Fiction · 01/30/2013

What A Dead Elephant Weighs

Fifteen zoo animals got loose the Sunday that Tom died on the train tracks. His grandmother thought it was fitting, a metaphor for how her heart felt. Tom’s football coach also thought it was fitting, but because it represented the team the boy had been a part of — an unstoppable force. The escapees consisted of three lions, seven monkeys, a zebra, three pythons, and an elephant, and the accident was blamed on insufficient funding for transport cages used to move the animals to veterinary visits. The police department was stretched so thin trying to figure out how they had escaped, and had so much of its manpower dedicated to finding the animals, that it took them forty-five minutes to get to Tom’s body after it had been reported.

The high school held an assembly the next morning. First — their loss. Tomas Dale, a junior, valued member of the football team, and the only black student in school, though they didn’t say that last part directly. He would be missed by all who knew him. The principal assured the students that grief counselors would be available all week in the reading room behind the library, and that a memorial would be held Friday at dusk at the homecoming game, open for anyone in town to show support for Tom’s family, to honor his memory. A moment of silence, then the principal brought up the second issue — the animals.

“Just like this morning, any after-school walkers will be assigned to an existing bus route,” he said, straightening his glasses, “and we urge you to avoid outdoor activity at all cost until the animals are apprehended.” He also recommended double bagging kitchen trash and limiting the application of potent colognes. Neither tip had been expressly told to him by the police chief. He just happened to think they were good ideas.

Another of his good ideas, like changing the school mascot from the Glendale Indians to the more politically correct Glendale Lions the year before. Football players and cheerleaders lined the front rows of the auditorium, lions blazed across the chests of their uniforms in celebration of homecoming week, none acknowledging the irony as they learned how to protect themselves in case of an attack by an actual lion, or a python, or what to do if a zebra happened to gallop across their front yard.

“Please, don’t panic,” the principal said. “This is a time of loss, and we grieve together. However, we also cannot afford to let our guard down. Take this threat very seriously until the last escaped animal is found.”

Principal Aaronson moved to Glendale as a father and a freshman English teacher, followed by his wife, Lynn, and their four-year-old son Chris. They came all the way from the Bronx because the schools were better here, teachers’ salaries higher. They could have a yard, a big house. But Aaronson and Lynn had spent their entire lives in a diverse city, and the move didn’t come without some adjustments.

For example, at Chris’ first peewee football game, about five years after they’d moved. Lynn was taking pictures of Chris on the miniature football field in his maroon T-shirt with Francis & Son’s Auto Body written on the back. “Hey Lynn,” he said offhandedly, “did you notice — the whole team is white.” Not like he didn’t expect it, at least somewhat, but still a change from the majority black teams of his youth. A father sitting on the bleacher in front of him turned around.

“Don’t mean to eavesdrop,” the man chuckled, “but isn’t that why you moved here?” His tone was friendly, neighborly, lighthearted. And in a nutshell, Aaronson believed, that was the only problem with Glendale. Harmless racism, the kind that you let pass in conversation because it isn’t said with blatant malice, because it is easy to assume that the person is a well-meaning member of society, has kids, is a good parent. He’d heard the stereotype about Glendale before he moved — stereotyped for stereotyping, the townies like to joke — but he tried to ignore it. Everyone was so welcoming, had bent over backwards to include them in potlucks, block parties. And so Aaronson got promoted once, then again, eventually finding himself the principal of the high school. He became the rallying force of Lion pride, alongside the man who sat in front of him at the peewee football game, Coach Brown.

“Nice assembly,” Brown said as Aaronson left the stage. “I know that’ll really comfort the kids.” Brown shook his head, raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “We’ll find those animals. Can’t have an elephant running on the field and making plays for us on Friday, can we?” Always said with a wink, a neighborly nudge.

+

By 10 am, the Zebra had been spotted on a Cul de Sac near Elm Street, but ran away before it could be caught, and two of the monkeys, spider monkeys, had been found behind a dumpster in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. The monkeys weren’t trapped without a struggle, though, causing a scene weaving through cars in the lot, even attempting to get through the drive-through window to the surprise of the employees on the other side. But the police were eventually able to tranquilize them and get the dead weight of the monkeys into the back of a paddy wagon headed straight for the zoo.

The other animals proved harder to find. The elephant, whose size should have made it easy to spot, stayed hidden. And the lions, too — the situation was spiraling out of control, and right after the monkeys were found, they called in the national guard.

On the other side of town, Tom’s grandmother was attempting to identify the body of her grandson. Most of his face was still intact but a blue sheet had been draped over the top of his head, which no longer existed. Another blanket covered everything lower than his collar bone, legs mangled from the wheels of the train, blue veins burst and his whole lower body purple beneath lingering sheets of fresh pink from flesh stripped away. Tom’s grandmother, Lillian, took one look at his face, just his face between two blue blankets, and she knew that face was the only remaining part of him. She fell to her knees and did not speak for the next five days. Not to identify the body, not to ask the questions about his death — why was he at the train tracks? And even more important, why didn’t he move out of the way when he heard the train coming? — but instead Lillian just sat for days at the breakfast bar in her kitchen, staring out the window at the evacuated streets. The emptiness of it all made her feel like there’d been a nuclear holocaust, like she was the only person left on earth. Almost comforting.

Coach Brown had met Lillian once when he went with the kids to Tom’s house for a team pasta dinner. Teammates’ families hosted these dinners on a rotating basis before big games. Lillian didn’t like the other parents, or the other boys for that matter — she’d noticed the uncomfortable hush at games when Tom made his way across the field to the bench. But at Tom’s request she’d boiled up five boxes of linguini with four jars of sauce for the team dinner. It wasn’t enough though, so the Coach accompanied her back into the kitchen to boil up three more boxes.

“My boys sure can eat,” Coach had said, making conversation.

Lillian scoffed. “Your boys? When you let Tom play in a game, let me know. Then maybe you can call him your boy.” She shook her head as she salted the pot of water.

“What are you saying?”

“He can play as well as any boy on that team.” She turned to him, and her face rearranged into an emotion that might have been pity. “You really don’t know how you’re making him feel, do you?” Her voice quiet. She’d moved here with Tom for the same reasons Principal Aaronson had — good schools, the comfort of a quiet town. She felt it was time to settle down, grow roots, and have Tom feel at home somewhere.

Tom was at the head of the dining room table sticking out like a sore thumb. When they moved to Glendale he’d shaved his head to get rid of his cornrows, and he ran his hand over his baldness self-consciously as the other boys talked. He barely spoke — still learning the ins and outs of inside jokes, unraveling the boys’ sexual histories with girls at school, and sorting through the nicknames — Tugboat and Barnyard and Whopper. The names all embroidered on the back of their jerseys, a Glendale tradition. Tom had been dubbed Crispy, which Paul Brown, the captain of the team and son of the Coach, told his father was chosen for the way Lillian starched Tom’s uniforms. For the crisp lines in the fabric.

But it only took one too many comments — what’d Tom do, forget himself in the toaster? Dude, looking crisp today — to trace the name back to his skin. Tom sat at the head of the table at the team pasta dinner, and imagined himself as one of these frogs in his science classroom, the kind with transparent skin and its guts on display, floating alone in a tank.

“He’s new to the school,” Coach said, “He’s only been on the team two months. Give him time and he’ll move up the ranks.” This was the coach’s own truth. When he looked at the table, he saw progress — the first black student on the football team, and under his leadership no less. He looked at the table and was proud. He’ll play when he’s ready, he told himself. He’ll play when he is more integrated into the team.

“If you don’t see what you — what this town — you know, I think you must be absolutely blind,” Lillian said, interrupting herself. “I have half a mind to move us both right back out of here, so we can both keep our sanity.”

+

By Tuesday, the national guard had tranquilized all the smaller animals — the remaining five monkeys (all capuchins), the zebra, and even the two pythons, found in the Perkins’ flower garden behind an azalea bush brittle with fall. Mrs. Perkins found the snakes on her way to get the mail and nearly had a heart attack from the shock.

But the lions and the elephant were more difficult. They found one of the lions on the side of the highway and shot it with one tranquilizer gun, then another before it ran back into the brush. The tranquilizers they had on hand were too weak, and with the lives of so many on the line, the order was given — shoot to kill. Protect the citizens before the situation escalates even further.

The first death was the lion from the brush. Police rushed the roadside in full SWAT gear and found the lion crouched behind an oak tree, licking its leg where the tranquilizers had hit. All five officers let loose rounds from a distance of two-hundred feet, hitting the lion twenty-seven times. When they were sure that the lion was dead, it took all of them and a flatbed trailer to drag it back out to the highway. The body was heavier than they’d expected.

Somehow, a blurry, camera-phone image of the animal’s corpse, mangled with bullet wounds, mane matted with blood, made its way onto the internet. Within minutes it was a media sensation.GLENDALE COPS SHOOT ENDANGERED AFRICAN LION, front page across the country.

+

At the high school, Aaronson faced his own PR disaster. He called Coach Brown to his office. “What’s going on?” Coach asked. Aaronson gestured towards the chair opposite his desk and the coach took a seat.

“They’re considering suicide as a motive,” Aaronson said. “They think Tom might have killed himself.” He let the words weigh in the air.

“Tom — but he wouldn’t have done that,” the coach’s mind blanked, rewound to the last time he’d seen the boy. He’d put him in the game for a while, Sunday’s game, mostly to appease the grandmother. First time he’d put him on the field all season. Sure he’d fumbled, but it should have made him happy, being part of the team. They’d won the game. A boy doesn’t go and kill himself after his team wins a game.

“Yeah,” Aaronson said vaguely, “it’s just — they can’t prove it. So it’s just speculation now. No note, or anything like that. No witnesses. Could still have been an accident. Wrong place, wrong time and all that.” He didn’t sound convinced. But if it was a suicide, the implications — the stereotypes of Glendale would all be thrust in his face, would all have to be dealt with.

“Let’s just hope the investigation goes smoothly,” the coach said. “Tom just wouldn’t do that. I’m sure it’ll all be fine. He was part of the team.” Later that night, Paul, the coach’s son and the football captain, agreed with his father. Coach didn’t mention the possibility of suicide, just asked his son what he’d thought of Tom, how Tom had fit in.

“He was part of the team,” Paul said. Paul was watching the news, the images of shot animals flickering across the screen. One more lion, and the elephant. The elephant had been killed half a mile from the train tracks where Tom’s body had been found. “Crispy was ok,” Paul said, “but you know, he was part of the team, but it didn’t seem like he wanted to fit in, really.” Image of the elephant, one eye towards the sky. They had to cut down two trees to be able to get a truck in close enough to move the corpse. “And he took it really hard Sunday at that game, when he messed up the play. Didn’t stay after to celebrate the win.” Paul shook his head, tightened the corners of his mouth. Distracted by the news story, Paul moved to the ottoman. “God, that elephant must have been heavy.” Perched on the edge of the seat, eyes feet from the TV. Entranced by newest coverage showing the crane they’d used to lift the carcass of the elephant onto the flat-bed, its body turning silently in the air with grey skin bulging between the black straps, trunk limp and pointed towards the ground.

“We would like to assure the residents of Glendale that the elephant is no longer a threat. We are very close to being able to put all of this behind us, moving back towards normality. But until that final lion is caught, please stay indoors when possible,” said the police chief at the televised press conference. He takes another question from the press. With an animal so big, why did it take so long to find? “Well yes, we do think it’s strange that the elephant managed to hide so well.” Of all the animals, he continues, the elephant was the only one that hadn’t been seen before it was apprehended.

But he was wrong. It had been seen since its escape, just once.

+

Sunday late afternoon by the train tracks the world was quiet. Fall but the leaves hadn’t dropped yet, so even Tom’s footsteps were silent, rubber sneaker soles on dirt. His football helmet tucked under his arm. The world is painted translucent orange, Tom thought. Looked like the whole world was on fire, the orange leaves, and the dying grass, and the sunset. He stood on the metal tracks, balancing, bearing the weight on the arches of his feet. Somehow this orange world comforted him. He could imagine the trees ablaze — it wasn’t hard to picture. It was unseasonably warm and he could almost feel that heat, the heat off flames, pores tightening, skin of his face pulled tight. Crispy, he thought. He’d actually earn his nickname. He wishes he could feel that now, that he could lay on the dirt and soak all that fire in.

This is what he is thinking about when he sees the elephant.

The animals escaped only an hour before, and he hadn’t heard about it before he’d run to the tracks after the game. Like a dream the elephant came towards him, its rough wrinkled skin close enough to inspect. He could see every rough spot, every callous. An elephant, an elephant — swathed in orange, then red, as the sun went down. Its eye is as large as his entire head, he thinks. Its tusks were yellowed, broken on the left side, the flat edge of ivory like a tree stump left jagged by lightning. Tom had gone to the train tracks to think, but now he cannot think.

He feels the train before he hears it. The elephant turns to move back into the woods bordering the tracks, away from the sound, but Tom turns to face the train. His mind is still. He really is crazy, he thinks. He is seeing things that are not there. An elephant.

The train hits, and his orange world goes up in flames.

+

By Friday the third lion is still missing, and the school has to determine if the homecoming game will still be held, if the memorial can go as planned. Principal Aaronson talks to the chief of police, and then the head of the national guard unit, who agree that the event can still be on the outdoor field since it is surrounded by a chain link fence. They will station as many men as they can spare around the perimeter, armed and ready.

This is why, as dusk falls on Glendale, most of the town stands in a circle around the football field, holding pillar candles in their hands with dixie cups around the bottom to prevent the wax from dripping, and why nearly twenty police officers in full swat gear and bearing arms stand around them. The lights are still on in the parking lot, to protect families as they’d been escorted in groups from their cars to the bleachers. The lights had been on at the field, too, during the first half of the game, but have been turned off for the memorial. The candles cast an eerie glow over everything. It’d be unifying, Aaronson thought, to stand here in the candlelight like this. Contemplative.

A younger Aaronson might have made a speech about preventing a future disaster such as this one, preventing alienation, encouraging every student to embrace every other. But nearly a decade as the head of the school had changed him. They cannot prove that it was a suicide, after all. And so he stands in the center of the field and simply asks them all to remember their classmate fondly, and says that he grieves with Lillian Dale, who is standing next to him. Then he invites Coach Brown to speak, the faculty member who knew him best.

“People say that Glendale is a bigoted town — I can safely acknowledge those rumors,” Coach Brown’s voice echos off the shadows, the silence deepens. Lillian stares at him, entranced. “Because I don’t think those rumors will survive after this tragedy. Tom was one of our own, and he will be missed. He was our Tom, our boy. He won football games for us, and he changed our perceptions about others. He fit right in. There is nothing bigoted about our town, about our grief, and Tom will always stand as a testament to that.” It is the first time Tom’s race is discussed publicly in the wake of his death, and all discussion dismissed. The students bow their heads, football team with helmets at their feet, and the candles dance heat across their faces.

Lillian has not spoken in five days. She stands in the middle of the circle, listens to the Coach, and remains silent. She’s lived her life surrounded by this ignorance, in one place or another, and her only regret is that she never acknowledged it to her grandson in the hope that he’d be able to move on from it. But trapped by ignorance, doubting his own mind — that’s what killed Tom, she knows. And so she stares out past the candles, the people who only knew her Tom for two months, the people who’ve forced themselves to re-write his history to appease their own guilt, to avoid questioning what lies deeper. She looks out at the parking lot, the hazy glow of lights reflecting on cars, and watches as the lion steps out from behind an old Ford.

Members of the football team are taking turns talking now, sharing stories, reading vague passages about the shortness of life from required high school reading. Nobody seems to notice the lion, not even the members of the national guard, who are transfixed by this outpouring of community support. Surreal — the lion blends into the orange leaves on the pavement which have just begun to fall. But it is there, definitely there, staring directly at the crowd, unmoving. A breeze blows, the candles flicker, and its golden mane ripples like dry wheat.

Lillian has not spoken in five days, and she does not speak now. She watches the lion slip back into the shadows, having only been visible for a heartbeat, maybe two.

So let him hide a little while longer, she thinks. Let’s see what that lion can do.

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Cailin Barrett-Bressack graduated Emerson College in 2012 with a Writing, Literature, and Publishing degree. She was awarded with the single High Distinction in Fiction award for her class, and has previously contributed to online publications including eFiction Magazine and ThisZine.org. Cailin works as an editorial assistant in the Boston area.