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Hooper Gets a Perm.

In memory of Matt Clark, 1966-1998

I.

Hooper peers out of his cage, past the wrecked carpet slide and the wormy carousel, past the funnel-cake booth and the dry-docked swash boats. The park is dark and still but for the faint grumble of traffic beyond the live oaks at the gate. Another weird Friday night, in a lengthening string of them. But this marks--this must mark--a new low: here he is, hunkered among piles of monkey scat in a cramped pen, a prisoner in Turvyland. He's scanning those oak leaves (well, where else to turn?) in search of nothing less than a savior. Don't sneer: when the tough find themselves trapped after hours in seedy amusement parks ... well, like anyone else, the tough start flailing for straws.

Hooper can't be sure he's seeing the oaks' leaves, exactly--better to say he's staring into that billowy intensity of darkness that he figures for foliage. This two-bit carnival has a dozen security lamps, but only two are lit. The others have had their eyes put out by vandals. Even the working fixtures cast only a shy, sickly circle of blue; they whine in tune with the mosquitoes. Since childhood Hooper's favorite refuge in times of boredom has been reading, but the only available material tonight turns out to be homemade signs that must be the work of the park's owner, That Asshole Breaux. Cartoonish drawings on plyboard tout the traditional midway foodstuffs; placards above the restrooms read, mysteriously, "Pointers" and "Setters" (oh, now he gets it); and so on. Hooper can make out two hand-lettered warnings in his corner of Turvyland, the pitifully dirty mini-menagerie: DO NOT FEED THE ALBINO OTTER FUNYUNS THIS MEANS YOU and, along the slack barbed wire of the goats' pen, STAY BACK UNLESS YOU WANT TO LOOSE A FINGER. THE MGMT. If he ever gets out of this mess, Hooper may use that last sign in freshman comp on Monday as an example of bad spelling and badder ambiguity: it's not clear whether one's finger will be taken by the animal or, per Cajun-Islamic justice, by the MGMT.

So here I am, thinks Hooper. Home again, home again, jiggety jig. This isn't funny, doesn't sound even vaguely funny. He's behind bars in a chimp's box, parsing the scrawls of That Asshole Breaux. His manacled wrist hurts; the balls of his feet have gone rubbery; he has to pee. There are nasty mounds of turd all around his Italian loafers. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, the turd-berg. Tonight, his whole life is going to shit.

Hooper likes to think of himself as hyperarticulate; he is, after all, in his five-classes-per-semester-and-minimal-benefits way, an English professor. Now he summons up the word scumber, which he's pretty sure means "dung." It may apply only to dogs and foxes, but who's here to call him down? Who'd rob a schmuck handcuffed into a monkey pen in the swarming darkness of a Baton Rouge summer night ... who'd deny him the pleasure of a recherche word to roll around his mouth while he waits for the cops to come and his life to start unraveling in earnest? Right, right. So Hooper, thank you very much, squats amid the scumber. Around him pullulates (uh-huh) the pestiferous (yes!) world.

Being in a cage sucks. Hooper knows that's not a profound insight--hell, it's more or less the thought that brought him out here in the first place, in a halfwit attempt to save Taffy the Chimp--but it's a conviction he can hold, now, with new depth of feeling, with the credibility that comes with having been there, done that: Folks, let me tell you, being in a cage sucks! Some people, Hooper reflects, aren't cut out for social justice; they should do whatever it takes to choke back the urge. Next time he feels called to mount a spur-of-the-moment solo rescue, he'll resist. He'll go home and chase off (or at least numb) his foolish sympathies by smoking some bud and listening to Billie Holiday.

Hooper's parents are on the way into town from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and his house desperately needs defagging. Six months ago, after years of doubt and then months of creeping realization, he finally made the big lifestyle change, and he hasn't found (oh, shut up!) the right way to break the news yet. Every time Hooper talks to his dad, the old man makes a to-do of shooing the Mrs. and then whispers conspiratorially, "You been dippin' the wick, son? Life ain't all litty-ture, you know." How do you tell a rough-and-tumble ex-sheriff like that, a muskhound whose truckbed toolbox, all through your boyhood, harbored porn mags called EEEE-normous and Mountain Do!--you're his only son, he's your only father, and with your frail build and crisp pleats and fragile sensibility and your goddamn book in your goddamn hand all the goddamn time and your lack of interest in bow-hunting or cracking lawbreakers' skulls or college football you've already departed from him in virtually every way--how do you tell this man (be it noted that he's the man, too, who's retiring your graduate-school loans and buying you a new car and still sending you, at thirty, a healthy allowance) ... how do you tell your dad, who thinks the only thing you have left in common is a mutual appreciation for the feminine chassis, that you're horny for boys now, sorry to disappoint but there it is?

Anyway, it's nine now, and they'll be here by ten. Hooper's mom has a key to his place, and he doesn't want them wandering in to find the shrine to Antonio Banderas, the "Looking for the Perfect Elf" votive candle, the inevitable musical-theater playbills. And the bedroom--he can't even begin to think about the bedroom. Hooper's parents are old-fashioned; his mother collects Hummels and antique finials. She has to have known forever that he's gay, had to know it already twenty years ago, when he ditched the motocross bike his father had just given him and slunk in the house to help sift through earrings for something to match her blue moire dress--though she certainly never bothered to tell Hooper (which might have saved him a lot of time and trouble). If he made an announcement now she'd be supportive, in her baffled way; but Hooper can easily imagine what will happen if, unwarned, she enters the bedroom. His mother has always had trouble when confronted with explicitness of any kind (hence the hiding place for Papa's porn), and Hooper's own assortment of finials and figurines will stop her heart in a hurry.

The upshot of all this is that Hooper's parents, finding his house deserted, will wonder what's happened to their boy and will investigate; they'll find plenty. When he comes home from jail, disheveled and exhausted, his fingertips black from booking, wrists raw from the chafe of the cuffs ... well, it's not going to aid his argument that he's perfectly normal the same son they've always known. He knows his father will boil the story down, as usual, to a lurid headline: HOMO IDJIT MAROONED ALL NIGHT IN CHIMP CAGE--NO GODDAMN SON OF MINE. Hooper's mother will get out the peroxide and bathe his wrists and weep soundlessly. Finally, she'll dredge up from unseen depths of feeling a few practical words: "Martin," she'll say, the tears watering her cheeks, "don't you keep mercurochrome in your medicine chest? You know you should."

The night has not begun well. Being in a cage sucks.

2.

Hooper has a sister, Lenore, who's eight years his senior and a minion of Lucifer. There's ample evidence of this; even as a child, Lenore bore enough Marks of the Beast to cover a whole squad of antichrists. Besides her spite and meanness (and you wouldn't need more substantiation than that), there's always been her freakish ugliness. Lenore at sixteen: her hair was outlandishly big and butter-yellow, her nostrils flared so big that you couldn't plug one with a thumb, and she was more or less unequipped with eyebrows, which was an obvious sign that nobody but Hooper appeared able to read ... this despite the fact (pay attention, people!) that she penciled them in as Mephistophelean curlicues, which she used to fence in her hellfire-orange (clue!) eyeshadow. Thanks to Lenore, Hooper's vision of Beelzebub is a cross between Dionne Warwick and Cyndi Lauper. Instead of a pitchfork Lenore wielded an aluminum file, with which she sawed at herself nonstop. The rapid-fire rasp of metal on fingernail followed her everywhere, a skin-crawling soundtrack; this was the sound of sinners being peeled. Hooper cringed and pled for it to stop.

Still and all, the yokels of northwest Arkansas--as a kid, already, Hooper knew that though he found himself among them, he was not of them--had the bad taste to consider Lenore pretty. This bothered him until he realized that it was Satan's bounden duty to deceive mankind. It was beyond him what the Prince of Darkness would want with the homecoming tiara from Hindsville High, but the ways of the PoD are subtle ... and Hooper reasoned that a reject from heaven might well yearn for crowns, even chintzy ones that seemed to be made of plastic cutlery.

But the proof was the monkey, the devil's animal familiar. When he was eight, Lenore got a pet capuchin monkey, a castoff from a small circus that was, Hooper thought he heard, "going to funk." (He was a college sophomore when he suddenly realized, reading e. e. cummings, that the word was "defunct"; and a weirdly intense feeling of letdown washed over him. He hoped--being nineteen and of a lyrical turn of mind, Hooper remembers, had sucked nearly as much as being locked in a dung-filled cage--that adulthood wouldn't turn out to be just a long, languid drift away from mystery, a chance for everything to resolve itself into the same old tedious crap. Would he wake up one day to find himself with a wife and kids? Would he be wearing hand-tooled boots, a manhole cover for a belt buckle? Afraid so. And not long after that he'd find tufts of fur bursting from his rapidly expanding ears, which would leave just the one sad step, or slide. We all make it: Hooper to funk.)

Lenore named her ringtail Dobie. For weeks Hooper heard her droning at it, working her witchy will; when he walked past her bed, room door he saw the monkey hanging upside-down from a dowel his father had mounted in the corner, and Lenore would clam up and glare and her nostrils would gape and she'd point: There, my pretty, there is your target. The thing would--he swears it--turn its beastie head and bare its yellow teeth at him.

Lenore trained Dobie to attack whenever her brother made so bold as to leave his room. For a full year Hooper spent his home life encased in an astronaut helmet, fleeing from Lenore's pint-sized goon, who wanted to claw open his skull and eat his brains. Hooper got used to the sound of Dobie skittering after him with murder in mind, got used to the excited nickering as the monkey looked for a gap in the defenses, inured himself to the sight and sound of its tiny, strangely beautiful fingernails as they roved over his face-shield. What Hooper couldn't stand was the creature's breath, a hybrid of brimstone and spoiled fruit. This stench was in his clothes, his thoughts, his dreams, was inside the helmet ... was inside his head.

For a time Hooper thought conspicuous terror was the key to vanquishing his enemy; he'd be so pitiful that his mom would have to step in and save him. He tiptoed around the house in his helmet, sweating, often with the screeching Dobie in pursuit. The situation finally came to a head when Mrs. Hooper got a call from school one day. Mrs. Warmoth couldn't understand: she'd decided, as a treat, to read the children a Curious George book, and little Martin had dived under his desk and started whimpering. Was there trouble at home? Did it involve--she didn't mean to meddle, but if you'd seen what she saw--could it be possible that Martin had been, well, menaced, maybe by a lanky man in a yellow hat or possibly other yellow clothing? These things could be taken care of nowadays by therapy--had anyone been making, you know, unnatural advances toward the boy?

Her sympathies engaged (nothing like public humiliation to do the trick), Hooper's mom plumped that evening for banishment of the offender: "Rex," she told her husband, "how do you expect Martin to grow up normal if he lives in a spacesuit and wears a monkey as a headdress? What kind of life is a boy going to lead who's scared to death of Curious George?" This sensible argument looked like it might carry the day ... until Daddy's little girl burst into tears. Then Hooper's father reconsidered in a hurry: "He's a goddamn sissy in waiting," he said, ignoring his wife's shushing gestures. "Maybe being chased by Dobie'll build him up some backbone. Now climb out from under the table and eat like a man, Martin. And get that geek flowerpot off your head. Fucking Buzz Aldrin. Just what the world needs: jarheads on Mars."

So, left to his own devices, Hooper plotted for months--idly--to get rid of his foe. He'd blow it up with M-80s; sell it to the first organ grinder he happened across; hire a swarthy hit man to whack it; stab it with a stalactite from the eaves of the garage, then let the weapon melt untraceably away. He never did anything, mind you--and that, too, seemed a disappointment to his father. Imaginary vengeance was for pansies. A real boy would strangle his tormentor with bare hands and stomp the corpse into jelly. Hooper, unreal boy, dutifully strapped on his helmet whenever he was home. It wasn't so bad once you got used to it: the constant sweating kept him from turning pudgy, and he liked the feeling of being in an echo chamber. He pretended he was on Apollo 21, the mission to save all their sorry asses from hell, where Satan could be counted to sic her man-eating gargoyles on the astronauts; once subdued, they'd be flayed alive with giant emery boards. Hooper learned to play the TV loud so he could hear through plastic and over the frantic squeaks of his living wig. He snacked warily, his visor flipped up. He developed the only slightly paranoid notion that the world was fraught with perils that wanted to fly at your head. In short, Hooper made unmanly peace with his situation. To his shame, he learned to make do.

But then the monkey died. One day Dobie escaped and tried, with only fleeting success, to dangle by his tail from a high-voltage line. Hooper was immediately suspected. God, this was so simple: he'd been toying with a plan that involved lasers, a pig suit, and some arc-welding expertise, and it turned out all you had to do was leave the side door ajar and the stupid thing would go fry itself posthaste. Hooper couldn't be sure he hadn't somehow done it; at any rate Lenore was sure he did. "I'll kill everything you love most," she promised. "Pleasure is over for you, bucko." She pointed her file at him.

This is where the guilt began. Hooper was thrilled, of course. He could barely contain his pleasure. He watched his father scrape the charred remains off the roof of the Carons' van, and he felt like dancing. Had he really done it? Had he juiced Dobie? Had he started outside, come back in for a glass of Tang, seen the monkey scurry past and then pushed the door shut behind it? As Dobie twitched and squealed and smoked on the wire, had Hooper watched from the window with a ghastly smile? Had he, on his way out to "see what the commotion was about," calmly dropped his helmet--once and for all--into the trash? Memory is tricky; Hooper has vivid recollections of all these things, but neither more nor less vivid than his memory of gutting the monkey with a porch icicle and then being foiled by that damnably clever kid detective, Encyclopedia Brown. No ... surely that helmet was too big to fit in the narrow kitchen can, and even Hooper--even at nine--would have covered his tracks more cannily than that. But he'd wanted Dobie dead, and then Dobie was dead. Wasn't that enough? All afternoon Lenore sobbed on the porch swing, her eyebrows bleeding down her cheeks. She seemed a scintilla less evil than usual. She'd clawed at her coiffure in grief, rubbed away six inches of its height; with lank hair and muted makeup she looked nearly human. When Hooper gave her a box of Kleenex, she didn't bother to threaten him. She took the tissue without looking up, honked loudly; it was a sound like a person might make. He'd planned to suck down a half-dozen Cokes and give Dobie a sarcastic twenty-one-belch sendoff, but he thought better of it. By the time his dad finished digging the hole, a pink Vesuvius of wadded tissue had mounted alongside Lenore, and it was almost kind of pathetic. Hooper's euphoria had disappeared. The scritch of the shovel in wet earth--how could this be?--seemed to him unutterably sad. Lenore made her father intone some fake Latin over the grave, and the four of them stood in the backyard and mumbled together. Hooper did not cry; he did not.

Later, he overheard his parents discussing him. "That," said his father, "is the most passive-aggressive child I've ever seen. He's got plenty of conniving, but no goddamn balls."

"Rex," scolded Hooper's mom. "He seemed all broken up this afternoon. You don't know that he had anything to do with it."

"Oh, no, not Mother's angel. You should have been there when I was chivvying old Dobie into the body bag. `Do you think it hurt a whole lot, Daddy? Do you think it did?'"

Then, worriedly, Hooper's mom: "What did you say? I hope you were gentle."

"Hell yes I was gentle. I said, `Naw, Junior. Gettin' sizzled to death feels kinda sweet, really.' He just stood there and smirked at me. And all that pissing and moaning over the corpse is just one more example of the kid not having balls. For Christ's sake, either kill Dobie or mourn him. You can't do both."

What Hooper doesn't want to admit is that maybe it's the old passive aggression that got him in this reeking cage tonight. Maybe he not only wants his parents to know, but wants them to make the discovery in the most agonizing way possible. He can hear his father now: "Naw, Junior. Having an only son who's a faggot feels kinda sweet, really."

That wouldn't make Hooper smirk, but he can't say there wouldn't be a morsel of twisted pleasure in it. Maybe his dad was wrong: maybe you can kill those you love and then grieve for your victims. Maybe you have to.

3.

Hooper knows why the caged bird sings: nothing else to do. It's quarter to ten. If he marched out of here and drove straight home, he might head them off. But his marching range, just now, is about eighteen inches. The trees have yielded no miracles, and won't.

So he pokes once more through the evening's ruins. He left the CD shop, his final stop, at five to seven--had every intention of limping home, playing out his role in the sham he calls his own. But when he heard the final segment of All Things Considered, everything seemed to click into place. It was a report about That Asshole Breaux, who'd been feeding Taffy and the others sawdust and stale cotton candy because park attendance had plummeted. The creep admitted, too--proudly--to calling cosmetics firms, asking if they had work for a chimp who'd outlived her usefulness: maybe they'd want to run a few thousand volts through her, ream her with lipsticks to see if they were carcinogenic, something along those lines? One company spotted a rare opportunity to make points with the animal rights lobby: Look! Here's a prick who's worse than us! They ratted Breaux out, and it became a national story.

Several things murkily entered into Hooper's coming here tonight. Taffy's situation was another black eye for Baton Rouge, which made news only for chemical spills, vampire cults, Nazi officeseekers. He felt a twinge of injured civic pride; all those urbane Yankees in their Saabs and saltboxes would think the people of Red Stick were jackbooted Draculas who fed their chimps spun sugar and chipped wood. Say it loud, say it proud: Hooper had a surge of good citizenship, idealism, patriotism. He did. Here was a chance to do something noble, more or less, and by God he needed it, Think globally, act locally: Hooper would take his cue from his brave colleagues with their brave bumper stickers. OK, so there wasn't much he could accomplish, practically, to save this broken-down ape. But that wasn't the point. Quixote got credit for his wigged-out shit because he meant well; why shouldn't Hooper? Sure, his thoughts weren't strictly rational right now; but reason is the hobgoblin of puny minds, or however that goes.

And, all right, it didn't hurt that Taffy could play proxy for the long-dead Dobie, or that the mission would make Hooper, for once, a man not of thought but of action, the kind of son to be proud of. Maybe he needed to do penance in advance for the whoppers he'd be telling his parents tonight. Who knows? Maybe it just happened.

The wise feather consults the breeze; Hooper was nothing if not a wise feather, and he licked a finger and held it up to the cosmos, waiting for a tickle, a whisper, a nudge. The gods obliged. He was groping in his backseat for a suitable gift/bribe, and when--poof!--he unearthed a cauliflower (it must have dropped out on the trip home from the grocery last weekend), it seemed an omen: If you find a coarse-lobed white cabbage in your car, then by all means Visit the ape. Hooper, obedient to his auspices, cranked the car and aimed it toward Turvyland.

As quick as that--a pang of lunatic kindness, a cruel shove from the gods, and bingo ... instant, life-altering blunder.

Chance played a role as well--had the park been open, Hooper would never have gone through with it. He'd have quit as usual. Maybe he was counting on that; it was, after all, an August Friday night, prime time for Ferris wheels and fresh-squeezed lemonade. He'd get to the park, discover an impediment, shake his head and say, "I tried, I really did." That might have been enough to appease his conscience--it didn't take much. But a group of angry locals had managed to get Turvyland shut down for a week on food-service violations. Worse, Hooper knew this already, though it surfaced into memory, dimly, only when he saw the bare flagpoles, the empty parking lot. Right, yes, he'd heard about this; but until now the knowledge had been just white noise, part of the constant background buzz of grievance to which Hooper paid no heed. God, everybody was pissed about something, and who had time to keep track?

The radio report (motive) plus the deserted lot (opportunity) put him in business. And in truth, the adventure hadn't started badly. He seemed to have a knack for the cloak-and-dagger (the benefit of a clandestine life--you get practice at deception). He slyly bypassed the main lot, which abuts a busy street, then swung off the boulevard a few blocks later. He stashed his car at a funeral home, figuring they couldn't chance towing the wheels of the bereaved. Then he set off to find a back way into Turvyland.

This was easier than expected. Hooper trekked across an abandoned putt-putt course that had, in the glory days, capitalized on the park's overflow. Its fakey turf was now overrun by scrub--jack pine, elderberry, poison ivy, cat's-claw. Reclaimed by nature. Somebody had hauled off the windmill on one hole as a campy trophy or lawn ornament, and in its scar stood a cluster of yucca holding aloft a huge feather-duster bloom. The back nine abutted Turvyland's rear fence, which was a litter-strewn sieve; the chain-link had been rolled up or cut in half a dozen places, and he squeezed through, being careful not to his snag his suit.

Inside, he was surprised to discover how dinky the park was: maybe twenty acres of sidewalks heaved up by roots, trash migrating with the wind, dented food trailers, stagnant mini-ponds traversed by footbridges that looked none too sturdy. At the far left perimeter was a clearing packed with rides, and the pissant menagerie was situated at the front, under a colonnade of live oaks. Hooper crept across Turvyland, dodging the wisps of paper that tumbled across his path. He had a kind of homing signal leading him on: the intermittent screak of the scarlet macaw that occupied Breaux's second-biggest cage.

This was Hooper's first venture into the park, but he had some idea of the setup. A few weeks ago he'd overheard an acquaintance--a guy named Croft--decrying the conditions here. Croft was a volunteer docent at the city zoo, and a crusader of sorts; he'd played a role in getting the food inspectors out here. (Croft was also gay, and a looker. But he suffered, at least by reputation, the activist's typical malady: his overfed conscience had starved out any sense of humor.) Croft had told Hooper's friend Rick that there were, all told, a dozen animals, whatever elderly or injured discards Breaux could get on the cheap. Most were domestic critters he'd trapped or hit with his car: a turkey too old and stringy for eating, an amputee armadillo, a goat who was short a horn (the master impresario tried, for a time, to bill it as a unicorn); and so on. There were a few oddities and exotics--the macaw, the albino otters, and of course Taffy--but they hadn't set Breaux back much either. Turvyland was one of a dying breed, the roadside attraction, and it was easy to acquire animals from his old competitors as they retired. He offered to take these screeching liabilities off people's hands, to save them feed and boarding costs.

Hooper made his way down the gallery of trees. The pens were arranged in a rough circle around the one showy cage, Taffy's, and the chickenwire box that held the macaw. He reached the bird's hutch first, and it was enough to ignite even his sluggish sense of injustice. It was a six-foot square made of warped scrap lumber, wire, and industrial staples. Hooper looked in at the bird, which was still jabbering angrily. Its plumage was lusterless, worn, ratty, but with remnants of beauty intact. The bird looked like a regent down on her luck--sitting on a park bench toping out of a sack, but still wearing her ermine collar and fading velvet cape. Hooper tapped on the wire, cooed at his new friend. He spoke no jungle bird, but he meant something like I'm with you, babe. I feel your pain.

The macaw seemed only now to notice him. It flailed its wings, shrieked, hurled itself at him. Hooper leaped back just as the bird crashed into the wire; it lay on the mossy floor of its hutch, stunned. Or maybe dead ... had Hooper managed to kill another blameless creature? No, the bird was slowly reviving, regaining its bearings. It got up, tottered a few steps, then flew up to its dead-branch perch; it fixed a dazed, hateful stare at him.

So much for his Dr. Doolittle fantasy ... and he hadn't even met Taffy yet. He could see her now, though, over the top of the macaw's quarters; roused from her torpor by the noise next door, he guessed. She was standing with each hand wrapped around a bar, like the falsely accused in a prison flick. Hooper collected himself and moved on toward his goal.

In the car he'd imagined a tender chat with Taffy, to let her know he was sorry she'd been mistreated. The point was to be something like Not all humans are assholes; I'm here, eh? Me friend of monkey many years. But what did he really want from her? Absolution? Advice? Was he planning to spirit her home, wrap her in a blanket and nurse her to health so she could make her space mission and save us from the Russkies after all? Things had turned turbid on him again. He felt his high purpose evaporating. This break-in was starting to take on the familiar, weary taint of a bad idea. What else was new? His was a life full of misguided whims pushed and pushed until they yielded, sometimes spectacularly, the irresistible secret at their core. The siren song of debacle: I know this is dumb, but why? Only one way to find out ...

He wasn't prepared. A fillip of breeze carried the same nasty odor Dobie'd had years before, and Hooper felt the old fear and loathing shudder over him. Taffy had let the bars loose, backed off; she was poised on her knuckles and the balls of her feet, waiting to see what fresh torture this human had to offer.

She was such a different animal. She was huge, comparatively speaking; Dobie had weighed maybe ten pounds, but Taffy must be five feet tall, one-fifty. Heavier than Hooper. This was not a monkey one could wear on one's head; this was not a pet, not a prop for one's personal drama. And she looked--with her wrinkled features, watery eyes, and patches of grizzled hair--she looked so world-weary, so sad and smart, so old. It's a cliche, but so human.

Now was his moment. Do or die. Sink or swim. But what to say? Hooper half-expected the same reception he got from the macaw down yonder; but the chimpanzee didn't fling herself at the bars, didn't hiss or bare her teeth. She sat there patiently, waiting for Hooper to reveal his reason for coming. He didn't know, couldn't tell. His mind had gone blank. He looked down for a second, and when he raised his eyes he saw that Taffy had turned her back, was splayed out near the bars. The light was beginning to fail, but there was no mistaking this shocking incarnadine flash. Hooper blinked at the vivid red of her genitalia, and Taffy swung her head sideways, to gauge his response. Was she ... rear-presenting? This was more forgiveness than Hooper had bargained for. Another lie exposed: he'd envisioned talk, not, well, action. How did you explain to a wanton chimp that, in more ways than one, you're not that kind of guy? Hooper swallowed hard a few times, examined his shoes, the cage's concrete pedestal, the dying ring of Mexican heather surrounding it.

He snapped to attention when the first glob hit his forehead. What? What? Hooper started talking fast, bobbing and weaving, babbling reassurances, explaining himself. He wasn't really a monkey-killer, it hadn't happened but that once, and then it was the power company's fault, and half-suicide, and there'd been plenty of provocation, and ...

But the more agitated Hooper got, the more frenziedly Taffy pelted him with her poop. She was flinging it hard, chattering all the while. She'd made a generous offer on behalf of her family and gender, and he'd rebuffed her, rejected them all. Forgiveness was never to be his. What kind of pervert was he?

It was at this point, as Hooper cowered before Taffy's cage, loudly baring his soul and dodging her crumbly shit-missiles, that the real commandos had arrived to save her.

4.

On his way home from school this afternoon, Hooper figured he'd buy a Johnny Mercer disc. He has so little in common with his parents that he's willing to stoop to ploys like this. The plan: he'd put on mutually agreeable music, Mom and Pop would bob their heads out of politeness or appreciation, and then--since they were enjoying it so much--he'd accidentally turn Johnny up too loud, choke the talk to a trickle. A quick jog through his sanitized apartment (which his father's never seen), a few drowned-out pleasantries, and his parents would plead exhaustion and retire to the hotel. The worst would then be past: tomorrow he'd give a campus tour (with emphasis on Huey Long's brazen frauds, which would strike his dad as heroic); they'd eat crawfish, try to wrap their country tongues around the phrase Laissez le bon temps rouler, then visit the Tabasco factory like good little tourists. By Sunday noon Hooper's parents would be safely on the road, and his elf candles and Tzabaco catalogues would be restored to prominence.

The hard part was tonight. The vision of his parents sitting on that couch, in that room, among the ghostly reverberations of Hooper's pleasure-cries ... the idea of the carton in his bedroom closet that would contain every secret flamboyance of his new life. Unbearable. It would be a kind of Telltale Box, pulsing under the floorboards for as long as the elder Hoopers stayed. And the phone might ring at any moment: "Buona sera, Geppetto. How's about making me a real boy?" So Johnny had better be in good--make that loud--voice this evening.

It wasn't just fear of discovery, though. Hooper felt awful about not confiding in his mother. She was a saint, loved him no matter what; she'd never abandon him. But sainthood had a drawback, too, its rigid rule of honesty: he could never ask her to help delude his father. Which left him in a tough spot.

The most uncomfortable thing to admit to himself, the most vexed and tangled aspect of all, was that he'd been battling pangs of dissatisfaction, even shame. Not about preferring men, certainly--his sexuality was what he wanted; it was his identity, his genetic destiny. No control over that. But ... the way he'd been going about it? His vita nuova had started with an almost ecstatic burst of lust, and for a time that seemed to Hooper the point. Being gay was, after all, a "sexual preference"; what defined you was having sex, so the more you had, the gayer you were. Every erotic kick during the first few months had been deepened, redoubled, by the knowledge that he was finally celebrating who he was, who he is.

But lately the slap-and-tickle's lost its luster. Over the past few months he's embraced not only a string of men but also a life that gives him license, finally, to revel in the things he cares about most; and this turns out to be at least as important as the physical stuff. Hooper wouldn't go so far as to say he's happiest when devising a costume for Lazarus, the glorious gay masque in New Orleans; or sitting among friends and snorting over the vacuous speeches and fashion abortions of Oscar night; or trading Cole Porter couplets over Bloody Marys on the porch at The Columns, the rundown hotel that played the whorehouse in Pretty Baby ... but he's definitely happy at those times. What he's bought into is a ready-made world for exploring: these are stereotypes, but ones he can tweak and use, take on or off as he chooses--swish today, butch tomorrow; Paris esthete now, Hindsville redneck later--to puzzle out who he is, in all his moods and incarnations. He's learning himself.

Hooper remembers, for example, how wonderful it was the first time he ate with friends at the Ho Chi Minh Grill, in the Quarter. The fare is grubby Thai food served on chipped plates, but it's whisked to the tables by gorgeous androgynes got up like Carmen Miranda. He watched one sashay across the room to take their order, meanwhile adjusting his cornucopia. Admit it: if confronted by a cross-dressing Ganymede toting a platter of larb, could you mumblingly order a Bud? You could not, do not. Instead you say something glib, racy, goofy: "My, what fine firm fruit you have. You look yummy enough to pit." You ask for a "Pimm's cup, super-extra Pimmy, darling." And then, amid the stained velvet curtains and tinkling mismatched glassware and bouzouki music (the place is velly eclectic) and the smooth, lovely boys with their falsies and pineapples, you begin to appreciate the extent to which being gay is about making your life a perpetual festival; it's a way of living at a higher emotional pitch than the drones and burghers and mudsticks can manage. It's all so clever and bubbly and bright. And, too--this matters if you're rich and white, a graduate of Vanderbilt, a wearer of silk bowties--for once you're part of a living, breathing minority community. You're among the oppressed.

Which isn't to say that the sex doesn't matter, or isn't good--it is, cher, it is. But the most liberating thing about Hooper's transformation may be that he has, at last, an audience for his catty wit, has friends eager and able to engage--raucously, passionately--in repartee about anything from Lotte Lenya to L. L. Cool J, Lincoln logs to L. L. Bean.

When Hooper's lust began to ebb, it raised ugly questions: Could he have been wrong? Had this been, after all, just a bout of hedonism that would now pass? The answer to each of these was no--he was sure of it--but nevertheless he felt disconcerted, cranky. He grew hypersensitive to insults, slights, fishy glances; he found himself looking for chances to vent righteous indignation. And the less randy Hooper felt, the more ostentatiously he ogled.

His closest English department friend, Anja, his lunch partner three times a week, was the first to complain. She's been picking at him of late for becoming a cliche, with his fifty-dollar avocado hair products and crisply pressed chinos and snatches of opera--and the way he interrupts her a dozen times, during the walk across campus to lunch, to leer at some "feshing youf." Her smiles at his lechery have grown fainter, and two weeks ago, when he started rhapsodizing once again about a passing sprite, she lit into him.

"The poor thing doesn't know he's gay yet. But he is, darlin', he is," Hooper said.

"Martin," sighed Anja, rolling her eyes, "this is tired. At first it was kind of cute--you were a teenager again, drowning in hormones. But there's getting to be something creepy about it. You bitch about the Bible-bangers assuming you're on the make all the time ... but hey, you're on the make all the time. I mean you personally. What makes that kid gay is that you have the hots for him. No more, no less."

"Well, true colors at last," Hooper answered. "I never figured you for a ..."

"Come off it," said Anja. "I wouldn't like you being a hetero lounge lizard either. And why put on a show for my sake? I know who you are; you suit me fine." She paused; her look turned affectionate, nervous. "Besides, I worry about you, Hoop."

This was perilously close to a subject Martin refused to talk about, think about. It called--without delay--for a lightsome dodge, a retreat. He summoned up his best Noel Coward. "No, no. I worry about you, Sopping Blanket. Being so dreary violates God's law, and one of these days you'll pay. Pre-verts always do. It's unnatural."

Anja's an enigma. Mild, quiet, prim. Dull by choice and not by nature; it's unfathomable. Hooper's new playmates think she's a waste, an unfun person from good-fun stock. Her bloodlines are impeccable: in 1970, in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Anja's mother published a treatise based on emergency-tent research at Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin concerts held on consecutive weekends in San Francisco. Zep fans, she concluded, grooved on hallucinogens, while Deadheads stuck mainly to grass. Or maybe, she hedged, Deadheads--being of naturally sunny disposition and possessing greater pharmacological expertise, were just less prone to uncool freakouts and bad trips in public. Anja's father had postponed college for an eight-month stint as a hobo, and once, trying to relive the salad days, he led the family on an ill-fated vacation--Anja will say only "It wasn't Disney World"--that involved riding the rails of Appalachia, roughing it on abandoned sidings, cooking over oil drums.

Their daughter, flesh of their flesh, teaches idiot frosh how to write persuasive essays about the need for campus parking. Sometimes Hooper will see Anja in the cafe, reading some earnest drudge like Doris Lessing, and he'll have a trippy vision of her mother at Kezar, laughing with a bored orderly while "The Crunge" booms overhead. She has a pad on which to catalogue concertgoers' impairments. She takes a last drag, asks, "You figure that purple-faced guy in the dashiki was speeding?" Letting this image fade, Hooper focuses on Anja--no makeup, muted clothes, Pilgrim shoes with buckles--drinking her unaugmented coffee. She has a habit, when the cup is empty, of soaking up any spillage on the saucer with a napkin, then softly tamping the cup-bottom dry. It doesn't compute. And yet she seems perfectly content, in her way.

Theirs is a weird friendship, but it's lasted. Despite the differences of personality, they genuinely like each other. He teases her about how boring she is; she makes him eat at McDonald's to get in touch with his grease-loving, Middle-America side. "Got to get you some gravity, Hoop," she says. "I'll settle for the waistline kind."

Today, as they made their way from the Golden Arches back to their offices, Anja took on a solemn look. "Hoop," she said, "I'm sorry, but I can't help you tonight. I just wouldn't feel right about it." Hooper had asked if she'd drop by, maybe pretend in a low-key way that they're an item. She's the only woman he ever talks about, and his parents have assumed ... But Hooper knew all along that she'd say no; masquerades weren't Anja's style. So he'd already constructed a cover story to account for her absence: tonight, alas, she has to be up at Angola, teaching Death Row inmates to write sonnets. She's so compassionate, he'll say, so devoted to the civilizing effects of education. He's proud of his Anja. Maybe for good measure he'll invent a study that says the condemned are better prepared for the Big Jolt if they've mastered rhyme schemes.

"I'm sorry," Anja repeated. She reached into her bookbag, handed Hooper a folded manuscript. "A present," she muttered. "A little something I've been working on. You know, trying to dry the blanket a little. I'm thinking of becoming maybe a little amusing, now and then, but I don't want to embarrass myself. Let me know what you think. And please don't take it the wrong way ..."

That last remark would have set him to furious reading on the spot, but there wasn't time. Hooper had three hours of student conferences scheduled, and by the time he and Anja trudged upstairs to the department, two early arrivals were huddled outside his door. When Hooper finally closed the door behind the last supplicant, settled into his chair, and reached into his drawer for the trusty flask of bourbon, he spotted Anja's manuscript on the desktop. He checked his watch: five-thirty. The CD shop was open until seven, and that would leave time to eat a leisurely dinner, smoke a dessert joint, and hide all incriminating material at home. He uncrimped the pages and began to read, with steadily increasing amazement:
   Hooper Gets a Perm

   Adrift and abed, again. As Hooper watched the late-morning sun drift across
   the floor, he did a bit of stock-taking. Hooper, old boy, he told
   himself--he was prone, in taking stock, to the pompous: where better than
   in fancy to be fancy?--Hooper, old boy, what you need ... what you need,
   for true, is a half-decent inner life. His face was puffy, his mouth dry,
   and his filmy teeth ached; he might feel rotten, but Hooper knew a truth
   when he thought one. The word desideratum popped into his head.
   Desideratum: an improved inner life. Hooper had a sudden flush of pride.
   How many of the hurt and hungover were marking the sun's creep across their
   blond floors and plotting new, better, deeper inner lives? How many had
   marshaled a five-syllable word to the cause? Hooper couldn't vouch for
   anyone else, but he for one was no ordinary lush.

   His reverie was interrupted by the sound of a bandsaw or fan belt or
   something in the kitchen; the noise gradually resolved itself into what
   Hooper could identify as a horrific imitation of Glynis Johns singing "Send
   in the Clowns." Wincing, he glanced over to see that last night's
   hugger-mugger of hastily shed clothes was undisturbed in its place by the
   door. Oh, Lord ... another night of passion mislaid, youth and money
   misspent, pearls miscast before swine. And this morning's misgruntlement,
   missatisfaction, misgust. Old hat, all of it. Another pretty-boy in his
   kitchen, in the buff, squeezing citrus and singing Sondheim. Another little
   serving-wench with sticky knuckles and bad taste; another hole that would
   need digging out of. The mind boggled; the mind boggled.

   Hooper rolled over, ground fists into his itchy eyes. He could hear the
   clatter of breakfast trays as his consort--what was this one's name: Chap?
   Henryk? Testostero?--made ready to sweep him away via petit dejeuner.
   Hooper knew he would not, could not, resist. How to spurn a man who stole
   out of bed to make you breakfast? One resourceful enough to make a
   tarnished jigger serve for an egg cup, a lens-cleaner for a cozy? Whose
   perfect moons of fingernail held scraps of pulp from fruits he ruined just
   for you? And if the egg--a beautiful tan thing, coddled in its prim
   Victorian cup and cap--if the egg were echoed, just below the advancing
   tray, by two of its flawless brethren, and if he'd wrapped Hans
   (semi-erect, left-leaning, flopping with every step) with pungent slices of
   bacon ... tell me the word desideratum wouldn't take on a new meaning for
   you, too.

   When breakfast was past, the world seemed supernally bright, and Hooper was
   in no mood anymore for the petty agonies of contemplation. The inner life
   would have to wait; this was no time to begin an overhaul of the soul, not
   with the tang of bacon on his lips and the word Sizzlean tumbling
   delightfully through his mind. Not this morning. The inner life be damned,
   today, thought Hooper. Today I will get a perm.

   He smiled at the idea, felt a tender hand on his neck. "The uncontamined
   life," said Hooper, "is not worth living."

   "Mmmff," said Testostero.

   The perm could wait till afternoon.


Hooper, a bit shaken, set down the pages, permitted himself a second belt of bourbon. So it had come to this: his life was such a joke that it moved even Anja to comedy. After all this time, she'd emerged from stodgy exile ... to poke fun at him. Him, her friend. Ah, those rambunctious jabs and japes; that goddamned joie de vivre. What was with her? Frankly, he liked her better as a lump. This was like being dissed by Abraham Lincoln, back from the dead to torment you with vile pork fantasies; it was like being raked over the coals on Leno by the Pope: "D'ja ever wonder about this Hooper clown?" asks the pontiff. "I mean, what's his deal?"

Most irksome of all was that Anja ... well, she hadn't entirely missed the mark: Hooper, what you need, for true, is a half-decent inner life. Chap, Henryk, Testostero. She'd feel guilty about this. Tonight there would be an anxious call--to make sure he isn't hurt, to let him know she just wants to be a good friend, and lately he's seemed a little, uh, troubled.

He wasn't sure he'd put it quite that way. More like he's, uh, fucked. Fucked: Hooper felt a sudden flush of pride. How many hopeless cases were sitting behind closed doors, enjoying a furtive snort of sour mash? How many, just insulted by their best friends, were headed home to lie to the people they loved about the most important element of their lives? And how many would be able to marshal an obscene monosyllable to the cause?

OK, Hooper warned himself. Enough drama-queen stuff. Eyes on the prize. Get the CD, go home, hoodwink the parents, live to lie another day. He slipped the story into his desk, drew a deep breath, and left.

5.

The commandos were just suddenly there. Hooper heard a loud throat-clearing, turned to find three ninjas in blackface. Two of them had taken the trouble to crouch. It wasn't clear whether they were doing so to menace him or to give themselves a chance to sidestep Taffy's stray tosses, but it didn't matter: the fusillade ceased.

"Are you deef, buddy?" asked the one standing straight up. "Fred Astaire here"--he nodded to his right--"only fell down twice."

"Shut up," said Astaire, abandoning his crouch. "You'd think a rich asshole like Breaux would pay his light bill. This time of day, the footing is treacherous."

Homo erectus, who looked to be the leader, chuckled. "Tell you what. Here's the flashlight; go find the complaint box." For the moment they seemed uninterested in Hooper, whose first, irrational thought--upon being confronted by three Jolsonish thugs in the gathering darkness of Turvyland--was to hope they hadn't overheard him: someone could get the wrong impression, listening to a grown man amid a hail of dung asking a chimp to absolve him of blame for a passive-aggressive pet murder that probably never happened twenty years before.

Hooper checked behind him, where the third man had wandered. Taffy was quiet now, her attention riveted on the backpack full of fruit that ninja number three was showing her.

"Take care of the lock," ordered the leader, and Astaire produced a gigantic bolt-cutter. Number one turned back to Hooper. "What were you doing to that chimpanzee? They don't usually fling crap; that's a gorilla behavior. You don't get off on pestering captive animals?"

"It was nothing," Hooper managed. "Really. Just a teensy misunderstanding. Private. You know." This sounded insane, even to him.

"Sure, buddy, sure. Takes all kinds. I especially liked that 'moral intelligence' bit. That's priceless. Were all the booths at the cathedral full?"

Had Hooper really said that? He's teaching Flannery O'Connor this semester, and as he faced off with Taffy, he'd recalled the laughable plea for dignity that a one-armed cretin named Shiftlet makes in one story: I am a man, he proclaims, I have a moral intelligence. But had Hooper really spoken those words aloud? Jesus.

"You don't work for Breaux, eh? What are you doing here?"

He was afraid to confess to being a mere trespasser, someone who (his father was right) lacked enough conviction to kidnap a monkey in the name of justice. No, he was just a looky-lou, a rubbernecker, an amateur. What had brought him here? And why did he want so desperately for these minstrel-show commandos not to think ill of him?

"I'm fond of monkeys," claimed Hooper. "Used to have a beauty named Dobie, a capuchin. I heard about Taffy's plight on the radio." Beauty? Plight?

"See? I fucking told you this guy was an NPR wonk," said the leader to Astaire. "Who else would just stand there getting pounded with turds and not even think to run? Who else would try to save her with a cute little soliloquy and a ... hey, what the fuck is that thing, a volleyball?"

The last ninja was in the cage now, passing Taffy fruits one by one, like a nurse assisting in surgery. When Taffy got mad, Hooper had tried to skirt around the cage and shove the cauliflower through to distract her, but it had been too big. While sustaining heavy casualties, he'd finally managed to shear off a few florets and force it through the bars. The third man bent to where Hooper's offering had rolled. There was only enough light left for Hooper to see his teeth, which flashed into a smirk. "Cauliflower," he reported.

"Collie-flower. What's that about, chief?"

Hooper did the best he could. "I thought Taffy needed some B complexes," he said. He had no idea what he was talking about, but the leader nodded.

"Good man," he said. "B complexes. You NPR people are useless, all right, but you mean well." He reached into his ammo vest, pulled out a gun, waggled it casually. "Sorry, but you're going to have to step inside. Can't be helped."

Only then did Hooper realize what was happening. It had seemed comic-bookish up to now, like no one could get hurt. But these were rabid animal-rightsists, subject to all the wacko stringencies of fanaticism. They were men of ruthless purpose; they might kill him. How had he failed to see until now who was in control? Of course, of course: he was just a budding queer with a hypertrophied sense of sympathy, a residue of monkey remorse, an hour to kill. He was no champion of animals--for God's sake, there was Big Mac still on his breath from lunch. So who would free Taffy? Right--the folks wearing burnt cork on their faces and packing heat; the ones who came equipped with handcuffs and wire-cutters rather than old guilt and cauliflowers.

Hooper has to say this of his captors: they didn't rough him up; they seemed embarrassed to leave him this way. Ninja number three even offered him an orange that Taffy'd passed up.

"I hate," Hooper stammered, "I hate to see a monkey suffer. I told you: I'm fond of monkeys. Solidarity now!" He gave a thumbs-up. As a last-ditch effort to effect his release, this was pretty feeble, so he tried to up the ante. "I used to carry Dobie around on my head, until he got electrocuted."

This piqued some interest. "Electrocuted?" asked the leader.

Hooper hadn't meant to say so much, and he was smart enough not to burst into tears and confess, a la Jimmy Carter, that he'd killed the little bastard many times in his heart. "A sad day," he finished. "Monkeys and I are muy simpaticos."

Astaire stepped forward, unable to take any more. "Taffy," he said, "is not a monkey. She's an ape. Chimpanzees make tools; they practice medicine; they're far nobler creatures than us. They are not fucking monkeys." He clicked the cuffs a notch tighter and glared, his eyes a brilliant white against his charcoal face. He stood inches away, seeming to command an answer; he oozed a potent vegetarian stink. Hooper tried to look thoughtful. Yes, he understood, got the point; he knew what an ape was, hoped he hadn't offended.

The third man was holding hands with Taffy, who wore a bemused look. She was eating a plum.

Hooper raised his free hand to his underarm, tickled the fabric of his shirt. "Ooga-booga," he explained. "Right, sure. I like them, too."

The ape-men snorted contemptuously, then turned and led Taffy away. They were talking to her in normal tones and complete sentences, like a person: something about reparations, promising a war-crimes tribunal.

The leader stopped to slit open the macaw's hutch. "Later, NPR," he called over his shoulder. "Have a pleasant stay."

So they hadn't killed Hooper. On the other side of the ledger, though, were several items: they'd caught him in a word error, ridiculed his vegetable offering ... and they'd cuffed him, possibly forever, to the worn tin bars of the cruelly small cage of Taffy of Turvyland.

6.

Nearly eleven now, and it's all over. Hooper's parents are rooting around his apartment, beginning to panic. In the morning either the cops or That Asshole Breaux will find him here, and he'll trade these handcuffs for another set. The phrase "black night of the soul" flits prettily through Hooper's head. Yes, indeed.

Until now he'd thought--didn't everyone?--that no spot on earth was so eerily romantic as an amusement park after hours. The luminous carousel stallions arrested in mid-snort; the funhouse ghouls that might leap to life at any moment; all that nonsense. It turns out to be just another grim, dumb spot where you're assailed by all your shitty worries ... though admittedly his mood may be dampened a bit by circumstance.

Hooper could write a hell of an expose about Taffy's living conditions: the pen is a twelve-foot circle, concrete tilted to a center drain that's hopelessly fouled with hair, jujubes, a plastic comb, three fluorescent condoms. A clown's mask has been painted on the floor--the drain forms a wen on the bulbous nose. If patrolling this garish face, day after day, year after year--if that wasn't enough to drive Taffy mad or stupid, well, the paint's probably leaded, too. A mad bright clown, poison paint, and your only intellectual stimulus is That Asshole Breaux, a man who thought confessing to chimp-torture would bring customers out in droves to eat funnel cakes and have their weights guessed. No wonder Taffy was out of sorts.

Right now, though, Hooper's preeminent concern is his bladder: it's near exploding. He's been reluctant to void in here. Some of his mother's lessons die harder than others. Taking a whiz in the cage would be tacky--and piddle shyness is about the only thing separating him, now, from reversing eighty million years of evolution in three hours. There are practical issues as well. Pissing would probably set the remaining animals--the finger-eating goat, the swamp rats, the wild turkey, the maimed armadility--to bellowing. If the sharp-nosed cops can tell his piss from Taffy's, they'll heap a public urination rap on top of everything else. And worst of all, he'd have to endure the smell all night.

But it's too late for delicacy. He gingerly unzips with his free hand, lets arc a mighty stream. God, it feels good. He makes a point of soaking the clown's terrible eyes: Take that, Chuckles! As he prepares to shake, he recalls his father's bizarre warning as Hooper stood, one long-ago Saturday, before the long metal trough at a Razorback football game: "Keep in mind, son--more than one wiggle is masturbation." Hooper's dad smilingly shook his hands dry and left; the men at the sink chortled; Hooper kept his eyes grimly on the goal, which was to lift his feeble pee over the high, rusted lip. He couldn't have been more than nine at the time, and he remembers being perplexed: Do some men have more than one wiggle? Master who?

He's reaching to close his zipper when--of course--he sees a shadow advancing from the trees. But even as a kid he knew not to panic under these circumstances, and this is no time for backsliding. He's been visited with enough indignities today, isn't about to add a mangled penis to his list of problems. Hooper feels a rush of inappropriate pride as he stuffs and zips: he's taken a few blows, but he's still a cool customer. He tries to coax some defiance into his voice. "Who's there?" he calls. "Who is it?"

The figure steps closer. "You're not Taffy," it says lightly. "You're Hooper."

Hooper has to think a moment before he places the face. It's Croft, the busybody who landed him here. Croft is (in Hooper's circle) an anomaly: sweet-tempered, earnest, careful, kind. He is a vegan, an Episcopalian, an unstoppable do-gooder. He feeds the homeless, tends the infirm, docents the decent at the zoo. He is terrifically handsome: olive skin, slim build, a fabulous sense of style. A few months ago, at the gay club near campus, Hooper--yes, Anja, on the make--had quizzed Rick about the good-looking man at the next table. "That's Croft," said Rick, rolling his eyes. "Doesn't drink, smoke, or speak ill of anyone. Thinks cold cuts have feelings. Is said, in bed, to use the word cuddlefest. In short, the world's most boring fag." Snide grins all around, and Hooper crossed him off the list. Since then he's spoken to Croft briefly a few times, eavesdropped on a conversation or two, noted with private satisfaction some of Croft's fastidious habits: starched collars, perfect creases, professional manicure.

Croft has made no further move toward the cage, said nothing. He's just standing there, fifteen feet away, reconnoitering. He doesn't begin flailing his arms or wailing for help, doesn't ask a barrage of excited questions: What are you doing in there? Where's Taffy? Should I fetch the authorities? He's cool, patient; he's approaching Hooper the way you would a nut who's perched on a high bridge and looking longingly at the chop below.

They stare at one another forever, it seems. It's Hooper who finally breaks the silence. "Listen ... you wouldn't want to get me out of here, would you? It could be your good deed of the day." Does he have to be sarcastic even now?

Croft smiles, takes one step forward. "I'll give it a shot. Don't have my rescuing-smartasses-from-cages merit badge yet." He rattles the paper bag he's carrying. "Want some overripe fruit? That's how Taffy likes it."

Hooper rattles his chains against the bars. Hello? I have more pressing needs than eating a spotty banana? Everyone offers fruit, but no one seems to want to unchain him.

Still Croft is in no hurry. He puts his hands on his hips. Are those handcuffs? They are. Might there by any chance be a story here somewhere? Well, yes. Would Hooper mind? No, he supposes not: sing for his supper. He wants out soon, before anyone else gets here--it's like Grand Central tonight. But he's in no rush now to get home, face the music.

So he tells it, starting with his arrival at Turvyland, and Croft listens with a look of untroubled mirth. This calms Hooper some, makes it seem like he's telling a frisky anecdote rather than the tale of how his whole world went into the tank. "That's the deal," Hooper concludes. He's warmed to the task. "They stuck me in here and spirited away their monkey. Taken hostage by Amos and Andy, then traded even up for Bonzo."

"Taffy's an ape, actually," corrects Croft. "They're smart and gifted creatures: they use tools. Some say they even practice medicine." Hooper growls; he's heard this before. "Not that that matters much right now," Croft amends. "By the way, I don't get it. That was a joke? Who are Amos and Andy?" He cocks his head, smiles again. Unembarrassedly. Hooper is amazed to discover that this slowness-on-the-uptake--the kind of failure that earned Croft the scorn of Rick and company--doesn't faze him; in fact he finds it endearing, in a way. Croft goes on: "How come they brought cuffs, do you think?"

"Maybe they're rogue cops, or bondage boys," Hooper replies. "Maybe the PETA crazies are just well equipped these days. How should I know?"

Croft has advanced, in a creep as subtle as continental drift, to a spot alongside the cage. He sets down his sack, swings open the door, steps in. After a pause to let his eyes adjust, he picks his way nimbly through the minefield of Taffy's and Hooper's wastes. He takes the prisoner's hand, looks over his stained suit, his smudged face. Croft's fingers are strong, papery, warm; they seem to exude tranquility. "These are just novelty cuffs," Croft assures him. "I can pop these off with a hairpin. It won't take a minute."

This isn't at all what Hooper expected: not a simp, not an idiot. Croft is still holding his hand, looking into his eyes, and Hooper feels an odd urge to warn him: Nothing there. Nobody home. He notes again how attractive this man is: the straight line of his jaw, the shadowy concavity above his lip. Then he sniffs the acrid tang of urine. He knows that Croft, a born nurse, a caregiver, a samaritan, would look past this petty humiliation without a thought, but he has to say something. "I'm sorry," he whispers. "I've been in here for hours. When you gotta go, you gotta go."

Croft laughs, says, "When you gotta glow, you gotta glow."

Hooper is amazed. That's from "Glow Worm," the Johnny Mercer song he loves most. "You a Mercer fan?" he asks.

The question sends Croft into an ecstasy of eloquence. He positively burbles. "Johnny, Hoagy Carmichael, the whole gang. Never been a songwriter better with an intricate rhyme than Johnny. He's the best. `Thou aeronautical boll weevil, / Illuminate yon woods primeval.'"

"Glow for the female of the specie, / Turn on the AC and the DC," tries Hooper.

Croft comes right back. "See how the shadows deepen, darken; / You and your chick should get to sparkin'." He grins.

They have something in common. Hooper has to bite his tongue to keep from making this a moronic announcement: We have something in common! We're not so different, you and I. We are men; we have a moral intelligence.

"It's going to be OK," says Croft, "it'll be fine." All at once he starts into "Glow Worm." His voice is rich, sweet, and he sings, in the dark and intimate stench of Taffy's cage, the most haunting version Hooper has ever heard, will ever hear. Meanwhile he produces a hairpin--from where?--and begins work on the manacled wrist. Hooper tries to take it all in. Is this boring? Can miracles be boring? He leans against the bars; Croft stoops below, freeing him, singing. Hooper can feel his rescuer's breath on his arm, hear the scratch of the pin, divine percussion. His chanteur; his picklock, his savior. It's weird to hear this song here, in the humid night air of Turvyland, after the hundreds of times he listened to it on his parents' giant console, with its cherrywood cabinet the size of a car.

The work goes slowly--or maybe quickly, since "Glow Worm" isn't over yet. Hooper feels great, the rest of the world be damned. This is a lush life. He has a flash, a vision: when his hands are loose, when the song is done, they'll step out of the cage together. Polite awkwardness at the door: you first, no you. He'll say, How do I ever thank you?

Croft then, shyly, Don't mention it.

Please, Hooper will beg--he'll beckon with the hand still aprickle from the cuff--Please. Trust me. You can trust me. Not another word spoken, or needed. He'll turn away, know without having to check that Croft is trailing him through the oaks, a stride or two behind.

Across town they'll enter the apartment arm in arm, and Croft will stop at the threshold, smiling at Hooper's stunned parents on the couch. Hooper, meanwhile, his clothes still rumpled and coated with Taffy's dung, will march straight to the CD player, put on this same gorgeous melody. "This is Croft," he'll declare in passing. "These are my parents." He'll turn to face the three of them, and by the time "Glow Worm" reaches its climax, they'll understand, they'll all have grasped the only message that matters now.

Johnny will sing it: "Little glow worm.... Lead us all to love."

MICHAEL GRIFFITH'S stories and essays have appeared in the Oxford American, Salmagundi, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals. He is the associate editor of the Southern Review.3
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Author:GRIFFITH, MICHAEL
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Short Story
Date:Sep 22, 1999
Words:11256
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