Buddha In A Teacup (2008)
Awards for Buddha in a Teacup
- 2010 Bay Area Independent Publishers Award Winner: Best Short Stories
- 2010 Silver Nautilus Award for Fiction
- 2009 National Indie Award for Fiction
- Runner-up for the 2009 Ben Franklin Award for Fiction
Two stories from Buddha In A Teacup …
Each morning on her way from the subway to her office in the pyramid building, Cheryl passes hundreds of beggars. And each evening on her way home, she passes most of the same beggars again. And there are beggars in the subway station, too.
Every few weeks, moved by a compulsion she has no explanation for, she empties the kitchen change jar into a paper bag and carries these hundreds of coins with her to work. On her way home at the end of the day, she gives this change to the only beggar she has ever admired. She has never told her husband or children what she does with the money, nor have they ever inquired about its repeated disappearance.
The man she gives this money to is tall and handsome, olive-skinned, with short brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. He is, she believes, close to her own age — forty-nine — and he wears the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk. He sits cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the Costa Rican consulate, a stone's throw from the subway entrance. His back is perfectly straight, his head unbowed, and he sits absolutely still. He is not there in the mornings, but he is there every evening of Cheryl's workweek, except Wednesday evenings.
His large brass bowl sits on the ground directly in front of him. When money is dropped into the bowl he does not alter his pose in the slightest, nor does he make any outward gesture of thanks.
As the weeks and months and years go by, Cheryl finds herself thinking constantly about her favorite mendicant. He has become something of a hero to her, though she knows nothing about him. She begins to wonder where he lives and what he does with the money he collects. She has no idea when he arrives at his begging post or when he leaves. She doesn't know if he is mute or deaf. Does he beg on Saturdays and Sundays, too? She only knows that he is there at six o'clock on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings, sitting very still and gazing straight ahead, receiving alms.
When she begins waking in the night from dreams in which she and this man are fleeing together from some unseen terror, she decides to change her path to work. She tells herself that if she stops seeing him four times every week, she will eventually stop thinking about him. So she chooses another subway stop, one a few blocks farther from the pyramid building, but with only the rare beggar along her way.
For the first week, her new route gives her sweet satisfaction. She feels as if an enormous weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She hadn't realized what a tremendous strain it was for her to pass by all those poor people every day. And she no longer sees him — that impeccably silent man in his golden robe. She no longer sees his piercing eyes or his sensuous lips or his beautifully formed hands resting palms up on his knees.
Still, she thinks of him constantly. She wakes exhausted from dreams of making love to him, of being his wife, his judge, his executioner. But it is only when she fails to sleep at all for three days and nights in succession, and feels herself dissolving into madness, that she decides to learn all she can about him.
She takes a week off from work, though she doesn't tell her husband she is doing so. On a cold morning in November, she rides the subway into the city at her usual hour. She stands on the sidewalk across the street from the Costa Rican consulate and waits for the object of her obsession to arrive.
At noon, his spot still vacant, Cheryl goes to a restaurant and fortifies herself with a meal, though she has little appetite. She has lost several pounds during the weeks of her growing concern about this man. Her husband believes she has finally discovered a successful diet.
Tired of standing, she is sitting on the sidewalk, her back against the wall of a bank, when he appears a block away — a golden flower in a river of darker flowers. He walks with stately grace, his begging bowl in his left hand, and a small rug, tightly rolled, in his right. When he has attained his place, he bows slightly in each of the four cardinal directions, places the bowl on the sidewalk, unfurls the rug, sits down upon it, and assumes his meditative posture, his eyes fixed on his bowl. He takes a deep breath and exhales, after which his breathing becomes imperceptible.
A moment passes, and now money begins to rain down, the bowl filling so quickly Cheryl is certain the monk will move to empty it, but he does not.
A man in a filthy black coat, a beggar Cheryl has seen a thousand times before, approaches the man in gold, nods to him, and empties the overflowing bowl into a small cardboard box.
A few minutes pass and the bowl is full once more. Now the veteran with one leg who sits in his wheelchair by the fire hydrant with a cat on his lap, rolls up to the man in gold, and leans down to dump the rich bowl into a red tartan sack.
And so it continues hour after hour until the last commuter has gone home and the bells of a distant church chime eight o'clock — seventy-seven beggars of every age and sex and color gifted by the begging bowl of the man in gold. Cheryl has tallied them in her notebook, the ink smeared by her tears.
A few minutes past eight, the man rises from his rug and stretches his arms to the sky. Now he bows to each of the four cardinal directions, rolls up his rug, picks up his empty bowl, and crosses the street to stand in front of Cheryl.
She looks up at him, speechless with love.
To which he replies softly, and with the force of a hurricane, "Hello, my dear friend."
He had planned everything so carefully, Marvin had. And now, what with a long delay due to unforeseen road construction, a flat tire despite brand new steel-belted radials, and a state agricultural inspector at the Nevada border who found Dipa's turban possibly indicative of forbidden foodstuffs, they are hours late for, and ninety-five miles away from, their rendezvous with Mary, Marvin's wife, at the only vegetarian restaurant for hundreds of miles around.
Dipa, a tiny, bird-like man with brown skin, his dress a loose gown of gray cotton, is not the least disturbed by the various delays in their journey. He turns to Marvin and says, "Perhaps this next village will provide us with some tasty comestibles. I haven't eaten since I left Bombay two days ago."
"I am so sorry," says Marvin, grimacing sympathetically. "Two days? You must be faint from hunger."
"I believe I am." Dipa giggles. "Low blood sugar."
Marvin — a heavy-limbed man with wispy gray hair, the reluctant chauffeur of his wife's guru — terminates cruise control and slows his enormous silver Mercedes to a crawl as they enter Shotgun, population 97, home to Lacey's General Store and two taverns: the Buckshot and the 12-Gauge.
"There." Dipa points at the brilliant neon sign above the Buckshot — a blinking fountain of blue and green and red light erupting from the muzzle of a gigantic magenta shotgun. "Surely they will have food."
"The thing is," says Marvin, breaking into one of his exceedingly odiferous sweats, "that's a rough and tumble kinda place. Mostly cowboys. I don't think … "
"Well, then that one," says the holy man, pointing at the 12-Gauge, its neon sign also featuring a colossal shotgun, turquoise, breaking open to receive two glowing orange cartridges from an unseen source, the gun snapping shut as gold and red fire erupts from its double barrels.
"It's the same sort of place," says Marvin, shaking his head emphatically. "I'm not sure they'll have anything but beer and peanuts."
"Two fine foodstuffs," says Dipa, nodding enthusiastically.
Marvin parks amidst a herd of enormous pickup trucks in front of the 12-Gauge. "I'll just dart in and grab us a snack," he says, frowning at the gravity of his mission. "Probably be better if you waited here."
"I must pee," says Dipa, opening his door and leaping out. "And I'm very hungry."
"But these are violent rednecks!" cries Marvin, panicking. "They'll … who knows what they'll do when they see your turban and your … dress."
"I believe otherwise," says Dipa, skipping to the double doors and pushing them open before Marvin can finish punching in the twelve-digit anti-theft combination on his remote auto manager pocket computer.
"Jesus," Marvin murmurs, whipping out his mobile phone and calling Mary.
She answers on the first ring. "Marvin?"
"We're in Shotgun," he says breathlessly. "He just went into the 12-Gauge. I'm going in after him."
"What are you talking about?"
"Just so you know," he whispers, putting a shoulder to the saloon door. "Shotgun. 12-Gauge."
Dipa is nowhere to be seen. Four men, none of them wearing cowboy hats, are sitting at the bar tended by an elderly woman wearing bifocals, her long gray hair in braids. A middle-aged man is playing pool with his nine-year-old granddaughter. A football game watched by no one is showing on a big-screen television, the sound off, while the jukebox plays an old Johnny Mathis recording of Moon River — the big room redolent with the scent of grilled steak.
"Excuse me," says Marvin, addressing the woman behind the bar, "do you serve anything vegetarian?"
"Potatoes." She nods pleasantly. "And we can make you a salad and fry you up some veggies. The menu's all steak, but we can make you just about anything you want."
"Oh, it's not for me." He grins anxiously at the men without cowboy hats. "It's for my friend from India. The man with the turban? He observes extremely strict dietary limitations."
"I would love a beer," says Dipa, mounting the barstool beside Marvin and bowing graciously to the bartender. "Please allow me to buy the next round of drinks for these good gentlemen."
Marvin's mobile phone vibrates violently in his pocket, clattering against his miniature computer. "Excuse me," he says, hurrying to the men's room. "I'll be right back."
In the bathroom, the walls covered with old record jackets from the early days of folk rock — Quicksilver Messenger Service, Buffalo Springfield, Big Brother and the Holding Company — Marvin presses the phone to his cheek and says to Mary, "It's okay. I've got things under control. We'll grab a quick bite and be on our way. He was famished. I don't think we'll have any trouble. Thank God it's not a Friday night."
An hour and several beers later, Bea, the bartender, waitress, hostess, chef, and owner of the 12-Gauge, serves Marvin his T-bone steak, rare, with baked potato and green beans, and for the holy man she has prepared a generous helping of curried vegetables and potatoes with yogurt and red-hot salsa on the side.
"Many thanks," says Dipa, bowing to her. "Just like home."
Marvin is about to cut into his singed slab of cow flesh when it occurs to him that the sight of the bloody meat might be offensive to Dipa. He forces a smile. "Does this bother you? My eating meat?"
"No," says Dipa, contemplating his food before eating.
"But you would never eat meat," says Marvin, sneering at his steak and feeling mean and unevolved.
"I have eaten meat," says Dipa, nodding. "And I would have eaten meat tonight if there had been no other choice."
"But it's a sin, isn't it?" Marvin stabs at his steak and winces. "Do you call them sins? Or taboos?"
"There is a story about Buddha coming to a village at dusk," says Dipa, smiling warmly at Marvin. "No one there recognizes him as anything other than a simple monk. He is given shelter for the night by a humble woman who lives in a small hut. For Buddha's meal, she serves him a bowl of stew she has been cooking for several hours. There is goat meat in this stew, but Buddha understands that no intention on his part caused the death of the goat, so he eats in gratitude for those beings who have lived and died so that he might go on living, and in gratitude to the woman who has shown him such generosity." Dipa winks at Marvin. "That's all I teach. Intention and gratitude and generosity."
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An unabridged audiobook edition of Buddha in a Teacup is available from Audible.com