Every morning, weather permitting, the old man pedaled his bicycle down Maple Street to the coffee shop on Cherry Lane.
It was a lovely old English bicycle. One he bought for his daughter when she was a little girl. A lady’s bicycle, a black Raleigh with lever brakes and a chain drive encased in a black metal cover on which was an enameled portrait of the Queen. His daughter was in her fifties now, twice divorced and with children as old as she was when she first rode the old bicycle.
Bicycle riding was part of the old man’s exercise regimen now, and after stopping at the coffee shop in the morning he would pedaling continue through the park and if the weather permitted he’d eat his breakfast on a bench in the company of pigeons and squirrels who would wait for him patiently rain or shine. It was not readily apparent, (and he would never admit it for a moment) but he was a very lonely man.
He was a widower and his name was Earnest Bookbinder. To all outward appearances he had adjusted well to his single life. Since the death of his wife he turned into a creature of rigid habits. His thinning hair was a steel gray, uncut, but kept in place by an old black beret pulled down to his ears. He rode his bicycle in an erect fashion, as though driving an automobile. While navigating the rutted streets, his glasses occasionally rode down his nose and he would push them back in place again with one hand while holding on tightly to the handlebar with the other.
When he reached the coffee shop this morning Earnest Bookbinder stopped his bicycle and walked it up the path to the take-out counter. He carefully pushed it between the tables and chairs set outside and told Helen at the counter he wanted a container of black Colombian and a croissant. Helen, a friend of both he and his wife for forty years put the coffee and the roll in a paper sack which he stored in the leather pannier that hung over the rear fender of his bicycle.
Helen could be a problem in the morning. If it promised good weather, she would remark to Earnest that ... “Louise always loved a morning like this, didn’t she Earnest?” Or if she was wearing a new article of clothing, she might say ... “I got this new sweater at Maglie’s yesterday, Earnest. Louise and I used to love to shop there, remember?” Yes, Earnest remembered, and he hated to be reminded to remember. Today, however, Helen was busy and Earnest was free to remember Louise wherever and whenever he wanted.
The people who knew Louise were growing fewer every day, and he reminded himself that before long he and his daughter would be the only ones in town to remember her name.
Earnest could see the entrance to the park just ahead, and at that early hour of the morning he knew he’d be the only one there. He liked to sit by the lake and think back to the old days while he ate ... and he’d have plenty of company. By the time he finished, he knew he would be surrounded, like St. Francis of Assisi, by a gaggle of squirrels and pigeons. Their eager beady eyes would follow his every move. He would stare back at them and there would be a bond; an unspoken understanding of sorts bridging the gap between animal and man – for a few moments they would be bound together as friends by as simple a thing as a crumb of stale bread. They would be closer to him than he was to his daughter and a universe closer than he was to his wife.
On the other side of his saddle-bag pannier, Earnest had stashed a half a loaf of stale bread from the Italian baker on Fleet Street. He left the other half on the bottom shelf of his refrigerator back home, his animal friends would have that tomorrow. He had to put a limit on their appetites, they’d eat the whole loaf today if he let them. They would eat ‘til they burst. “Like some people,” he reminded himself, “With human appetites. Competition. Sex. The drive for money.” Riding a bicycle stimulated Earnest’s thinking processes. He thought a great deal these days; there wasn’t much else to do.
The route to the lake skirted the zoo, and since Earnest knew it would be deserted at this hour, he took a detour to see how things were over at the animal pens. But he suddenly remembered it was too early in the day, the outdoor cages would be empty and the animals would still be asleep inside. Realizing this, he was about ready to wheel around and come out again when he noticed a Barbary ape in a cage sitting in the sun.
Earnest braked to a stop in front of the cage and stared at the animal. He looked at the tablet fastened to the bars and read the Latin name Macaca sylvanus, it was a native of Morocco and Gibraltar. It’s fur was a silverish brown, and in its sitting position on the concrete cage floor he gaged it was about eighteen inches tall – it would then be, Earnest thought, about two and a half feet tall when it stood. The animal yawned mightily, it’s eyes moving from Earnest to the bicycle and back again.
“Mornin’,” the ape said.
A strange voice – like none other he’d ever heard – the voice of a dwarf perhaps? Something not quite human, rather expressionless, but not entirely inhuman either. It startled Earnest and he stopped abruptly and looked around thinking someone else was there. They were alone.
He dismounted carefully and stood the bicycle on its kick stand, all the while watching the Barbary ape. “Impossible!” He thought. “Perhaps at one time it was a pet and, like an organ grinder’s monkey, learned a trick or two.”
“Mornin’ yourself, brother,” he answered.
The animal wedged itself comfortably in the corner of its cage and stared up the path Earnest had come from. It interlaced its fingers over its stomach and breathed deeply.
The old man decided to speak up... “What’s your name?”
The ape ignored him. “Go way,” it said. Again, the old man tried to place the voice. The words were slurred – it was the lips, he thought. Like a ventriloquist, the ape didn’t move its lips when it spoke.
“You’re waiting for something, right?”
“Char-ree.” A strange sensation trickled its way down the old man’s spine. Was this animal making sense or was he hearing something that wasn’t there? Suddenly the ape stood up, (it was nearly three feet tall) it looked past the old man and pointed down the path. “Char-ree! Char-ree!,” it shouted excitedly.
The old man looked behind him and saw a man in a green uniform wheeling a cart up the path in their direction. The ape turned and shouted through the open door to the inside, “Char-ree! Char-ree!”
Four younger editions of Barbary apes burst through the door followed by a larger one, an adult. They all rushed to the bars of the cage and began shouting in unison, “Char-ree, Char-ree,” like fans at a football game.
Earnest stepped back – not in fear, but in astonishment. He looked in wonder at the approaching man. “Hold your horses, hold your horses,” the man said. “I’ll be there in a jiffy. How are you guys this morning?” He turned and smiled at Earnest who kept his bicycle between him and the cage of monkeys.
The man in the green uniform said, “This is the Barbary family, sir. Have you been properly introduced?”
“I don’t know. I think the big one told me to go away.”
“Don’t take it personally. He hasn’t learned his manners yet. His name is Bobby, by the way. Bobby the Barbary ape. He has trouble with his ‘R’s’ – his ‘B’s’ too, when you get right down to it. And the ‘S’s’ come out ‘ssh’. It’s all in the lips and the tongue, you see.” He stuck out his hand to Earnest, “I’m Char-ree by the way. It’s as close as he can come to Charlie.”
“Please to meet you, Charlie. My name is Earnest Bookbinder. You mean these animals can talk?”
“Yes, in a way.” The younger apes were growing impatient. Two of them were hanging upside down from the roof of the cage. “It’s like going to a foreign country and trying to understand the natives, you know. But the thought is there – the meeting of the minds.” He began handing out fruits and vegetables – eager almost human hands reached out from behind the bars to take them. “They’re a monogamous family you know – a solid father-mother-children family. There’s a strain of infidelity in almost every species, even these here particular Barbary apes. But we’ve mated these for life! Take one out of the cage and the others grieve for it just the way we would. Ain’t that a hoot?”
“You know a lot about them.”
“Well, they’ve taken a shine to me. I was surprised like you when I first heard them use my name... I don’t know how they got it... must have heard somebody call me Charlie. But I “give eat” – that’s what they call it. That makes me very important to them.”
Earnest couldn’t get the monogamy part of it out of his head. Fidelity! ... in animals! It rarely existed in the rest of the animal kingdom. Certainly not in mankind. He remembered from long ago, a poem called Paumanok by Whitman – about sea birds – he couldn’t recall the species. But they mated for life too. If one died, the other grieved until it died alone, ignoring the chicks in its brood and winging its lonely days over the dark green sea that circled Long Island – a life not too different from his own.
“I notice you keep them separate from the other apes.”
It’s an experiment,” Charlie said. “A college in Pennsylvania... they want to see if they can be made – well, more like us I guess.”
“You go along with that?” Earnest asked him.
“No! Course not! They’re apes. They’re happy bein’ apes. Doesn’t make a difference what I think though,” he shrugged. “I’m a zookeeper not a zoologist.” He closed the door of his cart. “Science, you know – pish posh.”
“What do you mean?”
“Science doesn’t care about these animals. Not really, not the way I do. There’s a woman professor comes in here once or twice a week, puts on a white coat and sits out here on a stool with her notebook... ‘Charles,’ she says to me, ‘I do believe we’ll keep them on a high fiber diet, she says. How dumb is that?”
“What would happen if one of them died?”
“This woman would still come with her... “
“No, Earnest interrupted. ”I mean what would happen to Bobby and the rest of his family if the mother died?”
Charlie shrugged his shoulders, “I dunno. They’re apes y’know, they’d get over it I guess – one way or another. Have to see. Probably the professor would bring in a replacement, another mother, I guess. What made you ask a question like that?”
Earnest looked back along the path that led to the lake. “I don’t know. Just seems cruel to me I guess ... hard to replace a mother with another.”
“The woman, this professor ... she seems to have an answer for everything. I’ll ask her next time she’s here.”
“I’m sure she’ll have an answer. That’s the way we are ... except for ourselves we know everything.” Earnest got back on his bicycle and kicked the stand up. He looked back at the apes again, they were eating silently, paying no attention to the two men or each other. They were eating – each one for himself, just as families do. He waved and started rolling down the hill to the lake...the pigeons and the squirrels were waiting.
“Keep ‘em fed. Charlie ... We’ll make men of them yet ... Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.