One Friday last June, I was summoned to the boss’s office. He was brusque.
“The deal’s pretty much done, but it’s got to be closed personally. I’m sending you because I trust you not to screw it up. If it goes well—and it had better—take a week and play tourist.”
That evening was one of those perfect half-spring, half-summer ones. You could smell the honeysuckle. We were all on the deck. I stood at the Weber grilling sweet sausages and red peppers while Susan and Phoebe were settled in their recliners, arguing desultorily.
“I have to go to Thailand next week. Anybody up for making a family vacation of it?”
Susan loved the idea, but not Phoebe. She grumbled a bit, probably because she’d been counting on two weeks of idle socializing between the end of school and the start of summer camp. The next morning, Susan declared Bangkok was great, but she’d like to come back by way of Tokyo. “I’ve always wanted to see Japan.” Phoebe, after some overnight Googling, changed her tune. She went on about the reserves in Chiang Mai where you could take hikes with wild but friendly elephants. “They’re guaranteed friendly,” she promised. Newly knowledgeable, she said, “Asian elephants are called Elephas maximus; they’re smaller than the African ones.” Ever since I first read her Babar, my daughter has had a thing for elephants.
I agreed to both Tokyo and Chiang Mai, hoping that the deal wouldn’t fall through. Phoebe perked right up, and Susan threw herself into making reservations.
We landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport two days before my meeting, stumbled through twenty-four hours of jet lag. The next day, we took tours by boat and tuk-tuk: Buddhist temples, complicated canals, a royal palace, open markets. We chowed down on scrumptious street food and, that night, even better restaurant fare. The infamous pharmaceutical and flesh trades were decorously out of sight. Susan and Phoebe stayed at the hotel during my meeting. The Thais’ politeness was stunning, and everything went smoothly and profitably. We spent the next couple of days exploring on our own and, after one more day, devoted to shopping. Late in the afternoon, we boarded the train to Chiang Mai, a thirteen-hour trip on tracks that, to my surprise, briefly cut through Laos. Susan had sensibly chosen the overnight option.
Our hotel in Chiang Mai was nearly as good as the three-star one in Bangkok and only about an hour from the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. We had reservations for a trek the next day. Phoebe hadn’t been that excited since a year or two before she hit eye-rolling puberty.
The Sanctuary is magical, Edenic. The animals have water, mud, adoring tourists from the world over to feed, bathe, and adore them. Females of all ages squealed with delight, including Susan and Phoebe. It’s one happy place.
My attention was snagged by a fellow I kept coming across. He had the look of a left-over hippie—red bandana, long hair showing some gray, jeans faded and ripped, expired Jack Purcells. Everybody else was part of some tour or, like us, a family. Not him. Yet he wasn’t alone. He was always with the same elephant, in the water, under a tree, even in the mud. Turned out they had a history.
I got the story—true or otherwise—on the bus back to town. Phoebe and Susan were bonding, so I went over to the hippie, who sat by himself, muddy and alone. When we boarded, I saw how people avoided him, even though nobody was clean or smelled good.
He looked up, not very interested.
“American?” I asked by way of introduction.
“Technically,” he replied with a smile that was both wry and goofy.
I nodded toward the empty seat. “Mind?”
He shrugged and gave a little welcoming flourish.
I told him my name, pointed forward to the heads of Phoebe and Susan. “Wife and daughter,” I said. “They’re in a state of bliss. Total enchantment.”
He smiled at that. I think he appreciated the word.
“Not an unusual response.”
“I noticed you spent the day with just one elephant.”
“Mildred,” he said. “I see her every day. No reservation required. At this point, I’m what they called at the Omega Diner a regular.”
He turned and looked me over the way they did at my first job interview.
“You want the story?”
From his bemused tone, I thought he’d been asked before, maybe too many times. But I was wrong.
“Tired of telling it?”
“Nope. Nobody’s ever asked before.”
“Really? And nobody’s ever noticed?”
“Noticed? Probably. But nobody’s ever asked.”
“Well, look at me. People keep their distance.”
“Too disreputable. Maybe too American as well. Hard to say.”
“Some people might call it a distinction without a difference.”
He snorted and stretched his long legs under the seat in front.
“I was one of those rich kids from L.A.—Beverly Hills—who didn’t do what he should, only what he shouldn’t. Parents with lots of money and film-biz schedules. Not a lot of time for kids but enough to screw around. I’ve got three sets of step-parents and about ten step-siblings. God knows how many step-cousins. I cut school, got into drugs, was sent to therapists. Rehab, three times. It’s an old story, the SoCal black sheep. When I hit twenty-one, I guilt-tripped my father into banking a trip abroad, a long, unplanned one. Cash doled out regularly at American Express and never a letter in poste restante. It must have been a relief to have me gone. My mother actually said as much. So, I got myself some underwear, a pair of Timberlands, a big backpack, and took off. Europe first. Then I gradually moved east and wound up in Bangkok.”
“We were just there.”
This information earned the attention it deserved.
“I did drugs all the way, of course, and that determined the company I kept. Bad, mad—”
“And dangerous to know?”
This remark earned a congratulatory nod.
“Okay. So I’m in this Bangkok dive talking to an English dude. Nigel something. He’s excited, I mean really hopped up. He’s got this big-money plan and wants to let me in on it. Actually, he needs me for muscle and, of course, money. Tells me he got hold of a baby elephant and the plan’s to smuggle it out of the country and sell it to the Belfast Zoo. He says the deal’s all set up; he just needs to deliver the little tyke over the border into Burma. Agents will be waiting, he says. Five hundred bucks would cover a van, food, and baksheesh. Easy, he says.”
“It’s legal to take elephants over the border?”
“Not legal, but not uncommon. Anyway, I wasn’t exactly thinking straight. And he did share some really primo hash.”
“So I rent the van. He had the baby stashed on a farm up in Tha Ton, near the Burmese border. Myanmar now. It’s the Wild West over there. Was then, anyway.”
He paused, yawned, stretched, rotated his head, rubbed his neck.
“Sorry. So, we drive north, stuff the back with bananas, bamboo, bunches of leaves. When we get to the farm, the baby’s in a pen and not looking very happy. She gives me the eye, and I make nice noises. You know, trust-me noises. I rub her ears. She checks me out with her trunk. ‘Hurry the hell up,’ says Nigel Whatever. I get her to walk up two planks, and we drive west. But it’s no go. Turns out the Burmese army’s fighting some local tribe and the border’s shut tight and bristling with guys in brown uniforms with loud voices and AK-47s. I turn us around and Nigel freaks. I mean, he goes really nuts, bouncing on his seat, punching the roof, sweating bloody this and that. Then he takes this gun out of his knapsack. I thought the bastard might kill me or the elephant or both of us. I tried to calm him down, doing about 70 miles an hour down dirt roads. When we made it back to Tha Ton, I ditched him. I floored it as soon as he was out of the van.”
“You didn’t ditch the elephant?”
“No time. I peeled out, drove all night and all the next day to Bangkok. Arrived in the wee small hours.”
“And the elephant?”
“I got the baby into my apartment.”
“I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I know, crazy. Anyway, it was a big apartment, the whole first floor, and she was little, then. Relatively.”
“You kept her in your apartment? For how long?”
“A long time. I paid the rent regularly, or my dad did. Absentee landlords are the best. But then he showed up one day because the Danish coke addicts upstairs stopped paying their rent.”
“How long was it before the landlord showed?”
“About a year. Give or take.”
“And you kept her fed and watered all that time?”
“It wasn’t easy. I figured out about the food and water, but then there were the droppings. The only thing I couldn’t manage was proper exercise. Elephants need to walk a lot. And, of course, she grew. So Mildred was pretty weak and pretty big. Pretty.”
“My favorite aunt—or maybe step-aunt. One year, she gave me a Nintendo for my birthday.”
“So, the landlord—?”
“Threw a Siamese fit. Eviction on the spot. Getting Mildred out of the place was a challenge, engineering-wise. Involved some dismantling. I hired two guys with a truck, and we moved her up here to Chiang Mai. Had to. Where else? I stayed a week. We’d grown close, you understand. I fed and bathed her every day. We took long walks. I introduced her to the other elephants. When I thought she was okay, tight with the herd, I went back to Bangkok and rented another place. Nice one, too. But I couldn’t stand it.”
“Bangkok without Mildred.”
I looked down at Phoebe’s blonde head.
“Terribly empty. I live here now.”
Over dinner that night, I told Susan and Phoebe the story. Susan scoffed and said the hippie had obviously been putting me on. Phoebe believed every word. “That’s so sweet,” she said and looked at me a little wistfully. Maybe she was wondering whether, in a few years, I’d miss her that way. Or perhaps I was the one who was wondering.
Two days later we were in Tokyo, shopping. Susan and Phoebe bought kimonos, some little porcelain things, a couple woodcuts, a terrifically expensive print, and a lot of over-packaged specialty foods. I got a bottle of sake.
About the Author
Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections; two books of essays; two short novels; a book of verse; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. Two collections of stories, one of Chinese, the other of non-Chinese, are forthcoming.