This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2009

Fiction: Five Pounds Short and Apologies to Nelson Algren

Mike Spry

Creative Commons photo by Jason Scragz

Creative Commons photo by Jason Scragz

No one ever tells you not to fuck the monkey. Fuck with the monkey. Get fucked by the monkey. The monkey is filled with a selfish wrath, a vengeful will, a self-loathing so encompassing it eats at the fabric of others. And the preaching and questionable advice. The late nights and empty rooms. Bent over some bar, your face in a warm puddle of bile and ochre elixirs, the monkey with one paw on your head, the other angrily massaging your ego, your history. There was a moment there, not too long ago, long enough for affection, but close enough for regret, when the monkey was absent. But then came February. Bitter, twisted, poor-self-esteem-ridden February, with its aborted 28-day life and that Hallmark holiday tossed into the middle for good measure. Like memory and monkeys, I’ve never trusted February, never will.

I’ve lost before. I’m good at it. Kids dream of gold medals and first place. I fantasized about fourth place, and certificates of participation. And at the time, the time without the monkey, I was happy in fourth, even had kind afternoons when third felt possible. But then Dad died. Dad had once told me that love lasts about 10 minutes, and if you’re lucky you’re not wearing pants for the second five. There’s something humbling in my memories of my father. Memories riddled in prophecy. And January got shorter, and shorter. And my right upper back started to miss its inhabitant. And before I could find community-centre basements, cold coffee and familiar strangers, I found what I knew, my past. I turned to the monkey.

I got my 30-pound monkey when I was about 16. I’d like to say that I ordered him from an ad in the back of a comic book, because I’m old enough to remember when you could order exotic items like 30-pound monkeys from ads in the backs of comic books. Part of a simpler life. At least then I could blame Marvel or DC instead of myself. I wonder if you can still order stuff from the backs of comic books. I don’t read them anymore, of course, so I wouldn’t know. I still wonder though. But him? I got the 30-pound monkey from a scratch-and-win ticket in a case of 50. Stubbies. Because I’m old enough to remember stubbies. First prize was a hot tub. Second prize was a 30pound monkey. Third prize was a Hyundai Sonata. I wonder if the other winners have had as many problems with their prizes. I wonder if they still have them. The hot tub I can see, the Hyundai not so much.

When I was younger, I would just play with my 30-pound monkey on weekends. My friends seemed to like me more with the 30-pound monkey around. Even the hot girls, the untouchables, suddenly began to pay some attention. I give the 30pound monkey all the credit for my first blow job. Jill Henley. After that I began to take my 30-pound monkey everywhere. Made me wonder about how he had filled his time without me. Maybe swimming lessons, because all of a sudden one day he could backstroke like nobody’s business. But I think he just waited for me, patience being a virtue of the monkey. Friends said I looked better with the monkey around, better groomed. I explained that I had to be clean-shaven around my 30-pound monkey; a full beard reminded him of a difficult past, of his father. He didn’t like to talk about it. Man, did he get me laid during university, that 30-pound monkey did. For four years I was the charming, suave, confident, mysterious guy with the 30-pound monkey on his back. I was all the things I’m not, all the shit I’ll never be. The girls loved it. He never seemed to want anything in return. He was selfless, seemed to live for my wants and needs alone.

And then we were supposed to part ways and journey into adulthood and careers and promise. The weeks were filled with cubicle nightmares and simian dreams. Everybody disappeared into their lives, faded into the background, tucked in their shirts, cut their hair and said goodbye. I guess we grew up. Or they grew up. Me and my 30-pound monkey had no such intentions. We resisted the temptations of cellphone leashes and bleeding ulcers, talk of divorce and golf. This was a new world, where a man and his 30-pound monkey were no longer kings, but rather unwanted fools. How does it happen? How does it change? You try to be a fucking adult with a 30pound monkey whispering, We don’t need these people; we don’t need anyone, in your goddamn ear all night. You end up alone, that’s what fucking happens, at some bar at the end of the night arguing the merits of Darwinism in an empty room. There’s nothing sadder than an old man and his 30-pound monkey slurring their way through evolution at the end of the bar. It’s how we end up here.

I started relishing that time alone, the solitude, the distance. Fuck people, we’d say and stay in and drink two-fours of 50 (just for nostalgia’s sake) and watch Every Which Way but Loose on DVD. I bought him the B.J. and the Bear box set but he found it offensive. Not as a simian, but apparently there’s something about Greg Evigan that really pisses him off. I could always cheer him up by reading him H.A. Rey’s biography, or watching Terry Gilliam movies. For a while this life was good. For a while I thought I was happy, rid of those who failed to see the beauty of a clean-shaven man and his 30-pound monkey.

You don’t really notice when it turns. I’d like to think I could look back and pinpoint an exact moment, but I can’t. We stopped watching movies, stopped trying to find work. We’d just sit around and drink, masturbate and argue. There was no happiness in this life, just anger, resentment. I couldn’t get my 30-pound monkey to wear pants anymore. “Put on a goddamn pair of slacks,” I’d scream at him through a hazy, thick, depressing room. But he’d just carry on pantsless, make fun of me for using the word slacks. Nothing wrong with saying slacks. I’m old enough to remember when people actually said slacks. Maybe they say trousers now. I would still say slacks, though, but damn if I could get my 30-pound monkey in a pair.

Oddly enough, he’d wear panties. Loved panties. Anything with lace or frills. Only problem is he would tend to nibble at their edges, so while he would wear panties, he’d usually eat his way out of them within an hour. So I’d find myself at LaSenza Girl every other weekend, restocking his supply. I think the staff started to be suspicious of my buying patterns. One day I noticed them snickering behind the counter, and I wasn’t in a particularly good mood — the 30-pound monkey and I had been up railing codeine and drinking gin ’til our eyes bled, so the sight of these whored-up mall workers laughing at me sent me into a rage and I started throwing all the panties and bras I could get my hands on at them and screaming, “You don’t get it, girls, I’ve got a half-naked 30-pound monkey at home.” Fuck them, fuck mall security, and fuck community service.

That was the bottom, I’d have to assume, from what I can remember. At that point I was drowning in the dregs. The 30-pound monkey, of course, was fine, gracefully backstroking along the surface. This was when I met Sara. Sara is my wife. Was my wife. I had seen her from across the bar one night. I was filled with the monkey’s confidence. I told her, “I have no money and very little promise. But one day I’d like to buy you a house.” We shared the rest of my cigarette and were married four months later. The church was Unitarian and her mother never showed. Sara painted sometimes. I wrote country songs about her in the garage after she’d gone to sleep. She was an insomniac, but she hadn’t told me. She liked the secret. I guess I found out at some point. We would have liked to have one day owned a dog, and named it Oldham after her late father. I never met her father. Neither had she, but sometimes she said she imagined him. Slowly, she convinced me I could do without the 30-pound monkey. Oh, he fought a good fight, even threw on jogging pants on occasion and a Baby Gap T-shirt, stopped putting out cigarettes in my hair and whispering devious things I could do to Sara while she slept. But Sara won out, and the 30-pound monkey crawled begrudgingly off my back, packed his bits of panties and an autographed Mickey Dolenz eight-by-ten and left.

Or maybe he never left. Maybe he was just hiding in the closet, chewing on Sara’s underwear and waiting for an opportunity to return. Some nights I would wake up screaming about panties and monkeys and Clint Eastwood. Sara would ease me back into sleep with her soft, caressing hands and whispers of better days. Sometimes I’d find myself at the liquor store, looking for him in the sweet caramel diamond reflections of competing Scotch bottles. Sometimes I’d walk by a bar that struck me with some odd degree of familiarity, and I’d hear a laughter I’d think was mine coming from inside. Sara would pull me past, take me to safer places, without laughter and without my 30-pound monkey. Maybe she got tired of playing that role, mothering a grown man, of feeling second place to an absent 30pound monkey whose friendship she could never live up to. Maybe I forced her away, making it easier for me to find the monkey again. Maybe it’s the monkey I love, because his pants are always off, and that’s true love, isn’t it?

So she left. She said, “I deserve to make mistakes too. But one day I’d like to make up for them.” We divided the cutlery, and she moved into a loft two neighbourhoods over. I stayed in the apartment and thought about moving and changing and dogs and things of that nature, but mostly I feared the monkey. I took to sedatives and a youngish waitress from the local. The monkey was somewhere close, always somewhere close. I had taken to long walks, and often asked for rain. I rarely went to work, and the apartment likely needed to be painted. The monkey called and offered to help. He came over, but instead of colour palettes brought beer. We fell down to some bar we had never been to, settled into bourbon and old habits, tried to kill Sara’s memory. But even bourbon can’t kill, it can only bring you closer to him, or closer to here.

Which brings us back to February, hollow chocolate hearts, three suspiciously missing days and bowls of Scotch for breakfast. And Dad’s gone. And Sara’s gone. And I’m sitting in my emptied, unpainted living room with a bottle or two or three or 10 and the 30-pound monkey is in my bedroom unpacking his things and I’m thinking can it really be this easy, to give in, to give up, to go back? But I keep drinking and the 30-pound monkey is mounting his Curious George poster over the spot where Sara’s stereo used to be, and I keep emptying bottle after bottle as he wanders around whistling “Daydream Believer” and some song whose title eludes me but goes, “Come on come on, come on come on, come on is such a joy, come on is such a joy, come on let’s take it easy, come on let’s take it easy, take it easy take it easy,” and occasionally dropping off a pill or two and maybe a shot on the coffee table with a wry and twisted smile, and I’m only too unhappy to oblige and all of a sudden it feels as if I’ve gone back in time, and that Sara never existed and Dad never died and everyone was without pants and Jill Henley thinks I’m cool and her mouth is warm and new and there’s a contest to life and I’m winning and there’s laughter in every room and it’s there because of me, but in a flash that is brilliant and humbling and horrible and maddening and wonderful and spiteful and humiliating and festively blinding, I’m brought back to a room I hate, where I have no control, where I’m led around by a 30-pound monkey who has deceived me into believing he loves or cares or helps and does not hurt, or hate, or kill slowly, painfully and decidedly like he killed my dad, like he killed my 20s, like he killed this room, this life, and suddenly I feel a power I’ve never had and a hate I never noticed and I grab a bottle off the table and I smash it, which gets the 30pound monkey’s attention all right, and I start chasing him around the room, and he’s screaming and I’m screaming, and he’s swinging from chandeliers that likely only exist in my mind and I finally get a hold of him and he looks up at me with evil piercing eyes and I take one deep, horrible last breath and I start swinging the broken bottle and blood is spurting everywhere, and bits of lace are flying about and I’m covered in his blood and my blood, and somewhere there is yelling and bellowing infinite sirens and bright lights and humorous lies and hungry mistakes and a simple redemption and an unsatisfying yet predictable end. And then I’m here. And I see the monkey in all of your eyes, and in the reflection of your knowing.

Mike Spry is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008). He lives in Montreal.

Creative Commons-licensed photo by Jason Scragz [source]

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