The monkey is a puppet on Luke’s hand—a floppy fabric imitation of the animal with bits of pink silk for the insides of the ears—and he is ambushing the other children. Luke sneaks up behind a girl who is coloring and grabs her face with the monkey. She screams.
Luke is five and quick to hit; the impact of his sweaty palm always surprises me even though I should expect it. He is small enough, though, that if he gets too out of control I can rein him in, pick him up, bring his face level with mine. I try to reason with him, hold his gaze, but his blue eyes roll backwards into his head; he flails and slaps, arching his back and then collapsing, trying to free himself from my grasp by whip-lashing his body. Eventually, he exhausts himself and goes limp. The other kids don’t like it when you hit them. It’s not nice … ok? Ok. And then he starts to screech. Sometimes he spits.
Even if he is nodding in agreement, his chin bobbing furiously—yes I am going to stop—as soon as I set him down, he sprints to the table and overturns a Monopoly board. As the metal tokens fly through the air, he laughs. The sound of his laughter is pure.
After school, the kids are wired and my job is crisis control. In addition to Luke, there are sometimes twenty-five students, ranging in age from four to twelve, and it’s not hard to lose control. I dole out Cheez-Its for snacks, notice the small group of children huddled in the back of the classroom and realize someone has stolen a package of Oreos. I go outside to coach a toddler off the highest part of the jungle gym, then come back inside to find four girls covered in thick Tempera paint. They know I am outnumbered. And I am a sucker for imaginative excuses. We needed the paint because we wanted to be invisible, because we are doing this play about invisible underwater mermaids, so we needed to be blue, the girls insist.
* * *
The monkey is getting out of hand. The girl, who had been coloring a fairy princess dog, is now sobbing, pleading with me to make him stop.
I decide on a new approach. Luke, I say, If the monkey does not behave, I am going to call the cops.
Every kid in the room is alert. Some hold their breath. They continue playing and building silently, but they are waiting for the officers with shiny badges and handcuffs to knock down the door.Every kid in the room is alert. Some hold their breath. They continue playing and building silently, but they are waiting for the officers with shiny badges and handcuffs to knock down the door. Luke looks at the monkey and then back at me. His eyes widen. He runs toward me shaking the puppet the way a priest shakes a crucifix to ward off a demon. One curled hand and one monkey fist alternately pound on my thighs. I dial the invisible phone in my hand. Hello. Police? I need help. I need you to arrest the monkey.
I run over to the box of puppets and find a suitable law enforcement representative. Doing my best siren, I march over to Luke with my makeshift cop and apprehend the monkey puppet, removing it from his small hand.
Luke begins to wail. Salted water coats his fat cheeks. He is not crying in the way that he usually cries when I take a toy away or put him in time out. The crying is desperate, vulnerable, the wail of a bereft mother. He is saying, He’s dead, he’s dead. The monkey is dead. You killed him.
* * *
Luke is always one of the last kids to be picked up. Every afternoon, with thirty minutes of aftercare left, I sit down on the floor cross-legged and read a story, hoping the kids will calm down. While it’s not immediate, the stories send a calm throughout the room. Eventually even the die-hard Lego kids wander over and give into gravity, flopping on the floor, the exhaustion of the day finally setting in. Even some of the fifth graders drag chairs near, pretending not to listen.
Luke is the most adamant instigator of story time. He tugs on my shorts every day, always toting the same book, Tyrone the Horrible. Read this. When I frown, he asks, Miss Josie will you please read this. I sit down on the carpet and Luke climbs into my lap. He squeezes the skin on my legs. He curls up against me, rests his blonde head against my chest, and digs his clammy fingers into my arms. Luke just can’t get close enough.
The book is about a dinosaur named Boland who is terrorized by Tyrone, the world’s first bully. Tyrone has sharp white triangles for teeth and yellow eyes, and his awful smile reminds me of the expression Luke wears right before he upends a chessboard or empties a bucket of water on another kid. The story doesn’t follow the usual ‟Do the Right Thing and Everything Will Be OK” formula found in children’s books. When Boland stands up to Tyrone, Tyrone beats the shit out of him.
One of the other little boys, Ritchie, always says, That’s a baby story. I would have beat up Tyrone like a ninja. He loves to karate-kick the air. HIIIIIII-YA. Ritchie’s dad is a jazz musician, making Ritchie way too cool to be only seven. He can do the moonwalk and always wants to know why Luke acts so crazy. Ritchie’s eyes bug out when Luke writhes on the ground. Man what is wrong with Luke? He’s not right.
* * *
Kids yell at you. They say horrible things, like I HATE YOU AND I HOPE YOU DIE. But they’re also fast forgivers. Luke is howling, pointing at the monkey, and I am afraid this will not pass quickly. You killed him, he keeps saying, his chin rolling back and forth on his chest. I know he is not lying. I killed the monkey. I tried to arrest the monkey and instead I killed it. I panic.
Luke it’s ok. Gently, I make the monkey’s arm wave. See? The monkey’s not dead.
YES. HE. IS. Violently, Luke slams the monkey on the ground.
Inspiration. Luke it’s okay because I know monkey CPR. I happen to be a very skilled veterinarian.
Sitting in one of the child-sized chairs, I lean over and place my lips on the felt primate and pretend to blow air into his nonexistent lungs. Performing CPR on a monkey, I think, is probably similar to performing CPR on an infant.I gingerly scoop up the puppet and set him on the table. Sitting in one of the child-sized chairs, I lean over and place my lips on the felt primate and pretend to blow air into his nonexistent lungs. Performing CPR on a monkey, I think, is probably similar to performing CPR on an infant. Cover the mouth and nose with your own mouth. Use two or three fingers in the center of the chest to perform gentle chest compressions. In lifeguard training I had been terrified by the thought of pressing into the tiny fragile chest; I was sure their ribcage would be crushed even if I only used my index and middle finger. Press harder, the instructor would urge me. You need to jumpstart the heart. Keep it beating with your force.
Behind me, Luke deals a flurry of slaps to my waist. HE’S DEAD. HE’S NOT MOVING. THERE IS BLOOD ALL OVER HIS FACE. I stop.
Luke goes limp and slumps against my leg, his cheeks hot and flushed. He is mumbling, It’s dead it’s dead it doesn’t matter. One of the little girls, a frequent victim of Luke’s, looks up, purple crayon in hand and points. Is he really dead? My stomach drops. I remember precisely the moment when I knew death in the way that you cannot un-know it. My sister called me up and I was twenty-two and abroad and she said, your best friend died. And I said, what, because I didn’t believe her, and she said, he drowned. And I thought, fuck rivers, and fuck you Jay because you weren’t wearing a lifejacket. You fucking asshole. I clung to facts: in water that cold—it was a glacially fed stream—and in water that cold he would have been dead in minutes. The current was so fast. His boss said he just slipped and then disappeared, was swept away, vanished. They found him miles downstream, and all I could think about was the body, blue and grey, waterlogged, swollen fingers and face.
The monkey’s bloody face. A silence settles at the coloring table, the soft drag of crayons coming to a halt. The girls are thinking about the dead monkey. They are wondering about the things they see through their moms’ fingers on the TV screen. They are wondering if that cat in the road was really sleeping. They are wondering about the red that’s leaking from the man’s ears on the television after the boom. Or maybe they have blocked it out. Maybe death is still a concept they do not understand. They don’t believe, as Luke does, that the monkey has been stabbed over and over in the face. They don’t see the blood.
Vodou. I think. Or magic. I will resurrect the monkey. I want to bring it back to life, but to do so would be to sugarcoat a concept that for whatever reason, Luke already understands: living things die, and they don’t come back, except in our memories. Kids like coloring books because there are clear boundaries: in the lines and out. The facts of Jay’s death bleed like watercolors on notebook paper into my imagined recollection of the event; at times, it is too blurry to make out which parts are which.
My sister is an archaeologist and she tells me, when you find a hard white bit of something in the sand, and you need to know if it is bone or rock, you put it in your mouth. If it’s bone, it sticks to your tongue. How do you know if something was real, alive? It sticks.
I don’t want Luke to know yet that you can’t choose which parts stick. I don’t want Luke to know yet about the permanence, about the fact that you will remember the worst things too, not just the best days when you would ride your bikes together across the Stone Arch Bridge, across the frozen Mississippi, your hot fast breath twin puffs of white in the night sky, when you would bike so fast you didn’t dare turn your handle bars for fear of skidding out on the black ice, racing one another like deities tearing through the city. You will remember all the blood pouring out, too, the things you didn’t even see, existing only in your imagination. The fat fingers, puckered and pruney hands like those of a kid who stayed too long in the bathtub.
But Luke already knows. There is no miracle.
I pick him up and we go sit in a chair in the corner. We leave the monkey on the table, crumpled, lifeless. We read stories. For him, or for me, I am not sure.