Excerpt from Impersonating Elvis, Faber and Faber, 1997.
Dennis Stella was halfway to Milwaukee before he realized he had forgotten his hair. He woke that July morning thinking but not dreaming of Las Vegas, his mind chiming with song lyrics and the step-kick intricacies of dance moves and mild panic and the sense that if he wished to succeed he needed to remember everything, including many things he wasn’t even sure he knew. The deeper he got the more he understood how little he knew. But he did understand one truth: The only thing he could safely forsake was himself.
Yet despite his doubts, Dennis left home a happy man. He rose early and by early afternoon had packed his gear into the electric-red Corvette he had bought four months before in an attempt to make his life more exciting. When he felt ready to leave, he crossed his living room filled with black leather furniture and punched in the security alarm’s four-digit code. In the driveway he eased into his Corvette’s scarlet leather interior and backed out onto a narrow street that was really more of an alley, beginning his trip out of Calumet City, Illinois. He drove past elegant stone homes and smaller bungalows like his own, down wide streets shaded with elms and split by grassy medians thick with trees. Around him people went about the small transactions of their lives. They pulled into gas stations and strolled into the sandwich shops, pizza joints, and small strip plazas that lined the route Dennis took. But nothing he saw made much of an impression; he found himself in a strange state of feeling anxious about what he was going to do and overjoyed that he was finally going to do it. He took the exit for Interstate 294 and aimed the Corvette for the Wisconsin state line, speeding north.
He had a habit – a bad one – of running late, so he had prepared: drawn up lists, packed his bags the night before, tried to get some sleep. He had allowed himself an hour and fifteen minutes beyond the two hours it took to drive to Milwaukee, where he would pick up his girlfriend, Gail. From there they would fly to Vegas. His only worry was his voice. A cold had rubbed his throat raw and after a month had sent him to the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and a nasal spray that smelled, to Dennis’ amusement, like roses. He was rushed enough that morning to forget about taking them. …
An hour into the trip and roughly forty miles from home, he remembered. He swiveled in his red leather seat to find the prescriptions and then, trying to ease his troubled mind, began to inventory every essential item shoehorned into the back of the car:
Suitcase packed with shorts, tank tops, and swim trunks; karaoke machine; case containing sixty karaoke tapes; black Spanish Flower jumpsuit with emerald glass cabochons and gold studs; matching black boots; big black belt; white Pinwheel jumpsuit with ruby glass cabochons and gold studs; matching white boots; big white belt; black pompadour with paste-on sideburns.
Black pompadour with paste-on sideburns.
Black pompadour with paste-on sideburns.
Dennis’ heart seized. He clutched the wheel with one hand and flailed around the back hatch with the other, looking for the black bag that contained the hair. About twenty miles north of the O’Hare exit, there was an oasis overpass that sold necessities of modern travel -- gasoline, maps, newspapers, all-beef hot dogs. Dennis pulled into its parking lot and popped the Corvette’s trunk. He pawed its contents. It took him fifteen seconds to realize what he hadn’t done. It would take him much longer to fully grasp what he had suddenly become: a man whose world had slammed off its axis because he forgot to pack his wig. …
It was a pleasant day for a crisis of conscience, warm and with an easy southwesterly wind. Just ahead the interstate elbowed toward Wisconsin. Dennis cooled for a while on the gum-stuck asphalt, thinking black thoughts. His appearance revealed nothing of his inner struggle. He looked exactly like what he was: a man brooding next to his car. To be precise, a thirty-seven-year-old man, six feet tall, deep tan, broad shoulders, brown eyes, wavy head of brown hair and an inch or so of sideburn, neatly trimmed. Nothing about his looks or his actions would arouse unusual interest or hint at fires within. Nothing about Dennis Stella would likely remind anybody of anyone. Say, maybe, Elvis Presley.
Which was precisely his problem.