Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Mother, The King, & I

My Mother, The King, and I

(originally published in BIKINI magazine)

Each of my two brothers and I inherited different things from my mother: the younger one got the sandy hair, the older the blue-green eyes, and I, the lucky one--and I say this without a trace of irony-- got her love of the King.

From the time I was eight or nine, a few years before the King collapsed on his throne, I could name all members of the Presley family (including Grandma Minnie Mae), the Memphis Mafia, and even the birth date of Lisa Marie. My mother kept scores of Elvis magazines that I would peruse at the kitchen table, full of tales of the King and Cilla, his beloved Mama, his stillborn twin, Jesse Garon (for whom my dog is named). I’d dream I was little Lisa Marie cruising around Graceland on my golf cart and waving to the throngs of fans pressed up against the wall that surrounded the mansion. My little brother and I choreographed our version of “Santa Bring my Baby Back to Me” every Christmas, and my mother would laugh and clap, her head thrown back, begging us to do it again.

She was to see him in person for the fourth time four days after his death. I remember coming into the house the day he died, eating Mr. Softee with sprinkles on my tee-shirt and ice cream coating the roof of my mouth, while my mother sat by the television on the arm of the couch and crying.

When I asked her what was wrong, all she could manage was, “Elvis is dead.” Together we sat there as the reporters came on one after another, I with my arm around her, my ice cream forgotten as it dripped on the carpet and left a gooey white paste.

* * * *

It is easy for people to assume that our love of the King stems from my father, who, even at sixty, sports a high black pompadour, wears tank tops even in frigid weather, and bench presses three hundred pounds. “Big T,” as we affectionately call him, has long been razzed about his hair, but his pompadour has nothing whatsoever to do with the King. He is simply a man of the fifties. Recently, while waiting in line at a deli counter, a man asked my father, “What are you supposed to be? An Elvis impersonator?”

If nothing else proves that Big T is no imitator, it is his answer, which came without missing a beat:

“Your mother likes it.”

As I often tell people, Big T, like the King, is his own man. There are no Electra Complexes to be found here. For my mother and me, the King is ours, and ours alone.

* * * *

My mother and I have seen the King together twice, and both events remain some of our finest moments. We visited Graceland together in 1996, an offshoot of a book tour for my first novel. When the people at Harcourt told me they were sending me to Nashville to the Southern Festival of Books, I immediately went to my map and calculated driving time to Memphis before picking up the phone to call her.

“Huh-huh, Mama,” I said, in my best Elvis drawl, “wanna make a road trip to Graceland?”

And off we went, Thelma and Louise-ing it through Tennessee in my rented car, singing Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” until the tape wore out. We stayed at the Days Inn at Graceland, complete with guitar-shaped pool and twenty-four hour Elvis movies, a hole in the bathroom door someone had kicked in--perhaps a delayed grief reaction, we later postulated, that despite the plethora of Elvis memorabilia and the constant Elvis records which played next door at the shopping plaza, the King was in fact, dead as a doornail.

On the tour bus leading us across the street and through the gates, we put on our head phones and listened to the speaker tell us the strict rules about no photography being allowed, that we were to stay behind the velvet ropes at all times, and that the King’s bedroom was strictly off -limits, much to our disappointment, even to the guards.

As we headed into the house, past the third step where Elvis had sat in that famous photograph hugging his father and crying over the death of his Mama, I reached over and held my mother’s hand. We held on through the entertainment room with its shocking white and yellow decor and three old RCA televisions, through the dining room and surprisingly tiny kitchen, and only let go when we reached the Jungle Room. Full of fur-covered couches and a fountain dripping from one wall, Priscilla told us through our headsets that Elvis bought all of the furniture in one big spree, trying to re-create the feel of Hawaii in his den.

My mother leaned over and pulled the headphones away from my ear.

“I want to take a picture,” she whispered.

I shut off my headset and scanned the room for the guard. With a thumbs-up, I stuck my head in front of her camera, gave her an Elvis sneer, and whispered, “Go for it, Mama.”

The flash lit up the room and sent orange spots shooting through my eyes.

“Who took that picture?” the guard yelled.

That night back in our room while sitting on our beds and trying not to laugh through another bad Elvis movie, my mother smiled over at me and said, “I’ll never forget how sad you looked at the Meditation Garden, looking down there at his grave.”

“I know it, Mama,” I said, curling my lip. “It’s an awful thing to be dead.”

* * * *

On our second King extravaganza, we went to see him “live” at Radio City Music Hall in 1997, twenty years after his death. He appeared on a giant screen, his disembodied voice singing along with the reunited Sweet Inspirations, his original band, and the Memphis Orchestra. We screamed, “Elvis! Elvis!”--as if he could hear us--and danced in our seats to “Walk a Mile in my Shoes,” “Polk Salad Annie,” and “See See Rider.”

In the hallway during intermission, I grabbed my camera and sidled up to an older man with a pompadour and a glittery jumpsuit.

“Can I get a picture of my mother and me with you?” I asked the man.

He leaned in closely and looked somber.

“Do you mind if I don’t?” he asked. “I don’t like to make a mockery.”

My mother pulled me by the sleeve and thanked the man over her shoulder.

“He doesn’t want to make a mockery,” she said. “And he’s dressing like a dead man.”

If nothing else, my mother and I are that rare combination--we are Elvis fans with a sense of humor.

At the finale, the closing of “The American Trilogy,” the crowd leapt to its feet. My mother leaned over and squeezed my hand.

“I wish you could have seen him when he was alive,” she said.

“Oh, Mama,” I said, “I wish so, too.”

* * * *

It hasn’t been easy being an Elvis fan, especially now that I’m a novelist. At my recent stay at the MacDowell Colony, I outed myself as an Elvis fan and read a story about a young woman whose mother sets her up on a blind date with Christ. “I got you a date with the King,” the mother says, and her daughter is upset to find that the date is not, in fact, with Elvis, but with the “King of Kings.”

The next day all the colonists received peanut-butter and banana sandwiches in the lunch baskets delivered to our studios. To another novelist in residence there, I confided that I thought I had caused some kind of karmic connection, as peanut butter and banana sandwiches were one of the King’s favorite things--second only, perhaps, to Percodan, Dilaudid, or any number of other drugs.

The novelist looked at me, walked up to where I was sitting, and said with a wry smile on her face, “I’ve realized something about you, Laurie. You’re really not kidding.”

I thought of any number of retorts sitting there, but remembered my mother and I standing shoulder to shoulder at the King’s grave, the feel of her hand as we climbed the steps to Graceland, our screams in unison at Radio City. Elvis loved his Mama, I wanted to say, and I love mine.

Instead I smiled back at her and gave her my best Elvis sneer.

“Huh-huh,” I said, “you have no idea.”