Behind the Waterfall
There was also a fishkeeper, named Kyle. Ron was the keeper of the gargantuan reverse osmosis water filter, and what pumped fresh water through all the aquaria, and all the crazy building engineering. The man for the mammals was old Harry. He’d worked together forever with the bird keeper Ghini before they both went to birds for a time and then finally arrived at Amazonia together.
Freddy learned that it was okay to call them by their first names, but everyone always said to him:
“Good morning, Freddy Guzman.”
“That’s pronounced dendrobates pumilio, Freddy Guzman.”
“Get to work and stop flirting with the girls, Freddy Guzman.”
“Parrots have the personalities of violent two-year-olds, Freddy Guzman, so don’t get too close…”
“Get to work and stop flirting with the girls, Freddy Guzman.”
But, most often, it was, “Time to do crickets, Freddy Guzman.”
Crickets were Freddy’s favorite part of the day, because he got to touch bugs, and also because the volunteers got left alone in there, and they’d sneak and turn up the little radio, take their time. All the other volunteers at Amazonia were girls, which surprised Freddy.
Once, frog keeper Josh even said, “Freddy Guzman, I’m relieved to have a guy volunteering.”
“Yeah, I have to get the spiders and the hissing cockroaches, right?”
“No. There’s really heavy stuff, and it helps to have someone tall to get down the wall over pool two to reach those drains… You’ll have to ask the girls if you can switch one day and do the hissing cockroaches.” And a hard pat on the back, “Sorry, man.”
At least crickets were a big enough dirty job for everyone to have to take turns doing it.
Juana, Chloe and Rachel all went to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Katie Lynn had just graduated from Holton Arms (Freddy told KB a few times it sounded like she went to a school for assassins). And, then there was Freddy, the fifth kid… Oh, and Sam, a retired guy who drove all the way in from Germantown to volunteer starting at 8am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He was quiet except for when he did demonstrations for the visitors, and he never complained about anything. Ever. The girls sort of whispered above Nicki Minaj on the radio that they found out weird Sam played poker with all the zookeepers some Saturday nights. And, he kept winning.
Freddy was curious, but never met any of the custodians, though. They either worked too late, or too early for a volunteer.
“Do you guys know their names, in case I seem them.”
“They speak Spanish.” said Chloe.
Rachel, focused on scraping the bottom of the glass cricket tank with a small razor, distracted Freddy from saying any more when she waggled fingers in his face for a paintbrush. He leaned down beneath the table to get it.
Juana rolled her eyes at Chloe, with Rachel. “Anyways, you could still talk to people who speak
Spanish even if you don’t. Don’t assume. Just say hello.”
“Freddy, aren’t you Spanish?”
“I’m Guatemalan. And, black.”
“Speak Spanish then.”
“Look Chloe…” Rachel finally spoke up, then she gave up. “Come help me make the water jars. I can’t carry all of them.”
Katie Lynn came into the cricket room right after they did. She was balancing cafeteria trays of cornmeal and fishflakes sprinkled on. “Mira, mira… se pone algo de papa en los dos… cortado de smiley faces.”
It quieted Juana and Freddy both.
Juana laughed, “You’re like the blondest girl ever… but you’re good. You even have an accent. God, you make like A-plus, pluses in Spanish right?”
Katiebeth squatted, making a drama of trying to put both trays of cricket food down at exactly the same time on the low table near the baby stingrays. Freddy burst into laughter. “Es loca.”
“You love me ‘cause I’m crazy! Loca, loca, loca!”
“Oh God,” Juana set down her brush and scraper, “Now she’s singing and dancing like Shakira, oh God—”
“Look, lady, I come from Mount Pleasant, so I hear Spanish all the time. I love it. I love speaking it… yeah, I guess I do have an accent too.” Katie Lynn tried to get up the one-step step stool and hug Juana from behind, which made Freddy laugh harder. Then, she pretended to fall down on the floor, and when Freddy helped her up, she jumped up and hugged him too. She growled and kept trying to pull him back down on the floor.
Silence. Probably even the crickets crawling around on upturned gray egg cartons inside the dusty, half-cleaned tanks hushed quiet.
Josh the frog keeper was there. Of all the others, he was the one who really supervised them, and they never forgot it. “K.L., you have too much energy today. Let’s talk about that a moment… while you empty the monkey pans upstairs.” And he beckoned her like a ninja clapping one hand at himself in some fight movie.
She stopped everything, bowed in half, and even got a smile from Josh before he spoke firmly to her safety in the cricket room.
“I got her in trouble, didn’t I? It’s my fault, I shouldn’tve let her fall down again…”
“Pfft—tienes miedo de Josh?”
A defensive no, “It’s just that he keeps calling me by my whole name, it’s weird.”
“Then you have a crush on K.L. Oooh! Racheeeeel, Chloeeeee… guess who’s like in love with and gonna’ marry Katiebeth! Haha!”
Freddy clawed hands down into his baseball cap and rushed out of there, saying he felt bad and was just going to go help with monkey pans, that’s all.
“Whateveeer, Freddy Guzmaaaaaan…”
When Freddy got upstairs to the rainforest part of the exhibit—mostly all were real trees and, an old sloth, Titi monkeys, one parrot and several more tropical birds—Katie Lynn, the sweet and crazy blonde girl, was carrying two heavy silver pans of monkey food, and some smaller bird food pans all by herself.
“Argh! I feel soo awful, K.L. Josh made you do all this?”
“No, but I don’t want to make him any madder, so I’m getting extra bonus points.”
“He might be mad if you take away some of the animals’ food before it’s the time to do it…” but took more than half of the clanging pans and helped her carry them. They both shuffled through the last visitors of the day who were standing in the paved path, aiming a camera. Then, Katie set down her stack of pans to reach a key at her belt, then lean over the green gate and unlock it. Both volunteers pushed it to behind them, then began to squeeze between monstera vines, brush and trees behind set up above the simulated Amazon river below. A pair of blue-bodied cardinals flew overhead. Two more silver pans set up on stands came into view as they pressed against the wall and rounded a corner. “Oooh, Doctor Livingston, I presume? Muahahahah….”
Freddy burst into laughter again. “You’re so insane.”
Katie Lynn stopped abruptly then, he tripped over her, then she turned and placed a hand on his belly to steady him. Katie smiled. Katie felt along his shirt, then squeezed his hip. “Are you mad at me?”
“Good.” And then she went up on her toes and kissed Freddy’s lips, kissed him again. Behind the trees. Beneath the birds and the sloth and the white greenhouse sunlight gleaming hard around them. They held one another, after. Freddie looked down at Katie Lynn and behind her was a waterfall.
Then, she was gone.
Freddy freaked, out thinking about how the busdriver Marlin warned him not to do that, not to do anything with the girls at his first job, and how he’d messed that up, and worried that she’d disappeared and popped into existence on the bus by accident or something, or cursed or worse than that even.
Then, she was back. “I’ve got the last pan. You get that one over there. Now, let’s go, Freddy Guzman.” She pursed her lips and donned keeper Josh’s deep voice.
“Oweema weh, oweema weh, oweema weh, in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps toniiiiight—”
“What happened? Are you okay? Are you mad at me?”
“It was good.” She smiled up at him.
A whisper, “Your kiss.”
“Uh… wait, so it was okay?”
“It was spectacular! It was amazing and it was fireworks! Wanna come to the Fourth of July with me?”
“That already happened. It was last week!”
When they got back to the green gate, Freddy stopped Katie Lynn. He grabbed a panicked look around the last bunch of visitors first, to make sure they hadn’t been seen. “You were the one who kissed me… are we… so you want to go with me…?” Freddy had a breath. He pulled himself together and smiled until Katiebeth’s worried look disappeared. “Would you like to go out with me, sometime? The Fourth of July is over, but… there’s a movie theater right by the zoo. Wanna go? Like, today or something?”
“But you just now kissed me—”
“I gotta clean up and change first! I can’t go in my volunteer stuff, haha!”
“You scared me.”
She hugged him. Freddy rubbed her shoulders a moment, then made himself stop. But, the visitors had gone from the rainforest.
The movie was not what Freddy expected. There was only one screen and one choice. But, that didn’t matter. Katie Lynn wore a beautiful green sundress, and had a flower in her hair, and she smelled like… like honey, or something… and they whispered together in Spanish, making fun of the movie, one another, the volunteers, the animals at Amazonia, everything for the whole hour. Then, she let him kiss her again. Many more times.
“So… do you like being my girlfriend?” The walk home was a long one, back down the hill that
Freddy mostly only knew as the road the H4 bus always flew up or down. One bus passed them now.
The driver wasn’t Marlin.
Katie pulled on his hand, to get him walking again. “Freddy, you weren’t even listening to me.”
The road had gone past an apartment building on the other side of the street and so many trees on a steep incline almost spilling over into the sidewalk on their side. Someone had actually built a house way up there? Two houses?
“I said yes.”
Suddenly, the sun broke ahead, all the trees opened up in an amazing green ring on hills climbing up either side. He knew, now, that the zoo was just over there, the creek flowed beneath the bridge ahead, and Mount Pleasant was waiting high, high up, past the beautiful mural, at the summit of everything. He could not see their neighborhood but he just knew. They’d really lived there together the whole time and never known one another? Always going up and down on the bus, but he’d never put his feet on the ground and just walked. Their home had always been this beautiful?
“Let’s always walk to Amazonia together, and back. Could we, Freddy?”
Freddy looked down at Katie Lynn. He felt his teeth chatter, a little, till he took a calming breath.
“Always, always, always.” He said.
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