Every morning, the same ritual. You dust both photographs. Turn Billy’s face up again for another day while the coffee brews. You look at Billy, then at Elvis. Outside the sun is coming up.
You never give up. Not you. Yes, it has been eighteen years since Billy walked out the door. That door. And ever since the door has grown smaller and the world beyond it vast and mysterious. A cruel kind of secret, maybe.
Billy, he never said boo. He left without a word. A light sleeper, you would have heard him if he had a last word or two. You don’t know where he went. He’s never called, never even dropped a postcard.
Mama, when she was still alive, always explained it to you this way. That Billy went to sow some wild oats. That you must have let him down somehow, him being a man and all, and you a woman. She said you could read all about it in the Bible. But you never bothered to read about it. That Bible reminded you too much of Mama and her runaway mouth.
Mama never knew the truth, that Billy didn’t have any wild oats to sow. Billy wasn’t so hot in the tame oats department either. But you got along with him fine. Oats or not, a warm body next to you on a cold night was a comfort.
Billy was no Casanova, not by a long shot. You always figured he would come home once he figured this out. Maybe when some woman told him so, and not so sweetly. You loved him because he was Billy, for his sturdy frame and strong jaw, That was enough. Still is, sad to say. And this is why it won’t surprise you if he comes back. That will mean he has learned his lesson, that no one loves him the way you do.
It’s strange, though. Elvis has been gone a long time too, but somehow it’s not the same. Oh, you know all about the sadness of Elvis being gone. Who doesn’t? You believe that Elvis was a giant among men when he was alive.
Now that he’s gone, he’s still about ten times bigger than the best of them. You think about this a lot, how a dead god is better than a cold man.
At the Visualize God In Grits Café, you work the lunch counter. You watch men coming and going, all day long. Some are nice. Others flirt. A few of them give you the creeps. Older now, you know better than to get involved. Besides, what would Billy say?
There was a time when you didn’t know who Elvis was. Mama changed all that. You must have been seven years old when she took you to see him in concert. Mama said the two of you had come along too late to see Jesus in person, but you were right on schedule for Elvis.
On her deathbed, Mama confessed something. She said that when Daddy climbed atop her on Saturday nights. She would close her eyes and imagine it was Elvis instead. Those were almost her last words, as if she was sharing the secret of the universe.
Seeing Elvis changed you. What your mother said when her death rattle was tuning up changed you too.
Tonight, when the sun goes down, you’ll be back here again, sitting on your lonely side of the bed. You’ll look at Billy and Elvis. You’ll turn Billy’s photograph face down for the night. Good night sweet Billy, wherever you are, you’ll say.
That will leave you and Elvis alone together. And you won’t feel the slightest tinge of shame when you reach for Elvis and hold him close. It’s one of those lonesome kinds of nights, you’ll tell him. You know, when the darkness sneak inside and puts its arms around you? You know Elvis will give the darkness its marching papers. He knows all about it.
You will try to stay awake, hoping that Billy is coming home. If he does come home, this is how you picture it. It will be at dusk. Him coming up the road, the sun all fiery red through the trees. Lost people need to get home before dark. At night it’s too hard for them to find their way, especially after so many years.
But your eyes will close on their own in their weary way. You know that, wherever Billy is, he’s probably rubbing shoulders with the darkness that Elvis sent packing. And before you place Elvis back on the bedside table, you will kiss him like you would Jesus if he ever came back. Some say it’s just a matter of time.