As soon as I pushed through the front door I was met with the smell from the three pillars of a bar: cigarettes, alcohol, and human waste.
Moments before I had been driving in the pouring rain towards Atlantic City. Now, with broken and limp wipers on the windshield, it was the rain driving me. I had little choice but to make my way into the first place I could see, a repulsive looking tavern squatting beneath a beaten sign. ‘The Walk on Bye’.
The bar inside, with its’ chipped wood and sagging rail, had a couple of stools with crippled legs beside it. Dark and dingy, you got the feeling the sparse lighting was less for mood and more to avoid seeing the need for repairs. The only thing inviting about the place was the EXIT sign. But, on a somewhat welcome yet worrisome note, it appeared that I was the lone customer. A working class bar without the class.
As I sat down at the end the bartender ambled over, his white ‘Jim” shirt stained with all the house brands. His stomach hung over his belt like a dripping candle and as he walked over he leaned way too much. Now, angled before me as if caught in a perpetual cross wind, I ordered his ‘best domestic’.
With a clear view of the TV hanging above I fiddled as he returned with my drink. Should be into the third period. Big game against the Maple Leafs. And look at me, having a drink at a regular place like a regular guy.
“Would you mind turning the Ranger game on, it’s already started.” I asked before he could drift away.
“Let me see if I can find it for you.” Jim said as he righted himself.
He rotated around the dial and before you knew it we were back where we started.
“Don’t get it.”
“You get cable, the sign outside said you get cable. I think it’s on cable.” I informed him.
“We only get basic cable.”
“The sign outside said cable”
“That’s right. basic cable.”
“The games not on basic cable.”
“Well, then we don’t get it.” pointing out the now obvious.
‘”Alright, can I look at your menu?”
“Sorry, it’s a bar not a restaurant.” Jim said, pretty much rounding out the conversation.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw another customer shuffle back from the bathroom and over to the jukebox. He sat a few stools down from me as the jukebox dropped a platter onto its’ small turntable and round and round it went. Old school. Elvis, and I don’t mean Costello, warbled out of it.
Jim leaned over, which way I couldn’t even tell, and looked over to the other customer and then back to me.
“That guy played for Elvis.” He whispered.
First thought, how come he’s not dead yet.
“Listen, go down and ask him about it, terrific fuckin’ story.”
Second thought: who cares.
No need to get up, though, because when I turned around there he was sitting next to me. Up close and personal his doughy face squatted on a round body. His hair shined like it just mopped a Jiffy Lube. Twice. Whether he was big or bloated I couldn’t tell because light seemed to vanish when it hit his dark vest like it was some sort of black hole.
“Listen,’ he said,’ I couldn’t help but overhear Frank telling you about my playing with Elvis.”
“Remarkable hearing.” I remarked.
“Yeah, well I picked that up by doing a lot of listening,” he continued, ‘‘Frank, the usual.’ He calls over to the bartender. previously advertised as ‘Jim’, and taps a shot glass. He smiles and looks over to me, “You mind?”
Caught off guard I just nod and Frank pours from a convenient bottle and rambles off to add it to my tab.
“Yeah, that’s right. I drummed for him.”
“Really?” I ask.
“Really, met him in Vegas, Las Vegas, Nevada. He was in town with his boys.”
“Las Vegas?” I said, “I’ve been to Las Ve–”
He carried on seemingly unaware I was saying something.
“Now, Mr. Presley, he was kinda big then, wasn’t who he became but people knew the name. You know, Vegas was different, too. Real casinos, broads with class…hell, you still lost your dough but you left with a smile and a greased pecker. Now look at it, fuckin’ lollipop land.”
“Do you mind if I Google you?” I asked.
“Google all you want, just don’t get it over me.”
“What’s your name?”
‘Doesn’t matter, it won’t be there,” he tells me, “ This happened long before that Google thing.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but Google goes way back and has all sorts of–”
He cut me off. “Well if you want to know about it look it up in an almanac. That has all the big events of the year.”
“It was in the Almanac?” I replied, now caught up in some actual line of reasoning with him.
“You know, I got these shoes on sale.” he quickly said.I looked down at his feet, like it really mattered. When I look back up Frank’s topping him off.
“Thanks again for the drinks, brother,” he continued on, “Land, a lot of land in deserts…’ he trailed off, thought for a moment and then headed back on track.
“So, I’m layin around my apartment, little place off the strip, near the airport. Could be a runway by now. Anyway, it’s early afternoon and I’m just getting up,…well, not quite up, still scratching it, if you know what I mean. And then the phone rings, scared the hell out of me since I thought it been turned off. Don’t get me wrong though, I still knew how to use it. It’s my doctor on the line.
‘How’s everything?’ he says, “Fine I say, and you. ‘Swell’, he tells me, ‘you still drumming in that band, the one down in the lounge playin’ all those knock offs?’ he asks. That’s right, I tell him, in fact that’s the name of the group, ‘The Knock Offs.
“Could you reach that ashtray for me?”
So I turn and get the ashtray and when I look back around I see that Frank is filling this guy’s drink again, strolling back to the register and ringing it up.
“You know,” I mentioned, “ Most places don’t allow smo–”
“No thanks,” he waved me off “don’t smoke. Yeah, The Knock-Offs,”, he continued unabated,” so I says What can I do for you Doc? ‘Well, Ricky’, he says, that’s my real name, not my stage name, that’s Regi. ‘… you doin’ anything by Elvis Presley?’ Certainly Mo, I said, I’m a big stooge fan, we’re doing Hound Dog, Suede Shoes, all the greats.’
He carried on.” Well, the Doc… actually I sometime called him Mr. Bennie because when I think of him I think of whites…you know, the pill to get you up the hill.”
He stopped and took a sip while he sized me up and down.
“Actually you don’t look like you might not know about those things, but the Doc, he knew. Anyway, Doc says it seems that the drummer for Elvis couldn’t get out of Chicago ’cause his plane got grounded. He heard through a mutual friend of a mutual friend of some guy with Elvis’s band that the Colonel was huntin’ someone down to sit in on the show that night and beat the skins, something I am quite familiar with both home and away, if you know what I mean…I think you know what I mean.”
He slows down a moment to take another sip.
“Doc figured, why not ask someone who’s playing the Kings’ stuff every night, someone such as myself. Hell, yes, I said, I’m your man. ‘Be at the International Hotel at six thirty’, Doc says, ‘wear somethin’ gaudy, tell them I sent you and once they say it’s okay don’t mention my name again.’ Whoa, yeah, I’m thinking, it’s goin’ to be the King and I.
“Say, you know what time it is?” he suddenly asks.
I’m on to this tactic; I don’t dare look away from him or for sure I’m buying him another round.
Barely even looking over at me he says “But you got a watch on.”
“Broken.” I said.
“What you spill on your shirt?”
Still no sale. I’m not taking my eyes off him.
“Oh, its nothing.” I tell him. Out of the corner of my eye I see Frank nervously fingering the bottle, all dressed up and no place to pour.
Reginald purses his lips, lets out a low blow. Then he turns his head and gazes past me towards the door.
“Hey, Mary you look great,” He shouts and throws up a big wave. “and I see you brought your sister tonight.”
I glance over my shoulder… not a soul in sight. Damn it. I turn back to Reginald and I see he’s already got his glass filled as the register rings again.
“Sorry,” Reginald says, turning away from the door and speaking into thin air,”I thought you two were someone else.”
“The King and I…”, he repeats himself as he takes a sip and lets it swirl a little in his mouth as he gathers his thoughts.
“By the way, Elvis’s close friends called him E, not something everyone knows. So, I get to the International and E comes over to me and says Regi, I hear great things about you, you play our songs all the time. Thanks so much for coming down and helping me out. Anything for you E, I said, and by the way, I tell him you can call me Wendell cause my close friends call me that.
“So off we all go up onto the stage, the crowd going crazy, the noise deafening. I’m thinking is it for me or him? Naw, just kidding. Down onto the drum stool I go. Now the roadies have it set up for the regular drummer so I need to get accustomed to it, fiddling and what not and all of a sudden I hear Elvis call out my name.
“Regi here’, he tells the crowd as he gestured back towards me, “is sitting in for our regular drummer who was unable to make it. ‘Now I want you to give him a big hand.’ So I stand up and the crowd is delirious and this time it’s for me. Man, it was the biggest hard on you can have without it actually getting hard, if you know what I mean. Actually, you might not know what I mean.”
This time he doesn’t bother to wait for the bartender to come over and he just pours his own as Frank rings it up down at the end of the bar.
“So,” he goes on, ‘tough as it was for me to play, not knowing the nuances and all, play I did. Now, as you can imagine it wasn’t easy. You see, Elvis’s band must have been off that night; travel fatigue, playing in front of a big audience, something, I don’t know. Seems like they would stop playing and I’d keep drumming or I’d stop and they keep playing. I mean they weren’t off by much …most of the time. Yeah, sure it got a little tense, especially when they played songs I never heard of before. But overall, I think I did okay.
“Anyway, as it must, the evening came to an end. Elvis introduced the regular band members who all got a rousing cheer and then he signaled for me to come on down to the microphone, center stage. He had this odd smile and he put his arm around me and, as only he could, squeezed me tight around the neck – actually quite tight. And then, and this is special, he raised his middle finger towards me…”
Reginald demonstrates, “and held it there for all the world to see. Finally, and it seemed like it took forever, he takes off the ring and handed it to me. He said, and I quote, ‘whenever I look at this finger, I’ll think of you.’”
Reginald downed the rest of his drink and closed his eyes. The bottle empty now as Frank comes over and asks if I wanted any more.
‘No, no I think I’ve had enough.” I tell him.
He handed me the bill…. twenty-three dollars and sixty nine cents. A bargain at half the price. I hand over a ten and twenty.
“Change.” Frank says, more of an accusation then a question.
I waved him off and headed toward the door, hoping the rain had stopped but not caring anymore.
“By the way,” I asked, just before I left the aptly named ‘Walk on Bye’, “what ever happened to the ring?”
Regi let a small smile come across his face as he raised his glass. “What ring?” he says.
This story originally appeared in The 3288 Review