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Man in gorilla suit

How to Become a Regional Cryptid

By Caylee Weintraub

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He has been called many things these past months—a bad husband, a failed palm tree farmer, a selfish man—but he never expected to be called a Floridian cryptid.

 
Moe Johnson picks up the Ochopee Register from the front porch of his cabin, dusts off the scrub oak pollen, and sees a picture of himself on the front page under the headline: Skunk Ape spotted near Bitten Lake! He has been called many things these past months—a bad husband, a failed palm tree farmer, a selfish man—but he never expected to be called a Floridian cryptid.

The picture is from two nights ago when he had taken out the garbage and walked it through the pine flats to the end of the road. Since his wife Ava left him after 40 years of marriage, his hair has grown out and he has adopted an elusive, disheveled existence that Charlotte and Gill Everly, fishermen’s children listed as the owners of the photograph, had mistaken for the Skunk Ape.

Two nights ago, Moe was woken by the overwhelming smell of decaying garbage. His wife was always the one to take out the trash, but it’s Moe’s chore now since she left him for a Miami-based real estate agent she met while working as a receptionist at the Sweetwater Inn. A job she only took because Moe lost his palm tree farm during the recession and they were short on everything, but especially money.

He has been adjusting to doing household chores by himself. Not wanting to leave the garbage on his doorstep, where it would be ravaged by wild animals, Moe walked his waste down the long gravel road to the pavement where it would be picked up in the morning. Charlotte and Gill Everly, exploring the woods that night looking for the local cryptid, spotted him.

He reads about Charlotte and Gill’s excitement at having found the Skunk Ape. “This is the big break we’ve been waiting for,” Charlotte says in the article. “We can’t wait to tell our dad about it when he gets home from sea.” The article details how Charlotte and Gill have taken to looking for the Skunk Ape as a distraction when their father is away at sea and their mother Sierra Everly is at work at Sweetwater Inn, where she had once worked with Ava. Moe had met Charlotte and Gill a few times when they stopped by to visit their mother at work. It was clear they were twins, perfect copies down to freckle on the left side of their cheeks.

As he stands on his front porch holding the paper in his hands, the morning light streaming through the pine trees, Moe decides he will go to town and clear the whole thing up. He can’t have these kids running around thinking the Skunk Ape exists. He walks the crushed shell road halfway to Ochopee, holding the newspaper in his hand, slapping mosquitoes from his arms and face.

At the edge of the cypress swamp, Gilbert Perkins, a long-time customer of Moe’s palm tree farm back when Moe still had a palm tree farm and a business and a wife, stops his truck and says, “Moe Johnson, I haven’t seen you in so long I thought you’d disappeared.”

Moe has never been sociable, but since everything happened, he has become especially reclusive. “No, I’m still here,” he says, and tries to smile. But the truth is that he never feels here.

Just the other day, he’d been scrolling on Facebook and seen pictures of Ava’s engagement to Dale. Moe spends most nights on Facebook, scrolling through her profile and staring at Ava’s face, studying her features. He has done this ever since, a few months ago, she told him they couldn’t talk anymore because she needed to move on. For a while, after she moved out, they still spoke on the phone every night. She would tell him about her day and he would tell her about the weather. But then things started getting serious with Dale, the Miami high-rise guy, and she told him they couldn’t call anymore and that he should move on, too.

Since then, Moe has been stalking her Facebook in an effort to still feel like their marriage had been real. She took most of her stuff with her when she first moved out, then Moe had mailed her the rest. She moved out on a Saturday and left a note on the kitchen counter explaining what he’d known was coming: that he was too emotionally distant, that he’d been a different man since he had to sell his farm, and that she needed a change. Moe didn’t blame her. He knew that some mornings he sat at the breakfast table in the sun and felt parts of himself evaporating.

Moe stands now and watches the dust of Gilbert’s retreating truck. He looks at the picture of himself in the newspaper and wonders what Ava would say about him now. She’d always been annoyed by his sloppiness—how he trailed dirt through the house, left fishing rods on the porch, sometimes forgot to put his bait in the freezer so that it stunk up their whole house—but he never thought these were enough to make her stop loving him.

They remind Moe of the kind of kids at Ochopee Middle who were held upside down and shaken for their lunch money.

“Excuse me, Mr. Moe.” He feels a tap on his shoulder and turns around to see Charlotte Everly and her younger brother Gill at her side. They seem to materialize from thin air, appearing like fog on humid mornings. “You’re just the man we’re looking for.”

“Yes?” Moe says. He feels nervous just looking at them. Charlotte is tall and lanky for her age, 13. She is a mayfly of a girl. Gill trails her like a boat’s wake. Moe remembers when Ava came home from Sweetwater Inn and told him that their mother had confessed she was scared by how little Gill spoke, preferring instead to have Charlotte speak for him. But Moe reminded Ava that he had never been a talker as a child, and Ava smiled and remembered their middle school selves.

“We recently spotted a Skunk Ape in this exact area,” Ava says and gestures at the woods, where Moe’s house isn’t far down the line. “I happen to know you live in that house there, and I was just wondering if we could interview you about any sightings.” She stares at Moe, her eyes brown and clear and true.

Charlotte looks at the newspaper in Moe’s hand and then back up at Moe. “I really ought to get to town,” he says. “There’s been a mistake.”

“We’re very thirsty, too,” Charlotte says. “Could we at least bother you for something to drink?”

Moe stares at the two of them and the way they scroll into themselves like messages in bottles. They remind Moe of the kind of kids at Ochopee Middle who were held upside down and shaken for their lunch money, who pole-boat into school with notebooks in perfect condition and leave with their Skunk Ape theories dripping in toilet water.

Looking into Charlotte’s bright eyes, he remembers a conversation he had with Ava years ago when she told him about her infertility, and how he held her hand as she wept into his shoulder and they mourned a future that had suddenly dried up and left them stranded on a sandbar. “Well I guess that would be okay,” he tells Charlotte.

He walks with them to his house and the entire time Charlotte chatters about the Skunk Ape and how she’s been tracking it for months and following exclusive cryptid-hunting blogs and how she couldn’t believe her eyes when she’d seen a Skunk Ape in the flesh two nights ago when she and Gill were wandering through the woods after Gill had a nightmare. “He gets those a lot when our dad is at sea,” she says. “Sometimes when he’s home, too.”

Moe knows their father: Ava and he had gone to school with Herbert. Moe knows their father is the kind of man who drinks at home alone. He knows their father is the kind of man who guts tilapia and then never cleans up the blood, leaving it to stain the docks. He knows there are reasons Gill has nightmares that leave him chasing down the footprints of an invisible beast. Moe knows something about what it’s like to be chasing down someone who is always out of reach.

They sit on the front porch and Moe pours them two glasses of mango juice in the nice glass cups Ava always used for guests.

Charlotte and Gill sit on his front steps and interview him about Skunk Ape sightings in his area. How long has it been since anyone has taken an interest in Moe, even if it was because they thought he was an elusive cryptid?

“Well,” he says. “The Skunk Ape has been around in these parts sometimes.”

“Really?” Charlotte’s eyes open wide. “Tell me more.” She scribbles down Moe’s responses in a dirty wilderness composition notebook that has leaves and butterfly wings and insect legs taped inside.

And suddenly Moe can’t stop talking. Since Ava left, he has barely spoken more than a few words all day, but now the lies pour out and he does nothing to stop them. Charlotte’s eyes brighten and she smiles and Moe feels good even though he knows he is doing something wrong, something horrible. He tells them stories about how the Skunk Ape is a daily visitor to the pine flats behind his house and how the Skunk Ape’s eyes light up when Moe rolls it a honey mango. Talking like this, he feels more alive than he has in months.

“Can we come back tomorrow?” Charlotte asks. “And maybe camp around here so we can see it?”

“That would be alright,” Moe tells her. It would be more than alright.

Charlotte and Gill run off his porch and towards their home. He knows then what he must do.

In the rearview mirror, he sees Mabel watching him through the thrift shop window. The gorilla suit sits in his passenger seat like a person deflated.

Moe walks into Thrifted Treasures, the farthest he has traveled since his divorce, and the door jingles behind him. He researched that Skunk Apes are solitary creatures who tend to dwell in the same location their whole life, and this detail alone makes Moe feel a special kinship.

“I barely recognized you, Moe,” the store clerk says.

“Hi,” Moe says. His voice is soft and wispy, so that he doesn’t know if he actually said the words out loud. Ava always used to tell him he needed to speak up. That he had a tendency to mumble.

But he always spoke more softly around Ava because after ten years of marriage she still made him feel nervous, as though he were 14 years old again and they were meeting for the first time on the bus ride to Ochopee Middle, where he’d thrown up his Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich in her lap and she’d called him an asshole but had nevertheless held his hand until their mothers arrived with fresh changes of clothes for them. The next time they spoke, it was in high school, at the end-of-the-year beach party. He’d been stung by a man o’ war and she’d seen Moe crying in the sand. She told him she had an idea. Both of them looked away, flushed, as she pulled down his pants and peed on his stinging wounds until the ambulance arrived. He’d thanked her, and gave her a perfectly formed lightning whelk, and they were forever linked.

It doesn’t take Moe long to find what he came in for. He sorts through old clothes hanging on the racks. He holds up musty suit jackets and moth-eaten t-shirts. But then he finds the solution to his predicament. In the back of Thrifted Treasures, resting on a mannequin, is a gorilla suit. Moe looks at the tag, which details the suit has some minor damage, including but not limited to algae stains in the armpits, black mold in the head, and a tear in the back seam.

“How much is this?” He looks at the clerk, Mabel Simmons, as she sits on the stool behind the counter.

“For you?” Mabel’s eyes shine. “Free.”

Moe takes the suit off the mannequin and looks away from its plastic breasts and the curves of its body. Ava is engaged and has moved on, but still he feels like he shouldn’t be looking at other women.

“What are you using this for?” Mabel says.

“A personal project.”

Moe walks towards the door and Mabel touches his arm. “Come get a drink with me some time,” she says. “I’m sorry about Ava.”

“It’s okay,” Moe says. And tries to smile. In the rearview mirror, he sees Mabel watching him through the thrift shop window. The gorilla suit sits in his passenger seat like a person deflated.

Charlotte steps around in Ava’s boots and makes Ava’s footprints. “Ava was here!” Charlotte says.

The next evening, when he hears the kids traipsing through the woods, Moe dons the tattered gorilla suit. He reaches behind his back to pull up the zipper. He has a strategy wherein he pulls the zipper up halfway and then uses the hook of a hanger to pull the zipper up the rest of the way. In the time he has dedicated to keeping alive the existence of the Skunk Ape, he barely notices Ava’s Facebook updates about her wedding and Dale and the sea glass green and coral wedding colors she has chosen for her wedding venue at La Playa hotel.

He is proud of himself for discovering these new ways of being alone.

Once Moe is in the gorilla suit, he puts on his head and slips out the back door of the cabin. The door slams shut behind him and the hurricane panel he put on it last summer falls to the ground, though he has no time to replace it now.

He uses a rake to leave faux scratch marks on trees. He uses bristles from Ava’s old hairbrush and drops them on the ground to simulate shedding. He stamps oversized footprints into the earth using a size 18 shoe he’d found in the back of the thrift store. Sometimes Moe forgets he is the Skunk Ape and starts believing, along with the kids, that this creature really does exist. When he remembers that the kids are talking about him, it is like kissing his wife for the first time—intoxicating, like being pulled into a bog, this summer-light feeling of being believed in.

He loves it when the kids sit on his front porch and hound him about his former life, their eyes glowing as they sift through Moe’s memories as though panning for gold. Sometimes Gill will say something like Mr. Moe, is this what color your hair used to be? and point to the bark of a cypress tree or a piece of mulch. Or they’ll ask him How many scales does an alligator have? And Moe will break out his dusty Encyclopedia of Florida Fauna and they’ll find the answer together. Or they’ll ask him about where old rivers in Florida have dried up over the years and he’ll pull out a piece of paper and draw the rivers back for them. He is proud to be a man who can reverse geological time.

The worst is when Charlotte asks him about the blouses that still hang in the closet or the old flower-patterned gardening boots on the front porch. He tells them they were Ava’s. He tells them Ava was his wife. He does not tell them she left. What he does tell them: about her sunflower swamp bread. Her Jane Austen collection. The journals where she recorded how many birds migrated to their swamp each season. Charlotte steps around in Ava’s boots and makes Ava’s footprints. “Ava was here!” Charlotte says. And points. Moe laughs but his breath catches in his throat, a tire stuck in mud.

How many times had they looked around at their historic alligator-hunting cabin and agreed they’d never imagined a better home?

The Skunk Ape project has stopped Moe from obsessing about Ava’s new life, but tonight he is haunted by her. He can’t help but scroll through her pictures on Facebook and see his wife smiling and looking at her lover in a way she had never looked at him. He notes which people have posted their congratulations. He makes a mental note to never speak to these people again. He chases profiles down the waterways of social media. He looks at the people tagged in the photo and searches their names, trying to trace digital footprints.

He finds her new husband’s biography on the real estate website. He studies Dale’s headshot—Moe never had hair like that in his life. He compiles pieces of evidence to synthesize a mental image of Ava’s new life. Is this what she had always wanted? How many nights had they spent talking about how much they hated real estate agents? How many times had they looked around at their historic alligator-hunting cabin and agreed they’d never imagined a better home? Hadn’t she agreed sun filtering through the coconut groves was the most beautiful thing? Now, Ava’s profile is populated by sunrises from balconies and champagne glasses and plush white carpets.

He refreshes the page, looking to see if Ava is active on Facebook now, and she is. These nights when they are both online she feels close enough to touch. He stares at her profile picture: Ava standing on the balcony with a glass of champagne. He imagines the sea breeze on the back of her neck. The sound of the ocean at her back. The cool railing against her back.

There are so many things he wants to ask her: Is she happy? Does she miss him? Has she stopped loving him? He types these questions to her in Facebook Messenger and then erases them. His finger hovers over the enter button but he never presses send.

Sometimes Moe walks through the palm tree groves he used to own beyond the berm. There are no trees there anymore, not since Moe sold to a land developer who promptly mulched Moe’s coconut trees to the ground in an effort to make room for a housing complex. Moe walks through the ghosts of his groves, remembering Ava, and looks for the pieces of her she may have left behind. She’d lost an earring during one of their walks in the grove years ago and Moe searches for it some nights, looking for a glint in the soil.

He refreshes Ava’s Facebook page. Tomorrow is her wedding day, and to prevent an onslaught of despair, he has planned something special for Charlotte and Gill: evidence of a Skunk Ape nest, of a lineage. He plans to leave a few signs of the Skunk Ape nest and then be back at home resting before they ever find out anything. They’ll be overjoyed to receive confirmation of their hypotheses, to know that deep down their instincts were right.

He had given her so many flowers that bees swarmed her mid-ceremony. It was one of his many clumsy romantic gestures that Ava had once found endearing.

s the hours approach Ava’s wedding tonight, Moe is overcome with a feeling of suffocation. It’s the same kind of feeling he gets after he wears the gorilla suit head for too long, trapped in a greenhouse of his own breath. He has told himself he will not look at Ava’s Facebook. He will not drive to her hotel to ask her once and for all if she loves him, if he still has a chance. He stares at the gorilla suit hanging on the back of his desk chair. Charlotte and Gill are planning on coming at nightfall. There are still a few hours until sundown. There is enough time.

He can barely look at himself as he pulls on his wedding suit, the one he wore when he married Ava 40 years ago, too small now to fit the bulge of his stomach. He gets in his beat-up Chevy truck and crosses the county line for the first time in months.

The sky is bright orange, like one of Charlotte’s citronella camping candles burning down to the wick. In the distance, Moe can see the outline of the Miami skyline. He sees himself in his rearview mirror and he almost turns around. He hasn’t seen Ava in so long that she barely feels real to him. Their entire marriage feels like a myth. He only knows it was real through glimpses: the pair of Ava’s underwear she had forgotten in their dresser, strands of her hair he still finds beneath the bed, the box of Special K she had never finished now growing mold in the cabinet.

He enters Broward County and the overwhelming lushness of the east coast. The landscaping is beautiful. When Moe was a palm tree farmer, he had never been able to sell his trees to people here because his product was always too scraggly. People here wanted perfect trees. Full heads of hair.

He pulls into the parking lot of La Playa and parks his car illegally at the front. He knows from Ava’s Facebook updates that she is having her wedding right on the beach with a man who wouldn’t pee on her to stop her wounds from stinging.

The suit jacket is tight across his shoulders. It doesn’t fit him as well as the gorilla suit does, despite his suit jacket costing him so much more.

The perfumed air of the lobby spills out onto the beach and there is a crowd of people sitting in folding chairs and at the end of the aisle there is Dale and he looks even more brilliant than he does in Facebook pictures. There are bouquets of white roses with teal ribbons wrapped around them and everything is so bright Moe has to squint. For their own wedding, he had given Ava a bouquet of birds-of-paradise and lobster claws. He had given her so many flowers that bees swarmed her mid-ceremony. It was one of his many clumsy romantic gestures that Ava had once found endearing.

But there is no clumsiness here. Moe, who has become attuned to the sound of her footsteps, turns and sees Ava. Her dress has a long tulle train and she looks so different than how he remembered her that when she makes eye contact with him, Moe wants to run through the pine flats of his home and disappear.

“Moe?” she says. “Is that you?”

He only nods. He didn’t plan what he wanted to ask her. He doesn’t even know why he is here. He feels her hand on his cheek and the coldness of her hands startles him. Did she always have cold hands? In his memory, she is only warmth.

“I wanted to come,” he says. And he suddenly feels his protruding stomach and scraggly beard and greasy hair. He sees how he is a stain on this new life of hers.

“Take a seat,” she says, and gestures to a folding chair. “We can talk more later.” She guides him to his seat and he notices how helpless he must appear. How much he has always needed her and depended on her. She was tired of being the responsible one. That’s what she’d told him when she’d left him.

Moe sits in the folding chair, his back aching, and watches Ava walk down the aisle. The dress is almost monstrous on her. It trails behind her like a wake, or like a morning glory vine. As she passes by, Moe can’t help but reach out and touch the fabric. His fingers leave a small black smudge but Ava walks too quickly for him to have time to rub it out and he feels dismayed watching her carry his stain down the aisle.

As Ava walks down the aisle, there are so many questions he wants to ask: Does she miss him? Has she actually stopped loving him? Is this what she had always wanted? Is this the sort of life far away from their cabin she had laid awake at night dreaming about?

He does not want to know the answers. He wants to preserve his old memories of Ava. The ones where she wears old t-shirts and torn shorts. And never had makeup on. But he can’t stop looking at Ava’s shining face as she walks towards Dale. He knows she is happy. And he wants to be the kind of man who is happy that she is happy. But somewhere in his heart, he had hoped she would never make it down the aisle. That she would take off the dress and her Facebook profile and come back to the cabin with him.

That will not happen. Moe understands this now. He fixates on his shadow on the ground, his darkness stretching before him.

After the ceremony, Ava finds Moe and sits next to him in a white folding chair. The wedding is outdoors, beneath a tent, and they both stare out at the ocean illuminated by soft yellow string lights.

“It’s good to see you,” Ava says. She takes his hand. “Are you holding up okay?”

“Yes,” Moe says. “Congratulations. On the wedding. On everything.” He looks around at Ava’s new life. Dale holds a glass of champagne and talks to other men in well-fitted suits. Everything feels so clean, so far away.

He studies Ava’s face: her soft brown eyes, the scar on her lower jaw from the time he cast his line and accidentally caught her cheek. Instinctively, he reaches out and rubs the scar, but he cannot erase the hurt he caused her. After he lost his palm tree farm, Ava had told him many times she didn’t like the man he had become. They had been together since they were 15 years old, and the boy she’d held onto faded away. She didn’t like the man in his place.

“You’ll always be my first love,” she says. She brushes off some dust on the shoulder pads of Moe’s suit. “This doesn’t fit you at all anymore.”

“No,” Moe says. “It’s the only one I had, though.”

Ava smiles. “Thank you for coming. It means a lot. I know it must be hard.”

“I’m happy for you,” he says. “But I have a confession.” He points to the smudge on the train of her dress and she laughs. Moe tries to rub out the stain, but the harder he tries to make it disappear, the darker and more noticeable it becomes. Ava puts his hand over his, as if it pains her to watch him try to erase his mistake.

“Do you recognize this suit?” Moe asks Ava as she walks away to greet other guests.

“Oh, yes,” she says. But he can tell she doesn’t remember. And he feels like he is holding onto a marriage that exists in his memory alone.

They are almost beautiful, this monstrous mass of lanky arms and skinned knees and bug spray sweat that blurs into one being.

[dropcap size=small]M
oe arrives home at nightfall, and the wedding is a mosquito bite in his memory he can’t stop from itching. The whole way home in the car, he thinks about not showing up for Charlotte and Gill. Or throwing away the Skunk Ape costume altogether so they’ll know the hard truth: there is no Skunk Ape. The Ava he has described to them is gone.

But when he pictures Charlotte’s and Gill’s faces, he wants to shield them from the pain of discovering what they have held onto is only a myth they have made in their minds.

He parks his truck and leaps out the driver’s side. He throws off his suit jacket and pulls on the gorilla body, the familiar musty smell washing over him. He grabs the hay he bought at the feed store down the road and runs out the front door. He sprinkles the hay on the ground near his house and leaves a trail of it towards the berm. He is certain Charlotte and Gill will believe this hay trail to be pieces of the nest, that the Skunk Ape babies had gotten hay tangled in their fur and had shaken it off while foraging in Moe’s backyard. Above, a cloud shifts over the moon and the spiked shadows of pine trees pierce his body.

It is as Moe is sprinkling the last of the hay on the ground that he hears the kids coming through the woods, hears Charlotte’s high and clear voice, and sees the beams of their flashlights lighting up the pinewood flats around his house.

He sees the outline of Charlotte and Gill approaching him. They are almost beautiful, this monstrous mass of lanky arms and skinned knees and bug spray sweat that blurs into one being.

“There it is!” Charlotte’s voice sends ripples through the forest like a mayfly’s legs skimming water. He hears Charlotte and Gill scream.

Moe runs. He hears their footsteps behind him and he knows they will catch up to him. The saw palmettos and Brazilian pepper scrape his legs and pull at his gorilla suit. He trips and stumbles on ghost roots, the leftover vestiges of the trees he had once grown. Moe runs and runs but feels the kids close behind him. He never wants them to take off the gorilla suit head and find out it is only him they’ve been chasing this whole time. He wishes he could outrun his body and leave only the gorilla suit behind him.

 Moe hears the sound of their breath while he runs as they get closer. He breathes hard, headed straight towards the Everglades, towards the berm and his empty fields. The gorilla suit is starting to fall from him but he keeps running. He feels Charlotte’s hand pulling on him. He hears their feet snapping cypress twigs. He doesn’t stop or turn around to face them. Instead, he wills himself to run faster, to escape their grasp for as long as he can and pretend that he is headed straight toward the nest Charlotte has speculated is just beyond the berm.

Ava used to go running through these pine flats. She would run for hours and sometimes Moe would worry she had disappeared altogether, but then she would show up at the door and he would make her a plate of swamp stew and a warm glow would fill his whole body. He imagines finding the missing earring she lost so long ago she’s probably forgotten it and mailing it to her. She will open the package and hold a part of herself she hadn’t realized was missing.

Moe feels the gorilla suit slip from his shoulders and the gorilla head tip to one side. He knows he should stop now. He should find an excuse or explanation. But instead, he runs faster than he has in years. He wants time. He wants to give Charlotte and Gill as much time as he can. They’ll know soon enough that waiting for them beyond the berm is, instead, miles of open space and a lifetime of questions.

    

 

Caylee WeintraubCaylee Weintraub is editor-in-chief of the tiny journal. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Polyphony Lit, The Word Exchange, and others. She lives in Bokeelia, Florida, on her family’s palm tree farm with her dog, cat, and flock of chickens.

Header photo by Chawranphoto, courtesy Shutterstock.

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