Love, Madness, and Apes
(A true story in alphabetical order)
Apes, Mating Behavior of
Gibbons are monogamous and bond in pairs. Orangutans are solitary and, for the most part, mate coercively. Males with large cheek pads called flanges are able to attract willing, in-heat females with long mating calls. Unflanged males must search for partners. They force themselves on females they encounter but are unaware the females typically allow this to happen only when they aren’t ovulating. It is theorized this is a female strategy to avoid having offspring with losers. Bonobos pair off for sex at the suggestion of stress or danger.
Business Trip (Day 1)
Why is there a motor home in the driveway? My father was out of town on a business trip. I crossed the lawn and opened the front door of our house. Mom poked her head out from the kitchen. The smell of green peppers hissing and popping in a frying pan wafted toward me. Before she could say anything, a rangy guy with a goatee and a cowboy hat stood up and stepped forward. He came at me with his hand extended to shake. Leslie Lee Edmonson. “LL” or Nevada Slim, if I preferred. Then he leaned toward me, his chest jutting out, and confided that he and my mother were working undercover for the FBI and were in some kind of trouble. They might have to leave town.
Mom met this guy on the Citizens Band radio, the 1970s equivalent of online chat rooms. I was 20 years old and had recently decided to take a break from college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. The financial aid director, who had tried to dissuade me from leaving school, had asked in a mocking tone: don’t your parents care?
We lived four miles from the ocean in central New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen country. His early songs captured the romance and desperation of people wanting to break out of seaside carnival towns and factory jobs.
Eyes (A month before Day 1)
I knelt next to my mom in the living room. She sat in a Barcalounger. Her eyes were baggy and red because she’d been crying every day for a week. She told me she had wanted to leave my dad when I was born but had been afraid because she didn’t know how she would make it on her own. I gave her a hug and looked closely in her eyes. I felt that deep down inside she was crumbling and knew it.
FBI (early Day 2)
LL phoned my father at his hotel at 3 a.m. and told him the same story. Dad subsequently called the FBI to corroborate. They knew of a Leslie Lee Edmonson in connection with a previous matter but denied he or my mom was working for them.
My parents owned a .38 revolver, which always sat in my mom’s desk drawer except for the one time we took it out to the country and found that none of us, including my dad, could hit an empty coffee can from six feet.
Home (afternoon Day 2)
I was relieved to see no motor home in the driveway. I put my key in the lock and stepped inside. It was a split-level house. The front-door entry faced the kitchen with the living room on the left and a staircase leading up to the bedrooms on the right. The drawer of the end table next to the living room sofa was ajar. I kept moving and then noticed something on the floor. I stopped. All the drawers in the living room were open. Their contents had been dumped. A glance toward the kitchen told me the same thing had happened in there. My stomach sank. I swiveled my head toward the staircase until my gaze landed on a pair of eyes staring at me. A sleek dark dog leashed to the banister considered me with a poker face. I bolted from the house.
In a research experiment, a group of chimps was shown a peanut floating in a tube partly filled with water. Initially they couldn’t reach the peanut, but they figured out they could raise the water level by filling their mouths from a nearby dispenser and spitting into the tube. By doing this repeatedly, they were able to lift the peanut and eat it. One chimp urinated in the tube, which also worked. I imagine this fellow peeing with a big grin on his face.
My mom claimed the FBI knew her as Lady Jane.
I had read all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books. One story centered on a future dystopia, which had come about in part because a monkey played with his private parts in public. In this world, ethical suicide was encouraged as a means of controlling overpopulation. To reduce births, citizens took a medication that eliminated all feeling below the waist. The hero convinced virgin women to join an underworld of people who didn’t take the medication, a world he called The Monkey House.
Love from someone who is broken is still love.
I cannot be completely certain of this timeline. I remember episodes, moments, feelings, eyes. Not much in between.
My unprofessional diagnosis of my mother.
Oasis (evening Day 2)
My best friend picked me up and brought me to his house. His mom was a nurse. I remember the gravel crunching underfoot in their driveway as I bumbled an explanation of what had happened. She handed me a pill and said take this. They brought me into their home, which she called The Nest, for a day or two—a crucial act of kindness.
Please and Question (Day 3)
Mom phoned and explained that LL had ransacked the house. She’d been unable to stop him. She asked if I would please clean it up before my father came home. I wanted to say clean up your own mess but just said no.
Road Trip (Day 4)
LL and Mom took off on a six-week road trip. From his credit card bills, my father determined they passed through North Dakota, Canada, Montana, Wyoming, California, Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Texas. When they returned, she lived with LL in the motor home out behind the house of a realtor she used to work for.
A gun can sit in a desk for decades and still work good as new.
I wonder if LL said to Mom, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”
Generally speaking, how I felt toward LL.
Brian is a bonobo who had the bad luck of being born in a primate research center. During his first seven years, female affection was withheld and his father brutalized him. By the time they moved him to the Milwaukee County Zoo, his behaviors were so self-destructive that his keepers called in a human psychiatrist. After four years of painstaking treatment and the companionship of two older bonobos, a 49-year-old deaf and blind female and a 27-year-old male, Brian turned the corner. They stopped Brian’s anti-depressants when they noticed he was sharing them with the other bonobos.
Winter (Day 100)
The weather grew cold in October. I met Mom at the old Howard Johnson’s in Asbury Park. Through the steam on the window next to our booth, we could make out the rain falling on the shuttered arcades and boardwalk. She said LL was getting weird. He kept the temperature in the motor home very low. She said she was going to leave him. She sounded more like her old self than I’d heard in awhile.
Two days later, Leslie Lee Edmonson shot himself with a .38 in the basement of the realtor’s house. My father and I moved my mother into an efficiency apartment on Ocean Avenue in Sea Bright across the road from the sea wall.
Springsteen writes about escape, the last ditch attempt to get out of Dodge, the run for it to make a new beginning. His song “Atlantic City” always reminds me of Mom. It’s a tender feeling, an imagined memory, a comforting placeholder for what I know was our mutual desire to be there for each other, even if we could not.
Empathy is entering into the thoughts and feelings of another through imagination in order to share in their experience. I think of it as focus on the ‘you’ rather than on ‘me’ or ‘I.’ Brian’s psychiatrist credits the empathy of the two older bonobos for Brian’s recovery. Empathy helped me too. I returned to college the following fall intending to focus hard on class work and put family out of my mind. I found my closest friend there had dropped out after suffering a manic episode. He wanted to talk whenever I could. We spent untold hours sitting in diners and pondering every self-doubting question he could think of. I tried to talk him out of the rabbit hole. Eventually I decided to just listen and try to understand him. It felt as though he had fallen and scattered into many pieces that he wasn’t sure he could pick up—the same way Mom’s eyes had looked. But he was still my friend.
I’m peering into the ape house. One sits scratching his balls. Another eats a banana. A third screams at an injustice committed by a fourth. Some are profoundly lost yet still reach out to place their arms around another. Some are straightforward with few needs. Some must wander until they are ready to find a soft spot under a tree in the sun.
Todd Morgan writes short works of fiction and creative non-fiction. He's based in Chicago but is drawn to the ocean in the summer, usually in New Jersey.