Sam Minasi was supposed to be on the other side of the bars, on the outside, looking in, not on the inside, looking out. He was supposed to be standing with the humans gawking at the monkeys in the cage, not hunched on his haunches with the monkeys in the cage, being gawked at by the humans.
For the life of him, he had no idea how he got there. All Sam could remember was sitting with his wife and children at the dinner table. A piece of steak lodged in his throat, he coughed violently trying to dislodge it, he began to choke, and then, nothing. When Sam regained consciousness, he found himself in this cage in the Central Park zoo, transformed.
A woman pointed at Sam and cried to her male companion, “Look how intelligent he seems. Almost as if he’s thinking.” The woman was tall, with high cheekbones. She had black hair, swept upward, and wore a black coat trimmed with gray fur. The man with her was shorter, heavyset, with a pockmarked, florid face, wearing a flannel shirt and corduroy pants.
Sam wanted to shout, “Of course I’m thinking, you idiot,” but his vocal cords couldn’t form intelligible sounds. Only monkey-like gibberish came from his mouth.
Sam looked more closely at the couple. He’s definitely below her class, Sam thought. Then Sam turned away in disgust and walked to the back of his cage, out of sight of the humans.
Sam’s area of confinement consisted of several sections. Just inside the bars that separated the people from the monkeys was a deep concrete moat. This steep, smooth moat bordered a spacious area open to the sky. There were several tree trunks with large bare limbs upon which the four monkeys in the cage, including Sam himself, could climb and play. Further back were several small enclosed areas where the monkeys would often go to sleep.
When Sam first woke up in the zoo the other monkeys treated him suspiciously, as if they sensed a difference in their former companion. After the suspicion came bullying, and Sam was forced to cower in the corner. Once he had to be rescued by the zookeeper.
Then Sam got the idea of using one of the food bowls as a weapon, wielding it like a club. It took only a few fights before the other monkeys left him alone.
After Sam demonstrated his prowess, he noticed that one of the monkeys, a female whom he nicknamed Fifi, began following him around. Amused and also somewhat annoyed by this attention, Sam tried to ignore her. This did not stop Fifi.
The knot of people gathered outside the cage was gone. Though Sam did not have access to a calendar, he assumed it was a weekday, when crowds were much thinner.
As Sam ambled around the enclosure, pondering his circumstances, wondering what he could do to extricate himself, he noticed that his distance from Fifi kept getting smaller and smaller. This he saw out of the corner of his eye, not wanting to look at her directly. Curious now as to why Fifi was getting closer, Sam turned to face her directly.
At this, Fifi whirled around and displayed her backside. It was red and swollen. Sam’s aesthetic sense was offended; he wrinkled his nose and tilted his head backward.
But the sight of Fifi in estrus had another effect on Sam. Even as he drew away with one part of his body, Sam found himself edging closer and closer to Fifi, until, his hands within reach, he eagerly grasped her hips. Despite the repulsion his conscious mind experienced, he mounted her, surrendering to the primitive and overwhelming desire that could only be gratified by the compliant Fifi.
It must have been a weekend. Crowds ebbed and flowed outside Sam’s cage. Sam enjoyed watching the people as they stopped to stare at him and his simian companions. Sam observed the interactions within the families and groups of friends as they stood outside the cage. Sam often wondered what kind of lives they led when they were away from the zoo.
It was late morning. Sam was starting to get bored with this pastime and was about to turn to go to the back of his area where he could not be seen when he caught a glimpse of something that made the hair on his body stand on end. He rushed to the edge of the moat, jabbering wildly.
His wife and two daughters stood outside the cage.
His wife looked pretty much the same as he remembered her, but his daughters looked as if they had grown a bit and had gotten a little older.
Sam pointed at them excitedly as he jabbered. His finger poked the air at first one and then the other. All the onlookers, not just his family, laughed at the display.
“Look, mom, I think he’s trying to talk to us,” his younger daughter said.
Sam shook his head up and down vigorously at these words. Gales of laughter followed.
Sam shook a fist at the crowd, but it did not produce the result he wanted; the people were treating his torment as if it were an amusement show.
Sam pointed a finger at his older daughter. The crowd’s laughter stopped. They moved away from the girl. Sam heard her say, in a voice that was barely above a whisper, “Mommy, it’s creepy, I almost get the feeling Dad’s in there.” At these words, Sam’s wife grabbed each of his daughters and pulled them away from the cage.
Sam was frantic. He had the idea that if he could climb down and up the moat, and then scale the bars separating his cage from the outside world, he could catch up to his wife and somehow everything would be all right again.
He stepped over the edge of the moat, attempting to climb down one side and up the other.
But his first step over the edge merely caused him to tumble helplessly to the bottom. Sam had to be rescued by the zookeeper.
Sam enjoyed the zookeeper’s visits to his cage. The man who worked with the monkeys was in his late twenties or early thirties. He was burly, with curly red hair and a curly red beard. The backs of his hands, also covered with curly red hair, were spotted with brownish-red freckles. The keeper had eyes of china blue, like the Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait. He smiled and exuded a genuine warmth towards Sam. Sam didn’t know if the keeper merely worked there to have a job, or if he was studying primates as a career. Sam would have asked him, but there was no way he could communicate the question.
The zookeeper often talked to Sam; not as one human to another, but as one would talk to an infant or to a pet.
“There now, fella, here’s dinner,” he’d say to Sam as he handed over food. Sam was growing tired of his new diet of fruits and raw vegetables; what he wouldn’t give for a good steak, even if that last piece was what got him into his current predicament.
Sometimes the keeper would talk about the weather, or what his day was like, or how Sam must feel being confined to a cage. Sam would reply with inarticulate grunts; excited ones when the last topic was raised. Now and then Sam and the keeper would engage in mock grooming sessions. At the end of each, the keeper would pat Sam affectionately on the head.
One of the keeper’s activities drew Sam’s close attention: the unlocking and locking of the cage. From the very beginning of his captivity, Sam was planning his escape.
Now, after making sure that Sam was ok, the zookeeper patted him on the head and said, “Putting on a show for the crowd, eh?”
Sam did not grunt in response. He waited, watching as the keeper straightened up and made his way to the door, his back now toward Sam. Sam stealthily followed him.
The keeper unlocked the door and swung it open. As he was about to step out, Sam rushed him, knocking the zookeeper to the ground. With a grunt of joy, Sam leapt through the open doorway, and to what he thought would be freedom.
Sam ran through the streets of the city, drawing stares of astonishment. Fingers pointed at him and shouts followed him. He kept running.
The city was as he remembered it. Ahead he could see the entrance to a subway, its steps descending deep beneath the city, beckoning to him. He knew the line, and which train to take to get home. He practically flew down the steps.
There was the problem of getting through the turnstile. Of course he had no money to buy a token. He could always jump the turnstile, but in all the years he had ridden the subways he had never not paid his fare.
There was nothing else to do. He had to break the law.
Soon he was rushing down another flight of steps and bounding along the platform where the trains pulled in.
So far, no one in the station had seen him. Sam positioned himself at the end of the platform and cowered in the shadows. He waited.
A train came roaring into the station. Sam read the sign on the front of the first car. It said “H”, not the line he needed. Disappointed, he anxiously curled himself into a smaller ball, waiting for what seemed like forever.
Another train came into the station, this time the “W” line. That was what he needed. He watched the doors open. Passengers got on and off further down the platform. Sam counted the seconds carefully, trying to gauge when the doors would slide shut again, and then rushed madly down the platform, hurling himself through the narrowing space between the closing subway doors.
The train began pulling out of the station as Sam sat on the floor near the door he had just entered. For a moment, he felt as if he could relax.
Then he saw, to his horror, that the subway was not empty. There were small knots of people scattered throughout his car.
They began to chatter excitedly and point their fingers.
Sam raised his right index finger to his lips, as if to say “Shh”. Waves of laughter greeted his gesture, as if he were a performing circus monkey. Angry, Sam shook his fist at the people. Once liberated from the zoo and free in the city he loved, so absorbed was Sam in his quest that he forgot he was a monkey and not a human anymore.
Sam ran through the car and slid open the door that led to the other cars in the train. He stepped carefully over the narrow walkway and opened the door to the second car.
There were people in this one, too. Sam ran through it, also.
Stopping in the space between the second and third cars, Sam peered through the window. This was not empty, either.
Rather than cause a ruckus by running through the train, Sam carefully wedged himself between the back of the second car and the front of the third, away from the walkway between the two. The side of the tunnel whizzed past him as the subway barreled over its tracks. Sam hoped he would not be discovered before he got home.
The front door to his apartment building was not locked. Rather than trap himself in the elevator, he ran up the four flights of steps to his landing. He nervously approached the door to his apartment and rang the bell.
There was no answer.
What if they are not home, he wondered fearfully.
He rang again, insistently.
He heard movement on the other side of the door and knew someone was looking through the peephole. Sam crouched low to the floor so he could not be seen.
The door opened a crack and Sam barged into his home.
His wife stepped away from the door, a look of terror on her face. A load scream began in her throat. Sam raised a finger to his lips. Her eyes widened in amazement and she throttled her cry.
For a moment the husband and wife stared at each other. Then a man, dressed only in underwear, came out of Sam’s bedroom.
“What’s wrong, Cynthia?” he cried. Then he saw Sam and turned white, his whole body shaking.
Realizing what he had come upon, Sam began to tremble with rage. He bared his teeth and hissed. Then he rushed the stranger in his house, knocked him down, and stood on his chest.
“Leave him alone!” his wife shouted. “Leave him alone, damn you!”
Sam turned to face his wife. Sam no longer saw terror on her face. There was fear, yes, and rage. But there was something else, too. Sam saw recognition.
“Get out of here,” Cynthia hissed. “You’re dead. Go back where you came from.”
Sam stepped off the man on the floor. He approached his wife with his arms outstretched, his monkey voice making the most pitiable wail. But there was no pity on his wife’s face.
She pointed to the open doorway.
“Get out you freak,” she cried. “Go back to your cage in the zoo. Maybe next time you die you’ll come back as a rat, or a roach.” Her mouth curled into a sneer.
Sam shivered and trembled. Then he scampered out the open doorway to what had once been his home.
Fresh air blew in Sam’s face as he stood in front of the apartment building. To the north was Van Cortland Park. He could live free among the trees and bushes. For food he could leave the park and raid the fruit and vegetable stands. Sure, they would be looking for him, but apart from that petty theft he would be causing no trouble, and he was smart enough not to get caught. The city was full of parks and greengroceries. After a while they would stop actively seeking him; he would become a legend that the city would speak about in wonder.
Yes, he could live free as a man-monkey in the city of his birth.
Toward the south, at the end of the street, a flight of stairs descended to the subway.
Sam gave a quick glance to the north, toward freedom. Then he walked slowly and heavily to the subway entrance.
Sam stood outside his cage. He did not have long to wait. The friendly red-haired zookeeper came by with a big smile on his face.
“Back for good this time, eh, fella?” the zookeeper asked, opening the door to the cage.
Sam stepped inside.
Fifi was waiting for him.