J. D. STEVENS
Where We Live
"I think we should go back on the road," Elvis says.
He strums a guitar that looks like a box-fan laced with cat gut, and when he speaks the corners of his mouth turn upward in the old fashion, though now the effect is hardly the same. I polish off a drink billed as "The Southwestern Screwdriver," my fourth of the morning, and can still feel the tequila biting into the soft gum lining at the rear of my mouth. The New Mexico sun squeezes the air that we exhale. Our chairs, which we balance on two legs, make occasional creaking sounds against the rotting wood of the porch.
"You say something, King?" I ask.
Elvis doesn't answer, but looks vacantly toward the valley's red clay walls, the kind you will always see if your eyes travel far enough in this place. His hand passes rhythmically, almost mechanically, over the strings. Of course, I know what you are thinking, but you must realize this is not the old Elvis. When we first met and were living in Californiaincognito as it wereI forced him onto a hard-core diet of rice and greens and fish. He was more pliant then. The weight came off like margarine slices, offering a glimpse of the robust Southern youth he'd once been.
Listening to him now, I wonder how our relationship would have differed had we met earlier in life. For Elvis is not the only one with a past. I, too, feel time in my bones like a cancer and remember painfully well the strength of my youth, when my name was spoken alongside words like dynasty and empire. Bob-by! Bob-by! I still hear the chant and remember the smell of wood polish and sweat which permeated the Oval Office during marathon meetings. Advisors in bad toupees and polyester. Jack and I grinning at private jokes. Then, after Jack's death, my future seeming so preordained. . . .
Such memories strike me as almost ironic now, for I've grown accustomed to Elvis' company and can almost believe that he was the real challenge for which I was groomedthat in the great scheme of things we were always intended for each other. I confess, it took a special kind of man to whip him into shape, an uncommon will to encompass his sprawling ego. Naturally there are days when I look back with regret, wondering what the Presidency would have been like after all. But in the end, I think that governing the nation would not have been much different from governing the King. He is the consummation of the masses, is he not? Their stupidity and their genius, their desire to submit and their drive to be worshipped, rolled into one.
Of course, I cannot take credit for all the changes in Elvis, for nothing worked on him like New Mexicoground on him, some might say. He has become a hardened man. His dark hair is cut short, harking back to his military days, and the wispy lines of gray on the side might bring the word "distinguished" to an observer's lips in another setting. His face and arms are brownish-red, accentuated by the occasional twitches of muscle that dance above his wrist when he goes to twang out a bass note on the box he has made. A line of pale skin perches above his upper lip, remnant of a freshly-shaven mustache, and the mouth, of course, still works like it used to, curling involuntarily, voluptuously, or so I have been told. He dresses like the old Elvis now, though perhaps more minimal, post "Jailhouse Rock" but prior to the bell-bottoms and sideburns; now he sports tight jeans, a tee shirt, a jacket for when the desert wind kicks up. On the porch, songs come to him from the past, and he plucks them out softly like ballads. Are You Lonesome Tonight? Heartbreak Hotel. Loving You.
"Um," he says dreamily, fingers still moving, "what was the rest of them words?"
"Don't do it to yourself, King," I say, though I know he has not truly forgotten the words and is only trying to bait me. I take a draw off my glass and think how he looks like one of the caballeros who sometimes rope cattle for money in the town fifteen miles away. A strand of irate Spanish churns the house behind us. Elvis rocks in his chair and hums the tunes of songs whose words he pretends not to remember.
The sun lifts over the distant mounds of red earth, and I pull my Stetson a little further down my brow. Elvis stares directly into the morning light. "I got the Caddy out back," he says. "We could gas her up, make Memphis or Nashville in a couple of days, three tops."
"Aw, forget the road, won't you?"
The full Mississippi lips descend in a rare frown. "I'm just saying," he mutters.
The two front legs of my chair hit the porch, and I'm on my feet. Slowly I walk around behind him, take off my hat, and rap him with it on the crown of his head.
He stops playing, then starts suddenly again, like a record skipping before finding its groove. "I'm warning you," he says, as I return to my seat. "You ain't nothin' without me."
"I could say the same about you." It's a little game we play, with certain concise and subtle rules which he has yet to master. I like to keep him on the defensive. "You're pretty surly today, King. What made you come out here anyway?"
The question always gets him going. He leans back with his guitar and pretends to take in the terra cotta landscape, though I know he's not seeing much. A soft southern folk song gathers like magic around us. "History, Robert. I felt too much of it hanging on me." He has the hands of a woman, this man. Sometimes I wonder if there are things about Elvis that even I'm not comprehending. "I don't know when exactly, I don't know how. But one day I woke up and figured it was all for nothing, that I was about as high as a man could get, and that I wasn't so high at all. All these people around me believing I was for the ages, but I knew it wasn't so. Comprende?" There's a break in the music as he pauses over the refrain. "No matter what they say now, there'll be a day when nobody knows who Elvis is any more. And then what'll it matter?"
"None, I guess."
"Don't I know it." The King purses his lips, whistles a few notes. "So why'd you come out here, Robert?"
"This place was your idea. You know I followed you."
Leaning over the bridge of his guitar, head bowed, he looks like an image out of an early Picasso or perhaps something classical, like a Renaissance saint. "Maybe. Still, there are some'd say I followed you." For the first time this morning he smiles.
Perhaps he is right. After all, he is ten years my junior, in terms of both age and the road. I have been at this a very long time, longer perhaps than even Elvis is aware. Fingering my glass, I think back to the night in that Los Angeles hospital when I woke to a crashing pain in my head and gashes on my arms and chest. I remembered the shooting only vaguely and was, frankly, surprised to be alive. But more than that, I was surprised by the vault of silence. Later I would learn how I had been pronounced dead on the scene, but wakingit seemed for the first time in my lifeI was jolted by the sheer rush of quiet, overwhelmed by the voices inside me that could finally be heard above the cacophony of history and destiny and my name repeated over and over like an endless wave.
Maybe I went crazy with silence, I don't know, but that's when I decided to leave. I didn't have a destination in mind, just a vague desire for escape that only people in hospital beds, near deathers, can understand. At any rate, I pulled the tubes from my arm, got dressed, went down the fire escape, and hardly ever looked back. Except to think of Ethel and the children, God bless them. Strange that my sense of duty is almost stronger now than when I was with them, but I guess I figured the family would take care of its own, as it always had, and that in a way they'd be better off without me. When the papers reiterated my death the next day I wasn't surprised. I mean, what else could they say? That the candidate had run off, been kidnapped? By then we all knew better. The truth is never a straight line; we choose the answers that we have to.
When I look up, Elvis is beaming like an idiot over the pause he has given me. I do not face him but instead turn my head side to side, taking in the road before this place. In reality, it is no more than two light mud strips through the heart of darkly-baked earth. It was made first by the grinding wheels of wagons and later automobiles, few and far between. "Sing something, King," I command evenly. "Sing something out of the old days."
Elvis picks a few notes with his right hand while with his left he reaches for the tumbler on the table between us. Empty. He bangs his foot on the wood planks. "Chiquita," he yells. He feels like he has scored a small victory over me and is flushed with pride. "Mah-mah-see-tah!" He draws out the word like the period between desert rains.
A woman appears at the sagging screen door of the building. She is younger than she appears to be, older than I would guess when I am drunk. Mestizo, I still call her, though I know that word has faded from grace in the outside world. "What you want?" she barks at Elvis. Inside a Spanish voice is calling her back.
"I want a drink," says the King. "And I want to buy my friend a drink. A real drink, not this sissy stuff you been sneaking in my glass."
"Go to hell," the woman says.
"I want a real drink. I'm a Southern gentleman. I want bourbon on the rocks."
"You not shit. You go to hell," the woman says. "Cabrone." She drifts back into the building, but we both know she will soon return with a bottle of tequila or something comparable. We are her only customers, at least the only ones who pay.
Elvis is full of himself. "Puta," he yells at the door. I laugh at him as the hot liquor from my glass evaporates at the back of my throat. He belts out a famous tune that spreads against the sky then recedes, like memory, into a hum.
Where We Live, New Mexico, is the name of the town where we live. From here, it is almost two hundred miles to Albuquerque and God knows how many miles to civilization beyond that. There are two roads here, the first running from cold to hot, the second from day to night. Where the two roads meet you will find the town proper, a mud-spackled popsicle-stick excuse for a town like a backlot at MGM, with barely one of every building we need to survive. There is one post office, one drugstore with one worn plastic horse that children can ride for a quarter, one market, one church, and, of course, one bar. A cantina, Elvis calls it. When we are not on the porch fifteen miles away, this is where we like to come.
Miguel's Tavern is not a busy place but not as sleepy as you would think. The Miguel for whom it was named has long been forgotten, and the Miguel who runs it now, who was christened Michael but thought the inflectional change good for business, has two daughters by two different women, neither of them his wife, a fact which no one ever mentions as a matter of courtesy. We'd do the same in Hyannis"Never blame, never complain," Joe used to say. Miguel is short, stout, bald, bearded, with a hearty laugh and a temper that never boils over but often threatens to. As he once explained to me, these are prerequisites for being a bartender in New Mexico, at least in his New Mexico.
At first, it was difficult for the King to drink here, what with people always telling him how much he looked like himself. It wasn't too bad, not like Colorado, where those rubes actually read The Enquirer and believed what their eyes were telling them. Hell, even if the people in Where We Live had believed that the King was the King, I'm not sure what they'd have done about it. Finally, the joke faded into the community psyche, and Elvis even took a job singing a few days a week for Miguel because, after all, it was a jokean impersonation of sortsbut also because his pipes weren't so rusty and, as Miguel put it, "Damn if he don't do that cracker boy good." Besides, it made the King happy, putting on the old togs now and then, sequins and a white jumpsuit, belting the classic tunes out on stage. Miguel even invested in a karaoke machine for the performances.
Tonight there are more people in Miguel's than usual. A cowboy rests his back on the bar not far from me, crooking his elbows over the rail as he watches Elvis sing. He is decked out like a sailor on parade, shirt too white, jeans just off the rack from the Sears outlet an hour away. His wide leather belt sports an oversized steel buckle, an etching of an eagle descending into a bonfire. When he speaks, I decline to meet his gaze. "That guy's got some pipes on him, don't he?"
"Nothing like the real thing."
Perhaps he was expecting polite conversation, an instinctive barroom camaraderie. "Well, no, course not," he stammers, edging away. "But who the hell is?"
A fair question, I suppose. At my elbow, Miguel is filling a glass with something that's dark brown to yellow, depending on the light. "You'll love it. Puts hairs on your chest." He thumps his own tub of a gut with a fist to prove it. I drink quickly, bitterly. Proles, I think, noblesse oblige. The white man's burden.
On stage, which is really a small pine platform, Elvis is gyrating and popping his hips in time to the music. He's really getting into the tunes tonight, and the crowd along with him. Hound Dog. All Shook Up. Blue Suede Shoes. At the entrance, two matching cowgirls slouch in the door frame like a scene from a honky-tonk movie. The cowboy from the bar has struck up a conversation with the blonde, leaving the darker of the two cowgirls to focus on the stage, her shoulders swaying in time to the music. Switching to a slower song, Elvis drags out words as though making love to them, crooning.
The singing is punctuated by the kind of noises that Elvis always makes, noises which earlier in my life I took for affected choking or simian redneck grunts, but which I've realized lately are fundamental to the way he sings and speaks, even breathes. People tap into it. Sometimes I think that's why they agreed to love him like they did, in those hula-hoop white-patent fifties, because he conducted his life at a uniform breakneck pitch, passion and fury and animal hunger all one and the same to him. He sang like he atelike he screwed, one guesses. People identified with his openness, desired it for themselves. It was refreshing, escapist, or, if neither of these, at least up-front. With the King, you always knew what you were getting.
This sense, however, was not the first I had of him when I picked him up on that scrub grass road outside Bakersfield nine years ago. Blustery and unshaven, he could have passed for any of the countless hitchhikers I'd seen in my days, yet there was something more. Perhaps in a way he reminded me of Marilyn, my last real desire, the soft curved features, the eyes at once desperate and magical. I wouldn't hear him play the guitar for almost a month, when he bummed a rattletrap six-string off a dock worker in San Francisco, but when I did, Lord, I felt a kinship with him greater than any I'd felt in my life, tapping right into his purityElvis the man, the myth, the music indistinguishable from one another. Marilyn and I never managed to pull all that off. It always seemed we were performers first, fitting ourselves into roles that the public had designed for us rather than saying the things which at heart we wanted to say. When the tabloids implicated me in her death I felt a strange giddiness, excited to think I had meant so much to her life that I might have meant something to her death, as well. But on the other hand, I never saw the body, and I cannot help but think that she, too, is out here somewhere, and that we will meet one day and finally have our own words to speak to each other. Perhaps she'll even tell me about Jack thenthe truth, or one of its many shades.
Not that I want to portray Elvis as some kind of redemptive saint. His ego is as big as the blue plate specials he orders, and I know that in my younger days I would have just as soon punched his lights out as look at him. I'm sure that my fatherwherever he ended upis wondering why I stay with such white trash, and, granted, there are walls of culture and breeding between us which can never be totally breached. Nonetheless, fate has thrust Elvis and me together, and I must believe that we are searching for the same thing, for ourselves. Two knights of Camelot on a single questthe braggart Lancelot, the pensive Arthur. It's true, Dad, Jack, Camelot's not the place we envisioned all those years ago. But I tell you honestly, something binds Elvis and me, makes us one and the same man. And when I find it, I will discover my life beyond the maladies of blood and time. I will know the world in a way that no amount of money or fame or power would have ever allowed.
The empty buzz of the karaoke machine jars me back to life as Elvis finishes his set. Hopping off the stage to a smattering of applause, he wades through the rickety pine chairs of Miguel's to the bar and hoists a bottle of tequila, his second, which he has pretty near knocked off.
"You done for the night?" Miguel asks.
Elvis belches, smiles boyishly. "I think so."
"Good set tonight. Good worm in your tequila, yeh?"
The King, bleary-eyed, scans the bottle's bottom. He worries about things like that, though even drunk he should know Miguel is joking. "Son of a bitch," he says, swirling the liquor.
"He think he sees the worm," Miguel laughs, nudging me with a fist as his huge gut rumbles.
Ah, Miguel, if only you'd seen some of the shit we have. I almost open my mouth to speak but think better of it, drinking instead.
Shortly the brunette cowgirl at the door breaks off her conversationleaving the blonde to the cowboyand approaches the bar, taking the seat on Elvis' far side. I have to strain to hear their words. The King, tormented, is still searching for the worm in his bottle. "You sing pretty," the girl says.
Elvis stops looking at the bottle and turns to her robotically. "You look lonesome, baby. You wannuh screw?"
The girl laughs him off. "What's your name?"
"No, no. I mean what's your real name?"
"Elvis," the King says. "Elvis Aaron Presley."
The girls squints a little, backs up, leans forward. Through the smoke, I can see her mind tinkering.
Elvis sees it, too. "Look, if you don't want me, why not send the good-looking one over." He motions to the blonde who is still conversing with Billy the Cod.
The girl's eyes go flapjack. "Who the fuck do you think you are?"
"I'm Elvis," the King mutters as she stomps from the bar.
I've seen him lose more dates that way. He sucks the tequila bottle dry, the worm forgotten, then bangs it hard against the counter. "Bitch," he says sullenly, then louder, "Bitch." The permanent-press cowboy gets wind of what's going on and takes a few menacing steps toward the bar, but Miguel leans into the wood and gives him a warning stare. I scoot closer to Elvis and wheel halfway around on my stool, but the King stays bent over the remains of his drink. The cowboy considers the odds, then shuffles quickly out, following the girls, thinking maybe he's got a chance with the blonde or, given his near-valor, a shot at both. I lean one arm heavily across Elvis' shoulders.
"I want to go on the road," he mumbles.
"Forget the road," I respond.
"I want to go on the road. Albuquerque's not far. I've got friends in Vegas, and we could make L.A. in no time."
"Forget the road," I say again, even as I feel myself starting to soften. Elvis' head dips toward his glass. "Okay, I'll make you a deal. We'll go on the road, but in the morning. You sleep it off till tomorrow."
"We can gas up the Caddy and just drive."
"In the morning," I repeat, shaking him a little to make it sink in.
"Uh-huh," he breathes languidly, before his head meets the wood bar and he slips out of consciousness.
Colonel Tom Parker said, Find me a white boy that sings like a nigger, and I'll make you a million dollars. Or words to that effect.
"Are you sure that was Colonel Tom?" Elvis says.
"It doesn't really matter."
"I don't remember."
"It doesn't matter," I say again. He knows better than to press me for details, and he also knows how I feel about Colonel Tom. We have the top down on the Caddy, and Elvis is in back, sprawled partway over the trunk, guitar in hand. He's playing Badlands, which I think is a Springsteen tune, though I could be mistaken. Elvis claims it's one of his. Lately he says that about everything.
"I don't know who's crazier," I yell, unconcerned about watching the road, "you for thinking you are who you are, or me for believing you."
"You know damn well who I am," Elvis replies, which is true enough.
Elvis' road is not a long road. We are not wind-swept spirits who want to go where fortune takes us. We move frequently, it's true, but not by choice. We have been in Where We Live longer than anywhere else, and it's looking more and more like a good place to remain for a while. Elvis was joking about it this morning, perched on the front bumper of the car, looking toward the outlying rocks that had just started to glow ochre and orange beneath the light. "A man could learn to like this place," he said, "settle down, maybe raise a family." I looked nostalgically into the distance. "God, what a hellhole," he continued, passing me the keys. I don't know if he believed it or not, but lately he has learned to turn on things that way, make good into bad and vice versa. It helps with the "healing process," or so he believes. It keeps the real demons away.
As does traveling, at least now and then. Of course, we never make it beyond Albuquerque. To us, it is the rest of the world. When we talk about Vegas or L.A. or even New York, we both know that it really means one thing, Albuquerque, which is good or bad, I suppose, depending on your perspective. Albuquerque is like other Southwestern cities, huge, sprawling, yet capsized somehow in a sea of emptiness. You drive forever through the vast blank, and then you are thereTucson, Salt Lake City, Albuquerqueso grand you don't know how you could ever miss them but so sudden you feel like you need to slam on your brakes to avoid mowing them down completely.
The King, I think, enjoys Albuquerque for what it represents, which is nothing. "Tragedy happens in New Mexico," he once told me. "It just happens real slow." Past and future seem to circle into one another here, and even the present is a kind of limbo, a car balanced on the edge of a cinematic cliff. But it doesn't have the same feel as Where We Live, if you'll pardon the obtuse description. "It ain't got no soul," Elvis says, perhaps hitting the nail on the head.
The drive has done him good, and he has sung himself out of last night's hangover by the time the city swings into view. "Where to?" I ask.
"High noon. Where else?" So I plot a course for San Felipe de Neri.
By the time we arrive, Elvis is all backwoods boy again. He drops his guitar in the trunk and bounds toward the church. Somehow this ritual always makes him feel renewed. Later we will sit out front and invent lives for the people, tourists and New Mexicans alike, whom we see going in. But for now, there is the initial thrill of confrontation and recognition. We feel like we are discovering something.
"The Church of San Felipe de Neri served as a fortress that protected settlers during Indian attacks," Elvis reads from a brochure. His voice is deep and embracing, contouring to the significance of this place. Around Old Town Square, native artisans haggle with near-albino tourists over trinkets of leather, onyx, and wool. "Damn Injuns," the King snorts. He winks at me happily, or maybe it is the sun.
A man wearing a flowered shirt approaches and asks Elvis to take a picture with his wife. The King shrugs yes, moving to put an arm around the marshmallow woman, steering her before the church's entrance as a backdrop. Anyone, except maybe the guy taking the picture, can see he has done this before, over and over again. "Okay, smile," the man says. The camera shutter clicks audibly, and the man beams. "You know who your friend looks like?"
I tell him I do.
"What a slide this will make. Marcia is, er, was a real fan." He gestures toward his well-fed wife, who is hanging tightly onto Elvis' arm as they walk toward us. "Come to think of it, you look a little familiar, too. Who the hell is it you remind me of?"
I look past the top of the iconic San Felipe and listen for the remnant of New England that I try to force into my words. "Ask not what your country cahn do for you," I say, "but what you cahn do for your country."
"No, no." The little man shakes his head as he repossesses his wife from the King's ingratiating smile. "I just can't place it. Game show maybe?"
When the couple is gone, Elvis turns to me. "You do that kinda well."
"Yeah," he agrees. "If anybody should, it's you." He kicks at the dust gathering around his boots then turns back to me. "Do you ever miss it? The old life, I mean."
"Sometimes, sure." Across the way, I see a booth filled with faux Navajo blankets for sale. In their center is a woven image of Christ, his face done in green and blue, his head shrouded in a halo of flame. I stare at the blanket momentarily before speaking. "I used to be God, you know. In line for my ascension. You were the Kingbut I was God."
Elvis' eyebrows knit, and his cheeks puff as though he's becoming angry or sorrowful. Or both. "It wasn't easy being the King," he manages, sliding on a pair of scratched Ray-Bans.
I nod then spit cotton onto the pavement, grinding it under my boot. "It was harder being God."
Elvis dares not contradict me. To break the silence he focuses on the church, waving one hand toward the flocks of people who enter and leave. "Damn tourists," he mutters, nodding as he shuffles away. "Damn tourists and wannabes."
"Your constituents," I say.
Later, when we are tired from walking and from the piles of heavy Mexican food that have settled on our stomachs, we drive through the older sections of the city, and Elvis yells at the passersby. "Look at these buildings," he says. "How much do you think they cost? What does it cost to live here? History, pah. You wouldn't know history if it bit you in the ass. This land was nothin' once, and it'll be nothin' again. It'll all be gone. Tourists," he screams as loud as he can. "You're God-damned turistas."
This is another feature of our trips to Albuquerque. Sometimes the pedestrians stare, other times they hurry for cover as if expecting us to begin shooting or something equally malicious. We ride and drink and scream well after darkness. The police have caught us at it a number of times, and we have spent more than our share of nights in Albuquerque jailsno TV, poor AC, I should initiate a reform bill. Usually we tell the police that we're homeless and frustrated and tired of searching for work, and then we act sorry and repentant and say it will not happen again. This is our M.O. They barely even question us now. "Found a job?" an officer might occasionally ask.
"We're between opportunities" is our stock reply.
But there are no police tonight, and we both feel calm. The ragtop down, Elvis perches atop the passenger seat and sniffs the wind, calling out directions, winding us through suburbs until I'm sure we're teetering on the city's brink.
I sometimes think, from the way he navigates Albuquerque in the dark, that Elvis' life has been a bigger deception than even I know, for he moves through the streets with too great a certainty and precision, and when I call him on it, when I accuse him of having been here before without me, he says it's just something he does, possessing a Southerner's natural acumen for direction. Instinct or not, I confess that he somehow manages to find the places where we can feel safe, low-lit honkytonk places filled with music that helps us remember the past or alcohol that helps us forget it.
Tonight, with little warning, he points me into a cantina sandwiched between a Denny's and a deserted mini-golf course. Several of the letters in the cantina's neon sign have fizzled out, leaving its name gap-toothed and ambiguoussomething with a P, a G, several vowels. Tap-A-Keg, I guess, Apogee. In the parking lot hunch a dozen or so cars from the previous decades, mostly dust covered, suggesting a crowd not quite from Albuquerque itself. Nodding, Elvis drops into the back seat and reaches under the vinyl car top to repossess his guitar from the trunk. A warm breeze skids in from the west, kicking up grit and making the mini-golf course resemble a scene out of High Plains Drifter, yet even as I shield my eyes with one hand, I can see the corner of Elvis' mouth twitching in expectation. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," I whisper. "Here we go."
The cantina is not like Miguel's inside, more room and a space for dancing, with track lighting and bulbs that flash every color of the spectrum. The room feels crowded despite being only half-full, men and women in pressed cotton shirts watching the stage, watching each other, hoping for love or something like it. The band is what Elvis is looking forits members ragged and unshaven yet eager-looking. Hungry, some might say. I try to stay in the shadows, moving toward a table in back, but Elvis heads right for the stage. A few seconds of cajoling, and the lead singer is inviting him up. It's a phenomenon I have witnessed too many times to question. Even I must admit that, had I only bothered to listen, he might have made me a fan before now. Jack, Jackie, Marilynall of us closet fans. Hoover, too, prissy Republican.
Elvis warms up with a few country-western numbers from several years back, and I feel the energy begin to trickle into me. The band doesn't know the songs but follows along adequately. They are decent musicians when they put their hearts into it. And who knows? Perhaps they can already sense that, for this man, their hearts will go anywhere at all.
Only then does it begin.
A hush. And Elvis starts to push it back, back through the preceding decades, leading the bar's patrons like some white-trash piper, daring them to follow. He sings a Southern folk song which he jazzes up with a few zesty guitar riffs, before doing the same with a fake Mexican lullaby. He doesn't sing any of his own songs, though. He is waiting, letting the crowd get acclimated. His voice is encompassing, hollow like an open hand, even though we listeners realize there is something at its center. Grace. That's it. The music is as pure as water flowing, such that even when the King drops a line or two, or the band mistakenly turns the wrong direction into a refrain, we forgive, indeed enjoy the performance more.
A slight brush of air at my side, and a young woman is sitting down beside me. She is dressed in the style of some pop star whose name I do not know, and though she must be half my age, I cannot help but think that the outfit looks wrong on herleather bustier, fishnet stockings, black gloves. It is almost as if, trying to appear young, she looks older than she could ever be, peroxide-blond hair and brown eyes like a desert in which she is lost. "Your friend's got style," she begins. "So, what do you do?"
"Did I look like an easy target?"
"Everybody here's an easy target," she laughs.
I look around. "In the bar, you mean."
She shrugs then reaches behind her head to snag the lone waitress passing by. "Vodka, rocks," she says, then motions to me expectantly.
"Sangria," I manage. The waitress gives us a dubious look as she walks back to the bar.
On stage Elvis is working into the first of his own songs, a little-known ballad from one of the early movies. Something with Hawaii in it. The woman looks up at him. "He been singing long?"
"Long enough," I say.
Maybe it is her agethe way her cheeks remind me of college women who used to work my senatorial campaignsor the blond hair and desperation that suggest Marilyn in a gutter sort of way. At any rate, I feel something drawing me toward her. "You know much about Elvis?" I chance.
"Only the pork chops and peanut butter," she says. "And whatever else the drunk impersonators tell me."
"You a fan?"
"Of Elvis? Don't think so. I'm into alternative myself." She reels off the names of several unfamiliar bands then bends her head slightly sideways. "I do have one Tony Bennett tape, though. He's big again. Go figure."
I nod. "People want to remember how things used to be."
"I wouldn't know, I wasn't there." She shrugs. "Still, it's nice to think that the world was a great place once."
"There used to be some hope. History's not a complete lie. It's all in how you tell it."
"And in how you consume it," the woman replies as the drinks arrive. She takes a liver-drowning pull off her glass, looks at the stage, then smiles as she turns back to me. "Why'd you ask about Elvis? You gonna try and tell me this guy's related?"
"Something like that," I respond. She smiles again and pretends to appreciate the music more. We listen as Elvis wraps up the ballad then fires into a livelier number, our heads swaying almost imperceptibly in time.
Song bleeds into song as we size one another up. "I'm Didi," the woman says finally, "as if that matters."
I take a sip of my sangria and keep it against my tongue for a moment as I would a Montrachet or the Sacrament. "So, Didi, you from New Mexico originally?"
She laughs, holding up a bunch of black crinoline like it should mean something. "Does it look like I'm from New Mexico? No, I just migrated here. It happens like that sometimes."
"Amen," I say, tasting the sweetness of wine that clings to my words. "I'm a bit of a drifter myself."
"Really. You have a name at least?"
"Bobby," I mutter, then more loudly, "Bobby Kennedy."
She smiles. "Like the dead guy?"
Leaning back into her chair, Didi eyes me skeptically before belting down the rest of her drink. She sucks on a small piece of ice then spits it back into her glass. "So tell me, Bobby, what's it like to have a dead man's name?"
"It's not so different from any other name, I guess. And who knows? Maybe I am dead."
"Maybe," Didi agrees. "Though, you know, there are some who say that he's not dead at allthe real Bobby, I meanthat he's floating around out here like a poor man's son, looking for the things he could never get when he was rich and famous."
"You don't say?"
"I do." She reaches across the table and picks up my glass, swallowing the last bit of red syrup collected in the bottom. "It's okay, though. New Mexico's a good place for him to roam. We have lots of dead people here. Hell," she laughs, "we're all dead in a way."
"Or tourists," I reply.
Didi giggles and raises the empty glass to toast me then plants it against the table and signals to the waitress for two more. "Is there a difference?" she asks, shutting her eyes and inhaling deeply, her slender face relaxing beneath the patches of red makeup she has swabbed on.
Suddenly, I also decide to close my eyes and try to imagine Didi on the back of my lids. A picture of Marilyn erupts there. With imagined hands, I attempt to mold her into something other than what she is. In the background, I can hear Elvis gearing up for his finaleor maybe it's more something that I feel, his soul, somebody's soul, washing out like a cool wind. Beneath the table Didi's fingers grip my knee. I listen to the words of Elvis' song, which speak of the deep needful pain that is love.
When I open my eyes, Didi is smiling at me generously. She swivels in her chair to keep watch over Elvis, and the music wraps around us. Maybe it's the way the King's breathing or saying the words, or maybe it's that he's reached his fever pitch, because I also look up and realize for the first time that he's all there, like in the old days, bobbing, bouncing, hair slightly matted, eyes going right through me. His lip turned up over "uh-huh-huh-huh" which he slides into the microphone like it's really part of the songwhich it isor like it's music, the thing itself. His shoulders curve forward, his middle curves back, hips out, legs bent, body perched on his toes like he's ready to topple any second but never does. The King. Grace. Our one and all-time hope. And there's the whole cantina listening to him like a voice out of the past, like a voice out of nowhere, and him saying that things don't transcend time but draw us into the slumber of our own forgetting, a new beginning, a peace of sorts. And us unable to escape this music, this voice, and him up there knowing it, holding us there.
It's only then that I look at the woman, Didi, and know that it's my desire Elvis is singing, not necessarily for her or for anything, just that emotion, that instinct. A desire to desire something as badly as I once had. And the King standing there, and my thinking this is the guy I rode up with from Where We Live to Albuquerque, who I've been knocking around with, who saves me like I save him, even though there's nothing special about either one of us anymore, or so we wish to think. And there Didi listening, the whole bar listening, which feels like the whole damn city, which might as well be the whole damn world, frozen for this moment as if nothing else matters. And history be damned, King, you're right. But here it is. Here it is for both of us, this instant, this thing which you wanted to say but had no idea how to say, which is your desire, this longing for emotions and thoughts unrequited, stumbling ahead like cold-numbed magic fish in search of the stream's silvered head. God love you, King. And God love us, for what we've done, what we're doing together, even if it won't redeem a single soul.
Or because it will.
And then the music stops, and Elvis is standing next to me. I'm falling down, down until the next time, when I will surely rise again.
We are tearing a line of white through the gray land as we return to Where We Live. The top is up, but the windows are down. Didi sleeps in the seat beside me. Elvis, drunk with pleasure, plays cowboy tunes in the back. Darkness swirling, the desert wind cottoning around us, we are lost among shadows of stars and ghosts. Elvis sings a song about the open range, forgotten towns, and distant lights that lead men astray.
"That's a fine song," he says. "I could've been a cowboy. If I hadn't been the King, I would've been the Duke." He is speaking to no one in particular, and I offer no response. Soon he resumes playing, picking out chords and humming melodies to go with them. Viva him.
Didi has loosened much of her clothing so she can relax, and I search for the places where it pulls away from her skin. Reaching over, I slide one hand past her cheek, around the curve of her jaw, along her lovely throat. I'm not sure about this woman, what she means to me or I to her, if we will sleep together when we arrive at Where We Live. Stirring unconsciously, she lays her head against my forearm, pressing my hand closer to her chest and causing the hairs above my wrist to tingle slightly where her face rests on them. There is no one else on the road tonight. Eventually I will pull my arm away, and Didi will go on sleeping. But for now, I leave everything the way it is. I feel like I could stay here forever, driving. Tonight, I tell myself, there is only tonightno weight of destiny, no Washington, D.C., no Dallas or brother, Marilyn, world.
In the back, the King is plucking out a few of his old hits. Don't Be Cruel. Love Me Tender. That's When Your Heartache Begins.
"What were them damn words?" his voice breaks in, soft as feathers.
I figure the answer doesn't matter, like he says. With nothing but a monochrome desert world before me, the night shades only different by a hair, things merging effortlessly into other things, I think maybe I'm not so deluded, after all. Maybe this is the way it was always intended to be, cool darkness. "Just play," I tell him, my words like a prayer uttered beyond time and passion. We're all going to Graceland. We're already there. "Forget the lyrics, King. Forget everything else. Just play the song." And he does.