“The thing is,” he said, “now that I’ve stopped drinking, I don’t want to be a bore. At parties, you know.”
“You’re not boring, Grandpa,” I said. He didn’t go to parties, either.
“The thing is,” he said. I watched his mug turn in his hands. “The thing is, I’m impersonating Elvis.”
The diner coffee in my mouth–weak and lukewarm, with the aftertaste of cigarettes–shot up the back of my throat and dripped out my nostrils.
“What?” I said, through a handful of napkins.
He rubbed his eyebrow and looked down, clearing his throat. I gave him a look. I could tell he wanted to make fun of me for snorting my coffee, but he knew better. He knew I’d get mad.
“Is this a joke?” I said. “Are you trying to make a joke?”
“Nope,” he said.
“You just decided–”
“Well, not just,” he said. “It’s been”–he sighed–“for a while now.” He gently reversed the direction of his coffee cup, turning and turning.
“So, what,” I said. “You’re performing?”
“Well,” he said. “Come by tomorrow and I’ll show you.”
I let him pay for our breakfast specials, reapplying lipstick while he counted out coins at the cash register. We walked out into the parking lot.
As I unlocked the car something occurred to me.
“Are you old Elvis or young Elvis?”
He made a great show of looking down at his body: seventy-eight years old, scrawny, pale, fragile as an eggshell.
“I don’t know,” he said, very slowly.
“I didn’t even know you liked Elvis,” I said.
“He’s alright,” Grandpa said.
I came by his house after work the next day, still wearing my scrubs from work. I grew up in that house. We called it comfortable, like you describe a blind date as having personality. When my grandmother died, he told me not to worry about him living alone, to go ahead and move away and do great things with my life. But I stayed close by, and it’s good that I did, because all of a sudden he was old and needed me.
And there he was in the kitchen, dressed like Elvis. Theoretically. It wasn’t like you’d see him on the street and think Elvis was still alive. You would never think the stuff on his head was real hair. It was black and synthetic, like children’s paintbrushes, like bristles around his head. The shaggy black sideburns were separate from the wig, stuck to his wrinkled face, peeling at the corners around his gold plastic sunglasses. You could see white underwear through his white satin pants. You could see his thin legs and white knee socks leading down to his brown dress shoes.
“Let’s go,” he said, in a deep voice that was supposed to sound like Elvis.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Baby, the question is, where aren’t we going?”
I wasn’t sure if that was even something Elvis would say, but I let it slide.
When I was seven my father died and my mother moved back to Argentina, leaving me with his parents. She’d been in the country illegally for over a decade by that point. You couldn’t really blame her for wanting to go back. I couldn’t, anyway.
Growing up my grandmother was the strict one. Grandpa was fine with most things, as long as my grades stayed up. He didn’t mind when boys called or when I stayed out late. He’d tell my grandmother to let me have my fun. He liked to think I was a heartbreaker, toying with the boys’ hearts, taking what I wanted, moving on. He only criticized when one of them started showing up repeatedly.
“Don’t let yourself get tied down,” he’d say. Or, “I don’t need to tell you, you could do better.”
Anyway, I never took any boys that seriously. I was a pretty good heartbreaker, there for a while.
Grandpa-Elvis decided we should go to the mall. At fourteen I practically lived at that mall–busily breaking hearts, of course–but by the time I moved out of the house most of the stores had left, leaving the place silent and hollow. But a dead mall seemed like a good place to take someone who was dressed like Elvis. Besides, I was starving.
We went straight to the food court and got some pizza. We sat down, and then it started.
“Excuse me?” a woman said. She was round, with permed hair and a piggish nose, and she was pulling two boys in football jerseys behind her. “My kids just wanted to say hello to Elvis,” she said.
Her two boys had the same nose. They stared. They did not say hello.
“Nice to meet you,” Elvis said, and then (I had been waiting for this), “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
The woman squealed and clapped her hands.
“Your momma,” Elvis said to the boys. “She’s a pretty lady, a very pretty lady.”
I almost choked on my pizza.
“Oh my goodness, listen to you!” the woman said.
My grandfather stood up and performed what you might call a pelvic gyration.
That did it: I swear, it took maybe five minutes for a crowd to congeal around Grandpa-Elvis. Parents hauled their children over like he was the mall Santa. Teenagers leaned over the counters at the fast-food places to see better; employees stood by the door of the sneaker store, pointing and laughing. I sat by the plastic plants and quietly ate my pizza. He hadn’t talked to so many people since my grandmother died. I thought maybe this Elvis thing was okay: just a harmless cry for attention.
I don’t remember my Grandpa being so interested in Elvis when I was growing up. I think I recall a few movies on cable, a whistled strain of a song or two. Nothing that said “someday I will want to dress up like Elvis and entertain people at the mall.” Honestly I’d have been less surprised if he’d told me he was gay, or had a twenty-year-old girlfriend. It was that weird.
Grandpa-Elvis was the most exciting thing that mall had seen in years. He posed for photos and even sang an embarrassing verse of “Hound Dog.” Big women fanned themselves and pretended to swoon when he kissed their hands. I mean it, he was huge.
We’d been there maybe half an hour when Elvis asked a man if he was single. The man was short, middle-aged, with a soft round belly and a fake-referee shirt from the sneaker store, and he wanted dollar-store Elvis to sign his napkin. To no one’s surprise, he was indeed single.
But Grandpa-Elvis was delighted. “Come meet my granddaughter,” he said. “My Lisa Marie. She’s a very pretty lady. Mebbe she hasn’t found the right man yet.”
He brought Fake-Referee over to my table. Fake-Referee held out a small, pudgy hand.
“Lisa Marie?” he said.
“That’s not my name,” I said. “I have to go.”
I couldn’t even think, I was suddenly so sick of both Fake-Referee and Fake-Elvis. I just stood up and walked away. I heard Elvis calling after me, but I was heading down the mall corridor, past all the empty stores, past the dentist’s office and the dollar store, trying to get away from him and his whole stupid audience as quickly as possible.
I finally stopped when I saw him slowly shuffling after me.
“You can do whatever you want,” I said, once he’d caught up to me. I meant to say but I don’t appreciate me and my love-life being part of your stupid game, but I couldn’t say it because I was holding back a suddenly overwhelming flood of tears.
“I’m sorry,” he said in his normal voice. “I thought he looked nice.”
“You were serious?” I said.
“Grandpa,” I said. My voice trembled. “He works at a sneaker store.”
“Well,” he said. He touched the peeling edge of his sideburn. “When I met your grandmother, I sold paper.”
Once again, I couldn’t say anything. I thought I was better than that, I thought. I thought you thought I was better than that.
He picked at the sideburn. “You know you’re not getting any younger,” he said. As if that was somehow insightful, he said again, “None of us are getting any younger.”
“None of us are very good at imitating Elvis, either,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“Don’t be mean.”
“Well, I’m angry with you,” I told him.
We didn’t say anything on the way home. As he got out of the car, he said, “I just don’t want you to be alone.”
“That’s fine,” I said, staring straight ahead. “I’m not mad.”
“You’ll come over Sunday?” he said.
“Are you going to dress like Elvis?” I asked.
“No, do it, I don’t care,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. Then, quickly, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
I sat in the car and watched him shuffle up to the door: a stooped old man in sheer white pants and a helmet of bristly plastic hair.
Even in the dim evening light you would never, ever think the man was Elvis.
I decided to go ahead and cry, but the tears were gone. I blotted one drop away with a tissue and pulled out of the driveway.