An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Corey Fawcett
I may not have been very smart but I knew what rock bottom was, and this was it.
I was wearing a beige custodial uniform and orthopedic shoes and watching trails of soapy water dry up behind my mop at the Des Moines Zoo. It was eleven on a Friday night, and a year ago I would’ve been doing tequila shots at Sampson’s with Vicki and Carla. Last time I spoke to them they told me they were sick of watching me steal and I told them to go to hell and smashed my bottle of B & J on the table. I saw Eddie at Walgreens a few months later and he told me I was welcome back any time. “I know things have been rough since your mom passed,” he said, putting a stiff hand on my shoulder. I thanked him but left the store without getting what I came for.
Tonight I was cleaning the octopus exhibit, but the cleaning part was mostly to pass time. I was really there to watch the tank. The octopus, a California two-spot, was named Calpurnia by a Shakespeare-loving biologist; something with which I sympathized as my name was Julieta. (“I just knew I would love saying it. Julieta, Julieta,” my mother Jolene would say. “Yeah, you would love saying it,” I’d snap back.) The light above Calpurnia’s tank kept short-circuiting and nobody new why. Someone would come in and fix it and like clockwork it wouldn’t work the next morning. When my boss Vince asked the custodians if any of us would be willing to do the late night once-over a little later than usual and keep an eye on the tank, I volunteered. Jolene had an octopus toe ring, and as it was nearly the anniversary of her death I was starting to take everything as a sign from her. And my usual routine of going home after work to watch cable and drink beer until I passed out on the couch was getting easier and easier to shirk.
Although I was beginning to take pride in my cleaning abilities, I still lied to people about my job. No one thinks they’re meant to be a zoo custodian, but I really wasn’t. I was pretty. Not just normal pretty, but the kind where you can make money from it. I’d been photographed by a few semi-professional photographers in the past: lying on a Mercedes in a bikini, straddling a motorcycle in cut off shorts and a bra, wearing just a tool belt while holding wrenches strategically over my nipples. Every time the photos were bought (mostly by auto magazines), Jolene took me out to Red Lobster where she would feed my dreams of hauling my perfectly teardrop-shaped ass to Hollywood. But I gained forty pounds after she died, cut my hair into uneven wisps, and rid the Airstream of my glamour shots. Walter, the zoo’s in house animal trainer, once told me I could be a model if I started exercising. “We can exercise together, you and me,” he’d say with a grin. That night I went home and ate an entire box of frosted sugar cookies.
I took a swig out of the flask nestled between my breasts and worked my mop over to Calpurnia’s tank, where she was weaving in and out of rocks and plants. Over the past few months she’d been caught out of her tank twice. The first time, she crawled right over the top of it and landed at the feet of a pair of zoogoers during opening hours. The second time, after the zoo was closed, an intern found her creeping up the side of a nearby fish tank. After the second incident she was given a new tank with higher walls and a cover over the top.
“Octopus bimaculoidus,” it said on the plaque next to her tank.
Diet: mollusks, crustaceans, abalone and small fish
Calpurnia is a California two-spot octopus that was born on March 2nd, 1982. The two-spot gets its name from the pair of deep blue marks located below its eyes. It comes from the waters of central California to northern Baja California, and can grow up to three and a half feet long. Although the two-spot is usually brown, grey or yellow, it can change its color and texture to match its surroundings in milliseconds. If encountered by a predator, the two-spot confuses it by ejecting a cloud of ink in its direction and shooting out a jet of water to propel its escape. It kills its prey by squeezing it with its tentacles and smothering it in toxic saliva.
The two-spot typically passes its time looking for food on the seafloor or hiding from predators. It’s nocturnal, making it skilled at seeing in the dark. One interesting fact about the two-spot is that the female stops eating after laying its eggs and dies once they hatch.
I picked up my mop after reading the plaque and when I looked back at Calpurnia’s tank my breath caught in my throat. She wasn’t gliding around the tank floor anymore. She was suspended in the water with her tentacles fanned out, completely still with her eyes fixed upon me. I stepped closer to her tank, touching my nose to the glass. She had changed color from a mottled brown to a powder pink, the shade of my fingernail polish and the heart shaped stone that hung around my neck.
“Jesus!” I yelled. Calpurnia jetted to the front the tank and began to paw softly at me with her tentacles. I put my hand up and her tentacles migrated to it, stroking the glass underneath my palm. We stayed like that for a while until she turned back to brown and resumed moving around the bottom of her tank.
With trembling hands I pulled the flask out of my shirt again and shook the remaining drops onto my tongue. I stood there for a while watching the tank, not sure if the pulsing sound I heard was from the water that surrounded me or my own ears. I finished dragging the mop around the remainder of the room and left to put it and rolling bucket in the supply closet. When I came back Calpurnia was at the water’s surface staring directly into the light above her cage. I stopped in my tracks at the doorway and held my breath, afraid the slightest movement would make her go into hiding. She leaned her head back and shot continuous jets of water at the light through the small feeding hole in the cover of her tank. The light buzzed and then went out entirely. “That’s too bright for you, huh, Calpurnia?” I reached out to inspect the fixture and when I did, she unfurled a lone tentacle and reached through the cover hole to tap my hand. That was when my plan started forming.
Jolene taught me to steal when I was so young that I have no memory of our first conversations about it. Under her counsel I stole anything she wanted me to: food, jewelry, shoes, silverware, Christmas presents for relatives, friends, and myself. (“Nice,” I would mutter to the mall Santa Claus. “Not naughty.”) I even shoplifted my own communion dress. She spent four dollars on a pair of platform flip flops while I smuggled the sixty dollar dress out of the store under my jumper. My second grade class was scheduled to go to confession the next day. “Ms. Thatcher says it’s to give us a clean slate before we let the body of Christ into our own,” I told her. Jolene shuddered at the innuendo, squatted down to my height, and grabbed my chin. “Remember not to tell Father Bernie about our treasure hunting,” she said. “Because if you do, I’ll find out, and I will be very upset with you. You hear me?”
Oftentimes, she had me steal out of necessity: if she was unemployed and we needed a new microwave, if she got a speeding ticket and we needed to pawn a gold watch to pay it off faster, etc. But she wasn’t very discerning. I shoplifted whatever she wanted. “We’re no worse than everyone else,” she would tell herself in moments of drunken insecurity. “Everybody has something they do.” Well, I wanted Calpurnia, and I was going to do something.
Home was Evergreen Estates for mobile homes in an Airstream Trailer stuffed to the brim with stolen contraband. Jolene didn’t mean for the Airstream to be stationary; after I graduated high school we moved out of a little rambler on the north side of town and bought the trailer with the intention to road trip across the U.S. in it. “Then we’re gonna get you to Hollywood,” she said. “I hear they have great trailer parks there. And you can live with your old mom until you find something. And then you can buy her a five story mansion for her to put her feet up in. With a pool too,” she would tell me. But then she got sick: stage three neuroblastoma. I offered to work all the jobs I could to cover the medical bills, to steal cars, anything. Even though she refused I would find myself wide awake at four in the morning obsessing over inane, elaborate plans to rob the Tiffany’s at the mall. But she told me not steal a penny more for her. She had gotten in touch with her estranged parents for the first time in ten years and they agreed to finance the medical bills. I used all the money I had saved up for traveling to buy an above ground swimming pool for her to float around in in the backyard.
The next day I called Vince and told him what I saw at the zoo. “She shoots out water at the light. I think it’s too bright for her,” I told him. “Aha,” he said. “That damn thing’s more trouble than it’s worth.” I let out a high pitched giggle despite the banality of his comment. “Well, I’ll see your pretty face tomorrow,” he said to me, his voice changing. I could practically hear him wink. Perfect.
After hanging up I made a few stops downtown for rocks, sand, seaweed, clams, mussels, crayfish, little crabs, and a water thermometer. When I got back home I waited for it to get dark out and snuck into my neighbor Georgia’s yard to drag her hose into the swimming pool, careful not to knock over her plastic flamingos or Ten Commandments tablet. While I waited for the pool to fill up, I rifled through a box of Jolene’s things and got my hands on a big burgundy purse that still had the security tag on it. I didn’t have much to pick from as my grandparents had put most of her things in a storage unit, not sure what else to do with it. They chose to ignore the fact that she left behind hardly any money but a mountain of expensive clothes, accessories, and appliances with the price tags attached. They gave me access to her storage unit under the impression I was going to put more stuff in there, not take things out and pawn them. But Jolene would understand. Everybody has something they do, after all.
I slung the purse over my shoulder, drove to the zoo, and used my key to enter through the Employees Only door. When I turned the light on at the octopus exhibit, Calpurnia darted to the front of her tank and turned powder pink again. I was planning on standing on a chair, removing the cover of the tank, and scooping her out with my bag, but she had already started doing the work for me. She’d positioned herself underneath the hole in the tank’s cover and begun pushing her tentacles through it. “Not your noodle, girl. You’re gonna squish your brains!” I yelled at her as she wiggled her bulbous head through the hole. When I realized she was going to succeed I ran to the bathroom and filled my purse with water, returning just in time to catch her as she rolled off the top of the tank.
I stared into the purse. Calpurnia looked like a little organ that grew limbs. I imagined a cop pulling me over on the way home and me telling him I was transporting a kidney to an ill friend. “Don’t eat that!” I yelled at Calpurnia, horrified I forgot about the second half of the Twix bar I threw in the purse on the drive over. She released the chocolate from her clutches but sprayed a jet of water in my face. “You little goob,” I whispered to her as I slunk to my car at the edge of the parking lot. Once I started the engine I headed straight for the zoo gates. “Sit tight, Cal.” I set the purse in my lap and snapped the button at the top. I stepped on the gas and rammed the car into the zoo gates, which swung open easier than I thought they would. Calpurnia and I sped off to the sound of alarms.
I parked in the yard and headed straight for the swimming pool. Calpurnia looked jaunty as she swirled around in her new surroundings, so I left her alone to explore. I made myself a Greyhound and turned on the news, half listening. Although I couldn’t see the inside of the pool from my window, I kept staring out of it to make sure Calpurnia wasn’t climbing over the sides. Jolene’s owl figurines cluttered the window sill from end to end, all watching me watch the octopus with bulging eyes. Sometimes when we came home from a loot Jolene would turn all of the figurines around to direct their gazes elsewhere. “Breaking news,” said the newscaster on TV, “It appears that someone has broken into the Des Moines Zoo. Law enforcement is currently sweeping the area for suspicious activity. Stay tuned for more information.” I turned around the owls one by one and made sure their eyes were pointing toward the pool.
That night I rolled over onto my stomach in my sleep and woke up to the feeling of something cold and slick on my shoulder. I opened my eyes to a powder pink blur but after I blinked again I didn’t see anything. I closed my eyes, feeling the room spin. I’d drunk too much before bed.
Vince cornered me in the locker room the next day. “The octopus is gone,” he said. “That’s it. They’ve looked for her in the drainage system and all the other tanks. Whoever broke in stole her and hauled ass. Got in and got out. Why the fuck would someone do that?” He gestured at me to grab a powdered mini doughnut from the box he was holding. “It’s funny. The car in the security tapes kind of looked like the same model as yours. You’re not starting Noah’s Ark or something, are you?” Shit, I thought. The security camera. I shoved half the doughnut into my mouth and slowly licked the powder from around my lips, making eye contact with Vince who opened his mouth ever so slightly. “You’re funny, Vince,” I said, slapping his shoulder. “Besides, I got a key. I can waltz right into the zoo without messing up my car.” He smiled and brushed some powder off my chest before going back to his closet-sized office.
It didn’t take long for them to find me out. Just two days later the police knocked on my door while I was half-watching Magnum P.I. and half-watching the pool. I didn’t put up a fight and led them straight to the back yard, but the pool was empty. “She should be in there. I been watching her!” I said to the officers as they handcuffed me against the car. They searched the Airstream and the surrounding area but gave up after fifteen minutes. “It’s probably dead somewhere,” the tall mustached officer said, scanning the lot one more time before getting into the driver’s seat. “Those things aren’t even worth that much anyway.”
My jail cell roommate was a twitchy evangelical Christian named Emma. I made the mistake of telling her my entire story, even about the night I woke up to the pink blur in my bed. “Sounds to me like that octopus was possessed. The devil contaminated that animal, and that animal contaminated you. Be gone, devil!” she shrieked at me with her hands placed upon my head. I let her continue while I stared through our barred window at the cornfields, hypnotized by a thin trail currently being blazed through the sandy stalks toward the jail. Emma finished exorcising me and stared down at me, panting. “Oh, I think it worked,” I said. “I don’t feel evil no more.” She raised an eyebrow at me and went back to reading her Jodi Picoult novel. I gave my nails a new coat of bubblegum polish.
I awoke in the middle of the night to my cot drenched in sweat. In my dream I was trying to pull Jolene’s body out of the pool while Walter and Vince watched me bend over its edge, laughing and making kissy noises. Disoriented, I staggered to the toilet so I could sit on the cool steel and catch my breath. But something caught my eye first. A mottled brown tentacle was worming its way out of the toilet drain. I reached out to touch it and it coiled around my finger, turning a glowing shade of powder pink. Softly, I began to weep. As soon as I was out, Calpurnia and I were going to Hollywood in our Airstream trailer.
© 2013 Corey Fawcett