Teague’s parents were divorced, too. His father had remarried and moved into an apartment in a building called Orwell House on the corner of Eighty-sixth Street and Central Park West. We were seventeen or eighteen at the time, and when his father went away on weekends, Teague would sometimes invite me down to the city.
One night we were sitting around drinking Ringnes beer. We played chess using a board Teague had drawn on a piece of white-painted wood and these little lead soldiers he collected. Later we watched Monty Python on the TV in his father’s den, Teague miming all the bits he now knew by heart. When it ended we were bored and decided to go out for a walk in Central Park.
Teague pulled out a pouch of Drum tobacco to roll a few. I grabbed some beers, the squat bottles fitting nicely into the pockets of our army surplus canvas coats. We took the elevator down to the lobby where Teague tipped an imaginary hat to the doorman, saying “Cheerio!” as we walked out. The doorman did not look up.
Both of us knew it was not a good idea to be going into the park this late but we didn’t care. Up at Belvedere Castle we stopped to look out at the shimmering buildings that corralled the park on three sides. Teague opened two beers using his teeth. We drank them fast, tossing the empties into the pond below, then headed south through the overgrown Ramble. Passing the Bandshell there was movement; cardboard shelters huddled on the stage shifting around as people bedded down for the night. We were alone walking the Mall, its canopy of trees forming a tunnel before us. At the zoo we stepped over the sagging chain with a green sign on it that read: “ZOO CLOSED.” We were surprised it was so easy, that there were no other barriers or gates to stop us from entering.
As we walked down the path, I looked left and saw a huge white mass of moving fur. The polar bear was in an enclosure surrounded by a high iron fence about twenty feet from the path. Another fence about seven-feet high ran next to the path, creating a sort of grassy buffer between the path and his pen.
“Let’s climb over and get closer,” Teague said.
“I don’t think so.”
Teague was already up though, swinging himself over the top. He slipped suddenly and went crashing down onto a large flat rock on the other side. He laid there a moment, moaning. When I got to him he was sitting up holding his head and cursing: “My fecking coat got caught at the top.”
“Come on,” I said grabbing his arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
“No, man. I want to see the bear.”
I looked down. “Did you piss yourself? You’re all wet.”
“Oh shit, the beer bottle broke.” He laughed and did a little dance, shaking his coat, jiggling the shattered glass.
It was then that we both felt the presence of the bear, turning to see his large white head, those big black eyes staring back at us.
We walked closer to the pen. Teague tore a branch from an ailanthus tree and threw it over the fence. The bear picked it up, sniffed at it and tossed it away. He seemed curious about us though, ambling over for a closer look.
I was a few feet from the fence, watching the gracefully lumbering giant, mesmerized by his deliberate movements, when he reared up onto his hind legs, leaning his paws on the iron rails right in front of me. I reached up and touched the hard gray pad of his paw with my hand. His curved yellow claws were as thick as my fingers and almost as long. Teague did the same, touching the bear’s other paw. In a moment he was back down on all fours, turning to walk away.
We didn’t say anything to each other as we climbed back out and made our way to the center of the zoo. On the low wall of the sea lion pool we sat and shared the last beer while the sleek brown mammals churned ceaselessly in circles through the water behind us.
From the Cat House beyond I could hear a deep growling. I pictured the coal black panther with yellow eyes as I had once seen him, years before, his head low to the ground, nervous in his small cell, pacing back and forth, back and forth, hunting for a way out.