Hazel Underwood and I, friends since we were girls, are sitting squat on a bench in the Gorilla House at the zoo, our boys careering about the place and thumping the heels of their palms on the glass cage even though there is a sign that clearly says not to. There are bark chips scattered on the floor, and Hazel has this habit of scooping a few of them up, jangling them in her loose fist like change, and then letting them tipple back to the floor. She sits there, legs apart, elbows denting her fleshy thighs, scoops and jangles as if she were a miser contemplating throwing it all away. Me, I have the tips of my lace-ups dug into the bark chips and my hands, deferential I suppose, pressed between my knees the way my mother taught me. I watch our boys try to work up a run in the narrow viewing room, Hazel’s eldest one, the five-year-old, his freckles like a grease fire, elbowing strangers at the knees. And if anyone were to complain, I know just what Hazel would do—she would bridle herself on the bench and say ‘that boy just has his ambitions.’
But at this moment Hazel is not watching her boys, instead she has her eyes on a brawny male gorilla with his back to us, and she scoops.
‘Hazel,’ I say and then wait. I can see the male gorilla through my reflection in the glass. ‘Hazel,’ I say, ‘I’ve decided something. I’ve decided I’m going to buy one of those villas along the lake—you know the kind—a dozen rooms, a dozen closets, windows like a church, and a private garden and a private jetty and then, because of the rabble in this town, a stone wall with yards and yards of barbwire overhead.’
‘Uh-huh,’ Hazel says. And then, pointing to the gorilla, ‘You know I don’t think he’s ever once turned to show his face.’
‘I mean it, Hazel,’ I say.
And she says, ‘Okay, okay, and so where’re you going to get the money for this villa?’
I say, ‘First you’ve got to know what you want and then you think about how to get it.’
‘Uh-huh,’ Hazel says.
‘You know,’ I say, ‘visualize it.’
We watch our boys pull faces at the gorillas.
‘Well,’ Hazel says—scoop and jangle—‘You could rob banks.’
‘Or I could steal cars.’
‘Or you could sell drugs,’ she says, ‘but I figure you’d probably have to start out at the bottom.’
‘I could be a movie star.’
‘A movie star? Oh honey, with those ankles? What about jewelry thief?’
‘God, I’d think it’d be a hell of a lot easier just robbing banks?’
We watch my Eddie press his mouth to the glass and leave a gob of spit.
‘And you’d still like me if I were a bank robber?’ I say.
Hazel tilts her head and gives me a look: ‘Will you be a cheapskate?’
‘Puh-lease,’ I say.
She says, ‘Jewelry stores, art museums, banks—I don’t care what you rob so long as it’s not houses.’
‘What’s wrong with houses?’
‘You know, kids, families, bedrooms—it’s personal.’
I nod my head, and then we sit for a while watching the gorillas behind the glass. One of them is reaching down for something, a nut or something, and collects it in the crook of its arm, while another knuckles about gathering hay for a makeshift nest.
‘Hell,’ Hazel says, ‘You’d think he’d turn round at least once to acknowledge us.’
Later that night when the kids are asleep and my man touches me, and I, tired but abiding, turn my face to bite the pillow, do I realize: it may not be a question of how much one acquires, but of how much one can stand to let go.