Elephants on the Lawn
On my own for a whole summer at my grandparents’ house on Long Island. Really cool. I was already planning what to do as I watched my mother and her new husband drive away.
“C’mere,” Glumpa said from behind me. I’d called him Glumpa—or just Glump—ever since I could remember, all because I hadn’t been able to say Grandpa. It never seemed like an odd name to me, even then when I was eleven.
“Come on, I want to show you something.” He limped over to the old well, something I’d always been forbidden to go near. I could never budge the heavy wooden cover—don’t ask how I knew that—but Glump slid it off like it was nothing and leaned against the stone rim. He was skinny as a rail, but surprisingly strong. With one big hand on my shoulder, he pulled me closer and we both looked inside. It was dark in there and smelled kind of like the woods when it rained, but with a sour smell behind it. I couldn’t see any water, but I knew that’s where they used to get the water for the house.
“How deep is it,” I wanted to know.
“Deep. I could throw you in there, and nobody would ever find you.”
I looked up at him, trying to read his face. What was this? Was he kidding in that serious way he sometimes did? He had to be kidding, right?
“I mean it, boy. You get away with a lot of shit with your mama. Your dad’s death hit her hard, and she hasn’t been herself for a while. She lets you get away with murder, but that’s over. You won’t be starting no fires here, or jumping off the roof, or wandering the countryside like you was already a man. And you won’t be acting like the world owes you something. Not here. Here, you’ll behave. You’ll be respectful and you’ll mind your manners. You’ll say thank you for every bit of food TuTu puts in front of you, every time she washes your clothes, every time she so much as smiles at you.” Tutu means “grandmother” in Hawaiian, and that’s what everybody called my grandmother. I didn’t even know her real name. Glumpa was still talking. “I hope you’re listening real good. You’ll pick up your clothes, and you’ll keep your room neat. You’ll have some chores, and you’ll look for other ways to help around here. Do you get me?”
At different times in life, a line gets crossed, making what feels like a tipping point. This was one of those for me. Nobody I cared about had ever talked to me that way, and I was somewhere between shocked and angry. Others had sometimes tried—coaches, teachers, bus drivers—but none of them mattered. In fact, I’d always found it kind of funny. This was different. I tried to answer Glump, but my voice stuck in my throat, and I made a kind of strangled sound. “Yes, sir,” I finally managed. It was the only thing to say.
He nodded. “Exactly what I needed to hear.” Then he recapped the well, turned, and walked inside. Left out there, I looked around the yard, a couple of acres fenced by conventional chain link to give the dogs a place to run. It might be a long couple of months.
Nothing bad happened for a week. I did what I was supposed to do and “acted right,” on the outside at least, and it was okay. I did my chores, I was nice to TuTu, and I pretty much avoided talking to Glump. I walked around their perfectly kept house like it was a museum, and there was never anything else said about the discussion by the well. But I hadn’t forgotten. I figured I’d been an ass, the way I’d acted with my mom after Dad died, but it looked like I came by that honestly. Glump had me beat by a mile.
So the days just went by. I played a lot with Rowdy, their German Shepherd, and was allowed to walk to the convenience store a mile away. All in all, I kept my head down, but I was bored. I figured there was a good chance of meeting up with guys my age on those trips, but the ones I encountered either weren’t interested in me or they weren’t interesting.
That day when I was coming back, I heard the whoop of a police siren. You know, one of those quick whoop-whoops to get someone’s attention? I started running and when I got close enough to the house, I could see two police cars parked in front, lights spinning. Glump was standing at the gate talking through the fence to three cops, and a fourth guy was standing next to one of the cars saying something into a radio. Rowdy was barking up a storm from where he stood on the porch, but nobody seemed to care. I ran to get closer, and then slowed to a walk when I could finally hear what they were saying. They all seemed to know each other, and the conversation was calm and almost friendly. But it didn’t make any sense.
“…elephants on the lawn,” I heard one of the cops say.
What did that mean? Was it code?
Glumpa looked back at the house with a kind of sad look on his face. It was the first time I’d ever seen him look that way. I went closer.
“She called you?” Glump asked the tallest cop.
“She did, Bill. Called 911 about ten minutes ago and said that a bunch of elephants must have escaped from the zoo or a circus. Said they were in your yard tearing up the lawn. Wanted us to come get ’em.”
Glumpa just looked down and shook his head. He looked smaller and very tired. “I knew she was having trouble, forgetting things and getting things jumbled, but there was never anything like this.”
“I’m sorry. I know this must be hard, but we’re gonna have to come inside, Bill. It’s the law on 911 calls. We have to talk to the person who made the call, face-to-face.”
“Sure, I understand. Let me put the dog away.”
I didn’t know the word dementia then, didn’t know much at all about what sometimes happens to people when they get older, or how much it could change all the lives involved. But I did understand the idea of tipping points in life.
Copyright © 2014 Gail Webber
Gail Webber retired from science teaching after 32 years in the classroom, and has begun a second career as a writer.
Gail received her undergraduate degree in Zoology from Iowa State University, and did graduate work in Education at Trinity College and Catholic University. Her Masters degree from Hood College is in Biomedical Technology. In her teaching career, Gail taught various science courses at the middle school, high school, and college levels. She also worked for two non-profit organizations, one with a focus on environmental education, and the other offering assistance to troubled young people. In those capacities, she has written more than thirty curricula for targeted audiences.
Now Gail writes fiction. Her most recent publication is Time of the Cats, a middle reader book about coming of age in 1880s Colorado.