Elvis wanted to know how far we were from Memphis, Tennessee.
“Not too far by plane,” I said, “but we’re headed in the wrong direction. We’re too far north.”
“Is there a highway that goes there?” he asked. “Our map is broken.” He gestured toward a darkened screen.
“The best thing, in that case, would be to follow the rivers,” I said. “If we fly south, we’ll intersect the Ohio River. The Ohio meets the Mississippi at Cairo, and you can follow the Mississippi down to Memphis.”
Elvis turned to Lawrence, and a debate ensued. I reached a tentative hand out to touch the glowing gray metal of the instrument panel, which was smooth and cool to the touch. There was writing etched on it, but I didn’t recognize the symbols. There was also an old-fashioned paddle ball resting on top—one of the ones made out of wood, with a little rubber ball attached by a rubber band. The ball barely vibrated as the plane moved through space. Finally, Lawrence heaved a sigh, passed his hand over the panel again, and I felt the craft turn and reverse directions. Elvis sat down in the seat next to me, smiling happily.
“I get my wish,” he said. “Do you think that we will be able to see Graceland from the air?”
“It’s probably lit up like a Christmas tree,” I said.
Elvis leaned forward, held a hand over a circular light on the panel, and two wide doors parted in front of us like an eye opening. They slid back to expose a panoramic view of the night sky.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s some sunroof.”
“Hank,” Elvis said. “Do you think he is there right now? Do you think that we might get to see the King?”
Well, that stymied me. How was I going to break the news? It was beginning to sink in that these two, in spite of their high-tech aircraft, were considerably behind the times. Where had they been for the past fifty years? In the lab? Did they come from some remote civilization that had been cut off from the rest of the world but was advancing much more rapidly? A civilization founded by marooned beatniks and Elvis fanatics?
“Elvis,” I said gently, “you’re not going to see the King, man. The King’s dead. I’m sorry.”
“Oh,” he said, and that one syllable let all the air out of him. I watched him deflate until he was just a limp pair of slacks and a loud jacket in a ducktail. Even Lawrence threw him a sympathetic glance. Then he said, “Are you sure? When did he die?”
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “Maybe forty years ago. Something like that. But his house is still there. That’s where he died. It’s a historic landmark. You can even take a tour and visit his grave.”
Lawrence gave me a warning look, but I could see that Elvis wasn’t ready to digest this last piece of information.
I began to look around for the facilities. I didn’t want to seem crass and insensitive, but after all the beer I’d drunk, I needed to take a leak.
“You got a lavatory on this plane, Lawrence?” I asked.
“Yeah—you know, a toilet.”
“Oh.” He looked around. He got up and studied one of the long, curved walls of the cabin, looking exactly like a man who has misplaced something. He passed his hand over the wall, and a door flew open. Several long metal poles came clattering down and a multicolored ball rolled out. “Sports equipment,” he explained. “But I know we have one,” he said, as he wrestled the poles back into the closet and the door slammed shut. He tried a few more doors, then announced, “Here it is.”
Sure enough, it looked like most of the airplane lavatories I’d ever seen, down to the petite bar of Cashmere Bouquet soap gracing the metal counter.
“Say, where are you guys from, anyway?” I asked when I resumed my seat. “Not from around here, obviously.”
“Oh, we’re from a place far, far away,” Lawrence said.
“Yes,” Elvis said, rousing himself a little. “You won’t have heard of it.”
“Try me,” I suggested.
“Try you?” Lawrence echoed. He frowned at the cell phone, which he’d placed in a holder mounted to the instrument panel. He reached up to his ear, and I glimpsed something metallic inside it, like a hearing aid, which he repositioned. Then he reached out and dealt the cell phone a single blow with his fist. “Oh, you mean, tell you the name of our country and you’ll see if you recognize it.”
I saw him mouthing “bingo,” but he didn’t follow up on that one. Instead, he said, “Suppose I told you that we were from Kyrzygstan.”
“Former Soviet republic?” I said. “Must be somewhere near Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and those other stans. Is that where you’re from?”
“No, Hank,” Elvis said. “He’s just pushing your leg. He knows that most Americans do not know much about the geography of your world.”
“So where, then?”
Lawrence cleared his throat.
I waited. “Come on,” I said finally. “Let’s hear it.”
“That’s it,” Lawrence said, and cleared his throat again.
“That’s it?” I said. “That’s the name of your country?”
“Actually,” Elvis said, “it’s the name of his planet.” He leaned forward, waved a hand over another light, and a brightly lit bird’s-eye view of the Ohio River spread out across the windshield.
“You mustn’t feel bad that you haven’t heard of it,” Lawrence said. “It isn’t even in your galaxy.”
“That explains it,” I said. “I’m pretty well up on my geography.”
“Then perhaps you should be down, Hank,” Elvis said, and laughed at his own joke.
That was okay. I was glad to see him perking up a little.
“Did you understand my joke, Hank?” he asked.
“Yeah, I got it,” I said. “You’re a real comedian.”
Elvis sighed. “I don’t want to be a comedian,” he said. “I want to be a rock and roll star.”
“Also an admirable career goal,” I said.
“I want to play the guitar and sing and wivel my hips like the real Elvis.”
“One wivel on national TV,” I said, “and you’d be headed for megastardom. Let’s get you on American Idol.”
“Okay,” he said. “I would dig that. What do we do?”
“First things first,” I said. “How is it you know so much about American culture, but everything you know is half a century out of date?”
Lawrence and Elvis exchanged glances.
“Our television is broken,” Elvis said.
“Ask him how it broke,” Lawrence said.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Elvis said, giving us the full benefit of the prominent lower lip.
“He tried to plug an RCA Victor record player into our infoscan unit, and disrupted the power source. The unit can’t be fixed until we get home. That was in Earth year 1957, shortly after we left.”
“Left?” I said. “You were here before?” A leaf fluttered in the pages of my memory. I got up and retraced my steps to the lavatory. I stopped at a section of wall where three black-and-white photographs with crenulated edges had been Scotch-taped to the smooth surface. I pointed at them. “You were here before.”
“Yes, yes, Hank, that’s us!” Elvis beat his fingertips against his chest in what was apparently a gesture of excitement.
I studied the photographs. One showed two men, ordinary in every way except that one was extremely tall. Both men wore suits and ties. They sat in folding lawn chairs on a small strip of cement that might have been a patio outside of a nondescript place showing a door and window. The door had a number, 101, on it. A motel room?
The second photograph showed the same two men in the same suits, sitting on bleachers, surrounded by smiling boys. The boys all wore jeans and team tee shirts and ball caps that said “Lobos.” A few of them had baseball gloves in their laps. The tall man also wore a Lobos cap. He didn’t look remotely like Elvis Presley. But there was something familiar about the broad grin.
In the third photograph, the tall man, wearing the same suit and the Lobos ball cap, stood in front of something resembling a flying saucer. He had one arm draped around the shoulder of a kid wearing a Cub Scout uniform. Both were smiling for the camera.
I glanced around the cockpit. Round room, check. Windows on top, check. Ergo, this was the flying saucer in the photograph. My Spring Break was looking up.
“Who’s the kid?” I asked.
“That’s our friend Robbie Donovan,” Elvis said. He reached out as if he would caress the Cub Scout. “He was a very good friend. His parents owned the Siesta Motor Court, where Lawrence stayed. Have you heard of it, Hank?”
I shook my head. “Where was this?”
“In Española, New Mexico,” Elvis said. He was squinting at the photographs. “That suit is Nowheresville. I look squared.”
You’ll say I should have reacted with alarm to the flying saucer, or to the mention of New Mexico, or to the two things together. But I was transfixed by the Elvis transformation.
“Lawrence looks just the same,” I observed. “But you—.” I turned to Elvis. “What happened to you?”
“I redesigned myself,” he said, and opened his arms wide. “Do you dig the threads?”
Lawrence made a noise I took to signal exasperation. “He’s just told you that you’ve modeled yourself on a dead man. I told you you were taking a chance.”
Elvis was crestfallen. “It’s not fashionable?”
“I didn’t say that,” I said. “In some neighborhoods, it’s very fashionable. Some guys earn big bucks imitating the King. In Vegas, they have Elvis impersonator conventions and—.”
“We’re picking up a radio transmission,” Lawrence cut in. “I think this may be Memphis coming up.”
As we approached, Elvis bounced a little in his seat like a kid, and I was relieved to note that the ship we were in—a spaceship, I guessed I’d have to call it now—was well-equipped with stabilizers that took his weight into account.
If we’d been riding in an ordinary plane at night, I would have had to just pick out any old Classical mansion and label it “Graceland” to satisfy my companions, but because the image on the screen was brightly lit and clearly focused through some bit of extraterrestrial sleight of hand, I could actually make out the Corinthian columns guarded by lions, the kidney-shaped pool, and the semi-circular wall beyond. I’d seen the place up close and personal twice in my life, once as a kid, and once, the year before, with Anita, my ex.
So we hung there in the air a while, our running lights off, while I gave them a virtual tour of Graceland, doing my best to conjure up the jungle room, the trophy room, the Lisa Marie, the TV room, the dining room.
“Many famous Earth people have eaten in that room, I suppose,” said Elvis.
“Yeah, Anita says—.” I stopped, surprised by a bubble of emotion in my throat.
“Who is Anita, Hank?” Elvis asked.
Lawrence frowned and shook his head. “She’s his ex-girlfriend,” he said to Elvis. “She is having sex with his dissertation director.”
“She was cruel to a heart that’s true,” Elvis said, with sympathy. He laid a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Hank. I bet there are lots of dolls in Washington, D.C. We will find a baby for you.”
When Elvis had finally seen everything that could be seen of Graceland from the air, we changed course for D.C. Lawrence was yanking at his tie.
“Only a primitive people would tie a rope around their neck and call it a fashion,” he grumbled. “No offense, Hank.”
I grinned at him. “You don’t see me wearing one, do you, Lar?” With Lawrence’s movement, that strangely familiar scent wafted my way and enveloped me. I sniffed. “What’s that cologne you’re wearing?”
“English Leather. Isn’t it fashionable anymore?”
I smiled reminiscently. “My grandfather used to wear English Leather. I’ve been wondering why I was feeling such a strong compulsion to sit in your lap and search your pockets for candy.”
Lawrence shifted uncomfortably. “In that case, perhaps you could make an alternative recommendation.”
“And the pipe tobacco?”
He reached into an inner pocket and pulled out a pipe. He handled it awkwardly, as if uncertain which end was up. “It came with the suit,” he said.
Elvis was looking thoughtful. “Hank, tell me about the Elvis impersonators in Vegas,” he said.
Lawrence groaned. “Not tonight. Hank’s tired, and I’m tired.”
“Maybe Hank wants to watch the movie,” Elvis offered. He turned to me politely, “Would you like to see our movie, Hank? We only have one, but it’s a very good one, with James Stewart and Jean Arthur.”
“That would be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?”
“Yes. Have you seen it?”
“Not recently. But it is a good one.” I thought to myself that it would have encouraged an appropriately cynical attitude toward Washington politics, but at the same time fostered too much optimism about ultimate outcomes.
“It’s too late to watch a movie tonight,” Lawrence said. “I think we should slip into another dimension, put the craft on hover, and sleep.”
“No, wait,” I said. “You never told me why you came to Earth in the first place, or why you came back.”
Lawrence sighed. “It’s a long story.”
“No, it’s not, Lawrence,” Elvis said. “We failed.”