Have you ever seen Leather Elvis head-butt Blue Hawaii Elvis? It’s weird shit. These nights, we’ve got the freakshows headed through Lewisburg bumper-to-bumper on the highway into Memphis and everyone else on their way to five hundred miles in any direction but here. I hate the end of August. It’s hot and it’s wet, and everybody’s leaving, and the Elvises come to town. People don’t usually fight at the Shell, but the Elvises get a little crazy in the heat, and you do what you have to do to keep the peace. Danny, if you really loved me, you’d call me ba– If I open up the rest of the message, I can’t say that I never got it, so I slide the phone back in my pocket and lean over the countertop to look at the tabloids under the glass. “Bat Boy Joins the Army As Secret Weapon” kinda shit, you know? Usually, I can’t read them because of the crowds this time of year. But tonight’s a slow night, just the old Wheelchair Man piling groceries into the basket on his lap by the tall boy fridge.
No homo, but I’ve got to admit Elvis was an alright-looking guy. When Aubrey gets a mind to watch some of those old movies, I can sort of understand the Elvis thing. Hair gel, tight pants, swing your hips a little, and the girls go wild, right? I could be into that every once in a while I guess, if I had to, for Halloween or something. But I don’t get the fat Elvises – all bloated and puffy, with the stupid costumes. Like the big old platform shoes, and the jumpsuits, and that cape with the eagle on it. Who looks good in a cape with an eagle on it? No one I know.
The door slides open and blasts the thick summer night into the store, and the Wheelchair Man over by the beer fridges looks up at the wave of humid air. I swear, you’ve got to swallow the heat when it gets around your face or else you’ll choke. A Fat Elvis walks in. At least he’s still dressed like a normal person, in a white t-shirt and jeans, but you can tell he’s an Elvis by the hair. Maybe it used to be puffed up into an Elvis poof, but the heat and the humidity weighed it down, and now it looks like a mess of hair grease and sideburns. He heads to the back of the store and stands between Wheelchair Man and the beer fridge. Wheelchair Man keeps staring at the mess of hair like he’s afraid it’s going to drip on him. Maybe Fat Elvis wouldn’t look so bad if he wore normal pants instead of those tight ones, so his stomach wouldn’t be pouring over the belt buckle. But a sale’s a sale, and like Mr. Dominic says, he can go without pants if he grabs a six-pack and a chimichanga.
My phone vibrates again. Danny, I’m really sick of waiting up for– I hide it in my pocket and make a note in my head to call her back when I get off work in an hour. I hate the thought of Mr. Dominic reviewing the security cams, thinking that I’m spending all my time on my phone, especially since he made me manager after my knee blew out last year. Aubrey’s just mad about tonight. She’s got a friend heading out to Vanderbilt soon – Steven, Nathan, Dylan. Some name that ends with an n. One more going-away party after a summer of going-away parties. I’m the manager, you know? The manager has responsibilities.
Fat Elvis grabs a tall boy and a bag of Doritos from the shelves. He comes up to the register, hands me a ten, and I make the change in my head – four dollar bills, one quarter, one dime, one nickel, four pennies. Math was the only subject I was ever any good at. He curls his lip. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” He pulls the r in “very” too far, the way the Elvises do.
“Enjoy Graceland.” I use the voice that Mr. Dominic taught me, the one that is polite and friendly but “does not invite further conversation.” Fat Elvis turns on his boots and heads out the door to his powder-blue Cadillac.
Inside the station, Wheelchair Man clears his throat loud, and I look down the candy aisle toward him. “Does that sorta thing happen every night?” He sounds real Memphis, but bristly, like an old smoker.
“His birthday, days like that.” We catch a lot of the Graceland tourists, especially on weekends like this, the death anniversary, according to the signs on the freeway. So these freakshows, they’re walking in and out of the Shell with those crazy bellbottom jumpsuits on and the gold jackets and the big greasy hair they pump up with oil and Vaseline and something weird and flowery, and they’re humming “Suspicious Minds” and “Love Me Tender” and “Hound Dog,” and the longer they spend in the Shell, the louder they get and the angrier they get at each other for being louder, until we end up with a full-on war and I have to get out from behind the counter to separate them. When they all start crooning so loud that even the King up in heaven must be thinking what a racket, I have to remember the way Mr. Dominic taught me to kick them out politely, without letting them beat each other into a mess of polyester.
Wheelchair Man shrugs his shoulders, and tries to turn around in a clean circle, but he’s a big guy, wide, and he snags himself on the candy aisle, pulls all the boxes slightly to the side without noticing. He reaches into the jar of Slim Jims from our meat aisle and makes a pyramid of jerky in his basket. That always makes me sad, people like that, the ones who pick up groceries at the gas station. You don’t much seem like you’re anywhere in particular if you’re picking up the week’s food at a gas station.
The minute hands on the clock above the beer fridge never spin as fast as Aubrey wants them to. Another 38 minutes left on my shift, if I don’t let Jim off for the night and pick up the double. By then, Aubrey’s probably going to be tucked up into bed, and she’ll be mad enough to kick a cat. Might as well not even go home tonight. Take the extra shift. Or I could go to the party after all. Pay my respects to Martin, maybe? Ben?
The old man’s going up and down the aisles now, checking prices I guess, but it’s not like we’ve got much in the way of selection unless there’s a big difference I don’t know about between Peter Pan and Skippy. Under the glass: “Federal Agents Raid Gun Store, Find Guns” on The National Enquirer, “Elvis Lives, Places Third in Vegas Lookalike Contest” on Star.
The phone vibrates in my pocket again. Danny, I’m going to pick up the– and I pocket it again.
Working the evening shift’s no sweat; like I said, I’m good at my job, and when I save up enough money, I’ll head off to college too, like Aubrey and I have been planning. I just need a year or two to save up some money, fix my knee. And I’m not going to save up any money if I’m not picking up the extra shifts. The manager can’t just pick up and leave because Ryan or what’s his face is going to college.
An RV pulls up out front, and I straighten up. A woman with two little girls comes trailing in. The two of them are curly-haired little things, the kinds that like to run around the store, wide open, and their mom looks tired while their dad pumps gas. She heads over to the pile of overripe bananas and picks through for the brightest ones while the kids run their fingers through the boxes of candy down low, over by Wheelchair Man.
The mom drops an armful of fruit on the countertop and points down to the girls. “Can you add whatever they pick to this and $80 on pump three?”
She lays down a $100 bill on the countertop next to the fruit, and turns to the girls. The taller one is holding a pack of M&Ms, and the shorter one is reaching above her head for the Hershey’s bars, dancing up on her tiptoes. The old man stretches up, almost out of the wheelchair and hands it down. “Here you go sweetheart,” he says, real soft.
The girl pulls her Hershey’s bar close to her heart, and she smiles back with one of those stranger-danger smiles kids get. Her mom stands behind her. “What do you say, Lisa?”
Wheelchair Man smiles, but uncomfortable, like he doesn’t know how to talk to kids or he used to know but hasn’t done it in a long time and doesn’t want to do it wrong. They head out of the station, back to the car. The sliding doors pull open again just about as soon as they close, and I know I’m in big trouble because there she is, big as life, Aubrey, standing on the motion sensor. All bluster and hellfire and sparkly mouth in her favorite green party dress and my catcher’s mitt, a ball tucked in the pocket.
I walk around to the front of the counter and stand close so she can’t get too loud, but she does anyways. “Danny Jones.” The sound of my name throws a shudder down my spine. “I do not even want to hear it from you.”
She crosses her arms, only the mitt can’t fit into the space her hand does, so it lays heavy on her elbow, held to her chest with the determination of a tiny scorned woman. “You took the extra shift, didn’t you? It’s not my fault that you forgot about the party, and now I have to go by myself even though I told everybody that you were going to be coming with me, and now I’ll just look like some pathetic loser.”
“No one thinks you’re a loser, Aubrey.”
She makes a noise in the back of her throat that means I won’t dignify that with a response.“I’m not going to walk all the way to across town to go to a party by myself.”
I’m not going to point out that she walked halfway across town to yell at me at work. “You could’ve asked someone else for a ride.” I look down at her hand and ask, “Why the glove?”
“Because I don’t want it on the nightstand tonight.” Aubrey pulls the glove off and drops it on the countertop. The ball rolls, settles on its stitches. She pushes out her bottom lip. “Close up the store, Danny.” I’ve never been sure who it was that told her pouting works for her. It just makes her bottom lip look fat.
I set my jaw and I want her to understand what that means. “We’re open all night.”
She lowers her face just a little and she looks like a porcelain doll, but a porcelain doll is worth the same as the tabloid headlines behind me. “Just once, Danny?”
I close my eyes. She’s not like this all the time. Remember, she’s not like this all the time. I try to use the customer voice, but I make it soft like the Wheelchair Man’s. “I can’t leave. I’ve got-”
“Responsibilities, I know.” She looks at me in the eye again. And she sighs. The sigh means I wanted you to be somebody else.
“I’ll be home later.”
“I might not be.” She grabs the keys from the hidden place by the register she knows about, turns around, and drags her little feet in her big shoes as she goes. I hear the Wheelchair Man in the back laugh, then hide behind the cereal box he has in his hand like he’s checking the side panel or something, but I’m guessing that his fat ass hasn’t counted calories in fifty years. Can’t have much of a life when you’re doing your grocery shopping in the Shell station.
Aubrey doesn’t want to be stuck in Lewisburg forever. I think there are a lot of places out there worse than Lewisburg, but I’m not going to tell her that. I walk behind the counter again, and slide the mitt across the glass. The leather is cracked and dry. I should condition it, but I probably won’t.
The front doors open again, and two more Elvises walk in – one’s a GI Elvis and the other one’s the Elvis I like, the one with the gold jacket. They both head back to the beer fridge, and keep the door open so the whole room gets some of the cold air. I can feel the electricity bill rising by the second, but like Mr. Dominic says, the customer’s always right, right?
“Do we grab a six pack here or do we get one closer to Graceland?”
“You’re the one driving.”
“Well, are you going to drink all of em while I’ve got my hands on the wheel?”
“No promises. Grab some peanut butter?”
“How about a twelve pack – will that make it out all the way to Memphis?”
They’re still not closing the door, so I cough, and the two of them look at me, then grab two six packs of Corona and head to the counter.
Gold Jacket Elvis fumbles through his pockets and hands me his driver’s license.
I look at it. “Your driver’s license actually says Elvis Presley on it.”
“Yes sir. Elvis Aaron Presley.” He smiles at GI Elvis like he’s real clever.
“It says that you were born in 1935.”
He smiles again, the cocky smile, and tilts his head to the same angle as Elvis in the picture, but even if the ID was from 2006, it wouldn’t be fooling anyone, not with the oily skin and bad teeth on the Elvis looking me in the eyes. “I look really great for my age.”
“The back of it says Nostalgia at Northgate Mall.” I hand the card back to him.
He gives it a long stare. “Oh, wella, would you look at that.” He looks up at me again.
“Your real driver’s license?” They send a look between the two of them that reminds me of kids and a cookie jar. I look sideways at the customer policy taped to the register and say, “You know, it’s a federal offense to use a forged identification document in order to buy controlled substances.”
GI Elvis takes a hard glare at me. I straighten up, all six feet, nice and tall. But the little shit grabs the baseball from the mitt in front of me and pitches it at my head, smacking me straight in the eyebrow.
“Y’all damn Elvises!” I go to hit the alarm button under the counter, but the two of them are already headed towards the door, and by the time I get around the counter, it’s just not worth the paperwork. I lean back against the glass in front of the register, and feel for the gash on my forehead from where the stitches hit. There’s a growing egg, a little trickle of blood going down the side of my head, and I can feel my pulse throbbing against the cut, so I slump down to sit on the floor and grab a package of blue and yellow “Happy Hanukkah!” party napkins from the bottom shelf. They’re on clearance for fifty cents. I’ll toss in two quarters and four pennies for tax when I close down the register. No change.
The Wheelchair Man rolls down the aisle, stops short in front of me, and grabs the tall boy from his basket, holds it against my head. It’s still cold from the fridge and even though it kind of smarts, the feeling of the chill sinks in and gets me numb. I moan, and feel embarrassed as soon as the sound comes out.
“Learned it in my fightin’ days.”
This close, I can see his face – there’s been about a hundred pounds since those days. And maybe he was a looker once, but there’ve been lost teeth, broken noses and blood vessels since then. He’s got stale beer on his breath, and I’m tempted to keep the tall boy to myself so he can drive himself home. “Must’ve been a hellion.” He leans back in the chair. “No judgment, sir.”
“I had my wild days.”
“You did,” I agree. I press the napkin more firmly against the cut. He shakes his head, and the only sound between us is the hum of the fridges and the freezers.
“That blood isn’t stopping.” He’s not lying. I don’t know how in all hell a ball did it, but the thing is gushing, and I’m thinking it’ll take more than Old Testament napkins and the love of God to stop it. “My trailer’s parked down the block, kid. We can go clean you up.”
I look him up and down again. He looks tall in the chair, but so am I, on two feet too, and my knee isn’t hurting so much these days. My fingers start feeling a little tacky through the napkin. I can get cleaned up and maybe even still go to the party afterwards. “Yeah. That’d be good. Let me ring you up quick.” I stand and make my way behind the register, a little light-headed, holding the napkin firm.
He lifts the basket over his head and sets it on the countertop, points at the magazines. “Can you grab me one of them?”
I reach out to grab the Weekly World News, but he stops me. “Naw, son, the one next to it.”
I grab a copy of Sun instead, and lay it on the countertop next to his groceries. “Lisa Marie: Pregnant-Fat Or Fat-Fat?” “I’d’ve thought you’d had your fill of Elvis today.”
“Lisa Marie ain’t Elvis.” He slides the magazine across the countertop towards himself and rests it between his leg and the arm of the chair, fiddles with it until it balances upright without bending. He hands me two worn twenties, and I give him his change, count it out for him and everything, and follow him outside. He waits while I lock the door and leave a note for Jim, the night clerk.
The old man’s trailer is at the end of the block, and we don’t talk on the way. I listen to my heart beat in my head while he pushes himself up the ramp that leads up to his door, the veins in his forearms sticking out pretty damn far considering the mass of the rest of him, the way my arms used to look at the end of a game, all blood pumping and happy.
While he works his key into the lock, he asks, “What’s your name, kid?”
He swings open the door. “Well, come on in, Danny.” He wheels into the trailer and flips on the lights. Green carpet and yellow couches, the kind of dingy colors you see at Goodwill. With these blue glass peacocks on one wall, karate belts on the other, probably from his fighting days. He rummages around in some cabinet by the doorway, and pulls out a first aid kit.
“Take a seat.” He points over at the couch, and I follow directions. He wheels in front of me, pours hydrogen peroxide on a cotton ball, and wipes at the cut. “Now what in the name of all hell was that about?”
I suck in air through my teeth. “The Elvises didn’t have any IDs.”
He laughs. “Naw, I mean little blondie with the tantrum.”
“She wanted to go to a party.”
He dabs at the cut a little more. “Shit, kid, I’m no genius, but that was more than wanting to wear a pretty dress to a party.”
“For one of her friends. Going to college. Didn’t take work off to go to it with her.”
He pulls back, looking for a bandaid and pulls apart the paper with shaking hands. “College, huh? I didn’t go to college. And I did just fine.” He follows my eyes over the yellowing, peeling wallpaper, the dirty green carpet. “May not look like it now.” He laughs, and it rasps in his throat. “But I did just fine.” He dabs at the cut one more time, presses the bandaid onto my eyebrow, and smooths it flat across my forehead with his thumb. Everything stings.
“What did you do?”
He shuts the lid on the first aid kit and answers without looking at me. “I traveled.”
He doesn’t offer anymore explanation and I don’t ask. “What are you doing now?”
“Still traveling.” He wheels across the room and replaces the first aid kit in the bottom drawer and he still doesn’t look at me. “Do yourself a favor, son.” He pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, taps out a stick, and lights it. “Buy yourself some big ol’ bandages, and wrap your head up real messy. And if that don’t work, buy her some flowers and get down on your hands and knees.”
I laugh and stand up, straighten out my pant legs, and walk towards the door. He wheels himself along behind me, and holds the door open.
I touch the bandaid on my forehead and say “Thank you for your help, sir.”
“No.” He coughs a long, sickly cough, and smoke curls around his face, a dusty halo. Then he curls up one side of his lip, pitches his voice an octave lower, and growls in a low, Memphis drawl. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
The old man closes the door and I pause a second on the ramp before I leave. Aubrey’s still got the car, and I don’t want to walk home, so I head back to the Shell station and give Jim the night off. When Elvis comes on the radio, I don’t flip to Kix 106 like I do every other day. And anyone can tell you think you know me well. But you don’t know me. I leave it on.
About the Author: Caitlin McGuire is a James Dickey fellow at the University of South Carolina's MFA program. Her work has appeared in Foliate Oak, North Central Review, and Cuento Magazine.
Story Song: "You Don't Know Me" by Elvis Presley