Elvis Walks the Earth
This short story by Byron Spooner appeared in Issue 2 of The Lakeshore Review
This was during the dark, mean time I was living in this low-water-pressure walk-up on the Lower East Side, St. Marks Place to be specific. It was a madman time, both for me and the city. I was broke and newly separated from my first wife, the city was broke, too, and well along the way to being separated from all sanity. That year’s August heat brought out the crazies, the junkies, or at least drove them to the frontiers of their lunacies; by day they begged for handouts in exact amounts—forty-two cents, fifty-five cents—in the night you could hear them gibbering and throwing trash cans into the street. Screaming. Moonhowling.
It wasn’t even noon. I had a refrigerator full of beer and this girl I knew, Roxie, was over, helping me out with it. I’d been trying to get into her panties for a few months. Since before the wife took off with that sleazeball she met at Rack ‘Em Up!. But trying is too strong a word for what I was doing. I was hoping to get into her panties. Like, if it happened it happened, if it didn’t it didn’t. Roxie was attractive in a pouty sort of way, her main feature being big lips on a slouchy mouth, the lower not as well acquainted with the upper as most people’s. She was the daughter of a famous New Yorker cartoonist and worked illustrating a super-hip local music rag with a circulation that occasionally climbed as high as three figures. I imagined she wore silk panties. When that got boring I imagined lace.
Roxie had bopped by unexpectedly in that Lower-East-Side-in-the-Seventies fashion, which I was glad of. She’d buzzed from downstairs. The system in that dump was decrepit and when someone buzzed your choice was strictly binary; you either let them in or you didn’t. No intercom. No, “Who is it?” and all that crap. You could be letting in Miss October or Vlad the Impaler, there was no way of knowing. Everybody in the building was constantly accusing everybody else in the building of recklessly letting strangers in and endangering everybody else.
Roxie topped the stairs out of breath, lugging a sweating grocery bag with a couple of sixpacks of Bud Tall Boys of her own, the good news, followed closely by Pam, my Soon-to-be-ex-wife’s best friend, the bad news.
“What’s up, Doc,” Pam said, chomping at an imaginary carrot and doing a credible Mel Blanc.
“I brought Bugs with me,” Roxie said.
“I see that,” I said, “Bunnies always welcome.”
Pam was a pale weirdo, an art student who looked like she was perpetually recovering from, or on the verge of, a good cry—red runny nose, lips quivering slightly. My friend Hal called her ‘Sniffles’ which might give you some idea. Roxie and Sniffles and the Soon-to-be-ex went to the same highly-regarded art school in a shiny stainless-steel building on Fifth Avenue. Whenever Sniffles came over for the evening I was supposed to stay home and keep my trap shut and listen while she and the Soon-to-be talked about Ben Shahn and Man Ray and stuff.
The last thing I needed right that minute was Sniffles hanging around and reporting back to the Soon-to-be about the goings on, if any, at my—formerly our—apartment, so my elation at seeing Roxie was as transitory as a bat flitting across the airshaft—so quick you’re not even sure you saw it—replaced by a mild, if dull, resignation. I still thought there might be a splinter of a chance of reconciliation that I wasn’t even sure I wanted—after all, she was the one who’d thought stripping on the side in some dump, a former pool hall on Third Avenue, was a good idea, a good way to bring in some extra cash, a good way to meet a guy named Sven who ended up belting her one in the first week and promising never to do it again —but I’d always been one to keep my options open as long as possible and I saw no reason to change at that late date.
* * *
Practically the first thing Roxie did when she walked in, after snapping a beer, was call this guy Studs who was the founder and editor of the low-rent magazine she worked for and invite him over. He lived practically right around the corner on Tenth Street.
“You’ll like him,” she said, dialing numbers, “He knows music like nobody’s business.”
In local music circles Studs was considered the epitome of cool not despite of his rag’s low circulation but precisely because of it.
“He practically lives at Max’s,” she said, waiting for him to pick up, “We get comped into CB’s for free half the time.”
“What’s that?” Pam said, “What’s ‘comped’?”
“I hear he has some primo opium,” Roxie said. She turned her back as he came on the line.
* * *
I shared the apartment with a blue parakeet and a 14-foot anaconda. I’d bought the anaconda as a baby, maybe eighteen inches, and kept him in a fifteen-gallon fish tank at one end of the couch. I figured it would take decades for him to grow to any substantial length; a typical masterpiece of planning on my part. Instead he doubled in size every nine months or so until now he was living in an eight-by-four-foot glass-fronted enclosure that stood five feet high and took up a third of the already-cramped living room. The Soon-to-be thought things were getting out of hand and had been saying so since he’d passed the ten-foot mark. I was thinking of selling him, but I didn’t think anyone wanted him. He was a mean-looking customer with his massive, wide, black-and-green head. His gold-flecked eyes, near the top of that head like most semi-aquatics, glared at the world with a cold regard from the water basin where he spent the bulk of his days. I would lure pigeons onto a bench in Washington Square Park with stale bread and once they got cocky enough to stray within reach, stuff a couple under my denim jacket and smuggle them home for him to eat. I was pretty sure this was illegal but in New York in the ‘seventies you had to be doing way worse things than capturing pigeons to feed an anaconda to elevate a single official eyebrow. Way worse.
The anaconda had a way of scaring people just by it’s simple menacing presence. One of the many times the place was burglarized, the wiry Puerto Rican beat cop who entered the dark apartment through the busted-lock door, revolver drawn and ready, refused to stay and finish his report once he spotted the big guy. Opting to complete his paperwork in the hall while the other guys ribbed him unconscionably, even after I explained it was safely confined. He wasn’t scared by the prospect of some junkie with a blood-scabbed switchblade lurking in the dark, but a big snake thoroughly unnerved him.
In reality, the anaconda was pretty placid most of the time; you could take him out and handle him though he was getting pretty heavy for that. You didn’t want to take him out without someone else in the apartment though; every once in a while some impulse, some wild hair, would take possession of him and like a snap of the fingers he would tighten all fourteen feet of his muscles around you as if he’d been skulking under the weeds in the Orinoco and you were some witless capybara dipping its snout or a passing caiman with its guard down, and start squeezing.
The parakeet was the kind you used to get at Woolworth’s for a dollar-ninety-nine back when I was a kid. It was the cage and the food and the cuttle bone and the mirror and all the other ancillary crap that ran up the cost.
“That’s how they get you,” my mother had said when I asked her to buy me one, “All the extras. And the seed.”
My bird’s cage, a standard pet shop issue, hung from a wall bracket, another thing you needed that they sold separately, over the anaconda enclosure. I left the door to the cage open and after a short while the little guy only stopped by the cage to eat and drink and even then only occasionally. The rest of the time he hung out in the jungle of giant philodendrons, climbing and drooping vines, snake plants and wandering Jews that hung in front of both windows. Ninety percent of the time you couldn’t even tell he was around.
* * *
I buzzed Studs in. He long-limbed it through the kitchen—all Levis, Pro Keds, Haynes, and a studded motorcycle jacket, the only person in the room not wearing thrift-store clothes—and into the living room like he was Joey Ramone or something and sucked Roxie into a show-off-y hug. He groped her mini-skirted ass cheeks and she squealed and slapped his hands away, giving him the exact reaction he desired. It was all a big joke. A routine they did to shock other people.
“You got a radio in this dungeon? Turn it on; they said on TV Elvis just died.”
“Costello or Presley?” Pam said.
“Presley,” Studs said, “Jesus. Y’know, ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll?’”
He’d known Pam for maybe two seconds and already he hated her. You could tell.
“Who gives a shit, Studs? Washed up old greaser, hasn’t made a good record in years,” Roxie said.
“The first punk,” he said back.
I started rooting through the hundreds of records stacked and leaning everywhere, looking for From Elvis in Memphis to prove her wrong.
“All those stupid movies,” Pam said, “What a waste…”
“‘First punk,’ my ass,” Roxie said.
“Shame on you, Rox,” Studs yelled in mock rage, “You heretic! You’re fired!”
“We deconstructed Spinout in my American Cinema class,” Pam said, but everyone was ignoring her.
I found what I was looking for.
“Here it is,” I said, waving it in the air, “all the proof you need that great talent never really dies.”
“Proof! Proof!” Studs shouted, leaping about, “Put it on, my man, put it on.”
I lowered the record onto the turntable, set the bass and the volume.
“Proof! Proof!” Studs was yelling out the window into the airshaft, nosing the macrame aside, “Did you hear that, motherfuckers? Proof!”
The needle never made it into the groove; at that moment Studs turned around and laid eyes on the cage with the anaconda in it for the first time.
“Jesus H. Christ!” he shrieked, retreating where there was no room to retreat, backpedaling where there was no room to backpedal, catching himself as he tripped over the footstool. I reached to grab his arm and the needle slid across the record making a loud horrible screech.
“Jesus Christ All-fuckin’-mighty!” Studs shouted, pointing at the animal, “Th’ fuck’s that?”
“Relax, pal,” Pam said in Bugs’ Brooklyn drawl, “It can’t get out.”
“Look at the fearless street-fightin’ man,” Roxie sneered, laughing, “the bigshot rock writer, scared of a little whaddayacallit?…a little iguana.”
It took us a number of minutes and most of a cold Tall Boy to get him calmed down, which was exactly when the parakeet decided to make a circuit of the room, buzzing Studs’ head in the process, and setting him off again. The bird settled back into the foliage; its work done.
* * *
We were all smoking like they were going to pass a law against it tomorrow. The place looked like an ashtray spawning ground. Guzzling beers.
I tried a new game called ‘Stump Studs,’ for a while, spinning some singles, obscure UK stuff—The Vibrators, a bootleg cassette of Wreckless Eric, unreleased anywhere—even more obscure US stuff—Revelons, What’s This Shit Called Love?, Prix. In those days records were being issued at a clip never previously seen; as if with a firehose, spraying the scene with wannabes and never-heard-ofs. Some of them were only available at single hole-in-the wall record stores where you weren’t allowed through the door if you hadn’t gone to high school with the guys behind the counter or something. Records blared out onto the sidewalks and not just from the record stores but from boutiques and head shops, bookstores, cafes and bars; you’d go in and say, “What is this?” and point to the speakers. But Studs had heard them all, owned them all, even the really shitty stuff. Knew the producers and the guys who owned the labels. I quit pretty quick; he was light years ahead of me.
* * *
In those days your phone was hardwired to your baseboard, and they charged you monthly for an extra-long cord so when Cyprian called I had to stand there in the middle of the music and everyone trying to talk over it and laughing and try to have an extremely personal conversation with him.
I’m at Bellevue,” he hollered over the background bedlam.
“Bellevue? What the hell?”
“I’m trying to check myself in,” he hollered even louder, “I’m fucking suicidal.”
“Is that their diagnosis or yours?”
“Mine,” he said, “I mean who’s in a better position to know?”
“Bullshit,” I said, “You’re not suicidal, you’re just depressed, like always.”
The people in my living room stopped talking and were looking up at me as I stood with the receiver at my ear. I put my hand over the mouthpiece and said, “Fucking Cyprian,” and rolled my eyes. They all nodded knowingly and rolled their own eyes, even Studs who didn’t even know him, and went back to jabbering. Cyprian was yet another artist-type. A sculptor who shaped and reshaped clay. At the end of each day’s work he would decide which piece was the best and punch it back down until it didn’t look like anything and start from there the next morning. No fancy stainless-steel schools for Cyprian, he was entirely self-taught.
“Those lamebrains just stand up there telling you stuff you already know,” he once said.
A long-armed giant with a face as stoic as a Roman coin, Cyprian walked with an elaborate limp due to a club foot that was shod with a podiatrist-designed boot that looked like it weighed twenty pounds. He overpowered everyone at the Fourth Street basketball courts with an alarming competitive ferocity. He played an ungraceful Center, using his boot as his plant foot, dominating the paint. No one could move him.
“Come get me,” he said, his voice weak over the phone.
“I’m not coming all the way the hell up there just to hold your hand. Get on the subway and come down here.”
“I don’t wanna ride the subway, I’m scared of the subway.”
Cyprian had been born in New York City. There were those who claimed he’d never been off the island—“Not even Brooklyn?” you’d say. “Nope, not even Brooklyn.”—but I never fully bought into this story.
“You been riding the subway your whole goddam life,” I said, “What’s the matter with you?”
“What a maroon,” Pam said to the room, back to Bugs.
“Listen,” I said, “Grab a cab and get over to St. Vincent’s. I’ll meet you there. You can check yourself in there. I’ll pay for the cab.” Cyprian was notoriously cash poor. We worked in the same bookstore and made the same money but somehow he never had any. I was always footing the bill for Chinese food, slices from Ray’s.
“I was born at St. Vinny’s,” he said.
“Well then you’ll feel right at home,” I said and hung up.
“Way to go,” Roxie said, “Boy, way to talk your guy off the ledge,”
* * *
“Okay, Cyprian, what’s the nature of your problem?”
The waiting room at St. Vincent’s was a hubbub of derangement and suffering. Neither of us was hemorrhaging arterially so they’d left us there to twiddle our thumbs for a couple of hours. All the magazines had been stolen except one called Cutis, the journal of the Association of Military Dermatologists. Illustrated. In color.
“I’m twenty-four and I’m still a virgin I pay a dominatrix to let me wash her feet sometimes I do her laundry I walk the streets for hours and don’t know where I am I smoke dope all day and spend all my money on drugs Sometimes I wish they’d never invented drugs in the first place I was born here but nothing looks familiar I don’t want to be anything when I grow up I should jump off a building or maybe just pitch forward and let gravity do the rest or immolate myself like some monk who doesn’t have any pea plants I moved out of my parents apartment a month ago Having fantasies of decapitating my mother I hate her fuckin’ guts Him too that motherfucker Sometimes I get depressed and I go down to the docks at night and bait the guys into kicking the shit out of me I holler at em call em fags and shit…”
It all came out in a single breath. I hadn’t heard any of it before, except the part about finally moving out of his parents’ place.
“Okay, I got it,” the woman said, holding her hand out like a traffic cop, “I guess we can stop there and just check the box for ‘Psychiatric.’ Okay so far?”
Cyprian nodded. “Yeah,” he said.
“Okay, now. Address?”
* * *
It was well dark by the time I got home. Cooling off a little. People were out walking around, couples and small groups. Two guys dressed up like Elvis. A few stumbling corpses with their hands out.
The only illumination in the living room was the rectangle of light cast through the kitchen doorway, beaming across the carpet to the opposite wall, a light I’d flipped on as I came in. I was leaning on the doorframe, throwing my elongated silhouette into the rectangle. The whole room looked like the Elephants’ Graveyard of Budweiser cans.
Roxie was sitting in the shadows on the cold radiator, looking out through her obsidian hair, blending into the jungle of plants surrounding her like some kind of black-on-black camouflage. I was telling her about the events of the past few hours. She said, “So she had to endure his whole…hideous saga just to get her forms filled out? That’s…hilarious.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Once she got his info—you know, social security number, phone—she was done with him and sent us back out to the waiting room again so we could cool our heels for another two centuries. And I needed a cigarette, bad, the whole time.”
“Was he wearing that thing…that mask of his?” Roxie said, lighting a cigarette. I’d found a welder’s helmet on the street, a flat-black iron mask you cold flip up and down, and given it to him. He called it ‘the best gift I’ve ever gotten,’ and glued an obscenely red set of plastic women’s lips onto the face of it, painted feminine eyebrows above the isinglass eye slot and walked the Village wearing it day and night. He’d tried wearing it on the sales floor at work, but they wouldn’t let him.
“When I got there, yeah, but I made him take it off.”
“Jesus, what an…idiot,” Roxie said, “Cyprian, not her.”
“Yeah, I mean I always knew he was crazy, but I never knew he was that crazy.”
I could see her nod in the darkness.
“So we’re sitting there and Cyprian says he heard that Elvis died; someone told him. He didn’t believe it, but he started to cry anyway, ‘just thinking about a world without Elvis.’”
Roxie shook her head. “Did you tell him it was so?”
“Yeah, and he blubbers a little but very quickly moves on to worrying about how he’s gonna pay for all this shit and how long we’re going to have to wait and will they keep him overnight and how he has to work in the morning and will they give him electroshock treatment and a straitjacket and starts whining about all this in a loud voice and everybody stops minding their own business and starts looking at us sideways like we’re maybe nuts or something which one of us undoubtedly is and finally he says to me…You’ll never guess what he says… ”
“What?” she said.
“He says, ‘Probably my biggest mistake was taking all that mescaline this morning.’ So I get up and grab him by his shirt. I say, ‘We’re getting the hell out of here right now, I’m done with this.’ I get behind him and practically shove him out the doors. He’s such a big galoot…”
“‘Galoot’s’ a funny word…” she said.
“…And I march him out onto the sidewalk and all the way home.”
“And…?” she said.
“And? And I assume he’s sleeping comfortably in his own bed as we speak, not standing on his roof with a can of kerosene.”
I unleaned myself off the door frame and stepped into the room.
“What happened to Studs?” I said, “ He split?”
“Yeah…he beat it hours ago. We ran out of beer…”
Sniffles was MIA, too, not that I cared.
Roxie pushed off the radiator and the light from the kitchen transited her face illuminating her features the way the streetlights do when Harry Lime steps out of the shadows in The Third Man. She looked pretty smashed.
At that point I noticed the door to the anaconda case hanging open, wide as it could go.
“Hey, what happened to my snake?
“Studs took it.”
“’Studs took it?’ Jesus Christ, Roxie.”
“Yeah, like I said. He said the magazine needed a… mascot.”
“‘A mascot?’” I said.
“You keep saying what I say,” she said, giggling.
“Did he at least put him in a bag or something for God’s sake? I have a satchel
he fits in. Used to anyway.”
“No, he just…” and she mimed shrugging a snake over her shoulders, “…said he’d put
it on our next cover…he wants me to take the pictures.”
I pictured Studs parting the waters as he walked down the sidewalk, people jumping out of his way, my anaconda swinging its head slowly, left and right, flicking it’s six-inch black tongue every few seconds. Freaking everyone out, like Cyprian with his welder’s mask.
“Why the hell does a magazine need a mascot?”
“Ask Studs…I dunno…It’s his fucking magazine.”
I threw myself onto my sway-backed couch with all my weight to show my frustration.
She sat down next to me. Not close but not the farthest either.
“Will it kill him?”
“I thought he was scared of it,” I said.
“He got over it.”
“It doesn’t seem like something you just get over, just like that.”
“I told him he was a fairy for being scared of it…and he got over it right quick.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“Well at least you still have your…bird,” she said, gesturing vaguely toward the plants.
“There’s always some small consolation, I guess,” I said.
“What would possess someone…two someones!…,” she giggled, “…to dress up like some dead rock star and go out and what?…wander around?”
I didn’t have an answer. “One of ‘em was on roller skates,” I said, in lieu of one.
She giggled. “Which one?”
“The one in the gold lame,” I said, “Like on the cover of Fifty Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.”
This seemed to satisfy her for a minute.
“I don’t suppose there’s any of that opium left over,” There was a hash pipe on the coffee table with a blackened bowl. Burnt kitchen matches that they’d helped themselves to as well.
“Oh yeah…sure…that we saved, that we stuck it in a Tupperware…thingy and saved it for you,” she stopped to giggle again, “…We put it in the fridge next to those…string beans you’re saving.”
“This hasn’t been my day,” I said.
“I cooked up the rest of your hot dogs, too,” she said, “We got hungry.”