Leaving the Building

Originally published by Rivet Journal, September 9, 2014.

In those final seconds, feeling His consciousness ebbing, watching the bathroom tile hurtling upward angry at His face, did He perhaps return to two rooms of Tupelo squalor, the only hot water that which He or Mama or Vernon when he was free and sober would boil up on that rickety wood stove, and that not happening often unless they were heading to church or the dinner table; the burn in the cheeks when the boys at school talked of Vernon the jailbird, Vernon the paperhanger, sent off to Parchment Farms for three-odd years and leaving Mama and Him destitute, charity cases to be taken in grudgingly by Vernon’s family at cost of cheap household labor; His first glimpse of Roy, looking so weird and wonderful with that jet-black pompadour that inspired a drastic dye job on His own bland blond locks and singing with a voice that was haunted with spirits that made a pudgy little man in a sequined suit seem like not only the equal but the surpasser of all the chisel-chinned matinee idols whose ranks He would one day join in uneasy company; fleeing to Memphis to escape Vernon’s shame only to find Himself quivering under the fists of big city toughs who found an easy target in a shy prettyfaced country hick who lived dirtpoor with a con for a Pa in the Negro part of town, the part of town full of the old black bluesmen who didn’t mind preaching their gospel to an eager white boy, filling His body and well-a-bless-mah-soul with their music, that same music that would someday earn Him that moneyfamesexlove that every man is taught to crave, that music that would inadvertently make of Him a prophet to the white youth of America, spreading the message of those brokendown old Negroes and preparing the way for millions of light-bringers like an unwitting John the Baptist and at the same time just as inadvertently alienating those very Negroes to whom He knew He owed so much, the ones who would later call Him a thief and an impostor and even a racist (but some of His best friends were…) and make Him the symbol of all they hated in His people, stand Him up as a pale-faced cardboard cutout as the establishment, the enemy, ironic for a man who was ten years prior reviled as a corruptor and a rebel for doing the exact same thing that now made Him such a square?

As He crashed panting to the opulent tiles (most of His friends hated those tiles, He knew, hated the whole place for its overwhelming ostentation, the very garishness that made it unique, made it home), struggling to collect His thoughts, trying to focus on calling for help, did He see Mr. Phillips and the beaming sun and the funny little studio where His heroes had worked, men with bigger voices and wilder guitar licks and harder luck but never with more charm, more flair, and certainly nevernevernever with better looks, men from the country, men of the radio age, hardscrabble farmers’ sons from Arkansas and Missouri and Louisiana and Kentucky and Mississippi and Alabama and Tennessee and even a few from all the way over to Texas, men with faces as rough and beaten as the fields they’d plowed throughout their youths and that most of them would return to when Memphis had exhausted its use for them, men who should have brushed aside this babyfaced pretty boy as a soft-featured go-nowhere rube but didn’t, welcomed Him instead, gathered Him up and made Him their own like they were pulling Moses from the reeds, and when He was full-grown He paid them back by leading a good number of them into the Promised Land; and Parker, very briefly because the thought of it still made Him shiver with the familiar loveterror of the hound dog who never knows if he’s getting a bone or a beating, but unmistakably Parker nonetheless, proud and vain and barking like some backwoods ringmaster parading his exotic beastie for the yokels to see; or perhaps the legion, the mad throngs who trailed plagued elated Him, tracing His moves and filling His pockets with a devotion that sometimes shook-a-shook Him sugar but always warmed His soul; the perennial blond sprawled under His bedsheets, forever young even as He aged, one consolidated and quickly consummated little sister doing exactly what her big sister done, and sometimes doing it again and maybe even once more yet in the same night; and the hordes that followed, a sweaty morass of banging guitars and wriggling hips achieving eventually and undeniably that same obscenity He had been falsely accused of; those ragged and overcaffeinated Englishmen ricocheting onto the scene stealing His limelight (which by then of course He was glad to share while still being unavoidably dispirited), singing His praises and cribbing His moves until they finished their Tower of Babel and decided to keep on building to see who lived upstairs from the God they themselves had created, and the one they called The Smart One, the one among them who He had thought understood it all as well as anyone ever could, said rock and roll had died the day He joined the Army and He wondered how it could be that if rock and roll was not birthed by Him alone (and He had been needlessly scolded many times that it had not) how could He alone take the blame for killing it?

There on the floor, the coolness of the tile seemingly engulfing His body as the lights began to fade, feeling the drugs prescribed by that butcher of a doctor rippling through His veins (fourteen different kinds, the coroner would say, a veritable buffet, and lethal levels of at least two) was there a fleeting vision of the future, of weeping and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, of already tenuous romantic lives forever retarded by the sudden conclusion of a ludicrous pipe dream; the shock, the scorn, the outrage, the winking irony of those who would recall that misbegotten trip to the seat of power with the stated intention of combating narcotics abuse in the music industry, a mission that even He had had to admit would have seemed surreal to an outsider and was eventually fruitless but for the equally bizarre photo, a counterculturalist’s dream image of this rapidly thickening former Adonis clasping hands and sharing a camera smile with this jowly paranoiac who would soon enough be reviled above all things; but the shame too passing quickly and giving way to something altogether new, something that would supercede any of the precarious heights he had yet witnessed and transform a living legend into a deceased deity; the pilgrims starting to arrive almost immediately, rolling in off I-55 in campers and station wagons and rusted beetles, coming to see exactly what they could not say but knowing all along that it was something that must be done, for Him as much as for themselves, and eventually they would pour in in such multitudes that the home on the hill became an attraction, a destination that would not only ensure the perpetual well-being of those He loved and those they loved, but also that of Memphis itself; and the first anonymous man to don the sequins and slick the hair and curl the lip and rock the hips and growl and gyrate and drive ‘em wild all over again, and the myriad who would follow in that man’s footsteps, building the oddest kind of cottage industry until the imitators became as much a piece of the culture as was He Himself, rousting about in movies better than Parker had ever let Him have a chance to make, turning up from Presidential palaces to state fair hog pens and trailing always a crowd of believers who could look past cardboard sideburns or buck teeth or a Yankee accent and be content to be graced with the presence of even an unreasonable facsimile of their dearly departed; and the whispers, the rumors, wholeheartedly believed by a credulous few: faked it all, empty coffin, still walks among us to this day healing the sick and multiplying loaves and fishes; and of course the money, the stacks and stacks of money, the albums that kept on selling, the movies that kept on running, the new wave of t-shirts and neckties and figurines and collectible plates and wall clocks and postcards and even a stamp with which to mail them?

And finally, in that last split second before the cold overtook Him and His body became one with the overpriced tiling, the last instant when He could have possibly mustered the strength to call for help, was there another vision of another future, a future in which help arrives and the resuscitation succeeds; a vision of fifteen years later, of a fat old man in a dingy jumpsuit singing to a mostly full room of beehives and suspenders, sweaty and obsolete in a bright light city that long since ceased to set His soul on fire, a man still rich and iconic and beloved, to be sure, but also visibly, depressingly mortal?

And as His fevered final thoughts gave way to one of those fabulous, raucous gospel songs Mama used to sing on Sundays and the heavenly stagehand commenced to bring the curtain down, did a flicker of that famous smirk perhaps cross His face, jerking his lip upward and transforming Him for all eternity again into that soft-spoken boy from Tupelo, full of dreams and songs and a charisma the world might never again witness?

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