Bourbon Penn 7

Electric Prayer Wheel

by James Freetly

I was smacking Annabelle's jelly flip-flop against the wooden handrail, loosening the caked-on dirt. I began muttering the words to "Spirit in the Sky" as the sunshine drew beads of sweat out of my exposed belly. "When I die and they lay me to rest. Whack - HA! I'm gonna go to the place that's the best!" I slapped the shoe down, and Norman Greenbaum's guitar solo began to shake the air, getting louder, agitating the galaxies of afternoon gnats. A growling rose beneath the music, and Mr. Chopra's rusted-out pickup fishtailed into Elysian Courts, windows down, radio antenna straining backwards as he sped past the trailers, past me, and hydroplaned into the tiny green lake in the middle of the park.

Screen doors snapped open and shut like firecrackers going off all around the park. There was an instant vigil. A ring of spectators watching as Mr. Chopra was slowly sucked down into the thick algae. Out of sight. The only sound was the electric guitar, wailing until the water closed over the dashboard. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the radio antenna, now pointing straight up, to disappear into the muddy water.

"Oh, my Gawd!" Hadley Fischer dropped her fat medical textbook into the mud and began running towards the lake's edge. The circle of people rushed in, stopping on the dirty grey sand. Even me. I was a miserable swimmer. Too — let's say — buoyant to dive. But the whole place was watching. The whole place and Hadley. I sprinted forward.

• • •

I hadn't explained to Annabel yet about death and dying. Most parents sweat over the other "talk" with their kids. The one about the beginning. I figured we would get to that one when we got to it. It was the ending talk that I'd been losing it over. That night, as I scooped chili into a Glad container — we'd have it again tomorrow — I wondered if most parents hoped their kids would figure it out for themselves. I could say nothing, just wait for her to see Chopra not come back. The chili spilled over the side of the container. But with her mom gone, the death talk was as inevitable as the thing itself. I really missed Kelly's cooking.

I grabbed an ice cream sandwich out of the fridge and pulled Annabel into my lap. For fifteen minutes I stumbled into and out of ideas like religion, nature, cycles, trying to fit them into words a five year old would understand. Getting lost, backtracking.

"And, so, a lot of different people think different things about it." I finished, lamely.

Annabel stared blankly at me for a moment and then said, "Can I have the fat man statue in his yard?"

"Belly. That's mean."

"Daddy, you said he died."

"You can't take things just 'cause someone's dead."

"What about that?" She aimed her chubby finger at the tiny gold painted plastic cylinder that still twirled on its battery-powered base. Squeaking. It had been on Mr. Chopra's dashboard, spinning despite the thick, greasy water that pressed in on us. I had grabbed for it, crawling over Mr. Chopra's weightlessly flopping body, shoving the thing down the front of my shorts. Only after did I think of unbuckling Chopra.

Someone had already called an ambulance. Hadley pumped his chest over and over. A few more seconds could have made the difference, they said. The EMT shook his head and put his red bag back in the cab. Everyone told me I was a hero anyway while my dripping, shrunken scrotum was raked by the still-turning prayer wheel.

Kelly had been into Buddhism in a big way. She said she had fallen in love with my gut. We met at the community college. I was there to learn to keep from fucking up a small business. She was there to take another course in eastern philosophy. One evening, in the parking lot, she had told me I looked like Buddha. But the way she said it, I didn't mind. Besides, I got to tease her back in the last months before Annabelle was born.

Kelly had had plans to go to Dharamsala and see the Dalai Lama. Some day. These wheels, she said, there were scrolls in them. Prayers written a thousand times on each. Every time you spun it, it counted as saying a thousand prayers.

Two nights after we learned about her brain cancer, I found her in Chopra's driveway, leaning so far through the window of his pickup that her feet came off the ground. When she emerged she was holding the prayer wheel and trying to pry the lid off it with one of my screwdrivers. She saw me, but smiled, winked, and kept working until the top popped off. From her hoodie she pulled a piece of printer paper, folded small, jammed it into the prayer wheel, squeezed the top back on and put it back through the window. I watched the whole scene in silence, holding baby Annabelle, my throat tight.

"You're going to be fine. You know? They found it early and everything," I said.

"I know that. Don't be weirded out, dummy. I was just adding an extra prayer for you two. And one for Chopra, since it's his wheel. Thought it'd be nice."

"What for?"

"'Right vision.' It's a Buddhist idea. I was just reading about it. In case this does get me, – I said 'in case!' – I want you two to have some peace and understanding."

"Understanding? I don't – I guess – understand. Kelly, this is really morbid."

"No, it's not. It's beautiful. Come here."

We stood there, the three of us, holding each other, trying to crush our souls together, until Mr. Chopra burst out the screen door with a bread knife, screaming into the dark about his truck and thieving American teenagers.

"So, where do Buddhist prayers go?" I asked her, half joking, when we slowed down.

She never got around to telling me.

I should have asked Chopra. I shouldn't have let Chopra die.

• • •

I dreamed a thousand trucks were careening at me. The horn would scream out of the dark, gas would choke me, and the headlights would appear, growing bigger, until they touched the skin of my eyeballs and disappeared. I started up off the couch. The only sound was the prayer wheel's squeak. Each rotation threw the sun's first rays right on to my pillow. Right where my eyes would have been.

It wasn't much past six, and I had a couple of hours before I needed to walk Annabelle over to Hadley's. I opened the shop today, so I could be a little late. It wasn't like anyone lined up outside the gun shop. And if they did, well, Kelly had gotten me to worrying about every gun I sold. I suddenly wanted to move the pillow to the other end of the couch and get back under the covers. But I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep. I grabbed a Mountain Dew out of the mini-fridge and went out on the porch. Mr. Chopra was standing at the edge of the lake, lobbing fist-sized rocks in at random.

"Mr. C!" I ran barefoot across the gravel road.

"Ah, good morning, David. Would you like to know what I am doing?" His full-moon face was impassive.

"My God, I thought you were dead. Everyone thought you were! We saw you. You were all – My God – I'm sorry I – "

"I asked if you would like to know what I am doing." He threw another rock.

"I suppose so." I said.

"I am listening for my truck. You see, David, my truck was all I had in the world. Yesterday I was fired from the carwash for taking money from the till. I did this because I did not have the funds to continue living in my trailer. And now, I have neither my job, nor my home, and I am to be arrested for embezzlement. So I would like my truck."

"But you're alive!" I could have woken the park shouting it.

"Yes. I am told I have you to thank for that." He glared at the rock in his hand.

"Hey, I didn't know all of that. And still…"

"Ah, I suppose I should not blame you, David. I do not think I could have died anyway. I tried again on my way here. I threw myself under a moving train, and woke up on the side of the tracks, unscathed. I attempted to cut my wrist on a chain link fence. There was blood, yes, but when I awoke again, my shirt was clean and my wrists whole. In fact…"

Before I could move he swung the rock up and brought it down on his skull. There was a low, sharp, snap and he crumpled to the ground, a gush of blood streaming from his forehead. I watched as the bloody stone rolled out of his limp hand, down the bank and into the water.

"You see, David?"

I nearly screamed. Mr. Chopra stood where he had fallen without a trace of violence. Well. I did scream.

• • •

That night, Annabelle crawled into my lap of her own free will.


"Hmm? Yeah, Belly, what's up?"

"Is Mom coming home?" I felt the bottom of my stomach sink into the couch.

"What are you talking about, sweetie?" I said.

"You were wrong. Mr. Cho quit being dead, so Mom can, too, right?"

"Baby girl, that ain't how it works. Mr. Chopra is — "

"Yes! Yes-huh, I saw! I watched all day! He died and came back all day! There was this one time, he climbed the flagpole…"

"Annabelle!" I grabbed her by the shoulders. She looked scared, but she clenched her jaw. "Sorry, baby. Sorry I yelled."

"You don't know! Mom's coming back! She IS!" She twisted out of my grasp and ran, slamming the bedroom door. Now the only sounds were Chopra crying outside and the squeak of the prayer wheel. I reached out to stop it spinning, but immediately popped my fingers into my mouth. The thing was moving like a buzz saw. I searched the pedestal for a switch, found it and received a shock when I touched it. It didn't stop. The squeaking grew more frantic.

• • •

The next day I had the afternoon shift. I dragged Annabelle over to Hadley's trailer, my hand over her eyes to keep her from seeing Chopra with his head in Miss Bundy's propane grill.

"Go play." I practically shoved her between Hadley's legs as she stood in the door.

"Hadley, listen, I need to ask you kind of a big favor."

"David! Anything. You know that." She brushed back the haze of long, black hairs that had worked their way out of her ponytail. She was still in her nightshift scrubs. She touched my forearm.

My throat began to tighten, but I pressed the words out. "You've got to explain death to Annabelle, please."

She pulled her hand back. "That… That's kind of a big favor."

"She thinks her mother is going to come back. You're a nurse. And I can't tell her she's not coming back anymore."

Hadley looked over my shoulder at Mr. Chopra, who was swearing and slapping his palms on the hood of the grill.

"How do you know she won't?"


"I'm serious. Look at that. He's been at it for almost two days. How do we know anymore?"

"Hadley, I just, very recently, got to a place where I think I'm okay. About Kelly, you know? A new normal, and all that. I'm not ready to entertain the possibility that she could come back. If I do that, I'm back to the beginning. Please. I mean, if this whole thing hadn't happened this week, I was going to see if you — "

Miss Bundy began screeching at Chopra.

"See if I what?"

"Look, I've got to go."

I didn't go anywhere. I did not drive into town to sit in an empty gun shop all day, imagining my daughter watching out the window as Chopra contradicted everything Kelly, Hadley, I, and life had tried to teach her about the world. Instead, I burst back into my trailer and pounced on the prayer wheel. I held it tight, and it spun and cut and shocked me. I don't know how long I wrestled with it. I held its base between my knees, strangling the cylinder until its little raised scrolls and decorations had shredded my palms into a bloody mess. I might as well have been trying to stop the world spinning. I gave up, breathless and bleeding, the wheel's squeaking still filling my ears. Maybe this was what "right vision" felt like. Like trying to stop the world only hurt your hands.

I plodded back over to Hadley's. The sun was getting low, but my face was hot. I felt like a child who had played hooky, cut his knee, and now slunk back to the house for a Band-Aid. But it looked like I had been finger painting in red. I needed a nurse.

"David? Why aren't you at – Oh, gawd!" In seconds, Hadley was back at the door, stinging my hands with a white plastic bottle of alcohol and wrapping them in gauze and white tape.

Annabel was suddenly on the porch, pulling at my t-shirt. "Daddy! Hadley is lying to me." She was crying.

"I tried to tell her."

My face flushed, and I felt my throat tighten. I turned my face away from Hadley. Chopra's face was inches from mine. I jumped back, knocking the alcohol out of Hadley's hands.

"Excuse me, David, but how did you manage to do that?" Chopra asked, as though he wanted me to recommend a good restaurant.

"Your stupid prayer wheel. I stole it and let you die, you freak, but you won't."

"I'm sorry? My what?"

"David … " Hadley was holding Annabel so she could not turn to look at me.

"Your dashboard wheel thing, you bastard."

"I don't — ."

I nearly pushed Chopra off the porch. Once more I crashed through the door of my trailer.

"Fuck sake, where is it?" The wheel — left lying on its side — had rolled off somewhere. "God damn it! Damn, Damn, Damn!" I threw chairs aside, flipped the couch and swore until the word lost its meaning and became nothing but sound. A mantra.

"David." Hadley stood behind me, still holding Annabel. "I wish you could see yourself. It has been years since Kelly … David, I've waited for you to put yourself back together. I thought you had."

I sat, finally, on the bare floor amid all the wreckage, cross-legged like a child. "You know, I thought I had, too."

There was silence. Almost. A squeaking. I stood and found the wheel behind the mini-fridge. I picked it up by the base. The thick, white bandages Hadley had wrapped my hands in protected me from any shock.

"He stole that." Annabel whispered into Hadley's ear.

They followed me out the door, Hadley asking me to wait. Evening had fallen while we were inside and the slowly rising full moon showed Chopra was on his hands and knees, holding his head in the lake. I stopped on the bank and waited. We waited. After a while, his body slackened, and he began to float. In another moment he came to, vomiting water and blinking at us.

"David. I did not think you were coming back."

"What does 'right vision' mean – What do Buddhists pray to – Is there a heaven – And what the hell is this thing?" I thrust the wheel out in front of me.

"David, I do not know. I am a shitty Buddhist. I've never found peace. I've certainly never helped anyone else find peace. I am such a spiritual fuck up that the other world does not even seem to want me. I was thinking about becoming a Jehovah's Witness. All I hope is that someone's god realizes I have done all my suffering here and now. As for that thing, I have no idea. It looks like – what is the word? – kitsch?"

"It's from your truck!"

Recognition finally dawned on his face. "Well, then, David, give it back!"

"I took it because it reminded me of my wife, you know? It doesn't mean anything to you."

"And how has that clinging worked out for you, David? Now give it back. It's mine, and I want it."

"Give it to him, David. Let it go," Hadley said.

"Stealing's wrong," Annabel said.

Chopra, sopping wet, waded a few steps toward me, hand extended, until he was only up to his calves in the green water.

If there was some great, cosmic lesson I was supposed to learn from this stupid electric wheel, some truth of life that some ancient Buddha, vibrating on a higher plane, wanted me to know, then I had failed. If Kelly had wanted me to find "right vision," I had failed. I couldn't explain life and death to my daughter because I didn't understand it myself.

I tossed the wheel at Chopra.

He caught it with a grin. Suddenly, his body tensed, and the grin became frozen. He held the wheel by its crackling, sparking base. A blue, dancing serpent of electricity coiled down his body, diving into the lake and, for a moment, turning the whole thing the color of the daytime sky. In the next moment, Chopra's lifeless body had slipped beneath the water.

The bright flash brought people out onto their porches. Another vigil. Some had made it out in time to watch Chopra sink, and after a while they nodded with understanding and turned to go in. Those who were too late also nodded with understanding, sure they would hear the truth eventually.

We stood, the three of us, watching the surface of the water for a long time, Hadley and I holding Annabel between us. After a while, her sobs quieted. We waited and watched, growing tired, leaning on one another until it was unclear who supported who, but nothing appeared on the surface except the full moon's reflection.

James Freetly is a California born, Nebraska raised, Minnesota educated, Chicago resident. He studies improv and acting at Second City and the iO Theater, and studies writing at whatever coffee shop doesn't mind him testing the limits of their "bottomless coffee."