Photo by Lenska
St. Louis Zoo
In the late 1980s, my family lived in St. Louis, Missouri, in a large three-story brick home. Our home was in a very nice neighborhood abutting the western boundary of Forest Park and was not more than a mile or so west of the St. Louis Zoo. The Zoo, in turn, takes up several acres of land situated approximately at the midpoint of the southern boundary of Forest Park. Just south of the Zoo’s main entrance, and just north of the multilane east-west running I-64/40 expressway, sits the Zoo’s large blacktopped parking lot. The parking lot was, I felt, the best part of the Zoo, hands-down. There’s something inescapably nostalgic to me about the scent of hot sticky blacktop, about the petrochemical stink of tar and asphalt intermingled with the chemical aroma of the fluorescent, almost orange but still yellow, paint used to demarcate parking spaces. These synthetics merged with the familiar smells of overheated car interiors, of melted snow cones, and a whiff of barnyard. My parents took my younger sister and me to the Zoo a lot during summer vacations, back when she and I were still in elementary school. In St. Louis, still now, admission to the Zoo is gratis. “Can’t beat free” my old man used to say. Maybe he was right. I guess it depends.
My parents and sister always liked the Monkey House, or what used to be called the Monkey House, before the name was later changed to the Great Apes Exhibit, surely in an effort to be less insinuatingly insensitive. The three of them were always fascinated by what the posted educational signage called primate “grooming” behavior. You know, the inimitable manner in which primates pluck bits of dander and bugs out of one another’s hair, almost combing it, without a comb. My family would watch the primates, the groomer intensely focused on the task at hand, the groomee sitting placidly, spaced-out, dreamily content. The groomee the beneficiary of fingers scratching those nooks and crannies behind shoulder blades that one can never quite reach on one’s own. My parents and sister seemed to particularly enjoy the facial expressions of the groomer and the groomee. These expressions must have appeared simultaneously funny, familiar, and maybe vaguely comforting to them, my family, as they watched the primates.
It made me uncomfortable. All of it. The dark cool air, the smell of primates, the subtle scent of cleaning supplies, of bleach, and the piped-in classical muzak. I rarely stuck around the Monkey House for more than a minute or two, if I would go in at all. My preferred strategy was to wait for my family outside the entrance, where I’d stand silently under the hot sun. I would stand and wait, let the sweat bead up on my forehead, feel it trickle down the nape of my neck. My family never really noticed nor seemed to care.
Some twenty years later, I found myself seated in a therapist’s office. The therapist’s office was on a higher floor in a downtown Chicago high-rise. I was placid, spaced out. I stared out of the office’s east-facing window. The office’s large window overlooked the expansive greenery of Millennium Park, which sat just across the always busy north-south lanes of Michigan Avenue traffic. I had just told this therapist, Dr. Marissa Fort, my second therapist in as many years and only my third therapist, ever, about my elementary school art teacher. She was the first person with whom I ever shared these stories. I had brought them up almost absentmindedly, off-handedly, just as our session was winding down.
“Hey, Dr. Fort, can I ask you something?” An innocuous inquiry. As innocent as my mom or dad nonchalantly suggesting to my sister and me that we should all head over to the Zoo one long ago damp-hot St Louis summer morning. She nodded, not expecting any particularly interesting last-minute questions. She was intently focused, hurriedly scribbling a last few notes on her yellow legal pad with her fancy black roller pen, a Montblanc. I only recognized Dr. Fort’s writing instrument because the same pen was always conspicuously placed on my mother’s desk, in her office, in our home, in St. Louis.
I asked Dr. Fort about my former art teacher. I asked her about how he used to have me sit on his lap in his dingy apartment, on scorchingly hot summer weekends, usually just after he had taken me swimming in the small rectangular pool located in the middle of the small, almost collegiate-style, apartment complex in which he lived. I told her about the smell of the apartment complex’s meltingly hot blacktop lot mingling with the secondhand smoke from his Marlboro reds, and how these odors, in turn, commingled with the vaguely familiar bleach smell of the pool’s chlorinated water as it evaporated off my skin. I told her how it was always dimly lit in his apartment and how the A/C chilled the small apartment to the point where I’d get goosebumps as soon as I walked in the front door. I told her about the framed posters of art exhibitions, the unframed playbills hung on off-white walls, the classical music constantly playing in the background, and the rows upon rows of dusty books sitting on large wooden bookcases. I asked her why he treated me like I was his intellectual equal, praised my precociousness, plied me with questions about Bach, Goya and Picasso, and lent me his books on Greek mythology. I asked her if this was weird.
I asked her if it was strange that sometimes he’d rub and stroke my almost sunburned unshirted shoulders, tousle my hair, offer me a drag off his smoke, and then tell me a dirty joke, or a story about eating pussy. I asked her if this was something that should concern me. Here and now, in the present, I meant. I found myself unable to break out of my stories, unable to snap out of my self-induced trance. I was in danger of sinking back into those paradoxically hot and hazy yet somehow shiver-inducing St. Louis summer memories. I was dreamily disconnected from myself. I quit talking, trailed off. Instead of continuing to look down at my tan leather loafers, at my pale bony ankles uncovered by socks, I resumed staring out of the office’s window, staring off into the distance. I stared out at the endless dark blue expanse of Lake Michigan, seeing all the way to the distant horizon, where the lake’s surface abutted the pale blue cloudless sky.
Dr. Fort’s pen had stopped making scribbly sounds about halfway through my series of questions and statements. My questions had already stated their answers. These answers had been sublimated, sunken down into awkward interior silences, long, long ago. We both knew the answers were barely submerged, waiting for me, just beneath my surface. Her demeanor changed. She grew less intense but somehow became more inquisitively serious. She looked as if a particularly tasty little insect had wriggled up to the edges of my psyche and she could just pluck it out and pop it into her mouth, the way the primates sometimes did. She pursed her lips slightly.
Her mouth wasn’t unappealing, for a woman probably fifteen years my senior. She wore dark, almost blood-red, lipstick. Her face was a pale sort of Irish ginger. She had a few freckles, a few crinkles. Her oval visage sat beneath what could reasonably be called auburn hair. Her bright, almost feline, green eyes were sometimes unintentionally concealed behind expensive-looking eyeglasses. The unintentional concealment a function of sunlight refracting through the window, reflecting off her lenses, and turning her eyewear into a defective two-way mirror. She could see me, but I couldn’t see her, much less my own reflection. When she tipped her head up from her yellow legal pad, I squinted in the sudden glare. I dipped my head just enough to avoid the sunlight bouncing off her glasses and into my eyes. She gently inhaled, barely missing a beat, and matter-of-factly stated: “That’s classic grooming behavior.”
I didn’t react at all. I was grateful that our session’s time was up. It was very chilly in Dr. Fort’s office. I drifted, detached from myself, back out of her tastefully appointed office suite. I walked slowly down the high-rise’s hallway to the elevator vestibule, then took the mahogany and brass paneled elevator down to the building’s lobby, before pushing my way through the lobby’s quietly shushing revolving doors. I stepped out into the squinty bright summer sunshine. I stood there, at the southwest corner of Adams Street and Michigan Avenue, and I waited.
I stood there, in interior silence, entirely unaware of where my body ended and the atmosphere around me began. I looked across the six or eight lanes of busy Michigan Avenue traffic to the Art Institute of Chicago. I stared up at the two life-sized bronze lions guarding the row of revolving glass doors affixed to the Art Institute’s westerly facade. I stood there, frozen in place, watching the blinking traffic lights change from red to yellow to green and then back again to red. I stood there, watching the flashing “walk” “don’t walk” signs changing from green to orange and then back again to green. The sun’s bright heat was burning my face. I inhaled deeply, breathing in the oily black fumes belching and farting from the mufflers of the passing taxi cabs. I heard wave after wave of indistinct chatter, crowds of pedestrians filled the sidewalks. I listened to shoes slap, heels click, on the sidewalk’s concrete.
I thought to myself, just keep staring at the lions across the street. Those valiant, strong, well-maned lions. Those lions with metal manes that no one would ever groom. Lions unassailable, even by the weather. Lions indifferent to the eyes of summer tourists, nobly ignoring the innumerable pedestrians and photographers. Each lion poised, frozen, atop its own block of stone. The lions stood silent sentry. The lions scared people who dared to stare too long or get too close.
I thought to myself, just wait one more cycle of stoplights, just wait until the pedestrian signs say “don’t walk”, just wait until that oncoming blue and white CTA bus gets a little closer, wait, just wait, just wait, just wait. The bus blew by, close enough to tousle my hair. I didn’t even flinch. I slowly turned around and walked west on Adams Street. I turned my back on the lions. They never really noticed nor seemed to care.
BENJAMIN K. HERRINGTON wears many masks & speaks in many voices / looks for hidden messages _ v e r _ w h e r _ / feels incredibly grateful to have had his nascent efforts in poetry & prose published by The Prairie Review, Red Noise Collective & La Piccioletta Barca / presently is sweating out the first draft of what may become a novel, writing poems, running by the lake & seeking gnosis / may be reached by email here.