I’m drinking coffee at the kitchen table and eating honey nut Cheerios with slices of banana. When I open the newspaper, I see the headline, “San Andreas Zoo Welcomes Two Newborns!” Beneath it, a picture of the elephant nursing a huge bottle, and another of the chimp, barely large enough to peer out of her human foster mother’s hands.
On my bachelor’s refrigerator I keep a snapshot of me and my sister Amanda outside the Vancouver aquarium. I loom over her, twice her weight despite her advanced pregnancy. Fat men usually look jolly but my three-day growth of beard makes me look strangely fierce. There’s also a faxed photo from six weeks ago, the day they brought home baby Madeline. Amanda’s hands hold her daughter close. Her head tilts down and to the right. Amanda, twenty-eight years old and beautiful with the glow of new motherhood. The image is fuzzy and too dark, but peeking from the blanket, face bright as an unshielded sun, the baby.
I am lonely for new life. So I fold the newspaper and go to the zoo.
Ten minutes later, I’m there. The San Andreas zoo is located close by. I can drive there, park and be admitted with a wave of my card, visit a group of enclosures (chimps, gibbons, baboons and siamongs, or camels, giraffes, lions, and elephants), catch a couple of Ben and Jerry’s Peace Pops at the snack bar, and head back, all in one hour. I renew my zoo membership every August.
I go directly to the elephants. Elephants are loyal, they hold their dying and cry real tears, they remember their dead and perform elaborate rituals with the bones, they mate for life. Within their big bodies they hold a sense of beauty. The signboard on the side of the elephant area describes elephant sociological patterns:
LIFE IN THE EXTENDED FAMILY
AUNTS, SISTERS, AND COUSINS. THEY CARE FOR THEIR OWN CALVES BUT ALL ARE CONCERNED ABOUT THE NEWEST BABIES, PROTECTING AND TEACHING THEM. A BABY ELEPHANT HAS SO MUCH TO LEARN!
Near the signboard, five little children, all in green shirts embroidered with the name of their preschool, crouch by the fence. The largest female stretches her trunk past the concrete boundary sniffing for a scrap of green among the dirt and eucalyptus acorns. Big Whitey, the lone bull, throws alfalfa and dust on his back to protect his delicate skin. Ten years ago he stomped his keeper to death.
“He a big ephant. He the daddy ephant.”
“Look at his big mouth. He have a big mouth.”
“Maurice, stay behind the fence!”
“That a baby elephant?”
“No, Sweetheart, that’s one of the females.”
“That a mommy ephant! That a daddy and that a mommy!”
The crowd is unusually thick for a weekday. Everybody wants to see the new baby. The stroller-pushers gaze at the elephants in the display area and speculate which one is the mother. I know which one: Lena, the smallest and youngest of the three females. She’s distressed. Her mammary glands hang slack between her front legs, she tosses her head and paces. She comes close to the edge of the enclosure and stares at me with her bad eyes and nictitating lids between long, gorgeous lashes. The baby elephant she rejected is not on display. He’s in the night compound with round-the-clock hands-on care. They’ve been feeding him copious bottles of human milk, the paper said. Plasma shots from the other elephants to provide substitute immune protection. Daily walks around the night compound. But what I want to know is, is anybody taking care of Lena?
“See the big ellie? See the big ellie?” a young father chants at his babe in arms.
“Oh. I guess the baby elephant won’t be coming out. Come on, kids, let’s go see the lions.”
I’m disgusted with myself for joining the tragedy gawkers.
At the chimp enclosure it’s business as usual. Ruby, the big baby, plays on the rope with her father. Sugar, her mother, sprawls in the thin winter sun. The littlest one won’t be shown for months, if she survives, and there are no zookeepers here, not even any note-taking docents, to ask questions of. I decide to cash in my blue chips and go see Zookeeper Amy.
I met Amy in Safeway a few months ago in the express line. The woman in front of me unloaded a six- pack of Beck’s and two Sara Lee cherry bake n’ serve pies onto the moving checkstand belt. Her big body was squeezed too tightly into the familiar khaki uniform. Tiny blackheads fly-specked her oily skin. She smelled faintly of what I assumed was wild animal manure.
I’ve always romanticized zoo keepers. I hid my basket behind me, embarrassed not so much by the contents as by the list sitting on top, each item of designed gluttony carefully checked off: white bread, mayonnaise, Hungry Man frozen dinners, three varieties of Pepperidge Farm cookies, and three gallons of ice cream. “Excuse me. You work at the San Andreas zoo?”
“Yes, I do,” she smiled.
“What… uh… division?”
“Veldt. And zebras. Have you seen our new baby zebra?”
“Not yet, I haven’t been by in a while. I’m a zoo member, though.”
“Come on by. He’s so cute. Usually Grant’s zebras are born brown, but this little guy is half brown and half black. I get to name him.”
“You do? How come?”
“Well, I’m his keeper. He’s my zebra.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
It was her turn at the checkstand. She placed the rubber divider behind her beer and I unloaded my junk from my basket. “I wanted to name him Jerry, after Jerry Garcia. My boss nixed that. Do you have any ideas?”
I shook my head. She collected her change and turned to go. “Come on by. I walk past the veldt at 1:00 everyday except Thursdays. What’s your name?”
I’ve been going to the zoo again more frequently. I always visit the zebras surreptitiously to check on Amy’s foal, and I always stay away from the veldt at 1:00. I don’t want her to catch me mooning around.
It’s not Amy herself I romanticize. I romanticize her job. I envy the simplicity of working with big ruminants, ungulates, the zebra, the giraffes, the gazelles, the bison. The dangers are obvious: hooves and panic. I compare her job to the complexity of my own as a social worker watching a little six-year-old play on cold linoleum as her mother’s hands shake, and I fill out form after form. Animals don’t dissemble. The only time they puzzle their keepers is when they are sick. Or when they abandon. I’ve been waiting until the right moment to present myself to Amy. I haven’t wanted to seem desperate: lonely guy looking for love at the zoo.
Between the veldt and the zebra enclosure is a private area for feeding and housing the animals at night. Behind the chain link fence, a man in high rubber boots hoses down the concrete.
“Amy’s down in the zoo kitchen making a call to another zoo about gazelle diets,” he says to my query. “She should be back in fifteen or twenty minutes. Are you a volunteer?” He glances at the clipboard under my arm.
“No, I’m not. I’m… Amy said…” I blush. Families go to the zoo. A single man is suspicious. I’ve taken to carrying a legal pad on a clipboard and making occasional notes as I watch the animals. If you’re a single man alone with a pad of paper, even the zoo staff assumes you have a reason for being there. That you are a volunteer, or a grad student studying animal behavior. While I wait for Amy I wander over to the camels. The six month-old baby butts his mother’s woolly belly. The mother deftly steps away.
“He’s a pest.” Another zookeeper is walking by, a woman with skin that has seen too much sun, a slight droop to her right eye. I watched her once working with a group of school kids down near the wallabies, and another time when she was doing chimp observation and she told me the names of the chimp family and then winked, “Don’t tell I told. We’re supposed to keep the names quiet so they don’t have visitors shouting their names at them all day long.” I like her.
Now she laughs as the baby camel worries his mother’s ear in his mouth. The mother bellows and pulls away.
“Is she trying to wean him?”
“Oh, she’s been trying to wean him for a long time. She’s just sick of him, now. She’ll grab him by the neck and shake him up. Visitors get very concerned: ‘Is she hurting him?’ I just say, ‘No, that’s just how camels discipline their babies.’ Any mother who’s weaned an older baby would understand. ‘Get off me.'” She shoves an imaginary baby with the patient exasperation of parents. She’s been slowly moving past me as we talk, now she nods, “Enjoy your visit,” and turns toward Administration. I head back towards the veldt, a wide enclosure where giraffes, oryxes, African geese, buzzards, and small antelope roam inside a wide moat filled with green water fuzzy with gray foam.
Amy comes up the walkway from the zoo kitchen. In each strong hand she carries a covered white plastic bucket by its metal handle. I follow her past the veldt to the feeding area. My heart pounds. I catch up to her as she unlocks the padlock.
“Hey. Safeway, right?” She looks neither happy nor sad to see me.
“That’s right! How’s it going?”
“Good. The staff is generally pretty exhausted, with the new babies.” She looks to see if I know.
“How are they doing?”
“The elephant baby is very cute,” she smiles. “I haven’t seen the chimp. Little one, two pounds three ounces. Sophie, the chimp mom, had her, cleaned her off, then just put her down and walked away. She was an orphan, so she didn’t get a lot of mothering herself. They’re working with the other mom to take her as a foster but that’s not happening yet, so now we’ve got two bottle-fed babies, and a lot of tired people.” She shifts her buckets, then puts them down, glancing for a moment into the veldt where four giraffes are striding in a line along the back fence. “The chimp’s being held twenty-four hours a day and last night she didn’t sleep. All night. Her keeper is wasted.”
“It’s hard having a newborn.”
She looks as though she wonders how I could know this. “Too hard for me,” she says. “I like my sleep.”
“It’s a little depressing,” I say, meaning the left babies.
But she gets mad. “I don’t understand people who put down zoos. I work with these animals. Anybody who’s spent any time with these animals would see that they’re happy.”
She’s biased. Her livelihood depends on those beliefs. The world is divided into zoo people and those set firmly against them. Also, I don’t disagree with her.
“I like zoos,” I say. “I respect your conservation work.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Excuse me, Steven, I’ve got to stir zebra food. Come by again, I feed giraffes at 10:30. It’s fun to watch, they poke their silly heads over the fence there.”
She does have a beautiful smile. I surprise myself, but I feel tightening in my scrotum. I’m thirty-seven and its been too long since I’ve had good sex or conversation. I want to eat bake n’ serve pie with Amy and drink bottles of Beck’s. I want to talk about zoos and the differences between wild and caged animals. At the Singapore zoo I saw an elephant chained by the ankle to a rooted steel post. I remember his look of malevolence. I want to tell her about the newborn baby beluga in the Vancouver aquarium circling round and round behind its mother, unable to find her nipple, and I want to talk about the jeweled water and white plumes of humpback spray in northern Pacific air at Botany Bay.
Last summer I took my two-week vacation on the west coast of Canada. My sister Amanda lives in Vancouver. Three years ago she and John emigrated, lured by the wild of the coast, foghorns, the northern rain forests in Stanley Park. Amanda is ten years younger than me. We look at each other across the divide of time and gender.
Amanda and I drove to Vancouver Island for a few days. Two hours from Victoria, we pulled off road onto gravel. Despite her pregnancy, Amanda made us walk to the water.
“I don’t hike.”
“It’s a walk, Stevie, it’s worth it.”
The sea air smelled like ice and northern skies. A slow stroll through woods to Botany Bay beach. Trees canopied the walkway. At the beach: crisp air, clean crashing water. Far across Puget Sound, the forested Northwestern-most tip of the Continental United States. We walked over a stone ledge, careful not to plunge into tide pools, round holes in the sandstone coated in smooth coral pink Bryozoa.
The tide was low, hermit crabs scuttled. We walked far to the edge of the ledge, where the sandstone dropped into a sea channel. In the bright sun, the ocean glowed deep green. Kelp beds. Seaweed waving. And a humpback whale was feeding off the ledge, not twenty feet from us. We heard the whomp of the spout. Then a white plume of spray, the curve of the back, dorsal fin, tail. The whale, the sea glinting green, the jeweled tide pools. I was happy, joyous, and I picked my way quickly along the edge of the ledge following each WHOMP! until the whale moved too far north.
Three days later Amanda and I joined the lines at the Vancouver aquarium. We descended with a small hushed group into the darkened, underwater viewing area. Amanda and I held hands behind the row of tense, excited marine mammal experts. All together we watched the circling forms of the twenty-two-hour-old baby beluga and his mother. All of us silently begging him to learn how to nurse.
Our lives now are conducted by telephone and email. With faxes, we never have to touch the same paper. With phones, we never have to share the same air. I have been home from the zoo for an hour when the phone rings, and I jump up agitated because for some absurd reason I expect it to be Amy. Of course, it isn’t. It is my brother-in-law John.
“Steve. I put Amanda back in the hospital again. I… She was afraid to pick up the baby. She was afraid she was going to drop her.”
“Should I come up again?”
“I just don’t know anymore,” he says. “It might make things more chaotic.” He pauses. “It’s up to you.”
The picture on the refrigerator is from six weeks ago. Then, three weeks ago Amanda’s panic began. The first attempt, a bedsheet noose and a bruised larynx. John found the baby alone, hoarse from screaming. Then a hot iron to her wrists, and a two-week hospital stay. Zolloft and tranquilizers, group therapy, tremors.
On an airplane, it is not that far to Vancouver. When I was doing my hours for my M.S.W., I worked on the locked ward at Oakdale. I saw them there, too, new mothers with slashed wrists and frozen faces. For a woman suffering postpartum depression, time is excruciating, breasts drying up despite her intentions, and nothing, ever, ever going to be the same again. Three weeks ago I held the plane aloft with anxiety. Then, bright-eyed Amanda dulled, frightened, speaking a whisper of pain. “I’m sorry, Stevie.”
“I’ll call you back,” I tell John, and hang up the phone. I shut my eyes. I picture Sophie, the baby chimp’s mother, turning her head, placing her on the floor and walking away. I imagine Lena charging again and again at the small body on the floor of her pen, stopping each time just close of stomping him to death.
Perhaps because I am a man. I cannot understand.
I’m not a religious man. My personal theology relies on time more vast than I can fathom, the beautiful clarity of repetitions into infinity, the collapse of a distant star, circling worlds of atoms within a fleck of dust. I believe in fractals — the study of how a tiny increment resembles the form of the whole. A coast line, a single cliff, a jagged rock on the cliff. Fly over in an airplane and gaze below. The coastline looks like a cliff. Stare at a photo of a cliff. The forms are the same as that jagged rock in your hand. It works up, it works down. It depends on your perspective.
Here is my failing: I am nearsighted. I am a detail man. My apartment is orderly yet none of the furnishings go together. I concentrate on minutiae; the shape of pebbles in the tray under the orchids I have grown to bloom. I appreciate the rows of earthy roots at the nearby market, but I don’t know how to make a stew. I can count the elements of my downfall, eight, nine, ten donuts, a gallon of Coke, but I cannot anticipate the results: fat, fatter. The daily details of my clients’ lives are clear: rent due, detox needed, no transportation to the medical clinic. I am good at my job. I make lists. I identify details. I cannot stand back. I know there must be a play. I can set the stage. I can identify the characters. I cannot see the story; tragic, comic, melodrama, farce. I see the jagged pebble, I cannot imagine the coastline. Here’s what I need now: a culmination of details, a deduction in logic or anti-logic, a collection of irregular stones that, when you pull back for the big picture, becomes the wild division between ocean and land.
I water the orchids bringing my face close to the tropical loam. All I can see is Amanda’s noose, a primate’s head turned away.
At night I dream a conversation with Amy, the kind of conversation where everything flows and we understand each other perfectly. We stand near the veldt, leaning against the waist-high iron bar on the visitor side, our shoulders touching and the air filled with a palpable love. I put it to her straight. “The mothers are deserting their young. They sense the polluted air and water, human over-population…”
“No, no, no! I don’t know why people always think animals have better sense than people do.”
“Earthquakes, they know about earthquakes. And it’s the smarter animals; whales, dolphins, elephants, chimps. Whales are suiciding themselves on the beaches. ”
She touches my face. “Self-sacrifice. No, no, it’s not that. They’re just big animals. These moms, a lot of them just don’t know what to do, Stevie.”
“What about Amanda?”
“Amanda. Well, now that’s a different story, isn’t it?”
I turn and kiss her, my entire soul in my tongue, but she isn’t there. She’s turned into the other zookeeper, the one by the camels, and she smiles. “Enjoy your visit.”
Then I dream again.
Elephant world. High red steel beams surround the nighttime elephant enclosure. Pens and cages. Shadows for sight, the tensile tingling of a trunk. Infrasound rumbles from far away in tones lower than humans can hear. My ears quicken, still tender from all day of piercing human cries. I am Whitey. I turn away, my penis dribbles urine as I slump from side to side with heavy steps. The largest land animal in the world. I am in “musth,” the male elephant’s periodic hormonal cycle. Three females and only me. In the next pen, far from forest, bush, savannah, beautiful Lena births. The other females turn away. My trunk probes the crevices between the floorboards. The sun is too far away here, a wrong sun. I raise my trunk, 80,000 muscles flexing, and bay. “You will never wake from this dream. Harden yourself. Turn skin to stone. No more of us in this barren world.”
Amanda, facing life as it should not be, looks for razor blades. Sophie places her chimp baby down and knuckle-walks towards the barred sky. Lena the elephant mother looks at what has come out of her. Blood, excrement, she has delivered her heart and it cannot stand. Lena turns away. She turns back again, and readies herself to charge.
I wake in darkness and cannot see the room around me.
The day before I fly to see my sister I drive to the zoo in the rain. All the way there I prepare myself for the worst: baboons huddled in wet misery; the reproachful eyes of the shelterless sun bear. The gate to the parking lot is open, but the zoo itself is closed, barred with a metal gate. I park for a few minutes in the lot, watching three moms with strollers scurrying back to their minivans. Then I start the car again. Behind the zoo’s administrative offices is a barely paved access road. It loops past a field they use for burning old hay and manure. Even in the rain, a thin wisp of smoke rises. Eventually the road reaches an opening in a fence and a sign, “AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY.” I’ve never breached this opening. If I did I’d find myself driving inside the zoo, near the bison range, near Lion Country, not far from the camels. I stop the car. The rain sheets down over the windshield, and from far away I hear a single lion’s roar. I get out of the car and walk into the empty zoo.
Pull back, pull back, help me envision it from above. A fat man stands alone on the wet cement pathway. The animals are in their night enclosures. Wild birds cluster on the motionless skyride.
Pull back again. Follow the jagged coastline North. Tomorrow afternoon in Vancouver I will sit in a hospital ward and stroke my sister’s cold hand. Tomorrow night I will hold the warmth of baby Madeline against my almost-female breasts, and gently kiss her welcome.
This story originally appeared in Sideshow 1997, Somersault Press.