The Game Farm by Mitch Levenberg

The Game Farm
By Mitch Levenberg

There were two elephants. They were trained but I didn’t train them. The guy who did train them left me with them about an hour ago; he said something like can you watch my elephants and I foolishly said yes and now, one hour later he still hasn’t come back. My family is at the amusement park. My wife said don’t stand behind them or in front of them. That’s all she said. Both elephants can lift their legs (one at a time) quite high and in unison and I found that as soon as I stopped humming Mac the Knife, they dropped their legs again, in unison. It was Mac the Knife all the time. I was humming it all the time, not realizing it was the elephant’s training song, a song which somehow triggered inside their brains the necessity to raise their legs, in unison. They were playing it over the loudspeaker during the performance. I personally associated it with sharks and gangsters, not elephants. Others may have had a different point of view on that. Others may not have seen it as animal abuse or elephant abuse. Others may have seen it as this amazing ability of elephants to appreciate popular music. I had never really wondered what went on in an elephant’s head until now.

Then, a funny thing started to happen. People started filling the seats as if the show were about to begin again. It was something about me and the elephants. It looked like the show was about to begin again.

Earlier, a couple of lawyers came around to ask me if those were my elephants.  Yes and No, I told them. This seemed to exasperate them right away. Are they or aren’t they? one of them asked. You must know whether or not these are your elephants, he said. I mean, he said. I mean it’s a pretty hard thing not to know . . . he said, . . .whether or not they’re your elephants, the other one added. I looked at the elephants for some help and both of them were shaking their trunks at me.

Oh, these elephants, I said. No. I’m watching them for someone. And that someone would be? one of them asked. The trainer, I said. He’s the guy that makes their legs go up and down whenever Mac the Knife comes on. Isn’t that something? the other one said. And the owner?  Any idea where the owner might be? I wouldn’t know, I told him. What do you mean you wouldn’t know? he asked. Because I wouldn’t, I said.

I could feel the elephants getting restless now behind me. This is something you start to know after a while when you’ve been with elephants even if it’s for a short time. How could you be taking care of two elephants and not know who the owner is? one of them wanted to know. I don’t know anything about the owner, I said. Now the trainer is a different story. If you want to know who the trainer is then maybe I can help you out, I said. Now you wouldn’t be the owner, would you? the other one asked. Me? I said. The owner? Yeah, you, the first one said. Sometimes people don’t like to admit they’re owners, especially of elephants, until they see what the deal is, until they see what kind of trouble they’re in. Is the owner in trouble? I asked. Quite the contrary, said the second one handing me a business card. It said Bragg and Bragg, Attys. at Law. Are you brothers? I asked. Yes, they said in unison, lifting their knees just slightly. The Bragg brothers.

Then the lawyer who did not give me his card said, The clients we represent would like to buy your elephants and whatever other animals you got for sale. He was definitely talking to me now like I was the owner, so I said, Not interested, and they both looked at me very hard like I was some part of a document they were having trouble figuring out. So you are the owner, they both said pointing their fingers straight in the air as if having just made a final indisputable point. No, I said. I’m not. Well, if you’re not, how come you said you weren’t interested? said the one who had not given me his card. Yeah, the one who did give me his card said. Only the owner would say he wasn’t interested. Okay, I said. Then I am. That’s not the point, the lawyer who had not given me his card said. Then he gave me his card, which was the same card the other one had given me and they both left.

A short while later the trainer came back stinking of alcohol. Lost time track think, he said. The elephants raised their trunks in horror. Thank shoe, he said to me, and then he took a cassette player out of his pocket, and as the cool jazzy sounds of Beyond The Sea began to play the elephants turned to jelly before my eyes, both of them rolling on the ground in ecstasy, rolling back and forth to the tinny grainy crackling rhythm of the music, and when I turned back to the trainer, he was gone.

It felt like deception in the air. There were looks of desperation on the animals’ faces. They were hungry, no question about it. For example, the giraffes seemed the reverse of what they should have been with their necks scraping the ground, desperately gnawing at broken crackers. There was nowhere for them to go but down. The trees had no leaves, at least nothing to speak of. They seemed uncomfortable in their own bodies. When I was a child I always envied giraffes more than any other animal. They commanded a view of the world no one else could. They seemed to know things and see things we didn’t and never could. And now they seemed to envy me. Never would I believe that a giraffe would rather be me than itself.

The lioness was another story. While the giraffe suffered from desperation, general depression, and species envy, the lion was just mad as hell. She paced along the front of her cage, back and forth, like that was all she was meant to do, this moment, this day and forever. She seemed to have death on her mind. Not necessarily hers but ours and people like us. We wouldn’t dare feed her crackers. Especially now that the only crackers they sold us were stale. There was no point in ordering fresh ones, the owners told us. We’re closing down tomorrow anyway. Maybe the giraffes would lower themselves to eat that stuff, but not the lion. She’d rather eat the giraffes. I understood really for the first time the expression, I’m starting to feel like a caged animal.

This whole place was beginning to feel like the end of something, but not the beginning of the end either but just the end. Trees, dirt, people, animals, all on the verge of annihilation, but in a subtle way, not with a bang or even with a whimper, but something else, like once it was gone it would be as if it all never existed in the first place, not a grain of dirt, not a single cracker crumb would remain.

And now when I saw those people sitting patiently under a blazing hot sun, waiting for the elephant show to begin, as if they had nothing better to do in their lives but to see nature go against itself, to be manipulated, strangulated to relieve our collective boredom and anxiety, I wanted to let the elephants go, to undo their shackles and let them run wild among the crowd. I had to remember – despite what Bragg and Bragg might have believed – that I didn’t own them. I was just watching them. More and more people began to gather, sit on benches, stand under trees, lie on the sloping hills in the distance. I noticed that many in the audience were Hasidic Jews sitting restlessly on metallic chairs, under a relentless sun, purposefully overdressed in their long black coats and bright white shirts. Their children, coatless, danced wildly around them, their little strings swinging wildly, their shirts falling out from inside their pants. Some of the women grabbed their children, tried to get them to sit, but they would struggle, then pull away, toppling over one chair after another. I worried how the elephants might react to this. I looked at their shackles, for how their shackles went so went the elephants. The shackles led to the wall behind them. There was a long chain that led from their ankles to a distant wall behind them so that they could still lift their legs freely. There was the illusion of freedom within their imprisonment, much like the animals in general.

I could see the lawyers out there. Oh, yeah, they weren’t hard to pick out in their dark blue suits, their yellow baseball caps and blood red shades. I started to mumble something, to myself, like I was rehearsing something in my head, like what it would be like if I really had to get in front of an audience with two shackled elephants behind me. I mean, what would I say? What would be my purpose, my motivation. Whom would I want to push forward really into the light of day? Me or the elephants? Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages, I mumbled to myself. There was a smattering of applause. They heard me. The microphone was on. People scurried around to find seats. Even the Hasidic children stopped for a moment and looked towards the stage. Ladies and Gentleman, I repeated. Children of all ages! I shouted. This gave me great confidence, yet I needed to feel it from the elephants as well. After all, we were connected now, we were in this together. When I turned to look at them I noticed they were wearing giant sunglasses and red baggy shorts. Yes, they were ready, I thought. But what about me?

The audience was quiet now, waiting for my next words, but I was out of words. Instead, I raised my left leg, then my right. Many in the audience booed. Not everyone. For example, the Hasidim sat patiently now, even the children, as if they were thinking, whatever happens will happen. Either the elephants will perform or they will not. It is God’s will. If God doesn’t want it to happen, it won’t. If He does it will. In the meantime, we have seats. Others are standing, fidgeting, anxious and uncertain. We are calm because if there’s one thing we are certain of it is uncertainty. And then came a great crackling sound in the sky. An airplane? Thunder? Fireworks? Gunshots?  No, it was Mac The Knife!

And the elephants, sounding their siren of deep jungle satisfaction, of thick urban gloom, raised their trunks to show their teeth, rotting and yellow. Still, the audience, didn’t care; to them, to every last one of them, those teeth were pearly white, and they cheered and roared and blew out faux elephant sounds from their lips. Now the elephants turned to the audience, and there hanging from their tails was a large jackknife glistening in the sun. Suddenly the elephants squared off, entangled their trunks, and when they separated a red liquid began to ooze and then both of them, raising their trunks in triumph, sprayed the bloody liquid over the audience.

A scream, a sharp, shrill scream streaked across the crowd as a body, flung from some hidden corner flopped onto the stage, its faceless torso stained in blood. A man who looked very much like the trainer, except wearing a very thick black mustache and a black cape, stumbled back onto the stage, wielding a large dagger. Then, staggering towards me, his bloody hands raised the dagger above his head and he let it fly. I stood completely frozen as it whizzed past me, missing me by inches, bouncing several times on the stage and landing somewhere in the audience. I got it! I got it! someone cried out. No! I’ve got it! I’ve got it! someone else cried out. No one’s got it! another cried. Arrrrggghhhh! cried still another. It was the trainer collapsing at my feet.

A cement bag dropped from the sky inches from the audience, suspended by a rope. More screams, the elephants roared with delight and confidence. The audience oohed and aahed wondering where that bag could have come from since the only ceiling one can see was the sky. The song, not quite finished began to crackle and then fade. The trainer, lying at my feet, picked up his head and said to me, bake a tow, rake a cow, so I turned to the audience, took a bow and then pointed to the elephants, like I’d been doing it for years, and who upon my signal, raised their trunks in some empty ritual of appreciation. The audience continued to applaud, screaming, Encore! Encore!

Suddenly the elephants, as if this were the encore they’d been waiting for, pulled hard against their shackles, pulled and pulled until they exploded out of the back wall. They raised their legs again high in the air, their shackles glistened in the sun and they began to move forward. The crowd, somewhat uncertain whether this was an encore or if the elephants were actually escaping, moved tentatively backwards, a questioning kind of urgency as if something might be wrong, not natural or else something quite wonderful, magical depending of course on one’s point of view. The elephants jumped off the stage and continued to move towards the crowd.

But the elephants were way in the distance now, spreading mayhem and destruction everywhere, crushing fences, knocking down cages, sending animals running in every direction. They’re free! I told the trainer. Look at them, they’re free! For how long? he asked. They’ll just round them up again and sell them for slaughter or just shoot them now. It’s over! Over!

And then just like that we all started laughing. We hadn’t laughed since we got here. But now amidst the shouts and screams of people trampling each other, among the broken bones and internal injuries, we were able to feel hopeful again, if even just for that one moment, in the pure selfless innocence of our child.

Then, just as our laughing started to wind down, we heard a different kind of shouting, not of terror or panic, or even hopelessness or despair, but of joy, of surprise and even elation, that is those people who hadn’t been whisked away by ambulances because of fainting fits or panic attacks or crushed bones or skulls, or heat prostration or amnesia or sundry psychosomatic related illnesses, or those for whom the thrill was not, for some inexplicable reason, completely gone, were beginning to feel part of some greater act, that having survived they were meant to survive, that their parts in this theatrical representation of life was to live, to experience the very heights and depths of their emotions in direct accordance with a couple of loose elephants, that somehow more was to be played out before they were to go home, that having been carried along this far, they wanted more, a last act. It was these the people who began to saunter back to their seats. It was these people who wanted to see more elephants. It was these people who expected – what else could they expect in a world that threatened to dissolve in the blink of an eye – that there would be more elephants waiting backstage; although clearly, as far as the eye could see, there were no more elephants. There wasn’t even a backstage.

As for the departed elephants, perhaps there was the hope as well that they would shortly return, that the mayhem they had caused was planned mayhem, all part of the act, the rampaging, the screams of terror, the traumas, real and imagined, the ambulances, the police, all part of the same act, this last great act the game farm might ever put on again. And let’s say it wasn’t all an act. Let’s say the elephants did run away, wasn’t it reasonable to expect that once they’ve tasted freedom, with all its uncertainty and unknown terrors, they would opt to come back to what was familiar, to the endless supply of peanuts, the stale crackers, to the applause and adulation of the masses, religious and secular alike, might it not be better, far more pleasurable for them to return to their shackles?

But I did not believe that. In the short time I knew those elephants I knew they wanted out and out for good, pleasure or no pleasure, and now, as far as the trainer was concerned, he was out cold yet again and lay prostrate upon a stage filled with broken shackles, streams of fake blood mixed with saw dust.

- Mitch Levenberg has published essays and short fiction in such journals as The Common Review, Common Boundary, Battle Runes, Fiction, The Saint Ann’s Review, The New Delta Review, The Same, Local Knowledge, and others. His collection of stories, Principles of Uncertainty and Other Constants was published in 2006 and his collection of short essays, Write Something, in 2014. His short play Hippopotamus was performed at the Unboxed Voices short play festival in 2014 and his non-fiction book, Dementia Diaries was published in 2017. He teaches writing at St. Francis College and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Copyright©2020 by Mitch Levenberg. All Rights Reserved