Looking for Trouble with Elvis
by Jim Booth
In that same year of this my life, as the Anglo-Saxons would say, I had my first near miss with fame. I have had a number through the years, mostly because of my uncanny (as I reflect, I realize that both of my best friends from high school became famous and that the only two close friends I made in college became a rock star [Jay Breeze] and a major league baseball player [Chess Yonkers]) knack for being around people to whom fame accrued. I come by my own fame reflectively, as the moon does her light.
I have had my moments, however—well, almost had them. One came later in the first grade. After my conquest of the written word (I went on to become one of the three best readers in the first grade), my initial year of education passed uneventfully until sometime in the spring. The weather had turned warm, so I’m guessing this happened after Easter, which would have put the event in late April or early May of 1959. I was blissfully unaware of the passing of time at six—a luxury I no longer possess.
Each class in the school was responsible for presenting a play (I do not remember whether our class alone did this or joined with other first grade classes—there were three first grade classes in the elementary school where I spent that year). I do remember being in the auditorium (I think that school, Leaksville Elementary, had an auditorium and a gym—a result of having been the town high school in another life) and watching sixth grade kids perform a skit—as I remember based on the popular TV show Zorro—and wondering how we “little kids” could ever get up on the stage and do anything that the other kids would want to watch.
When it came our turn to provide the class play, Mrs. Whitsun, ( and perhaps Mrs. Fox, and Mrs. Talbert—I seem to remember a lot of kids on that stage) herded us up onto the stage. We were lined up—more or less—in a long row and faced toward the rows of empty seats. We stood there fidgeting and giggling like any bunch of 1st graders would. I’m sure they had some plan of action, but as I looked around all I saw was a mass of kids poorly controlling a hell of a lot of energy.
Suddenly, for reasons still unknown to me, I stepped out of the line. I took one or two steps forward and began to perform a rousing rendition of Presley’s “Hound Dog” to the empty auditorium, including in my performance a pretty fair approximation of Elvis’s hip swivels and leg waggles.
The kids erupted by the time I reached the end of the first stanza. Mrs. Whitsun attempted to quiet the class down, but nothing doing. Some clapped, some screamed (boys and girls, I think, and no, I don’t know what that suggests) some hooted and yelled.
I kept right on. I have uncanny concentration at the oddest times.
I finished and bowed to the empty auditorium. The kids clapped and cheered. Then, as suddenly as I’d stepped out I stepped back into the line of kids.
Mrs. Fox and Mrs. Talbert continued to shush their students. Mrs. Whitsun, musing, came over to me. “I’d like to see you after rehearsal,” she said.
I was six and had only been in trouble once—for running in the hall. I didn’t think anything of Mrs. Whitsun’s pronouncement until Tony Keltner leaned over and said, “You’re in trouble, Elvis.”
I looked at him and he nodded wisely. Jimmy Hollins, standing next to Tony, did the same. I looked past them at Glenda, my Redbird reading pal, she of the Yertle the Turtle incident.
Glenda nodded, too.
Things did not look good for the king of rock and roll and me.
The bell rang, classes were dismissed and about 100 first graders began scrambling down the steps on either side of the stage to go back to their classrooms, grab their book satchels or knapsacks and head for parents’ cars or their school buses.
I made my way slowly, lagging as much as I thought I could. Kids jostled me and chaos swirled about me, then soon, too soon, they were gone to either meet their parents, their buses, or to their assigned classrooms to await their bus’s dreaded “second load.”
Mrs. Whitsun sat patiently in the end seat of the front row of the auditorium seats facing stage right.
I slowly made my way down the stairs leading from the stage and shuffled over to Mrs. Whitsun. When I reached her I studiously examined my shoe tops and waited for her to tell me what my punishment would be.
“You sing very well, Charles,” she said quietly.
I have a habit that almost any of my friends has commented upon at one time or another. When I am faced with a dubious proposition or an enigma of any sort, I tend to look at the person/place/thing with slightly narrowed eyes and pull my lower lip up over my upper.
This was the face I turned up toward Mrs. Whitsun.
“It’s true, Charlie. You’re a good singer. And you have stage presence, too.”
I had no idea what she meant by “stage presence,” so I responded by pulling my lower lip even higher over my upper.
“Your song today gave me an idea. I asked you to stay after rehearsal to talk with me for a few minutes about my idea. Are you willing to talk?”
Mrs. Whitsun patted the seat beside her. “Sit, Charlie.”
“Next Tuesday night, there will be a talent show. Do you know what a talent show is, Charlie?”
I shook my head no.
“A talent show is a kind of contest. People sing, dance or perform in some other way and judges decide who is best. Then that person gets a prize. Understand?”
I pulled my lower lip over my upper and thought for a moment. Then I nodded. I’m not sure, thinking back, if I understood or not. I suspect I agreed to move the interview along.
“Well, Charlie,” Mrs. Whitsun held out a folded piece of paper to me, “I’ve written a note to your mother to let her know about the contest and to encourage her to let you perform. I’ve also included an application form for the contest.”
I took the note and application and held them in my hands turning them and wondering how my mom would respond to another note from Mrs. Whitsun.
Notes seemed to be like (I realize now) lottery tickets. Once in a great, great while, they paid off for you. Most of the time you found yourself disappointed.
So it was with me. My mom and dad talked over the talent show idea and decided against letting me participate. There were too many logistical problems for them to manage for such a triviality as my chance at stardom.
Thus my 15 minutes of fame eluded me for the first time.
Without meaning to I, like Elvis, left the building prematurely. So on my and his behalf just let me say:
Thank you. Thank you very much….
The above story is from my newest work in progress, a collection of interlocking stories called The wonderful Land of Eden. (The title comes from the call letters for the radio station in my hometown, Eden, NC).
I'm a novelist and short fiction writer. I have published the novel The New Southern Gentleman (Wexford College Press, 2002) and Morte D'Eden or Tom Sawyer Meets The Rolling Stones (Beach House Books, 2003). I have published over 30 stories and essays in a wide number of literary journals including StorySouth, Pig Iron Malt, The Dead Mule, and numerous others. My current novel Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star is in submission (actually farther along than that, but let's keep a lid on for now). I am fiction editor for Scholars and Rogues, a national blog that also publishes fiction and poetry. I am professor of writing at the University of Maryland University College.