Let me start by saying that this is Vassily the monkey's story. Not mine. I am Auguste, a simple man who has spent his fruitful years toiling as a clerk for the United States Postal Service in Arlington, Virginia. I have lived all but two of my seventy-seven years in this hot state. Visiting the city of my birth, Montreal, is one of many dreams I harbor. In my mind, it is a gleaming city of ice, sculpted by men with fine chisels, polished to a crystalline gloss by wintery princesses. We are in the midst of a punishing summer in Arlington. I have never returned to Montreal, and I probably never will. But I have other dreams.
Vassily is a squirrel monkey, that particular kind with a white band around his eyes, and ropy arms and legs that make the joints look like square knots. The rest of his fur, other than the mask around his eyes, is a dull pepper gray with a streak of yellow on his back. He is the type of monkey who doesn't look so human, which I don't mind. But he is as smart as a young child.
I should say here that Vassily can talk. Only to me, that is. To you his utterances would sound very much like the screeches and squawkings one would expect most any squirrel monkey to make. But I've learned how to read his inflections, interpret his tones. I can hear what he is saying. Of course, I don't tell most people about Vassily's talking; it wouldn't sit well. And I'd just as soon not draw undue attention to him. For that matter, I cannot tell you how exactly I came to possess Vassily, for I know the laws regarding exotics are strict. But I can tell you that I acquired him after it became quite clear that my wife and I were far too old and barren to have children of our own. That is at least part of the reason I am glad Vassily doesn't look so human. Grace, my wife, died two years after Vassily came into our lives. Perhaps she saw him as an admission of defeat.
I retired from my position with the U.S. Postal Service three months ago. While there is no mandatory retirement age for postal employees, my superiors made it clear that they considered me too old for the job. After months of ignoring their hints and slights, I finally gave them what they wanted. I filed my paperwork and I now live off the meager pension I earned during fifty-five years of service.
Retirement has put a strain on my relationship with Vassily. I think he used to enjoy having the apartment to himself when I'd leave for work in the mornings. I never knew exactly what he did in those hours I was away sorting letters, but I'd return in the evenings to find little things moved around. A pipe lying on the dining room table with a dusting of black ash spilled from its bowl. The magazines shuffled out of order in the magazine rack. A bookmark placed at the wrong page in a book. Vassily would be napping in his fruit crate, or sitting on the recliner in the living room looking as innocent as a newborn. Grace, before she passed on, would say she saw evil in Vassily's stares, said he was the embodiment of misplaced desires. I would tell her that in life one had to embrace the things one could not easily understand. She would shake her head and tell me my platitudes left me defenseless. My wife was a wonderful woman, but I'm not sure she always understood the nature of love.
Before my retirement, I allowed Vassily his misdemeanors. Better he should commit these small acts of indiscretion than do something downright awful, like turning on the oven and striking a match. But lately, my constant presence in the apartment has tried Vassily's nerves. I've disrupted the easy rhythms of the life to which he'd grown accustomed. He's taken to watching me as I move about the apartment, preparing breakfast, reading the news, puzzling over the crossword. Then he knocks the apple slices and melon pieces from his food bowl, scattering them across the kitchen linoleum.
"What is wrong, Vassily? Why do you act this way?" I ask.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Auguste," he answers. "To what way are you referring?" Then he stares morosely at his half-visible reflection in the dining room window, or picks at the fringe of the living room carpet, pretending to find and eat mites.
I can't bear the weight of Vassily's angry stares; I can't stand to face the accusation in his eyes. It's easier to stay in bed, keep the covers pulled up to my chin, which I've let get scruffy with gray whiskers lately. Each day, I get up a bit later. Tuesday at 9:15. Wednesday, 9:56. It is now 10:22 on Thursday and I have no intention of setting foot on the floor any time soon.
"Are you going to get out of bed?" Vassily asks me from the bedroom doorway.
I don't answer him.
"You're wasting your life, Auguste." Vassily skips across the room and leaps into bed with me. His light body makes the springs in the mattress sing like the sound of crickets at night.
"Wake up! Wake up!" Vassily is screeching. He stands on my chest, balancing himself with his tail wrapped around the bedpost. He bounces on me as if I were a diving board. I roll onto my side, spilling Vassily across the quilted bedspread.
"Why should I get up? Give me one good reason to leave this bed today."
"Because, Auguste, a life without meaning will wither."
There are notes of sympathy in the way he says this, and I am momentarily touched by his concern. It makes me wonder if I have been misinterpreting his angry stares these past months.
"You've got to do something with the years you have left," he says. "You're driving me crazy with all this moping around the house." His teeth are sharp needles, the perfect size to crush a large grape or olive.
"Fine," I say. "I'll get out of your hair. That's what you want, isn't it?"
I brush Vassily aside and raise my heavy body out of bed.
"You don't have to be so huffy about it," Vassily says. But I ignore him as I dress myself in a manner appropriate for going out.
Vassily follows me at a distance; he knows I'm angry with him. I snatch the keys from the bowl, and just as I'm pulling the front door shut, he asks, "When should I expect you back?"
I hold the door still for a moment so he knows I've heard him. Then I pull it closed behind me without answering his question. I wish I would have thought to bring a handkerchief with me. By the time I've walked to the corner of my block, I'm perspiring fiercely. When I'm certain no one is looking, I wipe my forehead on the sleeve of my shirt. The sun shining off the sidewalk is so intense it makes my tired eyes throb.
The bank building is artificially cool when I go inside. The white marble floors are freshly waxed and slick as blocks of ice. I stand just inside the main doors a moment and let myself acclimate to this cool air. I think Vassily might enjoy being here with me right now; he might relish a break from the heat, and the quiet solemnity of this great marbled hall. Then again, he's probably just as happy back at the apartment, just as content with whatever mischief he's getting into at this moment.
I turn and see that the guard near the door is eyeing me suspiciously. As if I'd do anything untoward in a bank! An old man like me! Though I admit, I've let my hair grow past my ears as of late. And I've already mentioned that I don't shave as often as I used to. I nod politely at the guard and smile and then proceed to a set of couches forming a semicircle around a flat TV, which airs a flashy newscast with an array of graphics crawling across the top and bottom of the screen. The couch is shorter than my knees, and after I lower myself as far as I can, I lean back and fall the rest of the way onto the cushion. When you reach my age, the simplest functions can become terrifying acts of faith.
The air conditioning in the bank is quite powerful and it's beginning to have an effect on me. The sweat on my face is drying, leaving a salty crust on my skin. Grace hated the heat as much as I still do. That is one thing we had in common. Vassily, I think, is indifferent to the heat.
The man on the TV is sitting behind a desk, leaning forward as if every word he utters is important for us to hear. But the screen is too cluttered and my eyes don't know where to look. I begin to feel dizzy, nauseous. I close my eyes, in the hopes that when I open them things will have calmed down. "Can I help you, sir?"
A young woman is standing in front of me. She's stooped down, with her hands on her knees, the way a teacher would address a schoolchild.
"I'm sorry," I say, rousing myself. "Were you talking to me?"
Her dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she's wearing a blue suit with a nametag I can't quite make out. "Did you have any bank business you'd like to transact, sir? I'd be happy to help you with that." I notice the security guard lurking behind her. To the left, a bank of idle tellers are staring like witnesses at an altercation.
The fact is, I know I came in here for a reason, some odd bit of finance I wanted to take care of, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was. These minor mental glitches occur from time to time, but they usually happen around the house, where no one has to see them.
"I'm fine," I say. "Thank you very much."
The woman turns and glances at the tellers behind the counter. Then she looks back at me, and I see a strange sadness in her face. "Well, you see, sir, these couches are reserved for bank customers."
"But I am a customer," I say. "I have a checking and savings account with this establishment."
"And we're very grateful for your business, sir. But the couches are really for people waiting to make actual transactions. If you'd like to rest, there are plenty of benches outside."
"But it's so hot."
The security guard edges forward; he's bracing himself for action. I realize I've become a nuisance, a pebble in the shoe of these bank people. And it is this realization that causes me to feel more embarrassed than I can ever remember feeling.
"Sir, it's just that we can't have people coming in here andů" she swallows her words for a moment, "and sleeping in the bank. It gives the wrong impression to our customers."
"I understand. If you could help me up, I'll be on my way."
She looks around uncertainly for a moment, then extends a hand. I'm surprised by the softness of her skin and the firmness of her grip.
"Do you have anywhere you can go?" she asks, her voice quiet and close to my ear. "You know, some place you can stay?"
I'm not entirely sure what she's getting at, but when I turn to answer her, I see two small tears working their way down her young cheeks.
"I should be heading home. Vassily is expecting me."
"Is that your grandson?" she asks, a look of hope creeping into her eyes.
"He's my son," I say, because explaining the truth would be too difficult. The heat has taken on a disposition of its own, as if it's an angry character in a play. I can almost feel its rage penetrating my skin. It takes me a long moment outside the bank to recall which direction my apartment lies. It's the kind of temporary confusion brought on by strong daylight and the sudden switch from cool to hot, a faint whisper of mortality. I prop my arm against the bank building while I regain my bearings. Squirrel monkeys are a variety known to live well into their thirties. Vassily will be fifteen years old in September.
I am two blocks away from the bank building when I notice something taped to the pollen-coated glass of a shop window. It is a poster for an ice show with a picture of a woman skating, her body forming a line so graceful that it nearly wounds me. As I bend to get a closer look, I recognize something familiar in the woman's face.
When I was twenty-eight years old, before I met Grace, a friend of mine at the post office gave me a ticket to an ice show that he didn't need. Not having anything better to do, I went and there I saw a beautiful, slender woman glide across the ice, jumping and floating and spinning. A ballerina on skates! This I had never seen before. She performed to a sad piece by Tchaikovsky or Ravel, I'm not sure which. The ice was as smooth as a mirror and she traced thin loops on it. She walked on her toes as the plucked strings of a cello echoed in my ears. The rink was dark except for one solitary spotlight that followed her like a halo. I suppose the event was some kind of competition, though I was scarcely aware of the judges or the other competitors, or even the audience members around me. Somehow I could tell that the woman on the ice felt the music in a way no one else did.
When her performance was over, I looked at the program and saw that her name was Helena. I was intrigued because she was named for a city. Helena, the capital of Montana, a cold, fortress-like place with its own set of myths, like Montreal.
This one slender ice princess was the closest I've ever seen a person come to achieving pure grace. After Helena's performance, and before I took the train home, I found myself sitting on a bench outside the rink, weeping like a child into my cupped hands. I can only guess what the people walking by must have thought.
On the way home that night, I vowed I would always seek out that kind of grace in my life, that proximity to perfection. It was the kind of promise, I think, young men foolishly make to themselves in moments of elation or desperation. Three months later, I met my future wife. And I married her nine months to the day after that night I saw the ice princess skate.
As I stand here on the sidewalk in the fierce Arlington heat, my heart goes slow and my fingers grow cold. The woman on the poster is Helena. I know it for sure—the unmistakable lines of her body, the imperturbable smile on her face that radiates like a sun. It is like seeing a ghost that was almost, but not quite, forgotten. Perhaps the photo was taken long ago because she looks the same as she did that night I saw her.
Studying the poster, I see that there is to be an ice show two days hence in the city, and a secret thrill rises in me. I glance around to make sure no one is looking. Then I delicately peel the tape from the window, fold the poster, and slip it into my trouser pocket. The second I return to the apartment, I know something isn't right. Vassily is sitting on the recliner with his knees tucked up under his chin. He rocks left then right.
"Where have you been?" he asks, or maybe the question is only implied by the dark stare he has fixed on me, black buttons peering out from his white mask.
"I had several errands to run."
"You were gone a long time, Auguste. You shouldn't have left without telling me where you were going." Vassily picks nervously at the fur on his right arm and then begins licking his fingers.
I walk into the kitchen and pour myself a cold glass of milk. I do this with an air of casualness, but I'm actually surveying the apartment, looking for evidence of whatever it was Vassily did while I was away. I sip my milk slowly and turn until I see what Vassily has done.
I keep a small jar of honey next to the toaster on the kitchen counter. I use it to sweeten a cup of tea, or to occasionally put on a peanut butter sandwich. The jar is broken and a small river of honey has flowed across the counter and onto the floor near the wastebasket. A mess!
This is by far the most destructive thing Vassily has done. The worst part is that it seems so intentional, so purposely designed to hurt me. I cannot fathom why he would do this. I run cold water into my milk glass and set it on the counter. I find a sponge under the sink and some vinegar, and I set about the sticky task of cleaning up after the monkey. It is the evening of the ice show and I have managed to keep Vassily from finding out my plans. But it hasn't been easy. Making the phone call to order my ticket to the show, looking at maps to plot my route to the arena—all of these things have roused his suspicion.
He sees me putting on a suit I haven't worn in years, and his level of agitation creeps higher.
"Why are you getting dressed up, Auguste?" He's standing on the recliner. "Where are you planning to go?"
"I've got some errands to run, Vassily. I won't be long."
"You never wear a suit to run errands," he says. "What's going on here?" He leaps from the recliner to the mantelpiece, toppling a glass vase. The vase hits the red brick hearth, bounces once with a heavy thunk, then shatters on second impact.
"Vassily, calm down," I say. He's looking madly about himself now, leaping up and down, screeching incoherently. He finds a letter opener with a turquoise handle and flings it to the floor.
I don't react negatively. I don't lash out or rise up in anger. I sit down on the recliner and rest my hands in my lap. I regard Vassily with a calm, peaceful face. And I think my reaction disarms him. The force of my compassion soothes him. Very slowly, he ceases his leaping and screeching. His movements return to the normal tic-like movements one would expect from a squirrel monkey his age.
"Come down from there, Vassily," I say, patting my hands on my lap. "Come and talk with me, please."
He uncoils his long limbs and climbs down from the mantel. He leaps onto my lap and curls into a ball. We haven't sat like this for many months. It stirs my heart to have his precious weight in my lap. I can feel his lungs inhaling and exhaling, his small heart hammering away in his chest like an engine. Sometimes it frightens me how very much alive he is.
I begin by telling him of that night, long ago, when I saw Helena perform. I tell him how it moved me like nothing I had ever seen before. And then I explain how I saw the poster in the shop window, and how I want to go to the ice show, with the hope that I might be lucky enough to see Helena perform again.
Vassily takes this in with eager, earnest eyes. "But what do you hope to find, Auguste? Even if she is there, and she does perform, what could possibly come from it?"
"Grace," I say. "I hope to find grace."
"But Grace has been dead thirteen years now," Vassily says, not unkindly.
"Not Grace, my wife," I say. "But pure grace. True grace. The kind of thing you're lucky enough to experience even once in your life."
Vassily rests his head against my thigh. "I want to go too."
"I don't think it's a good idea, Vassily."
He turns his head so that he's looking up at me. "I want to experience this grace, Auguste." His tail flicks lightly at my wrist and I wonder how I could possibly deny him such a thing. There have been occasions when I have taken Vassily out with me in public. But it's not something I'm comfortable doing. As I've said, the laws regarding exotic animals are strict and ever-changing, so I'd rather not put myself in a position to find out if I am violating those laws.
We are sitting on a Metro train, heading through a tunnel into the heart of Washington, D.C. Vassily is tucked inside a bag I purchased some time ago which was originally used for carrying a bowling ball. He fits rather comfortably in the bag, but after extended periods, his legs begin to cramp.
The train is crowded with people, some of them professionals at the end of a long day's work, some of them children headed into the city for whatever trouble they may hope to find. It's been a long time since I've found myself so surrounded by humanity, and the experience is not one I relish.
"Auguste, I need to use the bathroom," Vassily says through the top of the bag, which I've left open so he can breathe.
No one is sitting next to me, but I glance nervously at an academic-looking man reading a newspaper across the aisle.
"You went before we left, and there are no bathrooms on this train. You'll have to wait." I whisper all this so that my fellow passengers can't hear me. I'm confident they haven't noticed a thing. To them, I'm sure I just look like an old man traveling alone.
But Vassily lets out a protracted groan that's loud enough to cause the academic-looking man to glance over at me from his newspaper. He has round, wire-rim glasses and a suspicious nose that looks as if it might be accustomed to sniffing out things that are untoward. I smile at the man and he turns back to his newspaper.
To comfort Vassily, I reach my hand inside the bag and rest it on his belly. His breathing settles to a steady in and out. I often used to lie on the carpet next to his fruit crate and tune my ears to the frequency of his breathing. And slowly, my own breaths would fall into line with his, until it was hard to tell the difference between the two. I feel it happening again now and it soothes me, clears my mind, allows me a moment of anticipation for what lies ahead this evening.
The train comes to a halt in a poorly lit station. A few people get on and a few get off. The academic-looking man glances my way, folds his paper, and moves to another section of the train car.
After a jolt and a short kickback, the train lurches into motion again. The click of the wheels rolling over the tracks assumes a comfortable rhythm that assures me we are headed toward something important. The train stops at the station nearest the arena and a crush of bodies moves toward the door. It's hard for me to find my footing in the crowd and I'm jostled on all sides. I hold the bag containing Vassily to my chest to protect him as best I can. As if by some miracle, I find myself on the platform and the train doors whisk shut behind me.
I thought I had left myself plenty of time to make it to the ice show. But, looking at the clock in the station, I see there are only ten minutes before it is to start. I look around the station for a sign indicating the arena, but I can't seem to locate one. People are streaming past me and I feel my head going light. Blindly, I merge with the river of bodies and find myself on a long escalator headed toward the surface.
When I reach the sidewalk outside, I see that the arena is right next to me—a monstrously large structure of gleaming metal and glass. With a little luck, I may be able to get inside and allow Vassily to stretch his legs in a bathroom stall before the ice show begins.
I find a window booth with a sign saying "Will Call." After a short wait, the woman at the booth slides me a ticket under the thick glass window. Vassily is not moving inside the bag; I think he's trying to stay still while these moments of tense transport take place.
The line to enter the building is long, but I wait patiently. When it's my turn to produce my ticket, I do. The man scans it under a red light and just as I'm about to walk through the turnstile, a hand grabs me by the elbow and squeezes.
"I'm sorry, but if you want to take that bag inside, you'll have to go through that line over there." A burly man with gray eyes points toward a short line to my right.
"Very well," I say, stepping a few paces over to this new line.
It moves more quickly than the first line, and when I reach the head, a squat-looking woman with short hair reaches for my bag.
"Excuse me," I say, pulling away from her.
"Security procedures," the woman says flatly. "We have to screen all bags entering the building." Behind her, uniformed men wearing rubber gloves are opening various purses and pawing through their contents. A surge of dark panic races through me and settles in my stomach. It is only now that I see the folly of this plan, only now that I recognize the peril into which I've placed both Vassily and myself. I am in danger of losing all I have left.
"I really don't think that will be necessary," I say. "I'm an old man."
"Old man, young woman, it don't matter to me. We have to ensure security."
Her hand lashes out and seizes the strap of my bag. "Just hand it over and everything'll be fine." She jerks at it and I feel a burn run through my shoulder. This is all the torture I can stand.
I turn on my assailant and show her the full measure of my anger, the intensity of my passion. I can't imagine what I look like, but it must be a terrible sight to behold. As I pull back on the bag, the woman—perhaps in fear—lets go of the strap.
Not expecting this sudden release, the bag whirls around in a blinding arc. And it makes horrible contact with a brick column to my left. The sound it makes when it hits is a final one. The sound of soft flesh hitting an unforgiving thing. The kind of sound after which you believe there will be no more sound.
I kneel down on the dirty floor. The security woman and some people in line lean over me as I slowly pull Vassily from the bag's dark insides. His hair is downy and moist. His body is limp like a sleeping child. But one eye is open and it tries to gain focus on my face.
"Vassily, can you say something?" I ask, my voice quiet and gentle like a lullaby. "Say something if you can."
"Auguste, I'd like to go home now, please."
"You're all right, Vassily. We'll go home and everything will be fine again."
There's a commotion in the crowd behind me.
"He pulled it out of that bag," the security woman says. "But I don't know what the hell that thing is."
Someone shouts: "Oh my Christ!"
"Auguste." His voice is thin and frail. I can see the act of speaking is sapping Vassily of his remaining strength.
"Shhh, little one, you need rest right now."
"Auguste, I'm sorry about breaking the honey jar."
"You can break a thousand jars, Vassily, when we get home." I hold him to my chest, as if my beating heart might somehow sustain his.
"Auguste, I only wanted to taste the honey," he says.
Then his eye goes opaque and my hands know that he is no longer alive. His walnut-sized heart is still. I can already feel his body cooling.
I suppose one might think it natural for me to cry at a moment like this. Certainly that would be called for. But I don't weep. Some emotions, I believe, are too powerful to consecrate with tears. And so I only hold Vassily's small body to mine.
"What's that guy doing?" someone asks.
"He's worked up about something."
A circle of people has formed around Vassily and me. I wonder what we must look like to those who came here to see Helena enter a state of temporary grace. They probably see an old man, rumpled, disheveled, holding onto a thing so tightly, you'd think his life, and all he held dear in the world, depended on it.
Copyright © Giano Cromley 2008.