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a short story
by Jason Erik Lundberg

I pull my broken-down Dodge into the parking lot of my apartment complex around noon, and the scent that drifts into my car window immediately reminds me of a freshly mown baseball field. It's one of those summer days that makes me wish I could play again, to feel the bat in my hands and the grass under my feet. Joaquin and Consuela stand on the sidewalk in front of my car, watching something behind me; their eight-year-old son Raoul sits on the curb nearby, his little league uniform dusty and his cap askew. I get out and see what they're looking at, a U-Haul trailer being driven in reverse up the hill into the complex from the other side. Whoever is driving the trailer weaves back and forth, seeming to have very little experience attempting what he is doing. A group of Mexican men surround the truck, waving their arms and yelling in Spanish in an attempt to help.

"Hola, amigo," I say to Joaquin, the patriarch of the family, who is smoking a sweet-smelling cigarillo. It's a Sunday afternoon, so he's in an undershirt and green slacks. Consuela wears a knee-length red dress which accentuates her voluptuous body; I've always had a bit of a crush on her, and she teases me about it every chance she gets. Raoul has his nose in a science fiction paperback; he's constantly reading something, a habit I encourage with every trip I make to the used book stores on Hillsborough Street.

Joaquin shakes his head and smiles. "They never going to get it up that hill," he says. "Idiots. Why they rent a trailer they no know how to drive it?"

It sounds like a rhetorical question, so I don't reply. Joaquin Gonzalez and his family have been very good to me over the last few years. As the only white guy in an apartment complex that's almost entirely Hispanic -- nicknamed Little Mexico by some of the locals -- I would normally feel a little out of place. The area of southeast Raleigh where we live is one of the poorer sections of the city, and the rent is dirt cheap. Perfect for a guy with a shitty night job and no wife or kids; it's the only place around that I can afford. But from the day I moved in five years ago, Joaquin has treated me as part of his family, often having me downstairs for cerveza and dinners laden with spices. He also has a way with the other tenants in the complex, making sure they know I'm cool. After a while, it started feeling like home, much to the chagrin of my parents.

"Hey Ray," Joaquin says, turning to me and stubbing out his cigarillo on the sole of his flip-flop. "Some men in robes asking for you today. I don't think they from around here."

"All of them bald," Consuela pitches in, crossing her arms over her breasts, but not taking her eyes from the U-Haul. The breeze ripples the ruffles at the bottom of her dress. "Smell funny too."

"Did they say what they wanted?" I ask.

"Nope," Joaquin says. "But they be back later. Sound important."

I grunt. "Well, I guess if it's important, they'll find me. Braves game tonight?"

"Yeah," Joaquin says, "but we use your TV. My reception lousy this week. Hey, you think any more about Raoul little league team? They still need a coach."

My kneecap twinges at the memory of the car accident ten years ago that ended my baseball career before it barely got started. "I'll have to get back to you," I say.

I wave good-bye, then walk up to my apartment, check the messages. One from Dad: an invitation for a couple of beers and a game of pool down at Babbineau's. It's funny, we've gotten together more over the past year than the previous twenty-seven put together. Our evenings consist mostly of reminiscing about Mom; how she supported us while Dad stayed home and raised me, how she always smelled of cappuccino, how she sang along to the radio, especially if she didn't know the words. How hard she tried to hang on the last year of the cancer.

I stab delete on the answering machine, too tired to think about another exhausting night being Dad's shoulder to cry on, and turn on the light in the kitchen. The appliances are all relics from 1970, painted this vomit green with big yellow buttons; it always reminds me of the shag carpet when we used to go visit my grandparents, that green and gold mix.

The inside of the fridge is stark, but some leftover vegetarian lasagne sits in a plastic container on the bottom shelf. I toss the lasagne in the microwave, set the timer for a minute and a half. The cupboards are empty, so I rinse out a dirty glass in the sink, then fill it with water. One clean fork is left in the drawer, so I grab it, take the steaming lasagne and water over to the card table that serves as my dining room table, and before I can take a bite, someone knocks at the door.

A little old Asian man stands in front, with two younger guys about my age behind him. All their heads are shaved, and they wear these billowy red robes over one shoulder. None of them stand over five and a half feet, so at six-four I tower over them. The scent of exotic spices and faint body odor drifts into the apartment. Despite my knowledge that they were looking for me, the sight of these three Asian monks has struck me dumb. The younger monk on the left looks to his friend on the right and scuffs his sandal on the hallway carpet.

"Mr. Ray Heilig?" the old monk in front says, with only a trace of an accent.

I clear my throat and nod.

"May we come in?"

"Sure," I blurt, and step aside. The trio enters and looks briefly around the apartment. Normally, I don't just let strangers inside, but as the monks survey my surroundings, I realize that there really isn't much to steal. Joaquin gave me the ugly purple couch, I found the armchair on the side of the road, and the ancient Zenith television -- a gift from Dad -- weighs roughly five thousand pounds. In the bedroom are the futon I sleep on and a week's worth of clothes rescued from Goodwill and the Salvation Army. My old baseball bat from high school is hidden under the futon, its only function now as a scare tactic in case anyone is stupid enough to break in, since I'll never use it again on a baseball field.

The old monk motions me to the couch and we both sit down, the young monks remaining standing. The springs gave way long ago, and the cushions are supported by a sheet of plywood.

"Mr. Heilig," the monk says, "we have been on a long search. Our Master, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, died almost twenty-eight years ago, and a suitable replacement has never been found. Our higher-level lamas have been ruling by committee these long years since, and despite the values of democracy taught by His Holiness, in-fighting is leading us into ruin. Factions have formed; one insisting that we return to Tibet and live under Chinese rule, the other maintaining our exile in India where we can live safely and continue to explore non-violent ways of freeing Tibet from the Chinese. We need a uniting voice to lead us again, to bring all Buddhists together."

The young monks nod in all the right places and make grunts of encouragement, though the whole thing sounds rehearsed to me. "Wait," I say, "I thought the Dalai Lama was still alive. Didn't he write a bunch of books?"

The old monk shakes his head slightly. "The committee decided long ago to hide the facts of our master's death, using trickery and deception to give the impression he was still alive. His Holiness has been dead since 1975."

"Okay," I say, "so what does this all have to do with me?"

"When the new reincarnation of the Bodhisattva is chosen, clues to his identity are seen in the sacred lake of Lhamo Lhatso. The last time we consulted the lake, we were given two letters, Ra and Va, and the image of a white starling amidst a bevy of quail. It has taken us many years to interpret the will of the Buddha, but we finally succeeded, and it has led us to you."

I know I look like an idiot with my mouth hanging open like that, but something in my mind has momentarily fizzled. The monks wait patiently while I stare at them. The apartment abruptly feels too hot. "You're saying...are you telling me you think I'm the next Dalai Lama?"

The monks nod as one.

" mean...why?" I sputter.

"Your birthday for one," the old monk says. "The moment our Master died, the soul of the Buddha was immediately reborn. The number of people in the world born in that instant was seven hundred and three. We closely monitored them for a number of years, looking for the inherent qualities a Dalai Lama must possess: patience, poverty, kindness. Concern for the well-being of others."

"Monitored? How? Are you guys working with the FBI or something?"

The old monk's lips involuntarily twitch up into a smile. "We have our resources. We slowly whittled the number down, until we were left with you. Plus, there was this."

For my fifteenth birthday, I got a great ballpoint pen, the shaft made entirely of wood, as a reward for my good grades in English. I loaned the pen to a girl I liked the following year in my algebra class, and never saw it again. I loved that pen, so different from the slick ubiquitous metal pens that were everywhere. It's this same pen that the monk draws out from under his robes and holds before me.

"Where did you find this?" I ask, seizing the pen and stroking the barrel. A hairline crack has formed along the length, but it otherwise looks exactly the same. "I lost this years ago. It was my favorite."

The monk smiles and looks at his underlings; they break out in identical grins, looking in that moment like twins. "It belonged to our Master," the old monk says to me. "He wrote all of his works longhand with that pen. It was his favorite as well. Through the will of the Buddha, it made its way to you in your youth. Then when your identity was confirmed, it found its way back to our ashram. Only the presence of our dead master would have led the pen to you." The old monk pats my knee and stands up. "You are the reincarnated soul of the living Buddha, His Holiness the Fifteenth Dalai Lama. We will leave you now to consider this. Please expect us back in the morning. We have a flight leaving for Dharamsala, India at 9 a.m., and an extra ticket for you."

I stay glued to the sofa as the three monks walk toward the door.

"No," I say.

The old monk turns. "Pardon me?"

"No. I don't accept this. I can't be your Dalai Lama."

He walks back over to the sofa and stands over me. "There is no choice in this. You are the chosen one. You must accept."

I hand the pen back to the monk. "I'm sorry," I say. "You've traveled a long way, but you're wrong. I don't know anything about being a spiritual leader. You've got the wrong guy."

The monk exhales in exasperation. "Do you think the previous Dalai Lamas automatically knew how to rule as well? There is training, and schooling. We will help you. Please."

"Sorry," I say, standing up. "I realize this may be a huge mistake, but I just can't go with you. I'd never be accepted, and I'd be too far from my family." I think about Dad, how I'm one of his few remaining lifelines to this world. I think about Joaquin and his family, and how they embraced me without question. This is my home, and I'm not ready to leave. "Plus," I say, "the Braves are doing too well this season for me to miss it."

The old monk sighs and turns to go. I walk the dejected monks to the door, and close it behind them. I almost hope to hear cursing in Chinese from the hallway, but there's only silence.

A few hours later, the Gonzalez family troupes up to my apartment for the game. Joaquin tunes the TV to FOX for the Braves while Raoul plops crossed-legged on the floor and reads his book. Consuela takes me aside into the kitchen.

"Ray," she says, "you okay? Those men find you?"

I smile. "Yeah, they found me."

"Well? What they want?"

I glance into the living room at the other members of my adopted family. "Nothing. I wasn't the person they were looking for."

Consuela makes this harrumphing noise in her throat, but then goes out to the couch to join her family. Joaquin says, "You know, those guys never make it with that U-Haul. They park down at the street and carry the stuff up the hill. Stupid. If they asked me, I do it right." He turns from the TV and looks at me. "You coming?"

"In a minute," I say, picking up the phone and dialing Dad's number to invite him to join us for the baseball game. As I look at Raoul sitting on the floor of my apartment, his gaze finally torn from his book to watch his heroes, I realize I have something yet to give. Maybe I'll look into that coaching job after all. I don't have the skills to lead an entire nation, but I can probably handle a group of eight-year-olds.

© Jason Erik Lundberg 2003, 2005.

An earlier version of this story first appeared in Intracities, edited by Michael Jasper, October 2003.

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