The statue sentinel standing guard over the entrance of most Chinese restaurants is not who you think he is. According to legend, there really was a rotund, open shirted monk named Hotei that wandered around as a smiling beggar a thousand years ago. In the same way that Saint Nicholas of Myrna was taken from his humble beginnings as a charitable monk in Asia Minor and given a new post with magical elves, flying reindeer, and a red suit, poor Hotei has been translated into something like a Shinto Santa Clause. He has become one of the good luck gods. You can ask him for help with having babies or request good dreams. Hotei can fix what ails you. He even holds the dubious title of “patron saint of restaurants.”
The real Hotei – which translated means “hemp sack” – was a strange rascal who always carried a sack made from hemp, hence the name. (If you check the statue next time you enter your local Chinese restaurant, you will see the sack). Hotei would put all sorts of nonsense into the sack as he meandered from town to town. He stuffed it with his half-eaten egg rolls, bits of candy, rocks, garbage, small children, and anything else that he found along the way. Children loved this fat, old guy and would run up to him when he wandered through their village. He would open up his sack and show them the contents. Holding up an object, he would say, “Look at this!” Then he might give the object to one of the children. The problem with getting a present from Hotei was that you never knew if he was going to give you a sweet piece of candy or a rock. The parents in those towns probably weren’t too sure about him, but he gave them a surprise too. One day, he told them a secret. He was really a bodhisattva in disguise.
No apartment complex is complete without its own disguised bodhisattva, and ours appeared in the person of Bob. “Crazy Bob,” as we liked to call him, lived around the corner in the next building with his girlfriend Terri and their two children. Bob, was also from Florida, and he had just moved to our apartment complex from a jail in Daytona Beach. Bob was like Hotei in that he loved to pick up things at random, walk under my balcony and yell, “Look at this!” The problem with whatever Bob was carrying was that you never knew what sort of live animal it might be. I know deep within myself that Bob was probably just trying to show me that the Buddha was in all things. Imagine an unshaven, good-natured man with a tangled tuft of hair who was an expert at rolling cigarettes from the time he had spent in jail. He might come around the corner of the building carrying a ten pound carp that he had picked up from White Rock Lake saying, “Hey Kurt! Hey Kurt! Look at this! It’s a ten pound carp!”
“What are you doing with that?!”
“I just wanted to show you.”
“How in the world did you catch it?”
“It was swimming around, so I just picked it up with my hands.”
“Well, what are you going to do with it?”
“Nothing. I’ll go throw it in the dumpster. I just wanted to show you.”
“What!?” Derrick interrupted from below my balcony. “Why don’t you eat it?”
“Derrick, you can’t eat that. It’s like a giant goldfish. The meat is bloody and nasty. It’d be like eating a sting ray.”
“I’m eating it.”
True to form, Derrick cooked it up on a little Hibachi. Bob and I stood around in wonder while Derrick ate a full ten pounds of goldfish meat.
Bob and Terri walked over one day saying, “Hey Kurt! Hey Jenn! Look at this! It’s a furry kitten!” This event, incidentally, marked the beginning of our long and troubled history with domestic animals. We accepted the animal as a pet. We asked young Zachariah – who was in the phase of learning to speak commonly called “jabbering” – what he should like to name it, and he responded (phonetically) “Ellafyookinfyoogal.” The name stuck, but was spelled “Ellafuqenfugal” for legal purposes.
All in all, our apartment complex was a neat little community. Granted it was a community of ex-convicts, ex-welfare, ex-everything else people. But we got along with each other fairly well, and when we didn’t, the cops were there several times a week to serve as mediators. The arrival of Ellafuqenfugal came with another new addition to our little community. A family moved into the apartment next door to our own.
We were introduced to Sammy, a woman as ample horizontally as befit a West Texan. Ervin was a short, kind fellow, who was extremely helpful in spite of the conspicuous lack of a “G” on the end of his name. It was as if his parents had learned gerund forms in West Texas. I was only surprised to learn that they hadn’t actually included the apostrophe on the end of his name. They had a son named Tyler who was born on the same day and year as our son Zachariah. Sammy, Ervin, and Tyler were not disguised bodhisattvas. They were the first people we met who considered themselves citizens of the Republic of Texas (which is a separate entity from the other United States). They were from Lubbock. Ervin’s daddy had worked for the TI plant, and his daddy’s daddy had worked for the TI plant. Thus, Ervin and his family had come to the big city so that he, too, could work at the TI plant. Their big dream was to buy a piece of property in West Texas and live in a “double-wide.”
On the day when our Crown Victory broke down again, Ervin offered to help me fix it. Jenn and I were downstairs looking at the car with Ervin. We had, for the first time, left young Zachariah in the apartment for a mere thirty seconds. When we re-entered the apartment, a sickening sight greeted us. Ellafuqenfugal was on the floor, attempting to stand. Her front legs had managed to raise her head off the ground. Her back legs had managed with less success to raise her other end. In between, was a mid section lying limply on the carpet under a back that contained an extremely sharp bend. The backbone was clearly broken, and the cat was making a noise like a broken klaxon siren. Lying prostrate, nose to nose with the cat, was our young son repeating, “I’m sorry kitty. I’m sorry kitty. I’m sorry kitty.”
“Oh my God! Zachariah! What happened! What did you do to the cat!” screamed Jenn.
“I’m sorry. I stepped on kitty’s back. I’m sorry kitty. I’m sorry kitty.”
“We have to get her to the vet!”
“Buddha is a dead dog on the road,” I thought.
We scooped her up in a towel and carried her to the vet that was located on the corner, a block away from the apartment complex. The vet was closed for lunch. Being without transportation, there was nothing we could do but carry the animal back and try to comfort her while the vet fed himself. We arrived back at the office an hour later, filled out plenty of paper work, and were eventually admitted to a large room with a steel island in the center. We recounted the awful tale and included a few “I’m sorry kitty’s” for effect. The vet removed the cat from the towel and placed her on the steel island. The cat still stood awkwardly with its mid-section low to the ground beneath the nauseating bend in her backbone. A series of movements followed with the polished ease of a professional doing routine work. He first grabbed the cat by the neck, jammed his bare, non-gloved finger into the cat’s posterior far enough to hide the second knuckle. He removed the hidden digit swiftly and flung something small from his finger onto the steel of the island. He looked up at us, and said in the most matter of fact tone, “Tapeworm.” While we attempted to refrain from flinging our lunches onto the island to join the worm, he grabbed a jar, removed a pill, forced it down the cat’s throat, and handed us a bill of $45.00. He must have noticed our dumbfounded looks because he asked, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“What about the bend in her back and the horrible noise she’s making?” I asked.
“Oh. Well, this cat is in heat. Haven’t you ever had a cat before?” he queried.
“If you want her to stop doing that, you have to get her spayed. It costs $80.00.”
“Oh. Well, thanks.”
We re-entered our apartment with many things to contemplate. It was certainly within the realm of possibility that Ellafuqenfugal contracted her case of parasitic infection by eating a piece of partially cooked carp. If that was the case, then Bob might have been trying to teach us that cats eat fish, worms eat cats, fish eat worms, and the ten thousand things are all one. That is a difficult concept to grasp when you have recently taken a sexually aroused cat to a vet and suggested that its back was broken. Perhaps, if a Hotei had reached into a sack and pulled out a gift, we would have been enlightened. Instead, we had just watched a man reach into a cat and pull out a tapeworm with his bare hand. With that sight permanently burned into our memories, only one koan formed in our minds: What is the sound of one hand clapping with a tapeworm?