A bull and a matador.
Nobody mentioned the painting. No one even asked Virginia what trash heap he’d dug it out of. By the time I noticed it, I was on my second or third boilermaker.
I’m more embarrassed saying this than you are hearing it, but the bull turned me on.
The curve of the horn. The line of the legs. The eyes.
The matador was kind of ignoring it, sassy, dropping a pink blanket over its head, laughing at it. Pursing his lips. Wearing this frilly, stupid outfit. It was even worse that the bull was being humiliated by a guy like that, when it must have weighed, what, a ton? This guy in pajamas sticking hooks into him like toothpicks and dancing. Like Ali and that ogre he beat so bad you were embarrassed for him. So bad it was pathetic.
The point of the hook in the flank. How the flesh would give. The bull ignorant and powerful and flailing, but the matador’s too good for him, humiliating him. Pure unfairness. The matador wasn’t it though. It was the bull and the matador together.
It only took a minute to work through all this because it was just feelings. I peeked over at Virginia behind the bar to make sure he wasn’t watching.
But there, above the top shelf, like always, was the golden bust of Elvis that we raised our glasses to before drinking. Next to the rotating metal fan you heard creaking mournfully between old songs. When the machine finally made its way to him it’d blow a cool breeze on his face, and you wished his hair would move.
Elvis happened to be looking at me and the painting I was sitting under. In my wooden booth with its green snakeskin seats. My favorite booth.
Elvis’ eyes and his hair and even his famous chin shamed me. Pathetic. He was saying, Look at you, turned on by a bull’s legs and a man in a sparkly suit. Cornered and afraid. Not knowing your nature. The thought of him watching me, even if he was just a bust, made it worse. The full warmth of myself against my own legs forced my eyes off Elvis and onto Virginia’s red goatee. Normally I enjoyed that our bartender had distinctive facial hair and a girl’s name. Virginia asked a woman in a frilly black blouse — I’d never seen her before — what she wanted to drink. He was always being real helpful like that to women. I’d seen him once throw leather jacket on a puddle for a lady as she left the bar. We all clapped. Later that day he made a regular open his own beer.
Elvis still had his eyes on me, and I was avoiding his stare. Like in grade school when you catch a classmate looking at you. You’re nervous but it’s good. Like who knows what could happen.
Anyway I couldn’t take it anymore.
There were two bathrooms in the back. Anyone could use either. Maybe I convinced myself I was just going to piss. Maybe I knew what I was doing and didn’t want to admit it.
The mirrored walls were covered in so much graffiti that every word touched the head or tail of another, each in a more unnatural color than the last. I stood with my dick out, hanging like an action hero over the toilet, which also had a few curses on it. Fuck and cunt and shit for good measure, possibly the name of a rock band, but that was vulgar too. Could be it was a more creative shithead cursing.
I was as thick as I’d ever been in my hand. Maybe thicker. I only made it about six strokes before all of me was falling out into the long-yellowed toilet for what felt like the whole weekend and ease hit me like a cold shower.
And I remembered who I was. My family first and then my friends and other regulars at the bar. I flushed the toilet twice and fled without stopping to wash my hands.
I tipped Virginia extra, maybe out of shame or worry that he knew what I’d done, and hoping he wouldn’t tell the other customers, who were mostly what I’d call friends. We at least nodded at each other on the way in and out. I tried to force my head down, but I took a last look, maybe in farewell, maybe to remember.
Goodbye to that bar.
They suspected or knew—this possibility and my pride meant I could never go back. Even Elvis’ voice (covers didn’t move me) would bring quakes of paranoia I had to steady with techniques that other patrons had learned in court-ordered therapy and revealed to me over the years, until I could go back to functioning like a person who had a job, half a Masters of Business Administration, and conservative politics.
I wasn’t just paranoid when, at the corner store or the bank or the cookout I was walking past, his voice would appear like the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come. Also aroused. The link was strong enough that hearing Elvis—and hearing him go on about shoes or whatever, not about what he’d seen me feel and do over the bull—meant I’d have to take care of myself immediately or I’d be impossible to talk to. I would politely but firmly excuse myself from conversation and get to the bathroom as fast as I could. Like IBS. Not what I’d come to think of as a genuine, old-fashioned curse.
But I was blessed, too, because I had a choice. I knew even then I had to go all the way. But I could pick where I went. I could pick the main thing, the bull, or the reference, Elvis.
You might guess I picked Elvis because it was easier to conceal, because he was more socially acceptable. But in truth my own shame bought me a stronger intoxication than the bull’s shame. And I was wasted on shame. It was no choice at all.
Not going to the bar anymore was the first sign of my new self. The rumbling of a fresh identity and a second name. Since I was no longer at my favorite place, I stopped seeing my favorite people. Maybe not exactly friends. But my favorites regardless. Masturbating to the thought of a bull (or masturbating to the thought of me masturbating to a bull, or masturbating to the thought of Elvis watching me masturbate to the thought of a bull) was new, but masturbating in public places wasn’t. I was changing on the inside, but how could anyone know that? It was the real changes, the changes in my daily routine that showed me I was becoming, even in that little way, someone else. This maybe could have felt like an opportunity to be a better person, improve my life, call my cousin in the hospital, but because I didn’t really have a say, I hid from my new self as much as I hid that self from the world.
Elvis, in my childhood home, was king.
Other people say that, but I mean it. He was the First Man. With us, but not of us.
My mother, you could tell by the way she mentioned him at the strangest times or would stretch a little comment that barely touched on him out into a whole catalog of his wonderful virtues, what she understood as his honesty and his integrity, his Americanness and his bravery, and would indulge herself, if she’d been drinking, in just a brief reference to his hips, must have loved him. Or him as he’d been. This was long after Elvis and my mother had lost their figures.
My father would tolerate her speeches for a bit. But then he’d look at her. This look would deflate her a little. Then some more. She’d remember herself. She’d say something like, “Well,” and then we’d eat in silence. And my father would stop looking at her.
Maybe she’d keep thinking about him, maybe not.
The Elvis my mother lusted after didn’t exist and probably never had. The real him obviously was some kid a little older than her who got famous and did the best he could with that.
Until he got fat and sad. Like my mother did. Like I was doing. That kid-Elvis didn’t shake his ass when he left the bathroom after taking half an hour to shit, or when he felt awkward around his cousins and uncles, I bet. What I’m saying is my mother loved and lusted after a man distilled in her mind like bourbon. He had a decades-long power over her that had nothing to do with him.
Just the him in some pathetic person’s brain.
By the time I was stricken with my curse, my mother was dead. My father was alive. He was well, too, because he didn’t know that now his entire immediate family had a whole thing going for the “King.”
He probably thought he was the King. But he’s dead now. Prostate cancer. Somewhat predictably. I assume it’ll come for me. Anyway, I had my choice.
A million prints of Elvis around the house, records, restorations of his movies, which I didn’t particularly like, or a bunch of pictures of bulls, maybe a flight to Spain, seeing the bloodletting in person, a mythical beast come to life?
I made my effort.
I canvassed my home in him. I’d cross from the bedroom to the bathroom in a rabid buzz. He lorded over each room and reigned in the hallways. You see yourself in another person’s eyes. You can’t do it yourself. Elvis gifted self-knowledge to me every day. Because he knew what I’d done. He saw every day what I’d done about the bull. And his eyes were hooks in me. They let the blood out. But I didn’t have blood anymore. Just electric shame in every body part. Like my soul had its tongue on a nine-volt.
I saved money still. But I spent my discretionary funds on memorabilia. A poster, a record, a mug, a local tribute show.
Finally a costume.
I lay it out on the bed like you lay out the suit you’re gonna shoot yourself in. It came with an absurd wig. Something you’d find rooting around in your trashcan. But first, that white suit, with the wide V for his dread chest.
The Elvis my mother loved wouldn’t have worn this suit. Just a button-down and slacks. He didn’t wear it until Vegas, until he became pathetic like my mother. So it was appropriate. My elbows snagged in the sleeves, and I pulled the pants on backwards, but finally I stood with my back to the mirror. I stood upright, considering whether to turn around. In the living room, Elvis’ Christmas album mumbled, though it was April. Rain pelted the ass of the A/C, which leaned out the window like it was shitting on the lawn.
Finally I lifted the rodent wig from the bed and placed it over my ears and laughed a bit to show myself I wasn’t taking this seriously, and didn’t feel like King Arthur before he tries to pull the sword out. I went over to the mirror again and looked at myself.
I looked like Elvis, was Elvis.
I looked nothing like Elvis Aaron Presley, but looked nothing like myself either. I was a symbol come to life in a bedroom. I twirled a bit and looked at myself from behind. My silhouette had changed. My walk too as I searched for my sunglasses, the drawer in the kitchen, the dresser, the bedside table. I must have lost them over the winter. My eyes were less than ideal. I was standing there, blinking.
When I stepped out I assured myself I’d just forgotten how I was dressed. But you don’t forget you’re in full Elvis regalia. Ever, as I can tell you from a lot of experience.
In truth I was an eight-year-old starting down the long staircase in her new dress. All of the adults are perched in the living room, soaking in margaritas, and she tells herself that her glitter and her bows, and her first attempt at lipstick, are a coincidence, that these others just happen to be on the way to the kitchen. She’s tentative on the top step, her feet hardly make any noise at all on the blue carpeted stairs, so when finally they see her, one gasps dramatically, like Who is this stunning woman, I thought there was just a little girl up there, then in pairs they react, mom smiling to encourage and because she’s trashed, but the girl doesn’t know what that means yet, and they all applaud and cheer, and she sees herself in their eyes for the first time, so she sees herself for the first time, and she knows, as applause flutters around her ears like enchanted forest birds dropping a woodland crown on her head, it’s me.
When the first person recognized Elvis, he tried to be subtle, but it was flattering. Some passersby stared, some didn’t. I realized that I needed to buy shoes that were more appropriate for the ensemble, but that would have to wait. Finding the right glasses in the corner store took a few minutes.
The tattooed kid working the counter grinned and nodded like he’d been waiting a long time for this. He looked around for his manager. He had blue eyes and a ratty face and was like a boy if you stretched him out to six feet. The glasses lay between us like a gun as he turned to face the condoms and razors behind him. You got the feeling a dog wouldn’t stop barking at him for as long as he was in your house.
As he lifted the tank-top he was wearing, probably against some health code, I saw the crest of the ink and started tearing up. Almost. Like some degenerative disease had taken over the kid’s body and miraculously formed an icon, like Mary in toast, I was there. A young Elvis, but I saw myself in him.
He seemed like an all right kid, even if he was meth-thin. When he turned back around he gave me the thumbs-up, and I gave him the thumbs-up. We didn’t exchange a word. I dropped a few bills on the counter, tore off the tag, and donned the glasses.
I was feeling thirsty, like I’d earned something, and marveling at the brotherhood of man, that my family and that boy, possible drug addict, were connected. All who loved the man, loved what he represented to them, loved me. I was the body of the symbol, and we were all joined in the symbol. So I headed back to the bar to celebrate. I’d spent years there, spent Christmases. As I walked I nodded at a mother in neon green stretchy pants and her son, and another drug addict, and two cops, and even a horse. I felt like humanity, I felt beyond humanity.
A few people turned as daylight broke behind me, and the bar was my stage, and the burning sun was my spotlight, and most were happy to see me. Some, when they realized it was only Elvis, returned to their drinks. Others gave a little wave and a grin like we were in on something together. None of them recognized me, who I really was. Others didn’t even notice my arrival, Lord love them. But it wasn’t me my brethren saw, it was a King, something from their minds, and mine too.
I took a seat at the corner of the bar, near the door. A former-firefighter we called Montreal asked how I was doing. I said Fine. Virginia asked if it was hot enough for me. I laughed for his benefit because he’s an old friend, even if he didn’t know it right then. I nodded at the painting of the bull. I drank a rum and coke with well rum. I nodded at the bust of myself. I kept my cool. It was like if you stretched an orgasm out forever.
So I started coming back. We all got along famously. Maybe these men thought the man I used to be died. Maybe they just never thought about him again. I rotated a few variations on the costume like you do suits in an office. I was a hit, for a while, then a regular again. It was better that way. They’d call me The King. And I’d say, The King is my father and point at the bust. We’d all laugh. Eventually they started calling me The Prince. And I became another man there, not a symbol. That’s not Elvis, that’s The Prince. I could live well enough, my tastes were inexpensive, and I had a lot of savings because I alone.
No one ever figured out who I was, or maybe they were embarrassed and didn’t want to say, but most likely, they didn’t care. Probably if I told them, they’d say, No shit? And then we’d talk about who was pitching that night.
And that is how I learned to love myself.
James Chrisman is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. He was the 2016 recipient of the Mary Editors’ Prize.