I wake up in the middle of night and look to the left. The glow from the street lamps shows something on the sill of the open window.
I don’t even have a window in my bedroom.
I reach over to the table by my bed and feel for my glasses. I knock an empty soda can on the floor before I find them. But the glasses verify the anomaly. There is a monkey in the window of my bedroom that doesn’t have a window. Come to think of it, there are no street lamps on this road either. And this is Illinois. Wild monkeys just aren’t a thing here.
The monkey jumps down onto my floor. He pulls a cigarette from somewhere and puts it to his lips. He grabs a lighter from somewhere else and starts the cigarette burning. He inhales the smoke before he speaks with a voice deeper than I would have expected.
“I’m guessing you know why I’m here,” he says.
My mind struggles for a reason to this bizarre scenario. It doesn’t take long to catch on to something.
I’m in Chennai.
I’ve just gotten done eating some butter chicken with fried rice. As I leave the restaurant, I see her.
She’s a bedraggled beggar with a designer monkey resting in the crook of her elbow. She has a cup held out toward me. She motions with the other hand from her belly to her mouth and back to her belly again. She’s hungry. And my 300 pounds tells her I might have access to food.
I grab for my phone instead of any stray rupees that might be floating around in my pocket. I hold the phone up, center her, sure to include the KFC with its Tamil lettering in the background, and snap the picture. It’s a perfect representation of a gross economic gap.
I pocket the camera and start walking away, immediately feeling like an ass. I turn around to see she’s following me.
Irrational fear grips me. She’s into voodoo and she’s going to send her monkey—with its piercings and jewelry—to rip the flesh from my throat. I look across the street. There’s a grocery store to duck into over there. I cut across the heavy Chennai traffic, Frogger style. I enter the store and hang out for a while. The proprietor is a Muslim and he greets me with a bow. He then takes a broom toward the door to tell the beggar and her monkey to get lost.
I wait a few minutes, buy a cheap pen just to thank the proprietor, then I leave.
The beggar is waiting outside for me.
She wants payment for the photo. She wants help through her poverty. She wants food to ease her roaring stomach. She wants fed, filled, and fulfilled. I reach into my pocket and toss the loose coins into her cup before I make a dash back to the ashram.
“You’re the beggar lady’s monkey,” I say.
“She was into voodoo. She’s sent you to rip the flesh from my throat.” I try to dig backwards into the wall behind my bed to hide. It doesn’t work.
“What?!” the monkey asks. “Dude, you Americans are something else. I’m here of my own volition. Paid my own way and everything.” He takes another drag from the cigarette. “You know, the lady gives me everything, like I’m her kin. I save. I used it to come to America to see you.”
“I just wanted to tell you how cheap and heartless you are.”
I say nothing. I am a bit cheap and heartless.
“Do you know how much money you gave her?”
I shake my head.
“Two rupees. You know what that translates into for American dollars?”
I shake my head again.
He pulls a smart phone from somewhere and does some calculations. He shakes his head, sighs, puts the phone back somewhere, and looks at me, disappointed.
I stare back at him.
“Three cents, dude,” he says. “Three cents.”
I look down at my hands, feeling cheap, heartless, selfish, embarrassed.
“Three pennies.” He scratches his ass. “That’s all she was worth to you. Three pennies.”
“What do you want me to say?” I ask. “What do you want me to do?”
“I just want you to think about that the next time you’re throwing away dollar after dollar after dollar. I want you to remember those three cents,” he says as he scratches his ass again.
“I have money I can give you,” I offer him to assuage my guilt.
“I don’t want your money,” he says, jumping back onto the window sill. He tosses the remainder of his cigarette out the window.
“I just want you to remember.”
He jumps outside, the street lamps fade, and the window is swallowed back up by the surrounding walls. I try, but I’m unable to get back to sleep.
I do remember.
Author: Chris Hawk
Image: Courtesy of Author
Editor: Catherine Monkman