A MULTIMEDIA DOCUMENTARY PROJECT ON THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION: THE LAST GENERATION TO REMEMBER A TIME WITHOUT THE INTERNET.
Kaitlyn Greenidge, previously profiled on Fortnight as a young historian, is also a nascent fiction writer. Holding an MFA from Hunter College, Kaitlyn's work has been published numerous literary journals, including The Believer—and she has twice been a work-study scholar at The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. The following is an excerpt from her untitled first novel.
***There is a marginally famous photograph of all five of us, taken about two months into the experiment. The chimp, Charlie, sits on Mom’s right hip. My younger sister Callie stands at her left, her arm wrapped around my mother’s waist. Callie’s too big to be held like the animal. Mom’s back is to the camera; she’s stirring marinara sauce for dinner; her hair is a buzz of curls caught in the flash. I’m sitting on the kitchen counter, facing the camera. My head’s turned sideways; my hands are lifted up off the countertop; my mouth’s open wide. I look like I’m about to tell them all a joke. My father’s at the left edge of the picture, turning to get a head of lettuce out of the fridge. In the photograph, Callie’s skin gleams brown. It was right after bath time. We were both newly covered in lotion.
The Toneybee Institute used this photograph in all of their promotions. They printed it on the front of their brochures. Later, when their reputation
improved, they sold a blown-up version through the mail. You could even buy it with a gilt frame if you wanted to pay extra.
The Toneybee Institute cropped the picture, though. In the original, at the bottom of the frame, you can see Charlie’s paw pinching the roll of baby fat under my sister’s arm, and Callie’s own hand digging hard into the fur at the base of Charlie’s spine.
IThe Toneybee Institute asked my mother to raise us with a chimpanzee.
She got me and my sister Callie to agree with a bribe of Chinese food from the ghetto spot on the corner.
It was a family rule that we never, ever ate from any place on our block. We lived in the South End of Boston, and everything within a mile radius of our apartment was forbidden: the sun-bleached donut shop; the corner store with its heavy-breathing steam trays; the pizzeria run by suspicious Greeks. All were off limits. If we wanted Chinese, Mom insisted on making it herself: stir-fry in a battered, lopsided wok with too much garlic. “Garlic and onions balance you, girls,” she’d say.
But she signed balance—her hands held out before her wavering up and down. She’d always signed to us when we were little, but by the time we moved to the Toneybee, she mostly only did it for punctuation.
The night our parents told us about the Toneybee, though, she let me and Callie could order whatever we wanted from the place on the corner—even Coca-Cola, even two desserts.
Dad and I stood on our apartment building’s stoop, waiting for the delivery boy to come. He wouldn’t actually come into our building: when Mom called, I had heard the crackling edict “no upstairs delivery” come from the receiver before she’d even finished giving our full address. “Fine,” she said, exasperated. “Fine. Stoop. We’ll meet you on the stoop.”
So Dad and I sat on our stoop--the only clean one on the block. Mom made Callie sweep it every morning: a chore Callie only agreed to do if she got to pick the tools she used. She insisted on a rake, even though it was too wide for our shallow steps and screeched against the concrete. Callie liked it, though, because she pointed out that in books, people always used rakes on their lawns, not hand-sized dustbins. “Those are for indoors,” Callie told us, as if we were being obtuse. It did not occur to her that there was a fundamental
difference between a communal stone stoop and a private lawn. Callie was sweet like that.
Our apartment was just as hot as everyone else's, and, like everyone else, we couldn't afford an air conditioner. But we never made the stoop our home.Mom and Dad knew better and I did, too. Dad and I did not sit down on the stoop, because that’s what everyone else on our block did: the old people too poor to retire and the vaguely menacing older kids and the mothers braiding their children’s hair in the street because it was too hot, even in April, to stay upstairs in apartments with only two windows. Our apartment was just as hot as everyone else’s, and, like everyone else, we couldn’t afford an air conditioner. But we never made the stoop our home.
“How come you’re letting us get Chinese?” I said to Dad.
He looked across the street, at a group of kids a little older than me, all crowding around a single, low-slung bicycle. One kid would balance on the seat for a minute or so, play at putting his feet on the pedals, and then be knocked off by another, who would do the same, sit grinning and calling to everyone around him only to be knocked off again.
Nobody seemed to be getting tired of this: nobody even tried to ride the bicycle away from the crowd. Actually having the bike and using it didn’t seem to be the point: it made everyone far happier to simply fight for the right to the seat. The knocking-off started moving in faster rounds, getting a little rougher; the group pushed a little harder, letting each kid have less time in the seat of triumph before he was usurped.
“It’s good to try something new,” Dad said.
I walked down a few steps more, squatted close to the sidewalk. Dad stopped watching the kids. He said, and I could hear him frowning, “Don’t sit like that in the street. It’s dirty.”
When the food came, and we got it upstairs, Mom made a big show of letting me and Callie eat in the living room. She laid our placemats down on the rug, cloth napkins tucked under at the corners. I’d recently graduated to a grown-up green linen mat. I sat on my knees, and patting down everything on my plate with a paper napkin and whining about the grease. But I was secretly thrilled to be eating while sitting on a rug.
They waited till we were sated and sleepy from all that oil. Then Dad said, “We have a family announcement.”
I’d been suspicious since the start of the night, when we’d been allowed to eat sitting on the rug with no napkins. So I sat back on my haunches and closed my eyes and said my two worst fears out loud (a trick, to make sure they wouldn’t come true). “You’re getting a divorce or you’re having a baby.”
Callie stopped chewing. “Is that happening?”
“Of course not,” Mom began to smile. “We’re going to be part of something really big. We’re going to be part of an experiment.”
“An experiment,” I said.
Mom nodded. “It’s an adventure. It’s something really special.”
“What does being part of an experiment mean?” I pushed two fingers into my palm in double-quick points.
Mom brought the heel of her left hand down into the palm of her right with one dull slap. Stop.
I sat back on my knees, curling my fingers into my palms.
Dad tried again. “What your mother is trying to say is she’s got a new job. It’s at a place called the Toneybee Institute. They want to teach sign language to a monkey—“
“Chimpanzee,” Mom said.
“Sorry, a chimpanzee. And they want our family to help.” He sat back again and watched me and my sister over the rims of his glasses.
“Why?” I said.
Mom took my hand in hers, and then reached for Callie’s. “He’s going to live with us.” She squeezed both our hands. “We’re going to help him learn.”
Callie was grinning. She’d started as soon as Dad said “monkey.” She sat up straighter and she began to shake with joy. She couldn’t help herself, she shouted, “We’re getting a chimpanzee for a pet!”
“Even better,” Mom said. “He’s going to be more than a pet. He’s going to be like a brother to you.”
Dad frowned. “That’s going a bit far, Laurel.”
“I just mean, he’ll be a member of the family.”
“But what do we have to do?” I asked.
“You just have to treat him like one of us.” Mom said, as if it was the easiest thing in the world. “He just has to be one of our own.”
“Well, how is a chimpanzee supposed to live here? Callie already shares my room. Where’s he supposed to sleep?”
“He’s not coming here.” Dad looked at Mom. “We’re going to him.”
My fingers, still tucked into fists, itched to spell it out. Please don't say it.“We’re moving?” Callie sank back into the couch.
Don’t say it, I willed. My fingers, still tucked into fists, itched to spell it out. Please don’t say it.
“Well, that’s the thing.” Mom said steadily. “The Institute, the place that’s running the experiment, it’s in the Berkshires.”
Callie pushed herself up from the couch. Her eyes squeezed shut, but her cheeks were already wet as she stumbled across the room and blindly scrabbled into Dad’s lap.
Mom said again, weakly, “It’s going to be an adventure,” but Callie turned her back on all of us and sobbed.
Callie was not a crier. Once, as a toddler, she walked for two weeks in shoes that were too tight on her. We only figured out she was in pain when the ends of her toes started to scab and turn purple. Callie wasn’t used to crying, so her sobs didn’t sound right—the rhythm was off. She took agonizingly slow gulps, punctuated by fat, clotted sighs. Mom and Dad and I sat and listened until I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I said, “What’s its name?”
“Well, Charlotte,” Mom shifted towards me on the couch, but kept an eye on Callie’s rounded shoulders. “They really want him to fit in. He has to be a member of the family. They liked it that you girls both have ‘C’ names. So they’re calling him Charlie.” She said his name brightly, her fingers pinching at the hollow Callie’s knees left in the sofa.
“They gave him my name?”
Dad rubbed steady circles into Callie’s back. “They want him to fit in,” he said.
“It’s your name too. Charles is Charlie, Dad. They’re giving a chimp our names.”
“It’s more like a ‘junior’ situation.”
“That’s not funny.”
“But it’s not a big deal.” He shifted his knees, trying to make Callie comfortable. “It’s just the start of our names. We don’t want him to feel left out, do we? That defeats the whole purpose.”
Mom got up from the couch and knelt by my father’s chair. She touched Callie’s back. “He’s going to be ours.”
When she finally lifted her head, Callie’s eyes were stuck half-shut, her lashes gummy from salt and tears. “How old is he?” she said, thickly.
Mom sat back on her heels. “He’s like a toddler. He’s just a baby. He really will be like your little brother.”
From my seat on the couch, watching them, I said, “That’s a terrible explanation.”
But Callie blinked once, twice, and came to some mysterious conclusion.
“Okay,” she said.
To be continued on 11.13.11...