Orpheus

At seventy-eight, Elvis is content. To a degree. He enjoys the equanimity of those aged but comfortable. Nature has reinforced in him that reflexive inhibition against brooding over the final curtain that approaches.

Living in his small bungalow on Coconut Bayou, Siesta Key, outside Sarasota, he entertains close friends and enjoys his cats. The cats sleep with him at night when they aren’t out hunting in the jungle-like grounds that surround his home

A stone wall, dense Southern trees, and thickets of bamboo protect the bungalow from prying eyes, not that the neighborhood harbors many.

Elvis sings, of course. In the shower, and at an after-hours club in Sarasota. He can still enthrall an audience without effort. It’s magic.

I’ve known Elvis for years and despite his evident contentment, I’ve come to recognize a deep, still sadness and remorse within him, at the foundation of his soul. On his birthday this year, January 8th, he told me why. We were sitting alone on his patio in the dark. Night birds called. We were sharing a pitcher of caipirinhas and smoking a little grass.

In April of 1934, Elvis said, his mother, Gladys Love Presley, then twenty-two, took a trip up the Natchez Trace from Tupelo to Tockshish, Mississippi, to visit her grandparents, while Elvis’ father, the eighteen-year-old Vernon Elvis, built the little house in which Elvis would be born.

While Gladys Love was in country, a band of Irish Travelers stopped for a night or so while passing through. They camped in a meadow next to the Tombigbee River.

When she heard about it, Gladys rode a bike down the county road from Tockshish to the encampment. During an evening of music, dance, drink, and roast pig in the meadow, Gladys met Apollo.

Apollo was treated like a musical god by the other Travelers. None could compare to him when he took up fiddle or guitar. When he sang, the Travelers said, he could control the strength and direction of the wind and the flight of birds in the air.

The Mississippi countryside in April was swollen with spring. The verdure of the woods, ready to burst into a thousand shades of green, elicited in Gladys a restless energy that she had not experienced before. As Apollo stepped up on a temporary stage and began to sing, she felt drunk with the passion of youth. Although she was an upright, God-fearing newlywed, after a night with Apollo she found herself somehow pregnant with a child not her husband’s. She returned to Tupelo the following week.

Gladys named her child Orpheus when he was born, after her grandfather. When Vernon Elvis began hearing rumors about her behavior that night in the meadow, he insisted that she change their son’s name to his own, out of spite. This she did.

The boy Elvis obviously inherited Apollo’s gift. When he was eighteen, just before he made his historic first visit to Sun Records in Memphis, where the family had moved from Tupelo, he roved down to Tockshish like his mother before him, with a couple of friends. Growing up, he had heard the same rumors his father had heard.

His grandparents had passed on by then, but Elvis wanted to see the meadow where he had been conceived. His mother rarely spoke of it, but when she did, it was with such awe and longing that it had come to seem a magical place in his mind.

He found the meadow on the river and like his mother, he encountered the Travelers there. He and his friends were invited to spend an evening in the meadow, eating, drinking, and listening to music, as his mother had been.

Apollo wasn’t there. He was in Nashville, Elvis was told, singing under a famous name. Nevertheless, Elvis felt his presence.

A Traveler woman named Seirenes sang that night. Her voice compelled all present to come to the stage. While she sang, she fixed Elvis with her eyes. When she had finished a set, she motioned him up.

She thrust a vintage Martin guitar into his hands and left him there. The Travelers peered up at this teenager. Elvis struck up “Donal Kenny” and everyone in the crowd immediately noticed his resemblance, in visage and voice, to Apollo. A murmur spread among them. While Elvis was singing “Clasped to a Pig,” he caught the eye of a young woman in the crowd. When he finally left the stage, to loud groans and protests and demands for more, he made his way to her.

This was Eurydice Nyssa. She took the singer’s arm and they walked about the meadow together. Standing by the river with a full moon in it, they put their arms around each other. They were soul mates, if such a thing exists.

By morning, they were in love in a way so intense that one must presume magic was involved. Elvis proposed and Eurydice, who had lost her parents as a child, led him to her grandfather, to seek his permission. She counted on her grandparents for guidance in all the important matters of her life.

The Travelers were not given to marriage with outsiders and rarely condoned it, but Eurydice’s grandfather could not say no to a son of Apollo. He only wished that Apollo were there. Eurydice’s grandmother, told the news, asked Elvis to give her some time to counsel her granddaughter about marriage. With Eurydice so young, just eighteen, she hadn’t thought to do so yet.

Elvis, who was the same age as his father had been at Elvis’ birth, married Eurydice late the next day in a civil ceremony in Tockshish, in front of a justice of the peace. This was fourteen years before he married Priscilla Beaulieu.

After the ceremony, the couple returned to the Travelers’ camp. The week that followed was filled with music and food and drink. Elvis sent his two friends home early, to take the news of his marriage to his folks. He and Eurydice would follow at the end of the week.

On the morning of the seventh day, Elvis awoke with a feeling of joy he could not express, could barely withstand. He felt his soul had merged with that of Eurydice. Everything was possible now. This was the pinnacle of love.

On the afternoon of the seventh day, deeply content, he sat down in the shade of a tupelo at the fringe of the woods. Eurydice was walking with friends down a forest path. The air was full of birdsong, the buzz of insects, the murmur of the crowd, distant music. Elvis fell asleep. When he woke up two hours later, he stood up and stretched. He strolled back into the meadow, looking for his bride. He found confusion, Travelers running about. A cousin of Eurydice hurried up to him.

“Eurydice has been bitten by a snake!” she said. “The girls were just passing the pond over there. Eurydice screamed and then the other girls screamed, and Hades and Persephone came running from their bar and gathered her up and took her back to it to look after her. She’s still there.”

The Underworld Bar was owned and operated by a man named Hades and his wife Persephone. These two were Travelers who had settled in Tockshish. The Underworld was fabled along the Trace. As far as anyone could remember, it had always been there, on the edge of the woods, next to the pond. Hades and Persephone themselves had run it for years.

They were a cold, uncaring couple, reputed to put impressionable customers on a road straight to Hell when given the chance. Neither had ever been known to do a kindness for anyone. Hades was a giant of a man, with a face frozen in an expression of snide disgust. His wife surveyed the world with hate.

Elvis ran down the path from the meadow. When it twisted over behind the Underworld, he left it and crossed to the bar’s front door. He opened the door and stepped inside. Three afternoon drinkers sat at the bar at the far end of the room. The light was dim, with ruddy undertones. Cigarette smoke layered the air.

To the left stood a small bandstand. The tiny dance floor in front of it was surrounded by empty tables. Elvis crossed the room to the far end of the bar, where a short hallway led to the bathrooms and an office. The bartender and the drinkers took no interest.

The office door was ajar. The Underworld’s bouncer stood in it, a mountain of a man, a man with no more soul than a mountain. Next to him, leashed to his hand, stood a black hound with eyes red in the dim office light.

At eighteen, Elvis stood one-quarter of an inch under six feet. He was well put together.

“Where is my wife?” he said.

The bouncer and his dog backed up a step at the intensity in his voice. Apollo’s blood ran in the boy’s veins.

Elvis entered the room.

Eurydice sat on a couch. Her clothing was in disarray. Dirt smudged her cheeks. Elvis couldn’t read her expression, which had something in it of confusion, despair, and resignation.

Elvis went to her. He knelt in front of the couch and took her hands in his. They were cold.

Hades and Persephone stood by a desk in the corner.

“A cottonmouth got her,” Hades said. “Bit her on the foot. Down by the pond. She went into shock. By the time we got her here, she was gone. Her heart had stopped.”

“She’s not gone now,” Elvis said. “She’s sitting here in front of me.”

“I brought her back,” Hades said. “Me and Persephone. We used a remedy.”

“Thank you,” Elvis said.

“We brought her back,” Persephone said. “She owes us her life.”

“Thank you,” Elvis said again, looking up at the tone in her voice.

“She’s not your wife no more,” Hades said. “She’s with us now.”

Elvis stared at them, then looked at Eurydice. She nodded, just a little.

“This is Traveler business,” Hades said. “Her grandpa and grandma will know.”

“You saved her life. I’ve thanked you for that,” Elvis said. “Now we’re leaving.”

Hades stood, studying the young man. Beside him, Persephone did the same.

“I have never granted a wish,” Hades said.

“You never have,” Persephone said to him. “We never have.”

“What wish?” Elvis said. “I haven’t asked you for anything.”

“I brought her back when she was gone,” Hades said. “Now she belongs to me. This is the Traveler way. From time to time, folks will ask me for this or that favor. I never say yes.”

Elvis looked at Eurydice. She looked down.

“You can’t own her,” Elvis said. A flush rose past his neck and into his cheeks.

“I can and I do,” Hades said.

“Let me take her out of here,” Elvis said. “Grant me that favor. She is my wife.”

“I have never done it,” Hades said, “but… Apollo and I are close. Very close.”

Elvis turned toward him, expectant.

“We listened to you sing last night,” Hades said. Persephone nodded.

Hades walked out of the office, into the dimly lit bar. Elvis and Persephone followed him.

He gestured toward the stage.

Elvis stood for a moment, stood still, thinking. Then he walked to the stage and stepped up onto it. He picked up an old Gibson Sunburst he found leaning against a stool. He strummed it a time or two and then sang a rendition of “I See Her Still In My Dreams” that was clear as a mountain stream running over the rocks in winter.

When the song came to an end, Hades, who had sat down and settled back in his chair, motioned for another one. Elvis performed “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming,” even better than the previous, if possible. Tears glittered in Persephone’s eyes.

Again Hades gestured. Again Elvis sang.

“You’ve got Apollo in you, that’s for sure,” Hades said.

Elvis put down the Gibson.

“I can’t say no to you, boy,” Hades said, “but I’m not so soft I can’t attach a condition. Eurydice will follow you out, but if you doubt me, if you show me a lack of respect, if you look back to make sure she’s behind you, I’ll snatch her back for good. That’s a promise.”

Elvis turned toward the bar’s front door and stood waiting. Persephone led Eurydice out of the office and positioned her behind him.

“All right,” Hades said.

Elvis walked to the door with firm, quick steps. When he reached it, he pushed it open and kicked a wooden wedge under it with his foot, to keep it that way. Ten more strides took him to the edge of the graveled parking lot.

The sunlight was brilliant on his face. He turned and faced the bar, squinting.

Eurydice had lagged behind. She was just reaching the door’s sill. She had one foot in sunlight, over the threshold. The other foot remained inside, in shadow.

“Too soon, boy, too soon,” Hades called out. He pulled Eurydice back inside.

Elvis started for the door, shouting. It closed in his face. He was left alone in front of the bar.

A bird called. A horsefly buzzed past his nose. Somewhere far off, beyond the woods, a truck rumbled.

Elvis rattled the door, banged on it, kicked it, in vain. In his heart he knew that the best part of his life, his one true love, was lost to him now, behind him, a memory. He supposed that he would sing, would perform, perhaps would become the greatest of his generation with a guitar in his hand, but he knew that the wound in his heart would never heal.

It never did.

“You can look back over your life,” Elvis said to me that night, as we sat together on his patio. “You can spot the best day and the worst. For me, they were the same day, morning and afternoon. That day caused me my deepest joy and my deepest sorrow, and I knew then that it was so.”

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