I asked Jane how she felt about the human zoo.
“It’s a travesty. It’s a cultural abortion. It’s disgusting.”
It was all those things. “You want to go?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I could use some disgusting.”
Dad loaned me the car when I told him I was taking Jane. He put the keys in my palm. He put a handful of change in my other hand.
“To feed the animals,” he said.
Jane smoked cigarettes all the way to the zoo. She cracked the window barely and flicked ash into the wind. She burned the roof of the wagon in at least seven different places. “Sorry,” she said each time, but she didn’t use any more caution than she had before. It was rainy and the Grand River was flooded almost twenty feet onto the shore. Trees rose from the water like they were meant for life in the swamp. The waste that flowed through the river was creeping up toward the highway and the smell mixed with the cigarette smoke. I breathed in deep to get a trace of Jane. The stink never stuck to her. She didn’t even smell of grease though she worked just as many hours in the kitchen as I did. I was now a reeking mess of lard fumes and cigarette smoke and river stench. Jane flicked a butt out the window. Of course it hit the door frame before exiting, raining a shower of tiny orange cherry specks and leaving black pinhole burns on the seat. I watched in the rear view for a methane explosion. Something violent that would ignite the whole river, adding the smell of burning rubber as the old fishermen in their waders burned away to nothing. It didn’t happen and I looked over at her. She felt my eyes and met them.
“Nothing.” And I wondered how she pulled thoughts out of me by the handful and threw them against some giant white canvas, exposing the ridiculous in me in vivid detail.
“Want one?” she said holding out the pack, showing me the cancer ridden pancreas on the front.
“Sure.” Maybe I’d have better luck setting the fire.
We entered the zoo. The place was gray and dead. The cold wind met us head on through every twist and turn of the concrete path. Family units found us with their gaze, a polite smile creeping up on defeated lips.
At the fowl pond the convicts sat in the cooling water naked, their necks collared in leather and chained to the rock façade behind them. They were mostly foreigners, not the hostiles, but those who had tried to stay after the big border wall closed for good. They’d been warned. It was almost ten years now, but the ads had been everywhere: The Man himself on the tube and telling them, “go home. We don’t want you here anymore. Go back to where you came from.” I guessed the fowl pond was full of these hangers on because they just wouldn’t leave, and now they were chained up in the water and their fingers were cut off, a symbolic wind clipping that prevented them from leaving if they wanted to. Jane and I watched them. They looked pathetic sitting in their own filth, waiting to catch some water-borne illness and die, flat fingerless hands stroking the water for comfort.
I used the change Dad had given me and I bought a dollar’s worth of feed from the coin-op machine, twisting the handle and getting a handful for fifty cents. I gave some to Jane and we tossed it into the dirty water, watched the captives climb all over each other for the scraps of waterlogged bran or whatever meal it was. They tried to gouge out each other’s eyes with phantom fingers. They cried out in squawks as we walked away. Even with tongues cut out and vocal cords scraped raw and scarred, they still tried to speak.
It was the same type of scene throughout. On monkey island the naked residents shivered, their hands cut off and sewn on their ankles. The reptile house with snake people stripped of their limbs. All the habitats that once housed a big cat or wolf or wolverine, they were filled with chained people who were hostile in some way or another. The aquarium was packed full of men and women and kids, underwater, just enough air above the surface to poke up a nostril or lips and take a breath before being yanked down by the next beast struggling for breath and trying to keep the dead at bay lest they float up and squat below the most valuable real estate.
Jane and I rested on a glossy, plastic bench fashioned to look like a log. Across from us was the Tiger habitat. The man inside paced behind the glass, back and forth, licking his chops, growling. The info plaque stated he was a rebel, a dissident responsible for the deaths of over fifty wall builders. His fate was the smashing of his pelvis and femurs, never puzzled back together, giving him no choice but to move like the stalking big cat he’d resembled in life. Two young zookeepers walked by on patrol, hands on their assault rifles. They paid us little mind. Jane watched them walk by.
“I wanted to get assigned here,” she said.
“I thought you said it was ‘disgusting’.”
“I know. Maybe that’s why. Because they wouldn’t have me. I came here a lot when I was a kid. Lots of people on our side of the glass. Now this. It doesn’t feel right, does it?”
“I wouldn’t want to be here,” I said. “But, they have to go somewhere. We let them walk the street and it’s chaos.”
“You know what I mean.” I said. “More chaos. These people did something to get here.”
“Maybe. But what if they had succeeded? It might be us. They’re victims of their politics.”
“We all are I think.”
She thought about that. “Maybe. But to live this life? What warrants that?”
I read the large plaque hung above. “Treason. Murder,” I pointed to the pacing animal, “In his case.”
Jane nodded. She stood and moved to the enclosure, climbed over the metal rail and put her cheek to the glass. The man stopped pacing, rested in front of her. Jane stroked the length of his body, again and again, hand squeaking on the glass. And I envied the tiger man. If given the order I’d break him all over again.
“Let’s go,” I said. Something in my tone pulled her away, anger that maybe she mistook for confidence, safe and separate from my rival by four inches of reinforced glass. Jane smiled, still stroking the broken cat, that man, but looking at me. I again wondered how she had the ability to expose me to myself. I didn’t know what she wanted from me: a companion, a partner in commiseration, honesty with someone other than the mirror. How could I have known anything else? She was Jane and she was beautiful and she moved me in a way that made me think the end of the world was my idea. That’s a gift. To let a man think his destruction is his own doing. But that was her gift. She was my Jane.
No, just Jane.