Or maybe Danny was already dead, and subconsciously I resisted being drawn to him, only to find him brutalized.
At my request, at 4:04 A.M. according to the Bank of America clock, Chief Porter pulled to the curb to let me out at the north side of Memorial Park, around which the streets define a town square.
“Looks like I’m not going to be any help with this one,” I said.
In the past, I’ve had reason to suspect that when a situation involves people especially close to me, about whom I have the most intense personal feelings, my gifts do not serve me as well as they do when there is even a slight degree of emotional detachment. Maybe feelings interfere with psychic function, as also might a migraine headache or drunkenness.
Danny Jessup was as close to me as a brother could have been. I loved him.
Assuming that my paranormal talents have a higher source than genetic mutation, perhaps the explanation for uneven function is more profound. This limitation might be for the purpose of preventing the exploitation of these talents toward selfish ends; but more likely, fallibility is meant to keep me humble.
If humility is the lesson, I have learned it well. More than a few days have dawned in which an awareness of my limitations filled me with a gentle resignation that, till afternoon or even twilight, kept me in bed as effectively as would have shackles and hundred-pound lead weights.
As I opened the car door, Chief Porter said, “You sure you don’t want me to drive you home?”
“No, thank you, sir. I’m awake, fully charged, and hungry. I’m going to be the first through the door for breakfast at the Grille.”
“They don’t open till six.”
I got out, bent down, looked in at him. “I’ll sit in the park and feed the pigeons for a while.”
“We don’t have pigeons.”
“Then I’ll feed the pterodactyls.”
“What you’re gonna do is sit in the park and think.”
“No, sir, I promise I won’t.”
I closed the door. The patrol car pulled away from the curb.
After watching the chief drive out of sight, I entered the park, sat on a bench, and broke my promise.
AROUND THE TOWN SQUARE, CAST-IRON LAMPPOSTS, painted black, were crowned with three globes each.
At the center of Memorial Park, a handsome bronze statue of three soldiers—dating from World War II—was usually illuminated, but at the moment it stood in darkness. The spotlight had probably been vandalized.
Recently a small but determined group of citizens had been demanding that the statue be replaced, on the grounds that it was militaristic. They wanted Memorial Park to memorialize a man of peace.
The suggestions for the subject of the new memorial ranged from Gandhi to Woodrow Wilson, to Yasir Arafat.
Someone had proposed that a statue of Gandhi should be modeled after Ben Kingsley, who had played the great man in the movie. Then perhaps the actor could be induced to be present at the unveiling.
This had led Terri Stambaugh, my friend and the owner of the Grille, to suggest that a statue of Gandhi should be modeled after Brad Pitt in the hope that he would then attend the ceremony, which would be a big deal by Pico Mundo standards.
At the same town meeting, Ozzie Boone had offered himself as the subject of the memorial. “Men of my formidable diameter are never sent to war,” he said, “and if everyone were as fat as I am, there could be no armies.”
Some had taken this as mockery, but others had found merit in the idea.
Perhaps someday the current statue will be replaced by one of a very fat Gandhi modeled after Johnny Depp, but for the moment, the soldiers remain. In darkness.
Old jacarandas, drenched with purple flowers come spring, line the main streets downtown, but Memorial Park boasts magnificent phoenix palms; under the fronds of one, I settled on a bench, facing the street. The nearest street lamp was not near, and the tree shaded me from the increasingly ruddy moonlight.
Although I sat in gloom, Elvis found me. He materialized in the act of sitting beside me.
He was dressed in an army uniform dating from the late 1950s. I can’t say with any authority whether it was actually a uniform from his service in the military or if it might have been a costume that he wore in G.I. Blues, which had been filmed, edited, and released within five months of his leaving the army in 1960.
All the other lingering dead of my acquaintance appear in the clothes in which they died. Only Elvis manifests in whatever wardrobe he fancies at the moment.
Perhaps he meant to express solidarity with those who wished to preserve the statue of the soldiers. Or he just thought he looked cool in army khaki, which he did.
Few people have lived so publicly that their lives can reliably be chronicled day by day. Elvis is one of those.
Because even his mundane activities have been so thoroughly documented, we can be all but certain that he never visited Pico Mundo while alive. He never passed through on a train, never dated a girl from here, and had no other connection whatsoever with our town.
Why he should choose to haunt this well-fried corner of the Mojave instead of Graceland, where he died, I did not know. I had asked him, but the rule of silence among the dead was one that he would not break.
Occasionally, usually on an evening when we sit in my living room and listen to his best music, which we do a lot lately, I try to engage him in conversation. I’ve suggested that he use a form of sign language to reply: thumbs-up for yes, thumbs-down for no….
He just looks at me with those heavy-lidded, half-bruised eyes, even bluer than they appear in his movies, and keeps his secrets to himself. Often he’ll smile and wink. Or give me a playful punch on the arm. Or pat my knee.
He’s an affable apparition.
Here on the park bench, he raised his eyebrows and shook his head as if to say that my propensity for getting in trouble never ceased to amaze him.
I used to think that he was reluctant to leave this world because people here had been so good to him, had loved him in such numbers. Even though he had lost his way badly as a performer and had become addicted to numerous prescription medications, he had been at the height of his fame when he died, and only forty-two.
Lately, I’ve evolved another theory. When I have the nerve, I’ll propose it to him.
If I’ve got it right, I think he’ll weep when he hears it. He sometimes does weep.
Now the King of Rock ’n’ Roll leaned forward on the bench, peered west, and cocked his head as if listening.
I heard nothing but the faint thrum of wings as bats fished the air above for moths.
Still gazing along the empty street, Elvis raised both hands palms-up and made come-to-me gestures, as though inviting someone to join us.
From a distance, I heard an engine, a vehicle larger than a car, approaching.
Elvis winked at me, as if to say that I was engaged in psychic magnetism even if I didn’t realize it. Instead of cruising in search, perhaps I had settled where I knew—somehow—that my quarry would cruise to me.
Two blocks away, a dusty white-paneled Ford van turned the corner. It came toward us slowly, as if the driver might be looking for something.
a hand on my arm, warning me to remain seated in the shrouding shadows of the phoenix palm.
Light from a street lamp washed the windshield, sluiced through the interior of the van as it passed us. Behind the wheel was the snaky man who had Tasered me.
Without realizing that I moved, I had sprung to my feet in surprise.
My movement didn’t catch the driver’s attention. He drove past and turned left at the corner.
I ran into the street, leaving Sergeant Presley on the bench and the bats to their airborne feast.
THE VAN SWUNG OUT OF SIGHT AT THE corner, and I ran in its windless wake, not because I am brave, which I am not, neither because I am addicted to danger, which I also am not, but because inaction is not the mother of redemption.
When I reached the cross street, I saw the Ford disappearing into an alley half a block away. I had lost ground. I sprinted.
When I reached the mouth of the alley, the way ahead lay dark, the street brighter behind me, with the consequence that I stood as silhouetted as a pistol-range target, but it wasn’t a trap. No one shot at me.
Before I arrived, the van had turned left and vanished into an intersecting passage. I knew where it had gone only because the wall of the corner building blushed with the backwash of taillights.
Racing after that fading red trace, certain that I was gaining now because they had to slow to take the tight turn, I fumbled the cell phone from my pocket.
When I arrived where alley met alley, the van had vanished, also every glimmer and glow of it. Surprised, I looked up, half expecting to see it levitating into the desert sky.
I speed-dialed Chief Porter’s mobile number—and discovered that no charge was left in the battery. I hadn’t plugged it in overnight.
Dumpsters in starlight, hulking and odorous, bracketed back entrances to restaurants and shops. Most of the wire-caged security lamps, managed by timers, had switched off in this last hour before dawn.
Some of the two- and three-story buildings featured roll-up doors. Behind most would be small receiving rooms for deliveries of merchandise and supplies; only a few might be garages, but I had no way to determine which they were.