Birmingham—I am in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, overlooking the city. This hotel is a swanky joint. The bathrobes and bath towels are so plush my suitcase won’t latch.
Last night, I told stories to a room of Alabamian farmers’ wives in the hotel ballroom. They wore their nice clothes, I wore mine. We had a big time. Linguine with cream sauce was served.
On my way to the banquet, I met an old man in the hotel elevator. He was from Louisiana, visiting town for a funeral. His name was Elvis.
“Elvis?” I said. “That’s your real name?”
“Yep,” he said. “Only I’m ten years younger than the other one.”
I shook his hand because I have always wanted to shake hands with Elvis.
Before we parted ways I told him what a pleasure it was meeting him.
He did his best impersonation of the King and said, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
When I was a boy, I always wanted to be good-looking, but it never worked out. I was chubby, and plain, and I had a deep affection for Moonpies. My strongest academic area was lunch.
I also wanted to be athletic, but that didn’t work out, either. Coach Watson put me at first base and I was awful. After a week, he created a new position just for me.
“You’re gonna be my right guard,” Coach explained.
“What’s a right guard do?”
“It’s a very important position, he sits on the right half of the bench and guards the water cooler.”
I wish I were kidding, but I’m not.
Back then, I just wanted to be noticed. All children do. Instead, I walked through childhood like a bowling shoe in a sea of penny loafers.
Until the annual talent show.
The talent show was when all fourth-graders were free to exercise their unique abilities. And mine was music. The only thing I could do was music. I sang in church choir. I picked a little guitar.
The week of the show, I practiced in my bedroom, singing along with Elvis records. I sang into a hairbrush, I shook my hips. I love-me-tendered. I viva-Las-Vegased. I sang “American Trilogy.” I danced to “Hound Dog.”
My mother contributed to my routine. She made a white polyester jumpsuit with a low-cut collar and bellbottoms. I wore a belt buckle the size of a tractor tire.
The day of the show, she carried me to the beauty parlor. I was in full Aloha-From-Hawaii costume. The women almost died when they saw me.
Mama’s only instructions to them were: “Turn my boy into the King.”
Three matronly ladies placed me into a hydraulic chair and gave my hair a temporary color job. Miss Annette painted lamb chop sideburns onto my cheeks. They used a gallon of Brylcreem.
When she finished, Miss Annette started to weep.
“I saw Elvis in concert,” she said. “I was sixteen. I screamed until I lost my voice, he was everything.”
Then she kissed my cheek and got lipstick everywhere.
When I arrived at the talent show, I stepped out of the car and people were gawking. I felt like a moron.
I was about to go onstage when my mother gripped me by the shoulders and said, “Quit being so under confident. Show this world who you are, sweetie. Sing real pretty for me.”
“I don’t know if I can do it, Mama.”
“Do I look stupid?”
“You look like a hunk of burning love, Mister Presley.”
“What if I mess up?”
“What if you don’t?”
“I can’t do this.”
So she shoved me through the curtains.
I stumbled onstage. I was sick to my stomach from nerves. In the front row, I could see Mary Ann Williamson, the prize of the fourth grade. I heard students giggling. Someone burped. I saw my baseball team, slapping their knees.
The world was closing in. I felt like a giant anemic frog wearing polyester.
Miss Loretta played piano accompaniment. I gripped the mic. My tune was “Walk On.”
And I gave it all I had.
Then, I sang “Jailhouse Rock.” And I was on fire.
When I finished, people applauded. They stood. They hollered. My mother led the charge. And I’ve never felt so high.
I’ve never won anything in my life. No awards, and no trophies. I didn’t win anything that night, either. But my mother’s pride weighed a lot more than a plaque.
The morning mist rises over Birmingham. I see it from my hotel window. Sometimes I can remember the kid I used to be.
He is still in here somewhere, living inside my adult body. He still doubts himself. He still feels ridiculous. He still feels soft in the middle.
But oh, if that boy could become half the man his mother believed he could be.
That would be better than shaking hands with Elvis.