Slash's first day on the job.
“Saul,” she said, “wait.” She made me pause mid-step, walking up to me and straightening the Polo shirt I was wearing. I was glad not to be wearing a suit and tie—god knows she would have tried to adjust the tie and probably messed it up. She held me at arm’s length and said quietly, “You look so handsome, Saul.” I got the feeling that she was going to start crying, so I kissed her cheek and got out of there as quickly as possible.
The ride to my zoo was mostly silent, except for the blaring of Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle” coming from the radio. When I arrived, I discovered Mark had already gotten there and was standing at the gate with a huge key ring in his hand and a faint smile on his face.
“Hello, Slash,” he said. “You ready to start your first official day as a zookeeper?”
Nodding eagerly, I reached for the keys, but Mark held them away from me and smirked.
“Just a second there, buddy,” he said. “I gotta tell you what each key is for, first.” He lifted the key ring and, showing me a slim gold key, said, “This one is to the snake cages. You’ll probably use that one the most. And this one—” a fat silver key—“is to the whole zoo itself.” He gestured at the great golden gates before us; labeled Los Angeles Zoo, they shone in the sun, invitingly. After showing me the other keys—leopard cage, aquarium, primates, exotic birds—he finally handed me the key ring.
“Your office is in that little building there, just beyond the tigers. I’m the only other person with access to it. Axl’s shift starts at noon, so he’ll buzz in then.” He walked off, and I reached down and unlocked the gate. It wasn’t until I’d gotten all the way in and was heading for my office that I realized I’d forgotten to remind Mark to fire Bob.
My office was nice; small, comfortable. There was a desk, a fax machine, a filing cabinet, and not much else. After setting my key ring on the hook located on the back of the door, I started walking around, looking at everything. Eventually, I found a piece of paper which stated pretty much all the zoo rules. There were all the times when we were to come in—Mark and I started at six a.m., all the animal keepers came in at various intervals between six-thirty and eight forty-five, and the zoo opened to the public at nine. Axl came in at noon, and after the zoo closed at five, workers fed their animals supper and trickled out until finally Mark and I closed up at six. They were all supposed to clock in and out, and at the end of each month I paid them. Mark, on the other hand, paid me, which I thought was cool.
At eleven forty-five, I was sitting at my desk, staring blankly at the wall and wondering what the hell I was going to do with myself for the next six hours, when there was a knock at the door. I lifted my head and called, “Come in.”
The door opened, and in came Axl, along with a skinny, pale guy with shaggy black hair and a small smile on his face.
“Slash,” said Axl, shutting the door behind him. “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. This is Izzy Stradlin; he and I grew up together in Lafayette.”
I stood and leaned over my desk to shake Izzy’s hand. “Nice to meet you,” I said. “I’m Slash.”
Izzy didn’t say anything, just shook my hand and stepped back. He was slightly taller than Axl, and looked a bit less androgynous, but there was still no mistaking which of them held the more power.
“Izzy wants a job here,” Axl explained, slinging his arm over his friend’s shoulders. “Tell Slash what animal you specialize in, Stradlin.”
“Giraffes,” said Izzy softly, looking sideways at Axl, who was grinning. “I fucking love those things.”
Quickly, I ran my finger down the list of caretakers Mark had given me about an hour previously. We already had a giraffe expert, but I got the feeling it would be dangerous—for both myself and Izzy—if I rejected Axl’s offer.
“Sure,” I said, smiling at Izzy. “You can be the giraffe guy.” I handed him some papers. “Fill these out, and you start in two days.” Two days to fire the other guy and explain it to Mark.
Izzy thanked me quietly and left the office. Axl stayed behind, staring at my stuff. He stuck his hands in his back pockets and rocked back on his heels.
“Thanks for taking him on…he’s really fuckin’ shy, and he wouldn’t have come to you on his own.” Axl looked at me out of the corners of his eyes and smiled a little. “How’s the first day going?”
“Boring,” I said, smiling back. He laughed, and I noticed, not for the first time, how pleasantly beautiful he was when he was happy.
“Once I get my dealing started, it won’t be boring anymore.” Abruptly he took his hands out of his pockets and turned to face me. “D’you have a list of animals I can get for you?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what we already have here, to be honest.”
Axl snorted. “Typical of McDunn, leaving out the essentials.” He paused, then:
“Can we go walking around? Check out what’s here?”
I nodded and walked around my desk, grabbing my key ring from its hook as I opened the door. We headed out into the main part of the zoo, where a few families were standing, looking at the animals. Axl’s green eyes roved over the tigers, prowling restlessly; over the cheetahs, in their confined space; over the hippopotamuses, blowing bubbles underwater. We looked at the birds, the monkeys, and the alligators. The whole time, I watched Axl’s expression to see what he thought, but his face remained impassive.
After a while, we got to the reptile cages. A few pythons hung from their branches, beautiful muscles coiled around wood in an almost sensual way. There was a garter snake on the ground, a boa constrictor on a rock covered in heated light. On the other side of the glass wall were hooded cobras, hissing softly; rattlesnakes coiled up tensely; cottonmouths drifting silently in the water. Axl shivered a little bit as his eyes flashed over the snakes, and he moved a little closer to the lizards.
“Hi there,” I said to the boa constrictor, who was flicking its tongue at us. “Hi, gorgeous.”
Axl let out a derisive snort from behind me. “Fuckin’ unnatural animals,” he muttered. “They don’t even have legs, Slash. Shit.”
Smiling, I unlocked the cage and reached inside, grabbing the constrictor with one arm and hauling it out. Axl let out a strangled yelp and jumped back even further.
“Slash… put it up… please…” His arms were crossed and he was starting to shake. The muscles in his throat jerked as he swallowed.
“Axl, it won’t hurt you…” The snake twined itself around my arm; the slick feeling of its muscles against my skin was strangely calming.
He just shook his head, staring at the snake warily. His trembling had become worse, and he was chewing on his lower lip. With a soft sigh, I replaced the snake and relocked the door.
“There,” I said quietly. Axl let out a breath and briefly shut his eyes. For a moment, he looked strangely vulnerable, and I couldn’t help it—I stepped forward and put my hand on his shoulder.
He jerked away from me and turned to face the wall. “I’m fine,” he mumbled, his cheeks flushing.
“You don’t need to get me more snakes if you don’t want—”
“Slash. Fuckin’ drop it, okay? I’ll get you whatever you want. I just really hate snakes. It’ll just take me a while.” He was frowning at the floor, hands in his pockets again. I hesitated, then, softly, I said:
“This is pretty much the whole zoo, Axl… if you want, we can leave and go jam at your house, like you said.”
“You can leave early?”
“I’m the zookeeper,” I reminded him, and he laughed.
“Right,” he said. He reached down and grabbed my wrist for a second, squeezing gently. A jolt of electricity ran up my arm, and I looked over at him, feeling my heart start to race. Judging from the slight darkening of his irises, he’d felt it too, though he didn’t say anything, just stepped back. For a second he looked at me, then he cut his gaze to the wall and sighed.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We can pick up some lunch on the way to my house.”
“Okay,” I said, and we left, Axl walking slightly ahead. We passed Mark on the way out, hanging by the cougar cages, and he looked at us for a second before turning away. Axl sneered and kept going, and I tried not to think about the connection that was steadily growing between us.