The King

by Mark Spencer


Shot through the heart, I fill the kitchen sink with hot water and start scrubbing the greasy frying pan and greasy dishes from Mort’s uneaten breakfast. Steam rises from the water, feels like tiny kisses on my hot face. I’ve been practicing sink-full-of-dirty-dishes water therapy since I was sixteen when I married Kent and lost the baby and kept up the practice through my marriages to Billy and Jake and Mort. It’s not much, this water therapy. It’s definitely not enough.

I gaze with blurry vision out the window above the dripping faucet. The woods are a tangle of shuddering black trees. When I went out earlier this morning in my robe and slippers to drop bread and potato peels for the birds and deer, I smelled snow in the wind, and I smiled thinking of snow burying me and Mort in my trailer. Mort was still asleep, his mouth loose and wet, his face pale and stubbled with whiskers that felt last night like a lovely wire brush.

Hot water up to my elbows, I freeze when I see a hunched figure stumbling through the thick underbrush of the woods. I say out loud, “What in God’s creation...?”

The hunched figure coming out of the woods is black and clumsy.

“It’s Bigfoot!” I gasp.

But I realize right away how silly I am because I remember that people always see Bigfoot out in places like Oregon and Washington, not here in Tennessee. And if it is Bigfoot, it’s a shrimpy Bigfoot, a dwarf, a midget Bigfoot no bigger than a human being.

As it stumbles into the clearing not fifty feet from my window and straightens up, I see that it is Elvis Presley.

He makes his way to my back door, and I fling it open and slap my wet hands against my chest like I’m having a heart attack. “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

His black coat has frayed cuffs and is worn out so bad it has a sheen. I back away to let him inside. He’s nodding.

“Thank you, ma’am. Thank you very much.”

Of course being the gentleman that he is, he removes his blue baseball cap. He’s shiny bald on top. From the sides and back, his hair hangs to his shoulders, almost white, hints of silver here and there. I have to admit that I’ve always had a thing for bald men although I’ve never dated one. (Firemen, too, but I haven’t had one of them either.)

So here I find myself with The King sitting on the sofa I bought this past summer at a yard sale after my divorce from Mort. It’s upholstered in cream and tan tones depicting Custer’s Last Stand, and the spilled sodas and coffee and cigarette burns are hardly noticeable with that color and design.

“It’s an honor, Mr. Presley. I’m sorry ’bout the mess,” I say, looking around. The coffee table has a leg broken off and kneels on the floor like a lame animal. My high school graduation picture — my hair all straight and long and my face smooth and shiny as a mirror — has slipped off its nail, and the frame and glass both are in pieces on the floor. “I just had a big fight with my latest ex-husband,” I explain. “Can I get you something to drink? Eat? How about a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich?”

“No, ma’am. I’m just gonna sit here a minute, and when you’re ready, we’ll be on our way.”

“On our way? Oh, I’m sorry, but I can’t take you anywhere. I’ve got those four cars out there, but they’re all broken down.” I go to the window and look out. “I love those old cars, but they’re not worth a damn.”

My collection sits lined up, close, the four of them almost leaning on each other — a ’59 Thunderbird, a ’64 Malibu, a ’72 Mustang, and a ’58 Cadillac. Each has at least one flat tire or a broken spring or worn-out shocks or a busted belt. The Cadillac has more rust on it than it does pink paint. Not one of them doesn’t make horrible noises and spew thick black blood from its heart.

Elvis says, “I’m sorry about Mort.”

“You know Mort?” Hot tears well up in my eyes. “That son of bitch... Excuse my French.”

Elvis gives a little wave, his slim hand so pale I can almost see through it. He smiles his lop-sided smile. Around the mouth, he still looks like the young Elvis, but his eyes are set deep in his skull, and the flesh is drawn tight across his cheek bones. “Everything’s going to be okay, ma’am,” he says. Then he sings, softly, “There’ll be peace in the valley...”

“You betcha. He’s gone for good. I about ended his sorry life.”

I point at the pistol lying near my feet.

A gust of wind shakes the trailer. The lamp that normally sits on the end table by the sofa is on the floor, the shade crushed, the bulb still burning, flickering as the wind tries to snap the power line.

“You love him, ma’am?”

“Love? Yeah, whatever. I wish I had a quarter for every time I loved a man.”

Elvis hums a little of “Love Me Tender,” then “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” He sits stiffly, staring down at the floor, his black coat buttoned up to his scrawny neck. I wonder whether he’s drunk, but I don’t smell anything, except the breakfast I made for Mort, runny eggs and burned sausage and weak coffee. And there’s the smoky smell of the backfire from Mort’s truck. The backfire was so loud there’s still a ringing in my ears. Then I remember that my ears rang for days after the Elvis concert Daddy took me to.

“I saw you in concert one time. Third row from the stage, right side. Your right. My left. I caught one of your scarves you threw out to the audience. It had your sweat on it, and I slept with it every night till I got married the first time.”

Elvis nods, mouths, “One for the money, two for the show—”

“That was in 1965. Other kids were crazy about the Beatles, but you’re the one I had all over my bedroom walls. You’re the one I dreamed about.” I blush. My face burns. “Not those mop heads.” I shrug, find it hard to breathe. Elvis is looking down at the floor. I say, “I’m sorry if I’m embarrassing you. I saw all your movies about seven times.”

He looks up, smiles, his face suddenly glowing like the sun and looking younger. “I just don’t know what to say, ma’am. But thank you. Thank you very much.”

“Nineteen sixty-five. Forever ago. Another world.”

“Yes, ma’am. Another world.”

“I was fifteen. My daddy took me in his red Firebird. Every time he showed up at Mama’s he had a fast, shiny car, and he was lean and had wavy black hair neatly trimmed — like yours back then. And I thought Mama was a fool to ever let such a man go.”

Elvis sings sweet and low: “Wise men say only fools rush in...”

The wind pounds the sheet metal sides of the trailer. I look out the window. “Snow’s coming.” Then I hear sleet hitting the roof like bullets. “It was Indian summer just yesterday,” I say.

Just yesterday. I was wearing an old sleeveless house dress when Mort pulled up in a whirl of noise and smoke. I was leaned into the heart of the Thunderbird. Grease covered me from my fingertips to my elbows. Mort got out of his truck slow. He seldom moves slow. He’s wiry and hyper, talks fast and can’t keep his eyes focused on any one thing for more than a split second. His face is dark tanned and has lots of laugh lines. But he was slow yesterday coming toward me, slow the way he was the first time he came at me across the dance floor of the Roundup Bar, and he stared at me the same way.

“Why are you here?” I said.

“Now be nice, Wanda. I’m having me a crisis.”

“Oh, really?”

“Really.” He got close. His jeans had sharp creases in them, and he was wearing a fresh white shirt with a button-down collar. If I touched it, it would be ruined. He looked at the patch of dirt he was standing on and said, “Biggest mistake I ever made was leavin’ you for Angie.”

I snorted. “I thought she was an angel. That’s what you called her. An angel.”

He got close. His breath was warm and minty and heavily tinged with alcohol. “Angels ain’t real.”

“Angie seems real to me. Seems real real to me.”

“You’re real, Wanda.”

"Listen. I like being out here in the woods."

"With the birds and bunny rabbits," he said, his face all crackling with his laugh lines.

"Yes, I do."

"Alone?"

"I like ‘alone’."

I thought about cracking his head with the wrench I held. “I’m greasy. You’d better stay back. I bet little Angel Angie bought you that shirt. You’d never buy yourself a shirt like that. She iron your jeans? I did a better job.”

“Yeah, baby. You did.”

We just stared at each other then, for what seemed a very long time. We stared, and electricity crackled in the air between us.

Then at exactly the same moment we grabbed for each other, and his pretty white shirt was ruined. We twirled from the Thunderbird to the Malibu to that ’72 Mustang. Lying on the long snout of the Mustang, I looked up through the bare branches of the tree tops at the blue sky, and it was so bright it hurt my eyes, so I shut them tight, and I sucked in the Indian Summer air so hard my chest ached.

Elvis stands up, a gaunt black figure with a face white as a skull. "Ma’am, it’s time for us to get going.”

“I can’t believe this change in the weather,” I say softly.

In the night the temperature dropped forty degrees. Cold winds ripped through the trees, pounded the side of the trailer. In bed, I wrapped myself around Mort, who grunted.

When he woke up, he furiously rubbed his fists in his eyeballs.

“I made you breakfast,” I said. “I made you eggs. All runny and gross just like you like ‘em.”

“I don’t think I can eat.”

“Are you sick?” I went over and sat down on the bed next to him, felt his head like he was a little boy, then caressed his sandpapery cheek that was nothing like a little boy’s.

“I gotta go,” he mumbled.

“It’s Sunday. You don’t work on Sunday.” My heart started thumping hard. I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach all of a sudden. It reminded me of morning sickness that one time in my life I got pregnant. I shook my head.

“I gotta go home,” he said.

“Home?”

“Home to Angie.”

“I thought you were through with her.” Drums beat in my head.

“When I woke up, I just...” He shrugged his broad, naked shoulders.

My hands shook and felt itchy. I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood. I opened the dresser drawer next to my bed and reached under my neatly folded silk panties and clutched my pistol in my fist. It was heavy and hard as I lifted it out, and I pointed it at him, wanting him to die, but he knew me too well, I guess, because he didn’t act scared at all, and in the course of pulling on his pants and shirt and boots, he said three times, “You ain’t gonna shoot me.”

“Just try me,” I said, eying the back of his neck as I followed him out of the bedroom and into the living room. I swung my free hand at the lamp next to the sofa, knocking it to the floor, but he kept going. I kicked a leg out from under the coffee table. He kept going. So I pulled the trigger.

My high-school graduation picture shattered and fell to the floor. I finally had his attention, but it didn’t last long. He looked past the barrel at me. He shook his head. “Wanda, baby, I know I’m a son of a bitch. And I know you’re a sweetheart.”

I didn’t follow him outside. I stood at the door like I was trapped in this old trailer house. And watched him roar away. His elbow sticking out the driver’s window flapped a couple of times.

Elvis says, “It’s time, ma’am.”

“I can’t... The cars... don’t... run.”

“Ma’am.” Elvis is holding his long white hand out to me.

I look at him, and he’s suddenly young again. He looks the way he did when I saw him in 1965, maybe even younger, like the way he looked when TV wouldn’t show him below the waist. Dark hair, dark eyes, pouty lips. It’s gotten like night outside without me noticing, and when I catch my reflection in the window I’m young, too, my hair all long and straight and its natural color, my skin smooth and with a shine to it.

After a long stare, I nod my head, then look at Elvis’ lop-sided smile that people always take for a sexy snarl. Behind him, the hallway of my trailer glows, absolutely glows. Music is playing softly — Elvis’ “Return to Sender.”

I take Elvis’ hand and have to step around something on the floor. It’s a middle-aged woman on her back, her left arm flung above her head, her right hand resting on her belly. The pistol lies between her feet.


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Spencer

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