Appears in Other Voices #46
“Why me?” Gray says again to Mellisa, the Features Editor.
“You know boxing, you know sign language,” she says from behind her desk. “You’re as close as we come to an expert on this one.”
“O.K.,” he says.
“But a boxing ape?”
“Don’t call him an ape. Word is they’re sensitive about that.”
“Who? His owners?”
“No,” she says. “The apes.” She looks flustered. “The chimps, I mean.”
“A boxing chimp?”
“Retired,” she says. “A retired boxing chimp. Here’s his file,” she says, handing over a manila envelope. “Read it. Get to know something about him. This could be a good, solid, human interest piece if you take it seriously.”
“Just don’t embarrass me.”
He leaves the office and goes out for lunch with a file marked “Beano,” in grease pencil on one side.
Gray has lunch with his friend Holly at the Hob Nob, an outdoor bar on 301. The bar’s a reminder of the good days, before Interstate 75 carved its way through the west coast, reducing the 301 strip to boarded-up memories of tourist money.
Now, Gray notices, not much is left. The old Sarasota Hotel is abandoned, except out front, where the old bar was, there’s a labor pool. “Men Wanted. Every day. 5am.”
“Maybe I should try that,” Gray says to Holly.
“Five bucks an hour to snap your spine,” she says, mocking a wince. “Stay where you are.”
“It’s driving me crazy,” he says. “This isn’t what I went to school for. Interviewing seventy year old widows and now…” Gray shakes his head and leaves his thought unspoken.
“Now you’re talking to monkeys.” She sips her beer. “Could be worse,” she says, and points at the labor pool.
“I work at a fucking retirement magazine, Hol. And I’m not even in a good department.”
“Christ, Gray. You’re in Florida. During retirement season, you could walk from one end of this state to the other on the hoods of powder-blue Cadillacs.” She dips her peel-and-eat shrimp into the cocktail sauce and chews. “Of course you work for a old folks magazine. Know your demographics, pal.”
Gray fingers the edge of Beano’s file. The manila has dark blotches from droplets of sweat off his forehead. He shakes his head and opens the file. He looks across the road, up and down 301.
“God’s waiting room,” he says.
At one-thirty, Gray enters the weathered gate of Tyler’s Museum for Performing Animals. In the sixties and seventies, the Tylers traveled the country—mostly the southeast—with birds that jumped through hoops, trained gators, your run of the mill honking seals, but their chief attraction was the boxing chimps. Dan Tyler would offer five hundred dollars to anyone who could go three rounds with any of the animals.
The chimps were dressed in boxing trunks, given ten-ounce gloves and a muzzle over their jaw so they wouldn’t use their teeth when the opponent was wounded. Beano was the last of the Chimp boxing champions, retired in 1974 with a perfect 155-0 record. In twenty-two years, using six different chimps, “Dandy” Dan Tyler never once had to fork over the five hundred.
Gray checks all these facts one more time in his car before going into the complex to do the interview. Beano’s the last of the chimps still alive. The rest of the animal retirement home is a sad affair. Mrs. Tyler runs the place; Dandy Dan has been dead for years, and it’s a little run-down.
Some tropical birds dressed like humans perch in outdoor cages, a small pool sits at the end of a weed-peppered brick path. The pool houses both the seals and the gators, with a chain-link fence separating them.
Gray is led to the back porch where he spots a chimp in an Adirondack chair, sipping a drink. The chimp is dressed in bright blue boxer shorts. His drink has an umbrella, he smokes a cigar and for some reason, Gray can’t get the image of Joseph Cotton in Citizen Kane out of his mind. He puts the file down and introduces himself in sign.
“No need,” Beano signs. “I read lips.”
“Really?” Gray says. He sits down and opens his note-pad.
Beano rolls his eyes. “No, I lied,” he says.
Gray has interviewed several impatient, surly old people in the past few months, but this encounter still has him a little off-balance. He decides to start simple and basic.
“So how old are you?” he says.
“Twenty-six,” Beano says.
Gray smiles. “We’re the same age,” he says.
“Not exactly,” Beano says.
“Why? How old are you in Human years?”
“How the fuck should I know?” Beano snaps. His hands are quick, he talks fast. “How old are you in chimpanzee years?” He sips his drink and puts the glass down. “Human years,” he says.
“Sorry,” Gray says. He tries to get on Beano’s good side, though he’s beginning to wonder if one exists. “So how old am I in chimpanzee years?”
“Young,” Beano says.
“You’re young, O.K.?”
“Fine,” Gray says and opens the file. He’s getting nowhere, but he’s got to come up with something that resembles a feature or he could get canned. Too many old people have called Mellisa and reported Gray to be short-tempered, bumbling, incompetent. You name it. He knows more and more every day he’s not well-suited for this gig, but he can’t afford to lose it. He pushes on.
“Do you miss boxing?” he says.
Beano looks at him. “Do I miss this costume? Do I miss being a piece of meat? Being part of a geek show?” He shakes his head. “Next question.”
Gray scribbles in his pad. “I’ll take that as a no,” he says as he writes.
“Look at me,” Beano says. “I can’t read your lips.”
“I just said that I take it you don’t miss it,” Gray says.
"Bingo,” he says. “I miss the violence, though. I miss beating up on humans.”
“155 of them,” Gray says.
“Something like that,” Beano says.
“I had a jack-hammer jab.”
“I had a nice left hook,” Gray says.
“Golden Gloves,” Gray says. “Not professional.”
“What was your record?”
“I don’t know,” Gray says. “Thirty-something and four,” though he knows it was exactly thirty and four.
“We should go at it,” Beano says.
“No, dance. Of course box,” Beano says. “Your attention span is shit, you know that?”
“I don’t box anymore,” Gray says. “Besides, I think you might be out of my league.”
“You’re right about that,” Beano says.
By four, Gray figures he has enough information to do something that resembles a professional effort of journalism. He meets Holly at the Hob Nob.
“How’d it go?” she says. “Not bad,” Gray says.
“I like him better than the people I’ve been interviewing lately.”
“He’s got a personality?”
“Shit, yes,” Gray says as he sips his beer.
Gray is at work at home, transcribing notes when the phone rings. He picks up the receiver, but there’s no one on the line. He hangs up. It rings again.
“Hello?” Gray says. Nothing.
There is a chimpanzee noise. Eek, eek, eek. And then a hang-up. It happens four more times in the next half-hour and then stops for the night.
At eight in the morning, the calls start again. Gray drives to Tyler’s, after showering and filling up on coffee, at nine. Beano is out on the back porch again.
“You’re calling me?” Gray says.
Beano nods. “I have a proposition,” he says.
“How’d you get my number?”
“You’re listed,” Beano says. “Sit. We need to talk.”
“About what? The story’s almost done.”
Beano shakes his head.
“I want to box you for my contract,” he says.
“Contract?” “Mrs. Tyler needs money. She’ll let me go for a thousand. We box. I beat you, I’m free. You beat me, I’m yours. Deal?”
“I don’t have a thousand dollars,” Gray says.
“Then help me break out.”
“You’re crazy,” Gray says.
“Box me for it. Same deal. You win, it’s the last you’ll hear from me.” Beano looks at Gray. “Come on, kid. You think this is easy? I’ve never asked a human for help before.”
“What would you do?” Gray says.
“If you beat me?”
“When I beat you,” Beano says.
“Whatever. What would you do?”
“That’s my business,” he says.
At eight, the phone calls start again and Gray realizes that Beano is not a chimp who takes no for an answer. Four times in an hour, Gray’s phone rings, no noise at all one the other end, followed by a hang-up. At nine the phone rings again.
“Look,” Gray says into the receiver, “I’m thinking about it, O.K.? Leave me alone for a while and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” He’s not sure if Beano can understand words, but he thinks maybe his tone will get the message across.
He hangs up. The phone rings and he picks it up on the first tone.
“What do you know about freedom?” he demands. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
The voice on the other end throws Gray. He lights a cigarette and sits down, using an old Diet Coke can as an ashtray. When he ticks his ash, the tip of the cigarette fizzes in the liquid gathered at the lip. He re-lights the cigarette.
“Most people just say hello.”
“Yes.” She pauses. “What’s wrong with you, Gray?”
“I thought you were someone else,” he says.
“I gathered,” she says.
“Chimp,” Gray corrects.
“You getting a lot of calls from lower mammals?”
Gray tells her what’s been going on the last couple of days. He tells her about his meeting, the interview, and finally about Beano’s deal.
“You’re joking,” she says.
“That’s what he wants,” Gray says.
“Meet me in the office at eight,” she says.
“No, nine. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Do?” Gray says. “What? Do?”
“Tomorrow,” she says and hangs up.
Gray decides to go meet Holly for a drink at the Hob Nob. When he returns after midnight, there are ten messages on his machine. The first has chimp squawks on it. Beano sounds at once angry and desperate. The rest of the messages, Gray erases without listening to.
“Here’s the deal,” Gray tells Beano. It’s ten in the morning and Gray has just come from a meeting with Mellisa and the Editor-in-Chief of Sunset Years. “You and I box.”
“And you break me out,” Beano says.
Gray shakes his head. “The magazine puts up the money.”
“How do I get free then?”
“I don’t follow you,” Gray says.
“You win, the magazine owns me. I win, I stay here. What the hell kind of deal is that?”
“No,” Gray says. “The magazine doesn’t want you. They just want a story. Either way, you’re free.”
“You can’t lose.”
Beano sips his drink. He looks at Gray. “Where will I go?” he says.
“I thought that was your business,” Gray says.
“It was, but I didn’t think it would get this far. Can I stay with you for a while?”
“I don’t think so,” Gray says.
“Just for a while,” Beano says. “I could do some promotion work for the magazine. Appearances, things like that. Make some money and move out. We could be neighbors.”
“I don’t know,” Gray says.
“Please,” Beano signs. Over and over, his hands in a repeated gesture. “Please.”
Mellisa loves the idea. The Magazine has re-couped their investment in Beano by selling tickets and advertising space. Any money made on the chimp beyond the fight is pure profit. Beano, she thinks, would make a great mascot for the magazine. The deal is struck. He will make appearances and have his own advice column for retirees, ghostwritten by Gray.
The fight is scheduled for three rounds. Gray steps into the ring in a bright red robe with Nellie’s Kosher New York Deli emblazoned across the back. He is mildly hurt the advertising space on his back cost less than half that of Beano’s.
Beano steps in the ring in neon blue trunks, his matching robe open. Beano is sponsored by Quality Tires. The referee gives them instructions and gives the order to shake. Before heading to his corner, Beano winks at Gray.
It ends quickly. Gray’s height, which he thought to be an advantage, turns out to hurt him. He protects his head and Beano goes wild on his torso. He thrashes Gray’s rib cage with repeated right hooks. Gray is beaten like a gong for two minutes.
He drops his hands out of exhaustion. Beano spots the opening and lands one, two, three, jabs. One of them splits Gray’s lip. He falls. The crowd sounds funny to Gray, their cheering seemingly underwater and muted. He sees his blood and snot on the canvas and passes out.
Holly comes to see him in the hospital. The doctors have told Gray he’ll be fine. A couple of cracked ribs, three stitches, one on the inside, two on the outside of the lower lip.
“How you feeling?” she says.
“Been better,” Gray says. “How’s Beano.”
Holly smiles. “Toast of the town. He’s at Nellie’s Deli today, some liquor store tomorrow. The old folks love him. They drive him around in a convertible,” she says. “The Beanomobile.”
Gray smiles and his lip hurts. “The Beanomobile?”
“Very. How’s my apartment?”
“Fine,” she says. “He cleaned up. He moves in next door to you in a month or so. When that weird guy’s lease is up.”
The Beanomobile is parked in Gray’s space when he comes home from the hospital so he has to put his Subaru down on the street. The walk, less than a block, stings with each breath. Gray walks up the stairs. There a barbecue on his porch, full of food. It sends smoke up under the awning, then into the sky.
Beano sits in a new lawn recliner, his feet up on the railing. He smokes a cigar, and wears a tailored gray suit.
As he comes up the stairs, Gray notices a woman taking Beano’s picture and a man in a chair taking notes. The woman puts the camera on a table and talks to Beano in sign language, though Gray—at this distance—can’t make out the words. Gray comes up to his balcony.
“How you feeling?” Beano says.
“O.K.,” Gray says. “How you making out?”
“Fine, fine,” Beano says. He smiles a wide chimpanzee grin and introduces, fingers flying, the reporter and the photographer to his roommate.
“This is Gray,” he says. “A friend of mine.”
Gray says hello, then walks past them to put his mail down on the table. Beano follows him in; the screen door bounces on its hinges.
“Nice, no? Feel the fabric.”
Gray holds the lapels between his index finger and thumb. He nods. “Nice,” he says. He looks at the chimp. “Listen,” Gray says. He takes a breath. “This has got to stop.”
Beano begins to sign something, but Gray looks up at the ceiling fan in an effort not to be interrupted.
“No,” Gray says. “This has got to stop. I’ve done all I can and I’m not sure I can do anymore for you. No more parking in my space, no more barbecues at my house with people I don’t know, O.K.?” Beano has looked down at the floor. Gray straightens the chimp’s head and looks in his eyes. “O.K.?” he says again.
Beano nods. “I’ll be done with these two in a while,” he says. “Get some rest.” He slaps Gray lightly on the cheek. “We’ll take the top down. Go for a drive.”
Gray guides the Cadillac down Gulf Road, over the International Waterway Bridge. He has to drive slow to see both the road and Beano’s hands but, he figures, what’s one more slow Cadillac in Florida?
“I need one more favor,” Beano says.
Gray pauses. He looks straight ahead. “What?”
Beano pokes him in the shoulder. “Teach me to drive,” he says.
“I have to get out of here.”
Gray pulls the enormous car into a boat launching lot. He looks over at Beano.
“You all right?” Gray says.
“No,” Beano says. “It’s the same as always.”
“The deal was, I beat you I go free.” He shakes his head, looks out at the blue-green water of the Gulf. “I’m not free.”
“This isn’t my world,” Beano says. “Your world, not mine.”
“What? You want to hop around in the forest?” Gray says. “Is that the deal?”
“No,” Beano says sadly. “I couldn’t do that. I’d die.”
“Well, what then?” Gray says and looks over at Beano. The chimp stares at him, his face all frustration and angst. He doesn’t say anything for a moment, and Gray looks away. Beano punches the dash three times hard and the glove compartment flops open.
“It’s,” Beano signs slowly. “It’s the same as always.” He repeats this sentence so many times that Gray’s eyes adjust to the movements. His eyes plead for understanding.
After a while, Gray only catches the word “always,” in the cycle of motion, like a beep on a tape loop. He looks straight ahead and, every couple of seconds catches the word in his peripheral vision. Always, always, always.
“So,” Gray says. “What now? You want those driving lessons?”
Beano slumps back in the big leather seat. His feet, Gray notices, don’t quite reach the floorboard; they graze the carpet. “No,” he says. “They’d catch me.” Beano looks across the parking lot. He and Gray spot at the same time a group of people, mostly children, have come toward the car.
“Let’s go,” Beano says.
Gray slides the car into gear and heads out onto the Gulf road. Beano, perhaps, Gray thinks, out of habit, turns and waves to the crowd left standing in the lot.