At The Zoo



Jerome Turken

Because they might upset his little niece, Lou had saved the big cats for last.  The day had gone smoothly so far, but who knows with kids.  The prospect of a week without mommy and daddy—a delayed reaction, crying for mommy.

He lifted her out of the stroller and held her up to see.  Her excited face, filled with anticipation, turned to open‑mouthed awe.

“See the lion, Cheryl?” Lou said.  “He’s a man lion.  His name is Oswald.  Maybe he knows Melvin in your animal book.”

Cheryl had a firm grip on Lou’s sleeve.  She gazed bravely at the  recumbent animal, whose languid eyes seemed to be looking right back at her.

“See?” Lou said.  “It’s in a strong cage, Cheryl. That lion can’t get out of that cage.”

Cheryl let go of Lou’s sleeve and with clawed fingers scratched air.  “Rrraaa, I’m going to eat you up!”  And again: “Rrraaa, I’m going to eat you up!  Rrraaa!  Rrraaa!”  The lion, with a sudden lift of its head emitted a bit of a rumble.

Cheryl turned away and grasped Lou’s jacket and sunk her head into his chest.  “I wanna go out,” she said.

“All right, let’s go out,” Lou said.  He carried her out wheeling the stroller in front of him.  “You saw all the animals, now it’s time to go to gramma and grampa.”

“Is mommy and daddy there?” Cheryl said.

“Oh, Cheryl,” Lou said.  “You know mommy and daddy … you know they went to do something important.  They told you.  Didn’t they tell you?  You’re staying with gramma and grampa in the meantime.  Just a little while.  You’ll have so much fun with them.  And sometimes I’ll even come over with a surprise and I’ll read you stories and you’ll have such a good time.  And mommy and daddy’ll be back so fast you wouldn’t even know it.”

“Yes I would,” Cheryl said.

Lou put her into her stroller.  “Hey, Cheryl, let me ask you something,” he said.  “You want some special zoo crackerjacks before we go?”

Cheryl nodded.

“All right,” Lou said.  “Let’s go to the candy man.”

At the refreshment stand he bought the Crackerjacks and opened the box.  “There’s a prize at the bottom, Cheryl,” he said.  “You can get it after you eat the whole box.”

“What is it?” Cheryl said.

“Nobody knows,” Lou said.  “You only find out when you eat all the Crackerjacks and the box is empty so you can get it.”

Cheryl started on the Crackerjacks.

“You don’t have to eat it too fast or all at once, Cheryl.  The prize’ll stay there.  Come on, I’ll take you to make peepee, and then we’ll go to the car and go to gramma and grampa, okay?”  Making peepee.  Had to take her into the men’s twice.  Empty the first time luckily, only a few men there the second time.  Looking at me with fisheyes.  Kept getting dirty looks from an old guy, then opens his big mouth.  You know you shouldn’t be taking a little girl into the men’s toilet.  Old fool.  Wonder what he’d say if she were a big girl.

“Oh, look, Cheryl, they’re feeding the seals!” Lou said.  “Let’s go make peepee then you can watch.”

“I want to watch now,” Cheryl said.

He wheeled her over to the rail at the edge of the seal pool, where the keeper was taking fish out of a bucket and flinging them in turn toward each of the five or six seals on the platforms opposite.  They were diving and plunging to nab them, then returning to the platforms for another chance.  He lifted Cheryl out of the stroller and held her up to see.

“Wow, did you see that one catch the fish in right in the air, Cheryl!” Lou said.

Cheryl was excited.  “It caught it!  It caught it!”

When the keeper left Cheryl wanted to wait for more.

“But he’s not coming back, Cheryl,” Lou said. “The seals are all fed.”  He put the disappointed child back into the stroller and continued on to the toilets.

“I want to see a whale,” Cheryl said.

“They don’t have whales in zoos, Cheryl,” Lou said. “But you know where they might have some whales?  At the aquarium, maybe some small ones.  The aquarium is where they have all kinds of fishes.  Maybe we’ll go there some other time.”

“Balloons here!  Balloons!”

Cheryl turned toward the yell of the vendor, and gazed open‑mouthed at the crowded airborne menagerie he was flaunting while waiting on customers.

“Animal balloons here!  Animal balloons!  Give the little one an animal balloon!  Tigers, lions, monkeys, giraffes!  Animal balloons here!”

“I want a aminal balloon,” Cheryl said.

“First we better go to the bathroom for you to make peepee,” Lou said, “then we’ll come back and get one.”

“But first I want a aminal balloon.”

Lou wheeled her stroller toward the vendor, where some parents and children were waiting their turn to buy.

“We have to wait for the man to finish with the other customers, Cheryl.  Maybe we better go to the bathroom first.”

“But first I want a aminal balloon first.”

“You sure you can wait to make peepee?”

Cheryl nodded.

“Which animal do you want, Cheryl?” Lou said. “A tiger?  A lion?  A monkey?”

Cheryl scanned the bunch a moment.  “That one,” she said.

“The giraffe?” Lou said.  He nodded to the vendor, who took from a box a flaccid piece of orange rubber with black dots and inserted the nozzle of his helium canister to inflate it, with all the while Cheryl, wide‑eyed, watching the giraffe take shape.  The vendor tied the opening and attached a stick and handed it to her.  “Here, honey.”  To Lou: “One dollar.”

As they continued on to the rest rooms Cheryl waved her giraffe a while, then stopped and tilted her head back and looked at Lou urgently.

“I have to make peepee,” she said.

“That’s where we’re going now, boops,” Lou said. “There’s the bathrooms are right over there, see?  That white building.  See?  We’ll be there in one second.”

“But I have to make peepee now,” Cheryl said.

“Oh, then we better hurry up.”

The men’s room was active going in and coming out.  A bunch of rowdy adolescent boys were just entering, yelling and cursing and pushing each other around.  He wheeled her over to the women’s side and took her out of the stroller.  Three teenage girls had just gotten there and were about to enter.

“Excuse me,” he said.  “Would you mind helping—”

They began to giggle and walked through the door.

“I’ll take her.”  She was an older woman of color with two young girls, one about seven and the other about Cheryl’s age, probably her granddaughters.  The younger one had on a white tee shirt with a colorful imprint of a monkey.

“Oh thank you,” Lou said.  “I’d really appreciate it.  I can’t go in there, honey.  This nice lady will take you.  She’ll help you.  I’ll wait right here for you to come out.”

“Why don’t you let your daddy hold your giraffe until you come out?” the woman said.

“That’s not my daddy,” Cheryl said.

“I’m her uncle,” Lou said.  “I’ll hold your balloon until you come out, Cheryl.”

Cheryl handed it to him.  She was looking at the little girl’s monkey shirt.  When the woman smiled and reached out her hand she looked up at her and sized her up with a little face full of concern but took it.

Ten minutes went by and they were not yet out.  Didn’t seem that crowded.  Women and girls who had gone in later kept coming out, but not them.  Is this the only door?  A little flare of panic.  Kidnap.  He was about to ask a woman coming out if she had noticed a woman with three kids, when the two grandchildren came out and stood waiting on the other side of the door.

He approached the older girl.  “Your grandmother is still in there with my little niece, eh?”

The girl nodded.

“Is everything all right?” Lou said.  “I mean, she’s not having trouble with her, is she?”

The girl smiled with her hand to her mouth.

“What?” Lou said, smiling back.

“She wet her pants,” the girl said.

“She did?”

The girl nodded.

He felt a wave of embarrassment.  My God, that poor women.  How is she handling it?

A few minutes later the woman came out with Cheryl in hand.  She handed Lou a small plastic bag containing Cheryl’s pink underpants.

“I washed them,” she said.  “They’re wet.  I put a pair of Dilly’s on her. Dilly still has accidents too.  When I take her out I carry a couple of extra pairs and some bags.”

“I appreciate this,” Lou said.  “But how—”

“Oh, that’s all right,” the woman said.

“I have a suitcase of her clothes in my car,” Lou said.  “If you wait I can—”

“No need,” the woman said.  “But you might get her one of them monkey shirts like Dilly’s.  She kept staring at it.  Get them in the gift shop just inside the entrance on Flatbush Avenue.”

Cheryl kept staring at it as the woman walked off with the two girls.

“You going to get me a monkey shirt?” Cheryl said.

“Of course I’m going to get you a monkey shirt,” Lou said.  “That’s where we’re going right now.”  He put her into the stroller.

At the gift shop Cheryl picked out a white monkey shirt, then changed her mind to a blue one.  As they were about to go to the counter to pay for it she changed her mind back to the white one.

“I want to wear it,” she said.

“All right,” Lou said.  “But first we have to pay for it, okay?”

Outside he took her blouse off and put on the monkey shirt.

“I want to go to the monkeys,” Cheryl said.

“But we already saw the monkeys, honey.  We were in the monkey house a long time.  We have to go to gramma and grampa now.”

“But I want to see the monkeys again.  Then we can go to gramma and grampa.”

“But we’ll be late for supper and gramma won’t like it.”

“But gramma always wants me to have a good time.  She said so.”

“I know.  But you know what gramma also said?  She said she doesn’t want you to be late for supper.”

“But first she wants me to have a good time.”

“Aren’t you tired, Cheryl?”

“But I want to see the monkeys again.”

“All right, we’ll go see the monkeys again.”  He put her into the stroller. Look at her.  She’s exhausted, her eyes are closing, but she wants to see the monkeys again with her monkey shirt.

“Chim‑pan‑ZEE,” Lou said, leading Cheryl by the hand to the next cage.

“ChipaZEE,” said Cheryl.

“You can just call it a chimp,” Lou said.

“Chip,” Cheryl said.

He led Cheryl by the hand to the last cage. “I think you’re tired.  You want me to carry you?”

Cheryl nodded.  He picked her up.

“Now these are the ones you said you liked best because you liked their orange color,” Lou said.  “Do you remember what they are?”

“Ragtan,” Cheryl said.

“That’s right,” Lou said.  “a‑RANG‑e‑tan.”

“aRAGtan,” said Cheryl.

“You look so tired, Cheryl,” Lou said.  “Come on, I’ll put you in your stroller and we’ll go to the car and I’ll take you to gramma and grampa, and maybe you can take a nap, okay?”

Cheryl nodded slowly.

Is she asleep?  “Cheryl?”  He stopped and leaned forward to look at her. Almost.  Don’t want to have to wake her when I put her in the car.  Then cranky riding to the house.

“See the leaves on the trees, Cheryl?” he said. “All the white and blue leaves?”

Cheryl raised her head to look.  “They’re not white and blue,” she said.

“They’re not?  What color are they then?”


“They’re all green?”

“They’re yellow too.”

“Oh yeah, now I see.  You’re right.  They are green and yellow.  Remember what they look like, so when we get to gramma and grampa maybe you can draw them.

“I haven’t got my crayons.”

“Gramma has crayons for you, don’t you remember?  She has a big pad too, for you to draw on.  Remember how you drawed the cows and the fishes in gramma’s house that time?  I’d like to see how the trees look when you draw them.  Maybe you can draw birds in the trees too.”

“Oopsydaisy!”  When he lifted Cheryl out of the stroller her body was slack and her eyes half closed.  He placed her in the child’s car seat mounted in the back seat and buckled her in.  “Oh, I know.  Cheryl’s so tired and sleepy.  We’ll soon be at gramma’s and grampa’s, boops, and gramma’ll put you to bed and she’ll cover you up so warm and snug and you can take a nice long nap, and you’ll be so comfortable.”  He folded the stroller and placed it in the trunk; then he reached in to make sure the car seat was secure.  Cheryl was already asleep.  Stay right, drive slow and careful.  Don’t want to wake her until we get there.

Horn blasting.  He looked at the rearview mirror. That crazy bastard, why doesn’t he pass me?  Cheryl began to fret.

“I want my mommy.”

“Uncle Lou is taking you to gramma, boops,” Lou said.  He pulled into the middle lane and the guy passed him on the right and made a turn at the next corner.

“I want to go home to mommy,” Cheryl said.

At the next corner he stopped for a light and turned to her.  She was looking at him with beseeching eyes, her sad little forehead tensed up and little lips downturned.

“Don’t you want to go to gramma and grampa?”

“I want to go home to mommy,” Cheryl said,

Don’t know if this is such a good idea, but she’s going to break out crying any second.  Just be careful.  “Wait a minute,” he said.  “I’ll tell you what.  How would you like to sit in the front with me?”

That seemed to quell her fretting.  At the next corner he pulled into the service road and parked beside a hydrant.  Cheryl, her thumb in her mouth, was sleepily waiting for him to transfer her.  He detached the car seat and with her still in it, transferred it to the front and hooked it over the back of the passenger seat.  Then he had second thoughts.  What if I make a sudden stop?  He got the length rope from the trunk and bound the car seat by winding the rope clear around the whole back rest of the front seat.  When he got back behind the wheel again Cheryl still had her thumb in her mouth and was already half asleep.

“Hey, Cheryl,” he said.  “Whose hand tickled when she fed the elephant a peanut?”

Cheryl took her thumb out of her mouth to say, “Miiine,” then put it back in again.

“Wasn’t that a nice elephant?”

Cheryl nodded sleepily.

“And the polar bear, isn’t he a good swimmer?” She was asleep again.

“We’re here, boops,” he said. “Gramma and grampa will be so happy to see you.  Come on, lets go upstairs.”

Cheryl nestled into him, her thumb in her mouth, her drowsy eyes open but unfocused.  When he rang the bell the buzzer answered immediately.  His mother was at the head of the stairs waiting for them.

“It’s almost five,” she called down.  “You said you would be here by four.”

“Cheryl didn’t want to leave,” he said.  “She wanted to see more.”

“Hello, schainele, how are you?” Mrs. Morris said, extending her arms.  “Come.”  She took Cheryl out of Lou’s arms. “What a beautiful monkey shirt.  But you’re so sleepy.  Did she eat?”

“We had lunch,” Lou said.  “And she had some crackerjacks,”

“Crackerjacks.  Very nutritious.  What did she eat for lunch?”

“What’s the difference, ma?  Right now she needs a nap.  Right, Cheryl?”

Cheryl nodded sleepily.

“Where’s daddy?” Lou said.

“He went to get the papers,” his mother said.

“I’m going down to get Cheryl’s stuff,” Lou said.

Going downstairs he met his father coming up.

“You’re home?” his father said.  “We were worried.  Cheryl’s upstairs?”

“Yeah,” Lou said.  “I have to get her stuff from the car.  I’ll be right up.”

When he got back upstairs his father was standing in the threshold of his former small bedroom looking at Cheryl who was now fast asleep.

“Cheryl’s stroller and car seat are in the hall, ma,” Lou said.  “Where do you want me to put her suitcase?”

“Put it on the couch,” his mother said.  Something is on her mind.

“Cheryl’s sleeping, eh?” Lou said.  “The poor kid was exhausted.  Here’s her blouse.  I bought her the monkey shirt at the zoo.  What’s the matter?”

Mrs. Morris went into the bathroom and came out holding a small pair of red underpants that were worn and frayed and had several off‑red patches.

“Look at this,” she said.  “Look at the condition of Cheryl’s bloomers.  With patches.  Who ever heard of putting patches on bloomers?  Something’s up with them.  Do you know anything?”

“No, I don’t know anything.”

“Are they short on money?  Did Davy lose his job?”

“You and your conclusions,” Lou said.  “Ronda probably packed everything and probably used an old pair because she didn’t want to open the suitcase.  Why don’t you look in the suitcase and see for yourself?”

“I think I’ll do just that.” Mrs. Morris said.

She opened the suitcase and rummaged through it and pulled out a few pairs of Cheryl’s underpants.

“Satisfied?” Lou said.

“Still and all,” Mrs. Morris said, “she shouldn’t put a pair of bloomers like that on a child.  Patches on bloomers.  I never heard of such a thing.”

“I have to go, mom,” Lou said.

“Stay for supper,” his mother said.

“I can’t, mom,” Lou said.  “I have an early date.”  She extended her cheek for a kiss.  “Hey, dad, I’m leaving.”

“Why didn’t you keep Cheryl awake until I got here?” his father said.

“Your father and his ideas,” his mother said. “Keep her awake!  You’ll have the whole week with her.”  She looked at Lou.  “Are you sure you don’t want to stay for supper?”

“I’m sure, mom,” Lou said.

The bag with Cheryl’s washed underpants was lying on the back seat.  He threw it into a garbage can in front of the house next door.