Music City Madness: Chapters 1-2

Thirteen-year-old Abigail Presley tapped her lilac, high top sneakers on the wet pavement outside an East Nashville rambler with a U-Haul trailer in the driveway. Her left arm hung awkwardly at her side in a long-sleeve top while she held an open golf umbrella in her right hand with her backpack slung over her right shoulder. She wore her strawberry hair in a ponytail with low-cut jeans that barely hugged her lanky hips. Mascara with black eye liner and a dark plum lipstick brought a measure of sophistication to her youthful appearance.

She collapsed the umbrella in light drizzle and stepped toward the brown two-door Stanza rolling up to the driveway. She shifted her backpack off her shoulder and opened the passenger door to hear the thumping bass from an Eminem track. “What took you so long?” she asked the driver, a petite platinum blonde in a white McDonald’s uniform with Nicole imprinted on a bronze name tag.

“I had to open this morning. Then I had to take an unscheduled break to come get you.”

Abby pulled the door shut with her floral print backpack on her lap and the wet umbrella wedged beside her seat. “I think the fast food gods will survive without you.”

Nicole adjusted the radio volume and drove away. “I can’t always leave work to come get you.”

“I can’t walk to school from here.”

“You could have taken the bus.”

Abby unzipped a side compartment on her backpack. “Not on my first day. My dad should have taken me.”

“He has an audition this morning.”

Abby gazed through her window with tranquil blue eyes the color of a Colorado sky. “I know,” she said assertively. She rubbed her hand on her damp pant leg.

Nicole shifted the Stanza into fourth with a noticeable clunk. “Are those my jeans?”

“Mine were dirty.”

“Where did you get the makeup?”

Abby twirled the end of her ponytail between her fingers. “I’m going to be late for school.”

“I don’t mind if you borrow my stuff, but your dad doesn’t want you to wear it.”

“My dad doesn’t get to choose my clothes anymore.”

Nicole checked her mirrors and changed lanes. In some ways, she saw her former self in Abby’s skin—young, naïve, and always mad about something. Cute boys were the center of her universe, and no one understood her problems. “I wasn’t talking about the clothes.”

“The makeup makes me look older.”

Nicole spied Abby reaching for a pack of cigarettes crammed inside a zippered compartment. “Don’t let your dad find those.”

“Find what?”

Nicole pointed to the red Marlboros.

“They aren’t mine.”

“You’re just holding them for a friend?”

“I’m thirteen. I’m not a kid anymore.”

“How’s your arm?”

Abby adjusted her position. “It’s fine.”

“I remember thirteen,” Nicole empathized. “Don’t be so quick to grow up.”

“You sound like my dad.”

“Your dad’s a great guy.”

“When he’s around.”

“He works hard for you.”

“He works hard for his music.”

“He loves you more.”

Abby curled her hand around the pack of cigarettes and stuffed them in her jeans. “Drop me off before we get there.”

“It’s raining.”

“I can hold the umbrella.”

Nicole slowed near the school zone. “Are you sure?”

Abby waited for the car to stop and got out. “I’m good,” she said, leaning left to shift the backpack on her right shoulder before she deployed her umbrella with the same arm.

“Your dad will pick you up,” Nicole offered as Abby kicked the door shut.

* * *

Abby plodded toward the school’s main entrance and shook her collapsed umbrella above a non-slip mat inside. She wiped the rain off her face with her forearm and observed the thinning herd of students scrambling to beat the final bell. A moment later, a towering, full-figured woman with a cinnamon complexion, braided hair, and a look to suggest she knew bullshit when she heard it, rolled up like a tank on enemy patrol.

“You must be Miss Presley,” the woman greeted Abby. “I’m Principal Hendrix. Glad you could make it this morning.”

“My ride was late.”

Principal Hendrix extended her left hand, which Abby grabbed awkwardly with her right as the final bell rang out.

“I’m new,” Abby stated flatly.

“Indeed.”

“My dad’s going to pick me up this afternoon.”

Principal Hendrix pointed to the clock on the wall. “Let’s get through this morning, first.”

“I don’t know where to go.”

“Follow me…”

Abby feigned a polite smile. She hated the new kid in school label—one she’d worn more times than she deserved. She trailed her new principal through a labyrinth of hallways with dented lockers and cinder-block walls painted dark brown to hide graffiti. A resource officer roamed outside the empty cafeteria decked with spirit banners. The school looked old. It smelled old, too, like the basement in the house she used to live in.

“You’ve been assigned to Mrs. Dotti’s homeroom,” Principal Hendrix instructed Abby outside a class full of seventh grade students. “She’ll have a copy of your schedule. She can show you to your locker and answer any questions you have. Your lunch rotation starts at 12:15. Good luck today. I suspect we’ll see more of each other soon.”

Abby took a hesitant step toward the hangman’s gallows, where rows of curious students stared in her direction. She kept a laser focus on the teacher at the front of the room with an open textbook in her hand. “Welcome,” she heard Mrs. Dotti greet her, followed by, “Take any open seat you like.

Abby loped along the perimeter toward a spot near the back of the class, her adrenaline pumping as she avoided eye contact with everyone in the room. She hated Nicole for making her late. She hated her dad for making her move again. She missed her school in Tulsa, and most of all, she missed her friends in her old neighborhood.

She set her backpack on the floor and leaned her dripping umbrella against the back wall. She shuffled between two desks, her sense of anonymity returning when the class faced forward again. But as she maneuvered to take her seat, she slipped on a patch of wet tile and fell sideways toward a student who pushed off to help break her fall, inadvertently dislodging Abby’s prosthetic forearm from the socket in her sleeve.

Chapter 2

Leland Presley weaved through morning traffic on Hillsboro Pike with his steel-toed boot gunning the accelerator in his ’85 RAM pickup before the light at Old Hickory Boulevard turned red. Worn windshield wipers stuttered back and forth as steady rain swept over the Nashville metropolitan area and continued toward the bluegrass pastures and wooded hills in Middle Tennessee.

He jabbed the buttons on the truck’s AM/FM cassette to catch the latest traffic update. Short on time and long on miles to a new club in East Nashville, he raced through yellow lights outside strip malls and modest residential properties built away from the sprawling horse ranches and long stretches of triple-rail fence that framed the picturesque landscape outside the city.

He veered sharply from the slower-moving lane near the I-440 overpass. His construction hat tumbled off the hard shell guitar case buckled against the seat beside him and rolled onto the passenger floorboard. He tapped one hand on the wheel and ran the other through his thick, brown hair with his long sideburns. Razor stubble paved his tan complexion, accentuating his emerald green eyes, vibrant and stirring like the Caspian Sea. A gold cross necklace rested against his well-defined chest.

He brushed his hand on his work jeans and unzipped the orange safety vest he wore over his red flannel button-down. Morning news reported another accident west of his location at Parthenon and Oman, where a two-car collision had brought morning commuters to a halt.

Stuck in the center lane between a packed school bus and a dump truck hauling fill dirt, he checked his blind spot and inched his front bumper behind a black Mercedes S500 coupe with tinted windows and a blinking left turn signal. The vanity license plate spelled CASHVIL.

He cut the wheel to go around the Mercedes driver yacking on her cell phone and leaned forward to gauge the distance between his truck and the S500’s bumper with the left turn signal still flashing. Too tight to make the turn, he cranked his window down and waved at the driver blocking his path. He bumped his horn to force the issue as precious minutes ticked away on the open audition he’d left his job site to attend.

He pressed the brake with his left foot and pushed his right on the gas, revving the engine to spin the rear wheels in place. When the distracted Mercedes driver finally inched toward the left lane, he lurched in front of her and caught a stiff middle finger in his rear view mirror.

He drove as fast as traffic allowed beyond The District and its ensemble of refurbished restaurants, galleries, and familiar honky-tonks along Broadway. He hung a left onto 2nd Avenue and drove toward the Woodland Street bridge. He snagged the first parking space he could find outside the new venue in the Five Points neighborhood. Then he unbuckled his jet black guitar case and grabbed his silver-sand Stetson from the makeshift hat rack mounted behind the truck’s bench seat.

He beat a path to the entrance and dipped his six-foot frame inside the refurbished honky-tonk to claim his spot in the cattle call line. He set his guitar case down and flicked the rain off his hat. He sized up the competition in front of him, aligned single file along a wall with autographed photos of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Patsy Cline, and other superstars who’d played in relative obscurity before their careers went supernova.

He shuffled forward in line and spied the usual urban cowboys in button-down shirts and wing-tip Laredo’s with boot-cut jeans and tassel ties. He heard guitars out of tune and singers who couldn’t find the right notes if someone stapled them to their forehead. He heard the same tired lyrics to the same cover songs delivered without passion or connection to any person, real or imagined, in the live audience.

He watched the group of wannabe artists proceed one-by-one, lock-step toward the stage. And one-by-one, he saw defeated souls slouch away tuck-tailed and tarnished from the lukewarm response to their audition.

Undeterred, he rehearsed a new song in his head, where a few simple chords produced a melody to complement the lyrics he’d composed on a date with his daughter at a Taylor Swift concert.

When he landed his turn in the spotlight, he carried his guitar case on stage and acknowledged the impassive club owner who cracked peanut shells at the bar.

“Name?” the owner asked while he chewed.

Leland tipped his Stetson. “Leland Presley.”

“Nestley?”

Pres-ley,” Leland articulated slowly. He opened the guitar case with his sleeves rolled up, exposing a treble clef tattoo on his left inside forearm and a rustic wooden cross on his right.

“What are you singing?”

Leland removed his acoustic Gibson from the blue velvet lining. The scent of pattern-grade mahogany and Adirondack spruce brought the hand-made instrument to life. “I’m going to try something different this time.”

“How different?”

“A song I wrote for someone very special to me.”

“I’m touched, Mr. Presley. The stage is yours.”

Leland lifted the guitar strap over his head and caressed the vintage instrument against his body. He tweaked the steel E string with the nickel white tuner and strummed his pick above the single-ring rosette to produce a warm, balanced tone. Then he drew a steady breath and leaned toward the microphone to sing.

 

I can feel the music move you

On the country-western floor

A small town girl with big time dreams

Ain’t gonna settle anymore

 

But when you find your heart

All alone at night

Let me take your hand, and ask,

May I have this dance?

 

May I have this dance?

 

‘Cause you’re the one that I’ve been waitin’ for…

And I don’t think, I can hold out anymore

 

A daddy’s girl with angel eyes

And a smile to open doors

You want a man who wants to love you

For richer or for poorer…

 

But when you find your heart

All alone at night

Let me take your hand, and ask,

May I have this dance?

 

May I have this dance?

 

I can see the sunshine in your smile

When it comes to life and love I don’t keep score

And tonight I want you with me on the floor…

 

May I have this dance?

 

You’re the only one I’m waitin’ for

And I don’t think, I can wait here anymore…

 

May I have this dance?

 

 

Leland stepped away from the microphone. “It’s not my only song.”

“It is for now,” the owner replied.

“Are we good?”

“We’ll be in touch.”

Leland gently placed his guitar in the case and latched the lid. He stepped down from the stage and approached the club owner at the bar. “I hear that a lot. Tell me what you really think.”

The owner cracked another peanut shell and chewed. “This ain’t America’s Got Talent. I have a business to run.”

“And you’re not the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve heard one train wreck after another in here. I can out-sing any audition you’ve entertained today.”

“We’ll be in touch.”

“I really need this gig,” Leland persisted.

“So does everyone who comes through these doors,” the owner retorted. He wiped a pile of peanut shells onto the floor. “It takes a hell of a lot more than a pretty face to draw new business.”

Leland gripped his guitar case handle and adjusted his hat. “Yes Sir. But I bailed from my day job and drove thirty miles to get here. A job I might not have when I get back.”

“You from Nashville?”

“The buckle of the bible belt.”

The owner sipped his drink and chewed the ice. “You ever take voice lessons?”

“I’m self-taught.”

The owner gave Leland a business card with a handwritten phone number on the back. “If you want my advice, get yourself a better teacher.”

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