I am leaning against the side of our decades-old Chevy, watching the numbers on the gas pump scroll higher while I envision the numbers in my bank account simultaneously falling. The windows of the car are open. It is late summer in Texas and so hot that the air overheats your lungs if you inhale too deeply. The A/C unit in the old car died years ago, and the hot breeze is the only thing standing between my son and me and spontaneous combustion.
“Dad, look at that man!” I don’t look, because I’m certain the entire gas station has heard the kid yell. I don’t want it to get awkward.
“Jay, don’t be rude,” I say, louder than I need to say it. The admonishment is more so that the people standing around hear me reprimand the kid more than it is for the kid himself. Now that I’ve proved to the world that I care about my child’s behavior, I do a quick sweep of the surrounding area with my eyes, prepared to make polite apologies or some self-deprecating comment. No one is around except a young guy that has just entered the store attached to the gas pumps.
“Dad,” Jay whispers. “Did you see that man? He is the guy on mama’s record that she plays all the time! We have to go ask for his autograph!”
I reach into the back to unbuckle the harness in his car seat. “Come on, Champ. Let’s go inside and grab a cold drink for the ride home.” I take his hand and lead him into the store. He’s three years old and I’m not yet confident that he will not attempt to escape and run into the street. On the way to the drink cooler, I see what Jay was talking about. The man is an absolute look-alike of a young Elvis Presley.
Jay jumps up and down and says, “See, dad? See?? It IS him!”
I look up at the Elvis doppelganger and apologize. “Sorry,” I say. “His mom has a collection of old Elvis records. You probably get this a lot.”
The man looked down at the kid and turned up the corner of his mouth in the trademark Elvis-grin. He laid on a think accent and said, “Tell your mama I said she has real good taste in music. Thank you; thank you very much.” Jay giggled in delight. I gave the man an appreciative head nod and mouthed the words, “thank you,” and headed back to the cooler.
“Mom is never going to believe this, Daddy!” Jay said. I handed him a bottle of apple juice and wondered for the millionth time how little boys could somehow move every part of their body simultaneously when animated with excitement. What purpose would it serve to tell him that Elvis had died something like 40 years ago, and he certainly wasn’t young and handsome by the time he went.
We paid for our drinks and headed out to the car. We waved to the Elvis man as he slowly pulled his Honda out into traffic. I briefly wished I could have taken a picture for my wife. She wouldn’t believe this.
When we got home, Jay tore into the house as soon as he was unbuckled. “Mom! Mom! We met Elvis! We met Elvis!”
I followed inside to hear my wife say, “Elvis who, honey?”
“The man from your records! He was at the store, and he said thank you thank you very much!! He said,” - Jay attempted a terrible southern accent and it was adorable - “Tell your mama I said she has real good taste in music!” I grinned from ear to ear at the boy’s enthusiasm.
Anna looked at me with an amused question behind her eyes. “Elvis? Y’all saw an Elvis impersonator at the Stop and Pick?”
“Honey, I don’t think that was an Elvis Impersonator,” I said. I made my eyes really large and looked at Jay. “It was Elvis himself, or my name isn’t Jacob Tarlingen, Sr.”
Jay nodded his head and jumped up and down. “Mama it was him! I know it was!”
The look on Anna’s face looked much less amused now that I was in cahoots with the boy. “Jay, honey, Elvis Presley was a great big star when your Mema was a young girl. By the time I was born, Elvis had died and gone up to heaven.”
Jay’s face fell. Before I could help myself, I jumped in. It couldn’t hurt to play along. What harm could come of it?
“Anna, it was Elvis,” I said, turning my head to look down at Jay. I squatted down so that I was at eye level with him and began to make up a story as I went. “You see, when he became a big star, he went into the Army, remember? Well, he had a big music career, a beautiful wife, and he didn’t want to leave them to go over and fight in a war. But the government really needed his help. So they told Elvis, ‘We will make you a deal. You join up in the army, we will make sure we keep you out of trouble. Lots of young soldiers will see you joining up and they’ll want to be like you. We’ll have you play some shows for the troops, and when the war is over, you’ll go home.
“We have a new technology that can make you live forever. It’s basically the fountain of youth, but it’s a protected top-secret formula. When you’re ready to retire, we will tell the world that you died and went up to heaven, but really you’ll get to live forever.’ And Elvis? He took that deal. Years later, the government gave him enough potion to keep him alive and young for 1,000 years, along with the recipe for the formula so he could make more for himself if he wanted. As a condition of their arrangement, Elvis never told a single soul.”
Anna rolled her eyes at me, but couldn’t help but smile when Jay started peppering me with questions. “Does he still make records? Why isn’t he wearing a disguise? Can me and Mama have the same top secret formula so we won’t get old and smell funny like Mema?”
I tried to answer as many questions as I could before Anna ordered us to wash up for dinner. Her meatloaf was so good that it kept Jay quiet long enough for the adults to catch up on the happenings of the day.
That night, I tucked Jay into his space-ship shaped bed and kissed his forehead goodnight. “Dad?” he whispered.
“If Elvis never told anyone, how did you find out?”
I sat quietly for a moment. I knew that I couldn’t let him continue to believe that we had seen Elvis Presley at a Stop and Pick. Every time I answered one of his questions, the lie became larger, the deception deeper. I gave Jay a gentle smile, and said, “Well, the way parents know everything, I guess.” And that sweet, innocent boy nodded his head. That type of trust is the most precious part of being a parent, I thought. He’ll probably forget about the whole thing in a week, anyway.
The following week, Jay and I took off on our weekly quest to fill up the gas tank and put air in the tires at the neighborhood gas station. Jay spent the entire few minutes in the parking lot waiting expectantly for Elvis to show up. “He was probably just passing through, bud,” I reassure him. “Let's head inside for a frozen lemonade.”
Jay rushes into the store and we grab our drinks. As we’re paying, the bell above the entry door rings. Jay is rushing off towards the man before it even registers to me that it’s him again. I gather my purchases and rush over to the man, apologizing profusely.
“It’s ok, Dad, it’s ok! I told him we know the secret but we won’t tell anyone,” Jay whispers. Elvis looks at me, suspiciously. He is clearly skeptical of what he is hearing. But still, he stands in front of us, looking more like Elvis than the real Elvis looked like Elvis.
I hold out my hands, full of purchases, trying to look reassuring. “Sorry, sir. After he thought you were Elvis Presley, and it was so great you played along - really, it was fun, I just told him a story that you were a real, immortal Elvis and that it was a big secret no one was supposed to know. It seemed like a harmless idea at the time, and now here I am, embarrassed in a gas station. I’m so sorry we’ve bothered you.”
Elvis didn’t say anything, but he nodded his head. He gave a little wave to Jay and headed towards the back of the store. I gathered Jay’s little hand in mine and headed out the door before he could say anything else. I apologized on the way to the car and as I buckled his seatbelt. “Jay, I owe you an apology, bud. That nice man isn’t really Elvis. He just looks a lot like him and I thought it would make a fun story.”
“You told a lie?” he asked with confusion and a little fear in his sweet brown eyes. My heart cracked a little. How could I explain ‘little white lies’ to a four year old?
“Oh, Bud. Daddy didn’t mean any harm when he told the lie. I thought the story would be a fun way to remember the day we ran into the man that looked like Elvis. When you got a little older, I’d tell you the truth - but that night, I thought it would be fun. I didn’t mean to trick you, and I’m very sorry.”
Jay looked at me suspiciously and began asking more questions. This was a major breach of trust between the serious, thoughtful boy and the man who the boy believed held all of the world’s answers deep inside his head. I relaxed a little, knowing that if he was asking questions again, he was ok.
“Daddy? It isn’t a lie if it is a story like in my books, is it? I know that Spiderman isn’t real but the book isn’t a lie, it’s just a story. So don’t worry, Daddy, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
Thanks, Bud. We spent the rest of the car ride home talking about Spiderman and his Halloween costume. We joked that the man from the grocery story should dress up like Elvis.
Later that evening, after Jay was fast asleep and Anna and I were lost in our respective smartphones, there was a knock on the door. We never get visitors this late, so we gave each other looks that were have panicked and half puzzled. “I’ll get it,” I assured her. She immediately relaxed back into the couch, having avoided an unwanted contact with the outside world. I peeked out the curtain and saw a motorcycle parked in the driveway.
To my surprise, it was Elvis at the door. He wore a Texas Rangers cap and had on a leather jacket and worn black leather boots. I started to worry that I had really messed with the wrong guy, although his posture wasn’t menacing.
“I followed you home, earlier,” he admitted. “Not to be creepy, or anything, I promise. I just… I need to ask something of you, if thats alright.”
I was curious and also kind of freaked out. What did he mean he followed me home? Just because this guy looked like Elvis didn’t mean he wasn’t a total creep. For all I knew, he could be a lookalike Elvis Serial Killer who strangles his victims while singing ‘All Shook Up.’ Then it hit me. Money. He probably wanted money.
“Go ahead,” I prompted.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
Right at that moment, Anna came to the door. “Oh. My. God,” she exclaimed. “He DOES look just like him.” It took a few seconds for her to get her bearings, and then she quickly invited him inside. “Can I get you some tea, sugar?” she asked.
Sugar? I thought. She never calls me sugar. Nor does she make me tea. I gave her a skeptical glare. Anna led us all to the den where Elvis and I sat down while Anna went to get the tea. The man leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on his fingers. He seemed nervous, but not in any aggressive or dangerous way.
“I haven’t seen you around here before,” I said to end the awkward silence. “Did you just move?” Anna arrived with a glass of iced tea for the both of us. We thanked her. After she sat down, he began to talk.
“No, I haven’t been around here for a long time,” he said. “The reason I’m here, you see, is that your little boy was the first little kid to ask for my autograph in a long time.”
I laughed, thinking it was a joke. It wasn’t. He brought out two pieces of paper and set them out on the coffee table for us to have a look at.
He wasted no time. “I am Elvis Aaron Presley. I am not his son, or grandson. I’ve lived overseas for forty years or so, and recently made it back over to the United States, even though it was against the rules of my arrangement with our government. These papers are Non-Disclosure Agreements. I’d like to ask you and your lovely wife here to sign them. Once you sign, I can tell you the details of how I’m here, all these years later. Details I’ve never told anyone.”
The documents were pretty straightforward and clear. We signed them. Looking back, it seems that we were being held in thrall by the man’s charisma and charm.
“When your son came up to me and told me he knew my secret and he wouldn’t tell, I thought I was going to keel right over in the middle of the store. I can’t tell you how long it has been that anyone has seen me - seen who I am. Even though it was against all the rules, I just couldn’t help myself. The way his eyes lit up took me back to the glory days. When you apologized, and I realized what had happened, I was devastated. You made up a story to make your little boy believe he had seen Elvis Presley - but you had no way of knowing that it was the truth.
“About the time the United States developed the Manhattan Project, they were also working on the Roswell project. Over the years, there has been a lot of speculation about Roswell. The conspiracy theorists have the basic idea right, but it isn’t alien life forms that the government studies. It’s immortality.
We stared at him without saying a word. None of this was possible, and we knew it. We exchanged looks from time to time, thinking this was absurd. But then again, here was Elvis Presley sitting on our living room couch on a Tuesday night in the year 2021. Absurd or not, I believed him.
“In all the years since I made my deal - recruit for the army in exchange for eternal youth - I’ve been disguised or in hiding. A few times, people took photos of me and sold them to the tabloids, but no reputable news outlet would believe something that outrageous. I spent some time taking off the weight I’d gained over the years and getting off of the dope. Once I hit my targets, they gave me the medicines through an IV. I have boosters to take every year or so.
“When your son recognized me, I got down on one knee and played along. For the first time in 40 years, I was myself! The rush of seeing someone’s eyes light up just because you talk to them was something I didn’t realize how much I’d missed.”
We talked through the night. He told us stories about his adventures in different countries, about times he was recognized and how hard it was to watch everyone he knew and love grow up to die. He thanked us for signing the NDA and allowing him to talk with someone.
As the dawn began to arrive, he stood. “I’ve believe I have overstayed my welcome, and it’s time I get back to where I’m supposed to go. Thank you, for talking with me tonight.
“Wait!,” Anna called as she followed him to the door. “I have to know one thing.”
“What’s that?” Elvis asked, stopping by the front door.
“Who else got the Roswell serum? Please tell me there are more.”
Elvis smiled a wicked smile. “Thank you for the tea, Anna.” He turned around and walked down the sidewalk, climbed onto his bike, and headed off into the sunrise.