roadside shrine

on the occasion of Elvis’ 80th birthday

The morning after Elvis died, the wind had blown the patio umbrellas out onto the lake where they floated upside-down like an amusement. The stockcar drivers, remorsefully hung-over, stared and sadly hummed Blue Suede Shoes like a quiet Handel chorus. The King was dead and now there were only cigarettes and whiskey left. That and the muted blush of numbered race cars waiting on trailers for their weekend of fame, and the coloured flags of speedway semaphore. Caution, Final Lap, Session Finished.

I was sixteen and the night before, the night of the King’s death, I’d sat round a campfire with the Langley Speedway stockcar racers as they smoked, drank rye and digested the news of the King’s demise. Conway Twitty was tinny on the air. We were camped at the Swan Point campground on Hatzic Lake. A vicious rumour had Elvis dying on the toilet. None of the racers believed it. I figured it was a possibility, but I also didn’t care.

Round midnight, we heard gunfire from the highway a mile away. Three loud cracks against the night. Locals, we assumed, sweaty in the hot August night, firing hunting rifles from speeding pickup trucks. In the morning, there’d be dead coyotes on the shoulder of the road. I smoked a joint with my pal Jeff and fell asleep in a beach chair.

I woke at 6 a.m. with the sun in my eyes. Sleeping stockcar drivers littered the ground round the dead fire, and snored in the front seats of cars. It had occurred to only a few of them to retire to their campers. I unzipped the entrance to Jeff’s tent and kicked him.

“What the fuck,” he mumbled.

“Get up,” I said. “Let’s drive into Mission for breakfast.”

“What time is it?”

“Going on 6:30.”

“Fuck that.”

“C’mon. You can toke up in the car.”

By 7:00, I was driving toward the highway on the private campground road, Jeff riding shotgun.

“Those shots seemed pretty close last night,” I said.

“Fucking hayseed farm boys,” Jeff said, then coughed on the skunk he was smoking. “Just shooting mailboxes. Probably all choked up over Elvis dying on the john.”

I pushed a Black Sabbath cassette into the player. We got Rock and Roll Doctor just as Tony Iommi was kicking in with his guitar. I turned up the volume. We were the first people up at the campsite; why not wake up the neighbours? Jeff began playing his air guitar. We weren’t the Elvis generation. By the time we turned onto the highway, Dirty Women was playing.

Bernie’s Café in Mission was busy with a line of good ol’ boys on stools at the lunch counter and most of the booths and tables full of tourists and truck drivers. We sat at a booth. I was fairly straight but Jeff was wrecked. He wore a pair of mirrored aviators and sat too still with his hands at his side, trying to suppress spells of stoned laughter. A waitress gave him an amused look as she dropped menus in front of us.

“Coffee?” she said.

Jeff tried to hold back a guffaw, but failed.

“Two please,” I said, and the waitress walked away. Then I looked at Jeff and said, “It’s too early in the morning to be that stoned, man.”

“What else is there to do out here, man?”

He had a point. Somehow we’d become involved with a crowd of Elvis loving, stockcar driving hicks that summered at Swan Point. They also drove overpowered V8 equipped jet boats on the lake, which meant we got to water ski. The machinery had its allure, but the hicks also had some bodacious daughters. The camp food was free, there was always weed and we even got to work some shifts at the speedway. It definitely got boring sometimes, but it would have been hard to justify going home to Vancouver before September.

I looked out of the window onto the parking lot. Bernie’s was also a Grey Hound station, and a highway-grimy scenic cruiser had just pulled in, disgorging passengers. They looked stunned as they stretched and squinted on the tarmac. Mission was a rest stop, not a destination. But one of the passengers collected his back pack, bedroll and guitar from the cargo area under the bus. He was a big overweight guy, making his full sized guitar case look like an overnight bag. He wore jeans, a billed cap, sunglasses and white boots. I looked twice to confirm that he did indeed have mutton chop sideburns.

“Holy shit,” I said to Jeff, not taking the Elvis sighting seriously. His lips were moving as he read the menu. “Look, man. It’s Elvis.”

“Fuck off.” Jeff’s eyes didn’t leave the menu.

“No, man. Look.” I pointed out to the parking lot at the fat man walking toward the café.

“What’re pigs in a blanket,” Jeff said. “It sounds kinda obscene.”

“Will you look, for gods sake?”

Jeff put his menu down and looked. The fat man was getting closer. “Holy shit,” he said. “That’s him.”

“You gotta a camera?” I said, knowing immediately how absurd the question was.

“Camera?”

“Never mind.”

We’d been born too late for Elvis. To us he was just a flabby fashion accident, way past his stale date. He was grotesque and ridiculous, like a shabby amusement park midway in the light of day. But there he was, even though he’d died in a Graceland privy just the day before. For some reason, I thought of the 1968 NBC comeback special. The girls in the audience wept over him in his black leather like they were train wreck survivors.

“Must be an impersonator,” Jeff said.

“No way,” I said, hoping to provoke my stoned friend. “Why would anybody impersonate the fat Elvis? It’s gotta be him.”

“But he’s dead. The radio said so.”

“You believe all the shit you hear on the radio, man?”

“Why would they lie?”

The waitress came with our coffee. “What’ll you have?” she said with pad and pen ready.

“Bacon eggs sunnyside,” I said.

“What’re pigs in a blanket?” Jeff said.

“Just what it says there, fella,” the waitress said. “Three sausages wrapped in buttermilk pancakes.”

“Sounds weird,” Jeff said. “Sounds like someone’s trying too hard.”

“You want ‘em?” the waitress said.

“Of course,” Jeff said.

That was when Elvis walked into Bernie’s. He left his sunglasses on, pulled his hat down a little and waited to be seated. A hostess greeted him and seated him at the table next us.

“Anything else?” the waitress asked us.

“Holy shit,” Jeff said as Elvis parked his ass next to us. There was now three feet between our booth and his table.

“Nothing,” I said. “That’s fine.”

The waitress rolled her eyes, collected our menus and left.

Jeff leaned forward and whispered, “It’s fucking Elvis, man.”

“I thought you said he was an impersonator.”

He snuck a peak and looked back at me. “Nah, that’s the real thing, man. Look at the Rolex. Elvis is nuts for Rolexes.”

“Really?” I looked over and saw the watch and a huge gold and diamond horseshoe ring on his right ring finger.

Elvis read his menu and when the waitress came, he ordered coffee and pigs in a blanket.

Jeff went berserk at the King’s choice. “Me too, man,” he yelped, giving Elvis a thumbs up.

Elvis ignored him and picked up a newspaper, skipping the headline and lead story.

“Cool it,” I said. “You’re stoned, man.”

“Nice watch,” Jeff said to the King. “I dig Rolex, too.” He put his right hand over the Casio on his left wrist.

Elvis looked over and gave Jeff a nod and a crocked half smile. “Thank you very much,” he said with a Mississippi twang.

“That’s it!” Jeff said too loudly. Then to me, leaning forward again, he whispered, “Did you hear that? ‘Thank you very much.’ That’s his signature, man. No shit, that’s Elvis.”

Elvis was looking at us now. I was embarrassed.

“I’m trying to keep a low profile here,” he said to me. “Try to keep your friend under control.”

“I’ve been trying since forth grade,” I said.

Elvis smiled again and went back to his paper.

“What do we do, man?” Jeff said. “We can’t just sit here with Elvis, who’s supposed to be dead in Memphis, sitting right next to us.”

“I think we can,” I said.

“But it’s fucking Elvis, man.”

Elvis dropped his paper now and leaned across the three feet separating us and said in a confidential tone, “You stoned?”

“Whoa, yeah,” Jeff said.

“You holding?”

“Maybe,” I interjected.

Elvis picked up his paper again as Jeff’s and my order arrived. “Eat up, boys,” he said. “We’ll talk some more when you’re done.”

Jeff looked down at his plate as the waitress placed a syrup bottle in front of him. “What the hell’s this?” he said.

“Pigs in a blanket,” she said. “It’s what you ordered.”

“Looks pornographic, man.”

“Just eat,” I said. He shrugged and tucked in.

Half way through his meal of pigs in a blanket, Elvis asked the waitress for a double order of sour dough toast. We sat in awe as we watched him eat. It was a spectacle of exaggerated karate-like upper body motion, rhythmically shifting feet beneath the table and larger-than-life chewing. He even poured syrup on his toast before wolfing it down.

“That was mighty fine,” he said when he was finished. Then he leaned back in his seat, belched and picked at his teeth. “Now, who’s got the goofy-root?”

The guileless Jeff brightened on hearing this. “I do,” he said, and reached into this shirt pocket. I reached across and stopped him.

“Then let me settle the bill,” Elvis said, “and we’ll retire out back.” He pulled a roll of American bills out of his pocket. From where we sat, it looked like an infinite number of hundreds and fifties. I thought of the handful of quarters, nickels and dimes in my pocket. He called the waitress over and put a fifty in her hand. “For me and my entourage,” he said nodding at us. “Keep the change.”

The waitress grinned like she’d won a lottery and a few minutes later, Jeff and I were standing next to the garbage cans behind Bernie’s Café with the King.

“What’ve you got?” Elvis said.

“Skunk,” Jeff said, and proudly produced a Glad sandwich bag containing loose weed and a couple of rolled joints.

“Cops come round here?”

“Never seen any back here,” I said. “But they come into the café sometimes.”

“Then let’s be quick.”

We smoked two joints with Elvis and we were all stoned immaculate in the end. That’s when Elvis started to talk.

“I guess you heard I was dead,” he said.

We both stared blankly. It was a strange thing to hear a man say.

“Well, I ain’t dead. I know it’s a strange thing to stage your own death and run away. But you boys don’t know the pressure that comes with the fame. It’s like someone’s holding a gun to your head twenty-four hours a day. People cash in on you. And when you want to slow down, they get real unfriendly. Like you’re stealing from them. As for women, they don’t last with just one man. And no one gives a damn thing back, ‘cept the fans. But you can’t connect with the fans. I know it’s a hard thing to hear me say, but fans are like zombies. They want to tear you apart and take the pieces home to show off. You ain’t fans, are you?”

“Hell no,” I said. Jeff was too stoned to talk.

“That’s good,” Elvis said. “I can tell. You ain’t pawing me and asking me for shit.”

“Where you gonna go?” I said.

“Think I’ll go out to Alberta, weather’s good there in the fall. But I’ll get a motel for tonight. Drink some beer. Watch some TV.

“Looks like it’s time to take your friend home.”

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s been seriously wrecked for about two years now.”

“What’s your name, boy,” Elvis said to Jeff.

“Jeffery,” Jeff replied. I’d never heard him use that name before.

“Well here you go, Jeffery,” Elvis said, and handed over his Rolex. Jeff took it, dumbfounded. It was solid gold and heavy. Its heft was obvious in Jeff’s hand. “It feels real good to let go of things,” Elvis said. “Read the back.”

ELVIS
MERRY CHRISTMAS
YOUR PAL
COL TOM PARKER

“Oh wow,” was the best Jeff could manage.

“And here you go,” Elvis said, and handed over his gold and diamond horseshoe ring to me. Then he said, “You boys know anyone who can take a mansion in Memphis off my hands?”

We didn’t.

Elvis put on his pack and picked up his guitar case. And the last we saw, he was walking down the main street of Mission, BC looking for a room.

I used fake ID to buy some beer and Jeff and I spent the rest of the day down at the river. I had poles in the trunk and we made a show of fishing but we didn’t catch anything. I slept for hours and Jeff did too, and when I woke the sun was going down. I sat up and looked at the ring on my hand. It looked like it’d been ordered from the Sears catalogue. Later I found out that it was solid 18k gold and that the diamonds were nearly flawless.

As we turned off of the highway and onto the campground road that night, I saw a roadside shrine put there by some of the locals. It was a tall white cross surrounded by several lit candles. On the cross were the words Elvis Lives.

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