Elephant, Light by William Conable

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Elephant, Light by William Conable
Illustration by Sue Babcock

Jackson was given the international accounts because of his uncanny numbers over the past two years in the black hole of Arizona and Utah. At least that was what they told him.

“You’re a salesman, Jackson. I’ll give you that. How you pulled those mid-quarter earnings out of brown-back cowboy Arizona and the holy underwear wearing Mormons in Utah I’ll never know. Hell, I don’t want to know. Plausible deniability and all that.”

Jackson laughed at the joke because he was supposed to laugh. A secretive sense of shame always seemed to follow close on the heels of celebrating sales success. Humor helped focus moral vision he supposed.

#

Three weeks after being told his methods were best kept hidden from those in the know, Jackson was given a corner office and expense account. Nolet’s Gin was interested in expanding its market. Corporate, they told him, had turned their eyes to the East, to Asia, and Jackson was just the man for the job.

“Honey that’s wonderful. We’re so proud of you.” Speaking to him from across the living room, her hand caressed the swelling womb as her wedding band and diamond engagement ring caught the evening sunset. Being a quality diamond, its flash hurt Jackson’s eyes. The light was blinding, if only for a moment. He wondered in which trimester fetuses developed a sense of pride.

“Does that mean we’ll have to move? Maybe someplace exotic?”

Despite the eagerness in her eyes, Jackson told her the truth. There would be no move. The international accounts were just a desk, just numbers. If anything it meant he, not they, would be traveling more; there would be more hotels for him, more flights, more TSA screenings and the occasional random selection for further security reasons if he came back with too much of a tan. Never mind he knew it was all a senseless arrangement in the overrun and wholly inadequate airport screening apparatus, because he had once forgotten a knife in his carry-on but still had flown from Flagstaff to Dallas to San Francisco without incident, smiling and remaining courteous throughout the whole slaughter house traffic patterns of TSA. People need their security myths for comfort, and Jackson thought he was not the one to bring those ivory towers crashing down. Let them believe whatever they need so freedom seems less like captivity.

#

The promotion didn’t seem like much of a promotion. Jackson had liked Utah and Arizona. He was going to miss the red rocks in the morning and the conflux of cowboys and homosexuals of Flagstaff at night: a contradiction of identities that did more to confirm rather than to negate one another. Value was assessed through extremes. They each had their drugs. Jackson did not want to be promoted beyond those borders. Given the option, he would have said no. But there was no option, which meant yes was the only answer Jackson was permitted.

“We’re sending you to Thailand.”

He was wearing his silver tie. That meant he would be taking a golf lunch. Jackson noticed these things. He noticed them not because they were of any particular importance, but because of the habit they symbolized. Habits stood out to Jackson because they happened so regularly.

“We’ve got a guy in country who said he can get us the hotel contracts for Pattaya. You know Pattaya?”

Jackson said he didn’t.

“Well, you’re gonna. All I can say is two words–Walking Street.”

Jackson said he didn’t know what that meant.

“It means condoms aren’t covered on your expense account. That’s what it means you dirty-dicked son of a bitch.” Then he laughed, and Jackson laughed with him.

Later, Jackson thought on why people so often default to the vulgar in conversations. He wondered what made the impermissible permissible. Everyone who saw his wife knew she had had sex, but they never asked her if the child was Jackson’s, and no one asked him that either. He chalked their curious restraint up to the habit of being polite. Condoms and prostitution were just a manner of being polite. Politeness was a habit, just like the silver tie.

#

“But I don’t understand why you have to go. And so soon. They didn’t really give you much of a notice at all, now did they?”

She was frustrated. Looking at her, Jackson could see her ankles were swollen and judging from the smell in the bedroom earlier, she had been farting all afternoon. He had remembered to tell her about the trip during dinner. Their daughter, intent on sharing a drawing she had made of a blue elephant, reminded him. Not that she knew where her father needed to go, but there was the elephant. Before his daughter’s artistic interruption, Jackson had been talking about the silver tie.

“I think that’s the style now, hon. Silver ties. I read somewhere that men should model what the President wears. I think he wears a lot of silver. They all do. It’s flashy I guess.”

“Daddy! Daddy! Look at what I drew for you.”

“Maybe you should start golfing. You might like it.”

Holding Olive’s crayon sketch in his hand, he tried to decipher the primitive glyph of her art. Admitting he was no archeologist, and guessing incorrectly that it was a self portrait, his daughter seemed to grow frustrated with him.

“It’s an elephant, silly! Wouldn’t you like to ride a blue elephant?”

And then Jackson had remembered to tell his wife about Thailand. Then she seemed to grow frustrated.

“Well, there is nothing we can do to prevent it. How long will you be gone.”

Jackson told her four days, five if you count his return trip as a travel day. A look of relief passed over his wife’s face.

“That’s not so bad. I thought it would be longer, as in months.”

A smell began to crawl from one end of the table to the other. Olive crinkled her nose and looked to her father. Jackson sensed the reason for Dianne’s look of relief.

#

Heat, close and humid, welcomed Jackson as he left the airport. There had been a man waiting for him by the baggage claim. He wore sunglasses and held a cardboard sign with Jackson’s name scrawled across the face in marker. After gathering his bag from the carrousel (he knew it was the right bag because of the faded green ribbon his wife had tied to the handle when they went to watch her parents die), Jackson walked over and identified himself. Never having had a driver before, Jackson did not know what to say. He showed his passport, suspecting some proof of identity was necessary. The two exchanged a smile, the man took Jackson’s bag and began walking. Outside the weather said more to Jackson than his driver did. It told him he was in a new place with new sounds and smells and atmosphere. It whispered of poverty with dust, exhaust, in the smell of dried dog shit on the breeze; it spoke of greed with Angelina and Louis Vuitton billboards elegant and out of place in the din; it shouted of compassion in the monk tended Buddha shrine by the taxi stand where daily offering were made to some God not god. He began to sweat. His shirt stuck to his back and Jackson realized the strangeness of the country. A strangeness that bears witness to fashion and enlightenment and shit through a diesel tropic miasma.

Dodging through traffic, the driver pointed things out to Jackson. Speaking in Thai, and using his horn to great effect, the driver’s tone travelled in range from excited to grave. Jackson nodded along, not understanding. Outside the car, Jackson watched whole families speed past on motorbikes. Children wore oversized helmets and sat in their fathers’ laps. Mothers rode backwards, vacant and tired faces staring into the past while clutching market bags in one hand and the present tense motorbike in the other. Yellow scarves carried in the man made wind slapped at their faces. Some cared, snatching at the fabric, willing it, without success, into stillness. Others did nothing. Jackson opened his window. Outside he heard noise; an everywhere sort of living noise. Sometimes a smile with gold capped teeth escaped into view, becoming for a moment something apart from the rest, something individual. But mostly there was emptiness. Empty eyes and heat and voices calling out in a language he did not understand.

#

“Welcome to the Royal Cliff Grand, Mr. Myers. Here is your room key, and there is a message for you as well. Let me get that for you. One moment please.”

Jackson waited. From her name-tag he could see the woman wanted to be called Karen. He doubted that was her real name, but then again if it was a name she chose for herself it was as real as any other name. Karen was easy to pronounce. With its three consonants and two vowels, Karen had a familiar phonetic structure. Her name was another way to place people at ease.

“Here it is sir. They left you a number to call and as I see here, you have unlimited use of the phone in your room. This is our international dialing code, and here are the instructions on how to call locally. If you need anything, just dial 00 and we will help.”

Karen handed him a packet of instructions with a smile. She did not have any gold caps to her teeth. Instead, she had a tropical flower pinned to her chest. Jackson had never seen such a flower. He thought it might be a tiger lily, but then he must have seen a tiger lily before to know what it might look like. This is what travel does–robs us of masks and forces us to be wholly on the surface of things. Travel takes away familiar flowers.

#

Outside the sun was setting over the water. Light reflected off the ocean and struck the floor to ceiling windows. Dusk imposes an involuntary silence on the crowd. Like church, or a temple, or a mosque. The setting sun commands reverence. There was a brightness to the light that made Jackson squint. He had a headache from the airplane. His skin was sticky with dried sweat. A group of children came screaming out of the light, running past his legs. Their feet where wet and slapped on the floor in the interim of marble and carpet. Standing in the light, Jackson remembered the heat from the airport. The humidity made it hard to breathe.

#

The shower felt cool against his skin. He had never been to Thailand before, this was his first time. A balcony came with the room. Nolet’s had spared no expense, which meant someone cared about results. When he first came into the room, he saw the blinds were open. A last red from the sunset flooded the space making the whiteness of the sheets and pillows seem whiter.

Naked, Jackson stood with his back to the windows. Red gave way to twilight and the air conditioning in the room tried to beat back the continuous foreign heat of the country. Jackson wondered if he should shut the blinds. Then he realized no one knew who he was in this place. His nakedness didn’t count for anything.

He dialed the number left for him at the front desk. When the ringing stopped, Jackson realized he could not pronounce the name that had called him.

“It’s okay Mr. Myers, don’t worry about it at all. Call me Charlie.”

Jackson told Charlie to call him Jackson and they arranged to meet for dinner in the hotel. Asked what he would like to eat, Jackson kindly answered whatever, and Charlie said he would think of something.

#

“I am glad your travel department listened to me and booked you here. Just think of it, eleven restaurants in one hotel, and the Royal Cliff’s only one of twenty-five hotels.”

Charlie spoke impeccable English, which surprised Jackson until Charlie told him about Berkeley and his parents living in San Francisco.

“Coming back to Thailand was important to me. Besides the business opportunities, I wanted to see what home felt like. I’d never been before. My parents were immigrants, you know what I mean? ‘We left so you could have a better future,’ sort of sermon. I want to help here though, do some good here.”

Jackson asked if Charlie had always thought Thailand was home for him.

“Everyday. All of my life really. I belong here, and knew it all the time.”

Dinner was at the Caprice. A sign out front said diners were not allowed to wear shorts. Charlie had the fillet mignon with asparagus and a baked potato. Still tired from his flight, Jackson had a papaya salad and asked if he could smoke.

“Not in here.”

Leaving Charlie at the table, Jackson went into the night. His wife forbade smoking at home. Scared of the threat of cancer, she became upset when Jackson pointed out the threat of life in general. At least here he could smoke without worry.

He heard the ocean in the dark. He saw the flare of his lighter reveal the edge of the sand. So this was Charlie’s home. He had known it all his life. If that was true, Jackson wondered where Charlie had learned the sound of his own voice. He wondered where he had learned anything at all.

After dinner they ordered a drink at the bar. Charlie seemed intent on scrutinizing the bottles on the wall. Jackson noticed the wedding ring.

“I’ve been married six months now. We are trying for a kid. You know those Thai women man, they all want a baby. Gives them something to do.”

Jackson smiled. People liked to talk about children. The two of them made plans for the next three days. Lots of driving.

“So, is Nolet’s really interested?”

Jackson said he didn’t know.

“See you bright and early tomorrow. Gotta get home to the wife. I’m telling you, these Thai women. Always keeping tabs.”

#

Back in the room, he stripped naked with the blinds open. He smoked another cigarette on the balcony. Out in the water he saw red and green lights blinking. He heard people playing in the surf but couldn’t see them, so he wasn’t sure if they were there. To his right a couple sat looking at the ocean. Jackson nodded his head in hello. They did not see him. To his left a small boy, maybe six years old, shirtless and with his pants around his ankles, pissed off his balcony while inside the hotel room Jackson heard the sounds of a baseball game on the television. Jackson nodded at the boy who looked at him, smiled and nodded back.

#

By the end of the second day Jackson had seen enough of Pattaya hotels and their clientele to know Nolet’s had a future. He told Charlie further excursions would not be necessary. The hotels catered to a Western ideal of luxury. Jackson told Charlie he would draw up the contracts when he got back to the States.

“I told you, man! This is my home. Do I know this place or what?”

Jackson said yes, not wanting to upset Charlie’s vision of himself. Identity didn’t matter so much as numbers, which became, over time, a different kind of identity. It became something quantifiable.

“Do you have any plans for tonight?”

Jackson said no. He said something about going for a walk.

“Well, be careful. This may look like a resort town, but I’m telling you, there are some serious thugs around. I know this place.”

Jackson thanked him.

“Do you want me to come along, maybe show you some of the other sights?”

Jackson said no.

“It’s probably just as well. The wife wants me home. These Thai women. They’re always keeping tabs. So I guess this is it then, huh?”

Jackson said yes.

“Look, if you’re ever in town again for business or whatever, just reach out. You’ve got my info. It’s been a real pleasure, Jackson. A real eye opener, you know what I mean.”

They shook hands and Jackson noticed Charlie’s wedding ring again. He would probably never pay a personal visit to Charlie. Jackson didn’t like him. He talked too much. Then again, Jackson admitted he couldn’t know the future, so it was best not to commit to anything uncertain.

#

Late afternoon sun was bright on the water. Jackson squinted against the shards of bright water. If he looked at the shimmering too long his eyes would start to water and then there would be a headache. The couple and the boy had left the hotel that morning. Jackson continued to smoke naked. Occasionally someone on the beach would point up in his direction, but Jackson didn’t know them so he didn’t point back.

Leaning his elbows against the rail he thought about where he should walk. He’d already seen enough of the resort area. What he hadn’t seen was no doubt the same as what he had already seen. Nothing changed. Resort travel was meant to transplant one country into another. Avoiding difference, sameness confirmed home as the right place to be. Names like Karen and Charlie were common for the staff. Jackson wanted none of that. It was all the same. He felt the whole crystal moment could shatter with the force of one thrown stone against the facade. On the boy’s balcony a middle-aged woman came out to admire the view.

“Honey! You’ve got to come look at this. It’s beautiful!”

She wore a wrap around her waist and a white bikini top. Her hips showed signs of motherhood and her legs suggested the extra fat of a sedentary life she had only recently tried to hide. She didn’t see Jackson.

“Wow. Absolutely beautiful.”

He wore a tank-top with shorts. In that outfit there would be no dinner at the Caprice. He watched as the man circled his arms around the woman’s waist. Jackson turned back to the ocean, giving them their privacy.

“Hey, what’s your fucking problem buddy?”

Jackson turned back to the man.

“Yeah you, sicko. What the shit man? Why don’t you put some fucking clothes on or something. Jesus.”

The woman had gone inside. Jackson nodded to the man, taking a drag from his cigarette.

“That’s real cute asshole. Real cute.”

The man went back inside. Jackson looked out again at the ocean. It would be evening soon. He should get started. Extinguishing his cigarette in the coffee cup turned ashtray, Jackson saw he had an erection. He hadn’t noticed it before.

#

Walking Street was nothing like what Jackson had expected. Surrounded by the press of bodies, the catcalls of freelance whores and go-go dancers, swimming through the neon press of sex marketing and every third step a woman calling out, questioning, “Hey baby need a date,” he felt the world spin and tilt around him as when he had been a child and spun, looking into the shameless blue sky for too long, and suddenly standing still had lost his balance only to tumble to the earth. Jackson caught the contagion of social vertigo. The animal press of flesh on flesh in the herd, the calls to drink and smoke and dance and possibly have a good time which of course meant nothing and everything depending on the clothes or not clothes the offerer of said good time was wearing. He saw men with girls, or what looked to be girls, small and petite with iliac crests still nascent in skirts, walking hand in hand towards some Gomorrah in the darkness, outside of the reach of light. Lights everywhere in all colors and new vivid colors blinding him, flashing dragons or koi, and of course strange hieroglyphs which were a language he could not read or decipher; he did not understand. And there was the smell of coconut milk and hot peppers and spices to make the eyes water which were already watering from the lights or perhaps from tears and the spinning lost sense of balance. Everywhere voices, speaking talking rising up into a din, calling out to strangers, to him, the bump of a body against his own, Australian from the accent, taking Jackson under his arm, thinking him someone else then realizing the mistake and not caring because it did not matter who was who as long as no one knew anyone and everyone was a stranger to each other. Chaos consuming the senses and still the spinning. Always the spinning now, because as Jackson learned, in standing still long enough he felt the spin of the universe which meant nothing to anyone else, and everything to himself because he was the one who gave it all meaning.

Then Jackson found darkness. A place beyond the voices, beyond the lights and sounds and press of existence. He was removed, free to a quieter street not knowing how he got there, not knowing where he was, knowing only he was adrift and unafraid.

“Mister like some tea? Take rest. Take rest. Tea here. Sit, sit, sit”

The room was dark, dimly lit. Jackson sank into the chair and felt his shoes being removed. He wanted to protest, but didn’t, but couldn’t. Still spinning, he waited for the world to slow. The woman put a cup of tea in front of him. It was cool in his mouth. That he knew. He thought he tasted fruit, a fruit he did not know.

“Mister want massage?”

Nothing worked. His tongue was still confused. There was only taste, the taste of something he did not know. He nodded, unsure of how he nodded, unable to see what he nodded, feeling only his head move because he had asked it to move.

He allowed himself to be led back, further into the darkness. There were curtains and the sounds of rain, but it hadn’t been raining, or had it? His clothes were wet, but that could have been sweat. The air was close, but it moved. It moved around him and then a curtain opened. Red light. Not as bright as the sunset, not as bright as memory and he could look into it without squinting.

“Mister here. Take off clothes. It’s okay. It’s okay put pants here. It’s okay, it’s okay.”

Like a child, he followed. He stripped and was naked in the red light. A voice asked questions and he did not know the answers so he nodded. The habit of politeness. He fell back on what he knew and there were no clothes and then he was lying down and saw feet and felt what felt like water. Coolness on his skin and a cloth, perhaps a cloth that was cool compared to the heat. He knew the coolness, felt the coolness then felt the hands against the coolness. Warm hands. Strong hands. Soft like the cloth but not like the press of earlier. Washing, cleansing, oiling, and Jackson tried to follow it all but knew he could not so he let go. He opened himself up to the ablution and there was darkness, and coolness, and the rub of the hands.

“Mister turn over.”

And he did and there was more water and washing and the oil kneading of the body again. He stayed in the dark, the world still spinning beyond the dark, what little light still left shining but dimmed by the curtain of his closed eyes. Then rhythm, and he felt calm and the world slowed. His body, an object and for the first time he became aware of its objectiveness; its viscera: a coiling, snaking center, a multitudinous center, fighting to remain coiled, experiencing the pain of straightening at a stranger’s hands. Then the gap, the chasm, the place of here and not there comes into being. Having attained animal limits under the ministrations of another, he did not want to go back, rather he wanted to remain. Going forward meant emptiness, a new void, less welcoming, less phenomenal than here, now, this. Everything slowing, finally slowing down and the rhythm, the near breaking of fever, and the edge, dangerous, dizzying, with sea brine taste on the tongue as when consumed by an unexpected wave (that sudden swallowing, where foam and green are all of sight, and open eyes sting for the ocean that could be woman but is merely ocean) the body knows only a longing for air, and instinct compels the body to rise as reason drives the body to remain submerged, bound to ocean-not-woman. Pleasure measured by negation; the fight for existence. Then the happening: the body yields, the instinctual surge rises victorious, shatters the crystal dome of heaven which is not heaven but the surface, and the lungs bursting, call out to the body to breathe in life. Life; Life against Reason, and the moment (the painful intimate straightening by unfamiliar hands) all too brief, gone.

“Mister shower now. Take clothes. Here, Mister. This way.”

Another cleansing, this time his own hands washing himself, confirming his body as present, while wearing strange shower shoes he did not remember putting on his feet. But it was all there. Held in his own hands with its coarse hair, its animal coarseness and familiarity. The pattern of washing unchanged from home to here except perhaps an awareness of the pattern: head, face, arms, trunk, legs. Washing away, scrubbing, in some unknown shower with familiar objects: towel, soap, washcloth, nozzle, water; uncertain if what happened will remain. He is unknown. A stranger in a strange shower where the only spinning is the maelstrom of water–not-ocean–nor-woman down a drain, down to sewage, down to nothing.

Jackson thought of his wife, the swell of life growing in her somewhere far away. He imagined the mother’s scar of her navel, the whole universe in her navel scar unwinding, untangling itself, making sense of the senseless and the incontrovertible fact that he and she and they, the whole of his family, including the whole of more than his family were made of the same accidental stardust gathered in time before time, or maybe, perhaps in a cow’s throat, but certainly gathered together. And now doubting, now thinking, feeling and believing there must be meaning more true than the awful collisions of atoms and heat which ripped us into existence only for disappointment, only to know shame.

Distance confounded him. It was not a lie to not tell. Silence is a kind of speech, just as living apart is a way of being together.

#

On his last day in Thailand, Jackson gathered all his notes from his time with Charlie. Looking them over once more, and in greater detail, he decided the right choice had been made. Nolet’s would find a ready market amongst the tourist crowd. Everyone craves a taste of luxury and absolutely a bit of home when they travel. Of course there are the arrogant few who won’t admit to it, but arrogance is inescapable in the crowd. He threw away his cigarettes and closed the blinds to the balcony. Heights made him dizzy.

Karen with the flower arranged for a driver to take him to the airport. She smiled while making the arrangements. Jackson asked if the route would take them through any markets, and Karen said that could be arranged. People want to be accommodating.

#

The market stalls arranged themselves in a grid. European tourists and American tourists and Canadian tourists and American tourists masquerading as Canadian or European milled inside the maze. Jackson’s driver came with him. He took the job seriously. A young man, he wore a white pressed shirt, tie and jacket. The weather was still humid. Jackson was beginning to acclimate, but he didn’t know what he was looking for.

Near the middle of the grid Jackson discovered a booth selling wood carvings. On a shelf of animals Jackson found a naked wood elephant. The trunk curled inwards towards the body and the elephant was seated, its two front feet grounded while the hind legs splayed out in front. There was an innocence to the pose, something childlike. Jackson took it and reached for his wallet.

“You bargain here, sir. But this woman, she pretend like she don’t speak English. You want I should talk for you?”

Jackson said it was fine. He said he only needed to know the price.

An argument between the woman running the booth and the driver began. Jackson turned his back on them, cradling the elephant in his hands.

“Okay, you pay 200 baht. She wanted 500 hundred, but I tell her you big time guy so she charge only 200.”

Jackson gave the woman the 200 baht. She bowed, holding her prayer like hands high above head. Jackson nodded and walked away.

The new driver was not as fond of the horn as the first had been. He was younger. Outside the windows families continued to fly past on motor bikes. Mothers still rode, looking back into the past but there seemed to be far fewer helmets than Jackson remembered. Instead of helmets, he saw the looks of joy on the children’s faces cradled in the front laps of their fathers, an adventurous few taking hold of the handlebars, believing themselves to be guiding their way through traffic because they did not yet accept another hand drove them, another hand steered.

Jackson liked that the elephant was naked, that the color of the wood was preserved. Maybe Olive would like to paint it. He had bought it for her, the elephant. He didn’t know. Maybe she would like to paint it orange or black or white. Whatever color she wanted. Maybe she would paint the elephant green and call it yellow. Maybe she would keep it naked and say it was red. None of these things mattered, really. The sun warms us all equally. Maybe she would like to paint it blue, silly.

Maybe, she would paint it blue.

 

AUTHOR BIO: William Conable is an award-winning playwright and poet who lives in Concord, California. His most recent short-stroy, "Funeral Fount," was published in The East Bay Review. Other writing has appeared in WORK Literary Magazine, The Dead Mule and with the Quixotic Players of Berkeley. Originally from Virginia, Conable came west to shed the South’s moldy pretensions for something fresh. He is currently at work on several new pieces, including a novel; when not writing, he bikes in the East Bay hills and considers whether redemption is possible for anyone, and if so, why we care so much about it.