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.
In the years that followed, Roger would return to WeLuvPets! to buy rabbits, dozens of rabbits. But he only bought live rabbits for birthdays and holidays. Most of the time he did Benji’s shopping at the Pick ’n Save, where he asked the butcher to set aside any recently spoiled meat. As a tiger cub, Benji had eaten five pounds a day. Once he reached his adult weight, he needed close to four times that amount. How Roger loved to watch Benji devour the grayish sides of beef, the stringy horsemeat, the whole chickens! Especially those first years, when Benji had no competition for his food. He savored his meals. He would begin by licking the chicken, his thick tongue lapping at the white puckered flesh, basting it with his phlegm, as he revolved the bird in his paws, cherishing it like a giant bonbon. Then, tentatively, as if chancing some illicit act, he’d gnaw free a wing. Next a leg, and the second wing, pausing between mouthfuls to yawn his mouth and bare his fangs at Roger—Don’t get any ideas. Finally hunger overwhelmed Benji and he’d finish in a glorious clatter of crunched bone and tendon. Roger could watch him for hours.
And usually that’s what he did. During the day he frequently took breaks from R’s Motorcycle Repair so that he could check on Benji. Even at night, after Harriet returned from her job at Rescue the Perishing Home for Assisted Living, Roger lingered in the pen. Roger fed Benji with the milk bottle and fruitlessly tried to teach him basic commands (“Sit, Benji boy, sit!”), but most of the time he just watched in silence, mesmerized by the way the tiger’s stripes coiled and bent as he prowled.
“Someone has to take care of him,” Roger would say, when Harriet complained. “And I don’t see you showing any interest.”
Harriet, shrugging herself into nonexistence, slinked off to the television and her sewing. Before their final visit to Dr. Tomarsky—whom she began calling Dr. Doomarsky, then simply Dr. Doom—Harriet had started on a little pale blue sweater. Only the arms were missing. When they returned from the appointment—the one in which the doctor had drawn a crude diagram of Harriet’s fallopian tubes—and she sat sobbing in their bedroom, refusing to come out for dinner, Roger buried the armless sweater beneath several crumpled pharmacy bags in the kitchen trash. He considered it an act of compassion. The sight of the incomplete sweater could only agitate her needlessly. So he was surprised when she burst out of the house several mornings later, her face red and blistery. Roger had been planting the 12-foot stakes that would form the perimeter of Benji’s pen. He ran to comfort her, but she shook him off.
“You threw it away?” she screamed. “You threw it in the trash?”
He explained himself, he apologized, but it was no use. They never talked about it again, but that night she began a new sweater. It was a replica of the one he’d tossed—powder blue, and small enough to fit an infant. Whether she was driven by spite or merely maudlin obsession, he could not be certain, and since her sewing seemed to be the only thing that contented her, he chose not to pry. But the fact of the matter was that she continued to knit baby clothing. Not just sweaters, but pantlets and blankies and booties. It gave him the willies. It was another reason to stay outdoors with Benji.
But Benji wasn’t right either. He had been a playful cub, affectionate and spritely, though as his legs lengthened and his chest thickened to the size of a barrel, he increasingly seemed sullen, agitated, restless. His prowl slackened into a perfunctory crawl. He spent more time in his shelter, a wooden lean-to structure that Roger had constructed out of packing crates from Pick ’n Save and covered with a blue tarp. Benji glared lugubriously from the shadows, his massive jaw set, his almond eyes unreflective. To a passive observer he might have appeared apathetic or doltish, but Roger, knowing his pet intimately by now, could sense, deep down, a powerful yearning. Roger recognized the condition: The poor guy was lonely. Unspeakably lonely.
In the next Exotic Pets 4 Sale, Roger found in the Big Cat section an ad from a woman in Daytona Beach: “Beatrice is bottle-raised, eight months old, very nice and peaceful. She likes being petted. $300 obo plus shipping.” Beatrice was a Siberian, not a Bengal, but her owner explained that Bengals and Siberians frequently crossbred; that was how you got a white tiger. The real problem with Beatrice was not apparent until the tiger arrived at Kopchak Road. She was beautiful, with large eyes the color of star fruit and a thick white pelage. But she was not especially friendly. Since she was larger than Benji, they rarely tussled, and had staked opposite ends of the pen. Soon Beatrice became even more morose than Benji, who no longer seemed lonely so much as agitated. This was unsustainable. Each tiger would need a mate.
Roger began placing his own ads: The Muskingum County Animal Refuge of Zanesville, Ohio, seeks pet tigers. We make competitive bids, and we treat our animals with love!
Between veterans’ disability and the money he’d put aside from R’s Motorcycle Repair, not to mention the college fund he had started at Harriet’s insistence two years earlier, Roger had some flexibility. Bengal cubs cost about the same amount as golden retrievers, since demand was even lower than supply. Ohio was one of only eight states where you could own exotic pets without a permit. The spoiled meat at the Pick ’n Save was free. Veterinarian house calls weren’t cheap, but in those early years the worst issue Roger had faced was Beatrice’s weeklong bout of salmonella. And land they had in excess. R’s Repair only took up a fraction of the front yard. Other than the knoll at the edge of the property where Roger kept junk parts for repairs—the brake calipers and fork bushings and carburetors that bleached in the sun like the bones of a clean-picked carcass—the dusty 40-acre lot behind the house lay untended. In the late summer, before the rains came, the fields coughed dense clouds of dust that hovered over the property like desert sandstorms and seeped into the house. They’d only ever used the land for dirt-bike racing, but that had stopped once Harriet began working at Rescue the Perishing. By the weekend she was too tired to do anything except sprawl on the couch, her thimbled finger slowly pushing the needle through her child-sized garments while the television strobed.
Besides, he could argue that the tigers did yield some financial return. Bikers puttered to R’s Repair from all over Muskingum County for as little as a tune-up just to see Benji and Beatrice. It helped that Roger was the finest Harley customizer in southern Ohio, of course; that’s what earned his customers’ loyalty. But the animals attracted new business. And when a biker brought his son along to look at the tigers, Roger couldn’t deny that the awed look on the boy’s face brought him some measure of satisfaction. The children understood the power of these animals. You could see it in the way their faces went slack. They understood how, when you stared deep into Beatrice’s eyes, you felt yourself plunging into a bottomless pit of wild darkness. The sensation was intoxicating.
Those were the salad days. At any given time Roger was working on at least eight bikes at R’s Repair, his ambush was growing exponentially—Benji and Juliana, a more accommodating Siberian, produced four cubs in two years—and he had never felt more committed to anything, or anyone, in his life, not even the men he fought beside at Quảng Trị. Every day when he went out to meet his brood he felt nearly overcome by pride. Yes, he was a proud daddy on the farm, nursing the cubs with baby bottles and hand-feeding long strips of bloody horseflesh to Benji and Beatrice and Juliana and Cujo and Long Tall Sally and Benji Jr. and Monster. At feeding time they lined up like kindergarteners along the fence, working out the order themselves, alpha male down to zeta. And Harriet, for her part, seemed to approve. At least she seemed happy enough at Rescue the Perishing. She doted on her patients—they were like family to her, she said.
“You mean like grandmothers?” said Roger, when she used that word one night at dinner. That bright copper penny of a word: family. “Like great aunts and uncles?”
Harriet seemed to think that one over. They were eating flank steak—around the time that Benji arrived, Roger had developed a prodigious appetite for red meat.
“When they get real old like that?” Harriet said. She had this way of posing statements as questions. It was something she’d been developing. He was certain she didn’t do it when they dated in high school. “They have what we call a second childhood.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s like they’re kids again. Right toward the end, they’re like little babies.”
Roger stopped asking about her patients after that.
The salad days terminated abruptly in the spring of 1988, when Roger read the notice in Exotic Pets 4 Sale about the zoo bankruptcy.
Lion Country Safari in Irvine, California, was going out of business. Their animals were healthy and clean, but they had not been raised in strict compliance with the federal Animal Welfare Act statutes, so they could only be sold to private pet owners in Ohio and the other seven “exotic” states.
“Don’t you think we have enough?” Harriet asked him, when he told her about his plan to rent a cattle truck. “You have nine already.”
There were 11, in fact, but he didn’t correct her.
It took three days to drive to Irvine—a day longer than he’d expected, since the truck refused to go more than 50 mph—and he missed the first morning of the auction. The four Bengal tigers were already gone, sold to a rancher from Palm Springs for a mere $1,000. There had been no other bidders.
Roger protested to the auctioneer, a gaunt old man with sharp gray whiskers, a lecherous mouth, and a scratch scar that ran in four parallel tracks down the length of one cheek.
“We still got zebu,” said the auctioneer.
“It’s a Indian humpback cow.”
Roger shook his head in disgust.
“You like the big ones, huh?”
“Sorry?” said Roger.
“Stay tomorrow, we got the rest of the bigs still coming. Bison. Lions. Grizzlies. There’s even a blue wildebeest.”
“I wouldn’t know the first thing about raising those animals.”
The auctioneer laughed, a thin wheeze that ended in a succession of coughs.
“It’s just about the same thing. Put ’em in a pen, feed ’em meat five out of seven days, powder milk. The bears like hard candy, and need hay for nesting. The vaccines already been taken care of. If you raised tigers, you know what to do.”
Roger did the drive back to Zanesville in a single shot, napping on dirt roads off I-70 for a couple of hours at a time. But it wasn’t easy to sleep. Or drive, for that matter. Even on the highway he could hear the lions roaring at the grizzlies—a horrible, bone-shaking din—and the bears, who were still cubs, weeping.
It occurred to Roger that the idea of lions roaming in the backyard might take Harriet some getting used to. She tolerated the tigers, but only by pretending they didn’t exist. She refused to go out to the pen and for the most part had stopped questioning Roger about them after the first year. This was fine by him; it was, if he were to be honest, by design. The Muskingum County Animal Refuge was a refuge, and not only for the animals.
But he wouldn’t have to tell her immediately. After all, he couldn’t just set the lions to pasture. It would take at least two weeks to construct the new pens and the two bear cubs required special treatment; they seemed traumatized by the trip. One of them, Coco, lay catatonic in a fetal position. The other, Charlie, was backed into the corner of the cage. Every five minutes or so he suffered a peculiar convulsion, jumping onto his hind legs like a marine leaping to attention. He pulled his paws widely apart in a violent spasm—a kind of reverse clapping motion—and bared his teeth in a pathetic display of bluster. Then, just as suddenly, he slid down the side of the cage and rested, catching his breath, until the next outburst.
Roger arrived in Zanesville at two in the morning. He left the lions in the truck and, borrowing the gantry crane and hand truck from R’s Repair, lifted the bears’ cages from the flatbed and slid them into the garage, where they displaced a pair of rusting Kawasakis.
The next morning, a Saturday, he didn’t wake until noon. Harriet was nowhere to be found. She had taken to working on weekends, but Roger saw that her bike was still in the driveway. He ran, frantically, to the backyard, but she was not by the pens. The lions were peacefully dozing in the cattle truck, apparently indifferent to the tigers pacing 20 feet away along the perimeter of their pen. Then he noticed that the garage light was on.
“Harriet?” he called. “Harriet!”
No response. He could hear a slight rattling of metal. A grim understanding dawned on him.
The garage door was raised a yard from the ground. Roger sprinted down the driveway, dropped, and rolled under the door. What he saw was even more terrible than what he had feared.
His wife was inside the cage.
She put her forefinger to her lips. She was sitting Indian style. Coco, no longer catatonic, lay on her back; she squirmed side to side as she tried to untangle her forepaws, and one of her legs, from a span of purple yarn. Charlie was on Harriet’s lap. He appeared to have calmed considerably. He appeared, in fact, to be asleep. Harriet cradled Charlie’s head in the crook of her arm, and held a baby bottle, filled with warm milk, to his mouth. Charlie nuzzled his ear against her stomach.
“I heard him crying,” she whispered. “But he’s peaceful now.” She was rocking the bear gently. “Yes, dear,” she cooed. “That’s right, dear.”
“Why don’t you get out of the cage?” said Roger.
Harriet gave him an admonishing look. “This animal was traumatized,” she said. “What happened to him?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“I think he misses his mommy,” she said, in a voice Roger didn’t recognize. It was a strangely high-pitched, childish voice. More unsettling was the fact that she was no longer addressing Roger. She was addressing Charlie. “Yes, you do. Don’t you, you poor dear?”
Later that afternoon Harriet pulled out the old plastic storage boxes in which she kept the baby sweaters she had knit in the years after Dr. Doom’s diagnosis. For the first time in memory she did not turn on the television after dinner. Instead she began stitching the old sweaters together in pairs, joining them by their hems. She shortened the arms to paw length and widened the collars to the size of a grizzly cub’s torso. After observing this practice in silence for several nights, Roger couldn’t restrain himself anymore.
“Are you actually making sweaters for my bears?” said Roger.
“Winter is coming,” said Harriet. “We don’t want them to catch the flu, do we?”
“They’re grizzlies,” he said. “They like the cold. Their natural habitat is Alaska.”
Harriet shook her head firmly. “Besides,” she said. “They’re not your bears. They’re our bears.”
That was when things began to go very badly for Roger and the Muskingum County Animal Refuge.
Speeding back on West Pike Street I’m cursing the derelict owners of the Muskingum County Animal Refuge, the idiocy of Ohio’s exotic-pet laws, and global warming. If this had been a normal, 20th-century October, and instead of balmy breezes we had a chill and a little frosting of snow, Rachel would never have been tempted to take Tyler to the playground. But most of all I’m cursing Kelly Wortman. Kelly is the head clerk at the county courthouse and the reason, plain and simple, that I’m unemployed. She is the reason, in other words, that I’m driving this morning to Zanesville Photocopy to print my résumé and cover letters. Kelly Wortman is the reason I left my wife and kid in a playground, defenseless, while the animal kingdom’s most deadly predators, its omega force of trained killers, roamed the land.
And all because I was too argumentative. That’s the word Kelly Wortman used, argumentative. You’d think that at a court building there might be some tolerance, or even appreciation, for a guy who questions the status quo. Look, everyone knows we have too much paperwork. The judges complain, the lawyers complain, the probation officers complain. I had a few ideas about how to fix that problem. I also suggested that break times should be standardized, and that judges should announce their dockets a day in advance, in order to reduce the delays that occur when police are invited to testify. I stand behind my proposals, even now. Kelly Wortman told me that assistant administrative clerks aren’t paid for their ideas. Fine, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have any. I don’t see why I should be penalized for raising my voice in defense of justice, even if it meant that I was occasionally tardy with my assignments.
It’s not like I had any great aspirations to work in the judicial system—or in any system for that matter. But Tyler is already two and a half, and working extra shifts at the Dirty Palm wasn’t enough to cover the inoculations, the applesauce, and the babysitters, let alone a constant supply of Pampers. It would’ve been enough for me, of course, but for me and Rachel and Tyler? Nothing is enough. That’s the problem. And so as I speed past Polk Scrap Iron and Metal, I’m also cursing Rachel for making me curse the Muskingum County Animal Refuge, Ohio’s pet laws, global warming, and Kelly Wortman in the first place. I curse Rachel and I curse myself.
DJ Whizbox is giggling. He can’t control himself.
“The Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office requests that we urge you to stay away from any animals you may encounter.”
“Even the monkeys?” asks Monty, his sidekick. “The monkeys are cute.”
“Especially the monkeys. We are told it is ‘highly likely’ that they are infected with herpes.”
“If they’re from Zanesville,” says Monty, “that’s a safe bet.”
“We have some reports. Two black bears have been spotted digging up graves at Mt. Calvary Cemetery. A guest of the Super 8 on County Highway 420 has observed a Bengal tiger, drinking out of the swimming pool.”
“A Bengal tiger?” says Monty. “Impossible. There’s only something like a thousand in existence.”
“And we have a dustup on eastbound I-70. Apparently traffic came to a halt in order to allow a pack of bears to cross the highway.”
“Why was the bear crossing the road?”
“Here we go.”
“To eat some folks. To tear some folks limb from limb.”
“All right, get this. A lion—full mane, loud roar, swinging tail, the whole deal—a lion was seen devouring a woman’s farm dog, a collie, out on Ridge Road. She called the station screaming.”
“I have her on the line.”
“Then connect her, Monty. For Chrissakes.”
The radio volume spikes and crackles and a sobbing woman comes on.
“Oh, Jesus,” she says. “Oh, sweet Jesus. This is the end of it all. My poor, poor Daffodil.”
“Ma’am, thanks for taking the time to call in to WZNE,” says DJ Whizbox. He clears his throat, trying not to laugh. “Please—can you walk us through what happened?”
“She’s all over the yard.”
“Daffodil!” She sobs. “My dog. Like a bomb exploded. A leg over here, a streak of something vile over there, and, oh, Jesus, her tail. Her tail. It’s still wagging. It landed on the porch, and it’s still wagging, thumping up and down. I’m going to be sick.”
“Ma’am? You still there?”
“I have to save Daffodil’s tail.”
“Ma’am, I’d advise you remain in your house. Do you know where the lion is?”
“I’m staring out the front window and he’s nowhere that I can see. Wait. Hold on.”
A huge roar, like a low-flying jumbo jet, vibrates the car speakers. I switch the radio off.
I turn right and drive beneath I-70. The traffic up there has stalled all right. A few hairpin turns later and I’m within sight of Licking View Elementary. I pull to a screeching stop next to the playground, and something awful is rising in me—my guts, my bile, my fear. The gate is shut, but Rachel and Tyler are not inside. I scan the grounds: the school building, the high school, the row of houses with car engines and tires and children’s toys scattered in the front yards. For a Saturday, it is unusually quiet. This is not particularly surprising, since the police are, no doubt, begging everyone to stay locked in their homes. Still, it’s eerie to be outside in the middle of a sunshiny day and completely alone. But then I see that I’m not completely alone.
The tiger is on the other side of the playground. The curving stripes of his flank slink behind the bars of the fence. He’s a big beast all right, six or seven feet long, the fur marigold on his flank and white on his belly and throat. His small ears are pertly raised and his coarse white whiskers bristle against the bars. His eyes are locked, it appears, on the red plastic slide.
It is one of those partially covered slides, where the covered area ends halfway down the ramp. I figure it’s a kind of matador situation, the tiger being attracted by the redness of the slide. But when I look more closely I see, protruding from the opening of the covered segment, a small white sneaker.
In a flash I’m out of the car, running toward the playground gate.
“Rachel?” I shout. “Rachel, are you in there?”
My wife screams. I think she’s saying my name, but it’s muffled by the red plastic encasement.
“Daddy?” shouts Tyler. “Daddy?” I can hear him clearly. He starts to slide down the ramp but Rachel collars him with a violent tug.
Something flickers in my peripheral vision: The tiger, an orange streak now, is galloping around the perimeter of the fence. I dive back into the Equinox. Although the futility of the action is not immediately apparent to me, I lock the doors. Then the car bounces, and the top of my head hits, hard, against the ceiling. The monster rests two hamburger-sized paws on the hood of the car and stares through the windshield. The expression on its face—if such a savage arrangement of fangs and sharp whiskers and deadened eyes can be said to convey any human expression—is curiosity. The tiger seems to wonder, as its drool slops heavily onto the bumper, what it will be eating for lunch, and how it will taste. And I notice another strange thing. The tiger has no tail. Instead there is only a small, shriveled coil—like a pigtail, really. It makes the tiger look absurd, pathetic even.
I turn the ignition and decide to reverse, hard, right out of there, and perhaps onto I-70—headed west, away from the traffic. I’ll call the cops from the road, tell them to check on the Licking View Elementary playground. I can make it to Indianapolis by dusk. Hell, if I push it I can hit St. Louis in time for a late dinner. Or Chicago, for that matter. Why Chicago? Why St. Louis? Why anywhere? Because they’re not Zanesville. I’ve been trying to break free from Zanesville since high school, when I hitched north as far as Oshkosh before running out of cash. The job at Lear, tightening the bolts on car seats, lasted just long enough for me to meet Rachel. And then came Tyler, and his inoculations, his applesauce, his babysitters, his Pampers.
But this tiger—who had sent this tiger? I don’t believe in spiritual matters but this had to mean something. Don’t get the wrong idea: I wasn’t hoping that it attacked my family, for Godsakes. But when a Bengal tiger appears in Zanesville, Ohio, you have to ask yourself whether that’s a clue. Whether someone’s trying to tell you that your normal shitty life cannot continue. So I shift into reverse, check the rearview one final time, and prepare to make my escape.
Roger woke to the sound of a savage caterwaul. Leo, who had grown to 450 pounds, had managed to reach his paw through the fence separating the lions from the tigers and, with a single clean swipe, dissevered Benji’s tail from his body. When Roger ran outside with his flashlight, the disembodied tail was slapping on the ground like a live wire.
That wasn’t nearly the worst of it. Cody, his silverback western lowland gorilla, had been acting funny for weeks—pressing his hand to his chest like a retiree suffering from indigestion. He coughed constantly and could no longer finish his daily food pail. He wobbled between his favorite tree stump and his car-tire playpen like Lear in his death scene.
“This is getting way outside my comfort zone,” said Ken Zwelling, head veterinarian at the Zanesville Pet Center, as he observed Cody from a safe distance. Zwelling had become something of an expert in exotic animal care over the years, but he was beginning to seem overwhelmed. One of the lion cubs, Zion, refused to drink anything but lemonade, and Herman, a three-year-old baboon, had lost nearly all of his fingernails. Even Beatrice was declining. The vitamin A and ribavirin injections that Zwelling had been administering to treat her distemper no longer seemed to be working, and she was growing irritable. It got to the point where she would growl as soon as she heard the veterinarians’ van on Kopchak Road. When, one morning, she vomited violently all over her cubs, Roger realized what he had to do. After dark he nudged Beatrice, sluggish and discombobulated, into her old cage. She was so bloated that her fur pressed between the bars in thick folds. He wheeled her to the edge of the woods and, while her cubs mewled in the moonlight, he put her down.
Roger used to be able to rely on Harriet to keep his wilder ambitions—and their bank account—in check. But once she fell in love with Charlie, the grizzly cub, she became worse than Roger: She splurged on scratching posts, multivitamins, inoculations, and, especially, more bears. Whenever he suggested that they might be spending too much money on the animals, she’d call him a hypocrite or, worse, she’d allude darkly to the fact that they had no one else to spend money on besides themselves, no college accounts to maintain or summer camps to pay for. Besides, didn’t Cherish look like she needed a new pal? Ralphy was being ignored by all the sows; shouldn’t we find him a mate, and put them in their own private love pen? And oh, look: Wild Animal Kingdom in Tampa is going out of business! All pets must go!
It didn’t help that he had begun turning down jobs at R’s Repair. Given the demands of his menagerie, there were only so many bikes he could service at one time. For he was now responsible for the care of more than three dozen animals: 14 tigers, six African lions, four mountain lions, four baboons, a gorilla, and a pair of Barbary macaques who had recently developed the disturbing habit of eating each other’s hair. And that wasn’t counting Harriet’s bears. Good Lord, the bears: 22, by his last count, but that number was about to increase. Josie and Cherish both appeared to have tumefied in recent weeks. He blamed Charlie, who had matured into a real lothario. Charlie chased the sows around the pen like a banshee. When he cornered one he’d wallop her over the head until she laid helpless on her back; then he’d sumo dive on top, pinning her with his full 700 pounds, while he licked her fur.
“It looks like I’m going to be a grandmother,” said Harriet one morning, pointing to Josie’s bump.
All this activity was testing Roger’s amateur fencing construction. The pens, despite the fact that they had now colonized the entire property, were beginning to look cramped, and the fencing wire was rusting and cracking. It seemed only a matter of time before the animals detected this.
The fences were closing in on Roger too. There were just two human beings at the Muskingum County Animal Refuge, but it had begun to feel that the farm was only large enough for one. Harriet’s affection for the animals disturbed him—the gooey endearments, the incessant nuzzling and petting, and the absurd cable sweaters, which the brutes were constantly clawing to shreds. A little affection was fine, of course; Roger was affectionate with his own brood, after all. He bottle-fed them, he replaced the tires they played with as soon as they were scratched to ribbons, and he roughhoused with the cubs, at least until their claws came in. But more than affection, these animals deserved respect. There was no cuddling in the African veldt, was there? And grizzly bears in the Alaskan outback for goddamn sure didn’t wear sweaters.
Yet the frightening intensity of Harriet’s affection wasn’t the main problem. The main problem was her constant, hovering presence. Roger had no time to himself. He had no personal domain. Even when he was visiting the lions’ pen at the far end of the property he could hear her cooing, could observe her endless ministrations with the bears. He could feel her sadness, like a giant pillow pressing down on his face. It used to be that he could squat silently at the edge of the pen and watch the tigers for hours in a kind of breathless trance, losing himself in their swirling stripes and the powerful movement of their muscles. But that had become impossible. He was aware, every minute, of Harriet, zoning out in her private bear den. Is that what he looked like—an electroshock patient? Did he have the same absent, craven look on his face?
That’s why touring seemed, at least at first, an ideal solution. He brought the big cats to high schools, church groups, and even some of the smaller municipal zoos that, because they were subject to the Animal Welfare Act, couldn’t afford to comply with the various regulations required for a permanent lion exhibition. He could charge a grand plus travel expenses per gig, income the farm desperately needed. And away from Zanesville, alone with a single animal, he hoped he could recover something he had lost.
And he did! Seeing the children’s excitement when, like a magician, he pulled the blanket off the cage—the squealing girls, the hooting boys—he felt the old thrill rise in him again. Do lions meow? the kids asked. What does Aslan like to do for fun? Do you let him sleep in your bed? If he were really hungry—like really, really hungry—would Aslan eat a little boy? Roger knew all the answers. (Yes, Aslan would eat a little boy.) His favorite part came at the end of the presentation, when he took out the slab of horsemeat. He waved it, tauntingly, just inches away from the cage, while Aslan swiped at it in vain and froth built up at the corner of his maw. Before long the lion would become so enraged that the desired outcome was all but inevitable: a ferocious, ravenous, blood-freezing roar. The expressions on the children’s faces!
He worried that Harriet might not be able to handle the burden of tending to the entire farm, but she weathered his first overnight gigs without incident, and he began to extend his trips. Soon he was driving across the Midwest in a trailer with three or four animals for weeks at a time. He saved money on food by pulling over every time he spotted roadkill. Deer was best—the lions especially loved deer—but if he wasn’t in a rush he’d stop for dog or even skunk. And as word of his traveling menagerie spread, his fees increased. In one particularly lucrative venture, Aslan was hired to pose alongside a fashion model for a PETA photo shoot in Philadelphia.
But upon returning from that trip, Roger detected an alteration in the atmosphere. As he walked between the pens, checking that Harriet hadn’t screwed anything up—or tried to make the tigers wear her sweaters—he felt that the animals were behaving differently. He couldn’t quite articulate how, it was as subtle as a cloud passing over the sun. And he couldn’t dwell on it either, because the next morning he had to take the macaques on a weeklong tour of nursing homes in the Carolinas. It’s not that the animals seemed unhealthy, or upset—no, it wasn’t that. In fact they seemed more spirited than usual. Even Benji, poor old tailless Benji, had a spring in his step. But when Roger approached the tiger pen, Benji growled with a ferocity he hadn’t heard in years.
“Everything OK with the animals?” he asked Harriet, scrutinizing her.
“What do you mean?”
She was hosing fresh water into the tiger pen’s artificial pond. She had made it while he was in Wisconsin the previous summer, touring children’s camps—she’d rented a John Deere excavator from the Farm Supply Store and dug out the ground herself. Roger returned to find the tigers submerged in the pond up to their necks, just crouching there, like bathers at a spa.
“I don’t know,” said Roger. “They just seem different is all.”
Harriet shook her head. “I happen to think they look rather healthy. And you know what they say: A healthy child is a happy child.”
“Mm,” said Roger. “Maybe that’s it.”
The nursing-home tour was a huge success—they loved the macaques, the oldies. They giggled when the little monkeys licked vanilla ice cream off their fingers, and the macaques’ little puckered mouths came away with white foamy beards. (“He looks just like my Howard!” screamed one of the widows, to cackling laughter.) Still, the uneasy feeling lingered, and on the final day of the trip, rather than sleep in Raleigh, Roger drove through the night back to Zanesville, arriving at five in the morning. He slept four hours and woke, head burning, to survey his refuge. The uneasiness had morphed into dread. As soon as he reached the tiger pen, he knew why.
His brood did not recognize him. That was, at least, the charitable interpretation. For how else could their behavior toward Roger be explained? Did they feel neglected by his absence? Unloved? Or had they found a more patient, kinder mistress? Whatever the reason, they had turned against him. The lions, as soon as they caught his scent, began roaring for blood, the cubs yelping at their feet. This put the rest of the farm on edge. Cody, the ailing silverback, reared back on his hind legs, rising to his full six-foot height, and beat his chest with cupped hands while bum-rushing the wall of his cage. The bars, which suddenly seemed no thicker than paperclips, groaned, and Roger knew that it would not take many more rushes before Cody broke through.
Roger treaded cautiously toward the tigers, hoping that his oldest friends would prove their loyalty. But they lay around the pond in a strangely passive manner; it was as if they were pretending to ignore him. Roger knew them better than that, however. Benji, he could tell for certain, perceived Roger’s every movement with the entirety of his consciousness. You could see it in the unblinking alertness of his eyes. When Roger approached within several feet of the gate, Benji began to canter toward him, then accelerated, rapidly closing ground, until, at the final moment, the tiger charged, hitting the bars with a loud spine-compressing crash. Benji’s eyes were black.
“Old friend?” said Roger. “It’s me. Papa. It’s your papa.”
Benji’s mouth yawned open, exposing his purple gums and yellow fangs, and released a horrible phlegmy growl. His claws grasped the chain link, as if he were trying to pull the cage down onto himself.
Roger turned and fled. As he ran he noticed Harriet; she was in the grizzly cage. She sat peacefully, her eyes closed. Charlie hunched behind her, his arms wrapped gently around her chest in a protective gesture. The bear glared at Roger, warning him not to come any closer.
It wasn’t easy to find time to speak with Harriet the rest of the week. He was afraid to return to the pens, and she didn’t enter the house until she was ready for bed. Twice she even took a sleeping bag out to the bear cage, where she slept amidst heaving mountains of hair. “They find my presence calming,” she said. “I don’t want them to feel neglected.”
Roger woke earlier than normal one morning so that he could catch her before she left for work. He surprised her in the kitchen. She was pushing multivitamin pills into a large gelatinous brick of turkey-flavored Omnivore Chow.
“I was thinking,” ventured Roger. “We’re not as young as we used to be.”
“What’re you doing up so early?” She glanced at him warily. “You going to get cracking on the bikes? They’re piling up.”
“When people reach our age,” he tried again, more delicately this time. “Their children move out or go to college.”
She was pretending to ignore him, pushing pill after pill into the Omnivore Chow until it resembled a cube of fruit Jell-O. She tended to ignore him whenever he mentioned children, or their absence.
“And then the parents enter a kind of second honeymoon,” he continued. “They have the house to themselves, and they have time. They’re free of the responsibilities of raising kids. They can figure out how they are going to spend the rest of their lives together.”
Harriet, stiffening, turned to face her husband. “I know how I want to spend the rest of my life. With my family.”
“Your family. You mean the animals?”
“You never treated them like animals. You treated them like your own kids. Like your own wife.”
“That’s not true—”
“Now the animals, like your actual wife, have realized how heartless you are.”
“When I was on the road, I got homesick,” he said. “Not for the animals. For you.”
“You’re about two decades too late with that line,” she said. “We have a different type of family now.”
“They are animals. Wild animals.”
“It’s not my fault if you’ve estranged yourself from them. Those animals are as perceptive as any person. If they don’t feel loved, they will not love back.”
Harriet carried the platter of Omnivore Chow outside, leaving her husband alone in the kitchen.
And Roger sat on the linoleum floor and wept for the children he didn’t have.
I shift the Equinox into reverse, ready to make my getaway. But—I can’t help it—I look up one last time. Rachel is standing at the top of the slide. Poor Rachel. She looks nothing like she did when I met her, and that was barely five years ago. She’s heavier around the hips and legs, sure, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Her face has undergone the more disturbing transformation. There is no single feature you could point to. She is still only 26, after all. Her skin isn’t wrinkled, and her hair isn’t gray, though it has thinned noticeably—it collects in messy yellow tangles in the shower, clogging the drain. I can’t figure it out exactly except to say that she has lost her light. The light inside every woman that, once it escapes, never returns. It’s the boy that did it, no doubt. You know the expression that parents tell their kids, “You’re the light of my life?” Well, Rachel passed off her light to Tyler and now she’s all dark inside. At least that’s how it often seems to me.
But when I see Rachel standing there, this forlorn solitary figure on the deck above the covered slide, I freeze. That’s not exactly right: My right foot freezes. It becomes incredibly heavy. I can’t remove it from the brake. Rachel is staring at me through the windshield and I swear, even though she’s about 30 yards away, I’m transfixed. I momentarily lose track of the tiger who, by the way, after testing his weight on the bumper, is beginning to crawl onto the hood. Rachel’s eyes go inside me and they bounce around in all that empty space. That look she’s giving me, I’ve never quite seen it before. It’s one-half resignation, and one-half a powerful yearning. Like she wants something so badly but doesn’t expect it ever to be granted to her. And it occurs to me that I don’t want to go to Indianapolis at all. Or Milwaukee or Chicago or even California. Let’s face it, the only place I’m made for is Zanesville, Muskingum County, Ohio.
I switch the gear into drive and press hard on the accelerator, twisting the wheel, so that I careen straight for the playground’s iron gate. The tiger is sprawled over the bumper like some kind of grotesque hood ornament. At the last second I brake and the bastard flies backward. I can hear its spine snap when it hits the metal. It’s a marvelous noise. The Bengal tiger is one step closer to extinction.
On the way home I put the radio on. DJ Whizbox has more information. He explains that the owner of the Muskingum County Animal Refuge, after opening all the cages and letting the animals run free, has offed himself. The Zanesville police force has killed more than two dozen animals already, but there are at least as many still on the loose. The wife of the refuge owner has been taken into custody. “You have to understand,” says the sheriff in an interview, “these animals were like children to her. She’s distraught. She cried on my shoulder and said, ‘Please, don’t take my family.’”
“Can you believe that?” asks Rachel, shaking her head. She has wiped the tears from her eyes and is beginning to breathe evenly. “The wild animals were her family?”
I rest my hand on Rachel’s thigh. She squeezes it. I glance into the rearview mirror. Tyler, exhausted, or perhaps shell-shocked, is asleep, sprawled across the backseat.
See, I think I know what the poor woman from the animal refuge meant. You find your family, one way or the other, and once you do, you have to hang on. Without family, you’re just an exotic animal, roaming through the wilderness in search of food.
That’s why I don’t feel bad about killing that tiger. I looked into his eyes, and they were blank. Not unfeeling or angry—just empty. He had left his refuge; he was lost and alone. I put him out of his misery. And he put me out of mine.
When we arrived back home a monkey, no doubt riddled with herpes, was taking a shit in our driveway. I ran him over too.