The Monk Dilemma

Cameron Stewart

Our town has too many monks. Ex-monks, call them whatever you want. They’re fleeing the monasteries, following the river, and moving in. We had our monk, Tarbo, the bent whisperer. He was a good monk, still is, though now he’s too embarrassed to belt even a Hail Mary. Poor soul. See, these monks come with their spiritual crises and make it seem like faith, even the laziest Sunday praise, is too mysterious a thing for humans to handle. They chastise Tarbo with Latin, tell him it’s not enough. Whatever we do, it’s not enough. Then Tarbo cries, and one of us has to hold him.

The monks wear jeans, throw frisbees. They say things like, If the Lord wills, then we won’t. They bake vegan cakes that are too big! The monks work on construction crews with hardhats; some mow lawns; another, with a lisp, answers the phone at Stillman’s, the Chevy dealer near the highway.

I see them pilgrimage to Tongue’s for lunchmeats and feel very lost in the world.

Some people want them out.

The monks are driving up rent, I announced at a town hall meeting. I’m a dentist with a record of painless work—so people listen to me. I stood in front of the sweating many and asked the big questions. What kind of a monk flees Jesus? I said. Why have they done this? And how does it look to our children? It looks like there are no answers to anything.

I haven’t been sleeping.

See them still-bald at Denny’s, sipping frothy coffee, staining their teeth.

I’ve had my own doubts, sure, like whether this life is the only one, and if it’s guided by a Love, and if that Love comes from inside, if it’s of our own making, or if it’s been around before the world and will continue after. I worry that time is gunking me, erasing even my few small feats. But that doesn’t mean I abandon my work! That doesn’t mean I go smoke cloves with the rock and rollers. No.

I went to Dickie (formerly Brother Peter) with my worries, and was told this moment is the only Truth, and that after, well, there’s probably a blank not even a doctor could fathom. He spoke of hollow things made whole and then emptied again. He crossed his legs, lit a smoke. I left Dickie and told my family this town had gone to shit.

The monks have their own informal hour at the gym. Try getting a treadmill next to one and watching him in the mirror, eyes closed, rap on his headphones, running like flames finger his neck. It’s enough to make you join Pilates.

The monks live in gutted apartments and listen to punk. They are forming a congregation of rockers whose lives aren’t sworn to false lords. Sometimes I catch myself driving to their squat, knowing that if I take a left here and a right there, I could sit with them and discuss these doubts that plague my days of oral hijinks. But I just end up screaming into the steering wheel.

My patients tell me how considerate the monks are, how zany. They’ve all become friends! Apparently Miguel and Dickie host elaborate dinner parties with much discussion about wine and polygamy. I get these facts after turning on the nitrous, watching my reclined patients go numb, mouths open, gossipy. Barb Havlick swears Miguel is indeed a saint, that he was once, in another life, a carpenter ant. Sometimes I like to go heavy on the gas, and their details turn dreamy.

“Miguel’s been cooking us pasta,” Barb told me last week. “He says his sauce recipe’s a Vatican secret. Joan’s got a crush on him, I just know it.”

“He’s very handsome,” I said.

I poked her gums until they bled.

At night, I see Dickie with a candle in his mouth, floating toward my wife. He calls to her with the phrases that were too close, too tender for me to ever say. And I could stop him, but in these visions my wife looks fulfilled, her face at rest and in love. So I let him hover, then hold her.

I haven’t been sleeping.

Dickie’s friend, Bravo, told me teeth are the heart’s shield, and that my profession was one of great importance. Then he laughed and handed me his business card.

I used to do root canals and feel a closeness to the world, a calm, an experience I could only describe as grace. I felt a stake in the town’s good mouths, the white teeth I’d spot on the street. Now just the sight of a cavity makes me cry.

Sometimes the monks break into people’s backyards and swim in their pools. I caught them just last night in our aboveground, hopping cannonballs in the nude. When I stood before them, flashlighting, they invited me into the water. Tarbo was there, newly-tattooed, splashing. He pulled my ankle. He pulled me in.

I want the monks out of my life.

But how do you scare people who are convinced this life is one long muffled cough?

The lord is a rotting mouth and I cannot swim.

Cameron Stewart was born and raised in Michigan. His work has appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Joyland, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He’s currently an MFA candidate at Columbia.