Oh, shit. I am the Buddha.
Or I’m supposed to be, right? I had continued to flip through Mr. Waters’ book on the start-and-stop transit of the 18A’s journey from downtown, past the ghetto K-mart, past daycares made of concrete, past gas stations and slowly into green canopies of trees hanging over the sidewalks and real houses and cars with taillights. It’s amazing how easy it is to get turned around—even in a familiar place. I had ridden this bus hundreds of times, but now, in the very last of spring, in the middle of the day, the absence of kids on bikes, kids heading to after-school jobs, kids in the backseats of their parents cars on their way to theater practice… the complete disappearance of childhood from this world: it was cold—cold like a world without any more expectations.
My mom’s place was just off Nicollet, on Blaisdell, just south of Minnehaha Creek. It wasn’t a big place, but it was nice and she kept the gardens well, and you were always acutely aware that just across the creek and into Tangletown was the Proximity. You could say she had her Proximity settings well-calibrated. She’d say things like, “Woody Allen may be right about showing up–but you need to show up in Proximity.”
Right now I was in the proximity of the back door, but not a key. Her house was one of those one-and-a-half story houses built all over Minneapolis. You could walk blindfolded through half your friends’ places if you knew whether they were left- or right-oriented. I left my luggage on the side steps as I went to find the frog in whose ass the spare key lived, then entered into the kitchen.
The kitchen, of course, small and cramped in a way that suggested TV was for dinner. The doorway to the upstairs—my room—was just to the right of the kitchen and ahead was the living room. Naturally, it had a piano, a fireplace on the one wall, and a lot of books. No TV. No dinner. Down the hallway between the kitchen and the living room was a bathroom, with my little sister Sam’s room to the left and my mom’s room to the right.
I was going to see if she had any money in her desk, but when I opened the door to her room, there she was: rocking backwards, naked, her boobs in the air, and a Polaroid flashing in the hands of our neighbor, Blake, as he thrust his hips upward. Blake relaxed and waved the Polaroid film like nothing was happening.
My mom and I exchanged “later!” — — — “Got it—later” looks and I pulled the door shut.
I walked back to the kitchen where I had dropped my suitcase and my backpack, fished my dugout from my backpack, and headed to the backyard. It was turning into one of those incredible days in May, when the sun was shining, but it was not hot; the light lasted forever, but was mellow as if behind the finest of paper shades. School was now getting out at the elementary across the street. I could hear the kids and the buses as I was getting my bake on–then figured it must be time to walk down to Jake’s.
Jake lived a block and a half away, just off the creek. His house was the crap house on the block—that house–and was command headquarters for summer. His mom was single, too, but was living with her boyfriend in Chanhassen, which meant that Jake and his older brother Brandon and his younger brother Todd had the place to themselves. At 17, 18, and 20 it’s not like they needed a babysitter–but you wondered if their mom had ever even come back to say so much as “You need to change the water on the bong, boys.” Andy, from across the Creek was there, judging by his 1967 Mustang 289, and Tod’s 1974 Gremlin had a new patch of bondo.
“FINN!” yelled Jake as I walked in the front door. The guys were sprawled on a sectional, watching MTV. Except Todd, who flushed before making an entrance, then threw a Penthouse at me: “Gonna learn something this summer, Finn?”
“Finn? Finn. Finn!” said Andy, working the slow progression of realization of the stably high. “Finn…” Andy said, “you need to get laid this summer.”
“How do you know I need to get laid?”
A long silence hung over the couch, followed by Jake spraying bong water in a plume, then peals of laughter.
“That,” said Jake, pausing to collect himself, “That, pal, says it all. We’re getting you laid, motherfucker.”
“Well, won’t be his mom—that’ll be Blake,” said Todd, flopping into a stained La-Z-boy.
I threw the Penthouse back at him. “Do you work at being a douchebag? What the fuck kind of way is that to say, ‘Welcome back?’”
“You know he takes Polaroids, don’t you?” asked Todd.
I didn’t really want to fight, but the room had fallen fight-silent. My face was vibrating now with both weed and fear. Then again, this wasn’t the first time one of us had goaded another into rampant, bone-cracking AWA action and out-of-hand grabastic fuckwithery. So I must have said it, in some wrong tone guaranteed to produce the unintended consequence, out loud:
“I don’t really want to fight.”
But I must have, because when Todd propped up the Penthouse model on his crotch, leaned back, and took a pretend Polaroid, I grabbed the can of Coke from Andy’s hand and threw it as hard as I could at Todd, conking it right on his temple, below the elbows he raised too high above his head. The chew spit sprayed across his face and dribbled out onto Jake’s carpet.
“You fucking fag,” screamed Todd. “Oh, fuck, I’m bleeding!” He jumped up and charged at me. “Oh—”
I managed to avoid his charge and swung him into the Pink Floyd poster, but he caught the sleeve of my sweatshirt on the way by and down we went. We were both smaller guys, but also both used to fighting—we wrestled and fought a couple days a week every summer—but he didn’t know what I now knew, he hadn’t gone through the winter that I had survived. We had one rule: “NOT IN THE FACE!”—but I really didn’t want to fight anymore, so I punched him as hard as I could, flush on the cheek, where I knew nothing would break, bruise much, but where it would definitely get his attention.
“Enough!” I yelled, stepping back.
“Not cool,” said Jake from the couch. “Not cool.”
Todd’s eyes flashed a look very close to hatred, and he visibly considered continuing, but Andy stepped between us.
“Finn—what the fuck? You need to get into summer mode, dude.” Andy then turned to Todd. “You O.K.?”
“Yeah,” said Todd. He was now smiling as he rubbed his cheek and looked up at me. “I probably pushed the Polaroid button one too many times. Sorry, Finn.”
I could feel tears of embarrassment welling in my eyes, and dropped onto the couch. I put my head in my hands and pushed the tears up to my brows and brushed them away.
“Fuck, you guys—I need to get laid this summer.”
I stayed long enough for all forms of red to drain from my eyes, popped a couple of Altoids, and then headed home.
There was a new car in the driveway, a Saab 900, which meant that Proximity had come to our place for dinner. It was a Friday, so that meant a date, but the logistics of the day had gotten a little complicated by Greyhounds and Polaroids. I messed my hair up to look messed up on purpose before making my second unwelcome entrance of the day.
My mom was wearing white shorts, white Adidas without socks, and a lime green Izod shirt. Her pale pink lipstick was tasteful and she held her glass of wine, just right. My sister Sam sat with her legs crossed, an hors d’oeuvre plate balanced gently atop one knee. I walked in wearing Levi’s, Chuck Taylors, a flannel shirt, and a gray sweatshirt, smelling like fear and weed and peppermints.
“Finn,” said my mom, “I’m so glad you’re home. Meet Donald.”
Donald was, by his looks, in his early 40s, but the older-than-his-early-40s-early-40s. A little balder, grayer—but you could tell he was younger by the lack of sags, by his hands, by the way the veins on his arms hadn’t totally collapsed in preparation for final departure. He was also dressed for sex tennis.
“Nice to meet you, Finn. Your mother was telling me you’re an artist and a programmer—that’s a marvelous combination.”
“That’s me,” I said, “Someday I’m going to hobnob with the executives.”
“Finn’s ambitious,” said my mom, leaning against Donald.
“I sensed irony, Caryn,” said Donald, “which is its own form of ambition. Join us in the back for dinner, Finn?”
It seemed to me like Donald needed an ironomometer check-up of his own.
“Let me wash up first–been a long day. You know, mom–about washing up?”
She turned Donald toward the kitchen and then the backyard, then shot me one of her lasers. I really did need to wash up, and change.
The garden behind the house was a place of pride for me, since I had designed most of it with my mom: two wooden swings on either side of a fire pit, with adirondack chairs splitting the middle distances; raised vegetable beds surrounded by raspberry bushes; an open grassy area where Sam could do her cartwheels, and then a stone patio I had laid just last summer, with a pergola Blake and I raised above it. My mom picked out the chinese lanterns, but the rest of the work had been mine.
When I finally did emerge, 20 minutes and cargo shorts and a Joy Division t-shirt later, with no-sock Adidas of my own, I looked in horror at the spread my mom had laid out: a pitcher of lemonade, a bottle of merlot, grapes, french bread, warm butter—and tuna fish salad.
She knew I hated two things: fish and mayonnaise.
I sat at the wrought iron table and briefly reached for the merlot, then poured myself a glass of lemonade.
“A lovely dinner, don’t you think?” asked Donald.
“It’s nice to be outside, and at night, and not freezing,” I said. “Even if it’s a little cold around here.”
“Dig in, Finn,” said my mom.
“Not really hungry,” I said, eye still on the wine and hoping to be anywhere than at the table. “Just think I’ll have some bread and grapes.”
She pulled my plate toward her, put two slices of french bread on it, then dolloped large piles of tuna salad on them. “Here, eat up.”
“Like I said, ‘Not really hungry.’”
“Or not eat. And not really a question.”
Donald shifted in his shorts. “Caryn, I don’t think—”
“Like I said—I’m not really hungry. You seem like you’re ready for seconds, you eat it.”
She reached forward for the glass bowl containing the tuna salad, then threw it hard against the stucco.
“Why can’t you just EAT, YOU LITTLE SHIT?!”
“Caryn, I…” said Donald, “I… I think I should go.”
Sam took a big bite of tuna fish canape, and noted, “It’s not the whole family, you know—it’s just Finn. My mom can tell you—he’s a real fuck-up.”
“He wants to ruin everything!”
Visibly shaken, Donald fumbled for the keys in his short pockets, then turned, silently, toward his Saab. I stood up, astonished, as my mom got up to head Donald off at the driveway. My ears were ringing with rage, so I heard nothing as he raised his arms—pushed her back—then locked himself in the safety of his personal luxury as he backed out of our driveway and out of our lives.
Sam was playing Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca” when I stomped upstairs to my room. I looked at my turntable, at my shelf of records, and decided not to play anything, but instead to lean back on my couch and take a good long hit on my oney.
An hour later, my mom called for me, her voice quavering from the bottom of a bottle of wine.
“Finn… come swing with me.”
The sky was even clearer than it had been during the day, and even with the lights of Nicollet Avenue just a block away, you could see stars in the heavens.
“Finn, look,” she said, taking a long drag on her cigarette, then staring into her nearly empty glass of wine. “You’re only here because the courts made me take you. When you’re 18, you’re gone, which means you’re on the clock: you have 1 year and 18 days and you are on your own, kiddo.”
So I had that going for me.
Finally, I said: “I didn’t ruin your dinner. Your yuppy doctor didn’t ruin it. You ruined it, you know. You keep trying to live—I don’t know… some other life: why can’t you just be?”
“Just be? Jesus. You’re definitely not your father’s son… but you’re about as stupid as he is: only idiots accept where they are; only fools ride the treadmill: the rest of us are trying to go somewhere. Is that so hard to see?”
“I guess…,” I said. “Yeah, actually: it is. I just don’t see any difference between the name on your car and the labels on your clothes and where you to eat out. The loneliness casts the same length of shadow.”
“You know,” she said, swirling the last of the wine in her glass, “you always were clever. Is that a song lyric—or did you just make that up?”
“Made it up.”
“Well, you need to keep a notebook for that, Finn. Don’t forget your original genius. But… but here’s the deal, kiddo: we are both going somewhere. We don’t know where, but it’s not here… It’s just somewhere else. And it’s not the same place.”
She dropped her wine glass into the wood chips, like an exclamation point, at this statement, then pushed herself back on one of the swings, and stretched her arms out wide as she pointed her toes toward the stars. I looked at her and thought:
All these fucking grown-ups, full of wisdom…
Ummon: “Each Has Their Own Light”
Ummon spoke to the monks in the gallery: “You all have your own light. If you try to see it, all will be dark. What, then, is your light?” Afterwards, answering for them, he said, “The halls, the gate: the praise of all things is no improvement on nothing at all.”
This is the third 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.