NEWS ITEM: Friday, Aug. 16, was the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death in 1977. Thousands mourned at Graceland, his home. Some, however, believe Presley is alive. . . . “
I met Elvis at the supermarket. He was coming down the frozen foods aisle and I was coming up. His black hair was long now and pushed under a baseball cap. He wore oversized sunglasses. But I knew it was him. I have every album, I’ve seen every movie — even “Clambake.” I knew it was him.
“E,” I whispered, rolling my cart alongside his, using the nickname his closest friends used to call him. “E, don’t worry, I won’t make a scene.”
He ignored me at first, reaching into the freezer for a box of raspberry Popsicles. But I wouldn’t leave. He rolled toward the Cake Mix & Cookies section. I followed.
“E?” I repeated.
Finally, in the Oils, Juices and Salad Dressings aisle — Elvis chose a lo-cal Italian — I leaned in and sung a few lines from the old country ballad, ‘That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.”
“If you find your sweetheart,
in the arms of your best friend
That’s when your heartaches begin . . . “
It was the first song Elvis recorded, as a birthday present for his mother. The secretary in the studio overheard him singing, contacted the owner, Sam Phillips, and five years later, Elvis was the biggest thing on the planet. You wonder where he might be today had he bought his mother perfume that year.
“Elvis,” I said, and I noticed a small tear running down from his sunglasses.
“Outside,” he whispered. Good tale, minus the toilet We walked out into the sunshine, Elvis carrying the brown bag under his arm. At first he didn’t say much, and that was OK by me.
Finally, he reached into the bag and pulled out a copy of “The National Enquirer.” He pointed to a story about his daughter, Lisa Marie, something about her getting married. “Can you believe this?” he mumbled. He studied his daughter’s picture, and ran his fingers over her image.
He said I shouldn’t flatter myself; I wasn’t the only one who knew he was alive. At least 50 people knew by now. But they all respected his secret.
“For a while, we had ever’body fooled,” he said, his Memphis accent still strong. “It was a good hoax, man. Except that part about me dying on the toilet. Whose idea was that? I almost wanted to come back right then and pop somebody in the mouth. A toilet? Man.”
He shook his head and offered me a Popsicle. We talked a little about music (he hates rap) and politics (still a Republican). Finally, when the time seemed right, I asked: “Why did you pretend to die?”
He looked me over to see whether I was worthy of this story. Then he took off his sunglasses, and this is what he said: Making a few calls “One night, we were sittin’ around Graceland, me and the boys and some of their girls. I was bored, like usual. Couldn’t go out. Couldn’t do nothin’. I told Red I was hungry, and I felt like some of those fried doughnuts they made down in New Orleans. Red got up and made a phone call. Within a half-hour, those doughnuts were on a plane to Memphis.
“Then a commercial came on TV for these new Cadillacs. And I said, ‘Man, let’s get some of those.’ So Sonny called this place and ordered 10 of ’em, and they brought ’em right over to the house.
“Then I looked at my watch and said, ‘I wonder what the president is doing?’ Nixon was in office, and I had his private number. So I called, and in a few seconds, he’s on the line. ‘Elvis, how you doing?’ he said, and I said ‘Fine, sir,’ and we chatted a bit. He asked who I liked in the Redskins- Vikings game. I said Redskins, I guess. He said, ‘Yeah, me, too.’ “
Elvis stopped talking. He leaned back. I thought he was going to cry again. “In one night,” he said, “I bought 10 Cadillacs, called the president, and sent a plane out for doughnuts. And nobody said nothin’.”
A breeze blew. A teenage couple pulled up in an old Dodge and got out of the car. They kissed. Elvis watched without expression.
“Don’t you see?” he whispered. “Dying was the only way to get back to a normal life.”
After that, we just sat in silence. Elvis removed his cap, and I noticed a bald spot on the crown of his head. Suddenly, very softly, he began to sing the song I’d started in the supermarket, the birthday present for his mother, the song that changed his life:
“When dreams of a lifetime
must come to an end,
That’s when your heartaches begin . . . “
He stopped, put on his sunglasses, and walked away. I haven’t seen him since. But I think about all those Elvis impersonators, and I have to shake my head. If you ask me, I wouldn’t want to be the King, not for a day, not for all the doughnuts in the world.