GIRAFFE: By Jonathan M. Purver
We lost the giraffe in New Mexico. It wasn’t really much of a giraffe, when you come to think about it. Gray corduroy, maybe a foot high, one ear well chewed.
We were traveling eastward to visit my grandmother Sonia. My grandfather had just died, and my parents and I were driving back east to be with my grandmother for awhile. The 1939 Buick, burlap water bag attached to the front bumper, only took us a couple of hundred miles a day. We drove mostly at night; in summer you didn’t cross deserts midday.
Like a plump beetle, our dusty-brown automobile found its way from the open fields, the walnut groves, the ranches that were Los Angeles, to the blistering deserts of the Southwest where we’d look through the windshield to the horizon and watch billowing cloud castles and shimmering lakes far in the distance down the narrow black highway. When we got to the lakes, they had vanished, and new lakes were in the distance.
Lake after lake, cloud after cloud, lake after lake, for hours and hours until the child of seven was lulled to sleep by the swaying of the car as he dreamed of lizards and cacti and ships sailing upon lakes at the end of long black highways never reached.
My grandfather suffered a stroke five years earlier, while still a young man. He could get around well enough but had difficulty finding the words he looked for to communicate his thoughts.
His words, which I know would have been beautiful, had become butterflies for which he no longer had a net. But he spoke with his kind and intelligent eyes, and when he couldn’t find words he wanted to use to speak to his grandson, he’d turn the sounds into little songs or rhymes, and we’d laugh.
Although I was only seven, I remember visiting my grandparents the year before and feeling sad knowing my grandfather was trying so hard to search for words to communicate with me. I hope he knew that he did speak to me in a language more meaningful than that of words: a language composed of feelings, of love.
* * * *
Nighttime was best for crossing the deserts. Quit driving during midday, find a small adobe-walled motel and a nearby diner, go to sleep early in the room with the squeaking bed and the screen door covered with insects. Awaken while constellations glow in the southwestern sky, pull onto the highway, gaze out the rear window as the flickering white and red neon sign of the motel speeds away into the black distance. As we drive into the night, from time to time a truck thunders past from the opposite direction, shaking our car. Under the stars, hours go by.
From darkness, across the desert the sun rises, and for a few moments the horizon is lighted in brilliant color just before desert heat begins again. And we drive until we find a small adobe-walled motel and a diner, go to sleep early in the room with the squeaking bed and the screen door covered with insects, until it is time again to awaken while constellations glow in the southwestern sky.
It was near the end of a day, somewhere in New Mexico, that we realized the giraffe was missing. It was with utter horror my parents noticed its absence. It must have been left at last night’s lodging, most likely dropped under the bed. This night, my father phoned last night’s motel, but the giraffe was nowhere to be found. The room hadn’t yet been rented, so the manager himself checked the room, looked in dresser drawers, closets, even crawled under the beds, then went out and looked around the grounds. He and his wife had a daughter around my age; they understood. But no giraffe. My father left his mother’s phone number in New York City. If the giraffe showed up, the manager would call.
Through the long days, the lonely days, we continue our journey eastward. Deserts slowly are replaced by endless wheat fields of the midwest, and different stars fill the midwestern sky.
Jonathan M. Purver, who lives in South Lake Tahoe, has written more than a dozen books. He has also written dramatic works for public radio and Los Angeles regional television, as well as feature stories for the Gannett Newspapers. He is presently writing “Apple River,” a collection of short fiction.
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