John Oliver Hodges: Alive In The Jungle (fiction)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I am a Florida boy currently alive in New Jersey, where people ask me every day, “Where you from?” I say, “Flahda,” and they laugh and giggle and tell me how much they love my accent. Just yesterday on the Boonton line from Watsessing to New York City, I said, “Thank you ma’am to the conductor, when she punched my ticket. She stopped in the aisle to say, “I want to thank you for calling me ma’am. You’d be surprised at how disrespectful people are to me day after day. They never call me ma’am, but they do call me sir. I just wanted to thank you.”
Alive In The Jungle
Birdie shot Dave out of a tree when she traveled the world, working as a hunting guide. A photo of Birdie as a much thinner woman graced the Browns’ living room wall, she in jodhpurs and a pith helmet, standing with a rifle behind a bunch of dead animals. Some of Birdie’s African game she had stuffed and shipped home to Florida. We’re talking warthogs with snarling snouts and horns tusking out, a panther and many a small pig type thing I couldn’t tell you the names of. At night moonlight flitted through the tall gatehouse windows, and the animal teeth shone white in the darkness.
I really loved the old gatehouse with its bowed ceiling panels that dripped when it rained. From the road it looked like really poor people lived in it, but it was my favorite place to go after school. I hung with Butch, and we would climb up through a hole in his closet into the spacious area between the ceiling and roof. Here we smoked cigarettes among the pigeons that roosted and flapped. Sometimes we went out on the tin roof where we latched onto an oak branch and crawled into a small hideaway covered over with ivy and moss. We liked to scrabble down the tree and run out into the plantation field and wrestle and when we got tired we’d rest, torn grass on our faces, and look around and imagine the old days, when the fancily dressed up gatehouse slaves let merchants onto the grounds in wagons hauling spices and wines and even ice in crates with sawdust used as insulation. I loved spending the night with Butch, but Birdie’s dead animals scared the piss out of me, all of them but for the monkey, whom everybody called Dave.
One day I took Dave in the bathroom with me. I locked the door and sat on the toilet with him, and it was the first time Dave and I were alone together. I petted Dave, and said Dave’s name, and in Dave’s red marble eyes was a thinking complexity. “Dave, I love you,” I whispered in his ear. Would I be taking too much liberty to kiss Dave on his tiny nose? I wanted to, so did it real quick and Dave didn’t mind. “Oh Dave,” I said. “If you were my monkey I would smother you with kisses,” and I guess I said a bunch of other stuff to Dave. I sorta lost track of the time while I was with Dave.
“Hey, what’re you doing in there?” somebody said, and knocked. It was Roy.
“Nothing, I’m almost done.”
“Who are you in there with? I heard people talking.”
“I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Are you taking a shit? Hurry up, I need to use it.”
I thought I would wait for Roy to leave, but Roy stayed there. I didn’t know what to do. I tried lifting the window, thinking I would drop Dave down into the dirt then carry him back inside later, but Roy again said to hurry. So I turned off the light. I thought if I held Dave way down low and behind my back, Roy wouldn’t notice.
Roy was the oldest of Birdie’s “white trash brood,” as the other neighborhood kids called the Browns. The Browns were all bastards, they said, because the Brown kids had no dad. When I left the bathroom Roy grabbed my shoulder, and Dave’s furry creature features flipped around behind me, drawing Roy’s attention. “What were you doing in there with my mother’s monkey?” he wanted to know.
“Were you talking to him?”
“I was looking at him,” I said, and explained that my dad always said it was better to do two things at once if possible. That’s why there were political books and newspapers in our bathroom. When my dad was in there he read so as to not waste time, and time was life and life was precious. My mother was the same way.
Roy said, “Be careful with him. Already pieces have been falling out of his pecker. Put it back where it’s supposed to be, and don’t touch it again.”
Roy went in the bathroom and I put Dave back on the mantle with his legs dangling over. “Don’t worry, Dave,” I whispered in his ear, and I whispered, “I love you, Dave. Don’t ever forget that I love you,” and I left the gatehouse and returned to my ranch house for dinner, and thought of Dave the whole time as I ate. I had always wanted a pet, but my dad would never allow it. He and my mom both hated animals. Animals were dirty. You had to feed animals and take care of them. Animals were, they said, a waste of time. The only thing animals were good for was taking a bite out of. My mom made a killer meatloaf that we always ate with ketchup.
Days passed. I kept thinking about Dave. I started thinking I was weird for thinking about Dave so much, so I tried hard to forget Dave, but one night while I was in bed I missed Dave so bad that my heart hurt. I pictured Dave swinging in the jungle through the trees and jumping and shrieking before Birdie shot him, knocking him out of his joyful noise and play. It made me cry, thinking about how unfair that was, and whenever I thought about stuff like this, I wished I could stay little forever. I hated growing. I didn’t want to grow. I wished I could be a monkey, alive in the jungle like Dave had once been.
I needed Dave. Within Dave’s body was a voice that called out to me for help. So I rode by the gatehouse to get closer to Dave. In my gatehouse ride-bys I took note of when the Browns were gone, and just Dave was in the house. Finally I rode my bike down the plantation road, hid my bike in some bushes, and made through the woods and snuck in though the back door of the gatehouse. The feeling of being bad was all inside me. I went in the hall and grabbed Dave and ran with him to my bike, our hearts beating wild and afraid. I even kissed Dave as I ran. All of my withheld longing for Dave was coming out now. I couldn’t wait to be alone with Dave.
I pulled my red bike out of the woods, and put Dave on the handlebars, holding his shoulder with one hand. It was a risky way to ride a bike, but I made it past the gatehouse and turned into the greater part of Savory Hills, where the houses were of brick and solid with shiny paint, sturdy mailboxes and cut yards. The people I passed by looked at me funny, but it was October, and lots of Halloween stuff was going on. I was almost home. Soon Dave and I would begin our life together. I had just turned onto Hoecake Drive when there, walking along with his electric guitar, was Roy Brown, and right beside him was Butch.
Roy said, “What the fuck you doing with my mother’s monkey, bitch?” and pushed me and Dave, bike and all, into the ditch. Dave flew and tumbled like a crinkly ball through the grass of somebody’s yard. “I told you not to fuck with him,” Roy said, and set his guitar down as Butch, who was my age, pinned me to the ground. I pushed Butch off easily, as I was the bigger boy of the two of us, but then Roy fell on me and pinioned my arms to the grass with his knees. “How dare you go in our house when we aren’t home,” he said, and I said, “I’m sorry,” and felt it coming. Roy acted like he was going to hit me, but his fist never came, only the hurt.