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Also by Tim Schell:
The Dancing Gorilla | Our Extended Worry
The Dancing Gorilla
The American, Roy, climbed the hill behind the presidential palace. It was late afternoon and the sun was hanging low on the horizon, casting the green of Bangui's mango trees and the white of its stucco buildings a hue of burnt orange. This equatorial color signaled the time of day as much as could a clock, and it always pleased Roy; it assured him that another day had been built behind him, and that he could enter the less structured pleasures of evening.
It had rained an hour earlier as Roy had taken a short siesta under the tiled roof that covered his stucco home above the river in the district where the embassy personnel had their large houses. Roy's house was three bedrooms and two baths and had a living room overlooking a swimming pool and a tropical garden. The compound was secured by a stucco wall along the top of which shards of broken beer bottles were cemented to deter anyone from climbing over. His sentinel, Bagangra, slept inside the gated driveway each night with a bow and arrow across his lap. Bagangra was more a fixture of the grounds than a guard, and Roy liked him and gave him whiskey which sent him to sleep. Bagangra called Roy Patron, and sometimes Roy would come home late and the old man would have a woman with him.
The afternoon's downpour rattled the roof so that Roy woke from his siesta prematurely. It had been a short rain, maybe thirty minutes in duration. During the season, African rains were desultory, often arriving in the afternoon like an unannounced guest before clearing out for the evening. The air would become heavy, cool almost, and the great gray clouds would bottom out before slipping away like the guest who sees his host stretch and yawn. Then there would be no clouds and the heat would drive hard to regain its grip on the country.
Roy's house was a five-minute drive from Centre Ville where the traffic of Landcruisers and Peugeots sped around the traffic circle, spinning onto the avenues that converged like filaments in a spider web. He had parked his motorcycle before the New Palace Bar thirty minutes earlier, and after the hike he planned to return to the tiled veranda where he would take a table and drink beer and watch the traffic and the girls who would be coming out for the night. Many of the young girls gathered each evening at the New Palace Bar where they would drink beer until the theater opened. Terribly violent and wildly romantic Indian movies were shown there each evening and the girls loved to watch the exotic women dressed in saris fight over their men.
One night Roy had been drinking and his girlfriend of the time, Veronique, an eighteen-year-old from the northern village of Bozoum, had gone to the late movie with friends. A short while later, a wildly beautiful girl wrapped tightly in an orange and green sari sat down at his table. They drank beer together, and after some time they were walking along the street arm in arm when Veronique came out of the theater. A shouting match ensued, and then Veronique removed one of her high-heeled shoes and began to pummel the girl as passersby gathered to watch the fight. Roy hurried away in fear that someone might recognize him; embassy personnel were expected to have some sense of decorum, and street brawls with girls was not a behavior addressed in the handbook.
Roy had gone into the foreign service almost as an afterthought. He had earned his MA in economics at age twenty-four and with that goal realized, he had no further direction. His own parents were missionaries now working in Belize. Roy had grown up in the hellfire heat of his father's oratory in Kisingani, the former Stanleyville of the former Zaire, and he spoke French and Swahili fluently, and was now studying Sango. When he matriculated with an advanced degree, he took the foreign service exam as a matter of course, and in passing the exam he realized he had fallen into a career. Now 27, he was alone in Bangui, working a job he found similar to that of a missionary, and he recognized the salvation he offered to be in the form of American dollars.
Roy was tall, a hint over six feet, and so thin as to be almost without shadow. There was some concern about his health among the embassy staffers. But he had always been thin and in the boarding school in Utah where he was sent for three years of high school, the kids called him toothpick. He had also been called pizza-face for the acne that bubbled his skin. It wasn't until his first year of graduate school that the acne that had so long marked him finally evanesced.
Roy perspired as he climbed the serpentine path of laterite that led up the hill. He could have ridden up the gravel drive on his BMW 900, but he liked to exercise once or twice a week even in the afternoon heat. Besides, after the hike up and then down the hill the beer would be all the colder on his throat.
He stopped to wipe his forehead with a bandanna. He turned and looked out through the mango trees; Bangui spread out beneath him to the wide expanse of the Ubangui River. Across the river he could see the mysterious jungles of another country from whence thieves would cross at night in rough hewn pirogues. He thought he could see the humped backs of hippos breaking the surface of the river, but from this distance he could not be sure.
Roy had never been to the zoo. He had heard there was a zoo of sorts on the hill above the palace, but he had never had the inclination to visit. Je n'ai pas l'inclinaison, he had told Pops, the Cameroonian waiter at the New Palace Bar who had said he liked to go sit at the zoo and watch the gorilla. The gorilla danced, Pops had said, but Roy had had no desire to see a dancing gorilla when he could be drinking beer with pretty young African girls whose innocently flirtatious nature revived him each night after spending the day in his embassy office where he read reports on deforestation, the price of arabica coffee, the feasibility of mining the uranium in the north.
His days were spent reading reports and then constructing reports of his own, reports which sometimes questioned the veracity of those handed him to read. Such days he found to be long, tedious, and he looked forward to the warm, loose nights which lay before him, evenings of unopened promises of romance.
A week before, he had met Charite on the veranda where they drank beer as dusk slipped off into night. In two days' time, she would be going en brusse to her village to visit her mother and father, and Roy was already both missing her and looking forward to the freedom her absence would afford. On this night, she was going to the cinema with friends, and Roy would drink out the duration of the film on the veranda or inside the bar if it rained.
Charite had finished her beer. "Achete-moi le tabac, s'il te plaît. Je n'ai plus," she said.
Roy called to the cigarette vendor who was passing along the street below the veranda with his tray of cigarettes. He was a young boy, barefoot, wearing tattered shorts, and he had a goiter the size of a mango on his neck. Upon the boy's arrival, Roy took a pack of the expensive Marlboros from the tray, ignoring the cheaper Centre-jeunes and the Siats, and paid him two hundred fifty francs.
Roy gave the pack to Charite who opened it, gently tapped out a cigarette and waited for Roy to light it for her. Roy struck a match and held it to the end of her cigarette as she leaned forward and inhaled. As she exhaled, she said, "Merci." She opened her purse, dropped the pack of cigarettes into it and snapped it shut. "I will see you later tonight after the movie, Roy." She stood and kissed Roy on both cheeks and left him sitting there thinking about the magic of African women, of how they left him both hungry and listless all at once.
That night the week before, Roy had sat on the veranda drinking Mocaf Super beer, reading a magazine, and when Charite reappeared, she sat down and they drank one beer together before going dancing at the Rock Hotel, and then returning to Roy's house where they found Bagangra asleep in the chaise longue by the pool.
As Roy hiked up the hill now, he thought about other zoos he had been to as a boy. He remembered the zoo in San Diego as being grand. He smiled to himself as he walked; it amused him that he was going to visit the zoo this afternoon. It seemed a bit of a lark. On occasion, a whim would strike him as irresistible, and he would follow it to its conclusion as he had the month before when he rode his motorcycle south to M'Baiki and then south into the jungle along dirt logging roads beneath a ceiling of tightly laced branches until he came across a band of pygmies. A young Peace Corps volunteer had told him about the pygmies the year before and Roy had stored away the information until one empty Saturday when he had nothing on his calendar, and he climbed on his motorcycle and headed south to fill the day. It would be a memory, a story to tell to well-dressed people at some dinner party in Washington, D.C. Did I ever tell you about the pygmies in Central Africa? he would say, and in the telling of the story would be the necessary omission of how he had spent the afternoon smoking dope with them, laughing and getting high, drinking palm wine, eating cola nuts and then sharing a meal of antelope by a fire, and it being too late to negotiate the serpentine trails of the jungle, how he slept on a bed of sticks in an igloo-shaped hut of leaves not more than four feet high. But if he had to omit all of these truths, what was he to tell them? Yes, I went into the jungle and met a band of pygmies. Awfully short people. And did I tell you they were nomadic?
There were other stories he could tell of Africa, of course. He could regale a group of diners with an account of the thieves who drugged him by blowing smoke through his shutters, how the smoke paralyzed him so that he watched as the three men rummaged through his bedroom, filling a burlap sack with his odds and ends.
Or, he could tell of the pounding on his house one late, dark night, the pounding on his doors, his roof, and then, finally, the shuttered window by his bed where, upon opening the shutters, he saw a crow standing on the ground beneath the window. And then he would have to explain how the Central Africans, to a man, believed in sorcery and that sorcerers turned into crows at night and flew around the country carrying out dubious deeds.
No, maybe he would not tell that story either. Americans who had not been to Africa were likely to think he suffered from some permanent mental problem due to bouts of malaria or filaria or some other disease they found quaintly exotic.
And how would he tell the Americans back home about the girls? he wondered. The young, fresh, innocent and wildly beautiful girls. Girls who did not discriminate, who liked you for who you were. Never, not ever, had Roy met girls like this, girls who liked him as a man. Girls who did not hide behind words. Mbi ye ti gba, one had said to him his first month in-country: I want to fuck you.
This discovery that women liked sex, that they wanted sex with him, it was, well, the only word he could find to describe this revelation was liberating. His first two years in Bangui had been a mission of liberation, then, the nights finding him bedded down with girls, beautiful black girls with skin like ebony, girls like acrobats who thoroughly enjoyed sex with him, imagine, women liking sex with him, and granted, there was always some recourse to be settled but it was usually a meal and then dancing in one of the boites de nuit if there wasn't a curfew on, and sometimes he would buy them gifts, but it was almost never a coarse exchange of francs for the pleasures provided by a girl whose elemental joy in sex was an emancipation for Roy.
Roy arrived at the top of the hill. Although it was shady beneath the ebony and rosewood trees, beneath the canopy of mango trees it was hot and humid, and Roy perspired in his khaki pants and his short-sleeve shirt. Here, a half mile above the palace, he could look out through the trees and see Centre Ville and the river and beyond, the former Zaire, the country where he had grown up, the only son of missionaries doing the Lord's work. He had never much considered religion as a boy, and his religious studies were undertaken with an apathy both veiled and measured so as not to disturb his parents. It was not until high school that he began to lose his faith, and in college that loss was nearly complete.
Here on top of the hill, the ground had been cleared beneath the trees, the dirt floor neatly raked, leaving no place for snakes to hide. Two cages stood opposite each other with a concrete slab set between them. A relatively small cage housed a lion that appeared to be sleeping, but as Roy walked by, it opened then closed its eyes.
Roy sat down on the concrete slab and looked at the gorilla which sat in the larger cage. The iron bars stretched eight feet up to the barred ceiling above which was a corrugated tin roof. The cage was twenty feet by twenty feet.
The gorilla watched Roy. Roy watched the gorilla. Roy didn't know exactly why he had come up here this afternoon, but he was glad he had. This would be another story to tell people in the states. A zoo with but two cages. A lion and a gorilla. A gorilla who danced. In college, Roy had discovered that Americans were often entranced by stories of Africa, and he had enjoyed telling them. To Americans, Roy felt, Africa was a continent of great and unfathomable mystery and this amused him.
"I thought you danced," Roy said. He felt funny for having spoken to the gorilla, and he looked around to see if anyone were about, but it was only himself here on this shady hill in the late afternoon.
He spoke again. "Hey, gorilla. Dance. I heard you danced. Pops said you danced. Dance for me."
The gorilla stared out at Roy, then yawned. Its large brown eyes were dull, the whites of them faintly red. There was no sparkle, no life in them. Roy thought they looked sad.
"Come on, dance."
With its long, simian fingers, the gorilla scratched its cheek as it looked out at Roy. Then it yawned again.
Roy stood. He walked before the cage. He smiled at himself for doing what he was about to do. He swayed back and forth, his hips undulating, a slow dance of forth and back, a languorous dance of the afternoon, the movement defined by the silence, the eyes of the gorilla that raked his thin body.
The gorilla stood. It ambled to the front of the cage. Roy backed away from the gorilla as it put its right arm out through the bars, its hand palm up. It must be hungry, Roy thought, but he had nothing to give it. "Sorry," Roy said. "I don't have anything to eat."
Roy sat back down on the concrete slab. He turned to look at the lion. The lion slept. The gorilla walked to the back of the cage and sat down, where it began preening its chest.
The gorilla was a disappointment for Roy. He had thought he would get some exercise this afternoon, and in the process he would dance with a gorilla. That would be a story he could tell back home. Did I ever tell you about the dancing gorilla? he would say. Well, then, one afternoon after a heavy rain
But the gorilla would not dance. Maybe Pops had made this story up, and now that Roy thought about it, it made sense, for Pops often had fun at the expense of others.
It was getting late; there was but an hour of daylight left before dusk. Roy thought of the evening before him. Charite had gone back to Bossangoa to visit her parents for a week. It had been three days since she had left and already he missed her. But there were other girls.
Tonight he would have a few beers on the veranda where he would watch the traffic and the girls. If he met someone new, someone pretty, they would ride out to the Rock Hotel where they would dine on fresh capitaine under a pailloute on the river. When they were done, they would dance at the Rock or maybe at the San Sylvestre, and then he would take her home. Bagangra would be sleeping, and if he weren't? It did not matter; he would not tell Charite.
Roy heard talking. Sango. Two boys were laughing and talking in Sango. Roy listened as the voices approached not from the laterite path he had hiked, but from the gravel drive. When they arrived before him, he said, "Bonjour."
"Baramo, munju," they responded. Hello, white man.
They were nine or ten years old, thin, dressed in shorts and tee shirts, barefoot. They walked up to the gorilla's cage.
"Did he dance?" the taller of the boys turned and asked Roy in French.
"Pas encore," Roy said.
"Il va dancer maintenant," the other boy said as he lit a cigarette. "Dodo ti manga," the boy said to the gorilla in Sango.
"What is that?" Roy asked.
"That's his name," the second boy said.
The gorilla stood in the middle of the cage. Knees bent, the gorilla began to sway back and forth, his arms outstretched, palms down as if searching for balance. It swayed slowly, its brown eyes all the while watching the two boys before the cage.
Roy stood and watched. The gorilla was dancing. Apparently Roy had not known the right command because here was this gorilla dancing now before the boys who had said his name.
It was a slow and lugubrious dance, the gorilla's brown eyes dolorous and tired from some distant strain. It danced like this for several minutes, a languid flutter choreographed by the aged, the slow, the infirm; it was a dance of the graveyard, a memorial for the dead. This great hulk of an animal was dancing a requiem in a cage on a hill above the palace, and Roy stood amazed.
And then the boys began to chant. Dodo ti manga, they chanted. Dodo ti manga. The gorilla began to dance more quickly, rocking back and forth, its arms fanning the air, back and forth, up and down, its upper torso twisting at the hips as the boys chanted Dodo ti manga, Dodo ti manga, the gorilla now jumping off the floor of the cage, all of its musculature in feral yet anachronistic action.
Roy watched. This would be a story he could tell in its entirety. There would be no truths to omit, he thought, nothing to leave out that might shed a dubious light on his own character. He could tell the whole story from beginning to end starting with the climb up the hill on a humid afternoon and ending with the evening hike back down. Imagine, he thought: a dancing gorilla. Who would not like to hear such a story?
The gorilla walked up to the bars of the cage. He held out his hand as he had before. The boy with the cigarette lit another cigarette from the one already lit, and he handed it to the gorilla. The gorilla took the cigarette and backed to the middle of the cage. He sat down. He put the cigarette between his thick lips and inhaled through both his mouth and his nose as the French sometimes do. He exhaled. He inhaled. He smoked. The gorilla smoked the cigarette down to the nubbin. Then he dropped the butt onto the floor of the cage.
Of course, Roy thought: Dodo ti manga. Dance for a cigarette.
The boys chanted its name once again, and the gorilla complied, swinging its arms now from side to side, then spinning in a circle in bulking pirouette.
Roy watched for a few more moments as the gorilla danced, and then he turned and started the walk down the gravel drive the boys had walked up. It would be easier going than the steep, laterite path he had taken up the hill. The boys said, "Mo gwe awe," literally you go away, goodbye. Without turning, Roy said, "Alla mo nodouti njoni." You sit well, goodbye. And he walked down the hill.
When he made it down to the street, he walked past the shops that were closing for the day. He made his way around the traffic circle. The sun was dropping over the horizon, and the orange afternoon was gone, the light fading into a rise of dark shadow.
The veranda of the New Palace was crowded with government functionaries dressed in khaki suits and young women in colorful cotton saris, all drinking beer and whiskey, laughing and shouting from table to table in good cheer. Roy recognized many of the girls as regulars, some of the girls he knew now waving to him coyly. Pops was busy clearing a table, and when he saw Roy at the bottom of the steps leading up to the veranda, he waved, indicating the table was for him. Roy hesitated a moment, then shook his head and waved back.
As he climbed on his motorcycle at the foot of the stairs, the young cigarette vendor with the goiter on his neck approached him. "Munju, mo ye manga?" he asked. Do you want cigarettes? Roy shook his head no. He looked up at the general revelry on the veranda, at the tables full of laughing girls, and then he started the motorcycle and rode home with the knowledge that what he omitted from this story would be the story he would never tell.
Printed in the Spring/Summer 2002 issue of CLR
Tim Schell is a former editor of Clackamas Literary Review. His short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines. He is the co-author of Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Fiction and Poetry.
Currently he is at work on a novel in Albuquerque where he is an adjunct faculty member at the University of New Mexico.
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