Wednesday, March 22, 2006


(abridged... more thoughts on gorillas)

The zoo keepers had not expected so many would come early to see Winter Haven’s gorilla. He had been sent over by a zoo in Tallahassee that was overcrowded with gorillas. He was old, and gray in the face, and known for hi friendly manner with the other apes he lived with. It had only been mentioned once, on page 10 of the Bulletin, yet here was every family in town, and the Grove Avenue Baptist Church Royal Ambassadors, to see what they hoped would be a ferocious African beat. His name was Hobo. He knew nothing of Africa.

A crowd stood outside the door of the monkey house. Bob wanted to cry thinking of all those people who would get to see Hobo the gorilla before he would. He tugged Aunt Sarah’s hand and tried to pull her along, but she kept to her pace. She finally told him to run ahead, but not on the grass and not to push anyone especially someone smaller than himself. She would catch up, she said. Bob squirmed through legs and baby carts to get to the doors.

When he got to the front, a man was saying, “…grass roots, berries, sometimes fish.” Beside the man was a gray and black doll, like a stuffed animal. When Bob looked more closely, he saw it was the gorilla, slumped down with its knees up near its chin. Bob gasped, and jumped back, then moved forward again when he saw it wasn’t going to attack him. In fact, it had its finger in its mouth. It looked bored.

As the keeper went on talking about the life of gorillas in the wild, Bob watched Hobo’s face. The animal didn’t even blink. Bob wasn’t sure if the thing was real. Maybe they’d found out the gorilla was so fierce they couldn’t let regular people look at it, so they’d brought this stuffed one instead. Then it yawned. Its pink lips stretched back around yellow teeth, and out rolled a long ;pink tongue. The crowd ooohed like it was 4th of July, and some of them clapped. Bob put his hands on his hips and frowned.

By now, Aunt Sarah had found a spot around the side, but near the front, where not too many people had begun to stand yet. She called to Bob to come where she was so she could keep a better eye on him. He stomped over to her, his hands in his pockets and his cap pulled over his eyes. Sarah bent over him and murmured things in his ear – wasn’t it exciting? Didn’t it have the most expressive face? He would remember this for a long time, she said.

The keeper gave Hobo a piece of fruit, which Hobo took, but didn’t want to eat. He dropped it on the ground between his feet and reached with both hands for Bob’s bare legs. The keeper cried, “Hobo!” and Aunt Sarah did the first thing she could think of, which was to snatch Bob under the arms and pull in the other direction. When Hobo’s nails broke Bob’s skin, and the blood started coming, people screamed and pushed backward into each other. Hobo immediately let go and stood up, waving his arms above his head and howling. The keeper put a choker around the gorilla’s neck, and he seemed glad for it. Bob was crying, not because it hurt so much as shocked him. The next thing Bob noticed was that Hobo had been taken away, and someone was taking off his shoe and sock so they could wash him with a red medicine that burned.

Everybody in the family came to the Polk County Hospital to visit. No one had ever been in a hospital before, not counting Uncle Henry in France; but even Aunt Sarah was positive about that and he wasn’t alive to speak for himself.

The preacher came on the third day, bringing a bag of sugared date bars his wife had made. He said the church was praying for him and then he told a story about Daniel who faced down the lions when the Lord stilled their jaws. Bob couldn’t see the point of it; except for there being a wild animal in the story, it wasn’t anything like what had happened to him. But he supposed there weren’t any gorilla stories in the Scripture.

Bob came home to a turkey dinner and a cake his mother had made. He cut a corner piece for Sarah and said, to make everyone laugh, that he expected to go back to the zoo next Saturday. When he finally did go back, it was nearly fall. The baby was sitting up on its own, and the boys were in Sunday School. Bob wore long pants and a jacket with a pin the Grove Avenue RAs had given him. He stood with his mother on the walkway far from Hobo’s cage, where a sign now hung: “No Closer Than This Point.” Bob had wanted his mother to make his picture under the sign, but he forgot when he saw Hobo bouncing against his cage, his fingers and toes curled around the bars.

Bob felt people looking at him as if he had a chain rope, warning them how close they could stand. Like aging gunfighters living out their years in a ghost town, Bob and the ape paced in front of each other, and pretended the other was lucky those bars were solid.

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