Cheryl Diane Kidder
Maggie pops the trunk, yanks the stroller out, unlocks the wheels and gives the handlebar a sharp pull up and out. She slams the trunk shut, rolls the stroller to the side of her 1968 Chevy Nova, opens the back door, reaches in past Freddy to unlatch his car seat.
“Here we go sweetie.”
In one motion she picks him up out of the car seat and neatly lands him in the stroller.
“This will be the last time we use the stroller, for sure.”
She struggles with the lap belt and gives up, then tries to thread each of his tennis-shoed feet through the front webbing. His legs stick out way past the bottom of the stroller.
“Mom,” he yells at her and flings his arms and flaps his legs in protest.
“Just one more time, Freddy, I promise. After today, no more stroller. Honest Injun.”
She crosses her heart and holds two fingers up in the air for him to see. He calms down, but arches his back in quiet protest. She takes the opportunity to sling her purse over her shoulder, slam the car door shut and push the stroller down through the parked cars and onto the long gravel path to the zoo.
She’s immediately cold. Mid-July but the fog is thick and hanging low, low enough to shroud the entrance gate. At every bump in the path Freddy stretches his feet past the bottom of the stroller and drags them along the ground.
“Cut it out, dammit. You want to break a leg?”
She pauses, leans back on the handlebars until the front wheels are off the ground.
“Out. Out.” Freddy screams.
She puts the stroller back on four wheels, ignoring his protests, and keeps moving.
“Almost there, sweetie. Almost there.”
Maggie’s parents used to take her to the San Francisco Zoo. She hadn’t been back in years. Didn’t like driving into the city much in the first place: the crowds, the traffic, the fog. But after the heat in Gilroy the fog felt good on her face, on her arms, her legs. She left their coats in the car.
They make it down the long entranceway to the main gate and sail on through, right past the sign “First Tuesday of the month FREE,” and head for the merry-go-round. The howler monkeys are just getting warmed up. Their screeching fills the morning air. It’s the only sound she hears.
Freddy’s hands grip the stroller on both sides. He tries to keep his feet up on the footrests but it’s impossible. He’s hungry. They’d driven for hours, starting out when it was still dark. He’d wanted to wear shorts, but Mama said no. He wanted Coco Puffs like she’d promised, but she said no.
His head hits the top of the stroller every time they roll over a bump. He wants out. Out. Out. Out. He wants to run. He wants to go for a ride on the merry-go-round. He wants to stop and see the flamingoes. He wants to get some cotton candy. Mama says no, no, no, and keeps rolling.
The howlers are going strong. He turns his head this way and that. He can hear them but not see them. Their calls get louder and louder, then quieter and quieter. He turns his face up to the sky hoping to hear them better. He feels their cries in his stomach, in his chest, in his throat. He howls and howls. Maybe they’ll answer him.
Mama slaps him on the side of his head.
“Cut it out.”
He ducks down in the stroller and squints. He’s cold. Mama’s going fast and fast. Outside is cloudy and cold, cold.
He grips the sides of the stroller and howls like crazy but keeps the sound down in his chest so Mama can’t hear. He howls past the flamingoes, past the giraffes and the brown bears, he keeps howling as they pass the gorilla grotto, the elephant enclosure and the hyenas. He howls long after the howlers have stopped. He howls all the way down penguin alley and right up to the front door of the Lion House.
Mama stops. Freddy listens. There’s a low grumbling and then a sound like a train, only it isn’t far away. It’s right on the other side of the big doors in front of him.
He sits back as far as he can in his seat. He stops howling. Mama stops pushing.
Maggie braces herself for the smell, for the closeness, the intensity of the cats. She inches the stroller forward. She gauges what it will take to hold onto the stroller and push the doors open and get it in without help. She considers turning around and backing in. She considers leaving the stroller outside. She considers just moving straight on through, using the stroller as a battering ram. She does not consider turning around and going back.
The double doors open wide. The smell hits her first, then the roars and rumbling, then she sees a family coming straight at her. The father is tall and young and blonde. The mother is shorter and young and blonde. There is a girl about Freddy’s age and a boy even younger. They are all holding hands. The little boy is crying. The little girl is yanking his hand.
“Stop being such a baby,” the girl says.
The father lets go of the girl’s hand and stops to prop the doors open for Maggie. She nods at the man and quickly pushes the stroller up over the lip of the entrance. The door closes behind her.
Freddy watches the doors open all at once. He sees the family walking out hand in hand and behind them there is a great light. The light is beautiful and warm and he wants to touch it. The light shines around the head of the father and around the head and shoulders of the mother, all around the little girl who is just his size and bathes the little boy like he’s made of light.
He smiles to see them all holding hands. He feels the heat from the contact and wants to reach out and take some for himself. He reaches out past the stroller and smiles at the father. The father smiles back at him and drops the little girl’s hand. When Freddy sees the little boy crying he feels it in his throat. It’s hard to swallow. He screws up his face and forgets, for a moment, about the heat, about the light. He stretches his feet toward the boy. He’s wearing tennis shoes too.
“Don’t cry,” Freddy says.
The little boy opens his eyes and looks at Freddy. He puts his thumb in his mouth. His eyes are the color of rain. The mother and the little girl and the crying boy walk past him. He hears the boy sniffling and hopes he stops crying soon. He wonders if the father will take him to see the flamingoes. If they go see the flamingoes, he will stop crying. You cannot see flamingoes and cry. All that pink. All those long legs.
The father opens the doors and Mama pushes him inside the Lion House. He has to cover his ears, the roaring is too loud. It smells like poop and dirt and something else. He sees the floor-to-ceiling cages just in the next room. He sees people walking from one cage to the next. He wants to see closer. He takes his hands off his ears and pushes himself out of the stroller.
She remembers everything now. Mother would never come into the Lion House. She said it was vulgar and obscene. But Daddy took her in every time. Mother waited back by Monkey Island. She liked the howlers, the screaming.
Daddy took her right in. They’d always walk right up to the cages, to the bar in front where you can stand three feet from the feeding lions. The sound was deafening. The smell overwhelming. Every time, Daddy’s hands on her shoulders, standing three feet from the cages, pushing her from behind, making her see, making her watch. Did she cry? She can’t remember if she cried. She hopes she didn’t. Daddy said only sissies cry. Daddy said to stand up straight, look them right in the eye and not back down.
She pushes the stroller absent-mindedly into the great room. She doesn’t notice Freddy has climbed out. She walks through the crowd to the restraining bar and pushes the stroller right up to it.
“Take a good look, sweetie. Aren’t they beautiful? Don’t you want to just climb in there and pet them and lay your face right down on their furry paws and take a nap? Mama came here when she was your age. It was my favorite place in the whole zoo. Let’s just watch them eat their lunch today, ok? I’m going to sit right down over here and let you enjoy them.”
Maggie backs away from the stroller, back through the crowd, and sits on one of the benches in the middle of the room. The crowd swarms in front of her so she can no longer see the stroller. She decides she’ll wait for another few minutes and then walk back to the car. There are so many nice people here. She can hear some German accents and French and Italian. She saw a Chinese family when she first walked in. That would be nice. Freddy could eat Dim Sum and see the big parade with the paper dragons every year. They’d dress him up in blue silk pajamas with scenes of the countryside embroidered across the front. They’d give him little blue silk slippers and teach him to eat with chopsticks. He’d have everything she never had, everything she could never give him.
She walks out through the double doors. The sun is finally breaking through the fog. Everything is submerged in light. She heads straight past the howlers. She listens to the howling all the way out, out past the giraffes and the penguins, out past the brown bears and the hyenas, out past the gorillas, out past the flamingoes. Out past the merry-go-round.
The howling sits beside her on the vinyl seat of the Nova as she turns the key and backs out of the lot and drives back to Gilroy. She glances over every now and then to make sure it’s still there.
She stops the car in the driveway, grabs the howling in both fists and stuffs it down her throat. She waits for a couple minutes before getting out, making sure it all went down properly. Then she gathers up her purse, her coat and her keys and walks up the path to her front door. The heat climbs up the back of her legs and crouches low in her scalp. Faintly, she hears a voice.
“Out, out, out.”
Cheryl Diane Kidder has a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Her work, nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared or is forthcoming in: CutThroat Magazine, Weber—The Contemporary West, Pembroke Magazine, Tinge Magazine, Brevity Magazine, Brain,Child, Identity Theory, In Posse Review, and elsewhere. For a full listing see: Truewest- http://cheryldkidder.blogspot.com/.