Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
“Jesus Christ,” I said, “are you trying to tell me you think America is Heaven?”
“Archangel Jesus Christ may he look over us and keep us safe in the name of King Elvis the Lord all our days Amen,” he snapped, the words coming so fast he sounded like an auctioneer. A pissed-off auctioneer, at that. Alarmed at the intensity in his words and eyes, I wondered if I’d made a mistake talking to this possibly—probably—crazy man. But his outburst was short-lived; he deflated and slumped back in this chair.
“Look, uh,” I said, “are you in a cult or something?” I regretted the words the instant they came out of my mouth. If he really was crazy, that was probably the exact wrong thing to say.
He gave me a frown. A small, lost Mona Lisa of a frown. “That’s probably how it started, from what I’ve seen here. One of the first things I learned after I arrived was that Elvis was dead. The King, dead. According to scripture, he lived through all of the Epidemic Ages, up to the refounding of the great Church in Vegas. Nine hundred and thirty-three years he lived, so says The Book. The epidemics won’t start for twenty years still, if those dates are right, and he’s already gone. Been gone and dead for decades. And dead of overdoing drugs and food, like a flawed human being, not the spirit of the Lord living in the flesh. And if that’s true—and I’ve heard it from more than one person here—then maybe The Book is just a story and my life has been lived in service of a lie. Dammit.” He looked down into his coffee and I gave my Denver omelet a try. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. He took a bite out of his peanut butter cheeseburger, and then another. I watched him eat and thought about what he had said.
“Epidemics. Twenty years from now,” I finally said.
“You’re from the future.”
“And you worship Elvis.”
“Thankyouverymuch,” he said. Just like I’d say amen in church. I wanted to believe him. He didn’t look crazy—at least, he didn’t look any crazier than any other person eating a peanut butter cheeseburger while dressed in a white sequined jumpsuit in the middle of the night. The look in his eyes said ‘shellshocked’ more than it said ‘crazy’. We finished our food, ordered pie and got a top-off on our coffee. He did that saying grace thing over it again.
“No offense, but are you saying grace for the coffee?”
“Coffee is sacred to the King. It’s part of the Eucharist. We don’t use it as an everyday drink. It’s strange having it like this, with a meal, like it’s just something wet to wash food down with.” He took a sip, shook his head and gave a little snort of a chuckle under his breath.
“What do you usually drink it with?”
“Nothing. It’s only for services.”
“That’s a shame,” I said, and I meant it. I had never thought of coffee as a holy beverage before, but I certainly did have a kind of reverence for it, upon reflection. A lot of people did.
We sat drinking coffee for a while, looking out the window. Even in the middle of the night, the road didn’t stay empty for too long between cars. We watched them go by in ones and twos; the people in them came in ones and twos also. No families out and about so late. The men were gray and drawn; the women mostly painted and showing plenty of skin.
“You know,” he said after we had watched for a while, “at first I thought they were priestesses or nuns.”
“Who?” I asked, puzzled.
“The prostitutes. You know, we’ve been watching them go by?”
“How would they be nuns, dressed like that, out in the middle of the night in cars with men?”
“Well, they’re not dressed quite right, sure. But still.”
“How would you expect a prostitute to be dressed?”
“Heh. Most of ‘em wear the white jumpsuit, just like a priest or a monk. Sequins for ordained, no sequins for lay.”
I laughed. “No pun intended?”
“What?” His face was blank.
“You said, ‘lay’. That can mean what you said, someone with a church who isn’t official. But it also means sex. You know, you get laid.”
“Huh,” he said, “I guess we don’t use ‘lay’ that way in my day. You rock, you get rocked.”
“I guess that makes sense,” I said, “that fits right in with Elvis. So no celibate priests. Or nuns, I guess, if ‘hooker’ means the same thing to you.” I wondered again if I should be having this conversation at all. A casual conversation over coffee, with a probably-madman cult member talking about the theology of a dead rock star and the religion of two thousand years from now. But with two cups of coffee under my belt and the waitress pouring me a third my desire to sleep was gone. This guy and his tall tale were just the ticket, the unreal cherry on top of the big fat sundae of unreality that was Vegas in the wee hours.
“Oh,” he said, answering my question, “they’re not the same thing. A prostitute who wears the suit and sequins, she’s taken holy orders and her fee is a tithe to the King. If she’s a nun, well, she’s expected to marry when she comes pregnant and it’s an honor for any man to raise the King’s children. If she’s a priestess, odds are that sooner or later she and some lucky priest will get hitched and the kids come up in the church. Some women sell sex on their own, without the blessing of the church. That’s not just immoral, it’s blasphemy. Doesn’t happen much, I don’t think.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, forgetting myself. “How can a whore be a priestess? Sounds like some kind of pagan nonsense,” I said.
“The King told us to be fruitful and multiply,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “How in the world do you do that without sex? You expect church leaders to show the way. In all things.”
“But hookers?” I knew arguing religion with a stranger was a bad idea, but I couldn’t help myself. That just sounded so wrong, so sinful.
“Not hookers, dammit,” he said, giving the table a rap with the flat of his hand. The spoons jumped on the shiny tabletop, but only a little. “A hooker is keeping it for herself. A prostitute is doing it for the King, and fifty percent goes to the church.”
“So the difference is how much money she makes?”
“She shouldn’t get anything? She’s bringing money into the church, isn’t she? A priest or priestess gets paid for preaching.”
“It just seems so… don’t your churches just turn into… I don’t know, dens of vice?” It sounded like something out of a very old movie, some melodramatic line from a corny goody-two-shoes with an unnaturally square jaw. But I didn’t know how else to say it.
“Not really. There are laws about that kind of thing, and the church has its own rules. There’s nothing wrong with sex as long as you don’t use it to hurt people. It’s about the most natural thing we do aside from eat. If you want to see unnatural, watch what goes on in a bank. Then go watch the animals for a while. See if you see an animal explain compound interest to another animal anywhere in the natural world. You won’t find it, but pretty much anything more complex than an amoeba has sex in one form or another. Get down,” he finished, and he kicked the table over and yanked me down behind it. The glass of the window exploded, crunchy grains showering over us as we ducked our heads.