Right from the start he was thrown in at the deep-end because the head keeper just handed him a pail of steaks and hustled him through the gates of the enclosure. The logic was that since he was Jewish and not Christian the lions would not have the taste for him that they would have for the other keepers. Roth was dubious about their logic, but he complied.
The way to be was fearless but non-confrontational. “Show them who’s 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’s boss.”
At the beginning of term, they had filed into the lecture theater in the zoo to have a seminar. At the front a bushy moustached keeper gave a brief talk on precisely this subject. The talk was entitled “Show them who’s Boss” They had shown clips from Grizzly Man. They showed the sequences from just before Treadwell’s death. The elderly keeper stood guffawing at the back. He was an ex- Kossack. Old school in his ideas about death.
The lions sat lazy 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 about them.
Elia put his shoulders back every day and strode manfully into the enclosure. The point was about body language. They had to know that he wasn’t a foolish or a weak man. He looked out into the audience sometimes to see the anxious crowds, anxious for him.
What he came 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, active, interesting to watch. They lolled about bored all day, or poked mindless fun at each other or flirted.
Once, a lion came to him crying and pointed into his lap. Roth looked down to see the lions penis tied into a complex not. 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 friends penis into a bow while he was asleep. Maybe it was supposed to suggest that he was gay? Maybe that Roth himself was gay? He looked up into the lions face. The hair on his face was matted and wet with tears. It looked like what lions faces must look like when it rains.
Roth looked over at the huddle of lions. Catching him glaring at them, their smiles dropped and they glared. 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's become a figure of desperation, unattractive. Now he found himself fantasizing about her. He said he would like to re-discover 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 a state of emergency. The electric lion roared, metallic into the canteen. It was met by a clatter of startled cutlery.
Roth and his friend raced over to the enclosure. Their they found three lions sat around, exploring each other. One was a lioness. She was holding aside her labia, showing the male lions, foreskins peeled back, what lay before them. Expressions of disgusted curiosity were fixed on the faces of all three lions. An older lion stood over the little group. Unfazed, languid, he was carefully enunciating the harsh syllables:
Three families stood before the enclosure, their hands over the youngest’s eyes, gazing outraged at the sex.
Roth and the young keeper rushed in to separate and administer discipline to the young lions, although it didn’t seem right somehow. One of the young lions swore at Roth, but he seemed more upset, even sad, than angry.
Most evening’s Roth stayed behind to sweep up. He didn’t mind so much. He preferred to work on his own, at his own pace, and he found the sweeping almost therapeutic. The only unpleasant thing was the sounds of vodka clattering into mugs, and Mahler and loud discussions about their merits of differing Swiss health spas. These sounds 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 swivel chairs. For this reason, the management had installed a shower block in the staff room.
Roth needed every kopeck that he could get to keep his head above water. In the evenings, he worked overtime sweeping up and chopping the lions liver for the next day. On the weekends, he taught French and English to bourgeouis couples who could see what was on the horizon and wanted to equip themselves with enough words to get by in a "civilized country," should the worst occur. They came to his house late at night, in their furs. With their faces contorted in concentration, they asked each other for kilos of butter, for directions to the theatre, the train station.
Every two weeks, Roth would visit his mother (too fat now, to really leave her easy chair, let alone her palace in Nevsky prospect) and place a fat envelope in her pudgy hand. She would look blankly ahead until a lacky transferred the envelope from her hand into a chest at her feet. He had paid her back for her care from his birth until the age of 18 and was currently 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 detour to walk along the sea-front. The road up to the sea front was jammed with fire engines, all from different emergency agencies. They honked their horns and sounded their sirens in unison. Behind the windscreen, men were going inaudibly crazy. Scooters and scateboards zig-zagged around them, all looking as if they were headed for the same place, the same party.
He 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. Roth peered down at the slats of wood between his feet. The spaces between the slats look to be an inch wide. Some of the slats were skinnier, more rotten looking. 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 nighttime and the sea hearing the mechanical whir and the lights of the city behind him, on the land. 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. 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 about the lions. He thought of them strolling easily into the office of the head-keeper, asleep beneath his moustache, his mouth full of flies, and lifting one of his leather jackets 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 bounced 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, huddled in conference. 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 collar of the leather, beady eyes flicking this way and that.
He thought of the lions skulking up the stair 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 saw the lions crowd into his bedroom finding him, balanced on his haunches, standing on his mattress, his nightshirt riding over his knees. He saw the look of furious terror on his own face.
Roth would be waiting for them with a shotgun. He would shout at those lions:
“You are my nemeses, you are my adversaries, my enemies. Please, I’ve had enough of you, I never want to see you again!” He would shout. “Get out! Get out of here! Get out! I have some important telephone calls to make!”