The drive to the Zoo was lovely; Daddy had the windows down because it was warm but not too hot yet. He rested one hand on my thigh, and we talked most of the way there. About how work had gone for both of us that week and how Moo’s recent trip to the vet had resulted in an expensive bloodwork screening for her that only proved she was fit as a fiddle. “So she’s fine, but my wallet doesn’t feel very good now,” I said as a button to the end of my story. It made Daddy laugh, which gave me butterflies. Making Daddy laugh always feels like a little prize just for me. His hand patted my thigh a little while he laughed.
Suddenly, he reached out and turned off the radio, which was playing The Wiggles too low to hear anyway, just as background music. “We’re here!” he announced, and I could see the Zoo buildings in front of us after we passed the horizon of the hill we were on. As we entered the parking lot, we passed a big sign that said:
Marianne Hilstonbury Zoo and Aviary
WELCOMES YOU WITH OPEN ARMS”
Around town, people would usually just call it “the Hilstonbury” to avoid using its full name, but still, give it an air of prestige further than just “the zoo.”
“Who do you think Marianne Hilstonbury was?” I asked Daddy. He chucked a tiny bit. “I guess I’ve never thought about it. I suppose a rich lady who must have really liked animals,” he replied with a big grin. “And birds.” I quickly added, referring to the “and Aviary” part of the big welcome sign. He laughed again as he turned off the car, and we both undid our seatbelts. Daddy got out of the car first, got both of our bags out of the backseat, and then opened the door for me. As we walked to the ticket booths, I put my playpack on, and Daddy rummaged through his to find his wallet.
He had already offered to pay for the tickets when we made plans for the day. I blushed, hearing the extra diapers Daddy had brought for me crinkling each time his hand moved in the bag. The Little Kings diaper I was wearing was cloth-backed- cuddly and soft- but Daddy really liked me in loud, plastic-backed, crinkly diapers that made me blush. He successfully fished out his wallet, and as we locked eyes quickly, I could tell he caught me blushing, and he had a sinister smile on. I knew I would be getting changed into one of those loud diapers later in the day.
He bought the tickets from the nice guy in the ticket booth and asked if we could (please) have a map and a sticker. The “Hilstonbury” had animal heads stickers that they gave kids to wear around the zoo. As soon as Daddy asked for the sticker, the ticket guy’s eyes darted straight to me, and I could feel another big blush holding my face hostage. “No problem!” he said with a smile. He slid a map to Daddy through the window slot and looked in a drawer at his side for a few seconds before pulling out three stickers. “I’ve got a Tiger, an Elephant, or a Giraffe right now, bud.” he said, and I sheepishly said, “The Tiger, please.” and pointed to it. He slid it to me with a smile and said, “Good choice!” We thanked him and walked through the official gate past the ticket booths.
Once we were inside, Daddy took my hand, and we veered off to a little bench just past the entrance. He took the tiger sticker and put it right on my heart, teasing me a little at the same time. “That was very nice of him,” he said, and I tried to hide my enjoyed embarrassment. Rolling off of this emotion, he patted the back of my shorts a few times, a little louder than usual, and said, “Yep, still feels dry back there. Not enough poof in those shorts yet.” and gave me a thumbs up. I reciprocated the thumbs up and glared at him, but I couldn't keep from smiling.
He pulled out the map, and we both scanned it quickly. We knew the basic layout of the zoo and that the cat house was near the other end, but it was always more fun to go through your day with a map. “What do you think we should do first? The Petting Zoo or the Rainforest?” he asked. Both were within view of our bench, and it seemed like the Petting Zoo was fairly crowded, with small children grabbing at goats and throwing pellets of dry animal food at each other. The zoo had just opened a little over an hour prior, and the summer-morning rush of moms and kids was still buzzing. “Let’s start with the Rainforest!” I said, based on this visual assessment. He nodded in agreement and grabbed my hand as we walked over towards it.
Outside of the Rainforest, there was a life-size bronze Hippo sculpture that a couple of kids were sitting on as their mom took a picture of them. The plaque next to it read, “DONATED BY THE HILSTONBURY FAMILY IN THE NAME OF BEAUTY.” Each of the attractions had a big bronze statue of an animal with the same plaque. Marianne’s quiet reminder that even if she were long gone, it was still her zoo. The kids jumped down and ran off with their mom, and Daddy pointed to the Hippo. “Let’s get you up there, Rory!” he said and put his bag on the ground so that he could help me up onto the sculpture. When I was safely straddling the Hippo, he smiled big and went back into his bag, quickly pulling out a Polaroid camera. Daddy liked how polaroids looked better than phone pictures. “They have more soul,” he would say. I smiled towards him, and the camera flashed.
I climbed off of the Hippo and went to him. You could just see the outlines of me and the statue on the developing polaroid, and he said sweetly, “Yea, that’s gonna be a great one.” He stashed the camera again, put the picture safely in a side pocket, and took my hand. We walked into the doors of the Rainforest, an indoor enclosure to keep the humidity, and past the large Monstera plants that lined the entryway… TO BE CONTINUED