Conjunctions:22 The Novellas Issue

Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis
I carry him on my chest and it’s a real tattoo and he was there like that when I come out of Mama. That was the week after he died, Elvis, and Mama made the mistake of letting folks know about it and there was that one big newspaper story, but she regretted it right away and she was happy that the city papers didn’t pick up on it. It was just as well for her that most people didn’t believe. She covered me up quick.

     And I stayed covered. Not even one of her boyfriends ever saw me, and there was plenty come through in these sixteen years, all the noisy men in the next room. But last week she brought this guy home from the bar where she worked and he looked like I’d imagine Colonel Parker to look. I never saw a photo of Parker, the man who took half of every dollar Elvis ever earned, but this guy with Mama had a jowly square face and hair the gray of the river on a day when a hurricane is fumbling toward us and he made no sounds in the night at all and this should have been a little better for me, really.

     But Mama made sounds, and I’d gotten so used to them over the years I could always kind of ignore them and listen—if I chose to listen at all—to the men, how foolish they were, braying and wailing and whooping. At least Mama had them jumping through hoops: I could think that. At least Mama had them where she wanted them. But this new guy was silent and I hated him for that—it meant he didn’t like her enough, the goddam fool—and I hated him for making me hear her again, the panting, like she was out of breath, panting that turned into a little moan and another and it was like a pulse, her moans, again and again, and finally I just went out the door and off down the street to the river.

     We live in Algiers and I went and sat on a fender pile by the water and watched New Orleans across the way and I could hear music, some Bourbon Street horn lifting out of the city and coming across the river, and it’s the kind of music I like to hear, at times like that. There’s other music in me but his. You see, I’m not Elvis myself. I’m not him reincarnated like that one newspaper tried to make you believe. I didn’t come out of my momma humming “Heartbreak Hotel,” like they said.

     And she almost never does this, but last night I was tired and it was my birthday and I just stuck it out and after they was finished in there, she come in to me. We have a shotgun house with shutters that close us up tight and the only place I’ve got is on the sofa bed in the living room, and the next room through—the path that a shotgun blast would follow from the front door to the back, which is how these houses got their name—the next room through was her bedroom and then there was the little hall with the bathroom and then the kitchen and the back door. One of her jealous boyfriends actually did fire through the house a few years ago and the doors happened to be open, but it was a blunt-nose pistol and the bullet didn’t make it all the way through the house, being as there was another boyfriend standing in one of the open doors along the way. Mama come into me after that, too, cause I’d seen it all, I carried the smell of cordite around inside me for a week after.

     So she come into me last night and maybe it was because of me turning sixteen, though she never said a word about it. Maybe it was because of this new guy staying quiet when she wasn’t. But she come in and I was laying there on my back and she cooed a little and took me by the ears and fiddled with them like they was on crooked and she was straightening them and then her hands went down and smoothed flat the collar of my black T-shirt that I was sleeping in and she said to me, “How can you love a fool such as I?”

     It’s a good question, I think. I think Elvis sold about two million records of a song by a name like that. But she meant it. And I didn’t say anything to her. She waited for me to say, Oh Mama I love you I do. But she smelled like the corner of some empty warehouse and maybe she didn’t know where my daddy was or maybe even who he was but he sure wasn’t the guy in there right now and he wasn’t going to be the next one either or the next and the few times I said anything about it, she told me she can’t help falling in love. But I didn’t buy that. I couldn’t. Still, I know what I’m supposed to feel for my momma: Elvis collapsed three times at the funeral for Gladys. But I’m not Elvis, and I’d stand real steady at a time like that, I think. Nothing could make me fall down. I would never fall down.


But tonight I didn’t care. Tina come up to me in the hall this morning at the school and she said “I heard it was your birthday yesterday” and I said “It was” and she said “Why don’t you ever talk with me, since I can’t keep my eyes off you in class and you can see that very well” and I said “I don’t talk real good” and she said “You don’t have to” and I said “Are you lonesome tonight?” and she said “Yes” and then I told her to meet me at a certain empty warehouse on the river and we could talk and she said “I thought you weren’t a good talker” and I said “I’m not” and she said “Okay.” And that meant I had to figure out what to do about my chest.

     Because Elvis’s skin is mine. His face is in the very center of my chest and it’s turned a little to the left and angled down and his mouth is open in that heavy-lipped way of his, singing some sorrowful word, but his lips are not quite open as much as you’d think they should be in order to make that thick sound of his, and his hair is all black with the heavenly ink of the tattoo and a lock of it falls on his forehead and his lips are blushed and his cheeks are blushed and the twists of his ear are there and the line of his nose and chin and cheek, and his eyes are deep and dark, all these are done in the stain of a million invisible punctures, but all the rest, the broad forehead except for that lock of hair, his temples and his cheeks and chin, the flesh of him, is my flesh.

     I wanted to touch Tina. She’s very small and her face is as sharp and fine as the little lines in Elvis’s ear and her hair is dark and thick and I wanted to lay beneath her and pull her hair around my face, and her eyes are a big surprise because they’re blue, a dark, flat blue like I’d think suede would be if it was blue. I wanted to hold her and that made my skin feel very strange, touchy, like if I put my hands on my chest I could wipe my skin right off. Tattoo and all. Not that I imaged that would happen. It was just the way my skin thought about itself today, with Tina in my mind the way she was. And you’d think there would’ve been some big decision to make about this. But when the time come, it was real easy. I decided to show her who I was tonight. I would show her my tattoo.


Mama used to tell me a story. When nobody was in the house and I was going to sleep, she’d come and sit beside me and she’d say do I want to hear a story and I’d say yes, because this was when I was a little kid, and she’d say, “Once upon a time there was a young woman who lived in an exotic faraway place where it was so hot in the summers that the walls in the houses would sweat. She wasn’t no princess, no Cinderella either, but she knew that there was something special going to happen in her life. She was sweet and pure and the only boy who ever touched her was a great prince, a boy who would one day be the King, and he touched her only with his voice. Only his words would touch her and that meant she could keep all her own secrets and know his too and nothing ever had to get messy. But then one night an evil man come in to her and made things real complicated and she knew that she was never going to be the same. Except then a miracle happened. She gave birth to a child and he come into the world bearing the face of the prince who was now the King, the prince who had loved her just with his words, and after that, no matter how bad things got, she could look at her son and see the part of her that once was.”

     This was the story Mama used to tell me and all I ever knew to do at the end was to say to her not to cry. But finally I stopped saying even that. I asked her once to tell me more of the story. “What happened to the boy?” I asked her and she looked at me like I was some sailor off a boat from a distant country and she didn’t even know what language I was talking.

     So tonight I went out of the house and around the back and in through the kitchen to get to the bathroom. She and the Colonel Parker guy were in the bedroom and I never go in there. Never. Before I stepped in to wash up I paused by her door and there was a rustling inside and some low talk and I gave the door a heavy-lipped little sneer and a tree roach was poised on the door jamb near the knob and even he had sense enough to turn away and hustle off. So I clicked the bathroom door shut as soft as I could and I pulled the cord overhead and the bulb pissed light down on me and I didn’t look at myself in the mirror but bent right to the basin and washed up for Tina and there was this fumbling around in my chest that was going on and finally I was ready. I turned off the light and opened the door and there was Mama just come out of her room and she jumped back and her sateen robe fell open and I lowered my eyes right away and she said you scared me and I didn’t look at her or say nothing to her and Elvis might could sing about the shaking inside me but I for sure couldn’t say anything about it and I pushed past her. “Honey?” she asked after me.

     I slammed the back door and I beat it down the street toward the river and it’s August so it was still light out but the sun was softer, moving into evening, and I was glad for that. I started trying to concentrate on Tina waiting for me and I wanted the light and I wanted it to be soft and I just kept thinking about the looks she’d been giving me and I could see her eyes on me from across the classroom and they were flat blue and when they fixed on me they didn’t move, they always waited for me to turn away, and I always did, and now I thought maybe she’d been seeing something important about me all along, that’s why she wanted me like this. I thought maybe when I showed her who I was, she would just say real low, but in wonder, “I knew it all along.”

     Then I was past Pelican Liquors and the boarded up Piggly Wiggly and a bottle gang was shaping up for the evening on the next corner and they lifted their paper bags to me and I just hurried on and I could see a containership slipping by at the far end of the street and I had to keep myself from running. I walked. I didn’t want to be sweating a lot when I got there. I just walked. But walking made my mind turn. Mama’s robe fell open and I looked away as quick as I could but I saw the center of her chest like you sometimes see the light after you turn it off, she come out of her bedroom and her robe fell open and I saw the hollow of her chest, nothing more, and when I turned away I could still see her chest and it was naked white and I wondered why Elvis didn’t appear there. She could’ve kept her own secret then and known his too, and there wouldn’t never had to be anybody else involved in the whole thing.

     I was walking real slow now, but I could see that the light was starting to slip away and I had better get on, if I was going to do this thing. And I turned down the next street and I could see the river now and I followed it and the warehouse had a chain link fence as high as my house but it was cut in a few places and I found Tina on the other side already and she saw me and she come my way. She was wearing a stretchy top with ruffles around the shoulders and her stomach was bare and she was in shorts and I hadn’t seen her legs till now, not really, and they were nice, I knew that, they were longer than I figured, and we both had our fingers curled through the fence links and we were nose to nose just about and she said, “Get on in here.”

     I went in and she said, “I was worried you wasn’t coming” and I found out I didn’t have nothing to say to that and she smiled and said, “I don’t know this place so well. Where should we go?”

     I nodded my head in the direction of the end of the warehouse, on the river side, and I felt a lock of my hair fall onto my forehead and we moved off and the ground was uneven and she brushed against me again and again, keeping close, and I thought to take her hand or put my arm around her, but I didn’t. I wanted this to go slow. We walked and she was saying how glad she was that I come, how she liked me and how she was really on her own more or less in her life and she had learned how to know who’s okay and who isn’t and I was okay.

     And I still didn’t say nothing and I couldn’t even if I’d wanted to because I was shaking inside pretty bad and we entered the warehouse through a door that said Danger on it and inside it was real dim but you could feel the place on your face and in your lungs, how big it was and how high, and there was that wet and rotted smell but Tina said “Oh wow” and she pressed against me and I let my arm go around her waist and her arm come around mine and I took her into the manager’s office.

     The light was still coming in clear in the room and there was some old mattresses and it didn’t smell too good, but a couple of the windows was punched open and it was mostly the river smell and the smell of dust, which wasn’t too bad, and I let go of Tina and crossed to the window and I looked at the water, just that. The river was empty at the moment and the last of the sun was scattered all over it and there was this scrabbling in me, like Elvis went way deeper there than my skin and he’d just woke up and was about to push himself out the center of my chest. I tried to slow myself down so I could do this right.

     Then I turned around to look at Tina and she must have gotten herself ready for this too because as soon as I was facing her where she was standing in the slant of light, she stripped off her top and her breasts were naked and I fell back a little against the window. It was too fast. I’m not ready, I thought. But she seemed to be waiting for me to do something, and then I thought: she knows; it’s time. So I dragged my hand to the top button of my shirt and I undid it and then the next button and the next and I stepped aside a little, so the light would fall on me when I was naked there and she circled so she could see me and then the last button was undone and I grasped the two sides and I couldn’t hardly breathe and then I pulled open my shirt.

     Tina’s eyes fell on the tattoo of Elvis and she gave it one quick look and she said “Oh cool” and then her eyes let go of me, they let go of me real fast, like this was something she’d expected all right, but it was no big thing, there was no wonder in her voice, no understanding that this was a special and naked thing, and she was looking for the zipper on her shorts, and I was sure she was wrong about me and I hoped she’d have a son someday with a face on his chest that she would know, and then I was sliding away and the shirt was back on me before I hit the warehouse door and I didn’t listen to the words that followed me but I was stumbling over the uneven ground, trying to run, and I did run once I was out the cut in the fence and I heard a voice in my head as I ran and it was my voice and it surprised me but I listened and it said, “Once there was a boy who was born with the face of a great King on his chest. The boy lived in a dark cave and no one ever saw this face on him. No one. And every night from deeper in the darkness of the cave, far from the boy but clear to his ears, a woman moaned and moaned and he did not understand what he was to do about it. She touched him only with her voice. Sometimes he thought this was the natural sound of the woman, the breath of the life she wished to live. Sometimes he thought she was in great pain. And he didn’t know what to do. And he didn’t know that the image that was upon him, that was part of his flesh, had a special power.”

     Then I slowed down and everything was real calm inside me, and I went up our stoop and in the front door and I went to the door of Mama’s bedroom and I threw it open hard and it banged and the jowly-faced man jumped up from where he was sitting in his underwear on Mama’s bed. She straightened up sharp where she was propped against the headboard, half hid by the covers, and she had a slip on and I was grateful for that. The man was standing there with his mouth gaping open and Mama looked at me and she knew right off what’d happened and she said to the man, “You go on now.” He looked at her real dumb and she said it again, firm. “Go on. It’s all over.” He started picking up his clothes and Mama wouldn’t take her eyes off mine and I didn’t turn away, I looked at her too, and I touched the top button on my shirt, just touched it and waited, because only I could have this thing upon me, Mama couldn’t have it because she’d lost it long ago and it was put on me to give it back to her and I kept my hand there and I waited and then the man was gone and the house was quiet.

     It was just Mama and me and I had to lean against the door to keep from falling down.

In addition to his thirteen novels, Robert Olen Butler has published six short story collections, one of which, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Grove Press) won the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.