Monkey in the Window
Claire’s mother and her damaged hip came to live with us one summer. It took some doing on Claire’s part, but she finally convinced her mother–Perla was her name–to leave her downtown apartment and move to our house in the stairless suburbs. This was a permanent arrangement. We had a nice little mother-in-law cottage out back. It was nestled in a tropical garden. There was a bathroom with grab bars and a walk-in shower. There were emergency buttons in the cottage, low on the wall, in case Perla wound up on the floor and nobody was around. This was where we set up Irene, my mother, ten years or so ago before I walked out there one morning and found her dead in the bed. She was fine the day before. Then, the next day, dead. In her sleep, they said. But not peaceful, if you ask me. I found her hollow-cheeked, with her mouth gawped open. One eyeball, large and staring, had drifted from the other, with both fixated on some separate terror. I never told Claire or Perla about how I found my mother. I just made it sound like it was the most tranquil, least horrifying thing I’d ever seen in my life. I can’t stop seeing it.
Claire had to twist her mother’s arm to come live in the garden cottage. “I don’t blame her,” Claire said. “Would you want to live where someone died? It’s like a crypt to her.”
“What choice is there?” I said. Like me, Claire didn’t have any siblings. Perla’s income was fixed. Other than us, she was alone in the world. “We can just get her a new bed,” I said.
So that’s what I did. I removed the bed my mother died in, and I put in a new bed with a hard mattress that was good for Perla’s hips and back. I painted the inside walls this restful salmon color and set a new box cooler in the window so there wouldn’t be any recirculation of Irene’s dead cells. I put a new seat on the toilet, and I had the floor tiles polished. Claire bought some fresh furnishings from the Sweetwater IKEA–a chair, a loveseat, some accents–and little by little, we completely removed the stench of death from the garden cottage so Perla could live there, ghost-free. We sent her pictures of the cottage before she signed-off on the deal. There were lush taro plants, birds of paradise, and plenty of shade; there was a water feature, just like a habitat at Zoo Miami, and landscape lighting, which–at night–steeped the trees in a golden glow. A person could be happy there. Perla could see all this beauty through her picture window. I even hung a new flat-screen on the wall for game shows and afternoon soaps. One of the channels played reruns of classic black-and-white programs like I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver, which I thought Perla would enjoy. She had everything she needed, including one thing she didn’t: the intrusive spirit of my mother, it seemed.
“I swear to God,” she said. “I hear whispers. I hear Irene.”
“That’s just the box cooler,” I said. “My mother never whispered.”
This was true. My mother was a loud woman. This wasn’t totally her fault. She was completely deaf in one ear and partially so in another, and she compensated for both by shouting. She’d shuffle around the garden in her walker and raise her voice: “MONKEY!” she’d shout. At the time, we had this vervet monkey who frequented our garden and nicked limes from our trees. He’d appear, disappear, then reappear, usually with a lime in his mouth. My mother clanked around the garden cottage shouting MONKEY, MONKEY in a dumb clamor, like a toddler learning her first words. Those were sad days for me. I mean, it’s my mother. Sometimes, we’d see the vervet monkey sitting upright, like a person, looking down his nose at his fingernails and picking nits from his chest. He had this kind of eerie humanity about him, this vervet monkey.
Could be that’s what Perla was hearing: our shifty, whispering, nitpicking vervet monkey.
“I SAW JOHNNY MATHIS AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL,” my mother once told Claire. This was just after she moved into the garden cottage and they were going through my mother’s old photographs. She had a big red box of them, all jumbled together. “AND THIS WAS FROM WHEN DAVIE’S FATHER WAS COURTING ME.” She actually used that word, courting, which isn’t one you hear anymore. My mother wanted to make a family history album arranged chronologically. This was a good project for her. It would keep her hands and brain busy. So she sat at our big table in the house, stooped in the neck, and sorted photographs by era. It was a glacial sorting. I had no patience for sitting with my mother, sorting pictures.
She also had these handsome albums in red leatherette delivered to the house by mail order, Harriet Carter or something. There was this patterned, gold gilt adorning the covers and spines of the albums. They were really sharp-looking, like something you’d see in the Classics section of the public library.
Claire was great about this whole thing. She was crafty, too, so that helped. Claire liked glue guns and stickers and those slick little plastic picture sheaths inside the albums. She liked the special scissors that left scalloped edges on photographs. The two of them sat at our big table, all spread out. My mother shouted at the pictures trembling in her fingertips. “THESE ARE MY FORMER IN-LAWS,” she’d say. “THIS WAS OUR FIRST FAMILY PET.” (The pet–an elegant standard poodle named Snowy–and my grandmother–an upright, stately Swede–shared a shockingly similar white bouffant.) Claire nodded a lot. She overused words like “interesting” and “neat” and “so fun, Irene.” Meanwhile, I sat on the couch in the adjoining room behind Golf magazine and a curtain of guilt, trying to mind my own beeswax. I was in a bad place with my mother then. There were things I couldn’t face. “THIS WAS LITTLE DAVIE’S FIRST APARTMENT.” Claire tried to draw me out, but there were times I could feel her eyes on me. It was like she had laser beams in her head, like she was burning holes through my magazine with her glare. “AND THIS IS HIS LITTLE NEGRO FRIEND LESLIE.” Sometimes, Claire would clear her throat, real obvious. “Ahem!” But, nothing. I could not bring myself to put down Golf magazine and sort pictures with my mother.
While all this was going on, my mother and Claire talked. Sometimes, they talked about me. Claire knew how to talk to my mother. They talked about things from my deep past, stuff I would never remember. Was I a colicky baby, did I prefer Mommy or Daddy, stuff like that. This was back when Claire and I were dancing around the idea of children to call our own. We were in our late twenties, early thirties then. Second marriage for the both of us. Claire wanted to know what she might be getting herself into on the children front, so she talked to my mother about it. I wouldn’t fall asleep without my blue blankie. I was deaf in one ear for a few months after birth. I liked pureed peaches and breast-milk. This is the kind of ground they covered.
“HE LOVED MY JUGS,” my mother said.
“Irene!” Claire said.
“Now, now,” I said. “That’s enough.”
Claire stifled a laugh.
My mother said, “WELL, IT’S TRUE!”
I was like a kitten batting around a little punching bag, my mother said. Or a kitten lapping up his milk. My mother did this serpent thing with her tongue. This really got Claire going. She laughed so hard she cried, which only encouraged my mother, who balled up her knotty little hands into fists and began punching at air.
“Enough, Irene,” I said. I sometimes called her Irene, when she really irked me.
I sat with Perla in the garden cottage and we talked and watched TV. This was one night when Claire was on a 12-hour shift at Jackson Memorial. I sat with Perla because I wanted to become a person who took interest in other people. I thought this was a good quality to have. It was too late for me with my own mother, so I figured I’d try again with Perla. “It isn’t hard to sit down and show interest in other people,” Claire said. She’d been saying this to me for years. So that’s what I kept saying to myself, like a mantra: It isn’t hard to sit down… I wanted this to come more naturally to me, but since it didn’t, I had to work at it. “You can do anything with practice,” Claire said, so when she left for work one night, I walked out to the garden cottage and sat with Perla and talked.
“I made tea,” I said.
I had a whole tea service going, with a silver pot and shortbread cookies. I really felt like I outdid myself by showing up with tea and cookies. As I walked into the garden cottage, the teacups rattled on their saucers. Perla started to get up, but right out of the chute, she rankled. “Don’t get up,” I said. “I’ll bring it to you.” She flopped back down. She was in a real unsteady place for a while after she moved in. She had no control of her feet.
“That’s sweet of you, dear,” Perla said. She straightened her back and put her hands in her lap. She nestled her bottom into the chair, getting ready for tea. She had a thin silk handkerchief with lacy edges pinched between her forefinger and thumb. For the first time since she’d been in the garden cottage, I noticed her white hair was yellowing in places, like the pages of an old book.
I set the tea service on the accent table, then moved the whole production next to Perla. I poured her a cup of tea and set a cookie on a square napkin, right there on her thigh. I handed her the teacup and saucer, still rattling.
“This is nice,” Perla said.
“Real nice,” I said. I pulled up a chair and sat down with my tea. “So,” I said.
There was a long, drawn-out pause.
“So,” Perla said.
This is where things usually got troublesome for me. After “So.” Perla and I said nothing for a few minutes. We just sat in each other’s spaces, like overlapping circles.
The TV was tuned to a crime drama. Perla and I sipped our tea and ate our shortbread cookies and watched the drama unfold. “You need a little drama in your life,” Perla said. This was just a general comment she made to the pocket of open air in front of her face. In this particular drama we watched, a psychiatrist was killing his own patients through immersion therapy. Face your fear of water by jumping in the water. Face your fear of closed spaces by letting me lock you in a dark, windowless basement. That kind of thing. Trouble was, the shrink immersed them, then he neglected to un-immerse them. He pushed a guy in a lake. He locked a woman in a cell. He made them think he would rescue them, but he didn’t. They died horrible deaths, these poor, trusting people. They died inside their worst personal nightmares. I remembered the way I found my mother, and it made me wonder. It made me wish I’d been there with her so she wasn’t alone when she died.
Perla made little noises from the chair next to me. She talked to the TV. “Don’t go in there,” she’d say. Or, “Ooh, you can tell he’s evil.” Or, “I knew it! It’s the wife!” I talked to the TV, too. I asked questions though: “Don’t they need a search warrant?” “Why don’t they just shoot him?” Stuff like that. There were crime drama credibility issues I was working through. Perla watched the whole show with her head cantered back and her mouth open and her chin upturned, the way you watch TV in a doctor’s office waiting room. She had this hump in her shoulders, too, and a general air of discomfort.
This happened over the course of several weeks, every time Claire had a long shift. We sat in the garden cottage, and we watched crime dramas and sipped tea and ate shortbread cookies or lemon cake. We bathed in the violent, horrible dying and screaming that filled the garden cottage at night, often in back-to-back episodes. Strange thing, to sit still with your aging mother-in-law over bodies decomposing in dumpsters and fifty-gallon drums, over psychotic murderers and the folks who hunt them down and kill them.
We grew a little closer, Perla and me. We grew closer with every visit. We talked about Claire, sure, but we also talked about me and Irene. We talked about my father (he left) and Claire’s father (he left, too). “I guess fathers are leavers,” Perla once said. “Claire’s dad, he went to work one day and never came home. Claire was just a baby.”
The topic of Claire’s father came up one night in front of the television. That’s where everything seemed to happen: in front of the television. The basic story of the crime drama was this: A man left his wife one morning saying he was going to work at the shop where he was a barber. He left for work and the wife never saw him again. In my mind, similarities were drawn between truth and fiction, between Claire’s dad and the crime drama barber. In the drama, the barber’s leaving was shown in a backstory with the picture washed out, like you were looking into the hazy, almost colorless past.
At the shop, this barber was using a straight-edge razor to zip the foam from a man’s face. There was a lane of clean, shiny skin on his cheek. In the backstory, you heard these two fellows, alone in the barber shop, just talking about the price of pork bellies, when all of a sudden there came this pocket of quiet, followed by a zipping whoosh, followed by a gurgle. This was a bloodthirsty barber, apparently. The razor fell to the floor in a pool of spilling, gurgling blood, splashing all over the barber’s wingtips. That’s what you saw: the straight-edge razor on the floor right next to the growing puddle of blood. You saw the barber’s brown, blood-spattered shoes. Then the shoes were walking, calmly, like it was just another day, tracking bloody footprints over the linoleum and out the door, down the sidewalk. It was just the camera trained on the bloody shoes. In the middle of the morning. On a public sidewalk.
Morning to you, Emory.
Not one person took notice of the bloody shoes. Somehow, this barber opened the throat of the man in his chair, then walked out like the postman. He disappeared into the thin Minnesota air, despite the bloody footprints. I didn’t buy it, but it was just TV, right? Suspended disbelief and all that? Turned out to be a cold case, frozen for thirty years until these savvy investigators in blue suits and pressed white shirts and impeccable hair found the barber again. He was in the Oregon woods with a new wife and a shotgun and four yowling bluetick hounds. There was a standoff between the “Straight-Edge Killer,” as he was called, and the shrewd investigators. In the end, they got their man, killed him dead in the Oregon woods after an exchange of gunfire.
When the show was over, that’s when Perla told me about Claire’s father. He was a butcher, not a barber. To Perla’s knowledge, he never opened a man’s throat with a cleaver, though he had plenty of blood on his hands. He used to come home from work smelling of raw meat and animal blood, until one day he just didn’t come home at all. Perla blamed herself. She remembered telling him that day, “Don’t come home from work all bloody,” but maybe he just heard, “Don’t come home from work.” There used to be stories all the time about men who vanished: the wives blaming themselves, then left to puzzle over the abandonment the rest of their lives. That’s what Claire’s father did. He became the family mystery. As far as Perla knew, he was in the Oregon woods with a new wife and a shotgun and four yowling bluetick hounds. She didn’t care if he was dead.
Perla finished her story and the room got heavy. She was slumping, like the story had exhausted her, all that retrospect and past tense. She had been talking for a while, and it was late. So I stood to clear the tea service and straighten up the garden cottage. I moved a chair and table out of Perla’s walkspace from the bed to the bathroom. I folded a bundled blanket that had slipped to the floor. Perla’s chin was resting in the open V of her housecoat, and the remote control with its big, bright buttons was in her lap. She was breathing hard, asleep right there in her chair. So I moved about slowly, not wanting to rustle her. I would straighten up the cottage first, then tend to Perla. It would not be the first time I picked her up from that chair and laid her leafy body in the bed. It would not be the first time I covered her blue, callused feet with a light quilt.
I clicked off the television, then paused to appreciate the garden through the picture window, lit gold, looking especially pretty at night. I loved the lighting on the broad leaves of the taro plants, how they shimmered and trembled in the breeze. How the birds of paradise dipped their needle-like beaks into their imaginary vests. At night, more so than in the heavy, humid day, it was a garden alive with itself. From inside the garden cottage, it was a show of light and motion. It was, despite the throbbing of the box cooler, a quiet reverie, one that didn’t last long, one that was interrupted ungraciously by Perla herself, who–without warning, without even as much as a jostle–jolted upright from her chair as though someone had put a charge in her. She stood straight up, unusually surefooted, stretched her arms to God, and screamed. It was not just one scream, but several short cries in a row. Her eyes were wide open but confused, like she was following spots of light circling around her. Like she was looking for a place to run but had no routes for escape. Her feet shuffled on the tiles and she cowered, then she saw me and took hold of my shirt collar. She gripped me with fear. She pulled me to her and her eyes studied my face, as if she saw nothing familiar in me.
A night terror. Had to be, right? All that crime drama, all those visions of death? I was surprised this wasn’t the first time I’d seen this. I held her. I held my frail mother-in-law. I wrapped my arms around her to keep her from quaking. She needed stillness. She needed to slow her breathing, so I held her the way I imagined a father would hold his small, trembling child. I held her until her breathing slowed. Then I put one arm around her back. I took her arms and looped them around my neck. I slipped my other arm beneath her knees. I lifted her from the floor tiles and ferried her to the bed. She was light as breath. Light as a sheet. I removed her arms from my neck and laid her body on her side. She curled-up fetal-like, and I covered her in a quilt. I touched my fingers to my lips. I placed those fingers on her cool cheek. This felt new to me, this act of affection.
Perla seemed to calm herself. Her breathing grew rhythmic. So I stepped away from the bed. I tiptoed. There was the tea service to fetch. There were the lights to shut out. There was the quiet exit to be made. I was stealth, moving furtively, but then, like a gunshot, I heard words from Perla’s bed that disarmed and buckled me. I dropped a teacup, which shattered on the cool tile. Perla spoke clearly, as though it wasn’t her speaking but a spirit inhabiting her. As though it wasn’t her voice at all.
“Davie, you’re good,” Perla said. That was it, for the moment. Just, “Davie, you’re good.”
“What did you say?”
Of course, I heard what Perla said. I just didn’t believe it. I didn’t have faith in the voice I was hearing.
Then, this: “You were always good, Davie, even when you were tired of being good.” Her voice, growing louder now, growing more edgy and distinct. Perla was breathing faster. I quivered. I got down on my knees next to Perla’s bed and shook.
“Say it again, Perla,” I said. “Say it again.”
“Keep being good, Davie,” Perla said.
“Irene?” I said, but my voice was barely above a whisper. “Mother?”
“Keep being good,” Perla said.
I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. I had not cried in years, but I cried then. I cried lavish tears. My throat closed and my breaths quickened. “Say it again,” I whispered. “Say it again.” I shook Perla’s shoulder. “You’re good. You’re good. You’re good.” I had never needed to hear anything more desperately. And I needed to see it. I needed to see the words leaving Perla’s mouth, and I needed to see the spirit in her eyes.
I turned Perla, gently, and looked into her blanched and twisted face. It was her mouth, really. Her open mouth was pulling to one side. Her skin was inexplicably smooth, new-looking, shiny. And her eyes. They did not seem to hold a spirit. Instead, her eyes, wide and distant, were crossing, moving independent of one another, trying to capture different things at once. They were darting about the garden cottage, at its walls, at its furnishings, at its picture window, where they reconnected and settled. Perla said, “Monkey, Monkey” and a trickle of pink foam leaked from one corner of her cracked, grainy lips. Her bloated tongue lolled.
“Perla!” I screamed, but my voice was deficient, absent of any real sound. My tears swelled. I stood quickly then and stepped away from Perla’s bedside. “Perla!” I cried again. “Perla, Perla, Perla!” I looked around the garden cottage–quick, hurrying looks for what, I didn’t know. A tide of darkness rolled through the room. “You’re good. You’re good. You’re good,” Perla said. And it was on the occasion of those last words that I looked up and saw the vervet monkey in the window, in a halo of light from the garden outside, sitting on the ledge and staring at me and Perla, looking drowsy and disinterested, one hand supporting his chin, the other pressing flat against the humid glass.
Chuck Radke‘s memoir, Stuccoville: Life Without a Net (WiDo), came out in January 2021. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Stoneboat Literary Journal, Sierra Nevada Review, Palante, Showbear Family Circus, HASH, and others. His short fiction has appeared in Cold Lake Anthology, Mud Season Review, The San Joaquin Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, and The South Dakota Review. He is the recipient of an AWP Intro Award for fiction and the Estelle Campbell Prize for literature from the National Society of Arts and Letters.