Since I grew up in her hometown, you’d think I would’ve met Dolly Parton. I should’ve at least seen a quick glance of her hair or a sneak-peek of one of her boobs, but I never saw hide or hair of the woman even after dating Carl for a month. Carl said—let me rephrase that—Carl claimed he house-sat for her. Not only that, but he also claimed he had completed four volumes of her scrapbooks. He was currently in the middle of the fifth but was having “mental blocks” what with the leftover photographs he hadn’t used yet of Dolly in the eighties with the more recent pictures of her after the bluegrass albums came out.
Carl is a Creative Memories consultant. One of those deals where you go to a party and the person does those demonstrations to get you to buy their products. It’s a scrapbooking company. Carl sells the whole bit: the books with acid-free paper, colorful pens, and stickers to decorate the pages. He said he got into the business because he was so good at making Dolly’s scrapbooks that it just made sense. That’s where I met him—at one of those parties.
“Ladies, ladies, you should’ve seen the mess,” Carl said of Dolly’s photographs and news clippings. He wore a black apron that read: “Creative Memories” in hot pink. “I walked into her house, and right there on her counter top were piles and piles of all of the pictures with two or three baskets filled and only one page in a book complete. Now Dolly’s always out at concerts and appearances. While we all might not be like Dolly, how many of us here are like her because we have our photos shoved here and there and everywhere? Now raise your hands.”
All the women raised their hands, sighed, and jabbered about all the different places they had their pictures. Besides Carl, I was the only man there, and I wondered if he was calling me a lady or had just decided not to include me at all.
Carl passed out miniature photo croppers and packets of stickers cut in the shapes of stars and diamonds and sunbursts. He placed a tiny easel on the table and flipped the pages to the first one that showed bullets detailing how to go about choosing the best photographs for a scrapbook. Then he took out two of his own pictures and held them up. In one, a teenage Carl was by himself, dressed for the prom. The other had lots of tropical birds in cages in the background, and Carl stood in the picture with a smiling older man.
“Your father?” Brianna asked.
“My father took the picture of me in the tux,” Carl said. “But this one is of me and my uncle.”
He clipped the edges of both his photographs with the cropper, making them rounded. All the women did the same with their own.
“Did you bring three pictures?” Carl asked me.
“We were supposed to bring pictures?”
“I told you to bring three,” Brianna said.
Brianna and all the women in the circle gave me a real dirty look. Like I was messing up the whole party, the entire flow of the demonstration.
“And we pick two to tell a story in the scrapbooks.” Carl looked over at me, raising his eyebrows. I could tell he knew I was lying. I remembered we were supposed to bring photographs, but I forgot where mine were. Unlike the women and Dolly, I hadn’t shoved pictures everywhere; I had boxed them up when I moved my father out of the house.
I got up from the corner as they all cut their photos and went into the kitchen where I poked cubes of cheddar with a toothpick, popping them in my mouth.
My friend Brianna, she was the host of the party, had talked me into coming. She said, “Ronnie, you have got to meet Carl. He’s such a hoot. I think you’ll really hit it off.”
Brianna always said things like that. Like “hoot.” And she was always trying to set me up with anybody who was gay.
Carl and I stood outside on Brianna’s porch smoking cigarettes while the women inside were going through his catalogs and writing down their orders.
“Dolly?” Carl let on like he had no idea who I meant.
“Oh, you know. Nashville. Hawaii. And here in Pigeon Forge.”
“You house sit for the one here?”
“That’s the one.”
“I’m just dying to see how she decorates. Is it all Country Western theme?”
“Can I meet her?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
I figured I better change the subject. “Did your uncle own birds?”
“Uncle Dave owns a pet store. Those tropical birds are his specialty.” He smiled, maybe remembering something.
He shrugged, taking the last drag off his cigarette. “He’s gay too. My grandmother always said she thought it might be hereditary. She made it sound like it was a glitch in the family DNA.”
He flicked his cigarette over the side.
Two days later we met for lunch. He chose the Diner, a joint right on Route 441 near one of the strip malls. A pink Cadillac and a thirties Chevy truck decorated the parking lot. Christmas lights were strung along the vehicles.
“Tell me where you’re staying. Is it close to Dollywood?” I asked.
Carl was busy cutting his deluxe burger with cheese in half. “For dinner,” he said, ignoring the question about Dolly’s house. He bit into one half and then placed the other inside a napkin and wrapped it up.
He reminded me of my father. After Dad started to get sick, I’d take him out to eat, and he’d eat only half of his food, forgetting to ask for a doggie bag, and as we left, he’d wrap the rest in a napkin. Later, I’d find the food still wrapped, uneaten, in his underwear drawer, or inside his bedside table next to his Bible.
“Once Upon a Christmas” came on the jukebox, Dolly singing with Kenny Rogers. I hummed a little and said to Carl, “That’s ironic. Hearing Dolly.”
He shrugged. “We’re two miles away from Dollywood. That doesn’t make it ironic at all.”
After lunch, we walked around the strip mall. I tried to take his hand to steer him toward a men’s clothing store, but he jerked it away. I remembered something my mother said to me in high school, “Do you have to be so obvious?”
I got the job as the band director of Dolly’s and my old high school after my mother passed away. I moved back because when I came up for the funeral to help my father settle her affairs, I found him leaving the iron in the freezer, his wristwatch in the sugar bowl. When I lived with them, these were all the same places he hid his airplane alcohol bottles. He had stopped drinking five years before my mother died. But I knew I had to stay when we went to the grocery store and I found him in the bread aisle shouting at a stock boy, demanding to know what the boy was doing in his living room.
It wasn’t the first time I was embarrassed by Dad. In high school, I choreographed the flag corp routine for the band. I even taught them how to do a jazz step right in front of the high school one afternoon. All the other kids were riding away. Their parents were honking their horns as I demonstrated the pointy toes with the quick slide along the grass and the swinging of the arms. The girls never did get those arms and toes just right. My father, just off his shift at work, drove by, ten miles an hour, the window of his truck rolled down. “Ronnie! Hey Ronnie! All those dance lessons paid off, son. You show them girls how to strut their stuff,” he shouted. The school librarian was right behind him and almost rear-ended his pick-up as she watched me glide along the front lawn of the school.
After my first date with Carl, I went to the assisted living facility where my father stayed. His room was always littered with empty glasses from his Dr. Pepper and wrappers of Tootsie Rolls. I brought him two bags each time I visited. The nurses didn’t like it. They said he lived off the Tootsie Rolls instead of the three square meals a day they attempted to feed him.
He sat in his recliner by the window, the television on with the sound muted. It looked like he had the channel on a home shopping network. The nurses had had to take the phone out of his room.
“I told you I wouldn’t eat that applesauce,” he shouted. “Get on out of here with that.”
I reached into his mini-refrigerator and pulled out a cold soda, poured it into one of his glasses. “It’s me, Dad.” I sat down on the foot of the bed.
He cracked it open. “That’s more like it. Nobody likes that damn applesauce. Not even my wife.”
I told him about Carl while he stared at the television. “Lives with Dolly Parton. You remember that song? ‘Coat of Many Colors’? You used to love that song. He does all her scrapbooks. You’d like him. He’s real creative.”
I didn’t tell him I suspected Carl was a liar.
When I got back to my own home, there was a message on the answering machine from the assisted living facility. My father had checked out four books from their library—two on country music history, one about the Grand Ole Opry, and a film book that in one chapter detailed the production of 9 to 5. He had cut out all the pictures of Dolly Parton.
“We expect you’ll pay for the books the next time you come,” the message said.
The next day, I was late for visiting hours. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember where I put my car keys. I finally found them on the mantel. “You should get one of them clappers,” a nurse said when I explained, letting me in after visitation.
When I entered my father’s room, I saw he had pasted a few of the cut out pictures of Dolly on his wall. The rest were scattered on his coffee table. He sat in his recliner cutting another photo into the shape of a cloud with a pair of scissors.
“Where did you get those?” I asked him.
“My wife used to have all our pictures on the walls,” he said, pointing to a spot. “Right there. There used to be a picture of my son and me. She took it the day he had his first dance competition. He won. Did I ever tell you that?”
For the life of me I couldn’t remember what photograph he was talking about. What I did remember were the paper ream boxes I filled with all the frames and pictures my mother had hanging on the walls and taking the Sharpie marker and writing “photographs” on the tops and sides.
After I left Dad, I wanted to call Carl. I patted my shirt pocket for my cell phone, but it wasn’t there. I pulled my car over, looked under the seats, inside the glove compartment, but nothing. At home, I called my number three times before my father answered.
“Hello? Hello? Martha? Is that you? Tell Ronnie I’ll be home soon.”
Then I heard a plop, a fizzle, and a crackle, and I just knew my cell phone found its way into a full glass of Dr. Pepper.
“I’m not afraid of losing mine,” he said.
Carl lit a cigarette and took a sip of wine. “I even have the first picture I took with me and Dolly. It was the Fourth of July at Dollywood about five years ago. She had on these white pants with blue and red glitter stars and a vest and white cowboy hat to match.”
After I handed him his glass, I waved over at a flyer I had placed on the refrigerator, one I had found hanging up on a bulletin board in my father’s assisted living facility. It was an advertisement for a “Maintain the Brain” workshop being held at the hospital over near Gatlinburg.
“Go with me,” I said.
“What in the world for?”
“Because I don’t want to go by myself.”
When we walked into the conference room at the hospital, a giant easel stood up front on the stage. It made me think of the small one Carl used for his Creative Memories shows. On the easel was a piece of oak tag that read, in large block letters, “Basic brain facts, ways to keep your memory sharp, the close connection between brain health and heart health and brain-healthy lifestyle strategies.”
I wanted to sit up front, but Carl plopped down in a chair in the back row before I could guide him.
While the speaker started on basic brain facts, I looked around. We were the only two there under the age of sixty-five. All the women had blue or purple hair and the men wore pants up to their chests.
“Even though they have Alzheimer’s, couldn’t they at least remember where their waist is?” Carl rolled and rerolled his program.
I poked him. “Why are you so nervous? Can’t you just enjoy yourself?”
“Enjoy myself? We’re surrounded by people on the verge of losing their minds and you want me to enjoy myself?” He rose and walked out.
I listened to the speaker for a few more minutes before leaving and decided I would start doing brainteasers and crossword puzzles.
Carl was in the car smoking a cigarette and listening to the easy listening station that played carols from Thanksgiving until the day after Christmas.
I pecked on the passenger side window and he unlocked it, letting me in. “What’s with you?”
He stared out of the window that was fogged up from the smoke and the cold. “My uncle’s dying of AIDS.”
I didn’t know what to say. “If I can’t meet Dolly can I at least meet your uncle?”
Two days before Christmas, Carl drove me to his Uncle Dave’s house, an hour away from Sevierville, near Knoxville. The lawn was decorated with a plastic Santa and eight reindeer. Carl’s uncle came out wearing a Santa hat and a green tee shirt that read: “I’m Gayer than You.” And I thought about how my father would’ve got a kick out of that shirt. Like the time he laughed out loud when I wore a red sequined shirt for my senior Christmas band concert even though I told him I wasn’t trying to be funny.
Carl’s uncle looked like Saint Nick with his white beard and a potbelly. He shook my hand and said, “Ho. Ho. Ho.” But he didn’t have rosy cheeks. He was pale and his eyes were a little gray.
Dave’s lover Gary ordered pizza while Dave showed us his Christmas trees. He had a tree in every room.
“This one has a sea theme,” he said as he did his best Vanna White imitation next to the tree and howled with laughter at himself. “And walking, we’re walking into the den now where you’ll find the University of Tennessee tree.”
On the way home, Carl said, “That’s the last Christmas. That’s it.”
“You don’t know that,” I said.
But I’d known when it was my mother’s last Christmas. I didn’t tell Carl that. I didn’t tell him how it was one of the other things I’d wish to forget: the way my father threw a glass against the wall that last Christmas dinner because he said it should have been him. I didn’t want those memories. Meeting Dolly was a memory I wouldn’t mind having. I wanted to know what Dolly was like so I could remember my car keys and my cell phone.
I asked Carl if he wanted to meet my Dad.
“I’m telling you to put it back on that tree! My wife puts that angel on the top of the tree every year. You stole it. Tell me what you did with it!”
“Dad?” I poked my head inside and saw the nurse standing in front of him, shaking her head with her hands on her hips. “I have someone I want you to meet.”
The nurse sighed and walked out, happy I was there.
“I told you about Carl. Remember?”
“Carl? Carl, that woman stole my wife’s angel. You go get it from her. Ya hear?”
“I hear.” Carl stood in front of my father’s wall, looking at all the pictures of Dolly he pasted up.
“Dad. Dad? Listen. That’s not Mama’s tree.”
But he didn’t hear. He rocked in his chair, his thoughts on the Christmas tree my mother used to put up. I didn’t understand why my father could remember the good memories, the good trees. What I remembered was the miniature one she’d put on the coffee table because she was too afraid to put up a big one after Dad fell into it one year when he was too drunk from Crown Royal.
“I’ve got an idea,” Carl said.
Starting in November, Dollywood advertises “A Smoky Mountain Christmas” and decorates everything in the amusement park with three million lights. My father ohed and ahed after Carl bought our tickets and we walked through the front gates. Once we started walking, I noticed he still had on his moccasin bedroom slippers.
“Jesus,” I said.
Carl said, “The manger scene is on the other side of the park.”
Later, my father stood in front of the old-timey wheelwright store eating the ice cream cone he’d begged Carl for, the chocolate dripping down his glove. Dad stared through the window at the man placing the pieces of wood together to make a wheel.
“Mommy’d like to have one of them for her garden.”
“She would,” I said. “She sure would.”
I noticed then that Carl had come up and stood beside me, all of us now watching the wheelmaker. I was angry with Carl. Angry because my father was remembering something he could have forgotten—my mother’s garden she worked in every spring and summer.
“Shouldn’t Dolly be here?” I asked Carl. “Wearing some Christmas tinsel?”
“She’ll come for the Christmas parade,” he said, not noticing the tone.
“Right,” I said, and took my father by the hand, feeling the stickiness in my palm.
Reading the program brochure from the “Maintain the Brain Workshop,” I’d learned blueberries contain antioxidants that are good for the brain. I had started to put them into protein shakes made with soymilk, multivitamin powder, and a spoonful of wheat germ. I was getting out a bag of blueberries from the freezer when I heard the rapid knocking on my front door.
It was Carl. He didn’t come in right away, just leaned in the doorway, staring at the floor.
“My uncle died.”
I led him inside to the couch.
He laughed a weird sort of laugh. “My parents are telling people outside of the family he died of a strange tropical bird disease.”
I took his hand. But Carl wasn’t really paying attention. Instead, he was looking up and around the walls of my house. It was the first time he noticed.
“You don’t have any pictures. Do you?”
The walls were blank. But there were places where frames had been. White patches where dust had neglected to settle.
“You should put up pictures.”
“To see what you were like. What your family was like.”
“I don’t even know where you live,” I said.
“Sure you do.”
“I haven’t been there. I haven’t even seen it.”
“Dolly likes her privacy. I don’t know if she’d like me bringing people she doesn’t know over.”
“Of course,” I sneered. But then I felt bad because his uncle had just died. I felt like a selfish bastard. So I said, “Maybe you could help me start my own scrapbook.”
“Sure.” He lit a cigarette and found an ashtray on the kitchen counter. “Would you go with me to the funeral?”
“Why don’t you get Dolly to go?” I asked.
He walked out.
At the funeral, Carl’s parents stood off to the side, away from the rest of the crowd—the gay crowd. Carl only nodded over, letting me know who they were. They reminded me of my own parents. Straight and clean cut with the father in a navy suit and the mother in a plain dress with a gold cross around her neck. They were normal.
Carl let me take his hand as he walked down the aisle to the casket, to where his uncle’s lover stood shaking hands.
“I’ll be over here,” I said, letting him give his condolences alone.
That’s when I saw an eyesore among all the other plants and flowers—a wagon wheel flower arrangement. I walked over and peeked at the card. It read, just as simple as could be: “Deepest sympathy. Love, Dolly.”