The Hand That Bites You

SPOILER: no chimpanzees were harmed in the making of this true story. Not by me, anyway.

When I was a kid, I was really smart. DON’T WORRY! It’s all gone now. In my later years I have replaced intellect with cleverness and great hair, which is not nearly as useful, but it does make me popular.

But when I was young, I was kind of swirly bright. I was not a genius; I could not build a clock out of a potato, but I was always skewed right on the bell curve. In fact, until I reached the age of hormonal unreason (“Nice asymptote!”), I hung with the gifted kids. I was also a mess. (“Heh. She said ‘hung.’”) I was skewed right, but I was also skewed wrong.

Every morning was a frazzled scramble. I dug my favorite shirt out from under a box of cake mix which I stashed under my bed. (Everybody ate dry cake mix out of the box with a spoon, right? Yellow cake mix? My sister preferred chocolate.) Wet hair, favorite shirt, get on the bus.

Or not. Many days I took a detour. (Many.) To the woods to explore, or to the bowling alley to smoke. And once I could drive? My attendance was a disaster. I was a skilled truant. My senior year alone I ditched something like 30 days of school. (I had discovered boys by this time. And cigarettes.) My mother had to request special permission from the principal to allow me to graduate. (9th in my class. I’m telling ya, I used to have brains under this great hair.)

The only time I didn’t get an ‘A’ was when I refused to turn in my work, which was all the time. I didn’t bring my tennis shoes to gym. Or I “forgot” to cut out glossy photos of Pop Tarts for my grapefruit decoupage. When I DID finally show up for class, and teachers gleefully chastised me for not doing the stupid work, I lowered my lashes and I took the verbal beating with angelic solemnity. “You’re right, Miss Crone. I am a horrible person.” I was very good at being yelled at.

And I was cute. This never hurts, and it makes instructors feel a little sorry for you because maybe if you would just TRY a little HARDER you could BE somebody. I got an ‘A’ in ignoring them.

Highlights of my rebellion:

1. My peers voted me “Most Likely to Succeed.” On the day they voted, I was skipping school.

2. I won a vocal competition for a song I never rehearsed. The prize was voice lessons, which I never collected.

3. 10th grade English: remember Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”? It’s a perky little tale about a village that thins the herd once a year by choosing which citizen will get stoned to death by way of a lottery. The lucky cretin who draws the ballot with the black dot gets relieved of their ability to stay alive because their friends throw rocks at them until they stop screaming. Well, I thought it would be hilarious to show Miss Crone (our English teacher) how sophisticated our collective sense of humor was by placing a black dot on her desk that said “From your 4th period English class.” It was funny! She was chosen! All my classmates supported me in this “joke.” Except for one (or thirty) who apparently ratted me out because the next day Miss Crone plucked me from the hallway, poked her talon in my face, and screeched: “ I HAD YOU PEGGED FOR A MUCH NICER GIRL!” I lowered my eyes and said, “Yeah. I’m really not.”

4. 9th grade art class: the teacher brought in several taxidermied mammals for us to sketch. I drew a rabbit. It was very lifelike. The art piece won a gold medal at competition. I had sketched the bunny snuggled in a coffin with a nail driven into his head. I named the work “A Short Easter.” I was 14.

Skewed wrong, but smart enough to hang with some actual geniuses. Read on.

A few of the bright kids attended science symposiums. I had no idea what a “symposium” was, but man, could I ever play along to collect the story! Our Biology Teacher seemed to have an endless energy for the advancement of our shrewd vigor, so she manufactured reasons for us to gather and talk about next-level geek stuff. Mrs. Biology Teacher quizzed us in prep for our “Academic Challenge” appearance on television. (I was terrible on the show, but my dress was fabulous.) If we didn’t know the answers to her trivia questions, we were supposed to go to the library and look them up. (I never did find out who invented the zipper.) And she escorted us to symposiums where we listened to presentations by other smart kids and pretended to understand.

Okay, I pretended. I won’t speak for the geniuses. At least one of them went on to be an actual rocket scientist. I was in rarefied company.

Here’s what I DID learn about symposiums: science can hurt you.

After two days of listening to nerd lectures, Mrs. Biology asked us if we wanted to stop at an exotic pet store. Hell yeah, we wanted to stop at an exotic pet store! We were 16 years old. We might have had the brains of a German think tank, but we possessed the emotional fortitude of a basket of pandas. Mrs. Biology and us geeks walked into the pet store like immigrants at a Costco — wide-eyed and unbelieving. Row after row of lizards, snakes, and tarantulas. Cages of flannel pigs, braided marmots, and cotton-blend lemurs, all within our reach. Actually, I have no idea what kind of animals they were, because the entire visit has been blocked out by what happened next.

The pet shop owner, a greasy man in a golf shirt, leaned in close and exhaled a Marlboro at us: “You kids want to meet Dennis?”

I didn’t know what Dennis was, but hell yeah, I wanted to meet Dennis.

Mr. Pet Shop spit-pasted a strand of comb-over down one ear and disappeared into a back room. When he came back, he was holding hands with a chimpanzee.

Every one of my 16 years whimpered.

Dennis was not all that great by chimp standards. His fur was a patchy quilt of mange. Clumps of hair were missing as if he had either won or lost several fights, possibly this morning. He was wearing a diaper over his hips which waddled painfully in the way of all upright circus animals. His teeth were dark, probably from tobacco.

But he was HERE. Right here in front of us. Right here in front of ME.

As Mr. Pet Shop walked Dennis closer to us, I could smell both feces and dried fruit. I’m not sure who it was from.

Mr. Pet Shop: “Would you like to shake Dennis’s hand?” The cigarette twitched between his lips.

Hell yeah, I wanted to shake Dennis’s hand.

Mr. Pet Shop: “Just hold out your hand like you normally would, and Dennis will shake it.” Ashes dropped onto his shirt.

I may have elbowed the geniuses out of my way, because suddenly I was at the front. I raised my hand like I normally would. Dennis raised his. Our fingers brushed, primate to primate. Dennis smiled at me. Then he bit me. Hard.

The back of my hand was on fire. This dirty little monkey had bitten my hand! He didn’t break the skin, but he could have. Easily. The strength-to-size ratio of a chimp is… some really big number. And this filthy little shit-flinger had just used all of it against me. Against ME! Did he not realize that I was smart? And cute??

Despite the humility of his droopy diaper and Mr. Pet Shop’s nightly gropes, Dennis was taking the upper hand, so to speak. Dennis was demonstrating his superiority in the only way he could – by greeting my bones with his teeth. Dennis was telling me that I could take my “Most Likely to Succeed” trophy and shove it up my carpal tunnel. So I hit him with a box of cake mix.

Erin Waugh 25 March 2016, True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat

[NOTE: Every word of this story is absolutely true except the last sentence. I don’t actually remember what happened after Dennis bit me. I probably cried and crumpled to the floor whereupon the geniuses scooped me back into the car and invented the Internet on the ride home.]

"Academic Challenge" (Nerd TV, 1977)
“Academic Challenge” (Nerd TV, 1977)