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Authors: Cheeta

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BOOK: Me Cheeta
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“You see it do those flips? This is a trained animal, Pops, has to be worth a dollar to somebody.” But the old man had turned away in disgust, and I wasn’t sorry to see him go.

So the young man led me on my length of twine through the forest as the light strengthened, and I saw that what had seemed a
pretty lush jungle at night was actually hard-worked land, dotted with clusters of rickety shelters where tattered children were playing and older humans lolled. Much of the grass had been ripped up and was now mud in which little lines of plants were growing unenthusiastically. Every tree had been brutalized and was missing half of its limbs. It was somehow dispiriting, neither forest nor city, a mess.

On we went, through the half-made shelters and mud, the tether digging into my skin, my arms throbbing from the blows and a hangover, of heavy alcohol and heavier fear, settling in me. We approached the zoo, and there were a dozen wire-mesh shelters in a line, most of them empty. In one, a pair of white parrots roosted. A few other animals were slumbering in corners. The whole place had an air of being semi-abandoned. The young man and I waited for maybe an hour, but nobody showed up, and in the end he must have figured there was no reward for him there. So he looped the tether through the mesh and walked away.

I could easily have untangled that tether and gotten out of there, but the truth is that New York seemed too dangerous to go through again. Another day of it would kill you. Great for an adventure, maybe, but it wouldn’t be long before you’d be found dead at the base of one of those high-scraping towers. Not everybody got away with it like Kong had.

After a while, a guy shambled up to the shelters and unlocked the gate. I whimpered at him, and before sundown Trefflich was around to collect a very chastened chimpanzee from the empty shelter where I’d been happy to be led. And by the time we finally left New York for California, every single one of the escapees had been returned to its cage, to use the more usual term, at Henry Trefflich & Son’s.

6
Big Break!

I remember that over the entrance to MGM’s Central Casting Office on Western Avenue, just outside the lot at Culver City, there used to be a sign that read, “Do NOT try to become an actor! For every ONE we employ we turn away a THOUSAND.”

I guess they knew that too many people becoming actors would eventually damage their business. For the movies to work, they needed large numbers of people who weren’t stars to do the actual watching. Hence the violent “Keep Out!” sign, which was, however, completely useless. Like a “Do not throw objects into the animals’ cages” notice, it was almost touchingly unrealistic about human nature. The lines beneath it were comprised of humans who considered odds of a thousand to one to be really rather tempting: the sign had quadrupled the line.

Nowadays, of course, the problem has become critical. How
can
you stem the tidal wave of Americans who want to become famous actors? I don’t know what the answer is. Bigger, more violent signs? To continue enlarging the number of things humans can act in? The only feasible long-term solution to your pandemic is, I suppose, in each individual’s hands: don’t try to become a famous actor.
And who’s going to go for that? The YouTubers? You can’t change your nature, can you? You can’t stop.

In the Golden Age, however, things were very different. Actors formed only a tiny minority of the population, so maybe some of the studios’ scare tactics did pay off. Certainly for an animal, there were powerful disincentives….

Our journey from the east took a week and a half of almost intolerably cramped intensive rehab. In the thirties and forties, most MGM employees traveling out to the coast from New York would take a sleeping compartment on board the 20th Century Limited, which departed Grand Central at six in the evening. Before the passengers woke the next morning, the sleeping cars were tacked onto the Santa Fe Chief in Chicago, and two whole days later they’d be in Union Station, L.A. Very civilized. But for us there was just a long period of darkness, semiconsciousness, tasteless fruit left to rot in our dungy straw, and a herky-jerky rhythm that didn’t soothe like the rocking of
Forest Lawn.

And for me, perhaps for the other escapees too, there were bad dreams on the journey: I dreamed I was climbing one of the towers of Manhattan, and that the old man from the city-forest was climbing after me, trying to swat me with his stick so that I fell. As I dropped through the sky I looked into the shelters in the sides of the tower and saw humans displaying wrathfully at each other, or embracing each other, or giving smiles that were really grimaces of fear—a multitude of humans who seemed to contain just as much violence as we chimpanzees did.

Whenever the vibrating motion and noise of the sleeping compartment ceased, we would all wake and cry out nervously to each other in the sudden stillness to check that we still existed. I could distinguish Bonzo and Frederick and Tyrone among the different calls, and I thought at those times that you could hear the residue
of troubled dreams in most of our voices but I don’t know, maybe it was just me… maybe it was just me who was fretting about whether humans were really the answer after all. So the world spun under us and we traveled west toward the Dream Factories.

We were unloaded, reloaded, unloaded again. For the first time since
Forest Lawn
we smelled leopard, rhinoceros, lion and musty python (those things sure do reek), and heard turacos sending out relays of warning. And I thought I understood at last—our rehabilitation was over. It came to me like an epiphany. This was surely the reason we’d been deprived of the touch of each other, of the comfort of mutual grooming, or those kisses of reassurance that meant so much to us. We’d been deprived of it so that we would cherish each other now we were finally considered ready to return to the forest! So that we—and I guessed this included the rehabilitated leopards and snakes—would do it
right
this time. The humans had helped us see the error of our foolish ways, and now it was up to us to make the most of our second chance!

But when the slats of my shelter were broken down, they merely revealed another of those landscapes like the docks at Kigoma, another transit camp for animals, which I was beginning to know all too well. Another shelter, Tyrone and I cast together once again, another reconnoiter around its eight corners, turning up nothing. I knew the drill by now: the insufficient straw, the diamond mesh. We could see a brick pillar, a stretch of wall, and a fraction of one of the leopards’ shelters. And then, suddenly, the dividing partition between us and the next shelter along was thrumming with the aftershock of a heavy impact, and there, bipedaling around his shelter, his hair bristling up like the Bride of Frankenstein’s, was Stroheim.

Always a pleasure … a little bit heavier than the last time, but that was to be expected. What was shocking about Stroheim was his head. He’d always had this rather noticeable central part be
tween his two wings of hair, which were long and lay sideways. He used to look like a human schoolboy, furious at having been patted on his just-combed brow. Now this central part had become a barren desert. As I watched him display, I saw his familiar old gesture of dropping both hands onto his head and fiddling at the edges of the bald patch, plucking at the remaining hairs there. With full weight of shoulder, he crashed his slab-hands against the partition again, barking at me to show off his teeth, but still, though I feared him, I couldn’t quite bring myself ever to believe in Stroheim. He subsided, and hating myself for my gratitude to my godawful shelter, I turned away and began the long process of grooming poor shy little Tyrone down from his shock.

Stroheim’s hair-pulling business worried me. Was it anything to do with this new rehab center? There was a general air of low morale around the place, as if even the best efforts of the program could not prevent the animals turning in on themselves. Certainly our shelter was on the snug side, and the leopard opposite seemed completely sunk in despair. But there were humans who occasionally toured our shelters and at least they were diverting to look at as they observed us, doubtless assessing our recovery.

Always, for some reason, these humans were accompanied by children, who offered us morsels of delicious American food through the mesh. To my surprise, they demonstrated a better grasp of the prevailing realities than the adults, who frequently attempted to interfere with these vital nutritional supplements. But the children’s actions made sense to me. They dispensed supplements to those animals that showed the most vitality—in other words, those who seemed most worth assisting. So the chimpanzees did well compared to those whom the program was failing, those whom you knew were alive only after long scrutiny of their ribcages, which slowly gained and lost faint stripes of shadow
if you peered closely enough into the tangled straw. Unreconstructed jungle violence, which Stroheim demonstrated, went unrewarded by supplements. It all made sense.

And this extra human food was crucial. Something had happened to the quantity of fruit we were getting; it was radically less than what we had been used to at Trefflich’s. By the time the twice-daily ritual of winning supplements from our human coaches came around, you were ravenous. There were two of them to about fifteen of us, and every mouthful of food they deigned to grant you was a complete fucking performance. And it wasn’t at all like
Forest Lawn
and its cheerful abundance: you got a single, bright little bean hardly worth the chewing each time you did something the human liked. The little beans were highly addictive, however, and you were so hungry you’d chow down on as many as were offered.

So when Tyrone and I were led out of our shelters on tethers into the courtyard, we were already desperate to please. Each of the coaches carried a short length of smooth stick—“the broom handle,” or “ugly-stick”—with which they threatened to beat us if we failed to imitate them. They went at us two at a time. And for me, seeing the coach raise the ugly-stick above his head brought back memories of the gaunt old man from the New York forest and I couldn’t suppress a pleading grimace of fear.

“That’s right, gimme a smile. Gimme a great big Gable grin, Jiggs. That’s good.”

But Tyrone was confused by the ugly-stick and was beaten heavily before he could produce the fear-grimace on order. It took only a single hard blow across my back to understand that a leap of faked love into the coach’s arms was required, and here again Tyrone suffered badly when he bit the human’s shoulder. I’d come close to biting my own coach, but the memory of Trefflich’s watch held me back.

There was no joy in the coach’s face, no love in his voice—he was a relentless man, he bored it into you. He lessened the world, made it hard even to think of what there was outside the corridor of actions he’d laid down for you. Oh, yeah—pain, that was what was outside that corridor. So after you’d clapped for him, and kissed him, and “laughed” for him, donned a hat and drunk a glass of water, then gone and fetched the little tan notebook in which he wrote notes at the end of the session, you were left with the feeling that there was really nothing between you—a foretaste of that emptiness all actors, all auditionees, know. The one time I felt emboldened enough to fish a cigarette from the pack in his chest pocket, I got a couple of cracks from the ugly-stick. I was only fooling around. But there was no love in the man, only dull, inexpressive alphadom.

Mornings and evenings, this routine on the tethers. Almost the worst of it was hearing the others taking their beatings. With my experience on
Forest Lawn
, I’d been fortunate. It seemed, I don’t know, somehow
natural
for me to do a triple-backflip-handclap-double-lip-flip-and-grin. You didn’t even need to ask me. Not so for the rest, and they got the brunt of it. Bonzo was hopeless; he was continually bewildered into mistakes by his fear. When we returned to the shelter I’d try to reassure him with strokes and grooming, but after a short time he’d slink away into his corner and slump motionless for hours.

Frederick was good: he’d picked up plenty of coaching on
Forest Lawn
and was quick with the fetching. And there were two or three other apes who were awarded full rations of colored beans. Being older, Stroheim was less moldable. For this reason I think they cut him more slack. Certainly we rarely heard him scream, and when he knuckled back into the shelter he never seemed cowed and was soon displaying away boneheadedly in his own little fiefdom. I didn’t rise to it. I was slipping into the lassitude of the program. We all were.

Life shrank to hunger and the ugly-stick, the pulsing pain of your bruises and masturbation. Dimly you’d see the children who visited your shelter recoil, but you couldn’t stop yourself hunting for a little pang of pleasure in your misery. We were all at it, ten, fifteen, twenty times a day, and each time I vowed it would be my last. But my brain would circle around again, and coming across nothing else to rest on or hope for, I’d find myself back where I started, looking for that tiny throblet of pleasure, the only one going.

And worse, I was beginning to starve. Sure, I was getting my colored beans, but the center served up a menu heavily slanted toward fucking
bananas.
I could manage a nibble, but then my gorge would rise at the memory of the mamba, and I’d never be able to finish the things. Bonzo grew fat on my leavings. And I fell gradually into a disenchantment with the humans. I fretted and doubted, worse than I ever had at Trefflich’s. There were things I wasn’t seeing. Maybe this whole thing was a mistake, and you were just another bunch of mad apes who didn’t really know what you were doing. This treadmill of starving and beating—what was it
for
Was rehab
permanent?

For a month we followed the routine, and my mind began to close down when I wasn’t “on.” Stroheim adopted a compulsive shuttle from his back wall to our partition, which he slammed against scornfully at every third or fourth pass. Tyrone and I were too fazed to notice him, too busy rocking back and forth and dreaming of elsewhere. I was up on the escarpment again, in moonlight, teaching Tony Gentry how to fetch wild custard apples for me, when Stroheim erupted through the forest and into our shelter.

BOOK: Me Cheeta
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