“Look at her. She walks like her shorts are down around her ankles.” Tommy pointed up the street with a tilt of his chin and tossed me the football.
Darla Daniels walked just as he said, wiggling her butt and only shuffling her feet a few inches with each step. She never hurried. Her black hair was piled high in a loose beehive, and a cigarette hung from the corner of her mouth.
As she approached, we all stopped what we were doing, like we did with any of the moms in the neighborhood. Except Tommy.
“Think fast,” he said, faking a pass.
“You throw that thing at me, I’ll whip your ass,” she said without breaking stride. The younger guys gasped and blushed at her cussing. She always cussed, but with her country accent, it sounded more funny than threatening. Tommy laughed like he wasn’t scared. She pulled the cigarette from her mouth and flashed him a hint of a grin as she blew out a cloud of smoke and passed by. A few seconds later I caught a whiff of the suntan lotion that always trailed behind her in the summer.
Tommy watched her make her way to Billie Eckert’s house to hang out with some of the moms in the neighborhood. She had on a pair of yellow running shorts made out of the same material as a towel that were so short a sliver of her butt cheeks hung out the bottom. Her dark blue tank top let the turquoise straps of her bikini show. She didn’t have big boobs, but they bounced around when she walked.
Tommy turned and looked at me and shook his head and smiled. “That one’s hot to trot.” I didn’t really know what he meant by that, but I laughed like I did.
We played a while longer, until Tommy and a younger kid named Andy got in a fight over a call and Andy went home in tears, leaving us with odd numbers. We sat in the grass in front of my house and talked about what to do next. Someone suggested GI Joes. It sounded good to me, and I looked to Tommy and Keith.
“Are you serious?” Tommy asked.
“Why not?” I asked.
“It’s kid’s stuff,” he said, sounding like my dad. He looked at Keith. “Right?”
“Don’t drag me into this,” Keith said. He never took sides.
The younger guys watched us without saying a word.
“Like you don’t play with GI Joes anymore,” I said.
“I don’t. I gave them to my cousins.”
“Really?” I looked to Keith and he nodded. I looked back to Tommy. “I would’ve taken them.”
Tommy waved his hand at me and got up. “I’m going home. Call me when you’re done playing dolls, and let’s shoot some hoops.”
We watched him until he disappeared around the corner. I felt my face turning red. Eyes burning. I got up and Keith followed me to my house to get my GI Joe stuff. Mom and my sister Lisa were next door.
We went to my room, and I got the big, cardboard box from the floor of my closet. I put it on the bed, and we sorted through it like we’d done a million times. But Tommy had ruined it for me.
“Do you feel like messing with this stuff?”
Keith dropped the chopper pilot back in the box. “Not really.”
“Yeah. I’m kind of hungry. Let’s get something to eat.”
Keith was always good about going along with things, and I was glad he was there with me. I felt kind of weird and didn’t really want to be alone in the house. We went to the kitchen and hunted for food, but there was only stuff that needed to be cooked.
I was digging around in the fridge when Keith called me over to the sink.
“Check this out,” he said.
The kitchen window faced the opposite direction of Billie’s house, and two doors down, the lady who’d just moved into the Kenton’s old house was adjusting the chair on the deck so she could lay out in the sun.
We’d seen her before. She was younger than the other moms in the neighborhood, with two kids still in diapers. Her husband, who looked like The Incredible Hulk, was a constant source of gossip with Mom’s friends. The lady – Cindy Taylor – laid out every day and her skin was the color of an old penny. With her long, brown hair and big cheekbones, she looked like an Indian. She was very pretty. If that weren’t enough, her boobs were each about as big as her head. Tommy said she had a big butt, but I didn’t care. I thought she was way better looking than Darla Daniels any day of the week.
She wore a white two-piece bikini that made her look even darker than she was, and once she got her chair aimed towards the sun, she spread out a towel, laid on her belly, then undid the strap on her top and rested her head on her arms.
“You lucky dog,” Keith said.
We watched a little longer, then I nudged him and we went over to Billie’s to find Mom.
Billie Eckert was the opposite of Cindy Taylor. She was older than Mom, pale and as thin and shapeless as my little sister. Her poochy belly reminded me of the Timbertoes family in the “Highlights” magazines at the doctor’s office. Like Darla, she smoked all the time and spoke in a thick country accent. She sat upright in a folding chair, holding a Coke in one hand and her cigarette in the other. She was the nicest woman in the world except when her husband Calvin was around.
Keith and I walked up, and they looked at us like we were interrupting something. “We’re hungry,” I said.
“Make yourselves a ham sandwich,” Mom said.
“Dad ate it all.”
“All of it?”
“Yeah. And we’re starving.”
Darla looked at me and took a drag off her cigarette. “You two can’t figure out a peanut butter sandwich?”
I ignored her. “Mom. We’re hungry.”
Billie shook her head and took a sip of her Coke.
“Where’s that other little shit?” Darla asked.
Mom fussed at her for cussing in front of us, but Darla didn’t care.
“He went home,” I said. “To eat.”
“I’d like to follow him home and eat up that big brother of his,” Darla said, winking at Billie. “Has that brother of his turned eighteen yet?”
“No,” I said. “He just turned seventeen.”
“That’s too bad,” Darla said.
“All right,” Mom said as she got up from her chair. “You two need to get back to the other side of the fence, where it’s safer, and I’ll fix you something in a bit.”
Before I could answer, Darla started in on how Blaine looked like a cross between Burt Reynolds and Li’l Abner. Mom shooed us away, and as we closed the gate, we could hear the three of them giggling like the girls on the bus when Tommy said something dirty.
After lunch, we played twenty-one in my backyard, sneaking glances at Cindy Taylor after every basket until she finally got up and went back inside for the day. We stopped playing while she packed up her things.
“You want to finish?” I asked, once she was gone.
“Nah, I’m pooped.” Keith dribbled out to the foul line.
“Me too,” I said.
We went to the water hose to get a drink. I let it run a bit, waiting for it to get cold.
“I think I’m done with GI Joes,” Keith said.
I knew what he meant, but I wasn’t expecting to hear it.
“What?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Keith reached for the hose and bent forward to get a drink. He handed it back, but I didn’t take a drink.
He turned away from me, like he was embarrassed. “Yeah. We’re too old for that now.” He pulled off his shirt and wiped the sweat from his face. He’d been lifting weights all summer, and his chest and arms were getting big. I didn’t say anything. I got a drink and turned off the spigot and stared at the muddy place where the water had puddled up and thought about how it would be fun to play in it.
He said he had to go and weed the yard before his dad got home from work and to call him when Tommy came back over. I told him I would, and then he left.
I went inside. Mom and Lisa were in the kitchen making something. The cool air felt good. I went to my room and closed the door and went to my bed and pushed the box of GI Joe stuff out of the way and lay down. I wanted to cry, but felt silly for feeling that way. I heard some yelling across the street and strained to sort out the voices. It was no use, and I gave up and stared at the stucco patterns until I started thinking about other stuff. I reached over and felt around inside the box and pulled out a really old GI Joe my cousin had given me and tried to remember how long I’d had him. He was so old he had the hard plastic hair instead of the fuzzy stuff. I stood him up on my chest and adjusted his arms and legs. One of the boots had fallen off, and something about looking at the bare foot on this old GI Joe made me think of Cindy Taylor lying out on her deck with the strap of her bikini top undone. I put the GI Joe back in the box and thought about her until I heard the phone ring.
At this time of day, it was usually Nana or Aunt Peg, but I listened to see if it was Tommy wanting to play ball. I heard Mom say “What?” real loud, and then it got quiet. I got up and opened my door and looked down the hall to the kitchen. Mom sat at the table in her usual spot. She was crying.
I looked to Lisa, who stood at the counter where they’d just been. She seemed scared and didn’t speak or move. I walked to the table and sat across from Mom in Dad’s chair and waited. It was like a replay of when her best friend Kate died a few years ago.
“He was so young and beautiful,” Mom said. She didn’t seem to notice we were there watching her. She listened for what seemed like forever, and then she said, “Okay. I’ll be over in a minute. I know. I love you too.” She got up and hung up the phone, but didn’t move away from it.
“What happened?” I asked.
She flinched like I’d just scared her and turned to me. “Oh, honey. Elvis died.”
She nodded her head and wiped the tears from her cheeks. Lisa went to her and put her arms around Mom’s waist and told her she loved her and that everything would be okay. I didn’t know what to say. To her, it was like someone in the family had died, but to me, it made no sense.
She filled the sink with water and collected the dirty dishes from lunch and put them in. When the sink was full, she turned off the water and we all walked next door to Billie’s.
Billie was in her chair, like she was earlier, except she sat with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. It was one of the few times I’d seen her without a cigarette. Darla sat on the edge of her chair smoking. She’d put on her shorts and tank top. They were both puffy-faced and red-eyed from crying.
They got up and hugged Mom, and then they all started crying again, saying it couldn’t be and they couldn’t believe it. I got Lisa and pulled up a folding chair and had her climb up in my lap. We watched them standing around, awkward, like they didn’t know what to do.
Finally, Billie sat down and reached for her pack of cigarettes. “I’m so glad you all made me go to that show,” she said.
They saw him up in Indianapolis, right after school got out. Billie’s mom died over the Memorial Day holiday, and she’d been back and forth between Louisville and Knoxville. She tried to back out, but Darla wouldn’t let her.
“Who knew it’d be his last one?” Darla said, shaking her head and blowing out a long stream of smoke. “I just wish we would’ve driven over to his hotel.”
“Oh God,” Billie said. “Not that again.”
Darla gestured at Mom. “If it wasn’t for Mrs. Goody Two-Shoes here we might could’ve met him.”
“And done what?” Mom asked.
Darla took a draw of her cigarette and raised her eyebrows a couple of times and winked at Billie.
“He wasn’t like that,” Mom said.
“The hell he wasn’t,” Darla said. “And who could blame him?”
“I never saw a prettier man,” Billie said. Mom and Darla nodded in agreement. “The summer before Calvin got out of the army, I went with Mom and Daddy to visit some of Daddy’s kin in Memphis. His Uncle Archer was friends with some shoestring cousin of Elvis who did odd jobs around Graceland.”
“You never told me about this,” Darla said.
“I’d forgotten all about it until just now,” Billie said.
“Did you get to see Graceland?” Mom asked.
“We did. Daddy had just bought a new Cadillac, and we drove over in it.”
“You drove through the front gate?” Mom asked. All the sudden, they weren’t sad anymore. Mom and Darla were on the edge of their seats, taking in Billie’s story like I did when Pappaw talked about the war.
“Yes ma’am, and you should’ve seen Daddy’s face as he pulled up to the gate. Daddy’s uncle was in the front seat, and he leaned over and told the guard that we were friends of Vester’s – that was the cousin – and Elvis. Daddy swelled up like a balloon.” She laughed at the memory.
“If you’re going to tell me you went inside, and you’ve never mentioned it before, I’m never talking to you again,” Darla said.
“No. We didn’t get to go inside. Elvis’s cousin took us around to a big garage, and showed Daddy a bunch of Elvis’s cars. It was as much fun as I ever saw him have, treated like a big shot and getting to sit in any of them he wanted to.”
“I wonder how many of them cars he did it in the back seat,” Darla said. Mom shushed her.
“Before we left, Daddy saw this pink Caddy – the year they had the big fins – and he asked if I could sit in it before we took off.”
“Get the hell out of here,” Darla said.
Billie got a little choked up and paused for a second.
“Elvis’s cousin opened the door like a butler and closed it behind me. It was spotless. I held the steering wheel and imagined Elvis driving the car. I know it’s silly, but I don’t care. I looked at Daddy and he was so happy. I felt so special sitting there in that car, imagining myself riding around in it with Elvis. I close my eyes and I can see it and feel it, just like it was happening all over again.”
“That’s so sweet,” Mom said.
“Holy shit, girl. That’s some story,” Darla said.
“I know,” Billie said. “That was in July when we went down there. Calvin got out in September, and we got married in October and moved up here right after that. And then Daddy died right after Thanksgiving.” She got choked up and cleared her throat. “That trip was like a gift. Like being a little girl again. By Valentine’s Day, I was pregnant with Terri.”
Billie cried again after that, and Mom went to her and kissed her on the head and knelt and hugged her. Darla watched them, but didn’t have anything to say.
I heard Calvin’s LTD pull in the driveway while this was going on. A few minutes later, he came out back with his customary gin and tonic and gave Billie a kiss and told her he’d heard the news. Normally, she’d tell him to knock it off, but instead, she reached out and grabbed his hand and held it a second, then let it go.
He stood there a moment, looking uncomfortable and sweaty in his suit and tie. It was funny seeing him like this. He always kidded around and pushed everyone’s buttons, but this had even thrown him for a loop. Finally, he cleared his throat and said, “Sad day.” Nobody said anything back. He finished his drink and went back inside.
“You talking about being pregnant reminds me of when I was pregnant with Bradley,” Mom said, talking about me. “Paul and I saw ‘Spinout’ at the movies, and when we got home, I was up all night, sick. The next morning, my water broke and we went to the hospital.”
“You should’ve named him Bradley Elvis,” Darla said.
“Paul hated the movie and blamed it for making me sick,” Mom said. “He never liked Elvis.”
“Same thing with Lee,” Darla said.
“Kate was my Elvis buddy,” Mom said. “We saw all of his movies together. I remember, after he got out of the army, we saw ‘G.I. Blues’ and fought over who would get to name their first-born son Tulsa.”
“Tulsa McLean,” Darla said. “Good Lord.”
“I know. We settled it when ‘Flaming Star’ came out and she decided she liked Pacer better.” Mom laughed and shook her head. “She was something else.”
“Did Elvis die in ‘Flaming Star’?” Billie asked.
“God yes,” Darla said. “I think I cried more when I saw it than I have today.”
“Me too,” Mom said. She looked down, and then she burst into tears again.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Billie asked.
Mom sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Kate. She’s gone. Elvis is gone. Now, it’s just me. I’m the only one left.”
Afer that, nobody said a word until Darla got up and stretched.
“I’d better get on home,” she said. “Lee’s taking me out to dinner tonight.”
“Really?” Billie asked.
“If he wants to eat, he is. I ain’t cooking shit.” She bent over to get her cigarettes, and I couldn’t help but look down her shirt at her cleavage. She hugged and kissed Mom and Billie, and headed for the gate.
“Come back after dinner, if you want,” Billie said. “Maybe there’ll be something on TV.”
Darla waved without looking back.
Billie looked over to me and smiled. Lisa had fallen asleep on my lap, and I was all sweaty where we touched. I was hot, and my right leg had gone to sleep. I heard the sound of cars up and down the street. Dads coming home from work.
Finally, I heard my Dad’s car come up the street and pull into our driveway. A few minutes later, he was on the back patio looking for us. Mom waved. He started for the gate, but stopped for some reason and turned and went back in. Mom got up and said she’d better get back. She came to me, gave me a smile and bent over and picked up Lisa and brushed the sweaty hair out of her eyes. She looked sadder than I’d ever seen her.
“Come back, after you get the kids in bed,” Billie said. She got up and hugged Mom and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“We’ll see,” Mom said.
Billie patted me on the shoulder and thanked me for watching Lisa.
When we got in the house, Dad was in the kitchen, frying hamburgers. He never cooked, except for breakfast. It was funny seeing him making dinner. Mom took Lisa to her bedroom, and I stayed with Dad.
“What’s been going on?” he asked, mashing a patty together.
“Elvis died,” I said.
“Mom’s pretty tore up about it.”
He nodded and dropped the patty in the skillet, where it hissed and smoked a little. Mom came up behind him and slid her arms around his waist and thanked him for making dinner. She put her head on his back as he made another patty.
“How many can you eat?” he asked me.
I shrugged. “Two?”
“Are you sure?”
I nodded. I was starving.
“All right. Why don’t you go and play in your room until Mom calls you to the table?”
I started to ask if I could stay, but there was something in the way he said it that wasn’t really a question.
I walked down the hall, and as I turned to my room, I saw Lisa curled up in her bed with her bear – not a care in the world. I shut the door behind me and walked to my own bed. My GI Joe stuff was where I’d left it earlier. I felt ashamed of myself for still wanting to play with these toys. I told myself it was kid stuff, but I didn’t want to believe it. I hated the way I felt – the confusion and guilt. I’d never felt this way before.
Mom called my name, but I didn’t move. I thought about Tommy and Keith, and realized I was the only one left. Dad yelled at me to get in there. I felt tears welling up, but thought of him teasing me and caught myself and took a deep breath and thought of something else.
I picked up the box and found a place for it on the top shelf of my closet, back behind some old stuffed animals. I shut the door, then went and joined my parents.