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“Blow up, sea-winds, along Paumanok’s shore!
I wait and I wait, till you blow my mate to me.”
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
readily apparent, and he would never admit it for a moment, but he was a very
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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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