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?”
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.”
“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.