Willie swung his hammer and missed, smacking his thumb. He mashed his lips together, trying not to swear. He considered the monastery on the hill, and the serenity of the valley where he knelt on top of a storage shed. Even the songs of the cardinals and chickadees, singing from the chokecherry, the oak, and the maple trees, echoed. Then he thought how sometimes the right cuss word at the right moment really does make you feel better, and he swore, a great gust of profanity that flew through the muggy heat of the valley and echoed over and over. He lowered his head, his thumb throbbing. He wondered if he had interrupted the nuns and their prayers or their sitting in silence, or whatever they did all day—he wasn’t sure. But he imagined them up there on the hill. Imagined that they were old and that their bones ached as they rose from their knees and hobbled through the rows of pews as they made their way to the monastery window, their dark liquid shapes pooling behind the stained-glass image of the Virgin Mary. He imagined the nuns slowly cranking open a window and peering out, casting their judgment upon him.
But when he gathered the courage to look, the monastery buildings were still, the windows all closed. It was brick on brick on pious brick and the Virgin Mary holding her hushed hillside vigil.
The pain in his thumb flared and he shook his hand. Sweat stung his eyes, and he pulled out the handkerchief from the back of his jeans pocket, wiped his face. He took another look around the valley, steadied himself, then grabbed another nail.
It was hard to concentrate. The cicada chorus had seemed louder and louder these last few days. It sounded to Willie as if the cicadas were screaming. He thought about his wife, Melinda. The baby hadn’t been due for another two months on that Friday evening when he had come home from work to find her bleeding. They had rushed to the hospital. He thought about how they had sat there waiting in that tiny room until the pediatrician, a man Willie had never liked, had walked in and told them the news. On the drive home, Melinda had been silent, leaning against the door, her face obscured by a lock of thick brown hair that had escaped her ponytail. He’d gripped the steering wheel tight, promising himself he’d remain optimistic, that he would be strong, a rock she could lean on. And when they got home, he told her over and over that it’d be all right.
Over the weekend, she’d spent most of her time in their bedroom, shades drawn, door locked. Willie would leave food and steaming mugs of her favorite tea at the door, and notes scrawled with a carpenter’s pencil. Then the evening before he left for the monastery job, to cheer her up, he knocked. But when she opened the door and he saw her blotchy face and the depth of her sorrow, he no longer felt strong. He felt unmoored.
Remembering to be strong, he cleared his throat, handed her a brochure, Every Child Needs a Home, that he had found serendipitously in the pages of ads in the Sunday paper. There was a golden-haired boy on the cover between two doting parents. We could always adopt, he told her.
“What,” she said, tears welling in her eyes, already stepping backward into the room, “is wrong with you?”
He didn’t know.
Jesus H. Christ. You can’t be swearing up here. God himself must have heard that one.” Dale’s head appeared at the top of the ladder as he reached the roof. Dale had been with the crew nearly ten years, twice as long as Willie. A big man with impending heart-attack energy, he always carried a soft pack of Camels in his shirt pocket. It looked like he was clutching his chest in pain whenever he reached for a smoke. He was a roofer through and through, nimble, almost graceful on a ladder. He could schlep shingles all day without complaint, didn’t mind tar fumes wafting off a hot roof.
“Can’t keep the sweat out of my eyes. I hit my thumb again,” Willie said, shaking his hand.
“That’s not a meat tenderizer, it’s a hammer. Try hitting the nails. And what did I say about swearing? These nuns aren’t messing around. You’re going to get us excoriated.”
“Excommunicated,” Willie said.
Dale lit a cigarette, cupped it in his hand, took a quick furtive drag, and dropped it to the roof. He mashed it out with his boot. “Exactly.”
Willie scratched his face, leaving a smudge of dirt and tar along his jawline. They hadn’t seen any nuns. Sure, they could hear their singing throughout the day, but they hadn’t talked to any yet. It was making them both anxious.
The heat didn’t help. Under the late August sun in Wisconsin, a roof can be twenty degrees hotter than the ground.
“I figure, what, two hours before the storm hits?” Dale said. The night before, a weatherman had predicted high-force winds, hail, and the possibility of tornadoes. A cold front was moving down from Canada and would collide with the heavy heat of the established low-pressure system.
“Just the storage shed left to finish. Then pack up the equipment. You’ll be back to Melinda before you know it.”
Melinda. What would he say? Willie dropped a shingle and feebly tried to pick it up. In his other hand, his hammer felt like a brick. What could he say to her? He still did not have the words, a solution that he could offer. He looked up, and the valley was spinning slightly, the monastery buildings up on the hill stuttering left to right. His head was pounding. He swallowed against his rising nausea.
“I’m a bit woozy, Dale. I gotta rest for a second.”
“Christ, you look like a ghost. Go lie down in the shade and drink some damn water.”
When Willie reached the ground, he headed toward a bench at the foot of the hill. A copse of oak trees stood near the bench. With outstretched gnarled branches, they draped the bench in shade. Beside the bench, a gravel path led up the hill to the monastery. As Willie made his way to the bench, he noticed that the earth lay covered in thousands of acorns. In the dappled sunlight the mahogany nuts gleamed with a polished luster. Through his boots, he could feel them crumbling and scattering as he walked.
When Willie arrived at the bench, he sat. He spat on the ground and took a long pull from his thermos. The water was cool, like the shade. He wiped the sweat from his forehead. Again, he thought of Melinda. The baby. The words that would make everything all right. What were those words? he wondered. He closed his eyes.
Before heading out to the monastery, the boss had sat them down in his office. He’d told them to be on their best behavior while they replaced the monastery roofs. He explained that he could have sent a whole crew, had the job done in one day, but he didn’t want the guys horsing around and blasting their music. He wanted Dale and Willie to drive out there, quietly work their shift, and get off the property. Head back to the motel when they were done. When he told them they couldn’t smoke, Dale broke out in a coughing fit.
“What about on the roof?”
“No, Dale. Not on the roof, not on the ground. Don’t smoke on the property, period.”
“Sunflower seeds, Dale,” Willie said. “I heard sunflower seeds help.”
Even in the air-conditioned office, beads of sweat began forming on Dale’s forehead. The man loved to smoke.
“Or gum,” Willie said. “Can you chew gum and swing a hammer at the same time?”
“I don’t think the nuns would care. The roof, that high up—.”
“You want the out-of-town rate or not?”
Dale grinned. “Sure, boss.”
“Then act like you’re in a church when you get out there. These nuns aren’t messing around. They think they’re living in a garden or something. It’s like a sanctuary. You can’t be shouting and bothering them.”
They had done a few churches, and once replaced a tricky Dutch gabled roof, steep as hell, on Father Ron’s house in town here. But a monastery filled with nuns was a different story.
Later that day, Melinda had lost the baby. Then the broken-hearted weekend. Then early Monday morning the two men had piled into the sleeper semi-truck, the trailer behind them loaded with tools and pallets of shingles. After two hours of driving past corn fields and cows, the monastery was hard to miss. Even a mile out, Dale and Willie could see glimpses of the buildings through the trees as they followed a windy county road down into a valley. Following the directions the boss had written out, they turned onto a dirt road that cut through a thick pine forest. They emerged from the trees and the dirt road became a paved oval. Around the oval, stood several ancillary buildings: a garage, some storage units, and a lodge. These were the buildings the men would be working on.
On the eastern hill, brick buildings lay scattered as if they had tumbled from the peak and found purchase in the rocky forested slope. Amongst these, a tall narrow tower held a church bell lit with the first rays of the rising sun. Farther down, still in shadow, lay several domed buildings and an outdoor concrete amphitheater. From her position on the side of a castle-like building, the stained glass Virgin Mary stood overlooking a craggy precipice. These were the buildings of the monastery that housed the Discalced Carmelites of the Holy Name of Jesus. These were the buildings that their boss had forbidden them to go near.
Each day they arrived at the jobsite before the sun rose. They laid out the equipment and prepped in near darkness. The rising sun lit upon the bell tower first. Soon after, the chanting of the nuns’ morning prayer drifted down the valley and shimmered through the morning fog. The men’s hammers rang out while the nuns sang their hymns. Swarms of mosquitoes came out to greet them, retreating when the sun had burned off the fog. The men worked through the day, taking a break at noon when the church bell rang out twelve times. They found solace in the shade as the midday prayer wafted down to them in ghost-like fragments. After the break, they began working again and continued until sunset. They finished as the first fireflies appeared in the valley.
Exhausted, the men would head back to the Surf Wood Motel, a dusty dive plopped between two cornfields. In the front office, a stuffed swordfish hung in the middle of a powder blue wall. A large counter wrapped around to a bar in the back. The owner, a small taciturn man, would work the front office counter and serve drinks in the back at the same time. The nautical theme extended to the bar; mismatched Tiki decorations were strewn about the fake wood-paneled wall and a fisherman’s net hung from the ceiling; a pool table sat hulking in the middle of the room.
Too tired to play pool, the men sat at the bar and drank longneck Old Styles while eating their gas station dinners. Dale finished his club sandwich, crumpled the wrapper. He lit a cigarette, took a drag, and parked it in the ashtray on the bar. “One thing’s for certain, you’ll always be allowed to smoke in bars.” He laughed.
Willie looked at his half-eaten egg salad sandwich and pushed it aside. Night Court, playing on a small television at the end of the bar, was interrupted by a weather update.
“We gotta finish before the storm,” Dale said. “Otherwise, we’re going to end up back here Monday.”
Willie took a long pull from his bottle of beer. In the corner, the owner scratched in an answer to his crossword puzzle.
“What’s Melinda going to say if we have to come back on Monday?”
“I’m not sure she’s going to care one way or another,” Willie said, peeling a strip of the label off his bottle. He was rolling the strips in his hand then placing them in a pile.
“What’s up with you?”
Willie took a sip of beer. On the television, there was a map of the county with lightning bolts, bands of clouds with arrows predicting their direction. A neon Schlitz sign buzzed in the corner. The arm of the jukebox lifted a 45. The needle fell on To Ramona and Bob Dylan’s keening, golden lamentations emanated from the speaker.
Dale pounded the bar with his fist. “Come, on. It’s our last night.” The owner looked up from his newspaper. Dale waved him over. “Let’s get Papa Bear here a shot,” he said nodding to Willie.
The owner placed his eyeglasses on the bar and plodded over to the men.
“Pretty soon Willie will be up to here,” Dale said to the owner, his hand at his chest, “in diapers.”
“Congratulations,” the owner said without emotion.
Dale rubbed his hands together. “You got any vermox?”
“What’s that?” the owner asked.
Dale scanned the bottles in front of the bar mirror. “It’s homemade. All the bars around here have it. There,” he said, pointing to the bottom shelf.
The bartender placed a whiskey bottle with no label on the counter. The liquid inside, half whiskey, half vermouth, was dark brown. A sprig of wormwood weed sat steeping in the middle.
“Really?” Willie asked. He could already taste the bitter, pungent flavor.
“Don’t get soft on me now,” Dale said as the bartender poured two shots. Bits of the weed floated atop the whiskey.
“Smells awful,” the owner said.
“Tastes awful. You want one?” Dale asked.
“Oh,” he said, his hands outstretched. “I don’t drink.”
“What do you mean?” Dale looked confused. “You own a bar.”
The man looked around the place and shrugged. “My grandfather owned a lot of properties. When he passed, he left me this place.”
“Aren’t you lucky,” Willie said.
“Yes, and no. My sister inherited a laundromat. Makes decent money. Hardly has to lift a finger.”
Dale elbowed Willie in the side. “We’re in the wrong business. Get yourself a laundromat, then you can stay home with Melinda and the little guy.”
Willie reached for his shot and drank it down. The vermox was violently bitter. Like ground aspirin, or the milk from a dandelion stem, with a hint of bug repellent. But as it hit his half-empty stomach, he felt that familiar glow, the temporary relief that only whiskey seems to bring.
“Another,” he said, pointing at the empty shot glass.
“Well, prost to you too,” Dale said, lifting up his shot and drinking it down.
The bartender poured two more, and Willie reached out for his glass.
“Easy there, Papa,” Dale said, pulling a twig of wormwood from his teeth. “Got a long day tomorrow.”
Willie drank his shot, shuddered, then placed the glass on the bar. He pointed again. The owner poured another and Willie drank it down.
“We lost the baby,” Willie said, staring into the empty glass.
Dale’s face contorted, and Willie felt a wave of guilt. He knew Dale was a good guy. A damn good guy. He should have told him sooner.
“Sorry, should have told you. Melinda’s so upset and everything. It’s a mess.”
Dale looked up and away, and bit his cheek. “You try talking to her?”
“Of course I tried.”
“What did she say?” the bartender asked. Willie thought back. What had Melinda said? He couldn’t remember.
The next morning, the men headed out to the monastery earlier than usual. They scrambled to finish before the heat and the storm. Willie worked on the last roof, thinking of Melinda and what he might say to her. Then he hit his thumb, and the heat became unbearable. He found solace in the shade, and lay down on the bench.
Willie drifted in and out of sleep, in and out of dreams and thoughts of Melinda, of the baby, of what he should say when he returned home that evening. He stirred and opened his eyes. There was a woman standing in front of him. The sun was behind her and her features were lost in the radiance. He could just make out her plain white tunic and a black coif that covered her hair and fell down her back. He felt rude not standing up, but he was afraid that if he moved, she would disappear.
“It must be a mast year,” she said, looking around at the oak trees. “Did you know trees can talk to each other?” She sounded younger than Willie expected. Her words were like a burbling spring feeding into a stream that never changed and flowed on and on forever. “They communicate. They plan for their survival. And every few years they dump so many acorns that there are far too many for the squirrels to eat or to hide. And so,” she said, raising her hands, palms up, skyward, “some of the acorns have a chance to grow. “
Willie turned on the bench. The squirrels were madly darting amongst the trees, their tails twitching, greedily turning acorns in their paws. “Looks like they have their work cut out for them, that’s for sure.” His voice was raw. He took a drink from his thermos. The water, from the Surf Wood Motel tap, was crisp and delicious. “A mast year. I never heard of that before. Dale would get a kick out of that.”
“Your coworker? You should put him at ease, tell him that the cigarette smoke doesn’t bother us. We could smoke. If we wanted to, that is.” She covered her eyes and looked back over the valley. They could hear Dale’s hammer thwacking away. “It wouldn’t be a rule violation or anything like that. We don’t smoke because we take a vow of poverty. If one sister had cigarettes, I suppose we would all be jealous or something.”
Willie laughed, turned on his back, and closed his eyes again. “Yeah, I could see that.”
The nun reached down and plucked an acorn from the ground. She regarded it for a moment before letting it fall from her hand. “We all smoked together once, after Gwen’s mother died. Gwen was young, and she had just joined our cloister. She knew when she joined us that her mother was sick. So it wasn’t a surprise. But all the same. It’s hard. And then Gwen left to help her family. We had the sense that she wasn’t coming back. And she never did. That night a group of us went for a walk. Gwen told stories about her mother. They were kind stories, and funny too. Gwen was a real firecracker, and so was her mother. Someone brought out a pack of cigarettes and we passed them around and we all smoked. And we walked and Gwen talked and we just listened.”
When Willie opened his eyes again, Dale was standing before him. “Mother Nature’s going to let loose on us soon. Ready to get out of here?”
A cool breeze was coming down from the hills. It was stifling hot one moment, cold the next. The air was charged, the birds and cicadas now silent. A shelf cloud was cresting the hill, a dark rolling line with bright milky lobes on the bottom that hung down like fingers. Beyond the clouds was only darkness, lit up sporadically by bolts of lightning.
Dale had finished. The roofs were complete, the equipment loaded. The men made their way to the rig.
“We did it,” Dale said, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. “Four roofs finished.”
Willie grabbed his lunchbox and toolbelt from the grass. “And no nuns harmed in the process.”
Dale took a long drag from his cigarette and looked up to the monastery on the hill. “The boss will be proud we didn’t get executed.”
“Excommunicated,” Willie said, opening the door of the cab and tossing his toolbelt in.
“That too,” Dale said, tossing his butt on the grass and grinding it out.
There was a crack of lightning followed by thunder. The men jumped into the truck. Dale pushed the pedal down, and shifted. They climbed up out of the valley, then turned toward the motel, just ahead of the storm.
Back at the motel, Dale parked the rig. The men made their way across the parking lot. The wind was picking up and above they could see the clouds churning in dark swirls. Dale stopped midway to the motel and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a fistful of quarters.
“Why don’t you give Melinda a call? We should wait this out anyway.”
Willie reached out and Dale dumped the quarters into his cupped hand.
Dale nodded toward the motel. “I’m going to have a vermox for the road.”
Willie reached the phone booth and closed the door behind him. He could hear the rumble of the approaching storm and the first few raindrops like pebbles tossed against the glass. He fed the quarters into the coin slot and heard their jangled hollow crash. As he pressed the square metal buttons, he heard the muted melody of his phone number, the harsh mechanical beep of each and every number. Melinda answered. The wind outside the booth rose, howling like a runaway train, and the rain came pouring down and her words came pouring out. Willie had to mash the plastic receiver against his ear to hear her. He could not shout over the wind, rain, and thunder, so he was silent.
And he listened.