By Mary Fifield
On Eastern, a street far from the Strip resorts, the strangest, most alarming site is a billboard with the warning:
REWARD: $100,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of ELVIS IMPERSONATOR.
The picture is of a pen-and-ink Elvis, but with the sculpted arched eyebrows of wickedness. The collar is white with gold sequins. The hair is the long, glinting black of Old Elvis, but the lips are thin, and you imagine a speaking voice that is high and tight, not the syrupy drawl of charming Elvis in his early interviews.
You imagine the man, Elvis Impersonator, gyrating on a stage in a small room packed with retirees, newlyweds and locals with relatives visiting from out of town. He sings Blue Hawaii with a pink orchid lei and a broad smile, eating the microphone a bit too often, his voice, in spots, lacking that gospel resonance, that sultry sex you could hear when Elvis hit the low notes. In the Jailhouse Rock number Elvis Impersonator wears black and white stripes and his own hair and shakes his leg just like in the movie. Except for the topless dancers in the background, the audience can almost believe that it's Elvis live.
Backstage, Elvis Impersonator is buckling the gold-plated belt on his costume, not bothering to run through the lyrics of the final number. This is the one he hates the most, the one that reminds him of the night he heard Elvis had died. He was eleven. He read the article in TV Guide about Priscilla and the drugs, about his sickly heart and his disloyal bloated body. The last number always made him think of Elvis turning gray and stiff on his satin sheets, celebrity turned carcass.
Nevertheless, it is the best number by far. He sings with fake emotion, but the crowd does not seem to notice or care. The white pantsuit and gold medallions are what they expect from an impersonation, from Vegas Elvis. Suspicious Minds belongs on this stage, not in Hollywood, certainly not in Memphis, and they eat it up for the experience of crossing the wires of time. They don't care that this song came out of Elvis' decline, his pathetic attempt to reclaim the sex-appeal and subversive energy of his youth. They don't care that by that time he had only vague memories of being the best gospel singer in his church. They don't care that the fluid of his spirit had evaporated, leaving only a brittle residue in his veins.
After the show, Elvis Impersonator wipes off the heavy makeup with a hotel towel and waves a cheerless goodbye to the dancers and stagehands as he leaves through the employee entrance. Still in his wig, he wanders the wide bland corridors that run along the perimeter of the gaming areas, industrial as cargo arteries and isolated as a womb. The employees enter and exit through these secret tunnels, giving customers the impression that they never arrive or leave work, but simply appear.
Although it’s against company policy, Elvis Impersonator slips into the casino and loses himself among people hovering at tables and standing at slots. He doesn't enjoy it; the smoke makes his eyes water and the ringing and clinking seem to come from inside his head. He has gotten so used to the scratch of the nylon backing on his wig that he doesn't feel it until he rubs his temples. Squeezing his way through the crowd, he pauses at the roulette table and watches the black, red and gold blur as the wheel spins. He is in a trance when a woman with a Minnesota accent comments on his "fake Elvis wig." He glares at her but she ignores him and he slips back into the lazy flow of people passing through the casino.
Down deep he is sad. He is breaking a rule without appreciating it, failing to enjoy the few minutes he has to act like any other gambler before the men who watch through the mirrored ceiling spot him. Then a security guard will approach, call his rebellion an infraction, and watch as he makes his way to the revolving doors and out into the shocking, bright, liquid street.
He drives a 1986 Chevy Sprint, inching cautiously into the thick traffic, more affected than he should have been by gruesome high school driver's ed movies. Down deeper, past common frustration, regret, and fear, he is empty. He is the sum of his costumes: sequins, satin, gold plating, black eyeliner, and two horsehair wigs. He is not Elvis, but a double many times removed. Even the duplication is superficial; without the trappings the two do not look much alike.
Along the edges of Elvis Impersonator's vision, colored lights rain like blood down hotel signs and he sees the dwarfed picture of himself in his Jailhouse Rock ensemble in the lower corner of the Riviera’s sign. "Nightly" it says next to his name, and something about the regularity makes him bristle. How denigrating to perform something over and over. No matter what big-name stars come to town for a three-day stint, he'll be there performing, just like the second-rate lounge singers, just like the magicians, just, in the end, like Elvis.
He follows the slow line of cars down the strip and turns onto Charleston, heading west to the freeway. Yvette stands on the corner of Bonanza and Charleston, a backpack over one shoulder and her learner's permit in her jeans pocket. She almost doesn't recognize him because he isn't in costume. He pulls into the dark lot behind the gas station and she jumps in the car, smiling.
"Can I drive?"
"Wait till we get out of the city, little darlin'," he says.
This is Highway Driving lesson #3. Elvis Impersonator, unsettled without his alter ego, has been working for the I Saw Elvis Driving School. Yvette is his star pupil. Until now he'd never thought of her as more than a good student, eager to learn to drive so she can escape her parents' house, just like half the other kids. But tonight he notices her bright pink nails scratching just above her knee and his mind travels up her thighs. He pulls onto the freeway.
"Just a bit farther and I'll pull over," he says when she shifts her shoulders nervously, but soon he thinks she is admiring his smooth lane changes and passes.
On the two-lane highway he commands the car, forgetting it's missing a hubcap and shimmies at speeds above fifty-seven. He smiles and winks at her like he’s driving a pearly white Coupe DeVille.
She grins back but she knows it’s a Chevy Sprint and he’s some guy who can't let the dead rest. She brought condoms just in case; no point letting go a good lay just because he usually wears wigs and gold-zippered jumpers. But it’s getting late. Her mom is expecting her back in an hour and a half. They'd have to hustle if she’s going to have time to fuck and practice high-speed lane changes.
As the Strip hotels recede in his rearview mirror and the city lights thin out, Elvis Impersonator has forgotten about time. He has forgotten that he is wearing his street clothes, which mark him as non-descript. He has forgotten the wig, which seemed like real hair last time he checked. He remembers only songs, the vibration of the bass notes and the sweet clarity of the high ones. Singing a Love Me Tender/Now or Never/Devil in Disguise medley, he rolls one shoulder and raises an eyebrow. He hears a sultriness in his voice that he mistakes for sex appeal, and he keeps his foot on the gas, hurtling the car into the darkening expanse of desert.
And then what?
You imagine the site, washed in white noon sun, where her remains were found, her slashed jeans and learner's permit. The detectives have long since taken the evidence back in plastic bags. You scan the mountains that surround you, wondering crazily if he escaped on foot. But cars traveling the interstate are visible just beyond the ridge. It would have been easy enough to pull off the highway onto an abandoned county road with headlights off, relying on the fluorescent desert moon to illuminate the way. It would have been easy enough to yank her out of the car at knife point, dragging her across the cracked plates of dirt. Yvette may have tried to run, but where? Bleeding onto the dry, cold earth, the moon blinding her, she could have lain dying for hours.
The billboard has loomed above the corner of Eastern and Fremont for eight months. It has taken on the disquieting quality of a yellowed missing persons flyer stapled to a telephone pole. You can't help looking at it, although you've memorized the words. The eyes seem to follow you even as you make your left turn.
You recall your mother's album covers of Elvis with white teeth and a disarming smile. Who was that man who enchanted teenage girls and drove fans to tearful pilgrimages to his grave? Who was the boy, shy before a microphone except when he sang? The man who charmed the press, first with his down-home Southern style, then with his garishness? The celebrity who spawned an impersonator industry that thrived and metastasized so people could not distinguish between Elvis Aaron Presley, the man, and the legend that still walks the earth like a debased and implacable ghost?
Who was the real Elvis anyway? The question lingers as you drive up Fremont Street, past decrepit casinos flanked by prostitutes and drifters. He is as elusive as his anonymous double.
Mary Fifield's fiction, essays, and book reviews have appeared online and in print journals such as Colere and Mediphors. She received an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently working on her second novel.
Photo Of Las Vegas Strip courtesy of George Zimzores.
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