When I was a teen-ager, my father starred in a community theater production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. Years later, this inspired me to write the following story. It was once published in a literary magazine produced by the University of Wyoming that no longer exists. Enjoy!
MY ZOO STORY
I’ve been to the zoo, well, not exactly. There aren’t many of those in Wyoming, but when I was a freshman in college, staying with my great aunt, I didn’t just speak that opening line as I strutted onstage in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. I lived the part of Jerry, the guy I played.
Grandma’s sister June lived in a house in Laramie. It was white with brown trim and surrounded by a white picket fence. Her husband was gone, 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 van picked her up every day and took her to a senior center where she had lunch and played bingo and cards with friends. She also used the van to get to doctor and hair 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 else’s house to play bridge. Sometimes, the ladies played at June’s house.
When I started as a freshman at the University of Wyoming, Grandma insisted I live with June since Sheridan, my hometown where Grandma also lived, was halfway across the state. Since Grandma heard about drugs, sex, and wild parties on campus, she didn’t want her grandson to be distracted from his studies.
My parents agreed. 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 barely knew her, but we got along pretty well. She didn’t give me any curfews, and I don’t think she would have minded if friends came over to hang out or study. I ate breakfast and supper with her every day during the week, 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 pooch was a different story. Dad never let me have a dog 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 the old lady’s feet when we ate or watched television. When I came home 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 again and kept going until I made it up the steps and in the door, slamming it in her face. June 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 snuck around to the back of the house, but Maggie had a sixth sense and was waiting for me at the back gate with her usual growl. 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 took Maggie for a walk twice a day and fed her hamburger and other treats besides her regular food. At mealtime, I saw her slipping meat to her under the table. Ever faithful, Maggie stayed by June’s side most of the time.
“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. 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 Mags.”
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. “the dog probably just wants to play. Besides, we can’t make waves. We’re lucky June’s willing to let Jerry stay with her while he goes to school. It saves us money. 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.” That was Dad’s 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. As long as I could outrun the dog, it wouldn’t be a problem.
The university’s theater department was producing a series of one-act plays, one of which was Edward Albee’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. When they meet in the 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.
Since I’d 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. We had the same name, and we both lived with old ladies and mean dogs. Then, it came to me.
In the play, Peter and Jerry swap life stories. Jerry tells Peter about the time he poisoned his landlady’s dog. The pooch didn’t die but was very sick for a few days. After that, Jerry and the canine came to an understanding. In the same way, I wanted to 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 rat poison. In the park across the street, I found a secluded bench, unwrapped the meat, and kneaded the poison into it. I put the tainted meat in my pocket, discarded the wrapper and remainder of the poison, and walked home.
“Hey girl,” I said, as I opened the back 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 her usual self. I caught the old lady 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.”
“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. 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.
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 realizing that since neither of us had a car, I couldn’t 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?”
“Oh 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 later. 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 the dog.
Usually by five o’clock, I could smell dinner cooking, but not tonight. Concerned, I 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 my head. “You’re right of course.”
The next morning, June wasn’t in the kitchen when I went downstairs. I made more toast and ate another banana. June wandered in 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 didn’t mean to kill her. She was only a dog.
It then occurred to me that Maggie was like Jerry in The Zoo Story. He didn’t want to commit suicide. When he met Peter in the park, he thought Peter was just the right guy to end his life. When Maggie saw me, she figured she had an easy way out if she could provoke me.
Now, like Peter, I had everything going for me. I was doing well in college and thinking about majoring in either English or drama, maybe being an actor.
At the end of The Zoo Story, before Jerry breathes his last, he tells Peter to go home to his wife and kids who are waiting for him. Maggie and I never swapped life stories, but her 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.
Copyright July 2019 by DLD Books
When Eve went to her high school senior prom, she wore a red dress that her mother had made for her. That night, after dancing with the boy of her dreams, she caught him in the act with her best friend. Months later, Eve, a freshman in college, is bullied into giving the dress to her roommate. After her mother finds out, their relationship is never the same again.
Twenty-five years later, Eve, a bestselling author, is happily married with three children. Although her mother suffers from dementia, she still remembers, and Eve still harbors the guilt for giving the dress away. When she receives a Facebook friend request from her old college roommate and an invitation to her twenty-five-year high school class reunion, then meets her former best friend by chance, she must confront the past in order to face the future.