Harry Belafonte Goes to the Zoo by Anonymous
It starts with a groaning. Two minutes up front and the teacher’s groaning again. His voice is stomach sickness. Grunts and hollow bellows, like someone smacking segments of PVC tubing with the flat of their palm. Or it’s sex noises. A painful abdominal sound, like the thud of flesh beating flesh, then the sound of flesh reverberating down a long tube of PVC. PVC, it stands for polyvinylchloride. It’s the same shit they put in hair spray. I think it’s the same. Yeah, it is. I’m not stupid. It’s the fucking same.
Mom probably used lots of hairspray. That’s probably what fucked up her eyes. Maybe she sprayed hairspray in her eyes too many times. It got caught in her eyelashes and seeped into her eyeballs. It’s ASTIGMATISM.
I don’t even think there’s anything wrong with her eyes. She’s a hypochondriac. Always clutching her left breast and rubbing it like dough. Sore dough. Sourdough. Fuck. She thinks her eyes are infected. I got things wrong with my eyes too. My left one doesn’t even focus anymore. Especially not under these fluorescent lights. Especially not. These fucking lights and this fucking teacher groaning the sound of flesh beating flesh. This is how it starts.
I’m the one in the back row squinting, my cheekbones pushed high up in my eye sockets, twisting my head up to look out the window. I take myself along with my eyes. It’s the easiest of escapes. If the sun was shinning on the wet Oregon leaves out in the grass, which it isn’t, maybe it would look like jewels of water on spider webs in the spring, or like a broken bottle glistening in the sun on hot pavement, or salmon skin lacquered with olive oil. Like salmon skins with all those tiny black pepper corn freckles.
I’m covered in freckles, Julie. Fuck. Speckles, freckles and fuck. Daughter dots and spots that go all the way down. They run along the tubes of my tits. Freckles on my tube tits under my shirt. Fuckles. If you could see them. They are escaping from my face and fleeing down my neck under my t-shirt. They re-appear frantically dancing, jail-breaking down the backs of my arms and the tops of these weird hands. They move and they itch. Only they itch on the inside where I can’t scratch, scratch, scratch— like a snatch… of conversation. Written down for you, Mrs. Belafonte, these are conversations and observations and internal dialogues from my head. All in my head. There’s something wrong with me.
I got to tell you. I look in my purse all the time. And it’s good. To check on things, and make sure they are all right. Like my soft pack of cigarettes. I am always checking and making sure it’s still there. I tell myself not to look in my purse. I say, ‘Don’t you look in your fucking purse, Gale.’ I say, ‘They’re onto you already. There could be cameras.’ But fuck. What can I do? It’s next to impossible not to look. So I look! Then I squeeze my thighs together tight around one another, and then I release the pressure. It’s called psychomotor agitation. I squeeze my thighs tight, over and over again. (Psychomotor) I squeeze them together. (Agitation) I squeeze. Release. I Squeeze. Release. Snap! The magnetic fasten on my purse closes with the familiar sound of the magnets finding each other. Finding home. A soft sound.
Blinds Cover the Large Square Windows
There are blinds on the windows. They cover the large square windows of this classroom. This is a classroom. There are windows. There are no bars on the windows. Because this is a classroom, there are no bars. They’re stained and yellowed. The blinds. As if they had been nicotine treated in some dingy café or bar, having survived some long tiresome stretch of depression. Wintered like a truck stop woman scribbling down wiggles for counters of customers, serving acid pulp and black grit coffee, tobacco and eggs. In my imagination, Julie, I am this truckstop woman, this hubcapped lady, working in Detroit Lake or Cave Junction. Waiting tables. Waiting. My life is partly used up. I am taking an order while smoking a cigarette; a bit of my imaginary ash drops onto the pool of someone’s buttered toast. I’m bored and unhappy I decide, but at least here I can smoke. I decide I wanna smoke. So I do.
I have one of those huge long plastic disposable lighters that are half a foot long. I use it to light my cigarettes. Too many years I’ve been breastfeeding this mossy sopped in snoggy Oregon town. I smoke in languid protest. I fill the café full of nicotine and tar. I yellow the walls, and brown the white ceiling squares full of holes. If my hair wasn’t inky and black, it too would be yellowed with the smoke. I shake my head and feel my hair, and for a moment it’s smoky and blonde and long. But it isn’t. My hair isn’t smoky and long. It’s short and black. I got short black hair. I got no goddamned business in Detroit Lake. I have no idea— the blinds could just be old. They could just be old fucking blinds, Gale. I tell myself these things.
Maybe they’re yellow from the sting of mercury battering in the fluorescent tube lights. I hate mercury. I hate these fucking tubes of lights that make all the faces green and red. I hate hydrogen and mercury or whatever gas is in these lights that pulse and flick. Leonard Bernstein can fuck his guitar, Julie. He’s a fucking moron. We can’t end war… but we can change war into something winnable. We could wage war on mercury, and on hydrogen and on fluorescent lighting. War is inevitable, bad lighting is optional. I say bring the boys back from Iraq and send ‘em out on a winnable campaign. A real Nation-uniting kind of campaign, a chance to see all the porches bunted with the old red white and blue. All bunting and busting and saying, “Send ‘em out to break all the fucking tube lights across America.” Tell Leonard, Julie. Tell them all for me, and tell the Panthers. Tell Bobby Seal. I fucking love black people. I love everybody. I’m like Andy goddamned Warhol. I love Jesus.
Back in class, still under fluorescents, I am a great grey seagull up against the glass. Up against the blinds. The lights flicker in my seagull eyes and make my brain turn to small static. You see, fluorescents work by flickering on and off thousands of times a second. It makes the brain go crazy. When I turn into a seagull, my wing tips touch the jaundiced blinds. Just the very fine tips of my wings in contact. Isn’t that a nice picture? It’s meant to feel cool and sensitive. It’s like a break. It says, “Take a break here. Air conditioned bathrooms. Free coffee and pie for newlyweds. Breathe deep, Julie, oxygen is free.”
Did you like that break, Julie? Is Harry at the zoo again? He’s with the white polar bears, or the monkeys. Maybe he’s with the reptiles. If he could reach out right now and touch one of the lizards or snakes, he would know this feeling. My feathers touch the glass. Harry’s fingertips touch the reptile skin. Smooth like olive oil on the scales of a salmon. You should think about this idea I have for wearing salmon to a gala or something as a statement.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR SALMON WEARING:
• Take a long strip of wild line caught salmon. Oil the salmon until glistening. Use extra virgin olive oil.
• Put the pink flesh side down on your neck and keep a small squirt bottle filled with olive oil, and constantly reapply oil to the purpled opalescent scales of the fish.
• Whenever anyone asks, tell them you are petting your salmon for peace. It’ll be a big hit with all the kids, and besides there’s more sparkle to wet salmon scales than any jewel in the world. I bet Iraqis love salmon. They can’t get it in the desert you know. My brother’s out there. He’s a fucking hero. I found his hash. He probably hasn’t had a bite of salmon all year.
It’s like petting oiled salmon. It’s like your fingertip against a lizard skin—just the tips of my feathers on the cool glass. It’s the only relief from the pulsating and jittering of the spasms of these fluorescent lights. Edgy and small and trapped, I’m ready to batter the blinds with these wings, to break my skin open in desperate attempt. To feel the air free of fluorescent tubes. Already I can see the blood on the thick quills that will tear free from my skin. I have giant pores where the quills stick in. There is wing milk in the pores. I can feel the pores where the feathers stick in—they will rip out and fall like helicopter seeds down to the waxy floor. Wings grow from my back; I imagine they are white wings or black wings. I’m not sure. It’s important. White wings mean I am good.
It has come to this. I am standing on my desk. With one foot on the back of this orange plastic chair and one foot on the plank of wood, I am ready. In my vision, the classroom hovers in wait. The teacher mumbles in pain. His tooth is swollen; he is having a toothache. I know what I must do. I must cure his toothache. With one quick move I am going to kick my foot from the back of the chair. The chair is going to fly forward as my body hurls backward in fast motion. My body is going to burst the glass in an explosion… Glassoline! This word comes into my head at the last possible moment, and it’s fucking hysterical. Glassoline, Julie, Glassoline! Laughter escapes my head. It fills the air. At the back of the room, I am the girl in hysterics. Laughter throbs from my throat. It’s maniacal. Everyone knows there is something wrong with me. They turn around to look, and their faces are white with heat. You should see them! The teacher stops groaning and his eyes are hot and quiet. I have cured his stomachache. I have pulled his foul tooth.
I’m not a bird. I’m not a winged thing. I can’t move, except this insane locking of my thighs against one another. I’m a would-be punk rock Catholic schoolgirl. I’m a viral threat. They are afraid. There is something very wrong with me. I am now on display like an animal in their zoo.
Apology: Dear Mrs. Belafonte. I have become aware that my comment about the coloration of my wings was inappropriate and inconsiderate. White wings do not necessarily mean that I am good. Tell the Panthers I am sorry.
I pop my pigeon neck making a loud sound inside my head—it’s a metal sound, some gun part clicking into place, something breaking inside and reforming. My brother is at war. I told you, he’s a hero. My mom is sick. At home, mom is probably looking out the window and watching the blackbirds that scream and squawk, mean and tiresome. They’re goddamned birds. My mom probably never pictures growing wings or flinging herself against a window. She probably never imagines working as a waitress in Detroit Lake where the world is covered in mosses that grow in the mist of Oregon winter, where the wet permeates and rots the world from inside out; where grey becomes its own smell and taste. I wonder what my mom thinks about. I have no idea. I have no goddamned idea. I want to know what she thinks about all day lying in that bed, surrounded by television waves and laptop waves? Her only company being mean blackbirds and phony meditation books? But you never really know what anyone’s thinking. Do you, Julie?
The teacher is on mute. The other kids are jotting down notes about what they imagine he could be saying. I wonder what they think about?
Opening my purse, I see my soft pack of Camel Lights. Half the foil is removed so I can see the small white circles. They are perfect. Perfect white circles, perfectly wrapped in thin freckled skins of paper. A book falls to the floor. Loud thud and I jolt upright; eyes hit the clock. The clock moves slow in constant motion; it’s one of those constant motion clocks instead of a ticker. It’s the kind you only see in schools. This is a school. There are blinds.
Opening my purse again, my eyes find cigarettes. I wish I had a hamster or a rat in my purse to check on. These are just cigarettes. In some ways they are better than a silly rat or a hamster. Something is wrong. I’m always looking in my purse, always checking on cigarettes. There’s also a package of chewing gum, lip gloss, a salmon colored cellular phone covered in stickers, my wallet and glasses case, some random scraps of paper and some hair bands, a canister of mace.
Here come the pictures, Julie. I grow pictures of my mom. Here’s one of her staring out the window at blackbirds. Another of her rubbing her breast from the side like it’s sore and made of sourdough. I hate those goddamned birds. They say “rock rock rock” all day. Mom’s body has grown fat with water in the past years, making the skin of her belly host to kidney bean shaped dimples. They form under the skin in the water filled flesh. Kidney beans. Her eyes have sunk further into her swollen forehead. Her eyelids are infected. Or they aren’t. The television makes them glow bluish. Mom gave me the mace.
I wish someone would try and touch me. There’s this guy who gives me my smokes. He’s at work right now at the filling station. He gives me soft-packs of cigarettes. He’s got gasoline brown hands.
Moving my head, I feel my spine move in sections. It’s like a bird’s spine. It’s not like a bird’s spine at all. It’s like a gun sound when it pops. I think there is something wrong with my neck, with the way it hangs forward on my ugly spine. I think there’s something wrong with me.
Through the gap between two plastic pieces of stained blinds, the world is far away, and I remember that there’s a war out there. There’s still this war going on. I’m punk rock. Not a hippie or a goddamned beatnik. But he could be lying dead you know. I live with this. I live with pictures. He’s on his back with his fine black hair parted to the side, lying on the sand with flies crawling around his bloodied nose. His eyes are shut. His eyes are open. His skin is tan from the sun. I shake my head away.
Outside the blinds, the sun dances upon the fallen leaves wet with morning rain. I try to imagine the smell of the leaves, the way they would feel against the side of my face. I pick up a large oak leaf full of veins and wet. Placing the leaf against my face like river moss, I imagine standing out there in the grass barefoot, sliding the leaf down under my shirt, and across the flat bone of my chest—between my tubes of freckles. He’s out there. Out on the lawn, he is coming towards me now—Fr. Connel. He’s the principal, Julie. He grabs me by the arm, strong fingers digging and putting red rings in my freckled flesh.
Can I tell you something? Sometimes, when I’m in his office, I get weird. I mean I think about him doing things to me. Sick things. Things girls don’t think about when they are around priests. I really wish I had a friend who was just like me, who I could tell my secrets to, who could laugh and make fun of me for crushing on a priest. But I never will. I will never have a best friend. There is no one I could ever tell about Fr. Connel. There is something very wrong with my brain.
I’m in his office now. I swear to God, Julie. I think it’s because of the cigarettes. He knows. He knows about the cigarettes and the goddamned hash and right fucking now my purse is turning to clear glass.
Too bad for him there’s a goldfish inside my glass purse and it’s swimming in green water, so he can’t see cigarettes. It’s a trick of mine.
My knees are squeezed. For this moment it’s as if I’m all prep and prim punk rock for the moment. Don’t get wet, Gale. If you get wet you are so fucked up. I’m really fucked up.
There’s a mug on his desk with a purple sunset and Jesus on a cross, and I just look at the mug and thank fuck I’m not wet. I notice there are no pictures on his desk, no picture frames; it’s a real piece of shit desk in a piece of shit office with windows that have perfect white blinds. Fuck, Julie.
“Gale, are you doing alright?” That’s what he asks me.
I want him to touch me or something. I wish we could touch each other. For just once someone would call “cut.” Then he could come over and touch my oily black hair. Do you understand, Julie?
If you could see me, I am the one squinting my cheekbones up into my face and moving my neck. The sun is hitting my eyelids. I’m in Connel’s office, and I’m thinking about how there are thousands of things happening in order for my eyes to receive this sensation of sun on my eyelids. Billions of tiny explosions have to happen in my brain all at once, just to feel warmth. It’s goddamned fantastic. All these explosions just so our brains can receive the images of the red skin of our eyelids full of tiny veins. I don’t know what these explosions are, what they are called or anything, but I know my eyes can see my eyelids when they’re closed. This means that my eyes never stop seeing, even when I am asleep. Think about all the people with their eyes always seeing, even when their eyes are closed, all the result of billions of perfect explosions. Isn’t it fucking amazing? I see my brother with his eyes closed. I see him with his eyes open.
I move my head and suddenly I’m not hearing any gun part sounds or pops, and I’m checking for them. Maybe they’re gone for good, I think, but I doubt it.
Fr. Connel is looking at me. He asks me what I am doing with my head, and he asks me if everything is okay. “Are you okay, Gale?” This is the time he asks me if I am okay, not before. “Fine, absolutely damn fine,” I tell him and start laughing. I want to tell him about how I collect spots that move across my eyes, floating and sperming across my field of vision. I call them floaters. I want to tell him about how this afternoon, at the park, I will watch the floaters move across the sky and I will smoke cigarette after cigarette until my lungs hurt and my stomach aches and my head spins. When my head spins I will laugh and give the heavy metal sign up to the air. Pushing the filter between my lips always makes me feel sexy. The filter goes in and comes out between my lips and makes them sting. In between my fingers, the cigarette looks larger than it is. I’ll suck my cheeks in hard and then let the cigarette fall slack and dangle. The paper sticks to my lips when it’s cold, and they bleed where the paper rips away bits of lip skin. Then I flick the ash on the grass next to my head. Sometimes I feel just like that ash on the tips of grass, suspended, a piece of something fuzzy and gray, something spinning.
Christy Fennerty walks by outside the office window. She’s a snab girl wearing hoop earrings large enough for pigmy tigers to jump through. With my mind, I start her hoops on fire and send imaginary rubber tigers leaping through the hoops. They get stuck and melt and drip napalm onto Christy’s shoulders. I see her mouth as she looks at me and her mouth says the word slut. “Slut,” her ruby mouth says making the shape of blowing a bubble with a wad of gum. Pop. “Slut.”
I take a deep breath and count to three. I look at his file cabinet and tell myself, ‘The cabinet is grey.’ I look at the floor, ‘The floor is waxy.’ This is something I learned to do from the counseling office. If I were looking in my purse, I’d see all those dots on the filters of the cigarettes. These dots are what make the cigarettes taste a certain way. I know this. Fr. Connel is on the phone. I wonder if he is calling my mother.
I think about my cigarettes. About how without the tiny dots on the filter my mind wouldn’t work. The dots on the filter make my mind feel a certain way, and that feeling is what tells my brain how to make the tobacco taste. It’s science. I know this. I know about all these things.
I know what hash is. I know about hash and how it melts like cotton candy when you put a match to it. This is because it has sugar in it. Hash is made with sugar. I have a little chunk of dry hash wrapped in silver foil sitting at the bottom of my pack of Camels. It’s my brother’s hash.
On every package of Camel cigarettes, Julie, there is a picture of a camel. On every picture of the camel there is a stippled picture of a woman on her elbows sucking a man’s penis. The man is wearing riding pants like polo players wear and his elbow is jutting out to the side because he’s got his hand on his hip. Not everyone knows about this. Some guys probably smoke these cigarettes their whole lives and never even notice. Dumbshits. I know this because the gas station guy showed me. I know about the dots on the filters on my own.
I want to tell somebody. I want to tell someone about the sugar in hash, and the dots on cigarette papers and the way our eyes never stop seeing. My ears get hot and my skin tingles. I can feel cells spreading out and heating up inside of my body, I can feel the red mottling on my skin. It’s now or never.
“Hey, Fr. Connel.”
I am leaving my body; my vision is full of auras and light waves. It doesn’t matter now. I’m enveloped in wings of white panic. I’m someplace else and my head spins like a nicotine rush. Did the sounds even come out?
“I GOT CIGARETTES.”
I have to empty my purse. He takes the cigarettes—he crushes the pack and throws them in the garbage. He doesn’t find the hash; he will never find the hash.
I suspect this whole thing has something to do with cameras. He knew all along. It was only a matter of time. The school has hidden cameras. They’re in the bathroom. That’s the only place I pulled the pack out to look at the woman on the camel. I will have to see the guidance counselor again. ‘The cabinet is gray, Gale.’ Fucking Gray.
My mom will be called and she will cry. From now on when she watches blackbirds she will think of how her daughter’s lungs are turning black.
I will have to go back to the man with the long hair and the gasoline brown hands. Maybe I will go into the backroom with him for a hit of hash. Maybe he will have hash. Like my brother. The good shit, made of sugar. Maybe he will have me do things to get the hash. I might do the things he wants. Maybe I will think about the mace in my purse and maybe I will have to swallow my gum down my throat. There will be that feeling like the pinch of a vitamin that gets stuck and bruises your throat lining. I might think of Fr. Connel and my pack of crushed cigarettes. I might think of my mom and blackbirds and my brother—flies in his bloody nose. And mostly, I might think about you, Julie, and about rockets of light and rainbows on the floor of the ocean, about floaters and how Harry feels at the zoo.
Later, at the park, I will watch the clouds and squint my right eye just enough to see the rainbows like the skins of spodumines, but it won’t be the same. This is how it starts. This is how it all starts.