My friend Belle (fake Disney name) used to pretend her father was Elvis Presley. I love that about her. (I used to pretend I was a Kennedy.) She’s our pretty friend, the one who admitted she would think twice before leaving a burning building without makeup on. The one who actually contemplated putting my name in for “What Not to Wear.” But didn’t.
A few years ago, Belle and Hayley and Annette (more Disney names) and I went on a road trip. We figured out later it was a magical one, but I should have known right away, because I never want to go on a road trip. Not any more. I hate long car rides, I don’t like sharing bathrooms, and I like to sleep in my own bed every night. But for some reason, when Belle, who had settled in Atlanta, suggested that she meet the rest of us in Memphis, I was in.
My favorite part, no lie, was Graceland. I thought — I’m sure you can understand why — that it would just be funny. And yes, I felt both a chuckle and a sigh at the decor, which reminded me of my father’s Houston apartment of the same era, only a hundred times spiffier. Shag carpet, avocado green and orange furniture. You could just hear the Tijuana Brass somewhere in the background. My favorite part of Graceland was when they efficiently sit you down to watch a little film about Elvis, in case you’ve forgotten, while you wait for the bus to carry you across the street to the mansion. I laughed, but then I watched. I don’t know who produced this film, but they’re a genius. It’s all the good and none of the bad, of course, but somehow they didn’t actually deny the bad; they just didn’t mention it, like your parents when they’re telling your grandparents about your A in Geography, and leaving out the part where you got suspended for smoking pot. It was all good-natured, and it actually did remind me of something. That Elvis was GREAT. He was so talented, such a warm entertainer, so downright beautiful in his youth, and, while they didn’t mention this either, he was so taken advantage of by Colonel Parker — and everyone else around him, probably — that I was sad and overwhelmed, but at the same time I felt so lucky to be able to watch him perform.
As the film ended, I turned to Belle and said, “Belle! You had the coolest dad ever!”
Belle and I have a second favorite memory of Graceland. As part of the house tour, we were led out back where Elvis is apparently buried. People slow down here, to take pictures and read the various plaques. His headstone is huge, white, very dignified. As the four of us wound with the crowd through the line to get to the viewing area, we observed a middle-aged woman taking a picture of her two small children, who she had told to sit just in front of the giant headstone. Suddenly she screamed at them, “Stop covering up Elvis’ name!!” Hayley and Annette didn’t hear it, but Belle and I caught each others’ eye and started laughing. We tried to stop; I swear we tried. We did a fair job of keeping quiet, but every time we looked at each other we started up again. Another friend of mine, Joaquin, used to say he and his sister called this sort of thing “Americana,” and I thought that word to myself. So American. So true, and sad.
We realized later the trip was magical, as I said before. The most magical thing was that it turned out to be the last trip Annette took. We visited Memphis over Memorial Day weekend, and she died that August. We knew she was sick. On Beale Street, I sat with her on the curb for a few minutes so she could catch her breath. She wore a wig that weekend, covering her baldness. We knew she was sick but we had no idea she would die. Certainly not so soon. Afterward, her husband told us that trip was one of the happiest times of her life.
Right after I heard from Annette’s husband that she was gone, I called Hayley. We said the usual things, made more vivid by shock.
But we also remembered the other side of the coin. Separately, we had each made Annette cry during that trip. Not on purpose; these things happen when you’re cooped up together in a car for so long.
I still don’t know what to make of that true, sad thing. I just shake my head when I think about it.