"Those So Blue Ivories", by Ed Lynskey.
If you should ever visit the Great Smoky Mountains, down the two-laner from the tourist trap known as Gatlinburg you’ll hit Erwin, Tennessee. It’s the only burg in America to ever hang and then bury an elephant. I never bothered to learn the lurid details of the story. Several versions have been floated over the years. Most agree the pachyderm went berserk and fatally crushed a circus clown and for its heinous crime had to be put down. It’s no easy task to execute an elephant.
Then late last April, all dressed up with no place to go, I hung out with my girlfriend, Britney. We lolled in a booth at a retro diner on a crisp, clear moonlit night. Almost broke, we nursed our cups of coffee and conversation until Britney hit on the topic.
“That happened ages ago,” I said after a measured sip.
Her cupid lips pursing, Britney arched an eyebrow at me. “But it did happen.” She leaned in closer, whispering, “I’d love to know just where that elephant got buried.”
“I heard it was in Erwin’s switchyard,” I said, yawning. “My great uncle, a Pullman porter, showed me the exact spot once when I was a kid. Matter of fact, he helped dig the grave.”
“Cool. Now you can show me,” said Britney.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because those ivory tusks must be worth a mint,” replied Britney. “I saw this documentary on cable on ivory poachers. They can strike it rich and retire before age thirty.”
Incredulous, I only gave her a bland shrug. “After all this time, the tusks are decayed. The hanging took place in 1916.”
“Except that ivory never rots,” said Britney. “Finders keepers applies, too. I want to dig up that ivory tonight. Are you game or not?”
I had to admit Britney’s enthusiasm was contagious. “All right then, how do we split the melon? 50-50?”
Britney nodded. “Deal. Since grave-digging runs in your genes, you can do that while I supervise.”
“Using a pick and shovel, I’ll bust a gut before we’ve scratched the surface,” I said.
Predictably, Britney had a ready answer. “Not if we take on an extra partner. What if we call Kermit and his backhoe? He’s always up for a caper.”
“Are you kidding? Kermit is a disaster waiting to happen,” I said.
Britney put out her hands as if a scales weighing our options. “Pick and shovel? Or Kermit’s backhoe. Uh, duh. The choice is a no brainer.”
“Yeah okay,” I said. “I’ll get Kermit on my cell phone.”
“Man, this is one crazy stunt,” Kermit was saying. He hollered over the braying diesel engine. His Gravely backhoe bucked and lurched along the dark road. The three of us riding held on tight. A maze of rural routes Kermit knew by heart took us undetected to the switchyard in Erwin.
“Kermit, just stay on task,” I said. “No hotdogging it. Hear me?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Kermit nudged back his fedora.
I cracked my knuckles to get ready. “You’re sure the switchyard will be empty? We won’t get busted for trespassing?”
“Will you relax?” Kermit patted my knee. “The place hasn’t been used in years.”
Near Erwin once past the old vinegar works, we shot through a gap in a cyclone fence. Steel rails gleamed like silvery ribbons in the backhoe’s cones of bright amber light. The rectangles of boxcars imprinted the semi-darkness. I coughed on the dank air.
Nudging me in the ribs, Britney asked. “Where do we dig?”
Coughing again, I pointed straight ahead of us. “Right over there.”
Grinning, Kermit aimed us toward the old depot crumbling in cinderblock ruins. Backfiring, the backhoe braked. Britney and I hopped off. Britney lifted down a pick and shovel. I accepted them. After tugging out a pair of goatskin gloves from a hip pocket, I slipped them on my shaky hands.
Kermit bellowed down to me. “Excavate where first?”
I still carried the mental treasure map from my boyhood visit. You don’t easily forget where an elephant is buried. Three paces from the old depot’s barred window marked the spot. My shovel tip X’d it. Nodding, Kermit revved up the backhoe engine. Stinky exhaust blew back on Britney and me as Kermit sank the scoop’s teeth to bite into the gravely dirt. A hole soon appeared. I breathed in its mineral dampness, then coughed on the fetid dampness.
“I’m buying me a steel blue Corvette,” Britney told me. “You?”
My head just wagged. “Gang way.”
I leaped into the deep pit Kermit had just excavated. After shoveling out a few loads of dirt, I climbed back out.
“Nothing,” I reported Kermit sitting on the backhoe.
“Can’t be,” said Kermit.
He dug further down. I hopped back into the pit and worked my shovel with the same desultory results. We repeated that drill for the better part of an hour. Doubts wracked me. Kermit’s grin thinned while Britney’s face fell pale and pinched. Was her idea a bust?
Yet again I eased myself down into the hole, chunked my shovel in the loose dirt. I hit something -- it was chalk white. My heart lurched for a beat.
“Yo! Look down here, guys!”
Their downcast eyes grew big as biscuits, the same as mine. At the chasm’s bottom gleamed an argosy of bones. Britney and Kermit vaulted down to beside me in the pit.
“Dig!” I commanded them.
We three fools went at it like killing snakes. Dirt clods and rocks flew up out of the pit. More bones tumbled free. Some were long. Some were stout. But only bones. No ivory tusks. Then Kermit unearthed a rotten, thick rope with seven knots securing its giant noose.
Britney yelped in glee. “We’re almost rich! Keep digging.”
A little later and a lot more exhausted and dirty, we still hadn’t uprooted any signs of the ivory tusks.
“It’s almost dawn. We’d better call it off,” said Britney, disappointed.
“Win some, lose some,” I chimed in.
“Okay, let’s blow town after I backfill this hole,” said Kermit. “I’m famished and know of a diner. We can grab a bite of breakfast, my treat. They have live music, too.”
As sunup’s red streaks splintered the sky, we shambled up riding on a Gravely backhoe to stop in front of a roadhouse. We hopped off. Inside the atmosphere was like taking a stroll back into a hot, jazzy time. I spotted a quintet on the stage low-lit polishing off a bouncy bebop number.
“Oh, yeah!” said Britney, snapping her fingers. “Cool squared.”
A demonic glimmer danced in Kermit’s eyes. I liked the catchy beat, too. At the most secluded table, we claimed our seats and passed around the laminated menus.
Next, the more solemn quintet rolled into a soulful, bluesy tune. I’d a vague recollection from my boyhood Billie Holiday had once recorded it with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
“I just know we found the right spot to dig,” said Britney. “We found a whole elephant skeleton, but no ivory tusks. Way weird.”
Kermit scoffed. “It’s not so weird. Somebody beat us to finding the ivory is all.”
“I wonder what ever became of the ivory,” said Britney.
Jutting his lips and shrugging his shoulders, Kermit said, “Who’ll ever know?”
From the corner of my eye, I spied a bald, stocky black man hitch at his tuxedo trousers and perch on a shiny piano bench. His dexterous fingertips caressed the age-worn ivory keys. A melancholy riff piqued my curiosity.
“Well, I for one feel pity for that pachyderm,” said Britney. “What a sad way to die. It was almost like a public lynching.”
Kermit grunted. “Now that’s the real blues, baby. I also wonder what ever became of the ivory.”
Distracted, I didn’t reply as my sight leveled on the piano man. A consummate pro, he’d brought his chops. He hit all the right notes grooving into his signature blues solo. His audience sat transfixed and riveted to their chairs. I mean that in a Dixie minute there wasn’t a dry eye left in the roadhouse.
Britney dabbed a Kleenex at her eyes. Hell, I even sniffed a little. After removing his fedora, Kermit cocked an ear, too.
And the piano man played on, stroking those so blue ivories.
Ed Lynskey is a novelist. He has written: "The Dirt-Brown Derby" (Mundania Press, 2006), "The Blue Cheer" (Point Blank/Wildside Press), "Pelham Fell Here" (Mundania Press, 2007) and "Troglodytes" (Mundania Press, 2008)
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