One year while I was a student at Sheridan College, my mother, who directed the plays there, produced a series of one-act plays, one of which was Edward Alby’s The Zoo Story. Set in New York City’s Central Park, the play consists of two characters. Jerry, portrayed by my father, is a vagrant, living in a rooming house and subsisting on whatever he can find. Peter, portrayed by another man, has everything going for him: a job, a wife, a family. The two men meet by chance and swap life stories. What happens after that could change Peter’s life forever.
This play inspired me to write a short story which is pasted below. It also appears in Issue 4 of Open Window Review and on my Website. If you haven’t read or seen the play, don’t worry. My main character, from whom this story is told in first person point of view, describes the plot once you get into the story. Enjoy!
MY ZOO STORY
Grandma’s sister June lived in a house in Laramie, white with brown trim surrounded by a white picket fence. Her husband had passed, and her children were grown and scattered across the country. She had one or two grandchildren, but her family rarely visited.
Since she could no longer drive, a minibus picked her up every day and took her to a local senior center where she had lunch and played bingo and cards with her friends. She also used the minibus to get to doctor’s appointments. An aide from the senior center’s in-home services program cleaned her house once a week and helped her with grocery shopping. One evening a week, a friend picked her up and took her to someone’s house to play bridge. Sometimes, the ladies came to June’s house to play.
When I started as a freshman at the university of Wyoming, Grandma insisted I live with June since Sheridan, where Grandma also lived, was halfway across the state. Grandma heard about temptations faced by students on campus such as drugs, sex, and wild parties and didn’t want her grandson to be distracted from his studies. My parents agreed. In fact, Dad said he wouldn’t dole out extra money for me to live in a residence hall if I could live with June for free. “At least this year,” Mom said. “If you really don’t like it, maybe we can find you an apartment next year.”
June was only too happy to have a robust, young man in the house who could mow the lawn and do other chores. I had barely known her before, but we got along pretty well. She didn’t give me any curfews, and she wouldn’t have minded if friends came over to hang out and study. I ate breakfast and supper with her every day, and she always talked about goings-on at the senior center or something in the news that interested her or the television shows she watched. Her house wasn’t far from campus so I could walk to and from classes.
Her dog was a different story. I hadn’t been around dogs much. Dad never let me have one because he said it was too expensive.
Maggie was all black, and she didn’t like me for some reason. When I was with June, Maggie ignored me, curling up at June’s feet when we ate or watched television. But when I came home from classes every day, June was resting in her room, and Maggie was in the yard.
Her ears went up, and she gave me a menacing growl when I inched open the gate and slipped through, closing it behind me. As I made my way toward the house, she lunged, but I kicked her and ran toward the front steps. She chased me, barking, growling, and nipping at my heels. I kicked her and kept going until I made it up the steps and in the door, slamming it in her face. June must have been sleeping like a log because she apparently didn’t hear a thing.
At first, I tried talking to Maggie. “Hey, girl, it’s okay. I live here. I’m your friend, your mommy’s great nephew.” She still tried to attack me. I tried sneaking around to the back of the house, but Maggie had a sixth sense that alerted her of her enemy’s approach, and she was waiting for me at the back gate with her usual growl. Fortunately, the back door was closer to the back gate than the front door was to the front gate so it was easier to make a run for it.
June doted on Maggie. She took her for walks twice a day, fed her hamburger and other treats besides her regular dog food. I even thought I saw her slipping food to her, as she lay under the table. Ever the faithful dog, Maggie stayed by June’s side most of the time when she was home.
“How long have you had Maggie?” I asked her one evening at supper.
“She’s only been with me about a year. She belonged to a dear friend who passed away. When Gertrude was gone, Maggie was only too happy to come home with me. She doesn’t like strangers, though. The postman accused her of attacking him. Can you believe that, my Mags attacking someone?” She reached down and slipped the dog a piece of chicken. “Anyway, that’s why we use the mailbox outside the front gate. She’s a cross between a Pitbull and a Doberman. Those dogs can be dangerous but not my Maggs.”
I called home one night while June was at one of her bridge parties and explained the situation. “This sounds dangerous,” said Mom.
“Naw,” said Dad. “She probably just wants to play. Besides, we can’t make waves. We’re thankful June’s willing to let Jerry stay with her while he goes to school. It saves us money. Son, just keep running away from her when she jumps at you, and she’ll eventually get tired of this game.”
“What if she attacks Jerry?” said Mom.
“Naw,” said Dad. That was his favorite word. “Jerry’s a fast runner, a strong kid. He’ll be fine.”
I thought of calling Grandma but was afraid she would say something to June, and I would be embarrassed. I didn’t want to say anything to June so I decided that as long as I could outrun the dog, it wouldn’t be a problem.
The university’s theater department produced a series of one-act plays, one of which was Edward Alby’s The Zoo Story, about two guys in New York who meet in Central Park. Jerry lives in a rooming house and has no job and no ambitions. Peter has a career, a wife, and kids, everything going for him. When they meet in Central Park, Jerry tells Peter his life story and then challenges Peter to fight him. A knife is produced, and Peter inadvertently stabs him to death, which is presumably what Jerry wants.
I had acted in plays in high school. I auditioned for and got the part of Jerry. As I learned lines and went to rehearsals, I got to thinking about how the character Jerry and I were alike. Of course we had the same name, and we both lived with old ladies who had dogs, and the dogs didn’t like us. Then, it came to me.
In the play, Peter and Jerry swap life stories. Jerry tells Peter about the time he poisons his landlady’s dog because the dog keeps attacking him. The dog doesn’t die but is very sick for a few days. After that, Jerry and the dog come to an understanding. In the same way, I could come to a similar understanding with Maggie.
Between June’s house and the campus was a small market. I asked the butcher for a quarter pound of hamburger and bought some rap poison. In the park across the street, I found a secluded bench, unwrapped the meat, and kneaded the poison into it, as Jerry did. I put the tainted meat in my pocket, discarded the wrapper and remainder of the poison, and walked home. I snuck around to the back gate as usual. “Hey girl,” I said, as I opened the gate, stepped inside, and closed it. “Look what I got for you.”
Maggie growled. I tossed the meat on the ground in front of her, and she attacked it instead of me. I hurried up the back steps and in the door, and the dog didn’t even look my way. I sighed with relief. The deed was done.
That night at dinner, Maggie seemed to be her usual self. She lay under the table at June’s feet, and I caught June slipping bits of roast beef to her under the table. “Do you have play rehearsal tonight, dear?” she asked.
“Yeah, so I’ll probably be late again.”
“That’s all right. Just be sure to lock up when you come home.”
“Sure, I won’t forget.”
“You know, your grandmother told me your mother is also into acting. I guess that’s where you got it. Who knows? Maybe someday you’ll be on Broadway.”
The next morning when I went downstairs, June wasn’t in the kitchen. Usually, she was scrambling eggs and frying bacon. Like my mother, she insisted I get up and eat a good breakfast before going to school. If Maggie got sick during the night, June was probably taking care of her. I found bread and put it in the toaster and got the orange juice out of the fridge. There was plenty of fresh fruit in a basket on the kitchen table. That would suffice. If not for June, I would have skipped breakfast and slept an extra hour.
She came in a few minutes later while I was eating. Usually, she was dressed, but this morning, she wore a bathrobe. Her gray hair, which was usually done up so neatly, was all frizzy. Her face was pale, and her eyes looked red and puffy. “Hey, are you okay?” I asked, getting to my feet.
“I’m fine,” she said with a sniffle. “Maggie has been sick all night.” A tear rolled down her cheek.
“Oh, do you want me to take her to the vet?” I asked before I realized that since neither of us had a car, I wouldn’t be able to do that.
“No dear, that won’t be necessary. I just called Dr. Adams, and she’s on her way. Thank goodness there’s still one vet who makes house calls just like James Harriott.”
I remembered James Harriott as the English country vet on one of the shows June liked to watch on PBS. I was relieved she had everything under control. “I’m sorry I didn’t get your breakfast,” she said.
“That’s okay,” I said, moving to the refrigerator. “Let me fix you breakfast. How about some bacon and eggs?”
“No, I couldn’t eat a bite. Besides, Dr. Adams is coming.” Spotting my half-eaten toast and the banana next to the plate, she said, “That’s not enough for a growing boy.”
“I’ll grab something on campus. Don’t worry about me. You take care of Maggie. I’ll be fine.”
“Oh Jerry, you’re such a good boy,” she said, as she walked to where I stood and planted a kiss on my cheek before hurrying out of the room, leaving me to eat in guilt-ridden peace.
I thought about Maggie all day and found it hard to concentrate in my classes. At lunchtime, I thought about calling June to find out how the dog was but remembered she would be at the senior center. When I got home that afternoon, Maggie wasn’t in the yard, and I wasn’t surprised. The house seemed empty. June was probably in her room resting with Maggie.
Usually by five o’clock, I could smell dinner cooking, but not tonight. Concerned, I went and knocked on June’s door. She opened it a crack and stuck her head out. “Oh Jerry, you’re wanting supper, aren’t you? I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. How’s Maggie?”
She sighed. “I’m afraid she’s not much better. Dr. Adams said it’s probably a stomach virus, and she should be fine in a couple of days.”
“Want me to order a pizza, or would you rather have Chinese?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, I don’t want anything. There’s some macaroni and cheese in the freezer. I’ll just heat that up for you.” She opened the door and stepped out of the room, still in her bathrobe. I put a hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to do that. I can manage. Maggie needs you now more than I do.”
“Such a good boy,” she said, patting me on the head. “You’re right of course.”
The next morning, it was the same story. June wasn’t in the kitchen when I went downstairs so I made more toast and ate another banana. June wandered into the kitchen and fussed that I wasn’t getting enough to eat, and I told her I was fine and asked about Maggie and was told she wasn’t much better.
When I came home from classes that afternoon, I didn’t bother sneaking around to the back of the house. I knew Maggie wouldn’t be there. I walked in the front gate and up the walk and stopped short. A black wreathe hung on the front door that hadn’t been there before. A black wreathe meant only one thing. Somebody, or in this case somebody’s dog, had died.
I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think I’d used that much poison. I only wanted to make Maggie sick and then earn her respect. I didn’t mean to kill her. She was only a dog.
I thought of how Maggie attacked the meat when I threw it to her and ignored me, as I hurried into the house. Why couldn’t I have just given her some meat without the poison? I still could have avoided being attacked.
Then, it occurred to me that in a previous life, Maggie might have been a guy like Jerry in The Zoo Story, living alone in New York with no job, little money, subsisting on whatever he could find. Jerry didn’t want to commit suicide so when he met Peter in the park, he thought Peter was just the right guy to end his life. Jerry wouldn’t have wanted to come back as a dog so when Maggie saw me, she figured she’d have an easy way out if she could provoke me.
Now, I was Peter. I had everything going for me. I was doing well in college, I thought. I hadn’t declared a major yet, but I was thinking either English or drama. Maybe I could be an actor and screen writer like Emilio Estivez. I could be anything I wanted, but I killed a another living creature.
Would Dr. Adams do an autopsy? Would June find traces of rat poison in my jeans pocket when she did the laundry? I knew killing a dog wasn’t as serious as murdering a human being, but what would my parents think? I didn’t know if the university had a policy against students who committed crimes. Was my life in danger of falling apart?
At the end of The Zoo Story, before Jerry breathes his last breath after being stabbed, he tells Peter to go home to his wife and kids who are waiting for him. Maggie and I hadn’t swapped life stories. We didn’t have to. Dogs know these things. Maggie’s spirit spoke to me now.
“Jerry, go in the house. That English paper is due next week. You’d better get started on it. June won’t be able to fix supper for you again so you’re on your own, and you have rehearsal tonight. Better get a move on, Jerry. You don’t have all day.” Like Peter at the end of The Zoo Story, I turned and fled.
Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver