If you drive north on the Golden State Freeway out of Los Angeles, the first settlement of any size that you reach is Saugus. The freeway roughly follows the line of the San Andreas Fault. As you drive, you are aware that the highway crosses and re-crosses the Fault. And, if the ‘Big One’ happens whilst you are in transit, depending whether you are east or west of the fault at the time, either you will stay in California, or disappear into the Pacific.
Comforted by this knowledge, one day in 1982, I was headed north to see a Mr and Mrs Presley, who owned a house a couple of miles south of Saugus. As I drove, I speculated as to why anyone would want to call themselves after the five years dead, much lamented, king of rock and roll. You see, after seven years in L.A., I had become incredibly cynical; it never occurred to me that ‘Presley’ could be their real name.
I exited the Golden State at Pico Canyon Road, and then picked my way along the dusty tracks looking for Smokewood Way. When I eventually located it, there were no houses to be seen, just the odd mailbox about every half mile. There was nothing for it but to stop at every mailbox and read the name thereon. By the time I came to one boasting the name ‘Presley,’ I was nearly ready to turn around and go home again. However, having come so far….
At the end of a mile long track, the Presley residence was a single storey, rambling, ranch style house nestling in the foothills of the Santa Claritas. Parked outside was an ancient and much battered Chevy pickup. My cynical attitude crumpled somewhat when Mr Presley answered the door – he was severely disabled. Calvin invited me in, with great courtesy, and introduced me to his wife. Mary Louise was the first ‘southern belle’ I had ever met, and she was a revelation. Strikingly beautiful, she spoke with a soft Arkansas accent, to which I caught myself listening, without necessarily taking in what she was saying.
We sipped home-made lemonade on the front porch – it being far too hot to sit in the house. Safe in the knowledge that, although they desperately needed air conditioning, the signs were that they definitely couldn’t afford it, I thought I might as well relax and enjoy the congenial company.
The softly spoken Calvin told me how he had worked as a stuntman on various films made by his famous cousin, until a horse had fallen on him, and crushed his pelvis. To my shame, I was still a little doubtful about the veracity of this supposed relationship, although I could not imagine that the delightful Mary Louise would ever be a party to anything deceitful. On the other hand, it would not be the first time I had been taken in by an angelic face, and a figure to match.
Eventually, I wrenched myself away from the tantalising Ms. Presley, and did a survey of their property to establish its viability for air conditioning. As far as I could tell, the only objection would be money, but given the size of the house, it would be quite a big objection.
Having completed my calculations, I presented them with the very reasonable price of nineteen thousand, two hundred dollars.
I was under no illusions as to the likelihood of a sale. Even if they could afford the payments, I just knew that their credit rating would not stand up for a loan application of that size. I only had to look at their car to confirm my evaluation. Anyway, Calvin said they would like to think about it, so, after a last glass of delicious lemonade, and a last look at the equally delicious Mary Louise, I took my leave.
Imagine my surprise when, two weeks later, my office informed me that Mr Presley was requesting another call from me. I phoned that afternoon, and spoke to Calvin, who was delighted to tell me that they were ready to go ahead with their air conditioning. To say that I was surprised is a drastic understatement. Given my scepticism regarding their probable credit rating, I swallowed hard, and asked when he would like me to bring the finance application up to them – and he said, and I remember every word – “We’ll be paying cash.”
“Right,” I said. And, in case he hadn’t heard properly on my last visit,
“Sure enough,” said he.
“Right,” said I, once again, and arranged to drive up next day.
I arrived at Chez Presley the following afternoon, bearing gifts, and was greeted as a long lost friend. I presented Mary Louise with a bouquet of flowers, over which she cooed with delight – and a fifth of bourbon to Calvin. We spent a couple of hours chatting about this and that – drank some more homemade lemonade – and I admired Mary Louise’s large collection of musical boxes, and told her about my own, very special, musical box. Eventually, we got down to the nitty-gritty, and Calvin counted out one hundred and ninety two, hundred dollar bills. I had never seen so much cash in all my life, and probably never will again.
During the following two weeks, I was in close touch with them, as the installation of their air conditioning progressed. Once everything was O.K., I must confess that I more or less lost contact with them, but, I was occasionally asked by my colleagues at work if Mr Presley was related to the Great Man. I think I could have got quite a lot of mileage out of Calvin’s story, but for whatever reason, I pretended ignorance about any possible connection.
For my remaining time with Lennox air conditioning, I would occasionally drive up to Saugus, and would feel guilty about not dropping by to see the Presleys – but not enough to do it.
About two years later, when I had decided to return to England, my conscience got the better of me, and I rang Calvin, told him I was going home, and was invited to join them for a barbeque supper.
It was a searingly hot evening in September, when I drove, for the last time, to the outskirts of Saugus. I took with me a particularly fine bottle of Pouilly Fume, and one of the very few souvenirs of my father that I still possessed. This was a beautiful, two hundred years old, Tunbridge Ware musical box. As I drove, I thought, thank God their house is air conditioned now.
My greeting was noisy and enthusiastic from both of them, and I have to admit that my heart pitter- pattered a bit when Mary Louise hugged me. I was ushered through to the back of the house where the barbecue was already alight. With a pleasantly cool breeze coming from the Santa Claritas, large steaks cooking and a glass of cool wine in my hand, life felt pretty good.
I had brought my father’s musical box to show Mary Louise, because, judging by her own collection, I thought it unlikely she had seen anything as old or as beautiful. She was so captivated by the lovely instrument, that after two hours of good company, a superb steak, and a slice of Mississippi mud pie (my first experience of that most decadent dessert), I decided that Dad’s musical box would make an ideal parting gift to a beautiful lady. She burst into tears, and I had no choice but to dry her gorgeous blue eyes with a white handkerchief, such as all gallant gentlemen carry for just that sort of occasion.
After another half hour, as Calvin and Mary Louise reappeared from a trip to the kitchen, I reluctantly told them that I really should be going.
After protestations that I should stay the night, and assurances that I had to leave, Calvin walked up to me, put his hand on my arm, and said. “We have a gift for you Roland, but it’s a gift that you must promise me you will never share with anyone.”
I made my promise, and will keep it until my grandchildren read this manuscript, by which time it won’t matter anymore.
One either side, they guided me past their patio, past a much neglected swimming pool, and through a forest of fir trees, which spilled from the foothills beyond. From somewhere ahead of us, I could hear a familiar tune sung by a familiar voice –
‘Do the chairs in your parlour seem empty and bare?
Do you gaze at your doorstep, and picture me there?
Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again?
Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?’
With something of a lump in my throat, I realised what the gift was. This was not the recorded track that everyone was familiar with – there was no orchestral accompaniment. This was a single voice and a single guitar. It must be a demo track cut before the full recording was made. What they were about to give me would be worth a fortune to the aficionados of Elvis memorabilia.
I knew that I would never tell anyone, and that no one but me would ever hear the tape.
We reached a clearing, in which, about twenty yards away from us, was a log cabin. There was a veranda running the entire length of the cabin.
On the veranda was a swing seat.
On the swing seat was a man playing a guitar.
There was no tape player.