Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) drawing by Suzanne Baird.
Collecting fresh poop from monkeys that carry diseases and parasites transferrable to people requires one’s full attention. So if you’re trying to change a friend’s prejudice against his daughter’s fiancé during a jungle expedition, you have a lot of poopy distractions.
Getting Better was published in Fiction on the Web on July 16, 2018.
“Because I don’t want my daughter to marry anyone who’s Japanese, that’s why.” Gordon Johnson looked up at the island one kilometer away, then bent down and pulled the starter rope of the outboard motor.
Daniel, still holding the bow line looped over a dock cleat, stared at Gordon. Where did this come from? he thought. “What? You’re joking, right?” Without waiting for a response he continued, “This … this revelation just blows me away. You’re such a good scientist because you’re so unbiased. What’s going on with this?” He stepped into the boat.
“Actually, it’s been lurking in the background. And with marriage in the picture my feelings got really intense, moving it into the foreground. It surprised even me.” After the motor sputtered to life, Gordon let it idle for a moment before adjusting the choke. Daniel freed the bow line from the cleat and Gordon pointed the boat toward the thirty-eight acres of Cayo Santiago. Off to their left an osprey searched for breakfast. The tropical air, soft as a caress, slipped over Gordon’s face as the boat slid across the glassy surface. The mumble of the motor and the muffled slapping of the water against the boat provided a gentle sound track to their morning.
“For the record, I don’t dislike Wayne because he’s Japanese. I actually like Wayne.”
Daniel nodded, then said, “I sense a ‘However’ coming on.”
“However, marriage is different.”
Daniel rolled his eyes and took a deep breath. “And does Loretta agree?”
“Definitely not. She says I’m a selfish racist. She’s pissed off that I would put my feelings ahead of Barbara’s.” Gordon paused. “She’s so pissed off that she’s indicated that our marriage, which hasn’t been so good lately, may not survive.”
Daniel thought, Oh my Lord. “You guys have been married for thirty years. She can’t be serious.”
“That,” Gordon waved a finger for emphasis, “is a pretty sure thing. After thirty years of marriage I know when she’s serious.” Gordon eased the boat up to the small wooden dock. Almost every day for the past month had started with this same journey. He and Daniel Wright were studying the Rhesus macaques that live on this island on the southern edge of Puerto Rico.
Outwardly Daniel appeared calm, but his mind was trying to adjust to this new information. Although he’d known Gordon for a couple of decades, this revelation was a complete surprise. He vowed to help his pal help himself out of this. I’ll have to go easy, so he doesn’t get defensive, Daniel thought. If he gets defensive, any discussion is over. I’ll keep this low-key. As they unloaded their gear Daniel looked at Gordon and said, “I’m glad this is our last day at this. I’m ready to be home.”
Gordon nodded. “Yeah, me too.”
They strapped on their backpacks, shoulder bags, and water bottles. As on the other days, they headed for the same location to begin hunting for their study troop. Gordon started walking inland past the coconut palms, his legs sturdy from a regimen of visits to the gym weight room, running, and pretty regular games of pick-up basketball. He wore a blue Golden State Warriors baseball cap. Daniel, close behind, shrugged his thin shoulders to settle his various straps, his sweat-stained, wide-brimmed, khaki hat tilted back on his balding head. His legs, kept somewhat toned by a semi-regular schedule of semi-intense jogging, were like bird legs protruding from his shorts.
Soon they were under a troop of monkeys. Because a storm or a hurricane occasionally scoured the island, the trees stood only about thirty feet high. They didn’t need binoculars to identify “their” monkeys by the paint markings they had put on them. None of this first group was from their study troop so they kept walking. In a few minutes they came upon a second group. This was the one.
Daniel and Gordon were measuring the loads of intestinal worms and the diarrhea affliction throughout the troop. An unusual behavior of these macaques is that they regularly ate doses of clay at a specific site. Because earlier sampling of those clays showed they contained the same compound as the commercial anti-diarrhea remedy Kaopectate, Daniel and Gordon hypothesized that the clay inhibited diarrhea, thereby reducing subsequent health problems. They were testing that hypothesis. If true, the macaques would be a rare case of de novo self-medication and teaching.
The study protocol required fecal samples at least two weeks apart from each monkey. They needed to be fresh enough so that the worm eggs in them could be identified and counted accurately. They were down to the second sample on the last eight. Daniel and Gordon watched each monkey defecate, identified the monkey by its paint markings, and collected its dropping, all while the monkeys were roaming freely.
They collected a sample about the size of the last joint of a little finger, keeping each sample in a labeled plastic jar nestled among cold packs. Older droppings on the ground could contaminate their samples, providing false high infection counts. So they collected their samples by scraping them off branches and rocks, but not from the ground. To scrape, they preferred wooden sticks because they could just leave the used ones on the ground to biodegrade. Instead of buying them from a lab catalog, Gordon grabbed coffee stir sticks whenever he was in a cafeteria or coffee shop.
* * *
“Dad, why do you have so many coffee stir sticks?” asked Barbara when she saw boxes of them in her dad’s home office.
Without looking up from searching through stacks of papers on his desk, Gordon responded, “They’re to scrape up monkey poop, so we can put it in a jar, and bring it back to the lab.”
Barbara made a sour face. “Sounds like lots of fun. That’s a great example of why I’m not a biologist.”
“Just so you’re happy, Sweetie.” Gordon stopped searching and looked up at his daughter. “Now that you’ve worked at the insurance company for over a year, is it working out like you had hoped?”
“So far, so good. I like the job and my accounting degree gets lots of exercise.” Barbara leaned against a tall bookcase and blew across her steaming cup of tea, her baggy sweatshirt concealing her high-school prom queen figure. “So what are you going to do with all that monkey poop?”
Gordon explained the hypothesis they were testing, and that they also needed demographic data on age, sex, social status, reproduction, and life span. The demographic data they would get from the records maintained by the consortium that oversees the macaques on the island. The clay, worm, and poop data they have to get for themselves.
Barbara took a sip of her tea. “An island? How do monkeys get on an island?”
“That population started from forty or so that were unloaded from a boat from India in 1938. Now there are over thirteen hundred.”
Barbara raised her eyebrows. “That’s a lot of monkeys.”
“That’s what happens when there are no predators and the consortium augments their food. Otherwise, I don’t think that island can support that many monkeys.”
“How come they have worms? Can’t the consortium de-worm them or is that against some rule?”
“I don’t know about any rule. But de-worming them won’t last. The rats there are also infected. The worms would eventually cycle back to the monkeys.”
Gordon smiled. “I’m glad you can visit with us for the weekend, Sweetie. But I wish you lived closer than six hours away.”
“Me too. But we’re just taking what we can get and rolling with the punches right now, right, Dad?”
* * *
Daniel was never a laid-back person, but today he seemed a bit more tense than usual. Today was their last opportunity to collect the rest of the data, and Daniel placed a high degree of importance on collecting all of the data. He stood closer than usual to the monkeys when they looked like they were going to defecate, not wanting to lose sight of the sample as it dropped.
Daniel was tracking his second monkey for the day. Gordon happened to look over at him when he heard a dull “shplut.”
“Ewww. I saw that one,” Gordon said. “He moved right at the last minute. You’re lucky that one doesn’t have diarrhea.”
Daniel looked at his left shoulder. “Yeah. Thank goodness.” He scraped the sample from his shirt and placed it in a jar, labeled it, and handed it to Gordon to put in the cold bag.
“You should clean off your face, too.”
“Oh, yeah.” Daniel took out a sanitizing hand wipe and wiped his left cheek. And then he decided to wipe his entire face.
Later, when the monkeys came down from the trees and splashed in a fresh-water pool, Gordon and Daniel couldn’t collect any more samples so they took a break. Because the intestinal bacteria and worms of the monkeys can also infect humans, they cleaned their hands thoroughly with sterilizing hand wipes before starting their snacks.
As they sat on some rocks and munched on their energy bars, Daniel cleared his throat and looked over at Gordon. Be casual now, he thought. “How long have Barbara and Wayne been engaged?”
“I don’t know. Loretta said Barbara is coming for a visit for the weekend after you and I get back. She said Barbara indicated that she has something serious to discuss with us and thinks Barbara is going to announce that she and Wayne are getting married.”
Daniel nodded. “That’s a big step. Have you met this Wayne? Do you know him? Is he a jerk?”
“I knew him when they both were back in high school. He and Barbara were in band together. He played trombone, and she played clarinet. They didn’t date but hung out with the band crowd together. They both ended up in the LA area after college and have been seeing each other. I think he’s an assistant editor at a food magazine. He’s not a jerk.”
Daniel thought, “What’s goin’ on with Gordon and his Japanese thing? This isn’t the Gordon I know. “Uh, I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around this problem … I mean your problem. It will help me if you explain …” Then he saw the monkeys getting out of the pond. “We better get moving.” They quickly packed up, and followed the troop.
The monkeys started to move faster through the trees, and Daniel and Gordon stepped up their efforts to stay with them. They were breathing hard, carrying their gear and extra water at this faster pace. Daniel was in the lead.
As they clambered over a rocky patch, Gordon slipped, and took a bad tumble. Daniel turned when he heard the unwelcome sound. His face showed both concern for Gordon’s welfare and irritation over the delay.
Gordon sprawled out on the ground, grimacing. For a moment he didn’t move, as though assessing his predicament. Then, with a grunt, he shed his backpack and pushed himself into a sitting position, looking at his feet, naked in hiking sandals. Through clenched teeth, he said, “My left ankle hurts like hell.” It had already started ballooning up. “I think it may be broken.”
Daniel looked closely at Gordon’s ankle. “Damn!” Then he looked over his shoulder at the monkeys moving away, their chatter getting fainter. “I guess you can’t walk, huh?” Gordon shook his head. “Take these anti-inflammatories to help with the pain and swelling.” Daniel handed a small plastic pill case to Gordon. “I’m going to get our last samples then we’ll get you to a doctor. Just sit tight. I’ll be back as soon as I get these last samples.”
Daniel shouldered the cold bag from Gordon and took a long drink of water. “Back before dark for sure.” He headed in the direction where he last saw the monkeys.
Gordon called out, “Get some shit, Dan!” Daniel waved in acknowledgement without turning around.
Gordon watched him leave and checked the sky. He mumbled, “Before dark. With those clouds, that’s only a couple of hours from now.” Dragging himself over to a small mahogany tree, he leaned against it. He cleaned himself up with hand cleaners and gulped down some pills. Then he loosened the straps on his hiking sandals and put his foot on his pack to elevate it. Soon the pain in his ankle settled into a dull ache, and the tropical heat folded close around him. The background rustling of small animals grew faint. He dozed off.
When he opened his eyes he found he was still in the jungle of Cayo Santiago. “Damn, I like my dream better.” He took a couple of deep breaths and looked up towards the sky through the canopy of branches. In an open spot he could identify the nightjars and flycatchers by their erratic flight as they picked insects out of the air. It was evening. Daniel should be here soon. He struggled to his feet and tried putting some weight on the injured ankle. He groaned and sat down. “Broken foot and broken marriage. It’s like my life is in free-fall. Do I deserve this?” He looked towards the tree canopy and yelled, “Do I deserve this?” Then he slumped back quietly with sadness on his face.
About ten minutes after Gordon figured it was too dark to read monkey ID markings, he could see Daniel approaching.
“Can you walk?” Daniel was not chipper.
“You sound like you didn’t get all the samples. How many are we missing?”
“We’ve got two hundred eighty out of two hundred eighty-two. I know that’s not up to your standards, but it’s good enough for me. And no, I can’t walk . . . at least not without a crutch of some sort.”
Daniel pulled his hiker’s saw from his pack and searched for a branch that could serve as a crutch. He fashioned one in a few moments. He then carried all of Gordon’s packs while Gordon hobbled toward their boat, pausing at the many uneven parts of the trail to figure the placement of his crutch and one good foot. It was slow going and they didn’t say much, but they eventually settled into a steady, slow pace.
Daniel cleared his throat. “What is it about the Japanese part of Wayne that bothers you?”
Gordon stopped walking and shook out his crutch arm. As he rubbed his shoulder, he tilted his head back but he wasn’t looking at the sky. He turned toward Daniel. “One thing that always bugged me was the Pearl Harbor attack. It was such a dastardly event I just can’t get over it.” He reached for his water bottle.
“Pearl Harbor? Wayne wasn’t even born then. We weren’t, either. You can’t seriously think he had something to do with that.” Where is this coming from? Daniel asked himself.
“Not directly. But those are his people. He shares the genes.” Gordon raised his water bottle and took a long swallow.
Daniel slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. “So you are blaming him. Do you know how … how … well, ‘stupid’ is the only word I can think of right now, how stupid you sound?” Easy, Dan, easy now. “Especially for a scientist as rational as you.”
“But he does share the genes, right?”
Daniel rolled his eyes. This is worse than I thought. “Yes, he shares the genes. But people everywhere make bad decisions. They are not from a special gene residing in a single group of people. You know that.” Daniel took a deep breath. Let’s try this. “You once told me that your great grandfather came from Germany, right?”
“The Germans are famous for making colossally bad decisions; the prime example being those around World War Two. According to your thinking, you carry those genes so Barbara does, too. Are you thinking that any kids from Barbara and Wayne would be so evil that they probably would bring on World War Three? Is that why you don’t want them to marry? You see it as your duty to prevent global Armageddon?”
Gordon paused for a long time, looking toward the sky and taking another drink, before responding. “Well, maybe I was getting just a little carried away.”
Phew! Daniel thought. We’re making some progress. “I’m glad we agree on that.”
When they got to the boat, Daniel packed the day’s samples in the ice chest. He looked at Gordon. “Let’s pack some of this ice around your ankle.”
“Don’t bother. We’re almost back and we need all of it for the samples. Besides, I’m the tough guy here, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. How could I forget?”
Daniel piloted their boat back to the dock at Punta Santiago. He unloaded everything and checked Gordon into the local hospital. Then he said, “I’ll go process the samples, I’ll check on you later.” Gordon didn’t say anything, just waved at Daniel.
It was mid-morning when Daniel came to Gordon’s hotel door. Gordon turned off the television, and waved him in. Daniel looked tired, but he and his clothes were clean. As Daniel stepped in, Gordon asked, “Did you get all the samples processed?”
“Yeah. And I did some packing, too.” Daniel looked at Gordon sitting down with his swollen ankle wrapped in an elastic bandage and propped on a chair. His crutches were within arm’s reach. “I don’t see a cast. What about your ankle?”
“It’s a bad sprain. I need to use crutches for a few weeks, keep it elevated as much as possible, and use ice packs four times a day. I’m afraid I won’t be much help in packing up to go home.”
“Don’t worry about it. I can pack. I’ll borrow some staff people for the heavy lifting.” Gordon pointed to the coffee pot, and Daniel stepped over to pour himself a cup. He refilled Gordon’s when he saw Gordon holding it out. “Did you talk with Loretta last night? Any news about Barbara?”
“Yeah, I did talk with her. No news about Barbara. Loretta and I are in our same positions about Wayne. I don’t know which she hates more: my attitude about Japanese and marriage or that I want our only child to mirror that attitude. Our marriage is in free-fall, Dan.”
Daniel slowly shook his head and eased into a chair. He sipped his coffee. “Do you want to change your attitude or are you looking for marital suicide?”
Gordon tilted his head back so it rested on the back of his chair and looked toward the ceiling. After a long pause, he looked at Daniel. “What I want is for Barbara to be happy, Loretta to be happy, and me to be happy. I just don’t know how to get there from here.” Gordon’s phone rang and he looked at the caller identification. “It’s Loretta.”
“Tell her I say Hi. I’ll come back later.” Daniel put his coffee cup in the kitchenette sink and left.
For the next two days Gordon kept his foot elevated and iced it four times a day. He ran the statistics on their data while Daniel packed. After he and Daniel discussed their findings, Gordon put them in rough manuscript form while Daniel shipped their lab equipment home.
Their data showed that almost all the monkeys carried serious infections of intestinal worms. Although worm infections normally cause diarrhea, few of the monkeys actually had diarrhea. The demographic data (reproduction, longevity, etc.) showed their general health was actually better than other wild macaques. Daniel’s and Gordon’s hypothesis was true. They did a lot smiling after that became apparent.
When they finished this initial draft, Gordon turned to Daniel and said, “You know, the part of this field effort that I liked best was watching the monkeys eating the clay. Every day they just sat down at the clay site for just a couple of minutes. They picked out their little pill-sized pieces of clay and then ate them. It was as if they just stopped by for their daily meds. Based on behavior alone, our hypothesis of self-medication sure looks right.”
“Yeah. There must be a good follow-up study waiting for us. We’ll have to think about specifics when things get a little more settled.”
Gordon smiled. “I’m just glad I’m doing this research stuff for my own enlightenment, not because I’m under pressure to publish like you big boys at the U. City College is about teaching. And I have time for my own life. You’ve got so many committees, editorial boards, and research projects I don’t see how you do them all. You should cut back on some of them and see what it’s like to smell some of life’s flowers.”
In feigned alarm Daniel responded, “You mean I should give up chasing through the jungle collecting monkey poop so I can have a life? Why would I want to do that?”
“Oh, yeah. What was I thinking?” They both chuckled.
* * *
On the plane home, after the cabin steward collected their food trays, Daniel’s eyes brightened as he thought of another approach. He turned to Gordon. “Wayne grew up in the same town as Barbara, right? He went to the same schools, celebrates the same holidays, speaks the same language, et cetera, et cetera. Right?” Gordon nodded. “In addition …” here Daniel paused for dramatic affect, “ … he brings other cultural knowledge and traditions with him. Maybe you should think of Wayne’s Japanese background, not as a liability but as an asset. Sort of a bonus in what he has to offer.”
Gordon shrugged. “Yeah. That’s one way to look at it.” Unenthused, he opened the airlines magazine from the seat pocket.
Daniel thought to himself, Well, that didn’t work. I wanted to stay away from this but I’m running out of ideas. “On the other hand, his parents may not want him to marry into a black family. Have you considered that possibility?”
Gordon put down the magazine and turned to Daniel. “Of course. I’ve had to deal with that attitude my whole life. It can consume you even if you try to ignore it. For some people, it consumes them right to death. I’ve been pretty lucky and have had to deal with only a relatively small amount of that shit. I have consciously wrestled it down to a dull background ache. If Wayne’s parents feel that way about us, it won’t be anything new.” He turned back to his magazine.
Daniel was silent for a moment, deciding that he’d focus on the marriage for now. “So what if Barbara and Wayne get married, anyway? They’re both independent adults y’know.”
“Well, at least I’ll have some other parents who understand me. We can commiserate with each other.” Gordon then tilted his seat back and settled in for an after-lunch nap.
The droning of the plane engines was a constant backdrop as the other passengers passed the time or, like Gordon, napped. However, by the time the crew announced they were on the approach pattern for the San Francisco airport, everyone was awake, and most had already tried to get a peek out the windows.
Thinking of one more approach, Daniel turned to Gordon. “Y’know, it’s okay to sacrifice part of yourself for the happiness of those you care about. You’ve been doing it your whole life and, knowing you, you’ll keep on doing it. This event, however, may require a little extra effort from you because it’s so big and the emotions are so intense. But the results will be extra big, too, and last for Barbara’s and Wayne’s lifetimes. Also, it may help your relationship with Loretta. It doesn’t require you to change your feelings, y’know, just your behavior. Act like you welcome him.”
Gordon looked pensive for a moment and then looked over at Daniel. “Thanks, Dan. That’s worth thinking about.”
The airplane wheels squealed as they touched down on the runway.
* * *
A few weeks later, Daniel was on the phone. “Gord, this could be a great follow-on project for us.”
“Yeah?” Gordon shifted his phone to his other ear, pulled some scratch paper across his desk, and grabbed a pencil. “What is it?”
“No one has reported on the actual teaching method macaque mothers use with their kids. On Cayo Santiago we have a situation where the teaching is confined to a specific task that we can watch. And it’s confined to the small area of the mud mines where we can watch it. It will be easy to collect data. Just use video cameras. No chasing through the jungle. No scooping poop. And the best part is: I have a behaviorist here interested in collaborating.”
A broad smile spread across Gordon’s face. “That sounds great. Send me drafts of whatever proposals you’ve got.” Gordon put exclamation points inside the overlapping circles he was doodling.
“Will do. Watch your mail. And, um, how was Barbara’s visit?”
“Good. It was a little tense at first, but we all ended up a little closer and a lot happier.”
“That is good.”
“Leading up to it Loretta and I were pretty anxious, as you might imagine, but we tried to act casual so I don’t think Barbara knew how wrought we actually were. And when Barbara said she had something serious to talk to us about, we got even more anxious. First she sat us down so she had our full attention. Then she talked to us about her responsibilities at work and her potential for advancement. She got fidgety. We tried to be reassuring and calming, but it didn’t help much. Then she said she’s sure she would advance faster and farther if she went back to grad school and got an MBA. And she needs a loan from us to do it. She looked at us anxiously. We told her the loan is no problem, but we were so relieved that all she wanted was money that we burst out laughing. Of course, then we had to explain that. We managed to do it without mentioning my reservations about Wayne. Then she burst out laughing. She said she and Wayne aren’t anywhere near talking about marriage and may never be. Then we were all feeling so relieved, although for different reasons, that we opened the best bottle of wine in the house and drank toasts to the future.”
Daniel stood up and gave a fist pump in his empty office. His smile carried through the phone in his voice. “That sounds great, just great! I’m really glad everything worked out so well.”
“Well, we still have to repair our marriage. Before Barbara came home Loretta and I had several long talks, and things are settling down between us. We see that there is still some embers glowing in our marriage and agreed to get counseling to see if we could grow them. You opened the window for me, Dan. Thank you for that.”
Wow! That’s terrific! “I’m glad if I helped, but it was mostly you. I had faith that in the end you’d make your toast land with the butter side up. Oh, uh, and how’s your ankle?”
“It’s like the rest of my life now … getting better every day.”