Lunch at the
Roadside Café with
Volya Rinpoche
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-to-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 check. 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 apologised 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.

Rinpoche insisted on paying. As we stood at the cash register he struck up a conversation with the waiter, who'd been giving him something resembling the evil eye on every trip to the table, and who was now doing double duty as cashier.

"How could you makin' out?" asked the bald, berobed holy man, whose books were studied by seekers all over the globe, and whose presence was enough to draw the spiritual minded from every continent to the wilds of Stark County to live in a simple dormitory room, to eat my sister's cooking, and to sit and watch their thoughts for eight hours a day. How could you makin' out. It was his best imitation of a Dickinson rancher.

The man looked at him hard. "How'm I makin' out? Not bad. Thanks for the nice tip."

"You welcome, man."

"I'm just workin' here till I can get up to the Bakken."

"The oil place," Rinpoche said. "Good money, yes?"

"Bet your ass."

"Bet your ass," Rinpoche repeated. He seemed to be making a study of the local dialect, trying hard to fit in. It was odd, given the fact that he'd said, not an hour earlier, that he might be leaving.

"Three grand a week, my friend."

"What is this grand?"

"A thousand bucks. Three thousand bucks a week."

"But work wery dangerous."

"I can handle it. . . . How you makin' out?"

"Road tripped now."


"Big mountains, maybe."

A grunt. "What is it you all do, over at that mosque or whatever?"

"Frackin'," Rinpoche said, with an enormous smile.

"No way." The man flexed his forearms and, until my brother-in-law spoke again, appeared ready to inquire about work.

"Inside-the-person frackin'. We put on a pressure and things inside come out."

"Like what things? Which kinds of things?"

As I somehow knew he would, Rinpoche reached across the counter and, with one hand, fingers splayed, grasped the man's skull, just above the forehead. Palming a basketball.

The man frowned and leaned back, out of reach.

"Sit, sit, meditate, meditate, frackin', frackin', and all the old ways to think come out. Makes you a new man. Jesus say so."

Suspicion had now been replaced by abject confusion. The waiter looked at me, at the dark-eyed girl clutching her stuffed mouse, at the stunningly beautiful middle-aged woman in a hippie dress, then back at the monk who'd given him a big tip then fondled his head. He said, "Well, the Jesus part I could maybe relate to, but the rest of it all, you know, that's some weird shit, man."

"Best shit ever," Rinpoche said agreeably. "Bet your ass."

A woman waiting behind us in line coughed and scowled. The waiter laughed nervously, as if another part of his body might suddenly be taken hold of if he kept on with the conversation. We thanked him, wished him luck, headed for the door, and had nearly made it when a leather-clad motorcycle couple, fresh from the famous Sturgis rally, crowded through, all wind-burned cheeks and coal-black boots. Like most of the rally goers, they weren't part of some organized gang, just people who enjoyed riding in the open air. I knew this, and was all set to offer them a hearty North Dakota good morning, when the woman muttered "freak show" as we passed.

No one else in our group seemed to hear.

--- From Dinner with Buddha
Roland Merullo
© 2016 Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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