Folks in the audience hooted and clapped. It was an audacious, seamless performance, complete with live band, backup singers, and beefy bodyguards. But there was no way that I, Elvis' wife, could keep watching. I covered my eyes with my hands and held my breath. It was the 54-year-old knee Elvis was leaning on that frightened me. At an earlier performance, it had popped out of its socket, and the King had dropped to the floor. Everybody thought the move was part of the show, but I, like most spouses of celebs, knew the gritty truth.
My odyssey with 'Elvis' began four years ago, when my husband, Bill, a novelist, college teacher, and father of our two young daughters, took the bait from an enterprising editor: He agreed to write a nonfiction book about the Elvis-impersonator scene.
The quid pro quo? He had to become one. Now, I am not an Elvis fan, but I am game for adventure. Indeed, my own path has taken some bizarre twists during our 20-plus years of married life: from modern dancer, professional dog walker, masseuse, community organizer, to mother and freelance writer. Who was I to protest? And how many times does a middle-aged pop culture hound get to morph into a rhinestone-studded Elvis?
Too many, I found out. One time, Bill drove two days to a show, leaving behind his jumpsuit and wig. 'You what?' I asked, incredulous, when he called. Visions of a frenzied mob of Dionysian Elvis devotees angrily dismembering my balding, Teva-shod husband quelled my wifely anger at his forgetfulness, and Fed Ex saved the day. At another concert, the wife of a real impersonator pulled Bill aside and suggested that he unzip his suit and 'show some chest.' Later, I found my man dozing in the bathtub, a swirl of muddy 'For Men Only' black dye burning the flesh on his chest.
'Who cares if your chest hair is white and your suit doesn't fit perfectly?' I wailed. (He'd made several trips to the alterations lady, trying to get the hand-me-down suit's crotch raised.) 'You're only an impersonator of an impersonator.'
I tried to stand by my man. I once taped this list to the bathroom mirror:
1. WHITE SUIT
3. WHITE SHOES
4. GAUDY RINGS
5. BAG OF SCARVES
6. ELVIS BELT
7. ELVIS GLASSES
8. KNEE BRACE
But the entire endeavor confused me. What would you do if your mate suddenly threw himself wholeheartedly into an activity you found, well, distasteful? I tried to console myself: At least he wasn't gambling, pursuing an MBA degree, or ringing bells on street corners with the Hare Krishnas. I was the one, after all, who had stuck the George Eliot quote to our refrigerator door: 'It is never too late to be what you might have been.'
Or is it? I was sure about one thing. There was no way I was going to accompany Bill to Images of Elvis, the ultimate impersonator contest, in Memphis. Even the thought of spending a whole week in one of those drop-ceilinged, stale-aired motel banquet rooms, watching 80 impostors bump and grind across a makeshift stage, made me gag.
Anyway, the book came out, the promotional fanfare followed, an even balder Bill limped back into the classroom where he belonged, and our lives returned to normal.
The phone kept ringing. FiancÈes wanted him to sing ballads at their weddings, schools 'booked' him, festivals featured him. Some folks, it seems, just can't get enough of Elvis, any Elvis.
Luckily, Bill isn't one of them. After a year of glorying as the King, he was completely worn out. His back seized up, and he quit.
'That was a wild romp,' I said, 'but I guess we're both getting a bit old to try on new lives.'
So why, I asked him the other day, is he boning up on Jerry Garcia lyrics?
From The Oxford American (Summer 1999). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 1156, Oxford, MS 38655.