I grew up in an area that, by the standards of my home state, wasn’t exactly affluent. Nonetheless, we had the good fortune to be located near a main road that ran from a major city, through my town, out to several areas that were considerably richer than my neighborhood. This street had some really neat shops — excellent restaurants, fantastic consignment and thrift stores, and even a store dedicated entirely to dollhouse miniatures. (I used to go there to get things to outfit the stable my grandpa made for me for my model horses. The man is a wizard with a saw.)
One of my favorite shops was a pet store. It had a room full of friendly, inquisitive parrots of every description, another full of exotic fish and anemones, and plenty of other cages full of exotic animals — hedgehogs, a toucan, I even remember a kinkajou. The shop was run by a very nice family, and, as far as I know, staffed entirely by the owners’ children. All of the animals seemed to be healthy, well cared for, with the kind of outgoingness that comes from regular handling.
My family wasn’t very well off, so going to this pet store was an outing just as much as going to the zoo might be. We rarely bought anything more than a bag of cat or dog food, but it was fun just to walk through and look.
I remember going one year when I was around four or five, maybe six. It was winter, and cold enough that I had on a lavender knit cap, a matching puffy coat, and a set of mittens on a string. I was walking past a row of cages, peeking in to see what my wide tiny child eyes could see.
The cage was large, especially to me, and I don’t know how many it housed. They clambered over the branches suspended between the bars, spun rainbow-colored blocks strung on a jute rope, and sat watching the passing customers with their shiny, shoebutton eyes and fistfuls of half-chewed monkey biscuits in their paws.
I don’t remember how it happened — I wasn’t actually that close to the cage. All I remember is turning away to look at a group of guinea pigs, and seeing a long, slim, black-haired arm snake into my view. A split second later, pairs of tiny hands pulled my hat down over my eyes and yanked me back against the bars. In the tiny sliver of light at the bottom edge of my hat, I could see more pairs of hands, arms, and even a few tails holding my coat.
“Um.” My mouth immediately went dry. I had the sneaking suspicion this would somehow be my fault, and I was almost as afraid of yelling and startling the monkeys into starting up a cacophony as I was of my mom spotting me and starting one at home. “H-help?”
I couldn’t see much, and my arms were stuck out like the kid in A Christmas Story. I was starting to panic, but also worried about struggling and accidentally hurting a monkey. Their little arms looked so spindly and fragile — deceptively so for something capable of restraining an entire kindergartner. I would’ve felt guilty for the rest of my life if I accidentally hurt one. I had also seen enough “U BREAK IT, U BUY IT” signs in other stores to foresee this ending badly. I didn’t know how much a monkey cost, but I knew we couldn’t afford one.
I could feel the panic rising. What if I didn’t manage to get free? What if they stole my hat and I got in trouble for losing it? What if the monkeys tried to eat me? I turned my head frantically, hoping I could clear my vision enough to spot another customer, one of the employees, anyone whose attention I could try to get to help me out of my incredibly dumbass predicament.
Was this a hostage situation? Would they let me go for a banana? I didn’t even know monkey ransom was a thing, let alone had the foresight to bring anything I could use to barter for my freedom. I didn’t think my mom did, either, unless the monkeys were willing to negotiate for some Trident wrappers and half a pack of Marlboro Lights.
It took awhile for my mom to find me. Baffled, she started trying to pull me free before giving up and going to get one of the owners. It took both of them and the work of several patient minutes of prying away tiny fingers to free me, while monkey bedding and the remains of chewed-up biscuits rained down on us. The capuchins seemed to think this was hilarious.
In the end, I did (perhaps unsurprisingly) manage to get free. No monkeys were harmed, and my hat was only slightly unraveled. We still went to that pet store for years afterward, but I did stop wearing hats there.