Rachel Forrest is a a painter based in San Jose. Her work can be found on her website.
Save the Sloths
by Sean Taro Nishi
The thing about non-profits is: the people who work there are always beautiful. It’s as if they’re giving back for their God-given gifts, paying it forward if you will.
Paying it forward is what made me seek out the Save the Sloths Foundation. A dead relative left me a huge sum of money with one request: that I donate at least part of it to a charitable organization of my choice.
So I looked through some brochures and saw one with a picture of a beautiful tall woman holding a baby sloth in her arms. The tagline said “Be a boss, save a sloth.” I was attracted to her immediately.
Another thing about beautiful people: they’re good for advertising.
* * *
Their San Francisco office was upstairs from a busy tea shop. The cinnamon smell of Chai seeped into the walls and into the floors, which almost made me gag. I could never get into people’s fascination with Chai tea. Across the street was a cafe for cats.
The pretty brunette girl at the front desk was around my age. Actually, I might’ve taken a class or two with her at State. They all looked pretty similar.
“Ms. Sparrow?” I said. “I’m supposed to meet with someone named Ms. Sparrow?”
“Uh-huh,” said the girl. She was looking at her computer, which was playing soft alternative music. “Are you an intern?”
“No. I’m a donor,” I said.
“Ohhh,” she said. “She’s down the hall in the meditation room. It’s the one that says ‘meditation room.’ It’s the only room besides the bathroom. You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Wait,” she said.
“You can’t take that with you,” she said.
“Take what?” I said.
She was pointing at Starbucks coffee cup in my hand.
“She thinks paper cups are wasteful. She doesn’t like to see them. Throw it away or else she’ll never stop talking about it,” she said.
“But it’s still half-full,” I said.
The girl lifted up a trash can from her desk. Grudgingly I tossed it.
I started walking again when she said “Do you like sloths?”
“Sure,” I said. “Do you?”
“They’re cute. But I like cats better,” she said.
“Good to know,” I said.
* * *
Ms. Sparrow sat cross-legged on a straw-yoga mat. The room had no furniture, not even a desk or a single chair. Metal pipes were exposed all over the ceiling and dripped water all over the floor. Fine Indian tapestry hung from the walls to cover up the peeling paint and mold. The room was lit by dozens of scented candles.
There was also a sloth hanging from the ceiling. It was brown and small and cuddly. It hung over Ms. Sparrow and myself.
“That’s Conan,” said Ms. Sparrow. “He’s why we’re here today.”
Ms. Sparrow was about forty—tall and lean, incredibly toned, not a single muscle or bone in her body not working at maximum efficiency. Her hair was golden and tied up in a bun that gave the impression of a golden cloud floating above her head.
She was a little older than me, yes, but I had to admit she was beautiful.
“I’m glad you came,” she said. “It’s been hard finding people who are passionate about this sort of thing.”
“I’ve been trying,” I said.
“People are so deep with their head up their asses that they don’t see the big picture anymore,” she said.
“I agree,” I said.
“Nobody knows anything about sloths. Do you know the number one threat to the South American sloth population?” she said.
“Poachers?” I said.
“Not even close. It’s something much smaller,” she said.
“Snakes?” I said.
“Coffee stirrers,” she said.
“Coffee stirrers?” I said.
“Those little sticks made out of wood that look like tongue depressors,” she said.
“I would’ve never guessed,” I said.
“It’s obvious, really!” she said. “They have to tear down thousands of trees every year just to make those. And where do the sloths live, sleep, and raise their families?”
“Trees?” I said.
“Exactly. And all because some spoiled rich kids have to stir their sugar and milk into their store-bought coffees.”
“It’s wasteful,” I said.
Ms. Sparrow seemed pleased with herself. Aside from beauty, lecturing was her other God-given gift.
“That’s why I drink tea,” she said. “Tea culture is much more mindful about the environment.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
At that moment the girl from the desk came in carrying a tray. On the tray were two wooden boxes I recognized from Japanese restaurants that used them to serve sake.
“Have you met Ashley? Ashley this is Ryan.” said Ms. Sparrow.
“We met,” said Ashley. She set the tray between Ms. Sparrow and I. Conan’s baby-like eyes gazed over us.
“And Ashley brought us tea!” said Ms. Sparrow. “She’s an amazing volunteer. I don’t know how this place would run without her.”
I took a whiff of the tea and smelled Chai. I began to feel nauseous.
“You like Chai tea, right?” said Ms. Sparrow.
“Of course I do,” I said. “But I had some on the way over here.”
“Ah,” she said. “Why don’t you drink it Ashley?” she said.
“Thanks,” said Ashley. She looked at me and made a gagging face.
“Are there any other volunteers working here?” I said.
“It’s just the two of us,” said Ms. Sparrow. “For now. Like I said: it’s hard finding passionate, hard-working people.”
“I’m sure,” I said. I thought about saying how getting paid would be a good incentive, but I decided not to.
“Ashley here is a student at San Francisco State University, majoring in—what was it again? Social work? Education?”
“Marketing,” said Ashley.
“Ah,” said Ms. Sparrow.
She stood up and gently took Conan into her arms.
“We found him in a zoo,” said Ms. Sparrow. “We had to go through all sorts of hoops and ladders to get him out of there.”
“He didn’t like it?” I said.
“Conan would much rather be back where he came from,” she said.
“San Francisco?” I said.
“Brazil,” she said. “But we need Conan up here to lead the fight against sloth annihilation.”
“I see,” I said. I looked at Conan, who was hanging from Ms. Sparrow’s strong, outstretched arm. He was the most zen-looking animal I’d ever seen. I couldn’t imagine a creature like that ever being stressed or worried about anything in its life. How pitiful then, that it had no idea about the devastation happening to its own species.
“So how do we go about saving the South American sloth population?” I said.
“Simple,” said Ms. Sparrow. “By raising awareness.”
“So do we put out a TV ad?” I said.
“No. That’s too easy,” said Ms. Sparrow. “We need to show people how much we care. We need to show people we’re ready to be active. Which is why we’re going to put on an installation that features works from local artists about how important it is to save the sloth population.”
“Huh,” I said. “I’m sure that’ll get people’s attention.”
“We’ll auction off the artwork and use the proceeds to keep fighting for the sloths,” she said. “You’d be amazed how much some of the people would pay for art. Especially if it’s locally sourced.”
“It’s good to buy local,” I said.
“I know, it might seem like an ideal solution” said Ms. Sparrow. “But people these days only want to help out with a cause if it’s popular. Well, we’re going to make it popular. We’ll get the art crowd and the yuppies who want in on the latest trend. Let’s make humanitarianism popular again.”
“That sounds great,” I said. “By the way, how much do you think this is all going to cost?”
“I can’t imagine more than a few thousand dollars,” said Ms. Sparrow, smiling.
* * *
As I passed by Ashley on the way out she said “you know I’m just doing this for school, right?”
“I could’ve guessed,” I said.
“It was the easiest internship I could find,” she said.
“Nothing wrong with that,” I said.
“And she’s only doing this to get Kiley back,” she said.
“What?” I said.
“Oops,” said Ashley. “Forget I said that.”
* * *
A week later I got a phone call from Ms. Sparrow.
“It’s done!” said Ms. Sparrow. “We booked the gallery in North Beach, we’ve commissioned over a dozen artists to submit pieces, we have food and wine from local vineyards and farms, and we have a DJ flying in from New York to do the music.”
“Sounds great,” I said.
“Now Ryan,” she said. “This is going to be a little more expensive than I initially thought.”
“How much?” I said.
“Well, I was thinking about it and I figured we’ll probably only have one shot at this, you know? The art crowd is notoriously fickle. They’ll jump on any bandwagon but if we don’t grab them now, it’ll be too late,” she said.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“So I didn’t to spare any expense or half-ass this. I mean, it’s all about the sloths, right?” she said.
The image of Conan popped into my mind. He hung there, dangling gently from his big claws and feet.
“Sure,” I said.
“So it’s probably going to be closer to thirty-five thousand dollars,” she said.
I didn’t say anything for a moment. That would be pretty much my entire inheritance going towards this one event, and I cringed. I wanted to be charitable, but not this charitable.
“Ryan?” she repeated. “Ryan? Are you there?”
“Yes, Ms. Sparrow,” I said.
“Ryan I know this is more than we initially talked about, but think about what a difference we’ll make,” she said.
“I really don’t know,” I said.
“It would mean so much to me,” she said. Her voice became soft, seductive. “You’re such an important part of this, I want it to continue.”
“Okay,” I said.
“That’s fantastic!” said Ms. Sparrow. “Ashley can come by later to pick up the check. Do you want her to bring a Chai tea?”
* * *
For the instillation Ms. Sparrow wore a simple black dress that showed off the tattoos on her arms. There were a couple birds, some flowers, a monkey, something that looked like a handprint, a few scribbled quotes in Latin and Japanese, and strangely no sloths.
Her face was lit. I could tell she was immensely happy with herself. The gallery was packed full of people who were oo-ing and ah-ing over all the sloth-themed artwork. There was a painting of a sloth made entirely of shredded coffee cups, for some reason, and a series of photographs that superimposed them into pictures of Nazi concentration camps. The effect was gruesome, though it seemed to work on people.
There were people from the local news there, including a couple well-known critics, some musicians and artists, some successful start-up people, and everyone else who seemed important enough to invite.
Ms. Sparrow explained the plight of the sloth to anyone who would listen in the most passionate voice imaginable. I stood by Ms. Sparrow most of the night and let her talk and talk. Ashley was close by carrying Conan. The guests were all going crazy for Conan. I got the impression that most of them had never even seen a sloth before, and weren’t quite sure what to make of him besides thinking he was cute.
As I was looking at a poster of a sloth wearing a red beret to look like Che Guevara, a woman stood next to me. She had dark skin and hair buzzed down to the scalp, and some piercings on her nose and lip. She seemed slightly disturbed by the whole thing.
“What do you think it means?” I said, nodding at the poster.
“Who the hell cares,” the woman said.
“You don’t like sloths?” I said.
“I do,” she said, “they’re my favorite animal.”
“Then what’s the matter?” I said.
“It’s all so over the top,” she said. “I can’t believe she would do this,”
“But she’s trying to save the sloths from extinction,” I said.
“Oh please,” the woman said. “The sloths are fine. She’s just doing this because she knew I would come.”
Somehow I felt familiar with her already.
“I’m Ryan,” I said. “I’m part of the organization too, you know. I paid for all this.”
“Well la-di-da” she said. “I wonder how she roped you into this.
“I felt it was important,” I said. “Ms. Sparrow is really passionate about this.”
“Oh please,” said the woman. “She’s not passionate about anything except her own image. I’ve never met someone more vain.”
“Now hold on a second,” I said.
“And she’s so malleable,” she said. “The whole time we were together she would just say anything to get people to like her. It’s like she didn’t have any principles of her own.”
“Um,” I said.
“Oh crap, I think she’s coming over,” she said. Ms. Sparrow had spotted us from across the room and was making her way. “I can’t believe I even came.”
Ms. Sparrow was standing right next to us.
“Kiley, I’m happy you came,” said Ms. Sparrow.
“Hi Shelly,” said Kiley. “Good to see you’re keeping yourself busy.”
“We’re doing really well, thank you,” said Ms. Sparrow. “We’re thinking of expanding, actually. We might open an office in New York.”
“That’s great,” said Kiley. “Now you can teach more college students the art of boondoggling.”
Ms. Sparrow’s face soured. She and Kiley began arguing in front of me, bringing up the past in such a way that I felt like an intruder standing there. Then I saw Ashley walking over with Conan.
“There’s a phone call for you,” said Ashley.
“Not now!” said Ms. Sparrow.
“They said it’s important,” said Ashley.
“Who’s they?” said Ms. Sparrow.
“The fire department,” said Ashley.
We all turned to face Ashley.
“What happened?” she said.
“The office just burnt down,” said Ashley.
* * *
We went to go inspect the damage—Ms. Sparrow, Ashley and I. The entire building had burnt down. The workers in the tea shop were outside shivering in the cold. We found out from the fire marshall that it was the candles in Ms. Sparrow’s office that caused it—when she forgot to blow them out and one of them lit up the Indian tapestry on her wall.
I expected to see Ms. Sparrow break out in tears, but instead she seemed peaceful—like a burden had been lifted off her shoulders.
“Are you sad?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “I mean it’s disappointing, but maybe this is how it’s mean to be.”
“Um,” I said.
“I wasn’t really all that passionate about sloths,” said Ms. Sparrow. “If I’ll be honest with you, I always cared more about bees.”
“Bees?” I said.
“Bees,” she said. “And they’re so much more important to the eco-system, you know?”
“I suppose,” I said.
“I need go to now,” said Ms. Sparrow.
“What about Save the Sloths?” I said.
“That’s done for,” said Ms. Sparrow. “We’ve done all we can. It’s time to move on now, don’t you think?”
I was speechless.
* * *
A week later there was no word from Ms. Sparrow. Like a bird, she’d flew up in the air and vanished. I did learn that she got a hefty insurance settlement from the fire and sold the plot to a land developer who would build condos in its place. No word about getting my donation money back, however.
I was sitting at home when the doorbell rang. It was Ashley. She was holding Conan in her arms.
“Do you know where Ms. Sparrow is?” she said.
“No,” I said. “I was going to call and ask you the same thing.”
Ashley looked irritated. “Look,” she said. “I have finals coming up and I need to pick up shifts at work, and I have to find another internship now since Ms. Sparrow isn’t around to write my letter of recommendation.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“And she left this stupid sloth with me before she left,” she said.
“What’re you going to do with him?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I figured I’d leave him at the pound.”
I looked at Conan—that lazy, useless animal, but at least he was cute.
“Wait,” I said. “I’ll take him.”
“You will? Are you crazy?” she said.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I always wanted a pet.”
“It’s all you,” she said. “Mr. Humanitarian.”
Sean Taro Nishi lives in San Francisco. He was born in Japan and raised in Los Angeles. He likes writing silly stories and wants to make that into a career.