The mail rode up in the elevator with us. That’s all there was room for, the four sacks of mail, a luggage cart full of boxes and oversized envelopes, the bellboy who was delivering it, and us. The Oprah team was already setting up lights in the living room, so we stashed it in my room and closed the door.
Oprah herself was warm and gracious. She appreciated Elvis’s sense of humor, so they got along famously. She’d also brought a bag of gourmet organic dog treats for Getlo, a gesture which won his heart. She gave both Larry and Elvis Chicago Cubs hats. Elvis gave her a diamond that Ginger had gotten mounted in a necklace. Her eyes opened wide when she saw it.
On camera, she had a serious talk with Larry about the message he wanted to deliver to the world. She never interrupted him. She asked questions about the world and the society he’d come from, so I learned a few things, and asked whether he missed his family. She asked him why he’d been chosen for this mission, or whether he’d volunteered. He said that he’d been asked because his superiors had a high regard for his engineering expertise and diplomatic skills, but that he could have refused.
“Larry is a very good person,” Elvis put in. “He would never refuse to go where he’s needed.”
“So what about you, big E?” Oprah asked. “Did you volunteer?”
Elvis gave her his curtained smile. “I was too young to know any better, Oprah.”
So eventually she got around to asking for a performance of “Hound Dog,” and he gave it his best shot, after warning her that he was still working on it. But she loved it, and to my dismay gave him the kind of encouragement that would guarantee more practice sessions.
Then she asked me what it was like to hang with these guys. I saw the camera swing in my direction. I hadn’t expected this. “Uh, never a dull moment,” I said, which, if not quite true, had the ring of truth. And compared to my normal life, it was certainly true.
When the camera swung back, I glanced at my watch. In my normal life, I should at this moment be walking a roomful of freshmen through a rhetorical analysis of a reading assignment that some hadn’t read, some had read at 3 a.m., and some had “read” with technopunk blasting their ears while they updated their Facebook status. I’d be telling Sean for the umpteenth time to put his cell phone in his pocket rather than hiding it in his sleeve so that he could text his soccer teammates, and Tiffany would just be arriving, twenty minutes into class, slipping into the back clutching a plastic container of French fries to sustain her through the remaining thirty minutes of class. Jamal would be asleep, head on his book, and Stacey, who would have actually read the assignment, would have her hand in the air to make some loopy observation that would challenge my own verbal agility and diplomatic skills.
At the ship, the Slinky was a big hit. The giant roller skate we’d failed to remove from the circular corridor was not, however, although the cameraman who tripped over it while walking backward did manage to prevent the camera from hitting the floor. Oprah admired everything, from the control panel to the little lavatory. She asked if they had a promotional deal with Cashmere Bouquet.
“No,” Elvis said. “Should we?”
Everybody got hugs when she left, even Ginger and her crew, Simon and Pete, and me.
Back at the hotel, the NBC crew was already setting up lights in a hotel conference room, and Alex O. was standing by with Tim Russert, from whom I wasn’t expecting a parting hug. They were discussing the death of the Armenian prime minister. I added my own condolences again, a little surprised at Alex’s show of emotion. But then, there’s nothing like hanging out with journalists to make a guy feel ill-informed; apparently, Prime Minister Margaryan was a nationalist hero. No wonder Charlotte had known about the death; she’d probably read it off an A.P. wire.
After the interview, we headed back to the ship, picking up Chinese take-out on the way. Jillian came along as our minder. When Elvis had heard that he’d be visiting the Ed Sullivan Theater where Elvis Presley had made one of his historic television appearances, he’d insisted on dressing to honor the King. Somewhere, somehow, Jeremy had scored for him a yoked shirt with full sleeves and a pair of black pants, and of course he was wearing his blue suede shoes. Larry had lobbied for a more conventional, conservative outfit, but Elvis had been adamant, and Larry had backed down. But Larry got his way on one matter: the guitar stayed home.
The show went okay, I guess, though from Larry’s perspective, it could have gone better. When I say “okay,” I mean that the guys didn’t make any faux pas, and not a single audience member had to be sent into Time Out in the sixth dimension. Paul Shaffer had the band play the E.T. theme when the aliens were announced, and though I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting in the audience, the camera captured the tears of emotion in Elvis’s eyes when he stood on the stage where Elvis had once sung “Love Me Tender” and “Hound Dog.” Letterman asked a few intelligent questions about their mission, but too quickly the interview veered into comedy, with Letterman volunteering Ten Signs That You’re Talking to an Alien. He had some fun with robot humor, which Elvis didn’t seem to understand, and then chatted with Elvis about dogs.
To his credit, Elvis tried to return the conversation to the more serious topic of their mission. “David, you should not be talking to me about dogs,” he said, frowning. “You should be talking to Larry about the potential annihilation of your planet.”
“You’re right,” Letterman said. “But if we talked too much about that, our viewers would change the channel.” After a pause for laughter, he continued, “But seriously, Big Guy, are all the droids where you come from like you?”
“Tall?” Elvis asked, puzzled.
“Reserved,” Letterman said, evoking another laugh. “You play your cards pretty close to your chest.”
Elvis looked down, confused. When the audience laughed again, he gave an uncertain smile. “Oh, you are pushing my leg.”
“Jesus,” I said to Jillian as the audience dissolved around us.
Jillian was shaking her head.
Larry was too polite to re-direct the conversation himself, but I could tell by his body language that he was growing impatient. He sat stiff and silent during a commercial break as Letterman talked to Elvis, leaning over to lay a hand on his shoulder.
When the show resumed and Letterman asked Elvis to sing a song, Elvis glanced at Larry. “I did not bring my guitar,” he said. “And anyway, I am just learning to play. I am not ready for crimetime.”
But Paul Shaffer handed him a guitar and the audience clapped encouragement, so he succumbed to temptation. His rendition of “Hound Dog” would be the hottest new video on YouTube the next morning.
We all felt low-spirited on the quick flight back to D.C.
“I am sorry, Larry,” Elvis said. “He should have talked to you more about our mission.”
Larry sighed. “It isn’t your fault,” he said. “We must contend with the immature mind of the average television viewer. Overstreet was right.”
“The mature insights were lost on the immature mind,” Elvis agreed. “That is what Mr. Overstreet would say.”
Jillian patted Elvis’s hand. “But it must have been thrilling to stand and sing where Elvis did.”
“Yes,” Elvis told her. In a voice choked with emotion, he said, “It was out of sight. I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. I am all shook up.”
As we set down in Rock Creek, I said, “Well, let’s look on the bright side. Nobody took our parking place.”