THE KING AND I

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Wendy Hodge

By WENDY HODGE

A package came in the mail today. Thriftbooks has sent me the book that’s been on my wish list for quite a while now. The package is oversized, and sealed so securely that it takes both hands and a chainsaw to finally open it. And there it is — The Elvis Presley Solid Gold Memories Scrapbook. Elvis’s young face with his crooked smile looks up at me, and I am lost in those eyes.

The book is heavy, soft-covered, larger than a novel and filled with photographs (both staged and candid) of the legend’s life, with an emphasis on the younger years. Let’s face it — the later years weren’t so pretty to look at.

But this is no ordinary book; not for me, anyway. Just opening the cover takes me back to the summer of 1977. It’s been 41 years since I first held a copy of this book in my hands, and yet it feels as if no time has gone by at all.

That was a watershed summer in my young Southern-girl life. My granddaddy was sick … my granddaddy, who was larger than life, stronger than Samson and braver than Batman, was lying in a bed out in their country home. We spent a good part of every day that June, July and August — my aunt and cousin, my mother and I — in that house. The adults cooked meals and fed their dad while my cousin and I drifted listlessly outside in the baking sun and then back into the stillness of a house that’s slowly losing the man who built it.

I loved my granddaddy, but I feared him as well. He was a state trooper, and he carried himself like one. His hands were massive, and you could see how easily he could wield them as weapons. But he was only ever gentle with us. He gardened with those hands and petted his beloved dog. His artificial leg was an endless source of curiosity, like when you’re having a conversation with someone who has a bit of food stuck in their teeth and you can’t seem to focus on anything else — that was my relationship with the few inches of pink plastic limb that peeked out when he sat down and his pant leg rode up. I would stare until I shivered.

He never showed discomfort with the absence of his leg. In fact, it was never mentioned. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned that he lost that leg when he was protecting a school yard full of children from a rabid dog. The dog lunged, and he fired off two shots. One killed the dog, and the other killed his right leg from the knee down.

He was a skilled craftsman who could build anything. He could also take a plant that looked as if it had died a month earlier and have it producing fruit inside a week. He just had that touch. But he was not the kind of man who hugged his grandkids or took us fishing. He was quiet and felt most at home with his own private thoughts.

I think that was why I feared him. I loved him, but I knew instinctively that he was far more important to me than I was to him. So I held myself at a distance, much like the offspring of a very brave king.

Illness had shrunken him, the way it often does. He looked small and lost, and it felt like an invasion of his privacy when I looked at his face. Each day he got smaller and less present. It was Aug. 15 when my granddaddy stopped breathing. There was no fanfare or outbursts from any of us who were there. There was, instead, an exhalation. It was as if the vitality was gone from inside those walls. The house would, indeed, never feel the same again. A very large presence leaves a huge hole behind.

The next day, my aunt drove my cousin and I to the store. It was an errand meant to fill time — something we did because we honestly did not know what else to do. My mother was handling the arrangements. The rest of us were left to wade through the aftershock that is the beginning stage of grief.

The radio was playing as it always did in my aunt’s car. And then there was an interruption with breaking news. Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, had died suddenly that morning. I’d heard his name and his music, but I was only nine years old. I had not reached the age of cultivating a style of music that was my own preference. I was still at the mercy of whoever’s hand drove the car and tuned the radio. So this news didn’t strike me the way it did my aunt. She was a diehard Elvis fan. She’d been to more than one of his live concerts, had every record he’d ever made, and had seen his movies more than once. Her prize possession, in fact, was a scarf Elvis himself had tossed to her during one of those concerts.

“He wiped his forehead with it before he threw it to me, so it has his very own sweat on it. Elvis’s sweat!” She had told me that story often, each time with rounded eyes and a slap-happy grin that I associated with Christmas morning and the last day of school.

As the radio crackled on, my aunt put on the blinker and pulled off onto the shoulder of the road. She began to cry, silently at first with her face in her hands. This escalated to sobs and progressed to wails – shoulder-shaking, nose-running, flat-out hysterical shrieks of grief. She was having a come-apart right there on Opelika Road at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning. My cousin and I sat slack-jawed, staring, absolutely riveted in place with awkward embarrassment, waiting and praying for this emotional storm to pass.

I was too young to understand that, for my aunt, the news of Elvis’s death gave her permission to grieve for the father she missed so much. It was as if a door had been opened for her, and she plunged across the threshold. That same door opened for me, and I felt my lips begin to quiver. All it took was for my aunt to reach into the back seat and pat my leg, and the dam burst. I wailed right along with her. My cousin, still slightly shocked, finally joined in. And so we sat there, the three of us, in a beat-up old Nova bawling like babies while one Elvis song after another filled the air.

Eventually we did make it back to the sad house in the country. We made it through the funeral and the days and weeks following that. Life became normal again – normal, but altered.

My birthday was the following month, and my aunt took me to lunch. Just the two of us. She had a gift she’d found that she thought would be perfect for me. And it was. When I opened The Elvis Presley Solid Gold Memories Scrapbook, I saw that face that had been all over the news for weeks. I saw how handsome he was, even if my little-girl heart couldn’t quite identify him as sexy. I saw what his fans saw. But I also saw my granddaddy – in the way they both carried themselves, so certain of their path and so comfortable in their uniqueness. Both of them untouchable for me, elusive and now forever gone.

And just like with my granddaddy, I couldn’t look away.

I don’t know what happened to that Elvis Presley Scrapbook, and that surprises me. I keep treasures, but somehow that one did not stay with me. But thanks to the miracle of the internet and ThriftBooks.com, I found one just like it. It’s even slightly worn around the edges. I think I’m going to let myself believe it’s the same one my aunt gave me way back in the summer of ’77.

I think the King would like that.

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