There’s a certain wildman in Bethesda, MD whose iPod keeps shuffling back to Donovan songs. Over the last few back deck sessions at his Palace of Wonders, I’ve found myself thinking again and again about an old story I wrote. It’s back on the antique GS page, and I’ll reprint it here… Because I have nothing better for you this week. I didn’t run the spellchecker through it, either, because I’m awesome.
The Tiger’s Path (2004)
It was 5:30 am on a Saturday when my old friend James called me. I held the phone to my head, but I couldn’t hear the words for a long time. Finally, English cut through to my waking mind.
“Oh my God,” I mumbled. “Do we need to have the AM/PM discussion again?”
James barked excitedly. “No, this is worth waking up for!”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in your driveway!”
“Oh my God…the sun’s not even up…”
“Sun!” James spat, “Look, get up and let me in.”
After a few moments cursing life and love and everything in between, I crawled to the front of the house and let James in. He was in an unusual state of agitation. With the jerky movements of a man on drugs, he paced around my kitchen while I bitterly made coffee, bitterly took out my lucky Washington, D.C. – A Capitol City! mug and bitterly poured milk into it.
“There’s something we need to do before my soul flies into a million pieces,” he hissed.
I stared at the coffee in the French press. Had it been long enough? How the fuck long had I been here anyhow?
“Coffee with the Buddha. The noble one. The path of enlightenment.” James leaned towards me, stinking of Salty Dogs and dressed in everything narrow – suit jacket, tie, jeans, cowboy boots.
I put my head on the counter and mumbled my reply, “I have never been up this early on a Saturday you commie cunt.”
James pulled me back, pushed the plunger down on my French press, poured the coffee, then handed me my mug. “Drink up, Nacho. Today we become cultured and you’ll have more of this. In fact, you’ll have the best cup of coffee I have yet been able to find.”
Why was he talking like a reject from a fantasy novel? I took a sip and grimaced, “I am cultured, James.”
After coffee came a quick cleaning of teeth, a passing hand at the razor, a desperate sigh into the wardrobe and then a slow crawl into the Corolla that James called home on Friday nights. It was then that he passed into his usual introspective stupor outside of some suburban bar at 2am. He usually slept in with dulled wits on the weekends but, apparently, I was the victim of yet another vision.
It was two days after a vicious snowstorm had hit the city. Two inches was vicious for DC, but this was six inches. James, being a hopeless Washingtonian, bent over his steering wheel and snarled at the fogged windshield as he pulled onto I-270 at 35 miles per hour. Fortunately, no other human beings dared venture onto the vast, six-lane sheet of ice at six in the morning. James threw in a cassette tape and The Guess Who filled our tiny plastic shell. No Time in the morning air as I stared through an iced window at the dawn.
“Where in the name of God is this coffee Buddha, James?”
James glanced over at me, his face nearly touching the top of the steering wheel, “Not far.”
“Oh, good. Where, then?”
He stared forward for a full minute, then turned to me again, “At a Buddhist temple.”
I closed my eyes, wishing myself awake, then came back to the world. “Yes, so you’ve implied. Where is the temple, then?”
I let that sink in for a moment. It’s like when someone says ‘I’m planning to kill you and rape your corpse.’ You have to process the information for a moment, think about ways out, weigh the consequences of actions. I finally answered, entering the argument with an intellectual and emotionally calm footing, “What the fuck, you fucking…!”
James raised his hand, shouting, “No, no, listen to me! It’s in High View! It’s only two hours away!”
High View, WV. That was Martinsburg country. Just across the border from Winchester, VA. The last bastion of the real hippies. My old college town, Elkins, was where the washed up Republican hippies sought refuge. High View was the land of the mountain men, though. The grizzled monsters who crawled from the hollows and voted for McGovern every election year.
It wasn’t a place I expected to find Enlightenment.
James hit the gas and we blasted down 270, hooking onto I-70 West. So it was. Lonely feeling, deep inside. Find a corner, where I can hide. Silent footsteps, crowding me.
“Sudden Darkness,” I said, not at all in tune with The Guess Who, “but I can see.”
From I-70 James took us on a bewildering series of backroads, finally dropping onto old US 50. The true mother road. The last Federal highway to go coast to coast. We entered West Virginia, spilling past Harper’s Ferry, and followed the same path that both the Continental Army and the Confederacy had taken.
The Guess Who had ended and James ripped the cassette out with an uncharacteristic anger, tossing it over his shoulder. He shoved Donovan into the tape deck. Tape two of the Troubadour collection. James had become a Hurdy Gurdy Man, so was I the unenlightened shadow?
US 50 cuts through Winchester and, taking my life in my hands, I patted James’ shoulder and said, “Let’s find a classic diner. A real breakfast. More coffee.”
He nodded, hissing between his teeth, pulling the car towards historic Winchester.
Lynette’s Triangle Diner is a classic Mountanview diner, a homespun dream from the 50′s, and enough to justify many future trips to Winchester. The ancient waitress drunkenly took our breakfast order, shouted it back to the short order cook, and James and I lovingly gazed at the personal jukebox, one of which occupied the wall along every booth. The bar seats were full of truckers and locals, all tucking into scrapple heaven.
“Wha’ll be, hon?” the waitress asked me.
“My love, I’ll have two eggs, home fries, toast, bacon and some of that heavenly coffee you’ve got brewing over there.”
James ordered a New York Strip steak, bloody rare, and a coke. His usual.
“Buddhists are vegetarians,” he said.
“Gotta get the blood in me before I go.”
“James, this is for coffee, right? This isn’t some sort of retarded conversion attempt, is it?”
James shook his head, “N. Sasha, old bean, I’m no religionist. Buddhism is a philosophy but, like all things in America, it has been warped into a vicious, disgusting religion. If I were to convert you, it would simply be to the path of peace.”
“Have you really been drunk this whole time?”
After two full breakfasts, including James’ steak and three pieces of ice-cream soaked apple crumb pie, we paid the $12 check and piled back into the double-parked Corolla. James hit the cassette deck, the best method to get it to turn on, and Donovan filled the air again.
Dear Susan, I know you love me so
but I want to hear it in my ear.
You know I’d be there working at my craft
had it not been for the draft.
Dry up your tear and feel no fear,
you’re here with me like I’m there with you.
To Susan on the West Coast waiting,
from Andy in Vietnam fighting.
To Susan on the West Coast waiting,
From Andy in Vietnam fighting.
I’m writing a note beneath a tree,
the smell of the rain on the greenery.
Our fathers have painfully lost their way,
that’s why, my love, I’m here today.
“My god,” James breathed, “What have we done, Nacho? What have we become?”
“Our greatest fear.” I replied. That was an easy question to answer and, of course, there was no doubt in my heart that it was true. From Andy, supposedly hating.
US 50 through Winchester is like some sick game. You have 50 East, West, Business, Old, New. There’s actually a sign for US 50 West that points in all four directions. Throw in the Snow Princess Parade and you’re doomed. The parade closed US 50, main street, and we were blocked in by three Winchester City police cars. Trapped, James seemed to curl into himself. A tear spilled down his cheek when a tough looking cop rapped on the window. I reached across James’ lap and rolled the window down, pretending his sudden catatonia to be state of the norm.
Donovan’s Atlantis blasted from the speakers. I made no attempt to turn it down. It was in the final strings and, as I smiled pleasantly at the cop, Barabajagal started up with its guitar riff.
“All okay?” the cop asked.
“All okay.” I said, then, worried he’d think I was mocking him, I cleared my throat and said, “We’re trying to get along here on US 50. I’m afraid my friend’s not quite ready for this sort of thing. He’s a Yankee.”
The officer paused, weighing my accent which, at the best of times, was difficult to pin down. I said the keyword again, “A Yankee.”
I watched the officer judge the ‘a’ and double ‘e’, then he nodded, satisfied with his decision, and pointed towards a concrete building. “Main road’s closed. Use Industrial 1128. then you’ll get back onto 50.”
“Industrial 1128,” I murmured to James, “Best get a move on.”
James jerked slightly, clutched the wheel, nodded with clenched teeth and unseeing eyes at the cop, then slammed on the gas and leapt into an alleyway, jerking the wheel with white knuckles until we were in the center of a coal-burning, garbage-strewn industrial district. “Fucking pigs,” he hissed.
1128 spilled onto 50 outside of Winchester and we continued, without further ado, into West Virginia. Roads in West Virginia are always a vaguely medieval experience, but it was to get worse for us. The temple was on Back Creek Road, one of the infamous layways that criss-crossed the State. These were barely improved government roads, populated by madmen and backwoods shotgunners. We pulled onto two inches of snow and crawled down the road, falling into woods that would put the fear into the Blair Witch.
Riki Tiki Tivi hit the stereo.
“It sickens me,” James said, navigating the ice and snow.
I turned to him, serious light in my eyes, life in my throat, pain in my heart.
James seemed to be having a hard time of it, working his mouth, squinting through the windshield. Then he told me what I already knew. Things that had happened a year ago. “My friend’s cousin was shot to death by some hillbilly fuck in the week after the 9/11 attacks. The fucker walked into the hotel where he was the desk clerk. This is North Carolina. He said, ‘Die, you fucking Muslim shit!’ and fucking emptied a revolver into his chest.
“My friend’s wife was chased out of a Safeway in Rockville by a group of suburbanites.
“Meanwhile, my Buddhist friend from Sri Lanka was forced to his knees at gunpoint in College Park, MD and forced to recite the Our Father. That was in October of 2001.”
James stopped the car on ice and snow and stared ahead. My god, I watched tears on his cheeks. We had talked about this before, been disturbed in 2001 when these things happened, but I had put much faith in the stoic James. This was something I hadn’t seen before in my life. I couldn’t speak, I was afraid to move. I just watched him cry.
“There is your America.” He said, “This is your fucking America. Fuck.” He bent over and put his face in his hands. The car idled and I turned from this shaken man beside me to the snowfield before us, the sleeping woods, and I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to feel anything.
“I hate this,” James whispered at last. “I feel like the blood is on my hands. I can’t wake up anymore. I can’t bear my life anymore. What do you do when you feel like that?”
I shrugged, “James, I’ve felt like that since I was eight years old. I thought it was normal.” I pointed ahead. “Let’s roll on,”
Loving Kindness Discourse
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
The Bhavana Society was founded by a Sri Lankan in the 1980′s. Initially hired by the government to work with Vietnamese refugees in the early 70′s, the Bhante Gunaratana took what money he had and opened up a retreat in the West Virginia forest. It became a refuge to many, from the most disillusioned Vietnam veteran to the teenaged misfits seeking peace in their short, turbulent lives. It became cult, sect, and traditional temple. A mixture of new and old.
It was a place of Cosmic Wheels, strangely tempered by the voice and feel of West Virginia, a feeling only those of us haunted by the State can sense. I was born and raised in DC, but my college years were in West Virginia. My family’s blood, 50 years removed, is from this ground. I can spot a West Virginian across a crowded room. It’s an accent as familiar as my mother’s voice, and nearly as painful to hear. It’s the essence of collective memory and soul-struck awareness.
The temple’s entrance hall was dominated by a wood stove, that homey smoke smell pulling me from the snow-swept woodland into the comfort and life of an American Buddhist temple. There was no one to great us. James headed to the coffeemaker, pouring Folger’s crystals into a filter and coordinating the dripper.
“You brought me to High View, West Virginia for a cup of brewed Folgers coffee?”
James raised his hand, index finger stretched out, “Wait for it, Nacho.”
I held my tongue until he poured a cup or the foul Folgers and handed it to me. “This is American roast bullshit. A scam. We might as well brew up holly berries.”
James nodded towards the cup and, reluctantly, I took a sip. The coffee felt like lotus blossoms had been injected into my jugular. “The fuck,” I looked at the cup.
“It’s the water,” James said, “They have a spring enriched with unique minerals.”
It was the best cup of coffee I had yet experienced. “Can you imagine this with real coffee beans?” I breathed in reverent tones.
“I don’t think the Human race is ready for it.”
A tall man in orange robes, his voice southern West Virginian, walked up to us. “Will you be joining us for lunch?”
I looked at my wrist, always expecting to find a watch. I never did, though.
“This is Bhante Rahula,” James said.
I put my coffee down, pressed my palms together and bowed slightly. “Bhante.”
“Hello,” he smiled.
“We’ll stay for lunch,” James said.
Rahula nodded and drifted past us into the kitchens.
Mealtime at the Society is a strange affair. It’s all vegetarian, of course. Gentle mindfulness and what not means we shouldn’t shoot bolts through the pig’s skull. Of course, I always think of that Space: 1999 episode where the plants are alive and kill all the animals. The crew from Moonbase Alpha eat berries and pick flowers and the rulers of the planet – a cluster of Larch trees – have a total meltdown. That’s what you get when you put a Larch in charge. I’d vote in a Holly bush or a Honeysuckle or something. “Dude, they just picked a flower. Don’t worry about it.”
But you can’t win those arguments. A flower today, and what next? Today Saigon, tomorrow Hoboken, New Jersey!
After the monks go and fill their alms bowls with a quantity of food I could best describe as obscene, the ranks of the faithful move in a barefooted, single file line into the kitchen. The lost, lonely, yellow-bellied American believers, the walking wounded. The chief groundskeeper, however, was a renegade North Vietnamese regular. When I stood up and looked for the best way to go over to the lunch line, the entire room watching my movements, he snapped his fingers at me and indicated that I should cross in front of the big Buddha altar. I leaned close to James.
“If that motherfucker snaps his goddamned fingers at me again, I’m going to rip his throat out with my teeth.”
My voice carried and James smiled awkwardly, pressing me forward, “Practice calm, Nacho. Be mindful.”
I’ve long felt that vegetarians are unhealthy. Maybe I don’t trust anyone with a cause. If you’re asking me, I say the animals deserve to die. I see those chicken processing videos, and the bolt through the head pig videos and the cow slaughtering and, well, I kind of get aroused.
“We have no right to treat animals this way…”
Fuck the animals, kids. It’s a world of sin, suffering and horror. I’m damn well going to enjoy a goddamned cheeseburger because, in a few minutes, some crazy motherfucker is going to fly a fucking plane into my office building.
I was building up a head of steam, focused on a block of tofu, when James nudged me with his elbow and handed me his Deer Park water bottle. I knocked back a mouthful and came up spluttering. Vodka. Straight. James nodded sagely, pressed his palms together and bowed. Everything was going to be okay.
After lunch, James and I walked the snow-swept woods. A frozen creek ran through the property and we stood on an icy wooden bridge.
“That was good coffee.” I muttered. “You doing okay, James?”
James sighed, nodded, then lowered himself down onto the ice. “Just a spot of holiday bother, is all. Lost faith in my country, questions about the quality of Humanity. Things that don’t bother you.”
“Well, the holiday does depress me,” I replied.
“Yeah, but only because you have no faith in the world, right? The opposite end of the spectrum. I mean, if everyone died but you, would you be able to survive?”
“I think there’d be plenty to keep me occupied, yes.”
“There’s the difference. I can’t call you soulless, but you’re the ultimate loner.” James slid along the ice, tapping his foot out to test the center. “You’re the only true misanthrope I know. Everyone else is just a useless, whining ranter. You,” he looked up at me, “You really don’t give a damn.”
“I wouldn’t want to see friends die, James. I wouldn’t want all of Humanity to be annihilated. It’d be a shame…”
“Of course. I’m not saying that.”
I leaned over the railing and glared down at the grey ice, “Ten bucks you fall through and die a horrible death.”
James tapped the ice with his boot, then smiled. “You’re on!” He jumped up and came down hard, the ice creaking and water sloshing up along the sides of the creekbed. “Oh, man, beer’s on you.”
One of the young shut-ins who had retreated to these woods approached us as I was watching James’ slowly sink through the ice. He watched James for a moment, then looked curiously at me.
“The center does not hold,” I said as James contemplated his boots, the frigid water swelling around him.
“You’ve been here before,” the young man said.
“Coffee,” James replied, climbing out of the creek and standing in six inches of snow.
“Come inside,” the young man tilted his head towards one of the huts that dotted the property. Meditation cottages, with only a wood stove, a bed, a wooden table and a chair. No electricity, no water. The young man sat on the floor and we followed suit, momentarily glad for the warmth of the stove. James and I had whispered about illicit Buddhist marijuana when we walked into the cabin, but that wasn’t quick in coming.
James broke out the secret vodka again and the young man waved his hands, “Oh, I don’t touch alcohol. You know, it’s bad for everything. Even performance issues,” he smiled awkwardly. He was trying to get on our level, I could tell. Establish a connection with the heathens. That was a mistake.
James leaned forward, “Oh, son, don’t blame that on alcohol. I know from experience – the drunker you get the better you are. You can go on forever. You’re out of your body. You know, if you’re lying there on the ground, broken and mangled, and someone starts rubbing your cock, you’ll still get hard. The only time it doesn’t get hard is when you’re sick, or when your head is fucked up.”
The young man had no reply, but I shook my head sadly. “So much for healing your soul, James.”
“You’re a bad influence,” he replied, then he turned to the young man again, “You know what the problem is? We live in a generation of men who are afraid of sex. They’ve been raised that way because we also live in a generation of women who have misinterpreted the mandate of their newfound freedom. They don’t know what to do. They broke the leash but they didn’t break the collar. It’s odd because, of all of us, the ones who should embrace sexuality are the women. So are they really free? If a sexual creature is unable to cope with their sex, then they aren’t free at all. For women, sex is a prison.
“You, in the meantime, need to get over yourself. Here’s a hint for functioning in society – never, ever bring up your sex problems when you’re sitting in a tiny hut with two other guys. I mean, honestly.”
“Never mind him,” I said to the young man, “Do you have any pot?”
“What?” the young man jumped, “No! No, I don’t.”
I gritted my teeth and stood up, “What kind of a fucking hippie are you? You can’t get laid and you don’t have any fucking drugs? No wonder you’re locked away back here. Come on, James, let’s make like a tree and embark.”
James shrugged, smiled apologetically, and followed me back out into the woods. “Where to now?”
“Back to goddamned Maryland. We’re going to a bar and we’re going to soak in whiskey and stop whining about goddamned 9/11, the Buddha, West Virginia and whatever else we think is wrong with the stupid world.”
It was 12:30 on a West Virginia Saturday. We were two and a half hours away from the Royal Mile, back near my house, where the morning should have been spent. Next time, I won’t answer my phone.