This short story can be found on pages 138-149 of our Spring 2009 issue.
“Fourth, and finally, there are the monks called gyrovagues, who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites. In every way they are worse than sarabaites. It is better to keep silent than to speak of all these and their disgraceful way of life. Let us pass them by, then, and with the help of the Lord, proceed to draw up a plan for the strong kind, the cenobites” (Fry, 32).
The monk who wanders too much, he is slight with blonde hair and a beard and a mustache and eyebrows to match. He is very smart, you see right away. Something about the face. The way he uses his hands when he talks, the words he chooses well. He is from a monastery in Maine. He joined two years ago. He wears a green wool sweater with a hole in the elbow. His eyes are blue, and he has this cunning smile that reels you in. You watch his dimples as he speaks. You watch his lips.
Some monks have Brooks Brothers shirts, he says.
Any gift I receive has to be approved by the monks, he says. They decide if I can use it or not.
And who approves the Brooks Brothers? you say.
He says, That’s a mystery.
You are at dinner, a cheap Chinese restaurant, with all the young faculty. They knew the Gyrovague from when he taught at St. Christopher’s two years ago, before he became a monk. They are all old friends.
He says: My father hates that I’m a monk. He doesn’t understand. My mother loves it.
Says: I think I’m just going to be a wanderer most of my life, and I’m okay with that.
The monks say the wanderer is lost, is looking for something that cannot be found.
He wants to write and read and spend time thinking.
You want to say: You could do the same in grad school, but with the added bonus of lots of sex.
You look at him and think you might be kindreds. But there will be no time to tell because the table is wide and you are hard of hearing and when he says, Where’s that again? You think he says, Wheresanabin? Some other language he thinks you might know. The woman to his right dies laughing when you say what you heard. The woman to his right is Your Rugby Roommate, blonde and wide. She laughs at the wrong things. Mostly at you. You are trying to think kind thoughts about her these days.
The Gyrovague says, I drank absinthe with the Abbott a couple of weeks ago. He laughs. He looks up, catches your eye, and you laugh with him.
Your Rugby Roommate says: Oh that stuff is awful for you. I had a terrible experience.
She makes a sour face and shakes her head. She talks about Florida, Spring Break, how she tried it there with friends.
Where did you get it? says the Gyrovague. How did you find it in Florida?
She shrugs. Waves her fork in the air. Oh, she says, I don’t remember. One of my friends. She blushes. Pushes her fork into her noodles and spins.
When you talked to your One Friend on campus before the Gyrovague arrived, he said: I’ve offered to be his escape car when he wants to jump the wall. I think it’ll be sometime this summer. I said I’d bring him liquor and a woman. He needs to get laid. That’s his biggest problem right now.
You wanted to say: Tell me about it.
You wanted to say: Stifle sexuality long enough and you get meanness or perverts. Haven’t you heard the news?
You say, You’ll bring a sacrificial woman?
He laughs. Says: Yes.
That’s sick, you say.
Your One Friend is tall and thin. He is a little bit older than the Gyrovague, and balding. The Gyrovague cannot be more than twenty-three or four. He is very young. Too young to sign his life away to abstinence and prayer. You think: He knows this but has not admitted it to himself yet.
You could say to the Gyrovague: My family does not like that I paint. I love to wander, too. I love to sit and think. I love to play guitar. I do not know if I can ever settle in one place. I do not know if I will ever be able to stick with one person and stay awhile. But love, I would like love.
But there are too many people between you and the Gyrovague, and none of them really cares who you are. You are the person who fills a particular, temporary role at St. Christopher’s, which is filled each year by someone new. So you are just a figure of that position and not in fact an individual. You are not worth the investment.
You think: I have so much to do. I want to finish my collage. It is hanging from clothespins in the spare room right now. Tiny one-inch clothespins in multi colors. You walk between the rows of hanging papers, ducking under one row to get to the next, and you wonder how you wonder how you will ever put it together. How you will make it whole.
You look up and call across the table, You should leave. Get out of there, just go!
He looks up, startled. He smiles. Two dimples. You want to touch his hands. You want to kiss his lips. You imagine it, then, how they would feel against yours. You would slide your finger into that hole in his sweater, and touch his skin.
What if I did? he says. He is staring, staring at you.
And you are lifting, lifting up.
Everyone else at the table is arguing about what happened during the lacrosse game, the ref’s call toward the end, something unfair happened. You and the Gyrovague can hear each other fine. Suddenly, there is no need to strain or shout. You are speaking into this silence.
We could run north, he says. To the mountains. To Canada. He smiles.
Alright, you say. Sure. You smile, too. You cannot help it. The smile just comes.
I’d read to you at night, he says, and you could show me your paintings, and we would live wherever we felt like living, and someday we’d have a baby.
And I’d knit him little sweaters, you say.
And he laughs and says, Yes.
And there is this imaginary life in that moment: The way your lives could be, how you would run across the world together, how nothing from this place would matter, how you would live together the kind of life you dream. It could be like this.
He laughs. He stares at you awhile, and the rest of the people go on talking and eating, oblivious.
You say: Yes. And you let this dream go on spinning, trying not to believe in it too much. But believing in it anyway, wholeheartedly. You cannot stop, you cannot stop this wild hope. It feels reckless. It feels good.
The monks walk all over campus, black robes breezing in the wind behind them. Black robes black wool hats black shoes. I wonder if they wear white underwear. Wonder if they have to put their whites in separate loads.
One of them wears white socks when he goes to the gym. Brother Spasm. The bearded skinny one. He carries a book and wears his black shorts, his black shirt, his black orthopedic shoes, his white socks, and he walks to the gym and works out.
Goes around the Holy Lawn, the green square in the middle of the buildings. The church on one side, the classroom buildings, the Admin building. Don’t walk on the Holy Lawn. There’s no religion to this. It is just tradition.
I walk my dog at ten o’clock at night. She is restless by then. She needs a stretch before sleeping. Down here by the bay, it is dark and all the trees creak in the wind. They are old trees–oaks and birches and maples and beeches. They have a row of knuckles up their trunks on the road-side, from where their branches were trimmed back. The branches on the yard side reach out and out, zagging against the blue sky.
Sometimes I am very scared walking alone at night. No one else walks down here. I look down to the water and hear the buoy rocking back and forth with its clanging bell. The water is dark. The moon shines on it. I half expect a man swimming in the bay. Horror film.
On this night, December, I walk up to campus and turn left, down the driveway. Walk past the little graveyard where every monk is buried. Walk past the house to the left that is all lit up with a family inside. And then, running from the dumpster comes the father from the lit-up house, and his two dogs, who run up to greet my dog. All their tails wagging. My dog’s whole rear-end wags because she has no tail. The father says, Are you going for a walk? Shall we join you?
This is good. I have been working all alone all night. Yes, please! I say.
So we go walking. Through the campus and into the fields where I am scared to go alone at night. Fields where the coyotes hunt. I have been warned. They will eat my little dog if they find her alone. Now, the dogs race together–except for his little one, who stays close to his heels because she does not like my dog–and we talk about Vermont. Thank God for the snow in Vermont. And we talk about how expensive lacrosse sticks are these days. One hundred and fifty dollars for a hockey stick! Unimaginable. And we talk about his wife’s job medicating the sick. She is a nurse.
The father is kind, and he talks about teaching and he has a mother who lives now in the town where I grew up. His mother is declining. I don’t know what it is like to have a mother in decline, but I imagine it is very sad. She only sometimes remembers things. She lost her license and does not understand why.
This must be a confusing way to live.
At the great white windmill, we look up and laugh because Brother Michael has put a star up there, somehow. A white lit-up star as big as one of the smaller dogs. How did it get up there? Amazing, we say. The father says the monks are a Cranberg nightmare, and I say what is Cranberg? and he says it’s the company that regulates the use of machines. I laugh.
Then he goes his way, hands in his pockets, waving goodbye, and I go mine. I am alone again. My One Friend is away. The Gyrovague is gone. It is all right. My little yellow dog and I walk home, the sound of the buoy in the bay calling us back.
[displayed in dorm lobbies, dining hall lobby, and Admin Building near mailroom]:
The Honor Committee met Tuesday night to discuss several dorm violations. Devon Tucker and Sweeney Hardin were suspended for one week for sneaking out of their dorm room and hitching a ride to Portland, where they were found smoking cigarettes at the harbor. Devon Tucker faces further punishment for being caught the following night in the dorm room of Melanie Tidwell, who will also be suspended for one week. Suspension begins Mar. 2 and ends Mar. 8. Students will make special arrangements with teachers to stay caught up with their work. Questions should be directed to Dr. Cardwell.
Ms. James, says Iris, are you and Mr. L dating?
We are in the top of the Arts Building, which faces the bay. It is March, still cold in Maine. The sea is choppy, frilled with wind. A sailboat rocks past. The pines down by the shore sway a little back and forth. We sit in a circle in chairs with desks attached. Steven taps his pencil.
Well? says Iris.
No, I say. I turn back to the class. We are just friends.
Men and women can be just friends, says Kathryn. She nods. Affirming.
Yes, I say.
We saw you watching a movie with him, says Amy.
We saw you walking through town with him, says Iris. At first she doesn’t mention him, first she says she saw just me, but then she says with Mr. L. As if she was trying to protect me from the gossip, but once the cat was out of the bag, well–all bets are off.
I like Mr. L, says Penelope. He’s really nice. He’s so smart.
He taught me how to write, says Kathryn. He’s such a good writer.
He’s a really good teacher. I really like him.
If you were dating him, says Kathryn, I approve. I mean, just so you know.
I laugh. Thank you, Kathryn, I say. You’re so wise today. Like my grandmother with all these lessons.
Okay, I say. Take out a piece of paper. Time to write.
What are we writing about? says Iris.
A game, I say. I’m going to give each of you a word. I reel them off and point: tomato, umbrella, Spain, duckling, engagement ring, math.
Linda got engagement ring. She says, Can I write about you and Mr. L?
No, I say.
Do you grade your papers together? says Maria. She says it singsong, teasing.
Yes, I say. I am tired of their questions. I say: Naked.
They are shocked. They all laugh. Then I laugh.
I shouldn’t have said that, I say. It was a joke to make you stop asking questions.
But they are laughing. They are out of control.
A grading-papers booty call! says Penelope.
What’s that? says Steven. He is the only boy in class. He is a freshman, blonde, blushes easily. His neck is splotched red.
It’s when you call someone up in the middle of the night to have sex, says Maria. She nods. Matter-of-fact. Check that off our to-do list.
Thank you, Maria, I say, for clarifying.
He should know! says Kathryn. Otherwise he’ll miss his chance if he gets one and doesn’t know what it is!
Ha ha ha ha ha. They all laugh.
Steven is often late for class. He clowns at being disorganized. When I come into the classroom, he is face-up on my desk, stretched out, saying, Miss James, I’m so tired. He snores. All of this is a cover, for his uncertainty. He is afraid of looking foolish, so he always plays the fool.
New assignment, I say. I pass out post-it’s.
Ooooh, they say, Post-it’s! They laugh and stick them and unstick them on the table, on each other’s arms. Penelope puts one on her forehead. Steven looks at her and giggles.
I say, The assignment today is to write down a character’s name and two details about that person. Then pass the paper to the person across from you.
Steven writes down his details, his character, and passes his post-it to Iris.
Iris reads her character. Says: Adam Smithhumanbrownhair took a walk one day…
I laugh because I realize.
Steven, what were the details you wrote down? I say.
He’s a human and he has brown hair.
And his name is Adam Smith?
Oh, says, Iris, I thought it was all one name.
Everyone laughs. Iris is embarrassed.
I try, but I cannot stop laughing. It is not even very funny, but sometimes, when they talk, they remind me of something I want to find again. And so I laugh, because I am caught up in it, and it feels so good. So good to feel this again, as if I am cut loose.
They are digging a ditch behind our house and have turned up slate. A big pile of pieces of black and gray slate. My Rugby Roommate and I talk about it in the morning, over cereal. Watch the men in the little bulldozer. Eat our Cheerios.
Mr. Griffiths comes by with his happy dog Gabe, who bounds up to my little dog Andie. They chase each other around the yard. Andie is so happy for a friend, for a friend, please to play!
Mr. Griffiths wears a trench coat and a hat. He is a man in his sixties. He lived here for thirty years, and then the school told My Rugby Roommate and me to move in, and Mr. Griffiths moved up the bay, closer to the yacht club. Come winter, he said, I left storm windows, you know. Said, Oh, you don’t want to put those up yourself. You get the school to do that for you. Those are plate glass. Mr. Griffiths is right. Mr. Griffiths is kind.
He looks at the pile of slate. A ditch to prevent the spring flooding (Inches of water! Talking Man told us. Up to your shins! I’d walk in and Mrs. Griffiths would say, Upstairs, upstairs, Gabbie has food for us upstairs! Away from the water. Away from the flood.)
He looks at the pile of slate and touches his hat and says, I didn’t know they were going to dig there. I wish I had known. I asked Mick about that. Asked him this summer. He said they were going the other way. This is uphill, so I figured they wouldn’t dig down this way. Geez, I wish I’d known.
When he walks up and down the hill to the bay, he looks in the windows. Sees me sitting there watching TV. Sees me eating a peanut butter sandwich. Sees me wasting my time. Guilt. When he looks in, I wonder how it feels to see someone else living in your own house. To see someone else’s furniture. Someone else’s taste. Someone else’s life. My green couch sitting PLUNK in the middle of the room. I wonder how it feels. How it feels to look in and see thirty years erased like that. Or, thirty years of memory slicked thick and unerasable in the air around the house.
Oh, I say, They started just this week. I stand on the stoop. He whirls around to me. Whirls back to the pile. The belt of his trench coat swings loose against his back as he turns. The pile of broken slate. The soil here full of it.
In the early fall, a group was down on the beach, chiseling at the slate that sits in layers along the shore, holding up the dirt, the roots, the trees, that jut like small cliffs out over the stony beach. They chiseled with their gloves, delirious on their search. What are you looking for? I asked. Fossils! said a gloved man. He chiseled with his son. Big smile on his skinny face.
I buried two dogs there, says Mr. Griffiths. Put down concrete slabs and everything. I had markers for them. And I asked Paul if he was going to dig there. Because I would have done something about it if I’d known. He said they were going to go the other way. I wish I’d known. I’m just– I buried two dogs there.
Our two living dogs circle the house, ears pressed back to the wind.
I’m sorry, I say. Oh, that’s too bad.
It is, he says. It’s really too bad.
He puts his hands on his hips. Touches his hat. Touches his cheek.
This man who left his house of thirty years. I see him longing for it. See his dog turn into the drive every time he passes by. See him say: No, Gabe. And Gabe veers back, stays on the road.
They walk this route every day, from the house to campus, a half mile away across the fields and through the woods that reach down to the water. A tradition they must have had–to walk to the rocky beach and back again. To walk right down to the bay just before sunset.
The sunsets here are hot and red and fill up the whole sky. A hot pink and red horizon against the black line of trees. Crayola colors. Thick and waxy and rich.
I’m so sorry, I say. Can I do something? We could make a new marker?
Well, he says. And then he turns to go, and he calls to Gabe, and Andie follows.
Here, Andie! I say. Come here!
She’s right here, he says. She’s just here.
He and Gabe walk away, and he does not say goodbye or even turn back. I stand and watch and call out, Goodnight, Mr. Griffiths.
Dear Ms. James, Re: Your Grades,
An email from the balding tall thin blockhead in the Admin Building, which always smells of must and incense. Happy Spring! As the term begins, please try to keep your grade median to a 70. It was too high last term. Thanks, Blockhead.
Why won’t he ever call me by my first name? Which is Margaret.
Last night, I had a date with a man with no ass. Who loves his dogs too deeply. Baby-talks to them. We met while walking our dogs at the beach. I thought that was romantic, boded well. Nope.
What I want, what I want, what I want.
Is. Not. Here.
Just after spring break, down at the bay, I find eight squid lying dead on the rocks, their bodies clearish white, smeared in streaks of black, the ink they shed as they were hooked and dying. They were left here on the rocks, in the sun, to rot. Not to be used for bait. Not to be tossed back. No, they laid in the sun to dry out slowly. The days are hot, the nights still cold.
Their eyes are round and black and ringed in white, so they are staring up at me. Waiting. Waiting for something. As if they are saying – why? As if I am the one.
I stare down at them. I hope they are still alive, that if I toss them back, they’ll soak up the water again and squish away with that funny gathering-and-extending swim of theirs.
I pick each one up, sticky skin, and throw it in at the edge of the water, and watch to see. Four times, I throw. Each one bobs in the waves, tentacles dangling. Dead dead dead.
The wind blows off the water. The sun goes down. No dramatic set tonight, just a yellow glow that fades to deep blue. It is cold. I pull my sweater closer to my body. But I can’t stop trying. I pick up the last four, one by one. Try not to look at their big black eyes. How they stared into the sun as they dried out. Watched the sun press into them. How it must have stung. Who did this? Who would do this? What kind of person? I am angrier and angrier, and I toss each one in and wait to see if maybe–maybe the water will do the trick. Maybe they are alive.
Once they’re all back in the water, I wait. I watch until it is dark and they have bobbed away. One has washed back up, but I throw him in again. I wait until I can’t see anymore, and then I turn and walk uphill. I walk home, and I imagine how they came alive offshore, how the water soaked in and soothed their eyes and soothed their squid-skin, and made them translucent again, as squid are meant to be, and they pulled in their tentacles and pushed them back out and it was almost like they were singing as they swam away. And I could hear them as I walked up to the house. I walked underneath the old oaks and beeches, and the night was dark around me and the wind ushered me up the hill, and I could hear the way their squid song rose above the water.