TWO

The Invitation

Rose's concise public reading of me left me with a confusing mix of thoughts and emotions. On the one hand, I couldn't shake the sense of embarrassment and humiliation I’d felt that night as it happened. In some strange and mysterious leap Rose had exposed my inner character with unerring precision. He not only spoke things I knew about myself and tried to hide from others, but also things I had successfully hidden from myself. I had felt naked and helpless under his gaze and a strong part of me never wanted to see him again.

But another part of me, a strange and unfamiliar part, felt a surge of energy and excitement, as well as a heavy--and yet not unpleasant--sense of foreboding. To have someone know me as thoroughly as Rose did in those few moments left me with an undeniable and almost irresistible feeling of closeness with him. He had seen more deeply into me than anyone had before and, as painful as his words had been, they were not judgmental, only an offhand appraisal of a flawed fellow man.

Yet, as compelling as these feelings were, they were not what drew me back to Rose. In the end I returned because I was curious almost to the point of obsession about how he had performed his little miracle of reading my mind, my psyche, as he had. I was convinced it was a talent I could learn for myself and that it would serve me well as I went about the business of making my mark on the world. And so I resolved to attend more meetings with Rose--enough, at least, to learn the secret of his abilities. Then, as soon as I had the formula, I'd slip out the door and get on with my life.

The following week I drove to the meeting alone and as I stepped off the crowded elevator in the Pitt Student Union I nervously jingled the car keys in my pocket, reassuring myself that this week I could leave whenever I wanted to. It didn't help. As soon as the elevator doors closed behind me my stomach began to twist into a knot of tension that tightened with each step I took towards the meeting room. I paused at the doorway, took a deep breath and pushed myself inside, never dreaming how many times I would repeat this process in the years ahead--hesitating fearfully before doors that led to Rose.

The room seemed even more crowded than I remembered and I tried to slip in before people recognized me from the week before. Once I was seated, though, I realized my self-consciousness and sense of importance were unfounded. Nobody even noticed me except Leigh, who seemed mildly surprised, and Rose, who gave a polite nod of recognition.

Although the place looked and sounded as it had the week before, something was different. As I glanced around the room I noticed that many, perhaps even most, of these people had not been at last Thursday's meeting. It made me wonder how many actual hard-core followers this man really had. Rose himself appeared different, too. He seemed shorter and perhaps a little more paunchy than the intimidating image I'd carried around in my head all week. He had on a different shirt and pants but they gave the same impression: clean, well-worn, slightly dated.

He seemed to act differently too. Less obtrusive, almost subdued, he allowed conversations to take their course, speaking only when spoken to.

"It's eight o'clock," someone said loudly in a deep voice. "We better get started." The speaker was a short, balding fellow in his early twenties who was seated, along with two other men, behind a wooden table at the front of the room.

"My name is Ray," he continued. "This is the Pittsburgh Pyramid Zen Society. We meet here every Thursday night. Our goal is to find the Truth by retreating from untruth. The method we use is called the Albigen System."

For the next ten minutes or so Ray attempted to explain the principles of the group. His voice was dull and monotonous, and his explanations full of unfamiliar terms and phrases--reverse vector, conservation of energy, between-ness. When he finished he asked if there were any questions. There were plenty. The first few he tried to handle as best he could, looking occasionally to Rose as if waiting to be rescued from what seemed an uncomfortable situation for him. Rose did not intercede, however, and Ray was left to fend for himself as best he could for fifteen minutes or so. Then, as the meeting reached a point of maximum awkwardness and tension, Rose gently took over by elaborating on one of Ray’s answers. From then on all questions were directed to Rose and the room came alive.

The meeting continued with Rose holding forth until about ten o'clock, when Ray announced that the formal part of the meeting was at an end. Leigh put a coffee can into circulation and asked for contributions to help pay for Rose’s gas from West Virginia. People stood up and talked to each other or left. Some drifted towards Rose. Soon there was a small crowd around him and the dialogue continued. I was sitting nearby so I stayed in my seat and listened in. The questions to Rose were tentative, as if everyone were testing the rules of this more intimate setting. Rose answered each question in turn, never hurrying an answer, treating each person as if the two of them were the only people in the room.

When one boy asked how he could get an appointment, Rose laughed and said, "This isn't like going to the dentist, you know." The boy blushed.

"You can find me in the Student Union an hour or two before these meetings," Rose assured him. "I'm driving a fifty-dollar car with baloney-skin tires and four spares in the back seat. I need to leave West Virginia a couple hours early to allow for blowouts."

His collection complete, Leigh sat down next to me. "That's true," he said, nodding his head towards Rose. "His car's a real junker. I don't know how he makes it here."

"How was the take?" I said, smiling at the coffee can.

"Lousy, as usual," he said, poking around the inside the can. "Looks like about six bucks. Enough for Rose's expenses, I guess." He put the crinkled bills and loose change into an envelope. I took out my wallet and gave him a dollar to add to it.

"Big time," he said, grinning. He put my buck in the envelope then licked the flap and sealed it.

Rose looked up from the center of the crowd and addressed Leigh. "Are we going out for a bite to eat?"

Leigh stood up and announced that everyone was invited to meet at Winky's, a local hamburger joint, for more conversation with Rose. I was tired and felt like I'd had enough for the night. But another part of me was strangely afraid I'd miss something valuable, so I followed the crowd out the door.

The restaurant fell silent as we walked in--maybe twenty of us in all--led by Rose, who, in his long wool coat and faded black fedora, looked like a gangster from the Thirties. As we passed a well-dressed couple they stared uneasily at the strange mix of people in our group. Rose paused at their table and gestured to them reassuringly.

"Don't worry," he said, "I'll have them back in the sanitarium before their medication runs out." He then proceeded to the counter and announced loudly, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm hungry enough to eat here."

Rose pulled out an ancient brown leather wallet with frayed white stitches, and ordered two hamburgers and a large cup of coffee. It surprised me that he ate meat, or even that he drank coffee.

"Sometimes the only antidote for poison is another poison," he said to no one in particular.

When his food came he took it to one of the tables Leigh had commandeered for us and sat down. The chairs and tables around him immediately filled up. Still straggling, I was left to sit at a table on the periphery.

Seated across from Rose was a tall, happy-go-lucky youth in his early to mid-twenties. He had a round, peasant's face and a sturdy build, but his speech and mannerisms were those of an intellectual. I had seen him at the meeting, sitting at the table with Ray and a few of the other "insiders," but had not paid much attention to him. Rose called him Augie, and it appeared from the way they interacted that Augie served as some sort of right-hand man for Rose. Augie immediately engaged Rose in lively conversation and laughed with abandon at much of what Rose said. At one point Augie laughed so hysterically he drew stares from around the restaurant. Rose jerked his thumb in Augie's direction and shook his head.

"This is why Augie hangs around this group," he said. "All he wants to do is laugh. He thinks that if he sticks around long enough, when he dies there'll be an army of heavenly cherubs waiting to tickle his rear-end with feather dusters throughout eternity."

Everyone but Augie broke out laughing, including Rose, who seemed to be more amused with Augie’s self-conscious discomfort than the joke itself. Suddenly, though, Rose’s laugh turned into a violent cough. When he finally caught his breath he took a sip of coffee and wiped his mouth with a napkin.

"Are you okay?" Augie asked.

"Oh yeah. It’s just bronchitis. Comes back every year since I froze up in that blizzard."

"When was that?"

"Oh, a long time ago. My kids were still young."

"How’d you get caught in a blizzard?" someone asked.

Rose leaned back slightly his chair and scratched the back of his head for a few seconds. It was one of several gestures of his that I would later come to recognize as indications that a story from his life was forthcoming. As I was to discover during the coming years, Rose was, among so many other things, a consummate raconteur.

"Well," he said, "it was at a time when I was working myself to death trying to secure the family. I had a painting business in town and was also raising cattle out on the farm. I was going crazy, running back and forth between the farm and town at all hours."

As little as I knew about him, I still had a hard time picturing Rose as a married man with children and ordinary cares.

"One day my brother-in-law, Art, asks me to go with him to Los Angeles. I can't remember if one of his people was sick or he had some business out there. But I was ready for a little vacation anyway so I figured, what the hell, let's take a ride."

It was a different Rose who sat in front of us now, relaxed and talking as if we were all old friends.

"We had a nice trip out, not in any hurry. Stopped at the Grand Canyon. Took in the Painted Desert. I never saw anything like the sunset there. The entire sky opened up like it was on fire. Just beautiful. Anyway, we got out to L.A. and two days later my wife called. It was early spring and she told me a freak blizzard just blew down from Canada. The whole state was covered with a foot of snow."

A chubby girl in the Winky's orange-plaid uniform appeared and offered refills on the coffee. Rose thought for a moment before accepting.

"This stuff's poison, you know," he said as she filled his cup. "Wrecks your kidneys." When she left he poured in several packs of sugar and continued.

"Anyway, we jumped in the car and headed straight back to West Virginia because I'd left my cattle grazing out there on the farm--not expecting snow that time of the year--and now they had no way to get in out of the weather. If they stayed outside there was no hope. They’d either freeze or starve.

"So we high-balled it out of there and drove non-stop. Made it in less than forty-eight hours," Rose said with a tinge of pride. "And this is on old Routes 40 and 66, before the interstates went through. I had an old Buick I'd picked up for forty bucks. She wasn't too reliable, but once you got her cranked up she could really fly. I was doing a hundred miles an hour through Indiana when we blew past this state trooper standing by his cruiser on the other side of the road. You should’ve seen him scramble. Art starts cursing under his breath.

"‘'Quit worrying,' I told him. 'It’s less than ten miles to Ohio. We’ll be across the border before he gets his car turned around.'" Rose chuckled and blew steam off the top of his coffee. "Never saw that cop again."

I glanced around the silent restaurant. We were the only customers left.

"Well, I dropped Art off in Benwood then drove out to the farm." He turned towards Augie. "Now this is the 'back' farm I'm talking about, the one the Krishnites have now, not the one you fellows stayed at during the Intensive last summer."

Leigh had mentioned that Rose had a farm, but never anything about a second, "back," farm. And I wondered what the Hare Krishnas had to do with anything. Rose continued.

"The last two miles to that farm were down a dirt lane, and even in dry weather you could only get a vehicle within a half-mile of the place. When I got to the lane the snow was higher than the car so I had to walk the rest of the way."

He shook his head. "Those were a couple of rough miles. Some of the drifts were over my head and I'd have to just run through them, hoping I made high ground before I suffocated. All I had on were a pair of street shoes and a spring jacket. I was half frozen by the time I got there. My shoes were soaked, I couldn't feel my toes. And like I figured, some of the young cows were already down and the rest were scattered all over the farm.

"It took me an hour to clear the snow away from the barn door just so I could get to that damn horse." Rose's eyes lit up when he mentioned the animal.

"He was one despicable creature, I mean to tell you. Couldn't turn your back on him. He'd ram you from behind--cracked a couple of my ribs once. Sometimes it took me two hours to put him in harness for plowing. Then he’d settle down and let me lead him to the field. Soon as I hitched up the plow, though, he'd lay down. Didn't matter how hard I cracked him, he wouldn't get up until I unhitched the plow," Rose chuckled and shook his head in grudging admiration.

"You couldn't keep him outside in a pasture, either. He’d jump over or bust through whatever fence was out there. That's why I had him locked up in the barn--you just couldn't catch him once he was loose. The thing was, though, that horse may have been a demon, but he was one tough animal. Once I got him saddled up that day and put the spurs to him, he took off through that snow like it was a cloud of smoke.

"There were a hundred and seventy acres on that farm and we rode over every one of them looking for cattle. I was just getting ‘em rounded up when the snow got worse. Pretty soon I couldn't see a thing and neither could the horse. He started getting spooked and hard to control. Everything was a sea of swirling white.

"‘About that time he steps in a groundhog hole and stumbles, which makes him really go crazy. He starts rearing and bucking and the next thing I know I'm hanging off the side of him, one foot hooked in the stirrup, while he takes off running, bouncing my head on the ground. He dragged me that way for a half-hour through the snow and the thickets, up and down the hills. Even through a creek or two."

"But you held on?"

"Had too," Rose said matter-of-factly. "Besides, I knew that sooner or later he'd wear himself out. Sure enough, he finally slowed down, and I was able to get myself back up into the saddle. Eventually we finished rounding up the cattle and got ‘em out of the weather."

Rose paused to take a look around the restaurant. A young man with bad acne stared impatiently from behind the counter. Another leaned on a mop.

"Geeze, what time is it?" Rose asked, gathering up his loose trash.

"What about the bronchitis, Mister Rose?"

"Oh. Well, after the livestock was safe in the barn, I went into the farmhouse and collapsed on the floor. My guts were frozen inside of me. I mean, literally frozen. I was chilled bad. And I didn't have any dry wood in the house so I couldn't build a fire. For three days I couldn't move. I just laid there on the floor, coughing, waiting for my insides to thaw out. My lungs have never been the same since."

There was a short silence, then Rose and everyone seemed to get up simultaneously.

"Why didn't you just pull your foot out of the stirrup and drop off the horse, instead of letting the him drag you all over the farm?" Augie asked.

Rose picked up his tray. "Oh I could have gotten loose easily enough, that’s true. But I’d given my word not to. I knew when I took that horse out of the barn he stood a good chance of getting killed out there. So before I saddled him up I made a promise that either both of us were coming back, or neither of us were."

Rose dumped his trash in a bin and started towards the door.

"Was the horse worth it?" I said, half-jokingly.

He turned suddenly and stared directly at me without a trace of a smile. His voice was firm, and louder than a normal conversational tone.

"It doesn't matter whether the horse was worth it or not," he said, narrowing his eyes at me. "What matters is I gave my word. Once you do that, you either keep it, or die trying."

Then he raised his arm and poked a short, stout finger into my chest.

"And that's the way you have to practice law!" he said. Then he stared fixedly at me for a few seconds before finally turning away and heading out the door.

I was stunned by his force and directness. It was the first and only thing I’d said to him that night, and once again he had pounced on it, catching me completely unaware and confounding me to the core. For what seemed like a long time I stared after him, not really seeing, waiting for the blood to stop pounding in my ears.

I was the last one out the door, and as I walked I was barely conscious of my surroundings. Out on the sidewalk Augie was getting some parting instructions from Rose. I moved into the circle of conversation in time to hear that Augie was planning a trip to Rose's farm that weekend, and that he was apparently bringing some new people down.

"Just make sure there’s no witches this time," Rose said to him. Augie smiled self-consciously while several of the others laughed. With a wave of his hand Rose turned and started towards his car, then stopped a few feet away and turned to face us again.

"Oh yeah," he said, pointing his finger at me once more, "if he wants to come along, that's all right, too."

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