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Mother's Day


Harry Buschman

“Blow up, sea-winds, along Paumanok’s shore! I wait and I wait, till you blow my mate to me.”
-Walt Whitman

Every morning the old man pedaled his bicycle down Maple Street to the coffee shop on Cherry Lane.

It was a lovely old English bicycle 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 a 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 her English Raleigh 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 pedal through the park and have his breakfast on a bench in the company of pigeons and squirrels. 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 was well adjusted to his single life, and since the death of his wife he had turned into a creature of unbreakable habit. His thinning hair, of course, was gray, steely gray, uncut but kept in place by an old black beret pulled down to his ears. He rode in an erect fashion, as though he was driving an automobile. His glasses occasionally rode down his nose from bouncing along the rutted street and he would push them back in place again with one hand while holding on tightly to the handlebars with the other.

When he reached the coffee shop Earnest stopped the bicycle completely before walking 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 his and his wife for forty years or more put the coffee and the roll in a paper sack which he stored in the pannier that hung like saddlebags over the rear fender of the bicycle. Helen was a problem in the morning. If it promised good weather, she would remark 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, Earnest. Louise and I used to love to shop there, remember?” Yes, Earnest remembered. He hated to be reminded to remember, that’s all. Today, however, she was busy and Earnest was free to remember Louise wherever and whenever he chose to. The people who knew her were growing fewer every day, he reminded himself that before long he and his daughter would be the only ones to mention her name.

Earnest could see the entrance to the park just ahead, and at that hour of the morning he was sure he’d be the only one there. He liked to sit by the lake and think back to the good old days while he ate. He’d have plenty of company there. By the time he finished, he knew he would be surrounded, like St. Francis, 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 all be living things. They would be closer to him than he was to his daughter and a universe closer than he was to his departed 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, his friends would have that tomorrow. He had to put a damper 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, “Maybe not with food, but in other ways. Other appetites. Competition. Sex. The drive for money and power.” Riding a bicycle seemed to stimulate Earnest’s thinking processes. He thought a great deal these days; there was little else to do.

The route to the lake skirted the zoo, and since Earnest knew it would be deserted, he decided to detour a bit and see how things were over there. 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, native of Morocco and Gibraltar. It’s fur was yellowish brown, and in its sitting position on the concrete cage floor it was about eighteen inches tall - it would then be, Earnest thought, about two and a half feet high if it stood. The animal yawned mightily, it’s eyes moving from the old man to the bicycle and back again.

“Mornin’,” the ape said.

It was a voice like none other -- the voice of a dwarf perhaps? Something not quite like a man’s, but not entirely inhuman. 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. 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 a bit - it was the lips. The ape didn’t move its lips when it spoke.

“You’re waiting for something.”

“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. “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 this improbable interchange.

“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 to heart. He hasn’t learned the finer points 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 Charley.”

“Please to meet you, Charley. 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, you know -- but the thought is there.” He began handing out fruits and vegetables - eager almost human hands stretched out from the bars to take them. “They’re monogamous you know - a solid family. There’s a gene of infidelity in almost every species, even these here particular Barbary apes. But these are mated for life! Ain’t that a hoot in this day and age?”

“You know a lot about them.”

“Well, they’ve taken a shine to me. I was surprised like you were when I first heard them use my name ... I don’t know how they got it ... must have heard somebody call me Charley. But I “give eat” - that’s what they call it. That makes me part of their family.”

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, winging its solitary days over the green sea that circled Long Island.

“I notice you keep them separate from the others.”

It’s an experiment,” Charley said. “A college in Pennsylvania ... they want to see if they can be made - well, more human I guess.”

“You go along with that?” Earnest asked him.

“No -- course not! Doesn’t make a difference what I think though,” he laughed. “I’m a zookeeper.” He closed the door of his cart. “Science, you know -- pish posh.”

“What do you mean?”

“Science doesn’t care about the animals. Not the way I do. There’s a woman comes here every afternoon, puts on a white coat and sits out here with her notebook ... ‘Charles,’ she says, ‘I do believe we’ll try them on a high fiber diet,’ she says”.

“What would happen if one of them died, ”Earnest asked.

“This woman would still come every day with her ... “

“No, Earnest interrupted. ”I mean what would happen to Bobby and the rest of his family if the wife died?”

Charley shrugged his shoulders, “Dunno. They’re apes y’ know, they’d get over it real quick I think. Have to see. Probably a replacement, another mother, I guess. What made you ask a question like that?”

“You married, Charley?”


Earnest got back on the bicycle again and kicked the stand up. He looked back at the apes again, they were eating silently, paying no attention to the men nor each other. They were eating. He waved and started rolling down the hill to the lake ... “Keep them in good health, Charley.”

©Harry Buschman 2005

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