By Joshua Sharpe
Anniston, Alabama, November 14, 2012
She’s sleeping in the backseat of the rental car when we pull up to the hotel. It’s beautiful. Aged, carved columns out front, sweeping green hills around back, and ancient stained wood on every inch inside the main building. It's the kind of perfection and charm that burns into your memory, and when you come to be a relic of time yourself, you'll tell someone about the picture on a porch somewhere. I hope she’ll love it like I do.
I wake her up, and she shuffles slowly up the steps inside to check in. I light a cigarette standing in the gravel drive and pull the bags out of the car. I’ve been waiting, since the car has NO SMOKING signs and symbols pasted all over the dash. And it's better if I don’t smoke around her anyway, I think. Just in case.
She comes out, sleepy-eyed and cold in the night. I’m taken, looking at her. She’s different now: thinning, withering, contracting. She looks more like a woman nearing 60 than I ever thought she could. Her eyes are set deep, the rings around them darker and larger now. Her skin is beginning to leather, and her teeth glow bright in contrast to her face. She says our room is around back, in a different building. I load the bags back in the car and put out my cigarette.
We drive down the gravel road and see the building. She doesn’t love it. It’s too new. The room looks like any other modern hotel room with its tacky floral wallpaper and department-store art hung center over each mass-produced bed frame. This is Atlanta, this is Mobile, this is Myrtle Beach, and now I see it’s Anniston as well.
I'm embarrassed to have pushed for it. Like me, she was hoping it would be more like the pictures, older, grander, some enduring dream of candles and lace and fine ornate cloth cloaking her bed in a canopy, something out of “Gone with the Wind.” It’s not that. Those are the expensive rooms in the main building. But she’s too tired to care and knows we’ll only be here until morning and then we’ll push the final six hours. So we go to sleep.
I wake up early and go outside to smoke. I look over the balcony toward the towering, glowing gem of Old South architecture where we thought we’d be staying. I think about why we’re here and why now. I feel ashamed it took so long and that it took fear to bring us. I throw my cigarette butt on the ground and go inside.
We get on the road and stop at The Anniston Star, the newspaper where one of my favorite writers, Rick Bragg, got his start. It’s just a building, but I have to see it. One of my heroes once stood on this ground where I now stand, trying to get a picture of the sign on the building, as she takes pictures of me from inside the car. She shows them to me when I get back in.
“Nice lighting on my bald spot,” I joke.
“C’mon now,” she says. “You look great.”
Cups of coffee and hours later, we pass into Mississippi and then Tennessee. She’s sleeping in the backseat again. She’d made it about an hour in the front before asking me to pull over so she could lie down. It bothers me that she’s sleeping so much. We arrive at another hotel. This time it’s Memphis, the second and most important stop of the trip. She looks at me, wide-eyed, like a child, and says she can’t believe we’re finally here. She can’t believe the hotel either. She runs through the lobby looking at all the posters and tack and little statues, smiling, yelling “Joshua, did you see this?! Did you see this?! This is so cool!” She's happy. This is what we came for.
I take her picture in front of a life-size cardboard cutout of the man, as the woman behind the counter drags up a polite smile for what is surely the hundredth time today. She says it again: She can’t believe we’re here. She knows why it’s happening now, but she’s too happy to care. She wants to go to bed and get an early start in the morning. But first we go for ribs and brisket at the Rendezvous, the most-loved barbecue joint in Memphis.
She doesn't visit graves. Never has. Her father’s grave: “It’s just a body.” Her brother Charles’ grave: “It’s too eerie there.” Her brother Henry’s grave: “I wish I’d known him better, but it’s just a body now.” And she never even mentioned her uncle Hound Dog’s grave. Every few months, though, she talks about sometime driving up to Athens to visit my father’s grave. He’s been gone four years now. That’s just a body too, but she can’t help wanting to go there. She never loved anyone any more than the man lying beneath that rocky North Georgia soil. And anyway, it’s a pretty cemetery, right across the street from Sanford Stadium. She still can’t believe she pulled that off: her husband, buried in the shadow of the football stadium he once played in as a Georgia Bulldog and loved more than probably any other spot on Earth. Athens, though, is four and a half hours from home in Waycross, so we don’t go there much.
But today we’re visiting graves. It’s what we came for. And what we will do for the next few days. The graves of fallen heroes, the graves of long-gone kin and the grave of a love far from here.
She’s wanted to see Graceland since she was a little girl, the blond-headed, thin little girl in the pictures. It was the home of the man who made Momma and Daddy tap their toes and made her aunts swoon and made her brothers shake their legs and curl their lips, trying to mimic him and win girls. She and her twin sister Josie watched the movies and the TV specials, had the toys and posters, and knew every word to the songs before their mother would let them cross the street.
But for the twins, hearing and seeing Elvis Presley wasn't the same as it was for everyone else — it was like a visit from Uncle Hound Dog. Hound Dog looked just like Elvis and could sing and dance and play the guitar just the same. When they first saw Elvis, they thought it was Uncle Hound Dog — who at the time was still Uncle Huey and wouldn't be named Hound Dog, after the Elvis song, for a few more years. They asked their father how he got on TV.
Uncle Hound Dog never came around because he was in prison out on the edge of Waycross. The state of Georgia said he killed his wife. But the twins never believed it. They, like the rest of the family, believed Hound Dog’s story that he only picked up the gun to clean it, not to put the bullet through her after he found she’d been with another man. The gun just went off, he said. The state gave him a life sentence.
In pictures, he's shown in clouds of cigarette smoke, with a smile to take any girl's heart, with hair slicked back in oil and family crowding around him with their faces lit by the sun hanging low over the prison yard. She and Josie loved him. So much so that when Elvis died in 1977, they cried as hard as they did when Hound Dog died in prison years later. As long as Elvis was alive, Uncle Hound Dog was with them: visible, audible, living free in the mansion in Memphis and not in concrete and steel. But when Elvis died, the free part of Uncle Hound Dog died with him.
She says it again when we get out of the car at Graceland: “I can’t believe we’re here! After all this time! We’re here!”
I take her picture in front of the entrance sign. She hands me her cell phone and tells me to take another with it, so she can have it too. She’s so excited I think she might pop. I tell her she’s a beachball. She smiles. This is what we came for.
Years ago, she made me promise to come here with her someday. And I always said I would. When? “Maybe next year.” It was always “next year.” But now “next year” has finally come. And now with every step through the parking lot, we’re closer and closer. Closer to the airplane, closer to the horses, closer to the Cadillac, closer to that little blond-headed girl’s crisp memories of sitting next to Josie with the man shaking his hips on the TV and making Momma blush, back when everything was easy. And we’re closer to Hound Dog, too. The hours slip by.
“Ooh, Joshua, look at the chandelier! And the dinner table! And the walls. Ooh,” she says, walking through the foyer and dining room. “This is so cool!” she says, slipping through the green-carpet-covered hallway to the Jungle Room. The dingy headphones are planted firmly on her ears. She listens to the announcer guide us through the house. She dances along with the music. She smiles. She laughs. She’s giddy like the girl in the pictures. She grabs my arm and pulls me along faster. We pass the billiard table, the kitchen, the TV room, the showcases, the cars, the posters, the awards, the office out back, the horse stables and on and on.
Then, in the Racquetball Room, we finally find him. Hound Dog after all this time. The announcer in the headphones is talking about the silver and gold records on the walls and telling the story of the last live concert TV special: “Elvis in Concert.”
“I remember watching that,” she says. “It was so sad.” The special aired two months after Elvis was found himdead at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977. She remembers Aug. 16, 1977, too. That was the day Uncle Hound Dog might as well have been dead.
She takes off the headphones. "I can't listen to that anymore," she says, tears welling in her eyes. We go for the door.
We walk across the sidewalk from the Racquetball Room, and she sits on a bench on the edge of the Meditation Garden. She says she needs to rest. We've been here for hours, walking, talking, looking and laughing. But it's been too much. She can't go like she used to.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I just get so tired now. I don't know what it is."
"Well, don't feel bad about it," I say. "I'm tired too."
"I feel so old," she says, her eyes filling back up. I sit across from her and light a cigarette. We wait a few minutes and walk over to the final stop.
Amid the loose roses and handmade sprays of lilies and heather, are the graves: Elvis, his mother Gladys, his father Vernon and a marker for his stillborn twin brother Jesse Garon. Jesse's body is 100 miles away in a graveyard in Tupelo, Mississippi, but she sees the stone for the infant twin and he could be here. She looks at it. She reads it. She stares into it, and I know her thought. She's thinking about Elvis without his twin. And maybe Josie without hers.
We overslept this morning, and now, we’re late to the next stop. We’d been out late at Coletta's Italian Restaurant, another Memphis institution — one where they named the waiting room after Elvis, because he’s said to have liked the barbeque pizza so much. Now I'm short with her. I'm frustrated to be late, and she's still not ready.
I get up and go out to smoke on the balcony above the guitar-shaped pool. I listen to songs play over the loudspeaker, every one Elvis and every one right somehow. I never cared much for Elvis growing up. He was a man seated firmly in the memories of my kin, a man whose house became a kind of a mecca for the women in my family, and a man who my great Aunt Pearl loved so much that when she made one of her many pilgrimages to Graceland, her sister caught her plucking fibers from couches and picking up oak leaves in the driveway. But I never understood why he was so important. Standing there on the hotel balcony, though, I hear “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a song Paul Simon wrote, with Elvis’s rich baritone sliding into a tenor, then back lower. I feel something in my chest, I smile, and I know they were all right. There was something about this man. And if I could hear Hound Dog sing it, it’d mean even more.
I go back inside and see her still getting ready. We’re late enough that I worry we’ll miss the next stop altogether. Service starts at 11:30 sharp, and it’s long past that. But she swears it’ll be fine. So we go.
The band is all I could've hoped for. The keys bounce and drawl, the drums thunder and stir, the bass swaggers, the guitar brings Memphis soul back from forgotten obscurity, and the choir, handsome in flowing white robes with green trim, sings the praise of God straight toward heaven.
She’s never been much of an Al Green fan. But my father was. He came of age in the mid-1970s in Athens, a wide-framed 18-year-old running back who fit in fast with his black teammates and took to their music. His peers from Jesup played Waylon and Willie and Glen Campbell, but the songs that made my father sing were from the Temptations and Percy Sledge and the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Many of my first memories take me to his paneled Ford station wagon, driving through Waycross, listening to his old soul songs on the radio as he sang along, rising with the falsetto and booming with the bass.
“Dadgummit, I can’t hit that note like I used to,” he’d say, snapping his fingers in an "almost-had-it" kind of way. Back then I didn't love those old songs like I do now. Now they make me think of him. And they do for her too.
So we’re here. The Rev. Al Green’s church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle. It’s smaller than I’d imagined and only seats about 100 people. But they’re a good 100 people. Elderly women praying softly to themselves and crying out in rapture, drawing their folded handkerchiefs and dog-eared Bibles like blades against the devil. Elderly men nodding along — amen, amen—until the Word touches them and they’re shouting in praise, with sweat beading on their foreheads. Young people and children sitting calmly and quietly as they listen to the message hurled like a ball of cleansing fire from the pulpit. And the band searching for and teasing at the notes of a long-forgotten hymn, until they find it and everybody sings. Here, the hymnals stay dusty and worn in the back of the pews. These people know the words.
We come in almost an hour late, but it doesn't seem to matter. An hour in and Green hasn’t even come out yet. Men and women from the congregation give fiery testimony gleaned from day-to-day life and lifetimes of heartache and sin. They tell about sickness and sadness and death and carrying on in spite of it all, as sweat pours from their faces and they pause, breathing deep to stop the coming tears.
They stop their tears, but she can’t stop hers. She looks at me. “Your daddy would love this,” she says, smiling with her eyes wet. She’s glad we came. She feels something here. This is what we came for.
Green finally comes out, with the band roaring his entrance number. He’s dressed well in a black puffing robe with flowing golden seams. His smile is wide and his feet are fast. He shuffles across the blood-red carpet in the pulpit, down the steps to the floor, around the "Do This in Remembrance of Me" table and back up the other side. The congregation in their ornate hats and shining suits jump and scream and sing and lift their hands to the sky.
After some 15 minutes of welcome and praise, Green starts the sermon. He too talks of sin and loss and pain and carrying on. He talks of his past sins and failures. He talks of taking God's gifts and "stirring them up." He says, “If you're a teacher, you can teach. If you're a soul-searcher, you can soul-search.” It begins as a simple, quiet message. Just Green’s words. But as his voice rises and falls, the keys begin to follow his tone. They rise with him, and the drummer hits a lone cymbal, and the djembe player taps out a rat-tat-tat. The band slowly floods in until they're wailing and Green is screaming into the mic. "Stir up the gift!" he yells. "Stir up the gift, you've got to stir it up! Stir it up!" The congregation is jumping and hollering again, with their hands up and thanks to God pouring from their lips. And she can't stop smiling.
We talk and talk about the service at lunch. She calls Josie to tell her all about it. They laugh together. We finish the late lunch and get on the road. Twenty minutes down I-40, she asks me to pull over. She climbs in the backseat and lies down to sleep. I stand on the roadside and smoke a cigarette. I look out into a field of weeds and rock, with the sun settled on the horizon like an ending. We get back on the road, driving east on the road that rises and falls with the curve of the land and pushes through a mountain. The trees and brush slide by outside the window. The sun is low now. But not gone.
“How long to Nashville?” she calls out sleepily from the back.
“About six hours,” I answer.
She says OK and nestles back into her covers to rest for the next grave. Her father looked just like Hank Williams, and Elvis used to go to Nashville too.
Waycross, Georgia, December 15, 2012
Everyone remarks on the picture. It’s her at Sun Studios in Memphis, singing into a microphone that, they say, Elvis once sang into. Her face is beaming, silly and happy and satisfied all at once. Just before it was taken, she had to sit down on a piano bench in the studio to listen to the tour guide’s speech. She looked at me and said she was sorry. I laughed. “You really don’t have to be sorry to me. Sit. It’s fine.” The guide pulled out the mic and told about its history and the hands that touched it and the breath that blew into it and offered to let everyone come up and have a picture with it. She looked at me, still sitting. Here’s the smile. She jumped up and grabbed the mic.
“That was just in November,” I tell them proudly.
“Was it?” they ask in disbelief. “She looked so good.”
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