A WILDERNESS OF MONKEYS
By Robert McKean
It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor:
I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.—Shylock
Heartless, the way they ravaged the old man’s property. Yesterday, on his way to work Peter Sanguedolce slipped by the stockade of arborvitae that walled off his neighbor’s small weather-stained colonial. The trees, shaggy emerald plumes, had come in Oak Grove to be considered old-fashioned, as unwelcoming and out of place as the old man himself had become in the neighborhood giving over to younger couples. In wet snowstorms, the frail softwoods leaning tipsily every which way, you’d spot the old man out there—and yes, he had a proper name, Jacob Hoffmann, though Peter seldom attached name to neighbor—furiously shaking his beloved trees. Efforts that were, for the most part, ineffectual. What snow the old man managed to bring down, he brought down on his head, blotting his glasses, and sending him reeling into the street like an eyeless prophet.
Last night, Peter drove home from the clay works to a line of stumps, all severed low to the ground, and the aftermath present everywhere—chewed branches, green fringes of crushed leaves, a brown vomit of sawdust into the street. On the lawn, gouged tracks wallowing behind, pulled up to the old man’s door like a plague of prehistoric yellow larvae, were a dump truck, a grader, and a very large, very formidable backhoe.
“Teardown,” Peter told Jeanette, his daughter.
“Are they going to blow it up?”
At nine, Jeanette had, of necessity, become an expert in certain vital areas of domestic management: what premium dish liquid was worth the extra money, what upholstery fabric for their mauled old chairs went with their threadbare Couristan rugs, what ice cream her papa could buy for her weekends with him that would make up for too rashly selected Trader Joe’s frozen entrées—or, once, heaven help him, canned egg rolls. Possessor of three parents, two bedrooms, and an education in American divorce, Jeanette was also ridiculously skinny, at least she was to Peter, whose greatly prolapsed abdomen found its way through doors long before the rest of him followed.
“They would if they could I’m sure, honey. But no, they’ll push it over like a house of cards. All the smaller houses around here are doomed, I fear. But hey, they’re having a teardown party. We’re invited.”
“Is there a special song you sing at teardown parties?”
In her voice he heard what he adored, the mischievousness they shared. Bugging his eyes, he fed her her straight line. “Well, I don’t know, darling, I’m not . . .”
“London Bridge Is Falling Down, Papa!”
He did dote on her, her solemn brown eyes that disguised her droll wit, her braids that would probably not survive her passage to middle school, her leather Sunday shoes that clattered on the stairs: He loved her absolutely, without reservation. Most of the new people moving in worked at or around the airport. They kept to themselves, griped about property taxes, crawled across their lush lawns on their hands and knees searching for knotweed. Peter beamed at his daughter’s jest. But parental duty beckoned. “You’ve been practicing, right?”
Her eyes drifted to the side. She groaned. “Some days I get to be a kid, too?”
And smart, and sometimes—although he knew he was a biased judge—he’d argue borderline wise. But then again, maybe all children are wise? That he didn’t know, but what he did know was that this sole offspring of his two marriages that had come asunder understood how to rescue him, bring him back from his moroseness, the hours he would sit at his father’s old wooden desk presiding over the family’s slowly crumbling business and not care. He kissed her forehead. “You sound like your mother. But most days, right? Most days, Jeanette?”
“Most days, Papa. I’m learning a waltz, except it’s called a valse.”
“Maybe I can hear your valse later, before you go?”
Today’s visit was not an overnighter. But even so, she had brought her diminutive blue suitcase and reserved her standard time alone in her bedroom. For reasons known only to Jeanette, it was important that she be allowed privacy in her old bedroom. Among the hardest decisions the child had faced was which dolls and stuffed creatures to take with her to her new home and which to forsake.
Marriages come apart. Unravel, shiver to frigid splinters, lie scattered about like pieces of some vast clockwork no one remembers how to reassemble. Two autumns ago, he had stood at the living room windows, where he stands now, his back to the room, as Avis—exquisitely highlighted hair, immaculate nails—lingered in an emotionless, almost clinical, detachment, Jeanette beside her. Her leaving was a special occasion: she wore her Armani wool. “Don’t you intend,” she asked, “to at least say goodbye to your daughter?” He had feigned a consuming interest in the sight of some yardmen across the street. The men, dark-skinned under loose shirts and floppy hats, had pulled their truck alongside the a retaining wall and were vacuuming up with a huge hose the leaves they were hauling over in swollen blankets. In the bed of the truck, on top of the mounded leaves, two men swung by their arms from a branch of an old beech that shaded the wall. As colored leaves spewed at their feet, the men jumped wildly up and down, stomping them. When he was fourteen, Peter had worked in the family’s clay works, shoveling coal into the smoldering fires beneath the three-hundred-foot tunnel kiln; the spines of the men he worked with were skewed on a bias, their hands clawed with arthritis: For hard labor he entertained no romance. But these yardmen worked with a zeal that he appreciated. He could hear their shrill cries. It was not a question you answered.
But he rather liked daughter, the formality of it: Avis was the attorney, the one who manipulated language, he sold sewer pipe. His father had hired Avis Longstreet as a trainee into the purchasing department; company money paid her way through law school; the briefcase from which she withdrew Peter’s restraining order had been his graduation gift to her. When you fall in love with someone, you love them for their differences, their exoticism. When you fall out of love, you hate them for those same differences. And actually, he had talked with Jeanette, reassured her that her papa was not abandoning her: That that, in this tumultuous upheaval of her young life, she never had to worry about.
When she came back downstairs, she asked, “Can I take my bike?”
The bike was pink, with green and white tassels fluttering from the handgrips. It also had not made the transition to the luxury condo. “Of course, darling.”
“When did he die?”
He knew whom she meant. “He didn’t die. His daughter put him in a nursing home.”
“I was always afraid to go into his yard to chase my ball.”
He outfitted her with her pink-striped helmet. Where to put the luxurious braids? Always a problem. He let them dangle. “I don’t remember reading about them finding skeletons of little girls in his basement, if that’s what you mean?”
September sun, warm and dusty, shone down on the party gathering momentum inside the chain link fence that had been erected around the old man’s property. A seemingly octogenarian Dixieland band in striped jackets and straw boaters had already smarmed their way into a hammy “Way Down Upon the Swanee River,” and two folding tables draped in plastic cloths had been established with potato salad, chips, dips. A red ice chest held pop and beer. Kids of assorted sizes—far too many anymore for Peter to keep track of—mobbed the tables, chased through the yards, squealed and shouted and squirted each other with water pistols and toy Uzis. He had not met his new neighbors-to-be yet, the Halbrunners, but surmised the mister as the cheerful chef at the leviathan grill serving the construction crew, three sun-browned men in sleeveless tee-shirts. One of the crew, a fellow with a belly the equal of Peter’s, wolfed down his hotdog as swiftly as the chef with his tongs folded another into a narrow bun. Suddenly, glass smashed. Peter winced, alarmed, as did the construction worker, who dragged the tails of his moustache through the yellow mustard of his hotdog.
“Bust them all!” A young woman held up her plastic tumbler of wine. She was shouting at the two boys who—guiltily—tried to conceal the rocks they were clutching. “Go on!” she shouted again, this time at the other stunned children. “Do it, do it!” For a few minutes then the band was drowned out by the sound of the old man’s windows shattering in volleys of rocks.
The new Mrs., Peter assumed. “I’m going to go look for Mindy,” Jeanette said, “okay?”
After she wobbled off on her pink bike, Peter introduced himself to Mrs. Halbrunner, who splashed out a generous glass of wine for him. Fay Halbrunner wore white toreador pants and some kind of fringy low-cut blouse dribbled with wine. She seemed excited, stirred up. At his stray inquiry about Mr. Hoffmann, she laughed uproariously.
“Brad practically had to pry the keys out of the guy’s talons—not that we particularly needed them, you know, but still, still? What gives with the Black Forest in the back? I can’t believe you guys didn’t bitch about that?”
Peter, who drank little anymore, sipped at the wine. He spoke over the band and now the backhoe’s diesel starting. “Well, that’s true,” he allowed. “The yard sort of got away from him.”
“Sort of? I expect Big Foot to come wandering out of there! You know his daughter left half his stuff? Called us, said, ‘I don’t want it.’ What a gumbo!”
“So, you’ve been inside?”
“Why would I want to go in somebody’s dirty old house?”
Hoffmann, his gummy pipe sending up clouds of foul smoke, used to skulk around the neighborhood in his trench coat, his dog trailing behind. His wife died, his daughter married and moved to Taos, then the dog bolted and was struck by a car. The old man grieved for the loss of his daughter, their mutual estrangement. Peter wasn’t sure why he had asked, but walking through somebody’s house just seemed like a thing you’d do before you demolished the structure that person had lived in for fifty years. He shrugged and swallowed more of the wine, which was surprisingly good. He remembered when he had drunk wine like water. That was wife number one. “You got kids?”
A more agreeable topic. Mrs. Halbrunner pointed at a swarm of children surrounding the grill. “The Prestone Radiator Flush tees.” She topped off their glasses, running wine down the sides and over their fingers. “One of the advantages of being married to the franchise owner, all the promotional shirts and mugs you’d ever need—or want. Hey, I just love your old wreck of a house! I told Brad we gotta use some of those old-timey windows, the diamond jobbies? Your wife coming?”
“Ah, well, no.” His wife—Peter didn’t care to explain—had established a partnership in East Stanton Junction with another attorney to specialize in the legalistic vexations of the rich. The partnership hit it off so well they decided to extend it to the bedroom. Avis wanted Jeanette back punctually at four-thirty. He looked for his daughter, didn’t see her, swilled more wine. “We split up, couple of years ago.”
“Happens,” Mrs. Halbrunner said.
She shifted closer to him—maybe she did? He was never very good at judging these things: Maybe she staggered his direction by accident? Certainly, his new neighbor, eleven in the morning, was already well on her way. But she did seem happy to get to know him, that he was pretty sure about. She fetched a bowl of chips for them, asked him all about his company. You’d be surprised, he said, fudging the truth here a mite, just how much pipe you can move, especially to municipalities in need of updating their sewer systems. She was impressed by the size of the pipe. Some of the concrete ones, he assured her, gesturing grandly at the dump truck, you could drive a bus through.
“Whoa man,” she giggled, “that’s a way lot of shit!” All too aware of a series of transparent trains of sweat traveling sinuously down the cleavage of his married neighbor, Peter turned at some point, as they all did, to watch the backhoe. The operator, the fellow with the brotherly paunch, having maneuvered his machine where he wanted it, slapped the shovel bucket against the house. Timbers cracked, the frame shuddered, and the band segued into “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” The operator, smudge of umber smoke shimmering over his exhaust, swung the bucket again, walloping the house smartly, and a sizable portion of Mr. Hoffmann’s living room imploded. Plaster sprayed like confetti. A boy spied an unbroken basement window to shatter. Its blunt teeth chewing at the exposed lathe, the backhoe chugged closer, snuggling up to the small, gray-shingled structure like a lover. The machine shoved the house, wrenched it off its foundation, and the portico over the stoop, bereft of its support, collapsed. The roof ruptured, two bricks slid off the top of the trembling chimney, a downspout toppled into the yard like a slaughtered soldier. By now, Peter’s neighbor was leaning back against him, resting lightly but comfortably on the long ample slope of his long ample tummy. Having endured two years of celibacy, two dark and lonely winters, Peter Sanguedolce inhaled the woman’s humid scent, took note of the next train leaving for the trip south, and watched the front wall of the old man’s house, moaning like a thing alive, slump into its basement. A fizz of choking black dust rose, and the chef sang out, “Burgers’re done!”
Supported but on three sides, the roof dipped, swooning dramatically like the brim of Humphrey Bogart’s hat, and the backhoe, swiveling jerkily on its tracks, swung its bucket far out to the side and clipped the back wheel of a pink bicycle.
What his eyes denied, his mind confirmed: During his brief lumbering stride across the old man’s mangled lawn, Peter reviewed, as though it were a movie trailer on infinite loop, the inconceivable vision of a child in a pink-striped helmet, dark braids flying, flying herself, finding a spot face down in the unkempt grass, arms extended up past her head, as if, inexplicably, she had become drowsy and elected to lie down here and nap. There were screams, the band broke up into a cacophony of bleats and snorks, and he was savagely tearing some kid away to kneel, lost and desolate, over this small composed form, the center of his universe.
It was the backhoe operator who took it the hardest. Oblivious of the furor, he positioned the clumsy machine such to smack the house again. When one of the crew pounded on his fender, he craned around in his seat. Seeing the incoming crowd, the twisted bike, putting it all together, he came wallowing out of his cab. Sweat—the wrong kind of sweat—broke out on his forehead. He went bone-white and sank away in a jumble of tattooed limbs and belly flesh. It was Jeanette who seemed the calmest. When Peter gently, despairingly, touched her shoulder, the girl rolled to her side. From under her pink helmet, as dainty as what a tiny jockey might wear, she looked up at him clear-eyed, said, “I’m sorry, Papa.”
He carried her home in his arms. Mr. Halbrunner, waving his tongs, offered to call an ambulance, although there didn’t seem quite the note of urgency in his voice one would have liked. Mrs. Halbrunner, meanwhile, was arguing with the construction crew. Their mate helped to some shade under a tree and gripping two handfuls of grass to keep himself from retching, they had decided they had had it. They said they’d be back Monday, absent the party—which constituted, as far as Fay Halbrunner was concerned, an actionable breach of their contract.
Peter’s intention was to take Jeanette to the emergency room. Once inside, Papa and daughter contested that plan. “I’m all right, Papa, I’m fine.”
“How could you be? You just got run over by a backhoe?”
“I didn’t get run over! It was my fault. I saw Mindy and just took off . . .”
He examined her helmet. It was unblemished, perfectly sound. He asked her to walk back and forth across the living room, to wave her arms and touch her nose precisely as he was doing, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, after she had dutifully completed everything demanded of her, he vacillated, “I’m still worried. I think we should have you looked at?”
“Papa,” Jeanette, child of businessman and litigator, bargained with him, “what if I play you my valse? Will that make it all right?”
He weighed her offer. “Do you know it by heart? Who’s it by?”
“I don’t remember who it’s by! Is that part of the test, too?”
About his head he wound an imaginary turban of gauze. “You bet.”
“But I know the name of the piece,” she pleaded. “It’s called ‘Valse Melancoliqué’, it’s in b-minor, and it has a lot of clashing notes—and those aren’t my mistakes!”
As she composed herself at the piano, her great-grandfather’s instrument, Peter concentrated on her, this improbable aerialist of only a few minutes ago, trying to decide like any inadequate parent what to do. She sat erect, eyes level, which he liked, letting her hands find their keys on their own. He pictured his grandfather, the dying man’s fingers working out silent chords on the bedspread, his lips rounding into a perfect O. One of the benefits of playing the piano in a cigar factory was all the free cigars you ever desired, Corona Grande, Presidential, thick, rank logs that loll majestically from side to side in one’s mouth. Nonno Franco, known all his life as Fatty, played for the women rolling tobacco leaves everything from Giuseppe Verdi to the Big Bopper. One of his six children—Peter’s uncle, not his father, the only one in the family with any business sense—played the organ at the Ganaego Roller Rink, the subtlety of his artistry all but lost on his colliding, ass-over-teacups skaters. But for Peter, it was this skinny little girl, braid falling down each delicate shoulder, for whom he held out most hope.
She had talent. Jeanette, as Fatty might say, had music in her. But so do many children. The great shakeout takes place in adolescence. Adolescence shook him out—over the piano Peter chose weightlifting, marijuana, girls. By the time in his thirties he came back to the instrument it was too late. He was determined that, as adolescence loomed, his daughter at least play through the shoals of puberty and therefore have a choice, even if her mother disapproved, whether to make music her life.
He kept silent time as she played. She was right: The waltz had clashing seconds, as well as sour, melancholic twangs in the harmony. An intermediate piece, not difficult for her. But the composition was not singing of a child’s yearning—or, probably not. Peter had great respect for the reservoirs of childhood tragedy, the suffering one so conveniently forgets as one grows up. When she finished, he came up behind her, clasped her in his arms. “I think you’ll survive,” he pronounced.
“Was it too slow?”
About her music he never lied. “Maybe more waltz lilt? Not sappy, not like the Dixieland chaps, but I picture these particular waltzers waltzing at the end of a long, long evening, doll.”
He hoped that wasn’t too elliptical. Perhaps it was. She asked, “Is my bike broken?”
He had utterly forgotten the bike. “I’ll get it fixed, honey, don’t worry.”
“You need to get it fixed right away—before Momma sees it?”
It took him a second or two to catch up with her. “We’re not going to start hiding things from your mother. You’re fine, it’s no big deal, honey.”
“Papa, you don’t understand: They won’t let me come here!”
She really was a step ahead of him. Peter Sanguedolce, unhorsed today for the second time, sat on the piano bench beside his young daughter. He did not know what to say.
“I’m all right,” she repeated. “I am fine. I did something stupid, that’s all.”
“No, this is wrong, Jeanette. Of course, we’ll tell your mother.”
“Can’t we be wrong sometimes, too?”
Before him, as clearly as Macbeth saw a bloody knife, Peter sees a fine-grain leather briefcase opening. But no, no, you cannot abet your child in deception. “It’s not being wrong, darling, it’s doing wrong. There’s an important difference.”
“Papa, please, please . . . ?”
Later, after watching his daughter scamper into the mahogany lobby of the building that has become her new neighborhood, Peter Sanguedolce, nursing a wine headache, walks over and gazes through the fence at his neighbor’s property. Backhoe and grader sit parked demurely in the drive. Beside them, the two refreshment tables retain their plaid cloths, but are devoid of food and drink. Cups and plates lie scattered about, along with green water pistols and purple Uzis, as if a great battle has played itself out. The grill he assumes has gone somewhere safe. Against a tree the pink bike leans, back tire flattened, the rim and possibly the frame bent. Can it be fixed? If not, can he locate an identical pink bike with green and white tassels?
The immediate problem is fetching the thing out. The fence is padlocked, of course. He could wait until Monday, but, having allowed himself to be drawn into a conspiracy, he recognizes the exigency of the situation. Returning to his garage, he carries over his aluminum ladder, spreads its legs, climbs, then, straddling the fence, toe of one shoe wedged in a loop this side, other toe the opposite, endeavoring while negotiating this dicey crossing to snag neither pants nor ass—thank God the Halbrunners didn’t think of razor wire—he balances himself and, with his old weightlifter strength, lifts the ladder up and over and establishes it on the far side.
Oliver Hardy, he thinks smugly, couldn’t have done that better.
Once down and safely within the fence, he’s drawn to the blasted house. Knocked off its beam, the structure exhibits a doleful unreality—more than that, a stunned tenderness. It’s like a boxer staggered after being coldcocked, in disbelief such a thing could occur. This can’t be, the little house seems to be pleading, and Peter, stunned himself at the fragility of the dwellings we take shelter in, keeps expecting to see, as part of this unreality, his neighbor and mangy dog to come shambling down the exposed hall, perhaps the old man fussing with the tar-blackened pipe whose airflow he never seemed to approve of.
He goes around the back. Indeed, the grill is lashed to a tree. A dreary smell of charred flesh emanates from it. The back stoop is intact. He tries the door. With the whole house cracked open like an egg, there’s no reason to expect the door to be locked, but when it yields and he slips into the kitchen, Peter experiences a qualm: Is this breaking in? Well, of course, it is. But whose house is he breaking into? On the table sit the old man’s salt and pepper shakers, his sugar bowl, his fouled ashtray. The pan he boiled his coffee water in rests where he last set it down, on the front burner. From a nail hangs the dog’s old collar. Standing in what incontestably remains Jacob Hoffmann’s kitchen—it’s as if the fellow had just maundered out of the room—Peter, somewhat hazily, recalls the wife who died soon after he and Avis moved next door. Peter carried over a casserole and sat Shiva with his new neighbor. The daughter—whose passage to maturity had been, he gathered, a much troubled one—had been here, the only time he met her.
His curiosity overcoming worries of ominous creaking, Peter pads down the hall, peeks into the alfresco dining room, then living room. The sofa, beneath a shawl of plaster dust, reminds him of a time he sat there while Jeanette in her Brownie uniform signed their neighbor up for two boxes of cookies. The sofa still smelled of wet dog five years after the poor brute had perished. What kind of life did Jacob Hoffmann have? He solved the daily crossword puzzle, he cleaned and smoked his pipe, he watched television.
“Her valse, she played that beautifully,” he tells his neighbor’s abandoned menorah. “I need to compliment her more, I do. You can be too critical, you know?”
He decides that he dare not risk the stairs to the rooms above. In the kitchen, he tugs on the cellar door, peers down into the gloom. Jacob Hoffmann, he’s cheered to learn, not unlike Peter himself, used his cellar steps as a hardware filing system. Staircase shaking beneath him, Peter creeps down a narrow path through a myriad of jars of nails and screws. Reaching the bottom, he discovers that all further forward passage is blocked, this time for good. The collapsed wall has clobbered the furnace and brought down in a tangle pipes, ducts, wires. On his way back up, he pauses at a storage area beside the stairs. The door has come ajar. Within, he sees a box of paint cans, then another box, deeper in shadow. This second box he snags by a finger, hauls forward. A box of papers, he’s delighted. He sits and establishes the box between his feet. Letters, postcards, clippings, school report cards. Everything is faded, browned with time. Jammed in among the disorder is an envelope of photographs, outdoor shots in black and white from some day long ago: the old man as a young man in an Army Garrison cap, thick moist lips, large hooked nose, eyes gleaming with confidence; the wife as a vigorous young woman, striking dark brows arched over almond-shaped eyes, heavy breasts, clunky black shoes; and the daughter, an infant swaddled in the woman’s arms, all the photos taken outside some other house.
And then he realizes: It is not another house. It is the house he has broken into. What fooled him was the absence of the arborvitae, the bushy yews blanking the windows, the maples towering in the back: a young family, a young house. He remembers once reassuring his anxious neighbor about the runaway Norway maples: They liked the trees, the shelter they provided to the multitudinous squirrels and rabbits and birds that made their homes there. Not exactly Big Foot, but one Sunday two wild turkeys strutted from Mr. Hoffmann’s Black Forest and did a walking tour of Peter’s backyard, then, in a thunderous clatter of wings, rose into the trees. His spirits buoyed by his discovery—one of the photos even shows an eave of his house, which he especially prizes—Peter scoops up the cardboard box, turns and lifts his foot and brings it down on a tread that does not hold.
As his feet go out from under him, the box—contents disgorged in a spray—sails away into the tangled mire below, and Peter’s great belly, always first to introduce itself, takes the edge of a step hard. The air exits him in one powerful whoosh, and he flails through his crimson pain to grab something. Anything will do, he’s not particular. Sliding downward in a wide-armed sprawl amid dozens of cascading mayonnaise jars of nuts and bolts and screws, he entertains a fleeting image of a tortoise skidding down a bobsled chute: It hurts, it hurts a lot, way too much.
It was, by all accounts, an agonizing slither back up the swaying steps. His daughter’s bicycle he boosted up the wire fence and tipped over the edge, where it tumbled into his languid autumnal grass in a dear pink wreckage. Then a wobbly re-assent of the ladder and a dubious fence-straddling that did, this time, result in the rending of his pants in the seat, an even more treacherous descent. His belly was as black as a rotting turnip, his right knee tender. Down his underarms streaked long magenta scratches.
You cannot teach your child to be a sneak.
That Saturday night the last thing Peter Sanguedolce did before taking two extra-strength Motrins and going to bed was to call his ex-wife and tell her that their daughter that afternoon had had a serious near-accident, that it had been his fault for not supervising her more closely, and then, without shame, he begged her not to contest his visitation rights.
About the Author:
Robert McKean’s novel The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts was the first-prize winner of the Methodist University Longleaf Press Novel Contest and was published January 2017. A Pushcart Prize Nominee, he has had work appear in The Kenyon Review, The Chicago Review, Dublin Quarterly, Armchair/Shotgun, The MacGuffin, Front Range Review, 34thParallel, Crack the Spine, and elsewhere. His collection of stories was a Finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. A novel he is working on was a Semi-Finalist in the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel. McKean has been awarded a Massachusetts Artist’s Grant for his fiction. His website is: www.robmckean.com