bar-neon

Goodbye, Big E Bar
by Mai Nardone

My father, El-Vitat Pohndee, that is, Thailand’s original Elvis P., is dead. He’s left me his costumes, which I’m restoring, as if to embalm him in the regalia. I’ve chalked a map for my embroidery. I’ll work the fabric by hand. Still, the clothes, like old pelts, will never regain their former luster.

He has also left his bar, the Big E, and it is going under. The economic downturn has ended play-time. No more those tidy tourist families with their wind-up cameras come for Thai Elvis, Mommy whispering behind her hand, Do you think it’s a transvestite?

So I sent flyers to the old guard. Closing Night! I hired a band. I said cheap booze. End of an era sale. In America, Elvis is long gone, but in the Big E bar we will only now lay the king to rest.

 

My father made his name performing in the love motels that became synonymous with Americans on R&R. Back then it was rock and roll versus communism. All they played on the Armed Forces Network was Elvis. Vietnam was burning. The GIs drank and came to know Vitat’s voice. Elvis’s voice, they said, lulled, lost in the women, in the seats that were plush and red, like tongues.

In 1969 Father sold the Gibson SJ 200 he refurbished by hand and flew on that money to Vegas. He returned with a candid photograph: Elvis captured through a break in the crowd. The other Thai impersonators learned from LPs, and later videos, but the closest they knew to an authentic performance was El-Vitat. He knew what it felt like to be in the presence of the king.

I was born during that trip. His only child, a girl, a disappointment, my grandmother said. I don’t know my mother—a flood bled her name from my birth certificate. Grandmother said my mother was irresponsible, some whore. Grandmother said she loved her son, and also that he had exchanged the family name for his clown getup. Oh, it’s Vitat, she confirmed, when the doctor told her she had a growth. He kills me.

By the time Grandmother died, I was twelve and Father had wrangled a following. He was a side attraction in the big guidebooks. He had opened the Big E to give his performances a permanent stage.

He moved me to his apartment above the bar. The rooms were small enough that one couldn’t cherish privacy. The walls were heavy brick and plaster, but Father’s bedroom was my only route to the toilet. At first I regarded the journey with a child’s terror of the dark, but it was light I feared, that snap of a switch followed by the overheard fluorescence ping-ping-pinging to awful intensity. Oh, it’s just you. Get out. The lights snapped off.

I finally halved a milk carton and within a week had mastered this bedpan. By then, however, I was curious, and waited for my subtle friend, the quarter moon, to steal in and look at my father without him looking back.

He was older in sleep. The moonlight carved out his face. I thought at first that he mumbled, but having battened down my heart, I recognized the sound: a murmuring as of a man rehearsing.

The constant presences in my girlhood were father’s friends, Rick and Pradit.

Rick was American and an amateur Elvis himself. He had a rich voice but a quietly magnanimous way of looking down on the crowd, as if he had bestowed upon us rock and roll. He was a vehicle for stupid Westernisms.

How’re you doing tonight? Need a friend? A Hyde for your Jekyll? Gin, Rick clinked his glass against mine, for your tonic?

Pradit, on the other hand, was a police major and strip bar owner. His establishment was called, inexplicably, Planets, and gave gigs to the impersonator community. He wore two large amulets: one with a portrait of Elvis, the other a carving of King Bhumibol. He also kept an entourage of three women. Forever three, and in cocktail dresses that were forever being tugged down. They came and went with him, and whenever he caught a man looking, Pradit would say, I’ve seen them all naked. So can you.

Pradit’s women came and went in cohorts. It was his way of maintaining his reputation for a workforce that was young and lively—they were girls. In his bar, age, opposed to time, was the marker of change. Inside Planets, I, too, had aged. Once a blooming girl, deflowered: a woman.

 

I was initially bound to the front room of Planets. I was eleven when the women asked, instead of a small fourteen-year-old. I did this to spare them having to answer the question of my father’s absence (I’ll be upstairs, fucking, he had told me himself). I occupied my helpers with an eleven-year-old’s questions: Do you have to curl your hair all the time? What about when you’re sleeping? So, you’re a bartender? Do you speak English? How well?

I asked them about make-up. I knew make-up—Father had taught me—and that these women had misapplied theirs. When I was angry with my father, I asked the women, Are you married?

Eventually, age had caught up to my helpers, just as age had caught me in the bar.

I was sixteen and not pretending anymore. A man in a suit bought me a drink. We were stuck at one drink for a month. Finally, he kissed me. My innocence molted, and the women, upset at my deception, gave me up to him. The next time he booked a private room and dropped his pants but kept the suit jacket on, which confused me. We had time. Did he know how long my father could go for? I undressed fully, as if to demonstrate how.

The man said he preferred anal sex. It hurt and then it didn’t, and I reflected on the toilet afterwards. On the shitter? He asked through the door. Yes, I was. Don’t come in. This sputtering: a dirty trick. Sex was not a fair exchange. He came. I emptied my ass.

 

The ex-pats enjoyed the Big E’s nostalgic charm, our falsely-remembered America. They laughed at the store-bought ‘antiques’ dotting the room. There was an authentic Thai-ness, they said, to the kitsch, to the bar’s wood paneling that had been kicked in from years of enthusiastic feet-swinging. The wall behind the drinks was a checkerboard of old record sleeves printed on cheap paper.

Father charmed the foreigners. He thought to show them how classy a Thai could be.

You just have to find the right Thais, I had heard him say once, to an intimidated Welsh couple. He loved the Brits: Great Britain! he had exclaimed, familiarly, when they said yes, they were from Newport, and did he know it? Newport, yes, he mused. And then, It is because we send only bad Thais abroad. They don’t know how to behave. Country people. Poor people. Immigrants, he sighed. And they go and they don’t throw garbage in garbage bin and you English, you think, These Thais such barbarian!

They were Welsh, thank you.

On such nights, I took over the job of humoring Rick. I poured him an extra finger of whiskey and let him unpack his American lore. He explained for me the importance of the great duos: Simon and Garfunkel, peanut butter and chocolate.

The king and the king. He said one night, pointing to the poster by the stage. It was a blown-up photograph of our King Bhumibol meeting Elvis.

On other nights, he complained again about his daughter, a teenager.

Not much younger than you, he’d tell me. He said raising a teen was like a game. Tell me about soccer practice. Tell me about your best friend. Still a man knew nothing about his daughter. Lara. Teenaged Lara always executing some violence against herself. “I’m cutting, Dad.” Chiseling her sexless body, once childishly chubby, but budding. Now there was no woman there. Who were these kids emulating?

All this he said without looking at me. He was shy and it blunted his rants. His confidence surged when he sang—then, he knew what words to use. His wife, a local, was often in the front row, mouthing along.

Unlike Pradit, Rick could also be generous. He volunteered to accompany me after I had been bullied into my only public performance, my 25th birthday gift. My father said performance was a rite of passage. How did I expect to carry forward his story? I was a decade overdue.

Don’t worry. Me and you. Rocky and Bullwinkle, Rick told me.

But only one of us was hive of writhing, humming nerves. I bumped Rick on the way to the performer’s bench that birthday night, sloshing beer over both our outfits.

Guess it can only get better from here. Rick stared down his front.

So sorry. I attempted to pat the froth on his chest with my fingers.

Father directed us around the bar and into the costume room, which ran below the stairs. His collection was arranged chronologically, 1953 – 1977, and hung from two rails. At the end was a full-length mirror, giving the impression of an endless wardrobe. I thought of the hours my father spent here, rehearsing his introductions, altering his persona and the fit of his clothes. He loved that mirror. Vanity kept him true to his art.

Rick sniffed. What’s that smell, embalming fluid?

The mops and cleaning supplies were stored here. Father used to say the smell would also keep the insects out of his clothes.

You could set the air on fire, Rick said.

I picked out a suit I had recently retouched. It was white with streaks of sequins along the lapels. I handed it to him.

Rick turned a slow circle looking, perhaps, for a dressing room. I made it clear this was it. I wanted to seem professional, cool, so I turned and stripped to my underwear.

I pulled a rhinestone vest over my bra and approached the mirror, tugging the vest to get my breasts to pop. I could see Rick undressing. He was fat in the top-heavy mode of tall men: a bulbous belly on a boy’s calves. Rick was watching me, too.

He came behind me, against me, and looking in the mirror, he touched the tattoo on the inside of my thigh. It was of a card, the nine of diamonds.

In his gentle voice, Why this tattoo? Why here?

His hands also gentle, also questions.

I stopped the fingers, shrugged off the nuzzling at my nape. I turned and kissed him, childishly, smack, For luck! I said.

Too late, I should’ve said. My father had inked my memory, such that I couldn’t feel on my thighs a man’s stroking fingers without thinking first of Father holding a swimsuit stretched for me: left leg, right leg. That’s right.

I touched Rick’s top button. Father leaves this open.

 

The tattoo began on another woman.

I was raised motherless but with women proximate. My father’s women, who after spending the night would take upon themselves the task of making my breakfast, of checking over the components of my school uniform: belt clip, pin, ribbon. They braided my hair. Initially, I had loved their affection—their affection was what Father sought. It was a currency I could hoard, thinking these women had assigned me value: see how important she is to her father?

I eventually came to understand that they simply didn’t know what to do with him in the morning. You fuck El-Vitat, but you wake up beside Khun Pohndee. What could a woman do? She busied her hands with something familiar: girlhood. She waited for the legend’s return. She knew a man I didn’t know.

In my teenage years, I modeled myself off the women he brought back. I stole their clothes and makeup. My first thong was black, simple, cheap. I took what she had.

Then the nine of diamonds, his favorite woman. One morning, with Father gone, I watched the woman lay twisted in a blanket. I sat beside her, smoking, and peeled the covers from her thigh to see in full the tattoo, its red ink purpled by age. When I looked up she was watching me. She asked for the cigarette and sat up to receive it. The blanket fell away. Her left breast showed the stain of a bruise the same color as the tattoo.

Even his infatuation with his favorite had its lifespan, but she made an exit true to her indelible character. She pillaged the bathroom and emerged with her body painted the purple of Father’s hair dye, the bags of which she had exploded against the tiles. She called for El-Vitat. He was hiding on the roof; he didn’t come. She threw herself on his bed, and then hurtled down the stairs, marking the bannisters and the old posters. I was impressed. As she bore down on the costume room, Father intervened. He dragged her to the street, but not before she had marred the shirts on the 1977 end with her prints.

I never asked about his relationships and their cycles. I understood the rotation; I had seen the trick employed in Pradit’s bar. By maintaining young company, my father stalled age, an impression necessary to cast El-Vitat as he hoped to be remembered: in his prime.

There were other ways we worked to maintain his youth. Obviously, the hair dye, which I applied, and so frequently that his scalp held a grey shadow.

His health was more difficult to manipulate. He considered it a betrayal that Elvis had bloated himself with barbiturates. The man’s deterioration eroded what he left behind. My father intended his own incarnation as a corrective to the original. His pursued a maniacal exercise regimen. He worked our staircase, up and down for hours, wearing first into the varnish, then into the meat of the wood.

 

For all his self-preservation, he died young. I found him at the bottom of the stairs, unconscious, his leg broken. The bone had split clean, the doctor said, after applying a cast. She brought me outside the shared ward.

The problem is his heart. She said there wasn’t enough muscle to carry his weight. Has he been fasting?

I didn’t understand her question.

The likely cause of his falling down the stairs is a stroke. It can happen if the heart loses too much of its muscle mass. Is his weight regular?

I said I didn’t know.

When I returned to his bedside, I saw that the doctor was right. His body was in retreat.

Rick had fled to America in the early days of the crisis. Pradit was in debt. There was nobody to identify Father’s change but me.

His customary jacket was draped over a chair. Dry sweat salted the collar and the skin of its back had cracked into scales. I fingered the cuff, feeling culpable. I had this idea that father’s essence was somehow bound into the fabric of his clothes, and in the past years, the mending of such jackets, his costumes, had been relinquished to me. Detail-work strained his eyes, and reluctantly he had overseen the replacement of zippers, repair of holes, oiling of leather, and glazing of his one mink jacket.

I held his jacket and realized how my work with the clothing had increasingly consisted of shrinking him. I took in waists, tightened shirts, narrowed collars. The alterations must have kept pace with his loss. I hid his condition. We didn’t own a scale, but yes, he had a practice weighing himself in his reflection, in his estimation.

I folded the jacket over my arm and sat.

He was sedated, and I watched without the threat of the childhood light being snapped on. In sleep, he became the man of my youth. A man that once caught me, not by the light, but his hands, on a night he was too drunk to recognize his daughter. His hands found me but lost their way tracing an unfamiliar navel; he sought my breasts. Oh, it’s just you.

The ward emptied in the night, and I watched him. I watched until the familiar features grew strange. His face drew down on one side, like earth slipping from a mountain.

I watched him make choking, clucking noises. His left eye was open—it drifted. He shuddered and attempted to raise himself.

A buzzer called in the nurse.

 

Are you ever afraid? I had asked him once. It was the only time he properly addressed what I had to say.

Always.

 

I remember my one performance on stage. I ran my thumb around the hem of my vest, feeling the jagged stones. How did he do this, night after night? I closed my eyes and inhaled—the scent of cleaning fluids, layered and soaked into the collar. A smell I associated with him. It was clarifying. I realized that the dress-up was only the trigger for memory. Through the jacket, you remembered the man. You could shrug into Elvis, work your arms through his sleeves, sing with his voice.

That night, I had stepped as El-Vitat would have onto the stage of his prime. I looked down on the devoted crowd. I imagined looking down on myself. Actually, beyond me, into the lights. Always he fixed his eyes on something above, such that my life was spent covering the distance between where I stood and where his eyes were. How to position myself for his attention? My girlhood was here. Look here! Or he would miss it. Too soon, I was a woman, and then the woman at her father’s side in a hospital ward, swearing that if he died she wouldn’t, no, she wouldn’t carry forward his story.

 

Mai Nardone is a Thai and American writer. His stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Indiana Review, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. He lives in Bangkok.

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