I woke up to the sound of music. That is, I woke up to the sounds of a guitar, and another noise, which I eventually identified as the sound of someone belting out “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.” He sang badly. Very badly.
“Robbie is teaching me to play the guitar,” Elvis said when I ventured out of my bedroom. He was sitting next to Robbie on the couch.
“He’s a natural,” Robbie said. Robbie was wearing a tie-dyed tee shirt and ripped jeans. These were jeans with real rips where the knees had worn through the fabric, not some teen fashion statement. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, back against the couch, stroking Getlo’s belly. Elvis was sitting on the couch with a guitar across his lap. Max the bodyguard was sitting in an armchair, looking through The Elvis Songbook for Guitar.
“Would you like to see me play ‘Hound Dog,’ Hank?” Elvis asked.
“Let’s work on it some more first, big guy,” Robbie said.
“You don’t think I look like Elvis?” Elvis asked him.
“Dude, you’re the spittin’ image,” Robbie said. “You got the moves. But what we got to work on now is sound. You don’t sound quite right yet. Remember, man, Elvis didn’t become Elvis overnight. You got to have patience.”
Larry called me from the table, where he was sitting and working on the computer. When I sat down across from him, he looked up.
“Tomorrow is Monday,” he said. “Today is the last day of your Spring Break. Do you want us to take you back to Indiana?”
The other end of the room got very quiet.
“Is your back still in pain?” Larry asked when I didn’t answer.
“No,” I said cautiously.
The night before, I’d asked him why he hadn’t offered to heal my back. He’d said that normally, he didn’t like to interfere with the healing systems in place in the native cultures he visited.
“Please,” I’d said, pulling up my shirt and presenting my whimpering back to him. “Interfere.”
So he’d gone to work on me. I couldn’t see what he was doing, of course, and it’s hard to describe how it felt. It was as if he made the whole area glow with warmth, and I felt my muscles, one by one, soften and let go, as if they’d turned to wax. Then I felt—I swear—warm fingers probing inside my back until they found the epicenter of pain, and it dissolved. The fingers withdrew slowly, as if they were swimming away, and I’d felt drowsy and relaxed and warm all over.
Now, when he asked me about my back, I was surprised to discover that I felt no pain at all, not even if I turned or bent or stretched. I said more firmly, “No, it’s okay.”
He still looked at me expectantly.
“My classes are covered for a few days. . .” I trailed off. I knew that I should go home. I had obligations, after all. Larry and Elvis didn’t need me, not really. And surely Ginger could find another grammar expert in the Washington Metro area. If I stayed, I would just be another spaceman groupie in a swelling entourage. It wasn’t even as if our time together were action-packed. I had often felt at loose ends in the past several days. And yet.
“I guess I’d like to stay a little while longer, if it’s okay,” I said.
“Yesss!” Elvis shouted and waved a fist in the air. He smiled at me. “You are one fun dude, Hank. You rock!”
Whatever image I had of myself, being a “fun dude” had no place in it. And I had three ex-girlfriends who would testify that in this, at least, my self-concept was dead on.
“Aren’t you happy that Hank is staying, Robbie?” Elvis asked.
“Sure am,” Robbie said. “But about that fist pump, dude. It goes up and down, not side to side.”
At the breakfast table, I scanned both U.S.A. Today and The Washington Post for any mention of the spaceman’s miracle healing. Nothing. Plenty of stories about death, though—in Afghanistan, in Sri Lanka, in the Congo, in Iraq, in Darfur. And those were just the deaths caused by human conflicts. Mother Nature had contributed two earthquakes and a tsunami.
“I don’t think the doctors and nurses believed that I did anything, Hank,” Larry said. “They thought the little girl woke up from a very deep coma.”
“Huh,” I said. “Is that what the mother thought?”
“No,” he said, and smiled. “But I don’t think she’ll give me away.”
The phone rang and Elvis, who was closest to it, answered it.
“It’s for you, Hank,” he said, and added in a stage whisper heard in Baltimore, “And it’s a chick!”
I took the phone. It was Charlotte, the girl from the park. I experienced a momentary confusion. Had I given her my number? “Oh, hi,” I said. “Yeah, sure, I remember you. Sorry I haven’t called. I’ve been kind of, well, busy.”
She laughed. “Tell me about it. How was Mount Vernon?”
“Right. Big house on the river, George Washington’s desk, Martha’s herb garden. Is this ringing a bell?”
I sighed. “How did you know it was me? Everybody says I look really different in the wig and no glasses.”
“I’m just good with faces. I thought it was you in the pet shop photo, and when I saw the Mount Vernon footage, I knew it was you. Want to know what gave you away?”
“You always had a hand on your back,” she said. “You know, if your back hurts that badly, you should see a massage therapist.”
“I have. He moonlights for the F.B.I.”
“I’m serious,” she said. “A real massage therapist. Know how you can tell? Ask them where they trained. If they say Quantico, keep looking.”
“Well, my back’s better now,” I said. “They must do something right at Quantico.”
I was uncomfortably aware of the three sets of ears, one of them the size of salad plates, tuned in to this conversation.
“So, do you want that tour or not?”
“You’re not mad at me?”
“Why should I be mad at you? Did you really expect me to believe all that bullshit about being a time-management consultant for package designers?”
“Well, I was hoping.”
“No, you weren’t. What kind of a loser does that for a living?”
I resolved never to explain my dissertation topic to her.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m up for a tour.”
“I mean, you did just move into the neighborhood, right? Even if you don’t plan to stay.”
“Well, sure. I guess I’m going to be here for the next few days, at least.”
“Good. So what are you doing now?”
“Now? You mean right this minute?”
“I just got up.”
“Want to meet me in the lobby in, say, thirty minutes?”
“Can you come out and play by yourself or do you have to bring your mates?”
“Uh, they’re okay. I can come by myself. I should probably wear my disguise, though.”
Max the bodyguard objected to my solo plans, and was joined in his objections by Marshall the bodyguard when Marshall returned from a video store run. I ignored them and kept on moving out the door. To my annoyance, Max followed me.
In the lobby, I found Charlotte. She gave me a kiss on the cheek that felt impersonal, but still intimate for someone you’d met only once and on a park bench at that. Still, I suspected that Washingtonians had all kinds of habits that Hoosiers would find strange, and it was certainly an ass-kissing town, so maybe it was a cheek-kissing town as well. The kiss startled me in another way, too. While she didn’t make lip contact precisely in the area where my beard used to be, my face felt unguarded, and the sensation on my skin felt unfamiliar.
She looked me over with a critical eye. “The hair looks a little—.”
“Like Leonardo DiCaprio?” I said.
“More like surfer-gone-to seed. Are you going to wear your sunglasses the whole time?”
“We’ll see how it goes,” I said.
Charlotte wore jeans, a quilted jacket, and boots that made her almost as tall as I was. When she leaned in for the kiss, I smelled again that light fruity scent, like overripe apples, that I’d smelled on the park bench.
“I have a tail,” I said, and nodded across the lobby to Max, who was unwrapping a piece of chewing gum. He stuck it in his mouth. “Or at least, one that I know of.”
“On the elevator you picked up a tail?” she said. “Is he a gumshoe?”
I shook my head. “Part of our security.”
“Want to ditch him?” Her eyes glittered with mischief.
I sidled up close to her, scanned the room, and directed my question in a low voice to a potted plant nearby. “You got a plan?”
“Follow me,” she said in the same conspiratorial stage whisper. “Do what I do.”
I stumbled over a suitcase as we headed for the door because I couldn’t see through the damn sunglasses. Max picked me up, asking me if I were hurt as if we were strangers. He fell back as we left the Wardman, cut over to Connecticut, strolled up to the main entrance to the National Zoo and passed through the gates.
Once inside, she picked up the pace until we were speedwalking— past the giant pandas, past the elephants, past the great apes.
“Aren’t we going to visit any animals?” I asked, gasping.
“Do you want to ditch your tail or not?” she said.
“I do have this injury—,” I began, putting a hand to my back, though in truth, my back felt fine. It was my legs and my lungs that were on fire.
She plunged into the Reptile Discovery Center. I followed, blinded by the sunglasses and the sudden dark. She grabbed my wrist and dragged me on.
As my eyes adjusted, I caught a glimpse of a snake or two, but apparently we hadn’t reached our destination. We exited the building, and doubled back to sit on a bench in front of the Gorilla Grove.
“Is this your idea of a neighborhood tour?” I panted.
“It’s a huge, dark building,” she said. “It will take him forever to realize he’s lost us. Come on, Hank, breathe.”
“I’m trying,” I gasped.
“Feel better now?” she asked.
To preserve oxygen, I shook my head.
I waited for my panting to subside. “I feel kind of mean,” I admitted.
She nodded. “You’re not cut out for life on the lam, I can see that.”
She set a leisurely pace back to the main entrance, which hadn’t moved any closer in the interim, and we left the zoo and turned toward the heart of Adams Morgan. We walked around for an hour or so and she showed me her favorites—her favorite ice cream place, her favorite bookstore, her favorite street hustler, her favorite Mexican take-out place, her favorite shoe repair shop. The glasses continued to obscure my vision until I mistook a street vendor for a trash can.
“How much of this tour are you able to see?” she asked.
The other problem was my hair, which, because the wind was picking up, kept blowing in my face. She caught me grimacing.
“It keeps getting in my mouth,” I said. “Ick!”
“Welcome to my world,” she said. “Girls put up with that all the time.”
We ended up at a small Italian bistro. I took off my jacket, revealing a tee shirt that Alex O. had contributed to the cause: Kiss Me! I’m Armenian.
“Oh!” she said, and gestured at my shirt. “Your prime minister just died. I’m sorry.”
“He did?” I said, and looked down at the shirt, baffled. I didn’t remember what I was wearing.
“Yeah,” she said. “He was just fifty-five. Heart attack, they assume. He had heart surgery in the late nineties.”
“Huh,” I said. “I was online right before I came over here and I didn’t see anything about it. I probably would’ve changed tee shirts.”
“Were you a fan?” she asked.
“Don’t even know the man’s name,” I said. “But the guy who loaned me this shirt—he’s probably a fan.”
We talked easily over lunch. It didn’t seem like a date. She wasn’t flirting with me, or at least, I didn’t think she was; my sister says my instincts are not reliable. We talked about the spacemen, but I didn’t feel that she was leading me in that direction. She did ask if I’d show her where the ship was parked, but I said that I was sworn to secrecy.
“Besides,” I said. “It’s invisible. Nothing to see.” I didn’t mention the pigeons.
She eyed me skeptically. “It’s not parked on the mall, is it? That would be pretty trippy, if it was there all the time and nobody could see it. Say, how come Larry still looks exactly the same as he looked in those photos from the early fifties? And how come Elvis doesn’t?”
As I’d anticipated, the press had unearthed two photos of Larry from the New Mexico days, including the team photo of the Lobos at the Little League field.
“With Larry, it has to do with relativity and the whole space-time business,” I said, “but don’t ask me what. With Elvis, all I know is that he redesigned himself. Don’t ask me how.”
She was a little vague about her writing, until I pressed her. Then she described two articles she’d sold. One was about new trends in scrapbooking, and it had sold to a craft magazine. The other was about a Maryland artist who made giant papier maché animals as yard decorations. That one had gone to the AAA magazine.
“So you specialize in what? Popular arts? Kitsch?”
She smiled. “You could say that.”
“Then you’ll be gratified to know that the interplanetary alliance that Larry and Elvis represent wants to import refrigerator magnets from Earth.”
Her eyes widened. “No, seriously? You’re making that up.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I wish I were. I hate to think that some time, somewhere, on the planet Zepko, a robot will be walking around covered in yellow smiley face refrigerator magnets that say ‘Have a Nice Day.’”
“Gee, maybe they’ll want bobbleheads, too,” she said.
After lunch, she walked me back to the hotel, kissed me on the cheek, and told me to call her.