The iron-barred door finally shut, marking the end of another maddening day. The old man breathed a sigh of relief, extracting the worn padlock from his brown-jacket pocket and inserting it through the metal rings – slamming it home with a satisfying click. He watched, through the bars, as the last cars pulled away. Minivans full of screaming children smelling of themselves. SUVs ferrying away sullen teenagers – earphones fastened defiantly to their ears – bobbing their heads ridiculously in the silence behind their back-seat windows; looking forever like the scrawny Crested Cranes in the third pen up the path of the Africa exhibit. Oversexed lovers in broken down Fords, parked in faraway corners of the lot (everybody knows why); the kind who can’t keep their hands off each other, pawing their affection in unfortunate outbursts of lust – like the chimps on Chimp Island – except the chimps are more discreet; more restrained. A greater sense of propriety.
The old man turned slowly – his back to the departing hordes. He was slightly hunched from the years – his white beard tickling his neck when he looked down into the cages; wise eyes full of experience and sorrow – heartache only the animals seemed to understand. He wore a frayed corduroy jacket – browned as much by time as by design – and patched jeans went down to the old beige loafers he’d found lying atop a junk heap an age or two ago. He put one foot in front of the other, retracing the steps he knew so well – repeating the practiced pattern of the years. Solace, security – a reprieve.
Now his work began in earnest. Sweeping up the garbage from the children – ratty children with no sense of cleanliness. Soda bottles; bags of popcorn; popsicle wrappers. He tidied up systematically, starting in the Africa exhibits and moving through to Central America and then Asia and back, closer to home – the Rocky Mountains. Pens of rock and evergreen forests, faux ponds, green with neglect, teaming with trout where the three-legged otter playfully splashed. He liked to finish up here, the towering, snowcapped mountains above him a fitting backdrop for the enclosures that held all manner of animals that had once roamed free this land – as he had once roamed free.
Coinciding with his endeavors, he would look in on the animals. The keeper allowed him to do so – not to enter the cages, at least not officially – but to commune with the tired old souls. He felt a connection with these, the imprisoned. Like somehow he understood them – they understood him; that they were all joined by past suffering and the realization that they were to live out their days, together, in this of all places. He’d thought once or twice about setting them free; a great act of defiance and rebellion. But he knew that they, like he, would probably not even leave. The outside world scared them now – they were accustomed to their lives, such as they were, and would not exchange them for the harsh dangers of outside.
“Hello,” he bent his creaky knees, coming to rest on a bench that had faded over time, the green paint having cracked, letting a place for the termites to burrow. The bench creaked in protest. The old bear, pacing back and forth in front of the wire, did not respond. He had never responded – that small black bear. The keeper had once said that the bear had been brought in as a cub – having been found next to his mother who had been shot, left beside a trash can in the national park. Drunken sport, the old man supposed – humanity. “How was your day?” Pacing, not stopping, back to front and front to back, endlessly. “Did you make any friends?” A foolish question, but what else could he say? The bear paused for a moment, turning its forlorn gaze at the old man and snuffed – showing old teeth. Back to pacing.
After a time, the old man got to his feet, using the broom to help. “Goodnight, old friend,” he said, tipping his worn ball-cap at the animal, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Gum. He took the scraper from his pocket and bent over, hearing a pop coming from one ankle, until he was below the bench where he began to scrape the sticky residue from the underside of the picnic table. One, two, three hard whacks and they dropped, one by one, into the black plastic garbage bag he’d set under the table. A carving, “Alex and Sue forever”, etched under the bench with a knife or maybe a pen. “Forever,” the old man mumbled, “humph.” What did they know about forever? Now him – he knew. Forever was waking up every morning, amazed at another day. Forever was looking back, so far back at his love and his life as they had been and wondering why the loss had not killed him. Forever was walking the hills and plains of a huge country looking for connection; and finding only the empty stares. “Why?” the stares would say. “Because this is forever,” the only answer.
He approached the lions – two of them. Old. The moat under the rock fence had gone dry. A crack nobody had the energy to fix, even if they’d had the money. Why? Those old lions weren’t going anywhere – they knew it and so did the keeper. Too old to fight; too tired to dream; too scared to push – there they sat. The old man looked around – first left and then right. Seeing nobody, he went to the far side, opening the door with his key he let himself in. Every night, it was the same. To stroke the manes – to whisper some words. He strode through the dryness to the rock where they were sitting – making noise; they knew he was coming, but still. Best not to sneak up on a lion, even if they were old and, dare he say it? Domesticated. His hand crinkled in his pocket, pulling out some jerky he’d collected from the garbage, and offering it first to the female – who only turned her head to the side. The big male, his mane tangled and knotted, sniffed at the dried meat – finally lapping it up in his mouth and chewing delicately. “Old friend,” he said. “Think of Africa today – if you still can. The great open expanses, the dark night with the stars overhead like diamonds set in a bed of tar. I was in Africa once, did you know that?” The lion just stared blankly. “So long ago – when things had purpose, meaning. Can’t remember now what it was for. My mind isn’t as sharp as it once was. But it must have been important. Why else would a white man fly across the sea?” Did the lion smile? The old man tussled his mane, grabbing the sides of the head with both hands. He knew he should be scared – even old lions were dangerous. One bite. If he had to admit it, there was a part of him that wanted it all to end here. Maybe that was why he chanced the lions, over and over again. Maybe he was hoping that one night the lion would at last have mercy on him – would finally end it all for an old man who had nowhere else to go.
Hope springs eternal.
He emptied the bag out between the great paws of the reclining beast, and with a last pat he stood creakily and left the enclosure. The sun was slowly setting. A gentle breeze was descending from the mountain, and the air had become crisp. Not cold, but it was still just spring and the sun still did not heat the entrails of the land – only lying upon it like a blanket for a short time before receding, returning it to the freezing rock fairies. He’d have to hurry up, only a short time now until the coming of night. There was still so much to be done; he’d dallied too long with his lions. He passed them by, one by one, the animals he had come to know. Baboons; ostriches; hyenas – which are not dogs. He’d learned that in his first week, and it still amazed him. Tortoises, lynxes, lemurs. He’d spent time with each of them; getting to know them. Caring for them. Sharing in their sentence. Some he dared not embrace. The old boa who had one time escaped. That had been a long night. They’d found him in the petting zoo – digesting a baby goat. The old man did not care for snakes.
He went on, quicker now. There was one friend he dared not miss – tonight of all nights. He went around through the old house. Bugs, nothing here for him. A can of coke left on a bench. He picked it up, depositing it in his bag. Locking the door. He hurried around; night was falling fast. His legs moved slowly, and the chill was enflaming his arthritis. But he hobbled forward.
An old island, barren – a pretend lighthouse up on top that had been meant in the days before memory as an exhibit for many animals. Monkeys, turtles, birds. It sat, overgrown with trees – pine trees long dead, old bushes that were brambles now. Some sticks. The work an old effort, built a hundred years before when the town had been important. Never completed. Like the old man, nobody knew why – just forgotten, that’s it. At the center of the pit, a golden eagle. He finished each night here; because she was his. The only thing he had. His great love.
He walked along the rock and cement path that crumbled a little beneath his weight. Sounds of pebbles falling onto the ground below. The stillness broken. A twig; the rush of sparrow taking flight from a tree. Overhead an airplane, flying – going somewhere, people who had somewhere to go. The old eagle looked up. Flightless, but not resentful. That had passed – even the memory of flight so far in the past that it no longer triggered emotion. Its one wing, broken so long ago – how, the old man knew not – hung limply at her side as she bounded over to the old man who had sat on a rock. Tree trunk, rock, then hobbling along the ground, dragging her wing she nuzzled up to the old man’s side. He had brought her here. She was his. He still remembered the conversation with the keeper.
“But please – she will be of no burden. I will care for her.”
“We have too many animals as it is – and she will not last long.” Some tenderness. “Yes she will, I will feed her. The old island – I’ve seen it. Empty. May I have that, for her?” The old man did not like to plead. Long ago he had ceased pleading – for what? Gentleness in man was not something he had often experienced. But the keeper had conceded. “Of course.” Understanding.
“How are you, my dear?” He said, stroking the eagle’s head. Out of his other pocket, some fish taken from the otter’s bucket. Some popcorn from an unfinished bag. A Styrofoam cup with water from the drinking fountain. The bird bent over, pecking at the corn and drinking from the cup. She would look up and the old man would stroke her head – then finding her wing as he eased out the dirt from the feathers and straightened them. He remembered vaguely the day he’d found her – small, skinny. Dying. She had given him meaning, a reason. Companionship – so many are often without; he had been so long without.
The sky was darkening at last. The brambles around him becoming somehow sinister – he turned his collar up. The bird was at his side – ancient and powerful and vulnerable, a paradox. She pecked at his face, digging her beak into his beard – signs of affection from a life, grateful it was not alone. And then it hobbled back to the fallen tree, climbing to sit astride the log. The old man got up, joining the old bird. Seated on the hard dirt, his back resting against the stump of the fallen tree – his eagle staring attentively into the sky she could no longer fly – he rested his head, one last time, and he died.