From the Summer 2007 issue
Her Knees Are Weak
Martha Crawford had gotten it on with just about every major Elvis impersonator in the country. Except, of course, that woman in Alabama, though Martha had certainly given the idea a passing thought. She decided against it, not because it was unnatural—what could be more unnatural than taking to bed a series of men with sideburns in glitter-decked jumpsuits—but because the farther you got from the real thing, the less it was worth the trouble.
As president of the Gulf States Elvis the King Fan Club, Martha could get free tickets to see Elvis impersonation shows. She made two or three pilgrimages to Graceland a year and stalked the streets of Tupelo, talking to strangers and searching for new tidbits about her idol. She limited her sexual encounters to the actual impersonators, however, because nothing turned her on more than an avatar of the King.
Martha’s daddy had loved Elvis. Elvis was a real man, Daddy said. He was good to his mama, served his country, read the Bible and wasn’t afraid to talk to or about the Lord. Daddy had loved Elvis the way women loved him, Martha thought, putting his picture in a frame, buying all of his records, never missing an Elvis movie. He had grown sideburns, which irritated the hell out of Martha’s mother, but there was no talking him out of it. Daddy had slow-danced with Martha in the living room to “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and “”Love Me Tender,” and had held her tight and told her how pretty she was.
These days, Martha felt bored. Elvis impersonators had a limited bedroom repertoire and said things like, “I got a hunk o’ somethin’ for you, honey,” or “Wanna see my good luck charm?” She was a little tired of making peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches, too, and sometimes wished she could go out to dinner in a nice restaurant with a man who had normal hair and didn’t sneer when he looked at her cleavage. But such was Martha’s Elvis addiction that she wasn’t sure she could let a non-Elvis touch her, much less do the wild thing with her. “TCB, baby!” she would shout, as soon as she was ready to go for it. Once, in Baton Rouge, a Las Vegas-era Elvis wasn’t up to the task, leading Martha to point out that “the King really is dead.”
Martha’s only friends were fan club members, and try as they might, they couldn’t really talk about anything that wasn’t Elvis-related. Lisa Maria and Michael kept them going for a while, but once that was over, Martha became restless.
One night she was watching TV and a newswoman began talking about the failed war against drugs. She showed that famous picture of Elvis and Nixon, and then commented that Nixon must have been living in a dreamworld if he didn’t know about Elvis’s drug addiction. Daddy had never liked Nixon, so Martha hated him, too. Elvis’s heart was pure, she knew that. People took advantage of him because he was a money machine. The doctors gave Elvis the drugs. He didn’t know he was doing anything wrong.
The thought of Elvis as a drug addict haunted Martha. She didn’t really mind fat Elvis; she had even voted for the fat Elvis stamp, just to show support. But if he really was an addict, then he must have felt high and desperate a lot of the time. She knew he missed his Mama. Gladys had been everything to Elvis. Martha poured herself a bourbon and Coke and thought about Daddy lying in his casket, his sideburns shaved off because her mother had insisted on it. Martha had touched Daddy’s hands, and they were cold, not like the hands that led her through their living room waltzes. Daddy would give her a little kiss on the cheek before she went out on a date, and he would pat her behind and whisper, “You be careful, hon. You’re Daddy’s girl.” Once, he kissed her on the mouth and she smelled beer and Old Spice and Daddy’s sweat, and she felt weak, like her legs might not hold her up much longer.
Martha drank more bourbon and the tears came. Usually she could make them go away, but tonight, they controlled her. She got up and put on her Elvis love song collection, poured herself another drink and cried. She cried for Elvis, trying to find his way through life without Gladys, the only woman he had ever loved with all his heart. She cried for Daddy, dead from a heart attack—just like that—one afternoon before Martha had come home from school. Elvis sang, “I Love You Because.”
Martha, like most women, could cry only so much, and then she had to wash her face and apply teabags to her eyes. She decided to call the Elvis impersonator who lived at the edge of the next county, the one who had turned a pair of leather pants into a private floorshow for her in the casino lounge. He was young and firm, and he understood the moves, onstage and off. Maybe she could get him to have a drink with her, talk to her, take her to dinner.
Martha tried to picture the man without his sideburns. She tried to imagine him in a pair of khakis, shopping for groceries or wearing pajamas and reading the newspaper. But how could she relate to a man in khakis? She changed the channel in her head and saw the black leather pants, the tight red shirt and the diamond rings. She fingered her gold chain and felt the TCB pendant between her breasts. She started to feel weak in the legs. In the background, the King sang, “Baby, Let’s Play House” as Martha picked up the phone.
Diane Elayne Dees writes poetry, short fiction, essays, and creative non-fiction. She frequently writes about musicians and film stars, and is currently working on some poems about the Kill Bill movies. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and when she isn’t writing, practices psychotherapy in Louisiana.
I was driving home from work one day, thinking about a story I’d read in the newspaper about a local Elvis impersonator, and I began to fantasize about what it would be like for a woman to have the odd proclivity of wanting to have sex only with Elvis impersonators. This led me to imagine how an unhealthy father-daughter relationship could be the origin of such a dysfunction, and “Her Knees Are Weak” was the result. This story first appeared in The Dead Mule in 2001, and in 2004, it was included in the anthology, -Women Behaving Badly.-
Morgan City, Mississippi–The Delta isn’t pretty by picture postcard standards. Desolation and despair lick every stick and brick of human habitation. Creeping vines choke abandoned shacks, the tendrils of nature reclaiming the detritus of culture. The suffocating flatness stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s a lonesome lick of land that looks like it was lifted whole out of a parched African plain and dropped in Mississippi by mistake.
But the swamps wear a haunting iridescent coat of green, and even in late November, unpicked cotton balls dangle in the fields like orphaned slow flakes. Churned up by the foaming mouths of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, this soggy triangle effused the Blues, that bittersweet blend of half-remembered griot chants and plantation field hollers filtered through the parched throats and plucked on the broken heartstrings of the sons of slaves. A moaned anthem of survival, whetted with whiskey, lust, anger, anguish and longing, the Blues are the half brother of Jazz and granddaddy of rock n’ roll, and, arguably, America’s greatest homegrown musical gift to the world.
Driving through Morgan City—an abbreviated urban sprawl of bare cinder block dwellings and immobilized mobile homes that never quite got started—I pulled into a combination gas station-convenience store. Two bone-thin, old black men sat out front gently rocking on straw settees not originally meant for motion. They suddenly stopped rocking and turned their heads as one as I climbed out of the car, wary of my white face like an invading chess piece from the far side of the board.
I was six years old the first time my dad warned me right before he put a record on. “This will probably be the best album you will ever hear,” he said. The sounds that followed were the most cacophonous and dissonant arrangements I ever heard. The saxophone squeals were not only sharp and piercing, they were abrasive and percussive. On the recording you could actually hear the organic passing of loose air over a saturated reed. The snare hits were impossible to follow. It was inconceivable that one man could strike so many drums in such condensed periods of time utilizing only two arms and two legs. The bass lay low in the recording and seemed to be the foundation to which the other musicians adhered. The bass was a smooth walk and rarely had any swing or double-time, but there was still something regal and stoic about the way its rhythm held fast through such decadence.
The main feature, however, was the piano. Staccato punctuations defined the heads and the solos were so riddled with spaces that the listener was forced to reflect on what they had just heard before the next sequence began. The notes hardly constituted a melody and theme was so absent from compositions that it seemed the music operated completely independent, or at least in defiance of any established key. There wasn’t a live audience on the record, so no applauses interrupted the spaces between solos.
Last week I sold my guitar; my rosewood Alvarez guitar; my beloved, resonant, androgynous instrument. Its woman-shape touched me like a man. Arthritis had finally ended my ability to embrace or stroke it properly.
When I was 21 years old I heard a Julian Bream recording of Rodrigo’s “Concerto d’Aranjuez.” I had studied piano as a teenager but had not been in love. This music smoked of passion. Even the composer’s names were transporting: Albinoni, Carulli, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and my favorite, Villa-Lobos (vee-yah low-bus, pronounced with a long caress on the first syllable).
The Alvarez was not my first. I learned on a Martinez student guitar. Like the piano, it created melody from strings pulled taut and pressed with precision. But the Martinez vibrated with more emotion, begged for greater sensitivity. Held properly against my chest there was no distance between hand and chord. No keys, no hammer, only the immediate and sensuous rapport between fingers, strings, heart. I was an avid lover.
It was during an infamous midnight record sale at the Beacon Shop on North Main St in Providence, Rhode Island, that I put my hard-earned teenage dough down and bought the Velvet’s Loaded and their first (Warhol Banana Cover) album and both Stooges records. All of it knocked me out, and turned me around, both the Velvet’s heady mix of avant sophistication and spooky irony and the Stooges assaulting, virtually infantile propulsion were like nothing I ‘d ever heard before.
I think I love you, so what am I so afraid of?
You feel you hate me, since when are you so brave?
What I mean, though I am not totally sure, is that I ponder and reason and muse about these very strong feelings I have for you–feelings that are both tender and sexual. These ponderings lead me to ask myself what it is exactly that scares me so, if these feelings are indeed true.
O, how, if ink is mauve foil, a hot itsy, a road…
I think I love-in-a-mist youngling, so what am I so African sleeping sickness of?
I think, so I am afraid.
I love fear.
Lipogram in a:
I think I love you, so what’s of me? I, soft rid.
So, there you are, Tina, blowing bread
at Small’s, reaching right through another Night
in Tunisia. Jimmy Smith, Lou Donaldson,
Eddie McFadden, and—on tubs—the great
Buhaina. And this side side-winds me back
to the snake-filled sound of April 7,
1958, each clinking glass saying
New York is enough, saying, this, the night
before my wife’s birth. Lemon rinds
as a cervical cap?
Ann Foster Melton Speaks from her Deathbed
It’s true, yes, I had married James
but Tom and me, we could not quit.
We’d been as one since the morning
Mommy found us abed together.
Now the only thing left to do
is turn my face toward the wall.
Young Laurie Foster’s chestnut locks
and blithe blue eyes are vexing me.
I told my man and all the girls
who gathered round me in the end
the truth. I could not bear to see
Laurie and Tom Dula carry on.
We plunged the knife into her ribs.
We beat her head until she bled.
I knowed they would not hang me here.
They said my neck was just too fair
to stretch the hemp. Men could not look
at me and keep their heads. A man
in Wilkes told me my face was sweeter
than he’d seen. Tonight I dream
my hair is still coal black, my skin
as white as milk. Now do you hear
that hiss of steam, like spring water
doused on hot rocks? And can you see
the flames of hell dancing round me?
A bed afire will make a ring
and bring me back to Tom. He waits
for me beside our river spot.
I see his sweet head hanging down
while the devil plays Tom’s fiddle.
On stage with her signature
black Gibson, the A minor chord
she strums sounds lonesome
as an old grave. She knows
she never got her due. Those men
said we’re doing you a big favor
honey. On tours, she was just a notch
above the gapped-tooth comic
in his battered derby and checkered
jacket, clowning on the upright bass.
The ghost of their voices rattle
chains in her sleep: And now . . .
here’s our pretty little lady . . .
Anyway, her fans tired of the mournful
tunes her people sang in North
Carolina: boots of Spanish leather,
Irish seafarers with their chilly winds,
Kentucky miners chasing
an aggravating beauty, all the Aeolian
tunes weeping like orphan children.
Even the cheerful songs—the jaybird,
the sparrow, the cuckoo—fell on idle
ears, serving her no more. Besides,
she grew into herself, weary
of all the women killed in those murder
drowned—their bodies floating
downstream to the miller’s cove.
A boy in Kentucky hears his uncle
fiddle through his nights. Gypsy
tunes and Irish reels riff
in his mind and stick.
Someone gifts him a mandolin.
He fingers the neck
takes the open fifths
into the choir of his heart.
He learns the strings, first
strumming and plucking
then brushing and picking.
They vibrate, then ring,
sing back to the camp fires
in Romania, back to the suppers
of lamb and mint, back
to the baby dozing
as her father unwraps
his cobza and casts out
a tune for the rising moon.