My Life Among the Apes

Christmas, 2009 / No. 23
Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

For nearly a year I lived among the apes. I knew by sight more than two dozen chimpanzees living by Lake Tanganyika in the remote Gombe Stream Game Reserve. Goliath, the alpha male. David Greybeard. Rodolf. Flo. I was among those who first saw a chimp make and use a tool—a twig stripped of its leaves and thrust into the hole of a termite hill. Once a mother held her infant out for me to groom. Once I witnessed a colony of chimps surround a stray member of another tribe and commit murder.

And then I gave it all up.

Hoffstedder is on my case again. First, someone in the branch has been using an anonymous blog to write slurs about management. Second, for reasons unexplained the number of after-hours deposits at our A.T.M. has declined by four per cent. Third, a pass card has gone missing.

I am fifty-one years old and have not risen as far as others my age, but I came to banking late, after an unfinished Ph.D. and careers in housing management and commercial liability insurance. The best that I can say about banking is that I like the people I work with (all except Hoffstedder) and I can walk to work in forty minutes.

The staff under me, tellers and assistant managers, are fifteen to twenty-five years younger. They are first- and second-generation sons and daughters of India, Pakistan, Portugal, Iran, the Azores. They are dressed modestly but sharply. Both sexes wear earrings, but other visible piercings are not permitted while at work. Little indentations can be seen, by an eyebrow, a lip, where a stud or ring has been removed. They spend their lunch hours text-messaging their friends. On Monday mornings they look wasted from weekend raves, or whatever it is they do. The younger ones seem to form no permanent relationships but have a lot of sex. They live two worlds away from my own, and I wish them well.

One day when I was eleven, I came home to find the latest National Geographic on the kitchen counter, along with a glass of milk and a wedge of burnt-sugar cake. I opened it and saw a beautiful young blond woman washing her hair in a stream.

“Don’t disappear with that magazine,” my mother warned me as I slipped off the stool. “Nobody else has seen it yet.”

We lived in the suburb of Willowdale. I had my own room while my older brothers shared one. A desk, a bookcase, a World Book Encyclopedia, a telescope. I was short for my age, and overweight. I dreaded gym class. Two girls down the street tormented me every day on the way home. In the evening we watched Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

But that night I began to live in the jungle.

My wife, Lizette, is a teacher in a private girls’ school. Even when we met, more than two decades ago, her anxiousness made it hard for her to see a movie or attend a party where there might be strangers. Not until after our third child was old enough for Lizette to go back to work part-time did the true panic attacks begin. She had to take a medical leave and endure hours of ineffective therapy before the proper dosage of a new drug began to help matters. Medication has made life more tolerable for her, although I remained the one who took our boys to hockey practice and attended our daughter’s piano recitals.

I still find myself frustrated and angry that we cannot go on holidays, or even to the theatre or a dinner party. Two years ago I had the idea of visiting France for my fiftieth birthday, but of course we could not go. I fantasize about going on my own (and having an affair with a beautiful woman while I’m there), but with the fantasy comes guilt and shame, which leads me to treat Lizette with an excessive delicacy that annoys her.

For my science presentation that year, I chose Jane Goodall’s research on primate behaviour. I stood before the class and talked about how as a young girl Jane had written down observations of birds and animals around her home, then how as a young woman she had become assistant to the famous paleontologist Louis Leakey, who eventually assigned her the task of studying chimpanzees in the wild. I spoke of her findings—that chimps slept in trees in nests they made by bending branches down with their feet, that grooming was an important form of social interaction. I passed around photographs.

Two photographs I kept to myself. One was of Jane Goodall washing her hair. The other was a close-up of her in profile looking into the face of a chimp. Her own eyes blue, her lips slightly parted. That night in bed, I imagined writing to Jane Goodall and telling her of my admiration for her work. At the same time, I modestly point out something that she has missed but that I have noticed from the photographs, an observation about the way chimpanzees communicate with gestures. I send the letter to her care of the offices of the National Geographic Society and in a short time I receive a telegram, which the delivery man reads while my family stands by the door and listens.


My parents and my brothers stare at me in stunned amazement. Finally, my dad says, “Well, son, you better get packing.”

I E-mail a report about the missing pass card to Hoffstedder. Our newest and youngest teller, Kate Sulimani, accidentally took it home. Her boyfriend hid it as a prank and when Kate found out and demanded it back, he couldn’t find it. They think it ended up in the recycled trash but as its destruction can’t be proven I have taken the precaution of recalling all the pass cards and ordering replacements with new codes.

Hoffstedder’s reply is two words: “Fire her.” I write back, explaining that this is Kate Sulimani’s first job out of community college, that other staff members have occasionally forgotten to leave their pass cards, and that she understands the gravity of her error.

He writes back again: “I said fire her.”

I have no choice but to call Kate into my office. She leaves in tears. When I come out to get a coffee, the other tellers will not look at me.

Before Christmas, Kate Sulimani drew my name for the office secret-Santa party. At the party she gave me a tie. You have to look very closely at the pattern to see that it is made up of little Homer Simpsons. I happen to be wearing that tie today.

I bring my coffee back to my desk and look for something to put it down on. I find the scrap of newspaper that I ripped out of the Globe a few days ago, the notice that Jane Goodall is coming to give a talk. She is on a fundraising mission for a group that wants to build a retirement sanctuary for old research chimps. Tickets are fifty dollars.

At home I listen to a phone message from our older son. He isn’t coming home from school this weekend after all. I put the phone down and look for his brother to shoot some baskets with, until I remember that his band is having a rehearsal in the drummer’s garage. Our daughter is at her boyfriend’s. Lizette comes downstairs and as I open a bottle of Zinfandel, she starts chopping vegetables.

At the stove, Lizette says, “I see that Jane Goodall is coming to town.”


“She hasn’t phoned you? ”

“Very funny.”

“Maybe we can go.”

“Really, it’s O.K.”

The following winter I began studying for my bar mitzvah. Some kids I knew developed an intense fervour about their Jewishness. They started wearing yarmulkes. I was thinking about chimpanzees in the context of evolutionary theory.

On the day of my bar mitzvah, I wore a double-breasted suit with a light pink shirt and a blue tie. The synagogue was crowded with guests, for me and also for a girl named Denise who was having her bat mitzvah. She read her Torah portion flawlessly, as was required, while I stumbled three times and the rabbi made me stop and repeat each word correctly.

Denise gave her talk first and then it was my turn. I was supposed to give an explanation of my portion and draw from it a moral lesson. But I began by leaning into the microphone and quoting an earlier biblical passage: “And Jacob said to Rebekah his mother: ‘Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man.’”

Firing Kate Sulimani has damaged branch morale. The tellers resent losing their friend and feel insecure in their own jobs. I consider holding a staff meeting to discuss the matter but decide that I have nothing to offer—all I would be doing is asking them to keep seeing me as a nice guy.

I did not consider refusing to fire her. I have college bills to pay, the mortgage, the usual. What is Kate Sulimani to me? She’s young and will bounce back. She has her whole life ahead of her.

In the bathroom mirror, I see the beginning of pouches under my eyes, sagging jowls. I look the part I am playing: Hoffstedder’s man.

In high school, I smoked a lot of dope, drank on weekends, bet on American football through a kid in history class who worked for a bookie. I read books on Buddhism, or first chapters of books. I failed two courses.

One day in the middle term of Grade 12, I found out I had to present a project in biology that I hadn’t known about because I’d skipped a week of classes. At home, I looked through our Life Science Library books hoping for something I could pull together. Then I remembered my old Jane Goodall project. I found it stuffed in the bottom drawer and when I pulled out the file, the photograph of Jane Goodall washing her hair fell out. It seemed to me I could pretty much recycle the old material, adding details as I remembered them, but that I would need to make it longer. So I got out my portable cassette recorder, plugged in the microphone, and began to make chimp calls.

Imitating chimpanzees I had heard on television documentaries was all that survived from my Jane Goodall period. In a car with friends, at parties, walking at night with my buddies, I would begin with low hoots and then break into louder barks and howls. Everyone always said how real they sounded and I knew Mr. Anderson, my dim-witted biology teacher who wore his hair long and liked to act chummy with us, wouldn’t know the difference. The next day in class, I gave my presentation, embellishing as I went along, and then explained how I had obtained a tape recording by writing to the National Geographic Society. I pressed the Play button of the recorder. Every so often I paused it to explain the meaning of a call: anger, frustration, submission, fear, loneliness. Finally, I turned the recorder off and said that despite the fact that human beings had built cities, flown to the moon, and invented surface-to-air missiles, the difference between us and apes might only be a matter of degree. To conclude, I quoted the line about Jacob and Esau that I had used in my bar mitzvah speech.

Mr. Anderson looked at me a long moment and then said, “Get to the office.”

Brooding behind my desk, I recall a long-forgotten detail. I don’t remember whether it was in that first National Geographic, or one of the television specials that came after. How an adult male chimpanzee named Mike stole the dominant male position. The previous alpha male, Goliath, was huge and powerful, and the smaller Mike was no match for him. But Mike found some empty kerosene cans in Jane Goodall’s camp. He learned to bash them in front of him as he ran, making an awful racket that terrified the other chimps, including Goliath. When Mike finally stopped, even Goliath eventually came over and reached out to groom Mike’s fur. Mike became the alpha male.

All I need is some petrol cans to bash. I’m not sure if what I have in mind is equivalent, but I pick up the phone.

“Hoffstedder here.”

“Jerry, it’s Allen.”

“You figured out why your A.T.M. numbers are down? ”

“I’m working on it. Listen, Jerry, about that teller we let go. I’ve got a rep from the Civil Liberties Association coming here tomorrow. He’s asking about discrimination, unfair practises, even about going to the media. If I tell him what I really think—”

“Are you squeezing my balls, Allen? ”

“No, of course not. But when he asks me—”

“You’ll know what to tell him, won’t you? That the girl was incompetent and posed a risk to our clients, and that we gave her the standard package. I don’t want to hear any more about it. Now on those A.T.M. numbers, you check if a homeless guy’s been sleeping in your doorway at night, keeping the customers away. Happens all the time.”

I hear the sound of the click at the other end.

At home, I say to Lizette, “Are the kids never coming home for dinner? Maybe we should just set up a trust fund for them.” She dishes scalded rapini with feta next to the sole on my plate. “We’re boring to them. It’s natural. And they’ve all promised to be home tomorrow. The only real problem is that you’re bored with me.”

“Likely the other way around. I wouldn’t blame you. I feel like I’ve become nothing but my job.”

“I have a present for you. Just a small one, so don’t get too excited.”

“What is it? ”

“Look under your plate.”

“I feel like I’m twelve,” I say, shifting my plate over. Underneath is a ticket. Jane Goodall at Convocation Hall.

“It’s in an hour,” she says, “so you’d better eat up.”

“Just me? ”

“I’m sorry. I’m just not up to it right now.”

“Sure.” I get up and kiss her. “Thanks.”

I sit down again and we start to eat.

The last time I’d been in Convocation Hall was to receive the diploma for my undergraduate degree. About all I could remember was what a bad hangover I’d had. Now I look down to the stage to see Jane Goodall behind the slender Plexiglas podium. Behind her a large screen shows a series of video clips. She no longer looks like the slim woman washing her hair in a mountain stream. She is a handsome older woman, comfortably filled out, a quaver in her voice. A good speaker, if overly rehearsed, as if she has given this same speech a thousand times.

After the talk, I buy one of her books and line up to have it signed. We shuffle forward, waiting for our turn at the table where she sits with pen in hand, and as we get closer I feel increasingly agitated. At last it is my turn and as I move up she looks at me.

It takes me a moment to speak. “Dr. Goodall, I’ve been an admirer of yours since I was a boy.”

“Have you? How very nice.” She smiles wearily, as if she has met many like me and knows all our secrets. “Shall I sign it to you? ”

“No,” I say. “To a friend of mine. Kate Sulimani. I’ll spell it.”

Kate Sulimani lives in a high-rise apartment in a cluster of buildings off the Don Valley Parkway. An empty green space with a dry fountain in the middle. It looks like some invented city, Brasilia maybe. I look for the name on the directory and press the button.

“Hello? ”

“Kate, it’s Allen Wernick.”

The buzzer sounds and the door unlocks. The lobby of her building smells of bleach. I take the elevator up, reading the notices taped to the bulletin board: “NANNY AVAILABLE,” “LOST CAT,” “WHOMEVER STOLE MY BIKE, PLEASE RETURN IT NO QUESTIONS ASKED.” When I get off at the seventh floor, she’s already at her door, holding it open about three inches. She wears a cotton robe. From inside I can hear music, some techno thing.

“What do you want, Mr. Wernick? Are you here to give me my job back? ”

“I wish I was. I really just want to say that I’m sorry. You weren’t treated fairly.”

“Yeah, well, life sucks that way.”

“I’ve written a letter of recommendation for you.”

“You can do that? ”

“I don’t know, actually. Anyway, here, it’s inside this book. The book is for you too.”

I hand her the book, with the letter sticking out from between its pages. She looks at it a moment before taking it. Then she stares at the cover.

“The woman who lives with monkeys, right? ”

“Chimpanzees, actually.”

She opens the book to the title page. “It’s signed.”


“‘To a fellow animal lover’? ”

“I guess that’s what she always writes.”

“A bit weird, but thanks, I guess.”

“Don’t mention it.”

I take a step back and Kate Sulimani closes the door.

I park the car at the curb and turn off the engine. In the dark I rest my head against my arms on the steering wheel. I’m tired, but it isn’t the good sort of tired that comes from a long walk. I get out of the car and lock it with the remote key, making the lights flash.

I come in through the side door as quietly as I can, but Lizette is still up, sitting in the kitchen in a cotton nightgown. The cake we didn’t have time to eat is on the table.

“How was it? ”

“Good,” I say. “She’s a woman who knows her chimps.”

“Is she older too or is it just us? ”

I lean over and kiss her. “You’re very beautiful.”

She shrugs me off. “ Do you want a piece of cake? ”


She cuts a slice and puts it on a plate, slides it to me as I sit down. I take a bite. “It’s delicious.” I take another. “I don’t like firing people.”

The next few bites I eat without tasting and then the slice is gone. I want to go to bed but I can’t move. Lizette doesn’t move either, doesn’t look at the papers in front of her, and I become aware of the ticking of the clock on the wall.

“I think we should go on a holiday this year,” she says.

“All right,” I say. At least, I think I say it. I’m not sure, and I don’t say it again.

Cary Fagan lives in Dufferin Grove. His collection My Life Among the Apes was long-listed for the Giller Prize, and his short story “Shit Box,” from Taddle Creek’s summer, 2007, issue, was nominated for a National Magazine Award. His books for kids include The Boy in the Box, Mr. Zinger’s Hat, and I Wish I Could Draw. Last updated winter, 2014–2015.