A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR:
I loved this story when it arrived on our doorstep last month because it reminded me of one of my favorite little niches in the world of Southern fiction: Call it “Florida noir.” Among its greatest authors are two Miami guys, Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey, whose books — with titles like “Sick Puppy” and “Hammerhead Ranch Motel” — not only provide great beach reading, but also some serious insight into a variety of weirdness that seems particular to Florida. When I finish the latest Dorsey or Hiaasen book, I usually find myself wishing someone would write with the same off-kilter sensibilities about the Florida Panhandle, which is as weird or weirder than Miami.
"Abba Dabba Dab" kind of granted my wish. When I wrote William to say we wanted to publish it, he replied immediately, but with an unexpectedly sad message: “Thank you, and I would be especially pleased for you to publish ‘Abba Dabba Dab,’ as my wife is the one who suggested I submit it to you. She died on Tuesday, and I regret that I will not be able to share this news with her.”
William and Annette Powell Cotter were married for 40 years, and she passed away four days after her husband’s 70th birthday. Annette was no slouch as a writer either. After serving as the first editor of Atlanta’s alternative weekly, Creative Loafing, in the 1970s, she headed to Nashville and got a staff songwriter job at Polygram Records. She even landed a cut, “My Heart Won’t Wander Very Far From You,” on the first album that ever debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts, George Strait’s 1987 “Ocean Front Property.”
Annette grew up in Andalusia, Ala., and it turns out Bill isn’t a Floridian by birth, but a native of Atlanta. He began his writing career cranking out obituaries for The Atlanta Journal. Eight years ago, we almost lost him, too, owing to meningitis. “After weeks in a coma, there were things I could not do anymore,” he wrote to us. “My memory was Swiss cheese. As part of my recovery, I started writing a blog, though I barely knew what one was. It was just my attempt to see if I could still type, and maybe think.”
Bill wrote a beautiful remembrance of Annette on his blog, “Cotter Pen,” on Saturday. It ends this way: “In her final days, Annette experienced spasms, morphine hallucinations, conversations in which I could hear only one side. She lifted her head off her arms long enough to say, ‘I thought I would run into your momma and daddy (both long dead). I may have been in the wrong place.’ I said, ‘Look for Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. That’s the right place.’ She actually laughed.”
This Bitter Tuesday is for you, Annette Powell Cotter. You go looking for Johnny and ol’ Waylon. We’ll stay here with Bill and go down to the Sopchoppy River. Ladies and gentlemen, The Bitter Southerner is proud to bring you “Abba Dabba Dab,” the story of a wild-animal caretaker, a Tallahassee TV reporter and a chimpanzee named Sonny. — C.R.
Sonny, as we called him, came into my life when he was an understudy for the chimpanzee star of “Jungle Joe,” the television series, filmed in Wakulla Springs, Florida. My qualifications for the job of baby-sitting the look-alike backups consisted mostly of part-time experience as a primate caretaker at Alligator Alley Wild Animal Rescue, populated otherwise with reptiles and an occasional bear, bobcat, or wolf. Movie industry make-believe liked Wakulla Springs, which had portrayed the jungles of Africa in early Johnny Weissmuller “Tarzan” films and more recently the creepy role of the Amazon River in “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” a sci-fi version of “Beauty and the Beast,” with Julia Adams in 1954 swimwear as the beauty and a guy in a rubber amphibian suit as the beast.
My college major had been anthropology, and I had written my senior thesis on omnivores and herbivores among our hominid predecessors. I suggested that the aggressive tendencies and practices of omnivores were responsible for both greater survival and warfare. My thesis advisor scribbled in red ink just below the grade that made it clear my future did not include grad school: “What are you, some kind of pinko pacifist fruititarian?” From then on, I told people I had majored in “anthro-apology” but failed the final exam.
On the Wakulla Springs film set, the chimpanzees lounged and frolicked in a 12-foot-square circus cage when not in front of a camera. Jungle Joe himself probably attacked Sonny, but no homo sapiens witnessed it. I found Sonny in a pool of blood, his throat severely ripped. The other chimpanzees feigned oblivious innocence, picking through one another’s black hair, just another day at the beauty parlor.
I wrapped Sonny’s throat as tightly as I dared with my shirt and belt. Out of the pale mask of his face, Sonny’s brown eyes studied me like something discovered new, and he reached out his open hand palm up. I took the hand and draped his arm over my shoulder. I lifted him using a method somewhere between a fireman’s carry and a vegetable market clerk with a sack of potatoes. As carefully as I knew how, I placed Sonny in the back of the television film company’s shiny new 1957 Pontiac station wagon and rushed him to Wild Animal Rescue, where the veterinarian, a friend, saved Sonny’s life but not his vocal cords.
My friend asked me, “Does he have a safe place to stay?”
I took Sonny back to my apartment and nursed him through recovery. On the floor in the corner next to my bed, I made Sonny a pallet, an old red, white, and blue Boy Scouts sleeping bag with a faded fleur-de-lis emblem. When Sonny began to recover his health enough to enact thoughts of his own, he dumped the socks, shirts, and underwear from the laundry hamper onto the pallet and nested in the pile. I could not stop him from doing that, no matter how many times I picked up everything and tried to tell him why.
A Tallahassee television news reporter named Melody featured the story of Jungle Joe and Sonny. She later broadcast a follow-up about Sonny’s convalescence, after neither Sonny nor I any longer had employment with the “Jungle Joe” production company. I showed Melody the pile of my dirty laundry Sonny slept on. “I’ve tried to give him a clean pile, but he only wants the stuff from the laundry hamper,” I explained.
She said, “That’s because it smells like you.” She took to Sonny and me, and we to her.
The resident manager of my apartment knocked on my door. “I saw you on television,” he said. “You know that you can’t keep a pet.”
Incredulously, I asked, “A what?”
“We have a strict policy. Also it is against the law. It might take me 30 days to evict you in court, but I can have the county out here to pick him up this afternoon.”
I called Melody and told her what the apartment manager had said. Melody exclaimed, “A what?” I knew I was going to have to marry her.
Melody packed us into her car and drove us out to her Wakulla County home, a three-room trailer formerly used as an office on a construction site. She had talked the hard hats out of the trailer at the end of their project by convincing them that selling her the trailer for $150, plus saving them the expense of moving it somewhere else, made good economics for everybody. She promised a case of cold beer to the guys who would deliver the trailer. She had amazing persuasive skills, including a great pair of legs. When Sonny and I moved in with Melody, the trailer was parked sideways on a property less than half the size of the infield grass on a baseball diamond. The lot dropped down a steep bank into the convergence of the Sopchoppy and Ochlockonee Rivers, surrounded by pine trees and oak thickets, wild shrubs, and briars.
“No mortgage,” Melody bragged.
Melody put me to work installing a pier with posts and beams of brown telephone poles and railroad ties. Directing it, anyway. More or less. Melody recruited skilled help. Sonny climbed the poles and walked the cross-ties. For Sonny, we attached several heavy ropes, some dangling free and others draped between various vertical pilings. A colony of albino squirrels thrived in the trees along the rivers. The squirrels pelted Sonny with pine cones. Sonny chased them but unsuccessfully.
My construction crew and I attached two-by-eight joists between the tops of the telephone poles. I rented a truckload of used two-by-twelves from a scaffolding supplier, and we laid the planks loosely over the joists as a temporary deck. One of my helpers hitched the trailer to his pickup truck and easily backed it like a fishing boat down a launch ramp in Apalachicola, until the trailer came to rest on our structure, which jutted straight out into space overlooking the rivers. We removed all the two-by-twelves except those under the wheels, jacked up the trailer, disassembled the wheels, and reclaimed the remaining planks. Then we lowered the trailer back down and secured it against the first hurricane.
I built a small permanent deck next to the trailer. At sunrise I sat there with Melody and Sonny, drank coffee, and ate corn flakes with bananas (Sonny peeled his own), and we watched for alligators in the black waters.
Melody and I were married within a year.
Chimps were popular in those days. Cheetah from “Tarzan.” J. Fred Muggs from Dave Garroway. Melody scheduled a meeting with her boss’s boss at the television station where she worked, and she proposed producing a children’s program around Sonny and me.
“What can they do? J. Fred Muggs finger-paints. Some magazine printed pictures.”
J. Fred Muggs had bitten the editor of the magazine.
“Sonny likes to decorate a birthday cake. It is very visual. We could do cake decorating with the kids, sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”
“Now, wait a minute. Don’t try and tell me the chimp can sing. For one thing, I thought you reported that his vocal cords were damaged.”
Melody explained that as a kid growing up, I had studied ventriloquism in admiration of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Actually I had preferred Mortimer Snerd. Yuck yuck yuck. She told the television executive that I made chimpanzee sounds as if they came from Sonny. “Whoop whoop whoop,” I would screech, and Sonny mouthed along. I coached him to drum his chest, while I did my best Tarzan yodel: “Ah yah yah ahdl ah yah.” Melody simulated this act in every perfect detail, and the TV V.P. dropped his jaw open.
Sonny and I wore matching khaki safari suits, with short sleeve tunics, short pants, and desert boots for the television show, named “Sonny of the Jungle.” Melody occasionally appeared in a similar outfit. Her legs looked better on camera than mine and Sonny’s. Melody carried a reporter’s notebook in one hand and a pencil in the other, and her walk-on line was always, “Dr. Livingston, I presume.”
The Debbie Reynolds recording of “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” played in the background at the beginning and end of each show: “Abba Dabba Dab in monkey talk means chimp I love you, too.”
The kids enjoyed the cake decorating, especially when Sonny grabbed big chunks of cake to eat or instigate food fights. J. Fred Muggs was famous for roller-skating, but I could not interest Sonny in it. However, I had metal taps affixed to the heels and toes of a pair of shoes for Sonny. He had no ear for music or grace for dance, but he loved the noise of the taps when he stomped, so we played the music anyway and introduced him as “The next J. Fred Astaire.”
At home, Sonny knew how to bathe himself, operate the TV channel selector dial to find his favorite programs, use a crown-top bottle opener on soft-drinks, and sit at the table for dinner. He preferred to drink with a straw, often plugging one end with his finger and lifting the other to his mouth, where he would deposit the contents. I tried to toilet-train him, but it only encouraged him to play with whatever was in the toilet.
I had no trouble getting Sonny to practice the ventriloquism with me. He liked to make the faces that went along with the sounds his voice could no longer produce, and he would work me to exhaustion, evoking chimpanzee imitations from me on his behalf. I began to wonder who was training whom. Even when we were not practicing, Sonny sometimes opened and closed his mouth in pantomime to something I might say to Melody or mumble to myself.
Sonny was a devoted fan of “The Mickey Mouse Club” and watched Annette Funicello with particular interest, like many other pre-pubescent males in America. Melody contacted the Walt Disney company and arranged for Annette Funicello to be a guest on our live children’s show. Annette Funicello appeared in her Mouseketeer outfit, pleated skirt, T-shirt with her name printed across her chest, big Mouseketeer ears. Annette Funicello was a trained and talented tap dancer. She and Sonny tap-danced a duet to “Abba Dabba Honeymoon.” Afterwards, Sonny went to the refrigerator on the studio set and brought out a soft drink for Annette. He used the bottle opener to remove the crown-top. Annette gave Sonny a beautiful dark-eyed Italian smile and played with his round ears. Sonny reached out his hand towards her. She leaned her head down to let Sonny play with her Mouseketeer ears. On camera, Sonny then fondled the protruding double Ns and Ts of her name on her T-shirt.
“Sonny of the Jungle” was replaced by “Three Stooges” re-runs the next day.
Even so, Melody received calls asking how to contact us, and before long Sonny and I had a steady, income-producing sideline entertaining at children’s birthday parties. Sonny thumped his chest like Tarzan as I yelled, “Ah yah yah ahdl ah yah.”
Up close, a knowing kid sometimes looked at Sonny and said, “He’s not really doing that.”
Sonny opened crown-capped soft-drink bottles and passed them out. He tap-danced. He lifted barbell weights. We carried a scale. We offered any kid who weighed the same or less than Sonny a chance to win a free birthday party if he or she could lift more weights than Sonny. Many tried. None ever collected. What the kids really wanted was the food fights with birthday cake.
The birthday party business remained successful, but as Sonny grew older, he became more troublesome with women, including Melody. I did not want to resort to surgery. From my friend the veterinarian at Wild Animal Rescue, I obtained prescription medication to alter Sonny’s hormones. I dissolved the pills in his drinking cup. His testicles shrank to the size of a human’s, and he became more docile, keeping his hands to himself, mostly.
The news director of a television station in Atlanta had seen some of Melody’s reporting, including that about Sonny and me. He was an alumnus of Florida State University in Tallahassee with season tickets to FSU Seminole football home games. He wanted to expand his staff and invited her to send an application.
“I would miss our life here,” she told me. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“Maybe I could get a job at that famous primate center. I bet the monkeys shit on the floor there, too,” I tried to encourage her. “We’ll find a place away from town. There’s probably a river bank. We can move the trailer.”
At the job interview in Atlanta, the news director guided Melody around the television station and introduced her to everyone they encountered. He led her to his office. He sat in the chair next to her. “I believe the coming presidential campaign will make television history,” he explained. “I want to send local reporters to cover the conventions and follow the campaign trail. There are network careers to be made.”
He put his hand under her skirt, between her knees. She slammed them together hard enough to break his fingers, she hoped. He jerked his hand away, and she stood up. As she walked out, she stopped in the open doorway between his office and the newsroom bay of desks. Melody loudly broadcast his taxonomy: “Neanderthal Dickhead.”
Except for the birthday parties, Sonny rarely left home, our trailer by the Sopchoppy River. Of course, we took him for regular medical care by my friend the veterinarian at Wild Animal Rescue. Any time Sonny went anywhere, he was on a sturdy leash made of chain link. The leash was disconnected only while he was performing.
I charged pretty much what I pleased for the birthday parties. Competition was not a consideration. There was no shopping around for a better price. I told clients the cost varied, based on the number of children and mileage, so I always asked for the address before I quoted the total. In truth, “from each according to his ability” seemed fair to me. Occasionally, Sonny and I entertained at sponsored public events, earning top dollar. Also, I would get calls from institutions, such as a children’s hospital or an orphanage. When one of them timidly raised the question of payment, I explained that I had an arrangement with a philanthropist. “Send me a request written on your letterhead, and he will provide my standard fee.” Anyway, that is what I told them.
A lady with a Yankee accent called to schedule a party for her son’s seventh birthday.
“How many children?” I asked.
“About 75. It will be a pool party.”
“As in swimming pool?”
She gave me an address in a Tallahassee neighborhood where swimming pools were not rare, nor tennis courts, high walls, iron gates, and lush lawns never mowed by the homeowner.
Sonny and I arrived at the party, the only ones there not in bathing suits. Canvas deck chairs and wrought-iron tables with umbrellas surrounded the swimming pool on three sides. The concrete patio between the pool and the house had been cleared for the entertainment. Sonny and I were introduced to the crowd of kids. Sonny pounded his chest and tilted his head back as the Tarzan yodel of “Ah yah yah ahdl ah yah” reverberated around the pool. I turned on the record player to spin “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” at 45 RPM. Sonny stomped his feet, excited and inspired by the sound his tap shoes made on the concrete. We challenged the kids to a weight lifting contest. Then I asked for volunteers to help Sonny decorate the birthday cake. Every hand raised. I picked four kids, boys and girls, big and little. Since everyone was already dressed in bathing suits, the birthday cake food fight was the most enthusiastic ever.
To signal the show was over, I told Sonny, “Thank everyone for coming.”
He moved his mouth to the sounds, “Whoop whoop whoop.”
The crowd was good. The applause was appreciative. I led Sonny back to the car. I secured Sonny’s leash to the steering column and rolled down the window, so he would have some air in the heat. The Yankee lady who hired us followed me with her checkbook in hand. She certainly had no place else to carry it, because she wore a bikini from the Frenchest part of the French Riviera. “I know you said, ‘cash,’ but the time just slipped away, and I couldn’t get to the bank,” she said, confident that whatever she did would always be OK as long as she could overflow a bikini the way she did.
“I quoted you the cash price,” I replied. “A check will require an additional $50.”
“Of course,” she said, “Plus your tip.” She was very young to be in control of such a checkbook. She scribbled on the check, tore it out, and passed it to me. As I inspected the check, she leaned through the car window and smothered Sonny in a big hug. “You’re just the cutest thing,” she tittered. Sonny reached for her bikini top, and it gave way like it was spring-loaded. She screamed. She slapped Sonny’s face. He grabbed her hand and bit two of her fingers, drawing blood. Uniformed security appeared, with pistols drawn, before she could tuck herself back into the top of her bikini. Tallahassee police arrived. Also Animal Control. Eventually I was allowed to take Sonny home, but the police ticketed me with a summons to appear in court on charges of sexual assault, exhibiting a wild animal without a license, and allowing it out of my control.
The bikini lady required stitches for her fingers. She wanted revenge. She talked to reporters and camera crews from all the television stations. Her lawyer said Sonny should be gassed like a rabid dog, and I should pay for her pain and suffering. Melody called a lawyer she knew. The two lawyers went to lunch together, had a couple of drinks. All charges would be dropped, if I turned Sonny over as a permanent resident of Alligator Alley Wild Animal Rescue.
At first, my friends at Wild Animal Rescue allowed me to put Sonny on the leash and take him out of his cage when Melody and I came to visit. “Let’s just get in the car and drive to Guatemala,” I said once, and somebody overheard me. That was the end of that. Weekly visits turned into monthly visits. I could not stand to see him behind those bars. We missed some monthly visits. But we set aside a day that we celebrated as his birthday, and we never forgot. We always brought him a cake and allowed him to grab chunks of it through the bars for him to eat and throw at us.
On his 20th birthday, we carried the cake, as usual. He jumped up and down. I yelled, “Ah yah yah ahdl ah yah.” Sonny pounded on his chest and moved his mouth, just like always. We held the cake against the outside of Sonny’s cage. Sonny’s hand reached through the bars for the cake. Then the other hand. And another. The ground collapsed out from under me, and I thought I had hit my head. I never heard Melody scream, though she certainly did.
The newspaper reported that nobody knew how the three chimpanzees from the next cage had managed to escape and come up behind us where we had the cake for Sonny. As I write this, I am glad I never learned to type with more than two fingers, even when I still had them all. I do not stand long in front of a mirror. I was once presumably handsome enough for television and to make an admirable young couple with Melody. Otherwise I never think much about looking like a pink bowling ball, with only holes in my face to breathe from, no cartilage, a lot like Sonny, so many of our cousins and ancestors. I remember the gunshots. After that, the only thing I could hear was the sound from Sonny’s moving mouth crying like one of my mother’s babies.