by John McManus, recommended by The Literary Review
EDITOR’S NOTE BY MINNA PROCTOR
We’re famous, perhaps notorious, at TLR for being ridiculously slow to respond to submissions. The situation is an atrocity as well as a point of pride — we’re slow because we read everything very carefully. It’s noble in theory but compromising in practice. In one instance, the wonderful writer Darcey Steinke sent her colleague John McManus in my direction with a short story entitled, “The Gnat Line.” It was a haunting, Beckett-like story about sex offenders — not words I’d normally join together in a sentence. It took us forever to read and when I got back to John with an apologetic and somewhat hyper please-please-can-we-publish-this letter, it had already been published by some smarter, swifter magazine. I begged John to submit another story soon. I think he is a clever man because when he did, he sent it via an agent — code for, act fast or lose out.
I read “Elephant Sanctuary” immediately and found in it the same quiet, literary perversion that I had loved about “The Gnat Line.” Generally speaking, I’m a fan of stories that begin at the end, like Sunset Boulevard — where the opening shot has the narrator dead in a swimming pool and you get to spend the rest of the movie finding out how he got there. “Elephant Sanctuary,” about a dissolute rock star fleeing justice and fame, does that and then pushes everything one step further. It’s a kind of hardboiled chaos that starts in cynicism and moves with fleeting complexity through a story about a father and son toward an expansive humanity. Reading this short story is like driving off a cliff and ending up in a sunlit, downy field surrounded by singing angels. I don’t know how John pulls it off but he does, and I have the utmost respect for the creative audacity that thrust this story into being.
Editor, The Literary Review
by John McManus, recommended by The Literary Review
The story of the creation of my elephant vampire songs begins on the December morning when I killed Aisling, heroine of our last album and my fiancée, in one Porsche and fled Texas in another. The second car belonged to our manager, and stealing it was a snap, I just called down to the front desk. The valet even asked for my autograph. I signed the parking ticket and headed for I-35. Early in the tour my father, Ike Bright, Sr., had pretended to die in the tsunami in Japan; since then, he’d been hiding out near Texarkana. I guess he’d owed a lot of money. To hoard his address around America had made me feel more powerful than the people around me, whether or not their own fathers were alive. It’d had me singing “Barnacle” in a major scale so that our fans hopped to it instead of swaying. Now I drove nonstop through Dallas, Sulphur Springs, and then northeast toward the Palmetto Flats, following signs for a wildlife refuge. Just over the Red River I came to the mailbox that said Blackhawk, my father’s fake name.
He was snoring in a chair on the covered porch of a farmhouse, wearing a pinstripe suit as if he had arrived from a casino. “Dad, it’s Ike,” I said, kicking at his legs until he stirred into awareness of me.
“I read what you told Rolling Stone,” was the first thing he said.
I had explained that the Pacific Ocean had needed to swallow Ike Senior before I could write true songs about him. “I was pretending to mourn you.”
“You done touring?”
“See the news?”
“I’m off the grid.”
“I’m in some trouble.”
He pointed over my shoulder, where I saw, studying me from a fenced pasture that stretched to the denuded hills, an enormous African elephant. It was about twelve times my size, with sickly pink splotches all over its ears. “Meet Gracie,” my father said.
She was plucking weeds with her trunk. I pictured her hollowed out, with the paparazzi and cops and Aisling’s parents waiting inside. “Where are we?”
“Camp David. President doesn’t want it anymore.”
“Did you win this place with a Dolly Parton?”
Nodding, he poured whiskey for himself. I realized he wasn’t joking.
“So it just randomly sits beside an elephant.”
He nodded. “This one talks to me in my head.”
“How’s that work, Dad?”
“Like you and me, but in my head.”
“Is this a zoo?”
“Getting warmer,” he said, his whiskey sparkling in the early light. It occurred to me he meant to profit off Gracie somehow.
A Dolly Parton was a nine-five combo in Texas Hold ’Em, and my first bike had come from his refusing to fold one of those. I’d lost my braces the same way, and had forgotten to say so to Rolling Stone. It wasn’t a good hand. With a Dolly Parton, you lost almost every time. Maybe that’s why the few he won sent him on winner’s tilt.
“You’re selling Gracie to a zoo.”
“Getting colder again.”
“Look, I’m in some shit.”
“It’s a sanctuary for old, abused elephants. They’ve been tortured and driven insane, and now they live on this farm.”
I followed his eyes to where Gracie was grazing. Ask me a goddamn question, I was saying in my thoughts; I needed to talk.
“Old lady elephants, sixty years old. They each have a favorite fruit and a favorite song. Isn’t that something?”
“Want to hear what’s going on?”
“They’re basically like people.”
“So that’s the refuge on the signs.”
“They’re private. The refuge is us.”
“I don’t follow.”
“In any case, lots of bedrooms. Take whichever.”
I wish you’d been in Japan, I wanted to say, which I realize was petulant. I don’t want to imply that I wasn’t grieving Aisling. But this is about my elephant songs. I did slam the door on my way in, to protest Ike Senior’s code of honor. The code held that men didn’t pry. No matter if the men were father and son, or the son was a little boy; the boy had to commence the talking. I’d traded Aisling for this, I thought as I lay down in a bedroom with faded red walls and a view of the mangy meadow beyond the yard. Never again would I make a seatbelt of my arms to hug her from behind. She wouldn’t drink days away anymore like the heroines of the hardcore songs I wished to write, rather than the fey songs I did write. My songs were about yearning, mostly. In them people yearned to be places they weren’t and do things they didn’t or couldn’t do. The critics called the songs gauzy. One reviewer had written that our last album was “full of fuzz.” Thinking about all this, I had a sort of temper tantrum in my head. Some ugly thoughts were churning in there when a voice said, What question do you want?
It hadn’t spoken in words. It more reached in and conveyed a feeling. I sat upright. Thirty hours and as many drinks since my last sleep. Until I saw Gracie out the window, eyeing me from her field, I thought I was dreaming.
“Is that you?” I said, facing her. My dad had said she spoke to him. All my life he’d been telling tall tales, but here was Gracie, staring at me.
You said you wanted a question, she seemed to reply, again not in words but as a sensation that had me reliving the desire.
Not from you, I thought back.
From who, then?
From my father.
Give an example, she said in my head, at which time I realized what Gracie was doing: tricking me into admitting my crime.
It was one thing to imagine confessing to Ike Senior. Ike Senior would be a pot calling a kettle black to criticize me. This was an innocent, tortured beast. Probably she wasn’t speaking to me in my head at all. I shut my eyes and said good day to her, and awoke to find the sun low in the other side of the sky.
I appraised the situation. Aisling was still dead, I was still a fugitive murderer, and Ike Senior was still drinking on the porch. He had been joined by a leathery-skinned woman in her forties whose horsey jaw fell open when I came outside.
“Is this Junior?” she asked with fond surprise.
“James Junior, meet your future stepmom, Clara.”
“I work at the sanctuary,” said Clara. “Have you made the ladies’ acquaintance?”
“He met Gracie this morning,” said my father.
“From 1970 until last year, Gracie lived alone on a concrete slab. Her feet are ruined. They whipped her daily.”
“Hurt elephants, you should die,” said Ike Senior, with righteous anger in his voice. I scanned the meadow for Gracie, listening for her in my head. She didn’t seem to be near.
“James Junior, James Senior may be the last good man.”
“You’re the one saving the ladies,” my father told Clara, which was when I knew he must be conning her out of her money.
I thought of warning Clara what was coming, then spiriting Gracie away to safety. Gracie didn’t deserve being around my father. Altruism can’t save deadbeat rocker from lockup, read the ticker tape in my head.
“Elephants understand English,” said Clara, her eyes adoringly on Ike Senior. “They’re smarter than people. Complex in every way, and sweet.”
“That’s why they avoid me.”
“You’re not complex?”
“Gracie visits you.”
“She’s not either, maybe.”
They continued this silly back-and-forth as if I couldn’t hear. Ask me a goddamn question, I thought. When Aisling was alive, I’d kept a list of reasons to break up, topped by “Never asks me about the past.” Even on coke she inquired only about the future. “Always the fucking future,” I shouted back at her once, with a randomness that startled her. That’s because my real fight was with Ike Senior. Ask a question, I chanted now in my head. By the bottom of my first glass, he still hadn’t done it. Even when Clara went in for ice, he glanced at me only to see if I laughed at his jokes.
“How do you shoot a red elephant?”
“With a gun,” I guessed.
“With a red gun,” he said.
“All these elephant jokes, as if they’re funny,” said Clara when she returned. “I mean, the elephant falls out of the tree because it’s dead?”
“And the idioms,” said my father.
“It’s awful. Elephants in the room and the white elephant and pink elephants and a memory like an elephant.”
“Elephants deserve better,” said Ike Senior, surely playing her. That’s not why I began dreaming up scenarios to make him feel bad; it had more to do with his attention level. I thought of claiming I’d been tricked into believing him drowned. Then I recalled replying to his tsunami email.
“Can I use your truck?” I said, only to see if he would ask my destination; it wasn’t safe for me to be seen in public.
He handed the keys over and said, “No title in it.”
“So just don’t get caught? That’s it?”
“No insurance card, either,” he said, with that subtle grin that asked the world to join in his wonder at how droll everything was. I took the keys. He was doing what he believed I needed, and I hated him for it. What’s the trouble, Ike, what have you gone and done? Cry if you need to cry. So vividly did I react to his not saying these things that Gracie must have heard me in her head, wherever she was.
I accelerated down the highway. Before I knew it I was crossing the Red River. Not the best choice to enter Texas again, but my fans were all sniffly emo boys and stoned vegan girls who lived in cities, not the kind of people you find at a trailer bar above a river gorge. I parked under a blinking neon sign for Busch and headed inside. In the dim interior a girl with bluebird shoulder tattoos was perched down from some ranchers in hats. “Double bourbon,” I told the bartender, taking a stool beside the girl. It felt good to be in a bar again. I’d thought maybe I’d flee the country without setting foot in another one. The bartender poured my drink, passed it over to me. My skin tingled from being so close to the girl, but I didn’t look at her as I mulled over my options. Hide out in Switzerland like Polanski. Live in a Third World capital. I would stand out by my skin color.
Maybe Moscow, I was thinking when the girl said, “You seem fun,” in a pleasant Ozark accent.
Tilting my drink down my throat, I turned to face her. She was cute, with cheekbones that sloped down toward her chin in a svelte triangle. “I’m mentally ill,” I said.
“What kind of music do you play?” This shook me. It’s only my face, I told myself, or my messy hair or my hollow eyes.
“I’m a restaurant chef.”
“Nearest restaurant’s thirty miles.”
“In Venice, California.”
“Are there foods that stop you from feeling emotions?”
“Which emotion is the problem?”
“Sadness, and happiness.”
“Well, I’m just the sous-chef, you know.”
I was starting to enjoy myself. She gestured down toward the ranchers, three of them in overalls and hats, all ogling her. “Could you kick their ass?”
“What did they do to you?”
“Stare when I’m flirting with guys.”
Musical ignorance, I told myself, because I needed not to like any girls now; favorite band probably Led Zeppelin; hillbilly twang. The chaos I sensed in her blood when she squeezed my hand.
“So you’ll do it?”
“What’s your name?”
“Haley, you misogynist,” she said, which cracked me up.
“I’m James,” I said, wondering about my last name.
“Feel like a tequila, James?”
“I think I do.” I bought us two shots.
“Welcome to hell,” she toasted.
“Is that a warning?”
“You’ve seen this place.”
I nodded yes, I had.
“Why else am I an alcoholic?”
“I drink a lot too,” I told her, glad to hear that she was one.
“Yeah, where have you been all my life?”
I admit it, the word depraved rose to mind when I heard myself say “Looking for you.” I swatted it away with another shot of alcohol. I was having too good a time. We got to talking about drunk jags we’d been on. I told about blacking out in the U-Bahn, and she told about blacking out in Denton, Texas. She said she wanted to die like Whitney Houston. “Gram Parsons,” I countered, carelessly naming a singer Pitchfork had compared me to. But nothing came of that.
We kissed to catcalls, scooted tables out of the way to dance. “Cheers, mofos,” I called out to the ranchers as we maneuvered around to a country tune.
As I spun Haley, I heard someone say, “Twenty K per tusk.”
I fell out of rhythm. “Pardon?” I said to a red-haired fellow in overalls.
“Pardon who?” he replied, as I steadied myself.
“You said twenty K per tusk.”
“I was discussing my job.”
“What line of work?”
“Know James, in the Shadwell place?
“He in the ivory trade?”
“I’m only saying yes cause you’ll black it out.”
“I’ll do no such thing,” I said, wishing Aisling would yell at this man on my behalf. I turned around to speak to her. Seeing Haley instead overwhelmed my brain in a sort of power surge. One of our LPs, Lumber, treats the subject of blackouts, mainly what you realize during them and then forget. The lyrics are pure fiction, since they’re about blackouts. We must have kept on talking. I caught little glimpses, which I still possess, like Haley whispering in the red-headed man’s ear. Looking for my bandmates, I wandered away. The bar was shaped like one in Portugal, in Porto, where we’d played Primavera Sound. It seemed to me I was back there again. “Eu gostaria de uma cerveja,” I said, and then it faded away and I awoke naked on a carpet rug.
Haley was asleep beside me. “Hey,” I said, poking her.
She awoke, snuggled against me. “Hey, cowboy.”
“I’m scared to move,” I said, referring to my hangover, but it was a deeper dread, one I could have described only by playing music.
“As you should be.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You live in the Shadwell place.”
“I don’t live in Texas.”
“This is Arkansas.”
“Whatever it is.”
“Haley, who are the Shadwells?
“Well, James, they’re teenage folk singers who murdered their parents and blamed it on slaves’ ghosts.”
So these Shadwells were in prison, I thought, where they fell in with some chick who conned them out of their home, got paroled, then met her match in Ike Senior.
“Maybe an elephant told them to,” I said.
“It was years before those elephants.”
I was thinking I might ask her if she could hear Gracie talking, but then her phone rang. She sat up and looked at the caller ID.
“My husband will kill you,” she said.
A memory flickered and went dark again as she reached for my guitar. Lifting it like a weight, she raised her eyebrows at me.
“Must belong to the Shadwells,” I said.
“Say why you’re lying, and I’ll sing one of my songs.”
“Are you a songwriter?”
“Frank owns this house, is the funny thing.”
“Haley, what songs?”
“The songs I write,” she said, beginning to strum. “I finished this one last week. It’s called Three Days Thirty Years Ago.”
In a rich, sultry contralto Haley sang about a boy who’d strolled the lavender rows with her in the South of France. He had woven flowers into her hair, long ago in a place called the Luberon Valley. That was where she yearned to be, not Texas, but strolling the poppy fields in Provence. The song soothed me into a lull, so that it startled me when Haley held out the guitar and said, “Now one of yours.”
I took the instrument, held it awkwardly as if I didn’t know what to do with it. “I’m a chef, remember?”
“My husband met your dad in prison.”
“Who’s this husband?” I asked, startled into another memory. It vanished when Haley’s phone rang yet again.
This time she answered. I heard a man’s dull monotone but none of his words.
“Okay,” she said, gesturing toward my guitar.
I shook my head no. She signaled again. I said no a third time.
“I won’t be long,” she told the phone then, as if my choice determined hers.
She hung up, got dressed. “Wish I could play,” I said.
“Call me when you’ve learned how.”
I followed her out to where a blue Corvette was parked by my father’s truck. I didn’t remember that car at all. She kissed me bye. As she drove away, I wanted to chase her down and shout the truth, so she would leave her husband and come write songs with me in another country, but I just stood there watching her disappear.
Alone, I wandered the house until I found Ike Senior asleep on a chaise longue. Clara wasn’t around. Absurd to feel lonely after just two minutes. I sat down at a desk, where I came up with some lies that I put down in a letter to my bandmates. Then I burned the letter. By now I was in a sorry state. Bile was swimming in my stomach from the hangover, and I wasn’t cut out for being disliked. Maybe my guitar would cheer me up. I carried it to the porch. Sitting in the bentwood rocker, I played Barnacle, song by song, until Gracie the elephant came shuffling up to the fence.
She didn’t stop there, however. She waltzed right on into my head to tell me my songs were ugly.
“What?” I replied, although I’d heard her: the songs that comprised Barnacle were chintzy and fake. They were overwrought and shrill and tasteless, she said, using words that once again belonged to no human language. If she’d been human, these are just the words she would have used.
Which parts? I asked.
She didn’t answer.
Gracie, say which parts.
All the parts.
Thinking we could understand each other better if I came closer, I carried my guitar downhill and sat on a log in her shade. “Why are you here?” I asked.
I seek peace, Gracie replied in my mind.
With her trunk she lifted some grass into her mouth. “This is peaceful,” I said.
It was until you arrived, she told me. You keep screaming for questions.
The last person I wanted those questions from was a feeble, abused old-woman elephant. “Hey, I’m good now. Let’s talk about you.”
Okay, let’s do, she said, still speaking in feelings rather than words.
She began to tell me about a two-bit circus that assembled in Kmart parking lots around the south. The brute Melungeon who ran it, Scoopy Bunn, had beat her daily with a prod. I’d never heard of Melungeons, so I knew Gracie was the one conveying Scoopy to me, but I hadn’t brought a pen. The only way to remember was to put her story to a melody, and convert her nonwords into lyrics.
My lingering dread over Aisling subsided as I sat there rhyming about the Florida midway where Gracie had longed for Lake Malawi. As I played guitar, she spoke in hints and thoughts that became my lyrics. I sang about her déjà vu and her dead brothers and the malarial swamp at water’s edge where she had fallen in love. No wonder Clara grew maudlin, I thought, shepherding Gracie’s inklings together in paired melodies. Already I could see her as the nucleus of a new song cycle. I wondered how I would record the songs. Elephants held captive in an alien land whose dullards still mourned the Civil War. Elephants who never blacked out drunk, a thought that before I knew it had me reliving the car wreck.
Suddenly the ground was trembling. I broke off from playing guitar to see that Gracie was turning from me.
“Wait, she was dead already,” I said, “I didn’t leave her to die,” but it was too late, she was waddling away.
I climbed the hill to the porch again. I felt pretty awful, but after a few shots of whiskey I told myself fuck it, and scribbled what I recalled of the new songs. I heard you thumping for me in another country, went the first line of a mournful number about Gracie’s homeland, where her depraved mother had rendered her undead. She never forgot that. Infinite life, finite storage space in the brain. One day in the Middle Ages, her brain reached capacity. After that, forming memories caused her pain.
I plucked an ugly tune about this, shouting its words until my throat was raw. Ike Senior came outside. “You’ll shred your vocal cords,” he said, sitting down next to me.
“Least of my worries,” I said, baiting him to inquire about others.
“You were speaking to Gracie.”
“I was sort of meditating.”
“Hear of that family in Siberia, only learned yesterday about World War Two?”
“I guess you’ll study their technique?”
“Well, it’s harder these days. Use to be, you just crossed the state line.”
“I need a new passport,” I said, thinking he would be curious to hear why.
“Under the bed you slept in, there’s a shoebox.”
When I stood to go fetch it, he laughed. “What’s funny?”
“You are. Think we’re in a spy movie?”
“Fuck you,” I said, but went to look anyway. I really did need a passport. And there really was a shoebox, but it held only slide photographs from decades ago.
Holding them up to the light, I saw no Shadwell sisters, no people, either, only calico cats. Dozens were sunbathing on the porch of that house where we were hiding. Thirty in one picture. I couldn’t help feeling some calamity had wiped them out, or they’d fled en masse from the same energy feeding into my new songs.
I lay down to write. Drinking, I puzzled out a refrain, a sort of theme. It’s good Ike Senior doesn’t care about me, I thought; this way I can focus. I jotted down titles. Hannibal, about elephants in war. Elegy, about elephants mourning. Logic Train, about intelligence. The lyrics came as fast as I could write them down. I’d tapped a vein, I could feel the songs surging with a voltage I’d never harnessed. The yearning was pitched not toward gauzy maudlin people but toward real people. If I could record and mix these somehow, I thought, and send the CD off in a predated package, I could die in a disaster of my own.
Night had fallen by the time I heard a familiar rhythm through the wall that I couldn’t quite place. There was muffled talk, too, so I laid down my guitar and went to the kitchen. I found my father and Clara playing poker with three strangers.
“You’re in time to buy in,” said Ike Senior.
“James’s kid,” said Clara, as it struck me: they were listening to the trumpet solo of my latest single, “Empty Harbor.”
“Fifty bucks, James’s kid,” said the beefy redhead to my father’s left, who looked familiar.
My pulse at cocaine tempo, I sat down between the other two men and laid down fifty dollars. My father gave me a set of chips. The song’s climax about lying drunk girls crescendoed into my vow to drown in Pacific water, and then damned if “Denouement” didn’t come on, final track of the album.
“Who put this on?” I asked.
“Mack,” said Ike Senior, pointing to the bearded professor type to my right.
“My girlfriend downloads stuff,” said Mack.
“Porn,” said the redhead, and the black guy to my left guffawed as if it was funny. I had never seen him before, but I had met the redhead at the bar. Frank was his name. And the table had expanded — the sort of unreal detail that jars you awake from nightmares, except there was only a leaf in the table.
“Singer sounds cute,” said Clara.
“Something less gay would be nice,” said the black guy.
Ike Senior reached back to the dial of what I saw was a satellite radio. My dirge about the feral child Kaspar Hauser gave way to Merle Haggard.
I calmed down. Mack dealt me a pair of kings. “Dollar,” said my father.
Everyone pushed a white chip into the pot but Clara, who stood and turned the dial back to my song. “I folded so I could put this back on,” she explained.
It occurred to me they would think it a tell, how my thumping heart made my shirt flutter as in a breeze, but I didn’t care about my kings. Not even with a flop of king five four. Sirius XM won’t play you twice in a row without a reason to. This is the end, I thought, placing a bet only in order to look normal. It got raised and matched until the pot held $75. For the turn Mack produced another five, giving me a full house. Meanwhile “Denouement” had reached its unsubtle pinnacle. I squeezed the table leg and kept matching the outrageous bets.
The river came: another five.
“All in,” said Ike Senior.
“See you,” I said, pushing my chips in. The song was about to end, and with it my freedom. You didn’t have to know Ike Senior well to see he would bluff his fortune away, swindle his lover, give up his son all in a day’s work. But then the music stopped and the deejay said nothing, and Ike Senior laid down a nine-five off-suit.
“You know how a Dolly Parton works,” he said, raking in his winnings.
Clara unplugged a phone from the stereo, and Merle Haggard came back on.
In my relief I drank more. It goes without saying that I’d been drinking all day. I bought back in for fifty dollars. No one knows what I’ve been thinking, I told myself, not even Gracie. The wall had blocked her, and she wasn’t real. None of this seemed real. Aisling had never been alive.
I’m rich, I can afford lawyers, I was thinking when I heard the word ivory, and turned to hear Mack whisper to Frank, “…a million, in dollars.”
“As opposed to what?” said Frank, which was when I recalled Haley referring to a husband by that name.
“Yen, retard,” said Mack.
The ivory markets, I thought with alarm.
I tried to meet Clara’s eyes, but somehow she wasn’t at the table.
“Is there something to eat?” I said, because I needed to sober up.
“Tired of eating my friend’s wife?” said Mack.
“In my home, my son eats who he wants,” said Ike Senior.
“Give me a second,” I told them, standing up.
“Take all the time in the world.”
I walked to the refrigerator, found it empty. Behind me the men were laughing. The game had stopped; they were just sitting there scheming. I needed to figure this out. Was it for the smooth running of a con that Frank had let me borrow his wife? Protect Gracie, I thought, but I’d known her only two days. Look at the girl I’d loved for years.
Truth was, I’d have struck Gracie dead along with every elephant if it would have brought Aisling back.
It occurred to me to put this in one of my songs, specify in the liner notes that a fraction of profits would go to the sanctuary.
I went looking for my notepad. Along the way, I got lost, because I awoke in daylight with the words 1st blackout written on my hand. First blackout, I lay thinking, awaiting the headache. This latest one might have been my thousandth or five thousandth, but I recalled one thing, the tusks. Frank and Mack had mentioned ivory. What I didn’t recall was who Frank and Mack were or why they knew my songs. If they’d seen the Porsche. If I’d forged any plan.
In hope of dredging up useful memories, I thought back to my first blackout, on New Year’s Day, 2000.
On New Year’s Eve, 1999, Ike Senior had arrived in Port Arthur after some years absent and announced he was kidnapping me. “If I’ve been praying for it, that’s not the verb,” my mother replied, so it came to pass that my namesake drove me across cypress swamps and oil fields to New Orleans where he said, “A whiskey before the end of the world?”
To shake my head no set bargaining in motion: you choose the label, you keep the change, we’ll sit by the river — except my long-lost father gestured not to a river but to a steep, grassy hill that rose twice my height above our dry position. As if it took no effort to fool a twelve-year-old. As if you could do it in your sleep. So I couldn’t help retorting, “That’s a hill, you sorry bastard, there’s no river.”
Ike Senior looked older to me then than he did twelve years later on the elephant farm. He aged years before my eyes, this man I self-consciously believed had broken my heart. “I’ve lied a few times, but give a sorry bastard a last chance.”
Chanting fuck fuck fuck fuck to staunch my hemorrhage of sympathy, I followed my father upslope. Let’s get this chance over with, I was thinking as we crested the grassy hill to behold a sea lapping at a shore higher than the city.
“Gasp away,” he said, earning several more years of my trust. Forever after, if I saw the French Quarter in photographs, my shame rose to that hundred-year floodplain where I’d apologized for hours on end. “Don’t dwell on it,” he kept telling me that night, which didn’t reassure me until my first sip of Jim Beam. Then suddenly it felt like the sun was bursting into the night to pour energy into me. It made Ike Senior happy, I saw as much, because we were feeling it together. Years later I would tell Spin I’d found my tribe at 11:59 that night, when a beautiful song I’d never heard beckoned from a bar and he said, “Neil Young.”
Fireworks exploded above us. “Who’ll be the first chick to suck my cock in the year 2000?” shouted a man in the crowd.
“Tawdry ending to the century,” remarked Ike Senior, a statement around which I would build an EP a decade later. We began the new century on a terrace of the Margaritaville Café. “If this were a film,” he said, “I’d take you to meet the whores.”
“Huh?” I asked, as he poured bourbon in our Cokes.
“One of those flicks where the old man calls his kid ‘Kid.’”
I felt a thrill at this open maw of uncharted country, but I was afraid.
“The father wants to help his son come of age, but the son starts hating him. Father shown to be a failure.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t the whores worry it’s a sting?”
“Oh,” I said, imagining myself drunk the next day, drunk through high school. If the whores didn’t worry, it was because they were drunk.
“Has your mother said what I do?”
“You’re a con man,” I whispered.
“Folks can’t hear you.”
“You’re a con man,” I said a little louder, still afraid of him, trying to lock eyes with any wasted stranger.
“No one but you knows it.”
“She guessed it. To you, I’m admitting it.” And just like that, he drew me in. “Who else can I trust? No one, that’s who else. And I’ll tell you what, Junior, not an hour goes by when I don’t think about you. I’ve missed you so much.”
Tears sprang to his eyes. How could I have judged them to be false, when after years away he sat before me weeping from both eyes.
“I want to live with you,” I said.
“There’s stuff to learn.”
“I’ll learn it.”
“I don’t want you becoming a mark.”
“Teach me,” I said, and he began to. As he instructed me in spotting marks, I buzzed with pride. My vision was tilting to one side. Although I didn’t know it, my brain had ceased making new memories. Did I like girls? Did I like penthouse suites and poker? Yes, yes, and yes, but before we could enjoy those things, I awoke at sunrise on the levee slope, with trash strewn around me.
My father stood over me with a brown paper bag. “Feel like a doughnut?”
I took one. I could smell bilgewater, and feel shadow memories lurking in my pounding head as I leaned to puke.
He tossed the bag down. “It’s been fun,” he said, “but we’d best head home.”
“Yeah, I’ve had fun,” I replied, standing up, and out of shame or stubbornness I’d been saying similar things ever since. If someone had been around to tell it to that morning after the poker game, I’d have said it again.
Licking a finger to scrub First blackout off my hand, I went and found my father snoring in a trundle bed. It was a relief that he was alone. After all, what would I have said to Clara? Hide your elephants?
I would have broken her heart, I thought, wandering out into a windy, cold day. Gracie stood by the fence, eating some clover. I walked down to her.
“We need to get you out of here,” I said.
What’s it to you? she seemed to ask, raising her head.
“You’re in a lot of danger.”
So are all elephants, she said.
My dad cheats people and lies.
Maybe I cheat and lie too.
For a moment I was shaken by déjà vu. My next album’s about you, I told her, at which point the tenor shifted in our exchange.
All along she had communicated without words, but now she conveyed no feelings either. She just put up a shield so my feelings would bounce back at me, like my concern that was driven only by my new songs, and my desire to cancel out bad deeds with good ones. “No, it’s not like that,” I said, fiddling nervously in my pockets. I felt a cell phone there, not my own.
I looked in its music library. Both my albums were there.
“Listen,” I said, cuing “Four-Leaf Cover,” because I needed Gracie to perceive the sadness I felt about other people’s pain. Ugly or no, the song will demonstrate it, I thought until a calliope horn sounded, redolent of circus sleaze.
Who was worse to an elephant: a killer of young women or a child who begged to see the circus? I skipped to the next track, “Mom.” “She killed herself,” I said to explain the ugliness of “Mom.” Gracie was still plucking weeds. Who fucking cares? she seemed to be asking, until I recalled that she’d heard me play it already, on the porch.
Then it hit me: she recalled it today because she would recall it forever.
By playing it, I wasn’t just making Gracie like me, I was stashing my catalogue in elephant memory.
I’ve always believed life has no value if no one will remember you in a hundred years. Until now, though, I had been thinking only in terms of people. Now I saw that Gracie was my portal into eternity: if elephants survived, elephants would remember me. So I knew I had to level with her, if I wanted to get on top of my story.
Already I’d confessed by accident, via fleeting thoughts, so it shouldn’t be hard. I sucked in air, steeling myself. “Last week it was ninety-five in Austin,” I said, delivering words at a small fraction of the traveling speed of memories. “The air was humid, sultry, maybe Africa feels that way?”
Gracie was pretending not to be bothered, but I could see her listening. “All day we drank on the rooftop deck of this shabby marina bar,” I said to her. “Billy, our bassist, was afraid we’d get too plastered for the show, and Aisling told him, ‘Don’t be a gaywad, I’ll find us cocaine.’”
Like everyone she’d ever taunted, Billy folded to Aisling’s demand. That’s the kind of girl she was, I explained to Gracie. We toasted and drank. In that winter heat we were matched to our time and place, said Ren, the guitarist. I agreed. We improvised a song about it and sang it with some ranchers who’d driven from Uvalde. In the distance the Austin skyline poked above the juniper like little filaments of wire. I had probably read that description in a book, but I put it in the lyrics just to show off. “You have a gift,” said one of the ranchers. I nodded, smiling. Hearing I had a gift was why I wrote songs. I loved for people to think of me a genius, gambling ever more carelessly with my life. It turned me on to imagine dying young. By sound check we could barely walk. In the nick of time, though, Aisling came through as promised, and what a show: our shirts off for hours of noise and love that the crowd really felt for us; it wasn’t the drug tricking us into believing it. Girls loved us, boys did too, and a few of them invited us afterward to a mansion on a cliff above the foam-green Colorado.
As meticulously as I could, I pieced through that night: Aisling disappearing, some girls leading me into a vanishing pool where we stripped and swam and made out until one said, “You two kiss” and I turned to see Billy there. Gaywad, I thought, guiding his head in with my palm. I made love to his tongue with mine. Was he weeping or only wet? He seemed to like it in any case. I help people, I thought as I hoovered up another line. The girls’ skin gleamed in reflected moonlight. The moon had risen over foliage so Californian that I decided we were back home on the west coast.
As I dried off, a man with faraway hillbilly eyes and a liter of gin said, “I’d like to book you for South by Southwest.”
“If you’ll give me some gin.”
“This is filtered water.”
“It says gin right there.”
“Bar’s on the terrace.”
“Guess we’ll play Coachella instead,” I said, exulting at my wit. I turned to recount the scene to the girls, but the pool was empty. So I wandered into the garage to find Aisling alone in the passenger seat of a Porsche 911 Carrera.
I got in beside her. The keys were in the ignition, turned to accessories, and “Lumber” was playing. I remember because she skipped over it with a jab of her finger. Why, was it a weak song? “It’s weak because it’s about you,” I said, and so on until she called me a con artist like my no-good dad.
I couldn’t help it, I turned the engine and gunned the car in reverse, sending the garage door crumpling off its runners.
We went screeching backward down a steep driveway. “Cheaper ways to jerk off, pissy-pants,” said Aisling.
“I’m wet ’cause I was swimming with two girls.”
“Same name, same acorn, same tree,” she said, as I spun us around toward a far cluster of city lights. I think she was too busy mocking me to buckle her seatbelt. My songs were plagiarized, my cock was small, I would never feel real love. Over her drivel I couldn’t think which way led back to Sunset Boulevard. At a split I veered abruptly downhill. Her stomach must have fallen out, because she shut up.
“I don’t think this is the way,” she said.
“Depends where you’re going.”
“This goes nowhere.”
Never would I have asked my fiancée the way to somewhere, but damned if a TomTom didn’t power up and advise, “Left turn, mate,” in a congenial Cockney accent.
“Follow directions,” said Aisling with the force of a gavel strike, leaning in to push the wheel left with all her might. We went spinning off the road shoulder. The car skidded across talus until the ground fell away and we were sailing into space. Ahead of us a cantilever bridge spanned a wide, moonlit river. I had never seen this section of Los Angeles. Aisling howled. Was she upset? “We’re only having a wreck,” I said, before we hit the water.
There was more — climbing the hill, hitching a ride on Capital of Texas Highway — but I trailed off. Two of Gracie’s friends had appeared on the hilltop. The phone was playing the album’s closer, “Turgenev.” I imagined the other elephants were too far to hear me croon a vow to commit Ike Senior’s same crimes if it earned his respect in heaven, but Gracie heard. She studied me like her own eye in the mirror.
“Like I told you, I didn’t leave her for dead,” I said, feeling sort of desperate now for Gracie’s forgiveness. Before she could give it or deny it, my song faded into a ring.
I answered. “James,” said a woman the device named as Franklin Pierce. It took me a minute to figure out why she sounded familiar.
“Yep,” I answered, meaning I was my father.
“Where are you?”
“By the elephant fence.”
“And the others?”
It was Haley, I realized. She believed I was Ike Senior.
“They’re on their way.”
“James, stay inside while this happens.”
“Sure, Franklin Pierce.”
“Wait until it’s all over.”
“I’ll sit playing solitaire.”
“I’ve enjoyed getting to know you,” she said, sounding on the verge of tears.
She hung up. When I called back, the phone gave a busy-circuits signal.
What Haley wanted, I realized, was for my father to stay in the house while she and Frank harvested ivory.
I’d been seeing evidence for days now: they would shoot the elephants, saw off their tusks, and sell them on the black market. It would happen in thirty minutes, I thought, as Gracie languished in the mud, reading my mind as indifferently as ever. It struck me what a tiny fraction of her mass her tusks comprised. It was the same with oysters and pearls, men and their gold teeth.
And then it came to me: I had it backwards, this elephant hated all human beings equally. We were torturers who had put her in a cage alone for forty years. Most elephants were dead because people had killed them. In fifty years they would all be gone. What did Gracie care if I had killed a girl?
She was glad I’d killed a girl. It was one less human.
I’d known something was wrong with Haley from the moment I saw her, I told myself as I hurried uphill. If I’d wished to live with Haley in another country, half of me was bad like her. It was time to let that half die, and save Gracie whether or not she wanted it, I thought, spacing the words to match the pounding beat in my head as I climbed to the house.
Alone on the porch, I scrolled through the phone contacts looking for Elephant Sanctuary, then Sanctuary. No luck. Clara wasn’t listed either. I hit redial and got another busy-circuits signal. I paused for a drink. Pouring, I spotted a copy of the New York Times lying open to a picture of me, Ike Bright, Jr., in tuxedo and boutonnière.
In the picture I had fallen over backward in the sand in a beach chair. Beside me, Aisling, in a bikini and ball cap, was tying my shoelaces together.
I stared down at the caption until I could read a single word, gold. Then immediately I flung the paper out of sight so fast that a number of possibilities remained.
The lead investigator in my case was named Gold. My bounty was to be paid to Aisling’s father in gold. In the wake of my new notoriety, my records had gone gold. I had misread manslaughter and mistaken it for gold.
“Catching up on the news?” said Ike Senior behind me, causing me to drop the bottle. It crashed with a thud on the porch floor and spilled.
“I’m telling Clara your elephant plan,” I said.
“My plan to give them my money?”
“To sell Gracie’s tusks.”
“That was a ruse, to test how evil you find me.”
“Then it’s a redundant ruse,” I said.
“I was hoping we had a future.”
“You and me both, Dad.”
“But you believe I would hurt those elephants.”
“Fool me twice,” I said, pulling out the phone.
“I’ve fooled you more than twice, Junior.”
I could hear an engine approaching. We both turned to see a police car pull up in the ditch. A black man in a fedora got out, the poker player from before.
“Am I interrupting?” he said as he strode toward us.
“What’s this about?” said Ike Senior.
“You’re harboring a murder suspect, old man.”
Here’s what I thought, just for a minute: that this cop would earn a bounty from Aisling’s father by betraying mine and giving me over to the state of Texas. My dad had trusted everyone, even me. In a pinpoint storm’s eye I felt glad to know that Ike Senior wasn’t betraying Clara. But then his inscrutable grin never diminished as the policeman climbed the stairs. It seemed to me Ike Senior should stop grinning. Before I knew why he didn’t, the cop was handcuffing me to the porch railing.
“You can’t do this,” I said, still expecting my father’s smile to wane.
“Turn yourself in, file a complaint,” he said, taking the phone out of my other hand.
“How much money?” I said, still believing that the money was because of me.
“News will tell you a thousand per pound for ivory,” said Ike Senior, “as if there’s just one black market in the world. In Beijing you’ll fetch close to two thousand.”
It hit me, all of a sudden, how dimwitted I’d been to assume there was a bounty. In three days people haven’t survived their first stage of grief, let alone set bounties.
“You’re monsters,” I said.
“My buddy wanted to let you help,” Ike Senior said, “but I told him what you’re like. You’re as bad as that animal-rights activist you brought home yesterday morning.”
“Gracie, charge,” I shouted, aloud and in my head, screeching like I did in the songs Gracie hated so much.
“He believes Gracie talks to him,” said my father.
“She does,” I said. “She’s smarter than we are.”
“That night in New Orleans? I taught you how not to be a mark.”
“I blacked it out. What you taught me is to be a drunk.”
“You drink too much, that’s for sure.”
“Why are you doing it?” I asked, but I knew. Because he was good at it. Because of adrenaline. Because of alcohol. He had a lot of nerve, telling me I drink too much.
“They’re old and sick,” he said. “If you never forgot things, wouldn’t you want to die?”
“You said they’re like people.”
“People, elephants, I roll this way with all animals. Hey, it’s in the blood. You think I didn’t know all along why you’re here?”
“Why am I here?”
“I’ve done stuff in my day, Junior, but leaving her to die? That was low.”
As my father stepped down from the porch, I was speechless, but only in my voice. Not in my head. Flee, I shouted to Gracie in my head as Ike Senior led his buddy toward the garage. Charge the fence, tell your friends, except she wasn’t answering me anymore.
My father and his partner emerged with two automatic rifles apiece and crossed into the elephant sanctuary. They disappeared over the rise. I was working my handcuff down the railing. When it was low enough for me to kneel, I leaned forward and caught my breath. Now I could relax a little. It was during that spell of calm that I came up with my final song, which never made it onto the album. I didn’t get a chance to write it down. It’s about regular elephants, not vampires. It takes place fifty years from now, in the year 2063. In it, the computers of 2063 learn to decipher the part of elephant speech that’s too low for human ears. Although elephants are extinct by then, videos of them remain online. In my last song the citizens of my future play elephant videos one by one, as their computers translate, and it’s like finding ten thousand Anne Frank diaries; the people weep over those staggering words and say, “We wouldn’t have let that happen.” The African videos are bad enough, with their desperate cries while gunmen mow down elephants from helicopters, but the worst come from the sanctuary, where every old lady brings to the watering hole her own history of exquisite torture, and compares notes with the other cows, puzzling out what’s next.
I succumb to something like postpartum depression after writing a good song, but in that moment, listening for the first gunshot, it felt nice to finish one. I heard the distant wail of another siren. No, no, no, I thought, because as awful as Gracie’s fate was, I had quit feeling sorry for myself. It faded, the siren. For a few seconds before it picked up again, I felt proud of not screwing up. I would remain free. If Ike Senior was dealing in ivory, he could smuggle me across the border with my songs. No one would steal the songs, not that I’d guessed yet that anyone would try. I was in luck. I supposed it derived from my having inherited my father’s inscrutable poker face, which girls called enigmatic. Most of them couldn’t get enough of it. Not just girls, but critics, too. Critics sought my answers, trusted that they were full of subtext. Comment on the metaphorical structures in your songs, the critics would say to me, and I would reply, “There aren’t any.”