“No, I’m seventeen.”
Freddy shook his head at the woman sitting at the desk. The Visitor’s Center at the National Zoo had two or three anterooms that were used for summer camps during the week and children’s birthday parties on weekends. Freddy could hear kids singing at some kind of animal game through the walls.
The classroom chosen for what had once been Marion Barry’s DC Summerworks orientation had little chairs, a teacher’s desk, everything. Freddy had been so nervous about working. Now he wanted to laugh.
“You’re nearly too old to do the program; we cut off at eighteen.” The old black lady said. Freddy raised his eyebrows. “And, you’re at Amazonia—that’s lucky.”
Earlier, while she explained basic job duties, showing up to work on time and that he should never forget his uniform, Mrs. Sanders added that it had been her husband’s project originally—it was his idea to help recruit local kids to work at the zoo. And, she’d met her husband at the zoo when they were both working together in the office, and how he used to be such a funny guy who really believed in watching out for the youth. Freddy knew by her intonation, a black elder’s sudden raised eyebrow, and hanging on the word “our” that it meant she and her husband were especially worried about the black children. Black and brown. Black and Latino. Going to Bell Multicultural High School, he’d seen teachers and grownups put them all together all the time. “Our” kids. Why? Because, sometimes it felt like Black and Latino kids needed the most help. Freddy appreciated it and felt a sense of pride now that he was finally old enough to understand everything. You graduate, then you get to college. Don’t get somebody pregnant. Don’t do drugs, don’t become a statistic…
Yes, Freddy had finally graduated.
“… Freddy Guzman, you just call me Miss Amelia if you need anything.”
“Yes, Mrs. Sanders.”
“No, I’m Amelia Sanders.”
Freddy confused, but before he’d left the Visitor’s Center, he learned what it meant. Camp counselors, kids, security guards, the guy at the front desk with even bigger glasses than she had—all of them nodded and gave “Miss Amelia” a real hello, asked about her own kids, asked if she needed anything. And then, their eyes flitted to Freddy if they had enough time, and congratulated him, for being in such good hands. “Miss Amelia” was a show of respect.
“You’re like the Don or something.”
“Go get to work, young man.”
And Miss Amelia Sanders held one of the black and glass doors open for him with one large arm and a tiny frayed rose-and-purple friendship bracelet someone little must have made for her.
Freddy had never heard of anything like that. If he worked at the zoo long enough, would he get to be Mr. Freddy? Wait, was the busdriver Mr. Marlin, then? Freddy was so nervous, he tried to forget about the flying H4 bus… flying H4 bus? Gah!
Stay calm. Amazonia is at the bottom of the zoo. Get there on time… and the more Freddy thought about it, he sensed the Miss Amelia thing was a girl-only thing. Well, a woman thing. Could Miss Amelia fly?
The rainforest exhibit called Amazonia was way at the other end of the zoo, where Marlin had offered to drop him off. Freddy had plenty of time to think of Miss Amelia flying through the air, losing her gold glasses, her little kid’s pink friendship unraveling apart, Marlin honking the bus horn, trying to lean through the window and snatch hold of her with one ashy arm, and how really fucking hot it was, and how nice it would have been if Freddy had known that Amazonia was on this end of the zoo, he could have asked Marlin to wait and drive him. Wait! No cussing…
|Prarie dogs hug-a-lugging at the zoo.|
Olmstead walk took him past zebras, ostriches, pandas, some guy named Przewalski’s horses, an orangutan peeing on a family posed for a picture from stories above on the… O-Line? Haha! Cool! Then, round the corner and he read a sign for Lemur Island though there weren’t any lemurs he could see, then the coolest carousel ever and for real? He was fo’ sho’ going to ride the naked mole rat first chance, and then there was a random dinosaur statue for some reason, an empty prarie dog sandbox, lion tiger hill, a parked van with a zebra butt painted on—uh, what? Down into the Kids Farm, some donkeys, then Freddy let himself pet a brown cow, and then he walked a long path walled with bamboo bowing gently overhead. So green, so green… It smelled so fresh, like a commercial. Somehow, he knew the building must be… this building. This special one with the mysterious, unadorned walls right now, no sign yet. A drumroll in his heart.
Amazonia. At last, Freddy smiled at real jungle-looking trees pressed up against the glass of a greenhouse that took what became the entire face of the building. Were they real? He climbed up on a fake wooden boardwalk and dyed ropes next to the glass. He put his whole hand on the warm glass while he tried to see. Beyond a whorling puff of steam, leaves dancing as they were pelted beneath a bright waterfall, a pink bird with long odd legs and a long odd flat beak brought its head up and began staring back at him.
“Shit! So cool—”
“In ten second, you ‘bout to be late.” Somebody was saying. “…seven, six, five… Freddy Guzman, you wanna try running, man?”
Freddy looked up to see a tall, almost bald, lumberjack looking black man in a zookeeper’s uniform holding the door open for him across the way. This man kept looking at his watch.
“Oh shit again! Sorry—I mean… Good morning. Sir. So you’re—”
“I’m Josh.” And then, Keeper Josh surprised Freddy with a very firm handshake, like at his college interviews.
“So many black people work at the zoo!”
“But what do you do? Do you clean the cages? Do you work with the commissary? We took a tour of that place, where they make animal food.”
“I helped them discover chitrid fungus, Freddy Guzman. It’s what’s been endangering frogs all over the planet.”
And Keeper Josh always called him by the whole name, Freddy Guzman, after that.
1, Busdriver Marlin :: 2, The Quiet, Angry-Faced Girl :: 3, Love, After the Deer Apocalypse :: 4, Moises “Emperor Crush” Romero :: 5, Screaming in Spanish :: 6, His Hoodie :: 7, Amazonia :: 8, Behind the Waterfall :: 9, The Cricket Queen :: 10, Don Juan’s