From The Wreck Collection, now available from Alien Buddha Press
Contemplating the Missouri
So that’s really the deal huh?
Sure. There’s an element of that.
Well I’ll be damned.
Why, don’t you think so?
I dunno. Get the shovels.
The moon was out and there was a bite in the air. Three men stood next to a beat up black Cadillac, its headlamps the only light in the thick of night. One of the men, in a black suit and tie, went to the rear of the car and opened the trunk.
Christ! he exclaimed, reeling back in horror.
You not used to the smell yet? one of the other men chuckled. Get her out of there.
Well come and help me.
Anthony never said anything about that.
Well we get paid the same, don’t we?
Yeh. Why doesn’t he help?
Sam, the man who had opened the trunk of the car, pointed at the third figure, standing adrift from the grisly scene.
The third figure that night was indeed Elvis, or an impersonator at least. However, this was no run of the mill Elvis impersonator. This was the best. Looking as young and handsome as he did when he swivelled into view in the 50’s there wasn’t an ounce of fat or a diamond ring on him. And decked out in a white dinner jacket, ripped blue jeans, black leather boots and a white cotton V-neck vest, all supplied by Dolce & Gabbana, there wasn’t a fucking jump suit in sight. This was no Vegas job. This was the King.
He don’t dig.
Explain to me again why he’s here.
I dunno. Anthony paid for him. He’s meant to sing a few songs. Kinda like a tribute, I guess.
You don’t think that’s a little sick?
If I ever thought about things I’d never get out of bed on a morning. Here, he said, I’ll get her legs.
Elvis stood silently watching the two men as they lifted the woman from the vehicle and laid her on the ground.
Damn shame, the one called Pete said.
Sure is, the one called Mike replied, shaking his head.
She used to be a model, ya know.
I believe it.
Yeh. And now look.
What did Anthony tell you?
That it was an accident.
You believe that?
I dunno. I never thought about that either.
Why him anyway? You rang the place, right?
Yeah. But they said their Sinatra rang in with a hangover and The Beatles were fully booked. There was no-one else any good. Anyway, that’s fucking Elvis. You don’t like the King?
He’s ok, but four limeys digging would have made for lighter work, he’s just a lazy bastard.
Oh, come on…
Mike and Peter took to the task at hand, eliciting groans and grumbles with every spade full of dirt they dug up. Hanging back in the shadows, resting on the hood of the silver convertible that had brought them out there, Elvis happily strummed his guitar until it was time for his big performance. He sound tracked the digging with storming, excoriating versions of ‘That’s All Right Mama’, ‘Viva Las Vegas’, ‘Burning Love,’ and as the sun began to dip and the heat ease off ‘You Gave Me A Mountain’ and ‘Wearing That Loved on Look’. With the end of each song Mike and Peter filled the silence with furious debates and disagreements as to why they were here at this time, what a waste it was that they had to bury a body as beautiful as this, who was going to drive back, and how well The King was doing.
I tell you, man, that is his best song by some distance.
That one just then, man. ‘Burning Love’.
Get outta here.
I’m telling you. You should hear the version form Hawaii that he did live, it’s red hot.
I don’t care. I don’t like it, it sounds silly.
Well you should clean your ears out more often, you moron.
Hey fuck you! I don’t have to like it just because you do and so I don’t…
What did you say?
I said it’s a shit song and I don’t have to like it if I don’t want to.
A shit song?
Listen, you. If you don’t shut up I’m gonna dig another fucking hole next to this one just for you.
Whoa, hey! It’s just a song, man. Calm down.
Just stay out of my face.
Hey, I don’t mind Elvis; I just don’t like that one. Why isn’t he playing ‘Jailhouse Rock’ or ‘Hound Dog’?
Because he’s not a jukebox! You dig that hole and let him play the songs. Ok?
Whoa ok, ok.
The wind whipped between the men, the kind of wind that gets beneath your bones, blows through your ribcage and chills your blood.
You been different lately.
I dunno. Just different. Different.
More tetchy. More questioning.
Yeh well maybe it’s my age.
Maybe it’s more.
Elvis began rehearsing a beautiful, tender version of ‘An American Trilogy.’
So how about it?
How about what?
What’s eating at you?
I dunno. You ever wonder about how things turned out?
Things, things. Life.
Ah so you do think?
Yeh. It’s gotten to be a bad habit of mine.
Yeh. Do you in worse ‘n whiskey. Quicker an’ all.
I know it. So, do you think about it?
No. I take it day do day. Why? What have you been thinking?
I don’t know. Maybe nothing. He squinted into the night
It’s something or you wouldn’t have brought it up.
I guess, I think… I guess I always felt I was bound for something more.
Something more? Pete began to laugh. Something more than this? This life not all you imagined it would be? Sleeves rolled up, he gestured with his shovel at the hole and the prostrate, greyish coloured body lying next to it. What more could a person want than this?
I’m being serious. You wanna be like some working stiff? Afraid of his shadow and lying to himself just to get through the day?
Ah, he waved him off.
I’m serious. You see em in the club. You know what I’m talking about
Oh, I do huh?
Damn right you do. You see those guys. Those balding, soft around the middle guys. Flabby and haunted. They have that look of desperation on them. They eye up the girls with an ugly hunger as they sink further into their cups. But they don’t do anything about it. They just keep fucking their wives with their eyes closed and go to work on time, all the time. It’s a waste of life.
It’s a steady existence.
It’s a lack of guts.
I was good at school. I was good at sports.
You should get a drink. Snap out of it.
I amout of it. I see things clearly. Clearer than ever.
Sam dropped his shovel and wiped his brow. He looked at Pete.
So, what are you saying? This is your retirement party?
I don’t wanna do this no more.
Just like that.
No, not just like that. I’ve been giving it some thought for a while now. I’m fifty-one years old.
Exactly. You do know you’ve left it too late for high school football, right?
Why is this amusing to you? Isn’t there something you wanted to do? Something you wanted to achieve?
No. The way I see it this is my lot in life.
My lot. My lot. What did I say?
Everyone gets a place in the world. Everyone gets what he deserves.
You think she deserved that?
That’s not what I’m saying.
Look at her. Why don’t you look at her when you talk about her?
I don’t have to do what you say.
You’re a coward, that’s all. You’re a coward.
You better watch your words. We’ve been friends a long time but you better watch your words.
Friends? When were we friends? When were we ever friends?
Just watch your words, that’s all I’m saying.
A silence passed between them as the night breeze continued to swirl. They were about an hour into it, the hole about halfway dug.
A ‘coward’, Mike began, is someone who can’t face what he’s got or who he is. Benedict Arnold. He was a coward.
What do you know about Benedict Arnold?
I know. Alright? I know. You weren’t the only one who was a genius at school.
I didn’t say genius.
He was a coward. He wanted to be a General. No matter what. He couldn’t look himself in the eye, hated who he was. Hated the truth of his being. Nothing made any sense to him without him being a general, so what does he do?
What does he do?
You know what he does. He sells out his own kind because the British promise to make him a General. He betrays his brothers. He’s a traitor. All because he was a coward.
Then he didn’t even get to be a General.
The Brits sold him out.
And he killed himself.
So, what’s your point?
My point is I can face who I am. I don’t expect any more than this. One day I’m gonna be with the devil, way down in the hole, just like this pretty girl is right now. The worms will do the rest.
You don’t think there’s any more than that?
I don’t worry about it.
Let me ask you a question.
Would you want your kids to do this?
This, this life. For a living. Would you want your kids to do it?
I would if they could face themselves in the mirror and sleep at night.
Ah that’s bullshit. That’s fucking bullshit, man.
Then why did you ask? Why did you ask if you weren’t gonna believe my answer?
I’m telling you. I’m done. After this I’m done.
I’m done. I’m telling him first thing tomorrow.
Really? You’re going straight to the top?
First thing tomorrow.
Let me give you some advice.
Ok let me give you some real advice, seeing as how you’re set on this.
Do it by phone, do it far away, and do it some place no-one will ever find you.
I ain’t afraid of them.
Well you should be. If you’re smart as you say and you’ve gotten to thinking all the sudden then you should be. You wanna end up like him? Pretending you’re somebody you’re not?
Elvis surveyed the men from the hood of the Cadillac. He was still clean, pristine. They were by now filthy and sweating and covered in mud.
So, what are you gonna do? In the morning, when you wake up unemployed?
Unemployed. That’s what you’ll be. Unemployed.
I ain’t no bum.
No, you ain’t no bum. But you’ll be unemployed. Just like all those other bums. So, what are you gonna do? With your time? What are you gonna do?
I dunno. I always wanted to do something in sports. Maybe coach ball.
Oh, Jesus now I know this is a dream. Now I know your stitching has come loose.
I got a sister in St Louis I ain’t seen in years…
Missouri? You’re gonna live in Missouri?
I didn’t say live. Did I say live? I said go…
Anyway, what’s wrong with Missouri?
Let me tell you, I’d rather be where she’s going than in Missouri.
It’s easy for you to say. You don’t have that feeling.
Christ your feeling things now? He’s thinking and he’s feeling. Come on then. What do you feel?
You wanna know?
So, you wanna know. Ok. I get this blackness in the pit of my stomach. I dunno. I can’t shift it. I go to the river and can’t seem to do it. I think all of the time about this girl I met for two minutes at a cafe in Paris. I can’t sleep some nights. I sweat and stare at the ceiling. I throw rocks into the water and think of my brother.
I thought you said sister.
I’ve got both. What? I can’t have both?
Have what you want.
I got it wrong, that’s all I’m saying. People make excuses for why their life didn’t turn out like they wanted. I’m not doing that. Ok. I’m saying I know I blew it. I had chances, opportunities.
Hey good for you.
Ok, I’m not talking to you about it anymore.
Talk to Elvis then.
Pete stopped suddenly and looked around. There was nothing but space for miles in any direction. Endless, unspooling space. Nothing but the vast emptiness that fills the desert, fixed with the deathly, hushed silence of all the things it has witnessed and all the secrets it has had to hold.
What’s to stop me putting a bullet in both you and in him and taking off?
You do that you better not miss, friend. You better be swift and true.
Peter stared into Mike’s eyes. He imagined reaching for his gun, drawing and shooting in one swift motion like they did in the movies of his youth. He saw his friend fumbling for his own weapon, a hole dead in the centre of his forehead stopping him still, that look of surprise and disbelief etched into his face as he dropped to his knees, not saying a word, the sentence frozen and halted on the tip of his tongue. He tried to see something in those eyes that he felt wasn’t in his own. He wanted to see a flicker, a sign, something that proved he was right. That things could change. That there was such a thing as redemption. All he saw was a hard, stoic coldness. The hollow look of the haunted man. He knew the look well. He had seen it himself every morning for as long as he could remember.
Ah, what’s the point?
Well, it’s good to know that you didn’t get religion.
It’s good to know that much at least, Mike laughed.
Finally, the hole was dug. They pulled the body of the young woman in as slowly and respectfully as they could. Pete laid her out straight, her hands rested on her lap. Then they had Elvis pull them out.
Ya know, Peter began, wiping dirt from his hands, when I was a kid, my old man loved Elvis.
Yeh, really loved him. Had a tattoo and everything. Said ‘God bless the soul of the King of Rock n Roll.’ You like that, Elvis? I always liked that.
It’s pretty good.
Yeh it was. My old man was the coolest. Everybody loved him. Ask anyone around town about John Arthurs, they’ll tell you.
Yeh I heard he was a legend.
You’re God damned right. The man was my hero. He was my hero and I never ever told him that. Can you believe it?
Ah, don’t beat yourself up about that too much. None of us ever say the things we really want to. And not enough or not in time.
I could never have been like him. I always wanted to, but I just never could. When I was real little he had all these Elvis records. I remember one of them was a set that made up a picture of the King, like a jigsaw puzzle. I would lie on the kitchen floor and spread em all out, trying to make that picture. My mom would get mad at me and yell for me to move while she made dinner. She didn’t mean nothing by it. I was just in the way. You know how kids get.
Well, no. But I know what you mean.
Right, shit. I’m sorry.
Don’t mention it.
It’s ok, forget it.
They had already started filling in the hole. Soon it would be time for a song to be played.
Look, I get it. I liked comics, right? I wanted to be a superhero or someone. But I was just a kid. That ain’t the real world. Besides, it costs too much to be a hero these days.
What are you talking about?
Nothing. I’m just saying I know where you’re coming from. We all wanted to be something when we were kids. But at some point, we gotta accept we are what we are. It gets to a point in life where you’re so far down the road it’s too far to turn back.
Yeh. You become a stumblebum boxer or a bit part actor. You get mud on your boots or blood on your suit. You’re a two bit nobody but you make the best of it. You play the cads you’re dealt.
You really think that’s the deal then?
Count on it.
I do. Not everyone gets to be the champion, Pete…
They stopped what they were doing and looked at the King.
Are you ready then?
He’d better be. He hasn’t done a thing all night…
Elvis moved slowly to the grave and began strumming his guitar. With perfect silence all around him he played a gentle, tender version of ‘Kentucky Rain’. When it was over, he slid back towards the car, to the same place he had stood for hours, and fell back into total, intractable silence.
Beautiful. That was my Mother’s favourite Elvis song. God rest her soul. You don’t think he’ll say anything, do you?
Naw. He knows Anthony too well. Besides, he knows if he does there’s a hole out here for him, too. And he’s only gonna have us to sing for him.
The sun was coming up when they patted down the sand, backs and limbs violently aching. The King had on his shades. Pete looked out at the palm trees that were greeting another rising day, still and calm in the gentle breeze of dawn.
‘Quittin time’ Mike said, packing away the equipment and dusting himself down. Man, I need a shower.
Just think, Pete said quietly, the rest of the world is only just waking up right now.
The pair then turned their guns on Elvis.
The three men stood motionless, two looking at the sun that was slowly climbing over them. Mike finally spoke.
Come on, he said without turning to face Pete, instead looking straight ahead, arms outstretched, putting his finger to the trigger. I’ll buy us both coffee.
You’ll feel differently after you get some sleep.
From The Wreck Collection, now available from Alien Buddha Press