The Man with the Yellow Hat

By Dustin M. Hoffman

The man with the yellow hat dragged his monkey out onto the balcony and locked it inside the wire-walled kennel. He’d reached desperation. The monkey he’d named George had finally followed his curiosity to disaster. The monkey had nearly killed a man. From behind the sliding glass door, he studied the monkey’s stillness, wondered what terrifying curiosity he could be conjuring now: a swing from the powerlines, steak knives chucked from their sixth-floor apartment.

Cool fingers trailed up the back of his neck, bumping down his hat brim. “Don’t you think he’s learned his lesson?” the scientist, his girlfriend, whispered into his ear. She joined him at the glass door.

The man clenched the syringe in his pocket. After two years of fostering, the man had become certain that the monkey he’d named George couldn’t be trained. The scientist imagined the man kinder, so much more patient. But there was a frailty he hid just as carefully as his balding scalp under the hat. His patience, his compassion for defenseless animals, was rubbed threadbare. So, he carried a fatal needle for the monkey, the quick solution, finally. She was wrong about him. Everyone was wrong.

Before, when he’d taken George on city walks and women followed him on the sidewalk to inquire, the man took pride in claiming he’d adopted a good little monkey who was always just a tad curious. In front of adoring crowds cheering for the monkey’s bravery and wit, the man could fake it and mask his anxiety, just as the victims of George’s hijinks replaced their ruddy-faced scowls with forgiveness. The crowd’s approval, that pro-simian mob mentality, cooled their ire. George’s big, glassy brown eyes and dopey frown won them over. But they never lasted, those resolutions thinner than paperback children’s books. He currently had seven small-claims cases going, court dates set with the chocolate factory, the toy store, and the movie theatre next month alone.

The man would soon be financially smothered. Thank Christ the zoo allowed him and the monkey to work off damages by volunteering every Saturday to let kids shake the monkey’s hand and scratch his ears. In this way, the monkey had eviscerated his weekends, and the man tried his damnedest to hide his disdain while the monkey hooted and danced for the kids. Yeah, sure, everyone thought it was cute when the monkey swung from toy store rafters, doled ice cream to the kids, or flipped pancakes at the town picnic, so long as the man was around to pay for the damages.

But yesterday, the monkey had almost killed a man, the window washer with three broken ribs and a fractured pelvis. “Acrobatic ape assault,” one of the papers alliterated. Another claimed a “monkey menace” and blamed the owner for a “reckless attempt at domestication.” Wild is wild and will always be, they chanted in the man’s head.

“Take a bit longer, if you need,” the scientist said, “but not so long that you miss me.” She stepped into the next room to clack at her laptop, filling it with brilliantly undecipherable jargon. Alone, the man peeled off his yellow hat and scratched his scalp underneath. He’d lost most of his hair on his crown, a combination of cruel genetics and stress and the fleas the monkey kept bringing home. He knew the wide-brimmed safari hat was ridiculous, but it shielded him, and once he leaned into the clothes, he couldn’t stop; the all-yellow outfits made him mysterious, taller, a memorable character no one could forget rather than a middle-aged balding man. The yellow camouflaged him in personality.

He opened the sliding glass door to the balcony and stared down at the kennel where he’d sequestered the monkey. By now, the monkey would usually be sleeping in the child’s bed with the polished brass frame the man had bought just for George. The monkey clutched the kennel’s wires and stared out at the city, ignoring the man. He checked the water, still full, the bananas’ skins, still unbothered. The only change was the turds piled just outside the kennel. The monkey had managed to defecate onto the balcony deck boards. This seemed to be his one quiet protest.

Each skyscraper outside his balcony reflected a sunset on fire. It was the man’s favorite time of the day. All that color of the sunset was just pollutants, poor air quality, a tricky concoction of carbon monoxide and methane and various carbons—that’s what his girlfriend the scientist had told him. She had a way of rationalizing beauty that was supposed to flatten the emotional edges but instead had the effect, for the man, of making him more appreciative of such beautiful accidents. Though she was not a fan of sunsets or the man’s yellow hat, she’d always liked the monkey. She’d been the one to suggest naming him George instead of Bobo or Kiki.

He hadn’t visited her apartment in months. Ending this silly monkey thing would mean more nights with her, more nights removing each other’s clothing by candlelight surrounded by her moonrocks and massive amber atlas moths pinned to their wall mounts and incapable of causing curiosity-driven property damage.

He sat on the lounger next to the cage and tapped the syringe in his pocket. A main artery would be best, the vet—that ex-lover he’d turned to for advice last night—had told him, but she gave him enough so that he could jab anywhere. He had imagined a violent neck stabbing last night, but now the monkey’s eyes glistened and he cooed at the evening view. God damn it. God damn that beautiful monkey.

It turned toward him then, as if about to speak, as if to apologize, gazing with those big dark eyes. What could the man do but open the kennel hatch? The monkey he’d named George climbed onto the chair’s footrest and sat hunching just like a child might. He was an adolescent chimp, runty, twenty-six pounds, the size of a toddler. When they were in college, he and the vet had tried so hard to prevent babies—a trifecta of spermicides, condoms, pills. Now he and the scientist were trying for a baby, but it had been years. He often joked about how old he was, pointed to his thinning scalp that he never let her touch, safely stowed under the hat that was the last article of clothing he removed, and often he’d try to sneak it on during sex. The scientist had lectured him numerous times that the myths about biological ticking-time-bomb ovarian clocks all stemmed from bullshit Victorian studies, when parents married their daughters off at the age of fourteen. They still had ample time in their early forties. He wasn’t too old for anything besides maybe hiding under a giant yellow hat.

But his father had died at fifty-two, which meant, if they had a baby tomorrow, he might only see it turn ten, fourth grade, still discarding baby teeth, still just starting. The scientist often carried the monkey around on her hip, and they clung to each other in mock terror while they binged Hitchcock and John Carpenter and Twilight Zone. The man wondered if she realized how the monkey was slowing them down. Stressing over that monkey probably contributed to his low sperm count.

George rested his palm on the man’s ankle. They didn’t make eye contact, both staring ahead into the skyscraper-toothed sunset. The monkey petted his shin as delicately as one might pet a kitten. Maybe the monkey had finally learned how costly curiosity could be. It was toxic, venomous, the man knew. His own curiosity had prompted him to ask the scientist about her past lovers, and she told him how her first husband had died of colon cancer. Sometimes he thought about the dead husband when they were trying to make a baby and they’d have to stop and he would apologize and the room would breathe too cold on his exposed scalp.

The man couldn’t allow their lives to be dragged by the whims of a wild animal any longer. Who knew how long anyone had—cancer or a curious beast bearing down any second? The man gripped George’s wrist with one hand, reached into his pocket for the syringe with the other. The monkey he’d named George flinched but didn’t turn, as if resigned to this punishment. Could monkeys feel remorse? The scientist had sent him an article once about how dogs had adapted a submissive look to placate their masters. Did they actually care that they pissed on your dissertation or bit your baby’s face? They were evolutionarily good actors, tails tucked, ears wilting, eyes upturned for their lord’s mercy. It was survival symbiosis—emotional placebo bartered for food and shelter. The scientist had asked him what he thought. She doubted the theory, voting for animal empathy. But the man worried monkeys were even smarter, all the better emotional manipulators. 

He jerked the monkey he’d named George closer. Maybe he was holding the monkey too tightly, but restraining him was necessary, to make sure this went smoothly as possible, a firm kindness. That was more kindness than the lying monkey had ever shown him.

The sliding glass door shushed open, a sound like gasping. The man’s scalp tingled. He slackened his clenched fingers. The monkey remained still.

“Are you boys done moping?” the scientist said from the door. “Nothing good that’ll do. Ready to come back inside?”

She wore a yellowed Sonic Youth T-shirt, one of his ancient souveniers from a concert he’d attended with his ex the vet. The frayed hem reached her midthigh. Besides the shirt, she was nude, and she was being careful not to offer more than her head outside for fear of neighbors seeing. She was as shy about her body as the man was about his thinning hair, though she was effortlessly athletic with thighs so powerful and large they were patterned in tiger-stripe stretchmarks. The man loved to feather his fingers over the ridges, even though that annoyed her maybe as much as when she touched his scalp.

“What are you staring at?” She squirmed her body farther back into the house. “Come back inside and I’ll let you touch.” She was smiling. She wanted to try again. The man doubted he could, but he longed to wrap his arms around her. He’d need to after he injected the monkey.

“I will soon,” the man said.

“If you won’t snuggle me,” the scientist said, “then, George, want some ice cream?”

The monkey sprang to his feet, but the man caught him once again by the wrist. The monkey acquiesced with limp limbs and somber lips, as if proving his remorse, but the man was decided that genuine guilt belonged to humans exclusively. That’s what the article had concluded. The scientist would agree, surely, if she reviewed all the evidence, if she knew all he did, if she could just forget how she’d helped name a monkey George.

“Aren’t you being too tough on him?” she said.

“That window washer’s still in the hospital. He could’ve died.” The man watched her eyes lower, and the man stashed the syringe behind his back.

“We can’t control everything,” she said.

The man found that ridiculous, a scientist devaluing control. Wasn’t that the basis of every experiment? They’d never prove any hypothesis without control. But, of course, he couldn’t say any of this, couldn’t tell her about the needle, about the solution he’d figured out with his ex the vet. She would want to talk him out of it, and then they’d be trapped in this torturous curiosity cycle.

“Fine then. Guess I’ll eat all this chocolate myself. I’m worried I might be too stuffed to fit the banana and whipped cream.” The door breezed shut on her sweet mockery. Her kindness was authentic, unlike his, unlike the monkey’s victims who chuckled in front of the crowds and sued him later. The man wanted a million more years with the scientist, baby or no baby, but his father’s death age loomed. Every second mattered, and the monkey he’d named George leeched the man’s time with its need for constant supervision.

It took his ex-lover, the vet, to give it to him straight. Kill the monkey. Should’ve done that when you found him stowed away on your boat, she’d told him. She was right.

“George,” the man finally said to his monkey. “Monkey,” he said when the monkey didn’t respond to his name. “I forgive you. I doubt you meant to hurt anyone.”

But a man was hospitalized with cracked bones, internal bleeding. The man should’ve known when the monkey kept studying the window washers through their apartment window. The man had only been in his office working for a half-hour when he returned to the living room to find the slider open. The monkey was across the street, swinging from the window washers’ lift. He heard them shouting, swearing, then the screams, the crash. The monkey hadn’t killed, but almost. The man could feel his own veins tightening, and at this rate he could pop off a heart attack even younger than his father. This monkey was fatal.

Even the cops said accident as they patted the monkey’s head, but the man had seen the window washer’s blood staining the concrete. After, the monkey had clung to the man’s shirt, buried his face in the man’s neck until the cop finally told them to go home. Up the stairs, all six flights, the monkey’s baby-sized fists wrinkled his yellow shirt. The monkey’s bony skull and coarse hairs ground into his skin. Before, the man had enjoyed the affection, the attention it brought him from women, from their children, their joy at his monkey and his yellow hat. And he probably loved the monkey—had loved him; he knew he had, but he struggled to recall the warmth in his chest and still hadn’t by the time he’d reached the balcony and peeled the monkey free and locked him in the kennel to call the vet.

Holding the monkey he’d named George was what holding his child would be like, he used to think.

The man yanked the monkey into a headlock. It didn’t make the chattering baby-talk sounds it often made. Instead, the monkey squirmed. Its animal instincts to break free were taking hold—no such thing as simian remorse—and the man drove the needle into the monkey’s arm. It chirped at the sting, and the man winced. He maneuvered his thumb over the plunger, but before he could press the monkey wormed free. It hopped onto the guardrail, swayed backward, almost falling. It showed teeth, a gesture that meant kindness in humans. In primates, a promise of violence.

A gust knocked the man’s yellow hat to the deck boards. He could feel his combed-over hair flopping up, exposing him. The syringe, still full, dangled by the needle from the monkey’s flesh. The man lunged, but it was too quick. The monkey jumped off the rail. The man leaned over to watch it spidering down the fire escape in bold leaps, and in seconds the monkey was out of sight. Gone. Easier than the push of a syringe.

The man waited for the monkey to materialize running down the street, for it to become someone else’s problem now. Animal control’s problem. He’d survive or he wouldn’t. The man wouldn’t post fliers featuring the monkey’s massive eyes. He wouldn’t answer calls for a few days. It was better this way, just to imagine he’d never named a monkey George. He dropped back into his lounger, kicked the kennel away. It smeared through the feces pile and collided with his fallen hat. It would be a tedious process to smooth the creases and remove the stains, but he’d worry about that later.

He closed his eyes. He felt the wind on his scalp again, the cold coming on, the night the monkey would find himself lost within. Perhaps the monkey’s curiosity would draw him through an apartment window toward a television streaming cartoons. There, the monkey could charm a new family with a brood of children. Or, perhaps, the monkey would dive into a grocery store dumpster, eating rotten fruit until its belly bulged and then it would curl up and die of exposure in the night.

A warmth touched him then, a pressure across his chest. He opened his eyes, and the monkey he’d named George was straddling him. It held the needle like a dagger. The man couldn’t read the monkey’s face, couldn’t tell which emotion this tiny mammal was faking to get the evolutionary jump on him.

The slider opened once again.

“I knew it had to happen,” the scientist said to his back. Her voice cracked. It would take time, but he could convince her how euthanizing the monkey would free their lives. “I wasn’t going to push you,” she said. “But I’m so glad you’ve made up already.”

She hadn’t seen the syringe, then, only the monkey perched atop his chest. The monkey lowered the needle, as if to hide it from her like the man had before, which was, of course, ridiculous, that they’d share a fear of being perceived as monsters. “Yeah, hon, it’s good,” he said.

“You lost your hat,” she said, and he could hear her walking close behind him, rounding him and the monkey. She tugged his hat from behind the kennel, then leaned over the monkey they’d named George to kiss the crown of the man’s bald scalp. Maybe she’d lean in too far and drive the needle into the monkey’s chest. And wouldn’t that be perfect, for her to pull the proverbial trigger, for her, once again, to make his life simpler when he could do so little for her? When he and his monkey named George mostly drove chaos into her life? He couldn’t even give her a baby. She pulled away from the kiss, and the cool air struck him again. She placed his hat on the deck boards closer to his chair. His head remained bare.

“I’ll leave you two alone. Forgiveness is precious,” she said, her voice jumping a pitch. And then, from behind him, from the doorway, she said, “Or what do I know?”

This was the habit he’d trained in her, to think of the monkey he’d named George as more than a pet, more like a person, more like his child, one who had the ability to do sweet little human things like forgive and feel guilt, when the man was growing all the more certain the monkey was the greatest animal kingdom faker. Man’s best friends were thespian hacks in comparison. He met the monkey’s massive eyes. It glanced down, away, risking a nanosecond vulnerability, and the man swatted at the syringe. But the simian reflexes beat his. The monkey leaped from the man’s chest.

“George, wait,” he said, but he couldn’t bring himself to say more. The monkey touched the needle to its own furry thigh, miming what the man had done. Maybe the monkey’s curiosity would neatly solve all the problems. The monkey inserted the needle into its flesh and squeaked. Its thumb hovered over the plunger. The monkey he’d named George was holding the thing just like it was designed, as if he’d planned all along to euthanize himself, to fix everything, to give the man back all he’d taken, all the stress, all the embarrassment, all the time. The monkey would even gift him his own hairy scalp, if it could. This impossible choice, this impeachable kindness, the monkey might commit it. The man closed his eyes again. He was just a monkey. He was just a monkey.

When he opened his eyes, the monkey—George—still held the needle, but was now studying the man’s face, as if awaiting directions, and usually if the man said anything, George would do the opposite. Wait at this bench, George—and then he’d be dumping a truck load of dirt into the city park pond. Don’t feed the animals, George—and then he’d be swimming inside the penguinarium. Stay on the balcony, George—and then the blood and the limbs bent at surreal angles and George holding a squeegee and hanging from a rope over the massacre. So, here, now, the man said nothing. What could be the opposite of that?

But what if only nothing awaited the man? What if George was it, the man’s only shot at progeny.

George lowered his hand, and the man reacted in a kneejerk that had him slapping the needle out of the monkey’s hand. It rolled onto the deck boards. The man squirted the pentobarbital into a flowerpot. Next to George, his hat lay crumpled and crushed. He must’ve stepped on it in the scuffle to get the syringe. He picked it up, inspected its crinkles, the deformity, the smears of feces. There would be no salvaging. He flung his ruined hat over the guardrail. It sailed like it was designed for floating toward its own demise, and the man and George marveled together at its flight.

George jumped into his arms, like he had many hundreds of times before, but the man returned him to the deck boards. Instead, the man offered a single finger for George to wrap his hand around. Together, they stepped through the slider. The coolness of the night followed him, snuck up his naked scalp, taunting him. The apartment was dark, except for the yellow bedroom light, where he could see the scientist’s lovely large thigh through the threshold. George released his finger. This was the man’s view from the hallway: yellow lamplight and the thigh he loved most. The breeze was trailing him, tickling his scalp, unrelenting. He unbuttoned his yellow shirt and entered the bedroom.

Later, when she was on top of him, the Sonic Youth T-shirt rumpled in the corner, her eyes closed, her thighs gliding against his, he noticed on the edge of his vision the monkey. He was standing in the threshold. He was watching. He was holding the syringe, emptied. Those giant eyes stared on. And the man thought, All right. That’s all right to be a little curious. It was bound to happen sometimes.

The man wrapped his arms around the scientist’s lower back, held their torsos tightly together, so there could be nothing between them. This felt like what intimacy might look like. But a baby wouldn’t care. An emotion, sincere or fabricated, couldn’t produce a child. Evolution, nature, whatever it was, didn’t care either. Nature fused cells as simply as it split them into cancer, killed fathers and men whose names it never cared to learn. Nature wasn’t curious. Only George, who reached to touch every human hand and asked Who? He peered into every cage and asked Why? He gazed across every gap and asked How far?

George thumbed his earlobe and leaned his head against the doorjamb, watching the man’s lips sink into the scientist’s neck. And the man, too, was curious to see what might come of this night.

Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. His second collection No Good for Digging and chapbook Secrets of the Wild were published by Word West Press. He painted houses for ten years in Michigan and now teaches creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His stories have recently appeared in The Rupture, Gulf Coast, DIAGRAM, Fiddlehead, Alaska Quarterly Review, and One Story. You can visit his site here:

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