“Elvis died on my birthday. My fourteenth. We lived in Delavan then. My mom worked at the club on the lake.”
Stirring wretched coffee with a fork while a tinny radio played something that must have been relevant to the assertion, fifty-seven year old Alonzo Johnson wondered how it had been decided, at that moment, in a packed Greyhound diner, that the stranger sharing his two-person table would disclose that particular piece of information. Or, more properly, those pieces, as it wasn’t only the Elvis-death-birthday declaration, but there was also Delavan, the mom, and the club. That must have been Hugh Hefner’s old place on Lake Geneva. He wondered which was most pertinent.
“Delavan.” Alonzo took the safe route, geography. “Is that Walworth County, near Elkhorn?”
“That’s right, Walworth,” said the younger man. You can have one foot in Walworth, you know, and the other in Illinois. I guess it sounds better saying ‘one foot in Wisconsin, the other in Illinois,’ since they’re both states. When I was in fourth grade they got our whole class to some park or something once, and they lined us up, left foot Wisconsin, right foot Illinois. My mom’s still got the picture somebody took.”
Alonzo’s eyes focused on the window and the black winter night. He imagined a column of frozen jumping jacks posed forever on the borderline. Not for the first time, he vociferously argued to himself that state borders, all borders, their entirety, should be marked in a meaningful way: emboldened by massive yellow highlighters, or painted, or chalked, as the white lines on a football field. Sometimes you need to see the lines.
“My mom liked Elvis a lot, had all his music, but it was this friend of hers who was the fanatic. She was staying with us that summer, on her way to ‘California, or maybe Colorado.’ She was crazy in love with him. I was sitting right next to her when she heard it on the television. She looked like a clock someone threw out a window.”
The abrupt resumption of words shoved away Alonzo’s image, and he mourned the loss. He would like to see that photograph as it sat on an aged mother’s piano, or, more likely, in a dusty box in a closet, though he suspected it wouldn’t match the one in his mind. Smashed clocks, however, were things he had really seen.
“She was devastated. She dressed in black for a week, but I guess all she had that was black were these tight leotard dance things, and real short shorts … hot pants maybe? It was weird. She looked like something out of Hollywood. I couldn’t stop staring at her, and she was as old as my mom. I was even thinking about her in bed.”
Both sides of the tiny table paused at the revelation, giving it its due.
“She never left the house, just played those records over and over and over. Finally, one night when my mom was pulling a double-shift, she told me to sing — no, she didn’t tell me, she ordered me — to sing ‘Love Me Tender’ to her. I don’t even know if she knew I could sing or not. I hadn’t sung a word since they kicked me out of choir the year before, for smoking.”
Smoking at what, thirteen? Alonzo himself had started at fifteen. After a few desultory attempts over forty years, he had quit completely, finally, hadn’t smoked in eight months.
“It was the one she played the most, I heard it literally 35 times, maybe more, that week.”
It was rare to hear the word literally used correctly. Alonzo believed he had just experienced it.
“‘Sing it to me at midnight, on the back porch.’ That’s exactly what she said. She went to the porch — it was screened in, that’s where she was sleeping — and came back with a scrap of paper with the lyrics. They were in handwriting. Hers, I guess. She put it in my hand and didn’t say another word, just walked back out through the porch to the yard. I took it to my room, but I could watch her out my window, about twenty yards behind the house, sitting cross-legged on the hood of her old Pontiac, smoking and staring out somewhere. For the entire time, almost two hours, she just sat there, her eyes fixed. I angled my neck, but I couldn’t see what she was looking at.”
Stars, Alonzo explained to himself. She was searching southern Wisconsin’s endless summer sky, certain that solace could be found if only she knew where to look.
“Of course, I knew it already, the song, I’d heard it so much that week. I especially like the line in the middle: ‘Take me to your heart.’ But I did practice it a bunch of times. At first just to myself, then a little louder, and finally once, after I shut my window, at full strength until I knew I had it the way I wanted. Then I waited, but double-wide awake, keeping an eye on the clock, and keeping an eye on her, too, sitting right where she’d been the first time I looked.”
Alonzo stretched his right arm across his chest to knead his left shoulder. He lifted his coffee but replaced it without touching the cup to his lips.
“At two minutes of, I was still watching her. She slid off the hood and started in to the porch. I stuffed the lyrics into my jeans pocket even though I knew I didn’t need them, and I went to her. I remember I was barefoot, and I had on a Packer jersey, but for some reason I can’t remember which one. I had three or four different ones. I wish I knew.”
Alonzo had a fleeting memory of a refrain: “I went to her.” How much, in four words?
“When I got there, she was standing at the far end, by the head of the day bed we had, the one that she used. She motioned me to stay at the other end, so I was standing just inside the screen door. Next to her was a circle of candles on a little wrought-iron table. She lit every candle. Then she spoke, but when she did, I could barely hear her. She said ‘Now. Now, please.’ She closed her eyes and I sang. Maybe they were already closed the whole time, I don’t know.”
Even on a windless August night, the flames would have danced, sending gentle shadows to the fake-wood paneling of the summer porch.
“I nailed that song. I had a band later, and I still sing sometimes, but I’ve never hit it like that. About thirty seconds after I stopped, she opened her eyes and kind of tiptoed to where I was standing. She put both her hands on my face and kissed me for as long as the song had lasted.
I had kissed before, but I hadn’t, after all. In those minutes with her, with her tears pouring all down my face, I realized why and how grown-ups kissed.
She pulled back, traced the line of my jaw with one finger, and then rested it for a split-second on my peach-fuzz mustache. Sometimes I can still feel that finger. Then she picked up her little suitcase, walked past me into the yard, and drove away.”
He shrugged, took a few breaths, continued. “I’ve had three marriages, two of them good ones. My wife and I still surprise each other. I have no complaints. None. But that kiss will stay with me forever. Up to then, I’d just been waiting, you know, like you wait for a bus that might never show up.”
Alonzo Johnson took a large last swallow of cold coffee, grateful as it graced his tongue and teeth, swept both checks from the table, paid the cashier, added a generous tip, and, next to the cash register, found a cigarette machine. He pumped quarters into the slot until a crisp pack of Camels dropped to the tray. Grabbing a nameless book of matches from a bowl on the counter, he strode outside into the chill, his breath immediately visible, the pack already open and a Camel between his lips. Instinctively locating the darkest corner of the parking lot, he leaned against the base of a utility pole, its iciness cutting his thin jacket to the small of his back. Amid the constellations he was easily able to locate, as he struck his first match in 240 days, the screened-in porch in Delavan, the little blue suitcase and the stringed handbag, and the red tail lights, one brighter than the other, heading west across the bright yellow lines.