Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Memphis, Tennessee

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I've always been real proud of my feet. They're sitting up there on the dashboard of this old Firebird as we drive through the desert. Lou's flooring the gas, but we're only going about 70; that's as high as this heap will go even on a good day. My feet can feel the vibrations from the rattling engine and the buzz from the radio as Lou keeps turning the dial trying to find a good song.
It's not just that my feet aren't too long and they're narrow with high arches like a ballerina's, though all those things help. It's the toes, really, that I've always, since I was a little girl, been convinced were something special. Those five pink buds on the right foot are identical to the ones on the left foot, even down to the way the pinky toes stand almost sideways. My big toes are really big, the pillow of skin behind the nails spreads out evenly on both sides and the curve of the nails is so friendly, it's like they're smiling at me. The big toes are the mother toes and they're each balancing four tiny toe children on their hips. And the smile never leaves the faces of those big toes; carrying around four little ones never seems to tire them out or make you think that those toe children are any burden at all.

We've been driving for five days straight, and we're hoping to make Las Vegas tonight. I've never been there, but Lou says he's got a couple connections in the casino business. He'll get a job bartending in one of the clubs, and maybe I'll be a cocktail waitress, and that will set us up good for a while. Until Lou gets itchy and wants to get back in the car and drive to Montana or Dallas or God knows where. I can't keep up with Lou's plans. Three weeks ago, we were headed for Miami, but halfway there he changed his mind, and we ended up in New Orleans. I think he likes the getting there part better than the being there part, and we can't stay in any one place for too long. That's the way it's been since I met him almost a year ago in Nashville. My girlfriends bet I didn't have the nerve to go up to him at this dive bar, but I showed them all, and two weeks later I was in the car with Lou heading out for Kansas City. He kept singing some song about crazy little women in Kansas City, but I don't think we saw any.

Lou's six or seven years older than me, past 30. I should know more about him, but he doesn't talk too much. But he sings along with whatever's on the radio and you can learn a lot about a man by the way he sings, how much of himself he puts into it, the kind of music that makes him happy. Lou was born way too late; he should have been a 50s rocker with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, those guys that shout a song out. When they're on the radio, Lou throws his head back and makes the strangest faces as he hollers along. He closes his eyes and scrunches up his face; if I didn't know better, I'd think he was in some kind of pain, but he's having one great time. When he's really into a song, popping his cheeks to doo-wop, bee-bop sounds, and making ridiculous noises, he doesn't even mind when I laugh at him. A man who will let you laugh at him, even now and then, is a good one.

I decided a long time ago that Lou is smart, although he still hasn't picked up that I'm pregnant, probably two, two-and-a-half months along. Or if he suspects, he's not saying anything. Sometimes, he's the strong, silent type, especially when he and Elvis are singing a serious song. I don't like to eat around Lou for fear I'm going to be sick, and it's getting harder to sleep in the car at night. It feels like the ground beneath the car is waving up and tossing me onto some beach that's not there. When I put my hands on my stomach, it's like I swallowed a tiny apple whole. Depending on whether I'm sick or not, it sometimes feels like a green crab apple, and other times a sweet red one, but it's my apple, my and Lou's. It's a hard bubble just below my belly button and it's pushing with all it's might saying: Hey! I'm here! What are you going to do about it?

What can I do? After a year of riding around with Lou, I know that if I even hint about us maybe getting hitched in one of those chapels in Vegas and raising a couple kids, he'll pull over to the side of the road and leave me out here alone in the desert. He'll drive off singing "The Wanderer," and I'll probably die of heat stroke waiting for someone to come by and give me a lift, but to where? Every day I look for some little sign, anything, that I'm wrong about this, that when I tell Lou I'm knocked up, he'll turn to me with a mouth shaped like a little boat, up at the corners, and say, "Why, Mona, why didn't you say so! We got to make some plans. When will the little guy be here?" Yeah, I fantasize that Lou will get excited that he's going to have a son, but I already know it's a girl. I look at my stomach, and I just know that there's the softest, sweetest little girl in there just dying to be the apple of her daddy's eye. And I know she's going to get her heart broke just like me.

The reason I keep my feet up on the dashboard is that I remember my friend Cindy's feet swelled when she was pregnant. Of course, that wasn't until the eighth month, but I'm not taking any chances. Lou might buy that I want to lose a couple of pounds and that's why I'm not drinking beer anymore, but he'd notice elephant feet in a minute. So I keep them raised and tell him I'm trying to get my legs tan through the glass. He laughs and tells me not to get a sunburn.

Today has been one of the toughest days because I felt too lousy to eat breakfast at that truck stop we were at this morning. Walking into the restaurant, I thought I was going to keel over from all the fumes coming out of those trucks' asses, but I made it into a booth. The thought of bacon and eggs was enough to gag me, but I chickened out on ordering what I really wanted, ginger ale. Too obvious. I drank some water and told Lou I was still full from the hotdogs we ate last night. Now it's past lunch time, but Lou wants to keep pushing as long as we can, maybe not stop until dinner. We've got some twinkies, and I'm nibbling on the doughy part, leaving the cream filling. If I don't toss my cookies all over the car before we hit Vegas, it'll be a miracle.

Lou finds a station coming in pretty good and jacks up the volume so he can sing along with Chuck Berry to that song about Memphis, Tennessee. He's slapping his leg with his free hand, and tapping the accelerator to the booomm, booomm, booomm, boom-boom-boom sound of the guitar, and the car races forward and then jerks back with the beat. It makes my stomach swell to the bottom of my throat, but the music is so nice I can't resist flapping one of my feet up and down in time with Lou's hand. Momma and baby toes are all in on the action, and we go down the highway like this, bopping to the beat. When Lou sings that part in the song about Marie being only six years old, his voice sounds so sweet, and then he closes his eyes and tilts his head like he's really talking on the phone to some long distance operator.

It's all I can do not to break down bawling on the spot because I'm hoping this is it, that sign I've been waiting for. I'm hoping I'm seeing something in Lou that maybe I missed before. I take my feet off the dashboard and lean back, my hand searching for that little apple beneath my stomach. Lou is slapping his leg hard now for the final guitar chords, and in my mind I imagine our happy life in Memphis, me, Lou, and our little Marie.

---

"Memphis, Tennessee" originally appeared in Rosebud, volume 1, no. 3.


Kerry Langan‘s short stories have appeared in more than two dozen literary journals including Other Voices, StoryQuarterly, Cimarron Review, American Literary Review and The Seattle Review. Selected published stories are available at: oberlin.net/~langan. She is overjoyed to be the mother of two daughters, currently nine and six years old.


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