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Andrew Alexander


My sister once ordered a monkey from the back of a comic book. She folded laundry for my mother for dimes, packed our school lunches for nickels, saving the coins in a jar underneath her bed. It took her almost a year to save enough, and then we waited for what seemed like months for the monkey to arrive. On some of those days that we waited, she and I would put the cat into the empty cage, watch her circle inside, poke her with sticks, and try to get her tail to curl around the trapeze that hung from the top of the cage, talking to her like an organ grinder to a monkey; "Dance, little one, dance."

Finally, one day, the postman brought the package and handed it to my mother, who carried it into the kitchen. Here it was at last, and it had come in a plain package no bigger than a shoe-box with air holes cut into the side. For some reason, I had imagined the monkey riding in the passenger's seat alongside the postman, hopping out and tipping his cap in thanks to the driver as he walked up the front walk to join us at our house.

Using a bread-knife, my mother carefully slit open the box. Inside, nestled in some dirty straw was the monkey my sister had ordered. It looked like something cold and stillborn, the fur wet and patchy on puckered skin, the face pinched and ugly. Beside the monkey, half-buried in the straw was a newsprint pamphlet "Your New Friend: Caring for Your Squirrel Monkey." The monkey did not move, and, for a moment, we wondered if it had survived the journey.

My mother poked the thing with the blunt end of the bread knife, the lids lifted sleepily, one of the tiny hands shook, as if with palsy.

"Quick, honey," my mother said to my sister, "get the paper towels." Using the towels, my mother carried the monkey (so small she only had to use one hand) upstairs to its cage in the guest bathroom.

He lay on the bottom of the cage for days and days. Sometimes we would take him outside for sunshine, hold bananas in his face, show him our beds, our attic, our swimming pool, carry him in his box to show him our modern conveniences--dishwasher, television, disposal--as if explaining these things to a visitor from another century. My father, a doctor, would pretend to examine the monkey when we asked him to. "Have you been a good little boy?" he would say to the monkey over and over, and then answer in a high monkey-voice, "Yes, I've been a good little boy." My sister and I would put Barbie in the cage to keep the monkey company. But always he did nothing but lie in that same curled position, sometimes moving his vague unblinking eyes to watch us. That look scared me, silenced me: it was as if he were about to ask some question, a question that I could not answer.

He had a name, Hazel I think, but no one but my sister ever called him that or anything besides "that monkey." His fur, though clean, was the color of sewer water and smelled like a sneeze. He ate a mixture of seed and dried fruit that my sister blended with yogurt and spoon-fed him every morning. As promised, she kept the cage spotless. The monkey, however, stayed on the bottom of the cage, sometimes curled up on his side, sometimes sitting up and watching us.

"Do you think he misses the jungle?" my sister asked one night as we watched him in his cage.

"No," I said, trying to imagine how my parents might answer such a question. "No, he's happy here with us."

One afternoon, when my parents were out, my sister pretended to be a pirate and held the monkey on her shoulder. I was lying on her bed. That was when I saw it, a gesture so delicate my sister never noticed it. The monkey lifted a tired hand, grabbed a fistful of her blonde hair, and stroked it. The sunlight shone so brightly through her windows that when my sister walked in front of them, she and the monkey seemed to glow like things plucked from a fire.

A few weeks later, on a rainy Saturday, my sister and I took the sparkling gown off a Cinderella doll. When we got to the guest bathroom to put it on the monkey, we found the door open and the cage empty. Someone had left the latch on the cage undone: the monkey was gone.

I thought it by far the most fun thing the monkey had done yet, but my sister cried that he might have climbed outside and gotten hit by a car. We told our mother, and she shut the windows and doors of the house so we could search for him. We looked in the laundry bin, the kitchen pots and pans, the medicine cabinet, the bedrooms, everywhere.

After a long time we went back to the guest bathroom, which is where we finally found him, crouched behind the shower-curtain in a corner of the bathtub, looking up at us with a pleading look, trembling. My sister shrieked with delight and picked him up by his tail to put him back in his cage. Faster than I had ever seen him move before, he slithered out of her grasp. He landed in the bathtub on his back with a sickening crunch.

"Don't touch him," my mother said when my sister reached down to pick him up again. "I think his bones are broken." The monkey lay in the tub, an arm and a leg splayed at impossible angles. He looked at us with a ridiculous calm; his eyes seemed to know nothing and everything all at once. "He's in shock," said my mother.

My mother went to phone my father at his office. The monkey shivered, so my sister and I covered him with a towel to keep him warm. His head poked out from underneath the yellow towel. "It's OK," my sister said over and over. "It'll be OK."

My father came home that afternoon with a syringe. He carried the monkey in the towel out to the patio table where he laid him down. He told my sister and me that it wouldn't hurt the monkey at all, and then he gave him the shot. After a few seconds the monkey went limp. The head lolled lazily to one side, and his limbs, his whole body sagged lifeless on the patio table.

My sister and I went to her room, crying. She took out a sheet of paper and drew a headstone with "I'm sorry" written in fancy script, filling the page with pen and ink flowers. I wrote a little poem on the page: "It was fun, but now it's done." We folded the sheet and put it into the box the monkey came in, the box he was to be buried in. My father used the post-hole digger and made a tall, skinny hole deep in the woods of our backyard.

"I buried that monkey straight up and down," my father said that night at dinner and laughed. "Upside down. Straight up and down." The thought of it would tickle him for days to come. That night and many nights more my sister would leave the table in tears.

"Well, all I know is that that monkey seemed sick when he got here," my mother would say after my sister had slammed the door to her room. "They should really give you kids your money back."

When my sister left I would just stare down at my plate, poke at my food with my fork. I would think about how the monkey had once stroked her hair. The gesture probably meant nothing, but at the time--although I could not say why--it was the most infuriating thing I had ever seen coming from something so weak and degraded. In silence I had watched my sister dance and pirate-sing; I felt as if I had witnessed something obscene.

The cage was moved to the attic where it stayed for a long time, a vague and dusty accusation. Its presence there made me avoid the attic for months. When we moved to our new house, we sold the cage to a neighborhood kid at a garage sale. A few weeks before we left, I went out with a shovel and tried to dig up the box to see if the monkey had turned to a skeleton, but I guess I looked in the wrong place because I dug and dug but never found it.

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