Fiction

At the Zoo

Caitlin Horrocks

At the orangutan dome the grandfather purchases a plastic cup in the shape of an orangutan head. He offers his grandson a sip. Then he slips behind a tree with the cup and afterwards the boy isn’t allowed to drink from it. The boy begs for his own. 

Eight dollars for soda in a plastic head, his mother thinks. The flesh-and-blood orangutan is dignified and bored. It sighs and its body deflates. The family turns toward a glass case labeled FENNEC FOX. “Look,” the grandfather says. “Weasels.” 

The foxes are tiny, Chihuahuas with gold fur and satellite-dish ears. “Elephant weasels can hear things happening in space,” the grandfather tells the boy. “They can hear when your tummy rumbles and they think how much they’d like a little boy to snack on.” The boy clutches his grandfather’s hand. He believes nearly everything anyone tells him. He has large, serious eyes and a look of constant apprehension that make it easy for his mother to forget his growing size, that he is too old now for the collapsible stroller she has brought in case he becomes tired. His legs dangle whenever she straps him in with the juice boxes and snacks. 

“You know what their favorite foods are?” the grandfather asks. Everyone standing at the enclosure knows, because the label lists them: plants, small rodents, lizards, and insects. “Elephant weasels love roast beef,” the grandfather says. “And key lime pie. And kid stew.” He picks up the boy to give him a better view. The people at the enclosure decide they do not care enough to bother saying anything. Let the foxes be weasels. What does it hurt? 

The mother does not share their indifference. She grinds her teeth when her father speaks. Her whole life he has been telling these stories, and there was once a time she believed them. As a child she gave show-and-tell presentations on birds that turned out not to exist, on fictive countries whose names were sexual innuendo she was too young to understand. She was marked down, taken aside by concerned teachers. She still winces at those old humiliations, her own credulity. She has promised herself that her son will grow up on firmer footing. 

The grandfather has one hand around the boy and the other around his drink. He gestures with the cup and the orangutan head smacks the glass. The foxes prick their ears toward the sound. Someday, the mother thinks, her father will break her son’s gullible little heart. 

“Let’s see something bigger,” he says. “This zoo got any rhinos?” 

The mother is a patent lawyer. Her father is in town for the week visiting, and she is using a vacation day rather than leave him alone with her son. She is supposed to be preparing an infringement suit related to proprietary athletic surfacing, patented types of artificial turf and running track. Her husband is a dermatologist, and they will always have enough money, the lawyer and the doctor. On the way to the rhinos the family passes the capybara habitat. “What do they eat?” the boy asks. 

“Fritos,” the grandfather says. “But these might do.” He flings a handful of chips over the fence, a new kind of Doritos that were for sale in the Orangutan Dome, mystery-flavored and slightly green. The chips land in the moat and the capybaras turn their heads to watch. The chips start to dissolve and the capybaras disappear into the reeds. The boy is sad to see them go. 

The boy’s favorite television shows are all on Animal Planet and he sobs piteously when anything dies. His favorite stories are all fairy tales. He likes Dora the Explorer and dislikes Bob the Builder. He ties ribbons around the necks of his stuffed animals. It has occurred to his parents that the boy might turn out to be gay and that these are the early signs. He is who he is, they tell themselves, whoever that turns out to be. The boy’s grandfather finds this repellent. 

After the capybaras comes SafariLand. “Giraffe,” the son says, when his grandfather points out the neck monsters. His mother wants to cheer. 

“Sure, I recognize them now. We rode them, in the war,” the grandfather explains. In fact, he has not been in any war. He enlisted after Korea and spent two years in Fort Greely, Alaska. He tells war stories like it’s expected of him, like he doesn’t know any other way to be an old man, a grandfather. “Giraffes sure can move. Gallop like motherfuckers.” 

The boy was too excited last night to sleep, and his mother read to him from The Big Book of Amazing Animal Behavior to calm him. There is an illustration of an antelope cleaning its nose with its tongue that fascinates and shocks the boy. Sometimes at night he thinks of this picture, the animal with its tongue in its nose. This zoo has several antelopes, but none of them are picking their noses. The boy is disappointed. There are oryx, gazelles, Cape hunting dogs, a cheetah. It is midday, and most of the animals are sleeping. 

The boy’s book explains that elephants are social animals, that the individuals in a family love each other very much. Here at the zoo, he notices that the elephants are caged separately, snorting and kicking at one another. The boy asks his mother why. 

A sign explains that the elephants are mentally ill. They are seeing an elephant therapist and taking antianxiety medication, but there is some doubt as to whether they will ever be cured. The mother does not want to explain this to her son. She thinks that lawyers are supposed to be better at prevarication, at thinking on their feet, but that has never been the kind of lawyering she was good at. She is good at proprietary athletic surfaces. 

It is difficult, however, to stay very interested in athletic surfaces. This is what makes her grateful for the mad scientist who keeps soliciting her counsel in regard to a “temporal transportation device” he invented—he’s something different, at least. I have discovered how to circumvent the problems of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect and the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle, he wrote in his first letter, sent registered mail. You’re the only one I can trust. This technology has to stay in the right hands. 

The lawyer has no idea why her hands were the right ones, the trusted ones, but there she was, holding the blueprints. 

“A time machine,” the secretaries said matter-of-factly as they watched her unroll the diagrams on the large table in the conference room. “That’s a new one.” The secretaries take his packages directly to her office now, lurking until she opens them. The first was a silver gravy boat: I successfully impersonated a member of King Edward VII’s household staff and served him gravy in 1901. Regrettably, I had to abscond with the item to have proof. Thus the price of progress. I hope you do not think me a common criminal. She has called the other patent law firms in the city, but no one else has been receiving anything stranger than usual. “Someone sent us schematics for wings,” another lawyer offered. “The Daedalus 3000. Think it’s the same guy?” 

In the mother’s silence, the grandfather steps in. He can understand what the elephants are saying, he says. He gets elephants, like he gets elephant weasels. He comprehends their growls of discomfort and anxiety. “They had a fight this morning,” the grandfather says. “Over their toys. They’re sulky now, but they’ll come around.” The only toys the boy sees are tangles of knotted rope, a funnel of food on a post, a pile of hay, and some rocks. The boy thinks of his dentist’s waiting room with its few Highlights magazines and many toothless children. They waggle their loose fangs at the boy, whose own teeth are still small and white and planted firmly in his jaw, then they ruin the hidden pictures by coloring in what’s hidden. The grandfather’s explanation makes perfect sense to the boy, and he is curious about what else his grandfather knows. The boy points expectantly at a gazelle. 

“Most of the time animals don’t say much worthwhile,” the grandfather explains. “Anteaters just say, ‘Ants! Ants! Ants!’ And owls say, ‘Fly! Hunt! Fly!’ And mice say, ‘I’m small! I’m frightened! Oh no! An owl! I’m fright—slurp.’” 

“Ants ants ants ants ants ants ants,” the boy whispers on the way to the next enclosure, making a long nose with his arm. He waves the anteater snout in front of him. 

“You want to go back to the elephants?” his mother guesses. 

The boy is disappointed in her. “Anteater,” he explains. 

The mad scientist has started writing for your eyes only on his envelopes. “Be careful,” the secretaries say. “Could be anthrax.” In a padded envelope was a single bullet casing: I saw this shot fired in 1811 during the expulsion of the Xhosa tribe from the Zuurveld. He sent a pink skirt, writing, This may look like a typical flounced Crimplene skirt from the 1960s, but I in fact purchased this item in the year 2206, when mid-twentieth-century fashions enjoy a blessedly brief vogue. 2207 will be all about ponchos. She has found herself looking, really looking, over the blueprints. The machine isn’t familiar: not a DeLorean or Bill and Ted’s phonebooth or Doctor Who’s police box or any ships she recognizes from Star Trek or Star Wars or H. G. Wells. It is simply a smooth metal tube that does not seem, somehow, like something a crazy person would design. She has asked her husband if dermatology holds such surprises. He shrugged. “I didn’t know how many mole checks I’d do,” he said. “Everyone’s worried about skin cancer.” 

Her father has had a cancer on his cheekbone and one on the top of his left ear. The ear is scarred neatly over but the cheek cancer was recent, and there is still a square white bandage taped across the furrow the doctors dug. They offered to take a skin graft from his thigh to patch it, but he refused. As a landscaper he took satisfaction in his workingman’s tan and powerful shoulders. He retired several years ago, pain in his back, sore knees and elbows. Now the alcohol keeps him loose. He does not like the way his body feels when he is sober. He does not like the way the air touches his cheek when he changes his bandage, the way it brushes something private. 

“Hey kid,” the grandfather says. “Do you know why lions eat raw meat?” 

The boy shakes his head. 

“Because they don’t know how to cook.” 

The mother rolls her eyes; her son blinks. 

“Why do birds fly south for the winter, Hornswoggle? Too far to walk.” When the grandfather isn’t calling the boy Tyke or Junior or Hey Kid, he calls him Hornswoggle. No one has any idea why. “What’s black-and-white and red all over? A zebra who didn’t look both ways. Which side of a bird has the most feathers? The outside.” 

The mother is surprised at how many jokes her father knows. How much space are they all taking up? She imagines him shriveling to a pile of wizened bones, a pour of whiskey, and a hundred knock-knock jokes. At her mother’s wake last year, he told a dirty joke to the women gathered around casseroles in the kitchen. It involved the Pope, Bill Clinton, her dead mother, and a donkey. She will not forgive him this. 

The most recent package from the mad scientist contained a bolo tie and a pot holder, no note. The bolo tie was a mystery. The pot holder was a bigger mystery—printed with little cowboy hats and spurs, it looked exactly like one that had hung in her childhood kitchen for years. The pot holder makes her long, for the thousandth time that year, to talk to her mother. She wants them to laugh together at the impossibility of the mad scientist, to hear her mother say that the pot holder had horses instead of spurs, saddles instead of hats, that she has no need for this old anxiousness, the tension between needing to believe and knowing she will be hurt for it, made to look ignorant or gullible. She doesn’t know who else she can talk to. Her colleagues would mock her; her son would blink at her; her husband might say something about moles. The mad scientist has been telephoning the firm every day. “Someone’s going to have to call him back,” the secretaries have said, “someone” meaning her. If she talked to her father, he would—she doesn’t know what her father would do. Mix a whiskey and coke in an orangutan head and tell her that if she were less concerned with pot holders, she might raise a son who was more of a man. 

The grandfather is thinking about dinner. His son-in-law is picking up Chinese carryout, and the grandfather is looking forward to the kung pao chicken and mu shu pork and the other dishes his grandson will whine about because they smell funny—until the grandfather eats the boy’s share. Back at home, the grandfather has been eating poorly. He recently read an item in the paper about someone who stopped leaving the house after his wife of sixty years died. The man ate everything in the fridge, then the freezer, then the cupboard. He ate the last jar of pimentos and then lay down to die. The grandfather has to leave his house to go to the liquor store anyway, so he picks up white bread and peanut butter, corn chips, ice cream. The grocery is run by a couple whose family still lives in Afghanistan; in the absence of anyone to worry over in an immediate, practical way, they express concern for him. “Vegetables,” they say. “You need vegetables, sir.” 

The mother unfolds the map to look for the anteaters. They are back in The Jungle Experience, near the capybaras. The mother charts a return trip, through The Frozen North and Harsh Deserts: Where Life Fights to Survive. She shows her son the route and asks if he is tired, if he needs to use the stroller. The boy shakes his head. 

Already, in spring, the polar bear is wilting. The arctic fox is turning brown. The penguins torpedo acrobatically through glass-walled water. “Look at them playing,” the mother says. “Don’t they look like they’re having fun?” She is holding the boy’s hand as she points, so the boy looks up to find his own fist punching the air. “It’d be pretty great to be a penguin, wouldn’t it?” 

The boy thinks about this. He knows already that an animal’s life is not always as simple or carefree as it seems. On his favorite program, Growing Up Walrus, the zookeepers brought fish for the baby walrus’s birthday, but the grown-up walruses stole it and ate it all. 

The family walks through the desert. Coyotes pace back and forth. The javelinas wallow amongst heads of lettuce, carrots, and celery. From the side, they are broad, hairy pigs. As the family passes, they turn, and from the front appear alarmingly narrow, their faces long and their legs close-set. The front of their habitat is decorated with plastic cutouts of rattlesnakes, cacti, cowboys on horseback. 

“Do you remember Mom’s old pot holder?” the mother asks her father. 

“What?” 

“The pot holder she had for years, with the little hats and spurs on it.” 

“A pot holder? I don’t know.” 

“She said you bought it for her, out West. On your honeymoon.” 

“Hell, I don’t remember. A pot holder?” 

“Yes, Dad. A pot holder.” 

There is a long silence. “What’s black-and-white and can’t get through a revolving door?” 

“Never mind.” 

“A penguin with an arrow through its head.” 

“I didn’t ask.” 

“Why do you want to know about a pot holder?” 

The little boy stops them somewhere between desert and jungle, in front of the grizzly bear. The bear is sleeping, but wakes up long enough to defecate, his hind end facing his audience. The bear and the humans watch feces dribble down the wall into the ditch that keeps them separated. Then the bear goes back to sleep, his performance over. The boy watches in awe and whispers “gross.” 

“Nothing,” the mother tells her father. “Forget it. I just wanted to know if I was going crazy.” 

“You’re not crazy,” the little boy says quietly, down there at the end of her arm. 

“Hornswoggle’s right,” her father says. “I didn’t raise crazy.” 

“You didn’t raise anything,” the mother says, and regrets it. She is a lawyer and her husband is a doctor and they have an attractive house and a serious, credulous son. Why is it still so important to her to be angry? 

The grandfather is dented more than hurt. He is already looking at this moment from a certain remove. The orangutan head is buoyant in his hand. Sun pours through it and makes a splotch of light on the ground. 

“I didn’t mean that,” his daughter says. 

“I remember the pot holder.” 

“Really?” 

“Maybe. Spurs and hats?” 

“What happened to it?” 

“Your mother threw it out, far as I remember. It was older than you. Got dirty. It was a pot holder. Why?” 

The woman looks at her father. What doesn’t entertain him he finds uninteresting, easy to dismiss. But he’s always found ways to make his daughter amusing. He’d thought she was a funny child, the stories he told and the way she’d believed them. Even the way she got scared of him, sometimes, when a cheerful drunk turned sour, or when she decided she didn’t want to play along. He once dropped a banana peel in front of her and when she stepped decorously over it, shoved her to the ground. “Slip, goddamn it,” he said, and laughed as her rear end smacked hard against the floor. 

“No reason,” she says. “I just thought of it. The javelina cage.” 

“It was a gift,” he confirms. “I gave it to your mother.” He wants this statement, the old gesture, to carry weight it cannot bear. He wants it to communicate something it does not. Or maybe it says plenty. Who gives his beloved a pot holder on their honeymoon? We laughed about it, he wants to add, to make sure he is understood. We thought the western stuff was funny, all the turquoise and headdresses and belt buckles. Your mom bought me a bolo tie. Not to wear. She knew I wouldn’t. Just to keep. You wouldn’t have ever seen it. It’s in a box in my sock drawer and hurts now to look at. The father looks at his daughter until she looks at the grizzly bear. It is still asleep. She leans toward it, putting her hands on the fence. Her father looks at them, her elegant fingers and the veins beginning to show beneath the skin. He wishes he had not noticed this about his daughter, her veins, not because they make him feel old—he feels old all the time—but because they mean his daughter is aging, that she will end the way her mother did. He will not be there to see it, but his grandson will, barring accident, barring a violation in the normal order of events. He looks away from his daughter’s hands and asks, “Where’s Hornswoggle?” 

The boy has let go of his mother’s hand. The boy is missing. His mother whirls in such panic that the grizzly raises its head. The mother is calling and calling and running and the grandfather picks up the things she has left at the fence, the collapsible stroller and the bag of snacks. The man thinks of the boy’s soft little legs. How far could he have gotten? Good for you, the man even thinks. Showing a little gumption. He watches his daughter run ahead and then circle back toward the penguins and coyotes. He imagines she is thinking not so much of distance or human predators, but of the animals, of the primeval plight of a human boy in the wild. He tries to picture the unlikely series of events it would take for his grandson to end up drowned in the penguin pool or eaten by coyotes and he begins to laugh. 

The mother runs back from the arctic and the desert and when she sees her father laughing she could kill him. He obviously finds this funny, this crisis that any decent person would respond to with concern. She wants nothing more in that moment than to upend him into the grizzly ditch where the bear can disembowel him. 

The man watches his daughter hate him and says to her, “He’s at the anteater.” This is all of a sudden a fact, comforting and obvious. The mother is still imagining the orangutan cup sailing into the rocky enclosure along with her father, the bear licking up the drink as a digestif. She runs empty-handed toward the anteater. The old man follows with the bag and stroller. 

The boy is too short to see over the fence, so he is crouched at its base, looking at the anteater between the rails. The anteater has a baby that rides on her back as she circles the enclosure. The boy is waggling his arm in front of his face and chanting “ants ants ants.” There are two human families at the enclosure and both have assumed the boy belongs to the other one. Everyone is startled when his mother rushes up shouting and grabs the boy from behind. The boy, terrified, accidentally hits himself in the face with his own arm. One of the other family’s babies starts crying. The anteater stops her circling to secret her child in a wooden shelter. The boy is startled and frightened and his nose stings where he hit it and now the anteater is going away and he is crying. His mother clutches him harder and presses their heads together until the boy’s skull hurts. The grandfather arrives, hoping he is forgiven now for laughing, but he can see in his daughter’s eyes as she looks at him that he is not. The boy is still sobbing, wriggling now, trying to get down. 

“Put him down,” the grandfather says. “He wants to get down.” His daughter is still rocking the boy. She is usually so calm, so businesslike. It is frustrating to see her undone by a boy watching an anteater. Is this what it would take for her to consider him redeemable, this blind ridiculous panic? “Let him down,” the grandfather says, and his daughter ignores him and he thinks he could perhaps make his daughter understand if the boy would just shut up. “Stop fucking crying,” the grandfather yells. “Just stop it.” Everyone quiets, but the grandfather can’t remember now what he’d planned to fill the silence. The straw rattles emptily around the orangutan head as he searches for something to say. “You think the anteater wants to hear that? You think it’s got anywhere else it can go? All these animals are stuck here for your benefit, kid. So shut up and get down off your mother and learn something.” 

As soon as the outburst is over, both mother and grandfather wait for it to shatter the boy completely. But instead he stops crying, because his grandfather has given him something to think about. As his mother lowers him to the ground he looks for the anteater in her small, dusty shelter. The boy thrusts his arms through the fence rails and opens and closes his hands. He thinks about being on the other side of the bars and how the animals never get to go anywhere, not ever. He thinks of all his favorite television shows, the walruses of Growing Up Walrus and the meerkats of Meerkat Manor and the crocodiles of The Crocodile Hunter. Are those animals trapped, too? He’d begged for the zoo and the zoo is a terrible place. 

The boy begins to cry again. The mother hugs him, tries to get him to drink some juice, but he can’t stop. His chest heaves and snot runs from his nose. She sighs and opens the collapsible stroller and straps him in and says, “It’s time to go home, honey.” People turn to watch them pass, the old man and the woman and the sobbing boy, whose body is too large for the stroller. Other parents shake their heads and think that if he were their child, he would be better behaved. A school group is waiting for a bus outside, and one of their chaperones audibly clucks her tongue as the family passes. “Fuck you,” the grandfather tells her. 

His daughter looks back at him and smiles and the grandfather, for a moment, feels bathed in light. She turns away and he reaches for her shoulder. But the hand he raises is holding his drink and the other is holding her bag and both feel suddenly heavier. He weighs the cup in his palm and knows wistfully that the drink remains the best, most pleasure-giving thing he will experience that day, or the day after, or the day after that. He will see giraffes and he will hug his grandson and his daughter will smile at him and he will seize his mind on that orangutan cup and he will go to bed and he will wake up so he can have another. This is better than having no reason to wake up at all. After he flies home the months will pass until eventually his daughter will feel obligated to invite him for another visit, and he will feel obligated to go. He will hold his grandson every six or twelve months and the boy will grow larger in his arms but remain impenetrable, and the Afghans will foist canned vegetables on him because they don’t stock fresh. He will play Charlie Parker cassettes at night as he goes to sleep, and then lay alone in the large bed, missing his wife who once had perfect breasts and is he such a terrible person for telling a joke about them at her wake? They had sex and enjoyed sex all forty-seven years of their marriage and now he feels the need to tell someone this, but there is no one left who would want to hear it. He will take his orangutan cup with him on the plane and sit at home watching CNN, sipping out of its domed head, and this will remind him of his day at the zoo with his family. 

The mother buckles her son into his car seat and her father sits next to him in the back. She looks at them in the rearview mirror as she pulls out of the parking lot. Her father has rested his hand on the boy’s head. The hand just sits there, not patting or soothing or stroking, but it seems to calm the boy all the same. Her father takes a tissue from a box in the backseat and hands it to the boy. The boy pushes the tissue against his face, gluing it to his mucus-covered lip in an effort to please. The grandfather touches his cratered cheek, checking the square white bandage. He looks up and meets his daughter’s eyes in the mirror. He is without a ready word, and his silence she is happy to interpret as love. 

As the mother drives she ticks off what remains in the day to do. Dinner is taken care of. They can eat off paper plates so there are no dishes to wash. Her husband can play cribbage with her father while she tends to the boy. He needs a bath before bed. They will all watch the news and then sleep. Tomorrow she needs to be at work. Tomorrow she needs to telephone the mad scientist. 

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