Second Place Winner in Fiction Category, Denver Woman’s Press Club In-House Writer’s Contest, 2005
Waiting for Elvis a story by Shere Chamness
About the same time Elvis Presley was drafted and sent to Fort Hood, I was sixty miles away, imprisoned in my fourth body cast, a chunk of plaster that held me immobile from armpits to toes. I was eight years old, spending the summer of 1958 with my grandparents. They ran the Blazilmar hotel and coffee shop in Taylor, Texas.
My grandmother Eureka always had a yearning for celebrity. Barely five feet tall with haunting blue eyes and wavy black hair, she was a living doll. Her ample bosom inspired comment long before the era of silicon. Almost thirty years before, she’d traveled all the way to Hollywood to land a bit part in a silent film. From then on, she felt qualified to add the words “movie star” after her name.
By the time I was born, her dreams of glory and fame had not faded one bit. When x-rays revealed deformities in my hip bones, she conceived her most ambitious scheme of all for becoming a celebrity: she would create “The Eureka Foundation,” to educate doctors about how x-rays could reveal birth defects.
Ignoring the fact that most doctors believed x-rays might actually endanger babies, Eureka embraced her mission with zeal. She had business cards and brochures printed, wrote press releases for newspapers and gave speeches at local clubs. Next to every cash register in town stood a clean mayonnaise jar with a photo of me in one of my various body casts, and a plea for spare change.
My grandmother had a natural talent for public relations and marketing. She instructed the hotel janitor to weld a special cart so I could be rolled all over Taylor, cast and all. Even though I was lying flat on my back, legs splayed wide in an “A” shape, I went to movies, church and even did a little shopping at the five and dime. Every time we went out, fresh money jingled in mayonnaise jars all over town.
When Eureka learned that Elvis Presley was stationed just an hour’s drive from Taylor, she touched up her gray roots, polished her nails, packed up the promotional materials, and hit the road.
The King’s generosity was legendary. Everyone knew the story of the waitress who’d received a Cadillac from Elvis because her mother was sick with cancer or something.
My grandmother thought she’d hit the jackpot in Fort Hood, when Elvis himself walked into the visitor’s room. She whipped out a full-page Houston newspaper article about her cause. She described the excruciating pain her poor little grandchild was suffering. She spoke of thousands of children her foundation could rescue.
Did a tear fall from one of the King’s blue eyes? If so, he wiped it away quickly because his commanding officer came in to fetch the famous recruit back to the exercise field. Eureka, always quick to see an opportunity, pulled out a business card and invited the whole unit to drop by her coffee shop for free homemade pies next time they were in the neighborhood.
The sergeant thanked her kindly and turned away, but it was too late: Eureka had gotten a death hold on his wrist. You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but that woman was strong.
“You’ll come? You promise?” she asked, smiling with the full force of her huge blue eyes. Now what sergeant in the world can say no to a blue-eyed grandmother with an iron grip on his arm?
“Well, ma’am, it’s a little out of our way...” he began.
Her big eyes filled with tears. “It would mean the world to my little granddaughter,” she said, holding up the photo of me in the body cast.
He relented. “Well,” he said, “maybe when we’re out that way on maneuvers sometime, we could drop by...” He was thinking about the homemade pie.
So was Eureka. “I’ll need to know what day you’re coming so we can bake extra pies,” she said. “What’s your favorite, Lieutenant?’
“It’s Sergeant, and I sure am partial to coconut cream,” he told her.
“Oh that’s my favorite too!” she said, “with loads of meringue—
“ —and toasted coconut on top,” he finished, his mouth watering at the thought.
“When will you be coming then?” she asked, pulling out a notepad and ballpoint pen with her free hand. “I’ll have my girl bake a special pie just for you... with extra coconut!” She winked at him.
He thought for a minute. “How about next Thursday... the 29th?” he asked.
“What time?” she asked.
“What TIME?” he repeated. “Jeeze lady, now you want a time?’
“Don’t you boys have a reputation for military precision? That’s what I’ve always heard...’
“Okay, okay! Between 1400 hours and— I mean between 2 and 3 p.m.,” he answered, “now that’s as close as I can say.’
“Wonderful,” she said, eyes twinkling. “I’ll have lots of iced tea ready. Now, don’t you forget!” She let go of his wrist. He rubbed his hand to get the circulation going again; he was pretty sure he wouldn’t forget.
And so at 2:00 p.m. most of Taylor’s residents had assembled in the coffee shop to meet the King of Rock and Roll. Even the bank closed early. Nervous conversation reverberated against the ornamental tin ceiling, making my eardrums ache. The hanging wooden fans were turned up to “high,” but everyone sweltered in anticipation. Teenaged girls in tight sundresses had spent the last 24 hours getting ready, but still they applied fresh lipstick every few minutes, checking their faces in compact mirrors.
Not one of the pies had been touched; these were reserved for “our boys,” as people had begun to call the expected soldiers. The room throbbed like a huge beehive.
I had been given a place of honor near the door. Dressed in my Sunday clothes, hair freshly washed and curled, I waited for the King. Next to me on the table, Eureka had placed a clean industrial-sized mayonnaise jar with my picture on the front. Around that she had arrayed business cards, brochures and the Houston newspaper article.
The jukebox was stocked with every song Elvis had ever recorded. A kitchen helper, entrusted with several rolls of nickels, was given explicit instructions to keep Elvis tunes playing. “Love Me Tender” came on, and the teenaged girls moaned in happy anticipation.
At 2:15 p.m. a couple of yellow buses drove up, full of sweating men in uniform. They piled out and swarmed into our little coffee shop, which exploded in a flurry of noise and excitement. As the soldiers paraded by my cart, I looked from crewcut to crewcut. They all looked exactly alike! How would I recognize the King? Overcome with panic, my heart beating a hundred miles an hour, I tried to smile and reply to each soldier as he passed. But it was like being inside a whirling tornado of bodies and faces.
Sympathetic eyes peered at me from all directions. Benevolent hands patted my head; and several soldiers at a time signed my cast, wishing me good luck before they headed for a glass of iced tea and slice of pie. Flat on my back, I couldn’t see if the King was in the crowd. Some of the girls were jitterbugging with soldiers in the small space. People were bumping my plaster-encased legs. Over the roar I heard: “...don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true...” I wanted to cry.
The song changed to “Teddy Bear” when the last soldier in line leaned over and kissed me on the forehead.
“You’ll be up dancin’ yourself before you know it,” he told me, “You’re gonna do great.”
I looked up in surprise. All the others had drifted off to eat pie and party with the townsfolk. This soldier squatted down beside my head and offered me a stick of gum.
“Thanks,” I said. He leaned close, to be heard over the din.
“How much longer are you stuck in this thing?”
“The rest of the summer.”
“Tough luck, kid. No swimmin’ this year. But in September you’ll be – what, in third grade?’
“Fourth,” I corrected. “And I’ll be in a brand new school, too.”
“Brand new? Is that so? You got a boyfriend?”
“No,” I said sadly, “he broke up with me when I had the operation.”
He shook his head. “Well, don’t worry about that – you’ll meet somebody better than him.”
It had never occurred to me to think there was “somebody better.” I thought a crippled kid like myself was doing good to have any boyfriend at all.
“Tell you what,” he said, “How about I’ll be your boyfriend until you find someone better?”
I looked up at his dark friendly eyes. I was doubtful.
“But you can’t be my boyfriend. You’re a grownup.”
“Shows how much you know,” he popped his gum, “it’s just until the right guy shows up.”
“But you’re in the Army,” I argued, “how could we go get Cokes and stuff?”
He laughed. “You got me there, kid. Tell you what. I’ll send you money for the movies and you can invite your best friend. You can go to movies, right?... in your wagon here?”
“Sure,” I said, “but I have to stay in the aisle.”
“Okay then,” he said, “I’ll send you some money for movies and Cokes, and you take one of your friends to substitute for me. How’s that?”
“Substitute?” I repeated.
“You know what that is?”
“Sure I do,” I had a big dictionary in my room, and would look it up right after the party.
“Well then, as your boyfriend, I’ll send you postcards from wherever we’re stationed. We’re supposed to go to Germany this fall.”
“I can write letters,” I told him. “I write to my mother all the time.”
“That’s good,” he said, “So while I’m over in Germany, I’ll have your letters to look forward to.” He picked up a couple of the business cards. Turning one over, he wrote something on the back and handed it to me.
“Write to me at this address, kid. I’ll get it no matter where they send me. Can I send your postcards here, to this hotel?”
“Well, sure – until I get the cast off. Then I guess I’ll be at the Scottish Rite.”
“My hospital in Dallas. I’m going back in August for physical therapy.”
“Dallas, huh? That’s where my mother lives. Maybe I’ll stop by.”
“Okay.” I looked at the card. His name was William.
“Nice to meet you, William,” I told him, “Thanks.”
He kissed me again on the forehead. “Thank you, sweetheart. Now, take care. You’ll be dancin’ again before you know it.” And he was gone.
He didn’t even get a piece of pie.
After the buses rolled away and the crowd disappeared, my grandmother bustled over to look at the mayonnaise jar. It was crammed with folded green bills. Eureka’s face was bright with excitement.
“Wasn’t that grand? Right here in our own coffee shop! What did he say to you, honey?”
“He said he’d be my temporary boyfriend and he’d come see me in Dallas.”
She set the mayonnaise jar down and gave me a piercing stare. “He said what?”
I repeated more slowly, “He said he’d be my boyfriend and come to see me in Dallas when I get the cast off. And I can write letters to him. Look – he gave me his address.”
She frowned at the card, then tossed it back. I grabbed it.
“No,” she said, “not that guy. What did Elvis say to you?”
“Elvis? I didn’t see him. Was he here?”
“My lands, child! Who do you think the whole town came to see?”
“I didn’t see him.”
“Look right here,” she said, pointing at the side of my knee. “He signed your cast.”
I struggled to look, but the angle was impossible. “What does it say?”
“It says, ‘May God bless you. Elvis Presley.’ ”
Several of the waitresses came over to look. “Wow!” said one, “Can I have that cast?”
“I should say not!” replied my grandmother, “I’m going to have it made into a lamp stand.”
The vision of my body cast topped by a scalloped shade with tassels – in somebody’s living room – made me laugh so hard I got the hiccups. I couldn’t wait to write William about this.
In August, back in the hospital, my treasured cigar box contained twelve shiny postcards from William. I had written him three letters – each one almost a whole page long, detailing my 8-year-old worldview.
When the cast came off, as it turned out, nobody got it. They wouldn’t allow Eureka to have the smelly thing.
“But it’s a keepsake... a collector’s item,” she argued. Nonetheless, the orderly sawed right through the King’s precious autograph, splintering it into pieces.
I threw myself into physical therapy with a passion I’d never known before. Someday, I was going to learn to jitterbug! Maybe I’d even get to dance with William.
One afternoon when all the kids on the ward were supposed to be sleeping, I was awake, quietly reading a movie magazine. A nurse tiptoed in to say I had a visitor. “He’s out in the hall,” she said, as she lowered the safety rail and handed me a robe. Aided by crutches, I walked shakily out to find William. I smiled so big, it almost split my cheekbones.
“Hey, look at you now!” he said, “Walkin’ good as new.”
Standing there in the afternoon sun, wearing his dress uniform, William was the brightest star in my little universe.
He handed me a pack of gum, and I took it eagerly.
Some things are more important than celebrity.
copyright 2004 Shere Chamness