I work for a company that deals in gems, a large company with offices on the eighty-fourth floor of the Empire State Building. On the day in question it had begun to snow, and I was at my cubicle reading about a smuggling ring that had just been busted at JFK. The man behind the ring was a brillianteer, that is to say, it was his job to put the finishing facets on the tops of stones, but he’d been doing illegal business with renegade mines in Botswana known for their green diamonds hidden in bundles of leopard pelts, also contraband, and flown out in bushplanes. I ought to have been checking markets and prices, but the story of the lone brillianteer who worked in concert with Sumatran couriers traveling with forged passports was far more interesting. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my boss, Mr. Saperstein, making his way across the floor, headed towards my desk so I quickly reduced that window containing the story from Reuters.
I was also on the lookout for Quinna J. who was trying to organize the yearly secret Santa gift exchange, and I was hoping this year if she couldn’t find me maybe I could avoid being matched with anyone, wouldn’t have to crack a fake smile when I unwrapped the pink fright wig or stiletto pencil sharpener. Unmatched, I could slip out of the party, and thereby avoid watching lonely Ben from Appraisals get a joke condom and Cecily the born Again from Human Resources get a pair of golden dice with naughty sayings on them that she would discretely leave in the subway when the train pulled into Sunnyside. I leaned away from my desk, just long enough to catch a quick glimpse of Gennady watching pornography and Elon, the new guy from Antwerp via Ashkalon, his double pierced nose reflected in a screen, watching an online video of how diamonds were formed a billion years ago so far under the surface of the earth I can’t imagine its airlessness and heat even though I know the online animation he’s watching to be entirely true. Animated carbon atoms danced across the screen then, under tremendous pressure, they crystallized into cubic form only to be propelled closer the earth’s surface by a volcanic eruption. Through a diamondiferous kimberlitic pipe they hurtled upward in a gusher of magma. We’re supposed to know this stuff, so why was he watching cartoon smiley face diamonds, now lying in alluvial deposits, sifted and scooped up by dark animated hands which will be chopped off if they try to steal so much as a single raw uncut carat or, more often, severed for no reason at all by drugged child soldiers. We’re supposed to know how gems are formed and where the markets are. Highly trained we don’t watch elementary videos meant for amateurs, so asking this question would be an excellent opening to a conversation, but at that moment we heard a loud chilling scream.
Quinna J. stopped mid-quest for Secret Santa matches, bag of names dropped to the floor, hand over mouth, she pointed to the windows. It was the giant ape. Again. His savage and lustful eye appeared in the glass frame a few feet from the cubicle of Ben, the fastidious appraiser. Yards away at the other end of the floor a monstrous hairless palm, fingers curled, crashed through the set of windows that faced west. Nails like dinner plates scratched then smashed partitions, electronic equipment popping, fizzling out on the floor. The fingers grasped around in the air while the staff cowered, but it was all for show. There were no stacked blondes employed here. The ape turned his nose up at Jamaicans, Taiwanese, Gujarati, and Jew. The hand retreated. It was only feeling around for something to hold on to as he made his way to the top. He had already climbed past Starbucks, Lufthansa, Bank of America, Archer Daniel Midland, and Human Rights Watch, yes, they have offices here too. As his other hand came into view it held his prize, kicking, screaming, and flailing her arms like a yellow humming bird with a heart beating a million beats per second. You probably know who I mean. The ape’s sexual tastes and appetites are no different from your average Hooters customer. He would probably also be happy paging through a Smith yearbook of say, 1958.
My first thought was not of the safe of gemstones kept somewhere at the center of our suite of offices. I’d never seen this safe but knew of its existence. We all did. Mr. Saperstein, one of maybe three or four people capable of opening it, had vanished. While running past me Gennady stopped long enough to suggest that someone had trained the giant ape to cause chaos, and while everyone was panicking the Russian mob would soon arrive even if they had to take the godforsaken stairs to clean out that safe.
“Trust me, “ he said. “I know about such things.”
I leaned against what was left of a quadrant of cubicles.
“What, Chava, you’re staying? Maybe you’re the thief?’’ Copy of Auto Vladivastok under his arm, beaver hat perched on his head, and jacket draped over his shoulders he wasn’t interested in lingering to persuade me to leave with him.
“How did you know?” I asked. “Chava the monkey trainer, yes that is correct. I trained him in the Salt Marsh Nature Preserve and fed him on seagulls. The Avenue U bus dropped me off everyday. We started small: the Parachute Jump at Coney Island, then the Williamsburg Savings Bank, downtown. Please, Gennady,” I said to his departing back, “I don’t even have a pet dog.” I do know the word diamond is from the Greek, adamos, unconquerable, like the gorilla itself for the moment and he, too, was smuggled out of a jungle.
The others ran screaming to the elevators, trampling boots, shopping bags, papers, the things left behind. I know from experience they were making a big mistake. The last place you want to go when the ape comes to call is the elevators, especially so near the top. The building was already shaking from the great weight that swung from side to side as he made his way up to the observation deck and final spire whose white lights between Thanksgiving and Christmas may have already gone on. Someone grabbed my hand and tried to pull me out the glass doors to the elevator bank, but I shook my head, no, and pulled away. Once trapped in one of those cars, fit in their narrow shafts, one is easily stuck, and all the city’s firefighters are out on 34th Street aiming their hoses impotently at the monkey. They have no time to rescue you. While you’re inside if the cable snaps down you will plummet, your last seconds spent staring into other screaming faces, hair defying gravity standing straight up until you hit the basement.
The last people scattered, and the office was soon deserted. Even tough guys Gennady and Elon vanished down stairwells or the doomed elevator Bank B. I could hear the big monkey’s screams of anguish and rage as he was tormented by Lilliputian fighter planes and peppered by minute but deeply irritating bullets. Alone, I climbed a few flights of stairs to the observation deck where I knew he would be clinging by now. Why do they harass him so? This has never been entirely clear to me. What did he ever do to the city apart from crushing the odd car or fire truck and holding the cute blonde hostage? The granite and reflecting glass of the city offered no solace, no signposts to guide him home. There was a theory that he was wrenched from his island paradise by lost Victorian explorers looking for a hidden valley of prehistoric creatures, and though he fought off pterodactyls and the odd T Rex, he was no match for the small but well-armed Londoners known for their guts and pluck. There are other rumors he was secreted away in a giant container ship full of electronics put together in Malaysia, all hands and parts washed overboard, only he remained alive, landing at our Metropolis only to fall in love with an object so unattainable he might as well fall back into the ocean and swim as far away from our shores as possible.
From the observation deck the lights of the city shone like, I have to say it, diamonds. To a gorilla perhaps they are the same brilliants: diamonds and light. For him there’s little difference between the array of fluorescents strung out for miles beneath his feet and stones smuggled out of the Congo or Zaire. Perhaps he climbed the spire, not only to escape but to clutch at those illusive luminous bits now reflected in his muddy, confused eyes. Stones in alluvial riverbeds might catch the eye of a rootless spider monkey or curious chimp. He was just a version of that happenstance: the naif who wandered into a high stakes poker game. People in neighboring buildings could be seen in their windows screaming and pointing, distracting him, and he bared his teeth at those gnats, shnorers for attention. Beams from searchlights criss-crossed the night, and I could swear the humming bird hostage smiled for her close up when a ray traveled across her face.
“Hello!” I yelled. “Are you OK?”
“Whata’ you think, moron, troublemaker,” she yelled back. “Go away already.”
Wind whipped around the deck. Her filmy dress fluttered up around the ape’s fingers. I was halfway hoping he would try to kiss her because, not only would that be an interesting sight, but occasionally it’s been known to happen that when people kiss on the observation deck the build up of static electricity produces an incredible shock. Can you imagine the static electricity produced by a turned on giant gorilla? The hummingbird might feel like she was struck by lightning, but I was not feeling very generous towards her at that moment.
“You’re only making things worse,” she yelled.
“Shut the fuck up, bitch.” Quinna J had come up behind me. She, too, had abandoned the all the escape routes. “I hope the monkey drops your sorry ass.”
I put my finger up to my lips, quiet, please. I tried to speak to the ape in every language I knew which isn’t much, pleading with him to carefully climb back down before he was toppled. Hehr Malpeh! Schvieg! Ikh beyt dik! Finally I made the universal gesture for lower the volume, but he ignored me, and Quinna who alternately suggested swatting him with a broom or offering him the remains of her lunch wasn’t helping. My hands, pushed deep into my pockets, felt completely frozen while the salvos of fighter planes grew more intense. I could make out pale faces of the pilots smiling and waving from their blue and silver bombardiers. Though uninjured, the captive stopped flailing and kicking. As the ape brought her close to his lips she looked at me wild-eyed, as if to telegraph, what have you wished for? I don’t know what I wished for. To travel back down the elevator, as if no giant secreted from his home had threatened anyone, to get on the subway and travel underground until I can switch to the Avenue U bus, make dinner for my family as if I worked in any old office where coffee in paper cups is drunk in endless succession and no one is hurt in the process, but joke condoms and rocks people murder for will always rule. Diamonds sparkled on her ears and there was a stone on her finger, but from that distance, 1050 feet above the sidewalk, I couldn’t tell if they were real. The big secret is that diamonds aren’t really worth anything, in actual value the stones dug from blue ground or found in silt ring up less than a pink fright wig still in its box sold wholesale. What Elon’s in-house-produced animation didn’t say: there’s hardly a spot on the planet where you can’t find carbon.
Light snow dusted the ape’s fur and, not being used to the cold, he shuddered and roared a bit more. Quinna J., teeth chattering, said she’d had enough, come on man, let’s end this already. Crying in pain and grief the giant put his hostage gently down on the observation deck. She gave us an icy stare and ran to the doors without a backward glance at the ape. Bullets buzzed overhead as I reached out to pat his hand before he toppled backwards, melting into the air.
Susan Daitch is the author of two novels, L.C. (Lannan Foundation Selection and NEA Heritage Award), The Colorist, and a collection of short stories, Storytown. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Bomb, Ploughshares, failbetter.com, Tinhouse, McSweeney’s, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction. Her work was featured in The Review of Contemporary Fiction along with William Vollman and David Foster Wallace. She teaches at New York University and Hunter College. She can be found at susandaitch.com