T. Lucas Earle
As I step down from the podium I remember why I don't give guest lectures in Boston. Something about their Irish roots makes the people here awfully intolerant. While I'm up there introducing a whole new field of cybernetic technology and its moral implications, they're all focusing on the way my lips move. Eyeing the lines on my forehead. Scrutinizing the slight wiggling of my ears. Like they've never seen a monkey talk before.
I step into the lift and I check my watch. As if my flop of a lecture wasn't enough, I'm going to be late for my first meeting with my new assistant. I hate being late. The doors slide shut and I check behind me. While I traditionally enjoy the comforts of solitude, American lifts are not very comforting. They put their floor buttons so damn high. I approach the towering button panel and try to use my cane to bash the eleventh floor button. After a moment or two I hear a bell and the door opens. In walks some hip undergrad with deep Nordic roots sporting an absurd, and frankly distracting, digital overlay. Colors whiz around her like those giant dragon puppets on Chinese New Year. Politely, I ask her to hit the eleventh floor for me. She presses it with the glowing smile of a good Samaritan helping a poor old, crippled monkey. I'm so embarrassed.
My assistant, luckily, is British and doesn't stare at me like a child's toy. It is clear that she has already mastered the art of looking down at someone without appearing to look down her nose.
"Professor Towry." She offers me her right hand, holding her tiny computer in the other. It rests daintily between her two fingers, like a lit cigarette, or a playing card. Her black skirt is tight and short. Her outfit would be far more flattering in red, but I'm sure she knows this. She's some striking mashup of Chinese, Eastern European and what looks like a faint hint of Middle Eastern.
"Good day, Ms. Liu," I say. "I'm glad you could come on such short notice."
"It's a shame what happened to Mrs. Taff. My condolences."
"She has been greatly missed," I reply tersely, then continue down the hall. "But as you can see, quickly replaced. I fear I am nearly useless without a strong, well-organized woman to keep me in line."
"Well, I hope I won't disappoint."
"As do I." I push open the main door to the cybernetics lab and hold it ajar for Ms. Liu. She follows timidly, still wielding her tiny computer as if she might need to hurl it like a throwing star at some assailant. She sits down in the chair I offer her. She looks as if she has something to say but doesn't speak.
"Ms. Liu. While I value someone with a concise manner of speech and an appreciation of tact, I do not condone self-censorship. Especially in these first few days when we are just learning one another's operational rhythms." I flinch slightly as I recall telling Mrs. Taff a very similar thing on her first day. I hope she is not peering up from her grave, thinking I'm a fraud. A cheating monkey.
"I just was thinking that the other day I met a young Chimp with the same last name as yours. I was wondering-"
"You were wondering if we were related." I jump onto a nearby counter and begin rooting through the diagnostic tools. "Yes, and no. We are not likely biologically related, but certainly legally so. There are only fourteen family names among my people. The Towrys are named after Dr. Greg Towry, the inventor of the speech augmentation chip. It is common for me to meet relatives I've never heard of."
She has that not-going-to-say-what-I'm-thinking look again but catches herself before I comment.
"Doesn't that lead to a lot of intermarriage?"
"Quite so. But my people do not look down on intermarriage. Marrying one's cousin is quite common, due to the fact that we do not have biological children, and thus are not concerned with genetic defects." After assembling the necessary supplies I hop down to the floor again and put them in my briefcase.
"Right. You adopt."
"Not exactly. It's more like we design them. Well, I don't. I would be a terrible father."
She nods, believing this to be enough information.
"Well," I say, "I've got what I came here for. I think I'm ready to go home."
That night I dream of Moira. Her eyes are harsh, colorless. Her fingers are long and smooth. She reaches out and touches me. But I don't feel her. She opens the door to the bathroom and her feet splash on the floor. She is towering over me, pulling me along. I try to break away, but I can't. She starts the bath and stares at me. I wake up in the sink of my hotel room. The water running. The moon waiting outside my window. I turn off the water and scratch my head. The moon is a pale blue. I wonder if it's the real moon. Not a digital overlay.
I step down from the sink and trudge over to the linen closet. Scrubbing my head, I return to my mattress, which is now a royal mess. Apparently, I had piled all the blankets in the corner. Like a feral nest. I sit down in my nest and hold my head in my hands. My feet ache. I feel like screaming and howling and tearing apart anything I can. I must have forgot to take my evening pills.
The next morning, sitting on the bathroom counter, I've donned a suit and brushed my teeth. Outside, the rain is assaulting my window. Here, the rain is awkward, out of place. Not like in London where it wanders around comfortably like a friend to whom you've given the keys to your flat. My bags are packed. I'm quite excited to get the hell out of this country.
A knock at the door startles me more than I'd like to admit. I trot on all fours to the door and pull it open. Ms. Liu is dressed in a lush, forest green suit today.
"Nice outfit," I say while I amble back to the bathroom. "Are you looking forward to returning home?"
"Our flight was canceled," she says abruptly.
I lean out of the bathroom. I can't quite articulate my anger, so I just frown in a general way and then sigh heavily.
"It's the storm," she continues. "It's supposed to get a whole lot worse. Most likely, we won't be able to catch a flight until Monday."
Four days. I'm going to be sick.
"Why do you detest this country so much?" Ms. Liu says, sitting on the corner of my bed, sipping tea.
"It's dirty and arrogant and generally rubbish," I reply from the kitchen.
"Well, so is England."
"Yes, but-" I sit down on my suitcase and sip at my coffee. "Take MIT, for example. I did a lecture there yesterday, which no one even attempted to grasp, being too distracted by my appearance to pay attention. Mind you MIT is where the first of my kind was born. The very place that created my species has become foreign to us."
"Are you sure?"
"I know when someone is staring at me, and why they are staring. In England, at Cambridge, no one gawks. There are Chimps in the audience."
"So, you prefer England just because there are more Chimps?"
"Of course. Is that abnormal, somehow?"
"No." She adjusts her position, crossing her porcelain smooth legs. "I just wanted to hear you say it."
"Ah." I stand up, realizing I need to take my morning pills. "You know, the first time I came to this country was with my previous assistant, Mrs. Taff. When I arrived, a young man with digital hair ablaze, standing in line before me, began to discuss the status of evolution among humans. After a long, pseudo-intellectual rant, he made a remark about how monkeys are not as evolved as humans. As if there were some scale of evolution with humans at the top."
"So, what did you do?"
I take the pills while in the kitchen, then return to the bedroom. "I told him one of my colleagues, a fellow Chimp, was an evolutionary biologist and would disagree."
Ms. Liu chuckles a bit. "And what did he say?"
"He offered me a high five."
She looks me up and down for a moment. Soon, she'll get it. When she does she says, "Oh, that's awful!"
I blow on my cup of tea. She sips hers, keeping it close to her lips, like she's hiding behind it.
We decide that as long as we're stranded on this semi-civilized garbage heap, we might as well enjoy some food. I let Ms. Liu choose the restaurant and tell her I will cover the meal. She makes ironic jokes about me trying to seduce her and I attempt to articulate my discomfort non-verbally.
We're sitting under dim, sepia-tinted LED lights, surrounded by rich, dark wooden walls, which make her lush outfit seem more fitting. She's nervous, and she's drinking red wine, so she's dropped some of her reserve. The more we chat the more I am aware of how similar this place is to where Moira and I had our first dinner. I try not to picture Moira where Ms. Liu sits. I try not to imagine her sad gray eyes peeking over a grainy sepia menu.
The waiter arrives to take our orders. I order the Eggplant Caponata, with whole grain crackers and Gruyere, while she orders the Beef Carpaccio. But before the waiter has a chance to leave, I grab hold of his apron. Still maintaining steady eye contact with Ms. Liu, I hold the waiter in place.
"Is something wrong?" the waiter asks.
"Yes," I say, still looking at Ms. Liu, who is now undoubtedly searching through her last few comments to find something that may have offended me. "My assistant would like to change her order."
"I'm sorry?" she says.
"Possibly something without meat in it," I suggest, calmly.
"Oh dear..." she quickly looks down at her menu. "Er... The Fettuccine Alfredo," she says. "Please."
The waiter nods and looks at me skeptically. Then he turns and heads off.
"I'm so sorry. It didn't occur to me..." she falters, once he's out of earshot.
"It rarely does."
She catches her breath, as if to speak, then straightens her back and sits, silently.
"Again, Ms. Liu, I have been consistently forthright with you, I would appreciate reciprocation."
"Well, I just can't help but think it is a natural desire, that it isn't necessarily immoral. Even chimps, in the wild, eat other animals."
"Firstly, I am not in the wild. Nor are you. I was not designed, entirely, by evolution. So, I have the choice to not eat meat. You yourself also have that choice. Secondly, I ask you to tell me what the distinction is between that Beef Carpaccio and, say, my nephew."
She sits in silence for a moment and then decides that she will speak her mind openly. "The cattle don't understand what is happening to them."
"They may. We would not know because they cannot protest," I say. "Yet."
She frowns and averts her eyes.
"A frown does not become you," I say. "I didn't intend to upset you, but I cannot stress enough to you that we are all animals. And the only reason we excuse the eating of other animals is because they have yet to step forward and ask us not to, in a language we understand."
She smiles a little. She surely notices the exhilaration that has overcome me in the heat of philosophic discussion. She nods and decides to change the subject. The change of topic to biochemistry is a relief, and we hold to it until the waiter comes with our food. After we begin eating, she drops one of those inevitably awkward questions. The kind of question you bury beneath mountains of small talk but still cannot hide. The one that anyone can tell has been on your mind all night.
"I was wondering, and I hope you don't mind me asking, why did your last assistant...er...commit suicide?"
I explain that Moira had marital problems. I say she was complicated. I bullshit.
"It must be very hard for you."
"I make do. And, hopefully, I'll have some help. A new assistant, for example."
She smiles warmly and looks down at her food.
"Were you and Moira, I mean Mrs. Taff, quite close?"
Yes. More than you can imagine.
"No. We were professionally joined at the hip, but aside from that I had very little insight into her personal life."
We chat until the bill comes, then we grab our coats and make our way to the streets where the rain has become waves of hail. Through the windows of the taxi the thick night hides behind layers of crystal beaded curtains, a heavenly glow emanating from the city streets where the hail bounces and dances along the pavement.
That night I dream of Charlie, the Adam of my people. My great-great-great grandfather. Sitting in his little white chair, as he does in all those graffiti stencils and inspirational posters. He discusses the morality of carnivorous lifestyles with his captors and plays his famous game of chess with the President. Then he looks right at me and asks: "Have you showered today?"
I wake up, this time in the bathtub, with the shower running. All the hotel room pillows, as well as my suitcase, surround me. The walls are offensively white. I can't seem to catch a full breath of air. I crawl out of the tub and make my way to the kitchen. I find my pills scattered all over the kitchen counter and pop one in my mouth. There is a knock at the door.
"Towry," comes the melodic voice of Ms. Liu. "Are you in today?"
I look at my computer terminal, which reads 11:00am. The news broadcast tells me that the hostages in Perth were all killed. And the cheetah is now officially extinct.
"Yes, I'm here." I quickly run to my dresser and grab a pair of new khakis and a white button down.
"May I come in?"
My room looks like a monkey took it apart in a fit of rage. I grab a pullover and slip it on. "Just, um..." Next, a tie. "Why don't I just, um..." I grab the door handle and turn it. Then I stop. Almost forgot my cane. I rush back to the kitchen and find it leaning against the counter. I turn around again. Ms. Liu stands in the doorway, clutching the doorknob, surveying the landscape.
"What on earth happened?"
"Let's go out for lunch," I respond.
"But, your room..."
"The maids can deal with it."
She stares at me. She doesn't look so much shocked as sad.
"Don't you dare pity me."
She opens her mouth for a second. For once I wish she'd hold her tongue.
"Do you have Cohen's disease?" she asks. She must have done her research.
"How about that place you recommended on Newbury?"
She stares intently at me for a moment, then finally eases up.
"Er, no. You see, I received an invite today for you."
"I've been invited to something?"
"Yes. It's a reception at the banquet hall in the Sheraton," she says.
"Yes, but what is it for?"
She looks down at her tiny computer. She adjusts her glasses.
"The Association for Ethical Genetic Engineering."
I can't help but laugh. "And they want me!? A Chimp?"
"Yes," she says. "I think it's because of your work on non-linear cyber-integration. They mentioned your essay."
"Why didn't I know about this till now?"
"Well, they sent the invite a while ago..." she rubs her brow. "I'm sorry, but I've only been your assistant for two days so there's a lot of back mail to sort through..."
"I'm sorry. Let's go then," I say. "When is it?"
"Soon. Less than an hour."
I nod and motion for her to lead the way. Her eyes momentarily betray her and she scans the disheveled room once more before leaving.
We take a cab in uncomfortable silence. The taxi driver is a Navajo-African mix. He speaks with an East Texas accent. I want to ask him what he's doing in Boston, but he might ask me the same. I wonder if anyone belongs in this armpit of a city.
Ms. Liu tells the maitre d' we are on the invite list. He looks down at me. He smiles. He's a northern European mutt with a bit of Basque thrown in. He then looks at the list.
"Hmm," he says through his nose. " Mr. Towry, I take it."
"We have a policy," he says. "You must wear shoes, sir."
I look down, stunned. I don't own shoes. I sometimes wear a special pair of gloves when I take long walks, but I must have misplaced them.
"Are you joking?" Ms. Liu asks.
"No. We have a stringent policy about shoes," the maitre d' says.
Ms. Liu looks down at me. "I guess we'll just have to skip this particular event," she says through gritted teeth.
I stare at my feet. My second pair of hands. My hairy, disgusting monkey hands. "No," I say. The maitre d' looks at me, curiously. "I would like to spend my afternoon somewhere foul. Somewhere completely devoid of decency. This would be the ideal establishment."
"I can't let you in, sir. We have policies," he says.
Ms. Liu begins to speak, but I just walk past the maitre d'.
"Sir!" he shouts.
Ms. Liu follows me cautiously, as if I might explode at any moment.
"What are you doing? There's no point staying here," Ms. Liu says, looking around, her cheeks turning a deep red. She looks stunning.
The guests notice me. Not just for the short stature and hairiness. They notice my rebellion.
Ms. Liu looks as if she's forgotten how to speak.
"Let's start with some wine." I raise my hand. "Waiter!" I look around. There must be a waiter somewhere around here. But no waiter comes. A man in a suit approaches, accompanied by the maitre d'. The suited man nods to me politely. He's too confident to be a grunt.
"Hello," he says.
"You must be the manager," I respond.
He nods again. "We have policies, sir. You really must wear shoes in the banquet hall."
"Why would I wear shoes if I don't have feet?"
"You must wear something. It's unsanitary."
"Why don't you wear gloves? You touch things with your hands all the time."
"It's not-- Sir," he composes himself. He's done being polite. The other guests have ended their private conversations. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
I turn until I'm facing him, and straighten. I'm still about three heads shorter than he is.
He doesn't move at first, but then, instead of doing the smart thing - calling the police - he bends over and reaches for me. I lift my cane and thrust it with all my strength into his neck. He stops in mid-lunge, for a moment, wide eyed and gasping. Then he falls back, clutching his throat.
"Excuse me," I say to the maitre d'. "Could you please call a waiter? One with a wine platter. I'm too damn short to get their attention."
A woman nearby giggles. The rest of the audience is transfixed.
"Oh, yes!" I announce broadly. "Don't you love it!"
The maitre d' glares at me. Then, after a brief moment of indecision, he walks towards me rapidly with violence in his eyes. But he makes the same mistake as his boss and fails to notice my cane. I take this opportunity to strike him with my cane, squarely on both kneecaps. He collapses to the ground. I turn to Ms. Liu, who, to my surprise, is smiling.
"So, what do you think? Should I stand on your shoulders, perhaps, and flag down the next well-shod wine bearer?"
Ms. Liu looks down at the men on the ground. The maitre d' is attempting to get back up. I calmly close the small distance between us and hop onto his chest, pinning him to the ground.
"I'm only half your height, you know," I say.
"You are probably thinking, what can a little crippled monkey do to me? Well firstly, technically, I'm an ape, not a monkey. Secondly, you probably don't know that I'm able to generate more than twice an adult human's physical strength. I'm a wild animal, you little shit. You don't get to treat me like a baby. Also, the cane isn't for balance. It's for reaching the buttons on your blasted lifts." I get up and exchange a glance with Ms. Liu.
"We should go," she says, just a decibel above a whisper.
I look at the guests around me. They stare in awe. I consider bowing, but that would be too posh. So I wink at the girl who giggled earlier, and she covers her mouth.
Then the police arrive.
In the little cell they've given me. I'm going crazy. Aren't I?
Ms. Liu argues with a policeman while I hang from the bars. It's quite invigorating. I really must take my pills.
Ms. Liu looks at me, as if she's considering telling me something terrible.
"Go for it," I say.
"They say they're keeping you for the night," she says.
"That's fine. I'm rather enjoying myself."
She looks worried.
"Look," I say in a soothing tone as I jump down from the bars, "I don't mind spending a night in here. At least there isn't any bedding for me to destroy. And, no, it's not the disease speaking. The disease can't speak. When I'm gone you'll know, because I will have lost that capacity. I'm having fun. I've wanted to smack these children for years. I finally got the opportunity. They will likely press charges. I know that. I don't care. Please go get my pills and bring them to me."
She nods. She's so close to the bars now that I can smell the distinctive fragrance that emanates from her inner thighs. I smile at her and she leaves.
But two hours later I'm not smiling. She's still gone and I can feel my mind slipping. I decide that whatever I do next is going to be embarrassing, so I might as well be asleep for it. I lie in bed and pray.
The dream comes to me from beneath substance. Just sounds and smells. The harsh cracking of wood. The strange musk of snakes warding off danger. The feel of beating hearts. Then it's all lights and cold air.
"Towry." a concerned voice says. "Mr. Towry?"
I look up and through the bars I see Moira, standing before me in all her majesty. I leap from my bed and scramble to the bars. She recoils a bit in reaction to my vigorous movements. Then I just stare, clinging to the bars. I can't say anything. I can't seem to make words. Her pale eyes judge me calmly. She says something, but for some reason I can't understand her. She makes more noises and motions to something in her hand.
She reaches her hand through the bars, holding a small object no bigger than a seed. A white pebble? I grab her hand and hold it tightly. She makes more noises. Not at me this time. At the other human standing behind her. She stares directly at me. I try to apologize. After a long time the man comes back. He hands her something which diverts her attention. A banana. She peels it and pushes the strange pebble into its soft flesh. She thrusts it into the cage. A gift. I take it and begin to eat.
My eyes open sluggishly. I prop myself up on the cot and stare through the bars. Ms. Liu seems deep in harsh negotiations with the officer in command. They bicker furiously, their whole bodies thick with emotional animation. I don't think Chimps will ever use their bodies to communicate like people do. When we were programmed to talk we never picked up all the many subtleties. I admire humans' ability to force every inch of their bodies into conveying meaning.
"Towry?" Ms. Liu says, noticing that I am conscious. She approaches the cell cautiously.
"Yes," I say.
"How do you feel?"
"I feel fine. And you?"
"I'm a bit fatigued. But I can't imagine it holds a candle to how you feel right now. I'm so sorry it took me so long to get your immuno-suppressants. I couldn't find them. I think the maid threw them out, and I had to get you a new prescription. My documents weren't yet in order and I...I'm so sorry."
"No need to fret. All is well. I seem to have my wits about me now."
She looks at me with the steady gaze of deep guilt. She's seen me at my worst. She knows the wild thing that lives just beneath my skin.
"It won't happen again," she says.
"I wouldn't wager on that," I say steadily. "My disorder is progressing."
"I meant, I won't let you down again," she says, for the first time breaking eye contact and looking away.
"So, am I to stay here another night? I wouldn't mind. It's really no more a prison than that hotel room."
"No. I'm posting bail. But you should know, the manager of the banquet hall is pressing charges."
"I assumed as much. But the trial won't be for a few months. And England extradites at the drop of a hat, so I'm sure they'll let me go back in the meantime."
She looks stunned.
"You want to go home?" she says. "You really don't care...about the charges... or the disease?"
"No, not home. I want to go back to England. Home is where I'm heading minute by minute, without fail. The Cohen's is making sure of that."
She places her hand on the bars.
"I hope it will be a long time before . . . that. I really do hate job hunting."
I put my hand on hers. It feels soft and unreal, like clay.
"You thought I was Moira, didn't you?" she asks, quietly.
"Yes. It was, of course, because I lost my ability to recognize faces and hers is most closely associated with human females in general. It's not the first time that's happened."
"What? Do you mean it's not the first time you've got your women confused, or not the first time you've attacked a maitre d', been thrown behind bars, then lost all your higher brain functions?"
Hearing it told back to me it suddenly seems far funnier than I had realized.
"The banana," I say. "That was clever. Though a bit tacky."
She laughs soundlessly.
"Tonight," she says, "can we please spend the night in?"
A lovely idea. I agree, and as she heads back to the officer to arrange my bail I suddenly notice the smell. The smell that I had noticed as soon as I awoke and had thought was the generic stink of a jail cell. The foul odor that was beginning to sting my nose. It wasn't the cell at all.
It was me.