Aimee’s big trick is that she makes twenty-six monkeys vanish onstage.
pushes out a claw-foot bathtub and asks audience members to come up and
inspect it. The people climb in and look underneath, touch the white
enamel, run their hands along the little lions’ feet. When they’re
done, four chains are lowered from the stage’s fly space. Aimee secures
them to holes drilled along the tub’s lip and gives a signal, and the
bathtub is hoisted ten feet into the air.
She sets a
stepladder next to it. She claps her hands and the twenty-six monkeys
onstage run up the ladder one after the other and jump into the
bathtub. The bathtub shakes as each monkey thuds in among the others.
The audience can see heads, legs, tails; but eventually every monkey
settles and the bathtub is still again. Zeb is always the last monkey
up the ladder. As he climbs into the bathtub, he makes a humming boom
deep in his chest. It fills the stage.
And then there’s a flash of light, two of the chains fall off, and the bathtub swings down to expose its interior.
turn up later, back at the tour bus. There’s a smallish dog door, and
in the hours before morning the monkeys let themselves in, alone or in
small groups, and get themselves glasses of water from the tap. If more
than one returns at the same time, they murmur a bit among themselves,
like college students meeting in the dorm halls after bar time. A few
sleep on the sofa and at least one likes to be on the bed, but most of
them wander back to their cages. There’s a little grunting as they
rearrange their blankets and soft toys, and then sighs and snoring.
Aimee doesn’t really sleep until she hears them all come in.
has no idea what happens to them in the bathtub, or where they go, or
what they do before the soft click of the dog door opening. This
bothers her a lot.
has had the act for three years now. She was living in a month-by-month
furnished apartment under a flight path for the Salt Lake City airport.
She was hollow, as if something had chewed a hole in her body and the
hole had grown infected.
There was a monkey act at the
Utah State Fair. She felt a sudden and totally out-of-character urge to
see it. Afterward, with no idea why, she walked up to the owner and
said, “I have to buy this.”
He nodded. He sold it to her for a dollar, which he told her was the price he had paid four years before.
Later, when the paperwork was filled out, she asked him, “How can you leave them? Won’t they miss you?”
“You’ll see, they’re pretty autonomous,” he said. “Yeah, they’ll miss me and I’ll miss them. But it’s time, they know that.”
smiled at his new wife, a small woman with laugh lines and a vervet
hanging from one hand. “We’re ready to have a garden,” she said.
was right. The monkeys missed him. But they also welcomed her, each
monkey politely shaking her hand as she walked into what was now her
has: a nineteen-year-old tour bus packed with cages that range in size
from parrot-sized (for the vervets) to something about the size of a
pickup bed (for all the macaques); a stack of books on monkeys ranging
from All About Monkeys to Evolution and Ecology of Baboon Societies;
some sequined show costumes, a sewing machine, and a bunch of Carhartts
and tees; a stack of show posters from a few years back that say 24
Monkeys! Face The Abyss; a battered sofa in a virulent green plaid; and
a boyfriend who helps with the monkeys.
She cannot tell
you why she has any of these, not even the boyfriend, whose name is
Geof, whom she met in Billings seven months ago. Aimee has no idea
where anything comes from any more: she no longer believes that
anything makes sense, even though she can’t stop hoping.
bus smells about as you’d expect a bus full of monkeys to smell; though
after a show, after the bathtub trick but before the monkeys all
return, it also smells of cinnamon, which is the tea Aimee sometimes
For the act, the monkeys do tricks, or dress up in outfits and act out hit movies—The Matrix
is very popular, as is anything where the monkeys dress up like little
orcs. The maned monkeys, the lion-tails and the colobuses, have a
lion-tamer act, with the old capuchin female, Pango, dressed in a red
jacket and carrying a whip and a small chair. The chimpanzee (whose
name is Mimi, and no, she is not a monkey) can do actual sleight of
hand; she’s not very good, but she’s the best Chimp Pulling A Coin From
Someone’s Ear in the world.
The monkeys also can build
a suspension bridge out of wooden chairs and rope, make a four-tier
champagne fountain, and write their names on a whiteboard.
monkey show is very popular, with a schedule of 127 shows this year at
fairs and festivals across the Midwest and Great Plains. Aimee could do
more, but she likes to let everyone have a couple of months off at
This is the bathtub act:
wears a glittering purple-black dress designed to look like a scanty
magician’s robe. She stands in front of a scrim lit deep blue and
scattered with stars. The monkeys are ranged in front of her. As she
speaks they undress and fold their clothes into neat piles. Zeb sits on
his stool to one side, a white spotlight shining straight down to give
him a shadowed look.
She raises her hands.
monkeys have made you laugh, and made you gasp. They have created
wonders for you and performed mysteries. But there is a final mystery
they offer you—the strangest, the greatest of all.”
parts her hands suddenly, and the scrim goes transparent and is lifted
away, revealing the bathtub on a raised dais. She walks around it,
running her hand along the tub’s curves.
“It’s a simple
thing, this bathtub. Ordinary in every way, mundane as breakfast. In a
moment I will invite members of the audience up to let you prove this
“But for the monkeys it is also a
magical object. It allows them to travel—no one can say where. Not even
I—” she pauses “—can tell you this. Only the monkeys know, and they
share no secrets.
“Where do they go? Into heaven,
foreign lands, other worlds—or some dark abyss? We cannot follow. They
will vanish before our eyes, vanish from this most ordinary of things.”
after the bathtub is inspected and she has told the audience that there
will be no final spectacle in the show—“It will be hours before they
return from their secret travels”—and called for applause for them, she
gives the cue.
• 2 siamangs, a mated couple
• 2 squirrel monkeys, though they’re so active they might as well be twice as many
• 2 vervets
• a guenon, who is probably pregnant, though it’s still too early to tell for sure. Aimee has no idea how this happened
• 3 rhesus monkeys. They juggle a little
• a capuchin female named Pango
a crested macaque, 3 snow monkeys (one quite young), and a Java
macaque. Despite the differences, they have formed a small troop and
like to sleep together
• a chimpanzee, who is not actually a monkey
• a surly gibbon
• 2 marmosets
• a golden tamarin; a cotton-top tamarin
• a proboscis monkey
• red and black colubuses
thinks Zeb might be a de Brazza’s guenon, except that he’s so old that
he has lost almost all his hair. She worries about his health, but he
insists on staying in the act. By now all he’s really up for is the
final rush to the bathtub, and for him it is more of a stroll. The rest
of the time, he sits on a stool that is painted orange and silver and
watches the other monkeys, looking like an aging impresario watching
his Swan Lake from the wings. Sometimes she gives him things to hold, such as a silver hoop through which the squirrel monkeys jump.
one knows how the monkeys vanish or where they go. Sometimes they
return holding foreign coins or durian fruit, or wearing pointed
Moroccan slippers. Every so often one returns pregnant or accompanied
by a new monkey. The number of monkeys is not constant.
just don’t get it,” Aimee keeps asking Geof, as if he has any idea.
Aimee never knows anything any more. She’s been living without any
certainties, and this one thing—well, the whole thing, the fact the
monkeys get along so well and know how to do card tricks and just
turned up in her life and vanish from the bathtub; everything—she
coasts with that most of the time, but every so often, when she feels
her life is wheeling without brakes down a long hill, she starts poking
at this again.
Geof trusts the universe a lot more than
Aimee does, trusts that things make sense and that people can love, and
therefore he doesn’t need the same proofs. “You could ask them,” he
is not at all what Aimee expected from a boyfriend. For one thing, he’s
fifteen years younger than Aimee, twenty-eight to her forty-three. For
another, he’s sort of quiet. For a third, he’s gorgeous, silky thick
hair pulled into a shoulder-length ponytail, shaved sides showing off
his strong jaw line. He smiles a lot, but he doesn’t laugh very often.
has a degree in history, which means that he was working in a
bike-repair shop when she met him at the Montana Fair. Aimee never has
much to do right after the show, so when he offered to buy her a beer
she said yes. And then it was four am and they were kissing in the bus,
monkeys letting themselves in and getting ready for bed; and Aimee and
Geof made love.
In the morning over breakfast, the
monkeys came up one by one and shook his hand solemnly, and then he was
with the band, so to speak. She helped him pick up his cameras and
clothes and the surfboard his sister had painted for him one year as a
Christmas present. There’s no room for the surfboard, so it’s suspended
from the ceiling. Sometimes the squirrel monkeys hang out there and
peek over the side.
Aimee and Geof never talk about love.
Geof has a class-C driver’s license, but this is just lagniappe.
Zeb is dying.
speaking, the monkeys are remarkably healthy and Aimee can handle their
occasional sinus infections and gastrointestinal ailments. For anything
more difficult, she’s found a couple of communities online and some
But Zeb’s coughing some, and the
last of his fur is falling out. He moves very slowly and sometimes has
trouble remembering simple tasks. When the show was up in St. Paul six
months ago, a Como Zoo biologist came to visit the monkeys,
complimented her on their general health and well-being, and at her
request looked Zeb over.
“How old is he?” the biologist, Gina, asked.
“I don’t know,” Aimee said. The man she bought the show from hadn’t known either.
“I’ll tell you then,” Gina said. “He’s old. I mean, seriously old.”
dementia, arthritis, a heart murmur. No telling when, Gina said. “He’s
a happy monkey,” she said. “He’ll go when he goes.”
thinks a lot about this. What happens to the act when Zeb’s dead?
Through each show he sits calm and poised on his bright stool. She
feels he is somehow at the heart of the monkeys’ amiability and
cleverness. She keeps thinking that he is somehow the reason the
monkeys all vanish and return.
Because there’s always a reason for everything, isn’t there? Because if there isn’t a reason for even one
thing, like how you can get sick, or your husband stop loving you or
people you love die—then there’s no reason for anything. So there must
be reasons. Zeb’s as good a guess as any.
What Aimee likes about this life:
doesn’t mean anything. She doesn’t live anywhere. Her world is
thirty-eight feet and 127 shows long and currently twenty-six monkeys
deep. This is manageable.
Fairs don’t mean anything,
either. Her tiny world travels within a slightly larger world, the
identical, interchangeable fairs. Sometimes the only things that cue
Aimee to the town she’s in are the nighttime temperatures and the shape
of the horizon: badlands, mountains, plains, or city skyline.
are as artificial as titanium knees: the carnival, the animal barns,
the stock-car races, the concerts, the smell of burnt sugar and funnel
cakes and animal bedding. Everything is an overly bright symbol for
something real, food or pets or hanging out with friends. None of this
has anything to do with the world Aimee used to live in, the world from
which these people visit.
She has decided that Geof is like the rest of it: temporary, meaningless. Not for loving.
These are some ways Aimee’s life might have come apart:
She might have broken her ankle a few years ago, and gotten a bone
infection that left her on crutches for ten months, and in pain for
b. Her husband might have fallen in love with his admin and left her.
c. She might have been fired from her job in the same week she found out her sister had colon cancer.
She might have gone insane for a time and made a series of questionable
choices that left her alone in a furnished apartment in a city she
picked out of the atlas.
Nothing is certain. You can lose everything. Eventually, even at your luckiest, you will die and then you will
lose it all. When you are a certain age or when you have lost certain
things and people, Aimee’s crippling grief will make a terrible
poisoned dark sense.
Aimee has read up a lot, so she knows how strange all this is.
aren’t any locks on the cages. The monkeys use them as bedrooms, places
to store their special possessions and get away from the others when
they want some privacy. Much of the time, however, they are loose in
the bus or poking around outside.
Right now, three
monkeys are sitting on the bed playing a game where they match colored
cards. Others are playing with skeins of bright wool, or rolling around
on the floor, or poking at a piece of wood with a screwdriver, or
climbing on Aimee and Geof and the battered sofa. Some of the monkeys
are crowded around the computer watching kitten videos on a pirated
The black colubus is stacking
children’s wooden blocks on the kitchenette’s table. He brought them
back one night a couple of weeks ago, and since then he’s been trying
to make an arch. After two weeks and Aimee’s showing him repeatedly how
a keystone works, he still hasn’t figured it out, but he’s still
Geof’s reading a novel out loud to
Pango, who watches the pages as if she’s reading along. Sometimes she
points to a word and looks up at him with her bright eyes, and he
repeats it to her, smiling, and then spells it out.
is sleeping in his cage. He crept in there at dusk, fluffed up his toys
and his blanket, and pulled the door closed behind him. He does this a
going to lose Zeb, and then what? What happens to the other monkeys?
Twenty-six monkeys is a lot of monkeys, but they all like each other.
No one except maybe a zoo or a circus can keep that many monkeys, and
she doesn’t think anyone else will let them sleep wherever they like or
watch kitten videos. And if Zeb’s not there, where will they go, those
nights when they can no longer drop through the bathtub and into their
mystery? And she doesn’t even know whether it is Zeb, whether he is the cause of this, or that’s just her flailing for reasons again.
Aimee? She’ll lose her safe artificial world: the bus, the identical
fairs, the meaningless boyfriend. The monkeys. And then what?
a few months after she bought the act, when she didn’t care much about
whether she lived or died, she followed the monkeys up the ladder in
the closing act. Zeb raced up the ladder, stepped into the bathtub and
stood, lungs filling for his great call. And she ran up after him. She
glimpsed the bathtub’s interior, the monkeys tidily sardined in,
scrambling to get out of her way as they realized what she was doing.
She hopped into the hole they made for her, curled up tight.
only took an instant. Zeb finished his breath, boomed it out. There was
a flash of light, she heard the chains release, and felt the bathtub
swing down, monkeys shifting around her.
She fell the
ten feet alone. Her ankle twisted when she hit the stage but she
managed to stay upright. The monkeys were gone again.
There was an awkward silence. It wasn’t one of her more successful performances.
and Geof walk through the midway at the Salina Fair. She’s hungry and
doesn’t want to cook, so they’re looking for somewhere that sells $4.50
hotdogs and $3.25 Cokes, and suddenly Geof turns to Aimee and says,
“This is bullshit. Why don’t we go into town? Have real food. Act like
So they do: pasta and wine at a place
called Irina’s Villa. “You’re always asking why they go,” Geof says, a
bottle and a half in. His eyes are an indeterminate blue-gray, but in
this light they look black and very warm. “See, I don’t think we’re
ever going to find out what happens. But I don’t think that’s the real
question, anyway. Maybe the question is, why do they come back?”
Aimee thinks of the foreign coins, the wood blocks, the wonderful things they bring home. “I don’t know,” she says. “Why do they come back?”
that night, back at the bus, Geof says, “Wherever they go, yeah, it’s
cool. But see, here’s my theory.” He gestures to the crowded bus with
its clutter of toys and tools. The two tamarins have just come in, and
they’re sitting on the kitchenette counter, heads close as they examine
some new small thing. “They like visiting wherever it is, sure. But
this is their home. Everyone likes to come home sooner or later.”
“If they have a home,” Aimee says.
“Everyone has a home, even if they don’t believe in it,” Geof says.
night, when Geof’s asleep curled up around one of the macaques, Aimee
kneels by Zeb’s cage. “Can you at least show me?” she asks. “Please?
Before you go?”
Zeb is an indeterminate lump under his
baby-blue blanket, but he gives a little sigh and climbs slowly out of
his cage. He takes her hand with his own hot leathery paw, and they
walk out the door into the night.
The back lot where
all the trailers and buses are parked is quiet, only a few voices still
audible from behind curtained windows. The sky is blue-black and
scattered with stars. The moon shines straight down on them, shadowing
Zeb’s face. His eyes when he looks up seem bottomless.
bathtub is backstage, already on its wheeled dais waiting for the next
show. The space is nearly pitch dark, lit by some red EXIT signs and a
single sodium-vapor away off to one side. Zeb walks her up to the tub,
lets her run her hands along its cold curves and the lions’ paws, and
shows her the dimly lit interior.
And then he heaves
himself onto the dais and over the tub lip. She stands beside him,
looking down. He lifts himself upright and gives a boom. And then he
drops flat and the bathtub is empty.
She saw it, him
vanishing. He was there and then he was gone. But there was nothing to
see, no gate, no flickering reality or soft pop as air snapped in to
fill the vacated space. It still doesn’t make sense, but it’s the
answer that Zeb has.
He’s already back at the bus when she gets there, already buried under his blanket and wheezing in his sleep.
Then one day:
is backstage. Aimee is finishing her makeup, and Geof is
double-checking everything. The monkeys are sitting neatly in a circle
in the dressing room, as if trying to keep their bright vests and
skirts from creasing. Zeb sits in the middle, Pango beside him in her
little green sequined outfit. They grunt a bit, then lean back. One
after the other, the rest of the monkeys crawl forward and shake his
hand, and then hers. She nods, like a small queen at a flower show.
night, Zeb doesn’t run up the ladder. He stays on his stool and it’s
Pango who is the last monkey up the ladder, who climbs into the bathtub
and gives a screech. Aimee has been wrong to think Zeb had to be the
reason for what is happening with the monkeys, but she was so sure of
it that she missed all the cues. But Geof didn’t miss a thing, so when
Pango screeches, he hits the flash powder. The flash, the empty bathtub.
stands on his stool, bowing like an impresario called onstage for the
curtain call. When the curtain drops for the last time, he reaches up
to be lifted. Aimee cuddles him as they walk back to the bus, Geof’s
arm around them both.
Zeb falls asleep with them that
night, between them in the bed. When she wakes up in the morning, he’s
back in his cage with his favorite toy. He doesn’t wake up. The monkeys
cluster at the bars peeking in.
Aimee cries all day. “It’s okay,” Geof says.
“It’s not about Zeb,” she sobs.
“I know,” he says. “It’s okay. Come home, Aimee.”
But she’s already there. She just hadn’t noticed.
the trick to the bathtub trick. There is no trick. The monkeys pour
across the stage and up the ladder and into the bathtub and they settle
in and then they vanish. The world is full of strange things, things
that make no sense, and maybe this is one of them. Maybe the monkeys
choose not to share, that’s cool, who can blame them.
this is the monkeys’ mystery, how they found other monkeys that ask
questions and try things, and figured out a way to all be together to
share it. Maybe Aimee and Geof are really just houseguests in the
monkeys’ world: they are there for a while and then they leave.
weeks later, a man walks up to Aimee as she and Geof kiss after a show.
He’s short, pale, balding. He has the shell-shocked look of a man eaten
hollow from the inside. She knows the look.
“I need to buy this,” he says.
Aimee nods. “I know you do.”
She sells it to him for a dollar.
months later, Aimee and Geof get their first houseguest in their
apartment in Bellingham. They hear the refrigerator close and come out
to the kitchen to find Pango pouring orange juice from a carton.
They send her home with a pinochle deck.