Monday, April 2, 2012

The Zoo Stories: a response to an Abbott story challenge

You'll see Patti Abbott's story and some links to others, at least, sometime this morning, at her blog pattinase.

The following stories are Copyright 2012 by Todd Mason.

(Alternate title for this diptych: "Mourning. Zoo.")

Zoo Day

He pulled into the lot, squinting as he turned eastward briefly, and looked at the faintly familiar building, a squat, ugly thing. He would've had a little trouble finding it again, but thank goodness for these in-car navigators these days...he reflected that it had been a little over seven years now, since Dot had died. Not so lucky seven. And, he chided himself, he shouldn't think of her as Dot; she'd hated that, she'd say as she grew into adolescence, and "Dotty" (he could understand her hating the latter); "Dot" made her feel like a point, like a spot, nothing. Dorothy. She was nothing but a memory now, it came to him without him wanting it to.

The newsmagazine's logo, which had once been plastered across the front of the building, wasn't there any longer. Nonetheless, he was sure this was it, the navigator had confirmed it. And he remembered occasionally giving her a lift over the nineteen years she'd worked here, before the cancer got bad. He'd been the one driving when she'd finally packed up her office things, he'd carried the the heavier box down to his station wagon. She'd struggled with the lighter box, but she was a trouper. She, of course, got to put it down as she went from desk to desk, floor to floor, shaking hands and embracing her better friends. After the first few, he'd just gone on ahead to his car, sat and waited for her, listening to the classical music station for a while, steeling himself to be as positive as possible for her when she rejoined him.

He barely noted how strange the lobby looked now, or at least receptionist, just some rugged-looking padded chairs. We aren't meant to bury our children, everyone then seemed to take pains to mention, in so many words or not. Not that we are made to bury anyone, but yes, somehow it seems to ram home the cruelty of our animal selves, to put your child, even an adult child, in a box. You want to still call her Dot. You want her to be able to correct you.

The newsmagazine had a blown-up version of the most recent cover on the wall, so they were still here, somewhere. But he'd expected a receptionist, or at least a panel on a wall like in a medical building, or a phone as in an airport, or something to help him go find her former co-workers. He realized, suddenly, that this was what it was about...on her birthday, today, he wanted someone else to remember...Dorothy.

Cathy had died two years ago, actually just a little less. It wasn't on Dorothy's birthday, but the reminder probably didn't help. A really bad pneumonia snuck up on her; she hadn't been as conscientious about taking care of herself, after their only child passed. He remembered how stunned Cath had been, when Dorothy broke the news to them, that the oncologists had given her about a one-in-ten chance, but that she was hopeful. Something clenched up in both of them, he could see it in Catherine even as he felt it, but by the end of that night, Cath was holding Dotty close, they both crying each on other's shoulders...and when Dotty turned to him, he took her to me and murmured as reassuringly as he could. He had gotten pretty good at that by the time he helped her with her office things. Two months later, she died. It was about a week after that, and Cath and he were watching 60 Minutes, and, during, a story about the orphans in some tragic place somewhere, and he began sniffling, and a few minutes later he was wailing in way he hadn't even when his parents had died, that he didn't remember ever doing even as a child. Cath held him tried to be the good murmurer for him. Later, she said that while she was torn in half seeing hi like that, it also relieved her, in a terrible way, to see that it hurt him as much it had hurt her.

And now Cath was gone, too. Dorothy had bought some sort of special employee-discount ten-year subscription to the magazine for him, and he'd liked it pretty well even before she'd gotten the job there, so instead of just dropping a renewal card in the mail, now that it had run out, here he was, just realizing he was looking for people to remember his daughter with, on her birthday. He had no idea where he was going to find them, though.

A young man walked by, and he asked, "Excuse me, young man, my name is David Cooper, I'm looking for the offices of the looks like they should be here, but I don't see where exactly I should go."

The young man looked puzzled momentarily, then said, "Well, Mr. Cooper, the magazine barely has any presence in this building any more. I work at the online site they started, but when the magazine was bought by its current owners, they sold the magazine to another company. There's really only one small office here devoted to the magazine."

"Then perhaps you might've known my daughter, who used to work here," David said, just starting to realize how slim a chance that was...this kid looked barely out of college, as Dorothy had been when she started here. "Her name was Dorothy Cooper."

"Sorry, no," the young man said. "I've been working here for about five years, but I'm pretty sure I didn't know her. I can take you up to the office the magazine has, but since we're different companies these days, someone with the magazine will have to let you into their suite."

"Oh, well," David said, "you might not know her, but maybe your colleagues? She used to do the paste-up work for the magazine, just started when they were still using light tables and real paste, and then pretty quickly moved over to computer layout?" David wondered if he was really just murmuring to himself, even though he was speaking loud enough for the young man to hear.

"It's possible," he seemed to agree out of politeness, as they rode in the elevator to the third floor. The window beside the office door they approached was dark. The logo for the magazine was about the size of a large dinner plate, on the wall next to the door on the other side. "It doesn't look as if they're in yet." The young man knocked, with no response, and then turned to David. "I can take your number or email address, and they could get in touch with you..."

"No, that's all right, young man, I know how I can get in touch with them. I guess there's no one here that handles subscriptions any more, is there?" The young man assured David, no, subscriptions were all handled out of the Midwest somewhere, and that the magazine's new owners in Los Angeles did all the paste-up out there. "Most of the folks your daughter worked with would've been relocated or RIFfed just after the sale."

"She died, you know." David saw that the young man had dreaded him saying something like that. "She worked here for almost twenty years, and she died." The young man said nothing for a few seconds. "I'm sorry, Mr. far as I know, no one in layout is still with us here...the new owners brought their own graphics people in. If you like, we can go upstairs to our offices, and I can take you around to some of the veterans..."

"No," David had a sudden sense of how many people might be bothered, then simply pitying a foolish old man who was interrupting the beginning of their workday. "No, thank you, that won't be necessary. Thank you for your kind help, young man." David made his way back to the elevator, and down through the unfamiliar lobby and back out to his car. Maybe he'd just drop the card in the mail, or maybe he didn't need any more magazines cluttering up the house.

Now, he thought, I guess I'll go to the zoo. He didn't quite laugh, but his eyes didn't well up as much as he feared.

This would be the day that she would take off, her birthday, and as a special treat for a year or two, yes they definitely did it twice, after her divorce, David and Cath would take her to the zoo, sort of a silly reminder of her birthday zoo trips when she was little. Dot loved the birds. Dorothy.

Burning Bright

Yeah, you're the first new person we've seen around here for a couple of years. You say you're a scout, huh? How many people in your collective, again? Wow. I would've bet there weren't a hundred and fifty people left alive, ten years ago.

I've been living here at the old zoo for a little longer than that, came into the city after everyone in my town died. Hell of thing, even now, to think of. Wonders of inappropriate technology, we could say with some understatement, huh? I mean, goodness sakes, first to put out so much of the modified grass crops, and not to have foreseen the multigenerational failure...guess they figured they'd be rich enough or dead enough so it wouldn't matter. Or something. And then to try to rush out the antibug for the rust that took out the grains...only to see some unholy hybrid forms taking out the squirrels, and the dogs, and to start hearing about the mass deaths of people in the breadbasket here and in Canada...well, you probably remember how fast it happened, even though you're a lot younger than me or even than Karen who's coming up the path there. Karen, this said Douglas, right? Douglas, and he's part of collective that's got a working farm, apparently, some fifty miles or so out. How 'bout that?

No, he doesn't seem to be a crazy, like that other guy. Douglas--Doug?--Douglas it is...I'll tell you about that other guy in a second, but, yeah, he was nuts.

Well, yeah, as I was saying, I've been here at the zoo for about ten years. It seemed that I was one of the lucky ones, if it was luck, who was immune to the several waves of viral diseases, or resistant to the effects of the fungi...they still hadn't managed to isolate the most important causes by the time most of the news sources went you know what it was? Eh. Well, anyway, I had to get away from the town, where I suppose I could've spent the rest of my life trying to bury every dead person, and I simply took a car that had enough gas in it, and drove into the city, and they had been pretty ruthlessly efficient while there were still enough people to be able to, in corralling the corpses and taking them somewhere. And by the end, I couldn't help but note that the zoo here was right next to the park and the river, and didn't have any residences too nearby, and had had some nifty features added not too long before, like the solar panels and the rainwater reclamation system. Of course, the latter needs to be looked after, as much as I'm able to, but they'd laid in a large supply of the chemicals it needs when they put it in, just a few months before the big die-off. Well, yeah, at least that's what I call it, yeah. And if it ever broke down completely, well, there was the river over there.

But, well, long story still pretty long, I was wandering around the zoo, and wasn't too surprised to find the animals mostly dead or gone, some taken away for food or something by someone (not that there was ever any lack of food, with all the people dying off, unless you wanted exotic fresh vegetables or fresh meat...I guess some folks decided they wanted zebraburgers), some were among the affected species, directly or indirectly...I mean, aside from the zookeepers dying off, anything that ate grasses had some serious hunger issues for a while there, till the lucky grasses started coming back strong...and hardly anything was still alive in the cages that wasn't a rat or something eating carrion. (I can say I'm not sorry the mosquitoes all died out, even if the horseflies are still with us, and just as fat and slow and nasty as ever.) But I get to the tiger cages, and there's a corpse, and there's another...but one tiger hears me coming, and gives out the most piteous Meow you've ever heard, one packed full of misery and terror and need, and coming from two hundred pounds of kitty. I can't figure out, at first, what I can do for this beast, lying about a yard away from the bars, with a big scratch across what turns out to be her nose, but most too weak to even lift her head up. I go find some meat in the refrigerators, and bring it out too her and toss it in, but she can barely eat it. I go find some milk and some awful bread--kind of like WonderBread, only worse, and quickly put a bowl down and throw the bread in and pour in the milk and push it over toward her with a stick, and she's able to lift her head up enough to eat it, slowly. I leave her with that, and come back an hour later, pull the bowl back to the bars, and put the rest of the loaf in, and another half-gallon of milk (I realize I'm not going to be seeing much bread nor milk in the future, but I can live with that better than she can), and she a little more steadily starts going at that. She starts to recover, can eat meat normally if a bit slowly by week's end, and I even put some antibacterial ointment they have on a rag, and the rag on a stick, and dab her nose with it, the second day, while she's still lying there. She doesn't like that much, but not too long after she starts scratching herself on long sticks I put through the bars.

Basically, though, I'm realizing that if she's going to survive, I have to let her out of there. I've figured out how I can do that, and it's not like I'm aware of anyone else in the city I'd be endangering (though I guess the bunnies and even the racoons won't like it much). I can certainly hide away while waiting for her to go. So, one morning, I open her cage. That was a long morning, while she wandered a few feet out, wandered back in, went out for fifteen minutes, looked around for me (I thought she wanted the steak or fish she was expecting rather fresh ape-meat, but didn't want to take the chance), and eventually settled down to sleep just inside the bars. I closed up her cage, tossed in her rations, and went back to my quarters. Remotely, I opened her cage (my room was in the building with all the video monitors, and they mostly still all work, and then they all did). Eventually, around three in the morning, she took off. I hit the sack, and didn't see her again for a week.

When she came back, she didn't stalk me, nor quite come up to me, but she did go lie down by her cage. So, I closed up the cage, and came out from the underground entry inside the cage, and fed her. I tried scratching her with the stick, and she liked it. I started to wonder if she was lonely. There sure as hell weren't any other tigers around...

I wouldn't say I got comfortable with her, but she would go away and come back when she wanted to and it got to be the case that I could put down the meat--oh, they had what I'd guess would be year's supply, at least, for daily feedings for a tiger in there, since the zoo when running properly had had quite a few carnivores, and she would come back something like once every two weeks or so. I'm just old enough to have heard the story about the tigers who turned to butter, so I called her Sammi. Yeah, with an I, to make it a girl's name. Sometimes, in the colder months if wasn't too bad (and it never gets That bad down here), she and would just sit still out front for an hour or two...I'd scratch her behind the ears with a stick if she asked, which she did by turning her head a certain way.

Well, it was nearly a year later that Karen came limping in. She and her brother had been scavenging for some months, but he'd gotten sick with something, they never could figure out what, and he'd died a few weeks before. Karen, do you want me to tell this? OK. She'd gotten hurt trying to wrangle some of the equipment they occasionally used--a backhoe or something? Basically just used it to knock down locked doors when they had to. But she hadn't been too far away from the zoo, and she heard the music--yeah, what you heard, before you came in. It's automated, so it plays that Woody Guthrie song in the mornings, and the Simon and Garfunkel one at closing time. She decided to check to see why there was music, and you can guess how glad I was she did. Sammi wasn't, after all, the completest form of female companionship I could want. What? Oh, I'd never disconnected the songs because they were both OK, and it was a few minutes each day at 9am and 7pm. It even kind of reminded me of people, after all. And there was a chance that if there were any other survivors, they'd hear it like Karen did. Well, we got her fixed up and rested up, and it's been a pretty great romance ever since, even though I'm twenty years or so older (I know, dear, twenty-three). She does enjoy reminding me. But since I was the richest man around, why shouldn't I have a young trophy wife. Yes, she always slaps my arm like that when I make a cute remark. But we did hit it off, and one thing led pretty quickly to another...we're always careful, of course, because for about seven years, we weren't sure we'd ever see another person.

Then the nut showed up. He seemed OK at first, a bit more starved than seemed sensible, again given all the canned food and potential for gardening there is around, but he did seem a bit paranoid about what he ate...I guess it's sensible, but Karen and I pretty much figured if we couldn't eat, we were dead anyway, and it's worked out OK. So, he says he's a scout, too, though as I say he looks more ragged than you do or we do, and he mentions almost immediately that he's here to save us. Or, SAVE us, if you get what I mean. His little band, whom he's going to call up on his walkie-talkie, he's got the kind you crank up, they'll come down from where they are up north if he tells them we've got a sweet deal here, which we do. So far, not So bad, even though we definitely don't need Saving. He makes an Arc reference or two, though I tell him there aren't any animals left who wouldn't be in the park, anyway, and he starts to lecture us about Our Dominion over the Earth and all, and pretty soon he gets to where we should be fruitfully multiplying. Well, Karen does a doubletake, and she points out that there are no doctors here, and we're pretty much in a precarious situation by ourselves. The nutcase, named Jonah, waves that all away, and insists that it's our duty, and it's a great thing that I'm a white guy and Karen is black (for what it's worth, we both have some Cherokee in the family) and--what? Oh, yeah, it was great he wasn't a racist, yeah, ha! Not racist, too, yes! He's kinda getting along to the point where he's suggesting that if I won't impregnate Karen, he'd have to. I tell him that we don't appreciate that kind of threat, but before I finish, he's pulled a switchblade out and has it at my throat. Well, we keep a rifle out front when we're up, and Karen has that pointed at him a second later, but he's crazy, going on some more about our duty to God and Man, and he kinda rotates around me in his fervor, then shoves me at Karen; I resist, but he's pushed me in such a way as I trip over the edge of one of the chairs, and Karen automatically tries to catch me, and he's on us, slashing and scrabbling at the gun. He gets it away from us, and jumps back, aiming at me, and trying to fire. "I hadn't loaded it yet," Karen tells him. It turns out she still had the safety on, but he isn't the brightest bulb in God's garden. He decides to use it as a club. I start to stand up, and he swings the butt hard into my shoulder, just fast enough that I can't grapple it away from him.

But who, perhaps drawn by the noisy commotion, should be padding up the walk just then? I'm still on the ground, while crouched behind the other chair, watching for a chance to do some damage, and she sees the big cat, too, of course. Jonah is too stupid to look around for whales, or maybe just smart enough. I say, "Hello, Sammi" and Jonah looks at me with disgust.

"You think I'm an idiot? You told me you don't have anyone else here, and the dogs are all gone...what's Sammi? A giant rat?" And he swings at me with rifle again, wildly, viciously. I move just enough so it barely clips me, but it hits a zipper on my jacket sleeve, so there's a loud crack, and I moan...milking it a bit, I admit. Sammi, taking this in, sees and hears and smells someone who isn't Karen attacking her favorite ape.

Well, you know the old saying about how a boy love his dog...turns out a cat loves her boy, too, even if it's a big cat and an old boy. Sammi didn't eat much of him, I think, out of consideration for us. It might be we, or at least Jonah, aren't the best meat, anyway.

You can bet we provided her with a better meal real soon, and whenever she came back. We haven't seen her for a month or so, but hope to soon. Meanwhile, you are a welcome sight, and welcome news. And please feel free to wake us up if you need to go outside's probably just a little safer that way.


K. A. Laity said...

Interesting and very different entries. Not sure either of these counts as "flash" (o_O) or did I somehow add that to the concept? The switch from first person to third abruptly in the first one jars. I can see you're going for a melancholy tone, but everything's held at such arm's length there's no engagement. The second one has some interesting ideas, but again, everything is told so it's hard to feel involved. I like the big cat story idea though.

Todd Mason said...

Eh, "flash" is a useless term. 1200 words was the brief, slightly exceeded in the first, somewhat grossly (but not doubled) in the second. "Zoo Day" doesn't actually switch from first to third person at any point. Though I'm sure both could use another draft.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I was sure one of these two would be fantasy but not apocalyptic fantasy.
Both so sad in their own ways too. My grandmother was called Dot. I never wondered if she liked it but she gave my mother a name that had no obvious nickname.
Living at a zoo might not be so bad. Humans probably need the old kind with cages though. Let them prowl around and look what harm they do!
Thanks, Todd, so much work put into this.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Patti. More work necessary, perhaps, to sharpen.

We have WAY too many humans in cages already...even beyond our ridiculous prison system...

Yvette said...

I have to say Todd that the first story made me misty. That means it moved me even if it was flash fiction. Oops, I thought we had 1500 words to fill. Oh well, then I went over by 300 or so in my story. Is 1200 the qualification for 'flash'. Actually, I didn't know there WAS a qualification. :)

The second story set me up for an unhappy ending at first so I'm glad I was surprised. :)

Todd Mason said...

Glad you got something from them, Yvette! Well, as you can see above, I'm no great proponent of the term "flash fiction" to begin with, though the usual dimensions seem about the same as vignettes, so up to about 2K words, or perhaps four printed pages in many formats, with many considerably shorter. I suspect you will suffer no penalty nor even Kate's peremptory challenge...

K. A. Laity said...

It was this section that seemed to hop from 3rd to 1st:

He remembered how stunned Cath had been, when Dorothy broke the news to them, that the oncologists had given her about a one-in-ten chance, but that she was hopeful. Something clenched up in both of us, I could see it in Catherine even as I felt it, but by the end of that night, Cath was holding Dotty close, they both crying each on other's shoulders...and when Dotty turned to me, I took her to me and murmured as reassuringly as I could.

Sorry, didn't realise I was being peremptory. In grading mode.

Todd Mason said...

Ah! Thanks, yes, that is something I let get by me. (They DO need another draft.)

Trust me, I definitely know the professional mode spilling over (I want to doublecheck everyone's year, etc., on their film or book citations, in my lizard brain, from work).

Todd Mason said...

Wow, I was looking at it, and not seeing the jump from 3rd to 1st...perhaps since I was grimly looking for a 3rd to 1st...but I suspect more because the house-tigers got me up earlier than I wanted (again)...thanks again.