by Abby Horowitz
Featured Art: Sleeping Lion and Lioness by Samuel Raven
I am trying to tell Francine about the new babies in my life. They’re lions, baby lions, and they have fur the color of corn flakes and little ears that look straight off a teddy bear and they turn my heart right to butter. But here is the kicker: their mother is dead. Something weird must have happened when she birthed them because a little while later, they found her stretched out in the dirt up front by the viewing glass. The father lion was roaring on his big rock, with his mane standing on end, while the cubs were kneading their paws into the mother lion’s white underbelly and gnawing at her black teats. But no dice, that lioness would roar no more and now things do not look good for those little cubs. Because they’re not taking well to the fake milk they’re getting now or the plastic nipples they’re getting it from, and the father lion keeps pawing around with an evil look on his face that is making the zoo staff nervous.
I am trying to tell this to Francine, because she’s asked me how I am and then waved her hand over her lower abdomen, saying, “I mean, with all this,” meaning, I knew, the news handed down from my doctor a few weeks before: how my ovaries had given out fifteen years prematurely, and how, he was so sorry to say, it looked like biological children would be off the table. I had imagined him sweeping a tabletop of naked babies right into a giant trash can when he said that, I think I even laughed. I said: That’s fine, we didn’t want children anyway. And it was fine, until it wasn’t, and then I saw those cubs . . .
I am trying to tell this to Francine but I’m not even sure she hears me about the lions, because I am, effectively, talking to her ass; she is on her knees, looking for a picture frame that Charlie has pushed under the couch. “Found it!” she says, when she finally sits back up. “Were you even listening to me?” I ask.
“Of course I was, you were telling me about the baby tigers at the zoo.”
I should correct her, but I don’t because she is still wearing sweatpants even though it’s four in the afternoon, and she is apparently so tired she doesn’t notice the major crack in the glass of the picture frame she just rescued.
Francine sits Charlie down in front of a giant puzzle that he is clearly too young to complete, then leans back on the couch and sighs, like she has just summited a mountain. “Look at this place,” she says. “Remember when we used to do yoga videos together on this rug? Now it’s like the warehouse of a Toys ‘R’ Us.”
“Toys ‘R’ Us doesn’t exist anymore,” I tell her, which I only know because we track commercial properties at the real estate company where I work.
“Good riddance,” she says. “Oh, I almost forgot, I’ve got something for you.” From one of the baskets of toys on the living room floor she pulls out a board book and hands it to me. “It’s about a man who works in a zoo and his wife,” she says. “It’s called Good Night, Gorilla.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I can read.”
“It’s about a zookeeper and his wife, for Christ’s sakes. Just take it,” she says. “Please? There are basically no words in this book, Liz. No words. You have to make up the narration yourself. Does whoever wrote this have any idea how exhausted I am?” She tugs at the skin under her eyes to show me the dark circles.
“You look great,” I tell her, but Francine just rolls her eyes.
“Come on, Lizzie. I’m too tired to read Charlie this book and it’s perfect for you, I swear. Just take it, will you?” Then she smiles slyly. “Read Elliott a goodnight story in bed.”
Elliott is not my child. He is my zookeeper husband and he loves the book.
“Ha!” he says, when he gets to the end. “The zookeeper’s wife saves the day! And it teaches kids about gorillas.” (Elliott cannot stand it when kids confuse monkeys and gorillas.)
“But don’t you think they made the zookeeper kind of a dope?” I ask. Because in the book, the zookeeper’s pretty clueless: first he doesn’t notice when the gorilla swipes the keys off his belt, then he doesn’t notice when the gorilla lets all the animals out of their cages, nor does he notice when they follow him home to his house, which is—in the supremely convenient logic of children’s books—right across the street from the zoo. I mean, he is totally oblivious to the fact that he is being trailed by a gorilla, elephant, lion, hyena, giraffe, armadillo, and that sycophantic mouse dragging his banana along. He doesn’t hear them follow him through the front door of his house and down the hallway to the bedroom, where they curl up to sleep on the floor, except for that ballsy gorilla, who climbs into the zookeeper’s bed, right next to the zookeeper’s already-sleeping wife, and still the zookeeper doesn’t notice. And through everything that happens after that—the zookeeper’s wife waking up in shock when she realizes there’s a gorilla next to her under the sheets, how she leads the animals in a conga line back across the street to the zoo—through all of that, the zookeeper keeps sleeping.
Elliott’s response: “Maybe he is hard of hearing?”
“But Elliott,” I say, “where are their children? Did you notice that the two of them . . . that they’re childless?”
He looks back down at the book in his hands. “Oh Lizard,” he sighs. “So that’s what this is all about.”
* * *
Did you hear about the zoo in Cincinnati where one of the young lions smashed through the viewing window and sunk its teeth right into the pudgy arm of a toddler who was closest to the glass, and then with one swipe of its paw scraped off a huge chunk of skin from the boy’s back, spraying blood over everyone nearby, including the kid’s mother, who just a moment before had been sniffling into her Kleenex out of adoration for those fluffy little lion cubs in front of her? Okay, that didn’t happen, but I am tempted to start rumors that it did, because ever since the cubs were born, the lion exhibit is as packed as the panda pavilion was after they announced Mei Lin was heading back to China and I can never get close enough to check up on them. Because I don’t feel like elbowing my way through the swarms of all those parents and their beloved kids. Now on my trips to the zoo, I spend my time looking at the warthogs instead. They’re as ugly as their name suggests, and their pen is always deserted.
But on the day I take Francine and Charlie to the zoo, I make them visit the lions first, even though Francine wants to skip them entirely because of the crowds and go straight to the elephants. She is dull-eyed and grouchy because Charlie woke up four times the night before, and she pushes the stroller along the path like she’s headed to war. “I just need to stop being such a pussy and night-wean him already,” she says. Francine’s voice is always scratchy—she claims it’s leftover from that one year in college when she smoked. But today it’s like sandpaper coming out of her lips.
At the lion den, I stand guard over the stroller while the two of them wade into the crowd. When they finally emerge again from the mass, Francine’s ponytail is half undone and Charlie is swatting at one of her earrings. She doesn’t even comment on the lions, just thrusts him in the stroller and shoves the straps together until they click into place. “Is there anywhere here I can get a Diet Coke?” she asks, while Charlie kicks at the footrest on his stroller and shouts “Bananas! Bananas!” in his slurred little voice. When I bend down to ruffle his hair, his head feels like something that’s been taken out of the dryer ten minutes too soon.
“Bananas!” he says again.
“Okay, big guy,” I say, “you trying to tell us that you want to see the monkeys?”
“No,” Francine says, “that means he wants bananas.”
At the picnic area, we sit at a table under a large brown umbrella with two little bear ears sewn on top. Francine’s bothered to pack a plastic knife just so she can cut the banana into perfect rounds, but the effort is wasted on Charlie, who mashes the slices together in his fist and then shoves his whole hand in his mouth. “I can’t watch,” Francine says, and she pulls her phone from her bag.
If Charlie were my child, I can see how I might laugh as I watched the sloppy way he eats, thinking it adorable, or perhaps I’d cringe just like Francine, thinking of the mess I’d have to clean. But he’s not my child, and I feel strangely blank as I watch him destroy the banana, like he’s just one more creature in this zoo to look at and observe. Pretty soon, his lips and cheeks are smeared with banana paste and there’s a large chunk of banana hanging from his bangs. Francine pauses from her phone just long enough to rummage through her giant diaper bag for a pack of wipes. “Could you?” she says, and holds out a wipe with a limp arm, like she’s some lady on a fainting couch holding out her handkerchief.
Of course, when he sees me approaching with the wipe, Charlie clambers off the bench and starts weaving through the maze of tables. I finally catch him by a picnic table that’s got a green umbrella with a red forked tongue flapping on top. I’ve just brushed the banana out of his hair when I hear a cooing noise and look up. It is not some bird that’s escaped its enclosure; it’s a woman with pink lipstick looking down at Charlie and me with a dopey smile. “I remember those days,” she says. “They go so fast. Enjoy every minute!”
I nod stupidly, as if I am in a position to accept these orders. There are two older kids sitting at the table with her, teenagers hunched over their devices. “Sucker!” one shouts, and slaps the table as his device pumps out a stream of victory noises. The other one elbows him hard in the stomach. But the woman does not seem to notice the commotion. “Hi there little angel, what’s your name?” she says, waving her pink painted nails at Charlie, who is just now rubbing his banana-smeared face up and down my legs. “Oh wait, I know! I just said it! Your name must be little angel!” and then she giggles.
I try to smile, and then I give up on that and just grab Charlie—carrying him face out, so that he can’t get me any messier—and hightail it back to Francine.
“Who was that lady chatting you up out there?” she asks me, after she’s reluctantly slid her phone back into her bag.
“Just some nut,” I say.
“Mothers will talk to anyone,” she says.
Elliott says maybe Francine and I should take a break. Elliott names half a dozen “child-free” friends I might be spending time with. Elliott says if I don’t like Good Night, Gorilla, I should just give it back. Or throw it away. Or let him draw in a picture of a little kid on every page. But Elliott can’t draw for shit, and besides, that is not the right story either.
“Maybe it’s time to talk about other options?” he says, meaning all the other ways we could have a family, ways that are outlined in the brochures they stuffed our arms full of at the doctor’s office. I know Elliott has saved all those brochures in a neat pile on the desk, just in case. But I shake my head; I’m not ready to think about what might come next. All I know is that I do not want to be the zookeeper’s wife, not in her sack-like nightgown and her hair tucked into that mushroomy nightcap. And if I were her, I would let those animals stay in our room all night long. I wouldn’t even kick the gorilla out from our sheets to join the other animals on the floor. In fact, I’d bring them all under the covers with me, with us I mean, and if they wouldn’t fit, I’d make Elliott get a bigger bed, and maybe then, piled in a California king with the gorilla, elephant, lion, hyena, giraffe, armadillo, and that fucking mouse, maybe then—
“Lizzie, enough,” Elliott says, and he pulls me into a tight hug. “I think that you’re reading too much into it.”
I let him hold me, but I hold on to my sadness harder. “You’re supposed to read into it,” I tell him. “It’s a book.”
* * *
Charlie has had a week of better sleep; Francine thinks it’s because his first molars are finally in, and we are celebrating at her house with a king-sized bag of M&M’s and drinking wine at three in the afternoon. I am drinking wine, at least; Francine is stuck with sparkling water.
“I closed a big deal this morning,” I say, pushing my heels off. “So I figured I could duck out a little early.”
“That’s terrific,” Francine says. She clinks her glass to mine. “How big?”
“Big,” I say.
“Woohoo,” she says. “How does it feel?”
I shrug. Like a shitty consolation prize, is the real answer. “The baby lions are doing worse,” I tell her. “Elliott says they might die.” They are doing worse, but I’m only speculating about their impending doom; Elliott’s told me they’re not well, but he won’t give me any more details, because, he says, I am already sad enough.
“Oh honey,” she says, putting a hand on my arm. “That really sucks.” There is genuine caring in her husky voice and because she’s bothered to put on mascara today her eyes look all puppy-dog sad, and I wish she would cry, I want her to be moved to tears over my dried-up eggs and my childless future, I want to see that mascara come running down her cheeks. But then Charlie barrels over shrieking “Milkies!” and the moment is gone. “Speaking of sucks,” she says and lugs him on to her lap to nurse.
* * *
I have come up with a new story, a sequel of sorts to that terrible book. It’s called Goodnight, Little Lions and it stars the zookeeper’s wife, only in my version, she isn’t some dumpy lady in a nightgown because who wears nightgowns except grandmothers, which I am certainly not. Nor will be.
It will start like this: the zookeeper’s wife kisses the zookeeper goodnight. There are no animals hiding in their bedroom this time, not even a dog or a cat or a dumb fish in a bowl. It is only the two of them: zookeeper, wife. After they kiss, the zookeeper falls right asleep with a smile on his face. But the zookeeper’s wife cannot sleep, because of that itch she cannot scratch, the one deep inside her stomach. Finally, she slips out of bed, and because the zookeeper is hard of hearing, he doesn’t stir at all, not even when the screen door bangs shut. Then she walks to the zoo, which we’ll pretend is—like in Good Night, Gorilla—still right across the street from her house.
In real life, of course, the lions are in the northwest quadrant of the zoo, but for this version, we’ll pretend the lion section is right inside the front gates. The zookeeper’s wife heads straight to the vine-covered wall on the left of their enclosure and pushes aside the leaves until she finds the hidden lock. Then, using the key she has slipped from the zookeeper’s key chain—if the gorilla can manage that in the book, surely she can too!—she opens the door to the lion cage.
The first thing she notices is the smell of elephant dung she knows they put down for the lions to roll in, and then, from the big cliff in the back, she hears the rumble of the father lion’s snores. But the zookeeper’s wife will not be stopped by elephant shit or menacing male lions. Because there by the base of the acacia tree are the children she’s been looking for.
The baby lions turn to look at her, and the blaze of their eyes in the dark is like a traffic light shining green. The zookeeper’s wife takes off her shirt, throws it down into the field grasses that they’ve planted to replicate the savannah, and walks toward them. Here she comes, children; here she comes!
Last page: the sky’s a brilliant blue and the sun a lemon yellow. Behind the viewing glass, the woman stretched out in the grasses looks like she is sleeping under a golden blanket. But if you elbow your way up front, you’ll see it isn’t a blanket at all: just those five baby lions sprawled right on top of her.
“So they maul her to death?” Francine says, after I’ve finished telling her my new version. I’ve come over after Charlie’s bedtime to finally set the record straight, to let her know how I really feel. Francine had looked miserable when I first arrived, but now her eyes are wide with delight. “It’s so dark!” she says. “I’d buy that edition in a heartbeat. I mean, as long as it had words.”
For a second, I consider not correcting her because she seems so pleased. But then I remember whose story this actually is. “She’s not dead,” I say. “She just nurses them to sleep! She’s their new mother.”
“Oh,” she says. “Decidedly less dark.” She stands up from the couch and takes my wine glass off the table, then stares into it for a moment before taking a large swallow. “So let me get it straight,” she says. “She becomes a mother and voilà, happily ever after, the end.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Something like that.”
“Right,” Francine says, “because that’s the way it always happens.” She takes another drink of wine. “I don’t know how you’re going to draw those parts about the smells and everything in a picture book.”
“It’s not actually going to be a real—”
“How is she even lactating? And how would she feed all five of them at the same time if she only has two nipples?”
“Jesus, I don’t know, they’ll go in shifts.”
Francine starts to pace around the living room, kicking aside the toys in her way. “So what,” she says, “the other three of them are just going to sit there patiently licking their tails while she feeds two at a time?”
“I don’t know, they’ll figure it out; use your imagination.”
She snorts and sends a large, plastic dump truck rolling toward the radiator.
“Yeah, I’m imagining that these babies you think are so cute are going to tear her life to shreds.”
“That’s not how it goes,” I say, bending down to pick up a toy piano that has landed by my foot. “She becomes their mother, she saves them, were you even listening?!” I am about to bang the piano’s keys for emphasis, but suddenly Francine is right by my side, snatching the piano from my hands. “Quiet!” she hisses. “You’ll wake the baby!”
And then we both freeze: Francine clutching the piano and looking down at me, as I look up at her wondering what the hell is going on. Finally, she places the piano down carefully on the table; it makes a quiet jangle as it touches the wood. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I really fucking mean it.” She sinks down on the couch next to me and puts her fingers to her temples like she’s got a horrible headache. When I place my hand on her shoulder, she shudders under my touch. “Lizzie,” she says, “something terrible has happened.” She grabs my wine glass and takes another sip. Then she stands up from the couch and reaches down for the hem of her shirt.
But she doesn’t answer, she just pulls the shirt over her head and lets it drop to the floor. “Look,” she says, and I do, at her breasts, and the too-small bra that’s cutting into them, at their purple stretch marks, which I have heard her whine about so many times, and then lower, at her stomach, which is resting over the band of her sweatpants, and it isn’t just the jiggly belly of a woman who popped out a child not so long ago, but the firm, rounded belly of a woman with some new cub living inside.
When Francine tries to smile, her teeth look pink from the wine. “Surprise,” she says.
* * *
The Problems of the Wild, revised edition, take two, take three, wherever we are: Nighttime. Same setup as before: the zookeeper’s wife sneaking out of the house, the zookeeper snoozing away. She crosses the street and enters the zoo, but she does not turn left for the lion den. Another day, perhaps; a different book. Instead, she wanders over all the bumpy paths, not sure where she’s going, and all the things she finds are the things she doesn’t want: the elephants, their tails twitching in the dust; the blind mole rats tunneled in their dens; the flamingoes dozing on one leg; that poor dumb sloth.
Suddenly she sees a yellow-orange light coming from the gorilla habitat. She walks closer and sees that it’s a person smoking a cigarette right by the gorilla habitat gate. Then she gets closer still and sees that it’s actually a gorilla holding a flashlight in its mouth. In her mouth, that is, because now the zookeeper’s wife can see the gorilla’s giant sagging breasts, flat like pancakes and with nipples an inch long.
The gorilla has a plastic knife in one hand and is sawing away at the metal lock on the gate. But then the knife snaps in half, the pieces disappearing into the dirt. Shit! the gorilla says, and she kicks at the ground with her blocky foot. The zookeeper’s wife turns around to leave before she’s spotted; she knows she couldn’t explain it, what she’s doing here. But the gorilla’s gravelly voice calls after her—Hey! Hey you!—until she turns back around. The gorilla’s flashlight catches her in its beams; the light is so strong she’s sure the gorilla can see right through her. Then the gorilla lowers the flashlight so that the bright light is gone, and it’s just the two of them, eye to eye, in the dark.
Originally appeared in NOR 27.
Abby Horowitz’s work has been published in Slice, Sonora Review, and The Collagist, among many other publications. Horowitz won the Goldenberg Fiction Prize from Bellevue Literary Review and holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She lives in upstate New York with her family.