I escort a student into the hall and shut my classroom door. He is seventeen, a good two inches taller than me, piercings and saggy jeans. He stinks of cigarettes. Scabs on his knuckles, testaments to his fondness for fighting. This is not our first talk. I strive to treat my students with kindness, to make my classroom a refuge, but it’s Friday afternoon, and I can’t ask this boy another time to keep his hands to himself or watch his language.
I swallow back my exasperation and anger. Over his shoulder, my reflection waits in the door’s glass. I appeal to his sense of civility, to his understanding of decorum and respect for others. He accuses me of picking on him, forgetting all the times I’ve reached out. He considers me with his eyes bloodshot and cold. We have drawn our lines, neither of us willing to step forward or back. We might as well be speaking different languages.
My wife and I wait outside our son’s school. The school sits on a rise, our parking space in a lower lot distanced from the maw of buses and vans. The last leaves cling to the trees. The afternoon overcast. A chill on the breeze. I’m headachy and unhappy, my day’s little victories eclipsed by my hallway encounter. I should assure my wife that all–in the greater sense–is well, but that would lead to questions, and I’m not in a sharing mood.
The first students exit the building, singletons and pairs. A few run, most walk. One picks leaves from the grass. There’s a stone path, a footbridge over a sluggish creek. At this distance, I can’t pick out my son. Still, I straighten and scan the crowd for his green hat. For years, I barely noticed the children I passed on playgrounds and bus stops. Then came my son.
He steps into view, and I smile. Through him, my deteriorating eyes have attained a new vision. Through him, all children have come alive, each an echo of the boy I love. Through him, I better know our kind. He has given me a gift no one else could, and for that, I am thankful.
He opens the door and tosses his backpack onto the seat. He says his day was “OK,” but nothing more. I wonder what battles he’s fought since morning’s goodbye kisses. Like father, like son, the two of us keeping our secrets. We have an hour and a half of daylight, and what, we ask, does our little man want to do? We offer to pull the hockey sticks from the trunk and smack a ball across the deserted tennis courts. Perhaps a hike on a nearby trail. Or a trip to the coffee shop, sugar cookies and hot chocolate all around.
He wrangles the seatbelt and secures the buckle. “How about the zoo?”
Ten minutes later we behold a spoonbill clan. Again, my reflection in a glass pane, only this time, my jaw isn’t clenched. Pink feathers and oddly hinged legs, onyx eyes considering me atop a telescoping beak–I may as well have stepped into a dream. My school-day funk subsides. How could I not be happy to share this moment with these glorious creatures? We make other stops in the first leg’s indoor exhibits. The coiled diamondback. The alligator in his rippling pool.
The hallway ends. Automatic doors open, and we return to the cold. Caged animals have never appealed to me, but I’ve been won over by the little zoo, eleven acres wedged between our town’s amusement park and chocolate factory. The bobcats slink, their fur bristling against the wire. The otter dozes alongside his pool. All of the animals are North American natives, a focus that appeals to the fiction writer in me. Many are rescues from traps and wildfires and shrinking habitats. There’s the screech owl, blind in one eye. There’s the red-tail hawk, regal in his perch, our knowledge of his broken wing making him even more beautiful. On we go, past the elk, its antlered crown soon to be shed. The bald eagle and black bears. The buffaloes munch at their feeder, their heads wreathed in exhaled mist. When they gallop across their pen, the earth trembles, an echo of the great herds now lost.
We humans are outnumbered today, just my family and a few volunteer guards. These are my favorite visits, the balance tipped, the line between observer and observed blurred. The breeze picks up. Dust swirls in the buffaloes’ pen. The cold brings an alertness for the upcoming lean season, a charge like static in the bone-dry air. The wolves trot. The lynx paces, and I pause for a moment to marvel at them all. I don’t believe in heaven, but if I’m wrong, perhaps this is its taste–my son’s hand in mine, my wife by my side, a walk among the beasts, and in my heart, no fear, only wonder and love.
We stand by the mountain lions. My son climbs atop the fence’s middle rail. When he was younger, I would hold a hand near his back, ready to catch him if he fell, but he is too big for that now. Light fades, the gray deepening. The lioness prowls the grassy perimeter. The male leaps among the pen’s tiered rocks, silent on his cushioned paws. The lioness pauses, lifts her snout, and fixes us in her brown-eyed gaze.
Her first mew is low and soft. We respond, cries of similar pitch but lacking her resonance, her undertones of menace. She studies us, a moment of curiosity, and mews again. We answer, my son laughing.
Curtis Smith has published over one hundred stories and essays, and his work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, and The Best Short Fictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out five story collections, three novels, two essay collections, and one work of creative nonfiction. His most recent books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53), Communion (essays, Dock Street Press—a collection which includes “After School”), and Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (creative nonfiction, Ig Publishing). His next novel, Lovepain, will be released by Braddock Avenue Press in 2018.