(NOTE: I’ll be posting the final part of my Elvis Crossover series within the next few weeks. I set it aside to finish this following post in time for the 35th anniversary of Elvis’ death. I’m traveling the rest of this week and I’ll be swamped with working on some serious home improvements for the next several weeks when I get back. I definitely plan to keep posting but it may be a little lighter than usual. In the meantime…..Here’s a personal reminiscence.)
It was August and, for some reason, I wasn’t working. So it wasn’t a normal day in that regard.
Most summer days in those years, my dad and I were on a paint job somewhere. Most summer days we had to be working, because that was when we made the bulk of the money we lived on the rest of the year while he was attending bible college, training for what turned out to be a career as a missionary, though at that moment, we all still assumed–improbably if not foolishly–that he could somehow turn into what our part of the world calls a pastor.
The really big news of the day at my house was that we were going to see Star Wars.
By “we” I mean all of us. Myself, both of my parents, my nephew and his new wife who lived a few miles down the road.
So it was odd that way, too.
My family did not go to movies. We certainly did not go to science fiction movies on Tuesday evenings.
I was sixteen and the only prior occasions I can remember going to a movie with both of my parents were a screening of Gone With the Wind when I was about five years old and a Disney double-feature (The Gnome-Mobile and Rascal) when I was maybe eight or nine.
That’s how much we didn’t go to the movies.
The only science fiction movie I had ever seen was 2001: Space Odyssey (my brother took me and ended up with the privilege of explaining the ending to my eight-year-old self after we missed the early show and I fell asleep during the late one–amazingly, we are still close).
That’s how much we didn’t go to science fiction movies.
Heck, I’m not even gonna try to fathom that.
Star Wars must have been a very, very big deal. Much bigger, frankly, than I remember.
In any case, at my house, it was already a strange, edgy, anticipatory sort of day.
Some time in the afternoon, I did what I always did on summer afternoons when I wasn’t working. I went in the back yard behind the scuppernong arbor and pitched a football around or shot baskets. I can’t pretend to recall which, but I do remember walking up to the house from the back and deciding to go on to the general store across the street to get what I always got–a Heath ice cream bar and a Nehi grape.
Was it two o’clock? Three? Later?
I seem to remember shadows, but that could be the mind playing tricks–calling up some more normal day when I couldn’t possibly have been throwing a football or shooting baskets before seven o’clock.
If the shadows weren’t really there, laying across my face and shoulders, they fell soon enough on the memory.
When we moved to North Florida in 1974, the general store was called Hudson’s, after the man who owned it and who also rented us his mother’s previously unavailable house at a ridiculously low rate when my father–called to full-time pursuit of the ministry at a moment inconveniently close to the beginning of the school year back in seventy-four–was unable to find anything else remotely affordable in the entire area.
Things like that happen when you are truly called. Things like that are meant to happen–at least that’s what you keep telling yourself during all those subsequent moments of horrendous, soul-eating doubt.
The man who owned the store and our house had decided (a year or so after we moved there), to sell the store, though, thankfully, he kept the house, which he had promised we could live in at that ridiculously low rate for as long as it took my father to complete his schooling.
The big, unsettling event that occurred after he sold the store was that the new owners decided to keep it open on Sunday.
Trust me, Mr. Hudson never would have sold it to anybody who would do a thing like that. Not if he had known. When he couldn’t talk them out of the new policy himself, he went to the pastor of his wife’s church, which was also our church (though, oddly, not his–he was a Methodist who insisted on staying a Methodist and his wife was a Baptist who insisted on staying a Baptist, which, in our part of the world, is what we call a mixed marriage). That led to our pastor “having a talk” with the new owners, which left them no longer interested in attending any church at all, and even less interested in closing on Sundays.
Change comes, even to the sleepiest small towns.
Anyway, the owners had four kids and their youngest son Bobby–he was a little younger than me–was standing near the back of the store, grabbing some shade (suddenly, for this part, I don’t see shadows, just shade, which is an entirely different thing).
He said something like: “Hey, Elvis Presley just died.”
We exchanged smirks at that.
Another dead celeb. Rock star, which meant he had probably O.D.’d or drowned in his own vomit or something. Yeah, that must have been it. Couldn’t really picture Elvis Presley in a plane crash. Plane crashes were kind of cool. However Elvis had died, I think me and Bobby were pretty sure it hadn’t been any way cool.
So I said something like: “Wow. How did it happen?”
And he shrugged and said something like: “I don’t know….I never did care much for him personally.”
And then I shrugged and said something like: “Me neither.”
Then I went on inside the store where it was a little cooler and some older men were talking to Bobby’s dad, wondering how it might have happened and Bobby’s dad said: “Wine, women and song.” (Not something like it–those were his exact words. Or so my memory tells me.)
And the other men who were standing around all nodded along in agreement.
I bought my ice cream bar and my Nehi and headed back out. Nobody else asked me what I thought about it.
If they had, I would have probably said something like: “Well, I never cared much for him personally.”
It was true. I didn’t. Not that moment or any moment prior.
I have no idea what Bobby was into, musically speaking. KISS probably or Lynyrd Skynyrd (now there was a tragedy, not to mention some rock stars who knew the proper way to die!) I myself was into John Denver and folk music, though I was also getting a handle on the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys just about then. All of whom were way less cool than Elvis, at least where I lived.
(I mean, if I had possessed even a little respect for anybody else’s knowledge of what was really important, I probably would have been looking for a chance to say something like, “Well at least it wasn’t Brian Wilson!” In those days, the “O.D.’d in the bathroom” news was expected to deliver up the head Beach Boy any moment. Turns out he’s still here and the “drowned in the Pacific Ocean” and “died of cancer” news delivered up his brothers instead. Take any bet you want. Just remember that time is a master at perverting even the surest odds.)
I guess all of this is a way of saying I had my own idea of what was important, just like most sixteen-year-old know-it-alls.
My head didn’t have space for Elvis Presley. He was my mother’s idea of important and my Memphis-born nephew’s idea of important and a lot of other people’s idea of important.
Poor lost souls.
It was kind of sad, really, that they were so far beyond educating.
I would have helped them if I could.
* * * *
By the time I got back to the house, walking through what I now swear were the long shadows of evening again, I had weighed the situation a bit and realized I should not be too callous or casual about breaking the news to my mother. Another dead celeb for me–though I was impressed that everybody was talking about it. A big deal, though, for her.
Maybe a little biography is in order.
My mother was born in 1919, in North Carolina (born Bessemer City, moved to Salisbury soon after). She went to work in a towel factory when she was sixteen to help support her parents (a fact I learned from others while she was alive) and to allow an older brother to attend seminary (a fact I learned only after she died–it wasn’t the sort of thing one ever learned from her).
When I was about eight years old, a doctor held up an X-ray of her lungs in front of me and said that the brown spots were places that didn’t work any more. One lung–I don’t remember which–wasn’t really spotted. It was just brown. She had about half of the other one left–her reward for twenty years of faithfully breathing unregulated lint and cotton dust at the factory and for having me too late in life.
I learned all that from other people too. That definitely was not the sort of thing you ever learned from her.
My mother had a hard, hard life. My mother did not complain.
She knew fear but she did not know bitterness. That was just how she was–or how she made herself to be.
She did occasionally–only occasionally–tell stories about her childhood.
Stories about delivering food baskets with her minister father to black and white families alike who were even more impoverished than her own. Stories of leaping from the top of an abandoned rail car in Salisbury’s old train yard in an attempt to fly (one purple wing, one pink wing, one hard fall). Stories about getting up early enough on school mornings in the winter that she could stop and join the early dawn singing sessions with the hoboes who haunted the lines in the twenties, scrounging desperately for work long before the rest of the world got the news of the Great Depression. (I asked her once if she thought she might have sung with Jimmie Rodgers and she said, “Well, if he was through that part of North Carolina, I probably did.” My research tells me he wasn’t, but her answer always made the country seem smaller and friendlier and better somehow.) Stories of instinctively shucking her brand new shoes so she could enter a sidewalk Charleston contest, then running away and leaving her shoes–and the first prize–behind when she won because she knew she was in the worst kind of trouble if her parents found out (a sister snuck back and retrieved the shoes–no idea what happened to the prize).
Like I said.
Happy stories. Always with a laugh or a shake of the head.
And, about childhood, she told one–only one–unhappy story.
Some time around the age of twelve or thirteen, she was allowed to go into downtown Salisbury by herself and do some shopping. She rode the bus. She bought a few things and so had bags to carry home with her.
Then, hauling the bags the best she could, she got on the bus to go home.
There were no empty seats in the front. There were plenty of empty seats in the back. Only one black woman sitting there alone. No one else around.
So my mother, exhausted, happily took her bags to the back of the bus and plopped down on an empty seat.
At which point the lone black woman immediately leaned over and began hissing under her breath.
“Not yo’ seat,” she said. “Not yo’ seat!”
My mother, alone on the city bus for the first time, accustomed to getting along fine with black people, didn’t know what she meant.
She therefore did not know why a man detached himself from one of the front seats and came towards her and was thus surprised when he said something like:
“Here, you take my seat.”
And, not seeing the point of it all and having been raised on Christian politeness, she said something like:
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m fine right here.”
At which point he said in an exceedingly cold voice (the exact words if I’m remembering correctly–and I think I am–and if she was remembering correctly–and she almost certainly was):
“Young lady you get up there in that seat right now!”
Raised to respect and obey her elders, my mother moved–right on into what our part of the world used to call responsible adulthood. Right on into her first real experience with shame.
Just to make sure she behaved–and got the point–the man came and stood next to her until it was time for her to get off. The surest sign that she bore watching.
Coincidence or not, during all the years I knew her decades later, there were no more childhood stories after that. Anecdotes maybe, memories maybe, shards maybe, but the stories ended on that city bus in Salisbury, swallowed up by good old Jim Crow.
So, forty-five years later, on August 16, 1977, when I came up the steps of the back porch of our rented house in the Florida Panhandle, my mother had three children and a bunch of grandchildren, all of whom she loved better than herself and a flawed vessel of a second husband trying to be a preacher and half a lung to breathe with and a lifetime with the burden and privilege of being what our part of the world calls a pillar of the community (any community she lived in, she was a pillar–which, in our part of the world, really does mean the one everyone else leans on and leans on and keeps leaning on, half-a-lung or not) and memories of a happy childhood that was back there somewhere behind a curtain that fell down the first time she rode a bus by herself.
* * * *
All that, plus one other completely anomalous not-from-childhood happy story.
That was the story of going to see Elvis Presley at the Carolina Theater in Charlotte in 1956.
You couldn’t hear him, she always said.
It took three hours to get him from the hotel to the stage, she always said.
I thought those girls down front were going to tear his clothes off, she always said.
It was something to see, she always said.
Well, there was nobody like him, she always said.
So in those forty-five years, there was one happy story that wasn’t tucked behind that curtain–one moment when the world had seemed pure again.
Without being terribly self-conscious about all of that–without having thought it through to any appreciable degree, certainly without knowing that a year later a car with two young black men in it would come hot-rodding around the corner, take out the wire fence I always walked past going to and from the general store and screech away while Mr. Hudson ran screaming helplessly after them, finally giving up and trudging back to our yard and giving my father (by then well-known to be on his way to a missionary career in helping the less fortunate) a brief, angry lecture on the evil and hopeless stupidity of being a nigger-lover, something my father was not, in fact, ever so easily mistaken for when he was not under the very direct influence of Jesus or my mother–I had a sudden sense that what I was about to tell her might not be just another case of bad news.
* * * *
I could have thought about it a whole lot more and still not been prepared for her reaction.
Understand we had no Elvis records. My mother wasn’t into buying records. I doubt she would have been even if we had the money.
I also doubt she had ever been to one of his movies. If she had, she never talked about it.
I don’t know if she watched him on television in the fifties, but I can say with certainty she did not see the great 68 Comeback Special or the famous concert from Hawaii via world-wide satellite. I can say with certainty she did not see those monumental events because those particular years were not among the handful when we possessed a working television.
She didn’t even make much habit of listening to the radio.
So whatever my mother had going on with Elvis it wasn’t what I imagined most people having.
Which probably just shows the limits of my world-weary imagination at sixteen.
In any case, there I was, standing in the doorway that led from the back porch to the kitchen, with my Heath ice cream bar and my Nehi grape, and there she was, standing next to the counter by the sink with a dish-rag in her hand, finishing or starting something, I can’t remember what.
And I was saying something like: “I just heard Elvis Presley died.”
I could have told her one of my sisters just died–or one of them could have told her that I just died–and the reaction couldn’t have been much stronger.
If I hadn’t been standing next to that counter and had it to hold onto, she always said later, I would have dropped straight to the floor.
I was there. I was the one who ran across the kitchen floor to make sure she didn’t keel over.
So I’m the one who can testify to that.
* * * *
When a minute or two had passed, it became evident that I couldn’t answer any of her very basic questions: Not how. Not when (not exactly anyway). Not where.
Certainly not why. (Little did I know how important the “why” was–how much it was destined to become an eternally unanswerable question, like the nature of existence and what lies beyond the edge of the universe.)
So finally she said: “Let’s turn on the radio.”
We didn’t have much of a radio. One of those little jobs with a clock on it that didn’t take up too much space on the card table we used for a breakfast nook.
She turned it on and had we not already heard the news, it would have been easy enough to guess something was up because we were in the first hour or so of about seven straight days when Elvis took over the South in a way that he couldn’t possibly have done when he was alive–not even in the fifties. Because even in the fifties, I doubt he was on every station–Top 40, country, classic rock, easy listening–all day long for days on end.
Let me just say that I only attended anywhere closely to those first couple of hours.
Things blurred. I’m sure I ate my ice cream bar and drank my Nehi, but I can’t say I remember doing it.
I do remember sitting at the dining room table, vacillating between my inward self, trying to take it all in, and my outward self, pretending to ignore the whole affair.
Somewhere in there, my nephew heard the news and called my mother and they traded grief and shock and I got on the phone for a little bit and asked him–casually, off-handedly, because I was sure I knew the answer–if he was still going to see Star Wars with us that night.
And he said something like:
“Naw man…I think I’m gonna stay around here and see if I can figure out what happened.”
Weirdly enough, when he said it, I was surprised–not so much at him as at myself for not having seen it coming.
Because, somewhere in there, some sort of understanding had dawned. Not the understanding that my nephew, who saw more movies than a paid critic, never would see Star Wars. That would have been too much to expect of myself.
But I might have tripped along just fast enough to have guessed beforehand that he wasn’t going to the movies that evening–that he wasn’t my mother, who had known too much grief in her life to risk dwelling on it and who also probably didn’t want to disappoint me (sixteen-year-old me, who was not exactly devastated by the news of the day and very assuredly did not go traipsing off to the movies without adult supervision).
So what had changed? Why was I suddenly prone to expecting better of myself?
Well, sitting there at the dining room table, one room removed from the radio and my mother’s strange reaction, I kept hearing two things.
First I heard the shock and grief that was coming from the voices on the radio. From people calling in to be sure (there wasn’t much in the way of sharing memories at that point–it was all about “what happened?”). But from the professionals, too. From smart aleck dee-jays who played Saturday Night Live clips on other days and cracked Hitler jokes (because that was edgy, that was controversial, that was how you let people know you were with it–kind of like prison-rape and mass murder jokes now) and offered up catch-phrases like, “If you’re not a Head, you’re behind!” for all the stoners to giggle at.
And there were national voices, too–familiar even to those of us with little exposure to mass media which maybe says something about how hard it was, even then, to not be exposed–starting to intone during the breaks, delivering the expected dose of gravitas and maybe sounding just a little surprised themselves at just what a big “where were you when it happened” deal this was turning out to be.
Just in case I hadn’t been duly impressed by all that, there was even one moment that actually stuck with me specifically and permanently, when a clipped, very British voice from something called the BBC (I’m only half-sure I even knew what that was at the time), said something very like, “We will be dedicating the entire three hours of the late show to his memory.”
It all made for an interesting mosaic and it was one thing that definitely impressed me.
And then, of course, there was the other thing.
Somewhere in all the building hoopla and sturm und drang I heard the music.
Not all of it. Not even close. There were songs I knew, more or less, and songs I didn’t know. There were snatches here and there that sounded not half-bad. Maybe a couple I even liked. (Heck, if it came down to it, I had kind of liked Elvis’ last two singles, “Moody Blue” and “Way Down,” which is roughly how I would feel about them ever-afterward, the main difference being that ever-afterward I was willing to admit it.)
Why was I suddenly so willing to admit things I hadn’t admitted before?
Because I was ever so slightly changed by one song in particular.
It happened that the song was “Kentucky Rain,” which may or may not have changed me much sooner if I had ever chanced to hear it some time before August 16, 1977.
Or may not have changed me at all, if I had heard it a day later.
Who knows? That’s the funny thing about experience. Each thing that happens either sinks in or bounces off and each thing happens exactly when it happens and not some other time. Whether it or you would have been different if the angles had been slightly altered goes off into an alternative universe called The Unknown.
No sense going crazy over it.
Back in The Known, what happened on August 16, 1977, is that I heard Elvis Presley singing a song called “Kentucky Rain” on my family’s cheap, tinny radio and the thunder rolled and the lightning struck and I suddenly knew a few things.
I knew Elvis Presley had been an actual human being and I knew my inability to perceive this prior to that moment said something unpleasant about me (me, who had been very specifically and steadfastly raised to know better) and something horrible about the state of the world.
I knew–rather suddenly–that the world could put you in a box–could make you throw up defenses designed to block out the very thing you should be letting in.
All of that I sort of articulated on the spot.
All of that made me think something like: Jesus, he was a real guy.
What I also knew, but did not articulate, is that nobody who sang like that was really only singing a lyric–some song about trying to track down a woman who left him in the cold Kentucky rain. I caught the meaning under the meaning if you get my meaning.
And once I knew Elvis was a real guy, I also knew I had to watch out for him.
Hell, I grew up in the American South in the sixties and seventies.
I already knew he was a force of nature.
Realizing he was also–before, beyond, and along-side his force-of-nature-ness–a human being like anybody else (and not just any human being like anybody else but a human being like anybody else who could convey the meaning under a meaning, who could reach as deep as meaning required and then reach just a little bit deeper–one of those just-like-anybody-else human beings) just made the whole thing more of a whirlwind than it was already bound to be.
I was embittered by the whole experience and I was shocked and I was shamed.
More than that, I was the best and worst thing you can be at know-it-all sixteen.
I was humbled.
As ye do unto these, the least of my brethren, I had been raised to believe and still have no cause to doubt, so ye do unto me.
All I had ever done to Elvis Presley was write him out of the human race.
On the day he died, he wrote himself back in.
I hardly knew what it all meant just then. Hard to blame me for being a little slow, really, what with my mother still breaking into crying jags and starting to make noises (noises that would continue, off and on, until those brown lungs and the hell they brought finally put her in the grave a decade later) about knowing–knowing!–that she should have tried to reach him somehow. That if only she had written that letter God put it in her heart to write, it might somehow have reached him, and, more to the point, somehow also have made all the difference (and my research into Elvis himself, plus all the common sense in the world, tells me otherwise, but, then again, my research into other people has brought me across more than one statement from some famous person or other who didn’t know Elvis any better than my mother did, which re-stated her theme with eerie precision). All that, plus bringing my father up to speed when he got home and making the momentous family decision that yes, we would still go and see Star Wars!
Lot going on there, so, no, I don’t blame myself for not knowing what it all meant.
But I’m a little bit satisfied that I knew this much: I knew if Elvis (ELVIS!) could suddenly reach me–could write himself straight back into the human race on the day he died when I had done such a thorough job of writing him out–then I had to be ready for anything.
I like to think I have been.
I like to think I learned my lesson.
* * * *
So, as you may have guessed, on the night Elvis died, we went to see Star Wars and, as you may not have guessed, my mother loved it. Even my father was a little bit impressed–or maybe just relieved that my mother had found an escape from what even he (no Elvis fan to say the least and possessed of little-to-no ability to understand the person next to him, though he did have an uncanny knack for reaching strangers, proving God was not quite the fool some thought when He placed that call I referred to earlier) knew was real pain.
I loved Star Wars, too. A little for my mother’s reasons, a little for my father’s reasons, a lot for my own reasons. That’s maybe the point of going to movies together, though life would teach me the things we did together much more often–travel, fight, work, pray, hang together somehow–had a far greater value.
Just anecdotally, when we were leaving the movie theater in Dothan, Alabama, the kids who had sat down front came swarming past us in droves, hooking up with searching parents. The ritual aftermath of any family movie that pulls a crowd I guess.
I didn’t think much about it until my mother smiled down at a black kid who had smiled back while he was apologizing for bumping into her leg.
Then, looking after him, she said: It’s so nice we can all sit together. Thank the lord they don’t have to sit in the balcony anymore.
Even in our part of the world.
Once we got back in the car–back in the real world–we turned on the radio.
By then, I had changed just enough not to be at all surprised to find Elvis was still playing wall-to-wall on every station.
* * * *
In the days and weeks and, eventually, months that followed, I set off on a comic journey, seeking a forty-five (I was all about forty-fives in those days) with “Kentucky Rain” on it.
Never found it.
Given what you could find in those days and weeks and even months–pretty much every single Elvis had ever released, and boy were there a lot of them, taking up their own section in every record store–it would have been logical to assume this was mathematically impossible.
Having been raised in a fatalistic, Calvinist world, I did not concern myself with logic or assumptions or mathematics.
I knew the journey was more important than the destination.
Eventually (along about the Christmas of seventy-eight I think) I settled for using a little of my summer money to buy my mother a copy of Elvis’ 50 Worldwide Gold Hits, Volume 1 as a present.
It was expensive to the point of luxury, but it did have “Kentucky Rain.”
Believe me, I meant the present for her. Believe me, I listened to it a lot more than she did. Believe me, listening to all those records at once made me a fan and sent me on other journeys, some of which haven’t reached their end.
My mother didn’t really mind.
She wasn’t a record collector.
She was a performer. A hellaciously gifted performer, even with half a lung. Hellaciously gifted as in Judy Garland gifted, Barbra Streisand gifted. That ilk gifted.
I know, I know. Every community in the world has one of those. And every community thinks that just because every other community has one, too, it doesn’t mean theirs isn’t the one who really is all that! To which all I can say is I don’t know, because how can you? I mean how can you know, when it’s not just your community but your mother?
Okay, I kinda, sorta know.
I kinda, sorta know because my mother was a fan as much as she was a performer and when you’ve been in as many auditoriums as I have and spent your entire childhood watching the local talent week-in and week out and happened to notice that one person could hold a room like no one else then you kinda, sorta know that this person really is the one who was all that–even if that person is from your community and happens to be your mother.
If you move away from a community and the letters keep coming for years afterwards–often as not from people we had known less than intimately–then the knowing gets kinda, sorta reinforced.
At some point you kinda, sorta know that just because it was your mother, doesn’t mean it was only your imagination.
To tell the truth, I think she saw Elvis as a lot of things, but one thing she probably saw him as that was kinda, sorta unusual, was as a sort of peer. Somebody else who could command the room. (What I knew she meant–not kinda, sorta, but exactly–a few years later, after those brown lungs had finally robbed her voice of its power and I played her a Jerry Butler record and–hearing someone whose timbre and phrasing were not remotely like hers–she closed her eyes and said, both wistfully and matter-of-factly, “I used to be able to sing like that.” LIke the very small circle of people who know that when it is time for them to sing, they will truly own the room. Any room.)
Or maybe I only know what I think. Because as much as we had Elvis in common after a certain point–after the point where pain and drugs (the kinds of drugs the doctors give you when they don’t know what else to do) made a lot of other things drop away–she never really said. At least not directly.
Mostly I guess what we had in common when it came to Elvis was what a lot of Elvis fans have in common. The certitude that he had sought–and found–the meaning under the meaning. The meaning that–often as not–comes leaking out when you seek and find that the very qualities the cognoscenti tend to call “gruesome” (Greil Marcus’ word) or a “monstrosity” (Robert Christgau’s word) have you in their grip and won’t let go.
I used to worry about that. I used to think it was my mission to enlighten-if-I-could the poor souls who didn’t have what it took to measure up against “How the Web Was Woven,” or “We Can Make the Morning,” or “Tomorrow Never Comes,” or whatever.
I don’t worry about it any more.
Heck, if you don’t get it, I figure that’s your problem, not mine. I’m sure there are a lot of things you would think a little less of me for not measuring up to.
The world changes, but it moves on, too.
Just before my mother moved on, she told me a couple of happy stories. There’s no sense trying to convey how much a happy story meant at that point, when she could hardly walk, hardly breathe, hardly see–let’s just say by then they were few and far between.
One day we were just talking–I’m not even sure about what–and she looked off in the distance and said something like: I skipped work to see him….I called in sick. That was the only time I ever did that.
She didn’t even say who “he” was. Didn’t have to.
Incidentally, in 1956, my mother was thirty-seven years old, with two kids.
So just in case she had never put paid to the notion that Elvis was strictly–or even primarily–for teeny-boppers before, she put paid to it then.
But there was one even better story and we definitely weren’t talking about Elvis then.
Same bed, same wistful, slightly vacated look. One last time back behind the curtain that fell on that city bus.
She was telling the old story about stopping off from school to harmonize with the hoboes in the train yard. How they sort of adopted her–looked forward to seeing her every morning. How she had to get up and leave the house early so she would have time to visit.
How they gave her coffee to drink and how it was still the best coffee she ever had.
How they taught her to hop trains.
I never heard that part before.
So I said something like: Hop trains?
And she said something like: Well, you know, once I got old enough. I’d run alongside and jump in one of the cars.
She had to be careful, she said. There was a point–once the train got up sufficient speed–after which you couldn’t jump off.
She told me what that point was, where it specifically was in the geography of Salisbury’s train track, though, if I took it in then–and I might not have, with time having stopped and all–I soon forgot it.
She emphasized that if you didn’t jump off right then, you were riding to the next town.
She told me it was always a long walk back….and that it was always worth it.
So I said something like: How come you never told me this before?
And she said something like: Oh, I never told too many people about that. I couldn’t live with myself if I gave somebody a crazy idea like that and they hurt themselves trying to do the same thing.
I can’t say I thought about it that day, but one day not too long after she passed away a few months later, I realized how lucky I was that she had lived long enough to tell me that one last happy story–and that it was, indeed, going to be the last one.
That I’d never know–not on this side anyway–how many stories she never got to tell.
The only comfort, then and now, is that I know she could have never told a better one.
And, in a way–a way which maybe I made up entirely out of my own head and maybe was the whole truth as she intended it and maybe was somewhere in between–it was the best story she told about Elvis.
Elvis resonated all over the world. His death was felt all over the world.
But there’s always something special about home and something about the South’s glorious and horrible history has made it resonate a little more than most places–has created its own glorioius, horrible sense of identity.
To be part of the working class South the day Elvis died was to feel like a hole had been blown through the world–a hole the rest of us were going to be forever left to deal with. Forever trying to fill one day and scurry away from the next.
It meant something, you see, that one of us–one who, like us, was born to jump off the train and walk back to town, where you worked in a field or a factory or a department store or drove a truck for the rest of your life–had hopped a car leaving town and ridden it all the way to the end of the track. Not just to fame and fortune–there were, after all, plenty who had done that–but to relevance.
It meant something that you could be born in a shotgun shack and die in a mansion and–somewhere along the way, and this is the crucial element–be able to tell the man to stick it, not because you were into what our part of the world calls showing your butt (the one sure way to get yourself talked about and also to make yourself fathomable, and, therefore, manageable in the macro-sense, however much of a ruckus you kick up on a given day), but because you were the one–the only one–who made the ground truly shake under the man’s feet.
Of all the ways Elvis mattered–and all the ways won’t be sorted out in the next hundred lifetimes–this was the way he mattered most.
Not just to us, of course. Not just to those of us who happen to belong in the group that can truly throw our arms around the one who made the ground shake under the man’s feet and say something like: Yeah, he was ours.
But maybe, just maybe, especially to us.