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Jerry Lee Lewis Plays “That Lucky Old Sun” at Bad Bob’s Vapors Club, Memphis, Tennessee

by Bobby C. Rogers


I’ll tell it if you let me, my story of those nights we spent watching the Killer play
a smoky room down on Brooks Road, almost to State Line.  Can’t you hear the note
of reverence in my voice, the sweet pity of tragedy?  Even when he wasn’t half trying,
the songs fell from his lips so sorrow-encrusted and smoldering, so flavorful I’d swear
they’d been basketed from the roiling grease of a deep-fryer, his offhand rendering
of “That Lucky Old Sun” owing nothing to Ray Charles, and everything.  Show me
that river...take me across.  There was an inwardness to how he spoke the song, owning
the piece for just that moment, his leaning over to tell the microphone what he had to tell it
so personal an act we were almost shamed by our fascination.  The song’s a prayer,
another brief hymn to the emptiness inside us and what we hope might come
to fill it.  On the piano a cigar was cocked and cold in the ashtray, waiting to be relit
when the song was done.  Just a night of sight-seeing, September 1988, gone slumming
to hear the great and forgotten, none of us quite young enough to be young anymore.
The Vapors Club was exactly what you’re imagining, show starts at ten, five dollar cover
at the door.  The gray-blue light, where there was light, had grown so stale and clouded
it seemed to have clabbered, and even the shadows in the shadowy room were bowed
with the weight of something I didn’t have a name for.  The regulars bore it like soldiers—
paying customers flammable with hairspray and spent chances, slickened with a whiskey glow,
Ten High bourbon redistilled through their pores, sugary and volatile.  Everyone in the place
had twenty years and a marriage or two on me.  They’d lost something time took, the edges
of experience as fine and full of meaning as the cuttings in the grooves of an LP record
played too many times on a console stereo in the living room, a diamond stylus harrowing
its windy memory from the satiny grooves.  I was just learning to love, tallying what cost
to lose myself as one long breath into another person, not knowing what would be left of me
once I was drawn back into myself.  There is a point past which we will never again be able
to call ourselves detached, but on that night it was just music, a man punishing a piano
for wanting to keep something clenched in the tension of its iron harp, just a few hours
taking us toward another night’s savory fatigue and upending, the insects’ pulsed cries measuring
what was left of the year’s heat, parking lot gravel crunching underfoot, then the car bounding
over the curb back onto Brooks Road, the bar smells we would wear for awhile, dance sweat
and menthol 100s, hair spray and Kiwi shoe polish, spray-on perfume.  Then the driving
back to Midtown and our own shabby rooms, the car windows down, details of the skyline
edge-etched to the windshield, unheavened, sense-bound, all of us silent and rehearsing
our arrangement of the night’s sharps and flats, a version shaped to suit our own dying voices.

 

Bobby C. Rogers’s work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Image, Cimarron Review, and many other magazines.  Work is forthcoming in The Connecticut Review, The Marlboro Review, and Sou’wester.  He is professor of English at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.  He lives in Memphis with his wife, son, and daughter. (10/2008)


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