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January 30, 2023

Ballads of Blond Elvis

By John Haymaker

I.

Saturday night. April 1957. Not much to do in small town America besides raise the dead. In this Arkansas town with few places to gather for nightlife, the cemetery became a hangout for college kids home on spring break. Floodlights planted years ago just below ground level struggled then as now to shine through dingy, moss covered glass encircling the perimeter of the marble mausoleum. A short set of marble steps still leads up through the balustrade to a promenade and portico, crypts within housed behind brass-framed glass doors.

Back then, headlights bounced across the lace of wrought iron cemetery gates. A parade of cars turned in, creeping along the narrow lane revealing row after row of headstones, neatly spaced like dominoes, but some so old they were ready to topple and fall. Eight or nine cars, rusted-out jalopies, Chevys, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs sporting fins and riding on whitewalls rumbled along the narrow lane. The weak, tinny sound of rock ‘n’ roll playing over AM radio invaded the stillness, barely audible over the low rumble of engines. The cars encircled the mausoleum and stopped. Engines cut out and a crosscurrent of rock ‘n’ roll blared from open windows. Headlights flickered off and the full moon shone on the mausoleum like a movie set.

Car doors opened. Guys with crewcuts and flattops in pleated pants and letter jackets exited. Their dates laughed and giggled. One guy clenched the neck of a whiskey bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag, another a quart of beer. They passed the bottles back and forth intermittently, offering sips to the young women. Then all raced in pairs up the steps – already snapping fingers, breaking into dance on the promenade.

Only Verna ascended alone, a doleful brunette with bobbed hair and red lipstick in a skirt and blouse. She leaned back against the balustrade watching the other kids jitterbugging, twisting and clicking their heels on the promenade.

“Hey Verna, where’s Eddie tonight?” a voice called out.

“His ma caught him sneaking out.”

“Again?”

Verna nodded and shrugged. She swigged when offered a drink by a couple dancing nearby.

Then a single headlight bounced across the cemetery gates, and the rhythmic staccato blare of a primed motorbike piston drowned out the music as it approached. The rider circled the roundabout twice before edging between cars, rolling to a stop and planting his boots on the marble walk as he throttled the engine of his Harley.

II.

It was the new kid, the green-eyed blond, the one the young women had swooned over ever since his arrival in town. They knew him from the gas station where he pumped gas, wiped windshields and ran a comb endlessly through his pompadour. Wasn’t a woman in the crowd didn’t train eyes on him – the wild one wearing white T-shirt, indigo jeans and black leather jacket.

“Hey Elvis, kill the engine,” a bully boy shouted and flicked a cigarette butt sparking toward the steps.

“More like Blond Elvis,” another chided to a chorus of laughter.

His date smacked his arm a good one. “His name’s Glenn, smarty.”

Glenn leaned back on his bike a moment, grinned and cut the engine.

“You bring any alcohol Blond Elvis – or whatever name you go by?” a joker chimed in.

Glenn shook his head saying, “Drank it, but I’ve got ID says I’m twenty-one.” He could pass for it too, although he was just seventeen.

“So make yourself useful and go buy us some. Here, we’ll take up a collection.”

“Sure. Anyone want to ride along?” Glenn asked, eyeing the only single girl there. Verna hesitated, then locked eyes with him. She skipped toward the bike with the cash everyone chipped in, her bobbed hair and breasts bouncing as buoyant as her skirt.

A chorus of coos arose among the young woman: “Ooo Verna, way to go.”

“Yeah, good on you, Verna.”

“I’m telling Eddie,” the joker shouted. His date thumped the back of his head, saying, “No you won’t.”

Verna straddled the back of the bike. Glenn pulled her hands around his waist, kick started the cycle and revved the engine. The mausoleum vibrated as he circled the roundabout full-throttle before roaring down the lane. His headlight bounced across the cemetery and the distant gates.

III.

When the motor cycle roared back, Verna held a grocery sack sandwiched between her and Glenn. Glenn maneuvered the bike between the ring of cars, aimed the bike straight up the steps and rode right into the middle of the promenade. The headlamp light bounced over bottles and paper bags littering the promenade. Then all eyes turned to the delivery, and the dancing stopped as all backed up to make way. Verna shifted the bag to Glenn’s arms as she dismounted, and Glenn passed out clinking bottles from the bag to the guys who looked at Glenn with a new respect. Glenn smirked, reveling in his new found status.

A few women ran their fingers over the curves of the bike. “Hey, hey, keep your fingers over here,” her date said, but she continued to caress the bike. Infused with freely flowing alcohol, the rock party soon livened up again and there were no hard feelings. Glenn roared his bike down the steps and cut the engine.

When he rejoined Verna on the promenade, Glenn leaned against the balustrade, bobbed his head and tapped a foot to the music. He sipped off a brandy flask and offered her a taste. She took a big swig, wiping the bottom of her lip gently so as not to smear her lipstick.

“It’s pretty good, huh?”

“A little sweet. What is that, peach?”

“Apricot. Hey, let’s dance some more,” he said, already reaching for her hand.

“I don’t know. I’m more in a mood to go walking right now,” Verna said.

“Even better.” Glenn sipped again as they turned to go. Before he could offer her another sip, Verna reached for the bottle and nodded along to an Elvis crooner, First in Line. Heads turned and a few snickers followed as the pair descended the stairs and disappeared into shadows beneath tree boughs.

“I’ve never been out here,” Verna said. “Feels kind of spooky.”

“Nothing to worry about. It’s only rock and shadows,” Glenn assured her, clasped her hands and teased her with a few slow-dance moves, coaxing her to sway along. The full moon cast sketchy light through the oak boughs as Glenn leaned Verna against the tree. He caressed her there, grinding his loin against hers until she was primed.

“Not here,” she said. “I feel like people are watching.”

“Your friends can’t see us here.”

“It’s not them I mean,” Verna said looking around at nearby headstones.

Glenn laughed and pulled Verna close. “They’re no bother, darling. You’re out here with me.”

Verna blushed. “Well, let’s be quick about it,” she said and unbuckled his jeans.

He lifted her skirt as rock ‘n’ roll played in the distance. Their moans and groans seemed like background vocals to the song playing.

IV.

Just weeks later, Verna showed up at the gas station early one morning in her ma’s Olds. She waited in line for her turn to get a fill-up from Glenn, who donned a grey service uniform and his signature blond pompadour. Glenn grinned and slicked back his hair as he motioned for her to roll the Olds forward. As he lifted the pump nozzle, Verna stepped out, spoiling for a quarrel with him. “You’ve sure been making yourself scarce. I’m preggers wouldn’t you know.”

“Preggers, huh?” he said, locking the pump handle latch in place. “Don’t you worry. I’ll put a ring on your finger. Damned sure I will.”

“With the chump change you earn pumping gas, I’ll bet you can’t afford a ring.”

“I’ll make it right, you’ll see,” he said, releasing the pump latch and pulling the nozzle out of the Olds. “Here, no charge for this,” he said, perspiration beading on his forehead. “You come to my place later. We’ll talk.”

Verna felt it only right to tell her ma the predicament she was in. “Girl, you don’t need to tell me you’re pregnant. You think I haven’t heard the rumors flying around town? Making a scene like that at the cemetery, for shame. A kid like that will never have a chance.”

After that row, Glenn let Verna shack up with him in his boarding house room. It was cramped space, but Glenn seldom came home once Verna moved in. The morning Verna went into labor, Glenn was no where to be found. She called the gas station: “He never did come to work this morning. If you see him, tell him to get his butt down here.” She tried the local bar, but the bar tender set her straight: “He came in early this morning, tied one on and left. Didn’t say where he was going.” With contractions coming in regular bouts, Verna relented to calling a taxi.

V.

She gave birth to a healthy boy forty minutes later in the maternity ward of St. Mary’s Hospital. When Verna’s ma got wind of her daughter’s delivery, she headed to the recovery room toting a pink and white two-toned plastic Motorola radio, which she sat on the bedside table and tuned it to a station playing something light and trifling as a Mozart quartet. “I came as soon as I heard, honey. You can’t be alone at a time like this,” she said as she looked around the room, confirming what she suspected – that Glenn would be a no-show. Verna reached to turn the dial to a rock ‘n’ roll station, then hummed along to Love Me Tender.

A nun carried in Verna’s newborn, cleaned and swaddled in a blanket that left only the face exposed, still flush with blood. Eyeing the infant’s name stitched on the brim of a tiny blue stocking hat, the nun said, “Storm is such a sweet name for a boy.”

“Thanks. If I’d had a girl, I’d have named her Stormy.” Verna smiled and sat up, eager to cradle the infant. The nun helped lower Verna’s gown for the first breastfeeding. Verna felt blissful, and Verna’s ma herself couldn’t help smiling. She stood by stroking Verna’s hair back as a news update broke in over the music:

"Two armed men robbed the Fourth National just minutes ago leaving one teller dead and taking only a few hundred in cash. Responding to an APB, state troopers pursued the getaway car at high speed until it skid across ice and wrapped around a telephone pole. The getaway driver remains in stable condition after suffering a gash to the forehead. The gunman, Glenn Parker, plowed through the windshield headfirst and lay spread eagled on the icy road twenty yards from the vehicle. He was pronounced dead at the scene."

Verna covered her mouth with a quivering hand, but then cried out, “Please no. Please not Glenn.” Verna’s newborn scowled and cried in fits and starts. Verna’s ma sighed, lifted the baby from Verna’s arms and passed it off to the bewildered nun. “Shush, little one,” she said to the baby as she scurried from the room, “everything will be all right.”

A nurse arrived with a hypodermic. “This will help you relax,” she said, patting Verna to sit back before administering the injection. Verna’s eyes welled red and puffy. As she wept, she pulled the bed sheet over her head. Verna’s ma silenced the radio and stood beside the bed holding her daughter’s hand.

VI.

Verna always sought to shield Storm from the shameful circumstances surrounding his birth. But in a small town like that, gossip wouldn’t keep such a thing from the kid. Especially when news broke that long before Glenn blew into their town, he’d been wanted for armed robbery and murder in another state. No matter, Storm was proud of it. In his estimation, a man robbing a bank to take care of him and his ma was pretty cool. Besides, being the son of a bank robber gave him instant street creds, and he wore it like a badge. “I want to grow up and be just like him,” Storm loved to say.

Only trouble was, he couldn’t wait to grow up before starting his life of crime. He got caught swiping candy from a mom and pop shop at age five. Sending him to church did no good – he got caught stealing from the collection plate during church service when he was seven. By ten, he had a police record taller than he was – and that was only the crimes they could pin on him.

Storm turned out to be the perfect name for such a kid. He had his daddy’s eyes, green as a summer squall with a streak of brown across the left eye like a lightning bolt. And he got his daddy’s blond locks, but he never wore it slicked back. Styles had changed: Elvis was out and the Beach Boys were in. Storm styled his hair with bangs – even streaked his hair with lemon juice and bathed it in sunlight once in a while to make sure the glint caught girls’ eyes.

As his grandma would say, “That one never could leave the girls alone.” It was true the kid was frisky out of the gate, but girls couldn’t leave him alone either. Rumors swirled that Storm had defiled many in town. Mothers and fathers could only hope their own daughters hadn’t been stung by his serpent. “Storm is the devil’s spawn,” the townsfolk said of him.

His ma moved Heaven and Earth to help him, but whatever part she moved, only seemed to make his hell larger. Despite her best efforts, Storm entered the Fourth National Bank the morning of his seventeenth birthday and stuck a pistol in the teller’s face, passed her a grocery sack and said, “Do me proud, won’t nobody get hurt.” She complied and returned the sack to him with fresh bills from the till, amounting to as much as one thousand dollars. As Storm headed out the door, a security guard rushed him: Storm turned round and opened fire, sparing the teller but killing the security guard stone cold.

News of the robbery and Storm’s subsequent arrest surprised no one. Soon or late, something of the kind was expected. Vengeful town leaders procured a signed and sealed death warrant ensuring Storm met with swift justice. The morning of his execution, a year to the day after the robbery, townsfolk thanked the Lord that the devilment was gone. All but for a young mother nursing her towheaded year-old daughter. “If you don’t have the greenest eyes,” she whispered, “just like your father’s.”








Article © John Haymaker. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-12-12
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