by Joshua Cross
When he heard about the explosion that killed the twenty-nine miners at Upper Big Branch in Montcoal, Ben had been teaching seventh-grade social studies in Baltimore County, Maryland. He wanted to come home as soon as he heard. He knew some of the dead, went to school with some of them and knew others from a childhood in the restaurants and shops of Whitesville. There were few restaurants and shops these days, their storefronts boarded and dusty.
Ben had asked his principal, Ms. Miller, if he could take leave for the rest of the semester to come home and help in any way he could. Ms. Miller refused. The year was almost up, she needed him to stay on. Besides, she said, there was nothing he could do.
By the time school let out, she was right. The funerals had been held, the news crews packed and gone. Whitesville was as deserted as the last time he had been home years before, maybe even more deserted. There was nothing Ben could do. He wanted nothing more than to give the help he knew he could not, but he had missed his chance to be part of it all.
Now two months were gone. He stood inside a gazebo where tributes to the dead hung on or leaned against the walls. Hand-lettered signs, lists of the twenty-nine names, pictures, a drawing of Christ with his arm around a miner. Ben stared at a black jumpsuit pinned to the far wall. An orange ribbon had been clipped to the chest, and a black miner’s cap hung above the coveralls. The person who wore the coveralls would be larger than Ben.
He stepped out of the gazebo and into the vacant lot on the edge of downtown Whitesville. More handmade tributes lay scattered in the grass: Plank crosses, burnt candles, signs, both professional and hand drawn. Ben felt pulled toward a tray filled with chunks of coal. Someone had painted the name of a miner on each chunk in whiteout. More than anything, this choked him.
He turned his back on the memorials and sat on a bench facing the two-lane highway. He watched a man walk the sidewalk across the street, coming from the north end of Route 3 where a chain dollar store stood next to another chain dollar store. The man turned to cross the road. Several dump trucks, loaded high with coal, thundered past. The man seemed to hesitate, to wait for an all clear. He looked weighted down with luggage, a large messenger bag strung across his shoulder and a wheeled suitcase clutched in his hand.
The man stepped into the street, swiveled his head side-to-side, and hurried across. He walked toward Ben and began talking before he reached the bench. “You from around here?” he said
Ben figured him for a motorist with a stalled car and out-of-state tags, someone lost and looking for a way out. “Sure,” Ben said. “I grew up here.”
Two more coal trucks ground past. Diesel engines revved loud in downshift and tires clomped on the potted tarmac. “I’m a travel punk,” the man said.
Ben looked at the man’s peach polo and black baseball cap. Ben had not known many punks, but this guy did not fit his image of ripped jeans, leather jackets, combat boots. “A travel punk?” Ben had to raise his voice above the trucks.
“No,” the man shouted. “A traveling monk.”
The guy did not look like a monk either. He was not Asian for one thing. For another, he had freckles and the hair on either side of his face was red. Ben had never heard of a redheaded monk. They were supposed to shave their heads, and they did not have freckles. Ben knew that much.
The man waved at the bench. “Mind if I join you?”
Ben scooted to the side. “Suit yourself.”
The monk sat and rested the weight of the messenger bag on the seat between them and wheeled the suitcase around to the side of the bench and left it there to lean. “You ever met a monk before?”
Ben said he had.
“Where?” the guy asked.
“Up in DC.”
“At the airport?”
“No.” Ben had seen the Krishnas in the airport, seen them with their robes and tambourines and flowers. But he was thinking of a particular monk. “On the National Mall.”
That particular monk had looked more like a guru, someone who tripped acid with George Harrison and kept a pet monkey. Long grey hair and beard, sun-dried face. The guru had been naked to the waist and dancing by himself in the middle of the dirt and gravel along the Mall. His bare feet were dark brown and coated in dust. He had no robe, no tambourine. A sheet lay in the grass near him with several knickknacks and books spread out. Ben tried to hurry past him to the Air and Space Museum, but the guru stopped dancing and flagged him down.
The guru talked to Ben for several minutes about the weather. Whenever people talked about the weather, Ben figured they were wasting time, but this guy had a lot to say. He sounded enlightened or stoned. He handed Ben two books, one on the spiritual guidance of another guru and the other a guide to vegan living. He asked for a donation for the books, but when Ben showed his empty wallet, he told him to take them anyway. As Ben left, the guru placed his palms together in front of his chest and said something in some Indian language. Ben hoped it was a blessing instead of a curse.
“He give you a copy of this?” The monk on the bench pulled a thick hardcover book from his messenger bag. The book was orange with a red ribbon stuck out from the bottom of the pages.
The book was heavy in Ben’s hand, the cover thick and solid, made of something durable. The cover showed a blue-faced Indian prince riding the back of a tiger. The tiger looked fierce, its mouth hanging open to show its sharpened teeth, frozen in an eternal snarl. But the prince riding the tiger looked peaceful. His eyes were close set on his blue face and seemed sleepy. He neither smiled nor frowned. The prince looked like he saw the world as it was, saw all the tragedy, but found existence worthwhile. As he stared at the prince’s face, Ben felt the first peace since before the explosion.
“This is the Bhagavad-Gita,” the monk said. “India’s most holy book.”
In college, Ben hooked up with a hippie girl at a friend’s party. She had big chocolate eyes and a decent body but was lifeless in bed. Ben thought that was the end, but she materialized on his stoop a few days later, claiming her apartment’s pipes had frozen and she needed a place to shower. Before Ben knew what had happened, she began keeping shampoos and clothes and a hair dryer in his apartment. Her road name was Sometimes. Ben never learned her real name. Sometimes was into the whole Eastern thing and talked about the Bhagavad-Gita a lot. Usually after sex. During sex, she did not talk much.
The monk turned the book to the back cover. His finger pointed to a blurb from Gandhi. “Maybe you’ve heard of Gandhi,” he said. “This was his favorite book.” He pointed to two other blurbs. “It was also the favorite book of the American transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson.” He pointed to each of their names beneath the blurbs.
Ben knew all about Thoreau and Emerson. They lived in the woods beside ponds and wrote essays with a lot of unnecessary words. Sometimes loved Thoreau but claimed Emerson was pretentious. She carried a Portable Thoreau in her large patchwork satchel and had the annoying habit of reading passages aloud.
Before Ben broke up with her, Sometimes adopted two stray kittens and named one of them Walden. The other she named Boots.
“We’re traveling the country,” the monk said, “distributing books to promote peace and harmony.” The monk paused, seemed to weigh what he had to say. “We wanted to come here because people are hurting. They could use spiritual guidance.”
Ben agreed, people around Whitesville needed spiritual guidance, but he worried that anything involving blue-faced princes riding tigers would be seen as satanic. Ben had not considered himself a Christian for many years, even before Sometimes moved into his apartment and refused to leave and brought all her shampoos and mystic weirdness with her. Unlike many people who lived in Whitesville, Ben did not have spiritual peace to fall back on.
He needed this book. He doubted he would ever read the book, but it was beautiful. The cover was alive with color and motion, unlike the black leather on his Bible. He wanted to see the Bhagavad-Gita sitting on his desk, wanted to hold its cover every night before sleep, flip through its pages, move the ribbon bookmark to different chapters to see how it looked there.
“We’re traveling the country giving these to people.” The monk removed his baseball cap and ran fingers through his short red hair. He had a bald spot on his crown and freckles on his scalp. “We ask for a small donation.” He put the cap back on his head. “So we can print more.”
This sounded reasonable. Someone had to pay for printing, and Ben doubted monks could afford those costs. He took the billfold from his back pocket. “I only have a five.” He pulled out the bill and showed the monk the empty wallet.
The monk wrenched the book from Ben’s hand. “The standard donation for a hardcover is twelve dollars.” He crammed the beautiful book into the messenger bag.
Like that, the peace was gone. Ben wanted to see the Bhagavad-Gita again, wanted to hold it in his hands. He held the memory of the book’s weight and felt the same way he felt about coming home to Whitesville too late to help.
“But,” the monk said, “five dollars is the typical donation for a paperback. Will you take the paperback instead?”
Ben said he would. The monk grabbed the five, slid the bill into the breast pocket of his polo, and pulled a paperback from his satchel. The book was smaller, looked like it would fit in Ben’s pocket. The same blurbs from Emerson and Thoreau appeared on the back cover, but the Gandhi quote had not made the cut.
The front cover was not orange but blue, the same blue as the face of the Indian prince. Light gray clouds rose behind him all the way to the title. Instead of the tiger, the prince rode on a golden chariot drawn by three white horses, their bent legs kicking swirls of dirt. The prince looked smug, not peaceful like he had on the tiger.
The monk rose from the bench, hoisted the messenger bag onto his shoulder, and grabbed the wheeled suitcase. He began to walk away but turned back. “Have a blessed day.”
Ben felt disappointed with the book in his hand, like it was no book at all, and the monk’s farewell left him run through. Ben wished the monk would at least say something in a foreign language, something peaceful.
The monk dragged his luggage down the sidewalk, headed south on Route 3 toward Pettus, Naoma, Montcoal, Dry Creek. Ben wondered if the monk would travel that far and whether anyone would buy that beautiful book. Ben had not driven down the Coal River Valley since coming home. Maybe he would follow the monk’s trail. Maybe there he would find someone who still needed whatever Ben could give.