“Um, sorry. No offense, but, I like don’t care at all about your struggle to find a husband. What really interests me is the dude hunting the Skunk Apes.”
Yeah, man. I know. It’s November, and I’m sitting in Steve Almond’s small group workshop at the Sanibel Island Writers’ Conference with all five other participants and Steve Almond staring at me as a young man in his 20s offers that particular critique of the short essay I submitted for discussion. It was a 5-page blast of creative non-fiction comparing my hunting Skunk Apes with Dave Shealy to being in my 30s and looking for a suitable life partner (the similarity in activites is striking), and I can’t argue with this young man. I knew it writing the essay–Dave is enough, Dave is too much, Dave is and always will be much more entertaining and intoxicating than I will ever be because out of nowhere Dave can say things like, “I told you about all that time I spent working with the supercomputer, didn’t I?” No. “When I was in prison?” Um, no. “Well, I suspect that may have messed with my thinking.” Of all your life’s experiences, Dave, and that’s what affected your thinking? It wasn’t…I don’t know…growing up in the violent outlaw frontier Never-Neverland of the Everglades?
The essay belongs to him; I just happened to write my relationships into it because we were allowed only 10 pages for the workshop, and I knew there was no way someone like Dave Shealy was going to fit on ten pages. I can barely tell you relevant background in 10 pages, much less a story.
So, I threw myself in there, and even as I was writing, I knew the part about my relationship hunt was a distraction. Eventually, I was going to have to suck it up and write about Dave and me and ditch the straw man analogy between a man’s quest for a mythical beast and a woman’s. I suppose that’s implicit in writing about Dave and me and relationships and love and such–somehow the Skunk Ape becomes True Love, a thing of legend, a shadowy figure glimpsed without witnesses, an elusive beast we chase out of conviction and prove with suspicious evidence; a thing that makes us a laughingstock with reasonable folk. Men battle the Beast. That is their job in the cultural myth of humanity.
Women battle beasts, too, but ours is supposed to transform into a prince at the end of the story, and well.
[clears throat] I digress. You lost interest there, didn’t you? Because you want to know about Dave and the Skunk Ape. I know, I know. I’m getting to that.
If you’re just now coming to the blog, let me recap: last July, I asked Dave Shealy, the Skunk Ape Expert of the Everglades, to take me on a skunk ape hunt so I could write about it for a workshop I was doing with Steve Almond (My Life in Heavy Metal, The Evil B.B. Chow, God Bless America, and a recent collection of dirty–ahem, erotic–stories). My idea was that I would practice with creative nonfiction, and Skunk Ape hunting with Dave would surely provide enough material for any number of essays, books, documentaries, reality tv shows. If you don’t know who Dave Shealy is, do a quick Google search. A nice selection of video clips of Dave in local and national interviews about the Skunk Ape will hit, and you will find yourself meeting one of the most self-fabricated celebrities in a land of like-minded con men and caricatures, renegades, outlaws, folk heroes, and legends-in-their-own-minds.
The skunk ape–quickly–is a creature that lives in the Florida Everglades around Dave’s neck of the woods, eats birds and lima beans, is about 7 feet tall, and is covered in a reddish-brown hair matted with the sulphur-rich muck of the Everglades. Ergo, skunk ape. Dave has seen it. Dave has video and photographic evidence. Dave has plaster casts, and just last week he showed me a gigantic adult male’s track that he and his buddies cast after trailing the beast for about two miles.
For the story on the first Skunk Ape hunt with Dave, check out And So It Was That Team Skunk Ape Found Itself Not Needing to Pee for Eight Hours.
Along with my boss Cristina, we form Team Skunk Ape, with Cris and me as the tracker-trainees following behind the Marlboro-smoking “greatest in the world.” Let’s get this straight–I adore Dave for everything that he is, even though I admit most of the time I do not understand what in the fuck Dave is 1) talking about 2) implying or 3) doing. I have no idea if Dave is telling the truth, ever, or if most of it is some ratio of truth-partial truth-embellishment-fiction-fact. Dave and I have had many, many conversations over the past year, and my part usually goes like this: “Okay.” “Really?” “I don’t believe you.” “Are you serious?” “Really.” and “Oh.” I do have lots of follow up questions with Dave, but nothing worth noting here. At least not right now.
The general consensus in Steve Almond’s workshop was that I had to write more: more about Dave, more about the Skunk Ape, more about being with him and what that was like. It is sort of The Orchid Thief meets Much Ado About Nothing meets The Grapes of Wrath. That’s what it’s like. Except funnier.
Eventually, I will write it all out in a book or long, solid essay, one that is so, like, about the dude that hunts Skunk Apes, and how being wrapped up in Dave’s world in Team Skunk Ape as a tracker-trainee is very, very much like a Shakespearean comic plot where everyone is deceiving everyone, innocently, and all the beliefs about the reality of the relationships and plot and outcome hinge on a common myth.
In our case, the common myth is the existence of the Skunk Ape itself. Does Dave really believe it, or are Cris and I pretending he does while we pretend that we do? Or does Dave not believe it and pretends to believe it because he thinks Cristina and I think it’s true? Or do we all know it’s made up but we pretend the skunk ape is real because otherwise how could we go on a skunk ape hunt? Or we all know we’re pretending but no one wants the others to know we are pretending because then the illusion would shatter and thus expose us? By the time we got done this last time and Dave had gallantly peeled fresh oranges for us with my knife and served them on the edge of the blade, I didn’t know if we were in Dave’s world, if he was in ours, if we had constructed our unique Team Skunk Ape world, or if I believed in Skunk Apes or not.
“All we’re missing for this to be real Shakespeare,” I tell Cristina as we’re driving off from our latest Skunk Ape re-con mission with Dave which involved us trekking through his man camp out in the glades (“Marlowe, I swear to GOD I am not trying to get you alone in my cabin in the woods.” “Really. Okay.”), “is cross-dressers.”
“This is the glades,” she says. “Don’t put it past it.”
Occasionally, by which I mean every time I see him, Dave mentions that it would be a great idea if he and I got together. As with everything with Dave, I’m not sure if this is real or if it is a con or some haphazard mixture of the two, but I do have several knives gifted to me by Dave, and he genuinely seems to like me and is concerned about my welfare. The last knife, carved from an alligator jawbone and autographed by Dave, he gave to me at the end of the year.
“Are those Everglades boys leaving you alone?” he says.
“So far so good,” I say.
“Good. You need this,” he says to me, handing me the knife.
“You know, to protect your virtue.” Then he nods out the door of the gift shop, where I guess Everglades boys lurk on the Tamiami Trail to sully my virtue. I love that Dave assumes I am virtuous and has given me this totem dagger to defend my vagina/virtue. Dave says these gentlemanly things to me and then follows it up by mentioning how beautiful I would look horizontal. I wonder if Dave knows the only contender for the end of my knife is himself.
Exeunt. END ACT IV.
The plan right now is to gear up Team Skunk Ape again in March, when the skunk apes are running, Dave can “get all the preliminary field work done and so all you have to do is go straight to the track,” so he can teach us to cast it in plaster.
“Wonderful,” Cris the federal biologist says, “I’ve never cast a track before.”
“Okay,” I say. “Cool!”
So, it’s all set. In the meantime, Dave’s reality tv show with Discovery (since sold to TLC) is stalled out, and he is waiting for new production teams to come in to film interviews and another set of shows. They will be arriving any day now, and, who knows, they may be there when we delve into the wilds of skunk ape territory to cast the tracks in March. We’ve been unlucky so far (the vocalization–a “prrrrrrrrrooooooo” vibration, very low, which Dave demonstrated to us upon Cris’s request–we thought we heard in the muck and cypress knees ended up being a road grader run by one of Dave’s old buddy-ros).
But, our course is set, and we move forward. “One of these days you’re going to see there’s more to this story,” he tells me one afternoon while I’ve got my tour in the animal exhibit at the back of his roadside attraction. “There’s more to this–” he waves up and down his body, “story.”
“Okay,” I say.
“You’re gonna find out,” he says, low, and in this moment I find him irresistibly convincing, “I’m not bullshitting. You understand me? I’m not bullshitting.”
“Okay,” I say.
night night beloveds. And onward, mythic beasts.