It’s Elvis Presley’s 82nd birthday, so why not celebrate it with a great read? In LAST RIDE TO GRACELAND by Kim Wright, blues musician Cory Ainswort discovers that her father just might have been the King of Rock n’Roll himself. On a road trip that retraces the exact route her mother took 37 years ago, Cory learns the secrets of her mother’s past, learning more about her–and herself–along the way than she ever could have known.
Put on an old record, cozy up in your favorite chair, and enjoy this excerpt while eating Elvis’s signature peanut butter, bacon, and fried banana sandwich. Don’t worry. We won’t tell anyone you broke your New Year’s resolution.
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I was a premature baby who weighed nine pounds and nine ounces. Yeah, I know. Impossible. But you have to understand that this particular kind of medical miracle is common in the rural South. Jesus still looks down from billboards around here and people still care what their neighbors think. We pray and we salute . . . and most of all, we lie. It’s why we have so many good writers per capita, and so many bad writers too, because all of us learned how to bend the truth before we could even half talk.
This may sound bad, until you consider that most people only lie to protect something they love, like their family or their dignity or their reputation. A sense of decorum can be a good thing. In fact, the world doesn’t have enough of it. I remember my grandmother crying when she took me to a touring show of Fiddler on the Roof in Savannah, wiping her eyes when they sang “Tradition,” and saying, “That’s my life, Cory Beth, that’s me up and down. Except for the part where they’re Jewish.”
So imagine yourself in a version of Fiddler on the Roof where the traditions involve tying up rice in little pink net packets before you throw them at the bride, hiding the dark meat at the bottom of the chicken salad so the ladies in the prayer circle won’t think you’re trash, sending birthday gifts to people you can’t stand because they sent you one back in 1997 and now neither one of you knows how to break the cycle. That’s right. Imagine yourself in a very polite insane asylum. Then you’ll have some sense of how I grew up.
Beaufort, South Carolina, is the Old South. Not like Atlanta with its hip-hop or Charlotte with its banks or Florida with Walt Disney and all those serial killers. That’s a whole different world. That’s the part of the South that more or less won the war, and people forget that the rest of us exist. We’re just a place they drive through on their way to somewhere else. When they’re forced to stop for something—gas or firecrackers or barbecue or watermelons—they get back into their cars and shake their heads and say, “Can you believe that?” They think we’re slow. But we’re not really slow. We just take longer to get there. We meander and backtrack and beat around the bush, which I guess you think is what I’m doing now.
But I do have a point and here it comes: saying that I was born seven months and four days after my parents got married is just one way to figure the math. Another way is to say I was born seven months and nine days after my mama left Graceland, driving home in some madcap rush because she suddenly realized out of nowhere that she’d made a mistake. Maybe she shouldn’t have gone on the road as a backup singer, shouldn’t have dyed her hair and lined her eyes and chased the bright lights of rock and roll. Maybe she should’ve stayed home and married the local boy, the one who loved her so bad he asked her to marry him on the very night they both graduated from Leland Howey High. She couldn’t see then that her true destiny was standing right in front of her. She was eighteen and had something to prove.
So Laura Berry left Beaufort, and when the door slammed behind her, it slammed right on Bradley Ainsworth’s heart. She toured and he waited, tinkering his life away in the family concrete business until that day . . . that day in the late summer of 1977, when it was so hot that the air shimmered and he looked up, thinking at first it was the sweat in his eyes that deceived him. But no, there she truly was, Laura, the love of his life, walking toward him across the lawn. The makeup was wiped off her face. The boots were gone and the leather jacket too, and her hair was pulled back, plain as truth, and her arms were stretched out before her like some kind of sleepwalker. She was sorry, she told him. So very sorry. She’d seen the world and she’d seen enough. She’d left Memphis and driven straight through the night, crying and praying and drinking truck stop coffee just to keep her going. All she knew was she had to get home. Would he still have her? Was it too late?
In answer, he picked her up and swung her around. Swung her in a big circle, and when she tried to apologize again, he told her to hush, that their year apart had never happened. She was his girl, always had been, and there was no need to talk about it any other way. They’d get married the very next day, with her daddy in the pulpit and the whole town in the pews, and then the rest of their lives would come spooling out like silk, one sweet thing following another, just like they’d planned.
Seven months and four days later, there I was. So big and strong that everyone always claimed I lifted my head and looked right at Laura and Bradley in the delivery room as if to say, “Really? You’re both sure? This is the story we’ve decided to go with?”
Bradley Ainsworth is a good man. He nursed my mother when breast cancer took her, way too young, and he did all the things a father is supposed to do. I can still see him pushing the chalk machine that lined the soccer field at the elementary school, eating the Girl Scout cookies I was too shy to sell, scowling at my dates and asking why they thought they were good enough to take his baby to the dance. He lives simple and true. He votes Republican and sits on the session of the First Presbyterian Church of Beaufort, and I’d never want to hurt him, but math is math and the facts are the facts and the truth can only stay hidden for so long, even in the South. I’ve known it all my life and it’s time to do something about it. Most of the people I could hurt are dead, save for Bradley, and who knows, the truth might set him free too—just a little bit. Deep down he’s got to know it, as good as I do, so we may as well both take a deep breath and say it out loud.
Elvis Presley is my real daddy.
I’m not just pulling all this out of my ass. It’s not just the undeniable biological fact that my mama must have already been knocked up when she went tearing from Memphis to Beaufort, driving wild-assed through the night and plotting how to foist another man’s baby onto her gullible high school sweetheart. And it’s not just the fact I’ve always known, deep in my gut, that I was raised by the wrong family and in the wrong place. The fact that I always knew there was something in me that was meant for greater things, or the fact that I can sing.
And I can, you know, like an angel and like a devil too.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Telling the end before I tell the beginning. The real proof of my identity started revealing itself yesterday afternoon, when I went into the bar to get my check.
I work at a place named Bruiser’s. I don’t know why. I don’t mean I don’t know why I work there, because they pay me and the musical performance opportunities in a town the size of Beaufort are limited. What I mean is, I don’t know why they call it Bruiser’s. It makes it sound like a biker bar, like some sort of dive where fights break out, and it’s actually a sweet little café located right on the inlet waterway. I play out on the deck and they serve peel-and-eat shrimp by the bucket. I cover Jimmy Buffett, Joni Mitchell, Chris Isaak, maybe even a little Van Morrison. Some of my own stuff now and then, although the owner doesn’t like it when I do. People start going to the bathroom or calling for their checks.
Anybody who works at Bruiser’s can eat free before their shift starts, and nearly all of us take advantage of the owner Gerry’s uncharacteristic generosity on this particular point, even though we know good and well that we’re just eating whatever didn’t move the night before. The servers sit with the other servers, and cooks sit with cooks, and the talent for the night sits at a separate table, which I imagine would be fine if you were a band, but can be a little lonely for a solo act like me. I bring a book. I don’t always read it but I keep it in the car, just for Thursday and Friday afternoons, so I can pretend to be busy as I sit there, peeling my shrimp, squeezing my lemons, watching the sun go down across the bay. It feels like high school, which pretty much everything does, in the end. So it’s yesterday and I’m almost finished when I look up to see Gerry coming toward me carrying a beer, which is all foamy because the line starts to spit when it’s near dead, and a message.
“Your daddy called for you,” Gerry says.
“Does he want me to call him back?”
“Nah. He just said tell you to ship him his waders.”
“His waders? I don’t know how to ship him his waders. I don’t even know what a sentence like that means.”
Gerry’s brow wrinkles. “Wait a minute. I wrote it down.”
He goes back into the restaurant, sipping the foam as he walks. I play at Bruiser’s every weekend during the season, which is probably why Bradley knew to leave a message for me here. I push my plate away and consider the table of servers clustered on the level below me. College kids, mostly, either up from the design school in Savannah or down from the College of Charleston. They have that old-money, new-clothes look and they like the idea of slumming it, a dozen of them sharing a rental on the waterway, sleeping on the beach all day and serving at night. Slumming’s fun when it’s temporary, when you know you can go home to your real life at some point. Kids like this come to the lowcountry every summer, drifting in and out with the tide, and I used to sleep with one or two of the boys every season. They were young and pretty and there for the taking, just like a pile of yesterday’s shrimp, and I was younger and prettier then too.
Julie Mackey was my roommate through most of my twenties and she used to get a new tattoo every Memorial Day to mark the start of the season. She called the summer boys “the buffet.” “Let’s cruise the buffet,” she’d say in the middle of May, when the bars and lifeguard stands started hiring and we’d walk through town, checking out what this particular season had in store. “Looks like I’m going to need an extra big plate this year,” Julie would sometimes say. She sang for this down-and-dirty cover band and could growl out a song just like Janis Joplin. That same sort of grit in her voice, in her life. “Looks like I’m going to be going back for seconds,” she’d say on summers when the buffet looked especially bountiful, and whenever Julie talked like that, you always got the feeling she was getting ready to toss aside a cigarette, even though I never knew the girl to smoke.
Julie’s married now. Got a couple of kids, and I don’t know what she did with the tattoos, with that stoned-looking sea turtle on her shoulder or the merman on her breast. Her growl has tamed down to a purr and I see her sometimes—this town’s the size that you see everyone sometimes—but she never seems embarrassed to run into me. We probably both should be a little embarrassed—she by what she once was, me by what I still am. It’s a fine thing to run wild in your twenties, even okay to hang on to that life as you round thirty, but now . . . to be thirty-seven and still working the buffet? Not so good. My eyes slide past the server boys and toward the bay where the sailboats bob and the light’s gone all pink and purple.
So Bradley’s trying to get in touch with me. He wants me to ship him his waders, whatever the hell that means.
I’ve had some financial embarrassment as of late. My iPhone contract’s been canceled. It’s temporary, just until the first of the month, or maybe just until the first of the month after that, but I guess Bradley must have called me and gotten some message about how his daughter is a coming-up-on-forty loser who lives in a trailer and plays waterfront bars and sleeps with the wrong men. Frat kids, transients, bassists with a coke problem, salesmen with a wife problem, an associate pastor who’s begun to doubt that God is listening. Those are my boys. I don’t know if AT&T would say all that on a recording, but they’re probably thinking it, and besides, Bradley knows well enough that his baby girl’s teetering on the precipice of becoming white trash. I’m the reason he hasn’t run for the school board, even though everybody keeps telling him he should.
It’s mysterious. Bradley went down to Clearwater to fish over the Memorial Day weekend, and if he forgot his waders, as he evidently did, why wouldn’t he go into some Dick’s Sporting Goods or Bass Pro Shop down there and pick up a set? Mailing them to Florida, assuming I can even find the damn things, is going to cost a fortune. But then again, Bradley has big feet. Size fourteens, the feet of a basketball player. I plop my own on a chair and study them. Size fives, with high arches and short toes. Small as a child’s.
“What’re you singing tonight?” one of the servers calls over. He obviously started drinking at about noon and he’s already sunburned. I don’t know why he’s talking to me. I guess he’s just trying to be nice.
“Haven’t decided yet,” I call back. He’s tilted so far in his chair that he’s about to go clattering onto the deck.
“ABE,” he says with a wink. “Anything but Elvis.”
How the hell does this boy know I don’t sing Elvis? I squint at his grinning face, trying to decide if he’s one of the return kids and I’m supposed to remember him from last year. I don’t think I ever slept with him, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. I don’t have a good memory for faces, or names, or the capitals of South America, or the order of the presidents, or anything in particular except song lyrics. I can hear a song once and know all the words, which is a useful gift when you’re a troubadour for hire. When you’re a girl who works the waterway, moving from one club to the next and never quite sure what her clientele du jour will be. Motorcycle gangs one night. Golfers the next. Then a place that caters to snowbirds from New York and Pennsylvania, those states where it seems like nobody ever stays home. So I have to be prepared to cover any song they request and I can, up to a certain point.
But every place that hires me knows I won’t play Elvis. I can’t. I don’t know exactly why. I start up and something always happens. My throat closes or I get a cough or I stumble around with the lyrics, have trouble calling them up even though I know every line, as good as I know my own name.
Here’s the perfect example. There was a night almost exactly a year ago, again at the start of the summer, when I was sitting on this same deck, maybe even sitting at this same table and looking out at the waterway at just this same pretty angle, but on this particular night two rather odd things converged at once. The first was that my mother came in. Or I guess I should say she came out. She must have come into Bruiser’s and walked through the indoor part, all the way through to the deck, which was crowded that night, and it took me a moment to spot her. Mama hardly ever dropped by Bruiser’s, and never without Bradley, much less on a summer weekend when the place was packed. And—stranger yet to say—she climbed up on one of the high-top chairs that somebody had pulled over by the railing and she ordered herself a peach daiquiri. It was what she drank when she drank—a rare occasion in itself, just birthdays and cruises—but she liked those fruity, brunch-type cocktails that come with flowers and fruit bobbing in them.
It threw me to look up and see her sitting there by herself, raising her drink to me and smiling as I started my set. It wasn’t like she hadn’t heard me sing a thousand times, even though she’d heard the Church Cory a lot more than she’d heard the Bar Cory. But I still think I would’ve been okay with it if the second strange thing hadn’t happened right on the heels of the first. I opened with Van Morrison’s “Moondance”—one of those rare songs that’s appropriate for any situation, including the sight of Laura Berry Ainsworth sitting on a high top drinking daiquiris all alone on a Saturday night—and then this drunk Yankee (is there any other kind?) yells out, “Play ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ ”
“Blue Suede Shoes”? Seriously? Nobody covers that, and besides, like I said, Bruiser’s isn’t the kind of bar where people get liquored up and start screaming out requests at six in the afternoon. I didn’t know what to say. He was loud. It would’ve been impossible to pretend I didn’t hear him, so I obligingly started up with the “one for the money, two of the show” part, but then I segued it into something else. Some sort of old rockabilly, Jerry Lee Lewis or some such, and I slid off the bar stool and worked the crowd, walking between the tables with my guitar, because people like that. If you sing hard enough, they forget what you’re singing, and even the guy who wanted “Blue Suede Shoes” seemed okay with it. So I dodged that bullet. I’d avoided singing Elvis without having to directly say ABE into the microphone, which sounds weird and bitchy, considering that I sing everyone else. Only when I looked over, Mama had gone. Her chair was empty, except for the daiquiri glass perched on the wooden railing, just a little puddle of pink sludge left in the bottom.
I’d hardly ever known Mama to drink, but I’d never known her to drink fast. Later, much later, when she finally told me how sick she was, I put two and two together and figured out that the night she showed up alone and unannounced at Bruiser’s to hear me play was also the day she had gotten the diagnosis. Not just breast cancer, but stage three with a certain very rare mutation that makes whatever’s going to happen to you happen fast. The ragin’ Cajun kind of cancer that takes you from daiquiris to the funeral home in five months flat.
Gerry is coming back, with the note in his hand. “Okay,” he says. “I wrote down everything your daddy said to tell you. First off, he says the water’s rougher than it was last year. They’re surf fishing, not going out in the boat. That’s why he needs his waders.”
Gerry nods. “He says you’re probably thinking that, shit, it’ll cost a blue fortune to ship ’em all the way down there, but you gotta remember how big his feet are. Big old stupid feet you can’t fit into regular waders. He’s the one who said that. Not me.”
Gerry squints down at the note. “So he says to go out to his fishing shack on Polawana, you know the place, and get them. He says they’re in the shack, not the shed, and I’m supposed to stress that. The shack, and not the shed, got it?”
“Don’t go in the shed.”
“I won’t go in the shed.”
“Because the waders are in the shack.”
“I think I can remember.”
“And send them to him collect on delivery at the Clearwater PO.”
He crumples the note in his hand. “What’re you playing tonight?”
“Beach Boys. Maybe even a little Chairman of the Board, some Drifters. You know, the summer stuff. Herald the start of the season. Give ’em what they want.
“Good girl.” Gerry starts to walk away again but he turns back one more time. “And remember,” he says. “Look in the shack, not the shed.”
“Jesus,” I say. “It’s like you guys think I don’t have any sense at all.”
When I get to Bradley’s three acres on Polawana the next day I head straight for the shed. I don’t go out to Polawana very often. It’s Bradley’s equivalent of a man cave, where he goes to fish with his buddies, and it’s where he would escape sometimes, when the pain of watching my mama fade away got too much for him. And even those rare times I’ve gone out there, I don’t think I’ve ever bothered to venture all the way to the shed. It’s right on the water, just this dilapidated little hunk of rotted wood where he keeps parts for his boat. My shoes slide in the muck as I make my way down the hill, holding on to the reeds to steady myself as I go.
I’ve already gotten the waders. They were right inside the door of the two-room shack, leaning against a wall and looking kind of scary, like the legs of a man whose top half has gone missing. I carried them out and put them in the driver’s seat of my Toyota and then, on second thought, I strapped them in. And I should have driven away then and there, task completed, but there was something in the way that Bradley and Gerry had both kept saying “The shack, not the shed” that filled me with some nameless, nonsensical desire to visit the shed. That’s how my mind works. When Granny would leave the house, she’d say, “Don’t stick beans up your nose,” which she meant as a joke, obviously, since there’s absolutely no reason why a sensible person would stick beans up her nose. But the words always hit my soul like an order from God, right up to that day when I was seven and wound up at the regional hospital and learned firsthand that getting a bean extracted from your sinus cavity is a profoundly unpleasant experience.
And another profoundly unpleasant experience might be waiting for me at the bottom of this hill—20/20 stuff. Dateline. Southern Fried Homicide. I’ve seen all the shows and every one of them starts the same way, with some asking-for-it girl out poking around by herself in the boondocks, just like I am now. But I walk over to the shed anyway and look through the grimy, cobwebbed window.
All I see is a car.
Actually, all I see is a piece of a car, a bumper. One of those low-slung muscle car bumpers, and it’s surrounded with bubble wrap. Not just one layer of wrap, but more. I pull back from the window and knock a spider out of my hair.
It takes several yanks before I get the door unstuck and manage to roll it up. When I do, I see the whole vehicle, pointed straight at me. The tires on one side have gone flat, making it tilt off center, and the bubble wrap, crisscrossed at several points with duct tape, has turned what must have once been the clean, elegant lines of the chassis into a lumpy, gray mass. But there’s no denying that this machine has power. A wounded tiger’s still a tiger, after all.
There is no way on God’s green earth that Bradley and Laura Ainsworth ever owned a car like this.
For a moment I can’t decide what to do. I try to circle the car, but it’s so big that it’s claimed the whole shed, with the back bumper pulled up all the way to the wall. I edge sideways along the driver’s side, running my hand over the bubble wrap, half of it popped, and all of it dusty. I look around for something to start cutting the duct tape, but it seems that all the shed holds is the car. There aren’t any fishing tools out here, or any parts for a boat. There never were. It doesn’t shock me in the least to learn that my mama spent years holding something back from me, but the fact that Bradley helped her hide it? For some reason, that shocks me to the core.
There’d been a knife up in the shack. A fishing knife laying on the counter beside the sink, with a long, curved blade, and likely sharp. I scramble up the bank and get it, holding it out as far away from me as possible while I slip-slide my way back down, because with my luck I’ll probably lose my footing and impale myself and my body will roll right into the river and I’ll never be found.
I get back to the shed and try and figure out where to start.
I don’t want to puncture the wrap and scratch the car, but it takes way more effort than I would’ve guessed to saw through the duct tape, so I decide to tackle one corner at a time. First the tape, then the bubble wrap, then the beach towels beneath that. First there’s one that says HOTEL CALIFORNIA and another one that says SUPER BOWL X CHAMPIONS PITTSBURGH STEELERS. Another one says ALOHA FROM HAWAII and has a big orchid.
But when I peel back that final layer of 1970s nostalgia, the left bumper on the driver’s side is freed and for the first time I can see what I’m working with. The car is black. Shiny. Its cocoon has left the finish just as flawless as the day it rolled off the dealer’s lot. And when I give the next segment of bubble wrap a yank, a whole clump falls off at once, revealing the flank. I put my hand on the driver’s-side door and, with a prayer to nobody in particular, open it.
The interior is red. Leather everywhere. Everywhere except where there’s gold. Not tarnished. Shiny as God, even now. A Styrofoam cup sits in one side of the cup holder, the rim smudged with cherry red lipstick. There are other cups in the floor of the passenger side, along with crumpled paper bags. A napkin, flecked with brown, as if someone tried to wipe chocolate off their mouth. And a map. A plain old filling station map like I remember from my childhood, the kind that was always impossible to fold back into eight perfect segments. The person who last drove this car didn’t even bother trying. The map accordions its way across the red leather seat and onto the floor. Sunglasses, oversized, aviator style, dangle from the rearview mirror.
And there’s a smell that wafts up too—not the mustiness you’d expect, or the raw, wet decay of the river, but something subtler and more refined. A woman’s perfume, spicy and sweet, some scent they don’t make anymore, mixed in with a darker, more masculine aroma. The horse-barn smell of tobacco.
I’ve opened a time capsule.