Terah Van Dusen and Helen Lewis

One Red Elephant

By Helen Lewis

Inspiration Piece



Good Little Woman

By Terah Van Dusen

Response piece


The armpit of Humboldt County. That’s what I’d call that place. And I mean that in the best of ways. See armpits aren’t popular. And I don’t like popular. Plus armpits are warm, one way or another. Warm when they’re not wet. Just like Orick, California.

Orick wasn’t a one stoplight town. This was a no stoplight town, bordered on one side by lagoon and on the other side by a tall forest of redwood and fir. The small town was, oh a forty minute drive from Arcata to the south and Crescent City to the north with a whole lot of wonderful nothingness in between.

I lived in Orick for one summer and half a school year but the memories linger, and viscerally. I shared a room with my younger brother Jesse in a small yellow house my mom and step dad rented behind a burl shop. My mother was making jewelry at the time—beaded rainbow-colored earrings that hung long. Earrings for gypsy’s.

In the summer, my mother sunbathed outside with a neighbor lady. The neighbor lady had a big, scary dog she kept behind a short, brown fence. She had two daughters my age whom I played with regularly. We played Saved By The Bell and they wouldn’t let me be Kelly Kapowski even though they were both blond and I had long brown hair just like Kelly Kapowski. But it guess it was fair after all because one of the blond girls would’ve have to be Lisa Turtle and she was black. So I was Lisa Turtle, the peacekeeper.

At school, I learned all about saying Bloody Mary into the mirror three times. Which was scary even if “nothing happened” because the bathrooms were always dark and gloomy because that’s how Orick was because that’s how Humboldt County was—shrouded in fog and with a mean tree cover to boot.

It’s not as if nothing ever happened in Orick. But mainly, nothing ever happened in Orick.

However one time, the circus came to town.


I had the best teachers in the world and though I don’t recall their names, I’ll tell you about ‘em: That’s right, there were two. Not one teacher and one assistant: two teachers. They were husband and wife and they held equal power. When they weren’t teaching they were archeologists. I suddenly wanted to be an archeologist too.

I didn’t even care that they usually had me on “orange” status (i.e. yellow=good, orange=almost pink, pink=bad). That was the coding we had on a big board in the back of the classroom—it’s how they kept track of us kids. Three pink slips meant a trip to the principal’s office. I didn’t have a chance to make it that far, I moved back to Rock Creek after the insides of my ears healed but that’s another story.

My two teachers taught us kids about dinosaurs and whales and they fed us mussel’s they’d collected themselves at the nearby shore. They taught us paper mache, let us paint using real paint brushes (not just the foam on stick bullshit) and always informed us of local current events.

Like the circus.


We were sitting in class when the wife-teacher showed us a big colorful flyer for the circus, said it was happening on Saturday and not just in Orick but at Orick Elementary School. Why not at the high school you ask? Because there was no high school.

To my surprise, a brown-haired boy who sat behind me nudged me and handed me a small square of notebook paper. I took it in my hand and looked at him but he nodded toward a bright blond boy who sat behind him. The blond boy shyly waved at me. I turned bright red, shoved the note in my coat pocket and turned my attention back to the wife-teacher because I was already on orange slip for the day and I didn’t want to get a pink slip (story of my life).

Side note: you know why I was always on orange slip? Because there were two teachers not just one.


Back at home I isolated myself in mine and Jesse’s bedroom. Jesse was outside playing. I sat on a bed near the window and it would be the first of many times I would fantasize about a boy while in bed. This first fantasy was tame, mind you.

I looked at the folded square of notebook paper and feared the worst: it would say how ugly and stupid I am.

I eyed the note. I could tell by its corners that it had been folded once and never opened. I looked at the bedroom door, wishing I could seal it shut with only my mind, and just for the moment. It would be so embarrassing if my mother caught me with a love note (at least that’s what I hoped it was). I slowly peeled the note open. It read:


I like you. Let’s go to the circus together on Saturday.
We can eat popcorn. It will be fun.


Saturday: I’d managed to get my mother to take my brother and I to the circus without telling her I didn’t really want to go to see the elephants, just a boy. We walked to the school-circus from our house—my twenty seven year old mother in her signature frayed, worn jeans with holes and a long-sleeve plaid man’s shirt. Her girlish fingernails and cigarettes fresh from the pack. Me with long hair and a long dress with flowers and pockets and lace. The only dress I wore that previous summer. A hippie dress.

We got to the circus before dark. We waited five minutes (which was a long time in our town) in line to ride the elephant. I rode the elephant as the sun went down behind the hills to the south. Where the redwoods are. I sat strait up on that elephant and my girl hips moved with it as it stepped. Up on that elephant I didn’t give a care about the blond boy who was suppose to meet me. I didn’t care about the blond girls next door who were lucky to have sisters not just brothers. I didn’t care about my ear problems or my mom and dad problems. I didn’t care that I would grow out of my favorite dress.

Sadly the elephant ride lasted only a moment. Two minutes at the most. Much like a really, really good song or that time I danced on stage in NYC or all the times I’ve dove under water in a clear, clean river, swam to the bottom and opened my eyes and no…one…could…touch…me and I didn’t even have to hear myself, let alone anyone else.

Some moments let us be untouchable.


Later, in the audience, I’m just like everyone else. I’m sitting on cold and flat and watching the untouchable trapeze artists and the little boy who can blow fire. I’m waiting for the next big thing.I patiently watch the circus show with my nine year old hands clasped in my lap—ever so often scanning the crowd for my blond date. All of town was there, and down from the hills too cause the place was packed.

Then I saw him. His patch of blond hair lit up under the dark canopy of circus tent. The boy was dressed in a black tuxedo, white collared shirt, black bow tie, shiny black shoes. My first thought was that I didn’t think I could find the courage to approach him, let alone allow him to buy me popcorn. My second thought was: who’s that?

Next to the blond boy who’d specifically asked me to be his date to the circus was a pretty little girl in a light blue dress. They were standing together near the popcorn. The fury rose inside me like a ring of fire. Why would he invite two girls? I reread his note in my head: Let’s go the circus together. We can eat popcorn. It will be fun.

It will be fun? This wasn’t fun!

Like a good little woman, I kept my head low until the circus show was over then I led my mother and brother Jesse home on the darkest possible route as to not be seen by the blond boy leaving in his limo–as clearly he was loaded. I didn’t talk to the boy at school on Monday, I never mentioned the note, and he never apologized either.

If I didn’t already know she was his date, I would’ve thought the little blond girl was the little blond boys sister.


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One Comment

  1. Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm | #

    I love the small moments that only become small when you’re an adult. The importance of these moments as a child makes this a powerful piece, Terah!