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COMPREHENDING KINGS

By Lee Matthew Goldberg

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The Montréal Review, July 2012

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Portrait with Light Switch (2011, 24"X20") by Paul Fenniak.

***

"KING," MY SON CALLS OUT TO ME.  We are on an old Greyhound bus that rocks back and forth through America like an unsteady amusement park ride.  "King, how much longer?"  He asks me, not in a whine like most children, but responsibly.  It seems as if just yesterday he was learning to form real words.

"A while, King," I reply.  "A while."

I choose to answer him vaguely.  Children do not to need to know specifics; that is a labor one inherits with age.  Time is always on a child's side.

We call each other King because it is the only joke we share.  I don't know if I know any others, and maybe he does, but this one is ours.  My ex-wife Marjorie doesn't understand it.  She will only call him Harry, and she will never call me.  She regards me with pursed lips and crossed arms, sighs and dismissals.  I bet she is hovering over her cell right now, chewing her nails and figuring out what to do next.  What should her precise moves be?  She is losing at a game that I am finally winning.

King is small for his age.  I was, too.  That does something to you, it makes you stronger, smarter.  You gain confidence once you develop physically, and I see that in him.  He is more self-reliant than when he was seven. 

"Will he play your favorite song?" King asks, with a curl of his lip.  He knows that will make me laugh.  He is an imitator.  He studies what others appreciate and copies.  That is the work of a genius.

"I don't know.  The last time I spoke to him.Tuesday maybe, he said he would, but you know how superstars can be?  They are fickle."

"What's fickle mean?"

"Unsure, unreliable."

"He's that?" he asks, in disbelief.

I don't answer.  I will let him discover.  Idols should never be brought down from their high.  Telling a child that Santa Claus does not exist destroys a childhood.  My father told me from a very young age of Santa's non-existence.  He never disguised it; he only assumed that my innocence did not need to be preserved.

"Don't be cruel," King says to a woman across the aisle.  He is angelic, and no one could be so cruel and not respond to his wonderment.  He searches in his huge pockets and pulls out a pair of cheap sunglasses.  He puts them on and they loosely hang around his pug nose, making him resemble a fly.  He transforms as he curls his lip again and maneuvers his hands.  He knows how to do it.  The voice is an exact duplicate as he softly sings.  The woman is enraptured, and because of that, she is enraptured with me.

She is like his sunglasses - gaudy and not much use in everyday life.  They are gold colored and so is she - gold on her ears in big hoops and in chains sticking to her tan neck.  She and I once came from different worlds, but bad investments and a steep alimony have caused me to travel like her.  As she begins talking, her breasts speak with her words.  They bounce up and down and move around and around, and I think of the song about the bus that I used to sing as a boy on the way to summer camp.  

"You're son is adorable.  Just precious.  A little Elvis."

King shrugs her off like a common fan.  He nods with a greedy smirk.  Even though he does not realize it, he is my wingman to the fullest extent.

"I'm Karen," she says, slipping her hand into mine.  We share our sweat.  Her legs are bronzed and crossed, her toes painted pink. 

"Ridley," I say, clutching her hand.  "We're looking forward to Graceland."

She waves to King.  "I can tell."

"Thank you, ma'am, thank you very much," he says.

"I think Elvis is just so cool," she laughs, a high-pitched giggle.  She then repeats it to King.  " Love Me Tender is probably the most beautiful song ever written on the face of this Earth.  It was me and my ex-husband's song."

The intonation in her voice when describing her ex-husband is one of slight contempt.  The word husband is casually thrown out there with a shrug of her shoulders as if to say she is not to blame for the souring of their relationship.  I am willing to bet that she was.  It's similar to the way that you can only stay at a store like Walmart for so long without eventually feeling superior.  I am sure that is how he began to feel; but right now, she is so far from my level that I find her refreshing.

King leaves me to my business.  He watches the world pass by - the trees, the road, the Earth.  Maybe he chooses to listen, maybe he doesn't; but he is a friend.  He knows what I need and lets me discover it. 

" Love Me Tender was our song, too." I say.  "I mean.mine and my ex."  My lies are worthy of an Oscar.  I know that if I could see King's eyes beneath his shades, they'd be rolling to the sky.

"Get out," she coos.

"I can't, the bus is moving."

She pats my knee.  When the bus makes a pit stop for the night, I'll invite her for some cheap red wine at the motel bar.  I'll be the most interesting conversation she's had in weeks and she'll be in awe.  I could tell of our immediate future from the way her hand lingered on my thigh. 

King watches us with curious anticipation. His voice drops to a hum.  He's seen this game I've played before.  He knows when to recede into the shadows and give me the spotlight for once.  It has been awhile since I abused anyone but myself, but I'd bet the house that, in bed, Karen is a contortionist when she wants to be.

-

I have an acceptable office that replaces the sterility of my apartment.  I find flashiness a distraction, but I spread out art across the walls in my new apartment, giant and expensive Rorschach-like blobs, which represent a chic modernity I find it shameless not to aspire to.  My patients could have cared less about that so therefore I had one poster of this happy dancing clown in my office.  When one of them would become frustrated or an annoyance during a session, I'd point to the jolly fool with the big red nose hanging above my head whom I've dubbed Bubbles.

"You don't want to upset Bubbles," I'd say.

Last Tuesday was a particularly difficult day to get through.

"Put my pencils down," I said, to a little moppet with bushy, blond hair covering his eyes and a condescending smirk as if he knew more than I did at the mature age of seven and a half.  His parents wrung their hands, waiting for a maximum dosage of Ritalin to alleviate their problems. 

"Distraction," I told the little boy.  "Constant distractions.  Why do you need to break my pencils?"

"I don't know," he said, to the snapped pencils.

"When you feel the need to reach for a pencil and break it, stop yourself.  Focus.  Ask yourself what the purpose is.  What will you gain from that broken pencil?"

He stared at me clueless, so inferior to King; they all were. 

"I'll try."  He shrugged his shoulders, leaving them hovering up by his ears in jest.  This boy will never be what his parents had ultimately hoped for; the long road to ruin was already partially in his rearview. 

-

Motel 6 in the glinting, falling sun.  Neon vacancy lights sporadically pop on as night settles somewhere in Virginia.  The air is sticky and clumps against my face as it pushes past.  King is awake.  The bus has docked for the night, sighing as it sinks down and spits us all out into nowhere.

Karen is in front of me in hot pants, the ends of her ass squeezing out of those short shorts.  It looks as if her cheeks are having a conversation with one another as she walks - just small talk, one word questions and answers, nothing too interesting.  She sees me watching her.

When we reach the hallway, I tell her I'll find her at the bar after King goes to bed.  She slides her plastic motel card into the door and slides her own plastic self in. King and I are a few doors away. 

Our room is a model of mediocrity.  Two drab beds, a heavy curtain, and a carpet with a hint of mildew smell.  Two years ago I wouldn't have dreamed of staying at anything under four stars, but now I've been reduced to a common riff-raff, forced to be content with the least squalor possible. 

King doesn't mind and makes himself at home.  He tosses his backpack on the bed and takes out his fake sideburns.  He skips over to the mirror and meticulously sticks them on.  A midget Elvis.

"Think we'll see him right when we get there?" King asks hopefully, and I nod.

"I don't see why not."

"Charlie hates Elvis."

It is out of nowhere.  Charlie.  An accountant.  A man obsessed with facts, figures, and numbers.  Numbers are numbers; they mean nothing.  Charlie likes elevator music.  Charlie is nothing.  I can't fathom his day-to-day existence, and I'm certain he'd find mine detestable.  But that really applies to everyone; our seconds, minutes, and hours couldn't differ more from one person to the next.  Regardless of one's place in life, another man's shoes would feel jarringly mystifying.

"Not everyone likes Elvis," I say, trying to be as polite as possible.

"He told me he's dead," King says, in a mock laugh.

"He isn't a believer."

"Mom agrees," King says, finishing up the sideburns and flashing me a smile.

"Enough of Charlie."

Always enough of Charlie.  He would never go cross-country with his boy.  Leave his work, leave everything, live in the moment; be impulsive.  I wanted something and I took it despite consequences and despite what was ordained, legal, and court ordered.  Marjorie and him only know the lines and not what is between them.  That is why they are rotten.

I see so little of Marjorie in King.  I see a face he will unknowingly make, and it will anger me.  I want all of me to filter into him, to be a model for his mimicry before I disappear into a collage of memories. 

He flops on the bed and clicks through channels as I well up.  Marjorie hated when I used to control the remote.  Never satisfied with one image, but desiring many, my call of the wild that led me astray again and again to dark rooms in dark clubs, to deplorable acts of self-loathing and ten minute passions.  At this moment, King is now and forever my child.     

I take a shower and lose myself in the spray.  Karen is in my thoughts, an immediate fix.  She isn't reality, and reality is bound to reach me soon enough with blaring sirens and definite threats.  I'll hold onto her tightly until I'm someone else with a brand new morning waiting for him.  If someone told me a year ago that this was what would become of my life, I'd have laughed.  That's absurd, I'd say.  I have a PhD in psychiatry from Yale; I'm destined for distinction.  No, no, you're thinking of infamy, they'd nod back.  You'll be a witty headline on a second rate newspaper's inside page.  A joke at the end of a late night host's monologue as a summation for forty years on the planet. 

King is still mesmerized with the television as I step out in a towel.  It is some shoot 'em up movie I find offensive.  I snap the television off.  He gives me a sour glare that is way out of character. 

"It's bedtime," I say.

"It's early," he defends.

"It's late," I correct, and with my tone, he knows there is nothing more to argue. 

"Can I sleep with my sideburns on, King?"

I hold off answering for a few seconds. 

"Yes.  Whatever makes you happy."

It does.  I am glad he is pleased.  He runs to the bathroom to brush his teeth.  I change into a more presentable outfit.  King darts back out and leaps into bed.

"That was fast," I say.

"Twenty times on each row, round trip, back and forth," he says, miming exactly how he did it.

I nod and turn off the light.  The sunken beds and poorly cleaned sheets become cloaked in a momentary darkness before the light from the outside neon sign sneaks in and reflects King under the covers.  He takes off his shades, rests them on the nightstand, and closes his eyes.  I do the same.  An instant of inner peace.  Then, I open them, and begin my night.

-

A woman's cigarette rests between Karen's middle and index finger.  Too much make-up causes her expressions to sag.  She wears a top that looks like a bra.  She wants a Bloody Mary so I oblige.  It's thick and coats my throat as it spills down.  The heat steams in from outside, and we all feel oppressed. 

"Is your little Elvis in bed?"

"Yes.  He needs his rest for tomorrow.  Big day."

"I've actually never been to Graceland.  My job, we like only get a week and half vacation so it's hard to go anywhere.  I'm a secretary at an air conditioner store.  Couldya believe that all summer their air conditioner system was broken?  How's that for ironic?"

I hate when people use ironic in a sentence.  I know it makes her think she's smarter than she is.

"I just up and took off," I say.  "He comes first.my son.  My son definitely comes first, before work, before anything."

"What do you do?"

"I'm a child psychiatrist."

"That's different from a psychologist, right?"

"Yes."

"Because Glenda my sister goes to a psychologist."

"Well, it's different."

She beams.  "I think that's wonderful you can just leave your job like that."  Her stool scrapes closer to me.  I can smell her sweet breath.  I go into a diatribe about the complex study of a troubled child's mind, which goes completely over her head, but she tries.  She nods at the appropriate pauses, probably thinking that it had been a while since she spoke to someone other than her boss, or her friends at the local beauty parlor, but to a guy who uses ten dollar words like pontificate and idiosyncrasies . 

"Would you mind me being nosy?" she says, spinning a strand of bleached-out hair around her finger.

"Depends."

"Where's little Elvis' mom?"

I can tell she thinks she's being real cute by referring to him like that.  It's getting old but I maintain my composure.

"Little Elvis' mom.left us.  She wanted independence."

"That's horrible!" she squeals, with a solemn hand over her heart like she's pledging allegiance.

"I can handle.  I have to handle.  That's the reality I was dealt.  It is who we become during our trials that reveals who we truly were all along."

"Oh, yes.  I agree.  I really do."

Honestly she has no idea what I just said, and since I could care less, I finish up my Bloody Mary and order us another.  We're on our way.  The bartender knows it and gives me a look of lingering male solidarity. The man sitting at the corner of the bar notices it, too, nursing the same Molsen Ice all night and looking over like clockwork every few minutes probably wishing he was me, wondering why, just this once, he couldn't swap lives until morning.  My conversation with Karen becomes lighter as I graze her inner thigh with my hand and she smiles so simply.  She's loved and been damaged before and still believes in fairytales, in chance meetings as stories to tell her grandchildren, in alternate paths more pleasant than the one she's been trudging along.

Our fourth Bloody Mary gets passed to us, and we indulge in each other's sips.  Swapping straws and tongues.  Crunching celeries and clinking teeth.  Making out like junior high schools kids breaking curfews on football fields.  Sloppy drunks drinking each other.  I pull away from a saliva-laden kiss and slither my lips over to her ear.

"Let's go upstairs," I whisper. 

Her sticky rouged cheek nods against mine. 

-

We collide in the hallway smelling of tomatoes.  There are clumps of juice in her hair.  I fumble with her plastic key card as she gives me hickeys on my neck.  Once the door opens, we wrestle over to the bed.  We take turns pulling each other's clothes off.  My pants are still hanging around my ankles when I enter her, but all I can picture in my mind is King stirring down the hall.  He is waiting for me while watching nothing on the television as the hours pass until sunrise.  I push him to the back of my mind and concentrate on the slippery girl beneath me before I pass out. 

-

Morning comes with a knock as Karen shimmies over to the door wearing the sheets like a toga.  King steps inside with his sideburns and an Elvis tracksuit on; the sunglasses are pushed up to the top of his head.  Without looking my way, he goes over to the mirror and flips up his collar.  Karen scoops the sheets around her breasts and runs into the bathroom blushing.

"I want breakfast," he says into the mirror in his own voice, not the King's.

I stare at him through the mirror and he stares back breathing heavy.  I'm naked and the coarse sheets are chafing.  A used condom lays soggy on the carpet between us. 

"I do, too," I say.  He slides the huge sunglasses over his eyes and my son disappears for the day.

-

A Motel 6 breakfast.  Greasy eggs and sausages that will give me the runs.  I make sure to pay in cash.  My credit card has remained firmly in my pocket for the entire trip.  You never can be too careful.  The King and Karen talk about Elvis until she excuses herself to "powder her nose."  I do not want to be at breakfast with her this morning or any other morning afterwards. 

"Do you like her?" King asks me, poking at his soupy eggs.

"Why do you ask?"

"Dunno."

He's still wearing those damn sunglasses.

"It's not good to wear sunglasses inside.  You'll hurt your eyes."

"Have you spoken to mom since we've left?"

"Your mother and I.we will be in touch after Graceland.  That was the deal.  No need for calling now."

"She worries-"

"I know!" I snap, but he doesn't flinch.  The soupy eggs get pushed around his plate and become his point of concentration.  We are all slaves to distractions, absorbing ourselves in something other than the here and now.  I clench my teeth because I am just as guilty.

Karen comes back with a long story involving a large woman taking a dump in the bathroom.  She goes into the smell and the sounds with giggles that become snorts.  The story is capped with the large woman leaving with toilet paper stuck to her shoe.  I am not impressed and make that clear with my exaggerated frown.

We pay the bill, board the bus, and push towards our destination.  I pick a seat with King far away from Karen.

"Do you like where you're living now?" I ask King, as the bus passes over a series of potholes.  Everybody bounces.

"What do you mean?"

"How would you like to live somewhere else, somewhere different?  There's a world outside of Rhode Island, you know?  It's enormous.  It waits for you."

He chooses not to answer me.  The question does not excite him, and he is not interested in condescending me to answer.  He shrugs his shoulders and knows he can get away with that because he is nine.

"I hope he plays Now or Never for us," he says.  "I did that one at a talent show last month and got first place."

"He will, King."

The bus becomes drenched with the overwhelming smell of too many people.  We are all crammed, and despite the rest stop, living out of suitcases for these last two days hasn't been pleasant.  Karen is a few rows up waving to me like a fool.  The whole trip is beginning to bother me.

"We have fun," I manage to say between short, quick breaths.

"Huh?"

"The two of us.fun.  Your mother.it's different isn't it?  That's all I'm saying.  Just different."

He studies my face.  Sweat streaks down the worry lines on my forehead.  My eyes press up against my glasses in anticipation.  I yearn for approval: every inch, every twitch of my body.  I wait for recognition, but receive nothing.  Those sunglasses stare back at me as if I am an extraterrestrial. 

-

I felt guilty last Thursday. There was a child, a sweet, little girl with hair in pigtails and a smattering of freckles.  She bit her nails intensely.  She bit them between questions, before answers, and in silence.  Sometimes she cried.  Her father had walked out on her and her mother.  I couldn't help but think of King.  I had to do something. 

Thursday.  This was Thursday.  I made the decision at about two-thirty.  School usually ended at five after three.  I'd speed over, and we'd go to Graceland.  My affinity for Elvis began at an early age, even though it was during his waning years.  He lived a life of vast differences: fat and thin, strung out and straight, normal and then anything but.  My mother played his records through a loveless marriage, drowning damaging words and the occasional fist with his cadences.  She was a good woman: quiet, nervous, simple, loving, and then gone one day when I returned home after school.  The vacuum cleaner was still running as I burst into the living room and she lay twisted around our houseplant, her mouth caught in a permanent, silent scream.

I reached King's school at ten to three.  His class hadn't ended yet, but his teacher would understand.  I waved from outside the windowed door, a pinch in my heart as he regarded me with a curious glare.  What was I up to?

But he was excited when I told him.  He didn't have a change of clothes, but he always had Elvis hanging from a hook in his locker waiting to be used.  Marjorie and Charlie lived their lives by exact times, and therefore, they'd be late.  I pictured her brushing her hair from her forehead in confusion once she'd be told that we left.

I fell out of love with her before we even really started.  I knew it lifting her veil when I saw how empty her eyes looked.  We'd devote our energy to finding ways to one up each other's cruelty, but up until Thursday she had figured out how to win, exposing my infidelities, my gambling and alimony debts, and having me declared unfit.  

So I took a risk by taking flight, and King and I will trickle down the countryside until we're far enough away from everything I've known.  He'll cry and complain at first, somewhere down in a little rental in Savannah, but soon he'll come around because he knows he and I are creatures unlike Charlie and Marjorie.  And since he's never seen Elvis' home before, there was some part of me that wanted to bring him there, to take that risk in..

"GRACELAND!" the bus driver chimes, as my thoughts turn to the present.  "All out for Graceland."

The driver's voice reverberates through the claustrophobic bus.  This time we are not spit out in nowhere, but into a paradise. We check into another local motel and rush right over, the sideburns flapping against King's face as I pull him through the wind towards a retro mansion that puts all others to shame.  King is in heaven as our tour begins.  We pass through room upon room of memorabilia, Louis XIV furniture, a huge white fireplace, and the Jungle Room. 

"How come he doesn't mind people walking through his house?" King asks, snapping a picture of Elvis' den. 

"When you're that famous, it's flattery."

"But he is here?  Will he sing for us?"

"I told you when I talked to him-"

"You said I wanted to hear Now or Never right?  You didn't forget that?"

"He will.  I made him swear."

King gazes upon me in awe. 

"He'll definitely do that," I say, and put my arm around him.

We walk outside, but when we pass the bus, I see police officers.  They are chatting.  They are watching.  They do not see King and I strolling along, or maybe they are just playing it cool.  Do they know of my crimes?  Has Marjorie anticipated my moves and one-upped me again?  No, they cannot see me.  We need to go to the Memorandum Garden first.  That is how the tour ends.  It says in the brochure that the Memorandum Garden is the final stop of the tour.  That is the way it has to be.  We live our lives by what we are told.  We mustn't question; we must follow those rules. The tour ends with the Memorandum Garden.  It says so in the brochure.  That is the way it has to be.

When we reach the Memorandum Garden, the police officers either still do not see me, or understand the rules of Graceland.  We stand over a grave in the grass.  A sculptured angel sits perched on top.  The grass is hot.  It has wilted from the heat wave.  The sky is blue.  The clouds are gone.  King is puzzled.  The King is dead.  The tour guide speaks of nothing, and I hear none of it.  People snap their pictures, and the flash bulbs make me feel like a celebrity coming out of hiding.  Karen has finished looking at me.  She is smart enough to realize she is beyond my abuse. 

"I don't get it," King mumbles, removing his sunglasses.

He turns to me for guidance, but I am done.  I have guided all I can, and I am tired.

"King.?" he calls out to me.

"Is dead," I say.

"King." he says again, his voice shaky.  

"I'm sorry, Harry."

"But you said."

"It's time to go home."

And just like that it'll end.  In all honesty, it never could've gone further than this anyway.  I don't even know if I really wanted it to, or if the thrill is what kept me going.  I'd maintained a fantasy to avoid the inevitable truth where I'm unfit to raise a child.  I came to Graceland for guidance, to be surrounded by the presence of the King, someone who'd touched magnificence.  I wanted my son to see who I really am and not just how they speak of me, but I don't have it in me anymore to continue with that false ideal.

I lower myself down to his level in front of the gravestone.  I place my hand on his shoulder.  The waterworks have begun, and he's not holding back.

"I never took you, Harry.  Not like they will tell you I did.  It's not like that."

"Not like what?"

"Just not like that !  Say it for me.please, my son, my beautiful boy.please say it.  Mimic me.  Say what I say.  It's.not.like.that."

The sunglasses slip from his hand.  His eyes gaze up towards the blue sky. 

"Don't look away, Harry.  It's.not.like.that!  It's not!  Say it!  Say it!  Please.I need this.just this, that's all.  Please, son.  I am done."

His eyes travel back down to my level.  They are searching, debating, knowing that they hold my entire sanity in a blink.  I am beyond tears, a shriveled, quivering non-entity.  He reaches out and touches my face, electrifies me with delicate fingerprints.

"It's not like that," he says, in a dead-on Elvis impersonation.  "Thank you very much."

-

We are on a bus home.  To his home.  My nothing.  I'll leave him at the door and make him promise to give me a ten-minute head start before he rings the bell.  Marjorie will be waiting over a caffeinated drink with Charlie's hand on her shoulder.  They'll curse my name, make threats, and not let go of him for the next week.  Just like that, in an instant, he'll vanish from my life.  But isn't that how it always is?  Elvis died in an instant, throwing up last night's party while on the toilet.  One minute here, the next minute gone.  And that's how he'll probably consider me as well down the road, as an abandoner, as a fucking asshole.  I'll be a model not to aspire to.  But who's to say what I should be to him because of the title I hold?  Father?  Son?  I'll hurt him less if he mistakes me for a stranger.   

For now, he sleeps in the crook of my arm.  His huge sunglasses are wrapped around his eyes, and he's snoring sweet, innocent dreams, humming a soft version of Now or Never, as the bus rolls through the night.  I hold onto him as tight as I can to preserve the sensation of how it feels.  A lifetime of memories of this day will be punishing and illogical, but worth every second of reflection.  My son, my King, who someday, hopefully, will understand why I did what I did.  Maybe he'll be able to find a way to absolve my transgressions and become a better person for it, just like I hope to do with all that he has taught me.     

Thank you, King, thank you very much.

Please forgive me.

This King has left the building.

***

Lee Matthew Goldberg graduated with an MFA from the New School. He is a regular contributor to The Montreal Review and The Adirondack Review. His fiction has also appeared in Essays & Fictions, The New Plains Review, Orion headless, Verdad Magazine, and BlazeVOX. He hosts a monthly reading series called The Guerrilla Lit Reading Series ( guerrillalit.wordpress.com ). Follow him at leematthewgoldberg.com .

***

 
 

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