My senior year of high school I worked at a Pennsylvania campground, adjacent to a “colonial village” with a restored eighteenth-century grist mill, a working water-wheel, and everything from a do-it-yourself butter churning shop to Amish buggy rides. I manned the office, and by closing time I was the only person around. One night, just as I was beginning the close-out checklist, a gorilla was reported in the campground.
“He’s on a bicycle,” the frazzled camper said, bursting into the office. “He won’t talk to anyone! He just grunts!”
“The guy in the trailer next ours got hit with a banana!”
I knew how to check-in campers, take payments and sell mosquito spray. The problems I could solve included posting information for late arrivals and fixing clogged toilets.
“You have to do something,” he said.
The phrase buzzed between my ears. A feeling of shame heated my face. I imagined what I could do. Stay in the office and lock the door.
A second camper entered slamming the office door. “He is throwing bananas at us!” she said.
“See?” Camper #1 said.
Camper #2: “We were at our picnic table and heard a bicycle,” she said.
Camper #1 folded his arms.
“Once he was in the light we realized it was a gorilla. He terrified the children!”
I nodded. Both campers looked at me. Expecting something.
Camper #2: “Well, I just asked him who he was and what he was doing and he started grunting and howling.”
Just then three more campers arrived.
“Someone has to talk to this guy!” one of the new campers said, slamming his flat palm against the desk. “He’s out there scaring folks.”
These were adults staring at me, commanding me to action. They were angry at the gorilla, but it felt personal. A hollow feeling in my stomach. I felt hot; I touched my forehead and noticed my hand was shaking. I was kid, but I knew I had to do something.
Then, I thought of Mark, the night security guard.
Mark. I was in love with him. The way his Levi’s hung, his green John Deere hat, his small, tight farm-boy body. He was my age, and he was the first security-type man who didn’t intimidate me. My heart fluttered when he leaned one hip against the front desk to chat. I pretended to know about football and even lied, saying “oh yeah” when he asked me if I liked Metallica. Every night at closing time he was asleep in the booth.
Feeling a sudden sense of knowing-what-to-do, I said, “I’ll get the guard.”
Outside, the campground looked unchanged. Dark and quiet, lightening bugs glowed near the creek. I could see a few campfires burning and smell hotdogs. While the campers stayed on the porch grumbling, I started toward the guard shack at the campground entrance.
I didn’t get far.
I was illuminated by the headlights of an RV turning into the driveway. It was a huge one. The kind with multiple slide-outs, solar panels and satellite dishes. It crept toward the guard booth, then stopped.
RV tires quiet, I heard the sound. The bicycle, I thought, freezing in place. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Out of the darkness, a gorilla on a bike passed under a dim light post. Then it went back into shadow.
The RV driver turned on a giant spotlight. I lifted my hand to my forehead. Blinking, I heard the sound of a skidding bike tire. Looking into the pool of light, I saw the gorilla’s long shadow.
The bike was on the ground, in the road. The gorilla was knuckle-walking toward the RV. He raised one arm toward the windshield, waggling a banana.
“There he is!” a camper yelled.
Do something! I reacted, running toward the gorilla and grabbing the bike. I looked up as the gorilla reeled back and launched the banana directly into the RV’s windshield. The driver pulled the air horn. I cringed. We never heard the splat.
Mark burst from the guard station with his hands over his ears.
“WHAT THE FUCK?”
The gorilla started screaming—grunts and screeches—waving long arms—it ran toward me. Toward the bicycle I was holding.
I gasped for a breath, then said, “I need to know who you are.” Did my voice crack?
The gorilla took hold of the bicycle, shaking me. My heart was pounding.
“I’m serious,” I said, gripping the cold metal of the bike frame, knowing campers were watching me from the office. “You’re scaring people.”
The gorilla looked up at me, scouring my face with fast moving eyeballs. I held my breath—the mask was so realistic. Was it a mask? The gorilla leaned in and howled in my face. I let go of the bicycle, but not my resolve.
I squeezed my eyes shut and yelled back at him: “WHO ARE YOU? ARE YOU A CAMPER HERE?”
I opened my eyes to see him swing up onto the pedals and ride off into the darkness.
Mark was beside me now, hands still over his ears even though the air horn had stopped. I could see his dirty fingernails on either side of his John Deere hat.
“WHAT THE FUCK?”
The RV turned off the spotlight and a thick darkness fell. Campers were clicking on flashlights. I was blinking to adjust my eyes, I felt dizzy.
“Mark,” I said, “there’s a gorilla—” but before I could explain, a bicycle flew from the shadows, the gorilla skidded to a stop and faced Mark and me.
The gorilla and I made eye contact. Its eyes didn’t look human. Not enough iris. Maybe it really is a gorilla, I thought. It held out a banana. I watched as my arm reached out to accept it. Peace offering?
I noticed Mark backing away and knew I was on my own. The campers were watching. I took charge. “Look dude,” I said to the gorilla, “you gotta take the mask off. People are freaked out.”
The gorilla was still, breathing, holding my eyes. The banana in my hand, I felt curious. What is this gorilla’s story? I felt a sudden a softness.
“Talk to me,” I changed my tone. “You don’t want to be scaring people, right?”
He grunted, lifting his chin to me. For a moment I thought I had earned his respect; that he knew I wanted to protect him. Just as my heart was opening, he howled, stomped and waved his arms in my face. I closed my eyes. When I looked, he was riding away into the darkness.
I lost him. A sensation, like I might cry.
“What. The. Fuck?” was all Mark could say.