Diane Shotton's Writing Pages

Fromandi's Zoo

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Short Story - Fromandi's Zoo
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Short Story - The Trailer - Part One
Poetry - The Lost One
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Fromandi’s Zoo

 

Every Saturday Carl’s mother sent him to Fromandi’s to summon his father home to dinner. Without fail, at two, after his shift at the brewery, Pop would stop for lunch, meeting friends and neighbors who, like him, spent the afternoon sopping up Mrs. Fromandi’s stew with freshly baked biscuits, washing it all down with a few buckets of beer. As the oldest and nearly fourteen, it was his duty and secret pleasure to fetch his father home. Mother knew her son’s passion for the zoo so she always made sure Carl had enough time to have a quick visit with the animals.

            Fromandi’s Zoo wasn’t a real zoo. It didn’t have a giraffe or an elephant and there were no lions.  The eccentric owner, William Fromandi, who operated the neighborhood saloon and eatery since 1885 had collected many kinds of animals over the past ten years, housing them in the yard behind the building surrounded by a high picket fence. Kids paid a nickel to peer through barred cages that held a wolf, a fox, a wildcat, a weasel and a raccoon. Snakes slithered in mesh boxes and a four-foot alligator made its home in one corner, a small bog scooped out of the earth, watered daily to keep it wet and marshy.

            But the greatest spectacle of all at the zoo was Max the Bear. Legend had it that Fromandi bought Max from a hunter who’d raised the brown bear cub, orphaned when his mother was killed for a bearskin rug. He came to the zoo when he was only two years old but even at this young age his height was more than seven feet and his girth rounder than a full grown oak tree.

            Sent to fetch his father, Carl walked the two blocks to Fromandi’s on a find summer Saturday evening, the sky still afternoon bright, soft breezes displacing heat and humidity readying the neighborhood for a sweet cool evening.  He bounded into the saloon and found his father seated on a high stool at the counter, a stein in front of him and a friend on both sides.

            “Hey Carl! Looks like your Pop has a beer to finish.” Mr. Fromandi handed him a pail of vegetable scraps. “Feed Max for me, will you?”

            “Sure, Mr. Fromandi”! Carl’s usual excitement of visiting the zoo doubled by the additional treat of feeding Max. He looked to his father for permission.

            Pop raised his half-filled mug toward his son, saluting his approval. Carl walked through a thin windowless hallway to the back door that opened onto the menagerie of animals Carl had come to love as friends. He greeted them one by one as he moved toward Max’s cage.  He said hello to the wolf that was as friendly as a dog, to the wildcat whose fur he’d like to ruffle and even to the weasel, an ugly creature he supposed God had some use for.

            Usually alone on these Saturday visits, Carl was surprised to see a girl, about the same age as his sister, ten year old Kate.  She stood a few feet from Max’s cage, her blonde head tilted to the right, peering at Max as he lay on his side. The bear’s eyes were closed, ignorant of his lone spectator.

            “Hi.” Carl said to the girl as he unfastened the wire mesh door near the bottom of the cage. “Hey Max. It’s feeding time.”

            Max’s huge lids slit open and seemed to recognize Carl. He sniffed the air, rolled onto his belly, rose slowly, almost painfully onto all fours and shook hiself free of sleep and dust.

            “What’s he eat?” The girl peeked into the bucket.

            “Vegetable scraps mostly but sometimes a few old apples or leftover berries. He loves berries.”

            “How do you know? Do you live here?” She inched closer to the cage as Carl dumped the contents of the pail into the sawed off barrel that served as Max’s feeding dish.

            “No. I live a block over on Leonard Street. I’m just helping feed Max.” He hung the bucket on a makeshift hook on the side of the cage where it belonged.

He turned to the girl and introduced himself. “My name’s Carl. What’s yours?”

“I’m Dottie,” she replied keeping watch over the bear. “Is he dangerous?

Carl didn’t mind her curiosity.  Any reason to talk about Max was welcome. “Well, not especially. I’ve never seen him get mad or even heard him growl now that I think of it. After he eats he sounds like an old man who’s fallen asleep. Not quite a snore but worse than heavy breathing. Like this.” Carl did his best imitation of Max’s noises making Dottie giggle when he snorted.

“Can I pet him?” The girl moved closer to the cage and now stood side by side with Carl. She hovered over the bear gripping the bars of the cage while Max ignored her and ate.

Carl had never petted Max.  Though he though it might be safe to pet this particular bear, he knew by instinct that disturbing a bear while it was eating would be unwise.

“I wouldn’t” I’ve known Max for almost a year now and he’s gentle as an old beagle. But I’ve heard of bears that could shred a mountain lion with one swipe of their terrible claws.”

Both of them looked at Max’s paws, as large as dinner plates, claws long as kitchen knives.

Carl made the decision for them both. “Nope. I won’t pet him and you best step back a bit, Dottie.”

“Oh, he has to know I won’t bring him any harm. What could a girl do to a bear anyway?” she sniffed at the idea.

Max’s huge head swung toward the girl. Still chewing, lettuce dangling from between his massive teeth, it seemed to Carl that the bear contemplated her question. But Max dismissed them both, his food more important than a perceived threat from these two little humans.

Carl heard his father call from inside. This visit was short but at least he’d fed Max, a first for him.

“That’s my Pop. I have to go. Stay way from the bear,” he warned as he headed toward the back door of the saloon. He said his good-byes to the wolf, the wildcat and the weasel. At the doorway, he thought of saying good-bye to Dottie too but before he could get the words out, a deafening scream filled the yard.

Carl saw her fall and hurried to her side, where she lay on the ground clutching her leg, the bear standing upright on hind legs seeming to loom over her though he was locked securely in his cage.

“What happened? Are you hurt?” Blood oozed from between her fingers clutching the calf of her right leg.

“Pop! Mr. Fromandi! Help!” But he didn’t wait for help. Quickly he tore off his shirt. “Move your hands. Let me see.” He yelled at Dottie whose own screams had subsided into mere howls of pain.

Carl wiped the blood away and examined a long thin scratch on the side of her calf. He pressed the shirt down on the wound and though it bloodied quickly, he could tell it wasn’t deep.

“That bear! He clawed me. Oh my leg! It hurts, it hurts!” Her tears streamed down her flushed cheeks, as many men, perhaps as many as all who had been inside the saloon now streamed into the yard.

            One man cried out over the rest, “Dottie! Oh my God! Look out, that’s my daughter!” Pushing through the crowd, he reached her side and swept her into his arms, while Carl managed to keep pressure on the wound.

            “I think it’s just a scratch, sir. The bleeding is beginning to stop.” He showed Dottie’s father by pulling the shirt away from her leg. Carl’s father came into view but kept his distance, watching the drama unfold from the sidelines.

            “What happened, Dottie?” asked her father, his tone shifting from fear to worry.

            “He did it!” she pointed at Max who cowered in the corner of his cage, petrified by the noise of so many humans. “He scratched me with his huge claws and I was so frightened, Daddy. He could’ve killed me.”

            At that moment, a frightful din arose from the men in the yard.

            “I knew this would happen one day.”

            “Stupid to keep a dangerous animal all penned up in the city.”

            “Imagine if it’d really gotten hold of the girl.”

            “I’ll get my rifle and we’ll take care of him here and now.”

            Mr. Fromandi stood protectively in front of Max’s cage facing down the crowd. “Max would never hurt anyone. He can’t have done this.”

            Carl watched as the fever to kill Max grew as if were a living thing. He moved next to Mr. Fromandi putting himself between the angry crowd and the bear. Carl’s father looked on, not joining the foray, yet not deserting his son either.

Sam Murphy, the lone Irish patron among the Germans who frequented Fromandi’s, elbowed John Bayer in the ribs and said under his breath, “That girl is spoiled rotten.”

Bayer agreed. “Yeah, ever since her mother died last year, seems she’s always getting in to trouble.”

Murphy’s puzzled hand scratched his chin.  Over the commotion in the yard he asked, “Now, why would poor old Max, tame as a house cat, hurt Charlie’s girl?”

His question paused the crowd in the midst of its accusations. Looks of speculation passed between them as they contemplated Murphy’s simple question.

Carl, emboldened by Murphy’s contrary opinion took advantage of the stymied men and blurted out.  “It wasn’t the bear!”          

            Charlie took offense.  “If my daughter said the bear scratched her, then it did. You calling her a liar?” Dottie sniffed in her father’s arms watching the men banter over her plight.

“Listen to him, Charlie.”  Bayer commanded. 

Carl pointed to a thin wire, the one he’d failed to twist around the cage bars to secure the door he’d opened to feed Max. It was sticking out stiffly into the yard, exactly where the girl had been standing. He talked quickly.  “Max didn’t claw her. She must have been scratched by this wire.” He gripped it to show them and his hopes rose as several men leaned in for a closer look.

            “Could be. Sure is sharp enough to scratch that girl,” said the man who’d volunteered to get his rifle.

            “What d’ya think, Charlie? Did your girl get scratched by this wire or that bear?” Carl’s father spoke for the first time, his stern voice demanding truthfulness.

            Charlie was clearly torn between his daughter’s adamant statement that the bear was to blame and the most obvious cause of his daughter’s wound. He set her down on the ground and bent on one knee coming eye to eye with his only child. He laid his hands gently on her shoulders.

            “Dottie, if that bear did anything to you, I’ll make sure that he won’t hurt you or anyone else ever again. But if it’s possible that it wasn’t the bear, that it was an accident and you were scratched by the wire, it would mean the world to Mr. Fromandi to keep his bear.”

            Dottie fidgeted her fingers and surveyed the crowd. She met Carl’s pleading eyes, begging her silently to tell the truth and save his friend.

            “I met that boy here today. Carl.” Her accusing tone turned every head toward him. And just as quickly, they swiveled back to watch Dottie as she continued.

            “He was real nice to me and let me watch him feed the bear. We talked for a little while but he said I shouldn’t try to pet him. So after he left, I did try to touch him and when I reached into the cage, I felt something stick me but when I pulled back it must have caught on my leg and scratched me. Max didn’t do it. I just didn’t want to get in trouble for trying to pet him.” Donnie looked to her father for forgiveness, which he readily awarded with a quick squeeze of her shoulders and a nod.

            An audible sigh of relief swept over the crowd because the bear was an institution at Fromandi’s and no one really wanted to see it killed. Fromandi himself nearly cried at the bear’s pardon and turned to comfort his friend Max, who’d been at the zoo for more than five years. All the men smacked Charlie on the back appreciatively for handling his daughter’s plight with diplomacy and tact. Carl’s father caught his son’s eye and with a jerk of his head motioned it was time to get home.

            Mr. Fromandi shook Carl’s hand. “You can feed Max any time you want. In fact, on Saturday’s, I’ll hold the feeding pail till you come get your Pop.”

            Everyone began drifting back into the saloon. Dottie’s father declared he’d buy the next round and his announcement was met with hale and hearty cheers.

            Dottie hung back from the rest and stood again in front of Max’s cage. “Sorry Max. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”

            Max paid no attention to her apology, but went about his business of settling down for a well-earned nap.

            Carl, who’d overheard Dottie’s confession put a hand on her shoulder and said, “I’m sure he forgives you. He’s a kindly bear.”

            Dottie nodded her head in agreement. “It’s so hard since we lost Mama.  I get lonely with Papa at work all the time. I hadn’t seen him all week so coming here with him today was fine until he told me to run along and play outside.”

Carl thought how it might feel to be as lonely as Dottie and understood how her father’s lack of attention could make her do odd things.  He’d done stupid stuff when he didn’t get his way.

“Now that Max knows you, I’m sure that any Saturday you want to come with your father, he’ll be happy to see you.” 

Dottie grinned up at Carl, her blond hair dappled with late afternoon sun shining through leaves of the maple trees guarding Fromandi’s Zoo.

He added, “And so will I.”

   

1 April 2004