Love Me Tender
Elvis showed up for Nannie’s birthday. He was a big guy with a gut, and his sparkling white, one-piece jumpsuit rode up his ass. Bonnie took one look at him as he lumbered into Nannie’s living room, clutching his unplugged electric guitar, and immediately excused herself to find Jack, her cousin. He was in the kitchen, standing in front of the open refrigerator.
“This must be something you arranged.”
“Guilty as charged,” Jack said.
“But Nannie doesn’t even like Elvis.”
Jack shrugged. “Sinatra was already booked. This was the best I could do.”
From the living room, they heard Elvis clicking on a tape deck. Background music to “Love Me Tender” came on strong.
“I wanted to do something special,” Jack said, “Come on, how often do you turn 80?”
Bonnie returned to the living room where Nannie was settled in her lounge chair with her bum leg resting on a plaid ottoman. Elvis was kneeling before her, tossing a fake microphone back and forth between his hands. He’d put on a pair of dark, oversized sunglasses. Nannie had her knitting on her lap, and she kept her fingers on the needles. Aunt Tina, Jack’s mother, stood behind Nannie’s chair; she had her hand over her mouth and Bonnie couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying.
Elvis started to croon in a scratchy, high pitched voice that didn’t sound anything like the real singer. Bonnie winced and then headed outside. She sat on the back steps and watched Jack’s four-year-old kid, Maggie, play on the rusty red swing set that was by the fence. Every time Maggie pumped high, the play set’s legs lifted up from the ground for a second and then thumped back on the down swing. Bonnie was going to tell Maggie to be careful but then decided not to say anything, knowing full well that it wouldn’t make a difference. No matter what she said, Maggie would continue to swing as high as she could. That was just the kind of kid she was.
Bonnie put her head in her hands and looked down at the cracks in the cement steps. Busy black ants came out of the cracks and scurried past her feet. She thought about her boyfriend, Don. He was married with two kids. Nannie had met him a few times and really liked him.
“So handsome,” she’d told Bonnie at first. “And that’s important, although most people try to pretend it’s not.
It’s a long life we have to live. Hard to do it with ugly.” If she’d figured out anything about his wife and
children, she’d never once mentioned it to Bonnie. But Aunt Tina knew. Aunt Tina caught the two of them
together, both getting out of Don’s car in front of Bonnie’s apartment building. She’d stopped by to bring
over some hand-me-downs—Christmas sweaters, turtlenecks, and long skirts that she no longer fit into,
stuff that Bonnie, truthfully, wouldn’t be caught dead in, not that she ever had the guts to express that
to her aunt. No, she always thanked her Aunt Tina repeatedly for any of her cast-off clothes—and
when Aunt Tina saw Don, she yelped a little and dropped the garbage bag of clothes on her feet. Aunt
Tina knew Don’s wife from church; they both taught Sunday School to the preschoolers. “Hello, Don.
Please give my best to your wife,” she said before turning on Bonnie. “And you. If your mother was
alive, this would just about kill her.”
On an upswing, Maggie let go of the chains, threw her body forward, and flew in the air. It looked fun for a second, or at least that was what Bonnie thought, until Maggie landed on the ground, her legs crumbled beneath her, her cheek flat on the grass. Bonnie got up and ran to her, yelling as she went—“Jack! Jackie!”— and before she even reached Maggie, she heard the back door slam. She crouched down and all she got to do was touch Maggie’s shoulder before Jack was there also. Maggie lifted her head. Her face was dirty but Bonnie couldn’t tell if it was from the mud on the ground or the chocolate ice cream she’d devoured before coming outside.
“Jesus,” Jack said, “What the hell?”
Maggie started to cry. She opened her mouth, closed her eyes, and, blindly, reached for her father.
“Weren’t you watching?”
“It happened so fast.”
Jack hugged Maggie. Bonnie admired the competent way that he soothed her, stroking her hair, landing little kisses on her forehead. All of it worked; Maggie soon stopped crying and nestled herself into her father’s arms.
Back when Bonnie and Jack were kids, they used to play together every day in the summer because Bonnie lived with Nannie and Aunt Tina needed someone to watch Jack while school was out. They liked to play tennis at the public park, just down the street from Nannie’s house, lazily hitting the balls back and forth to one another since neither one of them knew how to properly score a game. One day, they were on the court, both of them barefoot, and Bonnie, as she was preparing to serve, stepped on a bee. The pain of the sting was quick and fierce. She threw her racket and the ball in the air. Jack just looked at her until Bonnie started hopping on one leg. “Help me, help me, oh please, someone help me,” Bonnie yelled. Jack came running over to her, jumping over the net to get to her quickly. She pointed to her foot. “Something got me,” she said, making it sound much more exotic than it was: a mere bee sting. He picked her up and carried her back to Nannie’s—two or three blocks away it was—and someone took the stinger out. She didn’t feel a thing after that. Those courts weren’t there anymore. The town had let them get overgrown, weedy, and then, eventually, someone took the fence and nets down.
“What’s going on in there?” Bonnie asked Jack, jerking her thumb behind her, towards the house.
“What’s Nannie doing?”
“I think she’s knitting.”
“Daddy, I want some more ice cream,” Maggie whined.
Jack nodded absentmindedly. “Sure, sure, a little treat won’t kill you.”
They went back inside the house, leaving Bonnie alone. She thought about Jack, how natural he seemed
to be as a father. She wondered if her boyfriend Don was the same way with his children, Gracie and Paul.
She’d seen photos of them in his wallet, school photos with the standard, swirly blue background. Gracie was
missing her two top teeth. Paul had jug ears and his hair was cut so short Bonnie couldn’t tell what color it was.
At her last ob-gyn visit to Dr. Callahan, the same doctor that Nannie had gone to for years (she’d just recently stopped because, as she put it, “Nowadays, I just don’t want anyone touching my breasts”), he told Bonnie that if she wanted any kids, she’d better get busy. “You’re 35 and not getting any younger,” was what he’d said.
If things worked out with Don, if he ever left his wife (her name was Claire and she was a Creative Memories consultant, that was about all Bonnie had gotten to know about her), Bonnie would have an instant family. Although Don had never once, in the six months she’d known him, even mentioned the idea of leaving his wife, she still spent way too much time thinking about how she should act around his children. She wanted to act like a cool babysitter with them, someone who’d let them do fun things that their parents would never permit, like staying up late or eating in bed.
The night before, Bonnie had wanted to call Don and interrupt him from whatever he was doing, whatever married men
did—cleaning up the dishes or answering his wife’s questions or playing board games with his kids. Hey,
she’d wanted to cry to him, don’t you remember me? But she hadn’t called him. She’d dialed her grandmother’s
number instead. “Feel like company?” she had asked, and, of course, Nannie had said yes.
Bonnie sat down on the steps again, her elbows on her knees. When the back door opened, she scooted over, thinking it was Jack coming out to join her. Instead, it was Elvis. He was holding a can of beer. His jumpsuit had come unzipped, exposing a thick mat of gray chest hair. He sat with Bonnie on the steps, grunting as he settled down. He popped open the beer top and took a long gulp.
“Where’d you get that?”
“From the guy inside. He said it was my tip. You mind?”
He pointed to his head.
His thick mane of black hair, complete with sideburns, came off. Elvis now had a bald, shiny head with tufts of hair around his ears.
“It gets hot.”
“So, how’d my grandmother like it?”
“I think she turned her hearing aid off in the middle of ‘Hound Dog.’”
“She prefers Sinatra.”
“A lot of them older folks do. But I think I left her pretty satisfied. People usually dig my work.”
“Hey,” Elvis said, “It’s a job. Don’t knock it.”
“Puts food on the table for my family and that’s all that matters, believe me.”
Bonnie pictured this man with his kids and wife sitting around a table, eating...what? Peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches? How far did he take his impersonation?
Alone in her apartment late at night, Bonnie spent a lot of time trying to imagine what other people’s lives were like, people who’d been brought up normally by a mother and father, people who then went on to marry and have their own families. She didn’t know what that was like because her mother had died when she was a child. According to Nannie, Bonnie’s mother had complained of a headache for a few days and went to some doctor who did a few tests and then diagnosed her with an inoperable brain tumor. Once she heard the word “tumor,” she took right to her bed. “She was like that,” Nannie once said, “Very impressionable.” After Bonnie’s mother died, her father got a job offer somewhere out West. He told Nannie that he didn’t know beans about taking care of a little girl, and Nannie offered to watch her. He packed one suitcase for Bonnie and drove her to Nannie’s house, and the last thing Bonnie remembered about her father was holding his hand—his big, warm hand—as he cried in front of her and said, “What do I know about girls?”
“How many children do you have?” Bonnie asked Elvis.
“That’s a lot.”
Elvis finished his beer and crumpled the can in his hands.
“The more the merrier. That’s what my wife always says. How about you?”
“Oh no, none. I’m not even married.”
Elvis took his sunglasses off to look at her. His eyes were small and round.
“Huh. Why not?”
“Well, that’s a long story.”
“Do you want to get married?”
“Then get married.”
Bonnie cleared her throat. “The one I love is not available.”
Elvis shook his head.
“Women make everything so complicated. Love someone else, that’s what I say.”
“Well, it’s not as easy as that.”
“Look, I really don’t want to get into it with you.”
“You probably don’t know the first thing about love. Let me tell you about love. When I decided to marry my wife, my Clarisse, I went up to her parents and I said, ‘I’d like to marry your daughter and I’d like your blessing.’ And Clarisse’s father took one look at me and he said, ‘No. No, you don’t have our blessing and no, she won’t be marrying you.’ I guess they thought I wasn’t good enough for her, that I wouldn’t make a good enough living. And I was so afraid. I thought Clarisse might agree with them. I had one thing going for me and one thing only and that was my voice. But she stood by my side and she touched me on the shoulder, I still remember the feel of that touch, I do, and she said to her mother and father, she said, ‘I am so.’ Now that’s love.”
Bonnie waited a moment.
“Or someone just wanting to defy their parents,” she said.
“Now don’t get smart. You don’t get it, do you?”
“Look, mister, you don’t know the first thing about me—“
“Aw, I know tons of yous.”
Bonnie stood up.
“Where you going?”
“Did I say something to offend you? Is that why you’re up and leaving?”
“Stick to singing oldies. Stop trying to analyze people.”
“So touchy, aren’t we? So sensitive.”
Bonnie slammed the door on her way inside. She headed directly into the powder room to the right of the back door and lifted the shades a little so that she could peer down at Elvis who was still sitting on the steps. He sat there for a few minutes, squinting into the sun, and then grunted as he got up. He took one look back at the house before he left, and his mouth was twisted into a horrible sneer, his eyes looking even smaller than before. Bonnie shuddered and dropped the shades.
In the bathroom, Nannie kept a wicker basket on the floor where she stored her Family Circle
magazines. Every week, Aunt Tina would come to clean the house and Nannie always accused her of stealing her
Family Circles. “I didn’t touch a thing,” Aunt Tina would insist, but Bonnie tended to believe her
grandmother. It wouldn’t have been uncharacteristic of Aunt Tina to slip a magazine into her purse
on the way out. Bonnie sat on the closed toilet seat and read a recipe for taco and yellow rice casserole
until she heard Aunt Tina and Jack and Maggie leave. She stayed quiet even when her aunt yelled a couple of
times for her. “Where’d she go? Where’d that girl go? You’d think she’d want to say good-bye.” Jack,
sensing her hiding spot, kicked the bathroom door on his way out.
As soon as she heard Jack’s car start up in the driveway, she came out. Nannie was still in the living room,
knitting a red and white argyle sweater for Maggie. She was
about a third of the way through and it already looked good.
“There you are,” Nannie said.
“Sorry for disappearing. I just couldn’t deal any more. So, what’d you think of Elvis?”
Bonnie sat down on the carpet, next to Nannie’s chair. She looked down at her grandmother’s brown shoes,
laces tied up tightly, her tan support hose.
“He wasn’t Frank. Sorry about that.”
“Oh listen,” Nannie said, “At my age, it really doesn’t matter.”
“I had the worst conversation with him afterwards. It was the strangest thing. He was pestering
me about why I wasn’t married.”
Her grandmother’s knitting needles clicked together.
“That’s a good question.”
“Why aren’t you?”
Nannie didn’t stop knitting.
“Might it have something to do with Don?”
Bonnie took a deep breath. “Nannie, I don’t know what Aunt Tina has told
“There used to be a friend of your grandfather’s who’d come by the house now and then
just to visit after your grandfather died. I’d make him a cup of tea and slice him
up a piece of cake, whatever I had handy, and we’d sit out in the kitchen and drink tea and eat sweets.
His name was Henry, but everyone called him Hank. He liked his tea so weak that all I had to do was
practically pass the tea bag over the hot water just to satisfy him. And sometimes sitting out there
with Hank would feel good. He liked to garden and he had no problem with sitting down and talking about
all different kinds of flowers—which liked the shade, which needed the sun. This was back when my kids,
your mother and your Aunt Tina, were little and I never got a chance to talk to anyone else.
Sometimes I’d spy him coming up to the house. I’d be standing by a window and I’d see him coming
toward the house and I’d want to clap my hands together, just like a little girl waiting
for a present.”
“And then Hank’s wife came over one day. I made her some tea. We sat in the kitchen to drink it. Her fingers
were shaking when she brought that tea cup up to her lips. At the end of the visit, she hugged me good-bye.
She never said a word to me about Hank, not one word, mind you. She just drank the tea,
trembling the whole while. The next time he came over, I didn’t answer the door. He knocked and knocked
and I just huddled upstairs with the kids. I put my finger on my lips and I said to Tina and your mother,
I said, ‘Sshhh.’”
The two women sat in silence.
“But I had so enjoyed talking to Hank. I’ll never forget that.”
“I’m not sure you understand,” Bonnie said.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure I do.”
“I’ve let you down. You didn’t bring me up to act this way.”
“That’s you. Always giving yourself your punishment first. When you were a little girl,
you broke a dish of mine once when I was out of the house. By the time I saw you, you’d already put
yourself in the corner.”
“Would it help if I said I loved him?”
“No, not really.”
“Well,” Bonnie said, getting up, “I should go. I’ll come back later tonight and we can go
to Friendly’s or something.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Outside, Don was leaning against his car. He had a bouquet of flowers, mostly yellow
and white carnations, with him.
“Look at you,” he said.
He was smiling and that made him even better looking than he normally was.
“Hi, baby. I came to wish your Nannie a happy birthday.”
“I guess the flowers are for her.”
“I’ve got something else for you,” he said.
“Elvis came,” Bonnie said.
Don’s eyes opened wide and she explained what happened.
“So he’s alive.”
“Alive and well. Alive and well and bald.”
“Ah,” Don said, “Don’t be cruel.”
“At the end of his performance, if you can really call lip synching and gyrating
in front of a senior a performance, he asked me why I wasn’t married. He didn’t understand why
I couldn’t just find someone else to love, someone who was available.”
Don crossed his arms across his chest.
“Bonnie,” he said, “Come on.”
“Do you love me?”
“Yes, of course, yes.”
“If something bad happened to me right now, say, I fell and hurt myself, what would you do?”
“I’d help you,” he said.
“Would you take me to the hospital?”
“If you needed to go there.”
“Would you stay there with me?”
Don laughed again.
“I would camp out by your bedside until the doctor released you. I would do anything for you,
Bonnie let him gather her into his arms.
You might not know what normal is, she heard her grandmother say as clearly as
if she’d been transported—still comfortable in her recliner—right onto the blacktop driveway
and now sat next to Don’s car, but surely you can tell when someone is lying to you?
“Let me go and say happy birthday to Nannie. Then we can talk more about any impending
emergencies you might have,” Don said.
He went up to the house, holding the back door open for her until she shook her head,
letting him know she was staying put. While he visited with Nannie, she tried to think
of the future, a life with Don, but for some reason all she could picture was that moment,
years ago, when her cousin Jack carried her from the tennis courts into Nannie’s house,
how he never complained as he juggled her weight in his arms during the walk home.
She tried to remember who got the stinger out for her. Was it Aunt Tina? Nannie?
She couldn’t see it. She just remembered sitting on top of a table with her legs dangling
down and someone coming up and picking up her leg, gently twisting her foot around.
Whoever was tending to her told Bonnie to stop crying. “Trust me, this won’t last,”
someone said to her, right before the pain stopped.
©2011 by Catherine Uroff