I beat on the subway doors, screaming your name.
Melody, I say, Melody, baby, why you leaving me?
I wish the people around you would point at me. They smack their gums and read their magazines. No one notices a thing.
I want to brush the bangs out of your face. To hold you as you cry on that red plastic seat. To say, I’m sorry.
Look at you. You’re shivering. I have my jacket. I can hold you. Warm you up. Stroke your cheek. Hum you some tunes. Soothe you to sleep.
But oh, no.
You’d push me away. Strangle me with your nasty words. You’re worthless, Blue, you’d say. Broke and pitiful. I don’t want that.
The train comes alive. You lurch forward. Zoom away. Swallowed by the tunnel.
I walk up the slanted concrete ramp to West 4th. The ground is covered in coffee cups, the station walls with posters—people in skimpy clothes, a fancy hotel with a pool. A man sings a sad song. His friend plays the tambourine. I wish they would stop.
I buy a few bottles at the corner store. Pass the college kids pouring out of their clubs. The wind blows something harsh from the river. Rips the hat right off my head. I chase after it, hoping my bottles don’t break apart in the brown paper bag by my side. They clang and bang as I run. People laugh but I don’t care. I get my hat. My bottles don’t break.
My hat’s all wet, though. Smells funny. Like old Chinese food.
I open the door to my apartment. The kitchen floor is splattered with paint. Puddles of green, ribbons of yellow, specks of blue. A rainbow of confetti, ripped apart and thrown about.
I start wiping up with a tattered brown rag. The checkerboard floor slowly reappears—black and white blocks, one by one. I sip a bottle while I clean. Careful not to get glass in my hands. I cut myself anyway. A shard of what used to be a plate.
That’s a mean thing you did, breaking all my things.
I’m not even sure what happened. We were sitting on Mama’s ugly old couch. Listening to a jazz record and laughing. You started crying. What’s wrong, baby? You couldn’t even look at me. Then you started speaking, quietly, like you were whispering to a sleeping child. You said awful things about me. About how I don’t make enough money selling my paintings on the street. How you need more from a man. Got upset when I tried to hold your hand. Started jumping around like you were in a pinball machine, knocking into everything and bumping things off the walls, off the shelves, even out of the closets.
Then, we bumped into each other and into the street and we were bouncing all the way to the subway station. You bounced into that train. I bounced off.
The streaks of paint are gone from my floor. I left a little bit, though. There’s a patch of yellow in the corner by the trash can. Even the ugly stuff—that’s better than the nothing stuff. I can’t throw it all away.
Why’d you go after my jazz records, too? Scattered across the wood floor now like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle.
Need another bottle before I can clean this mess.
Warms my belly. Cools my head. I put on a jazz record. Not that one. Notthe one we were listening to. A new one. A better one. Ah. Listen. That sax is swirling to the ceiling. Fills this room to the brim. Bizz. Bazz. Boom. Oh yes, I’m in it now. Wrapping around me and making everything feel good. Skiddleebopbopbopbop. A nice hot bath, that’s what it is.
I want to paint. To grab everything around me and spit it out into something new. Make it wonderful.
Hold on, let me sip my bottle. That’s better. I can see things good and clear now. Clear enough I can paint them. There’s an elephant dancing on my couch. A big one with floppy ears and a nice twinkle in her eyes. She’s playing the accordion, I think.
Or is it a tambourine?
Another sip helps.
Oh my. Why’d you leave?
The other side of the bed is empty. Has been for weeks. I don’t like it, not any of it, not at all. I take that big flower quilt Mama made and ball it up like it’s you. Whisper things to it. Secret things, sad things. Come back, baby. Please. We can make it work. I promise. That quilt just looks at me like I’m nothing. Never says anything back.
There’s a bunch of bottles on the floor when I wake up. I make a little path. Kick them away like rocks on a dirt road. Hop to the bathroom. Wash myself off. Make sure to pat my beard dry because it’s so cold right now and I don’t want my face hair getting all frozen. Get dressed in my hat and my long underwear. My jacket that says SUPER BOWL XXXI. My hiking boots I found a while ago on Christopher Street.
That elephant is waiting for me in the kitchen. Sits right there at the table looking hungry. I give her a glass of milk. Put some Kix in my belly. Tell my elephant today’s the big day and off I go.
Usually, I stay on the corner by that big moving cube in Astor Place but no, not today. I have been painting that elephant for days and days and need to huff it everywhere to make myself some money. Got to catch up. That’s why I’m wearing my hiking boots.
Broadway’s first. Old white people stop and stare. Like I’m a dog or a pile of trash. Smile and say, Oh how nice but I don’t have any money on me today. Bull. I know better. What do those dirty liars know about making ends meet? Wearing their silk ties and sparkling earrings to see somebody sing and dance? Bull.
Next, it’s Washington Square Park. All those NYU kids are smoking their butts off. I’m freezing and not having much luck. Other men are selling bags and bags of stuff. I figure these kids just want to get high. Don’t want a masterpiece painting. I’m about to leave when some kids start talking to me. They all have the exact same clothes with the exact same haircut. One of them buys a painting. Then the next, the next, the next. When they all have a painting, each of them takes out a cigarette and starts smoking at the exact same time.
I feel like I’m seeing duplicates of things. Clones in a sci-fi movie. It makes me sad. All these kids with their smiles and their cigarettes, having a good time. Makes me miss you and having someone to share all my favorite things with. Not cigarettes, of course, but other things, nice things, like dancing to a jazz record. My head hurts. Like a bottle of Coke shook up too much.
Back to Astor Place. A kid stops and says his favorite animals are elephants. Buys a nice piece with my elephant munching on a slice of chocolate birthday cake. More waiting. A man in a black suit stops and asks about my paintings. I tell him about my elephant and how she showed up as soon as you left. Buys that big one with the purple sky and the elephant playing tambourine by the swimming pool. Keeps talking. Asks for my name. Gives me a business card. Says he sells art and asks if we can chat sometime about making a deal together. The answer is, Of course, but I’m speechless. Can only nod my head up and down like it’s broken. The man smiles and shakes my hand. Says, See you soon, Blue Bamboo.
The thought of you drums in my head as I walk. Bizz. Bazz. Boom. Like the subway doors shutting in my face. Slam. You’re telling me I’m worthless. Broke and pitiful. My head is going something strong now. Slam. Blam. Slam. I want a bottle. But I won’t do it. I’m too happy and proud. I’ll prove you wrong. Walking up these steps not a bottle in hand. Skiddlee. I did it. I won. I’m making something of myself.
Still, it feels like somebody’s frying eggs inside my head. Hold on, hold on, I need to be playing a jazz record. That’s better. Oh yes, Mr. Coltrane, play me those sweet sorrows on that saxophone. That’s my man. Duhdoodop, duhdoodop. Oh, look at my pretty baby girl getting off the couch and dancing with me. Baby, baby, you liking these tunes? Look at me and my elephant, dancing all over this room. We’re twirling and twirling and I wish she wasn’t so big or I’d toss her up, dip her around, move her this way and that. But oh, can she jive. Kicking up her back legs and throwing up her front legs like she’s praising everything she can. And now, she’s playing that trunk like it’s a trumpet. Playing that trunk like it’s anything she wants it to be. See, now she’s playing that trunk like it’s a trombone. Yes baby girl, play those hot tunes. Duhdoodop, duhdoodop. My oh my, I’ve got the queen of the dance floor tonight. Sounds just like a trombone.
If you hadn’t left, you would be here right now, proud of me, and we’d kiss and hold each other and you’d moan, Oh Blue oh Blue. But oh, no. Maybe it doesn’t work like that. If you were here, then I probably wouldn’t be painting my elephant, and so what would that nice man have bought himself instead?
Been sitting here for days with my bottles and my brushes and my records trying to figure my elephant out. All Mama and Papa wanted was for me to have this apartment and do my paintings and have a family of my own. I just wish I knew where my elephant came from. Isn’t that part of family? Knowing history, genes, who’s colorblind, who’s not, who has egg allergies, who had a secret scandalous love affair with their high school English professor, and all those exciting, important things? I have one green eye and one brown eye and supposedly my great Aunt Sally had this too and so that’s what I mean by family history and wanting to know more about my elephant.
I think she’s yours.
I found this T-shirt all balled up at the bottom of the closet. I thought maybe there’d be some old jars of jelly or something like that to munch on back there and, of course, there wasn’t. That was just me being hungry and not wanting to go out because my head was hurting so bad. Anyway, behind all these old shoes Papa used to wear was a T-shirt. It was all cut-up. Not looking too pretty at all. I remember we’d go dancing and you’d buy all these nice clothes in the Village and you’d cut them up, mix and match, sew them together, making something brand new that was totally your own. That’s what this T-shirt is, I bet: something you cut up and made into something else. I was touching it, feeling it, remembered one time we were walking and you found this shirt with an elephant on it and you just loved it so much you didn’t want to tear it up until you found something you loved just as much to mix and match it with. You’d wake up in the morning, wearing nothing but that shirt and make me pancakes, come back to bed, make love to me, watch TV, chat all into the night, still wearing that same elephant T-shirt like you had all day long.
Then you found this other thing. I can’t remember what it looked like, but you loved it so much that finally you cut up that shirt and made this pretty long dress and then we went dancing and you were the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen.
Lately, I’ve been doing lots of paintings but my favorite is this one with my elephant girl dancing her heart out. She’s wearing this pretty multicolored dress looking like Marilyn Monroe in the middle of this giant beautiful ballroom with a chandelier. Everybody else in the ballroom is staring at her, not even dancing, they find her so captivating. I’m calling it “Queen of the Dance Floor.” That man in the black suit keeps buying more and more of my paintings, and I bet he buys this one next. Collecting things of mine just like I collect my jazz records from that man on Bleecker. Sometimes, I think he’s stocking up to put me in a museum or a gallery. Wouldn’t that be something, me in a museum? What would you say to that?
Probably just come back to me and take my painting and go off and run away again.
But I don’t really know. All I do know is that my elephant is mine and she is for me and I won’t let her leave me. Not like you did.
Hold on, let me put on a record. Maybe you bought this for me but I can’t remember and I can’t let my head keep hurting because now I’m out of my bottle. Just need to sit right here and listen to my jazz. Good, good, good. I’m putting my hand right there. That’s right, that feels good. Riding my elephant now.
You can watch, but I’m sure you can’t see.
Look at me, I am making such a nice dinner for that man in the black suit. It’s my favorite meal, really. But you know that. Each of us is having a big old bowl of Kix with applesauce and chocolate milk. That’s an appetizer, I guess, but really it’s just breakfast, because I like to have all my meals every meal, so I do some sort of breakfast-lunch-dinner thing every time I eat. So each of us is having our appetizer and then fried green tomatoes and peanut butter-banana-mayo-SPAM sandwiches for the main course and I got some of those nice Hostess cupcakes for dessert. Only, I squeezed out the centers with all the icing in them and put rice pudding in its place because I like that better. Then, we’ve each got a nice tall glass of eggnog to top it all off. It’s very hard to find eggnog this time of year. Christmas is still two months away and nobody’s selling it yet, but I’ve been saving this for a long time, kept it right there on a special shelf in my refrigerator, and so when I was expecting a guest I said, Better bring out the eggnog, Blue, this is a special occasion. Got a jazz record playing, too, and a pink ribbon between my baby girl’s ears.
There’s knocking at the door. The man in the black suit is wearing a purple bowtie and I tell him he looks mighty spiffy. Nice place you have, Blue. I tell him Mama and Papa left it to me. Sit him down in the middle chair between me and my elephant. Good stuff from the other room. Duhdoodop, duhdoodop. The man likes the music. Ever try that jazz bar on 6th and 27th? Put a bowl of Kix in front of us and we start talking business.
There’s a party. For some rich lady. Brain cancer research. She loves my painting with the purple sky and the elephant playing tambourine. It’s an auction, you see. He wants me in a fancy tux. She’ll introduce you to her friends. We’ll meet all these famous people. It’s your big break, Blue. I nod up and down like my neck’s broken again. I’m done with my Kix. That man in the black suit hasn’t even picked up his spoon.
The man keeps talking. Bizz. Bazz. Boom. Loving this jazz. Take up our bowls and grab the green plates. Squeeze a little tartarsauce on the side for my tomatoes. He tells me I need a story. I say, Oh no, I don’t read much, and he says, Oh no, not that kind, but a life story. Strange because I have a life. My elephant and my secret special painting method and my bottles. Even you.
Well, Blue, it doesn’t quite work like that. Explains how nice and rich this lady is, famous with all her charity work. A reputation to upkeep, understand? Goes on about my bottles not being the best thing for her friends to know about. See, we need to have a story, a nice story about why you make all this wonderful art. Swing my shoulders to the rhythm. Skiddleebop. He’s jabbering about publicity and I just want to eat and I say, Sure why not? I’ll do whatever it is you want.
He says, Your Papa was an elephant poacher from Tanzania and now you’re making art to raise awareness about this endangered animal. I say, I don’t think that’s true, and he says, Well, that doesn’t matter, can you just pretend so we can sell your paintings? and I say, Well sure, why not? I’ll do it. I sign a piece of paper and he signs one too. Gives me a check for lots and lots of money, more than anybody has ever given me before.
What’s another fake made-up memory if I can’t even remember you?
The man in the black suit stands up and shakes my hand. Shuts the door so hard the trash can falls over. I prop it back up and see that yellow spot of yours. My head’s pounding. The end of a battering ram banging against a dungeon door. Bizz. Bazz. Boom. That yellow spot is growing and growing and the rest of the floor is turning to water. The waves are splashing in my face. Skiddleebopbopbop. I feel like I am going to throw up. A castaway trapped on a desert island. Why is that elephant looking at me like that? Why doesn’t she go away? It’s because of you I keep seeing this thing, I know it. Stop staring baby girl, stop it stop it stop it. Oh I don’t care about this money. All I care about is you. Please don’t let me drown.
My elephant wants to come out with me tonight but I say, Oh no, oh no no no no, you just stay right there in your corner and when I come back we’ll put on something for a nice night of dancing. I let my baby girl come out with me in the day but it’s too dangerous to come out at night and that’s why I tell her to stay inside. She is begging and pleading and stomping her feet but no, not at night, she is not allowed. Elephants aren’t like cats. They don’t have those good night vision eyes that help you see so well in the dark. I’d worry for her. It wouldn’t be safe, bumping and knocking into everything. I say, You stay there on the couch and take yourself a nice little nap, and then I get all my gear on and make my way to the corner store to buy my bottles.
It was the biscuits that did it. You know those biscuits that come frozen and you just pop them in the oven? I was making those and putting them on a cookie sheet when I saw all these black and brown spots made of grease and burnt stuff. These memories, these spots, these memory spots, they were everywhere on that cookie sheet and they frightened me because I’ll never know what those spots are about. They’re things I made a long time ago, things I don’t remember making any more, things we made together, good things, special things. Maybe this cookie sheet was Mama’s. Maybe Mama left this for me and I’ll never ever know which spots are hers. But I can’t remember. I can’t. And now I have these memory spots all over my brain and there’s grease and burnt stuff all over everywhere and I can’t clean it up to remember. That chessboard floor was turning into water I was so scared and that’s when I knew I had to leave.
Now it’s dark and wet from a spat of rain and I walk my fastest to get straight to that store for my bottles. And I do, I get my bottles fast as can be and I’m sprinting to get back when I feel something hard in my back. Give me what you got. I know they want my money, but of course it was all gone on my bottles, and when I tell the person behind me this, I feel their hands going all over trying to find my wallet. They shove me to the ground and I hear these footsteps going off and when I get up off the pavement I see my pants all ripped up my knees all bleeding my bottles all broken. I see this and I want to run home, but I can’t because my knees hurt so bad. Knees hurt, head hurt, bottles broken, no more money, everything a mess, the streets turning to water, my head hurting so so much. And I mean so much. Just worse than ever before. Like I’m under Union Square and my head is stuck in the door to the L train and those subway doors keep slamming on my head over and over again like they’re trying to chop it off. It’s slam slam slam chop chop chop all the way to my apartment until finally, I get inside and lock my door and see my baby girl sitting there on the couch waiting for me just like I told her.
I wash my knees off in the shower. Blood’s dripping out like I’m painting a red painting on the bottom of my tub. I see that tattoo right below my hip. Melody. That’s what that tattoo is, Melody, that word on my leg. Is it a name? Is it your name? Mama’s name? My elephant’s name? See, I never gave her a name because all the things with names I love, things with names like Mama, those things all left, so maybe if my elephant doesn’t have a name, she can’t leave me. But maybe I did name her. Maybe I did and I can’t remember. See, these grease spots on my brain are covering everything up. What if I forget everything? What if I forget my life? I wish I had my bottles. I need my bottles. Oh my, oh my, this tub with the red paint all over is going to eat me up. Melody. Melody. Why can’t I remember? Is this about my jazz tunes?
Me and my elephant are celebrating in Central Park before my big party later tonight. The sun is shining bright and those big old beautiful trees they have everywhere are swaying in the cold wind and they make these great big shadows on the ground that look just like women dancing. We find a stick on the ground and I throw it and she catches it with her trunk and the whole time I’m yelling, Watch out for those squirrels baby girl, watch out for those squirrels! Next, I stand on a park bench, watching my baby girl splash around in the water. She is swimming all by herself and I wave and wave so I know that she can see me. Most people don’t know that elephants can swim, but they can, oh yes, they can, and I want my baby girl to know that I am proud of her and love her, because everybody should have a chance to feel like that. My pretty baby girl sunbathes when she gets out, just turns right over on her back and sticks her legs up in the air with her ears flat out beside her on the ground like two big leaves that just fell from the sky, landing right beside her head. Woolly caterpillars are crawling all over her and I tickle them off her belly and she laughs and laughs and then we buy ourselves a fresh bag of hot roasted peanuts and eat them on the sidewalk so we can watch all the horses pass by. So here we are, me and my elephant surrounded by all these buildings and joggers and Frisbee chasing dogs and those shadows are playing drums and swaying their hips just like we’re on the savannah. We’re in the jungle for real, me and my elephant.
When the sun starts going down, I send off my elephant. Meet that man in the black suit in his office. He gives me a fancy tuxedo to put on and says, Now Blue, remember your story, and I say, Yes sir, yes sir, I am Blue Bamboo, the son of an elephant poacher. He shakes my hand and smiles and says, You believe it and I believe it and now everybody else will too. We get in a taxi cab and I’m glad because I don’t want to get back on those slamming chopping trains and I haven’t been in a taxi in such a long time. It’s nice seeing everything from the backseat of this cab, getting to look at my city through a big glass window like I’m seeing everything from a whole new point of view. Here, I am this son of an elephant poacher in this nice tuxedo in the back of a cab and I am so so happy like I’m a whole new man. I feel like I could forget about you and live my life and that will be that.
We ride this great big elevator all the way to the top of this building that I’ve never been into, let alone to the top of, and that rich lady is right there waiting for me as soon as the doors open. She shakes my hand and looks at me and smiles and says, Oh my, aren’t you just an exquisite piece of work yourself Mr. Bamboo! We go off into this tiny little room and I tell her I like her ruby-red dress and she compliments me on my different colored eyes. I start remembering how you did this too, but I won’t let my head hurt tonight, so I just start chatting about my masterpiece painting. She thinks it’s so pretty, that purple sky and that elephant. And what is the significance of the tambourine? She thinks it’s nice that I love elephants so much.
I say, Well of course I love elephants. I have one myself who I love very much because no one else can see her and take care of her.
The rich lady asks why I can’t take my elephant back to the wild. Says, Isn’t that what you do save elephants?
I say. Well, someday I guess, but right now I don’t want to do that because my elephant doesn’t know too much about being in the wild, and she thinks this is so sweet—that I’m taking care of an elephant when nobody else will. So we keep talking and she asks how I get inspired by my elephants. I start talking all that poaching business, but really I just want to talk about you. Makes my head throb a bit saying these things, but it’s my big night out, and I’m not going to let you leaving me ruin it.
She gives me a hug and says, Blue Bamboo, you are a man of strength honor dignity, a man who devoted his life to stopping inhumane practices and I thank you for that. She keeps complimenting me on my eyes like you always did, and then this big old important man comes in and says it’s time to start the party.
I think every subway in New York is running over my head right now, that’s how much it hurts. I’m thinking about you and that painting and being the son of an elephant poacher and something is not right about this, not at all. I look around for some bottles but there isn’t any so I start sipping on a big, clear glass with something bubbly in it. There’s bowls of shrimp and an ice sculpture of an angel and a man I recognize from the TV way back when and paper stars hanging from the ceiling and there’s so much going on I’m not even sure where I am. People asking me all these things like, what is my name, what is my birthday, what is my opinion of the mayor since the Towers went down, what do I think about that new exhibit at the Guggenheim, what is my favorite childhood memory, what is my greatest fear, etc., etc., etc. The subways are thundering over my head and I have been doing so good for so long but that last one, the one about the fear, that’s what got me started on you. Here I am, turning into a famous artist, people knowing my name, eating nice cheese from France, trying not to spill anything on this fancy tux, and there you are—missing, gone, not even here. I loved you so much all I wanted to do was take care of you and give you pretty things, and now I can. I can. With all this money, we can spend every day dancing in a nice jazz club and I’ll buy you every shirt from the Village you want. We won’t have to do anything, just love one another, because these people will support us forever and ever. But oh no, the hurt in my head is going strong—slam slam chop chop—because I know this can’t happen. Now that rich lady is in front of all these people and she’s pointing to my painting and talking about the auction and raising money for brain cancer. People are clapping and I’m thinking about being the son of an elephant poacher and my head is going, going, going, and those grease spots are covering my brain.
I’m off to the bathroom. Duhdoodopskiddleebop. This tie is choking me. I’ve got to take it off. Why can’t I remember if I’m really the son of an elephant poacher? I’m thinking about my memories and these grease spots and I can’t remember, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. Bop. Bop. Bam. Oh no, oh no, what if I have cancer of the brain just like those people they’re raising money for? What if I’m sick? Where am I? Isthis the hospital? Isthis the place you go when you die? My baby girl elephant is looking at me. How did you get in here? You were supposed to be home. Whyare you being so mean and nasty and breaking all the rules? She looks at me like something is wrong, like I am a dog, or a pile of trash just like those Broadway people do. She’s playing that trunk like it’s a trombone. Stop stop stop it, I said stop it. Just let me think so my head will stop hurting. Please baby girl, please. People keep telling me I am the son of an elephant poacher and saying it like it’s the truth and what if I am and what if I can’t remember and what if my head hurts all the time because I got a bullet in it during some wild elephant chase gone wrong and I can’t remember because I was too young and my Papa felt too guilty and he’d never tell me a thing like that and I don’t know, I could be making that part up, but what I’m saying is my head hurts and I can’t remember much just wish this would stop stop stop with the SLAM SLAM CHOP.
And it does. My elephant whispers something in my ear. My head is good to go.
I leave that party. Take a taxi back to my apartment and pack a suitcase. A few clothes, my blue hat, but mainly my brushes. A pillow and that flower quilt Mama made me. Hop back in that cab feeling like a whole new man. Looking out on this city like everybody is clapping for me saying, Go Blue go, and I hear jazz music duhdoodop coming from the trees. I’m taking my pretty baby elephant to Tanzania where she’s from and I’ll set her free and we’ll be so, so happy there. And I think you’re there waiting for me. Maybe you knew all along I’d find this elephant and that my Papa was an elephant poacher and someday I was coming back over there to take this elephant back home with me. I’ll be happy with my elephant and maybe be happy with you, if that’s what you want. We don’t need that money or that rich lady or that man in the black suit. We just need to be together with our elephant. Funny, because I’m thinking about you and my head’s not hurting, not even one little bit. I’m coming baby. I love you.
I ask that taxi cab driver to pull over. Me and my elephant get out and find a nice spot on the grass. Set out my pillow. Wrap myself up in my blanket. Look up at those dancing tree women. Can’t wait for the sun to come up in Tanzania so I can watch their shadows playing on the drums. My, oh my, what a pretty thing I’ll be waking up to every day.
—Adam Blake Wright recently moved to New Zealand after receiving dual graduate degrees in Creative Writing and Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University. As a former Julia Child Foundation food writing scholar, his work has appeared in Edible: Iowa, Alimentum, and Story: Houston. He previously worked as an arts educator in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, a majestic mountain oasis where he grew up on a 40-acre apple orchard.