Fat Elvis makes me sad and so after a few years playing the Boardwalk, when the peacock rhinestones started popping off of my best white jumpsuit, I gave up the room at the YMCA and moved back into my parents’ basement. Like just about all basements it’s a dingy space with a gray cement floor all sawdusted and chalky from when my dad used to keep his tools down here. But I’ve got my own private entrance from the backyard and there’s a toilet in one corner and I’ve done some things to really make the space my own. I laid down a few leopard-print rugs Elvis would’ve liked and tacked up some insulation so I can perform without the neighbors interrupting. I found a can of gold paint on sale and took it to a couple of the walls. Tacked up some of my old records and my velvet Elvis. Made it feel like home.
The biggest thing, though, the thing I’m most proud of, is this: a few months ago I was driving around looking for dumpster treasures maybe to sell or to keep. I was in my mom’s pink Mary Kay Cadillac, the one she got back in the 70s for being one of their top sellers, the car she drove cross country to see Elvis live in Vegas, the car she says I was conceived in with “Don’t Be Cruel” on the eight-track. And in the parking lot of a strip mall, back behind a chain appliance store, there was a pile of refrigerator cartons leaning against a dumpster—big cardboard shipping containers for these huge refrigerators people get now, the ones with icemakers and computers inside. Immediately I saw what they could be and I loaded them into the trunk and took them home and through my door into the basement and I spent a week building them together with duct tape. Turned my basement into the interior of Graceland.
Obviously, I had to do it to scale and it wasn’t possible to make it three levels like the original. I had to choose which rooms were most important. When you come down the stairs, there’s the jungle room with the rugs and the couch and to the left there’s Elvis’ bedroom. There’s the kitchen where I make my sandwiches. I bought more gold paint and some other prints and brought in all my memorabilia and it all looks rich and beautiful, just like Elvis. And then, of course, I built a cardboard wall around the toilet and took some of my other dumpster finds and decorated the bathroom as well as I could. They don’t let just anyone see the throne where the King died. All I had were secret pictures I found on the Internet.
The rooms are smaller than Elvis was used to and not as opulent and sometimes when it’s dark I knock into the cardboard and spend the next mornings patching walls. There’re three doors between the TV room and the bedroom and my bed isn’t as big as Elvis’. Makes it hard to sleep like him. And I haven’t used the toilet. It just feels wrong. I go upstairs in my parents’ bathroom, which is the only time I see real sun some days. Some days when I feel sick or extra sad I go to the bathroom door and touch the cardboard knob, the same way I think Elvis would have, gentle and unsure, and sometimes it helps, makes me feel better, to think for a second that Elvis and I are going through the same kind of stuff.
I haven’t had any of the crazy parties Elvis used to have. But once my Graceland was finished, I put on my song machine and my show clothes and sang the setlists from all the concerts, start to finish, the famous ones and the ones no one talks about. Some of those shows were pretty great. I even did the movies, acted out all the scenes, sang the lines. And then yesterday I got to the Pittsburgh show, New Year’s Eve 1977, and I kept going until late, sang “It’s Now or Never” at midnight like he would’ve wanted. Slept on that monthlong break before the last tour.
There’re so many things about our lives that are the same. That first summer on the Boardwalk, when I was the star attraction. One afternoon I played to a whole tour bus. Three hour set. Aced the whole catalog. I said I was done and they went wild for more. One lady tossed me her panties. It was my Ed Sullivan moment.
I always admired how much Elvis loved to be on stage, how he loved to make other people happy, invite them into his world for a night. They had to pull him off the stage. That’s why I went to the Boardwalk in the first place: to be entertaining and make other people smile; I felt like I was really doing something. Even when my own life was shit hard—couldn’t ever keep a job, couldn’t keep up with classes in school, drugs, couldn’t stay straight, always something going wrong, the loneliness—the idea I could do what Elvis did made it all worth it. I like to think he and I figured it out at the same time, that one man working for himself isn’t anything, but one man working for everybody else is something. He didn’t know Pittsburgh would be one of his last concerts. But I knew it. I couldn’t un-know it. And it made me sad to think the end of things was soon.
I thought I’d do something special, thought I’d sing Elvis’ last shows for everybody at the beach, my own last show. I figured if things went well I could make it a bigger thing, do a whole series of shows, like Elvis’ last tour. Make some posters maybe.
So this afternoon I trimmed my burns and pulled on the jumpsuit and I went to the Boardwalk. It’d been raining. The air was hot and humid and I was sweating and the wet shorted one of my amps, cut out the sound halfway through my entrance music. I tried to do my big karate kick, but the seams on my suit split under the arms and I had to stop. There weren’t many people out except for some teenagers, surf kids probably, and they stopped whatever they were doing to watch and laugh. I’ve got a wireless mic that lets me roam a bit and work the crowd and since they were my only crowd I tried to banter. Asked where they were from. They laughed and one of them called me a fat old loser and another one called me the worst Elvis he’d ever seen. Tall blonde kid with a backwards baseball cap said I was a faggot with bitch tits.
I could sense it then, that there was a turn in things. And it was the turn that made me understand Elvis even more, made me understand why he took drugs, why he wanted to “Make the World Go Away.” I couldn’t help it, I got distracted. Missing cues, losing lyrics. Just like Elvis’ last special, the thing he did for CBS, when halfway into “Are You Lonesome Tonight” he lost his place, and started cracking jokes. Except I couldn’t think of anything good. I guess Elvis was a little quicker in the head than me. I said something like, “My mom says my ‘Hound Dog’ is better than Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog,'” which she really did say once, but it didn’t help. The kids just stood there laughing and calling me names and taking pictures with their cellphones.
I thought about what Elvis would do. Those last shows when he started to lose it, when the crowd began to yell, he’d stop it short. Figured it was better to give them a couple of good songs than to work through a painful set. I hadn’t made any money and I knew whatever I did these teenagers weren’t going to give it up. And there was some great loneliness that had filled me so full I could barely see. So I shut the music off and went home.
At the house, the grass had just been cut and there was that razor smell of fresh cut grass that sticks up in your nose and cuts into it. Inside, it smelled like Elvis, like Graceland, except it was my smell too, like I’d made it my own.
That’s how I got to where I am now, at the door to the bathroom, just like Elvis, and to the sink and to the toilet and to the bathroom floor next to the toilet, just like Elvis. Try to stand but it’s blurry, just like Elvis. Fall sideways into the cardboard walls, through the walls of my Graceland, through the cardboard and the duct tape. And I bring them all down. Just like Elvis.
MATTHEW FOGARTY, born and raised in the square-mile suburbs of Detroit, currently lives and writes in Columbia, where he is co-editor of Yemassee. He also edits Cartagena, a literary journal. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Passages North, PANK, Fourteen Hills, Smokelong Quarterly, and Midwestern Gothic. He can be found at http://www.matthewfogarty.com.