Gorilla gorilla gorilla
by Melanie Datz
Gorilla Guy is going home to his wife and kids. He walks along the river, moving at a slow, reluctant pace, a man in a black fur suit, gorilla mask, and hard black plastic gloves. The suit looks a little worn, with the synthetic fur matted, and a slight tear near the vinyl pectoral muscles: Time for cleaning and mending. The suit is padded to provide Gorilla Guy with the proper massive shoulders, neck and head, and always gives the unsuspecting a moment of panic. After all, the last thing shoppers on Michigan Avenue, commuters on their way home to Hinsdale, or tourists from Des Moines expect is a hairy great ape handing out bananas, or juggling, or brachiating from tree to tree in Grant Park. From twenty-five feet, his costume is realistic enough that the only place Gorilla Guy won't go is Lincoln Park; it's too near the zoo. He has no desire to be shot with tranquilizers when some park employee gets scared that a 600-pound silverback is loose in the city.Gorilla Guy is what the papers call him; his wife calls him Gil and his kids call him Daddy. Photos and articles on Gorilla Guy have appeared in New City, The Reader, Chicago Magazine, and just last week in the Tribune, a front-page, below-the-fold, human interest story to take everyone's minds off the war news. There was a photo of him reading the paper on a park bench. The papers call him Gorilla Guy because he refuses to reveal his identity to reporters; he must remain a mystery to avoid becoming just some shmuck in a gorilla suit.
Other things Gorilla Guy has been called include "crazy," "baboon," "street theater," "a dirty bum," and his favorite insult of all time, "Neanderthal." Standing in a lunchtime crowd at State and Adams, waiting for the light to change, he'd mimed grooming a sleek, well-suited man with a red tie. 'Corporate lawyer,' he thought, pretending to pick lice out of the man's collar. The crowd surrounding them laughed. The man turned and said, "Quit that, you Neanderthal." Gorilla Guy rarely speaks while doing his schtick, but this time he burst out laughing. "Try a few steps lower on the evolutionary ladder," he said, and ran across State in the stooped, knuckle-dragging gait he'd spent six months developing, leaving Mr. Power-tie Corporate-lawyer to stare open-mouthed after him.
Gorilla Guy is not an easy gig, and there's a lot of research and craft involved. Brachiating, for instance, never fails to delight the tourists, but demands tremendous upper body strength and flexibility. Bench presses, lateral curls and Pilates have gone into creating Gorilla Guy. He's spent hours in the Lincoln Park ape house observing primate behavior, studying how they manipulate objects and move about their enclosure. He knows, of course, that gorillas are knuckle-walking quadrupeds, but believes the average American thinks they swing from tree to tree. Besides, Gorilla Guy feels freest when brachiating, as if he's no longer tied to the earth.
It's a schtick, a routine, a more than full-time job. Last year, Gorilla Guy earned almost $50,000 from tourists handing him dollar bills. He does private parties and corporate events, too. On the bottom line of his 1040, where it asks for occupation, he used to write "Actor," but last year he wrote "Gorilla Impersonator," just to see what the IRS would do. He's convinced Gorilla Impersonator is buried in some bureaucratic table of occupations and average salaries, and that thought alone is enough to make him smile and swing from tree to tree with a little more verve.
The papers always want to know how he became Gorilla Guy. "God told me to," he told the Reader, but to the reporter from the Tribune he said, "It came naturally. My mother's a primate biologist, and I was raised with a lowland gorilla as a research project." The truth is so banal no one would be interested: He was an out-of-work actor who took a job handing out flyers for Gorilla Gym. Just standing on a corner giving flyers to commuters bored him, so he started tap dancing and clowning around. People stopped to watch; he made them smile and they tossed money to him. Gorilla Guy was born.
Gil has donated money to the World Wildlife Fund every year since becoming Gorilla Guy; he feels a sense of obligation to real gorillas. He often dreams of standing in steaming, dripping forests. Dark shadows move among the trees, and then a band of gorillas moves towards him, sniffing and hooting. He hoots back, making the noise at the back of his throat, forcing it up over his tongue. They accept him, and he's off, traveling with them along the forest floor, or climbing to the tree tops. In his dreams, Gil has opposable thumbs on his feet, and upon waking, he'll wiggle his big toes, hoping that somehow his feet have been transformed in the night.
Gorilla Guy maintains a bank account his wife knows nothing about. He's saving for a vacation to a gorilla preserve in Cameroon. Until he can get there, he visits the ape house once or twice a week, on his way to work. He walks past the chimps and orangutans and sits on a bench in front of the gorilla enclosure, watching for half an hour or so. Staring at them starts to feel like looking in a mirror. 'It's the eyes, and the ears, and the hands; they're so similar to mine,' he thinks, holding up a thin white hand. A gorilla on the other side of the glass holds up its black hand, and indeed, they are identical in shape. Gil sits there so often that he thinks the real apes, the ones behind the glass, recognize not so much his face, but his inner gorilla. He wonders what they'd do if he came and sat on his bench in the suit, if he thumped his pecs and found something to shake in display.
The Lincoln Park Zoo keeps Western Lowland Gorillas, and he finds their genus-species-subspecies classification poetic: Gorilla gorilla gorilla. It's rhythmic, and reverberates in his head as he brachiates through Grant Park, as he cavorts and capers for the tourists and suburbanites, as he walks along the city streets. Gorilla gorilla gorilla: It sounds so much nicer than Homo sapiens sapiens.
Gorilla Guy walks into an old brick building facing the river. He rents the smallest possible office, with a safe, a desk, and a hanger for his costume. There are, of course, pictures of his wife and kids, ordinary blonde people, on the desk. He doesn't look at the pictures, just takes off his costume head and hands. Suddenly, he's no longer Gorilla Guy, just Gilbert William Martin, the schmuck in the gorilla suit. The suit unzips and comes off, revealing an ordinary man, blonde hair, blue eyes, 5-foot-7, in gym shorts and a t-shirt. Gil's stringy looking, thin and wiry. He hangs up the suit, washes his face, rolls deodorant under his arms, puts on jeans and a clean t-shirt. The day's take goes into the safe, and Gil locks Gorilla Guy in for the night.
He catches the northbound Red Line and heads home, shoulders aching, tired, thinking, 'I'm too old for this.' Gorilla Impersonator is a young man's job. Gil is thirty-five, and beginning to feel it. There are days when he puts on the costume, goes out on the street, and feels impossibly old, too old to be juggling and cavorting for tourists. But most days, Gil thinks he has the best job in the world.
Slumped in his seat, Gil feels invisible. He wishes he were in costume. To be inside the gorilla suit is strange and wonderful: He is both anonymous and known, and the normal rules no longer apply. When Gil puts on the suit, people no longer see him as fully human, and that grants Gorilla Guy absolute freedom. Inside the suit, he makes lewd gestures at pretty young women, and they giggle and blush. He can put a black-gloved hand on their asses, hug them, mock hump them, rubbing his padded, furry crotch against their hips. Were he to do these things on the street without the suit, they would call the cops, or haul out the pepper spray. The gorilla suit means it's a joke, not to be taken seriously, and they pose for photos with him, then slip him their phone numbers. Sometimes, the pretty women even grab his crotch in return, winking and asking, "Whatcha got under there, Gorilla Guy?"
Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, Gil would never walk up to a tree, unzip his fly, and take a piss; in the gorilla suit, he does, and when the cops catch him, they laugh and remind him that he's not in the jungle, that he's an artist and not some homeless bum. "Keep it in the suit, Gorilla Guy," they'll say, and he'll throw his head back, let out a hoot, and thump his plastic pecs. But maybe he gets away with it because the cops see by his dick that he's white, and it would be different if under the gorilla suit he had dark skin. The suit is what lets him mock the power tie-wearing corporate lawyers, the sullen thug boys copping an attitude, and the thousands of ordinary, tired people he sees on the sidewalks every day.
Gil's wife, Jane, no longer likes being married to Gorilla Guy. She wants him to quit, to step out of the suit and be just like all the other commuters on the train. She wants ordinary; she wants all the rules to apply to Gil. For eight or nine months, Jane has been saying that it's time for him to grow up, to act like an adult, a man, a human being, goddamnit. He's sick of this conversation, and each time she raises the subject he waits for it to blow over, or blow up.
Gil envies the gorillas, the contented way they lounge, grooming each other, inside their glass enclosure. Their mates don't pressure them to change, to become someone else with a different life. Sometimes, sitting in the ape house watching JoJo and Kwan rule their family groups, he thinks the gorillas are lucky. They don't want Land Rovers and houses in Winnetka. They don't want to impress their coworkers and neighbors with things. The most impressive thing a gorilla has is itself, and that's enough.
Gil knows Jane is no longer impressed by him.
A gorilla is always a gorilla, unchanging in outlook and purpose, but people change. Jane has changed: When she and Gil first married, she'd been an unemployed actor, too. Now, eight years later, she's in management, or marketing, or marketing management. Gil's not sure which; those kinds of jobs, dealing in intangibles and propaganda, have always seemed unreal to him. "I've grown up," Jane says when he reminds her of her actor days. "Besides, we have children now. You have to grow up when you have children." Gil resents this idea. He thinks it's better that he's real, not some buttoned-up man in a power tie, taking conference calls on his cell phone while pushing the kids on the swings. At the park, Gil climbs trees with his kids, and follows them down the slide, and across the monkey bars, while the other fathers, cell phones in hand, stare at him in bewilderment.
Sometimes, when Gil sits and studies the gorillas, people who think zoos are cruel and inhumane stand before the enclosure, and talk loudly about how we debase animals by putting them in cages and unnatural environments. They're mostly bony young women—vegans, probably—with ugly Naugahyde shoes, and backpacks covered with little metal buttons espousing their political and environmental beliefs. "Honey," he'd like to tell these women, "we're all in cages. You just can't see the bars yet."
The train pulls into Sheridan, his stop, and Gil steps off the train with a crowd of commuters. The men wear navy suits, ties loose at their collars, and lug fat briefcases. The women are less regimented, but no more casual in their clothing, and they, too, lug briefcases full of work. They all cast suspicious, sideways looks at his jeans and t-shirt as Gil rubs shoulders with them down the stairs and through the turnstile.
Out on the sidewalk, Gil longs to be inside his suit. When he's just some guy going home at night, he misses the way people turn and stare, the way he makes them react. Walking along Irving Park, he knows no one will see him. No one driving by will honk and pump their fist out the car window. Being plain old Gil Martin after a day as Gorilla Guy is a lonely, empty experience. Gil climbs the steps to his brick townhouse, feeling tired, hungry, horny. As Gorilla Guy, he would feel no compunction about coming up behind Jane in the kitchen, yanking her skirt up and her panties down, and fucking her while Bill and Katie gape, open-mouthed, from the table. As Gil though, he'll have to wait until the kids are fed, bathed, their toys put away, stories read and lights turned out, and he'll have to wait while Jane tells him about her day, her problems, and then, maybe, she'll yawn and say, no, I'm tired. And on nights like this, as he turns the key in the lock, hears the kids fighting, smells dinner burning, feels hatred for this life boil up bitter and shameful, who wouldn't rather be Gorilla Guy than Gil Martin?
Gil opens his front door, dreading the domestic squalor within: dirty dishes, chores to be done, the wounded emotions of other people. Bright plastic toys are strewn about the living room, Sponge Bob squawks on TV, and the smell of burnt chicken hangs everywhere. His children have tear and snot stains on their round little faces, and food stains on their t-shirts. Jane scowls at him from across the room, hands on her hips. "Where've you been? You were supposed to pick up the kids at daycare. I missed a late meeting because of you."
"You didn't remind me this morning," Gil says, shaking his head. "Sorry, hon, but you didn't." She wears her stern face: lips tight, with an angry crease between her eyebrows. This look always precedes her telling him to grow up, to stop being a bum, to live like a real person. His daughter tugs on his pant leg. "No, Katie, I can't pick you up. My shoulders hurt." He puts a hand on her head. Katie pops her left thumb in her mouth while fat tears roll out of her blue eyes. 'Christ I need a beer,' Gil thinks.
Jane follows him to the kitchen, her heels clicking on the wood floor. "Gil, we need to talk."
Never in all of his life have the words "we need to talk" been followed by anything good. Their aftermath has always been flunking classes, being dumped by girlfriends, getting fired, and shelling out money to fix problems. 'I'm going to get an ultimatum,' Gil thinks, twisting the cap off a beer. "Talk," he says, taking a long drink from the sweating bottle.
"You're killing my career." Jane has pinned her hair in a knot at the back of her neck, making her stern face even sterner. "Are you going to quit that damn ape act and get a legitimate job?"
Gil sighs, unsurprised. "I like my ape act." He looks across the kitchen counter at the rigid way she stands, arms tight by her sides. He's disappointed that she wears slacks, that he can't see her legs. Jane has beautiful legs. "Why's your job more important than mine? You don't earn that much more than me."
"Jesus, Gil, you're a—I don't even know what to call it." Her arms fly up, then flutter back down. "You're like that bum in the subway, playing the violin for spare change. It's not a real job. How can you not see that?" She shakes her head, expression changing from stern to hopeless disgust: Mouth slightly open, wrinkles across her forehead, eyes sad.
"What if I say no?" Gil takes another sip of beer and avoids looking at her.
"It's the ape act or the marriage, Gil," she says, turning, leaving the kitchen. He hears her shoes click across the living room floor, then she calls, "Bath time, kids."
The children splash in the tub, and he hears Jane's voice rise and fall through the thin, sheetrock walls. Gil knows that if he quit, he will soon be rubbing elbows with power tie-wearing corporate lawyers and advertising execs. If he quits, Jane will insist they move to some suburb they can barely afford. And worst, if he quits, he will always be invisible. Gil opens another beer and looks around the kitchen, at the granite counters and the stainless steel appliances, thinking that it's a pretty prison, and Jane might as well have a big ring of keys.
He hears water gurgling as it drains from the tub, and the children laughing as Jane reads them a story. He puts down his beer bottle, thinking, 'Any schmuck can have this life,' meaning the domestic squalor, 'but Gorilla Guy has something rare.' He writes "Sorry" on a piece of paper, sticks it to the silver face of the fridge with a zoo magnet, then steps into the night. The front door slams behind him.
Gil catches the southbound Red Line back to his office. He takes his gorilla suit from the hanger and pulls it on, tugging the zipper all the way up. The photos of Jane and his kids go into a drawer. Gil snaps the lights off and stretches out on his desk. He sleeps, dreaming of swinging from tree to tree in Grant Park. He feels tree branches hard and solid beneath first his left hand, then his right, and cool air ruffling through his fur. Bill and Katie follow him, dressed in little gorilla suits of their own.
Gil wakes, disoriented, his back aching. 'Why am I here?' he thinks, looking around his small, bare office. Then he remembers Jane's stern face, they way she'd turned out of the kitchen, the way she'd left him no choice. He swings his furry legs over the side of the desk, wondering, 'Why does she get to give ultimatums? She's the one who changed.' He stares out the window, watching as streams of commuters come out of Union Station and cross the sluggish green river seven floors below.
Gorilla Guy goes out and works the crowds of shoppers and tourists on Michigan Avenue. He poses for pictures, hairy arms draped across the shoulders of old ladies and teenagers; he juggles cell phones the crowds loans him; he shinnies up lampposts; he tap dances next to the old water tower. But all the time, Jane's words—"You're like that bum in the subway, playing the violin for spare change"—ring in his head, drowning out the usual rhythm of Gorilla gorilla gorilla, and each time he hears her voice, he feels the anger twist tighter and tighter within him.
At noon, Gorilla Guy waits outside a shining glass tower on LaSalle, watching the streams of workers who pour onto the street and sweep into nearby restaurants for lunch. Jane is among them, and he follows, edging his way through the crowd until he walks right behind her, watching her ass swing back and forth. The crowd stops, waiting for the light at Washington. Jane wears a short, red skirt, and she stands on the curb, preoccupied, looking straight ahead. Gorilla Guy grooms her, picking imaginary lice and fleas from her long blonde hair. The lunchtime crowd laughs, shoulders shaking, mouths open. "All right, Gorilla Guy," a young man, jeans belted below his skinny hip bones, says, holding out a hand for a high five. But Gorilla Guy ignores him, keeping his eyes on Jane, who whirls around, tears in her eyes. "You son-of-a-bitch," she says, her voice hissing, her face an angry red. Her hands rise, flailing towards him. "Get away from me."
He reaches out, black gloves grasping her red skirt at the hem, and yanks it up, all the way above her waist, showing her round white buttocks, bisected by the red stripe of her thong, to the cab drivers on Washington. The crowd roars with laughter, sides aching, eyes watering, and cab horns blares in appreciation. While Jane struggles to pull her skirt down, the traffic light flashes green. Tonight, lying alone on his desk, Gil will regret doing this, but right now, Gorilla Guy lets out a hoot and scoots across Washington, knuckles dragging.
Melanie Datz is an MFA student in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. She is finishing a novel, Duck and Cover, and learning to play the violin.