The Jeep was perfect for safari because it didn’t have zippers. It had real windows, up-and-down windows. The guy that stood by the little hut, who took Rattle’s money, told us that because we had the right kind of Jeep, we qualified for the good part. Being here made me want to go to the real jungle, but I was a kid who had to take what I was given. That’s what Mom said anyway.
We already passed the part where we could get real close to the animals. The deer and those other things that look like deer but shorter, with horns, came to the window and ate granola out of my hand. They had big teeth like a kid I know who gets made fun of for having big teeth, and when they ate the granola it tickled my palm. Then we got to the windows-up part. When I saw my first elephant, I got scared and reached for Mom like I was still a little kid or something. It looked right at me, and it was as big as the Jeep, but I was only scared for that second. I got over it.
Mom had on that green sweater that was always falling off her shoulder. My hand accidentally hit her belly, and she jerked back, adjusted her sweater so the strap part wasn’t showing. Mom doesn’t like people touching her belly since she got it tucked, and I said sorry. I felt dumb after, real dumb. I was reaching for her hand. Mom’s boyfriend, who was called Rattle because he used to catch rattle snakes for a living, was there, and I was glad he was on his phone and didn’t see the babyish thing I just did.
“Dinosaurs!” my brother said. My brother is a baby. Babies can be pretty dumb.
“No. That’s an elephant,” I told him. “Get with it.”
Mom and Rattle both laughed. They always laughed when I told Cody to get with it, so I told him that a lot. He did need to get with it, thinking an elephant was a dinosaur.
Rattle knew about all animals, and I wanted to ask him about the elephants, but he was still on his phone, and adults don’t like being interrupted when they’re on their phones.
“Hey, Mom, can we take pictures of them? I want to show Joey that I saw an actual elephant,” I said.
“No camera, sweetie. Unless Rattle stops whatever he’s doing for two seconds and takes a picture with his phone.” Rattle looked up at her when she said that, then he looked at me. His brown hair was long, wavy. He had a beard like I will grow when I’m older. I have to get my hair cut real short, close to my skin, so Mom doesn’t have to take me all the time to get it cut. And my hair is blonde, not brown like I wished it was, but I knew there was no point in complaining.
“You want a picture of that one, kid?” he asked me, pointing to the biggest elephant.
“I guess.” I watched as he pushed a few more buttons on his phone then aimed the little camera. “Dinosaur,” my kid brother said, and this time we all ignored him.
“I want to work here,” I said, carefully. “I want to be a bouncer here.”
“A bouncer!” Mom laughed, and as she did that sweater fell down again and she pulled it up. “What exactly do you mean?”
I looked to Rattle, who wasn’t laughing because he knew how big a deal it was for a man to decide his profession. He was bouncer at a nightclub, which is a pretty dangerous job. Not as dangerous as catching rattle snakes, probably, but pretty dangerous.
Mom dated a lot, but Rattle was the first guy I liked. Most of the guys she picked smelled bad, the way my real Dad used to smell; and my real Dad is mean, so I don’t want no one around me and my brother that smells like him. Rattle smelled fancy, like the mall. Even when he drank beer, he didn’t smell like the beer.
“You know, kid, I bet those elephants could use a bouncer. Some people don’t know how to act around animals.”
“That’s what I’m saying. See, Mom, Rattle knows.”
“I don’t know where he gets these things,” she said about me, while I was right there, and laughed like I wasn’t right there, which I hate.
“Yeah,” I said to Rattle, ignoring Mom the way she seemed to be ignoring me. She put my brother on her lap, and he started pointing to the zebra on the other side, way down near the trees. The zebra just looked like painted deer to me, so I kept on about the elephants. “See, I’ll keep the bad people away, who try to do dumb stuff like ride the elephants.”
Rattle nodded. He said, “I’ll tell you a story, kid. One sec.” He began typing something else into his phone. Mom cut her eyes at him the way she did me when she caught me stealing extra chocolate milk after bedtime. Chocolate milk keeps me awake and feeling full, but it’s so good. I got sick off the stuff once and puked it up for a whole fifteen minutes, but when I was done, I just wanted more chocolate milk. That’s how good that stuff is. Anyway, since that night, Mom looks at me just like that when she catches me.
“Who are you texting?” Rattle ignored her the way she ignored me, and everyone ignored my little brother—who was now sticking his tongue on the window. He looked up.
“You know what people do?” he asked me.
I shrugged. I had kind of forgotten the conversation because I was thinking about chocolate milk now, but when I looked out the window and saw that big, hulking elephant, I remembered. “What?”
“People tease them and poke at them. An elephant would need a really brave bouncer, someone he trusts, because elephants can get really mad and hurt people. Even the wrong people.” He went back to his text.
“That’s it,” Mom said to him. “I am not the one to put up with this.”
I really wished she’d quit yelling. I didn’t like it when she got like this. When she got like this with Dad, he threw stuff and yelled back. It went on forever. But Rattle just put his phone away and looked at me like he was about to tell a ghost story. He told good ghost stories.
“One elephant, a few years back, became so angry at a guy that he speared the man with his giant tusks and threw him up in the air.” He looked up like he saw it happening. “Then, when the man landed, that elephant held a giant foot over the man’s head. The man screamed, and the elephant crushed his skull with one stomp. This was a circus elephant, so there were a lot of people around. Some of the people said that the guy’s head made a popping sound like a giant piece of popcorn.” He reached out for Mom’s shoulder and started rubbing where the strappy part was. He whispered to her, “It’s about work.” And I asked if he thought an elephant bouncer’s head would pop like that.
“No, kid, a good bouncer wouldn’t get his head popped.”
“Mom, what do you think? Really, no making fun. Would I make a good bouncer?” She gave me her real smile, the one where she shows her teeth. I took that to mean yes, and my fate was sealed.
“Why are elephants like that to people who aren’t bouncers?”
“Well, the man had been teasing the elephant by offering him an apple then pulling it back, so I guess the big guy got mad. Elephants are used to getting treated badly by people. People hunt them and take their tusks. When people are good to the elephants, though, the elephants are good back.”
“I’ll be good to my elephant.”
I saw Rattle take out his phone when it beeped again, and I could see a picture of a girl in one of those text bubbles. It was like she was a comic book character, and I almost asked if she was. I wanted to ask, but Mom didn’t like it when he talked about other women. I asked her all the time if Rattle was going to stick around, and she’d always say if he stopped talking with other women, he would. She told me to tell her when I saw him talk to other women, which I never had till now. But this was a comic book woman in a text bubble, so I didn’t think that’d count.
I knew Rattle wouldn’t stick around forever. No one did. But I was in his Jeep right now, and I knew to take what I got. As we approached the next part of the safari I asked Rattle what he knew about lions.
“Kid, I’ll tell you a story about lions.” I sat at attention as he put his phone back in his pocket. Whatever he was about to say, I knew I’d never forget it.
Jen Knox teaches and writes in San Antonio. Her writing was chosen for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 list in 2012 and can be read in such publications as Bluestem, Gargoyle 58, JMWW, Narrative, PANK, Short Story America, Superstition Review, Thrush, and Thumbnail. Her website is here: http://www.jenknox.com.