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Forever Odd

Forever Odd

Page 8


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.


Come now.


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.


FOURTEEN


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 from 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 eater-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.


Peculiar—how?


I’d had time to mull over the call that I received while sitting under the poisonous brugmansia. Maybe the caller had dialed a wrong number. Maybe not.


If it’s a woman with a smoky voice, cryptic, won’t give her name—I want to talk to her.


She raised her eyebrows. What’s that about?


I don’t know, I said honestly. Probably nothing.


As I tucked her phone into a zippered pocket on my backpack, she said, Are you coming back to work, Oddie?


Soon maybe. Not this week.


We got you a new spatula. Wide blade, microbeveled front edge. Your name’s inlaid in the handle.


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That’s cool.


Entirely cool. The handle’s red. Your name’s in white, and it’s in the same lettering as the original Coca-Cola logo.


I miss frying, I said. I love the griddle.


The staff of the diner had been my family for more than four years. I still felt close to them.


When I saw them these days, however, two things precluded the easy camaraderie we had enjoyed in the past: the reality of my grief, and their insistence on my heroism.


Gotta go, I said, getting to my feet and shouldering the backpack once more.


Perhaps to detain me, she said, So… has Elvis been around lately?


Just left him crying in my kitchen.


Crying again? What about?


I recounted the episode with the salt and pepper shakers. He actually made an effort to help me understand, which is something new, but I didn’t get it.


Maybe I do, she said, as she opened the door for me. You know he was an identical twin.


I knew that, yeah, but I forgot.


Jesse Garon Presley was stillborn at four o’clock in the morning, and Elvis Aaron Presley came into the world thirty-five minutes later.


I half remember you telling me about that. Jesse was buried in a cardboard box.


That’s all the family could afford. He was laid to rest in Priceville Cemetery, northeast of Tupelo.


How’s that for fate? I said. Identical twins—they’re going to look exactly alike, sound alike, and probably have exactly the same talent. But one becomes the biggest star in music history, and the other is buried as a baby in a cardboard box.


It haunted him all his life, Terri said. People say that he often talked to Jesse late at night. He felt like half of himself was missing.


He sort of lived that way, too—like half of him was missing.


He sort of did, she agreed.


Because I knew what that felt like, I said, I’ve suddenly got more sympathy for the guy.


We hugged, and she said, We need you here, Oddie.


I need me here, I agreed. You’re everything a friend should be, Terri, and nothing that one shouldn’t.


When would it be a good idea for me to start worrying?


Judging by the look on your face, I said, you already have.


I don’t like you going down there in the tunnels. It feels like you’re burying yourself alive.


I’m not claustrophobic, I assured her as I stepped out of the kitchen, onto the exterior landing.


That’s not what I meant. I’m giving you six hours, then I’m calling Wyatt Porter.


I’d rather you wouldn’t do that, Terri. I’m as sure as I’ve ever been about anything—I’ve got to do this alone.


Are you really? Or is this…something else?


What else would it be?


Clearly, she had a specific fear, but she didn’t want to put it into words. Instead of answering me, or even searching my eyes for an answer, she scanned the sky.


Dirty clouds were scudding in from the north-northeast. They looked like scrub rags that had swabbed a filthy floor.


I said, There’s more to this than Simon’s jealousies and obsessions. A weirdness, I don’t know what, but a SWAT team isn’t going to bring Danny out of there alive. Because of my gift, I’m his best chance.


I kissed her on the forehead, turned, and started down the steps toward the alley.


Is Danny dead already? she asked.


No. Like I said, I’m being drawn to him.


Is that true?


Surprised, I halted, turned. He’s alive, Terri.


If Kelsey and I had been blessed with a child, he could’ve been as old as you.


I smiled. You’re sweet.


She sighed. All right. Eight hours. Not a minute more. You might be a clairvoyant or a medium, or whatever it is you are, but I’ve got women’s intuition, by God, and that counts for something, too.


No sixth sense was required for me to understand that it would be pointless to try to negotiate her up from eight hours to ten.


Eight hours, I agreed. I’ll call you before then.


After I had started down the open stairs again, she said, Oddie, the main reason you came here really was to borrow my phone— wasn’t it?


When I stopped and looked up again, I saw that she had come off the landing, onto the first step.


She said, I guess for my own peace of mind, I’ve got to lay it out there…You didn’t come here to say good-bye, did you?


No.


True?


True.


Swear to God.


I raised my right hand as though I were an Eagle Scout making a solemn pledge.


Still dubious, she said, It would be shitty of you to go out of my life with a lie.


I wouldn’t do that to you. Besides, I can’t get where I want to go by conscious or unconscious suicide. I’ve got my strange little life to lead. Leading it the best I can—that’s how I buy the ticket to where I want to be. You know what I mean?


Yeah. Terri settled down on the top step. I’ll sit here and watch you go. It feels like bad luck to turn my back on you just now.


Are you okay?


Go. If he’s alive, go to him.


I turned away from her and descended the stairs once more.


Don’t look back, she said. That’s bad luck, too.


I reached the bottom of the stairs and followed the alleyway to the street. I didn’t look back, but I could hear her softly crying.


FIFTEEN


I DID NOT SCOUT FOR OBSERVERS, DID NOT LOITER IN the hope that an ideal opportunity would arise, but walked directly to the nine-foot chain-link barrier and scaled it. I dropped onto the property of the Maravilla County Flood-Control Project less than ten seconds after reaching the alley side of the fence.


Few people expect bold trespassing in daylight. If anyone saw me scale the fence, he would most likely assume that I was one of the authorized personnel referenced on the gate sign and that I had lost my key.


Clean-cut young men, neatly barbered and beardless, are not readily suspected of nefarious activity. I am not only barbered and beardless but have no tattoos, no earring, no eyebrow ring, no nose ring, no lip ring, and have not subjected my tongue to a piercing.


Consequently, the most that anyone might suspect about me is that I am a time-traveler from some distant future in which the oppressive cultural norms of the 1950s have been imposed once more on the populace by a totalitarian government.


The slump-stone utility building featured screened ventilation cutouts under the eaves. They were not large enough to admit even a trim young man with a low-profile haircut.


Earlier in the morning, peering through the chain-link, I had noticed that the hardware on the plank doors appeared ancient. It might have been installed back when California’s governor believed in the healing potential of crystals, confidently predicted the obsolescence of the automobile by 1990, and dated a rock star named Linda Ronstadt.

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