This story originally appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction.
The blonde in the big ape's hand. Long before you had Rita Hayworth on that bed in a negligée or Marilyn standing over that grate with her skirt billowing up, there were all those pictures and posters and billboards of me, the blonde in the big ape's hand.
You asked me why I became so reclusive, why I stayed out of the limelight for so long. Well, I really wasn't that much of a recluse when I was younger, I did have my friends and activities, and if you think I'm a recluse now, all I can say is that when you get past ninety, you pretty much have to keep closer to home. In my younger days, I also preferred to be around people I knew pretty well, people who were pals and wouldn't ask me all the usual questions. I would have gotten out and about a lot more if I just could have counted on strangers not to start asking me for the "real" story.
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You know what I mean. Frankly, it was a relief when almost everybody seemed to forget about the whole thing, so all of this interest in the story now is kind of surprising.
No, I don't really mind talking to you, not at this point, and maybe it's time to set the record straight. I think I'm finally old enough and understand enough that I can tell you the real story, or at least my version of the real story.
I don't suppose that I really even started putting it all together until years later. Actually, I think the light started to dawn at about the time that my husband and I were celebrating our thirtieth wedding anniversary, which was kind of a miracle in itself, considering how we started out, two kids with no real prospects sailing off on the Impresario's boat to that creepy island. The early years of our marriage weren't that easy or happy, for reasons I probably don't have to mention. The Impresario was paying for my psychoanalysis the whole time my husband and I were living in Manhattan, but I didn't need an analyst digging around inside my head to know what was bugging me, and if that meant going through the rest of my life with a phobia about apes, well, I could live with that. I never much cared for zoos anyway, but I was starting to develop a phobia about bearded guys with German accents. And I was beginning to realize that if my marriage was going to have any chance of lasting, I'd have to put what happened with that big gorilla and me behind me for good.
So I did. I avoided thinking about those days at all, just pretended to myself that they never happened, and it helped, believe me. Pretty soon, I didn't wake up in the middle of the night screaming and my man was able to get a good night's sleep. But as time went by, and I picked up what you might call a different perspective, I began to see that the Impresario had actually done me a big favor, whether he intended to or not. I'd been around the track a few times, if you know what I mean, and things weren't going to get any better for me, not during the Depression, anyway. Without the Impresario, I wouldn't have been on that boat where I met my husband, and I wouldn't have had a shot later on at a career on Broadway and in pictures, even if that didn't quite pan out in the end. I wouldn't have had all those happy years in California, and I guess I don't really have to explain why we were just as happy to get out of New York. My husband wouldn't have made all that money in real estate after World War II—it didn't hurt that he got to know Ronnie Reagan while they were making all those morale boosters for the Army together—and I wouldn't be sitting here in this ritzy old age home talking to you. And now I'm old enough and I've lived long enough to understand what that big ape must have gone through. I can even have some sympathy for the old gorilla.
Yeah, you've got that right. Maybe I was picking up on that from the start, maybe that's how I was able to survive the whole experience. Things might have been tough for me, but they were a whole lot tougher for that giant ape. He'd been through some pretty hard times long before I ever got to his island.
Here's something I only understood later. The Impresario had this nutty idea—people nowadays would call it racist—that the way to capture the big ape was to attract him with some white woman. But in all honesty, a lot of those babes in that African village could have given me a run for my money in the looks department. About the only thing I had going for me there, lookswise, was being a novelty, and that novelty probably would have worn off really fast after a few more weeks in the jungle, when my roots would have started to show and I probably would have picked up one hell of a sunburn. The truth was that, for whatever reason, and maybe it was just plain loneliness, the ape would show up at the village wall, and they'd set out some poor girl or other to keep him away, and then he'd carry her off, probably worrying the whole time about how he was going to take care of her in a place where you've got dinosaurs running around, especially if she's screaming all the time. And then he'd lose her sooner or later, and he'd get even more depressed and lonely, so he'd come back for another babe, and then he'd lose her, too. Some T. Rex would grab her, or a pterodactyl would carry her off, or she'd fall off a cliff.
It had to be depressing, to put it mildly. After a while, he must have felt like he was trapped in one of those nightmares that keeps repeating itself, like the ones I used to discuss with my analyst. He comes back to the village, finds another girl tied up and waiting for him, probably screaming her head off the same way I did, and the folks in the village beating their drums and waving their torches around and just basically telling him to grab the girl and go away. Off he goes, with the poor woman still screaming her head off, and maybe he just wants her to stop screaming. It's making him feel really inadequate, all that screaming and carrying on—I can tell you that I never knew a guy who didn't cringe and feel horrible if a gal started screaming whenever he so much as laid a hand on her, unless he was the kind of guy you really didn't want to know. So here's the ape, carrying still another girl off to his cave or wherever, and no matter what he does, something awful happens to her. I don't know how anybody, even a big gorilla, goes through that without becoming seriously traumatized, do you?
What about his life before that? That's a good question. I didn't start sorting that out until after the Impresario came back from his second expedition and I found out that the big gorilla's son saved his life, not that this good deed did Junior any good. I mean, I didn't know before then that the big ape had anything like a family life, but obviously he did, and obviously there was what you could call a Mrs. Giant Gorilla around, or there wouldn't have been any son. Let's be honest—a big giant female ape should have had a lot more appeal for a big gorilla than a teeny little bottle blonde from New Jersey. For one thing, besides the obvious, namely being a lot closer to his size, she probably would have been able to handle herself in that jungle. Any pterodactyl coming after her would have had his wings pinned in a big hurry. The big guy wouldn't have had to worry about how he was going to protect her, either, and—here's something else I probably wouldn't have understood if I hadn't lived this long—he must have admired her independence. They would have had what the young folks nowadays call an egalitarian relationship. I'm willing to bet that they had a pretty good time in those early years, hanging around the cave and beating up a dino now and then, and then the kid came along.
Now, much as I wish my husband and I had been able to have some kids of our own, you have to admit that having a kid can affect a marriage, and not always for the better. You know how it goes. The wife's home with the kid all day while her husband's out with the guys. Or the kid's crying all night and nobody can get any sleep, or one parent's big on whipping the kid into shape and the other one's reading Dr. Spock or whatever nice old geezer is writing about babies these days. It could be any number of things, but my guess is that the ape and his mate had a big falling-out, and it probably involved child care issues as they'd put it nowadays, and the missus finally up and left and took the kid with her. All I know is that I didn't see any little gorillas running around while I was there, and I think I would have noticed even if I wasn't exactly making careful observations, but obviously Junior had to be on that island somewhere or he couldn't have saved the Impresario later on. And a little gorilla wouldn't have been any safer there without a big gorilla to look out for him than I would have been. So since the big ape wasn't looking out for the kid, his kid's mother had to be.
He must have been thinking of her. Maybe that's why he went to the village in the first place—maybe he thought she was hiding out somewhere nearby. I can't imagine what he might have been thinking when the villagers first started tying up women outside the wall for him, but by then he might have really needed some female companionship, even if it was kind of on the small scale. And maybe he was so mad at his mate for leaving that he kind of liked the idea of having some tiny little woman around who had to look up to him. He wouldn't be the first.
And then he would lose the women, one by one. First the one big dame he cares about who can take care of herself walks out on him, and that has to be a blow to his ego, and then he can't even protect the ones who are completely dependent on him. I don't even want to think of what my analyst might have said about that. And after that, he's got my husband and the Impresario coming after him, and he gets dragged off to New York, and—well, I don't have to go into all of that.
A male archetype, my analyst called him—my analyst was actually more of a Jungian than a Freudian, if you must know. He claimed that's why there were so many stories about the big ape in the papers and the tale was so compelling and scary and the movie was so popular for so long and the big gorilla became such a famous public figure, even if you'd think having a giant ape running around in New York and then getting shot off the Empire State Building would be enough by itself to get a lot of coverage. But I don't know about this male archetype stuff, or any of that Freudian or Jungian bushwah or whatever you want to call it.
I think something else entirely was going on.
I don't know when it might have happened—maybe it wasn't until they caught him and tied him up, maybe it wasn't until he was getting shot at by all those planes—but I think at some point, the big ape realized that it was men who were responsible for all his troubles. Not his missus, who maybe just needed some time to find herself, or the African babes, or me with my screaming probably giving him a splitting headache, but guys in general. I'll bet the men in that African village weren't paying attention to anything the women there said, or they could have saved themselves a whole lot of trouble, I mean you can't tell me that it was the women who decided to send some poor girl out to a big gorilla. The Impresario sure as hell didn't listen to me when I told him that maybe it wasn't such a hot idea to walk out on that stage with my man and stand there in front of the big guy while people shot photos. And I think in the end, when the ape and I were trapped on the Empire State Building, when he decided to put me down instead of hanging on to me, he knew what he was doing.
He wasn't thinking about me or my welfare, even if putting me down did save my life. He was thinking of his mate and his son. That's my guess, anyway. He was thinking that maybe she wouldn't have left him if he'd treated her differently, if he'd done more of his share around the cave. You probably don't know this, but by the time we made it up to the top of the Empire State Building, my throat was really sore from all that screaming, and there were tears all over my face, and since I didn't have a handkerchief or anything, I was snorting like hell just to keep my nose from running. And I remember how he looked at me when I was snorting. He had this strange, sad look in his eyes, as if I reminded him of something, as if he'd heard that sound before and it reminded him of something he'd lost. I think his mate must have snorted like that. I was snorting and I think I might have picked up a few fleas, because I was scratching, too, and my guess is he was remembering how his mate would sit around snorting and scratching in their cave, and he was thinking of her and their son and maybe about all those other women he'd lost after that. Seems to me that would be enough for him to give up on everything then and there. I really doubt it was that beauty-and-savage-beast nonsense the Impresario was so fond of quoting.
That's what everybody seems to have missed all these years. The giant ape wasn't some Freudian symbolism come to life, or an archetype, or the noble savage brought low. He was a fella who lost a dame who was his equal and lost some others who could never be his equals and then realized what it was he really wanted after all and by then it was too late, because a bunch of guys had taken away any chance of him getting it back.
I'll admit it. I'll bet he was wishing he'd done better by Mrs. Big Ape. He was probably thinking that things would have been a lot better for him if the women in the village could have gotten a word in edgewise and the Impresario had listened to me. You may think this is nuts, but in the end, I'm guessing that the big guy had finally become what you could call a kind of feminist.