I knew that it was gonna be hard to find a good place to spend Valentine’s in the South.
I’d prepared for the homophobia when I moved to Mississippi to be with my long-term boyfriend, but I was surprised at how often I’d go somewhere with him and, at best, feel immediately unwanted and, at worst, be shouted at and told to leave. When it got to Valentine’s though we decided that enough was enough and we decided to go somewhere where we felt safe, accepted, and had that crucial romantic mid-February feel. So, we drove up the I-55 and hopped over the border into Tennessee, where we hit up The Pumping Station, which proudly proclaimed itself Memphis’s #1 Gay Bar.
The food was alright, standard bar fare of greasy fries and charred-to-perfection steak. The drinks were very cheap and very alcoholic, and by the time we staggered out at closing time both of us were drunk.
It was colder than I’d anticipated, and I shivered a little as we paced slowly and comfortably down the empty roads, passing between pools of sodium-orange light. Ever the gentleman, Theo (my boyfriend) offered me his jacket, which I gratefully accepted.
I think we intended to get lost that night. I knew where the car was (although neither of us could even consider driving in that state), and I had the local taxi company’s number ready to go. In that moment, though, such concerns were far from my mind. I was simply happy to walk side by side with him, quiet and in love and hidden from the world. The few others we did see were, like us, in silent adoration with a partner – even if it was technically the early hours of February 15th, the ghost of St. Valentine was very much with the people of Memphis.
We walked for a little while, sharing a comfortable silence, communicating with our eyes only, until we got to the edge of a dark, lonely park. The wrought iron gate in the low stone wall hung open, a gaping mouth that tempted us in. Theo suggested we go in there and do what two guys do in parks at night, and I suppose the four martinis I’d drunk swayed my judgement. Hand in hand, we stepped onto the gravel path that wound through trees and shrubs and, finding a bush to conceal us, he dropped to his knees and got to work on me.
A couple of minutes in I began to smell this smell, kinda like the sea. I tried to dismiss it, but it was pretty rank and I began to gag for reasons other than that I’d expected. It went away soon enough
We began getting into the swing of things again, but it struck again soon after bad enough that I lost any arousal I had. Theo stopped and stood up, and I physically recoiled from the smell. I staggered backwards a little, and my hand came to rest on some masonry, covered with rough, dry lichen. I suddenly realised that it wasn’t a smell of the sea- this was rot, rushing water, dead things drying on the bank- the smell of river.
I saw something, and shrieked. Theo jumped so hard that, if he’d still been doing what we were doing, I have no doubt that he’d have orally castrated me. Stumbling across a street-lit gravel path was a figure, female judging by the long, dirty hair and grotesque breasts. It was a shambling perversion of a human that dragged its amorphous, flabby body off into the shadow. I freaked out at that point and used my phone’s light to try and find my clothes and get the hell out of there. My torch picked up text on the stone: Mary-Anne Louden. February 14th 1839 – April 27th 1865. Lost aboard the steamboat Sultana.
I don’t know what that thing was that we saw that night, whether it was related to Mary-Anne anyone else. There is one fact that I learned that night though.
There are no parks near The Pumping Station. Theo and I were in the Elmwood Cemetery.