CBS Studio in New York City. 1957.
St. Phil approaches Margaret warily. “Mama, Donald and I didn’t expect to see you until we got home to Nashville.”
“The appropriate greeting, my dear son, is ‘Mama, what a wonderful surprise to see you!'”
“Mama, what a . . . “
“Stop. Too late.”
“Well, Mama, what brings you to New York City?”
“Two sons who are probably in need of my supervision. Do you know how many bars there are in a city this size? Do you know how many women of loose morals are lying in wait for foolish young men with money in their pockets?”
St. Phil does not know how many bars there are. He’s only been in a few so far, and he is less concerned with the bars than the women of loose morals.
He’s been making a serious effort to find them.
“Mama, do you know how many hours of rehearsal go into a live television show? Donald and I are far too busy to fall astray here.”
“I’ll be the judge of that. Why aren’t you and your brother dressed alike?”
“Well, it is just a rehearsal right now, Mama.”
St. Phil heads across the room to prevail on his brother to join them, and Margaret seats herself on a couch, carefully positioning one foot forward of the other without actually crossing her legs. She slips her handbag behind her back and arranges the hem of her skirt so that both her knees are covered. Once she has fully posed herself, she folds her hands in her lap.
Across the room, Devil Don sees St. Phil approach. “Five hundred dollars if you sneak up, grab her, and fly her back to Nashville.”
St. Phil looks up at the ceiling. “You chloroform her, and I’ll fly her to the nearest dungeon. No charge.”
Devil Don releases a sigh that becomes a groan. “Oh, my lord. She’s talking to that guy who’s writing that cover story on us. The one for that country music monthly. Trouble brewing, Baby Brother. Right now she’s probably telling that sucker that we were the tap dancing champions of southwestern Iowa in a year when we did not even live in that state.”
St. Phil turns around to see that Margaret has coaxed a man to sit with her. He is taking notes on a small spiral-bound notepad. “Maybe she’s telling him how I wrote an opera at age nine when I was off school one day with the flu.”
“Probably. And in the next breath, she’ll tell him that you got perfect attendance certificates for all eight years of elementary school. We had better get over there.”
Over the previous ten months, the brothers have gained considerable insight into the way writers approach interviews—as well as insight into the damage Margaret can inflict on the process. They move forward with their stage smiles in place, and the man next to Margaret stands to shake hands with the brothers.
St. Phil capitalizes on the moment to move behind the writer, distracting Margaret with a boyish kiss to her forehead and instigating a brief game of musical chairs. In a flash, the brothers have positioned themselves on either side of their mother. Everyone sits again, forcing the writer off the couch and into a nearby chair. Devil Don places his arm around Margaret and rests his hand firmly on her shoulder blade.
The writer takes up his questioning again. “You know, Mrs. Everly, you do not really look old enough to have two grown sons.”
“Well, I was only nineteen when—”
“—Phil was born. I was just shy of two years old then,” Devil Don interrupts, rolling his eyes toward his brother. Margaret was especially dangerous on the subject of any family member’s age. It was important to hold her to the official press packet biography. Next one is yours, Baby Boy Phil.
“Tell me, Mrs. Everly, just when did your sons first begin performing?”
“Well, actually, they began training as dancers before they sang a whole lot. They wore matching satin shirts and performed a tap dance routine—”
“—that really wasn’t very good at all. We were the bottom of the bill for our class recital,” St. Phil laughs, “which turned out to be our only public appearance.” Over to you, Donald.
The next twenty-five minutes are awkward, but the brothers are able to keep Margaret on script regarding their official biography. They finish the interview and hand their mother off to Wesley in time to rehearse their first number.
“‘Training as dancers.’ Did I hear her say that about our four tap dancing lessons from that alcoholic old lady who lived in the basement of our apartment building?” St. Phil asks his brother. “Seriously, Mama astounds me at times.”
“Just pray that she’s not planning to stay here long. Why isn’t Daddy here to watch over her?” Devil Don tries to imagine what would attract Ike in the big city. “Maybe he’s found a pawn shop full of git-tars.”
Devil Don and St. Phil must put their parents out of mind now in order to concentrate on work. As the brothers have quickly learned, the opportunity to perform on a live national television broadcast is not the chance to show themselves as they wish to be seen. For one thing, they are at the mercy of a group of middle-aged and elderly men, all apparently culled from defunct string quartets and extinct marching bands. Arcane union regulations empower these eccentrics, known collectively as “the house orchestra,” to interfere with whatever the brothers play and sing.
Devil Don and St. Phil have selected “Hey, Doll Baby” as one of their numbers, just to see whether anyone on the set will react to the song’s lyrics. No one appears to listen, and Devil Don and St. Phil blend their voices into the single persona of a man questioning his woman about her fidelity.
There’s a coat hangin’ in my closet
Can’t remember when I bought it
Tell me that your brother was here today
Don’t wanna take it no other way
Hey, Doll Baby, listen to me
Trumpets blare in an assault on the country vibe while woodwinds vie for attention in their own sinister ways. And the brothers lose track of Margaret’s whereabouts.
When the rehearsal is over, St. Phil jabs his brother’s upper arm and points to a doorway where Wesley stands alone. Their manager casts his eyes around the room as they walk up to him.
“Where’s Mama?” Devil Don asks.
“I don’t know,” Wesley responds. “She asked one of those dancers on the set if there was a ladies’ room nearby, and they went off together.”
“Well, where’s Daddy?” St. Phil inquires.
“I don’t know,” Wesley answers, clearly puzzled. “Isn’t he in Nashville?”
Devil Don’s and St. Phil’s eyes meet in fear.
There is something close to panic in Devil Don’s voice. “She came to New York City on her own?”
One of the production staff comes over to hand Devil Don a piece of paper. “That nice young lady that was here earlier asked me to see that you got this message,” he begins. “Is she your wife?”
“She’s our mother,” Devil Don responds mechanically as he scans the note and passes it to St. Phil.
St. Phil offers a deadpan explanation to the messenger, “She was only thirteen when Donald was born.” Jerry Lee Lewis and his bride Myra have been in the news lately.
The wide-eyed messenger leaves, and Wesley cautions St. Phil. “He’s apt to believe you and start some ugly rumors. New Yorkers have really strange notions about Southerners.”
“Don’t worry, Wesley,” Devil Don says helpfully. “I’m sure her birth certificate will attest that she was nearly fifteen when I was born.” He points to the paper in St. Phil’s hand. “Her note says not to worry because a couple of those dancers are taking her sightseeing. She says she will call our hotel around ten o’clock.”
“At which time,” St. Phil grins, “She expects us to be tucked in, head to toe, in one bed. She’ll plan on using the other one so she can keep an eye on us.”
Wesley shakes his head. “Well, at least I don’t have to have the cops look for her—or worry about you two getting into any trouble. I’m going to call an old friend and get dinner. Do you want to come along?”
“Naw, we’ll manage by ourselves,” Devil Don replies.
Wesley departs, and the brothers themselves are about to leave the studio when the director beckons them.
“Say, we just found out that you two are dancers. I’ve been tossing around an idea with some of my assistants, and we are going to have the two of you joined by a few of the girls during your second number. You know the part of that song where you sing that line that goes, ‘Why? Why? Why? Why?’ Well, we’ll have you each dance up with one of the girls, then stop and look each other in the eye, and sing those ‘whys’ and kind of twirl around each other. We’ll just have the orchestra playing until then. After that part, the girls will hand you your guitars if you want to play them.”
The brothers, speechless and expressionless, stare at this buffoon.
“Don’t worry, fellas. It will be easy stuff. Just come in a little early tomorrow, and we will walk you through it. When the orchestra gets settled in about ten, you can rehearse it a few times with the music.” With that said, the director leaves the brothers to themselves.
St. Phil speaks first. “Well, I guess Mama has gotten her revenge on me for cutting short her story about our tap dancing career.”
Devil Don speaks slowly, “I AM GOING TO—”
“No, you’re not. Good Southern boys don’t commit matricide. But I don’t think there is anything in the ‘Good Southern Boy’ rulebook that says we can’t imprison her. Town this size ought to have a dungeon, don’t you think?
“Let’s go get something to eat.”
The brothers pick up their guitars and head to their hotel to dress for dinner. In the end, they order room service because they want to be where Margaret can reach them by phone if she needs their help.
Two of Devil Don’s Handmaidens call from the lobby to report that Margaret has given them the slip after leading them back to the very hotel where the brothers are staying. Soon, those two Handmaidens and a few others show up to see if Devil Don needs anything. They complain of aching feet because Margaret shopped all day. At ten, Margaret calls and tells her sons not to worry because she’s with a friend and will see them tomorrow.
St. Phil and Devil Don are relieved to hear their Margaret’s voice, but remain unsettled at the thought of their delicate, vulnerable mama alone in the big city.
St. Phil shrugs his shoulders. “Donald, she did say she was with a friend.”
“How could she know anybody in New York City?” Devil Don wonders. “God, that feels good,” he says to the Handmaiden rubbing his back.
“Looks as though it might feel very good indeed,” St. Phil hints in vain.
The Handmaidens announce that they are leaving for the night. They say they will begin searching for Margaret early the next day, once the brothers are on their way to the television studio. A tall, ponytailed brunette tries to organize communications.
“I don’t think we can get a phone call to you while you are actually rehearsing, so from time to time, you may want to ask if anyone has sent you a message,” she cautions. “I wish someone would invent telephones you could carry around with you.”
“You know, Jackie Wilson has a telephone in his Cadillac,” St. Phil says. “Hard to believe, isn’t it? But it only works here in New York City.”
The next day, the brothers arrive at the television studio at an early hour, just as instructed. It’s a long, miserable morning, and they are now glumly watching a kinescope of their big production number. Devil Don peers across the room.
“Are you lookin’ for Mama?” St Phil asks sourly.
“Naw, I want to get my hands around the neck of the creative genius who choreographed this mess. It’s that little dip we do after twirling around each other. I want to vomit at the thought of how we look.”
“Where do you think Mama spent the night?”
“Well, probably not at the apartment those dancers share.”
“Well, no,” Devil Don reasons. “But Mama wanted us to believe that, and since she almost never tells the truth, I’d say that she had to be somewhere else. Besides, wouldn’t one of the dancers have said something? We’ve been hanging out with them for hours.”
“She may have told them not to talk about it with us, and we don’t know which dancers she was claiming to be with, anyway.” St. Phil hesitates a minute, then blurts it out. “Do you think she is cheating on Daddy?”
“Of course not,” Devil Don replies, looking at St. Phil in shock. “She’s our mother!”
Fortunately, Wesley approaches. “Is something wrong, boys?”
“For one thing,” St. Phil begins, “We look like jackasses dancing around, singing to each other. For another, we don’t know where Mama spent the night.”
“Your mother spent the night in the room next to yours,” Wesley says matter-of-factly.
The brothers gasp in unison. It’s quite harmonic.
“Mama was with you?” Devil Don draws himself up to full height, hands curling into fists, and St. Phil assumes an aggressive posture at his brother’s side.
“No, for pity’s sake. She took over my room, and I had to take one on the fourth floor. This morning she called me and sent me out to buy her an extra suitcase because she shopped so much yesterday.”
St. Phil begins to speak, “So she was—”
“—next door to us all night?” Devil Don finishes, his incredulous voice rising higher than St. Phil’s.
“She was,” Wesley continues. “I thought you knew. However, she says she is staying with a friend tonight and won’t need the room. She left me a note with a phone number that says it’s for emergency use only.”
“Did you call it?” Devil Don asks.
“Of course not,” Wesley says emphatically. “I’m not tangling with her if I don’t have to.”
Devil Don gestures, and three Handmaidens step out from the back wall of the room. Two of them fasten themselves to Wesley, each pinning one arm in place. The third, a pint-sized strawberry blonde, stands on tiptoe to reach into Wesley’s breast pocket. Tucked inside his leather-bound calendar diary is a short note on a half sheet of hotel stationery. The other Handmaidens release Wesley, and necks crane as everyone tries to get a look at the note.
“Oh, my God!” the tiny blonde exclaims. “That’s my mother’s phone number. Margaret’s in Brooklyn!”
“How would she meet your mother?” Devil Don wants to know.
Blondie beams a smile up at Devil Don. “We used to live in Chicago. Mama was one of your wet nurses.”
Discomfited, Devil Don closes his eyes and swallows.
“That’s it,” St. Phil says with finality. “I’m returning Mama to Nashville tonight. Special delivery. I’m sure Daddy will be relieved.”
“Well, I’ll be grateful for it,” Wesley offers, then adds in a whisper, “I’m not entirely certain that Ike will thank you, though. This is probably the most peace he’s had in twenty-five years.”