September 29: “Miniature Elephants Are Popular” by Joe Meno

A pleasant Thursday to you, Story366! In yesterday’s post, I wrote about writer’s block, how  I had a harder time getting that post started than I had any other day this year, how I started the entry at least four other times before settling in and just writing about my inability to write. Today, I’m not going to do that (though I realize that so far, I’m writing about writing about writer’s block, which is worse), as I have a ton to do, it’s a beautifully sunny day, and I think I’ll just get into the story. After tomorrow, a lot of my pressures will be relieved and we have the MLB playoffs, the election, Halloween, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Today, though, let’s put the story back in Story366.

Today, I read a few pieces from Joe Meno‘s fantastic collection Demons in the Spring, out from Akashic Books. The first thing I’ll note about Demons in the Spring is how gorgeous it is as a physical product, both inside and out. It’s maybe the most beautiful hardcover book I’ve ever bought. Part of this might be because it was never sold with a dust jacket, unheard of for a cloth hardcover, so maybe I’m looking at it in an unusual way, that all books look as good as this one does, only I never take off the dust jacket to find out. Good theory, but the book also has a stunning design etched into the cloth, and some research online reveals that Akashic released several versions of the book, several illustrations available. Inside, Meno employed an army of artists to provide subtle but standout pieces to accompany his stories, the illustrations as eclectic as Meno’s own writing. So, not only a book, but a lovely object, the fruit of a lot of artists’ labor. I’m glad I picked up a copy (and so sad that there’s a stain on the bottom of the front cover, something my oldest son spilled on it, years ago, though it at least makes the book look loved).

The stories in Demons in the Spring exemplify the type of writer that Meno is. Meno possesses vast amounts of ingenuity and heart, as each of his stories, as whimsical as they sound when you read the title—like today’s story, “Miniature Elephants Are Popular”—they all pack quite a bit of emotional content. The book’s first story, “Frances the Ghost,” begins with that aforementioned whimsy, an elementary school girl who won’t take off the blanket she wears as a ghost costume (à la Peanuts); the story turns into so much more, however, as it’s revealed the girl’s father is serving overseas and her mother is starting to lose it, taking care of Frances and her two siblings (with no help from a forgetful grandma). I’ve read a lot of Joe Meno’s stories in the past—I’ve published some, in both Mid-American Review and Moon City Review—and this is not unlike him to be be brilliantly interesting and soulfully meaningful at the same time.

A story that exhibits this pretty masterfully is “Miniature Elephants Are Popular,” a mid-collection tale that I jumped to be cause the title intrigued me (in a sea on intriguing titles). “Miniature Elephants Are Popular” is the story of one Mr. Larchmont, an umbrella salesman and widower (not sure which is more depressing) who hears about the popularity of mini-elephants in on the radio and decides that this is how he’ll get himself out of his funk: a playful and adventuresome pet. Mr. Larchmont brings the elephant home and away we go.

Like most new pets, the mini-elephant is both what Mr. Larchmont wants and what he doesn’t. It’s fun having this new creature in his life, but it’s not like the elephant starts off playing fetch, rubbing against his leg, and waiting for him at the door, tail wagging,. As pets have to adjust to their new people, people have to adjust to their new pets. Eventually, the two find common ground, enjoying walks with each other, and the mini-elephant is on its way to becoming a member of the family (though neither Mr. Larchmont nor Meno ever bother to name it).

Things start to change, i.e., incident incited, when the elephant stops stone-still on one of their walks, staring downward into a sewer grate. Mr. Larchmont, at first, doesn’t know what the deal is, but when he peeks down into the sewer, he sees a human head, decaying, the mini-elephant’s gaze transfixed. Further investigation proves an unlikely skill/habit/quirk for the animal: It senses dead things. Like a police-trained German shepherd, Mr. Larchmont’s mini-elephant is not only drawn to dead creatures, but can sense where something has died. Again, Meno takes a comical and unusual concept and adds something grave. And again, to great effect.

After finding the human head, Mr. Larchmont realizes his mini-elephant will stop at the site of any recent death, including road kill and even rare steaks. He alters his walk routes, avoiding any place where death might have been present—cemeteries, of course, are a nightmare—but soon, word of his pet’s skills get out and Mr. Larchmont is employed to help people, mostly in missing persons cases; sadly, we know as readers, if they’re calling in Mr. Larchmont’s miniature elephant, hope has all but expired.

I thought for sure Meno would take “Miniature Elephants Are Popular” in a particular direction (hint: Mr. Larchmont is a widower), but Meno, as he does in all his writing, surprised me, going in a direction that I didn’t or couldn’t have predicted. What he came up with is better than anything I concocted in my head, a testament to how great this story is, from beginning to end.

I’m a big fan of Joe Meno and have been honored to publish him, read with him, host him for events. He’s a machine as a writer, as he’s penned quite a few novels and collections, some of them bestsellers. If somehow you’ve not read any Joe Meno yet, you’ve got to: He’s amazing at writing.