You are doing it all wrong.
You stand in front of your friends, late afternoon, soaking in sweat after a hard bike ride home from work… MTV plays the same stupid shit in heavy rotation, but your mind spins on and on, filling in its own words as the TV sits silent, tuned to the pantomime of Martha Quinn’s smiles.
You are stoned.
“Dude: nice fashion statement.”
You’re wearing your new uniform, a polka dot smock from 7-11. It doesn’t matter that beneath it lies some flannel, Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” t-shirt—much less your new olive green Vans, much less… anything.
“I thought we were going to teach you something this summer?”
It was your mother’s fault: “Finn, you need to learn more than getting paid to read Blake’s porn collection. Working at 7-11 will teach you about the real value of work.”
And so you have a job.
“Guys, you all have jobs,” you protest.
“Jobs, yeah—but we take our jobs off at the end of the day. What’s up with that?”
“It’s easier to wear it than carry it.”
“Seriously: Backpack. Hide that shit.”
“Fuck you guys.”
“Right… fuck us: you’re the one wearing red polka dots.”
“I think it looks like I’m ‘King of the Mountains’—you know, in the Tour de France.”
“King of the Dorks.”
And you know they love you and you know that it’s summer and you know… What do you know? You know you’re making lunch sandwiches at a 7-11. You’re making $4.50 an hour. Jake is at Jiffy Lube. Todd is now building decks with his next stepdad. Andy is… you don’t know what Andy is doing.
You are each beautifully and uniquely fucking this—all of it—fucking this up, even as you pass the bong.
And your high is coming on and you realize that even as you fuck this up your shine radiates well beyond your clothes, that your energy extends beyond the vibe. That it doesn’t have to matter that it won’t matter any more. You know… that, Jesus, you are high.
“Dude: you know what?”
You know that Todd lives to fuck with you.
“I think you should just pack that shit in a bag, take the 18A, and keep your head down. You know—stay cool.”
“He’s right, Finn. You need to chill. I don’t know what it is: is it the bike thing or the Zen thing?”
“Does Zen make you smell like rancid sweaty balls, too?”
You hear the laughter in the room, the aquatic gurgling of the bong accompanying the laughter, see the light in your pal’s eyes. You see Martha Quinn. What Would Martha Quinn Do?
Jake helps: “Other than getting laid, which I know is going to happen for you, dude—what else are you looking for?”
You are in love with Martha Quinn, but that’s not what he’s asking.
Jake leans forward, his limp slice of pizza failing to explain something as he gestures with it: “You want to… it’s like you’re trying to win something that isn’t a contest, dude.”
“Everyone wants to win.”
“Can’t win at everything.”
“Chicks can smell when you’re trying too hard.”
Andy chimes in, “Can’t beat life, dude.”
“Can’t beat the 18A,” adds Todd.
Jake exhales, “Here’s the deal, Finn: Andy’s right—you can’t beat life.”
“I can beat the 18A.”
“I think he can.”
“Tomorrow,” says Jake. “Five bucks on ‘can’t.’”
The 9:34 bus gets to Franklin & Nicollet at 9:58. You have 4.7 miles to cover. There are 2 hills, a dozen or so lights, and a time to beat: the 24 minutes or so it takes the 18A to cover that distance.
But you’ve been to the bike shop, and you know that placing at the Black Dog time trial is going to require a steady pace of at least 21 or 22 miles per hour. More like 23 or 24. That means getting from your garage to Frank and Nic in less than 15 minutes. You don’t need to beat the bus—you need to beat the bus by ten minutes.
“You guys will all lose,” you say.
Andy steps up for you: “I won’t lose: I’m betting on you, and I’m driving behind you to make sure I collect.”
When the brick red MTC bus badged 18A pulls away from the stop at 54th and Nicollet, you push your right foot into the clip, then press forward, rotating the left foot into its clip, and then you spin toward downtown with Andy and Jake and Todd in a 1967 Mustang rattling behind you, Todd and Andy’s fucked up bondo job already coming apart.
You stay in the big ring from the start, in 32 teeth as you build up steam to cross Minnehaha Creek and power up the grade climbing to 50th, whose red light you blow through, to howls from the guys in the car. You have also passed the 18A, which you will see just one more time, at 48th, where Nicollet flattens out and you shift down to 14, your top gear, and you spin at a consistent 70-80 rpm.
“You are doing 28 miles an hour, Finn!” call the guys as you crank through the green light.
Martin Luther King Park and its kids learning baseball and dogs and party-colored playground comes and goes in 30 seconds. Lake Street is coming up and you catch a green light, cruising into the K-mart parking lot and banking right toward 1st Avenue. You can hear the guys screaming at traffic behind you, and you think, they may not catch me…
The red at 28th is risky, so you track stand while Andy pulls up beside you and Jake yells out, “You weren’t just high when you said you could crush the bus, dude!”
You were pretty fucking baked, actually—and you catch red at 26th, too, and running that thing is death, but then you’re on a steady grade up to the sad red mansion on 24th, dropping back down a few gears to keep up your cadence. At 22nd its all downhill and you look at your watch and you feel like you’re going to be a little slow. 16 minutes.
You are a winner. But not in the race you were really riding.
Andy uses the winnings from his bet to pay for gas and pick up a microwave burrito while Jake and Todd wait in the car.
Your prize is to stand for 8 hours and fill croissants with chicken salad, fold meat into rye sandwiches, align hot pickles in their juice pouches, scrape, clean, cut, chop, wrap. Ham & Cheese on wheat for the 5th Precinct cop, egg salad for the girl from Horst and her hair, two roast beef and swiss on white for the Blue & White cabbie who looks like a guy you could sell some weed. You are King of the Mountain in your mind, but until you lock the coolers again at 6:00 PM and hang the “Deli Closed” sign on the glass, you are King of the Sandwich.
After work you take Franklin over to the lakes. The climb up from Lyndale to Hennepin brings on a nice burn and then, as you cruise down toward Lake of the Isles, you wonder which of these houses Kiley lives in… you wonder whether you’ll call her. What would you say?
You have no idea.
There is nothing more beautiful, though, than riding around the Minneapolis lakes in early summer. It is a perfect place. You don’t need ideas when you are rolling through heaven.
Anyway: you can make her a mix-tape.
You get home, slam some Gatorade, then bound up the stairs to your room. You know exactly the song you’re going to start with: “Hanging Gardens,” by the Cure. That’s sexy but not… directly about sex. That would be weird. She won’t have that album. Shit. She might? Is that too weird, anyway? Are you? Probably.
You twirl the eraser in the tape, gently, hoping to align one second of sound to one second of hope—and another to the beat of seduction.
Next up: some ‘Burbs. “Rattle My Bones.” No: every girl with an ear has the ‘Burbs. Maybe it doesn’t matter: you’re telling a story, and even the wildest story is filled with everyday stuff. But it needs to be “Waiting.” You spin one moment of truth with another of lies: the self you know you don’t even hope to be, but just might, if you’re unlucky, get away with, diligently lining it up against the dream of—
You change your mind, you lose your thread—you aren’t making a mix-tape, you are trying to make and un-make yourself, all in a whir of confusion.
You suck at confusion.
You walk out to the back yard, cicadas crying in the last of the lilac blooms, the fresh-cut grass throwing its own mix into the perfume of night air. High above, shining down through the city lights, is the evening star, Venus. You don’t know if Kiley’s staring at it, too—or making a mix tape of her own: or playing Scrabble with her sister and her parents. How many letters spell the dream you hold?
She answers your call—you can’t believe it, are astonished in no small part because: you, you fucking dumbass, have nothing to say.
“Finn. You know: the bike guy from the Zen Center.”
“Ohhhh! This is rad! I didn’t think you’d call.”
“You know… mindfulness… it’s not the ride most guys are looking for.”
You need to get your shit together.
“Well, you know—I’m not just any guy.”
Worst. Line. Ever.
“Hey! I knew that! But… Why are you calling so late?”
“Is it late?”
“It’s almost ten!”
“Weird—it’s almost still light out!”
“Yeah—but not for long. Don’t you like to wind down—play Scrabble or something with your family?”
“I guess…”—YOU WERE RIGHT!—”….would it make you feel weird if I told you I was shivering right now?”
“It’s the beginning of summer!”
“It is. I mean, I know. But there are so many reasons to shiver and shake. Like, I shave my legs, for instance, for biking…………………………………………”
And apparently you have figured out something to say. Are saying it. All. of. it.
“………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… it’s just six million ways, ten thousand things, it’s all, just: I could say it so many different—.”
“You are cute.”
She said, “You are cute.”
“But, Finn…? I have to get off the phone now. Are you going to the Zen Center this weekend?”
You. Are. Cute.
“Yeah, I’ll be at sesshin. Maybe we can ride together afterwards?”
“Good night, Finn.”
And the click of the phone—a silence as resolute as a snare drum; a cue as improbable of finding its mark as the chewed pencil you’ve been holding in your hand all night, trying to mix a dream.
You are all right.
Joshu’s “Go Wash Your Bowl”
The acolyte begged Joshu: “I have just entered the halls. Please show me the Way.” “Have you eaten your congee?” asked Joshu. “Yes,” said the acolyte. Joshu advised him, “Then go wash your bowl.” The acolyte was enlightened.
This is the sixth section of Zen Arcade, a novel by Joel Turnipseed. We will be publishing a new section every other Sunday until Summer 2015. Read them here or get an email notification when the new section is available.