Stories Page 3
The Elephant in Bars
by Olivia V. Ambrogio
Helen's face could stop traffic, watches, packs of wolves. It could have launched a thousand ships, but only if they were headed in the opposite direction. (She heard this witticism at least once a week). She was always happiest in out-of-the way places, dark corners that hid her enormous bulk and ghastly visage, scribbling observations and ideas in a neat brown notebook. In a very few years she would become successful enough to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a recluse, but at the moment she had to make a living, and in her free time the writer liked to visit bars.
She didn't remember when she was first called "The Elephant," but she thought it began when she was very young and her persecutors were as yet unfamiliar with more accurate comparisons, like Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera. She had always been massive, due to a glandular condition, and her face had always been reminiscent of some horror movie's title creature: eyes bugging, lips over-wide, cheekbones just asymmetrical enough to be grotesque.
Her parents had been disappointed and bewildered with their first child; she could remember overhearing them asking each other-discreetly, in another room-if they had done anything wrong during the pregnancy, if there could have been a switch in the hospital.
Luckily, they promptly had two more, entirely normal children, and the relief of being able to create the kind of offspring they wanted was enough to reconcile them to loving Helen, too.
School was, of course, a different matter. It was bad enough that she loved it, bad enough that she always got the best grades-in everything-bad enough that she preferred spending recess printing the letters of the alphabet and the new words she had learned to playing games with the few kids who would have let her join them. It was even worse that she read constantly, astounding teachers and stupefying classmates with her vocabulary, which seemed to grow exponentially.She could remember her nickname from very early on, when she sat, tracing letters, on the steps of the school at recess, under the pitying eyes of her teachers.
It was never "Elephant," because she was rarely addressed directly, but she heard it so frequently that she began to refer to herself as The Elephant in her notebook, which she started as soon as she could convince her parents to get her one.
She liked giving titles to her daily entries, summaries of events ("The Elephant goes to the Museum," "The Elephant gets an A+ in Math"). She did a report on elephants-her first speech-in 5th grade, after which the teacher took her aside and complimented her on her . . . "sense of humor", she thought it was, or maybe "strength of character."No one seemed to understand that she liked the nickname, liked associating herself with creatures whose bulk was expected and whose dignity was unquestioned. She read about the way elephants caressed the bones of their dead, and she wept when she held ivory. She could understand the necessity of contact, the importance of some symbol, some reminder of things past.
She wept, too, for the elephants she saw in zoos, whose cages were hard and cramped and devoid of any trace of memory. All those elephants could touch were bars, and the empty air between them. She wept for them, not noticing that she stayed at home more and more, watching the world through the panes of her window.
And she did like watching the world, even if she entered it reluctantly. She spent her free evenings in the hidden corners of bars, in the booths for lovers who didn't want to be seen or at the sloped, wobbly tables set aside for the brokenhearted. She set her notebook down away from the rings of beer, the grease stains and French-fry crumbs, and began observing. Every now and then she would order something, a beer or a shot, and sip it absently as she wrote down her impressions. She was never interrupted. All she had to do was look a prospective partner full in the face to send him veering ungracefully away.
She was considering writing a story about the circus. She could see casting herself, or a reasonable facsimile, as the Fat Lady, although, in her case, "fat" wasn't much of a descriptor. The man twitching his knob-knuckled fingers at the end of the bar was a perfect candidate for a Thin Man. The woman near the pool table, the one who never lit a cigarette but avidly inhaled others' smoke, was the FireEater. She noticed several possible clowns, weighed their advantages and disadvantages, decided how they would speak. She was becoming almost as good as Sherlock Holmes at reading people from a distance.
The bartender, for instance, was a little too full of some prescription drug-probably something for his wrist, which was sprained, if the suggestion of a bandage underneath his sleeve and his exaggeratedly cautious manner of pouring meant anything. The petite, professional-looking woman with eyes the green of contact lenses was truly regretting her date with the tall bully in the black T-shirt. He looked like the kind of white-collar guy who boasted working-stiff roots and blew up at anything. He was the kind of lion tamer that got eaten.
She wanted to do a circus story because she kept having dreams about a caged elephant, pacing back and forth in a caravan with cement walls and a brightly painted carapace. The elephant could see nothing but grey, and, although the circus people did not mean to be cruel, they very rarely took the elephant out for air or exercise. It's hard to, on the road, she thought, and a captive elephant suddenly seems more bulky, more clumsy, than one in its proper medium.
Maybe she could cast herself as the elephant. It would be an easier leap than the Fat Lady. -Yes, The Elephant would be an elephant, behind bars-"The Elephant in Bars"! She was there already.She found a few more candidates for Freaks: the man with the glass eye became the Popeyed Man, whose eyeballs could bulge out of their sockets at will; the beak-faced, punk-haired woman with almost no whites around her golden irises became the Parrot, who spoke in caws and sprouted feathers along her neck and back; and, unless the person in the back was a young man in the middle of a sex change, she had found her Bearded Lady.
She didn't think she was being callous, singling these characters out-on the contrary, she admired them for having found a place in society. They were the performers, she the creature humped into shadows at the back of a cage.She sipped her beer and watched the crowds. There didn't seem to be any more freaks abroad, so she started a letter to her sister at college.
Her sister was, she was pretty sure, in love with a freshman. Her sister had only mentioned him once, in passing, but she'd become adept at reading people from a distance. It's the way you described his hair, Lynn, she wrote: "he's short and his hair is the color of rusty walnuts." You're the first to admit you haven't got poetic inclinations; I've never known you to be so loving with detail. But I won't harp on it. -Hey, I saw a girl the other day being led by a pack of scruffy, handsome dogs. I went up to her and asked her if she were one of those people who walks dogs for money, but she said no; they were all hers. There must have been at least ten of them, and she looked a bit scruffy herself. I think she's a runaway, and I thought of letting the police know, but who knows what she's running from? The dogs looked loyal, at least. I gave her some money, not just because she fascinated me or because I felt sorry for her, but because she was the only person not to flinch from me that day. My standards for charity are going down, I know. I'm writing another story, or trying to; I'll send it to you when it's done, if you want. Write me more often. I'm tired of reading between the lines; your emails are too short."
She stopped, unwilling to say that she missed her sister, her best friend, that she thought their brother was gay but afraid to tell them, that she sometimes felt as if she was going crazy, having no one brave enough to look at her. She missed talking with her siblings; she even missed fighting with Robert over stupid things like the best publishing house to submit to or the right way to make fettucini alfredo. I wish I could paint, so I could paint you and Robert, she wrote instead, then crossed it out. She took another sip of beer and searched for something superficial to end with. Do you know, "corm" really is a word; my spell-check wasn't going crazy when it ignored my "corn" misspelling. I looked it up: it's a kind of underground stem-like taro. See if you can use it in-
She stopped suddenly as someone slammed their fist down on a table so hard a glass tipped off and shattered. She looked around for the bouncer. The bouncer was gone, presumably having a drink himself in some other bar.
"Goddamnit, you listen. I can't believe this shit." The too-tall man in the T-shirt was working himself up. Apparently the woman with tinted lenses hadn't been able to end the evening gracefully. "First you have the nerve to tell me what 'I don't know' about Schafer's paper"-ah, an academic pairing, Helen noted-"then, when I go to the john for half a minute, you try to sneak out on me. Whatever happened to all that feminism shit about paying half the bill and all that-you were gonna leave me with the tab, huh? You were gonna make me pay for this fucking worthless evening, right?"
The man paused for a minute, catching his breath, and looked instinctively for the bouncer. Then looked again when he didn't find one. Helen looked again, too; it was a late-evening crowd, mostly people passed out in their chairs or too interested in getting their next drink to want to make trouble.
The bartender, a weasely man with his eyes still half-unfocused from drugs,glanced nervously down at his sprained wrist. The bully in the T-shirt saw what Helen saw, and he almost smiled, even in the middle of his righteously indignant monologue. "Always the same with you feminist types, isn't it?" he asked, high-pitched. "Same old hypocritical bullshit, same old story?"
"Listen, Pete," the woman began, nervous but reasonable. She had a clear, careful voice, and spoke every word perfectly. "There's no-"
"No, no, it's okay, I understand," he said noisily, dramatically, "you want to go home, right? Okay, I'll drive you home. How's that?" He moved toward her.
"Pete, no-thanks, no," the woman began darting her eyes around the room, and stepped back a foot or two, only to have Pete advance and grab her arm.
"No, come on, I'll drive you home," he said viciously.
Helen looked for the freaks. They were gone.
"It's just a ride," Pete snarled, dragging her along, "what do you think I'd do-hurt you or something?" The woman's hip struck the edge of a table, and she yelped.
"Listen, buddy," the bartender appeared next to him, "let's not do anything stupid."
"Oh, I'm not doing anything stupid," Pete replied, looming over him.
"Listen, it's just..." the bartender tried, backing away.
"Leave her alone, asshole," Helen called suddenly from the back of the
room. Pete turned.
"Who are you? How's this your business?" he demanded, coming toward her, still wrenching the disbelieving woman's arm.
She stood up. And up. Into the light, until she was towering over him. She may not have been terribly strong, but she looked it. At this hour of night, after he'd had a little to drink, she must have looked like a living nightmare.
"I didn't say, 'Ask me questions," she explained to him patiently. "I said, 'Leave her alone.'" He looked from Helen to the woman. Holding her breath and cursing herself, Helen took a step forward. The woman pulled her arm out of his grasp, and he gave up.
"Goddamn fucking." he muttered, letting the rest go unheard. He shot a venomous glance at the woman and stormed out of the bar. At the door he paused and called out,
"What are you? Some kind of fucking refugee from the circus?" The door slammed behind him before she could reply.
"Got it right the first time," she said easily. There was no applause. The drunks went back to their drinks, and the bartender weaseled his way back behind the bar. She took her notebook and headed out the door. She was walking down the block when she heard someone following her. Brilliant, Helen; he wants revenge, she thought, turning.
It was the woman. She paused, then said, "Thank you. I had no idea Pete would-well, thank you."
Helen nodded. "You're welcome," she told her. Her voice was precise, pronouncing every letter. They looked at each other. There was no need to speak of recognition. Helen nodded again, then started walking. She felt tall, and full of power.
In the distance, a long note sounded out. It was probably a foghorn over the water, but it could just as easily, she decided, have been a circus elephant, trumpeting a victory into the night.
Bio: Olivia's work has been published in Café Irreal, Coal City Review, Fugue, Flashing in the Gutters, Controlled Burn, Red Cedar Review, The Herbal Network, Yemassee, Onionhead, Yuan Yang, The Bathyspheric Review, and Abandon Automobile: An Anthology of Detroit Poets (Wayne State University Press) and is forthcoming in Electric Velocipede. She is currently pursuing a PhD in marine biology.
One of My Favorite Taxidermy Vacation Spots
a Maine story by Nadine Gallo
Occasionally, when things get a bit slow in the hay fields of Hadley, Massachusetts, Ernie and I get a wild urge to take a ride up to Jackman, Maine to check out the taxidermy store up there. It’s a bit off the track from Rockwood, and closer to Quebec than I care to think about, but it’s worth the trip.
202 is the road north from here and it’s a great ride once you’re on it. Swings past some nice lakes, such as Winnepesaukee and China Lake. (This is the glaciated areas of New England, after all.) We’ve got some lakes up here that could pass for inland seas. Some of them are so clean you can drink from them. Sunapee, New Hampshire has a population that thrives on the water from Lake Sunapee. Aerosmith is from here. Eventually, you have to take the fork in the road that goes to Greenville, where the train used to go to once upon a time.
Once you’re there, you can enjoy the little shops in downtown Greenville, which is a little more exciting than the hay fields of Hadley. You can buy some serious fishing gear in those places. Then it’s onward to Rockwood, past the beautiful shores of Moosehead Lake which seems to be surrounded by houses built by the heirs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Further on, you pass the Post Office, where they used to have Saturday night dances once, the general store and a church or two. There’s a bed and breakfast where we stayed once when the salmon weren’t biting anything, but a charming place nevertheless. Another fifty miles and you’re in serious bear country. If you’re lucky, some moose will be chewing blueberries by the side of the road. Not too many neighbors.
As you watch the pine trees pass, and the occasional raccoon peers at you from the bushes, you begin to wonder, what do people do here to while away the hours? That’s about when you pull into Jackman. It’s about as far as you can go before the Canadian border. On the left is the taxidermist place. Don’t miss it. If you have any interest at all in skinning a bear, this is the place for you. Surgical instruments line the walls. Every imaginable hunting or fishing gadget is here. Plenty of equipment to protect the sportsman from the elements too.
If you’re in luck, they may be having a parade going by, floats occupied by the local fire department and constabulary. We caught the Labor Day parade one year and haven’t got over it yet. There’s a little restaurant up the road on the right and if you’re thirsting for some literature, watch out for the library—it’s bigger than a phone booth and smaller than a gas station. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have some books on taxidermy.
Bio: Nadine Gallo was born in New York City, attended N.Y.U., moved to western Massachusetts where she earned the M.A. in English Literature at U.Mass., Amherst and learned how to spin and weave while teaching middle school. She combines her textile interests with her writing and publishes satirical essays in Journal of Irreproducible Results, Wolf Moon Journal and poetry in online journals like writerseyemagazine and Green Silk Journal. Three novels in the YA/ category are in the works. One is set in Wales, another in Ireland and a third in New England. She's looking for an agent.