Story Excerpt

Terrible Trudy on the Lam

by Eileen Gunn


It was a whim, a momentary desire to see what lay outside the zoo. But once Trudy had taken a walk around San Diego, once she’d tasted freedom, she was determined not to go back. She would make this work. At first, she lived in the city’s lovely dark storm drains, emerging every night to forage for yummies in Balboa Park. But she knew her sylvan idyll would not last forever. She needed a long-term plan, and after a week of pondering the matter, she put one together.

A job was the first order of business, something that would keep her in shoots and leaves, and hopefully something she could do evenings: she was, of course, as the zookeepers had told her time and again, an odd-toed crepuscular ungulate. Twilight was her very best time of day, though she could go all night if she had to.

She considered roller-skating. Bears do it, elephants do it, even penguins roller skate, and at that time roller-skating couples in evening dress were becoming a popular nightclub entertainment. Why not tapirs?

At first, Trudy thought maybe a prey-predator act would be exciting, since tapirs have been known to bite viciously when cornered, and that could be milked for comic effect. But tigers, the Malayan tapir’s principal predator, rarely roller skate well. They consider it undignified, and often, when strapped into skates, just lie on their backs with their feet in the air, as if expecting a belly rub. Trudy considered putting together an act with another prey animal, but she was wary of partners: not every roller-skater who said she was a vegetarian was committed to non-violence. In the end, Trudy decided to go it alone.

A kindly shoemaker created custom open-toed roller skates for her, to show off her tiny hooved toes, three on each back foot, four on each foot in the front. The boots were made of red leather, which contrasted elegantly with Trudy’s silver shoulders and black flanks. A black bowtie and a starched white collar pulled the whole ensemble together in a dignified and professional way. A refined Marlene Dietrich look, Trudy thought, right to the silver tracings on the tips of her ears.

She practiced skating late at night, after the rink had closed and everyone had gone home. It was dark, but tapirs have poor eyesight, and she was accustomed to tiptoeing around in a dusky forest. Eventually the groundskeeper discovered that she had broken into the rink through an unused storage closet, and the jig was up, but by then she had perfected a hilarious pantomime routine. She skittered out onto the dance floor, flailing about and threatening to crash into tables along its edge, then regaining her composure and performing a series of graceful loops and twirls, ending in an Axel, loop, double Mapes, Euler, double flip.

Audiences loved it—in performance, the finale always drew gasps from the tables—and they took Trudy to their hearts. San Diegans, grieving and distressed after the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous year, sought consolation in bars and supper clubs, and Terrible Trudy the Roller Skating Tapir was a hit. Hollywood celebrities flocked to San Diego, ostensibly to perform for the troops at the naval base, but really to catch Trudy’s act at the Chi-Chi Supper Club, a hot new nightclub with a South Seas theme. Trudy sometimes added a lei to her costume: it also served as a midnight snack.

As Trudy’s star rose, so did her worries about the zoo director, the indomitable Belle Benchley. Mrs. Benchley had pioneered the modern, natural-looking, cageless zoo. Trudy had rejected Benchley’s carefully simulated enclosure, and Trudy’s wanderlust had challenged the woman to the core. Mrs. Benchley knew Trudy was living in La Jolla and working openly at the Chi-Chi Club, but had made no effort to contact her. How long would this détente last?

*   *   *

At first, Trudy seemed to be nonchalance itself. She flirted with members of the audience, of any gender, who caught her eye. If an object or an article of clothing attracted her interest, she would take possession of it, though she usually returned it to the owner at the end of her set. In such a fashion, she acquired a fedora, and she instantly made it a permanent part of her act. A huge fan of the singer Jimmy Durante, Trudy interspersed her spectacular skating routine with Durante imitations, just as Durante would pause in the middle of a song and break into a quick comedy routine, then return to the song as if nothing had happened. Turns out she was a very affecting singer, with a sense of comedic timing that rivaled Durante’s own. Not to mention she had a schnozzola that even Durante envied.

The crowds went wild.

But the stress began to tell on Trudy, who knew that at any moment Mrs. Benchley could, on a whim, decide to bring Trudy back to the zoo and its fake Malayan rain forest. Trudy had no legal leg to stand on: as she had been reminded by her lawyers time and again, she was the property of the San Diego Zoo. Trudy began downing a quick Tonga Punch—or maybe two—before the show, just to keep her courage up. One evening, she went a bit further than two and had not sobered up by show time. She went on anyway, rather than disappoint the crowd, and the revelers took her markedly sloppy routine as a clever commentary on the club MC, who was notorious for never showing up to work sober. People laughed and laughed, and their wild reception of her wacky skate-dance encouraged her to act out even more.

She was careening between the supper tables on one foot, waving the other three in the air, picking up customers’ champagne glasses with her schnoz, and singing “Inka-dinka-do,” when suddenly her luck ran out, and her wheels caught on a crack in the floor. Had she been sober and standing on all four feet, she could have recovered, but that was not the case.

Trudy went flying, and landed on top of a table occupied by William Randolph Hearst and his paramour Marion Davies. Drenched in expensive champagne, Miss Davies fled the nightclub, leaving behind her ermine evening wrap and Mr. Hearst. As the newspapers told the story, Mr. Hearst immediately bestowed the ermine on Trudy, to console her for her embarrassment. Miss Davies later vowed publicly never again to leave either her clothing or her man alone in Trudy’s presence, declaring, “That little rhinoceros minx has an elevated opinion of her own attractiveness.” (Here we must acknowledge that, although tapirs and rhinoceroses are among the few odd-toed ungulates, tapirs are not rhinoceroses, and neither of them are minks.)

Trudy, realizing that her career as a headliner at the Chi-Chi had come to an end, saluted the audience with her fedora, ad-libbed Durante’s signature closing, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” and lit out for LA as fast as she could travel, just one step ahead of Mrs. Benchley. She was only a tapir, making her lonely way in this dreadful world, but she knew when to call it a night.

*   *   *

It took just a couple hours to bus from San Diego to Los Angeles, and by midnight, Trudy, clutching her ermine stole about her, emerged from the Greyhound station on Los Angeles Street. She knew that pretty soon she’d need some kind of fake ID, but right then she sure hoped the cops wouldn’t stop an innocent-looking young tapir in a classy fur wrap.

The few passengers on the late-night bus from San Diego scattered like roaches when you turn on the light. It was a quiet night; just a few people napped on the station’s benches. No street traffic at all, really. Trudy was alone in LA, and had no real idea of where to go. She was pretty sure that LA had storm drains and that the gardens of Beverly Hills would provide sustenance. She was also under the impression that Beverly Hills was somewhere north of the Greyhound station, which was true enough. She struck out at once, heading north toward Olvera Street and what, she had heard, were some of the most colorful sections of the city. The wind was off the ocean, and she could smell the salt air.

After just a few blocks, she left the dreary bus-station-shabby street and entered a neighborhood of trim little wooden bungalows. It smelled good—it smelled edible, in fact. Maybe she should have a nosh here, she thought. Why hold out for Beverly Hills? She reached for some greenery and was nibbling it delicately when she noticed a man in the shadows, crouched next to a 1937 Oldsmobile. The streetlights were dim and one to a block, but Trudy’s eyesight was best in low-light situations, so she had no problem picking him out.

He was wearing a crumpled serge suit with an ugly striped tie that had slipped askew. His fedora was battered in a way that suggested he habitually sat on it. A pint of something alcoholic stuck out of his jacket pocket. He looked slightly dangerous and unmistakably up to no good. Trudy caught his eye.

He raised his eyebrows, nodded to Trudy, and, cool as a frozen daiquiri, brought his left index finger to his lips, and gave her a stern cautionary glance. She nodded slightly in return. She would give him a chance to explain himself, she thought.

Then, suddenly, he leaped up, holding a huge flash camera in both hands, and aimed it into the back seat of the Olds, photographing the car’s interior. The flash lit up the scene, and a high-pitched scream came from the car. The photographer broke away, ran like hell down the driveway right next to Trudy, and disappeared into a large privet hedge that Trudy had been considering for dessert.

The driver-side door of the Olds pushed open and a partly dressed guy leaped out, clutching a wrench. He spotted Trudy and shouted, “Where’d he go?” Trudy didn’t care to be addressed so rudely. She gestured toward Beverly Hills, and he started down the street a few yards, then stopped. He turned around and came back to the car, buttoning his yellow-and-pink Hawaiian shirt, with a truculent look on his face.

“Get your things on, babe,” he said to the person inside. “I’ll take you home, and then I’ll deal with the gumshoe.” A woman said something low and mewly, but Trudy couldn’t make out what it was. “I’ll pay him off, that’s what. I’ll take care of him. Don’t worry about it.” He leaped into the car, started it, threw it in gear, and they clattered off down the street.

Trudy made her move on the privet, which was as tasty as she thought it would be.

The blackmailer, for that’s surely what he was, emerged from the hedge. “They gone?” He kept his voice low, and he mumbled.

Trudy, her mouth full of fresh privet, simply nodded.

“I like a dame can keep her mouth shut,” the man said. He held out his hand. “Name’s Mumble,” he said. “Firrup Mumble.”

Trudy nodded again. That couldn’t be his name, she knew, but it was really hard to understand him. No matter. She ignored his hand and continued to chew the privet.

“Divorce case,” he said, tilting his head toward where the Olds had been parked. He lowered his hand. “That mug’s been out with a different floozy every night. His ole lady’ll take him for every penny he’s got.”

Trudy just looked at him. Not a blackmailer, a P.I.

“You keep your own counsel, I can tell,” said the man.

Trudy continued to keep her own counsel.

“You need a job, kid? You look hard-up, wandering around in the middle of the night, eating people’s shrubbery.”

It was clear to Trudy that either he hadn’t noticed the ermine stole or he thought it was part of a tapir’s standard equipment, but the question, and the man’s concern, softened her reserve. She nodded her head vigorously.

“I could use an assistant, someone who keeps their mouth shut, y’ know’d I mean?”

Trudy shrugged, but didn’t deny that she could keep her mouth shut.

“I’m a private dick, and I do mean private.” He spoke a little louder, a little more clearly. “But I could use a dame to handle surveillance. You over eighteen?” Trudy nodded again, though actually she was only five. Seemed about right, though—just past adolescence.

“Well come along then, jalopy’s over here. I gotta get these pix developed. Lady’s gonna be filing for divorce, needs her flagrante delicto.”

I don’t want to be anybody’s assistant, thought Trudy. I want to be the detective. I want to find the flagrante delictos. But I guess I’ll deal with that later. She followed Firrip Mumble to his car.



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Copyright © 2019. Terrible Trudy on the Lam by Eileen Gunn