Story: “Art is Dead, Says the King”

So I wrote this one up in a rush after being bit by the writing bug a few weeks ago. I then submitted it to Bizarro Central’s Flash Fiction Friday series, but as it exceeded the word limit, they couldn’t publish it. They’re good people and have published a story of mine before, so I would definitely suggest checking them out if you’re into some weird ass books with an emotional core to them. In any case, because the thing was done up quickly and without a whole lot of editing and whatnot, its pretty rough. I don’t write as often as I used to, sadly, so there’s some real tone shifts that don’t read very well. None of that is to excuse the kinda bad shape the thing is in, but I’m sure that once I get around to editing it properly, it’ll be worth sending out again. Right now, I’d rather put it here, if only to let it air out a bit and to put content on the blog, which I don’t want to let die. I mean to write a follow up to my short post on the embassy protests, but at the moment, my brain is rather overtaxed. So, for now, here’s the story:

*******

If you head out to any gathering of with-it kids, then you’ve heard of the newest, coolest cat in town, Elvis Presley. This guy’s got it all! Eyes that bring even the kookiest Betty to her knees, hips that drive old squares up the wall, and now, that indefinable GI charm. Once back from his gig in Korea, Elvis – they call him “the King” – wasted no time haulin’ ass back to the studio, where he recorded his whopper of an album, Elvis’s Back! Never one to just let things hang, he’s hit the road again to make us all go ape once again. Being a generous ol’ greaser, the King let Rolling Stones grab a seat on his tour bus-cum-bachelor pad for an interview as he made his way down to St Louis.

To any hip kiddo, Elvis might as well be a god, and boy did this reporter feel it! You can’t just chill out when you know this rinky-dink little bus – totally nondescript, ya dig? – is the home palace of the Utmost himself. Stepping slowly out of the bus, clad in leather, looking like – for all the world – James Dean in Rebel, was Cool incarnate, The King. Pulling a cig from his jacket, he lights it, and pulls back his glittering hair, taking the opportunity to eyeball me. He asks me if I’m with Stones. You can’t just answer the King all willy-nilly. I ain’t no poof, but my knees were going haywire and I just had – all chill-like, mind you – to nod.

“‘Kay then, Daddy-O, get in here,” he said, his Southern-inflected voice turning my brain to mush, “just don’t have a cow or nothin’. I’m just a nosebleed ape, like you and the rest of ‘em.”

That last part startled me when I heard it, but through the coming days, I would get used to hearing the King talk like that. Anyone who’s seen him perform knows this is as much part of his bit as anything else. Much of our talk (and we sure yapped on through the night) revolved around this, “his way of thinking”, he calls it, though many of the nation’s worst squares have another name for it.

“It’s nihilism. Pure and simple,” says Amanda Appleton, one of the many concerned citizens and members of C.A.S.I. (Christians Against Satanic Influences) protesting outside the St Louis Concert Hall, where Elvis is to perform that night, “He’s a Satanist and a Red, trying to destroy Christian civilization. You see it in the swaying of his hips; it’s meant to defile the purity of young girls and to turn our nation’s young men into queers,” she tells me, waving aloft a sign that says “Elvis Presley is a lover of Satan, Dada, and Lenin”. The rest of her conversation orbits around these accusations, more or less. A real drag.

******

When I present Amanda’s claims to Presley, he says, “I can’t really object to the broad’s reasoning. Just can’t understand why the bitch thinks there’s anything worthwhile about Christian civilization. What is Christian Civilization, anyway?”

When I realize the question isn’t rhetorical, I can’t help but shrug, “What, are ya writin’ a book or some shit?”

“Christian civilization is the smell after they dropped the bomb on the Japs,” he answers, “And this nutty Nancy thinks I’m the nihilist? Talking about Christian civilization like it’s worth a shit, she’s madder than a billy goat.”

Moving on, I ask him what he was trying to accomplish with his new album.

“Well, it’s just that, ya dig? I saw what I saw in Korea. 20 million fucking corpses, they say, right? Well, I was in the fucking trenches and I saw all these Koreans, and then I saw Chinamen too after MacArthur really fuckin lost it, and there they were, doing the same pointless shit in their villages that we do here. I saw them, and they looked silly to me, but I didn’t feel one way or the other about them. So, I’d see them, right, and I’d head back up to my tent, up in the Taebaek mountain range, right? Well, I’d come back down later for resupply and those same villages would be torched, and all the men would be gone. You’d see all the women, with their three ankle biter kids, and they’d be naked and cryin’ and they’d have scars on their hoo-haws cuz one of the guys didn’t wanna wait till he got home to have his way with a woman-”

Feeling like I’m gonna puke, I cut him off and ask him what this has to do with his album, cuz he’s sure taking his dear time with the question.

“Listen here, ya goof, I’m getting to it, if you’ll shut your clap and let me paint the scene for you. So, in any case, I see that sorta shit, and more too. Too much for words or sense. And it stays with me, right? I still got it fuckin’ here,” he points, meaningfully, to his head, “I got it everywhere, really, and now I can’t sleep without seeing it again. So, they finally pull me out of the soup and say, ‘Thank you for your service’, and I wanna kill them when they say that. Service to what? God? Country? Freedom? Fuck no, them’s just the bullshit cover-up words we say when we mean something like ‘Mammon’ or ‘Capital’ or ‘Death’.”

With feeling, he takes a long hit from his cigarette, blowing it into my face. When the coughing’s done, I hear him pick up where he left off.

“So anyway, I’m back here, and I’m thinking, I gotta tell everyone about this. And I can’t put it to paper; I’m wracking my brains trying to think of a way to say it. Ya know, Nietzsche says something about this, like, that anything that can be written is already dead, ya dig? So after a few days, I say ‘Well, might as well end it’. Now, I was allowed to keep some shit from my time in the army. I got this pistol see, a real piece, I’m tellin’ you, and its some Chinese or Korean thing. I don’t know or care about the make n’ model, but I know it’s an officer’s pistol, right? I got it from this guy I was rooming with in Korea, this real tall skinny colored man, see, and he was infantry, so he had to do the shitwork – make the sausage, yeah? They wouldn’t let me do that shit, cuz I’m the King – king of the shit hill – but this guy had to go make those sorts of scenes I told you about-”

The manager comes back to give the skinny to us. We’re right outside St Louis. I’m starting to feel relieved. It’s exhausting to be on a hot-as-Hades bus with a man looking to poop the party of existence itself. The whole time the manager’s talking, the King is giving him the hairy eyeball. This cat doesn’t wanna be stopped. I start to notice his palor in the sickly, yolky sunlight of St Louis. He’s got features they airbrush out of all the pictures, little scars and baggy blue-black hangings-on under his eyes. When the manager leaves, I feel terribly afraid, as though I’m about to relive The Cask of Amontillado on wheels.

“Fucking interruptions need to quit,” he says acidly, “So this guy, this negro, comes back one day with this pistol and he tells me to hold it for him. He won’t give me the skinny on it or anything, just says he can’t be trusted with it. Now, I’m an alright guy – whatever that means after Auschwitz – so I hold on to it. Hide it under my pillow, go to sleep on it, right? So I do that, and then, in the middle of the fuckin’ Korean night, I hear a Bang, and I shoot up. Hit my fucking head on the bunk above me like a spaz. I look around. I’m the only one up; I ain’t infantry, so of course I’m the only soft sleeper on the base. And I can’t see nothing, but I notice one thing, for sure. The pistol’s gone, right?”

He stops to breath quiveringly like a junkie.

“I can’t find it anywhere, ya dig? So, I look around some more, and this guy, the guy who gave me the fuckin’ thing, has skipped town to Nowheresville. The whole bunkroom is short one man. So, I go look outside, right. Well, there he is, down a head and lying in his own blood, officer’s pistol in hand. Must have shit himself when the bullet smashed his brains. One of the only reasonable men I ever knew.”

I fail to hold my chill. That’s when I vomit. Tilting my head from him, I spew my shrimp Po boy lunch onto the floor. I fucked up and knew it. I gave out then, like a grade-A spaz. Maybe my brain had broke, but I didn’t wanna be around the King anymore.

When I awoke, I was laying serenely upon a hotel bed. The King was sitting across from me on a chair. He looked, finally, as though he had given into the ruin only implied in that short glimpse I got of him – the real him. His hair laid badly upon his skull, dishevelled and matted to the extreme, and his face seemed to have become a death mask. No living thing dwells here, I thought.

“If you were any other man,” he began, “I would have thrown you out of the bus at top speed. But I need you to hear, to bear witness, and I need your readership to hear as well. I’m going to continue now, and I need you to write it all down.”

He handed me my legal pad and began again:

“After they dealt with the suicide, sending flowers and shit to his poor widow, they no longer had any need for the pistol, and I was permitted to take it with me. Thought I might put it to similar use. So, like I was sayin’ earlier, I was gonna kill myself. Had it loaded and in my mouth and everything. Then the thought came to me that I should make an album like I used to make, right, like everything was okay. When Duchamp wanted to spit on this monstrous shithole, he didn’t paint a Black Painting, like Goya, nor did he write a scathing critique, like Marx, but instead, this cat just exhibited a toilet. The simplest thing of all! A toilet! And that’s how I got the idea for the album. The only proper response was to reshovel the same shit and see if anyone gagged at it. Next question?”

Flustered now, the very idea of being with this madman, of having to listen to him go on, killed me. I wanted out, “No, I’m afraid that’s all. That’s perfectly okay. Just fine. Thank you for sitting for this interview, Mr Presley.”

It was a lie and he knew it was a lie, but he couldn’t force me to write or to ask him any more questions. He made as though to leave, but stopped just short of the door.

“I’ve probably rocked your socks off a bit too hard, baby, but I ain’t no kook,” he said, “I learned my sanity from the sanitorium of modernity: war. Really, it was my buddies back in Korea, I think, that taught me best. There was this one guy, Moshe, who was a very kind man, a Jew. He invited me, once, to a Shabbat service with him in the ramshackle old religious building they’d thrown together before we ever got there. I wore one of those hats they wear, whatever they’re called, and I bowed during the prayers, and I heard a deafening silence, the abdicated throne of heaven. Just before they shipped me back here, we got word that they’d discharged Moshe. Shell shock, they’d said. Found him lying on the snowy ground of a foothill just outside the base, screaming, with three Shabbat candles shoved up his ass. That cat had done something more profound than any philosopher, Socrates to Hegel, ever did.”

With that, the King greased back his hair, bowed his head, and left the room.

******

Later that night, having recovered my strength, I burnt gravel to the Concert Hall to see the King perform. All the greasers and their Bettys were out in full to hear their boppin’ monarch sing. I read the crowd thronged outside to gauge the reactions of his adoring fans to the night.

“O, I just love ‘im to pieces,” said one brunette.

“Aw I’m just here for my girl,” said the greaser with her, “but he ain’t bad at all, really. Little buzzed off it myself.”

“Well, I see those hips, and I just start howling,” interjected a large redhead, “just don’t put my name in this, ya dig? My parents don’t know I’m here!”

The mood was palpable outside, and even more so inside. There is endless cheering, high screeches from the many women in the audience; even the men join in. When he, the King himself, mounts the stage, the stadium shakes! The Utmost has descended and we’re ecstatic. Saundering up to the mic, he winks and points at various girls in the audience. Suddenly, he makes a motion with his hand. Quiet down, he signals. Silence. He grabs the mic with one hand, and with the other pulls, in a single graceful motion, a cigarette out of his jacket pocket and into the space between his lips. He pulls out his lighter, and begins to speak:

“Art is dead,” says the King, as he lights his hair on fire, the grease carrying it. In time, he is totally encased in a cloak of flame. Through it all, he sways his hips. In that moment, I remember that even sex is the slapping of fleshy bodies bodies together. His hips sway, and the King burns.

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