"Natural Selection" by 2007 Literary Awards Program Winner, Jacob Appel


Natural Selection

The stolen baboon. On the evening news, she’s an irrelevancy—a simian mug shot tucked between National Hairball Awareness Day and an interview with the Boston Strangler’s children. Six hours later, she’s lounging on the sofa in our living room, smacking together her protruded lips, scratching her back on the damask. Suburban Tampa is apparently far more fun than a lab cage in Atlanta. At Emory, they didn’t have a baby-grand piano to pound with her toes. Or curtains to swing from until the rods collapse. Or a cornucopia of plastic fruit. Pears. Bananas. Pineapple. She pelts these at me, one after another. When the fruit bowl runs dry, she lobs coffee table books, a bouquet of irises crafted from Matsuno beads. Her deep-set eyes look curious and playful; her rhythmic grunting sounds friendly, even gentle. I am in no mood for games. The occasion calls for composure. Damage Control. Later, after Mrs. Bonzo has been returned to sender, there will be time to wring my daughter’s neck.

“This is just unacceptable,” I say. “You’ve crossed a line.”

Tabitha sits with her chin braced on the back of a dining room chair. She is munching on sunflower seeds. Her eyes wander impatiently. I imagine she acts no differently from any other college sophomore, home for spring break, being chewed out by a beleaguered father. Her look is new since Christmas: a torn T-shirt, too large, screen-printed with an iconic Che Guevara. Rope sandals. Matted auburn hair. It strikes me that there is a slight sag to her breasts, a definition to her nipples—my daughter has abandoned her brassiere. All that is fine, of course. I’m a child of the sixties. I’ve described my own father, a professor of jurisprudence, as “well-intentioned” and “hopelessly bourgeois.” If anybody can sympathize with a bit of youthful idealism, it should be me. But this is different. This is a federal crime. According to the legal commentator on channel seven, this may qualify as terrorism.

“Good God, Tabby,” I say. “What were you thinking?”

“Do you know what they were going to do to her?” demands Tabitha. “They were going to cut her spinal cord. Intentionally. On the off chance they might be able to reattach it later.”

“So you had to steal her?”

“Liberate her,” retorts Tabitha. “How would you feel if somebody paralyzed you for their own amusement?”

I recognize the matter is far more complex than this—that the research at Emory, whatever its drawbacks, is not being conducted whimsically. They say the experiments may help quadriplegics walk again. I’m a conservation biologist. I have no way of knowing whether they are correct. Nor is this a matter I want to get into while a stolen baboon is beating the stuffing from my pillows.

“So you appropriated her,” I say, neutrally. “You had to bring her home?”

“Her name’s Kidogo. It means ‘little one’ in Swahili.”

The baboon, as though on cue, sweeps across the coffee table and topples the stand of fire pokers. She appears to be grinning.

I ignore the mounting damage as best I can. I feel like the musicians performing with equanimity as the Titanic goes under.

“Couldn’t one of your friends take her home?” I ask, desperately.

“They took the rabbits and the rats.”

“Of course,” I say. “The rabbits and the rats.”

“It was a big operation,” explains Tabitha. “We had only one chance.”

A big operation—I picture them sporting ski masks, secretly stockpiling rabbit feed and carambolas. “The Great Train Robbery” meets Watership Down.

I’m not sure how to respond to all this. Tabitha has always been a good girl, studious, top of her class. Pretty, too, like her mother was. Large eyes. Delicate chin. The truth is—at some point even a widowed father of an only daughter must admit this—boys like her. They want her. Enough to send roses, unsolicited letters. They throw pebbles at her bedroom window, beg short strolls to bare their hearts. I suspect some are luckier than others. That’s her business. I’ve never asked. But then something like this happens, a case study in calamitous judgment, and you question how you’ve been so lax. At fifty-eight, I find it hard to understand why a popular, apolitical girl suddenly risks her future for the welfare of a gelada baboon.

“I could lose my job for this,” I say. “We could go to jail.”

Kidogo finds this amusing. She yanks a photograph from the wall, one of the prints I shot while rafting the Amazon. The picture sails over our heads. Its glass frame shatters against the mahogany sideboard.

Tabitha is now sobbing. She’s driven straight through the night—she must be exhausted to the bone. Her bags are still in the Plymouth.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” she says. “You don’t understand. I had to.”

“I know,” I say, soothingly. “I’m sure you did.”

****

Not certain is why Charles Robert Darwin, my relative and namesake, started scribbling the journal entries that would become The Origin of Species. I was pondering this very question—a matter central to my manuscript—when Tabitha, who happens to be his great-great-grand niece, arrived with the baboon.

A bit about my book: It will be entitled Darwin on Darwin. It is part of a series. They’ve already put out Clement Freud on his grandfather, and the anthropologist Selma Einstein-Loewenthal on her cousin, Albert. The volume wasn’t my idea. I am writing at the urging of Francine Garvey, who teaches with me in the department of biology. Francine is the planet’s foremost authority on ivory-billed woodpeckers. She searches for them, every spring, in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. There is a strong possibility that the birds—last sighted in 1987—have gone extinct. There is also a possibility that Francine is Tabitha’s future stepmother. This last part, Tabitha doesn’t know. Nor, though she carries his genes, has “Uncle Charlie” ever drawn my daughter’s interest.

Back to Darwin. One theory contends that he suffered, after the age of thirty-five, from a panic disorder. The naturalist experienced “uncomfortable palpitations of the heart,” also a fear he was “going mad.” He shunned social engagements—preferring, instead, to read Thomas Malthus and to correspond with authorities on animal husbandry. The recent Cambridge graduate who boarded the HMS Beagle in 1831 was a gregarious dandy distinguished by his passion for hunting, shooting and cards. By 1845, he was somber and reclusive. According to psychiatric authorities, an acute shock or stress often precedes the onset of such chronic, debilitating anxiety. A chief suspect in this case: The death of Darwin’s daughter, Mary Eleanor.

****

Tabitha falls asleep in the living room and I carry her upstairs. It’s been at least a decade since I’ve cradled my daughter’s body like this, a lifetime since I’ve tucked the flannel blanket around her delicate shoulders. Her heft surprises me. She’s added pounds since grade school, a “freshman fifteen” on top of her “adolescent fifty.” Sleeping, she seems to weigh extra—like a lifeless kitten. I adjust the pillows under her head, drawing the knotted bangs from her eyes. I kiss her on the forehead. Downstairs, I hear Kidogo barking sharply. I can also hear the television: an inopportune rerun, the late Marlin Perkins introducing Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Our baboon is no lucky monkey. She’s tuned to “Leopards of the Serengeti.” Now she’s terrified, flipping her black lips, emitting high-pitched wails. Serves her right, I think.

My next step is baboon-proofing the house. For this, there’s no twelve-step program, no Primate Management for Dummies. You have to learn on the job, build sequentially like Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson. It’s part science, part art—for both of us. We discover she’s too heavy to use the chandeliers as vines, gifted at finger-painting with feces. Initially, I’d kept her off the enclosed terrace, afraid her clamor might draw attention from the neighbors. That was a mistake, I see now. Keeping her in the living room, even overnight, is impossible. Kidogo’s temporary home will have to be the side porch, though this means replacing the screens with storm windows. The job takes two hours—including twenty minutes icing the thumb I’ve crushed in the stepladder. Around dawn, I nail a heavy chenille bedspread over the glass. This will keep Kidogo hidden from view. (Unfortunately, it will also keep out the light—everything except for a glimmer of day at the edges of the cloth. There’s no choice. I cannot risk Kidogo alone with electric cords, lightbulbs.) It takes nearly another hour, and a dozen frozen grapes, to lure the baboon onto the darkened veranda.

When I wake up around noon, Tabitha is already gone. She’s left a plate of toast crusts and a quarter glass of milk on the kitchen table. She’s also left a note:

GONE TO LUNCH AND A MOVIE.

PLEASE TAKE CARE OF KIDOGO.

LUV U. TAB

PS: CAN YOU GET HER CUCUMBERS & GRASSHOPPERS?

The baboon, mercifully, is still asleep. She’s managed to topple the vintage telephone cabinet we inherited from my mother-in-law, and she’s cuddled against its side, her head propped on an aquamarine vinyl hatbox. I tiptoe back into the kitchen, sliding shut the porch door behind me. Still in my bathrobe and slippers, I retrieve the morning paper from the front yard. It’s cool for April. There’s a breeze blowing off the Gulf. The frangipani have unfurled their tricolors, dancing over an ocean of white gardenias. This should be an afternoon spent in the flower beds, transplanting day lilies, pruning tea roses. Unfortunately, the lead headline in Tribune reads, FBI: NO MONKEY BUSINESS IN LAB HEIST. Kidogo is also the top story on public radio, the midday TV news. A combination of national politics and human interest. Fortified, of course, by images of cuddly animals. The Berkeley-based “Animals First” has claimed responsibility. They’ve offered to barter Kidogo for a testing moratorium. The Attorney General has derided the perpetrators as “a fifth column of the Eco-Taliban.”

Kidogo raps on the porch door. When I draw open the glass, she vaults from the folding table onto my shoulder; another jump lands her atop the refrigerator. She inspects me closely as I go about my business. We are out of instant coffee. Also cucumbers, grasshoppers. “You’ll have to settle for bananas and water,” I say. Kidogo pokes her nose forward and clutches the air with her hands. I suddenly feel guilty, as though I’m running a primate penitentiary. “Okay, okay,” I say. “I’ll go get you something. But you’re going to wait on the porch.” It’s not that easy, of course. I don’t want to draw suspicion, so I can’t buy too many supplies at one location. By the time I return—my Saturn loaded with unbreakable mirrors, miniature tires, commercial primate food—Tabitha’s Plymouth is already parked in the driveway.

My daughter’s crouched on the porch, slapping around a ball with the baboon. It’s a lightweight, rainbow beachball. She’s dressed Kidogo in one of my cotton T-shirts. The shirt has DARWIN FAMILY REUNION emblazoned across the chest. I imagine my daughter finds this amusing.

“You had no business going out like that,” I say.

“What was I supposed to do? It was the first day of spring break. Don’t you think my friends would have gotten suspicious?”

I hadn’t thought of it this way. “That’s not the point.”

Tabitha claps the baboons hands together several times; afterwards, Kidogo repeats the clapping gesture unassisted. “She’s very smart,” says Tabitha.

“We can’t go on like this,” I warn her. “This is an untenable situation.”

Tabitha looks up at me, pleading. “We’ll keep her hidden. Nobody will know.”

“Sweet Jesus, Tabby. She’s practically destroyed the house. How am I supposed to invite people over?”

“You don’t have people over anyway,” she says.

“I do, sometimes,” I insist. “Hasn’t it even crossed your mind that I might be dating again? That I might have a girlfriend?”

Tabitha hugs the beachball to her chest. “No,” she answers. “It hasn’t.” This isn’t an objection, I understand—simply an observation. And the truth is that I’m not dating, that I haven’t dated in the eight years since Annie drowned. Francine Garvey isn’t a girlfriend. She’s merely a prospect.

“There’s a nationwide monkey hunt going on, Tabby. Do you understand how serious this is? You have to take her back.”

“I do understand how serious this is,” she answers.

Kidogo raises herself on her hind legs, sniffing. Tabitha tosses her a piece of sliced mango.

“Maybe we could leave her somewhere,” I suggest. “After all this attention, they won’t dare hurt her.”

“You don’t know the first thing about baboons, do you?” retorts Tabitha. She says this as though it’s the most degrading putdown. “She’ll find her way back.”

“To Atlanta?”

“To here, Dad. Baboons have homing instincts, sort of like pigeons. Anywhere you take her, she’ll lead the F.B.I. right to your door.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I say. “We can’t be stuck with her forever.”

I frown at the baboon. She responds by squeezing the mango slice in her fist, letting the juice ooze between her fingers. Then—without warning—she jumps into my arms. Her nose is only inches from mine. She apparently wants to rub them together. Her long fingers grab at my face, leaving a fruity thumbprint on my glasses. I am suddenly nervous, overwhelmed. I recognize this feeling. I’ve known it before. It is being the parent of a young child. Against my better judgment, I rock Kidogo in my arms.

“What do you know about an organization called Animals First?” I ask Tabitha.

She shrugs. “Never heard of them.”

“I didn’t think so,” I say.

I keep rocking. The baboon gurgles like a baby.

****

My great-granduncle’s forty-three year marriage to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, was repeatedly marred by tragedy. Only seven of their ten children survived to adulthood. Mary Eleanor, as I’ve mentioned, died of diphtheria in 1842. Her death coincided with her father’s retreat from Victorian society. During the next seven years, the naturalist expanded his trove of display beetles, at its time the most impressive entomological collection in Europe, and penned an obscure treatise about barnacles. His ideas on natural selection remained private. They were heretical, after all. Unlawful. Moreover, Darwin was a communicant of the Church of England. He’d studied theology at Christ’s Church. A publicity-shy ex-divinity student, particularly one dependant on a government fellowship, wasn’t a good candidate to radicalize “the species problem.” But then his daughter, ten year old Anne Elizabeth, succumbed to tuberculosis. Annie’s death drove her father to atheism. His notes on natural selection rapidly became the most widely kept secret in England.

Darwin argued for gradual evolution. In recent years, a competing school of thought led by the late Harvard geologist Stephen Jay Gould has championed ‘punctuated equilibrium’—the theory that change occurs in sudden bursts. That has certainly been the case for me. Tabitha’s birth catapulted me into adulthood. My own Annie’s death—dragged off by a riptide at forty-seven—reordered my priorities. Ballet recitals and trick-or-treating rose in the pecking order; botany expeditions fell off the map. And now a third transformation. Kidogo. I watch her playing dress-up with Tabitha. They are working through my daughter’s childhood wardrobe. This afternoon, the baboon’s decked out in a blue dress with anchors embroidered on the shoulders. A red neck bandanna. A sailor’s cap. She looks a bit like Ethel Merman in Anything Goes. Tabitha holds the mirror for her, letting her poke at her reflection with long, pointy fingers. I haven’t seen my daughter so happy since Annie’s death. I’ve been watching her all week. I’ve accomplished nothing on my manuscript. I haven’t even returned Francine’s phone calls. Six days ago, my future looked as clear as the horizon: writing, gardening, excursions on the Gulf in Francine’s speedboat. Now, who knows? I try not to think about what we’ll do with the baboon when Tabitha returns to school.

In one way, Darwin had it right. I’d die for Tabitha. I’d kill for Tabitha. It’s impossible for me to understand surviving the loss of a child. Maybe that is why writing about my great-granduncle brings me to tears. He did not attend the reading of his seminal paper, The Origin of Species, at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858. His favorite son, Charles Waring, had died of scarlet fever three days before.

****

I read the headlines on the Sunday Tribune with relief. Every morning we’ve been the lead story: NO LIGHT ON MONKEYSHINES; ALL POINTS BANANAS IN BABOON HUNT. Fortunately, there’s been an apocalyptic earthquake in Peru over the weekend, and the governor of Florida’s confessed to cross-dressing, so we’re out of the paper. That’s how it works on the Gulf Coast. Either you’re page one, or you’re yesterday’s news. The rest is all sports, obits, crime blotter. That’s usually frustrating. Today, it’s a gift from the gods. I shuffle back into the house, feeling as though I’ve knocked the scythe from death’s arms. “You may be home free yet, you dumb baboon,” I announce. “Papayas on the house! What do you say to that?”

Tabitha stumbles down the stairs, rubbing her eyes. It is early afternoon. Caring for a two year old baboon has addled our sleep cycles. “What’s going on?”

I hand her the newspaper. “Our fifteen minutes of fame are over,” I say.

I’ve already done a calculus in my head: It took them eighteen years to catch the Unabomber, twenty-one to nab the Jackal. The Zodiac Killer is still on the lamb. Comparatively, we’re small potatoes. To celebrate, I peel the skin off a cucumber. That’s when I’m struck by the silence from the porch. No pounding. No wailing. Not so much as one guttural moan.

I slide open the screen door, still carrying the cucumber.

“Kidogo!” I shout. “What the hell——?”

She’s gone, of course. The hatbox stands atop the ironing board, an improvised stepstool, and the bedspread has been torn from its perch. During the night, Kidogo has managed to unscrew one of the storm windows. They don’t call baboons “mimic monkeys” for nothing. All those hours watching me work with the phillips head, she was bound to pick up the basics of carpentry. Outside, a soft breeze flutters the magnolias. A pair of purple gallinules cavort beside the canal. In the distance loom the shorefront highrises, hostile concrete watchtowers. Tracking a baboon around Tampa Bay would be both foolhardy and futile.

I sit down at the kitchen table, unnerved. Tabitha combs the porch, peeking behind lawn chairs and under stacks of plywood. “Maybe she’s just hiding,” she pleads. “Maybe she’s playing a game.” Her eyes are glazed, slightly bloodshot. Pillow stuffing hangs in her hair. My daughter looks as though her home has just been blown away by an unexpected hurricane. “Kidogo!” she cries. “Kidogo!”

“Don’t. The neighbors will hear.”

Tabitha kicks aside two badminton rackets. “Who the hell cares?”

I cross the kitchen and hug my daughter; she practically collapses into my arms. And then the buzzer sounds. Twice. A pause. Three times. I gently push Tabitha back onto her feet. Through the living room curtains, I see two state troopers standing in the portico. One is short with a small nose, protruding ears. His tall, broad companion boasts a chiseled jaw and an overhung brow. They look like toy soldiers plucked off different rungs of the evolutionary ladder. Both men have orange blossoms, the Florida state flower, pinned to their lapels. Uneasily, I inch open the door.

“Good morning, officers,” I say. I sense Tabitha behind me in the shadows. My instinct is to obstruct the entryway, to shield her from view.

“Sorry to bother you,” says the shorter trooper. He bears a striking resemblance, I realize, to a marmoset. “We’re looking for a missing baboon.”

What a coincidence, I think. I can feel the blood in my temples.

“We’ve had several sightings this morning,” continued Officer Marmoset. “You haven’t seen anything, have you?” He passes me a photograph of the wanted animal—as though to distinguish Kidogo from other baboons afoot in Southwest Florida.

Officer Gorilla looks bored. He tests the strength of the porch swing, pokes at the wasp nest above the drainpipe with a stick.

I shrug at the photo. “I’d remember that face,” I say.

Marmoset nods agreeably. “Well if you see anything.”

“Of course, of course.”

We’re in the clear. At least for the moment. I flash a plastic smile, gradually inching shut the door. That’s when Gorilla takes a sudden wasp sting on the thumb.

“Fuck!” shouts Gorilla. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” The trooper wrings his oversized hand, trying to shake away the pain. As the initial throb recedes, he grins sheepishly. “Sorry about that,” he apologizes. “Think I could use your john?”

I have no choice. I direct Gorilla to the downstairs bathroom. Marmoset stands in the foyer, examining the broken chandelier and the overturned hat rack. “You redecorating?” he asks.

“We had a bit of a row,” I answer. “All over now.”

“I’ve got the world’s worst temper,” adds Tabitha.

Marmoset ambles to the cherrywood letter table. He picks up a partially peeled banana and examines it suspiciously. I realize I am still brandishing the vegetable knife and the naked cucumber. The trooper turns to Tabitha. “You in school?” he asks.

She nods.

I’m afraid he’ll ask where. Emory is ground zero in the baboon saga. Instead, he says: “Funny time to leave bananas out, isn’t it? With a wild monkey on the loose.”

It seems he’s toying with us. Now’s the time, I know, to shout for Tabitha to flee. It’s two against one. If I take Marmoset by surprise—tackle him from the side—she might make it. But my daughter’s in no condition to escape. She’s wearing thin cotton pajamas dappled with miniature teddy bears. These make her look girlish, innocent. Not the outfit I want my daughter displaying for the neighbors. Or even Florida’s Finest. That’s when I realize Officer Marmoset isn’t playing detective. He’s flirting with my daughter.

Marmoset grins at his banana remark. “That was a joke,” he explains.

“I hope your partner’s okay,” I say. “I feel dreadful.”

I hear Gorilla shut off the bathroom faucet. He returns, his thumb wrapped in toilet tissue. “What’s with the primate food?” he asks.

I’ve realize I’ve left the feed sack under the sink.

“I’m on a diet,” I say. “Anti-Atkins.” I pat my stomach for effect.

Gorilla frowns. “Mind if we look around a bit?” he asks.

I try to conceal the knife and cucumber behind my back. “We’re actually on our way to a out,” I stammer. “Maybe later.”

“Maybe later,” echoes Gorilla. “Maybe we’ll bring a warrant.”

He gives the foyer a once-over as he departs. Marmoset follows, offering Tabitha an apologetic smile. “I guess we’ll see you later,” he says.

I push shut the door. Nausea is building in my throat. With our narrow escape comes a violent recognition of my own stupidity. How could I possibly hope to conceal a stolen baboon on my veranda? How could I take such risks with Tabitha’s future? Kidogo’s disappearance—any way you look at it—is a blessing. “Let’s clean this place up,” I say. “Before they come back.”

Tabitha’s teeth are chattering. “What’s that?” she asks.

There’s no mistaking it. A hard knock at the back door. How could I have underestimated Marmoset and Gorilla? Surprise is on their side.

I’m ready to fess up and beg for mercy. I’ll plead guilty, if they’ll drop the charges against Tabitha. That seems fair. It’s unnecessary, of course. Marmoset and Gorilla are not on the back steps. It’s Kidogo. Returned. Offering me a hug and a sprig of orange blossoms.

****

Many philosophers before Darwin had noted the brutality of the natural world, the struggle between the lion and the lamb. What made Darwin’s work so original was his focus on conflict within a single species. He wrote about finches competing with finches, relative mating advantages among crabs. Survival of the fittest. The most cynical of all biological theories. A direct contrast to Lamarck’s optimistic claim that animals’ traits reflect “inner longings” for perfection. One cannot help wondering what set the man’s thinking down this pessimistic path.

Two recent biographies emphasize the death of Darwin’s mother, Susannah, when the naturalist was only eight. The boy may have developed the seeds of his theory while watching his five siblings, and numerous cousins, compete for the attentions of his widowed father. Interestingly, several studies link genius with the early death of a parent. Newton, Dante and Copernicus all lost parents before the age of seven. This childhood tragedy may also be advantageous from an evolutionary viewpoint. Such a death forces the other parent to be more careful, take fewer risks. I’ve found that to be the case with me since Annie died. I’ve quit smoking. I won’t go up with Francine in her Cessna. I refuse to collect specimens in the Colombian Cordillera. What choice do I have? Tabitha needs me. The death of a second parent, from the perspective of an individual organism, is an evolutionary calamity.

****

Our window of opportunity is narrow. The monkey squad may return at any moment, armed with a warrant and a tranquilizer gun. I recognize that the situation demands parenting of the unpopular, bullet-biting sort.

“I’ve made a decision,” I say. Tabitha is cheerful again, bathing Kidogo’s soft black fur in the kitchen sink. We’ve learned the hard way that baboons need regular washing, particularly their rumps and the coarse tufts at the tips of their tails. They cannot be toilet-trained and possess a knack for peeling off diapers. “Please, Tabby. Hear me out.”

Tabitha wipes the baboon’s nape with a washcloth. “I’m not taking her back,” she says, sharply. “I’d rather go to jail.”

“Nobody is asking you to take her back,” I say. “But she can’t stay. You know that. You have to go to school and I have to go back to work. If those cops find her here, it will ruin our lives.”

My daughter eyes me apprehensively. Kidogo splashes suds onto the countertop.

“I have a colleague,” I explain. “She owns a speedboat. She’s willing to run the baboon down the coast into Cuba. Or to give it a shot, at least.”

“When?”

“Tonight.” I’m clenching my fists behind my back, hoping this works. “She’ll let her loose on the coast. Near Puerto Esperanza. What do you say?”

“I love her,” says Tabitha. “It’s not fair.”

She’s already lost her mother. It tears me apart to watch her go through this again. “I can’t see any other way, honey. Trust me.”

Tabitha slumps into a kitchen chair, cupping her coffee mug in both palms. She pours chocolate syrup into the coffee. I watch as the syrup oozes glacially from the jar and as my daughter stirs the concoction, then licks off the spoon. “What if I say yes?” she finally asks.

“That’s the end of it,” I say. “I take her down to the marina and tomorrow morning she wakes up across the water. Baboons can’t swim, can they?” Tabitha doesn’t smile at this jest, so I add: “Francine knows people in Cuba. I’m sure she’ll be looked after. Safer than risking recapture around here.”

“I guess,” says Tabitha. “Can I come with you to the boat?”

I shake my head. “Best not,” I say. “Someone has to straighten this place up before the return of the monkey wardens.” I’m not thrilled about leaving Tabitha alone with Officer Marmoset, particularly with Gorilla as chaperone—but the alternative is leaving a trail of coconut shells and citrus rinds that leads straight to Alcatraz. Or Guantanamo. Or wherever they torture monkeynappers. “And Tabby,” I say, “put on some real clothes before they come back.”

“Yes, Dad.” Tabitha’s tone is sarcastic. She’s unused to being parented.

I smile and squeeze my daughter’s hand. “Now say your goodbyes.”

Kidogo has been churning up a storm in the sink. She’s already made projectiles of the paper towel dispenser and the plastic drain board, and now she’s applauding by smacking two Brillo pads together. The baboon snorts merrily. Tabitha lifts her out of the sink by the armpits.

“Should I pack some toys for her?” asks Tabitha.

“They have toys in Cuba.”

“Just a few,” says Tabitha. “For the trip.”

My daughter darts to the porch. She returns with several fluorescent rings, a rubber pumpkin, a stringy velvet orangutan. Meanwhile, I retrieve my own supplies: my spare gardening gloves, a handful of mangoes, a bottle of valium. I use one of the mangoes to lure the baboon down to the garage and into the trunk of the Saturn.

“It’ll just be for few minutes,” I apologize. “She’ll have plenty of air.”

Tabitha leans into the trunk. She rubs noses with Kidogo, scratches the sensitive skin behind her ears. “I’ll love you always,” she says. “I promise.”

My daughter draws back her head. I slam the trunk lid like a guillotine.

We stand inches apart in the hot stillness of the garage. Around us rest the relics of Tabitha’s childhood: a warped ping-pong table folded on its side, a pogo stick, an iron cabinet stocked with board games, the husks of several cardboard dioramas. There are also dented metal trashcans, Annie’s easel. The air smells of mulch. And now a three year old Saturn sedan with a baboon locked in its trunk. Until I drive away. I guess that’s what happens to all childhoods. They’re carted away, piece by piece, until nothing remains.

“One thing,” I say. “About your companions in crime. Rabbits and rats. They won’t break down and confess, will they?”

Tabitha cast her eyes toward the floor. She shakes her head.

“You sure, Tabby?”

“I didn’t have any companions,” she says. Her voice is hardly audible. “I let the rabbits and rats out in the park. It was the best I could do.”

“You mean you did this on your own?”

“I read about the experiments on-line. I had to do something.”

“On your own,” I say again.

“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”

I place my thumb under her chin and raise her head. “I love you, Tabby,” I say. “Far more than you love that baboon. Never forget that.”

“Make sure she’s safe.”

“I will,” I promise. “Now clean up the house. We’ll have plenty of time later to discuss your life of crime.”

Tabby smiles.

I press the garage door opener, flooding us with sunlight. I wave at my daughter as I pull the Saturn down the driveway. I’ve never been so proud of her in my life.

****

It’s around 4:30 pm when I arrive at the Pelican Cove Marina. The attendant, Ike, is a jovial retiree with a full white beard. He knows me well. Several years ago, I helped get his granddaughter admitted to the state university at Gainesville, so when he hears that I’ve planned a romantic surprise for Francine—an unqualified fabrication—he’s delighted to loan me the spare keys to her speedboat. So far, so good. I pull the King Woody II out into the channel. A shirtless teenager is feeding mackerel to the cormorants on a nearby jetty. The fat birds squawk and tussle over fish. Already, the sun is dipping toward a pink horizon, playing cat-and-mouse with a bank of innocent clouds. When I clear the harbor, I open the throttle and hug the mangroves until I reach a thoroughly secluded patch of sand. It’s an abandoned loading dock at the end of a lane of ground seashells. That’s where I’ve left the Saturn. That’s where Kidogo waits for me.

I pop the trunk. The baboon peers tentatively over the side, her eyes adjusting to the blinding light. When she sees me approaching, she bellows a series of high-pitched chirps. This is a good sign. The equivalent of tail-wagging in dogs.

“None of that,” I warn her. “We’ll have to gag you.”

She jumps into my arms and snuggles her nose against mine. Within minutes, we’re out on the open water.

To the south lies Cuba. Three hundred miles. To the west is open water, the Dry Tortugas, Mexico. “I’m going to miss you, you dumb baboon.”

My eyes are tearing up. Kidogo frowns in sympathy.

“You have to understand,” I explain. “It’s nothing personal.” We are soon out of sight of the shoreline, cruising fast. “I have no choice,” I add.

I don’t have a choice. I’ve thought it all through. Calling Francine isn’t an option—I understand that now. She has her own priorities. She’d want no part of this. And Cuba? Far too much risk. I’d get caught. And how could I possibly explain smuggling this baboon out of Florida in a way that wouldn’t implicate Tabitha? That wouldn’t threaten her future?

“I’m not happy with my decision,” I say. “But I can live with it.”

I feed Kidogo one final mango, slice by slice. I’ve taken care to embed a handful of valium in the fruit. She drifts off to sleep with the dusk. I slide my hands into my gardening gloves and firmly close them around her throat.

****

Gelada baboons are native to the Horn of Africa. Although Darwin discusses them in the Origin of Species, he relies upon first-hand observations of other naturalists. His own research focuses on finches, tortoises, and mockingbirds. These he gathers, week after week, while the Beagle island-hops through the Galapagos. He does not yet recognize that different species inhabited different islands. He stores his specimens together, unmarked, in one large bag. The significance of the finches’ beaks, some blunt, some stout, some pointy, is, for the moment, entirely lost upon him.

The winter the Beagle leaves London, Charles Darwin is only twenty. That’s my daughter’s age. Years will pass before he figures out what’s important.

Jacob M. Appel’s eighty published short stories have appeared in such journals as Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Nebraska Review, Southwest Review, StoryQuarterly, Threepenny Review and West Branch. His prose has won the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction, the North American Review‘s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, the Missouri Review‘s Editor’s Prize, the Sycamore Review‘s Wabash Prize, and a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Grant. His story, “Counting,” was short-listed for the O. Henry Award in 2001; “The Butcher’s Music” was selected as one of the Best American Short Stories‘ “Distinguished Stories” of 2006. Other stories have received “special mention” for the Pushcart Prize in each of the previous two years. Jacob has taught most recently at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City. He can be found at www.jacobmappel.com.

2 Comments

  1. Katie

    This is fantastic: accessible, lovely and surprising. Perfect choice for winner of the 2007 Awards Program. Thanks for letting me read.

    Reply
  2. Katie

    Wonderful! Unique, true and accessible. I can see why this piece won this year’s Award. Congratulations, Mr. Appel!

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *