Li Ching-Yuen by Dunstan McGill

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“George! I smell the drum circle on you!”

Footsteps down the hallway. 

“Dammit, George!”

A door creaks, weight shifts onto the carpet.

“Come talk to us!” pleads a voice from the den.

A door slams.

“Oh, George!” 

close up of man's hands on a drumFor weeks, George has been attending drum circles. His parents and medical team urged staying off the beach. Even his spiritual adviser, Steve—a grown man in a French fur-trapper coat, who whittles birch bark down to walking sticks at the bar and rumor is keeps a blue heron in his house—even Steve did not like George caught up with drum circles.

“Bad crew, dude,” said Steve. “Lotta grab-ass out there.”

But here we are. George smelling of drum circles, of okra, a Florentine bandana affixed to his forehead, like the adornment of a new Iron Chef, a shirt peppered with shoulder holes advertising the 2007 tour of a festival band named for a non-principle Star Wars character, dragging sand off his Birkenstocks into the kitchen, coming home late to a home with a big-butt garage in a cul-de-sac neighborhood. Everyone’s asleep. The lights are off, except for the illuminated black prizefighters in the bay window, visible from the street because the curtains are open.

And what do we do? What. Do. We. Do. That’s our question. It’s also how the drums sound if heard from behind a tree on the edge of the beach—wha-do-we-do, wha-do-we-do, wha-do-we-do.

George resembles a movie star doing impressions of other movie stars: fat, but not comically round, with brown eyes, a goatee straight off the box of male hair supplement, and a conquistador-esque ponytail that’d look nice bobbing out the back of a silvery, triangular helmet atop a horseback rider going from indigenous Mexican village to village hunting for buried treasure and pagan huts to place crucifixes atop.

George sometimes walks with a limp. Which usually means good things. Because a hiccup in George’s gait means George has worked in the field today—“I give hand-jobs to grapevines on the vineyard up the ridge so they don’t get a blight”—and thus, George has ruptured his hip, which is held together by a metal rod from falling off a geological formation while climbing—stoned—in high school.

If George isn’t limping, we worry. Then George stayed home for the day and commented to someone, maybe to his mom, that “the civilian world doesn’t give a damn for a military man,” which is true, but not in George’s case. George’s been given plenty of chances; it’s just that none worked out.

So the other night, George—who’s really not lazy, just picky and waiting for the right chance—stopped me in the street walking to the bar because he knows I teach at the college and likes to talk heavy things with me when we’re smoking. So right there, George tells me about this guy he met who doesn’t believe in evolution. We laugh aloud, our shadows slap each others’ backs in the streetlamp, and I mention something about “Biblical literalism, eh?” and George—like he was born yesterday and in the back of a white van blazing a dove and a Corinthians quote—comes up with this protest:

“But Moses lived to be 700 years old.”

“But George,” I say, twisting my head because I can’t believe we’re having this conversation after the last, “George, they kept time differently in the Bible.”

He snorts.

“First I’ve heard of that.”

Then he hobbles ahead of me using his cane. He’s too young to use a cane, but no one says that because the girls in our group whisper, “That’ll set him back a few steps.”

At the bar—one of those old mill buildings the town can’t burn down fast enough with a cavernous chamber and tasteful light bulbs dropped from the ceiling on wires and driftwood paintings of grotesque selfies and boathouses and yellow-eyed blue herons with outstretched wings on the barely-illuminated walls—and at this steam-punk-friendly bar, George uses my phone to show me the Wikipedia entry for a Chinese monk who lived to be at least 190 but possibly 250 years old. Like older than the internal combustion engine and that theory that tells us the continental plates are moving and we’re just, like, stepping through life on flotation devices on the surface of a lake. But, well, this Li Ching-Yuen guy apparently died in the 20th Century but was born in the 17th. Like, Milton’s buddy or something.

“What do you think now?” George asked, grinning like a happy conquistador who discovered gold in some cave after the natives told him none existed.

And for the rest of the night, wanting to slap, erase, or Photoshop off his smile, I look for holes in this story. I figure they’ll be as prominent as the holes of George’s shirt. Because George can’t be right. He’s not college-educated. But I can’t see any problems. This monk for all I can tell was born a few decades after Pocahontas and outlived Mark Twain, who talked lots about the river that George has been spending these early summer nights out on, drum-circling with Ali Baba and his 40 Fucking Thieves.

Technically, though, George didn’t see any action in Afghanistan. He didn’t even leave the homeland, which is fairly impressive for a man in the Navy during a period of heightened, scrotum-grabbing intensity. In other words, George didn’t see any—what our friends down the bar call—ragheads at all.

Which reminds me that George got fired from his job at the organic Mexican chain restaurant in the Cities because—irony of all time—he didn’t fire the Mexicans in the vapors-and-hissing kitchen who didn’t possess the right kinds of papers to be sleeping where they were sleeping. Everyone was going digital, which you’d think would mean paper would be less important, disposable. But that was the second irony of all time, how crystal clear important having the right paper was now because no one wasted paper anymore.

And once George got fired for not firing the Mexicans in the kitchen and the Mexicans did get fired by the new hires, the kitchen didn’t suffer one iota because the recipes weren’t—as the billboards promised—authentic Tex-Mex, after all. So George didn’t even return home with a pyrrhic victory. Instead, he went straight to drum-circles.

“I’m the best rhythmic drummer they have,” George tells me one night, like a proud conquistador, at the bar.

He’s probably right. There’s one fat guy with a crescent moon arch to his back—his stomach hanging ponderously over his shorts—and a couple guys with stringy, distiller’s beards, a couple hemp-necklaced stoners and dirt-handed mill workers with jeans rolled up over their untied logger boots. And there’s a few you wouldn’t expect: like the girls wrapped in blankets sitting on logs, smoking cigarettes, high cheekbones, crooked-toothed. They gather on the beach by the river at midnight. The park’s open ‘til 10, but cops don’t enter the drum circle because the cops went to the same high school and all the hippies drowned or died or wear Asics and khaki now anyway. These dudes came back from the Stan or Mexican Restaurants or the community colleges and they just want to drum circle.

And who’s going to call them out for that? There’s no harm in a drum circle. Maybe a little weed. But there’s no harm. Except his parents are worried because George came home in the winter, and when winter cleared he drum-circled every night. And anything with that repetition is bound to scare someone—especially parents of a 24 year old, who for a winter seemed so self-sufficient his father purchased him Decision Points and at Christmas seriously asked him questions about fishing for crab up on the Alaskan peninsula.

But George has been drum-circling all summer. Or since the end of winter. We used to have spring, but we don’t anymore. It’ll be something nice we can tell the grandchildren about. One moment we’re bundling up for winter and the next it’s drum circles—just like that. Perhaps that’s why George’s parents gave so much attention to George’s drum circles. It was the abruptness. Or they worried that drum circles were taking George away from whatever George needs to put him on the right path, get him back into the world, not “of” it, but maybe “of” it, any prepositional relationship you want, really—“to” it, “in” it, “at” it, “on” it.

But I maintain George’s doing all right, for now. We don’t want to see him get carried away with this bullshit. It’s fucking drum circles by the river! And they smoke mountains of weed. Honestly, that shit stinks. And George stinks. But it’s okay because he’s young and lives in the wealthiest nation of nations, where George has figured out a secret, that on this velvet-walled elevator you can press pause, between floors, throw open the doors and walk out stepping into something more comfortable—maybe thong sandals and Bermuda shorts—and go down to the black river where at night along the beach, awash in moonlight and driftwood shadows, the trees do tangled winding things you assumed only trees in the southern swamps did, where alligators without names swim.

But here in this northern state, the trees dance moody arabesques, and it’s all dark blues and blacks, except the yellow stars burning in the black tent-top above, and maybe the flashlight from a barge a mile upriver swinging erratically over the trees looking for a bridge briefly flashes the white pupil of one of the drum circles, but it’s just dark acorns. And in the shadows there are men. Just seven or eight patting drums, like coconuts dropped onto linoleum placemats, and these drummers gaze across the channel toward town, their flip flops and Vans kicked into a pyramid, sand-dusted toes, and some others look up, mouths open, eyes shut in prayer. And there’s one, George, maybe the most focused of all because he’s never been taught, laying down a wild, syncopated where-do-we-go-where-do-we-go-wheredowego on the leathered, cracked head of a drum purchased online after he sold his car. The others just let him go because the song’s just noise. A blue heron sleeps standing up in the reeds off the main channel. And that’s what we all want because nothing can be inadequate in the drum circle.

And George’s parents’ voices—the don’t-lie-to-us-we-can-smell-the-drum-circles—sink in a flood, are swallowed up by George’s massive chi, his massive okay-with-this, which he’s been revealing more to his friends at the bar, like the other night when he said, to the absolute horror of everyone, that he “wouldn’t mind retiring here,” which seemed like the worst-quarter-life-crisis in history and made us feel cold. But George’s hands move carefully at first, then bounce across the tanned hide, his beats falling in with the general pace and sound of the group he’s found, who leave triangular shadows against the moonlit beach, where an old crab walks, who is welcomed into the circle, where he earns every limp and scar he’s bound to carry with him into old age.

And back at the bar, I’m thinking about it, turning it over, and see, maybe George can live to be 700 years old. I’m staring at the Buddha statue behind the bar, beads dripping around the Buddha’s neck, a few candles next to the Hendrick’s. And maybe George already is 700 years old, just no one’s figured out yet. Maybe George’s been 700 years old for a long time. Or maybe George is full of shit. Or maybe George just turned 700 years tonight, and when he showed me that photo of Li Ching-Yuen on his birthday, George was actually showing me one of himself from years before, before he’d joined the drum circle, before he’d moved from his parents’ house, before he learned how to properly keep count of the leather stretching over the drum, taking hold of its unnatural, destined shape.


statue bust - not author's photoDunstan McGill winters in a small, college town on the great north river, where he teaches composition and literature. He’s at work on a polka memoir about himself and Lawrence Welk. In summers past, he’s played in a disco band out of Northeast Minneapolis. He has no children.



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