Fortunately, the smile worked just fine on the server at McDonald’s, the salesperson at the Columbia Road Discount Center, the clerk at CVS, and the associate at the car rental agency, all of whom were female. The cab driver, a Sikh who played loud salsa music, could take it or leave it, apparently.
Elvis kept trying to catch sight of his new shades in the rearview mirror as we discussed cars in the cab on the way to the car rental agency.
“What do you drive, Hank?” he asked.
He frowned. “I never heard of that one.”
“Wasn’t around when you were here last.”
“We should get a Mercury.”
“Why a Mercury?”
“Because it has power, roadability, styling, and extra value.”
“Roadability? Who says that?”
“Never heard of him. What’s he do?”
“You never heard of Mr. Stevens, Hank?”
“He’s a big star on The Ed Sullivan Show. He knows a lot about cars.”
“Every week he talks about Mercuries and Lincolns. He knows all about the important auto races, and who won. Mercuries always win.”
“So can we get a Mercury?”
“There are lots of black cars in Washington, aren’t there, Hank? And those funny-looking long cars.”
“Stretch limousines. Some of those are Lincolns.” He opened his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “No, we can’t get a limousine. We want something sensible and inconspicuous.”
He was pouting just a little when we drove off the lot in a pale green Saturn half an hour later. His hair brushed the ceiling and his knees were bent to accommodate his legs.
“You didn’t even ask about roadability, Hank,” he said, and he was right.
He was a walking encyclopedia of 1950s advertising. In the toothpaste aisle at CVS, he had begun singing the Ipana jingle. In the hair care aisle, he’d added some Brylcreem to our basket. “A little dab’ll do you, Hank,” he’d said. Then he’d asked, studying my beard and moustache, “Do you shave at all, Hank? You should get some Old Spice. Even the toughest whiskers become weak and willing.” As we’d passed the soap, he’d reached for a bar of Dial. “Do we need some more soap, Hank? People who like people use Dial.”
I’d steered him toward the checkout. “Plenty of Cashmere Bouquet left, big guy.”
“Why don’t you call Larry on your cell phone and let him know we’re on our way?” I said in the car.
“I can use my communicator,” he said, raising his new wristwatch to his mouth. Then he looked sheepish. “Oh, I forgot. It’s in my pocket now.”
“Humor me. Use your new cell phone.”
“Okay.” He flipped it open, and I talked him through the business of making a call. He could have been Alexander Graham Bell, he was so excited. “I can hear you!” he kept saying. “Can you hear me?”
We drove to Rock Creek, battened down the hatches on the ship, and then moved into our room at the Wardman Park—just three normal guys in town to see the sights and harass the government. The tough part was separating Elvis from the television set when we were ready to go to dinner.
“Do you know how many channels they have, Hank?” he asked.
“Surely you have some kind of broadcast entertainment where you’re from,” I said.
“We have some broadcast dramas that tell stories, yes,” Larry said.
“But they are all boring,” Elvis said. “Nowheresville.”
For once, Larry agreed with him. “They are a bit tedious. They are mostly moral stories.”
“About how you should love everybody, and put others first, and keep your space clean, and trust the ones who are smarter than you, and be careful not to cut off anyone’s power supply, or help yourself to someone else’s gnersh before they invite you.” He said this in a singsong voice.
“Helping yourself to someone else’s gnersh sounds serious,” I observed.
“It’s a felony in two countries on the planet Pfishe,” Elvis affirmed, pronouncing it with a plosive before the eff. “But they are very small countries. Also, you must be happy for others when they win at games, even if they have beaten you, and even if they cheated.”
“I’ll bear it in mind.”
“You have a bear in your mind?” he asked, smirking. “Is it a U.C.L.A. Bruin?”
“Just think, Hank. If that man in the bar hadn’t gotten so frosted, you would never have come with us to Washington. So everything works out the way the Almighty Spirit intends it to.” He made a sound like a sneeze, and so did Larry, so I assumed that it was kind of like “amen” or “praise God.”
We had a relatively quiet dinner at Legal Seafood, drove around the city, and made an early night of it. Fortunately, it was a Sunday night, so there wasn’t much nightlife to crook a wicked finger at Elvis and draw him in. I wasn’t quite ready to unleash him on an unsuspecting populace.
In my own room, I finally checked my cell phone for messages. I had three text messages and four voice messages, one of them from my mother. They all said the same thing: where are you? None of them was from my ex or my dissertation director. I texted everyone but my mother to say that I’d decided to leave town for a few days. I put off calling my mother.
Later, I would come to appreciate just how quiet that first night was.
By breakfast the next day, with less than twelve hours of exposure to the boob tube, Elvis was lobbying for a computer.
“Everyone on television has one,” he said. “Even Scooby-Do.”
It was no good pointing out that the ship was loaded with the most powerful and sophisticated computers in the universe.
“You can’t e-mail anybody on them,” he grumbled. “You can’t surf the Web.”
“What do you think?” Larry asked over the Washington Post.
“I guess it could come in handy,” I said. “And I could check my own e-mail.”
I didn’t want to sound greedy, to tell you the truth. Our financial status was still a little vague to me. And I was accustomed to life below the poverty line.
“I could learn more about the Georgetown Hoyas,” Elvis suggested. “My team.”
Larry went back to his paper. “Well, if you think it would be useful, I don’t object.”
“I want a Mac,” Elvis said, “with the Leopard operating system. If we go to the Apple store, Hank, a Mac genie will help us.”
When he left the room to put his shoes on, I said to Larry, “Can I ask you something? I understand that you guys have trouble with idiomatic expressions, but how does it happen that with all your sophisticated translation capabilities, he sometimes gets ordinary words wrong?”
“He prides himself on his language skills,” Larry said. “He often shuts down his translator. He prefers to—how do you express it?—wing it. Well, we both do. You’ve probably noticed I haven’t been using my translator much. As long as you’re with us, Hank, you’re our translator.”
So Elvis got his computer, with the help of the Mac genie, and I—God help me—I showed him how to set up e-mail (Elvis789@yahoo.com), how to navigate the Web, and how to download cool desktop graphics. Larry was out when we got back, and when I left Elvis to take a walk, he was poring over images of Graceland.
I was completely unprepared for his announcement at dinner: “I’ve been friended!”
I glanced at Larry, who continued to wrap his spaghetti, unperturbed—unaware of the implications of that particular verb. We were sitting in a crowded neighborhood Italian restaurant where the tables were too close together for my peace of mind. I did not want to have this conversation at the top of my lungs while sitting knee-to-knee with a bespectacled government-employed yuppie who probably did data entry for the State Department. It wasn’t as if Elvis hadn’t already attracted the eye of every diner in the place when he’d bumped his head on the grape arbor just inside the door and reduced it to a jumble of grape vines, leaves, and hard plastic grapes that had escaped and rolled to the far reaches of the restaurant.
“Really?” I said, my own fork suspended. “By whom?”
“By lots of people. They are very nice people, too. And they are all fans of the King. Although Dr. Bebop likes Bill Haley better.” He sighed. “Thank you for the computer, Hank. I am on Cloud 10.”
I stared at him.
He bit off a string of cheese from his pizza. When he’d swallowed, he said to Larry, “I can take cool pics with my new cell and post them on Facebook.”
“How did you meet these new friends?” I asked.
“In a chat room. You would be surprised, Hank, how many working Americans are actually typing about rock and roll on a Monday afternoon.”
“I’m sure I would.”
Larry had finally begun to get the picture, and he looked at me, as if trying to assess the damage.
“Did you know that the hound dog song was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton, Hank?”
“No, I didn’t know that. Elvis, how many new friends do you have?”
“And they all know you as ‘Elvis 789’? Is that all they know about you—your name?”
He thought. “They know that I am a basketball player. They know that I love basketball, but my soul belongs to rock and roll.”
Larry and I exchanged looks, and then he changed the subject, and asked me about the National Cherry Blossom Festival. “They say it is very beautiful in the city at that time.”
After dinner, Elvis said, “Hank, can we visit the Lincoln Memorial? That is where Mr. Smith goes in the movie about Washington, and it is very inspirational. I would like to go there.”
“You mean now?” I said.
“If it would be all right,” he said. “Larry is also Mr. Smith, and so maybe he would be inspired if he went there.”
Larry offered no objection, so we took the Metro downtown and went for a walk. The night air was a little warmer here than it had been back in Indiana, and I was comfortable in my new jacket. Larry gazed up at the brooding Lincoln as birds twittered softly in the trees and moths danced in the artificial light. Elvis went to read the Gettysburg Address.
“I have read about your President Lincoln,” Larry said. “He was a great man, and an original thinker.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Trouble is, we Earthlings hardly ever put thinkers in charge of our governments.”
“So whom should I talk to?” Larry said. “Is there not a Lincoln alive today in some country on the planet? Who has the power to mobilize all the people of the Earth for change? To whom would they listen?”
I shook my head. “Hell, I don’t know, Larry. Princess Di is dead, and Brittany Spears is not known for her political consciousness. You missed the Academy Awards, and you’re too early for the World Cup. But maybe we could get you on Oprah.”
“What is Oprah?”
“A television show. A talk show.”
“So is it more serious than The Ed Sullivan Show? That one’s a variety show, I believe.”
“Well, don’t be misled by the name. People can talk foolishly just as easily as they can talk wisely, and there’s plenty of foolish talk on Oprah. Some talk shows are downright stupid.”
“Will all the people of the world be able to watch?”
“That I doubt. Closest you might come would be to have the United Nations devote a special session to it, but I can’t see them suspending their regular business to watch Oprah.”
“Then what would you suggest?”
I sighed. Since when had I been designated the savior of the planet? If I got it wrong, Earth could end up just another memorial service plaza on the intergalactic turnpike.
“I don’t know, Larry,” I said. “Maybe we should make our own YouTube video. Let me think about it some more.”
But events overtook us. We had come up from the Metro station and had turned down Calvert and crossed the bridge to stroll through Adams Morgan. We were just on the fringes of the neighborhood when Elvis spun around and bolted down a side street. I was still standing there with my mouth open when Larry tapped my arm as he passed me.
“Trouble,” he said. “Come on, Hank.”
I’d barely accelerated into a lope when Elvis plunged into a service alley, and by the time I reached the alley, I could hear sounds of a scuffle, and then a gunshot. A woman screamed. A man cried out. I smelled the acrid scent of cordite. In the yellow light of a dim single bulb I saw a body sailing through the air in my direction.
“Hold him, Hank,” Elvis called out. “He’s under arrest.”
The man landed at my feet with a thud and a grunt. He was wearing jeans, a denim jacket, a knit cap, and sneakers. He lay on his stomach, inert. I planted a foot in the middle of his back. That was the sum of my contribution to the night’s proceedings.
“Is anybody hurt?” I heard Larry say.
“Are y’all all right?” Elvis drawled.
A woman in a fake-fur jacket was sobbing against the chest of a man whose glasses glinted in the yellow light. As my eyes grew more accustomed to the dimness, I spotted a mammoth handbag on the ground and, nearby, what appeared to be a camcorder.“He just came out of nowhere,” the man said, sounding dazed, and I recognized some kind of Midwestern accent.
“He had a gun,” his wife said. She was making an effort to swallow her sobs now. “We just kept saying, ‘Just don’t hurt us. Just take the camcorder and our money and go on.’”
“Anybody shot?” I asked. Everybody on our team was still standing, which I took to be a good sign, but I was too far away to see clearly and I couldn’t leave my post. “If not, I could use some help over here, Larry.”
I heard hurried footsteps and made out several figures moving toward us down the alley.
Larry came over and gazed down at our captive. “We’ve got to get out of here,” I said in a low voice. “We’ve got to get him out of here, before the cops show up and start asking questions.”
“We must call the police, Hank,” Elvis said. “How do we do that?”
“What’s going on here?” called a deep voice.
“Ask the guy to use his cell phone to call nine-one-one,” I said. I didn’t want the call to be traced to Elvis’s phone. I wanted to buy some time. I wanted to get out of there.
Larry, who didn’t strike me as the handy type, was nevertheless using the shoulder strap from the camcorder to tie the hands of our mugger and making a creditable job of it. “Nine-one-one?” he echoed.
“I thought maybe you were the cops,” the woman said. “You know, like plainclothes. Though now that I get a look at you, you’re more like some kind of superhero.” She was feeling the force of Elvis’s magnetic personality, and smiling up at him. “The way you came rushing in, it was just like Superman or something. If you hadn’t done that, we might have been killed.”
A figure approached her and patted her shoulder. “Honey, are you okay?” it said, a woman’s voice.
A group of men, backlit so that I couldn’t make out their expressions, now formed a small circle around me. At least one of them smelled like tobacco and beer. “What’s going on?” one of them said. “A mugging?”
The male victim was talking on his cell phone.
“Yeah,” I said. “Keep an eye on him, will you?”
“No problem,” one said, the deeper voice this time. Now that they’d been given a job, they focused on the man on the ground.
I seized Larry by the elbow, waved Elvis over, and met him halfway.
“If you folks are sure you’re okay,” I said, and raised a hand to them, “we’ll head out. Just wait here till the cops get here. This guy shouldn’t give you any more trouble.”
The man looked up in surprise, but he was still engaged in conversation with the dispatcher.
“Wait!” the woman said. “You shouldn’t just rush off like that. The police will want to talk to you, I’m sure. They’ll probably give him a medal, and put him on T.V.”
My worst fear.
“Have a nice evening,” I said, smiling, walking backward in the direction of the street.
Larry and Elvis were nowhere in sight.
I turned and fled. When I spotted Elvis and Larry watching for me, half a block up, I waved at them. “Run!” I shouted. “Beat it!”
We could hear sirens as I led them past the main entrance to the hotel, around the corner, and into the parking garage.
As I caught my breath by the elevators, one hand on the wall, I listened to Larry and Elvis argue. Out of deference to me, I suppose, they were arguing in English.
“I’m a police officer, Larry,” Elvis said. “I’m not supposed to split like that. If Sergeant Friday were here, he’d tell you the same thing.”
“All right,” Larry said. “And what would you tell them when they couldn’t find the gun?”
“Just out of curiosity,” I put in, “what did happen to the gun?”
“I de-commissioned it,” Elvis said. “I de-activated it.”
“You vaporized it?”
“I transported it.”
“Somewhere in the twelfth dimension of the Pixor Galaxy,” Larry said, “it’s raining antique Earth weapons.” That was astonishingly witty for Larry, even if it was true.
“Dude,” I said to Elvis, “remind me never to piss you off.”