The Understory, An Excerpt

Pamela Erens


Many years ago, in a deli, I found flaky white bits floating in my self-serve coffee; the milk, sitting all day in a bucket of cold water, had turned sour. Since that day I have never drunk my coffee anything but black. Yet I look for those tainted curls every time: I pour, peer inside to reassure myself, then top it off.

Even here I am bound to my habits. I pour, pause, bend to my mug. All at once Joku is standing next to me at the end of the buffet table. He looks down, as if he too suspects that something is wrong with my drink. I move the mug away, toward me, and by the time I have accomplished this I’ve forgotten my most recent action. Did I already look inside? I think so, but it nags at me that I don’t know for sure. The glass coffeepot, suspended above the mug, is beginning to hurt my wrist. Joku is watching me now, and I become even more flustered and uncomfortable. To look twice is not good, not the way things should be, but I decide it is better than failing to look at all. So I glance in, confirm that the surface of the coffee is black and pure, then finish filling the mug and replace the pot on the electric hot plate. Joku moves off, toward the metal trays of kidney beans and homemade bread and peanut butter.

Normally his staring wouldn’t rattle me so much. I have grown used to it. He watches me in the dining hall, during chores, as we file into the meditation hall for zazen. He is so open about it, does not spy or hide. His head turns as we pass in the hallways. Without a doubt the abbot has asked him to keep tabs on me. For what if I am mentally unbalanced, a troublemaker? But today was different. Today Joku came so close that he nearly touched me.

He was the first person I met here, with the exception of the secretary. I was dirty from the night in the park and the day on the bus, and the red itchy blossoms on my neck and arms tormented me. Warily the secretary invited me in out of the snow, but I stayed under the eaves next to the large oak door with its brass doorknob while she ran to see what was to be done about me. It was only on the last leg of the trip that the snow had begun. When I’d left Manhattan it had been spring, but now, three hundred miles north, it was winter again, the land knocked back into dormancy. The sun was setting and I watched the spruce and firs below the hill sink into darkness. Then a small man in a dark robe came to the entrance. He had a broad, intelligent face and wire-rimmed glasses. I guessed him to be ten years older than I was, around fifty. “Mr. Ronan?” he asked. “My name is Joku.” He flung his hand toward the open door, indicating that I had been received, admitted. His gesture was too big; the back of his hand hit the door, made a leaden thud.

He led me through the simple corridors—unsanded beams, white plaster, flowers set in a wall alcove. I pictured Patrick passing through these hallways and wanted to reach out to touch the walls that he might have touched, but we were moving quickly and I did not want to call attention to myself. We arrived at a small office and the monk introduced me to the abbot, a tall man with a long, elegant head who sat at a desk bare of papers. The monk withdrew to the side of the room but could not seem to make himself unobtrusive. He shuffled, coughed, knocked over something on a table.

“Are you interested in our practice?” asked the abbot, resting his arms upon his desk. I had not expected him to look and sound so perfectly American. His voice had a Yankee timbre, the elegant head a Yankee frigidity. I answered that I didn’t know. I repeated what I had said to the secretary, that I had no home, no place to stay. I waited to be asked for more details. But the abbot only handed me a folded piece of paper and told the monk to find me a bed. And so I was taken to a room with four bunk beds and given a pillow and a small rough towel. Looking at the beds, I could already feel the nearness of the bodies that would lie in them tonight. Snow drizzled steadily outside the window. The fire under my skin brought water to my eyes and I slapped heavily at my arms, then pushed up my sleeve to show the monk that there was a reason, that it wasn’t craziness. His eyes widened. “What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing contagious,” I assured him. “An allergic reaction.”

“I will find something for you,” he told me.

The room was empty and quiet; the whole building was quiet. I looked at the paper the abbot had given me. It spelled out the abbey’s policy on nonpaying visitors. Short-term residencies would be permitted in exchange for twenty hours of labor a week. A list followed; I was to check off any areas in which I had special skill. Cooking. Computers. Communications. Gardening. And so on. Across the list I scrawled the word none. Then I erased that—better to appear useful—and put a check mark next to Gardening.

The monk came back with a crumpled tube. “Tch, tch,”  he clucked as I patted the ointment on. A strange, sorrowful little noise. I sighed as the cool salve penetrated the skin.

“We rise at four,” said the monk. “Just follow the others.”

“My name is Gorse, actually.”

“Pardon me?” He stopped at the door.

“I said Ronan but that’s not correct. My name is Gorse, Jack Gorse.”

“Mr. Gorse, then. Pleased to meet you.”

I was afraid he would hold out his hand. The fleshiness of a handshake has always repelled me, hands slickly moist or hot like a furnace. But he only bowed, Buddhist-style, his thick palms pressed together. He told me to make myself comfortable, and added that the others would be back in half an hour. The lights would be turned out at nine.

It felt good to have a bed. I fell asleep before the others returned.

Pamela Erens’s first novel, The Understory, was a finalist for both the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her widely-acclaimed second novel, The Virgins was a New York Times and Chicago Tribune Editors’ Choice. For many years she worked as a magazine editor, including at Glamour. She lives in Maplewood, NJ.