Fox Tooth Heart

John McManus

Fox Tooth Heart

For my father, Barry McManus

Men are made of rock and thunder:

threat of storm to labor under.

Cypress woods are demon-dark:

boys are fox-teeth in your heart.

— Tennessee Williams


THE STORY OF THE CREATION of my elephant vampire songs begins on the December morning when I killed Aisling, heroine of our last album and my fiancée, in one Jaguar and fled Texas in another. The second car belonged to our manager, and stealing it was a snap, I just called down to the front desk. The valet even asked for my autograph. I signed the parking ticket and headed for I-35. Early in the tour my father, Ike Bright, Sr., had pretended to die in the tsunami in Japan; since then, he’d been hiding out near Texarkana. I guess he’d owed a lot of money. To hoard his address around America had made me feel more powerful than the people around me, whether or not their own fathers were alive. It’d had me singing “Barnacle” in a major scale so that our fans hopped to it instead of swaying.

I drove nonstop through Dallas, Sulphur Springs, and then northeast toward the Palmetto Flats, following signs for a wildlife refuge. Just over the Red River I came to the mailbox that said Blackhawk, my father’s fake name.

He was snoring in a chair on the covered porch of a farmhouse, wearing a pinstripe suit as if he had arrived from a casino. “Dad, it’s Ike,” I said, kicking at his legs until he stirred into awareness of me.

“I read what you told Rolling Stone,” was the first thing he said.

I’d explained that the Pacific Ocean had needed to swallow Ike Senior before I could write true songs about him. “I was pretending to mourn you.”

“You done touring?”

“See the news?”

“I’m off the grid.”

“I’m in some trouble.”

He pointed over my shoulder, where I saw, studying me from a fenced pasture that stretched to the denuded hills, an enormous African elephant. It was about twelve times my size, with sickly pink splotches on its ears. “Meet Gracie,” my father said.

She was plucking weeds with her trunk. I pictured her hollowed out, with the paparazzi and cops and Aisling’s parents waiting inside. “Where are we?”

“Camp David. President doesn’t want it anymore.”

“Did you win this place with a Dolly Parton?”

Nodding, he poured whiskey for himself. I realized he wasn’t joking.

“So it just arbitrarily sits beside an elephant.”

He nodded. “This one talks to me in my head.”

“How’s that work, Dad?”

“Like you and me, but in my head.”

“Is this a zoo?”

“Getting warmer,” he said, his whiskey sparkling in the early light. It occurred to me he meant to profit off Gracie somehow.

A Dolly Parton was a nine-five combo in Texas Hold ‘em, and my first bike had come from his refusing to fold one of those. I’d lost my braces the same way, and had forgotten to say so to Rolling Stone. It wasn’t a good hand. With a Dolly Parton, you lost almost every time. Maybe that’s why the few he won sent him on a winner’s tilt.

“You’re selling Gracie to a zoo.”

“Getting colder.”

“Look, I’m in some shit.”

“It’s a sanctuary for old, abused elephants. They’ve been tortured and driven insane, and now they live on this farm.”

I followed his eyes to where Gracie was grazing. I needed to talk. Ask me a goddamn question, I was saying in my thoughts.

“Old-lady elephants, sixty years old. They each have a favorite fruit and a favorite song. Isn’t that something?”

“Want to hear what’s going on?”

“They’re basically like people.”

“So that’s the refuge on the signs.”

“They’re private. The refuge is us.”

“I don’t follow.”

“In any case, lots of bedrooms. Take whichever.”

I wish you’d been in Japan, I wanted to say, which I realize was petulant. I don’t want to imply that I wasn’t grieving Aisling. But this is about my elephant songs. I did slam the door on my way in, to protest Ike Senior’s code of honor. The code held that men didn’t pry. No matter if the men were father and son, or the son was a little boy; the boy had to commence the talking. I’d traded Aisling for this, I thought as I lay down in a bedroom with faded red walls and a view of the mangy meadow beyond the yard. Never again would I make a seatbelt of my arms to hug her from behind. She wouldn’t drink days away anymore like the heroines of the hardcore songs I wished to write, rather than the fey songs I did write. My songs were about yearning, mostly. In them people yearned to be places they weren’t and do things they didn’t or couldn’t do. The critics called the songs gauzy. One reviewer had written that our last album was “full of fuzz.” Thinking about all that, I had a sort of temper tantrum in my head. Some ugly thoughts were churning in there when a voice said, What question do you want?

It hadn’t spoken in words. More like it reached in and conveyed a feeling. I sat upright. Thirty hours and as many drinks since my last sleep. Until I saw Gracie out the window, eyeing me from her field, I thought I was dreaming.

“Is that you?” I said, facing her. My dad had said she spoke to him. All my life he’d been telling tall tales, but here was Gracie, staring at me, and a voice sounding in my head.

You said you wanted a question, she seemed to reply, again not in words but as a sensation that had me reliving the desire.

Not from you, I thought back.

From who, then?

From my father.

What question?

Every question.

Give an example, she said in my head, at which time I realized what Gracie was doing: tricking me into admitting my crime.

It was one thing to imagine confessing to Ike Senior. Ike Senior would be a pot calling a kettle black to criticize me. This was an innocent, tortured beast. Probably she wasn’t speaking to me in my head at all. I shut my eyes and said good day to her, and awoke to find the sun low in the other side of the sky.

I appraised the situation. Aisling was still dead, I was still a fugitive murderer, and Ike Senior was still drinking on the porch. He had been joined by a leathery-skinned woman in her forties whose horsey jaw fell open when I came outside.

“Is this Junior?” she asked with fond surprise.

“James Junior, meet your future stepmom, Clara.”

“I work at the sanctuary,” Clara said. “Have you made the ladies’ acquaintance?”

“I introduced him to Gracie this morning,” my father said.

“From 1970 until last year, Gracie lived alone on a concrete slab. Her feet are ruined. They whipped her daily.”

“Hurt elephants, you should die,” said Ike Senior, with a righteous anger I didn’t recognize. I scanned the meadow for Gracie, listening for her in my head. She didn’t seem to be near.

“James Junior, James Senior may be the last good man.”

“You’re the one saving the ladies,” my father told Clara, which was when I knew he must be conning her out of her money.

I thought of warning Clara what was coming, then spiriting Gracie away to safety. Gracie didn’t deserve being stuck around my father; surely she had suffered enough. Altruism fails to save deadbeat rocker from lockup, read the ticker tape in my head.

“Elephants understand English,” said Clara, her eyes adoringly on Ike Senior. “They’re smarter than people. Complex in every way, and sweet.”

“That’s why they avoid me.”

“You’re not complex?”

“Or sweet.”

“Gracie visits you.”

“She’s not either, maybe.”

They continued this silly back-and-forth as if I couldn’t hear. Ask me a goddamn question, I thought. When Aisling was alive, I’d kept a list of reasons to break up, topped by “Never asks me about the past.” Even on coke she inquired only about the future. “Always the fucking future,” I shouted back at her once, with a randomness that startled her. That’s because my real fight was with Ike Senior. Ask a question, ask a question, I chanted now in my head. By the bottom of my first glass, he still hadn’t done it. Even when Clara went in for ice, he glanced at me only to see if I laughed at his jokes.

“How do you shoot a red elephant?”

“With a gun,” I guessed.

“With a red gun.”

“All these elephant jokes, as if they’re funny,” Clara said when she returned. “I mean, the elephant falls out of the tree because it’s dead?”

“And the idioms,” my father said.

“It’s awful. Elephants in the room and white elephants and pink elephants and a memory like an elephant.”

“Elephants deserve better,” said Ike Senior, surely playing her. I began dreaming up scenarios to make him feel bad. Claiming I’d been tricked into believing him drowned. Then I recalled replying to his tsunami email.

“Can I use your truck?” I said, only to see if he would ask my destination; it wasn’t safe for me to be seen in public.

He handed the keys over and said, “No title in it.”

“So just don’t get caught? That’s it?”

“No insurance card, either,” he said, with that subtle grin that asked the world to join in his wonder at how droll everything was. I took the keys. He was doing what he believed ...

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