THE UNWELCOME BUDDHIST
The following story, written some years ago, reflects the conflict between Science and Mysticism, and chronicles, in its way, the battle to be spiritual in a skeptical environment: a battle which frequently takes place on the terrain of interpersonal relationships, with our social comfort and acceptance on the line. The deep search for meaning is not all about God and Spirit, sometimes it is more about friends and family. It is not always about revelation or enlightenment, sometimes it is about ridicule and hurt. How lonely are you willing to be? Would you rather be true to your seeking, or be loved? Narrated from behind the gun sights of the rational, the story aims to embrace the wounded and estranged who are victims of their spirit’s need to breathe.
* * * * *
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was nothing compared to this: the day my sister brought her Buddhist boyfriend home to meet the family.
My father is a stern man of reason, a kind of Captain Bly of the mind, like one of those old East German border guards determined to prevent the escape of any member of his family to the realm of fantasy and strangeness. My mother, for her part, is an accomplished scientist, with a capital ‘S.’ Pictures of Newton and Darwin adorn the walls of our home like great banners of Chairman Mao or the Ayatollah. While we shiver, in the museum, before the open sarcophagus of a bandaged mummy, she discusses the latest forensic evidence regarding the diseases common to ancient Egypt; while we tremble with terror before the cold stone statue of the lion-headed goddess, Sekhmet, she expounds upon the genetic obstacles to inter-species hybridization. The two of them, together, in spite of their objectivity and rationality, like some terrifying Stephen King version of American Gothic.
Of course, my brother and I are little better. He, a robust sports hero, an Anglo-Saxon version of Jim Thorpe, who respects you if you can slow him down for a moment in his headlong rush towards the end zone; and I, a disgruntled computer specialist, the kind who fiddle with brilliant new strains of apocalyptic viruses, dark, Bakunin-like fantasies, but are not quite ready to eat our comrades in the Donner Pass. Give us another month.
We were a genuine Addams Family - who would deny it? - that believed everyone else, everyone not protected by the last name ‘Langenscheit’, was an oddity. We sniped at the few glimpses of the outside world which came to us in newspaper columns, TV shows, and the thin crack in our curtains, labeling life beyond our front door with disparaging nicknames, as methodically as biologists designate rare and exotic species of jungle worms and deep sea crabs with torturous taxonomic nomenclature in Latin. "There goes platyhelminthes localis. Has zinjanthropus boisei brought the mail yet?" What a minefield! What a tar pit, for the rest of the world to sink into! We were like some wild, undiscovered tribe of headhunters, or cannibals, the kind who mark their village with skull racks and magical posts shot full of arrows.
What chance did poor Larry, poor, gentle Larry the Buddhist, have, entering our home for the first time with our baby sister Millie, who had no right to grow up and get a job in San Francisco in the first place?
Of course, the supper was elaborate and carefully arranged, like a state function, like the first meeting of Nixon and Chou-en-lai, set up an entire month in advance to give my brother time to get down from Utica, and me time to get on top of my maddening backlog of web-site designs. We were a close-knit family, even if it was childhood demons that held us together, and everybody had to be present at the decisive moment, to give the official stamp of approval - if not to kill and count coup. (My marriage, five years earlier, to a mysterious Filipina girl who I met through a shady international dating service, was another matter altogether, because I, after all, was a man, and she didn’t speak enough English when they first met her to set off any alarm bells. "Oh, she seems sweet," they said. "She has a nice smile." She had helped my mother wash the dishes, and before you knew it, she was safely in, past the sandbags and barbed wire. "Welcome to the family, dear.")
But Larry - poor, babe-in-the-woods Larry. He was another matter. He had no excuses. His native language was English, and his jaw bone was not rotted out by any debilitating disease. He would have to speak. He would have to face the full fury of the lions in the arena. And rumors abut his strange beliefs, whispered by the wind, had already reached us.
"They’re here!" All of a sudden, the somewhat alarmed voice of my mother (the cashews were not yet out of the can, and Corazon was still folding the napkins). At last, weeks of anticipation had come to an end, and the moment of truth arrived! I looked up from a crossword puzzle with interest, as the cab pulled into the driveway, came to a stop, and the driver turned back to receive the fare from the still unknown presence in the back seat. Millie was already out, by now, standing there a little awkwardly by the car door, advancing no further, sort of like a secret service agent trained to shield the president with her own body. TD, my brother, appeared beside me now, then my father. Three faces: hardened faces, ominous faces, overprotective faces: the four horsemen of the apocalypse (my father was equal to two), gathered on the ridge to witness the entry of a stranger into their precious valley.
"He’s awkward," was TD’s first comment, as Millie’s friend squeezed out of the car, gangly, like a daddy-long-legs, like someone who lacked a central nervous system. Also a bit disoriented… perhaps the first people of Hopi legend who emerged into the world from a hole in the ground were like this, equally bewildered as they climbed up out of the darkness of their inner earth realm. "Nerdy," I said, thrilled by the possibilities.
"Such big eyeglasses," added Corazon, hurrying in with trays and napkins as he swept past the picture window towards the front door, trying awkwardly to wave, or raise his hand, or do something.
Mom was already at the door, letting the intruder in, Dad close behind, clearing his throat in a truly intimidating manner that resembled the grunting of a polar bear, the handshake of death sure to follow, then the carefully orchestrated, frighteningly enunciated words: "Welcome to our home." TD and I, biding our time like veteran Roman triarii, held in reserve for later in the battle, sprawled out arrogantly on strategically located sofas, positioned to catch Millie’s new beau in a deadly crossfire if occasion demanded. There, yawning, we impatiently awaited his arrival.
No shoes? "No, you don’t have to take them off," my mother, laughing nervously a few moments before, her meaning only now becoming clear. He must have noticed us staring at his socks because he smiled foolishly and said, "In Japan, they always remove their shoes before entering a house."
Millie’s two cheeks burning red as the days we used to take her out sledding, making snowmen without gloves. "Jer, this is Larry. TD."
"How do you do?"
Corazon, back in from the kitchen now, perspiring with all her work, gave him a spontaneous, uncalculated hug which temporarily threatened the solemnity of the occasion, then sat him down with a bowl full of cashews, in the big red chair reserved for captives. As in the ritual of the bullfight, with its different stages of picadors, banderilleros, and matador, each methodically contributing to the destruction of the doomed beast, we now entered into the beginning phase of the cashews.
Millie said her job was going well, the job with the magazine. Larry worked with a health food cooperative; well, anyway, he had a job. His duties included placing orders for organic foods, and verifying the certification of the products by the OCIA, as well as managing a national database on growers and distributors. (We noticed his toes wiggling within his socks.) "So, why do they take their shoes off in Japan?" I asked.
"Jer!" Millie protested. "We’re talking about pesticide levels in broccoli."
"You do eat meat, don’t you?" my father was asking, or was he merely thinking out loud.
"Biological pest control?" TD queried at the same exact moment, three of us at once. (Gang tackle.) "Using wasps to drive away the beetles? What will they do after there are no more beetles? What if they sting the fruit pickers?"
I’ll have to give Millie credit. She knew our world inside out, like a potter knows the clay she fashions into vases; like a general knows the deadly possibilities of hills and valleys. Skillfully, like one of those ancient goddesses of The Iliad, she wrapped Larry, anytime he was pierced by one of our malicious arrows, into a shining cloud, an impenetrable haze, carrying him tenderly, powerfully, off the battlefield, protecting him with rapid interventions, diversions, and cryptic explanations as unfathomable as the riddles of the Sphinx. The impression that emerged of Larry, in that first hour of the cashews, was one of a gentle, timid, very friendly young man, longing to be liked, like a little boy longs to be taken on a trip to the zoo to see the elephants and monkeys, yet at the same time principled, not simply a hole to be filled in by others. He seemed earnestly concerned about our diet, but bent like a reed in the wind when he learned he was going to be eating chicken. He was also the only one who didn’t treat smiling Corazon like wallpaper, going so far as to ask her about her native island of Luzon, and the fruits she had been accustomed to eat there as a child. And yet - something about him was too unguarded, too inviting to our baser instincts. We all sensed the shape of a secret - a horrifying secret, an irresistible vulnerability - lurking somewhere, there, beneath the contours of his clumsy likability. And like seasoned hunters, born to the hunt - like brilliant spearfishermen attuned to currents and bubbles on the surface, which betray the effort of the water to conceal its children - we were determined to get at it.
Enter phase two. Millie was breathing easier, now, at the pleasant dining room table made of pine, where we were all crowded together in a fatal illusion of familial closeness. Perhaps the chicken and potatoes with swirls of steam hypnotically rising up from them, the pleasant smell of the homemade bread, and enticing red color of the cranberries, gave a false sense of security. Perhaps it was a temporary obstruction, a mouth filled with food that threw off her timing (she had to swallow before she could intervene). Whatever the case may be, what happened next was unsolicited, a blunder, like putting your queen on pries in a match with Kasparov, or stepping off a sidewalk into an open manhole on the way to work. My mother had just said something about parents and children, sparked off by a recent article from Millie’s own magazine regarding the considerably higher average income, at forty, of the children of lawyers and doctors as compared to the rest of the population. Something like, "Too bad you can’t pick your parents before you’re born." That’s when poor Larry - poor, honest (ingenuous) Larry - not reading the derision, the compressed, bomb-like hostility in our chuckles - stumbled like a senseless drunk into the Sumatran tiger trap that had been waiting for him ever since he first stepped through the door.
I still remember it now, clear as day, clear as the last time I saw my sister’s face. A daring and confident statement, in the manner of Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." Or Pythagoras. "The sum of the square of the two sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse." But to us, it came out more like: "The little green men on Mars visit me the first Tuesday of every month." Larry foolishly, needlessly, blurted out, "But you do pick your parents before you’re born!" No trace of comedic intention, there, no hint of a punch line to follow… Instead, the earnestness of an idealistic social worker urging reform upon local government officials.
This time Millie was too late. "Yes, of course we do!" (A flurry of frantic electrical activity shooting wildly about inside her brain, like the sparks of Blofeld’s underground complex going up in smoke in You Only Live Twice.) "We all pick our parents." (Still pressing buttons and throwing switches.) "What happened, in our case, is that all of the good ones were already taken. - No, just kidding!" A little roughness in that joke, a little ‘No Trespassing’ sign put up in front of Larry’s soul, but the dominant silverback was not about to be deterred by so flimsy a defense.
Smiling, as though it were all, perhaps, a mistake, a minor problem with his cochlea, he leaned closer to Larry (close enough to devour him) and asked him, firmly, in a voice that could not be lied to or outflanked: "What did you say? Could you repeat yourself, Larry?"
"Daddy!" (Millie’s futile objection.)
"I don’t recall exactly, Mr. Langenscheit, but the basic gist of my comment had to do with the metaphysical fact that we do choose our parents before we’re born."
TD and I looked at each other, amazed, but self-controlled enough to hide our joy at knowing that a major spectacle was about to unfold, something in the order of Halley’s Comet flashing through the sky. (Would a new Mark Twain be born tonight - or die?) My mother remained inert, paralyzed by astonishment, frozen in stone as though she had just glimpsed the Gorgon Medusa; while Corazon blinked her eyes, pretending not to understand, hiding her feelings beneath faint signals of distress.
All eyes now turned towards my father. The no-nonsense war veteran; a bullet through the window of the cockpit, a Purple Heart and no welcome home; gray suits and days of briefcases, donkey-like sacrifices, clawing for lost time, building a small empire that was already falling to pieces before his eyes in the follies of his sons and daughter. Some things - some things, he deserved, at least! Respect for his ideas. Halfway decent spouses for his children. Halfway intelligent spouses. Grandchildren without cleft feet and peanut-sized brains. "Larry," he said, seriously, trying to insert a smile into his loaded gun: "You seem to have forgotten one small point. You don’t exist until you’re born. So how could you choose your parents?"
"But the point is, Mr. Langenscheit, that you do exist before you’re born. Surely you’ve heard of souls."
Oh boy - Millie had really blown the briefing, this time, or was it that the guy was some kind of fanatic? Corazon coughed - she was sometimes subject to asthma attacks during moments of extreme stress, at least ever since she had moved to New York. I looked over at her, then satisfied as she gulped down a glass of water, turned in time to see my father respond: "Surely, Larry. And you have heard of goblins and trolls?"
"What about gametes? DNA and meiosis?" my mother jumped in, now professionally challenged. "Do you know that individuals with a damaged frontal lobe are incapable of making plans and exercising judgment? So how do you believe an entity without a brain at all could choose his parents? - Or do souls have brains, after all?"
"Have you ever seen a soul?" my father demanded.
"Yes, I have," Larry replied earnestly, but beginning to wake up to the fact that something wasn’t quite right here, that the bullets flying through the room might actually be aimed at him! "Every time I look into your daughter’s eyes I see a beautiful - a just astounding soul - that humbles me, like the Angel Fall in Venezuela from my old backpacking days - and sometimes I can’t even speak, and I wouldn’t dream of demeaning it with a bouquet from the florist shop, or a poem, and I just shiver and shut up."
"Maybe you should have looked into Millie’s eyes before you came here," suggested TD, ruthless as Captain Morgan’s hook, but in his own, nitrous-oxide kind of way. I laughed myself from bystander to accomplice, while Corazon tried to burrow into a pine knot in the table, eyes as concentrated as laser beams.
"I think it’s beautiful that somebody loves me like that," Millie said, "and I think you should be glad about it, instead of picking quarrels about things that don’t really matter. Love is what matters."
"Well, of course, sweetheart," Dad replied, feeling guilty for one moment. "Well, yes, of course, and we are glad about that - very glad - all of us - I’m sure I’m speaking for all of us when I say that. But you know, darling - you know, Larry," (turning towards the perpetrator), " - we are also a household of ideas, a family of intellectual abilities and traditions." True enough, Dad’s tours of duty flying a helicopter over the jungle were only a part of the story, the part that made him most bitter and explosive. But his product - The Encyclopedia Of Historical Treasures And Lessons From The Past - an imaginative kind of mixture of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and the Encyclopedia Britannica - was all about the human intellect - its achievements and failings, its weird and fun things (fully authenticated) to get people excited about history, and then its serious lessons to prevent the future from turning into some kind of hopeless Mad Max or Waterworld catastrophe. For Dad, irrational behavior - whether the hoarding of tulips at the price of gold, or belief in the dancing sun of Fatima - lay at the root of human disaster through history: the absurd slaving away at the pyramids just to make some place to stick a corpse, the Children’s Crusade, the out-of-control Aztec sacrifices, the burning of Bruno, the intellectual outrage of Nazism, with its pied-piper hemorrhage of mythology into the real world. And then the foggy, unclear nightmare of his own life with madness, stuck into the cockpit of a half-hearted, unintended helicopter and betrayed by everybody, with nothing but a bullet’s scar to show for it, and the wrinkled photograph of a little woman who looked so much like Corazon, stashed away into the mess of a box whose haphazard chaos he somehow seemed able to negotiate with precision, as though it were an alphabetized file.
How many meetings had he gone to, selling his self-published encyclopedias? How many schools and libraries? How many miles had he driven, through the snow and rain, his trunk filled with them, coughing, rubbing his eyes, driving on past the islands of neon motel lights, miles down the black roads like some kind of mad evangelist with his Bible tracts, trying to save history, trying to save reason, trying to save what was left of his life and the planet?
Yes, this was no small matter for him, this thing of reason and level-headed thinking. In it was wrapped up the love and respect of his children, who must not stray, the future of the human race, which must not fail to listen, and the pain, the terrible pain of that bullet, which was everything outside his way of seeing things. No, Millie’s convenience, her momentary, love-dazed folly, could not deter him. He must not let Larry off the hook!
The little, fine glasses of chocolate pudding with whipped cream on top, brought in by a silent Corazon, served as a temporary flag of truce, a time to carry off the dead, and bring up more ammo hidden inside the Red Cross ambulances. "So, Larry," he said, the pudding now done, as we entered the third phase of the corrida, back on the sofas and chairs of the living room, still a little early for the apricot liqueur and Irish coffee. "Why don’t you tell us more about your ideas? - No, no, Millie, I’m serious, I would like to know more about this idea of souls. I mean, Larry, are you a Christian? I’ve never heard of this kind of thing about children choosing their parents in the Christian religious tradition, though I suppose if there’re Christians who dance with water moccasins, it ought to be possible. Seriously, Millie - Larry - I’d like to hear more."
TD and I looked at each other, incredulously, as Larry began to speak. My God, he’s actually doing it! we thought together, like two telepaths from a sword & sorcery novel, like two clones with identical brainpaths, biologically wired to the same perceptions. The fool is actually doing it! Millie seemed burned out, by now, flat, fluttering around the edges of the conversation like a troubled hummingbird unable to find its nest in anything that was said; no longer the heroic lifeguard dragging her drowning Larry out of the water every time he was flattened by a wave. She had been brilliant, Millie - let’s take our hats off to her - but now she was like a cheetah that has run too far, gone beyond its unparalleled burst of speed, and finally faded, panting, into sheer exhaustion and defeat.
"Well, you guessed correctly, Mr. Langenscheit," Larry was saying, indomitable in his naiveté, or emotional purity. "I’m not a Christian, although the views I previously stated are not entirely incompatible with Christianity, especially as it was practiced before the era of Justinian. I really consider my religion to be a non-religion which is why to me it is more powerful than any other religion I have ever experienced, although I realize that comparisons are unnecessary aggravations. If I had to describe my present religion," he continued, like the Romans pushing deeper into the Carthaginian trap at Cannae, " - my future religion and past religion, as well, although in the past it was hidden, buried you could almost say, underneath the asphyxiating symbology and ritual of other religions, within which it was the only living part - I would describe it as the religion of nothingness, the religion of the void, the metaphysical hole in the wall that lets in the light. Because we are creatures so bound by words, we have dishonored it with a name, which you probably know as Zen."
"Buddhism?" gasped my mother in horror (my father had long ago suspected).
"Yes," replied Larry matter-of-factly, "a Chinese adaptation of Mahayana Buddhism. But my own personal master, and associates in this beautiful art of pure being, are Japanese, and other Americans trained by the Japanese."
TD and I now looked at each other with horror as Madam Curie, our nickname for Mom, turned red with shame, longing, no doubt, for the day when prospective sons-in-law might be genetically engineered in test tubes to meet certain minimum specifications, at least, if not emerge as full-fledged Nietzschean supermen. But Dad only responded with a sinister smile, that sent shivers down our spines. Was this his version of Mao Tse Tung’s famous "Hundred Flowers" program, in which the former Chinese strongman temporarily invited open criticism of his government, only to lure his intimidated enemies out of the woodwork to pounce upon them later? Dad asked Larry to go on, and he, inexperienced in the ways of our family, accepted the poisoned fig.
What followed was an incredible stream of madness, at least to us: Dad later said that Larry could have, had he set his mind to using his beliefs creatively and keeping them in the realm of fantasy, where they properly belonged, outdone Garcia Marquez, Scheherazade, and the Brothers Grimm combined as a writer of captivating tales. "A pity he crossed that thin line between being an artistic genius and a crackpot."
There is no need to chronicle, in detail, the deluge of exotic and mind-boggling theories which Larry proceeded to expose before us; a brief synopsis will suffice to convey the severity of the phenomenon. Larry believed in brainless, massless souls, he admitted, without synapses or neurotransmitters, which somehow chose their parents from a vaguely described realm beyond our own, corresponding to no known dimension of space, or planetary body. For Larry, sperm cells with their wildly flagellating tails were mere diversions, like Roman charioteers racing around the Circus Maximus, perhaps for the amusement of scientists like my mother (but he was too polite to say this). They had little to do with conception, or with the properties of the being who had chosen to be born. Chosen? And what of those children unfortunate enough to have been born to alcoholic and abusive parents, to fathers who were paupers or compulsive gamblers, or members of the lowest castes? Yes, Larry explained, it all had to do with karma. Souls, in their state of knowing in the Beyond, would choose the challenges, the life paths that best suited their development, as souls. Those souls with the most negative karma to erase, sometimes with the most determination to develop, would often select or "tumble into" the hardest lives, he explained, as a means of facilitating their spiritual growth and furthering their progress towards the attainment of nirvana, the state of total dissolution into the universe. Dad demanded to know how the ultimate goal of anyone’s religion could possibly be to not exist, when what fueled most traditional religions (even more than their supposed moral teachings) was the desire not to escape life, but to launch life into the realm of eternity. Here, Larry resorted (but calmly, and without seeming pressed) to some crazy bit about holograms, the infinite connection, on all levels, of all things. "We are all manifestations, aspects of the same, broken off into separateness by our egos, and stranded in spiritual solitude and incompleteness; we are focused on being drops of water, instead of on being the mighty, flowing river that is life and all creation, in one of its aspects."
"David Carradine, move over," TD replied.
Larry said it all was beyond empiricism, beyond scientific methods, although he used Dr. Raymond Moody’s work on near-death-experiences, and Dr. Ian Stevenson’s research on children’s past-life memories, as fringe responses to the accumulated evidence of generations of scientists. "A telescope, a microscope, even a mathematical formula, still feeds back into your mind, your heart, your humanness," he said. "They can tell you nothing outside of yourself, because you are the one who must interpret what you experience through them. Since our determination of reality ultimately depends on us, I see no real inner difference between me and a scientist; I just choose different tools to engage and try to comprehend reality - tools of intuition and reflection and being, which have always existed deep within - tools which the universe made and put inside of us - tools of spiritual discipline that prepare the way for satori (‘enlightenment,’ Millie added) - that beautiful shift of focus that suddenly surrounds us with truth and knowing."
By now, the apricot liqueur had come out, though Larry had asked to just have a plain seltzer. TD and I, unnoticed, except by Corazon, were sipping down alarming doses of Irish coffee, while Dad’s nostrils were beginning to flare open with the fire of his gentle liqueur, not as gentle when it was gulped, and twice refilled. For her part, Mom, now silent, sat like a regal British lady at a literary function, forced to listen to the whiskey-induced ravings of an Irish poet suddenly turned politician. It was up to Dad to stop this madness.
The fourth phase of the corrida - our slow ritual - you could even say pageant - of destruction, had begun. Hemingway, if he were still alive, might have written a sequel to Death in the Afternoon to immortalize it.
Larry was out of the closet now - all out - no pretense of normality left to hide behind. I appeared to try to break the tension with some anecdotes about wacky groups and characters who had placed orders for web sites with my agency - a group of "alien abduction victims", sort of like an Alcoholic’s Anonymous program for people who claimed to have been beamed out of their bedrooms into UFOs; an archaeological expedition that was forming to seek traces of Atlantis in Antarctica; and the "Mark Bento Home Page", which was all about raising funds to rescue his polygamist commune in Hawaii, which was in danger of economic collapse due to an excess of offspring. But, of course, the underlying insinuation was that Larry was of the same class and category.
Well, the end was near. You could feel it, see it, smell it, like the dark, gathering clouds, the rising waves at sea, that spell the coming of a terrible storm. Dad’s eyes were vague now, avoiding contact with anyone or anything, lost within himself and his drink, charging up; his body restless like a tiger’s agitated tail, thumping up and down on the grass. Even the hair on the back of his neck seemed to be standing on edge.
"I don’t agree with Larry about all aspects of his beliefs, of course," said Millie, building one last meager line of defense, ceding the Sudetenland. "But his meditation really does seem to produce some very practical and tangible results. I’ve never seen anybody who only needs four hours of sleep; who has so much energy, so much good-naturedness and patience about life, so much kindness, and sensitivity about what other people are thinking and feeling. Stress isn’t in his vocabulary… He’s just so calm," Millie concluded, admiring his endurance, today, with a smile that tried to hide from her father, then suddenly fell completely into the open and led to a hug.
"So is plankton," Dad responded. And before Millie could object, he went on to demand, "Larry, why don’t you give us a performance?"
"Mr. Langenscheit?" Not understanding.
"A recital - of your latest mantra - no, seriously, let’s see what this meditation is all about. Can you do it without a prayer wheel, or mandala, or a shaved head? Can you do it at sea level, or do you need to be atop some exotic mountain peak, up above the oxygen? - No, Millie," my God, he was almost beginning to spout flames, "I’m a practical man, and I would never pass up a chance to learn something of practical value. Four hours of sleep. Eight minus four, that makes four hours per day, times seven is twenty-eight, times fifty-two - Elizabeth, do you have a calculator?" (‘that’s about fifteen hundred, Frank’), " - fifteen hundred hours per year! Larry, I’d like you to show me how to save all that precious time. Think of all the books of mythology and fairy tales I could read! Why, all that time, it would be like adding years to my life, almost like doing CPR."
"I think maybe it’s time we headed back to the hotel," suggested Millie, trembling with the rage she could never quite let out, turning to Larry; the ruthlessness of Dad’s tone now almost physical.
"I want to see you meditate!" Dad demanded. "I want you to show me how it’s done!" TD squirmed, this was like the worst quarterback sack he’d ever seen. For me, it was like a terrorist web page, with directions for making napalm.
Corazon, coated with sweat as though she were back in her native Philippines, faltered, then finally tried to say, "Maybe he has a special place he needs to be so he can meditate…"
"Mr. Langenscheit," Larry responded. "I do have a formal procedure of meditation: a certain posture and breathing technique, a certain way of approaching and not approaching it - a certain form for achieving spontaneity and non-form…"
Tiger, tiger, burning bright, In the forests of the night.
"However, the heart of my practice really lies in living, plain and simple - in fully engaging and entering my daily experience, in not living outside of it, in not waiting for it to be over or lead to something else, in not hollowing out its integrity with pockets of resistance, escape, or impermeability. ‘Just let the bubbles come up from the deep,’ Master Hama tell us, ‘and you will one day know what is below them breathing. Pain, despair, depression, doubt, even baseness all can be paths to freedom.’ He also tells us that, ‘Enlightenment does not come out of the clouds, but out of the dirt you walk upon.’"
"So what is it that lets you get by on four hours of sleep? I still don’t get it. Meditation? Walking on dirt? Or is it that you just save energy, by turning off the lights upstairs?"
"The mind requires a vast amount of energy, Millie," Dad insisted. "Building civilizations. Finding patterns in the night. Climbing out of the Olduvai Gorge. How much easier just to shut it all down, and call that big black nothing wisdom. Let the monsoon wash you away, let the ice age freeze you. Let everything we know and love and cherish go to rot. Kick evolution in the face and go back to being jellyfish floating in the sea, and ten-inch dragonflies buzzing through the Pre-Cambrian swamps. No stress? Why, getting into a religion such as that can only be the severest result of stress, like a nervous breakdown, like a schizophrenic collapse into sheer fantasy, like a philosophical dose of lithium or valium. Larry, I think you need help. Maybe another apartment, with less traffic outside your window; or a new job, like weaving baskets in front of a goldfish bowl."
Larry, almost intense for a moment, replied, "Mr. Langenscheit, many Japanese samurai were Zen Buddhists, and survived in the midst of horrific sword battles, and burning castles collapsing on their heads."
"Have you?" Dad demanded. His old and hated trump. Unless you had had a bullet come through and nearly take your shoulder off inside your copter, unless you had flown it out, one-armed, weaving through the minefield of puffs lunging at you from the jungle, your best friend bloody, slumped beside the gun, another copter, off to the right, down and beyond saving, then who were you to talk? Who were you to have ideas different from his own? Who were you to wander into the territory of the giant, rogue bull elephant?
A terrible silence followed. The only thing that could have made a difference, now, would have been for Larry to lift up his shirt and show some hideous scar from Desert Storm. But Larry only sat there, quietly, blinking in amazement, Millie furious, and fumbling through her purse to find the number of the car service. But before she could find it, Larry smiled sweetly, and only said, "Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Langenscheit, for teaching me more about the world today for helping me to gain more understanding about human relationships and the nature of belief systems." He wasn’t being ironic or taking out his claws (I don’t think he had any). "Come on," Millie said, getting up, decisively this time, almost ripping Larry out of his chair towards the telephone.
"Where are you going?" Mom asked, suddenly concerned. While Dad just sat there, frozen by his pride, or lack of self-perception. "Frank," Mom insisted. He shrugged. What was he to do? The call was made, and Millie returned, dragging Larry towards the front door, Corazon hurrying up, half to get their coats out of the closet so they would not have to do it themselves, half to ask them not to leave.
"I am very grateful for the opportunity of meeting you," Larry was saying, TD and I tentatively rising to consider handshakes, while Mom protested, "Why don’t you let us drive you to the train station, darling? Frank!"
"Not on your life!" hissed Millie, red as a newborn infant, eyes watery, suddenly on the verge of letting it all out, of ending the charade once and for all. "You’re - you’re a selfish monster!" she spat, finger pointed at Dad, who suddenly bewildered, transformed from the raging wolfman to the incredulous and mortified gentleman with blood on his hands, watched her go with sorrow and disbelief.
"What? - Is Millie talking to me?"
"And you’re no better!" she sobbed, gesturing towards TD and me with disgust and hurt. All those days we had never let her into the tree house, and they still weren’t over.
"Frank - shouldn’t we do something? It’s not right for them to leave so upset, like that," Mom stammered, the deep humanity nearly bursting through her wall of perfection, her fierce devotion to science and social acceptability, her life’s mission of having every member of her family be someone you could talk about with neighbors.
"No," he said, standing up by the window through which they were now no longer visible, headed, no doubt, towards the local public library to meet their car. Hands in his pockets. "No, if they want to be immature like that, let them. Just let them blow off steam. Anyway, it’s probably better this way. Yes," he mused, "much better. The kid's weird. If we had taken kindly to him, Millie might have got the idea that we accepted all that crap, or, anyway, would let it slide. My God! Poor Millie, always the little idealist, so ready to believe in starry-eyed stuff without a second thought. That’s all we need, for her to be with somebody like that. She’s too malleable. Poor girl, like putty; give her a little love, and she’ll change, like water, into the shape of your bowl. No, we’ve got to keep her away from nuts like that!"
"They could even end up in a cult," Mom agreed. "Or" (more likely now) "she could lose her job if people find out she’s got such strange ideas."
"Well, with luck, we’ve burned those strange ideas at their roots," Dad responded. "Opened her eyes. Hopefully - she seemed to say - she hasn’t fully accepted his ideas yet. But with time - well, hopefully, she’ll think about all this, and move on…"
TD and I, meanwhile, were standing silently together, before the poster of Newton, Corazon accosting us with her deep sincere eyes, a burning hurt nearly surfacing from out of that gentleness. "You two," she finally said, shaking her head. "You were bad." She shook her head, again, and moments later we heard the sound of running water and clinking dishes from the kitchen.
"What do you think, TD?" I asked.
"The guy was wacked," he said after a moment.
"Yeah," I said, "but - but that was love."
"Millie can do better," he said.
I studied Newton’s eyes and imagined their luster, I let my eyes move along the cascading waves of his curls, plunging down past his shoulders, wondering if that was a wig or his real hair. "Yeah, TD," I said, "you mean find somebody like Dad - or you - or me."
He smiled faintly, remorsefully, we always understood each other perfectly with a minimum of words. How could we understand each other so well, and yet, for us, Millie was like another planet?
I continued surveying Newton, trying to see his mind through his eyes. Trying to tear some reality out of that painting, to get to the fire that was at its bottom, but that was too much for the hand of the artist. What would Newton, were he alive, today, think of NDEs, and reincarnation? What would he think of UFOs and Zen? What would he think of Larry?
"Yeah - we could’ve been better," TD admitted. "We could’ve tried to ease Dad off. But we just sat back to watch the fireworks. And then we launched some Roman candles of our own. It’s not like stealing the batteries from Millie’s Talking Barbie when she was just a kid. You’re right. That was love. Crazy or not, that was love."
Newton. Sir Isaac Newton. Something beginning to come to me, now, standing beneath his picture, something from his eyes: not hard and fierce like ours. Shining and open; beholding a universe of wonder, like the side of the mountain split open by the words "Open Sesame", with dazzling jewels and gold hidden within, spilling out, into view. Not laws like the stone tablets of Moses, brought down unchangeable for all times, but the joy of a child fitting together the pieces of a magnificent puzzle. The thrill of knowing nothing and finding hints of something. Truth the inspiration, the passion, no mere emotional attachment, patriotic loyalty, to conjectures frozen in time. Weirdness and anomaly even more to be desired, because that meant there were still treasures to find and the thrill of seeking them. Most of all, no time to chase people around with pitchforks and torches. Not with so many glories hidden in the grass, in every grain of sand.
A strange warm feeling began to fill me, here, beneath the picture of Sir Isaac Newton, whose portrait we had just defended. But now, his portrait had changed shapes like a cloud; and we, too, were beginning to change.
"Millie will be stubborn for a while," TD was saying. "She won’t talk to us, she won’t return calls. Our voices will get jailed in her answering machine, then paved over by other messages. She’ll stick with Larry, and probably become a Buddhist herself. He’ll ask her to consider whether she’s doing it because she really wants to, or just to break free of us. Maybe they’ll talk to Master Han - or Hama - about it, and he’ll probably answer them with a riddle. I think they’ll get married - maybe in six months - he won’t buy her a ring - but it will be for metaphysical reasons, and not because he’s cheap."
I nodded my head. "Dad will begin to miss her. An emptiness will well up inside of him, and sometimes he may wake up at night, almost choking from it. He’ll finally begin to understand the power of love. I mean that reason really is, and always has been, at the fringes of life, and that true love can more than compensate for a slight decline in rationality. And then he’ll see that as a house can stand with love, not reason, at its center, so too - just maybe - can civilization."
"And he’ll understand that procreation is not the same as cloning. And the acceptability, then beauty of that concept, will slowly seep into him."
And the two of us, TD and I, found ourselves hugging, like Castor and Pollux, the mythological twins, the Geminis, whom nothing could separate.
Newton, I swear, seemed to be overjoyed at that moment, as if he had just escaped from a gray, dark prison, finally made it back to the earth as one of those crazy souls of Larry’s, to resume his studies, his joyous wrestling match with the mysteries of the universe. He might not ever come to agree with Larry, that’s true. But somehow, I felt, the two of them would get along in spite of it.
Still entwined in brotherly love with TD, I finally said, "Enough of this, TD. Let’s go help Corazon with the dishes!" And our bitter night, somehow, turned out to be just a little less bitter than it had begun.
Short Fiction Contents
Creative Safehouse Contents