Gutei Raises a Finger

Gutei Osho only ever raised a finger when asked about Zen. One day a pilgrim asked of his acolyte, “Can you share your master’s teachings?” The acolyte raised his finger. When Gutei learned of his acolyte’s response, he cut off the acolyte’s finger. As he was running away, screaming in pain, Gutei called after him. When he turned around, Gutei raised his finger. At that instant, the acolyte achieved enlightenment.

— from Charles Waters’ translation, Lotus in Ashes: Koans from the Mumonkan and Hekiganroku




Kiley clutched my wrist with both hands and spun me around as hard as she could in a circle, pointing at the end toward the Midway, “Win me a surprise!”

“What kind of surprise?”

“Any kind…,” said Kiley, “I just want to see you win.”

The State Fair Midway lights were just coming up in the dusk and there were carneys in every direction, with their gaffed games, with their affable winking and nodding, their casual skill—daring me with the very idea of “Fair.” I look up at the tilt-a-whirl and the octopus and the Ferris wheel and the rainbow-colored sunset as I reached into the pockets of my shorts, reaching for sweaty bills—the price of hope.

“Let’s go find you a surprise, then!” I said, pulling her close to me as I swung around behind to whisper in her ear, “I’m full of surprises, you know.”

She leaned back and as she whispered the neon bounced from her eyes, “Me, too.”

Her older sister, Andie, and her boyfriend, Joe, were up ahead of us. As a frat guy, I was prepared to hate him on sight. He looked the part: shredded Vans, khaki shorts, a lobster-colored Polo shirt worn untucked, a white t-shirt stretched tight over serious pecs, Ray-Ban aviators tucked carefully into his slightly-mussed hair. Andie was wearing white sneakers, a khaki skirt, and a plaid shirt, also untucked, with her Coach bag draped over her shoulder and tortoise shell glasses just barely darker than her tan.

Joe dropped back, crashing into me on purpose, jostling me out of myself and into good-fellowship, “Let’s shoot BBs, Finn!”

And that’s why I didn’t hate him. He didn’t care what I said or did, he just wanted to have me join him for an adventure—any adventure, whether it was finding a good place to pull on a oney or take on the carneys. I had only ever spent that afternoon with him and I already felt like we were best friends.

We watched a few older guys try to shoot the star out of the paper and always—always—there was a piece of red left on the paper.

I leaned over to Joe and said, “They don’t know the secret.”

“There’s a secret?”

“Dude, there’s always a secret. I grew up putting BBs through the “O” in my dad’s Old Style can: the trick is to shoot around the star, like a stamp—then knock it out.”

“Sweet—let’s do it.”

“But first… you have to figure out how off the sight is… you’ll need to use some Kentucky windage.”

“Awesome. Wait: what the fuck is ‘Kentucky windage’ and how do you know all this stuff?”

“My dad was a Marine. When he explained Kentucky windage to me, he said: ‘Sometimes the world is so bent, son, you have to shoot crooked to hit your target.’”

“Finn, dude, we have to get you to the house. You coming tonight?”

Kiley had mentioned that the Chi Sigs were having a party and that Andie could sneak us in… now I was being invited.

Kiley answered, “Of course he is!”

Joe and I were up and I let him go first. It took him 5 or 6 BBs to figure out how the sight was off, and then he started executing to plan. I looked over at the carney and saw him grin.

“You’ve got the idea,” called the carney, “let’s see if you can pull it off! This gentleman here, folks, come see how to do this, we’re going to have a winner!”

Joe had most of the star inside a perforated oval and then used the last of his ammunition to try to blast it out. When his last BB was gone, just a single thread of paper held up a dangling, mangled star on the paper.

“Let’s see if you can learn from the master,” said the carney as he loaded another 100 BBs in the rifle and handed it to me.

Joe and Andie and Kiley and the carney all slowly disappeared, like muffled Peanuts parents. Part of the trick in shooting is controlling your breath, lowering the rifle on the exhale and stopping between heartbeats to squeeze the trigger. Part of excluding the world is to focus on what will hurt the least, as when your dad grabbed the rifle from your hands then jabbed you in the sternum for wasting ammo, for not paying attention, for being a shithead… “Don’t you know what’s at stake?!” yelled my dad, in his rage, as he’d beat me. I came to learn, over the years, that in each moment everything was at stake…

I aimed dead center and hit just to the left of the star. I confirmed that the sight was off by about a half inch at distance, and had already started the pattern on that side. It wasn’t even me pulling the trigger—I was orbiting Planet Chaos and my body was standing at a game booth at the State Fair: one foot in the Proximity and one foot over the ledge. I still had BBs left in the rifle when the star was blown through the back of the paper.

“I knew you were going to win,” said Kiley. She stepped into me and looked straight into my eyes. “It’s just a game… but it’s nice to see you win.”

“No surprise, then?” I asked.

“Not yet.” She smiled, then said, “Surprise me tonight.”

Kiley picked for her prize an absurdly large stuffed white elephant, with gold lamé harness and red sequins: it barely fit on the hump in the back seat of Joe’s beat-up old Saab as he drove the four of us from the fairgrounds to the University of Minnesota campus.

“What should I call it?” Kiley asked as we sped down I-94 toward campus.

“Ghandi,” I said.

“Finn!” yelled Joe, “Just… ‘Gandhi’—that’s perfect.”

We passed through Stadium Village, then Memorial Stadium, and I looked down Frat Row as we crossed University for 4th Street. The houses with their Greek letter flags and gold lions and guys BBQing and drinking beer on the front porch had always filled me with a kind of dread, where fuck you collapsed in a pile with fuck me. I leaned forward to look around Gandhi at Kiley. She leaned forward, a dab of lip gloss still on her finger, and winked at me as she moistened her lips.

The Chi Sig house was a tall, timber-framed, stone-and-stucco building that rose from the street on wide steps built up from rough stone walls. The windows lining the great room were made of a crossed pattern of leading that cast yellow diamonds out onto the faces of those who stood on the porch.

We pulled into the back of the house, leaving Gandhi in the back seat, and I looked at Kiley one more time, to ask silently, “Is this OK?”

She pulled my hand forward as she stepped up to the back door of the house, past a couple guys out having a smoke, their white ΧΣ baseball caps turned backwards on their heads. The house seemed smaller on the inside than it looked on the outside, and after winding our way through a crowd on the main floor, we walked down circular stone stairs to the basement, where a DJ was playing in a cramped basement dining hall. There was a bar up against the corner and—

“Shaman Clowns?!” I yelled to Kiley as she pressed forward toward the bar.

She turned to me and said, “DJ Mad Master is the best!”

He was wearing an old Minneapolis Millers jersey, a Chi Sig cap, and a black Joy Division t-shirt on under his jersey. The t-shirt was the first thing from my planet I’d seen in the house.

“Is he in this frat?” I asked Kiley.

“Yeah, he’s a freshman. He went to Southwest with me and Andie. You two would totally hang out!”

“How can a frat guy like the Shaman Clowns?” I asked, not really thinking.

“Dude, aren’t you a frat guy?” asked one of the Chi Sigs.

Joe stepped in out of nowhere to say “Not yet! But Finn here is definitely brother material.”

Kiley smiled her embarrassment into her beer and looked up at me from beneath her eyelashes, as if to say, “See.”

Joe walked me over to the turntables and pulled off DJ Mad Master’s fat Yamaha headphones.

“Matt, you totally need to meet Finn. He’s going to be my special project this year.”

“Hey, Finn!” said Matt. “Pick something to spin while I get a beer.”

Probably nothing in my life blew my mind as Matt’s record collection… that it was in the basement of a frat… and that a super-jock frat dude had put it together. Can. Joy Division. Japan. 45s of tiny labels in Chicago. Detroit. Sweden. The Suburbs 7” red disc. XTC. The Clean. Diana Ross. Patsy Cline. The Beastie Boys. Run-DMC, but also Grandmaster Flash and Sugar Hill Gang. “Fuck it, back to school,” I thought to myself, “gonna start calling myself ‘Acolyte’ and just get used to getting whacked by the bamboo.”

“The Message,” said Matt when he returned. “Nice. You with Kiley?”

“Yeah, she’s the best.”

“She’s…,” he was flipping hard through the records, but it looked like something else stopped his mind short, “She’s something else. Put this on.”

He handed me a 12” from a band I had never heard of, Z-Factor (featuring Jesse Saunders), “Fantasy.” It looked like it was made in someone’s garage. It probably was.

I dropped the needle, though, and it changed the room. Matt nodded approvingly in my direction. “Go get Kiley—I’ve got this crowd covered.”

It was like Kraftwerk and Diana Ross had a mad love child named Ecstasy and I had a hard time not getting a boner as I moved through the bodies thumping on the floor. The smell of beer, of perfume, of human sweat, the heat of the bodies… I bumped into the walls as I made my way back up the circular stone stairs.

Kiley was easy to find, as she and Andie were the life of the party in the Chi Sig great room, posing for photos with the other sorority girls and the Chi Sigs like they had known each other forever. Maybe they had?

“Fuck this,” I said, “I need air.”

I thumped open the back door and was surprised to be alone in the frat parking lot. Gandhi was fallen over in the backseat of Joe’s car, like he had already passed out. One of the Chi Sigs came out to join me as I was pissing.

“You rushing?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, shaking my dick, “I’m not dribbling that’s for sure.”

“Epic,” he said, laughing, “I’m Brent.”

Brent was standard-issue, a little heavier set but wearing the Polo shirt untucked, with jeans and sockless white sneakers.

“You get high, Brent?” I asked. “I need to spark.”

He looked at me, uncertain, then broke out into a broad smile. “You have weed?”

“You need weed?” I reached into the pocket of my shorts and pulled out my dugout, plus the sandwich bag with, if you counted the shake, about a dime left in it. “I guess I have weed.”

“You’re rad,” said Brent as he handed me back my brass oney. “You should definitely rush.”

“Is this really what frats are like?” I asked.

“No, dude. Most of ‘em are boxes of douchebags with their hats on backwards.”

“Yours is on backwards,” I said, “how do you tell the difference?”

“Sometimes you can’t,” he said, laughing at me, “Let’s go get a beer.”

On the way down the hallway someone called out from the bottom mattress of a bunk bed, “Brent!”

“What the fuck are you doing in the townie room, dude.”

“I’m finishing off the last of my weed. You wanna hit?”

“Nah, man—brother here just hooked me up.”

“You got more?” asked the guy on the bunk. The lights were off, so the room was dimly lit by the hall lights outside, and what was coming in from the lights on the street. The guy was a little older and wearing a fancy blazer with a crest and a blue dress shirt.

“Yeah,” I said, pulling out my bag. “How much you want?”

“The bag. Looks like a dime. I’ll give you $20.”


I could feel the crisp twenty rubbing against the pocket origami left over from the State Fair. It felt good to make my first-ever weed deal and as I turned the corner, who should appear but Kiley.

“Finn! We have to go!”


“Next party, Finn!”

We piled into Joe’s car and drove faster than we should have driven down 4th street, the street lights arcing over our faces as our hair fluttered in the wind. The cool was a nice accompaniment to my buzz and I leaned back into my seat and said to myself, “Just let this night happen, dude. Be the Acolyte.”

Tony was waiting for us at the parking gate and handed Joe a parking badge. The doors to the underground parking at the Towers parted and we descended into the bowels of downtown Minneapolis—only to rise to the 20th floor a few minutes later, and Tony’s parents condo. It was spectacular, with a view of the Grain Belt sign all the way to the U of MN down the river.

“Tony’s holding down the place while his parents are in Europe,” said Joe, “his dad is 2nd violinist for the Minnesota Orchestra, his mom is…”

“Just rich,” said Tony. “Nice to have you here. Can I get you a beer?”

Tony’s girlfriend walked in from another room. She was Asian and looked about 10 years older than the rest of us. She wore diamond earrings the size of small pearls and her black skirt was offset by a white blouse with one too many buttons exposing a white bra. She leaned forward to give me a welcome hug and a kiss on the cheek and acted like that was a totally normal thing for her to do to me.

Her name was Allison and soon we were all sitting in Tony’s living room and she said, like it was also normal, “Let’s do lines.”

My mind screeched like someone dragging a needle across a record.

I looked over at Kiley who nudged herself closer to me, “Just one line.”

I watched as Tony and then Joe and then Andie and Allison did their lines, then Tony made a point of making His and Hers lines for me and Kiley.

“The good life,” said Tony, laying down two crisp $50s and rolling them up into straws. Joe got up and put on some Prince and Kiley pulled me forward with one hand as she leaned in. I stayed back in my seat, she did her line then reached down with her finger to the table and wiped up a trace. She turned to me, put her finger to my lips, and said, “Taste.”

I leaned back, refusing to taste—but not wiping my lips.

“Finn, you are SO moody sometimes,” said Kiley, “But tonight I need you to let go and tonight I want you to put that shit away and I want you to smile. Like you MEAN IT.”

Allison laughed, “That’s intense. You’re up, Finn!”

I licked my lips where KIley had rubbed the coke. It tasted like a ground up Lik-M-Aid stick that sat in a garage too long—and it immediately made my tongue numb. I just… couldn’t do it.

“It’s cool, Finn,” said Tony, leaning forward to do my line.

“No,” I said. “I got it. I just…”

I could feel all five of them looking at me as I leaned forward, wondering how hard it was to fuck up snorting coke. Pretty hard, it turned out, and soon the back of my throat was numb and I was new Finn. Best Finn. And… strangely calm Finn. Bodhi-fucking-sattva Finn—ready to save the world.

After another line and a switch to The Cure and the departure of Tony and Alison to their room and Andie and Joe to their parents room, I found myself alone with Kylie in Tony’s sister’s room, her breasts unfolding from her bra as the stars shone down on Minneapolis and my mind was as clear as it had ever been, my love for her crystalline and pure and my body ready for anything she could throw at me. We thrashed and laughed and made sheets go everywhere and we went there again.

We giggled as we dressed.

Tony was drinking grapefruit juice at the kitchen bar when we emerged, then opened the refrigerator door as he saw us. My head was starting to thump and I think he could see where I was going as he poured me and Kiley our own glasses of grapefruit juice. He walked over to a cabinet and brought out a bottle of Absolut,

“A greyhound for you—let one dog chase another?”

Whatever effect that last drink, even with the juice, was supposed to have, it wasn’t good. By the time we got back to Chi Sig, the Acolyte inside me was getting all kinds of shit whipped out of him by the master’s bamboo. I went downstairs to see if Matt was still spinning, but it turned out he’d cashed it in and all that was left was a ragged looking sorority sister and three brothers playing quarters on a folding table.

The main room was a litter of beer spill and red Solo cups, with a few cigarette butts crushed in dark circles on the stone floor. The townie room was a refugee camp for arms and legs that no longer cared which direction they pointed.

Kiley and I watched Andie walk slowly upstairs with Joe to his solo room and then we walked back into the cold, pre-dawn glow of the street lights. Gandhi was locked in the back seat of Joe’s Saab and we left him there as we walked to Kiley’s car. Andie had driven me and Kiley to Chi Sig earlier in the afternoon, so we could meet with Joe and ride to the State Fair, but it was still a surprise to see the O’Connor’s Volvo in the Chi Sig parking lot. I just stared at the handle before I got in, asking myself, “How did I get here?”

As the sun threatened to rise and we drove an empty 35W, I grew strangely paranoid—as though a glass Chuck Taylor was going to be found somewhere the next morning. I pictured the great room of Chi Sig and saw my dad standing in it, with a can of Old Style.

Exhausted, Kiley and I didn’t say much until she exhaled, “Awesome night.”

I echoed her, but it came out wrong.


“Nothing,” I said, “I just don’t feel so good. Maybe it was the coke…”

“That was epic,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said, “It was pretty epic.” And then didn’t say, “I just don’t know why it hurts so much… “

She pulled up in front of my house and leaned over to give me a kiss. My head was throbbing six different ways and it was all I could do to meet her lips. All the stereotypical “school starts next week” bullshit was going through my head, but that was back-channel… the most noise was coming from sector “HOPE” where an army of monks were beating my dreams with black staffs.

“Love you, Finn.”

I opened the passenger side door, then pulled it closed, leaned over to Kiley and kissed her with my original face, like we were back at Tony’s place and the sky was shooting stars.

“Epic night, Kiley,” I said, then stepped out into the empty street. I watched her drive off, right down the middle of the street at 4:00 AM, then turned to my mom’s house.

The monks got active again and I wasn’t sure I could even get past the back door. But the Acolyte gently unlocked the door, stumbled up the carpeted stairs to his bed, stripped down to his boxers and t-shirt, and let the world spin him in circles.


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This is the twelfth 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.

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