Thursday, October 30, 2008

Urban Elephants

Blogger's Note: "Urban Elephants" is a story I wrote many years ago, when my then-girlfriend (now my wife) challenged me to write a story with elephants in it. I think it turned out well. I thought it was lost until I started sorting through some old CD files a few weeks ago. Maybe it should have stayed lost. But I kinda like it.

Samantha and Robert often play in the alley behind their house. They scoot the alley gravel aside where it’s loose to make roads for their cars. Sometimes they toss a red and white ball back and forth, or bounce it off their back stoop. Whatever they play, they play quietly and most of the time alone, as their friends couldn’t come out. Their regular jump rope partner Judith has a broken leg plastered up in a bulky cast that won’t be sawed off for another three weeks. Their hide-and-seek counting pro Cecil is at the children's hospital where he'd have to stay until his injuries healed. Amber, their most expert hider and Emily, their most persistent finder are both in Victorville living with their aunt and uncle where the sun and sea air would help heal their broken collarbones. The last can they kicked for Kick the Can caused a ruckus when it clattered between the McClaskey's steel garbage cans. Their neighbor, Old Mrs. Swisher, took in from them only because three young Elephants charged wildly out of the alley onto Fourth Street in their fright at the noise, smashing into Mrs. Swisher's car.

The front yard, fenced high with stout poles and chain link, devoid of flowers and littered with tin cans and a random bone, is forbidden. That’s where the Elephants “get you,” the adults say. The beasts use each front yard on the street as garbage cans, taunting the homeowners to build higher fences as they chew on leaves and branches and every bit of green their trunks can reach. Samantha got caught only once in the front yard, and even though there were no Elephants in sight she got a stern lecture. You're a dreamer, Sam. I see you wander through the house and through the back yard, humming your funny little tunes. You don't pay attention,” her mother said. “And Robert follows you around like a disciple. I don't want to look out that front window and see. . .”

“I know, mother,” Samantha said. “You don't want to see us being. . .”

“Squashed by the Urban Elephants,” they said together.

Samantha folded her arms over the picture she’d drawn: Mother, Robert and herself enjoying a picnic in the front yard free of fences and ablaze in flowers and butterflies. Neighbors wave from windows free from bars, dogs play Frisbee with boys in the street. She did not draw like Robert: great, hulking Elephants – one with a tiny boy perched on its back – smashing cars and perched on houses and the humans cower in their basements.

Something should be said about the Urban Elephants.

The Elephants hide and sleep in cozy dark places in yards, in parks, in garages and in abandoned buildings. When the first few appeared in the neighborhood, Samantha and Mother and most of their neighbors thought they were cute. A novelty. Mother would see one out the front window and call Samantha and Robert over as the creature ambled slowly down the street, stroking parked cars with its trunk, swatting playfully at barking dogs and occasionally stopping to browse on the cherry trees across the street from their house. Then there were two, and three. Mr. Benson gave up on his cherry trees but planted a garden of cabbages, carrots and turnips which he'd offer to the Elephants when they made their rounds. He fed them by hand; one munched as the others playfully snorkeled Mr. Benson's shirt sleeves and hair for their own juicy tidbidts. Once Samantha and Robert were splashing in their kiddie pool in the front yard when four Elephants arrived, nuzzled the children and sucked their pool dry with their dangling noses. Four became twelve, then two dozen, then close to fifty. Mr. Benson bought produce by the truckload from the farmer's market because if some of the older bulls and cows didn't get their share, they'd pull at the shutters on his house and yank leaves off his trees to chew as they waited for their daily morsel. The newer ones were strays, though there were some neighborhoods – like the blocks of houses between the state highway and Cleveland Street – that are favorite places for people looking to dump off their animals.

Some of the Elephants are wild and quite dangerous. They bat at packs of barking dogs until the poor creatures dart yammering through the streets and alleys as the herd thunders after them. They once poked and kicked a police cruiser with two policemen inside until the car was a wreck and the officers so weary with fear Samantha’s mother had to drive them to the station after the Elephants got bored and wandered off. When TV camera crews and the local newspaper reporter showed up the day three Elephants made a mud wallow in the Paredes’ vegetable garden, it took thirteen blasts of an air horn to scare the beasts off and a hook and ladder truck from the fire department to fish the reporters out of a cottonwood tree they’d climbed to avoid the Elephants’ aggressive noses.

The local herd lives in Kate Curley Park four blocks from Samatha’s home. They made mud wallows out of the ponds and smashed the brick bathrooms the city built only five years ago. They rip the leaves off the trees and stuff them into their smelly mouths and tore down the swing set to pile bones of deceased Elephants in its stead.

Boys made sport of dashing by the park on their bicycles. As the boys pedal furiously, the Elephants chase them up the gentle slope of Albion Road where the boys try to reach the slope that leads swiftly to Main Street. A few of the quicker and more intelligent boys made the journey once or twice a week, daring each other to try higher gears as they race away from the pack of Elephants trumpeting at their rear. A few of the dumber boys took them up on their dares and failed to make the summit of Albion. When the Elephants catch the boys – coiling their noses around their waists and lifting them off their bicycle seats – the more aggressive Elephants trample the bicycle to pieces while those with more scientific bents offer the captor trumpeted and grunted advice on where it should toss the boy, wriggling in the trunk and screaming as the other boys either raced off to hide or climbed trees to watch. As the beast prepared for its throw, all the Elephants – and even some adults peeking through curtains or stopped aghast in their cars – stop to watch as the boy flies through the air, hoping his landing will be soft.

Some of the Elephants are so sweet and gentle, the children dare ride them, though they do so when their parents aren't watching. You can stroke their toenails and scratch their hairy bellies with leaf rakes as they burble with pleasure. You can swing on their trunks and tails and hang two or three kids from their tusks. Some are tricksters, though. Bonnie once got an Elephant ride down Third Street but at the dead end the beast plucked her from its back with its serpent nose and tossed her nonchalantly over the Piquet's garage. Samantha had been there that day, part of a troop of cheering children clamoring for their own rides. Bonnie crawled stunned but uninjured from the Piquet’s compost pile and Samantha helped her home.

So the children learned to play in the alleys as adults fenced off their front yards to keep the pests out. Still, the alleys held their danger, as the Elephants weren’t shy in using them. Mostly the Elephants visited the alleys during the morning and evenings, when the sun wasn't so hot.

“Ought to drive the vermin out of the neighborhood,” Lucy Bean said at one of the countless meetings adults had on how to deal with the beasts. As Samantha’s mother – as host – served the coffee, Lucy explained again how she’d lost her blue-ribbon raspberry patch and four stands of rhubarb to the Elephants and how she was set – with pitchfork and garden hose – to lead a posse down to the park to drive the Elephants away.

“I kind of feel sorry for them,” said Jakob Olesen, who lived on the cul-de-sac near the vacant lot where the cow Elephants brought their calves to play. He still fed them – wheelbarrows filled with leftovers from his downtown fruit market served as feeders. “They’ve got the right as God’s creatures to live, same as you, Lucy.” The pair dominated the meeting with their arguments. Lucy left in a huff just before Samantha helped Mother serve the doughnuts.

But most everyone stayed away from the meetings, preferring to stay somewhere in the middle or do what they could to avoid any Elephant-related problems. The Bensons – who live at the bottom of the route the boys use to tease the Elephants – believe rubberizing their roof was as far as they would go in relieving the Elephant’s victims. The Quimbys fish so many children out of their pool they no longer hear the splashes.

“When we were little, we used to go the park,” Samantha said as she scooted gravel aside for Robert, who gleefully pushed his toy milk truck down the tiny road she’d made. “They had a sandbox there where all the kids in the neighborhood would build roads and cities and little parks with even littler roads in them. Sometimes we'd find tiny shells in the sand, and I'd put them all in the back of your dump truck and we'd take them home to show mother.”

“Shut up about that park, Samantha,” her mother grumbled as she hung their clothes out to dry. “I don't want you putting ideas in that kid's head, especially after last week when I caught him in the front yard holding out a handful of grass to that Elephant sticking its foul nose over the fence.” Mother went back inside the house with her laundry basket, leaving only the sound of Mrs. Swisher – whose backyard was opposite her own – trimming her garden hedge with a pair of rusty trimmers.

Mrs. Swisher gasped and let out a quiet shriek as a steel garbage can clattered down the alley and rolled to a stop against her potting shed. Samantha stood straight and still, shielded her eyes from the noon sun and scanned the alley as Robert cowered at her feet.

An Elephant.

Two. Three. “Six Robert, come here ” Samantha grabbed Robert by the arm and left his cars in the alley. They scuttled toward their back door as the herd of Elephants shuffled up the alley.

One older fellow had a mangled bicycle tire dangling from his left ivory. They ambled; knowing the alley was theirs. The lead Elephant grunted, looked casually at the children slowly backwards-marching in the yard and slowed the herd's pace. The Elephants sniffed at a telephone pole and scraped a few leaves off tree branches dangling in their way. They tossed more metal garbage cans and trumpeted at the clatter, then stomped on the plastic ones because they didn’t make enough noise when they were thrown. The leader's trunk batted an electrical wire, sending a chittering squirrel flying through the air. He marched to Mrs. Swisher's rain barrel, uncoiled his nose and drank. His nose dripped water and algae as it wandered into Samantha's yard as Samantha and Robert stood trembling on the back porch.

"Sam," Robert said.

"Shh! Don't move!" Samantha whispered.

The Elephant lurched and drenched the children with a trunk full of green rainwater. The herd grunted in approval as the leader, satisfied with his joke, led them from the alley. Tires squealed and horns honked on Third Street.

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