Elvis is seventy-seven now, closing in on seventy-eight, but in the right light he can look a lot younger. He lost his extra weight a long time ago. He runs on the beach. He’s deeply tanned by the Florida sun. Sometimes when I look at him, I can see the handsome young man in his old movies. I’m only fourteen but I have all his movies, so I’m familiar with the sweet bird of his youth.
Elvis lives in a small bungalow on Coconut Bayou, Siesta Key, in Florida. It’s perfect. A wall and a lot of trees hide his home from the street. It’s well kept up. The grounds around it are thickly planted, practically jungle, always full of color and tropical birdsong. And cats. Elvis has come to love cats.
He rarely goes to the mall anymore, but he will catch a ride over to Westfield Southgate on the Tamiami Trail in Sarasota during the Christmas season. It’s a smaller mall than Westfield Sarasota Square, farther down the Trail, but it’s got the shops he likes best.
He’ll spend a couple of hours, picking up a few gifts. Last year he sang the blues in the Saks back showroom with Loose Johnny Booker, who was working as mall Santa at the time. That was the day my grandmother Myrtle connected with The King. She moved out of Sunshine Harbor Assisted Living and into his place shortly thereafter.
I’m Agnes, by the way. I live in Sarasota with my parents and little sister. I like to hang out with my grandmother and Elvis. Who wouldn’t? They are two of the world’s all-time special people.
They decided this year to return to the mall on the anniversary of their first meeting there. I recognized Elvis in Pottery Barn on that day one year ago, when he was buying little gifts for the waitstaff at the after hours club where he sings occasionally. Grandma had been hugged by Elvis at one of his concerts when she was a teen in Biloxi and she never forgot it. After speaking to The King in Pottery Barn, I ran off to find her and bring her back to meet him herself. We found him in Banana Republic.
Grandma was at the mall with a group of her neighbors at the time. They were having a Sunshine Harbor outing. Word about Elvis got around the group and most of them joined us in the clothes store. The song requests began and Elvis led us over to Saks and performed for us after the store manager, Mr. Gold, got him set up on the showroom stage. It was right there onstage that he and Grandma struck up their special friendship.
I tagged along on their anniversary-day return trip. We started the celebration with a visit to The Pretzel Twister. I chose cinnamon, Grandma garlic, and Elvis Italian. We also got three dips: cheddar cheese, cream cheese, and honey mustard. Yum.
Next we visited Banana Republic and Grandma and Elvis reenacted their meeting over by the changing rooms, this time ending it with a kiss. Old as he is, Elvis still radiates a magnetism and charm that can’t be described. Grandma is no slouch either.
This man. Elvis. What magic does he possess? Fat or thin. Young or old. The gods gave him something that most of us don’t have. He’s surrounded by an electric aura. Whenever I visit his home and he comes into the room, I never need to look up. I always know that Elvis has arrived.
Ditto when Elvis leaves the building.
After their romantic moment in BR, we walked over to Macy’s to check out the Christmas puppet theater. The mall was mobbed with locals and snowbirds doing their last-minute shopping.
Macy’s had cleared some space near the Customer Service area. The puppet theater faced out from the wall and a large audience of children sat on the carpet in front of it. Elvis knew the store manager in charge of the event and the owner of the theater. They prevailed on him to do Santa’s singing part in the show that was about to go on. He obliged them in that cordial way of his.
Grandma went around with him to the back of the little theater, out of sight, and the show manager fitted Elvis with a mike. He unfolded chairs for the two of them. I went out front and sat with the kids. A lot of parents were leaving their children there for the duration of the show, and heading off to shop. The store had a security detail acting as uniformed babysitters, although I don’t think anyone had planned for this to happen. I took charge of the children around me and maintained some kind of order. It was a lively, boisterous crowd, especially when the lights went down and a spotlight lit up the little velvet-plush theater curtain.
The curtain went up and the play commenced. The plot was something about Santa running late on Christmas Eve. His sleigh needed fixing. He sang about it. Elvis sounded good as Santa. His voice has roughened with age but it grabs me just as much as his old recordings. Santa got into a little duet with an elf and I realized that my grandmother was singing too. Very cool.
The children mostly behaved themselves. The guards snatched up a couple of young troublemakers and removed them from the area.
Then came a moment in the play that amazed me. The scene was set in a family’s living room on Christmas Eve. A fire was lit in the fireplace. Not some winking red lights or red ribbons blown by a fan or any other version of theatrical fire. The set designer for this production had included a small working fireplace with an actual fire in it.
“What the…?” said half the security guards at the same time.
The fire was contained and no doubt safe, although how the puppet folks could guarantee that, I have no idea. The problem wasn’t the fire. The problem was the cute little fireplace and its chimney, which stuck up through the roof of the house and from which a pretty little plume of white smoke was rising, rising, rising up to the sensitive smoke detectors in the ceiling.
My eyes followed the little curlicues as they rolled up to caress the detector sensors. After a pregnant pause, during which I held my breath, the fire alarms began to screech, the emergency lights sprang into life, and the ceiling sprinklers gushed out torrents of water, which fell like rain in a monsoon. After a moment of open-mouthed paralyzed amazement, the children jumped up and began capering and prancing and screaming in delight. The security guards and a few parents tried to round them up and herd them out of the store, but none of them wanted to go.
The kids had to be run down, one by one, horse-collared, and carried out to the crowd of frantic parents who had gathered at the store entrance. I ushered Grandma and Elvis toward daylight through the perfume section.
When we emerged from the store, we encountered a scene of chaos. Hysteria reigned supreme. However, no one seemed to be hurt. Elvis stepped over to the Santa area. Loose Johnny Booker was Santa again and Elvis joined him up by his throne. Without further ado – without any ado – the two of them launched into an a capella rendition of Blue Christmas.
I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me
Loose Johnny pulled two guitars out from under his throne – he never went anywhere without them – and he and Elvis filled the instrumental break.
And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That’s when those blue memories start calling
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas
By the time they finished the song, the crowd had quieted and gathered around. Elvis launched into his personal holiday favorite, the bluesy “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” In that one, Santa rolls into town in a black Cadillac.
They followed with the sad “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees” and then the inspirational “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” and the classic “Merry Christmas Baby.”
By the time they finished the set, staff from Call Day Spa was handing out towels, Gap Kids had donated clean underwear and shirts, and Starbucks and Toojays were serving hot chocolate.
Elvis and Loose Johnny in his Santa suit got a big hand. I toweled off and was ready to go. This was Florida, after all, not the icy north.
It was my second year in a row of great Christmas shopping with The King. The beginning of a tradition, I hope and pray.