From the start he was thrown in at the deep-end when the head keeper just handed him a pail of steaks and hustled him through the gates of the enclosure. The thinking was that, since he was Jewish and not Christian, the lions would not have a taste for him. Roth was dubious, but complied.
The way to be was fearless but non-confrontational. ‘Show them who is boss’ was the mantra. Keepers before him had felt the temptation to become pally with the lions, to try and become friends with them. They had paid the price. So: ‘Show them who is boss.’
They had filed into the lecture theatre to have a seminar right at the beginning of their terms at the zoo. At the front a bushy-faced keeper had given them a brief talk on precisely this subject. The talk was entitled ‘Show them who is Boss’. They had shown clips from Grizzly Man, mainly the sequences from just before Treadwell’s death. The elderly keeper had stood guffawing at the back. He was an ex-Kossack. He was a traditionalist when it came to death.
The lions sat in the cages. Roth had been told that the more intelligent the lion the more impossible he could be. The more mangy, the more bedraggled and lazy-eyed and ghetto-looking the lion, the less you should worry. Those lions weren’t intelligent enough to be mean.
Roth put his shoulders back every day and strode, like Clinton, into the enclosure. The point was about body language. They had to know that he wasn’t a man to mess with. He looked out into the audience sometimes to see the anxious crowds, anxious for him. Inside his head, he snorted at them. Inside his head, he tossed his head.
What he had come to realize was that the lions were less interested in him than each other. This realization came as a relief. If he ever got knocked about it was usually an accident. The day-to-day challenge was not to tame them; the day-to-day challenge was to get them at all interested and interesting. They lolled about bored all day, wanking and sleeping and poking mindless fun at each other. They had no particular thirst for show-business.
There were challenges. Equally there were moments when he realized the lions needed him. One lion came to him one day, weeping and pointing into his lap. Roth looked down to see the lion’s penis tied into a complex knot. The blood bulged red from beneath the dusty black colour of the penis skin. Roth looked over to where the other lions were sitting. They were huddled in a circle sniggering. They had tied their friend’s penis into a bow while he was asleep. Roth wondered if this act was supposed to suggest that the lion was gay? Maybe that he himself was gay? He looked down into the knotted lion’s face. The hair on his face was matted and wet with tears. It looked like what a lion’s face must look like when it rains. Roth looked over at the huddle of sniggering lions. Catching him glaring at them, their smiles dropped and they glared back at him. They looked, for a second, almost like real lions. Their eyes pinkened with menace. They stretched their mouths open to display their encyclopedic teeth. Roth scuttled away, leaving the whimpering lion knotted.
At lunch, he sat with one of the younger keepers. Roth didn’t speak for the duration of the meal. They had sweet and sour chicken. Roth preferred it saltier. The younger keeper was telling him about an ex-girlfriend of his. She had been pestering him for months. She was lonesome without him. She needed him. She longed for his touch. She had opened up to him so much, shown herself to be so helpless and desperate and vulnerable that he had completely forgotten her charms. Now he found himself fantasizing about her. He said he would like to rediscover her sexually. Roth nodded.
Their lunch was interrupted by the lion alarm. Each enclosure had an alarm on the wall of the keepers’ canteen. The alarm made the sound of the animal whose enclosure was in emergency. The electric lion roared metallic into the canteen. It was met by a clatter of startled cutlery. In every way, the lion alarm was the most startling of all the alarms.
Roth and his friend raced over to the enclosure. There they found three lions sat around, exploring each other. One was a lioness. She held apart her labia, showing the other lions, their foreskins peeled back, the future. Expressions of disgusted curiosity were fixed on the faces of all three lions. An older lion hunched, avuncular, over the little team. Languid as a lion, he enunciated the harsh syllables: ‘Cock. Cunt.’
A blonde family stood before the enclosure. With their hands over their small son’s eyes, they gazed, outraged at the sex. Roth and the other keeper rushed in, to separate and administer discipline to the young lions. It didn’t seem right somehow. One of the young lions swore at Roth, but he seemed more sad than angry.
Most evenings Roth stayed behind to sweep up. He didn’t mind so much. He preferred to work on his own, at his own pace. Besides, he found the sweeping almost therapeutic. The only unpleasant thing were the sounds of vodka and Mahler and loud discussion about the merits of various Swiss spa towns which emanated from the other room. There, since his divorce, the retired Kossack sat up all night with his retired Kossack pals. They would drink vodka until they fell asleep upright in their ergonomic chairs. For this reason, the management had installed a shower block in the staff room.
Roth needed every kopeck he could get to keep his head above water. In the evenings, he worked overtime sweeping up and chopping the lions’ steaks for the next day. On the weekends, he taught French and English to bourgeois couples who could see what was on the horizon. Those with any foresight or political clout were beginning to equip themselves. They needed enough words to get by in a civilized country should the worst occur. They came to his house late at night, huddled in their carriages and their furs. With their faces contorted in concentration, they asked each other for pounds of butter, for directions to the theatre, the train station.
Every two weeks, Roth would visit his mother (too fat now, really, to leave her easy chair, let alone her palace in Nevsky Prospekt) and place a fat envelope in her pudgy hand. He had paid her back for her care and dedication from the hour of his birth until the age of 18. Now he was working through the debts he had incurred as a student in Paris.
Finishing the sweeping, Roth put on his mangy fur and walked home. He took a left instead of a right, a detour which took him towards the sea-front. The road up to the sea front was jammed with fire engines, all from different private companies. They honked their horns and sounded their sirens in unison, debating the importance of the other fellow’s emergency. Behind their windscreens, firemen were being inaudibly crazy. Scooters and skateboards jazzed around them, all looking as if they were headed for the same place, the same party.
Roth decided to stroll up the pier. The pier stretched out like a penis over the black sea. It was a very safe place to walk. Security cameras were everywhere for fear of arson attacks. Most things were done for fear of arson. He peered down at the slats of wood between his feet. The spaces between the slats looked to be an inch wide. Some of the slats looked skinnier, more rotten. Some had a slight bounce to them. He thought about the thickness of the slats as a fraction of his own height. He took his ring off and dropped it between the slats. It disappeared immediately.
For a second, he thought about how long it would take for him to lose enough weight, that he would be able to slip and fall between the slats. It was the most half-hearted suicidal thought that he’d ever had.
The stalls along the pier looked scary. He fantasized about anti-Semites around every corner, waiting to jump out, naked and crazy, shouting insults and punching him.
He walked on into the night and the sea hearing the mechanical whir and the lights of the city behind him. He thought about how poorly this man-made land, made from nails and wood and joists and looking so put-together, compared with the land that God had made. Behind him, that land was so precisely and carefully and gradually put together that it was difficult to see how it had been put together at all.
He thought about his mother. If he walked out far enough, he would be able to see her palace up on the hill, dark and pretentiously gloomy, a building that looked like a hole. If he walked out far enough, he knew he would be able to see it.
He thought about the lions. He thought about his secret terror of them (if only they knew!). He thought about the lions’ ignorance. He thought about the power that they could take, that was just within their grasp if they only knew. He thought about what could happen if they really could smell fear. He thought about the lions, slipping out of their enclosure in the night. He thought of them strolling easily into the office of the head-keeper, asleep beneath his moustache, his mouth eating flies, and lifting a leather jacket each from the hatstand at the door. He thought of the lions, big and cool, in leather jackets, strolling up the Petersburg boulevards, smoking cigarettes and looking French, no, black. He thought of the way their shoulders and knees would give and bounce as they walked, taking up the whole street. He thought of them barging women out of the way without breaking stride.
He thought of the lions standing outside his building, in conference, crowded into a single pool of street light. He thought of the young lion who would be left on lookout, a fedora pulled down over his eyes, only a tangle of beard and a cigarette visible over the leather collar. He saw beady eyes flicking this way and that.
He saw the lions skulking up the stairs in single file until they got to his front door. He heard them rap on the front door, wait a few seconds and then break it down. He could see the lions crowd into his bedroom, finding him, balanced on his haunches, standing on his mattress, his nightshirt riding over his knees. He could see the look of furious terror on his own face.
Roth would be waiting for them with a shotgun. He would shout at these lions: ‘You are my nemeses, you are my adversaries, my enemies.’ He would shout, ‘Please, I’ve had enough of you, I never want to see you again! Get out of here! I hate you. Get out! I have some important telephone calls to make!’