Two Monkeys

“I don’t like this painting.” Emily stood in front of the copy of Brugegel’s Two Monkey’s and frowned. It hung in Joseph’s study over a comfortable red leather chair next to an arched window.

“Why is that?” Joseph smiled and held out his hands.

Emily shivered. The monkey on the left stared with sorrowful black eyes while the other gazed out of the arched window where the Scheldt River and the city of Antwerp stretched out. But the monkeys themselves sat chained to the windowsill in a darkened room, destined only to stare into the world beyond their solitary prison.

“It seems so cruel.” She went to him and sat on the edge of his chair.

“Ah, but in its day, it might have been considered a pun on the political times of the fourteenth to sixteen centuries. Then there was much “singerie” or monkey tricks for control of the Scheldt. On the right side of the river the count of Flanders was allied with France, but on the left the marquisate of Antwerp was aligned with Germany. In Bruegel’s time, 1562 the Emperor removed all room for maneuvering from his rivals. He chained them, so to speak.”

“I suppose that’s what successful monarchs do.”

“Sometimes one must be ruthless to maintain a kingdom. Yes. That is true.” He stroked her hand. “But it not something for you to worry about.”

“Will you do something for me?”

“Of course.”

She leaned closer, her golden hair tumbling over her shoulders, and her deep blue eyes filling slightly. “Will you take the picture down?”

He kissed her hand. “For you? Anything. Consider it gone.”

She flung her arms around him. “I do love you so much.”

“And I you, my dear.” He kissed her and glanced at his watch. “Now, we must get dressed. We cannot be late for a state dinner.” He looked at her and tilted his head. “Wear the blue velvet. It’s particularly becoming, and the diamond necklace.”

“It’s very heavy, Joseph.” Her voice trembled a little.

“Nonetheless. It suits you. And that suits me.” He kissed her again. “Now hurry, my dear.”

She gave him another tremulous smile before she hurried from the room.

Joseph waited for a moment before he stood and walked to the painting and pulled it down from the wall. He would replace it with something else from his cache, something more–what was the word–upbeat. He smiled and carried the picture with him. He told people it was an excellent copy, and they believed him because everyone knew the original sat in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin.

It was such a small picture, just 19.8 x 23.2 cm. Freedom and captivity. The two animals formed a perfect spiral from the ring that held their chains to the arch of the window overlooking the flowing river, the cathedral of Antwerp. That was the eternal dance—hope and hopelessness.

Joseph went to the wine cellar, and used the special key to open the door hidden behind a rack of exquisite French burgundy. He descended deep into the bowls of the house.

The two men sat in cells across from each other. They had been proud men once, even handsome men. Now both were stooped and gray. They stared at him with flat red-rimmed eyes.

He didn’t believe in torture. They had light—albeit dim light—water, food. Their waste was removed twice a day. Their clothing was grey, almost like a doctor’s scubs. Easy to remove and clean. Their left ankles were shackled to the floor by substantial iron chains.

He regarded the men. “And how are you, this afternoon?”

Neither man answered. Men without tongues could not talk or plot.

“I have brought you a present. Just for the night. Alas, I cannot afford to leave it here any longer for your enjoyment. But I feel you’ll both appreciate the picture for what it is. My new wife did not, and I will do anything for her, especially now that she bears my child.”

He propped the picture on a ledge. “It’s a reminder. You believed I would spare you because you’re my sons?” Joseph shrugged. “But you forgot I am the master of the game. No more monkey tricks for the two of you.”

He heard strangled sounds that sounded like sobbing as he made his way back up the stairs.

Walter

Walter Grindle sits in a small cubicle in the corner of the office that doesn’t have windows. On two sides he faces sickly green walls on two sides half wall, half glass. Walter believes he is the office manager because his father owns the company, but Marsha Goldman who sits in the opposite cubicle—the one with windows on two sides—is the real office manager.

She gives Walter petty jobs, like taking inventory and adding up the day’s invoices. Walter loves numbers. He hunches at his computer, his fingers tap tapping at the keyboard as he inputs figures and smiles because he believes he is doing important work. Marsha doesn’t have the heart to tell him that the computers have already calculated the day’s figures and incorporated them into the weekly, monthly and yearly totals. They will be automatically updated at 5:31 p.m. Walter does do a very nice job of keeping track of the inventory, however.

“Hey, Cindy,” Walter says looking up from his computer.

Cindy Sautherton halts and takes a breath to compose herself. “Yes, Walter?”

“I noticed that you took a box of legal pads last week. You didn’t fill out a form.” He holds up one of his specially designed color coded forms for her and waves it. His smile stretches across his rubbery face, and she stares at his pink gums and tiny square teeth. His black glasses ride up his nose and behind them his small black eyes leer at her. He shakes the form again. “Come and get it.”

She exchanges a look with Jeff Wong who rolls his eyes in sympathy. Jeff sits right outside of Walter’s office and is subjected to a constant barrage of jokes and remarks that only a man of extraordinary patience could endure. Jeff is a Buddhist. Though he has been born and educated in the United States, he has begun to pretend he doesn’t understand English very well.

Cindy walks into Walter’s cubicle and reaches for the form. He holds it just out of reach.

“Say the magic word,” he says.

“Please, Walter. Will you give me the form, so I can get back to work?” Cindy generally is good at handling Walter, but today her patience is frayed. Today she has three reports to finish and a presentation to prepare. Right now she just wants the goddamn form. “Give me that, Walter.”

“You should be polite,” Walter says. “If I tell my dad, you’ll get fired.”

“Fine. Tell your dad. Just give me the form.” She reaches over and snatches it out of his hand. She checks off legal pads, signs her name, and tosses the form back at him. “Here. Take your form.”

“I guess we aren’t having drinks tonight, Sin-Cindy.”

“We’ll never have drinks.”

Cindy walks out of his office. She hears Walter mutter, “I hate them all. I’ll tell Dad.”

He says that all the time.

She passes Tina and Jolene on her way back to her desk. “Take the long way to the ladies room,” she says. “His highness is in a mood. I hope you didn’t take supplies.”

Jolene sits back in her chair and folds her arms. “Why doesn’t his daddy stick him someplace useful? Like on a farm shoveling shit?”

Tina just giggles. “Oh, he’s kinda sad. Don’t you think?”

“Poor Jeff. If I was him, I’d wring the little bastard’s neck.” Jolene shakes her head.

The day passes slowly until it finally is five-thirty. Walter has enjoyed his afternoon, telling the new guy in accounting that he needs to work harder–of course, Marsha comes into his office and puts an end to his lecture. He’s sent Jolene a link to some new miracle diet because he knows she’s always trying to loose weight, and he has asked Ali, the new receptionist out. She’s said no.

At the end of the day, he asks no one in particular who is up for a round at the local pub. There are no takers. He watches his co-workers file out. No matter. He’ll get them next week.

Walter gets his coat and heads for the parking garage, but he recognizes the red Mini on the second level as Cindy’s. Across and down is a blue Toyota that he’s pretty sure belongs to Jolene.

Walter pulls in next to Cindy’s car and walks to the exit like a bloodhound on the trail. He heads to the pub everyone used to frequent, but no one from the office is there. He tries a few more on the street and is about to give up when he sees a place tucked into an alley.

Walter ducks down the alley and peers in the window. They’re all there at a big round table. Cindy and Jeff. Jolene and Tina. Ali, the new receptionist, and the guy from accounting. Even Marsha. They’re all sitting together and laughing like friends.

Walter swallows a few times and tries to will one of them to look up and see him, but no one does. He turns and walks back to the parking garage. He pulls out his keys and scrapes them the length of Cindy’s car before he drives home.

The Mouse

“I think we have mice,” Kayla said. She rolled over on the sofa and placed her ear against the wall, sure that she had just heard the scuffling of feet. Nothing. She looked back at Matt who slouched in the red chair, his feet on the coffee table, his eyes half closed.

Did you hear me? I think we have mice?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s the neighbors upstairs. I’m sure they’d fumigate.”

He held up the remote and began to switch through the channels until Kayla said, “Pick something.”

“Huh? Nothing on really.” He left it on the Military Channel where there was a program on World War II and fell asleep. Kayla listened for the scratching, but it remained quiet. Almost as if the mice knew she was listening for them.

They’d been lucky to get this place. It was a decent size two-bedroom, and they split the twenty-four hundred dollar rent. The drawback was that it was a basement apartment—garden apartment, the owner called it—though it only had small half windows in the front of the living room and in the back at the kitchen. Because the house sat in the middle of the block there were no windows in the bedrooms.

“Cells,” Kayla called them, though Matt didn’t seem to care. He seemed to enjoy holing up in his dark little bedroom and tapping away on his computer.

“You’re like a mole,” Kayla would tell him. He was a little with his longish nose and thick round wire rimmed glasses. He was a psych student of independent means. Quiet, easy-going, he kept to himself most of the time, but that was fine by Kayla. She had her own friends.

“You’re too picky. This place is perfect for you. You can walk to work.”

He was right. It was a fifteen-minute walk to her office at Dupont Circle, and yet there were those noises. Not all the time, but enough. Except Matt didn’t hear them. Whenever he came into the room, they stopped.

Kayla decided to buy an electronic mouse trap. It was the most humane thing. She would bait it with peanut butter and let it do its work. The directions said it could hold up to six mice at a time.

She set it up behind the couch and waited. A week went by. Then two. The trap remained empty, but the scratching continued. At night when she was lying in bed, she’d hear the scritch scratching on the wall, the scrabble of little feet, and she’d toss and turn until morning. She couldn’t eat. She’d imagine mice running through the cupboards prying into their supplies, leaving a trail of little brown turds behind. Stepping into the shower with its dark curtain terrified her so she bathed less and less often. Her hair became a chaotic nest of tangles around her thin, white face. She was too tired to do laundry.

Kayla would find herself drifting off at work. During a presentation by the president of her company, she began to snore. She was fired that afternoon.

Kayla dragged herself home and threw herself on her bed. She no longer cared about the scratching. She just wanted to sleep.

When she woke, all was dark and still. She didn’t hear a sound except her own breathing.

“Feeling better?” Matt said.

“I am a little.”

Kayla started to stand, but Matt grasped her arm and pulled her down. “No, I’m afraid you won’t be leaving yet. This is the second part of the experiment. I call it sensory deprivation. Don’t worry. It’s not total, and I won’t let you starve or dehydrate. Maggie was very resilient. I expect you will be too. Who knows? You make even make it to Stage Three.”

Kayla could feel hear her heart throbbing. “Stage Three?”

“Let’s not worry about that now,” Matt said as he wrapped duct tape around her hands. He slapped a final piece across her mouth. “The record is four months. Let’s just see how you do.”

We Could Be Heros

Jimmy Hanson slipped on his Boba Fett helmet and stared at himself in his mirror. He pulled out his plastic blaster and pointed it. He looked pretty badass. This Star Wars party would be pretty outrageous—of course, all Jen’s parties were.

Jimmy guessed he was getting a little old to be dressing up and running around with blasters and light sabers, but what the hell, he was four days from graduating with honors. He had a real job lined up. There was plenty of time to grow up and start paying off his loans. If he were lucky, he’d have enough left over to eat a real dinner more than once a week.

Jimmy figured he could walk to Allie’s apartment. He headed down Commonwealth Avenue, enjoying the early May air. Still cool, trees just starting to bloom.

A couple of people honked, and he waved. He figured he’d stop and pick up a couple of bottles of wine and a pint of Jameson’s for himself. He took off his helmet and ducked into a store.

Jimmy never could decide whether to pick up red or white, so he grabbed a bottle of chardonnay and was heading for the pinot noir when he heard shouting. He peered around the Captain Morgan display to see a short guy in the front of the store waving a gun and the terrified clerk behind the counter.

“Gimme your cash. Gimme your cash now!”

Jimmy set the bottle of chardonnay on the shelf and crouch-walked toward the front of the store. A woman in an orange sweater stood frozen by the counter, and he could almost hear the kathunk of her heart.

“We don’t keep much money in the till, man.”

“Stop lyin’, bitch!” The man with the gun paced a little before he reached over and dragged the woman against him. “I’ll blow her brains out. I’ll do it. Just watch me.”

The woman began to scream.

Do something. What would Boba Fett do?

Jimmy reasoned that Boba Fett probably wouldn’t do anything since he was a character in a movie. However, since he was dressed in character, and Boba Fett was a badass character at that, Jimmy felt he should do something.

He wanted to jump up, but his body wouldn’t obey. If he moved the gunman might get startled and shoot. Jimmy didn’t want to see the woman’s brains spattered all over the counter.

“Gimme your cash!”

Jimmy’s phone began to ring. The familiar Star Wars Theme echoed in the store.

“What the hell?” The gunman let go of the woman who slumped to the ground, and Jimmy grabbed a bottle of whipped cream vodka. Before he could quite register what he was doing, he had tossed it as hard as he could.

It exploded in a rain of glass and alcohol over the gunman’s face. He dropped the gun on the counter and began to scream.

“Jesus Christ, what was that? My eyes! My eyes!”

While the clerk grabbed the gun, Jimmy dialed the police. The woman in the orange sweater crawled to the door, pulled it open, and ran down the street screaming for help. Soon a small crowd had gathered on Commonwealth Avenue.

Jimmy didn’t tell anyone about the incident. It sounded too incredible, and he figured no one would believe it, until it made the front page of the Boston Globe. Then he stared at the photo of himself in his Boba Fett helmet, the clerk, and the woman in the orange sweater. The paper identified him as Bob Hanson, and that was fine by Jimmy. He didn’t consider himself a hero.

The next day, a case of whipped cream vodka arrived at his dorm.

My Bad Nature

My Daddy always said I was born with a bad nature. Mama said I had a mean streak. If I do, well, tomatoes come from the same pack of seeds. They always did like to pretend they were fancy people. They sure did love the big house with all its fancy velvet furniture and gold plated bathroom fixtures. I never did understand why you needed a gold-plated handle on your crapper, but nobody ever asked my opinion.

After Russell was born everyone sort of forgot about me, like I was some kind of mongrel dog you could keep in a broke down kennel. They sent me to school, but I wasn’t much for studies. I remember my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Pinkwater telling Mama how she ought to consider special school for me.

Dummy school was what she meant. Sure enough, the next year the next year they packed me off in a special green bus to a school with all the “special” kids. Special my ass. They were slow as snails. Some of them smelled like snails too. I got kicked out after a year for trying to burn the place down.

After that Mama tried tutors for a while, then she just gave up. She had Russell. He was her sweet boy, her golden haired angel. It killed her when Russell drowned in the lake. He was five. How was I supposed to know he couldn’t swim? Poor Mama just couldn’t stand losing Russell; she swallowed a whole mess of pills one afternoon and never woke up.

Daddy blamed me, of course, but I wasn’t even in the house. I don’t know how she got hold of those horse tranquilizers. I guess she really wanted to escape.

Of course afterward Daddy and I had some real good rows. His face used to get so red! He used to chase me out into the field. Who knew he had a bad heart? The day he dropped dead in the potato patch, it came as a real surprise to me.

Of course, then Uncle Ford and Aunt Latice and cousin Myra came to live with me until I was of age. Aunt Latice always pretended to be so sugary sweet, but I could tell she was plotting. She would walk around the house with her tape measure and say, “Don’t you think we should spruce things up a bit?”

I didn’t like that idea. Not one bit.

She and Uncle Ford were always meeting with her brother who she insisted I call Uncle Clay. He was some kind of lawyer, and I’d hear them in the green parlor. The formal parlor where all the fancy green velvet couches were covered with crocheted doilies on the arms and portraits of all the family stared down at you. Even Mama and Papa.

One Sunday I heard them in there, the four of them, and I snuck down the stairs. When I heard Myra laugh and say my name, I felt the anger boil up. This was my house. She could go to hell.

I went to the hall closet. It was time.

I snuck back to the parlor, threw open the door and blew them away with my Grandpa’s 12 Gauge. Then I dragged the bodies to Uncle Clay’s car and drove them to the quarry.

It took a while to clean up the blood, but I managed. Now the house looks all spic and span, as Mama used to say.

A woman from Child Services dropped by a week ago to talk to me, and I said Uncle Ford took Aunt Latice and Myra on a trip with Uncle Clay. She said they shouldn’t have left me on my own. I said I’d be eighteen in two weeks.

I guess it’s okay though, because it’s been two weeks, and I’m still here.

Hot Coffee

“Melissa.” The sound of his rumbling voice made her clamp her teeth together and squeeze her hands into fists

“Yes, Mr. Constantine.” It was hard, but she forced out a sugary tone. Her boss had warned her to be extra solicitous. Mr. Constantine had been requested for this project. He was a ghostwriter of some repute, and it was her job to keep him happy. In other words, she had to serve the old windbag.

She stood and walked into the office that served as his temporary home. He sat like a fat spider in the middle of a pile of notebooks, computer glowing, and lighting his round, florid face. He looked like a disheveled Santa with crooked yellow teeth and a permanent brown stain around his mouth .

“Melissa, dear, would you bring another cup of coffee?”

“Certainly, Mr. Constantine.” She picked up his oversized mug. The room stank of coffee and old cigar smoke, though she had never caught him lighting up. Just standing there for too long made her feel nauseous.

“Did you know that coffee cultivation dates back to Arabia in the 15th Century? Remnants of coffee were discovered in the Sufi Shrines of Yemen. Today it’s one of the top agricultural exports in the world.” He gave her satisfied smile.

“How fascinating.”

“Indeed. Coffee comes from the roasted beans of an evergreen shrub called Coffea Arabeca. Quite exotic sounding.”

“Hmm.” Melissa started to back out of the room.

“Don’t forget to use the coffee from my special carafe. I admit to being something of a coffee snob.” He chuckled a little.

“Absolutely. Your special coffee and the heavy cream, plus three sugars.”

“You have a good memory, dear. You should try doing research. You might find it interesting, or are you waiting for your Prince Charming? You’re a cute one. You should wear skirts more often.”

He winked, and Melissa gripped the cup. Old Jackass. What the hell did he think she did all day? She did research then rewrote the awful pamphlets her company produced in English not argot. Of course for the big projects, her boss always brought in ghostwriters. Half the time she ended up re-writing their work for a third of the pay.

 “I’ll keep it in mind,” Melissa said and left before he launched into something else. She wasn’t waiting for Prince Charming. She didn’t drink coffee, and never would now, not after watching him slurp down mug after mug. She shivered at the thought of his brown hole of a mouth that wouldn’t stop talking.

Melissa went to the break room and rinsed out the dregs then grabbed his carafe of coffee, added the cream and sugar, and stirred it. Looking around the break room, she realized she was alone, so she spit into the mug, stirred the contents again and returned to its owner.

“Is there anything else, Mr. Constantine?”

“No, dear. I must say, you’re very efficient. You remind me of my daughter.”

“Thank you.” She handed him the mug.

“My daughter would have been just around your age.”

“Would have been?” A tight little knot formed in her chest.

“Car accident,” he said, his voice dropping to a near whisper. He cleared his throat. “It was a long time ago.”

The weight of his words hit her, and she wanted to grab the cup from him.

She waited for him to call her and tell her he detected a foreign substance in the brew, but he didn’t. He slipped at his coffee and flipped through his notebooks, a contented smile on his face. Melissa tried to concentrate on her laptop.

Mr. Constantine worked quietly for the rest of the afternoon.

Remember Remember

My brain hurts today.

I’ve been trying to put together my puzzle pieces of memory, but they shape shift into nightmare phantoms, prodding me with voices of smoke and sizzle.

Remember. Remember. And you will be free.

            But what am I to remember?

The neatly joined grey walls and floors come together at perfect ninety degree angles. Overhead, a long fluorescent bulb blinks intermittently and throbs with a low wattage hum.

I hate neat lines and perfect squares.

Keys jingle jangle in the door and a chipper voice says, “Time for your medication.”

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. I want to throw my puzzle pieces in his smiling face, but I swallow my pill with a tiny white cup of water. Or so he thinks.

The puzzle pieces watch me drop the red pill down the metal toilet and laugh. They dance around me faster and faster until I bang my head against the wired glass door and scream.

I must put the pieces together, or the white coats will come back with their forget-all machine. The taste of rubber before the void.

Remember. Remember. And you will be free.

But what am I to remember?