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I Met Her Today
Author's note: I have always loved Elvis, ever since I was a little girl, and I felt like I had to somehow document that love. The prologue was a dream, and the rest just came about as I wrote.
Transported in time, I found myself in rural (is there any other kind?) Mississippi. The dirt under my bare feet was red like a sunset, and there was noise everywhere. The first thing I became aware of was the heat. The air around me seemed to have a physical weight, like a wool blanket fresh out of the dryer. Almost the instant I arrived, I was sweating. The second thing I noticed was all the noise. It wasn’t unpleasant; women’s voices were raised in song, and other voices seemed to be shouting simply to shout. A dog was barking somewhere nearby. Squinting in the southern sun, I looked about, dizzy from the sudden heat and thoroughly confused. Just to my left there was a house, a tiny shanty of a building raised up on cinder blocks. Three crooked steps led up to its front porch, where a little boy sat, nonchalantly rocking back and forth on the porch swing. I walked up to the bottom step and stopped, looking at him. He stared back. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck. “Hello,” I said brightly.
The little boy started in his seat, shocked out of his stupor by the sound of my voice. “Hey.” he replied. He didn’t smile.
I raised myself onto the first step. “How are you?”
He shrugged, obviously wary of me, a stranger, though the town around me seemed like a place that wouldn’t know the meaning of the word.
I couldn’t tell exactly how old he was; he was small, maybe three feet tall, and his dirty toes dangled far above the creaky porch’s surface. I thought he looked about four or five years old. His face was unremarkable; his shy blue eyes and pouting lips seemed too big for the nose and ears, and his honey-colored hair needed washing. He didn’t seem interested in conversation, but he didn’t object audibly when I sat down beside him on the swing. “This your house?” I asked, already guessing the answer but having nothing better to talk about.
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.My daddy builded it all by hisself.”
I had to admit it; the kid was cute in his own way, talking about his dad like that. Maybe it was the little southern accent. “Did he now? He must be a smart man, your daddy.”
He grinned, a beautiful sight. “Yes’m.”
It was then when something about the kid struck me as familiar. I couldn’t place it, but I felt like I’d seen that face before. The question was answered for me seconds after my mind had asked it.
“Elvis Aron, where have you slipped off too?” A heavyset woman appeared from behind the screen door wearing an apron and an expression of worry. Relief flooded her face when her eyes settled on the little boy, who leapt up like he’d been stung.
Meanwhile, I was frozen to the spot. The woman ushering her son inside the house had called the little boy Elvis. I stood up like my kneecaps had been replaced by bedsprings. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
The woman turned. Gladys. That was her name; I remembered now. She stared at me, eyes wide with expectation. I had never found her all that pretty in pictures I’d seen, but in person I felt she was beautiful. This woman had given birth to the greatest performer that had ever lived, and she didn’t even know it.
“I- I’m sorry for intruding on you like this. I’m afraid I’m lost.”
Gladys put her hands on her hips, smiling like she knew something. “I figgered as much. You don’t sound like you’re from here.”
I shook my head, still in a state of shock. “No ma’am. But I’d appreciate directions out of town. I gotta get home.”
She laughed. “Oh, well that’s no puzzle!” She pointed straight down the road to the left. “All ya gotta do is keep walkin’ that way, and you’ll be out in less than five miles!”
I grinned at her. “Thank you very much.”
I was maybe ten yards down the road when something made me turn. There, at the window, was Elvis. He didn’t smile; he didn’t wave; but our eyes stayed locked for a long ways down the road, until a pickup crossed the street behind me and I lost the house in a cloud of dust.
I sat at my window, gazing out at the wintry bedlam that was the front yard. I could barely see the flailing willow trees for the merciless wind and sideward snow.
A chill wracked my body as a bit of breeze squeezed through the hardly-perceivable space between the glass pane of the window and the frame. I tucked the oversized wool sweater I wore tighter around myself.
Even as I cursed the inexorable cold, a deeper, more secret part of me relished in the iridescent beauty of it all, the clean-slated-ness of a freshly fallen blanket of pure snow.
Winter came swiftly in Nebraska. By the year of my sixteenth birthday, I’d grown used to snowstorms arriving as early as October, and staying until April. Most people I knew hated how long winter stayed around out there, but I loved it.
Loyal to its own predictability, the Cornhusker state was right in the middle of delivering a fresh layer of snow to its people. Christmas was only a week away, but it felt like it’d been here for months. Snow coated the fields and grasses, and lights glittered everywhere you went.
The weeks leading up to Christmas can be spellbinding. And quiet. The snow seems to muffle the sounds of the world outside, and all you can hear is your own heartbeat.
Christmas was six days away, and I was in my room wrapping a big pile of gifts for my family, simultaneously guarding the ribbons and paper against my kitten, Dorian. The pot-bellied stove in the corner was making little hissing noises in an effort to keep up with the dropping temperature outside. Bing Crosby serenaded me softly with a voice untouched by time. Every once in a while I’d stop and peer out my window at the blowing snow.
My mind, however, was not busying itself with thoughts of snow, Bing, or even Christmas in general. My thoughts, instead, were with Elvis.
That sweltering summer’s day in Tupelo had been our first meeting. It was one I’d keep forever treasured in my heart, though he’d been only four and couldn’t have possibly remembered it.
I’d seen him twice since then. The week following my brief interlude in Mississippi, I returned to the infant city of Tupelo, circa 1946. Elvis had been eleven then, and I’d spotted them across the street, in front of Tupelo Hardware.
He and his mother had gone into the store arguing ferociously; I couldn’t hear what they’d been arguing about, but I saw Gladys grab her son by the strap of his overalls and drag him, wailing, into the store. When they didn’t immediately come into view, I sat down on the curb across the street, in dire need of air-conditioning but willing to wait. And wait I did, for nearly an hour.
When they finally emerged, mother and son were walking hand in hand, and the small, simple-looking boy was grinning broadly. A new guitar hung by its strap off Elvis’ thin shoulder. The instrument gleamed in a delightful shade of blue, the blue of faraway oceans, in the bright southern sun.
The third visit came soon after the second; I saw Elvis leaving the Christine School in Memphis, a shy eighth-grader with only one friend in the world. That friend walked in stride with him the whole way; I was almost certain that the little curly-headed boy beside Elvis was George Klein, a man Elvis had met in middle school and would keep as a friend for the rest of his life.
Back in my own time, my own state, I sat watching the snow drifts grow and reshape themselves outside my window. The streetlights painted orange streaks across the icy white canvas. As I lost my thoughts to the storm, I felt something like a tug inside my stomach.
It was as if an invisible fisherman had hooked me like a prize fish, just behind my belly button, and was pulling on the line. I’d felt the sensation before; I knew what it meant.
My breath quickened, forming a flat little cloud on the window. It happened before I could even push myself up off the floor. I was fading. Mr. Crosby’s voice had dwindled down to barely a whisper, and I could no longer feel the stove’s heat on my skin.
Poor Dorian mewed, his gilded eyes asking a million inexpressible questions. Less than a minute later, I vanished.
Whole once again, I found myself standing in front of an old movie theater.
The structure itself looked as if someone had carelessly tacked a marquee onto the front of an apartment building, and had blackmailed some schmuck into spending his day locked inside a Cracker Jack box that was trying desperately to be a ticket booth. Several panes were missing from the upper-level windows. A lifeless neon sign held aloft by a compilation of shifty-looking metal crossbars declared this place as Loew’s Palace Theatre.
Against my better judgment, I approached the front of the theatre to have a better look at the display of movie posters exhibited behind cracked frames of warped glass. As I had anticipated, none of the titles currently showing at this theatre were films I was familiar with.
I bent closer to inspect one, a brightly-painted advertisement for the only film there that rang any kind of bell: it was Singin’ in the Rain, with Gene Kelly. Skimming the bottom of the poster, I found what I was looking for.
According to the poster, my feet were planted firmly in the year 1952. Elvis would be seventeen. Eager to find the yet-unknown teenager, I slipped swiftly through the theater’s front door.
When he saw me, I sensed something like a flicker of recognition. I could almost hear his thoughts; perhaps I was familiar, like long-forgotten hometown revisited towards the end of one’s long life.
He waited until the last customers had gone into their movie before walking over to where I stood.
Elvis was working part-time at the Loew's Palace Theater as an usher, still two years away from recording his first hit, and probably would have laughed hysterically if I told him he’d be buying his parents a house in four years.
The last time we’d seen each other, he’d been twelve years old. Now he was seventeen, tall, with natural brownish-blonde hair, and acne scattered like cayenne pepper across his pale, heavy features.
His ushers’ uniform hung limp and tent-like on his reedy shoulders and limbs, making him look, with all due respect, like a scarecrow costumed for a low-budget cabaret. The only clue to the fiery spirit that lived inside this frail lamb burned bright in his beautiful blue eyes.
“Hey Elvis,” I said.
He jumped, and then tried to cover his surprise by sorting a stack of paper cups on the countertop. A nervous hand went to his hair. Smiling shyly, he mumbled a quiet “Hello…”
He didn’t know my name. Of course not.
“Sera. My name’s Sera.”
Elvis shrugged. “Okay then. Hello, Sera.”
I didn’t figure he’d remember me; even so, it felt strange having to introduce myself to someone I felt I knew very well.
His eyes flickered over the lobby; finding it empty, he leaned back on the candy counter as if he owned the place, head cocked.
I copied his pose, and pretended not to notice when he scooted away from me, his bottom lip caught up under his front teeth. I barely contained a giggle; Elvis Presley, an illustrious and confidant Casanova, was afraid of me.
“It’s been a long time, I know. You were in eighth grade last time I saw you.”
Elvis’ pimpled brow crinkled in confusion. “Saw me? Whattaya mean, ‘saw me’? I ain’t never seen you before in my life.”
Running a finger through the thin film of grease that coated the countertop, I shrugged. “No, you didn’t see me before. But I watched you and George leave school one day. And I was there when your mom bought you that blue guitar.”
Those famous baby-blue eyes grew wide with alarm. “What’re you watchin’ me for? Is it cause-a my daddy? I don’t know nothin’ about that. I was just a baby.”
His father, Vernon, had been sent to Parchman Farm, a notorious Mississippi jailhouse, for forging a check over his employer’s name, when Elvis had been just three years old. He hadn’t been held even a year, but as it often goes, Vernon’s name was irrevocably tarnished, at least to the residents of East Tupelo. Considering how young Elvis had been, I was amazed he’d known about it, amazed that he still feared his daddy would be taken away again.
I shook my head, disconcerted. “No, Elvis, no. It’s nothing like that. I—”
How did you tell a teenage boy living 59 years in the past that you’re from the future? Not to mention the fact that whenever you visit the past, from that point forward you’d always end up somewhere near him?
I did it in the best way I knew how. “You like going to the movies, right?”
Elvis looked at me like I’d gone nuts. “Sure, whenever I can afford to. What’s that gotta do with you?”
“You ever see a movie where a character’s from outer space, or the future, or something like that?”
“Uh huh. Loads’ a times.”
I paused a moment, took a deep breath, and said, “Well, that’s like me. I’m from the future.”
Before he could stop me, I went on. “I know it sounds totally crazy, and I wouldn’t blame you if you ran screaming from the building, but just listen. I don’t know why it happens, and I don’t have any control over it. I saw you with George and your mom just a couple weeks ago, even though it was more than a year for you. And—”
Elvis held up one of his hands; his palm was less than a foot from my face. There was a blue ink stain on the middle knuckle of his thumb.
“Wait just a minute. You ‘spect me to believe you’re from the future? Jus’ like that?”
I nodded, feeling utterly foolish. Even to me, it sounded absolutely insane, and I was living it! There had to be a better way of putting than the way I had; the clichéd, cheeseball “I’m from the future” line that sounded like something out of a bad remake of Back to the Future (a movie I’m sure Elvis would have loved, had he been around to see it).
Elvis dropped his eyes to the floor, and ran one hand through his dirty-blonde hair. When he looked at me again, there was a hard, cold glitter in his eyes. “Prove it.”
I sighed, not in the least bit surprised. “It’s not that easy. I know that it sounds ludicrous. You have every right to think I’m crazy.”
He scoffed, his lip curling into a sneer of doubt; it was not unlike the sneer that would grow to be as familiar and recognizable as his voice.
“Sure I do. And if you wasn’t a girl I’d also have the right to break your nose for tryin’ to pull my leg.”
I’ve never been known for my patient, compliant nature, and Elvis had me at my wit’s end. My faded-blue eyes held fast to his deeper blue eyes like two anchors to the ocean floor.
“Just go ahead and try to hit me. Listen, I know stuff about you that hasn’t even happened yet.” Elvis only rolled his eyes, and raised a finger to his mouth, starting in on the nail like it was the first meal he’d had in weeks. His sneer didn’t falter, didn’t disappear from his mouth.
I was about ready to do something ridiculously girlish, like spit in his face or pull a pout. Instead, I pushed on. “Your mother’s name is Gladys Love Presley. Her maiden name was Smith. Your daddy is Vernon Elvis Presley. You were a twin, but he didn’t make it. His name was Jesse Garon.”
Elvis’ jaw was set; I knew I’d pushed a button mentioning Jesse, and I hated to do it.
“That don’t prove nothin’ more than that you’re a snoop. Anybody could know that.”
I shouldn’t have done it; I probably broke some kind of time ethics (if there even is such a thing), but he had me so frustrated that there didn’t seem like any other way.
“Elvis…..you’re gonna be famous someday. You’re gonna make tons of records, and a lot of them are gonna go gold, some of them platinum. You’re going to be rich, so rich, and you’re gonna make a lot of movies.” Even though I knew all of that to be true, it sounded stupid and crazy when I said it out loud. The expression on Elvis’ face told me he was thinking the same thing.
“You think that that’s gonna make me believe you?”
I snapped the hair tie around my wrist; it left a pink welt that I barely felt. “Frankly, Elvis, I don’t think there’s anything that’s gonna make you believe me. Would you just listen?”
When he didn’t object, I took that as a sign that I could continue.
“I guess we really met when you were four, but you obviously wouldn’t remember that.”
This actually got his attention. “Back in my daddy’s house? In Tupelo?”
I nodded. I knew he was living in the projects with his parents now, but I chose not to mention it.
Even at seventeen years old, Elvis was a proud man. He knew he was poor; he just didn’t want other people to see him that way.
I knew this like I knew he’d only be working this job at the theatre for a couple more months, before getting fired for roughing up a fellow usher.
There was a half-empty Coca-Cola bottle sitting on the counter; Elvis took a swig out of this and wiped his mouth. Then he reached out and nudged my knee, clearly anxious to hear the rest of my story.
“Hey. What— what happened?” I moved beside him, hoisting myself up on the counter. Now we were about eye-level.
“Nothing really. I appeared almost right in front of your house, and you were on the porch.”
Elvis ran a hand over his hair. “Was Mama there?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh. You were on the porch swing, and she came out looking for you. I told her I was lost.” This made him chuckle.
“You sure as hell were!” It was meant to be a joke, but his eyes told me he needed to know more.
“I started walking away, but something made me stop. I turned back around and I saw you, at the window. You didn’t do anything, but we stared at each other for a long time.”
Elvis was fiddling with a crumpled popcorn bag when I looked at him again.
His eyes, sparkling blue, glowed with a youthfulness like I’d never noticed before. God, he was young. I couldn’t help staring, my own eyes mapping out every detail like his face was a great masterpiece of architecture.
After a few seconds he noticed my staring, and grinned a little uncomfortably. “What? Do I got somethin’ on my face?” I smiled softly, shaking my head no.
He squeezed my shoulder. “You’re a piece of work, Sera.” He paused. “Hold out your hand.”
I did. He plopped the empty, soggy popcorn bag into it.
“A souvenir!” he cried, beside himself with laughter. I grimaced, my stomach twisting at the smell of the butter.
Call me un-American, but I have always hated popcorn, and all the odors that go along with it. My reaction cracked Elvis up; his face was cherry-red, and his childish laughter echoed off the walls of the dingy little theatre.
I was thoroughly grossed out by the oozing butter between my fingers but unable to stay mad at him, especially since he seemed to at least partially believe my crazy story.
And it wasn’t lost on me how quickly he’d warmed up to me, true to the generous, trusting nature later described by his closest friends. I was glad; they also described the wicked temper he had when somebody got him mad, and I didn’t want to see that. I only shook my head and laughed too.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the auditorium doors open. A plump, balding man in a vest-and-trouser getup similar to Elvis’ stepped out. He eyed the snickering teenager with disdain.
“You’re pushin’ yer luck, Presley!” he avowed, waggling a sausage-like finger at the nervous teenager. “I don’t allow no freebies in my thee-atre, and I don’t make no exceptions for pretty girls!” Despite his nerves, Elvis elbowed me, grinning.
“Ya hear that, Sera? Man here thinks you’re pretty!” I pinkened, noticing that the man, whom I assumed was Elvis’ boss, looked flustered.
“I want her outta here, boy! If she ain’t paying, she ain’t a customer!” He paused, frowning. He looked like a bulldog, with jowls hanging down on either side of his mouth. “Now, you knows I don’t want ta fire you, but one more stunt like this and that’s exactly what I’m gonna do!” With that he waddled off, slamming the door behind him.
Once he was gone, I heard Elvis chuckle to himself. I shook my head, amused but unsurprised by his adolescent nonchalance.
It was then that a curious sensation much like a leg falling asleep trickled through my body. “Elvis, I— ” I was disappearing.
He reached out and took my hand in his. “Are ya leavin’ now? Goin’ back?” I could only nod, already unable to speak, or at least unable to be heard. But I was still able to feel his hand, so warm and big and gentle.
Seconds later I could barely see him, just his face. He was smiling, though a little sadly.
When I materialized again, I was back in my room, with litters of wrapping paper and tape scattered around me. Dorian was busying himself with the destruction of all the ribbon. Like I always do, I just sat there for a moment, dazed.
The time-traveling thing got stranger as I got older; the very first time I ever disappeared I was simply there and then not. This fading stuff was new to me, and really awful-feeling.
I sat there longer than usual, not moving. Down the hall, I heard my mom and dad talking in the kitchen. I was back.
In the hallway, I could hear my parents a little better; I could also hear the familiar clink-clanging of pots and pans being rearranged on their shelves. That meant I’d missed dinner. Oops.
My parents know about my whole disappearing act; they’re even kind of cool about it. However, not even Elvis Presley is a good excuse for missing dinner (at least not in my dad’s book).
So, naturally, I entered the kitchen on eggshells, casting sidelong glances at my dad to determine whether he’d reached his boiling point. My mom was at the sink, patiently rinsing off dishes and loading them in the dishwasher.
Without looking up, she asked, “Where’d you go this time, hon?” Still nervous, I snatched an apple from a bowl on the counter and shrugged, faking nonchalance.
“1952. He was working in a movie theater.” Now Mom turned around. She was smiling.
“Cool! What happened?”
My mom is extremely accepting of what we call ‘my condition’. I’m extremely lucky in that way I guess. We see the world in a lot of the same ways, which makes sense, since I’m pretty much a physical copy of her. The only real difference is that her hair is cropped short and brown, while mine is past my shoulders and the sad color of straw. But we’re the same height, we have the same blue eyes, and we have the same Superman chin that sticks out a mile when we smile.
“I, uh..... we just talked, mostly. I told him about how I traveled, and about Tupelo.” This got my dad’s attention. He frowned a little, his bushy eyebrows knitting themselves together across his broad forehead.
My dad is darker than my mother and I, and he stares out at the world with the prettiest chocolate brown eyes I’ve ever seen. He’s never once served in the military, but his snowy hair has been in the same Marine-style buzz cut for as long as I’ve been alive. We have our little skirmishes now and again, which I guess is probably normal for a teenage girl and her father, but we’ve always been close. He introduced me to classical and country music when I was just a little girl, and always has a historical tidbit to share.
“Are you supposed to do that? Tell him that you’ve seen him before, I mean?” I nodded.
“Unless I go from, say, 1974 to 1954, yeah. If I did that, he’d remember that I visited him before, but he’d be remembering the future, which he’s not supposed to know about yet. It screws everything up.” Despite his superhuman ability to store more random trivia than any computer, my dad looked confused.
I couldn’t help but laugh, feeling the danger was past. Dad grinned, looking unsure.
Mom kicked the dishwasher door closed and pushed the button that started it running. Then she pulled me closer, rubbing my arms in that way she always had; it was an almost-hug.
“So he was young, huh?” The blue eyes she’d passed on to me sparkled gloriously with mischief. I shoved her playfully, going pink.
“Yes, he was young. Only seventeen!” Then, almost as an afterthought, I added, “His hair was still blonde, too.” She could only grin, giggling like a little girl.
My mom and I were always close, and she knew that I’d loved Elvis for practically half my life. For the first few times I saw him, we baked cookies and ate them on the couch in our pajamas, sometimes talking but mostly just sitting in silence. Those were some of my favorite times, and some of the most comforting.
I realized as we chatted on about the teenaged Elvis that we hadn’t done that in a long time.
Without looking up from newspaper spread out in front of him, my Dad said, “You’d better clear up those presents in your room, Sera. The secret still has to be kept for a couple more days.”
So I went, planting a kiss on his cheek on the way out of the kitchen.
Dorian was still in my room when I got up the stairs; several sheets of tissue paper had fallen victim to his prying claws. He seemed indignant when I cleared everything up, stacking the still-unwrapped presents back in my closet.
When the last of the tape, ribbon, and sparkling paper were put away, I fell back on my bed, exhausted. I could have fallen asleep right there; in fact I almost did, but then I heard something odd.
I was pretty sure I’d tucked all of the Christmas trappings away. Yawning broadly, I peered over the end of my bed. The little grey and white kitten had his head stuck in a paper bag, mewling and struggling furiously to get out. My heart gave a little lurch in my chest when I realized what Dorian had gotten himself into.
The paper bag was striped red and white, and its top was cut jagged like gossamer teeth; a thin sheen of butter coated the surface: the popcorn bag. I reached down and pulled the thing off of Dorian, who was smacking his furry lips, which were smeared glossy with fake butter.
It hardly seemed real. No matter how many times I saw Elvis, it always felt that way. I mean, he’s all over my room; he’s on posters, a lamp, my curtains, a framed picture by my bed and on my trash can. If it were possible for him to see my room, which I’m sure it isn’t, he’d be totally freaked out.
The thought made me smile a little as I changed into my pajamas, fighting Dorian for my slippers. I won, as I usually do, and padded back out to the kitchen, where my mom was just finishing up the last of the dishes.
I hugged her from behind, inhaling the lavender-woodsmoke scent of her. She flicked a bit of suds at my nose, and we both laughed.
“I’m kind of jealous of you, you know,” she said, barely a whisper. I frowned into her shoulder.
“Jealous? Why?” Mom turned around, back to the sink, and let her arms drop.
“Are you kidding? Sweetie, I know you hate having to leave Elvis without any warning, but just think for a minute. You get to spend time with one of the most inaccessible men in history!”
I smiled faintly, hearing her words and realizing just how deliciously insane it sounded.
“I know, Mom. But it’s not as if we’ve really done much together. He didn’t know my name until today. And he was about ready to call the police, at first.” This made her smile. “I just don’t know why I’m the one that gets to see him. I mean, it seems a little nutty that I’m the only one who can travel through time in the family, and I just happen to find Elvis every time it happens, you know? I mean, what’re the odds?”
Mom rolled her eyes. “Stop lookin’ the gift horse in its mouth, ya goof. You love Elvis and you get to see him pretty much whenever you want. Leave it at that, for Pete’s sake!” I couldn’t help but laugh at her reprimand. I kissed her cheek, and yawned.
“Alright, Mama, you win. See ya in the morning.”
“Don’t forget those worksheets your dad made for you. I don’t care how cute Elvis looked in his usher’s outfit, you still gotta do your math!”
After my disappearances started, my parents had thought it best that I be homeschooled. It was either that or be stuck in eighth grade the rest of my life because of absences.
I blushed a little from her teasing. “Ha-ha, very funny. I won’t forget!” I left her there in the kitchen, stumbled up the stairs to my room and almost immediately climbed into bed.
I reached out to turn off my lamp, noticing its gold guitar base for the first time in ages. When it was switched on, Elvis glowed, crooning silently in his famous black leather suit. Now, though, it was dark.
Sighing heavily, I rolled over under the covers. Sleep came quickly.
Just a couple days later I found myself forcing my way through a dense crowd. At home, it was Christmas Eve, but according to a paper I salvaged out of a nearby trash bin, it was February in Jacksonville, Florida.
Other than that, I had no idea where I was. I couldn’t even see Elvis.
Pushing my way through the throng of people –mostly girls; he had to be close by— I tapped a middle-aged woman on the shoulder, praying that she’d help me. At first her face expressed alarm, but apparently she quickly decided I wasn’t going to mug her, because she asked me in a pleasant voice, “Yes? How can I help you?”
I swallowed hard. “Um, I’m sorry to bother you, but can you tell me, please, what’s going on? I— I got separated from my, uh, my folks.” This got a puzzled frown out of her.
“Why, Elvis Presley’s in town! He’s goin’ to be onstage in jus’ five minutes!” She waved her arms about emphatically. “Why else ya think there’s all this fuss?”
I thanked her and moved forward in the mass of people, ignoring the indignant cries of girls around me as I shoved past. The paper had said it was February, 1956. That meant he was four years older, twenty-one now.
I pushed until I got all the way up to the stage; I was so close and the crowd was so dense that I was literally driven up against the stage, probably getting its lip tattooed across my breast bone.
Elvis wasn’t on yet, but the Jordanaires were, and Scotty Moore was strumming away on his guitar, with Bill Black on bass.
My heart was racing. I couldn’t hear myself think about the crowd’s roar, but I could feel the anticipation in the air. It was thick, tangible, and almost visible, like clear molasses. It was almost eerie, the way Elvis’ name danced and floated through the crowd in whispers, like thousands of ghostly butterflies. Necks craned, toes were stepped on, and a sheen of nervous sweat coated every soul present. He was coming.
Five minutes later the band picked up; Bill and Scotty grinned out at the crowd, their feet stomping in time to the beat. I was in the front, practically on the stage, so every time those sticks hit the drums, I felt it in my chest, vibrating my rib cage and sending shock waves through my heart. Then the screams got louder. There he was, twenty-one years old in short trousers, a black button-up shirt, and a candy-pink blazer. His hair was blue-black now, and that famous sneer was on his mouth before he even opened it to sing. “Weeellllll.........Since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell; it’s down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel!”
The minute the music started, Elvis was twisting and gyrating all over the stage, drawing screams from the crowds like a child sucks sugar from a lollipop. I watched deliriously, close enough to catch drops of his sweat on my upturned face. He didn’t see me.
Even in the mild February weather, Elvis was soaked with sweat by the third song. His carefully-arranged pompadour was limp against his forehead by the fourth. But he never slowed down.
At one point during the show a girl who’d been standing behind me threw herself on the stage, sailing right over my head. She landed at Elvis’ feet, latching on to his pant leg before he could move. The crowd watched in astonishment as Elvis kept singing, wiggling his leg and paying little attention to the girl, who was screaming and tearing at him like he was the last man on earth. Finally, after what felt like years, a big, ape-ish man in a sheriff’s uniform jumped onstage and looped his burly arms around the teenager and tugged.
At this point Elvis wasn’t even trying to sing; he stood microphone and guitar still in hand.
He was laughing, but his face seemed pale, and the underarms of his blazer were dyed magenta with sweat. I stared at him, puzzled, worried that he had done too much. That was when he finally saw me. He had just happened to look down, and there I was.
Unless I was imagining it, there were a few terrifying seconds where he didn’t seem to recognize me. I saw his brow crinkle in confusion, and there was the slightest of frowns tugging at the corners of his mouth.
But then, thank God, he grinned, turning up his palms in a what-can-you-do kind of gesture. Then he winked.
The girl was dragged away still screaming Elvis’ name and clutching a piece of his trousers in her white-knuckled hand. As if she carried some kind of emotional contagion, the crowd settled down some after she was gone. The young man up on stage was undaunted, and he even cracked a joke about the missing strip from his pants.
“Uh, alright now folks! We’re gonna do, uh, jus’ a couple more songs for ya! I--I hope y’all like ’em.” Elvis turned to cue up Bill and Scotty, then went right into his routine like nothing had happened.
“Got a gal named Sue, she knows just what to do, got a ga-ha-hal named Sue, she knows just what to do! She rocks to the east, she rocks to the west, she's the gal I love best! Tutti frutti, aw, Rudy! Tutti frutti, aw Rudy! Tutti frutti, aw, Rudy! Tutti frutti, aw Rudy! A-wop-bop-a-loom-bop-a-bop-bam-boom!” Totally unfazed by the fans, Elvis roared into the microphone, his hips and knees rocking, jarring and shaking like a mad man.
Behind him, Scotty and Bill were having just as much fun; Bill spun his bass like a lady, slapping its strings hard enough for the sound to reach all across the audience.
The show was everything the preachers and mothers said it was: a brawling exhibition of hormone-fueled, adolescent rebellion: I absolutely loved it. Though I knew that I could visit this amazing, untouchable man pretty much whenever I wanted, I still felt incredibly lucky to witness the magic firsthand, fifty-five years after it happened.
Elvis finished the song with a grandeur that no one since him has been able to duplicate: he swung his guitar around on his back and kicked up both heels, jumping up on his toes and giving his hips one last twist. The crowd went nuts. More girls tried to follow the first’s example, throwing themselves at the stage. Policemen only just managed to push them back; I was caught up in the middle of it, pushed out of the way and out of the front row, and almost missed what happened next.
One minute Elvis was at the mike, thanking the crowd and flashing his famous smile, and the next he was gone, vanished. Just a second later, I heard a girl near the front scream, “He collapsed! Elvis collapsed!”
Immediately the camera men fell in, their flashbulbs going off like split-second fireworks. Shouts and curious murmurs coursed through the audience, and everyone pushed for a closer look. My heart was beating fast as I joined them, shoving as hard as I could, wanting, needing to get to Elvis. One of the police officers in charge of crowd control met my efforts with the stone wall of his considerable form.
“Ma’am, there’s nothin’ to see here! I gotta ask you to please step back.” I ignored him, somehow forcing my way past. I was just a few feet from where I knew Elvis was; between the feet of the crowd of rubberneckers I saw one leg of his torn trousers, bent at the knee.
“Elvis! Elvis!” I heard his name being called, but hardly realized that it was me. I moved as quickly as I could, accidentally knocking a girl over. I gasped an apology to her and kept going.
At last. The last man between me and Elvis’ crumpled form stepped
sideways without much fuss, and I fell to my knees next to my friend.
“Elvis? Elvis, can you hear me?” I knelt down close, unable to shake the realization that my hand, pressed to his cheek, looked tan in comparison. He was so pale, and his skin was clammy to the touch. All around me people were crushing themselves trying to get a look at him. I didn’t notice someone had joined me at Elvis’ side until they spoke.
“Uh, Miss?” I gasped out of surprise, and turned to find the source of the voice. A man who looked about forty was kneeling on the other side of the fainted young man, both his hands on either of Elvis’ shoulders. He regarded me with suspicion, and almost dislike. “Miss, I know you’re concerned for my son, but we gotta get him an ambulance, and I ain’t gonna let any fans on with us.”
I almost played a child and told him I was too going with them, no matter what he said, but before the words left my mouth, I stopped. He had said that Elvis was his son.
“Oh, I--I’m sorry, Ver--sir, I’m sorry! See, I’m a f-friend of Elvis’, and—” Vernon stopped me with a raised hand.
“I don’t know ya, Miss. Now, my son needs medical attention and you’re standin’ in the way of that. If you are a friend, you’ll get outta my way.”
I was stunned. Vernon hadn’t been there when I’d met Elvis as a child, but I knew what kind of struggles he’d put himself through to give his small family a house. I simply couldn’t imagine why he would blow me off so rudely. If the girl with the piece of Elvis’ pants was any indication, he knew how nuts the fans could get. But this puzzled me.
Three men in white medical jumpsuits lifted Elvis’ limp form onto a stretcher. Despite Vernon’s rebuttal, I was determined to go with him. So when he pulled himself up into the back of the ambulance, I leapt up too, settling myself across the stretcher from where he crouched. Faster than I could react, Vernon grabbed my arm and held it in his surprisingly vice-like grip. When I met his eyes, I saw them sparkle dangerously, the same ocean-blue as his son’s.
“Now listen here. If Elvis wakes up and don’t recognize you, I’m callin’ the police. Ya got that?” He was scaring me, he really was.
I nodded stiffly. “Yes, sir.” To my surprise, his expression softened then, and instead of angry he looked concerned. I knew it wasn’t for me. He turned his back to me and knelt by his son. Neither of us acknowledged the paramedic standing at the head of the stretcher; the three of us swayed with every shudder of the ambulance. I watched Elvis, worried for him. Unlike Vernon, I knew that he was going to come out of this okay, but that didn’t dismiss my sense of unease. He looked awful. His hair had gone flat, and clung to his forehead and cheeks in sweaty coils. His eyelids and lips were puffy and purple, and his face was as pale as paper. Not caring if his father objected to it or not, I took one of Elvis’ massive hands in my own and held it in my lap. That part of him, at least, was still warm.
“What’s your name?” Vernon’s voice out of the silence startled me, and I almost forgot what he’d asked.
“Sera, sir. Sera Deschain.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here, Sera.”
“No, sir, I’m not. My parents and I live in Nebraska, actually.”
“What’s brought you all the way down here?”
To my enormous relief, Vernon quit the interrogation and broke into a smile.
“I’m no policeman, Sera, nor am I anybody more important than a father to my son and husband to my wife. You don’t have to call me sir.”
I nodded, smiling a little myself. “Okay, Mr. Presley.”
The park where Elvis had been singing was only a short distance from the nearest hospital; less than five minutes later, the ambulance wheezed to a stop in front of a large concrete sign naming the place as The Baptist Medical Center, and the back doors opened again. Vernon let me follow him into the ER with Elvis, muttering to the supervising nurse that I was a cousin.
There was a big hullabaloo over the patient when he was first wheeled in, and I overheard one of the nurses quietly request an autograph from his father whenever Elvis woke up. Vernon politely declined her.
The doctor tending to Elvis looked old enough to retire, but he treated the singer like any other patient. I sat beside the hospital bed as he worked, watching as he pulled Elvis’ sweat-soaked shirt from his scrawny frame. “Good lord, this boy’s dehydrated! I need an electrolyte and glucose drip over here stat!”
I was pushed out of the way by a nurse answering the doctor’s call; this was when I noticed Vernon was no longer at my side. It was a panicked few seconds before I found him again, out in the hallway on the telephone. I figured it was Gladys. I waited patiently beside the phone as he spoke, assuming by the closed door that no one was allowed into Elvis’ room.
“—no, no, the doctor says he’ll be fine, they’re just givin’ him some fluids now. He’s gonna be okay, Glad, I-I promise you. Okay. Okay. I’ll see ya soon then. Buh-bye.”
I felt dirty listening in, but if Vernon minded he didn’t let on. He smiled at me a little dolefully, and told me what I’d already guessed. “Gladys is on her way. She’s in a real bad mess.” I nodded.
“I can imagine, s—uh–-Mr. Presley. If you want me to leave, I can.” Boy, that was a bald-faced lie.
Vernon shook his head, looking suddenly older than he was. “No, no, I don’t mean that, Sera. If you was a fan or reporter you would’ve tried to stay in that room with Elvis. And I don’t see no camera.” I didn’t know what to say to that, so I stayed silent. I was worried what would happen when Gladys showed up. I couldn’t be sure if she would remember me from Tupelo; that day lived seventeen years in the past for her, though only three for me. I could only pray her memory wouldn’t betray me.
She arrived maybe fifteen minutes later, followed by reporters who were hounding her mercilessly. She looked almost as flustered and pale as her son, and my heart went out to her. As I’d hoped, she totally ignored me and ran to Vernon, almost immediately breaking down into sobs. I felt like an intruder standing there while the two parents grieved the mortality of their only child.
Before long, the door to Elvis’ room opened again, and the doctor stepped out. Vernon’s and Gladys’ imploring eyes were glued to him, and he was very aware of this. The doctor broke into a warm, reassuring smile, raising a hand as if to ward away their fears. “He’ll be just fine, Mr. and Mrs. Presley. He’s awake now, if you want to see him.” The moment these words left the doctor’s mouth Gladys was past him and through the door. Vernon followed; I hung back, unsure whether or not I belonged in the precious little world in which the three Presleys existed.
“I feel like a damn pincushion! All them doctors oughtta have their licenses checked!” Elvis was feeling more like himself when I finally entered the room upon Gladys’ bidding. He was sitting up with the help of three or four pillows, and there were gauze wrappings in the crooks of his elbows where the IV needles had once been. He was still a little pale, but as far as I could tell, Elvis was just fine. Vernon stood by the window; Gladys and I sat on either side of the bed.
“And to think I almost kicked this girl out,” Vernon mused, shaking his head, as if shocked at his own audacity. For what I figured to be the two-hundredth time that afternoon, I waved what I took as his apology away.
“I understand, Mr. Presley. I saw what some of these girls can do.” He grunted his agreement. Elvis shrugged.
“I guess I shoulda introduced y’all before. Ya jus’ weren’t around when I seen her at Loew’s last time, and-”
The look on my face shut him up. Besides my parents, Elvis was the only one who knew the truth about me; it’d be very hard to explain to either Gladys or Vernon just how I could be sixteen years old in 1952 and 1956.
“Why, Elvis Aron! You mean to tell me you’ve known this girl for almost four years and it took you blackin’ out for us to meet’er?” This was Gladys, genuinely appalled at her son’s breach of southern hospitality. I could’ve laughed at Elvis’ expression of embarrassment; here was a grown man being rebuked by his mother, yet he was too deeply ingrained with respect to cross her.
“I— I’m sorry, Mama, but you wasn’t around when we was talkin’! I wanted ya to meet her!” With all of his manly brashness totally disintegrated, Elvis huffed and spoke not another word about doctors and their licenses.
Vernon saved his son’s hide; taking charge, he laid a heavy hand on my shoulder and spoke calmly to his wife. “Gladys, I met this young woman in the ambulance. She was the first one at Elvis’ side.” Gladys beamed at me. He continued: “This is Sera Deschain, and she come all the way from Nebraska just to see Elvis. But as far as them bein’ friends already--” he eyed his son and I with an enquiring look-- “I know ’bout as much as you.”
Elvis’ mother extended one plump hand for me to shake, and I took it appreciatively. “Glad to know ya, Sera!” I thanked her. Introductions done with, she turned to Elvis and said, “Well now mister, if you’s feelin’ better, we oughta getcha home. You ain’t doin’ that show tomorrow if you don’t get food in your belly and a decent night’s sleep.” As if he were eleven instead of twenty-one, Elvis protested vehemently; Gladys would hear none of it.
I watched their exchange with a bittersweet twinge in my heart. So much of their friendly bickering reminded me of my own mother. It was then I realized how lucky I was. Sure, in a couple years Elvis would be making enough money to pay off my family’s mortgage, but unlike him I would always have my mother by my side— God willing —well into my adulthood.
As soon as I was sure Gladys was finished talking, I moved closer to Elvis, crouching beside him so we were face to face. “You should listen to her, Elvis. She’s a smart woman.”
Elvis smiled at that, reached up, and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. His fingers lingered there. “She is, Sera. An’ so’re you.” Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Gladys and Vernon exchange looks; a breath caught in my throat.
Smiling a little nervously, I took Elvis’ hand and guided it back to the blanket. “Why, thank you, Elvis. That’s very sweet.” He frowned a little, his eyes asking a thousand questions. I couldn’t answer them, not yet. Instead, I turned to Vernon. “I appreciate you letting me come along, Mr. Presley. I’m sorry I was so pushy.”
Vernon waved my apology away. “I jus’ gotta be careful, you know. I’m glad I met ya.” We shook hands. Gladys wasn’t as formal. Before I could even speak, she had me crushed in a hug.
“You take care of yourself, now,” she whispered, so only I could hear her. “He needs a friend like you in this world. All them people in the music business, they ain’t his friends. You be there for him, huh?”
She caught me completely off-guard. I could only nod into her shoulder. “Yes, ma’am, I will.” She squeezed me a little tighter, then let go.
One word. I waved goodbye to Elvis, who was still wearing that puzzled expression. I smiled at him, and, on my way out, let the door fall closed behind me.
When I reappeared back in my own time, the house was empty. There was a note on the counter from my mom; she and Dad had finished preparing the turkey for supper the next day, and had gone into town for garnishes. Be back soon.
Glad to be alone, I went straight to my room. When I got there, I made up my mind to tell no one about the promise I’d made Gladys. I didn’t know how. The sheer weight of the day seemed to be a physical burden on my shoulders. I felt a little like a desperate superhero, responsible for the world and yet unable to bear that responsibility on my own. I barely made it to the bed before my knees gave out under me.
I could have blamed it on any number of things; the heat, my fear for Elvis, or the fact that Gladys had so trusted me with her son. But when Elvis had let his hand linger behind my ear, my heart had been beating hard enough to burst. It had totally unnerved me.
I knew he had that effect on nearly everyone he met, especially girls, but I hated that I had let myself be so susceptible to it; it, that dangerous Elvis Presley charm, that very aspect of him that had led throngs of women to near-insanity.
I’m not saying I was in love with him; I loved him, sure, and there was no denying that he was an extremely good-looking man. But it wasn’t a romantic love. It was the kind of love one had for very close, dear friend. Nonetheless, I had felt something like an electric shock when he’d laid his hand on my neck. I didn’t know what any of it meant.
I laid back on my bed, and stared up at the ceiling. I imagined the water stains were pictures; one looked a lot like a duck, or maybe a whale. A gust of wind blew snow at my window; I sighed; the clock on the wall acknowledged the passing of another minute.
There was no way I was just going to sit around like this, torturing myself with the weight of my sudden responsibility for a man who would take one look at the iPod dock sitting on one corner of my desk and wonder (most likely aloud) what the heck it was. A man who, in my world, lived on, not in the flesh, but solely in the music and movies and friends he’d left behind. I chuckled bitterly to myself. Arguably, if one was speaking in the terms of the present, I had already epically failed in my promise.
I smacked myself a good one to the back of the head. “Yeah, right, ’cause you can just totally rewrite history and expect to get away with it. Good one, Sera.” I don’t make it a habit to talk to myself, but sometimes the best voice of reason a person can have is their own.
Other times, though, you should shut up and call someone. My cellphone was plugged into its charger on the nightstand; I picked it up and dialed *27, my best friend’s speed dial.
Kristen was the only other person beside my parents that I’d trusted with my secret, and to her credit (and to my knowledge), even after all these years she hasn’t told a soul. Of course, there’s the added bonus that if she did tell anyone, she’d probably be locked up in the nearest loony bin and be force-fed lime Jell-O. As of yet, that hasn’t happened.
She’s exactly one year, eight months, and thirty days older than me, but we might as well be sisters. She introduced me to modern music (to a certain point), and I introduced her to Elvis and a lot of groups that’d been big in the sixties and seventies. I talked to her about anything; potential romances, why she really should try to like the Beatles, and why I think mosquitos should be illegal. Occasionally, if the mood struck us, we’d even have a serious conversation.
Right then seemed like one of those times.
She answered on the third ring. “Howdy, girl! How ya been?”
“Okay, I guess. I am in serious need of a shower. I just got back from Florida.”
“Sweet! Was this Mickey Mouse or Elvis?”
“Definitely Elvis. But Mouse Man might’ve been there too.”
That got a laugh out of her. I could picture her almost perfectly: there was music in the background, so I guessed she must be in her basement, most likely barefoot and incurably tan.
Kristen was blonde like me, though more of the beach-crowd blonde than of the library-gremlin variety. It’s not that she was flighty; just naturally beautiful and totally unaware of it.
She also tanned easily; this she owed, in part, to her Native American heritage, though that was just a small fraction of what she was. She loved everything native and would be the first one to cackle triumphantly at the mention of Colonel Custer’s gross misjudgment of their peoples’ power. Take that and mix in cowboy boots, a beautiful singing voice, boundless energy, and a serious passion for life in general, and you got yourself the best friend I’d ever had.
“So what’s up? Elvis doin’ okay?”
“Yeah. It was 1956, an outdoor concert. It was really awesome, but he collapsed, like, halfway through.”
“Holy crap! Was he okay?”
“Uh-huh, I rode to the hospital with Vernon, who really didn’t like me too much at first. But it’s not that.”
She waited patiently; I heard her softly breathing on the other end, as she waited for me to go on, like she knew I would.
“It’s just— well— he was all touchy-feely and tucked my hair behind my ear and stuff, and then Gladys—”
“Did he try to kiss you?”
“No! No, nothing like that. It was just weird. But anyway, right before I left, his mom— Gladys, you know? She hugged me and asked me to watch out for him, to be his friend. And I don’t think— I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Sounds to me like you already are.”
Sometimes she knew me so well it was scary. “Thanks, kK, but I’m not really sure. I mean, I obviously can’t be there all the time, right? And I can’t change anything, can’t save his life or something.”
“I don’t think she meant for you to put on a cape and follow him everywhere, hon. Being a friend doesn’t mean playing Mama Bird and totally blockin’ him off from the world. You just gotta be there to catch him when he trips up.”
“So don’t be Mama Bird, but pluck her and make a pillow?”
“Nice one! Sure, if that’s how you wanna see it. You know what I’m sayin’ though, right?”
“Uh-huh. Well, thanks.”
“No prob, Bob! You comin’ over this weekend?”
“If I’m not playing time-tag with Elvis, yeah, I’ll be there. You gonna let me braid Seth’s hair this time?”
Seth was her then-boyfriend of two years; he was Cheyenne, and super tall. He wore his brown hair long, nearly past his shoulders, and I always teased both him and Kristen that, if he wasn’t careful, he’d wake up with pigtails one morning, courtesy of yours truly. Kristen laughed, which took away from what I assumed was her threatening tone. “Only if I get to shave your head, missy! Braid your own hair!”
I assured her as solemnly as I could that I’d keep my hands out of Seth’s hair (for now, anyway), bid her good-night, and hung up.
Though I hadn’t exactly bared my soul, I felt better for talking to her. It was good to have a friend who knew how important Elvis was to me and, if she didn’t completely understand, was at least willing to try.
I don’t know why I time-travel, or why I always end up somewhere near Elvis. I mean, out of the billions of people in the world, the two of us always find each other, no matter what. I’m not a particularly superstitious person. I don’t believe in aliens, or Bigfoot, or any of that karma stuff.
I also don’t believe in coincidences. I think Elvis and I met each other for a reason, that it wasn’t just a random configuration of stars that caused our paths to cross. To this day I can’t tell you exactly why it happened, only that it did, and that I’m glad.
The front door slammed, startling me out of my philosophical daze; Mom and Dad were home.
As I remember, Christmas was especially beautiful that year; it was the first year Dad had finally relented and let Mom and I hang up decorations.
My dad had found it frivolous and, in his worst moods, downright tacky, to decorate one’s yard with plastic reindeer and singing nativities. Even that year, those kinds of decorations were left up to our neighbors, who were all too happy to empty Kmart’s shelves and spray tinsel over anything that would stand still.
We went a slightly different route. Dad strung the willow trees in our front yard up with blinking lights, and Mom and I tied silk bows around the railings of our first-floor wraparound porch. A slightly lumpy yet cheerful snowman was erected just a few feet from the mailbox.
On Christmas morning we all woke up at seven to a breakfast of chicken and waffles, topped with syrup and powdered sugar (my out-and-out favorite breakfast of all time). I ate way too many, and even slipped a bit of chicken to Dorian under the table.
After all the waffles were gone, there were presents. There seemed to be dozens of them, crowded under our Charlie Brown tree like piglets vying for mother’s milk. My gifts for the past eight years had been primarily Elvis-oriented, and that year was no different. I got a wall calendar put together with photos from the Wertheimer collection, a new t-shirt, and tons of new music, including a vinyl soundtrack to Elvis’ army movie, G.I. Blues.
My mom, I could tell, was especially proud of the 1968 Comeback Special DVD, for which I’d begged relentlessly for months. She seemed more than adequately grateful for the giant bear hug (not to mention the Johnny Cash poster) that I gave her in return.
It was strange; even as I unwrapped present after present, and as I delighted in my parents’ reaction to their gifts, I was wondering what Christmas at Graceland had been like. I knew what happened to the house now; it was draped overzealously with lights, and trees were erected and strung up with decorations in every room.
I knew all this from pictures; I’d never seen the mansion at Christmastime myself. I’d been there once, when I was twelve, but I suspect it’s not the same, with all the jumpsuits displayed behind glass and a wall cut out of Lisa Marie’s nursery so tourists could see inside.
The people in the house across the street had put up singing lights; they did every year, and after about a week the same five carols in repetition had been enough to make any one of us in the neighborhood turn around and start celebrating Hanukkah instead.
That night after supper, instead of getting on my nerves, the music seemed to have a sort of sentimentality to it, as if the tinny renditions of “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silver Bells” were profound, albeit tawdry, reminders of a time when one’s purpose and the prospect of one’s future wasn’t so baffling.
Maybe the turkey was working on my brain, I don’t know. For whatever reason, as I lay there, fat salty tears slid down my cheeks, dampening the pillow under my head.
I was stuck between two worlds, stuck between the plausible and the incredible. The trouble was, waiting in both these worlds were people I loved, people I owed so much. I had no idea where to turn, or whether I could be relied on, in either of those worlds.
Even though it seemed lately that my travels were growing fewer and farther between (I was at a week now, almost the longest I’d ever gone), I still had the sense that Elvis and I weren’t finished with each other yet.
This seemed true; yet, even as I thought it, another gloomy notion tugged at a corner of my brain. It was entirely possible that I’d never truly finish my business with Elvis, that there would forever be things unsaid, things we never did— miracles I never experienced. I didn’t, I couldn’t, know for sure. And that bugged the crap out of me. I had the unsettling suspicion that I was nothing more than an empty husk, blown from field to highway on the whimsy of the breeze; I had no control over where and when I would end up at any given moment.
I pulled the covers up over my chest and set my music to all Elvis. I had a little clock radio beside my bed that played my iPod, which was handy when I needed a proverbial warm glass of milk to get me to sleep. Elvis’ soothing, chocolaty voice was inarguably the best candidate for the job. I often left the music to play all night and
woke up to it in the morning.
That night, the last words I heard before sleep embraced me belonged to one of my favorite songs, “If I Can Dream”: “There must be peace, and understanding, sometime…..strong winds of promise that will blow away, all the doubt and fear…….”
I began to worry a week later, a day or two after New Year’s. I swear my mom had some kind of wiretap to my brain, because she caught on to my uneasiness like a bear to honey.
She managed to corner me one afternoon, as I was folding and putting away a basket of laundry in my room. “Hey, you. What’s going on? You’ve been really quiet lately.”
The woman had wicked radar when it came to her family’s problems; it seemed she had an extra special honing device out on me.
Of course I knew what she was talking about, but I played dumb. It’s not like I had any other options; the full basket in my arms stunted any hopes of a quick getaway. I tried to smile convincingly. “Nothing, Mom. Just some post-holiday blues, I guess.” She frowned at me, and reached out to tuck a strand of my hair behind my ear. The familiarity of the gesture sent a chill down my spine.
“Something’s up, Sera. C’mon, you can talk to me.” Mom rested one hand on my shoulder, the other on the rim of the basket, and held me there with little force. Her eyes searched mine, and I felt as though she could actually read the inside of my head like it was an old novel, one of her favorites. I shrugged, fiddling with a stray sock. Mom sighed. “You haven’t gone in a while, is that it?”
Crap. I nodded, and said, “Yeah, that’s most of it. It’s been two weeks, and still nothing! I mean, I’ve been wondering if, maybe…” I couldn’t even bring myself to say it. Turns out, I didn’t have to.
“What if you can’t anymore? Is that what you’re afraid of? That you’ll never see him again?”
Again, I nodded, and silently marveled her superhuman perception. Maybe it was a mom thing. “Uh-huh! It’s not like he was mad at me, or something, and he wasn’t in any danger, but I feel like we left a lot of things, y’know, unsaid. His mom….well, Gladys asked me to protect him, somehow. Just before I left, she hugged me and asked me to be his friend. I told her I would, but now I just don’t see how I can!”
I was angry; at myself, mostly, but also partially at Gladys, though she of course had had no idea of the circumstances of my visits with her son, had no idea I might not be there forever, or even ever again. I just needed to be mad at someone.
Mom gave me a moment to calm down, to breathe, then spoke softly, close to my ear so I could hear. “You’ll go back, hon. Somehow I know that despite your fears, you and Elvis aren’t finished with each other yet. As crazy as it sounds, he needs you, just as much as you need him.”
I smiled, for real this time. “Thanks, Mom. I love you.”
Nothing more need to be said. Mom kissed my cheek and gave my shoulders a hard squeeze.
After she’d left the room, I resumed my laundry duties, feeling better inside but still wondering deep down if what she’d said was right. In the back of my mind I’d always known that my rendezvous with Elvis would someday end, but I’d assumed it’d be a long time, that it’d be really dramatic and final. I was just a little bit afraid that I’d already said goodbye, back at the hospital.
I was only a little afraid, because I had this unassailable feeling that it was true what Mom had said about Elvis needing me. Despite my adverse thoughts to the contrary, I held a firm belief, a hope, that I’d see my friend again. After all, I’d been there when he’d been rushed to the hospital, and he had wanted me at his bedside. I wanted to believe that that meant something, that it stood as a sign that we weren’t quite ready to be rid of each other just yet.
Elvis was older than I’d seen him before; much older. I knew on sight it was the last year of his life. He was up on stage, seated at the most immense, most beautiful grand piano I’d ever seen. I was out in the audience, right in the front row.
I was alone; I noticed that right away. The seats behind and beside me were empty, unburdened by the company of the usual spectators. There had to be thousands of seats in the auditorium, and yet only one was filled.
A hard ball of foreboding sat heavy in the pit of my stomach. I almost couldn’t look up at Elvis when he started to play the piano. I knew the song, and I knew what it meant.
“Oh, my love…my darling…..I hunger for your touch alone…..lonely time….time goes by, so slowly, and time can do so much….are you……still mine?”
Oh god no, not this. Anything but this. I knew this concert, this song. June 26th, 1977: the last concert Elvis had ever given, the last glimpse of this extraordinary man the world would have before his death less than two months later. I didn’t want to see him. I wanted out of this hellish place.
I kept my eyes in my lap, listening. He still sounded beautiful, like the Elvis he had so long ago been. But I knew that if I looked up now, if I somehow found it within in me to raise my head, it wouldn’t be the Elvis I’d known.
Without seeing I could tell you exactly how he looked. The Mexican Sundial jumpsuit, the very last he ever wore. He probably wore a scarf around his sweaty neck, and it was probably blue. He would have the same hair, the same heavenly blue eyes. But the rest of him, lost. His voice still took command of the vast arena, still reached the very last (empty) row. Elvis himself would be a mere ghost of the friend I had loved so dearly. Too many drugs, too many late nights, and too much heartbreak; he was swollen,, exhausted, red around the eyes, and could do no more than sit at the piano and play, sweat coming off him in rivers.
I made myself look. He couldn’t see me; I was in the shadows, and all of his attention was with the music. My tears came, unstoppable. Oh how my heart hurt for him. When he finally reached the peak of the song, as if on cue, I stood up.
“I’ll be comin’ home, wait for me…..oh my love, my darling, I hunger for your touch, alone, lonely time, I……”
Elvis closed his eyes, and the song died in his throat. He hung his head. Soon after, quiet sobs echoed off the arena walls. I swore that, in that moment, I could actually feel my heart break. “Elvis….”
And now, what was this? I started to fade, as if I had traveled back, though I knew by now that this unendurable experience was nothing but a dream, a dreadful, haunting dream.
I didn’t want to leave Elvis like this; I reached out; I was too far away to actually touch him, yet I so wanted to, if to do nothing more than reassure him that things would turn out okay. “Elvis….”
My own voice, an echo. Then nothing. Elvis’ sad form disappeared, and the spotlights faded from my eyes.
I awoke from the dream around midnight. My heart was pounding, and my face was puffy and sticky from the tears I’d cried even as I slept. It had felt so real. Ten minutes passed before I was able to breathe steadily again.
My worst fear, my only fear, really, about visiting Elvis had always been turning up at that last concert. Before I’d ever started traveling, I’d seen a video of his performance of Unchained Melody, and even on a computer screen it had been unbearable. To know that I could do nothing to save him, could do nothing to prevent those things from happening, made it that much worse.
If there was anyone who deserved to live a long and fruitful life, it was Elvis. I wasn’t completely naïve; he willingly took those drugs, made those demands, those awful choices. None of it meant he deserved to die at 42.
My heart was still running laps around my lungs, and my cheeks still burned with drying tears. The sound of Elvis’ desperate sobs still lingered in my mind, playing and replaying like a stuck record. I felt a pain that was almost physical in its depth.
I wanted to see him again. I wanted to reassure myself that something good came before so much suffering. I wanted to see him smile again, to hear him laugh and feel him wrap his strong arms around me in a hug. I missed him, and I was scared for him.
Exhausted, emotionally drained, and frustrated beyond belief, I lay back down and closed my eyes, trying deliberately not to visualize Elvis as he’d been in my dream. Instead I pictured him as I’ve always loved to, 1968: full of life, happy, and stronger musically than he’d ever been. At peace.
Drifting off to sleep with visions of Elvis in the white suit he’d worn for If I Can Dream in my mind’s eye, I smiled to myself. It wasn’t the end for Elvis and me. People like him didn’t really have an end. Somehow I just knew that I would see my friend again. Soon.
That dream haunted me for days. I didn’t want to go to bed at night, afraid I’d hear that drifting piano, those horrible sobs. One Saturday, I stayed up drinking coffee, my lamp burning at my bedside. I listened to the January wind howling outside, shivering as if I could actually feel its icy, clutching fingers.
Tomorrow was the eighth; it would have been Elvis’ 77th birthday. As I did every year, I planned on fixing fried catfish, okra, cornbread, and banana pudding for supper. I had a special pink candle that I kept burning all day. Maybe it’s a little weird, but I guess it’s my way of paying respects.
Laying back in my bed, I sighed and stared up at the ceiling. Three weeks. It’d been three whole weeks since I’d last seen Elvis. If there had been a way to will myself into the past, I would have done it in a heartbeat. But there was nothing I could do. I tried to force myself not to dwell on it. Thankfully, the howling winds acted like a warm glass of milk, pulling me into a fog of exhaustion, and, eventually, I slept.
I woke up again around four. The world was still dark, with only the faintest rim of pink around the edges of the sky. Dorian was asleep on the pillow beside my head. I smiled a little at the sound of his squeaky little snores, and sat up carefully so he wasn’t disturbed. Outside my window, a soft flurry of snow was falling.
Looking again at my clock, an odd thought hit me. Four o’clock, January eighth: 77 years ago at that moment, Elvis was 30 minutes old.
“Happy Birthday, Elvis.” I whispered this, eyes fixed on the snow falling outside. I crawled out of bed, and burrowed my feet into my tiger slippers; tiptoeing into the hall, I almost didn’t breathe until I was past my parents’ room.
The candle was just where I’d left it on the kitchen counter, and beside it was the box of matches. I shivered a little, lit the strawberry-scented candle carefully, all the while cursing my trembling hands. It wasn’t that I was scared; I was cold. Our house was over one hundred years old, and all we had for heat were a pot-belly stove in each room; the kitchen’s stove glowed dull and orange in the corner farthest from where I stood.
The chilly room was filled with a subtle strawberry scent, and the candle’s light stretched itself as far into the shadows as it could. I cupped my hands over the flame, relishing even its tiny heat. I closed my eyes.
In my mind’s eye I could see a younger, thinner Gladys cradling a tiny form in her arms, a soft, sad smile on her lips. A pudgy baby’s arm lifted itself out of the blanket’s protective cocoon, like an eaglet straining for food from its mother’s mouth.
In this crazy mental picture there was no sound; the dreamlike home movie I watched was silent. Gladys’ lips moved, and I knew she was singing. It was almost eerie, how vividly and clearly I could imagine the scene. My hands were soaking up the candle’s heat like cold-blooded sponges.
I stepped back from the kitchen counter, and reached to take the candle with me back to my bedroom. Before I could, however, I felt it: a subtle, nagging tug behind my navel. I almost cried out in my surprise. It was happening again. At last!
No matter that I wore an old white t-shirt and baggy sweatpants (my pajamas); I was going to see Elvis again. I only just thought to blow out the candle before I no longer had breath in this world to try.
In the leaden glow of the stove I saw my skin turn translucent, and then it disappeared altogether. Two happy words repeated like a mantra in my head: At last. At last. At last.
Graceland in its prime was like nothing I’d ever seen before. A rather unattractive apartment complex was across the street from the mansion itself, where, in my lifetime, there would be a plaza and a visitor’s center. It was on this spot that I materialized.
The gates were closed; the brick walls on either side of them were already tattooed with the signatures of adoring fans.
There were no tourists in knee-socks and khakis, no impious middle-aged men in wigs and cheap polyester. This was the Graceland without tour buses or flashing cameras, squared-off rooms or suits behind glass.
I waited for a couple of cars to pass, then stepped into the street, heart pounding. Even before I reached the gates I was wondering how I’d ever get through; there’s a story that a young Bruce Springsteen tried to get in to see Elvis by climbing the gates, only to be escorted off the premises by two bodyguards per Elvis’ personal request.
I didn’t even know what year it was. Because of the long winding drive up to the house and all the trees, I could barely make out the columns and convoluted brickwork of the portico. I tried the gate; locked, of course. Okay, then. I stared up at the elaborately-wrought gates, which weren’t very high; they were maybe ten, eleven feet up. With all the jutting curves, and the extremely convenient musical notes set up like hand— or foot —holds every few feet or so, it looked like an easy climb.
Now don’t get me wrong, I knew what I planned to do was probably illegal, and if anyone but Elvis found me I’d be in huge trouble. But it’s not as if I could sit outside the gates all day hoping he got a craving for a cheeseburger or something.
I was also aware that the gates faced the street, where anyone driving or walking by could see me if I dared follow through. There wasn’t a moment of the day that Graceland went unobserved.
Nonetheless, I was determined. Pausing only to take my slippers off and toss them over the gate, I started to climb. The iron was cold, and bit painfully into my bare feet. Halfway up, I had to laugh at myself. I could see the headlines: GIRL SCALES GRACELAND GATES IN PJS. Never mind how I looked just then, climbing and laughing my butt off.
Finally I had reached the top, straddling the eleven-foot gates and peering down. “Oh.”
I voiced this totally inane verbiage aloud, the stupidity of my venture dawning on me. While the music notes and likenesses of Elvis might’ve helped me climb up, there was nothing on the other side that would assist me in my climb down.
Well, that wasn’t completely true; about eight feet down there was a dinky little crossbar, part of the mechanism that allowed the gates to move. Other than that, I was on my own.
I could imagine Elvis finding me up where I was now and laughing himself into a hernia. Despite my predicament the image made me smile. I swung my leg over the side, praying for some kind of foothold. There wasn’t one; I ended up getting a nice crosshatch pattern stamped into my elbows and tumbling the rest of the way down. Being no cat, I landed on my butt. Hard.
Considering that I landed on blacktop, I was extremely grateful to all the saints that my pride was the only thing hurt. I stood up, winced a little from a dull throbbing in my back, and brushed myself off. My slippers were waiting for me a little ways off in the grass. I picked them up and started up the long driveway to the house.
I saw him when I rounded the first patch of trees; my heart fluttered with joy in my chest. He and Vernon were seated on the front steps, between the two marble lions. Their heads were bent together, and it looked as if they were speaking, thought their lips hardly moved. I could barely contain myself. “Elvis! Hey, Elvis!”
Something was wrong. I was close enough to them that he should have been able to hear me, yet he didn’t lift his head. “Elvis? Elvis, it’s me! It’s me, Sera!” I sped up to a jog, and quickly closed the gap between us. Only when I was about two yards away did he raise his head to look at me. Vernon kept his bowed. The expression on my dear friend’s sweet face stopped me like a brick wall.
His eyes shone brilliantly blue through a sheen of unshed tears; the skin around them was a raw red. His mouth was contorted in an indefinable expression of grief, almost as if his mind was telling him to scream and his body had chosen to disobey. One arm was draped lifelessly over his father’s shoulders, which were trembling with what I knew to be sobs.
Somehow, I knew. I approached them almost on tiptoe, tears of my own already threatening to fall. My slippers fell from my hand; I hardly noticed. I drew closer, and knelt on the pavement in front of them. I laid a hand on Elvis’ knee.
He was still wearing his army uniform; he must have just gotten home. Under my touch I could feel the muscles of his leg twitching and tightening. What was going on within him then I could not even imagine. Tears slid down my cheeks, my heart already knowing the truth before Elvis spoke it.
“She’s gone, Sera. Old Satin is gone forever.” The words were barely coherent, for his voice was full of anguish and coated with tears. I squeezed his knee, and felt a hand rest on my shoulder. I turned towards the touch.
Vernon met my eyes with great effort. His grip on my shoulder tightened, and he pulled me into an hug. To my left, Elvis moved in, tucking me close. The three of us sat there together in that tight embrace; Elvis cried into the crook of my neck as I cried into Vernon’s. Few words were spoken; they weren’t needed.
Gladys had been a central part of Elvis’ life. She had been his rock, his stronghold, and his savior in a cruel, calloused world. From the very beginning of his life she had been there, guiding him and leading him through. Now she was gone, and the spirit she’d created in him was broken.
As I sat there with them, the memory of her in Elvis’ hospital room came back to me. I thought of the look she and Vernon had exchanged when Elvis had let his hand linger on my neck. I thought of the hug we’d shared, and of the vow I’d made to her to be a friend to her son. Soon I was sobbing almost as violently as the two men. Though my knees ached from kneeling there for so long, I could not and would not move. Elvis’ tears ran hot and unhaltingly down the side of my neck, and turned the collar of my t-shirt an ugly shade of grey.
“Mama…….. mama, why?” He was whispering into my shoulder, his whole body shaking as the questions grew more desperate. All at once he leapt out of mine and Vernon’s arms, jumping to his feet as if burned. He broke off in a run, heading towards the back of the house. When he spoke again, it was in a scream so raw and so distressed it was painful to hear.
“MAMA! MAMAAAaaaaa!!!!!” I clapped my hands over my ears, practically throwing myself back into Vernon’s arms. He welcomed me, wrapping himself around me and holding me while I cried hard enough for it to hurt. Even in the midst of all of it, this gesture struck me. We’d met only once before, and yet Vernon had already accepted me into his and Elvis’ lives. The fact that he had embraced me rather than shut me out was not lost on me.
Through the viscous curtain of my tears I saw two men approaching us from beyond the trees. One was tall and scrawny, with a thinning head of vivid red hair. The other I knew on sight; he was also tall, but unlike his companion this man could have been mistaken for an overfilled beach ball in a suit and tie. He wore a crumpled old fedora on his head and walked with what in other circumstances would have been a comical waddle. Oh yes, I knew this man’s name. I’d spoken it many times before, always almost in a hiss more than my own voice. Colonel Tom Parker. The man I held at least partly responsible for ruining Elvis’ life.
And yet, oddly, at that moment my hatred for the Colonel didn’t matter. I was almost certain the other man was Red West, a good friend of Elvis’. He sped up to a jog and ran right to Vernon, totally ignoring me. The two men embraced. Words were exchanged; I thought I heard something about Elvis running off. Red mumbled something about the stables. Sparing but a second to catch my breath, I broke off in that direction.
“Sera! S— Sera, where are ya-” Vernon apparently decided it was worthless, and he hushed up before his thought had been completed. Before I was too far away I heard him cry out again; this time his voice was directed at the heavens instead of me.
My lungs felt raw from all the crying; I had to stop twice to nurse my aching sides before I reached the stables.
Elvis started collecting horses soon after he bought Graceland; this was before the Circle G ranch, which he’d purchased in 1967. When I was there that day there were three horses; Rising Sun and two others I didn’t recognize. Rising Sun, a beautiful palomino with the purest white mane and tail, was out of his stall. Beyond and below his long, athletic legs, I could see Elvis. He was seated in the hay in the farthest corner of the stable, legs drawn up to his chest, head bowed. Besides the soft chuffing and whinnying of the horses I could hear enough to know that his sobs had overcome him again. I walked ever so slowly towards him, hardly daring to breathe.
“Go away.” His words were muffled by his shirt sleeves, but I understood that much. I stepped closer.
“Elvis, Red and Tom are here. They— they want to see you.”
He snuffled, and when he spoke again his voice cracked preadolescently.
“I don’t care. Damn it, jus’ leave me alone.” After this, more sobs wracked his body. I figured the best thing to do was be there, and not speak. Like I’d done down at the house, I knelt beside him and wrapped my arms around his shoulders as best I could. I sat silent; Elvis cried, every once in a while pausing to cough, or, once, whimper miserably. I couldn’t tell you how much time passed before he spoke again. “The army’ll be lookin’ for me. They wouldn’t let me leave. Can you believe that? A man loses his m— moth—mother and the damn fools won’t even let him go home?” Unsure of what to say, I only squeezed Elvis tighter. After I’d done this, he lowered his head until his forehead rested in the crook of my neck. I felt him gently kiss my shoulder, and a current of shock ran through me. I almost moved away; almost. “Promise you won’t leave me, Sera. Promise you’ll stay?” The childlike sadness in his voice drove a fishhook through my heart, and despite my surprise a moment ago I nodded yes so he could feel it.
“Of course I’ll stay, Elvis. I’ll stay as long as you want me to.” Apparently satisfied with this, he sat up, though he still huddled close. His face looked almost exactly as it had the day I’d gone with him to the hospital; pale, puffy. Only now his cheeks were splotched red and there were dried tears shining under his eyes.
“I killed her.”
“Oh, Elvis, you don’t mean that. She loved you.”
“I know it, oh I know how she loved me. And that’s just it. That’s how I killed her.”
“Don’t say that.”
“She wanted me to quit. She wanted me to go back to truck drivin’, the money don’t matter, she said, the nice things don’t matter. She cried somethin’ awful when I went off, too.”
“You couldn’t help that. You got drafted.”
“Yeah, but I coulda quit singin’. She begged an’ she pleaded, but I jus’ wouldn’t quit. And now I done killed her with it.”
Nothing I would say could convince him that what he said wasn’t true. I knew that.
I stood up. “C’mon, E. Let’s go back up to the house, huh? Red wants to see you.” Reluctantly, he took the hand I offered him and struggled to his feet, moving like the old man he’d never become. I watched as he led Rising Sun back to his stall and pulled the lock shut. Then I took his hand, and together we left the stables and headed back to the house.
Vernon insisted I stay with them that night. Of course I didn’t object, though I wasn’t sure I’d even be there when the sun rose again. Already this was the longest I’d stayed in the past. It was only fitting I suppose, since I’d gone so long without seeing them.
The sleeping arrangements proved a little difficult. The Colonel had rented a hotel room nearby (thank God), but it looked as if Red would be staying here, as would I. Vernon still wanted the master bedroom; no one blamed him, though Elvis coveted an old blouse of Gladys to keep with him while he slept.
I’d heard back in my own time that there were people, so-called ‘experts’ that found Elvis’ relationship with his mother unhealthy, even wrong. Despite this, the fact that he wanted the scent of her nearby, and even cried over the shirt when it was first brought out of the closet did not strike me as odd. When someone loves somebody as much as Elvis loved his mother, a piece of the grieving soul goes with the deceased, and it can never be replaced. He wasn’t latching on, or harboring an unhealthy relationship; he was mourning an enormous loss, the loss of the woman that had borne and raised him and of that little piece of himself she took with her when she died.
No matter how I protested, Elvis was adamant that I take his room. It was right, he insisted, since Red had been given the only guestroom upstairs, and I was the only woman. Elvis acted the perfect gentleman, even leaving a neatly-folded set of his own old clothes for me to wear in the morning. Even with the current mood of the house, the gesture made me giggle.
“Won’t they be kinda big?” I asked, inspecting the clothes. They were nothing fancy; just an old pair of grey trousers, and a white button-up shirt. Even so, Elvis was much taller and broader in the shoulders than I.
He shrugged listlessly, not even cracking the slightest of smiles. “You can jus’ cinch up the belt real tight. They’ll be okay.”
I set aside the trousers and put a hand on his knee, like I had earlier that day. “Y’know, she went to heaven, Elvis. She was a wonderful woman.” He nodded that he understood; I could see his chin trembling like that of a child on the verge of tears. “C’mere.” We embraced again, and again the tears fell heavily from his eyes, wetting the collar of my shirt. This time, as I had been all day, I was reminded of my dream of a few nights ago, of that last concert. The sobs coming from him now sounded just like those; just as desperate, just as lost.
“I dunno what I’d do without you, Sera. She— Mama really liked you.” Choked with tears, Elvis’ voice took me by surprise. I reached up and stroked the back of his head with one hand, letting the midnight hair run between my fingers. He leaned into the touch.
“I really liked her too, Elvis. I did. She did a great job raising you.” He actually chuckled at this. Gathering all the breath I could muster, I said, “You know that day in the hospital? When you fainted?”
“I made your mama a promise that day. She asked me to promise her to be a friend to you, to protect you.”
“You certainly done that.”
The sheer pitiful sound of his voice brought the familiar sting of tears to my eyes. “Why, thank you, Elvis. God knows I’m trying.” He reached up and took my hand away from his hair, laying it back on the bedspread.
With all seriousness, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “God does know, Sera. He knows what a friend you’re bein’ to me, and He’s blessin’ ya for it.”
I hadn’t been expecting that. I hadn’t been expecting my heart to come to a crashing halt when he locked his sapphire eyes on me, either. Like earlier, those beautiful eyes were sparkling with tears, making them all the more bedazzling. Elvis seemed to know what was going on inside my chest; he reached up and rested a hand on the side of my neck. “Ssh. Ssh, little girl. I know.” Whatever he knew I wasn’t privy to, but I thought I knew what was going to happen next. And it did. Before my brain or MIA heart could register what was going on, Elvis leaned in and kissed me.
I was gone, totally gone. If someone had whispered in my ear just then that I had died, I would have believed them immediately. I could almost feel the blood in my veins stop flowing. My lungs emptied themselves of all air; every inch of me turned to melted butter. I admit I’d imagined this very scene before in my head, ten, maybe even twenty times, but none of those daydreams came anywhere close. I remember thinking, what a story this’ll make for my mother, before Elvis broke away.
“Um.” That was me, the ever-charming orator of great skill. Elvis said nothing, not for the longest time. He stood up, patting my knee like I was an obedient dog deserving of a treat. Okay, that’s a little unfair, but that’s how it felt. With all the buzzing in my head and through my body, it was a miracle I could feel anything, or think. I watched, nearly incredulous, as he walked slowly towards the door, his head bowed, his face unreadable. He clicked the light switch off, leaving me and most of himself in darkness, save for the glow of the moon coming in through the window. The iridescent light played favor on his youthful face, giving his skin a mysterious glow and turning his hair and eyelashes a deep, ethereal shade of blue.
“Goodnight, Elvis.” That was all. Seconds later, he was gone, and I was left on my own with an empty head and an overflowing heart.
Three days later I was still in Memphis, with a distraught Vernon and an eerily silent Elvis.
As the service was arranged and guests arrived, there’d be times throughout the day when Elvis would disappear for awhile, usually upstairs, where he could be heard weeping, sometimes wailing, over an article of clothing or possession of his mother’s. The rest of the time, however, he barely uttered a word to any of us; least of all me.
We hadn’t spoken since the day I’d arrived, since the kiss. It was killing me. I wasn’t totally naïve; I knew that even then, just four short years since he’d gotten his name out into the world, there had already been a long list of girls who’d experienced the same thing I had. And I knew that, right up until his death, there’d be dozens more.
The night before the viewing, the house was simply packed with family and friends. I recognized a few without being introduced; Elvis’ grandmother, Minnie Mae, designated herself queen of the kitchen, and took care of all the food that was brought to the house. The Jordanaires were there; I was personally introduced by Vernon to the tenor, Gordon Stoker. George Klein, better known by Elvis as GK, was there also, though I never worked up the courage to talk to him. Most of the time I stuck right by Vernon’s side, where I felt I was most needed.
Elvis’ father seemed as lost as his son; he’d wander the house, looking for any old thing that needed to be done. The rest of the time he just sat, looking as hopeless and misplaced as any man could. That night, I found him on the front steps, haggard and red –eyed from weeping. I sat down beside him, careful not to startle him.
He smiled sadly when I asked him how he was doing. “I’m just doin’, I guess. Gettin’ from one day to the next.”
I stared down at my shoes, unsure of what to say. “That’s— that’s all you can do sometimes, Mr. Presley.”
He chuckled a little, resting a hand on my knee. “Y’know what I tol’ you about that, Sera. I tol’ you to call me Vernon. You’re a friend’a the family now, and it’s only right.”
Smiling, I corrected him softly: “If I remember right, Vernon, all you told me was not to call you ‘sir’.” He shrugged and left it at that. We sat in the quiet for a while, listening to the crickets play their staccato in the grass. Besides the quiet murmur of the guests inside, they were the only sound. I cleared my throat; Vernon cleared his. The crickets sang; a horse whinnied in the stables.
Restless and ready to turn in for the night, I stood up and headed for the door. “Goodnight, Vernon. I’ll—” I stopped, and turned back towards him. Even in the failing light I could see Vernon’s shoulders trembling, and could just hear his quiet sobs. The lightened mood of our friendly banter had vanished just as quickly as it’d come; as I’d done with Elvis, I knelt at his side and wrapped an arm around him as best I could. “I’m so sorry, Vernon. She was— she was the most amazing woman. For both of you.”
He sniffled, coughed, and cleared his throat. The pain was clear even in his voice when he spoke. “Jesse— he was Elvis’ twin, stillborn. We didn’t know—we weren’t sure Elvis would still be alive when he—” He shook his head violently, like a cow trying to bat away thirsty flies, though it wasn’t flies that were buzzing around this poor man’s head, but thoughts: too baffling, too painful, to utter aloud.
He took a deep, shuddering breath and tried again: “Gladys had always been Elvis’ strongest point, the one person he had that could truly understand him. She always made sure he had enough to eat, and made sure he read his Bible every day. W-what I mean is…….. I dunno if I can do a good enough job on my own. You understand?”
I nodded that I did. “Uh-huh. I get all of what you’re saying. But I don’t think you need to worry, Mr.—er--Vernon. I think you’re a fine father. I don’t think Elvis could have been raised any better.”
Vernon smiled at that, despite the anguish clear on his face, and patted my knee. “You’re a sweet girl, Sera. Whether you mean to be or not, you’ve been a Godsend to our family. Especially to Elvis.”
I could feel my face reddening, and prayed that it was too dark for him to see. “Thank you. I only hope it’s enough.” The hand he’d rested on my knee tightened its grip for a moment before moving away.
He stood up, stretching his arms to the heavens and groaning a little. “I think it’s about time we turn in. It’ll be an early rise tomorrow.” I didn’t reply to this; I followed his lead and stood up, pausing a moment to gaze out across the front yard.
The night was so still. From where we stood on the porch, only the faintest sounds of the bustling city could be heard, and the streetlights did not extend their phosphorescent rays into the vast garden that lay before me. We were enclosed here, shielded from the troubled, busy world outside. It was very peaceful.
After one last affectionate, lingering look, I left the yard to its business and followed Vernon inside.
I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of someone knocking on my (or, Elvis’) door. The clock on the bedside table told me it was two-thirty; an involuntary groan of exhaustion escaped me. However, whoever it was on the other side of the door wasn’t giving up, and kept knocking. “Yeah, okay, come in!”
The door opened slowly, and a hand entered first, holding a flashlight. “Sera? Sera, you awake?” I was now; it was Elvis.
“Yeah, of course, Elvis, come on in!” I clicked on the bedside lamp, revealing him instantly. The sight of him then, hair tousled, pajama pants wrinkled and riding up one leg, made me giggle.
“I—I’m sorry to wake you like this, I know you musta been sleepin’. I just.....I couldn’t get to sleep. Too many thoughts in my head.” Elvis grinned oddly, running a hand through his disheveled hair. He sat tentatively on the edge of the bed, timid like a fawn in the crosshairs.
I shook my head, giving him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “It’s alright, Elvis. I couldn’t sleep either.” Without invitation, much like the small child he looked like in his wrinkled pajamas, he crawled up beside me, propping himself up on the pillow next to mine. And there went my heart again. “Elvis, uh, I don’t think—”
He hushed me, laying a finger across my lips. “Now, I don’t mean no funny business. I just wanna talk. Jus’ talk, that’s all.”
For whatever reason, I believed him. “Alright. Alright, that’s fine. So we’ll talk.” He nodded, the smallest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. I let my muscles relax, and tried to think my heart back to its normal pace. “So what’s up?”
His face, a masterpiece of the angels, grew solemn, erasing all traces of the smile that had seconds ago lingered there. “I was thinkin’ about Mama, an’ about heaven. ’Bout whether or not I been good enough to, y’know, go there too. Cuz even though she always said that if I love God and do right by him, that I’ll go, I jus’ don’t know now.”
He sounded so serious, and his face appeared as somber as that of a priest leading Mass. It touched me.
I tucked my hand under his chin, allowing him to lay his head on my shoulder, and whispered, “I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Elvis. You’ve got plenty of good inside you to get into heaven. And you will.” Almost as an afterthought, perhaps because I knew what lay ahead for him, I said, “And nothing, no matter how awful it may seem at the time, nothing you do could ever change that. I promise.”
He seemed to think on this for awhile, and we sat in silence for several minutes. I could even hear him breathe. Then, somehow, the atmosphere of the room seemed to change; at least, it did in Elvis’ mind. I for one couldn’t tell the difference from one minute to the next.
I felt him move more than I saw him; his arm snaked under the covers and looped like a warm sash around my waist. I was pulled closer, and he hugged me like I was a living, breathing, girl-sized teddy bear. He must have heard me gasp in surprise, for he suddenly froze. I somehow found within me the ability to speak. “Elvis, you said--”
“I know, I know! And I ain’t! I don’t mean nothing by it!”
“Right. You touch all your friends like this. You and GK and all them have a grand old slumber party every time you’re feeling blue, is that it?”
“How’d you know what I call George?”
“I— erm— oh, it doesn’t matter! The point is, Elvis.....the point is, we’re havin’ a memorial service tomorrow for your mother, and while I’m more than happy to help you deal with that, I don’t come as a package deal!”
That got him. He withdrew his arm from around my waist, and lifted his head from my shoulder. And while he looked the part of the twenty-three-year-old that he was on the outside, he sulked and huffed like his inner five-year-old.
I sighed, glad the point had gotten across but still feeling like I’d been a little harsh. “Elvis? Hey. All I meant was, I’m here to comfort you as a friend. Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to just hug and talk, alright?”
For a long while, he was silent. Then, after what felt like years, he turned his head and fixed his big blue eyes on me like a cat eyeing a saucer of milk its master has forbade it to drink. “Fair enough. I get what you mean. But I ain’t sittin’ on my hands.”
I busted up laughing, and after that, any hope of a serious conversation was abandoned.
Graceland awoke slowly the next morning, stirring its rooms and staircases like stiff limbs, blinking drowsily in the garnet light.
Blinking away the last clutching tendrils of sleep, it took me longer than I liked for me to realize where I was. More than that, I was astonished to discover that I had actually spent the night in bed with Elvis— in the purely platonic sense, of course; I had burrowed deep under the covers, and he had stayed on top of them.
Our conversation from the night before replayed in my mind like an eight-track no one had bothered to change. I thought over Elvis’ doubts of whether or not he deserved to join his mother in heaven, and the way he had held me, pulling me close in a way that wasn’t altogether unpleasant but still made me incredibly uncomfortable.
Elvis was a man who felt very deeply, be it anger, grief, or love. I understood this in part because I also belonged to this allegorical social club of people who wore their emotions like the buttons on their coats.
When I sat up in bed I was careful not to disturb Elvis, who was still fast asleep. I crawled out from under the covers and touched my feet to the floor.
It was then, noticing the neatly-folded pile of clothes at the foot of the bed (I’d changed back into the pajamas I’d appeared in for sleep) that I realized the oversized shirt and trousers were the only other things I had to wear. No matter how comfortable the family had been with me thus far, I couldn’t attend Gladys’ viewing in a borrowed set of her son’s clothes.
Despite this predicament I had no choice but to button and zip myself into those clothes and, after running a comb through my hair, I stepped out of the room.
Unfortunately, my departure did not go unnoticed, though the hour was early enough that I should have been the only one up.
I knew George Klein on sight; I had read extensively into his and Elvis’ friendship. He nonetheless startled me when I found him seated on the landing, three steps down from where I stood.
He looked to be the same age as Elvis was, about twenty-four, though he was much shorter than his famous friend and his hair was a deep rusty red, and curly, like an old scrap of steel wool.
I knew what he must have thought of me, leaving Elvis’ room on the sly and wearing his clothes.
He didn’t seem to be expecting that. Looking puzzled, he stood and said, “Mornin’, ma’am.”
“There’s no need for that, you know. I’m younger than you are.”
He ignored this. I was grateful; that wasn’t exactly the right thing to say, considering where I’d just come from.
He jerked his chin in the general direction of the bedroom. “Is Elvis still in there?”
I nodded. “Uh huh. But he’s sleeping. I was just gonna go get dressed—”
Much to my surprise, George laughed. “I don’t reckon Minnie Mae’d be too pleased seein’ ya in her grandson’s clothes.” He paused. “But personally I bet Gladys’ is gettin’ a kick outta it.” Smiling shyly, I could only shrug. He held a hand out to me. I took it. “My name’s George Klein.”
“Sera Deschain. And just so you know, we didn’t— I mean, Elvis and I were just—we weren’t—” GK raised a hand to stop my rambling mouth.
“I don’t mean no disrespect, Sera. I know Elvis can go long-winded sometimes, and I know Vernon gave you that room to stay in.” He grinned. “And don’t think you’re the only one that’s fallen asleep in that bed— and I’m not even talkin’ girls, neither.”
I knew what he meant, but didn’t say so. I remembered a story from GK’s book about a time he and Elvis had stayed up late talking. GK ended up sleeping right beside Elvis, just as I had. “Right, I know. I mean, I figured.”
He nodded, a little patronizingly, or at least that’s how it seemed. Then he said, “If you’re lookin’ for a bathroom, there’s one just down the hall there. You could wash up if you want.”
I thanked him politely, forced myself to give him at least a nervous smile, and left him to his thoughts there on the landing.
Before closing the door to the washroom, however, I peeked at him again; he caught me, and winked amiably. I shut the door quickly.
Turns out Minnie Mae paid no mind to what I wore; in fact it seemed no one noticed. The atmosphere of the house that afternoon was heartbreaking in itself, as if the house understood and was empathetic to the grief of the people sheltered within its walls.
That afternoon, Gladys was placed within a simple yet elegant coffin and carried to the living room, where she lay surrounded by hundreds of pink carnations tied into bunches with pink silk ribbon.
I stayed back in a far corner of the room while Vernon, Minnie Mae, and a pretty brunette girl who looked only a few years older than me paid their respects.
When Elvis came downstairs, he wore a white silk shirt with ruffles (one he’d mentioned his mother had especially liked) and simple black trousers. I watched him cross the room to his mother, where she lay dressed in her best and softly smiling, as if she’d glimpsed a bit of heaven while still on Earth and couldn’t wait to tell the rest of us the glorious secret.
He knelt by her, resting a cautious hand tenderly on hers. The discernible sorrow in his face pushed me towards him like a forceful, guiding hand on the small of my back.
Fearing that the proceedings of the other night had somehow jeopardized our friendship, I was hesitant to touch him. Yet something, a feeling of aptness somewhere deep within me, told me I should. So I reached out, and laid a light hand on his shoulder. He jumped, obviously not expecting the touch, and turned towards me.
His eyes were red-rimmed, as they’d been in the days since his dear mother had died. Recent tears wetted his face. He stood abruptly, and wrapped me in a hug that stole away my very breath. “Oh, Sera. I jus’ can’t get my head around it. It don’t seem real.”
Holding onto him with all my might, I whispered, “I know, Elvis, I know.”
He exhaled deeply, sniffled, then said, “I mean, it’s like she’s just gonna sit up, get up outta that horrible thing and holler at me to get washed up for supper, y’know?”
I could only nod my understanding. Over Elvis’ shoulder, I noticed the dark-haired girl who had already paid her respects watching us with a peculiar look in her eye. It couldn’t be Priscilla; he wouldn’t meet her until November of the following year. Besides, I knew what Priscilla looked like.
This girl was older, maybe twenty, and though pretty, had a plainer face than the fourteen-year-old Elvis would meet in less than six months, and eventually marry.
I figured this must be Dixie Locke, a girl Elvis had met during the early years of the Presleys’ life in Memphis and dated for a couple of years before he’d gotten really famous. She was most certainly a part of his past now, but that didn’t stop her from fixing me with a fiercely covetous stare.
By now many more people had arrived, and Elvis and I got quickly out of their way. Tomorrow was the funeral, and if the crowded living room was any indication, Gladys’ departure from this good earth would be very well attended.
The service was absolutely beautiful; Gladys’ beloved gospel group, the Blackwood Brothers, were flown in from North Carolina to sing several of the sweet woman’s favorite spirituals, and Reverend James Hamill delivered a spirited and faultless eulogy. GK told Vernon afterwards that three thousand fans had stood vigil outside the funeral home, prayerful and silent. At least a hundred relatives were crowded together inside.
Elvis had wanted his mother to be honored at Graceland, where the viewing had been, but the Colonel argued that security would be an issue and they settled on an agreement that the funeral home would be better suited for the service. And despite my loathing for the man, I eventually came to discover that he’d been right.
The procession wound its way slowly up to Forest Hill cemetery, where Gladys was to be buried. It took sixty-five policemen to keep the traffic, reporters, photographers, and fans at bay; every time Elvis shed a tear or cried out in anguish, hundreds of pairs of eyes and ears knew about it. It made me so angry to see the family’s grief broadcasted so unchastely and so inconsiderably. But of course, there was nothing I could do.
I watched with raw, tired eyes as each family member and friend filed past sweet Gladys’ grave, pausing to rest a hand on the casket or murmur a secret prayer. Even as each of them wept, I noticed none of them; not really anyway. My eyes saw them, but my heart and soul were with Elvis, who stood off to the side, eyes on the floor. He looked so lost, so unsure of himself.
It was almost as if he were a young child, going to bed without his favorite stuffed animal for the first time. He had lost that security, that warmth and comfort that had always been there in his mother.
I made up my mind in that moment to no longer watch from the sidelines while Elvis lived his life. There was a kind of brokenness in him that day that I never wanted to see again. I was determined to save him, in every possible way I could. Maybe that was wrong, or selfish, or dangerous, but I had a will not to let Elvis reach that level of despair in his life ever again. If that meant screwing with history, I was more than happy to do just that.
A couple hours later, after Gladys had been interred and most of the guests had gone, I remained at the gravesite, seated in the grass just a foot away from the newly-turned earth. Elvis, of course, had been one of the last to leave, and he paused mid-step and turned back, speaking not a word but asking so much with just his eyes.
I smiled softly at him. “Go on, E. I’ll be there in just a minute. You go on.” Reluctant, puzzled, he nonetheless obeyed my gentle order and followed his father down the side of the hill.
The afternoon had finally become peaceful; birds chirped, the sunlight danced golden and sprightly through the swaying branches of the willows. It almost seemed blasphemous that the hill should be regarded as a place of death.
Twirling a bit of grass between my fingers, I spoke to the woman’s spirit, as I knew she lingered; any soul as kind and strong as hers would. “I’m doing what I can, Gladys. I’m doing the best I can. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to be there for Elvis, but as long as I’m here, I’ll try. I swear to God I’ll try.”
I didn’t expect her to answer; I don’t believe in the whole Ouija-board-and-ghosts racket, nor did I particularly want to see Gladys as she’d been when she died. Even without all the cheeseball Hollywood special effects, in that moment I did feel a kind of presence, a sort of malleable spirit. As if Gladys was there, and accepted my feeble apology, my compliant vow.
I touched the fresh, supple earth with my fingers and breathed the summery perfume of the flowers; and for the first time in five days, I felt the old familiar tug in the pit of my stomach. Gasping as if the pull of time was a taut rope lassoed around my lungs, I could only watch in fear and unspeakable indignation as the world I’d loitered in so willingly faded from my eyes.
The smell of the flowers, the whisper of the trees, and the soft caress of the dirt between my fingers grew fainter as I disappeared from the world of Elvis, Vernon, and GK and hurtled helplessly back into my own.
Then, as before in all the times I’d traveled, just prior to touching down in good old Nebraska, circa 2011, a hood of blackest night was pulled down over my eyes, and I saw no more of the hill, nor the departing figures of my friends.
My life felt oddly surreal after Gladys’ death and all the chaos that had surrounded it. I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t seem to even move without consciously thinking about it first. Yet, somehow, in one way or another, life went on.
It was midday when I appeared back home, and a fresh snow was falling outside. The house was still, quiet, and toasty with Old World heat; the first discernable sound was the first-level stoves, humming their song in monotonous unison.
Dorian lay stretched out on the living room couch, his whiskers bowing inwards, then outwards with every sleepy breath. I paused for a moment to run my fingers over his belly, relishing in his realness, in the solid warmth of his plump little body. Further in, I heard my parents talking somewhere deep in the house, and I followed the muffled sounds of their voices.
“In here, hon!”
I barely entered the room before Mom had me wrapped in a tight hug, clutching the back of my head with one of her hands, as if afraid I might float away from her even then. “Oh sweetie, it’s been nearly a week! Where’ve you been?” She was nearly breathless with respite; my dad, ever the (outwardly) stoic pillar of reason, didn’t rise from his chair. I knew that he’d missed me just as much, if not more than, Mom; there was a just-tangible happiness in his dark features that reassured me in this truth.
“Mom! Mom, I’m fine, really! I know it was a long time this time, but I couldn’t really, y’know, choose when I came back.” Even to me my explanation sounded lame, but there’d really been nothing I could’ve done. I shrugged my shoulders, trying on a sheepish smile. “Anyways, I’m here now.”
Mom huffed; I knew she wasn’t mad. “And we’re very glad of that. Didja have fun?” Her hand went to my hair, stroking it almost subconsciously. Her question brought back all the pain and heartache of the last few days, and something like a blade cut into my tender heart. To avoid answering her question, I looked down and brushed a bit of lint from one leg of my pants.
Correction: Elvis’ pants.
The vivid memory of seeing myself in the mirror, slipping my legs into the grey trousers, and buttoning the soft shirt over my chest coaxed a smile from my mouth. I wondered to myself what Elvis had done with my pajamas.
My smile roused Mom’s curiosity; that much I could tell from her face. She reached out and tugged at the shirtsleeve with tentative fingers. “Are these— are these his?” I nodded, laughing a bit coquettishly. Her expression got stuck somewhere between amused and concerned. “Why?”
I knew what she was getting at; it was Elvis after all, and I had witnessed his roguish charms firsthand. Furthermore, my mother was anything but hopelessly naïve. She wasn’t one to sidestep uncomfortable questions if she felt they needed to be asked.
This time, luckily, she didn’t even have to ask. “It was nothing like that, Mom. I showed up in my pajamas, alright? He just gave me these so I wouldn’t have to go to the funeral in sweatpants.”
Mom’s heart-shaped mouth dropped open in surprise, and her eyes pooled with a sympathy so pure, so good, that I’d come to wish in those years that it could be bottled, to be kept with me when she couldn’t be there. “Gladys. Oh, Sera, it was Gladys, wasn’t it?” I nodded; I expected the tears to come now, but they didn’t; there was the fleeting thought that maybe I didn’t have any left to shed. She hugged me to her warm body, understanding without question how I was feeling. Over her shoulder I could see my dad; our eyes met, and he smiled at me, his deep brown eyes glittering. He understood too, at least partially, and was providing comfort in his own quiet, wistful way.
When Mom spoke again, her voice was muffled by the thickness of my hair. “How was he? How were you? Are you okay?”
I shrugged in her arms, unable to find the right words, all the while wondering why I couldn’t cry. “He was…..devastated, totally, just, destroyed. I don’t think he ever stopped crying the whole time I was there.”
Okay, a lie. But was I really going to tell my mom about what had happened the night before the service? No. After I appeared back home wearing Elvis’ clothes, I wasn’t going to tell her about that. Not yet, anyway.
When she finally backed out of our hug, I tugged my fingers through my tangled hair and sighed. “Do you know if we have any cookie dough left?”
Mom knew where I was going with that. “Sure, yeah. We could even make oatmeal raisin, if you like. That way you know you’ll have ’em all to yourself.”
Oatmeal raisin cookies were my favorite, and neither Mom nor Dad could stand them. Whenever I made them, I always sprinkled a little extra cinnamon in the batter, and sometimes added honey. The honey made them turn out super gooey, which was just how I loved them.
As I’d said before, whenever Mom and I needed to talk, we always whipped up a batch of cookies. She left the room to go preheat the oven, and I sat down in the desk chair across from my dad’s gigantic writing desk, in front of which he sat patiently waiting.
The desk in itself was a beautiful piece of my father’s history. His great-grandfather had built it by hand, and his signature was still visible on the back, scrawled in looping cursive letters: Made by W. H. Douglas, 1924.
The back section of the desk is made out of an old General Electric freight box; for a refrigerator, my dad said. I used to dream of myself as an adult, in an office of my own, seated in front of it, spinning some glorious adventure either in my head or on the empty, digital playing field of my computer screen.
My dad sat in front of it, his monstrous hands folded in his lap, his eyes inviting conversation of the most intellectual and thrilling variety. “So,” he began, speaking softly. “What happened?”
I smiled, a little diffidently. “C’mon, Dad, I don’t wanna have to tell it twice. Why don’t you listen in to me and Mom? As soon as the cookies are done I’m gonna tell her all about it.”
Dad said nothing. He only looked at me, speaking only with his eyes; they told me, as they did on many an occasion, that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
“It was her funeral, that’s all. And the memorial service. I was there through all of it, and I saw her buried. Elvis and Vernon pretty much only talked to each other, except—” I stopped, horrified at what I’d almost told him.
Dad’s hands unfolded, parted, and rested, one on each knee. “Except what?”
Well, I’d done it. I figured it’d come out eventually, so I spit it out. “The fourth night I was there, Elvis knocked on my door, which was technically his door, since he gave me his bedroom. Anyway, I let him in.
“He said he couldn’t sleep, which I guess makes sense, ‘cause the service was the next day. We talked about heaven, and he said he didn’t know if he’d been good enough to get into heaven.”
A cursory glance at the doorway told me Mom had come back from the kitchen. Her eyes were on me, fixed intently on the side of my head, as if the words I spoke were running on a marquee just above my ear. I wasn’t sure how much she’d heard.
“I told him that he had plenty of good inside of him to get into heaven, no matter what. We didn’t talk for awhile after that. Then…..”
My mom came and stood beside my chair, took a strand of my hair between her fingers, and began to braid it absentmindedly; it was if she just needed something to do with her hands when she spoke: “What’d he do? Did he make a move on you?”
I didn’t figure she’d been so blunt about it. I could feel my cheeks turning bright pink. Without looking at her, I relented, “Yeah. Nothing real bad, or anything. He just….pulled me close, like in a hug, with his arm around my waist.”
Dad didn’t seem to take it as lightly as I had. “And what’d you do? Stopped him, right?” He looked cross. I didn’t exactly blame him; it’s pretty much an unwritten rule that fathers are really protective with their teenaged daughters, especially when it came to boys, and Elvis was the ultimate seducer.
Still, his doubt upset me. “Of course, Dad! I told him I was more than happy to help him deal with Gladys’ death, but that I didn’t come as a package deal.”
Mom squeezed my shoulder. God bless her; instead of taking the topic any further, she asked, “When’d you leave?”
I was beginning to feel like I was being interrogated. Executing a yawn any rising actor would have been proud of, I stood up. “Right after the burial. I was at her grave, y’know, talkin’ to her. Then I just…faded.”
Apparently my hint was taken, though I doubt it fooled either of them. Dad threw up a hand in the direction of the door. “You can go lay down for a little while, if you want. I’ll take care of supper tonight.”
I smiled wearily, glad the debriefing was over with. “Thanks Dad. I’ll probably only sleep for an hour or two.” I left the room without another word to either of them.
To myself, I wondered how mad Kristen was that I’d missed the weekend get-together; she’d said Saturday, and the calendar hanging on my wall told me it was Sunday. Probably not too angry; she was one of those people who possessed an acquiescent second-nature. It was one of her many character traits that meshed well with my impetuous, rapid-fire disposition.
Still, the doubting Thomas in me wondered just how many times I could use Elvis as an excuse for missing things before the excuse wore out. It already had with my parents, and as understanding as she was, I imagined Kristen wasn’t too far behind. I dialed her number and sat down on the corner of my bed.
“Hey, kK! What’s up?”
“Nothin’ much! What about yourself?”
“Oh, y’know, this and that. How was the party yesterday?”
“Pretty cool, I guess. Not too many people showed up, so we just played board games. Seth even found a Twister board! I wish ya coulda been there, girl!”
“I know. I wanted to, but I was needed elsewhere.”
“Yup. Gladys’ funeral.”
“Ouch! You alright?”
“I guess. I’m pretty much all cried out, though.”
“I getcha. Hey, somebody was askin’ after you last night. A guy.”
I almost dropped my phone. Who would possibly be asking about me? I hardly ever went anywhere; the unpredictability of my travels practically forced me to be homeschooled, and it was risky going to parties, even restaurants. “Who?”
“Nobody I knew. I think he just moved here. He said he’s from Texas. What’re the odds, huh?”
“That’s for sure. How’d he know me?”
“That’s the funny thing! He didn’t really say. All he said was that he’d seen you around, and wanted to meet you.”
“Hope he’s into hermits.”
“Oh, shush, you! You’re not a hermit! He was wearing an Elvis t-shirt. S’far as I know, not too many guys wear Elvis t-shirts to parties if they’re not prepared to proudly proclaim their loyalty.” She laughed at her own wit.
“Very funny, kK. I don’t go after a guy just because he might like Elvis. There’s gotta be more to it than that.” Even as I spoke, though I did my best to hide it, my interest was piqued. “What’s he look like?”
“Aha! She does care! He’s definitely cute. I dunno if he’s native or what, but he’s darker than Seth, and he's got black hair. He wears it all combed back, with a lot of gel or something.”
“What’s he do? I mean, what’s he like to do?’
“He said he works at his dad’s restaurant. Other than that, he really didn’t say. Is that drab enough for you?”
“Sure, unless he also collects shoelaces, or something.”
“Doubt it, ya nut. He’s got brown eyes, you like brown eyes, don’tcha?”
I loved brown eyes. She knew that, too. “How old is he?”
“Eighteen. I figured that’d be okay, since you’re turnin’ seventeen next week.”
“You figured, huh? At least he’s not, like, forty with Mommy issues. I guess I could consider myself lucky.”
“So you’ll meet him?”
I sighed into the mouthpiece, making sure she got a real earful. “Yeah, I’ll meet him. You should tell him I’m a magician or something, so that if I disappear in the middle of our conversation he doesn’t call Ghostbusters.”
“Right, got it. You’re a gypsy on the run from the police for accidentally turning your aunt into a camel and riding off into the desert sunset. Did I leave anything out?”
“Only that I have a mad accomplice named Kristen who eats her own toenails as cereal every morning.”
“Touché, Miss Grumpypants. I think you’ll like him, for reals.”
I wanted to believe her, I really did. “I’ll definitely give it a valiant effort. So, say Wednesday at like, four?”
“That should be good. I’ll probably see you before then, though. Chin up, sista!”
“It’s up, kid! Talk to ya later!”
“Fo sho! Bye!”
After I hung up, I dropped my phone on my nightstand and stood for a moment in the center of the room. I wondered about the boy from Texas, the boy with the brown eyes and fancy hair. Did he have any idea what he was getting himself into?
Now don’t get me wrong; I didn’t have serious self-esteem issues. I liked myself well enough, and on a good day I even found myself pretty without makeup.
But I’d never had a boyfriend up to that point. I was a girl who valued my independence, and the idea of eternally devoting myself to someone was equally stifling as it was terrifying. It had crossed my mind, certainly. I was human.
I felt a strange sense of curiosity about the whole idea, which was to be expected, I guess. I wondered who he was, how he had ever heard of me. I’d exaggerated when I’d called myself a hermit; I wasn’t the Elephant Man, trapped under a shroud, unable to set foot in the outside world. I just had to be careful.
It was kind of like being related to someone with diabetes, or epilepsy, in a way. My traveling could be classified as a ‘seizure’, or ‘attack’; something totally unpredictable yet unpreventable.
Maybe that was just me making excuses to not see him. I was scared, as much as I tried to deny it to myself. I’d known girls who’d dated from the time they’d started middle school, but theirs weren’t really dates; they held hands with their boy of choice in the hallways at school, and proudly traded their “single” status on Facebook for “in a relationship with _____”. It was like having a best friend that wasn’t allowed to sleep over.
I wasn’t looking to change my relationship status, and I had no school hallway to hold hands in. I didn’t know what I wanted, other than to find someone who shared my interests, respected me, and was (preferably) willing to have “Elvis” be some part of his first-born son’s name. Maybe that sounded like an eHarmony profile gone wanting, but there you go.
Before I had too much longer to dwell on it, Mom called me from the kitchen and I fell into step, intrigued and lured towards the front of the house by the cozy, luscious scent of oatmeal, sugar, cinnamon, and the slightest hint of honey.
The following Sunday, there was a break in the weather; it was warm out for being the middle of January, warm enough to justify wearing windbreakers instead of wool coats.
For most of that afternoon I sat out on our first-level porch, on the swing. I was then halfway through Victor Hugo’s colossal literary masterpiece, Les Miserables. It’d taken me a good three months to get to that point, and the French language sometimes gave me a headache, but I was enjoying it
Just as I’d gotten to the meat of the French Revolution (about 1,060 pages in), I heard the familiar click-tap of cowboy boots ascending our front steps. My eyes left the page curious of the unexpected guest. When I saw who it was, I smiled. “Hey, Kristen! How’s it goin’?”
Kristen matched my grin with a brilliant one of her own, and crossed the old wooden porch to sit beside me on the swing. “Not bad! What about yourself?”
I shrugged, toggling the zipper of my windbreaker. “It’s goin’ good, I guess. I’m becoming more and more grateful that I’m not French though.” I said this last while indicating the book in my hand; the index finger of my left hand kept my place.
She picked at a hole in her jeans, smiling softly. “I’m glad you’re not, too. We’d rack up an insane phone bill. Plus, I don’t know any French.”
We didn’t talk for awhile after that; I set the book down beside me, laying it flat on the page I’d been reading. The uncharacteristically warm January breeze ran its thin fingers through our hair, its invisible hands guiding the barren trees in a lazy, swaying dance. Another silence passed; we sat like that for maybe ten, fifteen minutes before Kristen said “Hey.”
I looked at her. “Yeah?”
“Have you told your parents yet about Wednesday?”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t suppose you’d do it?”
Kristen laughed and elbowed me playfully. “Yeah, ’cause that’d go over well. I’m sure they’d be okay with it. I mean, your dad might do the whole ‘get her back home on time, I’m just gonna sit here and clean my shotgun’ routine, but that’s normal, right?”
Shaking my head, I pulled the hood of my windbreaker up over my hair and sighed. “Like I know. He doesn’t even have a shotgun that I know of. I’ll tell ‘em tonight, after supper. But just know that I’m givin’ you all the credit.”
Kristen bowed as well as she could sitting down, then reached over and pinched my cheek. “Oh, you’ll be fine! From what I could tell, he’s a nice guy. I mean hey, brown eyes and he’s an Elvis fan? Could he be more perfect for you?”
I blushed a deep pink. “Only if he happens to be Sean Connery’s grandson, too! Imagine the wedding!”
The mental picture of a wedding where half the guests were in kilts kept us laughing for a long time. It only stopped when I realized I was laughing alone. Kristen’s attention was elsewhere, somewhere beyond the porch.
Suddenly she stood, and smacked me a good one on the shoulder. “Hey! Hey, that’s him! Look!”
“Who, Sean Connery? It’s a bit chilly for a kilt, don’tcha think?”
Without even chuckling, she grabbed ahold of my coat and yanked me to my feet. “No, it’s him! It’s your date! He’s across the street!”
My heart took the cue and started beating just a little bit faster. I followed her gaze with my own eyes, and saw him. He was walking our way, the heavy brown boots on his feet making hard clump-clumps on the sidewalk with the force of his stride. All I could tell from where I stood was that he was tall, his hair was indeed black, and he looked as if he’d spent his entire life out in the sun. Kristen was overjoyed. “Should I call him over? I could introduce you!”
Like the coward I was, I shrank from the porch and made a beeline for the front door. I was determined to make it inside before Kristen got his attention. I made it just inside the screen door before she yelled, “Joseph! Hey, Joseph, over here!”
So his name was Joseph. I at least knew that much. I also knew that somehow, I’d get Kristen back for this; it was too late to run anywhere. He waited for a car to pass by and broke into a jog.
As he got closer, I noticed more; brown work boots with red laces, jeans with more holes and bleach spots than even Kristen’s (which was saying something), and a grey hooded sweatshirt with HOUSTON printed across the front in big maroon letters. He pounded up the front steps faster than I could disappear into the house.
Joseph acknowledged Kristen before even glancing my way. “Hey, Kristen! How ya doin’?”
With one eye on me (probably making sure I wasn’t escaping), she answered, “I’m great! Didja just get off work?” He nodded, swiping a hand across his face to catch the sweat. “Yeah, just did. My car’s broke again, so I had to walk.”
Then he saw me. “Hi!”
His enthusiasm startled me into a nervous smile. Feeling irretrievably foolish, I stepped out from behind the screen door and made myself meet his eyes.
Just like that, I stopped breathing. Kristen had said his eyes were brown; the word didn’t do them justice. They were the color of sweet chocolate, the dazzling russet hue of dark sea glass. Flecks of gold glittered secretly, as if daring me to reveal their presence.
I was awestruck. “H-hi.”
Seeing that this was going nowhere fast, Kristen took over. “Joseph, this is Sera. Sera, meet Joseph. He just moved in down the street.”
It took all my inner strength to accept the hand he held out to me. Soft. And warm, as if his skin had kept for itself some of the sun that had turned it such a dark, caramel color. “Nice to meet you, Joseph. Kristen tells me you’re an E-Elvis fan.” What the heck, it was a conversation-starter.
He grinned; lord, even his teeth were perfect, as white and flawless as his hair was black. “Man, that’s an understatement! I love Elvis! I mean, mostly the music and stuff, you know. Not really the movies.”
Despite my nerves, I managed to laugh. “Yeah, same here. I have a couple of ’em, like Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, but I saw Viva Las Vegas once, and that was too much. Ugh.”
I couldn’t help but stare at him; he could have been talking about the rising production of smog in New Jersey and I wouldn’t have known the difference. His boyish face looked as though it’d known years of joy; his eyes held a permanent sparkle, and already there were lines at the corner of each, physical proof that Joseph had spent most of his life laughing. The lashes around them curtained the chocolate spheres in black.
He stood with his feet apart, and his hands had retreated back into his jeans pockets; I was reminded of cowboys in spaghetti westerns who held themselves like that, as if telling the world with just their bodies that they could handle anything.
What really threw me, though, was the little twitch of his upper lip. It seemed to happen without him even trying; maybe it was a nervous tick. But when he smiled, the corner of his mouth would curl up, not quite like a sneer. It reminded me way too much of Elvis.
“So you like Elvis too? What era?”
Hello, Sera. Wake up. “What? Oh, oh, yeah. Love Elvis. Uh, I dunno, I like it all I guess. Mostly the seventies.” He nodded approvingly.
That’s when Kristen decided to make herself known. “Why don’t you guys sit down on the swing? I’ll move.” God bless her. She caught my eye and winked.
Joseph went over and immediately took a seat; he looked at me and patted the spot beside him. “C’mon, room for one more!” Shyness was not an issue with him, clearly. I sat, but kept a good six inches between us.
I wondered if he had any idea what was going on inside my head. When Kristen had said she’d arranged a date for me with a guy, I hadn’t expected to be thrown so far off my game. He was totally relaxed (at least he seemed to be), and I was thisclose to completely losing it. I prayed he couldn’t tell.
“So, uh, Kristen told me you work at your dad’s restaurant? That’s cool.” Oh, shut up while you’re ahead. Lame, lame, lame, LAME!
He shrugged, smiling a little sheepishly. “Yeah, it’s cool, I guess. I’m just a busboy though. I don’t think he trusts me with the food.”
I laughed just a little too hard at that. I noticed he had the slightest hint of a Southern accent, drawing out his ‘R’s and ‘I’s. “Hey, you gotta start somewhere. I couldn’t be a waitress in a million years. I’d drop everything.”
Joseph chuckled. “Yeah, I started out that way. But you know, me and him are real close, so it’s hardly like working. Plus there’s all the free food!”
We shared a laugh, and this time it didn’t feel forced.
Kristen had taken my place on the front step, and had her back to the furthest railing (probably so she could watch the rambling spectacle Joseph and I were making of ourselves). “Hey, why don’t you guys go there on Wednesday? You didn’t really plan anything, right?”
I looked at him. He shrugged. “We could. I can’t guarantee I’d serve you or anything, but I can honestly say we’ve got the best catfish this far North!”
Inhibitions gone, I cried “Oh my gosh, I love catfish! That’ll be great!”
Joseph laughed; it was a sound I’d already grown to love. “Fantastic! Catfish it is, then!” He stood up then, placing one hand on my knee for balance. Something like electricity coursed through me, and a gasp escaped my throat. “Uh, s-sorry, I didn’t mean to scare ya.” His hand moved away then, but the heat was still there.
I couldn’t even give him a reassuring smile. “That’s, that’s okay. It…it was nice meeting you, Joseph.”
His only response was a nod, a nervous grin. He high-fived Kristen on his way down the front steps; I noticed he stumbled a little on the last one.
I realized that I didn’t want him to go. He’d struck a nerve in me, had lit something up inside that I didn’t know I even had. We’d barely carried a conversation, yet I felt there was something….different about him, something I couldn’t quite name.
Before he’d made it out to the street, I called out, “See you Wednesday, Joseph!”
He turned midstride and raised a hand in a casual salute. “Can’t wait! Adios!”
And just before putting his back to us again, he put the same hand to his lips and blew me a kiss.
Kristen actually squealed.
It turned out Mom didn’t have to be told about my plans for Wednesday; she’d gone unnoticed in the window while Joseph, Kristen, and I had been talking. I went through a brief period of being furious with her for spying like that, but this was impossible to keep up when she told me outright that he seemed like an amazing guy. Maybe I hadn’t exactly seen what she had, but I liked the feeling Joseph gave me, and was very much looking forward to seeing him again.
That, plus the fact that my seventeenth birthday was less than a week away, made for one of the best starts to a week I’d known up until then.
On Tuesday night I was a bundle of nerves, flitting from room to room like a hummingbird on steroids. I laid out my clothes with the upmost care; he’d said that the restaurant was nothing fancy, which (gratefully) alleviated the need for a skirt. I hated skirts.
What I’d chosen instead were my favorite new pair of high-tops (green), navy-blue skinny jeans, and a plain white t-shirt. I had green stud earrings to match the shoes, silver bangle bracelets, and my silver TCB necklace. After my shower that night I French-braided my hair into pigtails while it was still damp, so it’d be curly the next morning.
With all the planning, and primping (I even shaved my legs, though I’d be wearing long pants), I was terrified something was going to go wrong. I had myself convinced that everything simply couldn’t go the way it was planned. I was bracing myself for disaster.
The next morning I woke up early, before anyone else was out of bed. The early morning breeze raised goose bumps on my arms as I stepped out on the second-story balcony.
I’ve always admired our house, for its age as well as its character. It was something of an oddity in our neighborhood; it was kin to the plantation houses of the Confederate south, though my parents and I were pretty sure it wasn’t quite that old.
The outside was painted robin’s-egg blue; the framework was white. The floors in every room were solid stained oak, and they creaked like an old man’s bones when tread upon. There was a basement, though no one had been down there since my parents bought the place. The attic was just a five-by-eight crawl space, which encompassed the entire ceiling plan.
My favorite part of our house, other than the archaic pot-bellied stoves that had charmed me from an early age, was the wrap-around porches that encircled the entire house, both first- and second-level. All the upstairs rooms, including mine, had a door that led out to the second-level porch, and I spent countless summer evenings there, with a book and rocking chair.
That day, the breeze bit at my unprotected skin with icy teeth, and the willow whose branches brushed the side of the house was limp with the weight of heavy snow. I relished the chill that scampered on mouse feet down my spine.
“What do you think, Elvis? Think he’s gonna be good for me?” I spoke to the wind, giving it my dear friend’s name in the slightest hope that my quiet question might reach him wherever he rested now.
As alive and vibrant as he was in his own time, he remained only in spirit with me in the present of my young adulthood. It was one of the reasons I always hated to leave him, knowing what lay ahead for him, knowing that, though there were still thousands, maybe even millions, of people that loved and cherished him, there were those few who mocked and scorned him.
True, he’d had his share of criticism, both as a young man and as the sad shadow of himself that he became later. But at least then he’d been able to defend himself, been able to answer to the idiots that tried to tear him down to their level.
So, yes, as insane as it may have seemed, sometimes I talked to him, not exactly expecting an answer but still confidant in my belief that if God could hear us, there was no reason the spirits of those who had died couldn’t. And I wondered what Elvis would have thought of Joseph, had he been able to meet him.
After awhile, the cold got to be too much, and I retreated back into the warmth of my room, closing and locking the door to the porch behind me. I went immediately to the mirror, and with a couple persistent tugs I had my hair out of the braids.
Fifteen minutes, countless brush strokes, and three battles with my eyeliner pencil later, I was dressed and ready— ten hours ahead of time. Sighing heavily but unsurprised, I sat down on the edge of my bed and opened Les Miserables.
The protagonist, a wronged man by the name of Jean Valjean, was currently crawling through the filthy ductwork of France, avoiding the ongoing massacre above him while thwarting a man out for his head. I fell into the story like it was a great and endless pit, one I had no desire to clamber my way out of.
I was eventually roused from my storybook stupor by the startling clangs and clunks of breakfast in its beginning stages downstairs. The digital clock on my dresser told me I’d been reading for two hours; it was now nine o’clock. Standing, stretching, I lay the book facedown on my dresser, and followed the dry, homey smell of toasting bagels down the stairs into the kitchen.
Mom was seated at the island, crunching on her toast. She smiled when she saw me. “Good mornin’, you. You’re up early!”
I grabbed a pear from the big bowl in the center of the table and plopped down in a chair across from her. “Pssh, this is nothing. I woke up at seven; I’ve just been reading this whole time.”
She chuckled softly. “Why, is there something important happening today?”
Reaching out to me, she tossed my hair with her fingers, as if admiring it in the light. “Your hair looks good, by the way. The rest of you does too.”
I squirmed under her well-meant scrutiny. “Thanks, Mom.”
She licked a blob of grape jam from her thumb, then cocked her head. “What’s the matter? Nervous?”
I shrugged and took a bite from the pear. It was sweet; sticky juice ran down my hand and dripped onto the countertop. “Yeah, I guess. Wondering if he’ll like me.”
She seemed to consider this for a moment. “And if you’ll like him, right?”
“Sure. But mostly if he’ll like me.”
“Oh, he will. From what I’ve seen, he already does. And if you give it enough time and patience, he might even learn to love you.”
I blushed; I could feel it. “Mom, c’mon! It’s a first date! Gimme a break!”
A mysterious smile graced her lips, and she shrugged. “I know. I’m not saying anything. Maybe I’ve just got a good feeling about this one.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see. It’s not like I’ve got anything to compare him to.”
She sighed, and socked my shoulder, almost knocking the pear right out of my hand. “Oh shush, now! Quit that kind of talk and pour your mama some coffee!”
I jumped down from the chair and tossed the remnants of the fruit in the trash. “Why, of course your majesty! Whatever you say!” She stuck her tongue out at me.
Her favorite mug was red, and painted with stars, moons, and little cat paw prints; I got this down from the shelf and reached for the coffee.
I had the lid off and had begun pouring when it happened. “No. Oh, no, no.”
Mom frowned. “Honey?”
I was disappearing; it was happening now; I could see the handle of the coffee pot through my own hand. “No! No! Not now!” It was the first time that I could remember that I didn’t want to see Elvis, not if it meant totally blowing off Joseph.
To her credit, Mom played it totally cool. “Sweetie, sweetie, give me the coffee pot. Give it here.” When I couldn’t comply, she took it from my hand; an easy task, seeing as my hand was almost completely transparent.
“Mom, I don’t wanna go! I don’t wanna go!” I knew I sounded like a stupid toddler, and I didn’t care.
She put her hand where my shoulder had once been, moments before. “I know, sweetie. I know. Don’t worry; I’ll take care of it. It’s okay.” I believed her. I couldn’t speak anymore; I smiled as best as I could through my indignation, trying to tell her that I was grateful. “I love you, Sera. Don’t worry.”
Seconds later, I left my world behind, and was gone.
Thick, oppressive heat. The hot, grassy smell of sun-baked leaves. Sand under my feet, and in the distance: voices. When I opened my eyes, I found myself in a kind of forest, though it reminded me more of a jungle; the trees bore leaves greener than candy and bigger than my hand, and the sand was thick enough underfoot that I sunk down into it almost to my ankles.
I wasn’t dressed for this kind of weather; beads of sweat formed almost instantly on my forehead, and it felt like a hot dry towel had been shoved down my throat.
Before going anywhere, I leaned against a tree and pulled my shoes and socks off my feet. I bunched up my socks and stuffed them down into the toe of one shoe, and tied the laces together in a neat bow. Then I bent and rolled my pant-legs up to my knees. There; I felt at least a little relief, though the sand on my bare feet was almost as hot as the sun beating down on me between the tree branches.
I slung my coupled shoes over my shoulder, and hiked my way through the trees in the direction I’d heard the voices coming from. I had no idea where I was, but wherever I was, it was the last place I wanted to be on that particular day; still, I figured it would do me good to find the nearest glass of water, and Elvis had to be close by.
When I finally did find my way out of the trees, what I discovered beyond them astonished me. I’d stumbled upon an ordinary beach, off of an ordinary river; there was a bridge linking two ends of a paved road over the water, and the sand covered everything from the edge of the road to the river.
People of every shape and size were scattered over the entire area, but they weren’t there for the sun and prime fishing; most of them were carrying sound and lighting equipment, and one or two shouldered enormous cameras. It finally dawned on me where I was when I spotted Tom Parker, dressed garishly in khaki pants, an obnoxious Hawaiian shirt, fisherman’s cap, and sandals that looked big enough for a camel. My heart dropped somewhere between my stomach and my liver.
I had nothing personally against the Colonel (a title I was nonetheless reluctant to give him) but I wasn’t about to give him a hug. I no longer blamed him for marketing Elvis literally to death, as I once had. I knew Elvis had thought a lot of him. The fact that I didn’t was a testimony to how little I actually knew about the man.
He’d spotted me, and was wobbling as fast as he could in my direction. “You! Hey you! Miss!”
I let him come to me. “Miss, you can’t be here! We’re filmin’ a movie, and Elvis ain’t available to sign no autographs! I’m gonna hafta ask you to keep movin’!”
I stayed where I was. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mr. Parker. I’m a good friend of Elvis’, and I’m— I’m here to see him.” I admit I got satisfaction out of the expression on his face when I called him ‘Mr. Parker’ instead of ‘Colonel’.
Once over the shock, he swiped a hand over his face and frowned hard at me. “Jus’ a minute, then. I think he’s on a break. If he don’t know you I’m havin’ you arrested for trespassin’, no matter you’s a woman.”
He left me with that. The heat was nearly unbearable; I could feel sweat trickling down my back and I wished fervently that I was back home, where the temperature hadn’t reached double digits. I retreated back under the shade, and leaned up against the trunk of the nearest leafy tree.
Tom Parker started back my way a few minutes later, and from a distance the man following behind didn’t even resemble Elvis. I dropped my eyes, and used the hem of my shirt to wipe sweat from my forehead. When I looked up again, they were closer, and Elvis had stepped in front of his portly manager.
I knew in an instant what movie set this was; I owned the film on DVD, and it was one of my favorites.
Follow That Dream had been filmed in 1962, when Elvis was fresh out of the Army; he’d be twenty-seven.
He was dressed then as he’d been for most of the movie: barefoot, cut-off blue jeans, and an open blue cotton shirt. His porcelain skin had turned the color of honey in the sun, and the muscles were thick in his legs and arms. He looked good, better than he ever had in the fifties; it was like those kids who leave school for the summer all dorky, pale, and shy, only to come back in the fall bronzed, fit, and confidant. Already the sixties had been very good to Elvis.
I left the security of the shade and moved towards him, my tongue caught in my throat, my heart beating fast enough to kill me.
Elvis broke into a huge grin when he got close enough to recognize me. “Well I’ll be damned! Sera!”
I smiled feebly, unable to speak.
When I’d seen him last, Elvis had been pale, feeble, his spirit totally broken. His mother’s death had stolen all energy from his body; he’d spent a year in Germany already, away from the sun and sea.
And now here he was; vibrant and sun-kissed as a Georgia peach. I wholly believed that I’d expire right there from the shock.
Parker broke the spell. “So you say you know this girl, Elvis?”
Elvis laughed boyishly, and draped his brawny arm over my shoulders. I couldn’t have moved had I been standing on a nest of fire ants. “’Course I do! Sera’s a great good friend’ a mine!”
His manager huffed. Our eyes met, and he narrowed his. “That’s all well and good, Elvis, but we ain’t done filmin’ here yet. Your friend’s gonna hafta leave.”
Elvis’ grip on my shoulder tightened; what little breath hadn’t already been shocked from my lungs left my body. “Well sir, see, it’s just that, I ain’t seen her for four years almost, and I’d very much like to talk to her. Y’know, maybe grab a burger and catch up a little.” His forbearance encouraged me; it was good to know he hadn’t yet been broken by his manager’s iron grip.
Behind Elvis, I noticed the crew watching us. Tom Parker’s face had gone the color of overcooked beets. “That’s all well and good, Elvis, but you got a contract to mind! I’m sure this young lady wouldn’t mind waitin’ ‘til we get done with the takes.”
Elvis sighed, hooking his thumbs through the belt loops of his shorts. Squinting in the bright Florida sun, he reminded me of those movie cowboys, men like Clint Eastwood and Sam Elliot, though I was almost certain that very few people, if any, wanted to see either of those men in cut-offs. “Colonel, sir, with all due respect, I’m gettin’ paid for my time here, and it don’t make no difference what day we shoot. The money looks the same on Monday as it does Saturday.” He flashed the famous sneer, watering down its snideness with an honest smile. “Besides, it’s hot as hell out here. Ain’t you ever heard of a water cooler?”
Maybe it’s strange to say, but I was proud of Elvis right then. I knew later his brute tenacity towards Tom Parker would weaken, but at the moment he was speaking words similar to my own thoughts, words I would have spoken had I been given the opportunity.
I noticed none of the crew members spoke up; neither did the young woman standing just to the left of one of the cameras, a woman I recognized as Anne Helm, who played Elvis’ impish love interest in Follow That Dream. She seemed shorter in person than onscreen, but just as, if not more, beautiful. She watched me especially with curious eyes, but didn’t apparently see a need or point in interfering.
Elvis had made up his mind; paying no further attention to Tom Parker’s protests, he grabbed me by the hand and marched off. His destination was a row of parked cars, most of them Cadillacs, and he led me to the one furthest to the right.
The paint was deep red, almost maroon, and the interior leather was white. I stared at the chrome beast like one might linger in front of a famous painting, or pause to relish an exceptional piece of music. “Wow…Is this….Elvis, is this yours?”
He shrugged, regarding me as if I’d grown a second head. “Well sure, but it ain’t nothin’ special. It’s gotta be three, four years old now. The radio don’t even work.”
I shook my head, amazed by his indifference. “Elvis, a car like this would be worth thousands, fifty thousand at least in my time, busted radio and all! It’s beautiful!”
Still unimpressed, he climbed inside, and waited until I’d done the same. “Alright then, where to? I know there’s a pretty famous burger dive the next town over. Just five miles.”
I shrugged. “Sounds good to me. It’s not like I know any of the restaurants in the area.” He gave me a patronizing look, then backed the car out of the makeshift lot.
After we’d been on the road only a short while, Elvis asked, “So what’s with the getup? I mean, I never seen you with your hair like that.”
My hand went to my hair, and I felt my cheeks go pink. “What do you mean? I just braided it last night, and let it out this morning.”
“Nah, I-I like it, don’t get me wrong. It’s jus’ different. You’re wearin’ more makeup too.”
If there’d been a person alive who could’ve told me exactly what Elvis was getting at, I would have signed over my entire college savings to hear it. “Yeah, well, these are new shoes too, or were, before they got all full of sand.”
This got little more than a smile from Elvis. “So why’re you all made up?”
I figured I’d have to tell him sooner or later, so I went for sooner. “If you must know, I was getting ready for a date when I showed up here. Okay?”
A frown rumpled Elvis’ brow. “A date? Since when do you go on dates? Who is he?”
“Since today, actually. This was— well, was supposed to be my first. And his name is Joseph. He’s new at the high school where my friend Kristen goes.”
“What is he, older, younger?”
“Older. He’s eighteen.”
“That ain’t right, you’re still sixteen.”
I sat a little straighter in my seat. “Not for much longer. I turn seventeen on Sunday.”
This news seemed to bring Elvis out of his funk, for which I was glad; I’d sort of expected him to react this way, but still disliked how quickly he’d jumped into the role of protective father. “You’re kiddin’! Seventeen already? Man!” He paused, and his expression became thoughtful. “I think I found myself somebody, too, actually. I met her in Germany, while I was in the Army, y’know. Must be three years ago, now.”
I knew who he was talking about: Priscilla, a seventeen-year-old, Cherub-faced doll of a girl, who would, five years from then, become his wife. Curiosity got the better of me. “Would I be able to meet her?”
He shrugged, chuckling. “Well, yeah, if ya want to. You might even get on well, seein’ as you’s so close in age.”
We were quickly approaching civilization; it didn’t look like much of a city, and might’ve been slightly larger than my hometown, which accommodated just 1,700 souls. “St. Augustine, Florida. Looks like a real happening place, Elvis, I gotta tell ya.”
He laughed. “Maybe not, but they got the best damn cheeseburgers in the state! I had one yesterday, and my tongue just about died of happiness.” This got me laughing with him, and for a few minutes the world was a little bit brighter than usual.
Soon though, we pulled up in front of the diner. The unlit neon sign out front proclaimed the place to be ‘The Capeway Drive-In & Diner.’ It ran alongside a drugstore with a candy-green awning and strings of ivy twisted like grasping fingers across the entire front wall.
Most of the building was glass, and there were posters advertising Pepsi products and various community events stuck up on the inside. The roof was a sickly shade of green, and in the front lot it looked as if someone had thrown up sweet potatoes and slathered the half-digested mess over the slabs of concrete put there to designate parking spots. The payphone out front bore a faded and misspelled ‘Out of Order’ sign. Between the parking lot and a rusty fence there was a shady alley, where mounds of garbage sat rotting in metal trash cans.
Elvis noticed the expression of doubt on my face: “I know, it’s pretty awful, huh? The inside’s worse. But the food’s worth it, I guarantee.”
I decided to trust him on that one. We got out of the car (which clashed with the diner so horribly I had an impulse to ask Elvis to move it down the block), and headed up the front steps.
Just outside the doors, I froze. Elvis had his hand on the door before he’d noticed I’d stopped. “Sera?”
The diner had two front doors, one on the open side of the street, the other wedged between the diner and the drugstore’s brick wall. The one on the right was propped open with a brick; above this door was a sign painted in thick black letters: WHITES ONLY.
On the left was the doorway barely wide enough for the average adult man; this door was not propped open, and there was a fist-sized hole in the glass just above the handle. This one bore a sign reading: BLACKS ONLY.
Those two simple words had me crashing back to reality, and I realized, in a way for the first time, exactly where I was. This was Florida, circa 1962: Separate but Equal was the name of the game, though the rules of this game were unclear, and often rewritten by Southerners who were more than happy to keep Negroes in their ‘place’.
A hard knot formed in the pit of my stomach; I no longer craved a cheeseburger that, according to Elvis, would make my tongue “die of happiness”. I wasn’t hungry at all. I felt Elvis lay a warm hand on my shoulder. “Hey, what’s the matter? Is it the signs?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh. I mean, I knew it was like this, I just didn’t realize….I mean I forgot…..I never had to see it ‘til now.”
Elvis’ solemn expression told me he understood. “I don’t like it neither. When I can, I ignore it, y’know; I just go around with whoever I want to.”
I could’ve kissed him for that. I’d known he completely disagreed with the Jim Crow laws, a moral standing that got him in trouble more than once, but to hear him say such things out loud, especially in the Deep South, made me happy to call him my friend. “You still wanna go in?”
Of course I did. I told him so, and he started towards the door. I stopped him with a touch of my hand. “Wait. Over here.” Elvis gaped at me, but gave no protest; the two of us went around the diner to the side door marked BLACKS ONLY. He held the door open for me, and I slipped inside, nervous as heck but exhilarated in a way I’d never been before.
Elvis followed behind; as soon as we were inside, about twenty African-American faces turned to stare at us. The white section was on the whole other end of the room. I noticed the only ceiling fan in the place was over there, and there was a thick length of rope dividing the Capeway Diner in half. All the chairs for the lunch counter were on the other side.
A hot poker of fury stuck itself deep in my chest, and I marched right up to that counter like General Grant readying himself for battle. The man behind the counter looked slight enough to push over with a fingertip, but his expression was hard and suspicious, his eyes cool. He completely ignored me.
“Excuse me? Excuse me, I’d like to order something? Hello?” Nothing from the man with an executioner’s face.
Behind me, I sensed Elvis had moved; when I turned around, he was ducking under the rope, over to the whites-only section of the diner.
I’d never seen his face set in such a somber countenance as it was then; it seemed as if he stood in front of the open casket of a dear friend, rather than a greasy lunch counter. “Sir?”
I could’ve screamed; the man who had so blatantly ignored me smiled thinly and turned to Elvis. “Yes? What may I get for you today?”
He ordered two cheeseburgers with pickle, onion, and tomato, two servings of sweet potato fries, and two Pepsis.
I’m sure it would have made an interesting photograph, had someone been there to capture it; a tall white man, waiting for his food on one side of a rope, while his companion, a shorter but also fair-skinned girl, waited on the opposite side of the same rope, too thickheaded to join the man on his side of the stupid rope simply because it was where she ‘belonged’.
Eventually though, our food was ready and I had no real choice but to follow Elvis over to a table on the cleaner, cooler, and better-lit side of the diner. He tore a bite out of his cheeseburger like it was the first real meal he’d had in weeks. I bit into mine tentatively, and felt my mouth fill with saliva almost immediately; it was undoubtedly the best burger I’d had in my entire life. It was almost a shame to chase it with the Pepsi, which of course wasn’t diet and left a foul aftertaste on my tongue.
I did my best to ignore the other patrons, who were still staring at me like they would be all too happy to truss me up and roast me on a spit for what I’d done. I didn’t much care.
However, I did catch a whispered phrase or two, and knew that Elvis had been recognized.
It wasn’t surprising; it was still early in his movie-making hiatus and he wouldn’t really be able to walk down the street unnoticed until 1968. “Those men know who you are, Elvis. I heard them say your name.” I was whispering too.
Elvis didn’t much seem to care. “Well hell, they got radios in Florida. Movie theaters too. But it’s prob’ly not me they’re interested in.” He winked.
That gave me the creeps, despite my stubbornness. “Don’t say that, Elvis. They’re all men, big men. And they don’t strike me as the type not to hit a girl.”
His jaw set. “They give you any trouble, it’s me they’s gonna be answerin’ to. Not you.”
The intensity of his loyalty scared me a little, but there was an undeniable excitement at the thought of Elvis Presley getting into a fistfight because some guy might look at me the wrong way. I noticed too that his eyes acquired a dangerous shine when he was threatened, much like a wolf.
Those baby blues were sparkling now, and their color was made that much more intense by the raw emotion behind them. The muscles in his jaw twitched, bulged, twitched again. I lay my hand over his on the tabletop, and he nearly jumped out of his chair. “Elvis. Hey, Elvis, don’t. I’m alright. They’re not gonna do anything to me.” He seemed to accept this as truth, however reluctantly. When he spoke again, it was in a low whisper. “So it’s diff’rent in your time? The restaurants and things, I mean? It ain’t like this?”
I shook my head. “No, not at all. I mean, there’s still some prejudices, of course, but not so much like here. Everybody can pretty much sit wherever they want, and people of different races get married all the time. Our president’s African-American, too.”
Elvis sat back in his chair, as if the sheer weight of this news was too much for him. “No joke? That’s incredible.” Then he grinned, though the grin was softened by deeply thoughtful expression. “I sure wish I could go there with you. I’d like to see that.”
Oh, how I wished it too. “I don’t think it works that way, Elvis. That’d be cool, though.”
His head cocked to one side, he said, “Tell me something.”
“This Negro president, did I vote for him? Do ya know?”
An involuntary gasp caught in my throat, and I almost choked on my Pepsi.
I couldn’t tell him the truth. It felt like there was a great big fist that had a grip on my heart as I said only, “I-I’m not sure, Elvis. P-p-probably.” Not an outright lie, but enough of one to make the burger I’d eaten sink like a stone into the pit of my stomach.
Luckily, he didn’t press me further; instead, he seemed to be focused on something just over my shoulder, in the direction of the blacks-only section of the diner. I twisted in my chair to follow his gaze.
“Lookit that. Those people have been sittin’ there twenty minutes or more, and that fella ain’t even asked if they was hungry.” I saw what he meant. Our side of the diner was nearly empty; it was just Elvis and I, and three other men. The other side though was close to full, and not one single person had a plate of food in front of them. Not so much as a glass of water.
Elvis got up from his chair and went to the counter, where the man who’d served us was picking a scab on his elbow. “Excuse me, sir?”
The man regarded him with raised eyebrows.
“I was wonderin’ if I could get more food.”
He was given a gesture to continue. Clearly, Glen (this was the name the plastic tag on his shirt gave him) wasn’t in a chatty mood.
This didn’t faze Elvis, who went on ahead to order. “Yeah, I need ten cheeseburgers, all of ‘em with fries, and uh, eleven cherry Pepsis. You can do that, right?”
Glen looked about ready to faint. “Yes, yessir, I can most certainly do that for ya. You, uh, you payin’ cash or credit?”
Elvis had the whole diner’s attention now; it wasn’t a big place, and his voice had carried far enough for all to hear. He seemed to ponder the man’s question for a minute, then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, pulled one of his rings from the middle finger of his left hand.
I hadn’t noticed he’d been wearing any jewelry, hadn’t even thought about it. His outfit, after all, didn’t seem suitable for the solid gold, ruby-incrusted ring he laid on the counter. “That should cover it, I think.”
I’d never thought I’d feel bad for the bigot that had denied me service simply because I’d been standing on the wrong side of a rope, but it was impossible not to feel for the guy then. He actually looked like he was going to pass out right there at the register.
He took the ring and slipped into his pocket almost subconsciously, and it took nearly five minutes for him to ring up all the food. Elvis waited patiently. He waited while Glen poured the Pepsis, packaged the fries, and flipped all ten burgers.
“Would you, uh, will you be needin’ a sack for this, Mr. Presley?”
So he did recognize Elvis.
Elvis shrugged, grinning a little sheepishly. “Well, I dunno sir. I guess it depends on whether or not you intend to let those fine people stay around long enough to eat.” He stretched out an arm in the direction of the customers sitting at tables on the other side of the rope. I counted heads to myself, and wasn’t too surprised when I discovered that there were indeed, ten African-American patrons convened on various beat-up bar stools across the way.
A shadow fell across the man’s face as he realized what Elvis had done. But it was too late; Elvis addressed the patrons directly. “Hey! I hope y’all are hungry!”
They seemed stunned. For a long time, not one of them moved, but stared at Elvis like he was a thing from a distant planet.
But then, ever so slowly, a woman in the furthest corner stood up. She was very old; her hair was the purest white, and fell freely down past her elbows. Her face bore more wrinkles and lines than the oldest tree; she moved stiffly, her thin arms and legs looking fragile enough to break at just a touch.
Her eyes, though, were bright and alive, and the misty green of stained glass. I suppose her dress had been blue once, in its beginning years, but now it had faded to a kind of grey, and the pink roses in full bloom on the fabric were now the color of old scars. She was barefoot.
She moved towards Elvis with careful determination, using each chairback she passed as a handhold. He waited for her, smiling softly.
When she was within a couple feet of him, she spoke. “I’d like one of them burgers, missa Presley.”
He handed her a burger, and the fries; she eyed the Pepsi like a thirsty man yearns for a tall glass of water.
Elvis picked it up, and poked a straw through the top. “If you’ll show me where you was sittin’, ma’am, I’d be glad to carry this for you.”
I thought the woman was going to cry; she beamed at him, smiling with a mostly-empty mouth of crooked teeth. “W’thank ya, sir! Indeedy!” She cackled gleefully, and set off at a snail’s pace for her chair. Elvis followed patiently behind.
I got up out of my chair, and went to the counter. “There’s plenty of food left, guys! C’mon and get it!”
The rest of the patrons, all men, leapt out of their chairs and sprinted for the food as if they thought it might grow legs and run. They fell on the cheeseburgers like lions to a fresh kill.
One of the men, a tall gangly boy of perhaps twenty, paused long enough to lay his hand on my shoulder. “Thank ya greatly, ma’am!”
That was all, then he was in with the rest, but the fact that he had found it within him to stop and thank me (for I really had done nothing) touched me in an inexplicable way. I felt just a little foolish when tears stung my eyes, threatening to fall.
Now seated beside the old woman, Elvis looked over at me and grinned. I smiled back, and in that one moment, I was the closest to feeling that I loved him, not just as a good friend, but somehow more.
Few people got to see this side of Elvis, the man behind the performer, the revolutionary behind the glitz and glamour. He was still very much a human being, a good and kind man. The fact that he had even dared to speak to that little old woman, let alone purchase meals for her and nine other African-Americans, showed a great deal of not only courage, but personal moral strength. He had paid no attention to Glen, who had retreated back into the kitchen.
Yes, I loved him. For all of that and more.
Elvis got up from his chair, but paused to bend and kiss the old woman on her wrinkled, sweet chocolate-colored cheek. I couldn’t help but laugh when she reached out and patted his thigh, admiring it like a fine marble statue.
He took her hand gently in his own, laughing too. He bent again, whispered something close to her ear, and gave her tiny hand one last squeeze before letting it go. “Bye y’all! Enjoy your meals!”
They all waved at him as he found me and led me to the door; we left again through the one designated BLACKS ONLY.
Back on the street, I could see we weren’t getting off as easily as we’d thought. Two white men leaned on either side of the maroon Cadillac; one had chewing tobacco bunched in his cheek. I recognized one of them from inside the diner.
Elvis stopped in his tracks, and threw out one arm to keep me from going any further. “Afternoon, gentlemen. If you wouldn’t mind, me an’ my friend here sure would like to be on our way. And that’s my car.”
The man with the tobacco sneered at him. “Oh is it now? Well it’s a mighty pretty mo-sheen for a Nigra-lover, ain’t it?”
The livid gleam in Elvis’ eye scared me; his jaw was clenched, every muscle in his mouth working, grinding. “Sir, I suggest you and your boys here get lost before somebody gets hurt. I don’t wanna make no trouble, see.”
I could tell that this was going to get ugly, fast. So I pushed past Elvis’ protective arm and stood right up close to the other man, the one with his skinny butt sitting right on top of the Cadillac’s hood. “Excuse me, sir, but all we want is to get in that car, and drive away. We just wanna get in the car.”
He was a big man; skinny, hardly more than an uber-sized stick-bug, but tough like beef jerky and steeped with enough racial hate to fuel the entire Klu Klux Klan himself. He leaned down in my face until the tip of his long, beak-like nose brushed my cheek. “Don’t you sass me, you Yankee b****.”
I sensed more than saw Elvis move; I heard heavy footfalls on the sidewalk behind me, and cries of alarm. Then the man that’d previously been less than an inch from my face was on the ground, under two hundred fifteen pounds of furious, cursing Elvis.
He threw punch after punch, hardly letting the guy make a single move. Thunk. Thunk. THUNK. His fists flew into the man’s face again, again, and again.
“Elvis! Elvis, stop! Elvis!” My voice sounded so pitiful, so silly, and it wasn’t enough to make him stop. I was yelling, screaming at him, but my body wouldn’t move, wouldn’t take a single step towards the sweating, bleeding heap of man on the pavement.
Once, Elvis’ opponent scrambled to his feet, hands raised to his face. “Okay! I give! I give!”
One last hard swing sent him to the ground again. Only then, after the man’s eyes fluttered shut and his shoulders slumped, did Elvis let up.
His opponent had managed a blow or two; a slow trickle of blood chased its way down the side of Elvis’ head, dyeing the ridge of his collarbone deep crimson and overflowing to run down his belly.
Otherwise, though, he was unhurt. I could see the muscles in his arms trembling, the thick muscles in his legs jumping and tightening. A line of sweat traced the contours of his face, forming a salty droplet on the curve of his chin before dripping onto his open shirt.
“C’mon. Get in the car.”
We climbed back into the maroon Cadillac, but Elvis didn’t start it up right away. Instead he turned me, his eyes dark. “So, how was that for an adventure, huh?”
I shook my head, incredulous. “Elvis, that was nuts! We could’ve been killed!”
“Oh, nah, not killed. Them guys got no muscle behind their talk. We woulda been okay. Besides, it was worth it.”
Remembering the old woman, I nodded my agreement. “True. But what about your face?”
Elvis raised his left hand to the cut on his forehead and drew it away, studying the blood on his fingertips. “It’s fixable. You’d be amazed what they can do with makeup nowadays. I’ll be fine.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“He had no business talkin’ to you that way.”
I noticed a cold, hard fury behind his words, in his eyes and the hard set of his jaw. A change had manifested itself in Elvis since I’d seen him last; I couldn’t quite give it its proper name, but something— perhaps the Army, perhaps the very real fear and frustration he’d finally begun to feel under the taut reins of Tom Parker— something had eaten away all traces of the naïve, mild-mannered good-ole-boy that Elvis had once been.
We pulled out of the parking lot, taking it slow; the car was almost as wide as the road, and Elvis had a heck of a time maneuvering the beast past the parked cars across the way.
After we’d been rolling awhile, I asked, “What was it you said to the old woman? Right before we left?”
A switch flipped somewhere inside him; the steely gleam in his eyes disappeared, and the slightest tinge of pink caressed the line of his high cheekbones. The question seemed almost to embarrass him. “Oh, uh, that was nothin’. Not even worth repeatin’.”
I cocked my head to one side and waited, eyes searching. “What’d you say, Elvis?”
“Y’know, just…..told her to take care of h’self, and, uh, not take no sass from nobody. Cornball stuff like that.”
I smiled at him, reaching over to squeeze his knee. “That’s very sweet, Elvis. Not cornball at all.”
The car veered a little to the right, and I just barely caught a chuckle over the steady thrum of the road. He glanced down at my hand, as if unable to believe it was real. Neither of us spoke; his big hands hung slack on the wheel, as if he could steer the Cadillac just by thinking about it.
“Whup, here we go. You ready to face big bad Boss Man again?” We’d found our way back to the beach, where the cameras, crewmen, and one grumpy manager waited in the shade of the trees. Elvis piloted the Cadillac around to the place where sand met pavement and stopped, keeping the car idling. Draping an arm over the back of my seat, he stretched his legs out past the pedals. “Well, on out with ya, then.”
I frowned at him. “Aren’t you coming? You’re the reason they’ve been waiting all this time.”
“I figure they can wait a little longer. If I gotta play a big dummy, those Hollywood folks should at least cut me some slack, huh? Ain’t like I ain’t been breakin’ my back for those fools.”
It was the first time I’d heard him talk down on anyone who’d hired him. I understood how he felt, of course; all through his movie career, Elvis was given roles that hardly even tapped his potential as an actor, not to mention all of the ridiculous songs he had to sing. Even so, his outright indignation surprised me. “That’s true, Elvis. But what do you want me to tell them?”
“Jus’ say I had ta pick up some things. That’s all anybody gotta know.”
My eyes flitted to the matted, bloody mess just above one dark brow. I stared at him, wondering what he meant. “Okay, Elvis. I’ll tell ’em.” Figuring that settled it, I clambered out of the car, taking care not to rap my head on the low frame. With nothing more than a wave and a mysterious smile, Elvis was gone again, the back wheels kicking up white sand.
I stood there, not quite sure what to do, figuring Tom Parker would call the police as soon as he discovered I was there alone. Facing that inevitability, I made my way towards the cluster of palm trees.
It was only when I was close enough to distinguish faces that I noticed someone else waiting there, someone I hadn’t seen the first time. Even with their back to me, I ventured a guess that I knew who they were.
The stranger was a woman, and she was seated on a green blanket in the sand, her feet bare, her brown, almost black hair loose and blowing in the wind. The strangest feeling possessed me as she stood, perhaps roused by the expressions of surprise on the faces of the men around her, and turned in my direction.
I knew it. Priscilla. She was absolutely stunning at seventeen, with the many years of chaos yet to come, yet to show in her dazzling hazel eyes. She wore a simple, clinging dress, its fabric oddly lustrous, and the same color as raspberry cotton candy. Her eyes were not yet traced with thick lines of eyeliner and mascara, but were left fresh and natural; this did more for them than any amount of makeup ever could. Simply put, Priscilla Beaulieu had to be one of the most beautiful young women I had ever seen.
As she and a few of the others made their way towards me, I found myself pulling on the hem of my t-shirt, which was soaked through with sweat, and toeing one shoe with the other. I didn’t feel pretty, as I had back home, standing in front of the mirror. Reluctantly, I forced myself forward, closing the gap between myself and the group. I noticed Parker still standing under the shade, fanning himself with his hat. Even from where I stood, I could tell he was angry. I didn’t care.
She was the first to reach me. The wind whipped our hair in circles, though mine didn’t quite catch the sun like hers did. I smiled shyly. “Hi. I’m Sera. S-Sera Deschain.”
Priscilla smiled faintly, and I knew Elvis had told her about me. Not everything, of course, but enough. “Oh yeah, Sera. Hi! Priscilla Beaulieu.” Shaking her hand, seeing my callused fingers intertwined with her own, porcelain, smallish digits, was by far the most surreal moment of my life up to that point. I felt like the saddest, ugliest duckling in a pond of swans.
She raised a hand to her brow, squinting in the sun. “Where’s Elvis? Didn’t you come with him?”
Oh boy. “Uh, yeah, but he just dropped me off. He said he needed to pick up a few things.”
The slightest of frowns creased her delicate forehead. “Huh. Well, that’s okay. Come sit under the shade, get out of the sun!”
How like a child she was! She was still, at seventeen, no more tarnished by Elvis’ lifestyle than she’d been at fourteen. I wondered when that unfortunate transformation would take place. We walked together to the green blanket, to the spot under the trees where I’d first spotted her. Priscilla plopped down in the sand like she was most at home there, and patted the place beside her.
Tom Parker’s eyes were on me as I sat down there; I could feel it. Though I’d purposely positioned myself so that I’d have my back to his considerable bulk, when he spoke, it was directly to me. “What’d you do with Elvis?”
“Oh, didn’t you hear? I sold him to little green men in exchange for the secret of life.”
Priscilla stifled a giggle in the crook of her arm; I was grateful for the camaraderie. Twisting in my seat, I looked up at him with an expression of defiance. “Sir, Elvis dropped me off here and just said he had to go get something. Didn’t say what.” I didn’t give him a chance to retort, and turned back around.
He mumbled something under his breath, but gave me no more trouble than that. When I looked at her again, Priscilla was watching me with a curious gleam in her eye. “Elvis has told me so much about you, you know. But he’s never said where you’re from.”
My mouth dropped open in surprise. “Oh. Well, I-I, I live in Nebraska, uh, I was born there. But I lived in Pennsylvania for awhile, too.” I couldn’t believe how ridiculous I was being, couldn’t believe that I was completely (okay, mostly) at ease with the best-looking man in the history of men, but this girl, this simple girl, rendered me speechless. Maybe it was the awe not of her, but of the life she had yet to live.
She nodded politely, shifting her petite form atop the blanket. “I’ve never been that far west, if you can believe it. My father’s in the Air Force, so I’ve lived many places. That’s how I met Elvis.”
There was an inescapable tenderness in her eyes when she spoke his name. It pulled at my heart to see it.
Perhaps it was only natural, being a woman and feeling a kind of closeness with Elvis, but for the longest time, I found myself disliking Priscilla. Not hating her, nothing that extreme, but having an aversion to her. I blamed her for Elvis’ unhappiness after the divorce, blamed her for marketing his name after his death. She was still alive in my time, of course, though much older and wiser. And I pointed a finger at her face and accused her of tearing Elvis down.
But then, sitting there with her, listening to her speak and seeing her so young and vibrant, I felt an odd sense of clarity. Though even then I barely knew anything about her, I no longer felt myself blaming her. She was young, naïve, and in love with a dynamic, untamable man.
In my time, she kept Elvis’ name alive, acknowledged his power and passion, when she had every right to be bitter. I knew, as many had known, that Elvis had been unfaithful to her, to woman after her; he was not perfect, but she, she and I, had loved him anyway, despite all that. I admired her.
“Sera? Are you alright?” Priscilla waved one small hand in front of my face, thin brows knit together with concern.
I blushed, feeling downright foolish. “Sorry, yeah, I’m fine. I just kinda spaced off.”
She smiled a little uncertainly. “Right. So, when did you meet Elvis? I mean, how old were you? He talks as if he’s known you his whole life, but George says that he himself only met you when Gladys died.”
Good ol’ George. I wondered if he remembered that I was taller than he was, and almost as strong-willed as his best friend. I found myself grasping for improbable truths, wondering how I could ever get around telling her that I was sixteen when Elvis was four, and only just turning seventeen when he was twenty-seven. “I— um, I was….thirteen. I, uh, met his mother first.”
“Did you live in the projects too?”
“N-no. No, I was just visiting the city, and, um, happened to wander down their street.” A weak story, one I could only weave as I went along. Could she see in my eyes that I’d only started disappearing at thirteen, that I’d met Gladys in Tupelo, not Memphis? Of course not.
Priscilla didn’t seem to find any flaws in my story, accepting it as truth. She tucked her legs under her, and reached up to fluff her pretty brown hair. “Hmm.”
Not wanting to acknowledge her willful eyes appraising me like a fine but temperamental horse, fit for show but not much else, I stared out at the beach, squinting in the bright Florida sun.
“Do you love him very much?”
Her question sent a prickle of surprise down my spine, and my heart gave a half-hearted skip in my chest. “Well, I guess so, yeah, but as a friend. We’ve known each other a long time, and we talk about a lot of things. I do love him, but not as any sort of boyfriend, if that’s what you mean.”
That’s exactly what she meant; I saw that. Sighing, she slipped down, down, until she lay straight on her back; her long, thin legs stuck out the length of the blanket. “He’s told me he loves me lots of times, but I suppose he tells a lot of girls the same thing. I’m not sure whether to believe him.”
How I wished the conversation had gone anywhere but there. I too laid down flat, beside her but leaving a good six inches between us. “Oh, I think you should believe him, Priscilla. He told me about you on our way to town, and you should have seen how his eyes looked. He was gushing.”
A pretty blush pinkened her cheeks. “Really?”
This seemed to satisfy her, for she didn’t speak again. After about ten minutes had gone by, the peaceful silence between us was broken by a sudden commotion further down the beach; men were shouting, and above them, I could hear a car engine revving, roaring like a great medieval monster. The two of us stood up from the blanket, sharing expressions of bewilderment.
Somewhere beyond my field of vision, I heard Tom Parker: “Who is that?! They’re trespassin’!”
Almost in response, Priscilla gasped. “I think that’s Elvis! Look!” The ‘monster’ turned out to be a car, yet unidentifiable but painted a most brilliant shade of blue; Walt Disney-sky blue, a blue of every child’s fantasy. It was a hardtop, so the driver couldn’t be seen. Sand sprayed in every direction with every twist of the wheels, and crewmen were dodging left and right to stay out of its way.
I knew it was Elvis in the driver’s seat when I heard raucous laughter burst from the front left window, which was half-open. Now that it was closer, I could see it was a Chevy Bel Air, one of the most beautiful classic cars I’d ever seen. I wouldn’t have been too terribly surprised to find myself drooling.
Priscilla seemed to be rooted to the spot, hands clasped over her mouth in disbelief; not me. I ran to it, laughing myself at the gleeful expression on Elvis’ face as he climbed up out of the seat. “Elvis, you crazy— what is this? Where did you get it?”
He couldn’t keep the grin off his face. “Saw it ’bout fifteen miles down the road, out past that diner we ate at. Owner was gettin’ rid of it just cuz it’s two years old. You believe that?”
I couldn’t. I ran my hand over the Bel Air, my fingers–– my whole body, it seemed–– trembling with awe. “Elvis, it’s absolutely….it’s beautiful.”
I can only imagine how my face must’ve looked when his words managed to sink in. I do know that my mouth dropped open all on its own, a separate entity from the rest of my body, expressing its identical surprise in the only way it could.
Elvis laughed. “It’s yours, Sera. All yours.” He held out a hand; I took it, feeling weightless and stupid.
Priscilla had come out of her own stupor, and approached the car, her delicate hand appraising it like a fine piece of china. “Elvis, you bought this for her?”
It was the first time he’d noticed her. He left my side (I hardly noticed; I was too preoccupied with the interior of the gorgeous coupé: the seats were upholstered in white leather ), and went to her, wrapping his bare, honey-colored arms around her slender waist. His lips dipped close to the crook of her ear. I didn’t hear any of what he said.
Suddenly, I frowned. “Elvis, what’s this box?”
I unlocked the back driver’s side door, peering in at the cardboard box that sat on the floor. It wasn’t taped shut, and I heard something like whimpering coming from inside. “Elvis?”
Priscilla seemed okay; she hadn’t even shed a tear, and whatever Elvis had whispered in her ear had apparently reassured her that I wasn’t a threat. A soft smile graced her full lips. He turned back to me, and I noticed that he’d taken time to clean up the cut above his eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“What’s in the box?”
He grinned, snickering a little. “Well, gee, I dunno! Why don’t you open it and find out your own self?”
Slowly, carefully, half-expecting something to jump out and bite me, or explode, I pulled one lip of the box upward. “Oh, Elvis! Oh my God!”
It was a puppy. A Walker hound, by the looks of her; even this small, she had long legs, a feature that separated her and her kin from the more easily-recognized basset hound or beagle. Her coloring, though, was the same; brown and black splotches over white, and little coffee-colored speckles dotting her strong hind legs. Her eyes were the green of exotic oceans.
As any girl our age would be, Priscilla was enamored with the puppy, cooing and giggling like one would with a baby. I wrapped my hands around the little one’s plump belly, and plucked her from the box. She folded easily into my arms, bracing her front two paws on my collarbone. She had the sweetest brown eyes. “Ohhh, Elvis, she’s so cute! She’s perfect!”
Elvis folded his arms across his chest, obviously pleased with himself. “I saw this little girl in a window on my way back with the car. She was jus’ beggin’ somebody ta take her home. Happy birthday, Sera.”
I hugged him as tight as I could with the puppy between us; she squirmed and wriggled ferociously, nipping at the dangling strands of my hair. “Thank you so much, Elvis. She’s absolutely beautiful.” Elvis shrugged, working his fingers over the puppy’s narrow head, touching on that sweet spot behind her ears that every dog seemed to have.
Out of nowwhere, Tom Parker’s booming voice overtook the lakeside beach. “Hey Elvis! Where you been, son? You don’t get the money if you don’t show up, you know.”
Elvis flashed an apologetic smile his way. “I know, sir. I just went and got a few things for Sera’s birthday. She’s gonna be seventeen in just a few more days now.”
Parker huffed, lookin’ me over like he thought I was packing a gun, or a bomb, or something. “Well, congratulations. That’s a fine car.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Whatchoo gonna name that dog?”
“I don’t know yet, sir.”
Tom Parker frowned at me, but seemed to think it was pointless to go on. He turned to Elvis. “I guess we can call it a day, since we ain’t got much of anything done. But understand we gotta be here real early tomorrow, if we’re going to meet our deadline. I wanna know where you’re at at all times. Do I make myself clear?”
Elvis nodded his understanding. “Crystal clear, Colonel.”
Parker answered him with a nod of his own, then turned and walked off, taking most of the crew with him.
Priscilla leaned back on the hood of my car. “I don’t like the way he talks to you, Elvis. He acts like he owns you.”
He waved her worry away. “Oh, don’t you worry yourself, sweetheart. The Colonel knows what he’s doin’. Besides, he done give us the whole afternoon off to goof around, didn’t he? Whaddya say we go for a ride in Sera’s pretty new car?”
Just his words thrilled me. He tossed me the keys and went around to the front passenger side, holding open the back door for Priscilla before climbing in. I settled myself in the driver’s seat, heart racing with excitement. The rambunctious little hound climbed in the back with Priscilla, hardly sitting still enough to allow the girl to hold her in her lap. She barked once, and I jumped, my body was so rigid with nerves. When I turned the key, the guttural roar of the engine sent heavenly chills down my spine. I felt like singing.
Hardly able to contain myself, I reached for the gear shift, more than ready to be on the road. It was then I noticed something odd. “Elvis, where are the letters?”
He looked at me funny. “Letters? What letters?”
“The letters! You know, that tell you whether you’re in Park, Drive, Neutral, or Reverse! Those letters!”
A look of comprehension lit a fire in Elvis’ eyes. “Oh! Why, this one don’t got letters. Only the automatic cars have those.”
“You mean, this isn’t automatic?”
“’Course not! They’re damn expensive, Sera!”
I could’ve cried.
Elvis stared at me, uncomprehending. I could see myself in the rearview mirror; my face was screwed up in an expression of both shock and heady disappointment.
He didn’t get it. “What’s the matter? You forget how to drive?”
Priscilla sat prim and ladylike in the backseat, just behind me. Her eyes on me, she spoke to Elvis. “I don’t think she knows how to drive it, Elvis.”
Our eyes met briefly; hers revealed none of the sudden animosity that I knew had to be blooming wild in my own.
“Well, damn.” Elvis shook his head, stretching his long legs out in the foot well until he was nearly horizontal. “That sure beats all, don’t it? I suppose e’rybody’s got automatics in your ti— uh, where you come from, huh?”
Priscilla didn’t seem to catch her dusty prince’s near-slipup; I however did, and was grateful he’d thought to keep the circumstances of my visit a secret. I smiled at him softly, running one hand over the steering wheel of the beautiful car I couldn’t drive. “It’s alright, Elvis. It’s an amazing car, and—” I twisted around in my seat to scratch behind the wriggling puppy’s floppy ears, smiling helplessly at her unpretentious joy— “This little gal is enough by herself.”
Elvis shrugged, seeming not even to hear my earnest dismissal. “Hell, I wish I woulda known that before I spent the goddamn money. Y’ain’t got not use for a car ya can’t even drive, do ya?”
Priscilla’s pretty hazel eyes widened; my mouth dropped open in surprise. Elvis slouched low in the passenger seat, shoulders hunched like a sullen teenager, his face unreadable. The little dog sat between us on the armrest, her whole body wiggling with her tail. She regarded Elvis with a curious and innocuous expression.
It was only then I thought to switch off the car. I pulled the keys out of the ignition and laid them in my lap. “Elvis, what are you talking about?”
He answered with another shrug. “I dunno. I just thought you oughtta at least try to drive the damn thing, seein’ as I went outta my way to get it for you. It’s not like I can afford to just buy a luxury automobile any old time I want to.”
Clearing her throat daintily (perhaps fearfully), Priscilla said, “But Elvis, you bought my daddy and a whole bunch of your friends all Caddys last month!”
It happened before I had time to think. Elvis gave a cry like a caged bear and drove his fist into the dashboard; the puppy yelped and tumbled into my lap; Priscilla had her hands on the door and was piling herself out into the sand before Elvis even withdrew his hand from the dented metal of the dash. I, however, couldn’t move.
When he pulled his hand out of the sizable crater in the dashboard, there was blood on his knuckles, and one finger was bent at an odd angle. He cursed quietly. He made a move much like Priscilla had, assaulting the door handle like it was a steroid-pumped mosquito and tumbling out of the car. I watched from inside as he made for the caravan of cameras and trolleys, cradling the hand with the broken finger in the other against his stomach. His long legs pumped like those of a marathon runner, carrying him fast across the sand.
I scooped the little she-hound into my arms, pulling her close. Her body trembled, and I knew how she felt. “Ssh, ssh, little girl, it’s alright. It’s over now. It’s alright.” I crooned to her, stroking one velvety ear and keeping my lips pursed against her narrow cheek. I climbed out of the car carefully, as best I could with my arms full.
When I’d made my way around the front of the car, I found Priscilla. She was curled up on the ground, her glamorous dress gritty with sand, her legs tucked up close to her face. As I got closer, I was astonished to find that she had shed no tears; her eyes were dry, but they held a torment like none I’d never seen.
I sat down beside her in the sand. She didn’t turn her head, but I felt her eyes on me as I crossed my legs Indian-style and propped my elbows on my thighs.
She spoke without prompt. “He gets real angry like that sometimes. Somebody’ll make a comment on one of his movies, or even something that has nothing to do with him, and he just blows up, breaking or punching anything close. It scares me, but the good so outweighs the bad that I just usually ignore it.”
It was the most she’d said to me since we’d met. Like Elvis’ question of whether I knew if he’d voted for the African-American president, her words haunted me with their sheer augural significance. She had no idea what was to come, what fits of rage awaited Elvis in the fog of pills and frustration. She couldn’t know that, as she wished, they would be married, but that their marriage would be tumulus right from the start, and that it would end so quickly.
I wanted to tell her, to warn her, to prepare her for the inevitable storm ahead. But I knew I couldn’t, that any knowledge of my traveling or what I myself knew would cause irreversible damage. I was as helpless to the cruel governess that was Fate as she was.
I didn’t answer her, instead staring out across the beach, clutching my puppy’s reassuring warmth to myself despite the blanketing heat of the day. Far across the sand I saw Elvis, standing in the wide shadow of Tom Parker, speaking words I couldn’t hear. His manager looked angry. Elvis spoke animatedly, gesturing with his uninjured hand. Once, I saw him turn away from the silently screaming man to fish in his pocket, reaching across himself with his right hand. Even from where I was, I could make out the thing he retrieved from his cut-offs’ shallow pocket; a bright orange bottle with a white top, filled with something dark: pills.
That was the last straw for me. I leapt up from the ground and broke
into a run, leaving Priscilla behind in a spray of hot sand. The ever-faithful Walker hound pup was close at my heels.
He was ignoring me; he was trying to open the bottle by pinning it between his arm and his body, twisting the cap with his good hand. Fueled by a desperate, anarchic fury, I got to him faster than he could defeat the child-proof lock. “Damn it, I can do it! I can do it!”
He seemed to be talking to himself more than anyone else; I took the moment of chance and snatched the bottle from his struggling hand; recovering quickly, he had my wrist in a vice-like grip before I could flinch.
With my free hand, I wound up as best as I could with one arm nearly twisted behind me and let the bottle fly. And fly it did; higher, faster, better than any baseball I’d ever thrown.
The hand around my wrist squeezed hard. I gasped in pain, eyes filling with tears and losing the little orange canister in the brightly burning sun as it completed its dive into the swaying lake. It was full enough to sink.
A tense silence fell over the beach. Elvis released my arm and I cradled it to my chest, much as he had done with his fractured hand. Our lungs filled and emptied, filled and emptied in a silent, cooperative rhythm as we stood staring at one another.
His pretty blue eyes were dark, brooding, a vicious storm ruminating within him like melted tar on a scorching summer’s day. But his face was untroubled, unlined by all but time, which still held vigil in the corners of his eyes and his drooping mouth. The tears that had threatened when he’d grasped me so harshly returned and fell now, quietly tracing the shape of my cheeks and cutting pink paths through the smudges of dirt on my face. My sweet little puppy whimpered and licked at my calf with her sticky tongue. I reached down for her without dropping my eyes from Elvis’ and plucked her up, tucking my
hand under her bottom.
That was all; just my name. I tightened my jaw to keep my chin from trembling, though now the tears flowed unabated. When he reached out for me, I stepped backward, avoiding his touch. “Forget it, Elvis. I can’t save you. I’m not even sure you could save yourself, even if you wanted to.”
“Save me? Wha— what are you—”
“You go ahead and live out your dream, Elvis. Just now that everything you do doesn’t just affect you, it affects everyone around you— Priscilla, your father, everyone.”
And before he could speak again, I carried it one step further: “But no matter what you do, I can just go home and live my life and not have to think about all the selfish, stupid things you did to destroy all the good things you had.”
Elvis crumpled in on himself like a flag in an airless night. His shoulders drooped, and a line of sorrow creased the bridge of his nose. The life went out of his eyes.
Horrified at myself, at the heartless things I’d said, I turned from him and ran, clutching the dog to my chest to keep her from bouncing with my every step. I fled to the trees, to their dark, humid sanctuary.
I could feel it happening as I ran; bit by bit, I was fading, like an old movie ran over a projector over and over and over again, until the picture became grainy, and the colors worn. I was becoming a ghost, but a ghost that could see and hear and feel, and cry. I was still crying, the tears hot and very real on my face. The oddly stoic puppy in my arms yelped when I squeezed her too tightly, afraid she’d disappear right along with the Florida heat and the sand under my feet.
Then suddenly, the heat and the sand slipped away, and I was left in a cool, complete blackness that seemed too much like how I felt inside.
It was snowing.
Dandruff tuffs of snow floated down and settled in my hair, disappearing in seconds. My puppy squirmed in my arms, startled by the sudden change of scenery and the bone-chilling drop of the temperature. I was glad she’d made the trip with me.
Glancing around, it took me a moment to realize where I was. Instead of reappearing in front of my house, or inside it, I had landed three blocks away, in what would be called the town square if it wasn’t flanked on two sides by barren cornfield. I was seated with my back to the flagpole; above me, the Nebraska state flag and the flag of our country hung limp and lifeless in the still winter day. It rose up in the center of a crumbling red brick veranda, towering over a marble veterans’ memorial and frozen potted plants. When I stood up, hugging my squirming dog in my arms in a desperate attempt to keep warm, I saw that I’d been sitting on the lid of our town’s time capsule.
The capsule had been buried in 1912, and was due to be opened the following year. It was a drab, steel box, bolted shut with metalwork long since passed in its reliability.
Worried that the steel of the 20th century might not withstand alternating freezing winters and blistering summers, our chamber of commerce had initiated the help of a local construction company to have the thing encased in concrete about five years prior. I remembered wondering how they planned to open it when the time came without employing the help of a jackhammer.
I stood in the heart of our town, knowing my house waited for me just a few blocks down the street, yet somehow unable to move. The tears still fell without me to guide them, replacing those that had grown cold and sticky on my weather-reddened cheeks.
Somehow I had known that Elvis couldn’t stay the way I wanted him to, that the shy, modest boy of the fifties would grow into the angry, darker man of the sixties and seventies. I knew those changes would come to him before I’d even seen it.
I’ve read books that say that many people welcomed the older, calmer, and more mature Elvis that came out of the Army; they called him sleek, sophisticated, an adaptable creature of the times. Sure, all that was true: he had changed and evolved his style, doing (besides the crummy movies that would eat up most of his time in the sixties) what was considered the cultural norm. He had matured.
But less often mentioned was the fact that Elvis found amphetamines in the Army, and started using them to keep up with both the military’s and, later his, crazy schedule. The profound loss of his mother, as well as the jingoism and rigidity of the Army, had molded a new Elvis.
This was an Elvis who was frustrated with the assembly-line, low-budget movies he was presented with through Tom Parker, movies that made astronomic amounts of money but chipped away at his soul with every eighteen-day stretch. This was an Elvis who had fashioned himself an acceptable soul mate out of a fourteen-year-old school girl, shaping her to be a younger, naïve copy of his mother. This was an Elvis who, despite his deep love and talent for music, desperately wanted out.
I started off for home, stomping my feet on the snow-packed ground to try to warm them, shivering uncontrollably, my bare arms stiff with goosebumps. I could feel my little dog trembling too, but she snuggled close to me and tucked her long snout under my chin.
My left arm was circled around her middle, and I noticed with a pang in my heart that I now wore a deep red bracelet of finger-shapes around that wrist, a reminder of Elvis’ swift-moving fury which would almost certainly bruise and turn an angry shade of purple. My parents would know who had done it, and others would ask.
I stopped in the middle of the street, silently crying, feeling such a deep sense of helplessness and fear that I wished I could stand there forever, and not have to go home and face what Elvis had done, not have to see him again and know that our friendship had been deeply scarred, maybe more irrevocably than the time he had left to live could heal.
But life doesn’t work that way. To sit idly by, watching others take on the challenges and responsibilities of the world is not to live, but to die. I knew, somewhere deep within me, that however much I wanted to save Elvis, however hard I tried, history could not be rewritten. I knew that it would be foolish to spend my life (or at least, a good part of it) trying to rescue someone who was, in the long run, better off not being saved.
I thought of it as merciful that he died when he did, no matter the grim circumstances of his death. By 1977, the world had worked him over with a sledge hammer, beating him senseless until it squeezed every last drop of magic, every ounce of sweat and determination out of him.
The narrow street leading up to my house was peaceful, blissfully silent save the sound of my crunching footsteps. The puppy in my arms had resigned herself, maybe figuring it was better to be carried than stumbling paw-deep in the snow, something I supposed she’d never seen before.
When I was only four houses down, I stopped again. Joseph was seated on the second step of our porch, hunkered down against the cold. He wore the same boots he had when I met him, but instead of holey jeans, he had on heavy khaki overalls, like the ones construction workers wear, a long-sleeved shirt, and a bulky grey jacket. He wore a maroon knit cap over his midnight hair.
The little Walker hound leapt from my arms and happily into the snow, slipping and sliding across the frozen sidewalk. Though her footing was unsure, her glee was obvious; she yipped and barked in a decibel almost impossibly high for a dog. When Joseph looked up, he saw me first, and stood, brow crinkling with a childlike expression of concern.
Even in his working-class gear, he made me very suddenly and very painfully aware of how I must’ve looked.
Considering I’d spent almost an entire day drenched in a Florida summer in an outfit more suitable for October, it wasn’t the worst. But my shoes were wet and sandy, my jeans bore evidence of the cheeseburger I’d had for lunch, my poor t-shirt was muddy (not to mention the blotch of pickle juice on the hem), my hair was a sweaty, tangled mess, and gooey black streams of mascara had frozen from the cold in their hasty retreat down my rubbed-raw cheeks. I’d had better days.
Bless his heart; Joseph didn’t seem to notice any of these things. Instead he saw the tears still threatening to fall, and the tight-lipped anguish in my face. “Sera? What’s the matter?”
I had stood this kid up for five hours to go play looky-loo with a man who ended up seriously flipping out, and he still managed to care how I was feeling. I wondered if he had been sitting on our porch the whole time I’d been gone. “Joseph, I am sooo sorry! I had every intention of showing up, and I really wanted to, but I— a friend of mine— I—”
Joseph patted the front step, wordlessly asking me to join him there. I more or less collapsed into my designated seat. “I won’t say I wasn’t disappointed, ’cause I was. But the way I figure it, a girl like you must’ve had a really great reason not to show up.”
“Huh?” Good one.
He shrugged. “You just don’t strike me as the kind of person to intentionally stand people up. An’ looking at you now, I can tell it must’ve been important.”
Keeping an eye on my roaming puppy (she was curiously sniffing the leg of Joseph’s overalls, stamping her feet in the snow like either he or the cold white stuff were the most astounding things on this earth), I wiped self-consciously at the make-up running down my cheeks. “Oh, this is nothing. Not a big deal. Just stupid drama.”
Joseph sighed, but a faint smile graced the corners of his mouth. “Where’d you get the dog?”
“Early birthday present. She’s a Walker hound.”
“She’s gorgeous. What’s her name?”
“Is the person who gave her to you the reason you’re crying?”
I stared at him, eyes narrowed. “Maybe. What’s it to you?”
He actually cringed at my words. “Ouch, I’m sorry, I was just wondering. You’re obviously upset.”
I groaned quite audibly, pulling a hand through my ratty hair in tired frustration. “God, I’m sorry. That was awful. I am upset. And yeah, I got her from a good friend that I might not speak to for a really long time now.”
“You guys fight?”
A bitter laugh freed itself from my throat before I could stop it. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.” I held up my bruised wrist, showing him the fat finger marks Elvis had left.
Shock softened Joseph’s face. “Holy— ” He reached for my arm, taking it in both hands like a fragile vase, one hand gently holding my fingers, the other cupped around my elbow. “Yikes. How bad does it hurt?”
I shrugged, intrigued by his careful inspection. “Not so bad now. It was worse when it first happened.” I was proud of myself for even being able to form coherent words; my whole body was numb with cold—all but the arm that Joseph held in his calloused hands. The places where his fingertips touched my skin were warm, tingly, like someone had dotted the damaged skin with Icy-Hot cream. He struck me as almost fatherly the way he surveyed the bruises, tut-tutting like an old doctor, the kind you sometimes get in Nebraska and places like it; the ones that still do house calls in an age where most don’t even care to remember their patients’ names.
When his fingertips brushed over the rapidly-darkening bruises, a chill chased its way up my arm and fizzled delightedly in my chest. Joseph was still frowning. “You oughtta get inside! What were you thinkin’, walkin’ around out in the snow with no coat?”
I laughed. “Okay, Mom!” I paused, staring up the steps to the front door. “Look, I really am sorry I wasn’t here for our…..our date. If I had known…..” I was going to say that things would go so badly, but Joseph didn’t give me a chance.
He shrugged, smiling faintly. “Yeah, I know you are. Like I said, I don’t know you that well, but I think I know that you wouldn’t not show up if you could help it. Besides, you got food in your house, right?”
“So, if it’s not considered too seriously lacking in manners, I’d like to invite myself to dinner!”
We laughed together; the sound was oddly bittersweet, and I flushed apple-red when a few straggling tears escaped my eyes before I could stop them. Wordlessly, Joseph reached up and wiped them gently away with the callused pad of his thumb. I looked at him. He stared back.
The key was tucked away on a magnetic strip on the underbelly of the letterbox beside the door. I pulled it from its hiding place and twisted it in the lock; a warm rush of air greeted us when the door opened, and both Joseph and I welcomed the woody heat with identical sighs of contentment. I could feel my numbed arms and legs already starting to thaw.
The heavy, steel-soled boots on Joseph’s feet greeted the old oak floors in baritone voices, filling the silence with what I thought sounded like the end result of sumo wrestlers trying to tap-dance. A low whistle escaped his lips. “This is nice, Sera. How old is this place?”
I smiled softly. “Thanks. I’m not sure, but I think it’s close to a hundred.” I indicated the potbellied stove in the corner of the kitchen. “That’s all we’ve got for heat.”
Joseph shrugged, rubbing his hands together in pursuit of warmth. “I like it.” Without me having to ask, he toed his boots off of his feet and left them by the door. Further in, the old, pine-soaked aroma of burning wood had settled itself into the furniture, the carpet, even the walls. The little hound shook herself free of snowflakes at the door, and chuffed curiously, her bottle green eyes taking in the new environment.
Soon, she realized that this strange place did not entirely belong to her; as he was accustomed, once Dorian had heard the front door squeal open and shutter closed, he trotted into the kitchen to greet us. When he spotted the dog he stopped as abruptly as the tiled floor allowed, his back feet pedaling furiously on the slick surface, clawing for traction.
“Oh boy.” Chuckling, Joseph bent to the kitten and plucked him from the floor. Dorian mewed. “Aw, hey now! You afraid of that little thing? She’s not much bigger than you are!”
“Actually, he’s probably not afraid. He probably was just wondering how long it’d take him to pin her down.”
This brought a laugh to Joseph’s eyes; it glittered merrily in the chocolate depths, bright like a fire as he stroked the kitten’s stomach with two careful fingers. “Yeah, he looks like a hellraiser. Real mean.”
Dorian began to purr. I knelt beside the young hound and patted her head, silently reassuring her there was no danger. “But keep your back to the wall at all times, huh?”
Kitten still curled in the crook of his arm, Joseph sat down at our center island.
“Sorry, I’m a bad hostess. Are you hungry?”
“I could eat. But don’tcha want to get cleaned up first?”
My cheeks burned. I’d forgotten about the sandy, sweaty, snotty state I was in until he mentioned it.
“Hey, look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—hey, you okay?”
I forced a smile to my lips. “No, but it’s okay. I know, I’m a mess. I’ll just, uh, I’ll be right back.” Joseph’s mouth was pulled southwards in an apologetic frown. Dorian purred in his arms.
I left the two of them in the kitchen, trying to keep composure long enough to make it down the hall. Soft tick-clicking sounds behind and below me told me that my puppy had followed. I stopped, and smiled down at her. “I oughta name you Skip, huh?” She stared at me, head cocked to one side.
My bedroom was dark, and terribly cold; the stove’s iron belly was black inside, unfed of wood or fire. I shivered, pulling my sand-incrusted shoes from my feet and tugging the sweat-stained, salty, wet t-shirt over my head.
It was then I had the misfortune of catching a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror leaning against one wall. I was pale, trembling, spotted with bug bites and sported an ugly violet bruise in the crook of one arm. Ugh. I looked like that car crash you saw on the highway and couldn’t take your eyes away from. Hoping it wouldn’t result in any more bruises, I closed my eyes and felt my way to the closet, slid open its door and ran a hand over every hanging article. I found a t-shirt and pulled it over my head, wincing when my fingers caught in the epic disaster that was my hair. This was followed by the random selection of a sweatshirt and pants.
When I dared to open my eyes, my reflection wasn’t one for the Ripley’s Hall of Fame, but it was still depressing. I was wearing my dad’s old sweatshirt, a maroon and silver relic depicting a snarling jungle cat and the legend LOUISVILLE PANTHERS in block letters. The pants were my own, downy-grey sweatpants spattered with canary-yellow paint (left over from a revamping project on our upstairs bathroom). My feet were bare and my hair was still a mess. Figuring there was little more damage to be done, I pulled on my favorite pair of socks, a seven dollar double bargain depicting the subway system of New York City in delightfully accurate detail.
The hairbrush sitting innocently atop my dresser didn’t insight the same pleasure. I so didn’t want to go there. But like the tough time-traveling Wonder Woman that I imagined myself to be (don’t make me laugh), I bit the bullet and tugged the evil weapon of torture through my tangled, sand-speckled, sweat-saturated ’do. This action was immediately followed by some very choice words, words I wouldn’t have dared utter had anyone else been in the room.
Soon enough though, the deed was done. I had survived long enough to enjoy the privilege of rebraiding hair I was seriously considering chopping off at the roots. Sans makeup, I still managed to look halfway decent.
“Well, Sera, I don’t think it’s gonna get much better than this.” At least the sweatshirt hid that awful bruise, and maybe the stink of sand, salt water, and sweat could be passed off as exotic perfume. They made beach-smelling stuff, didn’t they?
I sniffed at one armpit. “Ugh.”
Despite my discouraging odor, I was sufficiently reassured that Joseph wouldn’t take one look at me and either run screaming from the room or laugh himself into a stroke. I built up enough courage to walk back through the hallway with the ever-present hound at my heels.
Joseph had helped himself to the refrigerator and was playing the domesticated male, building two identical ham sandwiches on top of the cutting board. Seeing him, I laughed before I could stop myself. He turned at the sound.
“Something funny? I haven’t burned anything yet!”
I shook my head. “I should hope not, you’re not even cooking. You just look so…..married.”
He blushed. “Gee, thanks. Next you’re gonna tell me I should learn how to knit.”
“I assumed you already knew how. Sure you don’t need an apron?”
Not even a full second later I was standing there with a slice of ham stuck to one half of my face; Phantom of the Delicatessen. Joseph was bent over double, laughing hard enough to squeeze fat tears from his eyes. I peeled the pink meat-mask off of my face, wanting so much to be angry with him but failing miserably; in the throes of debilitating laughter Joseph seemed just a boy, ten years old. The rocking cacophony of unrepressed joy that flew from his mouth was a beautiful sound, bringing with it the memory of bells charging down cobblestone streets, of summer evenings spent spitting watermelon seeds on the front walk, and at each other. It was a laugh bubbling and warm, and I could hear a veiled note of recklessness deep within.
I took the jar of Dijon mustard from the counter, dipping the butter knife beside it into its spicy belly. “Hey!” He looked up at me, eyes bright with wet amusement. The mustard flew, and fell with a splat, coating Joseph’s face and neck and painting some of the wall behind him. He leapt; I squealed, and soon the kitchen was the battleground for a domestic world war: cheese, ham, mayonnaise and mustard flew like bullets and fell like bombs.
Through it all we laughed like children; he was dumping fat globs of mayo in my already fragrant hair, and I was retaliating with a cleverly thrown tomato, courtesy of the overflowing bowl filled with reaped treasures from our garden. In a matter of minutes we were a wheezing and slippery mess on the floor, our stomachs aching with laughter.
Somewhere between laughing hard enough to fracture a rib and trying desperately to catch my breath, the tears came, and they came fast. A wave of fear and frustration washed over me like a bitter ocean, and my shoulders shook. I hated myself for breaking down like this in front of Joseph, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. And when he wrapped an arm over my shoulders and pulled me into the crook of his chest, I didn’t protest. We must have looked ridiculous, covered in food and I was once again playing the sobbing, snotty wonder. But just then I didn’t care, and I like to think he didn’t either.
Sometimes inexplicable things happen with people which no one understands, including those involved. There’s something like a spiritual connection between two souls, a binding of fates determined by some remote corner of the universe. Maybe that sounds unbearably New Age, but it’s what I believe. Intertwining providence, strong and sticky as a spider’s web, can hold two people together through anything, whether they’ve known each other from the womb or wandered onto the other’s front porch on a chilly January afternoon.
I felt something like that, an inexplicable connection, a intertwining of newly-introduced souls, in Joseph’s arms. I couldn’t tell him why I was crying, or who had squeezed my arm hard enough to leave bruises, but it was enough that he knew I wouldn’t tell him and still wanted to comfort me anyway.
When he finally spoke, I felt every word on his lips, pressed against the top of my head. “C’mon, stand on up. Lemme help you.” I let him pull me to my feet; his hands gripped my arms above the elbows, right above the deep purple fingerprints. I sniffed, praying I didn’t have snot running down my face. I made myself look at him. He was smiling softly, a sad understanding glittering in his eyes.
I sniffled, wincing at the gross sound, kind of like grape jelly sucked through a vacuum hose. “Thanks. Sorry about that, I—I don’t usually do things like this, I mean—Why are you smiling?”
Grinning, was more like it. Joseph shrugged, then reached out and swiped a glob of mayo from the tip of my nose. I hadn’t even noticed it was there. “I guess I’m smilin’ ‘cause I never seen nobody look so cute all snotty and dressed like a sandwich.”
I blushed so deep that I was sure my hair was turning red. I stared up at him, embarrassed and more than a little intrigued. “I think that’s the sweetest thing anyone’s every said to me.”
Our noses were almost touching. I thought about kissing him, but that brought back the memory of that night with Elvis, the moonlight shining on his hair and his softest wet lips on my own. How I felt emptied out, paralyzed from the neck down yet wanting to leap for joy. It wasn’t until that moment that it struck me: my first kiss had been with Elvis Presley, the Elvis Presley, a man who had probably had a million kisses before that one.
Knowing this, I still couldn’t bring myself to kiss Joseph. I wanted to, oh how I wanted to, but I couldn’t, not while hearing Elvis’ whisper in my ear. I took two slow steps backwards. “You’re welcome to get cleaned up in the bathroom down the hall. We’ve got two showers.”
Lord help me, I loved the way his eyebrows pushed together when he looked confused, and the odd little twist of his upper lip. His eyes asked a hundred questions. “Yeah, okay, thanks. I won’t be too long.”
I watched him walk away, leaving mustard footprints on the hardwood floor behind him, walking proud though his face told me he was trying to puzzle out what had just happened. I secretly wished him luck. It wasn’t as if I had any idea either.
An hour later, the two of us were sitting Indian-style on my bed, clean and glowing. Somehow, it was no big deal that I wasn’t wearing any makeup, that my hair was still wet and hanging in heavy ropes around my face, and that I was taking up most of the bed in an old pair of my mom’s sweatpants, an oversized Ole Miss sweatshirt, and my tiger slippers. I was comfortable, warm, and the entire world was pushed away.
All I felt was the soft cotton of my clothes, and the scratch of Joseph’s bare foot on my leg. All I heard was the soft drone of his voice, boyish and dripping with Texas drawl like honey from a comb. I’d given him an old pair of work jeans from my dad’s dresser, and a plain white pocket t-shirt that I hadn’t told him was mine.
It took all of our willpower combined to carry on a conversation; both of us wanted to tell the other so much we almost couldn’t pause long enough to let each other speak.
As the sun began to sink lower in the sky, it set fire to the world in shades of deep orange; the fire gave Joseph’s sweet-coffee skin a summery glow, even in the dead of winter. He laid back and rested his head on one pillow, while I lay opposite him, my head cradled by the well-worn belly of my favorite stuffed tiger. “Do you wanna talk about it?”
I turned my head, and frowned at him. “About what?”
“What happened to your arm.”
“Not really. It’s not what you think.”
“What am I thinking?”
I met his eyes, staring through them and trying not to blink. “That it was some guy that got rough with me, a boyfriend or something. It wasn’t like that at all.”
Joseph shrugged. “Okay, I believe you. You already said it was a friend. So what else is there to tell?”
If he only knew. “Nothin’, I guess. You could tell me more about yourself.”
He propped himself up on one elbow, and grinned down at me. I could feel his breath on my cheek. “Well, you already know that I totally own food fights. So, uh…..well, I got two younger sisters, Lucila an’ Caroline, and they’ve basically been my best friends all my life. We’ve moved around a lot, you see.”
I nodded. “With the restaurant.”
“Uh huh. My dad, he’s the one got me started likin’ Elvis, ’cause he’s loved him since forever, you know? I remember—” he chuckled to himself, eyes seeing something beyond the green walls of my bedroom. “It was one of the times we were movin’, and he put in a cassette of like, greatest hits, or somethin’, and the first song was Suspicious Minds. Man,that song just stuck with me, y’know? It was in my head constantly.”
The mention of that name stopped me cold for a second, like a hand on your shoulder in the dark. I forced a totally see-through smile to my lips. “Cool.”
The ghost of a frown puckered his brow, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. “How’d you get to be a fan?”
I didn’t really want to talk about Elvis; two posters of him flanked the wall above my bed; the one on the left showed him straddling a glittering blue motorcycle, hat pulled low over his brow, soft sneer on his lips. In the one on the right, he wore the American eagle jumpsuit, one of my favorites, and one hand was extended outward, as if beckoning me to join him onstage. He was smiling in that one, but as much as I focused on that smile, all I could see was his mouth snarling, his eyes spitting angry— the dent in the Cadillac’s dashboard. I shivered.
“Sera? What’s the matter?”
I shook my head, sitting up and hugging my knees close to my body. “It’s nothing. I was just thinkin’—has anybody ever hurt you, Joseph? I don’t mean like, hitting or beating or anything, I mean like, like— in your heart?”
Joseph sat up. There were shadows in his eyes, dark murky places that had no end. He put his arm around me again, and pulled me into him, so that our hips touched and our feet tangled. My heart had stopped beating a long time ago. His chin was tucked into the curve of my neck, and his nose tickled the bottom of my ear. I shivered again, but this time it had nothing to do with Elvis’ anger. “Everybody gets their heart hurt, Sera. It’s part of bein’ human. But what happened to you before don’t have to prevent you from livin’ now.”
His words brought the prickle of tears to my eyes, but I prayed they wouldn’t fall. I turned my head as best I could to meet his eyes. “And just how am I supposed to be living now?”
An odd little smile touched his lips. I could see my reflection in his pretty brown eyes; I looked puzzled, scared, but maybe a little hopeful too. The smile flickered from his lips to mine, like a butterfly. He exhaled; it ruffled the wisps of hair draped across my forehead.
Then slowly, slow enough that I barely knew he had moved, Joseph leaned in closer still, closed his eyes, and kissed me.
Even after I leaned back and tried to breathe, my head was buzzing; my mouth was on fire. Everything from my scalp to my chin got that feeling like legs falling asleep, except it felt good.
It hadn’t felt like a second kiss. Not that I had a lot of experience to look back on, mind you, but from what little I knew, that had been my first kiss. I realized in spite of everything Elvis was, the indescribable, delicious joy I felt then with Joseph was kind of like spending your life eating dry toast, until someone comes along and gives you butter.
His hand found mine on the comforter, and squeezed. I looked up at him, our eyes locked on one another, daring the other to speak first.
Neither of us uttered a word. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his red knit cap, crumpled and sitting forgotten on the pillow beside mine. I wondered if he’d forget to pick it up before he left.
Joseph stood, that funny little grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. Still, neither of us spoke. I stood up too, praying he couldn’t tell my knees were shivering, knocking together without me being able to stop it.
He wrapped his thick arms around me tight, and pulled me into a hug. “Take care.”
That was it. I was too speechless, too breathless to reply; I wondered what cologne he wore that smelled so good. He squeezed me again, and an involuntary gasp burst from my throat. Then he was gone before I had a chance to look into his eyes again, before I could find the answer to the question screaming inside my head.
When his footsteps had faded from my ears, I turned and looked at that second pillow. The hat was still there.
I named the puppy Heloise, after Tom Ripley’s French wife in Patricia Highsmith’s mystery series. It was maybe too elegant for such a clumsy little dog, but I liked it and she didn’t seem to mind.
She and Dorian sat back on their haunches just beyond the kitchen’s boundaries, and watched me attack the floor, counters, and walls with a sponge and a lot of soap.
The mayonnaise came off easily, and I grinded up the ham and cheese in the garbage disposal, figuring half a pound of either in the trash can would raise unwanted questions.
The mustard was a different story; even after a bald spot was worn in the sponge and angry red splotches crisscrossed my fingers, if you looked hard enough, some parts of the wall were a bit less white than the rest. But only if you stared at it for a while, and I was pretty confident no one paid that much attention to a bare wall.
As I scrubbed, my thoughts jived to the rhythm of our washing machine one room over, where the sand and the sweat and the sweet smell of a man gone 35 years were being swept away by hot water and Tide. More than once, I found myself pausing in my work to touch a trembling finger to my lips, awed by the fact that they’d been kissed, and that the warmth of it still lingered in every cell.
And I thought about that night with Elvis, that kiss that I could still feel on my mouth just as purely as Joseph’s. My head buzzed. Sighing, I regarded the already chummy kitten and puppy, who sat together still, studying me like little furry psychologists in action. “What do you guys think? King of rock ‘n’ roll with a serious anger management problem, or boy next door who smells like French fries?”
It wasn’t a terrible setback, smelling like fried potatoes, especially not compared to having the impulse to put your fist through a dashboard at the slightest proclivity. I knelt in front of my pets and rewarded both of them with a generous scratch under their chins. Dorian mewed. Heloise jumped, clearly shocked that her new best friend made such strange noises.
The evening before my seventeenth birthday, I stood in the middle of my bedroom with the lights off, and the door latched tight. My narrow path was lit by glowing coals in the stove; the orange-ish light turned the skin of my bare arms a pukey brown.
I watched myself in the full-length mirror that hung on the back of my door, seeing my reflection drop its eyes to the nasty bruises that branded my bicep. Four days after I’d gotten them, they were the color of blueberry pie guts. With the opposite hand, I traced the shapes of Elvis’ fingers gingerly, chilled by the whispers of pain even the slightest touch caused.
I hadn’t told anyone about the bruises, or what had happened the last time I’d seen Elvis; how angry he’d gotten. And I didn’t intend to. It wasn’t like me to keep secrets from my mom, or Kristen, but I made the vow that night in the chilly darkness that the rule could be broken just this once. I was grateful for the chilly weather; it gave me an excuse to wear long sleeves without anyone questioning my choice of wardrobe.
The clock on the wall said it was 12:19. In nine hours and twenty-four minutes, I’d be seventeen years old.
My phone buzzed on the nightstand. Startled, I pulled my pajama top back over my head and rushed to it, taking care not to disturb Heloise and Dorian, who were curled up cozy at the foot of the bed. My heart soared when I saw who the message was from.
Hppy early bday, Sera!
Joseph. A tentative smile grew on my lips.
Thnx, J! Wat u doin up?
Practicin the bagpipes 4 ur party 2mo :)
Good thing we don’t own ne guns :P
Ur critisism kills!
Well, ur spelling sux. Its spelled “criticism” lol
U sure ur homeschooled?
I stifled a laugh behind my hand. My mood had vastly improved from moments before; I marveled over the pack of caffeine-buzzed butterflies that flew down my throat every time Joseph and I spoke to each other, as I had often over those three days since the sandwich incident. They were in there now, though we weren’t technically speaking; monarchs of all sizes were fluttering furiously, playing chicken in my stomach juices.
I’m pretty sure. So y r u RLY awake?
Unfortuneatly, I don’t own bagpipes. I’m wrapping ur gift. :)
Wat?? U dint hafta do that! :O Btw, that is NOT how you spell “unfortunately”!
:P Well excuuuuse ME! Ull know its mine too, cuz its wrapped in tin foil lol
When he didn’t reply right away, I got into bed and pulled the covers up tight around my chin. The night was cold. Even in the dark I could tell my face was glowing with joy (and more than a little giddiness, too). I sighed into my pillow and closed my eyes, ready for sleep but always wondering in the back of my mind what kind of surprises awaited me in the morning.
I woke up the next morning with a fat, breathing puddle of fur draped over my face. Dorian must have decided at some point during the night that my head made a satisfactory pillow, and that it wasn’t especially crucial that I be able to breathe. My nose and mouth were lost somewhere in his impressive chest hair, and his big yellow-green eyes were wide and alarmed, an inch or so from my own. My breathless “Good morning” came out sounding more like “Smorg”-*gasp*- “nornig”.
As this wasn’t an unusual occurrence (he always came running when he heard my alarm clock chime), I knew a puff of breath on his belly would get him to move. And it did, but I was still left with the predicament of discovering a way to remove a dozing hound puppy from across my knees.
Once free of my furry bonds, I slipped my feet into my slippers and padded down the hall. I could hear Ray Charles on the stereo, singing the blues and lamenting his empty pockets. My mother was humming along in a scratchy low-voice, practically forcing her natural soprano to bend with the piano player’s baritone. The sound made me smile.
The spatula in her hand clattered to the countertop, and she let out a mousy little shriek. “You scared the poop outta me! Don’t do that!”
I wrinkled my nose as best as I could, shaking with barely-suppressed giggles. “Gross! Clean it up!”
She stuck her tongue out at me, wiping her hands off on a paper towel. “You watch it, wisebutt, or I’ll go ahead and burn this chicken. I’ll let the waffles burn too!”
I whooped, breaking out in quite possibly the worst attempt at the Twist ever seen by human eyes. Mom’s pouting face broke into a smile. “I’ll pretend I know what you’re tryin’ to do. You want these now, or later?”
I answered her by plopping myself down in the nearest chair, fork in hand. Seconds later, I was drenching the poor crunchy chicken pieces and hot fluffy waffles with syrup. Over the music (Ray Charles had given way to Alan Jackson; my iPod was a portable contradiction), I heard an alarming combination of click, clicking puppy paws and thundering kitten paws; a yowl from Dorian too.
Mom shook her head. “Boy, if Elvis Presley himself hadn’t given you that dog, she’d be out on her butt in a minute. You know she ate Dorian’s food this morning?”
I shrugged, pushing myself out from the counter so the bushy-tailed Maine Coon could hop up. “Not that Dorian needs to eat as much as he does! He almost suffocated me this morning with his belly. Besides, Heloise is little. She doesn’t eat too much.”
Mom raised her eyebrows, dragging a leftover piece of chicken through a puddle of syrup on my plate. “‘Heloise?’ Where’d you get that?”
“Where else? A book. That Tom Ripley series? Patricia Highsmith?”
She sighed. “Just look how I’ve raised you. You better not name your first kid Sherlock, or Romeo, or anything like that.”
Laughing, I scooped my round-bellied cat up into my arms, saving Mom’s bowl of cereal from his furry lips. Dorian mewled in protest. “Don’t worry, Mom. I was thinking something more along the lines of Gulliver, or maybe Ishmael.”
“You didn’t even read Moby Dick!”
I stuck out my tongue, but was saved a blistering retort by Heloise’s sudden and high-pitched whine. The little Walker hound was dancing anxiously by the door, tapping out a desperate Morris code on the tile floor with her claws.
Mom winked at me. “Still sure you want a dog?”
I sighed. “Surely there’s a way to get her to use the litter box.”
Dorian bit down on my thumb, as if indignant that I would even propose such a thing. A dog? In his litter box? Preposterous!
Decidedly not looking forward to what I knew would become a daily routine, I traded the kitten in my arms for the puppy on the threshold, thanking all the atmospheric vastness up there that we lived on the edge of town, and that there would be no need for me to buy a pooper scooper.
“Dude! I brought Twister!”
Seth and Kristen were the first to arrive three hours later. Kristen had opted for the more common greeting, “Hey Sera! Happy Birthday girl!”, but Seth, in all his long-haired, I-plead-shyness-but-only-when-I-feel-like-it vivacity, apparently thought ‘Hello’ too humdrum for his needs.
I met him with a big hug, grinning through the pain of having the corner of a cardboard box wheedling its way between my ribs. “I brought Twister!” he cried again, as if disappointed that my reaction hadn’t quite met his.
I laughed, more at his insistent enthusiasm than the fact that I was pretty sure I was now suffering internal bleeding. “That’s awesome! You are seriously the best!” His mocha-creamy cheeks went rosy pink.
Kristen nudged her way between us, clearing her throat so loudly I was tempted to offer her a cough drop. “Yeah, hi, I’m Kristen. Haven’t we met before?”
“Ha ha, very funny, kK. You absolutely kill.” We hugged, and I relished the solidness and warmth of her longer than usual. I found I’d been doing that a lot lately, holding on to the reassurance of the people and things around me, as if what had happened with Elvis woke me up to the fact that all things, at least, most things, were impermanent.
I was determined not to dwell on those things that day. There was an ice-cream cake in the freezer, the kitchen and dining room were draped in orange and white crepe paper and balloons, some of my favorite people were there with me, and I was seventeen.
Mom was still back in the master bedroom, wrapping a few last-minute presents (she did this every year), and Dad was outside, braving the biting wind and death by grill-smoke so that his daughter might have crispy, crunchy barbeque chicken for her birthday. My head was dizzy with glee as I led Seth and Kristen into the TV room, where bowls of chips and a huge vat of spinach dip awaited their consumption. Without realizing I was doing it, I checked the view from the front window three times in five minutes.
“Joseph not here yet?” teased Kristen, her eyes glittering knowingly.
Seth frowned. “Who’s Joseph?”
It was my turn to blush. “Just a guy. Somebody Kristen introduced me to a while ago.”
Kristen scoffed, while Seth helped himself to the dip. “Mmm-mm! Your mom make this?”
Grateful for the distraction, I nodded, taking a bit of my own. “Yup! Good huh?”
Kristen rolled her eyes. “Lordy! Don’t change the subject on me, Sera! He was most definitely over here a couple days ago!”
I ignored her, loading up on spinach dip and proceeding to stuff my face with it; full mouths discouraged conversation.
So she turned her attention back to Seth: “He moved here a couple weeks ago, and I found out he was an Elvis fan, so I told him about Sera. He was over here about a week ago, and no matter what she says, they were all but drooling all over each other.”
Oh, did I give her a look. I was pretty sure, had she been staring directly into my eyes, I would’ve melted her down to a big sticky girl-puddle. Lucky for her, her focus was on Heloise, who had chosen that moment to favor the room with her cuteness. The slobbery diva enchanted both she and Seth at once, and was gracious enough to allow them to rub her belly.
“Ohh! She’s so beautiful! Where—” Kristen met my eyes, finding the answer to her unspoken question somewhere in them. “Oh. Wow, she’s—she’s absolutely gorgeous, Sera.” I smiled softly at her, grateful.
Seth frowned, his one hand scratching busily behind Heloise’s ear. “I’m missing something here, ain’t I?” We both nodded.
My dad came in from the deck then, coughing a little and stomping warmth back into his booted feet. He smiled in the solemn way he had when he noticed Seth knelt by Heloise, and Kristen standing by me. “Hey you two. How’s it going?”
They answered him generically, asking him the same. He planted a wet, squishy kiss on my cheek, and I inhaled deeply, savoring the familiar scent of wood smoke. No matter what time of year, whether we were burning firewood or not, any one of us smelled like chimneysweeps if we spent any time in the backyard.
“Happy birthday, kiddo! It’s pretty cold out there, you know. I hope your boyfriend appreciates the trouble I’m going through.”
Seth whooped. My face went the color of Jonathan apples, and I gave Dad an embarrassed shove. “Dad! He’s not my boyfriend, we’re just—”
He winked at me. “I’m just messing with you, Sera.” I pulled a long face, sneaking a dour look in Seth’s direction. Dad chuckled.
From her place beside the window, Kristen cried, “Hey! He’s here!”
Her words were punctuated by what sounded like someone firing a shotgun full of steel wool; I saw Kristen cringe. “Looks like he got his car running again. Yikes.”
Like the masters of subtlety we were, Dad, Seth, and I joined her at the front window. Seth whistled. “Oh man. What is that thing?”
I elbowed him in the ribs. “Hey, cut it out! What do you drive, a Lamborghini?”
Grinning crookedly, Seth shrugged. “Hey, my BMW may be old, but it doesn’t sound like a fork stuck in the garbage disposal.”
I stayed at the window while the others busied themselves doing anything else they could; as Joseph parked and got out, I could hear Seth humming ‘Mercury Blues’ by Alan Jackson.
Even after he noticed me watching him, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the gift bag Joseph carried like a fragile baby in his arms. He grinned like a little kid when I held the door open for him.
“Hey Sera! Happy Birthday! Hold on a minute, I gotta get these put down.” He paused long enough to wink at me, his brown eyes sparkling.
Kristen cleared him a spot on the counter, and he set the brightly patterned bag upon it gingerly, peeking inside for reassurance. My curiosity was burning.
Once he was certain whatever it was was safe, Joseph turned back to me, face beaming. “Okay! Now can I get a hug?”
The butterflies flared up again down by my liver, but I obliged, drinking in the warmth of him and the smell of his cologne. Over his shoulder, I saw Kristen; she wore an expression of bemused happiness, a sort of I-told-you-so-but-aren’t-you-glad-I-did glimmer in her ocean eyes.
Before drawing away again, Joseph planted a quick kiss high on my cheek, just below my ear.
“So what’s that you’re drivin’, Joe?” Seth piped up again from across the room, where he stood hovering over the big bowl of dip.
Joseph smiled a little sheepishly. “Sounds awful, don’t it? Man, that’s my Fiero. Me and my daddy fixed her up as good as we could, I guess, but at least it runs!” He paused, that sweet almost-sneer appearing at the corner of his mouth. “You Seth? I like your boots.”
Seth’s long oak-brown hair draped over his face like a docile curtain; he ran a hand over the battered cowboy boots on his feet, tenderly, as if seeing them with his fingertips. “Thanks, Joe. Nice to meet ya!”
Dad slapped a monstrous hand on Joseph’s shoulder, scaring the life out of him. To his credit, Joseph recovered well. “So you’re Joseph, huh?”
“Yes sir! I’m glad to meet you! Is that, uh, is that your grill out back? I swear, I smelled it a block away, and my mouth was just gushing!”
Oh, he was good. I hadn’t even told him the best way to win over my dad was to praise his cooking, and he’d already done it. I had to laugh, too, because whether Joseph realized it or not, that slick Texan accent slipped in thick when he was buttering people up like biscuits.
Dad shrugged, smiling and giving Joseph’s shoulder another good squeeze. “Well thank you. There’s a lot, so I hope you’re hungry.”
Slipping off his boots in the doorway, the breezy Southern-roots charmer assured him he was, and would clean his plate of that barbeque ‘til he burst.
He was dressed more for the weather today; high-laced black boots, with his dark jeans tucked in the tops, black t-shirt, black zip-up hoodie (which bore Elvis’ initials on the back in looping white embroidery), a knotted grey and black plaid scarf, and a heavy black leather jacket, beaten and old-looking but still cool. He looked good. While Seth was preoccupied with the bag of chips, Dad had slipped back outside to finish the chicken, and Joseph thought Kristen wasn’t looking, he found my hand and squeezed it, giving me a secret, beautiful kind of smile. The butterflies went nuts.
“Hey Joe!” This was Seth, mouth stuffed with chips.
“I brought Twister!”
Kristen rolled her eyes.
Dinner was served promptly at six-thirty, as it always was. Mom fell breathlessly through the door twenty minutes before, juggling a frozen behemoth of a cake and three wrapped boxes; these were “last minute ideas”, one of those inevitable, accidental traditions I’d come to count on for every birthday and Christmas.
She greeted Seth and Kristen with gasped hellos, but she seemed to forget all traditional American salutations when she discovered Joseph at our dinner table. “Oh! Oh hi! Are you Joseph?”
The poor guy made a mess standing up from his seat; the silverware jumped at least an inch in every direction, and the water glass tittered nervously, singing against the edge of the plate. Again the master of recovery, Joseph extended one hand to my mother, his characteristic lop-sided grin again on his mouth. “Yes ma’am, that’s me. It’s good to meet you.”
She returned his smile, either not caring or not noticing the spreading dark puddle in the tablecloth. “Well, I can certainly say the same! Now, lemme get this cake into the freezer, and we can eat!”
Humming nervously, Joseph mopped at the wet tablecloth with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. Then he caught my eye, the high ridges of his cheekbones painted the pink of virgin roses. After he was finished, he sat across from me, next to Kristen; across from her sat Seth, who was already tapping out rhythms on the tabletop with his bony knuckles, writing songs in his head even as the food was brought to the table.
And so we ate; there were mashed sweet potatoes, lima beans, Mom’s canned green beans, and corn bread (made from the box but still delicious), framing the sweet, smoky chicken like an ornate frame around a beautiful picture. As nervous as he must have been, Joseph ate more than his share, almost twice as much as I did, and still had room enough to eye the cake hungrily when it was brought to the table speckled with candles. It was met with great fanfare by Mom’s and Kristen’s high soprano, Dad’s sweet baritone, and Seth and Joseph’s lilting tenor. If I had chosen to join them with my alto-bordering-on-high-tenor, we would have made quite an impressive (if slightly off-key) choir.
All of us helped ourselves to generous slices of cake, and all of us ended up with equally generous smears of chocolate across our faces. I remember halfway through dessert, Seth reaching across the table and swiping a bit of icing from Kristen’s nose, laughing as he licked it from his thumb.
“So Joseph. Forgive me for sounding, I don’t know, abrupt, but I’ve never actually spoken to you before. How exactly did you meet Sera?” Mom leaned forward on her elbows, as if ready to personally scrutinize Joseph’s answer.
Coolly, much more relaxed than he’d been an hour ago, he leaned back in his chair and regarded me from across the table with a soft, fond smile I’d seen on only one other face, a face which had most recently looked upon me in fury. The expression—the familiar-ness of it—sent my heart beating fast.
“I don’t remember exactly, to be honest. I knew Kristen from school, and she told me about this pretty girl who loved Elvis like I did. I just had no idea what an understatement that was.”
The moment Joseph’s soft brown eyes met mine, I felt a faint yet somehow sharp tug in my stomach, just behind my belly button. Seth was the only one near enough to hear my gasp; he of course didn’t know what the sensation in my stomach meant, and therefore could not understand why a fine prickle of tears sprang to my eyes.
Across the table, Joseph frowned. The expression stole years from his face, and my heart ached with the childlike concern I saw there. “Sera, hey, you okay? You sick?”
All eyes were on me now; three of them knew what was happening, but could do nothing. Two, Joseph and Seth, were surely much too certain I was merely sick to even suspect the truth.
Out of nowhere the tugging became a violent, insistent pulling, twisting, like monstrous hands had a hold of my intestines and were wrenching them like wet towels. A knife of pain sliced into me from navel to sternum, flaying me bloodlessly and forcing hot tears from my eyes. I curled up into myself, crumpling to the floor almost soundlessly, like the collapse of a building in slow motion.
Something was wrong; it had never hurt before. It hadn’t been long since I’d come back from 1962, barely a week, and it felt like this world and the world of the past were fighting to claim me, literally playing tug of war with me and splitting me apart in the process.
Kristen knelt down beside me, lowering her head almost to the floor just to be heard. “Sera? Sera, you’re okay. Listen to me, it’s okay. I’m gonna help you back to your room, and we’re gonna wait this out. C’mon.”
She and my mother helped me up off the floor (just that slightest movement sent a bolt of pain through me; I wondered wildly if this was like giving birth) and practically dragged me down the hallway. Behind us, Dad had one hand on each of the boys’ shoulders; I could hear Joseph muttering in what sounded like Spanish. Seth was asking if there was anything he could do to help. I heard Dad reassure him that no, the best thing he could do was leave me to Mom and Kristen.
I admit it; I was scared. I didn’t know what this meant, this pain like a carnivorous animal burrowing its way inside me, the hot cattle prod pressed mercilessly to the base of my spine. I remember wondering, simultaneously, if I’d never see Elvis again or if I’d become stuck in his time and be a teenager the year my mother was born—or something worse.
I was stretched out on my bed, sweating profusely and gritting my teeth against the pain, which had only slightly subsided. Mom and Kristen hovered over me, and I could hear both Seth and Joseph, who evidently hadn’t heeded Dad’s warning. I could hear Joseph’s voice clearly, and he was speaking Spanish, though too lowly and rapidly for me to understand. I wondered if he was praying, for I’d noticed a tiny gold cross on a chain around his neck the first day I’d met him, though I hadn’t thought to mention it.
Five minutes or so passed. Slowly, steadily, the sharp agony wrapped around my middle like a snake unraveled itself, becoming more of a dull throb. The sweat on my face and neck cooled; goose bumps trickled down my arms, and I shivered.
“If you guys are just gonna sit there and stare at me, I’m going to bed.”
“Sera? You alright?” That was Joseph. His honey-colored brow was wrinkled, whether with confusion, or fear, maybe even both, I wasn’t sure.
I smiled weakly, but met my Mom’s eyes instead of his. “Y-yeah, I am now, I think. I don’t know—”
“I ain’t askin’ you to like my music, man. We ain’t the same, and I know that. But I sure as hell ain’t gonna let you come in here and tell me I need to get with the times. I don’t gotta listen to people like you.”
Elvis. His voice rang clear and thunderous, as if he stood beside Kristen, a mere foot or two away. I heard him; again I had the odd sensation of traveling through time, but not all of me had made the trip. It was as though my mind had gone to him, and my body had stayed put.
He sounded angry. I couldn’t tell just by his voice what year it was, but I could hear the beginnings of the growl he picked up deeper into the sixties, an edge that lent such rawness and power to his performances in ’68.
Joseph moved from the doorway and took Kristen’s place at my side, wordlessly slipping a hand behind my back and pushing me up into a sitting position. He leaned in close, close enough for me to see the beads of worry glittering in his long eyelashes. I smiled gratefully, woozily.
“What happened to you? You had some kind of seizure, or something. Scared me right to death.”
I shook my head, suddenly conscious of the state I must’ve been in. “I look like poo, don’t I?”
This made him laugh, a deliciously childish sound that rang like church bells in my ears. “No, you don’t look like poo. You do look like more cake might do you a world a’good, though.”
Elvis’ voice had faded from my ears for the time being, and nothing was left of the stomach-wrenching pain but a slight twinge when Joseph helped me up from the bed.
Mom reached out and fussed with my sweaty hair, her fingers brushing my forehead, tenderly soothing my feverish head with a touch. “You okay, kiddo?”
“I guess so, yeah. Now I am.”
She didn’t seem to believe me. Her eyes, identical to mine, sparkled with questions, the most obvious of which I had no idea how to answer: Why?
“Ok! So who wants to be the spinner?”
It was an hour or so later, and Seth had gathered us in the living room. The polka-dotted sheet of plastic—our premeditated fate for the evening—was laid out across the floor, and beside it was an odd configuration of shoes.
Joseph was the first volunteer to take the cardboard spinner. Dad had opted out, to watch from the old armchair in the corner.
“Everybody knows the rules, right? No knees, no hips, and no knockin’ people over!” Seth was an annoying commandeer, and we all laughed when Kristen saluted him.
“And keep all hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times, can’t forget that.” Joseph cracked.
“I’m pretty sure hair counts too. You got a scrunchie handy, Seth?”
He stuck his tongue out at me. “Spin it, Joseph!”
Joseph obliged. “Right foot on green.”
“Left hand on yellow.”
“Left foot on blue.”
“Right foot on yellow.”
Kristen and I were a tangled, giggling mess; our legs were locked together like the branches of an old tree, and her long, dirty-blond hair was draped over the side of my face, as if it were my own.
I was totally in control until I got a glimpse of Joseph, upside down in my contorted vision, with the spinning board in his hands, tongue clamped between his teeth like each turn of the arrow meant life or death.
“Ding ding ding! Kah-risten is the winnah!” cried Seth, trying on and totally butchering a Boston accent. She blew him a kiss. I gathered myself up off the floor, admitting defeat but still wiping away tears of glee from my eyes.
I grinned at Joseph, who groaned audibly. “Your turn, bucko! Get over here!”
Mom took the board from him—pried it from his fingers, actually. Pulling his boots off of his feet, Joseph looked to Seth, barely suppressing a grin. “If I’m gonna play, you better be ready to lose.”
A collective whoop went up from our throats; Seth shrugged, returning his adversary’s grin. “Bring it on, cowboy! I can take you! I’ve got the Native mojo workin’ with me!”
Joseph winked coyly. “Me too, bud.”
I watched them, shaking my head. “C’mon guys. It’s Twister, not Little Big Horn.”
Seth kicked his boots off. “Whatever you say, Mrs. Custer.”
Mom spun the board. Kristen stood off to the side with Dad, with the biggest grin on her face.
“Left foot on red, Joe!”
He did as she said.
“Sera, your right hand on yellow!”
Seth’s first turn was right foot on red, followed by Joseph’s right foot on green.
Kristen cringed as Joseph stretched to reach the farthest dot; one foot on the farthest right side, the other on the farthest left. “Holy crap, kid! How are you doing that?”
However he did it, it seemed painless. “Blame my car. Walkin’ everywhere made me super strong, I guess.” He chuckled.
Seth rolled his eyes. “Walking, right. I bet you took ballet as a kid.”
“Nah. I’m just a bigger man than you.”
The two of them went on like this for a long time.
My turn came again, and it was left foot on green. By this time, Joseph had his right hand on blue. After I’d done as the board had commanded, I had one leg draped over Seth’s arm, a hand on the colored dot under Joseph’s thigh, and my other foot out in unmanned territory.
“Okay, I knew there was a reason I brought my camera.” Kristen was beside herself with giggles, and I was barely holding up.
Mom spun the little black arrow again, and Seth hummed the Jeopardy theme. Kristen twisted the lens cap away from her camera, exposing its greedy, shining eye.
“Seth, you got right hand on yellow.”
“Yes ma’am!” This put his hand on the dot next to mine. He now resembled a crippled crab, with one leg stretched out across the board to the red dot.
Whirrrrr. The arrow stopped. Mom broke into a bright, triumphant, condemning smile. “Let’s see if you can put your right foot on blue, Joseph!”
Turns out he could; it just meant standing up out of his split and pivoting his leg to the right.
“Oh. Uh, I dunno if I can— I mean, how—”
The only thing between him and the correct dot was me. Actually, the middle of me. So what does he do?
“Go for it Joe-boy! You almost got it!” Seth, the ever-eager cheerleader, and Kristen were bursting with dammed up giggles, leaking laughter like Joseph’s car leaked oil. Even Dad was smiling.
Flaming red, I watched, body rigid, as Joseph stepped over me, and planted his foot on that stupid blue dot. I was practically doing one-armed pushups, and he straddled my ribcage. I heard Kristen’s camera beep twice, confirming that a picture had been taken.
Seth collapsed into a heap of glee, automatically disqualified and not caring one bit. He curled up on his corner of the plastic mat, shaking with laughter.
“Okay, okay, guys. It’s not that funny!” I wasn’t really angry, and my protest came out sounding like that of a whiny little kid.
Joseph, with one leg slung over my stomach and one elbow maybe an inch from my nose, grinned and shook his head. “Aw, c’mon, Sera, it’s just a game! You’re lucky your birthday’s in January! We do this for my birthday, in August, and we drag it outside and slick it up with soap!”
Finally upright again, Seth wiped tears from his eyes. “We’ll hafta keep that in mind, then. Sounds like fun!” He bent over sideways, to where he could see me, and winked. I fixed him with my best glare.
“Mom, please spin that stupid thing.” Holding in giggles, Mom happily did as I said—and gave out an uncharacteristic shriek.
It sounded like a chain-smoking toucan getting stepped on by a camel, but I knew she wasn’t in pain; her eyes squeezed shut and she started making noises akin to air being let out of a balloon a little at a time. Kristen and Seth were up and at her side in a heartbeat; she showed them the board.
Seth stared at it, then looked at me. Consulted the stupid, loathsome, condemned slab of cardboard again, and swiveled his head back to look at me. Kristen’s face had gone a deep, crimson red, and her pretty sea glass eyes sparkled.
I was growing impatient. “What?”
Seth and Mom spoke in wet, jovial unison: “Right hand on yellow.”
The yellow dots were a row behind me; I had one hand on the green, a foot on blue, and another foot on red. Joseph had me trapped, one foot on green, the other on blue, a hand on yellow, his other hand on green. His deep brown eyes bore holes into mine, and somewhere under his mocha-brown skin, I knew he was blushing. I moved my hand to yellow.
“Oh man, I love this game,” squeaked Seth. Kristen hushed him.
Imagine, if you will, an upside down turtle, helpless and flailing on its back. Imagine that, standing above this powerlessly exposed and frightened little turtle, a heron, its long, spindly legs and spread wings trapping its amphibian counterpart between it and the ground.
And if it’s not too much a stretch (this depends entirely on your imagination), imagine that this unusual species of bird was somehow, in the foreign sense of humor that nature seems to have, endowed with a head of thick black hair, a lock of which was just long enough to hang down and tickle the dickens out of the trapped turtle’s nose. If you can fathom all of that, you can picture clearly the sort of trouble I was in.
A sneaky sort of smile came creeping to one corner of Joseph’s mouth. “Give up yet, Sera?”
“Not a chance.”
“I dunno, it’s cut pretty close. And I got a plan.”
“Right, okay, General Mayhem. If it involves soap, I’m forfeiting.”
“Good gravy, then what—”
By some miracle, Joseph was able to lower himself sufficiently enough to touch my lips with his own. That old familiar bolt of electricity shot through me, and all the willpower in the world wasn’t enough to prevent my elbows and knees from caving. He won.
I heard but couldn’t see Seth as Joseph helped me up from the mat, grinning big enough to crack a bone somewhere in his face. My legs felt like jelly, and I could hardly breathe. I caught sight of my mom, who, instead of being angry, had both hands cupped to her mouth, and was almost crying. Kristen could only smile her toothy smile, and Dad’s eyes sparkled.
I was embarrassed, I was glowing—and I was a sore loser. As soon as I was sure on my feet again, I reared back and smacked Joseph a good one across the back of his head.
“OW! What was that for?!”
This time, Dad actually laughed.
I waited until almost everyone was gone to unwrap any of my gifts.
We (meaning my parents and I) started this tradition around my fourteenth or fifteenth birthday. I never liked opening gift after gift in front of an audience; I hated putting on a flashy smile and gasping in surprise for every box unwrapped, every bag emptied. It got old. Waiting until later saved me from shamming the givers if I got something I already had, or didn’t particularly like.
After Seth had folded up the Twister board, after our bellies recovered from the cake and sweet sticky chicken (pasted over with a solid hour of relentless laughter), after every possible joke had been made about the game, the kiss, and Joseph’s brutal head wound, the time-honored post-holiday lassitude had gripped us all in its grandfatherly hands. It wasn’t long before goodbyes were said, and hugs were exchanged. Joseph had left first, after Dad had caught him turning a worried eye out the window every five minutes; it had begun to snow around eight, and hadn’t stopped. So, with a funny little smile, and one last (cautious) kiss on the cheek, he was out the door, his breath rising in faint clouds in the January air.
His departure had left Seth, Kristen, and I standing close together in the toasty kitchen; we stifled guilty laughter as best we could when Joseph’s car started up again, protesting the winter night with long, tortured cries, shrieking like a banshee denied a lost soul.
As I’d expected her to, Kristen stayed last. She stood in our living room for a long while, tapping her turquoise cowboy boots on the hardwood floor to the beat of the quiet music. Every once in a while she’d sing softly along with whomever happened to be on.
I smiled as I watched her, paying more attention to her lilting soprano voice than to the dishes I was supposedly helping Mom wash. When it got to be ten o’clock, and she was still standing there by the radio, I broke my own rule and let her stay for the presents. I dried my hands on the dishtowel over the sink, and gathered the waiting packages eagerly, my fingers lingering over the biggest one, the pink and green striped gift bag which Joseph had cradled so carefully in his arms.
I remember everything I unwrapped that night. It’s funny the things that stick in one’s mind, the details that stay with you. I remember the silver treble clef earrings and the freshly-tanned cowboy boots from Kristen, snappy dark brown jobs stitched in red and stamped with a black and grey looping design. I slipped them immediately onto my feet, relishing their unyielding bodies, the smart click of the heel on the floor.
Seth’s gift to me drew a gasp from my throat; a little leaping horse, shaped out of wood by careful hands. He’d painted the hooves a deep violet, and its mane was so expertly rendered I believed a single breath would stir it. It was a cry of freedom represented in wood, the horse’s great mouth open, its mighty hooves raised in protest. I kissed the little wooden nose, and it was warm.
My hands shook a little as I pulled clouds of tissue paper from the last bag: Joseph’s. I smiled fondly when the contents were stacked on the table; a thick square of something, wrapped carefully in softly gleaming tin foil.
“Oh! Honey, you should open ours first.” Mom left the room quickly, as if suddenly struck with an important revelation. When she returned, her arms were wrapped around a box big enough to make me wonder if it had swallowed her and it was in fact using its own legs and arms to walk itself towards me.
She set it down on the table with a laborious grunt. Something inside rattled, and she cringed. “Crap. Better open it.”
Kristen stopped her swaying and dancing and stood beside me, studying the gigantic box as I freed it from its paper bonds.
It was a flippin’ record player. Not one of the antique ones, which ran the risk of not even working and were pretty much worthless if you busted it. It was one of those sweet new ones you could get at Radio Shack, which played
CDS, tapes and had a hookup for an iPod. I was literally almost crying; it was that gorgeous. It was made to look like the old time radios with the brass knobs and needles on the front, and was finished in stained oak.
I ran my fingers over the polished wood, thoroughly stricken by the machine’s archaic beauty. “Is this real?” I asked breathlessly, directing my question at no one in particular.
Mom reached up and squeezed my shoulder, and I could tell without looking that she was smiling. “Of course it’s real, Sera. Does that mean you like it?”
I only nodded in reply, already lifting the lid of the record player to peer inside. The needle was poised at the ready, its sharp fingertip awaiting the first drop, for its voice to be heard. If you ignored the slot for CDs on the front, and the digital face, it was something from a simpler age, an imitation, as it were, of beautiful indifference, a faux simile of accessible bliss.
Clearing her throat softly, Mom elbowed me and set the tin-foil-wrapped square package beside the machine. “Don’t forget about your other gift, Sera. He went through a lot to get it for you.”
Kristen cooed. My brow wrinkled in confusion. “What, you mean you know what Joseph got me?”
Mom nodded, and behind her, Dad did too.
“Don’t worry, girly, it’s still a surprise for me!” quipped Kristen, moving herself a little closer for a better view. My head buzzing, I barely heard her.
“Oh c’mon! Just open it!”
Piece by piece, I tore the crackling, gleaming foil free. Underneath, nestled under sheer sheets of plastic, were four safely-sleeved records, their covers yellowed and frayed. I picked up the first one.
“Sun Records, 1954. ‘That’s Alright Mama’….and ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’.”
Was my voice shaking?
“Isn’t that his first one?” Kristen was almost whispering.
“Uh-huh. He— he was nineteen.”
And he looked it too; on the cover, Elvis’ mouth was open in a wail, his brownish hair flying, his guitar held high in his arms like a Tommy gun. His name was spelled in big, bold letters, pink going down the left side and green marching across the bottom.
A wretched creature in my chest bit deep into my heart with needle teeth, refusing to let go. I swallowed with immense effort, forcing down the sick taste in my mouth I got just looking at his hopelessly adolescent face. I set the record down behind the record player, and picked up the next one.
Moody Blue was Elvis’ final album, recorded in the Jungle Room at Graceland. It included songs like ‘Hurt’, ‘If You Love Me, Let Me Know’, and the title track, ‘Moody Blue’. The very first song on the album was ‘Unchained Melody’.
I expected the memory of that song to send me back to that terrible dream world, where I heard Elvis sobbing, seated at the piano in an empty arena. Instead, somewhere in my head I could see Joseph as he’d been earlier that evening; standing exactly as Kristen had later, a foot or so away from the stereo, humming along to ‘Unchained Melody’. This was after the food had been cleared from the table, while we were all still recovering from our piggish indulgences.
Joseph had gone off from the rest of us, stepping almost gingerly towards Mom’s iPod dock on the shelf. In my mind’s eye I saw him there, sweet brown eyes turned heavenward, taking in every trill of the soft piano, every cracked note of Elvis’ voice. He’d had the strangest expression on his face, something between anguish and absolute rapture. With this picture in my head, I laid aside the second album.
“I dunno, kiddo, this guy’s been awfully nice to you to just have known you a couple weeks.” Mom knew what these albums meant to me; even the third one, not Elvis this time but Ray Charles’ Georgia on My Mind, paid tribute to the fact that Joseph knew enough about me to pinpoint my musical tastes exactly. I figured Kristen had something to do with it; I’d never told him I liked Ray Charles.
Kristen handed me the last one, watching me curiously, as if she knew what a jumbled mess my mind was in. “This one’s Van Morrison. I didn’t tell him anything about that one.” So that made one mystery solved. I took the album from her, saw it, and smiled. It was Tupelo Honey, and the title song was one of my favorites. I shook my head, in awe and wishing desperately that Joseph was still at the house, so I might return the sly kiss he used to win the game.
Dad sighed, munching noisily on a piece of the leftover chicken. “I don’t think anybody told him to get you that one. He picked out the Elvis albums himself before he told us about it, then your mom suggested Ray Charles.” I went to him, still holding the Morrison album, and planted a squishy kiss on his barbeque-streaked, gristly cheek.
“Well, thanks, you guys. These are…amazing.”
“Why don’t you put one on?” Kristen was almost bouncing with excitement.
She had one of the newfangled record players at her house, and as frequently as I tried it out, I knew how to set mine up. I didn’t want Moody Blue just then; even before I’d had the dream, ‘Unchained Melody’ had a way of creeping into my bones and shaking me more thoroughly than I wanted to be on my birthday. So I went with Georgia on My Mind, more because of my current aversion to Elvis’ voice than anything else.
With careful, slow hands, I placed the record onto the turntable and lowered the needle. Four, five seconds of crackling silence passed, then soft, jazzy piano and low humming voices rose from the whirring wooden box, filling the room with its reminiscence more completely than I thought it could.
Then there was Ray, his scratchy, reaching voice like spiced tea, warm and exciting in my ears: “Georgia, Georgia….the whole day through….just an old sweet song…..keeps Georgia on my mind. I say Georgia, Georgia……A song of you…..comes as sweet and clear…..as moonlight through the pines……” Beautiful. Simple, timeless, yet a reminder of days when the lyrics of a song actually meant something, and the singer had only the words and his voice at his command, had only the most basic necessities for creating musical magic.
The song sent a smile to my heart. Thoughts of Elvis (the man, not the music) were pushed from my mind as I listened, and the oily feeling of dread I felt at the thought of facing him again left me. I had my parents, Kristen, Seth— and I had Joseph, an exquisite, curious soul who seemed so intent on vivifying my cloistered little world.
The fear I felt when Elvis had grabbed me so violently, the fear which had gripped my insides when he’d punched in the dashboard, faded from corporeality as I listened to the old jazz piano and watched Kristen tap her fingers on the tabletop in silent imitation. My stomach ached dully from my earlier ‘seizure’, but it was the only evidence that anything out of the ordinary had happened that day. I was seventeen, there was snow on the ground, and I had had my butt kicked in Twister by a boy who seemed to make my happiness his top priority. Life was good.
“And I shall feel how soft, you tread above me….and then my grave will richer, sweeter be. For you shall bend and tell me, that you love me…..and I shall rest in peace, until you come…… to me…….”
How long had it been? A week? Two weeks? By then I wasn’t sure. I’d been seventeen for a long time, however long it was since the day I was given the record player and the albums, one of which I’d nearly played into the vinyl graveyard. It played then, the volume turned low so my parents weren’t stirred from sleep.
Besides the haunted ‘Unchained Melody’, ‘Danny Boy’ was my favorite song on Moody Blue, both for its bittersweet lyrics and the way Elvis sang them. He’d had a special gift for singing songs from his heart for his entire career, but it was most deeply expressed towards the end of his life, in the seventies. Every ballad, every passionate cry for help on that last album soared from Elvis’ very soul, though the words and arrangements weren’t his own. The feelings were his, the pain was his, and songs like ‘Hurt’ put his personal anguish to music.
I was huddled under the covers as I listened to one song after another, listening carefully and closely to every word. January had left us, and February was halfway through; spring was slowly approaching. Every day there was less snow on the ground, even though the vast Nebraska sky spent most of its days looking pale grey and heavy, holding more of the cold white stuff somewhere inside its immense clouded belly.
Three weeks. Yeah, that was it. It’d been three weeks since my birthday, three weeks since my stomach was hooked on an invisible fish line; three weeks since I hadn’t gone somewhere into the past, to Elvis. This fact was always a lingering truth in the back of my mind, always a distracting whisper in my ear.
The thing was, I still heard him. It was like the day of my party, when the real world had kind of gone foggy, and Elvis’ voice had cut in, like a voiceover on some nature documentary. It’d happened four times since then, and he always sounded different. He was always angry, usually yelling; every time a frightening and unsettling repetition of how he’d been back in Florida in ’62.
The fifth and final time I heard him, I was in the shower, humming a meaningless tune and taking the ten minutes I required to rinse my hair, now that it’d gotten long enough to reach my elbows. I was watching the soapy water swirl into the drain when I heard it: not Elvis, not at first, but a woman. Everything on my side of the universe went hazy; the steady drum of the water against the shower door faded to a dull thud.
“Now why don’t you sing somethin’ like those Beatles boys? You don’t do nothin’ good anymore, like your old stuff.”
“Don’t you talk about those f***in’ bowlcuts in my house! I won’t have it!”
Then there was a sharp crack! that sounded like wood breaking against something soft. The woman’s voice screamed, and was joined by a whole chorus of men’s voices; one of them sounded a lot like GK. He was the one who spoke. “You done broke her wrist, Elvis! What—”
“You don’t think I know what a fool I make of myself in those movies, GK? I know it, man! I know it! But it’s money in my pocket, and she ain’t got no goddamned right to tell me that I ain’t as good as some new guys who ain’t even from here!”
Something else, glass or porcelain this time, made an oddly musical, delicate sound when it hit the floor hard enough to sing for several seconds.
When there was silence, silence except for the lukewarm water running off my skin to the tile, I had exhaled explosively, hardly aware that I’d been holding my breath. I shivered. The water that had so comforted me before felt slick now, oily on my skin, no longer a protective womb. I turned the nozzle back around to the ‘off’ position. For the longest time, I had stood there, unaware of Dorian pawing at the shower door, unaware of the cold air creeping in around me. I stood there, just shivering, only breathing. I wondered how much I’d missed, how much of Elvis I’d find left when I finally went back.
If I went back at all.