creative nonfiction by Angel Sands Gunn

My mother pointed to the line—Student Summer Earnings—and laid the report on the coffee table. Behind her head, I could see magnolia blossoms through the windows. A large painting hung above the marble fireplace. She lowered her glasses, handing me the classified section, having circled a listing in red. Tour Guides Wanted – busy summer season.

“No,” I said, my body tensing in resistance. I wasn’t lazy. I had worked my entire freshman year at NYU, at the Benneton on Broadway, every Saturday and Sunday. I had always had summer jobs, but I did a play that summer in Memphis, which my mom agreed to. Now, I assumed August was too late to find a job. Besides, I had been invited by my boyfriend’s family to spend two weeks at Cape Cod. I didn’t even know what that was, except that there were beaches. All my college friends were going on trips to the ocean. Maybe Mama didn’t want me to go. Or maybe she sensed she was losing me, for more than the last month of summer. Did she think keeping me home could interrupt the course of my future? But, whatever her reason, I could tell from the look in her eye, she wouldn’t take no as an answer. 

“You’d be perfect as a tour guide,” she said, making her case. “With all your theater experience.” 

She picked up her iced tea, condensation rolling down the glass. Something inside me writhed. Graceland was the last place I wanted to work. It wasn’t that I hated Elvis or his music, but I resented he was all anybody knew about my hometown. People seemed to reduce our whole city to tacky souvenirs and spangled outfits. At the time, supermarket checkout lines often proclaimed Elvis sightings, making mockery of his fame, snickering at those who clung to him.

Later, I would come to doubt Elvis in other ways—the rumors of his private life, his affinity for handguns, appropriation of Black music. But, back then, in the summer of 1990, my resistance was more superficial. It would be embarrassing to work there. I wouldn’t want any of my new friends to know. My mother met my dismay with a smile.

“Maybe one day you’ll write about it.”   

On the lawn, I tried to stay out of the summer heat. One hundred degrees at nine in the morning. A woman with 1950’s beauty parlor hair told me this was her dream come true. Sweat dripped down my back and trickled behind my knees. A man with a steely pompadour sang along to the music piped through outdoor speakers. He finished with an Elvis-style, “Thank you very much.” 

The navy blue polyester uniform trapped the heat. A few girls near me kicked and whooped like cheerleaders. I started to get tunnel vision. I turned back toward the road and imagined making a run for it. I hesitated, wondering if the electric gates would open, or if I would get stuck trying to scale the giant wrought iron musical notes. 

When the front door finally opened, the trainees emitted wild screams and cheers. I felt like a traitor, standing in a sea of Elvis disciples, but, at least, I could get into the A/C. The woman motioned us closer. We looked up through white columns. 

“Hello, everybody,” the trainee said, spreading jazz hands. “Welcome to Graceland!” The trainees cheered. “Guess what?” she said in a saccharine trill. “As new tour guides, you get to play tourist and experience Graceland for yourself!” She motioned us inside with red glossy nails. Cool air carried the scent of potpourri and moth balls. She introduced the first room on the tour, instructing us to follow along in our scripts. 

She recited in a sing-song voice, motioning towards an oil painting of Priscilla. “The current owner and President of Elvis Presley Enterprises.” She directed our attention to a portrait of Lisa Marie as a child and stage whispered, “She’ll inherit the estate on her twenty-fifth birthday.” She clasped her chest, as if spontaneous. “Doesn’t she look sweet?” 

This was the time when Graceland still had live tour guides, before John Stamos’ voice led guests through a prerecorded tour. At that time, there was a script, which everyone followed with an almost religious fervor. The grounds were broken into many stations, which guides divided so each took a few moments of the tour. We stood still while the visitors passed through, moving across the property and the history written there. 

At my first station—The Back Door—I directed people toward The Shed where they saw a film, “From Elvis’s early years, when he was still in the Army.” I waited behind the main house and faced the fields where horses and peacocks still roamed. 

Across the backyard, another tour guide waved. Between groups, she crossed the path. “I’m Becky,” she said, holding out her hand. She was a business major at the local university. Her hair smelled like apples and bounced when she laughed. She leaned close, dropping her cheerful routine. “You came at the right time,” she said. “August means money.” She nodded, then gave a grimace, “and fanatics.” She described how the crowds would soon storm the place for Elvis Week, the memorial of his death, at the end of the month. I breathed easier having met her, a smart, Black woman, clearly not a zealot. 

Bells rang every hour, signaling guides to change places. Some took breaks. Others dashed off to give tours. We all moved at once—like a giant game of musical chairs—with everybody landing in a new station, in front of another camera. Somewhere, trainers watched as we recited the lines. 

“Word for word,” they had warned. 

I enjoyed sticking to the script and found the lines easy to remember. All I had to do was look around the room. Every object had a story. The television made me tell how Elvis shot the screen one night watching Robert Goulet. The ceramic monkey cued me to talk about Elvis’s pet chimpanzee. The stereo beside the bar led to the story of Elvis entertaining friends – people with familiar names: Red West, Colonel Tom Parker, Sam Phillips. The characters swirled inside the patterned, upholstered walls.

During the tours, I rolled my eyes to tourists, the ones who seemed more like me. They covered sarcastic laughter at the ostentatious décor and sugar-coated stories. To them, I raised an ironic brow and made quotation marks around the words I had to say: The King.

Later that week I discovered that Mark, a friend from high school, was working at Graceland, too. He had started earlier in the summer. I saw him crossing the lawn and waved. He worked the whole property, even the Awards Hall and Racquetball Court, stations reserved for more experienced guides. Mark winked at me as we passed, as if I were an insider to his prank. 

Knowing he worked there made me feel less humiliated. I decided to act like he did to our friends, saying I was in it for the kitschy experience. During the tours, I rolled my eyes to tourists, the ones who seemed more like me. They covered sarcastic laughter at the ostentatious décor and sugar-coated stories. To them, I raised an ironic brow and made quotation marks around the words I had to say: The King.

In the break room, I scanned for Mark before reading the corkboard, the place where trainers posted notices and daily schedules. At ten, I would work a new room, one I’d never done, the famously gaudy Jungle Room. I sat down to review the script. A girl about my age sat beside me and pulled her hair into a ponytail. I asked where she went to college. 

“I don’t.” She shrugged. I apologized for assuming. “It’s okay. I want to. But I’m helping my dad right now.” She explained he was a veteran and fumbled for the word to describe his condition. I nodded like I understood but didn’t. I had no idea what it would be like to take care of a parent, not to do exactly what I wanted. 

The waterfall wall made a soothing sound. The shag carpet cushioned my feet. When the crowd entered, they made a collective gasp and a group chuckle. Water trickled down the rocky wall, surrounded by fake furs and tiki furniture. But I liked being in the Jungle Room. It was an interesting finale to the house tour, and, for me, intriguing, because it sat adjacent to the restricted area, the private quarters where Elvis’s aunt Delta Presley Biggs still lived. Halfway through my speech, a dog barked. A tall, foreign tourist leaned over the rail. The distinct sound of coughing came from behind the closed doors. 

“What was that?” the tourist said, interrupting my spiel. 

I resumed the script, explaining that Elvis’s aunt lived in the house. Other tourists leaned over the rail, trying to peer through the cracks between the louver doors. 

“It’s her dog,” I said, as instructed. The man pressed me for more, asking if she was nice. I snapped into my snarky persona. “I don’t know.” I shrugged. “I’ve never seen her.” I pointed towards the closed door, realizing I was off script. “I don’t think she comes out. She’s like a ghost.” I spoke in a stage whisper, making my eyes big, which got a laugh from the whole group. Hearing footsteps behind the doors, I knew Delta Presley Biggs was standing there, watching me. I glanced at the camera overhead and returned to the monologue I was supposed to follow. When the bell rang, I moved, anxious to change stations, hoping my infringement had gone unnoticed. 

In the break room, Becky told me a guide had been fired. The trainers pulled him off the Racquetball Court and sent him home. He breached the most sensitive part of the script: Elvis’s death. Becky tapped a pen on her clipboard. 

“Wanna come to my party tonight?” 

“Sure,” I said, asking her address. 

“It’s in Orange Mound.” She wrote down the street. I didn’t tell her I had always been told not to go that neighborhood. I wondered if she knew as well as I did how the railroad tracks still divided this town, even a generation after Martin Luther King, Jr. I considered making up an excuse but lied, saying I’d try to come. 

That night, I sat at a bar and drank beer with high school friends. It felt nice to wear my own clothes, to feel like I wasn’t putting on an act. But when I saw Mark enter the bar, I waved, eager to exchange stories about Graceland. At our table, he announced to the table he was the one who got fired. 

“A man asked me point blank if Elvis died of an overdose. I was just telling the truth,” Mark said, slopping a beer in his hand. My friends laughed. I might have done the same a few weeks before, but I frowned. A new thought came to my mind. Mark could’ve been more respectful—in Elvis’s own home. 

Without Mark at Graceland, I felt free from my past, more in the moment. I discarded the idea that being a tour guide at Graceland was humiliating. I no longer mocked the material I had been given. I loved the sound of the music streaming through the property and had grown to have favorites: "Don’t Be Cruel," "Burning Love," "Suspicious Minds." As the anniversary of Elvis’s death approached, the crowd thickened. Impersonators dotted the halls. People wore Elvis t-shirts and hats, buttons saying Elvis Lives and TCB with a lightning bolt. Middle-aged visitors clung together, carrying roses, wiping tears. We worked after hours and into the night as 30,000 people came from every corner of the planet to stream through the house and pay tribute to Elvis.

At the end of the week, I stood in The Living Room and held the velvet rope. I pointed to the picture of Gladys on the bureau. I gestured to the baby grand piano at the far end of the room, framed by a stained-glass partition. “You will notice the image of the peacocks,” I said the lines from memory. “Elvis chose peacocks not only for their beauty…” I sensed the visitors holding their breath, waiting for the punch line, and gave it to them, “…but because they represent eternal life.” 

The room swelled with emotion. Some covered their mouths. Others bowed their heads. A few lifted their glistening eyes to meet mine, as if asking if Elvis were still alive. I didn’t respond, only let the question hang there—not just the question of Elvis’s immortality but the mystery of life itself. What happens after all this is over?

After directing them to the next station, I stood alone, shivering with an awareness that penetrated my bones. I pictured Elvis there, in that very room, not a larger-than-life character, just a man, with fingers rippling over ivory keys. It was as if I could hear his voice rising to the ceiling, weaving pain with the hope for something beyond.

When the front door opened, Becky stuck her head inside. 

“Uh oh,” she said, registering my expression. “You okay?” She held the next group at bay.

“I have something in my eye.” 

Becky shook her head. “You’re having an Elvis moment.” She laughed, slapping her knee. “Don’t worry. It happens to even the least sentimental among us.” She patted my back and whispered in my ear. “Use it.” 

“Wait.” I grabbed her arm, the truth rushing out of me. “I’m sorry I didn’t go to your party. I’ve never been to that neighborhood. I didn’t know if...” 

“I wouldn’t invite you if it weren’t safe.” Her eyes blazed. “Next time, you better be there.”

In the morning, there was a note on the break room board. Never talk about me on your tour. I know who did it, and I’m watching you. Signed, Delta Presley Biggs. 

Nobody else seemed to notice the note, but I did and knew she was talking to me. I had gone off script, and she knew. I worried I’d be fired before finishing the week. And I was counting on the overtime. All day and for the whole week I watched over my shoulders, but nobody pulled me off the floor.

Ever since that summer, I’ve thought about working there and what happened with Elvis’s aunt. Why did she choose to live there, with tours streaming around her, day after day? It must have felt like being trapped on an island or being kidnapped inside a zoo. Now, I realize her purpose. She was the keeper of secrets, the protector of Elvis’s most intimate spaces, rooms haunted by suffering, heartbreak, addiction and who knows what else. I was wrong to talk about her the way I did. 

At the end of the month, I gave my childhood room one last look. “You will notice the pink floral bedspread,” I said to nobody, touching the antique vanity where I hid my dark poetry, my childhood secrets. As I stared into the crackled mirror, something shifted inside me. I didn’t want to leave, to go back into the world on my own. What if I failed? What if I never found my way back home? My mother came to the door. 

“Ready?” she said, her eyes moist behind her smile. At the airport, we stood beside the car. I almost forgot to give her the check. 

“Keep it,” she said, hugging me one last time. I thanked her, realizing everything she had done, the sacrifices she made so I could have everything. She was my teacher, my guide and had given me not just love and education but something more. She kept me close, showing me how to stay connected, even as she set me free.  

On the plane, I looked out the window. From above, the buildings grew small, the snaking Mississippi River faded to the geometric puzzle of farmlands. We ascended through a pink and golden sky. Clouds rearranged themselves into new patterns. A fluffy dreamscape, mountains and mounds, wrapped me in blinding light. 

Angel Sands Gunn has been published in Appalachian Review, Full Grown People, Poets Writing the News, and Literary Mama. She has won awards from Writer’s Digest, Glimmer Train, Berea College and the Faulkner Wisdom Contest. She has been as a fellow at Bread Loaf, Tin House, Sewanee, and Appalachian Writers Workshop. She currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and is at work on a novel.