by Nickalus Rupert
Honey the chimp’s alien fingers curled around the bars, a sour grapefruit reek wafting from her cage. Vaughn stared at the flimsy padlock and touched his scraggly beard.
I knew the score. Three years ago, I’d been a high school hire like him. You came to Thrill City like a toddler to the gates of Gomorrah. Next instant, you were dropping acid after hours and tromping through the funhouse with Mitch the bumper boat technician, or you were taking up Mandy Adams on her twenty-dollar bet that within sixty seconds she’d clear the haunted house of all middle schoolers by pinching at their crotches and cackling in her patented witch voice. Three years made all the difference. My beard still grew thin and wispy like Vaughn’s, but I’d mastered the art of Sharpie enhancement.
Vaughn and I smoked cigarettes at a picnic table dusted with peanut husks while Honey gave us bawdy winks from her cage. We had nothing but time until Mr. Cooper finished counting money. The carnival music had cut off, but the tiny lights still pulsed, tracing the contours of vacant rides and gaming booths against the soupy bayou air.
“The first time Mr. Cooper took her out,” I said to Vaughn, “she damn near bit off his thumb.” I flicked cigarette ash among the peanut husks.
“I’d have paid good money to see it,” Vaughn said.
“He’s so worked up and just plain startled, he hauls back and cracks her right on the chin. Her eyes roll back and she goes limp as a string and he’s standing there going, ‘I just killed five hundred dollars’ worth of monkey.’”
I waited. You had to know where this kid’s sympathies would lie. Mr. Cooper had always said It takes a certain breed, and clearly he’d meant me—the right breed, the tough breed, the sort who could accept the fact of a caged monkey. Ape. Honey was an ape.
“Mr. Cooper’s lucky,” Vaughn said. “They’ve been known to throw bigger men clear over a car.”
What to do with a remark like that? Wasn’t cause for concern, nor was it encouraging. Honey watched Vaughn, her head bobbing in agreement even as she took her foot into her mouth and chewed.
“Believe she wants to smoke,” I said.
I passed my cigarette through the bars, flinching as Honey’s fingers brushed mine. A connoisseur, Honey rolled it between her long digits before bringing it to her mouth.
“You think she likes it in there?” Vaughn asked.
Thrill City wasn’t the place for that kind of question. Here, the truth rippled like bad glass. I’d once asked Mr. Cooper the very same thing. Now, I found myself parroting his answer.
“Imagine,” I said, “if people fed you free bananas and cigarettes and you never had to hose cotton candy puke off the Ferris wheel.”
Three years, and I still didn’t fully trust the words. Judging from his expression, neither did Vaughn. Still, I had faith. Our differences were a product of time, nothing more. I left him to contemplate my wisdom while I went for a piss. Afterward, I stopped by the lockers, where I’d stashed a six-pack of Mandy’s home brew. Wild-eyed, his hands pocketed, Vaughn met me by the lockers.
“She try to grab you through the bars?” I asked.
“She just surprised me is all.” Vaughn’s words tumbled out all at once, like they were sewn together. He kept wiping his hands.
“You need a drink,” I said.
Bottles gleaming, we strutted to the rollercoaster. At the station, I lay on my side and checked the wheels and runners with a pen light. I made adjustments with a socket wrench—mostly for show. Vaughn tested each lap belt and then took a seat in the front car. I touched a button at the console and vaulted in beside Vaughn as the car lurched forward. We uncapped our bottles against the fiberglass lining, careful not to spill as the track angled upward, the lift chain rattling and popping so hard that Vaughn bared his teeth. Mandy liked to add fruit to her brew. I spat citrus seeds. Vaughn spat bits of rind. Our Friday ritual, and Vaughn seemed to be coming around.
“If we were to let Honey out,” he said, one hand gripping the lap bar.
“She’d bite somebody and they’d have to put her down.” I looked away. “Once they’ve been captive—” I waved my free hand.
“Yeah, but you’ve got to—” Vaughn clicked his bottle against the bar. “Man, I just don’t know.”
The light-webbed shapes of the rides stood neatly contained within the perimeter fence. A group of girls gathered on the other side, Mandy Adams among them. She was struggling to light a sparkler in the humidity. I called her name.
“Where’s my twenty dollars?” Mandy answered, waving sparks.
I grinned and gave her the finger. Mandy tilted her head back for a witch laugh that made Vaughn squirm in his seat. As the cart topped the incline, I scanned the dips and switchbacks that would deliver us back to the station.
“But about Honey,” Vaughn said.
“Forget it. She’s domesticated now. You think she’s going to make it on her own? Live off half-eaten cheeseburgers and po’ boys?”
“I’m real sorry,” Vaughn said. “I should be more careful.”
“Relax. I, too, had shit for brains when I started here.”
“No, I mean I’m sorry.” He started scratching furiously along his hairline. “I only meant to crack the door a little. I knew she’d be strong, I just didn’t know she’d be so quick.”
Right then, I lost my taste for fruity beer. The track eased us into the first dip. Below, shadows leaned from the park’s darkened architecture. Vaughn still hadn’t memorized the turns, and soon lost hold of his bottle, which tumbled to the floor and drained onto our feet. On the last hairpin, a glimpse of Honey among the games of chance. Mandy shouted a warning as the ape four-limb galloped past the booths, mounted the fence with ease, and lingered atop the rail. No use calling to her. She’d head for I-10, where she’d be flattened by a car or shot by the law. For a short time, she’d be free. Terrified and free.
As our cart crabbed into the station, I glanced at Vaughn. Red-washed eyes. Patchy, unenhanced beard. A face that reflected no kinship, no point of recognition.