The Day Elvis Almost Died


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The Day Elvis Almost Died


I was riding in the backseat of my parents' red Cutlass on a warm fall day in 1984. My only entertainment was listening to the sucking sound the back of my thigh made when I lifted it off the sticky vinyl seat. I remember seeing patchwork fields of rainbow-colored leaves resting on the yellow grass, wishing that I could rake them into big piles, so I could run through them, scattering them across the field again. I rolled the dusty window down to get a better look at the pastures as the hard wind rushed in over my face and through my hair. I stuck my head through the window and opened my mouth, so my cheeks would puff out like Dizzy Gillespie's when he played his trumpet. Slowly, my cheeks began to deflate, and the wind softened as my dad braked the car to turn into the driveway of my grandparents' home, the location of our annual May family picnic.

My whole family had already arrived when we showed up. All my uncles immediately bombarded the car, playfully snickering with my dad about always being late so he would not have to help them cook. My Papa Joe, with his Afro of white hair, and my Grandma Lee Lee, who limped like a peg-legged pirate because one leg was shorter than the other, were sitting in lounge chairs talking about how much I had grown. My Uncle Kelly, whose left arm was shot off by his ex-wife during an argument, was walking around, complaining about how he was going to starve if he didn't eat soon. My Aunt Rosie, who always wore a tiny pair of rose earrings and kept a wad of chewing tobacco in her mouth, talked with my mom between spits of brown, runny liquid directed into her plastic cup.

Including my cousins and a few distant relatives, approximately twenty-five people were there talking, laughing, and mingling. And there I was, all alone in the land of giants with only my cowgirl Barbie to protect me. I felt like a guppy trying to swim upstream with a school of trout. Even though we had only been there for five minutes, finding my dad and leaving were my priorities.

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Looking through the rambunctious crowd, giving up on ever finding my father, I found someone better-my Uncle Chris. His spirit and his look had all the markings of the King. He was wearing a pink and purple paisley shirt with a wide-pointed collar that nearly covered his shoulders. His shirt was neatly tucked into a pair of pearl-white bell bottoms that were too long and covered his feet; strapped around his waist was a belt sporting a tremendous silver buckle with "TCB" engraved on it. He had dyed black hair with a tinge of blond roots showing that was always greased back with Royal Crown pomade. He spoke in a strong baritone voice with a slight southern twang that I could always hear over anyone else's voice, especially that day when he noticed me staring and yelled, "There's my little Amy Marie!"

I repeatedly endured listening to Uncle Kelly refer to Chris as "the family retard." Every year I heard Aunt Rosie tell my mom, after hocking up a big brown loogie, the story of "poor Chris." One day, on the way to pick up his date to see Jailhouse Rock at the drive-in, Chris's pink Tracer was rear-ended by a station wagon. After ricocheting his head off the windshield, Chris became a little confused about his identity. Soon after the accident, he changed his name to Elvis Chris May and began calling himself "a hunk-a-hunka burning love."

I knew Chris was crazy; anyone who thought Elvis should have won an Oscar for Love Me Tender had to be a little touched, but I never cared. I knew that while everyone else was catching up on the latest gossip about each other, Uncle Chris would rather play with Barbie and me. He always pushed me on the swings with strong fast pushes that forced me almost parallel with the top bar; then he would run around to the front and catch me when I jumped out. When we got tired of playing, he would tell me stories that were basically the plots from old Elvis movies: Girl Happy, Spinout, Speedway, Loving You, and King Creole. After he could not remember any more stories, he would just serenade me with Elvis tunes until lunch.

Just before my stomach started to swell from malnutrition, eating time finally arrived. Uncle Chris and I always sat down n ext to the grill, so we would be the first to go get our food. We knew it was close to eating time, because Uncle Kelly sucked his fingers whenever food was about to be served. Then at the climax of his sucking, he would stop and yell, "Let's Eat!" But this year the familiar yell was stifled. Uncle Kelly sucked so hard on his fingers that when he opened his mouth his new dentures shot out like a missile, darting into a marshmallow and whipped cream concoction that was soon followed by Uncle Kelly's only hand digging in to find them. Uncle Chris began laughing so hard that his baritone voice echoed through the yard, causing everyone to stare at him and then at Uncle Kelly rummaging through the dessert. Uncle Kelly, in a flash of embarrassment and anger, looked at Cris and snarled, "Be quiet, you crazy Elvis wanna-be." Uncle Chris stopped laughing. Obviously hurt, Chris gazed at Uncle Kelly with a look that showed the somberness of a man who has had to endure ridicule from so-called friends most of his life. But he expected more from his own family. Soon, the pain faded, and he smiled, apologizing to Uncle Kelly and laughing himself into hysteria again. Soon the laughter spread like mosquitos through a swamp until everyone was infected, including Uncle Kelly who gave a little smile and gummed, "Let's eat."

Uncle Chris had two hot dogs with mustard, ketchup, relish, onions, chile, a hamburger, pork and beans, barbecue potato chips, and nacho cheese Doritos piled high onto one paper plate. He also had Elvis's appetite. He began to wolf it down like my mom ate supper when she was on one of those one-meal-a-day diets. Uncle Chris devoured half of his hot dog with one huge bite, leaving a circle of mustard and chile around his lips. Before he could even finish swallowing the hotdog, he crammed a big handful of Doritos mixed with barbecue chips into his mouth, followed by a spoonful of pork and beans that blended with the chile already circling his mouth. Uncle Chris didn't believe in wiping his mouth until he was finished eating, saying, "Elvis said it was crazy to wipe your mouth when ya' was just gonna dirty it up again."

As I was taking a bite of potato salad, I got pelted in the side of my head by half-chewed pork and bean projectiles coming from Uncle Chris's mouth. I was in no mood to have a food fight with Uncle Chris. At nine, I already knew a few swear words that I was about to share with Chris until I turned around and saw him. I could see his large bulging brown eyes, astonished and confused through his Graceland sunglasses. He began making a wheezing sound as his face began to turn red. I was terrified. I felt I was suffering from some kind of paralysis as I sat there frozen to the picnic bench, staring in awe at my Uncle Chris's face, now turning purple. The only thing I could force myself to move were my lips and tongue to scream, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!" But even my yell was muffled by the sound of my whimpering.

Uncle Kelly rushed from his seat and started pounding Uncle Chris on the back with his only fist. My dad darted over, pushing Uncle Kelly aside, and put Uncle Chris in a bear hug. He joined his hands and started shoving them into Uncle Chris's stomach. Sometimes, he pushed so hard that Chris's feet left the ground for an instant. I cried harder as I watched what my dad was doing to Uncle Chris.

After the fifth time, my dad thrust his fists into Chris's stomach, a mammoth piece of hotdog shot out of his mouth like a cannonball. Uncle Chris consumed giant gulps of air as he fell to the ground, moving only his chest up and down. My dad sat down on the bench, putting his elbows on his knees and covering his face with his hand. I was only sobbing a little when I whispered, "Uncle Chris, are you okay? Uncle Chris, please be okay. I love you." He finally acknowledged me with a dazed look and a weak nod.

Uncle Chris finally brought himself to his feet after what seemed like years and walked over to me. He looked down at me, wiped away my tears, and curled up his lip, saying "Cheer up little Amy Marie"; then he started shaking his hips, stomping his blue leather shoes, and singing, "It was nothing but a hotdog, stuck in my throat. Yeah, it was nothing but a hotdog, stuuuuuuck in my throat." With his version of "Nothing but a Hot dog," everyone realized Uncle Chris was going to be okay. Even my dad uncovered his face, wiped his eyes with his faded yellow t-shirt, and started to chuckle. Uncle Chris strutted over to my dad and returned the bear hug that had saved his life. After whispering something I could not hear, Chris and Dad separated.

I was the only one who was not smiling or laughing. Did these people not realize that if it were not for my dad doing that hymlicka-thing, Uncle Chris would be dead? Watching my uncle trying to choke himself again with another hotdog and wondering if he were really crazy, I figured it all out. Buried down below the Elvis exterior was a real "hunka-burnin' love!"


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