If you looked down from our house, out toward Lake Superior, you could see the Lift Bridge in the distance. It was usually shrouded in fog when the spring grew warm and the ice was starting to break—but today the sun was harsh in its brightness, burning off the haze and casting even the smallest details in sharp relief. Between here and the vast expanses of our fresh-water sea, Mr. Waters had a Chinese junk in the marina down in Harbor Cove. He lived across the street from us, on a deeply wooded double lot with a cedar-shake bungalow.
Mr. Waters was a different kind of weird. In addition to his junk, he had Buddhist statues in his backyard (as we learned when we checked to see if he might be growing some herb back there). He wore socks and sandals and corduroy jackets. His bright red afro practically glowed in the sun and, you have to say, he was a guy who carried himself like a fucking MAN. No one messed with Mr. Waters in class. Mr. Waters knew how to make those droids not the droids you were looking for—you know what I mean?
He and his afro were now walking across the street, with the calm expression of someone up to serious express purposes.
“I heard,” he said.
I guess by now everyone had heard about how bad the Danny Hakala fight had been. He stood with his arms at his sides and let the silence expand and melt into the street with the snow.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I’m leaving.”
“Yeah… It’s probably time for another journey. You must get tired of those sometimes.”
“Look. Uh, I’m fine. I move back and forth from mom to dad all the time… Almost every couple years. I’m used to it… Win a case, lose a case, pack a case, either case.”
“You’re not fine,” said Mr. Waters. “But that’s OK. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to someone who is lost is that they become found in the wrong place, wrong circumstance, Finn. They define ‘OK’ by where they happen to be: that’s worse than being lost.”
Mr. Waters, apart from being my neighbor, was our 11th grade biology teacher. And as weird as it was that he was talking to me now, it became retrospectively weirder, that he was talking to me now, for the first time, about something other than DNA and RNA and everything else that conspires to make life—and make life fucked.
“I don’t know what that means…” I said. It was, you have to admit, a lot to drop on the neighbor kid. “Why,” I asked, “are you really here?”
“Mr. Kingston told me you were being expelled. That child services investigated. That this was probably going to be another ride on the bus for you.”
“I wanted you to have this, Finn.” He handed me a paperback, a bit beat up, but the nice kind of paperback with the sewn-in pages and the cover flaps. “It was my copy. Consider this a kind of transmission.”
Japanese or Chinese characters mixed in with the English characters on the cover. “Lotus in Ashes? What’s a Mumonkan?”
“It’s a book I spent a lot of time with in the Marine Corps. In Vietnam. And for a long period of solitude afterwards. Finn… I also came from a broken home; had a broken heart. Now I have peace. You seem like someone who deserves peace, too. I’m going to go back to my journey, and let you continue on yours. Good luck.”
I didn’t say anything. I just tried to stare away tears. I stared hard.
Mr. Waters said one last thing: “Just remember: stay lost as long as you need to stay lost.”
He turned, cold, and walked away like he hadn’t even stopped at our house, like he was coming from some other conversation or walk entirely, like he had just walked through an invisible gate and was now gone.
“Stay lost…?” Mr. Waters was a whole alphabet of very unnatural selection, that’s for sure. The snow was black with exhaust and sand, exposing dead gray grass littered with cigarette butts. The boats would start coming into Duluth soon, even though there were still islands of ice out in Lake Superior. It was hard to believe the school year was almost over—and still snow everywhere.
“Mr. Waters?” asked my dad. “You know he was with uncle Terry in ‘Nam.”
I turned around to look at my dad, who was leaning against the faded siding of our house, having a smoke.
“You had him, right?” asked my dad. “In school?”
“Pretty much. Ribonucleicfuckin’A-minus. He gave me a book.”
“Well, if it’s Chuck, it’s definitely going to be something to read. Time to take you down to the Greyhound.”
“I already had something to read. I need to go up to my room to get my bags.”
“Already in the van. Let’s go.”
You read, in books—you see, in the movies—pained good-byes, hugs, tears, “you take care, now.” But seldom do you see “glad-this-is-the-fuck-over” scenes. Scenes that smell of tobacco smoke and pine freshener and a nearly dead grandma’s shit-stained afterlife and the glue of an old, used book and the hot, sweaty beef-jerky human smell of a bus filled with people throwing their dice in the form of an over-sized steering wheel and the whir of wheels on an interstate.
There was no “good-bye.” Just a silent “I don’t really mean ‘fuck you,’ but I am definitely well-past ‘fuck this’—a farewell punctuated, appropriately, by my father flicking a butt unceremoniously to the gutter as he turned his back to walk toward his van.
And so I rolled out of Duluth for the last time. I pulled out Mr. Waters’ strange offering as the bus ground down Superior Street, then leaned forward to begin its cruise down I-35 to Minneapolis. The school district let me go a week early because I had already aced everything there was to ace—at least within the check-this-kid’s-boxes of school’s concerns.
Lotus in Ashes: Koans from the Mumonkan and Hekiganroku
Translated by Charles Waters
What? I flipped to the back:
“Charles Waters was born in Hibbing, MN and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He served as a Captain of the United States Marines in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and multiple Purple Hearts. His translation of koans from the Mumonkan and Hekiganroku were made while serving a 3-year sentence in U.S. federal prison for desertion in the line of duty.”
Mr. Waters: You had to hand it to him—he could still mess with your head, even as it spun 60 miles an hour in the opposite direction.
I returned to the first page:
“Is the Dog a Buddha?”
My buddy Rusty did me a solid before I left town and scored me a really mellow sativa. “Makes your brain tingle without making your lips buzz,” he said.
“Is the Dog a Buddha?”
The john in the back of the Greyhound stunk so badly no one noticed when I slipped my dugout from my pocket and lit up my oney. As I pissed a lazy stream into the toilet, I noticed a hard etching on the wall of the john: “GOD.”
God: what we carve out of our chances.
So what do you do when you’re on a bus ride where all your options turn you back to your own seat? And your choices of direction are: wherever you are going. You stare, pretty much: Tree, tree, tree, tree, pole, tree, tree, tree, tree, pole, tree, tree, tree. Nothing to see. The swirling metronomic cadence of absence just rushes by you and there you sit.
“Is the Dog a Buddha?”
Did I ask this question already? Did I answer?
And so you continue to sit, and then an open field breaks. Cows. “Moo.” More cows… and I couldn’t help myself, “Moooo!”
“Listen kid, don’t be a dick,” an old guy with a dip in his cheek said to me. He let a long looping drool fall into his Coke can and whipped it clean with his finger. “It’s a long ride.”
I just stared at him, like, Dude. Nothing.
He turned around and crossed his arms and talked shit to no one in particular, like he was owed something. Nothing—that was something to look for, an expectation all by itself, if you asked me.
I turned more of Mr. Waters’ crazy pages—and then, buzz fading, looked up and out of the bus: A stand of pine broke open in the late afternoon sun and then just as quickly closed. What separates one moment from the next? Day from dream? Nothing. It’s all a continuous series of independent events. Each move I made between dad and mom, or mom and grandparents and dad and mom. Each court visit. Each counselor. Every year. Every option.
Just: the ongoing evolution of fucked. I leaned my face against the window of the bus, tears streaking the glass, and faded into sleep.
My eyes were shot red and Mr. Waters’ book gray and greasy with sweat when we pulled into the Minneapolis Greyhound station. I already knew that my mom wouldn’t be there to meet me. She hadn’t met me since I was ten.
Just like each of the previous four summers, I felt like a total douchebag wearing my backpack and dragging a giant Samsonite suitcase up 1st Avenue. At least it had wheels. Other than the stuff I kept at my mom’s house for summers (including my punk record collection, which my dad would have burned just like that fucking rat—and more violently), I walked the streets of Minneapolis carrying everything I owned.
It was fifteen degrees warmer in Minneapolis, and the sun sparkled off the side of the IDS Tower. That’s where I would catch the 18A to my mom’s house just off Nicollet in South Minneapolis, but between the Greyhound station and the IDS was an entire world.
As my rolling suitcase clicked off the staccato beat of shit city budgeting and winter’s toll on the sidewalks, I thrilled to the sight of First Avenue. It used to be the Greyhound station—but now it was a pitch black temple to punk. It was where Prince played, too, I guess, but Prince didn’t play All-Ages shows. You were supposed to be 16 to get in, but you could see Hüsker Dü, the ‘Mats, the Suburbs, Urban Guerillas, Shaman Clowns, Soul Asylum if you had that worked out—just thrash out your weird and your anger and your yearning to throw yourself against life in the mosh pit and then go smoke a joint and come back and stand in a corner and let your mind dissolve amid the bass thump and the incense of smoke and sweat.
At the corner after turning at 7th Street was Northern Lights and its two stories of records. After the light changed on Hennepin, Shinders. A middle-aged man playing his last quarter walked out of Moby Dicks. A red Metro Transit bus bloomed a cloud of blue diesel exhaust into the street. A mohawk with skinny jeans and combat boots walked out the door below Rifle Sport. A black guy played drums on a bucket outside Best Steak House. This was my playground the last two summers I lived at my mom’s in Minneapolis: I would jump on my bike, ride the lakes, head downtown and throw myself into the chaos. And now… now I would no longer have to try to translate that back into hockey and fights and my dad’s own special strains of bullshit.
I walked down 6th, past Murray’s—whose “Silver Butter Knife Steak” I could only imagine turning you into a very old person, very quickly from its rose and gray coloring on the sign—and rolled on toward Nicollet. On the Mall, Yellow Cabs and Blue & White Cabs competed with long-haired cyclists and red Metro Transit buses.
Staring from City Center toward the glare of the Crystal Court at IDS Center, waiting for my bus as the sun beat down on what was no longer spring, but, 150 miles south and a world away, early summer, I felt like: ‘Is the Dog a Buddha?’ No—and neither am I. The next bus was the 18A—more bus, more sitting.
“Is the dog a Buddha?” asked the monk. “Mu!” Joshu replied.
This is the second 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.