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Bluff City Excerpt: "Give Me Memphis, Tennessee"

Here's the opening chapter of Bluff City, with a little background on the city where all the strangeness happens:

 

            When you come to Memphis, you don’t ever leave unchanged.

            Maybe it’s the climate, the hot Delta air that’s heavy enough to wear. Maybe it’s the history, decades upon decades that lay on Memphis even thicker than the wet heat. Maybe it’s the blues that run through the heart and soul of every single person who’s spent a day there.

            And maybe it’s just that this is one seriously strange piece of real estate. It may look like a sleepy river town, but it’s changed the world a dozen times over.

            Depending on your perspective, the city of Memphis stretches east from the Mississippi River like either a beckoning seductress or a sprawled drunk—and sometimes both at once. As he sped alongside the river on Riverside Drive, the Delta wind whipping through the cab of his pickup, Kevin Madden, soon-to-be-erstwhile journalist for the Memphis Herald Examiner, looked up at the city’s skyline for what expected would be the last time. He loved this town, he did, but within days he’d be leaving it all behind, and so tonight he wanted to take a long last look, breathe in the incomparable Bluff City one more time.

             Kevin looked out over the dark expanse of the Mississippi, more than a mile wide here at the point where the Hernando De Soto Bridge arced from Memphis over into Arkansas. The Big Muddy had served as the city’s backbone for millennia, back when the Chickasaw Indians roamed these parts, never imagining that they’d soon be obliterated, with only a fourth-rate minor-league baseball team as their most enduring legacy. Not long after the white man came to town, in the person of future president Andrew Jackson (who bought up pretty much all of west Tennessee for about five hundred bucks, sight unseen), Memphis claimed the river as its own—and the river claimed Memphis, too, turning the city into one of the most important ports in the young nation.

            Memphis is the highest point on the lower Mississippi, and its size and location have made it a perfect travel and shipping hub. Even so, the city has done its best to screw up all the benefits heaped upon it. In his mind, Kevin ticked off the fumbles of the Bluff City: Poor sewers contributed to the yellow fever epidemic that killed tens of thousands in the late nineteenth century. Poor bookkeeping a couple decades later led to the city’s bankruptcy and loss of its charter, keeping it in a rut while Atlanta and Charlotte conquered the South. Poor race relations led to the sanitation strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King on his final trip to Memphis. And poor foresight tried to keep Elvis Presley in his place, deriding the poor kid from Mississippi as lucky trailer-trash, even when he bought Graceland and made Memphis one of the most famous cities on the planet. It was only after the city realized that other people—outsiders, yes, but still good folks—actually admired Memphis that the Bluff City finally embraced The King.

            And embrace Elvis they did—with more than a few reaching around back to get their hands on E’s wallet, Kevin thought. Elvis is big business in Memphis, drawing millions of tourists from across the planet. Tonight marked the kickoff of “Death Week,” where Elvis faithful made their annual August pilgrimage to Memphis to commemorate the passing of one of the most famous human beings in the history of the planet. Throughout the week, fans would watch Elvis imitators preen through all stages of The King’s career; listen to Elvis contemporaries recount the time they made Mr. Presley a sandwich; and tour locations such as Elvis’s old high school, where savvy students sell vials filled with “Elvis sweat” or chunks of The King’s homeroom desk, bits of Elvisiana held as sacred by the faithful as bits of the One True Cross.

In the past, Death Week culminated with a candlelight vigil, as thousands of devotees bearing their own little flames gather on Elvis Presley Boulevard before Graceland, then file past his grave (located out in the backyard just like a dog’s, the nonbelievers smirk) wearing all manner of garish sideburns, jumpsuits, pompadours, medallions and platform shoes. But those days are fading fast, and this year would mark new highs—or lows, depending on your perspective—in the promotion of the Elvis Presley estate.

            Never thought I’d long for the days of the quiet vigil, Kevin smiled. He was no Elvis hater—quite the contrary; even though he was barely born when the King bowed out, Kevin looked past the bloat and the peanut-butter-and-Quaaludes sandwiches in his appreciation of The Man, who’d been more dangerous in his day than a busload of gangsta rappers and death-metal bands. But Kevin’s faith in The King had been sorely tested by Elvis’s heirs and executors; sensing the waning of Elvis’s legacy, they’d cranked up the merchandising machine, spitting out infinite remixes, commemorative coins, breakfast cereals, satin capes, and knickknacks beyond compare. Kevin had thought “Lil’ E and The Blues Crew,” a kiddie cartoon starring an eight-year-old Elvis and his sidekicks, a hound dog and a chicken named Colonel Tom as a mystery-solving rock band, scraped bottom. And then he heard about The Brawl.

Five days from now, in the Pyramid Arena that now rose up glowing before Kevin, the city of Memphis would mark the anniversary of Elvis’s death with its most bizarre idea yet—the inaugural “Elvis Brawl,” a no-holds-barred bastard marriage of professional wrestling and Elvis imitation. The Brawl would be telecast worldwide—for a price, of course—though early indications were that this could be the most popular pay-per-view special in history. This was Memphis, though, and something was going to go horribly, embarrassingly wrong—it was only a question of what.

            Best not to think about it. Kevin swung away from the river and started down Poplar Avenue, past City Hall and Auction Square. Revisionist historians have tried to convince a controversy-ready populace that no, Auction Square wasn’t really named for slave auctions, just for—say—cattle and feed auctions. And hey, if slave auctions—overseen by none other than Confederate war hero, KKK founder and Memphis son Nathan Bedford Forrest—just happened to go on here, well, whose fault was that? Kevin had to smile at the constant racial back-and-forth. Memphis had its racist side, true; one need only drive a few blocks south and look over the balcony of the Lorraine Motel to know that. But it also had more than its share of racial harmony, as well. When every big-time politician from Nashville to DC is kicking your ass, you tend to make friends of all skin colors.

            Tonight, though, Kevin didn’t want to think politics. He didn’t want to weep over the sadly debased legacy of his hero. He didn’t want to think about how his hometown was the kind of place that would chainsaw down the trees to see the forest better. He just wanted to enjoy his final quiet night in the city. Just one more little story—one more itty-bitty story—to publish, and he was gone.

And Kevin Madden, who would witness more bad craziness in the next week than most people see in a lifetime, actually thought he could just walk away from this city…and that Memphis would let him go that easily.

Bio

Jay Busbee is a novelist and journalist living in Atlanta. Click below for more info on his novels, articles, and comics.

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