THREE

Benwood

The next night Augie called to say when he would pick me up. "Eight o'clock, sharp," was how he put it, his tone implying strongly that he was a man of punctuality and that he'd leave me behind rather than delay his trip by even a minute.

So Saturday morning, still filled with equal parts curiosity and doubt, I was ready by 7:30. At 7:45, afraid he might miss the house and be too impatient to spend much time looking, I moved out into the bitter December cold to wait on the front stoop. At 9:15 I was still there, bouncing from foot to foot, blowing into my gloves. No Augie. I peered through the window and looked at the mantle clock for the hundredth time.

Waiting on the stoop that morning I replayed the last ten days in my mind and tried to understand why I was standing in the biting cold waiting for a ride to see some backwoods guru. Almost in spite of myself I had to admit that I liked the man. I liked his outspoken opinions and biting sense of humor. I liked the way he handled himself with a strange combination of confidence and humility. I liked the way it felt when he looked me in the eye and told me how to practice law.

But I was also afraid of him. He was a mystic, a man with power. As yet, I didn't know how much power, but I wasn't sure I was ready to find out. I was afraid, I think, that if I ventured too deeply into his world I'd never get out again and back into mine. The longer I stood on my mother's porch the more I felt like a little boy waiting for the camp bus to arrive and take him away from all that is warm and familiar. And by the time Augie's white Ford van finally roared into the driveway, tires squealing, horn honking, I found myself wishing he'd never found the place.

As I opened the car door I anticipated an effuse apology for his being two hours late. I was prepared to be magnanimous, but cool enough to let him know I wasnít pleased.

"Hop in, we're late," he said flatly, jamming the gearshift into reverse.

I looked around. There was no passenger seat and the space where it should have been was overflowing with clutter.

"Where?" I said, forcing a smile.

He didn't smile back. "Be creative. Let's go."

I crouched in a tiny open area and slammed the door. "Are we picking up the others?" I asked.

"No, theyíre coming from Cleveland," Augie said curtly. He backed down the driveway and took off quickly, seemingly in no mood for conversation.

I looked around for some way to make my ride more comfortable. Between us were two enormous rolls of carpet that stretched from the back door to the windshield. The rest of the van was filled with tack strip, rolls of padding, five gallon buckets of glue, and a variety of tools. Toward the front was a box full of Pyramid Zen Society posters and a half dozen copies of Rose's book, The Albigen Papers. A sleeping bag and dirty pillow were jammed behind the front seat, and dog-eared copies of The Teachings of Huang Po, and The Bhagavad-Gita were stuck up on the dash. I fashioned a seat out of a glue bucket and hoped for the best. When we finally turned onto Interstate 79 and began to make good time Augie seemed to relax a little so I decided to draw him out.

"You knock off a carpet store or something?"

"I lay carpet for a living," he said, turning to me with a grin. "If you call this living."

My guarded laughter was all the encouragement he needed to keep talking. From then on the challenge was not how to make conversation, but how to squeeze in a word.

Working with Rose kept him on the road, he said, setting up lectures, starting groups. In the year or so they had worked together, they had settled into a workable pattern. Augie would go to a new campus and set up a lecture date for Rose. Then, after Rose's lecture, Augie would find the most interested student there and persuade him to start a Zen study group on campus.

"But Rose is unpredictable," he said. "Nothing ever goes smoothly. You never know what he's going to do or say next. One time there was this decrepit old lecher at one of the lectures--looked like a drunk off the street--who kept demanding that Mister Rose help him. Rose tried to ignore the guy but he wouldn't shut up. 'Help me, help me,' the guy kept saying. Finally Rose says to him, "I'd like to help you, pal, but I left my gun in West Virginia." Augie laughed and shook his head. "We didnít get many converts that night. People prefer gurus who say they love everybody.

"At another lecture Rose kept getting harassed by this big Hare Krishna guy with a bunch of his followers. Rose tolerated him for awhile, then when he'd had enough he told the guy to get out. The big guy folds his arms and says that this is a public meeting in a campus building and heís not leaving. Rose says, 'Oh, you're leaving all right. That much has been established. The only thing left to decide is whether it's by the door or window!" Augie laughed so hard at the memory he could hardly speak. "We're on the sixth floor. 'Door or window,' Rose says."

"Did the guy leave?"

"Hell, yes. They all left. Good thing, too. Rose was serious."

When he stopped laughing Augie went on to explain that once he'd organized a campus group Rose would come to some of the meetings and Augie would be the group monitor until he could groom a replacement. When Rose was satisfied with the new monitor, he'd send Augie on to the next campus to repeat the process. Rose's purpose, Augie said, was to use these campus groups to find some truly sincere seekers who were serious enough to work with Rose directly.

"What kind of work?" I asked him.

"Inner work. Work on themselves--to become less foolish. Work to reach Enlightenment, like Rose did."

Augie stayed silent for a moment, as if his own words had pulled him into deep thought. He was dynamic, articulate, and apparently quite competent. In this respect he seemed a cut above most of the people I'd seen at the meetings.

"How long has this been going on?"

"About two years."

"You mean there was no group around Rose until two years ago?"

"Not really. When I met Rose he was still painting houses and living with his wife."

"But it seems like he's been doing this all his life."

"That's because he's been waiting to do this all his life. Ever since his Experience. It's as if Rose has always had this complete idea for a spiritual group in his head, even though it looked like he'd never get a chance to start one."

A convoy of trucks filled both lanes of the highway. Augie checked his watch impatiently and inched closer to the truck ahead of us in the left lane.

"Rose tried everything. Put ads in magazines, gave hypnosis demonstrations, wrote to anybody who showed any interest at all. Even after he was married he traveled all over the Ohio Valley trying to get people to meet regularly. But he never met anybody who was serious--at least not the way he was serious."

The tractor-trailer in front of us finally pulled into the right lane and Augie hit the gas. The van responded with a violent jerk, upsetting my glue bucket and throwing me to the floor. Augie laughed uproariously as I slapped off the dust and slowly replaced my seat with as much dignity as I could.

"Thatís the thing about Rose, though," Augie went on. "He never gave up. He says that's the formula for success in anything. Persistence. 'If you throw enough mud at the ceiling, eventually some of it will stick,' he says.

"Which is what happened. In the late sixties everything changed. 'A window opened,' is how he puts it. He thinks LSD had something to do with it, although he doesn't know whether acid was the catalyst or just another symptom of the zeitgeist. Either way, Rose says, hallucinogens apparently gave people enough of an artificial intuition that they began to pick up what he was saying. Before, when he talked about visiting another dimension and seeing the earth as an illusion in his Experience, people just thought he was crazy. Now, kids had seen enough of a glimpse of that on acid to sense that Rose might be talking about what lay beyond the drug experience.

"Next thing he knows, some of the local kids start showing up at his farm. The word must have got around that Rose was a cool guy to talk to when you were high. I guess this was the sign he was looking for because he threw himself into it a hundred percent. Shut down his contracting business and quit working, even though he couldn't afford to. I'd be at his house all day and the only thing I'd see him eat were day-old rolls from the thrift bakery."

"What about his wife," I said.

"She left about a year ago. The first time I drove down to Rose's house was with Ray--you know, the guy who runs the Pittsburgh group now. We didn't know what to expect, of course. Even so, we about fell over when his wife answered the door. Just never considered that a guy like Rose would be married. She didn't hide the fact that she wasn't crazy about us dropping in, and she kept out of sight the whole time we were there. Within a year she moved out. Too many brahmachari coming in and out at all hours, I guess.

"She never really knew about that part of Rose's life. Rose had his Experience before he even met her. The only time he mentioned it to her was on the day they were married. He told her he would always take care of her and always be faithful, but that if he ever saw the opportunity to teach, he'd take it."

Augie glanced over at me. "Of course, she had no idea what he was talking about, I'm sure. Probably thought he meant teach school or something. But by the time I met Rose, their marriage had just about run its course anyway. The kids were grown. His wife had gone back to school and gotten herself a job as a nurse. It just seemed to work out that the group got started about the same time she was supposed to leave."

"What's it like working with him?"

Augie grinned through tight lips and shook his head slowly. "Sometimes itís pretty painful," he said. "Other times there's no place in the universe you'd rather be." He stayed uncharacteristically quiet for a few moments as if considering whether to elaborate or not. When he spoke again it was with a slightly different tone.

"For instance, last summer," he began. "Rose held an Intensive at his farm and a bunch of us came down to stay a couple months. A real mixed bag of personalities and backgrounds, but all of us excited about doing some serious work with a Zen master. So Rose took us out to the farm and showed us where we could pitch our tents and park our vans, or whatever, then he went back to stay at his place in town--Benwood, where we're going now.

"We figured he'd be out again in the morning to get us started on the 'Zen,' but he didnít show up. Or the next day, or the next. We waited a week and he never showed. Finally we got up the nerve to drive into Benwood to see him. When he came to the door he just looked at us and said, 'Yeah, what do you want?'

"We shuffled our feet and stammered something about not knowing what he wanted us to do. 'We're bored,' we told him.

"'Good!í he says. ĎThat's what I've been waiting for. Now you're all thinking along the same lines at least. When you first came here you were all lost in your own dream worlds, ready to run off in a dozen different directions. Come on in, we'll talk,' he says.

"So he put us to work that summer, tearing down a house he owns in town--board by board. Then we took the lumber out to the farm and used it to build a bunkhouse. Well, I'm not very good with my hands--talking is what I do best. Matter of fact, the reason I lay carpet is to try to get better at practical skills. So Rose noticed this, of course, and wouldnít even let me use most of the tools or get up on the roof of the building--afraid I'll hurt myself or somebody else. He gave me the most menial tasks, like straightening nails to reuse--Rose can really squeeze a nickel.

"Anyway, while I'm doing these menial jobs I amuse myself by capping on everyone else, you know, putting them down. This doesn't wear too well on people and they complain to Rose. He tells them to stop being babies and to learn how to beat me at my own game. When I hear this, I figure I've got carte blanche to really lay into these guys, and I do.

"Next thing I know, though, Rose starts in on me, really ripping me. At first he was witty and humorous, like he usually is when confronting people, but after a couple of days he dropped the humor and just hammered me, not even trying to be funny. For the first few days I thought, 'Okay, he's teaching me a lesson. I deserve it.' But he just kept going for maybe a couple weeks. I couldn't sleep or eat. All I could do was think about what he was doing to me, and why. All day every day he'd just lay into me about absolutely everything I said or did. Even the guys I'd been capping on began to feel sorry for me.

"Then one night I was really in the depths of despair, sitting outside in the dark with my dog feeling sorry for myself--I had brought my German Shepherd, Dharma, to the farm with me. Well, Dharma went over to this certain area of the farm where everyone went to take a crap. Rose doesn't believe in deep pit outhouses because he doesn't want it to get in the water table. So anyway, that night Dharma went over to this area and rolled in all the fresh shit he could find. Then he came running back and climbed all over me, literally covering me with human excrement."

Augie shook his head at the memory. "I knew that if Rose heard about the incident he'd make the most of it, so I tried to get cleaned up without anyone seeing me. No luck. A couple of the others spotted me--and smelled me--so I had to tell them what happened. And sure enough, a couple nights later we were in town in Rose's kitchen for a meeting and one of the guys tells Rose about my incident with Dharma.

"Rose had a field day with it. He says, ĎI always knew that dog was a Zen master. Heís just as sick of taking shit from Augie as the rest of us, but he canít speak up and tell him. So he conveys it with a wordless transmission--he gathers it all up and gives it back to him!'

"On and on he went. At first everybody was laughing. I even tried to laugh and take the joke for awhile. But Rose wouldn't let up. It went on for hours. Literally hours. I felt absolutely crushed under the weight of it. Eventually the other people in the room couldn't even take it any more--no matter how much they disliked me. Everyone was looking at their shoes and avoiding eye contact with Rose. Except one guy, Al, who ended up getting really angry at Rose and just glaring at him. I've always remembered that Al did that. It meant a lot to me. Finally, around midnight, Rose abruptly stopped talking and we left."

"Was that the end of it?"

"In a way, yeah. A few days later I was at the bunkhouse construction site--watching the others work on the roof. Rose walked up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder. 'That wasn't so bad,' he said. 'You'll live.' Then he walked away and it was over. The rest of the summer it was like it never happened."

"How did you feel about Rose personally while all this was going on?"

Augie paused for a moment, as if unsure how, or whether, to answer me. "That's a funny thing," he said. "My feelings for Rose then and now run the complete gamut. He can infuriate and confound me beyond anything I've ever felt, then two minutes later inspire and move me literally to the point of tears. I've always felt this intense emotion around Rose, but it frightened and embarrassed me. I didn't like the feeling that I might break down and cry at any second, so I fought it. I've since heard Rose call it 'voltage.' He says some people just feel him--feel who he is.

"I felt it off and on all that summer, even while he was pounding away at me. Part of me wanted to ask him about it, but I was afraid he'd make fun of me, or think I was weak or unmanly, I guess.

"But then near the end of the summer we were all gathered in the kitchen in Benwood one night. Rose was in rare form, cracking jokes, telling stories, and generally keeping everyone in stitches. The whole house was filled with a feeling of total warmth and friendship--not a trace of tension. I think that's why I decided to say something to him that night--because I felt safe among friends, and because of the mood of the room.

"I was sitting close behind him and off to one side, just out of his peripheral vision. Then at one point in the conversation, while everyone else was laughing at something Rose had said, I leaned over and said something to him about this feeling. But I still didn't have the courage to really spell it out, so I couched it in vague terms. I said, 'You know, Mister Rose, I sometimes think that if I just let go, something might happen to me.'

"He immediately turned to me without a moments hesitation--with a totally transformed, ineffable expression on his face--and says to me, 'Yes, but you'd have to cry. And Augie doesn't cry, does he?'

"He might as well have hit me with a brick. It felt like my head literally snapped back. My mind began to race uncontrollably until I thought I wouldn't be able to hold it together. Like my mind was some kind of engine revving way past the redline, faster and faster until it seemed there was nothing to stop it from coming apart.

"Then, at a certain peak moment I became aware that I was not the person having this frightening experience, that I was observing myself have it from another vantage point. And I knew with great certainty that at that moment I was being offered the chance to see myself, to see who was watching. That if I turned my mental head, I would see who I really was."

"Wow. Did you?"

"Hell no, I was terrified. That was the last thing in the world I wanted to do at that moment. I knew that whoever I saw would not be me, would not be Augie. I was absolutely terrified of who I would see. Terrified of seeing who I really am."

"What was Mister Rose doing while all this was going on?"

"Rose had turned away from me right after he spoke, and went back to talking with the other people at the table. I felt like I had receded from the room, but I was still aware somewhat of Rose, though not of anyone else. Later people told me my eyes were as big as saucers and tears were rolling down my face, but since Rose was ignoring me, they did too.

I was transfixed by his story. "Then what?"

"At a certain point--perhaps when I refused the opportunity to see myself--my mind began to gradually slow down until I started to have thoughts again. I felt myself reenter the room. Then, just as I was becoming aware of the people and surroundings, Rose casually turns back to me and says quietly, 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.'"

Augie stopped talking and I didnít ask any more questions. We passed under a large blue and gold sign welcoming us to "Wild, Wonderful West Virginia," then, a few miles later, turned off the interstate and started up a steep hill past modest brick houses with pickup trucks in the driveways. I was uncomfortable with the silence.

Some miles later we descended into the valley and turned onto a four-lane road that paralleled the Ohio River. I stared out at the comfortless blue-collar panorama, the steel mills and junk yards, the stone quarries and deserted factories that lined the river banks.

"Rose scares me," I said.

"He scares me, too," Augie said quietly. "He scares anybody with enough intuition to sense who he is."

We drove past Wheeling, got off at the exit marked "Benwood," and headed down a narrow street that must have been the main road before the four-lane highway went through. Augie drove slowly, almost tentatively, probably going through his own version of the mental preparations that occupied my thoughts. I tried to dispel my nervousness by concentrating on the details of Benwood as we drove. With the Ohio River on one side and steep mountain slopes on the other, there wasnít much room for a town. The houses were narrow and built close together. Everything looked old and rusty and in need of paint. Weeds grew in the tiny yards. There weren't many people walking around, but those I saw looked tired and lifeless. The women had fat arms, the men, hard-boned faces with deeply etched lines. Finally, we turned into a large asphalt parking lot next to a smoke-blackened brick building. The faded sign read, "Union Junior High School." Augie pulled up next to the only other vehicle in the lot--an old white bread truck--then shut off the engine.

"Well," he said with a tight smile, "it's show time."

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