The tall guy reached us as the Englishman turned around. The Englishman didn’t seem all that happy to see his buddy, which dimmed the wattage on the tall guy’s smile. Now that he was close, he didn’t look all that much like Elvis Presley. Or rather, he looked more like an Elvis impersonator than like the King himself. His crooked smile pushed his cheeks up under his eyes and gave him kind of a goofy look.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” he said to the Englishman, a little reproachfully, I thought. “I came to find you.”
“That’s my fault,” I said. “He was letting me bend his ear. Tell you the truth, we’re both a little bit soused.”
The tall one’s smile wavered, and he glanced at the Englishman’s ear.
“My traveling companion,” the Englishman said with a gesture in the tall man’s direction.
“Elvis,” the tall man supplied and shook my hand. He had to bend over, like a gorilla greeting a flea. “I’m real pleased to meet you.”
He had an odd accent, too. His words were stretched out in a drawl and then snipped off at the ends, like sausage links. I began to wonder if these guys were from some former British colony—New Zealand, maybe, or Newfoundland or the Falklands—someplace with its own quirky dialect and accent.
“Henry,” I said. “Go by Hank.” I offered my hand to the other stranger as well, and he took it, though he almost missed the opportunity because he was glaring at Elvis.
“My name’s Smith,” he said. “Lawrence.”
“Mr. Henry,” Elvis repeated.
I shook my head. “Just Henry. Hank.”
“Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” Elvis said. “‘By the shores of Gitchee Gumee—,’” he recited. “And Henry Ford! And the bald boy in the funny papers—the funniest living American.”
“Plenty of Henrys,” I agreed. “Plenty of Lawrences. But not many Elvises.”
“I know,” he agreed happily. He slid onto the barstool next to me, tucking his long legs under the bar by bending his knees. “What are we drinking, cats?”
I ordered him a draft.
“Did you tell Lawrence how to find D.C.?” he asked.
“’S all right here,” I said, and tapped my fingertip on the bar. But the lines weren’t as straight as they had been, and Lawrence’s elbow was white. “Hey!” I pointed at his elbow. “You’ve wiped out Breezewood. You can’t get there without going through Breezewood! You can’t get anywhere without going through Breezewood.”
Lawrence squinted at the bar. “And where, I might ask, did Indianapolis go?”
He had a hard time with “Indianapolis,” but that was understandable under the circumstances. There were a few syllables left over when he finally got it out.
“Aww, Indianapolis isn’t worth bothering about,” I said. “Best thing is to go around it.” I saw his syllables and raised him two. I leaned down and blew away the remains of Indianapolis, then traced the quarter-circle of I 465 in pepper.
Elvis took a sip of beer. “Very delicious,” he said. “It appears to contain a great deal of air.” He looked down the bar. “Do they have Cracker Jacks?” he asked hopefully.
There was a commotion all around us. Lawrence, who, from his expression after two beers, showed all the signs of sliding into depression as well, didn’t even look up. Elvis did, and noticed the television screen suspended above the bar to our left.
“Basketball!” he said. “I love this game. Bill Spivey is swell.” He produced the last word like a parlor trick.
A short, stubble-studded dark-haired man sitting at the bar on our right made a noise. “Bill Spivey was arrested for point-shaving,” he said to the fly-specked mirror behind the bar. “Him and his pals cost the Wildcats their next season.”
“No!” Elvis turned to look at him. “When did this happen?”
The man regarded him with amusement. “Couple years before you tried on your first blue-suede shoes, Sonny,” he said. “Nineteen fifty-one.”
“I find this difficult to believe!” Elvis declared. “What is this ‘point-shaving’?” he asked me.
Down the bar to our left, a youngish guy wearing a bowling shirt and a blond ponytail said, “Spivey was framed, man. He wasn’t even convicted. Fuckin’ shame he never made it to the N.B.A.”
I started to explain, but I couldn’t be heard now above the din of Hoosiermania.
“Who’s playing in this game?” Elvis shouted in my ear.
“Hoosiers and Bruins,” I said. Then, recalling how clueless his sidekick was, I added, “Indiana and U.C.L.A.”
But he surprised me. “John Wooden’s team,” he said, nodding. “He is a swell coach.”
Indiana’s Stemler hit a three-pointer and the room was on its feet.
“Your friend doesn’t seem much interested in basketball,” I said to Elvis.
He leaned down again to shout in my ear. “He’s missing his family. He hasn’t seen them in millennia. He’s always like this when he drinks alcohol. He forgets to remember to forget.” He turned his attention back to the television. “But why did that team get three points for that basket?”
I explained about the three-point line, rather pleased to be asked a question I could answer. Inspired by the stranger’s interest, I was finally beginning to catch some of the enthusiasm around me. Indiana was trailing, but the game was close, with less than two minutes to the final buzzer.
U.C.L.A.’s Afflalo hit two free throws. Amid the groans and the curses, one voice with a Southern drawl was heard to say, “Oh, he made both of them! That was swell!”
A few heads near us turned, but with thirty-eight seconds to go now, most eyes were glued to the television. In front of the Indiana bench, Stemler was struggling to get the ball in-bounds, when U.C.L.A.’s Collison got a hand on it and stole it, drawing a desperation foul from Calloway.
“Oh, look!” Elvis had risen from his bar stool in excitement. His height seemed to give added volume to his voice. “A steal! Wow!” In the silence that dropped like a guillotine, he was the only one clapping.
I took one look at the faces turned in our direction, and got a grip on the big man’s elbow. “Come on,” I said. “Time to go.”
“But the game isn’t over, Hank,” he protested.
“It is over,” I said. “Trust me.”
With my free hand, I set Lawrence’s hat on his head and took hold of his sleeve. “Time to go, Larry,” I said.
I nearly lost my balance as Lawrence slid off his stool and crashed into me. I got an arm around his waist and hoisted him, still tugging on Elvis. The silence had yielded to a menacing rumble, and I was counting off the seconds in my head like an in-bounder on the sideline. Elvis’s size would discourage any sober man, but this mob wasn’t sober. They were disappointed and angry, and they were looking for someone to take it out on. The blond ponytail on our left had picked up his beer and edged away from us.
A burly six-footer in a green work shirt with “Duffy” stitched over his heart looked the type to throw the first punch. “Whatta you?” he bawled. “A fuckin’ Bruin? You look like you could be a fuckin’ Bruin.”
“Don’t have a cow, man,” the big guy protested. He made a placating motion with his hands, except that his palms were turned toward him.
Lawrence was more or less on his feet now, and appeared to have taken in the situation. He spoke sharply—something that sounded like “Yarp!” Then he said something else I didn’t catch.
To me, Elvis said, “Hank, I am only exercising my First Amendment right to free speech, isn’t that right?”
“Not the best time to be doing that, big guy.”
There was another exchange between Lawrence and Elvis as I dragged Lawrence toward the door. Elvis, a giant redwood to my sapling, wasn’t draggable. The language they used wasn’t a language I spoke or recognized. Turkish? Icelandic? Duffy moved in and gave Elvis a belligerent shove. It was a challenge to get in the big man’s face, but Duffy was trying, dancing on his toes.
“You a fuckin’ Bruin and a fuckin’ foreigner?” he growled. “Or is that the way they talk out there in Los Angeleez?” His buddies were closing in behind him.
Elvis turned in apparent bewilderment. “Hank, why is he so frosted?”
Lawrence spoke again and I said, “Come on, before you start a riot.”
Elvis turned then and headed for the door. That was when Duffy lowered his shoulder and charged. It must have been like trying to tackle a bridge pylon. Duffy slammed into Elvis and crumpled, which did nothing to endear Elvis to the home crowd.
I hit the parking lot running. Lawrence, to my relief, was keeping pace with me. Elvis brought up the rear, still protesting in that peculiar language. A cream-and-crimson mob of drunken Hoosier boosters was close on our heels. Luckily, we’d gained some time when they’d all stumbled over Duffy in their rush for the door.
I was headed for my vintage Escort, but Lawrence said, “This way.” His tone of command reached my feet first, and they veered off to follow him as he cleared the gravel and plunged into a thicket. I was gasping for air, but neither of my companions seemed the least bit winded. Elvis quickly outpaced us with his long strides. Behind us, the boosters were baying for blood.
We were in the woods now, feet pounding on ground softened by leaf mold and spring rain. Twigs crackled underfoot, branches snapped as we plowed through them. A startled owl added to the ruckus. Blinded by the dark, I couldn’t see anything when I felt Lawrence’s hand on my arm. “In here,” he said.
I heard a rustle, and then a faint whirring sound. A powerful paw lifted me into the air and set me down. Underneath me, the ground sloped up. At the top of the rise Lawrence plunged through a lit doorway, and I followed. When I turned around, Elvis was gazing back into the darkness from which we’d emerged, a glint in his eyes which must have been a reflection off the interior lighting. He stood with his feet apart, grasped his lapels and flexed his shoulders.
“Yarp,” Lawrence said, in that commanding voice of his. Then he said something that sounded like, “Deglet orosco.”
Elvis turned back to us with a grin, and blinked at me in such a meaningful way that it could have been meant as a wink. The glint was gone. He put a hand on my shoulder and guided me down a hallway.
I thought that my panic must have been causing me to hallucinate, because we seemed to be inside a submarine of some kind. What I saw was seamless metallic walls curving into a ceiling—kind of like a stretched Airstream camper. It was lit by a glow from a source I couldn’t spot. I followed Lawrence until we came to a large semicircular room that appeared to be a control room of some kind—all gleaming metal and instruments and screens. Not a submarine, then, but some kind of experimental military aircraft. Maybe Lawrence and Elvis were engineers, because they didn’t seem like military types. I could still hear a hum, and feel a faint vibration through the soles of my sneakers. The air in the room faintly held Lawrence’s own bouquet of pipe tobacco and aftershave, and, fainter still, a fruity scent I couldn’t place.
“Welcome to our pad, Hank,” said Elvis.
“Sit here,” Lawrence instructed, and I did.
Before I could figure out how to fasten my buckle-less seatbelt, though, I heard a whoosh and we were airborne. Elvis was bracing himself with one hand on the back of my seat, but he swayed ominously as we rose. If he falls on me, I remember thinking, he’ll flatten me. But he held his balance, still grinning at me. On one screen in front of me, I saw a receding image of angry Hoosiers crashing around in the underbrush; they were curiously outlined in red light, as if through night-vision lenses.
“This heap can really burn rubber,” Elvis said.
The odd thing about our ascent, apart from its suddenness, was its verticality. This realization confirmed my suspicions that I was in some kind of experimental craft, since I’d read about an air force jet that could rise vertically and even hover above the ground and fly backwards. But I couldn’t believe how big the cockpit was. It had to accommodate Elvis, of course, but this place could have accommodated a regional gathering of Elvis impersonators.
“Can we drop you off somewhere, Hank?” Lawrence asked politely.
To my relief, he didn’t appear drunk, but I was pretty sure he was above the legal limit for piloting an aircraft. I hoped this thing had an autopilot.
“Why don’t you come to Washington, D.C., with us?” Elvis said. He had removed a comb from his pocket and was combing his hair. He gave me his lopsided smile. “It will be fun. Like Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.”
“I’m still on Spring Break,” I admitted. I thought of my apartment, conspicuously empty now that all Anita’s stuff was gone, forlorn. I thought of the freshman research papers piled on my desk, full of feigned and grammatically suspect outrage over such transgressions as steroid use and music piracy. I thought of the barricade of dissertation books between me and my bed, and my laptop open accusingly on the kitchen table.
“To Breezewood, then?” Lawrence said, passing his hand over the panel in front of him.
“To Breezewood,” I said.
I was feeling lightheaded and overheated. I’d left a jacket in the bar, I now realized. “I don’t suppose they serve alcoholic beverages and peanuts on this flight?” I said.
“We can pick some up on the way,” said Elvis.