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).