My father wasn’t a traveling salesman, just a guy who never seemed to be where he was.
A look crossed his face if someone came into the room where he was thinking or dreaming or scheming or whatever he was pretending to do, or spoke to him directly when he was present but lost. The look said who are you, what are you doing here, what do you want from me?
Everything was fine. We lived in an acceptable house where hot meals were a regular feature. Then one day Pop came home with a monkey.
The baby hadn’t begun to walk or talk yet.
The monkey could walk erect. He had no tail, therefore was an ape, a primate, a chimpanzee. The chimp and Pop held hands like they’d known each other a while. Pop was in one of his gray suits, the chimp had on short pants. I watched them come up the block and then the driveway. Pop fumbled the keys and held the door.
He never shouted, Honey I’m home from the factory, lab or air base or wherever I pretend to work. But then, we never dropped what we’d been doing to greet him.
Pop and chimp headed for the kitchen. The chimp got a banana. Pop, a beer. The rest of us stood in the doorway.
Mama unfroze first. She put the baby in his high chair and made dinner. Pop was a better cook, but he usually eschewed domestic chores.
Pop crunched the can and saw us staring. At him, not the chimp. He might’ve brought the beast home to distract our attention. The plan hadn’t worked. It dawned that some explanation was called for.
We settled for an introduction. “This is Happy. He will uh, live with us now.”
Mama broke the silence. “Is he OK with another banana for dinner, or should I have the kids set another place at table?”
Pop had to think. “Set another place, I guess.”
Dinner was awkward, but Happy liked tuna noodle casserole. He ate with a spoon, without much mess or fuss.
When my sister reached for the fruit salad—didn’t make sense to ask an ape to pass it along—Happy snapped at her hand with unbelievable speed and viciousness. A smell spread, like she’d wet herself.
“Better watch out,” Pop said. “Happy’s not like the monkeys on TV or at the circus.”
There was an extra room for when Mama and Pop’s friends came. Visits called for wild parties. How all those people knew each other, where they’d met and what they had in common remained a mystery. Mama and Pop were awfully quiet after a party, and avoided each other even more than usual.
Happy didn’t move into the guest room. Instead, Pop rigged a pen in the garage, with a mound of old clothes for him to sleep on, including Mama’s collection of past-date panties.
The chimp went to bed and woke up when we did. I thought he’d eventually come to school with us. My sister and I invented stories to explain our brother, the chimp. Pop worked at the circus, or the zoo. He was an African explorer. The ape’s parents died in a Big Top fire, or were crushed by elephants. So we had to take him in.
Pop said Happy would not attend school. “He already knows everything he needs to know.”
Once I stared, to learn what went on inside the head of a creature who knew everything he needed to know. Happy’s eyes were deep pupils without centers that said, maybe I look slightly like you but we’re not the same. I know things about life and nature that you’ll never understand. Maybe I can’t express myself with words, but if I grabbed you by the ankles I could rip you in half.
The hairy mirror-image dissolved and charged. Pop restrained Happy, barely. “Uh, better not stare at him like that, it’s a sign of aggression.”
The only other time I’d seen animal aggression was out on the playground. Big Mary held me down and said she was going to suck out my eyeballs. But she didn’t. She kissed me on the mouth like grown-ups in movies and said, “Oh yeah baby now we’re boyfriend and girlfriend forever.”
One day Mama needed help to carry a couple of sacks up to the attic. “What does Pop do for a living?” I asked.
She was caught off guard. “Well, you know, he works in an office.”
“Yeah but what kind of office?”
“One that’s full of desks and chairs and telephones.” She didn’t know what Pop did all day either, or didn’t want to tell.
“So where’s this office where he works?”
“Oh, you know, downtown. Where all the other offices and skyscrapers are.”
“Do I have to work in an office too when I grow up?” In a gray suit, I’d bring home a crow or a goat to meet Big Mary and our kids.
Mama settled the sack she’d dragged up in a corner attic where, strangely, there were no spiderwebs. She didn’t hear, or had no answer.
“Did you ever work in an office, Mama?”
She took my sack and settled it against the other one. They sat there, tied up at the top like hobo sausages passed out in a drunk tank. The sunset reflected on her face as she considered their placement.
“Before I met your father,” she said, “I went to college to learn architecture. I wanted to build houses, you know, for people to live in.” She made it sound like an impossible dream. “Then I met your father at a cocktail party and then we had you.”
Babies were born from cocktails when the party was over and foiled career dreams. Mama labored in a house she hadn’t built. Pop worked in an office no one had ever seen, and then a chimpanzee appeared.
The neighbors were curious that an anthropoid ape dwelt in our garage. It was odd enough Mama and Pop didn’t own an automobile. Pop rode his bicycle to the train station and back. Occasionally he brought Happy with him to work. The chimp sat on the handlebars, but never did handstands or juggled bananas or anything circus-worthy. His muzzle was a headlight, his teeth chattered for unlucky flying insects.
Maybe Happy worked in the city too. He shook a cup for a mustachioed organ-grinder, or did pin-up pictures for banana company calendars, or was the “before” model in ads for depilatory creams. Pop was the chimp’s handler/agent.
Mr. Munger, our next-door neighbor, asked me to help rake leaves. He’d just lit the dead foliage pyre when Pop pedaled back from the station with the chimp. “Your father does things his own way, that’s for sure,” he said.
My sister and I spied on the Mungers through their living room window that night. We were supposed to be at the McLaughlin sisters’ Halloween party, but Mama had made our costumes. My sister was a gypsy-ish witch. I was the devil in a cut-off, cast-off business suit. We didn’t want to mingle with kids in store-bought disguises.
We figured the Mungers must have their own version of Happy. This turned out not to be the case. The Mungers consumed uncomplicated cocktails. They spoke to each other while they ate their non-human flesh stew. They cleaned up in the she washes, he dries manner and retired to their living room to read. She cracked a novel. He rattled the newspaper, then dropped it for Life magazine.
Neither of us knew that observation of events possibly influences them. Spooked, we thought everyone else in the world was normal and we were freaks.
We ran wild-eyed to the McLaughlin sisters’ Day of the Dead shindig. Rhythm n’ blues blew from the parental hi-fi. Low lights shone on adolescent gropes in progress.
The devil and one of his faithful witches burst in as though possessed, and scared the crap out of everyone. But we were only dancing. We shooped and shimmied, then suggested that the Munger Mansion was ripe for a toilet-papering, the Munger chariot for a windshield-egging. We whooshed out into the night like a swarm of rabid bats and laid waste. The Mungers never knew why.
Being normal has a price.
Happy developed gray fur on his back around the same time I needed a first shave. Pop presented me with the instruments and a deodorant stick. “You already know what happens between men and women, right? Must’ve heard talk in the gym, or on the corner, seen some magazines.”
“Get a boner and stick it where she pees?”
“OK you already know more about it than I do.”
“But where did Happy come from, Pop? Did you and Mama…”
“Everyone’s responsible for their own happiness,” he said. “You have to make your own decisions and take your lumps, if lumps are in order. But the rewards can be great, if you guess right, and…that’s all I’m going to say.”
He was as good as his word.
Pop took Happy to the city with him the next day.
That evening, the chimp was dressed in cotton pyjamas silk-screened to look like a tuxedo. “Ooooh,” my sister said. “Happy’s gonna get married.”
Pop said, quietly, “Happy grows old faster than we do. We should be ready for when his time comes. Mentally, I mean.”
My sister looked my way. Our thought-balloons merged. Oh we’re ready. Any old time. It was hard to tell what our human baby brother thought.
Any attempt to delve into Happy’s mental state was met with snarls. Pop, if he was around, would yell, “Leave him alone.”
Happy stared at flies, and at mosquitoes after sundown. He picked insects out of his airspace with blinding speed, deadly accuracy.
When approached slowly, hindquarters foremost, Happy gave great neck-rubs and back-scratches. He tolerated grooming sessions with me, relished them with my sister. He’d give her the sniff test first.
You probably shouldn’t do that, Pop said.
Happy drew a rare paternal reproach when the ape approached my sister with a hot pink banana- shaped love-offering. Pop grabbed him by the waistband and collar, brought him to the garage. No one said, bad. No one said, wrong.
Mama said, well he never tried to get fresh with me. It was hard to tell if she was surprised or miffed. Or if she was talking about Happy or Pop.
Aunt Floydine phoned the week before school let out to see if my sister and could spend the summer with her in Las Vegas. Mama thought it was a good idea. “But no casinos, please,” she said. “They’re both still children, really.”
Casinos were the last thing on Aunt Floydine’s mind. Games of chance, or any other kind of fun and games, weren’t her idea of a productive vacation. Gardening was more like it.
Dressed like a movie star, Aunt Floydine dealt us a spade, a hoe and a rake. She swept a satin-gloved hand across the swath of desert that stretched to the horizon and was her backyard. She asked how long we thought it’d take to turn that scrubby desolation into a cactus garden.
“Gonna take a long time,” I said, and my sister nodded.
Aunt Floydine was an imaginative cook. She knocked up sundown cocktails with adolescent- appropriate doses of rum. She subscribed to magazines devoted to how gardens, houses and people ought to look. She wanted to create paradise on the outskirts of a cowtown that had become an amusement park.
As our departure date loomed, Aunt Floydine inspected her new garden and was pleased. She drove us to the Strip in her convertible Cadillac and bought us new clothes. We knew they’d be ludicrous back home, but we got to be movie star ranch-hands for an afternoon.
At the airport, she handed over the big bills.
“Cash stays out of sight,” she said. “Keep it stashed it for a rainy day.”
Rainy days seemed impossible around Aunt Floydine. We wanted to stay in the desert and be her garden-slaves forever, but such indentured happiness wasn’t in the cards.
There was a surprise at the airport on the other side. Pop was wearing an unusual hat. Unusual for him, I mean. Mama had on gangster-lady sunglasses. Our brother had evolved to the point where he could toddle around in his Oshkosh overalls.
Neither of us asked, “Where’s Happy?”
On the train home, Pop said Happy had had an accident when he chased one of the McLaughlin sisters. It was unclear whether Happy met his doom on a passing auto’s grille, or at the hands of shotgun- toting Papa McLaughlin. Didn’t matter. We’d missed Happy’s burial in a corner of the backyard.
Pop never brought home a replacement ape.
When I was left for college, he accompanied me to the bus depot. The others stayed home to watch a Tarzan movie on TV.
Pop shook my hand on the platform. “Be your own man,” he said. “Be strong. Be happy.”
Matthew Licht lives between two worlds, one of which might be the real one. His short story collections The Moose Show and Justine, Joe & the Zen Garbageman (both from Salt Pubs.) were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award. He is a staff writer for Stanza 251, which includes Hotel Kranepool, his weekly bilingual blog on metaphysical hospitality.