You, me, and Rusty
Rusty the orangutan died today at San Francisco Zoo. I was colouring my hair when I heard the news. True Red by L’Oreal. Rusty’s hair was red too, only his was natural. The footage that followed the announcement showed Rusty blowing kisses to the hordes of people who clustered around his enclosure each day. Such a ham that Rusty! He knew how to work a crowd, that’s for sure. The news hit me like a punch in the chest. First you. Now Rusty. Who’s next? “His heart simply gave out,” the newscaster said. Ironic. You both had weak hearts. Well, let it be said here for the record, my heart is in pretty bad shape too. Living in a world that does not include you or Rusty makes me want to lie down in the dirt and cry for ten thousand years.
We are both ten years old and walking through San Francisco Zoo. It is 1972. You are a slender boy with large, pale blue eyes. I am a plump, shy girl who doesn’t say much to anyone. Except you. To you I tell all my secrets. All but one. “He was born in captivity and they brought him here to the zoo a year ago,” you say as we head towards the gorillas, chimps and orangutans. I don’t know what captivity means, but I am happy to be here with you and not at home. It is six o’clock and almost closing time. A few families stroll by, young mothers and fathers with small children. A woman wearing a white cheesecloth blouse and green shorts holds a small curly-haired girl by the hand. I watch as she picks up the laughing child and holds her high so she can be closer to the giraffe that is chewing leaves from a tree. It is a warm October evening and still light. The sun glints off the girl’s hair as she reaches up towards the sky.
It was love at first sight for you, me, and Rusty. He sat there staring at us like a big, wise Buddha. Two hundred pounds of orangutan. His black, shiny eyes looked us up and down. The red mullet and the smiling u-shape crescent of his mouth gave him a stoned rock star demeanor. We were enchanted. Rusty never moved much, but that first time we saw him he was as still and watchful as a night nurse in Intensive Care.
Later, we ran back through the zoo and out onto Sloat Boulevard where we lived in flats across the hall from each other in a shabby building that used to be a motel. I remember we passed a parked car with open windows and a radio turned up full volume. As we ran, we could hear “American Pie” blasting all the way down the block.
Our parents were train wrecks. Yours were drunks and mine, well their sickness was darker, more sinister, than the empty bottles of vodka that piled up in your trash can each day. Your mother had been known to stagger half naked up the Grand Highway in the middle of the night screaming obscenities at the stunned drivers who blared their horns and swerved to avoid hitting her. My mother couldn’t face the truth of what was going on in her own home, and so became blank and distant and appeared not to notice that I was going to bed each night fully clothed.
I remember slipping my hand into yours when your mother burst into the classroom one afternoon, flailing and shouting and barely able to stand. She stood at the door swaying, scanning the room for your face. Her short red dress hung off her, and her arms and legs were thin as reeds. When she spotted you she staggered towards the back of the class, where we sat together at two joined desks. “He’s gone Robbie,” your mother wailed, grasping at you, the smell of alcohol thick and bitter in the air around us. Minutes later she was removed from the room, her bare, pale legs kicking out, her red dress riding up, her underwear visible to us all. Every boy and girl in the room sat rigid in their chairs, until slowly, one by one, they turned to look at you.
I remember saying “No!” This was summer, 1973, in the room with the pink eiderdown in the shabby apartment building that used to be a motel. I had not said that word to my father before, and it shocked him, made him shrink back against my bedroom door. It was early morning and outside the window I could hear the sound of teenage surfers laughing and making their way towards the waves at Ocean beach. It was a morning of sounds; of clicks and creaks, of openings and closings. Click. The sound of the latch locking back into place on the front door as my mother left for work. Click. The sound of the handle being turned on my bedroom door minutes later as my father opened it. Click. The sound of that same door closing again as my father shuffled out, head down, thwarted. Within a month he had left us, and my mother and I moved silently about the tiny apartment, circling each other like lions.
We are fatherless, and it is the last days of disco, and I am shimmying in front of Rusty’s enclosure, singing the words of “Do The Hustle.” Alternating finger snaps with hand claps, I glide back and forth across the tarmac, dipping and twirling, while you and Rusty watch. “You’ve got rhythm Lucy” you say, smiling and clapping, and I make a quick curtsy, first in your direction and then in Rusty’s. He is resting on his concrete platform, stroking his chin, watching us, and not the camera-snapping tourists who have stopped to take his photo. Overhead, fat white clouds glide lazily through a bright summer sky. You and I are still inseparable this summer, but our closeness will not last. By Fall you will prefer the company of the old stoners who build midnight bonfires on the beach, the charred remains of which litter the sands the morning after.
It is winter and we are sitting on a bench at the zoo watching Rusty watch us. It is the last time we will visit him together. We pass a bottle of cheap peppermint schnapps back and forth between us, ignoring the disapproving glances of passers-by as we tilt our heads, lift it to our lips and swallow the clear, sweet liquid. Rusty blows kisses and we blow them back. Later, we will run from tree to tree at Lands End Park. You will climb one of the cypresses there, and I will sit beneath, heart in mouth, watching and waiting
for your return. On the way home we will talk about Rusty, and the green and lush jungle he has never inhabited. In our drunken imaginations we will place him there with the rainbow coloured birds, the clouded leopards and the sun bears.
The last time I saw Rusty was shortly after your death. It was early evening and I made my way out to the zoo. It had been years since I had seen him. He had grown a red goatee. It suited him, gave him a hipster, professorial look. He had a companion, a female orangutan named Ruby. Ruby had a red fringe and soft eyes. The pair of them sat side by side beneath the wooden climbing frame, watching the world go by, like an elderly couple on a porch. I put my hands on the wire fence and leaned my face in close. “He’s gone, Rusty,” I said, and they gazed in my direction. It was cold, and almost dark, and most of the visitors had left. All around me I could hear the sounds of captive animals.
Kate O’Grady (@KateOGrady19 on twitter) lives in Stroud, Gloucestershire. She has been long listed/short listed or placed in Bath Flash Fiction Competition, Reflex Flash Fiction competition, Exeter Short Story Competition, Gloucester Writers Network competition, Stroud Book Festival Short Story competition, and published in Stroud Short Stories anthology.