The zoo can be seen in half an hour, the guidebook said. Small, but cute. Or, some synonym for small, another for cute. He tries to be subtle in pulling out his phone, checking the time—already thirty minutes and they’ve only seen the turtles and penguins. And the penguins only for a minute or two.
He wanders off to the next exhibit, thinking she’ll follow, and keeps wandering. Looking for a restroom, or somewhere to sit, or he isn’t sure what. He finds himself at the gift shop, asking the young girl working behind the cash register if she has a pen he can borrow. And something to draw on.
“Like, what do you mean?”
He looks at her, not sure what she’s asking, not sure what he meant.
“Like, for your kid to draw on?”
“Yes,” he says. “Exactly.”
It is her turn to look at him unsure, though she started this, didn’t she? Why would she ask about a kid and then not believe him? He looks around, behind him, left to right, like how he imagines he might if looking for his kid. If he had a kid. He waves at a spot just out of her line of sight where a kid might sit. He holds up a finger. One minute.
“I have some coloring sheets,” she says when he’s turned back to face her. “And crayons.”
He takes them to the table where his imaginary child—son? daughter? and why isn’t he/she with his/her mom, still looking at the turtles, or maybe on to the giraffes by now?—is waiting. He starts drawing. He draws each animal as he imagines he would be looking at them—lions and otters and gorillas and bald eagles. He can’t remember the last time he drew anything, even a doodle. He filled stacks’ worth of sketch pads when little, his parents always encouraging him, complimenting every new drawing he showed them, but he was always disappointed. He could never get them just right—the lines all wrong, the shading too dark or too light. They never looked like what he saw before he started drawing. Or, they looked exactly like what he saw before he started drawing. He wanted some kind of magic to happen, something unexpected between imagination and drawing. If they looked just as he’d imagined, why bother with the next step at all?
And then she was back, over his shoulder, not asking where he’d been like he expected, but picking up his drawings, flipping through. Each was rendered over the same preprinted outline of a mother elephant with her baby; each depicted one of the exhibits she’d stopped at and watched.
He wondered how much time had passed, how long they’d been there. He thought it odd, the way the guidebook had put it: the entire zoo, in half an hour. The zoo itself, sure, but not the animals it housed. What an odd way to put it, he thought again.
Aaron Burch is the author of How to Predict the Weather and the editor of HOBART: another literary journal.