Friday, November 18, 2016

Short Story: Dr. Lao Redux

         Three score and ten is man’s allotted span, or so the Bible says, but Dr. Lao always said otherwise. The doc didn’t look a day older than the last time he’d passed through Arizona seventy years ago in the depths of the Depression. Arizona, however, had changed. Hardly a man was now alive who’d been around in ’35, the last time Dr. Lao had passed through. 

         No one in Beeswax had the vaguest idea who he was, is or would be. For all they knew, he was nothing more than he what he appeared to be: an aged Chinese with an inscrutable expression and the eyes of one who had seen too much and forgotten too little. They didn’t know the half of it, or, for that matter, even a ten-raised-to-a-considerable-powerth of it! 

         “Don’t know shit from Shinola,” the elderly son of the long-forgotten State of Ch’u said to himself, recalling a phrase that had caught his fancy the last time he’d passed through these parts. “Don’t know either that shit and Shinola aren’t any different when all is said and done, just as their asses and holes in the ground aren’t.”

         Profundity was Dr. Lao’s stock-in-trade, but there wasn’t much of a market for it in Beeswax, or anywhere else for that matter. The traveling circus trade had seen its day, but that day—a day like any other, but he was there—had gone down into night and there’d been no use fighting it; there never is. 

         These days, the figures of myth with whom he’d traveled were largely forgotten by the horde of benighted ignorant among whom he moved. The idea of traveling in an ar-vee caravan—or, worse, garishly painted converted school buses—with cartoonish “super-heroes”, vampires and zombies—the contemporary archetypes—held no appeal. Best to go it alone, like the old Jewish shoemaker with whom he’d teamed up for a while, who’d been wandering for nearly as long as Dr. Lao, but whose incessant bemoaning of his condition finally led the doc to part company with him after telling him in no uncertain terms: “Listen, my flend, you no likee the way, you tly walk some miles in other man’s moccasins, maybe then you get the big picture.”

         The circus was a thing of the past; Dr. Lao had taken a new show on the road and Beeswax was as good a venue as any to kick it off.

         Holistic medicine, alternative healing, herbal remedies, shamanistic ritual… that was Dr. Lao’s new gig. He smiled one of his inscrutable smiles, remembering the snake-oil salesmen of yore. The thing was, his deal was the real deal. And kick-off time was tonight!

          Right on time, as if he’d summoned it out of the ether, the old jalopy with the loudspeaker atop it (replaced at night by an illuminated pizza shop sign) slowly made its way up the main drag of Old Beeswax.

         “The medicinal miracles of the Orient, the intuitive intelligence of indigenous peoples, the secrets of the shamans, the mysteries of the mystics… All this and more will be unveiled for the discerning, those who present themselves promptly at eight pee-em at the Beeswax Palace, home to the fine arts of music, drama and dance, the site of choice for special events such as the Seminar of Dr. Lao, a two hour presentation that will inspire you to subscribe to the full week of workshops to follow! 

         “Young and old, active or retired, whatever your station in life, there is something there for you! Do not allow this opportunity to pass, for we know not if it shall pass this way again. Limited seating is available, ladies and gentlemen: first come, first served. 

         “The medicinal miracles of the Orient, the intuitive intelligence…”

         The rest of the message was lost to the Doppler Effect as the heap made its noisy way up the hill. 

         Dr. Lao, content, continued making his way along Main Street, observing the reactions of the passers-by.

         Beeswax had the usual number of camera-toting retirees dressed in uniform-like clothing loose enough to accommodate adult diapers, but these were not his public, although they bore a strange resemblance to some of the traveling-circus attendees back in Abalone, Arizona, when he’d had to explain to a carping schoolmarm who complained about the presence of evil in his circus. What was it he’d told her? Oh yes: “The world is my idea” adding that “I have my own set of weights and measures and my own table for computing values. You are privileged to have yours,” although the clarification was superfluous.  

         She didn’t get it; neither would any of the geezers gathering for the ghost tour; few of any age did. But there were those who thought they did. They would be out in force tonight, he hoped.

         “What do you suppose that was all about?” 

         “Damned if I know, but it might be worth a look-see,” replied Ralph Selkirk, recently retired from a long and dreary career as a claims adjuster for a faceless insurance firm headquartered far from the small and dreary Midwestern city in which Ralph and his wife Barbara had led their unremarkable and relatively dreary lives until they pulled up stakes and bought themselves a cookie-cutter condo in a complex on the ever-expanding outskirts of Tucson, a tract of land that still drew the odd errant Gila monster from the surrounding desert upon which humankind relentlessly encroached.

         They’d made the drive down to Beeswax because they’d seen a brochure that convinced them the old mining town was “quaint” and “picturesque,” populated by artistic eccentrics who sure looked like aging hippies to the Selkirks, but as Barbara was fond of saying, there was no need to be judgmental.

         After a brief conversational interchange that somehow seemed like a badminton volley between opponents with neither skill nor agility, right then and there they discarded their original plan of checking out the karaoke at the Bucket O’ Blood Saloon. Although neither thought of them, the words of an old song seemed to hang in the air: “A strange force drew me to the graveyard…” The Selkirks had spent their lives as strangers to strange forces, but in a few scant hours, they were to become acquainted.

         “Say, you wouldn’t by any chance be this Dr. Lao, would you?”

         “What, you think all Chinee look alike, hey?” Dr. Lao responded to his interlocutor. “Who you: King Willy the voodoo priest in whiteface?”

         “No, no! It’s just that… Well, uh,…”

         Dr. Lao’s penetrating gaze had thoroughly discomforted Andy Shapiro, who, truth told, at forty seven was a bit old for the dreadlock-Rasta-do he sported. Why had he been met with such hostility? He’d asked a civil question. It’s not like there were a lot of Chinese in Beeswax, anyone could see that, but then again, one had to tread carefully not to offend minorities, so…

         “No tickee, no shirtee, eh? You like stereotype people? Eh?”

         “Are you from Canada?” Andy asked. The old guy kept saying “eh”, which everyone knew was waaay Canadian, and Andy’d read that Vancouver was crawling with Chinese these days. 

         “Canada! What: I look like Eskimo now? Nanook of the North, maybe? Of course I’m Dr. Lao! Who else would I be?”

         Andy had been planning to ask the old guy a few questions about his seminar, but his plans had changed. Dr. Lao often had that effect on folks.

         “Ah, well… See, that’s what I thought. I mean, well, you have a scholarly look, see, and…”

         “Ah, you think I’m Dr. Fu-Manchu!” interrupted Dr. Lao. “Mad scientist plotting the overthrow of the West! You F.B.I. man undercover as New Age flake? Hmmm? State your business and be quick about it!”

         Thoroughly nonplussed, Andy was at a loss.

         “You know kung-fu?” Dr. Lao asked in a voice pregnant with menace. 

         “No, sir! I have a health food store. I just wanted to ask about… you know…”

         “Ah, a health food store,” Dr. Lao said cheerily, a toothy smile stretching across his somewhat wizened face. “Why didn’t you say so from the outset, my good man! Perhaps collaboration is in store! Who can say? Here, let me give you my card along with my fond hope that you will be good enough to attend my seminar this evening!”

         The sudden shift to urbanity with no trace of an accent simply discombobulated Andy further, but he was able to essay a nervous smile as he nodded his head vigorously. 

         “Sure. Thanks! I… Uh, well, yeah, of course I’ll be there. Collaboration. Yeah, sounds cool.”

         As Dr. Lao handed over the card, he took Andy by the wrist in a surprisingly firm grip.

         “Between us, I tip you off to a little seeklet,” he whispered, shifting back into his Charlie Chan persona. “One of my colleagues, he know kung-fu! Hey! He plactically invent kung-fu! You keep that under your hat, if you can fit a hat over all that hair, hee hee hee!”

         Dr. Lao elbowed Andy in the ribs and winked. 

         And just like that, he was gone.

         Andy watched the old man sashay on up Main Street and decided to make some calls. Tonight’s event was clearly not one to be missed, and the word needed spreading.

         The gang at Slug’s, Beeswax’s one remaining low-rent bar catering to the country and western crowd was wondering what the story was with the old Chink with the suds ‘stash, now on his third draft brewski and clamoring for more popcorn. They’d heard the announcement—Christ, you’d a hadda be deef not to!—and wondered just how in the hell this “Dr. Lao” had gotten a permit for it without all the fuggin’ Old Beeswax artsy-fartsy yuppies and hippies screamin’ bloody murder, but damned if the thing hadn’t been goin’ back and forth, up and down and all round the town all guddam day! 

         Slug’s was an anomaly in Old Beeswax, the trendy part of town. Nearly none of the patrons lived there—they lived out to Calvin, the blue collar barrio on the way to Nabo, where the Mexes mostly lived—, but Slug’s was a leftover from when the town really had been a mining town, and the shitkickers weren’t about to give up their last toehold in what had once been their town, so Slug’s survived. Tourists knew better than to venture in, but that hadn’t deterred the old Chink, who’d moved from the bar to a booth, where he was now holding court for a trio from a construction crew. 

         “Jeez, Gramps, you don’t got to shout. Christ, you’re as loud as that holler-wagon you got goin’ out there.”

         “Glamps? Glamps! Are you talkin’ to me, flendo?”

         Walt Sinkowitz, who had cultural pretensions and was a cinema buff, had a double-feature flashback: Taxi Driver and No Country for Old Men. Just who was this Dr. Lao?

         Walt should have asked who Dr. Lao is, but the peculiarities of grammar had led him astray. No matter: he would learn soon enough.

         Vinnie Costanza wasn’t quite sure how to answer. Everyone was looking at him kinda funny and the place had gone as silent as the tomb. Jack Gibbons, an off-duty state trooper was givin’ him the fish-eye and frownin’ like Vinnie had just laid a no-muffler-low-rider fart. 

         “No offense, old timer. It’s just that…”

         “Just that what?” asked Dr. Lao, who for a second there… Vinnie blinked. Instead of the old Chink, he coudda swore he was looking at a… a big ol’ mountain lion

         “Nnn… Never mind. Sorry. Want another beer? On me.”

         Now you talkin’, flendo! Tell you what: you buy, I buy. Pitchers for the house! Pahty down! All you guys good guys! I invite all you guys come to Palace tonight. You buy ticket, I plomise you not be solly.”

          Revelry reigned. 

         By the time Dr. Lao took his leave of the gang at Slug’s, not a man-jack of ‘em would have dreamed of missing the show. Whether or not they’d be sorry remained to be seen. But one thing was certain: not a man-jack of ‘em could have dreamed of what was in store.

         When Dr. Lao walked into Paco’s Tacos down to Nabo, his colleague Buddy Kane was sitting amidst a bevy of plitty señoritas at a large formica-topped table with baskets of blue corn tortilla chips strategically placed. Buddy was doing his bit: there’d be a hell of a turnout from Mextown tonight. 

         Things would never be quite the same in Nabo after Dr. Lao and Buddy had gone with the wind that blew tumbleweeds down its dusty lanes studded with single-wides and pre-fab houses whose once-bright paint had been bleached by the blazing sun in the adamantine sky beneath which Nabo lay somnolent for much of the year. But all that lay in a future that not one among them could predict on that fateful afternoon, a future that… 

         “So Buddy, who are your new friends?” asked Dr. Lao in barely accented Spanish.

         One would have thought that after the session at Slug’s, Dr. Lao would have been six sheets to the wind, but the good doctor was as sober as Judge Roy Bean had been when he was a newborn babe back in Kentucky. Dr. Lao would have cringed at any comparison with Bean, who had once ruled that homicide was the killing of a human being, but that there was no law against killing a Chinaman. Dr. Lao took great comfort in the fact that Bean had been reincarnated as a deaf, dumb and blind Chinese who didn’t know enough to get out of Nanking when the Japanese rolled in just two years after Dr. Lao’s visit to Abalone.

Beer didn’t have any effect on Dr. Lao; nothing did.

         “This venerable gentleman is the celebrated Dr. Lao?” asked a mestizo in ranchero duds, a middle-aged man with burnished walnut skin, a man toasted by the sun beneath which he and his ancestors had labored lo these many centuries. 

         “None other,” Buddy replied laconically. 

         Buddy Kane was a soft-spoken and taciturn individual, but by no means Dr. Lao’s “second banana”. He never failed to attract attention, given that he had no eyelids, but very few ventured to ask him how that came to be so. There was something about Buddy that discouraged personal questions of that sort, although just what it was, no one could say. Buddy was, well… strange. Sure could play a mean flute, though.

         Ana González, at the moment the prettiest girl in Nabo, a seventeen year old girl with dreams of bright lights, big city and wealthy blue-eyed young men vying for her hand in spite of a likely future twirling her lithe body around a fire pole in a “gentlemen’s club”, was—for some reason beyond her limited intellect to analyze—nearly desperate to hear Buddy play the bamboo flute he carried slung over his shoulder. No one remotely like Buddy had ever been a patron of Paco’s Tacos, nor for that matter had graced Nabo with his presence. Who was this mysterious man? And what was he doing traveling around with the old Chink?

         “What kind of doctor are you? Buddy didn’t say,” Ana asked in English. 

         “Ah! Plitty señorita a cluious kitten, eh? You come to Palace tonight, all your questions get answered, chop-chop. Tell all your flends Dr. Lao and Buddy here”—indicating the quiet man with a grandiloquent hand gesture—“blinging evlyone in Nabo, Beeswax and—what it called? Clappy place up the load? Ah! Calvin, yeah, I lemembuh!—yeah, we bling all you peoples a night to lemembuh o’ maybe whole lot mo’, eh! Just lemembuh: no tickee, no nuthin’!”

         “That about sums it up,” Buddy chimed in, nodding sagely.

         “Count me in,” declared Ricardo Funes, the roofer in the ranchero duds. The others at the table nodded in affirmation, mimicking Buddy. 

         Dr. Lao smiled his inscrutable smile, tight-lipped, eyes narrowed. 

         “Good move, Licahdo” concurred Dr. Lao.

         Ricardo asked himself: “How did he know my name?” 

         Dr. Lao winked. “Name that can be named not a name,” proclaimed the wizened doctor of something. “What yo’ name befoh you bohn, eh? What face you have?”

Abruptly, Dr. Lao began speaking English in an exalted tone known to denizens of New York as “Manhattan Neutral Express”, though he had never set foot in Manhattan nor would do so under any circumstances. “Signs and wonders, señor, signs and wonders. That is our stock in trade and be assured that said stock is strictly limited. You have the questions: we have the answers.”

Another shift. “Lound up all yo’ flends and bling ‘em along. Light, Buddy?”

Three slow nods.



At the appointed hour, a standing-room-only crowd filled the Palace. Never before in Beeswax had an event attracted such a diverse public: aged snowbirds, New Agers of every stripe, the Hispanic community of Nabo, the blue-collar crew from Calvin, the owners of nearly every small business in town, some military folks from the nearby base, teachers and students, the lame and the halt, the old and the young…

              The curtain parted and the previously unseen was made manifest. All murmuring, coughing, shuffling ceased. Silence.

         Dr. Lao stepped forward to the edge of the proscenium.

         “Ladies and gentlemen, imagine if you will a small village with a small population. Imagine that there are modern conveniences, but they go unused. Imagine yourselves living in a village with vehicles and electronic gadgetry that go unused, a village in which everyone is satisfied with the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the homes in which they live and the way in which they live! Imagine being content to remain there forever!”

         Bug-eyed Buddy played a riff on his bamboo flute. 


         “All you peoples dleamin’ about clazy shit when the leel deal light in flont of you faces!” Dr. Lao stated emphatically. 

         Buddy played a longer riff, a kind of snake charmer thing, but no one present was cognizant of the similarity: what resonated in their subconscious varied. For some, it was the Mamas and the Papas singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, for others a Fleetwood Mac song with Stevie Nicks asking “Have you any dreams you’ve dreamed yourself”, but for Tad Waring, a fugitive from a stock fraud charge who knew it was time to cross the border, what came to mind was a verse from the Thomas Pynchon novel V: “Cross yourself and face the wall/Dreams will help you not at all”. 

         Not one of the Nabo contingent had read Calderón de la Barca’s classic drama La Vida es Sueño (“Life is but a dream, da-doom, da-da-da-da-doom”), but… 

         “Hey!” shouted Dr. Lao, snapping the rubes out of their reveries. “Hey!”

         The last notes of Buddy’s flute wafted away into the rafters. He slung the flute and swung into a kata of incredible complexity: he knew kung-fu! He whirled and twirled, arms and legs moving at a speed that made him, well… flow

         “Hey! Show time, circus time!” bellowed Dr. Lao. “Let’s go we be goin’! Dleamtime, peoples! But lemembuh this: Dlop self, dlop desire! No learning, no ploblems! Eh, Buddy?”

         “All the suffering and joy we experience depend upon conditions,” Buddy agreed. 

              Andy Shapiro began stroking his chin. What was this? Kane? That was the Kung-Fu character’s name, the teevee guy with the shaven head who played the flute. Was this guy some sort of wise-ass? And this Dr. Lao? That stuff about the “small village” rang a bell. 

         Ding-dong! Ding-dong! Ding-dong!

         But it fell on deaf ears.

         “Observe!” entreated Dr. Lao. “Observe what you see and what you don’t see! What you see emerges from the unseen, which you will see soon enough. We have come to the Beeswax Palace to reveal the unseen. Attention! The things of this world come from something; something comes from nothing. Eh, Buddy?”

         Like Yeats’ Chinamen in the lapis lazuli carving about which he waxed poetic—“their eyes, mid many wrinkles, their eyes, their ancient glittering eyes…”—, Dr. Lao and Buddy beamed the silent, pensive crowd with their eyes. 

         “When does the show start?” Barbara Selkirk wanted to know, breaking her silence. 

         Ralph, who felt a tingling somewhere near his abdomen, whispered to his wife: “I have a feeling it started a while ago.”

         “All appearances are illusions. Don’t hold on to appearances,” Buddy concurred, executing another kata with blinding speed. 

         “What the fu…?” Vinnie Costenza commented to Walt Sinkowitz. The Calvin crew on the whole were wondering just what exactly they’d walked into, but Walt was wondering just exactly where they were headed, not knowing exactly why he was hearing a knowing internal voice insisting “There’s a new sheriff in town”. 

         Ana González was thinking that Kane was pretty hot, never mind that he kept agreeing with the crazy old Chinese laundryman who was the weirdest carny barker that had ever hit the streets of Beeswax: this had the guy who promised to show the monster baby from Sowdattica, the girl with the yellow elastic tissues and the morphadite all beat to shit. This was one weird show!

         “Hah! Lights out!” 

         Dr. Lao’s command echoed as the Beeswax Palace plunged into darkness amidst the murmurings and consternation of the crowd.

         “Now we get down to business, Beeswax folk, you betcha’!” resonated a voice from the darkness, deep in the unseen.

         The plitty señoritas squirmed, waiting for male hands to fall upon their thighs. They waited in vain, even Ana, seated next to her current beau, Quique Morales, who was so creeped out that Ana’s teacup-tilted tits and tight thighs were as far away as his cousins in Seattle. Just what “business” was coming down? This was sick cheet, man!

         Dr. Lao awaited silence. His wait was brief.

         “Oh yes, Beeswax peoples: be still,” he urged when silence reigned. “Over the rainbow time now, you betcha’. You all pay you money, now you get to dance to the piper.”

         He made an unseen pass in the darkened space and: Lo, an unfamiliar landscape took form with inexplicable depth upon the stage, receding in a vanishing-point perspective that captivated the already-stunned crowd of Beeswax peoples. 

         Buddy’s flute blew, blew a long and tremulous note that entered in their ears, sank to the base of their spines and began to climb their backbones like a snake with a purpose. 

         Dr. Lao smiled in the darkness, which he owned, the landscape seen by Beeswax peoples being just one more illusion in their illusory lives. Beeswax peoples have heads squarely up Beeswax peoples asses, you betcha’! But not for much longer, oh no!

         “Hah! Leddy to follow yellow blick road, Beeswax peoples?” called the voice still hidden in darkness. “Hah! Leddy to see what behind the cuhtain?”

         The hypnotic tones of Buddy’s flute had thoroughly pacified the crowd, each and every one, and Beeswax was headed for X-Files territory without a single member of the audience aware that en masse, they were going to leave National Enquirer stories like “Bat Boy of the Ozarks” deep in the dust. The freaky-deaky quality of Lost was kid stuff compared to what would become to be known as the “Beeswax Vanishings”. The “Dharma Initiative” of Dr. Lao and Buddy Kane was the real deal.

         Seated still like statues in their velveteen-backed seats in the Beeswax Palace, the variegated audience was being drawn bit by bit into the landscape each saw, the landscape that conformed to the illusion that each and every one held dear. They saw what they wanted to see. 

         The young Barbara Selkirk had dreamed of a dramatic life, the middle-aged Barbara would have settled for a melodramatic life but the bordering-on-elderly Barbara had less rather than more come to terms with the simple reality that her life hadn’t been a roller-coaster ride but rather a daily round on a carousel with stationary horses and a musical repertoire of trite waltzes. Imagine, then, the palpitations of her heart when there on the proscenium of the Beeswax Palace the long entryway to Southfork Ranch lay before her as if awaiting her assumption of the throne of the dynasty she had been destined to found before fate had played its cruel joke and the stork had gone off course, depositing her not on the stage set of Dallas but in a low-rent variant of the house in which Beaver Cleaver got his first cavities. 

         A long, breathy note emerged from Buddy’s flute and expanded to fill all the empty space within the Beeswax Palace. Another followed. Another. A melody was woven from the threads of sound energy that vibrated upon the tympana of those present. The melody had a come-hither quality, hither being found beyond the vanishing point of the visible horizon of the stage upon which all gazes were fixed. 

         So fixed were the gazes that neither Ralph Selkirk nor even state trooper Gibbons were cognizant of the vanishing of the person seated beside them. Now you see ‘em, now you don’t!

         Before long, few were left to be seen. Ten little Beeswax peoples sittin’ in a line/One disappeared and then there were nine, and so on. 

         Ralph Selkirk disappeared down the access tunnel of the Cheyenne Mountain underground command center, burdened with the responsibility of becoming the first (and last) US president to unleash an all-out preemptive nuclear strike on Dr. Lao’s Chicom relatives, the Rooskis, the Mooselings in Eye-Ran and Eye-Rack, purty much any damn furriner you might care to name.

         Quique Morales watched the parallel line of street-lamps bordering the boulevard blur as he pedal-to-the-metalled the fastest low-rider ever made. He was headin’ down that long, lonesome highway and…

         The Beeswax peoples present followed Buddy’s tune as he stepped into a darkness just beyond what each could see.

         “Behind the cuhtain, Beeswax peoples!” Dr. Lao shouted from somewhere unseen, somewhere in the darkness beyond the visual perceptual range of Beeswax peoples. “Follow Buddy!”

         And so, one after another they did, passing from the perceptual plane of their idealized selves—the shadows upon the wall of Plato’s cave—into what lay beyond the curtain and into Buddy’s cave, within which no shadows exist: uncharted territory traversed by Buddy and Dr. Lao but precious few others. 

         One by one they went.

         What did they see?

         Ah, well, that remains to be seen: does it not?

         Suffice it to say that one must see it for oneself. 

         Beyond that, there is nothing further to be seen.

         No seminar, no shamans, no anything, no nuthin’!

         Fade to black.

         And then…? 

         Fiat Lux!

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