“Everyone must pay tribute to the King,” I declare to the older lady who hovers nearby. I had given her a rare gift—an unexpected truth—but caution still wars with generosity in her faded blue eyes as she clutches her purse. Once you’re off the strip in Las Vegas, high rolling flips straight to the struggle to survive. From our sidewalk vantage point, I could count four stores that stood vacant, and optimism can take a beating when it’s surrounded by the faded trappings of former prosperity. So I turn to Daisy, my secret weapon.
About all you could say for sure about Daisy was that she was beagle-sized, and with those floppy brown ears, it was likely she had a beagle somewhere in her ancestry. Or some kind of hound anyway.
I break into “Hound Dog” in my best baritone, and Daisy perks right up. As I work my way through the chorus, she gives me one of her melting brown-eyed soulful looks, and when I add in my ending: “but you’re still a friend of mine,” Daisy puts a white paw on top of my guitar case and does her best to croon along with me.
Thank heaven the old gal seems to be a dog lover. Her gray bouffant dips forward, and a five-dollar bill flutters into my guitar case.
“Thanks so much, ma’am,” I say without missing a beat on my battered acoustic guitar. If only Dad could have lived to see this. He always grumbled that guitar lessons were money down the drain, but today they were the only thing keeping the lights on.
I’d dressed in the full lounge lizard costume, despite the heat—white polyester jumpsuit studded with brass and sequins, cape and all—but the pickings had been slim. Ordinarily I’d scoop the fiver out, but right now, it was seed money.
“Why don’t you get a real job?” sneers an acne-scarred, skinny twenty-something, and I frown. Depressing that she considers herself farther up the social ladder than me.
Still, you can’t lose the crowd, such as it is—a half-dozen people, perhaps, and most of those merely passing by. “I bet I’ve got an Elvis impression even you will like,” I say to the heckler. I cross my arms over my chest and close my eyes, giving her my best imitation of a corpse.
A gray-suited man hoots a laugh, and a handful of change ends up in my case.
“Be respectful of the dead,” admonishes the older woman before she moves on, and I try to look chastened. But honestly, the King seems mostly interested in cash.
“What’s your real name?” demands the gal, who has for some reason decided to make herself my personal nemesis. “Probably something like Harold.”
“It’s really Elvis,” I assure her. My grandfather’s idea, since he and Grandma were fans. But it could have been worse. Dad named my older brother Elrond.
“Sure it’s Elvis,” she says, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Bet your granny loved him. Next you’ll tell me she sang you Elvis songs in your cradle.”
Actually, that bit was true, although I wouldn’t share that now. My small audience had evaporated, and I was picking up a bad vibe from the Sid Vicious look-alike further up the street. It’s not as though anyone will rush to my defense. Supposedly, some form of protection comes with this racket, but I figure it’s better not to push my luck.
I gather up the twelve dollars and change, toss my guitar in its case, and snap a leash onto Daisy’s collar. The leather-clad wanna-be-punk saunters over as I cross the street, making it clear he’s running me off.
I swear, these days you can’t avoid office politics even if you busk. He was welcome to the corner—it was mediocre at best. I could probably stand up to him if I had to, but it was always smarter to avoid trouble.
Unfortunately, the gal decides to be persistent and follow me. “Hey, I didn’t mean for that to happen,” she says, as if that matters.
I grunt in reply. I would ignore her, but she might work up some remorse and decide to make amends with cash. Not likely, but I can’t afford much in the way of pride today.
“I’ll buy you a cup of coffee if you’ll answer a question,” she says, as if she knows this.
I, no dummy, ask, “Where?”
She points down the street to a coffee kiosk, done up all cutesy Bavarian—scalloped eaves with half-timbers and plaster. I wait till I have my cup in hand before I answer her question, which was why didn’t I get a real job? But she’d asked it nicely this time, like she was actually interested.
“I tried,” I tell her between slurps. “Got a CPA degree and everything. And you’d think with accounting, that being right would be enough. I had no problem with the numbers. But I always ran afoul of office politics.” It still amazed me, the time some people would dedicate to making sure nothing ever really got done. And yet they always managed to stay employed. If I ever ran a company, they’d be the first people I’d fire, not that anyone’s ever asked.
Daisy wags her white-tipped tail, and the gal bends over to pet her. A mark in her favor; Daisy doesn’t take to everyone. The gal brushes back her straight black hair as she stands up again. Now that I get a closer look, she seems part-Asian, although her skin’s pale.
“I studied accounting in school,” she says, “but I didn’t finish.”
Great—what am I supposed to say to that? Am I supposed to apologize that I graduated? I’m busking in the street for pity’s sake.
“Maybe it’s just as well,” she adds. “I mean, it’s not as though you’re doing anything with your degree.”
So, now she’s officially out of sympathy, and she only had a cup of coffee’s worth to start with. “I have to get going,” I say pointedly. “I still need to pay the bills.” Then she offers me a five, which helps, but it’s still a long slog that afternoon, trying to charm, wheedle, embarrass, surprise, entertain—anything that’ll result in money getting tossed in my guitar case.
I stop at a park bench on the way home and count out ninety-five dollars and seventeen cents, laying it out carefully on top of my case. I sigh when over twenty dollars just evaporates. It fades from existence like the morning mist, almost wistfully, as if it would like to stay. What does Elvis need my money for anyway? I thought you couldn’t take it with you. I can’t imagine how he manages to spend it. I mean, you can see right through the guy.
I look at the remaining cash and shake my head. “Macaroni again tonight, Daisy.” She gives me a disappointed look, and I scratch her on top of her head, between her ears. “Who knows? Tomorrow may be better.” She sneezes and then shakes her head so hard her ears flap. Great. Now I can’t even convince my dog. I definitely need to up my game.
So the next morning, I dress as young Elvis. Before he got drafted, back when girls called him Elvis the Pelvis. The 50s Elvis was a rockabilly—black pants, white shirt with wide collar, baggy bomber jacket. The problem is, even when I mimic his trademark hairstyle, I don’t get the instant recognition from that get-up that I do with the jumpsuit. But the lift in attitude is worth it.
The way my grandma described him, back in the early days Elvis used to be the ultimate in cool. Both Daisy and I walk differently today—bolder, with greater confidence. As if the future could not possibly hold jumpsuits and too much booze. I’ve still got to pay the power bill before I buy another bottle.
Not that it would do any good trying to explain things like bills to the King. First of all, the guy was huge, over twelve feet tall, and the first time he appeared, my mind was overwhelmed with, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this—Elvis is alive! Kind of. And he’s actually talking to me.” Meanwhile, he rattled on about the rules—that he collected a quarter of all “proceeds,” since I was using his name and music. That reached through my interior monologue and grabbed my attention. I’d objected with my monthly struggle to pay rent on my basement apartment.
He’d responded with an airy wave of an oversized hand. Despite being huge, he was also translucent, as if he were made of glass and light was shining through him. “Trust the music,” he said and winked out of existence.
Easy for him to say. He was running some sort of celestial record label deal, minus the trouble of having to hire lawyers to collect. I was used to it by now, but I’d cursed like the construction worker I occasionally was when the money evaporated at first.
I’d just cussed up a blue streak when Elvis appeared a second time. “In case you get any ideas,” he said, “I figured I’d let you know. If you try to hide any of the proceeds, I’ll find out. And then I get half for a month.” Then he disappeared again.
I came close to busting my toe when I kicked my futon frame, and then I sat and rocked my poor foot and cursed some more. But I didn’t try to keep any of the money back. I couldn’t afford it. Just my luck. I find out Elvis is real by getting involved in his protection racket. Supposedly, the King himself shows up if I’m threatened while on a gig. Despite the fact that I already live with a bunch of stuff I once thought was impossible, I find this hard to believe.
I grab my guitar case, and Daisy and I walk about a mile and a half, several blocks further than yesterday. The crowd tends to be younger here, with commuters shuttling between a train station and several large covered bus stops. Young Elvis would play better with this group.
So I jump into the opening lyrics of “Heartbreak Hotel,” and I even add in a hip wiggle, purely for historical authenticity of course. As I ease into the song, a little of the old rush comes back to me. No matter what Elvis did later, his early stuff still had some riffs that could keep me happier than an early robin plucking morning worms. The happy clinks of quarters falling into my case ensures I’ll be able to afford my morning coffee and donut later.
I’m just finishing up “Hound Dog” with Daisy when the same gal from yesterday pokes her nose into my business again, although I forgive her when she sets down a bag with sesame seed bagels. And a couple of coffees.
“Look, a truce, okay?” she says, and carried along by a sip of caffeine, I nod. Daisy wolfs down her bagel like she never saw any part of last night’s mac ‘n’ cheese. So we’re both in a pretty mellow mood, but that ends when she pulls out a tambourine.
“What?” she says in response to my dark look, giving it a few taps. “I do know something about drumming. I just can’t sing beyond backup. By the way, I like the new look. And I’m Meera.”
She seems perkier today, her facial scarring less noticeable in the wake of her smile. She’s dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, so she could fit into most decades from the 50s on, and I hate to rain on her parade, but I do have some standards left.
“No tambourine,” I say. “It’s just a slow slide from there to Joan Baez and Mary Travers.”
Meera snorts. “I told you I don’t do lead vocals, not even ‘Puff the Magic Dragon.’ And I don’t think a drum kit will work out real well on a street corner.” She looks around and nods. “Considerate of you to plant yourself right by the station. I didn’t know how far I’d have to look to find you.”
Since she’s gone to all this trouble, I unbend enough to play “American Pie,” with her, and I have to admit, she’s cute. Her dark hair’s drawn back into a ponytail today, and she’s got all the right dance moves to go with that tambourine. The pattering of change falling into my case increases over the course of the song.
“See?” she says with a big grin when we’re done. “Tambourines aren’t all bad.”
I begin with the opening riffs of “Tambourine Man,” and she giggles and joins in. Well. I don’t know what I was expecting this morning when I got up, but it definitely wasn’t this.
“So, what brought all this on?” I ask. “You were like my worst nightmare yesterday.”
She sighs. “Sorry about that. I just hated Elvis the lounge lizard so much. The movies were bad enough, but jumpsuits…ugh! Anyway, today was my way of trying to apologize.” Her gaze runs over my outfit, and she says, “I was going to try to talk you into something like this. Or 1968 Elvis.”
I grin. “I don’t own that much black leather.”
“Better than a cape,” she shoots back. Then she looks down the street. “What’s up with Marvin?”
I raise my head and see the Sid Vicious wanna-be coming our way. I might have stood my ground yesterday if I’d known he was named Marvin.
“Hey, wait,” he says, as he comes trotting up. “I just want to talk.” I put my guitar away and snap a leash on Daisy just in case, but he looks shaken.
“Well,” he says, running a hand through his spiked hair. “Five guys explained that they own that corner now, and it costs twenty a day to rent it.”
“On top of what you pay Sid Vicious?” I say incredulously. “There’ll be nothing left.”
“How do you know about that?” he demands, and then he answers his own question. “Elvis…of course. I wonder, do they all have the same racket going? Never mind—that doesn’t matter. I just wanted to know, what do you do? There were five of them, and they looked pretty tough. Like they might be with a gang.”
“Well, we can stand our ground or find a different spot,” I say. “That’s kind of what I’d expected from you yesterday, as a matter of fact. I haven’t had any problems around here before—these guys must be just moving in. I imagine the consequences for messing with Sid are pretty severe.” In life, the punk rocker hadn’t exactly been known for his restraint.
“Consequences?” he says blankly.
Great. What if Elvis was putting me on about that? I try not to rely on his protection, but it’s been nice knowing it’s there. Except that maybe now it’s not.
“Okay, never mind,” I say. “Let’s just go find another spot. Except we’ll have to find different corners. I don’t do punk.”
“I’m getting a little tired of punk anyway,” he admits. “I told Meera we could try some sixties stuff, maybe Bob Dylan or the Byrds.”
I nod. “I’d like to see the two of you play. I might be willing to pay good money to see Sid Vicious do “Eight Miles High.”
“And here I was thinking I hadn’t dressed right.” Then Marvin’s jaw clenches. “Heads up, you two. They’re coming.”
He looks down the street, and the thugs aren’t hard to see. The six of them are all swagger and menace, wearing jeans, white t-shirts, and many tattoos. The old Asian man running the liquor store behind us rushes out and locks up. That’s enough of a risk assessment for me.
“I know a place we could try,” says Meera. “A club not too far from here.”
“How far?” I ask, and she winces.
“About two miles.”
We all push ourselves into a run, but Daisy’s the only one who isn’t breathing hard within the first block. Note to self: do not allow yourself to get this out of shape again. Now all I had to do was live long enough to keep my new resolution.
Passers by either try to get away from us, like they think we’re getting arrested, or they seem not to notice us at all. For all the times that “See no evil,” has failed, you’d think people would learn to try something else, but no. Meera tries to call the cops, but she loses her temper when the gal on the other end wants to know where we are.
“Running away from the train station,” she yells. Then she stabs the disconnect so hard, she drops her phone.
“No time for it.” I grip her hand firmly and run. Those six trailing us have now become seven, and the last one has tattoos even on his face. There’s nothing magic about ink, but I figure guys with facial tattoos have to have a bad attitude. People are going to make dumb remarks about it for the rest of their lives. I know it would piss me off.
“Anybody got a weapon?” I ask, panting, and Meera and Marvin both shake their heads. We’ve only covered four blocks. “So where can we make a stand?” An urgent look yields only a coffeehouse, a payday loan place, a boutique, and a secondhand store. None of it inspires confidence, but I stop and turn anyway.
“Might as well get it over with,” I say as I try to look tough. The truth is, I hate pain as much as the next guy.
They’re onto us in seconds. At least they’re not actually brandishing weapons. Then one guy with a metal-capped tooth pulls out a knife and grins. Of course. I want to protest over the cliché, but then I realize I’ll have much worse things to be upset about very soon.
“So, I guess you guys want some money,” I say with desperate bonhomie.
“That’s not all we want,” the one with the face tattoos says. I try to make out what his lettering reads, but the font is so strange, it might as well be black marks crawling across his face.
“Well, now, if you damage me and my guitar, I won’t have a way to make money on street corners in the future, will I?” Maybe if they have to collect a certain amount every day, they’ll see the logic in this.
“And if we break your guitar over your teeth, we won’t have to listen to you anymore.” They all laugh.
Daisy growls, but it’s all bravado, like with me. She’s no German Shepherd. And this isn’t going to be a one-on-one in the back alley after school. Even if Marvin can fight, there are just too many of them.
I hand Meera Daisy’s leash. “Stay behind me,” I say, not that it will matter, but I might as well use the last few seconds I have to do something worthwhile. And maybe they can get away in the confusion.
I’ve only got one thing left to try. I open my guitar case and grab the drawstring bag of cash. At least Elvis seems to care about this. “Here,” I say, pushing it into the hands of the guy in front. “That’s everything we’ve made today.”
He grins, and my heart sinks. This guy is going to enjoy hurting me.
But then finally, giant Elvis appears, dressed all in black leather and looking stern. “I believe twenty-five percent of that is mine,” he says, and he takes the bag from the unresisting hands of the shocked gang member.
“What the hell?” one guy says, and Elvis turns on him.
“So, what should I do to the idiots who’re trying to take my money?” he roars. “The guy with the guitar works for me.”
“Uh, we’re sorry, Mr. uh…Elvis. We didn’t know he was yours.”
“Yeah, we’ll leave him alone from now on.” They all start backing away.
Then Elvis pounces, faster than a redneck at the range who’s been told the ammo is free. He catches the guy with the metal tooth in his giant hands. The rest flee back the way they came.
Interesting. I can still see through the King’s hands, but they seem to have no trouble gripping the former tough guy, who’s calm has cracked enough that anyone could see what’s written on his face. Sheer unadulterated terror.
“If I see you here, or around any of my people, I won’t be this lenient again.” Elvis glares, and I had no idea he was so good at it. Then again, a giant face does convey displeasure very efficiently. He sets the guy on the ground, and the man wastes no time getting out of there.
All I can think of is how grateful I am to be alive, but Meera pipes up with, “And how much did that appearance cost him, O mighty King?” The sarcasm is just dripping off her. This gal really needs to learn when to restrain her attitude.
“What do you mean by that?” he rumbles, and now his huge displeasure is turned on her.
It doesn’t seem to ruffle her feathers at all. This is beyond courage and into some realm where she can’t possibly be concerned with small considerations like living until tomorrow. “How many years has he been paying you? It adds up,” she says primly. “And what you did today costs you nothing. You probably enjoyed it.”
A gleam of humor escapes the King’s lips. “The absolute fear is amusing, I admit.”
And she smiles. She actually tilts her head up to do it, almost coquettishly. Is she flirting with Elvis?
If so, it seems to be working. He actually smiles in return and says, “And you’re amusing as well. Do you have a point?”
She nods, her ponytail bobbing along. “Can’t you take a smaller cut? I’d like to use your songs in a show I’m trying to put together, but if you insist on taking such a huge percentage, then I’ll just use songs from artists who’re still alive.” Then she frowns. “Besides, what do you need the money for anyway?”
The King sighs. “Would you really like to see?”
I’m relieved when she says yes because as a contributor, I’d definitely like to see where it’s been going all these years.
Elvis waves a hand and a screen appears. On it, a little ponytailed girl is clinging to her mother, who is lying in a hospital bed with an IV taped to her hand. “The mother needs an operation,” the King says. “And I have just put the money for it in her account.”
I can’t stop myself. “Why her? I mean, out of all the people?”
A grimace crosses his face. “Because the little girl asked. Her mom is a fan, and she needs the help. It happens more often than you might think. People believe I can do anything.”
Meera’s face softens. “Well, I’m glad you helped the girl. Do you do that a lot?”
The King nods. “Most of my money first goes to bets because there’s not much else to do but watch humanity live out their lives. And I lose some of my wagers. But all the money I end up with goes to someone like this.”
Meera gazes up at him intently and says, “Thanks. I needed to hear something like that.” An impish grin flits across her face and she adds, “So I’ll be glad to use your songs. At ten percent.”
The King harrumphs. “Impossible. I need at least fifteen.”
My eyebrows go up. I have got to get in on this somehow.
Meera laughs. “Twelve-and-a-half it is, then.” And the King laughs along with her. Amazing. And then he even adds, “For all of you, since I assume that’s where this is going?”
“You’d win that bet,” she says, and Elvis nods in satisfaction.
“Done.” And he winks out. I’ve never gotten used to that part. One moment he’s very much there, and the next…gone.
But I’m not rattled enough to forget a sudden urgent question. “What did the King mean when he said all of us?”
The impish grin returns, and it lights up her face. She should do that more often. “That club we were aiming for, I know the owner. And he said if I could put together a band, he’d give me a slot in the line-up. Marvin actually does play bass, better than Sid. The three of us would be enough, and I was thinking we could do rockabilly, maybe even some originals later.”
I glance over at Marvin and he nods. Then I turn to Meera, and she’s still smiling. And I’m hit with how much sheer courage and wits she’s shown today. I hadn’t had a friend like that in a while.
Well, after all, why not? I’m not likely to get a better offer. So I step forward and take Daisy’s leash back from Meera, but I still hold onto her hand afterward. “Can I take you out to dinner first?” I ask softly, and she nods, but then she looks down and blushes. She’s even cute when she’s embarrassed.
And if we could manage to put together a band that would play our own stuff, but carry on in Elvis’s tradition, well, that might be the most fitting tribute of all.