Dennis Trouble (January 19, 2000)

All of a sudden Dennis Stella, one of the country’s top Elvis Impersonators, remembered this videotape of himself and asked me if I’d like to see it.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’d love to.” And I meant it. And I didn’t. We slid our chairs under the table and walked toward the front of the house into the living room. It began to dawn on me what was going to happen. I was going to watch Dennis pretend to be Elvis while Dennis watched himself pretend to be Elvis. And he was going to watch me watch him, and I was going to rubberneck from one Dennis to the next while not letting on that I knew Dennis, the real one, was watching me. And then — I would bet my next breath on it — he was going to ask me what I thought.

Dennis Stella was always asking me what I thought. In the first four months I knew him, he asked my opinion of his Elvisness at least 150 times. Over the phone he played tapes of himself singing “American Trilogy” — did he nail that last note OK? In a crowded bar he unholstered the arm thrashes from “Polk Salad Annie” — did they look authentic? This I could handle. It is always possible to hit on something constructive: Your voice sounds deeper. Your wig stayed on. Accurate, and always true. Still, it’s difficult to know how far to go. What if you say the wrong thing? What if the wrong thing is the truth? And then this video: Comparing a guy to Elvis is one thing, but telling him he stinks as himself is something else altogether. My options boiled down to telling Dennis the truth and hurting his feelings, or telling a lie, which was no option at all. I noticed I was having trouble walking into the room.

Dennis, meanwhile, had practically broken into a trot. He wore a loose tank top, baggy shorts, and sneakers with sloppy socks. He was saying something about not forcing his sound, and how his television allowed him to watch seven stations at once, not that he’d want to. On the wall opposite the front door sat a 46-inch Sony with a black wood cabinet. He slapped through the tapes in the bottom of the VCR stand, the tank top drooping to offer a view of his lats, and pulled one out. He said, “Now I should tell you — I did capture something on this first tape. This is only my second performance at the Ramada Inn. This is only six months after I started to do this.” He popped the tape into the VCR and fast-forward toward himself. “Something that I had in this — it wasn’t Elvis,” he explained. “It looked more like a combination of Andrew Dice Clay, Tom Jones, and the Fonz maybe. But it was kind of … interesting to watch.” I offered a smile and glanced around the room. Tasteful shades of gray, with a sofa, chaise, and love seat in black leather, plus a glass coffee table with stone pillars for support. Carpet pale gray and thick. No Elvis memorabilia in the room, other than the host.

“You’re going to hear a lot of screaming,” he was saying, “probably more than you ever heard for me before. But I looked more like a stripper or something. Watch.”

The tape rolled. The screen filled with Dennis, shrink-wrapped in Comeback black leather, stomping around like he was trying to put out a small fire. His hair was light brown and long and very fluffy. The soundtrack consisted of a wail that sounded like extremely female banshees, accompanied by the five-note thud of “Trouble.”

“Hear what I’m talking about?” Dennis shouted.

I looked at him. He was standing next to the television, retracing the steps his image made on the screen. He was dancing with himself. He had split in two before my eyes. He had become both the man he was and the man he wanted to be. Dennis and Trouble Dennis.

On the screen he grabbed the mike and choked it — you want Elvis ladies? That’s what the hell you’re gonna get — and started to sing. Lunge. Kick. He screamed that he was trouble, and the banshees screamed eeeeeeee right back. He warned that he was evil. The women squealed as if this was precisely their point. Dennis studied Trouble Dennis, all four knees pumping. Eeeeeeee. He flinched a little. I suppressed a smirk. 

I sure don’t look like a guy who’s scared,” he said.

“Is that your hair?” I asked.

We seemed to be focusing on different aspects of this experience. He started a new verse. His pelvis appeared to have come unhinged. He flinched again. “Oh, look at this here,” he said. This time, we laughed. “By the way,” he said, “I wasn’t wearing any underwear this particular night. And I did tear my pants in the next song.”

Suddenly we were focusing. “Oh, really?” I said.

“Thankyou. Thankyouverymuch,” Trouble Dennis slurred at the crowd.

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