"Lunatics on parade," I hear a voice behind me utter distinctly. It’s a voice curiously flat, almost atonal.
"Dr. Markham," I say, turning away from the television to face her. I’m busted, no question, with no way to brazen it out. I was younger then, and hadn’t become the skilled liar that life would later encourage me to be. Not that watching television in the lab is expressly forbidden. It’s just that Dr. Markham doesn’t approve of a division in the attention of her lab assistants.
She glances at the television. "Who is this idiot?" she asks, curious in spite of herself. Curiosity, on her, expresses itself with a straight line above her pale eyebrows and a further deepening of her gaunt cheeks.
"I don’t know," I tell her. "It was a toss-up between this guy and a Japanese movie about a radiation infected boy eighty five feet tall."
The small phosphor dot figure rants about the great pyramids, Atlantis, and the Divine Plan.
Dr. Markham listens for a moment. "That kind," she says shortly. "Relying on the writings of Herodotus and his ilk…that’s like using Aristotle to prove spontaneous regeneration is a fact."
Having thus dismissed my semi amusing television harangue, she focuses her attention upon me. Closely upon me.
"How is the subject?"
Beebee is the subject’s name. Really, her nameplate reads Betty, but one of the cleaning ladies could never get it straight, no matter how often she was corrected. "How is Betty the Baboon?" the woman would ask. Eventually, we started to log Betty’s responses under B.B. I know it’s not in keeping with the finest traditions of controlled scientific inquiry, but people do a lot of silly things when they’re bored. So Betty became Beebee.
"She’s fine." I try for a surreptitious glance at my log–not covert enough, as Dr. Markham with her long thin hands lifts the logbook off the counter. "She voided her bladder about 2300," I add lamely.
"Yes."
Why do I get the feeling my very existence is an affront to Dr. Markham? It’s not so much that she curls her lip when she speaks to me as the distance with which she seems to regard me. I imagine her holding me out at arm’s length, the way she would a parasitic fecal sample.
But it’s not just me. It’s the way she treats everyone. Everyone around here at least.
Lean, thin, gaunt, she crosses to the monitors. Her naked flanks must look like those of a wolf. From out of nowhere, I’m wondering what her ass would look like if she were nude, walking away from me. I suffer a vision of taut, white, spare, controlled flesh.
I think I’ve been working nights too long.
"Is that kitten still in there with her?"
Oh, no. Oh shit. "Yes, ma’am."
Without turning to me, she says, "I don’t like the kitten being in there with the subject."
"Dr. Graham thought it was a good idea, a way to further her socialization."
"Yes, I know what Dr. Graham thinks," Dr. Markham replies, atonal as ever, but degrees colder. Cold enough to burn. "I believe it distracts the subject, making our work here more difficult."
I don’t want to get in the middle of a pissing contest between two PhD’s, especially since I was the one who let the kitten into the viewing room, allowing Beebee to see her for the first time. Doing my best to project an aural impression of groveling, I reply, "Dr. Graham said that if the kitten came back, I should let Beebee go ahead and play with it."
Dr. Markham shifts the cameras which record Beebee’s actions day and night. "Turn that off," she tells me quietly.
I scoot across the false flooring in my desk chair and tap the switch on the TV. I can feel irritation building up. You’re tired, I warn myself. Don’t say anything stupid.
Now she has the angle she wants. The view inside the cage is too dark, a mass of greys with a splash of dusty white. I reach over and hit the Starlight switch. It’s adapted from the Army nighttime rifle scopes of the same name.
"Thank you," Dr. Markham mutters perfunctorily.
Beebee sleeps sprawled on her side, with her shoulders almost flat on her bed. The kitten sleeps, too, curled up in the space between Beebee’s thick forearm and heavy chest. It’s a touching sight, even "cute" as one of the interns put it. The kitten, a mash of whites and oranges and browns, mingles her soft downy fur with Beebee’s long black hair. A pastoral image, shaded a gentle Starlight scope green.
The kitten a pet; the subject a lowland gorilla; and me on watch this evening. And because I am on watch with Dr. Markham’s spectral presence beside me, the tableau we view would not be described as trust, or "The Peaceable Kingdom." It might be written up as an example of "mutually shared territoriality," or if one listened to Dr. Graham’s arguments, a case of "higher primate need to establish a social order."
For a time, Dr. Markham watches the monitor. You would think she suspected me, or Beebee, of trying to pull a fast one. Turning away from the screen, Dr. Markham announces, "I’ll speak to Dr. Graham about this," and walks swiftly from the room.
"Good night," I tell her back as she closes the door behind her. Damn. She’s working late tonight. And most nights.
There’s a tap on the viewing window. It startles me, and I jump. "Jesus!"
Beebee pushes her hairy knuckles against the glass again.
"Go to bed, Beebee," I say out loud, futilely.
She looks at me, and cocks her head.
I sign, ‘Sleep you.’
She’s sleepy, but petulant. I see that she carries the kitten in the crook of one arm. (If the intern had seen it, she would have squealed, "Oh, Beebee, you’re so cute I can hardly stand it!") With her free hand, Beebee signs slowly, ‘Birds.’
By that, she means noises. The noises that came from the camera being activated and guided. Nothing you or I might have noticed, but our lives have never depended upon hearing a predator’s footsteps.
But Beebee had lain still when Dr. Markham was watching her.
‘You play?’ I ask her.
A little impishly, she signs ‘Birds.’ She knew someone had been watching her, but she didn’t want to be bothered. And she knows I never manipulate the camera when she sleeps.
I laugh. ‘Sleep you.’
‘Hugs.’ It’s too much. I find my lunch sack, dig out an orange, and open the door to Beebee’s room. We tussle for a while, I give her the orange, and send her to bed. She gravely offers her kitten for me to pet. I do, and give the kitten back.
‘Sleep,’ I tell her.
She ambles toward her bed, and I leave the room, carefully brushing the hairs from my lab coat. If Markham caught me playing with Beebee, it would be my ass. It’s an unusual job, but an enjoyable one as lab assistant jobs go. It’s better than screwing wires into the skulls of rhesus monkeys, as a friend of mine did for a semester.
*
The lab meeting starts at 2 p.m. every Thursday afternoon.
Dr. Markham glances up as I enter the room. Her expression tells me amply, ‘You’re forty minutes late, William Phillips.’
"My hematology class ran over," I tell them as I try not to slink to the back of the room. Dr. Graham smiles at me.
"The Cambridge Department of Ethology has made some very substantial advancements with their subject," Dr. Graham is saying. Ethology, the science of animal behavior. What animal behavior has to do with American Sign Language, I’m not sure, but it does pay the bills.
Scatman Crothers (actually, an old and bald doctor so nicknamed by the work-study students) adds, "Their article in the Journal of Animal Behavior Science makes some very strong statements about the ability of their subject to conceptualize."
"That’s why I think we should make arrangements to bring our two subjects together," Dr. Graham concludes. "I believe we could discover whether our subject’s use of ASL is simply a programmed response, or whether it is a vital, useable tool."
Stupid, stupid, I think to myself.
"I disagree," Dr. Markham says unnecessarily. She always disagrees. I suspect she thinks the only way to prove something is to attempt to disprove it completely. "Our subject’s responses are clearly conditioned responses to our rewards of food, or attention. To place two such animals in proximity with one another would be a waste of time."
I find myself in the unaccustomed position of agreeing with Dr. Markham. You take two people, say Germans, whom you have taught to speak French, put them in a room together, and how will they start to communicate? Pas en Francais, you can bet.
When I first came to the project, I knew only a few rudiments of ASL. My grandmother had been deaf, and I had learned some simple signs, enough to get me hired. I had only been at the lab for about a month when they, the amorphous "they" who make decisions like that, decided to put Beebee in social contact with another lowland gorilla. This other gorilla, one who (or that, if we are to argue about pronouns and tenses) had not been taught ASL, would serve as a reference point to gauge Beebee’s behavior.
Before it was over, I was so scared and sick that I vomited into a wastebasket. Beebee and the other gorilla, let’s call him Chuck, had been placed in a common space that was separated by a set of bars. For a day or two, the animals stayed far from the bars only drawing near to sniff the scent that the other had left behind. The bars were removed the third day.
Chuck moved first. He waddled about his accustomed space, and then began edging nearer the area where the bars had been. After a moment’s sniffing, a moment’s hesitation, he pushed his way into Beebee’s space.
She signed to him.
I remember I said aloud, "Son of a bitch!" She was using ASL to communicate. But Chuck was using something else to make his point.
In all animal life there is some kind of social dominance order, be it based upon colorful plumage, speed, or in the case of primates, size and strength.
Chuck had both. And he began to establish his dominance.
I panicked. Chuck began cuffing and striking Beebee, who retreated, still signing to him. Jesus, I wish I knew what she was trying to say, but I lacked the vocabulary to be able to read her hands. I could go back and watch the tapes, but the sight of that six hundred pound gorilla growling and baring his fangs, throwing Beebee to the ground over and over…I called for the doctors, who were already present, and ran from the viewing room. I desperately wanted to do something, but I couldn’t interrupt the experiment.
*
Friday night. While many of my chums and their well shaped chummettes are out studiously killing their brain cells, I sit in a cracked plastic chair in front of the monitors. The comfy chairs have vanished, commandeered for someone’s office, no doubt. It’s needlessly warm in the operations room tonight. An unseasonal turn of the weather has rendered the heating superfluous, but the thermostat control box is locked, naturally. My Fruit of the Looms are sticking to my cheeks. It’s an altogether uncomfortable feeling.
Beebee can’t sleep. Her knuckles–black, thick skinned–push every so often against the observation window that exposes her den.
‘Baby.’
‘Cat.’ I sign back.
‘Baby,’ she figures emphatically.
Baby. She’s talking about her kitten. We both know it.
Dr. Graham was the first to begin to communicate with Beebee on an individual level. Dr. Graham, a woman for whom I had no lust, but much admiration, had a baby boy last year. Beebee was astute enough to notice and comment on Dr. Graham’s changing size. Dr. Graham, much to Dr. Markham’s dismay, had even bared her midriff and allowed Beebee to feel the movements of the unborn infant.
Something about the scene caused it to stand clearly in my memory. Dr. Graham, sitting back against the glass of the observation window, her unbecoming blouse up over the mound of her womb, and Beebee squatting beside her, those very black and very strong hands running long fingers over the pale Nordic flesh. Making noises, signing questions.
Dr. Graham explained as best she could, given Beebee’s limited vocabulary. The gorilla had never been bred. I think that may have been a long range plan: establish that she can think and sign, breed her, and see if she teaches her offspring ASL.
A few weeks after the birth, Dr. Graham brought her new son to the lab, in a maternal and especially female gesture that nearly moved me to propose to her right there. As she walked through the observation room, Beebee ran up to the window with a speed that surprised me, and rapped on the glass.
‘Show.’
"Open the door, please, William," Dr Graham said to me.
"You can’t do that," Dr. Markham said.
"Open the door, please."
The look on Markham’s face worried me. She honestly was frightened for Dr. Graham and her child. So it seemed.
"Uh, do you think that’s wise?" I offered.
"Open up, Bill."
"Yes, ma’am." I flipped the toggle switch that popped the lock.
Beebee pulled the door open from her side and stood there, waiting.
Dr. Graham walked in, with Dr. Markham right behind her, strangely protective.
A whole lot of Dr. Markham’s fervid concern came over me. I switched on all the cameras and began digging in the drawers for the tranquilizing darts and pistol that were supposed to be there beneath the paper clips and memo pads.
I looked at the tapes later. Got the scene from about four angles. I sort of had a sense of what it must be to be God, being able to see the whole picture, not just one particular viewpoint.
Beebee pushed her face close to the infant in Dr. Graham’s arms, but didn’t touch it.
‘Baby,’ Dr. Graham told her.
‘You?’ Beebee asked.
‘Me.’ Dr. Graham pointed to her abdomen. ‘Kicks here? Baby.’
‘Touch?’
"No," Dr. Markham said forcefully.
‘Soft,’ Dr. Graham said.
Soft it was. She pressed her fingers gently against the baby’s arm, stroked the skin, then smelled her fingers. The baby stirred and began to cry.
‘Hurt?’ Beebee signed in alarm.
Dr. Graham’s voice was gentle. "No, Beebee. Food time."
That was how Beebee learned about Baby. Later, Dr. Markham brought in a plastic baby doll and engaged in a futile signing session, proclaiming the doll a baby, and Beebee kept saying ‘Not.’
"It’s all scent," Dr. Markham swore. "Harlow’s early work with infant Rhesus Monkeys looked as if it were for the comfort of the terry cloth mother, but they discovered later it was scent. If we could get a human scent on the doll, she’d call it a baby."
I began to snicker, then started to laugh until my jaw hurt. I could see Dr. Markham imprisoning bunches of small children, boiling them down to get their "scent" and pouring it over the plastic doll. In my mind, she was dressed just like the Wicked Witch of the West.
*
‘Baby.’ She calls the cat a baby. Her Baby.
‘Sleep,’ I tell her. I think we are both growing a bit impatient with one another.
Beebee turns away from the window and shambles back into her den. I’ve just found my place in my ethology text when the small clear button on the bottom of the phone flashes. I lift the receiver. "Lab."
"This is Dr. Markham."
"How are you, Dr. Markham?"
"Please send one of the maintenance crew out to the parking lot. That kitten has been run over."
"Oh no!" Pictures in my mind, too vivid: crushed animals on the sides of roads, legs stiff in the air, entrails adhering to the pavement. Replaced by other images: small stray kitten playing by the dumpster out back the first time I’d seen her; the kitten/Baby scratching at the door of Beebee’s den to be let in, or let out. Then a tactile memory, nothing visual, just feelings: soft warm fur, tiny uncalloused pads on small feet, wet rough tongue on my thumb.
"Oh, no," I say again. "Doctor, Beebee has been asking for the kitten. What should I do?"
"Tell the subject that the kitten is gone."
"Gone?"
"Yes." Of this, she is certain. "And send one of those cleaning people to remove the kitten."
"Yes, ma’am." I hang up.
I rap on the window. It’s rude of me to do, as I usually try to treat Beebee with some courtesy.
Beebee comes out of the darkness expectantly.
And I tell her.
*
Dr. Markham enters the lab with no attempt to disguise her irritation. Interestingly enough, she’s not in her lab whites, but a plain blouse and slacks which make her look really thin. Must be acknowledging it’s Friday night.
"What do you need now, Phillips?"
"I think Beebee’s sick," I tell her, using a classic bet hedging construction. "Jesus, she might be having a fit." I gesture urgently at the monitors.
Beebee sits in the twilight making truly unearthly noises in a low voice, rocking back and forth. She occasionally raises her voice almost to a shriek, only to begin rocking again.
"What did you tell the subject?"
"Baby gone," I answer honestly.
"Nothing else?"
"No. What else could I say?"
"Something…" Dr. Markham is thinking out loud. "I want you to replay me the tapes of you informing the subject."
"Sure." I switch one of the monitors to playback, and rewind a bit of videotape.
"Here you go," I tell her. She watches the screen carefully.
The telephone rings. It’s Dr. Graham. "Is there any change, Bill?"
"No, ma’am."
Inside my ear, as it were, she repeats my previous description of Beebee’s behavior. "And she’s still acting that way?"
"Yes, ma’am."
"Who is that?" Dr. Markham asks.
I confess.
"Why did you call her?"
Is there anything that makes us hate ourselves more than our own cowardice? "I wanted a second opinion," I answer with a forced smile.
She takes the receiver from my hand. "This is Dr. Markham." She listens for a moment. "But Phillips must have given her some clue with his body language…no, that’s not right…it cannot be…because the subject would have to make the conceptual leap between the word ‘gone’ and the actual meaning of ‘dead’…very well, I’ll tell it myself!" She jams the handset angrily onto the phone.
"Open the door, Phillips."
"She knows," I say.
"No, she doesn’t. It’s a tantrum, the way a child would act if we took away a favorite toy."
I thumb the door switch. "You can’t lie to her. She knows."
Dr. Markham enters the den, and I say to her back, "You can’t tell me that isn’t completely typical higher primate mourning behavior."
Dr. Markham doesn’t even waste the time to glare at me as the door swings shut behind her.
*
I won’t watch. Part of me wants to peek, to gloat over Dr. Markham’s frosty hands gesturing uselessly, but I am very, very angry. I’m thinking about a lot of things. About stupid bastards who drive too fast without paying attention. About stupid bastards like me who just grab some stray animal when they’re bored and keep it around for their own amusement. About how little things stupid bastards like me do can really hurt.
*
She knocks very quietly on the door. When the electronic catch disengages, Dr. Markham steps back into the lab gently.
I don’t look at her. Beebee still huddles before me on the monitors.
"She knows." There’s a trace of wonder in Dr. Markham’s voice. "She understands."
"Yeah. Wisdom increaseth sorrow, huh, Doc?" She hates to be called anything but Dr. Markham. I don’t care. "Ain’t science wonderful?" I slam shut the logbook and stomp out of the lab.
About fifty feet down the hall, the beauty of the meaningful gesture departs, and in its place comes a realization of the very tangible beauty of the 30 hours a week at minimum wage to help subsidize my education. With a lot of chagrin, I slowly turn around and walk back into the lab.
I’m not sure what I’ll find. I hope I’ll find Dr. Markham and be able to grovel my way back into my job.
She’s not in the lab.
She’s in the den, kneeling beside Beebee, a thin white arm around the bulky shoulders of the gorilla. She rocks back and forth with Beebee. Dr. Markham’s icy hands are moving.
One hand is over Dr. Markham’s heart, making a circular motion. Her other hand is clenched into a fist, thumb extended upward.
"I’m sorry," the woman keeps signing. "I’m sorry."
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