Gracile. An esoteric word, certainly. A thesaurus word if ever there were one.
Gloria is gracile. Slender, small, compact. A pixie gold haircut and tanned cheeks. Twenty-two and suffering from recent disappointments reaped from a year abroad interning in Tanzania at the Jane Goodall Institute. Twenty-two, graduated with a biology degree, specialization in zoological sciences, with an interest in primates. Seven months in Dar es Salaam, four near Mount Kilimanjaro, and she’s back in the States no richer or more employable. She does a stint delivering Jimmy John’s sandwiches to kids at Ohio State, old classmates, before she finally lands an interview with the Columbus Zoo to clean bonobo cages.
She shows up at a cinder-block building behind the African Forest region. On the other side of an old metal desk sits a man named Allen, late fifties, director of the animal care staff. It’s hot July and humid as anywhere she ever worked in Africa. They’re in a sort of triage area for paperwork, not a real office, but a concrete room outside the offices with only a window high up in the wall and a screen door to let in the breeze. Gloria thinks she might pass out. She’s so nervous. She’s sweating. She’s attempted to dress mildly zoo-keeperish—shorts and hiking boots, white button-up top.
“You’d be working with Pan paniscus,” Allen says, his graying moustache tinted with the rusty color of tobacco. “Bonobos, to most people, aren’t distinguishable from chimpanzees. Scientists thought they were chimpanzees for the longest time, till about ’28. Guy named Coolidge actually discovered they weren’t. Don’t let anybody tell you it was Schwarz.”
She doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but she nods: Okay. I’ll remember that.
“What I mean is, because they were chimpanzees for so long, people couldn’t give up on the name. The bonobo had to be a version of the chimpanzee. People called them pygmy chimps. Or gracile chimpanzees.” He looks her over. “It means thin. Like you. You’re gracile.”
He reaches across and pats her hands. She doesn’t know how to take this. His fingers linger. “They’re built differently, the bonobos.”
He finally leans back and looks at the ceiling. “They get to me.”
He hires her. She’s assigned the most menial duties, collecting trash, sweeping the walkway where people peer through the glass on the bonobo habitat. In the cages, she shovels feces. She hauls the manure out to barrels. It’s taken away to be processed and sold as fertilizer somewhere in northern Ohio. She also xeroxes schematics of the habitat that highlight problem areas in the vegetation; she files requisitions for playground equipment from a custom manufacturing company in San Diego. She does everything but interact with the animals.
The first few months she searches her old haunts like a ghost who’s forgotten she passed away. She flits about the bar scene she knew from college. The Library, Bernie’s, Chumley’s, a swilling, sticky barrage of bodies and smiles. She cradles a drink, sips and stares, but finds no one she knows. In a single short year all her closest friends have moved on. Her parents, who used to live less than ten miles from here, in Bexley, sold the optometry practice and retired early. They paint and read poetry in Flagstaff now.
Over the phone she tells her mother she’s having trouble keeping up with the bills.
“Maybe you underestimated how nice it was,” her mother says, “bringing your laundry over on the weekends. Having a place to stay during the summer.”
“I just need to get ahead. If I can get a little ahead, I’ll be fine.”
“We can’t send you money. We’re all tied up.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“We could send you a plane ticket. Move in with us?”
“I’m not leaving. This a good job opportunity.”
She tells her mother there’s someone on the other line.
Nights after work, she passes the hospital on her way home. She sometimes stops and wonders which floor the babies are on. It’s not motherhood or wifehood. Honestly, she can’t really imagine those things. It’s more the idea of a group—a collection of individuals to which you belong. In bonobos, it’s called a ‘party.’ She likes that.
Had events gone differently, a certain man might have already been a member of her party. His name was Elvis Leon Montgomery, no lie. At an international fair at the Dar es Salaam University, he introduced himself in Kiswahili, though he was American. He had a rounded and boyish-looking face. He told her he’d come to meet other Americans, maybe even girls. He thought a salutation in the local language might impress them. She said it had.
After that, they spoke over the phone for two weeks. He’d gone to a technical school in Mississippi, but was smarter than that fact implied. She told him so. He’d answered an ad that touted international travel, and he worked as a diesel mechanic at an opencast mine on dumptrucks, nearly eight hundred of them. Despite transportation issues and scant time off, he borrowed a shiny blue Toyota from his supervisor. He drove from Geita to see her twice. They ate dinner and later they embraced in her apartment, though they drew the line at sex and kept their clothes on, feeling giddy and deliciously unsatisfied by the time he drove back in the mornings. The promise of more was close.
A month later, they both traveled with a small group which had been gathered by the UN and a sister university in the States, for a visit to Jane Goodall’s old house at Gombe on Lake Tanganyika. She and Elvis walked along the muddy shore holding hands. As they explored the ugly beach together—despite having known each other so little time—she insisted he give up his job.
His work, she said, went against her principles.
“I don’t know about that,” he said.
She didn’t know either, didn’t have environmental impact studies or know the effects of gold mining on local populations, soil erosion, animal habitats. But it certainly couldn’t be good, any of it. She expressed this to him again on their long trip back across the placid waters. He responded half-heartedly, then looked away at the lush growth skirting the shoreline as if searching for wildlife amid the trees.
They didn’t see each other after that. Maybe he feared the commitment. Or perhaps she’d given him the wrong impression, suggested in some way that her demand was unequivocal. She tried contacting him, to tell him she wasn’t above reason. She’d be willing to work past such a chasm in their worldviews. Maybe this made her weak, she thought, that she was capable of chucking her personal convictions for a chance at romance, but she didn’t much care. The loneliness she’d felt in this foreign country was tripled by his absence. And not all debates relied on the black versus the white. There was always the gray. The wrong impression, she thought. Thought it over and over. I’ve given the wrong impression and now am paying for it.
She traveled to Moshi for a different assignment. She let her new tasks take over to fill up her days. She told herself Elvis was a ridiculous name.
Now driving past the hospital she feels like that was her one shot at love. Stupid, right? She’s twenty-two. Twenty-two! Smart, she thinks. Pretty. Career-minded. Knowledgeable and tough. World-traveled. Her whole life ahead of her.
But what about this bundle of desire in her stomach? Why stare at a hospital and wonder about a room full of newborns? Why crave a family so badly when your whole life lies ahead?
Irrational, she thinks. And yes. Elvis is most assuredly a ridiculous name.
Most days she arrives at the zoo about nine and doesn’t emerge until six in the evening. The entire time she’s immersed in a full-bodied funk. Her clothes are never free of the stink, even after several washings in the ultra-strength Tide she picked up her first day on the job. The smell is deepest in the cages, in the straw and pears, the apples, the half-eaten stems, the mangled browse, the pellets of monkey chow, and where the plucked black fur collects in the corners. After a few weeks, she quits resisting the odor. It happens in an instant. As if a switch is thrown. She embraces the overpowering effluvium of the bonobos, draws it deep into her lungs.
She thinks, This is me. This is my life.
The moment she accepts the scent, she feels a bottomless and abiding love for them all—all twenty-five bonobos, black-bodied, stretching, rolling, climbing, jumping, chattering. She begins to see the poetry in each of their names, how the letters circumscribe their faces. Kanzi, sound of a broken twig thrown into the water, the notched scar between his eyes pallid and pink. Nyota, the stubborn one. Sheldon, who loves television—every afternoon it’s Dora, the Explorer in the behavioral observation room. But most of all she loves Unga. Unga’s bottom lip curving U-like—Uuuuuunga, Gloria thinks.
Gloria has watched Unga for weeks. Unga is about to be a mother. She’s grown heavy-chested and languid as the due date draws near. The staff, the visitors, the media, are all on edge. Then one Wednesday, Unga is whisked away into a private enclosure where she’s made off limits to all but select staff. Immediately there is speculation. She isn’t seen for days. This is unusual.
By the following Friday, Unga has become a topic of gossip. Channel 4 Nightly News begins a segment called ‘Baby Watch.’ They show old footage of Unga over and over again. Visitors crowd the primate habitats looking for a glimpse. Speculation abounds.
This air of expectancy begins to infect the staff. Gloria goes about her duties with a distracted air. She ruminates over Unga as she hauls trash leaking soda and popcorn to the dumpster. Her mop in the restroom makes slow circles over the tiles as she tries to imagine Unga’s thoughts, her unaccustomed isolation, her loneliness.
What is happening to Unga right now? There are rumors there was a complication with the birth, that Unga died. Rumors that the child died, that the zoo officials are waiting until after July 4th weekend to break the news of the tragedy.
Another week goes by and still no word.
Sometimes Gloria touches the outer wall of the building where she believes Unga still lies hidden inside.
At night she drives home and falls asleep in her little apartment off Eighth Avenue. In her lightless room, in an old brick house, she feels more alone than she ever has in her life.
Eminent visitors arrive at the zoo: two primatologists from Georgia drawling and conversing in voices like hot rubber. A veterinary specialist and a PR man from a sanctuary in Kinshasa. The whole complex crackles with life. More rumors. Unga is alive. The birth is quite near. Gloria hears the excitement bouncing off the stone walls of the inner observation rooms. She finishes her duties for the day and hangs about, a broom in her hand, in the break room, hoping for word. She hopes the broom will keep people from realizing she’s off the clock.
Finally, late in the day, the group allowed access to Unga spills into the room for Coke and Cheetos. The staff veterinarian, Dr. Gabon, with her brilliant red curls, is sweating from her upper lip. She wipes it repeatedly. “Unga is taking her sweet time,” she says.
“It’s a special one, I think,” the PR man replies.
“Special,” says the Georgia primatologist. “How so?”
The PR man thinks hard. English is not his first language. “This time seems special to me. Is all I say.”
They file out and down the hall. Unga is giving birth surrounded by strangers, and for some reason this gives Gloria a feeling of immense sadness, a feeling both gut-hollowing and heavy at the same time. She sits down, waiting, holding her broom across her lap like it’s a safety bar on an especially scary roller coaster. She continues to wait. She doesn’t know if she’ll get in trouble for this, but she waits all the same.
Outside the air finally cools. The long shadows beneath the trees melt into a featureless gloom. The bonobos are brought in for the night. They grip at handfuls of straw before rolling over and trying to sleep. Occasionally Gloria hears them moving in their swings. Their normally drowsy boredom is charged with a restive and anxious energy. Down the hall is the occasional punctuation of a voice, a nervous laugh or snippet of instruction. Someone in sea-foam scrubs swishes by in slippered feet.
A few hours pass. The energy-saver light in the break room goes dark, and Gloria sits very still so as not to trigger it again. The darkness lends a volume to the sounds.
Then the wailing begins. In the dark, it’s like a poltergeist howling down the corridor. More people rush by. Commands echo back and forth. More scrambling. Surgical tools clatter, fall to the floor, are recovered. Dr. Gabon chides someone, demands quiet.
And then there is. Quiet. It’s a quiet to last a decade or a century or millennia. Gloria feels it, heavy and dense, teeming with living layers, this unsettling quiet. It appears no one is coming back. Gloria slips out slowly—so slowly the light doesn’t come on.
In the silence of her apartment she lies on her bed and stares at the ceiling. The howling from the birthing room chases her into sleep. Horrible visions populate her dreams. Unga splayed out on an operating table, her organs exposed, a human baby sitting up in the middle of them and playing with the kidney and spleen like they were toys.
The phone rings. She answers, and on the other end is a man. “Is this Gloria?”
“Yes.” She sits up, straightens her hair.
“Gloria, I’m Chet Quincy.”
“Sounds like a superhero’s secret identity,” she says.
He laughs an easy laugh. “I like that. Sorry to bother you at this hour—”
“You’re not,” she says. “Bothering me. I’m completely free.”
She doesn’t know Chet Quincy from a mud puddle. But his voice is handsome and strong-jawed, sun-kissed with deep bravado.
“Good, good,” he says. “The reason I’m calling is I’m a reporter with The Columbus Dispatch. I’d like to do a story on you.”
“A story?” she says.
“Human interest. Hometown girl makes good. Nothing major. No headlines.” He laughs again, light as hydrogen. “You went to Africa, right? Now you’re working with the monkeys?”
She should correct him, say ‘primates.’ “I went to Tanzania,” she says. “I work—” She hesitates. “With Bonobos.”
“Sure,” he says. “Sounds good. All that sounds interesting enough. Can I interview you, maybe tomorrow night?”
“They’re the gracile chimpanzees,” she says. “And yes. Yes, you can.”
Crowds flow into the zoo, the rumor mill begins its daily grind, and news vans linger at the edge of the parking lot. The primate complex where Unga is held sits silent. Gloria conducts her work. She tries to focus on her upcoming meeting with Chet Quincy. She rehearses the important and interesting facts about her travels: the Bantu word for friend; historical tidbits about Zanzibar; a study she’d read, which had made the rounds at the institute, about the generosity of bonobos; the taste of Nigerian bitter leaf.
All that day the eminent visitors and administrative staff are nowhere to be found. Gloria sees Allen only once, traversing the halls at a speedy clip. He holds a cell phone tight to his ear and says, “I understand.” Then he disappears into the inner sanctum and doesn’t emerge again until evening as Gloria is leaving. He’s smoking a cigarette beneath the eaves where a scraggly copse of bamboo creates an alcove. He motions for her to come over.
“What is it?” she says. “I have to meet someone.”
“I know you want to see Unga.”
“Don’t say that,” she says. “Don’t tease.” But she smiles at hearing Unga’s name.
“You haven’t heard,” he says.
“Is Unga okay?”
“It’s not Unga,” he says. “The baby’s deformed. It has wings.”
She steps back. “Stop it. That’s not funny.”
“I’m not being funny. They didn’t see it on the ultrasound because the wings were folded over the shoulder blades.”
“I don’t understand.”
“What’s to understand,” he says. “A primate with wings. Do you want to see or not?”
She doesn’t know how to respond. This feels like blackmail or a trap. “I can see her?”
“If you want. You can owe me.”
He leads her back through the complex. The large crowds have been cleared out by security. Even the staff are mostly gone. Night feels heavy around them. They pass the break room. At the end of a long, block hallway is a steel door with a small observation window reinforced with chickenwire. Allen pulls a key card from his pocket and swipes it, producing a high-pitched click in the lock. He places a finger in front of his mouth.
A small ante-room runs the length of the observation pen. They’re separated by a wall of heavy plexi-glass. Crescentic reflections from the orange bulbs make half-halos that hang in the air between them and Unga.
When Gloria sees her, she gasps in delight. Unga is alive and well. The drowsy female lies in a soft heap of straw piled up in the corner of an open green cage. Above her are heavy ropes criss-crossing from one corner to the next, a tire swing frozen in place, not a hint of movement. And there in Unga’s arms is the baby.
“Its a girl,” Allen says.
The baby’s bright eyes are open, a shock of deep black hair gathered at the top of her head. She’s so small. So very small—the size of a human newborn or slighter. She’s staring up at them, at Allen and Gloria, as she suckles. Her elfin hand reaches for them.
“She likes you,” Allen whispers.
The baby tilts its head, extends its arm.
A rising warmth in Gloria’s chest, fluid and faint, suddenly boils up and becomes a flood that spills over and runs through all her limbs. She feels a love for this child swelling from somewhere infinite and mystifying.
“Why are you showing me this?” she says.
“Because I’ve always liked you,” he says. “And she won’t be here long. They’ve kept her hidden. They’re waiting.”
“The anniversary of The Wizard of Oz.”
Gloria turns away from the child to stare at Allen. “What do you mean? What does that have to do with anything?”
“August twenty-fifth,” he says. “is only a few weeks away. That’s the day in 1939 the movie was released nationally. They want to fly her to San Diego and do a whole tie-in. Flying monkeys and all. Then cross the country on a tour back to Columbus.” He nods toward mother and child. “Of course, Unga would go, too.”
The baby releases its latch on its mother and leans out over the straw. Unga lets it fall forward gently, and Gloria for the first time sees the baby’s wings, the gray-skinned, almost batlike curvature of two extra appendages sprouting from either side of its spine high up on the back. As it struggles to right itself, the wings rise like a bird’s just before liftoff.
Gloria takes deep, irregular breaths. The wings part further, and Gloria touches the glass. The child pushes up. Its wings are feebly held out the way a man’s arms on a highwire are extended for balance. The wings look hardly useful for flying, yet they’re oddly adept.
“I still don’t understand,” Gloria says.
“Like I said: what’s to understand? A primate with wings is good publicity. Kismet. It should line up with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the movie. Good press for re-releases, Blu-Rays or whatever. Good press for bonobos.”
“You can’t do that,” Gloria says. “People will get the wrong impression. They’ll misinterpret. The flying monkeys were bad.”
He laughs at that. It sounds ridiculous to her, too, what she just said.
The baby looks again at Gloria. Never in all her time amid primates has Gloria felt the way she does now. She loves this baby. Loves it, and knows she’ll never be able to get away from that love. She can’t rectify the thought of it with the flying minions of the Wicked Witch of the West. Will the PR people dress it in a red-striped jacket and cap? Will children learn to revile it?
“Her name is Dorothy, if that helps,” Allen says.
“They’ll get the wrong impression,” she says again.
Dorothy, the wobbling baby girl in the hay with its wings quivering, reaches out for Gloria.
“You see what I mean,” Allen says. “Practically human.” He moves closer to Gloria. “Gracile. Like you.” He places his cold, rough hand on her lower back, reaches around her hips, and draws her close. A part of her, still in awe of the child, doesn’t register this as it happens. Allen kisses her neck, and her body is seized with terror or collapse. She turns into him and pushes his chest, but he holds her.
“Now stop that,” he says. “Stop it. Just give in a little. It’ll be nice.” He pulls her toward him.
She tries kneeing him in the groin, but he twists to the side.
“Just one,” he says.
Out of the corner of her eye, she detects a black shape flying through the air. It’s a blur, quick, something akin to a ball tossed by a child. Allen must see it too because he stops. He turns his head. “Did you see that?” Gloria rears back and head-butts him. It isn’t clean; her forehead strikes his cheek, but he lets go.
“Ow, God!” he says.
They separate, standing apart, breathing heavily. Gloria shudders, focusing with every stitch of her resolve on not passing out. She feels woozy from the headbutt.
“I’m sorry,” Allen says. “I don’t—I don’t know what that was.” He feels his nose, his cheek, finds no blood.
“This is bad, isn’t it?” he says.
“I’ve given you the wrong impression,” she says. She hears the air moving through her nose, feels the vibration as her breath barrels down her trachea. There’s the smell again, the whole-bodied scent of the bonobos lingering in the room, traveling through her, swimming in and out of her body. It’s like breathing dirt. Her vision dribbles down to a pinhole in which she sees Allen looking frightened and old.
Breathe, she tells herself.
She pulls it in, all that heavy air, finds strength in it.
“I have to meet someone,” she says. She picks up Allen’s key card from the counter. He doesn’t try to stop her. He’s looking into the cage at Unga and the baby.
“Did you see?” he says behind her. Gloria opens the door. “Did you see that? Did you see it?”
Driving in the dark along a highway skirted with harsh-looking trees, she tries to shake the adrenaline and fear out of her muscles. Her hands defy the command from her brain. Her fingers spasm and jerk and flutter. The headlights roll from one side to the other as she struggles to stay between the lines. Every few minutes she picks up her phone from the passenger seat, dials 9-1-1, then deletes each number slowly and drops the phone with a soft thud.
She arrives in German Village feeling exhausted. She parks along a row of quaintly refurbished brick buildings, now a bookstore, a restaurant. People walk the streets in quiet twos, threes, fours, ducking into bars with spellbinding neons coiled in quiet windows. She’s safe here. Was she ever not? The moment at the zoo seems remote, almost unimportant. She tells herself, yes, unimportant—only because the memory’s been crowded out by the baby. Dorothy. Had she seen what she thought she saw?
She commands her hand to open the door. She commands her legs to lift her out of the seat. She meets Chet Quincy at a cafe. He’s tall, a tad thin, with straw-colored hair. He wears turtleshell glasses and fashionable shoes. He smiles like he knows he’s handsome.
“It’s good to meet you,” he says.
“Likewise.” They shake hands. Hers is still trembling, but he doesn’t comment. They go inside, order a drink for which he pays, and find a seat. They’re practically alone in a quiet corner while outside more people pass by.
“Your life must be pretty intriguing,” he says. “Let’s start with your education.”
“I want to get this out there,” she says. She’s still thinking about Dorothy, about Allen, but pushes these to the annex of her mind. “I want you to know, I’m nothing. I’m a glorified shoveler of shit.”
He flinches as if he isn’t used to hearing bad language.
“I don’t mean,” she says, “to sound ungrateful, or jaded. I just want you to know you’re talking to a nobody, really. I’m the lowest at the zoo. I’m a janitor. Just to be honest.” Part of her wishes she weren’t telling Chet Quincy these things, but she hates the thought he’s been misled. She wants desperately to start on the right foot, for him not to get the wrong impression.
“Oh,” he says. He sets down his pen, which he’s been holding over a small note pad. “But you do have access, right? To the bonobos?”
“Access,” she says, and feels for Allen’s key card in her pocket.
“I mean, you can see them when you want.”
“I can get into the complex, if that’s what you mean.”
He smiles. “Don’t worry. This is a small piece. You’re at the beginning of your career. We’ll go with a rising-star theme. You’ll sound great. It won’t be a lie. It’ll be something people read between the pages of war, death, and destruction. People want optimism. They want to know good things are happening.”
He smiles again and touches the pen to paper.
“Good things,” she repeats.
The interview starts off well and he suggests they graduate from coffee to dinner at a bistro only a few blocks away. The restaurant specializes in a nebulous mix of world cuisine. He seems to know the maître d’, a tall woman with long fingers. She seats them at a table near the patio where the night air rolls in sweet and heavy. A wine list appears, disappears, is conjured into a stately, dark bottle with an unflashy label.
They talk for nearly two hours. She begins to lose the fear still lingering in her body. Her adrenaline drains away, leaving only a solid sense of outrage.
But even her anger begins to soften with the second bottle of wine. Chet Quincy asks her questions about Africa, about her associations with the universities and international foundations. He asks for names, particularly African names of places, which he says add flavor to the page. “They’re pepper,” he says. He even inquires about her friendships, her personal life. She hints at a romance that didn’t play out so well, but stops before it sounds tragic.
“Just something that didn’t go anywhere,” she says.
He nods. “What about working with the animals? Any good stories? Anecdotes?”
She thinks of Dorothy sitting up, her wings outspread. “I tend to their habitat,” she says. “I’m sorry. I’m so boring.”
“Don’t be that way. You’re not boring. For instance, I bet you know something about Unga.”
A sliver of unease skitters up her spine. Hairs rise on the back of her neck.
“There’s word,” he says, “that something’s wrong with the baby.”
She begins to stand. “I’m not your story,” she says. “I see that.”
“Whoa whoa,” he says. “Look, I’m just asking. We’re hitting it off. I don’t want to jeopardize that. If you want to tell me about Unga, that’s okay. If not, that’s okay, too. All on the up and up. You don’t want to say anything about the monkeys, I’m still paying for the meal.”
“They’re primates,” she says.
“Primates,” he repeats. “See. I’m learning already.”
He smiles again, runs his hand down her arm. And because she can’t bear to think of going home, she sits. She sits because letting her mind wander in the dark of her bedroom, with no one to talk to about what’s happened today, feels like it might be the absolute worst, and she just wants a little company for a little while longer.
“Her name’s Dorothy,” she says.
“The infant, the baby bonobo?”
“I heard,” he says, glancing about the room, “there’s a deformity.”
“Who told you that?”
“I have sources.” He’s smiling, and there might be something between them now. She wants it to be. If she just gives in, there will be. She’s sure of it. He and she will start on the right foot, no wrong impressions. Her loneliness will shatter.
He refills her wine glass. She feels giggly, free of the constricting fear she’s felt all evening. Her anxiety is absolutely dissipating. She picks up the glass and drinks deeply.
“It has wings,” she whispers.
“Wings? Oh, come on. That’s not funny.”
He grins. “I get it. You don’t have to tell me.”
She stands, feeling reckless and light, like a wild bird borne up on high winds.
“Get us another bottle of wine,” she says. “We’ll take it with us.”
There’s no security in the back parking lot this time of night. She squeezes through the broken gate with no trouble. She’s gracile, after all—small, compact. He struggles to follow and tears his shirt, but finally stands before her, holding up the new bottle of wine and two plastic cups. He’s disheveled, and she pokes his exposed stomach. He doubles over with quiet and half-drunken laughter. She holds a hand to her mouth.
“You have to be very quiet,” she says.
He wrestles the pre-extracted cork from the bottle’s neck and pours heavily. They drink and move through the darkness, avoiding the illuminated areas, sticking to the shadows. It all feels so very freeing. Dangerous without being criminal. They’re not hurting anyone, she thinks. Plus, she deserves this. A little fun.
She uses the swipe-card to let them into the ape habitat. She’s surprised there are no guards. No one. Just quiet.
Swaddled in Unga’s embrace is the baby. It’s black, hirsute face, is peaceful against her left bicep. It’s eyes flicker beneath the lids.
“She’s dreaming,” Gloria says.
“What a beautiful picture,” he says. He’s swaying less now, his posture more rigid. “Can I take one? A picture?”
She hesitates, but he’s doing it already with his phone. She lets him. He lifts a few scrawled pages off the table. Other field notes and bureaucratic-looking paperwork lie about as if someone has only stepped out for a moment.
“We need to go,” she says.
“In a minute. Listen to this.” He reads from the file. “‘Superfluous flaps of skin, cartilage and some evidence of meekly developed muscle. A doubling of the scapula connected by fibrous sinew as an extension of the trapezoid ligament. This ligament, extending over the superior notch, creates, for lack of a better term, a wing.’ That’s so wild.”
He keeps riffling through the papers and tries logging onto a laptop with no luck.
“We should go,” she says.
He discovers a printed email pinned beneath the laptop. He reads it silently. Feeling lightheaded, she draws closer to him and sees mention of San Diego, the words “Wizard of Oz” and “tour.”
“This is better than I ever could have hoped,” he says. He takes pictures of it all. She half-heartedly bats at his hands.
“You can’t,” she says, “I’ll get in trouble,” but even to her own ears she lacks conviction. She sits down in a nearby plastic chair. The room spins. “You gave me the wrong impression,” she says.
He finishes taking a few more pictures of the mother and child. “I deeply appreciate everything.” He actually salutes her, then pats her on the shoulder and exits the room.
A flash-charged media storm thunders on the horizon. Zoo officials and Warner Brothers marketing mavens huddle in board rooms and pencil out itineraries. Design firms, with blistering swiftness, sketch model entranceways in a palette of pre-determined greens associated with the Emerald City. Ticket sales are calculated. Box office revenues from the based-on-a-true story summer release next year glow at the end of a long tunnel constructed of hype, relatable characters, and at least one instance of dire circumstances and fortitude parlayed into finale gold. Adaptations—cartoons and theatrical re-imaginings with fanciful backstories—piggyback the film’s success.
She sees it, this surrounding tempest of endless coverage, charging its way into her world, threatening to batter and toss her far from its center, far from Unga and Dorothy, and again into the vastness of her own solitude. To her mind, Dorothy, the baby, is more than the sum of her promotional potential. She’s a being born of loneliness. Why have wings if you don’t mean to fly away?
Without much more thought, she opens the cage and holds her hand out to Unga, who takes it. It’s the first time she’s touched one of them. The palm and meat of the fingers are leathery cool. Dorothy is scooped up into Unga’s arms, and the three of them trundle out into the night. Where she’s going, she can’t say.
The night slithers cold against her skin as they exit the primate house.
Allen is waiting, fifteen feet from the entrance, as if he’s been camped here, waiting for this moment. His arm is held on his hip at an angle that makes him appear broken. Gloria’s stomach trembles. Without stepping toward her, he opens his hands, spreads his arms like a man showing he’s unarmed.
“I’m real sorry,” he says. His voice is soft and shallow. It makes him as old as he is, which for the first time she notices is not a man in his late fifties, as she orignally thought, but perhaps somewhere in his mid-sixties, maybe even pushing seventy.
“I couldn’t go home,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about what I did all night.”
She shields Unga and Dorothy. “Don’t come over here.”
“I wanted you to know,” he says. “I’m lonely. I’m old and I’m lonely. A widower, not that I want your pity. I’m an idiot, too. Sometimes I see you, I think you’ve got it all, everything.” He hesitates, then begins to weep, not trying to hide it. Silvery tears tumble down his cheeks. “I can’t lose this job,” he says. “I don’t have what you have.”
She’s so stunned, she forgets her fear. “What do I have? What do you think I have?”
“You have everything.” He sweeps his arm out, signaling toward the sky. “You have your future.”
“We’re leaving,” she says.
He stares at her, hangdog and jowly, his limp moustache ridiculously cartoonish. “I can’t let that happen. I couldn’t let you leave, not with them.”
“I’ll go,” she says. “I’ll call the police.”
Those ridiculous tears still rolling, still dripping onto his sad paunch, he says, “You should probably do that. You should. I won’t tell them any different if you do. I understand. But I can’t let you take my girls.”
Unga slips her handhold. She lopes around Gloria toward Allen. He crouches on the balls of his feet and opens his arms. Mother and child stop a foot away, sniff, then clutch at him. He stands, holding Unga, Unga holding Dorothy.
“This is the family I got dealt,” he says, “and now they’re leaving.”
Gloria sees it now, that Allen isn’t in the plans for Unga’s travels. He won’t be the one to watch over Dorothy. “It all goes away,” he says, “We all get to the end of things. I know that, but I don’t have to like it.” He carries the heavy primate and her child toward the doors—a little party, Gloria thinks.
“I’m sorry,” she hears herself say. “For you. I’m sorry you don’t get to go.”
He stops with the doors open and turns. “Tell me,” he says. He’s wiping his eyes. “Why’d you get into this business? The primates. What led you to them?”
She’s not ready for the question. She’s still trying to piece together what’s happening right now. She’d envisioned for a moment herself and Unga and Dorothy on the road in her car, a screwy movie scene, which in this moment seems ridiculous and fantastic and not at all real. Tumbling slowly through her consciousness is the fact that she was committing a felony and that Allen stopped her.
“What did you say?” she says.
He hitches Unga higher on his hip. “I said, what led you here? What made you want to work with the bonobos? I never asked you that.”
She recalls a moment, five years before, sitting in senior Spanish class with the teacher off somewhere, the malaise of late spring, the last high school rites fizzling like a cordite fuse approaching an explosive end—commencement jitters, pomp and circumstance, post-graduation parties in old barns, kids giggling over illicit beers and Jim Beam. Sitting in that Spanish class, she’d been daydreaming, imagining the future in a vague shadow-show of sex and love and easy chatter, easy smiles, friends and family. Then a sophomore girl stomped through the doorway. The girl was wheezing, her freckled face bitter red. “Brett Barry is dead,” she said. “Brett Barry died.” Then off like a moth released in the quiet. Kids stood. Kids dug for their phones. Kids furiously texted. Kids searched for an authority figure. Brett Barry dead in a car crash on the last week of school, skipping out the last few periods, running a stop sign and colliding with another vehicle. Brett Barry with his brother and two other juniors flung against a tree in a nearby yard, but only Brett Barry dead. Brett Barry, with his stupid name and his stupid laugh, dead and gone. Gloria had dated him freshman year for like a week, and all she could remember was he was crazy about monkeys. He wanted to work with monkeys or something. She thought about how Brett Barry never would have been smart enough to do that. Brett Barry was community-college material, she’d thought, associate degree, at best. That was the real Brett Barry, despite all the overly hospitable things people said about him later on. But in Spanish class, that was her moment. Did it matter who carried out a mission? Maybe dead Brett Barry’s dream could be hers, and she found she liked the shape of it, the way Brett Barry’s dumb dream fit her own. The way it opened an avenue through a pack of people, a little road where she might find meaning, and only now she’s wondering if she were wrong.
Allen waits in the doorway with Unga and Dorothy.
“I guess,” she says, “I always thought working with primates was a way to never be alone. They don’t get the wrong impression about you.”
He smiles a little. “It was a toy,” he says. “A piece of a tire for the bonobos to play with. The thing I saw earlier, when we were standing in front of the cage. I thought it was Dorothy flying. Maybe there’s been too much hype. Or I just wanted to believe it. But it was a toy. Unga threw a toy at us when she saw me grab you.”
“Oh,” she says meekly.
“That’s the conclusion I came up with when I saw it: a flying monkey. Not the most reasonable answer. Despite knowing everything I know, being as old as I am, I believed it though. I thought it was a flying monkey, just for a second.”
“Me too,” she says. She wants to say something about how stupid that makes her feel, more false impressions, but he talks first.
“I think that’s wonderful,” he says. “Thinking something like that can still happen. It’s wonderful. Even if it wasn’t what we thought. It was a good thing. We believed in it for a little bit.”
She regards him in the door, the sad light of the hallway behind him. She’s unsure if she’ll come back tomorrow. She hasn’t worked it all out yet. But she’s waiting now. Maybe, she thinks, Dorothy is waiting, too. For a moment in the moonlight, for a view of open sky. Before Allen carries her back inside, she’ll spread her wings and go. She waits.
From somewhere in the zoo, the cattle egrets call back and forth, their rickety laughs rolling rustily and machine-like. Dorothy raises her head off Unga’s shoulder, and for an instant, all three of them, Dorothy, Unga, and Allen, are listening to whatever comes next, to the moon, to Gloria. Really listening.
“I’m lonely, too,” Gloria says, so low she doesn’t know if she’s been heard. “I’m lonely, and I want magic, something magical to happen. I need it.”
“We all want that,” he says. “It’s why we’re all waiting.”
“Waiting?” she says. “For what?”
Allen dusts some straw away from Unga’s fur. He nods toward Dorothy but never takes his eyes off Gloria. “We’re waiting to see what she does next,” he says. “Because no matter what, it’ll be exciting.”
He smiles again, a lost, shabby sort of look to him, and for a moment she forgives him his transgressions because she’s the one, the world quaking beneath her feet, the open air trembling, she’s the one waiting, breathless, strong, alone but suddenly buoyant, fierce and expectant for the unsung future.
“We did see her fly,” she says.
“Tonight, we saw her fly. It’s why we have to go. We’re the ones who got her to fly.”
His mouth slides upward, a smile. “We’ve been working with her,” he says. “We’re vital.”
“They couldn’t do without us,” she says.
“Because they want to believe.”
“In something,” she says. “It’s okay, because we all need it.”
“The magic,” he says.
“Hope,” she says.
Standing there, she sees herself anew. Twenty-two, she thinks. Twenty-two and the world ahead of me. She holds out her arms just as a test. To see if Dorothy might fly to her.
Bring it on, she thinks. Bring it on, I’m ready.
Return to table of contents for Issue 9 Summer 2015.