I saw a sickly mass of black fur, caked with dirt, saliva, and possibly its own excrement. It sat in the far corner of the twenty square foot habitat; wedged between the transparent fiberglass barrier and a green concrete wall. I figured that it had been painted that color to make the exhibit feel more “at home”. The dark tangled landscape stretched over its body, almost completely obscuring the small, dark eyes which every so often opened just a hair to examine its surroundings. The tip of its red tongue was just visible from beneath the canopy of matted ebony, which for some inexplicable reason, called to mind the proverbial “dark heart” of colonial Africa, which I had read about as a child. Upon a black slab of some unknown synthetic fiber, carved in relief calligraphy, and painted gold, was its name.
“A shame isn’t it?” Remarked the man standing next to me, as he ran his fingers through what was left of his thin white hair. “I remember when she used to get up and walk around. Once she even came up to the glass and put her nose right here” He gestured towards a spot along the barrier, just below my shoulder. “I had my palm right here like this…” he said with a slow grin as he placed an open hand over the area he had just pointed to “…and up she come, nice and slow and deliberate like, and she puts her nose right there, like she wanted me to pet her. ‘Course I couldn’t very well do it, they don’t let you touch her, no sir! Might infect her with something terrible, and then she’ll get to feeling real bad, might even kick it then. We don’t want that.”
I stood for a moment, just staring at it…her. After what seemed like an eternity I responded without even thinking, as if my vocal cords were on autopilot.
“No.” I thought on what I’d said for a moment, and then tacked on a “No, we don’t want that.” I gave him a quick half smile to show that everything was ok. The old man furrowed his brow; his wrinkled face looked like a mask.
“This your first time here Sonny?”
“Yeah” I said as I returned my attention to the mass of hair in the corner. “I kept meaning to come, but until now I’ve always been too busy.”
The old man looked at me quizzically. For some reason my palms started to sweat.
“Well then it’s a good thing you came by. Don’t think we’re gonna have her for much longer. She doesn’t look good today…”
He reached into his old tattered brown coat and withdrew something from the inside pocket. At first I didn’t recognize it, and when I did I just stared. My heartbeat quickened, adrenalin rushed through my glands causing the entire room to blur and shift slightly to the left, before my eyes. In a perfectly rehearsed motion my hands shot up to cover my mouth and nose as I frantically took a mouthful of clear air and held it. I knew I should run, get as far away as possible, but I was too frightened to move.
“Mr. Mallory!” exclaimed a nearby attendant “You know that’s illegal in public!”
Mr. Mallory looked down at the slender white stick in his mouth. A look of consternation came across his face; then he smiled broadly.
“Oh silly me, I keep forgetting about these new laws.”
The attendant frowned “Smoking outside of designated booths has been illegal for forty years Mr. Mallory. Don’t make me warn you again.”
My savior turned to me. He noticed I was beginning to turn a shade of blue.
“It’s ok sir, he didn’t light it. It’s safe for you to breath.”
I immediately gasped for air, almost falling to my knees from the effort. Stars swam before my eyes. Second-hand smoke kills 50,000 people a year.
“Sorry ‘bout that Sonny” Mr. Mallory patted me on the shoulder “I keep forgetting how things are these days. I remember back when you could smoke on street corners, anytime you wanted…” He put the cigarette back into a beaten up metal case and sighed. “Things were real different when I was your age, you didn’t have nobody making you act this way or that way…‘Course back then there were lots of things like her…” He gestured back to the cage “…And they weren’t all in zoo’s neither”.
I couldn’t believe that Mr. Mallory was old enough to remember a time when people could just kill each other on street corners, let alone a time when the tangled mass of fur behind the reinforced fiberglass screen wasn’t the only animal on earth left alive.
* * *
The first Gorilla to ever voluntarily reach out and touch a human hand was a young male the researchers had affectionately named “Peanuts”. One day, after months of observation in his native environment, a secluded mountain in western Asia, Peanuts cautiously approached a nearby female post-graduate student who had taken a special interest in him. Slowly he had extended his arm and his massive hand made contact with the tips her petite fingers. I always imagined the moment looked something like God and Adam meeting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, golden rays of light and all. After that, Peanut’s health steadily declined, until a week later, after spending a full day in his night nest, he died. I should’ve felt sad about that, instead I laughed and felt sad for laughing.
Supposedly the entire planet was once populated by literally dozens of different kinds of furry creatures we called animals. I’d read somewhere that humans were animals, if that was true then I guess we won. Most people aren’t exactly sure what happened to the animals, scientists talk about “competing ecosystems” and “rapid climate change” but no one really understands what they mean; I’m not even sure they do. I remember as a child my parents took me to a zoo to see what was left of those things. It was a small place with maybe ten to twelve different furry things. Mostly they were small and medium sized, with ears and eyes and feet. A few had tongues. My father picked me up, to get a better look at one of the medium sized ones, I stared at it a moment, then started crying. My parents bought me a juice box and we went home.
As I walked to my apartment, I found that the way was blocked by a massive sea of skinny, pale, and unwashed people marching down Broadway. They were unshaven and their nylon shirts were stained with sweat. Their hair was done up in braids and dreadlocks. Some people were dressed in costumes of giant vegetables. Broccoli, Cauliflower, Asparagus, there were even toddlers dressed up as cute little brussel-sprouts. Every so often someone dressed as a particularly sinister chef, and covered in some synthetic substitute for vegetable juice, would swing his giant, juicy cleaver and chop at the screaming produce. The rest of the crowd carried signs with slogans painted on them like: “Stop Cruelty to Plants!” and “Love Vegetables; Don’t eat them!” others carried pictures of tiny, cute, green tomatoes on the vine, or snapshots of unsanitary juicing factories, where the fruit was covered in mold and brown spots from being stored too close together. A woman in front was screaming through a bullhorn about how degrading and fascist personal vegetable gardens were.
I turned down a side alley. I had considered joining P.E.T.P (People for the Ethical Treatment of Plants) after all, It was bad to hurt other living things. Wasn’t it? Unfortunately they required that all their members adopt a “Neo-vegan” lifestyle. Neo-vegans couldn’t wear clothes made of non-synthetic fabrics, and were only allowed to eat artificial fiber bars and take vitamin supplements. I had tried the fiber bars but they were so awful I couldn’t bring myself to finish even one. When I asked if I was allowed to eat fruit that fell off the tree naturally, they just stared at me in horrified disgust until I excused myself from the room. I felt guilty for being too weak to become part of the solution to the “Vegetable Holocaust”.
When reached my building, an old red brick factory that had been turned into fairly affordable studio apartment housing by some company a few years ago, I stepped inside and let the heavy wooden door swing shut behind me. A wrinkled old woman of undeterminable nationality, whose name I’d never taken the time to learn, gave me a dirty look. Before I could apologize for slamming the door she was already back in her room. It was a little warmer inside but not much, at least I couldn’t see my breath in here. I climbed into the open metal elevator that had first attracted me to this place. Back then I’d though it looked like modern art; post industrial neo-realism. Now, after numerous breakdowns and accidents, I just prayed the pile of rusted scrap would make it up to the third floor. The rusty old cogs whined, groaned, and grumbled all the way to my flat, but thankfully held, despite their complaints. I heartfully apologized to them for packing on those ten pounds from Thanksgiving. I wished I hadn’t been so heavy on the tofurky.
Methodically I strode to my personal door and fumbled with the keys for a few minutes. There were far too many, on a single round link, like a medieval jailor. I’m not sure why, but I liked this arrangement, even though it made things especially difficult. Most of my keys weren’t even to anything; I just kept them around because they fit the ring. Eventually, my fingers closed upon a familiar large-headed and all-too-thick apartment key; I suppose they made them bigger so you could recognize one if you found it on the street. No one ever returned a lost apartment key of course, but it was good to know that someone had lost one.
My apartment was made up of an expansive hardwood floor and four walls, two red brick walls, and two plaster ones made up to look like brick. I wish they looked like regular old plaster walls, but the owners of my building wouldn’t let me change anything permanently. I kept a blue futon in the corner, which was cheaper and easier than a real bed, even if my feet hung off the bottom when I slept. I also owned a small red couch; The woman at the store had called it a “love seat”, which made it seem a bit more romantic. Between it and my sixteen inch television sat a half-sized end table I usually set my dishes on while I ate. Now there were no dishes, only this morning’s mail. I hadn’t had time to open it after a breakfast of garden sausage, a single banana, and a cup of coffee. I had heard a rumor that coffee had once contained caffeine, but I dismissed it as an urban legend. I leafed through bills and advertisements while I cursed myself for not sticking to my diet.
Among all the polite suggestions to give up my hard-earned credit to the starving children of some country who’s name took up more space on the map I kept on my east wall than its’ actual territory, and advertisements for lotions, there was one piece of proper mail; an extra-thick brown shipping envelope and attached letter. I opened the letter first; my mother had always told me to read the card before opening anything. It was important to look like you cared more about who was sending you a present than the present itself. There it was, in a fine computer font, which happened to look like regular handwriting for that “personal touch”:
Dear Mr. Samuel Clayton:
We regret to inform you that your great uncle, Percival Francis Clayton the Third, has suffered a fatal stroke while sorting his weekly laundry and was pronounced dead at exactly 3:15 and twelve-point-five seconds, EST. Tuesday. In the wake of this unfortunate tragedy, we have been instructed to distribute his inheritance among his surviving relatives as named in his will. You shall find your share contained within the attached envelope. If you have any questions feel free to contact the law offices of Tobias and Associates during regular business hours.
Our Deepest Condolences,
T & A
P.S. At the moment of the stroke, your great uncle had the misfortune to fall inside the laundry shoot, but thanks to a diligent housemaid and a long broom handle the corpse has been dislodged and the funeral shall commence as originally planned, next Friday at 1:31 and twenty-seven point eight seconds, EST.
I closed the letter and turned my attention to the sealed envelope. I certainly could use whatever money was inside. I had never really been close to old Uncle Percy. He was my mother’s father’s brother and for some reason unknown to myself; my part of the family always regarded him as a bit of a black sheep, a reasonably well-off black sheep, but a black sheep none the less. I’m still not quite sure what a black sheep actually looked like, but I assume something like old Percy (Which is to say, entirely too tall for it’s own good, and with a tendency to either lean backwards, or crane down to be at eye level with its’ dwarfish peers. The effect of which was, of course, more unnerving to the unfortunate viewer than the act of simply being addressed by a bean-pole of a giant.) I didn’t feel quite right profiting from his death. Perhaps I could send some of whatever I inherited to those starving orphans in Transblackistan.
Carefully, so as not to tear the check, I opened the shipping envelope. Out onto the table fell a single rectangular knickknack; about half an inch wide and an inch longer than my palm. Folded metal made up each end, with some sort of a wood (or plexi-glass made to look like wood) grip in the center. About two thirds of the way up, a metal button about a centimeter in diameter jutted out of the mock-wood. I was picking the object up to examine it, when quite by accident, (or perhaps on purpose) I pressed the button. In a flash a thin metal shiv shot out of what I now presumed to be the top of the object. Reflexively I dropped it, and the sharpened tip embedded itself in my masonite end table, just above my foot.
Suddenly, I knew what this frightening curiosity was; a Stiletto, the cop-killing knife that my friends and I had successfully lobbied to have removed as a prop from our high school’s theatre production of West Side Story ten years ago (I believe the drama department replaced them with colored ribbons in the dance scenes). I regarded it as I would a broken electrical line. Slowly I advanced and freed the knife from the varnished top of my table. In a few tense minutes I puzzled out how to close the blade, and I placed it on the table. I was beginning to get an idea of why old Percy was so often avoided by my other, more sensible
relatives. There the death weapon sat, on its side, mocking me as I pondered its meaning. I was a card carrying member of P.O.P.O. (People in Opposition to Pointy Objects) we were currently looking to extend the mandatory waiting period from three to six days to obtain blades over two inches long, but we were derailed by K.I.L.L. (Knife Interests Legal Lobby) when their lawyers pointed out that the new law technically included butter knives, which of course were highly popular choices, alongside letter openers, for “home protection” by knife enthusiasts.
I was paralyzed, This Stiletto was obviously too old to have a registration number so of course I couldn’t sell it without violating the law. I certainly couldn’t throw it away, as some child might find it, and a’la the latest “Caffeine Madness” commercial, accidentally stab his little sister in a moment of drug-addled stupor. I didn’t want her blood on my hands. I considered possibly melting it down, until I realized my personal oven probably couldn’t manage to reach 2730 degrees Fahrenheit. I definitely didn’t want it sitting in my apartment, so I stuffed it into my coat pocket and went to bed. I would get rid of it as soon as I figured out how.
* * *
I woke up the next morning feeling restless. It was Sunday, so I really had nothing to do. After lounging in the futon for an hour or so, and a leisurely breakfast of oatmeal, an apple, and tea, I decided to return to the zoo. I guess I figured that she wouldn’t be around for much longer. I didn’t want to regret not spending time with her when I had the chance. I put on my coat, wrapped a scarf around my neck, left my building and headed towards the nearest bus stop at a brisk walk.
I waited for the 10:40 to downtown on the hard wooden bench. Sitting directly next to me was a scruffy-looking man wearing a jogging suit. He carried a portable stereo that, in my opinion was turned up far louder than what was required for his own personal use. I flashed him a meek smile and was rewarded with a dark scowl. He ran his hand across his stubby beard and dark toned cheek, then opened his mouth; out came a gruff raspy voice.
“Give me a dollar” he demanded.
“excuse me?” I stammered over the beat of his base.
“You’re white. I’m black. You enslaved my people. Give me a dollar.”
I wanted to scream. I wanted to yell that I had nothing to do with it, that my family was Polish and didn’t immigrate until 1930. That I wasn’t at that meeting and if I was I would have voted against it. I wanted to remind him that he had been paid reparations like every other African-American four years ago; That it wasn’t my fault that the great, great, great, grandfather of someone who looked like me had made his great, great, great, grandfather a slave; it wasn’t my idea. Instead, all that came out was a muffled “Um”. I reached into my pocket and handed him the first bill my fingers found: I think it was a ten. I hung my head as I walked towards downtown. I didn’t feel human.
When I reached her enclosure I noticed that Mr. Mallory was still there. Maybe he had always been there. He looked up and smiled warmly at me, his wrinkled face wadded up like a paper ball.
“How are you today Sonny? Good to see you back; was afraid I’d scared you off for good yesterday. Wouldn’t have wanted that, no sir! not this old man.”
I returned his smile, walked over to my old spot, and gazed in on her. She was back in the same place she’d been yesterday, if she had ever moved at all.
“You picked a bad day to come Sonny; she’s been hurting real bad. They’ve got her doped up on these big pills for her arthritis. I figured when they were done I might ask ‘em if they could give me some of them things. My fingers don’t work so good these days neither. They been coming in and out that door all day. They’ll be back soon.” He pointed to a clear fiberglass door not ten feet from where we stood. It was ajar.
Some people like to speculate about why I did what I did. Some say it was a moment of madness, some say it was an act of mercy, and others say it was a bit of both. As for myself, frankly I have no idea what I was thinking. I just did it. I walked right in the open door, and rushed to her side. Mallory didn’t move. I cradled her head in my hands and looked into her brown eyes, from here I could see that one was clear and one was clouded; a cataract. I gave her a hug, kissed her on the nose, and through tear-filled eyes I watched myself drive my uncle’s stiletto through Sadie’s neck.