Issue 110, Spring 1989
Somehow, she found herself backed up against the artichoke display in the fruit and vegetable department at Waldbaum’s, feeling as lost and hopeless as an orphan. She was wearing her dun safari shorts and matching workshirt; the rhino-hide sandals she’d worn at the Makoua Reserve clung to the soles of her pale, splayed, tired old feet. Outside the big plate glass windows, a sullen, grainy snow had begun to fall.
Maybe that was it, the snow. She was fretting over the vegetables, fumbling with her purse, the grocery list, the keys to the rheumatic old Lincoln her sister had left her, when she glanced up and saw it, this wonder, this phenomenon, this dishwater turned to stone, and for the life of her she didn’t know what it was. And then it came to her, the word chipped from the recesses of her memory like an old bone dug from the sediment:snow. Snow. What had it been—forty years?
She gazed out past the racks of diet cola and facial cream, past the soap powder display and the thousand garish colors of the products she couldn’t use and didn’t want, and she was lost in a reminiscence so sharp and sudden it was like a blow. She saw her sister’s eyes peering out from beneath the hood of her snowsuit, the drifts piled high over their heads, hot chocolate in a decorated mug, her father cursing as he bent to wrap the chains round the rear wheels of the car .. . and then the murmur of the market brought her back, the muted din concentrated now in a single voice, and she was aware that someone was addressing her. “Excuse me,” the voice was saying, “excuse me.”
She turned, and the voice took on form. A young man —a boy, really—short, massive across the shoulders, his dead black hair cut close in a flattop, was standing before her. And what was that in his hand? A sausage of some sort, pepperoni, yes, and another word came back to her. “Excuse me,” he repeated, “but aren’t you Beatrice Umbo?”
She was. Oh, yes, she was —Beatrice Umbo, the celebrated ape lady, the world’s foremost authority on the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild, Beatrice Umbo, come home to Connecticut to retire. She gave him a faint, distant smile of recognition. “Yes,” she said softly, with a trace of the lisp that had clung to her since childhood, “and it’s just terrible.”
“Terrible?” he echoed, and she could see the hesitation in his eyes. “I'm sorry,” he said, grinning unsteadily and thumping the pepperoni against his thigh, “but we read about you in school, in college, I mean. I even read your books, the first one, anyway —jungle Dawn?”
She couldn’t respond. It was his grin, the way his upper lip pulled back from his teeth and folded over his incisors. He was Agassiz, the very picture of Agassiz, and all of a sudden she was back in the world of leaves, back in the Makoua Reserve, crouched in a huddle of chimps. “Are you all right?” he asked.