Read More: A brief interview with Marlene Olin
The signs flew at him like billboards on a highway. He’d look at clouds and see the womanly curves of a guitar. The soap scum in the shower, the milk in his coffee, the swirl of paint in a freshly opened can all bore the same face. The pompadour, the curled lip, the sideburns. Wherever Pudgy Weinstein looked, Elvis was there.
It started at the restaurant. They were eating Cuban when Barbara lowered the boom. She stabbed her fork into a mound of black beans and rice then pointed it at her husband.
“We’ve known each other since…what, high school? We’re fifty years old, Pudge. Life’s more than paying the mortgage.”
She put her fork down and rolled her eyes. “It’s not that you’re a bad guy, Pudge. You’re just boring the shit out of me.”
He looked down. A clump of stringy meat swam in a vat of red sauce. The walls moved in and out. And just when the firmament–the very foundation of his existence–seemed to split in two, he heard the voice.
“You’re better than that, Pudgy.” The timbre was deep, the accent Southern, the words vaguely familiar. “I know it. She knows it. You know it.”
Pudgy remembered the first time he and Barbara met. He was in eleventh grade–a middling student, an unaccomplished athlete, a quiet boy who watched from the sidelines. Pudgy never considered his family wealthy yet still the house felt full.
The Weinsteins lived in a concrete box like hundreds of others in West Miami. In front of each box was a single oak tree and a well-cared for lawn. Pudgy’s father always prided himself on that lawn. Each day he’d moved the sprinkler around from one end of the yard to the other. Arms akimbo, he’d watch the water arc lazily back and forth creating rainbows only he could see. Pudgy loved to push the mower, relishing the sheer sweat of it, enjoying the way his father looked on, proud.
The first time he pulled up in front of Barbara’s home Pudgy was shocked. He had never known anyone who lived in a trailer park. Stray blades of grass struggled toward the sun. Broken glass and cigarette butts pockmarked the ground. His heart broke. He wanted to give her the world.
Sitting in the restaurant, he looked up from his plate. “I’ll do better,” said Pudgy. “Maybe we can go bowling. Or to the movies.” In desperation, he tossed a Hail Mary pass. “We can see your parents every week if you want.”
Barbara’s finger moved to her mouth. She was itching, Pudgy knew, for a cigarette. “This isn’t going to be fixed with a night out on the town, Pudge. I’ve got a good twenty, thirty years left on my odometer. And I just can’t stomach the thought of spending them with you.”
He barely remembered the rest of the conversation. Barbara fished a list from her purse. “I’ve got the name of a lawyer.” A business card materialized with 1-800-DIVORCE written in large red letters. She slid it across the table. “This guy can wrap things up in a month. Cheap.”
Pudgy stuck a pinky in his ear and foraged around. Everything sounded cottony, like he was wading through a fog.
“A lawyer? A month?”
“Don’t worry about the money, Pudge.” Barbara prided herself on her job at the post office. Weighing packages and selling stamps, she always said, made the wheels of the country turn. “You have your painting business. I have my pension. We’re good to go.”
Pudgy looked to his right and to his left. He had no idea where the man’s voice was coming from. But the words seemed to hover right over his head, riding on tractor beams toward his brain.
“Love can be cruel, my friend. I know it. She knows it. You know it.”
Six weeks later, the papers were dry and their house was sold. Barbara pecked him on the cheek and stuffed the Camry with everything that wasn’t nailed down. The place wasn’t much with its warren of small rooms but to Pudgy it had been home. He walked through it one last time, staring at the shadows on the walls where their photographs used to hang, the pens and pencils that had been left beneath the couch, the fistfuls of lint under the curtains.
“It’s time to move on, Pudgy,” said the voice. “I know it. She knows it. You know it.”
At first he rented a motel room from month to month. Pudgy parked his pickup under the vacancy sign and slept with one eye open. Every morning he woke up relieved to find his ladders, brushes, and paints intact. He ate his meals at diners and drive-thrus never going to the same place twice. Barbara had always been the social one, organizing potlucks, dragging Pudgy like a dog on a leash to the flea market in Hialeah. Slowly his world shrank.
He took jobs seven days a week to keep busy. In his spare time, he visited his father at the nursing home. Pudgy had made sure his window faced the garden. Outside his small bedroom a row of pink hibiscus danced like flamingos in the breeze. His father loved hibiscus. He’d look at them and hum. Then he’d looked at his son without a hint of recognition, as if a stranger were sitting beside him quietly humming, too.
Sometimes Pudgy wasn’t too sure who he was either. His sleeves felt empty, his shirt seeming to move on its own volition. Food lost its taste. He watched people move their mouths and make hand gestures like the deaf. Life had become a foreign film without the subtitles, a puzzle missing a piece.
Only the signs permeated the fog. Riding in his truck down the highway, random words pulsed with neon brilliance. Mattress King. Burger King. No Parking. No Smoking.
And when Pudgy gazed in the mirror, another face now appeared beside his own. It was like one of those 3-D pictures that shift and blink in the palm of your hand. One minute there was Pudgy’s face. A day old beard the color of russet potatoes. His thick hair the shade of a Thanksgiving yam. But then a moment later, a transformation took place. Sideburns would creep down his cheeks. His hair would morph jet black. The mouth would slightly snarl. A stranger but not a stranger. As always, the face in the mirror spoke in the same unmistakable drawl.
“You gotta hit the road, Pudgy. I know it. She knows it. You know it.”
There was a costume store that he must have passed a million times before, the displays in the plate glass windows rotating with the seasons. Han Solo. Harry Potter. Frankenstein. The sort of place that’s crazy busy for one week and desolate 358 days the rest of the year. That afternoon a six foot Easter bunny sat in the window. Two white gloved hands held a basket of pastel-colored eggs.
Pudgy found himself walking up and down the aisles minutes later. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for until the white satin jumpsuit called his name. Gold rivets ran up and down the long deep neckline. A belt buckle the size of a hood ornament sat at the waist.
“You’ll look like a million bucks, my friend. I know it. She knows it. You know it.”
In the dressing room, he stared at his reflection. Somewhere in the distance he heard a crowd clapping, men whistling, women swooning. Pudgy pointed a finger at the mirror and pivoted his right shoe like he was putting out a cigarette. His felt his mouth open, heard the words as they tumbled out. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” The rest was easy.
Without knowing where he was heading, he aimed the pickup north on I-95 and started driving. The satellite radio was set on the Elvis Channel morning, noon and night. He sang out loud, his mouth pulled and stretched like a rubber band, the notes surprisingly easy to reach, the lyrics comfortable on his tongue. The miles flew by. Gazing into the rearview mirror, his past seamlessly merged with the present.
His father’s favorite employee had been a black man named Clarence Washington. On Saturdays Clarence would bring his kids over to play. Pudgy’s mom would set out a feast of bologna sandwiches and Jell-O and they’d eat to bursting. To return the favor, Clarence’s wife would invite Pudgy over the following morning. Three days a week Pudgy went to Hebrew school and learned the fundamentals of his faith. Sundays he went to church.
Just the memory of it brought a smile. How the ground beneath his feet vibrated with stomping! Hallelujahs! Praise the Lords! How his arms would flail and his hips would shake. It was the sort of music that seized your body and set it trembling. And by the time Pudgy pulled off the highway in Memphis, Elvis’ songs were as familiar as prayer.
“Jesus is the answer!” read a bumper sticker. Pudgy finally thought he understood the question.
Graceland was more and less than he expected. Pudgy blanched at the purple beds, the gilded cabinets, the fur rugs. It was like someone took what was good and pure and true and let it tarnish in the sun. But the education he was seeking was provided ten times over. He studied the costumes, pored over the pictures on the walls. Elvis, he noticed, wore a Jewish symbol around his neck. The letters chet and yod. Pudgy stuck his hand inside the collar of his shirt. It must be another sign.
Next he headed for Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Slowly the elevation climbed. It wasn’t until New Mexico that he reached The Continental Divide. You’re at 7,228 feet, said the sign. To the west, all rivers empty into the Pacific. To the east, the Atlantic. Pudgy stood on the road with his arms outstretched and his legs straddled. Then he closed his eyes and imagined the waters, split between two directions, trying to find their way.
A month after he left, he found himself in Vegas. Pudgy was used to tropical weather. Miami was either sticky hot or wet hot. He breathed in the desert air and immediately felt cleaner and lighter, like someone had taken a scouring pad and scrubbed him right down to the bone. Sure the town itself wasn’t much different from what he knew. An adult Disneyworld. South Beach on steroids. But once you got past the strip, once the tall shadows gave way to the sun, the horizon seemed endless.
The sky was robin egg’s blue, erased of clouds, without a blemish. Far off in the distance, the mountains sat like sand dunes. It was a place where dreams could come true.
“You’ve come home, Pudgy. I know. She knows it. You know it.”
He drove past one fast food restaurant after another, chain stores, clutches of apartment buildings. He felt his wallet in his back pocket and knew it had gotten a lot thinner those last weeks on the road. Then the next sign appeared. It seemed to speak just to him. The words Heartbreak Motel blinked and winked. Are You Lonely Tonight? We Have Rooms, the sign said. Vacancies.
The guy in the office was watching sports on a TV sitting on his desk. Around Pudgy’s age. A pregnant gut. A face like a ham hock, the nose crisscrossed with veins. He didn’t bother to look up when Pudgy walked in but simply unfurled a speech. “By the hour, by the day, by the week, or by the month,” he droned. “A month, obviously, is the better deal.” Still watching the screen, still cracking his gum. Pudgy waited. Finally the guy looked up.
“I’m here for the long haul,” said Pudgy.
The guy snorted. “Aren’t we all.”
They walked down an open corridor that circled a pool. Unknown liquids swirled on the surface. Two plastic bottles bobbed. “This ain’t exactly the strip,” said the guy, “but then again we don’t charge strip prices.”
A blast of room freshener hit them as soon the door opened. The carpeting rolled like the ocean. The walls had craters the size of fists.
“People actually pay you to live here?” asked Pudgy shaking his head.
“Isn’t that the eighth wonder of the world,” said the guy.
Pudgy turned and felt the face in the mirror fall over his features like a veil. “Pudgy Weinstein.” He held out his hand.
The guy squinted his eyes and looked at little closer. “Butch Nadowski,” he replied.
“You mind if I straighten things up a bit?” asked Pudgy.
“Miracles happen,” said Butch.
A week later, Pudgy had installed clearance carpeting he found at a Home Depot and patched and painted all the walls. The sight of a workman dragging a ladder, the thud of a hammer, were as rare at that motel as winning a jackpot. Soon the whole complex was buzzing with news of Pudgy’s work. Pudgy had left the door cracked open so the paint fumes could dissipate. Butch peeked in.
He looked at the clean smooth lines of Pudgy’s work and whistled through his teeth. “Everyone’s complaining.”
Pudgy was working on the ceiling now. It took three coats. Clorox. Primer. Then Sherwin Williams pearl white evanescence.
“They’re driving me crazy,” said Butch. He folded his arms, ran his foot along the newly improved smooth floor. “They all want their rooms to look like yours.”
Pudgy put down the roller and looked Butch in the eye. “Isn’t that the eighth wonder of the world.”
“I’ll supply the materials,” said Butch. “For every room you work on, I’ll waive a month’s rent.”
Near the office was a large storage closet with the biggest padlock Pudgy had ever seen. “If we make some room, you can keep your supplies here,” said Butch. “When people leave Vegas, they leave everything behind.”
There were cartons of satin jumpsuits, sequined capes, jeweled vests. Three slightly dented and scratched guitars were propped on a wall like a trio of lonely hookers. “I’ll take some of this off your hands,” said Pudgy. It was a sign. Another sign. […]
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Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in over sixty publications including The Massachusetts Review, Upstreet Magazine, The Broken Plate, Poetica, Steam Ticket, The Examined Life, and Crack the Spine. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award as well as a Best of the Net nominee. Marlene is a Contributing Editor at Arcadia Magazine.
Read More: A brief interview with Marlene Olin