Jonah and his family had picked the hottest day of the year to visit the zoo. It was at least a hundred in the shade and in the sun he thought he was going to pass out and die. In spite of the temperatures, the Saturday crowd had come out in droves. The sun ruled the mood and families dragged feet between animal habitats. Nobody looked very happy. Children managed with overpriced sugar treats, parents with thermoses of iced Red Bull. For all the ubiquitous amplified white noise that characterizes American amusement centers, the heat prevailed over the senses, producing a kind of soundlessness commonly associated with impending disaster. Literally, the air was so thick you could slice it with a four-letter word.
“Motherfucking Fahrenheit!” Bethany muttered through clenched teeth, dunking her shoulder-length blonde hair under a drinking fountain. Jonah glanced nervously at his three-year-old, Mamie, fortunately distracted by the map, fumbling with the accordion folds. They had come to the zoo because Mamie wanted to meet Chris, a grown male panda on loan from Beijing.
“The earth is so fucked,” Bethany said, grimacing at the cloudless sky. “What?” she shrugged when Jonah performed an eye roll encompassing his second wife and his daughter. “She doesn’t understand what I’m saying.”
“Well, she gets context and then associates,” Jonah sighed. Hadn’t he lectured Bethany on this ten times already? Was this about the weather or us, he thought, considering her provocation? “She’s at the age when she repeats everything grownups say. Don’t underestimate her.”
“Yeah. Right. Sorry. I’m not winning any stepmother-of-the-year awards, I know.” They were both looking down at Mamie. Jonah was worried about her complexion, which looked a little too rosy. He unscrewed the cap of his water bottle and held it out for his daughter. “Would you like some water, Mamie?”
“Come on, sweetie. How about a little bit? It’s refreshing. Some water will make you feel better.”
All she wanted was to meet Chris but the line to visit the panda was at least two hours long. Instead of waiting, they had gone to visit the other animals. The other pens were crowded but at least you could walk right up to the viewing areas without too much elbowing. But more often than not the animals were nowhere to be found. The heat was too terrible for exposure, much less performance, which is what many of the children were clamoring for. The kids could not be bothered with the environmental locales, migration patterns, and feeding habits of the animals’ habits in their natural states, and the truth was, neither could the parents. Triple-digit temperatures precluded such cerebral enthusiasms. All anyone wanted was a little excitement, a little something, a little money’s worth. Due to their listlessness, the animals were frustratingly uncooperative. Kids were whining all over the place and Bethany was not the only one guilty of inappropriate language.
Surprisingly, the first active animal they encountered was a polar bear. Its setting was painted white. There was a small pool of turgid water for cooling off but the animal was on a small promontory. The polar bear’s fur had lost its sheen and it was pacing, back and forth, back and forth, as if intent on some midday calisthenics program. The temperature was probably about eighty degrees hotter than the bear was biologically wired to handle.
Like the other kids, Mamie wanted to know what ‘was wrong with him.’
“Well, it’s pretty hot, isn’t it?” Jonah said. “He’s probably confused.”
“Confused?” Bethany snorted. “He’s probably lost his mind.”
“What does ‘lost his mind’ mean, Papa?” Mamie asked, her big green eyes watching him.
“It means…” Jonah wavered on the delicate linguistic tightrope. According to his ex-wife, a child psychologist, parents worked without a net with three-year-olds. The seeding of all the little person’s future hang-ups, inadequacies, and learning disabilities happened during this very impressionable period within the child’s existence.
“It means to go cuckoo,” Bethany answered for him, spinning her index finger at her head and crossing her eyes.
Mamie looked frightened. “If you lose your mind, is it possible to find it or is it gone forever?” Mamie turned to watch the polar bear again. “Maybe we can help him find it.”
“Well, in his case, it’s gone forever.”
Mamie burst into tears.
Bethany continued, “There’s nothing we can do for him. He’s a prisoner of the zoological institution.”
“Thanks, Beth,” Jonah said. “Don’t cry, baby. We don’t know if he’s really lost his mind.” To his second wife, sotto voce, “God damn it.”
“What?” she shrugged.
“Stupid polar bear!” Mamie barked suddenly. “What a stupid animal.”
“Come on, Mamie. That’s not nice.”
“Shut up, Papa. Put me down.”
Jonah put her down. She sprawled herself across the hot concrete.
“I hate him. I hate you. I hate everything.”
Jonah was only slightly embarrassed by the scene now developing around them. Mamie was an old hat with the temper tantrum. Perhaps it was too late and the poor darling’s future was already corrupted. Lord knows it had been a big divorce. There’s only so much ugliness you can hide from a child whose mother you’d come to view as your worst enemy.
They waited out her howling, Jonah shrugging a ‘What can you do?’ at the other parents tagging him with the stinkeye. When Mamie’s cries faded to a mild whimper, Jonah glanced at his watch. “It’s almost lunch time. Maybe our prospects to see the panda have improved.”
They did another look-and-see by the panda exhibit. Jonah cursed under his breath; the line was still wrapped around the exterior of a building painted garishly with a bamboo-forest mural. A small cadre of ushers struggled to manage an unruly and dissipated crowd. The kids in uniform suffered for their $8-an-hour, fielding restrained insults and inane questions by parents who, like Jonah, just wanted the day to be done with.
“Can we please get something to eat?” Bethany asked.
As was the case everywhere else in the zoo, the food court was hot, crowded and miserable. Mamie, as discriminating a picky eater as the most obstructionist of three-year-olds (in a hard-core granola–soy-milk–strawberry phase), had barely picked at the pepperoni slice Jonah had bought for her. On the other hand, Bethany had torn into her cheese pizza and was slouching in her chair.
Jonah was grateful for this momentary stupor. When he first met Bethany two years ago, she was everything, Elizabeth, his first wife and Mamie’s mother, wasn’t: brash, bold, witty. Elizabeth had gone into her field of child psychology precisely because of the preternatural shyness she wanted to unravel in herself. Jonah had already fallen out of love with Elizabeth when he’d hired Bethany as his secretary (Jonah was a defense lawyer for eco-activists). It hadn’t taken long for the affair to go public, and when Bethany was promoted romantically from mistress to second wife, something between them was lost. Perhaps it was her tendency to interpret every beautiful woman encountered as a dangerous rival. The adversarial polemic she once wielded against corporate malfeasance and bureaucratic incompetence now spoiled the sundry moment. And her paranoia had caused certain bad habits to aggregate: crème-brulee flavored Haagen Dasz had compromised her figure. When tight jeans became too tight, it only reinforced the negative thinking, bringing on more suspiciousness, the cycle leading back to the supermarket freezer section—he hadn’t needed to have been married to a Freudian to deduce the pattern. Jonah could no longer mention this vicious circle, however, without risking an exchange.
The terrible irony was that for all her foul language and cynical posturing he really did love her. She had a strong face, an intelligent mouth, fine blonde hair. The sharp tongue was not always skewering. Bethany might wax beautifully on 1980s punk, lepidopterology, and Icelandic geography, and she had a marvelous look in her eye should the conversation ever veer into hypothetical environmental utopias. Before they met, she’d raised money for Greenpeace and done factotum work for conservation firms. Obviously the zoo, with its artifice and arguably exploitative nature, was not an easy fit for her personality. And some people just cannot do kidspeak. That was Bethany.
But for the moment, things were all right and Jonah was feeling better. The cold Bud he’d drunk with his pizza helped. A cool breeze—the first of the day—was blowing. Bethany seemed mildly content. His daughter, despite just nibbling the edges of her pizza slice, appeared serene, the polar bear forgotten. She had taken out her crayons and was drawing Chris in her sketchbook. When he’d picked her up in the morning, the first thing she did was proudly reveal her drawings of the panda. There were nearly fifty altogether.
At the front door, Elizabeth had treated him with her usual curtness. His normally reserved wife had taken his betrayal as a declaration of war and had reacted accordingly, the courts sympathizing—Jonah was only allowed visitation rights two weekends a month. He could kind of get it: in spite of fatherhood Jonah hadn’t picked up kidspeak very well either. His daughter spoke a stranger’s language and watched him with a stranger’s face. He realized, self-pityingly, that he didn’t even know what his daughter’s favorite color was.
“That’s a nice drawing, Mamie,” he said. Her panda was supine under a palm tree. At least that’s what he inferred—she was a three-year-old wielding crayons on the hottest day of the year.
Mamie looked up at him for a moment. There was nothing in her glance that suggested he was her father and that validation from him was something to be grateful for; no, it was a testy pout evincing a world-weariness of being applauded for daily cuteness. She knew she was good—she’d already processed his applause that morning. Now, his daughter couldn’t give a shit what he thought of her pandas.
Jonah smiled weakly at Bethany but she was staring off into the distance, negative space in the noisy dining area.
The breeze died. The last sips of the beer went down warm. The sweat in Jonah’s armpits felt distinctly gross.
“Well, shall we go visit Chris?” Jonah finally proposed in his best imitation of a father’s chipper brogue.
* * *
Jonah was grateful that the queue’s circumstances had improved somewhat. Anyways, they weren’t likely to get better odds than an hour’s wait. The three of them then assumed the catatonic conditions—heavy posture and glassy eyes—necessary for the passage of useless time.
Their section of the line finally entered the building itself. Rotating fans provided some relief and if you could be bothered, interactive push-button speaker devices elaborated on Chris’ biography. Unfortunately, the sound system had not been skillfully designed: multiple speakers in various stages of storytelling echoed in cacophonous distortion within the enclosed space, inducing headaches in some and gnashing already-frayed nerves in others.
Intellectually curious by nature and desperate for quality stimulation, both Jonah and Bethany nonetheless listened carefully. This is what they learned:
Chris had a Chinese name: Huang Fu, meaning, “Treasured Future.” He was born in captivity, through a successful reproductive effort utilizing artificial insemination technology at Beijing Zoo. His mother, Ai, was from the lowlands of the Sichuan province. She was taken in by zoo authorities when local deforestation compromised the livability of her habitat. Chris was overseas “on loan” from the Chinese government. He was seven years old. He weighed almost two hundred pounds. His favorite food was bamboo. Chris loved you, America.
“And we love you too, too, Huang Fu,” Bethany said.
“Who’s Huang Fu?” Mamie asked. She had ignored the PA, absorbed as she was in her own button pushing.
“Our treasured future.” Bethany laughed mockingly.
“I don’t understand,” Mamie said. She looked hurt. “Why are you laughing?”
“You’ll understand when you’re older.”
Jonah stared incredulously at his daughter’s stepmother. She had never made much of an effort with Mamie—Bethany tended to have “plans” on visitation weekends—but when together, she had always been polite. Jonah didn’t understand. Was it the zoo, the heat, or some meanness in Bethany only now surfacing that determined this surly attitude?
Jonah kneeled down and explained to Mamie Chris’ Chinese name as well as some of the more child-friendly facts.
“You left out the deforestation part,” Bethany interrupted. “And while you’re at it, you might want to explain poaching—oh, and artificial insemination, a necessity as pandas can’t motivate their mojo in plastic cages. (Who can blame them?) But enjoy the word play. Treasured Future is a test tube baby. Gotta love this planet!”
“Watch it, Beth,” he said.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, watch yourself,” she murmured, crossing her arms and turning her back on the both of them.
Mamie was staring up at her. How much of this disastrous afternoon would she discuss with her mother?
When their marriage was deteriorating, Jonah discovered a Kleenex box in Elizabeth’s closet stuffed with little wads of paper detailing his multiple transgressions, assiduously marked with date and time: “left toilet seat up (5/12 8:10am),” “did not express gratitude for dinner (9/30, 7:25pm),” “lied about woman’s phone number (12/7 10:20am).” Jonah was sure Elizabeth’s lawyers would be positively giddy introducing the accusation, “stepmom intimidates & uses profanity in presence of child (7/12, all day).”
The line began shuffling forward. Jonah tugged at Bethany’s right arm. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Leave me alone.” She wouldn’t look him in the eye.
Jonah let go of her and steadied himself. For all the fans blowing, inside it felt as insufferably hot as it did in the sun. Moreover, the bedlam was really beginning to afflict his multiplying grievances. It wasn’t just the didactic babble ricocheting throughout the room. There was a contingent of rowdy teenagers in line behind them, for whom the admixture of soft-drink-consumption, diminished attention spans, and adolescent brinksmanship had led to squeal-pitched roughhousing. There was nothing more he wanted to do than commiserate with Bethany on their low-riding, boxer-exposing pants and numskull parlance. In fact, it was the only possible outlet for his burgeoning temper. But for the moment Bethany had chosen a small, dark place that permitted no visitors. Left to fend for himself he turned to them and said indignantly, “Will you behave yourselves? This is a zoo.”
The absurdity of the logic aside, he had miscalculated with his posturing. If he’d been paying better attention he would have noticed the girls in their company: no contemporary American teen is going to be publicly shamed by some “sweaty, middle-aged piece of shit,” which is what the largest of the manboys called him, appending this distasteful remark by telling Jonah that “if he don’t like it, he can suck panda dick,” which his friends thought was especially hilarious. Sadly, Jonah was middle-aged and sweaty, and “piece of shit” fairly described his present self-worth.
“There are children here,” Jonah retorted weakly, as if that mattered to any of them. They, themselves, were virtually children. Incredibly, no one else in line spoke up, the other parents enjoying the spectacle or averting their eyes, lest they too be humiliated. Jonah felt his pulse running away dangerously. His mouth was dry and his hands were shaking and it was all the courage he had to hold his gaze at the person that had insulted him. But the teenagers had already moved on and were laughing coarsely at someone else’s expense. The incident meant nothing to them.
“Forget it, Jonah,” Bethany was pulling his arm. “It’s not worth it.” He followed her lead, straggling forward in a daze. Jonah’s family was quite near the viewing area. He kneeled down to speak to his daughter.
“I’m sorry, Mamie.” She was holding her sketchpad in front of her face. “Mamie, please lower your drawings.” She did as she was told but she was looking away. “Look at me, honey. Look at me.”
Finally, Mamie looked up at him. He thought he would see fear, horror, shame—all of which he now suffered from. But there was nothing in his daughter’s eyes. She blinked a few times, fidgeting the sketchpad. In absence of language that might salvage the pains of being alive in the twenty-first century, Jonah forced a smile for his daughter. She did not smile back.
“Come on, the line’s moving.” Jonah gave up. “Those morons,” Bethany said, now revved up, eager to properly slam the idiotic arc man calls progress: “I’ve been saying it since we met and I’ll say it again: civilization is the worst thing that has ever happened to this world. It would have been far better if we had never advanced beyond hunting and gathering.” But Jonah wasn’t really listening. His mouth felt very dry and so he took out his water bottle and had a long sip. He was thinking, but his thoughts were just fragments and run-ons, absent of coherence. They plodded forward.
And suddenly, there he was, Chris, Huang Fu, Our Treasured Future. Luckily, unlike nearly all the animals at the zoo, Chris was not hiding, but sitting in the middle of his pen near the viewing window, his clawed feet splayed under his big rump, a long trunk of bamboo clutched in his forepaws, his large canine teeth violently tearing into the stalk and chewing contentedly.
“Chris!” his daughter screeched, pressing her face against the glass. “Look, Chris!” She was holding her lunchtime sketch of the animal to the glass. The panda ripped into another mouthful of bamboo. Mamie turned the page of her sketchbook. “Look, Chris. This is you eating a banana. You like bananas too, don’t you!” There is only so far we can traverse on an animal’s interior universe, but for all Jonah could see, the panda’s big burlesque eyes were smiling.
“What a fat fucking slob.” It was the manboy who’d slimed Jonah. Once more, the world felt hot, frightening and horrible. He clenched his teeth when the goon’s friends indulged in the call-and-response cackle.
Helplessly, Jonah glanced at Mamie, now turning the page in her sketchbook (“This is you, Chris, on safari, meeting an elephant!”).
“Choose your battles wisely,” Bethany said. “This is just not worth it. They’re products of all that’s wrong with this culture.”
“They’re not products. They’re people.” Jonah said. “He has a name, a mother, a wrong turn, and maybe somewhere in the distant future, a right one.”
“Oh, Jesus.” Bethany shook her head.
“Who you looking at, shit-for-brains?” the manboy sneered.
“I’m looking at you,” Jonah said, taking another drink of water.
“Leave it, Jonah!” Bethany said. “Mamie, let’s go.”
But Mamie was sharing her drawings with the panda. She wasn’t ready to leave.
“Fuck you, motherfucker,” the bully retorted, but it wasn’t funny and the homeboys’ follow-up chuckle sounded disingenuous.
Jonah was aware then that for all the previous noise, the area around them was hushed, as if waiting for something terrible to happen. Jonah sensed that Mamie, too, was listening with one ear cocked to the moment.
Still thoughtful that wrong moves might compromise his daughter’s beautiful future, Jonah reasoned that this standoff had only two realistic outcomes. If he did nothing, he would sear into his daughter’s mind the image of a coward. To physically defend himself, however, would be to assume the errant fool forever. These then were his options: lose, lose.
Jonah was middle-aged. He was sweaty. But he was not a piece of shit. He heard his daughter turning another page in her soliloquy to Chris, her inspired voice explaining a drawing of the panda peacefully asleep at midnight. Finally, it came to him: losing is relative—and anyways, it wouldn’t be the last time in a long life that his daughter believed her father was an ass.
Liberated, then, from smearing the ink of the unwritten narrative, he felt incredibly satisfied when his hand twitched forward in a series of swift thrusts, the water from his bottle splashing all over the bully’s face.
Expecting the coming blow, the hysterical scream from Bethany, the embarrassing police report, and the shame in his daughter’s eyes, Jonah was as surprised as anybody when the goon failed to live up to his words, claiming some rap sheet, juvenile court, and his old lady as excuses not to slug Jonah. The catcalls from his pals to brawl segued easily enough to shits and giggles. They shambled off, carrying their commotion to some other place.
A few men in the crowd applauded. They were more interested in patting Jonah on the back than viewing the panda. Bethany, too, had a look in her eye, shaking her head in wonder. Jonah’s face felt rather funny. He realized he was smiling.
Jonah glanced down at Mamie. She was done showing Chris her sketchbook but was still absorbed in the panda, cooing softly the melody of a lullaby which he occasionally sang her to sleep.
It doesn’t matter if she thinks I’m a hero, he thought. It’s enough she doesn’t think I’m an idiot.
Jonah asked Mamie if she was ready to go. She blew kisses to the ravenous panda and when she stood up to leave, she clasped her father’s hand and tugged twice. Jonah whisked her into his arms, feeling unutterably grateful when Mamie embraced him back. Together they farewelled the panda and followed the others towards the bright light of the day.