Morris had a dozen paperbacks about Zen Buddhism and a shoebox full of audio — taped lectures, guided trances, and soothing tones. But Nigel had been to Japan. Nigel wore parachute pants from the Army/Navy Surplus that flowed like an aikido skirt. Nigel said he could summon winds.
The basin of the picnic ground was well below sidewalk level. The mud never fully dried, and that kept the Frisbee players away. After a bit of posing and making of signs, a wind did kick up. Morris didn’t know much about the physics of air currents, but he thought, Yeah. Well of course. We’re in a bowl. There’s always going to be a breeze bouncing off the hill.
But he didn’t challenge the summoning. Karen seemed impressed. Morris figured it was Nigel’s intensity that held her rapt, not any particular connection to wind and swirling leaves she might have.
The three of them went for coffee.
Karen sat on Nigel’s side of the booth. Morris held his mug with two hands.
So, said Nigel, have you sussed out the sound of one hand clapping yet?
Morris knew all the answers, as explicated in all the books, and knew that the mere recitation of them was no answer at all. He also knew that the trace of British accent in Nigel’s voice only surfaced when he wanted to impress girls. He and Nigel had lived on the same block of row houses since the fourth grade, when Nigel’s dad took a position at the college. His accent had waned well before high school.
Morris shrugged. It’s not the answer to the koan that matters, he said. It’s just the engagement.
I have a koan, said Karen.
I’m sure you do, said Nigel. He inched closer to her on the bench.
Which one? asked Morris.
Where’s my other sock? said Karen.
Morris smiled. That’s not a koan; that’s an epistemological quandary.
It is a koan, she said. Because which sock is the other one? The one I have could be the other-sock, while the one that’s missing could be the Ur sock.
Ur sock? asked Morris.
Yes, the primal sock which is the measure of sockness. It could go either way. It’s the need to seat otherness in either presence or absence that’s at the root of the koan.
Morris met her eyes across the table. I see what you’re saying. But I think the sock question leads to speculation about parallel worlds and alternate timelines. If the other sock persists but is absent, it may be with another Karen or a series of other-Karens, each Karen one sock shy of a unified sock drawer. A koan, on the other hand, is not expansive —
Nigel interrupted. It may have ended up at my place, he said. If you mean the yellow one.
Karen blushed. Morris looked at his coffee.
When I was in Kyoto, a Zen student died trying to solve a koan, said Nigel. It was in the news.
What happened? Morris and Karen asked at the same time. Their eyes met again for an instant before returning to Nigel.
His master asked him how to stop the 5:00 train from Tokyo.
That’s a classic, said Morris.
He jumped in front of it, said Nigel. I’d say he was on the wrong track.
What would your answer be? asked Morris. Would you conjure a storm to derail it?
Koans are for people who need answers, said Nigel. I’m not bogged down with riddles. I find answers.
You blow a lot of air, said Morris. Or try to.
I work with the elements, said Nigel. Crowley said that Taoism and Buddhism are just baby steps. An adept soon leaves them behind.
Is that what he said? asked Morris. Did you actually read that or did you see it on Tumblr?
My practice is an active lineage. It isn’t dependent on used bookstores, said Nigel.
Crowley was an asshole, said Morris.
Don’t fight, said Karen. This is our last time together before I leave for the summer. I need you to be good to each other while I’m away. I’ll want a full report from each of you.
Leave the tip, said Nigel to Morris.
Outside, Karen said, I guess this is it then.
Actually, you should come over, said Nigel. I think I still have your sketchbook. He was speaking to Karen, though he looked at Morris when he said it.
Okay, but just for a bit. My parents are picking me up in an hour.
Nigel put his hand in Karen’s.
Go, she told him. I’ll catch up in a sec.
Nigel let go. He walked up the block to linger in front of a shop window.
Karen turned to Morris. She fished in her purse.
I thought about getting two of these, she said. The other one must have slipped into an alternate ending.
What? said Morris.
I know how to stop the train, said Karen.
How? said Morris.
She placed an envelope in his hand and touched his face.
To stop the 5:00 train, she said, all you need is a ticket.
Karen went after Nigel and joined him at the window.
Morris walked away, headed in the other direction. When he turned the corner, he opened the envelope.
Inside was an open Amtrak ticket for the small station that was a short walk from the shady street where Karen’s room, she once said, had a clear view of the local mountain that was not Mount Fuji but was never the same mountain from one timeless moment to the next.