by Richard Harkness
Maggie’s floundering with her choice of forks and is glad Ben ordered for them at this luxurious restaurant in downtown Dallas. They have a Château Latour along with a spinach salad and main course of Oysters Roffignac, followed by a Soufflé Grand Marnier.
“That was simply fantastic,” she says after managing to finish half of her dessert.
Her thoughts linger on Danny and the hurt look on his face when she backed out of their weekend plans in Biloxi. But she couldn’t pass up Ben Barnes’ invitation for a romantic weekend get-away to Dallas. His private Learjet made it a short, scenic trip.
Earlier in the day, when the black limo had picked Maggie up at her duplex, she wondered—with a slight thrill—what on-looking neighbors might be imagining. At the airport, a uniformed man with Ben’s flight crew escorted her through the concourse onto the runway where the sleek, ivory-white Learjet—emblazoned with the logo BB ENTERPRISES—sat, engines idling.
“Welcome, aboard,” an efficient-looking flight attendant said with a nod and smile as she entered. “I’ll show you to your seat. Mr. Barnes will join you shortly for cocktails.” She opened folding doors to reveal a built-in bar backed by a large gold-framed mirror.
The craft was even more impressive beyond, with luxurious decor. Bennett Barnes entered wearing a stylish pullover short-sleeved gray shirt and matching slacks. The smooth takeoff was followed by a majestic late afternoon view of Gulf waters passing far below with inlet bays, swampland, and coastline cities. They sipped their drinks and chatted as the sleek white bird devoured the distance to Dallas and set down as smoothly as it had lifted off.
Maggie, now divorced, recently returned to her hometown to work as a real estate agent. She met Ben while he was teasing out investments on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and she had shown him a beach house in Biloxi. He seemed to be immediately smitten with her. She’s attracted to him too, even though, at 45, he’s 15 years older. She imagines how wonderful life might be as the wife of a jet-setting, wealthy businessman. The stuff of dreams for a small-town, middle-class girl. Or—when she considers her failed marriage—what dreams are supposed to be.
She will make it up to Danny when she gets back to Biloxi, she promises herself. They live next door to each other in their apartment complex. He’s a shipyard worker and aspiring writer. Their weekend plans were supposed to take them to a writers’ conference where he would take one more step toward reaching his goal. She knew she’d hurt him, though the boundaries of their relationship had never been clear.
“You’re free to do what you want,” he’d said in a too-casual tone.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what else to say.” Still, she did feel guilty. And disappointed with herself. They had never exchanged unpleasantries before. He’d always been there for her in time of need. Though more than friendship seemed to be brewing between them, nothing had been stated. If it should come to choosing between Ben and Danny, she isn’t sure she’s ready to decide.
Ben breaks in on her thoughts, as he guides her out the door to the waiting limo. “I have a special surprise for you tonight. We’re going to a sweet sixteen birthday party for my business partner’s daughter.”
What might be the surprise in that? she wonders. She’s well beyond birthday parties, cakes, and balloons. When she tries to coax more from him, he says, “Just know that I think you’ll enjoy the surprise.”
Their limo eases into the driveway of a stately mansion in north Dallas. The curving, tree-lined driveway is packed with cars. Two attendants direct drivers. Most of the other cars are chauffeured limos, too, Maggie notices. Ben’s limo pulls into a reserved area and parks. At the door, a greeter checks names against a list. Another attendant shows them into the spacious entertainment room. A stage has been set up against the far wall. White-coated waiters deliver drinks to tables where guests sit in cushioned chairs. A bevy of chattering teenage girls closely ring the stage. Sitting at their center, in a chair adorned with colorful ribbons, is a petite, pretty blonde who must be the birthday girl.
Once everyone is seated comfortably, the lights go out. After a few moments of silence for dramatic effect, Maggie hears the familiar majestic opening score used in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The lights slowly grow brighter amidst a theatrical-induced smoke effect. As the haze clears, the amorphous figures of a performer and a band behind him take shape. En masse, a gasp of recognition comes from the audience.
“Hi folks, I’m Elvis Presley. Welcome to the birthday celebration for a very special young lady.” He gives a big smile to the girl sitting in the center chair. “Happy birthday, Mary Ann.”
The girls squeal and push and squeeze each other.
Maggie puts her hands to her mouth in disbelief. She swivels to Ben. “Is this why you invited me to Dallas?”
“Let’s just say I’m aware of the importance of good timing. And that I know you’re a big fan of the King. And I like making dreams come true.”
“And what if I had decided not to fly back to Dallas with you?”
“You mean, would I have used Elvis as leverage?” He winks at her. “Listen, it means a lot to me that you came without needing the pot sweetened. Think of this as lagniappe, just for you.”
Ben’s a complex man, she thinks, thoughtful and so romantic. “Oh, Ben, thank you so much.”
“Mary Ann’s dad knows Colonel Parker, Elvis’s manager, and was an early investor in the Elvis enterprise. When I said I knew a special fan, it was a done deal.”
Elvis stands no more than twenty feet from where Maggie sits enthralled. He sings a medley of his signature hits, paying special attention to the throng of squirmy teenage girls: All Shook Up, Loving You, Hound Dog, Young and Beautiful, Blue Suede Shoes, Don’t Be Cruel, Teddy Bear, Heartbreak Hotel, Wear My Ring Around Your Neck, Are You Lonesome Tonight.
The young girls swoon in unison. At intervals, he pulls a scarf from around his neck and places it on one of the girls, coaxing each one to step forward in turn.
The birthday girl waits last for her scarf. He invites her on stage and sings directly to her. As he winds down Love Me Tender (…I’ll be yours through all the years, till the end of time…), he puts a scarf around her neck and kisses her cheek. “Happy birthday, sweetheart.” She scurries back down to her friends, and they all coo and cry softly together. Maggie tears up with them.
As the band takes a break, Ben ambles up on stage. She sees him shake hands with Elvis and whisper something in his ear. Elvis steps down from the stage, pausing to give the girls that surround him each a hug. The next thing Maggie knows, Elvis is walking toward her. She wishes she could look away to hide the flush in her cheeks.
“Hi, I’m Elvis,” he says, casually and down-home as can be. He holds out his hand and sits beside her in Ben’s chair.
Maggie takes his hand and shakes it, twice, hoping her palm isn’t too sweaty. “Hi, I’m Maggie Rowan.”
She can’t believe she’s actually touching Elvis. A man she’s admired for so long. She hears that sultry voice that sang her to sleep from the turntable in her room. She sees the crooked smile and soulful eyes up close. At this moment she’s a young girl again. Somehow, the adult inside is able to catch her breath and smile.
“Ben tells me you’re from Mississippi,” Elvis says. “I was born in Tupelo, you know.”
Of course she knows.
“I wasn’t surprised to hear you were from the Mississippi Coast,” he says. “Some of the prettiest women I’ve known live there.”
Maggie basks in the indirect compliment, feels herself blush even more crimson than she thought possible. She must make herself speak, say something. She guesses he must be used to having such an effect on female fans.
Elvis smiles again and continues. “I had the best time of my life in Biloxi. Back in 1956, so long ago. Just before things really busted loose on me.”
“I was only eleven at the time,” Maggie hears herself blurt, “but I’ll never forget seeing you step out of that ivory Cadillac on Main Street. I was with a bunch of girls screaming our heads off.”
She immediately regrets having said such a typical “fan” thing, something he’s probably heard hundreds of times and grown wooden to. Maggie remembers the hullaballoo of local press during his time in Biloxi. By most accounts he came close to marrying the Biloxi girl he dated. But time had other plans, it seemed.
“Sometimes I wish I could go back to that time and just freeze-frame it. Know what I mean?” His eyes reflect a longing. “It’s been a real pleasure meeting you, Maggie.”
“Thank you for being so kind and gracious, Elvis,” is all she can think to say. She’s noticed his weight gain and has heard stories of health concerns. As he stands to leave, she takes his hand again and squeezes it. “Elvis,” she says, without thinking, “please take care of yourself.”
He looks at her with an odd intensity, then squeezes back. He slips off his last scarf and places it around her neck, arranging it just so, as if to prolong the moment. “Bless you, Maggie.” Then he’s gone.
A sudden sadness grips her. She strokes the silken softness of the scarf, wishing she could have said something else, something more meaningful. But there is no bridge spanning the chasm between them, not with all the mansions and Learjets and money in the world.
She tries to imagine what it must be like for Elvis. To be trapped, unable to venture out in public alone. To have to rent an entire theater just to watch a movie in peace. Fame and fortune extracts a price.
Maggie looks at Ben, shaking hands, winking at the beautiful women in evening gowns. She feels out of her depth again. She thinks about catching a flight back to Biloxi.
Elvis returns to the stage. She wonders if he too sometimes struggles to remember who he really is.