He walked up Union Ave towards Beale, the way he had thousands of times before. He noticed the closed sign on the Sun Studio, a thick layer of dust on the window and everything inside. The Studio had been a Memphis institution at least as long as he had been. There was an afternoon once, decades past now, when he’d stood in front of this same plate of glass, when the sun shone in the same direct, blazing way. An afternoon when he’d thought about going inside, paying the requisite dime, and taking his shot. His guitar skills were pretty good back then, his fingers not so stiff and gnarled with callous. Except for the dust, the studio looked now as it had then: the piano in the corner, the guitar stand along the wall. A drum kit right in front of the window so that to passers-by, it looked like they were right behind the band. A part of things, in on the making of the music. He palmed the dime in his pocket. He had his guitar in the back of the company truck–he’d be done and back before anyone noticed. Not that anyone took much notice of him. He liked it that way.
He’d long been too afraid to take the stage, other than the high school talent show. Even with the guitar creating a barrier between him and the crowd, he’d still sweated through his shirt. Maybe a recording would be different, he thought. He’d sing and play alone, into a microphone, with just the assistant in the booth. He’d go back to work while she taped a note to the vinyl–
A pretty good ballad singer came in while you were at lunch.
She’d leave it on the owner’s desk, and Sam would pass it on to the radio DJ at the Hotel Chisca, who wouldn’t be able to get enough. They’d have to track him down, what’s his name, you know, the kid with the hair and the funny name? He’d be invited to play on the amateur hour, from the penthouse of the Chisca where the radio station was housed. Someone from Nashville would hear him, or Kansas City, maybe even someone passing through from New York or Chicago. Someone would hear him and say, “That Elvis kid, he’s got it.” He could quit fixing faulty wiring and getting dirt under his nails and finally make it. From the booth on the corner of Union to the top of the Chisca to the end of the world. It would all be his.
Of course, it hadn’t worked out that way. The dust settled over that old memory, and he laughed a little. That was back when he’d still gone by his first name, until he realized it sounded a little fruity for an electrician. He gradually shifted to using his middle name. Memphis was still a small town, and all change here happened slowly, like molasses in January. Aron Presley–that was more like it, it sounded like the name of a guy you could trust for all your electrical needs.
He shook his head, rustled his fingers through the dark hair, now gray around the temples, and kept up his walk. Not long after that day staring through the studio glass, he’d graduated high school. He was still seeing Daisy, then. His momma had loved her, and he supposed he loved her, too. But then came the draft, hanging over everything like a wet blanket. There were no deferrals, no side doors for squeezing out of, not for boys from Memphis without names or connections or celebrity or money. He’d wanted to see the world, maybe take Daisy to Paris one day.
All he got instead was an up-close-and-personal tour of all the ways men could be cruel to one another. He came back a different man. Between the dreams, the inability to eat, and the shock he got every time he stood on the sidewalk when a car backfired, it was a tall order to ask him to settle in. With the occasional help of an alcoholic or pharmaceutical intervention, eventually the dreams calmed down, but he hadn’t been on an airplane since. The doctors called it combat fatigue, but had nothing to say about how to fix it except a return to a normal, civilian routine. The return to normalcy did him good, some. It took him a few months, but he eventually figured out how many bourbons it took to sleep. He’d lost more than his sense of wonder and his baby fat with the war. His momma had died while he was gone. By the time news reached him in Korea, she’d long been cold in the ground under a modest slab of granite that read: “Gladys Presley, loving wife and mother”. Daisy, too, was gone–she’d found a boy who’d missed the draft by virtue of enrolling at Tennessee State. Aron was pretty sure he became a dentist, but what did it matter–by the time he got back with his cut muscles and drawn jaw and sunken eyes, Daisy was already swollen, full of the life Aron had wanted desperately to give her.
It took time, but he found his way back to the lockstep groove of life in the summer in the South. He moved through the same old streets and the same old people, still helped Vernon with electrical work when there was work to be had. Still showed up to church on Sunday, then quietly munched on fried chicken after. On days when there wasn’t work, he kept to his room, mostly. He survived on peanut butter and banana sandwiches, the kind his momma made when there wasn’t money for chicken or canned tuna. He got full-time work with Vernon at the electrical shop. Tried his hand at some community college classes with his GI Bill–but the questions and the people were too much and besides, he found that he liked working with his hands.
He still picked up his uncle’s old guitar sometimes. But even though his fingers knew the way, he couldn’t make the strings sing the way he used to. He mostly listened to vinyls on the record player he’d bought secondhand. Sister Rosetta and Muddy Waters, later Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. And of course, no collection would be complete without Carl Perkins–Memphis’s hometown hero whose single “Blue Suede Shoes” had put the city on the musical map. Carl managed to smash together Muddy’s beats with gospel and folk and pop all at once. He was a sensation. No one had ever heard anything quite like what he was doing. It didn’t hurt that he was white and clean-cut, the kind of guy who could sell you a vacuum and date your daughter without pissing you off. He’d long since left Memphis, going on international tours and making movies with big stars in California and Hawaii. But back here, where he’d gotten his start, there was talk of naming a boulevard after him. Maybe the local high school should change its name, too. Nothing was too grand for The King. Aron wondered sometimes what his life looked like, what it would be like to walk around the world in those blue suede shoes.
One night, in a bar on Beale, where he sometimes sat to escape the heat and the interminable hours between work and sleep, he’d met Grace. He was enamored by her long, black hair, and the rapt attention she paid to whatever wannabe occupied the stage, singing sad songs he’d lifted from the black musicians on the edge of town and a haircut he’d lifted from the Mormons. Normally, he left the girls alone–that way, there were no pretenses or expectations. But the combination of the bourbon and the blues and the humidity, along with the gentle way Grace asked him to open up to her, was different somehow. She never backed away, never so much as batted an eye when he told her about the dreams: the ones that haunted him, the ones he couldn’t escape, and those he’d given up on. Little by little, night after night, he realized there was never going to be anyone else who understood him quite the way she did.
They told her parents (and Vernon) that they’d met in church, but most nights they’d get dinner or sit in one of the anonymous joints on Beale where two people could either sit silently and enjoy the music, or ignore it entirely in favor of one another. Grace had a story of her own to tell, dreams she too had let simmer, and by some miracle, seemed as intrigued and enamored with Aron as he was with her. No one was all that surprised when they got married that June, or when Marie arrived a conspicuously short number of months later.
The years rolled right along, and they found a familiar rhythm to the three of them. When his boss at Crown Electric retired, he offered Vernon and Aron the chance to buy him out of the business. They scrounged and saved, and got a little help from the bank, whose managers were convinced that clean-cut, responsible war vet Aron made a pretty safe bet. In a couple of years, when Aron Jr. came along, they had enough money to move out of the rowhouses and into a little shotgun on Glenwood. It wasn’t palatial by any stretch, but they owned it–or would, in thirty years or so, Lord willing. The sound of Grace making coffee or the kids rooting around was music, filling up every last square inch. He hadn’t realized that this was exactly what he wanted, but the messy, chaotic bliss was bliss all the same.
On Sundays, after church and supper at her parents’, they’d drive the old Cadillac past the big houses on Bellevue Boulevard. “One day,” Aron would say, a glint in his eye, “I’m gonna buy you one of these monstrosities. We’ll put a big gate out front and everything. How’d you like that? We’ll call it Graceland.” Of course, those houses are all gone now, too. It’s a strip mall now, with a Dollar General, a check-cashing joint, and a KFC. He’d wired up the industrial kitchen himself. Pretty soon, this block of Union would be gone too, another victim of economic development or gentrification or whatever new term the boys who’d finished college and never served had come up. He was lucky they hadn’t thought up a replacement for electricity, yet. Standing in front of the red brick and dusty plate glass, he was briefly aware of the sweat pooling on his brow. He lifted out the old hanky to wipe it off. It wasn’t so much red anymore as a faded pinkish color, and was soft with years of salt and detergent. It still did the job, though, and so did he.
Before he knew it, the kids were leaving the little house on Glenwood, moving into college dormitories and then out into apartments. Pretty soon, it was just him and Grace. Comparatively, so little of their marriage had been just the two of them, and it took some settling in. But both were surprised to learn that they did, in fact, love each other. He’d rescued the old guitar from the Goodwill pile one spring cleaning and started messing around with it again. When the heat and his joints weren’t too bad, he’d sit on the front porch at night with Grace and a pitcher of sweet tea. They’d talk and he’d sing and they’d watch the sun go down. He couldn’t imagine a better use of a summer evening.
It had been a good life, if an unremarkable one. It wouldn’t be too long now before the Lord called him home to join his war buddies, Gladys, Vernon, and the brother who’d lent him his name. Despite its ordinariness, Aron liked it this way. What did he need with fame and fortune anyway? From what he saw on the TV, all it did was make men miserable. Better to spend his time, however much of it he had left, on the front porch with Grace.
It was too bad about the studio, he thought, the more things change and all. As for today, he’d finish the job up the street, a bulb out on the marquee of the Hotel Chisca, and would head home to the little house on Glenwood–which he’d taken to calling Graceland. Even if it wasn’t very big and didn’t have any columns or a big gate or a fountain, it had all the things he loved best in the world. Maybe they’d sit on the porch tonight, after the news went off at seven, and he’d pluck the guitar some. Maybe he’d finally let Grace talk him into retiring–Lord knows, she mentioned it enough. They’d get a Winnebago, maybe, and travel around awhile until the kids paired off and the grandkids arrived. He’d always wanted to see Las Vegas, anyway. It might not be fame and fortune, he decided, but it had been more than enough.