Illustrations by Conor Nolan
Nathaniel Rich is 32 years old, and he’s written and accomplished more than you will if you live to be 100. His novel The Mayor’s Tongue, published a few years after he graduated from college, was praised by the New York Times and everyone else who’s not illiterate, and it earned him comparisons to a young Paul Auster. Nathaniel’s new novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, comes out in April from Farrar, Straus and Giroux and will no doubt earn him similar praise. On the side, he’s also worked as an editor at the Paris Review and cranked out brilliant essays and journalism for the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and… well, you get the idea. He was inspired to write “Zanesville” after hearing the real-life tale of Terry Thompson, who killed himself a few years ago after releasing 56 tigers, bears, lions, wolves, leopards, and monkeys from the animal refuge he ran in Ohio. All names and details in Nathaniel’s short story, however, are entirely fictional. (Except for the bit about the monkey having a nasty case of herpes. That’s totally true.) “Zanesville” is Nathaniel’s first story for VICE.
If only Roger had bought the rabbit. Harriet had already picked one out, a mangy albino with red eyes like embers, but her heart wasn’t in it. Harriet’s heart wasn’t in anything, really, not since her visit to Dr. Doom. She said she had chosen the albino rabbit because it seemed like the saddest one. But all of them seemed sad to Roger. Not just the rabbits—every animal that wheezed and shrieked and rattled its cage at WeLuvPets!: the black-eyed ferret, who looked like he’d been socked in a bar fight; the degu trailing his long skinny tail like a strand of saliva; and especially the hedgehog, worrying a crumpled ball of newspaper until he fell sideways, panting from exhaustion, his quivers trembling in panic.
Between the incessant screeching of the cockatiels (“Help!” they yelled. “Help-help-help-HELP-HELP-HELLLLLP!”) and the odor—a soupy miasma of damp fur, urine-soaked hay, and formaldehyde deodorizers—Roger could feel a full-blown migraine coming on. A dark hand gripped his brain stem and began to squeeze. He handed Harriet his credit card and told her she could choose whatever damn rabbit she wanted. He’d be waiting outside by their bikes.
But on his way out he was distracted at the cash register by a pair of gleaming eyes. They stared from a glossy brochure, Exotic Pets 4 Sale. He recognized those eyes. He had seen them before, a decade earlier, during the war—it must have been somewhere in Quảng Trị province. His platoon had set up an ambush in a dense thicket of acacia and evergreen. He remembered the heat most vividly; he would never forget that, the sun much closer to the earth than it ever got in the States. Also the obsessive humidity, the weight of his jungle boots, the exuberant sucking of the mud, the mysterious fringe of yellow crust that formed on his neck where his steel helmet touched his skin. And he remembered that he had been lying under his thatch cover for nearly five hours, trying not to flinch too violently every time a blood-brown leafhopper flew into his mouth, when he’d felt a tug on his left boot. He turned, expecting to find Collins or one of the others, but he could only make out a bulky shadow advancing through the blackness like a floating blanket. There followed a loud, anguished scream. Roger and the other men, forgetting their training, leaped wildly from their positions, just in time to see a 400-pound cat dragging Collins by his ankle across the forest carpet.
The tiger, surrounded by the adrenalized soldiers, made an easy target. Its flank was perforated by approximately 80 rounds of ammunition. Collins escaped with only several light lacerations along his calves. The men dragged their trophy through the high grass to their next position. The Hueys weren’t scheduled to retrieve them for another 48 hours, however, and they worried that in the jungle heat the animal would rot. One of them had mentioned that tannic acid, which was used for curing deer hides, was present in urine. Two days later, back at camp, the five marines posed for grinning photographs next to the piss-pickled carcass.
Roger found Harriet at the register with Bunnicula and a five-pound sack of alfalfa.
“Honey,” he said, and Harriet looked up abruptly because he never called her that anymore. “I got a different idea.”
So I’m driving into town on West Pike Street and I almost run smack into a grizzly bear.
You know how when people have unusual encounters, they initially assume that they’re seeing something else? As in: I thought it was a large school of fish, but when it lifted its tail, I realized it was the Loch Ness monster. Or: I thought it was just a government satellite, but when it landed in the desert and all those tall willowy creatures with eyes like holograms walked out, I realized it was an alien spaceship. Well, that is not the case here. Even though I’ve never seen even a black bear in Zanesville, Ohio, I don’t doubt for a moment what I’m up against. On some deeper, animal level, I just know. It helps that there aren’t any shadows or anything: It’s a regular blue-robin day, unusually warm for October, and I’ve just dropped Rachel and Tyler at the Licking View Elementary School playground. Tyler loves the monkey bars. The last time he was nearly strong enough to climb all the way across—just two bars short.
Anyway it’s a perfect day, a last sunny teaspoon of summer, and the road is so bright it looks like it’s levitating. There are no other cars in view and I’ve just hit that long straightaway, right after Polk Scrap Iron and Metal, where you can see a full two miles ahead, all the way to where Pike turns into Main. And a grizzly bear is sitting in the middle of the road. He’s giving me the old stink eye. As if to say, what do you think you’re doing? I press hard on the brakes because I’ve seen that special on the Discovery Channel. You know, the one in Yellowstone, where the grizzly gives the parked Hyundai Elantra a little nudge with his snout and the sedan just rolls over on its back like a dead cockroach? I’m driving a Chevy Equinox but I’m not about to take any chances. Not now that I have Tyler.
As the car decelerates I take the opportunity to try and figure out how a grizzly bear might have gotten to Zanesville. I’ve read that different animal species are changing habitats to avoid the rising heat: American bison are moving to Canada, dengue-carrying mosquitoes are flying across the Caribbean to the Gulf Coast. So I’m thinking this grizzly would have had to march down from Ontario, right over the Mackinac Bridge. Or he swam across Lake Erie, then wandered through Cleveland and Akron and Canton and Gnadenhutten. But of course that doesn’t make any sense. First of all, he’d never make it out of Cleveland alive, and second, animals always migrate north, don’t they? Why would a grizzly walk south, toward the equator? I guess you can say I’m in a state of shock.
I’m slowing down but not quickly enough—the bear’s getting closer and closer and he’s glaring at me, his gaze passing right through the windshield and into my eyes like a meat hook. By the time the Equinox finally comes to a full stop, the indifferent animal is only an arm’s length away. Then he does the strangest thing: He raises a claw and rests it on the front bumper. The gesture is like a benediction, as if to say: I claim you.
But before our little conversation can continue, the behemoth is distracted by a rustling of the leaves on the side of the road. A small monkey—a chimpanzee would be my best guess—waddles out of the woods in a state of bafflement, his dragging knuckles leaving light streaks of blood on the macadam. The bear, forgetting about my Equinox, takes two great gallops across the road and lunges. The monkey is candy. The bear sinks his teeth into its neck and wags it back and forth, the monkey’s arms awkwardly flailing, like a stuffed animal. The monkey’s jaw slowly opens and closes, pensively chewing the air.
As the bear tugs an intestinal coil out of the monkey’s stomach, I take off, continuing down West Pike. I flip on WZNE and it’s only then that I’m able to think straight. DJ Whizbox, who if you haven’t heard him sounds like a teenager hopped up on reds, is raving about lions and tigers and bears escaping from something called the Muskingum County Animal Refuge. I’ve never heard of this refuge, but DJ Whizbox mentions that it’s over on Kopchak Road, and there are about four dozen animals on the loose. All of them are considered dangerous. The whole thing is so crazy that as I drive slowly toward downtown, scanning the woods for African lions and Bengal tigers, I start losing it. I can barely keep the car steady, the whole thing is just too absurd, I’m roaring, screaming with laughter—until I remember Rachel and Tyler. The Licking View Elementary School playground is about a thousand yards from the end of Kopchak Road. And the only thing separating the woods from the monkey bars—oh, God, the monkey bars—is a frail, six-foot-high chain-link fence. A fence that is about half as tall as the grizzly bear whose muzzle, I can now see in the rearview mirror, is covered with strawberry jam.