I wanted to pry out the backing and remove the card from the frame, to take it with me. I would feel safer with it, protected.
This was a variety of irrational thought that could never serve me well. A card dispensed by a machine in a carnival arcade is not the equivalent of a fragment of the true cross.
Another and even less rational thought tormented me. In pursuit of Danny and his father, I might die, and having crossed the sea of death, arriving on the shore of the next world, I would want to have the card to present to whatever Presence met me there.
This, I would say, is the promise I was made. She came here ahead of me, and now you must take me to her.
In truth, although the circumstances in which we had gotten this fortune from the machine had seemed extraordinary and meaningful, no miracle had been involved. The promise was not of divine origin; it was one that she and I had made to each other, with mutual trust in the mercy of God to grant us the grace of eternity together.
If a Presence meets me on the farther shore, I cannot prove a divine contract merely with a card from a fortune-telling machine. If the afterlife I envision is different from the one Heaven has planned for me, I can’t invoke the threat of litigation and demand the name of a good attorney.
Conversely, if this grace should be granted and the promise of the card fulfilled, the Presence who meets me on that distant shore will be Bronwen Llewellyn herself, my Stormy.
The proper place for the card was in the frame. There it would be safe and could continue to inspire me if I returned from this expedition alive.
When I went into the kitchen to call Terri Stambaugh at the Pico Mundo Grille, Elvis was sitting at the table, weeping.
I hate seeing him like this. The King of Rock ’n’ Roll should never cry.
He shouldn’t pick his nose, either, but occasionally he does. I am sure this is a joke. A ghost has no need to pick its nose. Sometimes he pretends to find a nugget and to flick it at me, then grins boyishly.
Lately, he’d been reliably cheerful. But he suffered sudden mood swings.
Dead more than twenty-seven years, with no purpose in this world but unable to move on, as lonely as only the lingering dead can be, he had reason to wallow in melancholy. The cause of his distress, however, appeared to be the salt and pepper shakers on the table.
Terri, as devoted a Presley fan and authority as anyone alive, had given me the two ceramic Elvises, each four inches high, which dated to 1962. The one dressed in white dispensed salt from his guitar; the one in black gave pepper from his pompadour.
Elvis looked at me, pointed at the salt shaker, at the pepper, then at himself.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, though I knew that he would not answer.
He turned his face to the ceiling, as though to Heaven, with an expression of abject misery, sobbing silently.
The salt and pepper shakers had stood on the table since the day after Christmas. He had previously been amused by them.
I doubted that he had been moved to despair by the long-delayed realization that his image had been exploited to sell cheap, cheesy merchandise. Of the hundreds if not thousands of Elvis items that had been marketed over the years, scores were tackier than these ceramic collectibles, and he had not disapproved of licensing them.
Tears streamed down his cheeks, dripped off his jaw line, off his chin, but vanished before they spattered the table.
Unable to comfort or even understand Elvis, eager to get back to the Blue Moon alleyway, I used the kitchen phone to call the Grille, where they were in the breakfast rush.
I apologized for my bad timing, and Terri said at once, “Have you heard about the Jessups?”
“Been there,” I said.
“You’re in it, then?”
“To the neck. Listen, I’ve got to see you.”
“Not in the Grille. All the old gang will want to chat. I’d like to see them, but I’m in a hurry.”
“Upstairs,” she said.
“I’m on my way.”
When I hung up the phone, Elvis gestured to get my attention. He pointed at the salt shaker, pointed at the pepper shaker, formed a V with the forefinger and middle finger of his right hand, and blinked at me tearfully, expectantly.
This appeared to be an unprecedented attempt at communication.
“Victory?” I asked, reading the usual meaning in that hand sign.
He shook his head and thrust the V at me, as though urging me to reconsider my translation.
“Two?” I said.
He nodded vigorously. He pointed at the salt shaker, then at the pepper shaker. He held up two fingers.
“Two Elvises,” I said.
This statement reduced him to a mess of shuddering emotion. He huddled, head bowed, face in his hands, shaking.
I rested my right hand on his shoulder. He felt as solid to me as every spirit does.
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what’s upsetting you, or what I should do.”
He had nothing more to convey to me either by expression or by gesture. He had retreated into his grief, and for the time being he was as lost to me as he was lost to the rest of the living world.
Although I regretted leaving him in that bleak condition, my obligation to the living is greater than to the dead.
TERRI STAMBAUGH OPERATED THE PICO Mundo Grille with her husband, Kelsey, until he died of cancer. Now she runs the place herself. For almost ten years, she has lived alone above the restaurant, in an apartment approached by stairs from the alleyway.
Since she lost Kelsey, when she was only thirty-two, the man in her life has been Elvis. Not his ghost, but the history and the myth of him.
She has every song the King ever recorded, and she has acquired encyclopedic knowledge of his life. Terri’s interest in all things Presley preceded my revelation to her that his spirit inexplicably haunts our obscure town.
Perhaps as a defense against giving herself to another living man after Kelsey, to whom she has pledged her heart far beyond the requirement of their wedding vows, Terri loves Elvis. She loves not just his music and his fame, not merely the idea of him; she loves Elvis the man.
Although his virtues were many, they were outnumbered by his faults, frailties, and shortcomings. She knows that he was self-centered, especially after the early death of his beloved mother, that he found it difficult to trust anyone, that in some ways he remained an adolescent all his life. She knows how, in his later years, he escaped into addictions that spawned in him a meanness and a paranoia that were against his nature.
She is aware of all this and loves him nonetheless. She loves him for his struggle to achieve, for the passion that he brought to his music, for his devotion to his mother.
She loves him for his uncommon generosity even if there were times when he dangled it like a lure or wielded it like a club. She loves him for his faith, although he so often failed to follow its instructions.
She loves him because in his later years he remained humble enough to recognize how little of his promise he had fulfilled, because he knew regret and remorse. He never found the courage for true contrition, though he yearned to achieve it and the rebirth that would have followed it.
Loving is as essential to Terri Stambaugh as constant swimming is essential to the shark. This is an infelicitous analogy, but an accurate one. If a shark stops moving, it drowns; for survival, it requires uninterrupted movement. Terri must love or die.
Her friends know she would sacrifice herself for them, so deeply does she commit. She loves not just a burnished memory of her husband but loves who he truly was, the rough edges and the smooth. Likewise, she loves the potentiality and the reality of each friend.
I climbed the stairs, pressed the bell, and when she opened the door, she said at once, as she drew me across the threshold, “What can I do, Oddie, what do you need, what are you getting yourself into this time?”
When I was sixteen and desperate to escape fr
om the psychotic kingdom that was my mother’s home, Terri gave me a job, a chance, a life. She is still giving. She is my boss, my friend, the sister I never had.
After we embraced, we sat cater-corner at the kitchen table, holding hands on the red-and-white-checkered oilcloth. Her hands are strong and worn by work, and beautiful.
Elvis’s “Good Luck Charm” was on her music system. Her speakers are never sullied by the songs of other singers.
When I told her where I believed Danny had been taken and that intuition insisted I go after him alone, her hand tightened on mine. “Why would Simon take him down there?”
“Maybe he saw the roadblock and turned around. Maybe he had a police-band radio and heard about it that way. The flood tunnels are another route out of town, under the roadblocks.”
“But on foot.”
“Wherever he surfaces with Danny, he can steal a car.”
“Then he’s already done that, hasn’t he? If he took Danny down there hours ago, at least four hours ago, he’s long gone.”
“Maybe. But I don’t think so.”
Terri frowned. “If he’s still in the flood tunnels, he took Danny there for some other reason, not to get him out of town.”
Her instincts do not have the supernatural edge that mine do, but they are sharp enough to serve her well.
“I told Ozzie—there’s something wrong with this.”
“Wrong with what?”
“All this. Dr. Jessup’s murder and all the rest. A wrongness. I can feel it, but I can’t define it.”
Terri is one of the handful of people who know about my gift. She understands that I am compelled to use it; she would not attempt to argue me out of action. But she wishes that this yoke would be lifted from me.
So do I.
As “Good Luck Charm” gave way to “Puppet on a String,” I put my cell phone on the table, told her that I had forgotten to plug it in the previous night, and asked to borrow hers while she recharged mine.
She opened her purse, fished out the phone. “It’s not cell, it’s satellite. But will it work down there, underground?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not. But it’ll probably work wherever I am when I come up again. Thanks, Terri.”
I tested the volume of the ringer, dialed it down a little.
“And when mine is recharged,” I said, “if you get any peculiar calls on it…give out the number of your phone, so they can try to reach me.”