What was I even doing at the zoo? Chalk it up to more gut feeling. Driving by the exit after leaving Stuart’s, I just felt like this was the exact right place for an orphan to forget his problems on a hot summer day. Now I wended my way through the cattle maze of a line that led to the Skyfari air tram, and though I wouldn’t say my spirits lifted, go right ahead and consider me charmed by the sensation of forward progress. When my phone vibrated through my jeans pocket, the fourth such call in the last hour, following a cloudburst of unanswered texts, I even went as far as checking to see who it was, as if expecting a different incoming number this time. Bless my heart for unearned optimism. Nevertheless I was unprepared to answer. Stuart, my brother, had noticed the bonsai tree missing from his house. That much was a fact. What had yet to be determined was my end game. How far could I push this?
The people ahead of me were herded into gondola cars. I was shown where to go. Ducked through the door and claimed a bench seat opposite a woman and two children, a girl about eight and a boy half as old, their foreheads pressed to the windows, fogging the glass with their breath. The boy needed to stand on the bench seat to see out. The woman absently held him by the waistband of his shorts, her knee pistoning like she was being interrogated.
“This sucks,” the girl said, “I can’t see.”
“Sucks,” the boy mimicked.
She raced to the other window, tried her luck there, the car listing with her movement.
“Please, Briana,” the woman said. “sit down.” She was not quite hyperventilating.
The girl farted with her mouth, thrusting out her bony butt.
No one seemed to notice I was there.
A zoo attendant popped his head in. “We’re about to take off.” He moved to close the door and the woman jumped up.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. I just can’t. Parker, Briana, let’s go.”
Both children agreed that the bait-and-switch definitely sucked.
The woman’s wild eyes then landed on me, seeing me for the first time.
“Would you mind riding with them? It’s just that… Heights, I just can’t.” She held up a tremoring hand.
“Maybe I’m not the right guy,” I said. Despite my best efforts to cheer myself up, I was distracted by the events of the morning: me at my brother’s house before dawn, the contested ownership of a two hundred-year-old bonsai tree, a dispute dating back to our parents’ death eight weeks earlier when a thirteen hundred pound bale of hay fell from a tractor and rolled down a Vermont hill, though a gap in the post-and-rail fence, and onto the road at the precise moment our parents, returning home from a night at a nearby B&B, drove by. The bale crushed their Honda and pinned them inside where they were found dead by the farmers who had failed to properly secure their hay.
I looked at the zoo attendant, hoping he might intervene on my behalf.
“Kids, give Mommy a kiss. This nice man will keep an eye on you,” the woman said, mistaking my slight hesitation for consent. “And if he turns out not to be a nice man, just tell Mommy, and I’ll cut his dick off.”
I watched her dive from the gondola car. She was really leaving them with me. The attendant made the arrangement official, closing and locking the door. The Skyfari wheeled forward on overhead cables, the ground giving way to air.
We climbed into the sky, the car rocking during the incline before leveling out. The girl and boy resumed their window fogging. I peered down on the animal exhibits and the areas behind the exhibits where the facsimile of a natural habitat ended and the concrete modern world reasserted itself. It felt like being let in on the secret of a magic trick, seeing behind the curtain. I was going to point it out to the kids but decided not to ruin the fantasy, which didn’t matter anyway because when I turned around, I saw the girl was no longer looking out the window. She was standing in the middle of the gondola car, her posture impeccable, arms rigid at her side.
“Helllloooo,” she said. “I’m waiting.”
“For you to pay attention.”
She commenced a spastic jerking of one sunburned shoulder, up and down, as if controlled by a marionette. Narrow, boyish hips stabbed from side to side under her billowy sun dress. Knees bent and straightened, rotated to impossible angles. She dropped to the metal floor, clumsily windmilled her legs. Her brother clapped to match an unheard beat.
“Are you breakdancing?” I said.
Springing up from the floor, Briana now supplied the beat, a slobbering arrhythmic Boom-bap!
“Oh, I get it.”
But she kept going, her face red as her shoulders, veins straining against her thin neck. Unsure of how to properly appreciate the performance, if you could call it that, I nodded along with her Tourette-like tics to show that I was, at the very least, paying attention.
The Skyfari then lurched hard, righted itself, and stopped moving altogether. The jolt knocked the children to the floor.
“Is everyone alright?” I said.
Briana hopped up, laughing. “Talk about a show stopper.”
The boy mumbled something resembling yes, and proceeded to sob.
“Parker? That’s your name? Come on, you’re just a little scared. No injury, right?” I didn’t want to physically inspect him lest he misconstrue and I lost my dick at their mother’s hands. Briana stepped in to minister to her brother.
“Parky, you’re fine.” She gave him a rough hug, shaking him by the shoulders. “We’re having an adventure.”
He rubbed his eyes, sniffed up his snot. “We’re not moving,” he observed.
“Maybe someone jumped,” Briana said.
“Let’s not be dramatic,” I said, although the thought crossed my mind.
“I can do drama and comedy. Highbrow and physical. I’m going to be famous.”
I assured them we would be moving in no time. “Hey, I know, let’s count the people on the ground,” I said. If I’d played the game first I would have known it was a non-starter.
Briana discovered the glitch. “There’re no people, just lions.”
She and Parker roared and began counting them instead.
We had stopped above the lion enclosure. As we sat there in hovering captivity, I had to admit that maybe, just maybe, following your gut wasn’t a serviceable philosophy of life.
Because that was what started this. The feeling, the gut feeling, that today was the day I would end my feud with Stuart. A feeling borne out of what exactly? Certainly nothing having to do with recent incidences in our lives. As if having your parents die in a freak accident wasn’t bad enough, as if having their heretofore unknown sex toys returned with their overnight bags by the police wasn’t bad enough, my brother and I soon learned that the dissolution of their estate, which could be described as the opposite of sprawling, would find us hating each other, rather than coming together in consolation and support as we had always expected to do when this time came.
We are temporarily delayed due to an unscheduled maintenance issue. We apologize for any inconvenience, announced a voice over the zoo PA system.
“Oh, my God. My God,” Briana whined. “I’m so hot and I’m so bored. I think I’m dying. That’s it, I’m dead. I’m dead now,” she flopped onto the floor and aped a death rattle authentic enough to send Parker into another emotional meltdown.
“She’s just kidding. Tell him you’re kidding,” I said.
“I can’t hear you because I’m dead,” the girl said.
“Trust me, just she’s playing around.”
“Are you a police?” the boy whimpered. “Mommy says I can trust a police.”
A freshly resurrected Briana stood and curtsied.
“See, Parker, she’s fine,” I said.
“No applause?” she said, and hopped up onto the bench seat, her legs swinging, feet inches above the floor.
Owing to the sorry state of the un-notarized, self-drafted documents our parents called their Last Will & Testament, my brother and I were left to untangle their entanglements with only the faultiest of instructions to guide us. Our interpretations of their final wishes could not have been more dissimilar. It was as if we were talking about different parents. The fights that resulted! Words like sabotage and betrayal got thrown around, fuckface too.
I don’t remember how my mother’s ancient bonsai tree became so important, so vital to the proceedings, why we had transformed this of all their possessions into an emblem of their long, happy marriage and the sole reminder of how they loved their sons, an emblem that just one of us could display in our home. It wasn’t even an heirloom. Our mother bought it only five years earlier, after she watched a National Geographic documentary and was wooed by the art of shaping tiny trees. Somehow the immaculate bonsai, with its Certificate of Authenticity in flawless Japanese calligraphy had ended up in his house, and not mine, and that was when I lost it. I now viewed the ambiguities and omissions in our parents’ wills as a devious way of starting a sibling rivalry where there had never been one, and if they had a final wish it was that they wanted us at each other’s throats. This is what happens when thoughts are perplexed by grief.
The gondola car wasn’t air conditioned, barely ventilated with slats on the door and a row of quarter-sized holes in the ceiling. We were above the trees and the sun came through the windows like through a magnifying glass. I worried that the children, little ants, might burst into flames. I tried entertaining them with a story about the time my family took a vacation to a cabin in the Berkshire mountains. I was ten, Stuart twelve. On the drive home, our parents played Leonard Cohen cassettes the entire way. We hated that shit. Didn’t know yet that the music was supposed to be cool. Stuart got so fed up that he took the seatbelt buckle and rubbed it against the vinyl upholstery in the back of the station wagon until friction made the metal red hot. He burned our dad’s neck with it. We had never seen him so mad. We had never laughed harder.
We are temporarily delayed due to an unscheduled maintenance issue. We apologize for any inconvenience.
This time I noticed the announcement was definitely pre-recorded. Where were the sounding alarms, or fire engines in the distance? Were we forsaken?
I pulled out my phone but before I could log a plea with 9-1-1, it was vibrating again. I accepted the call and put it on speaker with the vague idea that this was a teachable moment for these kids, to show them life’s problems didn’t stand on line, like we had to get on the Skyfari, patiently waiting their turn. Problems didn’t extend such courtesy. They piled in from all sides.
Stuart’s voice tore from the speaker. I’m calling the fucking cops!
Parker looked at the phone hopefully, thinking my brother was offering to get us help.
“For what?” I asked.
Oh, I don’t know, try breaking and entering, burglary, home invasion, kidnapping.
The tree is a living thing.
“Check your privilege, Stu!” I shouted, not exactly sure what that meant.
I’m giving you to the end of the day to bring it back, he said, ending the call.
I’d told myself I only went to his house this morning to talk, to see if we could come to an amicable resolution on the issue of the tree, so that we could eliminate the burden of mourning alone by doing it together. Of course, if that were really the truth I would have waited until he was awake. I would have rung his doorbell instead of letting myself in. We would have had this conversation instead of me just taking the bonsai and walking out his front door while he and his wife and my two nephews slept. But again, I was led by a gut feeling that said the tree was rightfully mine and the only suitable end to the debate was his total capitulation.
Next came the unspeakable period of our confinement that I would forever remember by the image of Parker dancing awkwardly in the corner, moments before he expressed his very natural need to do that which bears did in the woods, or that which the lions below us did on city land reconstructed to look like African plains. There was no talking him out of it because it wasn’t a decision that he could reexamine.
I would always remember saying, trying to ease his embarrassment, “Go for it, buddy!” as if he were attempting a trick on his skateboard.
“You’re letting him?” Briana squealed. “No Parky, you don’t have permission.”
Permission or not, it was too late. And when Briana started retching, she too did so without prior authorization. From then on, the three of us huddled in what we dubbed “the clean corner” and I was pretty proud of the quickness with which we adapted to an ever-changing environment. Our ability to mouth breath wasn’t too shabby either. My admiration was graded on a curve. These were children we’re talking about after all and they split the time between being docile and crying for Mommy, for Daddy, for something to eat, for something to drink, etc. Still, I’d heard much about the young generation’s self-absorption, their need for constant affirmation, their lack of independence; and yet these befouled kids gave me feeble hope for the future, provided we had one. I kept thinking we couldn’t be left up here to die, but it felt that way over the hours.
We are temporarily delayed due to an unscheduled maintenance issue. We apologize for any inconvenience.
I rated my own performance during this time as satisfactory. Did I regret telling them, in a fit of exasperation, “Maybe you should shut up so we can die in peace?” Yes. Did I wish I had counted to ten instead of trying a pep talk: “Kids, these are the last faces you’re ever going to see. Make them smiles!”? It goes without saying. But my endurance was faltering, the conditions were just as bad for me, the heat, the smell—sweet Jesus, the smell—to which I must admit I added to by peeing in the “not clean corner”, not to mention my only brother kept calling and leaving menacing text messages as our mother’s sacred bonsai was surely wilting in the trunk of my car. I had to forgive myself for my failures of patience, although if I was giving a full accounting, there were two moments I was genuinely proud.
First I said, “God willing, after today, I’ll never see you again. But for you two, this day will become a part of your family lore. And for the rest of your lives all one of you will need to say is ‘Remember the Skyfari?’ and you’ll both laugh. It’s a moment that will tie you to each other, in spite of anything that might come between you.”
Then during a particularly maddening five-minute chorus of “I want Mommy, I want Daddy,” I held back the information that there would come a day when those same cries would go unanswered forevermore.
Briana and Parker soon fell asleep, their exhaustion now complete. With the car to myself and my phone battery at 8%, I decided to call Stuart and have the conversation we should have had weeks ago. The fact remained we were still blood, still shared our childhood memories, our sports team affiliations, our lingua franca of quoting golden age Simpsons episodes at each other. There was a lot of common ground here.
He answered right away and I said, “Remember the Seatbelt Buckle?”
You got till the end of the day, cocksucker, then I’m calling the cops.
The sunset was remarkable, delicate shades of pink and blue. It was dark when the cranes arrived and the firemen rescued us into their cherry picker baskets. They lifted the children out of the gondola car and then returned for me. They handed me one of those natural disaster blankets to drape over my shoulders, though the summer night was wet with humidity. The crane started lowering us down. I looked out over the night, apartments lit up in buildings, headlights streaming around the Parkway. Below us were EMT workers ready to receive me, along with police, zoo officials, the local news, family and friends of the Skyfari victims, all of them with some job to do, a responsibility that had been put upon them or that they had taken upon themselves. The lions were somewhere down there too, but by now secreted away for our safety and theirs.
The crowd let out a cheer as we approached. I knew for sure no was waiting on my safe arrival, but I stepped out of the crane basket and pretended there might be someone among them who was anxious to look at my face for proof that I was okay. I searched for Briana and Parker but didn’t see them. I wanted to find their mother. Just in case she hadn’t figured it out yet, I wanted to tell her that there were worse things to fear than heights.
Aaron Jacobs’ debut novel, The Abundant Life, will be published by Run Amok Books in 2018. He splits his time between Brooklyn and the Catskills. Sometimes he tweets at @itsaaronjacobs.