The Other Side of the Cage
The Audubon Zoo on Ash Wednesday is an eerily tranquil place. Ed and I decided to take advantage of the stillness and slip through one of the side gates without paying admission. An hour earlier, we’d each swallowed two hits of acid, and the effects were coming on strong. We swooped through the gate as though a sudden updraft had caught our bodies and rendered us helpless. Probably, we would have gotten away with our minor act of theft, but I giggled inadvertently, and the ticket vendor spotted us. “Um, excuse me,” she said. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
I gaped in terror at the direction of the voice. A portly, middle-aged black woman stared serenely back at me from the tiny fee window. In an infinitely patient tone, she explained, “Both of you can go into the zoo for free. I just didn’t want you to walk past me without saying hello.”
I was astonished by her lack of anger. The zoo normally cost ten bucks, and we only had fifty dollars of our face painting money left. Ed had spent most of his proceeds on Bourbon Street for cups of warm, overpriced beer, and we’d blown the rest of our modest wad on food and lodging.
The two of us had arrived in New Orleans four days earlier, nearly penniless, after scraping together our funds in Madison, and then hitting the road in my mother’s pickup truck. My mother lived in San Miguel de Allende. For reasons unbeknownst to me, the Mexican government had forbidden her to keep her beloved truck in the country, and she had reluctantly given it to me as a gift. I hadn’t bothered with the necessary title paperwork, and the license tabs had expired. I wasn’t worried, since the cops never pulled me over, even though Ed and I couldn’t have been more conspicuous as we barreled down Interstate 57 in a pickup truck with expired Texas plates. At the beginning of our journey, the cab of the truck was filled almost to overflowing with dirty Wisconsin snowdrifts. I’d shoved bottles of white wine into the snow, so we could enjoy chilled beverages at our pit stops. Originally, this had worked brilliantly, but the snow had completely melted by the time we reached Mississippi, and we’d also run out of wine.
I grinned stupidly at the ticket vendor, and she smiled back. “That’s what I’m talking about,” she said. “Enjoy the zoo. It certainly is a lovely afternoon.”
We waved at her merrily and continued on our way. The late afternoon sunshine was already waning, and cool breezes blew through the magnolia trees. The puffs of wind seemed to increase and decrease randomly, as if someone was turning on a giant air blower and then abruptly shutting it off. Ed and I sailed along like boats, catching the random wind gusts, twirling in circles with our arms outstretched.
“This is good acid,” Ed commented. “I’m glad that guy in the dorm was so generous with us. We certainly didn’t deserve it.” Four nights earlier, after we’d arrived in New Orleans with only twenty dollars in our pockets, Ed and I had driven to the campus of Tulane University. Ed fell into discussion with a privileged young Deadhead, who proclaimed, “You two are living the life! You’re the coolest people EVER!” and offered us the use of his single bed. Ed and I squashed our bodies together on the narrow mattress, while our new friend slept on his linoleum floor. In the morning, the generous fellow gave us four hits of powerful acid and told us to enjoy Mardi Gras.
Though I’d had a fond vision of the two of us wandering through the streets of the Quarter on Fat Tuesday, ripped to the gills on LSD like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, I decided it was better to wait until the revelry was over. Mardi Gras was a drunken, crowded, sinister event, and our face painting efforts had abruptly turned ugly when a police horse slipped in a puddle of beer and capsized in front of us. Ed and I dodged the flying hooves, and the officer flew through the air and landed, face-down, on the pavement. Fortunately, our meager stash of face painting supplies was unscathed. We were able to resume our efforts only a few minutes later. Extracting money from drunks was no problem, but saving our cash was impossible. Our original plan of returning to Madison with hundreds of dollars was obviously not going to pan out.
Anxiety about our future was the furthest thing from our minds as we skipped along the sidewalk, past the lion cages, with their pacing felines (one of whom roared comically as we strolled by, causing us to shriek with laughter), the primate house with its earthy smell of simian urine, and the outdoor dolphin pool. Ed paused for a while in front of the pool, and said, “It’s hot. I think I’ll go for a swim” several times, until people gaped openly at him and I finally pulled him away.
After an hour of this, we collapsed onto an iron bench. A strong breeze pushed through the heavy magnolia trees and hit us both in the face. Ed flinched slightly. He was prone to flinching, an after-effect of having spent his first eighteen years dodging sudden blows from his father. I’d once seen a childhood picture of Ed and his family. He and the other family members had assembled in front of their split-level Wisconsin home. The females looked humorless and bored, the men menacing in the pedestrian manner that was typical of the mid-1960s. Ed’s father had cropped hair, rolled-up white shirt sleeves, and the requisite mouth-dangling cigarette. He looked exactly like the sort of guy who would hit a kid for no reason.
Seven-year-old Ed stood to the left of his slightly older, more confident brother. Chuck gazed arrogantly into the camera, but Ed hovered on the edge of the group and clutched his face with both hands. Ed’s shirt had escaped from the inside of his dress pants, and the two bottom buttons were undone. Obviously, Ed was in a state of disrepair, but the other family members were completely oblivious to the source of his unhappiness, and not a bit interested in resolution.
The February sun sank lower, and the zoo became quiet, as if all the animals had decided to rest simultaneously. People filed past us, then gradually disappeared without so much as a glance in our direction. A dozen stray peacocks strutted in front of our bench in a slow-motion parade. Suddenly, one at a time, each of the birds flapped its iridescent wings and ascended to the top branches of the magnolia trees. They snuggled their bodies into the white and pink blossoms, tucked their heads under their wings and fell asleep.
Ed and I gaped at the scene, unable to believe our eyes. “Do you think this would look as beautiful if we weren’t tripping?” Ed whispered. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I think it would probably be just as beautiful, but we wouldn’t notice it as much.”
This made perfect sense to Ed, and he nodded with apparent delight. “You’re right,” he said. His voice sounded unnaturally loud, like he was speaking through a microphone. Ed leaned backward and pushed his spine into the iron slats of the park bench. He rested for a second, but then his eyes widened, as if remembering something that he had deliberately forgotten.
The color drained abruptly from Ed’s face, and purple blotches appeared on his pale cheeks. The remaining white portions seemed translucent, and I could see dark veins and corpuscles underneath the surface of his skin. Ed’s expression slowly changed to one of abject terror. “We have to return home tomorrow,” he announced. “The wind chill in Madison is going to be below zero, and I don’t have a place to live.”
I was seized with pity for him, and an accompanying desire to help, but then I remembered that I didn’t have a home, either. After only a few months of cohabitation, my boyfriend Steve and I had recently decided to go our separate ways. Apartment hunting in freezing temperatures was always tricky, especially without deposit money or steady employment. I’d managed to score a part time job as a driver for Badger Cab, but few shifts were available. To make matters worse, I had an extremely poor sense of direction. Ed had obligingly accompanied me on most of my driving assignments. He possessed an extensive knowledge of the city’s layout, gleaned from many months of aimless meandering.
A few weeks earlier, I’d informed my roommates that Ed would be crashing in the living room for an indefinite period, and there was nothing they could do about it. No one had argued with me about this, not even my boyfriend. While Steve slumbered peacefully upstairs during the beginning of my pre-dawn taxi shifts, Ed rose from his reclining position on the couch and met me at the front door, tattered map in hand. He never shirked this voluntary task, or hesitated for even a moment. We called our ritual “going cabbing” and it was always the high point of an otherwise hellish week.
After a few moderately lucrative cab shifts, I managed to save enough money for our escape to New Orleans. My eviction from the house meant that Ed was displaced from the couch, as well. It made sense for the two of us to flee south together. My housemates all felt sorry for Steve and thought that he was the injured party, but at least Steve had a roof over his head, a set of tuition-paying parents, and a future in corporate America. Ed’s complete lack of such advantages was the reason for our close bond, the source of our mutual attraction. He and I were card-carrying members of the Loser tribe, and we needed to stick together and shelter each other against the onslaughts of stronger, more rapacious clans.
I opened my mouth to tell him this, but it was too late. Ed was weeping copiously, without making a sound. Globs of water coursed down his cheeks, blurring the purple splotches until his face resembled a watercolor painting. Ed’s tears dripped onto the ribbed collar of his tee-shirt, completely drenching the fabric. He lowered his head, shook it back and forth in a gesture of futility. “I don’t understand,” he sobbed. “Everyone always tells me to just find a job and keep going to it, and then everything will be okay. I’ve never had a job that didn’t suck shit, and I don’t think I ever will.”
I couldn’t fathom the degree of self-loathing that would make a twenty-three year old man decide that his employment options would be miserable for the rest of his life. Despite my own hardships, I remained firmly entrenched in the belief that my luck would change, that my current limitations were caused by a combination of youth and poor time management. Reality had repeatedly failed to confirm my optimism, and yet I was remarkably stubborn in my commitment to it. I smiled at Ed, and placed one of my hands on his shoulder, but I could think of nothing to say.
Ed cried hard for several more minutes, and then subsided. He shook his head again, and a few stray tears flew around him like droplets from a hose. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s all right,” I assured him. “Life’s not for the squeamish.” Ed mopped his face with the palm of one of his hands. He squinted at me through his tear-drenched eyelashes, and then suddenly smiled. “Well, at least the winter is half over,” he said.
I realized that the sky had grown completely dark. The early evening air was cool, but pleasant. I could hear the peacocks rustling fitfully in the trees, in search of better sleeping positions. There were no other sounds, except for the distant buzzing of insects. The zoo grounds were completely devoid of other humans. “I wonder what time this place closes?” Ed asked. “Did you happen to notice the hours while we were sneaking inside?”
Both of us laughed then, relieved that we were able to find humor in our self-imposed ordeal, our mutual idiocy. “I forgot to look at the sign,” I said. “I was trying to be invisible, so I didn’t see anything.”
“I guess we’d better go,” Ed replied uncertainly. He rose to his feet, lifted his filthy, shredded backpack from the ground, and hoisted it over one shoulder. His eyes darted back and forth, then rested on mine. “Do you remember which way we came in?” he asked.
At that moment, I realized how dependent I was upon Ed’s sense of direction, his usually unfailing ability to navigate the two of us out of any geographical predicament. I had simply followed him into the zoo, assuming that he would remember the route to the gate when it was time to leave. The zoo was spacious and beautifully landscaped, with groves of trees that stretched away from us in all directions. In the darkness, the groves appeared sinister and maze-like.
The two of us stumbled away from the park bench. “I guess this way is as good as any,” Ed said, pointing towards the closest blob of trees. Bravely, we forged ahead, past scores of darkened cages. Occasionally, a slumbering animal stirred as we passed. A Bengal tiger lifted his head and peered at us irritably, then decided that we weren’t worth his time and went back to sleep. The tiger was comfortable in his cage, he knew where he fit. On the other hand, Ed and I were searching for a niche that existed somewhere outside the scope of our knowledge. We were on the other side of the cage, but we were utterly clueless.
After a while, we realized that we were navigating in circles. We passed the tiger again, but this time he did not even stir. I felt strangely tranquil, as if it didn’t matter if we ever left the zoo grounds. “We keep ending up in the same place,” Ed announced. He leaned casually against a railing and stared at me with an odd smile on his face. Since his earlier meltdown, Ed had achieved a state of Zen calm. “Perhaps there’s someone around that we could ask.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, I noticed an elderly man on a bicycle. He wobbled towards us deliberately, then finally came to a halt about six feet away. The man wore a navy blue uniform shirt, which bore a plastic name tag that identified him as a zoo employee. “The zoo’s closed,” he said, unnecessarily. He gestured expansively towards the right, but I could see nothing, except for darkness. “The exit’s over there. You can’t possibly miss it.” He climbed back onto his bicycle and laboriously pedaled away.
Ed and I pressed on towards the exit, but it remained hidden. “You know, this is a beautiful place for a person to be lost,” Ed said. His face grew thoughtful. “That woman at the front gate was a saint. She just wanted to make sure we acknowledged her humanity. She didn’t even want our money.”
I nodded vigorously, and was immediately lost in my own rabbit hole of thought. The two of us had no reason to rush to the exit. Eventually, we would find the gate, and then the adjacent park trails would lead us inexorably towards St Charles Avenue. My mother’s truck sat beside the streetcar tracks, patiently awaiting our arrival. Once we found the vehicle, we would return to our cheap motel room, sleep for a few hours, and drive back to Madison with a few dollars in our pockets. Despite our ill luck, people had been kind to us, as they so often were.
Struck by the absurdity of our ordeal, I began to laugh uncontrollably. After a sidelong glance and a moment of bewilderment, Ed joined me. Soon, the two of us were guffawing loudly, joyfully, holding our sides, wiping tears from our eyes. “Lost in the zoo,” Ed gasped. “Only you and I would get ourselves into such a predicament.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the elderly zoo guard reappeared. He seemed to be in no particular hurry to hasten our departure. The guard pedaled our way on his bicycle, parked in front of us, and smiled. “You sure like our zoo, don’t you?” he chuckled. We laughed harder, and he pointed again, this time towards the left. There, in plain sight, was the exit turnstile. Beyond the gate, the park grounds stretched out expansively in all directions.
We thanked him profusely, and pushed our way through the turnstile towards freedom. The metal grates clanked behind us as we made our way into the park. I grasped Ed’s hand and gave it a little squeeze, looked into his eyes, and smiled. Ed smiled back, and then we continued our long walk towards my waiting vehicle, and the road ahead.
Leah Mueller is an independent writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of one chapbook, Queen of Dorksville, and two full-length books, Allergic to Everything and The Underside of the Snake. Her work has been published in Blunderbuss, Memoryhouse, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Sadie Girl Press, Origins Journal, Silver Birch Press, Cultured Vultures, Quail Bell, and many others. She was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival, and a runner-up in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest.
Image: Flickr / Frank