Once there was a jetliner carrying, among its passengers, a group of peasants from a small farming village. They were all from one family, on their way to visit relatives, and it was the first time any of them had been on an airplane. It must have been amusing for the other passengers, watching the peasants marvel at everything: the window shades, the tray tables, the in-flight magazine, and of course the earth growing smaller and smaller beneath them until they were floating in the clouds. When the flight attendants announced it was time for meal service, the peasants knew exactly what to do: they took out their cooking pot and their meat and their matches, and they started a fire in the aisle of the plane.
At this point, my father stopped talking and stretched out his legs, knocking the back of my seat. This was the second airplane story he’d told us since we left my sister Karen’s house two hours earlier, the fifth since he arrived from Roanoke two days ago.
“So what happened?” Karen asked, glancing at our father in the rear view mirror, but I didn’t ask because I already knew what happened.
“It crashed,” my father and I said simultaneously.
“Annie, you heard about this!” he said, delighted.
“No, it’s just all of your airplane stories end up with the plane crashing,” I told him.
“You noticed that.” He sighed miserably and wiped at the sweat on his forehead. It was the day after the Fourth of July, and no amount of air conditioning could fully cool the interior of Karen’s black Honda.
“Who wants Cracker Barrel?” my sister said, already swerving into the right lane. We were a half hour from Graceland and we had stopped at a Cracker Barrel an hour ago, when our father started to get weepy about our mother. I was starting to think Cracker Barrel was a coping mechanism my sister adopted because she was the mother of Richie and Ronnie, five-year-old twin lunatics: When things get stressful or someone starts to cry, head for pancakes and old timey candy.
“I could go for another peg game,” our father said now, but then he gave a long, shuddery sigh as if he was imagining those pegs going right into his heart or his eye socket. He’d been acting weird ever since our mother died in January, calling me every night to ask how I was and what I was learning in college. The only reason I was living in Mississippi was because my mother offered to pay tuition if I went to school close to Karen – “So she can keep an eye on you.” I saw her maybe once a month, even though we lived ten minutes from each other.
I didn’t have the heart to tell my father I’d stopped going to classes, so I started making things up about the books I was reading that didn’t exist, and telling him historical facts that were also made up. Sometimes I would tell him something completely ridiculous, because he was a smart person and really ought to catch on. But even when I told him that I was learning about the warlords of Ipanema (I got that from an old song my crazy ex-boyfriend used to like) and how they starved the population and caused the banana riots of 1876, he just said, “That’s a shame. I guess war and death are a part of life, aren’t they?” After that I made up things like the Kumquat Festival and the Dancing Children of the Amazon. Cheerful things. And he would tell me how much fun he was having with the flight simulator Karen and I got him for Christmas. He kept crashing, he told me, but the only way not to crash was to learn more about why planes crashed to begin with. “That’s nice,” I said.
His mood didn’t make much sense, because he hadn’t been married to my mother for eleven years and he couldn’t stand her for many years before that. She remarried and he didn’t, though, so maybe that had something to do with it. (“That’s stupid,” Karen said, when I asked her what she thought of this theory.) But now our mother was dead and he was suddenly acting as if he’d lost the love of his life, though as he described it to us during the divorce, that person hadn’t really existed in the first place.
“You can see Elvis’s planes!” Karen announced, her voice a pitch too high. “Seeing as how they never crashed.”
And our father just mumbled something indecipherable that neither Karen nor I asked him to repeat.
After root beer floats and three peg games (I played twice, Dad once, and Karen refused, saying she forgot her hand sanitizer and imagine the germs on those pegs) we were back in the hot car, following the signs to Elvis Presley Boulevard.
“What are the chances,” our father said from the back seat, “of Elvis living on a road called Elvis Presley Boulevard? What a coincidence!”
Karen gave a polite laugh but I had decided not to laugh at the lame jokes, only at the funny ones. He would have to do better than that.
“I remember when Elvis died,” he said. “I was on vacation with my parents in Philadelphia and the news came on.”
“And?” said Karen. “Did you all cry?”
“No,” our father said. “We didn’t much care. We weren’t big fans.”
“Wait,” I said, turning around in my seat to stare at my father. “Wait, wait, wait. You didn’t care? Why are we going to Graceland? Wasn’t this your idea? I thought this was something that had meaning for you! I thought that’s why we were going!” I had pictured my father weeping by Elvis’s grave and experiencing a cathartic release that would re-set his emotions back to normal.
“No,” my father said. “I thought you and your sister wanted to go.”
“I don’t much care,” Karen said. “I don’t mind his music, though. I mean, some of it’s okay. I thought Annie wanted to go.”
“Actually,” I shouted, the memory dawning on me, “it was Mitch’s idea, and he’s not even here!”
“Oh, right,” said Karen. Mitch was her husband. He hardly said anything, but one of the few things he did say was that he liked Elvis Presley.
“Elvis Presley Boulevard,” said our father. “What are the chances.”
My father had taken flying lessons as a very young man, but he never soloed because of his terrible eyesight. There used to be a framed photo on our living room mantle of him standing beside a baby blue Cessna, looking trim and floppy-haired, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a tan windbreaker. When my parents divorced, the photo disappeared. Did he take it with him when he moved out? Or did my mother throw it out along with his Pentax camera, his wristwatch, his bathrobe, and their wedding album? She even threw out her wedding dress, making a big production of stuffing it only partway into a garbage bag and leaving it on the curb with a poof of white sleeve visible, as if a very thin, invisible woman was trying to climb out.
It was my idea to get our father a flight simulator last Christmas when we came to Roanoke, something to keep him occupied when he got home from his lousy job (he did the books for a long distance carrier that was always on the verge of going out of business). On Christmas Day, Karen and I hovered over his desk chair while he clicked through the various planes he could try; he finally settled on what looked like a bundle of sticks held together with twine.
“Maybe it’s a good thing you never soloed,” Karen said.
“It’s the original Wright Brothers plane,” said our father, clicking some buttons and making the bundle of sticks shudder and start rolling. We watched him crash it five times and finally, unable to bear it any longer, I said, “I’m glad you like your present,” and went back to the living room, where Mitch and the terrible twins were playing Candyland.
We were standing in Elvis’s kitchen when Karen said, in a low and serious voice, “I think we’ve already lost Dad.” I felt like a hot air balloon had crashed inside my chest, killing families and picnickers. I know we have, I thought. And then: But maybe there’s some hope? Then I realized – when she started craning her neck around – that she meant we had literally lost him, that he was no longer behind us or anywhere visible in the sweating crowd.
“Wait here,” I told her, and I pushed my way back through the throng of tourists to find him still standing in Elvis’s white-carpeted living room, leaning over a velvet rope and staring at photographs of the Presley parents. His headphones were dangling from a plastic orange loop.
“This is interesting,” he said, and allowed me to grab him by the elbow and pull him to the kitchen, where Karen was looking peeved.
“Who in their right mind,” she said, “would put carpet in a kitchen?”
I ignored her and put on my headphones and listened to Lisa Marie reminiscing about how the whole family would gather there and cook, sometimes in the middle of the night. I tried to imagine Elvis frying up some eggs, but I didn’t know if I should picture young and hunky Elvis or old and bloated Elvis, so finally I just followed everyone toward the Jungle Room, where the carpet was not only on the floor but also on the ceiling, and a waterfall gurgled with what seemed like tepid enthusiasm.
“Why didn’t we have a room like this in our house?” Karen asked, uncharacteristically jovial, nudging our father in the ribs. His headphones were still dangling, and I wondered if he knew he was supposed to put them on for the entire educational experience. When we were little, our parents would take us to Civil War battlefields and insist that we sit through all the boring reenactment movies and traipse through all the dimly-lit museums featuring bloody bullet-holed uniforms and rusty tin cups and muskets and tattered Gone With the Wind dresses. He would stare rapt at the glass cases, while Karen, our mother and I would linger near the drinking fountain or the gift shop, pretending we were having a good time.
We had all lived in Roanoke, Virginia as a reasonably happy family until I was eight and Karen was fifteen, at which point our parents both turned into Tasmanian devils and our home seemed to shake with hot, invisible winds. I didn’t know it at the time, but our mother was having an affair with the guidance counselor at Karen’s high school, the counselor Karen had been sent to because she was starving herself and pulling out her hair (something she later claimed to have no recollection of, although there was plenty of photographic evidence). Karen started getting better, I was making friends finally – in spite of my giant buck teeth and tendency to hide behind trees or chairs when someone spoke to me – and one Sunday after church our father took us all out to Pizza Hut, where we saw the guidance counselor enjoying after-church dinner with his own wife and children. When my mother burst into tears, I thought it was because she’d eaten some of the hot peppers from the little jar; when my father slammed his fist on the table, I thought he was squashing a bug. But I didn’t know what to think when the guidance counselor and his family rushed from the restaurant so quickly that one of his children dropped three crayons on the way out.
Two months later our father had moved into an apartment, and six years after that our mother married a man she’d met in a support group for single parents. Dennis was a good step-father, large and mostly silent, prone to bouts of cheerful, Santa-type laughter. I didn’t love him or dislike him. Karen went to college and then married Mitch.
At our mother’s funeral in January, Dennis and my father glowered at each other across the vast expanse of mauve carpet and white lilies. They nodded at each other and finally managed a handshake.
“I thought they might hug,” Karen said, and she sounded so sad that I hugged her, even though we hardly ever did that.
My father had his headphones on, finally, and his eyes were starting to take on that blind, dazed look he got when he was staring at rusty tin cups and old uniforms behind glass. Only now he was staring at Elvis’s billiards room, with its wall-to-ceiling yellow pleated fabric and yellow lamp burning dully above the felt table. He pushed a button on his headset and pulled off his headphones. “There’s a tear in the felt where one of Elvis’s friends tried a trick shot,” he told me.
“Great,” I said. I had given up listening to the commentary, and so had Karen. Her eyes were looking a little wild.
“I forgot how I get claustrophobic,” she said, and pushed past us toward the TV room.
“I wanted a pool table for our house,” our father said to me, ignoring the tourists shoving past us. “But your mother didn’t.”
“You don’t play pool,” I pointed out.
“But I might have,” he said. “If I retire down in Mississippi, I’ll buy a pool table.”
Last night, he had announced that he was going to move to Mississippi to be closer to all of us. We were standing in the driveway, watching the twins run around with sputtering sparklers. “But Mitch and I aren’t staying here forever,” Karen said. “We’re only here for another two years until his contract at the base runs out.”
“Me, too,” I said. I was supposed to graduate in two years.
“Well,” our father said. “Maybe you’ll all come back to Roanoke.”
“We will,” I said. “Right, Karen?”
But she didn’t say anything. I watched the fire flies floating around the yard, lofting higher and higher, blinking in the trees. Finally, Mitch turned on the porch light and we all went inside, and I helped our father make up the sofa bed. Then I drove home to my own apartment and lay awake for a long time, listening to distant firecrackers.
“You could get a pool table,” I said to my father now. “And we’ll put it in a room with fabric on the walls. It’ll be classy.” He’d put his headphones back on and was nodding to whatever Lisa Marie was telling him, and I thought: That’s nice, he’s enjoying himself. Then a burly, side-burned man shoved past us and in one swift motion my father pulled out the man’s wallet and shoved it in his own pocket.
I hadn’t figured out the right time to tell my sister what our father did at the funeral. Was there ever a right time? She and Mitch and the kids had gone back to our mother’s house to pack up some of her things, and I had gone with my dad to his own small house, the two bedroom he’d purchased after the divorce. We were in the living room, the curtains drawn against the winter light. I had not stopped crying for about two and a half days but was suddenly feeling a welcoming emptiness, like a stone had dropped into a pool of water and spread out something to all directions; not quite peace, but close enough. I felt like the stone was where my heart was and the ripples were where the rest of me was, and I was trying to think of a way to describe this that wouldn’t seem hokey. Our mother had been a biology teacher and she would have had a beautiful metaphor about life and death and nature, and thinking about this made me start to cry all over again.
That’s when I saw my father pull something from his pocket and stare at it as if it was a severed finger.
“What’s that?” I managed to stop crying long enough to ask and he said, “It’s the minister’s wallet. I guess I took it.”
“I guess so,” he said. “I’ve never done anything like this before. It was surprisingly easy.”
“And now you’re going to give it back?”
“No,” said my father. “I don’t see how there’s any good way of giving it back. He can just think he lost it. I’m not going to use his credit cards or anything.” He turned the wallet over in his hands. “It’s a nice wallet,” he said.
Crazy with grief, I thought. A lapse of judgment. A reckless act. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might do it again. The side-burned man had disappeared in the crowd, and I followed my father down to the lemony yellow TV room, wondering if I should say anything, wondering if I should do anything or tell anybody. Of course, there was only one person I could tell.
“I need to find Karen,” I said to my father. “But we’ll meet you outside.”
“Sure,” he said, his eyes so wide and innocent that you’d never guess there was a stolen wallet in his pocket. Or maybe even more than one. Then he turned back to the room, back to the yellow and white sofa, yellow and white sofa cushions, the three television sets playing footage of people I didn’t recognize.
Karen was already outside; I could see her ahead of me, walking fast, not bothering to stop and enjoy the scenery: the stables, the horses running behind a white fence. She was heading toward what the voice warbling in the headphones around my neck was informing me was the racquetball court, now a trophy room. I was sick of this tour, tired of sweaty tourists; I wanted to climb over the white fence, jump on a horse, and gallop away. Instead, I pushed my way past a group of chattering white haired ladies in matching Elvis T-shirts (young Elvis, of course, sneering across their chests) and found my sister standing transfixed in front of a glass case featuring a pearl-white belted suit. There was a whole row of white suits behind glass. The walls were lined with gold records, like stamps in a giant stamp book.
“That’s a lot of gold records,” I said to Karen. “You seem impressed.”
“I’m not un-impressed,” she said, which was the most complimentary she ever got about anything.
“I suppose I should mention something,” I said. “Since you seem to be in a fairly good mood.”
“Mitch would love this,” Karen said, as we filed past Elvis regalia. “We should have brought Mitch and the kids.”
“Next time,” I said. “But listen. Dad just stole somebody’s wallet.”
Karen was now staring at me, causing mild protests from a fat couple behind us who finally gave up and went around.
“I thought you should probably know,” I added weakly. “I left him in there, but he said he’d meet us outside.”
She had grabbed me by the arm and was yanking me back the way we’d come, against the stream of the crowd, back into the glaring sun. Our father wasn’t there. “The graves,” she said. “Maybe he went straight for the graves.”
“Yes,” I said, the cathartic release scenario reforming itself into possibility.
But he wasn’t at the graves, and he wasn’t in the trophy room, or the TV room, and when we walked back around to the front of the mansion – where tourists were happily snapping photos of each other and saying, “It’s so much smaller than I thought!” – he wasn’t there, either. His cell phone was going straight to voice mail, which wasn’t unusual because he always forgot he was carrying one.
“I’m going back inside,” Karen said. “Maybe he got lost. Or maybe he got caught pick-pocketing and was hauled to jail. Why on earth didn’t you tell me about this before?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, but I supposed it was because I liked having a secret, I liked the idea of protecting our father, even if I wasn’t sure what I was protecting him from.
“Take the shuttle back to the ticket office and look around there, and try the parking lot in case he went back to the car. And check the planes. Got it? Now!” She issued this order as if I was one of the disobedient twins, and I obeyed, feeling like a foolish child who deserved punishment.
When I was a senior in high school, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy, and while the surgery was deemed “a success,” she was not entirely convinced.
I think Karen and I were both prepared for the cancer to come back; our mother had explained to us – quietly, kindly, as if we were especially slow students – about cells going bad, the limits of radiation, the chances of recurrence. She thought about having the other breast removed, just in case. She was still thinking about it, weighing her options, trying to play it safe. Instead it was a stroke, a fluke of the blood: a stumble at a New Year’s party, a headache, and she was gone the next evening.
We’d just arrived back in Mississippi after our Christmas visit, and we were on a plane back to Roanoke the next day, all of us too numb for it to make any sense, and we came home after the funeral still numb.
My father started calling me in the middle of the night, though at first all he did was sob. “I know,” I would say, my own throat clogging, and finally he would hang up. Then he started calling to talk about things I couldn’t even remember: our first house in Blacksburg, the trips to Civil War battlefields that ended up in happy trips to Pizza Hut, all of us laughing and admiring our souvenirs. “I’m sorry I’m so sad and strange,” he said. “It’s a big help, talking to you.”
“Good,” I said, though sometimes I thought: She was my mother and I loved her, so why can’t I be sad and strange, too?
I didn’t bother going to my classes or withdrawing from school; I got one email from an especially kind history professor but I never wrote her back. I had trouble sleeping because whenever I closed my eyes I felt as if I was falling and falling, and all I could do was brace for impact.
Of course our father had found his way to the airplanes. He was moving up the stairs of the larger one, the Lisa Marie, and I got in line behind an Indian family – a boy, a girl, a father, a mother in swirling orange robes and gold bracelets. I climbed the steps feeling like I was embarking on a long, long trip, not to Roanoke, Virginia, but to some foreign land where I didn’t know the language. I followed the family through Elvis’s airplane, and I understood my father’s desire to steal something. I didn’t want something small, like a wallet, but huge: a leather chair, the vase of flowers on the shiny conference table; I wanted to pull out the gold and green sink, heft the seat-belted bed over my head and haul it away. I wanted something to make up for all that I’d lost, but everything was plastic-coated and secure, so I just followed the family through the plane, out the doors and back into the heat.
I disembarked blinking in the sun and stared down at the ground, where my father was gazing back up at the plane. I knew he was imagining it aloft, thinking of wing flaps and jet engines, turbulence, pilot error and wind shear – all the things that could have gone wrong and didn’t. Then he saw me, and for a long moment we just looked at each other, as if surprised we had both arrived safely, with solid earth beneath our feet.