I wrote this today as part of my commitment to the Clarion West Write-a-thon. A dedication means that person sponsored it by donating to CW, and then provided me a writing prompt that sparked the piece. If you would like something written especially for you, please consider sponsoring me.
For Matt Ruff. Thank you for your friendship and support.
It is amazing that more people don’t die at the zoo, because basically the zoo is ten tons of clawed fanged rip-your-guts-out die-screaming fun just waiting for the next moron who thinks he’s at Disneyworld. Oh, cool, the hyena wants my ham sandwich! Munch, there goes your hand. I’m gonna climb this fence and give the tiger a beer! Oops, the tiger ate your brain.
People are stupid, Will, Caesar says. But y’all taste good. He grins at me. Caesar is beautiful and strong and he knows it. He is a furry orange-striped death god behind a pane of the thickest glass they can find; because stupid is relative, and Caesar knows that too. I am just another lunch on legs to him, but he seems happy to talk to me until the day he can persuade me to come inside and play with the kitty. On that day I would officially be Too Stupid To Live, so I guess it would all work out.
I can talk to all the big predators. Pete the polar bear once said that means I am one of them. You’re a giant weasel, Pete, I told him. I am not a member of your weasel tribe.
Ooooooh, Pete said, someone’s feeling sensitive. And maybe I was, a little. My friend Sara Parsons called me a weasel for making her miss Jack Houghton’s invitation-only beach party. I told her I’d drive her. And I did: around and around, pretending to be lost. Pretending to be stupid. Because I know how Jack’s private parties sometimes turn out. Jack thinks girls are stupid, but they taste good. I can’t wait for him to graduate to the bigger buffet of some university at least seven states away. And I wouldn’t mind seeing him in the cage with Caesar for a little heart-to-heart.
The next day at school, Jack says to me, “Dude, come up to my place tomorrow afternoon for hot tub and margaritas.”
“Maybe,” I say.
“No, definitely. Bring Sachertorte Sara with you this time.” And he looks at me with half-lidded eyes, like he’s imagining a mouthful of cream.
“Bring her,” he says. “Or someone else will.”
“Whatever,” I say. “If she wants to.”
“Of course she wants to.”
And that’s the thing: she does. “Will, I can take care of myself,” she says when I try to tell her. “I know how to say no, and I know how to handle boys. I just want to see what it’s like…”
“To end up roofied in the cabana with your underwear gone?”
“Oh, please,” she says. “I’m not stupid. I won’t drink anything I don’t open myself. I just want to know…” She gives me a long look, with all the years of our friendship behind it. “You know what I mean.”
And I do. We both wonder what it’s like to live that way. The money and the fun and the 400-volt fizz of making all your own rules for a night, for ever. “I would rather go with you,” she says, which means she’ll go no matter what. So I take her to Jack’s the next day.
But first, we go to the zoo.
I lead her to Caesar’s cage. He’s lounging on his favorite rock, posing for the lunchtime crowd. When he sees us, he stands and stretches and strolls to the glass.
“Oh, he’s beautiful,” Sara says, with just the right note of admiration and respect that Caesar likes best. It’s like she bows to him with her voice. He regards her for a moment, then he rubs his cheek along the glass. The nice kitty likes you. Look, look. All this strength and power, this rumble and tongue, this attentive spotlight gaze, all this for you. Rub, rub.
“Wow,” she says. She kneels and presses her hand against the glass where his cheek is. I know she’s never been that close to something like Caesar before; and in her face is wonder and delight.
And suddenly Caesar half-stands and slams his dinner-plate paws against the glass on either side of her, opens his jaws wide wide wide. His mouth is bigger than her head. She yelps and scrabbles backward, and I catch her. For a moment we can hear his hunger, arrrr, arrrr; and privately he says to me, This one would be very tasty. Then he scrapes his claws down the glass as he drops, and gives her a half-lidded look, and turns and strolls to his rock.
Sara has recovered herself by the time we get to Jack’s house. She’s adrenalized by the thrill of the wild, ready to shake it up a little. We make our way to the back yard, where girls in bikinis are splashing each other in the pool, and on the lawn beyond, Jack and some of his posse are playing touch football. Soon they’ll start inviting girls to join them, and then the touching will become the hunt and those bikinis will start coming off.
I can see why girls think Jack is beautiful. He is lean and long and graceful, and when he runs with the ball he is focused and fierce. “Wow,” Sara says, “he’s great out there.”
“Yes,” I say. “He’s a real tiger.”
Sara goes very still, watching Jack. Then she looks at me for a long moment. And finally she say, “Without glass.”
When I tell Caesar later, he approves. He says, I like her. We should do lunch again sometime. And laughs his silent tiger laugh.