From the author: When the neighbors show off their off-the-lot new elephant for everyone to see, Mike's dad decides to build his own out of spare parts. Getting it to work might mean Mike betrays himself and the neighbors' trust. [Building an Elephant was originally published by Adirondack Review: http://adirondackreview.homestead.com/ It won the Fulton Prize for Fiction.]
Two days after my seventeenth birthday I found Dad in the living room talking to himself as he stared out the front window. Next door, the Hendersons and their daughter Jenny stood on their front yard. An eighteen wheeler was parked on the street. Lumbering out of the back was something nearly as big as the truck.
Dad said, "My God. I think Henderson bought an elephant." When upset, Dad referred to Mr. Henderson by last-name-only. Henderson dented the fender on my car. Henderson still hasn't returned our goddam hedge-trimmer. "Godammit he has. He bought a damn elephant."
The gray animal stood at the top of their driveway, staring into the dark garage. Mr. Henderson signed papers for the delivery man. The elephant watched him as its trunk played along the edge of the garage door. Mrs. Henderson waved her hands grandly, said something to Jenny about the size of it. Jenny stood with her hands on her hips, a disgusted look on her face as the elephant moved its bowels on the driveway.
"How can he afford that thing?" Dad left the room and slammed the door to the garage behind him.
I watched the Henderson's and Jenny from the window. Jenny walked to the open front door and stood in it, light from inside highlighting her profile, making her glow. She smiled at the elephant as it nosed the yard looking for something to eat. When she'd gone to college she swore she'd never move back in with her parents, but here she was. Her braces and baggy sweats were gone. A bright smile and long, muscular legs were in their place.
I followed Dad out to the garage. As usual, Dad's water buffalo stood along the back wall. It stared at the mower and garden tools hanging from crooked nails. The pen took up the end of the garage ahead of Mom's small car. Such a stupid, dead expression, matching what I imagined went on in its head. It chewed feed; its knees turned slightly inward, as if its own weight was too much for the skinny legs. A rope around its neck was knotted through a ring on the wall.
Dad swept the floor around the pen. Once, he'd asked me to do it then yelled at me for kicking up too much dust. "It will hurt the poor girl's eyes," he'd said. He never asked me to sweep up again. Dad swept carefully, with what I imagined was real love and attention. Even though his sweeping was so slow I could tell that he was pushing the broom hard against the floor, as if scrubbing the cement. Dad's water buffalo, once the largest mammal on the block, would look minuscule compared to the enormous elephant next door. I felt happy about that. He spent so many hours caring for the water buffalo, whispering to it. I think he had named it, but wouldn't tell me or Mom what it was.
Two days after the elephant's arrival, I found my parents in the kitchen arguing. The Hendersons had invited us and other neighbors over for a barbecue and Dad refused to go.
"Henderson just wants to show off his elephant."
Mom slammed dishes into the sink. "Harry, quit pouting. When you got your cow we had the Hendersons and the Phillips over for three weekends straight so you could show it off." Mom always referred to the water buffalo as "the cow." She knew it drove Dad crazy. "We're going and you'll be impressed, and that will be that."
Mom acknowledged my presence in the room for the first time by telling me, "We're eating at the Hendersons' at seven. Be ready."
I hoped Jenny might be there, but tried to look uninterested in going when I said, "Yeah, okay. Whatever."
Jenny was there. She wore a gauzy yellow dress that showed off her tan shoulders. She was beautiful. I watched her from across the Hendersons' patio and turn away whenever she looked my direction. My parents and the two other couples wandered around the backyard as Mr. Henderson talked over the grill about his elephant.
"Yessir, it's a beautiful creature. It would have been glorious to see it in the wild, if they could still be found out there." Mr. Henderson talked about his elephant like my father had his water buffalo. "I bet it could pass inspection by a zoologist. State of the art, right off the line, and no part more than six months old."
Dad peeled the label from his beer bottle, a deep scowl on his face. The water buffalo had been "state of the art" three years ago. Now it was at least two generations old and its blue-book value was much lower than Dad liked. He sat with his back to the garage. The back door was open and every few minutes we heard hay being thrown and heavy feet stomping. Dad, unlike everyone else, refused to look at it. I was curious about the animal, so I slipped away from Dad and stepped through the garage door.
The elephant's size chilled me. It took up over half the garage, leaving only enough room for Mrs. Henderson's mini-car. Bales of hay stacked along the back wall stood six feet high, and the elephant stood twice as tall as that. Its tail swung against the garage door, its trunk played slowly against the opposite wall. The skin wasn't as gray as I imagined it would be. There was a hint of pink under a muddy dust cover, and tiny hairs covering its dry body. I reached out to touch it, to feel the bristling hairs on it's side but it grunted and I backed away. With one eye pressed against the window, it looked at the side of our house. I realized from this angle, it would be watching my bedroom window. The other eye, dark and wet, blinked and rolled in my direction. I wondered if it recognized me.
Outside, my mother waved for me to join her and Jenny. They stood by the grill as Mr. Henderson rescued pieces of chicken from the coals.
"Jenny was just saying that she's going to repaint her bedroom." Mom said this in a tone as if I was responsible.
Jenny smiled and said, "I'm gonna need help with some of it. Ladder stuff. Would you be interested? I'll pay you."
I was able to control myself, appearing slightly uninterested when I said, "Yeah. Okay." I didn't care if she did pay me. I didn't care if I ever made it home again. With my heart throbbing in my chest I turned and found Mr. Henderson holding a burnt chicken breast between his tongs.
"Where's your plate, Mikey?"
Dad stepped up and handed me a plate. "Hey, Henderson. Chuck. Where did you get that thing again?"
Mr. Henderson dropped the breast onto my plate. "Place out on Route 9."
"I'd love the name of the dealer. I've been looking into stepping up to a larger mammal myself." Dad saw the surprise on my face and waved me off.
Mr. Henderson poked at the coals, smiled at Dad and said, "Thinking of trading in the water buffalo?"
"No, no. Just thinking of adding another to the collection. The more the merrier, right?"
Mr. Henderson nodded, "Yeah, sure. I'll give you the guy's name."
Mom chewed methodically as she watched Dad.
I worked on my burnt chicken and tried to think of something to say to Jenny. When she went into the house I followed. I found her at the fridge sorting through cans of soda.
"Want one?" she said. I couldn't even nod yes.
I grabbed a bag of chips and tried to open them. "It's pretty cool that you're gonna paint your room." The seal on the bag popped and chips shot over the counter top and floor. I scooped them into a pile. I felt like an idiot. She laughed.
Jenny took one that hadn't touched the floor and ate it. "I just can't stand pink anymore, you know?" She smiled and walked back outside munching on the chip. Over her shoulder she called back, "We'll have fun. Like old times."
I tried to think of what she meant by "old times." For me they were sneaking peaks at her from the stairs when she would baby-sit me. I went back outside, running her promise over in my head.
My father's limit on beers at backyard barbecues was three. From his volume, he'd obviously passed that number.
"I tell you, Chuck, tomorrow I'm coming over and getting that number of that animal dealer you went to and I'm heading right over and I'm getting the biggest goddam elephant you've ever seen. And it's not gonna have those tiny ears yours has. It's gonna have the big ears that elephants are supposed to have."
Mr. Henderson scraped his spatula against the grill. "Mine is an Indian elephant. The ears are smaller than the African elephant. It's not a mistake. It's the style I prefer."
"Whatever. I say it doesn't look like an elephant with small ears." Dad sucked at his beer, his volume rising with the color in his face. "Tusks. My elephant is gonna have giant ivory tusks."
Mr. Phillips, a heavy man with a think mustache, chuckled. "Yeah, well. Good luck affording that. I hear that even imitation tusks run pretty high."
Dad lowered his beer. "You saying I can't afford one, Phillips?" As loud as my father's voice had been before it was now so low that it was almost gone. He set his beer down and planted his feet firmly. His stance scared me.
Mr. Henderson raised a hand between them and said, "Harry, that's not what he said."
Dad turned on him. "You think I can't take care of my own finances? You want to know what I made last year?" His hands clenched into fists.
Behind me a fork fell to the ground and as it was still clanging against the concrete patio Mom rushed past me and took hold of my father's elbow. In one motion, without breaking stride, she turned him and pulled him away from the grill, back toward our house. Dad made a feeble sputter but Mom cut him off, shouting over her shoulder, "We just need to get something from the kitchen. Back in a sec."
I sat there, knowing they wouldn't be back. I looked at Jenny and she was kindly munching on a carrot stick, pretending not to have noticed. Part of me hoped that when I did go home that they would be gone. I imagined being able to walk through the house hearing only my footsteps, not the angry, deafening silence of my parents hatefully ignoring one another.
The next day was Saturday and my father came to my door early in his "weekend uniform," baggy basketball shorts and his old college varsity team shirt.
"Get up and get dressed. We're leaving in fifteen minutes."
In the car I was still half asleep. I pulled my baseball cap low and rubbed at the sleep stuck in my eyes. Dad didn't say where we were going. He drove to the highway out of town, and when the highway ended he took a two lane road that separated corn fields on either side. The fields blurred along for fifteen minutes when I finally asked, "Dad, where are we going?"
"You'll see." He had a small smile.
Even though he'd told me nothing, I liked knowing he trusted me and needed my help. He rarely ever wanted me around, except for chores. This felt different. I smiled to myself as I watched the corn finally give way to an unused field lined with rows of junk. Dad started to slow down and it was then that I saw that the junkyard was filled with heads. Each row in the field was a different type. There were bison, followed by bear, gorilla, hippo. A pile of ostrich heads, still connected to the long necks, was piled like firewood by the lot entrance.
The car bounced heavily on the uneven driveway as my father pulled up to a row of huge, gray elephant bodies so dark and dirty they were nearly black. Each was laid out on its stomach with the back legs planted as if standing and the front legs stretched out along the ground, like a dog in a deep stretch. Their heads rested on their front legs, the trunks coiled in front of them. Eyes open, and partly rolled back in their heads, they looked dead, not simply without power.
The yard caretaker came from a nearby building. His jumpsuit's patch said, "Randy." He waved happily at us as we exited the car. "How you doing?" He carried a long pole with him. It looked like a mop handle. He dragged it in the dirt behind him. "You the gentleman that called about the elephants?"
Dad said he was.
"Well, you found them. We got some beauties. Not much work needed on most of them to get them working right. You know how people are. First sign of age or wear and people just trade them in and get a new model. Don't have any sense of upkeep."
Randy walked along the row and Dad and I followed the little trail his pole left in the dust. He had twenty elephants. Some no longer had legs. Others lacked hides, their undercarriages shining in the sun. Most were obviously very old models which could barely pass as real animals.
Dad stopped about halfway along the line. "This must be the one you mentioned."
Randy nodded, swung the pole over one shoulder. "Yeah. That's him. He's in beautiful condition. A bull African elephant, those are the original tusks. I've only had it three weeks."
The off-white tusks curved grandly from either side of the elephant's mouth and held its head higher than the others. Mr. Henderson's elephant would be tiny in comparison. The eyes had a special glow, as if it were alive.
Dad turned to me and said, "What do you think, Mikey?"
I was stunned. He never asked for my opinion. "Looks good to me?" It came out as a question instead of a statement, but Dad smiled in agreement and I felt like I'd won. "But," I added, "weren't you gonna get a new one?"
Dad hesitated and jingled the keys in his pocket. "Where's the fun in that? This way we get to refurbish it."
"Besides," Randy added, "a new one will cost you about four times as much."
Dad waved that away, his face red. "More fun this way."
Randy lowered the pole to the ground and maneuvered one end into the mouth of the elephant. With a grunt he forced the jaw to open and shoved the pole deep into the pink maw. When it was as deep as possible he gave a twist and a panel in the elephant's right side opened. Through this opening we could see the inner workings, all a sticky pinkish-gray and cold from being powered down for so long. I was amazed.
Randy pulled the pole out so casually that I thought he must have done it a million times a day.
He said, "Do you know how to rebuild a large scale mammal?"
Dad reassured him. "Sure. I've done research and my son will help. Won't you?" Dad punched my shoulder.
"You bet, Dad."
We took elephant parts home in three trips using a rented van, and unloaded it into the back of the garage. We rolled down the windows and Dad sang along to songs on the radio. I nodded along to the music and watched Dad's eyes shine. The body was delivered by Randy on a flatbed. Dad had that dropped off in the middle of the week, using a vacation day. While Randy's crew unloaded it Dad stood in the driveway nervous that someone might see that he'd bought a used animal.
Dad and I spent a lot of time together the following week. He found schematics online and went through the elephant's systems--the circulatory, self cleaning, and neurological--with diagnostic equipment rented from an animal dealership. We went to suppliers and bought some new parts. Dad was happy the weather held out. He could keep the water buffalo outside all week. One of my chores became the daily feeding and cleaning of the buffalo. Under normal circumstances I would have resented it, but now that Dad needed my help on his big project I didn't mind. The water buffalo was tied up outside. Every morning I threw a fresh armload of hay in front of it and then smoothed out its coarse hair with the wire brush. I was almost happy to be caring for it. I even started talking to it, but quietly so my dad couldn't hear. Its dull, wet eyes followed me and it began to perk up when it saw me coming.
In the garage, the buffalo's pen was filled with the elephant's legs and tail section. The trunk was strung over the rafters above us and the head hung from a strap on the wall.
Dad took the whole week off. He wore old clothes and kept the garage door closed despite the heat.
Mom thought he was ridiculous. "If you're trying to keep this thing secret then my car being outside all week is kind of a big giveaway."
"Don't worry about it," Dad said and wiped his hands on a rag covered with the oily, red circulatory fluid.
Mom shook her head and went back inside. Dad threw a rag to me. I didn't have much dirt on my hands but we both stood there, sweating in the stuffy garage and taking pride in our work as we wiped our hands.
"Tomorrow we start putting him back together."
"I sort of have to help Jenny paint her room." I feared he'd tease me, say I had a crush.
He clicked out the last light and from the darkness he said, "A man's got to live up to his obligations. Just get home when you can." I thought I heard a smile in his voice.
The next day I headed over to the Henderson's at noon. Jenny was in the driveway, her cell phone to her ear and her tie-dyed shirt looking too small. As she pulled cans of light blue paint from the trunk of the car, she bent over and her back came into view. She had a tattoo at the base of her spine. It was an ornate pattern like an Indian rug. I was mesmerized until she pointed at the bag of rollers and brushes. She'd seen me staring. I followed her into the house and up to her room with the tattoo popping in and out of view as her shirt moved.
She stayed on the phone while I laid out the drop cloths. She laughed often and said things in a whisper. I imagined it was some guy from school. I became robotic as I pulled the cloth into place and set up the ladder. I felt ridiculous. She was a college girl and I was the kid from next door who'd had a crush on her. I promised myself that I would find an excuse to get out of the chore. She ended the call as I poured primer into the roller pan.
"I gotta go. I'm starting to paint my bedroom." Slight pause. "No, I've got help. A friend from next door. A guy I used to sit for, if you can believe it." She turned and smiled at me, playfully hit me with a roller. "Now he's big enough to paint the ceiling without a ladder."
I focused on the word "friend" instead of "kid" or some other demeaning description. She laughed and said, "Your mind is in the gutter. Bye."
We started on walls opposite from each other with our backs to each other and the roller pan sat at our feet between us.
"That was my roommate from school," she said. "She thinks I should lock you up in here as my personal slave."
"Huh." I cringed as my voice somehow cracked twice in that short word. Desperate to make up for it I said, "Does that mean I should have my shirt off and be all oily and stuff?" I immediately regretted it but she laughed harder than she had on the phone with her friend. Adrenaline rushed through me.
I painted clockwise around the room, she painted counter-clockwise. We met at the corner, our roller strokes meshing into a solid white plane.
We did one coat each morning for the next two days. We listened to the radio and laughed at each other's spills. I stepped in the paint tray at one point and that night held my now light blue shoe, smiling stupidly at it.
Evenings I worked with Dad on the elephant. At first we had the radio going on an oldies station he liked. He shut it off on the third day. He became more and more frustrated and returned to his normal, reclusive self. The circulatory system wasn't working. He spent hours on the phone with Randy and then a friend of Randy's and then a friend of the friend who said for a couple of thousand he'd come out and rebuild the circulatory system but it couldn't be done over the phone, and not for free.
At dinner that night Dad stabbed at his food and Mom talked non-stop, apparently to me, about what the neighbors were up to. She liked to fill Dad's silences with constant chatter. Then she asked about Jenny and the painting.
"You all finished now?"
"Yeah, pretty much." I checked out Dad and saw him pushing his string beans around the plate. "Just some touch up around the windows."
"How's it drying?"
"Not so good. It's too humid. Jenny left the windows open today because it was still wet from yesterday when we started." I said how it smelled pretty bad too and so they were leaving the windows open tonight to keep the smell down. "Mr. Henderson won't even stay in the house with the paint smell. Says it gives him a headache."
Dad stopped shredding his chicken with his fork. "You've got all sorts of chores all lined up, don't you?"
"Yeah, I guess."
Dad hunted down the beans he'd hidden and started to fork them. "So, what are the Hendersons doing if the paint drove them out?"
"Jenny said they'd go up to the lake." She'd also said that at some point she and I ought to go up ourselves, go swimming and barbecue. The idea of it made me still.
Dad's mood brightened. "The old cabin, huh? Good for them. Get away for the night, see some stars." Dad shoved the beans and chicken into his mouth, happily munching away on the food that had gone cold half an hour earlier.
After dinner, Dad came to my room. He said, "Hey, buddy. Listen, what say we go over to the Henderson's and sneak a look at that animal of theirs?"
I was shocked. "I don't know, Dad." Mr. Henderson didn't even want me storing the paint in the garage because I might get too close to the elephant.
Dad shut the door to my room behind him and leaned back against it. "I know how you must feel. They trust you and you don't want to hurt that. But listen, if I could just get a look at their elephant, just a few minutes, I think I'd be able to figure out what's wrong with ours. You know you and I have put in way too much time on ours to just give up on him. You and I could show him off and your friends could come see him." He walked away from the door and looked around the room. For the first time he saw the back of my door and the poster I had there. It was of a woman in a bikini leaning against a palm tree, a beer logo between her feet. With a grin Dad jerked a thumb in her direction and said, "You know girls will love to come over and see it."
I didn't say that the only girl I was interested in already had an elephant. "I don't know."
His grin disappeared and he sat down at the foot of my bed. Kicking at my light blue shoe he said, "Son, I need help. That elephant in the garage cost a fortune. If it just sits there it's gonna drive your mother crazy. But if I can get it running--" He picked up the shoe. I thought he might ask what happened when he said, "I really just need to see how the inner workings are put together. The water buffalo is too small, the parts are similar but not nearly close enough. And your mother. She's gonna kill me if she finds out how much I spent on a piece of junk that--"
He dropped my shoe and grabbed my hand. "Listen, we'll go in, take a peak, and leave. I'm just gonna take some photos and we'll get right out of there."
This was my father begging. All the shouting and bluster he normally rode around with, in the back yard with neighbors and at my mom and me, it drifted away, fell under the bed with my shoe. My father was begging for my help. Somehow, I felt more grown-up.
"How would we get in?" I asked.
"You said Jenny left her windows open, right?" His eyes were lighting up at the prospect of breaking into the neighbors' house.
Dad and I waited until the sun was down. We walked past the water buffalo, through our backyard and into the Hendersons' backyard. The water buffalo watched us.
As we passed the Hendersons' garage window we could just see inside. The elephant's eye rolled slowly toward us, then back to the side of our house. I felt paranoid. My palms sweated and my stomach knotted. We rounded the corner to the front of the house. Dad carried a long pole just like the one Randy had. He dropped it to the grass and pointed at the ladder we'd left at the side of our house. We ran to it and carried it back. It smacked against the vinyl siding.
Dad was a dark shadow beside me. Our porch lights hit his back. "When you get into the window I'll take this down and put it in our yard. You'll leave through the garage with me."
As my knees shook, I climbed the ladder toward Jenny's window and pushed it fully open, then made a grab at the sill and pulled myself off the ladder and toward the window ledge. When I fell into the room I scraped my stomach along the sill. I wondered what I was doing. Outside Dad pulled the ladder to the ground. I was committed.
Dad's whisper sounded like a shout. "Get down here and open the door."
I hurried down the stairs and then turned on the kitchen light. Inside the garage a black wall moved toward me. It was the elephant, shuffling around at the sound of me. I pressed against the wall near the door even though I knew she was corralled at the other side. My father's silhouette filled the door's window. I felt my way to the door. When I opened it he reached in and clicked the light on.
He stared past me. "Look at her."
The pole he carried smacked against the floor, startling me. I shut the door behind him. He stepped toward the pen and pulled an apple from his pocket. He whispered "Good girl" over and over and held the apple up. The elephant's eyes hit the apple and the trunk slowly came over to his hand and took hold. As she curled her trunk back toward her open mouth her pink tongue and its sticky wetness shocked me, it was so slick and soft. Not at all like the dry, sandpapery mouth of the elephant head on our garage wall.
Dad again said, "Good girl." Pointing at her right shoulder he said, "Stand over there and let me know when the panel opens." As I moved to the side he lifted the pole and moved in front of the elephant. He inserted the pole into the pink mouth. She shifted back and forth in discomfort but Dad kept the pole in place and when she stopped fidgeting he pushed deeper and twisted. I wanted him to stop. I was crying.
I was looking at her eye when she screamed. It wasn't a trumpet, but a scream, and her eye grew wider so that I saw the white around the edges. She pulled back and Dad kept repeating "good girl good girl" as she swung her trunk toward him. She knocked him to the ground and he dropped the pole. It fell from her mouth with a clatter against the concrete floor. It's tip was red with oily fluid. I nearly threw up.
"Dad, are you okay?" I pressed back against the wall. I slid along it toward him. "Dad?"
He knelt in front of the elephant. She wasn't doing anything. Now that the pole was out she and Dad just stared at one another.
"You bitch," Dad said. He reached for the pole and stood in front of her again. Something in her design must have made her docile because even though she'd been threatened before she just eyed him coolly, the same passionless face and tired eyes that had eaten the apple. Dad surprised me with how fast he reinserted the pole. Again the elephant jumped back and he pushed harder.
"It's in there, the switch is right there. I can feel it."
He twisted the pole back and forth and the elephant started to scream again and suddenly stopped, it's head turned to one side, paused for a moment. No sounds came and barely any movement. She seemed to deflate for a moment. Dad grew very still. His eyes cooled and he lowered his head, tried to look the elephant in the eye. He said, "Girl?" and removed the pole. The red tip reappeared, a little wetter than before. The elephant's eyes shut, then her mouth closed and her body shifted, straightened out so that she was completely erect, even her trunk was in a perfect line with her body.
Dad said, "Girl?" again. There was a muted trumpeting sound and her eyes lifted slowly, focused on Dad. Her trunk swayed and she shifted her weight back and forth, back and forth. She would not let him try the pole again. She would not let him near her again. Her gray flanks quivered and I thought the muscles underneath must be ready to charge and carry her away from my father and me in terror.
"Dad, let's leave." I was covered in sweat. Dad's hair was dripping and his shirt collar soaked.
"Yeah, good idea."
As we stepped out of the garage Dad glanced up at the Hendersons' house and stopped. "Goddammit. You left a light on." He pointed up at the second floor and through Jenny's window was light from the hallway. "Go back in and shut it off." He sounded like he might sleep for a thousand years.
I went back through the dark garage, which didn't seem as dark as before, and I heard the animal whimper in the dark and stamp a foot. I re-entered the house. From the kitchen I could see that lights were on in the stairwell and upstairs hallway. I didn't remember turning on so many lights.
I took the stairs two at a time. As I hit the top step I saw the bathroom light was on. I froze. I hadn't gone in there. Water was running in the shower. Someone had come home while we'd been in the garage. I took one step back down the steps when Jenny came out of the bathroom. She headed toward the guest room. She was naked. She tied her hair up, pulling it up off her neck. As she walked away I could see her right breast, and I could see tan lines across her bare back, and over her butt. The tattoo swung with her hips as she moved. She stepped softly down the hall and into the guest room. I shut my eyes and the curve of her hips and the space between her legs hung before me. Another step back, I had to leave, but I missed the stair and tripped. I rolled backward down the steps and landed heavily on my back with a crash.
Jenny ran to the stairs. Just as her head came into view over the top step she froze, her eyes wide. I couldn't see anything below her neck from the low angle, flat on my back on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, but I could tell she was covering herself with her hands. The stillness of her head spoke for her whole body.
"What the hell are you doing here, Mike?"
I gasped for breath. Air refused to fill my lungs. Finally I managed one word. From the back of my brain, from some region ready to spin a lie in order to protect me came the word, "Paint."
She didn't understand.
"I came," I pushed a breath in and out, "I came to check the paint. I thought I left a can open."
Her eyes didn't soften, but she stepped away from the stairs and into the bathroom. "Go home, Mike."
Without another word I stood and went to the front door. I unlocked it and walked out, stood on the front step of the house and felt more comfortable in the dark without my eyes adjusted. It was darker than the pitch black garage. I didn't want my eyes to adjust, I didn't want to see or be seen again. I could feel something lurking in the dark. It was Dad, standing in the shadow of our house.
He called to me, "What are you doing?"
I walked toward our front door without acknowledging Dad. Dew was collecting on the grass and soaked into my sneakers. As I neared Dad he said, "You left all those lights on, and came out the front door. What's the matter with you?"
Without stopping I said, "Jenny's home."
He stopped walking. "Did she see us? Did she know I was in the garage?"
I turned back to him. With the porch lights behind me I could see his face. He looked like a scared child.
"Yeah, she knows everything, and she's gonna call Mom and have us grounded."
Dad was confused. I realized that my father's begging earlier hadn't meant I was getting older, it meant he was more selfish than I'd known. I turned to go home, exhausted, wanting nothing more than to sleep.
As I entered the house Mom saw me from the livingroom and called to me as I went up the stairs.
"Dammit, Mikey, take off your shoes. You're tracking in mud."
I didn't stop. I turned to face her, my vision narrowed to a long dark tube. Her face froze. I heard her say something to my father when he came in, but I didn't wait for any weak explanation.
The guest room in Jenny's house was my room in our house. They were identical houses, and so in a way we were in the same space. I slammed my door and kicked my shoes off and got into bed fully dressed.
That night I dreamed about Jenny. She was naked, and covered in red paint. We were in her room, painting it again, but this time we were painting it red. We had no rollers or brushes, so we dipped our hands into the paint can and rubbed it on the walls. Jenny was getting it on my clothes and I kept looking at her breasts, hidden under the glistening wet paint. She kept laughing at me. There was no door to the room, and all the windows were too high to reach. Jenny and I would be stuck in the room, alone, painting forever. I woke up with an erection and tried to let the dream lead me to a fantasy as I reached into my shorts, but couldn't. My mother was calling me. She needed me to go mow the lawn. Her voice was like a witness.
I went to the garage to get the mower. Dad was working on the elephant. It was fully assembled with a rented circulatory unit hooked up to it. Without power, the elephant stood exactly as the Hendersons' elephant had when it malfunctioned. It was larger than the Hendersons' elephant, and it's tusks rose up above my head. The eyes were half closed, as if hypnotized. The circulatory system on the floor was hooked via cables into the access panel on its side.
"Hiya Mikey." He was pretending last night hadn't happened.
I tapped the new hardware with my toe. "What's this?"
"I figure if I can get him working off this extra unit, I can make sure everything else is proper. Then I'll know we've got a shot circulatory unit."
I grabbed my basketball.
He said, "Before we get started on this, your mother wants you to mow the lawn."
I walked past the mower and started to dribble the ball. "Why don't you mow the lawn, Dad. Then you can work on your elephant."
He straightened up but didn't say anything as I left the garage.
After my third missed basket, I heard wooden soles click on the driveway. I turned around to face Jenny. She was flushed and wore dark sunglasses, her arms crossed over her chest. I felt naked in my sweat soaked shirt.
Jenny pulled off her glasses. "So, after you left I checked the paint cans."
"One of them was open." Her lopsided grin appeared. The wind shifted and I could smell flowers from Mom's garden.
"I thought it might be." Somehow, my lie had become true. I thought of the dream.
She looked past me, toward our house. "You really didn't know I was home?"
"No, I swear."
"How'd you get in."
The part of my brain that I was learning to trust spit out another answer. "The back door into the garage was open."
She turned and looked at her house, as if she could confirm this from where we stood. She turned to me again and said, "And, did you see me? Did you come up the stairs and see me?"
The little part of my brain in the back screamed at me, "No," but I lowered my eyes and said, "Yes. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to." Now I was flushed. I tried to look up but could only focus on my shoes. One of them was light blue. She wore wooden soled sandals with open toes. Her toe-nails were painted a bright red.
She patted my arm and said, "I thought so. Thanks for being honest." She patted my arm again, then stopped patting and turned it into a squeeze. I tried to swallow. She leaned in and kissed me on the lips. It was very brief, very dry. "You're very sweet, Mike."
I smiled at her and said, "Thanks."
"See you later." She turned and walked back down the driveway. I didn't hesitate to watch the way her shorts moved back and forth as her hips swung. I held onto the basketball until she was almost back to her front door and then I turned and started shooting baskets again. I missed every shot.
Late that afternoon I finally started to mow the lawn. Mr. Henderson was back, and he walking his elephant across his lawn. He had her on a short rope, and he carried a pole. He used it to tap her shoulder, signaling her to turn when they reached the edge of the yard, but each time he raised it she shied away and trumpeted at him.
"No, girl," he repeated. He'd tug hard on the rope and she'd eventually turn but I could see her eyes follow the pole which looked so similar to the one my father had used on her.
She lumbered back and forth, her trunk touching the grass here, then there. The skin at the folds of her legs jiggled as she stomped depressions into the yard.
"Good girl," Mr. Henderson said. He raised the pole and she retreated. He was confused, and maybe a little hurt. "Come on, girl," he said. "Be good now."
Dad came out of the garage and stood by the door, wiping lubricant off his hands. I'd never seen so much. He was glistening red up to the elbow. I turned off the mower when I saw him. His face seemed to pull his head forward. His mouth was sealed shut by a deep frown. He leaned heavily against the door frame.
From the Hendersons' yard came a loud, trumpeted scream, identical to the one from the previous night. I ran to the fence and watched the elephant knock Mr. Henderson to the ground. He crab-walked backward, scrambled to get away from the stamping elephant. She raised her head and twisted it at an odd angle, screamed, then lifted up on her rear legs awkwardly. She stood for only a second and then crashed back down on her front legs. Her head swung from side to side, her trunk and the rope swinging a wider arc, and she screamed again. She stopped swaying and began to shake, and then lubricant started to pour from her mouth. It erupted and sprayed around the trunk and rivered down the tip. The shaking became violent, her sides quaking and more lubricant gurgled out with a bubbly howl. Mr. Henderson screamed too, the lubricant pooled at his feet and splashing against his legs.
Dad disappeared. He quietly drifted back into the garage with the elephant he couldn't make work. Similar lubrication fluid pooled on the garage floor in there, the elephant standing tall into the rafters, it's trunk hanging straight down in the dusty air.
In the next yard the elephant fell to its front knees. Its head hit the ground and as it went down it sounded like a giant balloon releasing air. The breathing stopped and the last sound it made was a horrible moan. Its face was red and dripped with lubricant, and the fluid was running down the yard toward the gutter. Mr. and Mrs. Henderson stood helpless. Mrs. Henderson held Mr. Henderson's hand and he was pale with shock. Next to them was Jenny, but she wasn't looking at the elephant. She looked at me. In her face was hurt and sadness.
I pulled the mower back up the yard toward the garage as the elephant died. Through the window on the garage door I could see Dad standing there, looking at his useless elephant, and so I pounded at the door and called for him to open it up. As I hit the door the glass shook and my hand hurt. Dad didn't move, just looked at the puddles of oil underneath his African bull, and I pounded and called for him to open the door. My hand hurt more and more.
I left the door and walked around the corner to the back of the garage, only wanting to get out of sight, to hide. I turned the corner and was inches from the nose of the water-buffalo. I looked into its stupid cow eyes and cursed at it. My heart beat as if I was being chased, and I wanted to be far away. I realized that both of us were tied to the house. I was no different than the stupid cow that turned away to munch at the old hay at its feet.
The rope holding the water-buffalo came free of the metal loop with a tug at the knot. I led the animal around the house to the front yard and down the driveway. The Hendersons all stared as I walked down the middle of the street leading my father's water-buffalo. The animal followed calmly, stupidly, the rope slack between us. Its trust of me was complete, which made me even more ashamed.
None of the Hendersons said anything. I knew they'd say things, horrible things, when I returned.
I walked over two miles toward the farmland that lay beyond our neighborhood. I kept expecting Dad to drive up behind me, furious, but he never arrived, so I kept walking. I didn't mind the sun burning my neck, or the sweat stinging my eyes.
Finally, I found a clearing near some trees. There was a large field and few houses. The wind played across the tops of the tall grass. Some sheep wandered lower in the field. I pulled at the rope for the water buffalo to follow and it did, without hesitation, and I found myself thinking how I might miss him and how I maybe could have cared for him more. It wasn't his fault my father treated him well. Animals like him are built to be self-maintaining, the day to day care my father exerted is unnecessary, and with fields of grass to eat it would last indefinitely. Someone would find it, I knew, probably the sheep farmer, and would see the value in it, even if only to sell. He would be fine.
I pulled the animal to the center of the field, untied the rope and then turned to walk home. For a moment the water buffalo looked ready to follow me and I partly hoped it might, but then its stomach woke up and it began to feed from the grass at its feet. As I left the field I found myself a little jealous of the water buffalo. He had sun and food and fresh air, and wanted nothing else. And in the end, my father would come looking for him and want him back, and whether found or not, he would be looked for.
[Building an Elephant was originally published by Adirondack Review: http://adirondackreview.homestead.com/
It won the Fulton Prize for Fiction.]