BY NORM ROSOLEN
This is the second and last part of a two-part story. Copyright is held by the author.
I LEFT Jake’s place late that afternoon, and drove back to Manhattan the next day. Jake’s story was hard to believe. I didn’t have names of anyone else who could vouch for it who were still alive. I needed hard proof.
As the miles crept by, I lapsed into moralizing, and considered the rights and wrongs of Jake’s story. No one came out squeaky clean other than Cong. Jake and Annie were set for life. Smegi, Cooper, Smith, myself included, all wanted to make something off Cong. And then there were the Belgians, wallowing in depravity. Human nature, don’t you love it?
After I got home, I found an extinct gorilla named Gigantopithecus in the Encyclopedia Britannica. There were fossils, and it matched Cong perfectly. Then, between other writing assignments, I dug for evidence, but kept coming up empty. I returned to the Times archives where I had first read about Cong. That whole edition was gone, like it never existed. I argued with the manager and was ejected.
I searched for anything on the Julius Smegi Circus. Smegi died a few years after Cong passed away, and the circus folded. There wasn’t much of an obituary. He didn’t have any family, and there wasn’t any mention of Cong.
There wasn’t much on the Endangered Animal Conservation Society either. Just a post office box in the Congo you could send donations to, but no contacts.
As time passed with no progress, I grew more frustrated. Finally, a glimmer of hope. I stumbled on a Smegi Circus poster in an antique shop. It showed an illustration of Cong, actually a crudely painted image of an unnamed gorilla. Cost me 20 bucks. My wife Shelley said “Well Arthur, you’ve outdone yourself. A Smegi Circus poster with a giant monkey on it. You’ve got me convinced.” She smirked.
In July, about a year after I met Jake, I decided to return to Steubenville to take photos. I had called Jake a couple of times previously, but this time his phone was disconnected. So I called the Town Hall.
“I’m sorry, sir. Mr. Driscol’s deceased. Were you related to Mr. Driscol?”
“No, a good friend.”
“We couldn’t find any relatives of his. Not even any neighbours who knew him. What is it I can do for you?”
“When did he die? And did he leave a will or a mention of Art Doyle?”
“Mr. Driscol passed on three months ago. His will was very simple. He left his estate to the Endangered Animal Conservation Society.” His voice rose. “Headquartered in the Belgian Congo.” I hoped his French was good.
Then I called the real estate agent and asked what was going on.
“Yes, I am trying to sell Mr. Driscol’s house. But nobody’s buying. Market’s depressed.”
No surprise there. “What happened to the contents?”
“I got a furniture dealer to dispose of the contents. The dealer told me he kept a few good pieces for resale, sent the rest of the furniture to the Good Will Society, and sent all the other stuff, papers, photos and bric a brac, to the town dump a month ago.”
“Good Lord!” I hung up.
Maybe the furniture dealer was sloppy, and maybe he left all kinds of good stuff behind when he cleared the house. For instance, a scrap book.
So, I returned to Steubenville, and my first stop was Jake’s place. The sky was grey and depressing, the air calm and heavy, and the house looked forlorn. It was boarded up with a NO ENTRY notice. I took a picture of the outside and broke in.
I swore profusely as I wandered around the more or less empty hulk of a building. The damn furniture dealer had hardly left anything. There was only a cardboard box full of clothes and a few miscellaneous items, but no scrap book, no mementos of Jake, Annie or Cong. There wasn’t even a ghost to chat up. Or beat up, I felt that ornery. I grabbed the cardboard box and left.
Back to the Good Will Society for an hour of searching and asking. Again, nothing. Then to the morgue.
“Can you tell me how Jake died?”
“It was the postman what found ’em. He found Mr. Driscol sitting in a chair on his porch. It was the first nice days of the year and I guess he went out for some air, and jes’ passed away.”
They said it was his heart on the death certificate, but they didn’t really know. He was cremated.
I visited the funeral home. His ashes were in a quart-sized cotton bag with a drawstring, drawn tight and tied.
“What are you going to do with his ashes?” I said.
“We’ll wait a year and then spread them in our common plot. It’s nice there.”
“Could I have them?”
“Are you related?”
“No. A good friend. Maybe the only one.”
“We have to wait. Come back in nine months.”
“Look, if I took them, I’d need an urn, wouldn’t I? How much does one cost?”
“Ten dollars. We don’t make a profit on them. Not becoming.”
“Sure. What if I were willing to pay $50? Would that shorten the waiting period?”
I took Jake’s ashes.
Another deceased resident was the Steubenville Herald. The receptionist in the business next door said the paper’s archives were sent to the Historical Society the previous autumn.
Henry, the Historical Society curator, said, “We only keep relevant historical documents, sir. There are space limitations here. We don’t have the resources a big city like New York has. So, we kept everything from 1914 on, and the ones with interesting headlines before World War One.”
“Do you have the June 3rd, 1913 edition?”
“I’m sorry sir, I wouldn’t know. You can look through the archives if you want, but I’m closing up now and you’ll need to come back in the morning. Oops. No. We’re closed tomorrow. And Monday too. You’ll have to come back, uh, next Tuesday. We open at 10.” It was just before 2 PM.
“If you stay open, just for me, 15 minutes, I could look for that edition. I’d be really grateful. Maybe I could donate something to help the Society. Here’s 20. If you wouldn’t mind, could you handle that for me?”
“Hmm, that would work. Why don’t you do that then. Down the stairs over there. You can’t miss them. They’re in boxes labelled by year.”
I searched that musty basement for an hour and found nothing. Henry told me that it had to have been sent to the town dump a month earlier. I had come to intensely dislike Henry, and the Steubenville Historical Society.
It was still overcast and sultry as I drove away. I took off my jacket and the breeze melted the sweat away. My mood lifted and, without thinking, I turned at the sign that pointed to the Municipal Dump. When I got there, I watched gulls hovering over the 20 foot wall of Steubenville flotsam. Gulls in southern Ohio, who would’ve have guessed?
I got out of the car, walked over to the garbage mound and started rooting around with my foot. Carefully. While I did that, I watched a loader adding more and more crap to the pile.
After half an hour of useless probing, I walked up to the the loader and motioned for the operator to kill the engine. “Excuse me, sir. Sorry to bother you but it’s very important. I’ve lost an important book, a scrap book with photos and clippings. I know it’s here. Dumped a month ago.”
His fleshy face hardened. “Get the hell out’a here, or I’ll throw you out.” He started the loader’s engine. I felt like a fight, but the loader guy was twice my size, and a visit to the Steubenville General Hospital was not something I relished.
What next? All I had were my notes, Jake’s ashes in an urn, an old Smegi Circus poster and a photo of an old clapboard house. So I wrote the story anyway and took it to an old friend, magazine editor Charley Dodgson.
Charlie’s conclusion was not inspiring. “Art, you got no proof, no nothing. Write it up as a short story.”
“Charley, give it a chance. I’ve got my notes and—”
“Art, you’re testing my patience. We sell a news magazine, not fiction.”
I repeated the process with another four editors.
Shelley was the turning point. “Arthur, people are making fun of you, and me by association. They’re saying you need a rest, a mental rest. And, they’re right.” She wasn’t being her usual joking self that morning.
So, I said “OK, you’re right” — the words a woman loves to hear from her man. “I can’t do it anymore. Who needs a Pulitzer anyway?” And that was that for the next 30 years.
I moved into a smaller apartment after Shelley died and had to get rid of a lot of stuff. That’s when Jack’s cardboard box reappeared from the back of our storage closet. I almost chucked it but decided to look through it first. The old clothes went into a garbage bag, but at the bottom there was a thick wad of newsprint. They were Cong’s pictures and writing. I was shocked and started sobbing.
After a week I had transcribed Cong’s writing, his diary if you want to call it that, into a notebook. It vindicated Jack and me. Now, I could take that original dumb story I wrote and shove it down some editor’s throat.
I left the notebook for a week and reread it. I came down from the high I was on. There really wasn’t much there. There were no dates, little emotion, nothing exciting; it was just a boring chronicle of events. The closest he got to feelings was “WNT MAMA PAPA” on a page near the end. His last entry was “FX MPR BLDNG.” Those crayon musings were what, some kid’s scrawls, a hoax, a foul dream? So, I filed it all again. I was truly done with it for another 30 years.
Have you ever lost something that just seemed to disappear like it never existed? I put a set of keys down on a table once, and then I looked and looked and never found them. Then you get to thinking there’s a conspiracy against you or your mind’s going. My favourite theory is the universe is a shimmering illusion, changeable at the will of some grand, malicious puppeteer.
But the sad truth is, it wasn’t an illusion or conspiracy. It just wasn’t much of a story. Cong was just a do-gooder eunuch gorilla. There wasn’t an epic clash of man against ape, machine against wild instinct, or a love story about a ferocious ape pining for a beautiful girl.
So, now I sit in a hospice, waiting for the end. I’ve had a good life, and only one regret. Are Jake and Annie and Cong going to disappear with me? Maybe, maybe not. My great-grand-son Norman visits occasionally. During one of my talking fits, I told him the story. At the end of it, I said “Cong was a pure soul, a vegetarian for Christ’s sake. I wanted to create a positive myth, something enduring.”
“I can do it Grandpa. I’ll do it as a morality tale, a short story ‘based on fact.’” Norman’s a third year English-Lit major, so I gave him everything. It was all in a shopping bag sitting on a shelf in my closet, waiting for me to die. When that happened, it would go to the dumpster that awaited it at the back of the hospice. I had taken that bag to the garbage chute in my old apartment building a dozen times, but could never do it.
Norman rifled through the bag: the story, the diary, the ashes, the poster, the photo. He nodded approval, and I wished him luck.
As for me, all I have left now are faded memories, and every so often, a nightmare about gorillas dying in the jungle.