The first time I went to Chicago was about three years ago. I went with four friends on a grand adventure that spanned three days. The story you’re about to read is not that one. Instead, I want to tell you a story about something much more complicated birthed during that Chicago trip.
And, yes, I know there would be plenty to talk about in the story of that original journey, because I know I could talk about the tribulations we endured to get there. I know I could talk about how Clyde’s old Cadillac had suffered from a sudden flat about halfway through the three-hour drive and how the two of us had to sit on each other’s laps in a stranger’s tow truck because there wasn’t enough space for us to sit next to the middle-aged driver and his wife. Or maybe I could talk about our adventures in Chicago proper. I could tell you about eating at the one-of-a-kind Giordano’s Pizzeria before it became a chain and branched out of Illinois. Or maybe I could even share how absolutely clever it was of us that the hotel we had chosen to stay in was right across the street from the Orange Line, a single train that contributed to the larger transit system in Chicago which could get you anywhere you wanted for three dollars a ticket. Of course, feel free to fact check me. The stories I’m telling aren’t necessarily how they really happened. They’re how I remember them to be. And that’s true for all stories in a way.
But, as I previously mentioned, this isn’t a story about any of those things. While I could tell you about the exhilaration I felt as a young man on a journey with my friends, it’s not the story that means the most or has some deeply profound message. I suppose time determines the most important stories for all of us in the end. Sure, the journey is a wondrous, romanticized undertaking that acts as a rite of passage, serving as the gate between childhood and adulthood. And, well, that story’s fine…in its own right. It’s also glorified, grossly misremembered (even by my standards), and completely unrealistic.
Instead, the story I want to tell is one nobody–not even my companions on that journey–know about. This is the story of how I saw a wild pack of monkeys in an abandoned Chicago street three years ago, how the mere memory of them haunted me for a long time, and how I eventually went on a hunting expedition to end their torment once and for all.
So, like I said, it was three years ago. We had spent much of our morning walking the streets in the heart of Chicago proper. By pure chance, we had stumbled across the Flamingo sculpture that sits in the Federal Plaza in front of the Kluczynski Federal Building, a building Wikipedia tells me houses several government offices and courts.
The sculpture itself is a giant twisted heap of reinforced bright-red metal. Despite its height of roughly fifty-three feet, it manages to hide among the backdrop of skyscrapers. In fact, unless you knew of its existence (or had been lucky like us), you could spend the entire day downtown accidentally avoiding it.
When we came across it, like all tourists do when they spot it for the first time, we took photos. There aren’t any explicitly-stated rules that you can’t touch the sculpture so I crammed myself in between two walls that made up one of the Flamingo’s legs and hammed it up for the camera.
I don’t know why I did it. Maybe my nose itched and I went to scratch it. Maybe the glint off of the glass towers caused me to shy away from the harsh sun. Regardless, I turned my head and caught sight of a single monkey standing in the middle of an empty street, two things you’d think to be impossible in Chicago. And so, full of awe and unable to fully grasp the situation, I stared at it, and the monkey stared back.
And even though it was for a second–fractions of a moment–our impromptu staring contest lasted for what seemed to be an eternity. It was just me and this primate locking eyes on an empty street during a completely normal day in Chicago.
Things had been muted during that time. The world had gone fuzzy. It was only because all of my friends had started yelling at me did I then regain my sense of self. I blinked the numbness away and was surprised to find my group of companions already making their way down a busy sidewalk. In fact, everything had seemingly returned to their stereotypically busy states. Cars were back on the road, honking and parking and moving slowly. People were crossing the street where the creature had been, laughing and cursing and telling stories.
When I looked around, though, I saw it. The monkey that had stared at me had started climbing the scaffolding of a building that was in the process of getting some cosmetic work done on some high-up part of its exterior. What’s more is that this monkey had friends, a whole pack of similar-looking ones. The one in the street had been the largest.
I wanted to yell and point and show the others. I wanted someone to be aware of this madness, but I couldn’t quite find the words or the strength to act. By the time I had figured out how to move my limbs, the animals were gone. I would make no mention of this event to my friends. Convincing them would be a battle, and it would be one that wouldn’t be worth the effort. Pretty soon after that, I had moved on.
The rest of our Chicago trip had been nothing short of fun. We went to Millennium Park and saw Cloud Gate, the famous steel mirror that was oddly bean shaped. We ate legendary pizza. We rode the trains. We cracked jokes. We were truly alive. And, for that time, it felt like we were on top of the fucking world.
However, as life proves again and again, nothing lasts forever.
In the years after, the bonds of our friendship weakened. Disagreements, selfishness, fighting, self-deception, and pettiness broke us apart. And that’s only the stuff I can take responsibility for.
In some ways, it’s natural for friendships to end after a certain amount of time. I mean, realistically, how many of your old high-school buddies are still your friends in real life and not just part of an ever-changing blue number on your Facebook profile?
In other ways, it wasn’t natural at all. Something had been brewing in my trusted circle for a long time, and no one wanted to address it. I suppose everything could have been different if any of it was caught sooner and actually acted upon, but hindsight is always 20/20, and I wasn’t as strong as I am today. In other words, I was underdeveloped, unprepared, and immature. In some ways, the outcome was an inevitability, and I take both the responsibility and the blame for my contribution to the collapse.
In the time after, though, we would move on. And while this isn’t a story about how we moved on, the drama that ensued, or the leftover feelings we hold to this day, I can tell you that time has a way of pushing everything forward, people included. And one day, about five months ago, I awoke to the sound of a screeching monkey.
Naturally, it was jarring at first. It was in February, approximately a month and a half after making the decision to quit drinking. It was a time where I was sober in every sense of the word. Life had become very real as of late, and it was the first time I had felt a true sense of control. For those closest to me, that statement is a fairly big deal. I say this because I want you to know I wasn’t imagining it.
There was a monkey outside of my window, perched on a tree branch, and it wanted my attention. Of course rational thought had entered my brain in the moments leading up to this discovery. I simply attributed the loud sound to my neighbors. They were always holding parties and banging around at the worst of times. This was surely something new they had decided to pull out of their bag of fun tricks to play on me. But, as we know, it wasn’t them. The monkey had been an unwelcome surprise, and it was an unhappy surprise as well. The wild animal was angry, and it directed all of its fury at me.
When it saw I had finally answered its call, it went silent and just gazed at me with what I read as disgust. I was immediately unnerved and recoiled back. Even though it had been such a long time since my trip to Chicago, I knew that monkey for what it was. It was the same I had seen in the street. Except, instead of being contemplative or curious like it had been three years ago, its demeanor had completely changed.
The trek to my Indianapolis apartment and age had taken its toll on the creature. Sure, it was older, but it was also seemingly tired in nature, like a deep cold had pierced its very body and bones. The animal seemed brittle and full of fear which made me think it would be unpredictable. So, yes, I was scared.
When I regained myself and went to the window again, it was gone.
The days following were relatively normal. The thought of the monster outside was still in my head, but I felt comforted with the idea that it had left for greener pastures. After all, 2018’s February had been unusually cold, and snowfalls had continued to be common well into March.
Over the coming months I would see the monkey infrequently. Sometimes it would be no more than a glimpse out of the corner of my eye when I was driving. Other times, it would wake me with its horrible screaming.
The feeling of being constantly under surveillance was chilling. Most days I would stay indoors where it was safe. After two months of these sightings, though, I had started to get used to them. The way I adapted my life around the wild animal hadn’t been ideal, but I didn’t have any real plan to deal with it. I’m not exactly a violent person.
One time when I was sixteen I had to kill a chicken on Cassie’s farm. We had strung the chicken up by its feet to let the blood rush to its head so it would pass out and stop struggling. I know it sounds morbid, but the truly morbid part was when I had to slit its throat and struggled to saw into its sinewy neck. After a minute or so of fumbling with the knife I had been provided for the task, Cassie’s step-father took over and ended the chicken’s life effortlessly. I was made fun of for the rest of the day.
So with no real option I was willing to consider, I had decided to endure and wait it out. Suffice to say, it only got worse. The monkeys had been multiplying.
I was sitting in a coffee shop, thinking about the trajectory of my life from where it had started and to where it was going when it happened. The big one.
Four walls. One made of glass so you can see into the street where passersby trot along to the various outlets that make up the strip of shops this lone house of brew sits. I was at a table that seated two when a tapping on the clear wall broke my thought. It was a monkey, rapping his knuckles on the window just loud enough for me to hear. I glanced around. The coffee shop was fairly empty aside from an older gentleman who was leafing through a newspaper and a young woman who was playing on her phone next to an aquarium with a sign that read, “The frogs are alive.” No further context had been provided.
And then, as I continued to stare, the monkey was joined by another and then another and another. There were four of them staring at me and grinning, but they weren’t happy. I’m not sure where I learned this tidbit on monkeys, but usually when one of these less-than-majestic creatures bares their teeth, it’s a sign you should vacate the premises. Unfortunately for me, the front door was the only door, and so I did what I had done many times before; I watched…until finally they got into a fight and started to tear into each other. The fighting was something new, and it was a sign that things were changing.
The first monkey had been the largest and was the dominant one. One of the others had come and seemingly challenged this beast after staring at me for some time and (presumably) getting bored. It all happened so quickly.
I can’t tell you the exact ritual the lesser monkey enacted to start the fight, but I can tell you the fight was horrific. Within seconds of being challenged, the larger of the two had slammed the smaller one into the concrete. The dominant one flailed and beat on the smaller one’s chest and arms. It gnashed its teeth and sunk them into the flesh of the challenger, ripping out patches of hair and a chunk or two of skin and meat. I wish I could say the smaller monkey got in a few good hits, but that’s not how the story goes. I wish I could tell you the monkeys that weren’t involved in this ferocious dance stepped in and stopped the fighting, but that didn’t happen either. Instead, the larger monkey continued to beat the smaller one until the smaller one stopped moving.
Death is a natural assumption. All I know is they dragged the body away, leaving a dark trail behind on the street. Unless you witnessed what had just occurred, you’d think the stain was oil. The older man and the younger woman in the coffee shop hadn’t noticed. Despite the (admittedly muffled) noise, they had apparently been too absorbed in their reading materials to pay even the slightest bit of attention to the wild absurdity outside. I waited thirty minutes before leaving. My mind had been made up by then.
I needed to go back to Chicago, and I needed to set things right.
I set a date and I made sure to request time off from work. Luckily I was in good graces with my boss at the time (something that seemed to fluctuate unpredictably), and my leave was granted. It is here where I will speed things along.
Leading up to the trip, I was having reoccurring nightmares regarding the monkeys and my first trip to Chicago. Suddenly the monkeys were hundreds and they were located at all of the tourist traps I had visited three years ago, replacing my actual memories with the twisted night terrors of irrationality. The monsters were constantly on my mind, and I started to see them on a daily basis. Sometimes they would make noise and try to intimidate me (which I can admit worked). Other times they would just stare. No matter the situation, no one aside from me ever seemed to notice them. No one ever seemed bothered. I felt like I was going insane.
The drive there was largely uneventful. I hadn’t put much planning into the trip itself. I bought a power bank so I wouldn’t be stranded with a dead phone in a city I couldn’t navigate, and that was it, really. I didn’t have any real outline of what I was going to do. I had this vague idea that just being in the city would wash away my fear and that the monkeys would reveal themselves sooner or later. I would live or die by pure chance.
And speaking of chance, I found premier parking right in the middle of the majestic concrete jungle where dreams were born, bred, and eventually murdered. My premier parking cost me fifty-two dollars, but if I could find those monkeys it would be worth it. At least that’s what I told myself. For lunch and dinner, I would end up ordering off of dollar menus.
For the first hour or so, I wandered. I walked in circles mostly, covering a few blocks in one direction before making a couple of right turns and walking the opposite way. At one point, I stumbled across a Trump building.
I knew I was procrastinating. If I had any hope of finding the monkeys’ treacherous lair, I would need to retrace my steps. You might think I would go to the Flamingo sculpture since that’s where I had first spotted man’s closest relative, but there was no need. Conveniently, I had passed the Flamingo sculpture while driving, and the place was packed. There had been street vendors selling shirts, water bottles, and various knickknacks. No monkey would show itself there. Not again. Call it intuition if you want, but I had a feeling I was being toyed with, and so I bought an all-day pass to ride the transit system for ten bucks and made my way to the Red Line, a subway that would take me to Chinatown where a personal demon of mine lived. If I had any hope of catching a monkey, it would be there.
When the Red Line gets to Chinatown it stops being a subway. It rises and blends in with the rest of the passenger trains. It docks (if stopping for a total of twenty seconds to let you off of the screaming speeding bullet counts as docking) at a platform overlooking a few corners that look vaguely different from the rest of the city. It’s not until you get off the train, walk a few more blocks, and look up that you find yourself in the middle of unfamiliarity. It’s a beautiful sight.
My heart had sunk in my chest. I first felt the feeling that my organs were rearranging themselves on the ride over, but standing off to the side of a busy walkway full of Chinese families and tourists was overwhelming. It wasn’t because I had felt like a fish out of water (the sight of an overweight white guy with a camera is commonplace in Chicago), but instead it was because I felt a feeling of loss.
In another time and in another life, I had plans here. This would be the place where I would throw my proverbial dice to the wind and let chance dictate my future, but lost love isn’t easily explainable, and I knew my job was far from over. So I took my lumps and I continued on, only stopping once at an Asian sweet shoppe for rolled banana ice cream.
In Chinatown there are two tall spires signifying the entrance of a large outdoor market. At this point I have to admit my ignorance. If there are proper names for these locations, I don’t know them. All I know is what I’m telling you, and I’m telling you about the two towers with fifty winding steps that lead to two high platforms where you can witness the hundreds and thousands of people scurrying below.
I didn’t climb. There was something intimidating about colossal rods protruding from the earth. In retrospect, I should have. I might have been able to notice the pack of monkeys clawing their way to the top of the Red Line Chinatown stop a few streets over. If I had, I might have been able to catch up to them and force a confrontation right then and there. Instead, I stared, wondering exactly why I had even decided to come here in the first place. The distraction of the significance this section of the city held for me would prevent me from accomplishing my goal. That was what I was trying to tell myself in the moment, at least. In reality, I knew I wouldn’t find the monkeys unless I had performed a metaphorical exorcism on the demon in Chinatown. I wish I could say the ritual was some huge grandiose thing, but it wasn’t. It just involved an outsider walking six miles up and down random streets, telling himself that he was young and that both everything and nothing mattered.
Eventually I moved on. At one point I heard the rattling of the Red Line speeding along above me and so I looked up, and that’s how I discovered the monkeys’ method of travel. There were half a dozen of them sitting on the cars. I couldn’t make out their expressions, but I knew they had been looking at me all the same. They were aware of my presence. I boarded the next Red Line once more and headed to the next location on my list: Millennium Park.
The trip back north had weighed heavier on my soul than the frivolous one I had taken south. Chinatown had worn my armor down, and I was forced to think of the seriousness of my life. Maybe the monkeys were right to terrorize me. I hadn’t exactly been a model citizen in the past, and maybe this was the world’s way of punishing me. I remember feeling guilty on my way to the park. The day had been hot and my journey had been exhausting. I was sweating. I was tired. I was also upset.
Things weren’t going as well as I had planned. Some part of me had hoped this journey would be something more akin to a vacation. Instead, I was starting to realize that the human spark of my existence was slowly being ravaged. Every step I took triggered an intrusive thought. The memories of my old friends and I laughing, telling jokes, riding the trains together, posing next to statues and sculptures, and staying up late to tell insane stories fueled by sleep deprivation began to bury me. All that happiness was swimming around in my head, and it made me sad.
The train, like all trains that make up the circulatory system of the Chicago body, screeched to a halt. It’s not uncommon for newcomers to have to brace themselves during the ride. The muscle memory of riding the current of inertia is only familiar to the natives, the ones who rely on the transportation daily. They’re the ones who who can move with the crowd of people and get to where they need to go without a second thought. The tourists–the people like me–stop and gawk at everything. Every new thing is inherently baffling. The sights, the sounds, and the smells provide the ultimate sensory overload and you find yourself getting lost on frequent flights of fancy.
So when I stepped onto the landing platform, took to the steps leading to the street below, and entered the clearing where the park resided, I became absent from my body. Millennium Park had changed. The picture I had in my head didn’t align with the one in front of me. Time changes everything, and that includes major Midwest United States parks. Things had shifted, and now the monkeys had a geographical advantage. They knew how to navigate the land that had become new to me once more. My prior knowledge of a random stone wall placed at the edge of the park we had stopped at to rest three years ago was useless. My memories of various sculptures depicting ruminating men in various poses at the park was applicable to a different timeline altogether. I was a stranger again, and this time I was alone.
I retraced my steps once more, this time guessing at where I had been in relation to the new landscape around me, attempting in vain to place the echos of my past to the solid foundation of the present. Where benches had resided, now an empty rectangular flat plane stood. The paths that had seemingly crisscrossed into confusing insanity were now straight and narrow walkways, leading from point A to point B–the street to Cloud Gate. Things change and that includes your memories. Mine were no longer trustworthy. The physical reconstruction of the park as well as the degradation of how I perceived my past had warped things. And so I walked towards what everyone referred to as “The Bean,” and that was Cloud Gate itself. It was the one thing that hadn’t changed.
During my first trip to Chicago, we took the stereotypical group photo in front of the polished metal. We were all angled in a V, facing the shiny monument, and we snapped photos. That hot day merged with the current one, and all I could think about was what I had done to participate in the collapse. In my mind, there were two timelines: the clean one where rot had never set in and split us apart and the true one, the one in which I had drunk myself silly and pushed the limits of my friendships. If this sounds dramatic, it’s because–as I’ve been told many times before–I’m a dramatic person. Call it a flaw. Call it a character trait. Call it what you will.
I call it annoying.
At that point, I started feeling very uncomfortable. A cold electrical pulse pounded underneath my skin, causing every individual hair on my body to stand up. Despite the fact I was surrounded by people, despite the fact that I thought I was safe, the leader of the monkeys had gotten the drop on me.
He had climbed atop Cloud Gate and beat his chest some consecutive number of times before letting out a roar that seemed to belong to something with a much more massive frame. The people around me, for the first time during this entire saga, had finally seen what I had been dealing with…or so I thought at the time. As I stared transfixed at the humanoid creature, I felt several smaller hands on me, digging into my pockets, searching for something. Milliseconds later, my phone was gone and I was chasing after the rest of the pack, weaving in and out of the crowd of people who refused to disperse.
I came across a clearing in the scattershot of European Buckthorns and Green Ash trees that make up the shallow ecosystem of the city’s flora. The greenery is bundled in clumps on the outskirts of Millennium Park, throwing thin blankets of shade on mounds of mulch and small grassy hills where kids throw footballs to one-another at distances of up-to five feet.
The clearing, however, was devoid of people. It was a small empty grove surrounded by a ring of trees, hidden away from the hubbub of the main areas where city babble and park chatter thrived. The pack of monkeys were in these short trees, staring at me. Their toes curled around branches and their hands pushed against the thin trunks, keeping their bodies upright and stiff.
Their leader was at the center of it all, facing me. He was in a position that suggested he was deliberately hiding something from my view. In his hand was my phone, undamaged. He extended it towards me. Two monkeys swept through the treetops and landed behind me, preventing me from being able to retreat.
I went forward slowly, gladly taking my time. This confrontation was the outcome of a five-month buildup of stress, anxiety, depression, and regret. Even if I couldn’t identify every emotion in my body or pinpoint their causes, I knew everything in this moment was related. The future, the past, my inner thoughts, my outward actions, and my moments of total inaction had all led to this. I remember desperately wanting a drink, something hard and tart. A whiskey sour. That would have been perfect. More guilt.
I took the phone. Without looking, I slid it into my pocket. My eyes were locked on the creature. Its face was sunken. It turned and stepped aside. The aura of the grove had morphed. Crestfallen? Crestfallen.
And there, on the flat plane, were two dead bodies. There was a child and its mother, the only kin the leader of the pack had ever known. They had both been murdered, their skulls bashed in by a blood-stained boulder tossed carelessly to the side. The leader grabbed my arm and commanded my attention. He pointed solely at himself and then at the boulder and then at the two bodies.
Silence hung in the air. The noise of the various herds of various people had been snuffed out. It was just me on the planet. Alone. Finally, the monkey released me and sat down and started weeping in loud and ugly wails. Its pack descended onto the grass below and joined him. We looked at each other then and an understanding was met. The monkey had shown me what needed to be shown. I would be bothered no longer.
I turned and left, not entirely feeling fulfilled. My sense of closure hadn’t been what I expected, and the sickness returned. I decided it was time to leave. It took me fifteen minutes to return to my car from Millennium Park. It took me another five to get to the street below. It took forty to get out of the city. And it took one hundred eighty to get home. By then I was quite tired and fell asleep immediately.
Time changes everything.