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Esmé and O’Ryan

by Sarah Hilary

I was with O’Ryan on his last day on this earth. We were in a bar. He was hitting on a brunette with a tired face who wasn’t impressed by his stories. O’Ryan was telling her he was in the Space Program. She didn’t believe him of course; this was the early ’60s, hardly anyone had heard about the Program.

O’Ryan didn’t like long silences. When he got to a gap in the conversation he had to stuff it full of words, like a mobster packing pool balls into a sock. When the brunette began to yawn, he switched to something like the truth: “I train monkeys.”

For “train” read torture. It was O’Ryan who set the voltage, decided how many watts were too many, how much was enough to make the chimps dance. The chimps hated O’Ryan, you could see it in their eyes. I wasn’t much in love with him myself. A little man fate had made a demagogue, a small-minded monster. You don’t believe me, ask the chimps. Ask Esmé.

Esmé was Carl’s mate and his understudy, in case he didn’t make it all the way through training. Esmé hated to see Carl hurt, shook her fists at O’Ryan whenever he got close. He’d stand in front of her cage, cracking nuts in the hard palms of his hands and tossing them up into his mouth. I sometimes had trouble figuring out who was the monkey, her or him.

Esmé was the only female who couldn’t walk away from O’Ryan. He spent hours talking to her, never anything nice. I remember one time he told her about Laika, the Russian space dog.

“They shot her into space on Sputnik 2, November fourth, 1957.” O’Ryan pulled a chair close to the cage and sat, feet up. He had small feet, wore sneakers in the lab. Esmé turned her back on him but it didn’t shut O’Ryan up. “Laika was a stray. Mongrel bitch, part husky. That’s what Laika means. Husky. We called her Muttnik.”

The chimps were getting fretful, the way they always did around O’Ryan. He ignored them, kept running off his mouth. “She got all stressed out up there in space, over-heated. Fried.” O’Ryan made a noise like rain hitting big leaves, a sizzling sound that scared Esmé into her corner. “Wait ‘til the Russians see what we got here.” He kicked at her cage.

“Cut it out,” I told him. It was my job to keep the cages clean, to feed Esmé and the others, change the straw they slept on. O’Ryan paid me less attention than he paid the chimps.

He was training Carl and Esmé to perform basic tasks, like pushing a lever within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light. If they failed to push it in time, they got an electric shock to the soles of their feet. It was what we had to do, but O’Ryan needn’t have got such a kick out of it.

After Carl went into space, Esmé became part of the chimp-breeding program. She had nine babies. O’Ryan took them away, one by one. Made them dance. I can still smell their burning feet. Esmé watched O’Ryan take them, saw him attach the electrodes, adjust the voltage. She knew how much was too much, when the twitching turned to burning and the burning to jolting, screeching.

“I train monkeys.” This was O’Ryan at the bar, scratching himself with a pool cue.

“Get outta here,” the brunette told him.

O’Ryan left the bar and went back to the lab. He often slept there; we both did.

The next morning they asked me, “Was he depressed?”

“He never mentioned it.”

“What a way to go.” They didn’t like the smell, wrinkling their noses. O’Ryan, fried.

I said, “Can I get back to the chimps?”

Esmé was very quiet, holding the bars of her cage. To look at it, you’d’ve thought the cage was locked. I caught her eye as I re-fastened the latch. She had bright eyes, like the brunette in the bar, too bright to be fooled by O’Ryan.

Years later, when she passed away, they laid Esmé to rest with Carl at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

In accordance with his wishes, O’Ryan was cremated, his remains sent into space on a shuttle voyage that never made it back. He’s burning there still, a star that’s taking centuries to die, a dim, dancing speck in the night sky.

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Hilary

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