The King Must Die
I practiced card tricks while my legs pumped away on the bike generator, making electricity so Mom could watch TV while she ironed. I wasn't paying attention to the TV, and anyway the ironing board half obscured my view of it. We just get reruns, but news from the outside world does trickle in now and then. That didn't stop me wanting to get out of here, though. Who'd want to stay in Las Vegas?
Mom was watching the gazillionth rerun of a Star Trek episode. Mr. Spock in a funny get-up and a goatee said, " Mister Sulu, you will program a phaser barrage on the Halkan cities."
But then my mom's butt started twitching, and a moment later my stomach spasmed. Mom's butt only twitches for this really ancient rock star, aka the King. Also known as Jesus, the Second Coming, because he died and rose again from the mortuary slab, back in 1977. Only his rising and conversion sure hadn't brought Paradise on Earth. Some people, not Mom, even said things had gotten worse since his miraculous non-death.
"Mom!" I said, sitting up straighter. The first nausea warnings tingled my skin, giving me goosebumps all over. Sweat beamed into existence on my forehead. "I'm right here. Turn it off."
Mom started guiltily. "Sorry Jesse Garon, I forgot you were there."
She stepped around the ironing board to turn off the TV, first tilting the iron upright so it wouldn't burn my work shirt. She reached out to the off-button but froze when the shaking hips and black hairdo twisted and shook into view. She twitched in ecstasy and flailed the fricking iron in the basket of clothes. The broadcast signal attained full strength and boomed into our living room.
I knew I was done for. I rescued the iron, unplugged it so Mom wouldn't have to and bolted from the living room. The sticky air hampered my legs and crawled down my throat. I made the bathroom only just in time, to the twangy beat of Such a Night. Mom's favorite. I had a really miserable childhood until she finally found out it was Him making me barf these weird things out every time. This time it was foreign coins, and a few crumpled, bedraggled two-dollar bills. That may sound nice, but everybody knew there were no two-dollar bills so they were worth nothing.
'Such a Night' cut off in the middle of the word "kiss." Blessed silence, hissing with the echo of that final 's'. I rested my forehead against the cold porcelain of the toilet seat. The nausea ebbed away. I reached up to grab some newspaper squares for my forehead. I swear, sweat drops the size of marbles.
Mom came in as I was rinsing my mouth, her face in the mirror making guilty grimaces. "I'm so sorry. I haven't got used to your new shifts yet."
"It's okay, Mom. I'll go to work early, see if Joey's around. You watch your old rocker in peace."
She protested, but it was just for appearances' sake.
I put the bills and coins in the change dish, grabbed Dad's old letterman jacket, felt for cigarettes and wallet, and wouldn't you know, the first harbingers of rain slammed down on the roof. I must not have felt it coming because of the nausea. They say it never used to rain much in Las Vegas, but man, it sure does now, and I always feel a tickle in my inner ear when it's close. I grabbed my oilskins, hard hat, jacket, pants and high boots. They smelled of fermenting frog juice. You never really got that out. I shrugged into the gear, while Mom extended her guilty spiel a bit more to make sure I was actually leaving.
The roof thudded with the blows of the rain as it revved up. At least Mom and Dad had sprung for a new roof when the rains started. A lot of our neighbors hadn't, and about half the houses in our street were ruined hulks, their roofs smashed open by the weight of all those little corpses. You can imagine what it smells like, huh? Not the greatest neighborhood, mine is: a Tourist neighborhood, for the people who got stuck here at the Change.
And I still missed Dad.
The thought of spending the rest of my life here among the frogs and the remnants of the past was unbearable. Something had to give. I just didn't know what yet.
I unfurled my oilcloth umbrella and ducked out. It softens the blows on the hard hat. Rain can get very noisy. Wearing a hard hat keeps you safe. A frog weighs very little, but if it comes hurtling down from god knows how high, it packs quite a punch. I'd seen grown men go down from a frog hit.
But frogs aren't just a danger, they contain moisture if you press them, and then you boil it and distill it. Where would we be without them? I bet locusts, like they get in Utah, aren't as all-round useful as frogs. We're lucky, here in Vegas. Even if it's hard being a Tourist kid, even if we get less than the Natives, we get water rations too, made from the manna Heaven sends down to sustain us in the desert.
I intended to cut through the backstreets, then through the old Flamingo courtyard to get to the Dunes, where cheap drinks could be had. It was rumored that actual working slot machines were coming in on the new steam railway, and real out-of-state tourists after that, but my friends and me were kind of praying they wouldn't. The old casinos, most of them empty and derelict now, were our childhood haunts and we didn't want any railway bringing in more tourists. We were the Tourists, and we were proud of wearing the moniker.
When it rains, it rains, they say in Vegas, and already the streets were ankle deep in frogs. Some of them still lived, and a whole tribe were being devoured by the frowsty flamingos that are doing better than ever in the Flamingo courtyard. To them, present-day Vegas must be heaven.
I shook the umbrella to clear off the accumulated frog gunk before I crossed through the Flamingo to get to the Strip. Mom tells stories that in the olden days, before the Change, you needed to wear a hat at all times - not to guard against frogs smacking into your face, but against the sun. And wearing sunscreen, and airplanes in the sky, and cars and new music every day. It's hard to imagine.
Dwayne was nowhere to be found, but Joey already perched on the bar stool at the Dunes, waiting for the rain to end and our shift to begin. "Figured I'd see you here when I saw Himself on the tube."
We drank in companionable silence and munched hot frogs in chili sauce. My throat was still sore from the dollar bills, but eating and drinking normal stuff helped.
"My Gram thinks Elvis is Jesus," Joey said.
"She and everybody else. Don't mention his name, dickhead. You want me to chuck up not just coins and marbles but hot frog in your lap?"
Joey grimaced in apology, but the way he munched pensively, I could see there was more gonna come out. "His death and resurrection are the most important events in the world. The Second Coming."
"So?" I snorted. A bit of meat got snorted up with the air and burned itself out of my nostrils. The Man messed with my digestive process in every possible way.
"Mom says Gram's hanging on because she wants to be there when he dies."
I put down my bun, appetite gone. Still, the thought of Him dying perked me up, in spite of the incipient nausea.
"Because if he dies, the world's going to turn again, like it did in 1977. And he's gonna go straight to Heaven and take her with him."
"Your granny? Why would he take her?" I said.
Joey rolled his eyes. "Not just him. Everyone! Paradise on Earth!"
"Gram says they eat locusts in Utah. Ya think they'd be nicer than frogs?"
"Utah was on TV?"
"Nah, she has visions."
"Locusts probably not as heavy as frogs. Not as many caved-in roofs."
Joey tossed a frog bone into the basket. "Yeah."
I gave up on eating my next leg. The telltale queasiness was starting up. Did that mean I was going to talk about Him? What could I possibly have to say?
I belched and produced a blue and yellow marble. Not as bad as it might have been.
"How about we make your Grams happy? We give the man a ticket to heaven. Then she can be sure he'll be there when it's her time. And we'll be there too."
Had I really just said that? I had, and the thoughts that lurked behind those words were even worse. But I wanted something to change. For me. I really, really wanted to leave Las Vegas, even if it meant leaving Mom. And Heaven was the only way out for me and Joey. We had only old casinos, rotting car wrecks and frogs, and two hours of rerun TV each night. Our parents and everybody of their generation yakked our ears off about how much better life was way back when, when they wore bellbottomed jeans, when Vietnam was an issue and they still feared the Soviet Union. When combustion engines worked and the sun shone. Maybe there would be sun in Heaven. Who knew?
Joey sucked grease off his fingers while he looked at me. "You mean E...him dying? You killing him? How would you even get near him? You wanna ralph him to death? Like that day you barfed up all these shiny pebbles and got me a black eye?"
I looked him in the eyes as long as I could. "I guess it's a stupid idea."
When I returned home from work, Mom was virtuously ironing my underpants, killing any bug eggs that might have gotten into the washing water, but the TV was still on. Back to Star Trek. "Not our universe, not our ship. A parallel universe co-existing with ours on another dimensional plane," Kirk was saying. Not my favorite episode.
Mom must have been having a ball with the Lord, I mean the King, all by herself. I kissed her cheek. I was glad I'd stored enough electricity for her to watch the whole show. I might as well make her happy while I was still here.
"Had a good time?"
She glowed and twirled. "He's still so handsome, although maybe he dyes his hair. He said Jesus had saved him. That he knows he would have stayed dead if he hadn't turned to the Lord and repented of his evil ways."
I found a slice of pizza allo ranocchio in the cold box. I could always eat. "But he still sings the old godless songs and shakes his fat evil booty, right?" The pizza dropped like a brick into my quivering stomach. Shouldn't have said that.
Mom pursed her lips. "Well, he has to make a living, doesn't he?"
"Mom, I don't even like to talk about him, okay? I'm going to bed."
She twisted her apron. "I have to tell you, sweetie. He's coming to Vegas. He's gonna perform in Circus Circus next week, in honor of August 16 Seventy Thousand Day. To celebrate the new railroad. They're sending a special train for him, so I think you need to leave town for a bit."
I tossed the pizza in the bin, ignoring my mother's horrified protest at wasting food like that. "What? On my birthday? What are you thinking?"
"There was a real emergency broadcast about it. Don't look at me like that. It's not my fault!"
"Of course not, mom. Don't make a big drama of it."
But I didn't like it. I didn't like it at all. Why should I have to leave my home on my birthday just because the has-been, born-again King came to town? Why did everything he did seem to impact my life, for the worse?
But Him coming to town meant I had to put my money where my mouth was. I had to take this opportunity and really do something. Something to get me on that train out of there. Or to Heaven.
Joey's ancient backpack bobbed in front of me as we struggled through eroded flash-flood gullies and rock-strewn terrain. Las Vegas roads haven't been maintained since 1977, of course, but this was something else. My dad's old army boots - god knows why he took them along on his Vegas honeymoon - were way too big, but the alternatives were rubber tire flip-flops or thin-soled frog leather dancing shoes.
"Are you sure we're going the right way?" I called out to Joey.
He halted and kicked something beside the track. "Pretty sure. Look at this."
I toiled up to him. At first he just seemed to be kicking a heap of sand and rocks and twigs, but then it resolved into a skeleton, still clad in a polyester leisure suit - pretty much indestructible, I'm still wearing one of my Dad's - a few vague strips of cloth and an empty water bottle clutched in its fleshless hands.
Joey bent down to retrieve the bottle. Glass breaks, and we can't make new. Spurred on by a sudden impulse, I dug around in the pants' pocket. That's where tourists wear their wallets. And yeah, I found one. Pleather, thankfully, or the desert citizens would have eaten it. Not that it's still a desert, what with the fog and the frogs, but we still call it that. I carefully peeled the sticky leaves open. The guy's driver's license stared back at me. The square shapes of lockpicks, what my mom calls credit cards. Not like the ones I bring
up sometimes, those are much shinier and more colorful. Even some limp old money, worthless now. But it was his face that mesmerized me. He looked like a movie star, so healthy and well-fed. Plump cheeks. What did they eat back then?
"Whatcha looking at that for?" Joey said. "He's dead. He's a Seventy Thousander, he got no family in Vegas. No reward."
"Because." I threw the wallet back onto the leisure suit.
We turned away from the pitiful skeleton and started walking again. More bleached bones lined the road. They call it a cemetery, but nobody ever collected and buried all those seventy thousand Tourists who decided to walk back home. Who could, without working trucks? As a kid, I just couldn't get how so many could have died only hours away from Vegas, but Mom had explained to me how hot it was back then, and how quickly you could get dehydrated and exhausted - particularly if you were a very well-fed, middle-aged tourist with a hangover. I guess.
"There's the railway," Joey said, pointing his hand.
The sand had a paler color up until a hundred yards before the tracks. We plodded through it to have an up-close look. The sleepers were carved and decorated. "Johnny loves Annie." "In Memoriam Matt, crew 44." A lot of people died building the tracks. The Desert Xpress is part of all these railway initiatives supposed to revive America, turn us back into the richest country in the world. I'm not seeing it yet. But they would bring Him all the way from Beverly Hills.
We followed the tracks to the cemetery. The sounds of hammering reached us before we saw the bleachers being constructed. The crew must have gotten here with a mule train carrying the timber. No trees in Vegas, but plenty of timber from the abandoned houses.
We hid behind a heap of stones, covered in a drying film of smashed frog, drank some water, munched some lukewarm sausage. We'd have to wait here until the Xpress came in tomorrow at noon. The roadies set up a row of bike generators for the cameras and lights for the TV crews.
We rolled up into our blankets when the swift night rolled down and the temperature dropped.
"Can you feel him coming yet?" Joey asked in a drowsy voice.
Due to lifelong practice, I'd circumvented thinking of Him directly, but now I couldn't help flashing on a picture of the King riding the train, staring at the darkness outside of the windows. Or maybe just his own reflection. A fancy train like that was sure to have some kind of artificial lighting. Yes, I felt something. Would he feel me too? Would he feel the increasing nausea, the shivers, the cold sweat as he approached Nevada? I kind of hoped so. It wouldn't be fair if the misery was only mine.
I woke up with Joey pulling at my arm. It hurt. The light pressed on my eyelids so hard I was afraid the eyeballs were going to go splat.
"Someone's coming! We gotta go!"
I wanted to tell him I was going to puke but the only thing coming from my mouth was a groan. Whatever wanted to come out felt huge, enormous. My throat was in agony. I wanted to ask Joey to help me but I could hardly produce any sound. His worried face floated above me. I pointed at my throat. He nodded and disappeared.
The clatter of Joey's footsteps receded.
He came back, only from the opposite direction. I wanted to tell him to hurry up, but I couldn't. I didn't want that burning feeling in my throat. It didn't feel right.
I heard a zipper opening, and then a rush of water. It wasn't Joey. Whoever it was moaned softly, as if he was feeling as bad as I was. That gave me the strength to roll over and open my eyes.
Only thirty feet away, an old man directed a stream of orange pee into a dying creosote bush. His face was white and sweaty, in stark contrast to his improbable black hair. His mouth worked, and sweat gushed from his face as he stood there waiting for his water to run out. It looked painful. The moment he'd tucked himself away his hand flew to his mouth and he gagged.
"Lisa Marie," he mumbled. "I feel sick. I'm not strung out, I swear, but I'm sick."
He retched, but only white powder came out. He kept at it, gagging out this glittery white stuff onto the sand. With every convulsive heave from him I started to feel better, although the thing in my throat didn't budge. From that I knew it had to be Him. He felt the connection too. We'd come into life on the same day, me for the first time, he for the second time. That had to mean something. I felt my backpack under my cheek. I could have taken out the gun and killed him right then and there if I could have gotten enough breath around the obstacle in my airway.
But that's not how I wanted it. What good would it do me if he died like this, without cameras or anybody to witness it? He needed to die in full view of the world. If he was Jesus Christ, if his was the Second Coming, that's what he'd want, too. He knew the value of exposure, of publicity. I should have made a cross from railway sleepers or something, but it was too late for that now.
"Jesse Garon!" Joey hissed.
I didn't want to make any sound with the old man so close. I waited until the liver-colored pants had stumbled away before I crawled over to Joey's voice, barely wheezing in any air at all. Once the man, the King, if it was him, got farther away from me I got sicker again.
"Jeez Gar, what is that? Who was that old fella, was it El-"
He stopped. In his hands he clutched a sheaf of the credit cards we'd tossed. He wedged one in my mouth and started to wriggle another against the obstacle in my throat. I howled in pain.
"Sorry," he said.
It hurt more than just the thing in my throat. I couldn't breathe, for real now. I tried to keep quiet to give Joey an opportunity to help me.
The pain got ten times as bad. I screamed.
And then I realized I could scream again. On Joey's hand was a bloody square thing, half an inch thick and about two credit cards laid side by side.
I spit out the blood and rinsed my mouth. I started to feel marginally better. The old man had moved away, but he was still closer to me then he'd ever been in my entire life. And yet here I was, a little shaky but able to function. As if his proximity canceled out the effect he had on me. Weird.
Joey wiped the upchucked object with some sand and his pants. Such a weird looking thing. It had buttons on it, like a calculator, but with characters as well as numbers. A tiny green and red phone horn were printed on the buttons.
I pressed the green one, in case the red one would make a siren go off. A tinny sound emerged from it. "No connection," flashed up on the screen. I dropped the thing in my startlement.
"What is it?" Joey said.
"I don't know," I answered, my voice as rusty and squeaky as a doorhinge. I put it in my pocket anyway. Maybe I could sell it somewhere.
Now that the spasm was over, I noticed it was early morning, and the train waited patiently on the tracks until the concert would begin.
I spat blood. "Can we shoot from here?"
Joey hauled out the shotgun. It gleamed dark blue and dark wood, smelling of rancid oil, like a messenger from the past. "I don't know. I only tried it the once, and Ma clouted me good."
There were about thirty old movies circulating in Vegas, and more than half of them had somebody shooting someone else with a gun. It always seemed so easy.
We couldn't risk going in close. And from this far out, the details were too small to be interesting. A small army of workers ran the generator bikes in shifts, storing power for later.
Finally, a sound check boomed over the dull landscape, muffled by the low hanging clouds and lack of bare stone. People started pouring in from Vegas, in buggies, on horseback and on foot. Natives mostly. Tourists like me and my mom didn't have time or money to spend on fun outings. The thought of Mom gave me a pang. Would I see her if we all went to heaven, with Him? She was a good person. And she really liked His music, too. I bet she'd get a front row seat Up There.
The noise of the crowd was like the first patter of frogs smacking down in a distance. Or like water from a tap. I'd heard that once. Somebody, probably the mayor, by his suit and his glittering chain, stepped onto the platform and started talking. I felt a tickle in my inner ear, and sure enough, the hills to my left grayed out in a fall of rain. Coming our way. Less than ten minutes, I estimated.
We got out our hard hats and oilskins. I'd just got my boots on when I heard the first twangs of music. Jailhouse Rock. I gritted my teeth and elbowed Joey, who was slow buttoning up his jacket.
"Get the gun out. Do it fast," I managed to grind out before I turned away to spew out a few handfuls of shiny marbles on the desert floor, and something white and plastic with two round things attached to it. Thank god, not another one of those weird square objects.
The stiff oilskins made it hard to be quick and sure. Joey cursed and struggled with the gun. The soft patter of rain approached quickly.
"Hurry!" I hissed. "Before he stops singing because of the rain."
The nausea had me shivering, but it seemed more manageable than at home. I lifted my head and gazed at the tiny figure twitching on the stage. His white glittery suit made him easy to pick out. The crowd had turned from all colors to a dirty yellow, as every Las Vegan put on his oils against the rain.
The musicians weren't wearing any. I could see that they might not look as cool when they wore oilskins, but it would be hell on their clothes. And we didn't wear hard hats for nothing.
I felt better, I don't know why, and took the gun from Joey. I aimed, praying for the rain to cover up my shot.
God must have heard my thoughts. Huge frogs rained down on all of us, and the musicians got solid hits. They were slow to cotton on and even slower to duck and run for cover. The guitar danged to the ground as a big frog hit the guitarist. Didn't they know about our rain?
I fired once.
A great intake of breath gusted through the crowd. Ooooh. The figure in white staggered. The hail of frogs pummeling down made it hard to see. I craned my neck to see it better. Slowly the white suit toppled.
The King was down.
The ever-present queasy feeling in my stomach went away. I felt vibrant and healthy in a way I never had before.
The King had to be dead.
I was sure I'd seen a giant frog hit him. Had he been killed by the hand of heaven, or mine?
I couldn't speak. I elbowed Joey and pointed to the stage. My hand, white and shaky from being so sick, turned fuller and browner right before my eyes. "Joey. My hand. What's happening?"
He didn't answer. I turned my head. He stared at his own hands. I hardly recognized him. He looked like a movie star. So sleek, so tan, such white even teeth. Did I look the same?
I felt hot, incredibly hot. Sweat sprang out all over my body. Heat burned on my hard hat, and bright light made it impossible to see. My jacket was suffocating me. I ripped it off, frog juice on my clothes be damned. The oilcloth pants, too. The boots slithered off in a small shower of sweat drops. The band of the hard hat tightened around my forehead until I could no longer stand it.
I wiped away the sweat that was blinding me. The Elvis concert was gone. A bright light shone down on me from a blue sky.
That must be the sun. I recognized it from the movies.
My feet were standing on level pavement, clean and not a frog in sight. Things like cars, only shiny and moving, rushed by not three feet away. Jailhouse Rock played from behind me. My stomach kept quiet.
"Jesse Garon, where are we?" Joey said, awe in his voice.
I turned to look. A gust of cool air wafted from the entrance to a building I'd never seen before. It rose tall and white, blotting out the sky. I took one step closer into blessed shadow. Something dinged and jangled inside. People poured in and out, shuffling in a strange waddle because their thighs were too big to walk normal. I'd never seen people like that. Their faces were convex instead of concave, just like their bodies, they were brown, their teeth were white, their clothes had colors brighter than I'd ever seen before.
Across the road I saw a pyramid, the Eiffel tower. Paris? An airplane thundered in the sky above. Joey's Grams had been right. Not Paris, this must be Heaven. Our plan had worked.
This city looked so strange, yet felt so right. The way it was meant to be, with the King dead.
Something in my pocket dinged. I fished out the funny object I'd vomited up earlier. "T-mobile welcomes you to the United States," it said.