a short story
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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.
"Why...how...I 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.
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
Elsewhere on the web: