The Summer Elvis Presley Died
Mother cut okra off the vine, thinking she’d fix gumbo for supper that June night. Her fingers and hands itched. Still, she cut the tender pods off the plant, and discarded the hard ones to wither on the ground. A silver gray haze of smoke foamed from a car’s exhaust pipe. Few unexpected visitors drove this road since once they passed the farm they had to cross the old wood bridge and guide their vehicles over uneven slats. Tom Davenport, the County Commissioner for District 3, sent his boys out to grate the road at the beginning of the week, and the silvery haze shifted into a purple reservoir from the infrequent shower that settled into puddles that resembled for a brief couple of days an artificial lake. “These people don’t know the lay of the land,” she mumbled into the summer sauna.
The vehicle turned in at the mailbox and followed the gravel entrance with pecan trees on each side. They weren’t expecting company, and Mother told herself it must be an Amway salesperson hawking the glories of Nutrilite, the only company to grow and harvest the plants that would become the vitamins they sold. She’d best take her bowl with its three pods of okra and get back to the house or Daddy’d end up buying a two-year supply of vitamins they did not need.
When the car got closer and she saw the dark blue vinyl top, she reckoned the visitor was Polly Jobe, a nurse at the hospital where Mother directed a three person staff of kitchen employees and jokingly labeled herself the Chief Cook and Bottle Washer. Polly and her husband Eldon were prominent members of East Side Church of Christ, and Mother thought Polly put on airs when she haughtily quoted from the ads that her “1977 Williamsburg Edition of the Lincoln Continental provided a conservative design for its buyers.”
Just the day before, Polly intrusively pleaded for Mother to share the truth about my sister Natalie’s roommate Esperanza, who’d gone off to nursing school and gotten herself impregnated by the overweight, married son of rancher who lived on his father’s place in Rosebud-Lott. Natalie and her friend spent more time at the Melody Ranch two-stepping their way to sure destruction and nursing hangovers. Polly told Mother, “And her daddy’s gone to live in Fort Worth with a Mexican whore.” Still, Mother said nothing. In desperation, Polly added, “I never knew any Mexicans until they moved to Lindsey. Now, I see they’re just like all the other damned Mexicans.”
Mother had already suppressed her urge to remind Polly that folks in Lindsey whispered tales about her pharmacist son who lived in Oak Lawn with his boyfriend Guillermo. Mother responded, “It’s not Mexican. It’s being human.”
By the time Mother got to the house, Daddy had finished picking apricots and peaches from the fruit trees. His half-filled bucket sat on the ground in front of the greenhouse he built for Mother when we got back from a Christmas vacation trip to the Rio Grande Valley where we drank freshly squeezed lemonade made from oversized Valley lemons. Mother insisted they buy lemon trees and two sabal mexicana palms because she cherished the sights of the Valley, which was really a delta, and of memories the trip held for her. Daddy built the greenhouse, and they gave visitors lemons when they were in season. The palm trees were not so lucky and waned their way to death a couple of years afterwards.
When Mother reached the greenhouse, Daddy stood in deep conversation with Brother Jobe and Brother Jackson. By the compliant movement of Daddy’s head bobbing up and down, Mother immediately decided he might as well have bought that two-year supply of Nutrilite. “What do they want?” Mother asked.
Daddy replied, “To talk to Natalie. That’s all.”
“About what?” Mother asked.
One of the men drawled, “The missus saw your daughter today at college registration. Esperanza’s mother thinks they’re staying with your other daughter in Midland. What’s going on here? That’s all we want to know so we can give her mother some emotional relief.”
Daddy told Mother to send Natalie outside. “No mother should suffer like this,” Daddy said, an echo of the words he just heard from the church brethren.
“I’ll talk to Natalie on my own, and we’ll go from there in deciding what to do.”
Shifting from one foot to another, the brethren glared at Daddy while Mother walked up the pavement to the parlor that used to be my bedroom. Natalie lifted the wobbly window blinds, and my youngest sister Grace turned down the record player where Elvis sang “Love Me Tender.”
Mother told Grace to turn off the music. “Natalie,” she said, “People in town are talking. These men are right. Esperanza’s mother has a right to know where she is, but it’s not their right to force you to tell them. But where is she?”
“She’s staying with Sandra Sue McKnight and her husband Jerry.” The mumps left Sandra Sue barren at age sixteen. Right out of high school, she married the assistant director of the funeral home. His pale white face, pitted with acne, reminded me of a nectarine pit. They moved to Abilene, where the marriage soon ended, and she married her divorce attorney whose white hair made him look older than her parents, really almost as old as her grandmother who lived down the street from my grandmother.
Mother told Natalie to call Esperanza and tell her the men from the church had driven down spindly gravel roads to get to our house. When Natalie got off the phone, Mother went outside and told the men, “We will talk to her mother, not to you.” She commanded them to leave our property, and she and Natalie drove to Esperanza’s house on the edge of town.
Mother avoided a pick-up truck on the narrow bridge just before they crossed the bridge two hundred yards from the clapboard Church of Christ we attended after we moved from Fort Worth to a ramshackle house where cold winds pierced us to the bone. That year, Daddy worked as an aircraft mechanic at Chance Vought in Fort Worth, and she did not have a drivers’ license nor a car to whisk her away from the howling wolves that enveloped her new world. A Texas blizzard prevented him from coming home, and Mother counted heartbeats where her idiopathic tachycardia made her gulp for air like she was drinking ice tea.
Natalie skipped across mounds of snow to the chicken coop. People called her precocious when she fed raw eggs to our dog Tip. She never understood how Daddy figured out her crime, which could have led to an egg-sucking dog that raided chicken coops. Daddy whipped her for her transgression; now she was too old for that, but Mother told her, “We spent hard-earned money sending you off into a new world. Why did you think your grades wouldn’t suffer? You don’t meet men who plan on settling down and raising a family.” Mother didn’t teach us to settle down with our high school sweethearts and preferred none of us date seriously until after we finished college.
Maybe, for the first time in her life, Natalie had no response. She huddled against the car door when Mother veered into the left lane as a neon-black Dodge Ram pickup faced her head-on at the dirt mound where Miss Nancy lived in a single-wide trailer with white aluminum siding. Almost every day her dog Tricks rode next to her to the Allard’s Crossing Store to buy tuna and chicken in a can and Rice Krispies.
When Mother put on the brakes to turn into the gravel drive where Esperanza lived, the church men put on their brakes and attempted to follow Mother and Natalie into the white house with its red trim and paint that peeled off the wood. Mother announced, “We said we would talk to Esperanza’s mother—not you.”
“But… but…” they stammered. “She’s expecting us.”
“She can look out her window and see you’re here. That’s enough.”
The men whittled broken limbs with their pocket knives while Mother and Natalie went inside. “We’re here,” Mother’s voice must have sounded like a deep echo in a deeper canyon than either one expected to hear that day at the end of August in 1976 when they unpacked clothes and the girls chose bedrooms. That day Esperanza’s mother clutched her daughter’s hand and did not let go. This day, she grasped Natalie’s hand and cried in desperation, “Where is my daughter?”
“Here is her phone number. She can explain it all.” Mother thrust into Mrs. Sanchez’s hand a yellow legal pad note, and they waited.
“I will call. We thank you. Very much we thank you.”
Lindsey Tribune Herald
August 16, 1977
Jerry and Sandra Sue (McKnight) Kinney, Jr., of Duncanville welcome into their home Shaundra Sue, their long awaited child. Proud grandparents are Jerry and Alma Sue Kinney and Dwight and Verona Allison.
Donna Walker-Nixon was a full professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, where she received the distinction of receiving the Mary Stevens Piper award for excellence in teaching. She currently serves as an adjunct lecturer at Baylor. She lists her five primary professional achievements as 1) founding Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature in 1997, 2) co-editing the Her Texas series with her friend and mentor James Ward Lee, 3) co-founding The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas 4) publishing her novel Canaan’s Oothoon, and 5) serving as lead editor Her Texas, which has boosted Donna’s faith that the voices of women writers and artists truly mean something to both men and women.