Saturday morning at the zoo, facing the lions’ cage, overcast sky and a light breeze carrying the smell of peanuts and animal dung, the peacocks making their stilted progress across the sidewalks. I was standing in front of the gorge separating the human viewers from the lions. The lions weren’t caged, exactly; they just weren’t free to go. One male and one female were slumbering on fake rock ledges. Raw meat was nearby. My hands were in my pockets and I was waiting for a moment of energy so I could leave and do my Saturday morning errands. Then this girl, this teenager, appeared from behind me, hands in her pockets, and she stopped a few feet away on my right. In an up-all-night voice, she said, “What would you do if I shot that lion?” She nodded her head: she meant the male, the closer one.
“I don’t know.” Sometimes you have to humor people, pretend as if they’re talking about something real. “Do you have a gun?”
“Of course I have a gun.” She wore a protective blankness on her thin face. She was fixed on the lion. “I have it here in my pocket.”
“I’d report you” I said. “I'd try to stop you. There are guards here. People don’t shoot caged animals. You shouldn’t even carry a concealed weapon, a girl your age.”
“This is Detroit,” she explained.
“I know it is” I said. “But people don’t shoot caged lions in Detroit or anywhere else.”
“It wouldn’t be that bad” she said, nodding at the lions again. “You can tell from their faces how much they want to check out.”
I said I didn’t think so.
She turned to look at me. Her skin was so pale it seemed bleached, and she was wearing a vaudeville-length overcoat and a pair of hightop tennis shoes and jeans with slits at the knees. She looked like a fifteen-year-old bag lady. “It’s because you’re a disconnected person that you can’t see it,” she said. She shivered and reached into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. “Lions are so human. Things get to them. They experience everything more than we do. They’re romantic.” She glanced at her crushed pack of cigarettes, and in a shivering motion she tossed it into the gorge. She swayed back and forth. “They want to kill and feast and feel,” she said.
I looked at this girl’s bleached skin, that candy bar and cola complexion, and I said, “Are you all right?”
“I slept here last night,” she said. She pointed vaguely behind her. “I was sleeping over there. Under those trees. Near the polar bears.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“I wasn’t alone all night.” She was answering a question I hadn’t asked. “This guy, he came in with me for awhile to be nice and amorous but he couldn’t see the point in staying. He split around midnight. He said it was righteous coming in here and being solid with the animal world, but he said you had to know when to stop. I told him I wouldn’t defend him to his friends if he left, and he left, so as far as I’m concerned, he is over, he is zippo.” She was really shivering now, and she was huddling inside that long overcoat. I don’t like to help strangers, but she needed help. “Are you hungry?” I asked. “You want a hamburger?” “I’ll eat it,” she said, “but only if you buy it.”
I took her to a fast-food restaurant and sat her down and brought her one of their famous giant cheeseburgers. She held it in her hands familiarly as she watched the cars passing on Woodward Avenue. I let my gaze follow hers, and when I looked back, half the cheeseburger was gone. She wasn’t even chewing. She didn’t look at the food. She ate like a soldier in a foxhole. What was left ofter food she gripped in her skinny fingers decorated with flaking pink nail polish. She was pretty in a raw and sloppy way.
“You’re looking at me,”
“Yes, I am,” I admitted,
“A person can look,” I said.
“Maybe.” Now she looked back. “Are you one of those creeps?”
“The kind of old man creep who picks up girls and drives them places, and, like, terrorizes them for days and then dumps them into fields,”
“No,” I said. “I’m not like that. And I’m not that old.”
“May be it’s the accent,” she said. “You don’t sound American.”
“I was born in England,” I told her, “but I’ve been in this country for thirty years. I’m an American citizen.”