Graceland

Brad Walker

Richard Preston wanted to enjoy the day more than he was. A bright, mid- morning sun was shining down from a brilliantly blue June sky. He had the top down on his ’63 Thunderbird, a car he nursed back to life after rescuing it from a friend’s shed. He loved the way the polished red hood mirrored the road ahead and the way the light gleamed from the chrome trim, door handles, and side mirrors. It was a beautiful car that he’d brought back to life and it drew many an admiring gaze from both cars and trucks he passed on the highway.

The sun’s warming rays cradled his chest and torso while the cool wind that the car pushed aside teased his hair and caressed his left arm as he rested it nonchalantly on the doorsill. The breeze that rushed past the car was cool, but comfortably so; the morning chill had gone. The morning haze that blanketed the low areas had dissipated, leaving lush, green fields and thick stands of trees to bask in the sun’s warmth. Puffy white clouds dotted the sky like shaving cream on a blue sea.

He glanced at his son sitting in the passenger seat. Julian looked content gazing at the Missouri countryside. He had his right arm hanging on the doorsill with his forearm extending into the wind with his fingers extended, making his hand into a wing; his hand rose as he angled his palm into the wind, and dove as he faced the back of his hand to the oncoming breeze. Richard could see that the boy, fourteen years of age now, was clearly lost in thought as his hand undulated in the breeze.

“You getting hungry?” Richard eyed his son who continued his experiment in aerodynamics. The boy nodded.

“There’s a McDonalds’s in Cape Girardeau; sound okay to you?”

“Sure.” The hand continued to slice through the wind.

Richard nodded and turned his attention to the highway, but glancing at his son he saw Julian continuing his experiment.

“You still mad, Jules?”

The boy shrugged.

“You know I have to take you back. You’re supposed to live with your mom.

“I know.”

“Look, Jules, I don’t like this any more than you do, but you know I gotta take you back. You belong with your mom.”

“I know.” The arm continued to float on the breeze and Julian didn’t divert his gaze from it. “I just like staying with you.”

“I do too.”

“And I like all of the stuff we do. She’s never taken me to a ballgame. Shit! She can’t play catch.”

“Now Jules….”

“She can’t!”

“Well, baseball isn’t her thing, that’s all.” Richard offered a smile. “Didn’t she take you to Sun Records.”

“Yeah…”

“And didn’t you think that, and the Gibson factory were so cool that you had to show me last summer?”

The boy shrugged.

“Well, then living in Memphis isn’t so bad, is it?”

“It’d be better if you lived there.”

“You know that can’t happen.”

Julian mumbled, pouting; the hand still sliced through the wind. Richard didn’t hear him. “What?”

“I know! And it sucks!”

Richard returned his attention to the road, staring straight ahead, “Yeah, it does.”

They rode in silence until they arrived at the McDonald’s. Richard parked the car and unfastened his seatbelt, “C’mon, let’s stretch our legs.” He wrapped an arm around his son’s shoulder, giving him a pat as they walked away from the car and into the restaurant.

They sat at a table near a window, watching the comings and goings of the train of cars queued up in the drive thru and people coming in from the parking lot. Richard checked his watch; it was a quarter past eleven in the morning. He promised to deliver Julian to the boy’s mother in Memphis by five that evening. He planned to spend the evening in town, check out Beal Street and then go back to St. Louis the following day. He had had Julian with him since Memorial Day, and now he was taking his son back to his former wife, who had custody of their son from the day she left him a little over three years ago. Richard knew that Julian wasn’t happy living with his mother, at least Richard didn’t think he was, but Julian didn’t hate it there enough to run away, to run away and live with his dad. But Julian seemed conflicted at times. He loved his mom, that was obvious, but he didn’t like many of her friends and sometimes he didn’t like the woman she was living with, and he didn’t like being left alone in their house at night while both women worked. He hated being teased at school about his mother and her life style. He wanted to stay with Richard, but that was fraught with problems as well. Richard was an aerospace designer and he worked long hours frequently, which would leave Jules home alone; at least in Memphis his mother’s girlfriend would be home often enough, and there were friends in and out of the house often enough; Jules was seldom alone. Richard could offer a secure and loving home, but he couldn’t be there as much as he knew he should. Taking time off to see his son seemed to work better than anything else he could imagine. What Richard wanted was his wife back along with his son, but that was a wish he’d never see come true. And the court had given her legal custody of Jules and that was that. Kids should be with their mothers.

They finished lunch, neither speaking of Julian’s return home, and were back on the road, heading south on Interstate 55 into the bootheel of Missouri. The hilly terrain was behind them; they were on the upper reaches of the Mississippi delta, a flat flood plain silted in eons ago, and oxbow lakes edging the river as it meandered on its lazy journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Richard could see the wall of trees in the distance to his left and about a half mile to a mile away that marked the Mississippi River’s edge. Just over the horizon to either side of the interstate were bluffs and hills. The geography of the region fascinated Richard and on every trip with his son he would quiz the boy about the significance of the subject. At first Julian was somewhat interested, showing some awe at being on one of the largest floodplains in the world. And the boy showed more interest when Richard explained to him that the largest earthquake in American history occurred near New Madrid, Missouri in 1810. Julian was downright fascinated when his father told him how the Mississippi flowed backwards and that a waterfall was created, though it no longer exists. And he seemed somewhat disappointed to learn that there was little loss of life, making the great earthquake less significant than the San Francisco quake he learned about in school. But on recent trips through the area Richard could tell that his son was feigning interest in the topic and trying desperately not to betray his boredom, so Richard was surprised when Julian brought up the subject as they neared New Madrid. There was nothing new about the subject for them to discuss. They’d taken detours on previous drives to visit New Madrid and Reelfoot Lake. Richard soon realized that his son was just making conversation, probably sensing his father’s sense of helplessness and frustration in having to return him to Memphis. Both disliked the end of their visits; it was like the end of a vacation, and even if something delightful happened on that last day together, it bordered on being anticlimactic.

They went over the history of the region and Richard was surprised at Julian’s knowledge of steamboats and the civil war. He couldn’t help but smile at his son’s monologue on Grant’s western campaign on the Mississippi River. Their conversation quieted as they neared the Arkansas border.

“We should be seeing cotton soon,” Richard said brightly. “Want to stop at the welcome canter?”

Julian nodded. Anything to slow the trip was welcome.

They pulled into a parking spot at the far edge of the parking area; Richard didn’t want some careless fool in an SUV slamming dents in his car with their doors. He cupped his hand on the back of Julian’s neck as they walked together to the welcome center.

“Got a dollar Dad, I need a Coke.”

Richard fished a couple of dollars from his pocket, which his son snatched and raced to the pavilion just outside of the welcome center. “Hey, get me one too.”

They browsed the center. Julian collected brochures. The diamond mine interested him, as did Little Rock and Hot Springs. He showed the Hot Springs brochure to Richard,

“I was here before.”

“With your mom?

“Yeah, her and Rita.”

Richard rolled his eyes, “Yeah? And how’d that go?”

“It was okay.”

“Just okay?”

“Sure. I had fun.”

They moved toward the door and a genteel older woman called after them to have a nice day and please come visit again. The coolness of the shade gave way to the heat of the early afternoon sun. Julian held up the brochure again, “That’s where I saw them.”

Richard felt a chill. He suspected what his son saw. Two years ago Maurine confessed her homosexuality to him and that she could no longer live with the secret. He felt that he could cope with it; in fact he knew he could. But when she added that she wanted to leave him, it was more that he could take. He pleaded with her, reasoned and begged.

“What about Jules?”

“He’ll like Memphis.”

“Memphis!”

“Rita’s sister owns an art shop there. She was in an accident and needs to be in a wheelchair. I can be a nurse in Memphis as well as here.”

“So, you’re just going to pack up and move and take our son with you. Have you even bothered to consider how I feel? Did you even bother to see what Jules wants?”

“Yes, Richard.”

He scoffed. Throwing his hands in the air, “sure doesn’t seem like it! I can’t imagine him being okay with this. All of his friends are here, he plays baseball here. This is his home Maurine! Christ, I’m here! I can’t just pack up and move, “ Richard exclaimed, snapping his fingers, “just like that!”

“He can visit you any time you like. We can afford it. Between you and I…”

“So…what…you want to just shove him on a bus or something? We’ll lob him back and forth like a tennis ball?”

“Richard! No! What do you think I am?”

“Right now I think you’re a dyke who wants to take my son.”

She slapped him hard enough that it stunned him. They’d had arguments before, over other topics, some very heated, but neither had ever laid a hand on the other. She started sobbing and collapsed onto a kitchen chair with her face buried in her hands. He stood over her, totally numb, his left cheek still stinging. He slowly reached for her, wanting to stroke her hair, to comfort her, but he paused and then let his hand fall uselessly to his side.

Richard stopped, took a deep drink of his Coke and took a big breath and sighed, “What exactly did you see, Jules?”

Julian fidgeted with the Hot Springs brochure; Richard could see that he was weighing his words. One positive result of the divorce was the emotional maturity and social sophistication his son had gained.

“I saw them together.” His voice seemed strained, as a young male’s voice often does at given times, and especially under stress. “In bed.”

Richard stared blankly at his son, his head slightly cocked to the side quizzically, as if his former wife’s homosexuality was news to him. Julian shrugged. “I opened the motel room door after going for a swim at the pool and there they were in bed.”

Richard scratched the back of his head and scoffed, laughing nervously. What could have possibly gone through his son’s mind seeing two women in bed together, and one of them being his mother? What were they thinking? “Well they could’ve been more discreet.”

“Dad! The door was locked! I walked in on them. I had a key to the room!”
“And when was this?”

“Right after we moved to Memphis. A couple of weeks, I think. We went to Hot Springs for the weekend.”

“So, you were eleven.”

Julian laughed, “Yeah.”

“Why didn’t you mention this before?”

Julian shrugged, “What’s the big deal? Mom’s one of those chicks who likes chicks.”

“Because it’s wrong, Jules! Didn’t it seem ….strange to you?”

“No,” the boy responded sardonically, “How’s it wrong? Mom loves Rita, Rita loves her, what’s the big deal? I got two moms.”

“Yeah,” Richard said quietly, “Two moms.”

“I got a dad too.” He put a hand on his father’s shoulder. Richard looked into his son’s dark eyes, gazed at his face. The boy’s features were those of his mother. Jules had grown a lot since he’d last been with him during a post Christmas visit; he’d grown a lot in three years! And now his son was only two, maybe three inches shorter than he was, his voice was deepening and the peach fuzz on his face, especially above his upper lip was growing thicker, though no darker. And he was maturing emotionally as well. Richard felt a plethora of emotions; his son was growing up and had obviously accepted living with his mother. He coped well with the long distance relationship he had with his father, even though he hated when their time together would come to an end. He was coping with it better than Richard was. Just after his mother moved with him to Memphis Jules hated living there, hated the town, hated its symbols, hated B.B. King and Elvis, but during his three years of living there he gained some friends, grew to admire Elvis and appreciate the city’s musical history. He couldn’t wait for Richard to come down from St. Louis to pick him up; they began making a day of that first day together, taking in a local landmark and having dinner on Beale Street before staying the night at the Peabody downtown. They would leave for St Louis the next day.

Richard enjoyed those first days sharing with his son his son’s new home town; but felt a nagging pain about them, which he scolded himself over for being selfish. His son was adapting to his new life and Richard knew that he should be happy for Julian, but he felt as if he was losing his grip on his son. He would argue with himself, mulling over the changes he saw in his son while he drove home. Deep down he wanted Julian to continue resenting Maurine for taking him away from his father. He wanted him to hate her, and then he’d feel terribly guilty over it because he knew the boy should love her. He still loved her! Maybe Jules could just hate Rita, that home wrecking, dyke bitch. But Julian didn’t hate her. He never saw her as a threat, as someone who would deprive him of his father; he saw her as his mother’s friend, and grew to understand her as his mother’s lover, and as another mother to him. And as Maurine explained to him on numerous occasions it was something he needed to understand. He was trying. He watched friends and coworkers become bitter and even cruel over losing their kids in a divorce. He didn’t want to become that way. It seemed such a waste of time and he knew that Jules would in some way be hurt by it. He didn’t need warring parents, no kid does.

The young man was right, he had his dad. Richard smiled and wrapped his arm around Julian’s shoulder, “Yeah you do, son. Yeah you do.”

They got in the car. Richard reached under his seat, pulling out his Cardinal’s baseball cap and pulled it tightly on his head, “Don’t want it to blow off.” He grinned at his son, who quickly fished his out of his backpack and pulled it down tight until it touched his ears. He had to raise his head in order to see his dad from under the bill. “Me neither!”

Richard laughed and started the car; they continued their journey south.

Cotton fields lined both sides of the highway; the flat landscape stretched to the horizon in every direction. The row of trees that lined the river to the left faded into the distance, becoming the eastern horizon. Julian cleared his throat. “I still wish you would move down here with us.”

“I know you do, but I can’t leave my job; you know that.”

“I know, but I still wish it would happen.”

“There just aren’t any jobs that could match what I do now. I really can’t quit. I can’t leave.” Richard patted his son’s knee, “I wish I could.”

They rode in silence for a few miles. Richard sought to ease the awkward tension he felt, and was sure his son felt. He picked through the CD holder that was sitting between the seats until he found what he was looking for. He slid the disc into the player; moments later Elvis Presley’s voice filled the car. Both father and son looked at each other and smiled. Elvis roared through Heartbreak Hotel, Jailhouse Rock, Hound Dog and other hits while father and son nodded their heads to the beat, laughing. Richard offered details about the songs, remembrances, trivia and quick stories that usually began with, “I was in eighth grade when this one was a hit.” Or whatever grade the song corresponded with. “Music is our life’s soundtrack, Jules. You’ll look back years from now and there will be songs that you’ll associate with something.” Richard grinned broadly. “In fact, all sorts of things will connect you to other times and places, and the people in your life. Smells are a big trigger of memories. Tar reminds me of the canvas tents when I was in the Army. Pumpkin and cinnamon reminds me of Thanksgiving at grandma and grandpas house, you remember any of that?”

“Apples remind me of the time you and mom took me to that orchard.” Jules was grinning at the memory.

Elvis’s voice crooned,
Wise men say,

“Yeah, Jules, music…..smells………..perfume….”

Only fools rush in,

Richard stared down the highway as if he were sitting in a drive in watching a movie. His voice trailed off and he grew silent.

But I can’t help
Falling in love with you.

Richard reached out to his wife again, kneeling before her as she sobbed.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

He stroked her hair. She sniffed and then clutched his hand. “I know you didn’t.”

She looked at him sheepishly with her head bowed, through strands of her short, black hair. Her dark eyes still glistened with tears. “I’m sorry I slapped you.”

“That’s okay,” he whispered as he continued stroking her hair. “I guess I deserved it.”

She tried to stifle a giggle, “Yes, you did.”

He knelt lower and slid his hands along her temples to her cheeks and cupped her face in both hands. “Maurine, I don’t want to lose you. I can’t lose you. I can’t lose Jules. If you leave…”

“But Richard, It isn’t working with us. You know that as well as I do! We’re like friends living together, not like a husband and wife, and that’s because of me!”

He slowly slumped to the floor. He knew she was right. They were more like friends, or like a brother and sister than a married couple. He was too drained to be angry with her. How could he be angry? She couldn’t help who she was. She played the role of girlfriend. She did what her family and friends expected of her, but it wasn’t who she was. They tried to continue playing the role of husband and wife, to keep appearances up for their families and their friends and coworkers. But slowly their secret became gossip and that became worse than the truth. When they offered the truth her family shunned her, as did more than half of their friends. His friends pitied him, and that he hated. He got into a fight in a bar with a coworker, telling the guy that at least he lost his wife to some woman, someone he couldn’t compete with, while that guy lost his wife to a guy who was better in bed, so who’s the real loser?

Maurine was right, and he hated her for that as much as he loved her for everything else. He had to let her go and he had to learn how to become a long distance father to his son.

Father and son rode in silence, each lost in their own thoughts while Elvis continued to sing. A Little Less Conversation took them across the bridge over the Mississippi River and into South Memphis. Richard smiled at his son, “Almost home, Bud.”

Richard guided the Thunderbird off of the interstate onto highway fifty-one, Elvis Presley Boulevard. They’d taken this way for three years in Julian’s comings and goings between his parents.

As Richard drove past Graceland he slowed the car. As they passed the site he glanced at Julian, who was still looking over his shoulder at the mansion.

“All this time and we have never gone to that place. I can’t believe it.” Richard smiled at his son and then yanked the steering wheel sharply left as he did a u-turn in the middle of the highway and raced back to the mansion, Fifty minutes later he and his son were standing at the grave of Elvis. Richard wrapped an arm around his son’s shoulder.

“A good man.”

“Mom says he was sort of a perv, had holes in some of the walls so he and his boys could watch the girls get dressed and stuff.”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Richard shrugged, “Maybe he did. We all do things we’re not proud of, or don’t want others to find out about.” Richard looked at the flowered grave, “even good people.”

He delivered his son to Maurine an hour and forty minutes late. She met them at the door wanting to be terribly angry, but when she saw both of them standing on her porch wearing big, Elvis sunglasses she couldn’t stop laughing.

With his son safely delivered, Richard stood at the door smiling. The cicadas were beginning their summer’s evening song. A smile slowly crept across his face. He slipped the sunglasses in his shirt pocket and slowly spun on his heels and lightly went down the steps. His son was a young man. In many cultures that is a milestone that occurs on a young boy’s thirteenth birthday; in America it’s postponed until he gets a driver’s license at sixteen, or joins the military, or graduates high school, or maybe fathers a child out of wedlock; but that also qualifies him as a fool, a sinner and, if he doesn’t marry the girl or care for the child, makes him a deadbeat. Julian was a man, and would behave like one. Two lesbians and he were producing quite a kid, and doing it from three hundred miles apart.

“Rich?”

Richard stopped and spun on his heels. Maurine smiled. “Wait a sec.” She hurried down the steps and up to him. For a moment he wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her like he used to, and he hoped she wanted that too. He said nothing as she stood before him, but waited.

“He’s as happy as I have ever seen him.”

“I am too. We had a good couple of weeks.”

They stood in awkward silence, she with her arms folded across her chest and he with his hands shoved in his pant pockets.

“You know Rich, I can’t help being what I am.”

“I know.” His tone was resigned, his head bowed as he stared at the pebbles in the concrete sidewalk. “But even though I understand that, you know… logically,” he weighed his words, “I still lost you to someone else, Maurine. I still lost you. I lost our family…us.”

She offered a hopeful smile, “You didn’t lose your son.”

“Our son.” He kissed her forehead. “We’re pretty good parents.” He glanced at the house, lifting his chin toward it, “all three of us.” He spun on his heel and walked to his car. He heard her call after him, “You did a nice job with the car.”

“Thanks. A lotta time on my hands.” He patted the doorsill. “See ya, Maurine.”

She cocked her head the way she did when they were first dating and smiled, “be careful going home.”

He grinned and pulled the sunglasses from his pocket, smoothly slipped them on and pointed both index fingers at her, making a clicking noise with his mouth, “you got it baby.”

He started the car, slipped Elvis in the player and pulled out, making a big u turn in front of her house. He honked the horn in response to her wave.

Since my baby left me,
I found a new place to dwell
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street at
Heartbreak Hotel…

Richard watched her in the mirror as he drove away. He felt as light as the evening breeze that played with his hair. His voice joined that of the King, and they sang together well into Arkansas.