M. L. Martinson: a story




The Elephant in the Room

The East El Paso Public House was famous for two things: an oversized disco ball and the world's largest collection of porcelain white elephants.

EEPP was a bit of a black hole, barely illuminated by its disco ball. Soon after Mr. Atz bought the bar, a few new lights broke up the darkness and a single white elephant appeared within what had been an empty glass case. The elephant was an ornate object, with a gleaming white body and an empty golden howdah on its back. The ears implied it was an Asian elephant. It lacked tusks but stood proudly in its case. Its trunk and noble aspect made it seem a creature that was due reverence.

Nobody saw Mr. Atz put the elephant in, but they assumed it was him. It's not that he would have refused to talk about it, but customers and employees, no matter how drunk or daring, knew better than to ask. The elephant sat alone behind the glass for that first year.

On the second anniversary of Mr. Atz's tenure, a second elephant appeared. It was larger, with immense tusks, and seemed to be an African elephant. Together, they took up the majority of the space in the glass case, although there was just enough room for the miniature elephant that appeared between them a few weeks later.

Mr. Atz did not work on Sunday and Monday nights. Instead, Billy Jenkins ran the bar, and he spent those nights in conjecture with the regulars, discussing the mysterious origins and meaning of the porcelain pachyderms. Mr. Atz was part of the Knights Templar. No, Opus Dei. No, CIA. FBI. KGB. NAACP. Hare Krishna. Mob. Mafia. Yakuza. Bloods. Crips. Alien. Masons. Kiwanis. Black Panthers. GOP. AARP. NRA. They concluded that he was under a curse and that he was forced to accumulate the elephants to keep the curse at bay. Not to sound racist, said B.J. Quentin, who was obviously a racist, but maybe it was like some eastern guy who put the curse on him. It sounds racist, they said. But it also sounded plausible.

And so things went.

When customers began arriving in the early afternoon, they would find a new display case on the wall with no word or sign of recognition from Mr. Atz, who would act as if he were completely unaware of them. By year three, a new elephant would arrive almost daily. Some were large and extravagant, others small and finely detailed, and still others were hideous, broken, filthy or poorly crafted. But they were always white and always porcelain.

By the fourth year, at least one elephant arrived per day, and sometimes more. Now nobody knew how to keep track. The elephants were crammed into cases and the cases were shoved together, so that it was difficult to tell the new from the old. The bar, though large, was now nearly covered. Every wall had a case, and it was difficult to put bottles behind the bar where, typically, a mirror should be.

That's when the elephants began to show up outside their cases. At first, there was one on each table. Then two. Soon a few tables became unusable, covered in shaky piles of elephants. Then the piles moved to the floors. By year five, there were large mounds of white elephants taking up the back half of the bar, which, by year six, had become one large, unwieldy mound.

Bill Larson claimed his chihuahua had chased a rat into the pile and never came back. Nobody believed him, but they didn't not believe him, either.

Occasionally someone would say they saw the pile move, and they could, at times, hear crunching sounds as the elephants crushed one another under their combined weight. The pile was now immense, yet still Mr. Atz did not say a word. Nobody said anything in his presence. Instead they sat, watching the disco ball illuminate the herd.

The regulars, however, began to take notes. They tracked the location of certain elephants –those with distinct markings or sizes – and tried to detect a pattern in their movement. John Zimmer's brother worked with robotics, so the two of them put trackers on a dozen figurines. In two weeks, the Zimmers were able to create a computer model, which showed that the objects did indeed swirl about in a slow-but-consistent manner. Moreover, they were always moving toward the centre, which all the men agreed was interesting and essential.

Nobody knew why it was essential.

But moving inward they were. New elephants continued to arrive, but the pile itself seemed to never grow. In fact, it appeared subtly to be shrinking. The crunching sounds became more audible and more consistent. When the men measured the pile on two continuous Mondays, they learned that it was indeed getting smaller. Some explained this by the fact that the elephants were getting crushed in the centre. Others were not quite so certain.

Monday after Monday this went on. The pile continued its slow swirling motion, the crunching grew louder and the tension became unbearable. Whole afternoons passed at the bar with almost no conversation.

The men were waiting.

One Thursday, as the first regulars began to enter – and they now arrived earlier than ever, even if it was only to look at one another with meaningful, questioning glances – they arrived to find small shards of porcelain covering the entire bar. The glass cases were shattered and the chips of porcelain were driven into the walls, floor, ceiling, tables, and even chairs as if these bits had hit them at incredible speeds.

Where the pile of elephants once sat, there now stood a single, gleaming-white, porcelain elephant, nearly four feet tall at the shoulders. Its tusks were enormous and there was no sign of a blemish on it, nor any added decoration. There was no howdah; no golden tassels. The eyes were the same gleaming-white colour as the rest of it. It positively glowed, lighting the room where all other lights had been destroyed through the bang of exploding elephants.

The disco ball, miraculously, was undamaged. It sat alone above the fray, blinking and reflecting the elephant's white light upon the carnage below.

The men, as was their custom, ordered drinks when they arrived and attempted to talk to one another and the as-usual taciturn Mr. Atz.

Their glasses were chipped, and they had to occasionally remove a porcelain splinter from their skin. But still, even when they found themselves bleeding, they said nothing about the explosion.

On Friday, the elephant's whiteness appeared to have faded. Mr. Atz had fixed the lights and removed some of the larger shards from the walls. There were no new elephants. Things, apparently, were settling down.

On Saturday, the elephant looked as it if had fine hairs on it. When the men inspected it the next day, they learned that it did indeed have hairs on its back – thick, wiry hairs – and its eyes had deepened to a dark grey.

When they saw the elephant slowly moving around the room the next week, stumbling, sometimes tripping, and bumping into their bar stools, the men had a difficult time keeping their composure. They ordered their drinks, talked about the weather and stifled their alarm when a cold cup of Coors was knocked to the floor by a stumbling, newborn porcelain elephant.

By the next week the elephant seemed to have found a sort of harmony with its environment. It meandered confidently and curiously through the room, eating peanuts and rubbing against the men's legs. They ordered extra food and pretended not to notice when they dropped extra tots and fries on the floor.

Mr. Atz kept to his serious, silent self.

It was when the elephant became aggressive that the men found it more difficult to feign ignorance. It would use its trunk to drink their beer and then take offence at the smallest indiscretion. Too slow to share a fry? Stomp on the foot. Not enough room left to walk between the tables? Beer sprayed in your face. And so it went until the day Joe Wallace put his hand over his beer, not wanting an elephant trunk in his drink, and the drunken pachyderm stabbed a tusk into the poor patron's leg. The men tried to act nonchalant as they carried their grimacing friend out the door, the elephant standing silently at the scene of the crime, sucking down a tall Guinness.

Nobody came back for a week.

Ultimately, their curiosity got the better of them, and eventually everyone, including poor Joe Wallace, came back.

Now there was a second, slightly smaller, elephant in the bar. Together, they consumed even more alcohol, shouldering one another and sharing cackling trumpet sounds that the men guessed were a form of elephant laughter.

Nobody got the joke.

The two were quickly joined by four more elephants. These six creatures now spent most of their time drunkenly carousing in the back half of the bar. The men were free to sit and talk as they had before, pretending not to notice as the animals smashed tables and consistently mounted one another. Their antics were unpredictable and savage. One would piss on someone's boot. Another might let off a porcelain elephant fart that caused everyone in the room to gag. And their sexual activity was aggressive, resulting in a crushed pinball machine on one occasion and an elephant's head going through the wall on another, a frenzied copulation that seemed to bring the creatures no joy.

Worse than the indiscriminate sexuality and practical joking were the elephants' games. They staged physical competitions whose rules and purpose were indecipherable. Two elephants would race through the room, flags waving from their trunks and blindfolds covering their eyes as their peers trumpeted encouragement. Elephants wobbled around on their front legs, hurling pool balls at one another with their trunks. They stacked themselves up, one atop the next, until the sixth elephant stood upon its collective cohort and began to jump, manically, and the whole pile collapsed with a terrible crash.

And, of course, the excessive drinking led to excessive elephant vomit.

No matter how violent and aggressive the animals became, Mr. Atz stood silently behind his bar, serving drinks and nodding to questions, never turning an eye toward the creatures.

As was to be expected, things came to a head. The elephants were passing a gallon of vodka around when one suddenly smashed it upon its neighbour's head. Soon the six of them were trumpeting and stomping and crashing into one another, tusks jamming and swinging, feet stomping and kicking. The regulars were incapable of looking away. They gawked at the raging beasts, whose skin sometimes cracked like porcelain and other times gave way with a sickening, tearing sound.

It took less than five minutes for the whole thing to end. A strange, white liquid came from each of the creatures as they lay across one another, unmoving.

It was too much for the men at the bar. They moaned to one another. They shouted to the heavens in horror. Then they bombarded Mr. Atz with questions, the gist of them being: What the hell just happened to all of the elephants?

Mr. Atz, having poured himself a drink, leaned casually against the bar. He said,

"What elephants?"



M.L. Martinson teaches literature, writing, humanities, and honours courses at Central Washington University, and his fiction appears in Crab Creek Review and Scablands Books' Towers and Dungeons anthology.