A Goon in My Room
I must have been asleep for an hour or two. I woke up sensing there was someone in my room.
“Ook ook, Bushman lives,” Geets Hildebrand said.
“Ook,” I said. I switched the light on.
Geets was sitting cross-legged next to my bed. He had done this before. Sometimes I would wake in the morning and there he would be, sleeping on the rug. I could never get him to tell me how he got in—how he got into a building with a doorman, into a locked elevator area, into our locked apartment, and into my locked bedroom. Had he slipped past the doorman and picked three locks? Had my father, who disliked and mistrusted all my friends, let him in and for some reason agreed not to say anything about it? It was a mystery.
“Drink to Bushman,” Geets said. He pulled four bottles of Guinness out of his jacket, and two bananas. This was our ritual. We would drink to Bushman the Gorilla at the Lincoln Park Zoo, and eat bananas, which actually went quite well with the thick, bitter Guinness.
Bushman was a hero to us. Bushman weighed 427 pounds, and was completely ugly, even for a gorilla. He wasn’t round and paunchy like most gorillas you see in zoos. He had the build of a weightlifter, a cruel face, white sharp teeth, and these tiny black eyes. I used to get close to the bars when I was a little kid and gaze into those eyes. Bushman would get his chin down to the floor of the cage and gaze back into mine. It felt like we were having a conversation, that I knew what he was thinking. He resented being caged, but he was not mad at anyone. He liked people, especially kids. His keeper would hand him quarts of milk through the bars, and he would politely hand the empties back. Sometimes he would catch mice in his cage and play with them gently.
When Bushman was a baby and a young ape, the keepers would take him out on the lawn to wrestle and pass a football with him. But the day came when Bushman realized he didn’t need to go back into the cage if he didn’t want to, and it took six keepers three hours to get him there. After that he was never taken outside again.
Bushman knew he was a prisoner, confined through no choice of his own, and he didn’t pretend to like it. He remembered that time on the lawn and wanted to get out there again, only this time he would not let them get him back into the Great Ape House. He got along with his keepers, and of course kids. But he didn’t express friendliness in some undignified way. He didn’t make cute faces or do little tricks to please the crowd like some chimp. He was not a smiley gorilla. He kept his dignity. He’d had a bad break, but he wasn’t about to let it break him. Maybe that is why he was the most popular animal in the zoo—there are a lot of people in Chicago who feel the same way. The zoo never made a cartoon version of Bushman to use as an advertising mascot. No politician ever posed for a picture with Bushman or claimed Bushman had endorsed him. Nobody would have believed it.
People who tried to get him to respond, acting like fools in front of his cage, got a look from him that made them shut up and move on. It was clear what that look meant: “Look at yourself and look at me—and tell me who is the superior animal . . . you jerk.”
When I was a little kid, Bushman and I would commune, our faces close as we could get them, Bushman playing idly with a piece of celery. He was my friend. All the kids in Chicago felt the same as I did about him. I used to believe that if I got in trouble, if I got surrounded by bullies, somehow Bushman would come and rescue me. I felt that I was a special person because I knew him. A half-million people had visited him one time when he got sick, and years later when he died the whole city mourned.
But he was not dead to Geets and me. He would never be dead. We drank our Guinnesses and ate our bananas. We always did this. We would always do it.
Of course, I really did know how Geets got into my room. I just didn’t want to admit it to myself. He had been coming through the window. He had climbed up six floors with four bottles of Guinness and two bananas. Geets Hildebrand was a genius building climber, as well as trees, monuments, streetlights, and statues in the park. I had never seen him go up a building any higher than mine, but there was no reason he could not have climbed higher. It was his nature. If he lived in the Alps or the Himalayas instead of Chicago, he would have scampered up the Matterhorn or Everest before breakfast every day.
Geets’s other unusual talent was . . . I guess you’d call it ventriloquism. He could throw his voice. I mean really throw it—a long way. He didn’t do words, or make a dummy talk, or anything like that. He had invented sounds, and he could make you think you were hearing them from a long way off. One was a combination of a hum and a thump—that one he could cause to sound like it was coming from the other side of a wall, or a closed door. Then there was the hydrogen beep—that was the sound of hydrogen exploding, which you would swear was happening right behind your head. But his best sound was the dying eagle. This was a chilling scream, maybe a hundred feet up in the air. He would be on a busy sidewalk, say on Michigan Avenue, and he would do the dying eagle. People all around would look up, startled. A complete stranger could be standing right next to Geets when he made that sound, and the guy would look not at Geets but straight up.
The other thing about Geets, not a talent exactly, was the way people reacted to him. He was quiet, and relaxed in his manner—his face always had a sort of tranquil expression. He was tall, and moved slowly. He wore nondescript clothing—a shirt, baggy slacks, black shoes, stuff he got at the Salvation Army store, always in dull colors, beige, dirty yellow, pale green. Whenever we went into a store, the owner would be pretty sure it was a holdup. Sometimes they called the police. He would do no more than step inside the door and someone would get scared. Cops would stop him on the street and ask him what he was doing.
“Nothing, officer,” he would say in a quiet voice. “I’m just minding my own business.”
We had just finished our junior years at different high schools and were free for the summer. He went to Tesla Tech, the all-boys technical high school. It was all shop, and math, and engineering. I went to River-view, possibly the most boring high school on the planet. It had no distinguishing characteristics, unless you count that nobody liked being there, neither students nor teachers, and everybody was mildly depressed.
If there was a happy person at Riverview, it would have had to be me. This was because I held the positions of captain of the hall guards, and chief fire marshal, which meant I had freedom of movement—I could be anywhere in the building anytime I wanted, could get up and leave a class, saying it was fire marshal business, and of course I could leave the building, go across the street, and have a Coke with no one to say me nay.
The captain of the hall guards was in charge of all the kids who sat at little desks at the ends of hallways and asked people who were loose during class time for their hall passes, signed by teachers. I have no idea what they were supposed to do if someone didn’t have a pass, and I never found out what the chief fire marshal was supposed to do—except I got advance notice of fire drills, had a little map showing where all the fire exits were, and had a full set of keys to the school.
This is how I got to be such an important official: When I was a freshman, my mother said to me, “I met the nicest woman in the market. Her son is a senior at Riverview, and he is coming to see you this afternoon.”
“What? Are you picking friends for me? This is embarrassing,” I told my mother.
“Well, be nice to him. He is a senior, and you are just starting at the school, and it is very nice of him to come and visit you.”
A little while later, this kid appeared in my room. He was a kid, but looked more like an adult. He had a better haircut than any kid, and he was wearing a great-looking sport jacket with a Nixon button in the lapel—he looked somehow cleaner than me. He had a firm handshake and a very smooth hand.
“My name is Ralph Noble,” the kid said.
I mumbled. “Harold Knishke.”
“The reason I wanted to meet you,” Ralph Noble said, “is that your mother told my mother you might be willing to support me in my run for student body president. Can I count on your vote?”
“You’re running for student body president?”
“Look, when people meet me, they like me. You like me, don’t you?”
“Well . . . sure,” I said. He was sort of likable in a scary, artificial way.
“So how about it? Will you back me for student body president?”
“You can count on me,” I said.
“Great. My campaign people will be in touch.”
“Bushman lives,” I said.
“Huh?” he said.
There was an assembly, and all the candidates made speeches. Ralph’s speech was lousy. The other speeches were lousy too, but his was the lousiest. He did not get elected.
And that was all there was to it—I thought. But a few days later, this kid with remarkably thick glasses came up to me.
“My name is Bobby Noonan,” the kid said. His glasses made his eyes look like brown fish swimming in bowls. “Our candidate lost, but your work on the campaign is appreciated, and here is your reward.”
Bobby Noonan handed me a rectangular piece of felt—it was an armband, with the letters lt/hg stitched on it.
“You are now a lieutenant of the hall guards. One period a day, you are to patrol the halls, making sure the hall guards are at their posts and asking people to show their passes. You are on duty fifth period, and if you want to go outside for a smoke or anything, feel free, but don’t be obvious about it.”
Bobby Noonan belonged to the sight-saving class. This was a special room for kids who were nearly blind, and they had large-print books, better lighting than the other classrooms, and projectors and things. Also, by some kind of coincidence, most of these kids were the children of guys who were active in Chicago politics, so they knew how things were done. And they were Ralph Noble’s brain trust and campaign managers.
I don’t think I ever had another conversation with Ralph Noble, or Bobby Noonan, but as time passed and people graduated, I got regular promotions in the hall guards, and at some point was informed that I was a fire marshal, and I finally became the top man in both organizations—never taking any of it seriously or having a clue what any of it meant other than a license to cut classes, which is all that made my life at the school tolerable.
Geets had pulled the bedspread off my bed, wrapped himself in it, curled up on my rug, and gone to sleep. I drifted off too, feeling cozy with the two Guinnesses in me.
Excerpted from Bushman Lives! by Daniel M. Pinkwater, Daniel Pinkwater
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