Tony the lama and his wife, Mira, lived rent free in the carriage house of a half-timbered Tudor revival hulk built by an old-time lumber baron, now owned by the Foundation, on a quarter-acre plot technically across the southern border of posh Montlake but still breathing some of Seattle’s more rarefied air. It was the kind of neighborhood where they didn’t mind Tibetan prayer flags if there weren’t too many of them and they’d let you build a white stupa in the backyard if it wasn’t higher than your roofline and didn’t show from the street. Tony tried to be a regular fella, but sometimes he felt like shaving his head, sometimes he liked to wear his robes when he mowed the front lawn. The neighbors were clear that he and his wife and kid lived modestly in the carriage house, but they’d been inside the big place on get-to-know-us open house days and had seen how the lumber-baronial dining hall had been transformed into a cavernous blood-red room with golden trim, an enormous gilded smirky Buddha that Tony wouldn’t have chosen to head the room, and probably too many thangkas featuring big-toothed blue and red guys dancing up and down on the corpses of their demonic enemies, waving their many arms and sticking their tongues out of their many mouths. You could talk to people about the symbolic nature of the representations, but it was hard to bring off in an enormous room in which an ocean of unmitigated hemoglobin red flooded the eye from every available surface and there were all kinds of objects—prayer wheels, bells, vajras, symbolic battle-axes, ornamental spears—that were not normal accoutrements in the other Tudor revival homes of the neighborhood. Lapsed Catholics did better with it because they were used to wall-to-wall imagery, but regular unlapsed Christians found it all kind of radical. And people didn’t notice the peaceful, compassionate Green Taras much. Their eyes went right to the hot stuff, the wrathfuls, the demons, the trampling. It was understandable. It was another version of what people like to watch on television.
“We try to keep human sacrifices to a minimum,” he’d joked with visitors a couple times, “and the dead guys symbolize illusions.”
Buddha-mind all-cognitive at the center, ringed by heavens, hells, glutted appetites, and hungry ghosts. Gods, demons, personifications of abstract principles riding through clouds on the backs of blue mules: Tony could have done without a lot of the trappings even though they admittedly lit him up, but it was the Foundation’s call, and the rinpoches felt at home when they came to stay in the guest rooms upstairs when there was a conference or an intensive.
Today Lama Tony was wearing a blue polo shirt and chinos and feeling nervous about Lina’s visit, half hoping she’d be late or would phone to say something had come up and she couldn’t make it.
He’d never had to deal with Lina Chase at the level of personal problems apart from prevailing Buddhist practice, which was good because it kept their relations from getting too personal, since face it, if he hadn’t happened into Mira, Lina, a woman almost his own age, already been through everything, wouldn’t need a basic education in how life goes, probably understood in her bones by now that whatever advantage life had ever handed her was temporary, plus wouldn’t want to have more kids with him and was Italian to boot. Tony had to put all that stuff in the hopper to prep himself for Lina’s visit.
In a previous go-round of troubles with her son, Lina had formed a compound response of stoicism and compassion: she would do what she could for Eli, but if he was determined to fuck his life up beyond what she could help him with she’d detach, wouldn’t tear herself to shreds over what she couldn’t fix or prevent. This time it sounded different, though. It sounded like a lot of old baggage rattling down her chute, a load of stuff all her smarts and practice couldn’t get a handle on, and the prospect of getting into personal nitty-gritty with her worried him. No shit. Yeah, Tony had a lama license, but no way was he free from normal human foolishness.
He’d seen a few big guys tumble, Trungpa Rinpoche back in Boulder with his two or three daily fifths of Scotch to maintain himself through the pain that hit him soon as he took his robes off, put on a suit, and started living right up the middle of the modern world—and had accomplished important things in it: Naropa, the hookup with the Beats, pretty much paving the way for Tibetan Buddhism in the States. The booze for the stress of what Trungpa chose to do had killed him young, though.
Before planting his Jersey feet solidly on the eightfold noble bricks, Tony’d spent time in the circle around Swami Muktananda, that totally cool Hindu guru who looked like Thelonious Monk underneath the robes and flowers and tooled along perfectly okay for decades till he became an old guy who discovered a yen for teenage girls and for whom, therefore, certain arrangements had to be arranged, at which point, yeah, it got a little strange around the ashram. Especially so after word came down it was time for certain individuals to be carrying Glocks and Louisville Sluggers and Joe Don Looney, former New York Giants halfback who’d been too much for the Giants and too well named even for the NFL, was put in charge of the enforcement squad. Tony’s last day there he finally got into it with Joe Don, had to knee him in the balls, and when they were down in the dirt almost bit his nose off to escape that scene alive and on the run, a tighter-scrape escape than he’d ever had in Jersey—how about that?—through the trees to the road praying for a hitch to town and swearing next time it wasn’t gonna be anything like this no more.
Not that he should flatter himself. He’d been recruited by Looney for an enforcement role and it shamed him to admit it but he’d been young and unformed and a Giants fan and he’d felt the pull. Only something saved him.
So maybe Tony had better qualifications than most for counseling Lina on her outlaw son who was some kind of holy innocent only he was in the weed business. So why was he, Tony, so worried today? Maybe he’d luck out and she was nervous too and wouldn’t show.
But the doorbell rang on the dot and it was her.
They had a moment in the doorway fumbling their hellos for a second while Tony saw her looking different, less a matter of looks than aura, not that he saw auras much, so maybe what he meant was a sort of emotional disarray he picked up on before clocking any of its tells.
“Hey. Sh’we go siddown in the garden?”
“Anything to drink?”
“Got any cold fizzwater?”
They collected bottles and glasses from the carriage house fridge and took them outside to the white bumpy glass-top umbrella table at the back of the garden against the row of tall poplars. “Is Mira around?”
“Playdate with Valentino Marpa.”
“For babies? What do they do, goo at each other?”
“Prolly,” Tony said, “All right, tell me how it went down there in, uh, Eureka.”
Lina went into her story and he listened and her pain about her son hurt him. He had never seen this intelligent, accomplished woman so torn up.
After Lina finished once, then twice, then a third time to make sure she had omitted nothing important, Tony sat quietly with it for a minute and Lina let him. Teams of honeybees with their heads pushed down past the petals, and an occasional bumblebee plundering the back doors of the blossoms, were stitching the day together in the bordering flowerbeds, piecework and on the margins but it kept life going for everyone, no exceptions.
“I’m afraid I’m going to lose him,” Lina said. “Jail or worse. All too possible. I can feel it looming.”
“What would you do if you could do anything?”
“I’d pull him out of California and make him live at my place, give him the converted garage in the back garden. With his girlfriend Sukey too, if she wants to come.”
“But you can’t.”
“Even Neil couldn’t control him once he got going. Look, Eli started out a normal kid, normal enough, but then in middle childhood he got all vague. We didn’t know what it was, but as soon as he hit puberty everything went flooey. Suddenly he had a lot of power and not only no way to control it, but it was like whole areas of perception and cognition blanked out. Almost no sense of consequences. The blank was so complete it was obviously structural, not psychological in origin. It’s his wiring.”
“Your professional opinion.”
“My professional opinion plus tests. When he hit fifteen and got in trouble with the law we managed to get his sentence suspended so he could go to one of those boot-camp operations. Later on he worked hard in therapy, against the grain—not easy, but he tried. He made progress, but the root problem’s still there. When he’s not on a binge he’s big, charismatic, gorgeous—”
“A mother’s objective opinion.”
“He looks big and strong and people are drawn to him. He’s drawn to the outlaw life, where they think he’s the rock of Gibraltar, the perfect go-to guy. But whadda they know? They’re out of their depth and so is he. Things will go wrong, and when they do he’ll be headed for prison and the waste of his life. Or, or, or the loss of it. He needs to be protected, and I’ve reached the limit of what I can do for him.”
“And he won’t come up here?”
“There isn’t enough chloroform in the world.”
“What was the charge on the first-time sentence you got suspended?”
“A couple of his friends boosted a car for a joyride. A firearm was discharged.”
Tony tried not to grin but couldn’t help it. “Sorry,” he said. “Small world and so forth. You’d think kids’d find new stupid shit to do, but no.”
“But you never did time, not even juvey time, you said.”
“Not even boot camp. I got off, y’see, because it was friends of mine who stole the car, not me.”
“Just like Eli, then. An innocent in bad company.”
“Things will go wrong, and when they do he’ll be headed for prison and the waste of his life. Or, or, or the loss of it. He needs to be protected.”
“Yeah, sounds like exactly the same thing. Eli’s friends shot the gun off too, huh, not him?”
“Eli shot the gun. There was a witness.”
“Some old snoop.”
“His hands tested positive for, what is it, cordite?”
“What’d he hit?”
“A stop sign and a bedroom window.”
“There’s the difference right there,” said Tony. “Back in Jersey me and my friends hunted grocery stores after midnight. And hit ’em. And ran inside for beer and laughs. Listen, serious a minute. Are you asking me for advice because of my former unworthy activities or as a lama?”
“As a man of both worlds, I guess.”
“As a teacher of the dharma I could teach you some long Tibetan prayers phonetically, don’t look away, why’re you looking away? You don’t want that kind of help from me? I assume you’re already meditating in the middle of this, and if you’re not you should, and you’re so smart on the psychological level I don’t know what kind of advice I could possibly give you in that area.”
“Just talk to me. I’m stuck and I need someone good to talk to, and you’re it. My former colleagues in the practice are nice people, but whadda they know? They haven’t lived enough. And you start telling me phonetic Tibetan prayers, long ones—”
“Pretty long,” said Tony. “But you’re right. Don’t take nothin on faith, but you have to know there’s compassion in the universe, as a reality, as a power. It’s up to us to verify it in our own lives, but whatever, compassion is paying attention to your case. It’s on the job and here you are.” Tony rubbed the top of his head. “I sound like a shithead preaching the rulebook.”
“Great.” Lina dropped her forehead into her hands. “What would you do if it was your son?”
No hesitation: “I’d drive down there, bop him on his head, tie him in a croaker sack, bring him here, and lock him in the basement.”
“And his pregnant girlfriend?”
“She could have the best guest room upstairs. The Green Tara.”
“I don’t have a basement or an upstairs,” Lina said. “Or enough muscle.”
Tony looked around the yard, the splendid lawn, the stately house, then the whitewashed plaster stupa, the swaying poplars, as the wheel turned and showed its pictures. The pressure on him was that this woman really needed his help. Not someone else’s. His.
“I could go down there,” Tony found himself saying, “and lay some tough love on your kid. The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Mafia, which I never officially was part of but so what, I been through enough.”
“Are you saying you’ll do this?”
“I’m just talkin here, I’m just proposing this to you as an idea, it’d be up to you, obviously, to say yes or no. But in principle, it’s possible, yeah, I might.”
“It’s a long way to go,” Lina said in a small voice.
“I got an acolyte’d be happy to lend me his Porsche, one of the nice new ones ain’t even ugly anymore, a black Carrera, be a nice drive down in it.”
“What is this, the movie version? Tough Tony to the rescue?”
“Maybe a little. But maybe I could help. Also it’s a break, a change of venue, there’s an old friend I could visit down that way. But gimme some credit here, Lina, basically I’m tryina help you out.”
“And you’d get through to Eli because of how you’ve lived? The tough guy gone straight, also sort of holy?”
“Not too holy.”
“In Eli’s mind, I mean. He’s been looking for a hero since Neil died.”
“That could happen,” said Tony, thinking Whoa, this is going too fast and too far and doesn’t sound realistic, really, and she has to be wondering what’s happening here too. I should be feeling relaxed and unattached, not getting lost in the story, not desiring a starring role. “But it’s not my intention to be his hero,” he said, making a mess of it now for sure, “and it prolly wouldn’t be the right thing in any longer run.”
“I’d take short-term help, no question.”
“Also, if I go down there, I’m just talkin, maybe I could make an impression on these people who are a danger to him.” He was at a loss to know what kind of conversation they were having, as if his past and present were wet paint, different colors sloshing together. Careful now. Why leave your place near the center of the thangka for one of the cheap seats around the rim?
“What,” Lina asked him, “you’d lean on ’em a little? You’re starting to worry me, Tone.”
“Either I’m making an impetuous mistake of some kind or it’s necessary. I can’t tell which. It’s confusing.”
“Some spiritual teacher you turned out to be,” Lina said.
“I know, I know.”
Street Legal, from which this story is excerpted, is slated for publication in October 2021.
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