I stopped at a CVS and bought clip-on sun filters for my glasses. I had to be able to see, since I didn’t have my bodyguard and my seeing-eye Shih Tzu.
It was the kind of day that not only brought dogs to the dog park, but mothers and kids to the National Zoo. I stopped only briefly to contemplate the map. I couldn’t guess which animal would most attract Larry’s attention, but I suspected that it was the ones outside of the cages and enclosures that would interest him most. So I picked a path at random.
I started out at a pretty steady clip, aware that the afternoon was getting on, and the zoo would close at five. But my attention kept snagging on the animals. I slowed my steps at the Giant Pandas, and finally came to a complete standstill in front of the flamingo enclosure. I’d seen my share of plastic flamingos, of course—who hasn’t?—but these were the real deal—pink-tinted balls of fluff with long, extravagant ess-curved necks, pinhole eyes, spats on their beaks, and toothpick-stilted legs, only one of which seemed to be in general use, the other folded neatly under their bodies. I stood rooted to the spot.
“Jesus!” I said under my breath. “Would you look at that?”
When I finally willed my feet to move again, I circled the bird house and walked up the path past the giant pandas and the elephants. I was consulting my map, wondering whether I could devise a better, more systematic search plan, when a security guard passed me at a run. Turning, I saw another guard ahead, also running, a walkie-talkie to his ear. I took off after them, adrenaline flooding my body.
Then I heard a woman screaming. She was shrieking, hysterical. It was an ear-shattering cry of pure panic. The guards pushed past people, although by now the foot traffic was flowing in the same direction. I stayed on their heels though my lungs were burning. Finally, the guards plunged into a crowd, and I followed.
The drama was playing out inside the lion exhibit. What I saw was a small child—just a flash of blond hair and red jacket—flailing in the water of the moat. Two lions, male and female, stood in the lower yard close to the edge of the moat, watching with curiosity. The other figure in the water looked familiar. He reached the child as the blond head went under and lifted it in his arms. I saw in my peripheral vision a zookeeper with a gun of some kind, and as I turned my head to see, heard Larry speak a sharp, commanding “No!” The zookeeper hesitated. He didn’t set the gun down, but he didn’t fire, either.
Larry set the sobbing child on the edge of the pool, then hoisted himself up in one graceful movement until he sat next to the child, which clung to him now. The lioness stepped forward, stretching her neck and opening her mouth slightly the way Eco does whenever he’s detected a particularly fascinating odor. The crowd emitted a collective gasp, and the hysterical woman began keening, “No, oh, no, oh, no.” Larry regarded the lioness placidly, and seemed willing to wait until she’d made up her mind. Then, shielding the child with his body, he raised his arm slowly and let her sniff his hand. The zookeeper made a protest I couldn’t hear, and clenched the gun, sighting down its barrel. Then the lioness gently butted Larry’s hand, and he laid it on her forehead. She turned, shot the zookeeper a look, and walked to her mate, who also turned away and preceded her across the yard. They leapt gracefully up to the next level and retreated into the semi-privacy of their concrete cave.
Some of the onlookers broke into applause as Larry picked up the child and approached the zookeeper. Some of them, I realized as I looked around, were too busy snapping photographs or holding their cell phones up to capture the moment on video. I sighed. The story wouldn’t make the six o’clock news, but I’d surely see it replayed at eleven. I wondered whether Ginger would be pleased or angry. She would certainly be pissed off about his disappearing act, and he was certain to get a tongue-lashing about that. But I didn’t think it would bother him. Unlike Elvis, he seemed impervious to criticism. I wondered who had designed Elvis to be so emotionally vulnerable. Not Larry, surely.
Larry was limping, as if he’d injured himself when he’d jumped the fence. The onlookers, mostly young mothers and a few grandparents and tourists, chattered excitedly, apparently astonished that Larry hadn’t been mauled by the lioness. I was astonished that nobody seemed to have recognized him—a testament to his bland, forgettable features, I supposed.
The mother was following a guard around the side of the enclosure, and the crowd trailed them. The mother was pushing a stroller which contained a smaller child, who appeared to have slept through the crisis, and another child, wearing a petulant expression on a face smeared with something red, was clutching the hem of her jacket. Larry emerged with the zookeeper, still carrying the child, which had its head buried in his shoulder. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl.
And now, surrounded by tourists, mothers, and grandparents, I could see other reasons why he hadn’t been recognized. He was dressed in khaki slacks, a beige Izod shirt, complete with alligator, and a nondescript tan windbreaker. And of course, he was soaking wet. Everybody looks different with their hair plastered to their head, even spacemen.
The mother launched herself at them, but instead of embracing Larry in gratitude, as I’d expected, she wrenched the soggy child from him and, clamping one arm around the waist of the shrieking, sobbing, flailing toddler, she began to beat Larry with her free fist.
“You pushed him, you bastard! You tried to kill my Jakey!” she screeched. “Bastard! You bastard! You bastard!” She punctuated her words with blows.
A guard tried to restrain her, but Larry looked at her with mild bemusement. “Now, ma’am,” the guard was saying.
The zookeeper was less propitiatory. “Listen, lady, you’re lucky the kid’s alive. You ought to thank this man for saving his life.”
She turned her wrath on him, but continued to strike out at Larry, whose raised arm took most of the blows. “You’ll pay for this, too!” she cried. “This place isn’t safe for kids! I’ll sue! I’ll sue all of you bastards!”
A medic was trying to pry the child from her viselike grip, presumably to check it for injuries. She swung on him, snapping the boy’s head back. The kid’s foot struck his sister in the forehead and she yelped. “You get away from him! Don’t you touch him! I’ll sue!”
Now one of the onlookers, a thin, feisty-looking woman in a Redskins cap, got involved. “Lady, you ain’t got no right to cuss them out!” she said. “I saw what happened. You was too busy smacking your little girl around to pay attention to that little boy. He didn’t have no business climbing up on that wall, and if you’da been watching him like you should’ve, he wouldn’t never have fallen over.”
There was a murmur of approval from the crowd, and another mom with a child in a stroller said, “Uh-huh, she’s right. I saw it, too.”
Beside herself with fury, the mother rushed at her first critic. “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare, you bitch, tell me I’m a bad mother!” She slapped the woman across the face. A male tourist tried to restrain her as his wife pointed the video camera at them.
Redskins cap slapped her back, hard. “Don’t you be calling me a bitch!” she said. “Wasn’t my child who fell in the lion pit.”
Pandemonium broke out. People who tried to separate the combatants got elbowed, trodden on, and smacked. At least two children, Jakey and his sister, were now wailing at the top of their lungs. As would-be interceders got flung aside, they landed on other people, some of them children, whose families joined the fray. Someone got clobbered with a camcorder, so that introduced blood into the mix. I saw a flash of dark blue as a Metropolitan Police Officer waded into the crowd. Larry, meanwhile, was quietly retreating in my peripheral vision, so I slipped past the ring of videographers.
I followed the trail of wet footprints, caught up with him by Lemur Island and fell into step. “Nice save, dude,” I said.
He gave a wry smile. “At least I rescued the child.”
“What I can’t believe is the way the mother turned on you,” I said.
“That was interesting,” he said in his anthropologist’s voice. “She acted out of fear. She was expressing the fear she’d felt when the little boy fell, but also, I think, fear of just that accusation that the other woman made—that she was a bad mother. I saw the little boy falling and reached out to catch him, but I wasn’t quick enough. I suppose she could have thought that I pushed him.”
I didn’t ask why he’d gone off on his own. I didn’t even tell him how many people had been out looking for him; he would have guessed that. I just said, “You’re in Ginger’s doghouse, you know.” This he also knew.
He said, “At least I’ll be in good company with Getlo.”
I grinned at him. But the smile he gave me was minimal, and it didn’t reach his eyes.
“What did you say to the lion back there?” I asked.
I was half-kidding, but only half, and he replied, matter-of-factly, “I told her that the boy was a baby human in training. Most living creatures understand about babies. I apologized for disturbing her peace, but she was very gracious.” He finger-combed his hair. “How bad do I look?” he asked.
Surprised, I said, “Not bad.” I’d never known him to be concerned about his appearance before.
“Good enough to stop by Murphy’s Pub for a beer?” he said.