Feed on
Posts
Comments

Ashes the Hairless Chimp

I never told Herbert about Ashes. Herbert was my husband, but he died five years ago last week. It was a DUI, a sleepy truck driver, a turn signal that didn’t work. He was fifty-seven. I never told him because telling him about Ashes would mean telling him about my Momma and Daddy. Herbert was a good man. He ate green beans with his steak and went to church on Sundays and talked real slow, like he had all the time in the world and wanted to spend it right there with you.

Herbert came from money. He didn’t boast about it or anything. It was just a part of him, a sort of carefree way he had, like he knew he’d always have a comfortable leather armchair and a pair of well-bred jack russells to come home to. On our wedding day, his parents came up to us at the reception, his mother in this smooth pale purple silk gown with a grey silk wrap around her shoulders that made me feel frumpy in my white satin dress with the lace collar and the beading on the sleeves.

“Welcome to the family, dear,” she said, taking my hand in both of hers. Herbert’s father nodded and smiled next to her. She was so elegant. When she swept her hand around the room to say how much she admired the flower arrangements on the tables, I could see her using that same gesture to order servants to clear the breakfast table.

I did almost tell Herbert, once. We’d been married a year, and even though Herbert didn’t like me to cook or even clean our house – that’s what he’d hired Bessie for, he said – I made pancakes for our anniversary breakfast using my Momma’s special recipe. When he came downstairs in his bathrobe and saw me at the stove, he just smiled one of those smiles that told you that he knew all the little ways you tried, the things you did to try to be a better person, how you put other people first but would never tell them, and he was thanking you for it all right there. I knew then that he was happy, it was our first anniversary, and he wouldn’t give me a hard time about the cooking. I poured the hot maple syrup from the pot into the gravy boat and carried it along with a plate stacked with pancakes to the table.

“Dig in, love,” I said. “While they’re hot.”

He forked a couple onto a plate and handed it to me where I sat across from him, then took some for himself.

“Lord, Susie,” he said, eyebrows raised, after the first bite. “These are good!”

“Thanks.” I smiled at him. “It’s the way my Momma used to make them.”

Herbert took another bite and looked at me. Then he leaned forward and tapped the tines of his fork on the edge of his plate. “Thank you, Susie.”

I knew what he meant. After meeting his parents for the first time, I’d had no choice. He thought my parents had died in a house fire five years ago, just after I’d moved to Atlanta looking for work. It was bad enough I was poor. I couldn’t be poor and have divorced parents. I almost told him the truth that morning over my Momma’s pancakes, the way he looked at me for a moment with his eyes so full of love and sadness, but then he asked me to pass him the pitcher of orange juice and I never told him about my Momma and Daddy and the tent where they yelled their business to the whole town, the tent for Ashes the Hairless Chimp.

~

When I was seven, a man no one had ever seen before set up on the town green a yellow and white striped tent with a sign over the entrance that read “Ashes the Hairless Chimp – Admission: $2”.

My brother Eddie and I noticed the tent on a Wednesday, walking home from school, and the crowd of people already gathered around it. I asked Eddie what a chimp was, and he told me that in science class they’d learned that chimps were what had come before humans and that they were as smart as a three-year-old child. I told him I didn’t believe him, that not even pigs were that smart and a chimp didn’t sound as smart as a pig, and he told me that yes it was so, his teacher had said it was so, and I shouldn’t argue with him about things I didn’t know about.

When we got home, Momma was on the phone with Mrs. Benson, her friend who visited once a year at Christmastime and brought her nasty little dog, a rat terrier named Yodel. She was telling Mrs. Benson about the yellow and white striped tent and the man and Ashes the Hairless Chimp.

“No one knows, Marge,” she was saying as Eddie and I dropped our schoolbooks on the sideboard. “He just showed up one night and the next day there he was.”

She pulled a pie out of the oven, holding the phone between her shoulder and her ear, and placed it on a cooling rack next to two others. She turned around and saw us, and beckoned us over. She bent and kissed Eddie on the forehead, then me, and whispered to us, covering the mouthpiece of the phone with her fingers, “Go out back and pick some tomatoes for us to have with supper. I’ll make a salad.”

She straightened, and said in her normal voice “Oh, I think the children would love to see it.” She nodded. “Mm hmm, what a treat.”

Eddie had picked two tomatoes and I had picked three – I was smaller and could wriggle back between the trellis and the side of the house, which was where all the reddest, ripest tomatoes always were – when we heard scrunching gravel that meant Daddy was home. We ran in the back door and Eddie put our tomatoes in the sink, then we brushed off of us all the dirt and smudges from the garden and went into the hall.

He was setting his briefcase by the hat stand and turning around for Momma to take his coat. “Eddie! Susie!” He crouched down and held out his arms. I ran to him and he squeezed me tight and reached out to ruffle Eddie’s hair.

“Dad, can you help me with my math homework?” Eddie asked.

“Sure thing, son. Just let me change first, and I’ll be right there.” Daddy turned and kissed Momma on the cheek, then went down the hall to their room and shut the door. Eddie went into his room and shut the door, too. I looked at Momma. She was holding his coat to her face. When she saw me watching, she hung it in the hall closet and walked back into the kitchen.

I went into the hall closet and shut the door. It was cool and the air felt soft, like it was made of cotton stretched real thin. Daddy always used to hide here when we played hide-and-seek. He couldn’t fit into the bathroom cabinet or behind the washing machine like Eddie or me. I found his coat, the one at the end, and stood inside it like it was a tent. I pulled it close around my face and breathed deep. It smelled like cigarette smoke and lilacs.

~

I couldn’t visit Herbert’s grave on the anniversary of his death this year because I was called in to substitute teach and the elementary school – something to do with my time – but the next day was Saturday and I could go. I ironed my black dress and baked a tray of snicker doodles, which smell so nice and sugary to come home to after that I can’t help but smile and see Herbert sitting at the kitchen table smiling back. I stopped at Safeway and bought a bouquet of yellow roses. I turned the car radio on and put in a cassette tape that Herbert had given me for our fifteenth anniversary of him singing “Hound Dog”, the first song we ever danced to at the Spring Gala all those years ago. I drove the fifteen miles to the cemetery and parked and walked up the hill to Herbert’s grave.

There was a crow rooting through a basket of muffins someone had left, and it flew off, cawing, as I walked past. A woman wearing green sweatpants at the top of the hill turned around, rubbing her eyes when she saw me. I made it up the hill, and she was standing near Herbert’s gravestone and so I stood next to her and offered her a tissue.

“I’m sorry,” she said, blowing her nose. “It’s been five years, but there are some people you just never get over, you know?”

I nodded and squeezed her hand. “I know. My husband passed away five years ago, and I still miss him like it was yesterday.” I stepped forward and bent down, laying the roses in their pink tissue paper and crinkly plastic under Herbert’s inscription, and when I looked back at the woman her face was blanched and she opened her mouth, staring at me. Her hand opened and the tissue fell out, but a breeze caught it and spiraled it up and up until it was lost against the gray clouds. She turned and walked very fast down the hill. I watched her get into a blue sedan and drive away.

~

 Momma took us to see Ashes the Hairless Chimp on a Saturday so that Daddy could come, too. We all paid and went into the tent, ten or twelve of us, and Eddie and I got to be in front because we were the smallest. We stood around the cage on the ground while the man who no one had ever seen before talked about scientists and lab experiments and mommy and daddy chimps and Africa. Ashes sat dead in the center of the cage, arms curled around himself, slowly plucking his lower lip. He didn’t look anything like a little human or like a three-year-old child, and I turned to glare at Eddie. I poked him in the ribs and he poked me back and then went back to watching Ashes. I wondered, why, if Ashes was so smart, was he just sitting there plucking his lip?

“You bastard.” I’d never heard Momma use that tone before, like she was hissing. I didn’t even know it was her at first, until I turned around. Momma was standing at the edge of the tent with Daddy, everyone watching them now. Momma was crying. I tried to run over to her, but Eddie grabbed me around the waist with both arms.

Daddy glanced sideways at everyone staring. “Don’t you say that to me,” he told Momma.

“How could you?” Momma wailed. “How could you do that to me – to the kids?”

The other people in the tent started to look away, at Ashes, at the man no one had seen before, at the roof of the tent.

“Penelope, you’re making a scene,” Daddy said through his teeth.

Eddie was holding me to him, squeezing me tight so I could feel his chest tremble against my shoulders.

“Shut up!” he screamed. “Shut up! Shut up!” He let go of my waist and grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the tent behind him. Then he started running, not toward home, and I didn’t know why he was running or where he was running to, but he looked like he knew, so I followed him.

~

I looked at the headstone to the right of Herbert’s. The engraving wished a peaceful eternal rest to Mary O’Connor. The one on the left was for an April Gibbs. I left the roses and drove home and thought about Herbert and the nights he stayed out drinking with his friends so late that I was asleep before he came home, but when I walked in the door with the cassette tape in my hand and held it over the trashcan, I didn’t see yesterday’s cantaloupe rinds or Herbert smiling at me and eating a snicker doodle. I saw Ashes the Hairless Chimp sitting naked in his cage plucking his lip because what else could he do — not walk around not with all those people watching — and this time I thought, you and me both, Momma. You and me both.

One Response to “Ashes the Hairless Chimp”

  1. Beautiful, Kaitlin. Look at the way I edited the last sentence. Is that what you meant? I’m not sure running the words all together makes it clear, but yo should change it back if you think that’s better. In any case, I enjoyed reading this story again. Submit it to Red Clay.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.