by Death to Elvis
She was young and Brazilian, and we used to smoke pot Saturday afternoons and listen to records. We’d have bags of groceries, colorful peppers, limes, red beans and rice, and guacamole from the tree, mashed in her mom’s wooden bowl. It was my favorite meal. And now I’m sitting here at my favorite Mexican restaurant, which reminds me of her too: all the yellow and green, plus the soccer on TV. I don’t really remember the walk here, but here I am. It’s the Fourth of July, early afternoon, and I’m the only customer at the bar. Tomorrow is my birthday, which doesn’t help my feeling utterly alone.
Driving home from the store earlier today, the weather was perfect. I reasoned a Xanax was in order. After putting on Born in the USA, I was in the mood to do it right and decided to double my dosage. It was the first time the songs sounded more like yarns, which gave me chills. My dad was a huge Springsteen fan, had all his records, and holding his copy of this particular LP, I felt closer to him. Growing up, I grudgingly listened to the album more than I could stand, but it wasn’t until today that I really began to hear it. Beneath its 1984 pop sheen are the undertones of longing, sorrow, and daily struggle. The American flag and my dad voting for Reagan always come to mind when I think about Born in the USA, but today I realized its bitterness, how life can turn out harder and more hurtful than you ever expected.
Six months ago, when I was in St. Louis I took my dad’s old copy. I had no idea how much it would resonate. This afternoon, next to the open windows, my bookshelf speakers seemed like the only tie to anything, and part of me didn’t want to go outside again. As I drank beer and listened, I realized I couldn’t make dinner alone—it was the wooden bowl on the kitchen countertop that did it.
So I guess that’s how I got here, surrounded by the colors of Brazil, thinking of her on the Fourth of July. A couple weeks ago she called to let me know she was engaged. She began the conversation with “It’s probably best you hear this from me.” In our two years together I never took her for the considerate type. Before my dad got sick, my biggest problem was deciding whether or not to marry her—she was getting deported. She had waited six months into our relationship to tell me that for green card purposes she was already married. Then a year later she received a letter telling her “DEPART THE UNITED STATES IMMEDIATELY.” Even with the evidence against her spelled out in black and white, she was constantly changing her story. After meeting with a lawyer (who refused to take the case) and a couple of bottles of wine, I realized I only wanted to get married once, and said as much. She boxed my ears, and then, sobbing, she tore apart her apartment. I felt sorry for her as she smashed pictures, paintings, and her record player, everything she didn’t want to leave behind. The next week my mom called, telling me I had to come home. My dad had an inoperable brain tumor, a glioblastoma.
After he was gone, it was like the core of our family exploded, its three surviving members hurtling separate ways. I learned a lot while my dad was sick, but more than anything I admired how much his family meant to him. I was naïve to think I could keep us together afterwards. During the three months I was back in St. Louis, my Brazilian met her new fiancé.
The bartender recognizes me and adds a shot of top-shelf tequila to every draft I order, especially after I tell him tomorrow’s my birthday. I drink my tequila and beer, eat guacamole, and begin taking pictures. The camera had been my dad’s last gift to me. He and I were in the playroom—at least that’s what we called it growing up—when it arrived. I was back in St. Louis to help care for him. He had been a dentist for 36 years and was planning to retire the following year. By the time I came home, he no longer snuck off in the Thunderbird or wandered into the woods. I had him during the day, and my mom was with him through the nights. My brother was usually up in his room playing guitar. He commended my bravery whenever I’d let Dad drive or clean my teeth.
When the camera arrived via FedEx, Dad was wrapped in blankets on the couch, and I was reading a book in the recliner. When I brought it in to him, he was like a kid, wanting me to open it. “But it’s my Christmas present,” I said, without much conviction. He must have known he wasn’t going to make it to December. He was so excited that we went shopping for a camera bag that afternoon. He’d become a bit of an outsider artist, occasionally shooting from the hip, literally, and was able to collect his final work—warts and all—on a DVD entitled “A Fantastic Life.” I never really appreciated what a natural photog he was until those last months when it was all he had. I still haven’t watched the DVD.
“Happy Fourth,” the bartender says, and I smile. The Fourth of July, a holiday that always meant family to me. Now, with my dad gone, my grief-stricken mom is throwing a leg in the South Pacific with her new boyfriend, and my brother, who seems to have it all figured out, has returned to his life in Aspen. As for me, I can’t make sense out of life or death, let alone my family. “And happy birthday,” the bartender says as he sets up another shot.
A few weeks ago, on Father’s Day weekend, my mom and Lloyd, her new boyfriend, swung through the Bay Area for lunch. The irony of their timing was lost on them; Dad had been dead less than six months.
They’d driven out from St. Louis. Apparently Lloyd doesn’t fly and makes the drive often because his daughters live in Los Angeles. It was all very convenient, their drive out to spend Father’s Day with his family before this month-long love junket, a cruise to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and god knows where else. According to my mom, Lloyd wanted to meet me and thought it was a good idea to do so before whisking her away. Frankly, I didn’t give a shit if Lloyd thought it was a good idea, but I did want to meet this man before she took off with him.
I walked downtown and met them at this very restaurant. At a table by the front window, the glowing new couple sat across from me. His posture was officious, and my mom insisted he loosen up and have a beer from the pitcher. “Lloyd doesn’t drink much,” she said as she poured, “but I’m working on him.”
Lloyd had a bald, fat head crowned with Friar Tuck hair, and he wore a hooded sweatshirt—the kind that zips. I thought it might be my dad’s. I knew he was golfing with Dad’s friends, even using his clubs. My uncle called one day and said, “I know it’s none of my business. What am I saying? Of course it’s my business. I’ve been seeing you mother’s boyfriend driving around in the Thunderbird.” He even offered to pay for an attorney so I could sue her—he thoroughly believed she was manic-depressive. He said he wanted to make sure I got what was mine.
He wasn’t fat, but he sure as hell wasn’t fit. With his hands out proper on the table and fingers interlocked, he said, “I want you to know I understand what you’re going through. I lost my wife to breast cancer five years ago. My two daughters are about your age.”
I figured if this were true, he might realize how awkward it was for me, seeing as Father’s Day weekend was upon us. He didn’t seem to realize the irony. Nor did my mom. Lloyd’s the only other man aside from my dad I’ve ever seen her with, and it’s a huge disappointment. My parents were high school sweethearts with a solid marriage lasting 42 years. I know it’s stupid, but I thought they’d be married forever. My mom had already told me the story of how she and Lloyd met. Even so, she passed me a glass of beer and said, “Papa, Lloyd, and I all went to high school together. He’s been a dear friend over the years.”
I had never once heard his name until a month or so ago, after their first date, which sounded more like a booty call as Lloyd told it: “Your mother and I had been emailing, and I was in town for my pledge class reunion—I was a Fiji, you know.” As he calmly spoke with the clarity you’d reserve for a child, he intermittently glanced at her with approving eyebrows and then scanned the menu. “After a night of playing cards at my old frat house, I was sneaking out to my car and one of my brothers caught me. I’d been talking about your mother all night, and he told me to go for it. I really just showed up to see my Bull.”
“I had a feeling he was coming over,” she said, smiling at him.
I raised my eyebrows and said, “Bull?” I imagined him at our front door, and even though I’d lost my appetite, I reached for the pitcher and refilled my mom’s glass and mine. Lloyd hadn’t touched his. Repeating the word “bull” in my head prompted me to free associate “bull fuck.”
“Oh yeah,” Lloyd said, “I’ve been calling her Bull ever since we met, back when her name was still Durham.” He repeated her maiden name aloud, drawing it out for his own gratification. “Like the cigarettes,” he said, “before the movie.”
“So what are you having, sweetie?” she said to me, peering over the top of the menu.
As if to signal that everything from this grotesque pet name to the fact he was screwing my mom just months after my dad’s death made perfect sense, Lloyd clapped his menu shut and said, “Any Mexican restaurant worth their salt can whip up a pork enchilada.” He repeated this with an attitude when he ordered. I took great pleasure when our waiter redirected him back to the menu.
I understood what was going on, and it was pathetic. In a way I was helping Lloyd, because meeting me helped my mom deal with her guilt or grief or whatever. My approval somehow ordained their shacking up on who knows how many continents. I ordered another pitcher and could only think about getting the check and saying goodbye. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I took the moment to inquire about Lloyd’s vanity plates. He had parked right outside the restaurant. “So what does XLGLX mean?”
“Funny you should ask,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve got a good story about that.” As he knowingly studied my mom, grinning, his forehead became less stern. “Just the other day filling up, this young thing asked me the same question.” He finally lifted the beer to his smirking mouth. “It’s my initials, except I bracketed them with Xs. But I had fun telling her it meant I’m an extra large lover.” He chuckled again.
My mom giggled and blushed like a schoolgirl. My skin crawled. She and I have always shared a healthy, ornery rapport, especially when we’re drinking. As I poured another beer, I remembered how a friend of the family had said, “Your mom and brother are going to be the last people you can turn to when this is over. That’s why you should turn to the Lord.” I thought this was a crock of shit. Before poor Dad knew anything about his diagnosis, the chaplain said, “You mean he doesn’t know he’s terminal?” I kicked that asshole out of my dad’s hospital room.
The Lord aside, I could tell my mom was tipsy at lunch when she said, “Honey, when I’m a little old lady, are you ever going to move back home to push my wheelchair?”
She’s asked this many times and I gave her my usual smartass answer: “Nah. We’ll just find you a nice, cheap nursing home.”
Looking surprised and suddenly all paternal, Lloyd said, “You keep that up and you won’t see your inheritance.”
This hit me like a shit-ton of bricks. I went quiet except to ask the waiter for a to-go box. Until that very moment, I’d say I was coping with my loss. It had been too much to think about Lloyd embedding himself so fast, but I knew my mom had never been alone and couldn’t handle it.
My brain felt scrambled as she told me Lloyd transferred all the music from my dad’s computer onto a hard drive to take on their trip. The waiter dropped off the check, and all I could do was stare at it. I waited and waited for Lloyd to reach for it. Everything seemed to go quiet until the clack of my mom’s credit card when she placed it in the little check tray. The way she released it from her thumb reminded me of a mousetrap.
After watching Lloyd’s Town Car with those vanity plates pull away, I walked home and climbed the stairs. I drew a hot bath in the old claw-foot tub. I stayed in the bathtub for hours, long enough that I pissed in it without even realizing. It was a week before I bathed again.
Now, a girl sitting across the dining room catches my eye. She looks like a lonely ‘50s throwback and gives me an indifferent look. She doesn’t object when I take her picture. Suddenly, I’m ready to marry her. I’d like for us to settle down and start a family. She seems nice, boring even. I want someone honest, straight, no dabbling in drugs or bisexuality, no tattoos, and god help me, no deportation dramas. Lately I’ve been saying I want a girl from the heartland, but it’s a pendulum. A decade ago all I wanted was spice, someone exotic. I was bored with Midwestern white girls. But here I am, 34 and single, way out west in a Mexican restaurant, taking pictures of a subject reminiscent of a home no more.
Growing up, my brother was Dad’s favorite and I was left to my mom. A good example was the summer Born in the USA came out. We celebrated our birthdays on the Fourth. Every year, there were candles shaped like numbers in the pie, and that particular year, I sat on the side with an 11 and my brother by the 13. I can still see the patio, the potted flowers, and still smell the fresh-cut grass, all my father’s labors, and my mom’s salty homemade ice cream and pie made with canned cherries. My dad, as always, had Bruce playing and was taking pictures of his two towheads. My brother got a remote-control airplane, which my dad had built, a magnificent model with a custom paintjob and his name on the cockpit. My mom knew how badly I wanted a computer, and god love her, she got me one. To this day, it is the most thoughtful gift anyone has ever given me. Even so, I looked at that airplane and wanted to be a part of their adventures.
Usually it was just the two of them who went flying, but a few days later, off we went as a family. The tape my dad played was of course Born in the USA. He had bought it the day it was released and that night dubbed a cassette copy, so as not to wear out the vinyl. My brother sat up front, and Dad told a variation of the same story he always recited, about why he loved Bruce. Driving with a bottle of beer between his legs, he’d say, “When I was in high school, my dad and I always fought. He’d been a farmer like his dad and believed in hard work, but we moved to the city when I was young, which was the happiest day of my life. He always said the military would make a man of me since the farm hadn’t. I wanted to make him proud, so after a big fight, I decided to enlist. When I came home from the physical, he asked where I’d been.”
At this point he’d always look at the red splotchy skin on his arms, take a drink from the beer bottle wrapped in a towel because it was wet from the cooler, and continue: “When I told him they wouldn’t take me because of my psoriasis, he said, ‘Good, at least I gave you something you can use.’” He laughed, took another sip, and glanced over at my brother. “I gave it to you too. I love Bruce because he’s singing about real-life stuff like that.” Then they’d hold up their forearms together, and my brother would say he loved Bruce too.
Perfectly happy in the backseat with my mom, I was spared the Bruce Springsteen lectures along with the psoriasis, for which I was thankful. I had no concept of the songs and thought Bruce was a ham.
The bartender sets up a pint of beer, squeezes a couple limes into it, and then adds a generous shot of some exotic tequila as he points at it with the end of the bottle and says, “That’s banging.” I reach for it but accidentally knock the glass over the other side of the bar and hear it smash. The girl from across the room gives me a look like I’m a cretin who needs serious help. I say, “That’s it for me.” I’m lucky when the bartender reminds me to take my camera, which I left on an empty stool. The world’s a blur as soon as I step outside, and I’m oblivious. Walking home, I take pictures of a Dogwood in bloom because it was Dad’s favorite, which is about when I feel it all going to black.
I wake up disoriented in an ambulance. I’m worried about my job and, even though I know he’s gone, letting my dad down. I keep asking the medic if I’m under arrest. I finally relax when I think about the anonymity of an ambulance and take some comfort in the fact that no one actually knows this is happening. I picture the people in my life watching fireworks pop in the sky, enjoying another Fourth. As I ride, I just want to sleep. This isn’t allowed. Overwhelmed, I start taking deep breaths and am relieved a little as I smell rubber gloves and blood. I panic that this is it, my life is flashing by, in time with the red lights. Mainly I’m just grateful not to be alone anymore.
With the siren wailing, I vaguely recall waking up to the paramedics, a cop, and a smattering of neighbors. For the first time the girl from downstairs gazed at me with kindness in her eyes. “Yes, he’s my neighbor,” she said to the cop. They had snipped through my T-shirt and stuck EKG stickers all over my bare chest, which was embarrassing. Then I peered up and saw my cat watching the scene from her little perch in the window.
I had fallen more than five feet and hit my head on the pavement. I remember the porch, digging for keys, plunging backwards, trampling my ex’s portable charcoal grill, and—desperately grabbing at the doorknob, suddenly seeing the streetlamp behind me turning upside-down—then somersaulting over the rail. I landed flat-backed and was knocked out cold. Who knows how long I was there before a passerby called 911.
The morning Dad died, I wasn’t expecting an ambulance. It crept past the house and then backed up the driveway to our front door. Mom woke me just after eight o’clock, frantic. “I think it’s happened.” She pled with me to go check on him in their bedroom. She had gotten up to haul the trash out a few minutes before. By the time she returned to bed, he was gone.
Entering their bedroom was surreal, like some twisted version of Christmas morning. Here was the same green wallpaper that had been there my entire life, the same ugly chair in the corner by the bed. Sitting in that chair just the week before, I fed him an entire block of Havarti and then a box of devil’s food cookies. As he ate the cookies, and knowing in my heart that it was a lie, I told him to do what he had to, that it was okay for him to go.
Chilled to the bone, I sat down and stared at him, his eyes wide open and fixed on the ceiling. I tried shutting them like they do in the movies, but it didn’t work. They felt as cold as martini olives. Then Mom asked if she should go wake my brother.
“Yes, fuck,” I said. “Go get him.”
We’d gone stir-crazy during the days leading up, waiting for it to come, and the two of them were barely speaking. The day before, as I helped my mom with dinner, she vented. For years her only means of understanding my brother was through me. “I’m going to tell him he can just go back to Colorado,” she said. He wasn’t helping out and always stayed in his room playing guitar. Sending him away would crush him. I didn’t want anybody to hurt any more, just because he was incapable of dealing.
“Is he coming?” I said as she sat down on her side of the bed and picked up the telephone. She shrugged and dialed the hospice nurse. While we waited, having heard it’s the best way to hide that you’ve been crying, I took a shower.
When I returned to the bedroom, the nurse arrived and advised us to go elsewhere in the house—that we shouldn’t see the coroner come in and take him. But I stayed to watch. They zipped him up and jockeyed the gurney around the banister, down the stairs, and out the front door.
My bed in the emergency room is upright—most of the others are vacant. I’m bruised all down my left side. The sterile nurse working the graveyard shift brings my phone. As I leave messages, it’s painfully obvious I have no one to come get me. It’s 3 a.m. and I just want to go home. Eventually the nurse or some doctor makes an exception to hospital policy, and with a white bag that says “PATIENT BELONGINGS” that contains my smashed camera, I’m finally discharged to a waiting cab.
Back home from the hospital in my pitch-dark apartment, it no longer feels like home. I go to the kitchen, drop the hospital bag on the kitchen table, and open the refrigerator door. A dim shadow casts across the linoleum. I decide to leave it open for the soft light. On the countertop, the groceries are still sitting next to the wooden bowl. My cat rounds the corner, stretching as her sleepy eyes squint. She was there in St. Louis through it all, rode beneath my seat on the flights. Between my cat and my camera, it feels like they’re all I have. I take a beer from the fridge and wash down another pill. In the living room I cue up the record player, even though my neighbor forbids it late night, let alone close to dawn. Born in the USA is still on the turntable. I turn the volume down a hair and go back into the kitchen. I’m not sure why, but seeing the door open and the gentle light makes me feel better.
I pull a chair over to the refrigerator and sit down. Sitting in front of the open refrigerator, I’m feeling more displaced than ever. Outside the sky is turning purple like yesterday’s steak. The fridge leaks water, and a puddle forms on the floor. I stare at the puddle’s reflection in the light. My cat dabs the puddle with her paw and then comes over to brush against my leg. I take my camera from the bag that says “PATIENT BELONGINGS” and place what’s left of it on the kitchen table. The paramedics wouldn’t allow me to put it inside my front door. The last picture of my dad was on it, a black and white taken on the same day he gave me the camera. He was adorable, trying to smile through the Bells palsy, a side effect of his treatment. The look in his eyes told me all I needed to know about not giving up. Now, seeing what I did to the camera makes me want to scream, like I smashed the last bit of him. This breaks my heart. Then I look at the open refrigerator and all the groceries and think about how it’s my birthday. The cat walks back to the puddle. I stare at her little paws as she licks the water. I’ve never been so mesmerized and don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what to make of anything. In the living room the record has ended and is now clicking in the run-out groove. I should get up and flip it over, but I can’t stop watching the cat. I take a sip of beer and stare until she stops drinking and leaves.