I put the sandpaper and block down and listened again to the radio. It said exactly what I thought it said. It said that an elephant was loose in town, that it had broken free from the train it was being transported on when it stopped in Wood Valley; or not broke free, but got away from its trainer, that it got agitated and got away from its trainer, and took off into the woods. They were saying that it was headed toward us. I put the naked mallard down, and leaned against the bench. A representative from the zoo kept telling the reporters that the elephant would be driven by the highway north, and that that was why they were almost positive it would end up in Karchmar. A state trooper kept saying that everyone should remain calm, and remain indoors. I turned to another station, but there was only music. I turned to a few others. More music, and if there was news it was the weather or sports.
When I turned back to the local station, they were saying that the elephant had been en route to another zoo, that there had been some kind of trade of elephants, or an elephant for two gorillas, and that the train had been sent up a side rail to let traffic go by, and the trainer took the elephant out to get it some water and some exercise when it went a little wild and got free. The trainer was in the hospital, but they would not say how bad he was. After they said that the trainer was in the hospital, they kept assuring us that everything was fine, that no one else was hurt, and that elephants sometimes do this, that they sometimes go a little crazy and run off, saying that everything was fine, but that the residents of Karchmar should not go out, and if anyone sees the elephant to call the authorities, to report it, and to stay away. Then one of the DJs said there was an elephant living on his couch who drank all his beer, and answered to Her Holy Majesty Mother-in-Law. There was some chuckling, and the other DJ said, "But seriously folks, stay inside..."
I turned it off.
The house was quiet. Up the basement steps I could see the light from the kitchen and hear the wall clock over the sink going. "Chris," I said. There was no response. I put the naked mallard back on its stand, and made sure the lids were on all the paint, then went up the stairs.
Flies buzzed over the table and around the window by the screen. Everything was still out. I took some of the plates from the table to the counter and scraped the food into the garbage, then put them in the sink, then put the milk and ketchup back in the fridge. Condensation had sweated all out of them and they were warm. The sink was full and I did not put the plates on top of the pile but left them on the side, then turned on the water to run it a moment over the dishes and the large pot and the pans, and squirted soap on them, and let it suds up, then turned it off and went out.
It had been quiet all day, and was usually quiet when Chris was pouting, which was a blessing. There was no movement in the living room and it looked like nothing had been moved and no one had been in it for some time. It was bright from the lamps, and it was as though the furniture were waiting for something to happen.
"Chris," I said from the bottom of the stairs. I was looking up into the hall at the corner of his bedroom door. There was no answer. At dinner, not only would he not talk to me or look at me, but he did not make his ketchup and mustard mixture for his food, or take chocolate syrup for his milk when I offered, still mad for having been grounded and having to spend one of the last days of summer inside. He looked only at the plate as he shoveled the forkfuls of food into his mouth, then got up without a word, without having finished, and left, and when I told him to come back he wouldn't, and I refused to beg or get in a fight with him, watching him go.
I went up the stairs.
"Chris," I said again.
"Chris," I said down the hall.
His room was empty. A few cars and action figures lay on the floor with colored pens and a sketchbook. I checked in the closet and under the bed.
I went back downstairs and called his name a few times, and when there was nothing I went out to the porch and called his name there, yelling it loud enough so that if he was in back or in the garage he would hear it. A car went by, but there was nothing else, and I went off the porch and started to look around for his bike. I looked in the yard and on the driveway, but it was not in either of these places and it was not in the shed. I went to check in the garage and when he was not there and his bike was not there I stood a moment trying to listen for something, for him to be around somewhere, and waited for a reason for why he would run twice in one day, standing with the door open, but no answers came. After I circled the house again, and again there was nothing, I got in the car and headed out.
It started when Patti left, and the frequency with which he was going was increasing, maybe being up to a couple times a week from a couple times a month, but he'd never gone at night, or twice in one day, or even two days in a row. I wanted to call her and tell her what was going on and that maybe she should drop by more, or that he could go out and see her, and that maybe that would calm him down, or that she could talk to him and find out what was going on inside him. I tried once asking him how he was, and he said, fine, then I said that things didn't seem fine, but he said that they were, and the more I pried the less I got. She could do it, could get through to him and find out what his problem was. She was good like that, or they were good like that together, at least when she was around. They had a history of her sort of getting him to be manageable. And of course I knew whatever the problem was she would blame me, knowing full well that her not being there had some major part to it, but she would ignore that and she would look at it as my fault because I could do nothing to fix it, or at least stem the flow of his running, and she would not be completely wrong, but I did not want to have that fight, or any fight, barely wanting to talk to her or even see her. Deep, I housed a stupid hope that she would find out somehow on her own, from a neighbor or friend, and it would be taken care of without my asking.
The neighborhood was dark, there were no lights on at the Peterson place, and only a few windows of the other houses were lit down the street. I didn't look too much over the lawns as I went. He almost never stayed local. When he got out, he would head into town, and there were only a few times I found him riding around the block, or off his bike nearby in someone's yard, sitting by a tree, or chasing birds or something.
When I crossed Oak and passed the gas station and got closer to where town started, I slowed the car as I moved my eyes over the side of the road all the way down, checking streets, and looking into ditches and rock walls, and trying to see into fields beyond the lights of the houses, but did not strain, and did not look over anything more than once, knowing that he was probably going back to Lane's, that he was trying to teach me some kind of lesson about his cunning superiority.
The parking lot was empty, not even Lane's truck was there, and as I got out I wondered if they were open. Around the front and sides I did not find Chris's bike, then went around back, but did not see it there either. Lane's truck was parked on a patch of gravel by the dumpster where some light came through the back door. The trees in front of me were spotted by the scattered yellow rectangles of Brior Court just beyond the property fence. Noises came out from the deli, things being moved and lifted, but no voices. I had not been to the deli since last December, and I had not seen Lane in some months, but I was there now and took another moment standing outside before I turned away from the dumpster and the cool air and went in.
Cases of soda had been stacked at the door, along with boxes of chips and crackers near where Lane stood half in the drink cooler, pulling at the cases, and placing them at his feet. It was a moment before he saw me standing there, and when he did see me, he jerked his head back and stopped with the soda, then taking me all in, realized who it was and shook his head, then bent down and continued with what he was doing.
"Hello, Lane," I said.
"Curt," he said.
"How're you doing tonight?"
"Don't come through the back door," he said.
"Oh, come on," I said.
"I ain't insured for anyone to be back here except the people who work here. You know that. If you get hurt I could lose my business."
"No one's gonna get hurt, and no one's gonna sue," I said.
"Just go out front," he said, "I'll be with you in a minute."
"Lane," I said,
"It's the law," he said.
"Is Mary-Anne here?" I said.
He looked at me, then went all the way into the cooler and did not come out.
I took a bag of chips from one of the boxes, and went through the door to the counter.
Lane had known Mary-Anne forever, but it wasn't until he flunked out of college and came back that they got together. And they were married within a year, which surprised me and Patti. It wasn't that he got her knocked up or anything, but that they kept saying something about kindred spirits and that they both wanted the same things out of life and could sit for hours talking about the most trivial things and that that was how they knew they could grow old together because everything between them had a weight that they both understood, why religion didn't matter, and what was the best cola to drink with cheddar cheese, shit like that. He hadn't paid a lick of attention to her before he came home, but when his father was threatening to throw him out unless he found something to do, suddenly it was all about Mary-Anne. It was nice having him around but I had to point all this out to him and when I did he just kept saying things about growing up and changing, and about how he could see the world as a bigger place, one that had a space just right for him. And that it all kind of fit with her. They made some plans to go out west that went on for awhile with an ever-changing destination, L.A., San Francisco, Big Sur, L.A. again, but had a way of never coming to fruition, and when Lane's old man got sick, he took over. Every once in a while Lane would talk about selling the deli, and going out west to, "maybe open a burger shack on the beach." Patti or I would ask him how Mary-Anne felt about this, and he would say, "Oh, you know." Then sometimes he would say something like, "It doesn't even matter because we're doing so well here."
No one was out there. I opened the chips and leaned against a small fridge when the door opened and Mary-Anne came through. She had boxes that she held with both hands, up in front of her face, and she did not see me until she put them on the counter. "Get out from behind there," she said.
I put chips in my mouth and went around front.
She cut the top box open and started pulling packages of jerky out, and setting them on the racks by the registers.
"I'm looking for Chris." I said. "Have you seen him?"
"No," she said. She separated the packages, and made sure she was getting them on the right racks. "Is that all?"
"I guess," I said.
I put more chips in my mouth.
"Is Lane coming out?" I said. "I want to talk to him, see if he's seen him."
"He hasn't," she said.
"How do you know?" I said.
"I know everything he knows," she said.
I did not say anything to that.
"And there ain't been anyone in here tonight," she said.
"That's probably because of the elephant," I said.
"The elephant," I said, "there's an elephant loose in town."
"No there isn't," she said.
"There is," I said, "I heard it on the radio."
"I didn't hear anything," she said.
"Well, there is," I said.
I dug to the bottom of the chips.
"Somebody would've said something," she said, "I would've heard something."
"I'm saying it now," I said.
"Somebody else," she said.
"You just said nobody's been in here."
"There's been some."
She would not look at me.
Then she said, "You got your chips, Chris ain't here, so why don't you just go?" She sounded tired.
There was some movement by the door and Lane came out.
"Make sure to put the really hot ones on the left," he said to her. "Miles got some by mistake and wouldn't shut up about it all week."
"I am," she said.
"What's doing?" he said to me.
"I'm looking for Chris. Has he been here?"
"No," he said.
"Not all night?"
"No," he said. "We been here, hasn't been anybody."
"That's probably because of the elephant," I said.
"What elephant?" he said.
"He says there's an elephant running around," she said.
"You're shitting me," he said.
"No," I said. "He got away from his trainer down in Wood Valley, and they think he's on his way up here."
"That's unbelievable," he said.
"It is," Mary-Anne said. "Very."
"I caught Chris trying to come here this morning, riding his bike when he wasn't supposed to and I thought maybe he was trying to come back or something. I grounded him. He isn't supposed to be out. And I sure as shit don't want him out with this elephant on the loose."
"Mmm," Mary-Anne said.
"Well, we ain't seen him. Like I said, no one's been here. Has anyone spotted the elephant, though?"
"How's Patti?" Mary-Anne said.
"No," I said to Lane, "I don't think anyone's spotted the elephant. I just heard it on the radio now and I went to tell Chris and he was gone. I think it just happened."
"Is Patti still living in Scottsdale?" Mary-Anne said, "or did she go somewhere else?"
"That's really the damndest thing I've heard in a while," Lane said. "Could you imagine this thing going down Main Street and ripping the place apart?" he laughed.
I took a soda from the cooler.
"Are you gonna pay for that?" she said.
"No," I said.
"An elephant," Lane said.
"He's not gonna pay for the soda," Mary-Anne said.
"Yes he is," Lane said. "Curt," he said.
We weren't saying anything. Then I said, "Christ, Mary-Anne, do you have to be a bitch every minute of the day? Take five minutes off, it'll do wonders for your skin."
They were looking at me.
Then I left.
I stood by my car for a moment, expecting one or both of them to come out after me, and that there'd be words, and we would all have a fine time hating each other in the open air of the parking lot, like at Big Burger the last time I ran into them, and Tres almost had to call the cops. But neither did, and I was there alone under the streetlight lit from above in a way that cut a triangle into the evening around me. When I finished the soda, I threw the bottle into the bushes and got in the car.
At Brior Court I drove slow, going past the houses, checking the lawns and driveways, but did not see anything. I knew he wouldn't be there. The kids from Brior Court did not come by anymore, and I did not know why they did not come by anymore, or why he did not go over there anymore, and whenever I asked he would only say that they were a bunch of assholes, and then I would have to get mad at him for cursing. It was not good for someone his age to spend so much time alone, and it frightened me that he might end up like Lane or like Mary-Anne, thinking that there was strength in not getting what you wanted.
The radio made no more mention of the elephant. I put it on the station I had been listening to at the house, and it was nothing but music where a few songs played, and I listened through to the commercials and listened through those, but it went back to the classic rock without even an update on the traffic. I tried a few more stations then switched to AM, but there was nothing there either.
The lights of the Penny house were bright in the picture window so that as I pulled up I could see all the way through to the kitchen where Jim was sitting at the table, talking to someone hidden on the other side. His voice was going then sort of broke when I knocked, then kept going but got louder as steps came closer, and as he opened the door he was still talking, and it took him a moment before he stopped to face me, and saw who it was.
He paused, then he paused again, then he said, "Hey there, Curt," then said, "What can I do for you?"
"Hi, Jim. How are you?" "Good," he said. "Good," he said.
"I was wondering if Chris was here. He took off after dinner when I was in the basement and now I don't know where the hell he is, and I'm looking for him."
"Oof," he said. "That's a pain in the ass."
"You know how boys are," I said.
"I do," he said. Then he said, "Wish I could help you out, but I haven't seen him."
"Was he here before? Did he stop by and leave?"
"Not that I know of," he said.
"I'm worried, you know, because of the elephant," I said.
"There's an elephant loose. WKQC is warning everyone to stay inside. They said it got loose in Wood Valley and is coming toward us."
"Really? I didn't hear anything."
"It was all over the news before," I said.
"I didn't hear anything," he said again. "An elephant?"
"Yeah," I said, "Is David here?" I asked.
"No," he said, "he's at what's his name's house. Bobby. He's at Bobby's house for some kind of sleepover."
"Oh," I said. "Well, he wasn't here with one of your other boys, was he?"
"Not that I know of," he said. "They been in the yard all day, right out front, now they're upstairs."
"Could I talk to Nancy?" I said.
He turned with his arm on the door, blocking me from coming in, and yelled, "Hey Nance! You seen Chris Anderson today?"
"What? No," she yelled back. "Who's there?" she yelled, "Who are you talking to?"
"Not here," he said to me. Then he said, "An elephant? You sure you got that straight?"
"Yes," I said. "It was on the radio."
"Well, if it was on the radio," he said.
"Goodnight, Jim," I said.
He was looking at me.
"Goodnight," he said and closed the door.
I got back in my car and drove away. The thought to go to Bobby Carp's house came to me, but I knew he was not there, the same way he was not at Brior Court, the way I knew he was not where people would be. The wind rolled through the windows, pummeling my hair and making a racket as I picked up speed, and as it became louder, I hoped it would drown out the look on Jim Penny's face when he saw who was standing in front of him. I went out to Miller Road, and drove past where the streetlights ended, toward the highway, and got going up to 70, with the trees on the side a wavering blur as the car rocked, and I did not care if a deer or dog or anything jumped out in front of me. There were no houses, and no one else on the road, and I could almost feel the headlights pushing things out and away in front of me, cutting the road like a ship in waves. I pictured myself going on, driving out through the highway and not stopping. I pictured Chris coming home to nothing, and that as the night wore on and he was alone that the nothing would become greater, and it would fill all the rooms of the houses, and that when the rooms of the house were filled, and the sun was coming up, and I was still not there he would know that there was an end to things, and that this end, like most things, was mostly beyond your control.
She was drunk and I was drunk, and we were all drunk at J.J. Thompson's New Year's Eve party. It was nearing midnight, and she hadn't been around me all evening, and when I went to find her she was in the kitchen with J.J. and his girlfriend Lee. The subject of kissing when the ball would drop came up, and she said she wanted to kiss J.J. I said I wanted to kiss J.J., and she said she was serious. I told her we could all kiss J.J. together and that it would be a gang bang of tongues. She said she wanted J.J. all to herself, that when the year changed over she wanted to feel his beard against her face, against her cheek, then she said she wanted to kiss his balls and see what kind of beard his balls had, and she was going on like this about what she wanted to do to J.J. and what she wanted J.J. to do to her. I told her to knock it off, but she wouldn't. Lee said she was just joking around, that she had been joking around like that all night, and I said she usually jokes around with Cooper. Patti said she loved joking around with Cooper, and I said, "Why, does he laugh at all your goddamn, stupid jokes that aren't funny?" and she said, "No, he goes down on me like he's trying to break out of jail." Everyone laughed and I hit her in the face with my beer and broke her nose. I had suspected something for a while but never really wanted to believe it. A week later she went first to her sister's in Bridgeport, then to his place where she stayed, and that was it.
I was near the state park, and thought about going over there to the lake, that maybe Chris went to sit on the small beach they had, or maybe holed up on the side by the island for night fishing. But as I drove I realized how far out I had gone, and knew Chris could not have made it this far, that it would take all day on a bike to get out here, and so turned back to town, figuring I would check the playground where I had caught him a few times sitting near the swings, in the gazebo. At Mountain View, I turned off to take a shortcut through the baseball fields, and went through the parking lot to the back end of the T-ball field where everything was dark, and the ground in front of me opened flat and wide, lighter than the darkness in the trees at the edges, broad and open, and slowed the car to a crawl. I had asked Chris once if he wanted to play baseball, and he said he'd think about it, but never got back to me. I was in the middle of things, and rolled the car past the snack shack where I thought I saw something leaned up against one of the walls. It was an object I could not make out, but looked out of place, and could have easily been pipes, or stacked milk crates, or anything to do with the snack shack, but for the moment the lights hit it before it was all dark again it caught my eye in a way that made me stop. I put my head out the window trying to let my eyes adjust, then just got out and walked over. It was Chris's bike.
Nothing else was around, and the bike sat there like a pensive lookout, unable to shout out a warning. There were no marks on it or dents and I walked it in a circle letting the peddles go, and the crank and the wheels seemed fine, then left it back against the wall where it had been. The air was thick and I waited another moment to see if I could hear him or hear anything like people or boys, but there was only the chirping of crickets and the buzzing of other bugs from the bushes beyond the car. I checked around the area and the building, but none of the doors or windows looked forced.
I cupped my hands on my mouth.
"Chris!" I yelled. "Chris!"
There was no response. I left the car on, and the lights on, and walked over to the senior league field, the big field, and tried to look out into the dark, but could not see anything. The gate was locked so I jumped the fence, tearing the bottom cuff of my pants, and cursed as I went stumbling over. My heart raced, and I had to stand with my hands on my knees catching my breath. Being farther from the light of the car, I could see more. Nothing moved. In the open, things were cooler. It was not like the temperature had gone down or anything, but it was not hot. Sweat was no longer in my armpits or on my neck. I walked to the pitcher's mound, then walked out to second base, and was about to yell his name again when I saw a lump in center field. I took a step and did not yell, and though I could not see what exactly it was I was sure it was him, lying on his back.
There were candy wrappers around him in the grass, and he did not move as I came up on him. "You been to Lane's?" I said.
"No," he said.
"Where'd you get the candy from?"
He didn't answer at first, but then said, "The snack shack. One of the windows is loose."
"Chris," I said.
"I don't take more than three or four," he said.
"Chris," I said.
"They got plenty," he said.
"What are you doing here?" I said.
"Nothing," he said. "How did you find me?"
I didn't want to tell him at first and stood there over him not saying anything, but then said, "It was an accident. I was cutting over to go to the playground and see if you were in the gazebo."
"I don't like that place when it's dark," he said and sort of stopped himself realizing he had made a mistake.
"What do you like when it's dark?" I said.
He did not answer.
"I thought you might be doing some night fishing," I said, "I was all the way out by the state park."
"Yeah, remember when you and Kenny went? You loved it. You begged me to take you back."
"Kenny," he said. Then he said, "Night fishing? I haven't even been regular fishing in forever," he said.
"Yeah," I said.
"The state park is all the way at the end of Miller Road. I don't think I could ever get out that far."
"You shouldn't be getting out at all," I said.
"Did you see my bike? Is that how you found me?"
"Come on," I said. "We have to go," I said. "There's an elephant loose in town."
"I know," he said, "I went looking for him. Couldn't find him. They said his name's Bahir. He's from India."
"We have to go," I said.
"I looked all over," he said.
I was watching him but he was not looking at me. His face was tilted, and in the dark I could see him watching straight up. Everything was cool, and the orange glow from Wood Valley lay on top of the far tree line past the right field bleachers. I was about to kick him in the leg to rouse him, but stopped myself, and only continued to stand there and was thinking about how there was nothing waiting for us at home, seeing it in my head, the empty house, and the living room where I had left all the lights on. I squatted next to him.
He put something in his mouth, and did not say anything for a long time. "We have to go," I said.
"I can ride home," he said.
"No," I said, "I'll throw your bike in the car."
"I can just ride."
"No," I said.
"It's stupid to put the bike in the car. I rode it all the way out here. I can ride back."
"And have you take off again, and go somewhere else?"
"I'm not gonna go anywhere else," he said. "I only came out to find the elephant."
"We're putting it in the car."
"But it always hangs out because the trunk won't close, and I'm afraid it'll get messed up."
"It's not gonna get messed up," I said.
"It won't even be an issue if I ride home."
He was whining, and his voice was dry and shrill the way Patti's got when she was too tired to deal with me.
"Stop arguing," I said.
"I'm not arguing. I'm only saying."
"You're arguing, damn it, and I want you to stop."
"I'm not arguing."
"You are," I said. "You're in trouble as it is, and you're arguing. You're making everything worse."
"Christ," I said.
Then it sounded like he might have been crying. I wanted to walk away from him.
In a few weeks he would be going to junior high, starting a school where the boys did not fuck around anymore, with the fights going from a grammar school tussle that was nothing more than a pushing and pulling, nothing more than a wrestling around on the ground, to a squaring up and using your fists to throw punches to cause damage, where there was blood, and no time to learn.
I squatted there looking at him until my knees were tired, and I could not stand. I let myself down on my side, then rolled on my back and stretched out in the grass. A breeze played over my face, and the cool of the dew wetted the insides of my arms and the palms of my hands.
Around us was the field, and we lay there a long while until all at once I could feel, ahead in the trees, the movement of something great, not darker than the night, but bigger than anything else, bigger than the trees, and bigger than the both of us, moving slow and sure in plodded steps that broke branches and overturned rocks. I did not breathe. It moved with a loping swish. Chris was next to me and I could not hear him, but knew he was there. I could feel him laying next to me. I could feel him with me. I could feel him with me where we were, under the sky laying in the grass, in the damp, looking up into a mass of moonless clouds where only a few stars broke through, as it was coming, lumbering steady, lumbering from beyond the fence, coming toward us from a place where I could not see.
Then neither of us said anything anymore.
Title image "Big Feet" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2016.