An Exclusive Excerpt From The Abbey, James Martin’s New Novel
The Abbey, the first novel by the Jesuit writer and Philadelphia native James Martin, SJ, is set in and around Philadelphia. Anne is a recently divorced woman living in Plymouth Meeting, grieving the loss of her 13-year-old son Jeremiah. Mark, a thirtyish man renting a house from her, works as a handyman at a Trappist monastery near St. Davids. A chance encounter with Mark will lead Anne to the monastery, where she will be invited to see her life in a new way. In a previous chapter, three neighborhood boys accidentally broke a window in Mark’s house with an errant baseball.
As he stretched his rangy body in bed, Mark’s first thought was not that it was a Saturday — and that he could rest after having spent so much of the past week sanding and repainting the monastery fence — but that he would have to tell his landlady about the broken window and ask her for the name of a repairman. Anne was a stickler for that.
“If you have to do any kind of repairs,” she told him when he first rented the house, “I want to know. And I want to tell you whom to call. I don’t want you calling some idiot repairman.”
Looking at her levelly, he had willed himself not to remind her that he was an experienced carpenter, not to mention an architect. She seemed to read his mind, something he found both alarming and attractive.
“I know you’re a carpenter,” she said, “so it’s nothing personal. I just like to know the people who are working on the house. I’m sure you can understand.”
He nodded politely.
A few hours later, with the sun overhead and the cicadas proclaiming the coming humidity, he made his way to Anne’s house, just a few doors away. Mark already felt a kind of ownership of the block, even though he had lived there only a year. “My neighborhood,” he liked to say to his friends, something he’d not said since he was a kid in Boston. Built in the late 1950s, the low-slung, split-level brick houses were kept tidy by their owners, mainly young couples with children, empty-nesters, and widows. Mark was the rare renter, something that initially incurred not just the curiosity of his neighbors, but also their suspicion. But by doing odd jobs for them — helping one build a stone wall for his garden, helping another perfect his stucco technique, shoveling snow when asked by the elderly ladies, who seemed to hide in their houses except when a job needed doing, and being friendly with the teenage boys, who admired his frequent dates with attractive women — he cemented his place in the neighborhood after a few months.
The street looked its best in the spring, he thought, with the tall maple trees unfurling their pale green leaves, dogwood trees dotted with short-lived white flowers, and ornamental cherry trees sporting puffy pink blossoms. Just this week the lilac bushes lining the side of the house had come into light purple bloom. Yesterday, before he left for work, Mark had paused to enjoy the lilac-scented air. The single discordant note was the braying of leaf blowers, weed whackers, and lawn mowers, which crowded out silence on weekends in the spring, summer and fall.
Anne’s house looked like his house; she had made sure of that. The same neatly trimmed yew bushes, the same stone-lined flower beds, and the same tall black lampposts on the front lawns announced to the neighborhood that both number 105 and number 111 were hers. Her ex-husband, Mark had heard, pleaded that the two houses at least be painted different colors. That, apparently, was one of the few battles he had won. So Anne’s house was trimmed in red, and Mark’s — or rather, Anne’s other house — in white.
There was a long oval of clear glass in the center of the front door, so Mark could see into her living room. He gently knocked on the door. “Anyone home?”
Immediately, his landlady’s annoying little yap dog, as he called it, tore down the stairs from the second floor, planted himself before the window, and barked frantically. When Mark did not leave, the dog shifted to growling and baring its teeth. While Mark stared down the dog, he examined the reflection of his long, sandy hair. He should probably get a haircut today. What compelled people to buy these little dogs?
Anne appeared and pulled open the door. “Shut up!” Noting the surprise on Mark’s face, she added, “Sorry. This insane dog.”
She deftly pushed the dog back with her left foot, opened the screen door, and slipped outside, almost pushing Mark off the concrete steps. Politely, he moved backward and down a step. Now he was roughly at her height.
“Hot!” she said, meaning the day, but she could have meant herself. At forty, Anne looked good. Her light brown hair was pulled back in a no-nonsense style, a few strands hanging over her forehead, and only the faintest lines spider-webbed around her blue eyes. Today she wore gray yoga pants, pink flip-flops, and a green-and-white Eagles T-shirt.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s gonna be pretty brutal later on, I think.”
“Awful!” she said looking up at the sky. “I hate this humidity. My mom used to call it ‘close.’ So how are you, Mark? Still doing the work those men should be doing for themselves?”
When Mark had first met Anne and described his job at the monastery, Anne reacted strongly. “Painting, raking leaves, fixing pipes, and dealing with plumbing is something that men should be able to do. I do it!” she said.
“It’s not that they won’t do it,” he had said, not wanting to get drawn into a debate. “It’s that they can’t do all of it, and some of them are pretty old. Plus, some of them don’t know how. Those guys are great, really great — well, most of them — but put a few of them in front of a hammer and they wouldn’t know which end to grab. Now, some of them are incredibly talented with those things. Brother Michael, you know, built a lot of that monastery himself. In fact, he designed the guest house and . . .”
“Right,” she said, looking annoyed.
Mark wanted to defend the monks, but then remembered why he came, and how she would probably be even more annoyed about the window. Instead, he said offhandedly, “Anyway, I like it at PB&J.”
She stared at him.
“That’s what I call it,” he said. “You know they make jam there, right?”
“Yes, I know that.”
“So they make the jam . . . and their monastery is the Abbey of Philip and James. P&J everyone calls it around here, but I call it PB&J. Peanut butter and jelly? The abbot thinks it’s pretty funny.”
“Uh huh.” She was looking at him as though trying to figure out how to get him off her step. “So what brings you by anyway?”
“Well, you’re not going to like this.”
“Last night some of the kids were playing baseball next door and hit a ball that went right through the back window.”
“Jesus Christ,” she said, sounding more tired than angry.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I can call a glazier — you know, someone who fixes windows.”
“Yes, I know what a glazier is.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said, flushing again. “It’s easy to take care of. There was no damage to the frame. And the kids said they’d pay for it.”
“You mean their parents will,” she said. “Let me give you the name of the guy I deal with.”
When she opened the door, he felt air conditioning brush his bare legs. The yap dog lunged for him, but was blocked by Anne’s foot as she stepped inside. The dog barked behind the door as Mark watched Anne rummage through the drawers of a cabinet in her living room. On the walls he could see framed photos of Anne and her friends, and many of her son. One was a class picture; in front of a fake background of light blue sky and puffy white clouds he beamed, wearing a white button-down shirt. With his light brown hair and fair skin, he looked like Anne.
“Here,” she said, handing him a business card through the open door. “You can call this guy. He knows what he’s doing. Sorry if I’m a little rushed. I have a yoga class later on, and a million other things to do. Everything else okay in the house?” The dog yapped insolently.
“Sure,” he said. “And I really like living there.”
“Glad to hear it,” she said, smiling now. “Enjoy the day. Be cool.” She shut the door. He heard her muffled voice: “Shut up you lunatic dog!”
As he reached her driveway, the trio of window-breaking boys rolled by on beat-up skateboards, shouting to one another. When they saw Mark, they fell silent, evidently remembering the line drive. But when he waved, their boards crunched to a halt on the sidewalk.
“Hey, Mark,” said Brad, who offered his hand. “We’ll get that money to you soon.” He took Brad’s hand and shook it.
The other two, John and Gary, followed suit, offering wordless apologies with outstretched hands. Then they fell into their usual easy banter with him, expressing amazement at how the ball had gone so far and so fast and right into the window. They grew more animated.
“Oh, man!” John said. “I couldn’t believe it! We were freaking out when we saw where it was going! Glad you’re cool with it, man.”
“No problem, guys,” said Mark. “Just be careful.”
John raised his eyebrows and looked pointedly at Anne’s house.
“Yeah, you too, man!” Mark rolled his eyes, as Gary guffawed. Brad frowned and looked at the ground.
Then they tore off on their boards.
As Anne closed the door she thought, Yes, I know all about the monastery.
She wished Mark remembered that she had grown up in the area. He was forever telling her things about Philadelphia, as if she were a tourist. When she was a girl, her father used to take her to the Abbey of Saints Philip and James, a Trappist monastery forty-five minutes away, located on acres of secluded land blanketed with pine trees. He used to drag her along to visit an ancient priest with bad breath, who always called her “Annie,” though she told her father that no one else called her that.
“Deal with it,” he said more than once. “Father Edward can call you anything he wants. He’s a holy man, and he’s been very good to your mother and me. He made a special trip to our parish to baptize you, remember?”
“Then why doesn’t he know my name?” she had asked more than once.
I know all about the abbey, she wanted to say. But she hadn’t been on the grounds in years. That part of her childhood, once important, had ebbed away. Mark’s work there had prompted her to think about the place for the first time in years.
She knew about the jam too. Her father bought it by the case, and she used to buy it for her son, who never seemed to be able to get enough of the blueberry preserves. “Jeremiah, you’re going to turn into a blueberry,” she said to him one Sunday morning, after he’d finished three pieces of toast thickly slathered with the preserves. He must have been eight years old.
He responded, “Tell me when I turn blue!” Then he inhaled, puffed out his cheeks crazily, and held his breath until he started laughing.
Thinking of that prompted her to turn toward the photos, framed in gold, on the wall. She still wasn’t sure if she should keep them.
She had seen Mark staring at them through the front door. She loved that school photo of Jeremiah; it was her favorite. Everyone said he looked just like her, though she thought he looked more like his father. The blue eyes. The snub nose. And especially that pointy chin.
In the past few months she had thought about removing the photos, not because she couldn’t look at them, which she did frequently, but because they seem to make others feel uncomfortable. When people looked at the photos, they usually glanced furtively over their shoulder, to be sure that their looking wasn’t too painful for her.
She noticed a smudge on the glass of the portrait and rubbed it off with her forefinger. The action brought her closer to the image of Jeremiah.
Anne peered into her son’s eyes and remembered the argument the two of them had over what he was going to wear on picture day at school. Jeremiah wanted to wear the Phillies T-shirt his father had bought him at the game that summer, but she refused. “You’re not wearing a T-shirt for your school picture.”
During their heated argument, her son, ten at the time, started to cry, a rarity for him. His friend Brad was going to wear his, he pleaded, his voice rising an octave.
“And if Brad jumped off the Walt Whitman Bridge, would you do that too?” She asked that question so often that Jeremiah used to tease her about it.
“Yes!” he said, grinning. Jeremiah’s quicksilver mood changes always amazed her.
“I would jump off the Walt Whitman Bridge! Like this,” he said, clasping his hands together and forming his slender body into a mock swan dive. “And I’d be wearing that Phillies shirt while I did it! And on the way down I’d say, ‘Go Phillieeeeeees!’” He almost collapsed in laughter. The person who could make Jeremiah laugh hardest was always Jeremiah.
Anne could almost hear his laugh, which was what she most missed most about him. Her chest tightened, and tears sprang to her eyes. She thought it not only unfair, but cruel, that she would never hear her son laugh again.
“God damn it,” she said aloud, and she felt the familiar hollow in her stomach open up.
Anne inhaled and exhaled deeply as she turned away from her son’s photo, willing herself to continue her day.
The Abbey: A Story of Discovery, published this month by HarperOne, is available everywhere that books, ebooks, and audiobooks are sold. For more information, see jamesmartin.hc.com. Reprinted with permission of HarperOne. © James Martin, SJ