Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bare Hands

Bare Hands

He sat in the very back, which meant we had to crane our necks to see his scars. He looked patched together, and not very well, with big red lines of stitching. He had his sleeves rolled up, and three circles of bite marks on just his right hand alone. He had one thumb to go around, and no pinkies.

The rest of us drank lots of beer, and played a game. The game was called “the first person to get drunk has to ask what his story is.”

With Park, and the Guide (Joseph) there were seven of us. Since the rest of us all looked the same, there were no illusions to go around. New white collared shirts, and large cheeks, and sunglasses bought at the airport.

We were white, middle-aged men off to shoot the hell out of an elephant.

Michael Gerrard (47) was the first to break, after six beers and constant, sneaking-looks.

“Hey, Park,” he said. His voice wavered between aggression and politesse. We still weren’t sure how you acted like a man, in the savannah. “What’s your business? Or story? Are you shooting with us?” There was some lingering hope, in the bus, that he was here to haul gear. Although I figured that Joseph would’ve picked a guy with two thumbs for the work.

Park grunted. He held out mangled hands. “I’m not shooting with you,” he said.

“So why’d you just stick out your hand---“

“I kill animals with them,” Park said. Park was missing some teeth. Something had happened to Park’s vocal cords. He sounded like a man with a boot on his neck.

Joseph, driving the bus, began to giggle.

“I kill them with my bare hands,” Park announced, and grinned.

We all looked at each other. Among other things, this was going to be damaging to our self-esteem.

“How’s that going to go?” Edward Weiner (51). “It’s an elephant, right? It’s not like it’s got a throat you can choke or whatever.”

This set off Joseph again. He pounded on the battered steering wheel. Joseph understood us. The bus had air conditioning, but he had kept it off, so that we could sweat in Africa.

“Worked on the shark,” Park said. He hunkered forward, and we all followed him, beers forgotten in our hands.

“A shark? You’re joking,” said Thomas Littlefield (55). “They’ve got no throats, and aren’t they covered in sandpaper stuff? So like you’ll cut the shit out of yourself if you grab hold or whatever?”

Park examined his hands. They looked like sandpaper, themselves. If he had any arm hair it had long ago been cut or burnt or ripped out. He looked like he could open cans with them. “They do have tough skin,” he conceded. “But they also have remoras attached.”

Then he leaned back, and nodded at us, sagely.

We all looked at each other, eyes wide, and swigged more beer from Africa. Many of us had bottles of whiskey in our bags, because of Teddy Roosevelt, but authentic African beer had been a stronger pull.

“What else have you killed?” Teddy Morley (42, the baby) asked.

For the next hour and a half, we listened to Park’s roll call of animals that he had killed with his bare hands.

The easiest had been bugs, naturally, which he had gone through in a long weekend post-college. Park had simply gone off to Big Sur and stomped around. The hardest parts had been keeping track of them all, and which bug was which. And, of course, when the bee stung him back.

“I nearly died,” he growled. “Allergic to them. I woke up two days later, covered in ants biting the shit out of me.”

“Did you… kill the ants?” I asked. An alcoholic haze had settled in for the long haul to elephant land.

Park looked confused. “Why would I? I had already killed one. I was done.”

We all nodded, impressed. Park wasn’t just a man of action. Park was a sportsman.


Joseph left the crappy roads shortly before dusk, and we trundled down dust ruts. Empties rattled on the floor, between us. The Guide had discretely turned on the air conditioning some time ago.

“What’s the hardest animal you killed?” Teddy asked. He was the most impressed, and leaned nearly to the edge of his chair, frequently staring at his own accounting-practiced hands.

Park had to think about this. “Penguin.”

“What, because they’re all slippery? Or because they’re cold and it’s hard to get to them, that kind of thing?” Edward asked. He had his arms crossed, and scowled at Park from time to time.

“I would’ve thought like a bird that flies around all the time, or whales, or something like that,” Michael chimed in.

“Birds have to sleep. Penguin,” Park said. “Definitely Penguin.”

“Because they fight back? Or…”

“Penguins look at you,” Park interrupted. Then stared at the floor. He flipped down his shirt sleeves, and his scars disappeared under.


Dinner was buffet-style. By which was meant, Joseph wrapped potatoes in aluminum foil and tossed them into the fire, along with a big tin of beans. If you wanted a potato, you raked one out of the coals, and saw how burnt it was, and then you ate it.

“This isn’t very Africa-y,” Edward grumbled. “I eat these beans at home. Every god damn Thursday night I eat these beans.”

Park liked them. He slurped them down. I wondered about his history. And also how he had paid for this trip. We had each paid upwards of ten thousand dollars for the chance to shoot an elephant in the fucking face. And that with the understanding that 1) we might not find an elephant, and 2) if we found elephants, we would only get to kill one, out of all of us.

After dinner we sat around on camp chairs, watching the stars, and trading stories about how completely horrified our wives and neighbors were that we were off in Africa killing elephants.

“You always hear the same thing. They’re endangered. Every time. Even if this is your best friend, and you know he’s personally killed like thirty thousand deer, and he has a bumper sticker that says “Nuke Shit,”” Thomas griped.

“My wife thinks I’m in Europe,” Teddy said. “On business.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah. I even booked tickets and a hotel in Germany. I’m counting on the fact that she doesn’t speak German.”

The stars twinkled. Park sat cross-legged, with his eyes closed. He looked like he was meditating. That didn’t make much sense. We all had pounding headaches.

Edward, the oldest, motioned for us all to join him in the back of the brush, out of the campground. We followed, obedient, and hunkered in a circle.

“Boys, something I’d like us to think about. One, there’s only one elephant to go around, and I want us to have it.”

“What, instead of Park?” Teddy said. “Man, he if he can kill an elephant with his bare hands, he’s welcome to do it. I’m not getting in the way of that.”

We all hissed disagreement. “He kills shit every damn day!” Edward argued. “He’s already way over his limit on killing! It’s our turn! I didn’t come all the way to god damn darkest Africa to watch some guy work out his aggression towards the animal kingdom!”

The five of us voted, 4-1, that Park was not allowed in the elephant killing club. Teddy was the hold-out. I strongly argued that he wasn’t likely to abide by any one-elephant limit anyway, so we should safeguard our own. “He probably wants a smaller one, anyways, not a big elephant. It’s got to be really hard to kill a huge one.”

“That brings me to my second point,” Edward intoned. “I don’t think he’s here to kill an elephant with his bare hands.”

He looked over at the campfire, lit with African wood. “I think he’s here to kill a person.”


None of us had slept well. We had set up a watch, clutching our guns. But all of us had stayed up, watching the stars, and waited for scar-riddled hands to choke us to death. It was not comforting to think that Park had only confessed to killing one of each animal. I was one of each animal.

Other doubts had arisen. One animal meant dogs and cats, didn’t it? Had he killed someone’s german shepherd? A Labrador had gone missing in the neighborhood. Was he responsible?

No one spoke to Park, that morning. He had shaven, first thing, and we treated this with suspicion. Who shaved on a hunting trip in Africa? It was insane.

The sun rose over a long landscape of light brown grass, with the occasional spindly tree. It didn’t look very foreign.

Joseph explained, to all of us, the correct and proper way to shoot an elephant. This was a practiced and rehearsed speech that included a few jokes, to lighten the mood. He didn’t get any laughs -- we kept watching Park, who was flexing his hands and appeared bored.

“Human is the new elephant,” Edward whispered, behind us. He had a very expensive rifle, and had also strapped a knife to each side, so that he could presumably carry two knives.

When we boarded the bus, once again, Edward made sure to sit in the very back, so that Park would have to go in front. If he noticed our new lack of enthusiasm, he didn’t mention it. Edward drank a beer, and gestured for the rest of us to join in, so that everything would appear normal, in our elephant-killing expedition.

And then there they were, our elephants. Five of them, spread out in an arc around a few black trees with long branches. They milled around, and, happily, none of them were babies. This was the culmination of a life-long dream for me, ever since I first saw Dumbo, as a small child. And it was ruined by the silent presence of this weirdly-specific angel of death.


Tension mounted. Joseph sat us halfway between bus and targets. Five men with sweat-stained pits, and Park. Our Guide went to check on the elephants, or something.

“So, how are you going to do it?” Michael said, with enforced casualness. “Some kind of… elephant killing pinch? Or is there like a spot beneath his ears?”

Park didn’t say anything. He kept closing his eyes for long periods of time, and breathing slow.

He swiveled, and stared at us all.

Five rifles pitched in his direction.

“Don’t do it!” Edward screeched. “This is elephant shot! They’ll have to identify you by toe prints, because it isn’t leaving any teeth behind!”

We all waited for each other to take the first shot. But we weren’t nearly drunk enough.

Park, the scarred monster, looked puzzled at our shaking hands and rifles. He shrugged, and turned into the brush.

“He’s going to kill our elephant,” Teddy murmured. But we were all too relieved to be alive to react. Instead, we shouldered our guns, and watched Park.

He walked for the first hundred feet, purposeful. His feet, we realized, were bare. He passed Joseph, coming the other way. Our Guide tried to grab at the man, and Park shrugged him off, pushed him down into the grass. Park started to run, towards the grey wall of pachyderms in the near distance.

We all just watched, slack-jawed, and sweating in the heat.

Park had picked out the largest elephant. It had the most wrinkles, and huge ears, one with a chunk bitten out. He stepped in front of it, shirt sleeves rolled up once more. We couldn’t hear him over the stifling and dense air, but he was shouting something.

“Maybe we should do something?” I ventured, and received no support.

The bull elephant reared, front legs in the air. It trumpeted, and that we could hear. Park danced backwards, just ahead of the crashing tree trunk feet. It stamped dust into the air, momentarily hiding him from view.

We only saw him once more, for a moment. And that was when he jumped into the elephant’s mouth. It was an impossible leap, but he grabbed the teeth, scrambling up towards the animal’s open lips. The bull reared again, this time confused and agitated. Park saw his chance, and slid right into the elephant’s throat.

That was the last we ever saw of Park.

The elephant stopped prancing. It tried to chew, then swallow, its throat working furiously.

“He’s choking it?” Teddy said, like in a dream. “Can’t it just… breath through its nose?”

Park had apparently worked all of that out. The elephant crashed to the ground, a minute later, and laid still. The other elephants circled it, as baffled as we were.

Joseph reappeared a moment later. He looked a little sad, but not much.

“Did you know that was his plan?” I asked him. “To, um, choke it to death?”

Joseph shrugged. “I hired him to carry the gear,” he told us. He looked apologetic. “That did not count against your elephant. Come forward, we will get ready for your shot.”

We all looked at the dust, past our middle-age spread. “No thanks,” Michael said, and the rest of us, mumbling, agreed.


Since then the five of us met, once, in Vegas. We held a funeral by burying a stack of beer cans. Teddy suggested that we all kill a bug, in his honor, but our hearts weren’t in it. We haven’t gotten together since.

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