Time Zones

My cousin Scott was relieved that my aunt was not at home. He’d come home from practice with a black eye. He was sitting on the couch in the living room with a bag of frozen peas and carrots pressed to his face. Dad came in when he dropped me off at Aunt Arlene’s on his way to work. Angie was still in bed. Dad ruffled Scott’s hair and asked how he got the shiner, with an amusement that my cousin’s scuffles always brought him.

“Took one for the team.”

Dad chucked and called him a good man. Scott had a trouble with his temper and that bother Aunt Arlene and Mom a lot more than it bothered my Uncle or my Dad. Dad said goodbye to me, admonished me to be good, confirmed he’d be by after work and left me in the care of my cousins.

“Why are you watching the Price is Right?” I asked once I heard the door close behind Dad, “There are cartoons on channel 13.” I was looking forward to an absolutely decadent day of I Dream of Jeanie and Brady Bunch reruns. I’d brought my coloring books, my potholder loom and Barbies, all items calculated to be useful in front of the TV.

“Waiting for the news.” Scott shifted the bag of frozen veggies.

“Why?” My voice was loud, but I didn’t deserve the shushing that my cousin Michelle gave me. She flapped through the living room on the way to the kitchen, she was wearing her bathing suit only. Michelle was a champion back stoker on the swim team, she’d be pulling on a tea shirt and bicycling to practice for most of the morning. Recently Michelle had grown inches and decided since she was the youngest she’d boss me. I didn’t want to make her mad, she’d promised to teach me to do a flip turn.

“Why?” I asked, Michelle was not usually careful of Angie, in fact quite the opposite.

Michelle didn’t even look at me. “Because you’re too loud.”

“Not that, why do I have to be quite?”

“Because you’re too loud.”

“She’s not talking to you Michelle.” Scott put his feet up on the edge of coffee table. Michelle disappeared into the kitchen using a word she wouldn’t have dared whisper if her Dad was at home. Scott watched me watching him, “I’m waiting for the news.”

I only made a low noise, Scott wasn’t a news watcher that I knew of. If Scott was going to watch the news I didn’t want to stay in the living room. The news was old men in powder blue suit jackets and stripped ties talking about bad things that happened far away. The bag of peas and carrots shifted, I could have sworn I smelled them, one of those nutritious smells that is absolutely deadly to a six year old. “You’re supposed to put a steak on a black eye.”

“A what?”

“A steak, that’s what they always do in movies.”

“Cartoons you mean. And do you have a defrosted steak in the fridge at your house?”

I answered in the negative. If there was steak in the fridge we ate it—but then nobody at our house got black eyes in fistfights.

“I’m waiting for pictures of Memphis.”

Scott’s comment was so off handed I shuttered, I hated that my cousins always knew things I didn’t, it hadn’t occurred to me to look for Mom on TV. For the first time in my life the news could bring me something I wanted to know.  So I settled down to watch the news.

While Mom and Aunt Arlene were gone I watched the news coverage of Elvis’s funeral obsessively hoping to catch sight of them. My cousins allowed me to color or weave potholders in front of the television, a normally forbidden daytime activity unless I had a fever. We all ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the living room, all four of us, waiting for news breaks, hoping for any footage at all of the crowd at Graceland. We waited through hours of game shows, soap operas or Donohue. Michelle and Scott would come and go, games and practice and friends calling them to the phone or the pool or the park. All day I sat too close to the television and stared hard at the glimpses of the crowds when they were shown (and then usually in the background) and left small peanut butter smears on the screen where I thought I’d identified a familiar face. Angie squinted hard at where I pointed, but the camera would move on. It was like those puzzles where you’re looking for a thing hidden in the picture, find the teapot, find the mouse, find your mother and your aunt.

Other than the few phone calls home, photos in papers or the film of the crowds were my only chance of locating the sisters. I never did find Mom on TV that week, but I made what I thought a marvelous discovery: that time could be warped.

Angie braided my hair into two braids like Laura Ingalls (which I loved), Michelle brought us a pack of red licorice from the store up the street and Scott returned home from practice with no new visible bruises. I’d colored several pages and wove potholders. When the newsman said the events on the TV were “earlier today” or “early this morning” that made sense to me. The footage was ghosts of things that were already done; I understood film worked that way. Our family had a home movie camera and knew you had to take the exposed film to be developed but when you got it back a week later there was a little bit of you captured forever. I find it comforting to know that part of me is still diving off the board at the community pool when I was little or dancing in the recital of Fannie Flex Dancers in my pretty pink tutu. All those happy smiling moments, at least on my family movies though I had some small inkling of how film could lie.

To pass the time, Angie taught me Tomorrow from Annie, she’d bought the cast recording and the piano music book with her baby sitting money. She planned to sing it for her musical audition in September. She was banking on being the only person who had the music book, she’d had to order special and it cost $10.95. Mom had thought it extravagant. I applied the same enthusiasm to the belts of “Tomorrow, tomorrow I love ya tomorrow,” that I gave the last bars of You Light Up My Life. I remember thinking I was pretty good. My cousin Scott left the room.

I was singing at the top of my lungs, standing in the entryway between the kitchen and the living room—chasing my cousin out of the room. Angie came from behind and clamped her hand over my singing mouth. She shouted for Scott, said Elvis was on. Elvis wasn’t on—it was some footage of people screaming and pushing themselves toward a wall. Some police in short sleeved uniforms and mirrored sunglasses trying to wrangle the crowds. “At 5:30 PM in Memphis crowds protested the closing of the gates of Graceland, police were able to get the crowds in some order…”

If it was 5:30 my Dad should have been there and I remember having one of those thousand-thoughts-a-minute moments. I was worried that Dad had dropped me with Angie and taken off to go get my Mom. But then I saw that the clock in the living room (the one with metal work that looked like sun beams) and the big hand was on the twelve and the little hand on the four. I could read the hours on a clock with hands, and the half hour, the rest muddled me. I told Angie it wasn’t 5:30 yet. Told her that the man on TV was wrong. I really wanted the man on the TV to be wrong because the footage showed what looked like a crowd of the parents from my school rioting and my mother was supposed to be there.

“It is in Memphis.” Angie answered.

This stumped me, it could not be two times in one day, the time was the time. Angie shushed me and petted my braided head while she watched the screen, after less than a minute the channel went to regular programming. Then she gave me a brief explanation of time zones. Angie’s grip on the subject was weak but she managed to give me a general understanding. Multiple times in multiple places all at the same time in one day. Angie said it was how Santa Claus managed to get all the presents delivered in one night. I imagined time washing like a wave over the Earth.

To me, then time zones seemed as much an explanation of ghosts as any—beings existing in another time. The idea that it was a different time where my mother was, made no sense. It was science fiction that you could drive through time. Santa Claus magic. Mom was no longer in the same world. That time zones are a result of the curvature of the earth meant nothing to me. Knowing that Mom was in a different time than me meant she might as well have been in Africa, or Australia, somewhere or in a galaxy far far away.

Standing in my aunt’s living room, I started to sob.

 

But learning about time zones, however, delighted me. I carried that knowledge around like a exotic pet. I tried to wow my friends with my new mystical understanding. Much as I was used to wowing them with my dead mother. Those with relatives out of state (or whose family’s traveled) were not impressed.

It was safe to think about ghosts then. No matter how far away she was Mom was coming home. It wasn’t until she was gone for real, gone permanently that I began to I cling to anything that connected me to her, pebbles in nightstand drawers or half used perfume bottles, even things I had to partly make-up.

 

Tall Tale

When I was born my mother had her sister, her bowling league and all her friends who were (for the most part) young mothers too. When my first child was born I was deep academia–so outside the world of women that I might as well have been at the bottom of a well. So to address the problem I joined a new mother’s group. All of us so full of our daily work with our newborns we had no interesting conversation for anyone but other mothers. We were are educated professionals and tried to explore motherhood in educated ways. We read all the new child rearing books and discussed them in relation to our experience. We read the new fiction and discussed it while rattling plastic keys to distract fussy babies. We held directed discussions meant to explain ourselves to each other, to hold onto ourselves, for ourselves, for our children. One day the topic was to “tell a story about your mother that has nothing to do with you.”

We all looked at one another blankly around the circle we’d arranged ourselves in. I could have mentioned the biography (an old dusty endeavor then) but I didn’t want to talk about it. Having my own child made me grieve for Mom all over again. I missed her, or I missed having a mother of my own. So many of my friend’s mothers had come to visit and I watched them jealously making a happy circle: mother—daughter—grandchild.

Around the circle we took turns. Most told how their parents met, which was, after all, about them. A trail of history leading immediately to their own existence even for the twists and turns of the various narratives. It may have been one of the few stories about our parents most of us know in detail.

I told about the first time Mom saw the ocean. Considering that I’d thought more about my mother’s history than most of us I had more information at my fingertips. I made a point of using her name, even if it felt strange in my mouth.

Ellen was fifteen, until then she’d only seen the ocean in movie and she  thought she knew what to expect. While she recognized the sounds of the surf she was astounded by the vividness of it, the smells and the immensity of the water. There was no end to it. She knew a few facts, like the world is two-thirds water. But knowing such a fact is different from believing it. On the beach my mother found faith in some facts she’d been forced to learn by rote.

She was entirely unprepared for the way the sand shifted beneath her feet, on how it held the heat of the sun like.  How the sand infiltrated everything. Mom found it days later in the backseat of her parent’s car, in the linings of her pockets, in the folds of the skin of her ear.

Mom was dressed inappropriately for the beach, in her favorite thing, a silk Chinese collared dress purchased with her babysitting money. She frolicked in the surf, more skittered in it, with her younger sister, my ever present Aunt Arlene. Perhaps she did not frolic unabashedly, she was too old for that, the lifeguard on duty too attractive, and that the water was too cold for those unwilling to be immersed. Never much of a swimmer, Mom was more than a bit afraid of the ocean, the roaring and pulling of the waves.  At the beach Mom and Aunt Arlene collected shells with the glee.

Actually, these details were cheating. There was photo of this occasion and some shells in a drawer.  Mom is wearing her Chinese style dress (she’d told me about saving for that dress and how she’d darned the little tears with a religious devotion), Aunt Arlene wore a pair of shorts and I could see the sand in her Gidget hair style. On the back is written in blue ink “first time at the ocean.” I have that photo framed on the wall in my home office.

But the specifics: the cute lifeguard, the overcast sky, the collecting the shells? I made half of those details up on the spot to avoid telling another story about courtship. But even so, I can’t tell Mom’s story without coming back to myself. So this is the sort of story telling I’ve done before. A way to make a more complicated picture of Mom from the bits and pieces I know for sure.

 

What You can Know

In college I studied history. I like stories; I like facts, always have. Perhaps I gravitated toward the history department because I trusted in the certainty of research. Research seemed the art of polite inquiry. Nothing gritty, like journalists fighting for a story, pumping unsavory sources for information. Research was so graceful that when handling primary documents in reading rooms or vaults of libraries and institutes I wore white gloves. I enjoyed the formality of those gloves, their crisp whiteness seemed like the height of good manners as if I could plan to finish my day with high tea.

When I got started with history I thought that because events were over and done with than those things could be known. It was just a matter of stringing together the facts. Facts could be found if you searched hard enough and those facts would offer clarity.

This is, in hindsight, laughable.

Facts can overwhelm. I’ve spent years, off and on, collecting facts about that sad week in August. I can know that WMPS was the first radio station to broadcast the announcement of Elvis’s death. That the bronze coffin (an exact replica of the casket that Elvis bought for his mother’s funeral) was purchased from a Kansas City funeral home.  That Wednesday, August 17, 1977 was the biggest business day in FTD history up to that time. Two thousand one hundred fifty floral arrangements sent through the Florists Telegraph Delivery. I can know that the average price of those arrangements was about twenty-one dollars and seventy-five cents when a night in a motel room cost less than twenty dollars, a gallon of gas fifty-eight cents and a ticket to the last Elvis concert sold for fourteen dollars each. That crowds numbering in the thousands gathered outside of Graceland in the hours after the death announcement and remaining until after Elvis’s funeral two days later.

What facts can’t reveal is why all the people came to Memphis at all. People who probably would have described themselves as “just housewives,” “just teenagers,” “just working men” or “just fans.” All these “just” people endured discomfort and humiliation because they felt called to stand outside a mourning house or along the road of the funeral procession.

By the time the official death announcement was made via radio and television a small crowd had already gathered outside the Graceland gates. From that moment on, the crowds grew. For hours, for days the crowds grew.

When Mom and Aunt Arlene stumbled that crowd they were open mouthed with shock at the size of the crowd. The crowd was less than a day old by the time the sisters arrived. It was already a surging pulsing thing. There was already litter scattered on the sidewalk and spilling out of the few garbage can—crumpled cups, random straws, film boxes, cigarette butts with all different shades of lipstick smudged on the end, sheets of newspaper—from the day before not the current edition with its main headline Heartbreak on Lonely Street.

One thing I remember Mom telling me about that crowd, it was a summer day a couple of years after that trip to Memphis. Our family (to my great joy) happened to be at Disneyland. On Main Street people were “wall to wall” you could not stop or turn around because of the force of the crowd moving forward. I remember Mom laughing, she held onto my hand too tightly to avoid loosing me in the crowd. Before we came into the park we’d set up a meeting spot in case of separation—she was that kind of mother.  Or maybe she’d learned the lessons of Graceland well. A German tourist hard on my heels gave me a flat tire. Bodies were pressed so close that I could only scoot forward on a flapping shoe. Mom leaned down and had to shout over the crowd so I could hear her “this is what it was like outside of Graceland.”

I winced, not from pain but embarrassment. Mom rarely talked about Graceland. Dad, Aunt Sue and my friend’s parents imparted to me the opinion I ought to have about the Graceland trip, the Elvis madness—if not from what they said directly but how they hushed when I came too near or the slightly sneering comments they imagined I wouldn’t understand. On that special day I clung to her sweating hand—as if she might disappear there on Main Street.

 

Rosewood Road, Part 3

Mom stood there on the sidewalk with her mouth half hanging open. The window shears at the nearest house, a pursed face with tangerine lipstick flashed. Mom did not want to put herself in the position of being declared respectable by the owner of that disapproving face. Later the sisters would have reason to wish that they’d purchased unquestioned access to a bathroom. “Come on Arlene, I don’t want to pay good money for a sleeping bag and a bowl of corn flakes—no thank you!”

“For ten bucks—it better be the master bedroom, with steak and eggs.”

“We’d be lucky to avoid being caught up in some kind of Columbo drama.” Aunt Arlene threw her butt down and rubbed it out with her shoe heel, digging a little hole in the manicured grass. “The husband will frame us for killing his wife.”

“Or the wife frame us for the brutal murder of the husband?”

“Yes,” Mom squinted up at the helicopter circling in the distance. “Pity isn’t it? Not a happy couple in Memphis.”

They began laughing, standing on the sidewalk and easement nearly doubled over, trembling like two exhausted children at a sleep over.  Neither saw the freckled kid weaving up the street on his bike. He’d been throwing newspapers up onto porches with a practiced flick of the wrist. The papers landed on each porch. Thunk, thunk, thunk.  As he passed my aunt gave him an offhanded “good morning” nearly scaring him off his bike. He dropped the paper he was about to throw into the street. Glaring at my aunt the boy stopped, put down the kick stand on his bike there in the middle of the street and bent down to pick the paper up. Unable to reach it, he got off the bike and retrieved the paper making an umph noise like an old man rising from a chair.

Aunt Arlene stood there, watching the boy collect the paper. “Are you okay?”

A little belligerently the boy asked, “are you some of those Elvis fans?”

My aunt was always quick witted. Dad said it made her a good flirt. Mom said it made her a good liar. Laughing Aunt Arlene said “maybe, is this area was friendly to fans?”

The kid sneered a little, almost a cultivated Elvis snarl, “my Ma says they’re all bonkers.”

Without missing a beat, Arlene asked if she could quote his mother on that—the kid stared at her blankly holding the paper, standing in the street. My aunt cleared her throat and grinned, “ got to be careful you know, some people don’t like reporters.”

Mom snorted, a quick unladylike noise. It was Ellen who’d been a star reporter for her high school paper. Once upon a time, my mother had a reputation as something of a Lois Lane, girl reporter. My aunt had never so much as typed copy.

“Unless you’re family there’s no way you’re getting anywhere near Graceland today. Used to be you could walk right up to the gate and talk to the guys there—but it’s crazy ov’r there now. Mostly police and such.”

“How old are you?”

The kid shuffled his feet, he grinned showing off the gap in his front teeth. “Fourteen.”

“Live around here?”

“Yeah,” he pointed back up the street. “I ought to warn you that Mr. Wilfred has been going  up and down the block with his tape measure. Clipping it on and off his belt. He’s been measuring how many inches cars were parked from the curb, exactly. There are laws you know, and he’s got three cars towed since yesterday.”

“How far can you park from the curb?” Mom asked putting her foot between the front tire and the cement curb, the tire left a black mark on her exposed toe.

The boy shrugged. “Mr. Wilfred carries a wooden ruler with him, like the kind from school. Goes around putting it up to the cars.” He held his hands out as if holding a bread loaf by the ends the single paper still in his hands.

“Do you think I’m okay?”

The boy walked out of the street, taping the paper against his thigh. “Looks okay to me. I wouldn’t worry, the tow truck companies won’t answer his calls anymore. Mr. Wilfred nearly had a stroke when a tow truck driver wouldn’t tow a Nova with a duck-taped passenger-side window.”

It was at that moment a truck came trolling for parking, slowly enough that the boy had a chance to pull the bicycle off the street.

Still trying to measure the distance from the curb to the tire with her foot Mom waited for the kid to continue his story, but he fussed with settling his bicycle on the sidewalk. “So what about the towing?”

“See,” the kid held up two tightly folded news papers to illustrate the car in position to the curb, “the tow truck driver thought the car was within the allotted space and even the policeman that came out wouldn’t even put a ticket on the car.” The boy wheezed a little when he smiled. “Me and my friends were hoping that Mr. Wilfred would clout somebody, but he disappointed everyone. But you’re okay—Mr. Wilfred isn’t home right now.”

“What’s your name honey? For the record.” Aunt Arlene asked.

“Eddie.”

“Well, hello Eddie.”

Eddie stood politely, “Hello Ma’m.”

Another car cruised by, full of tired looking people. They looked at Mom and Aunt Arlene and the sisters looked back.

“Why are you delivering papers so late in the morning?” Mom asked hoping that it would remind talkative Eddie of his responsibilities, instead it launched him into another topic. That morning’s papers were hoarded, copies were stolen from the backs of delivery trucks, off front lawns and paperboys accosted offered dollars for quarter papers on their morning rounds. Eddie’s friend Tim Henderly was knocked off his bicycle, his eye blackened all his papers stolen. When describing Tim’s black eye Eddie covered his left eye with a folded newspaper. “Dispatcher didn’t have papers for me until after noon. The office had so many complaints that the temp agency had to send in an extra girl to answer the angry phone calls. Heard there were some doozies.”

Aunt Arlene took a deep breath and toed at the ground, she’d been a temp during her working life and could sympathize with that nameless girl apologizing for $2.20 an hour.

Then Eddie told them he’d sold his pen and pencil set to a fat lady who was crying out in front of the Mr. Tax on Elvis Presley Boulevard. He was proud of this sell.

“Why would a fat woman on Elvis Presley Boulevard buy your pen and pencil set, Eddie?”

Mom rolled her eyes. Arlene made a rabbit face at her.

“Oh it was valuable on account of that it was engraved with my initials, E.P.”

“E.P?”

“Oh,” Eddie nodded his head, “Edwin Parsons, not a junior.”

“How fortunate for you.”

That spurred Eddie to repeat his well rehearsed plans to sell his old baseball mitt and some t-shirts that his mother had marked with permanent marker with those fortunate initials. Told them that he and some friends were getting up early on Thursday to hold places along the street by Graceland and then sell space on a public sidewalk to crazed Elvis fans. The boy shook his head laughing softly at his own cleverness. Mom figured him for one of those joke tellers who so enjoy their own delivery that they dilute the impact by laughing before delivering punch line. With any luck, Eddie figured that they’d make enough money to go to the movies ride the bus and get popcorn every Saturday for a year.

Arlene asked him if he’d make enough money to take a girl along Eddie blushed to the tops of his freckled ears.

“Are you holding places for today?” Mom asked.

“Why would we?”

“The view? Holding spots for the viewing?”

Eddie drew his face long. “No Ma’m, don’t know nothing about that.”

It took a woman in a frilly blue blouse and floral skirt clipped out her front door at the opposite end of the block shouting at the boy for her paper that reminded Eddie of his duties.

He shouted up the street, “right away Mrs. Wilfred” rushed to his bike. With a sheepish smile and a “good day ma’m” for both of them, Eddie Parsons rode on, papers thwacking expertly on the doorsteps of the houses he passed.

By evening those stolen daily papers, normally priced at a quarter each, were being sold on the Memphis street corners for between five and ten dollars each. In following days that same paper would sell for fifty dollars in New York, and a week later in London for about three hundred.

All Mom said to Aunt Arlene was, “you really take the cake.” My aunt didn’t answer, only made a slight noise. The direction to Graceland was clear; just walk toward where the helicopters circled, walked toward the distant sirens, as if heading to ongoing tragedy.

 

Rosewood Road, Part 2

Even though it was overcast the heat hung like a fog by the time the sisters finally found a parking place for the Buick. Able to see where the needed to go from the where the helicopters were circling and how the bumper-to-bumper traffic thwarted the Buick from where Mom tried to steer it. They’d spent fifty minutes creeping through tree shaded residential streets, looking for a place a park. The streets crowded on both sides with cars displaying license plates from several states, neighboring and otherwise. Most of the cars dirty with the signs of travel, mud splatters, bird poop and bug stains. The further away the state license plate the worse the condition of the car. Rosewood Road looked wrong, that street of proud single-story houses with their flowerbeds and porch chairs in order defaced by the signs of a sudden migration.

Aunt Arlene began opening the door almost the moment that Mom finished her inching and tucking parallel parking job between a muddy Chevy truck from Texas and a dusty Ford wagon from Mississippi. Normally Mom would have chastised her instead put her energy into aligning the car. My aunt had a cigarette lit before she’d set both feet on the sidewalk. She coughed, drew in the smoke and then paused, stood up, slammed the Buick’s passenger door and exhaled a smoky sigh.

“El, look?” My aunt spoke and pointed, the way you point out a hummingbird in a bush or a child wearing a Halloween costume in July.  Mom followed the pointing hand, she saw the trimmed lawn, a baseball glove askew on the steps going up to the house, a lilac trimmed down to the line of the porch. Mom looked back at Aunt Arlene too tired to offer more than quizzical eyebrows.  Arlene pointed, just the way she was taught never to do, with the forefinger of her right hand, the nail chipped at a diagonal. Mom followed the imaginary line created by that pointing finger.

In the plate glass window of the house, in front of the closed curtain shears, was a handmade sign: Spare room, bed and breakfast, $10 per person, RESPECTABLE people only apply. Crayon stars surrounded the words.

Mom adjusted her glasses, “do you think it’s a bed and breakfast?”

“In this neighborhood?”

Glancing around Mom noted this didn’t look like a neighborhood that would have tolerated a business catering to strangers. Tastefully plain houses, with carports covering spaces to detached garages, white paint and decorative shutters, established trees and continuous lawns spanning multiple properties. Mom yawned, stretching her arms up over her head.

Her purse shifted against her hip. The medicine bottles rattled mysteriously, like ice in a glass. “There’s another one.”

“Where?”

“There across the street.”

My aunt squinted through smoke of her own creation. “So there is, they’ve misspelled respectable.”

Mom resettled her purse on her shoulder and began to walk along the sidewalk.  My aunt stood on the easement next to the Buick, “where you going?”

“Gracelynn.”

“Gracelynn?” My aunt laughed.

“Locals call it Gracelynn.” Mom answered.

My aunt laughed again. “And you would know that because?”

“It’s what the gas station attendant in Arkansas called it.” Confidence drained out of her through that sentence.

“You’re not going to keep that up?”

Mom stood there on the sidewalk with her mouth half hanging open. The window shears at the nearest house, a pursed face with tangerine lipstick flashed. Mom did not want to put herself in the position of being declared respectable by the owner of that disapproving face, or for that matter pay good money for what she suspected that would (at best) be a sleeping bag on the floor and a bowl of cornflakes in the morning, and (at worst) a part in a crime drama. Later Mom would have reason to wish that she’d purchased unquestioned access to a bathroom.

 

Rosewood Road, Part 1

Mom wished she’d taken the other bridge, though she had no reason to believe that I-55 would have taken her where she wanted to go any more directly. The road they were on, and the car they were in, went off toward the North, through the tip of Memphis and into the areas promising exits to suburban neighborhoods. She was boxed in and rolling on and on waiting for directions. My aunt scrambled about with the map in the backseat barking out directions between coughs. Arlene coughed in deep hard rasps. Mom flexed her hands on the steering wheel.

“Hold on a minute,” Mom turned the radio so far down it might as well have been turned off.

“You need to turn south.” Another series of wet coughs exploded from the back of the car.

“Which way is south?” Mom asked glancing at her sister in the rear view mirror. She had to say it again after the hacking stopped.

“Right I think.”

“You think?”

Mom passed another exit before my aunt could get her breath to answer. “Ellen just get off the highway, we’re getting too far away from Graceland.” An orderly procession of cars with their headlights on forced the Buick further away from their goal. “I need cigarette.”

“Arlene you sound like a TB patient from an old movie. How could you want a cigarette?”

Aunt Arlene had her purse on her lap, rummaging hard enough to make a rattling noise of the contents. Tried to suppress her coughing with a fist to her lips, “Just get off the road, Ellen, or I’m going to lit up in the car.”

“Oh no you don’t.”

My aunt managed a thin smile when she looked up from her purse, she made eye contact with my mother. Aunt Arlene’s eye make-up was so badly smeared she looked like a sixties starlet without the false eyelashes. She cleared her throat several times. “Come on El, we’ve got to get off the freeway anyway.”

“I think it’s a highway.”

My aunt’s attention was back in her purse. “What?”

“This is a highway.”

“Ellen this is an interstate, and therefore a freeway.”

Mom made a considering noise in the back of her throat, gearing up for a denial, my aunt knew the signs. “I don’t think…”

“Who cares El? Just find somewhere to pull over.”

“There is no need to yell.” Mom spoke slowly, with authority that made her sister hiss through her teeth and begin coughing again. “It was you who was so hell bent to get here and now you want to waste time when we’re so close.”

Arlene’s only answer was a waving hand, a wrist flick meant either to dismiss my mother or to egg her on. Mom saw the motion flutter in the rear view mirror and gritted her teeth. She turned the radio back up.

 

Crossing the River, Part 2

To get into Memphis from the west the Buick had to cross the Mississippi on either the Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge or the Hernando-Desoto Bridge. Mom meant to take the southern most of the two bridges, having to change from the I-40 to the I-55. As she drove toward the river where the traffic continued to thicken, Ellen continued to count off time: one hundred and forty-seven Elvis Presley, one hundred and forty-eight Elvis Presley, one hundred and forty-nine Elvis Presley. Road signs narrowed down to a handful of miles until West Memphis in Arkansas where she’d have to choose an Interstate to route them to a bridge. Either way would get them to where they were going, the AAA map open on the passenger seat showed a clear route to Elvis Presley Boulevard and Graceland.  Less than ten miles from the Mississippi and Mom did not want to wake her sister.  She was alone in the front, alone with the radio, able to stretch out a little, able to breath in spite of the overcast day and thick heat.

Various radios announcers urged drivers to turn on their headlights as a sign of public mourning, out of respect for Elvis. Over the Mississippi all flags flown at half-mast. Mom clicked her lights on. She did not take the interchange to the I-55 and exchanged a nod with a woman about her age in a Chrysler also with its lights on. She drove listening to Elvis sing, crooning or rocking.

Ellen started to count again. One Elvis Presley. Two Elvis Presley. Traffic felt strange after the openness of the nighttime highway. Three Elvis Presley. Heat already made ripples in the air between the tightly moving cars. She could see the bridge in the distance ahead. Sitting in traffic she caught sight of the chocolate milk colored water swirling along. Four Elvis Presley. Ellen thought about riverboats. Once Ellen and Arlene had dragged their husbands to see a dinner theater production of Showboat! where they were served a dry prime rib. Five Elvis Presley. There was a driver in the brown Ford in front of her whose break light indicated that he never took his foot entirely off the brake pedal. Six Elvis Presley. She thought about Gone with the Wind and how much she’d loved Huck Finn when she read it in school, and how little of the book she could remember now. Seven Elvis Presley. Wondered if she should wake Arlene before they crossed the river. Eight Elvis Presley.

Traffic continued to slouch toward the double-railed open bridge. There was than half-a-mile to go and the sisters would finally be in the city they’d talked about visiting for years. Ellen’s pounded. She could feel as well as hear it. Nine Elvis Presley. She blew a breath out her mouth, sat up straight and gripped the steering wheel anew and felt the change under the tires as the car rolled onto the Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge. She was boxed in on the inside so she could see only other cars and parts of the Memphis skyline in the distance. On the radio Elvis sang weepingly about crying in the chapel. Ten Elvis Presley.

“Wake Up Arlene, we’re here.”

 

 

Crossing the River, Part 1

Mom stopped at a gas station just outside Lonoke, Arkansas. The young man who’d pumped her gas warned her that they’d never get anywhere near “Gracelynn.” “Never got many questions about Gracelynn, but today you’re the…” his eyes stared at the cloudy sky, “eighth carload so far.” He snuck a peek through the back window at my Aunt Arlene who was sprawled asleep on the backseat, her thick knit sweater over her lap like a blanket.  “You’ve usually got about two hours to Memphis. But with all the extra traffic coming,” he licked his lips with a thick glossy tongue, then sucked air through his teeth, “it might be an extra hour.” Mom looked at her watch. It said it was the middle of the night, and it was for me and Dad. I was asleep. Dad watching late night TV, dozing on the couch as he often did when he couldn’t sleep.  My mother squinted out at the sparse traffic on the I-40 and wondered how eight carloads would stop traffic, she couldn’t bring herself to ask this young man for the time.  She unclasped the metal band of the watch and slipped it into her pants pocket. Her wrist that had been beneath the watch band was too white compared with her tanned arm. Mom rubbed her left wrist with her right hand like a television criminal just freed from shackles.

Mom stood in the open door of the Buick, rubbing her wrist and practicing mouthing “Gracelynn,” acutely conscious of the rims of her pair of glasses at the edges of her vision even after hours of wearing her glasses. She wanted to lean on the car, stretch out her aching back and unknot the muscles in her neck, but she wouldn’t touch the filthy Buick. Dead bugs and muck completely obscuring the fleck of sparkle to the color.  “Would you wash the windshield, please?” Mom said looking at a raw spot coming up under the sandal strap between her big toe and the rest on her right foot. Just the few minutes, without the air from the windows Mom felt shinny with sweat, she gritted her teeth again the felling of the knit of her blouse clinging to her sore lower back.

My aunt had insisted that Mom wake her up before the Buick crossed into Memphis. Mom assured her the way you assure a cranky child all but saying yes dear, of course, now close your eyes and go to sleep. Now with my aunt asleep and some personal quite time Mom found herself in no mood to wake her. It wasn’t silence she wanted. Radio reception had been steady ever since the Coffee Cupboard around dawn. Every station giving way to three or four more stations playing exclusively Elvis songs or commiserating with distraught fans. A litany of shock of grief from complete strangers; strangers to Elvis and stranger to each other all set to Elvis’s music. As the Buick grew closer to Memphis the DJs themselves were not withholding their own, the more Elvis was a hometown boy, one of their own, and each had memories of him. Callers on the air wept openly, broke down, pledged eternal devotion to the King, the DJs matched their emotions.  For some time there was dead air, broken only by sobbing or heaving breathes. As the car continued toward Graceland the movie theatres, hotels, gas stations, schools and churches had put up messages of condolence on their marquees. Messages like RIP Elvis or Forever the King.  It hadn’t been silence Ellen craved but to be alone with this community of heartbroken strangers.

One of the weeping strangers on the radio (back around Prescott Arkansas) mentioned counting off minutes as Elvis Presleys rather than Mississippis. The same number of syllables, marks off a second of time passing, if carefully pronounced. Mom had mouthed the words, trying it out. One Elvis Presley, two Elvis Presley. The same little trick she’d taught me to mark off seconds when needed. The same trick I taught my children for putting on temporary tattoos or to pass anxious minutes of waiting.

Mom paid the young man $6.96 for the tank of gas and without hesitation pulled the Buick back onto the interstate not cutting off an orange Pinto even if the frowning driver honked at her. Mom shhed the woman, hoping not to wake her sister. All the while she counted Elvis Presleys. The radio already on was playing What Now My Love.

 

How can I live through another day

Watching my dreams turn into ashes

And all my hopes into bits of clay

Once I could see, once I could feel

Now I’m a numb

 

 

Mom did not give into the compulsion to sing along, my mother began to softly chant: One Elvis Presley. Chanting in the same singsong voice she used to talk through the bridge of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (normally with me doing the “Bahm, ba Ba dum” accompaniment).

 

In Common

There was this girl, Sharon Gregory, who started at my school mid-way through my fifth grade year. That someone came to join our insular world of Mason Elementary School was enough to make her fascinating. It was generally known (thought I don’t remember how—maybe we whispered it while waiting in the four-square line) that Sharon came to our school because her father died and her mother moved to be closer to family. Our fellow students and teachers assumed Sharon and I would be drawn together by our mutual disasters. I thought so too. As if having a deceased parent was an obscure hobby that others admired for the devotion it required but otherwise couldn’t get into.

So one day I caught up with Sharon at recess. By way of introduction I told her that my mom died. She was a year my junior, by one school year. She seemed to know that the loss of a Mother trumped a Father in the elementary world. Now I’d meant I was glad to meet her (and I was) because I wanted, if not someone to talk to about my loss, then someone to feel equal with. I’d felt off kilter among my piers since Mom died.

What I didn’t know was Sharon had planned she would be the tragic princess of Mason Elementary School. I had the upper hand. We’d both lost a parent, but I hadn’t had to move or change schools. Therefore she needed me to concede her superior suffering.

Sharon knew who I was and met me with a practiced response, direct as a slap. “It was almost me that found my Dad.” She swallowed and her bottom lip trembled a little. I had to ask for clarification she’d meant found him dead.

As I was already asking questions, she went into her recitation that I overheard her tell several others during various recesses. It seems that her Mom told Sharon to wake up her Dad for breakfast. When Sharon was slow to do it her little sister attempted to wake him. How not obeying her mother or forcing on that awful memory to her little sister made Sharon more pitiable—I didn’t know. She certainly seemed to think it the turning point of the event.

I recognized a challenge when I heard one.

I don’t pretend to remember the exact flow of the conversation but I know things proceeded to my bragging that there was standing room only at Mom’s funeral. Apparently it was the same at Mr. Gregory’s funeral. I mentioned that extra racks had to be brought in for the bouquets at my Mom’s funeral. Sharon raised the extra racks required to two. As I’d only said extra, I then specified that it was four extra racks, thereby trumping Sharon’s and her Dad’s funeral. It was a blatant and silly an argument as when in kindergarten Claudia Sanchez and I bickered over whose family had more money in the bank and the numbers we bantered about ranged in the ga-billions.

Only now it occurs to me that mortuaries prepare for modest funerals in order spare mourning families empty flower stands and empty pews. I was proud of my mother’s funeral. I was proud that extra racks had to be brought in for all the flowers sent to the funeral home, that it was standing room only at the back of the chapel even after they’d brought in folding chairs. Flowers were expensive and special. People being willing to stand through the service proved that many people thought a lot of my mother. This was nothing to compare to Elvis’ funeral, comparisons are impossible—the idea never occurred to me. At least not until now—looking back on myself as I was then and the things all children take for granted. And I wonder if pride in the funeral and turn out helped me get through it. Through the rocky first years of loss.

Now I wonder what Lisa Marie had thought of it all at the time. The crowds, inside and outside of Graceland, the news, the helicopters, and all the other wildness. She must have been used to crowds thronging her father. But did such outpourings from strangers comfort her? I’d bet no kid ever compared funerals with her on the playground. My mother saw Lisa Marie the day of the funeral—saw her from a distance. She must have thought about her child at her own funeral. How could she not have?

 

Coffee Cupboard, Part 5

The waitress came over, carrying a coffee pot and smiling widely. “Now gals, hold on there. Don’t go getting wound up and having a fight.” She pulled a fresh fork from her apron pocket and set it down in front of Aunt Arlene. “You’all got a long way to go yet.” Both sisters politely refused more coffee. “Be nice now, I’ve had more than one person abandoned in the wee hours, just sitting here waiting for their ride to cool off and come back.”

My aunt laughed but Mary only nodded. “You’d be surprised. Little kids who got their parents hopped up. Husbands or wives. Boyfriends get left a lot.” The waitress smiled as if at a fond memory. “Happens all the time.”

“So what do you do?” Arlene asked.

“Kids get waffles or ice cream and the adults usually just order pie,” here she winked at my aunt. “You don’t want anymore pie do ya?”

My aunt held up her hands as if she were surrendering.

“Now you two go on in the restroom, freshen up. Get yourselves on the road and don’t fight no more.” She gave them a wise nod. “I admire the both of you. Wish I could go too.”

“Why can’t you?”

Mom sat up straight. Once Arlene offered a ride home to stranger she got to chatting with at the Tyler Mall. The woman wasn’t a hitchhiker or anything, my aunt insisted later, trying to explain her generosity. The woman had stolen Aunt Arlene’s wallet and silver lighter out of her purse.

“Gotta work darlin,” The waitress looked from one sister to the other. She pulled a couple of hand written bills from her apron pocket and put one onto the center of the table directly between the two, “and who’d take care of my kids?” She took the pie plate away not offering a take away box.

The sisters sat glaring at each other, not speaking above whispers, not making any new arguments. My aunt put her nearly empty cigarette pack on the table. The waitress tended other customers, seated a couple coming in looking as if they’d driven all night and a few minutes later a man fresh and bright as if hitting the road for a busy day. The sisters sat ignoring the bill. Mom played with her water glass, my aunt stared at the table. The sky outside grew lighter. Aunt Arlene lit her last cigarette. Mom excused herself to use the restroom. When she returned my aunt sneered, “took your sweet time,” and went to the restroom herself for at least as long. Mom watched the traffic passing on the highway, growing thicker.

Aunt Arlene bought two packs from the cigarette machine near the restroom. Not her brand (the machine was out) but one she didn’t mind too much. She plopped down on her side of the booth and began opening a new pack of cigarettes. Mom huffed, put her feet up on the seat next to Arlene’s purse, accidentally kicking it. She did not apologize.

The waitress flitted about tending customers, she cast smiles at the sisters. After Arlene got through her second cigarette from the new pack the waitress paused as she passed their table, she leaned in displaying a grease stained bosom. Mary grew conspiratorial, “you know girls…”

Mom looked at the egg yolk on that collar and the vivid eye shadow without really taking the waitress in.

“You know gals, there was an announcement on the radio just about five minutes ago. Mike the cook told me. They’re going to let fans pay their respects this afternoon.” She tapped the table next to the bill with a knuckle. “People are already starting to line up. My stars it would be nice to say a real goodbye to the King.” She knocked the table again and flashed that practiced smile, “you two drive safe now. Drop in and see us on your way back.”

The information worked like a charm, the sisters left, a twenty-dollar bill on the table. It was a testament to their hurry that they did not wait for change.