The heat alone kept the one elephant from mounting the other. He moved around her, beside her, in front of her. Exposed. Interested. But seemed to decide against it. Tracey Parker-Wright muttered a grateful prayer and herded the children, 17 kindergartners, away from the elephant exhibit towards the noisier monkeys.
In her peripheral view she saw the male elephant, that pornographic pachyderm, wink at her.
It was too hot for the Zoo. Tracey had already sweated through her white button-down; it clung to her back and sides, showing her bra straps through the cotton. Huge rings soaked the material under her armpits, and she could smell herself as she waved the children toward the monkeys.
Three boys climbed up to a rail on the fence to get a better look. The animals improved their crying and chattering. The boys imitated them, glee animating their faces, their noises childish and primal.
Tracey glanced back toward the elephants. A curve in the sidewalk hid them from view, but she could see people emerging from the exhibit area laughing, shaking their heads, talking about it.
She could smell the elephant manure and moved a little closer to the monkeys. Theirs was a hairy, breezy smell. It blew in waves as the primates swung through the cage. The elephant stench just sat in a thick cloud of disgust and desperation.
The Zoo trip had been Claudia’s idea. Tracey looked at her teaching assistant, a college senior, pretty and thin in that 22-year-old-way: unnoticed, unintentional. No sweat stains under her arms, barely a trickle on her forehead. She glistened, as Tracey’s Mama would say, as southern ladies do. Tracey sweat.
Nothing pretty about sweat. It slickened her thighs, saturated her clothes, matted her hair. She knew just before she did it that pushing her hand through her bangs would glue a large chunk back on top of her head. The discolored ends of stray locks, wet from being close to skin, stuck to the top dry locks where her roots were showing. She wished the whole mess was long enough to twist into a bun.
Another thing Mama would say, “you’re too old for long hair, Tracey,” and exhale a long, smoky breath. “You’re much prettier with yours short.”
Cigarette smoke might beat back that elephant stench, if it were allowed next to such sensitive creatures as caged elephants and wild children. But seven years ago the City had passed the no-smoking ordinance in an attempt to save them all from one another.
Tracey, ducking from the cigarette smoke would say, “you really need to quit, Mama.”
“Why? Because the City of Greenville doesn’t want my kind in their restaurants? Old hypocrites.”
“No, Mama, because it’s killing you.”
“That ain’t what’s killin me, Tracey,” she said.
But Tracey couldn’t respond to that. So she just left it alone.
The reptile house was next. Tracey followed the most eager boys toward it.
Cortnee, Tracey’s best friend and hair dresser, agreed with Tracey’s mother about older women and long hair. She wore her own in a sharp, short pixie without the wisps a smaller girl could pull off. Cortnee had married at 17 and now she and Paul were divorcing.
“I know what went wrong,” she said. “I got fat.”
“Stop it,” Tracey said, “you’re not fat.”
“Please, honey, I can’t remember the last time I felt anything but enormous.”
Cortnee had kept the weight form her third baby and added a few more pounds in the form of cupcakes, vanilla lattes, and bourbon and gingers. But Tracey didn’t consider Cortnee fat. Fat meant two seats on the airplane, electronic chairs to move around the grocery store, knees hidden with rolls of skin.
“She’s a big girl,” Mama would say.
Cortnee was probably a size fourteen, maybe sixteen. She had some bulges on her back and some jiggle on her arms, but she was just big, not fat.
In the reptile house, the boys pressed their faces against the glass behind which a long, yellow python curled, still, as if sleeping. But its black eyes, opened, focused on Tracey, and its tongue flickered between its lips. Fast, at first, barely there, then slowly. Deliberately.
The rest of the group surged into the reptile house with Claudia bringing up the rear. She shot a look at Tracey that said, “isn’t this fun?” Tracey remembered what it was like to love other people’s children that much. She only taught because Oliver said they needed the money.
Tracey and Oliver met in college when he introduced himself as “the other Wright brother.” His twin, Sean, originally talked to her in a class they shared and the first time they went out Oliver had told her he was Sean in case he didn’t really like her. She had to be told how inappropriate that had been and everyone to whom she told the story informed her accordingly. But at the time it hadn’t occurred to Tracey to mind. She liked him, whatever his name was, and she felt grateful he liked her, too. He’d said it before he kissed her goodnight.
“I want to kiss you,” he’d said, looking bashfully away and shoving his hands in his coat pockets.
Tracey shivered a little, with anticipation, with February. She looked up the stairs to the sorority house, to the door, and back at Oliver-whom-she-thought-was-Sean expectantly.
“Okay,” she said, hoping it sounded encouraging.
“I hope what I’m about to say won’t take that chance from me,” he said.
Tracey heard the disclaimer too late, the wine from dinner had dulled her a little and she just smiled as if he had commented on the coolness of the night or the smell of snow in the Texas air.
“I’m the other Wright brother,” her future husband said.
“Okay,” Tracey said.
Then he kissed her and she forgot that she had thought he was Sean, it didn’t seem necessary to care. The edge of his tongue slid across her lips and into her mouth with a quick and urgent, but not unpleasant, pressure. Deliberate.
“Mrs. Wright, look!” a little boy shouted anxiously. The memory of that first kiss, coming unbidden at the site of the snake, made Tracey blush. But children don’t notice such things. The boy who had shouted, and two of his friends, tugged on Tracey’s black skirt.
It was a stupid thing to wear to a zoo, a skirt. But it flared generously and offered a breeze between her legs which were now slick with sweat and sliding against one another as she followed the boys’ tugging toward the other large glass box. This one housed a rattlesnake. It beat its tail furiously, the rattle noisy despite the glass cage’s effect on muffling it.
“Can he get us?” a little girl asked.
“No,” Claudia assured them when Tracey didn’t speak up. “It’s behind glass.”
Tracey stared at the rattlesnake, shielded as she was, but angry at being so. What did she expect? What sort of ideas did she have beyond the cage? Did she have somewhere else to be?
She heard Claudia saying, “come on, children, lots to see. I think the lions are next!” A loud cheer came out of the eager boys and the girls fluttered a little in their wake.
Claudia touched Tracey on the arm, “are you okay?”
Tracey smiled, “yes, of course.” And then, “It’s just hot.”
Claudia laughed, “yes, it is.” She glanced for a minute at Tracey’s black skirt and then turned and left the reptile house. Claudia’s own khaki capris were much more practical zoo attire.
“What kind of a lady wears such things?” Mama would say. “She looks like a boy.”
When they left Texas after graduation to move back to Greenville Tracey had told Oliver it was because her mother was old and alone and needed Tracey nearby. Truthfully she had missed Greenville every day she had been away. She had missed Cortnee, who, by that time, had her second child and her beautician’s license.
Oliver didn’t argue with Greenville. He could make a good living there and afford a bigger house, better schools for his kids, and maybe even an elected office. And he loved Tracey, he really did, she knew that when they came to Greenville. She knew it when they had their first son, Ollie, and when they had their second one, Adam.
But when she miscarried their baby girl at 22 weeks, Tracey felt Oliver’s love shift away from her without a word. She didn’t know Oliver had decided they would not have any more children. When the doctor cleared her to start trying again, she bought new red lingerie. She had been running and boot-camping, and she was fit, strong, slim. She felt young and sexy in that red satin nightie.
Oliver had smiled and said, “I’m sorry, babe, not tonight, okay?” He had turned his back, rolled over to sleep, and she had extinguished the light, and cried alone right next to him.
Cortnee assured her that it wasn’t a sign. Her own husband had sex with her the night before he asked for a divorce. “Some men,” she said, “are sexual. Some men are not.”
Tracey wanted that, the night-before-divorce-one-last-time-sex. Maybe in the laundry room, or on the side of the house. Goodbye sex in the driveway like when she was a teenager, the porch light forcing her to squint, leaned up against her boyfriend’s car with her leg wrapped around his waist, his shoulder in her mouth.
The reptile house was dark and cool. Tracey blinked as the group emerged into the shade of several trees. She trailed behind, watching Claudia herd the children towards the lion enclosure.
A faux rock tunnel stood over the sidewalk, a giant plexiglass wall stretching from ceiling to ground on one side. Beyond the plexiglass long grass bent idly seeking a breeze and boulders stacked into stage-like formations at the center of the enclosure.
The children stepped up to the plexiglass and pressed their hands, noses, and foreheads against it. Two of the wilder boys smacked it. Claudia told them to quit. Tracey hung toward the back, looking over the children’s heads into the habitat. Shades of brown and tan and pale green and grey blurred together as she let her eyes lose focus.
After that initial rejection it took her a week to try again. Her feelings had been hurt but she decided she had simply picked the wrong color. So she hung the red negligée in her closet next to the white one she’d worn on her wedding night and the blue one she’d bought at the real Frederick’s of Hollywood in California.
She bought a hot-pink teddy with satin bows on the shoulder straps and snaps in the crotch. She went for a Brazilian wax and sent the boys to stay with her mother. She poured gobs of honey-scented lotion into her hands and rubbed it all over, massaging her breasts and thighs and hips and imagining their lovemaking. She fastened herself into the teddy and waited.
Oliver called once, text messaged her after that, and came home from an unplanned business dinner well after one a.m. He smelled like whiskey and cigarette smoke but she smiled anyway and invited him into the bed, where she had been reading with her glasses on, the teddy still in place.
He had looked at her, said, “wow.” And then walked into the bathroom and ran the shower.
He would wash the stench of separateness and other lives away. She would turn off the lamp, light a few candles, and put her glasses and book into the nightstand drawer. The shower cut off. She waited.
The pleasant honey candle warmth faded away. Tracey found herself sweating standing in a thick cloud of disappointment and desperation. Too hot. Too smelly. Staring at that elephant, his enormous penis hanging out, she counted up the months.
“Mrs. Wright,” Bobby Jameson said, “why does he have two trunks?”
Claudia bit back giggles and pointed out the baby elephant hiding in the corner. But Tracey flushed, felt herself get warmer than the weather and said, “let’s all go see the monkeys!” The eager boys cheered, grabbed Bobby, and raced up the sidewalk to the monkey cages.
If the pink teddy hadn’t been another failure. If he hadn’t smiled drunkenly and said, “some other time.” Maybe then she would have tried again. But she didn’t. She waited for him to try. And he didn’t.
And now it had been over a year.
She watched over the children’s heads as the lions paced in their exhibit. The plexiglass shook, emitted wavy, warped sounds as the children elbowed one another out of the way and pressed themselves against it to get a better look. The enclosure side of the glass bore long streaks where the cats had licked the glass or sneezed on it and with enormous paws wiped the streaks away.
The female lion stalked back and forth along the far fence. The male lay down and rubbed himself into the tall grass, scratching his back, his mane. His legs fell open, his belly and genitals exposed. Tracey flushed again and looked away.
The group had only just entered the zoo. The class would take another hour to complete all of the exhibits. Tracey watched Claudia who was holding up her phone. The device emitted sounds like a camera lens closing as Claudia snapped pictures, posing each child with a buddy in front of the plexiglass.
She said, “smile!” and “that was a good one!”
Tracey looked past the group to the female lion, the one stalking the fence. She seemed to know something important lay on the other side though her mate lay behind her.
Tracey focused on her shoulders, bony blades lifting in turn, step after step. The lioness shook her head, though she had no mane to shiver around her ears or face. Tracey shook her own head, slightly at first and then with the quick jerk of tossing off a fly. The thick mat of pushed-back-bangs fell into her face and then flipped away.
The lioness’s tail flopped against her rear-end. Her hips bobbed up and down in opposite rhythm of her shoulders. Tracey smoothed her skirt, hands on either side of her hips, pushing the material away, swaying a little to push a breeze underneath it. Her thighs felt slick.
The lion crushed the grass under each step, pushed those long, limp blades aside as she moved through them. Her tongue wiped across her face, her eyes locked on whatever she envisioned to be on the other side.
Tracey listened. Beyond the echoy noise of the children, the click of the camera lens, and the warble of the plexiglass, she heard the grass swishing under the lioness’s feet. Maybe asking questions the lioness didn’t have answers to. Maybe wanting the lioness to be more than she was. Maybe less. Tracey watched.
The lioness stalked the wall, up and back, up and back. Then she stopped, turned, glanced at her mate and then stared past him. At Tracey. Trapped.