Authors: Colin McAdam
Copyright © 2013 by Colin McAdam
All rights reserved.
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Publisher’s note: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A beautiful truth / Colin McAdam.
1. Parenthood—Fiction. 2. Chimpanzees—Fiction. 3. Chimpanzees as
pets—Fiction. 4. Chimpanzees—Psychology—Fiction. 5. Human-animal
relationships—Fiction. 6. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
This book is for Joyce,
and in memory of Raymond B. Hancock,
gentleman, father and friend
Judy and Walter Walt Ribke lived on twelve up-and-down acres, open to whatever God gave them, on the eastern boundary of Addison County, four feet deep in the years of rueful contentment. Judy was younger than Walt, her dreams had an urgent truth, and five years had passed since they removed a cyst from her womb that was larger than a melon. Her uterus collapsed and for a year she awoke to formaldehyde dawns feeling sick and lonely and hopeless, no more chance of a child.
Time passed and Walt stayed near. She held his hand when she sat or when she slept. They painted the house a lighter blue.
On various nights in various ways Judy said do I feel old Walter, and he said you’re too young to be old. Come here.
Walt and his partners, Larry and Mike, had built or bought more than half of the commercial space in southeast and central Vermont. They provided the roofs, walls and drains around bakeries, cheese shops, notaries public and all the unimaginable
businesses sprung from the minds of people who could not conceive of working for other people. Walt believed in doing your own thing, finding your own way. The rent came monthly, businesses closed and opened. Walt made other investments, he gave thanks and shared his wealth. Paint for the church, in perpetuity. Books and shelves for the beetle-eaten library.
There were wealthy couples you read about where the man worked and the woman shopped and other people mocked or reviled them. Walt was in love, and held close the fact that there is nothing more natural or right than buying the world for the woman of your dreams. Try to name the value of that smile to Walt and his life-worn heart.
And Judy wanted little. She did not spend her days buying furniture and curtains. When dresses and shoes appeared in her wardrobe they had usually been sought for and bought by Walt. Before the operation she had wanted one thing, and after the operation she tried to get used to not wanting. They said the desire for children would naturally dissipate, but a man who loses a leg does not stop wanting to dance or kick.
In her rational moments she allowed herself to want nothing more than spending time with a child. It didn’t have to be her own, it didn’t have to be beautiful or smart, it just had to be near for her to care about it and give her that taste of renewal and possibility that children represent. She was calm about her desire, but every now and then, alone, she yearned like a prisoner yearns for friends beyond the wall.
I need a purpose she said.
She volunteered to visit people who were dying.
I’ll keep Mr. McKendrick company on Thursday nights. They say he has three months.
That’ll be good for him said Walt.
I don’t know.
And good for you.
It’s a purpose.
Your beautiful face every Thursday. He’ll be cured, Judy. He’ll live forever.
I’m young said Judy.
I just want to make you proud she said.
They bought paintings and a car and a dog named Murphy, but with every purchase and passing Sunday was a feeling that life was a collection of gestures and habits and it was hard to find surprises when most surprises were planned.
That sad light in Judy’s eyes was becoming a settled part of her, and maybe, Walt thought, that’s life.
His first wife had been killed in their car near Binghamton, a truck driver slept at the wheel. A lake of grief still sat in his chest and it would never properly be plumbed, but the one thing he could think of, the one fact which he could find the fortitude to contemplate, was that the trucks would never stop. He found a lesson in that. Those goods that people want or think they need, hurtling across the country. You can stand still and scream at the trucks but they’ll run you down; you can hop on and go where they go; you can find all sorts of ways to avoid them. You can adjust, instead of accepting, and you can make your own world.
Walt had wanted a baby with his first wife but she was taken away so young. With Judy he had never doubted it would happen, but it hadn’t and now it wouldn’t. He was more than happy with the thought of looking at Judy till he died, but as for what she had to look at: Walt was getting jowly from beer and his great love of cheese. When he thought about the idea of having a child, that modern human ability to choose to have a child, and when he
thought about beauty and how things can change, he could see how, maybe for a man, a child might be a way to make these moments last—some way to prolong a beauty that can’t be preserved. But he simply understood it as love. He wanted what she wanted, and was sad that he couldn’t provide it.
They looked into adoption for a time, but the options were limited and waiting lists long. Walt said we’ll figure it out.
One of the buildings they owned in the county was a bar called Viv’s. Walt met Larry and some of the others there most Thursdays, especially once the season began. Viv’s was in easy driving distance from Willamette Valley where white-tailed deer would rut. The bar was a place where Walt and his friends could relax or celebrate or pay inarticulate respect to the thrill and regret of hunting for meat.
Out of season they found other things to talk about, and Viv was always good at gathering newspapers and magazines. He encouraged the exchange of facts, he said, not opinions, because opinions are like sperm: there are way too many of them, most amount to nothing, and they’re more fun to deliver than to receive.
Viv usually had some newfound knowledge to announce, and in February 1972 he passed a copy of Life magazine to Walt and said now the monkeys are talking.
Walt looked at the article and it changed his life with Judy.
“Conversations with a Chimp” it was called.
He saw a photo of a chimpanzee sitting on a carpeted floor, apparently in conversation with a man. Walt read the article and learned of a group of chimps in Oklahoma who had been taught to speak in sign language. They could talk about things they saw and things they wanted to eat. They spoke spontaneously.
One of the chimpanzees, a girl, was walking with the man in the picture one day and watched a plane fly overhead. She looked up at the man and signed YOU ME RIDE PLANE.
Walt found that amazing and read that part aloud.
There was a photo of a baby chimpanzee in a diaper, sitting on a woman’s lap. And on the cover of the magazine was a picture of a beautiful woman who was involved with Howard Hughes. Walt measured all beauty against that of Judy and found the woman lovely, but wanting. There is no happier feeling.
As he drove home, the thoughts of Judy, the photo of the chimpanzee in the diaper, the beer and the bleakness of February all swam in his head in a lonely and protozoan soup, till lightning struck, an idea was born, and Walt began making inquiries into how he could acquire a chimpanzee.
He had no idea where to look, what to expect, what a chimp was or whether he could in fact buy one. He thought of zoos, wondered how zoos got their animals. He thought about all the people he knew in husbandry, the friends who traded livestock, the hundreds of acquaintances involved with animals in one way or another. Judy had been at Shelburne, buying Walt some cheese. He remembered she had watched some kids getting excited about the new llamas. That was about the most exotic animal he had heard of in Vermont.
Where do you see chimps he asked Viv, and Viv said you see them at a circus sometimes, don’t you.
So Walt kept his eye out for circuses.
He had spent a few years now trying not to go near things or bring up topics that would make Judy think of children. He hadn’t wanted to upset her.
He went alone to a circus in Burlington and there was indeed a chimpanzee who came out a few times with a clown. The clown juggled bananas and the chimp tried to jump and reach them without joy, so he pulled the clown’s pants down, revealing pink bloomers, and the clown dropped all the bananas. The chimp
looked like he was laughing and so did everyone else. It was pretty funny. And at the end of the show the chimp bowed and jumped into the arms of the clown and it was also pretty cute.
Walt waited till the crowd had left and asked a guy if he could speak to the clown or the fella who played the clown or whatever you call him, and the guy said he’s out in the blue trailer. Walt went through to the street out back and knocked on the pale blue door.
The fella appeared, half clown half man, and said yeah with lipstick lips.
Walt introduced himself and said he had a question, and the clown said I charge a hundred for a birthday and the kids can’t touch the monkey cause he bites.
Walt explained that he was interested in the chimpanzee and wanted to know where he could find one.
Are you a clown.
Wait right there for a second.
Walt heard a terrifying noise which soon became part of his daily life. He was invited in, and there in a cage on the floor in the corner was the chimpanzee from the show.
Settle down there buddy settle down.
The chimp looked simultaneously bigger and smaller somehow, and the second wave of noises was less of a shock to Walt. The chimp was in a pink dress.
The clown said she doesn’t like people coming into the house. She’s in a mood.
She’s a girl.
Past few months or so she gets all moody.
Walt felt a strange combination of embarrassment and curiosity. He wanted to look closer, but felt he should look away.