ZOO STORY

The Lodesmiths lived in a small house under a large tree across the street from the zoo. It was a surprisingly poor location. Even with all the doors and windows shut they could hear the lions grumbling and the birds shrieking. On the front porch the zoo sounds were deafening, and the dust, car exhaust, and general odors were overwhelming. But the house had come cheap, and in summer they always ate on the front porch, being creatures of alarming habit.
One evening, after a surprising chicken-almond-avocado casserole, the noise of the animals, most of whom seemed to be going into heat, was so great that they both felt their minds slipping. One viciously high-pitched cry drilled straight into Sam’s brain, leaving behind a burning headache.
“That does it!” Sam banged his hand on the table. “We’re moving.”
“Where?” Jessie asked, mopping up the spilled wine. “And who would buy this place?”
“A zoo keeper.” Jessie’s face was wintry and withering. “All right. A family with children.”
“Name them.”
“What are you talking about, name them? We’ll put an ad in the papers.”
“That takes too long.” Jessie stared with complete concentration across the road. The sounds from the zoo were increasing arithmetically in volume and frequency. “Very well. Something must be done.”
“Good. I’ll call the newspaper tomorrow.”
“No.” She continued to stare at the large purple and orange arrows adorning the walls of the zoo. “I am not packing the glassware again.”
“We don’t have any glassware.”
“Of course we don’t. It all got broken when we moved here.” She picked up her cheap red plastic tumbler and stared at it sourly. “There are only two options,” she finally said. “We can either kill all the animals or buy the zoo.”
Sam gave her a darting glance, hoping that she was making a joke. If she was, it would be the first of her life. She wasn’t. “We can’t kill the animals,” he finally said.
“Then we shall buy the zoo.”
“How can we buy a zoo?” he wailed.
“How should I know?” She gazed up at the darkening sky and Sam felt his soul shrink within him. “We shall talk to the bank. We shall go downtown tomorrow.”

The loan officer was succinct. “You’re crazy.”
“No,” Jessie said calmly. “We wish to buy the zoo.”
“The zoo,” the loan officer said, “is not for sale.”
“How do you know?” Jessie asked.
“It’s city property. It belongs to the people.”
“Then I, as one of the people, should be able to buy it.” The loan officer looked hopefully at Sam, whose gaze had not yet shifted from contemplating his own knees. “Besides,” Jessie continued, “it’s a very small zoo. If we bought it, they could use the money to build a new one.”
The loan officer, whose lunch was beginning to tell on him, merely sighed. “Perhaps. But you’re asking us to finance it.”
“That man,” Jessie said, sweeping down the sidewalk, “is a fool.”
“He was just telling the truth,” Sam pleaded.
“Hmpf.”

The next evening Jessie made Sam put on his best suit, which he had not worn for twenty years. Jessie spent an hour brushing, mending, and refitting it. The animals were, if anything, noisier than before, and every time they reached a crescendo of tropical sounds, Jessie winced and stuck pins in Sam’s back and shoulders, which did nothing to ease his intense, fatalistic brooding. When she was done, he still stood over her, watching her as she picked up pins from the carpet. From that angle, her shoulders seemed welded directly to her hips. She looked immovable.
“What are we going to do?” he asked quietly.
“Kill the animals,” she said, without looking up.
“We can’t do that,” he said, his voice even quieter.
“Then we shall get rid of the zoo.” She closed the pin box with a snap.
“What do you mean, get rid of the zoo?” Sam asked, his voice trembling.
“I’m not sure yet. Help me up.” He did so. “First, however, we are going to talk to the Board of Directors.”
“Of the bank?”
“No.” She brushed her skirt carefully. “Of the zoo.”
Sam sat down and gazed at her graven face for a few minutes. “This is crazy,” he suddenly wailed. “Why can’t we just move?”
“I told you. I am not packing the glassware again.”
“We could hire someone to pack it for you,” he pleaded.
“That is squandering. If we can afford movers, we can afford the zoo.”
“What are we going to do with a zoo? What?” Sam was almost weeping with frustration, although he had known how stubborn Jessie was when he married her and she had never yet disappointed him.
“Condominiums.” She sat down across the room from him and began pushing her cuticles back with a lemon stick. “Lion Country Condominiums.”
“And how do we build those?”
“We sell the animals. Of course,” she mused, “we won’t be able to do much with the monkey house. We’ll never get rid of the smell.”
The Board of Directors of the zoo was puzzled over the efforts of two unknown people to arrange a meeting to discuss the purchase of the zoo. Uncertain as to whether they were insanely wealthy or merely insane, the Board in its wisdom refused any contact with them. The Lodesmiths besought a series of banks for help, all of whom turned them down. Even Jessie was beginning to feel unsuccessful.
“Now are you convinced?” Sam asked.
“Of what?”
“That we’ll have to move?”
Jessie grunted and watered the plants on the porch with care. She took the airplant inside. When she came back out, she was holding a small sheaf of papers.
“What’s that?” Sam asked with foreboding.
“Information,” Jessie said, sitting down. “I visited over there a few days ago, and for the exorbitant sum of twenty dollars, I was allowed to become a friend of the zoo. This gives me the right of entrance, so long as I pay the fee, and the right of service, so long as I donate my time and talents. I have been donating them.” Sam shuddered. Jessie sorted the papers efficiently, holding them up to Sam as she mentioned them. “The pamphlets are all rather garish, but I did find some useful information. Including signatures. And this is their letterhead.” She passed the items on to Sam, who held them numbly without focusing on them. “I brought home a ream of it, and some envelopes.”
Sam’s mouth was dry, and he felt a headache coming on. “What are you going to do with those?”
Jessie gazed kindly at him. “We cannot buy the zoo, and you will not kill the animals. There is only one other choice.”
“We could move!” Sam cried, with the same tone and success as the Fool to Lear.

In the next month, Jessie worked regularly as a volunteer at the zoo. Nights, she created masterfully worded letters to every zoo, preserve, park, reserve, government, big game hunter and smuggler for whom she was able to find an address. She proved to be an excellent researcher. Sam, who could type, took dictation from Jessie, who wouldn’t. While he addressed at least three boxes of envelopes, Jessie practiced and perfected her duplication of the signatures of the curators and board members of the zoo. She proved to be excellent at this, too. Sam, who had long known the virtues his wife possessed, began to feel that there could be such a thing as too much excellence, but he kept it to himself.
When all the letters were done, Sam and Jessie took a total of eight hours of government time at various post offices all around the state and spent approximately $3,561.37 on postage, excluding certifications. Sam wanted to point out that moving would have been cheaper, but something in Jessie’s expression kept him silent. Then they went home and, as a treat, indulged themselves in a bottle of burgundy. The next day, Jessie put in her last day of service as a volunteer for the zoo, and left everything looking remarkably as she found it. Then she went home and settled down on the front porch to wait and see what would happen.
It began slowly and quietly. A series of odd letters and telephone calls began to disturb the peace of mind of the secretaries, the curator, and the Chairman of the Board. Checks, of a rather substantial size, were arriving as well, from a variety of obscure and exotic addresses. The letters and calls had been easy to ignore, but the checks were deposited in what would later be called “a criminal lack of proper investigation.” At the time, the curator had felt that a donation was a donation, and the best thing to do was deposit the checks now and look for explanations later.
The error of this decision became obvious when a series of rather scientific moving men arrived. The zoo hurriedly tried to give the money back. Unfortunately, much of it had been spent, certain long-standing (if minor) peculations were unearthed, and it was curtly stated by some that deposits and spending indicated acceptance of sale. Even worse were the various governments who sent florid thanks for the zoo’s generous donation of animals. These seemed the easiest to deny, since no money had exchanged hands, but some were from countries with whom sensitive negotiations were going on. Washington indicated that denial would be a grave breach of diplomatic relations.
Denial, however, was the order of the day. The Board was denying, and truthfully, that any of it, whatever it was, had ever been authorized by any of them. To be on the safe side, they searched their files before opening them up to inspection. Their incredulous horror turned into internecine warfare as copies of all the letters donating animals or offering animals for sale, each bearing authentic signatures, were found in the appropriate files, just where Jessie had put them. More than the fur flew.
At the end of six months, the zoo was bare of animals, the chief curator had moved to Nairobi, and the Chairman of the Board had moved to an undisclosed town on the west coast. The rest of the Board was being sued, and the zoo was closed. Sam and Jessie felt quite pleased with themselves and, as a reward, bought new wine glasses.
The next week, the Lodesmiths approached the banks again. During the months it had taken the zoo to disintegrate, Jessie had had ample time to draw up detailed budgets and plans for Lion Country Condominiums. As she had not managed at the same time to draw up the necessary collateral, the banks continued to turn her down. However, one day a bright young loan officer mentioned the plan to his supervisor, who in turn made some feasibility studies of his own. Within another six months, construction of Tahitian Trace began.
Sam and Jessie spent a happy year watching the construction. While it was dusty and noisy, it had the virtues of being both different and temporary. Jessie proved to be right, and they had to completely destroy the monkey house. In May, over Chablis and avocado salad, they watched the first tenants move into Tahitian Trace. Four out of five were accompanied by children.
“They never told us they were allowing children!” Sam exclaimed.
“What’s wrong with children?” Jessie asked, nibbling an orange slice.
“What do you mean, what’s wrong with children? They’re worse than monkeys! They’re noisy, destructive, dirty, loud, and they’re not even in cages. And you can bet your bottom dollar they’re all latch-key kids. They’ll be all over the place -- including our yard! Good God!” He poured more Chablis with a trembling hand. “Jess, we are going to have to move.”
“I am not moving. We just bought new glassware.”
“But --”
The Lodesmiths gazed at Tahitian Trace for some time. Then Jessie sighed. She patted Sam’s arm and said briskly, “Don’t worry. I shall think of something.”

THE END