He glares at me, his jaw moving back and forth like a cow chewing cud. Incredible. He's actually eating the stuff.
The old ladies chatter like schoolgirls, blissfully unaware.
"They're here until Sunday," says Doris. "Billy stopped to find out."
"Yes, two shows on Saturday and one on Sunday. Randall and his girls are taking me tomorrow," says Norma. She turns to me. "Jacob, will you be going?"
I open my mouth to answer, but before I can Doris blurts out, "And did you see those horses? My word, they're pretty. We had horses when I was a girl. Oh, how I loved to ride." She looks into the distance, and for a split second I can see how lovely she was as a young woman.
"Do you remember when the circus traveled by train?" says Hazel. "The posters would appear a few days aheadthey'd cover every surface in town! You couldn't see a brick in between!"
"Golly, yes. I certainly do," Norma says. "They put posters on the side of our barn one year. The men told Father they used a special glue that would dissolve two days after the show, but darned if our barn wasn't still plastered with them months later!" She chuckles, shaking her head. "Father was fit to be tied!"
"And then a few days later the train would pull in. Always at the crack of dawn."
"My father used to take us down to the tracks to watch them unload. Gosh, that was something to see. And then the parade! And the smell of peanuts roasting"
"And Cracker Jack!"
"And candy apples, and ice cream, and lemonade!"
"And the sawdust! It would get in your nose!"
"I used to carry water for the elephants," says McGuinty.
I drop my fork and look up. He is positively dripping with self-satisfaction,
just waiting for the girls to fawn over him.
"You did not," I say.
There is a beat of silence.
"I beg your pardon?" he says.
"You did not carry water for the elephants."
"Yes, I most certainly did."
"No you didn't."
"Are you calling me a liar?" he says slowly.
"If you say you carried water for elephants, I am."
The girls stare at me with open mouths. My heart's pounding. I know I shouldn't do this, but somehow I can't help myself.
"How dare you!" McGuinty braces his knobby hands on the edge of the table. Stringy tendons appear in his forearms.
"Listen pal," I say. "For decades I've heard old coots like you talk about carrying water for elephants and I'm telling you now, it never happened."
"Old coot? Old coot?" McGuinty pushes himself upright, sending his wheelchair flying backward. He points a gnarled finger at me and then drops as though felled by dynamite. He vanishes beneath the edge of the table, his eyes perplexed, his mouth still open.
"Nurse! Oh, Nurse!" cry the old ladies.
There's the familiar patter of crepe-soled shoes and moments later two nurses haul McGuinty up by the arms. He grumbles, making feeble attempts to shake them off.
A third nurse, a pneumatic black girl in pale pink, stands at the end of the table with her hands on her hips. "What on earth is going on?" she asks.
"That old S-O-B called me a liar, that's what," says McGuinty, safely restored to his chair. He straightens his shirt, lifts his grizzled chin, and crosses his arms in front of him. "And an old coot."
"Oh, I'm sure that's not what Mr. Jankowski meant," the girl in pink says.
"It most certainly is," I say. "And he is, too. Pffffft. Carried water for the elephants indeed. Do you have any idea how much an elephant drinks?"
From Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. © 2006 by Sara Gruen. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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