Monday, October 22, 2007

Evolution

There's rough gray carpet around the edges of the glass, surrounding the sharks in a sort of domesticated tranquility. The little children gather around it, their warm hands pressed against the wide pane that towers seven feet, maybe more, over their cowlicked heads, their dusty craned necks, their faces shrouded in sickly green aquarium glow.

The inside of the tank is curved and cylindrical like a soup can, its cement walls coated in mossy film. From the main viewing side, Lana can see across to two hidden portholes, and if she stares long enough, she sees a kid's face appear in the lower of the two as a blacktip sweeps sharply by, cutting another neurotic circular path.

Lana watches, a canvas tote bag weighted down with juice boxes and triangle-cut turkey sandwiches hanging limply over her left shoulder. She is standing contrapposto, posing in a way, as another living exhibition in the zoo's aquarium gallery. Her frizzled dirty-blonde hair is tamed, with much effort, by a red bandana. In an oversized t-shirt and a hand-written name tag, she watches mothers pass by with their own, actual children. She wonders whether they wonder how old she is. If they know that she is pushing thirty. If they could trust a day care that would employ a fragile woman like her. At 12:30, once the kids have tired of the sharks, Lana will seat them at the splintered wooden picnic tables in front of the polar bears, and distribute the lunches. Then she will retreat behind the ladies restroom and smoke a cigarette while she watches a daddy long legs crawl up a drain pipe.

For now, the kids aren't tugging at the legs of her jeans. They are engrossed, captivated by prehistoric silky bodies that seem weightless and hazardous in the water. Lana is repulsed by their black eyes, their gaping mouths. She is bothered that she cannot see her reflection in the side of the tank. The dim lighting in this space makes her feel as though she is drowning, but there are mothers and fathers milling about her, holding the arms of their children, negotiating problems with camera flash against the glass, breathing underwater.

As she moves toward the back of the exhibit to recline on a carpeted bench, one of her charges, Madeline the doctor's daughter, lets out a scream. Its shrillness is absorbed by the fibers in the walls, but it is felt and echoed just the same, from the cavernous mouths of the other children with their unfinished stalagmite rows of teeth. And then Lana sees the source of fear. The smooth-sided body of a blacktip shark rolls to one side, suddenly lifeless and no longer sustaining its own motion. Slowly, it cuts back and forth like a sheet of paper blown from the edge of a desk, and plummets past the viewing window, sinking to the bottom of the tank, leaving no wake.

Madeline runs, flailing to Lana, her stubby pink arms outstretched, plump fingers splayed. Lana watches her gaping mouth, her chubby cheeks, the way she chokes on her own spit when she sobs, and knows that one day Madeline will be ugly. And so she hugs her, the way she's been told to, and is suddenly joined by a mass of other bandwagon seekers of affection, who dutifully rub Madeline on the back of her corduroy jumper, and pat her hair until it is a knotted mess.

Outside at the picnic table, Lana watches the children eat their sandwiches and trade juice boxes, which come in two flavors--grape and apple. One of the boys has a ring of artificial red food coloring around his lips, and he's watching her with heavy, watery eyes. Lana reaches into her back for a pack of cigarettes and swings her tired legs over the bench of the table, heading for a spider-infested patch of dead grass behind the ladies restroom. She'll stay here for a minute or two. Long enough for a smoke. And when she returns everybody will have forgotten about death.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

It's Official.

Ricky Nelson is the hottest teen idol of all time.