T. Evan Schaeffer
I DIDN’T GET out much that summer. July had come in with record heat and humidity throughout the Midwest, one of the hottest months in memory, and it was just too damn uncomfortable to do anything but work. This was just as well, I guess, since I was very busy with my job. I worked with computers as a troubleshooter, and that summer I was in great demand.
One week in July, though, there was a lull in my schedule, and it came at a good time, so I drove from Indianapolis to Springfield, Missouri, to see my two sisters. Their names were Franny and Julia. Franny was living in Springfield with her boyfriend, John Walker, and their young son, my nephew Elvis. Julia was staying at their house.
It was a strange group, and a strange time. My wife, who didn’t trust the air conditioner to make it all the way from Indianapolis, stayed behind at home. It was just as well. She considered my sisters to be criminals, practically. I knew they were harmless, but sometimes after a long period of marriage, it makes no sense any more to try to persuade a spouse to your point of view. That’s where I was with my wife that hot July.
The drive itself was uneventful, and the air conditioner held up well. Once in Springfield, I found Franny rushing out of the house with Elvis. “I have to run some errands,” she said. “Come along?” There was going to be a party that night, and she had to pick up some party things.
“Sure,” I said. I picked up Elvis and put him on my shoulders, and followed Franny to John Walker’s late-model Chevy. Elvis climbed in the back and quickly fell asleep.
About my nephew Elvis, what can I say? I loved the kid. He was eight years old, ready to start the third grade. I remember a time years ago, just after Elvis learned to walk, when Franny and John Walker would dress him up in a little black suit and parade him around town. “This is our boy, Elvis,” they’d say. “Put on your sunglasses, Elvis, and say hi.” When he was three, they tried to teach him to dance, to move his hips. But he never made any progress in that department. He grew up clumsy. He seemed dull-minded and couldn’t accomplish the most simple tasks. The toy sunglasses he wore when he was two were replaced at five with real glasses, the lenses thick as my little finger. About that time, Franny and John Walker seemed to lose interest in him, and when they went on their long trips to who knows where, they would drop Elvis at my home in Indianapolis and I would care for him. I took him out for frozen custard. I took him to church. It was all right with me if he didn’t say much. He was good company, and I understood how difficult it must have been living with his parents, my sister Franny and her boyfriend, John Walker.
They weren’t criminals, though. They just had an excess of personality. They lived on the north side of Springfield, where most of the people were down on their luck, in a white clapboard house with a fenced-in back yard. They called it the Heartbreak Hotel. The white-faced mutt that lived out back they called Hound Dog. When people heard these things and put two and two together, they understood that Franny and John Walker had a certain fixation that wouldn’t go away. It was something that defined them as individuals, I guess, but I found it difficult to understand.
It figured that they had met in San Francisco. John Walker was already an artist back then, or so he told people, and my sister Franny had been a waitress. They fell in love one night drinking beer in a local dive after Franny’s shift ended. And at some point in their relationship, sometime before Elvis was born, they decided to move to a smaller pond, where they could be bigger fish. They rented a U-Haul and moved across country to Springfield, Missouri, getting there in record time with Franny at the wheel, John Walker following in his Chevy.
What happened to us that night in Springfield began with Elvis asleep in the back seat of that same Chevy. He was turned off to the world, and this allowed Franny to say the things she said. “I’m really glad you came,” she started. “I need you here for this thing. Julia’s a nervous wreck. John is driving me crazy.”
“That’s something new?” I said.
“Julia’s having a strange effect on him. It’s been almost three months now that she’s been living with us.” She stopped talking and made a left turn, pulling hard at the wheel. When the car was headed straight again, she didn’t say anything.
“And something’s going on. Julia’s stirred something up. John’s restless. He’s talking about his career again.”
“You know, the art thing. Seeing Julia do those paintings has antagonized him. It’s nothing too serious, I don’t think. He’s just getting on my nerves.”
“You’re not telling me everything.”
“No, I guess I’m not,” was all that Franny said.
Our sister Julia was the tallest of the children, and thinner than the rest of us too, with black hair that hung to her shoulders. She was also the youngest — twenty-three. She had just recently returned from Greece, where she had been traveling for a year, and moved in with Franny because it was the easiest thing to do. Tonight she was showing her paintings at a gallery. It was her first art show, her artistic coming out, and that’s why I had driven all the way from Indianapolis in this heat. In retrospect, Franny told me, getting the show had been easy. Julia just took her portfolio of three or four paintings around to the local galleries, hinted that there were many others, and finally one of them agreed to do a show. Then she spent the next three weeks at Franny’s house, where she turned out painting after painting.
“She has forty now,” Franny said. “It’s a primitive style, so she can work fast. They’re all hanging at a gallery on Walnut Street, across from the Salvation Army.”
“Who’s coming to the house?”
“Friends. Different people.”
“And then we go to the show?”
“Yeah, after the party. I bought Julia a little present to remember the occasion. Look, I’m wearing it.” She faced it towards me, a little guitar pin stuck to her T-shirt. “Fender Stratocaster. 1954.”
“The year of my birth,” I said.
“She’s supposed to be getting dressed, and straightening the house. We have until six.”
We drove around town for another fifteen minutes, Franny stopping at the bakery, the quick shop, and so on, leaving the car with the engine running so Elvis could stay asleep while she ran inside.
Finally we headed back. “You’ll watch Elvis for me tonight?”
“Don’t I always?”
“You can start by getting him dinner. He’ll want a hot dog and chips.”
“Okay,” I said. “I can do that.”
Franny parked the Chevy on the street next to the Heartbreak Hotel, directly behind my car. From high in the Chevy, my little car looked foreign and boxlike, distinctly out of place. It didn’t belong there, parked alongside the weathering, yellow house. I didn’t belong there, either.
From behind the chainlink fence, Hound Dog started barking. And in the back seat of the Chevy, my nephew Elvis stirred. I heard his cheek separating from the sticky vinyl as he sat up.
“Is it morning yet?” he asked.
Inside the house, we found Julia pacing back and forth in the kitchen, still in her slip, not doing any noticeable cleaning. I took a step onto the white linoleum, then backed up so that she wouldn’t see me yet. It was a surprise that I came — Franny and I hadn’t told her in advance.
“Aren’t you just the princess,” Franny said, “parading around like that with John in the house.”
I took this as my cue and walked into the kitchen, holding a sack that Franny had given me to carry in. “And with your brother here, too.”
Julia ran over and threw her arms around my neck. “You’re here!” she said. “I’m so happy.” She held me for a long time, hugging me tight until I started to feel uncomfortable and backed away. “Welcome to the USA,” I said, my hands on her shoulders. “I’m glad you made it back safely.”
“But you knew I would?”
“I had my doubts.”
Near the center of the kitchen was a cheap-looking metal dinette, rectangular with rounded edges, a type of gold glitter decorating its surfaces. I set my bag down, took a beer from Julia, and began helping put the things away. We crowded most of the things onto a shelf in a pantry, beneath the one that held the breakfast dishes, fragile-looking pink and green cups, saucers and plates that looked like the ones we had in our home when I was young.
The dinette and dishes were typical of how Franny’s house was furnished. It was decorated in period style, most everything dating to the 1950’s. Even the toaster was a period piece, a bloated metal box with big black knobs for lowering the toast inside. On the wall, a lighted sign that advertised a drink called Champale changed colors from red to green and back again.
“Don’t worry,” Franny was telling Julia. “They’ll love you. I was talking to the cashier at the Git ‘N’ Go. She doesn’t read the paper and didn’t know about the show. But she loves you anyway.”
“That’s where I buy my cigarettes,” Julia said.
She must have forgotten already I was there, because after she said it, she looked around at me and smiled sheepishly.
“You’re smoking now?” I asked her.
“I learned it in Greece. It helps to clear my head sometimes.”
The older I got, the more difficult it was to keep up with my sisters. I wandered into the living room. The period items had been collected by Franny and John Walker, who cruised the flea markets and estate sales on Saturdays. The room contained a sofa and matching chairs that were a dingy yellow and built very close to the ground. No longer in good condition, they were used up, and if you had the courage to sit there, you found yourself nearly on the floor. Black and white photographs and gaudy religious art hung on the walls.
The only thing their home lacked was a bomb shelter out in the backyard with Hound Dog. But when I had told them this once on an earlier visit as a joke they didn’t understand and just stared at me. They’re both young, Franny and John Walker, both 27 years old. Neither was alive in the 1950’s. Once born, both missed the Cold War by virtue of not taking much interest in it.
When I went to get another beer, Julia had put on a red dress, and she was complaining to Franny that she looked like a floozy. “Anything to promote your work,” Franny said. This made the girls crack up. I wasn’t sure if there was a hidden meaning to their laughter that I didn’t know about, and was trying to decide whether I should ask when Elvis, probably hearing the laughter, walked into the room. “Want to play the food game with me?” he asked.
“Don’t bother Uncle Tom, sweetie,” Franny said. “He just got here.”
“Will you do it with me, the food game?”
I picked up my beer and followed him into the living room, where we sat on that dingy yellow sofa and played the food game.
“I’ll start,” Elvis said. “What kind of food are you?”
I pretended to consider the question. “I’m a pizza,” I said finally.
“Do you have cheese, or not?” Elvis asked.
“I have cheese.”
“You’re a pizza with cheese. Do you have pickles, or not?”
“I don’t have pickles,” I said.
“You’re a pizza with cheese, but without pickles. Do you have pepperoni, or not?”
“I do have pepperoni.”
“You’re a pizza with cheese and pepperoni, but without pickles.” Here Elvis sat forward on his knees, getting ready to leap at me, because this was how the game was played. “Hmmm,” he said. “You sound pretty good. I think I’m going to eat you up.” Then he pounced, taking my body into his little arms, pressing his mouth against my neck, pretending to take bites out of my pizza flesh. He was giggling uncontrollably, really having a great time. It was a game I had invented for him when he was two or three, but he still got a giant charge out of it, and I was willing to oblige him.
Elvis giggled until we were interrupted by shouting from upstairs. “What’s that racket? Hold it down.”
It was John Walker, who I hadn’t seen since I’d arrived. “How you doing, John?” I loudly called back.
There was no response. Elvis climbed down off my lap. “That’s just my Daddy,” he said. “He’s upstairs.”
“I know.” I reached out and messed up his hair.
Franny carried a bowl of pretzels into the living room and sat down on the sofa. “I’m the only one around here who’s ready for the party.”
“I’m ready for the party.”
“Well, I wasn’t counting you.” She picked up a pretzel and, holding it carefully in her fingers, bit into it with her teeth.
I would have liked to turn on a TV then, in order to check out the day’s sporting events, but there was no TV at the Heartbreak Hotel, since Franny and John Walker hadn’t been able to find a working set from the 1950’s. You had to admit that they remained true to their vision of the world. From upstairs, I distinctly heard a drawer open and slam shut. Then I heard footsteps going in the direction of the steps. “Hey, where’s my little pistol?” John Walker called out from the second floor, his voice echoing in the empty space of the staircase.
“Let’s ignore him,” Franny said, smiling at Elvis. “You don’t know where your Daddy’s pistol is, do you?”
She was guessing he’d say no, I think, which would impress upon me that she wasn’t as bad a parent as I often complained she was. But Elvis said, “Sure I do. On the shelf in your room.”
“Well, we’ll tell him later.”
In a few moments John Walker came bouncing down the stairs. He was wearing a black suit exactly like the one they used to dress little Elvis up in. His hair, which was always either very long or very short depending on his mood that year-that is, whether he felt more like a rebel or a gangster — was currently in the short gangster mode. He headed towards us, fumbling with something under his jacket.
“Found it,” he said. “I’m happy to tell you, babydoll, that I’m packing the piece tonight.”
“No, you’re not,” Franny said. “You’re leaving it here.”
“Got to watch out for the family.”
“It’s an art show, for God’s sake.” I could see her trying to hold her temper, to be patient with John Walker. You had to be, since at any moment he might go off. “You won’t need to be killing anybody.”
“It feels good under here,” he said, patting the little bulge on the left side of his jacket. Then he let his arms drop to his side and stood there proudly. “It’s kind of romantic, carrying a gun to your sister’s art show. Don’t you think?”
“Put it away, sugarplum.” Now her tone was stern, no-nonsense.
He stood there, looking at her crossly, then turned his head to hold me for a moment in his gaze. Then he looked back at Franny. “Oh, all right,” he said finally and turned to go back upstairs.
“You go with him,” Franny whispered to Elvis, pushing him forward off the sofa. “Watch what he does with it.”
“But don’t touch it,” I said.
“That’s right. Never touch your Daddy’s gun.” Franny sat back again on the sofa as Elvis scurried off. “What a life,” she said and bit into another pretzel.
When Elvis returned, he reported to his mother. “It’s on the shelf again,” he said. “Now Daddy’s taking another nap.”
“Good. That’ll keep him out of the way.”
I went into the kitchen to refill the pretzel bowl. There was now a large spread of snack food on the counter, which Julia must have put together, and this reminded me that I was supposed to feed Elvis. I returned the pretzel bowl to the living room. Then I had Elvis follow me back into the kitchen. He sat down at the dinette and I gave him some paper and a pen so that he could doodle while I made him dinner.
“Excited about the party?” I asked him. I found a saucepan in the cabinet and filled it with water to boil for hot dogs.
“There’s a cat at the gallery I want to see.”
“Yeah. I saw it when we went to hang up the pictures.”
“Her name’s Tabatha,” Franny called from the living room.
“Yeah, Tabatha.” At the table, Elvis sat on his knees, hunched over his paper. He gripped the pen in his hand with his fist, holding it perpendicular to the paper, and made small circular motions.
“Do your teachers let you hold your pen like that?”
“It’s July,” Elvis said. “I’m on summer vacation.”
“Your teachers last year, in second grade.”
“I didn’t use a pen last year. I used a pencil.”
I started to explain, then stopped. When the hot dogs were ready, Elvis handed me his drawing so that I could it tape it on the refrigerator with some others. We ate our dinner together at the table, and by the time we were finished and I had cleaned up the mess, the first guests were beginning to arrive.
As it turned out, the party was a success. The idea was to allow a few special friends to congratulate Julia in private before adjourning to the gallery and mixing in with the larger crowd there. Mostly everyone stood around drinking beer and talking about art and local politics. John Walker made a brief appearance and talked too loudly, as if he’d already had too much to drink. Some people avoided him, but others, who I judged to be his friends, were willing to muck it up with him. Then about twenty minutes after he’d come downstairs I saw him talking to Franny in the kitchen, and he looked suddenly angry and left out the back door. I could hear it slam. After this episode, Franny walked into the living room with Julia.
Both were holding drinks and smiling. “A toast to Springfield’s newest artist!” Franny said.
From all corners of the room, people turned towards Julia and raised their glasses. I did too. “Here, here,” I said.
In her red dress, standing an inch above everyone else in her heels, Julia truly looked to be the center of attention. “I think I need a cigarette,” she said.
“Tell her what to expect,” someone called out. It was a pretty girl in a white dress, sitting on the floor with her back against the front door. Her legs were crossed in front of her, and she wore cowboy boots.
“Well,” Franny said to Julia, “let me tell you. You’ll do a lot of standing around looking smart and pretty. People will come up to you and tell you how wonderful your paintings are. Hopefully, some of them will back up their kind words with cash, and walk out of the gallery with a picture.”
“Should she ask them to buy one?” the girl in the white dress added. It seemed like Franny and she had been through this routine before, and were now doing it for the benefit of the crowd, as a kind of entertainment.
“No, she should act like she doesn’t care either way,” Franny said to the girl in the white dress. Then she looked again at Julia, who was smiling self-consciously as if they were all singing her happy birthday. “You’re an artist,” Franny told her, “and you experience life in a higher realm, one that doesn’t include things like money.”
“Remind you of someone?” said one of the partygoers. “Like, maybe John?”
“That’s it!” Franny said, and then they all laughed. This surprised me. I thought I was the only one who saw John Walker leave, but it was apparent everyone knew it. When the laughter stopped, Franny said, “So anyway, Julia, I’ll handle the transactions. If someone hands you a check, act grateful and surprised, like you’re discovering the concept of cash for the first time.”
Finally Julia spoke. She wasn’t smiling any longer. “If it’s all so simple, why am I so tense?”
“That’s easy,” said the girl in the white dress. “Because you’re hoping for lots of money.”
“So you can pay your sister rent,” said someone else, and another great laugh went up, because the entire speech had been a joke about how Julia was broke, and everyone knew it, everyone recognized how the sentiment about art being more important than money was just nonsense, at least today, at least to Julia.
A few minutes later, Franny asked me where Elvis was. “Wandering around, I think.”
“Can you help him get Hound Dog some water? It’s time to go.”
“Sure,” I said. I was already on my third beer, a sign, I suppose, I was apprehensive in this big crowd of people I didn’t know. Since the party began I had been listening to the conversations for any mention of computers, at which point I resolved to jump in, but I never heard the subject come up. Although I know a lot about computers, I didn’t know too much about painting, and nothing about local politics.
I put down my beer on the kitchen counter and got a soda out of the refrigerator and went to look for Elvis. He was in the unfinished room off the kitchen that led to the back door. It was supposed to be a breakfast room, I guess. Franny and John Walker hadn’t gotten to it yet, and it sat empty, boxes stored in a corner. Elvis was playing jacks on the floor.
“Jacks?” I said. “I didn’t know kids played jacks anymore.”
“I do,” Elvis said. He set the red ball on the floor and stood up. “Is it time to give the dog some water?”
“Yep. Let’s go.”
I wanted to talk to Elvis anyway. We went outside into the hot night air and stood at the top of the porch. The streetlamp that stood over the side street cast a white light that cut through the trees and made a pattern of light on the lawn. Hound Dog walked towards us from the back and sat down at the bottom of the porch steps.
“Hot, isn’t it?” I said to Elvis.
“Hey, my glasses are fogging!”
“It’s the humidity. Here, let’s sit for a minute on the porch.”
The neighborhood was still and quiet, which was odd. Normally you heard car doors slamming, people shouting, dogs barking. The heat must have driven everyone inside.
“Ever catch snakes back here?” I asked Elvis.
“Nah. I don’t like snakes.”
“Oh, they’re great,” I said. “If you know how to pick them up, they won’t hurt you.”
“My Daddy chops them up with a shovel.”
“Those little green snakes?”
“All snakes,” Elvis said. “We don’t like them much.” Elvis bent forward and twirled the laces of his tennis shoes in his finger.
“Will you do me a favor?” I asked him.
“Run back upstairs and check on your Daddy’s gun. Make sure it’s still there.”
“It is,” Elvis said.
“On the shelf?”
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
“It’s within view, so you can see it without having to touch it?”
“Sure,” Elvis said.
“Well, I want you to run upstairs and check on it again. Don’t touch it. Just see if it’s there.”
“You want to take it to the gallery?”
“No, I just want to make sure it stays upstairs, so that everyone has a good time tonight.”
We got Hound Dog some water, which he started right away to lap up, then went back inside. People were already leaving out of the front door. I went and stood with Franny, who was talking in a little group, and watched as Elvis made his way to the stairs. Then he went up, pulling on the banister with each step.
A few moments later, I started to move towards the kitchen, but didn’t make it before Elvis shouted, “It’s still there, Uncle Tom!” He stood about halfway down the steps, where he could see over everyone’s head.
“I could have told you that,” Franny said. “I already checked.”
I was embarrassed and cleared my throat. “Can’t be too cautious,” I said.
“I don’t even know if that thing works. He’s only shot it once. At the clock, not at me. I was late getting ready or something. It sure worked that time, though.”
“You should get that thing out of the house.”
“I oughta get myself out of the house,” Franny said.
“Where is he now?”
“Meeting with the Mayor. Or maybe it’s the Governor tonight. I can’t remember.”
“He’ll be there at the gallery?”
“Oh, sure. He wouldn’t miss it.”
“You want to finish what you were telling me in the car? About John?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. We might take another trip. Details to follow.” Franny bent down and smoothed her skirt. “Well, time to go. Let’s clear these people out of here.”
John Walker didn’t bring his pistol to the art show, although he did ruin it for Julia anyway. It could be that he was just behaving like an artist would, a little crazy, but without any evil intentions. I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t know at first what it was that had happened in the house with Julia living there, if anything, that might explain John Walker’s actions that night. I was an outsider to it all, and I didn’t think I had the authority, or the energy, or the wit to do anything after things got out of hand. Julia was clearly upset about what happened. I knew her very well at one time, better than anyone else, but people grow and change and move in different directions, and I think that was what was happening with Julia and me.
The art gallery was in a block of jewelry shops and restaurants in downtown Springfield. I parked at a meter on the opposite side of the street. A man wearing a suit pulled open the gallery door for a woman with braided hair, and they went inside. The sign above the door said simply “Art Gallery.”
“You ready?” I asked Elvis. He sat there in the seat next to me, trying to retie his shoelace, and I don’t know what he was thinking. He was a patient kid. You never heard him complain very much. It was hard to tell if he just hadn’t learned to assert himself, living in a household with so many strong personalities, or if he was genuinely satisfied with the things that happened around him. If I were a kid, I wouldn’t have been thrilled to be dragged to some art gallery to look at pictures hanging on a wall.
“Okay,” he said. “Now I’m ready.”
He took my hand and we crossed the street and went inside. The gallery was a simple rectangular room with white walls. The room was large, with enough floor space for a shop or small restaurant, and it wasn’t very crowded yet. I recognized people from the party, and saw both Franny and Julia, but everyone was either looking at the paintings or involved in a conversation, so I led Elvis around to see what we could see.
In a corner, a piano sat unused, and two people in uniforms stood next to it, handing out glasses of wine that were set out on a table. We started in that corner so I could get a glass, and in fact I got two because they were small. While we waited in line, Elvis said he wanted to hunt for the cat.
“Stay with me a few minutes before you run off,” I said.
I pulled him along. Each painting was centered on its own piece of the wall and was separately lit, and they went all the way around the rectangular room on three sides. I had been worried that I wouldn’t like Julia’s paintings, which I had never seen, and would have to lie to her that I did, but in fact they thrilled me. They all depicted something that I could recognize — mostly people, standing in front of a simple background — and were done in bright colors with bold strokes. Only a few seemed dark or depressing, and we stopped in front of one of these, a painting of an old-looking Greek woman with white hair. The title card said “Esther.”
Julia walked up behind us and looked over my shoulder. “That’s my first one since I got back,” she said.
“I love these. These are great.”
“Thanks.” She was holding a cigarette, and blew the smoke behind her, away from the wall. “You can see the effect that living with Franny and John has had on my subject matter.”
From where I stood, I glanced at the paintings. She was right. The Greek woman seemed out of place. All the rest adopted the 1950’s theme, like the inside of Franny’s house — I saw drive-ins, diners, and cheap motels, each serving as a backdrop to the people in the paintings. The reds and blues seemed to explode from the canvas, and I wondered how it was done.
“I like the way they’re set up in here,” Julia said. She touched the top of Elvis’s head. “You like them?”
“Pretty much.” He was looking between everyone’s legs for that cat. If the pictures bored him, it was no surprise. He was surrounded by this kind of imagery so much that he probably didn’t recognize that the paintings depicted a time long past. He was like a fish that didn’t know it was swimming in water.
“Why the 1950’s?” I asked Julia
“Just a device to show off the people in my paintings.”
It was clear that she couldn’t explain it either. Or maybe didn’t want to. The men in Julia’s paintings had crew cuts and wore white t-shirts. The women wore tight-fitting dresses, or in some cases, negligees. In one, a sad girl was leaning against a jukebox. These weren’t merely modern-day people transplanted to another time. They were authentic to their era, unique to the settings in which they were depicted. I thought it was the defining essence of Julia’s art.
“I sure would like to find that cat,” Elvis said.
We moved in front of a painting titled “Mom and Dad.” It was our Mom and Dad, sitting at a dinette like the one in Franny’s kitchen. “You did this from a photo?” I asked. I knew this was so since Julia hadn’t really known them — at least not as anything but a very little girl. In the painting, they both wore matching horn-rimmed glasses and sat expressionless, looking out of the painting in different directions.
“It was a black and white,” Julia said. “I found it in one of Franny’s drawers.” She fingered the little guitar pin that Franny had given her earlier that evening.
People were still coming in through the door, which banged shut loudly each time it was closed. “Well, better go mingle,” Julia said.
At this point, everything seemed well. The gallery was starting to fill up, the wine was holding out, everyone seemed happy. Even though there weren’t any sales yet as far as I could tell, it was at least something these people had bothered to show up, and were now looking at Julia’s paintings, taking the time to experience her personal vision. This must have been gratifying to her. Most people lived their entire lives without anyone ever taking them seriously, and for this to happen to Julia at twenty-three made me feel proud.
In a corner, John Walker and Franny were talking again. I thought that maybe this was what was missing from John Walker’s life — people taking him seriously. Watching him, I realized I didn’t know him very well, and didn’t know what he was capable of. These days he was working as a clerk in a convenience store. He was clearly smarter than that. But you could tell by the way he dressed and carried himself that he also had some other agenda.
I saw Franny nod her head, and John Walker laughing. I’m not sure whether he had already hatched his scheme, or whether it was something that just gradually evolved as events unfolded. I do know that without warning, he started walking towards Elvis and me. He was smiling and looking proud of himself. He gave Elvis a little pat on the back and then told me, “Well, there’s been a sale.”
It was obvious who the buyer was. “You?” I asked.
“Least I could do for Julia.” He was holding a sheet of small silver stars. “Yep, I bought old Esther. Want to put a star on her nameplate, Elvis?”
“Come on, I’ll show you. That’s how the other people will know it’s sold.”
At the time, it didn’t seem like such a bad development. But after Elvis attached the silver star, and John Walker brought him back to me, then hung around and kept talking, it began to seem like things were out of balance somehow. I can’t remember John Walker ever choosing to talk to me. Now, though, he was telling me Julia was the real thing, that he was glad he had had a chance to teach her a few tricks. In passing, he said that of course her style was derivative. I got a funny little jolt at that, hearing the word “derivative” from a convenience store clerk. Then he complained that the paintings were overpriced. “Most of them are three hundred dollars,” he said. “They’re not worth fifty.” And when Elvis started pulling on my arm, and John Walker wouldn’t leave even though I said we had to find the cat, it was obvious he was drunk.
“Know why I bought Esther?” he said. “Because it’s the worst of the group. I figure, if I’m going to buy one, buy the one that no one else is going to buy. That will leave the better ones for another sale.”
“It does make sense,” John Walker said. “Let me tell you something else. What’s going on in here, I was past this ten years ago. I once had a painting that someone was willing to pay thousands for, and I blacked over the canvas because it wasn’t true, the painting wasn’t true. Understand? That’s art. What’s going on in here — this is, I don’t know.” He struggled for a word. “Commerce.”
“If it pays the rent.”
“A true artist doesn’t give a shit about the rent.”
The point, I guess, was that art should be as much an attitude as it was a profession. I could accept that this might be true. But hearing it from John Walker made it seem comical, some kind of joke rather than true life. It had something to do with the way he dressed, the way he carried himself. In his black clothes, in the way he swaggered, he looked like a cheap imitation of something else. There was something lost between the intention and the way it came off, and the result was, I think, that people wanted to laugh at him, the way they did at Franny’s party.
On the other hand, John Walker also had a talent for hurting people, and sometimes seemed to get a big kick out of doing it. This was probably why you couldn’t write him off completely. Tonight, this was Julia’s dilemma.
“You know what I’m going to do?” he told me. “It just came to me. I’m going to buy some more paintings. I think I’ll buy five of them.”
He wandered off towards Franny. Then I saw him talking to her. At first, she was shaking her head, but then he was able to grab that little sheet of silver stickers from her hand. I saw him stomp purposefully around the outside of the room, stopping in front of some of the paintings and applying a star to the title cards. Franny went to a corner and huddled with Julia.
Elvis was watching this with me. “I thought I got to do the stickers,” he said.
“Why don’t you look for the cat now?” I was hoping he would leave, but he didn’t. He was gripping my hand, which meant that whenever I turned, he turned with me. I was turning so I could see John Walker. I watched him carefully apply a silver star to another set of paintings.
After he was finished, he found us again. “That felt good,” he said. “Five more.”
I didn’t know what to say. I glanced at Franny and Julia, who were still talking. I was thinking that one of them should do something. Then Julia broke away and crossed the floor towards us.
“What are you doing, John?” she whispered loudly. “What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s commerce, baby. I’m buying your paintings.”
“You can’t afford my paintings.”
“I couldn’t afford you, either,” he said. He said this with some bitterness, with some anger, though I didn’t know why or what it meant. No one else seemed to be paying any attention to what was going on.
“Whatever,” Julia said. “Could you just knock it off?”
“I’m doing you a favor. I’ll pay you, every cent.”
“Look. The money has no purpose if I can’t get it right away, this month. If you’re trying to help, I appreciate it. But I’m not going to have you buying my paintings.”
“It’s a free country.” John Walker looked at me. “Isn’t it a free country?”
I didn’t say anything. Elvis was listening, though. “It’s a democracy,” Elvis said.
“That’s right, son. A democracy. Right now, I’m feeling democratic. You’re in luck, Julia. I think I’ll buy five more.”
So John Walker set out again, and now it was clear his intent was to sabotage the entire event. At that time, I had no idea why, but it seemed sad and unfair that Julia had to experience this problem, whatever it was, on her big night. John Walker went around the room, hunching down a little before each painting, squinting at it, then placing the silver sticker on some of them. This gave the impression the paintings were selling, even though they weren’t. I suppose Franny or Julia could have stood up in the center of the room, on a stool or a chair, and explained the silver sticker no longer had any meaning, and that they should ignore the man in the dark clothes. This didn’t happen, of course. Their lives and destinies were all too closely intertwined that night. There was no escaping John Walker for Franny or Julia.
Instead, they came to me. “Do something, Tom,” one of them said.
“Any suggestions?” I asked.
They were silent. And it was true. There was nothing I could do. Here was this man who had too much feeling and nothing to do with it, a man out of control, a man who blacked over his own paintings and sometimes carried a gun under his coat just because it felt good. And me, the computer troubleshooter. I felt out of my league. I felt helpless.
“There’s still an hour left,” Franny said to me. “I want you to take him outside and confront him. He’ll listen to you. If that doesn’t do any good, we’ll call the police.”
But I didn’t want to confront John Walker, not then. It wouldn’t do any good. “No,” I told them. “I won’t do that. I’ll take Elvis and meet you all at home a little later.”
They were both angry. But wasn’t I the only one of the group who was acting rationally? Elvis and I left out the back door. We walked around to the front of the gallery and crossed the street. I opened the car door for him.
“Get in,” I said. “The art show’s over.”
“Okay,” he said in his small voice. He reached into the car, grabbed the side of the car seat, and pulled himself inside. “You know,” he said, settling in, “that was a really good time.”
I took Elvis to get some ice cream before we went home. But my mind wasn’t on Elvis or the ice cream. Instead, I kept thinking, so they’re sleeping together, Julia and John Walker. I didn’t know any hard facts from which I could make this conclusion, but I had an intuition. I could imagine a story about them that seemed to hold together. John Walker helps Julia with her painting, and he lets her stay at the Heartbreak Hotel without complaining, and one day when Franny’s away, he makes a move on her and she goes along with it for awhile because it’s exciting and prohibited and feels good. Maybe she regrets it later, but who’s to say? And after that, John Walker thinks in his piggish way he owns her, and that, by extension, he owns her paintings too. This entitles him to act however he pleases about the paintings. He pretends to buy them just so others can’t. It was the act of a dog, pissing on some trees to mark off his territory. Julia’s paintings were the trees, and she was the territory.
These relationships were complicated. I didn’t know how Franny fit into the mix. And maybe it wasn’t right for me even to speculate, because I would never truly know what was going on. And it wasn’t really my business. It was my business only when these things impacted on Elvis in some way, because they had entrusted him to me.
Complicated situations were a fixture in our family. Our father died of cancer in 1974, just a week or two after Richard Nixon resigned from office. He spent two years fighting the disease, and hung on longer than the doctors predicted. I remember how he was too sick to leave home and stayed in his bed for weeks at a time, the little television tuned to those Watergate hearings. Usually, though, he didn’t have the energy to pay attention to what was happening. The other thing that stood out was that during this time, a girlfriend was revealed. She was never introduced as such, but it became obvious who she was over the course of his long illness. She was a thin woman with blonde hair who tried to be too friendly to me, and she came to our house every week or two and sat by my father’s bed and held his hand.
My mother would find an excuse to leave the house during these times. At first, I didn’t recognize the tension, but one night after my father’s girlfriend had gone, I heard him tell my mother, “I’m the one who’s dying.” Then he said, “These are my last days. Grant me the peace to choose my visitors.”
It was on the day Nixon released the cover-up tapes that we learned the cancer had spread to my father’s spine. A week later, Nixon resigned, and then shortly after that, my father was dead. I never saw the girlfriend again. Franny was six years old and Julia, the baby, was two.
My mother held on only another three years, then she, too, died. Because these things have a way of coming back around, I sometimes wondered if after my father’s death, trying to deal with the pain of his absence or maybe the anger she felt towards him, she ever sought solace in her music. It was no accident, I guess, that she was an Elvis Presley fan. She used to talk about how she had seen him in concert, how even though she was married with a young child, she had stood and screamed and waved her arms with the other girls in the middle of the auditorium, and how once towards the end of the performance it seemed he was looking directly into her eyes. That was the high point for my mother. After that she had to be content with his albums. She collected all of them, I think. She had a long stack that she kept in a crate next to the stereo, and she often played the music in the house. Many years later, it was Franny who ended up with this collection.
After my father’s death, though, I wasn’t paying attention to my mother’s music. When he died in 1974, I was twenty and responsible enough to assume a large role in caring for the girls. When my mother died three years later, it seemed easy enough to simply remain in the house and carry on together as a family. No one troubled us about it, and that’s what we did. I married some years later, when I was thirty-one, and this was supposed to make things easier, but it didn’t. My wife never latched onto the girls the way I did. Sometimes I thought that I didn’t do a good job with Franny and Julia, and that I had let them down somehow by marrying a women they couldn’t love.
I never strayed from my wife, though I probably should have. It has always been difficult, and I have never forgiven her for her failure to bond with the girls in a way that would have made it easier for all of us. After we married we learned that we couldn’t have children ourselves. My wife seemed to take the full impact of this blow — and to hold it against me. I already had two young girls to raise. I expected her to fall easily into a mother’s role, and she tried damned hard to do it for awhile, but it just didn’t come off. Perhaps the bond that already existed was too tight to allow another individual that same closeness. It was something that I worried about. I carefully arranged for the girls’ education, and made sure they went to church with me, but my wife just took no interest. She would cook for them, and she would do their wash, but this only made her like their maid. Of course, the girls didn’t make it easy for her, either. Their hearts were pure, but they were as wild as girls could be. They didn’t fit my wife’s image of what her children would have been, and though she tried to fit them into that mold, the girls weren’t ones to be molded. Eventually my wife became an outsider, and I think that after that, she began to resent me, too.
More than once I resolved to change the situation. But the years passed quickly, and soon the girls were older and more independent, and it became easier to divide my time between the two sets of relationships. In the 1980’s I found my niche in computers and was able to throw myself into my work. Meanwhile, I avoided any opportunities that I had to improve my life with other women. I often regret this. I consider it a failure of nerve. But in the back of my mind, I was always thinking about my father’s actions. They would rise up in front of me like a wall and keep me from moving forward, though I knew there was no correlation between these events. There was no parallel between my mother, who loved my father, and my wife, who became hard over the years and quit loving me. Now we were like planets moving together in the same solar system, locked together by gravity and the passing of time into common orbits, unable to break apart but also unable to stray too closely together.
And there were things in my life that were more important than my marriage. And, that night in Springfield, driving around with Elvis in the seat next to me, what was most important was seeing that he made it home safely, where he belonged, and where I hoped he could sleep through the night untroubled by the others in the house.
As for myself, I had decided to get a motel room. I had a feeling that the Heartbreak Hotel wouldn’t be big enough for all of us.
The rest of the story is easy to tell. After the ice cream, it was past ten, and we headed north along one of the main thoroughfares. It had cooled off some, and I left the windows open. The summer air whipped through the car.
Now that Elvis had a full stomach, I thought he’d fall asleep. Instead, he chatted away, more talkative than I’d seen him at any time that day. I was thinking that if he stayed awake I wouldn’t be able to simply carry him in the house asleep when we got back. That’s how I was hoping to handle the situation.
Maybe the nap he’d taken earlier had thrown him off his regular schedule. He pointed out the bowling alley as we drove past. He asked me if I would buy him a cat, although, he said, the dog probably wouldn’t like it. He asked me if I could teach him how to catch snakes.
“Aren’t you feeling sleepy?” I asked him.
“See if you can shut your eyes for a minute.”
“Know what we can do tonight, Uncle Tom?”
“When we get home, we can sneak around the back. We’ll go in through the fence and stand under the kitchen window. Then you can put me on your shoulders so I can see in. We’ll just stand there like that for awhile. When everyone finally sees me they’ll think I’m a ghost!” He laughed and slapped his knee. “Can we do it?”
“We’ll see,” I said. I fiddled with the radio dials, looking for a country station. That kind of music sometimes made Elvis sleepy.
“Let’s do it,” he said. “Okay? Once Mom held me up. Aunt Julia was in the kitchen with Dad, and when they saw me . . . they screamed! They thought I was a ghost!”
“It’s t-r-u-e, true,” Elvis said. His glasses slid down his nose, and he pushed them back up with his middle finger. It looked like he was making a vulgar gesture, and I wanted to tell him to use another finger, but I didn’t.
We drove a few more blocks. I said, “So what were they doing in the kitchen, your Daddy and Aunt Julia?”
He looked at me like he was trapped in the car with an idiot. “How should I know?”
“You said you were looking in.”
“Oh. Well, I wasn’t really watching. I was making a weird face, like a ghost’s. Like this.” He demonstrated his ghost face, eyebrows raised, eyes opened as wide as possible.
“Boo!” I said loudly and Elvis jumped. That time, we both laughed.
At the house, the big Chevy was parked in the street. “Let’s go around the back,” I said. I wanted to enter quietly, to pass into the house undetected, and then I’d get Elvis situated myself. After that, I’d leave. I could find out what had finally happened at the gallery the next day, after everyone’s mind had had a chance to clear a little bit.
But it wasn’t to be. We went through the gate, told the dog to hush, then moved towards the house. I heard the commotion before I saw it. Someone was yelling. Then I saw figures moving in the kitchen, passing back and forth in front of the window.
Elvis had it figured out before I did. “Mom’s breaking the dishes,” he said.
He was right. We stopped a fair distance from the back door, but could see through the window into the kitchen. John Walker was standing with his back to the far wall, underneath the Champale light. Franny was facing him. I could see her mouth moving, as if she were shouting, but the window blocked out the sound.
I didn’t know what to do. I was at a disadvantage in this group. They all had an overflow of creative energy they were willing to invest back into their personalities, even at the risk of alienating those around them. I wasn’t like them in this way. It made me feel sterile and ineffective. Standing in the damp lawn, I could see Franny cock her arm back, then launch another missile against the far wall. It was the breakfast dishes, pink and green coffee cups and saucers. They shattered against the wall in a kaleidoscope of light and color, an artwork without theme or purpose.
Julia was in the kitchen, too. She was standing against a counter, smoking a cigarette. It was some scene.
“Do you want to leave?” I asked Elvis.
“Hold me up. I’ll make my ghost face.”
“Not a good time for that,” I said. I took his hand and pulled him to the back door, and we went inside.
“We’re back,” I called out. I led Elvis directly into the kitchen. Julia had a smug look on her face and smiled in my direction to indicate she couldn’t believe it and didn’t think I would either. I could tell she’d been crying. Franny was standing near the pantry. She was breathing hard and reached out to the wall to support herself.
“Welcome, folks!” John Walker said. He was standing in the pile of broken dishes. He looked even more exhausted than the others.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I eyed Franny. “Couldn’t you just hit the wall, like men do?”
She ignored me. “This is where it ends,” she told John Walker.
Everyone was silent for a moment. Then I said, “Well, I’ll leave Elvis with you all.”
It seemed an appropriate and fitting thing to say. I turned, putting the kitchen at my back, and walked through the living room to the stairs. I went up then as quietly as possible to look around for John Walker’s gun. For a moment, I thought that it was gone, but then I found it on a shelf in their bedroom, just as Elvis had described it earlier. I picked it up and put it in one of Franny’s drawers where no one would find it. There seemed to be no reason to risk adding indignity and loss that night to our gallery of cheap emotions.
I returned to the kitchen to say good-bye. They stopped talking when I entered. Elvis, who stood in the center of the kitchen, looked eager and excited.
“So, is anyone going to tell me what’s going on?”
“No,” Julia said. She managed a weak smile, and lightly touched the top of her nephew’s head.
I suppose I could have interrogated them, but sometimes, it’s best not to ask questions. This was one of those times. I wondered if Franny was right, if it really would end here, tonight, at the Heartbreak Hotel. Or would it be impossible to escape the unique history of our lives together? We had all moved with a motion not our own to somehow gather here together among the broken breakfast dishes. We couldn’t break free.
Only Elvis was different. Ignorant of the terrible burden of his name, he stood now in the center of the kitchen and seemed to pollute it with his innocence.
“Someone get me the dustpan,” he said. “This is going to be fun.”
He was our child, he was our masterpiece. He was the best thing we would all ever do.
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