The keepers and a giraffe have the only keys. No one much comes anymore. Just the Wild Man’s other old friend, the camel. The public doesn’t even know it’s open. The grass in back is so tall that your knees get wet if you walk out there in the morning. The wind is in charge of the front yard. The keepers do not love this exhibit. No one is interested in the Wild Man anymore except the bedbugs. He believes he can train them like fleas from the circus that was Viet Nam. He doesn’t shed his skin neatly like a snake; it falls on table, chairs, and his mother’s old teapots. The camel hooked up a tv for him. The giraffe brings coffee and gets him high. The keepers feed him bologna, peanut butter, and potato chips. On weekends, they leave ice cream at the back door, ring the bell and run away, so they don’t have to confront what they have allowed to happen.
The zookeepers are having the cage cleaned. They do not know what to do with the Wild Man. They take him to a cheap motel and leave him alone in room 105. The door is barely closed. Already the Wild Man doesn’t remember where he is or why. He phones the camel and giraffe with their forty-year-old numbers. The giraffe answers. The Wild Man is meek with confusion. He doesn’t think he has a car there. The giraffe tells him to get paper and pen. She tells him to write this down: I am in this motel because my cage is being cleaned. She tells him to keep the note in his hand and read it when he is confused. She hears a knock at his door. He says into the phone It’s a mess. Not your mess. My mess. I’m sorry. He leaves her dangling.
Chickens live next door to the Wild Man. They collect antiques and raise chicks. The chickens don’t know what to do when they see the Wild Man locked out of his cage. He isn’t free. It is even worse with no walls. He crouches on his steps crying giant wild sobs. The laying hen scuttles up to him and asks, “Is there anything I can do?” The Wild Man holds out his arm with the giraffe’s phone number tattooed on it. The chickens have the old kind of phone where they stomp on each button with their feet. After several wrong numbers, the chicken reaches the giraffe, who has the only renegade key. The chicks have never seen the Wild Man up close. He lets them play in his hair and beard. One of them draws a Christmas tree on an old piece of cardboard for his cage. One of them thinks he is Santa Claus. After the giraffe and the laying hen get him back in his cage, the hen flies to the roof where she and the giraffe commiserate about the inadequacies of the health care system.
The giraffe is the Wild Man’s memory. When he is distraught, she recounts his life: how he was a musician, then suddenly a soldier, then a woodworker. She reminds him of the loves of his life, leaving herself out because it’s already too complicated. When he begins to add details or correct her, she knows he’s back. The giraffe has memorized all the Wild Man’s numbers, sorts his pills, knows the day his garbage will be picked up. Somedays, she feels like an elephant—even after he is gone, she will never forget.
The Fun House
After the Wild Man’s mother shrank and began falling, he moved into her basement. When she died, he moved upstairs and completely forgot about the nouns of his life downstairs. He closed his shop. He closed off his mother’s bedroom. He has closed his bedroom. All the shades and drapes are drawn. He sleeps in a chair in front of the television, shuffles to the kitchen, the bathroom. The ceiling lowers. The walls close in. Soon the keepers will move him to a coffee cup. Then a thimble.
New Year’s Wish
The giraffe was not always a giraffe. Once she was a dancer and could hook her foot around her neck, like a flamingo. Men found this flexibility enchanting, but it drove the Wild Man crazy. He was not called that then. For two years he lavished her body with tricks learned in Viet Nam from his girlfriends, what the prostitutes called themselves. He consumed her as if she were a gingerbread girl and he needed molasses to survive. They stayed friends as they aged. He remained single and grew wilder. She became domesticated and married a panda. The giraffe used to want to die in the Wild Man’s arms. Now she just wants him to die.
Elizabeth Kerlikowske’s most recent book is The Vaudeville Horse (Etchings Press, 2022). She wrote the text for Art Speaks: Paintings and Poetry (Kazoo Books, 2018) with painter Mary Hatch, an ekphrastic adventure. Other books by Kerlikowske include The Shape of Dad (a memoir in prose poems), Dominant Hand, Last Hula (winner of the 2013 Standing Rock Chapbook Competition), Chain of Lakes, Her Bodies, Postcards, Before the Rain (a children’s book of stories and poems), and Suicide Notes. Her work is anthologized in Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence (White Pine Press, 2016), The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women (Shade Mountain Press, 2015), She also creates visual art. Kerlikowske holds doctorate in English from Western Michigan University. An arts activist, she served for many years as the president of the Kalamazoo Friends of Poetry and as president of the Poetry Society of Michigan.