Part 2 of a serialized novelette
Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
I slapped a couple of bills down on the bar, picked up a basket of pretzels and followed him down the gauntlet of zombie slot players, out through the front doors. White jumpsuit painted by the constant neon flashes of the Vegas night, he sat heavily beside one of the marble-ringed fountains. I set the basket of pretzels down on the stone an arm’s reach from him, sat down on the other side of it. I wasn’t sure why I had followed him. He looked like he needed to talk. I needed to talk, maybe.
“If it doesn’t matter if you talk about it, why not talk about it?” I said. He let a single reluctant chuckle out and ate one of the bite-sized pretzels.
“I came here to see the King,” he finally said, “but the King, peace on his name, is dead.”
“You didn’t know Elvis was dead? Where are you from?” His accent was odd, hard to place. Maybe there was some little Podunk country somewhere that had never gotten the news. His words sounded a little bit deep South, a little bit—I wasn’t sure, maybe India. It was strange.
“I was born right here. Vegas. Where the King was born.”
I wasn’t all that sure where Elvis had been born, but I figured it was probably closer to Graceland than Las Vegas.
“Tell you what. I’m done gambling and you don’t look like you’re going anywhere. Why don’t I buy us a couple of burgers and you can tell me about it.”
We found a little diner a couple of blocks away. Like half the places in Vegas, it was trying way too hard to be somewhere and somewhen else. Vinyl records plastered the walls, and we chose a table as far away from the Motown-spewing jukebox as we could. He ordered chunky peanut butter on his cheeseburger. The waitress, blank eyes staring through deep crow’s feet that said she’d seen it all, didn’t show any reaction except making an extra scribble on her order pad. I just shook my head. To each their own.
“I was born right where that casino is,” he said once the coffee was poured. He sipped it, looked startled, and put it down fast. He bowed his head, touched the big black coif that jutted out over his forehead like a sunshade, then picked the coffee up and sipped again. The wife and I had fallen out of the habit of saying grace when the kids left. But if he was serious about it, what the hell. I put my coffee down too, mumbled a word of thanks under my breath and looked back up at him.
“I was born here in the Year of the King 2238,” he said, “right on Kingsmas. With a birthday like that I knew I was born for the priesthood, even before I was old enough to understand what that meant.”
“The Lord’s own birthday. My folks couldn’t really afford to send me to a church school, but I bullied them into it. My dad got a second job, my mam started taking in kids as a wetnurse.”
“A what? Wetnurse? I didn’t even know we had wetnurses. That kind of thing is just in third world countries, not in America.” When I said ‘America’, he blinked and gave me a funny look. Then he bowed his head and touched his coif three times fast.
“King Elvis the Lord reigns forever in Merica,” he said, the words sounding like they were in quotation marks, words he had recited so many times that the meaning had worn off of them. “When I was a kid in the church school, I wondered if I could go to Merica one day. When I was ordained, I knew my place was assured. Now I’m not so sure. Now… now I wonder if there even is a Merica. And I know it’s a sin,” he said, his voice dropping to a rough whisper, a hoarseness that comes with shame, passion, or both. “I know it’s a sin, but I doubt. Maybe I’m not going there at all.”
“If you’re not going to Merica,” I said, dropping the ‘A’ like he did, “where are you going?” I asked, curious. He looked up at me like you’d look at a kid who just said something funny, but not that funny.
“Hell,” he said, letting the word drop with a nod that jiggled his huge black hair.