I walked down the hallway to my room. As I passed the bathroom, I saw my mother press her wedding ring into my father’s hand.
“I can’t take anymore,” she said. “I’ve had enough.”
He laughed at her and tried to give it back. I continued to the sanctuary of my bedroom and closed myself inside. It had seemed like they were getting along. Summers were always an easy time. I worried that the fighting would start again.
I awoke early the next morning to a dark, silent house. When I reached my hand into the bathroom to turn on the light, I ran up against something that should not have been there and withdrew in surprise.
Wearing a pink bathrobe cinched tightly at the waist, my mother emerged with a scowl on her face. She accused me of punching her in the stomach.
“You’re crazy!” I cried out indignantly.
She repeated the accusation and pushed past me.
“I didn’t even know you were in there,” I responded defensively.
But she had already slammed the door of her bedroom, leaving me to stand alone muttering to myself. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house. I hastily ate a bowl of cereal and got dressed without watching any TV. A weight lifted from my shoulders the moment I stepped outside.
My three best friends pedaled ahead of me along the side of the busy four-lane street. For some reason I always seemed to be bringing up the rear, but at least then I didn’t have to worry who was behind me. I felt like I was in that video game, Frogger, where you tried not to get squished. The ugly sedans zipped by, their tires making a rumbling sound over the seams in the road. The wind was hot. I glanced over the railing of a bridge and saw the freeway traffic rushing by underneath like death waiting to find us. We passed the place where my father worked with the big concrete mixers kicking up clouds of dust as they exited through a security gate. After riding for about two miles, we came to a small river with levees on both sides. After a while I could see the emerald plain of a golf course dotted with sand traps.
My legs were pretty tired by the time we reached the zoo. We stashed our bikes behind some bushes and climbed over the fence. The area was deserted with rusting empty cages in the shade of the looming trees. I imagined the authorities capturing us and holding us inside them till our parents could arrive. Animals cackled and screamed in the distance like it was some kind of insane asylum.
I hadn’t been to the zoo since a field trip I took years before, but the place hadn’t changed much. They had the same menagerie of animals caged up, looking back dead-eyed at you from their concrete bunkers. There were clouds of flies over the garbage barrels and fat-ass parents lugged their children around with expressions of absolute misery on their faces. The air smelled of dung and refined sugar. Now maybe that sounds gross but I loved it. The smell of the zoo was probably the best thing of all.
We bought some hotdogs, eating them together on a bench with the ketchup and mustard staining our mouths and fingers.
“I can’t believe we have to go back to school,” remarked Jesse.
“School sucks,” declared Dan. We all nodded in agreement. “This was a great idea coming out here,” he said to me.
I looked him in the eye and thanked him. It was funny how time passed. We would all be starting seventh grade soon. A summer felt like it lasted forever. I couldn’t even add up all the things we had done. But when it was over, you couldn’t get it back. Donny suggested we leave, but I insisted on seeing the monkeys.
Over at the primate exhibit, spider monkeys swung around frenetically on a rope lattice. They looked like skunks with their black coats and white bellies. We watched them for a bit and then moved on to where a lone monkey sat in a cave behind a pane of glass. He had a leathery face and he stared angrily back at me with brown eyes that seemed very human. I looked down at his crotch for a moment and could see the pink nub of his penis. I couldn’t look him in the eye again. His misery filled me with shame for being one of those who gawked at him. It reminded me of those movies they replayed endlessly on TV where the humans were slaves and the gorillas rode around on horses. I continued with the other boys down the dark hallway. I didn’t want to be at the zoo anymore. It just made me feel crummy about myself.
Back in the sunlight, we approached a large cage housing a trio of apes. Two of them were plain looking with downy brown fur. The other, clearly a male, had bulging muscles and paced about aggressively. He had a small dome-shaped skull with a heavy brow ridge, and beady eyes that seemed mean and stupid. He had massive yellow canines like a baboon with a red and blue nose that looked like it was made of Play-Dough. They all had bald patches on their butt cheeks.
The other boys and I watched them with fascination. The animals seemed powerful and dangerous. A yellow line had been painted around their cage with a warning not to cross. I noticed one of the females straining to pluck a flower from the planter that encircled the cage. Seeing all the bare green stumps, I realized that the flowers within their reach had already been picked. I shared this observation with Jesse and together we started tossing blossoms into the cage. One of the females immediately snatched the cluster of orange petals and stuffed it into her mouth. Dan and Donny joined us and we all started feeding flowers to the monkeys. An excitement filled the cage as the animals clustered near us. We tried to be fair about it, but each one of the greedy monkeys seemed to want all of the flowers to themselves. They jostled and shoved to get at them. One of the quicker females dared to snatch a flower away from the big male. He roared in anger, showing off his three-inch fangs.
“Hey, that really pissed him off,” Donny cried delightedly and threw the female another flower. The poor creature hesitated, sensing the male’s approaching wrath but unable to help herself. The male glared at us, stunned by our effrontery. He attacked the females in a blur of color and fur as he leapt through the air. They scurried up the walls screaming as he slashed at them with his claws. I had this helpless, sick feeling for a moment like I was back at home and all I could do was pretend it wasn’t happening–the thuds and shrieks behind my parents’ bedroom wall as my brother and I stared gape-mouthed at the television. The onlookers all backed away in horror and pulled their children away. A burly pair of zoo workers in white outfits came running with firehoses to break up the fracas.
“Monkey cops!” Jesse yelled.
It seemed like a good time to leave. Looking back, I could see the zoo personnel dousing the berserk animals. I wondered when all the wicked shit we did was going to catch up with us.
We biked back to the trailer court with the flow of traffic. Out west beyond the fairgrounds, I could see a storm brewing. When I got home both cars were in the driveway.I stood there in the shed as the big drops of rain began to pelt the sheet metal roof. I watched the rain stain the concrete in circles until the whole pad was wet. I listened to the rain and thunder, not wanting to go inside.