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 Short Fiction:  _ Author bio | Spanish translation | Catalan translation
   
 
 
 Just like Elvis
             by Teresa Peipins  
    
 
 

      My father died the same year as Elvis. That would be how I kept track of the years passing. In the summer we first heard the news on the radio. At the time it didn't mean much. Elvis was already outdated. His aloha from Hawaii program showed a fat man squeezed into white. There were the girls in my class in our country town who had seen him in concert. They made the trip to a convention center in Niagara Falls which he could still pack but they were the girls who ended up pregnant in their senior year and disappeared.

      I was familiar with his virginal movies having watched them with my parents on TV, usually on Friday nights. They were all pretty much the same, Elvis in a haunted house, on the beach, or in a rodeo. The girl was invariably pretty and sweet. The movies had no power to touch me. I sped in cars listening to Maggie May, or sat at home sniffling to Joni Mitchell and her eternal quest for love. Elvis had no part in it.

      It wasn't until my 30s that the smile caught me, somthing about the curl of the lips perhaps. I watched a documentary of half-truths and shaking hips that yes, moved me, touched me in a deep part of the stomach.

      I had not yet reached disdain. That came on discovering the Elvis lookalike husband of a friend in a small Western Ontario town. She turned to me defiantly, "It's obvious why I married him, isn't it?" And there she was in that flat land extending forever, sharing life with a man in long sideburns.

      A passage from Eduardo Galeano, the reporter from an aching continent, commented on the 70s and Elvis. Elvis, fat and diapered in his Graceland bedroom, shot at the TV set when he didn't like what it offered. I found the source and discovered a life in which he was never told no. Elvis, hidden away, much like Howard Hughes, stuffed himself on burnt bacon and mashed potatoes. Every possible whim was satisfied. He was left drugged because by that time it may have been the easiest way to deal with him. I felt an odd sort of sympathy.

      My father's favorite word was no. He was caught in a nerve-jangling land so far from his own. What could it mean to come from a tiny dot on a map to the massive expanse of America? Well, primarily it made one mad. He arrived along with the Mario Lanza craze. My mother, so much younger, faithfully watched all those films. They met and courted in the city and ended up on a farm.

      But my father aspired to be modern. He bought me the first miniskirt (hot pink) to be seen in our town. And he actually liked Elvis, even resembled him a little. His jet black hair never greyed and he kept his muscules firm into his 60s by the sheer force of working on the farm. My parents sat side by side on the steps of the house, tired after haying, mowing, or planting. That was how I remembered them - sitting there - while I felt embarassed my friends could see them from the cars that drove by.

      We could have lived in two different worlds. I never participated in the hard work but I reaped the rewards. Little kittens were discovered for me. I ate cherries, plums, and fresh peas, and watched his madness unfold.

      It was something my mother and I deliberated over and over and came to no conclusion really. She claimed it was the years of asthma medicine he took that did it. According to her this man and the one she had married were completely different. I wasn't so sure. I thought it was a disease of maleness, a rage that flared up and disappeared as quickly.

      There was also an infinite kindness present. Here was a man who hadn't bought himself anything new in years so his family had everything. Here was a man who peeled fruit for us and shelled nuts he never even tasted. Everything was always for us.

      At first it had begun with his memory. There were simple things, the burner left on, the water overflowing the troughs in the barn. We took to checking everything several times a day, discreetly of course so as not to arouse his suspicion or anger.

      Somehow it turned into a hatred. My great-uncle, on my mother's side, retired and came to stay with us in our big farmhouse. One night, my father simply threw him out; there was no provocation, no argument. There the old man stood, out on the road late into the night. I watched him from my bedroom window. My mother screamed with rage and fear.

      My father had a shotgun he used to hunt deer and rabbits that hung on the wall in the sideporch. It was rarely touched since he wasn't very good and perhaps he didn't even enjoy the sport of hunting. One day, as usual, the schoolbus dropped me off. I trudged up the hill to find glass shattered all over the steps leading to the house. My feet crunched over it. My hand trembled on the knob. Inside the living room he sat with his head buried in his hands.

      The room was eerily quiet. Glass was all over the rug. I felt the shards as if on my skin. I was rooted. Mother, where was she? I wanted to turn and run. Instead I moved through the room into the kitchen as if through a dream. She sat in much the same way as he did. "He could have killed me." It wasn't the only time.

      I pretended not to see him. I pretended to care about trigonometry and who was liked and who was not in my junior class. At 16 I took to wearing a wool cap over my greasy hair and I couldn't keep anything down.

      Most days were normal. The shotgun disappeared, then the car keys were hidden. That didn't keep him from using his fists. Almost every wall bore some mark. Fear hung over us like cigarette smoke in a bar.

      I counted days. There were two calendars I kept, one with impressionistic paintings of lilies and ballet dancers, and one with empty spaces for writing things in. I filled them in with pictures of people I cut out of magazines. In my private game they talked to each other . They lived in pretty homes; they were happy.

      At night my heart raced with fear. I could hear his voice long into the night. Then a few normal weeks would go by and I'd almost forget. One day he cut lines into the cows. I stared at them as if they were some sort of tribal markings, thinking if I could understand them I'd understand everything.

      Finally in September his brother came, a man we barely knew. They spoke a strange language together. My father meekly followed him into a big gray sedan.

      "Where's he going?"

      "I need a rest or I'll lose my mind. He's going to Canada to the north. Do you remember the lake we visited? No, you were too young then."

      I watched with a mixture of relief and disbelief. He didn't say goodbye. He pressed his face against the glass and stared. My mother cried. We didn't see him again.

      At first there were letters written by the brother. In October they returned to Toronto. My father was seeing a doctor once a week, a man who spoke his language. There were no acts of violence. Perhaps he was drugged into a calm. It seemed to me he ceased to exist.

      The calm now spread. I could sleep and eat again. I read stacks of novels and watched late night movies. School was okay again. Mother cried often at night. We sold the animals and she found a job in a restaurant kitchen. I became a waitress there on weekends.

      The phone rang on a December morning. It wasn't even 7 so it was still completely dark . "He's gone."

      "What? " For a second I almost asked who. I was sitting and eating cereal. "What happened?"

      "Heart attack, it looks like."

      We both stayed at home preparing for the long trip north. I asked what I was afraid to ask, "Do you think it's hereditary?"

      She smiled, "My dear, he had a hard life. Don't you remember the pictures? He ate from garbage; he lived the war. Your life is so different."

      "But how could it happen?"

      "Maybe someone there will know."

      The place we arrived to was different. None of his family spoke English. They barely remembered Mother and now acted as if she were somehow to blame. They were old; I looked at them suspiciously. The women wore headscarves and dressed in black.

      We rode in the hearse. Mother looked younger than ever. I looked at her wondering why she chose him and his dark, foreign world. We heard the ceremony without understanding. One of the women pressed a photo into my hand. He was young, handsome and glorious. I smiled at mother and understood. But for me, he remained locked, a part of me I had no way to venture into, a part that left me shaking at night.

  
  1998 Teresa Peipins Author bio | Spanish translation | Catalan translation

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