by Chad Halliday
The broken boy they pulled out from under the Mercury in the rain that day wore a tee shirt that said Solemn Grove Towing and Auto Repair. It said something like Henry or Harlon or Harry or Dale in small print cursive on his chest because that was his name, but no one ever called him anything like that. They all just called him Elvis.
Rhonda Belle watched from the sidewalk out in front of the drug store that sat at the corner of Fifth and Pompeii. Smoking and crying real tears that hid beneath the rain drops that smeared her makeup and blurred her view. She was pretty without being beautiful; shy without being awkward. Contrite without really ever being sorry.
He didn‘t so much mind the name they used for him. He used to walk around with a guitar strapped to his back and he would play and sing out loud whenever there was a song in his head and that was an awful lot of the time and he would promise everyone in town who would listen a ride in his stretch Cadillac limousine when he come back from Nashville or New York City or Hollywood or wherever the hell it was the famous people were supposed to be in those days with the movie cameras rolling. And they would all listen.
His body had been pinned down on the shiny wet asphalt beneath the car until they managed to crowbar pry back enough metal and glass and torn tire rubber to let it escape all limp with his shirt sticking to his chest in the rain and the blood. Must’ve been the middle of the night when it happened because no one knew until the early morning when the truck came by with the papers. Must’ve been a mechanical failure of one sort or another. Too much of a mess to bother figuring out what it was for sure at this point. Lost control. Couldn’t stop. Crashed head on and wrapped around a tree at the bottom of the hill. Elvis was not known to take a drink. Had no quarrel with no one.
Danaus plexippus is a milkweed butterfly, and commonly referred to as the Monarch, it is the best known of all North American butterflies. In New Zealand, it is known as the Wanderer. Given suitable conditions, the Monarch is capable of transatlantic flight.
She called him by his Christian name like his mother did.
It made him feel warm when she did that, like she knew him better than the rest did. He was never quite sure whether they called him Elvis to poke fun at him or because they believed he would make it out of Solemn Grove and put them all on the map. Didn’t think about it much. He knew what he knew and that was enough.
It was enough for Rhonda Belle too.
The wings of the female Monarch have darker, thicker veins than do their male counterparts, which are slightly larger. Further differentiating the males are the spots, or androconia, on the center of each of their hind wings. The androconia release pheromones, which trigger a social response in the female Monarchs.
Crazy thing was Elvis was a whiz under the hood. Took damn good care of half the cars in town in the garage his mother‘s brother run. Been working on that old Mercury of his just the day before. Had it running like a top, purring, whispering, promising that boy of better things in better places. Telling lies. Leaving kids like Elvis to sling wrenches in places like the Grove only long enough to drive in their stakes and die not more than a mile from where they were born.
The Monarch tends to overwinter in conifer groves, but can be found summertime in meadows, gardens, fields, prairies, forests, mausoleums, abandoned mental asylums, and framed in still life petrified pinned to walls in places like libraries and basement apartments.
Sure, Rhonda Belle liked him well enough. As much as she did any of the other boys that she would watch from nearby the way the bench at the bus stop watches the Greyhounds go by and come back and cycle around again. Until she saw something different in the way he wore his confidence blooming like a dogwood blowing magnificent white petals in night sky patterns all over the grass.
Elvis loved to visit Rhonda Belle’s house because she had that old phonograph in her bedroom. He would climb in through the window with his latest treasure and play it real quiet in there while Rhonda Belle would sit on the bed with her legs crossed and with a book held up under her nose until the rock and roll record was played and over and she would put on an old Puccini 78 for Elvis and watch as he would try to impress her by caring about it. He figured she bought the act because she would just sit there admiring him with a faraway look in her eyes that landed somewhere deep in his soul. But he wasn’t really listening. Just thinking about Hollywood and Nashville and New York City.
The Monarch is peculiar to all other species of butterfly in that it is the only one to make both northward and southward migrations, in much the same manner birds are commonly known to behave.
He didn’t look as torn up as you might have thought lying out there in the rain with his shirt all stained with the blood that had long since been let out and drained away. His hair was nice and slick like he liked to wear it anyway, what with all that rain. But he wasn’t moving. Wasn’t singing or playing that old guitar of his. No way was he going to Nashville or New York City or Hollywood.
It wasn’t any secret. She was a few years older than Elvis and hadn’t had a real boyfriend before. The other boys were nice to look at and talk to. She was friendly and well-liked, but she saw them for the small town boys they were. She looked at them and saw boys who could see as far as they could reach with their fingertips and who were content at that. No, until she met Elvis, Rhonda Belle mostly just loved the butterflies.
“I’m almost there Rhonny Belle. Once I have enough to buy me that Mercury automobile sittin‘ out there on the yard, it’s all over for me here. Gonna strike out with this guitar and hit Nashville or New York City or Hollywood. You’ll see.” He beamed with self-confidence and dreamy ambition. When he spoke, his eyes would wander like he could actually see it all; like the empty gloom in front of him was never there; like boys like Elvis make it out of places like the Grove all the time. For keeps.
She would come over to the garage to watch him work sometimes in the evenings. She’d listen to him think out loud as he tuned engines and replaced brake pads and intake manifolds, mapping out for her as though in glorious Technicolor educational film reels the ins and outs of every last engine part, every last tool in the garage. His fluid movement instinctual in the grease and the grit. Seemed so natural. She would watch him intently.
The average lifespan of a Monarch butterfly is approximately two months. However, the last generation of each summer enters a phase knows as diapause, a non-reproductive period that allows the butterfly to live for up to an additional five or six months.
That was the day she met Elvis. Sitting there on the porch at the drug store on Fifth and Pompeii, Rhonda Belle just listened and admired. No one else talked like Elvis did. She thought he was a masterpiece and just listening to him and watching those eyes of his wander all around looking at things that weren’t there made her eyes well up a little.
He liked how smart she was and how interested she was in things he couldn’t understand. He inspected her bedroom like it was a museum and he was on some third grade field trip to the fire station. “What’s this,” he would ask, picking up pieces of petrified wood or sea shells or encyclopedia volumes. “You don’t belong here, you know,” he would say with sincerity every now and then, offensively piercing her sense of realism. “You and me both,” he would say.
Rhonda Belle took in the truth of his proclamations in ways he never meant.
The length of the Monarch’s migration significantly outlasts the average Monarch lifespan. It is the second, third and fourth generations that return to their northern locations in the spring. How the species manages to return to the same overwintering spots over a gap of several generations is unknown to science.
Elvis used to love to watch her out there with the butterflies in the sunshine, so still and peaceful. When they would land on her and slowly flap those great big wings it looked like some kind of fairy tale. He wrote her a song about it with words that went something like “Sweet Rhonda Belle and the butterflies; sittin’ in the grass and the bright sunshine; sweet Rhonda Belle and butterflies; come hold my hand, baby, I don’t mind.” He sang that song to her and strummed his guitar as she smiled a strange smile without looking at him. He never did get a chance to write them words down on paper.
She kept only one butterfly for herself. For all of her fascination with them, she always allowed them to fly away, to migrate, to die in winter, to come back to her again. She had it mounted on a felt backing behind a piece of glass, framed and hanging on her wall. There was something about this one. Something beautiful that needed remembering. It wouldn’t be right to let it suffer the fate of the rest of them. She saw Elvis admiring it one afternoon to the sound of rock and roll and the rain outside. She said, “We can only allow the beautiful things to live on in ways the world doesn’t understand.” She didn’t know anything else to say.
Elvis worked late at the garage that night. One last shift to pay for gas and he and that old Merc were finally going to make dreams come true. She had kissed him the for the first time just a few hours earlier with a look in her eye he’d only seen out there in the meadow. He’d asked her to come with him but she just looked away again. Never said goodbye. But Elvis knew he never really understood her ways anyhow.
She walked out through the rain to the wreck and took one long last look at him. It was the kind of look that you know burns hard and fast and never forgets. Pulled down strong by the forces of something stronger than desire or faith or hope or love or even the innate passion of just some anonymous kid from the Grove who yearns for more; the boy and his mangled guitar all drained and limp on the asphalt, never gonna get up again. She stared for a long while. Just stared at a masterpiece that never had to go off and wither and die in the wintertime, bitter and disappointed like the rest. She picked up the guitar and walked home. Mounted it on the wall.
Sweet Rhonda Belle never make you cry; always gonna be here by your side; pinned to your wallpaper pretty as can be; with a butterfly grin hangin over me.
Summertime’s here and it’s still again. Maybe even in places like Nashville and Hollywood and New York City. And all of them fluttering about with aimless ambition and mindless inspiration. The sun came out later that day and Rhonda Belle wiped her eyes and made off down the old trail to the meadow, at home there alone in the Grove with the sons of sons of butterflies.
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Writer in Residence:
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