It had been a while since Claire had spoken with the grizzled giraffe. She worked across the zoo now, and had only recently sensed that her old friend was sick. She sat on the hard concrete bench, staring into his soft mahogany eyes. His exploring tongue slid, snakelike, out of his pointy rotating jaw. He licked a stray piece of acacia leaf from his lip. A gaggle of squawking children perched on the metal railing that separated the pair. Despite the swarming throng of voices, neither the girl nor the giraffe could break the intensity of the glum gaze they shared.
At a quarter-past four, she swept up her maroon and magenta beaded bag and moved rhythmically past the Toy Trade, the restrooms, and the rotating exit gates, into the world beyond. Tucking a strand of sparse tawny hair behind her no-longer pierced ear, she entered Lombardi’s Market and reemerged with six ripe tomatoes and a kiwi. Claire traipsed toward her home, passing porches of pansies and stoops of pumpkins competing for the season. She arrived at four twenty-eight, as darkness descended in the eastern sky and the breeze kissed her bare arms with a chill.
“You’re two minutes early,” her mom said, looking up from the cutting board topped with sliced scallions. Her viridian eyes glinted comically as she pushed her gray-streaked bangs off her forehead with the back of her wrist, causing the slicing blade to dance dangerously near her scalp.
Claire openly grinned and said, “Aren’t you a lucky duck.” She carefully counted the tomatoes out on the counter.
“Thank you,” said her mom. “Why don’t you go wash.”
Claire sat on her bed and patted her washed hands on the crocheted rainbow of a bedspread. She removed the kiwi from the bottom of her bag, and stretched her tongue to lick the tiny brown hairs. She lurched from the dirty-tasting, spindly texture, then shrugged and returned to the kitchen.
Her mother was wiping her hands over the waste basket. “No kiwi on the tart,” she said. “That one’s full of flies.”
Claire offered the new kiwi to her mother.
Her mom smiled a warm mother’s smile and reached her cracked, calloused fingers toward the fruit. “You saw the giraffe,” she said.
The next day, at the Snack Shack, Claire grabbed the over-sized, gorilla-printed cup away from her manager, Edward, and said, “I’m not a child. I can do that.”
She pressed the cup into the switch and ice cubes rattled hollowly to the bottom. Using both hands, she moved the cup to the next machine and dark liquid rushed over the ice with swooshes and crackles. Her eyelashes flickered at the cool touch of the ricocheting bubbles.
“That’ll be one twenty-five.” Claire studied the tiny girl on the other side of the tall counter.
“That’s a lot of money.” The girl observed Claire with equal intensity.
“That’s the price of the large. If you’d like the small, it would be cheaper.”
“I want the gorilla.”
“Claire,” Edward said, “What are you doing? There’s a line. Take the money. Don’t just look at her like a freak.”
“Keep the change.” The girl gave Claire two crumpled bills and used both hands to slide the soda off the counter. She took one long sip, then dumped the remaining soda in the trash. Clutching the cup, she walked away, glancing back once to smile at Claire.
Claire made change and moved to put the three quarters in her pocket.
“I can’t believe you,” Edward said. He grabbed her hand and the quarters spiraled onto the concrete with a tinkling noise. “Frank,” Edward yelled.
A white-haired, large-chested man, with a proportionate gray moustache approached from the gorilla enclosure. Smiling azure eyes belied his stern voice when he said, “Edward?”
“Claire is stealing,” Edward said, still holding Claire’s wrist in the air, triumphantly.
“Move over here,” Frank said discretely. He guided Claire away from Edward’s grasp and outside the small shop. The condemning on-lookers went back to their food deliberations as Frank herded Claire and Edward toward the edge of the path.
Claire stared past the mulched cedar border and toward the dense ivy vines that twisted and twirled their way over the barely visible fence.
“You’ve got to fire her,” Edward said, folding his lanky arms across his chest. His crimson uniform shirt only accented the pimples that dotted his chin.
Frank looked toward Claire and said, “Well?”
She looked at the navy-lettered white sign on the locked gate that read, “Lot C Closed.” Just beyond, tufts of grass grew in veins of life up through cracked pavement and the deep dimple in the ground where the propane tanks had been. Claire absent-mindedly moved her hand to her face and then to the scar above her eye, as if to protect them from the excruciating burst of light and heat that had erupted all those years ago and was still never very far from her being.
“Claire,” Frank said, his voice full of patience.
“She told me to keep the change,” Claire said, still eyeing the lot.
“She did not. She didn’t say a word. Neither of them did. I was right there.” Edward said in a whiny pitch that might accompany a toddler’s foot stomp.
Frank ran his hand through his generous hair and said, “I see. Edward, thank you. I will have Claire reassigned.”
“Reassigned?” asked Edward.
“Yes.” Frank said.
Edward walked away like one of the lumbering sloths. “Reassigned,” he muttered, kicking a pebble. Then he turned back, pointed, and said, “That lot? It’s never going to be what you want.” Seeing no reaction from Claire, he retreated into the Shack.
Frank turned toward Claire and asked, “How about the Toy Trade?”
Claire smiled and asked, “My first place?”
“I suppose it was. That has to be going on twelve years,” he said.
Claire nodded and added, “Across from the giraffes.”
Frank walked toward a forest green wooden box at the edge of the trail. He unlocked it with one of his dozens of keys, then pulled out a phone receiver, dialed and said, “Hi Martha? Claire is coming over.”
Inside the Lot C gate, a dirty white ribbon fluttered in tatters. It pulled their attention to the nearby wooden cross that was nearly obscured by the overgrown vegetation. Painted in the middle of the crude crossed planks was a stick-figure child, who held a kite in one hand and an adult’s hand in the other.
A few days later, back at the Trade, Claire returned a fallen meerkat to the display by the window. She regarded the giraffe, who was staring at her over the top of the crowd that stretched cameras toward him.
“You’re off,” Martha called over from the registers.
Claire retrieved her bag from the break room. A recorded lion roared four times and Claire smiled. She straightened the crooked clock and brought a toy gorilla and otter to the counter.
“These’ll cost nearly your day’s pay,” Martha said.
Claire shrugged and held out her money.
“There’s a discount, that’ll make it better,” Martha said with a nod.
Claire refused the leopard-spotted plastic sack and put the animals into her own bag, jostling off one of the purple beads.
Martha reached toward the bag and, gently touched an exposed yellow thread that had wiggled loose from the seam. “You’ve mended this before?” she asked.
Claire nodded and a tear slipped out of her olive green eye. Since her birth, her mom and dad joked about whether that was the better-colored eye, but both always agreed it portended spectacular things for their little girl. Now, it only seemed full of sadness.
“I can buy you another,” Martha said. “You’ve had this one so long.”
Claire wrapped her arms around the bag in a protective embrace. She shook her head and said, “Poppa made this one.”
“I’ll bring some thread in and mend it for you,” Martha said.
Claire smiled shyly and walked into the dimming daylight.
As she neared the exit of the park, Claire heard a scuffle and saw flat shards of plastic splintered on the pavement.
“Ha,” a boy said. He held a pink backpack in the air, just out of the reach of a girl’s desperate flails.
“Here,” another boy said, and reached to grab the pack as the first boy tossed it.
“Quit it,” the girl said, hustling between them.
Claire calmly stepped between the boys and reached for the pack. The second boy looked at the scar above her mismatched coffee colored eye, let go of the bag and slowly backed away before he ran off with the other boy.
“Thank you.” The girl accepted the bag from Claire. She walked toward the smashed plastic cup and let out a sigh as she stooped to pick up the pieces.
“Mark’ll clean it up.” Claire reached into her bag and handed the stuffed gorilla to the girl.
“That’s a lot of money.” The girl pulled the animal into an embrace.
Claire shrugged. “You wanted the gorilla.”
“Stop bothering the guests,” Edward said as he approached the gate. “Hey, you’re the same girl she stole from. Is she bothering you again?”
“We’re talking,” Claire said.
“I only saw you gawking at her,” Edward said.
The girl tightened her arm around the gorilla and quickly left.
“I’m not sure what you’re up to, but you better have paid for that. I bet you have more,” Edward said and reached his orange freckled arm toward her Poppa’s bag.
Claire caught his arm and looked around. “No,” she said, her voice strong and grounded.
“None of your old zoo cronies are around to protect you,” Edward said. “And those scars don’t scare me off like everyone else. They’ll see that I can work security, instead of the crap jobs that you freaks work.” He wrenched the bag from her shoulder, causing a rain of beads to shower to the ground.
Claire crouched. Her trembling fingers retrieved the row of burgundy beads that bounced on the sidewalk. She stood up to run after Edward, but he was gone. She walked home without the friendly feeling of the bag’s strap on her shoulder. It was darker than it should be.
At their walk-up, her mom said, “You’re sixteen minutes late.” Her mother raised her hands to secure the stiff, new gypsy-like bandana over her hair.
“I’m the lucky duck, then.” Claire said, averting her gaze toward the floor. “I’m going to wash.”
“Aren’t you going say hello to your Aunt Susie first?” asked a woman sitting at the table in the corner, hidden from Claire’s view. Susie pushed herself up from the table and opened her arms. “Surprise.”
Claire allowed herself to be enveloped in her aunt’s arms. Susie held her out at arm’s length. “Otter’s here too, at the market,” she said.
Claire lowered her face again and said, “I need to wash.”
In her bedroom, Claire opened her clenched fist and dribbled the beads into a black jewelry box that rested on the otherwise bare oak table next to the window. The blood red stone in the middle of her dad’s class ring reflected the room’s overhead light into her eyes. She closed the box and left the room.
“Otter’s back!” Aunt Susie yelled.
Claire looked at her face in the bathroom mirror, sighed, then turned off the water and returned to the kitchen.
“It’s like I said, Marion. Your peach cobbler is better with the fresh peaches than with those canned things,” Susie said. Her fork flowed up and down as she spoke. Cousin Otter scraped his plate and reached for a second piece.
“Now dear,” Susie began, awkwardly shifting what she could of her body toward Claire, “Let me see that bag your dad made for you, the one that matches mine. I’m sure it’s in need of some mending. It’s been so long. Oh, what am I saying? You know. You were there, in the accident. How fortunate you were able to grab them before the car-” Susie stopped short. Even knowing she was saying too much, she seemed unable to stop her mouth’s momentum, “…before it exploded.”
“Susie,” Marion said and stepped between her daughter and sister-in-law.
Otter reached for a third piece, his eyes following the conversation.
“Come now, let’s see the bag,” Susie said.
“It’s at the zoo,” said Claire.
“At the zoo? Good Lord, why is it at the zoo?” said Susie.
“Edward thought I stole an otter,” Claire said.
“An otter?” said Susie. “Who could put an otter in a bag? They’re so fast and oily. But they are cute and spunky, like my boy. I can see why you’d take one.”
“A stuffed otter,” said Claire.
“Stuffed? Oh my, what on Earth is going on at the zoo these days,” said Susie.
“A stuffed animal toy,” Marion said as she reached out to hold Claire’s hand. “Claire started back at the Toy Trade.”
“Near the giraffes?” Susie looked at her son and her eyes opened wide in realization. “An otter,” she said in a whisper.
“Claire, why didn’t you tell me?” Marion said.
Claire shrugged shamefully.
“Not near the giraffes,” Susie said.
“It’s not the giraffes,” Marion said.
“No, I know. It’s the accident. But, they just seem to make it worse. It’s just too easy for her to talk with them.” Susie said.
Claire collected the plates from the table.
“It’s not the accident either.” Marion said in a tired tone. “I remember her staring for hours with certain kids in her daycare room, then some pets, and then, especially, the giraffes. She’d beg her dad to stay with them longer and then tell him the marvelous things they had told her about how they see the world. It’s just a special thing about Claire that was made more intense by the accident.” She took the plates and turned to place them in the stainless sink. “And, it’s a blessing,” she added over her shoulder toward Susie.
“We’re going down there first thing tomorrow,” Susie said.
“You’re staying?” Marion asked.
“How could we not.” Susie said. “This is a family emergency!” Susie tried to strike her fist against the table, but her plump forearm hit first, softening the blow. Claire and Marion lowered their faces and smiled back giggles.
The next day, Susie led Marion, Claire, and Otter into the zoo’s main office. Once inside, she said to the first person she saw, “Mr. Joseph Zimmerman, please. I am Susie Cimino. Mr. Thomas Cimino’s sister. This place owes a world of debt to him. To us. We demand to see Mr. Zimmerman.”
The girl at the front desk looked quizzically at the contingent and said, “Yes, about Claire’s bag. You can sit right there. You’ll have to excuse the wait. Mr. Z is taking care of an emergency. Unfortunately, one of the baby giraffes has died.”
Susie reached for Claire’s arm and put her other hand to her chest.
The girl continued, “But here’s Claire’s bag. Martha cleared up the misunderstanding last night. She even fixed this row of beads for you.”
Claire slid the long strap over her shoulder.
“What has been done about that awful boy?” Susie demanded.
Mr. Zimmerman glided into the room on wingtips, taking Marion’s hand in both of his. “Marion, Susie—I’m so happy you came in,” he paused. “I’ve been meaning to call you about Lot C.”
“I certainly hope you’re not still considering its sale,” Susie said.
Mr. Zimmerman straightened his bowtie. “We’re still reviewing proposals for the space. While the kite park seems a good idea, we have other considerations. Taxes and insurance and such.”
Claire slipped out of the room quietly. She passed the reptile house and sat on the cement bench, looking at the empty giraffe enclosure.
“I guess they’re all inside,” Otter said, sitting down next to her. “I’m sorry your friend died.”
Claire took the stuffed otter from her bag and handed it to her cousin.
He smiled. “I guess it’s true, what they say; that you can read minds and the future and stuff,” he said.
“There are too many of them in there,” Claire said, not seeming to hear Otter.
“You could be rich. Go to fairs and carnivals,” Otter said. “They would call you Madame Claire or something like that.”
Claire looked at her watch and said “I’ve got to get to work.”
“Look, they’re bringing the big one out,” Otter said. He jumped to his feet and walked toward the rail. He looked at his red sneakers and meekly asked, “Can you?”
Claire gathered her bag and took two steps away from Otter. Mid-way through her third, she turned back and said, “The girl in your class with the yellow ruler and the curly hair, talk to her. She wants you to.”
Otter’s face lit up like he’d advanced a level in his arcade games. “Michelle?” he asked.
Claire shrugged and walked toward the Trade.
“Yes!” Otter said, pumping his elbow toward his hip.
Back in the Trade, Claire separated the blinds with her fingers and stared out the window, as wide-eyed as the giraffe.
“They did all they could,” Martha said.
“Thank you for fixing my bag,” Claire replied, turning toward Martha.
“Oh, you’re welcome, I’m sorry there was such a to-do. My nephew is so excitable. I’m not sure what we’re going to do.” Martha shook her head. “My sister is at her wit’s end.”
Claire looked back out the window and said, “He needs more room.”
“I suppose he does,” Martha said, looking confusedly at Claire. “Edward does have to share so much with his two brothers.” She rang up a customer’s purchase and then smiled. “I saw your mom and aunt at the office. Susie was giving Mr. Z a once-over about Lot C. I keep telling him that your kite park is the best idea. It’s not as if we have parking back there anymore.”
Claire moved her fingers and the blinds snapped together. She walked into the back room and reappeared with her bag. “I’m going on break,” she said.
Minutes later, Claire marched past the Trade. A parade of people had formed behind her. The further the mass moved, the larger it grew, drawing in people with the magnetism of its own curiosity. Bringing up the rear were twin girls holding tiger balloons. The height of those inflated helium stripes was no match for that of the brown blotched animal obediently following on the lead behind Claire.
Edward ran from the Shack. “Stop!” he said, trying to grab her shoulders. He could only back-pedal, though, and was nearly knocked over by the giraffe’s knobby knee.
Perhaps because of the confusion or maybe because she now knew of his similar suffering, Claire could see Edward’s thoughts and knew he would help, despite all the ill-will. He didn’t want another being to be as painfully scrunched into a box as he had been.
“The giraffe,” she said, “he needs more room.”
Edward raised his eyes, as if counting each vertebrae of the passing animal. When he realized that the crowd was moving past him, he ran up to Claire and said, “Where?”
“Lot C,” she said.
Edward grabbed the lead just under her hand and fell into step on the approach to the gate. The throng of people could barely fit on the comparably narrow trail. Keepers clamored at the rear of the pack, but couldn’t make their way through the dense horde.
Frank hung up the call box phone and ran in front of the gate. He held his arms out to block the entrance area and said, “What is this Claire? Martha called, but I didn’t believe her.”
“He needs more room,” Edward said haltingly. He nodded once, then raised his arm to stop the group at the fence. The flowing mass of people slowed and settled like a wave.
“Please open it for us,” Claire said to Frank.
“No,” he said. Every movement hung in the air. Frank looked at the spectacle in front of him. As quickly as the entourage of zoo patrons had stopped, it started up again, unfurling in a mass of bumping, rocking, and chattering. A fissure formed at the back of the crowd as the keepers pushed their way through. Frank glimpsed their red shirts, then looked at Claire’s mismatched eyes and reached for his keys. “Let’s go,” he said.
Mr. Zimmerman ran in front of Frank. Marion followed, with Susie trailing behind.
She waved her hands. Between gasps for air she yelled, “Oh, child, not the giraffe!” Susie caught up, reached for Mr. Zimmerman’s elbow and begged, “Please be kind.”
Marion stood still, her eyes fixed on the giraffe’s.
Mr. Zimmerman extended his arm toward the lead and said, “Edward Joseph, let go.” The crowd softened at the deepness of his voice and began to part more easily, making way for the keepers.
“No, Dad,” Edward said. “He needs more room.” Edward stepped forward to prevent his father from taking the lead.
Claire reached for the keys on Frank’s belt. Frank raised his hand to stop her. He faced Mr. Zimmerman and moved his eyes toward Marion. He looked at the crowd. The predicted storm clouds were brewing overhead. The earthy musk of giraffe odor mingled with the smell of frying onion rings and exhaust fumes from the nearby parkway. “Let us in!” a voice yelled from the crowd, and the group erupted into a similar rhythmic chant. Frank reached down, grasped a key and handed the clanging ring to Claire.
“Claire,” Mr. Zimmerman said in a warning tone.
She looked at the giraffe and opened the gate. The keepers finally plowed through the crowd and grabbed for the lead. But the giraffe was already stretching his legs into long galloping strides. He trotted into the lot, his tail batting away flies. He held his face tall to the angled beam of bright sun pouring to the ground from the sliver-of-a break in the dark clouds.
Silence filled the spaces between the awed eyes.
Mr. Zimmerman grabbed Claire’s elbow and said, “I’ve had about all I can take. I’ve been cutting you slack for years, now, despite all your shenanigans. I’m not letting your dad’s former importance here protect you anymore.”
He continued to speak, but could no longer be heard above the crowd’s hollers and applause.
A man approached Mr. Zimmerman and reached to shake the hand that clutched Claire. “A great show,” the man said, “You should charge extra.”
Taking advantage of the distraction, Claire ran into the lot and exuberantly waved to the old giraffe. With the lot’s life returned, she removed the wooden cross. It fit neatly in her bag.