by Brian Kerstetter
Fatty Arbuckle & The Rainbow Fish
I recently read in the newspaper that, six million years ago in Africa, apes that had always walked on four legs stood up and walked on two. The first chimp to do this, her name was Lucy. Theories circulate as to why Lucy stood up on two legs – was it to see over the tall grass or to pick fruits off the low branches the way chimpanzees do today? Whatever the reason, when I wake up in the morning, lean over the sink and look in the mirror, I sometimes see Lucy, my ape ancestor, who millions of years ago, lived her ape life in Africa.
But evolution doesn’t always progress in a linear fashion. There are bumps in the road, obstacles that can throw the car unexpectedly in reverse, if only for a moment. You won’t come across an article of man retrogressing to his original ape state in the journal Nature, but it happens. And here are three stories to prove it.
I have a friend, O., who’s keen on making movies using his friends as actors. One winter, he scrounged a station wagon and transported a load of us from New York City to a random farmstead in the heart of Amish country, where he presented each of us with a golf club and told us to chase his assistant across a corn field, tackle him, strip him completely naked, pull an E.T. mask over his head, and continue to pursue him like hound dogs as he zigzagged into the sunset, while O. filmed the episode.
A few years later, I journeyed from New York to a village in Switzerland, via plane, train, a tram and two regional buses, just so O. could squeeze me into a full monkey suit for a scene that resembled a 1920s Fatty Arbuckle silent movie set. The monkey suit was fabricated of rubber and layered with matted synthetic hair. O.’s female assistant from the local art school was tasked with coating my hips with baby oil just to get me inside the thing. Once inside, I thought I would suffocate.
On this occasion, my role as an ape was to seduce the blond heroine, one of O.’s longtime friends, by stroking her nape, while intermittently beating her bovine stepmother with a broom when she intervened. The scene demanded vigorous exertion and before long I was swishing around inside the monkey suit in my own oily sweat. Without ventilation, my perspiration had pooled in the fingers and toes of the ape uniform. To this day, if you watch the scene closely, you can pick up a squishing noise just prior to the dull thud of my broom striking the stepmother’s backside.
If the monkey suit seemed air tight, the fingers were not. As I caressed the heroine, little did I know my sweaty excretions were seeping out of my hairy fingertips and trickling down her neck. After the shoot, a cast dinner was anticipated, but the actress, so repulsed by my slimy advances, caught an express train back to Zurich, only to correspond with O. by email for the next six months.
The Sepik Rainbow Fish
Several months after transforming myself into an ape in Switzerland, I embarked on a 22-hour flight to Papua New Guinea, via Japan and Australia, so O. could pull the same monkey mask over my head and film a scene in which I “toured” remote villages and “socialized” with the locals.
To get the ape mask to Papua New Guinea from New York, O. smuggled it in his hand luggage through airport security in Zurich, Tokyo, and Sydney. At Narita International, in Tokyo, a mustached security officer zeroed in on the mask when he caught a glimpse of it passing through his x-ray machine. His eyes bulged, his mouth flopped open, he reversed the conveyor belt to zoom in on the monkey head. He hailed his coworkers and they congregated around the x-ray monitor, gaping at the black and white outline of a monkey head. The mustached guard manipulated the controls of the x-ray machine, as though he were playing a video game, causing the monkey head to go backwards then reappear on the screen. The line of passengers behind us spilled out into the ticketing hall. Each time the monkey head reappeared, the guards would shriek with delight. A female security officer pulled on the mustached guard’s arm, pleading to see the monkey one last time. I don’t speak Japanese but I could make out one expression the officers repeated: “King Kong! King Kong!”
During these proceedings, O. somehow managed to snap a photo of the guards crowding around the monitor with the monkey head displayed on screen. To this day, O. isn’t shy about pulling out this photo as the definitive counter-argument to his Swiss compatriots’ claim that Swiss culture is superior to that of Japan.
On the third morning of our journey through Papua New Guinea, sputtering up the Sepik River in our 1970s houseboat, we came ashore at one of the most distant, inaccessible jungle villages, where the inhabitants had only ever encountered a handful of outsiders. Blue smoke and ash was swelling from a patch of ground next to a mud path leading into the village. When the locals caught sight of our craft, they flocked around us.
“Perfect,” O. said, grabbing his movie camera. “Put on the mask, run through the smoke and the people.” I pulled the ape mask over my head, hopped off the boat and galloped in circles through the smoke and around the villagers. The people recoiled, mouth breathing, eyes inflating into saucers. One boy held his wee-wee with his right hand, his mother with the left. I’d worked myself into a lather inside the stuffy mask and before long, I’d taken to chasing the kids through the village, in and out of the huts, while the parents ran behind me, their arms flailing in the air. Eventually I plopped down on a fallen log, and the kids approached to stare at my red hair and poke their fingers in the monkey’s eye sockets.
Boarding the boat, I considered jumping in the river to cool down, only to discover a crocodile had eaten half of a man the week before. O. inquired as to which half, the top or the bottom, but our guide didn’t find that funny. Nor did our fellow travelers.
That evening, as our boat idled up the river, we ate roasted Sepik Rainbowfish (Glossolepis Multisquamatus) and drank a sour Australia wine from the boat’s hull, for which we paid dearly the following morning.
Broadway and Bleecker
Halloween this year consisted of O. hosting a spaghetti dinner in his apartment for some friends visiting from Miami and Italy before continuing on to a costume party in a foreclosed warehouse. Prior to leaving, I called O. to see about my costume. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “We’ll find you something.” In a cheery mood, satisfied I wouldn’t pass the evening dressed as a forlorn transvestite, my annual Halloween costume over the years, I stopped off for a tub of caramel ice cream, two bars of dark chocolate and a basket of blackberries for dessert.
Following dinner O. distributed intricately carved wooden masks with kaleidoscopic feathers for the party. I loitered beside the kitchen table with a square of chocolate melting between my fingers, my hand raised in the air like a schoolboy, wishing to draw attention to my lack of costume. Everyone filed out of the apartment, shouting goodbyes to Whale and Elephant, O.’s two cats, and praising one another on their primitive appearance. Suddenly, without warning, I experienced a hairy rubber slap to the side of my face.
“You’re all set,” O. said, adjusting his mask, pointing to my feet.
I looked down at the floor and, peering back up at me, was the very same monkey mask I’d worn in Switzerland and Papua New Guinea.
“What’s this?” I asked, feigning stupidity.
“Your old friend, remember?” O. said.
I collected the mask, held it up to the light.
“Never seen this before in my…” I started to say.
”Bye, Whalie!” O. called to his cat, making his way to the door. For him, the matter was settled.
“I sweated my ass off in this thing,” I shouted, flourishing the mask in the air, tracking him to the door. “My head still hasn’t returned to its normal size!”
O. stopped, took the mask, and combed the monkey’s long facial hair with his fingers, as though he were consoling a close friend whose sentiments I’d offended.
Feeling guilty, I accepted the mask and stretched it over my head.
“That wasn’t so hard?” O. said, more as a statement of fact than a question.
From within my rubber prison, to myself, I cursed him. I cursed them both – O. and the monkey. Without warning, the girls charged in acting the part of wild natives, tossed a rope around my neck and dragged me out of the room like their wild pet.
I’m not someone obsessed with my own self worth, you see. In fact I’ve got very little opinion of myself one way or another. But passing the night in a hairy rubber prison with a rope encircling my neck, a rope that any passing drunkard would yank and scream Koko! or that my friends would tug when they required a drink, somehow wobbled my amour propre.
I perched in the back of the taxi wearing the monkey mask with a rope around my neck, breathing in my stale two-year-old sweat, as we inched our way uptown to the Halloween party. From inside the mask I could see the driver eyeing me in the rear-view mirror. He couldn’t see out the back window because of my oversized monkey head. It was raining and I imagined having an accident because the driver’s vision had been impaired by my hairy bulbous crown. I wondered where an ape might fall in order of importance on Halloween night, if medical staff had to choose between saving the life of Elvis, the Pope or a monkey with a leash around its neck.
I leaned toward the cabby. “Want me to take off my monkey head so you can see?”
“No, no,” he said with an Indian accent. “I don’t need to see. I’m looking at you. I love Halloween!”
I sat back and scanned the neighborhoods as they came and went in the drizzle. At the intersection of Broadway and Bleecker, two sexy nuns and a French maid were hailing a gypsy cab, while a midget with an afro and a basketball was lighting Sarah Palin’s cigarette.
At the party we pushed through drunken cops and sweaty pirates to the second floor. I wandered off to the bathroom, locked the door, and gazed at myself in the mirror. A confused monkey, a leash around its neck, stared back. I thought of Lucy, my six million-year-old monkey ancestor, how she was lying cold and dead somewhere in a dark museum. The bass from the sound system shook the bathroom door. I could hear Marilyn Monroe and King Henry VIII laughing and screaming outside. I tightened the rope around my neck, saluted the monkey in the mirror, and marched off to the dance floor, where I met the softest, sexist lime green tennis ball in a pair of four-inch stilettos, who pushed me against a crumbling pillar, and made me feel like I was Roger Federer.