Ginger DiAngelo was a petite dynamo. She entered talking on her cell phone, her free arm flung wide in animated expression. She stood maybe five feet in her platform pumps. She wore a black tailored short-skirted suit with a white open-collared silk blouse and carried a black leather briefcase slung over one shoulder. When she’d disposed of her caller, she shook hands briskly all around. She wasn’t startled by Elvis—you could tell that she knew who he was—but she didn’t tell what she knew, either.
By this time, we were having a late room-service lunch on a table near the kitchenette. She sat down at the table across from me. She had thick, wavy dark hair that just brushed her ear lobes and dark eyes that fixed me now, as she leaned forward with her chin resting on her fists, unnerving.
I told her everything. She didn’t blink when I told her that Larry and Elvis had traveled some two hundred and fifty million miles to warn Earthlings not to deploy nuclear weapons in space. In fact, her lack of response made me wonder if this was the most surprising thing she’d heard all day, or if it had already been trumped by some hot item I couldn’t guess at (President Inks Deal with Viagra Marketers? Texas to Secede from the Union?). When somebody else contributed a comment or clarification, her laser eyes shifted to them, but her expression never changed. When I finished, she sat back in her chair and gazed in the aliens’ direction, but she didn’t seem to be looking at them. She sat silent. Then she picked up her cell phone with one hand, and helped herself to a cold French fry with the other.
“I’ll need to bring Howard and Anna in on this,” she said, flipping open the phone. “And Jillian, of course. And I’ll need to rearrange my schedule.”
Panic bubbled in my throat. Who were these people? I hadn’t even made up my mind yet about her, and now she was calling in back-up.
“Howard and Anna work for Ginger,” Robbie said. “And Jillian’s her personal assistant.”
Ginger looked too young to have a personal assistant, but then I’d always been bad at guessing women’s ages. I supposed, now that I studied her face, that she could have been in her forties—maybe even fifties, if she dyed her hair.
“Don’t you have any questions for us?” I asked her.
She held the phone to her ear. “Hold on,” she said into it. To me, she said, “You need to get the message out about nuclear weapons in space. You need to communicate with people across the world in a short amount of time, while protecting Larry and Elvis here. You need to convince people that the survival of the Earth depends on how they respond to this warning. Have I got it so far?”
“Well, yeah,” I said.
She nodded, and began talking into the phone.
When she hung up, Elvis asked, “Will I still be able to go salsa dancing with Pedro and George tonight?”
“We’ll see,” she said, not unkindly.
I was feeling claustrophobic, so I changed into my sweatshirt and jeans, put on one of the pairs of sunglasses Jeremy had left with us, and covered my head with my hood. “I’m going for a walk,” I announced.
I walked up Calvert toward the Naval Observatory and turned up Cleveland. By now it was four o’clock, and the street traffic was picking up. People passed me running, walking, and ambling; in cars or strollers, on bikes and motorbikes, skates and skateboards and Segways. Clusters of bulging plastic grocery bags bloomed from the ends of their fingers, or they carried briefcases or canvas bags slung over their shoulders or dangling from their elbows. Some were alone, some in groups, and some in couples. There were red-cheeked children in coats too warm for the weather; sallow-faced office workers wearing everything from conservative suits to business casual; sleek, sweat-drenched runners and bikers in skin-tight shorts and shirts; teenagers wearing jeans and sweatshirts, like me, and the occasional denim jacket; older women in dresses and stockings or designer warm-up suits or pantsuits and older men in Redskin jackets or union jackets. Their skin tones ran the gamut from coal black through the full range of umbers and siennas and olive, tan, and rose to translucent ecru. Many wore headphones. But most of them held a cell phone to one ear, elbow crooked. I wondered what an alien visitor would make of it, if he or she were unacquainted with our species and culture.
Unless we paid attention to our extraterrestrial visitors and their warning, all of these people, their hopes and frustrations, the people they loved and the ones they hated and feared, their tools and their toys, would vanish.
I wandered around for a while until my feet carried me into a bar, Murphy’s, tucked away on 24th Street between Calvert and Connecticut. I found a vacant stool, ordered a beer, and looked up and into my own eyes.
I didn’t look all that good on television, if you want to know the truth. It was partly the television’s fault—my skin was too orange and my blond hair and beard glowed as if they’d been irradiated. But my eyes shifted and blinked too much, my posture was lousy, and I fiddled with a pen as if channeling my anxiety into it. I wouldn’t have trusted me.
Elvis, on the other hand, was a natural. Sitting comfortably, he smiled his practiced, lopsided smile into the camera and took full advantage of his bedroom eyes when he dropped them to his statement to read. The camera loved him.
“Where’d he get that accent, that’s what I want to know,” said a man two stools down whose own accent pointed north toward Boston. “How does a guy from a foreign country wind up speaking like that?”
“Easy,” said his companion. “He learned English from a Southerner, that’s all.”
“He learned English from watching Elvis Presley movies,” said a third man. “Same place he got his haircut.”
“That’s another thing,” said Number One, squinting at the set. “How’d he get to look so much like Elvis Presley? You tell me that. You think they got plastic surgeons over there in wherever the fuck he’s from can do that?”
“Sure,” said Number Three. “You give ’em a picture of Elvis Presley, tell ’em, ‘I want to look like that.’ Time they take the bandages off, you look just like him—or Brad Pitt or whoever the fuck you want to look like.”
“I sure as hell wouldn’t pick Elvis Presley,” said Number One.
“At least he picked Elvis when he was young,” said Two. “Not that fat fucker used to wear white jumpsuits and sing in Vegas.”
“Some of these countries, they got better plastic surgeons than we do.” Three pursued his favorite theory. “We train ’em, then they go back over there to Egypt or wherever. I heard it’s all free over there, too. You walk in, say, ‘I want a nose job,’ fill out a form, and that’s it.”
“Don’t get me started on the health care system,” said One, who wanted nothing better.
By the time they’d chewed on the health care system and spit it out, the television had moved on to something else—the latest contestants on American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, I couldn’t really tell which. But Number One wanted to return to a discussion of Elvis.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That Elvis guy, he just don’t sound to me like he comes from a foreign country. I can usually tell.”
“Yeah, but he don’t sound one-hundred-percent Southern to me, either,” said Number Two.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Three said. “He shows up while I’m getting mugged, I ain’t asking to see his Green Card.”
“Listen, I get mugged—.” Number One tapped the pocket of his Pipefitters Local jacket. “I can take care of myself.”
“He can, too,” Number Two affirmed. “I’ve seen him shoot at the range.”
“You can’t depend on nobody, so you got to depend on yourself, that’s my motto,” Number One said. “And I’ll tell you something else.” He pointed an index finger at the television and tapped the air for emphasis. “That other guy, the American? One sat next to the Elvis guy? That guy looked nervous as hell. I’m asking myself why.”
I laid money on the bar and left.
Back at Central Command, the dining table was a beehive of activity in the midst of our former sanctuary. It was littered with three laptops, four cell phones, four little black boxes that might have been BlackBerries, two legal pads, three Styrofoam cups of coffee, and two cans of Diet Coke, plus random packets of artificial sweetener in three colors. On the floor in the near vicinity were several wads of paper, a rolling file, and a scattering of shoes in both genders.
I was introduced to the three newcomers: Howard, a tallish, thin young man in wire-rims who seemed almost as intense as his boss; Anna, a busty, cheerful-looking coffee-skinned young woman whose tidy corn rows hugged her head; and Jillian, whose frizzy auburn hair was constrained by a clip on the back of her head and whose irregular features made her face appear to have been designed by a committee.
Elvis was sitting on the couch playing a video game with Robbie. Larry was nowhere in sight. “Hank!” he called. “I get to go salsa dancing!”
“You’re letting him go salsa dancing?” I said to Ginger.
“Sit down, Hank,” she said. “Let us fill you in.”
I sat. Howard was tapping away at his keyboard and Anna was on the phone.
“Okay,” she said. “Operation E.T.”
“For the first week, our focus will be on promoting Elvis and Larry as friendly, ordinary businessmen who are unintentional celebrities.”
“The first week?” I said. “I’m supposed to be back in the classroom Monday morning.”
She gave me a reproachful look. “Hank,” she said, “do you want to save the Earth or teach a handful of freshmen how to write passable prose?”
“I’m not sure I can do either,” I said. “But go ahead.”
“What we’re going to be doing, Hank,” she said, “is building trust, so that when our friendly spacemen deliver the message they’ve come to deliver, people will trust them.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Now, research shows that the majority of people most trust someone like themselves,” she said.
“Fifty-one percent in the U.S. on the Edelman Trust Barometer,” Howard said. “Leads every category in North America, Latin America, and Europe. Comes in second only to physicians in Asia—don’t ask me why. And people trust business more than the government or the media. Also, some celebrities they trust.”
“How does Elvis fare?”
Ginger frowned. She was taking this seriously. “Well, at least he picked the young Elvis. We’d have a hard time selling him as a Vegas headliner.”
“People don’t trust Barry Manilow?” I said.
“Not on issues of planetary annihilation,” Howard said.
“So, you want to turn him into a celebrity businessman who seems just like everybody else,” I said.
“Not just him,” she said. “Larry, too.”
“It would help if one of them could cook,” Howard mused. “Rachael Ray is very highly ranked among trustworthy celebs. She even beats Oprah.”
“I can make cookies,” Elvis called from the couch.
“We’re concentrating first on beefing up their business cred,” she said. “I sent Larry off to the ship to contact his people and see if we can establish trade relations. People may not trust their trading partners, but they don’t expect governments to act against their trade interests, either.”
“You mean, by annihilating their market?”
“Exactly. So if we could find something to export—.”
“You know,” Howard said. “Something we make that they want.”
They couldn’t be serious. But they were.
“Elvis C.D.’s?” I said.
“Better if it were made out of corn,” Howard said. “Best, of course, if Earth could trade corn oil for crude oil.”
“Do we know that C.D.’s aren’t made out of corn?” Ginger said.
“I’ll get right on it,” Howard said.
“You think we’d stop manufacturing nuclear warheads if we could sell corn to the Andromeda Galaxy?” I said.
“That’s the way it works, Hank,” Ginger said. “We do it all the time—offer economic incentives—bribes, really—for disarmament.”
“It boggles the mind,” I said.
“Yes, well, the point is that we want Elvis to go salsa dancing. We want him to be seen out and about.”
“Eating hot dogs and kissing babies,” I said.
“You’ve got it. The more ordinary, the better.”
“And Larry will go salsa dancing, too?” I said. This I wanted to see.
“Maybe. We thought of sending him to see Blades of Glory, but it doesn’t maximize his exposure.”
“Blades of Glory? Tell me you’re kidding.”
“We might send him to the Kennedy Center. Too bad we missed the jazz legends,” she said. “Tomorrow we have them booked on a bus tour of Washington. Thursday we’ll take them to the Smithsonian.”
“I want to send them to Disney World,” Howard said, “but Ginger isn’t sold on the idea.”
Elvis appeared. He was carrying some kind of gaming system console. “I want to go to the spy museum,” he said.
“Bad idea,” she said. “Too many negative associations. But don’t worry. You’ll love the Smithsonian. And afterwards, if the weather’s nice, we’ll have them fly kites on the Mall.”
“Will we go shopping again?” Elvis asked hopefully.
“Tomorrow after the tour, unless you’re too tired.”
It wasn’t clear to me that Elvis could be tired; I wasn’t even sure whether he slept at night. I suspected that he spent the wee hours surfing the Web and watching old sci-fi flicks. He’d told me this morning that the aliens in Close Encounters looked a lot like a Quantifarian boogleball team. On another occasion, he’d smiled slyly and said, “Aren’t you glad I came back as Elvis and not Barbarella, Hank?” I didn’t want to go there.
Now he fluttered his fingers against his chest, and said to me, “I want to buy a guitar, Hank. Robbie’s going to teach me to play.”
He turned back to Ginger. “Ginger? Can we go to a drive-in movie? You know with the microphones”—he made a clipping motion with his hands—“hanging on the automobile window? I would like to see that fly-man movie.” He had a thing for clip-on equipment that I didn’t really understand—maybe it had some kind of retro appeal even for super-sophisticated aliens.
“Spider-Man,” I corrected.
“Yesss!” Anna snapped her phone shut and pumped the air with her fist. “I got it!”
“Got what?” I said. It was obviously my job to play straight man around here.
“I got the rights to the John Williams score for E.T.” Howard gave her a high-five. “The basis for Elvis’s new theme music.”
“Theme music?” I said.
She leapt from her chair and did a little dance.
“Awesome!” Elvis said. “Far fucking out!”