled. It was a world-weary smile. The only Paris she could’ve seen was the one they had in Tennessee, but her smile was world-weary just the same. I couldn’t deny that smile its worldly powers but I didn’t have to look at it. So I turned away, and then it was her elbow, jabbing me. There wasn’t anything worldly about Lucy’s elbows. They were just small, bony things that were forever jabbing, trying to make Roost, that sad, little town, a larger place. So I had turned away from the world-weary smile and I had done my best to ignore the jabbing elbow and it’s a fine thing for both of us she didn’t try to kiss me then, because I’d have had to find some way to begrudge her that, too.
“You read it, huh?”
“In a book,” I said, and I turned back to face her. I believed that much in the power of books, the printed word.
“Your mother, she wrote that book, huh, Billy Heavens?” Lucy said, and then she did it. Swooped in, you see. She kissed me with the cool, warm smolder of smoky, wet lips, and I thought – no, I tried not to think. But think is all I did. I thought maybe it wasn’t enough that I was being kissed, that I ought to be kissing back. I wondered if I should be doing something with my hands; I wondered if I should hold her. But I couldn’t move. Those cemetery stones had not one thing on me. Out of one eye not quite clenched shut I saw a cemetery statue, a man in uniform with one hand over his heart. He stood tall and sure, with one hand free. He had killed and he had been killed. He had wrung life from a lifetime. He knew all the answers that questions wanted no part of. I thought Lucy Miles ought to just go and kiss him instead of me.
Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. Oh Lord, Lucy.
So I had been kissed. Lucy said not to sweat it, there’d be plenty of time for me to kiss back.
Her words were fireflies in that cemetery dark, giving some light and lightness to that sad, shadowy place. I had relatives buried there. I wondered if I could find them in the dark. I sat against an ancient oak with branches like outstretched arms. That made me feel safer, made me feel better for the cemetery dead. They were shaded in summer. Come autumn, the leaves would beam bright orange, blush deep crimson, and when they fell, they’d leave the cemetery dead quilt-covered. Then winter, and the brittle cold stripping those limbs bare, and I imagined the cemetery dead rising from the cold ground and dancing for warmth, or for the lost thrill of dancing.
Lucy sat cross-legged, struck a match and lit another cigarette. I was beside her now. I leaned in for a taste of that cigarette. A puff wouldn’t hurt. I leaned in on Lucy Miles. I had a theory, anyway, that the kids who smoked hadn’t had their growth stunted. They just didn’t stand up straight. I’d seen them, studied them. They had that cigarette slouch.
I told that to Lucy and she smiled, said leave it to me to have a damn theory about everything.
“Cigarettes are just props, anyway,” she said. “Boys smoke them because it makes them look cool. Girls smoke them because it makes them look sexy. Grownups just need something to do with their hands.”
I took a quick little pull. I squinched my eyes. I coughed as my squinched eyes watered. I coughed some more and I spat on the cemetery ground. I spat spit and smoke and poison. I spat fear and want and wonder.
Lucy wiped my eyes with one hand; the other hand took the cigarette and held it. She smiled out from under that long hair of sundown red. Then she did something I’ll always remember her for: She didn’t say anything, not a single word.
So I had been kissed by a girl and I had been smoked by a cigarette. I wondered if the rest of the exquisite literary vices would find me as lost and wanting, and I wondered if this was what it would be like, being a writer and telling tales and acting all literary and holding forth and having a muse. I wondered if I could be a writer without smoking cigarettes, wondered if pecking letters on a typewriter would be enough something to do for my hands.
I wondered, too, if I could live, much less write, without another one of those kisses. I wasn’t a worldly boy but I thought I knew the answer to that.
I’ve got six boyfriends
They like to fight over my bones
Well, I’ve got six boyfriends
Oh, they love to fight over my bones
When they’re done I bury five
And I take the one on home …
Lucy Miles was singing now. Her soft, low voice had a lot more than a little lilt to it when she sang and I liked it, that lilt. She was singing the dirty blues and didn’t need to clean them up on my account. I turned to face her. I asked if it was a Memphis Minnie song but she said, “Nope, one of my own composing.” And then she sang some more.
I’ve got six boyfriends
They leave me too tired to speak
I’ve got six boyfriends
You know they leave me too tired to speak
But I get one day to rest
I call that a pretty good week …
Then she stopped singing and said, “When you write about this night, Billy Heavens, you can take certain liberties. You can give me a guitar and the know-how to play it. Make me a natural, like Memphis Minnie must’ve been a natural. Give me rings like Minnie wore, rings with dice on them, and gold and jewels and dresses with slits. But don’t give me big legs. Leave me skinny and pale. Leave me wanting, that way. And tell the truth about that kiss and that cigarette. Leave yourself wanting, too. That’s what makes it a real story that people want to pay their own money to read.”
“Maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer,” I said. “I could go a good long time without smoking another cigarette.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say you smoked it.” Lucy rolled over onto her side, facing me. She threw a skinny leg over. “Seemed like to me it was the other way ’round.”
I grinned. “Yeah, I think it smoked me.”
She threw a skinny arm over, too. “I like that. That’s good. Be sure and put that in the story.”
Then she sang those words to her song again, and when some more came to her she sang them, too. She sang the one about Memphis Minnie’s strange man and the one about that poor, drowned sandhog, too. Next she sang, “Well, I’ve got curves and I’ve got nerve, I’ve got a guitar that rocks all night. I’ve got legs and I ain’t got to beg, but I’ve got a boy who might.”
When she stopped singing she said, at barely more than a whisper, “So you’re not a smoker, and maybe we ought to keep that lid on the hooch, for tonight, anyway. But there’s no reason you can’t rise to the rank of at least the second-best kisser on these cemetery grounds.”
We were standing now. We were walking on the gravel lanes of the cemetery. We were holding hands. She was holding mine, anyway. I wondered if I was doing enough with my hands to constitute holding hers. So I gave a squeeze and she gave it back.
We walked until gravel gave way to a clearing where there were no graves.
“Yet,” Lucy said.
“Well,” I said. “Yet.”
We walked to the middle of the clearing, the Lost Boy Out of Time and the pale, skinny girl who wanted to be a big-leg blues mama. We lay on our backs, watching the sky. We looked at the stars. We played connect-the-dots. Lucy said some nights she wanted to reach up and grab a handful of stars, stuff them in the pockets of her bib overalls and walk the streets of Roost. She said she’d use the stars as money, buy her daddy and brothers and sisters a new house, and a guitar for herself. She said she knew that sounded silly. I’d never heard her voice break, but it did then. I said it didn’t sound silly. I said if cotton can be money and build a big house like my grandparents lived in, then stars could be money and buy a house and a guitar and maybe some toys for all those brothers and sisters. Yeah, but you can get your hands on cotton, Lucy said. So we just looked at what we couldn’t reach. I saw the Big Dipper and the Great Bear. Lucy saw a pair of dice, a coat hanger, and one of Memphis Minnie’s big hoop earrings. Then I got the idea. I blinked and tried again. I saw river hips and a big leg and the letter L for Lucy. Then I blinked again and the stars shuffled, became for me the words of the story I would write, the story of us and what happened that night, in the cemetery at dark.
I turned and I kissed her. It wasn’t the best kiss ever given a girl, but then it just wouldn’t do to give the best kiss ever on the first try at kissing. You wouldn’t have called it epic, but it did go on a good long while, I will say. I can’t say what it was like, exactly, because I wasn’t thinking about what it was like. It just was. Sometimes something just is and when it’s over it just was, and thinking about it only gets in the way. So I didn’t think at all. I just kissed the girl. Then I rolled over, grinning, and Lucy Miles said, “My, but the lips on you, Billy Heavens.”
We laughed now, giggled really, became so light we came near to levitating. We praised be for moments like this. We wished them to never ever leave, or at least come back soon and see us. But the moment passed, spooked by something, and next came silence.
Silence passed over us like a flock of awkward moments. Silence filled the blue-black sky with doubt and wonder and ache and need.
I turned toward her as she turned toward me. I held her and she said, “Now, that’s what I call tight.”
The breeze blew again, but I didn’t think we’d get that rain, after all.
Now silence swooped in for a closer look.
Silence hung like a low ceiling and then silence closed over us like a box top.
When the box top opened it was morning. M
About the Author
When he moved to Memphis in the mid-1980s, this Kentucky native found inspiration he hadn’t bargained for. The city — with its music and history, its Delta ambience and quirky people — became a muse for David Williams, the author of “Memphis Minnie’s Ashes.”
Each morning, before heading to his job as sports content editor for The Commercial Appeal, Williams rises early to give shape and voice to the characters in his head. Since winning the grand prize in our 2002 fiction contest, he’s racked up other story credits, including one in Harper Perennial’s Fifty-two Stories.
He’s also written a couple of novels, including one that started as a collection of eight vignettes about Lucy Miles and Billy Heavens. Over the last few years, the author has refined the book, adding more narrative and subplots “to make it more of a novel than a collection of linked stories,” he explains. Although the novel, titled The Very Last Night, has yet to find a publisher, “I’ve received a lot of nice turn-downs,” laughs Williams.
A veteran of Richard Bausch’s Moss Workshop in Fiction at the University of Memphis, and a participant in the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Williams says, “It’s taken years, probably 10 to 15, to figure it out. Not that you ever really figure out [fiction writing]. I’m a late bloomer, at least I hope I am — pushing 50 and still trying to get that first novel published.”
As for having his story selected to run in our June culture issue as the fiction editor’s favorite, Williams says, “I’m thrilled. I know the quality of the winners over the years. This is an honor.” — MS