THE CASE OF THE ALBINO GORILLA
by Caralyn Davis
Sena is a one-woman production line. She scoops mayonnaise out of a jar with two fingers curved into a makeshift spoon, plops the mayonnaise onto a slice of white bread, and straightens her fingers into a knife to spread an even coating to all four corners. Complaints will be lodged if anyone bites into a glob. Same for a dry spot.
Issue #139 soundtrack: Eliot Wilder “L'Avventura”
“Food!” shouts her 13 year-old stepson, Kase. He flicks her a glance from the living-room sofa where he’s sitting with his twin, Ty, and their father, Sena’s second husband, Luke. The three of them are taking a video game break to kill zombified alien warriors or some such nonsense. Sena’s 15 year-old daughter, Hannah, and her best friend, Bristol, are still outside looking for hot guys as they work on their tans and try to keep their hair dry. The two older kids didn’t make the trip, staying with the respective exes to work summer jobs.
Sena is making lunch at the white laminate table in the adjoining kitchenette of their two-bedroom bungalow. Family vacation. They are at Wond-R-Land, a cut-rate south Georgia water park distinguished by slicks of suntan oil, chlorine haze, and dancing alligators that wear board shorts and gold neck chains. But the faux Cinderella lifeguards are the park’s crowning glory. Those sun-crisped young women, sporting hot pink bikinis and rhinestone tiaras, lounge in packs by the water features and scan the crowds for victims. Their attributes have inspired leers and muttered “Look at those knockers!” and “What an ass!” comments from the less discreet males in the family.
“Not long now,” says Sena. No response. No one’s listening. She uses the edge of her thumb to scratch an itch near her mouth and keeps working. Luke paid for the trip, everything from the gas for the minivan to the accommodations and the park passes. He balked at eating in the main lodge’s dining room — a waste of money since the bungalow has a bar fridge, and an ice machine is positioned halfway down the path to the lodge.
“Sena, the food! I’m hungry from giving these boys an ass-kicking.” Luke echoes his son and laughs like it’s not a demand. Sena has long since realized that Luke believes he never demands anything. He has reasonable expectations, and as an adult male, he has every right to express his concern if those expectations go unmet.
“Eat some chips.” Sena tosses a bag of kettle chips to the sofa, hitting Luke in the shoulder when he won’t release the joystick. She could ask for help from the boys, but how many hands does she really want in the mayonnaise?
“Christ, Sena, cut it out!” Luke picks up the bag with one hand and rips it open with his teeth.
“Sorry,” she says. “Lunch will be ready soon.”
By virtue of twelve pieces of bread for six sandwiches twice a day (lunch and dinner) for three straight days, Sena is close to the middle of the jar. Past the top third, getting mayonnaise on her knuckles and the backs of her fingers has proved unavoidable. Sena feels sure her wrist will be well-greased by the end of this seven-day/six-night excursion. Not necessarily a negative. Mayonnaise has significant moisturizing properties.
From the time she was six until she turned nineteen, Sena spent two weeks of the summer vacation with Mee-Maw, her mother’s grandmother. Mee-Maw lived in an asbestos-clad farmhouse on 25 rolling acres near Cuthbert, Georgia. When Pa-Pa was alive, the homeplace had been a semi-working peanut farm. It returned to that world, swallowed by a peanut conglomerate, after Mee-Maw died.
During the years of Sena’s visits, Mee-Maw’s land was a vast wilderness where Sena and Mee-Maw hacked forts out of the brush and had picnics on chipped china in fields of Queen Anne’s lace, rabbit tobacco, and cornflower. On rainy nights, as the water striking the tin roof filled the house with mesmerizing swells and squalls, they sat at the kitchen table in their robes and had what Mee-Maw called beautifying sessions. They glopped egg-white-and-oatmeal masks, with a vinegar chaser for clarifying purposes, onto their faces. They rolled up their sleeves and painted their hands and arms with buttermilk to fade Sena’s freckles and Mee-Maw’s age spots. And always, always, they slathered their heads with a cup of mayonnaise to make their hair soft and shiny.
“Dippity Do be damned,” said Mee-Maw in one of their sessions. “You don’t need to spend that kind of money on a setting gel if your hair’s in good shape in the first place.”
“I’d love to have some. It’s pink and bubbly, and the girls in the ads have such fun,” said Sena. “But Mama says we can’t afford it.”
“That stuff stinks like a chemical dump,” said Mee-Maw. “Wise up, girl. Use it every day at your age, and you’d have babies with flippers for feet when you grow up.”
Now 43, Sena is past child-bearing, and Mee-Maw has been dead for a quarter-century. Sena follows a beauty regimen for her face and hair: lab-created foams, exfoliants, elixirs, serums, primers, oils, and mists filled with parabens, sulfates, and other unpronounceable tidbits that are the modern-day equivalent of using arsenic as face powder.
Mee-Maw would understand, Sena tells herself.
Or maybe not. Mee-Maw liked her lipstick, but she thought wrinkles were a living roadmap of strength and survival, not scars requiring facial reconstruction. Unlike Sena, Mee-Maw had never been found wanting compared to toxin-injected, acid-peeled actresses who subsist on juice cleanses and vinegar-dressed gourmet lettuce mixes. Sena is reasonably certain Pa-Pa would have lost a finger in an unfortunate farming accident had he ever poked Mee-Maw in the stomach and said, “You’re packin’ it on, babe. Time to hit the gym,” or, during movie night, rolled out a “Demi Moore is still hot. Why can’t you pull yourself together like that?” Two years into this marriage, Sena arms herself against Luke’s digs with silence, her growing arsenal of beauty products, and solitary drive-bys for tacos or milkshakes gulped down in the gym parking lot.
Finished with the mayonnaise, Sena wipes her fingers on a washcloth and grabs the squeeze bottle of yellow mustard. She starts drawing squiggly ribbons of mustard across each slice of bread.
Luke’s not trying to hurt her feelings. Sena knows this. He’s just thoughtless and delusional. A runner, he leaves the boys with Sena every Saturday to go on dawn-to-dusk marathons through the swamps and scrublands outside Albany, where they live in suburban comfort thanks to Mee-Maw’s legacy. So Luke is lean and rangy at 46, and he doesn’t realize that his once-lush ponytail has turned seedy with the onset of male pattern baldness. He therefore believes he’s entitled to a wife with the waist size and wrinkle count of an NFL cheerleader.
On the drive over three days earlier, they’d gone to a box store about 20 miles out from Wond-R-Land to pick up groceries. The kids stayed in the car listening to music on their iPods while Luke and Sena went inside.
“Let’s get it done,” said Luke, finding a cart and orienting himself for half a second before he strode toward the deli meats.
“We’re not in a race, Luke. Slow down.”
“What? Are you ready for the nursing home? I didn’t sign up for a little old lady.” He kept his pace steady.
“Your legs are longer.”
“Excuses, babe.” Luke stopped to avoid crushing an old man who sailed around the corner of aisle nine to block their path.
Sena silently thanked the man for his unwitting bravery as they inched forward, then said: “We’ve been in the car for a hundred miles without a break. My hips need to warm up after two kids.”
“I’ve told you, you should start yoga and get bendy. That’d be good for us both.” The cart traffic in the opposite lane cleared. Luke gunned it to move around the old man, at the last second snatching Sena’s hand to pull her along beside him.
“I don’t have time for yoga,” she said mid-jog. Sena works a full-time job and does all the cooking, cleaning, and chauffeuring. Luke has a full-time job and a new pair of premium running shoes every 300 miles. He spends his non-working hours training or reading about new training techniques. Running is his passion; it requires sacrifice.
“Make the time.” Luke stopped the cart and started tossing in packages of roast beef and turkey.
Sena clutched the rail of the cold case. Tried not to gasp for air.
“We need bread, cheese, mustard, mayonnaise... What else, babe?” said Luke.
“Knives and forks, plates, napkins.”
“We’re not having a tea party. We’ll be fine without that hoity-toity crap.”
Luke and Sena circled the store like bicyclists speeding down the banked curves of a velodrome — gravity, centrifugal force, and common sense at their mercy. They picked up sandwich fixings for lunch and dinner and apples and muffins for breakfast. They bypassed every plastic utensil and paper good in the place.
“What about cups? Or knives and paper towels at least.” Sena made a last-ditch appeal for sanity in the soda aisle.
“They’ll have complimentary cups with the ice bucket. Stop with the doom and gloom. Let’s have fun.” Luke headed for the checkout, Sena trailing behind.
Sena’s on the fourth slice of bread with the mustard bottle when the front door slams open. Bristol breezes by. Hannah pauses long enough for a smiling “Hi, Mama!” and a frowning “You’ll spread out that mustard, right?” before she joins Bristol in a flop on the love seat.
“Get the lead out, babe! You’ve got starvin’ people in here,” says Luke. He smiles at Bristol and offers to show her how to play the game.
“We need ice for the drinks. Can you fill the ice bucket please?” says Sena. She adds festive swirls and curlicues to the mustard.
“I thought you did already.” His voice is irritated. His eyes stay on Bristol, who’s taken control of the third joystick and is playing against the boys with help from Hannah.
“The ice from this morning melted,” says Sena. “It’s 101 degrees outside.”
Luke rises with a groan and walks into the kitchenette to grab the ice bucket. “Who knew I’d spend my vacation making love to this thing instead of my wife?” The door slams closed.
Sena doesn’t know how he expected anything else. Their bedroom amounts to a cardboard box, and they are marooned among a tribe of children with nocturnal body clocks.
They’d met at a party thrown by a mutual friend. Dating followed. Middle age wasn’t particularly kind to Luke, giving him leathery skin and outmoded fashion sense in addition to thinning hair. He also droned on about running, but he said Sena was pretty and asked for second helpings of her pot roast, which she served him weekly. Sena wanted adult company, someone to talk to and kiss in the dark. She hadn’t planned to marry him.
Then one Saturday she took her mother to a circle luncheon — a church group for old ladies, not “The Secret Circle” of sylph-like teen witches whose actions Hannah and Bristol spent hundreds of texts decoding before they swore off television forever when cancellation struck. Sena had been sipping iced tea, glancing around the table as the ladies chatted, when she noticed that a luxurious bearded fringe of white hair, fur almost, bordered every face.
White women turn into albino gorillas when they hit 75. I’ll be a gorilla, Sena thought. And alone. A damn albino gorilla with no man in sight.
Less than a week later, Sena and Luke were sprawled on the sofa watching a movie on a rare kid-free Saturday night at her house. To the terse beats of semiautomatic weapon fire, popcorn bowl in his lap, Luke said, “We should get married. We love each other, and we make a good team. Let’s make this legal, babe.” He put the bowl on the coffee table and dusted off his hands before taking hers with a gentle squeeze.
“Married?” Serena heard her voice tremble but couldn’t stop it. The fear of solitary gorilla-hood had festered. In possession of this proof that she was worthy of a life partner, Serena shut down the part of her brain whispering that she’d turned an appreciation of pot roast into true love, that he’d mistaken her willingness to impersonate a 1950s housewife while they were dating as a core characteristic of her personality. “Yes. Oh, yes, Luke.”
Two months and 57 gym sessions later, Sena married Luke at a Mexican beach resort. They celebrated their first anniversary before they finished paying off the wedding package.
Luke returns to the bungalow, setting the ice bucket on the table.
“They’re sandwiches, not cordon bleu,” he says. “Are you trying to take forever? And wipe your face. You’re covered in mayo.”
“Thanks for the ice. Where ..?” Sena stops talking. Luke’s already in the living room, congratulating Bristol on making it to the next level of the game. Sena finds a clean spot on the washcloth she’s been using as a napkin and rubs it over her face.
Sena’s at the twelfth slice of bread. She writes in block letters: ASS- on the first line, HOLE on the second. After the E, she draws a little star and gives it a comet tail that runs down and around the sides of the bread to frame her creation.
“Food!” The roar of the crowd is somewhat garbled by flakes of fried potato, yet the message is clear. Sena slaps turkey and lettuce on six slices of bread and then starts throwing on the top slices to finish the sandwiches. When she reaches the final slice, she pauses.
He wants the best for us, that’s all. I can’t be alone. Not again. A damn albino gorilla with two ex-husbands. Mee-Maw would understand.
Sena places the slice over the last mound of turkey. This time she is careful. She uses a light touch so her art, her statement, won’t be obliterated — it will soak into the bread and marinate. She picks up the sandwich and holds it aloft.
“Lunch is ready,” she says.
Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C., and works as a freelance writer/editor for trade publications in the healthcare and technology transfer fields. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Word Riot, Eclectica, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, Monkeybicycle, and other journals. For more, visit caralyndavis.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter.
Vrinda Zaveri is a San Francisco-based artist who creates mystical illustrations and animations of forests and creatures. Inspired by science fiction and nature documentaries, her GIFs create a visual blend of magical realism and adventure. Her studio practice is about storytelling through motion with humor and observation. With a focus on minimalistic fluid motion and surreal environments, her work relies on vivid colors and fantastical settings to generate mystery, curiosity and delight. For more, visit vrindazaveri.com.
Eliot Wilder is a Boston-based musician and writer. He notably authored DJ Shadow's Endtroducing, part of Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 book series. For more, visit eliotwilder.bandcamp.com.