Love Me Tender
I fell in love with Elvis at the Rainbow Roller Skating Rink in 1958. Elvis had rented the roller rink for an all-night party and paid the $35 fee in advance. Doris Pieracinni was supposed to provide roller skates, food, and drink, and keep out the gate-crashers. But at the last minute, the girl who was supposed to help with the food said she had to be home by eleven. Doris called Mom. I could hear her wail right over the phone line. “Eleven! They won’t even get here till nearly eleven-thirty! You’ve gotta help me out. You’ve just got to.”
Mom wouldn’t have taken such a late shift except that Doris was her best friend, and it wasn’t a school night. She said, “I’ll have to bring Pauline. I can’t leave her alone all night.”
Elvis had been the hottest thing in town for years. Lots of people said they saw him here and there around Memphis. But I never had. I watched at the door for his purple Caddy, so excited I nearly peed my pants. The only thing that pulled into the lot was this beat-up, black Ford pickup with a dozen people in the back. Elvis was behind the wheel! I wanted to run right up and touch him, but I didn’t dare. Mom had said that if Elvis didn’t want me there, I’d have to sleep in the car. So I skated back to the bleachers at one side of the rink, wrapped up in a quilt, and tried to be invisible.
The lights were dim. The big glitter ball twirled, throwing sparks off Elvis’s pink, rhinestone-studded shirt. The jukebox played his songs, one after another—“That’s All Right, Mama,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Jailhouse Rock”—all of them.
I never took my eyes off him. At first he just skated round and round. Then the guys started bumping and jostling each other, kind of like a pick-up football game on skates. One of the guys threw a body block into Elvis, and he hit the guardrail right in front of me. When he saw me he grinned that lopsided grin, his eyes half-hooded and smoky. He said, “Well, hello, little darlin’.” I nearly melted. “Aren’t you up past your bedtime?”
I was twelve, almost thirteen, but I always was tiny—never did top five feet—and back then I still didn’t have any more boobs than a board. I blushed something awful and blurted, “Mom’s helping Doris and she had to bring me along. Please don’t make her send me out to the car!”
He laughed, low and sexy, and right then I felt like I was the only person in the world for him. He said, “If you stay, you’ve gotta skate. C’mon.” He pulled me up and we skated out. I wasn’t much taller than his armpit. He had to slow down and pull me along. His hands were strong, and smooth except for his fingertips. He skated me backwards, twirled me, did double crossovers so fast my ponytail whipped from side to side. He was my whole world. I couldn’t see anything but his gorgeous face and the pink expanse of shirt, tight across his chest—couldn’t hear anything but his soft voice, singing along with “Love Me Tender” just for me. The smell of him—something musty and manly that I couldn’t name—made me feel tipsy. We skate-danced through three songs, and at the end, he picked me up, whirled around, kissed me on the cheek, and set me down again. He tugged my ponytail before going back to his friends. As he skated off he looked over his shoulder and winked—one slow, sexy wink. My stomach turned a somersault, and I thought I was gonna faint. I stumbled getting back to my place in the bleachers and blushed something fierce. I would have died right on the spot if I’d fallen down.
All the rest of that night I watched him, hoping he’d ask me to skate again, but he never did. Sometimes he raced some of the guys or something, but mostly he skated in smooth, lazy circles, like he was in a world all by himself. There were only a few girls there, and he never skated with any of them.
About two o’clock in the morning, he dropped something over by the concession counter. I darted out quick as anything and picked up a plain white handkerchief. It smelled just like him. I still have that handkerchief.
Elvis had skate parties for nine days before he reported to the Army, but Mom didn’t work any of them, and Doris wouldn’t let me in alone after hours. Every night I lay awake, wondering whether he looked for me at the rink, wondering whether he missed me and wished I were there.
While Elvis was in Germany, my family moved to Cleveland. I read all the fan magazines, and I didn’t even think about any guy but Elvis till after he married Priscilla. May 1, 1967. That was the blackest day of my life. I couldn’t stop crying—all day and all night too—and Mom said, “Grow up, Pauline. It’s high time you get over that crush and start acting sensible.” The next day some newspapers said he and Priscilla danced to “Love Me Tender” at their reception, but I never believed that for a minute. That was our song.
I didn’t get over Elvis—didn’t want to—but I did let my girlfriends fix me up sometimes, mostly blind dates that went nowhere. Frank was different, though—tall, with long, dark hair, and a Southern drawl. And he smelled almost like Elvis. When I asked he said he was wearing Brut.
After we’d been dating a couple of months, Frank asked me to marry him and I thought, “Why not? I’m not getting any younger.” Looking back, I think there was a bit of getting back at Elvis too. I know that’s silly, given that he didn’t know anything was happening. Anyway, Frank and I got engaged in August and were married in October. Mom said, “You get married in such a whirlwind, half our friends and family will think it’s a shotgun wedding. You’d tell me if it was a shotgun wedding, wouldn’t you?”
While we were in Niagara Falls for the honeymoon, Frank’s dad had a heart attack and died. We’d planned to live in Ohio, at least for awhile, but instead we set up housekeeping in Bath County, Virginia, so Frank could take over the Mercantile: Fine Food, Housewares, Gas. At first we lived in the apartment over the store, though we later rented that out for forty dollars a month. Nothing much in Memphis or Cleveland prepared me for Clifton Forge, Goshen, and Millboro Springs.
Frank and I had an ordinary sort of marriage—nothing really great about it, but nothing awful either. Back then I kept a diary. This is a typical entry: “F and I go to dump. Got nothing. I frost cake. Roy brings big mess of beans. I gave Mary E some. Pours rain. Played rook w/ Frances till 11:30.” On Father’s Day, 1968, I wrote, “Sent Dad 1.98 shirt. Lola, Mary E and I go to town, got 3.99 dress for me. So hot. We have rain & hail storm. I got 14 scarlet sage for .69 & set out. Mr. R, Frances & BR go to bingo. I took Mary E. We had no luck. She gave me 2# Russell Stover. Elvis’s first Father’s Day.” And another time, “Lovely day. F and I fuss about car again, he’s so ignorant. I clean store & house. He goes to town, too tight to get much. R goes to minstrel. I took Mary E to bingo. We neither one won.”
I tried to be a good daughter to Frank’s ma, but it was never easy. I’d take her a cherry pie or some jonquils or something, cook her supper, or take her for a ride, but she just fussed all the time. Of course it was worst right before the family had to put her away. That June I wrote in my diary: “The 3 boys go to courthouse and make plans for taking Ma to asylum. I go up to her house at 1:30. Viola and I alone with her tonite. I never slept any. She’s pitiful, and fusses all the time.” And the next day: “Law took F’s ma to Staunton. Alvie went with deputy. F, Lenn, Alvie & Viola go to court, have their ma committed in the afternoon. I keep store, nearly burn up, hottest day of the year.” Two weeks later Frank went alone to Staunton Asylum, but he couldn’t see her, not for thirty days, and he was in a foul mood all that Sunday, grumbling about family rights.
Once I wrote in my diary that Frank was off his rocker, worse than his ma. He read that, and came banging into the kitchen where I was frying pork chops and potato cakes. He read it out to me.
“What the hell did you write that for?”
“Because it’s true. I’ve said it to your face.” I just stayed at the stove, my back to him.
“But writing it...! That’s a shitty thing to put on paper.” He opened cupboard doors and slammed them shut again, raging around like a bull seeing red.
“Nobody’s gonna see it. It’s in a diary.” I tried to sound soothing.
“Well, I saw it. Anybody could—just pick it up and there it is in black and white.”
“Most people wouldn’t pick the lock on a private diary!” Frank started pulling drawers open and, for a minute, I wondered whether he was looking for a knife or something, but he just slammed them shut again. I said, “Look, it won’t happen again. Okay? Go wash up. Supper’s almost ready.” But he wouldn’t drop it, cussed up a storm for another half-hour, and then complained that his supper was cold. I decided I’d best not keep a diary anymore.
The thing that made Frank madder from a standing start than anything else was me talking about Elvis. I remember the night in 1968 when Elvis’s comeback Christmas Special aired. Lola, Frances, and I planned to watch it on the TV at the store. Frank said, “I don’t want that noise on.” Right there in front of company, he just turned off the television, never a by-your-leave or anything. I turned it on again. He turned it off. We all just stared at him till he got all red in the face and stomped out.
Lola said, “His mind’s going.”
Frances nodded. “He should be treated. Or locked up.”
I thought so too, but didn’t say it. Frank was my husband, after all. I said, “We’re here to watch Elvis, not to talk about Frank.” I turned the TV on, and we watched the whole thing, drinking Pepsi and eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches in his honor. But Frank acting the fool like that put a damper on it for everybody. When Elvis sang “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” I felt like he meant those songs just for me, and I cried a little. Lola patted my hand, and Frances said, “I know how it is, hon.” They thought I was upset about Frank, and I didn’t tell them otherwise.
I stopped talking about Elvis after that, but I never stopped holding him in my heart. I gave Frank Brut for so many birthdays and so many Christmases that it got to be a family joke, and he never tumbled to the Elvis connection. Every year I celebrated two anniversaries: my marriage to Frank, very low-key; and my night at the Rainbow with Elvis, very private. When Elvis and Priscilla separated in 1972, I thought about divorcing Frank. I would have too, except what would he have done without me? By then he was round the bend about half the time, ranting for hours about oil spilled on the floor and such.
When Elvis died in 1977, I told Frank, “I’m going to Graceland.”
He said, “You oughta be goin’ to the nut house.”
I said, “You should know.”
I’d never been on a plane before, but I just had to go. I used the money we were saving for a vacation at the Grand Canyon, got the last ticket on any flight out that day, the last room at any of the eleven Memphis Holiday Inns that night.
The public viewing was on Wednesday. Thousands of fans jammed the sidewalks for blocks in every direction and cut off two lanes of traffic. I wilted in the beating August heat for nearly six hours. Flowers banked along the driveway didn’t quite mask the human smells. People fainted and were laid out on the Graceland lawn. One man had a heart attack, just keeled over standing there. A woman went into labor.
The seamless copper coffin glowed like hot coals in the foyer. The line inched forward, bodies bumping into each other, elbows getting in the way, sometimes a foot coming down hard on someone’s toe. People were crying too hard to complain about the crush. A woman three ahead of me in line passed out when she saw his body and had to be carried away. When I got to the coffin—that’s when I cried. He was wearing a pink shirt and a white suit. That shirt was the exact color of the one he wore the night we skated. As I said good-bye my tears bleared his heavy features, and I saw only the lean hero I had loved for twenty years. I swear he told me right then that he’d never leave me, that everything would be all right.
Hundreds of us kept vigil at the gates, thousands of us lined the route to Forest Lawn Cemetery when his all-white hearse crept past, followed by sixteen white Cadillacs. Floral arrangements blanketed the cemetery as far as I could see. But no one mourned him more than I did.
That November I finally figured out that I was pregnant. Frank and I had tried for years and had pretty much given up by then, so it took a while for me to tumble to it. Frank strutted around like the cock of the walk, but I knew this baby was really The King’s. Given the bad blood on Frank’s side, I was glad of it too.
Elvis was there when our baby was born. The faint odor of Brut and Elvis comforted me through the long hours of labor. I’d taken his handkerchief with me to the hospital, and he used it to wipe my brow during the worst of it. Frank paced and held his head like he thought it might explode. Finally he went out to the waiting room, saying he couldn’t stand to see me in so much pain. I squeezed Elvis’s hand and whispered, “This baby is going to be a boy. And I’m going to name him after you.” But the next morning, while I was in the bathroom, Frank put Franklin on the birth certificate. I nearly did divorce him then.
I haven’t seen Elvis often, but he always comes through when I need him. He held my hand when I was on that plane that had to make an emergency landing. He said, “Take it from me, darlin’. When it comes to it, dead isn’t all that bad.” He comforted me when my mother died, saying that he understood, that losing a mother was beyond any other loss. He cheered with me when Frank Junior graduated, though he left before the pizza party after commencement.
Frank Junior always was a joy and honored me just like Elvis did his mom. He looked so much like Elvis that people commented on it all the time. His classmates called him “Big El.”
I last saw Elvis in 2001. Frank Junior was at the Stardust in Las Vegas for the Elvis Extravaganza. I always joined Frank Junior for that. He’d won the Elvis Impersonator contest three years running by then, pumping and driving and belting out “That’s All Right, Mama” like The King himself. Frank Junior makes a good living that way—playing weddings and parties, singing telegrams, and doing commercials. He’s the best, but lots of the impersonators are good, some a little weird. There’s one guy whose only gig is to lie in a copper coffin and pretend to be Elvis dead. You can’t see him breathe at all. That year a Jewish Elvis solicited donations to start an Elvis Spiritual Enlightenment Center.
I’d seen all the mugs, T-shirts, and ceramic tiles before, and besides, I had no money for a shopping spree. When Frank Senior had that heart attack the year before—just like his daddy, only younger—we just weren’t ready. We’d thought we still had time to put a nest egg by for our old age. I figured I could splurge up to ten bucks in spite of that, so I stopped to play the slots. I was totally focused in when Elvis tugged my ponytail and said, “Hello, little darlin’.” I just gaped at him, too happy to say anything. He laughed. “I made thirty-five million dollars last year. Imagine that. The dough just keeps rollin’ in.” He still smelled the same, and his voice was as smoky as ever. He said, “I’d give you some of those millions if I could, but I can’t.” Then he pulled the handle on my machine. Bells rang, whistles blasted, lights flashed. My three dollar slot paid the biggest jackpot in casino history, nearly five million dollars. In the hubbub, Elvis slipped into the crowd of impersonators and disappeared.
But I know he’s still out there, ready to take care of me if I ever need him again.
©2014 by Vivian Lawry