The Frequently Alluded-To Monkey Story Settles Down

I was at a zoo with my family, watching monkeys swing around in two big side-by-side cages. This was when I was very young.

I watched them do the usual monkey-things and make the usual monkey-noises for awhile. I really liked it of course, who wouldn’t have? Then one of the monkeys in the right-hand cage jumped onto the wall of bars between the two cages, the wall that both cages shared. He stuck his head between the bars and squeezed his body through.

I was surprised. He climbed into the wrong monkey cage. Just like that. The monkey from the one cage. He went into the other cage. Are they supposed to be able to do that?

I didn’t know what to do. I looked at the people around me – but no one seemed to be concerned, if they’d even noticed. I may have tried to articulate the dilemma to my parents, but if I did they couldn’t understand the gravity of the situation.

That’s what I remember. For awhile, I associated this memory with a story my mom told about my dad losing track of me during a visit to a zoo in Spokane. But that connection was eliminated when my mom clarified that my dad had lost me at a petting zoo, no monkeys. She hypothesized that I might be remembering our visit to the San Diego Zoo when I was four.

I’ve told the monkey story several times over the last few years, trying to shape it as a memory with some personal post-modern meaning. But I falter every time, the story falls apart as soon as I try to describe exactly how the monkey jimmied himself into his neighbors’ cage. That’s where I want the story to end, but I just can’t explain the significance. But even the people who were there didn’t see it.

Easy

We joined Ingrid’s mom and a former student of her’s, a French teenager, for a big many-course dinner.

I was asked if I spoke French and I repeated my oft-used response, “I know enough to order one, two, three, or five croissants.” That’s a real crowd-pleaser. (The Spanish version by the way, effective only about fifty percent of the time: “Do you speak Spanish?” “Un poco.” Then wait a moment for those present to absorb your answer, “Actually I don’t know how to say anything except ‘un poco‘.”)

The evening continued. Dinner was excellent. I listened carefully to the French-language conversation, imagining that I might be able to understand every third sentence. At first, besides the occasional mention of cheese, I was getting nothing. But suddenly, right in the middle of a sentence, I heard a word that I’d retained from high school Spanish, “facile“. “Easy”. Something was “easy”. I scrambled for traction, listening for another word, any word, to pair with facile. But they’d moved on. No one wanted to talk about easy anymore.

I got over it. I kept listening, now a little less attentively. But I didn’t expect to pick up on anything, unless they ever wanted to count croissants. If they had, I would’ve be right there with them.

My Dream Car

This morning I was driving home in Ingrid’s car. My mind was still moving a little slowly – I was under-caffeinated. The next stoplight turned red. I flinched slightly as I released the gas pedal and eased my foot down onto the brake. I knew that the brakes were bad and was hoping that I wouldn’t careen into the intersection like I had been doing recently. But I came to a stop pretty quickly. The brakes weren’t bad, and I had complete control of the vehicle. Furthermore, I had not, I realized, been losing control of any cars recently. It dawned on me that that had been happening in dreams. I’d been driving around for weeks in my dreams in a car with bad dream-brakes.

One of the pitfalls of not really remembering my dreams is that I can’t digest them afterwards. They’re floating around in my head, unlabeled and not yet picked apart.

One morning a few years ago, I hadn’t had my morning tea and I was thinking about walking to work. I considered the route I usually followed and some of the small variations I could take. I thought about that thing I sometimes did along the way – where I’d jump forward, then as I reached my apex and started descending, I’d pull back against gravity and skim over the sidewalk for a few extra yards. Wait a minute, I thought, I can’t fly. Then I remembered that I’d been getting around in my dreams using those gravity-resistant jumps. Since I caught myself, I haven’t been able to fly in my dreams.

Sharp Edges

A long walk around the city and I’m almost home. I haven’t walked the edge off my mood as I’d hoped, I’ve just worn my body down. I take a good look at the sky when I get to the busy corner by the park. There’s a blanket of grey-orange tinted cloud covering the eastern two-thirds of the sky; and there’s a long crack cut through the cloud, north-to-south. The street corner is bright, so I head into the playing field to have a better look.

It’s definitely not natural phenomenon. They aren’t fuzzy organic cloud edges. They’re straight and sharp.

I hear the drone of a plane coming in from the northwest and turn to watch. As the plane plows into the cloud, the cloud dissipates around it, leaving a distinct curving path of black sky. I now understand that the clouds are at the altitude that planes descending into Sea-Tac reach when they’re over Seattle. I watch another plane come in, it slips right through the original path, not disturbing any clouds. Air traffic controllers, I figure, bring planes in along just a small handful of flight paths.

My back is stiffening up and it’s time for me to walk the last three blocks home. I give the flight paths one more look and half-yell, “Blah,” at them. A shooting star falls as if in response to my weak grunt.

The Way Home

I flip through Harry Mathews’ The Way Home. (A book I bought three years ago at City Lights Bookstore on the first evening of my first real business trip. Victoria and I skipped our Silicon Valley hotel’s social hour, in favor of a good Italian meal in North Beach and the requisite stops at City Lights and Vesuvius.) I stop on the last page of The Orchard and read the final paragraph. I notice something hiding deep in the crease between the pages, along the book’s spine. I dig inside and pull out a narrow strip of paper. The phrase “Complimentary Bookmark” is printed in tiny red letters across both, followed by words to the same effect in French, German, and Spanish. (The words are about half the width of the bookmark. The top two-thirds of the same words are repeated just below the first line, cut off at the edge of the paper. This allows the manufacturer to cut several strips out of one sheet of paper without having to line up the text carefully – as long as the strip is cut at the correct width, an uninterrupted line of the text will appear.) The pliability of the strip betrays the fact that there’s a strip of metal embedded inside. It is a once-magnetized theft prevention device, half-heartedly disguised as a bookmark.

All Before Dinner

I sat on the floor, running my eyes across the titles in John’s big CD collection, arranged in alphabetical order. I stopped when I noticed a sequence of five CDs that were sitting in the same order in my alphabetically arranged collection, four blocks away.


In the shade outside a coffee shop (a coffee shop that I wouldn’t be able to locate on a map), sipping chai, picking chocolate chips out of my scone, chatting with Ingrid’s coworkers. A pair of pigeons competed for crumbs, boldly brushing up against my hands several times. Twenty feet away, a man with a happy round face sat hunched over a typewriter, back to the sidewalk, confidently typing away with index fingers. Each time he reached the right edge of his paper (leaving no margins), he swiped the carriage return back to the left and let out a loud belch.


Ingrid and I peaked into the windows of the little house that she’d just committed to buying the night before.


We dug holes in Leah’s yard, sifting out rusted chunks of another generation’s garden tools. We planted trees and sad little tomato plants.


I picked up The Turn-Ons Viewmaster package that Ingrid worked on . . . Uh, I didn’t have much cash on me, so I had to borrow the money for it . . . Actually, Ingrid kind of borrowed the money for me.

The Bottom of a Well

While walking around today I came across a group of four year olds yelling into a wide grated manhole cover. There were three or four women standing in a half-circle behind them, smiling – the kids’ pre-school teachers I assume. I could hear one of the kids crying, but I couldn’t pick out right away which one it was. I tried to piece together what was happening, but got a little disoriented when I noticed that the crying wasn’t coming from any of the yelling kids. I panicked for a disoriented moment, imagining a kid had somehow gotten down there. Were the other kids heckling him?

It all cleared up a second later, when I got a little closer. The kids were hollering into the pit under the sidewalk, listening to their voices echo back up at them. The source of the crying was a little boy who I hadn’t seen before, standing with one of the adults crying about the noise.

I Am Back Inside Now

I was reminded of the acrylic-cutters and the likely oft repeated, “Enjoy your acrylic,” comment last week while buying shorts and a t-shirt at Nordstrom Rack. (Or as I once heard it called in the elevator of an office building where I worked, The Rack. As in, “The Rack is getting a new shipment on Wednesday.”)

The line at The Rack‘s checkout was beginning to pile up. A middle-aged man wearing a suit and a nametag that said “Store Manager” dodged his way through his young employees to open another cash register.

A couple of minutes later, he finished the transaction with his first customer and a woman came up beside him offering to take his place behind the register.

“Oh no,” the manager bellowed while I walked over and set my purchases down in front of him, “Open up another cash register. We need to get these people out the door.” And, more to me than to his employee, he added, “Unlike us, they don’t have to hang out inside on a nice day like this.”

For his benefit, I carefully showed the appropriate level of bemusement on my face.

We finished our transaction and he passed the bag of clothes to me. With a huge smile on his face and no hint of irony in his voice this time, he said, “Enjoy.

I walked out trying to figure out if I would enjoy my shorts as much as the store manager seemed to hope.

I Am Locked Out

When I left my apartment this morning, I did two things simultaneously. I closed my door and realized that I didn’t have my keys with me. I do that a few times a year.

When I did this at an apartment I lived in six or seven years ago, I’d wait for my neighbor to come home and he’d let me crawl out his kitchen window onto a nice broad ledge. I’d climb over to my apartment and crawl in through my window. My roommate Joe and I reciprocated, providing the same service to our neighbor on several ocassions. I always locked myself out when Joe was out of town, so I couldn’t just wait for him to come home.

One of the last times I locked myself out at that apartment, my windows were latched in such a way that I couldn’t pry them open. I had locked my first floor entrance, which opened onto a stairway that led to my apartment door. The main apartment door remained unlocked. After some hemming and hawing I just put a rock through the window pane next to the doorknob on my first-floor entrance. My neighbor had apparently had to make a similar choice at some point in the past, since my door now match the neighbor’s.

When Joe and I moved out of that apartment, I shopped around for a window pane to replace the one I’d broken. I was told that it was some type of safety glass and that it would be expensive to replace. The window shop suggested that I get a plastic panel at Eagle Hardware instead.

I took the number 7 bus all the way from Broadway to Eagle on Rainier Avenue. I read the measurements that I’d written down in my sketch book to the guy at Eagle. He cut a small panel for me and, as I left his work area, he said dryly, “Enjoy your acrylic.”

Later, when I went to work on the window, I found that I’d mis-measured. The panel was a quarter of an inch too big on each side.

I made the trip back to Eagle and had the panel recut. The guy who did the work was not the same person I’d dealt with before. But when I left he made the same joke, “Enjoy your acrylic.”

Homes

I’m walking up from the waterfront late Sunday evening. I pass a man, he’s moving at a shuffling pace, blinking at everything with wide eyes, smiling openly.

He stops me, “Excuse me. Are you from here?”

“Yes.”

“Are those all homes?” He points up at two 15-floor box-shaped towers, the Harbor Steps buildings.

“Yes. They’re all apartments.”

He nods his head, letting it sink in. “This is the first time I’ve been here.”

We both cross the street and head up the steps.

“Where are you from?”

“Albuquerque, New Mexico,” he answers.

“What brings you here?”

“I’m a truck driver,” he tells me. He is turning his head in every direction, soaking in data overload. “Is there a mall around here? Can you give me directions?”

I point him to Westlake Center.

“I was hoping to go out tonight, but I’m worried about getting lost. I’ll squeeze in what I can though.” He stops on the sidewalk, waiting for the light.

For a moment I entertain the idea of inviting him somewhere for a drink, but figure he’ll find his way better without me. I turn up the street and wave, “Enjoy yourself.”

The light turns green. He steps carefully into the crosswalk, seeing things I can’t.