Jeb’s Yellow Elephant


One summer evening my parents and I swung in the squeaky glider on the front porch and fanned ourselves with the evening’s Register-Mail. We were hopefully searching the twilit skies for a thundercloud, but only heat lightning appeared to lick the sky.

A train clattered by on the tracks across the road, then tooted as it passed the State Street intersection. Daddy pulled out his pocket watch and remarked, “Mail train’s right on time.” Then he continued, “Dulcy, you ought to get to sleep a little earlier tonight. The circus train starts unloading at five o’clock in the morning.”

I knew he was right but I hated to miss the nightly game of hide-and-seek with my friends, the Shane kids, who were just coming up the walk.

“Dulcy, can you play?” Emmalou called. “Walter said he’d be it.

“Not tonight, I have to go to bed early.”

They drifted away as Mama said, “Dulcy, before you go upstairs, there’s something Daddy and I would like to tell you.”

We got up, brushed june bugs off the screen door, and went inside to sit down by the dining room table. Mama fidgeted with the bowl of zinnias in the center of the table. “We received a letter from my cousin Martha today. She’s sick and needs someone to look after her boy. He’s coming tonight,” she said.

“Oh boy!” I exclaimed. “Someone new to play with. Will he stay all summer?”

“No, just for a few days. His grandma is driving up from Missouri. He’ll spend the summer with her.”

“How old is he?”

“About your age, maybe a little younger,” Daddy put in.

“Dulcy, I want you to show him kindness and understanding while he’s here,” Mama continued. “He’s not had much.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Now brush your teeth and go to bed.”

Upstairs I decided to count to a million by fives, determined not to go to sleep until the boy arrived. But I never made it past one hundred and fifty.

It seemed only moments later when my Mickey Mouse alarm clock rang. And even before I opened my eyes, I knew something in the room had changed. My white china dogs still marched on their shelves; the dolls and stuffed animals still sat in their corners. What was different? Then, from deep within a heavy comforter over the daybed, came a muffled sound.

“Is that you Clipper?” I said, wondering if my dog would emerge. “You’ll get fleas on Grandma’s quilt.”

The comforter was tugged downward to reveal the largest dark eyes I’d ever seen. “Good morning.” I said. “My name’s Dulcy. What’s yours?”

“Jebediah E. Banks,” came the answer.

“That’s a big name for a little boy like you.”

“It was my Granddaddy’s, and I reckon I’ll grow into it.”

“Till you do, I’ll just call you Jeb. Do you want to see the circus train unload?”

We sat side by side on the window seat while, across the road on the spur track from Peoria, the spectacle began. Work lights cast a yellow pall on the scene and threw long, grotesque shadows upward into the nearby trees. Men dressed in overalls worked swiftly, lifting machinery, tying off ropes, and transferring the calliope to a waiting truck. Animal handlers in knee-high boots helped maneuver red and gold cages off the flatcars with only an occasional snarl of protest from within. In their slow, plodding manner, the elephants carried poles and timber in their trunks without a sound or gesture from anyone.

I cast a glance at Jeb.

“Is it real?” he whispered.

“Of course it is,” I replied.

He turned to stare at me questioningly. “But the elephants,” he said, “they’re yellow.”

“They just look that way on account of the lights.”

When the train was completely unloaded, we climbed back into our beds. I lay staring at the ceiling, puzzled about Jeb. How can a boy of seven or eight not know what’s real and what isn’t? I wondered. After breakfast, I’ll have to teach him the difference.

That morning Jeb and I sat on the porch steps while I figured out what to do. But Mama already had plans. She came out and handed me a brown paper sack. “You and Jeb take these string beans down to Grandma so she can cook them for supper. Hurry along now.”

Our bare feet slapped on the hot sidewalk as we hurried the two blocks to Grandma’s house. “Grandma,” I called as we went in the back door. Then I saw the note on the kitchen table.

“DULCY,” it read, “HAVE GONE TO STORE. HAVE SOME COOKIES.”

I pulled out the brown stone cookie jar and we selected two ginger drops each. As we sat at the table and made the cookies last as long as possible by eating around the edges, I said, “Jeb, I’m going to show you the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. I’ll show you make believe first.” Then I went to the pantry.

I carried about a dozen bottles and cans of different kinds to the table. I arranged them with the tallest in the middle, flanked by the next tallest on either side, then the next in height, until the shortest bottles stood at the ends on each side.

This is a pretend game I made up,” I explained. “You’re going to be the only other person in the whole world to know about it.” His dark eyes brightened slightly.

“This is my Sunday School class,” I began. Then I introduced him to the containers that were pretend pupils, each with a name and with a part to give as they stepped out of line to say their pieces, the way my real class does for the special Mother’s Day program every year. For the grand finale, the Sunday School-bottle class sang, “Mother, I Love You” before they were dismissed. Naturally, I said all the pieces and sang the song; and the bottle named Dulcy knew her pieces best and the one named Walter forgot his.

“Now it’s your turn,” I told Jeb.

He traced the design on Grandma’s tablecloth before he said, “I don’t know how.”

“Just try,” I pleaded.

“No, I can’t do it,” he insisted.

“Then let’s go home,” I snapped as I put the bottles away.

Later, we sat under the pear tree in my backyard.

“Are you mad at me?” Jeb asked.

“No.” But I didn’t sound much like I meant it.

Moments later I turned to look at him and found him staring straight up into the tree. “What in the world are you looking at?” I asked, giving him a nudge.

Slowly, very slowly, he said, “There’s a yellow elephant sitting right up there.” He pointed to the highest branch.

I looked up before I realized what had happened. “Jeb!” I squealed. “You’ve learned how to pretend!”

We climbed as high as we dared and stayed in the tree the rest of the day. Mama sent our lunch up to us on a rope pulley and in the afternoon brought out a sack of fresh sugar cookies.

The next day we climbed back into the pear tree after breakfast. In the late afternoon it began to rain and Mama called us inside. We cut through the garden as Jeb said, “Tomorrow, let’s get up earlier and play with my elephant.”

“Tomorrow your grandma is coming and you have to go to Missouri.”

“I can’t go.” He stopped by a neat row of calendulas. “I can’t leave my elephant.”

“Don’t be silly,” I told him, looking up into the rain so it would pepper my face. “There isn’t any elephant in the pear tree.”

He pulled back his arm and doubled up his fist as though he were going to hit me, but I managed to get out of the way. Mama appeared before we had time to do any damage to each other. “Dulcy,” she shouted, grabbing me by my collar. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, picking on a child so much smaller.” Jeb slipped away from her and climbed back into the pear tree. “I’m going to call your father,” Mama said, looking at me. She turned toward the house, but I headed for the pear tree.

“Come on down, Jeb,” I said.

“No!” he declared, sobbing. “I’m never coming down. I’m going to stay with my elephant forever. He’s the only one in the world who loves me.”

And right there I should have told him. I should have said, “I love you, too, Jeb.” But I didn’t because I was only ten, and was still smarting from our verbal battle.

“Well then, why don’t you take your stupid elephant and go join the circus?” I shouted, and turned and ran through the downpour into the house.

Soon Daddy came home and gently coaxed Jeb out of the tree. Mama spooned hot potato soup into him and put him to bed. The next morning I awoke early to a dully, gray dawn, heavy with moisture. Jeb’s bed was vacant. I hurried down the hall and shook Mama.

“Has Jeb gone to Missouri already?”

Her eyes widened in alarm and together we ran to my room. His pajamas were neatly folded on the quilt, the only evidence that he’d ever been there. We woke Daddy and the search began.

Thinking of the pear tree first, we went outside, using Daddy’s flashlight to cast a beam into the mother of pearl mist hanging on the branches. The tree was strangely empty, emptier than yesterday, and I had the craziest feeling that Jeb really had taken his elephant with him.

Then I remembered what I’d said to him. I told my folks that Jeb liked the circus a lot, so we headed for the fairgrounds.

Daddy and the manager organized a search. While acrobats in robes of scarlet scoured the main tent, a family of midgets hurried to the clown’s wagon. The bearded lady kept Mama and me company, reassuring us this had happened a thousand times before, and they knew just where to look for a runaway boy.

The sun broke through the overcast and I managed to slip away to find the elephants.

They were staked near some scrub oaks, and I found Jeb sitting in the shade nearby. When he saw me, he said, “They’re not yellow, Dulcy. Only mine is yellow.”

On the way home all I managed to say was, “I’m glad you found your elephant, Jeb.” I wanted to say more but the time for that had passed.

The moment we turned onto Second Street, we saw the old Packard coupe with the Missouri license plate parked in front of our house. As we pulled into the driveway a lumpy, middle-aged woman with set lines on her face hurried out of Mrs. Adams’s house next door. I knew she must be Jeb’s grandma.

Within moments she had taken him by the hand and walked to the Packard. Jeb paused with one foot on the running board, shook his hand free, and turned around. He stared at me with those sad brown eyes for one long moment, but without any sign of farewell or that he’d ever known us. Then he turned and climbed into the car and they chuffed up the street, turned onto Pearl, and disappeared.

I hope he took his elephant. It’s all I had to give him.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann