Featured Artwork: “Jumping Card” by Francis Raven
I grew up in a small row house two blocks from the San Francisco Zoo, close enough that the dawn whoops of the gibbons seeped beneath my windowsill and into my dreams. I swung from jungle vines, dropped to the forest floor and padded barefoot through the gloom, shards of light sifting through the dense canopy. When the monkeys’ cascading, high-pitched calls reached their apex, I opened my eyes to my older sister in the single bed beside me, pasty oatmeal for breakfast, the fog-shrouded walk up Vicente to the public grammar school.
The Doherty family lived a few houses from the corner of our block, closer to the zoo. “Tiny” Doherty, an oversized girl with stringy hair and a face like biscuit dough, was my neighborhood friend. She attended the Catholic school. I envied the uniform the girls wore—starched white middy blouses, blue ties and pleated skirts—though Tiny was relegated her three older sisters’ hand-me-downs, dingy, threadbare blouses, skirts with split zipper teeth.
Tiny, whose real name was Maureen, was older, eleven to my eight. We rarely played at her house. Tiny had once coaxed me inside with the promise of popsicles. In the sour-smelling kitchen, I stepped in something squishy. She said it was probably just eggs from breakfast but that she couldn’t turn the lights on because they hurt her mother’s eyes.
The zoo, which was free back then, was our after-school playground. We had a routine. One I devised and directed. Tiny balked when she didn’t want to do what I said, but she always went along in the end.
First, we sifted for lost change under the swings and slides.
“Can I hold the money this time?” she would whine, extending a moist hand.
“You’ll only lose it,” I would say.
I was the keeper of the change.
Monkey Island, home of the unblinking spider monkeys, was a bump of earth encircled by a murky moat and a chain-link fence. The matriarch held court on the highest tree branch while her subjects swung from limb to limb. Furry doll babies clung to their mama’s necks.
Fingers laced through the wire mesh, Tiny and I would shake the fence to get the monkeys’ attention. We ran circles around the perimeter, Tiny panting, struggling to keep up with me. The monkeys would chatter and screech, their cookie mouths round and indignant as they joined in the race. We ran faster, until their brown bodies blurred and we crumpled to the asphalt.
Two disheveled girls, our chests heaving with ragged breath, we’d wait until the world to stop spinning. Tourists gaped and clasped their children’s hands. I waggled my tongue at them. Tiny did the same. Those yahoos with their cameras and Bermuda shorts might visit the zoo once or twice in a lifetime. We owned it.
Once she’d caught her breath, Tiny would ask, “We got enough money for pink popcorn?”
“Not snack time yet,” I would say, jingling the coins in my pocket. “Lion House first. Then the otters.”
I took off at a run. Tiny trailed behind.
It was around fifth grade when Tiny stopped finding me after school. I thought something bad had happened to her, like her sister who had an operation to fix her pigeon feet and was laid up on a table in the front room for months, legs in casts with a bar holding them apart.
I’d wait on my front steps then wander down the street, slowing when I reached her dark house. I never climbed the front steps or knocked, and Tiny never came out.
The last time I remember seeing her, I was roller skating. I spied Tiny around the corner, at the closest streetcar stop, with a girl I didn’t know. I sped towards them, metal wheels clacking over the sidewalk cracks. I stubbed the toes of my skates into the concrete and came to a screechy stop. A streetcar squealed round the bend, its wires sparking the lines overhead.
“We’re going to Juvie,” Tiny said, swishing her hips.
“What’s that?” I asked.
The other girl, taller, with high, ratted hair and her uniform skirt rolled up tube-like around her waist, snapped her gum.
“It’s where our boyfriends are at,” Tiny said.
Tiny had pulled the tie from her middy blouse. The throat gaped open. Her neck was ringed with angry red splotches.
“What happened to you?” I asked, pointing.
“Monkey bites.” Tiny pushed one hip out and planted a dimpled hand on the rise.
My face got hot. I pictured Tiny and her school friend, who had the same scabby patches on her throat, playing at Monkey Island. I’d never believed she’d go there without me.
Boarding the streetcar, Tiny paused on the bottom step and turned to me. Her mouth was slack, tongue resting lazy on her lower teeth. Her eyes were different, slit and cunning. “I know something you don’t know and I have these,” they seemed to say, her breasts pushing against her blouse, which was several sizes too small.
Tiny disappeared onto the streetcar, leaving me to my roller skates.
That night, across the divide between our beds, I told my sister that Tiny and her friend must have climbed the fence and got onto Monkey Island, and that the monkeys jumped them and chewed on their necks.
My sister laughed. Then she told me what monkey bites really were.
At ten, it sounded way worse than what I’d imagined. Tugging the chenille bedspread close beneath my chin, I wondered how her new friend talked Tiny into it. Then I pictured Tiny’s face at the streetcar stop. Her round cheeks pink with pride and purpose. A knowing glint in her baby blue eyes like I’d never seen before.
Tiny had become the leader.