“Is it the same as being in jail?” asked Dottie.
“None of them have committed a crime, so it’s not the same, even though they’re all behind bars,” said Otis.
Dottie Rittman and Otis Arnold were at the Central Park Zoo.
“I asked Ezra to take me last week,” said Dottie.
“What am I, chopped liver?” asked Otis.
“No, you’re Oats!” said Dottie, laughing gaily. “Do you know what he said?”
“No, what did he say?”
“If the zoo wants you, let them come and get you.”
“That wasn’t nice.”
“I think he meant he was busy,” said Dottie. “He had to do something for dad.”
Otis liked Dottie, even though he didn’t especially like children. They were needy, messy, and noisy. He didn’t dislike them, but he didn’t like them, either.
Children were always being told by their parents to listen, but what they did more than listen, tending not to, was watch, sizing you up. When they weren’t listening or watching, they were imitating whoever and whatever was in the neighborhood. When they weren’t doing that, they were moving around all the time, getting lost and found,
Or they were wasting their time.
He thought it was OK for children to waste some of their time, but only if there was something in the wasting.
Dottie was nine-years-old – “No, I’m not, I’m almost ten!” – but she knew how to listen and talk and not size him up. She had fun going to the movies, the park, the zoo, but she didn’t play at being playful. She wasted less time than most children, too.
Otis had taken the day off from Osner Business Machines to take Dottie to the zoo. It was a weekday, the middle of August, and there were no major holidays in sight. He had heard fifty thousand people tramped through the zoo on Sundays. They had breakfast together and he treated her to a cab ride to the Pond. They took a long walk around it, fed some ducks with lettuce Otis had torn into small pieces beforehand, and finally walked up East Drive to Park Road to the Central Park Zoo.
It wasn’t any stretch getting the day off. He was the best repairman in the shop on the Upper West Side, two or three times faster than the other repairmen, and he got the stickiest jobs done with the least effort. It didn’t matter of it was keys or platens or carriages. It didn’t matter if it was a Royal, an Underwood, or a Smith-Corona.
Besides, he didn’t need a full-scale paycheck every two weeks. He lived quietly, for the most part, and had a wad of money squirreled away, besides. Stan and Ezra knew about it, but no one else. He worked part-time at the typewriter repair shop and part-time for the Duluc Detective Agency. His cash savings were the payoff for being an off-the-record do-it-all part-time gumshoe.
The Central Park Zoo was sometimes called the Robert Moses Zoo, because Moses had redesigned and rebuilt it twenty years ago, from a rough-and ready place to a picture-book place of limestone and brick buildings. It was on the small side, maybe seven acres, but it had tropic, temperate, and polar animals, bird and monkey houses, and a sea lion pool in the middle of it all. Eight big granite eagles were two-by-two on the four corners of the pool.
Nobody had to guess what was inside the animal houses. Friezes were the guides. Rocky Mountain sheep on the antelope house, a gorilla chewing on a twig on the monkey house, and marching penguins on the bird house. Every house had a chimney, too, and on every chimney was an iron weathervane of the animal inside.
The Arsenal, a hundred years old, had always been there and was still there. In its time it had been a weather bureau, a police precinct, and an art gallery. The front of the Arsenal faced Fifth Avenue. The turrets on the roof were offices for the parks department. In summer they kept watch for lunch hour by listening through their open back windows for the sea lions barking for their fish fillets.
Dottie liked the bearcats, which weren’t bears or cats, but like dust mops with a long tail and a pointy face. She liked them because they smelled like popcorn. “When they pee it soaks their feet and their fuzzy tails,” a zookeeper told her. “That’s what smells like popcorn.”
She wished her pee smelled like popcorn.
In the park near her dad’s apartment she had noticed, on her hands and knees and her nose to the ground, the ants smelled like lemon drops and the flat creepy crawlers smelled like cherry cola.
Otis Arnold was the Duluc Detective Agency’s jack-of-all-trades. He was the master of some of them. He was very good at lifting fingerprints. He could pick most locks in a minute. He knew how to start and stop anybody’s car. He operated all the photographic equipment and sound recordings.
He owned an Exakta and a new Leica. The Leica M3 was the finest camera ever made, he reckoned. He had a Minox spy camera, which was handy when he was rifling mail. He used a letter remover that didn’t disturb the gummed seals. He would insert the pincer-like device into the unsealed gap at the top of the envelope, turn the handle of the remover to wind up the letter, extract it from the envelope, photograph it, and carefully repeat the process to return the letter.
He had picked up a button camera, too. A coat button hid a lens that screwed into a small camera. A cord ran into a pocket. When he was ready to take a photo, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled a lever, shooting the still onto 16mm subminiature film.
He used a Mohawk midget recorder to wiretap telephones and a Minifon portable wire recorder with long play cassettes, a watch microphone, and a shoulder harness, when he was working face-to-face.
Otis and Dottie had a late lunch at Kelly’s Restaurant. A large bronze statue of a tigress, her jaws clamped on a dead peacock, her young sniffing at her feet, was front-and-center in front of the eatery. Dottie clambered on top of it, straddling the tigress like a horse.
“Ride ‘em, cowboy!” Otis whooped.
“I’m a cowgirl!” Dottie yelled.
They sat outside on the terrace at a table beneath an umbrella. Otis was outnumbered ten to one by women and twenty to one by children. He had a broiled hamburger sandwich and stewed fruit. Dottie had a cold sliced ham sandwich and applesauce. Otis drank an A & W root beer and Dottie had an Orange Crush. He stretched his legs out and Dottie curled hers up underneath her.
“What do you like best about the zoo?” asked Otis.
“The smells,” said Dottie.
It smells like shit, he wanted to say. It’s a safe place to fart. No matter how well the cage keepers did their jobs, animals urinated and defecated all day long. If human beings didn’t use bathrooms there would be one hell of a smell worldwide. Not only that, animals didn’t bathe, Their body odor was everywhere downwind.
The zoo was hard on the flank of Fifth Avenue. What was it like in the summer, on stagnant hot humid summer days, nearby apartment windows open to catch a breeze? Whatever breeze they caught, the wind was westerly, and Fifth Avenue was on the east side of the park.
“That goo that comes out of the beaver butts, it smells like vanilla, and those toads in the mud, they smell like peanut butter, even though the smell makes me sneeze and my eyes burn,” said Dottie.
“What else do you like about the zoo?”
“I like being in the park, and the animals, but I don’t like that they’re in cages.”
“No, I don’t, either,” said Otis.
“Why do they put them in cages?”
“They do that to protect us. Lions and bears can be very dangerous.”
“Are they the most dangerous?”
“No, people are the most dangerous. Animals kill to eat. People kill animals to eat, too, like chickens and pigs, but they also kill elephants for their tusks, tigers for their teeth, and bears for their fur. Sometimes they kill animals for no reason.”
“Lions and bears don’t live in cages at home, do they?”
“No they live in forests, which is too bad, because their cages are thousands of times smaller than where they live.”
There were two six-foot bronze statues on either side of the restaurant. One was Dancing Goat and the other one was Honey Bear. The goat was rearing up and ducks at his feet sprayed water out of their mouths. The bear was on its hind legs, twisting its neck and head to one side, and sticking his tongue out. There were bronze frogs spraying water at his feet.
“Dad says some people belong in zoos.”
“He means bad people, not zoos so much, but behind bars.“
“Nobody puts people in zoos, do they?
“Not anymore, but they used to, a hundred years ago. They were like traveling zoos, people from India and Africa.”
“What kind of people?”
“Exotic people, different people, Rope dancers, camel herders, Zulu fighters. There were whole villages, primitive people on display.”
“They didn’t mind?” asked Dottie.
“I don’t know,” said Otis. “I know I would mind.”
They watched boys and girls glide by on bicycles. Mothers pushed strollers, slow, talking to their friends. A mime wheeled past on a unicycle, pretending to have great difficulty.
After lunch Otis and Dottie walked across the terrace to the sea lion pool. Dottie hopped on the bottom rail of the fence to get a better view. One of the sea lions was napping on top of one of the platforms. Another one, across the gap from her, on the other side of a second, inner metal fence, was slip sliding on the wet ledge, barking at the sleeper. Other seals were sunbathing and three were chasing each other in the water.
“Let’s go see the lions,” said Dottie.
“OK, let’s go,” said Otis.
The lion spread out in the cage was seven feet long, or more.
“Jesus!” said Otis. “He must be three hundred, four hundred pounds.”
How do tamers get into the ring with them, he wondered.
“What does it say?” asked Dottie, pointing to the label screwed to the wall. Otis read the label to her.
“The Southeast African lion, also known as the Kalahari or Transvaal lion, is found in the southern parts of Africa. Groups of them called prides live in open woodlands, savannas, and grassy plains. They survive 10 years in the wild and up to 20 in captivity. Lions spend most of their time resting, napping and sleeping. They hunt at dawn and dusk. Males guard cubs while lionesses hunt.”
“Do you know what lion means?” asked Dottie.
“No, what does it mean?”
“It means king. That’s why they’re king of the jungle.”
“You’ve seen too many Tarzan movies,” said Otis.
“No, it was in my book.”
“What book was that?”
“Tawny Scrawny Lion.”
“It doesn’t sound like he was much of a king.”
“You have to read the book.”
Otis and Dottie were less than eight feet away from the lion. The big cat was a male, straw and leaves stuck in his short, light-colored mane, his face like a sphinx. He had a long tail with a black tassel at the end of it. He flicked his tail. When Dottie walked to the other end of the cage, the lion followed her with his orangey brown eyes by turning his head. She walked halfway back to Otis and stopped.
Dottie looked up into the lion’s eyes. She was excited and scared. The lion opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue, and panted several times. She took a step back. She couldn’t look away.
“Do you think he wants to eat me?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Otis.
“Can we stop at the monkey house before we leave?”
“Sure, Dots, let’s go,” said Otis, taking her hand.
They left the Central Park Zoo twenty minutes later. Dottie looked back over her shoulder, walking out the gate of the zoo, at the clock at the top of the musical clock tower. There were dancing bears and elephants on ledges beneath the clock. Above the clock was a cast iron bell. It was a quarter to four.
It was four o’clock when Stan Rittman checked his watch. There was time enough to make it home with daylight to spare. He slid into the Star Chief, started up the car, and started the drive back to the other end of Long Island.
It was a quarter after four when a skinny East Hampton policeman slid into the phone booth a block away from the station and called the number on the slip of paper the one hundred dollar bill had been paper-clipped to.
“This is East Hampton. You wanted to know if anyone ever came up here snooping around into Jackson Pollock, right?”
“Yeah. What do you know?”
“There was a guy here today, talked to the chief, some of Pollock’s neighbors, spent the day sticking his nose into things.”
“Did you get a name?”
“He said his name was Stan Rittman, a private dick from the city.”
“OK, forget this number, don’t call again.”
The policeman crumpled the piece of paper in his hand, stepped out of the phone booth, and threw it down on the sidewalk. A woman walking past, a member of the Ladies Village Improvement Society, snapped a disapproving look at him.
“Mind your own business,” said the skinny policeman, kicking the paper into the gutter, where it rolled into a storm drain.
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.