Even Greater Apes (editors’ pick)

fiction by Jordan Moffatt — from issue fifteen

My name’s Sloane, and I’m a genetically engineered super-intelligent bonobo. Bonobo’s the key word in that — I’m super-intelligent for a bonobo. You can usually tell straight off the bat when I start talking. Although my life began as simply an experiment at the Primatology Research Institute of Toronto (PRIoT), I’m now a full-time employee. I’m a field researcher, and a good one. As a bonobo, I’m able to infiltrate the social circles of other bonobos much more effectively than a human would. PRIoT sends me to zoos around the world, where I live for a few weeks taking notes. The bonobos I study don’t realize I’m super-intelligent of course, because that would spoil the whole thing. I work five weeks in a zoo, five weeks back in Toronto at PRIoT. It’s a rewarding job, and I’m glad I can make an impact in the field. We need to work as hard as we can using the gifts we are given. But one day my routine was interrupted when my boss and creator Dr. Rhea Dosanjh called me into her office with a concerned look over her normally stoic face.

“Where to this time, Doc?” I said, sitting down on a bean-bag chair opposite her desk. “Cincinnati? San Diego? Utrecht?”

“It’s about Jedediah,” she said.

Jedediah’s my brother. Not a real brother in the conventional sense, but a brother in the sense that he’s the only other genetically engineered super-intelligent bonobo in the world. He’s working on getting his Master’s of Architecture (M.Arch) at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto.

“Is he okay?” I asked.

“He’s dropped out of U of T to pursue improvisational comedy. We need you to steer him back to the light.”

“Isn’t that up to him? What does he need steering for?”

“Look, we operate thanks to the continued support of our wealthy donors. A star bonobo architect has more prestige to these people than a struggling bonobo comedian. I’m afraid if he continues down this path, our funding will dry up and the whole gen-eng program will be considered a failure—yourself included.”

While I believed it was important to Jedediah to choose his own course, I also recognized that he had a responsibility to everyone at PRIoT to live up to the expectations set for him. And besides that, it seemed like he was throwing his gifts away. I saw some of the studio work he made in the first year of his M.Arch, and it was remarkable. Tree-based condominiums. I accepted the assignment, and decided to dive in undercover like I would at the zoo.

I signed up for a beginner’s improv class with The Second City. The instructor for my first class, Reeve, was a tall, white, bearded twenty-something wearing plaid. I thought I’d have to fake any interest in improv, but I was wrong. The class changed me. Reeve told us all that improv was based on collaboration, a shared sense of living in the moment, and a genuine interest in being surprised by your own imagination. He said that the number one rule was to say “yes, and…” when your scene partner presented you with an opportunity. “Yes,” meaning accept the offer, and “and…” meaning build on it. Just by his articulation of these concepts, I realized that they were both immensely valuable and also completely missing from my life. We played exercises and games over the next two hours that demonstrated those concepts. I discovered how valuable it was to connect to the present. It was the most fun I’d ever had in my life. My body felt untethered, and my mind was clear. I was hooked.

I stayed after class to talk to Reeve and I was so enraptured with our discussion that I completely missed Jed walk right past me. Luckily, he didn’t miss me. I’m hard to miss.

“Sloane?” He asked.

“Jed!” I said, feigning surprise.

“Do you two know each other?” Reeve asked.

“We’re brother and sister,” I explained.

“Ah, I can see the resemblance now.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked Jed.

“I’m on one of the house Harold teams. What are you doing here?”

“I’m taking classes — I just had my first one with Reeve.”

“She’s really good,” said Reeve. “Runs in the family.”

“You mean that?” I asked.

“Yeah, you should take more advanced classes for sure.”

“Cool!” I said. “I’d love to immerse myself as much as possible.”

“You should come to my Harold show tonight,” said Jed. “I’ll comp you.”

“That would be great!”

When I saw Jed perform with his Harold team CHiMPs that night, I totally got why he dropped out of U of T. Jedediah was an amazingly talented improviser. At first, you could tell that the audience was laughing just because he was a bonobo. But his characters were so rich with depth and his commitment to helping his scene partners was so pure, the audience began appreciating him just as an improviser. After the show, I told him he was amazing, and he said “I know.”

The next day Jed asked me to join his Harold team. Of course I said yes. Over the next few weeks, we bonded in practices and in our Sunday night show. After a month and a half, I emailed Dr. Dosanjh and told her that while I wasn’t enjoying the assignment, it was going to take much longer than initially anticipated. It was a lie. I wanted to explain to her what was actually going on, but I knew she’d be disappointed.

What was actually going on was that I felt like I found my place in the world. My whole life I’d been an outsider. As one of only two genetically engineered super-intelligent bonobos, there weren’t a lot of people who could identify with me. The research scientists I worked with never let their guard down— they always viewed me as an experiment. And the bonobos I spent time with in the zoos sure looked like me, but they made awful conversation and were always aggressively reaching for my genitals. But my Harold team exhibited neither of those qualities. On and off-stage, they were gentle, giving, dynamic, inclusive, and hilarious. Every Harold begins with a group game, where everyone on stage develops something together without having any real idea of where it’s going to lead. This is the most exciting process you can experience on stage, and when you do it with people who you love and trust it feels like what I imagine a warm hug from a family would feel like. There’s magic in improv. I didn’t want to succeed in my assignment to bring Jedediah back to his M.Arch, and I didn’t want to go back to PRIoT either. I wanted to stay at The Second City forever.

After three months, however, Dr. Dosanjh got impatient. I met her at her office to discuss my progress.

“I’m thinking about quitting primatology to become an improviser,” I said.

“But your residency at Emory University working with Frans de Waal starts next week!”

Frans de Waal was my hero. When the residency was first offered to me, I considered it the highlight of my career—but now I was willing to throw it all away.

“Tell him I’m sorry.”

“No Sloane, I won’t. You need to work as hard as you can using the gifts you are given. You’re a super-intelligent bonobo, and so only you can bring a unique perspective into primatology. Anyone off the street can do comedy.”

“Improv is more than just comedy!” I yelled. “It’s about life skills! It’s teaches cooperation, acceptance, intuition, and spontaneity! It helps you handle adversity, connect with the moment, appreciate the little things, and be open to suggestion!”

Dr. Dosanjh let out a deep sigh.

“Have you ever heard the story of the squirrel and the acorns?”

“No.”

“There was once a squirrel who collected acorns. And with those acorns, she built a house. It had acorn walls and acorn floors; acorn tables and acorn chairs; an acorn roof and an acorn door. It was a beautiful house. And then the squirrel starved to death.”

“I don’t get it.”

“She didn’t eat the acorns, Sloane. You need to use your things for what they’re made for. If improv is teaching you amazing life skills, use them in your life.”

Dr. Dosanjh was right. I met with Jedediah the next day over coffee and bananas to let him know that he should put the skills he learned in improv to work in architecture. I told him that improv skills were wasted on improv. He took this as a personal insult. He told me he’d been cast as an understudy for the next Mainstage Revue, AI: Artificial Intelligentsia, and expected me to be happy for him. I told him I’d be happy if his comedy can inspire someone else out there to apply their skills to become a great architect. We haven’t spoken since.

The next day I met Frans de Waal in Atlanta. He had made reservations at a nearby restaurant, and we walked there discussing our favourite anecdotes about our time in the field. When we reached the restaurant, the host told us they were unable to honour our reservation because having an animal in the establishment would be a by-law violation. We explained that I was super-intelligent and had impeccable table manners, but that didn’t matter—we weren’t welcome.

“Well,” said Frans, “I guess we’ll have to improvise.”

My eyes lit up.

“Yes, and…”

JORDAN MOFFATT lives in Ottawa. He performs improv at the Bad Dog Comedy Theatre in Toronto and with Crush Improv in Ottawa. His short fiction is forthcoming in The Feathertale Review, and has been featured in many places around the web including The Big Jewel, Johnny America,  and the 2015 Broken Pencil Magazine Indie Writers Deathmatch. Jordan is a founding editor of the online humour magazine Vandercave.