Daniel Doen Silberberg
They buzz like blue children
In nets of the infinite
I had recently married Shoshana. We lived in a first-floor apartment in a five-story building in the Bronx. It was an odd brick structure. Concrete stairs rose up out of a small, narrow courtyard and lead to an entrance door framed with Byzantine curls of wrought iron. Shoshana was finishing up at Hunter College and doing some modeling. She had a hard-to-miss dignity unique for her years, and her black, waist-length hair made her exotic. Breck shampoo was popular and well known for their models. She had caught that company’s attention and many other people’s too. She had caught mine, but she hadn’t held it. I was like a car skidding through a stop sign. I was past her already, but she didn’t know it yet. A straight-forward and happy being, she was putting together a life.
During the day, I taught English to junkie kids at Morris High, deep in the East Bronx. At night, I wrote and played music at a Soho recording studio way downtown in Manhattan. After that I would stay up late drinking cheap Scotch from sea-green bottles and watching old movies. I liked the Marx Brothers’ free-floating insanity and W. C. Fields’s misanthropic grace. It was both entertainment and avoidance. I was hoping the next day wouldn’t come.
When morning came, I would be fucked-up tired. Shoshana would be cheerful and busy as usual. I tried hiding my misery and was not doing all that good at it. My neighbor, a fellow English teacher named Vinnie, and I drove together through the burnt-out, beat-up South Bronx to get to Morris High. Vinnie lived across the narrow hallway with Gloria. He had long dark hair and a big moustache; Gloria had a big, blonde exuberance. They ran a kind of open-house existence. It didn’t matter if their door was closed; you could always hear them. It was an ongoing and occasionally interesting drama of anger, laughter, sex, and territorial disputes.
One day, Gloria was not really being loud, not as loud as she could get, but she was being firm. The door was open; Vinnie was heading toward the exit.
“Don’t do that. I said, ‘Don’t do that.’ I told you not to do that. Did you hear me? Am I alone here? I said, ‘Am I alone?’ I’m talking to myself here. I must be fucking crazy. I’m talking to myself here.” I see Vinnie in the hallway. Gloria is leaning out of the door to their apartment pouting at him. “Talk to him, will you? I can’t talk to him. He’s not here today. I don’t know what’s going on. Will you talk to him?” I tell her I will.
Perversely, or as a matter of solidarity, we didn’t say a word as we drove. The ride was a descent into one of the Buddhist Bardos—one of the hell or animal realms you might go through after dying. The streets just got sadder the further in you drove. At times, the buildings were so leveled or falling down, you could see right through them to whatever was on the next block. Other apartment buildings stood in opposition to the laws of physics, seeing no reason to even bother falling down.
We got to the school, and it was still just as ugly as piss, just like the one I went to on the corner of the block where I grew up—only the rubble was worse, the building was completely shot. The bottles, cardboard, and newspapers caught in the brick got freed from their position when they started to crumble and rain down. Now, shit was everywhere. I might have been upset if I hadn’t already been used to it. I spent the day teaching the kids Aldous Huxley’s utopian novel Island just to give us both hope. It was only a small ray of light, and I had to give the kids lots of bathroom breaks so they wouldn’t sweat or get junk-sick in my classroom.
One weekend, Shoshana and I went shopping to furnish the apartment. She took this task on with a great deal of cheerfulness and courage—I tried to get up for it and almost managed.
“I have so many plans for the apartment,” she said. I nod my head yes.
“Are you tired Danny? You seem sad. Maybe it’s just all these girl things? Maybe you don’t really want to do this today?” She is trying to be kind, but I can see she is crushed.
“No, I really want to do this. I’ll wake up.” And I really did want to do it. I had developed this miraculously stupid idea that getting plants and furniture was going to redecorate my feelings about us as well as the apartment.
We took the D train downtown. It was hot on the subway. Afterward, it got even hotter while we were walking around on the concrete streets. A light rain began to fall, and it felt good. Shoshana and I got off in the twenties, just above Greenwich Village and Gramercy Park in the Flower District. It was a neighborhood that sold imported and domestic house plants as well as gardening accessories and flowers. The stores had large plants displayed on the sidewalk in front of their entrances. There were rows of plants all around the block. No space was wasted inside the stores either; the rents were pricey. I liked the size of some of the plants and the way their stalks curled and rose up high. They surprised me; I had a moment of hope. I saw their spreading fronds lifting my arid life with Shoshana into something else. Something, I hoped, that would work.
We bought a few large palms and some venetian blinds in a New Orleans shade of red. We took them home and put them up next to each other at the foot of our bed in front of a window. I watched Shoshana bend over and turn the new plant until it sat just right. Her face showed pleasure and concentration. She took pleasure in things. Her long hair kept falling over her face, and she swung it back with her hands and a turn of her head in a way she often did.
“I’m going down to the grocery.” Her accent has a bit of both Israel and Eastern Europe in it. “Do you want to walk down with me?” She spoke softly.
“Not right now,” I said.
Stoically, she sensed my derailment and looked for a word, or perhaps just a thought, because her English was not quite in place yet. Her innocence and good wishes hurt.
“I think I’ll just lie here and look at the new plants and venetian blinds,” I said.
“In a little while, I’ll be back. Or, I should say, ‘I’ll be back in a little while,’ yes?”
“Yes,” I said.
“La.” It is a word that served her for yes, oh, right, good, or I understand. And I think she did understand. Sometimes, the leaves rise before it rains. She already saw the rain; even worse, she didn’t blame me.
A couple of years earlier, we had found out that Shoshana was pregnant. We were both too young to have a child, and abortion was still illegal. We got a name from a radical radio show host who said he would supply them to anyone in need. I called, and he did.
We traveled down to a facility in Washington, DC. I wasn’t allowed to enter the abortionist’s office with her, so I waited outside near the high concrete wall that surrounded the medical compound. I stared at their square gardens filled with shrubs and bushes, all neatly trimmed. I walked around and around, shaky, doing what I had to do to keep moving. As I paced, I chanted Kanzeon’s name and looked up in the air. I thought she was up there somewhere.
I had discovered Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in a book of Buddhist sutras I purchased from Weiser’s. I used to read it on breaks at Schrafft’s, a restaurant where I worked one summer during college. Schrafft’s was near St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and I served lots of friendly young nuns just over from Ireland. They cheered me up. When I stepped outside for a smoke, I would read about Kanzeon, the one who would step in and relieve suffering whenever necessary. The sutras said that she would answer when called upon. She would manifest in whatever form was needed.
Shoshana appeared at the door of the doctor’s clinic. We drove back to New York. It was over. She was still bleeding. She was told to expect that.
When I got my summer salary from Morris High that year, Shoshana and I decided to drive up to Canada. The next day, we loaded the car. I asked her to wait, and I went back in to get a book I had left in the bedroom. The red venetian blinds glinted in the sun, and the ferns caught my eye. I left.
That summer, we roamed all over Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and the Gaspé Peninsula. Everywhere we went, it rained. We started by crossing the border south of Montreal and then stopped at the small, nowhere town of Riviera de Lou. It was supposedly interesting, but I couldn’t tell why. It had empty streets and a lonesome gray river that hardly made a sound as it meandered through town. The stores were all closed, so we sat on the motel-room floor and split a can of Spam and a bag of potato chips we had packed. The sun was down, and the room was small—half the light bulbs were out. The next day, we walked past a church that was old but had just been given a new coat of white paint. It was so fresh I expected to see some painters around, but there weren’t any. The church looked unused; the whole town did. It looked like it was just waiting for people—like a set for a movie shoot that hadn’t started yet.
From there, we went up to Quebec City and the Gaspé Peninsula. We traveled through small, empty fishing villages on the Atlantic Ocean. We bought incredible quantities of Canadian sardines and stopped on barren roads where no one and nothing was around. We saw little shacks on muddy beaches and currents of water breaking on sharp rocks. From the road, we could spot clearings where enclaves of trailers stood. There were fires, and kids were playing. But, the life there seemed dampened by the emptiness all around.
We continued up the coast of Newfoundland, and, for a while, I lost my problems with Shoshana in the bareness of the landscape and rain. It was a place that was inured to the preferences of our lives, and it showed no mercy toward us at all. It just rained. An endless kalpa, or eon, of rain. We got so worn out and worn down that a new kind of clarity emerged. We got a temporary reprieve from our story.
Then, a year later, Shoshana died.
“This sucks.” Vinnie was talking as we pulled into Morris High. It was not quite a year later, and Shoshana was still alive—just before the next summer vacation. I was looking forward to getting on the road again. I turned to look out the window at what looked like a fight starting in the parking lot.
“You know, I come into this place in the morning, and I get all these notices in my mailbox about this incredibly abstract shit but what we got is a school full of people that are starving, living around rats, and shooting up. So they put a couple of white guys in here and, hey, has anybody noticed we’re the only ones that are white? Has anybody noticed that these kids aren’t getting anything they can use here? They killed a teacher in the locker room last year. Is everybody here fucking crazy?” Vinnie was on a roll. He liked to do that. And I liked the way he did it. It was heartfelt, and there was a lot of physical action. He had a tendency to involve his arms and torso in the communicative act.
“You know my cousins are all in the mob. That’s what I ought to do, you know, get all mobbed up.” Vinnie liked to say this a lot.
“You know what I’m going to do?” It was fun to torment him a little.
“Don’t tell me. Let me guess. You’re going to get a mantra. You’re going to go see some Baba Ram the Ass. And, guess what? Those kids are going to be right there with you getting rammed in the ass by all comers, by the board of education, by the teachers’ union, and by the happy merchants giving their dope a sixteen-to-one cut.”
I looked at him.
“All right, I know you care. There was the time you punched the teachers’ union guy when he tried to keep us out of the school, and the principal claimed you were going to throw him out the window. I’m not saying you don’t have a good side. You know I just like to keep it real.”
“What’s real?” I frowned at him.
“You know, at some point, you’re going to find out.” Vinnie paused. “And I’m not sure that I want to be there when you do.”
“Look, Vinnie, we better hope they keep giving it that sixteen-to-one cut, or we’re going to have a lot of overdosed, dead kids. I just don’t think you can change actions or governments. I think you have to change minds—ours included.”
“I know what you think, asshole.” We both smiled.
“What I’m going to do is get Shoshana and Stuart—you know the guy in the history department with the ponytail—and his girl, and we’re going to take our summer money and drive across the country. We’re going go to Alaska. You know, get away from all this. And then I’m going to think about whether I ever really want to come back.”
“The kids will miss you.”
“You know, I don’t think you do.”
That summer, Shoshana and I rode out under red skies in the Dakota Badlands on warm summer nights and zoomed past cattle ranches in the vast emptiness of Montana. We skinny-dipped and soaped up in clear mountain streams in the Rockies. We slept on the grasses of a cattle ranch near Mule Creek Junction, Wyoming.
Stuart and Sue were waiting for us in Santa Rosa, California, and then the four of us started north toward Alaska. Stuart and Sue had been staying with her former drama teacher, who had bought a place up in the hills to run theater workshops. Stuart was what people called “mellow.” Sue was a bit of a wild thing. All the women at the drama teacher’s place ran around topless. It was nice.
We drove all the way up California through the Russian River area and stopped in Eureka. Then we went through Oregon and Washington with their high green ledges overlooking the Pacific. Waves crashed against large boulders that looked lonesome and old.
Once we got near Canada, the road to Alaska was empty—just blue skies and endless pine that you could smell all day long. It was a fine month to be driving up north, and we were taking shifts driving, sleeping, and talking. We were at the Canadian border just outside of Quesnel, British Columbia, and the customs agent said we would have to go back because Stuart and Sue had a small dog that needed an inoculation. It was my shift at the wheel. I asked where I could turn around, and the agent pointed nearby and then poked her head back into the booth. When I got to it, I put the gas to the floor. Like they say, we didn’t look back.
The weather was perfect, and the road had been empty for two days. Then, on the third day, a large black car pulled in front of me. It moved directly in front of me, backing onto a major road. Not something anyone would expect. There was no time to avoid it. I hit the brakes, and this is what I felt: The car is falling end over end. It is falling off the road. It is hitting the ground hard and bouncing. A wrathful deity is grabbing my life and shaking my body to death. Things are breaking in my body, and I don’t exactly know where. I am going to die. It goes on and on. Rising, falling, smashing, thudding. Thudding all around me. Nausea. Pain. Then it stops.
I was in the car alone. The windows were smashed, and I saw two bodies on the road. Blood was everywhere. Blood washing off the road into the ditch. Blood on the car. Blood on the bodies on the highway. Blood on the heads that are smashed. Blood. I could smell it all—the smell of blood, the smell of the insides of people, the red smell of life and its possibility, misery, and vulnerability. I tried to move, but I hurt too much. Finally, I dragged myself out of the car and saw a third body and a dog. They all looked very dead, but somehow two of them were still breathing. I wanted to break down, but I was desperate to get somebody to help us.
The night before Shoshana and Stuart died, the four of us walked into the forest of British Columbia. The woods were deep. Stuart and I inflated our small boat when we set up camp. We climbed in it around midnight and went fishing. The fish were jumping and feeding so tenaciously and uninhibitedly that it startled us. The moon was full, and, as we paddled, we created spirals of spray that showered drops on our bare feet and clothes. We could hear geese, peepers, coyotes, wolves, and caribou. Even fish seemed to be making too much sound in the water. I really didn’t know what was what. It was like one insane, heavenly forest choir singing one big song—the one about everything. The good, the bad, the beautiful— everything.
The boat didn’t have quite enough air, and Stuart was giving me a “this was your big idea” look. I felt we could be in very cold water at any time, but the fish were biting so fast, it only took us about twenty minutes to catch more than we could fry for breakfast. An Inuit family passed us. The parents and teenagers smiled at us in a friendly way. The dad had bright, crooked teeth, and they camped a little bit further down the lake. I felt like I knew them. We could see their fire as we crawled into our tents. They were making their way. It was a very good night.
In the morning, after we ate those fish, I watched Shoshana walk up a small hill and practice casting. She was learning to fish. She saw me watching her; she turned her head—her long hair was tied behind her—and smiled. Besides dying, it was the last thing I ever saw her do.
The imperious, crew-cut representative of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police pulls the naked body of my wife out. She is in a drawer. He asks if I can identify the body. I can, so he closes the drawer. He is distant in his sense of entitlement; he can’t be bothered to exhibit contempt for me. I am no one at all to him, nor had I been anybody to the doctors the day before.
I have some painkillers for my injured back. I go back to the motel room and take them all. The pills don’t kill me. I was hoping they would. I stay in some hazy, narcotic, near-death place for at least two days. I vomit blood and sleep. When I wake up, the fierceness of the light coming through the motel-room window and the syrupy gloom of the TV paralyze me. The nasty posters of the great outdoors, the ugly motel room, and the pill bottles next to my bed reduce me to a complete immobility that I have no desire to disturb and that I hope will never pass.
Sue, the only person I know in Canada who is still alive, is in the hospital. She is badly broken. I go to see her. We can’t even say much to each other. Other than that, I am completely alone. I lay in the motel room the entire day and then another. Finally, I get hungry and go down to the dining room. I eat. I vaguely notice the waitress.
The next day, I notice her.
“Are you the one that had that bad accident?” She is a bright-eyed, strawhaired young girl, pretty enough. She tunes right into me. She puts both hands on the table and leans in.
“You’re hurting pretty bad, aren’t you?”
At that point, I just cry. I wipe my face. I didn’t know a person could get beaten this badly.
“You want to have a drink with me? I get off in half an hour.” She nods her head up and down at me as if to teach me how to say yes, then dazzles me with her good looks and her spirit just to make sure I agree. So I do.
A couple of nights later, she takes me out to her house in the bush, where she lives with her elderly parents. We walk to her place as the sun is going down on the wilderness that begins as Quesnel and then ends as a small town. No place, really, just the trees and sounds embodying a reality for which there are no words. I can barely remember the word forest.
She asks me to sleep with her on a fold-out couch in the living room. She makes love to me. When her parents yell out, she says, “I am going to spend the night with this boy, right here on this couch, and you are not going to say anything further about that. You hear me?”
And right then and there, I see her. I see Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and she uses her power with a casual and inconceivable surety to rip me away from helplessness and death. But, she is a young girl. She wants to come 556 back to New York with me. She says she could go to school there. But, I am in no shape for a relationship. I don’t want to repay her kindness with my inability to do so, once again.
When I leave Quesnel, I take a plane to Calgary and sit next to a beautiful woman who has no teeth. At first, she won’t smile, and then, suddenly, she does. It is then that I see she has no teeth. She relaxes and tells me she is going to a dental surgeon in Calgary. She had spent a couple of years working a second job and saved all that money for her new teeth. She is exuberant and has no pity for herself. She turns to me as we are about to land. I notice the dark hair between the blonde dye; it is brittle. She is pretty but poor. She looks away from me to reach for something inside her handbag. She turns to face me again. She, too, is kind.
“You okay?” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“Mean?” she says. “I don’t mean anything at all.”
Daniel Doen Silberberg is a Zen teacher and author based in San Francisco. He founded the Lost Coin Zen lineage—an international training organization—and has previously worked as a psychologist and musician. In his spare time, he enjoys video games, martial arts, and chess. His first book, Wonderland: The Zen of Alice (Parallax, 2009), was chosen as a finalist in USA Book News’s 2010 Best Book awards and anthologized in The Best Buddhist Writing 2010. It is also being translated into both German and Korean. He welcomes your comments and can be reached at email@example.com. He also blogs at http://www.lostcoinzen.com.