My writers group occasionally creates something around a particular word, idea, style, etc. This month, the post-Valentines Day challenge was to write something around the word “hearbreak.” Here’s mine.
P.S. — I don’t write a lot of fiction, so just letting you know that this is fiction…or is it???
CAUGHT IN A TRAP
I don’t know why I did it, really. I’ve never been much of a bar person.
I guess I was just tired of hanging around my hotel room three days into a week-long business trip to Memphis. So, I wandered out onto the evening shade, the streetlights like little moons hung every few feet, brightening the otherwise-dark sidewalk along Beale Street.
Memphis is an amazing place. Like a lot of Southern towns born and bred in the bloody brutality of slavery, its culture now celebrates its African American roots in many ways, most especially its music – that wonderful, weird, exhilaratingly American mix of jazz and blues and gospel and country that we call rock and roll that oozes out of every building like summer sweat from the pores on your forehead.
Anyway, I had nothing else to do. The sun had gone down two hours ago but it still had to be at least 95 degrees, and so humid that even my boxers felt damp under my pants. This kind of weather is just a fact of life for Southerners. But it turns Northern brains to oatmeal.
So, I ducked into a doorway under a faded sign reading “Aaron’s Pub.” Tiny, dark and nearly empty, calling it a pub gives it too much credit. Maybe on its better days it had ambitions to be a saloon. But tonight, ambition was nowhere to be found, unless it was hidden in the muck on the floor that kept tugging at my shoes. A bitter swirl of stale beer, cigarettes, vomit and bleach waged war on my nostrils. Still, I was hungry, thirsty and bored, so I sat on a spinning, sticky, vinyl-covered stool and carefully sheeted the bar under my forearms with a layer of paper napkins. I stared hopefully at the sign on the wall behind the cash register, but it was so dark in there that I couldn’t make out the drinks. Finally, the bartender came over.
“What’ll you have?”
“I don’t know. Either it’s too dark in here or my eyes are worse than I thought, but I can’t read what you’ve got.” I pointed toward the sign as if the bartender didn’t know it was there. His head swiveled slowly toward it, then back to me.
“Naw, it ain’t your eyes,” he said, smiling through a noticeable but not overly thick twang. “It’s definitely dark in here. The owners like to keep it that way. Gives our fine clientele a little bit of privacy.” He nodded toward a booth in the far end of the bar where two people – I couldn’t tell if it was a man and woman, two men, two women, or some new species science hadn’t identified yet – sat wedged into the seat and into each other.
Now I smiled, the ice broken and glad that it wasn’t just my blurring, middle-age vision. “Ah. I understand. Well sir, I guess I’ll just have a Jameson’s on the rocks then.”
“Good call,” he said, nodding approval. “The hard stuff always goes down easy on a night like this. Name’s Baldwin.” He offered a thin, smallish, dark-skinned hand. “As in James. My Mama loved him so much she bought everything he ever wrote. She kept all his books but gave me his name.”
He handed me a short glass and tendered another smile, happy with his own well-worn joke. I swirled the glass, watching the amber fire dance over the frozen, clinking stones, then raised it to my lips. The whiskey cooled my tongue and throat and I knew I had made a good choice to come in here.
“Oh my…Baldwin, I have to tell you, that is good, my friend.” Another longer sip and deeper swallow. “The last three days have been the longest week of my life. But this helps a lot.” I tipped the glass in his direction. “Cheers.” I finished the drink quickly – much faster than I should have, I know, but in the moment, I needed it. “Hit me again.”
“Yessir. Hey, where y ’all from?” He topped off the glass.
“Chicago. Here for business and hating every minute of it. But don’t worry about me. I am sure you hear this kind of thing all the time.”
“Yessir, I do. But that don’t make it any less true for you. And your truth is my truth, so long as you’re paying and I’m pouring.” Another reedy laugh at what must have been a favorite from his standard arsenal of bar chatter. Normally I am not much for small talk, but somehow just shooting the shit with this skinny, balding, middle-aged African-American bartender on a hot Southern Night was just what I needed at that moment.
As we chatted about everything and nothing, I snuck another peak at the mystery couple. They had moved from the booth to the eight-by-eight linoleum patch that loosely qualified as a dance floor. They held each other tight – so that I still couldn’t tell who was who or what was what, for that matter — kind of shuffling in place in front of an Elvis impersonator singing to a tape machine.
“Hey, Baldwin. Who’s that guy?” I rattled the ice in my glass toward the far end of the room.
“Him? Not sure what his real name is. He insists we just call him the Big E. Or Mr. Presley. Or just Elvis.” Baldwin flicked a damp dish rag at a stain about two stools down from mine.
I chuckled. I’d seen lots of Elvis impersonators on these stupid business trips – and magicians and musicians who used to be stars but are now on their way down the fame ladder, you name it. They’re good corporate entertainment. Popular with most people, uncontroversial, and cheap. But there was something unique about this guy. He was good. Really good. When he finished his set, I walked over to him.
“Hey, how are you?” We shook hands. His hand, and the rest of him, looked older up close now that I could see him more clearly in the faint neon glow. “You were pretty terrific up there.”
He wiped his brow with one of the four or five silk scarves always hanging around the neck of a guy performing the slightly overweight, bedazzled, caped, giant-collared, jump-suited, ginormous side-burned, mid-1970s version of Elvis. “Well, thank you. Thank you very much!” he said, almost too predictably, through a sneer.
“What’s so funny?” He stood up straight. I guess he was about six feet tall.
“Oh, nothing. I’m sorry, I just thought the whole ‘Thank you very much’ thing was all part of the act. I didn’t mean any offense. In fact, just the opposite. You’re very good. Maybe the best I’ve seen.”
“The best what?” The words slid easily through his baritone drawl.
“Well…” I was slightly confused by his question… “the best Elvis impersonator, of course!” He looked a little pissed off, but I didn’t know why. I was just trying to pay the guy a compliment.
“I’m not impersonatin’ nothing. I’m really Elvis.”
“Ok then ‘Elvis’” – I made air quotes – “I seem to recall that you died in 1977. How is it that you’re here in Memphis in 2019?”
“Because I wanted to disappear, so that’s what I did. I was tired of performing, the drugs were killing me, my records were still selling, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I felt like everything was just on auto-pilot. I wasn’t, I don’t know, me anymore. Colonel Parker, we didn’t always agree, but he was a smart guy. We figured out a way for me to disappear, and I did for a few years, just long enough for people to kind of move on, get over me.”
Now I really let loose with a huge guffaw. “Riiigggghhhtt!” I winked to show I was willing to play along. “I remember hearing stories about you working in a grocery store in Kalamazoo, Michigan.”
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. Maybe that was one of them impersonators. The closest I ever got to Kalamazoo was playing Detroit a few times,” he said, no wink.
“Ok, if you say so. Well, if that’s all true, then what are you doing here?”
“Well I still like to sing, so I do this little show. And like you said, there are so many people pretending to be me that no one suspects that I’m really me. Kinda like I’m hiding in plain sight.”
For a second, I flashed back to how, just a couple hours ago, I almost walked past this place. Now there I was, laughing out loud, amazed and impressed by his total commitment to character.
“You don’t believe me. Go on, test me. Ask me anything you want.”
“Ok, how long have you been doing this?”
“Doing what? Singing? ‘Bout eighty years, I guess. Mama always said I sang my first song when I was four, so…”
As a hard-core “Elvis-storian” (as we super fans call ourselves,) I know a lot of Elvis trivia and facts. The easiest one, of course, is his birthday. January 8, 1935. Which would make this guy eighty-four. I guess it’s reasonable that he’d have started singing at four,so eight years would be right, mathematically if not logically.
“Ok, that’s pretty good. But what’s your favorite food.”
“C’mon man, don’t waste my time. I have to sing again in fifteen minutes.”
“What? You don’t know your favorite food?”
“…Peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwiches.” Now Elvis – I mean, this guy playing Elvis – sneered at me again. “Cooked on a griddle, the way Mama used to do. Go on, ask something else.”
I peppered him with everything I knew about Elvis Presley. Favorite drinks. Stories about women. Career stats. His friendship with Nixon. Whether he really shot up that hotel television. He answered every question, returned every detail I lobbed.
“Alright, alright, maybe you are the real Elvis.” For a brief second, the idea didn’t seem entirely impossible. Maybe he’d been doing this act for so long that he had convinced himself that he was telling the truth…Or maybe he truly was Elvis Presley, hiding out…After all, he was about the right age and height, and his voice was still beautiful even here in a hole-in-the-wall, smoke-filled bar…
My thoughts started to swim in the brown ether that had migrated from my belly to my brain. Then logic slapped me hard and sobered me up.
“What am I saying? Sure, you knew a lot of information about Elvis, but that doesn’t prove anything. Anyone could google that stuff. If you’re Elvis Presley – the real Elvis Presley — tell me something that no one else would know about you.”
He turned and stood with his back to me for a few seconds, futzing with one of the cords plugged into his tape machine. When he turned back, he looked so sad that I instantly felt bad for giving him a hard time. Elvis or no Elvis, this guy was suddenly an old man carrying a heavy heart on his fake-jeweled sleeve.
“Ok,” he said slowly. “I’ll tell you something I never told anyone but ‘Cilla.”
He took a minute, apparently gathering his thoughts. “I have always hated being called the King of Rock and roll.”
I heard what he said, but for some reason the words didn’t register. “What are you saying? You’re sorry about your career? The impact you had on popular music and culture and…and…well, everything?”
“Naw, not that.” His voice slipped back into a crawling drawl. “I’m real happy with the way my life went, mostly. I worked harder and sacrificed a lot more than anybody will ever know. I’m proud for all the gold records, the way ‘Cilla took over my estate, how Lisa Marie grew up, all of that. Hell, I’m even proud of a couple of those stupid movies that Colonel Parker forced me to do,” he said.
“I just feel like people have always given me too much credit for doing something I didn’t really do.” He pushed a stray strand of graying hair out of his eyes.
“I grew up listening to folks here in Memphis sing about their lives, all poor just like me and my family. On the radio, at church. All’s I did was sing their music. They created ‘ELVIS PRESLEY’ as much me or Sam Phillips or Colonel Parker. I got all the money and fame and the Cadillacs and Graceland and all the rest. But they got nothin’. And I always felt guilty about that.”
I knew the answer, but I had to ask, just to see if this “Elvis” was being as honest as he wanted me to think. “Well, why is that?”
“C’mon, man. Don’t tell me you’re so drunk you can’t see the answer right here.” He held his age-spotted right hand, bearing two large (and I assume, fake) diamond rings on his pinky and middle fingers, right in front of my nose.
“Because I’m white. And most of them were black. And the white world wouldn’t buy black music from black people. But black music from a white guy, well, they’d buy that. And they did. By the millions. You know what color you get when you mix white and black together? Green. The only color that matters in this world. Lots and lots of green.”
His head drooped. He stared at his shiny, white leather boots. “That’s always bothered me. I always felt like I cheated just a little bit. Or worse, that I stole something precious from my family. I tried so hard to shine a light on the people who deserved it. To tell people that I hadn’t invented anything. I was just singing what I knew. Maybe it was my voice the audience heard, but it was their music. But no one cared. They just wanted to hear ‘Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.’ It crushed my soul. I felt like I was caught in a trap.”
My jaw dangled, my feet cemented in place, unsure of what had just happened. Either I’d fallen hook, line and sinker for the world’s biggest whopper from the best Elvis impersonator on the planet, or the once and always King of Rock and Roll had just spilled his darkest secret to me, a total stranger, in a dive bar in Memphis, Tennessee forty-two years after he supposedly died.
“Well, if you don’t mind, I need to do my next set.”
“Elvis” – or whoever he was – put his left hand on my shoulder and looked me square in the eye. “Now don’t go telling everybody what we talked about. It’d sorta spoil everything for the crowd.” His right hand swept toward the dance floor, still empty except for the unidentifiable couple swaying in the same spot to their own unheard music. “Elvis” chuckled lightly at his joke.
“Whatever you say, Big E.”
I smiled and shook his hand again. I pivoted, a bit wobbly, to return to the far end of the bar where Baldwin stood waving another glass of whiskey at me. As I tramped across the flypaper floor, “Elvis” sang the opening lyric to one of his biggest hits. I’d heard it a million times before, but now it sounded, sadly, new.
“Well since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell. It’s down at the end of Lonely Street at, Heartbreak Hotel…”
He leaned forward, cradling the mic close to his pouting mouth, and nearly whispered: “You make me so lonely baby, I get so lonely, I get so lonely I could die.”