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by Tricia Sutton
Tricia Sutton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Turtle Quarterly, Halfway Down the Stairs. The Rambler, and a dozen other e-zines across the web. The story herein is a true-ish account of her father who shares his condition with her on a smaller scale, resulting in her living with four cats. She also lives with a spouse—who sees animals with regular person eyes—and is a mother of two animal Jesuses.
Morris has been bitten by many an animal, scars to prove it, and bragging rights to complement each wound: “This is raccoon, and this here's monkey, and bear cub, and fox, oh, and ferret …”
Morris loves animals and animals love him. He is animal Jesus to them—the ones who don't bite him, that is. They flock to him hither and yon. As an un-parented, unsupervised boy, however, he frequented the local Tulsa, Oklahoma zoo, ignoring signs that warned, Keep Hands and Arms Away from the Fence. He stuck his arms and hands where they were forbidden to be stuck, resulting in bites, stings, pecks, and scratches.
His homicidal mother raised him until she tried to behead him, and she ended up in the insane asylum, and he moved in with his alcoholic father who lived in a shack with dirt floors where they ate beans straight from the can, and where his father took an early death. A family with seven kids took him in and said, “What’s one more?” He helped on their farm, got good grades in school, became a collector of animals but knew a career in zoology was not in his future. As a foster child, Morris had few options for his imminent adulthood. Enlistment being it. He decided with four years to enjoy it, now was the time to get started on his own mobile zoo.
He made cages out of boxes and chicken wire, and caught many feral critters in the nearby wildlife areas. He’d haul his woodland creatures in wheelbarrows or wagons to neighborhoods with more foot traffic than his own (parked at the end of his driveway one day only netted him a sighting: a tractor and a slow moving cow), and set up his booth, hang a sign, and wait for the crowds. When none came, he reduced his admittance fee from a dime to a nickel, waited all day, packed up, and hauled them home again where he’d observe them, which he did with great interest until he became lovelorn, and then he'd release them.
The next morning he’d be in the woods again checking his humane cage-like traps and turning rocks. A good day was getting his hands on a vicious animal, like a badger or wolverine. Since no one was afraid of bunnies and songbirds, he didn't catch those.
Sometimes he traded specimens of his animal kingdom with the Tulsa Zoo. Usually a colorful or deadly snake would net him some of their overstock: a fine tree frog or a bat.
Oklahoma summers were hotter than forty hells, so he always chose neighborhoods with the most trees. Plus, he needed the trees to hang his privacy sheet—why buy the ticket if you can watch for free? After he set up shop, he sat to wait in the shade. A little girl about half his age parked her loaded wagon nearby and began her own sidewalk enterprise.
“This is my corner,” she spat. She unloaded her pitcher of lemonade, her cups, turned over her large cardboard box to use as a table, and placed all her wares upon it.
Morris studied her with the same rapt attention he gave his newly captured animals.
“Scram,” she ordered him.
“What if I buy something?" Morris asked.
She squinted at him and then at his sheet. “What’s behind that?”
“Can’t you read?” he said. “It’s my zoo and today’s special is tarantula, scorpion, porcupine, and raccoon.”
“I want to see.”
“Got a nickel?”
He gave her a nickel—he’d made thirty-cents so far for the summer—for lemonade, and she gave it back for admittance. She charged up to the sheet, yanked it back, and let out a squeal—the tarantula and scorpion had that effect on girls—and ran backwards, right into a laughing Morris, who was braced for the impact and didn't budge. She commanded he leave her corner at once.
“Your folks ever teach you to never talk to strangers?" Morris grabbed his scorpion cage and walked toward her. "You could be kidnapped and tortured; someone could pull your braids out.”
She ran off, her braids swinging behind her, leaving her lemonade stand and a now deeply hydrated Morris.
Mornings of empty traps, and rocks and logs that turned up only worms and rollie-pollies were spent searching and gathering. On one such day, after a successful day of snake catching, filling a sack with snakes, and without the benefit of an abandoned lemonade stand, Morris was parched. He went to the Ma and Pa Market for a pop and set his bag of snakes on the checkout counter, dug deep in his dirty overalls for coins, and, being the klutz that he was, knocked the bag off onto the floor.
Dozens of snakes—some big, some poisonous—slithered out of the bag. He had many fantasies about a moment like this one, usually intentional and involving a crowded bus, but the panic created in the grocery store was bigger than his imagination ever envisioned. People scattered like surprised roaches, screaming, dropping their groceries, trampling over one another to escape. The cow-belled screen door left with the first person who hadn't bothered to open it, followed by a bottleneck of escapees who clogged the doorjamb, and soon that went too. The wood doorframe splintered and groaned as push came to shove when several rotund church-dressed ladies forgot their manners. As soon as it was clear, Morris took off out the hole, where the front door used to be, and ran as fast and as far as he could.
That night, in the bedroom he shared with three brothers, he re-hashed his story to them with a few added embellishments to keep it fascinating. But when the lights were out and the excitement died down, when he was alone in his thoughts, he worried about what might have happened to his snakes, and he buried his head in his pillow.
Years down the road, after his stint in the Marines, and subsequent marriage and four kids later, his untreated, rare, and potentially dangerous psychological compulsion of collecting and hoarding animals had him owner to a variety of house pets: owl, pigeon, fowl, hermit crab, rabbits, snakes, rodents, cats, umpteen dogs, horses and ponies—the latter two were forbidden in the house. He loved them all and believed them flawless, beautiful creatures. His wife didn't share the blind love and saw with regular-person eyes, not the animal Jesus eyes of Morris.
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