Elizabeth Corcoran’s short fiction has appeared in Oasis, The Duck & Herring Field Guide, The Puritan, and Forge. She lives with her partner, Seth, and daughter, Tabitha, in Philadelphia where she teaches writing for Rosemont College’s MFA program. She is currently working on a novel about standardized patients, reincarnation, and baseball. She’s been to Graceland twice, but has never seen Elvis’ aunt.
The congregation of the Greater Nashville Baptist Church wants everyone to know “Jesus Loves You.” This church is the size of a regional high school, maybe bigger. Its message board, announcing services and events in addition to the fact that Jesus loves us and any other sinners in the Greater Nashville area, looks like a movie marquee. The church is sprawled on the side of the Briley Parkway, and it has tennis courts. Claustrophobia wriggles up my spine.
Nobody says anything as we drive past, but all three of us stare, open-mouthed, at the brick and concrete campus. Finally, Poppy whistles low and shifts her eyes back to the road. “Welcome to the Buckle of the Bible Belt,” she says.
James and I force laughs. I turn to watch the church recede in the Dodge’s back window. It doesn’t seem to get smaller.
Poppy stares ahead at the road. The car picks up speed. The church gets a little smaller. “Maybe we should blow off Nashville. Drive straight to Memphis.”
We’re only a few miles from our campground. We’ve been driving for the better part of a day. James almost chokes on his gum. “Whatareyounuts?!”
Poppy shrugs. “Sooner we get to Memphis, sooner we get to Graceland.”
The impetus for this trip is so James can make his first pilgrimage to Graceland. I think he threw in Nashville because I like old-school country music, and he wanted me to skip spring break in Florida and come along.
But James’s emphatic headshake reveals there’s more to Nashville than I suspected. “There’s Elvis history here, too. At least three of his cars are here.” James owns almost every recording Elvis ever made and spends his free time scouring used record stores and eBay for the ones he doesn’t. He listens to “Elvis & Friends” on WJRZ every Sunday morning. Every other Sunday, he calls in to request a song. This one goes out to James “The Colonel” Shipley by special request: “My Way” live from Madison Square Garden….
Poppy isn’t a devotee. She’s only on this trip, taking her turn behind the wheel of James’s big, dented Dodge, because according to James, she likes visiting places she’s never been. Although that doesn’t seem to include Nashville: “Memphis is supposed to be more fun and we’re making good time and I’m not tired.”
James rests his head against the passenger seat. “I vote no. Elvis is featured at the Music Row Wax Museum.”
Poppy’s gaze shifts to the rearview mirror. I slide lower in the backseat, which is stupid because she knows I’m here. “Jayne? What’s your vote?”
“Yeah, Jayne, whaddya say?” James turns and gives me a blast of his hound-dog eyes. In an instant, I’m caught between them.
“Well…um….you know….” I stammer and stall, hoping one of them will relent in the few seconds before they push me to settle this dispute, or that maybe Jesus isn’t too busy practicing his backhand on the Baptists’ tennis court to send us a sign.
Poppy’s eyes flicker from the road to catch mine again. “I can take your turn driving. I can drive the whole three hours to Memphis.” For a second, she pins me with her blue eyes but then she focuses beyond me, out the rear window, on the church. I fight the urge to look back, too.
I’m tired. Tired of driving and making car conversation. All I want is a shower and a milkshake from the Dairy Queen we just blew past. I know I wanted to go somewhere for spring break that wasn’t all beaches and beer and frat boys, but driving a thousand miles on a Zen mission to visit a dead guy’s house isn’t my dream vacation either. Even if that dead guy was responsible for “Suspicious Minds.”
“What’s the verdict?” James reaches back to squeeze my knee. Poppy doesn’t notice because she’s staring out at what’s ahead of us on the curving highway blacktop; the hunch of her shoulders and the way she grips the wheel tell me she’s making an effort to ignore the church.
But I don’t really know this girl. I do know James, and right now, he’s peeping at me from behind the headrest and his inky hair is tousled and his eyes are flashing. I let the sigh that’s been mounting in my chest escape before I cast my vote. “Nashville.”
James whoops. The car shoots forward. I don’t look in the rearview mirror.
. . .
The sky wants to open up and rain. Fat, occasional drops splat against the Dodge’s windshield as Poppy and I watch James amble towards Stuckey’s to buy a Pecan Log. His hands are stuck in the pockets of an vintage black jacket with red-leather sleeves: “Bergenfield High School Marching Band,” “1977,” and a trumpet adorn the back; on the front, the name “Stuart” is stitched in elaborate gold thread above his heart.
“He’s something, isn’t he?” Poppy twists to face me. She smiles like she’s trying to share something.
“I guess.” I fake a yawn so I can scrunch my eyes closed and break the connection Poppy is trying to make. I lean my forehead against the cold back window. If I squint just right, the world of the Stuckey’s parking lot is magnified, upside down, in the raindrops that speckle the glass.
Poppy sighs and rights herself in the driver’s seat. Silence drifts back into the car, broken by the smattering of the rain and Poppy rummaging through her bag. We sit and wait for James. It’s been like this the entire drive from Jersey to Tennessee. Whenever Poppy or I was driving and James was in the back sleeping, the voices of truckers, crackling over the CB, carried on the only conversation in the car. The CB crackles now.
“Roger that, Joe Strong. See you in Knoxville….”
I feel bad, but I just met Poppy this morning. Up until the moment James helped me carry my gear out to the Dodge and I discovered her curled in the passenger seat, her skin very white, a black hat pulled over her ears, her hand curled in a fist and her sleeping mouth open, I had no idea anyone else was accompanying us. When I asked James who the hell she was, all he said was “That’s Poppy.” He banged on the Dodge’s roof, and her eyes flickered open. She smiled and unfolded herself from the car. James said, “Poppy, say hey to Jayne,” and she shook my stunned hand and said “Hey, Jayne.” James looked at her at like she was the greatest girl since Priscilla.
The door to the Stuckey’s opens and James hurries into the increasing rain. He stuffs the brown-paper bag he’s acquired into the pocket of his jacket and then tries to pull his collar up over his head to protect his hair. He dyed it black last night. It looks like he dumped a bottle of India ink on his head, and his sideburns are a touch too campy.
Poppy’s voice drifts again from the front seat. “Sorry if my tagging along messed anything up for you.”
“You didn’t mess anything up. I’m glad to have you.” I play dumb, I think in the interest of being polite, but in that instant, watching James scuttle across the parking lot, the jacket hunched over his head, making him look stupid, I’m not certain. My mother was excited about me taking this trip with James. My roommates thought it was an excellent idea. But sometimes I think I just didn’t want to go to Florida.
Poppy kneels on the driver’s seat so she can lean over and look at me. “No, you’re not. But thanks for being nice about it.” She smiles that conspiratorial smile again.
This time, I smile back. And this is the first moment out of an endless spool of hours, sitting outside a Stuckey’s, listening to the rain and waiting for James to clamber back into the car, that I can admit I could like this girl.
. . .
Poppy wants a cowboy. She’s coping with Nashville quite well. We don’t often make it to the end of a block without her turning to admire another tight pair of Wranglers, snakeskin boots, and lopsided country-boy grin. She watches each man walk, her hands stuck in the back pockets of her jeans, a sly smile creasing her face. If she finds a man especially attractive, she whistles.
Some of them whistle back, but most of them smile and blush, keeping in character with the “Aw-shucks” charm Nashville cultivates. Poppy takes them by surprise; they aren’t used to women being this brash, this bold. They must make her for a Yankee as soon as they spot her.
It’s hard not to peg Poppy for a Northerner. Even here, where the music industry is the biggest game in town, Poppy is something most people haven’t seen. She’s not like anyone I know. Except maybe James. For one thing, she’s got pink hair: streaks of cotton candy pink layered over shoe-polish black. I didn’t see it at first because she kept her hat on the entire drive to Tennessee. It should look bizarre. It would look bizarre on me. But on Poppy the effect is pretty.
Even when she’s checking out cowboys, Poppy walks fast. James and I can’t keep up. Sometimes, after Poppy whistles at a guy, he makes eye contact with me. Each time, I squirm. I force an awkward smile and look away. These guys must figure I’m like Poppy and they’re waiting for me to whistle or say, “Why dontcha come up and see me sometime?” But I’m not Poppy. I’m not that brave. My hair is the same brown I was born with.
Still, waiting for the light, I can’t help but turn to watch a cute, guitar-carrying cowpoke. It seems safe because he’s in a hurry, maybe on his way to a meeting with a record exec, but then, he’s looking back over his shoulder and for an excruciating, elastic second his eyes connect with mine. He waves. I want to die. James dissolves into laughter. Strangely, I don’t care if James witnesses this, but I do care if Poppy does.
Poppy is halfway down the next block, because she never waits for things like traffic lights, chatting with a sexy man in a cowboy hat. As James and I catch up, she breaks away, but I hear him tell her, “Seriously, beautiful, stop by Tootsie’s tonight. I’ll be watchin’ for ya.”
Poppy makes a gun with her fingers and shoots him. She winks. James is busting to tell her about what happened with me and the cowpoke.
“You missed Jayne getting caught checking out this dude. Jay-nee, you are not slick.”
Poppy laughs. “Don’t worry, Jayne, we’ll work on your technique.”
. . .
James wants me to look at Elvis’s solid-gold Cadillac. We’re rambling through the Country Music Hall of Fame, and each time James spots something Elvis-related, he drags me away to inspect it. This time, he abducts me from in front of the mechanical bull from Urban Cowboy where Poppy and I are impersonating John Travolta.
“Isn’t it something?” James’s dark eyes shine with the reflection of muted museum lighting glinting off gold.
“It’s something.” It certainly is. We’re standing in front of a gold Cadillac with a white leather convertible roof, tricked out with genuine, 24-karat-gold-plated accessories, from the cigarette lighter to the portable phonograph I bet could actually play the 45s attached to the convertible top’s interior; that is, if the 45s weren’t gold themselves. In the back seat, next to the phonograph, there’s a gold-plated rotary telephone. It doesn’t seem possible this phone has ever worked, but if it didn’t, why would Elvis have had it in his car?
James stands behind the white and gold velvet rope separating us from Elvis’s golden Caddy, which is parked next to his golden Steinway piano. He looks like my grandmother did when we were crowded into the highest seats in Giants’ Stadium, watching a tiny white speck of a Pope.
This is the closest James has been to anything that belonged to the King, even though his mother raised him on a steady diet of Elvis. The house he grew up in is decorated in early Elvis, late Elvis, and every stage of Elvis in between. In the foyer, Franklin Mint commemorative plates chronicle Elvis’s career: Elvis on Ed Sullivan in his gold lamé suit (did he ever wear the gold suit while riding in the gold Cadillac or playing the gold piano?); Elvis in the Army; fat Elvis at his Hawaiian comeback concert, packed into a skintight, rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, sweat dripping down his face and an orange lei around his neck. In the kitchen, there are Elvis glasses and an Elvis cookie jar that plays “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” when you lift the King’s head.
James’s mother is secretary of The Bergen County Chapter of the Knights of Elvis. He says it’s like The Knights of Columbus. They have meetings and everything. Only the KOE sends flowers to the King’s grave for every major holiday and on his birth and death days.
His mom has visited Graceland ten times, but she’s never taken James. She told him a true Elvis fan waits to visit the King’s home until he’s mature enough to appreciate the experience. Last month, James dumped the girl he’d been dating since high school and decided he was mature enough. Which is why we’re here, more than three quarters of the pilgrimage to Elvis’s Mecca faded beneath the tires of the Dodge, standing in front of a car I doubt the King drove more than ten miles in.
James takes my hand. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“I’m glad I’m here, too.” We stand in front of the Cadillac and let silence pool around us. I wonder where Poppy is. She wouldn’t still be where I left her, staring at the Urban Cowboy exhibit; she must be moving, with a smirk, through the rooms, rolling her eyes at the hillbilly tchotckes on reverential display. I’d like to release James’s hand and find her. Standing in front of Minnie Pearl’s hat with its dangling price tag, shouting “How-dee!” and laughing seems more appealing than communing with a car.
Maybe James senses my restlessness, because he turns, puts his hands on my shoulders, and gazes into my eyes. “I mean it. I’m glad you’re here. You might not be fully versed in Elvis, but you respect the music.”
Maybe I do respect the music and maybe I just like the way a few strands of James’ blue-black hair stray over his forehead in a flirtatious curl, but either way, I can wait a little longer before finding Poppy.
. . .
James wants to take a picture of Poppy and me. We’re at the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ol’ Opry, and he wants a picture of us onstage, pretending to sing into the fake WSM microphone, so we’re waiting in line. James is hanging in the front row of seats until it’s our turn. Two women have been eyeing Poppy throughout the entire tour of the place.
“This is the very spot where Patsy Cline sang the first time she appeared on the Opry….”
“Would you look at her?”
Just before they get up onstage, one of them turns to Poppy and says, “Honey, I think your skirt’s a little too short for going out to family places.” Emphasis on family. She and her friend are smiling; they have pointed white teeth.
I want Poppy to crack wise, to tell these women with their poofy hair and their stretch pants tucked into tasseled cowboy boots something like, “Maybe for the places your family goes, but not mine.” But she doesn’t. She blushes. She shrugs. She gets out of line even though the two bitches are moving away, getting up onstage, and having their pictures taken. I move to follow her, but she stops me. “Let James take your picture. I want to check out something in the back.” She retreats to the rear of the auditorium.
A flash pops and the women clomp down. It’s my turn. I climb the steps to the golden stage. James is waiting in the audience with his camera. I keep my hands in my pockets and I smile. I don’t strike a funny pose. I don’t act like I’m Loretta Lynn, singing “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” even though I would if Poppy were up here with me. James raises the camera to his eye, but doesn’t snap a picture. He lowers it.
I can see her from the stage. She’s in the back, leaning her head against one of the stained-glass windows lining the gallery. Light streams in through the red, blue, and gold panels, and she’s framed by two of the graceful columns that support the balcony section. Her eyes are closed; her hands grasp the plaid hem of her skirt. I stand onstage, looking at her, and I’m struck by the fierce desire to take her picture, to preserve this moment she doesn’t know I’m witnessing.
I don’t tell James to turn around. “She went out for some air.” James takes the picture, capturing an image of me, standing behind an awkward fake microphone, in front of a backdrop painted with a barn and cows and chickens, while I watch the softly colored light surround Poppy.
. . .
James and I want a space heater. It’s the middle of March., one week before the official start of spring. We’re staying at a campground on the outskirts of Nashville. Nashville is in the South. James said it would be warm. It’s almost spring in the South, and yet it’s freezing. We sleep in our coats and all the clothing we can layer on our bodies. We’d planned to use three tents, one for each of us, but after last night, we’ll be sleeping in the same tent because it gets so damn cold here when the sun goes down.
Poppy took the car and went off in search of dinner. James and I built a fire and bundled up, piling on sweaters and slipping on long underwear beneath our jeans, but as dusk grows and the shadows of the trailers in the permanent part of the campground encroach upon our tents, I’m wondering how we’re going to sleep tonight if we’re freezing at this moment when the sun is still a sliver of blood orange on the horizon.
James pulls his hat lower on his ears and smiles. “Fucking cold, huh?” Before Poppy left, she gave him a hug and a kiss. On the lips. But closed-mouth. I ponder this as the sun slides down the sky.
“At least when we go to bed, the three of us can huddle for warmth.” James winks when he says this. I smile, but I’m blushing and I’m glad the sun is slipping away and the fire does little more than throw shadows, because in the gloaming, he can’t see my cheeks go red. I wonder if he thinks he’s going to sleep in the middle tonight.
I can’t maintain eye contact so I look into the distance, searching for the Dodge.
James jumps up from his lawn chair and heads for the tent. “Be right back.” He returns with a bottle of Jack Daniels. He cracks the seal and takes a slug. “Either it’ll keep us warm or we’ll get too drunk to feel the cold.”
He hands me the bottle. The smoky liquid burns down my throat, spreading warmth. I lean back in my chair and close my eyes. The image of Poppy hugging and kissing James dances across the backs of my eyelids. Jealousy slides through my cells with the liquor. I pass the bottle back.
Dark overtakes our camp; the fields beyond the site are dotted with silhouettes of scrub brush and trees. You can’t even make out the shapes of the farm buildings that are visible during the day, off in the distance. Shadows obscure his face, but I get the impression James is smiling. He’s humming, faint and under his breath: “Love Me Tender,” I think.
A quarter of the bottle has disappeared.
“This isn’t warming me up. Maybe we should try something else.” He leans closer.
Strange relief flows over me with the silvery wash of the Dodge’s headlights. James moves away, the bottle clutched to his chest. “Shit.”
Poppy has brought me a cheeseburger with everything. She didn’t ask what I wanted before she left; she just decided it’s what I need. She got the same for herself and a double-bacon-chili-burger for James. And fries. Lots of fries, with salt and pepper and packets of ketchup that we squeeze into an oozing, red puddle on the top lid of the Styrofoam container. The three of us sit on the hood of the car, Poppy in the middle. The Dodge’s radio offers Graham Parsons to the night sky. We eat the sloppy burgers, wrapped in wax paper, and pass the bottle of JD. Grease and pickle juice dribble between my fingers. I use my tongue instead of a napkin.
James just makes it through dinner. He needs to lie down, he says. “The stars are spinning fast in the sky, aren’t they?”But first, he must say goodnight. He hugs Poppy, and she moves off near the fire. To give us privacy, I guess. He leans in to kiss me but misses my mouth. I don’t bother to correct him. His lips brush from the middle of my cheek to my ear. His breath is warm in my hair. My face feels sticky and wet. “Come to the tent early, okay?” I nod, but only so he’ll stumble off towards his sleeping bag. I wipe my cheek.
Poppy returns with the bottle and eases back up onto the hood of the car. “He’s blitzed, isn’t he?” Poppy’s hat is black and has little cat’s ears attached to the top of it.
“Pretty much.” My hat is the stupid pink cap my mom bought me last year. I wouldn’t know where to find a hat with cat’s ears.
The fire is dying. Poppy offers me the JD. When I take it from her, our fingers brush; we’ve both removed our gloves to better grip the bottle. Her fingers are long and elegant, with scarlet-painted fingernails that she’s chewed to the quick. Her hands are white and chilled and so are mine, but there is a quick heat that gathers in the narrowing space between them.
Music must be embedded in the air down here. It floats, unheard, on swirls of breeze, until one of us, with a mind and ear more attuned at that particular moment, catches it and gives it voice. Poppy is humming now, like James did before, only she’s louder and I can tell right away what tune has caught her fancy: “Sweet Jane.” Sweet Jane and I think of how last year I tried to be into the Velvet Underground, how I traipsed along with James to his secondhand vinyl shops and bought their records and Lou Reed’s records, because maybe Lou and the Underground would make me cool; but I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t love them, because they were too cool, cooler than I could fathom, and now their records sit silent under my stereo, except for two tracks: “Sweet Jane” and “Femme Fatale.”
It figures Poppy would hum the Velvet Underground. I look at her. “Your skirt isn’t too short.”
She laughs, but it sounds sad, muffled by the steam of her breath. “Thanks, Jayne.” Poppy’s hair falls forward, obscuring her face, the black blending with the ink of the night; an electric shock of pink following the curve of her face. I reach forward to trace the pink, to run my finger along the curve.
Poppy turns her face to the wide, pale moon. She is a pretty girl. A girl. My hand stops in mid-reach. She hasn’t seen me yet. I think of the Baptist church on the highway, and I stomp my feet on the Dodge’s bumper. “I’m losing feeling in my toes, and I’ve got three pairs of socks on.”
I push off the car; my sneakers land on the grass with a soft thud. I pull her from the hood. I lean into the Dodge’s driver-side window, turn up the radio and switch on the headlights. Poppy is a deer, dead center of those twin lamps. “C’mon,” I say, “if we’re not going to bed, we should move around, warm up.” I break into a jog, dragging her with me.
We run around the remains of the fire, laughing, passing the bottle between us like a baton, until we are so tired, we collapse in the tent, James between us because he is too big to roll to one side.
. . .
James wants to get moving. Graceland calls from the other end of the state, loud and clear, even through his hangover. Poppy and I clutch our heads and watch him strike camp.
“He tried to kiss me last night.” Even though James wouldn’t appreciate it, I can’t help telling Poppy this.
“Why didn’t you let him?”
“I don’t know.”
“You like him, right?”
“I think so.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Um, well… I don’t know.”
Nobody wants breakfast. James apologizes to me for passing out.
“It’s okay. Really.”
Tennessee unfurls between Nashville and Memphis, and all I will remember of it is the cracks and snaps of the CB and the color green. Tennessee is a blur of green, whizzing past the windows of the Dodge.
If the rest of Tennessee is green, Memphis is brown. It matches the Mississippi River. Even the nice places, like The Peabody Hotel where a family of ducks swims in the lobby fountain, seem coated with the mud churned up by the riverboats.
There is no grass at our new campground, just islands of hard-packed dirt, interspersed with lagoons of rich mud. We decide we’ve saved enough money by camping in Nashville; we can splurge on a hotel. James drives us to a Quality Inn five blocks from Beale Street and three blocks from the river. From our twelfth-floor window, we can see the wild shape of Arkansas. The Memphis Pyramid gleams in the distance.
Our room has two double beds. James throws his coat on one; Poppy tosses her duffel bag on the other. I leave my things on the chair near the door.
. . .
“The King wanted to watch all three networks at once, so he had three television sets built into the wall of his TV room.”
The taped voice of the tour guide purrs through the headphones as we stroll around Graceland. Sometimes, Priscilla pops onto the tape to talk about a special room. Poppy and I are two rooms ahead of James, who keeps pausing his tape so he can stand, transfixed by the evidence of Elvis’s daily life. Last time we saw him, he was staring up the staircase that leads to the forbidden second story. Rumor has it Elvis’s aunt still lives up there.
Elvis’s TV room is jaundiced. The walls are yellow, the pillows are yellow, the carpeting is yellow. Whatever is in this room that is not yellow is either white or black. It looks like a bumblebee threw up in here. The ceiling is mirrored. On the coffee table sits a white porcelain monkey with large black eyes that seems to have escaped from the Jungle Room.
Poppy pulls my headphones away from my ear to whisper, “Maybe that was his favorite monkey from the Jungle Room and he brought it in here so they could spend more time together.” She’s laughing as she whispers, and her breath puffs against my ear. She replaces my headphones with gentle fingers. It takes me a moment to realize I need to move over so other tourists can crowd the glass separating us from Elvis’s couch.
“This room is also known as the TCB room because of Elvis’s ‘Taking Care of Business’ insignia incorporated into the décor.”
On each of the three walls not dominated by the TVs is Elvis’s logo from the early seventies: a white lightning bolt with the letters “TCB.” Priscilla informs me that this stands for “Taking Care of Business in a Flash.” I look at Poppy. We’re both wrestling to contain laughter. After all, many people are very serious about their Elvis.
On the outside, Graceland is disappointing. It sits on a major road, yards away from a gas station and a strip mall of souvenir shops selling anything and everything Elvis. James bought his mother a set of Elvis potholders.
The mansion itself is a modest, colonial-style house. When the tram dropped us off at the front door, Poppy remarked, “Sure doesn’t look like the King of Rock & Roll’s house to me.”
James got insulted. “Don’t mock what you don’t understand.”
He was right, though. A whole different world lies on the other side of that plain front door. Stained-glass peacocks, oil paintings of the King and Priscilla, blue velvet curtains. The Jungle Room has fountains and green shag carpeting and zebra-striped cushions and chairs carved like tiki gods and more of those scary porcelain monkeys. On the tape, Priscilla explains that Elvis saw this monstrosity of a room in a furniture store and bought the entire thing, outright. Graceland’s interior is a monument to the marvels that bad taste and a lot of money can achieve.
Elvis is buried next to his swimming pool. His mother and father are there, too. There’s a fountain and a humongous marble cross with PRESLEY carved into its base. Poppy and I wait for James to finish touring the grounds before approaching the grave. James turns up, eons later, claiming to have seen Elvis’s aunt eating lunch on the veranda.
“I waved to her.”
I approach the grave with as much reverence as I can muster for any resting place situated so close to a kidney-shaped swimming pool. Poppy and I walk together, her arm linked through mine. Every few steps, she presses her arm hard against me, and it makes me want to stop in my tracks. I suspect she’s attempting to squelch the same laughter I feel rising in my throat. After all, this means so much to James, no matter how tacky.
We do fine until James points out the arrangement his mother’s Knights of Elvis have sent for St. Patrick’s Day: an enormous shamrock of emerald carnations with a picture of The King in the middle. A sash of lighter green proclaims “Happy St. Patty’s Day, Elvis!”
James snaps a picture. I have to walk away. Poppy is quicker. I can see her shoulders shaking with silent laughter. We lean on each other and let our laughter become audible.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” The camera dangles from James’s hand.
“Nothing.” Poppy studies the pool.
“R-right. N-nothing at all.” I try to disguise my laughter as little huffs of breath as if I can fool James into thinking I have just run the length of Elvis’s estate.
“What’s so funny then?”
“This is the grave of one of the greatest entertainers of all time. Show some respect.” James runs his hand through his hair. Blue-black tufts stick out in different directions. Poppy can’t help herself. She doubles over with the force of her laughter. She reaches for my hand, and her touch electrocutes me. Her laugh ripples up my arm and through my body until I, too, am howling, five feet from Elvis’s grave.
James’s face advertises his hurt. “Jayne, I thought out of anybody, you had respect for the King.”
Poppy laughs harder. James stands, arms folded, dark eyes clouded.
I try. I really do. I press my lips together to stifle my giggles and I look down at my shoes, but behind me I can feel Poppy laughing. My resistance weakens. When she asks, “Does the KOE send Elvis flowers for Arbor Day?” I give up and let my laugh mingle with hers as it drifts towards the sky.
James leaves us to find out our own way back to the hotel. Poppy and I are still laughing, but his departure causes a fearful twinge around my heart. As he walks away, something inside me sinks like a stone thrown into the blue of Elvis’s swimming pool.
. . .
Poppy wants to get matching tattoos. The idea strikes her as we listen to blues on Beale Street.
James wasn’t at the hotel when the cab dropped us off. He didn’t return in the two hours we waited. Finally, Poppy suggested we enjoy our last night in Tennessee.
“Let him be a baby. Let’s go out and have fun.”
We slogged through the damp of Memphis to Beale Street and B.B. King’s Blues Club.
B.B. King’s is a tourist trap. It’s the biggest, brightest, loudest place on Beale. It’s also the cleanest. The food is good, and the music is cool. We sit on high stools at a round table and drink Goldcoast beer. We eat fried dill pickles.
I switch from beer to a blue drink with a lot of alcohol in it. I don’t have a clue what it’s called so I point to the woman drinking one at the next table. “One of those, please.” Poppy interrupts. “Make it two.” We sweat, even though it’s cold outside. I have four of those blue drinks while we eat ribs and red bliss potato salad. The place is packed, everyone bobbing to the steady rhythm of the band.
“Jayne, we should get tattoos. To commemorate the trip.”
I nod my head along with the thrum of the guitar. “What should we get?”
“Something shady. Something crazy. Something Memphis.”
We toss ideas back and forth: a musical note, a pyramid, a guitar, a blue suede shoe, Elvis’s head. Our ideas are as fluid as the alcohol.
Inspiration lights in Poppy’s eyes: “We should get Elvis’s logo… you know, that thing with the lightning bolt.”
“Taking Care of Business in a Flash! Yes!”
“On our shoulders. We’ll each get a lightning bolt and ‘TCB.’”
Poppy leans across the table and hugs me. I rest my head against her shoulder; the short sleeve of her sweater rucks up, revealing the spot where she would get the tattoo.
After dinner, we stumble up Beale Street, weaving in and out of the crowds, passing tattoo parlors, piercing salons, restaurants and clubs, our hands twined together. Every few minutes, I look down at our locked fingers.
When we arrived in Memphis yesterday, we strolled down Beale with James. At lunchtime, Beale Street is quaint and upscale, with pastel-painted soul food restaurants and folksy arts and crafts stores. James and I held hands as we walked. But nothing about Beale Street at night is upscale or quaint. Instead, it is sleazy, greasy, and vaguely dangerous. Exciting.
Men whistle at us, reach out to grab us, try to make us stop. “Hey, girlies, I just want to chat with y’all.”Poppy pulls me through throngs of bodies, close crushes of arms and legs and hands and mouths and eyes. Only she knows where she’s going.
She stops in front of a tattoo parlor.
“What’re you stopping for?” Poppy sways before my eyes. Or maybe it’s me that’s swaying.
She puts her hands on my shoulders. She stops swaying. Her face is close, so close. Her lips move against mine.
“Let’s get our tattoos.”
Her words barely register but the feel of her lips, their slight brushing against mine, sears itself across my consciousness. People swarm around us, push past us, but I’m aware only of Poppy, the pink strands of her hair glowing in the streetlamp, her hands gripping my shoulders, her left leg resting between mine, her eyes searching for my answer.
Before I can offer it, she whirls me around and pushes me into the tattoo parlor. I stumble against a glass case filled with photographs of skulls and sunflowers and symbols inked onto skin. Polaroids of fresh tattoos. Examples of the things with which others have branded themselves. Someone wiped the blood and excess ink away and snapped pictures. The skin around the designs is bruised, swollen, and angry. The tattoos are wet and glistening; it seems as if you could wipe them away.
But you can’t.
Poppy marches us up to a counter where a man with a viper encircling his neck and waits, smiling.
“Looking to get some ink?”
Poppy explains what we want. She grabs a pencil and sketches Elvis’s logo; the guy bends closer in consultation. Over his shoulder, behind the counter, a woman lies on a table, her shirt off, breasts squashed against the table’s padded surface. Another man, this one with sea-colored dragons crawling up his arms, bends over her. A buzz reverberates, stinging my ears. I can’t see it, but a glittering needle is sliding in and out, marking blank skin. The woman is calm; she tosses a lazy smile over her shoulder at the artist. He wipes away blood with wet white gauze. The design is not visible yet, but it is there. A permanent souvenir of a wild night in Memphis.
“We want them here.” Poppy grabs my arm and pushes up my sleeve, displaying my blank canvas. Her fingers brushing my skin bring a phantom sensation of a needle, replacing blood with ink.
I lean against the counter. Poppy moves behind me. Her hands slip around my waist; both of us looped on that mysterious blue cocktail. “C’mon, Jayne. Let’s do it.”
But I’m thinking of James and of my mother and of home. I’m thinking about how I’ll explain this symbol drawn in permanence on my shoulder. About how I’ll explain Poppy.
The needle behind the counter buzzes in short, staccato bursts. The artist wipes away a mixture of pink-tinged water and black ink.
The Baptist church looms in my memory as it looms over the highway outside of Nashville.
I pull away, breaking the magic circle of Poppy’s arms, and before she knows what’s happening, I’m out the door and running toward our hotel. Grinning men throw themselves into my path. I push past them, and I keep running until I slam into one who catches me and will not let me go no matter how hard I struggle.
“Jayne! Calm down for Christ’s sake! Will ya?”
“I want to go home. Poppy…. I want to…I want…”
I kiss him. My tongue slides between his lips. He pushes me up against the brick wall of a building. My hands slide inside his jacket and under his shirt. His fingers are cold on my stomach. His knee presses against me and I squeeze my legs tight around it.
“Let’s go back.”
. . .
I wake at three. James sleeps with quiet, even breath beside me. Poppy lies awake in the next bed. She turns her face to the wall when I try to explain.
I get out of bed and cross to the window. I look out at Beale Street and the neon signs flickering out, one by one, with last call.