Issue 188, Spring 2009
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.