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#44

Elephant Ears



        The carnival came to Dalcette and left again in less than a week in the middle of June. But the elephant ear stand was still parked and open for business at the corner of 8th and Lenniman well into July, luring passersby in with the far-reaching scent of its sweet, fried dough. Chuck, the elephant ear stand’s owner, had decided not to follow the carnival out of town and had instead taken up semi-permanent residence at the Nice Anchor Bed and Breakfast. Some people said that the only reason he was still around was because he was having an affair with Lara Coburn, the notoriously ignorant sales associate at Ward’s Unique Footwear Inc. But it was also possible that Chuck had decided to stick around because business was so good. From the time when the stand opened at noon until it closed around 11 at night, there were always at least a few people around, standing under the shade of the stand’s awning or leaning against the florist’s front window, drizzling icing onto their elephant ears and chatting about the proposal for a biodiesel plant out by Multioak. And things really got hopping at dusk on the weekends when the lakers were exhausted and hungry after days full of beer and wakeboarding and the townie teenagers roared back and forth in front of the stand in their not-yet-repossessed pickup trucks pumping their fists and shouting incomprehensible crudities. The elephant ear stand was a success in a town where new businesses were never, ever successful, so why not stick around? At least through Labor Day.

     One day while Albert was hanging around down by the baseball diamond avoiding a lecture from his mom about multiple curfew violations and watching a visiting little league team set a single game stolen base record, Chuck, still wearing his greasy apron, sauntered up to him and asked if he’d be interested in working the elephant ear stand a few evenings a week for eight under-the-table-bucks an hour plus free elephant ears for himself and up to three friends who would be given special VIP cards that they could carry in their wallets.

     “I dunno,” said Albert.

     “It’s settled then,” said Chuck. “Come by the stand tomorrow and I’ll show you what to do.”

     “I said ‘I dunno,’” said Albert. “I might be looking for something more permanent. How much longer you gonna be in town for anyway?”

     “Unknown,” said Chuck. “Just come by. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned and walked back up the street, whistling one of the six surf rock songs that played at his stand on a continuous loop. Albert liked the tune. He didn’t really want any job at all, but at the moment he was hungry, and the prospect of unlimited elephant ears was enticing enough that he knew he’d be dropping by the stand the next day.

 

     After a week on the job, Albert had only given out two of the three elephant ear stand VIP cards. His older brother had demanded one right away and had launched into a bunch of unnecessary threats about what would happen if he wasn’t given one before Albert even had a chance to concede. Upon receiving the card, Albert’s brother had gone straight to the elephant ear stand and insisted that Chuck make him a customized elephant ear with caramel chips in it, which Chuck explained was impossible since there were no caramel chips on hand, so Albert’s brother had ordered a cup of icing instead, dipped the VIP card in it, and eaten it in front of Chuck, saying, “Now what? Now what? Now what?” So that was one VIP card wasted.

     Albert had tried to give the second card to his girlfriend, but she explained that as a vegan, she couldn’t eat elephant ears and she was disappointed in Albert for not thinking of that.

     “But they’re not actual ears of elephants,” said Albert. “They’re just fried dough.”

     His girlfriend had sat in silence for a while, scowling at a spot just above Albert’s head and then said, “I know, Albert. The dough has milk in it.”

     So Albert gave the second card to his dad, who was too timid to use it unless Albert was working the stand, and even then he always asked if the card had expired yet and left more than the cost of an elephant ear in the tip jar.

     Albert was saving the third card. He didn’t know for who, exactly. He didn’t have anyone specific in mind, but he figured it was too valuable to squander on the few self-centered acquaintances he typically referred to as his friends. He wanted the gift of the card to be the first act in the forging of a new, better friendship, a friendship that would elevate him to a less forgettable position, a mutually beneficial friendship wherein he would become more generally important as a result of his relationship with the friend and the friend would get unlimited quantities of elephant ears. So far, no candidates had presented themselves to Albert. He had considered giving it to one or another of his well-liked classmates who had been to the stand a few times, but his interactions with them had been so businesslike that the opportunity had never presented itself. So the card stayed in Albert’s wallet.

In the mean time, he had come to enjoy running the elephant ear stand. The work was simple, he had begun to think he would never tire of eating elephant ears, and he liked being stationed at the center of so much amiable activity. He was an integral part of the regular customers’ lives and they thanked him sincerely when he handed them their elephant ears and side cups of icing or powdered sugar. Most of them did, anyway. Rhonda did not. She had at first, even asking Albert a few insightful questions about his life and his job, gushing about how delicious the elephant ears smelled and praising Albert’s natural elephant-ear-making expertise, but as time went on and Rhonda continued to show up at the stand every day around sunset, she became more and more curt with Albert, snapping at him for being too slow or accusing him of skimping on the powdered sugar, and finally refusing to meet his eyes at all. One night, after receiving her elephant ear, Rhonda walked a few steps away from the stand and then stopped on the curb next to a garbage can, staring at the sugary disk of fried dough in her hand as if it was covered in mealworms. She turned, held the elephant ear over the garbage can with one hand, and burst into tears. But she didn’t drop it. Instead, still clinging to the elephant ear, she walked off down the sidewalk, taking sad little bites between sobs.

After that, Albert didn’t see Rhonda at the stand for over a week. He wondered if she disliked him personally and had started getting her elephant ears only when Chuck was running the stand, but when he asked Chuck about it, he said he hadn’t seen her around either.

One especially busy evening when a group of college kids staying at one of their parents’ enormous lake homes for the weekend showed up at the stand right around sunset and started ordering elephant ears as if it was their first meal in days, Albert happened to glance up and see Rhonda jogging down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. She was wearing a pair of green running shorts and a t-shirt and she had a yellow Labrador retriever on a leash bounding along beside her, his tongue lolling out of his grinning jaws. Rhonda’s face was very serious and Albert could tell that she was making a point of not looking at the elephant ear stand, not even giving it the quickest, most cursory of glances, pretending like she didn’t even notice it was there.

But the dog noticed. The scent of the frying elephant ears seemed to overwhelm him all at once and without warning he bolted out into the street, yanking the leash out of Rhonda’s hand, and barreling right under the wheels of a townie teenager’s massive, growling pickup.

Some customers at the elephant ear stand screamed, elephant ears frozen halfway to their mouths. Others hid their faces behind their piping hot elephant ears. The teenage driver left the truck idling in the middle of the street and picked up the limp dog in his skinny arms, carrying him over to the curb in front of the stand while Rhonda stumbled after him in shocked silence, her hands balled into fists on either side of her chin, her brand new cross trainers sparkling in the light from the blinking bulbs that outlined the stand’s garish sign. A small crowd gathered around the dog on the sidewalk, shaking their heads and saying, “It’s that smell. That smell is irresistible.”

     Rhonda sat on the pavement next to her dying dog and petted his head while a girl in a sundress stood with her phone in her hand but not calling anyone because no one was quite sure who to call.

     “I’m really sorry,” said the driver. “I was even watchin’ where I was going. I wasn’t even yellin’ nothin’.”

     Albert emerged from the stand and walked over to the dog, crouching down next to him with a fresh elephant ear in one hand and a cup of icing in the other, his white apron bunching in his lap. The dog’s eyes were cloudy and his panting was shallow and irregular, his side heaving with each painful breath. Albert tore off a chunk of elephant ear, dipped it in the icing, and then held it down next to the dog’s mouth. “Here, pup,” he said. “This is what you wanted, yeah?”

     The dog sniffed at the gooey chunk of elephant ear and ate it, swallowing without chewing. Rhonda started to say something, but choked up and couldn’t get it out. Albert fed the dog four more pieces before the dog stopped breathing and died just a few seconds after the streetlights came on.

     Albert sat back on his heels and took a bite of what remained of the elephant ear, still looking at the dead dog.

     “Why are you even still here?” asked Rhonda.

     Albert looked up and was surprised by the hatred on her face. “Because,” said Albert. “I don’t get off until 11.”

     “No!” said Rhonda, getting to her feet. “Why are you here at all? Why is the stand still here? The carnival left months ago! No one wants elephant ears around here anymore!”

     The crowd of people with elephant ears in their hands looked at Rhonda with pity, their mouths full of bites of elephant ear.

     “I just work at the stand,” said Albert. “How long it stays here is up to Chuck, I mean…” He trailed off, not really having anything else to add.

     “Well, Chuck should just take his stand and get out of our town,” said Rhonda. “All he does is get peoples’ new dogs killed and make people feel disgusting and hate how they look.”

     A line was starting to form again at the stand’s counter. The driver who had hit the dog drifted away and drove off. The yellow Lab, stretched out on the sidewalk, looked as if it had died feeling content.

Albert reached into the back pocket of his jeans, pulled out his wallet, and extracted the third and final VIP card. “I want you to have this,” he said. Holding it between his middle and index fingers, he extended it to Rhonda who, after a few moments hesitation, took it from him. “It entitles you to all the free elephant ears you want,” said Albert. “As many as you want, whenever you want them. Just show the card to either Chuck or me and we’ll keep the elephant ears coming – boom, boom, boom -until you can’t eat another bite.”

     Rhonda staggered and almost fell before one of the college kids caught her arm. She bent down and put her hands on her knees, the VIP card still clutched in her fingers, and then without a thank you or a goodbye or anything she tucked the card into the waistband of her shorts and walked away down the street, leaving her dead dog behind. The other customers watched her go with pure, naked envy.




Discussion Questions

  • Bottom line: who wins?



  • How much blame should elephant ears be prepared to accept for the death of Rhonda’s dog?



  • Could tragedy have been averted if Rhonda had never attempted to resist temptation?



  • What motivates Albert to give Rhonda the final VIP card? Try to answer this question without making up a word or using a word that you aren’t actually sure means what you think it means.