II: Big Sea


The next day I went to the pet shop to get Jocko. Jocko was delighted to see me, chattering and screaming as soon as I stepped in the door. But the proprietors handed me a bill for thirty dollars! I was stunned. Elegantly, they explained that Jocko was a very special kind of monkey and that he had to have very special care. They said he required a diet of Indian rice and milk and fruit. When I told them that he had eaten anything and everything on the boat, they said that couldn’t be true, because any-and-everything would not agree with such a monkey. So they charged me thirty dollars. I had almost nothing left in my pockets.

I put Jocko in a little black handbag, with a couple of round holes punched at each end for air. He did not like being in the bag at all, and whined and kicked and kept up an awful racket all the way to the station. I was afraid the conductor on the train would hear him and put him out. The baggage man had already said monkeys could not be checked except in wire cages, and I had no wire cage. But once on the train, it seemed that everything was all right. I was due to reach home about two o’clock in the morning. I went to sleep in the day coach, and I guess Jocko did, too, because he remained quiet.

Then a calamity happened. The conductor came through and said all day coach passengers must change trains at Washington.

“Change for what?” I asked him.

“This train’s all Pullman beyond Washington,” he said. “Next train for McKeesport is in the morning.”

For the second time that day, I was stunned. The ticket agents in New York had not told me that, and I had no money to secure Pullman space, nor to spend the night in a hotel in Washington. In fact, I had less than a dollar, getting home from my African trip with less than a dollar—after Duse and Jocko!

I could hear my mother now: “Coming home with only a monkey, heh?”

But I did want to get home quickly with Jocko. I was afraid that a night in Washington, perhaps in a cold station waiting room, might give him pneumonia. I had to think of some way of going on through to McKeesport on that train in a Pullman.

I spoke to one of the porters on the train. I tried to sell him some African souvenirs I had in my bag, rhinoceros-hide slippers or a hammered-brass tray. But he would have none of them. He didn’t believe they were real, and he didn’t believe I had been to Africa. He thought I was just some college kid trying to fool him.

The train laid over for half an hour in Washington, dropping the day coaches and making up the Pullmans. I rushed out into the station and asked a policeman where the nearest pawnshop was. That was an error—to ask a policeman about a pawnshop. But in my excitement, I didn’t think of the danger of arrest. He looked me up and down, but in my new suit, I guess I didn’t look like a suspicious character. Finally, he said slowly: “The nearest pawnshop, young man, is way over yonder in Virginia. There ain’t none in the District of Columbia.”

So that hope was out! I needed three dollars to get Pullman space to McKeesport, and I had eighty cents. And Jocko and I were both hungry. I tried the red caps in the station. I spoke of Africa and pulled my brass trays and African beads and the vermilion slippers out of my bag, but no takers—not for three dollars. Then, with only ten minutes left, and Jocko whimpering and kicking in his bag, a bright thought struck me. With my new suit, there were two pairs of trousers. It was a nice blue serge suit, and I had never put the extra pair of trousers on. I took the trousers out of my suitcase and offered them to a red cap for two dollars and a half. The red cap bought them. Without putting the money in my pocket, I rushed to get Pullman space in the parlor car. I just made the train as it pulled out.

I put Jocko down behind the seat, hoping that he would hush his noise, or that the rattle of the train would drown his whimpering. It was bitter cold that autumn night and I was sorry for the poor little beast out of Africa. I took my coat and dropped it over the bag. The conductor came and sniffed the air suspiciously, but punched my ticket and went on. I had been around Jocko so long that I didn’t realize he smelt like a zoo at close range—and particularly so tonight, after a long afternoon in that small black bag. I don’t know what the conductor thought each time he passed by my seat, sniffed, and looked down. I guess he thought it was me, so I pretended to be asleep. (But I felt bad.)

I was glad to get home. Although I had never been in McKeesport before, I called it home, because my mother had moved there. They all met me at the station, my mother, Dad and my little brother, Kit. But I didn’t reveal Jocko until I got to the house, although they surely must have smelt him. I didn’t even mention his name. Once home, however, I opened the bag and Jocko leaped out, big as the jungle.

My mother gave a cry of horror. My step-father looked amazed. My little brother fled. Jocko jumped into my arms, and my mother locked me and Jocko into a bedroom together for the night. They were afraid the monkey might get out and attack them.

He was a big red monkey, and if you didn’t know him, I guess he did look fierce. But my little brother, who was then about eleven, became very pleased to have him. And Jocko soon became attached to him, too. In fact, Jocko became so attached to my brother, that he would leap into his arms, cuddle there, and be quite content all day. But the moment my brother wanted to put Jocko down, he would scream, kick, and bite. Result, any time Jocko reached Kit’s arms, Kit had to hold him until I got home and rescued him from the grasp of the too-contented monkey.

One Saturday when my mother and I went into Pittsburgh, about ten in the morning, Kit picked up the monkey to take him for a walk. He still had Jocko in his arms at six that afternoon, having tried unsuccessfully all day to put him down on the floor.

My mother hated Jocko and, because Jocko knew she was afraid of him, he would tease her by biting at her skirt and leaping up behind her, pulling at her apron strings until he untied them. Sometimes he would make for her sewing basket and fill his mouth with buttons or thimbles. He used also to pack his pouch with phonograph needles and go spitting them out all around the place just for the fun of it.

We had rented the top floor of an old wooden house from an orthodox Jewish family who lived downstairs. The wife wore a wig and the old man a skull cap. It was a house down by the river in McKeesport, and there were trees around it, in which Jocko used to love to climb on warm autumn days, with the bright leaves falling and the sun shining. One day the wife of our landlord came near the tree where Jocko was playing and stood laughing at him. Suddenly Jocko swung by his paw down from a limb and grabbed the elderly Jewish lady by the hair. She fled, leaving her wig in Jocko’s paw.

My step-father was amused at Jocko and it was his special pleading with my mother that permitted us to keep him. But Kit and I almost lost the battle when Dad’s own mother arrived for a visit from Topeka. She was a neat, elderly lady, the wife of a former presiding elder of the church, and somewhat staid. Before her arrival, we shortened Jocko’s rope where he was tied to a table leg in a corner of the kitchen. But during the excitement of her arrival, somehow he got loose, and no sooner did my step-grandmother reach the bottom of the stairs leading to our floor than Jocko leaped chattering on the railing at the top. The old lady set her bags down in shocked amazement and refused to come another step. She said it was her, or Jocko! We could choose. So we had to lock Jocko in a closet for the night, and the next day she insisted we build a cage and put him in it or else she would return to Kansas.

Now, my mother had an ally in the house in her opposition to Jocko. But by this time his fame had spread far and wide. All the school children in my brother’s class came to see him. And many adults, as well, whom we had never met, came to call on Jocko. Nobody asked anymore how any member of the family was, but always: “How is Jocko?”

One pay day, my step-father conceived the idea of taking Jocko around to the pool hall on a Saturday night, so all the men of the neighborhood could see him. Washed and combed with a little knitted sweater on, Jocko leaped to dad’s shoulder and they started out. The rest is history.

My step-father and Jocko arrived at the pool hall about eight o’clock. It was crowded with Saturday night players, young loungers, spectators, and drunks. It was loud and smoky therein, but Jocko’s arrival created a sensation. The men crowded around to see him—the big red monkey, with whiskers and a sweater on.

The better to show the animal off, Dad put him down on the green pool table, holding him by a long leash. But the noise and the people and the smoke and the shouting were too much for Jocko, surrounded on the table by the crowd. He uttered a yell of fright and began to run frantically back and forth on the pool table as far as his leash would permit. The crowd roared with laughter, and the ring of dark faces closed in on poor Jocko, closer and closer, frightening him so badly that suddenly he could no longer control himself, and without warning his bowels began to move all over the table.

The crowd bent double with laughter, but the proprietor almost had apoplexy. Jocko made an awful mess on the green baize, and the boss wanted to have Dad arrested, so he had to pay to have the table redone.

The men kidded my step-father about that for months. But not my mother! Because it cost twenty-five dollars for a new cover for the table, and my step-father had to pay for it, my mother was very mad.

A few days after that I left, to return to New York.

Within a week, my mother sold Jocko to a Pittsburgh pet shop. The first letter I got from home told me that now he would certainly pull at her apron strings no more, the Congo devil! But I was sorry. He was the best pet I ever had. He used to put his arms around my neck. And he cried when I left the house.


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.