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Authors: Roland Merullo

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BOOK: Dinner with Buddha
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I thought:
Thirty-eight! Very nearly twice your age! My daughter involved with an ex-con giant with drug problems! Walking alone on the country roads! Fending off Bakken creeps! Bike riding in thunderstorms!

I said, “How did you know we'd be traveling?”

“It was all set up,” she said guilelessly. “Aunt Seese has been seeing you in dreams, on the road with Rinpoche. She's been having the dreams for months now. She planned this a long time ago, at least in a loose way. Now she's trying to set up some speaking engagements for him, too, I think, so it all works out.”

“I came up here to spend time with
you,
not to travel with Rinpoche, much as I enjoy his company.

“I know, Dad. I think . . . I mean, I've heard hints and bits of conversation . . . I think there's something big, a bigger trip, coming up, maybe next year or something, and all of us are going. I'll miss you, too, more than you'd believe, but I think it's important that you go wherever it is that he's going.”

“Into the mountains, apparently,” I said, and I couldn't keep a droplet of sarcasm from the words.

Natasha looked up at me. She stopped, took hold of my shoulders and kissed me just to the right side of my mouth. “You lost Mom. You lost your job. Jasper. Us. You're depressed in the house. Can't you see, Dad? Everything's pointing you toward something else, a different route. You're not going to be allowed to be just one of these suburban retirees, playing tennis and taking exotic cruises. That's not going to be your fate in this life. Don't fight it. Just let Rinpoche lead you toward something bigger. Just trust him, okay?”

“Playing tennis and taking cruises doesn't sound so bad at the moment.”

She smirked, smiled her sad smile. Jasper came bounding down the path.

I said, “Can't you and Warren come with us, into the mountains?”

“We need to get the place ready for the September retreatants. If you stay here for a while after you get back we can spend some time together then. There are things I want to show you here.”

“I grew up here, hon.”

“New things. I'd like you to get to know Warren, for one. I'd like us all to go camping in the grasslands. Will you?”

I was under the spell of her warmth and love and youthful wisdom then, the very things that had been missing from my life. I was under her spell, and I understood, in some semi-conscious way, that I'd come to the retreat center to be healed again. Failure that I felt myself to be at that moment, I was at least humble enough, in the depths of my secret soul, to admit that much: I had come here to be healed. If healing meant going into the mountains with my sister's guru husband in search of a companion for his spiritually special child, then I would do it. If it meant camping in the grasslands with my daughter and her thirty-eight-year-old flame, I'd do that, too. I told myself I was finished with my regimen of coffee and pastries, gourmet pizza with french fries on the side, TV and lonely brooding. That was behind me now, merely a stage, a dark night.

“I won't even unpack my suitcases,” I said. “Enlightenment in the mountains, here I come. Reserve a campsite for my return.”

Natasha wrapped both arms around me and said, “That's my wondrous Dad.”

Three

“You've gotten fat, Dad. Are you depressed?” are not exactly the words one hopes to hear from the daughter one hasn't seen in months. There was no meanness in them: Natasha was a young woman constitutionally incapable of meanness. But she could be blunt, a trait inherited from the maternal side. My wife's mother—in public a woman of substantial social graces—was known around the dining table to make comments such as, “If you marry him, your children will have rather large ears.”

The “him” in this case was her newish boyfriend, Otto Ringling—who happened to be standing at the top of the stairs in pressed pants and his only dress shirt, heading down for his first family dinner.

I paused there, waiting, wondering how Jeannie would respond and what weight rather large ears carried (not true, in any case—they are and have always been perfectly adequate ears, neither more nor less, in no way out of the norm) in the difficult decision a woman makes about who will father her children, and I heard Jeannie say, “And rather large penises, should they be masculine.” (Also, I should add here . . . well, see above regarding ears.)

Still standing at the top of the stairs, I stifled an urge to applaud.

Moms, as she was known, waxed apoplectic. “In my house we will not have that kind of talk!” (Etc. etc.) Jeannie's Uncle Gene, another summer visitor, couldn't stop laughing. And yours truly descended the stairs and inquired, “What's the joke?”

The joke, of course, is that bluntness tends to engender bluntness in some bloodlines. In Jeannie's case, and in Tasha's, thankfully, the bluntness had stayed but the nastiness had leached out.

Still, Natasha's comment rang a stinging note in my inner ear as I reluctantly made my preparations for the road.
Fat
is not a nice word. There are many good substitutes—I've used them all in reference to myself.
Big
works well.
Corpulent
.
Heavy
.
Stocky.
Even
chubby
is better than
fat.

What made it worse in my case was that I knew the term fit, and knew precisely where the responsibility lay. The equation for weight gain is really very simple:

Though, of course, the psychology is anything but. What you take in
(i),
times what you burn off
(o),
divided by
m,
where
m
is the mysterious workings of one's metabolism. For example, a Polish American Bronxville friend named Francisco Wardeski could consume three slices of pecan pie at lunch twice a week and five beers at a friendly dinner party, take no more exercise than that required to walk from bedroom to BMW in the morning and back again at night, and he had the belly of a college swim captain.

My own father ate like a rhinoceros—I can still see the six-high stack of hotcakes on his breakfast plate, next to an order of toast and mayonnaise, bacon, coffee with whole milk, maybe a buttered corn muffin. But he'd spend the whole day in the barns or fields, so his large
i
was matched by a very large
o.

My own love of food was legendary; in fact, for the twenty-eight years that I'd been an editor of food books at a prestigious New York house called Stanley and Byrnes, food had been central to my profession. During those years, thanks to my own vanity and because my wife was not attracted to corpulence, I'd made a concerted effort to get to the gym in winter, the tennis courts in summer, and to kick the soccer ball with my daughter and jog with my son at every opportunity.

Until, that is, things fell apart. Since Jeannie's diagnosis—903 days—and especially since the tripartite blow of her passing, my loss of work, and the kids' departure, my formerly respectable waist measurement had gone the way of the 2013 Dow Jones.

I had, in other words, let myself get fat.

Thinking all this, feeling a tide of shame rising like a septic overflow around my ankles, watching the purple-black cloud of depression creeping in over the horizon, I heard someone padding up the stairs and then saw Rinpoche standing in the doorway with a hand on each side of the frame. “I am wery, wery happy,” he said, and you could see it was true. His eyes were lit like Fourth of July sparklers. The enormous smile caused the skin around his ears to wrinkle.

“Glad to hear it. Why?”

“Because,” he said, “in this wifetime, the greatest, best fun for me is to be in the road with my brother-and-waw!”

On
the road, I wanted to say, correcting. But I couldn't. Fool that I was, lonely, sentimental, wounded, fat, depressed fool, I felt a familiar spasm in the muscles of my throat. Volya Rinpoche, world-renowned spiritual master and husband of my wacky sister, actually seemed to mean it. “Rinp,” I managed after a few seconds, “one question.”

“Any questions, man!”

“Why is the Buddha so often shown as a fat man? We even have the term
Buddha belly
to describe the well-known spare-tire abdomen. Why is that? I mean, he was famous for eating practically nothing. What happened?”

Rinpoche peered at me as if seeking out the seed of idiocy in the center of my brain. “Because he eat up everybody's karma all around him, man,” he said. And then, after a pause that seemed atypically indecisive, he added, “Like Jeannie did.”

“Jeannie was always thin. Always. Even after she had the kids, she—”

“Not talking food, Otto. Jeannie with the pain, the sickness, the dying early—she was taking other people's karma onto herself. You didn't know?”

Four

Though it is named Stark County, the territory of my youth actually has a certain complex beauty to it, in the nonwinter months, at least. The fields are sloped and slanting—western North Dakota isn't flat, not at all—and on hot summer days the fathomless sky is painted a sharp, wildflower blue and often decorated with rows of puffy cumulus—grand, purple-fringed, towering—that march eastward like the army of some resplendent king showing off on a celestial parade ground. Gravel roads run in a loose grid across land planted in durum wheat, hops, alfalfa, and sunflowers. Rolled bales of hay await collection by the roadsides, or spot the vast landscape like curlers on a head of golden hair. West-central North Dakota is, in mid-August, a palette of gold and green below and purple, blue, and white above, though in winter it better warrants the Stark name and turns white and gray, crackles with cold, and is inhospitable to everything that breathes.

On the morning of August 16, 2013, Volya Rinpoche and I—accompanied by my sister and niece—set out across that landscape in search of God knew what. Enlightenment. Healing. The soft, bright heart of my sister's silly visions. Or possibly the spiritual being who would form the perfect other half to my remarkable niece. Rinpoche and I were headed, supposedly, to the mountains. But on that morning my state of mind was such that I didn't really care. I had planned to spend a few weeks in Dakota, taking walks with my daughter, playing hide-and-seek with my niece, enduring my sister's watercress and balsamic sandwiches on bread so fibrous it resembled some sort of by-product from the plywood factory in Williston. Now, however, my daughter had a lover and my sister had visions. I would go along, then, change my ticket, put more miles on the rental car, spend a bit of time at the farm upon my return. What else did I have on my schedule? I was a brittle, brown, November leaf scuttling across an abandoned lawn; I would go where the next breeze took me, and make the best of it.

Sometimes now I ask myself this question: If I had known on that mid-August day where my sister's visions, where that uneasy breeze, would lead me, would I have kissed Natasha good-bye and gotten into the new Ford SUV with Rinpoche, Shelsa, and Seese? Or would I have stayed around the farm for a while, soaking in old memories and the comfort of my daughter's affection, then headed back to Bronxville and the empty house, the familiar pleasures?

I chose to repack my barely unpacked suitcase and hoist it into the back of the shiny new Ford. Hold my daughter close. Climb in behind the wheel. Toot twice at Natasha and wave. Throw up a cloud of dust and head west, toward Belfield, North Dakota, and Shelsa's favorite “eating-out breakfast place” with one last look in the mirror at the white clapboard farmhouse on its rise and my daughter there, beautiful in the prime of her young womanhood, waving, turning away.

“Where to?” I asked in a tone of what can only be described as manufactured bonhomie.

Seese was sitting in back with her daughter. Rinpoche was busy wrestling with the buckle of the seat belt, so there was a short pause before this comment came to me: “Going away now. Maybe not coming back.” I looked across to see if the monk might be making one of his famous jokes, but there was no sign of humor on his face.

“You running away from my sister? I'll get out my dad's old shotgun, I'll—”

“Who's running away?” Shelsa asked from behind me.

“No one, honey,” Seese said. “It's just your uncle making a bad joke. Let's play mok.”

“Maybe now the change for us,” Rinpoche said quietly.

“Meaning what?”

A shrug. An uncharacteristic sigh. “Celia seeing that now we go another place, all of us. She has the dreams.”

“I know those dreams. Sometimes they're eerily on the money, sometimes crazy.”

“Thanks, Otto!”

“It's true, sis.”

“Not about money,” Rinpoche said. “We have plenty.”

“It's an expression.
On the money.
Sometimes her dreams are accurate—on the money; other times they're just wrong.”

“Sometimes is everybody wrong,” he said, and he turned his head away from me, out the side window. “What is the word for light, the different lights, one kind to the other?”

“Spectrum?”

“Yes. I like wery much this word. On the spectrum you can see some colors wery good, yes?”

“Sure.”

“And the others you don't see, yes?”

“Right. Ultraviolet, for one.”

He nodded and turned his head forward again, then toward me. “Doesn't mean the colors isn't there.”

“Exactly,” Seese said, between the seats. “Precisely. Thank you, my love.”

“You welcome.”

THE TRAPPER'S SKILLET RESTAURANT
occupied most of a dusty lot just off Interstate 94, on the west side of U.S. 85. Eighty-five is a 1,500-mile road with some character, and one on which I'd spent a certain amount of time as a young man, dating a woman whose parents owned a farm along it. The road runs from Saskatchewan to the Mexican border, slicing down through the Dakotas like a straight blade through dry bread. The terrain it crosses is, in fact, dry. And it does, in fact, at least in the Peace Garden State, include some land where wheat is grown. Eighty-five is one of those old American roads, like its better-known cousin Route 66—a road with the scent of stagecoach and covered wagon still lingering at either shoulder, a relic from the days before the interstates, when you still felt the soul of a place as you traveled through.

The Skillet, as they all called it, had apparently become one of Shelsa's favorite spots, a café her father liked to take her to early on Saturday mornings in order to give Seese a chance to sleep. It seemed just a bit odd to begin our trip with a pit stop—we could so easily have eaten at home—but Shelsa insisted it would make her very sad if she and her mother didn't join Rinpoche and me for the first part of the journey, spend a night with us, and start with a meal at the Skillet. Her mother had relented without much fuss. The whole voyage had a weird feeling to it. No itinerary, no destination, no direction at all other than “the mountains” and a couple or three potential speaking engagements that were being set up, last-minute. There was something refreshing about the weirdness, however, at least on that first morning, at least for me. It was the kind of trip a young person might take, a trip that promised spontaneity and the risk of minor discomfort. Just the tonic for lardy middle-aged discouragement.

Because my sister is made nervous by any driver who even approaches the legal speed limit, we went along at a turtle's pace and pulled into the restaurant's Winnebago-cluttered lot as if we'd run out of gas and were rolling to a stop at the pump. One of the Winnebagos had a Smart car attached behind. A family of environmentalists, apparently. “So, Shels,” I said, when we'd finally parked. “This is your favorite place, huh?”

“You will love it very much, Uncle Ott!” Her smile showed the typical second-grade gaps in her teeth. In that way, at least, she was an ordinary girl.

“What should I order? Pancakes?”

“Egg samwich,” she said in her grown-up way.

We walked through the hot morning air, pulled open a door made for weightlifters, and found ourselves in a gift shop that was a menagerie of kitsch. There were posters promoting gun ownership in the strongest terms, small metal placards showing a canoe and the words,
UPSHITZ CREEK. NO HOPE, NO PADDLE.
There were plastic tags for every birthday and common first name. There were hunting knives, clichéd photos of running streams and mountains, wall hangings with sayings like
YOUR HUSBAND CALLED AND LEFT THIS MESSAGE: BUY ANYTHING YOU WANT
AND I SAY DRUNK THINGS WHEN I'M STUPID.

To our right was the restaurant. It was the busboy's day off, apparently—half the tables showed crumpled napkins, plates of unfinished sausage and gravy. We found a clean one near the far window and settled in. Perusing the menu I kept hearing the word
fat
in my inner ear, and that situation wasn't improved by the arrival of a waiter with veins striping muscled forearms and the belly of a college kid, which he was not. When my turn came I ordered a bacon and egg sandwich on wheat bread.

“Cheese?” he asked.

“Sure. What kind do you have?”

“Two kinds. American and white American.”

“Just plain, then, thanks.”

“No cheese?”

“Not today.” I patted my midsection. “Changed my mind. Diet.”

The waiter sent a hard glance at me and at the berobed Rinpoche, who'd ordered oatmeal with a scoop of butter on top and forgotten to say
please.
“You run the whatever it is, the mosque or whatever. In South Heart,” he said to the famous man.

“Meditation center,” I corrected quickly. He didn't turn his eyes.

“You should wisit,” Rinpoche told him. “Three-day retreat, no eating.” He laughed.

The waiter studied him, not kindly or unkindly now, but simply as if he were a rare specimen in these parts, a migrating crane swooping in for butter and oatmeal. He squinted, started to say something else, then turned away.

When he was gone, Shelsa remembered that she'd left her stuffed mouse in the car. Topo Gigio was its name. It had been Seese's comfort object more than four decades earlier, a gift from my parents, who enjoyed the Ed Sullivan variety show and adored the little Italian mouse who spoke to Ed with a squeaky accent: “Ed-dee, kees me good nait!” I have only a faint memory of the actual show—a memory refreshed by YouTube clips I showed my children—but I remembered how attached Seese had been to the little rodent, the fits she'd throw when it went missing, the care she took with its grooming. These are the things that lodge in the mind of the older sibling.

Seese asked if I'd give Shelsa the keys so she could go out and fetch Topo. I was shocked. “You'd let her go out there alone?”

“She'll be fine.”

Fine?
I thought.
Fine,
as in snatched by some sex offender cruising Route 85 on the alert for solitary kids?
Don't you read the news?
I wanted to ask my sister, but, most likely, she did not. She sat looking across the table at me with an all-too-familiar, condescending smile pinching her cheeks.
She can't be hurt in the ordinary ways, don't you know that, Otto? She's protected from all that. Someday you'll understand, brother,
the smile seemed to say.
Until then, I'll humor you.

At that moment, waiting for an already-delayed breakfast to soften my mood, there were several things I wanted to say in the direction of that smile.
I'm
the one who watched his wife die of cancer.
You're
the one who used to read palms for a living.
I
worked in Manhattan for two and a half decades, Manhattan, the epicenter of reality. And I also volunteered for eighteen of those years in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
You
live on a farm in North Dakota, and while it's true that the state has changed for the worse of late, you don't get out much. I raised two children, without major incident, watching them like a father grizzly when they so much as left the table for the restroom at a local café.
So please,
I was tempted to say,
spare me the superior smile.

But Rinpoche was watching me, and I had the sense, as I often did with him, that he could read my thoughts, that he saw the run of old sibling irritation as clearly as if it were tattooed on my left cheek. It was more than not wanting to look bad in front of him, more, even, than wanting to keep Shelsa from seeing her uncle's ugly side. Rinpoche's presence was a reminder that there were different ways of doing things. One did not need to indulge one's every irritation. One could watch it rise and let it fall, without denying or embracing it, the way one did with one's thoughts in meditation. I launched a wish for peace, happiness, and sanity in my sister's direction. I said, to Shelsa, “Uncle Ott wants to see Topo, too. Let's go get him before the food comes.”

Out we went past the kitsch museum to the SUV. Topo was rescued, clutched to a loving breast. As we walked back to the entrance I noticed a suntanned man in a cowboy hat staring at my dark-haired companion. Standing there idly with his lecherous eyes locked on her. I wanted to snap a picture with my phone and present it to Seese as evidence in the court of sibling disagreement. But as we passed, the man said kindly, “That's a special gal you got there.” And, to Shelsa, “And that's one fine rat you're holding.”

“This,” she said in her adult-like tone, polite but sure, doubtless, “is a mouse!”

The man laughed in the most unlecherous of ways and apologized and I felt, as I sometimes did in those difficult days, quite small.

THE EGG SANDWICH, SERVED
on a hamburger bun, not wheat bread, was perfectly okay. The coffee, drinkable. The hash browns and biscuit were, in the great western tradition, unimaginative and filling. But I have to say that a certain sadness hung over the table, the understanding, on my part, that I'd have my sister's and Shelsa's company for only a day or two.

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