Thursday, 19 February 2015

Giraffe High by Ken Elkes

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2014
2nd PRIZE WINNER (1000 word category)

My old man showed up one afternoon while I was playing in the front yard - I hadn’t seen him for a year. He was driving a old brown Cadillac I’d never seen before and had two black eyes and a busted nose. When he called me over and said we were taking a trip to the zoo, I looked back at the house, but he said: “Don’t worry about your mother.”

We rode along for a while, not saying nothing, until I couldn’t keep it in any longer.

“You look like a panda,” I said.

“Then I’ll fit right in at the zoo,” he said.  

We saw the monkeys first. After a while a little guy in a uniform came up and said there was no smoking allowed. My dad said no problem and dropped the cigarette right there.

“It’s still burning sir,” said the little guy.

Dad just turned around: “See these monkeys, son, keep watching, they like to sling their shit around.”

The little guy bent down then and took the cigarette away.

We went to see the giraffes next and dad swung me up on his shoulders so I could be giraffe-high, though I was too old, really, for all that. He said they had giants living round back that worked at night, washing the giraffe’s necks. All they ate were black jelly babies and cheese puffs. The really good ones, he said, got put on elephant duty, ironing their ears. 

That had me laughing so hard I nearly fell. I wrapped my arms round his head to hold on and my chin rested awhile on a warm piece of scalp where he was thinning out. We stayed like that until he whispered “ice-cream” and lowered me down.

When we got back home, my mother opened the door before I got up the path. She told me I’d want to get straight to my room.

They went at it a long time. After it quietened down I saw him out of my window, hauling the old cedar wardrobe from her bedroom across the front yard, gouging a trail through the grass.

He had made that wardrobe from wood he stole from the sawmill, working there with his brothers, right up until they closed the place down. Made the hinges in the workshop and polished it till the light bounced off of it like a diamond. Whenever him and mom went out dancing they would both have that sharp, sweet smell of cedar on their clothes.

That wardrobe was real big. Too big really for one person to lift, even my dad. I wanted to go out and help him, but I could hear mom in the kitchen, trying to be quiet. So I just stood on top of my toy box, nearly giraffe-high, hoping he’d see me waving.

It took a long time for him to get the wardrobe on the roof of that Cadillac. It must have scratched the paintwork real bad. And when he drove away one of the wardrobe doors that wasn’t lashed down so good flapped open on a broken hinge, but he didn’t stop.


The last time I saw my old man, he was kind of weathered looking and seemed taller, because he was so lean. Mom had passed not long after my step-dad and when I called to let dad know, he said he wanted to be there for the funeral. For old times sake.

We drove back from the cemetery in a line of cars, the windows wound down so he could smoke. We passed along by the old sawmill, though most of it had rusted and got swallowed up by new trees growing through the roof.

“When were you happiest dad?” I asked and he didn’t hesitate, pointed straight at the old place. He told me uncle Mike always said they used to looked like tramps coming down from there, covered in dust and pockets packed with sharp tools.

“Maybe tramps, but we were rich then, really,” he said.

He smiled then: “I guess I didn’t quite make it to washing giraffes necks and ironing elephants ears did I?”

When I took him to the bus station that night, he took his bag from the trunk and leaned down, pulled my head forward, put his palm right where my hair was starting to go, rested it there awhile.

“Some things you just can’t get away from,” he said.

It was only later, when I was in bed with Martha and it was dark and quiet except for little Ruben, gurgling on the baby monitor, that I remembered one time I had to go the hospital with a fever and dad took me.

I don’t know if it was the fever or not, but the way I remember it he was standing at the foot of my bed, telling the nurse in a quiet voice: “Please, just remember the boy he doesn’t like apricots, or porridge or rye bread.”

There was just me, the nurse, my dad, all looking down at his hands as he counted off the list with those thick, dusty fingers.

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