Bluff City excerpt: “Elvis stinks on ice.”
Here’s a quick excerpt from Bluff City, setting the stage for what’s to come …
One Last Spin Around Town
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 lie 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 here.
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—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 reporter for the Memphis Herald Examiner, looked up at the city’s skyline for what he 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—
“Jesus, it stinks down here. When can we leave?”
Kevin rolled his eyes at the cantilevered blonde sitting in the passenger seat, knees pulled up under her and white iPod headphones jammed deep in both ears. Mandy Swinks—a.k.a. ‘Cherry Potter,’ an enthusiastic young dancer who specialized in clothes-free engagements—drummed an arrhythmic cadence on Kevin’s dashboard, finishing with a cymbal shot off Kevin’s forehead.
“You’re cruising the shores of history here, sweetheart,” Kevin said, rubbing off the smear of glitter. He pointed at the dark river, more than a mile wide here where the Hernando De Soto Bridge arced from Memphis over into Arkansas. “That river there has been this city’s backbone for millennia. Before there was a Memphis, the Chickasaw Indians—”
“Whoop-oop-oop!” Mandy hollered, Indian-style, patting one hand over her mouth and tomahawk-chopping with the other. “Whoa-oh-oh-ohhhh…”
“—and I’m sure they love your tribute. Now pay attention; this town is weirder than you can even imagine. Get this—back in the 1800s, Andrew Jackson bought up pretty much all of Memphis, sight unseen, for five hundred bucks—”
“Five hundred bucks? Pffft. I make that much in twenty minutes in the Champagne Room.”
“No doubt well earned, sweetcakes,” Kevin said, running his eyes over her figure and wondering where he’d stashed his earplugs. “Point is, right after the Civil War, this city had absolutely everything going for it…and still managed to screw things up royally.”
As Mandy leaned her head out the window, 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.
“Elvis stinks on ice,” Mandy cut in.
“Bite your tongue—it’s Death Week,” Kevin said. “Show a little respect for the man who may or may not be dead.” At the moment, Memphis was well into its annual August commemoration of the passing of one of the most famous human beings in the history of the planet. Elvis faithful had made pilgrimages from all over the world to 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 “ElviSweat” or chunks of The King’s homeroom desk, bits of Elvisiana that the faithful hold as sacred as bits of the One True Cross. Death Week culminates 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 wearing all manner of garish sideburns, jumpsuits, pompadours, medallions and platform shoes.
“Those Elvis freaks are just insane,” Mandy said. “One of ‘em used to cry ‘Sorry, Momma’ every time I gave him a lap dance. I’m already booked tomorrow to dress up in a jumpsuit for some get-together. I just hope it ain’t gonna go like last year.”
“What happened last year?”
“This dude wanted me to wear an Elvis wig and sideburns while I was grinding on him. Strangest grand I’ve ever made.”
“You know, I think I’d pay good money to see that.”
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 three Escalades’ worth of jock entourages. 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.
“I gotta say, the cartoon is cool,” Mandy said. “My son loves that stuff. Runs around singing ‘Shake, Rattle, and Roll’ until I’m ready to hit him with a skillet.”
“Son? How old are you?”
“Did I say son? I meant little brother.”
“Whoever he is, he’s getting the wrong idea about Elvis. He wasn’t a friggin’ cartoon character. He wasn’t a chocolate candy. And he damn sure wasn’t a wrestler.”
“Wrestler…? Oh, wait—you’re talking about The Brawl! That’s gonna rule!”
Two 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, presided over by a hillbilly Barnum named Tank McNutt and beamed via satellite to every corner of the globe. It seemed like genius Americana, insanely profitable cheese and cheesecake. This was Memphis, though, and something was going to go horribly, embarrassingly wrong—it was only a question of what.
“Hey, can you get me tickets to that? You’re like, on tv or something, aren’t you?”
“I write for the newspaper.”
“Oh.” Mandy thought for a moment. “Well, that’s cool too. So can you get me tickets? We can go with all my friends! It’d kick ass!”
“Sweetie, all due respect, but if you see me in that Brawl, you are more than welcome to shoot me.”
Kevin swung away from the river and started down Poplar Avenue. Tonight, 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 make for a prettier view of the forest. He just wanted to enjoy his final night in the city before departing for Yankee pastures.
“Hang on, honeybutt,” Kevin said, wheeling into his newspaper’s parking lot. “Got one last bit of business to do.”
“I know what you’re up to,” she said, waggling a finger at him. “You want to do it on your boss’s desk.”
Kevin paused. “Mindy—”
“Mandy. That is a wonderful idea. That’s why you’re going to be earning that big tip tonight, my dear.”
Kevin parked the car, jumped out of the cab, and circled around to open the door for Mandy. As he did, he fingered the flash drive on his keyring, a drive containing the culmination of seven years’ worth of work in the Bluff City. Just this one more little story—one more itty-bitty story—to push live, and Kevin was gone, leaving the city with one last bang.
“Are you looking at my boobs again?”
And Kevin Madden, who would witness more bad craziness in the next 48 hours 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.