His bike ripped through the valley and up the hills like the wax patches that Ma ripped from her bare legs, sudden and violent and musical and brief. First we heard the hog’s roar weekly, and then as the days brightened and lengthened he could appear anytime. Just as he appeared, more so too did the waxing kit. The strips. The brush. The cloying smell of hot wax. And I liked to watch her, the careful way she applied it over the little tendrils of hair, and the transition from idle to ignition as those tendrils were ripped.
When the stranger passed Ma started calling him Elvis. As in, O there goes Elvis again.
Who’s Elvis? I asked.
A singer, she said.
I know that. But why are you calling him that?
Because he looks like Elvis.
How do you know that sure he always has the helmet on his head?
She waved a hairy, waxy strip at me.
Stop asking questions, she said, and started humming.
This was behind Da’s back. All of it. The waxing, the talk. The pursuit of Elvis records that commenced when we went to town together to get me new pens and little sticky post-its for the Junior Cert that I was sitting in June. The record player she bought seemed part of the secrecy because it was disguised as a little briefcase. We cleaned the Golden Discs out of Elvis records. The seller tried to recommend others—Kristofferson, Cash, Lewis, Orbison—but Ma was insistent. Elvis only.
People forget, Ma said, just how good looking that man was in his prime. All you hear about now is the burgers and the dying on the toilet. Don’t people just love to focus on the negative in everything?
She kept the records on a shelf in the sitting room, amid the family portrait from my communion and a statue of the Child de Prague which was missing a thumb. Which records Da eventually noticed one day when he came in muck of the fields from mending something, a gate or a wall. Da looked a little like Orbison, except that his face and hands were a little more squished, as if flattened by a rolling pin. Da had heard the records and found Ma, sipping brandy and lying on the sofa, with the curtains drawn. I had joined her in the room to study, mainly out of curiosity for the size of the records, which were new to me, and which felt like physical intrusions to the house. The voice—distinctive, unkillable—boomed through the house from the two speakers Ma had asked me to connect to the briefcase.
Aren’t we cosy? Da said before he left, his socks leaving prints on the floor, soaked from working outside.
It was the picture of Elvis struck me more than the music. Ma had a habit of placing the record sleeve atop the closed lid of the player, like a photograph aside a coffin at a wake. His face appeared massive, bigger than any in the room, the Child de Prague’s or mine or Ma’s. It was masculine. It was angular. Nothing could soften that chin I thought. Not the dark of the room, not forty years of death.
Ma, in a tumbler-belly-balance meditation, didn’t want words or questions so ignored Da when he came in with something to say. I too learned not to speak, even though I was burning up with questions—always about that toilet death, the thing she wanted everyone else to ignore. But I wanted to know the mechanics of the thing. Did a snake jump from the bowl and bite him on his exposed arse? Did a tub of Brylcreem fall from the shelf, knock the King out and in his sudden unconsciousness contrive to land with a plop in his own toilet and drown? I want to say that now, when I’ve seen how people actually end, these thoughts seem ridiculous to me. But I would also say that I was anxious when taking a shit for an awful long time.
During the exams Ma wasn’t really around in the evenings. She had joined a walking club that met by the river in town and she would take off after dinner in her running pants and tightly laced runners. When she was gone Da would call me down from studying to watch television. He propped himself sullenly on the couch and brought the dog in to lie by the empty fire grate.
He liked home improvement shows. Look at these eejits, he would say to me, when I appeared at his insistence. You’ve enough time spent reading those books, you might learn something useful here. I learned several things, primarily that Da liked it when things went wrong. Not out of a deliberate sense of pleasure in the misfortune of others, but rather because he knew exactly why it was going wrong and how to mend it before anyone else. The solution in his mind was simple. Measurement can go badly wrong, he said, if you haven’t the brain for it.
And when the conclusion of the programme approached and the couple and the architect were coming to some sort of accord, and the house itself moved from the old pre-renovation drone shots and close-ups of manky soiled rooms to the pristine newness that I kind of liked all told, Da was cold to the whole thing.
There is a terrible disregard in this country, he would say, for the old way of doing things.
We stayed like that together. Waiting for Ma to come home. He would find a block of the same kind of shows on the satellite channels and we didn’t move or discuss anything past what was going wrong and how he would fix it. I sometimes suggested we watch something different, a cooking show for example, but he shot all requests down. And he’d pick at his socks until the next programme started with another old house, different but the same, and the same desperation to upgrade, improve, reconstruct. And the same mistakes. We never even supped a cup of tea watching the shows. We consumed them raw.
It was the mid-point of my exams when I came home from French to find her bed-bound. Ma was sick. Da said it was from gallivanting. And as well as the walking club, there had been a few reunions. Loreto class of 1998. The hockey team from the same year. A college one even, overnight in Limerick. The miserable cut of her in the bed was the result of all that according to Da. It wasn’t serious but it was upsetting.
She couldn’t listen to her records because her head just ached. I feel like cream left out in the heat, she said.She propped herself up on pillows in her room with only a box of tissues to stem the flow from her nose and her eyes. I brought her books, but she refused to read them. She insisted instead that the television be brought from the sitting room, which had a DVD player in-built, so she could watch her newly ordered copies of Follow That Dream, Loving You and Blue Hawaii. She cried twice that I saw: once at the sight of Elvis in his white trunks; and again when as Chad—as if watching him anyone could ever suspend disbelief enough to think it was anyone but the King—he saves Ellie from killing herself and spanks her as punishment.
I love watching these, she said. They are like my dreams. They just flow, like all good dreams should.
Go to town, Ma told Da. The house is falling apart. I’ve written a list.
Da came into my room while I studied Science. Rouse yourself, he said, and come with me. He handed me the list. He drove and was, for once, in good form. He didn’t insist on parking in the only free car park in town, which was only free because it was miles from any shop. Instead we parked in the centre and he told me to pick up the bits. I left him in the car where he’d stay and ward the ticket man away with a glare from that brutish head.
The list was not long but, like all Ma’s shopping lists, it was exhaustive. There was no room for interpretation. When it said beef mince it meant only from a certain butcher (Conor) and a specific cut (lean steak). So even if the list was only five items long you couldn’t drop into Tesco and blitz it. All this meant that the first time I met Elvis, the only time I ever did, I was alone. When I walked the road with the dog he never stopped. He only slowed and saluted, lifting two gloved fingers from the handlebars. I assumed that we never would speak. But I turned a blind corner that he turned too in the opposite direction, coming from the motor tax office, and we nearly hit into each other.
I could have guessed who he was because of the motorcycle helmet and the leather jacket, but I knew it because he was so like the face on the records at home, the face Ma was weeping at the TV for in bed. The cold blue eyes! The way his mouth dropped in surprise! He nearly dropped the helmet that he held pressed with his left hand against his hip.
Hello, he said, offering his free hand. Aren’t you the young fella from the house at Lawlor’s crossroads?
I am, I said, shaking his hand.
Haven’t I often passed you on the road?
You have, I said, on that bike of yours.
How much did he look like Elvis? His hair was different. Modern. His twin was forty-two when he died. This Elvis was maybe a few years older than that, there being grey streaked in his hair in places. Nor did he sound like Elvis. His accent was familiar but a little warped, like the way a phone changes your voice. He sounded like someone who had lived here a long time ago. As we spoke people of a certain age nodded at him in passing. One woman waved across the street.
I was actually only in changing the address for that bike of mine, he said, laughing as if it was great coincidence. I bought it over in England years ago.
Is that a big job? I said.
No, he laughed again, but people here are as nosy as ever and keep you talking half the day.
I said nothing.
Doing the bits? he asked.
I am. Ma is a bit under the weather.
Is that right?
It is. Nothing serious now.
Now you say it, I haven’t seen her out walking the last while.
Ah sure she wouldn’t be up to it right now.
A strange time of year to get it. Summer flus can be worse than the winter. Has she seen the doctor?
She might well have. I’m not around during the day much, I’ve been inside the school there for the exams.
That’s right, he said. Well that’s a curse isn’t it?
He stroked his chin a moment, diagnosing in front of me, and I swinging my empty shopping bag.
You are very good, he said finally, to be looking after your mother. Tell her I was asking for her.
I promised I would.
Good man, said Elvis.
He shifted his helmet from his right hand to his left.
I like your bike, I said.
Do you? he said. Your dog doesn’t.
He’s a mad thing. Da says I’m too soft on him.
Anyway. Be good. Mind your mother and I might take you out on the bike sometime.
I’d like that, I said.
And I thought about that conversation all that day, while I collected the very specific pieces listed on the paper Ma had written, while I went back to Da where he sat in the driver’s seat with the window rolleddown and smoking and complaining about how long I had taken and then the cost of everything bought and then when the news bulletin interrupted him how the world was fucked, and when finally I returned home and packed everything away into the fridge and the cupboards, I went upstairs to update Ma on the day and what Elvis said, and I noted the smile that crossed her lips by the time I had finished the story.
That night I dreamt I rode a motorcycle with Elvis, who was recognisably himself but also his twin our neighbour, simultaneously international and local, and we were going too fast, flying it, so fast that I expected us to take to the air any moment like that cartoon with the snowman that scared the shite out of me when I was smaller. But we didn’t take off; we just zoomed past monuments and ditches, fields and corrugated metal sheds, until, gradually, I felt the physical nearness of another person on the bike, which all things being equal should only seat two, and the presence was between me and Elvis, but also behind me,arms around my waist, head on my shoulder, and Elvis, he noticed too, but he didn’t mind it like I did, he just said, Any way you like it, that’s just fine with me.
One Sunday not long after my exams Da stood so fast from the sofa that the dog too rose in panic. Elviszoomed past again, leaving a cough of summer dust from the panting exhaust and the parched road. The TV was on, a rarity during the day, but the county team was getting ready to play so an exception had been made.
Ma hadn’t looked up from the sofa, the latest book club selection in her hands. Da went to the window and touched it with one of those clobbered paws, like he wished to stop it vibrating in Elvis’s wake.
A fucking disgrace, he said.
Ma said nothing. I said nothing. She turned a page. And very quickly turned another one.
If he met a child, or a cyclist, Da said, what would happen? Or he met me in the tractor? How would a bike go against the tractor would you say? Only one winner there.
This book is excellent, Ma said. It offers a great perspective. She turned another page but she was looking at me.
Da turned from the window, the complexion of raw meat.
O I’d wager he wouldn’t last at all.
That is someone’s son, she said. Or brother, and it is a great sin to speak like that. He could be a poet, or a singer. Or a historian. In fact, he could be anything, which is a lot more than I can say about some of the men in this room right now.
What man might that be?
O the same one that is ignorant. Pig fucking ignorant like all his family!
Da nodded along. Sucked in his lips. Jutted his chin until it was formidable. He made it so big, his whole face, that it dislocated, and I couldn’t see anything except it. Ma stood, and on leaving the room she threw the book back towards the sofa. But it flopped against the lip of the base cushion and fell and landed on its front, with an envelope falling out from it, plain and white and loosely open. Da saw it. He ignored the paperback and picked up the note.
Stop, Ma said.
What’s this, Elizabeth?
Stop, she said. A private correspondence.
Nothing private between us, that’s what a marriage is.
He was going to read the note and Ma was trying to stop him. I stood up, and they didn’t notice. They were facing each other. Da was puce-faced and panting. I could see Ma’s glistening eyes and Da’s nostril hair—I took the letter from him very easily so focused were they on each other.
Well, they turned to face me then.
If I had that moment back, there are a few ways I could have tried to handle it. I could have run outside and flung the note into the silage pit. Or run onto the road, past the fields and to the woods, where I could have read it and placed it into the hollow of the tree.
Instead, I took the note from the envelope without looking at what was written on it and put it in my mouth and started chewing. It wasn’t a big or thick or long piece of paper but Christ was it dry. It tasted horrible. Either the paper itself or the ink mixing with my spit was very sour. It got too much for me. Both my parents, unified, stood with their own mouths agape as I hawked and spat out on the floor the squished, illegible, piece of paper.
Look at what you’re doing to our son! Da said. You are turning him into an idiot!
Don’t spit again, Ma said to me. Your tongue is blue.
On the TV I could hear the analysts speaking about markers being laid early, just as the national anthem was about to start.
When I saw the motorcycle helmet rolling down the hill towards me and the dog, my first thought was for Ma and the smile that had stayed on her face since the end of the exams, when she had risen from the bed and helped me and Da burn my school uniform in a barrel in the backyard. It was the real beginning of the summer.
The dog was excited at the rolling of the helmet. He tried to free himself from my grip on his leash. I could see the visor was cracked. The dog put his own head against it, as if to stop it and retrieve it for the owner, but he only diverted its path. My second thought was how the helmet didn’t roll smoothly. It was like a decapitated head, jutting and jiving over the worn ruts of the tractor-weary tarmac. It rolled past us and I let the dog go. Not because he had overpowered me but because I had looked up the hill from where the helmet had come.
As I climbed the road slowly, with fear-heavy legs, I could only see the hole in the reflection of the mirror erected on the bend. It was a part of the road Da had called lethal so many times. The farmer who owned the field was good for fuck all and he never cut back the hedge there, so the turn felt even tighter than it was, like the hedge was right on top of you. The mirror showed me around the blindspot—where the rise peaked and the road turned a sharp lefthand corner and where the hole was. There was a black skid mark on the opposite side of the road to the hole, pointing like an arrow to where Elvis had crashed and disappeared into the thick green-layered growth of many summers where the land fell beneath hedgerow.
I looked into the hollow. My chest was tight. The back wheel of the bike. Maybe it was a foot away. Maybe it was more. And over it a cracked mud-flap and a yellow registration. Two tubular exhausts still purring either side of the still spinning rubber. He must have been propelled, maybe right through the hedgerow and into the field.
I called. Twice.
I thought maybe I ought to climb down into the hole. That if Elvis was inside and trapped that I could pull him out. I put my right foot in and it sank immediately in the nettles and thorns that sloped downwards. My next thought was that I was completely alone, with not even the dog beside me now. What if I was to fall inand down the hill and hit my head against a rock? Or get stuck in the hedge, alone, with no one there to even lend a hand and pull me out?
I took out my phone. I called the emergency number.
When the crackled voice answered I asked for an ambulance.
For yourself, or someone else, the voice said.
Someone else, I said. A bike has hit the hedge here and I can’t see the driver.
Please remain calm, the voice said.
It’s a lethal bend, I said. Just hurry please.
It could take a while for an ambulance, the voice said. There are a number of calls ahead of you. But we will send a fire truck immediately.
Are they trained in medicine? I said.
In first aid, said the voice, and then it asked for a precise location.
I gave them the house’s eircode and told them that my father was there and he would know where to go. In response, I only heard fingers clicking on a keyboard.
I rang Da next and I told him what had happened and to look out for a fire truck.
I’m hardly likely to miss it, Da said. You’ll be glad to hear the dog is back.
I got off the phone. I shouted again. No answer. Just the empty road behind me, and the gaping hole in the hedge where the wheel had ceased turning now. Even the sound of the rutting helmet, which had so freaked me out a few moments ago, would have been a relief, so dead was the road, so deserted did I feel.
When the fire truck did come up that hill, my father was in the front cab, holding the cracked helmet like a trophy.
The night before the funeral, in my bedroom I googled pictures of ‘Elvis dead’, ‘Elvis dead on toilet’, ‘Elvis in coffin’. The connection was poor, and it took an age for the results to appear. There had been no photo released from inside the bathroom, or the scene of the crime as I thought of it. Below me, in the kitchen, Ma tried to stop Da going to the various funeral things. She had been drinking all day and listening to her collection of Elvis’s Gospel recordings. She was freaked altogether, had been frantic and sobbing when we both came home, Da holding the helmet still. She shouted something to Da that as he never finished school how would he even know what a graduation was. His low rumbled response was indecipherable. It might have been that he was laughing at her. I could picture that even as I scrolled through the search results in the dark of my room. The dog barked outside. I could easily imagine him laughing.
The one photo I could find was from the front page of the September 6th, 1977 edition of The National Enquirer. The article that I clicked through to said that the image had been taken on a special camera snuck into Graceland. I stared at the picture for a very, very long time. So long in fact that the face seemed attached to the back of my eyelids when I tried to sleep. Things broke out again beneath me for a while. Da shouted once. Why are you here at all so? he said. Then it quietened.
Soon after, he snored next door. I never heard Ma go to bed.
So Da insisted on going to the wake, the walk from Condon’s funeral home to the church, the mass and the burial, and bringing me with him. He said it was important we mourn a neighbour. The night with Elvis on my eyelids had prepared me. I was ready when I did go to the funeral home, without Ma, who wasn’t in the house that morning for breakfast or when we came back from the milking or that afternoon as we waited to go into town, watching the home renovations shows on TV until it was time to get ready. I knew better than to ask questions about where she was. Da wore his black suit. The same he wore in the wedding photos on the wall. There was a small crowd around and it was quite warm as we waited in line to get in. In the queue someone mentioned that Elvis was a very good athlete one time. Someone else said that there had been a separation from a woman in England, but no children. Yes, I was prepared, as we got closer and closer to the coffin, where Ma stood shaking the hands of the mourners, who eyed her and then us and then Elvis, just as he was on the front page of that paper in 1977, angelic and sombre and handsome.
We came back together, Da and I. There wasn’t a word spoken in the car, nor was the radio on. Da drove faster and faster, cutting corners, leaving the ditch shake and tremble in his wake. His knuckles were white on the wheel.
The dog narrowly avoided a squishing when we pulled back into the yard, and I let out a cry. Da looked at me, sitting uncertainly in the passenger seat.
You may as well know it, he said, because everyone knows it now. Your mother is only a whore.
With that he left the car. And to be honest, I thought that he was gathering himself somewhat. He didn’t slam the car door. He stooped to pet the dog who came to greet him at his feet. He slid open the patio door. I followed him, switching on the lights as he went through the hall and into the kitchen where he filled the kettle to boil for tea.
Where do you think she’ll spend the night? I asked.
I can tell you for certain where she won’t, Da said.
He took my jacket from me and his own and went to hang them on the rack in the utility room. I went upstairs to get the suit off. It had itched all through the evening.
My feet ached from the walk behind the coffin to the church in the black clogs that I very rarely wore. I felt, somehow, as we walked, the eyes of the other mourners turning to me and Da, exuding as much sympathy as they had moments earlier when shaking the hands of the chief among us, my Ma, she with a box tissues by her side and a tear in her eye. Da must have been aware too. Of the way they looked at us. But he kept a firm gaze forward all through the march until we got to the church and we could slip out a side door to the left of the sacristy.
I untied the laces, pushed the shoes from their heels, and let them slap against the floor in my room. The sound they made seemed eternal and constant because it didn’t stop. It kept ringing and renewing, and it took me more than a moment to realise that the sound wasn’t coming from my prone funeral shoes but from some happening in the room beneath me.
I hurried back down the stairs in my socks. Da was in the sitting room. On the floor it was like pieces of black ice had fallen from the ceiling. He was in the centre of the room, releasing records from their sleeves, Elvis’ face thrown to the floor too, and with a strike of his bent knee splitting the circles in two. He then stomped on the two halves, which didn’t themselves split cleanly—there was always one part that took more. Notes fell out from between some of the sleeves. They too joined the judgement of Da’s stomps. I ran back upstairs and put the funeral shoes back on. They were still sore on me but I didn’t care. I stood in the centre of the room with my Da and I stomped too, until we both sat down on the couch sweating in our funeral clothes.
If Da could have willed Ma dead—with just a few words like he had Elvis—then I think he would have. It would be a deadly relieved finality. But he never said anything else about her, that night at least.
I read some of the notes. They were lurid. They were intense. They were deeply private. I had to stop reading after a while.
In the dark room, I was upset. I got up to leave. My steps cracked through the smithereens of a few dozen records. I stood by the window of the kitchen, facing out into the blank night, the dark shapes of trees fluttering left and fluttering right. There was no sound, no car or bike travelling on the still road. There was no one coming home or leaving for good.