The summer right out of high school, Claus worked in a roadside zoo. I visited him a couple of times. It was called the Snake Pit and Exotic Petting Zoo a little bit north of Abilene on the shores of Lake Fort Phantom Hill. The owners, lapsed Mormon twin brothers, were barely scraping by, making just enough money to keep them in beer and frozen pizza. Ostensibly one of the brothers operated the snake house, while the other tended to the petting zoo. But in fact it was Claus running the whole show. The brothers woke up around noon and spent the rest of the day in the feed shed beyond the llama pen steadily drinking while listening to sports on an old tinny RCA short-wave radio.
“This is the life,” Claus had told me.
It took a second or so for it to sink in that he wasn’t being sarcastic. I had arrived at the zoo in the late morning and had helped Claus hose down the peccaries, delouse the ostriches, and feed the rattlesnakes, which was a grizzly affair as it involved live mice or rabbits, depending on the size of the snakes. We’d even had to mop up the concrete apron in front of the box office when a toddler vomited from too many eskimo pies which Claus sold out of a rusted and rattling freezer from another era, an era of roadside attractions.
Claus caught me staring at him. He smiled and looked away across the lake. We were sitting on lawn chairs in the bed of my pickup truck drinking iced bottles of Dr. Pepper fresh from the styrofoam cooler between us. There was a soft wind kicking up and the sun was heading across the flat oil fields to a point beyond the horizon, beyond Merkle and Sweetwater. I looked over the rail of the truck and watched as dozens of large carpenter ants shuttled across the hard red earth, crisscrossing one another’s paths, engaged in their archaic industry.
“It’s this time of day,” he said softly. “The hour after the mosquitoes have bedded down but the bats haven’t yet come out. Everything is simple, as though it’s all come to a stop. Balanced just so.”
We took a pull on our drinks.
In the dying light I saw what I at first mistook for a medium sized dog loping towards us. I leaned forward, squinting. It was a chimpanzee. As it came closer I could hear it breathing with a sort of asthmatic wheeze. It swung up onto the open tailgate and squatted there, staring at Claus. The fur around its mouth was mostly white and its eyes were rimmed in red like a factory worker.
“This is Charlie,” Claus said.
“Hi, Charlie,” I said in that same voice I use for children where I try not to sound too patronizing. But Charlie ignored me.
The chimp reached into the cooler and removed a bottle. He handed it to Claus. Claus removed the cap and returned the bottle to Charlie. The animal swung over the side of the truck and was gone.
“He hates the crowds. You know, the patrons. After breakfast, he lets himself out of his cage and doesn’t come back until sundown. I tried to follow him once, but he got mad.” Claus lit a cigarette, the first one I’d seen him smoke that day. “Lord knows where he goes. But, he always comes back and locks himself in his cage for the night.”
The ostriches got into a noisy altercation, than they settled down for the night. From the feed shed back towards the road we could just make out the sound of a soccer game over the radio. We looked to the darkened western horizon and spotted a couple of satellites, tiny dots high enough to still catch the sunlight, as they glided untroubled across the sky.