Jimmy and I drifted through the circus crowd on a magic carpet combo of weed, brews, Jimmy’s mom’s codeine cough medicine, and the downers I’d swiped from my mom’s medicine cabinet. All around us laughter and merry-go-round sounds filled the air with a lively music. Lion roars and trumpeting elephants made us feel like we’d been dropped into an episode of Wild Kingdom. Stuffed animals were being won, hot dogs and cotton candy consumed. High school girls—with their deliriously sweet scent of Charlie perfume and Double-Bubble bubble gum—hung out by arcade games, flashing teasing looks, taunting us to bet our last quarter to win them the latest Ozzy Osbourne or David Lee Roth record.
“Not bad,” Jimmy mumbled through a mouthful of caramel corn. I agreed.
For a week out of every year, the Wilbur Brothers Family Circus transformed our little town from its drab and dreary self into a dizzy freefall down an Alice In Wonderland–style rabbit hole. Contortionists, human cannonballs, and fire breathers had us grinning like we were spun on laughing gas. The Zipper spun us until we didn’t know which way was up. Bumper cars allowed us to ram head-on into friends, enemies, and strangers. So what if most of the animals looked like petting zoo rejects, and the workers like ex-cons ready to kick our asses? Even a ride on the Ferris wheel could lift us high into the sky, temporarily taking us out of Blackwater.
That’s all I’d ever wanted—to escape my shithole South Jersey town any way I could. I’d tried sex, drugs, and music. All had helped me break out in some way or another. That evening at the circus, I had no idea that my greatest escape was only weeks away.
Jimmy and I continued floating through the circus crowd, occasionally brushing elbows or bumping into the usual assortment of townies: muscle-teed thugs and Springsteen wannabes, off-duty cops and dull-eyed strippers, the radiated and medicated. It felt like we were all engaged in a strange dance orchestrated by the merry-go-round’s eerie, sickly-sweet calliope music that my weed, codeine, and pill-jangled brain had morphed into beat-heavy, psychedelic space rock. Around and round we went, where we stopped—who knew, who cared? For those few moments, gone were all my past problems: the car crash, the kidnapping, and the rest. Saved Me. Sky High on My Blackwater Ferris Wheel Me.
Jimmy and I continued drifting through the crowd. We ended up in a dirt lot behind the big top. Carnies rushed by, tending to rides, food stands, preparing animals for performances. A stringy- haired, pimple-faced girl approached us, gave us the once over. My Etch-a-Sketch scribbled mess of dirty-blond hair, ripped jeans, Who The Kids Are Alright T-shirt, along with Jimmy’s dark, sleepy eyes, equally ripped jeans, and ratty Fleetwood Mac Rumors tee had us looking less like male-model material, and more like rock roadies in training.
The circus girl asked what we were up to.
Luckily, I was present enough to point toward the wooded area beyond the circus. “We’re outta here,” I said. “It’s Miller time.”
The girl nodded an approving cool then hurried off.
Jimmy and I passed exhausted, mud-covered elephants. Bears, lions, and tigers huddled into cages so small they could hardly move. A few bore visible whip marks. The sight of so many animals peering at us through their prison bars, flashing tragic eyes as we passed, undazed some of our drug haze.
“Hey,” I said. “Check it out.”
There was a lone cage behind an empty trailer. Inside that cage, atop a skimpy bed of piss-fouled hay, sat a chimp—dusty, unkempt. Was missing some hair on his arms, atop his head, across his chest. Was about the size of Lancelot Link, that secret agent chimp I’d seen on TV as a kid. He stared at us with big droopy brown eyes—eyes a lot like Jimmy’s—and stuck a hairy hand through his cage bars.
I brightened slightly. “Looks like he likes us,” I told Jimmy.
At that moment, we knew squat about primates; we were just taking a wild guess about its sex. But over the next couple days, after plowing through some Jane Goodall books we’d borrowed from the Ocean County Library, and talking to a friend of Jimmy’s dad—the local vet, Doc Morton—we’d learn the chimp was indeed a male, about three years old, and surprisingly well-adjusted given what he’d gone through.
When Jimmy and I reached for the chimp’s hand, he exhibited very little fear. Barely whimpered, only briefly made a pouty face.
Jimmy handed the chimp some of his salty, sugary caramel corn. The chimp bobbed his head, grunted, begged for more.
The more Jimmy and I fed him, the more he warmed up to us. He groomed Jimmy’s arm, my arm.
“We should give him a name,” I said.
In considering that one, Jimmy’s face scrunched up like a crumpled beer can. It was only when he uncrushed himself that he said: “Mr. Jeepers.”
I repeated the name a few times aloud. Those four syllables danced between tongue and teeth. Felt and sounded like a circus in my mouth. “Sounds good,” I said.
Once we’d handed over all the caramel corn to Mr. Jeepers, Jimmy said: “What now?”
I eyed a tire iron leaning against another trailer’s back tire. Then I glanced around—not a carnie, human cannonball, or contortionist in sight. “Let’s take him,” I said.
Those words flew in the face of the pet jinx Jimmy and I had repeatedly experienced when we were younger. No matter what types of pets we’d owned, no matter how well we’d cared for them, they’d always wound up belly up.
Looking more at Mr. Jeepers than me, Jimmy said: “You sure about that?”
I told him absolutely. Said it had been years since either of us had owned a pet. Surely we must’ve grown out of that phase. Besides, I added, jinx or no jinx we could give the chimp a way better home than these skeevy circus people. Then I grabbed the tire iron. The crowd noises and circus music were so loud I couldn’t even hear the cage lock pop.
Once I opened the door, Mr. Jeepers just stood there, wobbling slightly on his feet, and looking at us all loose-lipped. There was, however, a moment where his brow furrowed, his lips pulled back, baring teeth. At the time, I thought it meant he was pissed. But later, after going through a chimp behavior book, I’d realize it meant he was scared shitless. “Maybe we should sing to him,” I whispered. I woozily crooned Steve Miller’s “Jungle Love.”
Jimmy joined in.
By the time we hit the chorus we had Mr. Jeepers smacking his hands against the floor of his cage, and spitting the occasional Bronx cheer through his lips.
“Now,” I said.
We each grabbed a hairy arm, hoisted the chimp from his cage. Upright, he was a little over two feet. Around twenty-seven pounds I’d later learn—slightly less than a flat tire. At the time Jimmy and I were foolish enough to believe all chimps were like the trained, docile ones we’d seen on TV. We’d soon read how chimps were naturally territorial, stronger than humans comparable to their size. Given our wasted state at the circus, Mr. Jeepers could’ve easily inflicted some serious wounds. But that night, and for all our time together, the chimp remained chill.
I grabbed Mr. Jeepers’ hand. While wrinkled and leathery in appearance, it was soft to the touch. Jimmy grasped Mr. Jeepers’ other hand. With unsteady voices we warbled through “Jungleland,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Bungle in the Jungle,” “Telegram Sam,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”—any song we could think of that had the word jungle in the lyrics as we stumbled along, not sure of where we were going, just knowing we had to stay clear of the main roads.
We bolted along side streets dotted with vacant lots and shotgun-blasted stop signs, cars propped up on cinder blocks on dirt lawns and shabby trailer homes where no lights shined through the windows at any hour of the day. We roared past oak trees riddled by gypsy moths and dilapidated shacks where beer- guzzling Pineys lounged in easy chairs, completely mesmerized by alcohol and the TV’s dull blue flicker.
We continued running. Breath panting. Shoes and bare feet slapping against road.
Whenever Mr. Jeepers needed a rest, Jimmy or I would carry him in our arms. Whenever we heard a barking dog or squealing tires, the chimp would briefly hoot, holler, and latch his arms tighter around our necks. Between all our singing and gasps for air, Jimmy and I assured Mr. Jeepers everything would be okay.
Through the streets we continued running.
The warm and clear, pine-scented air, riddled with cricket chirps and bullfrog grunts, felt good against my face. Mosquitoes buzzed the dark like tiny winged torpedoes. From inside one of those trailer homes we passed, a radio cranked Tom Petty’s “Refugee.” Just like all those evening sounds and smells, I felt completely electric and alive.
The three of us paused to rest in the alley behind my work— the Rainbow Casket Company, which was owned by one of my old man’s drinking buddies, Mr. Delaney. In that dreary alley, Jimmy, Mr. Jeepers, and I were blanketed mainly in shadows. Only a thin sliver of moon grinned down on us.
Jimmy let go of the chimp’s hand so he could inspect a wadded- up Kleenex someone had tossed out in the alley. Mr. Jeepers brought that tissue to his nose, then extended it toward the night sky. He repeated the gesture, as if he were not only trying to blow his own nose, but a ghost’s nose. As he did so, I flashed on all those caskets filling the Rainbow showroom. Especially my nemesis: the child-sized Heaven-Sent. How I’d managed to spend so much time around that casket, and all the others, without slitting my wrists, was a complete mystery to me. I gave the chimp’s hand a squeeze. He glanced up at me, mimicked that squeeze.
“Here’s the deal,” I told Jimmy. “We’ll have to keep Mr. Jeepers at your place.”
An excerpt from Rich Ferguson’s upcoming debut novel New Jersey Me,
available September 9th, 2016 from Rare Bird Books.