“Claudia,” Ben starts.
I know what he’s about to say so I look toward Elvis, as if he holds the answers to my questions. “So, where did Stu get him?”
He studies me for a moment. “You want a matching set? Like bookends?”
“How much?” A man with an Elvis-sized pouch steps toward the King.
I catch myself blocking the man’s way. I tried to get rid of the bust a few times in the past. Stu always said, “Love me, love Elvis.” I touch the shoulder of the bust protectively. “He’s not for sale.”
“What do you want?” the man persists. “Fifty?”
“No.” I cross my arms over my stomach.
“All right, a hundred.”
“No, really. I don’t want to sell it.”
Rae waves her hand at him, as if shooing a bothersome fly. “She said no!”
The man points a stubby finger at her. “Who are you?”
She takes a step forward, flings her long, steel-gray hair over one shoulder and glares right back. “I’m --- ”
“It’s okay,” I step between them. “Look, I’m sorry, Elvis isn’t for sale.”
“Are you sure?” Ben asks, his brow furrowing.
The man grunts. “Why not?”
A ready answer eludes me. “He’s just not.”
His mouth twists, then he turns and stalks out of the garage.
Ben rocks back on his heels and cocks an eyebrow at me. I ignore him. I don’t want to defend my actions. I don’t want to try to explain myself. I’m not sure I can.
“I’m glad you didn’t sell Elvis, Claudia,” Rae pats my arm. “It’s worth --- ”
“Oh, I’m going to get rid of him,” I say, feeling suddenly rebellious, more like Ivy than I care to admit.
“I doubt it’s worth much,” Ben says. “Stu probably bought it at some Elvis gift shop.”
I shake my head. “If he had, then it wouldn’t have bothered him at the end of his life.”
“It did?” Both of his eyebrows go up this time.
“Do you remember when Stu showed up with Elvis?”
“Sure, it was the trip we took to Memphis in ’87. Beat the Memphis State Tigers in a non-conference game early our senior year.” If I ask, I’m sure he can tell me the last play of the game. “Stu took pictures as always.” He’d been one of the school photographers for the Cavalier Daily. “We toured Graceland, ate barbecue. After the game, Stu disappeared for a few hours. He showed back up with his friend here.” Ben gestures toward Elvis. “We questioned Stu, but he gave no answers.”
I notice Ivy inching closer, pretending not to listen, but her gaze shifts from the upside down CDs she’s holding to her father.
“A few weeks later, Stu told me a different tale.”
Ben’s chest expands with a deep breath. He moves a little closer and speaks in a low voice. “He picked up a hitchhiker outside of Memphis.”
“Looked like Elvis,” he says. “That’s what made Stu stop. An impersonator, he decided, when the guy climbed into his car. And about fifty or so. Had stark white hair. He told Stu he needed a lift.”
“Do you think that’s what really happened?” I ask.
Ben shrugs. “I don’t know. Stu seemed pretty shaken by the experience. Talked about it being a ghost or something.”
“A ghost? Stu said that?” I stare at Ben, trying to decide if he’s pulling my leg, the way Stu might.
Ben snaps his fingers. “Years later, he gave me an Alan Jackson CD. I didn’t like country music. But he said, ‘Listen to track 4.’ So I did. It was that song ‘Midnight in Memphis’ . . . or ‘Mayberry’ . . .”
“Montgomery,” Rae corrects.
Ben jerks as if he’s been electrocuted. “That’s it. And it was about --- ”
“The ghost of Hank Williams,” Rae says. “Stuart saw him.”
“Who?” I ask, confused. “Hank Williams? Or Alan Jackson?”
“Elvis,” she says without a trace of humor.
“I doubt it.” Ben rubs his jaw. “When did Elvis die?”
“Seventy-seven.” Rae’s knowledge of country music and Elvis trivia surprises me. I wonder what else she knows. Maybe Elvis’ current address? She’s the type I imagine who would believe he’s still alive.
Ben shifts from foot to foot. “The whole meet-and-greet with Elvis made Stu think some weird things.”
“Great,” I say. “So I should look in the cemetery for the owner of the bust?”
“Elvis was buried at Graceland,” Rae says.
“Even better.” I grimace. “I think I’d rather call Ghostbusters.”
“What are you talking about?” Ben asks.
I pull the note out of my back pocket. “See if you can solve the mystery.”
Ben reads the letter silently, pushing his arm out straight in front of him. I’ve teased him about needing granny glasses. He rubs the back of his neck as Rae leans close to see the note. She makes a tiny gasp. Her face suddenly pales. Ben gives me a questioning look.
“Stu was having trouble writing,” I explain. “Could he have been delusional?”
“I doubt it.” He studies the note again. “He must have meant Graceland.”
“That’s what I thought. But how would he have known it belonged there if he got it from some old Elvis wannabe?”
“Elvis told him,” Rae says.
“Elvis was dead,” I remind my aunt.
“He told him,” she emphasizes.
Skeptical of my aunt’s sanity, I ask Ben, “So what do I do? Ignore this request? Go up to Graceland’s gate and say, ‘My late husband stole this and wanted me to bring it back?’”
“He didn’t steal it,” Rae says.
“We don’t really know that.” Anger simmers inside me. Stu told Ben and Rae about Elvis. But not me. Why? Then I turn on my aunt. “Why would Stu want you to go with me anyway?”
“Because . . .” She stares down at her feet for a moment and draws a slow breath. “Because I knew him.”
“Him? Of course you knew Stu.”
She remains silent, her lips squeezed together.
“Elvis?” Ben asks.
She gives a hesitant nod. Ben and I glance at each other.
In some ways, if I know little about Rae’s life, it’s my own fault. After all, I rarely ask about her life, and when I do she dodges the questions like a politician, like my mother. I’ve seen my baby pictures with occasional appearances by her, a doting aunt. Then nothing for too many years. Maybe I’ve simply accepted the blank pages of Rae’s past like lost pictures never to be recovered. But could it be true that she knew the King of Rock ’n’ Roll?
“You actually knew Elvis?” Ben lowers his voice to a whisper.
She shrugs as if her claim means nothing. “I’ve known many people in my lifetime.”
“Then you have to go with Claudia to Memphis,” Ben says.
“Whoa!” I put a hand out. “I never said I was going to Memphis.” Everyone in the garage --- neighbors, customers, Aunt Rae, and Ben, even Ivy --- stare at me.
Rae puts an arm around me as if siding with me. “You’re right. It’s too much. It wouldn’t be good.”
I look at Stu’s note, my husband’s last request. Frustration rises in me but I press it down.
“This is Stu’s last request,” Ben voices my own rebellious thoughts.
“A fool’s journey,” Rae says. “How can you leave work? Everything? Just like that? What was Stuart thinking? He wasn’t. He was delusional. Forget Elvis. Sell him.”
Hadn’t she told me to keep the bust? What made her suddenly change her mind? Is there something she’s hiding? Frankly, I’m tired of secrets. “But you said --- ”
“I’m her boss,” Ben says. “She can have the time off.” He looks at me then, his gaze dark. “You need to do this.”
“What if it’s one of Stu’s pranks?”
Ben has no answer.
“I’ll go,” Ivy says, suddenly standing beside us.
“What?” I ask.
“To Memphis?” Ben stares at his daughter.
Uncertainty grips my stomach. Elvis is bad enough, but I’m not sure about being responsible for a teenager. Especially one who has the ability to cut me to the core. “No, I’m not going. This is pure insanity.”
“But it’s Stu’s last request,” Ben says.
“That we know of. What if I find another crazy request in a potted plant next week?”
“Have you found any other notes in almost two years?” Ben challenges.
I look away, then admit, “No.”
“You have to do this,” he says, his voice low.
My heart hammers. I want to smash Elvis with one of Stu’s golf clubs. “No, I don’t.”
??? “You’re not selling this dress, are you?” Rae slides a green silk dress off the unstable metal rack, holds it up to her, and smiles through the hanger.
“Apparently not.” I hit the button on the wall and the garage door slides down, creaking in protest, closing the sale for the day. “You’re welcome to it.”
“It’s your color,” she says.
“Stu hated that dress on me.”
“And we know what good taste he had.” Ben grins.
I have to admit, Stu never acquired better taste. He always used to say, “I married you. That’s as good as it gets.” My insides warm like chocolate squares in a hot pan and melt into a dark puddle, shapeless and bitter.
Ben leans an elbow on Elvis’ head. “Maybe Stu was jealous.”
Laughter bursts out of me. “You’re saying Stu wanted to wear my dress?”
“Of looks you’d get from other guys.”
“No way.” Yet I feel the truth of his words in the sudden tautness of my stomach.
“You should keep this,” Rae says, handing me the dress. “You might go to a party.”
“Not likely. It doesn’t fit anyway.” I wonder if my memories have downsized from reality as well as my weight over the past year. “Where’s Ivy?”
“She went inside to borrow your bathroom.”
“Is she sick?” Rae asks. “She looked pale.”
“That’s her look,” Ben says. “The latest rage in teen fashion.”
“Do you think she’s upset that we’re not going to Memphis?” I ask.
He shrugs. “The question is: Are you? I think you should go.”
“I think you’re crazy.” I swat his elbow off Elvis’ head. “So why do you think Ivy wanted to go to Memphis with me?”
“Maybe she wants to spend time with you. She used to, you know.”
I nod. Guilt swells inside me. Maybe that’s the reason for her cruel remark. Maybe I’ve let her down with my absence. “I know. I’m sorry. I’ll take her to dinner.” I’ve been introspective --- okay, a hermit --- the past year, even longer as Stu’s illness kept me busy and distracted for a long while, too. It’s just another way of saying I’ve been selfish, not reaching out to help anyone else. “I promise.”
“She’d like that.”
Doubting that, I rub my hand over the contours of Elvis’ head, feeling the smooth pottery beneath my fingers, the slight grooves and creases. “So if I did go . . . and I’m not saying I am, would you let Ivy go with me?”
“Would you want her to?” Ben asks.
Lifting a shoulder, I sigh. “As long as it’s okay with you.”
“She can be difficult.”
“Because you’re her dad. Isn’t that how it is with teenagers? They’re difficult with their parents, but not so much with others.” I’m not sure I’m buying that line myself.
“Maybe.” Ben’s desperation shows in his eagerness to believe. “So are you thinking of going?”
I notice Rae is watching me too. Her expression tightens with worry. “No.” I laugh to relieve the tension. “Then I’d be crazy.”
I pick up a bag of knitting yarn someone left tipped on its side. I remove a lace doily from the top. My fingers poke through the empty spaces. Mother kept her feelings tightly woven, hidden from view. I’ve tried to do the same, but my feelings seem more like twisted and tangled yarn unraveling at the ends.
I lift another sack of yarn and begin sorting it by color, plopping a mauve ball into the sack with a pink mountain growing within. Mother belonged to a group called the Knitwits. They make baby blankets and lap blankets, donating them to hospitals, charities, and old folks’ homes. Maybe they could use all this yarn. I don’t know why I’ve kept it so long. But then, I do: Letting go is painful. Memories might replace the need for all this stuff. Maybe I’m simply searching for more.
“Why have I lost everyone?” Hearing my own voice, I realize I spoke out loud.
“At least you had them once,” Rae says.
“So I should be grateful?”
Rae shrugs. “It’s better than not ever.”
“Then I wouldn’t know what I’ve lost.” It would be easier. Wouldn’t it?
Rae’s green gaze is steady, somber. “You’re going to Memphis, aren’t you?”
“You are?” Ivy asks, coming out of the house.
I shrug. “I don’t know.” But I do. Love me, love Elvis. The words play over and over in my head like a scratched record. Stu’s voice vibrates in my head, resonates in my heart.
I never felt like I had a choice in the matter. Stu filled the holes in my life. My response to Stu was automatic and overwhelming. Even now in death, he calls and I answer.
“Maybe,” I say.
“I’m sorry I said what I did earlier.” Rae places her hand on my arm. “Maybe you should go. Maybe Stuart was right. Maybe it’s time. If so, then I’ll help you find where Elvis belongs.”
“You’d do that? For me?”
“What about me?” Ivy asks. “Can I go?”
“Why?” Ben questions.
“Because.” She huffs out a breath. Her defensiveness returns. “Oh, forget it. What do I care?”
I shift my gaze toward Ben, unsure if I’m pleading for Ivy or not.
“I didn’t say you couldn’t go,” Ben says to his daughter. “Maybe you should. If it’s all right with Claudia.”
“Is it?” Ivy looks to me. Something in her eyes looks desperate, like she needs this trip, maybe more than I do. Maybe she needs time away from her overwhelmed father. Most definitely he needs a break from her.
“Sure.” What else can I say?
“Then there will be three of us,” Rae says, looping an arm through mine.
An odd feeling swells inside me. I nod my appreciation. But I’m not sure if I’m relieved or more apprehensive. I pat Elvis on his pompadour.
“Make that four.”