Beached in the middle of the desert, like a tremendous pink whale, was a convertible 1955 Cadillac. Steam billowed from under the hood. The thick white vapour was fading when Eddie pulled the stolen F250 to a stop on the roadside.
Eddie slapped a beat up Stetson on his head and jumped out of the truck, the desert heat like a blast furnace. George squeezed his bulk out the passenger door. His shirt was clinging to his back and ample stomach. Joining Eddie at the back of the Cadillac, he asked, “What do you think?”
Eddie walked to the centre line and looked east, then west. Heat waves shimmered in the distance. The desert stretched around him like a taut piece of beige canvas. He looked for birds—vultures circling carrion. He saw none.
“Where’s the driver?” Eddie asked.
They surveyed the landscape, the hiss of the Cadillac’s overheated radiator the only noise. Eddie cast his eyes down the highway again, fingers tapping against the butt of the pistol tucked in his waistband.
“You think he went for help?” George asked.
“If he did, he ain’t coming back.”
“Maybe someone picked him up.”
Eddie walked around the car, heat radiating up through the soles of his boots. He passed through radiator steam, feeling dank wetness on his skin.
Eddie removed a pair of gloves from his pocket and slipped them on. He unlatched the hood and raised it, impressed by its size and weight. This was a car built in a time when steel and chrome were in high demand.
No split hoses. Nothing damaged. This old Caddy was just running hot, like everything else in this god-forsaken desert.
The keys were gone from the ignition and the front seat was empty. Eddie opened the driver’s door and leaned across the seat, opening the glove compartment.
“Let’s go,” George said. “It’s too hot out here.”
Eddie gave George a look of disgust. George, with his thin red hair and pig eyes, kept shifting the bulk of his three hundred pounds from foot to foot and looking at the truck. Eddie looked in the glove compartment, expecting to find the usual glut of traveller’s junk: receipts, maps, containers of plastic knives and forks that came from fast food joints. But the glove compartment was empty.
Eddie got out of the front seat, closing the driver’s door. Beads of sweat had gathered around his collar and the brim of his Stetson. It was so hot it felt as if the tiny beads of perspiration were on the verge of boiling.
In the back seat, a gold lamé jacket lay draped over a brown leather guitar case. They had been left with casual indifference, as if the owner had no use for them. Or he knew that no one else would touch them.
Eddie picked up the jacket. It threw heliographs of coloured light in the midday sun. George raised a hand to shield his eyes from the almost electrical glare of the jacket. The lining was soft black velvet. Nice. But uglier than a head-shot dog.
“Nice coat,” George said.
Eddie tossed it into the car, rubbing his hands together as if he had been handling dead flesh.
He grabbed the guitar case and set it on the trunk. Inside, nestled in red velvet, was an acoustic guitar. The body was a rich walnut colour. The jacket was ugly, but this piece of equipment was beautiful. And expensive.
“That’s a nice guitar,” George said. He leaned over Eddie’s shoulder, pudgy fingers reaching. Eddie dropped the lid on the case and snapped the latches closed.
He handed George the case and said, “Put this in the truck.”
George headed back to the F250, wide hips swaying under his blue jeans. He moved fast, eager to get into the air-conditioned comfort of the cab. Eddie watched him, thinking about how easy it would be to slip the .357 out of his waistband and shoot George in the middle of his thick, wide back. Of course, then George would drop the guitar. So, instead of killing George, Eddie turned his attention to the Cadillac once again.
It was a beautiful piece of steel. Big, heavy, and in original condition. Men would pay top dollar for a car like this. The ignition slot was empty, but a big old behemoth like this would be easy to boost. There was water in the back of the truck, which was all the Caddy needed.
Of course, if the driver had snagged a ride, he might be on his way back. It would be a real mess if Eddie met the Cadillac’s owner, riding shotgun in a tow truck.
Eddie was about to snarl at George, to ask him what the hell he wanted, but his voice lodged in his throat. His hand darted to the pistol under his shirt. There was a man standing on the broken yellow line that split the highway.
The man looked at George and, in a soft southern drawl, said, “Uhh, lissen. I sure hope you ain’t takin’ my gi’tar.”
Eddie had watched enough of those ridiculous MTV retrospectives and This Year in Music programs that he recognized the man’s voice immediately. And the man. It was Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley and a big pink Cadillac on a steaming July afternoon in the desert.
George said, “But… you’re dead.”
Elvis gave George that trademark smile—more sneer than anything else—and said, “In this heat, I sure feel dead.”
Eddie had experienced his share of drug-induced hallucinations but this took the cake. Elvis Presley, standing on some windblown desert highway, as big as life and in glorious Technicolor. His hair was combed in a ducktail. He wore a loose, black shirt open at the collar, a white belt and a pair of black pants with a pink stripe up each leg. Below the cuff of the pants were blue suede shoes.
Elvis looked at Eddie with hooded eyes, watchful.
This man was probably twenty-one. Elvis had died when he was 42, so, all things considered, death had been good to him.
“Mind if I take back my gi’tar?”
George handed it over. Eddie, who was usually nastier than a nest of snakes when someone decided they wanted their shit back, didn’t say a word.
Elvis walked to the Cadillac, giving Eddie a nod as he went by. He set the guitar case in the back seat. Then he picked up the gold blazer and gave it a quick shake. His rings sparkled.
The sight of the rings was like a glass of cold water on Eddie. His gaze fell upon Elvis’s fingers, trailing over the heavy gold jewellery.
Elvis had died when George was ten, but George had seen videotapes of Elvis performing on the Ed Sullivan show. It had been like watching bottled electricity. The first time George had seen Elvis—young, raw Elvis, not the jumpsuit-clad monstrosity that played Vegas—he’d felt as if a bolt of lightning had struck him. Now he was standing face to face with Elvis and he had no idea what to say.
The wind blew dust across the blacktop in little skittering lines. Heat waves rose and fell, making Elvis shimmer like a mirage. At last, he spoke.
“Listen, you fellas wouldn’t happen to have any water, would you? My car’s heated up.”
Elvis smiled. It was that goddamn crooked smile that raised Eddie’s temperature to the stratosphere.
“Sure thing, Mr. Presley,” George said.
“Hold on one fucking second,” Eddie said. Thumbing back the brim of his hat, he pointed at George. “You shut up.” Then he turned his attention to Elvis. “Who the hell are you?”
“C’mon, Eddie,” George said. “That’s Elvis Presley.”
Eddie restrained the urge to pull his pistol. “Elvis Presley? Elvis Presley died thirty years ago, George. Thirty fucking years! You were still a little kid when he took a header off his throne. You can’t be that fucking soft upstairs, can you?”
“There’s no need to cuss,” Elvis said.
Eddie glowered. “You’re Elvis?”
“I never said that.”
“Well, George over there is convinced. Of course, George is the result of bad genes, so how much faith can you put in his opinion?”
“Hey!” George said.
“You sure as hell look like Elvis. Sound like him, too. And that jacket… those clothes… what are you? A ghost?”
“Why would you think that?”
“A ghost makes more sense than a man. A reincarnation, maybe? Elvis, raised from the dead! Hallelujah!” Eddie shook his head. “Unless the sun baked my brains, I’m looking at a ghost. Only question is, what the hell are you doing out here, haunting a desert?”
Elvis shook his gold jacket. Light tickled Eddie’s eyes. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I believe in a lot of things.”
“Ghosts don’t haunt places. They don’t even haunt people. They haunt the psyche. They haunt the mind. If I am a ghost, Eddie, then I haunt everyone. Even you.”
“But you aren’t a ghost?” Eddie asked.
Elvis pulled the gold lamé jacket on in one fluid motion. “All I need is some water. Could you help me out?”
Eddie said, “Tell you what, King. I’ll trade you. Water for your guitar.”
The desert exhaled and there was silence. A smile rose on Eddie’s face, the smile of a heat-mad dog.
“I’m not givin’ you my gi’tar.”
Eddie took a step back. Had he heard right? Was this glorified Elvis impersonator trying to run the show? Eddie raised his shirt, exposing the butt of his .357.
“I’m not asking,” Eddie said. “Understand?”
George drew a few quick breaths. A pair of shadows circled the blacktop near his feet. He looked into the bright white glare of the sky but could see nothing. Lowering his head, he moved toward Eddie.
“Eddie, this is the chance of a lifetime. Meeting Elvis Presley like this, in the middle—”
“—of the fucking desert?” Eddie spat. “This guy’s no more Elvis Presley than I am.”
“Actually,” the man said. “My name is Elvis.”
Eddie touched his pistol. “That so?”
Eddie’s eyes moved with slow deliberation. “Well, then,” he said. “Why don’t you pull you that guitar of yours and play a song for us? I’m sure George here would just love it.”
George beamed. “That’s be great, Mr. Presley.”
Elvis crossed to the Cadillac and grabbed the guitar case. He thumbed open the latches. They made a loud double click in the dry desert stillness.
“Sure,” Elvis said. “I can play a little somethin’ for you.”
With the guitar slung over his shoulder, Elvis took three long steps to the centre of the road, straddling the broken yellow line. He rolled his shoulders, making the gold jacket shimmer.
“Weeeellllll, I heard the news, there’s good rockin’ tonight…”
The quick, staccato beat of the song rolled and echoed in the blast-oven heat. The sound was genuine; Eddie had heard the same sound coming out of the radio on more than one occasion. Note for note, word for word, this man was perfect.
George was swaying with the music, one foot tapping the pavement. The way he bobbed his head in time with the music infuriated Eddie. This guy looked like Elvis. He sounded like Elvis. Hell, he even moved like Elvis. But he wasn’t Elvis.
The song finished and Elvis took a bow, guitar swinging around his hips. George applauded. Elvis said, “Thank you very much,” and flashed his crooked sneer.
“Great job, Mr. Presley,” George said.
Elvis unslung his guitar and held it in one hand, bejewelled fingers wrapped around its wooden neck. “What do you think?”
Eddie drew his pistol in one smooth motion, pointing it at Elvis George retreated a step. There was violence in the air, as thick and heavy as the heat.
“I think you’re crazier than me, and that’s saying a lot,” Eddie said. “And I think you’re wearing out your welcome. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll take that guitar. And those rings.”
Elvis’s eyes drained of life. He said, “People always want something from me. I’m sorry, but I ain’t givin’ you my gi’tar.”
Eddie cocked his pistol. “How about the keys to that pink nightmare, then?”
“That’s my momma’s car.”
“Christ, you’re nuts!” Eddie said. “You ain’t Elvis. Elvis is dead. I suggest you give me that guitar, those rings, and the keys to your momma’s car.”
“Eddie,” George said. “Let’s just go.”
“Up to you, Elvis,” Eddie said. “Give me the goods or I’ll send you to Graceland.”
“You want my gi’tar?”
Eddie was grinning. “Yeah. I want your guitar.”
The man’s voice dropped in pitch but he never lost his drawl. “All right, then,” he said. “Take the fucking thing.”
The acoustic didn’t even crack when it struck Eddie’s wrist. The bones in Eddie’s wrist did break, however, with a resounding crack. The .357 was knocked out of his hand. Eddie screeched, clutching his broken wrist to his chest.
The guitar made a prolonged twang, the strings reverberating from the force of the blow.
“Wellllll,” Elvis sang. “Heard the news…”
He swung the guitar again. Eddie raised his good hand in a defensive gesture, but it was too late. The guitar struck him under the chin, shattering his jaw and embedding teeth in the roof of his mouth. Blood sprayed. The guitar cracked. Strings broke with sharp pangs.
“…there’s good rockin’ tonight.”
Eddie went over, eyes rolled back in his head. He hit the blacktop with a meaty thud. His feet kicked, boot heels drumming a mindless rhythm.
George was making a thick, inarticulate sound in the back of his throat. He watched as Elvis stepped over Eddie’s prone form, one blue suede shoe on either side of Eddie’s shoulders.
Elvis swung the acoustic like an axe. There was a cacophony of sounds—pang, twang, crash—as the guitar came apart.
When the guitar had been reduced to shards of bloody, mangled wood, Elvis threw it aside and drew one long, whooping breath. Hair hung in his face. He looked as if he had just given the performance of a lifetime.
Slowly, he became aware of George’s warbling. He looked at him. The fat man was quivering. A warm, dark stain had spread across the front of his pants.
Elvis said, “Now that’s rock and roll.”
“Whu-whu-why?” George managed. Twin streamers of snot ran out of each nostril. He sobbed, his great, broad shoulders rocking.
Elvis picked up Eddie’s pistol and dusted it off.
Eddie coughed once, spraying blood. His shattered jaw moved, as if to offer a few parting words.
Elvis stepped over Eddie’s body, keeping out of the spreading puddle of blood.
“You want me to sing for you?”
George shook his head. “No. Just let me go. I won’t say nothing, I promise. I… I didn’t even like Eddie! I swear it! Just take the water and go!”
“Oh let me be… your teddy bear.”
George recoiled as if slapped. Elvis approached, gun in hand. George banged into the front of the F250.
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.”
Elvis raised the pistol. The muzzle looked deep and dark enough to swallow George whole.
“What’s your name?”
“Hello, George. I’m Elvis Presley.”
George shook his head, wiping his face with one clumsy hand. “Buh-but... Elvis is dead.”
Elvis turned his lips up in that trademark sneer. “That doesn’t matter, you dumb sonofabitch.”
Elvis put the barrel of the pistol against George’s forehead. The strength went out of George’s legs and he dropped to his knees on the burning blacktop, hands raised, palms out.
“Please,” George blubbered. “Don’t kill me, Mr. Presley. You don’t wanna kill me. I wanted to hear you sing. I listened. I heard.” His piggy eyes spilled tears and he reached for Elvis, desperate. “God, oh God… please, God. Please… Elvis.”
George closed his eyes.
An eternity passed in which George waited, floating in darkness. Then he felt the cold steel of the gun barrel leave his head. He opened his eyes as Elvis lowered the gun and took a step back. Parabolas of gold light leaped off his jacket, stinging George’s eyes.
“I’m not going to kill you, George,” the King said, tucking the pistol under his jacket. “I’d never kill a fan.”
George’s tongue darted out, licking his lips. “I can… I can go?”
“You can do anything you want,” Elvis said. “But lay offa my blue suede shoes.”
Using the water in the back of the F250, Elvis filled the Cadillac’s radiator. Still on his knees, penitent in the blazing heat, George watched as the sun moved across the sky, marking time. Elvis sat behind the Cadillac's wheel, unmoving, eyes as vacant as the desert. In the harsh sunlight, they appeared black.
Elvis removed a key from his pocket and slipped it into the ignition. The car started with a roar. Its sound awakened something in George and he staggered to his feet, swaying. The world had come apart at the seams and George did his best to hold it together. He stumbled back to the F250, gasping in the heat.
Elvis stared through the Caddy’s windshield. In the distance, the highway disappeared into a tiny black speck.
He put the car into gear. The sun was going down in the late afternoon sky, but the desert still held the heat in a lover’s embrace. The Caddy rolled forward, wide whitewalls thrumming against the blacktop. Elvis pulled the wheel to the right. The Cadillac left the road, bouncing through the shallow ditch, and set off across the vast, empty desert, raising a heavy cloud of dust in its wake. Elvis put the pedal to the metal.
As George watched, the Cadillac drove headlong into the shimmering heat waves and disappeared.
copyright © 2009, Shane Nelson