An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Sarah Busse
Sidney Lendon’s children had all outgrown zoos, while he had not. When he brandished the freshly purchased map of the United States in January and announced that “this summer, the Lendons are going to road trip around the US!” his announcement was met with only lackluster enthusiasm from his two children, and a knowing glance from his wife. When he cleaned out the Motorhome, tucked inside its small storage bay, sweating as he tried to navigate the tiny hallway between the pushed-in dinette table and the sharp corner of the slab of Formica that served as a kitchen counter, his wife came in and sat on the edge of the double bed.
“What will we do on this road trip?” she asked.
“Well, that still takes some planning,” he’d said. “We could fit in some visits to your folks, maybe your sister in Des Moines. We could get a Disney fix, stop in Disneyworld or Disneyland. Maybe both!” He was dusting the cabinets. With every sweep of the washcloth, a fine powder came drifting through the air. He fought the urge to sneeze.
“And you’ll go to your zoos,” she finished his unsaid thought.
He shrugged and tried to make it seem nonchalant. “If there’s time. You and Marley and Curtis could come with.”
“There’s only so many zoos they can take,” she murmured, and Sid felt his heart do its familiar sink.
As Sid pressed the button that would release the pop-out from its stays, the now familiar whine filled the air. He felt a chill creep down his spine as he checked the Motorhome blocks, looked at measures for the pumps, then fired up the tiny stovetop to make bacon for breakfast. They’d pulled into Little Rock around 3 AM. Lisa, Marley, and Curtis had all been asleep. The chills had started around then. Sid couldn’t seem to shake them.
Lisa emerged from the bathroom and lifted an elbow to allow Marley, their thirteen-year-old, to speed past her and shut the bathroom door behind her. “Woah!” she said with a laugh. “Where’s the fire?”
“She’s been complaining about you using up all the hot water,” Curtis, fifteen, said from the couch that doubled as a futon. He didn’t look up from his cell phone as he continued. “Same complaints as back home.”
“Play nice,” Lisa warned.
“Hot water shouldn’t be a problem,” Sid chimed in. “I checked the pumps this morning. Everything’s fine.” His reassurance was met with silence.
“What are everyone’s plans?” Sid asked, as the first piece of bacon sizzled in the pan. He had to speak over the fan, which he’d had to turn on full blast so that smoke wouldn’t drift up and trip the fire alarm.
Curtis shrugged and sighed. Lisa was quiet a moment. “Not really sure,” she said. “I don’t think any of us slept very well. We might just take it easy, do some grocery shopping. I think a movie came out yesterday that the kids are interested in seeing.”
Sid felt himself getting frustrated. “Well, we only have three days here. Don’t you want to see if there are any museums? There’s a dam a short drive from here. Curtis could get some practice in, drive us all in the Jeep there…”
“I’m just kind of tired,” Curtis said, and let the sentence flop.
“Me too!” came Marley’s voice from inside the bathroom.
Sid sighed. He knew it came out too loud, too exasperated, by the way Lisa shot him a look over her small, light-up vanity mirror, which she was using to apply her makeup.
“Well I’d like to do something today.” Sid felt his sentence again lead into silence, and felt his frustration mount.
“Go ahead and go to the zoo, Dad,” Curtis said. “We know it’s what you want to do.”
Sid swallowed his disappointment, and another chill, as he slid the first few pieces of bacon onto a paper towel-lined plate. The grease soon soaked the towel straight through.
Walking up to the ticket counter for the Little Rock Zoo, Sid felt five-years old again. The wrought iron front gates, “LITTLE ROCK ZOO” printed ominously in black, the little iron Rhino figure touching its nose to the top of the “R”: it was all the same.
Thank God he didn’t recognize the woman behind the ticket counter, although he didn’t know why he would. “BECKY” her nametag read. She had red hair, pulled into a ponytail. Her bangs were plastered to her forehead with sweat.
“Welcome to the Little Rock Zoo!” she chirped, her voice crackled slightly from the speaker. “Are you here for Four Dollar Friday?”
“Um, I guess,” Sid managed. He pulled four wrinkled, one dollar bills from his wallet and passed them to Becky through the metal bowl, cut out from the glass partition.
“Thanks!” She said, and ripped off the ticket, passing it to him in the bowl. Sid nodded, stuffed the ticket into his pocket along with his hands, and walked into the zoo’s entry plaza. Giant, colorful canvas tarps stretched across the amphitheater directly ahead of him. When he was a child, they hadn’t existed. Or had it been under construction the last time he’d visited? God, was that a long time ago. He still felt the arms around his midsection, lifting him so he could better see over the guardrail for the wolf exhibit — his favorite animal. He could still feel his eyes grow wide over a stick of cotton candy proffered to him, a pink translucent cloud smelling of sugar and leaving his fingers sticky.
A violent chill swept down his back, and he visibly shivered. It was the dead of summer, and people were pouring in from the zoo’s front gates around him, like a stream divided around a boulder. Women pulled their kids away from him, probably seeing that he had no kids clinging to him, and probably seeing the frightened, tight look around his eyes.
Sid forced himself to walk forward. Clockwise. Travel the zoo clockwise, and don’t skip an exhibit. That was his method, how he explored every zoo. Every one since he was five and last left this one.
The antique carousel warbled its carnival music as he passed. Parents stood beside toddlers strapped onto the plastic seats of garish horses as they swooped up the curve of the carousel’s unique path.
“Look at this picture, Sidney! See all the horsies? This picture was taken almost forty years ago!”
He could anticipate the chill this time, and let it quietly pass. That picture was probably still there, on the same plaque set in front of the queue. Now it would have been taken over eighty years ago.
A woman, dressed in a zoo employee uniform — red shirt short sleeve shirt over a long sleeved black one, and black pants — pushed a large cage through the plaza, smiling at the children suddenly craning their necks to see what was in the cage. Through the slits punched in the tough plastic casing, Sid saw two unblinking, black eyes, and the top of a heart-shaped face.
Without another thought, Sid followed the employee as she wheeled the owl in its cage down a narrow path, past the Lorikeet exhibit. Only when she paused to unlock a gate labeled “EMPLOYEES ONLY,” did she turn and see him.
Her expression flashed with annoyance and then suspicion, but she quickly masked it. “Can I help you?” she didn’t move to retrieve the keys clasped to her belt. Briefly, Sid imagined that this is how she might approach a frightened animal: no sudden movements, calm voice.
“I’m sorry!” All of a sudden, Sid was horrified. He’d followed this woman from the main flow of zoo traffic. She must have thought he was going to attack her. “I just-it’s been a while since I’ve been to this zoo. My babysitter-” He swallowed past the quick lump in his throat. “That was my babysitter’s favorite animal. A barn owl, right?”
“Right. This is Lola.” She tapped the top of the cage lightly. Lola shuffled inside.
“I’m just feeding her before our first Birds of Prey show at eleven.”
“Of course. So sorry about this. I don’t know what I–like I said, I just thought it was a barn owl,” he started stepping backward, and took his hands out of his pockets. See, look: non-threatening.
“Mom!” a young girl’s voice reached them at the same time. They both turned to the source: a young girl, younger than Marley, rounding the curve from which they’d just traveled. Her long brown hair was pulled into two braids that lay against her bony shoulders. She wore glasses and scuffed corduroy pants. She carried a well-worn, large hardcover book in both arms, hugging it to her chest. Detailed, pencil drawings of birds graced the cover.
The girl stopped upon seeing Sid. She tilted her head and squinted at him.
“What is it, Emily?” the employee asked.
“I told Dennis that he was an Oriole and he said he wanted to be a Lorikeet! I told him he didn’t get to choose and he shoved me!”
“He did? Well, where is Dennis now?”
“With his dad. I went right over to him at the amphitheater and told him what Dennis did.”
“Honey, I told you: you can’t just get people in trouble like that! You come to me, and then I will take care of it.”
“But I did come to you.” Emily looked confused. Her head was still tilted to the side and she looked back at her mother, unblinking.
The employee sighed, then suddenly seemed to notice Side again. “I’m sorry sir–”
“What’s your name?” Emily asked.
Both Sid and the employee looked back at her.
“Honey–” the employee began.
“No, it’s alright,” Sid said, putting on a smile, still trying to seem non-threatening. He turned to Emily. “My name is Sid.”
“No, you’re full name.”
“Emily!” her mother said, admonishing.
“Sorry. May I ask you what your full name is, Sid?”
“Um, it’s actually Sidney Everette Lendon. If you wanted all three,” Sid said, taken aback.
“You ‘re a Brown Snake-Eagle, Sidney Everette Lendon.” Emily said, still clutching the book to her chest, still looking at him with her head cocked to the side.
“Really?” Sid said. He crouched down and winced. When had his knees and back begun to hurt at the same time? When had he begun to feel old? When he walked through the front gates? “I would have expected a crane, or a…what’s that other tall one? A heron.”
“No. You’re a Brown Snake-Eagle.”
“Well, I’m afraid I don’t know what that is,”
Emily looked up at him incredulously. Sid realized he was talking to her the way he would a five-year-old — soft voice, smiling face, almost in that sickly way people talk to pets — and Emily clearly wasn’t buying it.
She sighed and pulled the book from her chest, then flipped a few pages until it was right where she wanted it. She turned the book around and pushed its pages toward him.
“A Brown Snake-Eagle,” she said. On the page in question was a brown eagle, drawn with mottled brown and white feathers, with a bushy collection of feathers on its head. The artist had drawn it from multiple sides: perched, in flight, head on, and finally stretching its claws out to capture a small gray mouse.
“Well, uh, thank you.” Sid said, clearing his throat. Not sure what to make of being compared to a fluffy eagle, he let a silence stretch between them.
Emily turned the book back around, then shut it. She clutched it to her chest again. “Mom’s a Harpy Eagle, and Dave is an Osprey. That’s mom’s boyfriend.”
“Emily,” her mother cautioned. Emily rolled her eyes in response and ran back down the path, her braids swinging loosely behind her.
“Don’t get me started on what’s behind her calling me a harpy.” The employee said. Sid turned, surprised to see a smile on her face. “Luckily, she doesn’t quite get that one yet.”
“She uh, reminds me of my own kids.”
“Yeah, they, uh–” are difficult as well? Give me attitude? “They latched onto things as kids too. With Curtis it was space. Marley loved horses.”
“Mom!” Emily came careening up the path again. “Are you going to feed Lola?”
“Yes I am.”
“Can I come help?”
“Of course you can.”
“Can Sidney come, too?”
“No honey, Sidney is–”
“Can he come watch? Just behind the fence? He can sit where the kids on field trips sit when they watch.”
“Please?” Emily lay it on thick, cocking her head again and smiling, looking angelic.
Her mother looked at the watch on her wrist and sighed loudly. “Fine. You show him where to stand though.”
Emily looked genuinely pleased. “Come on Sid!” she said, beckoning to him with one arm.
Her mother reached for her keys and unlocked the gate. As she pushed Lola and her cage, Emily began to babble behind her.
“So what’s a harpy, then?”
As Emily’s mother — Justine, she’d told him — began chopping meat and measuring supplements into a bowl, Lola, released from her cage and into a larger enclosure complete with branches for perching, hopped and lightly hooted occasionally, eyes on the food intended for her. Emily chattered constantly to Sid, sitting on a bench behind a rail a good dozen yards away from the bird enclosures.
“Mom’s a trainer. She works with the birds in the show and she even gets to wear a microphone and talk to the audience, telling them all about the birds’ tricks and what they’re like in the wild. Lola is actually from Arkansas, born in captivity on a farm that also uses the owls to keep vermin from their cornfields.”
Sid felt himself harshly, forcefully, thrown back in time.
He was seven. Ava had taken him to the corn maze and pumpkin patch an hour from his house. He’d fought with her in the car, saying he was too old for a babysitter. She just laughed and continued to joke with him, but looking back now, what really danced in her eyes was pain and hurt at his comments.
They pulled into a gravel parking lot, the tires crunching to a stop. He’d hopped out before her, determined to prove that he didn’t need her help. Not with anything.
“You want to pick out a pumpkin first? Or do the maze?”
“Let’s do the maze. It’s supposed to close down in a couple of hours so they can turn it into a haunted corn maze. We don’t want to get caught up in that!” She tugged on his stupid hat with the orange pom-pom on the top that his mother forced him to wear when he went outside. Therefore, Ava insisted he wear it too. He shied away from her touch.
“Haunted corn maze would be cool,” he muttered.
Ava rolled her eyes exaggeratedly. “Okay tough guy. Stick around while I get us tickets.”
Sid immediately wandered, standing on the edge of the pumpkin patch and looking out over the undisturbed cornfields waving into infinity past the orderly rows of gourds and the sharp edge of the maze. He peeled a trampled ear of corn from the mud at the patch’s entrance. He lifted it up to sniff. Did it still smell like regular corn? Or would it smell dead, like something other than corn.
“Don’t eat that!” Ava laughed as she approached.
“I wasn’t going to eat it!” Sid felt his ears redden. “I’m not a baby!”
“I know that, Sid,” she said, pursing her lips. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, her hair long and loose around her shoulders. “Still friends?” she stuck out a hand, an old game of theirs: handshake then fist bump to reestablish the peace. He gave her a halfhearted one of each.
“Try this instead,” she said, and held out a small white paper sack, speckles of grease staining the bottom. “They were selling apple cider doughnuts. I bought us some.”
“Thanks,” he mumbled, still trying to act tough. But they were good. He wolfed two down before they got to the entrance to the maze, and Ava handed him a napkin to wipe the cinnamon sugar from his face and hands.
“Let’s split up!” he said, as soon as they were past the ticket taker and rounded the first bend. Corn had been removed and replaced with a fine layer of hay. Many feet had trampled it to mix with the mud. Their boots sucked at the ground as they walked into a broad clearing, three paths open before them.
“Come on, Ava!” He hated the whine in his voice. “We can race to see who can get through it first!”
“Sid, no!” her voice sharpened, and Sid stopped, anger rising in him immediately.
“Listen,” she said, bending over to get level with him. He hated it when she did that. “We’ll go through it together. But it’s going to be super easy to get lost in here – it’s a maze, that’s what they designed it to do! But I won’t hold your hand if you don’t want me to.”
“I don’t,” Sid said, quickly.
“Okay,” she straightened up again. “Which way do you want to go?”
Without a word, Sid began to trudge into the middle passage. Ava followed dutifully behind. She followed silently when he picked the next three turns, when he answered the first trivia question and led them to the right, when they were met with a solid wall of corn, a sign cheerfully boasting “TRY AGAIN!” planted in the muck.
When they got to a fork, Ava stopped him. “Okay, how about this: I’ll take one way, you take the other. But we have to keep in contact.”
“We should have brought walkie talkies,” he said.
Her face broke into a smile. “Good idea! We’ll do that next time. But for now let’s stick to an oldie but goodie: Marco Polo. So when I call ‘Marco,’ you have to say ‘Polo,’ right back, got it?”
He nodded, suddenly a little excited.
“But don’t play any tricks,” she held up a finger. “You have to say it back. If I get too far away and can’t hear you, I’m going to double-back until I can. We’ll take it slow. Deal?”
Another handshake. Another fist bump.
“I’ll take left, you take right?” Sid nodded, and they struck out.
Every few seconds, a “Marco!” would sound and Sid would reply.
“Marco!” came Ava’s voice, somewhere to his left.
“Polo!” he hollered.
“Marco!” this time further away.
“Polo!” he said after a moments hesitation, after getting confused where the path was truly going.
“Marco!” Ava said, a little closer.
“Marco!” Ava said, and suddenly rounded a corner to end up in front of him.
“Oops!” she laughed. The path shot off again in three directions.
“I’ll take this one,” she pointed to the left.
“I’ll do this one,” he said, and pointed to the right one.
Ava raised an eyebrow. “Either of us gets too far away, we double-back, okay?”
“Okay,” he said.
“Marco!” she called a few moments later. Sid responded with a yelp, the mud having sucked his boot from his foot momentarily.
“You okay?” came the faint inquiry.
“Fine. Polo!” he said, as he stuffed his foot back into his boot. She’d sounded further ahead, and he hurried to catch up.
“Marco!” Still up ahead.
“Polo!” he pressed on, walking as quickly as he could without slipping.
“Marco!” The path must be veering even further to the left.
“Polo!” he tried to shout louder.
“Marco!” her voice sounded closer. Sid felt himself grinning.
“Polo!” he said more quietly.
“Marco?” she hadn’t heard him.
He let the moments drift on.
“Sid, you promised! Marco!” her voice drifted higher into a warning.
“Sid!” came her more panicked cry. Sid thought she was behind him by now.
“Polo!” he called. Moments passed, and his boots sucked away in the mud. He came to the fourth trivia question. When had they passed the second and third? Unless Ava had passed them and hadn’t said anything.
“Ava!” he shouted, “I found question number four!”
“Polo!” he cried, then after a few tense seconds. “Marco?”
“Ava?” he shouted, louder. He felt sorry for teasing her earlier. He should have said “Polo!” right away.
A rustling came from his left, and he whipped around to meet it. A family with two small children came into the clearing. They were laughing. “Is this number four?” the father asked.
Sid didn’t answer him. He turned and ran, slipping in the mud down the path he had just come. All the while he was trying to retrace his steps, he called out “Polo! Polo! Polo!”
When he arrived back to where they’d first met up, there was no sign of her.
Without hesitation, he started down her path, the left one. It was less familiar, and twice he fell on his side in the mud, streaking his jacket with brown.
“AVA!” he was finally screaming. “Ava where are you?”
Nothing. With even more panic, he noticed the darkening sky. He really didn’t want to be stuck in a haunted corn maze. He was just kidding before.
Wait for her. That was always her rule. If they got separated, wait somewhere they’d agreed on. But they hadn’t picked a spot in the corn maze! Sid thought of the aerial view of the maze she’d shown him on the website: the corn cut into shapes, a witch on a broom, an owl to her left, with extra bends and turns in the empty spots. He’d boasted that it would be no sweat: he’d get out of there in no time.
So he slipped and slid back to where they’d separated. He sat, regardless of the mud, and clenched his arms around his knees. He was crying, snot pouring out of his nose and onto his jacket when a man with a flashlight came trudging past.
“Hey! Kid, what are you doing here? You lost?”
He’d cried even harder.
When his parents arrived, he cried again. Three times in one night. But he couldn’t find it in himself to feel like a baby. The owners had taken his coat so they could wash it the best they could, and given him a wool blanket to wrap around his shoulders. The wool was itchy on his skin and the hot cocoa they’d given him had gone cold. When he pointed to Ava’s car, still parked in the gravel parking lot, he could see his parents’ faces go paler, saw his father detach himself from then to call someone.
“Sidney?” Emily’s voice broke through. He looked at her blearily.
“This is a Harpy Eagle,” she said, pushing the book toward him, acting as if he hadn’t been ignoring her. “Doesn’t it look like mom?” It was a giant, gray and white bird. The author had taken great pains to illustrate how the feathers on the top of its head stood up when it was startled.
“Yeah, it does,” he said, not really seeing it. “Thank you, Emily, for showing me what your mom does, and your book…” He felt like he was stumbling over himself when he got up and turned back to the gate.
“Sidney?” Emily was calling to him. Justine turned to them from Lola’s enclosure gate. The owl was hopping on one leg, and let out a sharp hoot, impatient.
“Thank you,” he stammered.
They’d brought him into the kitchen after school one day. They’d sat him down at the table where he ate Pop-Tarts for breakfast and did his homework each night. They explained that someone very bad had taken Ava, and they’d found her. He’d been so excited. Then they said that someone very bad had hurt her, and that Ava wasn’t going to be coming back.
Marley had understood death when her guinea pig died in the fourth grade. Curtis learned it at an earlier age, when they found him trying to revive his beta fish, who had somehow jumped out of its tank while he was at soccer practice. But Sid learned it with Ava.
He trudged aimlessly around the Little Rock Zoo. Orangutans, giant tortoises, the penguins; he disregarded his own clockwise rule.
At eleven, he sat woodenly on a bench, watching the Birds of Prey show, as Justine spouted facts about the birds. When the kids near him shrank back from the low-flying birds, he felt the whoosh of their wings and glanced briefly overhead, unfazed.
He left the amphitheater slowly, looking around him without seeing things. Mothers again tightened their grip on their children. What’s so scary about me? He thought. I’m not the one you should be worried about.
The smell of doughnuts and the sound of his own children playing Marco Polo sent those chills down his back still. Years later, when he felt he was ready, he did a Google search on her. Ava Thurston. Found November fourth in someone’s front yard. Suspected to be the fourth victim of a serial killer they’d never found. The Autumn Reaper, they’d called him.
It never seemed like Ava. The smiling school picture they put on the FBI websites and news articles. Sid remembered her taking him to the zoo, to the wolves, holding him around his stomach so he could see the animals better, the smell of her rose shampoo, her spearmint gum.
“Mr. Lendon?” Sid turned. Justine stood there with her hands on Emily’s shoulders. “Emily was hoping we’d track you down. We were just short of calling over the zoo’s loudspeaker for you.”
“You were,” Emily said. “I knew he’d come to the show. He said Lola was his favorite.”
Justine gave her a stern look for talking back. Emily held out a piece of paper.
Sid saw his hand reach out and take it. Bringing it closer, he realized it was the page from her book. The bird that looked like him. The Brown Snake-Eagle.
“Thank you, Emily,” he said, touched.
“You’re welcome,” Emily said, suddenly shy. She escaped her mother’s grasp and strode away.
“You should feel lucky. She doesn’t deface her books for just anyone,” Emily said. She gave him a smile, an awkward wave, and was gone.
Sid didn’t dare crease the page. He brought it out to his car in the parking lot and placed it carefully on the passenger seat. When he got to the Motorhome, he took it out and placed it in between the pages of a dictionary, an aid for Boggle and Scrabble games, and one of the few books on the scant shelves in the Motorhome’s interior.
He grabbed the last Coke from the fridge and tried to think if Ava drank soda. If she ate healthy or snacked on junk food.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it Sid” she asked. The barn owl blinked at them balefully, and Sid felt as if it were looking straight at him.
“It’s scary!” he said, gripping her hand tighter.
“No,” she said, almost sitting so that she was eye level. “It’s beautiful. Barn owls are so useful to farmers, and look! Its face is the shape of a heart!”
Sid was quiet, and only hugged her neck in response. She laughed and wrapped her arms around him too, grunting as she lifted him and stood.
“You’re getting too big for this, little man! Soon you’ll have to carry me!”
That got him to laugh.
The sound of voices nearing the Motorhome shook him out of it this time.
His wife and kids topped the hill. Sid watched as Marley laughed at something Curtis was showing her on his cell phone. Lisa reshouldered her purse and squinted through her glasses to peer at what they were looking at. Robin, Sid thought. Blue jay. And a snowy owl.
© 2013 Sarah Busse