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Unpublished Draft

Zen Master Bob

Horace had the idea first. It came to him in a flash of enlightenment during a cigarette break at the license plate shop. He and Bob worked on the plan for three months, meeting clandestinely in the exercise yard, talking in whispers like inmates plotting a jailbreak.

The scheme had to be secret lest the guards or the trusties overheard. Now was an opportune time for early release on good behavior. There was a whiff of clemency in the air after a federal court mandated that California reduce its overcrowded prisons, and as non-violent offenders without gang ties, Bob and Horace might be near the top of the warden’s list. They just needed a little boost to spring them out of Folsom State Prison.

At Folsom, like most prisons that made gratuitous efforts at rehabilitation, an inmate could earn good-behavior credit by participating in a sanctioned religious activity. Horace and Bob agreed on Zen as the best choice because of its exotic and distinctive qualities that would make them stand out from all the born-againers who pleaded before the parole board. Both men had suffered harassment by evangelical Christians during their years behind bars, an experience worse than bullying by gang members. But now there was a promising alternative.

All you had to do was sit facing the wall for a while and keep your trap shut. No Jesus required. The young Zen teacher who visited the prison twice a week happened to be a gorgeous lass from Dublin, another incentive to attend the meditation sessions. Her name was Colleen, and Bob was smitten by her wavy brown hair and a peaches-and-cream complexion.

Bob didn’t mind the rigorous part of the meetings because he learned how to sleep in the upright sitting position. He loved listening to the rhythm of Colleen’s Celtic brogue when she spoke to the group. He listened in his drowsy state of mind, soaking up the tenets of Buddhist philosophy without needing to think, and he’d snap awake once in a while to undress Coleen with his eyes. He particularly liked the notion that something was nothing and nothing was something. The concept reminded him of the shell game action he had going on the sidewalks of Chicago at the beginning of his career. Here you see it, here you don’t.

The other idea he liked was suchness. He understood it to mean something like “It is what it is.” No blame, no shame. “Colleen,” he asked his teacher one evening, “is this what Popeye the Sailor Man means when he says ‘I yam what I yam’?” She tilted her head back for a moment to think, then responded with a beatific grin. “You’re catching on nicely, Bob,” she said. “It’s all about spinach.” Bob took the Zen teacher’s answer to mean he was on the right track to seducing her with his incorrigible charm.

Horace, on the other hand, took a rational approach to the religion. He quickly memorized the Heart Sutra – in English and Japanese – but only because it served a practical purpose. He devoured all three books on Eastern religion stacked on the lower shelves of the prison library. He bought eight more volumes on the Internet using his license plate earnings. It was a business investment. They were going to make a killing when they got to Lodi, where they planned to build themselves a glorious Zen temple.

“There’s big money in Zen, and it’s ours for the taking,” Horace told Bob when he proposed the scheme. “And there are plenty of dames, eager to please their gurus. Do you remember that guy in San Francisco who deflowered a lot of his students and owned two Rolls-Royces and a Ferrari? He got excommunicated his indiscretion. But you see, you don’t need to be very smart to be a Zen master. All you need is a little bit of moxie.”

The two convicts had worked together for years on the outside, raking in the dough as shadowy businessmen. In due course they got busted for persuading a widow to let them put her late husband’s priceless collection of heirloom pogo sticks in the De Young Museum. They sold them on eBay to pogo stick fanciers until the window got wind of the scam from one of her late husband’s pogo stick aficionado friends. An undercover cop posing as a professional pogo athlete entrapped them.

Bob and Horace were the perfect team. Bob served as the front man owing to his larger-than-life persona. He was gifted with the gravitas of a Shakespearian actor and could charm the panties off a gullible housewife in a heartbeat. Horace was the brains of the outfit, a brilliant tactician. He had the wisdom to put Bob out front because he knew what he saw in the mirror: A scrawny rat-like figure with a bent nose and bad teeth. “It doesn’t matter how we look,” Bob liked to say, “so long as we act like boy scouts.”

Horace was paroled a month before Bob so he had time to start setting things up in Lodi. He rented a modest home in one of Lodi’s poor but relatively respectable neighborhoods with a generous two-car garage that would serve nicely as a meditation hall. Horace was born and raised in nearby Stockton and knew the lay of the land in Lodi from frequent visits as a boy to his spinster aunts. He still had a few pals in Stockton he’d cavorted with from kindergarten through juvie hall. They’d help fill the pews, he reasoned, rounding up hippies, junior-college kids and homeless people. Horace’s friends were shaven bald in the style of middle-aged meth dealers, which would give them a touch of authenticity as monks.

Horace had a connection at Stockton’s Sacred Heart Monastery where he scored some used black robes that would cover their tattoos as well as make them look legitimate. The best robes, less tattered and reasonably clean, he reserved for Bob and himself, and planned to recruit one of the prospective female students to embroider gold stripes on the sleeves to designate the rank of priesthood. He bought a batch of black pillowcases from Kmart to stuff with plastic grocery bags and use as meditation cushions.

Horace realized it might prove difficult to train his crew of stooges to bow to the alter properly and sit cross-legged without squirming. But he didn’t worry about discipline because he had significant weight in Stockton’s petty criminal population. He earned their respect by serving time in the Big House – twice. Give them a modest cut on the proceeds and he’d have them behaving like Mother Teresa’s acolytes.

“It’s the best part-time job you mokes will ever have,” he told them. “Bob and I are quality. We’re straight arrows.”

Horace worked up a solid business plan involving admission fees, pricy membership dues and donations for the creation of a grand Buddhist temple. They’d build themselves a nice little cult.

He wanted to keep his two ancient relatives – Aunt Agatha and Auntie Em – out of the picture unless they proved useful as recruiters in the geriatric community should the enterprise be too slow in getting off the ground. The sisters were his only surviving kinfolk and he didn’t want them sullied by the project. They lived together in a ramshackle house with dirty carpets and at least a dozen cats. They called him Sonny Boy. He never knew why.

Horace filed for Section 501(c)(3) tax status for non-profit religious entities, thinking he’d stall on the paperwork until they had to pull the curtain and flee Lodi. He’d stack the board of directors with his retired criminal defense attorney, his high school chemistry teacher who had Alzheimer’s, and his prison pen pal, Lydia, who lived in Simi Valley and would vote yes by proxy. Zen Master Bob was going to be the CEO, a saintly man who was ordained at the Shaolin Temple and Resort in China and had received his certificate of enlightenment from an itinerant sage on a radiant hilltop in Fukushima, Japan.

Things were pretty much set up by the time Bob landed in Lodi after his parole. Horace picked him up at the Greyhound bus station in the rusty blue Toyota truck he’d purchased for a song from an illegal immigrant facing deportation. It was one of those classic light pickups with a small cargo bed and a cramped cabin, boasting 344,000 miles on the odometer.

“What the fuck do we need a truck for,” Bob said as he squeezed into the passenger seat. “Why not a Ford Fairlane or an Oldsmobile Delta 88?”

“Supplies,” Horace said. “And, you know, the cows.”

“Oh yeah, you did say cows were going to be part of the business plan,” Bob said. “I guess I still got the skills.”

Bob was not a cowboy, but he did grow up in Omaha where he learned as a young lad how to carve beef at his grandfather’s abattoir. Bob remembered fondly the jolly old man, a Polish immigrant who had a greasy gray beard and laughed too much for no apparent reason. Horace was inspired to put cows in the plan after seeing a picture of Zen oxen in a book. They represented the attainment of perfect wisdom, the book explained. Slaughtering cows in the fenced-in backyard would be a good way to enhance revenues, he reckoned. They’d buy a secondhand freezer and what they didn’t grill up to feed themselves and the bad boys from Stockton they could sell at inflated prices to parishioners using their refined art of persuasion.

After settling in, Bob suggested they come up with a name and a logo before opening their doors to the general public. “Marketing is going to be very important,” he told Horace, catching on to the entrepreneurial spirit. “Calling ourselves Lodi Zen Center is too pedestrian.”

Bob went online to research catchy Zen names. Some of the “Zen of” listings he found informative, particularly the “Zen of Screaming,” which evidently was a video for sale. Fodder for a good Zen lecture, he thought. There was the “Zen of Tony Bennett,” the “Zen of Tartuffe,” and a blog titled “The Zen of Chicken Coops.” It went far beyond motorcycle maintenance.

Bob discovered inexhaustible examples of Zen monetization. There was a line of Zen hair products, which he thought was ironic because Zen nuns and monks typically shave their heads and wouldn’t need Zen Shampoo. Innumerable high-tech companies had commandeered the Zen brand, slathering the Internet with such names as Zen Cloud, Ultimate Zen Antivirus, Viral Zen Networks. Zen this, Zen that, Zen, Zen, Zen. None seemed related to what one might call Buddhism.

He wracked his brains for a suitable name for the Lodi project, coming up with only a few mediocre ideas. San Joaquin River Zen? Lodi Zen Solutions? Orchard Supply Zen? Then it hit him like a ton of terracotta: Open Eye Zen. Colleen was always talking about awakening and this was a catchy name she’d like.

Horace complemented Bob for his ingenuity. “You should go into the advertising industry,” he said. “That’s where the most successful con-artists do their business.”


Wanda was the first seeker to knock on the garage door after seeing the giant Open Eye Zen banner hanging from the eves on her morning walk. A sign said “Enter Here.” Bob pushed the button on the wall and greeted her with an effusive bow when the door rattled open. She waltzed into the meditation hall, eyes darting left to right, to inquire about the program. Bob set up two folding chairs and motioned for her to take a seat. Then he waved at Horace and told him to make tea, “some of that green stuff we got.” Horace bowed with a deadpan face and shuffled trough the utility room door to the kitchen.

“You see, we are of the Sukiyaki order of the Open Eye Monastery in Elko, Nevada,” Bob explained. “Our wise Abbott, Gloria Benpi Sweeny, sent us here to open a franchise. Our mission is to spread the gospel of Shakyamuni the Buddha. For a small fee we offer Saturday morning Zen meditation instructions and lectures. In addition, we provide one-to-one tutorials on the secrets of Zen. But that’s not all, we have advanced classes on Self-Help Suchness. I am Bob, your humble Zen master. By day I’m an investment advisor, at your service.”

Bob wondered whether he’d strayed too far from Horace’s talking points.

“Oh, that sounds terrific. My sister-in-law Babbs in Cleveland joined the Hari Krishnas and she says it changed her life, even though the food is terrible,” Wanda said. “What is Zen like? Do you chant and dance around at airports? I do yoga at the YMCA three times a week and we sit cross-legged and breathe deeply in meditation. I once saw a Buddhist monk set himself on fire on TV. He was in Burma, I think. That’s not what you do here, is it? Oh, God forbid.”

Horace arrived with two steaming mugs of green tea and a package of Fig Newtons. Saved by the bell, Bob thought as he rose and scrambled for a plastic milk crate for their little tea ceremony.

He sized up his interrogator. Wanda appeared to be in her mid-sixties and had aged very well. Her eyes were bright blue and piercing, putting Bob on edge, but at the same time her soft ivory face was comforting. Judging by the quality of her clothing she was fairly well to-do. He imagined her husband was a retired insurance agent who went fishing all the time when he wasn’t slouched on the couch watching ESPN. She must be frantic to find excuses to get out of the house.

Horace had overheard Wanda’s question and intervened to get Bob off the hook before he did any more damage.

“We are not political like our flamboyant cousins over in Burma,” he said.

Bob piped in. “We only burn incense here.”

“Our order thinks the Hairy Krisnuts, as we call then, are deluded zealots and frauds,” Brother Horace continued. “And our food is strictly gourmet, prepared by a talented cook from Stockton who was trained in the organic California Metho-Zen Cuisine at an accredited lab. And soon we’ll have a stable supply of top sirloin and filet mignon,” Horace said.

“Tell me about your meditation practice. Do you repeat a chant or a mantra or poems?” she asked. “Babbs said her Hari Krishna troupe can get quite frisky with their noisy drums and rattles, but apparently they’re supposed to be as loud as they can to get the Hindu gods to notice them. Then they ask for donations. Do you levitate when the spirit takes hold of you? Do you speak in tongues?”

“We can do all that, madam, except for the tongues. Our beginning Japanese language tapes are hard enough as it is,” Bob said. “Basically our meditation is done in silence, unless you absolutely have to cough or sneeze or pass gas. You see those black pillows on the floor? Those are special cushions called zaw-phoos. We sit on them with our legs in the criss-cross-apple-sauce position with our backs straight and our hands loosely clasped like this, see? That’s about it. Then you think happy thoughts, like eating ice cream or seeing rainbows. When you come back on Saturday we’ll give you complete instruction at no cost because you’re our fist customer, I mean client . . . I mean student.”

“I see. It sounds lovely. So, what kind of benefits will I get from this? You know, like psychological relief, ” she said. “I’ve been so upset and anxious since my husband retired last year. He mopes around the house all day like a sloth expecting me to wait on him hand and foot. It’s driving me crazy. He keeps repeating stupid phrases like: ‘We got a nice little ball club going on here, you and me.’ Every time the phone rings he says, ‘Better answer that, someone might be calling.’ I’ve had serious thoughts of putting rat poison in his oatmeal.”

“I’d go with tuna casserole – fish oil hides the scent of poison better,” Bob said. “Just kidding. But seriously I can guarantee you that taking out a one-year membership at Open Eye Zen will soothe your ruffled brain waves and steer you away from random thoughts of homicide. Peace and Quietude is our slogan. And there are a host of other benefits to Zen meditation that would take me all day to relate. Our patented designer cushions cure hemorrhoids, for example. The Zen way improves your IQ, prevents acne and wards off congestive heart disease. Meditation acts to tighten up the loose screws in your mind. This is all scientifically documented. Doing Zen also improves your sexual prowess and increases your earning potential. And gosh darn it, it’s fun!”

Wanda spread the word and two dozen people showed up on Saturday. Wanda’s friends consisted of neighbors and garden club members, one of whom – Madge – brought a wilting Japanese bonsai she obviously wanted to discard. Bob thanked her profusely for the garage-warming gift. “Bonsais are Zen,” he said. “I’ll have one of my monks water it attentively.”

In addition, the cook and his associates from Stockton rounded up a biker in his leathers, four junkies, two punks on dope and a smiley red-headed prostitute who was well beyond her prime. “We’ll do better next time, boss,” said the cook. He and his friends were paid by the head. “The boys haven’t exploited their dealer networks in the schools yet. We also think there’s a pent-up demand for Zen among AA and Narcanon support groups.”

“Hello, my name is Bob and I’m a Zen-junkie,” Bob said.

Wanda dragged her husband along. She dressed him up for the occasion in red plaid pants, a white belt and his favorite kelly-green golf shirt. The man scanned the garage on the verge of panic, looking like he’d rather be in the hole of a port-a-potty.

The first order of business was to teach new students how to sit properly on the K-Mart cushions. Then came Bob’s talk. He and Horace had come up with the theme while watching reruns of I Love Lucy on one of the double-digit cable channels that shares broadcast time with Albanian sitcoms and North Korean cooking shows. The concept they came up with was “waking up one eye at a time.” Both men agreed that Bob could take this in several directions without seriously betraying his ignorance of Buddhism.

“First thing you must prepare to wake up, and I am not talking about alarm clocks here. No, no. This is not about putting roosters in your garden, or hiring a bugler to play revelry or asking the front desk to give you a wake-up call in the morning,” Bob told his attentive audience. “You see, the secret path to enlightenment is not to take the cake out of the oven before the chocolate melts. But if you wait too long the insides will be all gooey. It has to be just so.” Bob learned this baking tip from watching the North Korean cooking show. Evidently chocolate cake was the Dear Leader’s favorite dessert and palace chefs could spend their lives in a labor camp if they got the recipe wrong.

“The Way of Zen is all about doing your mental homework and paying attention to the details. It’s all about patience and forbearance and getting the recipe right and letting go when it’s time. Burning the cake is worse than undercooking it. So the homework is meditating between meals, just like flossing your brain. Never stop flossing or you get mind decay. The attention to details means, for example, not daydreaming while operating heavy machinery. We like to say open one eye at a time to take the steadfast ride to enlightenment.”

Bob continued in this vein until the egg timer at his knee rang, marking the end of his 30-minute soliloquy.

“After the session Brother Horace will have pamphlets for sale in the back of the meditation hall describing our methods and beliefs and it will outline our fee structure. There’s a tear-out application for membership – please be sure to write down your email address, bank account number, social security number and credit card number with the expiration date and three-digit secret number on the back of the card. We don’t take Amex. You may also notice the donation box on the alter for our project to build Lodi’s first Zen temple.”

The attendees raised their gaze to view the impromptu alter on an old chest of drawers in the back of the garage. It featured a lit candle stuck in a wine bottle and a smoking pink stick of sweet Bengali incense in a small jelly-jar next to an open White Owl cigar box. Horace had been searching for a small statue of Buddha in thrift stores and antique shops across the Delta without success.

“Any questions or comments?” Bob asked his flock.

“How long do you suppose it will be before I truly understand what the heck you’re speaking about?” asked Wanda. “I suppose there’s wisdom in your remarks but they don’t make any sense at all. I have a busy schedule and wish to manage my time.” Her snoozing husband jerked awake momentarily and nodded in agreement.

“It’s not about time, my child,” Bob said. “Zen doesn’t give a diddly-squat about the time-space continuum. That’s a delusion. Buddha died for your sins, not for your calendar. Just open your eyes one at a time and the truth of his teachings will shine like a diamond. Ask Buddha into your life and he will lead you to salvation.”

Bob saw Horace on the other side of the garage shaking his head and raising his arms to make an X sign. “No, no, no,” said Horace’s quivering lips. Bob took this to mean he was straying too close into Christian territory. The script didn’t cover the Q&A session, but Horace warned him to stick to the talking points.

“Any more questions?” he said. “Yes, you over there.”

“I think your talk was very deep, even if it was hard to underrated,” said one of the black-robed meth heads in the front row. “You are awakening me from the pain of delusion and suffering with words of eons of the Buddha.”

“Glad you liked it,” the Zen Master said.

Then the prostitute raised her hand. “My name’s Kitty. No offense but I’m afraid your whole thesis is full of simplistic dualism, which I find charming but hardly enlightening,” she said. “How many times can you say night is day, good is bad, delusion is reality and, here’s the best one, the difference is the same. You might as well say cats are dogs and dogs are cats.”

Before the sermon the cook had warned Bob that Kitty was not your ordinary hooker. She graduated from Radcliffe majoring in philosophy, but there were no jobs for Wittgenstein scholars at the time. Kitty became destitute and homeless before turning to a life of sin.

“Ah-hah! You follow the evil path of soulless rationalism,” Bob shot back. “We Zen people transcend logic because it is delusional, difficult to comprehend, and I might add, just plain boring. Life is a puzzle and you wreck it when you search for the facts, which is delusion, and while truth is ignorance and ignorance truth, we say ‘phooey’ to all that stick-up-the-ass logic. There’s no room for Mr. Spock in this temple.”

“Huh?’ Kitty said, flinging her long red hair over her shoulder and displaying a perfect set of teeth in her coy smile. “Your bullshit meter is through the roof, Bob.”

This woman is brilliant, Bob thought. He knew on the spot that she’d be an excellent addition to the team because she’s ballsy and has the smarts. Prostitutes are masters of deception the way they dupe their Johns with fake orgasms. Yes, she’ll fit right in. Even Jesus had a prostitute in his act.

The following Saturday people of all stripes filled the garage to capacity. Some came out of curiosity, others with an earnest interest in Buddhism. The cook and his boys struck it big at San Joaquin Valley College among the potheads. They rounded a dozen Goths at area high schools. Wanda and Madge had gone to work selling Zen at their sewing bees, ecology clubs and Wanda’s thyroid cancer survivor’s group. They were all eager to learn Open Eye’s patented meditation technique. Bob perfected his shtick this time and the money started rolling in – preferably in cash in accordance with the directive from Abbot Benpi in Elko

Within a month’s time Open Eye Zen was prosperous beyond imagination. Horace had to make two trips to K-Mart for more black pillow cases and scrounge around for plastic bags to stuff them. In due course Bob persuaded Kitty to come on board as customer relations manger in charge of development. Horace scored a very fine Buddha statue at a junkyard on his way home from meeting his parole officer in Stockton. The statue was two feet tall, bronze and hollow with a little hatch on its rump, perfect for stashing their moola. Bob called it their “Piggy Buddha.”

“Now’s the time to talk about the cows,” Horace said one morning. “You’re Cowboy Bob now. Can we buy one directly from a ranch or should we go through a rustler for a better price?”

Bob rolled his eyes. He was incredulous that a man with a staggering IQ like Horace didn’t know how steers went through the supply chain. A native of Stockton no less. He must have had his head buried in books during his formative years. Evidently he hadn’t read The Jungle.

“No, Horace. These days you get a big side of beef from a wholesaler to butcher at home. That way we don’t have to deal with the offal. Unfortunately we don’t get the mountain oysters either, a delicacy I ate as a kid. Yum. You need to get them upstream in the supply chain when the bull has his gender reassignment. I don’t suppose testicles are Zen anyway.”

Once that issue was straitened out, Bob went to work with the bargain Jin Tsu knife set he purchased from a vendor advertising the blades on late-night TV. Thus was born the Open Eye Zen Steaks brand, initially aimed at Zen students and their families and friends. But soon, Horace declared in his weekly memo it was time to “raise the steaks.”

“Puns aren’t Zen,” Betty chided Horace.

They launched the product with a Saturday night backyard barbecue gala, which Kitty organized with panache. She had graphic T-shirts made with Horace’s Zen Oxen image, which she sold at $29 apiece, $45 .99 for a two-pack. Colored balloons marked the table with the ice chest where one could buy packets of rib-eye, sirloin and T-bone cuts for $29.99 a pound. Choice organic filet mignon went for $47.99.

Tickets for the party were priced at $40 per adults, $33 for children under the age of four. The bar sold beer, wine and lemonade at absurdly inflated prices. But it was all for a good cause.

Horace set the mood by rigging up a boom box playing old smoothie Laurence Welk CD’s.

The centerpiece was a card table featuring a framed photograph of the famous Golden Temple in Kyoto that Kitty snipped from a travel calendar. A shoebox wrapped in gold foil paper with a slot on top for donations commanded the attention of party guests. Next to that stood a poster-board chart with the red line of a thermometer showing how far they had to go to reach the $1.2 million goal. Stapled to the side of the card table a sign explained the tax advantages of donating used cars. More than 350 people attended the party, a testament, perhaps, to how few cultural events Lodi had to offer on weekends.

The coup de grace was the oversized poster of a smiling, benevolent Zen Master Bob tacked high on the back of the house overlooking the yard. “I got the idea from that gigantic image of Mao at Tiananmen Square where the students were protesting,” Kitty explained to Horace as they were setting things up. “I watched every episode of the show on CNN.”

Madge, the bonsai lady, was the life of the barbecue. She purchased two-dozen streaks for her freezer and 25 T-shirts in various sizes to give to friends on special occasions. She drank a surfeit of red wine from the no-host bar and launched into a spirited rendition of “God Bless America” during the height of the festivities. Horace’s eyes opened wide when he saw Madge slip a dozen crisp $100 bills into the gold-foiled shoebox.

When it was all over Kitty had a pile of cash heaped on the living room floor, too much to count until they all sobered up in the morning. She told Horace they would have to divvy up the money and visit seven or eight banks Monday, in disguise, to swap the small bills into $20s and $50s. Madge’s Franklins were fine as they were. “That’s the only way we can stuff all the money into the Piggy Buddha. There’s not enough room for chump change,” she said. “And we have to be prudent about our cash assets. The Feds are cracking down on financial institutions for money-laundering now that we have beaucoup terrorists in our midst.”

The barbecue netted $47,562 plus markers collectable on back orders of filet mignon. Someone donated a lime-green Chevy Nova. “We’re off to a good start,” Horace said approvingly at their strategy meeting Sunday. “But it’s just a start. This town is for the taking and we’re going to take it.”

Bob thanked the congregation for its generosity the following Saturday morning, saying, “I see the depth of yearning for the light in Lodi. Our temple will rise majestically from the fertile soil of Lodi.” The garage was packed to the rafters and it was standing room only during the meditation session. Horace had to give people a quick lesson in standing meditation.

Bob’s sermon centered on self-sacrifice and the “Buddhistic merits of investing in a Zen community.” He was in a groove. Horace had instructed his Stockton monks to sway left and right on their cushions and say “Oh yeah, brother” in soft, deep tones. The effect was mesmerizing. “Give to the Lord Buddha,” Bob sang in the quavering Baptist revival-tent voice he perfected in past capers, “and you will receive bountiful rewards. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”

Everything was going swimmingly until a college-aged woman with thick eyeglasses and yellow pigtails raised her hand during the Q&A session.

“Why are you guys carving up beef and eating meat all the time? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be vegetarian?” she asked Bob. “You’re supposed to eat brown rice and tofu, not rib-eye. I paid forty bucks for the barbeque last week and didn’t see a single vegetable. You could have at least grilled red peppers or a corn on the cob I could eat. You’re not real Zen at all, are you?”

“That’s a snarky little comment, young lady, which reveals your ignorance and difficulty in awakening,” Bob snapped back irritably, caught off guard because he hadn’t heard about the Zen vegetarian thing before. But he was quick on his feet. “What appears to be not Zen is in actuality true Zen. It’s called Zen/Zen. You see, we come from a sacred lineage of Zen patriarchs who eat sesame Kobe steaks plus miso hamburgers. It’s all kosher. Our Sukiyaki Sect of Zen honors the perfect wisdom of oxen and we eat only organic and sustainably-raised cattle. We eat free-range eggs, too. The sutras describe us as Ovo-bovo Vegetarians.”

Horace panicked when he spotted his aunts in the crowd, just as the program drew to a close. He bumped his way to the driveway to catch them.

“Auntie Em! Aunt Agatha! What a surprise! What brings you here today?” he said, clutching Auntie Em’s sleeve. “I had no idea you are interested in Zen.”

“Sonny Boy! When did you get home from prison? We’ve been worried sick about you,” Auntie Em said. “And look at you, you’re wearing a nice black robe with smart little gold stripes. Why don’t you give that to me and I’ll mend it for you.”

Horace looked around furtively to make sure nobody heard the part about prison. Then he went through the motion of hugging his frail aunts and allowed them to peck at his cheeks with dry lips. He was transported back to a distant past by the sweet smell of their pancake makeup.

“It’s so good to see you young ladies,” Horace said. “I’m just helping out my old friend Bob with his mission. I hope you’re not taking this Zen thing too seriously. How on earth did you hear about it?”

“We attended a neighborhood coffee klatch led by a lovely woman named Kitty. It was sponsored by our yoga group,” Aunt Agatha said. “Miss Kitty inspired us to learn more about Eastern philosophy, didn’t she Emily? But tell us about you, Sonny Boy. Are you reformed now?”

Horace hadn’t realized how deep Kitty had spread her tentacles into the community.

“I’ve paid my debt to society and I’m an honest citizen now, thank you. It’s wonderful that you came today, but I want to warn you. Please don’t make any donations. Bob is a sketchy character,” he said, lowering his voice. “Don’t breathe a word about this to your friends. I’m still assessing the situation.”

“Oh dear, I gave Kitty $40,” Auntie Em said. “Don’t get mad at me. She was so charming.” Horace wondered whether he should keep his dotty old aunts in the picture in some sort of productive role or shoo them away to protect them from his brilliant malversation. He didn’t need them as recruiters because business was booming at Open Eye Zen. He’d have to tell Kitty to keep them busy as non-donor volunteers brewing tea at special events.

Kitty apologized when Horace mentioned his aunts, saying she had already moved from small fry coffee klatch to well-endowed clientele. She had her eyes on Madge after the women’s display of munificence at the barbecue. A web search revealed Madge to be a very wealthy dowager. Her Wikipedia profile described her as an “Ag-Tech Heiress” on account of her late father’s invention of a gadget that controls peat moss propagation using lasers. Kitty uncovered an obituary for Madge’s husband, a real-estate tycoon who specialized in rice-paddy arbitrage in the Delta. The poor man became despondent after his mother died and committed suicide with an overdose of baby aspirin, it said. An article in a newsletter called Inside Rice estimated Madge’s assets at $357 million.

“Good work, my lovely. We’ll have to get Bob on the prowl right away to work his magic,” Horace said, barely able to contain his excitement. “He may be a bogus Zen master but Bob is indubitably the greatest master at romancing rich widows I ever seen.”

Zen Master Bob appointed Madge chairperson of Temple Fundraising Committee. He wooed her like a Casanova and soon won her heart. Madge was not hard to look at and Bob could tell she was quite a beauty 50 years ago. He started living with her half-time in the grandest house in Lodi. “You’re the love of my life,” he whispered in her ear. “I want to live with you for eternity, maybe two eternities.” She fell for it – hook, line and stinker.

It wasn’t long before the red line on the Temple Project thermometer soared and the Ziploc bags of cash filled Piggy Buddha to overflowing and the Zen trio had to stuff the cash in 3-ply black plastic garbage bags and bury them in the back yard at night. The bonanza continued like this for nearly a year.

Then one day Bob received an ominous phone call. The silvery voice at the other end of the line identified himself as Zen Master Frank.

Frank said he was building a temple in Bakersfield and wanted to visit Lodi to learn how well Bob was doing. Bob had no idea whether the guy was a legitimate Buddhist who could expose Open Eye Zen to dangerous scrutiny or a wise guy looking for a piece of the action. He told Frank he was welcome to visit, but things were extremely hectic right now but he’d get back to him soon to pencil him into his busy calendar, maybe in a few months.

Bob rushed to the office to sound the alarm and found Horace opening mail with a grim face. Before Bob could say a word about Zen Master Frank, Horace picked up a document and waived in the air. “It’s from the IRS,” he said. “We’re being audited.”

Horace cleared his throat. “Not to mention the fact that Coleen sent me an email this morning saying she heard good things about our Temple Project and was very proud of us. She wants to come up here to help.”

Bob, Horace and Kitty discussed their next move late into the night over single-malt scotch on the rocks, until Bob collapsed on the couch, snoring like a sick mule. He slept until 11:15 a.m. and opened one eye at a time to a dark house, lights out and curtains drawn. He stood up to shake off the daze of his hangover and regain his bearings. Then he remembered the team was in dire straits.

“Wake up, you guys,” he hollered in panic. “It’s time for an emergency meeting!”

The house was silent. He climbed the stairs and pounded on the door of the bedroom Horace and Kitty shared. There was no answer. He squeaked opened the door to see the closet was empty and the dresser drawers askew. Out the window he saw a pattern of empty holes dug in the yard.

Bob raced to the alter in the garage only to find Piggy Buddha on his side, hollow as a temple bell.


Copyright © 2015 Karl Schoenberger

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