Robert Mitchell is a working, published musician, film editor, and songwriter, living in NYC. Due to the pandemic, Mitchell has redirected his storytelling focus towards short-form fiction. Robert’s stories have recently been published in: Rejected Manuscripts, The Literary Yard, and The Reflex Press.
In the Gorilla Suit
By Robert Mitchell
One thing he learned from his mercurial father was, “If you want something, you have to work for it.” Jake’s survival instinct was strong. Bummed, truly heart broken, without his band and devastated, he needed to make money. Jake read in The Hartford Courant, that the Housatonic Valley Regional High School was looking for an Artistic Director for their performance of the play, Cabaret. Jake responded and got an interview. He drove about an hour into the countryside of Housatonic Valley to meet with the principal. Jake was long haired, skinny, wearing rock ‘n roll type clothes, and his glasses had a dark gradient. The principal was in his principle pinstripe suit. The gig seemed unlikely but what got Jake the job was the fact that he could read music, and suggested that they pre-record the score, so that a live band would not be required.
Jake was paid well to be the Director. There was additional money for recording the score, which he did with his former band mate, Pete Harbeck on piano and synths. Bob Kelly joined the team to add bass, and to operate his trusty Teac 3340, tape machine. Jake played guitar, and also muted his guitar by weaving paper between the strings, in order to sound more like a banjo. He added Hohner Double Tier Echo and chromatic harmonicas for some genuine woodwind tone, and human touch, to blend in with the synthesized brass parts.
It was a swinging orchestral smorgasbord that seemed to inspire the young actors. Rehearsals could be frustrating but there were sustained moments of laughing and happiness. Kids were free to sing loud and fill the auditorium with voices they could not employ at home. They were able to dance within the music and become someone else, or become themselves.
Auditions were held, sets were built, rehearsals were had, and emotional high-schoolers prevailed. There was a budget and a need for a choreographer. The school ran an ad in The Hartford Courant, and hired the only candidate, Susana Henry. Susana knew her stuff and the kids loved her. Having another ‘grown-up’ around made Jake feel less self-conscious about being the sole wrangler of nubile farm girls who were flirty, hormonal, and eager to strut their stuff on stage. Rehearsals had a wild, frenetic, adolescent energy. Jake had his hands full and Susana came at just the right time. Her choreography and graceful nature, elevated and unified the collective energy of cast and crew.
In 1980, Jake was twenty-four and rebounding from the breakup of his regionally successful band, Glass House. He would meet Susana in Unionville. They drove to Housatonic in the Karmann Ghia Jake owned with Sheila. Getting to know each other on the long rides to and from rehearsals, Jake had no choice but to notice how gorgeous Susana was, and how shapely. But he was with Sheila and not about to mess that up. Even when Susana confided that she and her fiancé were not hugely harmonious, Jake focused mostly on the work at hand. After one particularly grueling rehearsal, a night of being bullied by stubborn thespians and dancers, Susana suggested, insisted, that they stop for a drink, on the way home. Not acknowledging their strong mutual attraction, but feeling it like bees swarming to their hive during a heat wave, it became a good idea to have a drink.
Somehow, they pulled a great cast together. It was truly an ensemble more mature on stage than their actual years. To Jake, the lead character, Sally Bowles, was immediate and obvious, but the high school senior was shy and she had to let all the other girls sing and dance before she was willing to walk onstage. When she finally opened up … what a voice! She was perfect and she brought the house down.
Driving home after rehearsal, Susana and Jake laughed about how seriously they were taking the production. With a beautiful full autumn moon above, they pulled over beside the reservoir, just to take in a moment of quiet and nature. During their brief escape, fog rolled in over the water, night birds sang, and they were closer than they should have been.
During performances, Jake sat in the front row with a soft light for conducting the actors and singers. He gave physical counts with hand gestures: 1, 2, 3, POINT! Backstage, students ran the house PA, which amplified two live microphones on stage, and Jake’s cassette deck for the music, out in the front row. The overhead lights, with massive dimmer arms, as well as two sets of curtains, were also operated by students. Susana was backstage cueing dancers from the wings while Jake worked the cassette deck. Wearing headphones, turning the pages of the multi-staffed Cabaret score, cue the tape, cue the lights, and: 1, 2, 3 …
“What good is sitting alone in your room ….”
Opening night was looming large. Rehearsals became more productive, but there were lines of appropriateness to stay mindful of. These were kids and they were free to speak their minds. Seeing Jake as not much older, and a rock musician, they took some things for granted. On a drizzly night, towards the end of rehearsal, two girls announced that they needed a ride home.
“Mr. Martin, can you give us a ride?”
They said they had no choice and would otherwise have to walk a few miles in the dark, in the rain, in order to get home. Considering the lines of right and wrong, Jake replied that he would give them a lift, but only if he had their parents’ permission. Susana was absent that night and Jake knew he could fit one passenger in the front and another in the back of the small car. By the time they drove out, Jake was at the wheel with four high school girls needing a ride. Four! Was this another Great idea? Jake thought, “Let’s just get this over with, I want to get home.” Off they drove. Loud in the car, too many girls were screeching. Their collective perfume, breath, and too tight clothing, were also much too loud.
“Mr. Martin, take a right … HERE!”
He turned right while simultaneously realizing that they were pulling into a cemetery. The smell of four teenage girls melded with the brand new scent of weed, country weed, to Jake’s finely tuned connoisseurs’ nose, but wait ….
“What the hell?” Said Jake rather loudly. There was much laughing and hilarity from the ladies who were now getting physically friendly with the driver, who turned off the car … in the cemetery … in the pitch dark, to say,
“Out! Everybody out!” Jake was talking louder than the other Jake who was suggesting, “Let me have them all.” The actual Jake continued with,
“The ride is over. Good luck getting home.”
He was ready to drive off, but was assured by three out of four high school girls, that they were sorry, and they would now direct him, the Director, directly to their driveways.
Driving again, alone at last with chaos in his rearview mirror, late autumn was setting down a blanket of fog above the fields surrounding him. Jake noticed a fat joint on the passenger seat, rolling around like a short yellow pencil.
“Thank you, high school student, for leaving a country J in my VW. Thank you, girls, for trying to unbutton my shirt. Thank you, another one, for putting your hand dangerously close to my crotch … thank you, myself, for getting the hell out of there.”
Inhale. He exhaled a long breath of relief mixed with country weed.
The shows went well, three weekends, six shows. Everything happened. Susana and Jake enjoyed the rides back home, letting off steam after rehearsals. Her scent and physical body grew more comfortable in Sheila’s seat. On the final night of the play, Jake had his hands full. Sheila came from Syracuse to be there for the last show. Sheila and Susana shared the front seat, the little bucket seat, all the way to Housatonic Valley Regional High School. Life was a Cabaret, old chum. The final performance was a hit. The principal was pleased, families and friends came in full attendance. A good time was had by all, and then it was time to pack up the gorilla suit, the cassette deck, Susana and Sheila, blast off outta there, over the Cornwall Bridge, and cash the paycheck of life.
It was a great experience but finally over. Jake had two beautiful women in the car and an obvious friendliness bubbling over between them. None of them had eaten all day and they had been on the go for hours. The only place for food was across the Cornwall Bridge. The restaurant and covered bridge were rustic with matching barn board exteriors. Autumn magic filled the air.
Upon arrival, they learned that the kitchen had just closed, but they could certainly have drinks. Susana suggested martinis, a thing Jake had never tried. Being a beer drinker when he did drink, and having not eaten all day, martinis seemed like the thing. Why would he argue? As he drank the strongest drink he ever swallowed, Sheila and Susana flirted openly. “What madness is this?,” wondered Jake, as he suddenly remembered the gorilla suit.
It was in the car. When Jake picked up the suit from the theatrical costume shop in Hartford, he knew the suit was destined for greatness in Cabaret. On that particular day, weeks earlier, the Karmann Ghia was with Sheila, so he took the bus into Hartford to retrieve the gorilla suit. Naturally, Jake had to wear the suit on the bus ride home. What fun it was, walking the mile up West Avon Road, being the gorilla. The suit had no feet. Shoes were required. In his case, it was a gorilla with white, Stan Smith tennis sneakers, walking home, strolling past the Lions Club swimming pool, and Camp Happy Hill.
At the Cornwall Bridge bar, with the applause and satisfaction of Cabaret still ringing in their ears, Jake asked Sheila if she would order him a beer. The martini was not happening, and he would be right back. Less than half a martini later, this gorilla with white sneakers walks into a bar … everybody reacts … Sheila and Susana are screaming, drunk, hugging, and they have lipstick kiss marks on their faces … the bartender, scowling but with smiling eyes, looked towards the door and nodded.
“That’s it for you folks, time to go.”
Sheila and Susana stuffed the drunken gorilla into the tiny rear of the Ghia. Sheila drove and their hysterical voices cut through the muting of the ape head. But damn, it was getting hot, and was Jake about to throw up? So much noise! Sheila seemed to be driving well but a bit on the fast side.
“Can we get some air in here?,” asked loud Jake.
More sounds of hyenas about to gain power over prey. Jake was hot and had the suddenly ingenious idea to take off the ape head. Much better.
“Can we get some air in here?” I’m serious, I’m gonna hurl.”
‘Not in my car,’ thought drunken Jake, hoping to avoid any future stink.
“Really, really, pull over … let me out!!!”
Sheila and Susana were enjoying each other, and Jake wanted to clean up and participate. He would NOT throw up all over the car! He did manage to throw up all over the ape suit. The retch was contained but the gorilla hair was the containment area. By now, the girls fathomed that Jake was actually in rough shape and they looked for a good place to pull over. Peering from the rear pop-out quarter window, in the small back space, Jake spotted a coin-operated car wash coming up on the bottom of the hill they were descending.
“Pull over there!”
He stumbled out of the car just to get some air and stand up, but when he saw the spray hoses glistening in the night, he was keenly motivated. He could not return the suit without at least trying to clean it. He tossed his sneakers in the car and asked the women to spray him down. Sober thinking for a drunken ape-man. He stood in the lane where normal people wash their cars. Still howling, filling the machines with quarters, Sheila and Susana were thrilled by the idea of hosing him down. Powerful spray hoses on both sides of Jake let loose at the same time and with full force. The ice cold water knocked Jake on his ass. How could two women possibly laugh so much? More hooting and then the soap spray. He was lathered, rinsed, appreciative of the clean scent, and abruptly abandoned.
The gorilla suit and Jake were soaking wet but finally clean when the water stopped. He stood up, alone, head throbbing but now fairly sober. Where were they? They sped away without him. Barefoot, he walked to the side of Rt. 44 to watch the rear lights of the Ghia disappear. The night was cooling down considerably and hitch-hiking was the next task at hand.
“Hmmmm,” ape hands on hips, “Guess they’re gone.”
Time ached of the realization that he did not have a band anymore. He stepped to the side of the road and prepared his human thumb. Coming down the hill, the first car heading his way approached. The overhead revolving red lights revealed a State Police car slowing towards him. The rotation of red lights reflected and illuminated the trees. It was a pretty night. With high beams aimed on Jake, he stopped the car. Jake could see the state troopers’ wide brimmed hat in silhouette. Approaching, with flashlight in hand,
“Jake? Is that you?” He lowered the light and Jake barely recognized the young State Trooper, but he knew the voice.
“It’s me, Tommy. You’re Jake Martin. You used to be my soccer coach.”
Remembering, Jake replied,
“Tom, wow! I didn’t know you were a state trooper. Man! How’s it going?”
Turning off the flashlight and smiling,
“I’m good, I’m good, yeah. How about you? You doin’ alright?”
Jake kept it cool, “Oh yeah, things are good.”
Their chat was interrupted by loud static and commotion from the police radio.
“Hold on Coach, I’ll be right back.”
Something seemed urgent. Tom popped his head back out of the car to ask,
“Are you ok, Coach? You gonna make it home?”
“Oh yeah, I’m fine. I’ll see you later, Tommy.”
He wished he had shoes. Police lights briefly lit the night for Jake’s bare feet when Trooper Tom drove away. Cool fresh air, and the sounds of nocturnal birds settled his mind. Hitching a ride at that hour seemed unlikely.
“No band,” Jake sighed.
Haunting distant laughing and the foggy sounds of mating grew louder with the return of the Ghia, now slowing, rolling closer with two strange female creatures of the night. It was the end of an era. Memories were etched, and would remain.
For Jake, the semi-lucrative but exciting days of Glass House, Penguin Slim, and Martin & Lee, became yesteryear. Needing work, scanning The Hartford Courant, he read that a company was looking for actors. He felt he could probably get a small character role, and that it might rinse his mind of rock ‘n roll, for a while. He could try something different. Jake auditioned for a play called, The Flower Street Bridge, written by Scott Ritter. It was his first audition and it went well enough to land the lead role. It was an intense play. Jake portrayed a psychiatrically disabled, VietNam war veteran. His character had multiple personalities. The play was ninety minutes long and Jake was the only person on stage for most of the performance. He had a huge amount of dialogue to memorize, and he committed himself to the task. Sobriety helped. He wasn’t much of a drinker but he liked green flowers. He gave up both for the duration of the play, and worked ambitious hours at the theater with Lee, the Director.
Lee Costello was a pro. She had been directing theater long enough to know how to deal with an eager greenhorn like Jake. But Jake was 100% willing to try anything. He worked so hard, he dropped from one-hundred-fifty-five, to one-hundred-forty pounds. He was also ignoring the divide that was expanding between Sheila and himself. Working was better than thinking. She used to be interested in Jake’s thoughts, but in her role as judge and jury, communication became impossible.
A division too painful to recover from happened when she informed him that there would be an abortion. He was happy to learn that she was pregnant. He wanted a family with her, but there was no discussion. This was a bridge too far. She and Jake were not on the same page, or even in the same play anymore.
When The Flower Street Bridge opened, there were good crowds. It was a small theater, maybe fifty seats, but it was packed and Jake submerged into his character. He was turned loose after weeks of working and burning new neural pathways, without a band. The play went well. It ran four nights a week for four weeks, and then it was over. The cast and crew were going to become people Jake would never see again, even though they all said they would stay in touch.
Such is the way of ensembles. They come, they go, it seemed. It was the first time Jake saw it that way. New work made it slightly easier to let go of Glass House and those dreams. Also letting go of his hometown roots, Sheila suggested a clean start, somewhere new for both of them. She had job opportunities in Boston so they found an apartment in Beacon Hill, and moved.
Culture, fashion, and the sounds of Jake’s industry were changing. MTV was becoming the thing played in clubs, instead of live music. Before moving, Jake met with the owner of the Pentangle Pub, a place he played regularly, years earlier with Martin & Lee. Still wearing the bushy mustache, leather vest, and coke spoon on a necklace, Dominic wore his proprietorship proudly. He wanted to let Jake know how things were nowadays, starting gently with,
“Sorry Jake, I love you guys, you’re real musicians! But why should I pay bands when I can get this shit for free? Man, I fuckin’ hate MTV, but it’s free!”
His voice grew more agitated and his mini spoon bounced with a spooky buoyancy. Tiny bits of white flake fell from his mustache as he continued, loudly,
“And I don’t need drum damn cases and heavy amps draggin’ all over my floors, scratchin’ everything to shit!”
He took a breath, looked at Jake, and spoke more calmly, forcing himself,
“Sorry Man! These were all nice Oakwood floors!”
That was really enough, but he had to go on. Dominic knew that Jake had been using a fake name, Kent Clark, and a British accent when he called to book gigs. Walking away but turning back, with a deliberately sloppy British accent and an aggressive sneer, Dominic ended the charade and poked,
“Tell Kent I’m bloody sorry.”