ELEPHANTS by Jacqueline Hardy
WAITE SQUINTED. THE SUN sprayed sequins of light into his creased eyes. A chill nipped the lukewarm air, creating an uneven blend of warm and cold breezes. Clad in a spring jacket, he hobbled across the street like he was dragging a broken leg. Tall, lean and elderly, he’d banished his much needed walking stick to the corner of his bedroom. Olivia, his married Mennonite girlfriend of ten years, had bought it for him two years ago, right after the stroke that weakened his left side. He didn’t care that it had a carved African elephant head just beneath the wooden handle.
Waite’s daughter Lucy had come by the house before going to work to take him to the doctor. She waited for him in her running car, across the street from the house. Once each month, she drove him the half hour to the doctor’s office. She didn’t even try to mask the stiff silence with radio noise, and Waite felt too much like an uninvited guest to turn on the radio himself. Sometimes he rejected the silence and initiated conversations that ultimately failed. If his remark called for a response, Lucy always spoke just enough to answer him. The last time she’d driven him to the doctor, a house two blocks away had exploded from a natural gas leak.
“I hope there isn’t another explosion today.” Waite scooted into the front seat of her silver Audi.
Lucy responded with a questioning look. Waite recognized the expression; she was debating whether he was demented or sane. Then she remembered and said, “Oh, yeah.” She relaxed as she drove through the early morning traffic. She’d remembered the highly publicized house explosion that killed two people and severely burned three others. Waite had spoken to Olivia before about filling Lucy’s head with stories about his forgetfulness. He saw Lucy look at the fourteen carat gold African elephant pendant dangling from his neck.
“What’s new, Miss Lucy?” he asked in the most cheerful voice he could muster.
“Nothing,” she said flatly.
He used to apologize for being a burden, but stopped when she offered no response. Waite looked over at Lucy’s profile against the backdrop of the grimy driver’s side window. She resembled neither him nor her mother. Waite and Lucy’s mother had divorced years ago. Waite could never charm Lucy, even as a child, the way he’d charmed her mother. His only child, Lucy had come out of the womb fighting. He remembered how she had chosen to walk ten blocks to school every day rather than catch a ride with an obese neighbor and his obese family; she refused to sit in a crowded car. She was seven years old.
“How’s the job holding up?” Waite asked. Lucy was a college professor and scholar-in-residence at a local library. Waite had just retired from his job as a chief economist with state government.
“Fine,” Lucy said.
At the doctor’s office, Lucy waited for Waite. The waiting room was being renovated. He watched her abandon her guarded manner and volley small talk with the doctor, who was closer to her age. They talked about Vinyasa yoga, whitewater rafting and office politics—things she had never mentioned to Waite. Waite smiled anyway, a silent participant seizing this priceless version of his daughter he wasn’t meant to experience. Lucy chuckled and said she liked office politics because it exposed people’s dark sides. The doctor confessed that he himself took medication for depression. Waite looked at him; he couldn’t help having second thoughts about his ability.
“Well, I’m not ashamed of it,” the doctor said.
Last month, Waite had listened to Lucy talk to the doctor about her ten day trip to the Galapagos Islands that he didn’t know about, with her boyfriend Waite has never met. He knew she would never let him give her away at her wedding, if she married. Lucy returned to the examining room one-half-hour later, carrying the purse that Waite had forgotten he’d given her for a previous birthday. The doctor told her that Waite’s blood pressure was finally down and that his cholesterol level was normal. Waite kept to himself the fact that against doctor’s orders, he’d resumed driving, just like he had refused physical therapy. Olivia obviously hadn’t gotten around yet to telling Lucy.
As they left the medical building, Lucy retreated into her guarded manner and asked Waite if he wanted to wait for her to get the car, or if he wanted to walk. He had to ask her to repeat herself twice. She kept looking away from him like he was a gargoyle, and the rush hour traffic was loud. The days when he could pounce her like the authoritative father he’d been, and order her to open her mouth and talk when she was speaking to him, were long gone.
“I’ll walk,” he said.
The world converted into a dangerous place and flew at Waite like thrown daggers the moment they stepped off the curb into the busy commercial street. Lucy walked slightly ahead of him. Waite could see her looking both ways before crossing and then, back over her shoulder at him. At first Waite kept up with her. Then he passed her without warning, and cut off an approaching bus and left her behind. Lucy waited for the bus to pass before she crossed the street after him, but then caught up. Waite quickly lost his lead and trotted behind Lucy like a lame thoroughbred. His left leg got heavy and his foot caught the edge of a slab of pavement. He stumbled but didn’t fall, struggling to carry the burden of his own body. Were people watching him, judging him: clumsy, drunk, disabled? He could hear himself panting. Hadn’t Lucy said the car was only a block away? Waite looked up at the first storefront in a block of several lumbering past him. It was a newspaper stand, looming like a signpost on a sacred journey. He’d driven past this block hundreds of times over the years. Now each storefront had become an anchor. How many more storefronts did he have to suffer until the end of the block?
“Where did you say the car was?” He suppressed his heavy breathing to dissuade alarming Lucy.
Lucy turned around. He saw that alarm had already washed her face. A well-dressed man sat on the curb in the middle of the block reading the Bible aloud to himself like it was a Dick and Jane reader, one word at a time. “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” A used condom lay beneath his feet. Lucy hardly touched Waite at all now, except for that day a couple of months ago. He’d fallen in the basement. He was trying to find the boiler in the dark so he could put water in it, when he tripped over a tangled garden hose on the floor. He fell backwards, hitting his head on the cement floor. He lay, frustrated at his own helplessness as if he were lying in his own excrement. He couldn’t get himself up. Lucy just happened to be over that day checking the mail regarding his application for Social Security disability. Olivia told her he was in the basement. He hadn’t touched his daughter’s hand since she was a child. Even in the dark, he sensed her hesitation in extending it to him all these years later, as if she’d recoiled and considered the contact repulsive. The next thing Waite knew, he was standing on his own two feet again. She’d let his hand go. She’d touched his hand so fast that he felt he’d grasped and lost a feather. He distracted Olivia’s concern about a concussion later that evening by playing her a game of Mah Jongg before she went home to her husband. He would rather have played a game of Checkers. He endured her story of a nameless childhood classmate who fell roller-skating and died three days later from a concussion.
“The car is right here,” Lucy said, pointing to an indeterminate vehicle.
Waite needed to see her car as they turned the corner. He saw it two cars from the corner. He speeded up and threw himself on the trunk of a silver car.
“No, this is not it,” she said, politely overlooking his mistake. She kept walking ahead of him. “It’s right here,” she said without pointing.
The silver Audi was parked another three cars away. He pushed himself to her car without falling. He made it and they were off.
“Thank you, Jesus.” He stretched his legs in the front seat and gasped like he was breathing his last breath.
Waite never talked to Olivia about his relationship with Lucy, although Olivia was observant enough to describe the relationship as “careful.” Olivia drove him nuts when she prayed over a problem instead of resolving it, but he loved her to the extent he was capable of love. She didn’t expect him to be more than he was. At best, he was adequate. And he displayed African elephant statues throughout the house, which was also packed with personal belongings he didn’t know what to do with. That was okay with her. She listened to him talk about Lucy when she was a little girl without drilling him: watching Lucy challenge the doctor who was trying to con her with non-existent ice cream so he could give her a needed vaccination; watching Lucy’s eyes light up upon seeing her first banana split; taking her to the library to get her first library card so she could take out her first book; taking Lucy to the carnival to ride the merry-go-round; trying to teach her how to read a road map; taking her to her first parade; and watching her play with his elephants. That’s why he kept them, even though he’d stopped collecting them a long time ago. They were concrete evidence of how close they used to be when she was a child. They were beautiful like her. He remembered Lucy telling Olivia how much she liked her long gray dreadlocks.
“I asked Olivia to marry me,” Waite said a few minutes later. “She’s leaving her husband. We’re going on a cruise.”
Lucy said, “Yes.” That was all.
Waite thought that if he kept trying to talk to Lucy about extraneous things, maybe one day he would catch her off guard. She would open up without any prying on his part and talk to him freely like she had when she was a child, ignorant of his frailties. Maybe she would call him “Dad,” and no longer speak to him from a self-protective trench. He didn’t want to push her. He couldn’t bear to hear what she might be compelled to tell him about himself as a father. He already knew. He didn’t want to hear it again aloud. No apology would ever suffice. No passage of time or clarity of hindsight would ever diminish his conduct. Some things were better left alone. At least, she was around on her terms for him to say honestly to social bystanders, from however afar, that he has a daughter who is a college professor and scholar, and that he either saw her or would be seeing her, that they exchanged birthday and Christmas presents, and that she gives him a present for Father’s Day. He would endure the anguish of watching her raise her guard when she interacted with him, and drop it when she interacted with everyone else. Living with exuberant memories of their relationship when she was a child would have to be enough. Olivia would help him make it enough. Maybe she could pray for him. Knowing Olivia, she was already praying.
JACQUELINE HARDY is a lawyer who lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her son. Her work has appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Xconnect and Argestes.