Michael Knight

Our Lady of Consolation

Ninety-one days after I quit smok­ing, my wife bush­whacked me with a brochure for Our Lady of Consolation. I was already in bed with a ser­i­al killer nov­el. Lake fin­ished brush­ing her hair, then poked her hand into a purse hang­ing on the door­knob, fished out the brochure and dropped it in my lap. On the cover—an aer­i­al pho­to­graph of a white stone monastery nes­tled among bushy pines.

You need a break,” she said.

The brochure adver­tised silent retreats on 160 acres in the bosom of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There were tes­ti­mo­ni­als. Photos of bash­ful Trappist monks. Non-Catholics wel­come, the brochure said, aus­tere but com­fort­able accom­mo­da­tions, option­al dai­ly prayer, three days and two nights of con­tem­pla­tive silence in a set­ting replete with bur­bling brooks and end­less views. Not only were these monks sell­ing God’s own recipe for inner peace, they were also push­ing organ­ic “sweet tooth” mush­rooms which grew in abun­dance on the prop­er­ty, where they were picked, dried and pack­aged for export to gourmet mar­kets. I didn’t begrudge the monks a lit­tle com­merce. These were lean times. I knew that. I was still sting­ing from a bal­loon pay­ment on our mort­gage. Even so, I thought it looked pret­ty hokey.

You want us to go here?” I said.

I want you to go, Max. You’ve been a mess.”

Her asser­tion was not untrue. Quitting smok­ing had unearthed in me a cache of unrea­son­able anger and depres­sion. Nothing crazy. A smashed plate or two. An elbow through a hol­low core door. The occa­sion­al night weep­ing in the dark. For a while, I was able to chalk up these sud­den funks to nico­tine with­draw­al. That excuse wore thin. My wife was a Christmas and Easter Catholic who’d suf­fered talk ther­a­py and anti-depres­sants as a teen, kicked meat a few years back by way of phys­i­cal purifi­ca­tion and cur­rent­ly prac­ticed med­i­ta­tion on an import­ed prayer rug. She had beliefs is what I’m say­ing, com­pli­cat­ed and per­son­al. Something was wrong with me, she main­tained, some­thing deep­er than addic­tion. If I had an idea for how to fix it, she was hap­py to hear me out. Otherwise, a qui­et look inside myself was worth a try.

You need to get cen­tered,” Lake said, reach­ing across my chest to shut off the lamp. She didn’t ask if I was fin­ished read­ing. She tugged the quilt over her shoul­ders and rolled onto her side.

**

Two weeks lat­er, I was buck­led into the pas­sen­ger seat of her Subaru. I didn’t see the harm in going along with her plan. Quitting smok­ing had been near­ly as rough on her as it had on me and nei­ther of us had any­thing to show for it. I didn’t feel any bet­ter. I still wheezed up stairs. My hang­overs hadn’t mel­lowed in the least, some­thing I’d been look­ing for­ward to. I’d tried hyp­no­sis but it didn’t take. The lozenges gave me the hic­cups. The patch gave me a rash. The pills list­ed sui­cide among the side effects. I was forty-one years old, a smok­er more years than not. I was gnaw­ing at a square of nico­tine gum as we veered off of the inter­state into a green val­ley scooped out of the old, blunt moun­tains all around us. When Lake pulled over to top off her tank at a tin-roofed coun­try store, it took con­sid­er­able willpow­er not to bum one from the gang of week­end motor­cy­cle enthu­si­asts puff­ing on the porch.

The truth is the idea of a silent retreat had grown on me in the run-up. I’d pur­chased a pair of com­fort­able sneak­ers for hik­ing the trails around the monastery. I’d checked out a new ser­i­al killer nov­el from the library. It didn’t sound half bad to be free of mind­less prat­tle and ambi­ent rack­et for a stretch. Maybe Lake was right. I didn’t buy into her notion of some deep seed­ed prob­lem tucked way down in my psy­che but nei­ther did I rule out the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the retreat would do me good. I’d even done a lit­tle Internet research on the Trappists. Founded in 1664 at Le Grande Trappe Abbey in Normandy, France by Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rance—what a name!— because a bunch of monks in his order had been slack­ing off. Dedicated to the Rules of Saint Benedict. The monks didn’t take a vow of silence per se but they did pledge to speak only when absolute­ly nec­es­sary. Saint Benedict taught that idle chitchat dulled recep­tiv­i­ty to God. The Trappists were also big on hard labor. Every monastery was oblig­ed to pro­duce some­thing they could sell. Some kept sheep for wool. Some made beer. I’d seen Trappist ale behind the bar at sev­er­al water­ing holes. Our Lady of Consolation did mush­rooms, like the brochure said. According to their web­site, they’d tried choco­late but failed to estab­lish a toe­hold in the mar­ket. Weird to find a monastery with a web­site but I sold TV spots for a CBS affil­i­ate and phras­es like “toe­hold in the mar­ket” put me at ease. I was feel­ing okay about the whole enter­prise as Lake grav­el-crunched into the park­ing lot. She shift­ed out of dri­ve but didn’t kill the engine. The slate roof of the monastery loomed over the trees in the near dis­tance like some­thing from a movie about medieval times.

You gonna walk me up?” I said.

That’s against the rules. Didn’t you read the sheet they sent?”

Sure, I did. Of course.”

She put her hand on my cheek. “This is going to be hard­er than you think, Max. Take it seri­ous­ly. Please try. For me. It’s impor­tant.”

I brushed my lips against her palm and hauled my duf­fel over from the back­seat. In that duf­fel, in addi­tion to my new sneak­ers and my ser­i­al killer nov­el and three-days-worth of toi­letries and clothes, was a sil­ver flask with a buck horn stop­per hand­ed down by my old man. In the flask was a pint, give or take, of Jack Daniels. I had not, in point of fact, paid much atten­tion to the lit­er­a­ture but I reck­oned Tennessee whiskey was a no-no.

I’ll be fine,” I said. “Next time you see me, I’ll be good as new.”

I stepped out, shoul­dered the duf­fel and sucked in a showy lung­ful of moun­tain air. Lake eyed me like a kid she was ditch­ing at sum­mer camp—part wor­ry, part sad­ness, a smidge of guilty relief. She wished me luck and blew me a kiss. I bare­ly had time to shut the door before her Subaru was kick­ing up fine white dust as she van­ished around the bend.

**

A grin­ning monk ush­ered the pay­ing cus­tomers into a musty-smelling room with stone walls and high ceil­ings. At the back of the room, tucked into an alcove, the Virgin Mary sat with her knees tipped to one side, hands in her lap, stone eyes for­ev­er down­cast, her expres­sion weary, resigned. Up front was a wood­en plat­form like the stage from a mid­dle school gym. There were five oth­er monks, all in gray cowls, gath­ered around a podi­um on the plat­form, a pro­jec­tion screen hang­ing above their heads. Looked like com­put­er equip­ment on the podi­um. The pay­ing customers—I count­ed nineteen—dispersed among rows of fold­ing chairs. When we were set­tled, one of the monks ticked some but­tons and the pro­jec­tion screen lit up with an image of a flick­er­ing can­dle. A record­ed voice rolled out into the room. I didn’t the fig­ure the voice belonged to one of the monks. Most like­ly they’d hired a pro, maybe a local radio per­son­al­i­ty, to rehash the rules and run down the sched­ule. The image on the screen kept shifting—monks eat­ing a hearty meal, monks har­vest­ing mush­rooms, monks in a snow­ball fight.

The pay­ing cus­tomers were about what you’d expect. Old peo­ple with rosaries. Granola types in worn-out san­dals. More women than men. One of these women in par­tic­u­lar caught my eye. As she watched the ori­en­ta­tion video, she drew a long brown braid—had to be waist length—over her right shoul­der and stroked it with both hands, down and down and down like she was smooth­ing water from her hair. The ges­ture was dis­tract­ing by itself but I also had the feel­ing that I knew her from some­where. I was rum­mag­ing my mem­o­ry when the radio voice went qui­et. The words Any ques­tions? hov­ered in gild­ed cal­lig­ra­phy on the screen.

I stuck my hand up and the monk at the podi­um raised his eye­brows. Everybody in the room was star­ing at me.

Do we stop talk­ing now?” I said.

**

My room was an eight-by-eight-by-eight-foot cube fur­nished with a twin bed and an old pine wardrobe. A wash­basin on the night­stand. Running water down the hall. My next-door neigh­bor was a soft-hand­ed fat­ty with a rag­ing case of pink eye. The monks had socked the women away on anoth­er hall at a safe dis­tance from us men.

The view, how­ev­er, was as advertised—mountains, etc. Down the stairs and across the court­yard and through an arch­way, I found the chapel, which was con­struct­ed of the same white stone as the monastery but set off to one side in a grove of poplars. From there, I fol­lowed a split rail fence past a bunch of monks hand-weed­ing a veg­etable gar­den. I felt for them in those cowls. Even in the moun­tains, June was June. The fence led me to some out­build­ings, where they processed the mush­rooms. The facil­i­ties were com­plete with infor­ma­tion­al plaques. First the monks wiped the mush­rooms with cot­ton cloth. Then they sliced the mush­rooms and sort­ed them into net bags like the ones you buy pota­toes in at the gro­cery store, except these were made from hemp. Then they hung the bags up in the sun. The dry­ing process took three to five days, depend­ing on the weath­er. Not a kilo­watt of ener­gy burned. Finally, a cou­ple of ounces of fin­ished prod­uct were crammed into pack­ages made from recy­cled mate­ri­als for export to high end mar­kets   where they were pur­chased by con­science-bur­dened lib­er­als with too much dis­pos­able income. Took about twelve min­utes to get the pic­ture. I checked my cell phone. No recep­tion, of course, but the clock still worked. 4:17. Counting ori­en­ta­tion, which had kicked off at 3:00, I’d bare­ly man­aged to kill an hour.

There was a gift shop in the rec­to­ry but I had two more days to get through so I decid­ed to save the gift shop and test run my new sneak­ers instead. Track down a shady spot in the woods where I could get to the bot­tom of what ailed me. At least I could tell Lake I’d made the effort. I pant­ed up a hik­ing trail until I found a stream, white water rif­fling around mossy boul­ders. Before we set out, Lake had advised me to emp­ty my mind instead of think­ing about my anger and depres­sion issues head on. My sub­con­scious knew what I need­ed. I should just let it per­co­late in silence. Percolate is my word. I don’t remem­ber exact­ly what Lake said but that’s the gist. I toed off my sneak­ers, stuffed my socks inside, rolled up my slacks and wad­ed in. Ankle deep. Cold. Instantly, my blood pres­sure dropped. I sat on a rock six feet from the bank and attempt­ed per­co­la­tion. Out past the shoals, the cur­rent slowed over a pool of dark water. I imag­ined brown trout finning in the depths. I was alone in the woods. I thought, why not? I skinned off and forged ahead. My breath caught. My balls hitched up. When I reached the pool, I swam for the bot­tom and held myself under as long as I could, every part of me frigid and alive, before gasp­ing back toward the sun.

Goddamn,” I shout­ed when I broke the sur­face and though tech­ni­cal­ly I had cursed, I didn’t think The Maker of Heaven and Earth would mis­take my excla­ma­tion for any­thing but prayer.

**

Just when I was begin­ning to be con­vinced that Lake was right about this place, I came down from the moun­tain to dis­cov­er I’d missed din­ner. Apparently, they served prompt­ly at 5:00. By the time I reached the din­ing hall, nobody was left except this one acne-scarred monk clear­ing dish­es. I opened my mouth to beg for food, caught myself. The monk held up a fin­ger. I watched him van­ish into what must have been the kitchen. Dinner was mush­room risot­to by the looks of the remains. The monk returned with a cook­ie the size of a half dol­lar and the mus­cles in my neck went stiff. He couldn’t be both­ered to reheat a bowl of risot­to? I could feel a lec­ture on cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion bub­bling up from my innards. Here’s the thing: Our Lady of Consolation billed for these retreats based on the rel­a­tive income of their guests. The monks believed every­body had a right to what they were sell­ing. Poor peo­ple paid zip. People with income picked up the slack. Very egal­i­tar­i­an. You had to fax a recent pay stub before your reser­va­tion was con­firmed. I was all for fair­ness and I might have looked good on paper but I would have liked a few words with the rec­tor on the sub­jects of vari­able rate mort­gages and declin­ing ad rev­enue. $365 a night? For a cook­ie that tast­ed more like wheat than sug­ar? I want­ed to punch some­body in the throat. I want­ed to but I didn’t. That’s the point. When the monk was out of sight, I spit the cook­ie in a sug­ges­tion box and retired hun­gry to my quar­ters.

In bed, I chewed nico­tine gum, sipped Jack Daniels. I cracked my ser­i­al killer nov­el. It was called Second Sight and detailed the crimes of a woman-hat­ing mani­ac who gouged the eyes out of his vic­tims’ heads. Lake found my fond­ness for ser­i­al killers wor­ri­some. She had even hint­ed that it might be one of the many symp­toms of my fun­da­men­tal unhap­pi­ness. I told her it was brac­ing to be remind­ed of pure evil on occa­sion. We’d been mar­ried eleven years. No kids by choice. There’d been a time when Lake loved cheese­burg­ers above all foods and bummed my cig­a­rettes when we drank. And I hadn’t always been such a heel. Things change. That didn’t mean she’d quit lov­ing me or vice ver­sa.

By 9:00, it had dawned on me that I was going to have to ration my   booze to sur­vive the week­end so I capped the flask and nixed the over­head but I was too rest­less to sleep. I tried run­ning down a list of all the women   I’d slept with, an old insom­nia trick of mine. I couldn’t come up with every sin­gle name, espe­cial­ly the girl’s from my sopho­more and junior years of col­lege when I more or less exist­ed in state of alco­holic black­out. Maybe the woman with the braid was one of these, I thought, a ran­dom bump-and-grind on a rick­ety loft in somebody’s dorm. I pic­tured her stroking that braid. I hadn’t spo­ken in six hours. I hopped out of bed, knocked off eleven push-ups and stood at the win­dow, gnaw­ing a fresh piece of nico­tine gum and wait­ing to catch my breath.

The moon loomed high and full over the moun­tains, the light so blue it looked more like dawn than night. Behind me, in the hall, I heard the slap of bare feet on stone and few sec­onds lat­er a door creaked open on the first floor. A fig­ure appeared below my win­dow, pro­pelling him­self over the lawn with minc­ing steps and cast­ing furtive glances over his shoul­der. My pink-eyed neigh­bor. I could see him that clear­ly in the moon­light. Well, well, well, I thought, what have we here? Whatever it was, it beat insom­nia so I stepped into my pants and hus­tled after him but by the time I got out there he was nowhere to be found. I tried to imag­ine where I would go if I was a soft-hand­ed fat­ty up to some­thing sneaky while on silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. I lis­tened. No voic­es, obvi­ous­ly, no music, no huff­ing machin­ery, no human sounds at all. But grad­u­al­ly oth­er sounds fil­tered in. Wind in the branch­es. Crickets. The crush of my feet on the grass as I padded over toward the gar­den. The moon was so bright it cast the shad­ows of toma­to plants between the rows.

Beyond the fence, a pas­ture sloped gen­tly uphill from the gar­den and now that I was look­ing, a sil­hou­ette sep­a­rat­ed itself from the night. My pink-eyed neigh­bor at the crest of the hill. He appeared too short, like he was stand­ing in a hole, but after a sec­ond, I real­ized he was kneel­ing.

I crouched behind the fence and watched him raise his arms, word­less­ly beseech­ing the sky, then fall for­ward on his bel­ly and move his arms and legs like he was mak­ing snow angels. The pas­ture was thick with clover, wind rustling through it like a wave. I couldn’t see him very well but I wor­ried that if I got any clos­er he’d hear me. After a few min­utes of writhing around, my pink-eyed neigh­bor rolled onto his back and lay there, per­fect­ly still, bathed in moon­light. I was raised Episcopalian. Reverend Mims was a bet­ter golfer than priest but at least I have no scars to show for my reli­gion. On the oth­er hand, my faith is pret­ty shaky. If asked, which I almost nev­er am, I describe myself as hope­ful with doubts. I backed away from the fence and hur­ried through the gar­den and up to my room where I pol­ished off the rest of my Jack Daniels so I could sleep.

**

Bells. Seemed like I’d only just passed out when the sound of them was every­where. The bells might have been beau­ti­ful if I hadn’t come to so hun­gover. A pint of whiskey is hard­ly a binge but keep in mind I’d downed it on an emp­ty stom­ach. From nowhere, that radio voice from the ori­en­ta­tion video was play­ing in my head: At 3:30 AM, still immersed in the nights deep dark­ness, the monks rise for Vigil and gath­er in the chapel to wel­come Christ into their hearts. I hadn’t even real­ized I’d reg­is­tered the words. I wait­ed for the voice to let me know about break­fast but no fur­ther infor­ma­tion was forth­com­ing. All right, I thought. It was 3:30 now, which like­ly meant I had at least anoth­er hour. Surely the monks didn’t eat before 5:00 AM. What I’d do was set the alarm on my phone and snag a few more winks before fill­ing my bel­ly. What hap­pened was the bat­tery on my cell died while I slept. When I woke the sec­ond time, I could tell by the light on the walls that it was well past 5:00 AM. Except for mild pal­sy in my hands, my hang­over had abat­ed and it’s not unlike­ly that the tremors were as much a result of hunger as Jack Daniels. My stom­ach felt squeezed and crimped like when you’re try­ing to get the dregs out of a tooth­paste tube. I need­ed to know how long I’d have to wait for lunch, so I head­ed for the din­ing hall, think­ing maybe, in addi­tion to find­ing out the time, I could rus­tle up some grub. I would have set­tled for anoth­er wheat cook­ie at that point.

As I turned a cor­ner at the bot­tom of the stairs, I near­ly crashed into these two monks, one tall and thin and old, a missed patch of white stub­ble on his chin, the oth­er young and plump with his arms linked over his bel­ly, hands tucked into the sleeves of his cowl. They nod­ded and sep­a­rat­ed to let me pass between them and though I’d heard noth­ing, I swear I had the feel­ing they’d been talk­ing just before I arrived.

I thought the din­ing hall was emp­ty at first. A dozen or so long wood­en tables all lined-up and aban­doned, still damp from a post-break­fast wipe down, sur­faces glint­ing with light from the arched win­dows on one wall. The win­dows faced the court­yard and I could see a pair of my fel­low pay­ing cus­tomers, an old mar­ried cou­ple, doing tai chi in match­ing sweat­suits. I was tip­toe­ing toward the kitchen, hop­ing to find some­thing edi­ble lying around, when I heard a cough. At a table in the back cor­ner, the woman with the braid was hunched over a cloth­bound jour­nal. She hadn’t noticed me yet. I watched her scrib­ble for a few sec­onds, read over what she’d writ­ten, scratch the lines out and glare down at the page. Lake had sug­gest­ed that I pack a jour­nal for the retreat but I told her I didn’t much like the idea of a per­ma­nent record of my thoughts. I cleared my throat. The woman with the braid raised her head, blink­ing, shad­ing her brow with her left hand. I waved and smiled. She nar­rowed her eyes. I tapped my wrist, uni­ver­sal sign lan­guage for Do you have the time? She frowned but fished a cell phone from her pock­et, glanced at it, then wrote 8:17 in her jour­nal and held it up for me to see. I pinched my thumb and index fin­ger togeth­er and did a lit­tle flour­ish with my hand, uni­ver­sal sign lan­guage for May I bor­row your pen? She sighed but extend­ed the pen and turned the jour­nal so it was right-side up for me. This close, I noticed a smat­ter­ing of freck­les on her nose, the way her hair frizzed at the tem­ples, both details famil­iar, but clear­ly, she didn’t rec­og­nize any­thing in me. I wrote When’s lunch? She wrote 11:30 in reply. I bowed to thank her and head­ed back the way I’d come, unwill­ing to raid the kitchen with a wit­ness.

Barring food, the only thing I could think of that might sal­vage the morn­ing was that deep pool in my lit­tle moun­tain stream. I imag­ined water run­ning over me like balm. I decid­ed to for­go a show­er. I’d let nature wash me clean. The sun had already baked the dew off of the grass. I could feel it beat­ing down on the rims of my ears as I trudged out past the gar­den and on into the woods.

**

Two hours lat­er, I was lost. Woozy with hunger. Nothing in me to sweat. Mosquitoes. I’d tak­en a wrong turn, back­tracked, got­ten con­fused. Faintly, beneath the mos­qui­to drone, I heard a rush­ing sound. Had to be my stream. I veered off of the trail and bee-lined for the sound, which turned out to be a mis­take, because I bun­gled in a gopher hole or some­thing, twist­ing my ankle and pitch­ing into a black­ber­ry thick­et. And that rush­ing was just eigh­teen-wheel­ers on the high­way. My shins wept blood. I sat in a ditch fight­ing tears until it occurred to me that high­ways led to towns and towns were blessed with restau­rants and if mem­o­ry served, Lake and I had passed through a lit­tle ham­let not too far down the road.

I was limp­ing along the shoul­der, think­ing how dis­ap­point­ed Lake would be if she got wind that I’d gone AWOL, weigh­ing her dis­ap­point­ment against the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a porter­house and a cold beer, when a blue pick-up with rust­ed out pan­els rat­tled up beside me and dropped into an idle. The dri­ver was an old black dude. He leaned across the bench seat to crank the pas­sen­ger win­dow down. Right away, I scent­ed smoke from the cig­a­rette hang­ing between his lips.

You don’t look so good,” he said.

I fig­ured that was prob­a­bly true.

I haven’t eat­en in twen­ty-four hours. Except to take the Lord’s name in vain I haven’t spo­ken in almost that long.”

He did a wheez­ing laugh, which mor­phed into a phlegm-y hack. When he’d caught his breath, he said, “You must be on the loose from Our Lady of Consolation. I haul mush­rooms for the broth­ers. I’m no mack­er­el snap­per, mind you. I’m what you might call unaf­fil­i­at­ed. But I respect the monks. Those suck­ers mean busi­ness.”

My wife made me go,” I said.

Un-hunh,” he said. “Get in.”

The dash­board was lit­tered with cig­a­rette packs, all dif­fer­ent brands, all in var­i­ous states of near empti­ness. Before I real­ized what I was doing, I’d popped a smoke from a crum­pled pack of Debonair 100s and lit it with the dash­board lighter. It made me dizzy and a headache flared at my tem­ples but oth­er parts of me felt enhanced.

You’re wel­come,” he said.

Right,” I said. “Thanks.”

That’s when I noticed his hair. He was work­ing a kind of Frederick Douglas look, some­thing between mil­i­tant and total dis­re­gard.

I said, “You mar­ried?”

Forty-sev­en years.”

Then he stepped on the gas and off we went, engine ping­ing like peb­bles in a can.

**

The old black dude’s name was Wallace. He had to drop a spare tire by his sister’s place, he said, but after that he’d take me wher­ev­er I want­ed to go. His sis­ter, Glory, lived in a retired rail­road caboose set up on cin­der blocks. I super­vised while Wallace changed the tire on her Durango. As a reward she fed us pimen­to cheese sand­wich­es and bar­be­cue pota­to chips. I was crav­ing porter­house but I didn’t want to be rude. I drank six glass­es of sweet tea. I also kept mooching Wallace’s cig­a­rettes until he fin­gered half a pack of Handsome Lights and a book of match­es out his breast pock­et and told me to keep them. When Glory asked why my wife had shipped me off to Our Lady of Consolation, I told her every­thing. I couldn’t shut up. The three of us were sit­ting in plas­tic chairs under an awning rigged to the front of Glory’s caboose. Pollen cavort­ed in the sun. Half a dozen or so cats and a pot­bel­lied pig hid in the shad­ows under the caboose. I ram­bled with­out pause until I noticed Wallace drum­ming his fin­gers on his knee.

Where to?” he said.

I didn’t have to think about it long.

The grounds were desert­ed when we got back. Wallace drove us past guest park­ing to a ser­vice lot. Nobody work­ing in the gar­den. No sign of    life around the mush­room sheds. I tried to push mon­ey on Wallace for gas and smokes but he looked insult­ed. We set­tled for a hand­shake. My ears popped, as if he’d car­ried me down from high alti­tude and aban­doned me beneath the bags of mush­rooms hang­ing out to dry.

As I got clos­er to the monastery, I heard chant­i­ng. I tracked the sound to the chapel, lit a cig­a­rette and stood under a win­dow but I couldn’t make out the words. I didn’t want to inter­rupt but I want­ed a bet­ter look at what­ev­er was hap­pen­ing so I eased the door open and slipped into a pew. The air was hazed with incense and tint­ed light, the evening work­ing its mag­ic through stained glass. The monks were all up close to the altar, kneel­ing, backs to me. Above them, the cru­ci­fix looked blur­ry and far away. I rec­og­nized some of the old peo­ple from ori­en­ta­tion. The woman with braid wasn’t there but I spot­ted my pink-eyed neigh­bor, hands clasped, chant­i­ng his heart out. “My soul glo­ri­fies the Lord and my spir­it rejoic­es in God my Savior for he has been mind­ful of his hum­ble ser­vant. From now on all gen­er­a­tions will call me blessed for The Mighty One has done great things on my behalf.”

There was more to it but that’s what stuck.

**

That night, after a light sup­per of mush­room bisque and home­made bread, the Virgin Mary vis­it­ed me in a dream. She looked exact­ly the way she looks in Renaissance paint­ings and pop­u­lar iconography—young, sad-eyed, pale, bare feet peek­ing out from beneath her dress, except in my dream her toes were paint­ed red.

Can I bum a cig­a­rette?” she said.

I tapped one out for her and she poked it between her lips. She had her own match­es. I was sit­ting in a booth in the restau­rant I’d nev­er made it to that after­noon. I’d already ordered my porter­house when she showed up. I under­stood all this accord­ing to dream log­ic. My beer sweat­ed on a coast­er. Suddenly every­body else was gone. The Virgin Mary sat across from me and jet­ted smoke from the cor­ner of her mouth.

Do you know my son?” she said, shak­ing out the match.

Not per­son­al­ly,” I said. “I know of him.”

What do you think?”

Of your son? He’s cool. The Good Samaritan. The Sermon on the Mount. That stuff’s pret­ty tight.”

She leaned for­ward con­fi­den­tial­ly and said, “He can be a jerk.”

Seriously?”

It’s right there in the Gospels,” she said. “’Woman, how does your con­cern affect me?’ And ‘Woman, fetch me some water.’ And what kind of man lets a woman wash his feet with her hair? Her hair!”

He was a man of his time, I guess.”

Baloney,” she said. “He’s divine. Eternal. He is of all time. This is not to men­tion that I taught him bet­ter.”

Well, maybe so, but didn’t he, you know, die to redeem us and every­thing?”

She nod­ded, her eyes welling up. “He suf­fered so much.”

She dragged and huffed out three per­fect smoke rings. We watched them hov­er for a sec­ond before wisp­ing apart.

I’m sor­ry,” she said. “I’m just in a crap­py mood. Thanks for the smoke.”

I had the feel­ing she was about to bless me or leave me with words of impos­si­ble wis­dom but that’s when I woke up. Moonlight. Silence. The sag of the mat­tress had caused my arms and shoul­ders to go prick­ly while I slept. I hoofed down to the bath­room for a whiz. It was just a dream. Before going back to bed, I stepped out­side and smoked a cig­a­rette for real beneath a sky row­dy with stars.

**

For break­fast, the monks served some kind of mush­room quiche. Nobody spoke, of course. Just the tick of knives and forks, every sound ampli­fied by the absence of con­ver­sa­tion. The monks were all bunched togeth­er at the tables near­est the door and I won­dered if they occu­pied the same bench­es morn­ing after morn­ing out of habit or if they had table cliques like in a high school cafe­te­ria or if it was pos­si­ble to form cliques in a place where nobody ever spoke. My pink-eyed neigh­bor looked refreshed, even at that hour, show­ered and shaved, a yel­low golf shirt but­toned to his neck. My guess: he was the music direc­tor at some out of the way parish and though noth­ing unto­ward had hap­pened yet, the rec­tor didn’t feel com­fort­able leav­ing him alone with lit­tle boys. That’s mean, I know. Probably he was just some guy with a job and a wife, maybe a few kids. Harmless. Afraid. Making an effort. The woman with the braid was across from me and three seats down. She was scrawl­ing in her jour­nal as she ate, her hands oper­at­ing inde­pen­dent of each oth­er, left man­ag­ing her fork, right her pen. Once, she brought the braid over her shoul­der and used it like a feath­er duster to brush crumbs off of the page. When she fin­ished eat­ing, I fol­lowed her out­side.

I said, “Excuse me,” and when she didn’t respond, I tried again. “Excuse me, miss. I know we’re not sup­posed to talk but I blew it yes­ter­day. I was hop­ing I could ask you a quick ques­tion.”

The woman stopped, her braid swing­ing as she turned. She hugged the jour­nal against her chest. No wed­ding ring.

I was just won­der­ing if we’d met before. If I seem famil­iar. I feel like I know you from some­where.”

She looked me up and down, then pulled the pen from behind her ear, jot­ted a few words and held the jour­nal up for me to read.

Nope. Sorry. And if you’re hit­ting on me that sucks.

Life is rich in point­less let­downs, a ver­i­ty more true for some than oth­ers. Fortyish sin­gle women who jour­naled at silent retreats, for exam­ple, did not gen­er­al­ly have much to look for­ward to. Neither did mar­ried men who’d reached an age when every­body looked famil­iar. I remind­ed myself that I was hitched to a woman with yoga legs and admirably elas­tic skin.

I’m not hit­ting on you,” I said. “Not on pur­pose.”

We stood there look­ing at each oth­er. Morning birds kicked up a rack­et in the trees. After a few sec­onds, her face soft­ened and she curled her fin­gers in good­bye and walked away, braid twitch­ing like a mon­key tail between her shoul­ders.

**

The gift shop was on the first floor of the rec­to­ry, offices upstairs. In addi­tion to mush­rooms, they stocked T-shirts with monk hoods hang­ing from the col­lar, reli­gious-themed jew­el­ry and books. These Trappists didn’t miss a trick. I picked out a cross, stud­ded with fresh water pearls, for Lake, a biog­ra­phy of Saint Benedict and a t-shirt for myself. For the two of us: a pound bag of dried sweet tooths and a bot­tle of mush­room vinai­grette. I passed my AmEx to the monk behind the counter. While we wait­ed for it to clear, he rolled his eyes over the slug­gish­ness of his com­put­er. I rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed. I knew where he was com­ing from. Finally, the machine whirred out my paper­work and I signed—Maxwell B. Fletcher, Jr.

Checkout wasn’t until 1:00 PM. I still had five hours on my hands. I pon­dered a farewell hike but ruled against it. There were three cig­a­rettes left in the pack. If I went ahead and smoked them, I’d have time to wash the smell off before Lake showed up. Did I feel guilty about my lapse? Maybe a lit­tle but I didn’t see any rea­son for my wife to hear about it. I’d quit again tomor­row. I stowed the loot in my room, fetched my ser­i­al killer nov­el and set­tled in under a tree with a view of the park­ing lot. I poked a butt between my lips. Just as I was about to light it, I mean the flame was jump­ing inch­es from the tip, I thought, nope, not a good idea, and blew out the match and broke the cig­a­rette in two and crum­pled up the oth­ers inside the pack. For a minute, I felt sort of des­per­ate and weak, like I’d made a ter­ri­ble mis­take but that passed and I flipped the book open and start­ed read­ing. This book was get­ting good. A pre­co­cious young FBI pro­fil­er deduced that well into his teens the killer’s moth­er had insist­ed on watch­ing him undress before he bathed. That was the rea­son for his thing with women’s eyes. After a cou­ple of chap­ters, I went upstairs to show­er and pack my duf­fel, then hauled all my gear back to that shady spot under the tree. I read right on through to the part where the young pro­fil­er tracks the killer to his base­ment of hor­rors and they have a show­down in the dark. I was plow­ing into the dénoue­ment when Lake arrived to car­ry me home.

~

Michael Knight is the author of two nov­els, Divining Rod and The Typist; two col­lec­tions of short fic­tion, Dogfight and Other Stories and Goodnight, Nobody; and a col­lec­tion of novel­las, The Holiday Season. His fic­tion has appeared in pub­li­ca­tions such as Esquire, The New Yorker and Oxford American. He teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the University of Tennessee.