PHILADELPHIA, 1951 —
I was walking through Love Park when I came upon a zebra sitting on a bench. I’d never before seen a zebra sitting on a park bench; I quickly became perplexed when she smiled and spoke to me. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that a zebra accent would sound so British, and as I sat down, I told her so.
Madeline Laughed. (That was her name — Madeline J. Laughed — I learned early in our conversation).
“Oh, my,” Madeline said, “please don’t think we all speak the same!”
Madeline explained that while her mother was a zebra, her father, may he rest in peace, was a sloth. That should explain her unique accent. Unfortunately, for me it did not.
I politely smiled. (I had initially written that I smiled sheepishly, but decided that there are already too many animals to keep track of in this story.)
I believe it was here, early in the conversation, that we formally introduced ourselves.
Hesitantly, almost meekly, not wanting to offend, I shared with Madeline a shortcoming of mine — I did not know that zebras spoke. I assumed that she must be one unique zebra.
“Oh,” she said, “zebras can talk; we just usually have nothing to say.” She then apologized for what she said was a very old joke.
“Actually, I don’t think that many zebras do speak, now that you mention it,” Madeline said. “I think it’s the sloth in me. I get it from my father’s side.”
A gust of wind blew through the park and Madeline’s bonnet sailed off her head and was lifted straight up into the large maple behind us. She quickly waved it off, saying, “Oh, no bother, I’ll get it shortly.”
I was contemplating her comment on how she got speech from her father’s side and realized that I had spent so little time with sloths that I really wouldn’t know if they spoke or not, so I took her word for it.
“Please don’t take offense, I’m certainly not trying to be rude, but you don’t look like you’re half zebra, half sloth,” I said, just making small talk.
Madeline laughed. “Yes, I do look quite a lot like my mommy,” she said. “However, I do have my daddy’s feet, tail, and ears.”
Having never seen a good photo nor met one’s parents, it is usually hard to say that one may resemble their mother or father, but her tail, ears, and feet definitely did not ring true as zebra features; as soon as she said it I had to agree that those were more Folivora than Equus. I told her so.
Madeline again giggled and I saw that twinkle in her eye, one that I would come to know well, and always look forward to. She then did the most curious thing. My mostly zebra friend got up (the bench creaked) and nimbly climbed up the tree to retrieve her bonnet. Now I’ve never actually seen a sloth climb a tree before, but if I were ever in a situation where a zebra and a sloth were in a get-to-the-top-of-a-tree climbing race, I’d probably put my money, what little I have, on the sloth, and I told Madeline so.
She didn’t smile, but gave me a bit of a perplexed look, having returned to the park bench, rebonneted.
“Yes,” she said, “I forget how much of my Daddy is really a part of me.”
She then started to giggle again; she giggled so hard that she snorted.
“Oh my,” she said, post snort. She pulled out a pretty mauve plaid hanky, one that had a big L stitched into the center. She covered her mouth with her hanky, as if it would allow us to go back in time to delete said snort.
“Very cute,” I thought.
She then explained that while neither zebra nor sloth are known for snorting, or at least not often, she had just found what I said so incredibly funny, so peculiar, so je ne sais quoi…
Life is full of occasional, curious and delightful coincidences, and she simply couldn’t let this go by.
“I must tell you, it is actual fact — it was 24 years ago in this very park, near this very bench — the maple behind us was not quite so large (she recalled from photos), when a young girl zebra and a handsome boy sloth did exactly that! They had challenged each other to a race to the top of this tree. And do you know what happened? The zebra won. It was a slow, awkward, and dangerous thing for her to do, but she took all challenges seriously. He ‘threw the race,’ as the bluebirds would say, because he was quite infatuated with her, having looked into her big beautiful eyes.
“After the race,” Madeline continued, “he proposed to her (marriage, not another race) and she accepted, having been so moved by how cute he looked, down on one knee. (These were appropriate sloth timeframes for dating and engagement periods.) Many of the locals, were most upset with their two neighbors, and were more upset to learn that, on their wedding night in the Matrimony Suite of the Sheffield Hotel, a daughter was conceived. However this was the city of Brotherly Love, and in the neighborhood of Fishtown, the words meant something. Guilt quickly set in throughout the neighborhood — guilt for judging two who were so in love. The community decided that a noble act was required, and as a way of asking for forgiveness from this unlikely couple, many neighbors went to the next borough council meeting with a petition, a special request, to name the park, the park where Madeline’s parents met, to name it Love Park, to commemorate their very celebratory pregnancy. The city approved.
“The park was actually named Love Park because of me!” Madeline bubbled.
Now I’d met Joe Louis once, and I did speak to J.D. Salinger at a laundromat, and I think I peed in a urinal next to one occupied by Juan Peron in a men’s room in the Philadelphia Airport. Still, local celebrities always tickle my fancy, and while I couldn’t imagine that anything could make this chance encounter more wonderful to me, this story of the naming of Love Park did.
Madeline looked at her watch, this being the international symbol for “soon-I-need-to-be-somewhere-else.” (It is also the symbol for “I-wonder-what-time-it-is.”)
“As you may guess,” Madeline said, “I don’t often go around as such a shaggy thing, but I’ve been so busy at work lately, I’ve scarcely had time to pee!” (I hoped that this was a fact of what had been, not a warning of what was to come.)
As she pulled her backpack on, she said, “I’m so enjoying our visit, but I really must be going. I have an appointment at 3 p.m. sharp to get my hair cut.”
It turned out that she and I both go to The Conscilience, a hair salon on the edge of the park. We were both surprised that we hadn’t run into each other sooner.
I offered to walk with her; it would be good to stick my head in to say hello to Sarah Joy, the proprietor, and it wasn’t far away. Madeline turned and looked deep into my eyes. I think she may have been wondering if this was a simple walk, with my intentions as stated. Perhaps I was a bit smitten with her (honestly, I was). Or, perhaps she was concerned about being seen, walking down the sidewalk with an ostrich. However, it was the love of her parents a quarter of a century ago that allowed us to so freely take that stroll today. If some outsider chooses to stare, we were both prepared. Love is blind, and those who see it certainly should be so as well.
I carried her mandolin case for her, and hoped this walk would not be our last.
John Allison currently lives in Ewing, where he teaches chemistry at the College of New Jersey and can be found on weekends on Barnegat Bay in the sailing vessel ALICE.