* For Grandma and The King *
When the man on the radio announced the bad news, my mother, who had been inducting me into The King’s biggest-fan club ever since I was old enough to listen, paused a moment from her work in the kitchen to wipe my face and tell me sadly that he was gone for good. I was impressed by my mother’s sadness, so I quietly asked questions and felt distressed by what I understood. And when Grandma came over for dessert that evening, I paused in the middle of an ice-cream headache to tell her that The King was now with Jesus.
“It means no more records or movies or live specials on TV,” I informed her, sadly.
But Grandma thought she was better informed and felt that I should be too. So after peering over her shoulder at my mother a moment, she shook her head slowly and looked down at me.
“Elvis went to hell,” she said, gently.
And then I thought that hell is the opposite of heaven, where Jesus is, who made Christmas and fishing and The Lake, and loved children, and died on the cross so I didn’t have to, and would bring me to heaven forever if only I was a good Christian too—which meant behaving and going to church twice on Sundays and praying “the Lord my soul to take” at bedtime. And I remembered a picture I had once seen briefly on TV of a thousand naked bodies writhing in burning pitch and groaning through flickering smoke, and I forgot all about my chocolate ice-cream as I sat staring at it, lost in thought.
“Did you hear me?” Grandma asked, softly but firmly. “I said that Elvis went to hell.”
But though I had never known Grandma to lie before, or even to be mistaken or uninformed, I shook my head slowly and looked up at her.
“No, Grandma,” I said, softly but firmly. “Elvis was a Christian.”
At that moment, Grandma must have remembered a picture she had once seen briefly on TV of Elvis thrusting his dirty pelvis through a flickering, smoky concert hall and moaning into a microphone, because I watched her shudder, lost in thought.
“Did you hear me, Grandma?” I asked. “I said Elvis was a Christian.”
“No, he wasn’t,” she said plainly, shaking off her reverie. “Elvis made wicked music.”
But I knew wicked music from when Mom changed the radio channel, and Mom never changed the radio channel if Elvis was on it; she turned the volume up instead. And as my memory spun through the Elvis records I had played so many times on my very own turntable, I remembered that I didn’t even like all of them.
“No he didn’t, Grandma,” I said plainly, shaking my head. “Elvis sang church songs.”
“Yes,” she conceded. “He was a devil in disguise.”
As I scowled back into the bowl of pitch before me, I wondered if I was a devil in disguise too.
“What did Elvis do?” I asked, seriously.
“Well,” Grandma said, as her memory turned yellowed newspaper pages in search of the most instructive of Elvis’s many sins, “he used drugs—”
“What’s drugs, Grandma?” I asked.
“Drugs are like candy—”
“Candy?” I pressed, despairing of future Halloween prohibitions and especially troubled to learn of this particular link with damnation.
“They’re like candy,” she clarified, “except once you start eating them, you can’t stop—”
“Can’t stop?” I repeated, struggling to understand how drugs differ from regular candy.
“That’s right,” Grandma said. “And they make you do bad things.”
“Like ram around?” I asked, with mounting apprehension.
“Like adultery…” she said, and shuddered.
And then I understood that drugs were no regular candy. I knew adultery from a Bible story about King David, who once peeped at his neighbor lady while she was showering and then took her home with him even though her own kids needed her. Adultery was very, very bad: bad enough to be against one of the Ten Commandments; bad enough to take you to hell if anything was. But maybe not if you were The King, because King David didn’t go to hell.
“Why would people eat drugs if they make you do bad things?” I wondered aloud.
“Because the Devil tricks them,” Grandma said. “He says they’re for fun or to make you wise or other lies, because he wants to take us to hell.”
And then my childish mind did that surprising thing that childish minds are famous for doing.
“So you can’t stop eating drugs even if you want to?” I asked.
“It’s called addiction,” Grandma agreed.
“And drugs make you do bad things even if you don’t want to?”
“They make you go completely crazy,” Grandma nodded enthusiastically.
“And Elvis ate drugs because the Devil tricked him?” I pressed.
“The Devil is the Great Deceiver,” Grandma concluded wide-eyed, pleased that I had followed her lesson so well.
“But then Grandma,” I concluded, wide-eyed, “Jesus won’t send Elvis to hell just because the Devil tricked him into doing what he didn’t even want to. That would be mean, and Jesus isn’t mean. Jesus will forgive Elvis and take him to heaven just like us.”
And that was the end of our little lesson. Grandma opened her mouth and looked back at my mother, and I went to my room to listen to The King sing church songs on my turntable. And for the first time ever, I liked them.