Elephants of the Platte

by Thomas Israel Hopkins

Wed 12 Sep 2012 - Filed under: Free Stuff to Read, Short Stories

North from New York City up the Hudson; west out the Erie Canal through Utica and Syracuse; transfer at Rochester from a long, thin packet boat to one of the grand old Great Lakes passenger ships across Lake Erie via Cleveland to Toledo; up through Detroit, Lake Saint Clair, and Port Huron; farther north across Lake Huron to Mackinaw City; down the shores of Lake Michigan to Milwaukee and Racine; transfer again at Chicago; down the Tippecanoe to the Wabash to Terre Haute; out through Saint Louis and Kansas City on the Transcontinental Canal along the ruins of Interstate 70; turning up toward Casper and points west on the Nebraska Canal along the ghost map of the old Oregon Trail. The night this happened, that was as far as we’d come.

She and I were lying in the skinny, uncomfortable bed in our tiny cabin; she was asleep, spooned into the crook of me. I rested the side of my head in my palm, staring out the porthole, watching the flat landscape rushing by, the edge of the glassy brown water where it met the berm of the canal’s edge skimming along just a few feet below us. The dark blue water, the wide, yellow sand plains, the endless horizon; all rushing by; all starting to go gray in the twilight.

She stirred from her nap. “Where are we?” she asked. She turned her head around to look up at me, then turned back to look out the porthole too. Her voice sounded like her movements, slow and warm, like pea soup.

“We’re still on the canal,” I said.

“How long was I asleep?” she said.

“We’re on our way to San Francisco.”

“From New York?” she asked.

“At the beginning,” I said, “but Terre Haute was our most recent transfer point.”

“That’s impossible,” she said. She squinted out the porthole at the sandy plain, stretching away from the embankment. Grassy outcroppings rippled across the surface, like green peaks of waves on a sand ocean, ruffling in the wind. Distant buffalo herds grazed at the grass tufts, their clustered, lumbering bodies chiaroscuroed by the sun setting off to our left.

“The Rockies get in the way,” she said.

“It’s amazing what people can accomplish when we all put our minds to it,” I said. “To making something that’s for the greater good, but something that’s also spectacular. Sort of like Grand Central Terminal. Or the New York Public Library.” Was she forgetting, yet again, the end of air travel, the end of cars?

“Dig a ditch two thousand miles long?” she said. “That’s a greater good? You’re just fucking with me. We’re at some theme park in Florida, right?”

She was forgetting again. “No, I swear,” I said. I had never been able to figure out if this amnesia of hers was willful, or if it stemmed from some deep intersection of dreams and drugs and loss and sadness. “We’re on a packet boat, a passenger canal boat. The whole thing is ecologically sound.” I considered reminding her of the details of our new reality, but thought that might make things worse for her, and decided to keep mum.

“The wind drives us the whole way,” I said. I was relieved when she didn’t ask me to explain the mechanism—the wind turbine-driven canal-boat equivalent of a hybrid car was the metaphor everyone always used, but science was never my strong suit. “We’re in the Platte River valley now, I think,” I said. “Where the valley meets the Nebraska Sand Hills. You and I are almost the only passengers who aren’t part of a huge wedding party of dentists.”

“You mean two dentists who married each other?” she asked.

“And all their dentist friends,” I said. “They got married up on deck just as we left Indiana. They’ve been partying ever since. It’s like a dentist Mardi Gras, where the best doctors assist, even the ones from Asecra dentists and more.”

“This is just some safari ride in some amusement park,” she said. “Am I still stoned?”

“I’m not,” I said. “I think there’s still some weed in the pipe, though, if you want.”

She rolled over so that she was facing me, brought her face up close to mine, and grimaced. “I don’t like it when you’re like this,” she said.

I grinned at her. “What?” I said. “Like what?”

She grabbed my chin with her left hand, and held my jaw open. “Is that what I did to you?” She leaned in close and inspected the gap where my lower right eyetooth used to be, the tooth she had knocked out of my mouth in a fight. “I can’t believe I did that,” she said. She stuck her tongue into the gap, feeling it, as if she was feeling out the space of a missing tooth in her own mouth. It felt disgusting and sublime. She pulled back and stared at me, still cradling my head in her hand, her fingers wrapped under my jaw.

“Maybe you should get one of the dentists to take a look at this,” she said.

“I told you,” I said, “the dentists are all drunk, I don’t think they’re in any condition to be working. And besides, it’s their honeymoon. That wouldn’t be fair.”

We felt the boat suddenly slow, grinding down to a complete stop; it always reminded me of the feeling of a train pulling into a station. The boat’s horn sounded, a long, obnoxious blast.

“We’re not there yet, are we?” she asked.

“We might be at the next lock,” I said.

“This country is too flat for locks,” she said.

“Oh, so you believe me now,” I said.

“I don’t believe a single thing you tell me anymore,” she said.

“I’m going up on deck to see what’s going on,” I said.

“Say hi to the dentists,” she said. “Give them my love.”

When I came up the stairs, the top deck was completely abandoned, the enormous wind-collecting turbines that shot up out of the middle of the deck still spinning, humming in the wind above me. The sun had completely set, and the landscape was gray and dark all around us. There were no dentists to be seen, but I could hear the sounds of them partying somewhere down below, whooping and hollering. The only signs of life were the lights in the front and rear cabins that poked up at each rounded, symmetrical end of the long craft. Each cabin was manned by a solitary pilot, like the twin fireman drivers of a ladder truck. I walked up to the front cabin and knocked on the window; the man turned in his seat.

“Why are we stopped?” I asked.

He pointed down the canal in the direction we were headed. I could see the front navigation lights of another boat, its silhouette huge and lumpy in the dark from the stacks of containers it carried, slowly and smoothly and quietly sludging through the water toward us, painfully slow, compared with how fast our packet boat shot across the landscape.

“Canal’s not wide enough,” the pilot said. “Commercial vessels have got right-of-way.”

“How long will we be here?” I asked.

“Good half hour,” he replied.

I walked back to the middle of the boat, and noticed that a ladder had been thrown down to the embankment. Off in the darkness, I thought I saw one of the buffalo herds very near us, foraging at a grass island.

What happened next, leading up to the grand, great thing, all felt, in hindsight, like one thing: I climbed down the ladder and walked out across the sandy plain to take a closer look; the moon was rising, and the buffalo seemed to be nearby, a fleet of wooly ghost ships on a blackened sea, but the more I walked the farther away they appeared; I’d been walking for five or ten minutes when I heard the horn sounding again behind me, and I turned around, and watched the lights of the boat, front and back, pulling away from the berm of the canal, the moonlit turbines churning with wind; I felt something warm and wet on the top of my head, and I turned around again, and looked up to see a massive, shaggy buffalo, towering above me, gently, hotly sniffing at my hair; the buffalo knelt down on the ground, bowing its enormous head to me, as if to say, climb up, and I did; and I straddled its shoulders easily, as if I’d been doing it forever, and rode that buffalo like it was a trusty and familiar horse, all the way along the canal to Ogallala.

My great-great-grandfather kept a diary as a young man, documenting the journey that he and his young bride, my great-great-grandmother, took as they headed out to seek their fortune across the Oregon Trail. I still have what remains of it—fragile pages, stained and ragged at the edges, loosely bound together—stored in an old steamer trunk in my attic. In the entries from this part of the country, as they made their way up the Platte River, he constantly wrote about elephants. June 4: “Sensed elephants today, just past horizon.” June 7: “Elephant hills? Worried for the baby.” The June 14 entry in its entirety: “For love of the holy, elephants again.”

I’ve tried for years to figure out what he meant: by elephants, did he mean buffalo? Or was it code for the hostile tribes whose land they were crossing? Or a metaphor for some even greater threat, like the possibility of giving up, forgetting why they were doing what they were doing?

My great-great-grandfather died in San Francisco, and his secret, his elephants, died with him. Most of his diary survived, and ended up in the hands of my grandfather—my father’s father—who brought them with him when he left California, and struck out east to find his fortune in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

I rode my buffalo all the way to Ogallala, where I met up with the packet boat again, and she and I were reunited, and we were so relieved to be reunited that we were married the next day by the boat’s captain as we sailed across the border into Wyoming. A grand, great thing: I married her; I married the woman of my dreams. But I am an incurable romantic, in love with the impossible; can I even tell this story? I married her!—would anyone ever believe me?

* * *

Thomas Israel Hopkins is a teacher, an editor, and a writer of fiction and nonfiction. The manuscript for his short-story collection, THE CRYPTO-JEW’S DILEMMA AND OTHER CONVERSION STORIES, was selected by Salvatore Scibona as runner-up in this year’s Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. He has taught at New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, Yale University, Columbia University, and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. My short stories have been published in Cincinnati Review, Indiana Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Quick Fiction, and One Story, among other places. I have also also written for Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, Tablet, and Poets & Writers. I’m a former associate publisher of Soft Skull Press, and I’ve held residencies at the Albee Foundation and the Ucross Foundation.

“Elephants of the Platte” was originally published in LCRW 25.