the sound of an infinite gesture
Things were getting weird in the gorilla habitat.
Last week, Conga, the 300-pound Rwandan primate, one of only four gorillas in the world who could sign over five hundred words, gave the middle finger seven times to a wide-eyed group of kids who had waited over half the school year to visit the Institute for Privileged Primates.
The first flipped bird was aimed at the kids in the center of the observation window.
The second and third came in unison, arms outstretched to full wingspan, like a conductor bringing the violins and cellos to a sudden crescendo.
Number four wove under her muscular leg, a sneak attack, which seemed to be directed at the only girl in the room shielding her eyes.
Teachers, who were lined up behind their kids at the back of the room hadn’t had a moment to digest five and six before Conga built up to the grand finale, her massive hand starting out low and then rising like a rocket ship piloted by drunken astronauts.
Jan should have known there was going to be trouble. On her first day working with Conga, three months ago, Yeager had flagged her down with his shovel.
“Good luck. I hear she’s a real bitch.”
Jan just shrugged. What did he know anyway? The proboscis monkeys he cared for looked like they had deflated ball sacs for noses. But he couldn’t let it go.
“She could kill you if she wanted to.” He had somehow injured his left leg, which caused him to walk with a wobble.
Entering the enclosure alone on that first day had felt like swimming in the deep end of a pool for the first time: exhilarating and scary. Humans usually disappointed her, but these animals tended to remain loyal. She had been asked to join Conga when the gorilla’s original trainer resigned without warning. Jan begrudgingly left her post with the uncomplicated orangutans to work on behavior and communications with the now-famous ape (the press was quick to pounce on the opportunity to exploit the animal’s ability to “talk”), but soon found it easy to spend all day observing and interacting with her new subject.
Jan knew these primates could be dangerous. She knew about that zoologist in San Diego whose face was disfigured by a chimp he had worked with for over twenty years. She made it a habit to keep her eye on the exit, in case things ever got tense.
But Conga had never scared her—none of the apes she’d ever worked with had. Nonetheless, she wore her emergency clicker on her belt loop at all times, just in case. One push of the red button would send three security members to the area, all equipped with tranquilizer guns. The Institute had never had to put this plan into action, but twice a year all employees were required to take part in a rescue simulation.
“Good morning, everyone. I’m Jan Albud and I’m Conga’s trainer,” Jan told the latest batch of school kids. Jan had gotten into this business to observe, not be observed, so presentation days were challenging. Besides her fellow trainers whom she rarely hung out with, these visitors were pretty much her only regular contact with humans. She spoke into the small microphone clipped to her collar as she addressed the kids through the shatterproof glass of the gorilla enclosure.
“Where’s the monkey?” shouted a squat boy, his greasy nose plastered to the glass.
“Well, she’s technically not a monkey. She’s a gorilla, in the hominidae family and she shares over 98% of our DNA! If you look carefully you’ll notice she’s in her favorite hiding spot. Does anyone see her?”
Voices quieted as the kids scanned the enclosure.
“Should we have her come out?”
They brought their hands together, clapping and chanting the gorilla’s name in a persuasive cheer.
Jan reached into her sweatshirt pocket and pulled out a chocolate pudding cup. Within seconds the lumbering gorilla crawled out from under a trampoline and knuckle-walked right up to Jan, grabbed the snack, squeezed the container until the top popped open and downed it like a Jell-O shot. She then crushed the plastic in her fist and threw the empty container on the floor. The crowd went wild with applause.
The gorilla enclosure was divided into two sections—outdoors and indoors. Outside, the grounds were lushly overgrown, and a series of ropes made to look like vines were strategically placed for Conga to climb. There was a large rocky area surrounding a pool of water where she sunned herself. Landscape architects and designers had worked hard to recreate as close to an authentic home as possible.
There was nothing natural about the indoor area though, which looked more like a preschool than a gorilla habitat. Conga had an art nook with a sturdy chair and table set up with colorful containers filled with markers, crayons and chalk. Construction paper was stacked in recycling bins and a roll of butcher paper lay draped over a super-sized easel. The kitchen area had a faux stove, pots, pans and empty cans and boxes of cereal all taped shut. A three-tiered basket hung from a hook filled with plastic fruit and vegetables. Some Moscow school children sent Conga her own chef’s hat with her name embroidered on it, which rested on a hook above the stovetop. There were mixing utensils, whisks and even something that looked like a martini strainer. Conga had a dress up area, a building center, beanbags, a hammock, and a reading corner packed with board books.
But Conga’s favorite item was the flat screen TV that Dr. Walker, the Institute’s director, had purchased, dipping into funds allocated for the fragile Spider monkeys. He said, “A TV would allow Conga to watch reality shows so that she can be hip to modern lingo. We want a gorilla who can speak to teens.” So far, she had refused to watch anything other than Turner Classics, which did nothing to help Dr. Walker’s goal of “accelerated evolution.”
Midway though the presentation, Jan was relieved that none of the kids had made references to last week’s finger episode.
“How do you think you say banana in sign language?”
A little girl made what could have been interpreted as a lewd gesture, her attempt at signing the fruit.
“Good guess!” Jan corrected the girl and pointed up with an index finger, then brought her other hand to the tip of her finger and pretended she was peeling a banana. The crowd tried it as well. She then taught them how to sign “apple” and “orange.”
“Which fruit do you want?” Jan directed her sign to Conga who was now spinning in circles, signing the word “dizzy.”
She came to a stop, thought it over, then brought her right hand in a closed palm up to her jaw and turned it, giving the sign for apple. The children were riveted. Jan then went through a series of emotions, asking Conga how she felt today. The gorilla answered that she was tired, making a sign that looked like she was sweeping cobwebs off her thick hips.
Three lucky students were chosen to ask Conga a question, which Jan interpreted using sign language.
“What’s your favorite game?” (Hide and seek.)
“Who’s your best friend?” (Jan.)
“Do you have any pets?”
“Actually she does. Conga, what kind of pet do you have?” Jan translated.
Conga brought a fist to her chin and extended two fingers in a coquettish wave.
“What she’s saying is that she has a frog.” Jan walked past the art corner to a small terrarium lying on the counter next to the sink. She slid the mesh covering towards her, picked the frog up and carried it back over to Conga, who held it delicately with both hands.
“Do any of you have pet frogs?”
Six arms reached for the ceiling.
“What’s its name?” The freckle-faced girl asked.
“Conga calls her, ‘Leg,’ and you love Leg, don’t you?” Jan signed as she walked toward her audience.
The presentation was almost over. All she had to do was urge them to sign an invisible petition, with their fingers in the air, to take care of the environment so that gorillas would always have a place to live and her job would be done. They’d wave goodbye and get funneled to the gift shop where those who came prepared could shell out $100 for an original watercolor by the famous primate. Those who didn’t have the money went home, at the very least, with a three-dollar keychain depicting Conga signing the word, Love.
“Um, what’s the monkey doing?”
Jan turned around. Conga had placed Leg on the ground and was standing on her red plastic chair. As if she had been bitten by a wasp, she leaped up off the chair, performed a wrestling move known as the Corkscrew Splash, spinning in a circle in the air before landing belly first. She quickly rolled aside to give her audience a peek at the animal that was no longer technically a frog, but a green Play-Doh pancake.
At the emergency staff meeting called by Dr. Walker, Jan defended Conga.
“She must have learned it from one of the kids. She was just mimicking behavior. It’s in her nature.”
“Maybe she learned it from the TV. Probably some violent movie you let her watch.” Yeager was adamantly against the TV for Monkeys program. “What’d you have on this morning? Scarface?”
All eyes looked to Jan, even Kaci’s, her roommate. “Actually, it was It’s A Wonderful Life. Conga doesn’t like violence.” The Institute had access to American Sign Language support: each channel on the TV was accompanied by a person in a circle in the bottom right-hand corner, translating the show into sign language. Sometimes they signed so quickly that even Jan had trouble deciphering what was being said. Conga was content to sit in her beanbag chair and watch classic movies for hours, sometimes signing lines she learned alongside the interpreter. Her favorites included Carousel and Bringing Up Baby. After this morning’s screening, Conga tried copying Jan, signing, “I’ll give you the moon, Mary,” but it came out “I’ll give you my dad.”
Dr. Walker adjusted his black tie sprinkled with embroidered bananas. “The TV is staying, but we’ll have to launch a new publicity campaign. Send this one over to Gina. Get that gorilla a more stable pet. A dog or pig. Something she can’t sit on. Something smart enough to know when to hide.”
On the way back from the Lazy Susan on a Friday night a few days after the frog incident, Jan was tipsy from the mix of beer and tequila shots. She didn’t normally drink, but it had been a rough week at work, and then there was Andrew, the guy Kaci had been trying to set her up with. They were finally able to coordinate an unsuccessful gathering at the bar.
Up the hill to the IPP staff-housing unit, Jan sat in the passenger’s seat of the taxi while Kaci and Kurt made out in the back. They weren’t supposed to have overnight visitors, but Kaci always broke that rule.
It was drippy out, though not quite raining. A juniper tree whose roots had become too weak to support it had fallen at the intersection of Elm and Fleet and the traffic lights were out. In front of the taxi, two officers wearing white gloves and fluorescent vests were sloppily directing traffic. Jan fixated on their hands as they lazily waved people forward, chatting incessantly. At one point, one of the men even briefly answered his cell phone with one hand, still directing with the other. They finally brought the vehicles coming from the opposite direction to a stop and motioned the cab forward.
It was cheaper living on IPP grounds than paying the high rent in town. The accommodations reminded Jan of her freshman dorm, cramped and smelly, but convenient. A faded pink stucco building offered two-bedroom suites with a kitchenette and a bathroom. Jan had no say about whom she lived with. Institute policy. If primates could be put in an enclosure together and make it work, then so could humans. The only person who found his way out of this was Yeager; he managed to snag a suite all to himself. Some thought it was because he had worked at IPP for so long, but there were stories circulating about fights that ended in threats and resignations.
The cab slammed to a sudden stop and Kaci undraped herself from Kurt. “Aren’t you coming up?” She asked Jan.
“Yeah, I’ll be right there. I just wanna check on Conga.”
“You and that fucking gorilla.” Kaci put her arms back around her boyfriend and entered the dimly lit building.
Hoots and screeches accompanied Jan on her walk to the animal habitats. She found the sounds comforting. She walked past the spider and gibbon monkeys, past the howlers and chimpanzees. She stopped to look at her old friends, the orangutans. There were three nylon clotheslines running the length of the enclosure with various items pinned to the line: a long sleeved shirt, a pair of jeans and various socks. Dr. Walker had lauded Jan for her launching of the Monkey See, Monkey Do Program, whereby all five of the orangutans had been successfully taught to launder clothing. Luis’s hair sat on his head like a disheveled mop, a fallen patriarch. Jan watched by moonlight as Luis scratched his bottom and brought his finger to his nose and nodded, seemingly satisfied that the scent matched his anticipation of it.
At Conga’s enclosure, the lights were out. It was Yeager’s job to shut them off at eleven each night. Luckily, the moon was bright and Jan could spot Conga in the outdoor area, sitting in a nest of leaves she had assembled, eating fresh stems by sliding her tongue over and around and then chewing them up with her back molars. Jan fumbled for her keys, usually attached to her belt loop by a carabineer, but tonight she had to dig through her purse for them. She felt awkward entering the enclosure wearing a skirt; it felt unprofessional, but the tequila gave her courage.
Conga seemed equally grateful to see Jan and rolled over to greet her. She looked like an oversized stuffed animal. Soft purring noises told Jan the gorilla was in a good mood. Her large nostrils flared, hoping to locate some food. She flinched, sensing the alcohol on Jan’s breath. Then she stretched out her long arm and felt for Jan’s pockets, still unconvinced that she would visit her without bringing a treat.
“No food, sorry.” Jan’s closed hand for “sorry” looked more like she was putting up dukes to fight rather than expressing a sloppy apology. The gorilla ignored the signs and continued exploring Jan’s front pockets, pulling out a tube of lipstick that Kaci had lent her.
“For my lips.” Jan pointed to her mouth. Conga opened the case, smelled it, and shut it. She looked as though she were going to give it back to Jan, but then hurled it into the bushes.
Conga didn’t relent and now moved to the back of Jan’s skirt, her rubbery index finger hooking the top of the material. Then she let go and drifted the digit down to the hem.
“Conga, stop it!” But she continued under the fold of Jan’s skirt, in between her thighs and quickly moved her two thick fingers across her cotton underwear.
Jan’s leg tingled and goose bumps appeared all over her exposed and now flushed skin. She took a step back from the gorilla. When Jan regained her composure, she signed, “I go now.”
“Goodnight,” signed Conga and lumbered back to stick-licking in her nest.
In bed, Jan went over the evening’s blurred events in her head. Conga was just looking for food, right? In the oddest of places, no doubt, but looking for food. Gorillas had an exploratory instinct. It was in their nature. In their DNA. But why had it made her feel so good?
She thought back to earlier in the night when Kurt first introduced her to Andrew, a day trader. He had been nice enough, bought her a few rounds of drinks, and coaxed her onto the dance floor, but she felt no spark.
“So how did you get into the monkey business?”
Jan almost launched into her presentation dialogue, “Well, technically they’re not monkeys,” but she stopped herself. She wasn’t on the clock. Talking with kids and gorillas all day, she had forgotten how to interact with adults.
“My mom was deaf, so signing was like my second language. She had the nicest hands.” Jan thought back to childhood, when she would sit and watch her mother dance in ballet class. Even though her mom couldn’t hear the music, she was able to move with grace across the resin-scented hardwood floors, feeling the vibrations of the piano.
Kurt had butted in and broke their comfortable silence. “Man, if my mom had been deaf I would’ve played so many fucking tricks on her. Like sneaking up on her and scaring her. You must’ve done a lot of shit like that.”
Jan had downed another shot. Her mom had been impressed by anyone willing to use sign language. Jan would have done anything to be able to bring her mom back and introduce her to Conga.
The Lazy Susan was covered in shreds of sawdust, maybe to give the place charm. It reminded Jan of a petting zoo. Andrew had been quick to read her mind.
“How often do you think they change this stuff?”
The more tequila they drank, the more he performed the same shtick as every other guy she’d dated. Even his hairy arms reaching out in front of her to the tray of tequila shots had begun to irritate her. At one point Kurt and Andrew had put their lime wedges into their mouths leaving just the peels sticking out. They raised their arms and made monkey sounds. Kaci was in hysterics. Jan had asked if they could please go home.
Lying in bed, she smelled Kaci’s or Kurt’s post-coital eggs burning in a pan. This reminded her of her mother’s funeral, which had taken place the day after a small fire broke out on the cemetery grounds. The priest, a man with a sensitive nose had let out a huge sneeze before making the sign of the cross over her mother’s casket. Jan, flat in her bed, sweating tequila, her body heavy, tried to find her way to deep sleep.
The next morning, Jan felt like a dried-out sponge. She threw on a pair of khakis and a white T-shirt with the IPP logo on the sleeve and popped some aspirin. She hadn’t had a hangover this bad since college and Kaci’s incessant door pounding wasn’t helping.
“Let’s go, Hon. Your gorilla’s probably starving for affection. Yeager’s threatening to call the boss on you.” It wasn’t the first time he had made that threat. Jan was someone people usually got along with. She didn’t necessarily make an unforgettable impression, but she was not a person who had any enemies either, which was why Yeagar’s recent aggressiveness towards her put her on edge.
“It’s just because you’re working with gorillas and he’s stuck with tree dwellers,” Kaci would comfort her. Whatever the reason, Jan wanted to stay on his good side.
“Pretty,” signed Conga when Jan entered the enclosure around ten. She wasn’t sure if things would be awkward between the two of them after last night.
“Hug.” It was more of a command than a suggestion and Jan listened, knowing very well you don’t refuse a 300-pound gorilla.
Jan began a series of mental enrichment exercises. She took a ball out of a storage bin and dribbled it. Conga watched intently.
“You, ball.” Jan handed the gorilla the rubber ball. Conga caught on quickly and was soon dribbling the red rubber mass around the inside of her enclosure, navigating around tables and chairs.
Good!” Jan signed her praise.
After making it past the play stove, Conga began to dribble low to the ground with ferocity. Jan knew to back up out of her way, but she was too late. Conga arched her back, lifted her massive arm and hurled the ball at Jan. It hit her in the head hard, proving that her hangover could indeed get worse.
“Ouch.” Jan pointed to her head and put the tips of her index fingers together, moving them back and forth, the sign for pain. She hoped this would be enough to calm the gorilla. Conga came over like a dog that had peed on the carpet, both begging for forgiveness and attempting to get the ball back.
“Gentle,” signed Jan.
Conga seemed to understand. She picked the ball up and held it in her arms rocking it like a baby. She lovingly stroked it, gave it a sweet kiss, and then lobbed it even harder at Jan, releasing a staccato chortle through her nose. This unpredictability, an unusual display, made Jan nervously think of poor Leg.
Her patience for mental stimulation was strained so she moved on to observation. She would step back, out of Conga’s view, and spend what was left of the morning taking notes. She used to find the paperwork tedious, but now, she found solace in tracking the recognizable patterns of activity the gorilla exhibited. She recorded Conga’s every move on a metal clipboard.
11:05 stretches arms high. Some mellow barking.
11:07 playing with palm frond over head like a wig.
11:15 large bowel movement. Northwest corner of habitat.
Few married couples ever got to be this intimate.
“You shouldn’t be in there with her after hours.” Yeager confronted Jan while locking up the habitat at the end of the day. She didn’t know what to say. What was he doing watching her last night anyway? And how much did he see? Jan continued walking.
“She’s not your friend, you know. You think she’s your friend, but she’s not. None of them are.”
Jan doubted that Yeager had ever had any friends at all, human or otherwise.
Kaci was flipping through a floppy photo album in their living room.
“How was your day?”
“They threw their shit at me again.” Kaci was referring to the petulant bush babies she was in charge of. Jan felt so sorry for those animals. The lot of them had once been pets but had been seized by animal control services from a man who kept them locked in a bedroom closet. They interacted, but they didn’t understand. However, they did have great aim when it came to throwing their b.m.’s at people.
Kaci looked at Jan and started to cry.
“Don’t let it get you down,” said Jan. “That’s what they do! They’re just letting you know you’re on their territory.”
“It’s not that. Kurt and I broke up.”
“Today. The asshole said, ‘I just can’t see myself evolving with you’ or some crap like that. What the hell does that even mean?”
Jan shrugged. Who was she to dole out relationship advice?
It means things end without reason, she wanted to say. People change and leave and die and there’s no science to it all. But instead, she gave Kaci a squeeze on her shoulder—a sign that things would be okay.
Monday was a long day. Jan had to organize the enclosure for their weekly visitors the next day. After putting away art supplies and picking up Legos, Jan took a seat next to Conga on the oversized trampoline.
“Everyone out there is crazy. You’re lucky you’re in here.”
Conga turned on the TV. End credits were scrolling down the screen. The signer who was usually in the lower left hand corner was nowhere to be seen; no one could sign fast enough to get all those names in.
Conga seemed to understand Jan’s resigned tone and patted her on the head and put her hand up in the air for a high five. Jan reached up to slap the leathery palm. Conga grasped her hand and squeezed hard. Jan’s body was giving her signals – similar to the other night, but this time she was sober. She leaned into Conga’s soft chest. Conga reached around and holding her, began swaying in a steady rocking motion, back and forth, like a metronome keeping time for a nocturne. She hadn’t been held like that in a long time, not since dating her last boyfriend, Ed, over a year ago, and he was a scrawny five-foot seven with a limp grasp and glasses that dug into the top of her head when they hugged.
A gunshot blasted from the television and Jan jumped. It was Casablanca, one of Conga’s favorites, but even the opening scene wasn’t enough to draw the gorilla away from her embrace.
As Jan was held in a rhythmic embrace that lasted minutes, she had a fleeting moment of panic. She had always been taught to stay in control of any situation with the primates. Being entwined in Conga’s arms gave the gorilla all the power. What if she chose to squeeze the life out of her like a boa constrictor? What if Jan couldn’t lift her hands in time to sign “stop?” As if Conga had read her mind, she loosened her grip on her trainer. Jan smiled, wiped her eyes and signed “thanks” to her friend.
“More,” signed Conga.
“Now.” Conga reached out to Jan’s hips. She pulled her towards her and unclipped Jan’s emergency clicker from her belt loop.
“Conga, no.” But it was too late; the gorilla had it in her hands and lobbed it on top of the art supply cupboards. Jan would have to call the custodian to get a ladder to reach it. She looked to the gorilla’s expressive face to see what she would do next. Jan readied herself for a struggle, her hands in two tight fists clenched to her chest. Conga grabbed Jan’s wrist and started grunting, a sign of aggression. Jan looked over to the cupboards to see if there was any way she could somehow scale them to press her clicker, but she was no monkey. Conga jerked Jan towards her and stood up staring down at her. Jan put her hands up to her face, hoping that whatever Conga was going to do to her would be done quickly.
“Sit on my face.” The gorilla signed quickly so that Jan had to think about it before she realized what she had just said.
“Sit on my face.” Conga repeated the series of signs.
“I love you.”
“I love you too, but no ‘sit on your face.'”
Conga looked disappointed and began nibbling on Jan’s ankles. She wanted her to stop, she knew she should stop, but it felt too good. The gorilla’s body was warm. She began to tickle and pinch Jan on her arms and legs. Jan reached out to Conga’s arm.
“No, like this,” she signed, running her fingers over her own forearm, hoping to convey the meaning of a tender touch. Conga then tried moving her hands over Jan’s arms and legs. Jan wanted more. She removed her IPP shirt, tossing it onto a pile of Lego pieces. Conga rubbed her hands across Jan’s stomach and back. Jan unbuttoned her shorts and let them fall to the floor, giving Conga access to her thighs and buttocks.
The lights went out; Yeager must have been making his rounds.
“Shhh,” Jan brought her finger to her lips and Conga obliged, not making a sound until Jan thought they were in the clear. Now, the only light was coming from the TV screen. The voices on the television seemed to whisper:
Mareichtag and I are speaking nothing but English now.
So we should feel at home when we get to America.
They curled up in a ball on the trampoline, Conga spooning Jan who folded into her like a chrysalis in a cocoon.
By the time Jan awoke, the lights in Conga’s enclosure were back on. It took her almost a full minute to remember where she was and what had happened. She was so comfortable resting her head on one of Conga’s arms that she didn’t want to get up. Had it not been for the pounding she was hearing, she could have slept there forever. She took stock of her body slowly, still naked; she jumped up into a seated position, rousing Conga awake as well.
Her eyes were met by a room full of school kids, mouths agape from the observation deck. Teachers tried to cover their students’ eyes and shuffle them out of the area, to the gift shop, anywhere but here. Conga sat up as well, seemingly unfazed by the visitors.
“Hungry?” Conga held up a palm frond to Jan who was scrambling to locate her clothing, which was scattered across the enclosure. As she gathered her shorts, shirt, shoes and underwear from the floor she looked up again to where her audience had watched her give her gorilla presentation so many times before.
Dr. Walker towered over the clusters of school kids. He must have rushed into the room in the middle of his morning doughnut because his tie was draped over his left shoulder. He gave a knowing nod to Yeager who appeared to be waiting at full attention. Dr. Walker’s eyes locked on Jan and he brought his index finger across his neck in a swift motion.
As the students were shuffled out of the room, a few pounded on the glass and a little girl in the corner waved to Jan. Yeager made his way to the entrance of the enclosure and without saying a word, unplugged the TV that was playing a commercial for a boxed set of Cary Grant films. He reached around to hold on to both sides of the flat screen and, bending at the knees, hoisted it up against his chest and took it out of the room. This sent Conga into a fury, pounding her chest, jumping from the trampoline to her art desk to her beanbag.
“Play it, Sam,” Conga frantically signed. “You played him, now play with me!”
Jan was reminded of her mother’s ballet class, filled with “tongue talkers” as her mom called them. She had often remarked on all the things that non-signers missed out on—the boldness of colors, the beauty of certain movements and a heightened sense of smell—all muted by the distraction of noise. Her mother would take her place standing at the barre at the far corner of the studio wearing a black leotard with a low back exposing rivulets of sweat that were cradled where the material met in a V just under her F5 vertebrae —the spot where a tail might have protruded had she been a different species.
Words had a definite beginning and an end, but a sign could go on as long as a finger was extended.
What rapture Jan’s mother must have experienced as she stretched and turned. What infinitesimal noise born out of her gestures, exalting asynchronous grace.
jennifer caloyeras holds an MA in English Literature from California State University, Los Angeles and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Her first young adult novel, Urban Falcon, was published in 2009. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s November 2007 Short Story Award for New Writers and the 2008 RRofihe Awards. She received an honorable mention in Narrative’s 2010 writing competition and the New Millennium writing competition in 2008 and 2010.