Pamela Erens

The Understory
The Understory will be published by Ironweed Press on September 4, 2007.

From the novel:

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.

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To read a synopsis & advance praise for The Understory, click here