I rode an elephant into town. It felt like the right time to do this. We traveled westward. As my elephant passed the Sunoco station at the corner of Fifth Street and Central Avenue, a man staring at us pumped gasoline onto his leg. A young mother crashed her stroller into a parking meter, but the baby stopped crying when it saw the elephant. Some kids on bicycles bounced and wiggled and waved wildly at my elephant and me. They called out with small, shrill voices.
“Hey, mister!” the kids cried. “You’re riding an elephant!”
“Are you sure?” I replied, shrugging my shoulders for dramatic effect. For the elephant’s part, he uncoiled his snaky trunk and sneezed. The children laughed.
How grand I felt on my elephant’s back! His easy locomotion; the power contained within his impenetrable gray hide. The elephant’s magnificent ears beat air in time with his stride. Gold tassels on my blanket jittered and flashed, and I bore my ankus as if it were a monarch’s scepter. On this day, I ruled Central Avenue.
Some of the children from the gas station hustled into line behind us. Not too closely, though! The old man who sharpens saw blades pulled out of the alley behind the IGA supermarket. He fell in with me, my elephant, and the children; his ancient Toyota pickup truck laid down a skywriter’s smoke trail. Slouched in his seat, hat pushed down low, he looked about forty years younger all in an instant. The truck’s battered radio sprayed distorted country & western music.
Stop at traffic lights? We most certainly did not! Those types of controls are intended for motorized vehicles. I was on an elephant’s back. Cars and trucks screeched and slithered to a hasty stop, but seriously, you get plenty of warning that an elephant is in your path. They are so very large and unusual.
When I glanced over my shoulder, more children had gathered. There were fifteen or twenty of them now, on bikes and scooters and skateboards or on foot, with the blade sharpener’s truck leaving lots of space. I was glad I’d chosen a Saturday to ride my elephant into town. It would’ve been unfair to keep the kids in school.
As we crossed Vine Street near the coffee shop, the Senior Citizens’ Mobility Van let off passengers — some of them queued up behind the smoky Toyota following me. The seniors whirled around with their coats and shopping bags, and capered in a way I found most satisfying. People stood on sidewalks, or leaned out of shop doors; they hooted and whistled at our procession. The Mobility Van sounded its horn, and my elephant threw back his head and trumpeted an emphatic reply. Everyone cheered.
Four motorcyclists joined our sudden parade. The young riders flashed their lights and revved their engines. Brick and glass buildings bounced the sound of an angry giant bee squadron invading the town. My elephant advanced very slowly and the motorcyclists had to snake-weave to keep their balance. They undulated between the curbs, popping wheelies occasionally for the appreciative and ever-growing crowd.
We passed City Hall and that was when the police showed up. A black-and-white patrol car appeared out of nowhere (as they often do and should) and slipped in behind my elephant, and the children, and the old man, and the van passengers, and the motorcycle riders. The patrol car’s emergency lights blazed and its siren wailed. Police officers hailed me over the loudspeaker but I could barely hear them — the crowd and motorcycles and siren and country & western music were so loud.
“You, there,” a red-faced officer called out. “What do you think you’re doing with that elephant?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” I smiled back. The only time you can talk that way to cops is when you’re riding an elephant.
My elephant, bobbing his head as he plodded, seemed to nod helpfully. I don’t suppose police training includes elephant control, so the officers decided to prowl along and transmit updated reports to headquarters.
We approached the First Congregational Church, whose green-patina steeple dominated the corner of Central Avenue and Pearl Street. A shiny black Buick, a low-slung silver sports car, and a cable TV service truck trailed the police. Bringing up the rear was a red convertible Cadillac festooned with flags and banners. An attractive young woman, crowned and bearing a floral bouquet, perched on the folded-down top and waved at the crowd.
Nearly two hundred people ambled or pranced or cartwheeled along with us. Families sitting on folding lawn chairs or the curb now lined Central Avenue. The church’s cut stone steps overflowed with spectators. My elephant marched with great purpose and dignity, at the same time taking care to avoid squashing the yipping dogs that zig-zagged between his mighty legs.
Around the corner screeched a firetruck, its crew in full turnout gear and all of the brass fittings burnished bright.
“What’s the emergency?” yelled the chief from beneath his enormous helmet.
“No emergency here,” I said. “I’m just riding my elephant.”
The chief looked at his firefighters and stared at the crowd behind my elephant.
“We’ll escort you!” he said. “Just in case!”
“What if there’s a fire elsewhere?” I asked.
“It can wait!” He said, and rang his chief’s bell. The crowd applauded when the firetruck eased into a gap between the Buick and the sports car.
The day grew hotter. We passed through the business district and into the tree-shaded residential west side of town. News about my elephant and me had rolled out in advance; unhindered by oncoming traffic, we made our way past astonished gardeners and bemused grass-waterers. A few of them abandoned their chores and joined us. By now, I half-expected the cast iron lawn jockeys to come along. A snow-haired woman stood up and let fall a pair of pruning shears into her rose bushes. Her bright red lips made a perfect “o”.
“Is this what we’ve come to?” she quavered. “Is this what we’re doing now?”
“Yes!” shouted the crowd. “Yes!” And the woman punched her knobby fist skyward.
Soon enough, the houses became separated by larger lots, then by corrugated steel-wall auto body shops and discount carpet outlets, and then dwindled altogether. We neared the western outskirts of town. The water treatment plant marked the boundary. Many of the pedestrians had already wearied and fallen off the pace. The motorcyclists had dropped out. Our firetruck returned to the station. It was time for most of the children to go home, have their macaroni and franks, and take their baths. The police department’s hands were tied: we’d reached the city limits.
Now there was no one with us at all, except for the saw sharpener in his smoky truck. He turned down his shredded radio and drew alongside my elephant. The old man’s grinning face and the dirty, spiderwebbed glass of his windshield glowed in the westering sun. I wanted to ask him if this was the first elephant he’d ever followed or if he remembered another one. Before I opened my mouth, he pushed back his hat and spoke.
“I’m not going to thank you,” he croaked. “Shouldn’t have to. Fellow rides an elephant into town on a Saturday and another fellow chooses whether or not to tag along. It’s simple.”
Its rusted-out fenders flapping, the Toyota swung wide on the gravel shoulder and turned back towards town. The old man extended his arm out the window to say goodbye and disappeared into his own cloudy trail.
I saluted him in reply and considered the road ahead. My elephant beneath felt to me as if he could walk far into the night. A much bigger city lay just a few miles away and I wanted to arrive on Sunday morning with the sun behind us.
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Michael Grant Smith is at various times a musician, writer, live sound engineer, marketing associate, carpenter, automobile mechanic, and rancher. He wears sleeveless T-shirts, weather permitting. His writing has appeared online in elimae and The Foliate Oak, and he was a regular contributor to clusterflock.org. Michael resides in Ohio with his wife and son, one dog, six cats, and two horses. He has traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Cincinnati.
Photo: Yolanda Sun @iyolanda