In Madrid, there is a man who wakes up. Let’s call him Miguel, though that is not his real name. He sleeps in tight black briefs, nothing more. His hair is bushy, straggled. He is pale, exceedingly thin, his Adam’s apple a separate entity. Here is how he starts his day. Standing straight on a mattress on the floor of his small bedroom, he grabs his ankles. The mattress is in the middle of the room, placed there to make the most of a ceiling fan. Standing on his mattress, his feet where his heart would be if he were sleeping, he pulls his head between his knees so the blood rushes down. He stays in that position, getting dizzier, until a red cape snaps across his sight, until he can no longer bear it. He then does a forward roll toward the foot of the mattress. It feels like diving into the day, he thinks. He tucks his head under the rest of him and his long legs tumble over. And when his head comes out of the roll on top again, he stands at the edge of the mattress. He is extraordinarily graceful. A dancer. 

He has been dancing for many years now. He started, privately, long ago. At first, he did it as a joke. He had graduated from the University of Madrid with a degree in letters, but had no interest in securing a task or pursuing a trade. After seeing him dance at a party, his friends insisted he study a few videos, practice all the moves, and buy a pair of white gloves and a portable tape player to carry to El Parque del Buen Retiro

The first time he dressed in black and pushed his fingers into the one white glove he brought to the park, he felt liberated. He spun, kicked his leg in a zig-zag, pointed his white gloved hand to the right as he looked left, his thin body frozen for an instant. He then grabbed his crotch, gave a high-pitched grunt, and attempted his first moonwalk. Having trained as a bullfighter in his youth, many of the moves came naturally. The moonwalk, however—the hallmark of any such dancer—gave him trouble. 

The moonwalk entails a slide back with the left foot while the right balances on its toes, then a slide back with the right foot while the left balances on its toes, et cetera. He knew he had too much bend in the knee, knew he stuck his rear out too far to ever float over the pavement of El Parque del Buen Retiro. He knew these things, but he persisted and practiced, and gradually his moonwalk improved. His first attempts at the moonwalk had seemed more like a shuffling little strut in reverse. But after a few months, his moonwalk became as recognizable a move as any other. He made good money, most days. Tourists and lovers who promenaded along the park’s rectangular lake laughed and threw pesetas into the top hat he placed in front of his tape player. Occasionally a West African, one of many who lounged at the feet of the monstrous lion statues that guarded the park’s monument to Columbus on the other side of the artificial lake, would watch for a while, smile, and toss a purro into his top hat. 

The impersonator at first tried to maintain a very serious, straight face, even though all those around him laughed openly, made quick and presumably snide comments, and sometimes even impersonated the impersonator’s impersonation. But instead of smiling at those who either laughed at him or elaborately aped an awkward move, the impersonator grimaced. He grimaced, not at the fact that he was now a popular clown, after once having been a promising student, but more so, he grimaced at his execution. His moonwalk, he knew, despite months of practice, was still more a parody than an impersonation. And this bothered him, made him grimace, for his goal at the time was exact duplication. Whereas at first he cupped his crotch in his palm and exaggeratedly squeezed, for example, he now realized that a true impersonator would only rest the fat of the palm on the pubis, then shift the hand upwards then back down again. Never did one squeeze. For quite a long time, he had in fact squeezed, however, and only now did he realize that his technique was all wrong. And so he grimaced, for it was possible that all the moves he had practiced while watching a tape of the famous Apollo Theater show were hardly exact. The television, after all, was not a mirror. 

As he danced on the park’s promenade, he watched his legs, studied the movement of his feet, compared them to his memory of Michael’s in the “Billie Jean” video. His left cheek froze in disgust, forcing his right eye to close in a disturbed squint. Those who watched, however, believed that this look was an essential part of the act. They assumed that, not only was he a white Michael Jackson impersonator, but he was an overly self-critical one, as well. Madrid’s young lovers centered dates around The White Michael, who they thought looked more like a cross between Marcel Marceau (the famous mime) and Syd Barrett than the King of Pop in red-leather zipper jacket and jheri curl. The White Michael who focused all concentration on the perfect zig-zagging leg kick and spin that ended with him grabbing his crotch, frozen on his toes. The White Michael who squinted his eyes in negative assessment of his latest point left, look right move, frustration with his technique so sadly blinding him to the adoration of all those who lingered on benches across the promenade or casually smiled as they, for example, gave a Dutch tourist a hair wrap. But the impersonator seemed more like he was doing a line-by-line recitation of a list of moves rather than dancing in time with the recording of “P.Y.T.” on his tape player, grimacing all the while. And then, at the end of each song, he stood with his bare hand to his forehead, eyeing the pavement as though insulted by something it said, all set to tear the promenade to pieces with his one white glove. 

One morning, after more than a decade of daily impersonation, he woke, stood on his mattress and stretched, placed head between knees, and when he began rolling forward and jumping back to his feet, one foot awkwardly hit the floor, and he fell. He twisted his ankle. He would not be able to dance that day. Perhaps he would miss many days. Thankfully there was a cane in his room. The cane was left by an old friend who, when he stopped strolling, would lean on it with two hands, one on top of the other—an affectation that, for the impersonator at least, turned the clock back several decades. One day, however, the friend left the cane at the impersonator’s apartment, where it remained untouched for years after the friend disappeared, as all his friends had, one by one over the years. 

The impersonator used the cane the morning he injured his ankle to limp to his spot at El Parque del Buen Retiro. Sitting on a bench across from where he usually danced, he felt relieved to see his workplace free. Every day he had danced there, and by doing so, had occupied the experience of everyone along the promenade. Then one day he twisted his ankle, tried to simply sit as a spectator. He sat on a bench and saw all those who had spent hours watching him perfect the moonwalk. They strolled by, focused on the empty space where the impersonator had danced, never seeing the injured dancer a few feet away, just another anonymous body with a bench to himself and hours to kill, sitting with his back to the park’s artificial lake. 

In another part of the park, a man with a tattooed face performs his own songs. Shaking a jar of change for rhythm, he steps in time to the left, then to the right, and sings rather wonderfully, albeit in a language no one understands. But because he holds this jar of coins and uses it for rhythm, rarely does anyone give the man a coin, since the song would stop, the rhythm would end, and the giving of the gift would be too conspicuous. Sitting on the bench opposite where he usually danced, the impersonator remembered how someone had once dropped a black kitten into his hat. He chased after the donator, hat in hand, kitten wailing, clawing the brim, nearly bounding out. The impersonator gave the cat back. It would have starved. He couldn’t raise a kitten. He lacked the time and the attention. The donator said he should incorporate the cat into the act, pretend it’s the panther in the “Billie Jean” video. But the impersonator thought a kitten’s presence would harm his work, make him soft. Such sacrifices come with the territory, the impersonator reasoned, sitting on the bench, tapping the cane on the promenade’s rich pavement.

The impersonator sat on the bench and thought: “If it had not been for Michael Jackson, I might have done so many things—everything—but, because Michael Jackson exists, I do what I do, am what I am.” The impersonator, now gloveless, sat with an injured ankle—an empty workplace in front of him, a large rectangular lake in which couples lazed in small rowboats behind him—tallying his memories: 

He had been on television several times. 

He had been mentioned in several traveler’s guides to Madrid. 

He had often been invited to parties at which, no matter how poorly he moonwalked, he’d been the star. 

People had thrown coins, slips of paper with phone numbers on them, joints of hashish mixed with tobacco, room keys, underwear, everything imaginable (a kitten!) into his top hat: it was a wishing well, he thought, an alms receptacle for those who spent their Sundays in the park while he tried his best, like a channeller of spirits at a séance, to make someone he was not materialize before everyone’s eyes. 

He had once met Diana Ross. She was vacationing in Spain. She told him through an interpreter that he was twenty years ahead of Michael. “When Michael’s sixty, honey, he’ll be doing you now.” Despite what Diana Ross had said about Michael eventually impersonating him, maybe it was time to give it up, thought the impersonator, sitting on a bench with the artificial lake behind him. The anonymity of the bench pleased him; sitting there was almost as liberating as his first few attempts at impersonation. But what was there to perfect? And how would he pay his rent and feed himself, not to mention all the ducks and pigeons he’d befriend? He had to admit it was in his blood, it was what he did: he was an impersonator, he was the real thing, he knew it. Yet he also felt he was very close to turning the moves he made into something so real no one would consider him an impersonator any more. If he just kept it up for as long as he lived, he knew one day he would be as real as Michael Jackson.

As he sat on the bench, he wondered where Michael Jackson was at that exact moment, what he was thinking. Surely Michael was not sitting on a bench somewhere wondering where his impersonators were. He thought about the joke: “What’s the difference between the astronaut Neil Armstrong and the singer Michael Jackson?” According to the friend who’d told him it, the punch line went something like “Well, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Michael Jackson fucks little boys.” He’d snorted when he heard it, but now that such serious concerns about Michael Jackson’s alleged tendencies had become all too common, he realized that he would soon have to do more than impersonate. Yes. He knew he’d have to do more or else forever be considered a sicko by association.

He would strip down to just his black briefs. Dive into the rectangular lake behind the bench. Swim and kick despite his sprained ankle. Then drive himself under. Hold his breath until the murky water lured him further on. He’d become, with each second that passed, more like a charging bull, more like a sleek porpoise or seal, more like something he was not and could never be. 

And then he’d burst to the surface, having swum underwater more than halfway across the artificial lake. Details on the faces of the stone lions that guarded the Columbus statue would become more focused. He’d roll over onto his back, lightly kick at the water, his arms out like wings. Over the churned water of his wake, he’d see the promenade, the line of trees that had always been to his back as he danced, that cast cool shadows over him each afternoon. And he’d kick and float on his back toward the Columbus statue, feeling refreshed, preparing himself for what he’d do when he made it to the other side of the lake. 

Finally, he’d reach the concrete edge of the water, pull himself over the ornate cast-iron railing. Up close, each of the lions’ teeth would seem twice as tall as he was. Each tooth perfectly solid in those mouths, especially compared to him: his once-straggly poof of hair hanging to his shoulders where it wasn’t water-shellacked to his scalp, his soaked pale skin, his clingy black briefs. It’d still be too early in the day for the drummers: they’d show up in the late afternoon and play until the sun dropped over the trees on the other side of the lake. And so he would hear nothing except the distant sounds of Madrid’s traffic, a duck’s splash, the electronic whine of a toy sailboat doing figure eights across the water, controlled by a silent young boy. This at first wouldn’t seem like quite enough music, but he’d work with what he had. It’d still be too hot for the West Africans, who lounged on the other side of the lions at this hour, but the heat would feel good on his pale skin. He’d position himself beneath the mouth of the southernmost lion, then tilt his head to hear it all better. He’d immediately become conscious of concentrating too hard to hear all of Madrid at once, and so he’d decide to forget about hearing in favor of moving. Kick his bare leg in a zig-zag, look left, point right, then do a jump. 

He’d never done a jump like that, he’d never thrown his hands out and twisted around while still in the air, hitting the ground to jump again and twist, repeating it, then standing still, trying to move his whole body through just a sudden jerk of the knees, letting all his movements originate in his navel, his nostrils, his tongue, his teeth. His ankle would no longer hurt him. It’d get later in the day and he’d still be dancing, sweating, until the afternoon crowd would appear and the drummers would play, translating his movements into rhythms so loud and chaotic they’d make the lions shake off their stone encasements, roar with life, and carry the dancer in their mouths as they galloped through the park, running faster and faster until their golden coats were lost in the sunlight that fell behind the trees lining the promenade, where a crowd had gathered around an elderly man who’d dressed a young panther in diapers, top hat, and bow tie—a young panther that the man had apparently trained to skip on its hind paws and sing in a voice that sounded like Sinatra’s in his prime. And the impersonator, sitting on a bench with his back to the park’s artificial lake, thought that as he flew over his replacement, he might find a bright new coin in the airborne lion’s mouth, drop it into the old man’s cup, and then get on with it, go home: Vaya!


"Real Madrid" originally appeared in the fifth print edition of Pindeldyboz
Spring 2005. I saw a very self-conscious MJ impersonator in 1993 in Madrid and then handwrote the first few pages while in Boston in 1996 during a period of deep readerly Kafka immersion. Seven or so years later I found those handwritten pages and finished the story and voila! The Neil Armstrong joke is ripped off -- I realized years after first hearing it from a friend and integrating it -- from the illustrious Neil Hamburger. In 2005, I came very close to developing this story into a novel, even read up a little on the real MJ. Alas.
Forevermore at http://eyeshot.net/mjmadrid.html


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