I knew that I was genetically inclined towards maniacal exertions. Years ago, after my sister died in a skiing accident, my mother rampaged through at least twenty cookbooks in less than a year. We would hear her in the kitchen at midnight, the pots clanging and the knives assailing the chopping block. It would go on for hours, and we learned to fall asleep and wake up to a tableful of heaping, ornately presented plates. What we could not eat that day my father would pack in foil pans and deliver to the local soup kitchen so that some down-and-outer could have a meal of canard braise avec choucroute or paella valenciana. This went on for another eight years, until my mother finally ran off to an ashram in India.
It was natural, then, that after my wife fatally smashed herself and our Swedish car into a telephone pole, I decided to become a zookeeper. I never clearly understood why. A week after the funeral, in the wake of a morning spent downing vodka and tricyclics, I had an urgent vision of myself surrounded by wild animals, all types of them, from zebras to chimpanzees to dotted-skinned snakes. I tried to get a job at the city zoo, but was politely turned away because of my lack of experience in the area of animal care and conservation. As I left the zoo grounds, I paused in front of the lion enclosures to longingly imagine myself in the simulated Serengeti, washing away shit and butchered bones with a high-pressure hose, and to regret all those wasted years in journalism.
So it was only natural that I turn my own house into whatever animal preserve I could make of it. I was living in an eighty-foot houseboat on Long Island Sound with my eight-year-old daughter Myra and sixteen-year-old stepson Coby. We had three small bedrooms, two small baths and a kitchenette.
"But where am I supposed to play or do anything?" protested Myra.
"Think about the animals," I asked of my daughter while Coby frantically jumped up and down on the built-in sofa, foaming from the mouth as he repeated again and again, "Badgers. Badgers. Badgers. Badgers." Coby had been watching the nature channel since he got back from the special education center.
The zebras were by far the noisiest. At night they would kick and slam their hooves against the floorboards and the walls. Coby liked the sound. Every time he heard the baaammmmm baaaaaaam baaaaaaaaam, he clapped his hand approvingly and held his face up with a prolonged gaping smile. At dawn, the gibbons would howl their hunger as they swung their long arms from one PVC pipe to the next. This would wake the camels, who would stomp back and forth in their pen. The loud grunts of the warthogs would follow the hissed growls of the lonely mountain lion, and then Myra would yell out to all of them, "Shut up," before she jumped into the water for her morning swim.
On the rooftop deck, the birds also turned out to be a garrulous bunch. I managed to collect two condors, three West Indian whistling ducks, five Cuban sparrows, a Mexican spotted owl, two Hawaiian dark-rumped patrels, and a pair of kiwis. I kept four flamingos in an inflated kiddy pool full of their dietary brine shrimp and fitted the bait tank with cooling units for the penguins. In the main house I kept four ferrets, two cats named Stiffy and Trinky, and three big-eyed tarsiers in a cupboard. The snakes occupied another part of the limited pantry. In the hull I housed three federal agents.
Dripping water from their wetsuits, they came onboard one night while Myra and I were feeding crickets to the monkeys.
"We're observing the ship across the inlet, and we'd like to use your boat as a listening post."
Being fonder of animals than people, I objected.
"Do you value your animals?" one of them asked, and I immediately understood what the flipper-footed agent meant. That next morning a truck came to deliver feed, and inside the feed were boxes stashed with pieces of carefully disassembled surveillance equipment. On receipt of their wares, the agents got immediately to work. I made room for them next to the portholes, so that they could install their infrared binoculars and nighttime scopes. "Bathroom's down the hall," I told them, "and watch out for the boas."
For the most part the agents kept to themselves, but after a week they made fast friends with Coby. They would let Coby look through the telescope and sometimes they would let him listen on the earset. "Noises, sounds," Coby would repeat for the next ten minutes, and he would in turn amuse them by wrestling with a South American tapir. They slept in shifts, though every once in a while, one of them would emerge to the deck disguised as an animal handler to get some sun. I got to know their codenames: Duke, Alien, and Gonzo. Duke once showed me a picture of his son, Fred, aged 10, a spelling bee enthusiast and an emergent force on his hockey team. The kid looked like a boy version of Myra.
I played poker with the agents by invite, which usually came every night. The only seat available was on the intercept receiver, and now and then, I felt the machine vibrate into frenzy, and one of the agents would flick a switch, listen intently on his headphones and make notes in a logbook. They were like grown men in a cramped tree house, decoding messages from the neighbors' flickering TV, and speaking in hushed voices for effect. I listened to them talk about tracking the mob, tailing guys like Johnny the Mangler and Timmy "Lucky Fingers" Pantone, and fishing the air for complicit words between two drug lords. I never really did tell them what I used to do and they never really asked.
It became routine that I would get up every morning at 3AM. I would begin the day by measuring out the seeds for the birds. I cut up pieces of fruit for the lemurs and even more for the orangutans. I chopped up five-pounds of lettuce for the tortoises. I prepared the sardines for the seafowl, and cut up sheep carcasses for the tiger cub. I hauled in leaves and hay from the trailer parked onshore. And then I would go around the boat and offer breakfast before many of the animals could lose their nocturnal appetite. I learned not to fear fangs and claws and furry paws. I fed the animals and they knew me to be the master of this floating wilderness. Later on I would feed the agents sandwiches and microwaved pizza. This was the way it was through the summer.
On clear nights, I liked to climb on top of the bird cages where I would sit and watch the boundary of light that was New York meld into a clear and far-flung sky. The animals in the sky were made of stars, and the stars, I felt, were made of hot gas that didn't care at all, that had no awareness of Paul Saunders, 43, father of two, keeper of rats and baboons, amateur banjo player and former captain of his collegiate debate team. From the boat, the sky had the feel of an empty church glowing blue, gold and white through stained-glass windows. I wondered if this light, the light that had snuck through the bowels of space, is a strained, chewed-up vestige of former cosmic glories and past crimes. Light=shit=light in infinite powers of conservation.
That night, lying on the tarp above the cages, I was thinking about Myra and Coby. Myra was only a decade away from college, and at some point Coby would need to be placed in a home. I left my job in order to devote more time to the animals. We were living on my wife's insurance money, some inheritance from my mother, and freelance work I picked up from old editors. I asked myself if this mad carnival had been worth it.
The answer came to me in a matter of seconds. Precisely at 2:29am that August morning, the agents ran up to the deck yelling, "They're on the move!"
Before any of the agents could say anything else, before Myra and Coby could be woken up and put to dry land, I cut free the houseboat from its lines. The two huge outboards sputtered into life and the boat and all its content heaved into the placid waters of the inlet. In the distance, as low lightning illuminated the horizon, I could make out the hulking shadow of the cargo ship, its engines clearly not indomitable, because we were unabashedly gaining on it and because we were going faster and faster as precisely called for by the pre-planned escape protocol. Splash. We were bouncing and soaring on top of the swells. Splash. Bump. Splash. I could hear the agents shout and scream as they held on to the railings, their legs slipping in and out of the hyena cages. Splash. Bump. Splash. I could see the giraffes craning their necks away from the waves breaking on the bow, the flying squirrel leaping wildly from one bar to the next, the mountain goat hopping in place, clearly made nervous by the immediate staccato barks of the green monkeys, the bellows of the bison, the squawks and cries of over a dozen birds, the plaintive roars of the feral cats, and the pounding sound of us all in jumpy flight over a sea that offered a thousand fates. In that speed and cacophony I suddenly saw a vision of Myra, thirty years from now, Myra with her own children, running and laughing in an open field, and in that field they would join all the future spawn of my creatures, and the agents, and Coby, too. I could see my creation, which was no longer a makeshift zoo on a boat, but a living island, a world full and uncompromising and perfect.
And I felt my life crest into a summit that I vowed to never leave.
Well, you're probably curious to find out what next happened to my children, the animals, the agents, and maybe me. I'll just let you know that I no longer have the zoo anymore. Myra is all grown-up now, a senior at a famous liberal arts college in the Northeast, and Coby, well, he is a drummer for an up-and-coming band that you may have heard about. The agents got promoted after the incident, and Duke occasionally writes me a note, telling me how I need to come visit him in DC and take a tour of the Chesapeake with Fred and his family. Forgive me if I can't tell you anymore. Most of this is behind me now. I sometimes go to the city zoo and feel tinges of sadness and longing, but for the most part I am able to concentrate on my life at its present. Whatever strength I have is my own, and it feels faint, but good.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/psworld..html]
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