MEMPHIS, AUG. 12 -- Patricia Patterson had abandoned all hope when "Elvis entered my life and touched me" two years ago.
She was overwhelmed by the world, struggling as a secretary to support her four children and her husband Joe, a disabled, unemployed auto worker who was prone to bouts of suicidal depression. Then one day, at home in Detroit, she heard Presley's recording of the gospel tune "Lead Me, Guide Me." She was suddenly wracked with sobs. "I thought I was having a mental breakdown," she recalled.
Today Patterson is a small, intense woman of 37 who draws every breath for her spirit-filled vision of Elvis. "I believe I am led by God and guided by Elvis," she declared.
Close to her heart, she wears his TCB insignia with lightning bolt ("Taking Care of Business in a Flash") along with Jesus' cross. She preserves his image in lovingly assembled scrapbooks, writes poems to his memory and churns out letters to Congress and the White House to secure for him his long-denied Presidential Medal of Freedom. And this week she has brought her family to Memphis, having saved what she could from Social Security and disability checks, to give thanks and praise at his shrine.
"Things have been happening!" she fairly shouted in her room at the Days Inn, where she had plastered the windows with a prayer for Elvis, its refrain being "Peace at Last." "It's an incredible feeling. I used to be withdrawn and depressed. But now I feel much better. I thank God for His gift of Elvis to the world."
Among the 50,000 loyalists who are paying homage here during Elvis International Tribute Week, marking the 10th anniversary of the singer's death, Patterson belongs to a select band of pilgrims -- those who believe that they have a personal spiritual relationship with the late, lamented King of Rock 'n' Roll. Not so much hobbyists as participants in a hajj, they evangelize the great unwashed (mainly journalists), collect relics and icons, and bear witness to how Elvis has reached from beyond the grave to intervene in their daily lives.
"The mourning for Elvis must now be perceived as an instance of how a community behaves when it is bereft of its saint," said writer Elizabeth Kaye, one of the first to define this religious phenomenon and the nuances of the Elvis theology. "They seek out talismans and artifacts, they worship his disciples, they seek to hear the 'good news' and to be close to the departed one by being close to those who were close to him. It's all those things and more."
Like a saint, the idealized Elvis is seen as confessor for his flock -- always ready during his lifetime to empathize with the fans at the gate and even invite a chosen few to his dinner table. And, like a saint, he is seen to have shed his blood for the one true faith.
"ELVIS -- HOW GREAT THOU ART," reads a bit of graffiti on the stone wall in front of Graceland, Presley's Memphis mansion, where thousands gathered on the day he expired in his bathroom, on his toilet, while reading a tome titled "The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus."
"THE GHOST OF ELVIS LOVES YOU," reads another scrawled credo.
The Elvis iconography tends toward picturing the adored one with angel's wings (including when shown riding a Harley-Davidson), or boogeying in perpetuity among the clouds.
"I was trying to picture him up in the heavens," said Nashville resident Lucio DiToro, 25, who had hung an example of the latter school in his window at the Days Inn, where a decorating contest proceeded apace. "The light behind him would be the light of God. The lightning bolts represent God's power and refer back to TCB. He's pointing at everybody, kind of saying, 'Yeah! You're doing a good job.' "
The Rev. Robert Martin, an Elvis aficionado and retired Episcopal priest in nearby Hernando, Miss., noted that on the Roman Catholic calendar, the death days of martyred saints are designated by a red dot, while those of confessor saints are marked in white. In his dual role as a martyr-confessor, Elvis would probably be given pink -- the hue of his frilled, fringed bedspreads in 1956, and of the Cadillac Sedan de Ville he presented his mother Gladys.
"Right now, we are witnessing the process of Elvis' secular canonization by his fans," Martin said. "A few decades from now, the process will leave out all of his negatives, and it will be heresy to talk about some of his less desirable qualities."
In the Elvis hagiography, he was never a drug addict. He never hurt anyone, indulged his wildly perverse appetites for food and sex, or entertained the delusions of grandeur that drove him to counsel presidents. He was just a simple, lonely man who loved his fans.
"Part of it is a religious cult, there's no doubt about that," said Jerry Schilling, who for many years was one of 12 men in Elvis' inner circle -- a numerically resonant coincidence that the King is said to have savored. "There are some overly dedicated fans. Some of it is pretty strange."
Schilling, like other members of The Entourage, has been besieged this week by the faithful, who want to get his autograph, take his picture or commune with his corporeal self -- and, by extension, the body of Elvis -- merely by shaking his hand.
Like the pilgrims of medieval times, the Elvis fans have also been buying up relics of the days when, as Elvis Enterprises functionary Patsy Anderson put it, "he walked on this earth."
Among the items that have been available for purchase since Elvis' demise at age 42 on Aug. 16, 1977: shards of his original crypt at Forest Hill cemetery, whence he was removed to Graceland; pieces of a chopped-up fence from the Presley mansion grounds; fibers of high-pile carpet from his Bel Air, Calif., home and gold-plated tree leaves from that star showplace; and the scarfs that he threw out to concert audiences toward the end of his career, no longer moist with sweat.
Some things, however, one doesn't part with at any price. "Never!" said Mahwah, N.J., Elvis impersonator Tony Destro when asked if he would ever sell the clump of Elvis' black-dyed hair that he keeps under glass at home.
"I don't perform through the month of August, out of respect," said Destro, who was garbed in a white jump suit festooned with rhinestones, and tattooed on his right biceps with Elvis' face. "I live by the commandments of Elvis -- honor your father and mother, take care of business and be a patriotic American. I try to be Elvis, like in my everyday life."
In a new book, "Elvis After Life," Raymond A. Moody Jr. describes even more compelling manifestations of Elvisism. Moody, who practices psychiatry in Carollton, Ga., crisscrossed the country in the years after Presley's death to interview otherwise ordinary people who claimed his spirit had paid them a visit.
Among them was a female clinical psychologist who looked up from a research paper one night to find Elvis sitting in her patients' chair, asking with a kind smile, "Are you satisfied with your life, Missy?" There followed a lengthy discussion, she told Moody, in which she played the patient and Elvis the therapist.
In another case, a small-town policeman insisted that Elvis had helped him locate his runaway son, showing him a vision of the rooming house where the boy was indeed found a few days later. In another, a woman showed Moody a pantry door where Elvis' face loomed in the patterns of the wood grain. In yet another, one of Elvis' erstwhile girlfriends reported that a jacket in her closet, a gift from the singer, persisted in waving one of its sleeves at her.
Most chilling of all, Moody interviewed a single mother who claimed that her 6-year-old boy was Elvis reincarnate. "I'm Elvis Presley," the child confirmed, with an Elvis-like inflection in his voice. "I died and I came back."
"I found that doing this book was an excellent opportunity to study the process of bereavement when the object is not a person that the bereaved knew directly," said Moody, who changed all names and places to protect his subjects' privacy. "There's a fantasy relationship that people can have with a celebrity, and with Elvis Presley it is very intense. What we may be seeing in these incidents is kind of a delayed grief response."
Moody said he didn't know whether the National Enquirer, which has bought "Elvis After Life" for serialization, will retain his cool, academic approach. "But what the heck!" he shrugged. Another supermarket tabloid, the News Extra, recently featured "The Untold Story! Elvis Miracle Healing Powers. Eyewitnesses reveal how he reaches out ... to cure the sick & the dying." Still another, the National Examiner, claimed that "top researchers reveal ... ELVIS IS ALIVE."
In Memphis during Elvis Week -- in some ways the equivalent of Elvis Easter -- there has been no shortage of stories about miracles and resurrection.
Elvis fan Joanie Miller, 44, a factory worker from Utica, N.Y., recounted seeing his image in the night sky on the first anniversary of his death, as she sat on the lawn at Graceland.
"He was up there in a cloud," she said. "You could see the laces of his shirt. He was wearing the costume from his 'That's the Way It Is' tour. His face was in profile. A lot of us saw it."
Joan Buchanan West, 56, a fan from Lakeland, Fla., who drives a pink Cadillac Coupe de Ville and says she knew Elvis personally, insisted that the King continues to watch over her.
"I have bad arthritis, and I can't walk much, so I always need a parking space close to where I have to be," she explained. "Well, I can go to any parking lot, I don't care how full, and I'll make one lap in that parking lot and all of a sudden a space will open up right by the front door. I definitely believe it's becauseof Elvis, because it happens all the time."
She added that she often invokes his name to get her out of traffic jams, and doesn't fear going off alone at night, "because Elvis is like a protective shield."
"He's like any other angel in heaven," West said. "He takes care of those who love him. He was the nearest thing to perfect that any of us will ever see."
The perfection of Elvis is a given amonghis most ardent followers, and encouraged by "The Estate," as Graceland and the other Elvis businesses are called. In the mansion's trophy room, the ornately beaded costumes of the latter-day Elvis, when he was as much as 100 pounds overweight, have been taken in, fitted onto slimmed-down mannequins. And it is at least a venial sin to bring up Elvis' problem with drugs.
"What do you mean, 'problem with drugs?' " demanded "Best Friend" George Klein as he lay prostrate by the pool of a singles apartment complex, his near-naked body slathered in suntan oil and sweat. Every so often he dabbed his eyelids with an ice-packed handkerchief. "He had a chemical dependency on prescribed medication," Klein said, "but he wasn't no drug addict. He had a bad colon, a bad intestine and several other things wrong with him."
"What is George Klein but a disciple?" said Kaye, who began her studies of Elvis fans as an Alicia Patterson Fellow in 1982. "His role is to spread the good news."
"He had rheumatoid arthritis, he had glaucoma, he had bone cancer, an enlarged liver, an enlarged spleen and hypertension," insisted Elvis adherent West. "His veins were so clogged, the blood hardly pumped through them."
Still, there are heretics.
"I wouldn't put flowers on Elvis' grave, but I would throw pills on Elvis' grave," said a pompadoured pilgrim from Atlanta who gave his name as Johnny Neptune. "Probably Dilaudid, because that was one of his favorites."
Yet the myth seems strong enough to survive such irreverencies for a long time to come.
"I think of him as an icon, too," said Kaye, who has cried over Elvis' death like millions of others around the world. "As an icon of waste and hurt, he is very powerful to me.
"He was born in a two-room shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. He died in the prison of his bathroom and bedroom at Graceland. What fascinates me is the legacy of his 42-year shuffle from one set of two rooms to another."