By Lauren Goodwin Slaughter
Suri, a thirty-six-year old elephant born in the wild on the African savannah, was dying of sadness. She’d been eating her own excrement and swaying her head and trunk from side to side—typical signs of elephant depression, according to the article. The article said Suri’s companion, Kayla, died recently and this was the cause of the sadness. Also, Suri didn’t have enough room in her enclosure, which was a mere 1,200 square yards. An Internet campaign organized by Savethecreatures.org kept Hanna updated via email and was circulating a petition to have Suri moved to a safari park in Madrid where she could have more room to roam with other elephants. “Suri won’t last,” the most recent email assured, “unless you help us, Hanna.”
So of course Hanna signed the petition and sent in a hundred bucks—not nothing for an adjunct instructor. This contribution designated Hanna a “Changer.” Fifty would have made her a “Helper,” but that sounded too pejorative and she simply could not afford to become an “Enforcer.” But because she felt guilty about not doing enough, she kept finding herself at the Springfield Zoo, leaning against the guardrails staring at Nori and Joni, instead of at Nathan’s basketball games or picking him up on time at school or practice. Joni and Nori were ten-year-old elephant sisters who transferred from the San Francisco Zoo two months ago. As Hanna observed them cram hay into their mouths, or twitch their tails, or flap their enormous ears she tapped notes on her cell phone for the story she planned to write this summer called “The Sadness of Elephants.” Paintbrush eyelashes. Hay looks like pool hair. So far she had not noticed any excrement-eating, but she was especially keeping an eye out for that.
Today, finally finished with her end-of-the-semester grading, Hanna planned to spend the whole afternoon with the elephant sisters until she had to go get Nathan, who still had a few weeks of school left before break. She packed a tuna sandwich, a Coke and even applied sunscreen to her freckle-dotted face—too much sun and the dots merged. But just as she began to record a lengthy description of Joni’s ears—in this late April heat they billowed behind her like those rainbow parachutes Nathan and his friends used to love—she received a call from Coach about an “emergency regarding your son.” After Hanna’s gasp he qualified, “He’s okay, Mrs. Wheeler—we just need to talk.”
Still, Hanna rushed out of the zoo trying to fight that drowning-flashback-feeling, past the orgasmic-sounding Gibbons, the zigzag flamingos, the kaleidoscopic line of kids waiting to ride the choo-choo. “Work!” she commanded her mini-van with the unreliable starter; her hands shook as she wrenched in the key and the engine engaged. Parachute ears, parachute ears, she repeated under her breath, trying to shake the replay of her son’s half-blown-off face—the way it looked before all the surgeries. But soon she’d made it across town to the YMCA where Nathan played on a basketball team with other kids with mental and physical challenges. She whizzed through the Y’s maze of base-pumping fitness classes, the oof-ing old men of the rusty weight room, the screaming childcare center, the somber closed door of an AA meeting. Her heart knocked against her ribs: Na-than, Na-than.
Coach’s “office” was the former men’s locker room and it still festered with the vinegary pang of man stink. Hanna forced back a gag as she walked through the open door, stepping over a frazzled volleyball. A boy of twenty-two-ish with a reversed baseball hat pressed into his shaggy blonde curls scowled into a phone that emitted vague battle sounds. Somebody seemed to be getting killed. “One sec,” he said, rapt by the device. This was exactly the kid Hanna encountered in her English 101 class—a too-cool Facebooker who made her feel jittery and self-conscious. It was the wrong shirt to wear, this REI “Good Life” T featuring a cartoon dog catching a cartoon Frisbee.
An explosion-sound crackled. “Die, zombie fuck-head!”
Coach put the phone down. As he swiveled towards Hanna on a mauled, detective-seeming chair, his demeanor was discordantly grave. “It’s his attitude, Mrs. Wheeler,” the kid said, gesturing for Hanna to sit. The only option was to squeeze into one of the children’s school desks that had been pulled in there along with a catalogue of deflated rubber balls, Pac-Man-bent hula-hoops, stacks of card tables and other homeless apparati. She jammed her ass into the miniature chair, letting her knees fall uncomfortably to the side.
“I’m running late for an appointment with my assistant,” she announced. She had no appointment and no assistant.
Ignoring her remark, Coach explained that Nathan, whose interest in basketball had been “not-so-awesome” over the past half-year no longer simply refused to practice—he was now openly combative. Once committed to mastering the foul shot—often staying late with Coach to work on his form—these days, Nathan’s goal was to hurl the ball at the backboard so hard it ricocheted to half-court. His once wimpy picks were now body-slams and on the out of bounds plays he was checking his own teammates, often while snarling or barking like a dog. But worst of all, he’d taken to referring to the other boys as “mutants” or even “freaks.” Kyle, their best shooter who suffered a rare dermatological condition that gave his skin the appearance and texture of tree bark was so irritated by Nathan’s insults that he’d been itching too uncontrollably to dribble the ball. The point guard, Jerry—by far their best player—stormed out of practice yesterday, the middle finger on the remaining hand of his remaining arm jammed skywards in a defiant screw you. And Mason, who had the build of a linebacker but no longer spoke after years of sexual abuse by a neighbor kid’s father, was starting to protect his teammates by beating Nathan up.
“But those bruises are because of Nathan’s hustle and scrappy playing style,” Hanna interjected. It was what her son had been telling her. She recalled that Lyle, her elusive, soon-to-be ex-husband had been suspicious of Nathan’s injuries—but she’d long ago stopped listening to him.
“You have to understand, Mrs. Wheeler,” Coach coaxed as he swiveled to the edge of her tiny desk and looked down, “these kids? This is their one place to be normal. They have to deal with this shit day in and day out, at school and everywhere else.” He paused as if to study the threadbare pull-down map of Pennsylvania that dangled precariously off one of the lockers—someone had Sharpied boobs over Harrisburg. “I just can’t have one of their own doing this to them.”
Coach’s earnest tone was infuriating; as if she’d never had to comfort Nathan through another round of teasing, the other children calling him “Razor Face” or “Claw Head.” As if she didn’t constantly have to deflect the gasps of passing strangers with a corny joke or some other sugary pacification neither she nor her son believed.
At first there had been the endless lasagnas, casseroles and soups that appeared on the porch in disposable aluminum containers; each meal came with a yellow post-it note scribbled with heating instructions and a catch-all phrase of encouragement: Hang in there…Thinking of you…Here if you need anything. But people have short attention spans for the disasters of others. Now, instead of frozen chicken tetrazzini there was a mournful, knowing look or a flabby, on-the-go one-half hug from a one-eighth friend. Even Hanna’s own mother, who for a time kept flying in from Cincinnati, called infrequently now. Hanna suggested they Skype, but her mother complained the camera thingy on her computer no longer worked. And when her mother bought a new computer, it was too fancy and she didn’t know how to operate it and just gave up.
The waning support of family and friends was a primary topic for the parents as they huddled in the bleachers to watch their mutilated sons compete against the able-bodied boys. It would have seemed cruel, the proximity of these flourishing kids to their band of curiosities, if all the boys on the floor weren’t having such a good time. The opposing jocks on any other day might be the swaggering loudmouths who taunted the “Badgers” team members, but they were composed and cordial for the games. They’d d been prepped—or, likely, threatened—into behaving themselves. When the opposing team shook hands after the games they always, inevitably, won, Hanna could discern not a slip of spit on a palm.
Marguerite Fowler, Jerry’s mother, was on the national board of the YMCA and had rallied to put the Badgers together the summer Jerry lost his arm. Marguerite was frantic for things to remain as normal as possible for her son, and a week after his slaughter by lawnmower this basketball team was already in the works. Jerry played point and was by far the strongest player—even with one arm. He was also resilient, upbeat, and physically strong, with a quarterback’s good looks and charm. Before the accident, he had been on track for a basketball and baseball scholarship at John Carroll High, and though that was now impossible he still had the same blonde girlfriend with a smile that ate her whole face. She was always making brownies or cookies for the team and delivering the goodies to practice wearing white short-shorts that encouraged slight scoops of her perfectly round ass to peek out like presents. An example to the other players, Jerry was the team member who gave the locker room pep-talks, called the plays, and otherwise motivated his mostly untalented and morose teammates. He’d come up with a wide variety of modifications for playing with one arm and because he had large enough hands to palm the ball, could manage dynamic dribbling and accurate, breakneck passes.
Nathan, unfortunately, was the target of many of those passes down at the post or at the top of the key. At 5’6” and 140 pounds he made a puny forward, but because of damaged eyesight—a little teacup flap of eyelid still eclipsed the vision in his right eye—he needed a position that did not require much dribbling or play-calling. Forward was an especially bad place for him on offense; his shots forever got blocked as he attempted to pick off boys with fifteen pounds and multiple inches on him. On defense, though, he was quite capable, especially when playing man-to-man. A stellar jumper, he could hone his focus to follow the ball in his opponent’s hands. Ball, ball, ball, ball, ball! The synthesis of Nathan’s throaty screaming and hacked-up face proved too much for many kids he went up against; they found a way to let their arms go wobbly and the ball get loose.
Thank you for your interest in Suri and for your recent contribution to savethecreatures.org. We are hopeful that Suri will be moved to her new home in Madrid soon. Suri’s keepers have been telling her about the many generous donors like you, Hanna, who have taken an interest in her situation and as a result she is no longer eating her own excrement. Well, sometimes she eats just a nibble, but mostly there is almost no excrement-eating. Just thought you would want to know.
A yoga-mom clone popped her head in the room. “Hey, guys! Sorry to interrupt—sorry, am I interrupting? Listen, sorry, but Gary’s back is out again. Coach, can you do Bootcamp today?”
“Not a problem, Marlene,” Coach replied, igniting a smile. Marlene had shiny tan skin and the hyper-toned thinness of a stay-at-home mom with a live-in nanny. Blonde streaks flashed through her chin-length bob. “You are a lifesaver, Coach!” she cried, doing a little clap that revealed quivering muscle definition, “I’ll tell the other girls!”
Coach. What kind of a person doesn’t even go by a real name? Hanna was getting that bread-clogged feeling—motes of perspiration clustered on her forehead and chest. Now “Coach” was inquiring about “Nate’s support system,” but she was preoccupied by the enormous framed poster above Coach’s collection of gleaming athletic trophies that seemed to represent random, non-existent sports. In yellow capitals the poster read: THE KEYS TO SUCCESS. The image depicted a loopy antique key and these commandments: Expect more than others think is possible; Dream more than others think is practical; Risk more than others think is safe.
Not safe, Hanna thought, feeling a sweat dribble make it’s way down her neck. She thought of Suri, alone, dying. She thought of the hole of Nathan’s face. She remembered her wedding day—the too-florid lily bouquet, the suffocating veil, how she couldn’t quite meet Lyle’s eye as she managed, “I do.”
We are not safe at all.
“No one remembers being born,” confirmed Mr. Burgess, his back to the class as he scribbled FERTILIZED EGG above a chalk O. “But thank you for yet another interesting question, Ms. Martin.”
Ashley Martin was always interrupting Mr. Burgess with ridiculous questions. Yesterday, she wanted to know why she couldn’t find her cat’s penis. Amid the ping-pongs of teenage twitter around the room, Mr. Burgess simply suggested she stop looking. Only Nathan laughed at his teacher’s remark, but he was careful to do so only in his head. He felt oddly protective of his Biology teacher, even though Mr. Burgess kept giving him C’s and D’s. Mr. Burgess seemed sad and Nathan was sad, and so there was that between them.
Swimming across the chalkboard, a pink cross-section of the fallopian tube—the tube’s fingers reached for the fertilized egg with wavy arrows. As Mr. Burgess turned back to the board after answering Ashley’s dumb question he brushed the chalk uterus and spread it into a wind-smeared cloud. “You wrecked the uterus,” Ashley taunted. Nathan fought the urge to get up out of his seat in the back of the class and walk straight over to the bitch and ram his lead pencil right through her tarry, mascara-ed eye.
The yellowing wall clock circa 1980 read 3:05, its broken second hand jolting into the three unceasingly. Mr. Burgess continued his lesson, writing endoderm, ectoderm, mesoderm on the board while noting that at this point in the fertilization process the genetic code of the father becomes “fully involved.” Nathan doodled a game of Hangman to himself, pretending to guess an unknowable word; so far, the man was an empty circle staked on the end of a rod. Its disappeared face could just as well be his father’s; a halo of nothing. This was the opposite of Nathan’s monster face that broadcast itself like a scream.
After the accident, when they finally got home from the hospital, Nathan’s father moved to the couch; nights, his blanketed bulk glowed green by the light of the mossy, one-fished, aquarium. Instead of zooming around town in his Geo “nerd-mobile” doing freelance computer repair, he remained cloistered in his office navigating the morass of eBay, placing low bids on high-end scuba equipment even though he’d never even been scuba diving and was in fact inept and bulky in the water; summertimes at the pool, attempting to keep pace with the other dads, he would cannonball or jackknife off the diving board but then land awkwardly on his side like a flank of beef slapped onto a plate. On the day he left for the first of many extended stays at the La Quinta by the interstate, he sat on the edge of Nathan’s bed and squeezed his son’s foot much too tightly. “Hang in there, buddy” he said, like a bad TV version of a dad, before he departed in the clinkering car Nathan could not watch sputter away because the helmet-cast they’d wrapped around his head made it impossible to move to the window. From the other room he’d heard his mother lock the door and say nothing at all.
In the months following, his father showed up for the occasional McDonald’s or movie outing but even at those times he seemed to be off in the distance somewhere, planning his escape. Then, for a time, when Nathan got home from school he’d find his dad on the couch watching war on The History Channel, the house saturated with coffee and bacon smells. Then, his dad was back at the La Quinta. He was there, he wasn’t, and was and wasn’t until finally he just wasn’t and his mother used the word divorce and Nathan unplugged the fish tank. Chester, the goldfish, rose belly-up to the top. His mother blamed herself, of course—she guessed her frenzied vacuuming nudged the cord out of place.
The placenta is a veiny blob. According to Mr. Burgess its blood vessels, supplied by the fetal heart, are “literally bathed in the mother’s blood.” Nathan drew capillaries, like spider webs, across the hangman’s face, adding a cape labeled with a capital N. He filled the thought bubble poised above the man’s head with BLLAARRRRRGH!!
Today, Suri seemed to enjoy the sunset. Like, really enjoy it. The way the sky turns into a smear. She blew a trunk full of water into the air, which we assume means she’s feeling more upbeat. We find out about Madrid soon. Fingers crossed.
And, as always, additional contributions are welcome.
Hanna shifted in her squished seat as Coach informed her of Nathan’s punishment for being “so uncool” to the other boys; he was hopeful that a suspension for the summer season would provide some “much-needed chill time” for “Nate.” But this was supposed to be Hanna’s summer, a “season of much-deserved personal renewal and healing” as Dr. Huoi, her therapist, put it just last week. The new juicer, sleek as a Ferrari, was on order from Amazon and she signed up for an all-female book club that met Tuesday mornings at a local coffee shop. Balance: her double latte would be “skinny” but topped by a cloud of whipped cream. According to the schedule, the theme of Carnal Desire in Anna Karenina would be first on the agenda. Various freelancing projects were also in the works in addition to her elephant story and the hours of research that involved. Her plan for the summer: read for book group, spend time at the zoo with Joni and Nori, write rigorously. For exercise she would swim in the local pool or work in her garden using her new, wood, long-handled gardening trowel—the kind with the perfect forest green metal spear. It would be corn, peppers, a butterfly bush. Meanwhile, various basketball camps and summer tournaments were set to take up the better part of Nathan’s weekdays and even some weekends. The carpooling schedule was recorded on her calendar, her days highlighted in fluorescent orange. The novels she would read during those practices and games were already smoldering expectantly in a Barnes & Noble bag in her trunk.
After Nathan’s accident Hanna felt simultaneously depressed and supercharged, motivated by a rush similar to when Nathan was an infant and only adrenaline could have propelled her through each day’s marathon of feedings, changings, naps, store-runs and the glimmering, all-consuming anxiety produced by each tiny decision related to those activities. Placed on his stomach, Nathan would sleep—but everyone knew that position caused SIDS. And if he did happen to nap on his back, her tiny baby would wake with ice-cold hands because the blanket that would warm him could kill him. The weight of a thousand conflicting opinions—of friends, family, the smirking authors of her stacks of baby books—was more than she could bear. But no one else was going to wake up with her son at his 2 a.m. feeding, feel the warm jolt of her body kick in to feed the person it concocted from a weave of cells and blood and, as some said, God.
After Nathan was released from the burn unit to recover from home, Hanna, and Hanna alone, read comics by his bedside, parachuting army guys into his line of vision—for he could barely move—or diagramed the solar system of foam balls positioned around his room. He was a brave, kind, boy and Hanna knew he kept asking the same questions about the rings of Saturn because it was the planet she knew the most about. In the beginning they were going to physical therapy twice a day, she herself throwing him the lightly weighted medicine ball that he mostly dropped and timing his circuit on the stationary bike; when he got tired, she would bend down and move his legs for him. Set to its lowest setting Nathan still had to strain to reach the pedals. In the evenings, after the bath he insisted on taking behind a closed door and without her help, she would tell him the corniest knock-knocks she could think of as she reapplied the bandages on his face. One night she found herself humming the nursery rhyme she used to sing him when he was a baby, closing her own eyes to obstruct the tears she refused for Nathan to see no matter what.
But that was then. Now, Nathan was fourteen and she was forty-five. Both of their energy for these efforts had been dissipating for some time; since Lyle finally left for good she could feel herself giving in to her son’s gloomy disposition and also to her own. She routinely polished off a bottle of red wine before popping her Ambien and Nathan’s door was X-ed with bright yellow police tape that read CAUTION! DO NOT CROSS THIS LINE! New duct tape kept getting reapplied and she didn’t even know where it came from. Each morning over the Pop-Tart or Cap’n Crunch breakfast Nathan refused his eyes drove a laser right through her forehead. Their 20-minute commute to school was terrible—a monologue of her flaccid, prying, questions. She said she was curious about his friends, girls, classes, as if she was some distant uncle who didn’t know the first thing about him. And when he gave in and let something slip she clung to the most minor detail, nurturing it, cultivating it, until it grew to represent a whole chunk of his life that she was missing.
Did you ever get the feeling that everything was finally settled only to have it all explode into your face? We’ve hit a snafu with Suri and Madrid. Something about international animal-handling? Something about who would own Suri? Something about WTF? It doesn’t look good, Hanna. Not good at all. And this, after Suri’s special sunset…
Additional contributions needed A.S.A.P.
Nathan collected his books and shoved them into his gargantuan backpack. P.E. was the next class block, but he was considering ditching it to smoke on the corner with the other rejects. Today was rope climbing and his shaky, play-doh arms wouldn’t be up to the task. Anyway, last week’s Waltz lesson was bad enough; without the guts to choose a partner he’d been paired with Barbara Hogan—the fattest girl in the eighth grade. She wore a too-small Hello Kitty baby Twarped by the bulk of her breasts and stomach. Uneven rows of tiny plastic barrettes notched her slimy brown hair. She smelled vaguely of bathrooms and cheese. And yet it was Barbara who seemed disgusted by Nathan; as they circled around the gymnasium with the other stumbling teenagers she kept her eyes crinkled shut. His right toe still ached from her missteps.
Nathan felt in his pocket for the pack of Camels he’d been nursing for two weeks, anticipating the warm, bitter kick of smoke. The hall between classes was a coagulation of body spray, phone beeps, jock greetings and girl giggles and as he made his way through the mass he was careful to stare straight ahead. Dork. As long as he kept to himself this horde of hormones rarely even looked at him anymore; but Nathan got that—he tried his best not to look at himself, too. The novelty of his fucked up face had passed and now he was just another. Inconsequential. Dork.
As he worked his way to the exit, Nathan found himself behind a T-shirt advertising “Naked Co-Ed Hacky-Sack” showing two nude students with red cups positioned over their junk. This was Ashley Martin’s shirt, of course. She had three older sisters and for years had been emulsified with layers of gluey make-up and fashioned in inappropriate hand-me-down sorority tees that commemorated a seemingly endless catalogue of luaus, spring flings, and pimp and ho extravaganzas.
“What do you think you’re looking at?”
Ashley stopped in the hall to convene with her girlfriends and without realizing it Nathan stopped, too. She turned to face him and the three triangle Tri-Delt insignia on her chest seemed to throb: wah…wah…wah.
“Hello? Freak? I asked you what you were looking at.”
Though he was trying, desperately trying, Nathan was stuck, eyes frozen on Ashley Martin’s big triangles.
“Check it out, people! People? This freak is totally molesting me right now!”
The commotion of the hall ceased and Nathan could feel himself getting checked out. “Seriously, shouldn’t you be saving this for your Barbara?” Ashley went on, “Her boobs are even bigger!” A cacophony of naws, oohs and snickers burst from every corner as Nathan felt the fangs of feral anger bite through him.
“Grrrrrr” he snarled, beginning to thaw, “grrrrrr…ruff! Ruff, ruff, ruff!” Ashley took a step back. New Nathan devoured Old Nathan as the animal edged closer and closer to the ditzy bitch, gnarling his face into an even more grotesque contortion. “Grrrrrrr… rwwwwwww!”
He bared his teeth.
Something was going to happen. Nathan could feel it about to happen and took off running down the hall past the howling and pointing mob, the whirring soda machine, the shimmering trophy case, the grafittied lockers scrawled with obscenities, and past kind and steady Mr. Burgess who must have been on hall duty today and met Nathan’s wild visage with horrified concern as the quiet, deformed student became a black blur straight through the jangling doors of Saint Joseph High School.
“Get out of here, you freak!” Jeremy, his team captain cried after him, “And don’t even think about coming back to practice!” Jeremy, dressed in a globe-blue Lacoste polo the color of eyes slightly obscured by just-too-long hair looked so normal, Nathan thought, whizzing by. Looked so…lovely.
The zookeeper tossed apples and carrots to Joni and Nori; the veil of dust formed from the activity seemed to place the elephants in a dream Hanna was having of the present moment. But wasn’t it time to get Nathan from school? Why was she back at the zoo again? How had she left it with Coach, and his robot-fit sidekicks?
“These girls have been spoiled out there in Fog City,” the keeper commented, launching another apple through the bars to the sisters. Joni’s agile trunk curled around the fruit and urged it to her whisker-rimmed mouth. “They keep asking for guava and wheat grass smoothies! Ha ha!”
Yes. The zoo. Hanna remembered now. Just as she was leaving to pick up Nathan she’d received yet another email update from Savethecreatures.org. It seemed Suri had taken a turn for the worse and was more depressed than ever—she hadn’t touched her hay and was refusing water. The excrement eating had resumed. But another contribution would allow the organization to help pay for Suri’s increasing medical expenses, the email explained. (Would you help us, Hanna? Do you really have what it takes to change things?) So one minute she was digging through her purse for her credit card and the next she was back at the zoo, monitoring Joni and Nori, taking notes. Eat apples and carrots. Moms and kids. Dust everywhere. The detour meant she would be 20 minutes late pick Nathan up, but so what. He was fine. He was punished. He could wait on her for once.
Gathered behind the guardrail, a small crowd of mommies and toddlers held out their hands as the zookeeper passed around the feed bucket so the kids could take turns tossing in the elephant’s lunch. “I wish my kids ate like that,” one mom voice lamented. “Tell me about it” another responded. Hanna remembered it well, those endless days alone with Nathan—they, too, would go to the zoo; and then the park, the grocery store, the pool—each activity geared toward tiring Nathan out long enough for Hanna to take a shower or cook dinner or rush through a superficial house-cleaning. Looking around at the mothers, Hanna knew them. She was them. But she was also struck by their youth; did she really look like that fourteen years ago? One mom chatted into her glittery cell phone, oblivious as her pig-tailed daughter devoured her share. Another mom, with superhero strength, balanced each of her fat, Disney-clad twins as they dove in the pail. Another boy—bigger than the rest—four years old, probably—greedily snatched and grabbed a fistful and then broke loose from his mother, sprinting right up to the guardrail and hurling the apples and carrots towards Nori and Joni’s pen. Much to the kid’s frustration, the toss came up short of the elephants’ reach. Like dethatched creatures, the trunks probed, wormed and huffed, but even fully extended through the bars could not snag a piece of the accumulation the boy had sent their way.
“Urgggghhhhhh!” The boy squealed.
“Please, use your words, Jackson” his mother coaxed. Her skin was still smooth and cheery. Everything she wore seemed hempish and handmade. “Now, do you need help? Jackson, honey—would you like Mommy to help you?”
The zookeeper, trying to keep things cool and harmonious commented that the elephants were also mommies and this meant they had learned to be very, very patient. They were happy mommy elephants. They could wait for their lunch. They could wait for their special helper. The zookeeper offered a knowing smirk to the moms as he went into the bucket for additional carrots and apples so Jackson could try again.
“Okay,” Jackson said, appeased, calm, rubbing his eyes. Hanna noticed his yellow ring of tangled curls, dizzy-blue eyes, red popsicle mouth, flushed cheeks. His skin was so polished and milky—like a veneered egg.
And suddenly she knew what was going to happen.
As the zookeeper held out a handful of apples and carrots for Jackson, in an electric flash the kid dashed to the other side of the guardrail, slipping his slim body through the wide metal bars to retrieve the misthrown produce lying in the soot beyond the elephants’ reach. Only Hanna felt the air turn to glass, noticed the trees suck all the oxygen—and so she began to float up, above the impossible tragedy about to occur. Jackson’s mother was not yet crazed, did not know what she would know five minutes from now—that darkness saves its sharpest claws for children. She did not see Joni and Nori’s eyes turn to bolts. She only called after her son in a slack, lazy way—the way she might to encourage him to pull up his pants or come inside for Goldfish crackers, his favorite.
And even though the zookeeper digested enough of this moment to try to scramble his way to the kid, it was too late and the disaster had already been put in motion and the adults were too distracted and slow and Jackson, instead of throwing the apples and carrots to the elephant from his relatively safe spot, wriggled through the second set of bars which were very close together, but still wide enough for him to slip through. Like a feather through a grate. Now, just feet from Joni’s gargantuan column-legs, the look on Jackson’s face could only be described as ecstatic. This was the coolest thing that had ever happened to him—way better than cotton candy at the circus, way better than squawking like a chicken off the diving board, way better than going to the NASCAR race with this dad, propped on those strong, bony, shoulders as the cars shot past them faster and louder than anything he’d ever heard or seen and ever would now and and all the women started screaming.
Not safe. Not safe at all.
Remember that even if this whole thing with Suri doesn’t work out, plenty of others need your help. Best not to get too attached, believe us. Consider making a donation to the choking sea turtles of Palm Beach County who keep ingesting plastic grocery store bags. They think the bags are jellyfish! Imagine that. Click here to contribute to our sea turtle rescue efforts.
Nathan pictured it: his mother would pull into the carpool line just as he staggered out from the bushes where he’d been hiding to avoid his classmates. They would both notice that the other parents, in their vans and station wagons and SUVs, greeted their children with obscenely joyous exclamations, like caricatures. These parents were happy because their child was not Nathan. It didn’t take long after the accident for him to realize his repulsiveness made others appreciate their own good fortune. “Makes you feel so lucky” the moms and dads would whisper, “so blessed.”
Just trying to find a Frisbee for a younger kid, Nathan would say as he appeared out of the ivy. It would be important to gain his mom’s good will because by now she and Coach would have had talked. She would know about Nathan’s abhorrent behavior, the way he’d been wildly snarling at his teammates and generally acting like a lunatic. Last week he stuck his hand down his throat in the middle of an out-of-bounds play and threw up his peanut butter sandwich all over Kyle because in addition to having lizard skin Kyle was also allergic to peanuts. Why? His mom was sure to ask that—why?—and what did he have to say for himself and when she did he might just have to start crying. For effect. But the truth was he couldn’t explain it; he had no idea why he’d been acting this way.
Once Nathan finally made his way to the car, looking as pitiful as possible, the first words out of his mouth would have to be, “sorry.” But that wouldn’t quite work because his mother could answer it was not she who needed the apology, Nathan, but rather your teammates whom I frankly cannot believe you’ve treated in this manner. Looking at her son with shivering, translucent, eyelids she would say she was not only disappointed, but concerned. It was just that she was wondering what kind of person her son was becoming. And because it was not in the best interest of playing Mortal Kombat II later that night to do it, Nathan would not ask her why she was the weirdest of all moms on the planet, or why she wore those stupid sandals and what was she was doing all day at the zoo with those stupid elephants or what did she do to finally make dad leave for good. Instead, Nathan knew that if he could keep his mouth shut and just sit there dolefully for long enough, listening to All Things Considered, sooner or later she would turn the blame inward and enter an embarrassing stupor about what she could have done differently. For Old Nathan, this would generate in him so much sorrow and regret that he really would be sorry, would want to inhale an enormous, impossible breath and take all of the awful things he had done and said back. He would say, and mean, I love you Mom. But for New Nathan, now would be the time to go in for the manufactured hug because that was how to get what he wanted. The hug would have to be more than his usual, stiff, Frankensteinian squeeze, though—this situation called for a full-out embrace that if he could stand it must be endured for ten whole seconds accurately measured using Mississippis. Eventually, she would break away from the hug, slightly tearful, before adjusting their driving route to swing by Blockbusters on the way home for Soldier of Fortune. Later, it’d be Sloppy Joes with a brownie sundae for desert.
Except that’s not how it went. Nathan waited, itching in the bushes for two hours without a single call or text from his mother. The question mark and where r u, mom texts went unanswered. So when all the yellow buses vanished from the parking lot and the world dissolved into purple-dark, Nathan put his hood in place and started the three-mile walk home.
* * *
Like a red strobe, the swarm of fire trucks, ambulances, police cars. But the zoo was oddly silent—no Gibbon screams, no macaw gawks, no train toots, no kid groups, no sound at all from anyone. For Hanna, it was like a gluey Ambien trance; she was here but not here, hovering, tingling. As the men with beeping equipment ran to the boy who lay unmoving on the ground in a cloud of filth, they were movie versions of themselves running, running. It was so exhausting and unnecessary.
No one could have saved the boy.
* * *
Suri didn’t make it. Sorry, but thought you would want to know.
Lyle waited in the shadows like he did so many evenings, his junky Geo parked behind the Wilson family’s fully-outfitted, double-back, Eurovan Volkswagen camper. The Wilsons were always headed out to this nature preserve or that wilderness refuge, returning with gargantuan pine cones, expertly whittled walking sticks, even raccoon pelts, distorted and apricot-rank. Lyle was convinced that the boys displayed the hides on their back porch as a kind of secret message to him—it meant this is how you raise a boy, you embarrassing, fat, dead-beat. Tonight, he could see the foggy outline of Mrs. Wilson floating through her kitchen. The pie smells that fluttered from their home into the air also seemed like a kind of message, though of what he wasn’t sure. He cracked his window and inhaled. Pecan?
8:45. Late. Tonight it was taking longer than usual for a glimpse of his family. Basketball games were Tuesday nights but this was Thursday. Tae kwon do? No, Nathan abandoned that last year. Something at school? But as far as Lyle knew, Nathan wasn’t involved in a single extra-curricular. “How about the chess team?” Lyle suggested the last time they went for Big Macs, but Nathan just rolled his eyes. It was a dumb suggestion anyway. And the PTA meeting was last Wednesday: he’d offered to give Hanna a ride, and came home early from his new IT job at the same community college where she worked with enough time for a quick jog and a shower, but then he just stood there, naked, in front of the mirror for who knew how long, ignoring her battery of phone calls. But you promised, Hanna would say if he picked up. Par for the course. Still, Lyle kept thinking each new call would be the one he would answer to say sorry, Hanna, I am so very sorry, I’m on my way right now—just running a few minutes late—been putting in some extra time at work, oh, didn’t you know I was in the IT department now, yes, it’s great, we should meet for lunch sometime, until the calls finally stopped and he collapsed on the couch with an enormous bowl of Butterfinger ice cream.
Through his rearview Lyle saw the dark shape approaching, a form of Nathan’s build and height with a hood pulled over its face. His son. Lyle crouched down in his seat to hide as Nathan skulked by the car, missing his father completely.
“Son!” Lyle whispered into his coat as Nathan kept walking.
Then, Lyle saw two headlights race through the night, one brilliant white, the other yellow. He identified this as his wife’s car; together they put in the wrong bulb and neither of them felt it worthy of fixing, so just left it alone. Just as Lyle was making a mental note to swing by the hardware store he saw Nathan fly off the sidewalk and into the car’s trajectory, waving his arms. The car skidded to a sideways stop and Hanna—wild, possessed—threw open the door and got out in the middle of the street.
“Get!” She screamed, “Get out of the road!” Her arms were a seizured blur as she ran to her son. Meanwhile, Nathan, oddly calm and slow, bent over the small squiggling shape illuminated by the beams. It was covered in blood.
“You killed it.” Nathan said, looking up at his mother. He could see her forehead rivers, her breathing gray eyes, the magic mole. She seemed to settle. In the beams, the little creature curled and squirmed.
“It’s not dead, Nathan,” she said. “Look.” They both looked. Then, leaving Nathan alone in the headlights, Hanna disappeared down the driveway to return with the long-handled garden trowel she’d planned to use for a butterfly bush. As she raised the blade to strike the animal, Nathan stood there staring. She could do this. The metal was shrill on the road as Hanna lifted and struck and struck again, efficient and cool as whatever had been the squirrel changed into something else entirely. She kept at it until, gently, Nathan put his hand on her shoulder to indicate that now it was his turn with the shovel. The curious neighbors who flipped on their porch lights or tucked back their curtains would see Lyle exit his car and rush toward his wife and son to try to join in.