Dan Namingha, Sun at Dusk, Acrylic on Canvas,16"x16" ©2017
Potatoes, bucket, peeler. At least I know what to expect. The West Texas sun’s hot on my neck. I would work indoors, but the kitchen, along with the rest of the main house and the barn, too, is in a ruinous state. Horseflies buzz around me as the day heats up. I shoo them away, but I don’t swat, even when they bite me. Suzuki rōshi, whose idea it was for me to take this retreat, would be so proud.
When I’ve almost finished the first bucket, Van Zandt sidles over, limping slightly, and leaves me another. He stands over me, smoothing his mustache. It’s awkward but doesn’t bother me. As Rōshi would say, Much speech leads inevitably to silence. Better to hold fast to the void.
“This peeler’s getting dull,” I say.
“So sharpen it,” says Van Zandt.
Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes: I’m sick to death of them. My hands are blistered and cut, and I probably have carpal tunnel. And for what? We don’t even eat them. Van Zandt, who I’d swear I’ve seen somewhere before, cooks nothing but beans. Seriously. In a big, black kettle over an open flame, as if we’re out on the range. Even though we’re not. Just don’t tell Van Zandt that. He spends his nights on a bedroll next to the campfire with his horse Bodhi. When I first got here, I lingered with him into the evening, squinting against the smoke blowing in my face no matter where I sat. Van Zandt never budged. For all I could tell, the smoke never got anywhere near him. The sun began to set, and I hugged myself against the chill. Van Zandt gave me an empty look and said, “Got you a bunk all made up in yonder.”
“What about you?” I asked.
He took a long drag off his roll-yer-own, gazing at the western horizon. In the twilight, coyotes yipped and yammered. The campfire popped. I nodded, then made my way toward the house.
He’s stayed out there every night, staring off into the distance like he’s waiting for something. But what?
Sometimes Rōshi says things I don’t get: Life is more than logic and logic ought to conform to life in order to be logical and not life to logic, just for the sake of logic. I know he’s the master, and I’m the student, but still.
Another of Rōshi’s sayings is, Nirvana and samsara are equal. Don’t ask me where he gets this stuff. He’s clearly never spent a week peeling potatoes in the hot sun surrounded by a cloud of spiteful horseflies at a so-called ranch retreat that looks like it got hit by a tornado.
I’ve only persisted out of admiration and respect for Rōshi. If he thought I should spend time here after the breakup and breakdown and booze-soaked blackout, Van Zandt must have something to teach me.
Things started off well enough. That first morning, I was bombarding him with all kinds of questions: Was he affiliated Rinzai or Soto? Who did he train with? What form did his practice take? As Van Zandt gathered supplies and meandered out into the cool morning to light a campfire and make coffee, I gave him my two cents about koans and zazen and sesshin, expecting all the while for him to show some sign that he recognized me. I mean, come on: I’m Sage Aloë. They watch movies even way out here in the sticks, right? But he played it close to the vest. Maybe he was just discreet. He let me jabber on about the dharma and satori and why some people call it kensho until the coffee was brewed.
He held up the pot as a question, and I said, “Please, that’s exactly what I need. Rōshi drinks green tea by the gallon, but I’ve always preferred coffee, hot, strong, and black.”
He filled my mug, but when I said when (not always easy for me), he just kept on pouring. It overflowed and burned my hand.
“What the hell?” I yelled.
He stared at me for longer than felt comfortable. “You come all the way out here for a reason, right?”
It felt like a test. I’ve been with Rōshi long enough to sense them. I knew better than to say it was an opportune moment to get me out of the limelight after everything that happened. I needed to take a break from the scene. I needed some R&R to help me find my balance and get centered. “Yes,” I said.
“And what is it?”
“Uh-huh,” he said, and spat into the flames. “You’re already so fulla cockamamy notions. How can I teach you anything unless you first empty your cup?”
So, like I say, the whole thing had promise, but enough’s enough. Tomorrow morning, I’m outta here.
My Beemer won’t start. Figures. Van Zandt pretended to be impressed by it that first day, even peering under the hood, where I’d never looked once in my life. Probably sabotaged me, disconnecting wires or capacitors or what-have-you so I wouldn’t be able to abscond in the night. Who in their right mind would want to spend time out here in the middle of nowhere, doing grunt labor all day long that doesn’t matter to anyone? To hell with him and his damn potatoes!
I would call for help, but Van Zandt made me hand over my phone soon as I got here. It’s not like I have a backup.
Some redneck in a pickup truck’s bound to stop and give me a lift. Except the road is completely empty. I don’t see a single soul. I have to walk the whole way.
When I make it to town, dusty and parched, everything’s locked up tight. Not a car or horse or cowboy in sight. My only hope is One Horse Saloon, where I got directions on the way to High Lonesome when I couldn’t get a GPS signal.
I push through the swinging doors. Hick music pours from the jukebox in the corner. The only customer, a scruffy, silver-haired gent, mumbles into his whiskey. I catch a glimpse of myself in the cracked mirror behind the bar: I’m a hot mess, sweaty, grime-caked, hair windblown and knotted.
The bartender Gary smears a glass with a dirty cloth at the far end of the bar. He pretends not to see me for a while. I try to do something with my hair but soon realize it’s a lost cause. When he recognizes I’m not going anywhere, he sidles down and says:
“Look what the cat dragged in.”
I fake a close-lipped smile.
“Figgered we’d see you again, sugar. Just didn’t think it’d take so long. You look rode hard and put up wet.”
“Who’s we?” When I glance over my shoulder, expecting to see the scruffy gent passed out on his table, a dozen cowboys leer back at me.
“So,” says Gary, “what can I do you for?”
I drum my fingers on the tarnished brass railing. “Vodka martini,” I say, “extra dry, no olive. No, wait, on second thought, Rōshi wouldn’t like that. I should be good.” I knead the knot in the back of my neck. “How about a kale smoothie with strawberries, bananas, and almond milk? Maybe throw in some flax and chia seeds, if you’ve got them.”
“This here’s a saloon, case you ain’t noticed.”
“It’s like a real-live movie set.”
“So we got whiskey, or we got whiskey.”
The cowboys must be sloshing theirs on the floor and each other because all at once, the place smells like a distillery.
“How about a glass of water?”
He nods, expression empty, and slides a glass in front of me. It’s the brownest, nastiest muck I’ve ever laid eyes on.
“Not a chance,” I say.
“Suit yourself,” he says, then knocks it back. He refills the glass from a bottle of Jim Beam.
I lean against a barstool, studying that glass of whiskey. I know it’s a bad idea, what with the shaky footage of my bender going viral, but I gulp it down and ask for another. When I’ve emptied the glass three times and feel a lazy warmth spreading inside me, I say, “Know anybody who could give me a lift?”
“Where you headed, sugar?”
“Nearest airport,” I say. I might be slurring. “Gotta get back to L.A.”
“Couple-hundred miles to El Paso. Take you a while—maybe three-four hour.”
“Perfect,” I say. “Who’s driving?”
Gary looks skeptical, but he eases around the bar and speaks to a younger cowboy, and before I get the hankering for another shot of Jim Beam, I’m handing over all my cash—maybe three hundred—and we’re gliding out of town in a pickup truck that seems a lot newer than the other rust-buckets plying the empty roads. This cowboy’s not bad looking, but he’s no talker, so we ride in silence, another familiar hick song trickling from the speakers at low volume. Relief washes over me. My eyes get heavy. Next thing I know, the cowboy glides over to the shoulder and unlocks the door.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“End of the line, darlin.”
“No, the airport,” I say, blinking and sitting up.
He ambles around the front end, opens my door, and helps me out. Put another way, he wrenches me, clawing and screaming, from the cab. I hope no one’s filming this, or I’m in trouble. Again.
“But I don’t wanna go back,” I shout from the shoulder.
He ignores me, climbing back into his pickup. He puts the window down and tips his hat. “Have a good one, ma’am.” Now he drives away, gravel crunching beneath his tires, into the flat, empty afternoon.
I spot Van Zandt wandering around in one of his empty fields. Bodhi trails him, grazing. What are they up to?
The potatoes are there to be peeled every morning. I tried refusing, but that amounted to a hunger strike. “You don’t work,” said Van Zandt, “you don’t eat.”
When I started out, the bucket of potatoes was only a bucket of potatoes. Now the bucket of potatoes is not a bucket of potatoes. After satori, that flash of enlightenment I’ll surely experience any moment now, the bucket of potatoes will just be a bucket of potatoes again.
Van Zandt wanders past, looking like beef jerky with a handlebar mustache. He seems to be limping more than usual. “The fool who persists in his folly,” he says, “will become wise.”
Black clouds roil on the western horizon. Van Zandt stokes his fire. When a cold wind kicks up, I decide to turn in. I’m exhausted from all the silence and potato peeling anyway. Plus, that storm’s getting closer, though we don’t get much thunder, just bright flashes in the blackness. I wonder for the hundredth time why Van Zandt doesn’t just sleep inside like a normal human being.
Not long after I nod off, thunder peels and booms, shaking the house, or what’s left of it. I’m lucky the bunkroom, as Van Zandt calls it, is at the front, where the walls are still intact. Rain pours down in sheets, thrumming on the metal roof like a thousand little hammers. Ozone seeps into the room. Lightning flashes, thunder explodes. I clutch my pillow and bury myself deeper beneath the covers.
Then comes a flash and a pop in quick succession. The stink of electricity gives way almost immediately to smoke. The thunder’s still echoing when I spot the flames. You wouldn’t think a house made of limestone could burn, but there you go. I bound out of bed, scoop up what I can, and sprint out the door.
It’s still pouring, a real Texas deluge, so I stop at the covered porch and peer through that curtain of rain toward the campfire. I can’t make out the glow.
“Van Zandt!” I shout. “Van Zandt!”
Now the rain lets up all at once, like somebody turned off a faucet. I stumble out into the darkness, waving a flashlight in front of me. He’s curled up in an old blue tarp and dead to the world. Seriously, I have to shake him for five minutes, yelling, “Wake up, old man!” before he rouses. Bodhi stamps and snorts.
“Lightning strike,” I say, gasping. “The house is on fire.”
“Mmnph,” says Van Zandt.
“Like literally on fire. Burning.”
He paws at his face, smacking, then sits up and begins rebuilding his campfire. His silence rings in my ears. After a time, he looks up and says, “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, why, the bear eats you.”
“But all your stuff?”
He shakes his head. “Expect nothin, seek nothin, grasp nothin.”
“Attainment gains nothin. Loss loses nothin.”
“What about your house? You’re losing your house as we speak.”
He ignores me, fanning the tiny flames to life.
Thunder rumbles in the near distance. Smoke from his burning house, backlit by tongues of flame, billows up into the black night.
Van Zandt warms his hands over his fire. “Don’t matter what you do, every story’s got the same endin, and that’s sorrow. What you get your grubby hands on, you lose. What you build gets torn down. Soon’s you connect with somebody, they up and run off on you. Whatever lives is gonna die. That’s just the way it is, darlin.”
“Better to hold fast to the void.”
He rolls a smoke and lights it. “Bingo.”
The place is ruined, everything completely torched.
“Where am I gonna sleep now?” I insist.
He stares off into the distance. “Look around, darlin. It’s all High Lonesome. Sleep anywhere you want to.”
I’ve learned my lesson. So when I waltz into One Horse Saloon this time, I’m smiley and chatty and liberal with the moolah, buying rounds for Gary and the lonesome drunk and the whole bar once cowboys start coming out of the woodwork.
When they’re all liquored up, those cowboys’ tongues get loose. I learn all kinds of juicy details. It seems Van Zandt’s a man things happen to—the kind of tragic stuff you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, or paparazzi, or your ex-fiancé who filmed your violent, drunken tirade, then posted it online for all the world to see. Such as there’s a reason Van Zandt looks familiar. He is—or maybe was—Cody Wild, the superstar country singer. I can’t believe it never dawned on me, not even when I kept hearing all those hick songs I wished I didn’t recognize. Apparently, he fried his vocal chords and had to give the whole thing up. Just like that. Penthouse to outhouse.
And if those drunks know what they’re talking about, there’s a simple explanation for why Van Zandt’s got a ranch but no livestock. The cattle were down at his creek drinking in the middle of a rainstorm. A flash flood hit, and they all drowned.
Then there’s what happened to his boy. Junior was sweet and handsome and a helluva guitar player. But what he loved most of all was horses. Had a way with them. Some kinda horse whisperer. Turns out Junior was in the house when a huge twister ripped through. Took half the house and the boy with it. They found him, neck broken, in a field three-hundred yards away.
The frackquake demolished the barn. By now, those cowboys are so sloppy, I can’t quite make out if it killed his better half or just ran her off for good.
“No wonder he’s such a hardass,” I say. Laughter bubbles up out of nowhere, and I haven’t even been drinking all that much. “That man’s a walking disaster.”
“It ain’t funny,” says Gary.
“Sure as shit ain’t,” the cowboys echo.
“Relax, people. I’m not actually amused. It’s just this thing that happens.”
Gary unfolds his arms long enough to glance at the watch he isn’t wearing. “Bout time for you to hit the road, ain’t it?” He nods, and a couple cowboys drag me away from the bar, then pitch me through the swinging doors.
“It’s nothing personal,” I say. As I dust myself off, another Cody Wild song blasts from the jukebox. I take a few deep breaths, remembering what Rōshi always says: It’s not the wind. It’s not the flag. It’s the mind that moves.
“You know the drill,” says Van Zandt, setting a bucket of potatoes next to my head. I’m still groggy, shivering inside a sleeping bag. There’s enough stone façade left to hold up the covered porch, so I don’t have to sleep on the ground with the snakes and spiders and scorpions. The whole thing might collapse on me in the night, but at this point I’m not sure that would be all bad.
I peel and peel till my hands go numb. I’m not sure what Rōshi thought I could learn out here—though I’ll be prepared if I ever have to cook for a soup kitchen.
Sometime later, Van Zandt limps past, then makes a slow U-turn. He stares down at me. “How you doin there, Sage?”
Maybe I’m in tears. That’s possible. I’ve been crying a lot since I got out here, usually at night, buried beneath the covers.
He leans against what used to be the house. I worry the façade will topple. “You know,” he says, “if you’d quit feelin sorry for yourself and focus on what’s in front of you, you might just get somewhere.”
The peeler jangles as I shift it from one hand to the other. The wind, a constant presence, gusts and whirls, whipping my hair into Medusa knots. I backhand tears from my cheeks and say, “I heard about what happened.” I clear my throat. “You’ve been through a lot, what with your career and family and all. I mean, it’s just so heartbreaking.”
Van Zandt’s gaze may harden, though it’s possible I only imagine it. The man doesn’t exactly wear his heart on his sleeve.
“Even people who hate country music know Cody Wild. Then your family and livelihood and home. It’s just terrible.”
He squints into the wind and smooths his mustache. “Maybe,” he says.
“Maybe? Maybe? How can you say that? No offense, but your life’s been a complete disaster.”
His boots clomp against the porch slats as he steps toward me. He flips over an empty five-gallon potato bucket and sits down. Now he rolls a smoke, plants it between his lips, and gazes off into the distance without lighting it.
I glance over my shoulder, wondering what he’s staring at, and catch a strange flash of golden light. I blink and try to focus, but by then it’s gone. Probably just one of those, what do you call them, optical illusions. So I go back to peeling potatoes.
Van Zandt sits there for so long I almost forget about him. Then, out of nowhere, he says, “Some years back, this old rancher’s favorite horse runs off. Folks in town hear about it, and whenever they see him, they say, Too bad, Tough luck, You got a raw deal. Now could be they’re just rubbin it in, or they might actually feel bad for him. But all they get outta this old boy is, ‘Maybe.’”
Van Zandt’s not a talker. I don’t know what to think.
“Couple-few days later, lo and behold, this rancher’s favorite horse shows up, just trottin through the pasture like he ain’t been gone five minutes. Not only that, he’s brought some of his buddies with him, a dozen wild mustangs. All the busybodies in town get wind of it, they come around to see them horses with their own eyes. Talk about a windfall, You’re one lucky SOB, and so on. But all the rancher says is, ‘We’ll see.’
“Now this old rancher’s got him a son, and that strappin young buck loves him some horses. Good with ’em, too. Sees them mustangs snortin and frolicking and decides he wants one for himself. His daddy gives him the green light, sayin, ‘You can break one, he’s yours.’ Now the kid’s good. Even his mama knows he can tame the wild out of a wolfpack. Only that ain’t how it goes. The kid ain’t on that horse for two minutes before he gets thrown. Lands hard and breaks his leg. You can guess how them gossipmongers in town react. Come out to the house with candy and Cokes and comic books, sayin, That’s just terrible, What are the odds?, the whole nine yards. But it all rolls right off the rancher. ‘Could be,’ he says.”
Van Zandt hasn’t uttered this many words the whole time I’ve been here. They must add up to something.
“Well, wouldn’t you know it? The war was ragin overseas, and them military recruiters are out prowlin around for new blood to send to the front lines. They round up every able-bodied male of recruitin age they can find. But when they get to the rancher’s house, his boy’s still laid up in bed, leg bolted together in three places, the whole thing wrapped up in a hard cast. Them military types find his name and mark it off the list. So he gets a pass. He doesn’t have to go. Few days later, when the rancher sidles into the saloon for a cold one, folks say, What a break, Talk about dumb luck, The Lord works in mysterious ways. The rancher takes him a pull off his longneck, stares them folks dead in the eye, and says, ‘Maybe.’”
Van Zandt sits there for a long time, unlit cigarette still dangling from his lips. Then he stands, picks up my bucket of peeled potatoes, and hobbles away.
I can’t get Van Zandt’s story out of my head. The hitch in his stride stands out even more now. I cast my eagle eye everywhere and nowhere. I’m more watchful than I’ve ever been. Something funny’s going on around here, I’ve just been too blinded by my own misery to notice. But my vision’s beginning to clear. The bucket of potatoes will be a bucket of potatoes again.
In the meantime, I focus on each potato, its size and weight, color and texture. They’re all Idaho russets, I finally realize, though no two are the same. Like snowflakes or backstabbing ex-fiancés. I pay attention to how I position the peeler handle in my palm, the feel of the steel (or aluminum, whatever) where I wrap my fingers around it. I concentrate on my technique, the angle of my elbow, the force of each stroke. A lot goes into the process if you pay enough attention.
Something odd happened yesterday. I was already buried in my sleeping bag on the porch, counting the evening’s first stars, waiting to drift off. Right at twilight, Van Zandt hoisted himself up from his spot by the campfire, then loaded Bodhi down with sacks of what could only be potatoes. Peeled potatoes. The fruits of my labor.
Then the same thing tonight. Maybe it happens every night, which would make sense. I mean, they have to be going somewhere, since we haven’t been eating them, not once, the entire time I’ve been here. What’s he been doing with them? I would say filling the barn, if there was still enough barn standing to fill, but that simply isn’t the case. He’s not burning them either, or the whole ranch would reek. Now I understand that he’s been hauling them off somewhere—probably burying them out in a big hole.
I bide my time. As usual, Van Zandt idles around his campfire after his bowl of beans, smoking cigarettes and nipping from a bottle of a Jim Beam. Then he gets Bodhi and the potatoes and ambles out across the fields.
Tonight, I follow.
It’s already pretty dark out, and the orange glow on the horizon doesn’t keep me from tripping and falling more than once. I stub my toe, scrape my knee, and get dirt beneath my fingernails, but at least I don’t tumble face-first into a prickly pear.
Now I spot them: Van Zandt and Bodhi and a herd of wild mustangs. There must be a dozen of them, but not a single nervous whinny rends the night. In fact, they’re calm as can be, nuzzling Bodhi like a long-lost brother. Those mustangs shimmer golden in the falling dark, backlit by the setting sun.
The cold night grows colder. The first stars glister and pulse. Even when the last streaks of tangerine and violet fade from the sky, those mustangs keep radiating golden light. I stand there in darkness, underdressed and shivering, and watch Van Zandt feed them fresh-peeled potatoes right out of the palm of his hand. It’s the strangest, most beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed.
Then, all at once, the whole world floods in—or is it me spilling out? Maybe it amounts to the same thing. A strange warmth spreads through me. I’m filled with blue light. For reasons I wouldn’t know how to explain, I can’t stop smiling.
Standing in that dark field, showered with golden light, another one of Rōshi’s stories hits me. A monk asks his master, How can I find enlightenment? The Zen master claps his hands, then spreads his arms wide and gazes up into the impossible blue. The vast sky, he says, does not hinder white clouds from flying.