by Cary Fagan
ISBN 9781770860872 | 5.25" x 8" | TP w/ flaps | $22
Categories:Fiction - Literary, Fiction - Short Stories
Purchase:Local Bookstores | mcnallyrobinson.com | amazon.ca | chapters.indigo.ca
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My Life Among the Apes (Preview)
Excerpt from the short story "My Life Among the Apes"
FOR NEARLY A YEAR I lived among the apes. I knew by sight more than two dozen chimpanzees living by Lake Tanganyika in the remote Gombe Stream Game Reserve. Goliath, the alpha male. David Greybeard. Rudolph. Flo. I was among those who first saw a chimp make and use a tool — a twig stripped of its leaves and thrust into the hole of a termite hill. Once a mother held her infant out for me to groom. Once I witnessed a colony of chimps surround a stray member of another tribe and commit murder.
And then I gave it all up.
HOFFSTEDDER IS ON MY CASE again. First, someone in the branch has been using an anonymous blog to write slurs about management. Second, for reasons unexplained, the number of after-hour deposits at our ATM has declined by four percent. Third, a passcard has gone missing.
I am fifty-one years old and have not risen as far as others my age, but I came to banking late, after an unfinished Ph.D. and careers in housing management and commercial liability insurance. The best that I can say about banking is that I like the people I work with (all except Hoffstedder) and I can walk to work in forty minutes.
The staff under me, tellers and assistant managers, are fifteen to twenty-five years younger. They are first and second-generation sons and daughters of India, Pakistan, Portugal, Iran, the Azores. They are inexpensively but sharply dressed. Both sexes wear earrings, but other visible piercings are not permitted while at work. Little indentations can be seen, by an eyebrow, a lip, where a stud or ring has been removed. They spend their lunch hours text messaging their friends. On Monday mornings they look wasted from weekend raves, or whatever it is they do. The younger ones seem to form no permanent relationships but have a lot of sex. They live two worlds away from my own, and I wish them well.
ONE DAY WHEN I was eleven, I came home to find the latest National Geographic on the kitchen counter, along with a glass of milk and a wedge of burnt-sugar cake. I opened it and saw a beautiful, young blond woman washing her hair in a stream.
“Don’t disappear with that magazine,” my mother warned me as I slipped off the stool. “Nobody else has seen it yet.”
We lived in the suburb of Willowdale. I had my own room while my older brothers shared one. A desk, a bookcase, a World Book Encyclopedia, a telescope. I was short for my age, and overweight. I dreaded gym class. Two girls down the street tormented me every day on the way home. In the evening we watched Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
But that night I began to live in the jungle.
MY WIFE, LIZETTE, IS A teacher in a private girl’s school. Even when we met, over two decades ago, her anxiousness made it hard for her to see a movie or attend a party where there might be strangers. Not until after our third child was old enough for Lizette to go back to work part-time did the true panic attacks begin. She had to take a medical leave and endure hours of fitfully successful therapy before the proper dosage of a new drug began to help. Medication has made life more tolerable for her, although I became the one who took our boys to hockey practice and attended our daughter’s piano recitals.
I still find myself frustrated and angry that we cannot go on holidays, or to the theatre, or to a dinner party. Two years ago I conceived the idea of visiting France for my fiftieth birthday, but of course we could not go. I fantasize about going on my own (and having an affair with a beautiful woman), but along with the fantasy comes guilt and shame, which results in my treating Lizette with an excessive delicacy that annoys her.
FOR MY SCIENCE PRESENTATION THE year I was eleven, I chose Jane Goodall’s research on primate behaviour. I stood before the class and talked about how as a young girl she had written down her observations of birds and animals around her home, then as a young woman how she had become secretary to the famous paleontologist Louis Leakey, who was looking for someone to study chimpanzees in the wild. I spoke of her findings: how chimps slept in nests that they made by bending branches down with their feet, how grooming was an important form of social interaction. I passed around photographs.
Two photographs I kept to myself. One was Jane Goodall washing her hair. The other was a close-up of her in profile looking into the face of a chimp. Her own eyes blue, her lips slightly parted. That night in bed, I imagined writing to Jane Goodall and telling her of my admiration for her work. At the same time, I modestly pointed out something that she had missed but that I noticed from the photographs, an observation about the way chimpanzees communicate with gestures. I sent the letter to her care of the offices of the National Geographic Society and in a short time I received a telegram which the delivery man read while my family stood by the door and listened.
BRILLIANT OBSERVATION STOP HAVE UNFILLED ASSISTANT POSITION STARTING IMMEDIATELY STOP YOU ARE URGENTLY NEEDED STOP PLANE TICKET ARRIVING TOMORROW STOP JANE GOODALL
My parents and my brothers stared at me in stunned amazement. Finally my dad said, “Well, son, you better get packing.”