The road to Grandma’s house took Dad and me past the old Carmelite monastery. Grandma lived in a bungalow a few miles beyond the monastery and we were on our way to fix her portable record player. It was broken and Dad could fix anything. Grandma was a fun-loving woman with a passion for dancing. Whenever we’d visit she’d make me dance with her while she played Dean Martin’s That’s Amore on her record player. When she passed away she didn’t die on a dance floor, although I like to imagine she did. I can see her arriving at the Pearly Gates, greeting St. Peter while doing The Hokey Pokey and shaking it all about.
In 1963 I was in love with the sound of my voice and at the height of my chatter-box stage. My older brother claims I worked on a single run-on sentence from the age of five until I was eleven. I must have annoyed Dad that day, peppering him with questions. Otherwise, I don’t think he would have said what he did—it was so unlike him.
The Packard rounded one of the old adobe walls leading to the monastery’s front gate. Through the gate you could see huge iron-studded doors with over sized hand-tooled wrought-iron hinges. I knew the doors were made of oak because Dad often commented that the great oak trees were all used up, and you couldn’t make doors like those today.
As we drove on, I asked, “Dad, what’s behind those gates?”
Dad would answer patiently every time. “Nuns live there.”
“What kind of nuns?”
Carmelite sounded yummy like caramel, but hardly an acceptable answer. “C’mon Dad, what’s really behind those doors?”
“I told you, there are nuns in there. They pray for people.”
“And that’s all they do, pray?”
“Well, I’m sure they do other things, but mostly they pray. Why do you want to know so badly?”
Why did I want to know so badly? There was something about the setup that just didn’t ring true. Why did they need massive doors just to shut in a few nuns? It seemed to me that more modest doors would have done the trick. And what about the giant locks? Were the nuns prisoners? I wondered.
“Dad, how many nuns are in there?”
“Have you ever been inside?”
“Then how do you know there are nuns in there?”
“Because I know, that’s why.”
Since the gate always appeared locked when we drove by, I wanted to know how they got in there. “When do they open the gate? Do they heel-i-copter those nuns in? Can they talk, or are they those nuns that can’t talk?” I went on and on.
Finally Dad had had enough. He must have thought his ears were about to bleed. He was usually a straightforward guy and not likely to pull my leg, so I took him seriously when he leaned toward me as if about to pass along classified information.
“You’re right. There are more than nuns in there.”
My eyes widened with surprise. “Really?”
“What’s in there, Dad? Tell me, tell me, tell me!”
“Well, I knew this guy in the Navy who had a friend whose brother knew this fellow who once worked delivery...”
“Yeah? Go on.” I was hanging on his every word.
“...who told me...”
“C’mon, Dad, told you what? Tell me, pleeeease! What did he tell you?”
“No, I don’t think I should say anything. There could be trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“I really shouldn’t say.”
My heart was pounding wildly. Dad sounded like a spy. “You can trust me. I can keep a secret.”
“Are you sure? You seem to have a problem keeping quiet. I’ll tell you what. Let’s see how quiet you can be while we visit your Grandma, and if you’ve been really quiet I’ll tell you what’s inside there on the way home. Is it a deal?”
Instead of saying anything, I nodded and sealed my mouth with an invisible zipper. I was so quiet while Dad tinkered on Grandma’s record player that she thought I was sick. It seemed like an eternity before we said goodbye and drove back in the direction of the monastery. Finally we were again in sight of the gate and huge doors.
“Tell me now, Dad! I’ve been quiet all afternoon. You promised.”
In his quest to find a way to shut me up, he probably took inspiration from King Kong, which aired on our Zenith often during the summer. He sighed and said, “Behind those big doors are more than nuns. The nuns are just there to fool people so the truth won’t be discovered.”
“What truth, Dad? What truth?”
He paused to let my excitement build. When he thought I’d reached the bursting point, he said, “Behind that gigantic gate, and hidden from the world, is an enormous black ape!”
“UNREAL!” I blurted out. I’d fulfilled my part of the bargain by being quiet, and now I couldn’t contain myself. I asked, “What kind of an ape?”
“Where did it come from?”
“A place where they have giant apes.”
“Is it totally black?”
“Mostly black. It might have a gray patch here and there.”
“Has it ever killed anyone?”
“It once killed a small child!”
I tried to swallow but my mouth was as dry as sawdust. “It killed a small child?”
“Why? Why would it kill a small child?”
My Dad gave me a sly smile. “Because he talked too much.”
From that point on, I was determined to catch a glimpse of the mighty beast. On our next trip past the monastery I saw something blurry on top of an adobe wall and thought I’d spotted the elusive creature, but it turned out to be a fat squirrel scurrying away.
Once I asked, “Dad, can we go in and see the ape?”
“Why can’t we just knock on the gate and ask if we can see it?”
“Because then they’d know we knew and they’d have to kill us.” He drew his finger across his throat. “I think the best thing for us to do would be to never discuss it again.” And he never did.
If I couldn’t discuss it with Dad, I could certainly discuss it with my best friend, Ricky Delgado. It was risky because Ricky usually questioned whatever he was told.
“He told you what?” Ricky asked when I filled him in about the ape.
“You heard me! Isn’t it BITCHIN’?”
“Your dad must have been joking.”
“Dad doesn’t joke.”
“Then he was lying.”
“He doesn’t lie!”
“Then he’s full of beans!” Ricky said. He quickly tired of the subject, but I couldn’t stop talking about the ape. A few days later an exasperated Ricky finally had enough. “I think you’re out of your mind, but let’s go check it out.”
Since we were only eleven and not old enough to drive, I didn’t see how this was possible. “How will we get there?” I asked.
Ricky thought about it. “My cousin Jesus has a car and probably would’ve driven us, but he’s in jail.”
I was desperate to see the ape and suggested we take the bus. Ricky rolled his eyes at the mention of such lame transportation, but we didn’t have any choice.
“Let’s go early Sunday morning,” Ricky suggested. “Most folks sleep in, and there won’t be a lot of people around to bother us.”
Sunday arrived. We snuck out of our houses and made for the nearest bus stop. Few buses operated on Sunday mornings and we waited a long time. The first passed without stopping and Ricky flipped the driver off. An hour later another came along. This one stopped. We paid the driver as we boarded the bus, which we had to ourselves until a drab lady wearing a silver cross so large you could crucify a small animal on it arrived and slid into the seat behind us.
An eternity passed before we were dropped off near the monastery. As we approached the massive gates, Ricky had to admit that if King Kong were hidden in our town this would certainly be the place to hide him. Dad had said nothing about the creature being King Kong, but that mightiest of apes filled our thoughts as Ricky scoped out the best way to break in. The monastery walls were much higher up close than they appeared when we drove by on our way to Grandma’s house.
Ricky turned to me. “You know, King Kong was really just an actor in a hairy suit, not a real gorilla at all.”
“No way!” I was indignant. “Who told you that?”
Ricky just shrugged, but it did make me think about the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, both of whom I thought were real at one time. (I still wasn’t ready to give up on Santa Claus.) Could this whole thing about a giant ape be fake? Could Dad be wrong? I dismissed the possibility.
Ricky spotted an old wisteria vine snaking over one of the adobe walls. “Let’s go see this ape. You first.”
I knew I should go first, but suddenly this didn’t seem like such a good idea. If I’d only kept my mouth shut we’d be home right now. We’d been gone a long time and my parents were probably wondering where I was. Dad would be angry that I’d gone without asking permission, and for what? To see a giant ape that probably didn’t exist? Was it worth the punishment I was undoubtedly going to receive? Did I reeeaally expect to find a massive ape on the far side of that wall?
Ricky was waiting. I spit into my hands, even though they were already damp with perspiration. It was already hot; the new Junior Husky jeans I was wearing were sticking to me in an intimate place. I grabbed hold of a vine and began to hoist myself upward. The adobe bricks were unevenly spaced at this section of the wall, providing for good toe holds, but I was still drenched in sweat by the time I reached the top.
Ricky was nowhere in sight, and it looked like a long way down as I sat on top of the wall like an enormous squirrel. I lifted a leg over the side and my jeans caught and tore on one of the rust-colored tiles capping the top of the wall. Holy Crap. My folks were going to be furious at having to drive back so soon to Junior Husky’s.
I started the descent to the inside of the monastery. Just as I reached the ground, I was startled by a sound behind me. My heart leapt into my mouth. If King Kong enjoyed those skinny native women they sacrificed to him, then he was in for a “big” treat. I stood there huffing and puffing, covered with sweat. When I gathered the courage to turn around, I saw Ricky standing there smiling.
“Wanna know something interesting?” he said. “Those front gates are huge, but they’re not locked.”
If I hadn’t been so glad to see him I’d have flipped him off.
Before we could say anything else, something stirred in the underbrush and we both realized we were being hunted. It materialized before us as if from thin air. It was huge! It was black! But it wasn’t King Kong—it was the biggest nun I’d ever seen. She evidently wasn’t one of the non-talking varieties, because she boomed in a deep construction worker’s voice, “What are you children doing here?” With a cobra’s swiftness, a hand shot out from beneath her habit and locked like a handcuff around my wrist. But Ricky was too fast for her; he leapt up the wall and scurried over the top, leaving me in the nun’s grip.
“What is your name?” she growled.
I’d have obediently given it to her, but it momentarily slipped my mind. I was hoping she wouldn’t eat me. If an actor could disguise himself as an ape, maybe an ape could disguise itself as a nun.
“Where did you come from? How did you get here?”
There was no escaping her, so I spilled everything. When I told her about trying to catch a glimpse of the great black ape she snorted like an ape, and dragged me inside a dimly lit building where I was allowed to call home.
Dad arrived at the monastery to collect me. He looked at my flushed face and torn jeans and could barely conceal a smile.
“Your mother’s very angry,” he warned.
“All this because I said there was a huge ape in here?”
I nodded and he just sighed.
My disobedience was something of a novelty. My brother David had always been the strong-willed child, not me. Still, I had broken the rules by leaving the area without permission, and I would pay.
I was to keep away from Ricky, but this was hard for my parents to enforce. Dad actually turned a blind eye whenever I headed toward the Delgado house; he must’ve felt partially responsible for what happened.
Two years later while watching The Sound of Music, I remembered the big nun who’d caught me inside the Carmelite monastery. There’s a scene where the Von Trapps are fleeing the Nazis through a hidden passageway somewhere in the bowels of a convent. When I replay that scene in my mind, I imagine that one of the nuns in the shadows has extremely hairy wrists and an ape’s features partially hidden by her wimple.