J. W. Shumate
MRS. VLADIMIR VARNOFF, WITH CHIMPANZEE
I saw Harry off to work. His '51 Buick was a hiccup in the line of '53s leaving Levittown for New York City. The block went all quiet and I latched the door and got myself into the day, cleaning away the breakfast and brewing a second pot. I was excited about the new Women's Day, an issue for expecting mothers. The doorbell rang just as I cracked the magazine open, startling me and sending coffee down my chin.
"What did you forget this time, Harold?" I hollered, wiping at my face with my apron.
But it wasn't Harry at all. Standing before me, looking fit to fall any second, was Lydia Haskill, from grade school. She was wearing a lab coat that was all burned and she was barefoot and her nose was caked with dried blood. If that wasn't enough to freeze me with shock, she was holding a chimpanzee that looked just as frazzled.
She walked in without a word. I was concerned about the hair and the fleas and such, but I let her put the chimp in the nursery and it fell right to sleep. I poured her a cup. She looked at it like it was the first coffee she'd ever seen and she played with her messy hair, picking pieces of soot and bits of wood out of her curls.
"Should we call an ambulance for you, Lyds?" I asked.
"No! No police. No doctors." Her hands got to shaking all wild.
"Fine, fine," I said. "What on Earth happened to you, sweetheart?"
"My...my husband, gone...gone to DC. I didn't know where else to go." I didn't press her any more than that. She wept all afternoon, completely hysterical, until she passed out on my bed right before supper time.
"So this article says smoking isn't good for the baby, but I don't see you quitting and you know how I like to have one on occasion."
"Mhm." Harry shoved some peas into his mouth and sighed, eyes all glazed by work thoughts.
"And we'll have to sleep in the living room tonight because there's an old friend of mine using the bedroom." I cringed.
"I said there's a woman sleeping in our bedroom and a chimpanzee in the nursery."
"Harold!" I slapped the dinner table and sent some peas flying. "Up. Right now. Follow me." I grabbed his hand, led him to the bedroom door and opened a tiny crack. She was still fast asleep, and the chimp had joined her. They were spooning.
We were packaged up nice and tight in our sleeping bags when the Camel News Caravan came on NBC. John Cameron Swayze made his greetings and lit up a cigarette.
"I want her out by Friday," Harry grumbled, turning onto his side, back facing me. "Who the hell sleeps with a monkey, anyway?"
Lydia's face appeared on the screen. "Gosh, Harry, look at that!"
"...tragic lab explosion, leaving at least three dead, including Doctor Varnoff's wife, who was set to relocate to DC with her husband to work on a top-secret project for the Eisenhower administration."
But Harry was snoring already. I unwrapped myself and tip-toed to the bedroom door. I heard giggling in there, the soft noise of an intimate, friendly conversation, sounding so lively I hesitated interrupting it.
"Lydia?" I whispered. "Is someone in here with you?" I found her sitting with her back against the headboard, all smiles, hands resting on her chimp's forearms.
"No, just Thomas here," she said, as happy as you please.
"Lyds, I just saw you on the news. Everyone thinks you're dead!"
A dark cloud crossed her face. "And that's the way I want it."
"But your husband, Lydia. Your husband thinks you're dead."
"Let him go on thinking that," she said.
She was gone by the time we woke up. There was a note on the kitchen table: Went to the city to run errands. Will return soon. Love, Lydia. She must've had money for a taxi, but that would be a steep fare.
"There's goddamned monkey fur all over the tub!" Harry bellowed from the bathroom.
I watched him eat his eggs, drink his coffee, read his paper. "Says here your friend is dead," he mumbled.
"Hm." I flipped through some envelopes, figuring which bill to ignore this month.
"Hello? Are you listening to me? It says in the paper that your friend died in a blasted explosion. Shouldn't we call the cops or something?"
"Nah," I said, glaring at him.
Television on mute, my afternoon felt nice and normal. No dead woman in my bed, no chimpanzee named Thomas. I was finishing up my Woman's World when I glanced at the TV and all the weird came rushing back in. A stock photo of a chimp was on the screen.
"Authorities are dumbfounded by initial reports of the robber. Witnesses claim a chimpanzee entered the Bank of New York and demanded as much cash as it could fit inside a duffle bag."
The screen cut to an old woman standing in front of the bank, where a huge crowd had gathered. "I'm telling you it was a chimp that stole the money. It threatened us with fireballs."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, fireballs you say?"
"Did I stutter young man? Yes, I said fireballs. The little fella blew them out of his mouth like one of those dragons."
My legs got all wobbly and my head went spinning. I was glad to be sitting down.
"Quick, Sandra!" Lydia rushed through the door, cradling a whimpering and bloodied Thomas, a stuffed duffle bag slung across her back. "I need towels, hot water, and a knife. Some thread and a needle."
"But how? Did you hijack a car, or..."
"Sandra, he's shot."
"H-how? How did..."
"Are you going to help me save Thomas, or not?"
Lydia made short work of the bullet and stitched him all up.
He was still woozy and wincey, but Thomas chugged coffee and went all chatty. "So I'm sitting in my cage, and Vladimir—that's Lydia's husband—Vladimir stomps on by, mumbling to himself like he does, and the fellow in the cage underneath mine sticks out his arm and trips him. The bastard fell flat on his ass!"
Lydia and I exchanged glances and burst out laughing.
"We were demons at that age too," I said. "How about that time we snuck into Mrs. Harbin's classroom and stole her little teddy bear?"
Lydia choked on her coffee, sending bits of brown spittle onto the table. "We held it for ransom. And she actually paid up!"
Thomas joined in, full of sincere laughter. "Sounds like I missed out on some good times," he said, rubbing at the bandage on his shoulder.
"Now, Thomas, stop scratching it," I chided.
His apology hit me in the gut and everything felt real, painfully real and ridiculous and wonderful. I laughed until I couldn't breathe any longer and then I laughed some more, spending every little bit of myself. "Here I am," I said between gasps. "Here I am."
"Easy does it, Sandra." Lydia patted my back.
"Here I am talking to a chimpanzee, and it's more conversation than I've had with Harry in years."
"I imagine he'll be home soon," Lydia parried. "Think you can manage, Thomas?"
"Sure," he sighed. "But in this state, I won't be able to put up much of a fight if we get into trouble."
"Sandra, I'm sorry for the mess. I know you didn't sign up for harboring a fugitive. But we have plenty of cash to get us started, and we couldn't have done it without you." She grabbed my arm and squeezed.
"Get started with what?" I asked, genuinely curious.
She smiled. "Revenge." Grunting, she slid the duffle bag onto her back and took Thomas's hand.
They were floating fifty feet in the air when I called after them, two ghostly satellites orbiting Levittown. "Stop! Let me come with you." But they were too far gone, strangers again, blurring with the clouds. I closed my eyes and pictured their progress, my house becoming a whole grid of houses and the grid becoming a little square inside of a green square and finally disappearing.
A hand wrapped itself around mine. "Imagine that," Harry said, squinting into the sky. "Imagine that."
J. W. Shumate earned his MFA from West Virginia University. He writes and teaches in Boston.