gawd! It's George Strait."
"Where? Where? Oooh, oooh, oooh! I swear, Mabel, I'm so excited I'm
gonna pee my pants."
Clayton Jessup, III was about to enter his hotel suite when he heard the
high-pitched squeals of the two blue-haired ladies in matching neon pink, "Elvis
Lives" sweat shirts.
He glanced over his shoulder to see who was generating so much
excitement and saw no one. Uh-oh! In an instant, he realized that they thought he
was the George person...probably some Memphis celebrity. Even worse, they were
pep-stepping briskly toward him with huge smiles plastered across their expectant faces,
and autograph books drawn to the ready.
"Open the damn door," he snarled at the wizened old bellhop,
whose kidney-spotted hands were fumbling with the key.
"I'm tryin', I'm tryin'. You don't wanna get caught by any of these
country music fanatics. Last week over on Beale Street, they tore off every bit of a
construction worker's clothes for souvenirs, right down to his BVD's, just 'cause they
thought he was Billy Dean."
"Who the hell is Billy Dean?"
"You're kidding, right?" the bellhop said, casting him a
sideways once-over of disbelief.
Clay grabbed the key out of the bellhop's hand and inserted it himself.
Just before the women were ready to pounce, gushing, "Oooh, George. Yoo hoo!",
the door swung open and they escaped. Leaning against the closed door, he exhaled with a
loud whoosh of relief.
He heard one of the women say, "Mabel, I don't think that was
George. He wasn't wearing a cowboy hat, and George never goes anywhere without his
trademark wide-brimmed cowboy hat." "Maybe you're right, Mildred," Mabel
"Besides, he was too skinny to be George. He looked more like that
Richard Gere? Me? Mildred needs a new set of bifocals.
"Richard Gere," Mabel swooned. "Hmmm. Is it possible...
nah. That guy was taller and leaner than Richard Gere. Besides, Richard Gere is more
likely to be off in Tibet with the Dolly Layma, not in Memphis."
"At least we saw Elvis's ghost at Graceland
Their voices were fading now; so Clay knew they were walking away.
Dropping his briefcase to the floor, he opened his closed eyes...and
almost had a heart attack. "Holy shit! What is this?" he asked the
"The Roustabout Suite," the bellhop said proudly, shifting
from foot to foot with excitement. The dingbat looked absolutely ridiculous in his
old-fashioned, red bellhop outfit, complete with a pillbox hat. "It's the best one in
The Original Heartbreak Hotel, next to the Viva Las Vegas and the Blue Hawaii suites, of
course. Families with children love it."
"I do not have children," Clay gritted out.
"Aaahh, that's too bad. Some folks think the spirit of Elvis lives
in this hotel. Seen 'im myself a time or two. Maybe if you pray to the Elvis spirit, he'll
intercede with the Good Lord to rev up your sperm count. Or if the problem is with the
little lady, you could...uh, why is your face turnin' purple?"
"I do not have children. I am not married. Mind your own damn
"Oops!" the bellhop said, ducking his head sheepishly.
"Sometimes I talk a mite too much, but I'm a firm believer in Southern hospitality.
Yep. Better to be friendly and take a chance than..." The fool blathered on endlessly
without a care for whether Clay was listening or not. Really, he should be home in a
rocking chair, instead of parading around a hotel like an organ grinder's monkey. Another
"to do" item to add to his itinerary: check hotel retirement policy.
Clay turned his back on the rambling old man...and groaned inwardly as
he recognized that his view from this angle wasn't any better. The Roustabout Suite.
The split level suite had a miniature merry-go-round in the sitting
room. As the carousel horses circled, a pipe organ blasted out carnival music. A candy
cotton machine was set up in one corner, and the blasted thing actually worked, if the
sickly sweet odor was any indication. Candy apples lay on the bar counter beside a slurpee
dispenser in the small kitchenette. The walls were papered with movie posters from the
Elvis movie "Roustabout," and the bed was an enlarged version of a
tunnel-of-love car. On the bedside table was a clown lamp and a clock in the form of a
ferris wheel. Up and down went the clown's blinking eyes. Round and round went the clock's
illuminated dial. Mixed in with this eclectic collection were quality pieces of furniture,
no doubt from the original hotel furnishings.
If Clay didn't have a headache already, this room would surely give him
the mother of all migraines. "You can't seriously think I'd stay in this...this
"Well, it was the best we could do on such short notice," the
bellhop said, clearly affronted.
"Hee-haw! Hee-haw! Baaaa! Baaaa! Hee-haw!"
For a moment, Clay lowered his head, not sure he wanted to know what
those sounds were, coming from outside. Walking briskly across the room, he glanced out
the second-floor window...then did an amazed double take.
"Oh! Aren't they cute?" the bellhop commented behind
"Humph!" Clay grumbled in disagreement. Pulling his electronic
pocket organizer from his suit pocket, he clicked to the Memphis directory where he typed
in his observations, punctuated with several more "Humph's." It was a word that
seemed to slip out of his mouth a lot lately...a word his father had used all the time. Am
I turning into a negative, stuffy version of my father now? Is that what I've come
"Hee-haw! Hee-haw! Baaaa! Baaaa! Hee-haw!"
"Oh, Good Lord!" The headache which had been building all day
finally exploded behind his eyes--a headache the size of the bizarre
"inheritance" he'd come to Tennessee to investigate. Raking his fingers through
his close-clipped hair, he gazed incredulously at the scene unfolding on the vacant lot
below...a property which he now happened to own, along with this corny hotel. Neither was
his idea of good fortune.
"Hee-haw! Hee-haw! Baaaa! Baaaa! Hee-haw!"
"What the hell is going on?" he asked the bellhop who was now
standing in the walk-in closet hanging Clay's garment bag.
"A live Nativity Scene."
"Humph!" Clay arched a brow skeptically. It didn't resemble
any Nativity Scene he'd ever witnessed.
"Did you say humbug?" the bellhop inquired.
"No, I didn't say humbug," he snapped, making a mental note to
add an observation in the hotel file of his pocket organizer about the attitude of the
staff. What does the imbecile think I am? A crotchety old man out of a Dickens' novel?
Hell, I'm only thirty years old. I'm not crotchety. My father was crotchety. I'm not. Shit.
"I said humph. That's an expression which denotes...oh, never
He peered outside again. The bellhop was right. Five men, one woman, a
baby, a donkey and two sheep were setting up shop in a scene reminiscent of a Monty Python
parody, or a bad Saturday Night Live skit. The only thing missing was a camel or
Please, God. No camels, Clay prayed quickly, just in case. He
wasn't sure how many more shocks he could take today.
The trip this morning from his home in Princeton had been uneventful.
He'd managed to clear a backlog of paperwork while his driver transported him in the
smooth-riding, oversized Mercedes sedan to Newark Airport. He'd been thinking about
ditching the gas guzzler ever since his father died six months ago, but now he had second
thoughts. The first-class, airline accommodations had been quiet, too, and conducive to
The nightmare had begun once he entered the Memphis International
Airport terminal. Every refined, well-bred cell in his body had been assaulted by raucous
sounds of tasteless music and by the even more tasteless souvenirs of every conceivable
Elvis item in the world...everything from "Barbie Loves Elvis" dolls to
"authentic" plastic mini-flasks of Elvis sweat.
The worst was to come, however. When Clay had arrived at the hotel to
investigate the last of his sizeable inheritance, consisting mostly of blue chip stocks
and bonds, he found The Original Heartbreak Hotel. How could his father...a conservative
Wall Street investment banker, long-time supporter of the symphony, connoisseur of Old
Master paintings...have bought a hotel named Heartbreak Hotel? And why, for God's sake?
More important, why had he kept it a secret since its purchase thirty-one years ago?
But that was beside the point now. His most immediate problem was the
yahoos setting up camp outside. He hesitated to ask the impertinent bellhop another
question, which was ridiculous. He was in essence his employee. "Who are
The bellhop ambled over next to him. "The Fallons."
"Are they entertainers?"
The bellhop laughed. "Nah. They're dairy farmers."
Dairy farmers? Don't ask. You'll get another stupid non-answer. "Well,
they're trespassing on my property. Tell the management when you go down to the lobby to
evict them immediately."
"Now, now, sir, don't be actin' hastily. They're just poor orphans
tryin' to make a living, and--"
"Orphans? They're a little old to be orphans," he scoffed.
"--and besides, it was my idea."
"Your idea?" Clay snorted. Really, he felt as if he'd fallen
down some garden hole and landed on another planet.
"Yep. Last week, Annie Fallon was sittin' in the Hound Dog Cafe
downstairs, havin' a cup of coffee, lookin' fer all the world like she lost her best
friend. She just came from the monthly Holstein Association meeting across the street. You
know what Holsteins are, dontcha?"
"Of course, I do," he said with a sniff. They're cows,
"Turns out Annie and her five brothers are in dire financial
straights," the bellhop rambled on, "and it occurred to me, and I tol' her so,
too, that with five brothers and a new baby...her brother Chet's girlfriend dropped
their sweet little boy in his lap, so to speak...well, they had just enough folks fer a
Nativity Scene, it bein' Christmas and all. I can't figure how the idea came to me. Like a
miracle it was...an idea straight out of heaven, if ya ask me." The old man took a
deep, wheezy breath, then concluded, "You wouldn't begrudge them a little enterprise
like this, wouldja, especially at Christmastime?"
Clay didn't believe in Christmas, never had, but that was none of this
yokel's business. "I don't care if it's the Fourth of July. Those...those squatters
better be gone by the time I get down there, or someone is going to pay. Look at
them," he said, sputtering with outrage. "Bad enough they're planting themselves
on private land, but they have the nerve to act as if they own the damn place."
Hauling wooden frames off a pick-up truck, they were now erecting a three-sided shed, then
strewing about the ground hay from two bales.
That wasn't the worst part, though. All of the characters were made up
as Elvis versions--What else!--of the Nativity figures, complete with fluffed-up
hair and sideburns.
The Three Wise Men were tall, lean men in their late teens or early
twenties wearing long satin robes of jewel tone colors, covered by short shoulder capes
with high stand-up collars. Their garish attire was adorned with enough sequins and
glitter to do the tackiest Vegas sideshow proud. They moved efficiently about their jobs
in well-worn leather cowboy boots, except for the shepherd in duct-taped sneakers. Belts
with huge buckles, like rodeo cowboys usually wore, tucked in their trim waists.
The shepherd, about thirteen years old, wore a knee-high, one-piece
sheepskin affair, also belted with a shiny clasp the size of a hubcap. Even the sleeping
baby, placed carefully in a rough manger, had its hair slicked up into an Elvis curl,
artfully arranged over its forehead. Joseph was a glowering man in his mid-twenties,
wearing a gem-studded burlap gown, a rope belt with the requisite buckle, and scruffy
boots. Since he kept checking the infant every couple of minutes, Clay assumed he must be
"Hee-haw! Hee-haw! Baaaa! Baaaa! Hee-haw!"
Clay's attention was diverted to an animal trailer, parked behind the
pickup truck, where one of the Wise Men was leading the braying donkey and two sheep, none
of which appeared happy to participate in the blessed event. In fact, the donkey dug in
its hooves stubbornly--Do donkeys have hooves?--as the obviously cursing Wise Man
yanked on the lead rope. The donkey got the last word by marking the site with a spray of
urine, barely missing the boot of the Wise Man who danced away at the last moment. The
sheep deposited their own Nativity "gifts."
Clay would have laughed if he weren't so angry.
Then he noticed the woman.
Lordy, did he notice the woman!
A peculiar heat swept over him then, burning his face, raising hairs on
the back of his neck and forearms, even along his thighs and calves, lodging smack dab in
his gut, and lower. How odd! It must be anger, he concluded, because he sure as hell
wasn't attracted to the woman. Not by a Wall Street longshot!
She was tall--at least five-foot-nine--and skinny as a rail. He could
see that, even under her plain blue, ankle-length gown...well, as plain as it could be
with its overabundant studding of pearls. In tune with her outrageous ensemble, she
sported the biggest hair he'd ever seen outside a fifties movie retrospective. The long
brunette strands had been teased and arranged into an enormous bowl shape which flipped up
on the ends--probably in imitation of Elvis's wife. What was her name? Patricia?
Phyllis? No. Priscilla, that was it. She must have depleted the entire ozone layer
over Tennessee to hold that monstrosity in place. Even from this distance he could see
that her eyelids were covered with a tawdry plastering of blue eyeshadow and weighted down
with false eyelashes, ala Tammie Faye Baker. Madonna, she was not...neither the heavenly
one, nor the rock star with the cone-shaped bra.
Still, a strange heat pulsed through his body as he gazed at her.
Does she realize how ridiculous she looks?
Does she care?
Do I care?
Damn straight I do! he answered himself as the woman, leader of
the motley Biblical crew, waved her hands dictatorially, wagged her forefinger and steered
the others into their places. Within minutes, they posed statue-like in a Memphis version
of the Nativity Scene. The only one unfrozen was the shepherd whose clear adolescent voice
rang out clearly with "Oh, Holy Night."
Already tourists passing by were pausing, oohing and aahing, and
dropping coins and paper money into the iron kettle set in the front. It was only noon,
but it was clear to Clay that by the end of the day this group was going to make a
"Not on my property!" Clay vowed, grabbing his overcoat and
making for the door. At the last minute, he paused and handed the clearly disapproving
bellhop a five dollar bill. For some reason, the scowling man made him feel like...well,
Scrooge...and he hadn't even said "Humph!" again. It was absurd to feel guilty.
He was a businessman...an investment banker specializing in venture capital. He had every
right to make a business decision.
"Thank you for your service," he said coolly. "I'm sure
I'll be seeing you again during my stay here in Memphis." Clay intended to remain
only long enough to complete arrangements for the razing of the hotel and erection of a
strip mall on this site and the adjoining property. He expected to complete his work here
before the holidays and catch the Christmas Eve shuttle back to New Jersey on Thursday.
Not that he had any particular plans that demanded a swift return to Princeton. On the
contrary. There was no one waiting for him in the big empty mansion, except for Doris and
George Benson, the longtime cook/housekeeper and gardener/driver. No Christmas parties he
would mind missing. No personal relationships that would suffer in his absence.
Clay blinked with surprise at his out-of-character, maudlin musings.
This hokey Elvis mania that pervaded Memphis must be invading his brain, like a virus. The
Elvis virus. Ha, ha, ha!
The bellhop's eyes bored into him, then softened, as if seeing his
Clay didn't like the uncomfortable feeling he got under the bellhop's
"You really plannin' on kicking the Fallons off your property? At
Christmastime?" the bellhop inquired in a condemning tone of voice.
"Even the iciest heart can be melted."
Now what the hell does that mean? "Yeah, well, it's going to
take a monumental fever in my case because I have plans for that property." This
is the craziest conversation in the world. Why am I even talking to this kook?
"You know what they say about the best laid plans?"
"Am I supposed to understand that?" Shut up, Jessup. Just
"Sometimes God sticks out his big toe and trips us humans. You
might just be in for a big stumble."
God? Big toe? The man is nuts. "Lock up on your way
out," Clay advised, opening the hallway door. Time to put a stop to this
nonsense...the bellhop, the hotel, the Nativity Scene, the whole freakin' mess.
But damned if the impertinent old fart didn't begin humming
"Fever" as Clay closed the door behind him, thus getting in the last word.
"This is the dumbest damn thing you've ever conned us into,
"Tsk-tsk," Annie told her brother Chet in stiff-lipped sotto
voce. "We're supposed to be statues. No talking. Furthermore, St. Joseph should
not be swearing."
A flush crept up the face of her oldest brother, who was handsome, even
with the exaggerated Elvis hairdo. Chet was the kind of guy who would probably make a
young girl's heart stop even if he were bald.
Good looks aside, her heart went out to Chet. He was twenty-five, only
three years younger than her, and so very solemn for his age. Well, he had good reason,
she supposed. He'd certainly never hesitated over taking responsibility for raising his
baby, Jason, when his girlfriend Emmy Lou "abandoned" the infant to his care a
month ago. Even before that, he'd tried hard to be the man of the family ever since their
parents died in a car accident ten years ago, changing overnight from a carefree teenager
to a weary adult.
Well, they'd all changed with that tragedy. No dwelling on what couldn't
"There's no one around now," Chet pointed out defensively.
That was true. It was lunch hour and a Sunday; so, only a few people had straggled by thus
far. But tourist sidewalk traffic past their panorama on Blues Street, just off the famous
Beale Street, should pick up soon. Yesterday, their first day trying out this enterprise,
had brought in an amazing seven hundred dollars in tips between eleven a.m. and five p.m.
Annie was hoping that in the five days remaining before Christmas they would be able to
earn another thirty-five hundred dollars, enough to save the farm, so to speak.
"I feel like an absolute fool," Chet grumbled.
"Me, too," her other four brothers concurred with a unified
"Wayne keeps trying to bite my butt," Johnny added. "I
swear he's the meanest donkey in the entire world. Pure, one hundred proof jackass, if you
"He is not mean," Jerry Lee argued. The only one Wayne
could abide was Jerry Lee, who'd bred him for a 4-H project five years ago. "Wayne
senses that you don't like him, and he's trying to get your attention."
"By biting my butt?"
Everyone laughed at that.
"I had a girl once who bit my butt--" Roy started to say.
Annie gasped. "Roy Fallon! If you say one more word, I swear I'll soap your mouth out
when we get home. I don't care if you are twenty-two years old."
Everyone laughed some more. Except for Annie.
"Your sheep keep nuzzling this fleece outfit you made me
wear," Johnny continued to gripe. He directed his complaint now at Annie. "I
think they think I'm one of their cousins."
Ethel and Lucy were Annie's pets. She'd won them when they were only
baby lambs in a grange raffle two years ago.
"Stop your whining, boys," she snapped. "Do you think I'm
enjoying myself? My scalp itches. My skin is probably breaking out in zits, like a popcorn
machine. I'm surely straining some muscles in my eyelids with these false eyelashes. And
I'm just praying that the barn roof doesn't cave in before we earn enough money for its
repair. Or that the price of milk doesn't drop again. Or that we'll be able to afford this
semester at vet school for Roy. And--"
"Don't blame this sideshow on me," Roy chimed in. "It's
not my fault the government cut the student aid program."
"Oh, Roy, don't get your sideburns in a dither," she said,
already regretting her sharp words. "Or get your duck's ass hairdo in a
backwind," Hank taunted.
Annie shot Hank a scowl, and continued, "No one's to blame, Roy.
Our problems have been piling up for a long time."
"Well, I'll tell you one thing. If anyone from school comes by, I'm
outta here, barn roof or no barn roof," Jerry Lee asserted. At fifteen, peer approval
was critical, and dressing up as an Elvis Wise Man probably didn't cut many points with
the cheerleading squad.
"You're just worried that Sally Sue Sorenson will see you,"
"Am not," Jerry Lee argued, despite his red face.
"Shhhh," Annie cautioned.
A group of tourists approached, and Annie's family froze into their
respective parts. Johnny, her youngest brother--God bless him.--broke loose with an
absolutely angelic version of "Silent Night." He must have inherited his singing
talent from their parents, who'd been unsuccessful Grand Ol' Opry wannabees. The rest of
them could barely carry a tune. In appreciation, the group, which included a man, a woman
and three young children, waited through the entire song, then dropped a five dollar bill
into the kettle, while several couples following in their wake dropped a bunch of dollar
bills each, along with some change. Thank God for the Christmas spirit.
After they passed by, Roy picked up on their interrupted conversation.
"Actually, Jerry Lee, don't be too quick to discount the appeal of this Elvis stuff.
Being an Elvis lookalike could be a real chick magnet for some babes."
"You've been hanging around barns too long," Jerry Lee
scoffed, but there was a note of uncertainty in his voice. Roy was a first year vet
student and graduate of Memphis State. Jerry Lee wasn't totally sure his big brother, at
twenty-two, hadn't picked up a few bits of male-female wisdom.
"He's bullshittin' you," Hank interjected with a laugh,
ignoring the glare Annie flashed his way for the coarse language. Hank was a high school
senior, a football player, and the self-proclaimed stud of the family.
Jerry Lee gave Roy a dirty look for his ill-advice. Obviously, Hank
ranked as the better "chick" expert.
"What do you think, Annie?" Roy asked, chuckling at Jerry
"How would I know what attracts women? I haven't had a date in two
years. Then it was with Frankie Wilks, the milk tank driver."
"And he resembles the back end of a hound dog more than
Elvis," Hank remarked with a hoot of laughter at his own joke. "That was unkind,
Hank," Annie chastised, "just because he's a little...hairy."
They all made snorting sounds of ridicule.
Frankie Wilks had a bushy beard and mustache and a huge mop of frizzy
hair. Masses of hair covered his forearms and even peeked out at the neck of his milk
company uniform. Hirsute would be an understatement.
"You could go out with guys if you wanted to," Chet offered
softly. "You don't have to give up your life for us or the farm. It was different
when we were younger, but--"
"Uh-oh!" Roy said.
Everyone stopped talking and stiffened to attention.
A man was stomping down the sidewalk toward them, having emerged from
the hotel entrance. He wore a conservative black business suit, so finely cut it must be
custom made, with a snow white shirt and a dark striped tie, spit-shined wing tip shoes
and a black cashmere overcoat that probably cost as much as a new barn roof.
He was a taller, leaner version of Richard Gere, with the same
short-clipped dark hair. He would have been heart-stopping handsome if it weren't for the
frown lines that seemed to be etched permanently about his flaming eyes and tight-set
mouth. How could a man so young be so disagreeable in appearance?
Despite his demeanor, Annie felt a strange heat rush through her, just
gazing at him. It was embarrassment, of course. What woman enjoyed looking like a tart in
front of a gorgeous man?
Unfortunately, Annie suspected that the flame in his eyes was directed
toward them. And she had a pretty good idea who he was, too. Clayton Jessup, III, the new
owner of The Original Heartbreak Hotel and the vacant lot where they had set up their
The kindly couple who managed the hotel, David and Marion Bloom, had
given them permission for the Nativity Scene when Annie had asked several days ago.
"After all, the lot has been vacant for more than thirty years," Marion had
remarked. "It's about time someone made use of it."
But when Annie and Chet had stopped in the hotel a short time ago, where
David and Marion had also been nice enough to let them use an anteroom for changing Jason,
they soon realized that everyone at the hotel was in an uproar. The new owner had arrived,
unannounced, and he intended to raze the site and erect a strip shopping mall. As if
Memphis needed another mall!
Didn't the man recognize the sentimental value of the hotel and this
lot? No, she guessed a man like him wouldn't. Money would be his bottom line.
Just before Mr. Jessup got to them, some tourists paused and listened
with "oohs" and "aaahs" of appreciation, dropping more paper money and
change into their kettle. The boys stood rock still, but Annie saw the gleam of interest
in their eyes at one petite blonde woman in gray wool slacks and a cardigan over a peach
colored turtleneck who stood staring at them for a long time. There was a hopeless sag to
her shoulders until Hank winked at her, and she burst out with a little laugh.
Drawing the sides of his overcoat back, and planting his hands on slim
hips, Mr. Jessup glared at them, his lips curling with disdain on getting a close-up view
of their attire. At least he had the courtesy to wait till the tourists passed by before
snarling, "What the hell are you doing on my property?"
The baby's eyes shot open, and he began to whimper at the harsh
"We have permission," Chet said, his voice as frosty as Mr.
Jessup's as he leaned over and soothed his child. "Hush, now. Back to sleep,
son," he crooned, rocking the manger slightly.
Annie tried to explain, "Mr. and Mrs. Bloom told us it would be all
right. We'll only be here for a few days, and--"
He put up a hand to halt her words. "You won't be here for even a
few more hours." He peered down at his watch...probably one of those Rolex things,
equal in value to the mortgage on their farm...and gritted out, "You have exactly
fifteen minutes to vacate these premises, or I'll have the police evict you forcibly. So,
stop fluttering those ridiculous eyelashes at me."
"I was not fluttering."
"Hey, it's not necessary to yell at our sister," Roy yelled.
He, Hank, Jerry Lee and Johnny were coming up behind Annie, to form a protective flank.
Chet had taken Jason out of the manger and was holding him to his shoulder, as if Mr.
Jessup might do the infant bodily harm.
"Furthermore, those animals better not have done any damage,"
Mr. Jessup continued and proceeded to walk toward the shed where Wayne was hee-hawing and
the sheep were bleating, as if sensing some disaster in progress.
"No! Don't!" they all shouted in warning.
Mr. Jessup slipped on a pile of sheep dung. Righting himself, he noticed
Wayne's back leg shoot out. To avoid the kick, he spun on his ankle. Annie could almost
hear the tendons tearing as his ankle twisted. His expensive shoes, now soiled, went out
from under him, and the man went down hard, on his back, with his head hitting a small
rock with an ominous crack.
"I'm going to sue your eyelashes off," Mr. Jessup said on a
moan, just before he passed out.