Going to the Elephant
The summer I turned thirteen we moved into a smaller house in a development on the other side of Canton, Massachusetts.
My father had been out of work for over a year. He had been in charge of marketing the new EraserMate pen for Gillette
and he was let go right after it hit the market. He told us he would have something else soon, because the EraserMate
was hot, but after his severance pay ran out, my mother took a parttime job at the school library and he worked
nights for a while at a friend's liquor store-though we were not to mention that to anyone.
In the spring he sold the house to buy a franchise in a small company called Telecomp. They made a machine that
sorted telephone billing information for lawyers and business people, and he planned to sell it himself until he
could afford to hire a sales force. He was the oldest of three successful brothers and I think he was ashamed to
be selling those machines office to office, because he talked them up a little too much in front of us. But my
mother told us he was lucky to have something and said we should thank God for the opportunity. She also said we
should pray things turned out all right, and that is how I knew we weren't out of trouble just then.
The house we moved to was a little ranch in a development that had been built up within a few years of our move
there. Only a thin stubble of grass covered the uneven, rocky yards, and the scrawny trees couldn't disguise the
fact that all the houses had been made from three basic models. One had an extra room off the back, one was a standard
ranch, and one had only an open carport instead of a garage. Ours was the nicest, but we still had to look out
at all the others.
My mother didn't like being there all day. She kept talking about how loony our neighbors were, but mostly she
meant the Johnsons. Ed Johnson was a postal worker and I don't know what Gail Johnson did. Their house was a yellow
ranch with orange shutters and a carport facing my bedroom. The carport was full of things-old tires, tin cans,
a riding lawn mower, firewood, sporting equipment, a canoe. On the lawn next to it was an old Ford Mustang
and most of a motorcycle. There was a camper in the back yard.
Ed Johnson came over the day we moved in. He was a heavy man whose voice was too high and whiny for the swaggering
manner in which he said things. He wore a cowboy hat and smoked a pipe. He claimed to have been the first settler
in the neighborhood, before any of the other houses had been built, and he said so in a Lewis-and-Clark tone of
voice. When he left, my mother looked at my father and rolled her eyes.
Over the next couple of weeks Ed Johnson began to drop by during the evenings. At first, he always came for
some reason-to borrow a power tool or show us something he had planted in the yard-but he would stay for hours,
describing furniture he had made and devices he planned to patent. He urged my father to write a novel with him.
He told us he had invented an entirely new way to sort the mail. If one of us was ill, he would offer to care for
us because he had once been a medic in the army.
After a while, he started to arrive on our doorstep just as we had finished dinner, as if he had been watching
us, and he and my father would talk alone, outside. I began to feel then that I didn't like Ed Johnson. There was
something unnerving about the way he looked at people. He narrowed his eyes and put out his lower lip, as if he
didn't believe what anyone said except himself, and he did most of the talking.
My father said Ed Johnson was driving him nuts. Sometimes he would tell Ed he was in the middle of something,
or my mother would dial a number that made our own phone ring, and then tell him he had a call. But usually
he went out. When he came back he would sigh and shake his head at my mother, but I began to suspect that he liked
his little meetings with Ed, because there was something sordid going on over there and he liked to tell us about
It had to do with their son Johnny, who had been in the Special Forces two years before and had come back with
a dishonorable discharge. No one would tell me what the problem was with Johnny Johnson, except that he was a bit
mixed up, but every time his name came up my mother's lips went taut and she gave my father this
look from the corner of her eye, so I knew he had done something pretty bad. According to Ed Johnson, he couldn't
get military psychiatric help because of the dishonorable discharge, and ordinary psychologists couldn't make out
the military gibberish he spoke. Gail Johnson was set on finding him professional help, but Ed had given up on
that and had instead developed a notion, which he revealed night by night to my father: he himself would treat
the boy, because his experience as a medic in the army gave him unique insight into his son's condition. The Johnsons
fought about this a great deal and very loudly. Sometimes, if they brought their fight outside, my mother and I
would go into my parents' bedroom and steal up to the window facing the Johnsons' house. She would sit below the
windowsill and listen while I peeked around the curtain and whispered descriptions of what they were doing. If
they really got going, she turned and edged her head up until we were kneeling shoulder to shoulder, watching in
One night, not long after we had been there, my parents drove out to see my mother's brother, who lived in a
big house in the center of Concord. They didn't say why they were going and I didn't ask. But my mother got one
of her headaches right before they left, so it wasn't a social call. I was watching television alone when I heard
yelling coming from next door. When glass broke, I went into my parents' bedroom and knelt in front of the open
window. I could see the Johnsons across the back yard on their porch. Ed had built it so that it could be assembled
each spring and taken down each autumn, though it looked in danger of coming down by itself.
He laughed and slammed both palms against the porch frame, which swayed uneasily in response. "Well,"
he said, "if you gave half a crap, none of this would have happened." He turned and leaned against the
Gail Johnson was a big woman, as big as Ed, and probably as strong. She walked up to Ed and stood square in
front of him the way men do in a bar fight. She said, "You're out of your frigging mind. If you want to go
off halfcocked about everything, go right ahead. But don't go blaming me for what happens."
Ed pushed past her. He said, "You couldn't run a pissup in a brewery." He swung open the porch door
and lurched into the frame and out into the night.
"Who do you think you are?" she shouted after him. "Don't you walk away from me when I'm talking
Ed didn't acknowledge her. He walked around by the side of his house a bit, then he sat down on the canoe by
the side of the carport and lit his pipe. He muttered something to himself, got up and paced back and forth on
the line between his property and ours. It was a dark night and we were far from the nearest street light.
I could see the pipe glowing in his hand.
When Gail went back into the main house, I decided there wouldn't be much more fighting. As I stood up and backed
away from the window, Ed stopped pacing and looked right at me. I froze, thinking he couldn't see me. But he said,
"Who's that? I see you there," and my legs went weak. He put a hand above his eyes, as if to shade them
from the sun. "I'm not blind, you know."
He started toward me and I dropped to the floor, dragging myself up against the wall below the sill. I heard
his footsteps, felt him press his face to the base of the screen, his breathing right above me, raspy and full
"Goddamn reconnaissance," he said, slurring his words. I knew he would not be able to get his head
high enough to see me, but I felt him there looking around the room.
Then, further away, he said, "I don't know. Go ahead and look."
I lay there a long while after I heard his porch door squeak open and slam shut.
For a long time I had dreams that a huge, drunken man was staring at me in my sleep. There were nights when
I woke, or dreamt that I woke, to footsteps in the grass or the smell of pipe tobacco and I would lie still, afraid
he was at my window, watching me in my sleep.
A few weeks went by in which Ed continued to come over and talk with my father. He never said anything about
the night I had been watching him, but he gave me strange looks and I was never sure whether or not he had seen
me. Gradually, it became clear that his plan was to pay Johnny to come live at home and go through a series of
role-playing exercises. He was specially designing the exercises to recreate his son's bad military experiences
so that he could find the root cause and he wanted my father to take part in some of them. My father was discouraging
him and didn't think he'd actually go through with it, but my mother was less sure and, more than once, said that
if he did, she would take me and go stay with her parents.
All that summer I was bored and I was worried at the same time. I was waiting for things to change, but afraid
of what was coming next. No one told me anything, and I knew that meant we might move again soon.
My grandparents had insisted all spring on sending me to camp again, but I said camp was for kids. My mother
said I was at that age and kept telling me to make new friends in the neighborhood, but the few kids that
looked my age sauntered around after dark, kicking stones and smoking, and the one time I had walked down the driveway
toward them, they called me a faggot and laughed.
I spent a lot of days scavenging golf balls out of a few muddy little ponds on the back nine of a golf course
over the line in Sharon. There was a little pig farm bordering the course and the smell of it was strong on windy
days. On days when they slaughtered, I walked through the mud, feeling for golf balls with my feet and counting
the seconds between the screams of the pigs. After I had found thirty or forty balls, I cleaned them in a ball-washer
and sold them until I was chased off by the kids whose parents had gotten them jobs in the pro shop.
It was after a good day of ballhunting that the trouble at home started again. I had made enough to buy the
model I had been saving for, a Navy Corsair in a large scale, and I had ridden all the way to town and back myself.
When I got home it was still midafternoon and I was surprised to see my father's car in the driveway. He and my
mother were in the little back room, sitting across the table from each other, with a mess of papers spread out
between them. My mother had on her glasses and my father had a cigarette in one hand and was rubbing his
forehead with the other.
This was not an unfamiliar scene and I knew the best thing was just to get out of there. I started for my room,
but my father looked at the paper bag in my hands and said, "What's that?"
"A model," I said.
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye as though he didn't believe me. "How much was it?"
I told him and he said, "Jesus Christ, that's more than I spend in a week." He stood up and stubbed
out his cigarette. "Where'd you get that kind of money?"
"I saved it up from selling golf balls."
"Ben," said my mother.
"Give me that," he said, walking toward me.
I tried to take it out of the bag to show him, but he grabbed the whole thing out of my hands and held it up
in front of him. I took a step backward and he looked down at me.
"What are you, afraid of your own father?"
"Ben," said my mother sharply.
He looked hard at the model for a minute, then at me, as though he couldn't think of what to do next. "All
right," he said. "Your mother and I are in the middle of something here."
He handed the model back with a grudging look. I took it and went to my room, shutting the door softly behind
My father hadn't been himself for a while. That's what my mother told me when I asked why he went for walks
at night or didn't feel like talking. I thought he was disappointed that I was not a more rugged, more athletic
boy, that I cried more than he thought I should, that I had no friends, that I read too much, that I had been no
help to him all through that difficult year and that I was not going to be a help during the next. There had been
a night when I opened my door and crawled up to the kitchen counter to listen in on them. My father asked my mother
what I was up to and she told him I was still moping around with nothing to do and no one to do it with. He replied,
"What is the matter with that kid?" and I lay there on the kitchen tile grinding my teeth, thinking about
springing out and telling them I'd heard everything they'd ever said behind my back, but holding back in the hope
that I would hear something else, something good.
That afternoon, as I sat looking at my Corsair spread on the floor in front of me and listening to the rise
and fall of their muffled voices through the door, it occurred to me that my mother was telling my father he had
been wrong to take my model. I got on my knees and opened the door softly.
But they were not talking about me. It was money talk and I remember little of it, save a moment when
my mother's voice became highpitched, and she said, "What are you telling me here, Ben?"
"Hold your voice down," my father said.
"Don't tell me how to speak in my own house," she said. "I own this house, too, you know. And
I expect to be told when something like this happens."
"O.K.," said my father, "take it easy."
"Well, for crying out loud. After all this."
I shut my door softly again and went back to my model. I did not really want to find out, in words like these,
half-heard through a half-open door, that my father's business was going to fail or that one of them was thinking
That night I went to my room right after dinner and read and, later, fell asleep with the book on my face. I
woke, in the hot summer air and the bright light, to the sounds of voices outside in the dark. I turned off the
light and looked out. My father was coming out of the Johnsons' house with Ed. He said, "Stay cool."
"You too," said Ed.
My father started across the lawn, and Ed stood by the carport with his arms folded. He called out, "This
is all on the Q.T., Ben. Don't worry about me."
Without turning, my father raised his hand to signal that they had an understanding. When he had crossed the
lawn he stopped and lit a cigarette. Ed went back inside while my father stood there smoking, looking up at the
stars. After a moment, he threw the rest of the cigarette on the lawn and came back inside.
The next night at dinner, he said to me, "The Johnsons need someone to take care of their dog during the
day and I told Ed you'd do it."
"How much are they going to pay me?" I asked.
"Nothing," said my father. "You're doing it as a favor to me."
"I don't like that, Ben," said my mother.
"Mr. Johnson gives me the creeps," I said.
"See, he's aware of it," she said. "I'm with you, kiddo."
"Ed's O.K.," said my dad. "He's just got a couple of problems."
My mother said, "I feel for the poor guy. I do. But the man is a fruit-cake."
My father shrugged. "Look, he's not my best friend, but he's trying to get his kid squared away and he
needs a little help."
"I don't think that's a good idea."
My father looked down at his plate. "Why not?"
"You know why."
"I don't see what the big deal is."
She said, "Ben, I don't like it one bit and that's all I'm going to say now." She got up to clear
When she had turned on the kitchen faucet, my dad lowered his voice and said, "Would you just do this one
thing for me?" He was looking at me hard, his eyebrows pinched tight.
"Sure," I said, "I'll do it."
He kept looking at me that way and said, "Thanks."
I got up and helped my mother with the dishes, while he sat and smoked. When we were done, she had a headache
and went to lie down. I sat back down at the table.
"Listen," said my dad, "your mother is upset by everything now."
He took a sharp breath, as if he were about to tell me something, then he let it go and took a drag of his cigarette.
He said, "Have you been smoking my cigarettes?"
"No," I said.
He nodded. "Just checking."
He rubbed his eyes and leaned his head against his open thumb, the fingers still across his brow. He said, "When
you're in business, you've got to believe in what you sell. My Uncle Robert sold pharmaceuticals for Upjohn and
he believed that Upjohn had the best pharmaceuticals money could buy. He was convinced of it and he always said
if he wasn't, he wouldn't be much of a person."
I was listening carefully. It was the first time he ever talked to me this way.
"This damned Telecomp keeps breaking down on people. Every day I have to go somewhere and give them a new
one while theirs gets serviced. I have to carry the cost of that myself, you know?"
"I wouldn't have gotten into it if I didn't think it was a good product." He narrowed his eyes
again as if he expected me to say something.
Finally, he laughed and said, "So last night, Ed tells me he wants to buy into it. He thinks it's going
to make millions."
"Are you going to let him?"
"I don't know. Your mother's right. He's not wrapped too tight."
"Is he a drunk?" I asked.
"Well, he's hurting." He finished his cigarette and nodded as he put it out. "He's reliving his
own war experiences through his kid. He says things to me like I'm in the military with him. I don't know what
to tell the poor guy. It's like I'm his psychiatrist, but I have no idea what to say to him."
A moment went by and then something made me look toward the front door, and there was Ed Johnson with his cowboy
hat and his pipe, looking right at me. He squinted through the screen and said, "Your father in?"
My father, who was hidden from Ed's sight by a half-wall, jumped up and started toward the door.
"Talk to you outside, Ben?"
"Sure, Ed. Be with you in a minute."
Ed tipped his hat and walked away. My father grimaced to indicate that we might have been overheard. He said,
"I better tell your mother I'm going out."
He went down to their bedroom. I went into the kitchen and got a glass of milk in case Ed was standing
out front, looking in. In the bedroom, my father was trying to sweet-talk my mother, but she wasn't going for it.
"For God's sake, Ben," she said. "After what that boy did to Ruthy Price?"
"He lives ten miles from here, Catharine."
"You said he was going to move into that camper."
"Hold your voice down," said my father.
They talked quietly for a minute, then my mother said, "No. I don't think it's charitable, as a matter
of fact. How do you know what a person like that is going to do next?"
My father said something I couldn't hear.
"Well, good," said my mother. "You just go off and help Ed some more. I suppose that's more interesting
than what goes on here."
"That's not true and you know it," my father said sharply. "I'm doing my best. If you don't think
I'm doing my best then you say so."
There was a long pause, so I coughed and went down the hall to my bedroom. I shut the door hard behind me and
lay on my bed in the dark.
A moment later, I heard the screen door creak open and hiss shut. I went to my window. My father was walking
across the lawn toward Ed's, but Ed emerged from behind a tree on the other side of our lawn and yelled to my father,
who turned around and walked to meet him on our driveway. Ed had the remains of a six-pack in one hand and an open
beer in the other. He put them on the hood of our car, then leaned on it and hung his head between his outstretched
arms. My father said, "What's up?"
"Well," he said in his odd, high voice, "Gail left me."
"Jeez," my father said. He walked over to the car and stood next to Ed. They were only sixty feet
from my window.
"AWOL as of nineteen hundred hours."
"Did she say why?"
"Yup." He swayed as he held a beer out to my father.
"She doesn't want the kid around. Wants him behind bars instead of at home. I told her to get out if that's
how she felt about her own kid." He lifted his hat and ran a hand through his hair. "She'll be back.
I'm going to buy a case of beer and camp out on my driveway and wait for her."
"Ed, you're not going to drink a case of beer."
"The fuck I'm not."
"Well, let me get it for you."
"I'm all right. I'll just go down to the corner."
"I'll get it right now. What do you want?"
"I don't care. Anything. Pabst Blue Ribbon."
My father walked back inside and Ed sat down in our driveway and opened another beer. "Christ-fucking-right
I am," he said, throwing the empty into the road. He put his head in his hands and rocked himself a bit, then
lay back on the pavement with his knees pulled up to his chest. It looked awful for a guy his size to do these
He stood up again and said, "You got to hang tough. Hang tough and you hang tough," then he cleared
his throat and spat into the street.
My father returned and handed him a six-pack of Budweiser. "Here," he said. "I don't want to
tell you what to do, Ed, but you're not going to sit out here and drink a case of beer."
"You sound like my wife," said Ed. He finished another beer and paced around. He turned to my father
and pointed his finger at him. "There are sometimes good men that you never forget."
My father nodded.
"I won't forget all this."
"I never forget," he said.
My father looked down and stuck his hands in his pockets.
Ed leaned onto the hood of the car and began to cry. "I don't know how much fucking pain they expect you
to take," he said. "I went up to see him today and he didn't even know who I was. My own kid. I put him
in the car to bring him home to see Gail, and you know what he says to me?
"He says, 'So, Mr. Johnson, how are your kids doing?' Mr. Johnson, he called me. So I decide to play along
and I say, Well, the oldest two are O.K., but the youngest is having some trouble. And you know what he does then?"
"He jumps out of the car while we're going thirty miles an hour."
"And he's O.K., because he's fucking trained. He's a trained survivor and a trained killer."
Ed sobbed harder. My father stood there for a minute and then he walked toward Ed. He grabbed his shoulder and
released it, then crossed his arms.
"Gail doesn't know the code. If she was going down, I'd go with her. Me and the kid, we're going down together.
Go to ground and cover." He leaned back on the hood. "Gail wasn't there. You know where I mean."
He looked at my father and my father nodded.
"You don't leave your own behind, goddamn it."
Ed wiped his face and looked up at the sky. "Oh Jesus God I got to go."
My father said, "Ed, this'll seem clearer to you if you get some sleep."
Ed looked at my father for a moment. He pointed at him with his free hand. "I don't forget," he said.
"This guy does not forget."
"O.K." My father stuck his hands into his pockets.
They were silent for a minute and Ed wiped his face again. Then he gathered his beers and said, "She'll
"Go to bed and talk to her in the morning," my father said.
When Ed had gotten halfway across the lawn he stopped and turned. "I keep the faith," he said. "I'd
go to hell and back."
My father said, "O.K. Get some sleep." Then he came inside.
The next morning Ed was asleep on his driveway. Someone had put a blanket over him in the night. I never found
out who, but, for some reason, I have always imagined it was my mother.
That day I started taking care of the Johnsons' dog, Ellie. It turned out all I had to do was go over around
noon and let her out and feed her while Ed was at work. She was a fat, old mutt with short yellow hair and hip
dysplasia. She had trouble walking around the house, never mind making it down the two steps to the carport, and
lots of days she had already done something on the kitchen floor. I cleaned it up as fast as I could and got out
of there, because the house smelled and it scared me. Every counter and piece of furniture was covered with something:
pizza boxes, plates halffull of food, books and magazines, fishing tackle, empty bottles, boxes with clothing in
them, rolled-up rugs, videotapes, kitchen tools.
A few weeks passed with other nights in which Ed Johnson drunkenly relayed to my father stories of his son's
military exploits. Johnny was third in his unit in physical fitness. He was first in marksmanship. He had single-handedly
captured enemy bases in two different war games. In one, he got aboard an enemy transport plane and, halfway to
its destination, threw a couple of mock grenades around and said, "We're all dead"-and took himself out
with them. He had married an older woman Ed called a paycheck Annie and had divorced her a year ago. Sometimes
Ed mixed up his own life with his son's by mistake and told about the Korean War or about Gail in military jargon
that made little or no sense. Once he fell down and my father had to take him home with an arm around his shoulders.
My father was trying to get the military to take Johnny back for psychiatric treatment. He had called somebody
in Washington about it and he said he knew a county judge who might be able to get Johnny a mental evaluation if
he were arraigned. Ed had his own ideas, but he was appreciative of my father's efforts. Little presents began
to show up in our mailbox or on our doorstep. In the morning, my father came in with the paper and revealed these
to us-selfhelp books autographed by Ed, bottles of Big Y Scotch, pages torn from The Prophet, chocolate
bars, hip-waders. My father shook his head and said, "What am I going to do with this stuff?" My mother
would roll her eyes and then my father would tell us what had happened the night before.
One morning, he asked me to give him a hand with the lawn mower, and we went out and pushed it down to the storm
drain, where he undid the nut to let the oil run out. He said, "Ed's son came to live with him last night.
He won't live in the house with Ed, so Ed's got him out in the camper. I don't think he's going to be here for
long, but I don't want you over in that house if he's around, you got me?"
"Now he's supposed to have a job, so I don't think he'll be around, but if he is you steer clear
of him. You let the dogsitting go for now."
He put the bolt back in its socket and wiped his hand on the grass. "I don't think your mother needs to
know any of this. She's on edge enough as it is." He showed me where to fill up the oil, then he drove off
When my mother went off to the library, I lay around watching game shows. Between programs I got up and looked
out my bedroom window to see if anybody had showed up next door. I considered putting the dog out, just to let
Ed know I was helping out. I thought about cleaning the place up a bit, airing it out, throwing out some of the
garbage. I wondered what would happen if Johnny Johnson showed up. I wanted to see what he looked like and whether
he talked to himself. I pictured him sitting on the steps of the camper late into the night, unshaven, holding
a cigarette butt between his thumb and forefinger, snapping his head from side to side to crack the bones in his
At dinner time, my father came through the front door with a big box marked Telecomp. He looked at me and said,
"Well, the old man may not sell the Telecomp no more." He was grinning, but it was a look that frightened
me, something wild that was not part of my father.
My mother came out of the kitchen quickly and then stopped and stood leaning towards him, as if she were afraid
to go any closer. She put a hand to her mouth and said, "Oh, God."
My father put the box down, then stood there looking at us with that same horrible grin. "Don't hold dinner,"
he said. "I've got more to do," and then he left. It was the first time I realized the face is a mask
and not a window.
My mother looked around her, as if quick action were necessary. "You eat," she said. "I'll wait
for your father."
She came out of the kitchen with a plate. We sat down in silence then, and when I was done, she told me to go
to my room and read.
In my room I wondered if everything would be all right, although I had only a vague idea of what it would mean
for things to get worse. When my father came back, I took out a book. I didn't want to know anything more about
Later in the evening a car pulled out of the Johnsons' driveway in a hurry. I couldn't tell who was driving
it, but I suspected it was Johnny Johnson. Soon after that, Ed came over and I heard my father go out with him.
In the kitchen, my mom was banging the cabinets as she put the dishes away.
I could hear the muted tones of Ed and my father on Ed's driveway. When there was suddenly silence, I went to
my window. There was no one in sight, but I heard a laugh from inside the Johnsons' house. I wondered what they
were doing. Then, as if it were something I had done often, I locked my door, raised the screen on my window, and
dropped down to the ground, in between the squat bushes below.
I maneuvered toward the back of our house until I could see my father and Ed talking next to Ed's porch, looking
out toward the camper in the back yard. Johnny was not with them. I advanced from the bush in front of my window
down to the street and up behind the cover of the old Ford Mustang, not twenty feet from the Johnsons' carport.
I crouched there for a long time, without hearing anything but the low sound of the voices coming from the back
yard. I decided I should circle the house the long way, but the camper was on that side and I did not want to go
near the camper. After a time the side door slammed and Ed said, "Here you go." I heard the pop of beer
cans and the scuffle of feet on the concrete carport coming my way. I didn't know what to do so I crawled under
the tail of the car. The grass had mostly died and the ground was cold and smelled of mud. I lay there without
"I don't know, Ed," my father said.
"It's not a gift."
"There's really not much hope at this point."
"Screw that," said Ed. "I'm tired of hearing about it. You know what you're doing. Better for
you to have it than Gail." He belched and kicked a pebble down the driveway. "Every day I go over my
life and try to figure out where I fucked up."
"You're doing the best you can."
"I'm not going down without a fight-that's what people are going to remember." He cleared his throat
and said, "Johnny held up Al Jacobson's little store today."
There was a long pause. I tried to imagine my father's face. I wondered if it would be stern the way it often
was with me, or whether he wanted to get out of there as badly as I did.
Ed said, "I heard it on the radio and I knew it was him even before I got home. I should have been a shrink.
I understand people, you know what I mean? I walked right out to the camper and there was a pile of money sitting
on the table."
"So I take the money and I sit there thinking, this is my kid that I raised and taught, and I could see
I'm in a tunnel I can't get out of."
"Oh boy, Ed."
"I mean, you look down this tunnel and you can see just where you're headed. And it's not where you ever
thought you'd be."
"Listen," said my father. "Let's just take a minute here."
"I'm not nuts, Ben. I see just how things are. I got to fall back. Gail wants this frigging divorce now.
When you got to go to the elephant, you got to go to the elephant."
"Listen, Ed, listen and try to think, because it might be the best thing to turn him in."
Ed started to pace back and forth. I could see his bare feet each time he got to the far side of the carport.
"The elephant," he said. "That boy understands the elephant like nothing else."
"I know that sounds hard, Ed, but let's just talk about it, because this is serious shit. I can call that
Bill McClennan and make sure the court gets an evaluation or a sentence that includes some treatment. It'll be
paid for by the state."
"I can't understand what she wants from me," said Ed. "I can't see why I'm so wrong in her
eyes." He was now pacing in a circle on the driveway.
"What do you think of that, Ed?"
Ed opened another beer and dropped it onto the driveway. "No," he said, picking it up. "What
I'm going to do is, me and Johnny are taking the camper somewhere and we're going to sort this out."
"O.K., Ed, first of all, the police are going to come looking for him and you're going to be involved,
too. You can't just take him like that."
Ed approached my father and he must have grabbed his arm, because I heard the clap of his hand on skin. "You
know why he got kicked out of the Corps?"
"He beat the shit out of his captain. You know why?"
"Because his wife said the guy winked at her."
"Ed, it's going to be hard for you to accept this-"
"Ben," said Ed, "shut up now, because you're starting to piss me off and I got to ask you a favor.
I need you to take care of things here while I'm in the field."
Ed took a long drink. I heard him crush the can and then heard it land in the carport.
"You got to call Gail. If she doesn't hear about this from someone on the same side, she'll flip her lid."
"I'll take care of all of this if you'll listen to some sense for one minute."
"I've had enough sense for a lifetime, Ben. That kid's all I've got. Come on in and let me give you the
check. I got to get moving."
I heard my father sigh. I was shivering half with cold and half with fear, wondering if my father would call
the police or let them leave.
Finally, he said, "I can't take it, Ed."
"It's not a gift, it's an investment."
"I can't take it."
"You take your own brother's money, you take your kid's college fund, you'll goddamn-well take this."
There was another long silence, and then the two of them went into Ed's house.
When I heard the screen door click shut behind them I got up and brushed myself off and ran back to my window.
I couldn't do a pull-up in gym class, but I did one there, skinning my knee on the metal casement.
I lay in bed breathing hard. I thought about Ed Johnson driving his camper out in the wilderness, with
his cowboy hat and his pipe, his small, hard eyes on the road and his big, dangerous boy sitting next to him. I
wondered if the boy would get better or steal and hurt again and what elephant he understood better than anything
else. I wondered if my father would have taken me if I were like the Johnson boy. I tried to think of what we would
talk about, but I couldn't think of anything except to ask him if he really took Ed's money and to say I didn't
care if I went to college anyway. Before I fell asleep, I prayed he wouldn't leave us.
It was still dark when I woke. A car was idling next door. A car door opened and clicked shut, then there were
I got up and saw that the camper had been hooked to Ed's sedan and driven almost to the street on the narrow
strip of lawn to this side of the carport. The sun was about to rise and it was light enough to see Ed standing
by the woodpile in the carport next to another man, who I guessed was Johnny Johnson. He was short and skinny and
he was not dressed in military clothing, but only in some old painter's pants and a ripped shirt tucked
in on one side. His hair was too long. It hung over his eyes, as if he had been roughed up. He didn't look like
a killer and suddenly I felt sorry for him. He was pacing around quickly while his father stood by the woodpile
saying something to him softly, over and over again. He did not answer but kept striding up and down, rubbing his
Suddenly, he looked at his father and shouted, "No."
Ed's voice became stern. "Get in the car."
"I don't think so."
"You don't know what you think. Get in the car."
"Your orders are to mount up, soldier."
Johnny cocked his head for a second, and then he walked into the carport and came out with a baseball bat. He
walked past his father and out around the camper, the whole time staring at his father's face, so that when he
had gotten to the car he was walking backwards. He said, "You want to go camping?"
Ed took out his pipe and lit it.
Johnny turned rapidly and brought the bat down on the windshield. It bounced off and he pounded it hard until
it cracked and began to sag into the interior of the car. He stopped and looked at his father.
Ed shook his head and said, "All right, are you satisfied?"
"No," Johnny said. He walked slowly to the back end of the car and began to break some of the smaller
lights with the butt end of the bat. As he broke each one he looked at his father and said, "There, how's
I got up then and ran to my parents' room. "Mom," I said, peeking into the darkness.
And there they both were, crouched at the window, looking out at the same scene, my father in his pajamas and
my mother with her bathrobe wrapped around her.
They turned around and my father put a finger over his lips. I walked around their bed and knelt between the
two of them. My mother put her arm around me. She said, "Your father just got off the phone with the police."
Johnny stopped what he was doing for a minute to tie his shoes. Then he looked at his father and knocked a mirror
off the side of the car.
"All right," said Ed, "that's enough, goddamn it." He strode toward his son, but with amazing
quickness the bat flicked out and hit him in the chest so hard he staggered and fell back onto his hands. We could
hear the thump of it hitting him and the sound of his wind leaving him.
"Where the hell are the police?" said my father. He gripped my arm and said, "Why don't you go
into the living room?" but I knew he wouldn't make me, and I didn't take my eyes off Johnny Johnson, who was
almost dancing with agitation as he looked down at his father. I was clenching my own fists hard, expecting another
blow, but before it happened, my mother yelled, "Don't you dare!"
It was one of those acts that cuts a situation right in half and makes things different in half a second. Johnny's
head snapped up and he looked at us with his mouth open, as though he hadn't realized he had a bat in his hand,
or that it was his father in front of him in the grass, trying to push himself up off his knees.
Johnny said, "Mind your own business." But he said it halfheartedly, as if once he heard his own voice
the energy ran out of him. He put the bat down and just stood there looking around. A moment later, three police
cars had converged at the end of the driveway.
The three of us got up without saying a word and pulled on some clothes. When we got outside there were sirens
and people had come out of their homes. Three cops were talking to Johnny next to one of the squad cars. Two others
were standing next to Ed, who was sitting there in the wet grass with his hands outstretched behind him.
I have often thought of the things someone might have said to him then and none of them are things I would have
wanted to say. As we approached him he looked up at us blankly for a moment, and we all stopped short. For a second,
something came into his face, as if he could see something that is ordinarily out of sight, passing us dangerously
every day without our ever feeling it is there. My mother put her arm around my father's waist and put a hand on
my shoulder and pulled me back against them. Ed turned and watched them push his son's head down into the squad
car. Then he lay back in the grass and put his hands to his head.
Tim Melley is a lecturer at the University of Washington, Seattle. He received his MFA from Cornell.