I don’t mind the gawkers, but my ex-wife Sheryl hated the attention. She’d say the type of person who comes to the zoo is the same type of person who slows down to rubberneck a car wreck. Whenever I reminded her that was the whole point, that we were supposed to entertain and educate guests about the ins and outs of a loving, married human couple, she’d always retort: “I don’t remember agreeing to love anyone.”
She was right. She hadn’t.
I was sentenced here for selling an ounce of weed. For a while, the exhibit was called The Life of a Pious Bachelor. I’d spend all day raising and donating fake money to real churches. I guess the courts figure if we imitate who they want us to be for long enough, we’ll keep on imitating this made-up person forever.
Sheryl showed up around a year ago, and they renamed the exhibit The Idyllic Life of Married Americans. For authenticity, the zookeepers forced us to tie the knot for real. Each guided tour was the same. We’d begin in the kitchen, Sheryl cooking breakfast while I read a months-old newspaper. We’d exchanged pre-written lines like: “How did I get so lucky?” We’d finish eating, and Sheryl would kiss my cheek goodbye. I’d go to the dummy office attached to our pseudo-studio-set home and pretend to answer calls and check emails. Sheryl would pretend to vacuum and wash dishes. We’d end in bed talking about our days like stars from some cheesy 1980s sitcom.
Last Saturday, we got divorced.
The day started normally. I’d gotten up late; I tend to oversleep. I have nothing to wake up for, no one waiting for me at the zoo’s gate. I’ve never done anything worthwhile to miss. Sheryl had a life to get back to, had friends who’d sneak her snacks and trinkets. When I slid the half-Windsor to my Adam’s apple, she was already in her dress. She glanced at the clock next to the cots behind our mock house and mumbled something. I didn’t blame her for being pissed. If we weren’t ready by the time the zookeepers arrived, they’d threaten to tack on years.
I finished threading my arms through my state-issued blazer just as the zookeepers appeared behind the plexiglass. They all look the same. Same gray polo with the zoo’s logo, a giraffe with the scales of justice pinched between its teeth. Same short crew cut. Same cattle prod dangling at their waists.
One of the zookeepers shoved a box into the compartment they used to deliver our meals. I retrieved the box and opened it. Inside was one of those dolls whose eyes close when you tilt it downward. “Congratulations,” another zookeeper said. “You’ve just had a baby.”
On the stove, speakers emitted the sound of sizzling bacon. Sheryl cracked a fake egg and dripped the counterfeit protein into a skillet. I flipped to the Sports Section. Across the table, our plastic child sat in a highchair. Savory smells blasted through the air vents to make our guests’ mouths water for their own slice of marital bliss.
“Breakfast is almost ready,” Sheryl said. “I hope you’re hungry.”
Field-tripping students pawed at the plexiglass. Their teachers hovered like vultures. A zookeeper spouted fabricated details about how Sheryl and I met: high school sweethearts who waited until marriage.
“I’m starved, dear.”
Sheryl carried over our plates. I folded the newspaper. As we mimed eating, a zookeeper informed the crowd about how through hard work I’d been promoted to assistant manager, about how Sheryl took pride in her home.
“Well, dig in…”
Sheryl turned away. At first, I thought she was glaring at the kid up front who was giving us the finger. Then I noticed she was looking behind the little punks at a man packed into a navy suit. The man smiled at Sheryl like he knew her. He was leaning against the back wall, one hand relaxed on his hip, the other holding the arm of a stuffed animal version of our next-door neighbor, Milo the Mountain Lion.
Sheryl touched her arm. A zookeeper banged on the plexiglass, and she jerked her hand away like she hadn’t realized what she was doing.
“I refuse to be your stuffed animal anymore,” Sheryl said.
“Stick to the approved material,” a zookeeper piped into the exhibit.
Sheryl grabbed my plate and displayed the fake calories. She lifted our son out of his highchair and popped off one of his arms, revealing his hollow insides. Then she pointed at me like I was standing in a police lineup.
“I don’t know him, and he doesn’t know me,” Sheryl said.
Two zookeepers stormed the back entrance. Lightning jumped from their cattle prods. Kids screamed. Sheryl darted back and forth as the zookeepers attempted to herd her into a corner. She was right. I didn’t know her, at least not how two people in love are supposed to know each other. I pushed one of the zookeepers to the ground. The other went to zap Sheryl, but I stepped in front of the cattle prod, sending ants crawling through my veins.
Sheryl shrank and shrank until she was just a black dot.
They’ve renamed the exhibit The Life of the Regretful Divorcee. I now spend all day crying and apologizing for being a bad husband. I don’t know what happened to Sheryl, if she escaped, if she got to stop pretending. I do know the zoo is getting an elephant today. Apparently, this elephant killed a group of poachers. They’d sedated her and were sawing off her ivory when she woke up and gored them all to death.
Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in TIMBER, Cleaver Magazine, Oyez Review, Tampa Review, Vestal Review, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Musgrove.
Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson