Sunday, July 25, 2010

Scheherazade and the Orangutan

“Did I ever tell you the story of fighting the orangutan at the state fair? “
His stories were hysterically funny. She began to laugh even before this one began. She shook her head no.
“You are from Tennessee. Didn’t you go to the fair? Didn’t you see the orangutan cage?”
Of course she had been to the fair with her parents. Every year they would throw rings at coke bottles in hopes of winning a stuffed animal, and they would eat fried dough. She had never seen the cage with an orangutan.
“Yes, but an orangutan? PETA would never allow that nowadays.”
“PETA? Hell Bird, PETA should have been there protecting me!”
Her name was common. Janie. They called her Janie. She was creative, and the one who made up the nicknames for her friends. Now he had created a nickname for her. At first he had called her J and used it in the internet chats that had begun six months before. That abbreviation had turned into Jay, then Jay Bird, and now just Bird. She was Bird. She liked being a bird.
She was laughing the entire time he spoke, quietly, so that she would not interrupt the flow of his words. He leaned back in the Adirondack chair and took a long drag from his cigarette. The craving for nicotine was overpowering. He had not smoked all day, with the exception of the drive out to the resort when he followed her in his Firebird. Despite the hot beach air, he had kept the windows down. He didn’t want to smell of cigarettes. He chewed gum. She did not know that he was a smoker, and he wanted to look good in her eyes. Before dinner she had figured it out, and she seemed OK with his bad habit. He was planning to quit at the first of August. This was July. There were lots of cigarettes to be enjoyed before the arrival of that dreaded date of self control. As he stared forward into the darkness, he savored every breath of sweet smoke and remembered the Tennessee State Fair in the fall of 1971.
He began his tale. “We were drunk. Bruce, Ace, and Hunk were there. We came up to this large cage with an orangutan sitting in the corner. He had his head resting on his hand. Just sitting there, docile, with this stupid look on his face. The barker was goading us to go into the cage. You could win a lot of money, two hundred dollars, if you stayed in with the orangutan for two minutes. You didn’t even have to fight him. Just stay in the cage. Two minutes. I was drunk on my ass. The guys started daring me. You know, you can’t turn down a dare.” He paused and looked up to see her expression.
She laughed as if she understood. But she didn’t. A group of drunken frat boys dare you to do something dangerous, and you do it because of their taunts? She never did understand the need for men to demonstrate their prowess with bravado, fighting, or going to cages with wild animals.
“Davey, you are crazy. I can’t believe you got in a cage with an orangutan!”
“I had to Bird. They were all laughing at me. And they were yelling that the Hump didn’t have the balls to last. I didn’t have to fight the thing. Just stay in the cage with him.” He took another long draw of breath from the cigarette, and then pulled a fresh one from the pack. He lit the end of the new one from the remains of the old. He continued to smoke. A faraway look had come across his face. He looked into the darkness toward the ocean. The breeze was stronger now, and the air felt cool. He was entering the cage in his mind. She watched as his expression changed and saw his mind leave her to tell his story.
“The damn monkey wasn’t even that big. He had boxing gloves on his hands and feet.”
She interrupted, pulling him back from his thoughts. She couldn’t resist. Restraint wasn’t her strong suit. “Boxing gloves?” She laughed hard enough to cause her to cover her mouth with her hands.
“Yeah. Those things have nails. They can do some serious damage. I always wondered if the barker had given that damn orangutan boxing lessons.”
“He probably gave him lessons in how to look helpless in the corner. To drag you silly ATO’s into the cage!” She shook her head as her laughter died down, and his story continued.
“Well, I’m locked in this cage. The guys are hysterical. Yelling at the Hump to nail the monkey. So I’m looking at this thing, head on its hand, and what looks to be a small smile creeps on its face.” He paused again, breathed a puff, and made a silly smile as he propped his hand under his chin. He flicked an ash and continued.
“Well, the barker put down his megaphone and blew on a whistle. Even while I was staring at the monkey, he jumped from his crouch at the corner of the cage and flew across the air to the top left side. I figured if I could keep my eye on him, I would be able to make it. Then, faster than I could see, he flew across the top of the cage to the right side.” He has shifted to the edge of his Adirondack chair. His words were flying faster now.
“Then, without warning, he was behind me.” She was mesmerized. Her eyes were wide.
“I didn’t see him back there. I was blindsided. He came flying at my head and hit me. But not once. It was a series of punches. Four of them. Bam, bam, bam bam! I was knocked flat on the ground.”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah Bird, it was scary. I was dragging myself back to my feet, looking around for that damn monkey, when he came swinging down from the top of the cage on the right. Bam, bam, bam, bam! He slammed me again. I was down.”
“Dave, Oh my God! I am so glad you weren’t killed.”
“Yeah. The guys were laughing their asses off. I was dazed and looking up for that bastard when, bam, he came at me from the left. Bam, bam, bam, bam. I looked up from the ground at the barker, and thought I was going to cry. I told him enough, and he blew that damn whistle.”
He stopped. They could hear the ocean in the distance. It had grown so late that there were no other hotel guests on the patio. They were alone under the stars. He had retreated to his memories. Janie could tell that for some reason this story was significant. She waited quietly for his words to continue.
“Yeah, the guys loved it. The Hump had gone down. I was hoping one of those bastards would go in the cage too, but they were chicken shits. Then I thought we would hang around for a while and watch some Tennessee boys get their butts kicked, so I could laugh.”
‘Dave, those Tennessee boys are too smart to fight orangutans. They are not like you Vanderbilt ATOs”
“I guess so. But I never saw it coming. He was flying so fast across that cage; I couldn’t see where he was.” He shook his head now. He felt as if he never saw things coming at him. His wife Patty had given him no warning either. She had blindsided him, and with that stupid redneck from down the street. They had partied together. They were neighborhood friends.
“It must have been awful in that cage. I am just so glad that you were ok.”
“Yeah. And the stupid expression on that monkey’s face. Just sitting there waiting for the whistle to blow, so he could kick my ass!” He felt stupid. He sat in his home while Patty screwed their neighbor. He didn’t know until friends at the bar told him about the affair. Everyone in Chattanooga seemed to know. He must have had clues. He couldn’t remember. Then she came back. She had to. Her boyfriend didn’t get divorced. He didn’t take her in. She had nowhere else to go. The Hump took her back. They had kids. He needed to make it work for the kids.
“I bet that that orangutan was smiling, because you walked in the cage. He was waiting for someone to wander in and beat the crap out of!”
“Yeah.” He looked in Janie’s direction, but was really caged in the memories of his life, getting blindsided. After a few years, Patty got pregnant again. Their youngest was born. But she was still screwing that uneducated, redneck neighbor. He was not a Vanderbilt grad. He was the manager of the Buy Low. Jesus! He had not even seen it coming. Bam, bam, bam. He let her stay again. This time, he let her stay for his youngest. But he wasn’t stupid. The Hump had his limits. He let her stay, but he never trusted her or loved her. Now, it was finally over. He had blown the whistle. He lit another cigarette from the dying one in his hands. He looked up at the stars and stared.
Janie needed to draw him back in to her again.
“Did I tell you about the whipped cream?”
He looked to the side, remembering that he was at a beautiful beach resort with her. They had typed back and forth for months on line and had never met. They had not even heard each other’s voices on the telephone. He knew she liked him. She was on him like white on rice, but he could read the signs that she was tired of the internet. He liked anonymous conversations, and didn’t want to lose his late night buddy who listened to his stories. It took his mind off the divorce and helped pass the lonely evening hours. She told her stories. They were funny. He looked forward to them each night. When she wasn’t around on line, he missed her. They were both at the beach this week. He was driving to meet his frat brothers for their yearly men’s trip. She was visiting her cousin and escaping the chilly weather in New Hampshire. He had agreed at the last minute to see her. What the hell? It was only to have lunch. The day had turned into the night, and there they sat, telling their stories.
She had called herself Scheherazade, the storyteller from the The Arabian Nights. She had woven her tales for 180 evenings. She liked to amuse him, herself, and to keep him interested. Sometimes they talked until the dawn broke and their stories had to end. They would wait eagerly until their next conversation together.
“Well, I was just married. I was whipping some cream in our tiny little apartment kitchen. I was using the avocado green hand mixer that I had gotten for a wedding present.”
“Uh huh.” He loved her details. Her stories were filled with great details.
“The cord kept falling off the stupid mixer. Well, it fell in the whipped cream. So, I picked it up, and the end was covered in whipped cream.”
Oh Lord, he thought. “No.”
“Yes. So, I looked at the cord, and the whipped cream on it, and stuck it in my mouth to lick it off!” She held her fist to her mouth and made a jerking motion, imitating being electrocuted. “Zzzzt, Zzzzt, Zzzzt, Zzzzt.” Then she pulled her fist from her mouth as if the electricity had been wrenched away, and ceased her jerking. Dave was laughing out loud.
“Yeah. They would have found me hours later, dead on the floor, with whipped cream still on my face!”
“Bird, you are crazy!”
“I was nearly a Darwin Award winner. As it stands, I could be a Darwin Award runner up. I didn’t die!” They both laughed and then fell into silence as they looked up at the canopy of stars that surrounded them. The ash hung long on his cigarette. He had forgotten to smoke.
In the quiet, her thoughts raced. She didn’t know anyone else who would have stuck an electrical cord in their mouth, because it had whipped cream on it. It was a bad choice. She had always made bad choices. Marrying Bill was a bad choice. They had never loved each other. He had loved his secretaries, his female partners, and a host of escort women, but not her. She had ignored the obvious signs, convinced herself that his lies were true, and lived hoping for a happy future together. She patiently waited for her fantasy, that when their kids were grown, they would fall in love for the first time. Another bad decision.
“Bird, the Darwin Award winners are always men. Men who have been drinking and have fire arms or dynamite!”
“True, true. Women are too smart to be in that book!” She didn’t feel smart. She knew that her lack of restraint kept her from being smart. Why else would she not take the cord out of the bowl, unplug it, wipe it clean, and taste the whipped cream with a spoon? She loved sweet things. She wanted the cream right then, and did not want to wait. She was too impetuous to see if a live cord was hidden within. She was always charging ahead. Not checking for the secret dangers. She married Bill without looking for what lay beneath the surface. She felt stupid. Now she tried to remind herself to wait and to look carefully before acting.
She looked down at Dave’s hand on the arm of his chair. It was just inches from hers. She wanted to touch it while he talked. She wanted to hold it after he had finished his story, when he had gotten quiet, and she knew that his mind was elsewhere. If she had been with a girlfriend that night, she would have held her hand and given her a hug of encouragement. But she could not with Dave. She was afraid to touch him. He may have been frightened. There could be electricity hidden within, beneath the whipped cream. She had to teach herself to wait and watch for signs.
“Look at my phone. I have an App that tells where the constellations are.” She fiddled with her I-Phone to show a map of the stars. “Darn it. I can’t get it to work.” She handed it to him.
He laughed, propped his cigarette on the arm of the chair and took the phone. She seemed completely incompetent. “How much did you pay for this App, Bird?”
“It was free.”
“Well then, you got what you paid for,” and he laughed. He found her charming. He had not laughed so much, since he had moved out of his house. Out of his family’s home. It felt good to sit in the dark, enjoy his smokes, have no idea what stars were overhead, and laugh. The orangutan in his mind was quiet now, asleep in its cage.
Janie enjoyed his willingness to help her figure out the phone, even if neither one of them could make it work. They looked up at the stars, and together they found the Big Dipper. They had sat in the hotel patio chairs for so long, that their only constellation had migrated across the evening sky. They had laughed the night away below the moving stars. It was three a.m. The resort employees had gone to sleep with the exception of the desk clerk and the valet, who yawned and waited for them to claim the rental car. Janie had neatly wound up the dangerous electrical cord in her mind and put it away. Neither the orangutan nor the electrical cord would cause them any problems for the rest of the evening.
“Davey, I have got to go to sleep. Its three a.m.!”
“Bird, you have done it again. You have kept me up all night talking.”
“Yeah. You!”
They both laughed. They tipped the valet and drove to Dave’s Firebird which was parked near the resort’s exit gate.
“It was really nice to meet you.” She felt like she had known him since college.
“Yeah. Thanks. It was a fun.”
He leaned in and gave her a light kiss before he left to get in his car. She led him out of the gate to the highway, then turned back and headed toward her cousin’s beach house. She resolved to buy a can of whipped cream when she returned home to New Hampshire. She would leave it in the refrigerator door. She would practice control. She would not touch it.
He drove up the coast in the opposite direction, where his old friends were waiting. He would stop smoking soon. He unrolled his window to smell the salty beach air. As he drove, the dawn was breaking. It was a new day.