An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By The Magnificent Three
At her parent’s insistence, Natasha’s first apartment was in the nicer part of town. She obliged since they were paying the rent. If she stayed in college full time, they would foot all her bills. Natasha found places around the apartment for all her treasured things. Her turntable and record collection sat prominently in the living room near the sofa. She alphabetized her books by author in the new bookcase against the entryway wall. She arranged souvenirs from her recent summer trip through Europe on the coffee table. The tarot cards rested on her bedside table. Natasha was teaching herself how to read tarot and liked to spread the full deck of cards on her bed, quizzing herself on the representations of each card.
After a month of living on her own for the first time, Natasha felt lonely. She shuffled her tarot cards and asked, “Who will I meet? Who will I meet?” Natasha pulled three cards from the top of the deck, revealing the King of Cups, the Chariot and the Moon. She stared at the illustration on each card, focusing her mental energy and waiting for some type of mystical signal. Her gaze kept returning to the depiction of the moon with two dogs howling below her.
A few days later, she brought Tom home from the humane shelter. Tom was a three-year-old orange tabby and just the kind of four-legged companion Natasha had hoped for. Natasha picked him up and carried him through the apartment, introducing him to each room. Tom seemed starved for human attention. He even turned his head to look Natasha in the eye when she spoke to him. Tom followed her around the apartment, finding places nearby to sit and watch her.
One afternoon, Natasha started craving something sweet in the middle of her English 101 class. She stopped to pick up a chocolate cupcake from the chic new bakery on the way home. Tom brushed against her legs as soon as she closed the apartment door behind her. She scratched Tom behind his ears and made her way to the kitchen. She opened the little square box and was about to bite into her treat when her cell phone rang. She went back to her bedroom and chatted with her mother for a long time. As soon as she hung up, she went back to the waiting cupcake and began pulling at its foil wrapper.
“Don’t eat that!” Natasha heard a voice behind her. She set down the cupcake on the kitchen counter and turned around, not sure who she expected to see. Tom met her gaze from his perch next to the microwave.
“Don’t eat that!” she heard again. Although the voice wasn’t coming from Tom’s throat, she sensed he was telling her with his thoughts. But that was impossible. She massaged her head above her right ear, her temples suddenly throbbing. Tom twitched his tail, the picture of an indifferent silent cat. Natasha leaned into the kitchen counter and closed her eyes against another intense pulse of pain. “Why?” she thought to herself.
“Because I saw a fly land on the frosting and I’m pretty sure it laid an egg,” Tom answered. Natasha looked up into Tom’s golden eyes, eyes she’d once thought of as yellow but now they seemed to glow like some far off beacon. “Oh, you didn’t mean why not eat the cupcake,” Tom thought at Natasha.
“This is too much,” Natasha said out loud, backing away from Tom and the kitchen. She stumbled down the hallway. “I’m not crazy, there are no talking cats. I just need to lie down,” she told herself as she braced herself with outstretched arms touching the walls. Tom sauntered down the hall, stopping just a few feet from where she stood.
“It hurts less if you don’t fight it,” Natasha heard Tom say in her thoughts again.
She tried taking long, calm yoga breaths but instead huffed haggardly. Tom moved to her side and knocked his head on her ankles. “I’m glad you can finally communicate with me. I heard from others at the shelter that some humans have the gift.”
Natasha sank to the floor. “I just wanted a cupcake,” she whined to herself.
Living with a cat that could hear her thoughts was not an easy adjustment. Tom was patient and stopped following her around the apartment but Natasha wanted answers, not more space and time to digest what had happened to her. She began wondering if she were the only one who could communicate with animals and what were some of the other powers people could have?
“I think I know somewhere we can go, somewhere that might have answers to your questions,” Tom popped into her thoughts one evening. Natasha sighed and looked down at Tom, curled up by her feet on the sofa. “Don’t ask how I know, just trust me. It’s a doughnut shop.”
Coming up to Sunshine Doughnuts, Natasha thought, “Tom, I think I’d rather eat that cupcake back home than anything they would dream up in this Crisco nightmare of a place.”
Tom ignored this comment from within the confines of his kitty carrier. “Find the owner. He’ll know what to do.” Natasha entered the empty shop. Doubtfully, she eyed the crusty old pastries under the grease-smudged windows. A hideous fly specked owl clock ticked away in the corner.
A monster of a man in a filthy apron loped from the back room. “Everyone loves the pork belly and tapioca pudding doughnuts. Four dollars apiece or three for fifteen.” He flicked what looked like a cockroach off the counter and started to reach for a doughnut with a square of waxed paper when Natasha finally spoke.
“What? I’m not spending four dollars for one disgusting doughnut. Tom told me this was a special place. Oh, never mind, I’m out of here.” She turned to leave.
The man asked, “Who’s Tom?”
Natasha kept walking but held up the carrier. “That’s Tom.” Tom yowled an affirmation from inside.
“Wait!” The man called out. “Hold on a minute.”
Natasha turned to glare at him. “Seriously?”
“So the cat told you about this place?” His voice was softer now.
“That’s what I said.”
“Well, that’s very different now.”
Natasha wasn’t sure how he did it but suddenly the man looked less slovenly, less frightening and somehow smarter. He bowed his head towards her and said, “Welcome to Sunshine Doughnuts. I am Lazlo. If you’ll follow me.” He stopped briefly to place a rubber cockroach back on the counter and then led them through a beaded curtain behind the counter. They passed through a storeroom and came to another door at the end of the room. Lazlo knocked twice and let himself in.
Natasha’s eyes widened. There was another doughnut shop in front of her. This one was as wonderful as its counterpart was depressing. It had bright red walls and a black and white checkered floor. There was a pastry counter filled with delicious looking doughnuts, croissants and pastries. An elaborate brass espresso machine steamed cheerfully behind the counter. Groupings of comfy chairs surrounded an old potbellied stove and there were several marble-top tables with little striped seats on either side. Dangling crystal globes above gave off a warm light.
Even more astonishing were the customers. A woman with a sleek bob and beaded dress was talking to what looked like a Mexican wrestler complete with a mask. A Goth girl who was a dead ringer for Morticia Addams was giggling with a professorial old man in a tweed coat. A tiny blond child who looked about nine was expertly pouring himself a shot of whiskey out of a flask. Lazlo took off his apron and flipped it around, revealing an immaculate white side. “Now before we get started can I get you a nice Bavarian cream, a cruller, or maybe a coffee?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” purred Tom into Natasha’s mind.
“This is, um, amazing.” Natasha tried to keep the stammer out of her voice, “What is this place?”
Lazlo shrugged. “Oh, one part coffeehouse, one part bazaar. A way station for people with certain talents, a place to find things you might not otherwise be able to acquire.” He indicated a large chalkboard on the wall next to the counter. There were a variety of specialty coffees and sweets listed at the top. Underneath that seemed to be a series of notes written in several different hands.
Flea Circus for sale to responsible party. Tent, trampoline and trapeze included.
2,000 OBO. My loss is your gain. Contact Bob347@gmail.com
Missing that special someone? I see dead people.
Reasonable rates. (503) 246-7925. Please call before 8PM
There were several more notices, some in languages Natasha didn’t recognize. Lazlo disappeared behind the counter and began pulling cups down and filling the espresso machine.
“Natasha, get me out of this box,” Tom commanded. Natasha fumbled with the latch and eventually managed to free the cat. Tom hopped out and with a swish of his tail led her to a table in the corner where he seated himself on one of the striped chairs.
“Just a little milk for me,” Tom said. Natasha passed along his request. Lazlo nodded and pulled a saucer from a stack near the cups. He filled it with milk from an old fashioned glass bottle. He filled two tiny cups with rich, dark espresso before setting it all on a tray. He added a plate of biscotti and a petite pitcher of cream.
Lazlo joined her at the table. “So, you know my name. You are Miss…? Ms.?”
“Natasha. Just Natasha is fine.” Natasha stuck out her hand which was enveloped by Lazlo’s giant paw. He gave her small hand a gentle shake.
He grinned at her. “I feel we are going to be great friends, Natasha.”
By the month’s end Natasha was a regular at Sunshine Doughnuts. When her classes were done for the day, she hurried home. After collecting Tom, she boarded the bus across town. Lazlo helped her understand her gifts and Tom helped her improve them. She loved meeting the other patrons and discovering their talents. She could think of no way to explain her new friends or abilities. Suddenly everyone she knew seemed like they were running at a lower wattage than her friends at Lazlo’s.
Natasha nibbled a cookie in Sunshine Doughnuts. Tom sprawled across the chair seat next to her. She stirred the foam of her latte as Tom arrived at the punch line of his joke. “That’s not a dog, that’s a salami!” Tom bent over to lick his back feet, still cracking up inside.
Natasha chuckled. “Good one, Tom. For a cat, you have a good sense of comic timing.”
“Please. As if humans invented everything. Having nine lives teaches you something about taking things less seriously.”
Lazlo approached the table with someone Natasha didn’t recognize. “I’d like you to meet my nephew, Yorgo. He runs a traveling show, much like the traveling circuses and vaudeville acts of long ago. He visits me every now and then, often looking for people with special talents for his show. Yorgo, this is Natasha.”
“Nice to meet you,” Natasha said, extending her hand. Yorgo grasped her fingers awkwardly. “Not socially graceful,” Natasha thought to herself.
“But handsome,” Tom interjected.
“Not now, Tom.” Natasha darted her eyes at the cat sitting across from her, licking his paw as if he didn’t hear her. She focused on Yorgo. “This is my cat, Tom. Maybe Lazlo has explained about us?”
Yorgo smoothed an errant lock of hair behind his ear.
“Me-ow!” Tom thought to Natasha.
Natasha avoided glancing at Tom as Yorgo pulled up a chair. Yorgo sat with his chest resting against the chair back, facing the duo at the table.
“Something to drink, Yorgo?” Lazlo asked.
“Dirty chai, please,” Yorgo answered. Lazlo disappeared behind the counter. “Yes, Lazlo mentioned that you can communicate with animals, telepathically.”
“I can, although Tom is the only animal I’ve carried on a conversation with. I can hear birds, squirrels, and dogs, but I haven’t tried to engage any of them.”
“Then my request might be difficult for you.” Yorgo ran his hands along the tops of his thighs, bringing Natasha’s attention to his neatly creased pinstripe slacks and matching vest.
Natasha felt the heat of arousal flush her cheeks. Before she could respond, Lazlo approached with Yorgo’s drink and silently set it down. Lazlo turned from the table without further interruption.
Natasha asked, “What is that anyway?”
“It’s a chai latte with a shot of espresso. Quite nice, if you’d like to try a sip.”
“No, thank you. This request of yours must involve communicating with an animal.”
“Yes, a sun bear to be exact.”
“What? No. I can’t risk reaching out to a wild animal.”
“He’s domesticated for the most part. You’d be helping me rescue an animal that’s only known a life of abuse in captivity.”
Natasha twisted her hair around her finger. “Your rescue sounds dangerous. What do you plan to do with this bear anyway?”
“The bear can’t survive in the wild. He’s spent too much of his life in captivity with humans who use cattle prods. I’d like to find a place for him in my show. I’m not sure the bear could hear your thoughts but I want to try.” He smiled warmly, cutting through Natasha’s skepticism. “First things first. I will take you to meet Salty.”
Natasha got out of the rickety Volkswagen van in a small grove of pine trees and followed Yorgo to a dilapidated circle of tents.
“This place looks shady. Gives me the creeps,” Natasha said.
Yorgo pressed his forefinger to his lips. “Shhh, keep your voice down. The show doesn’t begin for hours, we have some time. We’re going to sneak over to Salty’s cell. It’s in the red tent over on the right.” There was a portrait of a little sun bear on the side.
Natasha rushed off behind Yorgo as he darted from bush to bush, making his way towards Salty. When they reached the tent, they peered inside a small opening in the fabric. Inside was a sun bear, his fur matted and lusterless. The guard waved a long rod in front of the bear, who then cowered in a corner. Natasha started to stand up, but Yorgo firmly held her arm to keep her behind the fabric.
“Hard as this is to watch, don’t blow it now. Wait and try to clear your head. Can you hear his thoughts?” he whispered to her.
The guard stopped and looked around suspiciously. Natasha didn’t dare breathe. A moment later, a man in a shiny blue suit stuck his head in the tent. “Hey, what’s taking so long? Feed the bear already and go clean out the elephant’s cage.”
The guard dropped the electric prod. “Oh, uh, I’m almost done, boss. Be right there.”
The boss left. The guard dumped a can of dog food into a bowl and shoved it into the bear’s cage. The bear didn’t walk over to his bowl until the guard left.
Tears came to Natasha’s eyes as she gazed at the bear making its way dejectedly to his bowl. “Don’t worry, we’re going to get you out of his awful place,” Natasha thought to herself.
“Who the fuck just said that?” a voice growled in her head.
Natasha clapped her hand over her mouth. “I did!” she answered in her head.
“A girl’s voice. I don’t see no lady around here.”
Yorgo looked excitedly at Natasha. Natasha nodded at him. They carefully crawled through the opening and stood in front of Salty.
“Salty, don’t be afraid. My name is Natasha. This is Yorgo. We’re going to rescue you.”
The sun bear stared at Natasha a moment, and then began eating his food. “I don’t care what the fuck your names are if you got better grub than this place.”
Salty the Sun Bear sat on his back haunches, looking grumpy. He knew the closest thing to freedom would be his in a few minutes, but he still distrusted humans in the back of his mind. Natasha seemed to be different, it was true, but he would withhold hope until he was in the getaway car. His odious guard finally left the tent. It was exactly 9:50 at night and the guard was off to drink late happy hour Tecate tall boys at the dive bar down the road. Salty attempted to hide his pleasure at seeing Natasha and Yorgo come into his view. He snorted and stuck out his ludicrously long tongue at his rescuers. Natasha smiled at him. She knew that underneath his prickly, sarcastic demeanor, Salty was feeling something akin to joy at the moment.
The rescue itself was simple. Yorgo took the ring of keys from the desk. “Salty says it’s the middle key,” Natasha told him. As soon as they had opened the metal door, Salty dropped to all fours and sashayed out of his cell. Yorgo and Natasha quickly ran ahead of him to the van and opened the back door.
“He’s surprisingly adorable,” Yorgo said.
Salty grunted. Natasha heard Salty’s gravelly voice in her head. “Adorable my ass! There had better be tater tots in the car or I’ll claw his face off!”
Yorgo looked to Natasha. “What is he thinking right now?” he asked.
Natasha looked away. “Oh, um, he’s thinking about how he wants a nap, and some-uh- tater tots.” she said. Natasha wouldn’t be able to hide Salty’s true sentiments from Yorgo for much longer.
“I thought sun bears were supposed to eat honey and bugs,” Yorgo commented as he started the van. The bear clamored for food in Natasha’s head until she finally gave in and asked Yorgo to make a pit stop at a road-side tavern. Soon, Salty was bent over his deep-fried potatoes.
Salty’s inner monologue continued as he licked his dangerous claws with his comically long tongue. “What does that guy want from me? You think those nincompoops who imprisoned me were into proper animal nutrition? I ate carny food and freakin’ Alpo, genius. You know what would go well with this? A nice IPA.”
Natasha took in Salty’s rant. She turned to Yorgo and shrugged. “He never developed a taste for termites.”
In the following week, as Yorgo made repairs and modifications on his trailers and cages, readying them for the tour, Natasha spent all her time with Salty. She knew under his thorny exterior was an abused, misunderstood animal. Luckily for both of them, he was a quick learner when it came to memorizing his act and cues.
Over that week, Natasha also learned more about Yorgo. Under his slightly stiff exterior lay a wicked sense of humor. The first few times it made an appearance she hadn’t been sure if he was joking or not. Part of her worried about skipping her classes but she couldn’t stay away from the gang at Lazlo’s. When she wasn’t at Sunshine Doughnuts, she was out back helping Yorgo with the animals or doing something to help him get back on the road. One day, Yorgo painted the caravan. It was a beautiful apple red with little shutters and wooden fretwork all over. “Yorgo’s Traveling Wondershow,” was emblazoned on the side.
He turned to look at her. “You know we could add your name here, too.”
Natasha stared at him, truly confused “My name?”
Yorgo set the brush down, sat on the steps of the caravan and patted the space next to him. She joined him. Yorgo looked more serious than she’d seen him in days. “Natasha, you could bring a whole new life to this show. You could see the world and learn so much more about your gifts. You are wasted in this town. They will never understand someone like you.”
Natasha pictured her name alongside Yorgo’s for a moment. She couldn’t help thinking about life on the road. She shook her head as if trying to dispel the images. “Oh, Yorgo, that’s very kind of you. But what on earth would I do? I’ve just started a whole new life here with school and Tom and my apartment. I have obligations to my family. Besides, the minute I leave school, I’ll be penniless.”
“Money,” Yorgo snorted. “There’s always money to be made if you want it. Think of the animals. You could help more like Salty. You could be more than an animal trainer, you could be an animal savior. You have a gift Natasha, don’t turn your back on it.”
He looked so sincere she couldn’t bring herself to turn him down flat. Natasha sighed deeply. “I’ll think about it.”
“Think quickly,” Yorgo replied. “We leave in three days.”
The next morning, Natasha woke up to silence. Normally, Tom hummed Yankee Doodle Dandy until she was fully awake. Then he licked his whiskers and asked politely for his can of breakfast tuna. Natasha couldn’t even hear Tom’s paws padding across the bedroom floor. Maybe he had climbed down the fire escape to indulge in a rare desire for hunting? Natasha’s stomach began to feel heavy as she finished getting dressed. Tom was still nowhere to be found or heard. “Tom, where are you?” she thought, trying to send out a distress call. She realized she hadn’t looked out the windows all morning, avoiding the view, as if the silence inside told her all she needed to know. She stepped carefully across the bare floor in her fuzzy socks. On the street below she saw a crumpled orange ball. Running down the stairs to the sidewalk outside, she knew Tom was already gone before she reached his body. She kneeled next to Tom. “Be okay, just be okay! I’ll get you to a vet, everything will be better,” she pleaded. She picked up Tom’s limp body, cold but not yet rigid. She held him curled in her lap, as if he were napping. His clouded eyes and the blood drying around his ear pulled Natasha out of her reverie.
Natasha pulled the curtains open and looked out the caravan window. If she saw one more cornfield she was going to scream. Yorgo said they’d take a rest stop in about an hour or the next town, whichever came first. Natasha didn’t like touring the Midwest. She looked forward to the cooler weather of the North. The animals would be much happier too. Natasha took out her tarot cards and began to lay them on the table in front of her. As she revealed the fifth card from the deck, she stopped. She held The Magician for a few seconds before she gathered the rest of the cards and put them back in the box. She smiled at the thought of an obscured future.
© 2013 Thea Constantine, Stephanie Golisch, Luna Nova