Laura, Keeper of the Red Pandas
Before I talk about Halloween and Corey Fisher and the two of us in the coat closet dressed as toilet paper mummies, let me start with Mom. Mom grew up in Chicago. As a teenager, she worked summers at Brookfield zoo. Head zookeeper of the petting zoo.
All her stories from that time start with “Once we had.”
“Once we had a baby elephant that stole a woman’s purse.”
“Once we had a baby kangaroo that jumped into a woman’s arms”
Once Mom bought me a pop-up book named Mammals of the World. I was five, earning a reputation as the “kissy girl” because I kissed Alfonso five times on the cheek. I asked another friend if I could see his underwear. Big deal. If my curiosity about Alfonso or the underwear had been a zoo, it would be that dinky fifteen acre “zoological park” in Amarillo with the boring Longhorns and Monkey Island.
When I was five, I opened Mammals of the World and saw a red panda. This curiosity was different than the underwear and kisses. It grew and grew until it became the size of the National Zoo. One hundred and sixty-three acres. An enclosure of pandas and Lemur Island. My life’s mission revealed itself. Become a zoo keeper. Live among the red pandas.
Now, I’m ten. Behind my belly button the call of the red pandas still purrs. And I hear it loudest when I steal glances at my friends’ bras and touch the logos on their chests.
The sounds are familiar. Thirty minutes ago familiar, when Corey Fisher walked in on me changing. Corey’s eyes widened as I stood before him, nipples bare as the swinging tits of the Monkey Island spider monkeys.
So what has me pulling at my fingernails tonight is whether or not I feel the purring with Corey Fisher. Corey Fisher who apparently forgets how to knock on a bedroom door before entering. Corey Fisher who said we should TP ourselves, hide in the coat closet, jump out, and scare the trick-or-treaters. He said that could be our act in the haunted house his mom and my mom have put together. Which is why his mom is standing at the front door, ready to greet the trick-or-treaters, while my mom waits down the hallway. And Corey and I are in the coat closet, ribs cage to cage, among my parents’ forgotten winter coats, rain slickers, and church jackets. One of Mom’s shoulder-padded jacket butts against my face. I punch it away. The jacket rebounds from the closet wall, hits my neck.
“Back! Stay back,” Corey says, elbowing a ski jacket. He’s eleven. He’s tall enough to reach the closet’s top shelf, where Mom keeps her animal hats. Flamingos, ducks, and crabs.
Once my family had a dog who liked to raid the guinea pig burial site. When we returned home, she gave herself away by hiding in the bedroom.
Since the incident, he hasn’t blushed, avoided, or apologized. I huff. Cross my arms and think about the autobiography Mom and I wrote for English homework last night. The paper started with Mammals of the World and ended with me becoming head keeper for the red pandas at the National Zoo.
Once, Corey told me that when he’s an adult, he’s going to own five chinchillas. I raise both my eyebrows at him. A house of chinchillas compared to a life spent among the red pandas—
“Do you hear that?” He says, interrupting my thoughts.
I shake the dust out of my head. “No, I don’t hear anything.”
“I think I hear someone coming up the breezeway!”
The doorbell rings.
“They’re here!” Corey sings, squeezing further back behind the ski jacket. I sigh and let the shoulder pad win the fight for my face. Mrs. Fisher opens the front door. There’s a chorus of kid-voices shouting, “Trick-or-Treat!”
She chimes, “Welcome to our haunted house.” She’s dressed as a pumpkin. She’s wearing a blimp, orange pillowcase with black triangle eyes and a mouth that would not get A+ stickers at the dentist.
Last year, Mrs. Fisher was my fourth-grade teacher. I met Corey when his family popped into our house for dinner. Surprise! My mom isn’t any regular PTA mom. Not only did she start up an animal program at my elementary school and organize ferrets, bearded dragons, even a chinchilla into the classrooms, but, then at the end of the school year, she invited my teacher over for dinner.
Mom and Mrs. Fisher became BFFs. Corey’s younger sister and my younger sister Kristin became BFFs. Corey and I are as close to BFFs as I can be with a boy that has cooties.
In the closet, we hear the shuffle of the trick-or-treaters coming inside. “I will be your tour guide for your stay here,” Mrs. Fisher says and lets out a throaty high-pitched cackle. One of the trick-or-treaters proclaims they’re not scared. I think just wait. Last year, Mrs. Fisher caught me pinching my friend Crystal’s butt, and I saw exactly how scary she could be.
“What do we have here?” Mrs. Fisher says. “A T-Rex and… a jackrabbit?”
“I’m a Jackalope,” the kid squeaks.
“Only in Texas.”
Corey starts jiggling his leg. “It’s almost time,” he whispers, even though it’s not. Mom still has her bit of the routine to do. I slump into the jacket’s shoulder pad. Rotate my head and gaze through my left eye at Corey. My belly starts to chatter and trill.
Once we had matching BFF rope bracelets, but now I don’t know what’s going on. I furrow my eyebrows and glare. You listen here, Corey Fisher, I think, I don’t know what zoo this curiosity with you is building, but this kissy girl only wants the National Zoo. I want to feed red pandas their daily 200,000 bamboo leaves. Pet their red fur. Feel my curiosity pop out from the imaginary of books and into the real.
In the entryway, Mrs. Fisher says, “And now, I want you to meet my sister.”
On cue, Mom goes “whoooo” from the hallway. She’s abandoned her baggy khakis and animal shirts and gone rogue, borrowing a red belly dance costume, which she threw over a white turtle neck and leggings. I picture all five feet ten inches of her dancing down the hallway, her long legs like stilts. Permed duck fluff crowns her head.
“Hellooooo,” Mom moans to the trick-or-treaters. “I’m the older sister, Genie.” No one lectured Mom to be scary. We figured the turtleneck was frightening enough. “I want to introduce you to another member of our family.”
Well-rehearsed, Corey and I know now is when Mom pulls a picture frame from behind her back. She slowly rotates the frame to show the trick-or-treaters my dead grandfather.
The audience gasps.
“This is our Dad!” Mom howls.
“Oh, how we miss him!” shrieks Mrs. Fisher.
“He died seven years ago!” Mom wails.
Corey pokes my ribs. “It’s almost time,” he whispers. Excitement runs like static electricity from his squirming arms to the ski jacket to the shoulder pad to my face. My belly starts to chatter and bellow. The sounds are familiar. Thirty minutes ago familiar, when Corey Fisher walked in on me changing. Corey’s eyes widened as I stood before him, nipples bare as the swinging tits of the Monkey Island spider monkeys.
When I was five, I opened Mammals of the World and saw a red panda. This curiosity was different than the underwear and kisses.
For a second, I was lock-limbed. When I snapped awake, I laughed and told Corey to get out. I dove headfirst into a long-sleeved shirt. The door shut. Against the itchy fabric, I heard the bellowing of whatever was caught in my stomach.
And now, with those same sounds whirring in my belly, clarity comes to me as a zoo park map spread behind my eyes.
The chattering—Monkey Island. The bellowing—the long horn cows. My eyes fly open. I see Corey with his hand on the door handle. I step away from him, back into the shoulder pad. No, I think. This kissy girl isn’t going anywhere.
“Now,” Mrs. Fisher says. “There’s one more member of our family we want you to meet. You’ve met my sister Genie…”
“Ooooooooo,” sings Mom.
Mrs. Fisher inhales. In that pause I imagine all the mummy toilet paper falling away. I imagine stepping instead into a zoo keeper costume. Khaki pants. Green shirt with white National Zoo lettering.
Laura, Keeper of Red Pandas. Kissy girl no longer.
“Now, we want you to meet the last member of our family. Meet our mummy!”
The red panda keeper leaps ahead of Corey. She jumps out of the closet, raises her arms, and screams, “BOO.”
All the zoo sounds from my belly stampeded into the entryway. The shrieks from the children. The high-pitched peals of Mrs. Fisher’s laughter. Corey wheezing as he doubles over on the floor. My mother’s throaty wailing.
In my autobiography, I became a zoo keeper like my mom. I got married. My husband and I moved together to Nepal so I could study red pandas in the wild.
What if your husband just died, Mom had asked while we were writing. Wouldn’t that be so weird and funny? Yes, yes, yes, I’d said, howling. That would be hilarious.
We wrote the scene like this: one day, my husband and I were in the forest, scouting for red pandas. Then soldiers appeared. They shot him.
I spent my life living among the red pandas.
Mrs. Fisher hands the trick-or-treaters their Kit-Kats and Reese’s. Corey snatches a handful of candy for himself and dashes into the coat closet. “C’mon Laura,” he calls. “I think I hear the next batch.”
Instead, I step toward Mom. I take her hand. Mom twirls me under her puffy, red belly-dancer sleeve. I spin in the orange light and know that at the next sleepover, I’ll ask my friends to show me their bras. I’ll ask them to show me their arm pit hair.
The next wave of trick-or-treaters comes up the breezeway. Mrs. Fisher says, “Quick, quick, get in your places,” so I skip over to the coat closet as Mom dances back up the hallway. Corey perches next to the shoulder pad. I stand by the door. I put my hand on the handle. Hear the wild red panda purr of my stomach. “Welcome to our haunted house,” cackles Mrs. Fisher. Laura, Keeper of the Red Pandas, grins.