(“Mother Mary Commutes to Memphis” first appeared in The Pinch)
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White robes squashed against blue-swirled upholstery, wads of chewing gum lined on a fuzzy armrest. The salty smell of boxed fried chicken mixing with diesel exhaust, music whining from a teenage boy’s Walkman.
Mother Mary was commuting to Memphis.
Well, what goes around comes around. She’d had to listen—frozen smile—a thousand times while Gabriel told it: “Naz-areth! Naz-areth!”
Sometimes it didn’t pay to be in the inside, inside group.
At least she’d prepared—Gabriel, trying to memorize the Aramaic, had told her, “For you will bear a wig, and He will be called Most Dry.” She had sat down with Elvis, talked to the man before she’d landed on the Greyhound.
Little c’s head drooped, sagged onto MM’s shoulder. Her “Travel with a Friend,” two-for-one-ticket pal. Fast asleep, like a college student on spring break. MM folded her hands, wedged them under the cherubim’s cheek, let the drool run down her fingers, across her wrist bone.
Outside the window, the Mississippi Delta crept by. Her one request—to see “God’s Country.” A lot of blue, lots of green, but mostly the souls shimmering in the thinned, winter air. Flickering silver, God’s grace laid on top of misery, ecstasy.
MM sighed, fully aware of her Directive: “Keep it simple down there.”
Trapped by the Greyhound schedule, they had arrived early—mid-afternoon—and needed a room, but the desk clerk was giving them the evil eye, what with MM looking like a young nun and Little c so gorgeous in his curly black hair and long legs. Something to think about, but MM wandered back to the seating area, the yellow vinyl, the squat, armless chairs.
Tears coated her eyes. The Heartbreak Hotel.
“Replicas,” Little c said, dropping their bags beside her.
“Imbuing. Replicas become real.” She knelt, ran her hand along the short wooden legs, sat down so that the small of her back curved into the chair. And, sitting, she lifted through the need, the want, the life that began with sunlight peeping through cracked boards and gave way to red brick on cold sidewalks, the life of without that had bled love into the chair and the mirrors and the glossy deep of the ebony table.
MM pressed her back against the yellow vinyl, kicked her feet onto the coffee table. Made Little c fidget while she swayed her arms through the excitement, the frenzy, the glowing that whiffed through it all.
After all, Message aside, the only reason she was here was for Elvis.
Little c picked up the bags, waited at the elevator for her to push the button.
MM poked her head into the bar. The greasy smell of fried banana swirled around metal lunchboxes waiting on plastic shelves. Overload. She folded into the group at the elevator, clamped a hand onto Little c’s sleeve.
The bell dinged.
A man with a Karaoke machine held the door.
MM and Little c stepped on, wedged into the ordinary people.
Little c squared MM’s suitcase on the bag rack, slipped his own into the closet, then clicked the channel changer to 24-Hour Elvis movies, watched for a minute. A woman in tight red pants hopped across the screen. “He had nice leading ladies,” Little c said. “Big hair. Tight butts.” The picture shifted, and Elvis cheek-to-jowled it with a blonde.
MM knelt on the covers, studied the image of Elvis framed over the bed. Just the face, in black and white.
“I don’t know, Ma’am,” Elvis had said when they’d talked, his face soft with the lines of a young man. “They just liked me. I sang pretty good,” he said and melted into the weeping countenance of a Las Vegas nightclub act.
You never knew what you were going to get when you ran into Elvis. Black, White, Mexican, Japanese—once even Jewish, reminding MM of the olive oil and dried fish of her mom’s house. The Adoring were the ones causing the shifts—they’d rocked and rolled Elvis for almost twenty-five years now. Just during the short time of MM’s pre-descent visit, Elvis had shrunk to a baby-faced four year old, his sideburns morphing to plastic, then he’d cratered into a middle-aged Swedish man, balding with glasses, singing, “Hund Dog.”
Finally, he had excused himself to suffer alone the embarrassment of breasts. Jangled was what he was. Not like MM, who had looked down one day to see a rosary entwined on her wrist and a look of pure love settled on her face, and hadn’t changed since.
MM reached, traced Elvis’s full lips, the slightly open mouth, the lazy smile.
Little c sat beside her, jiggling the bed. She sank back on her heels.
“Did you remember the toothpaste?”
Little c stretched his wings, stifled a yawn. “I remembered the toothpaste.”
“How much did you bring?”
MM lay down on the bed, practiced opening her mouth slowly, smiling radiant.
Little c moved closer to the TV, traced the hourglasses of the starlets. Electricity jumped from his fingertip onto the screen.
MM had the Message. It had to be delivered. And she had the Directives. They had to be followed. Other than that, the Messenger had a lot of leeway in doing his or her job. Too much, really, because Message and Directives didn’t supply context. That was left for the
Messenger to figure out as part of the task.
Elvis had told MM about Graceland, described it all, but she needed to see for herself, so she and Little c had been through the house five times, not counting the one time through the plane and the car exhibit. But something wasn’t right.
“Cross back,” she said.
They stepped onto Elvis Pressley Boulevard. Cars swerved, didn’t slow.
The souvenir shops flashed pink across the asphalt.
Little c pulled MM against the curb, pressed the Crosswalk button. A man in a diamond print shirt joined them, waiting. Then came a young woman with straight red hair, deep and glossy with dye, and two middle-aged women, tired feet shifting in their tennis shoes. A young girl and her boyfriend, both pierced, gathered at the tail of the group, speaking Russian. A child ran down the sidewalk ahead of his parents, a baby ferret in his arms sniffing the evening air.
MM’s visits didn’t always go well. There had been that time at the nursing home, MM praying with Mrs. Howell, reading from the Bible. MM visited three times, one time taking a plant. Except Mrs. Howell had been on the other side of the curtain, listening to the stories, watching her roommate get the plant. “Didn’t you hear the nurse call that other woman Mrs. Howell?” Little c had asked, leaving MM to figure out how to retrieve the plant. But Little c had said, “I’m not going back.”
And that had been in domestic Dayton. Here she was in Memphis, standing on one of the weak spots in the Earth’s crust, full of seismic hazards. Not to mention the weird magnet, buried so shallow below the asphalt on Union. Evocation was likely.
The light glinted red, a hand flipped them across the street.
The group spread, waded onto the Boulevard.
MM bought some postcards and Elvis stamps, dropped a note to the Sacred Mail Box. Little c thought MM was wandering, unfocused, but, the truth was, the souvenir shops seemed to be the place. Dust motes hovered above black tee shirts. Racks twirled like Ezekiel’s chariot spinning on its wheels. A cookie jar—lid lifted—gurgled, “How Great Thou Art.”
“Take your time.” Little c was tapping his foot, the knobs of his wings huffing a little across his back. “After all, our Absolute Deadline isn’t until August.”
“Don’t use the smile.” But Little c had already calmed, his face stilled into a beatific mat. “I’ll be over at the coffee mugs,” he said, and turned sideways to walk the aisle, forgetting that his wings were clasped inside.
Nightlights, car tags, sugar shakers. MM had seen the same souvenirs in every shop they’d been in. And every one of them had the same alternating photos of Elvis, as though he’d lived his life in one, two poses. It made no sense—she knew the jagged images that fuzzed Elvis’s afterlife, left his facial movements a beat or two off from what he was saying. MM fingered a sweatshirt stamped with an Elvis in a white winged batsuit. Two racks over, a nylon jacket toted the same head-bowed image. There was no way the blandness in these shops could’ve produced the sympacato, multi-global, life-hopping man she’d left upstairs.
But one thing MM knew—in the question was the answer, for it had been her question, “How can this be?” that had jump-started poor ol’ Gabriel.
The shoppers around MM milled and touched, pondered and chose. An Asian man tried on a leather jacket, twisted in front of a full-length mirror to see Elvis crooning on his back. An older guy opened a box of candy, listened to Elvis insist, “Love me tender, love me,” then replaced the lid, laughed and slapped his knee, and opened the lid again. A white woman—alone—hugged an Elvis Teddy Bear.
How little they had to work with.
And how much they transformed.
Little c tapped MM on the shoulder, pointed to the swinging legs of an Elvis clock. “Anointed time.”
MM stared at the swinging legs, remembered the cold skin pressing her lips, the pleading eyes, the tender spot of affection calling, “Good luck, Ma’am.” Her task was to deliver the Message, but to do it right, she had to hear from a different ear. And that different ear was filling with prayer—sung—trombones and drums, a boy’s piccolo. The swaying cicadas of Memphis summers and the snip of hair cut with kitchen shears. The buzz of the microphone, the rattle of peanuts shaken from a jar. And shaken. And shaken, to bedroom slippers slapping against a hardwood floor. The lid of a toilet dropped. The silence of sickness drawing the jaw.
Vanquished trends. Current visions rolling and flowing into newly-frocked chatter. There were all only edges, filaments circling the stone.
Little c caught up, followed.
Outside, on the sidewalk beside the souvenir shops, before you got to the Boulevard and the house, in front of the snaking line waiting for the last day’s tour, MM smiled. The folds of her robe spread to royal blue. The scent of roses smoked the air.
The crowd, already in the mood, twinged.
Little c folded his hands in prayer, elbows out, and unfurled his wings.
MM spoke. “Forget not your deliverance.”
A man, binoculars hanging from his neck, stepped forward. “Deliverance from what?”
“Boredom,” said MM. “The sameness of steaming laundry. The irritant of frostbite. The daily rodents scurrying, dropping brown pellets as they run. Just the same old daily irritants of life.”
“And lank hair and butts big as Alice,” added Little c.
MM shot him a look.
He shrugged. “I had my own Message.”
MM shook her head, turned back to the crowd. “In your imaginings, forget not your deliverance.” She smiled. “Forget not the boy.”
Simple, she thought.
Little c took her hand.
They aligned and ascended, MM preparing what she would say to the boy inside the stuttering images.