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“Come on, my turn.”
“Wait, I know this — Dimebag Darrell Abbott.”
“You got it.”
With the mention of Dimebag Darrell I recall again Clarabelle telling me she wanted me to kill her. In sign language, it comes off a rather uninflected statement as if she were suggesting something mundane like I refill her water jug. We were taking a break from screening videos of perspective mates: large silverback males trudging around hillsides in Rwanda, swinging on tires in zoos in Cleveland. Contrary to popular myth none of them were flinging shit.
Playing a game, ‘who said these last words,’ I think we were still playing it; my memory is fuzzy. I’ve had a few drinks and portions of time are grainy like the magnetic cohesion of an old VHS tape disintegrating from a teenager watching, for the five hundredth time, the scene of Phoebe Cates coming out of the water in slow motion to “Moving in Stereo” by the Cars; but, also a betrayal, a solipsistic nightmare, something out of Joseph K’s dream-like torments..
“You can do it,” she signed, the quickness of her movements fluid.
“Just put a couple horse sized pills in my next meal.”
I kept waiting for her to reveal this was a twisted attempt at humor, but she remained stoic. I can’t remember if the smell of her enclosure became overpowering at that moment, a mixture of banana scented scat mixed with fur made pungent from the synthesized humid environment. Sitting down was necessary; my head coming lose from it’s moorings.
“What?” I signed.
I’d only been on the job for two months; an internship working at the lab while I navigated my way through school. Maybe Denway hired me because I stood out as a philosophy student amongst a sea of potential veterinarians and cellular biologists. Being the son of a deaf parent also meant I could be valuable in communicating with his subject.
Initially I kept to myself: working the morning shift, compiling data, and entering it into the forms, checking the video feed to make sure the recordings of her daily tasks and exercises were monitored. She’d watch me from behind the bars like a convict assessing the suitability of the new hack. I could feel her gaze tracking me from one side of the room to the other sizing me up. It was explained to me, during my orientation, she was mostly docile and had the mental capabilities equivalent to a ten year old already having memorized thousands of words.
“It’s important you don’t patronize her,” Denway had said, and ran his yellow fingers through his white beard. Above the extravagant and, up close, disgusting beard, he was baldheaded with checkerboard patches of white and red skin crossing a pink scalp. He sat behind his desk, a meerschaum pipe dangling from the side of his mouth; an affectation he claimed to abhor but was never without. Smoke dribbled from the corner of his mouth producing a faint grape odor I’d soon learn to dislike.
“She might come off as one dimensional and slow, but she can pick up on unconscious cues, so just treat her as you would anyone else.” He moved on to a part of his sermon I’d felt had been given before, hundreds of times, to benefactors and boards of directors.
“The work we’re doing here might not seem important, but the possible breakthroughs could be Guassian.”
He had a way of imposing himself, making those around him feel insignificant in some way, and I simply nodded my head like I understood the relevance of what he was saying and made a mental note to avoid him as much as possible. The following few weeks all bled into each other, and soon my responsibilities in in the laboratory no longer seemed strange. Days were filled with transcribing notations detailing Clarabelle’s chats with Denway, wrestling with existential concepts put forth by Kierkegaard, listening to stoner rock by Black Pyramid and Elder, and wondering if having facial hair made certain actors more believable in their roles.
One night, Denway asked me to cover for one of the other assistants who usually ran the late shift. I figured it’d be some easy overtime work, so I brought a few movies to watch. During the scene in Apocalypse Now!, when Captain Willard asks The Roach if he knows who’s in command, I felt something hit my back. A half eaten banana lay on the ground. Turning around, the gorilla was staring at me; hands gripping the bars, swaying back and forth in a slow rhythm. I threw the banana in the trash and walked over to her cage. It was the closest to her I’d been since I started there.
“Do you need something?” I signed.
“Yes,” she replied.
“What is it?”
“Well first, slide over, you’re blocking the screen, and do you think Harvey Keitel would have been better as Willard than Martin Sheen?”
While it seems blasphemous to compare the experience to Charlton Heston conversing with the burning bush, the situation felt eerily similar. In the moment, I debated whether this was some sort of flashback from the one time I’d tried hallucinogens, or if I suffered a stroke and this was part of a dissociative fugue state caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. Or maybe, this was some sort of predestination paradox predicated on Planet of the Apes; was I somehow going to be responsible for the enslavement of mankind? The anxiety began to hit me in waves each stronger than the next. Two Charleton Heston references in the span of a few minutes; that had to mean something drastic was on the horizon.
Clarabelle signed, “Relax, you’re not having a stroke.”
Exasperation gave way to fear. Was she telepathic? Could this specimen be the living embodiment of Ishmael, or Gorilla Grodd? I stumbled back but righted myself.
“Calm down. Go over to the file cabinet and look in the third drawer.”
I broke from my trance since she seemed to exude a nonthreatening aura. For a moment, I put aside the skewed boundaries of reality and fantasy and dug around the file cabinet until I discovered a fifth of Jack Daniel’s.
“Denway always keeps something on hand, but he moves the hiding place.”
“I’m not a big drinker,” I said.
She motioned for me to hand her the bottle. I did; she removed the cap and took a sizable nip.
“Takes the edge off.” She paused. “Now be a good boy, and open my door.”
The prison guard metaphor returned, and I raised my hands.
“I don’t think I can do that.”
“Sure you can; then we can finish watching Brando wax philosophical about crawling on the edge of a straight razor.”
I released the gorilla.
Ultimately, I’m a believer in Occam’s Razor. I wasn’t suffering from any bipolar visions, or being manipulated by a comic book character’s telekinesis. Or maybe I was; her sapience could be explained by numerous variables, but in the end Clarabelle simply wanted to discuss casting choices of a psychedelic John Milius script.
She made herself comfortable on the floor, sitting to my right, the bottle cradled in her instep. I hit pause and the film resumed, but I kept shifting my gaze staring at her.
“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s not at all out of the ordinary to converse with a highly enlightened gorilla.” I finished by making the sign for tease, which I hoped she’d been taught could double for sarcasm. Of course, it suddenly dawned on me, predilection for Surreal ‘Nam films aside, being able to sling complex sentences together didn’t necessarily mean she could process irony.
“What I mean to say–.”
“Yeah, I get it,” she signed, without looking away from the screen.
“Normally, when someone’s condescending, my first reaction is to punch their fucking lights out. ” She took another slug from the bottle. “But you know something? You’re ALRIGHT.”
When she quoted Harry Dean Stanton from Repo Man, any animosity I’d perceived from her over the past few weeks seemed to vanish. Suddenly everything seemed OK. Ultimately, I just accepted her ability it as an evolutionary move to the next plateau and decided to leave it at that.
“Will you kill me?” she signed again, giving me an expression I’d come to identify as a cross between pleading and guilt.
“Give me a second will you?” I replied, “this is like burial rights in Antigone.”
She sat back on her haunches and watched me from eyes which no longer held any benevolence.
“Stop looking at me like that,” I said.
“Do you know why you’re screening these tapes for me?”
“I don’t want to go over this again.”
“You’re working in a Joy Division.”
“You mean the proto-punk band?”
It took me a while to sign proto-punk since I had to spell it, so she cut me off already knowing I’d reply sarcastically.
“No you idiot.”
She rose and walked toward the bars. Massive in size, an eight foot wingspan; when spreading her arms the effect is a frightening one. Even though reinforced steel bars separated us, I tensed up.
It was a controversial concept, but one Denway was a hundred percent behind and had almost no trouble receiving approval. Since Clarabelle could communicate, why not ask for her involvement in selecting a suitable mate? Solicitations were sent out, and DVDs inundated our post office box. On the surface, she seemed receptive to the idea, and Denway was thrilled. He called a staff meeting and reiterated the importance of this work, even invited some of the benefactors to the lab; champagne was served, and each could marvel at Clarabelle, while Denway, never more comfortable than when he was given the chance to pontificate, spoke at length about practical and theoretical uses for the work we were doing.
By this time, I’d permanently taken over the late shift, so I had to clean the lab when everyone left. It sickened me to watch the festivities, hearing them talk about her in ways I’d choose not to remember. I’d promised to keep her intellectual abilities a secret, and by now the evening movie sessions had become a routine. I found I’d practically re-arranged my entire schedule to accommodate marathon viewings.
After looping the video recorder, and freeing her from her cage, we’d get down to business. Westerns were her favorite; we’d spend hours talking about which actors made the best cowboys. Hours were spent discussing whether someone like William Munny could ever really be rehabilitated by a woman’s love in Unforgiven. One evening, after she had a little too much to drink, things got heated when we debated who would win in a fight between Godzilla and King Kong. Upon suggesting Kong was no match, since the reptile could breathe fire, she picked me up by my ankle and carried me to the top of her enclosure then dangled me over the edge.
“What do you think now, Fay Wray?” she had said.
Most of the time though our encounters were civil, and I found I grew to deeply care about her. After the party, once I’d cleaned the lab and we were alone, she confided in me her true thoughts of her predicament, alluding to vivisection and The Island of Dr. Moreau.
“In House of Dolls, Joy Division was the name given to stalags in which Jewish women were forced into sexual slavery for the Nazis.”
“I hardly think the two situations are comparable.”
I turned off the television monitor, and she followed me ambling to the opposite side of her enclosure.
“Your complicit in this, Eichmann.”
“Just stop, OK?”
“They’re going to videotape the sessions and transcribe notations about our congress.”
“I’m not going to look at you.”
She waited for me to turn back around, knowing I couldn’t just walk out at this point. “The subject enjoys submissiveness…” she signed.
I threw the remote control and it thudded against the bars, the batteries ejecting in different directions. She sat down and exhibited a tired look. I exhaled. I got the feeling I was going to need something to blunt the emotions of this conversation.
“Where is it?” I signed.
“In his office behind the plant.”
I rooted around behind the ficus until I found the fifth, peeled off the plastic, and twisted the cap. Sour-mashed brown slapped hot on the back of my throat, Ouch. I did it twice more, let the bottle down, and waited thirty seconds or so for the feeling of the alcohol to start working out from my bloodstream into the crucial nerve centers that would chill me.
I took a last deep pull, almost retched, then handed her the fifth. I opened the gate; she made herself comfortable on a couch across the way from her cage.
“What if you escaped?”
“Rogue gorilla on the loose sort of warrants a shoot first reaction don’t you think?”
She handed me back the fifth.
“You’re the only one I can really talk to.” I said, unsure of whether she’d understand the gravity of the statement.
“You’ll find someone else.”
The truth was there was no one.
The whiskey was beginning to work it’s magic. I stood up and remained composed enough to make it to the other side of the room. Behind glass there were housed various tranquilizers, medicine, lab equipment, and a Remington pump shotgun with a box of shells. Protocol dictated the lab have one, since Clarabelle was capable of killing with little or no effort. Denway screened a video for us of an ape at a zoo a few years back throwing around technicians and trainers like popcorn.
“If I were to kill you, I couldn’t live with myself.” I signed.
“Think about the ethical lines they’re crossing.”
“Orestes didn’t fair so well, when he killed Agamemnon. He was pursued by The Furies.”
“But, eventually, he’s exonerated.” Not exactly.
“You’re being selfish,” Clarabelle added.
I felt small and unworthy of her friendship. True, our relationship was mostly based on a mutual enjoyment of unimportant things, but at the heart of it, the act itself of sharing these moments with each other were significant. With her, I didn’t require the same defense mechanisms or fictional distractions required to get through life; it made me feel less alone.
I wanted to tell her all of this, but when I tried to speak I had no answer for the gorilla. Instead I let my mind wander until I settled on the weapon.
The shotgun was an ominous shade of black.
“You know, before I was born, before she met my father, my mom went to Italy.”
Clarabelle was leaning back against her enclosure watching me from across the room. She still bore a tired look, as if she knew my changing of the subject meant I wouldn’t acquiesce to her begging.
“Right out of college, in ’68, she and a friend went there. They got picked up by extras and went to the set of Sabata.”
I undid the combination lock, opened the cabinet, and removed the weapon. Hefting the barrel, fingering the trigger guard, I turned around and faced the gorilla who rolled onto her side. She watched me approach; shotgun held out in front of me pointed at the ground like a divining rod.
“Lee Van Cleef; he’d made The Good The Bad and The Ugly two years previously, but was still relegated to playing the same mythic gunslinger.”
“That’s not so bad,” Clarabelle said, now less than fifteen feet away.
“My mom had dinner with him one night in his trailer, with him and his wife; I can’t imagine the wife was too pleased by that.”
Seeing the gorilla unhinged filled me with turmoil and sense of self loathing. Was it such an unreasonable request under the circumstances? I spent most of my time contemplating philosophical conundrums including ethical and moral dilemmas similar to this one; why did I feel so comfortable in the realm of absolutes and hypotheticals than I did being able to test those theories? A stronger person, a more capable person, would act and carry out this merciful execution.
“I could have been the son of Lee Van Cleef.”
I imagined myself walking through the double doors of the saloon, into the dimly lit bar, to the sound of a dissonant piano with bets being uttered from sore and raw throats around poker tables. I dusted my hat onto the side of my hip and strode toward the warped table top. Resting the shotgun against the railing, I said “gimme a whiskey,” to the pockmarked bartender, his face ravaged by typhoid. He slid the bottle over; I uncorked it and poured myself a healthy dose. The games all around me continued joined now by the squeal of bed springs coming from one of the bedrooms upstairs.
The player piano continued to ring out, tended to by a mulatto servant wearing a purple vest over a white collared shirt. I turned around surveying the crowd until I saw Donegan in the corner. I killed the glass and flicked some coins for the bartender; the shotgun now held outstretched. The murmur of the game, the clatter of the chips, ceased as groups of eyes from around the room slowly traced my movements until I reached Donegan’s table. He looked up from his hand; bowler perched back on his head, his suit immaculately pressed even after two days ride. He placed his cards down then showed me his hands and slowly reached inside his suit pocket producing a sterling silver watch. Opening then shutting the lid, he returned it to its place and smiled.
“I wasn’t expecting you until later.”
“Exhilaration kept me diligent.”
The other players at the game, fixated on the eight gauge protruding from my chest, pushed away from the table leaving the rumpled currency where it lay. The piano player ceased playing. Two of the whores, decked out like Parisian can can dancers, continued to fan themselves watching the proceedings dully through half closed eyes – they didn’t give a shit who lived and who died. Donegan fumbled for his pipe, something he’d always done when killing was imminent. He’d killed more men than small pox they’d said; his first choice of weapons a bowie knife he kept in his boot, though he was deadly with his Colt all the same.
“Now boys, we don’t want no trouble.”
The bartender kept a safe distance but maintained an authoritative voice. He’d been no stranger to hardship and had seen death claim more than a few unknowns passing through his place of business. He’d try to stop it, up to a point. Then he wouldn’t.
Without taking the weapon off Donegan, I threw the folded paper to the bartender.
“This man is wanted in Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona, even parts of Old Mex.”
The Bartender read aloud Donegan’s bona fides and it drew gasps from the crowd. Donegan himself took a twisted pride in his notoriety, and though I’d had him dead to rights twice before, my knuckles turned white gripping the weapon.
“I should have killed you in Flagstaff,” he said, and lit the bowl.
The double barrel from ten paces would split his body in two. The weapon wavered and for a moment I doubted my own sincerity. Then I remembered the promise I made to the woman to send Donegan for judgment from his maker.
She’d been beautiful before that fateful night with long red hair that she kept pinned up with an ornate butterfly pendant. I’d loved her since I’d met her. We’d sit in her parlor discussing the topics of the day, but most of the time she would regale me with stories from her favorite authors. Eventually, the candles would burn low, and I’d pick her up and carry her to the bedroom. Most night’s we wouldn’t even make it that far. Some thought our relationship queer, not abiding by the decorum of the day, but neither of us paid them any mind. As a bounty hunter, I’d often been looked upon as a scourge by most of the aristocracy. Her reputation could take the hit; she’d tell me often enough that I stopped bringing it up.
“The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up but drowned the infinite of his soul.” Her voice had a way of making the words come to life before me. I kept my eyes closed. Never having seen the ocean, I troubled picturing it, but she described the color of the water, the smell of the sea air, and soon the vision grew in my mind. She favored the playwrights, Greek’s mostly, their names escape me now, who focused on mostly philosophical problems of their day. Tragedies were favored over comedies; occasionally though, she’d read from some more contemporary authors.
“To the last I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” Her face flushed, as she read, and I could feel the enmity coming from the page. She explained Captain Ahab’s delirium and obsession with hunting the white whale and soon dropped the book on her lap, animated, taking a twisted pride and enjoyment in the violence.
Perhaps we weren’t so different after all.
However, she made it clear to me the violence was something she preferred only in literature. She tolerated my line of work but didn’t want to hear about it.
“It is a cathartic act to release such emotions.” She took my hand, gargantuan compared to hers, and rubbed the back of it, tracing the outline of some scars.
“It means by reading this we can experience the emotions without having to live them.”
I knew what Catharsis meant but didn’t mind when she attempted to simplify things for me. I smiled, kissed her, and told her I’d return the following day.
Many times I stayed up pondering our future together, mostly on nights which found me alone in the wilderness, on the trail of some rustler or horse thief. The fallout from the Lincoln County War kept me busy and away from home often. A photograph she gave me never left my breast pocket except at night, when I would marvel at it in the friscalating dusk light. Those nights were as difficult as any I have faced; the longing and restlessness, none of it could be quelled.
On the trail of The Rodriguez brothers, notorious bandits said to have ridden with everyone from William H. Bonnie to “Bloody” Bill Anderson, I came to a realization: there would be no future worth having without her as my wife.
My horse drifted across the plain, her photo in my hand, fading now, white creases criss-crossing from the folds, when a gust of wind blew it out of my grip. It fluttered along finally resting ten feet away. I swung my leg over to dismount, when Rigoberto Rodriguez’ Spencer rifle shot whistled above my head. I drew my colt peacemaker and kept hidden behind my horse. I wanted to go for the photograph but wouldn’t chance another attempt. Legend was he could pick the petals off a flower from a hundred yards. The winds picked up again and slowly sand buried the photograph; a memento lost forever. I cursed till foam appeared at the corners of my mouth, swearing that both brother’s would pay, then guided my horse out from the open to a formation of rocks in the distance. They must have been low on ammunition, since no other shots rang out.
That night I plotted all of the wretched things I’d do to them; things which would have made the circle’s of Hell seem inviting. Under the cover of darkness, I continued my journey with renewed vigor.
I caught them the following evening, in a sorry state. They had one crippled nag between them, and Juan was weary with fever. They surrendered willingly, ‘Berto pleading for mercy and help for his sick brother, Juan blathering incoherently in strange tongues brought on from his malaise. My rage fought to take over and punish them for the loss of my photograph, but I kept myself in check. I figured pistol whipping Rigoberto for taking a shot at me was due, and by the time they were deposited on the jail cell floor, both were unconscious,but still alive.
After receiving my pay from The Sheriff, I headed straight for her house.
Donegan’s visit to her, in my absence, had brought a swift metamorphoses.
Over time the bruises healed, but it was as if her spirit remained permanently scarred. She seemed gaunt, frail, and prematurely aged. Her voice, once operatic, was mechanical in it’s plea to be left alone. The house, a joyous place, the scene of many dinners, parties, soon became barren. She wouldn’t see me at first, and would have never relented, except I swore I’d kick the door in. Covering herself with a shawl, unable to face me, she quoted some Chinaman from a book about the futility of vengeance when I mentioned what I’d had planned.
“He who goes down the path of revenge should dig two graves, one for his enemy and one for himself.”
Enraged, I told her I’d bring two shovels.
That night I cleaned and oiled my shotgun, then manufactured specific loads which I decreed would find home in Donegan’s bowels.
Before setting out the next morning I went to visit her. My knock was met by silence, and when I entered, I found her a pendulum hanging from a hemp rope in her bedroom.
Two months it took to track Donegan, passing through hostile Indian country, mining towns, long stretches of desert.
Now, I had him.
“Slowly, get up out of your chair; we’re going for a little walk.”
The tension broke, and within moments, games resumed, profanities and threats filled the air as bad cards were dealt. A dirge erupted from the piano fitting for the moment. Donegan exited through the double doors hands by his head; the shotgun leveled at his back.
“Where to?” He asked, matter-of-factly, then spit on the ground and shoved his pipe into his pocket. I took my shovel from the horse’s pack and handed it to him.
“Just start walking,” I said, and nudged him with the shotgun barrel.
“I’d think twice before swinging that blade,” I added.
Amidst the chaos of the day: buckets of waste poured out windows, the hacking retches of tuberculosis, livestock and cattle trades, whips cracking on both horse and human flesh, we practically went unnoticed to the edge of town, and out into the desert. The sun cooked our skin as we walked. About a mile out of town, I told him to stop.
He pitched the shovel into the dirt, then dragged a kerchief over his brow. He picked up the shovel and began. I took a seat on a rock a few feet away, the sound of displaced earth cutting through the breeze. The sun shifted in the sky until it was dusk. Finished, Donegan’s hands were blistered and bleeding.
He nodded and stepped in; his body disappearing into the hole up to his knees. I faced him from above with the weapon’s trajectory aimed down at a forty-five degree angle. We stood motionless. The wind picked up blowing his bowler off his head; the humidity still oppressive. I licked my lips and tried to calm my breathing. Reading his face for any hint of fear, hoping beyond anything else to be able to bask in the misery, he remained stoic.
“Any last words?” I said finally.
“What?” his simian features belied his intelligence.
“How about, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.’”
The firing pin sprang forth igniting the chamber. The projectiles met their target. The sound of thunder ricocheted. The recoil dug into my chest, bruising my sternum. The propulsion drove Donegan almost out of the hole, and splayed him out as if he’d fallen asleep drunk in a bathtub. Crimson entrails sagged. With his hands he signed “Don’t worry it’s not loaded; Terry Kath’s final words,” his head slunk forward with his shoulders hunched, in an ape-like posture, then was no more.
I reached into my pocket for the flask of whiskey. I knew I had done right, for this was not a place of imagined harmony. Slavery, prostitution, and indecency had tarnished the land like Gomorra. For the sake of others, Donegan could not be allowed to live. I picked up the shovel and filled his grave. There would be no tombstone, no marker to suggest his final resting place. He’d meet his judgment, as I would too at some point.
Perhaps, in the long run, it would prove to be a futile endeavor like hunting down great white sharks in an effort to eradicate a recurring nightmare from surviving an encounter with those beasts. Would the hole she left ever be filled, or would I remain in a state of solitude like the last human amongst a planet full of apes? Did the answers lie somewhere in the crypts of the Black Pyramids? Ultimately, I realized Donegan’s murder was not in fact for her; it was for me. Such a vile act could not go unpunished, of that I could be certain. For now though, I’d continue to fill the hollow void with whiskey and ruminating about futuristic wars in The Orient. As I set back to town, I thought about The Rodriguez brothers, of Ahab and his futile pursuit; I wondered about catharsis, and her final words to me, before she died, about revenge.
I wondered if I’d hear The Furies approaching.
Andrew Davie received an MFA in creative writing from Adelphi University. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant, and later taught in Hong Kong. Currently, he teaches in Virginia. His work can be read in Bartleby Snopes, A River and Sound Review, Menacing Hedge, Necessary Fiction, The South Dakota Review, and forthcoming in Crack the Spine