I KNOW EVERYONE THINKS I’M just a cabdriver, but I also work at the zoo. They pay me to take care of the lion, a 550 lb predator-cat from sub-Saharan Africa trapped inside an artificial habitat.
The lion is magnificent and a success of evolution. It is a beautiful, golden killing machine, and when his mouth opens to yawn you can see a gigantic jaw lined with millions of razor-sharp teeth that can overpower mammals and guns and ridicule and authority and dream-obstacles and its own mortality and the destruction of planet Earth by way of dying sun. The lion can sustain itself after the end of the universe by nothing but pure ferocity, hunting down the invisible, as of yet unknown, dimensions of physics, ripping out their neck guts, and consuming them.
But the lion is in the zoo, so it has to be taken care of by a responsible human.
A lion expert had written down everything I needed to do to take care of it.
– Make sure his water is full
– Make sure he gets his rotisserie chickens
– Make sure he takes his multi-vitamin
– Make sure he takes plenty of naps
– Make sure his shelter roof has no leaks
– Make sure the bugs aren’t landing on him
– Make sure his mane doesn’t have any snags
– Make sure his paws have no thorns
– Make sure he’s never ever ever lonely
The rules were really easy to read on a dry erase board next to the cage. The expert’s handwriting was good. Their cursive was clear.
But for some reason I didn’t follow any of them. Whenever I came to work I would go over to the lion and for the entire shift just sit there and do nothing. I don’t know why.
The lion would pace around and look at me. He’d open his mouth and stick out his tongue. He’d hold his paw up and wave. He’d rub his hairy head against the side of the cage. He’d come up as close as possible, make direct eye contact and then roar. Huge sound waves and deep decibels crashing against everything.
But still I wouldn’t do anything, and then I just stopped looking at him. I don’t know why. Maybe I didn’t want to get accidentally chomped. Maybe I didn’t have enough of a degree in zoology. Maybe I wanted to cause something to waste away. I don’t know why. I came to work and did nothing and collected a paycheck anyway.
One day a kid on a field trip came up to the exhibit. He saw my zookeeper’s uniform and started talking to me.
“What animal is this?” he asked.
“A lion,” I said.
“It doesn’t look like one.”
“It is. It’s a carnivore. It’s from Africa.”
“But lions are big and they have a mane.”
“This is big and has a mane.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
Then I looked at the lion for the first time in a while, and the kid was right. The lion was very small now. His hunting-muscles seemed to have disappeared. His mane was matted up and missing in large gaps.
“It’s a lion,” I said.
“But his fur is supposta be golden instead of gray. He’s supposta stand up majestically and roar. He’s supposta be able to walk.”
The lion was limping around the dirt leaving bloody footprints behind him. Then he just laid down on a rock and stared in the distance.
“This doesn’t look like a lion,” the kid said. “Where is his ferocity? Where is his health?”
“No, he’s not. You’re supposta take care of him, but you’re doing a shitty job.”
“You’re a zookeeper. How can you do this to something that only gets to live once?”
“I don’t know.”
Then I looked at the lion, and he looked directly back at me, and suddenly I had a vision. I could see myself really studying and following through on the rules to take care of him. I could see myself asking the expert questions about anything I didn’t know how to do. I could see the lion getting nursed slowly but steadily back to full strength. I could see us developing a rapport, and him letting me put my head inside his mouth, and the spectators at the zoo clapping for us.
But I could also see something else in the way …
“Look, kid,” I said, “when you get to be an adult you just start doing bad things like this. You can try to be good for a while, but you just go back to being bad again.”
“Coward,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
Jonathan Bluebird Montgomery is a poet, novelist, performer, former cabdriver, and current teacher in Boulder, Colorado. You can find out more about him, including his new collection, Nine Books, at jonathanbluebirdmontgomery.com.
Image: flcikr.com, spennyj