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Monkey Boy


They ride and ride through the woods, Monkey-Boy in the backseat investigating and comparing the downy hair on his arms with the plush brown seat cushions, believing he may really be an authentic monkey boy instead of a regular boy pretending to be monkey. He is trying to distinguish the differences in textures and asks his mother why skin is different from other surfaces. He begins with the car seat upholstery but moves on to ask her about cement, metals, water and air. To each one, his mother just says, “They’re just different, that’s all, Monkey.”

His mother always called him Monkey when he got bored and started acting up. It made him want to behave worse.

His father smokes and drives, the radio speaking for him—Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr.—songs of hard drinking and hard luck. They drive through the woods on an abandoned logging two-track that follows the river into the town where they will stay the night at an economy cabin. Monkey-Boy’s mother likes a kitchenette. She finds restaurant food too greasy.

Monkey-Boy barely notices the waves of smoke and noise drifting into the backseat. He is on to a new investigation, hunched on the floor. Monkey-Boy sees the backseat as his private domicile, as large as the playground at school, bigger than his backyard at home. Monkey-Boy is on all fours between the back of his mother’s passenger seat and his own bench seat.

“What are you doing back there?” his mother says, upon feeling the pressure his body makes while squeezed between her seat and his.

At first, Monkey-Boy says he is sleeping. When his mother doesn’t hear and asks again, he says he is looking for something. He feels he is telling the truth this time. He was lying when he said he was sleeping.

Monkey-Boy covers his head and sees how dark it can be in the middle of the day. He picks up the floor mat and puts it on the seat. They have been traveling for a few days and there are many interesting things to be spotted underneath his mother’s seat: a few hardened French fries, one of his mother’s press-on nails, a dead leaf, pieces of dried mud, and a plethora of coins, the dirt and encrusted grime making the Presidents’ faces nearly smooth.

One by one, Monkey-Boy puts these objects into his mouth and swallows. He decides the press-on nail wasn’t bad, the leaf felt fun in his mouth, but the coins were the best. One by one, he joyously pops them in his mouth, sometimes two at a time. He likes the chink the coins make when he moves them around before swallowing.

Monkey-Boy feels things in this order: the riot in his stomach, his mother inching behind him and the calm crash of the cold river at his feet. His mother has stripped him down to his underwear: Fruit of the Loom, tight and white, two beige stripes encircling the elastic waistband like a racetrack. They are the same kind his father wears. The rest of his clothes are ruined, balled into a tied plastic grocery bag in the trunk.

The brown river threads through the green tag alders and trees, away from Monkey-Boy in both directions. Hands are on him now, splitting his arms from his body. He is scared, but excited as the hands suddenly press him into the water.

“I can’t believe you,” she says.

She is still speaking, complaining, when her voice melts as he’s submerged deeper into the swirling water. Cold swells in him, gets around his bones and pries into his flesh. His mother’s arms are all over him. He can’t tell the difference between the rush of water, hands, fingers and words.

“Why did you do that, Monkey? You made such a mess,” she says. She is twisting him in the shallow water, turning him like a log, then wiping him clean. Above the bank, his father is waiting in the car; his breath is hot from yelling and smoking, just like the exhaust puffing from the tailpipe.

His mother tells him: “Why would you put any of that stuff in your mouth? You should know better. We’re going to have to take you to the hospital unless you tell me what else you ate. They’re going to have to pump your stomach.”

He told her about everything except the coins, which he ate the most of. None of them had come back out of him yet. Monkey-Boy excitedly imagines them in the bottom of his belly like he is a human piggy-bank.

His mother wipes him clean with the cold river water which looks brown to Monkey-Boy, but clear when it was lifted from the river. Like the textures of things, it doesn’t make sense. The water and cold fall from him as his mother’s hands lift Monkey-Boy out.

Suddenly, he feels the riot in his stomach twist into a hurricane and he is soon retching again. Monkey-Boy is delighted to feel the solid metal of coins in his throat one more time. They drip out of his mouth in fits and jerks coated with bile and other inside juices, straight into the river with his mother behind him. The coins drop to the gravel bottom of the cold river, his wishing well.

John Counts is a reporter at a daily newspaper in northern Michigan, where he resides. He has also worked as a bookseller and parking lot attendant. He has an MFA from Columbia College Chicago.