A silverback gorilla moved in to the apartment upstairs. At first I found it hard to swallow. I live on the middle floor of a tidy triplex in the east end of the city. Barb, a registered nurse, lives in the flat downstairs, a semi-basement nicely decorated with soft fabrics and lush plants. The upstairs flat had been vacant for almost two months after Jeremy, a university lecturer, skipped out of town. Apparently he had impregnated the Dean’s daughter, but you can’t believe everything you hear. Never thought of nerdy Jeremy as a lady’s man. During the two years he lived upstairs I don’t recall him ever bringing a woman home. Anyway, he packed up most of his things in a cube van one day and left without saying goodbye or leaving a note. The triplex owner, Nicola, an amiable, retired train engineer, told us that Jeremy gave him no notice, that he was surprised, and that it was peculiar, but never followed up with further information.
So more than a month passed, and except for a chest of drawers Jeremy left behind and a futon that had seen fresher days, the upstairs flat remained vacant. Not that I cared, but the place was a clean, two bedroom unit, conveniently located near a subway stop and ideal for any number of my friends and acquaintances searching for decent, affordable accommodation.
Just as I was about to ask Nicola if he wanted me to pass the word around about the flat’s availability, this gorilla showed up. At first I was alarmed. What the fuck is a gorilla doing up there — I saw him in the window staring down at me as I chained up my bicycle in front of the triplex. I figured that someone had leased the place with their pet gorilla, something I found unimaginable given Nicola’s no-pet rule. I would have loved a dog myself. But the truth turned out to be more astonishing than that. As I stood there on the front lawn gawking at the silverback my neighbour Barb joined me. She said nothing for a moment, then explained.
“Nobody owns him. That is, he’s nobody’s pet, if that’s what you’re thinking. And his name is Alphonse.”
“I don’t understand. His name is Alphonse? But Barb, hold on a sec — he’s a gorilla. A wild animal. In case you’ve failed to notice the one overriding characteristic of our new neighbour, Alphonse.”
“He’s fully trained.”
“And he has a job. That’s right. He gets picked up every weekday morning at seven o’clock and goes to work at a switch factory.”
“A switch factory?”
“Yeah, where they assemble switches. He gets paid minimum wage, plus lunch and snacks.”
I had to take a moment to digest all this information. It seemed inconceivable at first that an ape would be given such an independent living arrangement, but then I accepted that it could be possible — that I wasn’t having one of my episodes. I had indulged in too many psychotropics as a youth, but it had been years since a full-blown flashback. And besides, those were always colourful, kaleidoscopic seizures, nothing like this, which had the calm and measured banality of a real event, of reality.
“How did Nicola ever agree to this?”
“Well,” Barb said, “here’s the thing. Alphonse’s rent is richly subsidized by both the Federal and Provincial governments, who’ve been really pushing this independent living program for primates. The municipality also kicked in some cash grants for sponsors and renters. Of course not all apes are eligible, and severe restrictions apply. But once the primates are screened, trained, pass all their tests, and produce a certificate of employment, they’re pretty much on their own.”
“Next thing you’re going to tell me is that Alphonse can talk.”
“C’mon. Gorillas can’t talk. But Alphonse—”
“I know, I know — he knows American Sign Language. And they’ve probably hired him a personal attendant to take care of his bills, clean up the place and so on.”
“Yeah — how did you know?”
“Makes sense. It’s a whole thing, isn’t it?”
“It’s comprehensive, yeah. You should go up and introduce yourself. He’s pretty shy. But he’s very friendly.”
I looked at Barb’s cool, doughy face trying to detect signs of irony or wickedness, but she was clean.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “I mean, he’s a silverback — they’re endangered aren’t they? This is a chance for him to live without worry. Maybe they’ll even hook him up with a missus. Wouldn’t that be neat?”
I didn’t know what to say. My head swirled. I tried to steady my breathing.
“Are you okay?” Barb asked.
“Yeah, just a little, I don’t know — lightheaded. Whew.”
“Sit down,” she said, pointing to the iron bench on the lawn.
I sat down. She instructed me to bend over and put my head between my knees.
“That’s good,” she said, gently resting her hand on my back. “Now breathe slowly. You’ll be all right. I know it.”