Evan Meets Charlie
August 16, 2017
My name is Evan Jackson, and I am a bit of a history buff. I knew about the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s attempt to split Allied armies in northwest Europe. As a child, I had often sat mesmerized by the stories my grandfather, Corporal David Jackson, had told me. He had been a medic and an eyewitness to that terrible struggle. However, what happened on that battlefield was the furthest thing from my mind the afternoon I met Charlie Parker.
The day I met Charlie started out as a typical day for both of us. Namely, him shaking off his recurring dreams, or should I say nightmares, and me sleeping off the after-session beers I had partaken with my good friend and drummer, Chris, the night before.
That was one of the luxuries of being a musician, at least it was for me. I liked to refer to myself as a struggling songwriter. The truth was, I wasn’t struggling, at least not in the economic sense.
I took any gig available, not so much for the money. I just loved to perform and would fill in for bands, do studio work, and play weddings. Any gig, you name it, and I would do it.
That’s how I ended up with Chris as a friend. He was a very talented drummer and a struggling musician, making ends meet by playing when he could and slinging booze at a local pub during the day.
As I showered and shaved, I played back the conversation we had the night before. After a couple of beers I had tried to pay his tab, but he refused to let me.
Our conversation had, at some point, reflected on the recent spate of racially related incidents centered around the police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I find it all very disturbing. I mean, look at how far things have progressed in the last fifty years.”
Chris went quiet and soon stood up to leave. He smiled at me. “You would have a different outlook if you had to drive down the interstate in my skin. Hell, even if you had to drive downtown in a beater like my vehicle—”
I started to apologize, but he cut me off.
“Don’t apologize, Evan. I know you mean well. It’s just that, in my eyes, you are talking about something progressing that never should have been there in the first place. So, how do you even define progress, especially if you are a white man born and raised in Bay City, Michigan?” He turned and left before I could respond.
His words had troubled me, but I set them aside and refocussed on my upcoming concert at the Beachwood Retirement Home. I enjoyed playing for the residents of these places. They always appreciated the music, and I chose my music carefully, a repertoire from across the decades. I focused on the fifties, songs that would spark memories for my audience. They listened and applauded, something every performer appreciates. As many entertainers will tell you, we feed off the crowd’s enthusiasm. It’s a mutual exchange and can be very rewarding.
At twenty-six, I had already ground through two relationships. Days on the road and a roller coaster career took its toll on my love life. I felt if I were to get into a lasting relationship it would take a lot of understanding from my partner. Recently, I had lost my mom and had moved back to my childhood home. The estate my parents had left me wasn’t huge, but it helped to pay the bills while I struggled with my songwriting career.
I knew I should sell the family home; I didn’t need all that space and could find something less expensive. But, my heart wouldn’t allow it, at least not for now. It held far too many memories of happy times with my parents. Growing up in a loving home, I often reflected on how Mom and I would sit listening to music from her record collection. We enjoyed all the greats like Bobby Vinton, The Everly Brothers, and, of course, her favorite, Elvis Presley.
She told me she was very young when she became hooked on that era of music. She credited her sister, Bonnie, who was nine years older. Mom claimed Aunt Bonnie had bought every Elvis record ever recorded. Although Mom’s generation tended to prefer groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, her favorites were Elvis and a host of other fifties and early sixties artists. She said ‘they brought us good old rock and roll.'
As a kid, I had been exposed to that music, loved it, and ended up performing it. I often said it was in my genes. I especially enjoyed playing Elvis tunes. Sometimes, I thought I was born in the wrong era. I felt I would have thrived as a musician in the fifties.
That’s how my life and Charlie Parker’s became entwined. Because it was the 40th Anniversary of the Kings death, I had finished my concert with an Elvis medley and a song I had written for my mom entitled A Pilgrimage to Memphis.
A trip to Elvis’s birthplace was something we had planned to do. In the spring of 2014, we were pretty much set to go when Mom had the stroke. At sixty-one, she was much too young. She lingered for a week, never regaining consciousness until the moment before she left me.
She had looked up, smiled, and said, “Great things ahead for you, son . . . Great things. Make the trip to Memphis, Evan, for both of us.”
Now, as I sang that song for the retirement home residents, I imagined Mom sitting in the front row smiling, leading the applause. Singing the last words, I thought, I’ll make that trip to Memphis someday soon, Mom. I promise.
I was packing up my gear when the old fellow motioned I should join him at his table. He was deceptively frail looking; I guessed he couldn’t weigh more than one hundred pounds. Dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt with the largest stainless coffee cup I had ever seen perched in front of him. It was called a Bubba Cup. It held fifty-two ounces, and I would learn it was his constant companion.
I walked over to the old man. Oh boy, I’m likely in for a lecture. He’ll probably say something like, “Pretty good, son. Just turn it down next time.”
With great effort, he stood up. “Damn fine job, young man.” Damn fine.
“Well, thank you, sir.”
“Damn fine, and I oughta know. I was with him on tour, you know.”
Oh, boy, here we go.
“On tour with whom, sir?”
“With Elvis. And, don’t call me sir. Name’s Charlie. Hell, I never even called him sir.”
“You mean Elvis? Elvis Presley? You went on tour with Elvis Presley?”
“Yes, siree. On tour, off tour, let’s take the Caddy for a burger, drop by Graceland for a beer, all of the above. He was my friend and, for a while, my boss. He was a great fella, at least he was when I knew him. Some say he changed over the years. But, for me, he was always, first and foremost, my friend.”
The old man paused. “I see by your expression you don’t believe a word I’m sayin’. Probably think I’m full of shit.” He smiled, grasping my wrist in a surprisingly firm grip and pointing to the coffee machine. “You go grab us a coffee, young fella. Just top mine up.” He handed me the massive mug. “When you come back, I’ll explain.”
I reflected on his comments as I went for the coffee. His claim to have known Elvis was likely bullshit. However, I was intrigued. There was something about this character that rang true. When I returned, he had placed a photograph on the table. I set our coffees down and examined the picture. It was old, an original black and white fading into sepia. The ragged edges testified to years of being handled. Likely carried around in the old man’s wallet.
The picture displayed two young men standing in front of a car. Their backs were to the camera. The one fellow was well dressed in military uniform. His extended hand is presenting a set of keys. The other guy in blue jeans and a T-shirt sported a fifties ducktail haircut. The car was a big car with the front grille, emblem, and bumper identifying it distinctly as a Cadillac.
I studied the figures. “My God, is that Elvis in uniform? Is that in front of Graceland?” “Sure as shootin’.”
“Elvis . . . Elvis Presley?”
“Well, it sure as hell isn’t Elvis Castellio or whatever his name is.”
“Elvis . . . Elvis Presley?” I said it loudly, catching the attention of two ladies at the next table.
“Keep it down, son. I don’t often show this picture around here. Although, it has helped me get lucky with the ladies a couple of times.”
“You repeat yourself a lot, don’t you, son?”
“And, I suppose the other fellow is you?”
“You are sharp, aren’t you?”
“And what is Elvis doing? Is he giving you the keys to the Cadillac?”
“There you go, a regular Sherlock Holmes.”
“But, Charlie, the other fellow could be anybody. How do I know it’s you?”
“Well, firstly, because I said so. Secondly, flip the picture over.”
Written in faded ink were the words, Thanks, Charlie – Your friend forever – Elvis Presley. I studied it. Although it looked authentic enough, I still had my doubts. Anyone could have forged an Elvis signature, and I was no handwriting expert.
He showed me another photo of a young Elvis leaning out the window of a pick-up truck, a huge grin on his face.
“That one is the day I met him in 1954.” Again, I studied the photo carefully. “You are a doubting Thomas, aren’t you? Well, can’t say as I blame you, son. You can’t go five feet nowadays without someone trying to con you into something.”
“Too bad you didn’t have the car now, Charlie. What a great piece of history that would be.”
He seemed to hesitate before speaking, “Come with me.” He struggled to his feet. Using his cane, he made an unbalanced grab for his walker, hooking it and pulling it over. Once he had righted himself, he placed his mug in the walker basket, hung his cane on one handle, and headed down the hall.
“Sorry about that, a bit of Chinese shrapnel, it slows me down some. Well com’on Evan, get a move on.”
“But, Charlie, I have to pack up my gear.”
“Hogwash! This’ll only take a few more minutes. A young buck like you has all the time in the world.”
He forged ahead, waving for me to follow. A cute nurse passed us in the hallway. She smiled at Charlie and blew him a kiss.
“Hey, Angel, you hear this young fella sing Elvis?”
“I did Charlie. . . he is very talented.”
“He’s damn good. You two should get together. Who knows, maybe some sparks will fly.”
“Charlie Parker, you behave yourself.”
I lipped an apology. She gave me an understanding nod and carried on with her duties.
“You know, Evan, that’s one of the ones I showed the photo too.”
I stopped in my tracks. “What are you saying, Charlie? You mean you… you and her?”
“Got ya!” he laughed. “But, it’s okay if you wanna spread the rumor. Why I could become a legend in my own retirement home.”
I chuckled as we entered the elevator. Behind the gruff exterior, Charlie had quite the sense of humor. He punched the embossed P for the parking level. When we exited, he turned right and directed us through a steel door into the underground garage.
I was perplexed. “Charlie, why did you bring us—?”
Cutting me off mid-sentence, he turned, grabbed the cane that hung from his walker, and pointed to the far corner of the garage. Squinting in the dim light, I could make out a large vehicle shrouded in one of those protective car covers. We walked over. My heart was racing. I guessed it might be the Cadillac. He poked at the cover with his cane.
“Pull her off!”
Reaching down, I grasped the bottom corner, pulling it back to reveal a large chrome bumper sporting two black rubber-tipped Dagmars. It was distinctly a Cadillac bumper. It sported the two protrusions initially designed to represent artillery shells but nicknamed for the attributes of a voluptuous blonde actress.
“Holy Shit! You kept it?” I stood straight up, staring at the old man.
“Sure did, and it’s in as good a shape as the day Elvis gave it to me. I kept it serviced, changed the oil, ran it every once and a while, and drove it a couple of times a month. Not for long, just a few cruises down Main Street. Can’t let a car sit around, you know. Well, what are you waiting for? Uncover it.”
“Okay, Charlie, you’ve convinced me.”
I removed the rest of the cover. The Caddy was massive. The bright paint, chrome, and stainless steel seemed to light up the underground garage. I walked around the car. “What year?”
“58 Eldorado Brougham. They only made about three hundred of these. Elvis gave it to me shortly after his momma passed. To be honest, I don’t know if he even drove it. They delivered it to Graceland while he was in boot camp, just before Gladys passed.
“He said I might as well have it, ’cause he was heading to Germany and couldn’t use it over there. Said he was worried about me driving Betsy, my old Hudson. He was right about that. She’d certainly seen better days.” “You called your car Betsy?”
“Hell, I always used to name my cars, so did my dad. He had a 1938 Hudson Terraplane coupe. He loved that car, called it Abigail. Ma wasn’t too pleased about that. I think Abigail was his former girlfriend. The sad thing is, he ended up dyin’ in that car. It was shortly after the war.
Soon as I could afford it, I bought one just like his and named her Betsy, for a former girlfriend.” He paused, and a smile crossed his face. “Come to think of it, my girl Angie never appreciated that either. Anyway, I drove old Betsy right up to the day I received this beauty.
“And, as for the Caddy here,” he patted the fender, “I named it Elvis.” He chuckled as he struggled into the passenger side. “You have to drive, son. Apparently, I can’t see well enough, not to mention the fact that this bum leg doesn’t let me hit the brakes worth a shit.”
“Really? You’re letting me drive?”
I couldn’t believe my luck.
“Okay, kid. Let’s take Elvis for a spin. I haven’t had him out in quite a while.”
The big blocks eight cylinders fired up and purred like a cat. Slowly, I pulled out of the parking spot and drove up the ramp. As the powered garage door opened, the sun shone through the rounded windshield and struck the abundant chrome on the dash and trim, bringing the pristine interior of the Cadillac to life.
“Yup, as I said, they only made some three hundred of ’em. Not sure how many are still around.”
Charlie went on to explain everything about the car: the 335 horsepower engine with three two-barrel carburetors; stainless steel roof; and chrome-plated aluminum bumpers. He pointed out that it was the first car with quad headlamps.
He turned on the radio, and ‘That’s All Right’ filled the interior of the Caddy. I smiled, Now that seems appropriate.
“For some strange reason, the radio only plays fifties music.” Charlie smiled, leaning back in the seat, his gnarled fingers intertwined on the head of the cane. “Course, there’s no better music.”
Only fifties music?
Thoughts of Stephen King’s novel ‘Christine,' about a possessed car, entered my mind.
We cruised downtown. Heads turned as we drove by, our windows open, rock and roll blaring.
Just me, Charlie, and Elvis. That’s right, Elvis. I swore I saw him in the rear-view mirror, sitting in the back seat, acoustic guitar in hand, smiling and singing along as his version of ‘Tutti Frutti’ screamed out of the radio it was the beginning of...
An extraordinary friendship.
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