But it is how I remember what day it was. Thursday. And it is how I remember the night I met Magenta, and the last night I ever saw her.
Roosevelt's Guest House was one of many boarding houses in that part of Memphis . My room had a private entrance on the back porch, just down the street from the parking lot of the only motel in the area. Roosevelt's was known for two things, either a place to sleep when only sleep was wanted, or a place to sleep when you were willing to pay for a little distraction. But it was always cleaner than most of the flophouses around, and a lot quieter than the motel.
It was still the ' 60s, and this particular flophouse was just close enough to the white side of town for me feel safe, and just close enough to the black side of town to be cheap. There were four walls decorated with the usual downtown graffiti, a bedside table with a shadeless lamp; in which a sixty watt bulb flickered with each step on the floor . Under the sagging mattress you could see ancient iron bedsprings that squeaked everytime you rolled over. It is just as important to remember what was not there. No radio, no tv, no parties going on keeping you awake; the bathroom was shared and down the hallway. It was a second floor room to sleep in, or screw in, or both. But nothing more.
Sometimes April can be a bad month for a railroad worker , but there had been nothing out of the ordinary all week long, unless you count my wife kicking me out again so she could have one of her boyfriends spend the night, but that was becoming common in those days.
Drowning my sorrows had become much more ordinary for me, but even that was getting old, and it was boredom more than anything that made me think I would just use the flophouse to sleep in that night. It was a decision I did not take lightly; half of a fifth of Jack Daniels probably had as much to do with it than anything.
I was about to hang the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the front door when she knocked, a delicate, but definite knock . Unlike most of the girls, who pound on the door as if anyone inside must have hearing problems. I opened the door.
"Hi, I'm Magenta," she said.
Roosevelt had told me about Magenta, but she was still a surprise, and I immediately changed my mind about wanting to sleep alone that night. She was 20 or so, a little shorter than most of the whores who came around, very thin except where she needed to be, a little redder than most of them; with off-color blue eyes that made you want to look into them longer than you should. Mid-length black hair dropped below her neckline, naturally shiny and wavy . She wore a simple yellow cotton dress, bare above her breasts except for thin halter strips, one of which hung loosely off her right shoulder. There was nothing under the cotton dress; her breathing told the world she wore nothing under that dress. Everything about her insisted that what you see is what you get, and what you get is the real thing. When they came up with the phrase "black is beautiful," they must surely have been thinking of Magenta.
"You want some company?" she smiled.
Over her shoulder, down the street and in a motel parking lot, several squad cars were parked and uniformed police officers could barely be made out, walking around the cars or seemingly talking to people gathering in the parking lot.
"What's going on?" I asked, gesturing over her shoulder.
"Nothin' she laughed. "Nothin' to be excited about, just that curfew. You want some company or not?"
"Yeh," I said. "I could use some company. Curfew? What curfew?"
"Where you been, Baby ? " she laughed. "There been a curfew all week. Be puttin' a cramp on my business--don't hustle before dark, don't make no bread."
"The railroad keeps me out in the boonies all the time; I don't know anything about what's going on in the world. Come on in."
"Twenty dollars," she said, brushing past me. "All night cost you forty dollars and breakfast in bed."
"Breakfast in bed?" I laughed.
"The diner down the street," she replied. "Just tell Sarah at the counter it's for Magenta; she knows what I want."
Two of the squad cars pulled out of the lot, beacons flashing, but no sirens, and sped down the street and around the corner. Some people were rushing up a staircase of the motel, but it was too far away to make them out too plainly.
"What are they doing?" I asked.
"Don't worry 'bout them, Baby," she said. "Them cops be all over the place all week. Can't go nowhere what cops watchin' you all the time. You want once or all night?"
"Yeh, all night, I could use breakfast in bed, too," I replied. I got two twenties out of my wallet and handed them to her as she sat on the edge of the bed. "You want a drink? I don't have a clean glass--this isn't the Hilton, you know."
"God," she laughed, "and I ain't no Lady Bird Johnson, neither." She picked the bottle up from the table and unscrewed the cap. "You mind?"
"Be my guest," I said. She took a long pull on the bottle, swallowing slowly, deliberately, like she was raised on the stuff.
"What's your name, Baby?" she asked, stretching out on the sheet. She kicked off one of her penny loafers, put the twenties into a slot in the tongue of the other shoe, and tossed it onto the floor.
"Peter," I said.
"Peter?" She laughed. "I just call you Baby, I guess."
"You got something against Peter?" I laughed.
"No, Baby," she replied. "It's just a white man's name, that's all."
"But I am a white man," I pointed out.
"Yeh," she teased, "But we can overlook that for tonight, I guess. Listen, you gonna do somethin' or not? You ain't done nothin' yet you know."
"Yeh," I said, taking a drink from the bottle. "I'm gonna do something."
She moved over into the center of the squeaking bed as I sat, lifting one foot onto my knee to remove a shoe. I had just untied the knot when we heard the gun shot. I could tell it was not close, but nearby, maybe a couple blocks, maybe more or less. I looked anxiously at the door.
"Don't worry, Baby," she said. "This been goin' on all week. Just some cop shootin' at someone--a kid, maybe ."
We heard a couple doors slamming upstairs, and some excited voices yelling outside, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. There was the sound of running and screaming, fading down the street towards the motel.
"You think they shot somebody?" I asked.
"Don't matter, Baby," she said. "Ain't nothin' we can do about it. There was some dudes they shot last week when they made the curfew, they just died, that's all."
I went across the room and cracked the door open again. There were some more guys running across the street toward the motel They met some other people in the middle of the street, all of them waving their arms. Some police were bolting up the stairs to the second floor balcony of the motel. Some of them had their guns in their hands, and then we could hear sirens in the distance, first one, then another, and then all at once the sirens were everywhere and police cars began appearing from all directions. Magenta got out of bed and peeked over my shoulder at what was happening.
"Ain't nothin'" she said, squeezing my arm. "Come on, Baby, let's go to bed now. Ain't nothin' goin' on out there. It's all happenin' here. What we need is another drink, Baby."
I felt her cotton dress fall past my knees and onto the floor, and she pulled me, pushing the door shut, across the room and back onto the bed.
"You like a talker or a screamer, Baby?" she asked. "Or you like me to just shut up? What you want, Baby?"
"Talk is fine," I said. "Scream a little if you really mean it, but talkin' is fine."
"I make you forget all that stuff outside," she said, wrapping the sheet around us both. "Ain't nothin' for us to worry about. Just come on, Baby. Give. We can forget all about it, uhhh, yes, ok. Now Baby, just, ohhh, ohhh, ummmmm, ohhhh, Baby, just…"
Her voice was so low I could almost not hear it. The sirens might have stopped, or gone somewhere, or I couldn't hear them anymore over her voice. "Forget, Baby, ohhhh, ummmm, yes yes yes, we can forget it all Baby, it ain't nothin' to us, just ohhhh give, Baby, ummmmm…."
I kept seeing her off-blue eyes, deep and curious, empty of feeling yet seeming to go on forever, touching everything and claiming it all, watching the ceiling now, giving everything she ever knew, and hoping for something better in return; talking, whispering, but not even once, not one scream. And for that I was grateful.
"You don't smoke, do you Baby?" she said after a few minutes.
"Sorry," I replied.
"And I'm out. Damn!"
"I'll get you some. In a minute."
There were more sirens now, further away, and a few pops off in the distance . It was beginning to get darker now; I put on my shorts and went to the door. Magenta followed me, her yellow dress draped over her forearm, and looked past me into the evening. Lights were coming on, and everything was fading into black unrecognizable forms. To our left, there were more police cars in the motel parking lot, and we could still hear excited voices from people all over the place. To our right, we heard footsteps coming our way, and someone moaning something about no, no, it can't be, and then we saw a man coming from that direction and when he got close enough we could see his face, black and shiny and he appeared to be crying.
Magenta pushed the door open more and stuck her head out past mine.
"What's goin' on man?" she screamed to the man, who stopped abruptly and wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeve. Then he looked towards the motel parking lot, and back to us and then pointed toward the motel.
"They shot him! They shot him!"
"Who they shoot?" we both asked.
"Doctor King! Right down there at that motel! They shot Doctor King! Didn't you hear the shot? I heard it. I knew! I knew something awful happened. They shot Doctor King!" He took off again, and disappeared into a group of people the police were trying to restrain down the street.
"Oh, my god," I said. "Somebody shot Martin Luther King. They shot him!"
"Shut the door, Baby," said Magenta, pulling on my arm. "Ain't nothin' we can do. He just shot. It don't mean nothin' to us. Just shut the door."
"But it's Martin Luther King? Don't that mean nothing to you?" I said. "I can't believe this, I knew that shot was something. I knew it."
"I know, Baby," she sighed. "Ain't nothin' to me. Ain't nothin' to you. What'd he ever do for me? He made no difference last week when he was alive and he'll make no difference dead. Ain't nothin' we can do but just fuck all night and feel better tomorrow. Come on to bed. We'll forget."
There was noise everywhere by now, and outside there were white lights and red lights flashing and speeding away, and the sound of disbelief as people ran and stopped, fell to their knees crying, then disappeared into the darkness and foghorns blaring from police cars in the motel parking lot.
Magenta went back and lay on the bed, dropping her dress to the floor. It was nearly dark now. I tried to switch the light back on, but there was a flash of filament burning, and I knew we would spend the rest of the night in the dark.
"I can't believe it," I said, rubbing my eyes with the palms of my hand. "They shot him. I can't believe it. Right here in Memphis!"
"Let it go, Baby," she sighed, pressing onto my back. "We just forget it all, don't mean nothin' to us."
The rest of the night, between the lovemaking, between the silence echoing from trumpets on Beale Street a few blocks away, between the sirens coming and going all night long, I could taste her tears. I found it difficult to imagine her being as close to anyone before as she was to me that night. I was thankful for the burned-out bulb, because I know she would never have let me see her cry. But I know she was crying, and I knew there was something we could do. We just had to figure it out.