BURNTOWN by Jennifer McMahon – Chapter 2
Miles carries his mother’s little brass elephant in his pocket the way other boys carry a rabbit’s foot or a good luck stone or the way the old ladies at church carry a rosary. The elephant charm is his talisman; he rubs its back, worries over it, so much so that sometimes it feels almost alive. There are moments when he swears he can feel it move, can feel its tiny heart beating.
He reaches in so often that he wears holes in the right pockets of all his pants; Aunt Holly gives them patches, stitching silently and never scolding him. She understands loss. She understands longing.
The elephant is with him when Aunt Holly takes Miles back to his house in Broom Hollow one last time to pack up his things. He goes straight for the garage, finds the gas can and pulls out a Ziplock baggie with the rolled-up plans. Then, he goes into the house, pulls his mother’s copy of David Copperfield from the shelf (the one she used to hide her cigarettes behind) and stuffs that into his knapsack. He grabs his dad’s trumpet in its case.
Back at his aunt and uncle’s, he follows the instructions in his spy book that teach you how to turn a book into a hiding place. It goes onto his shelves, blending in with The Adventures of Robin Hood, Treasure Island, The Borrowers, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Wrinkle in Time, and a full set of Encyclopedia Brittanica. He shoves his dad’s trumpet under his bed. He gets down on his knees to peek at it each night before going to sleep, the way some kids pray.
The little brass pachyderm is in his pocket on his first day at Ashford Middle School. Ashford’s an old mill town that’s now a dirty little city with a lot of people out of work, struggling to make ends meet. Even though it’s only twenty minutes away from Broom Hollow, it feels like another universe. He doesn’t mind, though. Aunt Holly and Uncle Howie have a nice little ranch house on the outskirts of town, and they painted their spare room blue for Miles, covered it with glow-in-the-dark stars. They watch over him as he begins to work on his inventions: little clockwork animals made from scraps of wood and metal that wind up, turn their heads, move their paws. He loves connecting the gears, making the inanimate come to life. Working with tools reminds him of his father; of all the hours he spent in his dad’s workshop handing him hoses and washers and screwdrivers.
Sometimes, he opens up the book he’s hidden the Edison plans in, lays the papers out on the floor of his room. The schematics look almost alien to him, full of bulbs, wires, tubes, little words and numbers scrawled all over it. He wishes his father were here to explain it to him. His father could build this machine.
He’s looking at the plans the day he hears Lily crash her bike on the street outside while trying to do some Evel Knievel jump. Miles takes in her old football helmet, the crazy red hair sticking out underneath, before running to get a first aid kit for her torn open knee. They talk while she cleans off the blood, then he helps her put Band-aids on.
“So why do you live with your aunt and uncle anyway?” she asks. And he tells her, which is weird. He hasn’t talked to anyone about it, but with Lily, the words just come. Lily says her own mother died, and her dad drinks and is rarely around. Her brother Lloyd is raising her. He drives a tow truck and can fix just about anything.
“He’s gifted,” she tells him. “I’m gifted, too.” She digs around in the pocket of her cutoff shorts and pulls out a clear blue marble. “It’s my miniature crystal ball,” she tells him.
“What do you do with it?” he asks.
She holds it her eye and looks through. “I see things with it. Things other people can’t.” She turns towards him, still looking through the marble.
“What do you see?” he asks.
“Sometimes good things, sometimes bad,” she says, tucking the marble back into her pocket and squinting at him in a funny way, like she knows something she isn’t saying.
Miles pulls the elephant out of his pocket and shows it to her. “It was my mother’s,” he tells her. “She had it on the day she died.”
He tells her the story of the elephant, the same story his mother told him just days before she died. He’d noticed her new bracelet and asked her about it. His mother had smiled and said there was a story that went with it.
“Once upon a time,” he tells Lily, recalling each detail of his mother’s story, “in far off India, lived a beautiful golden elephant. But see, the elephant wasn’t really an elephant: she was a princess who had been turned into an elephant by a sorcerer who had this big fight with the girl’s father, the king.”
Lily’s eyes widen. “So what happened to the princess? Did she stay an elephant or did she find a way to break the spell?”
“My mother said that she’s out there still. Waiting for someone to break the curse. And you know the worst part?” Miles asks. “The worst of it is that the princess is the only one who can break the spell. She carries the secret inside her but doesn’t know it.”
Lily smiles. “That part doesn’t seem sad to me. It’s like… like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you know? She had the power to go back home the whole time, but then she wouldn’t have gone on the journey; she wasn’t ready to go home, right? The princess, she’ll figure out how to break the spell when the time is right. And then, think of it, what an amazing story she’ll have to tell people. All about being an elephant.”
She asks him if they caught the man who killed his mother, and he says no, but he’s going to find the killer himself one day.
Lily pulls out her marble again, looks though it. “You will,” Lily says, “I can see it.”
“What else do you see?” he asks and she only smiles, puts her little crystal ball away.
He has his first kiss with Lily, two years later, and when he starts going over to her house every day after school. Lily’s brother, Lloyd, turns out to be about the coolest person Miles has ever met, and the three of them eat dinner together all the time. Lily cooks–Kraft macaroni and cheese, tuna casserole, hot dogs and beans.
“Lil told me about what happened to your parents,” Lloyd says one night. “I’m real sorry.” Miles isn’t sure what to say, so he only nods, looks down at his empty plate, at the ketchup smeared across it like blood.
Lloyd shows Miles how to solder and build an AM radio receiver; how to take an engine apart and to ride a motorbike. Also, it’s Lloyd who gives Miles his first beer, a Narraganset, and shows him how to crush the can when he’s done, like Quint did in Jaws. Lloyd teaches him to drive a stick shift out on the old roads down by the river.
The day Miles gets down on his knee and asks Lily to marry him, he pulls out the ring from his pocket, where it’s been riding around next to the elephant for days. They’re out at dinner at an Italian place Miles can barely afford. He’s just finished grad school. They’ve been living together in a tiny hole-in-the-wall apartment near the paper mill. When Lily says yes, he kisses her, puts the ring on her finger, then touches the elephant to say thank you.
It’s there, in the pocket of his good khakis the day he’s teaching his Sociology 101 class at the college and Lily calls to say she’s in labor — “The baby’s coming!” His car is out of commission — needs a new alternator that they just can’t afford — but Lloyd picks him up in the tow truck from the garage he now owns. They run all the lights on the way to Mercy Hospital. Miles gets there just in time and when he holds his firstborn.
The elephant is there, listening, as he and Lloyd stand on the slushy sidewalk outside the hospital smoking “It’s a Girl!” cigars that are a little crushed from riding around in Lloyd’s pocket. Miles thinks of the exploding cigarettes he once made, how back then, he’d thought smoking was the most evil thing in the world. He knows better now, as he stands, happily puffing his cigar; knows there are far worse things. Miles has pulled the elephant out, and is holding it in hand, giving it a thank you rub.
“What’s that?” Lloyd asks, exhaling a puff of smoke.
“My good luck charm,” Miles says.
Lloyd stares at it for a minute, then says, “Do you have any idea how lucky you actually are, Miles?”
And Miles says, “Yes.”
Yes, yes, yes.
And all along, each day, from the time he is ten until he is a grown man, a husband and a father — in spite of how lucky how feels; how he knows in his logical mind that he has everything he’s ever dreamed of — Miles wishes the elephant could speak. Could tell him where it came from. Who had given it to his mother. And what the killer had said that last day that had made her smile.
He knows he should let it go, but he can’t. And sometimes, after his wife and newborn baby are fast asleep, he slips into his office, pulls the book down from the shelf, takes out the Edison plans and thinks, what if he built the machine and it actually worked? What if the dead could speak? What if he could finally have the answers he’d been looking for all these years?
✦ Come back to Vilma’s Book Blog tomorrow to read the third chapter!!! ✦
I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade. I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction. After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house.
Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness — I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time. In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we’re living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure.
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