A work of fiction, uniquely inspired by Justin Bieber’s disgraced pastor, ushering the reader into the life and times of Elvis Presley’s…babysitter…
by: Carolynn Kingyens
“Ruthie, you have to tell the ladies about the time you babysat for Elvis,” blurted out Margie.
Margie felt compelled to insert Elvis into every conversation whenever Ruthie was introduced to a new group. There was no separating Elvis from Ruthie and Ruthie from Elvis. In Margie’s mind, the two had become synonymous.
The assembly of women, who’d varied in age, somewhere between sixty and eighty, had gathered in a circle in the drafty basement of St. John’s Lutheran church for their weekly knitting group. Each lady wore a name tag to help make new members, like Ruthie, feel welcomed. There was a Betty, a June, a Martha, a Tess, a Maureen, a Jean, an Ann and a Sandy. Ruthie observed that they’d often gossiped under the guise of “prayer requests” as they knitted tiny, pink and blue hats to donate to the labor and delivery unit at their local hospital, along with scarves and matching mittens for those in need in their community.
The church would provide coffee and donuts to encourage the ladies to stick around and fellowship with one another after knitting group had ended. But Ruthie had planned to skip out early, and only came in the first place because Margie had asked her to.
Ruthie stopped attending church soon after she’d become estranged from her preacher-father, the famed, Reverend Paul Honeycutt, better known as Elvis’ personal pastor. She wasn’t an atheist, or an agnostic yet, and still believed in God, just no longer in religion anymore.
“Oh, please do tell,” compelled a demure-looking lady named June.
Just then, Maureen, who’d worn a wrist full of bejeweled bracelets that would clang together whenever she’d knit, added, “I’d bet the farm that little Lisa Marie was an entitled, spoiled brat. Look at the way her life unfolded. She’s a hot mess.”
It was true. Ruthie did babysit Lisa Marie when she was six-years-old. She’d known her as a sweet little girl back then. Yes, her daddy adored her, and overindulged her many whims. And yes, she’d have tantrums — but what six-year-old didn’t have tantrums?
“Lisa Marie was sweet when I watched her in ’74, the summer before I went off to college. It’s hard to believe her daddy would be gone three years later. I still remember where I was when I got the news,” said Ruthie.
“Where were you?” asked Betty, a tall, attractive woman with vivid blue eyes, the same intensity as Sinatra’s.
“I was packing to return to my junior year at Amherst College, Emily Dickinson’s alma mater, when my older brother, PJ, knocked on my bedroom door. I could tell he’d been crying. He sat me down on my bed and held my hand as he told me the news that Elvis had died of a suspected heart attack. He’d also told me our father had been outside lounging by the pool, entertaining a steady flow of ladies who were coming in and out of Graceland that previous weekend, mostly groupies of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia, during the exact time of Elvis’ death.”
Some spiritual mentor, thought Ruthie.
Ruthie paused, before continuing. “I was speechless, at first, then I began to cry when I thought about Lisa Marie losing her daddy so young. I kept saying out loud, “Elvis is dead?” Elvis is dead?” I must have said that for an entire week before reality had finally set in.”
“You and the rest of the world, dear,” said Ann, a neighbor of Margie’s.
Ruthie secretly blamed her father for not looking after Elvis properly. He owed him that. Instead he’d become one of those peripheral people in Elvis’ “Mafia,” who’d enabled his unhealthy lifestyle, and was always up for a good time with the rest of them. Elvis paid him to be his spiritual guide, to help him navigate the pitfalls of fame and celebrity — drugs, women and hedonism, chiefly. And her father, in her opinion, had failed Elvis, big-time.
“How did you become Lisa Marie’s babysitter,” asked Tess, who’d appeared to be the oldest lady in the knitting group.
“It’s a long story. I would have to start from the beginning,” Ruthie replied.
“We have time, don’t we ladies?” said Ann as the rest of the knitting ladies nodded in agreement.
“Oh, it’s such a good story,” said Margie, who was sitting to the left of Ruthie.
“You really want to hear it?” asked a bemused Ruthie.
“Yes!” said all the knitting ladies in perfect unison.
Ruthie took a hard swallow before she preceded to tell the story of how she’d become acquainted with Elvis, Lisa Marie, Graceland and finally, estrangement from her father, and for a time, God.
“Let’s just say, my father was destined to fall from grace,” Ruthie began. “The question was how far? I was secretly hoping for annihilation. He deserved it. He deserved to lose everything. It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I adored my father, before fame and women, before I knew I had four half-siblings scattered across four states — Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Alabama — all conceived during one of my father’s moveable crusades. About every two years, he’d get an itch for one of his crusades, where mother, PJ and I weren’t allowed to come along because there wasn’t enough room on the bus between his crusade crew and all the sound equipment. And mother would never question his smooth answers.
“Wait a minute, are you Paul Honeycutt’s daughter?” asked Jean, who’d bore a striking resemblance to Dorothy from The Golden Girls.
“Afraid so,” Ruthie replied.
“My mother used to listen to your father’s radio sermons, faithfully. She even dragged my whole family to one of his crusades while he was passing through Missouri where I grew up. My father called him a fraud, but my mother held onto every word he said as if he was God. It was so weird. I eventually figured out she just had the hots for Honeycutt.”
All the knitting ladies began to chuckle, including Ruthie.
“Dad did have a way with women. No doubt about that,” she said before continuing on with her story.
“Who’d have known a phone call could change us forever. Mother answered the phone first to only drop the receiver seconds later, her delicate hand covering her wide mouth, standing in the middle of the kitchen gobsmacked. I thought the call was about Poppy, mother’s father, who’d just gotten over another bout of pneumonia. Maybe he was back in the hospital? Maybe he died? I began to feel sad, but then I heard a familiar voice echoing from the upside down phone receiver, say, “Hello, Hello, Ma’am?”
“Elvis!” proclaimed Sandy, a woman whose style of dress was more current than the other ladies. She still had a curvy figure, and could pass for a woman much younger than her seventy-three years.
“I’d thought to myself, where did I know that voice from? Just then, my father walked in, and scooped up the swaying phone, putting the receiver up to his hairy ear. “Hello, this is Reverend Paul Honeycutt speaking,” said Ruthie, doing a spot-on impersonation of her father.
The ladies chuckled again.
“I knew right away it was someone important on the other end by reading my father’s body language. I’d gotten pretty good at reading nonverbal cues, especially when it came to my father.”
Ruthie had recalled how he’d hang his hands off his enormous belt buckle whenever there was an opportunity, like the time Uncle Danny got into selling stolen car parts for some extra cash, and she suspected her father was a silent partner in his scheme. Whenever Uncle Danny would come round holding a crisp, white envelope, he and her father would step outside “to talk.” Ruthie, in turn, would run into the bathroom, locking the door behind her, and watched her father from the side gap in the daisy-print window shade, accept Uncle Danny’s envelope, his hand never leaving his buckle, smiling like a sly, silver-haired fox that had just cornered a frightened rabbit with nowhere to run.
“Well hello, Elvis. What a nice surprise,” said Ruthie as she impersonated her father again, putting on the best preacher’s twang she’d assumed he learned from the now defunct Memphis seminary, where he was a student long ago, back when he still believed in God and consequences.
“How did Elvis get your number?” quizzed Maureen.
“My father had met him during one of his crusades while rolling through Memphis. Elvis had two men from his “Memphis Mafia” go to my father’s crusade, and after he’d preached for almost two hours, they’d escorted my father back to Graceland where he had a late meal and private talk with Elvis. He’d felt that he needed a spiritual mentor to help guide him back to God, and thought he’d found that in my father,” replied Ruthie, who’d fought back the urge to roll her eyes.
“What was it like meeting Elvis?” asked Sandy.
“I will never forget,” replied Ruthie. “We had just moved into a house that Elvis had generously paid for, located two streets over from Graceland. PJ and I would sometimes ride our bikes over to visit my father, who’d began to increasingly spend most of his days and nights at Graceland, he said, “ministering to Elvis.” Mother may have bought that line, but PJ and I never did.”
“Soon after we’d moved in, Elvis invited my family to Graceland for a barbecue and a swim in his pool. Mother spent all morning primping. I almost didn’t recognize her when she’d stepped out of her bedroom, with all the makeup and big hair. Mother was a natural beauty, who’d rarely wore make-up in her day to day life. When we arrived, my father went down the line and introduced each one of us to Elvis. He kissed mother’s hand after she was introduced, and her face flushed several hues of pink. He shook PJ’s hand next, and then kissed my hand last. He told me I was very pretty like my Momma. He just knew how to make everyone, in his company, feel special. And in that moment, I’d felt my family was special, especially my father.
Ruthie stopped speaking.
“Why did you stop the story?” asked June.
“Look at the time,” replied Ruthie. “We haven’t even touched our knitting since I started my story, and then there’s the coffee and donuts.”
Just then, Ruthie looked over at the untouched table.
“Ladies, why don’t we get some coffee and donuts, and then come back to our seats to hear the rest of Ruthie’s fascinating story?” suggested June.
“Good idea!” said beautiful Betty.
“And don’t forget bathroom breaks,” added Maureen.
The ladies laughed.
“Are you sure?” Ruthie asked.
“Yes, we’re sure,” interjected Margie, giving her friend a reassuring pat on her shoulder.
The ladies started to walk over to the table with its crisp, white tablecloth in small groups while Margie and Ruthie stayed seated in their seats, talking.
“Margie,” whispered Ruthie, “This is crazy. I didn’t come here to tell my life story. I think I should leave.”
“Ruthie, please don’t,” whispered Margie. “I think you are way too bottled up inside. This is good for you to be in touch with your past again. You rarely talk about the past without me having to bring it up first.”
“Don’t I know,” quipped Ruthie, rolling her eyes.
“I’ll get a coffee — two creams and a sugar, dear?”
What was I thinking? thought Ruthie. I should’ve declined Margie’s invitation.
As a PK, short for Preacher’s Kid, Ruthie had to always be on her best behavior. It was an unspoken rule for all PK’s. They never knew who could be watching them, even from afar, and had felt a moral obligation to be good Christian stewards in their community, even though, in their case, it was bullshit.
After they’d moved to Memphis, and their father with Elvis most of the time, she and PJ began to live duplicitous lives. PJ would get stoned everyday after school in the detached garage out back, and Ruthie would begin stealing makeup and fashion magazines from the local pharmacy. No one had suspected her being Reverend Honeycutt’s daughter and all, although she did witness a few side glances from the nosey cashier, whom, she could glean, wasn’t buying her Little Miss Perfect act. Being honest and real was often frowned upon in the Honeycutt home. Perception was everything.
“Here you go, Ruthie,” said Margie, handing her a cup of hot coffee. Ruthie took one sip, and decided to set it aside as it was too hot. The coffee also had a slight burnt aftertaste.
Little by little, the knitting ladies began to reassemble.
“I have a question,” said Martha, who hadn’t spoken yet.
All the ladies looked in Martha’s direction.
“When did your father begin working for Elvis?”
“It was June of ‘73 when we received that call from Elvis. I had just turned seventeen. By that August, we’d be living in a house personally chosen by Elvis. It was a nice house, not big by any means. It had pink rose bushes that lined the entire width of white fencing in the front yard. Mother loved that house.”
Ruthie paused for a moment as her thoughts trailed back to her mother, whom she loved very much.
“My father would join Elvis’ “Memphis Mafia” in August of ’73, which consisted of his family, friends, associates, and employees. I would start my senior year of high school in Memphis, and PJ, short for Paul John, who is two years older than me, would start community college there as well.”
Ruthie would become popular her senior year after news got out that a mysterious girl had just moved to Memphis from above the Mason Dixon, even though her father had deep Alabama roots and she still spoke with a heavy southern twang. They called her the “pretty Yankee,” but her popularity soared to higher heights after word got out that her father was Elvis’ pastor. She’d go on to question a lot of her new friends’ motives as most wanted to be her friend due to her close proximity to The King, as he was affectionately called.
But to Ruthie, Elvis was just Elvis, her father’s kind, generous boss, who’d just happened to be world famous.
“So your father had worked for Elvis those four years, leading up to his death,” inferred Martha.
“Yes,” Ruthie replied, “Not long enough, sadly.”
“The last time I saw Elvis was Christmas Eve of ‘76. I was home from school and joined my family for his annual Christmas Eve bash. Graceland was decorated like a magical winter wonderland. He had a live nativity scene on his front lawn, including livestock. Christmas carolers would greet guests at his front door, even Santa Claus and several reindeer had made an appearance. Every guest got to pick three gifts from under a gigantic tree. Lisa Marie was there. Elvis asked me if I could tuck her in as he was still socializing with his guests. Of course, I said yes. I sang ‘O Holy Night’ to her until she fell asleep.”
“And eight months later, he would be gone,” noted Sandy.
All the ladies grew quiet.
“What happened to your father after Elvis died?” asked Jean.
“My father began to drink heavily after Elvis died. I think he blamed himself for not being there for Elvis that fateful day. Two years later, my parents would get divorced. Mother moved back to Maryland, where she was from, and father stayed in Memphis, in the same home where we last lived as a family, until his death from liver failure in ’93. He was sixty-five.
“Did you ever talk to your father about Elvis?” asked Maureen.
Just then, Margie reached out for Ruthie’s hand.
She then took a deep breath before answering:
“Sadly, father and I became estranged in ’83, when I was twenty-seven. We never spoke again. PJ would give me updates through the years. He would visit our father once or twice a year, but their relationship was also broken.”
“That’s so sad,” commented Jean.
“I think there were many factors. My father lived a dual life for a long time, and our family suffered as a result. He had lost his faith by the time Elvis came calling. He should’ve been honest with Elvis, and declined the position. But the pull of celebrity and the tantalizing low hanging fruit it offered was too much, and my father couldn’t resist. All he ever knew was life as a traveling preacher. His father was a traveling preacher, and his father’s father was one, too. They’d constantly uproot their families for life on the road, and eventually each one would succumb to the same worldly vices that they’d preach against. Some irony.”
“My father’s family tree looks like a tornado unearthed it, before scattering its remnants to the wind.”
“And where do you stand with your faith today?” asked Tess.
The room fell silent.
“I’m holding on, Tess. I think that’s all any of us can do. Hold on,” replied Ruthie.
Margie squeezed Ruthie’s hand, and began shaking her head in agreement.
“Why don’t you give St. John’s a try?” asked Martha.
“You already know us knitting ladies,” added Jean.
They didn’t know about the all-consuming guilt that Ruthie had lived with everyday. How it ate her alive. She still loved her father. The estrangement was the only plausible recourse for peace. The six years leading up to their estrangement were fraught with toxic tension. Ruthie couldn’t pretend everything was fine anymore, and that was the only way to get along with her father, pretend everything was fine. He’d fought every chance, at her attempts, to clear the air, even though his daughter was suffocating.
“I haven’t been out to church since 1984, a year after my father and I stopped speaking. I appreciate the invitation, ladies, more than you know.”
“She’ll think about it, right Ruthie,” interjected Margie, still holding her hand.
“Of course,” replied Ruthie.
The winter sky grew dark outside, the air bitter cold. The ladies began to pack up their long knitting needles and different colored yarns. Some used the ladies room before heading back to their individual homes, and lives. Betty, June, Martha, Tess, Maureen, Jean, Ann and Sandy each made a point to say their goodbyes to Ruthie before they’d left St. John’s that day.
Margie and Ruthie were the last to leave the church.
“Do all churches smell the same?” asked Ruthie. “This church smells like my childhood.”
Margie turned off the lights, before she and Ruthie walked to her Chrysler minivan parked right outside the church. As soon as she opened the doors, and started the car, she began to blast the heat. It was so cold Ruthie could see her breath when she spoke to Margie:
“Would you like to go on a road trip with me this summer?”
“Depends on where you’re going?” replied Margie.
“Thinking Memphis.” What do you think?”
“I think it’s brilliant. “I’m in.”
Margie clicked on the Elvis station on her Sirius XM Satellite Radio before leaving the church’s parking lot.
The song playing was “Always on My Mind.”
Carolynn Kingyens’ debut book of poetry, Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound (Kelsay Books), can be ordered through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Greenlight, Book Culture, Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop and McNally Jackson. In addition to poetry, Carolynn writes narrative essays, book reviews, micro/flash fiction, and short stories. She resides in New York with her husband and two amazing daughters.