Fifty years ago I was a baby sitting in my mother's lap in south Louisville, Kentucky. Fifty years ago this day in her parents' kitchen on Utah Avenue, the apartment upstairs to the left. Half a mile from the distillery, half a mile from the L&N railroad, just a couple of blocks from Churchill Downs. Yellow and green parakeet named Peety chirping relentlessly in its cage at the kitchen window, hoping from perch to perch and honing its beak against a cuttlebone. Late afternoon, my mother bouncing me on her knee at the formica table pushed up against the wall, her mother in the kitchen doing I don't know what. She didn't smoke, she didn't drink coffee, she didn't much cook. She loved grapefruit smothered in sugar, and she used to pour a small pyramid of salt into the palm of her hand before licking it off. She was sweet, but that's all she was, and when she sat she sat like layers of bread dough one on top of the next. Her feet were cracked at the heels. April sun stretching across the courtyard, across the clothes-trees outside with the neighbors yellowing underwear and graying dishtowels, across the hoods of the saddlebroke 15-year-old Buicks and Fords parked out across the way. Across the dead yellow grass.
A scream downstairs and I jump in my mother's lap. Somewhere between sexual ecstasy and gut-shot pain, and we could hear the door slam shut in the hallways downstairs. We could hear the feet pounding up the linoleum in their raggedy slippers. The woman who lived below my grandparents since my mom was a baby, hill woman from Shelby County, woman whose husband was on some kind of primitive dialysis provided by the V.A., woman whose daughter's neck and chest were horribly scarred when she reached up and pulled a pan of boiling water down off the stove, woman who used to take my teenage mother in when my grandfather would get really bad, she came running up the linoleum stairs to us. Woman whose name I wish I could remember now. Knocked on the door. Pounded on the door.
He's dead, she cried, in a voice she couldn't control. They shot him and he's dead. She was downstairs ironing when the radio told her Dr. King was dead. Had been shot on the walkway of some rinky-dink colored Memphis motel. Had stepped outside for a cigarette when the bullet caught him in his golden throat. He's dead and I'm glad he's dead. She was almost crying now. I don't care who knows it. I hope they kill every last one of them.
What do you do? What do you do in a place like that?