THE NUN HIT me in the mouth and said, "Get out of my house."
Jaw throbbing, I said, "I can't believe you just did that."
"This is my house," she said. "You want more? Come on back in."
Sister Mary Veritas is a shade over five and a half feet. She was playing in gray sweats, of course. Most of the time she wears the full habit. Her pixie face is usually a picture of innocence. She has short chestnut hair and blue eyes. I had just discovered those eyes hid an animal ruthlessness.
It was the first Friday in April, and we were playing what I thought was some friendly one-on-one on the basketball court of St. Monica's, a Benedictine community in the Santa Susana mountains. The morning was bright, the sky clear. Should have meant peace like a river.
Not a nun like a mugger.
Backing into the key for a spin hook, I was surprised to find not just the basket but a holy Catholic elbow waiting for my face. I'm six-three, so it took some effort for her to pop me.
"That's a foul," I said.
"So take it out," she said.
"I thought the Benedictines were known for their hospitality."
"For the hungry pilgrim," Sister Mary said. "Not for a guy looking for an easy bucket."
"What would the pope say to you?"
"Probably, Well done, thou good and faithful servant."
"You're a pagan. It probably did you some good."
"A trash-talking sister." I shook my head. "So this is organized religion in the twenty-first century."
Okay, she wanted my outside game? She'd get it. True, I hadn't played a whole lot of ball since college. A couple of stints on a lawyer league team. But I could still shoot. I was deadly from twenty feet in.
Not this morning. I clanked one from the free throw line and Sister Mary got the rebound.
Before becoming a nun, she played high school ball in Oklahoma. On a championship team, no less. Knew her way around a court.
But I also had the size advantage and gave her a cushion on defense. She took it and shot over me from fifteen feet.
Pride is a sin, so Sister Mary tells me. But it's a good motivator when a little nun is schooling you. I kicked up the aggression factor a notch.
She tried a fadeaway next. I got a little bit of her wrist as she shot.
Sister Mary waited for me to call a foul.
"Nice try," I said.
"Where'd you learn to play," she said. "County jail?"
"You talking or playing?"
She got the animal look again. I hoped that wouldn't interfere with her morning prayers. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour we talk smack.
I took the ball to the top of the key. Did a beautiful crossover dribble. Sister Mary swiped at the ball. Got my arm instead with a loud thwack. I stopped and threw up a jumper.
It hit the side of the rim and bounced left.
I thought I'd surprise her by hustling for the rebound.
She had the same idea.
We were side by side going for the ball. I could feel her body language. There was no way she was going to let me get it.
There was no way I was going to let her get it.
I was going to body a nun into the weeds.
WE WENT DOWN. The brown grasses at the edge of the blacktop padded our fall.
I had both hands on the ball. So did Sister Mary.
She grunted and pulled. By this time we were out of bounds.
I started to laugh. The absurdity of a frantic postulant and a macho lawyer in a death grip over a basketball was hilarious.
Sister Mary didn't laugh. She wanted the ball.
I had to admire her doggedness. She's the type who'd go to the mat with the devil himself if she had to.
But I still wouldn't let her get the ball.
Then I was on my back, holding the ball to my chest. Sister Mary was on top of me, refusing to let her hands slip off the ball.
Her body was firm and fit and I looked at her face thinking thoughts one should not think of a woman pledged to a life of chastity.
I stopped laughing and let her have the ball.
She took it and rolled off me.
Neither of us said anything.
Then a voice said, "Now, isn't that a pretty picture?"
Father Bob stood at the other end of the court, hands on hips.
One displeased priest.
I shot up, helped Sister Mary to her feet. "Nothing to see here," I said. "Just a little hustle and flow."
"Or grab and go," Father Bob said.
Sister Mary said nothing. Her face was flushed and she was breathing hard.
"A friendly game of one-on," I said. "You see? I'm doing my part to help the community stay in shape. You want a piece of me next?"
Father Bob, who looks like Morgan Freeman's stand-in, said, "I know a few tricks even Sister Mary hasn't learned yet."
"I have to go now," she said. Without her characteristic smile, she dropped the ball in the grass and jogged toward her quarters.
Father Bob motioned me over. "Tread carefully," he said.
"I know," I said.
"What's not to know?"
He picked up the ball and spun it on his finger. Like a Globetrotter.
"Not bad," I said.
"God created the world to spin on its axis," he said. "Perfectly. And he created man to be in perfect communion with him. Only man messed up. He messed up the way things are supposed to spin." He grabbed the ball with both hands. "In the garden, you know the story."
"A snake got Eve to eat an apple."
"Don't know if it was an apple," Father Bob said. "It just says ‘the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.'"
"Was that such a bad thing to want?"
"If a serpent's offering it to you, it is. Now, we've come a long way trying to get things to spin right again. That's the reason for the church. That's the reason for people taking holy vows. And that's the reason you have to tread carefully around here."
I took the ball from him and tried to spin it on my finger. It fell to the ground and bounced.
"See?" Father Bob said.
"Then are you ready to earn your daily bread?