Zoo

By Corey Campbell


My parents took me to the zoo on New Years Eve—an odd time to go because the animals are mostly inside, or wearing blankets so they pretty much think they’re inside. And you don’t want the zoo food when it’s like an icebox outside—frozen yogurt in bear head-shaped bowls or chocolate-dipped bananas just like the monkeys—so you sort of walk along this gray-brown landscape looking at fences, watching steam blow out your face and encircle your head like a Buddhist painting. That sharp edge of cold slices into your lungs. Fingers red. They brought you to the zoo on the last day of the year, and your eyelids were freezing shut.

“What are we doing here?” I didn’t want to ask because they were making some kind of effort. But I asked anyway. I was in high school by then, had just learned to drive, but was still afraid to take the final test to get my license. So many things could go wrong.

 “You used to love to come here,” my mom said. She was pulling her fingers into gloves that my grandma had knitted and that I’d shrunk accidentally in the dryer. I wasn’t convinced she could get them on.

“When the animals are awake,” I told her.

“They’re plenty awake,” she said.

My dad was watching the sky, a full foot taller than both of us and wearing those thick glasses that made his eyes twenty-feet wide. “They’re just inside watching TV,” he said.

Law and Order,” my mom said, wearing the gloves halfway down her fingers.

“Uh huh,” he said.

Law of the Jungle and Order,” she said. “Or Perry Mason, but instead it would be Prairie Mason.”

“Ha. Ha,” he said as though reading a blood test or a long history of the semi-colon.

We were in front of a huge stretch of grassland: the gazelle yard, where the grass was stubby and yellow, behind it the elephant pen just awash with mud. And where were the animals? My dad had cut his hand that morning and still wore it wrapped in gauze. I kept thinking some animal would come up and tear it off and run away with it— but we had to find them first.

“Or The West Wing,” my mom said. “Hey, that one works.”

Normally my dad would have stopped her but there was something small and rattling inside that she let unspool. And it felt like he didn’t notice or tried hard to ignore it.

“Or instead of Cheers…” she said. “What would they say for Cheers?”

My dad left for the bathroom, which was weird because he wasn’t a public restroom kind of guy.

She looked at me. “For Friends they could just say Littermates.”

“Mom,” I said. “That’s ridiculous.”

She shook her head, dropping her shoulders. “Okay, too grown up for that game,” she said.

“That’s not what I meant,” I said, though maybe it was.

We stopped in front of the lions’ compound, where one paced behind a thick glass panel. What a drab room, Lion, I thought, not even a Bon Jovi poster on the wall.

“Your dad and I are taking a break,” my mom said.

The lion looked at me through the glass. How many pounds of raw steak did he eat a day? How many black eyes were going untended? “The lion’s watching us,” I said.

“Did you hear me, Manda Panda?”

“Panda?” I said. 

“We’re taking a break.”

“I heard you,” I said, raising my voice, aware of a squeak to it. We had just fallen into a hole, that’s what I was aware of. Was Dad breaking up with us? “What kind of break?” I was dumb enough to ask her. 

“Oh Mandy,” she said. “I guess the usual kind.”

“You mean like divorce?”

She took a deep breath. I could hear it without even looking over. “I don’t know,” she said. She looked down, traced the line of buttons on her coat, took my hands in hers and squeezed them through the yarn hardened with cold. “It’s freezing out here, isn’t it?”

Dad was shuffling back with vending machine candy, more than any of us could eat, and who wanted it anyway? He shoved into my hand gummy faces—red, yellow, and green—that when held right-side up were smiling.

I said to him, “Did you know about this?” Trying to be funny, I swear, but he didn’t take it like that, and she didn’t laugh either. It was like some alien stillness had replaced their blood momentarily. Or maybe it was just winter finally getting to them.

He cupped my cheek in his gauzy hand. I flinched because the cold made it mummy-like. His voice sounded alien, too, brittle and chilled, and he wouldn’t look at my face. He said, “I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” so I knew this was the plan from the start and I felt sorry for them for having had that conversation—where’s the happiest place we can take her? And now wondering—did we make the right choice?

A wolf howled from the wolf peak. Or was it some kind of panther? The large animals lived so close together. The lion behind his glass didn’t blink or stick out his tongue, just turned on us and flicked his tail. I see how it is, Lion.

“I was just telling her,” Mom said to him, “that you’re going to take some time away.” She managed a weird smile at Dad, who nodded. They had come to an agreement about this much. “He’s going to live with your uncle for while.”

“Really?” I said.

My uncle Rob lived alone out near the old Stapleton Airport, renting a run-down ranch house between an industrial yard and a golf course. I’d spent just one night there. They set up a cot for me in the basement and the whole night I stared red-eyed at the window, thinking some drunken workman type would materialize from the vapor, kick out the screen, and climb through.

“For now,” my dad said. He started walking. “Let’s keep going.”

“Wait, what about later?” I said. “What happens later?”

“Mandy,” my mom said.

“I’m asking him,” I said.

He turned around. “What happens later?” he said. “I’m not sure.” He looked at my mom.

But you’re leaving us, I wanted to say, but didn’t. We’ll still be friends, right? We can still share bad jokes about horses walking into bars; read each other’s horoscopes: you’re going to have a really shitty day, maybe next decade will be better, but probably not.

“That’s just how things are right now. I know it’s hard,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He started walking again, faster than usual.

To Savannah Animals, the sign said, 100 yards. To those who used to live many thousands of miles from here. Giraffes, zebras, ancient snakes and storks and scorpions. All of them sitting around some rec room together wondering, like David Byrne, How did I get here? I once told my mom I was jealous that her Volvo had lived in Sweden before reaching Denver and I’d never gone anywhere. And that Bolognese sauce was handcrafted in Italy, from the discount international goods store Sunday afternoons— Will I ever see Europe? I’d asked her. Are you jealous of your Sony Walkman, too? My mom had teased me. Made in Japan and all.

My dad and I walked the zoo path, staring down at asphalt the color of pencil lead, my mom behind us. He had padded shoes for working in the lab and Boy Scout hair that reminded me of peanut butter, side-parted and wholesome.

“You’re migrating,” I said to my dad. “Just like the animals.”

He ran his hand through his hair several times and spoke in a low voice. “We’ll have plenty of visits,” he said. “I’m not crossing the country or anything.”

“Not yet,” I said.

It seemed weird again to be there when the pens were so empty, the sky threatening snow and promising more cold. There was some kind of light show set up in the yards, plug-in statues of zoo favorites, but it wasn’t dark enough for them to light up. You could only imagine the neon elephant and octopus with pulsating limbs, flagging people down from the highway. Come gather with us! It’s New Years!

My dad stopped and put his hand on my shoulder, then drew me in for an awkward hug. “You’ll be all right?”

Was that a question? Shouldn’t he know that? I looked back at my mom, who had stopped beside a tree, leaning against it and rubbing her foot at the Achilles tendon. She’d never been an athlete and especially not around ice. I felt like we were moving way too fast away from her, and her figure by the tree got smaller the farther we went. The tree, too, I could soon crush between two fingers. She waved.

“I will,” I told my dad. “I’ll be okay.” You can go. Go ahead.

We walked into the giraffe house and the smell engulfed us. Like we’d passed into some other dimension. The air hung damp, thick, and hungry to infiltrate. And then eventually you reach equilibrium; you’re filled with the room’s air just as it’s filled with you. Which is one way of saying we’re all full of shit. We watched two giraffes eating hay, wagging tails at flies that weren’t there, just habit, their jaws misaligned like broken dentures, sputtering grass onto the ground.

“Hi guy,” my mom said, holding out a handful.

We’d been here before, but I couldn’t remember another time with my dad, just my mom and me. He never wanted to go anywhere with us, and by high school I was so used to it that sometimes his being there felt strange.  I knew they weren’t getting along all the time. Still, they shouldn’t just be split like lumber, axed in half and rolled down opposite sides of the hill.

 “But what happened?” I said quietly, standing at the giraffe railing.

My mom dropped the hay and my dad nodded his head stiffly. I thought maybe his elbows and knees would stop bending, he stood so still. The light inside was yellow like a faded Sears catalog.

“It’s not like it’s permanent,” my mom said.

My dad pocketed his hands, man as tree, man as tall cartoon figure then curving his back into a slouch, staring at the back wall of the giraffe hut. “We don’t know—”

“That’s what I mean,” she said. “We don’t know if it’s permanent or not.”

“We just don’t know,” he said.

A giraffe snorted.

“Bless you,” my mom told the giraffe.

“You’ll be lonely,” I said. The snorting giraffe flopped his tongue away from his jaw like it wasn’t even part of him.

My mom said, “No.” She pulled my woolen hat around my ears like I was a six-year-old and I let her, though it itched and my hair was getting damp enough under it. She said, “We’ll still have you.”

The night had crowded up around us so that the giraffes had black squares for windows and I felt sorry they couldn’t see out. Their mail-order night-vision goggles must’ve gotten caught at the post office. If only they were born cats, they might have seen a vista beyond this compound. And for a second the darkness felt like our fault, like we’d forgotten to flip the switch or pay the power bill and now everyone else had to suffer. I’m sorry, giraffes. Or worse, we trailed a huge ink-blotted nothingness behind us, a guarantee that nothing would turn out right; humans are just incapable of it.

“Happy fucking New Year,” I said and walked out of giraffe central and into a sky blacker than the inside of a pinhole camera

 

It’s not much fun to wander around a zoo by yourself. Especially in the dark. Especially in winter when the sky really is a wool blanket woven from some family’s black sheep. Especially on a holiday when everyone else chatters and hums, feeling festive, and this thin force field of electricity surrounds them. It’s not fun when the only other children are about hip high to you, with straight bowl haircuts, pointing out every little sparrow and gnawing chipmunk when it’s dark enough that they could be rats, you don’t know for sure, and neither do they; they just hope. Who knows that the sparrow and chipmunk aren’t scampering to the safety of a drainpipe or dry spot below the juniper, hoping no large wind sweeps them up through the sky and slams them into an oncoming semi? And there you are, standing at the fence of some empty pen, knowing these kids are missing the real show and probably won’t know it until a decade or two later.

I walked down the asphalt so familiar from so many visits as a child and stopped next to a closed souvenir outpost shaped like an igloo. As a kid, one of my zoo favorites was Goat Mountain, a high, jagged, completely fake peak that they later demolished for a food complex serving pizza and ostrich meat. Someone, some super Sherpa architects with advanced degrees, had designed the mountain’s tiny ledges and crevices sized only for goat feet. You could watch them for hours not looking at you, not even looking at their own feet like you would if you were a goat. But how did they stay up? How is it, holy fuck, they didn’t tumble onto those sharp rocks below?

It didn’t take long to find a payphone. I dialed my friend Carla, but her answering machine came on, and when I turned around there was my mom saying, “I understand if you want to be alone.”

“Then why did you follow me?” I said.

I’d only gotten a few buildings down from the giraffe house and was in this odd purgatory between exotic bird sanctuary and Arctic ice zone. Pigeons warbled near our feet and scattered each time I stepped closer. You’ve escaped, I thought. Now get your friends.

“Nevermind,” my mom said and started walking away.

“Where are you going?” I said.

She stopped, rounding her shoulders and pulling her jacket across her hips. Dad had gone to the parking lot to sit in the car, he was through looking at animals. He was through with us, I thought. At least I’m old enough that this won’t fuck me up.

“What happens when I go to college?” I said.

“You’ll go to college,” she said. Her head was down and her breath floated from her mouth like graveyard fog from an amateur production of Hamlet.

I said, “You know what I mean.” The night surrounded us, a huge icy river blackness.

A zoo man in a green windbreaker and Air Jordan sneakers told us it was time to leave unless we bought tickets for the light show.

The giraffe house door was already bolted shut. “Fine,” we told the guy.

What did the zoo creatures think when we all had left? Did they stop sucking in their bellies and say, Phew! Did they call across cages, playing a weird mammalian Bingo or Battleship or Risk? Or did they huddle with others like them, burrowing into dirt beside painted Styrofoam rocks meant to illustrate their Habitat? See, this is how we live, they try their best to pretend, to forget the old life. No, really, it is.

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” my mom said, wrapping her arms around me tight like a squid, until I wasn’t completely sure I could still breathe. “There’s so much else to do,” she said. “Isn’t there?”

 

In the car we had been quiet for a long while, and the radio played commercials for stadium concerts and highway-side casinos where we would never go. Streetlights came on like soldiers reporting for duty, saluting nighttime until we crossed a dark run of pastures and then sped by the county prison boxed by barbed wire.

“What about tonight?” I asked them.

My mom on the passenger side up front said, “What about it?” She looked back. “Still happening. It’s a holiday.”

My dad’s eyes in the mirror said he was hollow and tired. He tried to smile. Then there was John Mellencamp on the radio and he decided to tap his fingers to that instead.

Earlier that week I knew things were topsy-turvy because my high school friends and I were planning a New Years party, and Mom didn’t even ask where it would be or who it was with or if I’d be coming home later that night. So I didn’t tell her it was at a hotel by the highway, a place cheap and ill-used enough that no one questioned our renting it. Dad didn’t say anything either, just looked up from his wheat germ and eggs that morning and said it sounded fun and he was glad I was getting more social.

Neither of them had asked if there would be alcohol, though what would they expect on New Years Eve? On the way home from the zoo, my dad pulled up to a liquor warehouse. The parking lot was circled by tall white lights that reminded me of sterile new Hondas and night baseball. My dad idled the car so that the radio kept playing. He leaned back in his seat and watched us go in.

I followed my mom down the warehouse aisles. The air felt gray and in it was the vinegary smell of stuffed olives they had for samples near cocktail napkins and wasabi peas. Someone had broken a bottle of tequila near the back door, and the guy with the mop said, “What a shame.”

My mom harvested wine bottles, nothing over ten dollars, rolling them in her hand to compare labels. She saw me watching her. “Pick something,” she said. “For your party.”

“Really?” I said, wanting to mention my age but deciding not to—what mother doesn’t know how old her kid is?—and she nodded.

I moved an aisle over. Chances are I’d choose something based entirely on the label’s artwork. The kangaroo zipping across the bush or the turtle awkwardly shouldering a scepter. Other aisles had frosted bottles and stout ones, some holding vodka that looked like shards of ice or liquid nitrogen, others with Mason jars meant to hold moonshine.  

“Just don’t go overboard,” my mom called.

 

I thought of the night my mom kept me up for Halley’s comet, half my lifetime ago. We had to see it then since I’d be elderly when it came around again, and she probably wouldn’t be there at all. She wanted me to have that image in my brain, that sacred smudge of light. At four am, we drove to the mountains above Morrison, leaving the city’s orange glow stretching on behind us. In between us and the grid of lights were the hulking bruised foothills, with shadows and caves and hidden fault lines. We were in rattlesnake country, but maybe they slept at night, away from here in rattlesnake campers and Hiltons outfitted with long, long beds.

My mom had filled a thermos with hot cocoa. Not the kind you buy in an instant powder with crunchy marshmallows but the one made on stovetop with milk, that spoon stirring and stirring and stirring in the pan. You could hear stirring for twenty minutes or more, and when she pulled out the spoon, one of its sides had flattened down; no longer round and spoon-shaped. On the mountain, staring up at the sky, I burnt my tongue on that cocoa. I burnt my tongue and for a long time afterwards couldn’t separate my tongue from the darkness around us and the comet.

 

In the liquor warehouse, with my dad’s car idling out front, my dad himself leaning his head back on the seat and thinking a hundred million things, my mom said, “Did you choose?”

 “No,” I said.

Her basket handle was cutting a purple line into her arm. “You need help?” she said, shifting it to the other arm.

I stood there in the aisle not even sure what I was looking at, bottle after bottle, after bottle. I inched to the side and still felt a weird removed feeling, like I was inside my own head but wasn’t, like I was inside a giant adult-themed kaleidoscope, flat white light cutting through the bottles that, let’s face it, weren’t bright jewel tones but the shades of stone and dirt in varying degrees of warmth. “I don’t think so,” I said finally.

 

 “Fine,” she said. “I’ll leave you alone.” She turned around, passing the bins of half-off pretzels and beer with Belgian names I wasn’t sure I could pronounce. She leaned around the corner and watched me for a minute. “If you do need help, though, I’m here,” she said. “Right?”

 “I know,” I said.

 

You’d think people would cheer when they saw Halley’s Comet—this ragtag group of strangers who’d risen at the same hour, united by the same pursuit—but instead we purred a hush that, for a second, felt religious and for a second sounded suspiciously like sleep. It was awe and sleeplessness—a chorus of yawns—but mostly what got us was feeling that we had scaled the mountaintop and connected, not knowing who we were or what would happen to us. You never know what will happen to you.

I remember holding onto my mom’s arm when I looked through the telescope. You see it? she’d said.  Yes, I said before I even saw the comet. It’s so pretty, I lied. I was afraid I’d miss it, that somehow it wouldn’t reveal itself to me, that I was the one person in the whole universe Halley’s Comet wanted to avoid. See it? she said again, and this time I did see it. A pale smudge of light, smaller than anything, but up close I was sure a million times larger and older than we were.

I’ll never see that again in my life, she said.  Neither will I, I thought.

 

My mom was already at the liquor warehouse checkout. I heard the cashier trying to make a joke about a priest and tennis player walking into a dentist’s office. That’s what I like to think he said, but it could have been anything. Just as the bottle could have been anything until I found it.

“Your change,” the cashier was telling her.

“Mandy,” my mom’s voice lifting through the air towards me. And finally, I stopped and grabbed from the shelf a bottle of Chambord. It had a crown shape and came in a velvet case.  There was advertising, promising royal, not reckless, drinking. I liked my purple bottle. It felt solid. It felt safe.

“Thank you,” I told my mom in the parking lot on the way back to the car. Thank you, I said, clutching my bottle close. It was mine.

And hours later, when I’d throw that same bottle out the hotel room window, it would bounce completely empty, but unbroken, onto the grass below.

 

Corey Campbell, a fiction student in Warren Wilson’s MFA program, published “Pool” at Anderbo.com and “The Plants” in New Southerner Magazine. Her story "Everyday Things" was showcased in the New Short Fiction Series at the Beverly Hills Library. A runner-up for the Open City's RRofihe Trophy two years in a row, Ms. Campbell has taken workshops at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and is the recipient of a National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences scholarship for her writing.

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