Zen Stick

The next week I got up early, pulled by the sun—its morning twilight reaching into my room like half a shadow, calling me out to the road as it crested the trees. I rode every morning. I’d roll up the parkway to Lake Harriet, around Calhoun, Isles, up through Kenwood and then Lyndale and up Hennepin, past the old red brick warehouses along the river—their broken glass and faded billboards just as punk as anything in my headphones. I had a lot of Shaman Clowns in my mix tapes, way out of proportion to the fact they’d only released a single EP, but they were just… my band.
 
You got why certain kids liked the Suburbs more and which ones were ‘Mats kids and which kids Hüsker kids (I was a ‘Mats fuck-up and a Hüsker psyche, I guess), and then there were the Kennedy’s and Black Flag kids and then the Cure and Cocteau and Japan kids and, you know, of course we all listened to all of it. Just, some was yours and some was just… music. Right?
 
The Clowns had a song—”Chain”—that really got me rolling on rides:

 

Tired of being stuck in everyone’s motion

Don’t give a shit about your emotions

I’m tryin’ to find a place to get lost

Tired of paying all the wrong costs

 

I flew past the shoe tree, over the Mississippi and the graffiti on the Washington Avenue Bridge and on through the U of MN campus, down the East River Road. And that’s the thing, when you’re stuck in the machinery of everyone else’s lives: you feel fucked and lonely and you just… you just want to rage. But then, like pounding up the hill in my tiny gears, just spinning at V02 max from the flats below the U, and you’d get into the chorus, and it didn’t feel so bad to be on, to be in the machine: I was in control—I could just be;

 

Turnin’ the crank

Teeth bitin’ in

Stretchin’ me out

Stuck in the spin

 

And after all that pushing you come up to the East River Road as it flattens out and shift up 10 gears and cruise out toward the Ford Plant, back across the Mississippi to glide past Minnehaha Falls, and you felt the final words, just, even after playing for the 3rd time on the same ride, you felt how they made sense in every way; sucked in all the good and all the bad—then howled it in one cry,

 

One of these days, I’m gonna spin free.

 

One morning I rode out across the Cedar Avenue bridge and chased the ghost of Lycra Man, spinning quickly as I leaned forward, clicking continuously into the biggest gear, then pushing myself beyond breath on the long flats of Black Dog Road. The smell of the river hung over everything and the shadows from the trees along the bank spotted me with shade, and I just pounded the pedals. I burned so much, rode so hard that by the time I got to the end of the 3-and-a-half mile stretch of asphalt I fell off my bike and puked into the grass and thistle at the edge of Cliff Road, looking out at the algae film floating on Black Dog Lake and thinking that I was, just possibly, on the verge of becoming… I don’t know, you know: sane. Maybe even… fuck it, just possibly: beautiful.
 
And that the Black Dog Time Trial route still stretched out behind me, beyond the salt factory, out-and-back 7 miles.
 
I rode home in a small gear and focused on the road, eyes lowered, chanting chorus to the cadence, Turning the crank / Teeth bitin’ in / Stretchin’ me out / Stuck in the spin.
 
It almost tingled, that feeling: I don’t know how to say it in words—it was like an orgasm in my head, like being tickled from the inside of my skin. And I rode and rode and rode to find it…. always knowing in the back of my head—dreading that no matter how early I started or how long I rode—that at the end, I’d end up where I started:
 
At home.
 
One of these days, I’m gonna spin free.

 

 

I got home from my morning ride and found a note on the kitchen table, “Blake wants you to call on him. Today. He’s got something for you.”
 
Fuck me or fuck that? Mix of both, I guess—and then I mixed two pints of Gatorade, slammed them, then went back out to the garage to lie on the cold concrete floor and take a long hit. I coughed hard, then rested my head against the pegboard wall.
 
Blake wasn’t so much the neighborhood’s convenient fuck or drop-in dad so much as its Incongruity. On a block with 4 single moms, a half-dozen manicured lawns worth of grandmas and grandpas, a bunch of people we never saw, there were the Pederson’s with their new twins, and then there was Blake.
 
The Incongruity. He had the only 2-story house on the block, but he lived alone. He drove a big Jeep Cherokee and a minted-out ‘63 Vette. He kept his lawn perfect and his backyard looked like something you’d expect to walk into and find a Centerfold working to make her bikini lines disappear. And he barely even lived there.
 
Was it that much fun to be a 2nd dad to a neighborhood of fuck-ups? Was my mom—?
 
Can’t go there.
 
Turned out he needed me to take care of his lawn, but also his french bulldog, Renault, as well as his aquariums this summer, ‘cause he’d just fired Todd. The reason Blake was never around—and the reason he had so much money—was that he taught English out at Normandale, but that was only his side job: he also published those “Adventure” series you had to write book reports for in 5th and 6th grade. You know: the ones where the dust jacket was printed right on the cover, and you knew you could pretty much B.S. your way through the book report by adding some stuff you found in the Encyclopedia Brittanica and National Geographic? Blake was the guy who made that possible.
 
“What’re you writing this summer, anyway, Blake?”
 
He tossed some important-looking mail in the garbage, then said, “Scuba Diving, Desert Snakes, Dams, Subways,and,” he looked around like he’d lost the book title in the garbage, “Uh…something else… Aquariums!”
 
“Don’t have to go far to write that one.”
 
Blake had amazing planted aquariums with tree roots climbing out of them, moss and lily pads and grasses with schools of zebra and cardinal tetras, some other small fish I’d never seen, tiny catfish, and some serious, high-powered grow lights powering them.
 
“No. I don’t ever have to go far—I choose to do so. Do you know anything about water gardening?” he asked.
 
“I know something about gardening, I guess. What else is there to know about water?” He opened the hood and showed me C02 cannisters and charcoal filters and then how to change out the C02. It was pretty cool how little a deal he made about knowing so much, like: that’s just how shit rolls—you know things, do things.
 
“You could grow some serious weed with this set-up,” I said.
 
“Do you get high?”
 
“Pretty much.”
 
“Every day?”
 
“Most.”
 
“That might be too much. You need to cleanse your body and mind to truly enjoy the pleasures… of polluting them. Baudelaire: ‘Everything that gives pleasure has its reason.’
 
“Who’s Baudelaire?”
 
“My poet. But that doesn’t matter. If I don’t have him lying around here, your mother will. She’s a poet, too, you know.”
 
“She’s a bitch.”
 
“And a poet, Finn.” Blake turned into his kitchen (I had been following him around the house as he pointed at this-and-that, all with notes and checklists: for a randy old fucker, he was very organized). “You know, the other day—your mom just needed to get laid.” He waited for me to take this in, then said, “You know what I think, Finn? I think you need to get laid.”
 
“Why does everyone say I need to get laid?”
 
He laughed a long, slow laugh of someone who knew better—who knew better and knew you knew he knew better—that “allow me to put this ‘fuck-with-you-ball’ on the tee then knock it out of the park” laugh.
 
“Seriously?”
 
He leaned forward to the side-table (we were back in the living room) and picked up a stack of Polaroids, then thrust them into my hands. “Let’s start here. And careful: you’re mom’s in there.”
 
Most of the faces were out-of-frame. Who knew there were that many hairstyles. There. And boobs that… Shape. And Not. And moles. And stretch marks. And earrings… there. I leaned forward and put the pictures back on the side-table.
 
You can’t not—but can’t—but must—look. It was an education. It was porn roulette.
 
“My mom, Blake? Really?”
 
“Like I said, ‘Just needed to get laid.’ You need to expand your imagination, Finn. The world is bigger than your— … what handed are you?”
 
“Left”
 
“Bigger than your left hand. It’s infinite, pal. Think of that—expanding, with no end. You get one ride on the spaceship. Why spend it jacking off?”
 
“You’re making me sound like I’m a jack-off. I just…”
 
“Haven’t found the right girl? No. Such. Thing. Only the right you.”
 
“But what if…”
 
“Only the right you. No wrong her. Just right you.”
 
“I don’t know, I mean… don’t I have to not be a fuck up?”
 
“What’s wrong with being a fuck up? Being a fuck-up doesn’t mean you have to suck. Being a fuck-up is, let’s be real here, being a fuck-up isn’t what you are. It’s forgetting what you are. It’s trying too hard. It’s caring about what doesn’t matter. But between the outward expressions of fucking up, there are a ton of opportunities to go do, or better at being you: to go be. Shit, I just got busted fucking the neighbor kid’s mom. Now I’m going to do him a solid by giving him good work for the summer, some sane advice, and then I’m going to go write a few books. Can you process that, that it’s a perfectly fine way to live?”
 
“Not sure.” I thought again of the stack of Polaroids. “I mean: I can take care of your place. Yeah. I won’t fuck that up.”
 
“I know you won’t… but I also worry what you won’t do this summer. Just remember, Finn: sometimes the first person you need to seduce is yourself. And then you need to decide what you’re going to do with the love that follows.”
 
All these fucking grown-ups, full of wisdom….
 
In what would become a summer habit, Jake had to pull a shift at Jiffy Lube and Todd was helping his mom’s boyfriend stain a deck and Andy drove to Madison to visit his older brother. Which… fine: I liked riding solo—no one to tell me where to go, how to ride, or when to stop.
 
I had fucked around in the garage all morning, cleaning my bike and listening to Billy Golfus’ show on KUOM, but couldn’t stand to waste a Saturday ride. I started out toward Minnehaha, but as I crossed Cedar, I could tell that afternoon meant gaggles of old ladies on 3-speeds and families with kids and college kids with frisbees (AKA ‘biker missiles’) and turned back around for the Lakes. I rolled up the West side of Harriet, then Calhoun, then Isles, then thought about heading up to Cedar but decided to head back and start learning what it was going to take to keep Blake’s place in order while he was gone for six weeks: “How often does a bulldog need to shit?” “What if a fish dies?” “Is he paying me enough to buy new plants at Bachman’s?” That kind of stuff makes the pedals heavy in a hurry.
 
I was coasting down East Calhoun Parkway when I saw it. “Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.” I didn’t even see a building—just the sign—and hit my brakes without thinking. I had been reading Waters’ book, but had also picked up some Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki at The Bookhouse in Dinkytown. I don’t know if I would call myself a Buddhist after a couple weeks, but Zen was… I don’t know: it was more than just something to read on the 18A.
 
The building itself looked like the slightly run-down house of a rich crazy person, hidden up in the trees looking out at Lake Calhoun. As I walked my bike up to the sidewalk, I noticed some people were leaving, so I started to lock my bike up to head inside and check it out.
 
Sesshin is over,” called a girl, unlocking her bike.
 
It was late afternoon and her green eyes lit up like the moss in Blake’s tanks, just—a vibrant, life-filled green I had never seen before. She looked up from her bike and smiled at me, a slight gap in some very large, very white, very perfect teeth, framed by plain lips, and black scraggly-straight hair that dangled in a mess around her white v-neck blouse. She was wearing a kind of loose black capri pants and had bike racing shoes on, the new Look model with the ski-style bindings that clipped into your pedals.
 
“Or are you looking for—”
 
“No, that’s cool. I totally forgot what time the session was.”
 
“I haven’t seen you before, I’m Kiley.”
 
“Finn,” I said. “Just moved to town. Wanted to see what the local Zen center was like.”
 
What the fuck was I thinking? Her tan, for instance, offset by her white Swatch watch and her white shirt and even… somehow the black of her pants made the tan of her ankles stand out. Jesus, even her bike: she had a Colnago, green with yellow clovers and a yellow Selle Italia seat. She was obviously a Lakes kid—someone for whom even the Proximity was already on the outside.
 
“Really? That’s great,” she said. “Where’d you come from?”
 
“Duluth.”
 
She snorted a little bit, then looked embarrassed, “Do they have a Zen center in Duluth?”
 
“No—but, you know… I practice.
 
“Oh, well—I’m just starting. It helps. Mindfulness, right, that’s what it’s all about?”
 
Wasn’t practicing that a lot at the moment, in fact, was starting to not be able to breathe very well—at all, really—so I tried to look confident and just said:
 
“Right. Yeah, totally mindfulness.”
 
Kiley looked over my bike and asked, “You ride, too?”
 
I was on a little less shaky ground here, “Yeah. And race.”
 
Why’d I say that? I could hear my dad, ‘Bullshit only stacks so high, Finn.’ Kiley didn’t seem to notice, in fact, seemed to grow shy in my presence.
 
“Zen. Bike racer—that’s cool!” she said. “I have to get home, but…”
 
She leaned forward into her backpack, then pulled out a receipt and wrote on the back, “Kiley. 612-887-9292.”
 
She wrote, as I read it, like Frank Lloyd Wright would write if he were a super hot girl on a bike at a Zen center, trying to blow my mind. For some stupid reason I looked down at my Stan Smiths and thanked the ten thousand things that I wasn’t wearing my Chuck Taylors, with their pinky-toe pilot holes.
 
“We should ride sometime,” she said, grinning as she clicked into her pedals. “And remember: sesshin is at 8:00 on Saturdays!”
 
And there she was, up out of her saddle, the hearts of her calves showing just below the cut of her capris, the calves of a real rider. Who’d just given me her number.
 
When I got home, my mom was marinating chicken breasts in vinegar, brown sugar, and hot pepper flakes. I could already smell the grill burning in the back yard.
 
“Blake came by,” she said, “He had one last thing for you.”
 
“K. Let me change and I’ll run over there,” I said, then added, “He said you liked Baudelaire.”
 
“Baudelaire? No, I’m more a Valery type. I’m sure he said Baudelaire, though—that would be very like Blake.”
 
It was like poets were bands for grown-ups.
 
When I got to Blake’s he already had his luggage in the back of his Jeep. He walked me back to his garage, which had a separate door for the shop he’d built off the back, and…
 
“You have to be fucking shitting me!”
 
Blake smiled in quiet appreciation, then said, “Nope. Not shitting. You, on the other hand, need to keep your voice down.”
 
There was the usual workbench with a vice and some aquarium gear in various forms of being dismantled and de-algaefied and then: a row of three pot plants that had to be four feet tall and three feet thick and were covered in buds. I had never seen a pot plant outside of a magazine, but these ones had almost no leaves. They were behind a plastic zipper door and a fan blew air in and out through charcoal filters.
 
Blake turned on the lights, which flickered and popped and came to glow, giving me nearly instantaneous sunburn. Then he killed them again immediately.
 
“It sucks.”
 
“It what?’
 
“I was hoping for something a little trippier, like Thai Stick, but more vibrant: instead this stuff…. this stuff is like… bwah: a really, really cushy Kush, you know? That high where you might just fall the fuck asleep—and if you don’t, you’re muscle-relaxed right into your fucking chair, just…. there. For whatever: the duration of the duration. I wanted to see Quantum Monkeys and Astral Cowboys and the Stars Bleeding Joy… instead I couldn’t even change the fucking channel. Watching Johnny Carson high… it’s like anti-enlightenment.”
 
“That,” and this was the second conversation in a row where I had nothing to say, “…. that sucks.”
 
“Sure does. You want it?”
 
“I wa——. You what?”
 
“You want it?”
 
I tried to weigh it in both ounces and pounds and jail and death threats and the best summer in the history of summers and said,
 
“Yes.”
 
“OK. Make it disappear. And if anyone ever finds out where it came from—no mistake: you will disappear down a fucking hole.”
 
“Right. A hole. Got it. But… how do I make it disappear?”
 
He handed me the key to the workshop and said, “Don’t care. Oh, and grow some tomatoes in there. In the meantime, it occurred to me that your mom is a Valery woman, not Baudelaire. You can’t be a single mom, taking care of two kids, while also taking leave of your senses. I left Flowers of Evil for you on the kitchen counter.”
 
“You sure…?” I asked.
 
“Finn,” he said, “I couldn’t be more certain. You show all the signs of a kid who not only deserves an education, but will actually make use of it. Besides—and this is also Baudelaire—‘There is no sweeter pleasure than to surprise a man by giving him more than he hopes for.’”

 

 

///

 

Ummon’s “Shit-Stick”

 

The monk asked Ummon, “What is the Buddha?” Ummon cried, “A shit-stick!”

 

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

 

 


 

 

This is the fifth 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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