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Authors: Roland Merullo

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BOOK: Dinner with Buddha
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“Did you build the retreat cabins?”

“Only one of them, the one farthest out. Somebody local built the first two.”

“I made a solitary there.”

It was as if I hadn't spoken. He forked the meat, turned all three steaks. “Medium rare okay?”

“Perfect.”

“Do you know how Rinpoche likes it?”

“I'm sure medium rare is fine. He isn't fussy.”

“Of course not.” He ran his free hand over his eyes. “So I live here on my dirty money and try to clean my mind. I'm a hypocrite.”

“Lots of people inherit something from their parents. I don't think it matters all that much how your father earned it. That was what he did, not what you do.”

“Maybe.”

More stars had come out. A cool breeze was gliding across the sandhills. The surrounding darkness, the smell of alfalfa and cooking meat, a coyote howling in the distance—from what little human presence we could sense with our backs to the house and barn, we might have been standing there a hundred years earlier.

“Why did you ask if somebody followed us?”

“Hmph,” he said. “Natasha—that's your daughter, right?”

“Yes.”

“Beautiful girl. Smart, beautiful, so spiritually developed. . . . She and I talk on the phone every once in a while and she told me about the Chinese guy who was asking about Rinpoche and I've been looking into that. I have a degree in computers. I have . . . I'll show you the barn later, tomorrow, I have a kind of unpaid job doing research for various friends. As I told you, I worked for the government for a little while before I decided to come out here, in D.C., doing, you know, research. Looking into things.”

“For whom?”

“Just an organization.”

“The NSA?”

“Yes, if you must know.”

“Really?”

“Not something I'd make up. I know some tricks and so on. I had a clearance and they're probably going to come after me one day the way they went after Snowden and Manning, but let me simply say I don't like it at all that this guy is snooping around. The man as she described him was exactly the type of person the Chinese would send out on a reconnaissance.”

“Reconnaissance for what?”

A big shrug, momentary eye contact. “We don't know. Kidnapping. Assassination.”

“My daughter thought I was overreacting.”

“Wouldn't an overreaction be preferable to an underreaction?”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“If there is one group the Chinese government is most afraid of it's the Tibetans, His Holiness in particular. If they thought they could kill him and get away with it in the court of international public opinion, he would have been dead long ago. We're not dealing with a sweet and tender group here. Rinpoche is Russian from a Tibetan lineage. His daughter is . . . well, we don't yet know exactly what she is, but it's not hard to believe they'd be interested in her whereabouts . . . and not because they want to pray at her feet.”

A ball of barbed wire was forming in my belly.

“I'd like to help,” Alton went on, watching me now, gauging my reaction. “I have some skills. Should I tell you more?”

“Please.”

“You're aware that they have agents all over the world trying to figure out who might be the next Dalai Lama, and they'd like nothing better than to go out and kill the person. It's like, biblical, you know? It's like Herod killing all the Jewish babies. Same thing exactly.

“Now maybe the encounter in North Dakota was nothing, an innocent inquiry by an Asian man who happened to be wearing a gun and driving a car with tinted windows. A coincidence. Harmless. We shouldn't be racist about it. But it certainly begs the question: Why haven't they done anything more? On the other hand, we don't know what they've done, who they are exactly or where they are, and what, exactly, are their motivations. I told Cecelia a long time ago I could help out and do some research and figure out if anybody's looking into your computers or following you or checking you out online—”

“You can do that?”

“I can, yes. And so I was on the lookout when you drove up.”

He put the meat onto a metal plate and said he was going into the kitchen to check on the beans and corn bread and would I mind knocking on Rinpoche's door—“But quietly, okay?”—and calling him to the table.

“Right, sure. Did you find out anything? Is anyone looking into Rinpoche and Shelsa and Seese?”

“Not sure yet. Probably they're just too savvy to let me figure it out. But I will.”

I went into the house and down the hall and tapped lightly on Rinpoche's door, then stepped into Alton's immaculate bathroom to wash my hands. In the mirror I saw a worried man, middle-age, medium-sized ears, hair more than touched with gray, face more than graced with wrinkles, eyes bloodshot from the road. “Who's crazy?” I asked the mirror.

No answer.

We sat on three sides of the hand-built oak table and feasted. Meat, beans, corn bread, and beer, a perfect supper. Alton had the windows open and the air that wafted in through the screens had the sweet taste of wild grass to it. From time to time we could hear moths banging against the metal threads, wild for the light.

“Rinpoche,” Alton said, after we'd each complimented him three times on the food, “I've been practicing night and day.”

“Good, good.”

“I think I'm going to make a breakthrough soon.”

“Don't think for that too much now.”

“Okay, you're right. I should meditate without attachment. You're right, of course, thank you. I was hoping you could give me a new visualization, maybe tonight if you have time, or tomorrow morning, I've been getting up really early and meditating, I find that the mind is calmer then. I've really been reaching some new places.”

“Good, good,” Rinpoche said, but you didn't need psychic abilities to see that he was straining to sound supportive.

There was something about Alton that scared away praise the way an electrified fence scares away cattle. You could see that he wanted it, that he was hinting for it, hoping for it—asking us how the food tasted, twice, telling Rinpoche about his experiences in meditation—but at the same time when praise was offered he peered at you as if you were lying to him. He was peering at Rinpoche now, his eyes lined with anger, the anger covered over with adulation. I could feel him ticking there, inside his tanned skin and beneath the giant tuft of hair. Ticking, ticking, a bomb with a short fuse he was always trying to hide from view.

“I think you guys should pay cash on this trip,” he said now, “only cash. They can trace you by the credit cards. And they can trace you by the GPS in your phone. And the car's rented, Cecelia told me, isn't it?”

I nodded, sipped my beer, watched him over the rim of the glass. I wondered how long it had been since he'd had people in his house and enjoyed a normal conversation.

“You know they have a chip in it, then. And if the Chinese were somehow to hack into the computer of the rental agency—which one is it?”

“Dollar, I think.”

“They could probably hack in if they knew which one it was and then they'd know exactly where you were at all times.”

“Why would they care?” I made the mistake of asking.

“What!”

The fuse was out in plain view now, sparking.

“If they know where Rinpoche is, what difference would it make?”

“You're kidding, right?”

“Not really.”

“What difference would it make! They'd figure Shelsa would eventually meet up with him!”

“Wouldn't they already know she's at the retreat center? It's no secret that Rinpoche's there. It's advertised on the website.”

“Well, what if they've just now figured out she's the next one? What if they overheard a conversation or something, tapped a phone? And they've just started connecting her to him, and just decided they want to do something about it?”

It was as if we were siblings competing for a father's love. Rinpoche was eating very slowly, chewing the meat with his usual concentration, not really paying attention. But Alton appeared to crave that attention, and at my expense.

“I had the same worry for a little while,” I said. “But Tasha partly talked me out of it.”

“Tasha's very smart,” Alton said. “She's also twenty-two.”

“Twenty-three.”

“Even so. It won't do to let her decide what we should be worried about.”

“Probably not. I was saying I had the same—”

“The Chinese are vicious, you know. Or maybe you don't. I have files in the barn, I can show you if you'd like. First, they murdered a million Tibetans. One million! Tortured and murdered them! Now look what they're doing to the Uighurs. They'll stop at nothing.”

“I was hoping Shelsa wasn't public knowledge, I guess.”

“Public knowledge? It's known already in certain circles in Tibet. It was known among some of us before she was even born.”

“Right.”

“Not to worry,” Rinpoche said. He'd put down his fork and knife. The steak—much too large a portion for him—was two-thirds uneaten. Alton looked at the plate with an expression not so very far from terror.

“Wery good food!” Rinpoche said for the fourth time.

Alton relaxed a notch. “I have dessert,” he said. “Not too sweet. I allow myself a little vanilla ice cream once a week and I've saved it for you, for my guests, but I want to show you the setup in the barn first if you don't mind. Can we walk over there?”

The rest of the night went along those same lines. Alton gave us a tour of the barn with its state-of-the-art computers and scanners and shelves of files on the Chinese atrocities and electronic eavesdropping and the history of the method by which the Dalai Lama was chosen. He took photos of Rinpoche and me and insisted on making us fake IDs—he'd stay up late, he said, have them ready in the morning, make up names for us, arrange for new Social Security numbers, license numbers, everything that needed to be done. He twitched and bubbled and looked like he was plugged into a sparking electrical outlet.

Back at the house he spooned out three dishes of vanilla ice cream and asked if we wanted nuts, chocolate sauce, sprinkles, whipped cream, fresh fruit. It was an ice cream parlor of neuroses and I found myself feeling that I had to reassure him every two minutes—that I'd had plenty to eat, that it was all delicious, that I didn't need coffee, thank you, but coffee in the morning would be fine, black or just a little cream, no sugar, one cup, yes. That the IDs were a good idea. I wanted to take his blood pressure, prescribe a dose of Diazepam, ask about his upbringing. What had caused a soul to be this tightly strung? The big-shot lawyer father? The edicts of the counterculture, where everything from using a plastic cup to turning on a light powered by nuclear energy was an unforgiveable sin against the earth?

Rinpoche was unusually silent. His customary jolliness had been dampened to the point where I thought I saw the edge of his remarkable patience come into view once or twice, albeit briefly. He touched Alton whenever he could, resting a hand on his shoulder, patting him on the back, literally, once even tapping him in the middle of the chest in a strange gesture, wordless, that looked to be some sort of Skovorodian folk cure for the agitated soul.

Was the bed going to be okay? Alton wanted to know. Would Rinpoche need anything special for the morning meditation? The shower was strong, we were welcome to use the soap there. He had toothpaste, a fresh tube. And on and on and on, as if the poor man was being assaulted by a swarm of wasps, singing a chorus of recrimination as they stung and stung again. At one point I was going to ask if he had children, but it seemed the question—any question—might bring up the file marked
FAILURE
in his mind, so I held my tongue.

At last, though he appeared to have enough energy to go on worrying and talking until midnight, Alton said, “I know you get up early, Rinpoche, so I'll let you go to bed. You, too, Otto. Or you can stay up and watch anything on the TV if you want. It's satellite, like everything else here. A hundred-twenty-eight channels. There are books. I have shelves of them. Please make yourselves at home. I'm going to wash the dishes and go work in the barn and in the morning we'll talk about the things we can do to safeguard Shelsa and the family. I can ‘lighten your fingerprint,' that's the way they used to say it in Washington. You leave a fingerprint wherever you go. I can't get rid of that but I can lighten it.”

“We talk about it tomorrow,” Rinpoche said, putting a hand on Alton's arm. “Otto and me now, we do the dishes. You made the food. Excellent food!”

“No, I'd never let guests wash the—”

“This is your practice now,” Rinpoche said, rather sternly. “You go into the barn and work, and you meditate on how much the universe love you. Go!”

Alton made a face—Rinpoche's tone of voice had bothered him—but he performed the same exaggerated bow and went off dutifully to his ID-making . . . without saying good-night to me.

I washed, Rinpoche dried, the two of us standing at the sink in a kind of mourning. We didn't speak about Alton, but something was hanging in the air between us. When the kitchen was clean we bade each other good-night and went to bed.

Eleven

Nights like the one I spent in Alton's guest bedroom with the pine-paneled walls and the massive starlit sky framed in the window—those were the kinds of hours when it would have been a great comfort to have Jeannie beside me. I slept for a while and then something—a dream, a sound—broke that sleep and I couldn't piece it together again. Lying awake there I carried on an imaginary conversation with her.
Seems crazy, doesn't it, hon? I mean, fake IDs?! This isn't our life.

Probably,
she would have said. She was a woman who drew conclusions only after a period of thought. Sensible in the extreme. Grounded. Wise. Of good judgment.

Another few seconds and I imagined her saying,
but I remember, when we were living in Chelsea and I got pregnant with Tash and we started to look at houses in the suburbs, you said almost exactly the same thing about the idea of living in Bronxville: This isn't our life. I can hear you saying it.

I remember. It ended up suiting us to a T. . . . But there seems to me a fundamental difference between moving from Chelsea to Bronxville because we were starting a family and there were heroin addicts downstairs, and listening to a guy who used to work for the NSA and who is, right at this moment, making us fake IDs which, for all we know, might be a violation of the law and land us in Sing Sing.

Silence—real and imagined. I felt myself teetering between two worlds again. I longed for my house, my dog, my job, my routine, my wife, my kids. My identity. Otto Ringling, senior editor at Stanley and Byrnes, husband, father, upstanding citizen, homeowner, good neighbor, half-assed tennis player. What had been wrong with the plan of having that life go on for another, say, twenty years, then the move to Florida, drinks by the pool, walks on the beach, the grandchildren visiting? Jeannie and I had been putting money away so carefully for that future. Why hadn't we been left to that, the way so many people we knew were left to it?

And then there was the other side, the other voice, the other, I want to say, reality. I didn't know what Jeannie would have said about it. She'd been so warm and giving by nature, so kind to Seese in every manifestation of her weirdness, so grateful for Rinpoche's company in her dying months. He seemed, in fact, to consider her more soul mate than sister-in-law, more fellow traveler than student. “I love my sister,” I said aloud, as if Jeannie were beside me. “And I've come to love Rinpoche. I'm glad he's in my life. More than glad. I'll never forget what he did for you. The kids adore him. But the heart of my worry comes from my love of Shelsa. If she is who they say she is, if she's in danger, and if I ignored that possibility because it didn't fit into my idea of what life was supposed to be, and something happened. . . . How would I face Tash and Anthony? How could I live with myself?”

Rinpoche isn't a flaky man,
Jeannie said, in my mind at least.
I think you should speak frankly with him.

“Goofy, yes. Flaky, no. Okay.”

I lay there, feeling foolish, unable to sleep. You could remember a person, but you couldn't imagine her back to life. After a time I sat up, pulled on my pants, and went out into the kitchen. I didn't think Alton would mind if I helped myself to the last of the ice cream, and since I'd broken my no-sugar fast at dinner, apparently with Rinpoche's blessing, it wouldn't hurt to have a few more spoonfuls and start the fast over again next day. I dished out the sweet whiteness and sat at the table where we'd eaten dinner, but I hadn't been there three minutes when I heard the padding of feet in the hallway and saw my brother-in-law emerge from the shadows into the light.

He nodded as if he'd expected me to be there, sitting at a stranger's kitchen table, cheating on my diet at three a.m. No smile. No greeting. Just a nod of acknowledgment. Most likely he'd risen at that ungodly hour, slipped into his maroon robe, and was looking for a quiet place to do his morning meditation. Now he was going to step out onto the cold patio and sit there cross-legged on a chair cushion for three or four hours, following, in exquisitely nonjudgmental fashion, the workings of his mind, the current of his thought stream until it quieted completely, leaving him in a still pool of enlightened ecstasy. Maybe he thought I'd be joining him, the way I had, occasionally, in the old days. Not for three hours and not at three a.m., but there had been several dozen times when we'd “sat” together, side by side. My mind was the skittering right hand of a sonata, his the steady bass left, hitting a few chords, keeping the rest of the piece grounded, sane, steady.

Rinpoche paid no attention to the ice cream in my dish, though by then I'd stopped eating. He opened a cabinet and took something out. He filled the kettle at the faucet and set it on the electric stove. A cup of tea then, instead of the meditation. Or perhaps a cup of tea as prelude to the meditation. I noticed that there were two cups in front of him. He fished around in a glass jar on the counter and lifted out two teabags, set them in the cups in a way that can only be described as lovingly, found a glass jar of what appeared to be honey, and poured it liberally over the teabags. I watched him. Silence filled the kitchen. The stove light, the stark house, the silence, Rinpoche's broad back, and then the kettle's toothy whistle and the quick gurgle of water being poured. There was the clink of spoon in cup and he was sitting opposite me, two twists of vapor rising between us.

“Thank you for the tea,” I said.

And he said, “Bet your ass.”

I didn't have the energy just then for yet another lesson in the American vernacular, though I found myself wondering, tiredly, if one day this new affectation would get him into trouble. In a week or two weeks, up in the mountains somewhere—Wyoming, Colorado, Montana—a tough waitress would ask him if he wanted anything besides butter with his oatmeal and he'd say, “Bet your ass,” and there would be a scene. Or he'd hold the hotel door for a bull rider and his girlfriend on the morning after a rodeo and the young woman would thank him, and he'd say, “Bet your ass.” Or we'd be in a library in New Mexico, there to do research on American Indian artifacts, and the librarian would ask, “Can I help you?” Bet your ass you can. Or we'd be in a rest area, the kind that were peopled by lonely men in sedans, and Rinpoche would head for the edge of the trees, curious about some butterfly or bird he'd seen there, and one of the men would say, “Want to take a walk?” And so on. There was no end to the trouble a misplaced “bet your ass” could cause a person.

This was my mind spinning. This was my mind. These riffs were what I had instead of Alton's paranoia.

Neither of us seemed to feel the urge for conversation. When the tea cooled I took a sip—some kind of mint. Rinpoche watched me, then started to do something strange with his cup. He lifted it off the placemat, but instead of bringing it to his mouth he waved it around to the side for a moment, then set it down. He turned it around so the handle was facing the opposite way. Lifted it an inch, set it down. Shifted it four inches to the right. Picked it up over his head, so that I thought he'd be burned with hot water spilling, waved it in circles, tilted it this way and that, set it down, put his index finger in. I watched him.

At last, as this circus act went on and on, I said, “Some new ritual? The anti-Zen tea ceremony, everything as complicated and unproductive as can be?”

He set the cup down, offered me one of those smiles that warmed me from the lining of my stomach to the tips of my fingernails. Pure love, it seemed to me, and I was suddenly ashamed of my sarcasm. “Almost got it,” he said.

“Almost got what?”

He pointed at me. “Almost figured it out. Good, Otto. Wery good.”

“Thanks. But I'm clueless. At sea. In a fog.”

“This is living,” he said, bringing the cup to his mouth and taking a sip. There was an elegance to his gestures, a steadiness. One admired it the way one admired the movement of a great tennis player hitting a cross-court backhand. “And this,” he began moving the cup in jerky motions again, lifting and setting it down, tilting it. He even spilled a few drops on the table, “is the worrying.”

“You don't do it as well as I do,” I said, and I began moving the cup sideways and tilting it, and so on.

He smiled again, not so warmly. “Good you can make the joke, my friend. But Rinpoche thinks maybe you should just drink.” Another elegant sip, fluid, athletic.

“And not worry so much, right? Not have so much back and forth and up and down.”

“Wery good, my friend.”

“I'm a minor leaguer compared to our host,” I said, and the minute I said it I realized it was a kind of gossip, my own way of competing for Rinpoche's approval. He ignored the remark and kept looking at me.

I took a sip and tried a softer version of the same approach. “A little hard not to worry when you have an expert on clandestine computer research making you a false ID and telling you how you can basically go invisible for a little while in case the Chinese are trying to kill you or someone you love.”

“Bet your ass,” Rinpoche said. “Wery hard.”

“So how does one do it?”

He tapped the table three times with a bent index finger. “Right now,” he said, “in this good minute, in this second, Chinese killing you?”

“No.”

Three more taps. “In this second, they killing you?”

“No.”

“You sick?”

“No. A little sniffle, nothing really. Allergies, prob—”

“They hurting Shelsa?”

“No.”

“Worry is in your mind the pictures. You think you see these men but what you now in this minute see is this,” he pointed to his own face. “And this,” the teacup.

“All fine and good but there is such a thing as preparation. Anticipating trouble. Assessing the probabilities of the future and taking action. Alton might be overdoing it—I believe he is—but at the core—”

“Worry is worry, man. The tea not going in your mouth, see?”

“Sure. But what if we're overlooking something? What if Alton isn't completely paranoid? What if I don't like the way my photo comes out on the new ID, and what if we use the IDs and get caught and thrown in jail? I'm sorry, forgive me, but my trust in things working out for the best has been somewhat shaken of late.”

“When Jeannie she was sick, you worried?”

“From the moment of the first doctor's visit. From the second she came home and said these words, ‘Doctor Kahn said she wanted to run some tests.' From that sentence I started to worry.”

“It help?”

“No.”

“Make Jeannie better?”

I shook my head.

“But you did everything you can do, yes? Going to doctors? Medicines, yes?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay, see?” he said.

“Not really. Worrying is natural. Show me the husband who doesn't worry when his wife is diagnosed with cancer. Show me the wife. You'd have to be some kind of passive robot. Heartless or a fool, or both.”

“Was Rinpoche heartless with Jeannie?”

“You were wonderful with her. You brought her more peace with your visits than anyone else.”

“Rinpoche a fool? The robot?”

I shook my head.

He reached across the table and squeezed my forearm, then held his hand there. What happened then was something that had happened only once before, in the Walnut Room of the Fields Building in Chicago, midway through our first road trip together. You will have to take my word for this. Rinpoche wavered. Oscillated. There were two seconds when the image of him wasn't. . . . What is the correct word? Solid. It wasn't solid. It could have been something in my optical nerve, a pressure caused by stress, difficult memories, the early hour, a reaction to the tea, some noxious additive in the vanilla ice cream. It could have been, but somehow I suspected it wasn't. “Now you and me meditate,” he said when he'd grown solid again. He held up three fingers. “Three hour.”

“I'll be exhausted in the morning. I won't be able to drive.”

“Rinpoche drives.”

“Worse. You'll wobble and swerve. Cross the double yellow line. We'll be stopped. The trooper will figure out the fake ID. I'll be your cellmate in the Supermax.”

It was as if I hadn't spoken. “Couch now,” he said, standing and gazing down at me. “We sit together. Me and you. Three hour. When the worries come, you watch them, then you let them go out your mouth open a little. You think about how much you love Seese, Shelsa, Natasha, Anthony, Jeannie. Then you rest. Then the worries come again, the pictures, the image, yes? You look on her, you say: What is happening now, this minute? Then out the open-a-little mouth she goes into the wind, and in comes the love feeling. One thousand times you do this and pretty soon the worry is like maybe the little bird,
seep seep,
in the big field. Go on, little bird. Make the little noise. Wery nice. Big wave of love come over it and she goes quiet, okay?”

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