Monkey King...

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Matt Geiger

We stopped at a yard sale the other day, and my daughter asked if she could get a monkey. It was teal and plastic, and its little arms were permanently curved as if holding onto a miniscule tree, or, more likely, a child’s finger. 

“How much is it?” I asked. 

“It’s seven, five,” my daughter replied.

“Seventy-five cents?” I said. “Sure.”

Times are tough right now, money is tight, the economic landscape is bleak in a Mad Max kind of way. It feels entirely reasonable to suspect that by this time next year we will be wandering the side of a desolate road, wearing trash bags pulled translucent in places and tarps dotted by tattered holes, pushing shopping cart that contains all our family’s belongings and yet are not even close to full. Hockey and football pads will be dusted off and moved from the garage to the “everyday” and “casual” sections of our wardrobes.

But 75¢? That couldn’t possibly bankrupt us. Could it?

“Yay! Thanks dad!” 

“No problem,” I said, my spirits buoyed by my benevolence. 

On the way home, Hadley fiddled with the toy. When she manually swiveled its head, it made the dull whirring noise of an animatronic toy in which the batteries no longer work. 

“Lots of my friends have monkeys like this,” she explained. “But they won’t let me play with them.”

When we got home, she brought it to me for a diagnosis. “It’s not working,” she informed me, grimly. 

“How is it supposed to work?”

“It’s supposed to talk!” she said, as if this fact were common knowledge. 

“Oh,” I said. “Well…”

My wife removed the batteries, recited a magical incantation, and placed them back into the monkey’s back. Still nothing. 

“No problem,” I said. “I can grab some new batteries next time I go to the store. How much can batteries cost, anyway? Probably a couple bucks.”

Quite a bit, it turns out. We needed four batteries. They were small and round and had an outrageous code number written on them. I’m used to batteries that are “AA” or “A.” Not “dz&Flamingo$$_666666embolismcupcake.” It had even more characters in it than a middle-aged person’s email address. 

When I got to the battery shelf in the shop, I couldn’t find any that had those same numbers on them. But I did discover a decoder, or translator, of sorts. It was like a Rosetta Stone for batteries. Apparently the dz&Flamingo$$_666666embolismcupcake variety of battery is also known as an “L44.” 

“Great,” I thought, resisting the urge to bash my head against the nearest shelf. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

We needed four batteries, so of course they came only in packages of three. 

“I’m buying six,” I thought. “No problem.”

I paid for the batteries and just happened to glance at the receipt as I climbed back into my truck. 


“What?” I thought. “Did I also buy a tankard of caviar?” But no, the batteries were $13.50 per pack, and I had gotten two. Four for the magical monkey, and two that would be sacrificed to the ravenous deities that live in our junk drawers.

The price of the monkey, which only a day earlier had been resting in a dusty bin next to discarded Hot Wheels and Barbies, had just jumped from 75¢ to $27.75. 

“Oh, well,” I figured. At least it will work now. 

When I got home, I popped in the batteries, after spending 108 hours looking for a tiny screwdriver, obviously, and handed it to Hadley. I lost one of the tiny screws that held his back plate in place during the process, but the remaining three seemed sufficient. She flipped the “on” switch and waited, and waited, as it continued to do absolutely nothing. 

“Huh,” I said. “I guess it’s actually broken.”

At this point, I was in too deep to stop. Plus, I had to know what this incredible monkey would do when he springs to life. 

I headed back to the store, the same store where I had purchased the batteries, and headed to the modest toy aisle. I found the monkeys in question almost immediately. They came with four batteries, and the price tag was $10. A total of $10 for a brand-new monkey with a complete set of batteries. 

I will never understand economics. And to be honest, I doubt even Adam Smith or Milton Friedman could ever effectively explain to me why a monkey with four batteries costs far less than just three of those same batteries do by themselves. 

At any rate, I now had a working monkey. I had only spent $37.75. 

When I arrived home and handed it to my daughter, she turned it on. It went “oooh, oooh, ahh, ahh.” Standard monkey gibberish.

But it was worth it, just to see the joy on my daughter’s face as she played with it for a full five minutes, then tossed it on the floor and walked away, the dog waiting in the wings to trot by, pick it up, and chew it to bits, so that I could, perhaps, later pay my veterinarian to extract it. 

Monkeys have always given us humans trouble. Sun Wukong, the fabled Monkey King, is one of the greatest trickster gods. He had superhuman strength and could transform into other animals. His name translates roughly to “monkey enlightened by the emptiness.” He spends many years causing trouble, pranking and harming people just for fun. He pokes and teases the gods of the sky, and he even descends to the underworld, where he messes with the King of Hell.

Eventually, he so angers the gods with his reckless behavior, that he is imprisoned under a great mountain for 500 years. When he finally gets out, his temperament has changed, after all that time trapped, as if in quarantine, and he re-emerges into the world more thoughtful and less petty. His journey–the book is actually called “Journey to the West”–shows a being that begins causing trouble, and through pain, suffering, and various adventures, comes to see the way of the world, and feel it, and act in better accordance with it. It is a story of hijinks and enlightenment. 

It is, at a time like this, a comforting thought. That one could be locked away from the world, for a time, and re-emerge better, wiser, and kinder. People think of a journey as filled with movement. But time locked under a mountain, or in your house, can be part of a journey, too.

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