THE ZOO by Matt Whelihan

by Matt Whelihan

A week after the classes ended, the community service started.

Seven of us stood in a small lot outside of a small zoo. It was the kind of place single dads with child support payments take their kids because it’s close and cheap.

It was only October, but the blades of grass that had managed to make it through the gravel of the parking lot were encased in frost. We all stood with our hands stuffed in our pockets, continually shifting, hoping to generate some warmth.

I never did learn their names, but there was the Girl in Black, Gray Beard, Yoga Pants, Grandma, Dude, and the Mess. I resented them all just like I had to come to resent everyone involved in the process.

I wasn’t an asshole; I just shouldn’t have been there. They were the type of people to take fuck-ups and turn them into badges of honor, a good anecdote, a reason to toast and raise a middle finger to the world. That wasn’t me. I had no underlying issue, no history of self-destruction. They were a sad collection, and I didn’t need the degrading reinforcement that they did.

Carl was in charge. He pulled up in a pickup with the zoo’s logo on the door. He was wearing a baseball cap with “8 Point” written across the top and a picture of a buck below. His face was fighting to decide if it wanted a beard or just mutton chops. Either way, he looked like an idiot. He gave us his good-old-boy speech about being through the ringer once or twice himself, about how he wasn’t there to judge us, just there to make sure we did our work.

He led us slowly through the zoo. We passed some haggard looking otters on a cement island covered in chipping paint, three wolves that slunk just enough to prove they were alive, a sleeping capybara, and two small monkeys in a wire cube.

We stopped by a muddy square of earth next to a small corral with two donkeys inside. The patch was dotted with the stubby remains of thick, wooden posts. It was hard to tell what had once been there—whatever had rested on top of the posts was long gone—but Carl told us to dig up what remained. He handed out some shovels, and then he left us to it.

The rest of them paired off, but I worked alone, jabbing the tip of my shovel into the hard earth around one of the stumps.

I needed a story for the day, something to tell my parents when I got to their house that night. Maybe hiking, maybe watching football with Scott. Something simple and believable, like the other lies I had already told them.

I could hear Dude talking to the Girl in Black. They were the youngest ones in the group. She looked like she could have been in high school with her black sweat pants, cheap black fleece, and faux-fur lined boots. He just looked like a douchebag with a headband, the kind of guy who fails out of college his fist semester because he discovered alcohol enemas and Adderall.

“So we’re slamming some beers and watching a movie,” he told her, “and we call to order pizzas. They tell us they don’t have a delivery guy for the night, and I’m like, whatever. I’ll grab the pies, you know?”

“Pizza is the best drunk food,” the Girl in Black said.

“I know. I know. So my buddy tells me to take his car, which is this little silver piece of shit. I get in, and I think I’m in reverse, but I’m in drive, and I totally hit one of those cement things at the front of the spots. I hear this huge scrape, but I’m not worried, cause the car’s already a piece of shit.”

The Girl in Black laughed.

“So I finally get out of the parking lot, but his steering is all off, and I think one of the tires was low too. It felt like the wind was pushing the car around or something. And then I realized I was about to miss my exit, so I cut over real fast across those ridges on the highway. Problem was I didn’t realize there was this dip next to the ridges, and the car just totally went up on its side. It was absolutely nuts. The passenger side landed on the ground, so I’m just like hanging from the seat belt. I finally get it undone, and then the cops were there. And then, you know, all of that went down.”

The Girl in Black laughed again.

“That’s crazy,” she said. “I can’t believe you didn’t get all fucked up.”

“Couple scratches, nothing major.”

I stabbed the shovel harder. I wanted to break the head off of it, to tear the post from the dirt with my bare hands. These people were disasters.

For our half hour lunch break, I drove to a Wawa and ate a sandwich in my car. When I got back, I found the group waiting by the bison enclosure. The Mess, the Girl in Black, and Gray Beard were smoking cigarettes. Behind them, three matted bison sniffed at the dirt.

The Mess was staring at me. She was a scrawny, middle-aged woman with bulging eyes and frizzy, red hair. She was wearing a pink, puffy coat that was stained in several places. Even her gaze seemed filthy. I felt myself fighting off a chill.

“You didn’t lose your license?” she asked.


“You’re driving. The court didn’t take your license?”


“Jesus fucking Christ almighty,” she said. “The god damned lawyer tells me there’s no way to avoid losing it, but this guy manages it.”

She looked back at the bison.

“I knew that motherfucker was screwing me,” she said. “I just didn’t know how fucking hard until now. Fucker’s leaving me bowlegged. Can’t keep the license no matter what, he says. Bullshit.”

“I lost mine,” the Girl in Black said.

“Me too,” Gray Beard added before dropping his cigarette to the ground.

The Mess turned back to me. Up close I could see some ruptured blood vessels in one of her eyes. I wondered how far someone had to sink before their face became the witch mask hers had become.

“So what makes you so special? Your dad a cop or something?” she said.

“I have no idea,” I answered.

I was grinding my teeth, unsure how much longer I could hold back. I wanted to share all the terrible insults accumulating in my mind.

“Ah, don’t worry,” she said before stopping to let out a violent burst of coughing. “I’m just bustin your balls. This whole thing’s been nothing but one person after another taking a shit on me.”


When I went to my parents’ house for dinner, I went with the hiking story. They didn’t notice the blisters on my hands from the shovel, and when they asked what was new, I told them about work.

We shared a bottle of wine over dinner, and I realized that in two more weeks, the lies could stop.

The following Sunday, Carl was wearing the same clothes as the week before. He was grinning the way adults do when they want to convince kids they’re cool.

He led us all to a sodden, rutted patch of dirt and weeds. We had to clean it out and smooth the ground. The goal was to expand the petting zoo into the patch and give the kids more space for the Halloween festivities the following weekend.

After Carl pulled some tools from the back of his pickup, he drove off.

The Girl in Black lifted a rake and mumbled, “That guy looks like he’s been fucking something in the petting zoo.”

Dude and Yoga Pants both laughed.

“I’ve been saying that,” the Mess said. “Somebody should be giving that son of a bitch a piss test. Find out what he’s on. Driving around here like he’s in charge. Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s sticking it to a sheep or two.”

No one responded. I wanted to point this out to her.

There was a faint smell of wet hay and manure. We pulled weeds, hacked at stubborn roots, and dropped large stones into a bucket. I could hear Gray Beard and Yoga Pants talking about their kids.

“He’s seven now,” Gray Beard said. “Pretty much does nothing but video games.”

I wondered if his wife had considered divorce. I wondered if his son could sense the aura of failure that surrounded his dad.

“Mine’s in that ‘why this?’ ‘why that?’ phase,” Yoga Pants said. “It’s like, give mommy a minute to herself please.”

She was wearing too much eye liner for manual labor, and her manicured nails and designer ski jacket screamed suburban housewife.

They were dismal parents, the type that never realize they’ve crossed the line into adulthood and need to adopt new responsibilities, new axioms.

I dropped three rocks into the bucket and then the Mess started.

“God damned janitor’s job,” she said to the dirt. “I’m gonna need to get hammered after this. Am I right?”

“Hell yes,” the Girl in Black responded. “This is nasty. This place smells like shit.”

The Mess put down the rake she had been using.

“Someone tell me if you see his truck coming,” she said. “I need to get a taste real quick.”

She removed a small plastic bottle of rot-gut liquor from her coat. She took two big gulps and let some dribble down her chin. Then she wiped her lips with the back of her hand and turned to Grandma, a woman whose face seemed incapable of expression.

“How about you?” the Mess asked. “Need a little pick-me-up?”

“I don’t drink,” Grandma replied, her eyes focused on the weed she was hacking at with a hoe.

“Come on honey,” the Mess said. “We all know that’s a lie. We’re all here for the same reason, and drinkin played a big god damned role in that.”

“I don’t drink now,” Grandma said. “And I won’t drink ever again. It’s not worth it. We give it everything and it gives us back nothing, leaves us with less than what we started with.”

“Gone all AA on us, huh?” the Mess said. “It’s given me plenty of good times. Probably never would’ve gotten laid without it. But, alright, that’s fine. How bout you?”

She held the bottle out to the Girl in Black.

“Nah, I’m good,” she said.

“Oh, come on!” the Mess said. “Last week you didn’t have no problem. Don’t let the wet blanket over here sway you. I know you. I know after this you’ll go out with your girlfriends and get all nice and liquored up, dance your asses off, smoke some weed. So why not just kick things off now?”

The Girl in Black bent down to grab a half-desiccated leaf, and the Mess moved on to me.

“What about you, Mister Special Case?” she said. “Even if you get caught you probably won’t get in trouble.”

“No thanks,” I said.

“Enjoy standing up there on your pedestal, huh?” she said.

My body felt like a series of clamps had been applied, everything begging to explode. This was a woman who didn’t even understand basic hygiene, a woman whose life was a guide to all the ways humans can destroy themselves.

“Probably got mommy and daddy footin the bills too,” she added.

I spun to face her. “You’re—”

She turned to Yoga Pants without even noticing me.

“What’s that, honey?” the Mess said. “You thirsty?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Yoga Pants responded. “Out here drinking, like you’re begging to get more hours. Some people just don’t learn.”

“Some people, huh,” the Mess said. “Why don’t you go ahead and tell me what that means. You calling me stupid? You calling me trash?”

Yoga Pants didn’t respond. She just scraped at some twigs with a rake. The Mess stared at her back.

“You’re the one letting them tell you what to do, sweetheart,” she said. “Just bowing down, asking for forgiveness. Well fuck that. I do what I want. Wanna know what I did wrong? Had a little fun, like I do every weekend. That’s what I did wrong. And now I gotta go to these classes where they preach self-control and they bring up friends and family and society? That’s bullshit cause I ain’t got nobody to hurt. There’s just me, and I’m just having a good time with my life. These little trips to the zoo, they’re nothing but interruptions. They ain’t gonna change shit. No fucking way.”

Everyone continued to work in the dirt. The Mess stared at Yoga Pants. I was still rattled, still ready to finish my sentence and the rest that I had lined up behind it. But before I could, Dude grabbed the bottle from the Mess and took a drink.

“This was a good call,” he said. “Today sucks.”

It was snowing on my last day at the zoo. My parents had invited me to lunch, but I told them I had a date. I told them her name was Sadie, that she was a nurse.

Carl’s truck pulled up in front of us, some Kenny Chesney song playing in the cab.

“Shit,” he said. “You people really drew the short straw.”

He climbed down from the truck and clapped his gloved hands together, explaining that we needed to shovel paths before all the kids showed up at eleven for the Halloween events.

Carl placed me, the Girl in Black, and the Mess by the zoo entrance. I wanted to object, to tell him that I’d be forced to violence if I had to spend any more time near that horrid, skeletal woman. But I kept my mouth shut.

The Girl in Black was wearing sweatpants again, and the cuffs were already soaked from the snow. She wasn’t wearing a hat and her hair was covered in clumps of half-melted flakes, her ears already bright red.

The Mess could barely push her shovel forward, and her body swayed slowly. Something was off, but I didn’t care. It was keeping her quiet, and that was all that mattered.

Carl watched us for a few minutes before giving a thumbs-up and hopping into his truck.

“Thank, Jesus,” the Mess mumbled. “I need to sit down.

There was a bench nearby, but she slumped to the ground.

“Slacking off already?” the Girl in Black asked.

“Sweetheart, if you knew how badly my head was pounding, you’d find me a bed in a dark room. I can’t handle this shit today. I’ve got the granddaddy of all motherfucking hangovers. Last night…whoa, last night.

“Besides, Junior here looks like a strong guy. I’m sure you two’ll have no trouble getting this done without some old lady getting in the way.”

I gripped the handle of my shovel tightly. I wanted to throw it at her.

But it was my last day. I’d never have to see that zoo again, the pathetic state of it, its overall sense of lack. I’d never have to see the Mess again. I’d be gone soon, back to my life, a life so distant from hers. I just needed to shovel, to let the hours work themselves out.

After twenty minutes, the Mess moved to the bench. Once her ass hit the wooden slats, her body jerked forward and she vomited onto the snow. She started to moan, a small bit of puke still dangling from her mouth.

“Gross,” the Girl in Black said quietly.

The Mess giggled in response.

When the zoo opened, I watched the kids charge in dressed as superheroes and pirates, princesses and vampires. Their costumes brought bright bursts of color to the muted zoo, and the cold didn’t seem to bother them.

The Mess stared at their tiny forms, her mouth half open, and I watched the kids avoid her as they went in search of animals and candy.

“You three,” Carl called. “I need you over with the bison. Some little brats threw a bunch of candy and trash at them. Whole area’s a mess now. Just hop over the fence and pick everything up.”

“You want us to climb in there with those things?” the Mess said. “No way. I ain’t no bull fighter.”

I pictured her impaled on a horn, the annoying noises she’d let out.

“They won’t do shit,” Carl said. “They’re big and dumb and slow. Just get the trash out. My boss is throwing a fit.”

The bison area was a bog thanks to the already melting snow. The three animals were near its center, snorting with drooped heads, uninterested in the world.

The fence was made from wooden posts and chicken wire and came up to my stomach. The Girl in Black and I had no trouble climbing over it, but the Mess got stuck with one leg on either side of the top post before falling into the paddock.

“Fuck this place and that pig fucker,” she said. One arm of her coat was covered in mud, and she had a difficult time getting back on her feet. It seemed appropriate.

The Girl in Black walked toward the bison. I started to pick up an empty juice box and some fun-size candy wrappers by the fence. The Mess stood staring at the animals, her face more disgusted than usual.

“Un, uh,” she said. “Community service don’t mean facing down no beasts. One of those things falls on me, I’m dead.”

I wondered if I could make that happen.

I felt soggy and weighed down. The gloves I had on had already been soaked through, and my fingers were numbing, becoming harder to flex as I scooped up trash.


I turned towards the fence and found my Aunt Bridget looking back at me. Next to her were my cousins Anna and Gabe. Anna was dressed as a doctor. Gabe, as Iron Man.

“Hi,” I said, an unwelcome awareness forcing me to stand up straight.

They were confused and did an inadequate job of hiding it. I made a fist around the trash in my hand.

“What’re you doing?” my aunt asked.

The Mess started to cough and spit up on the mud. My cousins eyed her with the kind of disgust reserved for medical oddities.

“Ah, shit,” she said.

She let out a small laugh and grabbed onto the fence for support.

“I’m doing some volunteer work,” I said. “My job sends around this email with places that need help.”

I turned my gaze to my little cousins.

“I thought the zoo sounded fun.”

I tried to smile.

“Bad day for it,” my aunt responded.

She was talking to me, but she kept her eyes on the Mess.

Anna grabbed her mom’s sleeve.

“I wanna see the otters,” she said.

“I want candy,” Gabe added.

“Okay, okay,” my aunt said. “Well, stay warm!”

“Thanks,” I said.

I watched them walking away. My aunt turned and looked back at me, the confusion still there. I knew she’d call my mom before she even left the zoo.

An unpleasant tingling made the rounds of my body, like my nerve endings were flickering and burning out. I tried to think of the story I’d tell, of the next set of lies. Volunteer work as a date? The Girl in Black as Sadie? Maybe it wasn’t all lost.

“Volunteer work, huh?” the Mess said.

She started to laugh.

“What? Are you too good for us?” she said. “Are you ashamed of being a criminal? Of being buddied up with your old pal here? Nothing fancy about you now.”

I whipped my body around.

“Shut the fuck up!” I said as I stepped towards her.

The Girl in Black turned to look at me, and a trio of children and two accompanying adults gave me their appalled attention as they hurried past. Even one of the bison tilted its head in my direction.

The Mess was silent for a second, and then she started to laugh again.

“Face it, Fancy Pants,” she said. “You’re in here with us now.”

I wanted to grab her, to hurt her somehow, to let her know I was nothing like her, that I was nothing like the people in the courtrooms, and the classrooms, and the counseling sessions. I didn’t care if Carl saw. I didn’t care if it meant serving more hours. I just needed to show her.

But then another group of kids walked by. They were shouting and swinging bags of candy. Their parents walked with cheery expressions despite the weather. All of them glanced at the bison paddock where we stood cold and wet and muddy. We held their interest for a moment, and then they moved on, making a clear distinction between what was on one side of the fence and what was on the other.

I turned away from the Mess slowly, my body burning in a new way. I grabbed another candy wrapper from the ground, and she started to laugh again.

Matt Whelihan is an assistant professor of English at Wilmington University. His work has appeared in publications such as Slice, Midwestern Gothic, and River River, and he has stories forthcoming in New Plains Review and Drunk Monkeys. In 2017, he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers contest. He lives in the Philadelphia area.




Image credit:  John T on Unsplash


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