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Being at home on a rainy weekend with your eight-year-old son is not the worst thing in the world. It's not the best, either. On one particularly bleak Saturday in March my husband Jerry and I were seriously considering locking ourselves in our bedroom and pretending we couldn't get out. All hope of sending Shep somewhere else to play had been snuffed out by a mushroom-soup mist that obliterated Manhattan's upper West Side (probably the rest of the city too, and maybe even the state, but who cared about that?), and for over an hour we had been assaulted by the most insidious weapons known to modern child... words. Lots of them, specifically those infamous rainy-day deadlies that can turn even the most placid parent into a banshee: "There's nothing to do!"... "I did that already!"... "I don't want to!"... "It's broken"... "I hate it!" In the field of word-to-word combat, Shep was a black belt.
To make things worse, Jerry and I were wrestling with some heavy parental guilt. Since he had been working obsessively on a book for several months and I had spent a lot of extra hours at the office, Shep had really gotten the short end of the family-togetherness stick. Obviously, we were depriving him of... something... fond memories? a firm nuclear family? a healthy basis for future marital happiness? We had no choice. The time had come to right our wrongs, assuage our guilt, and save our sanity. We told Shep to round up his friend Roger and we would all do something special, together. He refused to do so until we assured him that it would not be another puppet show or museum trip, or anyactivity recommended for kids by The New York Times . Shep was eight going on forty-nine.
A friend of ours, whose favorite pastime was keeping abreast of bizarre activities in town (symposiums on the metaphysics of Laurel and Hardy, local celebrations of obscure Serbo-Croatian holidays, and the like), had once mentioned an exotic-pet emporium called Trefflich's. It was a place where wild baby animals were for touching, where children could act out their Born Free fantasies, where parents did not have to carry the kids on their backs or buy balloons. It sounded perfect. We headed downtown.
Once upon Fulton Street there had been a Trefflich emporium of exotic fauna, but time and taxes take their toll, and when we arrived at the new address listed in the phone book we found a small, rapidly deteriorating pet shop with all the exotic atmosphere of a railroad freight station, and what appeared to be a very slim array of unusual animals. The minute we got there something told me we shouldn't have come. It was Shep.
"We shouldn't have come, Mom," he said. He was a strong believer in first impressions. "There's nothing to see."
"Of course there is," I said without conviction. There had to be something in that cluttered feed-and-cage-filled front room to spark excitement. I looked around. There were a few finger-smudged vivariums stocked with sleeping snakes, and an aging parrot that could probably talk but didn't, and a small glass room that housed two puppies, a cat, and three monkeys.
"Oh, wow, look at the monkeys," I said, nudging the boys toward the room.
"They can't go in there," a shop attendant said, slamming the door. It boded ill.
Jerry beckoned to us from a doorway at the rear of the shop. "They're back here."
And they were. Cages of monkeys upon monkeys, mynah birds, a pygmy hippopotamus that we were told was very affectionate and made a great pet for people with large bathtubs, a pair of lion cubs guaranteed to be unmanageable in two years (a fact that to my consternation seemed to increase Jerry's interest in them), and Heinrich, an ape that could have walked off with the lead in any road-show company of "King Kong." Easily.
"Boys, come look at the gorilla," I said, six short words that got me a swift jab in the ribs from Jerry, who as a serious writer had nothing but wild disdain for blatant displays of ignorance, particularly when they were public. Heinrich, he told me through clenched teeth, was a chimpanzee.
It was like learning all over again that there was no Santa Claus. Poof! There went my whole childhood Sheena, Queen of the Jungle fantasy, in which I, dauntless, daring, and stacked in my leopardskin sarong, would swing through the trees with a loving chimp astride my back. I took another look at Heinrich. So long sarong.
"He's nine years old," the attendant said. "Watch this." He turned toward the cage. "What do you think of that, Heinrich?"
Heinrich gave a juicy Bronx cheer.
Jerry seemed enchanted. "Is he hard to handle?" he asked.
"Naw, not really." The attendant proceeded to unlock Heinrich's cage. "Come on out, boy." He extended his hand toward the ape. I wondered whether it was a friendly gesture or a sacrificial offering. Heinrich stood about five feet tall and weighed in at approximately one hundred thirty pounds.
"Has the strength of six men," the attendant said proudly. "And he's toilet trained."
I didn't grasp the connection, but I nodded appreciatively. Anyone that close to Heinrich would nod appreciatively. "What happened to his front teeth?" I asked. There were formidable vacancies in the front of his mouth.
"Pulled. He was a show-biz chimp. No sense taking chances, you know. Wanna see him use the toilet?"
"Well, not really," I said, but too late to stop the attendant, to say nothing of Heinrich.
This time Jerry was visibly impressed. "That's great!" he said.
"Very nice," I murmured.
"What do you think of that?" the attendant said.
Heinrich gave another Bronx cheer.
Shep and Roger missed all of this. They were in the front of the shop, Roger debating whether or not to blow his dollar on some hamster food and Shep squeezing every doggie squeak-toy in the store. They were bored and showing it. It was time to leave.
"Pssssst." One of the animal handlers cocked his head significantly. "Wanna see something?" I froze. (French animal postcards?) He pointed to a kitten-carrying case on the floor behind the counter.
Jerry and I leaned over to look.
The die was cast.
The handler opened the lid and there, lying on a blanket of shredded newspapers, was an adorable and frightened baby chimpanzee. Dark chocolate eyes were set in a light mocha face that was as soft as doeskin, and on his chin was a powder-white fuzz of a beard. His hair was silky and black and parted in the center of his head, bristling out at the sides around two outrageously comic big ears. Something this cute could not be real. It was undoubtedly a very ingenious battery-operated toy. Somewhere on his underside there had to be a tag that said "Made in Japan." But suddenly I was holding him and there was no tag in sight. In one magic moment he threw his arms around my neck, thoroughly wet my coat, and though I did not know it then, totally annihilated a lifetime of rationality and logic.
"Cute little guy, isn't he?" the handler said. "Has a really good temperament, too."
"How can you tell?" Jerry asked.
"Easy," the handler said.
"How old is he?"
"Difficult to raise?"
"Naw. All you need's a playpen with a top to keep him in."
"What about food?"
"Soon as he's off his formula, just give him some apples, bananas, and lettuce, once a day."
"Hmmmmmm," said Jerry.
I didn't like the sound of it.
"How much?" Jerry asked.
"Well... " the handler drawled, "chimps run between eight hundred and a thousand dollars. Like I said, this one is really a good chimp. He's a thousand."
I liked the sound of that even less, but I was reasonably confident it would put an end to Jerry's questions. At that particular juncture in our far-from solvent lives we were about five thousand dollars behind on an impressive amalgam of debts.
"I think the chimp wants to go back into his box," I lied. As much as I wanted to hold him (and that was quite a bit, since I had always loved those hairy anthropoids with a passion I would never confide even to my analyst), I felt that the sooner he was out of my arms the saner Jerry would be.
"Give him a banana," one of the attendants said. He handed me what was left of the one he'd been eating.
At this point, the chimp was doing an awfully good Boston-strangler imitation around my neck. Every time I loosened one of his arms, the other tightened. "I... um... think he's frightened," I said.
"Just give 'im the banana, he'll be fine."
Raising my voice an octave and holding the banana over my left shoulder so the chimp, who had already tasted my ear lobe and was now mouthing my clavicle, could see it, I said, "Would you like a 'nana, boy?" My answer was two of the softest, gentlest lips siphoning the banana from between my fingers. "Oh, wow," was all I could murmur. I was melting.
Jerry was still pitching leading questions at the handler. "Do you think a chimp would get along with a rather exuberant German shepherd?"
The handler was still fielding them. "Why not?"
The handler did not, of course, know our dog Ahab. "Rather exuberant!" Ha! Would you call a Beethoven sonata rather catchy? Raquel Welch rather cute? Ahab was a berserker dog who considered himself our last line of defense against a uniformly and increasingly hostile world. His barks were as effective as most dogs' bites. No one in our apartment house would come near him. They thought he was vicious, and they hated him. If he hadn't been our dog, I would have too.
"Well, hon," Jerry asked, "what do you think?"
"I think you're crazy," I said.
"That's true. But do you like the chimp?"
"Like him? Of course I like him. But I like a lot of things... a house, a trip to Europe, my sanity... "
"Ah, baby, just look at him. How can you resist?"
The truth was that I was finding it increasingly difficult. Every time I tried to hand the chimp back to one of the attendants he cried a plaintive "Hoo-hoo" and clung tighter.
"Looks as if he's found a mamma," the handler said. Right on cue.
The whole thing was happening so fast and was so ridiculously incredible that it was difficult to believe it wasn't all a setup. (Surely any moment, the man posing as my husband would peel off his devastatingly clever makeup and say "Smile! You're on 'Candid Camera'!") Jerry kept saying things like "Forget about the money, what's important is whether we want to take him or leave him for cancer research, the moon, sadistic zoo keepers, perverted organ grinders." (Was this the same man I had married?) My neck itched. My mind fainted. I needed time to revive my senses, to think, away from the squeak of doggie toys and the scent of exotic animals. Jerry agreed. He pried the chimp from me and put him back in the box. We assured the attendants we would return, hustled Roger and Shep away from the feed barrels where they were surreptitiously waging a monkey-food war, and headed for the nearest cup of coffee. We hoped the caffeine would rally our better judgment, whatever that was.
A half-hour and four cups later, not only had our better judgment failed to rally, it had ceased to exist. We had spent the entire time rationalizing the irrational, and our rationalizations were dazzling. What, for instance, was a mere thousand dollars when we could easily earn that much and more by simply making our pet available for modeling jobs? Not that we wanted to make a model out of him, but if it were economically essential, why not? In fact, we felt so confident that an infant chimpanzee would be in theatrical demand that we even toyed with thoughts of how we would spend his residuals. And what trouble could that little mush-faced fluff ball be, really? All we needed were some disposable diapers and there'd be no cage to clean. Right? A few toys and he'd be happy. Right? Some fruits and vegetables and he'd be fed. Right? Did we have a lot to learn!
Walking back to Trefflich's, Jerry asked Shep if he would rather have a baby brother or a chimpanzee. Most children would opt for the chimpanzee, but Shep was not your usual animal-loving, pet-hungry child. For example, at the zoo he actually preferred the mechanical structures of the cages to the animals. But though chimpanzees weren't much to cheer about, baby brothers were ridiculous.
"Are you kidding?" he asked.
Jerry shook his head. "No. Think about it."
Shep pulled a pellet of monkey food from his pocket and flicked it at Roger. "A Chimpanzee, of course."
"I guess that's it," Jerry said. And it was.
When we returned to the shop, a tall man and a well-dressed woman were enthusiastically cooing over "our" chimp. Something primordial inside me panicked. Loath as I am to confess it, I think it was the same something that goes wild at Lord & Taylor's when someone picks up the dress I'm undecided about. The very thought that we might lose the chimp we shouldn't be buying in the first place cemented our resolve. He was ours!
Jerry calmly edged in front of the tall man and wrote out a hundred-dollar check for a deposit, nodding as the attendant explained that the balance would have to be paid in cash and that chimps were illegal in the city. I petted our baby-to-be and listened to Heinrich's trainer carefully explain how the chimp could wear diapers until he learned to use the toilet. His attributes were endless. Could we bear the wait till Monday to take him home? Not that I gave one thought to what we would do with him when he got there; after all, when you fall in love, who cares what happens next? We taxied back uptown suspended in a weird state of quasi reality marred only by the squeaking of a toy that Shep had bought for Ahab and the crackle of Roger's bag of hamster food.
Copyright © 1976 by Hester Mundis
Posted January 2, 2013
No text was provided for this review.
Posted September 4, 2011
No text was provided for this review.