The Man Who Shot Elvis
Prism International (Fall, 1977)
SO HERE HE WAS, in the casino with hundreds of other tourists, waiting in line two hours before showtime, bored, drink in hand, watching his wife shoot craps. Mary was losing and angry but all the more striking for it, her blue eyes intense as she shook the dice in a fist near one ear. She brushed aside a strand of blonde hair that had fallen across her face, still shaking the dice, softly demanding of them five, five — she reminded him of a mad Scandinavian queen who had one roll to win or lose a kingdom. For a moment, he looked away, attracted by the ringing payoff of a slot machine, and when he turned back the blonde queen was coming toward him, dethroned and pouting.
"I hate that game, I just hate it," Mary said.
"You love it," said Lester.
"I don't have the luck I have on the machines." She took a sip of his drink. "If you'd loan me five dollars ..."
He gave her twenty, and she was off to get change. It was true, her luck on the dollar slots was phenomenal, more than once her winnings had paid for their weekend in Las Vegas. The only reason she had gone to the craps table at all was because their place in line had brought them next to it. As a businessman, Lester admired the savvy of the hotel's management: make the customers line up for the show in the casino, where they would have things to do while passing time and would spend money passing it. The line stretched past slot machines, twisted around roulette tables to games of craps and twenty-one, then extended back across the red carpet to the slots, a long traffic jam whose little order was imposed by three young hotel employees, who reminded people that they were in line and therefore should have someone keep their place before drifting away to gamble. Lester was spending money without gambling, on dollar-and-a-quarter drinks before the show began and the price went up to five dollars. More savvy: admission was disguised as a two-drink minimum.
He lost Mary in the crowd. Everywhere he looked — hanging from the ceiling, posted on walls and pillars — were photographs of Elvis and banners with his name. It had been Lester's idea to spend the weekend in Las Vegas, Mary's to see the show at the International Hotel.
THEY ESPECIALLY NEEDED this vacation since the night he had been robbed. This had happened two months ago, in the parking lot of the bank as Lester walked to his car. He was tired after working late and oblivious to the shadows in the still night. Someone was suddenly in his way, a gun-like protrusion pointing from a pocket, and Lester heard, "Your wallet, man.” It was that simple. "Your wallet, man," no more. Lester was about to reply with something automatic, "Good evening," when the sight of the pistol, out of the pocket and real, made him understand what was happening. He quickly handed over his wallet, his gaze never leaving the gun, the authority of which was absolute although the pistol itself seemed fragile in the way it reflected light from a streetlamp. When the man ran off, Lester got in his car and drove home. He had two drinks before telling Mary, who could not understand why he wouldn't call the police. "I had less than twenty dollars on me," Lester explained. "I'll notify the credit card people tomorrow. I won't be liable. Maybe he needed the money. He was black. If he'd been white, I don't think I'd have given him a dime. He would've had to shoot me first. But he was black."
He could not forget the absolute authority of the gun. A few days after the robbery he went into a pawn shop and purchased a pistol and shoulder holster, which he began to wear everywhere. He felt unmolestable with a weapon. He would feel its weight near his heart and think, I am safe.
THEY CHOSE A MOTEL on the strip. As Lester mixed drinks in their room, Mary looked through the brochures and coupons which the woman at the front desk had given them. They had the weekend to relax and see a show or two. Mainly they wanted to escape Los Angeles with its robberies.
Mary said excitedly, "Elvis is at the International!"
"Who?" Lester's back was to her, hiding a grin.
"Who! Elvis Presley, you nerd."
"Oh, him. I think B. B. King is supposed to be in town, too. Where's B. B. playing at?"
He turned and gave Mary her drink.
"I simply have to see Elvis while we're here."
"You've already seen him."
"But that was, god, how long ago?"
In 1956 or thereabouts, as Lester recalled the story. Mary, fifteen, had waited in line for five hours to get a front seat in a Miami moviehouse. She had screamed through the entire show, almost close enough to touch him.
Mary said, "I can go alone tomorrow and we can meet afterwards for dinner."
"If you really want to see that clown, I'll take you myself."
"We can see him, really?"
"There's probably nothing more amusing in town."
"Oh you," and she threw one arm around him, almost spilling their drinks. He could feel the pistol between them, and so could Mary.
"I'm going to take that off," she said.
"Don't stop there," said Lester.
LESTER LOOKED AROUND for a waiter from whom to order another drink. Unable to find one, he began to stare at Mary, hoping to catch her eye and beckon her over to save their place in line while he went to the bar. Mary was playing three slot machines simultaneously, engrossed.
"Can I get you a drink?"
It was the man in line behind him. Earlier he had nodded at Lester, who had nodded back; his wife had smiled and Lester had smiled in return. He was expecting them to start a conversation.
"I'm going to the bar anyway," the man told him.
"Thanks," said Lester, reaching for his wallet. "Scotch and water."
"Let me buy." The man had turned to go before Lester could pretend to object.
The woman introduced herself.
"I'm Nancy Waterby. My husband's name is Ralph. We drove down from Medford just to see Elvis."
"It's in Oregon."
She offered her hand, and Lester gently shook it.
"I'm Lester Williams, and that blonde fanatic over there, the one hogging the winning machines, is Mary, who belongs to me."
The woman smiled. Lester wondered at which moviehouse she had seen Elvis in the fifties.
"This is an unbelievable crowd, isn't it?” Nancy said. "I wish we'd gotten in line much earlier. I don't think we'll be seated on the main floor."
"The dude's not hurting for fans," Lester agreed.
He turned away, pretending to be interested in the craps game. Ralph Waterby returned with the drinks.
"I forgot to ask if your wife wanted anything," Ralph said.
"Oh, I more or less do it heavy for both of us."
Ralph laughed. Nancy laughed. Lester looked at his watch and, as if on command, someone across the casino shouted, "We're moving in!" Lester called Mary, who brought news that she was twenty-four dollars ahead. Their cover-charge was covered, Lester noted. Counting Mary's drinks, he would have four to get him through the show. He was no longer sure he'd be able to handle that many.
THEY WERE SEATED at a long table in the first balcony with the Waterbys and two couples who were together and remained aloof. Mary was very excited, squeezing Lester's arm and standing up from the table to get a better view of the massive ballroom into which her idol would descend, perhaps from heaven itself. Lester, too, was impressed: the stage covered the entire width of the ballroom, and a golden curtain just as wide dropped in front of the stage from a height above the second balcony. Naked cherubs flew among clouds on the side walls, above paintings of Greek ruins and imposing figures from some forgotten French court. A waitress handed Lester a souvenir menu with Elvis' photograph on the cover and informed him that the minimum number of drinks had to be ordered at once. Soon there were four glasses lined up in front of him.
Ralph was telling him what a great show it would be.
"What a fantastic comeback he made! After all those lousy movies, what? about three a year through the sixties?, and now this, it's just spectacular. That curtain alone must be worth thousands. This show will be unbelievable. I wonder when it starts. How can they expect us to sit here waiting?"
Business savvy, Lester knew. And just as he expected, not Elvis but a comedian opened the show, doing his routine in front of the golden curtain. "Folks, they gave me this job tonight because Colonel Parker figured the show needed a sex symbol." The crowd laughed and waited for Elvis. But when the curtain finally rose, the stage revealed a trio of black women, The Sweet Inspirations, who sang a medley of Aretha Franklin songs as photographs of Aretha flashed onto a screen behind them. Yes, somebody sure knows what they're doing, Lester thought. The delay only increased the excitement, and Mary couldn't stop squeezing his arm. Lester slid away one empty glass and moved three full glasses forward, one by one, like customers advancing to his window at the bank. Since being robbed, he greeted customers with an apprehensive glance, trying to discern their motives.
When the curtain dropped again, the crowd hushed. "Oh God, this is it," Mary whispered to him. Without introduction an orchestra began to play, and Lester recognized the theme from the movie, 2001. The music seemed to come out of every wall. Scattered cheers and shrieks identified those who were no longer able to contain themselves; "This is it!" Mary said again. The movie theme was picked up by a chorus, which like the orchestra was hidden behind the golden curtain unless the voices belonged to cherubs, to French royalty. The crowd floated like a frail bubble. Then the curtain began to rise slowly, the bubble was burst by the quick rhythm of a drum, by heartbeats, and Mary began to scream. Elvis ran onto the stage and came forward to the very edge of it, arms outstretched to his fans as he walked up and down the width of the ballroom for everyone to see. He was dressed entirely in white, his clothes sparkling with jewels. What can that dude be thinking now? Lester wondered. I am Elvis, this is my body.
WHEN LESTER WAS SIXTEEN, he decided to become a rhythm-n-blues star. Three friends agreed that this was a great idea, and they immediately formed a group called The Woodpeckers. They spent most of the summer learning songs, rehearsing, building a repertoire, and by the time school started they could imitate a number of popular groups, singing "Sincerely" like The Moonglows and "Gee" like The Crows, "Earth Angel" like The Penguins and "Sh-Boom" like The Chords. They changed their name to The Blackbirds and began to sing at high school dances and talked of cutting a record soon. Lester wrote a song called "Shoo-Do-Be, You Need Me," which everyone agreed was their best number. They recorded this song and a few others on tape, which they left with the secretary of a record company. They would hear from the company soon, they were told.
The record company never contacted them, and graduation ended their dream. One of The Blackbirds went to college on a track scholarship, another joined the Army to flee a pregnant girlfriend, a third disappeared from the neighborhood. Lester, who had kept remarkably good grades for the little time he spent studying, enrolled in Los Angeles Junior College.
Two years later he heard "Shoo-Do-Be, You Need Me" on the radio, sung by a group called The O'Brien Sisters. He knew he had been robbed but it didn't matter, his dream now was to make money in business. He wanted to make a lot of money because his father, a mailman, earned barely enough to support a wife and six children. Lester was determined to do better than this. For a beginning, he wouldn't make the mistake of having a large family.
He graduated from Junior College and transferred to Business School at UCLA, supporting himself with a night janitorial job. He met Mary in his senior year, and they fell quickly in love and were secretly engaged. Anticipating the objections of both sets of parents, they stretched their secret to include marriage in Las Vegas as soon as Mary came of age. Lester still planned to make a lot of money in business, but while waiting for more specific intentions to occur to him he decided to get his Army obligation out of the way. Mary accompanied him overseas, and from Germany she wrote her parents that she had decided not to be an airline stewardess after all, as a matter of fact she had gotten married instead, and she and her husband were in the Army now, an ocean's length from home. She was sorry to be so sudden and late with the announcement but she knew they would understand and would like Lester because she loved him very much and had never been happier.
IT OCCURRED TO LESTER that it would be the easiest thing in the world to shoot Elvis Presley through the head. He saw no visible security precautions. If an assassin were willing to wait four hours in line instead of two, a front table would put the target within easy range. Even from the first balcony, even from the second, Elvis was closer than President Kennedy had been to that window in the warehouse.
But shooting from a balcony, an assassin would have to be an excellent shot because Elvis never kept still. He sang while doing splits and leaps and karate chops. Using the whole stage, Elvis worked himself into such a sweat that he had to stop after several songs to wipe himself dry with a red silk scarf, which he then threw to the screaming crowd. A flunky brought Elvis a blue scarf, and after three or four songs it, too, was thrown to the fans, and the flunky raced forward with a purple. Lester wondered, What is that man's salary?
He pictured Elvis writhing in pain. Elvis was singing a hit, "Hound Dog" or "Heartbreak Hotel," when the bullet struck him below the navel, above the thigh. He grabbed himself like a man with a hernia, sinking to his knees when he knew he should be making a flying leap, rolling onto his side as the drummer awaited a karate chop to punctuate, blood flowing readily but soaking only the crotch of his white pants before the advancing crowd, panicked and furious, had them pulled off, then his diamond-studded shirt torn to shreds, his hair portioned out from the roots. Lester quietly slipped out an exit, unnoticed. He waited for the press in the casino but the reporters were skeptical. "I tell you, I did it! I did it because a long time ago they stole my song. They stole my song. It would have been a hit for me but it was a hit for them instead. They stole it."
HE WORKED IN PAYROLL in the Army and this, with his degree, landed him a job with a Los Angeles bank after discharge. Lester was soon well-liked as one who paid attention to details: he changed his white shirt daily, he wore only black socks, he never wore a loud tie, when there was extra work to do he worked nights without having to be asked, he learned the first names of the right customers and was formal with the right customers. After two years Lester felt secure in the job, and only then did he tell Mary that she could look for a house to buy. By 1967 no one could say Lester was not a success. He was even successful enough to exercise some independence, wearing wide and colorful ties before his boss began to wear them. At a party his boss told him, in the presence of others, "Lester, you wouldn't have gotten away with dressing like that before you became such a credit to the bank." Lester shocked everyone by replying, "Don't ever call me a credit to anything again. I do my job, period."
AS ELVIS SANG "Love Me Tender," Mary softly wept.
Ralph asked Lester, "Why doesn't he play the guitar?" After the first two songs, the flunky had taken the instrument away. "I wanted to hear him play some more. Play your guitar, Elvis!"
Lester stared at the last drink in front of him. It was going to be a horse race.
BEFORE LEAVING THE MOTEL to see Elvis (and she had insisted they go early), Mary called her sister in Los Angeles to check on the children. They had waited six years before starting a family, and Krista, the oldest, was now five. Krista wanted to speak to her daddy on the phone.
"What's up, sugar?" Lester asked. "You behaving yourself?"
"Yes. Will you bring me a pitchur."
"What kind of picture? Want a pretty postcard?"
"A pitchur of Elvis."
"Elvis! Where'd you find out about Elvis?"
"Mommy said you are going to see Elvis. I want a pitchur."
As soon as Mary had hung up, he asked, "How did she find out about Elvis?"
"We listen to him all the time."
"Well, you ought to know that."
"Stop brain-washing my daughter."
"Don't be silly. We listen to your records, too."
HE WAS SO DRUNK that he had missed everything, and Mary had to explain.
"There were two of them," she said. "They just jumped up onto the stage and ran at Elvis and before you knew it, pow!, he did a couple karate chops on them. It was fantastic. Police came out from everywhere and hauled the guys off."
Lester, moving along with the crowd, felt like a leaf floating down the gutter. He couldn't remember finishing the last drink or seeing the end of the show.
"At least they didn't try it earlier. Elvis was doing his last song, so nobody missed anything. I don't think that'll be tried again once people find out he can do karate. It was fantastic."
They emerged from the ballroom, and Lester stopped to take a deep breath.
"Are you okay?" Mary asked.
"I just need a minute. Little dizzy."
"You didn't have to drink mine. We could have left them."
"I'll be okay in a minute."
He concentrated on breathing until his head began to clear.
"I'm exhausted," said Mary. "I've never been to a show like that in my life. I'm just exhausted."
"Yeah, you scream a lot."
"Oh, you. Are you sure you're alright?"
"Much better. Let's go."
But he had to stop again outside on the sidewalk. A universe of blue lights towered above them, silhouetting the International Hotel against the desert sky. He recognized the Waterbys coming toward them.
"Would you folks join us for a nightcap?" Ralph asked.
Lester said, "I've had it."
Nancy suggested coffee.
"We have an early start in the morning," said Lester, stretching the truth.
"Well, it's been great," said Ralph. "What a great show. Here, I'd like to give you my card. If you're ever in Medford, look us up."
"We'd be so delighted," said Nancy.
Ralph said, "I don't quite know how to say this but Medford, you see, is a little backward in some ways and we've never had the opportunity or pleasure before to — well, what I mean, what I'm trying to say is, we enjoyed being with you. You're excellent company."
"You mean I'm a credit to my race," said Lester.
"Now I didn't mean to —"
"Then I'm not a credit to my race."
"You are! I mean, I didn't think of it that way."
Lester slapped him on the arm.
"We had a ball," he told the Waterbys. "Have a safe trip home."
"You, too," said Ralph.
The two couples shook hands before walking off in opposite directions. At the car, Lester asked Mary to drive.
THE MORNING NEWSPAPER explained that the two men merely had wanted to shake Elvis' hand. They were unarmed and a little drunk and intended to shake hands on a bet. Elvis wasn't pressing charges, so the police let the men go.
Getting into the car after breakfast, Lester asked Mary if she believed that's all the men wanted to do.
"I think so. Why?"
"Because it would've been easy if they'd wanted to shoot him."
"What kind of hypothetical situation is that?"
"It's not so hypothetical."
"Who would want to shoot Elvis in the first place?"
"Lots of people."
As the car idled, Lester looked for something to play on the tape deck.
"Who?" Mary wanted to know.
"Oh God, Les, you're not going to tell me you were jealous last night."
"Because you turned into a thirty-two-year-old teenager? Not me, baby."
"You're being stupid. Nobody wants to shoot Elvis."
"It would be easy to do. I had a gun in there, didn't I? Who would've stopped me?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
He put on a tape of old rhythm-n-blues songs and turned the car toward Los Angeles. He sped across the desert at ninety miles an hour, listening to his music as Mary slept, and Elvis was not mentioned again until they were home and Krista ran to him for her pitchur.