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by Steve Straessle | June 12, 2021 at 8:34 a.m.

The man caught his reflection in the shops' windows. Ambling down the sidewalk in Memphis, he noticed the gray crawling more and more over his temples and above his ears. His wife could still pass for a woman in her 30s, though she was 50, like him. Well, 51, he corrected himself. She's younger by a year.

Why did he look so much older, he wondered. He'd married a smart and beautiful woman, he had six kids who made him proud, and he was about to finish his 27th year in a job that still challenged him. Maybe that was it.

Memphis was slowly awakening from the pandemic. Concerts were still absent and restaurants required limited seating, but Beale Street had come back alive with its blues spilling from doorways into revelers pinballing through the streets. The man and his wife avoided most of that.

The South Main Historic District was more their style now. The long, curving walk made them take it slow past buildings constructed in Art Deco and Georgian Revival styles. To their left was the National Civil Rights Museum with its haunting wreathed balcony. Restaurants and boutiques lined the street before them. The man's wife was a terrible shopper, a trait he appreciated. She didn't have the patience to try on clothes or spend much time looking around. She looked through a store window, spotted a pair of melon-colored pants and said, "Wait here." So he did.

Ten minutes later, the woman came out of the store wearing the pants she had just bought. "Thought I'd dress up for you tonight," she said with a wink.

The sun had finished its genuflection to the day and the sky turned purple. Music and laughter picked up, seeming to rise from the sidewalks and alleyways. They walked shoulder to shoulder, the position of a couple together a long time, brushing each other in silent consent.

"What's that?" the woman asked, pointing to a bright yellow and green sign with white lettering that announced: "Earnestine and Hazel's Sundry Store." The dilapidated building's bricks, rubbed smooth by rain and sweaty shoulders, looked like they were barely holding together. The man's wife peered into a window to see a long bar, a few simple tables, and a lonely jukebox.

"Let's go," she said without waiting for an answer.

"Where's the sundry store?" the man wondered quietly. He knew if he said it out loud his wife would reply with a snarky comment. They weren't familiar with the legendary Earnestine and Hazel's, built in the late 19th century as a church but quickly transitioning to a dry-goods business. The story is that the Abe Plough started a pharmacy there in the 1930s, right before he began the Coppertone suntan lotion company. Once his company took off, he gave the building to two cousins, Earnestine and Hazel, who ran a beauty salon upstairs.

Earnestine and Hazel opened a jazz cafe downstairs and supposedly kept a brothel. Just another tourist trap, he mused while reading newspaper clippings on the wall as he waited for the bartender to finish pouring drinks. He found his wife sitting by a jukebox listening to whatever scratchy tune came on. A waitress walked by and said, "Be careful, that jukebox is haunted." Of course it is, the man thought, shaking his head at the tourists that fell for that.

"Let's go upstairs," the woman said. "They've supposedly kept it the same since it opened." The husband nodded and with drinks in hand, they walked up a creaking curving staircase. The second floor was dark and they had trouble adjusting their eyes. A long row of rooms anchored one side of a dim hallway with peeling blue paint exposing old brick underneath.

Light appeared at the end of the hallway and they angled for it. Passing through a doorway they jumped at "'ello there!" A man stood behind a small bar, his dark skin contrasting with his white hair and beard. Wearing a black vest and light shirt, he smiled.

"Name's Nate Barnes. First time up?"

The man nodded, introducing himself and his wife. Tall windows overlooked the bustling street below, and neon lights reflected like Christmas decorations inside the small room. A few mismatched chairs stood haphazardly around rickety tables. "Y'all good on drinks?" Nate asked.

"Yes, sir," the man said. "You guys back in the full swing of things?"

"My first night back on the job. Been off for a year but got my second shot and all that. First night back," he repeated.

The man nodded, sipping his Jack Daniel's. "How long have you worked here, Mr. Barnes?"

"Twenty-seven years. Been doing this 27 years and loved every minute of it. Get to meet people, pour a few drinks, have a little fun. Never dull, that's right," he said.

The man paused. Twenty-seven years. He collected himself while his wife looked around at more news clippings. "What's the secret to enjoying those 27 years?" he asked.

"Ain't no secret," Nate answered. "Just know you're lucky to be able to show up every day and do what you want to do."

The man nodded again. "You got that right, Mr. Barnes. Thank you."

"For what?" Nate asked.

"Clarity," the man said.

Later, the man and his wife returned downstairs and sat by that old jukebox again. He looked at her in the dancing light of color and noise and smiled. He sipped his drink and noticed for the first time a sticker on the side of the jukebox next to him. "Live a great story" it read.

Suddenly, the jukebox came on. No one had been around it. Music poured forth and the waitress turned, shaking her head.

The man looked to his wife, and she smiled.

Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.


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