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The Year of the Cadillac
Let me start by saying that I am old. I know this, and don’t need to be reminded. Second, the story I’m about to pass on to you is true. I know your mother has told you differently, that I’m just a fool full of fool’s deliriums. And I suspect you believe it.
Oh how I wish I could hold your hand, son. These confounded wires and drips and things hurt like hell, and they aren’t doing a damned thing.
Cancer’s an evil, quick little trick. Because I feel that this is the last chance I’ll ever have to tell this story, I hope you’ll put aside your frigid old mother’s teachings long enough to hear it. Sit back now, boy, and listen.
It was the summer of 1977, and I was a gray 59 years of age. Your mother, then still the sweet gal I’d married, was one of those Elvis Presley fans. Even bought herself a pink Caddy, jus’ like the monster he had. Got rid of it last year, in fact. Said it was a waste to try to sell. Oh but back then it was her pride and joy. She loved that stupid car, spent hours just sitting in it. Talked to it, I think. Or him. Whenever that hick was in town, ol’ Caroline woulda sold her soul for a ticket.
She sang the slower songs to Susie at night sometimes, when the little girl was in bed. She would have been maybe eight years old then (had her too old, you can take a case of accidental birth to the bank for that one). I remember being incredulous that my wife was exposin’ our baby girl to such filthy, racy music (racy for those times was a lyric like “baby let’s play house”, huh!)
Not that I was such a devout Catholic m’self. I just wanted an excuse to get the warbling moron out of our house for good. But did that work for Caroline, or even Susie? Oh no. That pretty child would just pout at me an’ say with a whine,
“Elvis ain’t trash, Daddy! Didja know they call him the King? I like his music.” Can you believe that? My own daughter! Eight or not, she shut me up right quick.
Your mother jus’ looked at me real smug, like she’d won somethin’. I went to bed angry, thinking to myself that that Presley fella was better off dead, for all the good it’d do me.
The next morning was August the 16th. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, sippin’ my cuppa joe (black, three sugars), and in comes Caroline in a big tizzy. She’s clutchin’ the morning paper in one hand, running the other through her mess of curly red hair with fierce intensity. I was afraid she was gonna scalp h’self. She did not look happy, and I soon found out why.
“Do you see this?! Do you see THIS?!” She slapped the paper down in front of me, nearly emptying my cupful of coffee into my lap. Her pretty blue eyes were puffed and red-rimmed, runny with oncoming tears. I looked down, and saw the cause for all her carryings-on.
The devils. The godforsaken disease-ridden dogs. Even I saw the audacity of the thing. There, just as plain as you like, in lettering thicker and taller than my thumb, were the words THE KING IS DEAD. Below that, a damn picture of Elvis lying in his coffin, lookin’ old an’ pitiful. Looking dead. My heart did a sad little backflip. I looked up from the horrible thing to Caroline, who stood quietly crying, her face red and strained and hopeless. I reached out to her, laying a hand on the crook of her left arm.
Under my touch, the muscles of that arm were twitching and racing. “Oh hon, I’m so sorry. This is- this is downright sick. Baby, I’m sorry....” Was I expecting a warm, reassured cuddle? Sure. A kiss? Maybe, if I was lucky. But no. The broad slapped me. Right across my doughnut-crumbed kisser. Before I had even realized what had happened, she went an’ did it again! Harder this time.
“Sorry?! You mean to tell me you’re sorry? My GOD Amos, you hated him! I know you did! Him and his music! For some- some heinous, unfathomable reason, you did! You said he should go straight to hell! So don’t try to tell me you’re SORRY!” Despite the impressive degradation of my character, I wanted to reach out to Caroline just then. I wanted to hold her. Tell her I never really meant those things. I was sorry the freak was dead. I really was.
Anyway, I didn’t get to hold her. Or even talk to her again until the next afternoon. For the rest of that day I was shut out of the house, forbidden to share in the grief my wife and daughter were experiencing. I was the hateful one, the meanie. I slept in the garage that night.
The next morning, I didn’t wake up until around ten, which was unusual for me at the time; my internal clock normally woke me at seven each morning. That was before all these sleep-aids and big drugs I get now, you understand. Ever fallen asleep while takin’ a dump? Bah.
When I got back into the house, my back achin’ from spending a night on the unforgiving cement floor, Caroline and Susan were gone. When I reached the kitchen, I spotted a cutesy little note on pink stationary taped to the table’s face. It read:
In town for Susan’s hair appointment. Caddy’s engine on the fritz. Took Mrs. K’s car.
Be back soon.
That woman never was too literate.
So I cussed a bit, grumbling to myself ‘bout women, hair, an’ cars, then decided to take the damn Caddy in for a check-up. I fig’red what the hell, I owed Caroline at least that much, and if I was lucky I could maybe get the ol’ liver a nice cold beer or two.
Lemme tell ya, a man my size and stature sure feels ridiculous backin’ out the driveway in that monstrous pink boat. Knew my dumb neighbor was watchin’ me and havin’ a grand old time behind his ‘privacy fence’. The fact that his ticker failed first always seemed a blessing to me, it did. I don’t ‘spect to meet up with him in that cloudy place, neither.
Anyway, I started down the boulevard in this crazy car, hatin’ myself for bein’ so damned soft-hearted. I got to about the interstate before kicking the brake. The Caddy stopped like a retarded horse on ice. Had to be more than the engine on the fritz. Man, I felt like the biggest idiot right then. Coulda slapped myself. On toppa that, the beginnings of a whopper headache were creepin’ in as I sat there, cussing myself.
That was when the hitchhiker knocked on my window. I jumped, hitting my head on the protruding windshield. I yelled some, most of it none too pretty.
Without even looking at the bleedin’ fool that had the nerve to knock on my window- I had neither the time or patience for no bums, particularly right then- I growled, “Go ‘way! I ain’t any change! Git!” I heard a sharp intake of breath. Oh goody, I thought, now I’ve gone and insulted Mr. Friendly Neighborhood Muggerman. Hoping the nut didn’t have a gun, I turned an’ looked at my guest.
Now I was no spring chicken even then, and what I saw nearly stopped my clock. The hitchhiker was young, maybe ‘round twenty-five or so, not quite reachin’ six feet tall. I recognized his hairstyle. His crooked, dopey grin.
Most of all I recognized the low, humming voice when the kid spoke. “Hey, uh, mister, I sure am sorry to be troublin’ you like this, but-“ Damn it, he was speakin’ to me just as naturally as if we was friends. I may be older than God, boy, but I knew then and I know now that the scrawny twerp in front of me was the very same man my wife had been grievin’ not a day ago. It was Elvis.
I musta stared for a while, ‘cause he started fidgeting, running the toe of one of his shoes in the roadside dirt.
Mentally shaking myself, I did my best to smile at him. “What’s that you need, son?” Elvis dropped his eyes to his shoes, one of his hands sneakin’ up to his hair, tugging boyishly at the little curl that hung over his forehead like a lick of water.
Then he looked up at me again, still fussing with his hair, eyes meeting mine. “A ride, please sir. I got...I got a place I gotta be, an’ I don’t got a car no more.” There was a funny grin on his face when he said this, like he wanted to go on, but didn’t think he should. Sighing heavily, I gestured at the passenger bucket seat beside me.
“Alrighty then, hop on in. I’m not goin’ too far.” Elvis grinned happily at me, his lip hitching up in that smirk he became famous for. I started the engine, now questioning my decision, even my sanity. I didn’t think he was gonna mug me or nothing, this was Elvis- at least, a good faker- not the Mafia. God help me, I believed, knew it was really him.
My distinguished guest settled into the car’s passenger seat like he owned it, leanin’ back on the white leather upholstery as if for a nap. I couldn’t help but stare. He caught me, with one eye closed against the bright sun’s light. Looked like he was winkin’.
“What’s the matter?” I shook my head, clearing out the dust bunnies.
“Nothin’.” But it wasn’t nothing. I tried again; he was still looking at me like he expected me to speak. “How old are you, son?”
Elvis grinned, puzzled. “Uh, nineteen, sir, why you ask?” I waved him away, and didn’t say anything. Nineteen. Christ he was young. Just a kid.
We drove for a long time in silence, with him gazing up at the blue Tennessee sky, an’ me drifting dangerously close to sleep, coaxed into near-slumber by the constant, low hum of the white-wall tires hugging the asphalt. I’d just zoomed past a sign for Walley, a neighboring town of only 1,500 when I heard him singing.
It wasn’t loud, but I heard him easily enough to make out the words. The song was one I recognized.
“Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind. Memories, sweetened through the ages just like wine. Quiet thoughts come floatin’ down and settle softly to the ground like golden autumn leaves around my feet. I touch them and they burst apart with sweet memories.”
That song. I nearly died in that driver’s seat, my heart was pounding so fast. My foot kissed the brake pedal, and I heard them squeal, leaving hot lines of rubber behind the rear tires. The two of us jerked in our seats, Elvis throwing up his hands out of shock and impulse.
I clambered, with effort, out of the car and hit the ground on my knees, my breath burning in my lungs with each hitch. The man I’d vowed to hate, the man that couldn’t really be here with me, opened his door and came around the car to kneel beside me in the dirt.
“Sir? Sir, are you- are you alright? What happened?” I couldn’t have spoken if he’d had me at gunpoint. It was impossible. Elvis Presley was dead, the papers all said so, the damn picture proved it! So then, my mind prodded, who was this man, on his knees next to me on the side of the road, like an old, caring friend? Slowly I began to breathe again, and got back up onto my feet, however shakily. I worked my eyes with my fists, like the world’s biggest, alcoholic toddler. Looked at him again. He smiled broadly at me, slapping me a good one on the shoulder as if we was chums. “Man, you sure scared me. Did y’heart give out or somethin’?”
I stuck a finger in that country boy’s pretty face an’ scowled, feeling my last precious wits escaping out my ears. “You’re Elvis Presley.” Blue-green eyes glittering with puzzled amusement, Elvis nodded, giving a little bow.
“At your service, Mr. Slade. Oh yeah,” -I’d sputtered like a fool at the realization that he knew my name, my bloody name- “I know you. I make it a point to know the names of my enemies.”
I grunted. “Long list, I bet. They called you the devil, you know.” Amazingly, Elvis laughed at this, slapping his knee like I’d just told him the funniest knock-knock joke he’d ever heard.
“An’ that wasn’t it, either! Oh no, they had so many names for me.” His face grew solemn again. “But they wasn’t my enemies, Mr. Slade. I didn’t hate ‘em. They was just sorry folks that were intent in findin’ the bad in somethin’ they didn’t like, for whatever reason. We all do that.”
I stood there gape-mouthed like a blithering moron. “You--you can’t be here! You’re dead! I saw the picture--the headline! You’re DEAD!”
Elvis scuffed his beat-up boots in the roadside dirt, that same smirk, though now thoughtfully softer, teasin’ his lip. “Sure I am. To the newspaper. Maybe even to your lovely wife Caroline. But what about you? You never liked me.” I grunted. What an understatement that was. But Elvis wasn’t finished. “So why do ya think I chose to come to you, a man that hated me?”
I threw up my hands, getting angrier at this ghost, or whatever it was, by the minute.
“How the hell should I know? Jus’- jus’ leave me alone!” I took a half-hearted swing at him then. witlessly, but my hard fist went right through his chest. All the while, that smile never left that pretty-boy face. He leaned against the car, my wife’s precious Cadillac, and checked his reflection in the shiny pink paint job.
“Like you said, Amos, I’m dead. But for some reason, you’re seein’ me now. Why do ya ‘spose that is?” I shrugged, grumbling unhappily about not being able to hit the sucker. “No idea. I didn’t ask to be haunted by some crooner.”
Elvis laughed, his merry eyes sparkling like precious stones. “’Some crooner’. That’s good. Great. Mos’ definitely not the worst thing folks’ve called me.” His face turned serious, and I feared that I would not be going home anytime soon. It was something about the way he was looking at me.
“I’m not haunting you, Mr. Slade. I like you. You’re a mean ol’ hillbilly, but I like you. I want to show you something.” To be honest, I was gettin’ more scared the longer he talked. This was a kid, still a teenager. He was poorer than dirt, and even I know that Elvis got rich in the late fifties, early sixties, so he couldn’t have been singin’ long. If this really was who he said he was, that is.
Despite my nagging doubts and fears, I listened to him. “Okay, Fine. Show me.” Elvis smiled, shaking his head like an amused parent lookin’ upon a foolish child.
“You don’t believe me, do ya? Why don’t you trust me? Caroline an’ Susie do.” I couldn’t help but laugh at him.
“Trust you? They only love your music. For all they know, you coulda been the biggest criminal since Capone hisself. My daughter’s only eight, she don’t know nothin’.”
Elvis dropped his gaze to the ground. “An eight-year-old girl can know too much sometimes, Mr. Slade. Mine knew about death before she should. It ain’t right.” This shocked me. I hadn’t known he’d been a father.
Afraid to say too much (this subject was clearly painful for him, I could see it in how he stood now), I asked, “Your little girl die, Elvis?” It was the first time I’d called him by name.
He met my eyes again, and those ocean eyes were brimming with tears. “No sir. I did.” I couldn’t speak. Though I wouldn’t admit it then, or even in the years to come, to anyone, my own eyes burned when I realized what he was saying. I understood. Oh God, had I really been naive enough to call this man the Devil? He’d known loss, he’d had a family, and had a little girl that would grow up with the burden of findin’ her daddy dead. I felt like a monster, honest to God.
I reached out a hand to him, and placed on his shoulder. “Hey, son. Hey. I’m sorry. I know I’ve been a real ass to ya, and I deserve all the crap my wife’s given me.” I had to chuckle. “I mean, I honest-ta-God hated you before today.”
Elvis actually smiled a little. “I know that. But you cared enough to not drive your nice car away when I stopped ya, and right now you’re actin’ like a friend to me.”
Aw, Christ, I teared up again at that, just like a spineless kid. “Elvis, I-” He put a finger to his lips, his blue eyes shining.
“No talkin’ now, Mr. Slade. Just you wait.” Before I could speak again, Elvis pushed himself off the car’s front passenger door, and started walkin’.
I panicked all of the sudden. “Hey! Hey Elvis! Where yous goin’?” He kept his back to me, still walkin’, still struttin’ like a peacock right down the middle of the interstate. I didn’t have the breath to catch up to him. “Hey!” This time, finally, he stopped and turned.
Somethin’ ‘bout his face was different. His eyes were dry now, and there was the ghost of a smile dancing in the corners of his mouth.
“It’s my stop, Amos. I don’t need to go no further.” Despite myself, I understood. “What you talkin’ about Elvis? Where you goin’?” I was no idiot, about that at least. I knew. I just needed him to say it.
“The best place ever dreamed of, boy! Heaven!” Then he actually laughed. The sound brought those unmanly tears to my eyes again. “I’m goin’ ta see my mama!” Elvis cried, sounding young and innocent in his simple joy.
I smiled at him, and lifted my hand in a wave. “Tell her hello for me, son.” Though his Brill Cream-ed head was uncovered, the man I’d vowed to hate from the moment I’d set eyes on him tipped an invisible hat my way.
“I’ll sure do that, sir. Nice talkin’ to ya.” With nothin’ more than that, he turned and walked on. I was seein’ him, I heard his shoes click on the blacktop, but I swear to you, as I watched, Elvis got harder and harder to see. It was like the sun was swallowin’ him up. Three more steps. Two more steps. He looked back over his shoulder once, his eyes bright with happiness, and waved one last time. By the time I brought my hand up again to wave back, he was gone.
That was thirty-three long years ago, son. And yet it seems to be one of the only things I can remember about my life anymore. ‘Cept bringin’ you and Susan home from the hospital, of course.
I’m ninety-two years old now. I’ve lived my time on Earth. I only wanted to tell you, tell someone about that day, so that it wouldn’t die with me. I know what I saw that summer, and there ain’t nobody that can make me believe any different.
So whether you believe my story or not, remember this, kid. Death ain’t permanent. Death ain’t always the end. And there ain’t nothing stronger or more certain in this world than love.