The Worst Story I Ever Heard
To be published in the April 2009 issue of Esquire
St. James Davis is crying. It's a loud, whooping wail of a cry. He's sitting in the driveway of his childhood home, a sprawling, L-shaped ranch house in West Covina, California, on a sun-drenched day last September. Standing next to him is his wife of nearly forty years, LaDonna. On the brink of tears herself, LaDonna grabs a cloth and gently cradles his cheek with her right hand. With her left, she carefully dabs at his mouth. St. James keeps his head still as she tends to him. He doesn't say a word as he calms down. He doesn't have to — LaDonna knows what he wants now that the sun is beating down on him. She grabs the beige bucket hat hanging around his neck and eases it onto his head.
LaDonna tends to St. James because he can't tend to himself. St. James, sixty-six, a former high school football star and onetime Nascar driver, is severely disabled and disfigured. There's a two-inch hole in the heel of his swollen left foot, and he is confined to a wheelchair. He has no nose, only a red, raw, exposed septum, surrounded by narrow openings. At the top are three tiny magnets designed to hold in place a crude silicone prosthesis, which is constantly falling off. His right eye is gone, replaced with glass. The skin on his face droops like candle wax because so many bones around his cheeks and eyes were broken. His mouth, which has been completely reconstructed, is stuck in a frown. On his left hand, his index, middle, and ring fingers are stumps. His right hand is much worse. He has a misshapen hunk of flesh for a thumb, which appears as if it were lumped onto his wrist with clay. His index and middle fingers are gone; his ring finger and pinkie are immobile.
But St. James's crying has nothing to do with his physical condition. He's crying because of news he and LaDonna recently received about what really can only be called their boy. At first, St. James and LaDonna were reluctant to speak about all that's happened to them. LaDonna prefers not to talk to outsiders about their life because, she says, they are so often misunderstood.
To begin to understand, you have to go back to early 1971, when West Covina's "monkey trial" captivated this small California city about twenty miles east of Los Angeles. St. James and LaDonna Davis were in court, found in violation of a city ordinance against harboring a wild animal — a young chimpanzee they'd kept in their home nearly from birth. The chimp, named Moe, rode to the courthouse shotgun in St. James's jet-black 1932 Ford roadster. Dozens of spectators lined up outside the Citrus municipal courthouse to catch a glimpse of the Davises and their monkey. St. James was a tall, handsome mechanic and race-car driver. His young wife, LaDonna, was a sun-kissed blond with wholesome good looks. Holding St. James's hand, Moe, decked out in a checkered shirt, white trousers, and shoes, entered the courthouse to cheers. Inside, he shook hands and waved to his supporters. He kissed the court reporter and jangled the keys of the bailiff.
St. James and LaDonna both made impassioned pleas to the court. "Moe is like a son to us," LaDonna said. "He wouldn't hurt anyone, and so far as we're concerned, he's a member of the family."
The trial was a sensation. Journalists fawned over Moe in person and in print, and the outcome was never in doubt. Prosecutors dropped the case, and Judge Jack Alex's assessment of the chimp, delivered to a packed courtroom, echoed in newspapers all the way to Texas. "From what I've observed of Moe outside and in the courtroom," the judge said, "he doesn't have the traits of a wild animal and is, in fact, better behaved than some people."
He's a member of the family. That's something plenty of people say about their dog or bird or even a cow in the barn. But with St. James Davis and his wife, LaDonna, that sentiment grew into a singular kind of devotion, into a singular kind of love, into a singular kind of family. And how that came to be, and what that ultimately would mean for them, is a singular kind of story. It's a story at once understandable and incomprehensible, at once comic and tragic, at once familiar and utterly bizarre.
After all, what kind of family takes a wild animal and invests it with humanity?
From the moment St. James returned from a trip to Africa with Moe in 1967, the chimpanzee was the center of the couple's life. Moe was tiny, barely a foot long. His body was covered in brown hair, except for his pink face, ears, hands, and feet. His ears, the size of large clamshells, stuck out a couple of inches from his head. But it was his deep brown eyes and what St. James and LaDonna thought they saw in them — wonderment, innocence, comprehension — that moved them the most.
Scenes from their life together are like scenes from the life of any young family with a small child.
It's a Saturday night in 1970, and St. James is sitting on the couch next to Moe, who is sucking down a vanilla shake. LaDonna is in the kitchen, cleaning up after their dinner of beef stew and vegetables. Moe, four years old, was hungry after a day in the park, and he wolfed down his plate. Now he's clapping his hands because St. James has just turned on his favorite cowboys-and-Indians show.
LaDonna joins her boys on the couch. In two hours, they'll all be on the floor sleeping, their bodies linked at the arms.
Then there was the first trip to the dentist. When Moe was about two, St. James took him to a veterinary specialist to have a crooked front tooth pulled. As the doctor prepared a shot, St. James stroked Moe's tiny arm and concentrated on keeping him distracted. He spoke to him softly: "What are you looking at, Moe? Are you trying to see out the window?" Just before the doctor plunged the needle into Moe's forearm, St. James gripped him tightly. Moe let out a yelp but fell asleep in seconds. St. James never left the room during the forty-five-minute procedure.
As soon as they got home, St. James carried Moe to the couple's bedroom. He gently placed Moe, still in his T-shirt and plastic diaper pants, on his chest so the sleeping chimp could feel him breathing. They remained in bed together that way for more than six hours until Moe, groggy and glassy-eyed, finally woke up.
LaDonna spent hours with Moe every day, essentially trying to home-school him. She would sit beside him in the living room, coaching him as he played with Erector sets or colored with crayons. She was stunned by how thoughtful Moe appeared to be. He stared at the page, sometimes rubbing it with his hairless palm, before putting crayon to paper. Whenever Moe motioned for a new color — sticking out his hand palm up — LaDonna offered a few and asked Moe to think about which one he wanted: "Do you want this green one? Or would yellow be better? Think about it, Moe. Think."
Moe had his own bedroom, complete with a bed, a large closet where his clothes were kept — the Davises dressed him in plaid button-down shirts, blue jeans, and even dinner jackets and trousers on formal occasions — and a bureau with his toys on top, though of course Moe preferred to sleep with St. James and LaDonna. When he got too big — by age six he weighed about fifty pounds — St. James would carry Moe back to his bedroom after he fell asleep. Hours later, the couple would awaken to Moe at the foot of their bed, climbing back in.
From the beginning, Moe's demeanor surprised St. James and LaDonna. He was gentle and well-behaved. Moe seemed to take pains to avoid scratching anyone with his flat, sharp fingernails. He was affectionate and loved to hug and kiss, throwing his hairy arms around St. James's neck often. And when he wanted St. James to sit down next to him, he'd bound over and softly push on the backs of his knees.
There was one bright day about 1973. For nearly half an hour, St. James and Moe had been frantically running back and forth, trying to catch falling leaves underneath a massive maple tree in the park. St. James, exhausted, lay down on the grass. "I need to rest, Moe. I can't run like you anymore." Moe, with all the energy and insistence of a seven-year-old boy, grabbed his hands, pulling him along. They played for a while more before ending up in a heap on the grass again. St. James looked at Moe and asked him a question: "What are you going to be when you grow up, Moe?"
St. James and LaDonna hadn't planned to keep Moe forever. In truth, there never really was a plan. At first, St. James thought he'd drop Moe off at a zoo, but he says they all turned him away. In time, it became clear that there was no way the couple was going to part with the chimpanzee. So St. James and LaDonna kept Moe and raised him in their home. They taught him how to eat with a fork, use a toilet, even, they say, how to crudely write his name. Over the next thirty years, the Davises' devotion to Moe would push the boundaries of human love. It would also test the limits of that love.
Read more: http://www.esquire.com/features/chimpanzee-attack-0409#ixzz0OwgDIxG2
Source and continuation of story