Patricia Wiggins walked the six blocks home after working the graveyard shift at St. Raphael’s General Hospital. It was a few minutes past 6am so she didn’t worry much about walking alone; by her estimation even criminals had to sleep sometime. An icy wind sliced down the dark boulevard, and she turned up the collar of her wool coat to keep it at bay. Nothin’ to bother me ‘cept the wind, she thought.
She was a block away from the warmth of her apartment and the company of her overweight tabby, BB, when a greasy arm shot out of an alley and latched onto the sleeve of her coat. He came out of the shadows, all scabs and bloodshot eyes. A rusty knife with a duct-taped handle hung from his other hand. “Gimme your stuff, bitch,” he said through cracked lips.
Patricia cursed herself for carrying her pepper spray in her purse instead of her coat pocket like she should have. She let her purse slip down the length of her arm and was about to hand it over when Greasy Arm said, “Uh-uh, bitch, all your stuff.” Brandishing the knife millimeters from her cheek, he pulled her close. His breath was a corpse’s wet turd.
She wanted to scream but couldn’t. She closed her eyes for a brief moment and when she opened them, Greasy Arm was on the ground, both arms bent at grotesque angles, his nose smashed flat. And then she was staring at an unassuming, stocky man who stomped on the corroded blade, shattering it. A navy baseball cap was pulled low over his eyes so she couldn’t quite make out his face. His hands were buried in the pockets of his matching navy utility coat. A small patch on the left side of it said Corporal City Zoo.
“Who are you?” she said.
The corners of his mouth turned upward ever so slightly. “I keep the animals in check, lady. I’m the zookeeper.” His voice was warm and slick. It sounded the tiniest bit familiar but she couldn’t place it.
Before she could respond, he turned and disappeared down the same alley Greasy Arm had come from.
When Patricia got home, BB was spread out on the couch, supine but awake. She took off her coat, sat next to the chubby feline, picked him up and hugged him. She said, “You ain’t gonna believe what just happened to me, Buddy Boy.”
Later than day, Mr. Greasy Arm, known to the other fiends on Broadus Road as Roy “Fish” Frye, slogged out of St. Raph’s Emergency Room. Both of his arms were in casts and a bulky splint was taped over his nose.
He dug around in the pocket of his grimy hooded sweatshirt and came up with the small bottle of Percocet the ER doc had given him. Fish thanked God that he was wearing said sweatshirt because it was the only article of clothing he owned with a pocket big enough to accommodate his casted arms. Seemed he’d be wearing that particular hoodie a lot for the next few weeks.
As he thumbed one of the five Percs into his mouth and dry swallowed it, he tried to recall as much of the previous hours as he could. Fish worked especially hard to conjure up the face of the prick who’d busted his arms and nose. However, the perpetual haze that was his memory made that difficult.
He’d heard the rumors, the whisperings about the zookeeper, the local vigilante who would pounce on you if you misbehaved. Fish recalled one particular story he’d heard from another junkie named Marsh who had been on the nod at the time. Come to think of it, Fish thought. So was I.
“I seen a guy with his whole face punched in,” Marsh had said. “Said he’d robbed the Snappy-Mart, the one up on Reese? Said this guy with a hat on just come out of nowhere, started beatin’ on him, took the cash, and that was it. Come to find out the guy with the hat returned the money to the store. And the guy’s coat? It had a Corp City Zoo patch on it, man, like he was a zookeeper or somethin’. Strange world, man, strange world.”
Strange world, indeed.
Even stranger that the zookeeper rumors had apparently been true.
Who was this guy, Fish wondered. And why the hell couldn’t he leave well enough alone?
“Messin’ with the natural order never amounts to shit,” Fish mumbled, feeling the opiate wave of the Perc wash over him. Fish thought Mr. Zookeeper ought to know better, that he should recognize that Corp City was no place to play cowboy.
Fish struggled to come up with some idea of who it was who’d fucked him up but nothing came. One minute he was pulling that fine-looking bitch toward him and was on his way to breaking off a piece and then bam, he’s on the ground with two useless salamis for arms and breathing through his mouth because his nose wasn’t an option. He saw that hat and matching coat though. And the zoo patch, he’d definitely seen that.
There was something else though, something on the very edge of his mind. Fish closed his eyes and focused on it. Was it something the guy said after he laid me out? While he couldn’t think of the exact words the guy used – other than something about keeping animals in check, whatever the fuck that meant – he did remember the tone of the guy’s voice. The guy had a voice that could melt butter, Fish was sure of that much.
Shaking his head, Fish continued past the hospital, back home toward Broadus Road.
He put his casted arms inside his hoodie pocket and grasped the pill bottle, secure in the fact that at least he had his high for the day. Fish was reveling in that tiny victory when his shoulder hit somebody else’s. He looked at the burly man who’d run into him.
The fireplug said, “Sorry, animal.”
“S’okay,” Fish said. He did a double take and narrowed his eyes. “Wait, what’d you say?”
“I said sorry, man.”
Fish looked the fireplug over. He appeared to be in his 30s, had a receding hairline that said as much. What hair he had was slicked straight back. His navy peacoat was hanging open, and Fish could see what looked like a khaki work shirt that matched the guy’s khaki pants. Aside from the duffel bag hanging from the guy’s shoulder, the fireplug looked like some dumbshit janitor.
Fish nodded and blinked. “Uh, yeah, right, no problem, man.”
The fireplug smiled, turned, and walked toward the hospital.
Fish started back toward home when he swore he heard the fireplug say, “Be seein’ ya” in that same slick-ass, melted-butter voice as the zookeeper. He turned around and the fireplug was gone. He shook his head and plodded down the street. Maybe I’ll lay off the Percs for the rest of the day, he thought. I’m hearin’ things.
Months earlier, Victor Plintz was handing out candy to schoolchildren. The kids were pouring out of a school in Afghanistan. He handed each child a piece of candy, digging into the pockets of his fatigues to get more. Out of nowhere a car exploded, obliterating the kids and some nearby soldiers. As he was thrown off his feet, machine gun fire erupted, tearing into more soldiers. The gunfire thundered, and the soldiers, blood pouring from their eye sockets, were howling, “Pliiiiiintz! Pliiiiiintz!” Victor looked down and saw one of the soldiers, his lower jaw obliterated and his lifeless tongue lolling out like a meaty pink ribbon, poking at his feet. He gasped and his eyes popped open.
He looked at his feet and saw the end of a nightstick prodding them. The nightstick was jutting through the bars of his jail cell. The nightstick was attached to a guard named Maggs.
“Plintz. Plintz,” Maggs said, his voice flat.
“Yeah, whatisit?” Victor sat up, rubbing his throbbing jaw. He’d been grinding his teeth again.
“Got a visitor.” Maggs opened the cell door.
Sighing, Victor got out of his bunk and exited the cell. He walked a few feet ahead of Maggs as they made their way toward the visitor area.
Walking past the other cells, Victor picked up scraps of conversation. His ears perked up when he heard somebody say, “Yo, I’m sayin’, you know how a bus stop has those glass walls with, you know, pictures and shit on ‘em? Zookeeper put my boy through one of those. Just for grabbin’ some bitch’s bag! And check this shit out: my man stabbed that muh’fucka, you know, ‘fore he got thrown through the glass, and the zookeeper just walked it off like it was nothin’!”
It wasn’t the first time Victor had heard about this elusive zookeeper, the bogeyman who seemed to have Corp City criminals spooked; he’d heard other cons talk about the guy as if he were some kind of fucking superhero. Only this zookeeper sounds like a chump, Victor thought. Who the fuck wears a zookeeper uniform to fight crime anyway? Wouldn’t catch Batman wearing a get-up like that.
When they arrived at the outer door of the visitor area, Maggs knocked on the adjacent window behind which sat a guard at a desk. He nodded at Maggs, buzzed the door open, and, through the crackling speaker, said, “Booth 5, Plintz.” Victor walked through the door, went past the other booths occupied with cons visiting with their loved ones, got to booth 5 and sat down on the cold metal stool. In front of him, on the other side of the safety glass, sat his father, Francis, who already had the phone, which was attached to the booth wall, against his ear.
Every week, Victor walked from his cell to the visitor area and every week during that five-minute walk he thought that maybe it’d be somebody different. A buddy from the Marines, maybe. Every week he thought, Maybe it won’t be him. You never know. Every week though, much to his chagrin, Victor was greeted by his father, a smile on his wrinkled face.
That smile. That stupid fucking smile. If not for that smile, Victor might have been able to muster a modicum of tolerance for his father’s visits. Why did Francis insist on looking like he was attending a carnival when he visited? I’m in jail, Victor thought. Save the smile for when there’s something to be happy about, like when I get the fuck out of this dump.
His lips in a tight line, Victor groaned, picked up the phone, and put it to his ear.
“Hey, boyo,” Francis said, still smiling.
“Hey, Dad,” Victor said.
“How you doing?”
Victor shrugged. “Okay, I guess.”
“Just okay huh?”
Victor had endured this every week for almost five months. He couldn’t take it for another seven. “Why do you keep coming here, Dad?”
Francis’s mouth, which was starting to arrange itself into a frown, opened and closed.
“We go though this every week,” Victor said. “I tell you not to come, you pretend you don’t hear me, and you keep showing up. Why?”
Francis couldn’t meet his son’s gaze. “I just…wanna see you is all.”
“Yeah, well, I want spaghetti and meatballs.”
Francis looked up and grinned. “Food that bad, huh?”
Like his father had done to him in the weeks prior, Victor acted as if he hadn’t heard him. “I’m gonna say this once. You come back next week, I’m not coming out to see you. I’ve had it.”
If Francis were a balloon floating peacefully in a cool breeze, Victor would be the asshole kid who yanks it down and pops it. The old man sighed. “Alright, Vic, you win. I won’t come back.” He paused. “Call me every once in a while though, okay? You know I worry.”
“We’ll see. Phone time ain’t easy to come by around here,” Victor lied.
Francis nodded. “Okay, well, I love you, kid. Keep your head down in there.” A hangdog look on his face, Francis hung up the phone, picked up his coat, and walked toward the door. Francis was putting on his coat as he walked through the door and Victor glimpsed the embroidered patch on the front. It said: CORPORAL CITY ZOO.
Victor stared at the door as he slowly hung up the phone. He’d completely forgotten that his father had worked at the zoo. Maybe the old man knew something about that zookeeper person the cons talked about, maybe he had some idea who the vigilante was. Of course I think of something to talk about after I tell him to leave, Victor thought. He shook his head and trudged back to his cell.
Every week following Francis’s last visit, Maggs’s footsteps would echo through the cell block and as the guard walked past Victor’s cell, he thought for a split second that Maggs would stop and tell him he had a visitor. Instead, Maggs, his eyes pointed straight ahead, would cruise right by his cell. He was amazed that Francis was staying true to his word and keeping his distance – he’d never listened before so why start now?
Victor presumed that his father’s absence would somehow make his jail time more tolerable. Instead, he became annoyed with himself for telling the old man to stay away and annoyed with Francis for actually adhering to Victor’s dumb wishes. His brain had split up into warring factions that led him to the conclusion that he didn’t know what the fuck he wanted in the first place.
A similar notion kept gnawing at Victor as time wore on: since when did he know what he was talking about anyway? And what right did he have to tell his father to stay away? It wasn’t Francis’s fault that Victor followed in his dad’s footsteps and joined the Marines even though Francis begged him not to. Wasn’t his fault that the USMC got sent to Afghanistan. Wasn’t his fault that Victor came back with an apparent case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Wasn’t his fault that, according to some court-appointed shrink, the PTSD caused Victor to get ossified drunk on a regular basis and, on one particular night, beat the piss out of those three dickheads at The Watering Can. Wasn’t his fault that those pussies couldn’t take a beating and squealed to the cops. And it sure as hell wasn’t his fault that Victor got locked up behind that shit.
Nope, it was all Victor’s fault and what did Francis want? Simply to visit his idiot son in jail, to see if he was okay, because he loved him. That’s what the smile was, merely a sign that his father loved him and was genuinely happy to see him. And Victor hadn’t even seen that. So what did he know? He didn’t know shit.
It was this eventual state of self-loathing that led Victor to break down and call his father. Standing by the pay phone with the handset to his ear, Victor punched in Francis’s number and heard it ring. And ring. And ring. And ring. Then the answering machine picked up. Hiya, this is Fran Plintz, I’m out at the moment so if you could leave your name, number, and a message, I’d appreciate it. Thanks. A lump formed in Victor’s throat at the sound of his father’s genteel tone. He swallowed hard.
At the beep Victor said, “Hey Dad, it’s Vic. Listen, I, uh, just wanted to call to see how you’re doing.” He paused. “And, look, I’m also really sorry about how I treated you last time. You didn’t deserve that and I’m sorry. So, um, if you want you can visi—“
“Hello? Vic?” A woman’s voice. She sounded out of breath.
“Yeah, who is—“
“It’s Cindy, Vic.”
Cindy. Yet another family member left in his wake. Victor recalled seeing his cousin at his trial, remembered the perpetual scowl on her face. She’d looked ready to beat him half to death. He’d seen that same dirty look when they were kids. He’d pissed her off so badly one time that she punched him in the side and cracked one of his ribs. A lesson there: don’t fuck with Cindy, she hits like a man. He’d have to tread lightly. “Oh, hey Cin, what are you do—“
“What the fuck, Vic?” Yep, Cindy alright.
“You banned your own father from coming to see you?”
“What? I mean, yeah, I did but that’s why I call—“
“Oh, what, you think you can call and say you’re sorry and the ship’ll right itself?”
“You have no fucking idea what’s going on, do you?”
“No, I haven’t talk—“
“Because if you did, you’d know that things are pretty shitty.”
“Cindy, I don’t—“
“Some of us actually give a shit about family, Vic. Some of us actually take our responsibilities seriously. You obviously don’t and if you did you wouldn’t be in ja—“
“—il and everything wouldn’t fall on my shoulders like it always does. I mean, Jesus Christ, Vic, aren’t you a little old to start a bar fight? Who—“
“—does that anyway? Fucking children, that’s who. And let me tell you something el—“
“Cindy!” Victor was getting stares – angry ones from the guards and curious ones from the cons waiting for the phone. He lowered his voice. “Cindy, please, just listen to me for a second, okay?”
Silence from the other end and then, “Fine.”
“You’re right, okay? I fucked up. But there’s nothing I can do about it now.” He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. A headache announced its arrival with a faint throb. “As for Dad, you’re right about that too. I was really shitty to him and I was only calling to apologize, whatever that’s worth.”
“Yeah, I’m still here.”
“Well? What’s going on?”
“Fran’s got cancer.”
Victor’s eyes went wide. “What? W-when?”
“Found out a couple months ago. It’s in his pancreas.”
“Well. Why. Why didn’t he tell me?”
“You seriously want me to answer that question?”
Walked right into that one, he thought. “Can I talk to him?”
“Not right now, he’s sleeping. He had a chemo treatment today and that stuff wipes him out.”
Victor didn’t know what to say. His face flushed and a sheen of sweat followed.
“Vic? You still there?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m still here. It’s just, you know, I still have about a month to go in here. Is he gonna, uh, gonna be there—“ He wanted to add “when I get out” but he couldn’t. His eyes started to fill up with hot tears, which he choked back.
Cindy sighed and answered his unfinished question. “He should be. He’s been doing good with the chemo and radiation and stuff and his spirits are high but the doctors haven’t been that, you know, optimistic.”
Victor thought he heard his cousin sniffle, as if she too were fighting tears. It was the first time he’d ever heard her get upset or anything vaguely resembling upset.
She said, “Listen, can you call back another day? He’d love to hear from you.”
“Yeah. I mean, the soonest I can call is next Tuesday. Would that work?”
“That works. I gotta take him to the hospital in the morning but we’ll be back in the afternoon.”
“Good, I’ll call then.” He looked at the line of cons waiting for the phone. They were starting to look anxious and annoyed. Never a good combination. “Listen, I gotta go.” He paused. “Tell Dad I’m sorry for everything and that I love him, okay? Will you do that for me?”
“Thanks, Cin. And thanks for taking care of him, really, I appreciate it. I’ll talk to you next week. Bye.“
Victor was about to hang up when he heard Cindy say, “Vic.”
“I’m. I’m sorry for hitting you with both barrels before. I’ve just been, you know, stressed out with Doug and the kids and work and now Fran.”
“You don’t need to explain. I get it.”
“Even if you were here, I’d still be there to help, you know that, right?”
“No, I know.”
“He’s the sweetest guy in the world and now this. It’s really fucked my head up, you know?”
“I can imagine.” He paused. “But if anybody can pull through this, it’s him, right? He’s tough.”
“I hope so.” She didn’t sound convinced although Victor couldn’t say that he was either.
“So next Tuesday, right?”
“Alright, talk to you then.”
“’Kay. Keep your head up.”
“You too. Bye.” Victor hung up the phone and went back to his cell. His cellmate wasn’t there – Victor guessed he was probably in line for the phone – so he lay down on his bunk, buried his head in his pillow, and cried harder than he ever had in his life.
The next day and every day for the following month, Victor steeled himself and packed each day with so much activity that he didn’t have time to think. It was one of the most valuable things he learned in the service: in times of stress, keep busy, keep your mind sharp. When he was in his cell, he was doing calisthenics. When he wasn’t, he was running around the exercise yard and using the free weights. His father wasn’t giving up on life and neither, Victor had decided, was he.
Francis tried to reschedule his chemo, which fell on the same day as Corp City Pen’s visitation day, so he could resume his visits with Victor but it wasn’t to be. It was for the best though. As much as Victor wanted to see his father, it was evident that Francis needed all the rest he could get and schlepping all the way out to CCP every week wasn’t conducive to that. Instead, Victor called Francis every Tuesday and Thursday like clockwork.
Cindy was right, Francis sounded upbeat given the circumstances. When Victor asked him how the treatment was going, the old man said, “Ah, it ain’t so bad, kid. Not like I had much hair to lose anyhow,” laughing at his own joke. Even so, Victor could hear the strain, the weakness, in his father’s voice. He was fighting hard but cancer was a motherfucker.
One day Francis had been asleep when Victor called, and when Cindy picked up, she assured him that he tried to stay awake to catch the phone but he just couldn’t – the treatments were taking their toll. On the other hand, she’d mentioned that the doctors had grown more optimistic given recent changes.
“I think talking to you turned things around, Vic, I really do,” Cindy had said. “I mean, ever since you guys started talking again, he’s been different somehow. He has this look on his face like he’s, I don’t know, building a house or something and whatever happens, he’s gonna get that thing built and not even a tornado could stop him.”
When Victor heard that, he discreetly rubbed his eye with a knuckle so the other cons wouldn’t see his tears.
A week later, Victor was released. He’d tried to persuade Francis not to pick him up, that he could take the C train home but the old man wouldn’t hear of it. So when Victor walked out of the main gates of CCP, Francis, holding onto Cindy for support, was there to meet him.
Despite his gaunt appearance, Victor thought Francis actually looked pretty good – the color in his face and an ear-to-ear smile went a long way. Victor’s boots crunched over the newly fallen leaves as he walked over to Francis and threw his arms around him. When Francis’s arms clamped around Victor like they always had, Victor took heart. Still plenty of strength it seemed.
“Hey, Dad,” Victor said.
“Hi, boyo.” Francis stepped back, smiled, and, with his hands on Victor’s arms, said, “You look good, kid.” He squeezed Victor’s arms. “Jesus. S’like you’re made outta iron.”
Victor grinned and looked at the ground. “Yeah, been hittin’ the weights a little.” He looked over at Cindy, who was actually wiping away tears with her coat sleeve. He couldn’t believe it. “Hey, Cin. Thanks for comin’.”
Francis lowered his arms and said, “Well, give your cousin a hug.”
As they hugged, Cindy said, “Good to see you, Vic.”
“Yeah, you too.” When he let go of her he couldn’t look her in the eye. He hadn’t forgotten what she’d said to him the month before and it still stung because, well, she’d been right.
When his eyes finally met hers though, she smiled and gave him a wink. It was a very un-Cindy-like thing to do, and Victor knew that all was forgiven, even though he wasn’t sure that he deserved her clemency. He heard Francis’s voice in his head: That’s how family is, boyo. You crap on them the most and they forgive you the quickest. He looked at Francis, who was smiling ear to ear, and returned the smile.
“C’mon, boyo, let’s get you home,” Francis said, clapping his son on the shoulder.
Victor smiled and helped Francis to the car.
As far as homecomings went, Victor thought it was a pretty good one. That night he had dinner at home with Francis, Cindy, her husband, Doug, and her kids. Victor wasn’t sure if the meal was Francis’s idea of a joke or not (he guessed it probably was) but it didn’t matter, it was the best spaghetti and meatballs he’d ever tasted.
That night Victor lay in his old bed in his old room, his hands behind his head. Listening to the wind whip through the dried leaves outside and his father’s light snoring in the next room, Victor wondered what he was going to do next. He came to the conclusion that he didn’t care if he was mopping up shit all day everyday as long as he could be there for his dad. Francis was his priority. Beyond that, fuck all mattered.
Victor spent a good portion of his first full day as a free man at St. Raphael’s General Hospital. He sat next to Francis for six hours as he went through a chemo treatment.
Francis dozed off and on while Victor flipped through the poor selection of magazines. He was perusing a good-looking eggplant parm recipe in an old issue of Woman’s Day when a shapely black woman wearing pink scrubs approached. She smiled at Victor and put her finger to her lips, signaling to stay quiet lest Francis was awakened.
She gently ran a long-fingered hand up and down Francis’s arm. “Fraaaaannnnciiiiis,” she purred. “Fraaaaannnnciiiiis.”
The corners of Francis’s mouth slowly turned upward but his eyes didn’t open.
The woman continued. “Fraaaaannnnciiiiis.” Her hand glided down to Francis’s hand, which lay open, palm up, on the armrest of his chair. She tickled his palm and as his fingers slowly closed over hers, his eyes opened.
Francis looked up at her and said, “Patty.” A smile filled his face. “Patty Patty Patty.”
Patty smiled back and said, “Hello, Francis.” She leaned down and kissed his mostly bald pate. “How are you, sweet love?”
“Eh, I’m getting by,” Francis said. “What about you, doll?”
“About the same,” Patty said.
Victor smiled. He’d forgotten that women, all women, loved Francis. And the old guy didn’t just eat it up, oh no – he dipped huge hunks of bread in it and savored that shit.
Still holding Francis’s hand, Patty looked at Victor and said, “And I’m guessing you’re Victor?”
“That I am, ma’am.”
“Ma’am?” Patty pulled a sourpuss. “Old ladies are called ma’am.” She pointed to the plastic nametag hanging from her scrub top – it said ST. RAPHAEL’S GENERAL HOSPITAL and, underneath, PATRICIA, RN. “You call me Patricia. Or Patty. Just not ma’am.”
“Sorry, force of habit. I used to be a Mari—“
Patty patted his arm. “It’s okay, I know. Francis told me all about you.” She grinned and cocked an eyebrow. “Also told me you got a bit of a temper, hmm?”
Victor nodded. “Little bit.”
“Well, I’m sure they had it comin’,” she said. She walked around to the back of Francis’s chair and started to massage his shoulders. A beatific smile was plastered across the old man’s face as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Victor was sure it was innocent but still marveled at his father, the Female Whisperer. “So what’s next? You lookin’ for a job?”
“I just got out yesterday so I haven’t had a chance to look yet but yeah, I need one. Not exactly sure where though. I mean, being an ex-con and all.”
Patty bit the corner of her mouth and cocked her head to the side. “You know, I think they might be hiring in maintenance.”
“Work as a janitor you mean? Here?”
She grinned. “Too good to push a mop?”
Victor shook his head. “It’s not that. It’s just, you know, ‘cause of my record, I doubt a hospital will hire me.”
“Ah, they’d be lucky to have you, kid,” Francis said, eyes still closed. “Shouldn’t hold a bar fight against you.” He blew air through his nostrils. “Those pussies should’ve kept their goddamn mouths shut,” he muttered. Francis’s eyes popped open. He craned his head back to look at Patty. “Sorry for the language, doll.”
She patted Francis’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, baby.” She redirected her attention to Victor. “Anyway, it’s not like you’re gonna be performing brain surgery. And this place doesn’t only hire saints, pardon the pun.” She paused. “I know the manager, Wendell. I can talk to him, put in a good word for you. If you want.”
“Yeah, I mean, that’d be great. You really think he’d give me a shot?”
“I think your chances are pretty good. Wendell’s a vet too so he’ll at least have a better understanding of where you’re coming from.”
“He was a Marine?”
“Long time ago but yeah.”
“If you wouldn’t mind that’d be terrific. You need my number or anything?” Victor pointed at Francis. “I’m staying with my dad right now so…”
Patty smiled. “I know where to find you.” She stopped massaging Francis’s shoulders and bent down to kiss him on the head again. “I gotta get going on my rounds, boys.” She smiled at Victor. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Vic. I’ll be seeing more of you I take it?”
Victor smiled. “Yes, ma—“ He caught himself. “Yes, you will.”
“Good.” She reached for Francis’s hand and squeezed it. “And I’ll see you in a few days, sweet love?”
Francis’s eyes slowly glided up her form. When his eyes met hers he said, “You bet, doll.”
Patty smiled at Francis, winked at Victor, and went on her way.
Francis closed his eyes and leaned back again. “Nice girl, that Patty.”
Victor nodded, watching her leave. “Yep.”
Victor didn’t respond to Francis’s comment; he just smiled, and let it lay.
The following weeks turned into months, and the crispness of autumn intensified, turning into the crackling cold of winter. As the brittle leaves faded away, so did Francis. It happened more slowly than the doctors predicted but still too quickly for Victor.
Victor got the job at the hospital. Patty was right, Wendell had understood completely. After Victor told him his story, Wendell said, “Haw! Three pricks against a Marine? They’d had three more guys it would’ve been a fair fight.” He stuck out his hand. “Job’s yours if you want it, Vic.” Victor smiled and shook it.
Victor worked the second shift, 3pm to 11pm, so he had enough time during the day to take care of his dad. He was glad he was there for his father and wouldn’t have had it any other way. But as the cancer ate away at Francis and he became more and more of a papery husk, Victor felt something he didn’t expect.
There’d been a time when, as a kid, he’d watched his father split wood in the backyard for hours, hardly breaking a sweat. The axe would keep slamming down and slamming down, and, in that moment, Francis was the stuff of Greek mythology to Victor, legendary, a god. Now he had to help the old man take his shirt off because he couldn’t lift his arms. The feeling Victor didn’t expect was heartbreak.
One day he was clocking in at the hospital for his shift when his cell phone – a cheap, pre-pay thing – rang and he dug it out of his pocket. It was Cindy.
She told him that Francis had collapsed at home and was unconscious. Breathing but unconscious. An ambulance was bringing him to the emergency room.
Patty had all but forced the janitor gig on Victor. Had he been a gambling man, he would’ve bet a hundred bucks that she did it just so he would already be at the hospital if something like this happened. His father had been spot on – Patty was good people for sure.
After the medics brought Francis in and he was settled in the ER, Victor was allowed to see him. The sight of his father awake took his breath away, he was that relieved.
Francis smiled when he saw his son. “Hey, boyo,” he said. His voice was a whisper. The nurse stood next to his bed, taking notes on a clipboard.
“Hey, Dad. How’re you feeling?”
“Pretty good. I gotta go. Gotta go…keep the animals in check. I’m the zookeeper, ya know.”
“Yeah, Dad, I know, you worked at the zoo.” Victor’s eyes met the nurse’s.
“I’ll go get the doctor,” she said.
The ER doc didn’t have much to offer in the way of new information. It was exactly what Victor thought: the cancer was simply getting the better of his father and he collapsed because he was just…used up. And oh yeah, his mental faculties seemed to be slipping too. The doctor was finishing up his useless summation, adding that he was going to admit Francis to the hospital for at least a couple days, when Cindy joined them.
As the doc continued on his rounds, Victor filled Cindy in, and they both sat with Francis for a little while in silence. In between dozing, Francis would repeat what he said to Victor about having to “keep the animals in check.”
Victor looked at Cindy and said, “He ever do anything like this before? Mention any of this zookeeper stuff?”
For a moment Cindy was silent. “Um,” she said. “Not that I remember.” Another pause. “Maybe he misses his job?”
“Maybe.” But who would miss cleaning up shit in a zoo?
Although it took some effort, Victor convinced Cindy a while later that it was okay to leave, that she should go home to her family. Once he assured her that he’d keep her posted, she gathered her things, kissed Francis, and left.
Victor continued his bedside vigil when a hand pushed aside the curtain that surrounded Francis’s bed. Victor smiled when Patty poked her head through and said, “Hey.” Victor motioned for her to join them.
Patty slipped in and sat next to Victor. “What happened?”
“He collapsed at home. Luckily, Cindy was there when it happened and she called 911.” He narrowed his eyes at Patty. “How’d you know he was down here?”
“I saw the admission orders up on my floor.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that some kind of violation?”
She shrugged. “Probably.” She grinned. “But why follow the rules, right?”
Victor chuckled. After a few moments, he said, “Did my dad ever mention anything about being a zookeeper?”
“Only once, in passing. Why?”
“When he wakes up, he keeps saying that he has to go take care of the animals, that he’s a zookeeper.” He shook his head. “I don’t know, I think he’s just out of it.”
Patty reached over and took Victor’s hand. They sat there like that until Francis was taken up to his room.
Victor stayed with his father until 11pm – he figured he might as well stay until what was supposed to be the end of his shift. Not like I have anywhere else to be. He turned off the TV, kissed his sleeping father on the head, and made his way to the door when he heard Francis’s voice. He said, “Don’t forget to check my coat, boyo.”
Victor turned around. Francis’s eyes were trained on him. He slowly approached the bed and said, “Your coat? Your coat isn’t here. It’s—“
Francis’s eyes started to close, as if getting that sentence out required every last shred of energy. “Gotta keep the animals in check, kid, gotta—“ Francis fell back asleep.
Creases formed in Victor’s brow as he tried to make sense of what his father said. Shaking his head, he left the room. Once he made it home, he climbed into bed and passed out.
The next morning, he woke up thinking about what Francis had said. He got out of bed and, still in his t-shirt and boxer shorts, went downstairs and started rummaging through the coat closet. When he got to the Corporal City Zoo coat, he found a folded-up piece of paper tucked away in the inside pocket. He pulled it out and saw Vic written on the outside. Victor unfolded it, sat down on the couch, and began to read.
Not sure when you’ll get this or how you’ll get it or, hell, even if you’ll get it. But I wanted you to know that I’m truly proud of you, Vic. As I write this, you’re in jail and I’m proud of you. When you went to jail, I was beside myself, I really was. I couldn’t stand the idea of my son being locked up like an animal. I kept asking myself how this could’ve happened, what I could’ve done differently to make sure you’d stayed out of trouble. I finally figured that you were a grown man and your decisions are your own and there’s nothing I could’ve done about it. Once I accepted that, I didn’t feel better about you being in jail but it was sort of the sugar I took with the medicine to make it go down, you know? Anyway, once I accepted it, it got me thinking. For the life of me, I just couldn’t believe you beat the piss out of three strangers for nothing. It simply didn’t add up. Even when you were standing in that courtroom and pled guilty and everything, I still couldn’t believe it. And I wanted to ask you about it when I went to visit you but you were always so annoyed when I was there that I didn’t want to make it worse. So one night after work I went over to the Can. I only been in there a handful of times and never after your fight so I figured screw it, I could use a drink and maybe by being there I’d understand why you did what you did. I go in there and Ernie’s behind the bar as usual and he gets me a beer and asks how you are and I tell him okay and I ask him what happened the night you were there and he says it was so busy that he really didn’t see anything, that he’d wished he had because he always liked you and would’ve been happy to be a witness but he didn’t see anything. That was probably bullshit because I know Ernie from when we were kids, always such a weasel that kid, and Ernie only takes care of Ernie but it was still nice of him to say that stuff. Anyway, I’m sitting there with my beer, just nursing it, and this girl, maybe in her 20s or so, attractive enough but kind of looks like she’d been rode hard and put away wet, comes over and sits down right next to me. I look over at her and smile, ask her how things are going. She seems kind of shy and says fine. Then she asks if I’m Vic’s dad. I said I was and I ask how she knew and she says she overheard me asking about your fight and that we look alike, which made me smile, so she took a guess. Then this girl looks like the whole weight of the world just fell on her shoulders all at once. She leans in close and her voice gets quiet and my ears aren’t what they used to be so I have to listen close. She says that she was there when you got into that fight, that she saw the whole thing. Now I think big deal, everything’s done and you pled guilty and you’re an honest kid so what news could she possibly have? I don’t say any of that though, I just keep quiet. She keeps on talking, saying that she was the reason the fight started in the first place. That those three dopes you knocked around were giving her a hard time and even though you were shithoused, her words, you stepped in and those guys got in your face and you were trying to be calm. Then she says that one of the guys called her a dirty cooze, again, her words, and that’s when you took those guys apart. She said that she freaked and ran right out and didn’t go back and had no idea that you’d been arrested and got locked up, that she’d only heard about it after everything was said and done. She’s telling me this and my jaw’s on the ground, I can’t believe it. I wanted to shake her, to ask her why didn’t she come forward no matter how much time had passed but I couldn’t, I was in shock. So she says she’s sorry, and I nod like a dope because I can’t find the words and she goes off to do whatever she was doing before she saw me. I’m sitting there at the bar, my beer still in front of me and I’m staring at the bar, just staring. I swear I can close my eyes and still see every single water ring on that bar, I stared at it that long. After a while Ernie comes over to me, asks me if everything’s okay and the cobwebs clear a little bit and I say yeah, finish my beer in two gulps even though it’d gotten warm, put my hat and coat on, and head out. I’m on my way home, thinking about what a good thing you did standing up for that girl, and I’m walking by that convenience store over on Reese Ave., I forget the name, Quick-Mart or something, and this dope in a ski mask comes spilling out the door, waving a gun like a maniac, some money spilling from a plastic bag in his hand, and this schmuck starts running toward me. I’m ashamed to admit it but my first instinct was to let the guy pass, that it wasn’t any of my business, let the cops take care of it, all that. But like I said, I was thinking about what you did so as that idiot ran toward me, I started running toward him full steam. This guy is so wild eyed that I don’t think he realized I was coming for him. I start to get real close, like maybe ten feet away, when this knucklehead realizes that I actually am coming for him. He starts to raise the gun but I close the distance, drop my shoulder, and plow right into the guy. The gun goes flying off I don’t know where but he’s holding on to that plastic bag like his life depends on it so when he falls, he’s still got the bag. He’s on his back and I’m standing over him and without thinking I start to whale on this guy. When I hear something crack (I think it was his nose), I stop hitting him and get a hold of myself. I yank the mask off this guy and it’s some kid, maybe 18. Maybe. His face is pretty busted up but he’s still breathing. I noticed he had one of those stupid Brothers of the Star gang tattoos on his face so I suppose the kid was trying to make his bones or something. Such a waste. Anyway, I grab the bag of money, walk it into the convenience store, give the clerk the money back, and start back toward the door. I’m halfway out when the guy asks who I am and I look down at the patch on my jacket and I do that thing with my voice, you know, like when I croon like Sinatra, and in that olive oil voice I say, “I keep the animals in check. I’m the zookeeper” which sounds so dumb now that I think about it. I mean, who am I, John Wayne? Then I leave and go home. I’ll be honest, kid, I don’t think I slept a wink that night, I was so keyed up from what happened. For maybe the first time in my life, I really felt like I did some good in the world. Don’t get me wrong, Vic. When I look at you I also feel like I did good cause I raised you right and you turned out great but I’m talking in the grand scheme of things here. In other words, I did something to help out somebody who wasn’t friend or family. And that felt goddamn amazing. So I went out and did it the next night and the night after that and the night after that and on and on. And every now and again, I hear people mention the zookeeper this or the zookeeper that so who knows, maybe you’re aware of my, well, secret identity I guess you could call it. Anyway, the reason I’m writing this letter, and I think this is the most I’ve ever written in my life, ha ha, is I wanted you to know why I did what I did, that your father actually made some kind of difference in the world, even though it was really only a small one. I’ll keep this zookeeper stuff up as long as I can but I’m no spring chicken so who knows how long it’ll last. Anyway, the point I want to make is this: do something good in this world, boyo. Do something to help a stranger, for no other reason than to help them. Do it because life is short and if you don’t do something good for somebody you don’t know, you won’t know how good it feels when you do. And let me tell you, that is not something you want to miss out on. Granted, you were in the service so you already know what it’s like to help people without getting any thanks in return, ha ha. But really, kid, be good, be nice, help strangers just because it’s right. And know that I love you, you’re the best son a father could ever hope for.
Victor sunk into the couch as he stared at the letter. Sitting in his hand, the thin pages had the weight of an entire encyclopedia. He certainly felt like he had that much information in his head jostling around, trying to find room to fit. He had a million questions but with his father in the hospital, he wasn’t sure that he’d ever get any answers. He shook his head. What happened, happened, he thought.
Scratching his head, he realized that he was still in his underwear. He got up, put the coat back in the closet, and took the letter up to his room, where he stashed it in his sock drawer.
Then Victor showered, put on his work uniform, and set out for the hospital.
Victor spent the day with his father, who was in pretty good spirits although still out of it and very weak. They watched crappy daytime TV, ate crappy hospital food. Francis slept off and on.
After lunchtime, Cindy stopped by. She had bags under her eyes.
“Hey,” Victor said. “You okay? You look tired.”
“I look like shit, you mean.” Oh look at that, she was grumpy to boot.
“No, I mean you look tired.”
She plopped down in a chair and put her purse on the floor. “It’s okay, I do look like shit. Didn’t sleep very well last night.” She looked at Francis, who was asleep. “Lot on my mind.”
Victor looked at his father, too. “I hear ya.”
“How is he?”
“No change, really.” His mind flipped back to the night before, how Cindy had hesitated when he’d asked her about Francis and his zookeeper talk. He hadn’t given it a second thought at the time but now, due to recent revelations, it seemed suspicious. “So, uh, this morning I found a letter that Dad left me.”
Cindy raised her eyebrows. “Letter?”
“Remember how Dad kept talking about being the zookeeper last night?”
“Have you heard about this vigilante—“
She put up her hand as if she were directing traffic. “Lemme stop you right there. I didn’t feel like getting into this last night but since you’re obviously looking for answers, yes, I knew that Fran was,” she made air quotes with her fingers, “‘fighting crime’ or whatever the hell you wanna call it.”
“Well. Why. Didn’t you try to stop him?”
“Pfft.” Cindy chuckled. “What, change him? You know how hard it is to get somebody to change? Especially a man?”
Victor stared back at her, a bovine expression on his face.
“Of course you don’t. See, you can’t change anybody if they’re not lookin’ for it. The only person you have any hope of changing is yourself.” She paused. “And really, you should know better than anybody that trying to change Fran is a particularly tall order. I couldn’t have gotten him to stop with that zookeeper bullshit any more than he could’ve stopped you from joining the Marines. Once your minds are made up, forget it.” She leaned back in her chair, her face pointed toward the ceiling, and closed her eyes. “You Plintzes, I’ll tell ya. Getting a 5-year-old to eat lima beans is easier than getting you two to do something you don’t want to do.” She opened her eyes and looked at Victor. “And as a mother of two, I can assure you that getting a 5-year-old to eat lima beans is no goddamn picnic.”
Still looking at his father, Victor grinned. His old man was persistent, no doubt. After all, it had taken the better part of five months of Victor harping at Francis week in and week out to get the old man to stop visiting him in jail. “Guess you got me there.” He paused. “Out of curiosity, how’d you find out?”
“About the zookeeper stuff?”
“He showed up at my house one night covered in blood.”
“That’s what I said.” She closed her eyes again and rubbed them. “I’m getting ready for bed, brushing my teeth, and the doorbell rings. I go downstairs, open the door, and there’s Fran, bleeding all over my stoop. And get this. He was smiling. As if he’d brought me flowers or something.” She shook her head. “Anyway, I throw him in the car and take him to the hospital. Which was stupid now that I look back on it. Should’ve just called 911. But all that blood.” She cringed. “Yeesh. Guess I wasn’t in my right mind.” She pulled at a loose thread on her coat. “So I get him to the ER, and it turns out that he’d been stabbed in the gut. Matter of fact, that’s how we found out he had cancer.”
Victor peered at Cindy. “The hell you say.”
“The hell I say.” She wagged her finger at her abdomen. “They took a bunch of x-rays to see if he had any internal injuries and they didn’t find any but they did find a mass in his pancreas. Which of course turned out to be cancer.” She waved her hand in the air. “But I’m getting off track. When I brought Fran in, I’d left my purse in the car. Totally forgot about it. After I got him into the ER, I went back out to the car to get my bag and that’s when I saw the coat in the backseat.”
A puzzled look crossed Victor’s face.
“You know, the one with the…zoo patch,” Cindy said. “He took it off on the way to the hospital so the cops wouldn’t see it when they questioned him. Fran just told them he fought off a mugger and couldn’t remember what the mugger looked like.”
“The cops bought that?”
“Guy Fran’s age? Why wouldn’t they. Anyway, once the cops left, I asked him what really happened and he told me he’d been patrolling the streets or whatever, jacked up some purse snatcher and the guy pulled a knife on him.” She put her hands up as if to say Ta-da! “That’s how I found out.” Cindy glanced at her watch. “Shit. I gotta get back to work.” She got up and slung her purse over her shoulder. “You here for the duration?”
Victor eyed the wall clock. “Just a little longer. ‘Til I start my shift.”
She nodded. As she moved toward the door, she stopped and put her hand on Victor’s shoulder. “You need anything?”
Victor watched his father sleep. “Nah, I’m good. Thanks though.”
“’Kay.” Cindy squeezed Victor’s shoulder. “I’ll see ya.”
Settling back in his chair, he sat and rubbed his temples, trying to absorb all the new information Cindy had relayed. The seams of his head felt fit to split.
He looked at the clock again – there was some time left before he had to start his shift so he closed his eyes and let his mind uncoil.
He was back in Afghanistan, handing out candy to kids. There was the same explosion, kids dead, guys in his unit dead, other guys torn up and bloody and poking at his feet, pleading for Victor’s help. Like many times before, he awoke with a gasp.
Victor saw his father watching him, his brow furrowed.
“Bad dream?” Francis said.
“Yeah.” He rubbed his eyes.
Francis nodded. “I used to get ‘em too. Bad ones. After the war.” Victor had trouble visualizing his father in Vietnam, marching through the jungle, M-16 cradled in his hands. In Victor’s head, Francis in the Vietnam War was like Sesame Street – “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.” But whatever, he wasn’t about to interrupt the guy. Besides, after reading that letter, maybe the thought of him at war wasn’t so strange. “I’d wake up in a cold sweat. Terrible.” A thousand-yard stare occupied Francis’s face.
“You still have them?”
“No. No. Not anymore. Ever since. Um.” The vacuous gaze again. “Shit.” He rubbed his wrinkled forehead. “Lost my train of thought.” He smiled and pointed at the wall. “The caboose is over there.”
Victor returned the smile. That old chestnut. He looked at the wall clock. “I gotta get to work, Dad. But I’ll be by later, okay?”
Francis winked at his son. “Sounds good, kid.”
At the end of his shift, Victor stopped by Francis’s room to check on him once more before he went home.
When he got to the room, Patty was standing by the bed, holding Francis’s hand. Francis was smiling. Patty was smiling too although the tears in her eyes told a different story.
“Hey, boyo,” Francis said.
“Hey, Dad,” Victor said. “How you feeling?”
“Oh you know, not bad.” Francis was like a bunch of twigs wrapped in cellophane – not exactly Victor’s definition of “not bad.” Francis pointed at Patty. “I want you to meet Patty, Vic. She’s a nurse here.”
“Oh, h-hi, Patty,” he said. “Nice to meet you.” He looked at Patty and understood where the tears came from.
His father said, “Real sweetheart, this Patty. We were just talking, and it’s like we’ve known each other forever.”
Patty covered her mouth and, in as calm a voice as she could muster, said, “Excuse me for one minute, Francis, ‘kay?”
“You bet, doll,” he said.
Victor looked over his shoulder as Patty quickly passed by him. He said, “I’ll be right back, Dad. I gotta ask Patty something.”
Francis gave his son a thumbs-up. “You got it, kid.”
Victor found Patty in the hall just outside Francis’s room. She was covering her eyes with her hand. He put his hand on her shoulder and said, “You okay?”
Without hesitation, Patty wrapped her arms around Victor, buried her face in his shoulder, and sobbed. He hugged her, and rubbed her back as she cried.
It didn’t take long for Patty to pull it together. She stepped back from Victor and wiped her eyes with heels of her hands. “I swear to God this never happens,” she said, sniffling. “It’s just. That man. It’s like I’m losing my father.” Her eyes went wide and she looked at Victor. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—“
“No, I know. It’s okay.” He looked at the floor. A couple beats passed. “Has he ever, you know, not recognized you before?”
Patty sniffed and shook her head.
Victor nodded. “You just getting off?” he said, purposely changing the subject.
“No,” she said. “Night shift.” She motioned to Francis’s room. “I just wanted to check on him before I started my rounds.”
“Gotcha,” he said. “Listen, I’m gonna say goodbye to him real quick and head home. You sure you’re okay?”
Patty pulled a tissue out of her scrub top and wiped her nose with it. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.” She paused and looked at the tissue as she fiddled with it. “They tell you not to get attached, you know? To keep it…clinical. And up ‘til now, I did that just fine.” She looked at Victor. “Sorry you had to see me like this.”
Victor shrugged. “S’okay. Can’t be easy seeing all the shit you see.”
“You’re a good man, Vic,” she said, staring into his eyes. “Don’t ever think differently.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, lingering for a couple seconds. Her lips were soft and warm. Definitely the highlight of Victor’s day. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She turned and walked down the hall.
He turned and went back into Francis’s room. The old man was asleep and snoring lightly. Victor kissed his father’s head. He said, “Night, Dad,” and left.
When he got home, Victor hung his coat up in the closet. He was about to close the door when the Corp City Zoo coat caught his eye. Without thinking about it, he took it out and put it on. He zipped it up, remembered what his father wrote in the letter, and lowered his voice like he’d heard his father do so many times. He said, “I keep the animals in check. I’m the zookeeper.” He chuckled. “Huh, does sound stupid.”
Victor turned and saw his father’s navy blue ball cap hanging from a hook on the door. He grabbed it and put it on his head. Perfect fit, just like the coat. And, like it was the most natural thing in the world, he turned out the lights and walked out the front door. Hands jammed in his coat pockets, he started walking.
Still on autopilot, Victor walked to Broadus Road, the so-called bleeding sphincter of Corp City. There was garbage in the street, strewn up and down the sidewalks, peppered on the stoops, all over. Had it been a photo in an art gallery, it would’ve been titled “Happiness’s Scumbag Brother.”
Victor walked down the street, past one ramshackle tenement after another. Most of them were vacant, some were occupied by junkies. When he spotted one marked with a six-pointed star – the sigil of the Brothers of the Star – on the other side of the street, he ducked down a dark alley, watched the branded building, and waited.
He felt like he was back on patrol in Afghanistan, keeping vigil to make sure the bad guys didn’t disturb the peace. Just like then, he felt strangely comfortable, the sort of comfort that comes from being exactly where you’re supposed to be and doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. It was reassuring.
Victor stayed in that alley most of the night, just watching. For all the stories he’d heard about the infamous stretch of hell known as Broadus Road, he wasn’t impressed. It was dirty enough and looked like a demilitarized zone but other than that, it was much ado about nothing. There weren’t any Brothers hanging around, no screams, no cries of despair. Victor checked his watch and saw that it was nearing 5am. Deciding to pack it in, he started to walk to the mouth of the alley when the door to the Brothers’ house opened and a long-haired man spilled out of it.
The scuzzy long-hair tripped over the stoop and fell to the ground. A tall, skinny guy filled the doorway. Wearing a wife beater and a broad-brimmed black hat while holding a gleaming hatchet, the guy cut a menacing silhouette against the light that leaked through the doorway. He stood there long enough to say “Fuck off” without actually saying it and then receded into the house, slamming the door behind him.
Another scraggly creature came scampering around the side of the house and was hopping from foot to foot as the long-hair picked himself up. “You get it, fish? Huh? You get it?”
Fish groaned and rubbed his arm. “What’s it look like?”
Scraggly stopped hopping and scratched his head. “Um, no?”
Fish shoved past Scraggly and walked down the street.
Trailing Fish, Scraggly said, “You use that knife I give ya?”
Fish didn’t answer.
“Thought you was gonna cut a couple of them Brothers and grab the dope. What happened to that?”
Still no response.
Scraggly scurried in front of Fish, walking backward when he pulled ahead. He said, “What are we gonna do now, Fish, huh?”
“M’goin’ to St. Raph’s, Marsh. Maybe score some Oxy or Vics or somethin’.”
Marsh stopped in his tracks and pouted. He said, “Hospital already turned me down today.” He spread his arms wide. “What am I gonna do?”
“Guess you’re on your own.”
Marsh scratched his head and, seconds later, dashed down a side street.
Once Marsh was out of sight, Victor started to follow Fish.
When Fish tromped through the main entrance of the hospital, Victor posted himself across the street, leaning against the wall of a bus stop alcove as if he were waiting for the number nine. He wondered if the ER folks would show Fish some mercy and throw him a few pills or just give him the boot. It was anybody’s guess.
When Fish doddered out half an hour later, he turned, hocked up a wet one, and fired it at the glass doors. Guess they gave him the boot.
He watched as Fish walked down the street, cursing “those doctor fucks” as he went. He waited until Fish was a block away and followed him. Fish had only gone five blocks when he took a sharp turn into a nearby alley. Victor walked past the alley and sensed the junkie’s eyes size him up as he passed. He hoped that Fish would try something and was surprised by his own disappointment when Fish didn’t. Not so stupid after all, Victor thought.
Spotting a closed storefront near the alley, Victor slipped into the darkened doorway and waited. The doorway was set back into the building and was flanked on either side by big glass display windows that provided Victor a perfect line of sight.
About fifteen minutes had passed when Victor spotted a figure walking down the street toward him. He looked at his watch: it was a few minutes past 6am. The person passed under a streetlight. Son of a bitch, he thought, recognizing the person. Patty. He remembered what time it was – she was on her way home from work. He tensed as she walked past the alley and inhaled sharply when an arm darted out and grabbed her. His actions after that were automatic.
Once he laid Fish out and he’d had his brief interaction with Patty, Victor faded into the shadows of the alley that Fish had oozed from. Hiding behind a dumpster, he watched Patty hitch her purse back up onto her shoulder as she stared down the alley. She squinted, trying to see through the gloom but failing. She shook her head and walked down the street. Victor waited a few seconds and followed her to make sure she got home okay. When she entered her building a block later, Victor went home too.
Stepping through the front door of his house, Victor took off the coat and hat and, handling them as though they were ceremonial garb, hung them back up in the closet. He closed the closet door and, as if it were a switch being thrown, he went from awake to exhausted in a blink. A grin on his face, he went upstairs, flopped on his bed, and fell asleep.
Victor woke up hours later with that same grin on his face. First time that ever happened. He looked at his bedside clock. It was early afternoon. He stretched his arms and noticed something was gone. A feeling that he’d had every day before was simply not there. The…heaviness had vanished.
He rubbed his face and there was no jaw pain, no soreness. He hadn’t ground his teeth. He tried to recall if he’d had any bad dreams but as far as he could remember, he hadn’t dreamt of anything. He’d just slept. Slept better than he had in a long time.
He thought about what his father had said the day before, about the bad dreams he’d had after Vietnam. The old man forgot what he was going to say but Victor guessed it was something about the dreams going away after he’d started with the – how had Cindy put it? – zookeeper bullshit.
“Huh.” He threw back the covers and bounded out of bed.
He’d just gotten out of the shower and was putting on his work uniform when he felt his stomach grumble. Realizing he hadn’t eaten anything since the night before, he headed downstairs to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. Once it was assembled, he brown bagged it, pulled his peacoat on, and put the bag in his coat pocket.
He was about to head out when, as if an invisible hand was guiding him to do so, he put his father’s hat and zookeeper coat in a duffle bag, and slung it over his shoulder. Then he left the house and headed to the hospital.
On his way, Victor noticed that the streets seemed different somehow. Less oppressive, more vibrant. He took the sandwich out of his pocket and chomped down on it. There was nothing remarkable about the sandwich – it was just a couple slices of uncured ham, a slice of sharp cheddar, some bib lettuce, and brown mustard on white bread – but to Victor it tasted like a work of culinary genius. With the sun on his back, the brisk winter wind in his face, and that sandwich in his hand, he felt like his shoes fit right again. He remembered what his father had written in that letter, how being in the service and doing good for next to no reward were one in the same, and at the time he saw his dad’s point but after last night, forget it, they were definitely not the same.
Being a Marine was a job to Victor, a slog like any other. It was a selfless act to some extent but you were paid for your time and you were ordered to protect somebody or something, you never got to choose; Victor always felt like he was just carrying out somebody else’s agenda. Helping Patty wasn’t like anything he’d ever done in the service. What he did in that alley was his choice, and it filled him with the sense that he’d truly made a difference. It was no wonder his father had kept at it night after night because, well, there was nothing quite like it. It felt good enough to make him consider doing it again.
Lost in his thoughts, Victor had just swallowed the last bite of his sandwich when he bumped into somebody. It was Fish.
For a split second, Victor thought Fish would recognize him. When Fish didn’t, Victor, unable to stop himself, screwed with the junkie. He was practically giddy when he hid behind a nearby ambulance after he said, “Be seein’ ya” in his “zookeeper voice,” causing the junkie’s head to swivel back and forth as he looked for Victor, making Fish look like a nervous rat.
As Fish turned and walked away, Victor heard a rattling sound come from Fish’s clothes. It sounded like a pill bottle. Victor guessed it was probably painkillers from the ER. Asshole should thank me, he thought, sneering. I got him what he wanted.
Before Victor clocked in, he went to check on his father. As he approached Francis’s room, he ran into Cindy, who was coming out.
“Hey,” he said.
“Oh, hey.” Cindy still looked like sleep wasn’t her friend. “You just getting here?”
“Oh, yeah. I overslept.” Not the full story but what Cindy didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. And it would save him from an ear-splitting lecture – a nice bonus.
She gestured to Victor’s shoulder. “What’s in the bag?”
“Just some clothes and stuff for Dad.” Victor pointed his thumb in the direction of the elevators. “You outta here?”
“Yeah. Just on my lunch break.”
Victor jerked his head toward Francis’s room. “How is he today?”
Cindy let out a heavy breath. “Um.” Tiny pockets of tears formed in the corners of her eyes. “I mean, shit, he’s. He was awake for a while but he’s um.” She ground the heels of her hands in her eyes and sniffed. “He thought I was your mom. He even said he’d see me soon. See your mom soon I mean.”
“Oh.” Like that, the high he was riding dissolved. He didn’t know what else to say so he gave Cindy a hug.
After a few seconds, she disengaged, wiped her nose on the back of her hand and said, “I guess I’ll.” She tilted her head in the direction of the elevators.
Victor managed a small, tight-lipped smile and nodded. Watching his cousin plod down the hall made him think twice about entering his father’s room. Did he really want to see the old man like that? The thing with Patty the night before was one thing but this. Damn.
But the reluctance retreated, and Victor entered the room.
Francis was staring into space when Victor walked in. His father’s skin looked gray and tight, like it was trying to keep whatever life he still had from escaping.
Approaching Francis’s bed, Victor hesitated for a second before he said, “Hey, Dad.”
His father’s head turned slowly. At first Francis stared through Victor, as if he wasn’t there. Then recognition crept in little by little. Francis’s colorless lips transformed into a feeble smile. “Boyo,” he said. “How. How you doin’, kid?”
Francis’s scratchy voice was a shot through the heart. It took Victor a moment to register the old man’s question. “I’m okay,” he said, putting his hands on the bedrail. “How are you feeling?”
His father exhaled and looked like he lost twenty pounds when he did. “Pretty shitty, kid. I won’t lie.”
“Anything I can get you, anything you need?”
“Besides a genie in a lamp?” Francis chortled then started coughing. He got it under control, said, “Nah,” and put his hand on Victor’s. “Got everything I need.” He smiled again but it melted away as quickly as it appeared. “Can’t be the zookeeper anymore though.” Francis’s eyes pivoted up and fixed on the ceiling. “Somebody’s gotta keep the animals in check.”
“Yeah, Dad, about that.” Victor rubbed his neck. “I found your letter. And. I took care of it for you.”
Francis’s head spun toward his son.
Victor unslung the duffle bag, opened it, and took out just enough of the zookeeper coat for Francis to recognize it. “I took care of it. Last night.” He recounted the previous night’s events for his father, leaving out Patty’s name so as not to confuse the old man. When he finished, Victor said, “You were right. No feeling quite like it. Felt great.” For a moment, he and the old man stayed silent, basking in the warmth of a shared truth. Then Victor smiled. “Even used that Sinatra voice you do. Gave ‘em your line and everything.”
“You did the voice?” Victor nodded. “Prove it,” said Francis.
“I’ll do you one better.” Victor cleared his voice and, after considering for a second, began to sing. “And now, the end is here. And so I face the final curtain. My friend, I’ll say it clear. I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.”
Francis, in his skin and bones, joined in. “I’ve lived a life that’s full. I traveled each and ev’ry highway. And more, much more than this, I did it myyyyyy way.” His father’s voice was rich and full, which startled Victor because he had no idea where it was coming from. As they sang together, Victor’s eyes welled up. But he didn’t want his voice to falter so he did his best to choke back the forming droplets.
Down the hall from Francis’s room, the elevator doors binged open and Patty stepped out. Digging around inside her purse for her ID badge, she felt a pang of irritation at being at the hospital when she shouldn’t have been. Somebody had called out sick, and Patty, being Patty, agreed to fill in at the last minute. Although, having just gotten off from the night shift hours earlier compounded with not having slept well due to the nerve-jangling effects of narrowly escaping a mugger, she wasn’t happy about it.
Even so, she tried to put on a happy face as she approached the nurses’ station to clock in. That’s when she heard it.
Not terribly loud but distinct. She stopped and listened. She heard two different voices singing: “Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew. When I bit off more than I could chew. But through it all, when there was doubt. I ate it up and spit it out. I faced it all and I stood tall and did it myyyyyy way.”
Patty couldn’t quite pick out the song. Sounded like something her grandparents would’ve listened to. Patty’s musical taste tended more toward classic rock. Electric guitars and drums, stuff that rocked. Hendrix. Springsteen. The Who. This was something else. But she knew one of those voices. She knew it.
She followed the sound down the corridor and stopped just outside Francis’s room. She peeked around the doorjamb, saw Francis and Victor singing together. Patty’s eyes ran over Victor and went wide when she realized that he was her buttery-voiced guardian. I’ll be dipped in shit, she thought. Jaw agape, she pulled back from the doorway, and went to clock in.
Patty had just finished hanging her coat up and was clipping her ID badge to her scrub top when an announcement sounded over the PA system. A female voice, calm as prairie grass, said, “Code blue, 3rd floor, room 314. Code blue, 3rd floor, room 314.”
Patty followed the other nurses’ to room 314 where Francis was flatlining.
As nurses and doctors quickly filled the room, Victor stepped toward the door, allowing them the space to try to revive his father. Patty exchanged the briefest glance with Victor before she joined the staff in the task at hand.
Not knowing what else to do, Victor waited in the hall.
Several minutes and a flurry of activity later, one of the doctors came out to tell Victor what he already knew: his father was dead. Victor nodded and was told that he could go back in to say goodbye if he wanted to. He thanked the doc and waited until everybody filed out of the room. They all walked past Victor silently, avoiding eye contact. Once they were out, he went in.
Patty was still in there, standing next to the bed. Her back was to the door.
Victor joined her at her side. For a few minutes they didn’t say anything. Just stared at Francis’s body, as if by staring they could will him back to life. Tears free flowed down their cheeks.
Patty bent down and kissed Francis’s head one last time, which Victor found a tad creepy. But grief took different forms, he supposed.
Breaking the silence, Patty put her hand on top of Victor’s, which was resting on the bedrail, and said, “Thank you.”
Still staring at his father, Victor said, “What for?”
“That…guy. In the alley this morning.”
It took him a minute but he got it: she must’ve heard him singing, recognized his voice, and put two and two together.
Still looking at his father’s body, Victor squeezed her hand. “S’alright,” he said, nodding at the old man’s lifeless form. “He would’ve done the same.”