The Death of Elvis
by Mark Spencer
Elvis was seventy-one years old and weighed at least three hundred and fifty pounds, so I’ve been expecting this, his death. Now I have to get his corpse out of our Greenwich Village apartment and onto the sidewalk somewhere, maybe over in the Bronx, or onto a subway car, but I can’t do it alone, and Big Foot and J.D. are watching the two-hour American Idol finale, and they won’t budge from the couch.
For years, the four of us hid out in cabins or trailers in the wilderness, fleeing each location when the paparazzi got wind of our whereabouts. Then it occurred to me that the best place to hide might be a big city.
Elvis, Big Foot, and J.D. thought I was nuts when I proposed the idea, but I said, “Who would look for us in a big city? Who would expect us to be living right out in the open? We’d still use our phoney names, sure, but who’d imagine we’d simply walk into a Piggly Wiggly or McDonald’s?
“And another thing... As far as getting recognized, you know, we don’t exactly look the way we used to.” Big Foot growled at that, so I said, “Well, except for you, B.F. You’re as ugly as ever.” He nodded and seemed placated.
“We could give it a try. Even if the paparazzi got pictures of us, everybody would think they were fake. People would say, ‘There’s no way Elvis Presley and Mark Spencer are just going to waltz into Burger King and order some fries.’”
The first city we moved to was Memphis, because Elvis really wanted to go home. We got an apartment not far from Graceland. Whenever anybody was taken aback by Big Foot’s bulk and hairiness and crudeness, we’d just grin and say, “Oh, he’s from Arkansas,” and people said, “Oh, okay. That explains it.” We might add that he played football for the Razorbacks, and people would nod and say, “I thought he looked familiar.”
No one thought Elvis looked familiar. He didn’t even look like an Elvis impersonator. He’d stand outside the gates of Graceland for hours, even take the tour occasionally, and no one gave him a second look. He was just an obese, bald, old man. It made him sad that no one looked twice. We’re all like Elvis. We live in fear of being recognized, but we’re disappointed when we’re not.
We had to leave Memphis, not because of paparazzi or tabloid reporters, but because Big Foot had gotten into a tight spot with an eighteen-year-old Memphis State co-ed whose rich daddy decided to do a background check on this hairy hulking Arkansan his daughter started neglecting her studies over. Trouble was about to come down on our heads.
So we moved to New York and got this apartment in Greenwich Village. Here, seldom do any of us, even Big Foot, get a second glance. Only once has someone gotten excited at the sight of Big Foot. A young wanta-be actress mistook him for an ex-boyfriend and started slamming him with her purse. “Are you stalkin’ me, Ernie? Are you stalkin’ me again? You better not be stalkin’ me! I’ll call a cop.” Big Foot growled. “Don’t you cuss me, Ernie! I gave you the best six weeks of my life!”
After we moved to New York, Elvis was still depressed. Then I suggested that he start performing again.
“No, Mark,” he said, shaking his bald head. “I swore to myself I’d never get on a stage again.”
“Perform on the street. Nobody ever recognizes you. I think you’d get a kick out of it. It’s better than watching soap operas and eating peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches all day. Singing on the streets isn’t going to be the way it was in coliseums with all the mobs trying to get at you like you were Jesus.”
“What if somebody figures out it’s really me?”
“It’s a risk you take. I don’t think it’ll happen.”
He was scared at first and even tried to disguise his voice so that he ended up sounding more like Michael Jackson than like Elvis Presley. But then he relaxed, sang in his own voice, and people liked what they heard. He would stand on a corner with a guitar and sing his old hits, mostly the ballads — it’s hard to do “Jailhouse Rock” properly when you weigh three hundred and fifty pounds — and people would drop quarters and dollar bills at his feet. More than once I overheard people say, “That fat guy’s not bad.” A Caribbean cab driver became a regular fan and would block traffic to listen to Elvis and was always shouting from his cab, “Hey, man, who are you?”
“No, man, who are you really?”
“I’m Elvis Presley. Really.”
The cabbie would shake his corn rows, grinning, his big teeth gleaming. “Oh, man, you are way too too much.”
People didn’t recognize J.D. either. Some times he introduced himself as James Castle. Other times, he said, “My name is Thomas Pynchon.”
Somebody did recognize me once. J.D. and I were in line at a deli, and an old guy who looked like he’d been a prize fighter, his face covered in scars and his nose all eschew, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, ain’t you that writer guy Mike Spencer?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh, not Mike. Mark. Yeah, that’s it. You’re Mark Spencer!”
“I’m sorry. You’re mistaken.”
“You know, I thought you was dead. Why you stop writin’ them books? I liked the one about the girl with the mole.”
“I’m terribly sorry. I’m not that writer guy. But my friend here” — I put my hand on J.D.’s shoulder — “is Thomas Pynchon.”
The old prize fighter looked J.D. up and down. “Never heard of ya.”
Elvis liked it here in New York. He’d waddle back to the apartment from singing on the streets and pile his coins and crumbled dollar bills on the kitchen table.
“Thirty dollars and seventy-five cents!” he exclaimed this afternoon.
He was red-faced and sweaty, his eyes bright. I thought he was just happy and excited about his success as a singer of Elvis classics on the streets of New York. Turns out his body was gearing up for a massive cardiac arrest. I used my CPR training to no avail.
He’s a huge mound on the kitchen floor, the table overturned, his money scattered about, his right hand still clutching a peanut butter and banana sandwich.
When I went to the living room and told Big Foot and J.D. that Elvis just died, B.F. started crying quietly and J.D. shook his head sadly.
“What are we going to do?” J.D. asked.
“I thought we’d stand him up and kind of carry him like he’s drunk and put him on the subway. Maybe if the authorities think he’s a John Doe vagrant, they won’t try hard to get an identity. So let’s go.”
J.D. said, “Good idea, but American Idol is coming on right now.”
Big Foot stopped crying and nodded vigorously at the TV.
“Look!” J.D. said. “There’s Kellie!”
“Is she the contestant you called?”
“Yeah, yeah. Voice of an angel.”
“Uh huh.” J.D. was probably least interested in her voice. He managed to get Britney Spears on the phone one time: “Hello, Britney, I’m a great admirer of your . . . ah, work. Who? Oh, why, I’m J.D. Salinger. What? You know, the author of The Catcher in the Rye. Oh, really? Never? Oh. Not even in school?”
When he called Kellie, the American Idol contestant, he told her he wrote the Harry Potter books. She believed him.
I glance at the little blonde on TV who can’t be more than twenty years old and say, “J.D., you’re eighty-seven years old. It’s time to leave the young women alone.”
He and B.F. both look at me like I’m nuts, the way they did when I proposed that we hide in the middle of a big city.
“Ah, hey, guys, not to change the subject, but you know, Elvis is dead on the kitchen floor.”
“We are not going to miss American Idol. For anything,” J.D. says. “Elvis isn’t going any where. B.F. will help you haul his big butt out of here after the show.”
I go into the kitchen and pull up a chair and sit with Elvis. There’s wild applause coming from the living room. Big Foot howls.
If Elvis hadn’t died tonight, he’d be in there with J.D. and Big Foot. He’d give generous critiques of the singers’ performances. Even though he seemed to like the show, Elvis’ main comment week after week was, “Being the American Idol isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
Staring at Elvis’ slack mouth, wide-open eyes, and multiple chins, I think about how much he enjoyed his recent street gigs here in New York, and I realize why: he could give more than people expected from him.
He wasn’t Elvis Presley any more. He was just a fat old man who had a better singing voice than anyone expected. No one expected his touch or his sweat-stained scarves or the continuous playing of his songs to heal cancer or arthritis or to reveal the meaning of life. People kept their distance. They didn’t try to touch him. They didn’t scream or cry. No one was going to go home and create a shrine.
We can all take comfort — and Big Foot, J.D., and I can take hope — in knowing that toward the end of his life Elvis really wasn’t hiding anymore. He didn’t have to.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Spencer