A call came for Schanzer from the San Francisco Zoo. "We want you," they told him over the phone. "We've heard you're one of the best. We've read your brochures, and we think they're small gems. Emeralds, maybe. You've got a certain something we can't live without-a kind of Top Dog, Alpha Male quality. We're pre pared to make you a tasty little offer to join our team of exciting professionals."
Schanzer, who for some years had made a comfortable living writing dolphin promotional copy for an aquatic theme park in New Jersey, felt a mysterious chill running down his spine like a razor. "I'm pretty happy where I am, actually," he said. "Thanks for calling, though. I'm flattered, no kidding."
""Nuts to that," the San Francisco Zoo replied. "We've got you pegged as our man. Let's talk fringe benefits, shall we?"
Schanzer stood up. He put his glasses back on his nose and frowned at himself in the mirror on the opposite wall. He was on the brink of forty, but what was left of his hair was already going gray. Although he was tall, he slumped terribly, and his body was rapidly turning into a mass of lumps. He patted one of them, a big one right above his belt buckle, hoping it would calm the queasy feeling rising in his gut. "Well, okay, for starters, what kind of job are we talking about, anyway?" he said. "I'm just asking to be polite, you understand."
"You'll be our Ape House promo whiz," the San Francisco Zoo replied. "Stuff's going on around here like you wouldn't believe. Most of our apes are enrolled in sign language courses. Some of them are even working toward college degrees-just one or two credits a semester, of course, but they keep nibbling away. The Defense Department has guys in black raincoats hanging around the Ape House every day taking notes. Boy, do those guys drink coffee! A couple of our orangutans will be shot into space next year. What do you think of that? We just lost our promotion fellow-the jerk went back to the CIA-and we've got to get a re placement fast. Somebody hot-like you, for instance."
"Sounds pretty exciting, all right. But really, it's all wrong for me," Schanzer said with a gentle chuckle. "1 do dolphins. It's my specialty. I guess I think of myself as an old-fashioned marine mammal kind of a guy."
"Listen, we make it a practice never to knock the other fellow's merchandise-but how many dolphins you know who're going into space next year? Huh?" the San Francisco Zoo countered."How many dolphins you know who can do sign language? Let's face it-they don't even have fingers! You're stuck in some kind of rut with this dolphin thing. Take our advice and get out of here while you can."
"You're probably right about the rut. But it's a very nice rut, as ruts go," Schanzer said lightly, hoping to ease the intensity of the conversation a bit. A vision of his rut flashed briefly into his imagination: it was peaceful, tastefully decorated, with plush wall-to wall carpeting and track lighting; soft cool jazz was playing some where nearby.
"Mull this thing over," the zoo replied. "This could be the be ginning of something fantastic for you. The break of a lifetime."
"I'll get back to you on this. I really will," Schanzer said.
It certainly was nice, the way the San Francisco Zoo called him "one of the best." Schanzer appreciated that kind of remark. No one at the New Jersey aquatic theme park called him "one of the best," and he didn't blame them, either. He really didn't have much of a promotional instinct, when push came to shove. The part of his job that he liked the most-actually the only part he liked at all-had nothing to do with writing press releases and promotional copy for the dolphins: it was bribing the dolphin handlers to let him do the feeding once a day. This cost him twenty-dollars a week in small, unmarked bills, but it was worth it. When he threw the buckets of bloody fish to the dolphins, they would flash their toothy grins at him winningly, then dance backward on their tails, flirting with him, honking and clacking at him coquettishly, performing clownish and amazing aquatic feats, sometimes drenching him to the bone. He loved every minute of it.
They'd certainly miss him if he left, Schanzer told himself as he sat meditating about the phone call from the San Francisco Zoo. They might even go into one of those inexplicable dolphin mass suicide frames of mind-"Let's all go wash up on the beach together"-that sort of thing. He imagined Sneezy, Grumpy, Doc, and the others crying dolphin tears over his absence, uttering soft, confused honks and beeps, swimming in aimless circles for days, disconsolate, refusing to eat.
And then-forget about the dolphins!-there was Mimi, the woman he lived with, lovely, coltish, just a month shy of thirty. How would she feel about any of this? She'd just landed a nice job, one of those junior management slots, short on salary but long on power-potential. He fretted about her all afternoon, imagining the ordeal of yanking her out of New Jersey, hauling her across the continent to a new coast, away from her family, to a new environment, the two of them left to fend for themselves thrown back on each other for everything, none of their friend around to take up the slack. He saw them opening up a joint checking account (something he'd always resisted), getting lost together on lunatic California freeways clogged with exotic shrubbery and snipers, searching blindly for a decent grocery store, a dentist, knocking on doors, reading maps desperately in the middle of rush hour traffic, turning the wrong way on one-way streets. Just the two of them.
Then, stuck in traffic on the way home that evening, Schanzer was attacked by the sudden realization that he didn't want to go west with Mimi at all.
He wanted to go west alone.
This thought had lurked in his shadow all afternoon and now in a sickening moment of clarity it sprang over Schanzer and pummeled him. He felt something the size and texture of an apricot pit form suddenly in his stomach, hot and dry and angry at him. The apricot pit spoke to him: "Schmuck!" it hissed. "Spineless, self centered creep!" Traffic started to move again, but Schanzer found it hard to give the car any gas. He tasted dust in his mouth. He thought again of his rut-that warm, peaceful rut he'd come to love so much. It seemed like a ditch to him now-a shallow grave he'd dug for himself. He yanked his tie off, clawed at his collar button until it popped open.
That night at dinner, he told Mimi about the call from the San Francisco Zoo. "They're making me quite an offer," he said. "They think I'm one of the best. Imagine that. They said my brochures were like small gems. Of course, I told them they had the wrong guy." He looked at her sharply.
"Yeah-well, anyway, it was sweet of them to call, honey," Mimi said, and ladled some gravy onto his mashed potatoes.
''Actually I've been thinking about it, and-I know you're going to think I'm crazy-I'm thinking of maybe making the big move." Schanzer jerked his thumb toward the west. "I don't know why. Call me wacky. I guess maybe it's time to shake things up a little. What do you think?"
Mimi's smile faded, and she dropped the ladle into the gravy boat with a thick "plud." "Wait a second. Warren, you can't do that," she said in a shrill voice. "What about us? What about me?" Her voice picked up volume with every sentence. "I just started my new job-the one I waited six months to get! I went through hell to get this job. Do you remember? If I leave it now it's like I never had it in the first place. It's like-"
"I know, I know," Schanzer said, "I've been thinking about that." Actually he'd blocked it out of his mind completely until that very moment. "Just listen to this plan, though," he went on desperately. "How would it be if-if I moved out there and got things established, see, got things taken care of and settled in place, and you could stay here, get a couple more months in at your job, then you could come out in a few months, say, and we could get married out there, maybe under the Golden Gate Bridge? Or on a cable car-yeah, that's it-we could say our vows just as we're clanging over Nob Hill. Wouldn't that be something? Every body'd be throwing Rice-a-Roni at us. How would that be?"
"Don't try to be funny. We'd be apart, right?"
"Just for a few months, that's all. Just enough time for you to get settled a little, so you could get a letter of recommendation from your boss. Then you'd come out, we'd get married." He hummed a few bars of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
"We'd be on opposite sides of the country," Mimi said. "I don't like it one bit."
"Think of it as an opportunity," Schanzer offered, looking away. "Sure! It's an opportunity for you-but what about for me, Warren?"
"You're wrong, pal. You're not even listening."
"Don't call me pal. You always call me 'pal' when we're in the middle of an argument."
"Okay, look, sure it's a great career move for me," he conceded. “Apes are definitely big right now. Dolphins are probably on the way out. Remember that TV show they had for awhile? It's not even in reruns anymore. So yeah, sure, this is a big opportunity for me-I admit it. But that's really not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about an opportunity to find out how much we mean to each other," he said, a hurt tone in his voice. He was making this up as he went along, but it sounded good-poignant, even-and he found his voice trembling as he continued. "Most couples go their whole lives and never get the chance to yearn for each other tragically. I'm offering you a scenario straight out of a good nine tenth-century French novel, and you're acting like I'm kissing you off."
A month later, after many tears and promises and recriminations and apologies, after a litany of goodbyes and kissed cheeks and manly handshakes, after detail upon detail had been wrestled into submission, Schanzer flew west, accompanied only by the apricot pit in his stomach, which gave him no end of grief. "That's the Mississippi River off on the left side of the plane," the captain said, and Schanzer's pit replied, "Enjoy the view, you rotten little nothing."
Schanzer spent a few unsettled days at a downtown San Francisco hotel, and then rented a small, run-down cottage out by the ocean, its exterior so badly mauled by salt winds that the color was unidentifiable. "It's an interim place," he explained to Mimi one night that week over the phone. "It's not really a place at all it's more like a semi-place. The real place will come when you get out here and we get married."
But that wasn't how he was feeling. He actually loved the little cottage. Even its shortcomings charmed him. He scrubbed mildew and mold, painted every room a stark white, bought tattered rattan furniture secondhand for the living room, hung colorful prints on the walls. Free of Mimi, unhooked from the support system he'd spent a lifetime developing back east, swept up by the adventure of a new job, a brand new ocean, Schanzer embraced everything. He noticed hair starting to sprout on his chest, as though puberty had decided to pay him a second visit after all these years. He ran his fingers through it slowly whenever he had a free moment.
At work he began with great flourishes of creativity. "Goin' Ape," a local television advertising campaign he came up with after only a few days on the job, was soon the talk of the town. He got off on the right foot with the apes themselves by passing out Heath bars to each and everyone of them his first few days on the job. He learned their names right away and always greeted them personally as he made his daily tours of their cages. "Hey, Gussie! What gives?" he yelled to the matriarch of the gorilla contingent each morning. She flashed him a wide yellow grin and signed back, "Let's do lunch." "Yo! Big Al!" he'd cry to the fattest of the chimps. "How 'bout a little roundball this afternoon!" The monthly zoo magazine featured a cover story on Schanzer, complete with a picture of him hunched over his typewriter looking absorbed.
A sultry young woman who led tours at the zoo-her name was Agnes, Schanzer soon found out-started hanging around his office during her breaks, making vaguely erotic comments that seemed to come out of nowhere. Schanzer found himself fantasizing about her occasionally as he puttered around his cottage: in the midst of hanging a shower curtain he imagined Agnes step ping out of the tub, her skin glistening; while planting bulbs in the backyard he envisioned her stretched out among the weeds stark naked, one arm bent, her head propped on her hand, her eyes smoky and inviting.
He began to jog to work each morning along the Great High way, feeling the thick, fragrant fog working its way down his wind-pipe as he puffed down the beach to the zoo. In the evenings he experimented with new age, healthy West Coast foods that never would have caught his eye back in New Jersey. "I'm eating stuff I can't even pronounce," he reported to Mimi. "But it's just temporary food. The real food will come after you get out here and we get married, don't worry." After dinner every night he curled up in his tiny living room and read by lamplight under a multicolored afghan, feeling the salty ocean breeze sneaking into the cottage through windows and walls. Some nights he called Mimi and heard her plaintive cries of loneliness flying across the country to him, and he cried back to her, feeling more like a phony with every whimper.
One morning not long after he'd started working at the zoo, Schanzer was sitting in his office, a cubbyhole in a small, bunker like stone building near the gorilla cages, editing copy for an ape house flyer. He looked up and noticed Agnes, the sultry young tour guide, lingering near his door, staring at him, her eyes narrow under heavy lids. She took a step forward after a moment and said, "You want to get the lowdown on the zoo's children's program?" As with all her comments, it sounded mysteriously sinful.
"I don't think so," Schanzer said, but then thought better of it. "Sure I do. What the hell. You never know when that kind of thing could come in handy. Maybe I could work it into one of my Ape House brochures."
They had lunch that day at a nearby falafel stand. There was no talk about the children's program. "Okay, I'll tell you what I've heard about you," Agnes said to him as they ate. "This is the way I do things-I'm totally up-front. I hear you're brilliant, first of all. They say you're a genius. I really have this thing for brilliant guys. My favorite book is Ulysses."
"No kidding," Schanzer said. "Brilliant, huh? I've never read Ulysses, personally. I looked at it once and it gave me a headache."
"1 guess if you're brilliant you can get away with that kind of remark," Agnes said, shaking her head admiringly. "The other thing I heard about you is that you have a fiancee back east.""Boy, word gets around, doesn't it," Schanzer said. "The answer is yes, I do. Her name's Mimi. We're separated right now, but I love her very much and we're going to come through this long-distance thing just fine."
"That's something else I have a thing for-loyalty. I think it's sexier than anything else in the whole world. Well, maybe not anything else. But you know what I'm saying."
"1 sure do." He gave her what he hoped was a steadfast, sexy smile.
Agnes popped the rest of her falafel into her mouth. "So what I'm wondering," she said around it, "is ... do you want to have a little thing with me, or what?" She waited for his answer with a subtly smoldering expression on her face.
''A little thing," he said, pursing his lips.
"Yeah. You know."
After a moment of wild, clutching deliberation, he said, "I guess so."
That night, after Agnes had kissed him goodnight and driven away from his cottage in her sports car, Schanzer, in a seizure of hysterical guilt, called Mimi to reassure her that he still loved her. He felt a frenzied ticking in his heart as he spoke to her. "Boy, this being apart is sure hard-but we're doing okay, aren't we?" he asked. "Sure we are, you bet we are. And don't worry, we're right on track, we're getting married any month now," he added, although earlier that evening, as he'd watched Agnes shrug herself free of her clothing and turn to him, her breasts looming toward him in the half-light of his living room, he had decided that marrying Mimi was probably the last thing he'd ever do.
"Can I come out there?" Mimi asked plaintively.
"No! Oh, my God, no. It's out of the question. You know that. You've got to stay there, get a few months of experience on that job. Just a few months."
"1 don't like my boss, Warren. I don't like the way he stares at me."
Schanzer, who'd begun toying with the idea that Mimi might find someone else to fall in love with, perked up at this news. "So who is this guy, anyway?"
"He's-well, really he's very nice," she said. "He's always paying me compliments. Telling me I look nice today, that sort of thing. I don't mind it, really. It's the way he looks at me. It gives me the creeps."
"He's in love with you, obviously," Schanzer said, half-kidding.
"I know," Mimi moaned. "He already told me."
"Last week. He took me out to lunch, gave me flowers. He's very sweet. It's awful, Warren. He wants me to forget about coming out there."
Schanzer hesitated. "Look, tell this guy ... no, wait. Don't tell him anything. Don't hurt his feelings. Just let him go on taking you to lunch. That's what bosses are for. Don't break his heart not yet, anyway."
"You're certainly being cool about this," Mimi said, a petulant tone in her voice. "I thought you'd be jealous."
"Well I am ... a little bit. I'm trying to be tough, that's all. I know long-distance romances are rough on some people. But we're not some people. We're us. I know we're tough enough to get through this thing."
There was a pause. "Can I can come out there? Like right now? Like this very week?"
"No, as in no." He took a deep breath. "Mimi, sweetheart you're not listening to me. This is a growth experience. I can feel us growing every day, no kidding."
Schanzer berated himself for hours after hanging up the phone; he'd never been this much of a simpering, hypocritical lout in his entire life. Well, okay, maybe he had, but it had been for about two rotten seconds at a shot-not for days, weeks on end, the way it was now. That hard, hot-tempered knot of guilt and resentment in his midsection was with him constantly now, sending volleys of recriminations up to his brain at all hours of the day and night. From time to time he tried looking at himself in the mirror-just a quick, furtive glance out the corner of his eye-hoping that the person peering back at him would be someone else, someone more honorable or even likable. But every time he looked, there he was, his face pudgy and blotched with shame, his chest choked with new hair.
But oh, those dates with Agnes. They were unlike anything he'd ever experienced before. She took him to tiny, nameless ethnic restaurants in parts of San Francisco unmentioned in standard guidebooks: one night out in the avenues he sampled squid in its own ink; later the same week, in a little restaurant on the other side of town, she fed him thumb-sized Guatemalan tidbits by hand, saying, "Shut your eyes, big boy-here comes heaven."
"Big boy," Schanzer murmured, his mouth full of something delicious. "I like the sound of that-no one's ever said it to me before."
And then, even more exotic than the restaurants, there was the sex. With Mimi it had been sweet-natured and placid, but Agnes was a different story-loose-limbed and unpredictable, full of bizarre acrobatic maneuvers and electrifying, sheet-flaying energy."Here, watch, put your legs like this-it's called 'Feeding the Great Lion,'" she'd say in an urgent whisper, demonstrating some coiled pose that would have left Schanzer in traction for six months. One night she tied him up, and if it hadn't been for the rope burns on his ankles he'd have had the time of his life. In the midst of things she often cried "Give it to me!" at the top of her lungs, and occasionally erupted in frightening bursts of orgasmic gibberish.
On a drizzly evening a little over a month after he'd arrived in town, Agnes took him to a little Korean place in Presidio Heights. Each small table had a red-hot circular hibachi in its center. Schanzer in a moment of passion leaned across the table to brush a kiss across Agnes's cheek and singed the hair off his right hand as he sat back in his chair. Soon waitresses came out laden with meat, vegetables and seafood, and tossed everything onto the hibachi, sending great tongues of flames shooting toward the ceiling. The smoke was thick and fragrant, the heat intense; Schanzer began to sweat profusely.
After they'd eaten and the fire in the hibachi had died down to embers, they lingered at their table, sipping coffee and eaves dropping on a conversation between a young couple nearby. It soon became apparent, as much from the lengthy and awkward silences as from what was being said, that this was in all likelihood the young couple's first date.
"Romance is something, isn't it?" murmured Schanzer with a wry grin, and he reached carefully across the table to grasp Agnes's wrist.
She pulled away and grimaced at him. "Don't start up with that kind of talk," she said, and added in a loud voice, "Romance is an invention of MGM. It's junk, strictly for the unwashed and the uneducated-like those two retards at the next table." The young couple stopped talking and immediately departed, their heads hung low and their shoulders stooped in defeat.
"That was nice," Schanzer said in a strained whisper once they were alone. "That was pleasant."
Agnes stirred her espresso in silence.
"If you're so down on romance, how come you fell for me?" he asked.
"What? Who said I did?"
"Oh, come on. You walk in my office and say, 'You're brilliant. I
have a thing for brilliance.' What is that if it isn't romance? 'You're
a genius. Loyalty is so sexy. Ulysses is my favorite book.' These are
Agnes sipped her coffee. "Just listen to yourself," she said. "Honestly, you're so lame. Okay, look, let's cut to the chase: I'm done with this thing-I'm dumping you. A friend of mine, she dumped a guy here two weeks ago, she said it went great. I thought I'd give it a try. I bet she didn't have to sit next to those two yahoos.""Wait a second," Schanzer said. "What are you telling me?"
"Look, I like you. I really do, kind of," she said, her tone now motherly and patient. "I've got to tell you, though: in bed, you're a dud. Don't think all this hasn't been fun, though. You're kind of like a little kid, and that's nice for a while. What can I say?"
He stared at her, breathless. "In bed I'm a what?" he whispered.
''A dud. You're nowhere. How old are you, anyway?"
"Wait a minute!" he cried, and air flooded back into his lungs. "What about all that screaming every time we-what about that noise? What is that, speaking in tongues?"
Agnes slung her shoulder bag over one arm and stood up. "I'm the enthusiastic type," she said with a shrug. Then she turned and walked away.
Late that night, having had a good long talk with himself and having agreed that he had no conscience left, no shame, no idea of who he was anymore, no sense of decency whatsoever, Schanzer called Mimi, waking her from a sound sleep. "Baby, I've thought it over," he said. "I can't live this way, I can't stand it. I think it's time you made the big move."
There was a long pause, during which Schanzer listened to the faint static on the line, like the sound of wind rushing from New Jersey to California. Then Mimi's sleepy voice came over the phone. "It's 4:30 in the morning here," she said.
Schanzer waited for something more, but there was nothing. Finally he broke the silence. "I say I think it's time you made the big move. Out here, I mean. Out west."
Another pause. "Oh," Mimi said.
"Well, what do you say?"
"Do you really want me to? Just last week you said being apart
was making us stronger every day."
"Yeah, I know. There's such a thing as getting too strong, though,
don't you think?"
"You said we were growing."
"I know, I know. Good God, Mimi, what do you do, tape record these conversations? Do you take down everything I say? I know very well what I said. Growing. Sure-but what if we keep on growing? What if we get too big? Then what? Have you thought about that?" He breathed deeply. "Now, look," he began again in a calmer voice. "I'm saying get on out here and let's get married. I can't make it any plainer than that."
There was another awkward pause. "I guess I'm just going to have to say this, Warren," Mimi said. She blew out a long sigh."I've fallen in love with my boss."
Schanzer felt a curtain drop down over his life, a black leaden sheet of doom. He immediately visualized Mimi, white-robed, a nebulous, unearthly light around her head, waving goodbye to him from a great distance. She was smiling beatifically. The image was so strong, so compelling, that for several breaths he could think of nothing to say.
"Hello?" Mimi asked after a moment.
"You can't be," he said at last. "How can you be?"
"He's really very nice. He likes me a lot and compliments me all the time. He's a widower."
"Look, how many compliments can the guy give you? It all sounds great now, but wait till he starts repeating himself. It could happen any time."
"We're deeply in love," Mimi said dreamily. "He's more than twice my age, and we're deeply, dramatically in love."
"He's what?" Schanzer choked out the question and then fell silent.
"He's a dear, sweet man," Mimi announced. "My family is absolutely livid. They've already tried to sue him, but they can't find a lawyer who'll take the case. My grandmother says if she ever sees me again she'll get out of her wheelchair and kill me."
"But you're in love with me. How can you love two people at the same time?"
"I don't know. I've thought about that. I guess I'm not really in love with you. That must be it. Probably I never really was."
"Oh, don't say that, Mimi."
''I'm glad you called. I was going to have to write you."
"Write me? You were going to write me?"
"Look, Warren, I'm terribly sorry. I feel like a heel. Don't be bitter, okay?"
Don't be bitter? Schanzer thought to himself after she'd hung up. Don't be bitter? He'd been dumped twice in one night-a new record. He'd also forgotten to demand the return of the engagement sweater he'd given Mimi as a present. Well, she could keep it, he told himself with a mirthless chuckle. She might put it on one cold night back in New Jersey, and memories of him would come flooding over her in waves. She'd dissolve in tears, hugging the sweater to herself and murmuring over and over again in a tiny voice, "Oh, what a fool I was!" Soon she'd begin sleeping With the sweater under her pillow, and her new husband-old and decrepit, but very wealthy-would question her sharply about It. She would deny everything, insisting it was "a gift from a friend, that's all." Early in the morning, while Moneybags still snored, she'd sneak out of bed and go out onto the patio, where she would sit with the beloved sweater wrapped around her shoulders, sipping cappuccino and thinking bittersweet thoughts of Schanzer, of where he might be now, who he might be with, what he might be saying and doing and thinking.
Schanzer awoke ashen and devastated. At work that day, his ape house slogans took a dark, fatalistic turn, their tone unlike any his previous promotional copy had possessed. "Come See the Chimps ... Before it's Too Late," he wrote. "Why Visit the Gorillas? Well, Why Not Visit the Gorillas?" The next day, Schanzer wrote, "If You've Seen One Chimp, You've Seen Them All. The Question is, Have You Seen One Chimp?" This slogan found its way to the zoo director, and Schanzer was summoned to his office.
"What's this slogan supposed to mean?" the zoo director asked him.
"I was just toying around with the idea," Schanzer muttered into his tie.
"Is this some kind of joke?"
"Not really. I guess I've been feeling a little down lately. I just recently got dumped twice in one night."
"I'm sorry to hear about it," the zoo director said. "Boy, that must be some kind of record."
"How would I know?" Schanzer asked under his breath.
"Don't let me catch you with any more of those slogans, though. Remember-switch a couple of chromosomes here and there, you'd be an ape yourself."
"I'll bear it in mind," Schanzer said, stroking his chin thought fully.
The next day, though, he couldn't help himself; he wrote slogan after slogan, each more vituperative than the last. "If Apes Are So Smart, Why Are They All Behind Bars?" he wrote, and "Would You Let Your Sister Marry a Chimp?" The zoo director called Schanzer on the carpet the following afternoon. He tore the recent spate of slogans into bits, right under Schanzer's nose. 'Any more of these," he warned, "and you're gone. We run a clean zoo here-a family type of zoo. You're on thin ice, my friend."
Schanzer went back to his office in the bunker and broke pencils all afternoon. One of the keepers must have told the chimps about the slogan incident, because late that afternoon, one of the males, a brooding adolescent named Rocko, pitched a large underripe banana at Schanzer's head as he made his way to the bus stop.
That night he called Mimi again, making sure he'd waited until she would no doubt be asleep. But when she answered, her voice was perky and full of laughter, and Schanzer could hear music playing in the background.
"Was I a dud in bed?" he asked her immediately.
"Oh, gee. Hi, Warren," Mimi said, sounding suddenly tired and wary. "Uhmm ... I kind of can't talk right now."
"Look, I'm not calling to make conversation. Was I or wasn't I?"
"A dud in bed?"
There was a long, awkward pause. "You mean like with sex?"
"Yes. That's what I mean."
Mimi blew out a bewildered sigh. "I forget," she said.
Several weeks passed, and oddly enough, Schanzer gradually began to feel he'd been battered but purified-as if he'd lashed himself to a mast and weathered a terrible tropical storm. He imaged himself a grizzled war veteran, carrying around some shrapnel in one leg but still able to get from here to there when he had to. He felt his jaw hardening. Give it a few years, he told himself, he'd be looking back at this period of his life and chuck ling. At work, things seemed to be mending themselves. Rocko, the brooding adolescent chimp, stopped Schanzer one afternoon and apologized in sign language. "Sorry I threw that banana at you a while back. I was just working through some anger," the chImp sIgned. The zoo director took Schanzer out to lunch at a nearby Zim's restaurant, and told him, "Order anything you like, except maybe the steak sandwich." Other zoo officials who had snubbed him temporarily during his black period now carne around to the bunker and offered him hard candy and cigarettes.
But then, four weeks to the day since he'd been dumped twice in one night, Just as he was settling down to a process of restyling his life m a quiet, perhaps even monastic mode, the Bolivian Gibbon Blight struck the zoo. Three of the gibbons died the first day, and after the disease had been diagnosed, the rest of the gibbons took to their cots and began gnashing their teeth. Zoo doctors went grimly from one gibbon to the next, marking red x's on their foreheads, and in the dark days that followed, all of the beasts languished and died.
"I'm not saying it's your fault," the zoo director said to Schanzer after all the gibbons were dead and buried. "Obviously you had nothing to do with this."
"Thank God you understand that," Schanzer said, and loosened his tie.
"But you're fired, anyway," the zoo director added. "1 decided a few weeks ago I didn't like you anymore."
"Excuse me?" Schanzer said, leaning forward with his knuckles on the zoo director's desk.
"Come to think of it, probably I never did," the zoo director told him with a shrug.
Word of Schanzer's sudden availability spread around the country, and a few calls came in. RhinoWorld, an Idaho outfit, asked if he'd like to come aboard. "We've got a real PR problem here," they told him. "Rhinos are among the nicest, the most considerate of all your major animals-they'd do anything for you but let's (ace it, they're fat and ugly, and your average Joe won't give them the time of day. We're trying our darndest here at RhinoWorld to turn things around-more fish and chicken in their diet, plenty of salads, cut out the snacks, lots of exercise, that kind of thing-but the truth is, there's only so much we can do, short of liposuction. What we need is somebody like you to handle the promo end of things for us. Image stuff-you know."
Leaping Lizards called from Florida. "Let's put your troubles behind you, what do you say?" they asked. "Let's get you started in a whole new direction. It might be time for you to make the big move-the move up to reptiles. Here at Leaping Lizards we think of reptiles as a concept, not just a bunch of slimy little turdlike bastards that make you want to vomit. Catch our drift?"
But for some reason nothing sounded appealing. His severance pay supported him for a few months in the tiny windswept ocean side shack while Schanzer sat stupefied in a tattered easy chair, waiting for inspiration. His bank account, once robust, gradually dwindled to pennies, and after a short spate of overdrawn notices, he stopped writing checks. Finally one day the landlord, an ancient Chinese fellow named Wen, arrived accompanied by his Rottweiler and demanded the keys to the place.
The seasons changed, but Schanzer hardly noticed. He drifted through San Francisco streets like a brown smudge, shuffling his feet and muttering to himself. On rainy days he went to Golden Gate Park and sat in the wet grass until he developed a rash and had to stop going. He averted his eyes whenever an animal crossed his path. His clothing deteriorated. Occasionally he realized he was lost.
One morning several months later, as he was lifting garbage out of a trash can in an alley behind a Wendy's, Schanzer's rheumy eyes fell upon a newspaper headline: "Parrots said to be smart as apes, dolphins." For a moment he put aside his hunger-he'd been looking for hamburger scraps-and read the accompanying article.
Ornithologists at the Mitford Foundation released findings today which indicate that parrots may be among the most intelligent of all animals. "Parrots could be as smart as primates or even dolphins," Dr. Harold Kaganoff announced. "With the right training and motivation, they might even be as smart as some humans," he added with a laugh. According to Dr. Kaganoff's study, parrots can imitate any sound, including a telephone ringing or a baby's cry. They can also distinguish between colors and are capable of moral judgments and occasional dishonesty. "I've heard a parrot do Kate Smith singing 'God Bless America,'" Dr. Kaganoff reported, "and nobody could tell the difference. There wasn't a dry eye in the lab."
After a moment Schanzer went back to his search for food scraps, but there was a new glint in his eye. As he munched listlessly on limp day-old french fries and slurped the last of a vanilla shake, his mind careened skittishly back to a place he'd heard of once at a convention a few years back-Pollywood, a small parrot park in Toledo which specialized in oddball skits and hootenannies. At the time he'd pooh-poohed the idea of such a place-what a fool he'd been!-but it wasn't too late, no, it was never too late, not when there were animals out there who could sing like Kate Smith. Parrots-he shook his head ruefully at the thought. Who could have known they'd turn out to be so bright? They had those tiny unblinking eyes and those big beaks that reminded him of his Uncle Leo, a humorless, poultry-faced little fellow who'd been no great shakes in the intellect department.
Schanzer took in a great breath and with it came flooding the inspiration he'd been searching for these many months. A cast of parrots to work with, a company of copycats who could mimic any sound, any emotion-it was a dream come true. To heck with skits and hootenannies, he told himself-let's talk legitimate theatre. Perhaps they could start with a simple production: Waiting for Godot might be good for a trial run. Then on to bigger things: Show Boat, My Fair Lady, maybe even The King and If He felt sun shine on his face, the warm rays benevolent and full of life.
Moments later, his grubby fingers trembling, Schanzer pushed some change into the slot of a pay phone and dialed Toledo information, then, when he had the number, he phoned Pollywood.
"You may have read my brochures," he told them in a choked voice. "1 don't mind letting the cat out of the bag here: I'm one of the best." The possibilities of life suddenly overwhelmed him. He dropped the receiver with a cry and sank down on his haunches, burdened by glory.