The Natural Selection of Gordon Dunlop
Gordon Dunlop put on his gray jumpsuit, grabbed his push broom, and went out onto the zoo grounds to start his day.
As he passed the administrative offices, he heard the corporate liaison, Larry Hawkins, on the phone discussing the zoo’s finances with somebody.
Gordon took great pains to escape the management’s notice. He hurried past Hawkins’ open door with his head down.
Gordon was changing the bag in the trashcans outside the monkey house when he looked up and saw the new baboon, Aja, staring at him.
He pushed the fallen leaves in front of the monkey house into a pile. He looked up and was shocked to see the baboon mimicking his movements.
Huh. Look at that.
The baboon scratched its ass and continued looking out at Gordon. Unblinking.
Now intrigued, Gordon bent down as if to pick something up off the ground. Aja did the same.
Gordon looked around to see if anyone was watching them. No one he could see.
“Hello there, monkey. What do you think you’re doing?”
Aja stared back.
“I’ll teach you some tricks. Just to pass the time.”
So each morning, Gordon showed up a little earlier and went to the monkey house to work with Aja. He showed the baboon how to unfurl and open the large plastic bags for the trashcans. Aja could perfectly spray window cleaner and wipe it up with a paper towel. The baboon was a fantastic student.
Gordon felt there was nothing Aja couldn’t do.
One day, Larry Hawkins called him into his office.
“Gordon, I wanted to speak with you about the baboon.”
Gordon was sweating although it was a cool morning. “Sir?”
“We’ve noticed your- how shall I put it? – interspecies interaction.”
“Oh dear. Have I done anything wrong?”
Hawkins thrust himself forward and said, “Not at all, Gordon. Corporate actually wants you to step up your activities with the baboon. We feel there’s a chance here to reinvigorate the zoo’s commercial viability.”
Corporate, thought Gordon. Now you’ve done it.
But, for the next few months Gordon taught more and more of his job to the baboon, Aja: the monkey emptied trashcans; he swept the parking lot; he even started punching a time clock, just like Gordon.
The accolades this activity brought to the janitor were frightening at first. But as time went on, he became not only comfortable; he positively reveled in his new found status.
Pictures of Aja and Gordon holding their brooms started showing up on the bulletin board in the employee break room. The local newspaper ran a story on the duo, and thousands came to watch Gordon and his baboon go through their daily motions.
And Gordon was getting raises. Big ones.
One afternoon, Larry Hawkins again called Gordon to his office.
When Gordon entered, Hawkins rose, his hand extended. “Thanks for coming.”
As he approached, Gordon noticed Aja was sitting in the other chair in front of the desk.
Hawkins said, “Gordon, upper management has been ecstatic with the recent income expansion, as you know. You and Aja are a certifiable hit.”
Gordon noticed Aja would not meet his eyes.
“But,” Hawkins continued, “the number-trending indicates this attraction may have maxed out its profit potential. It needs to be re-engineered, so we can leverage what’s working, while re-imagining the matrix and underlying principles.”
Aja was fidgeting in his chair.
“What we’re proposing, on just a trial basis, mind you, is that you and Aja…well, switch roles for a week. Think of it as cross training for maximum intercorporate synergy.”
“You want me to sit in a cage like a monkey?”
“Now, Gordon, don’t react emotionally. I need you to be data-driven here. We just want you to let Aja be the lead on the team, if you will.”
Gordon took a moment to try and fully understand what was being asked of him. “I’ll need to sleep on it.”
“Of course. Aja will bring you to the monkey house.”
Gordon’s eyes widened. “Mr. Hawkins, you’re not suggesting I stay there. Sleep there. With the other baboons.”
“Of course! What better way for you to fully understand the role of your coworkers than to walk a mile in their shoes?”
“He’s a monkey! I do all the training. I’m the one who speaks in the interviews. He just copies what I do. I’m the one who can think things through and get the job done. It’s me who’s had this job for the last sixteen years!”
“No! I know: let’s have a competition. A sweep-off! I know how to make the decisions as to what needs doing. He can’t do that. You’ll see. Tomorrow. If I clean up better than the baboon, then you forget all about changing roles. We go back to the regular way.”
Hawkins sat back, rubbing his chin. “Could work. It would be an incredible media event. I need to get on the horn to the local papers now. Thanks, Gordon. You’re on.”
Gordon said, “Yes. Tomorrow we’ll see who’s who.” And shot an icy glare at Aja, who returned the look.
That night, Gordon stood in front of his mirror in his dimly lit apartment.
He flexed. He made angry, determined faces.
“Get set, baboon,” he said between clenched teeth. “That corporation ain’t gonna make me sit in the monkey house. Do you hear me?”
He grabbed a broom from a closet and started swinging it wildly about the room.
He thought to himself: I’m a man, godammit.
I’ll beat that stupid ape.
I am John Fucking Henry.
He smashed the mirror with the broom handle.
And for a long time, he stared at his fractured image.
I started this post on May 1st, inspired by International Worker’s Day. Ironically, I was starting a new day job and had to fly off to orientation and training and couldn’t finish this until today. But this story is really about the great lesson I learn from writing fiction: Every person who has ever lived, and every character in a piece of fiction, is the central character in their own story, regardless of who I think is the main character. I find it useful to remind myself of this in my everyday life, as well as in my stories.