The totemic smokestacks of Hamilton shroud the Golden Horseshoe in a toxic veil as I gaze through a galloping Greyhound's dismal back window. I'm on my way to Niagara Falls, the casino, to be specific, with $300 folded up in a gangster's money clip.
Four hours later, the hypnotic hum of that old bus has been replaced by the feverish scatting of one-armed bandits. Tuxedoed blackjack dealers scoop away winnings with ravenous regularity.
I desperately grip my last two chips like beads on a rosary. Sweat streaks my temples. The sound of dice sliding across the felt of chance is omnipresent, and the clatter of tokens spilling from the slots racks my nerves.
I boldly place both chips on black. The dealer eyes me, spinning the roulette wheel. I close my eyes and send a torrent of telepathic messages to that little white ball. I can hear it bouncing, preparing to find its final resting place. When I open my eyes it's sitting on a red square, staring back at me like a plucked eyeball. My empty money clip jingling amongst some loose change in my pocket, I head for the door in disgust.
On my way out, I scan the faces around me. The winners are beaming, their complexions golden; jaundiced losers stare blankly.
I walk along the gurgling Niagara River until I reach the Buddhist temple where I've learned a childhood friend now resides. I can hear the falls and feel the fine mist born of its wondrous violence.
Bart used to be my right-hand man in a plethora of misadventures but has since denounced his self-destructive lifestyle and, after years of studying, become a monk. I haven't seen him in years.
In the temple, beginning my search, I see my reflection in a giant golden Buddha sitting serenely at the centre of the room. And then I find Bart. He recognizes me and greets me with restrained excitement. His head is shaved, he's pale and thin, but looks calm and content. He informs me that he's no longer Bart. He's Wai Sang and has just ended a month-long vow of silence.
I search his eyes for a trace of the person I once knew. He claims that person is dead. He has no possessions, having given them all up, even his beloved Kerouac collection. He eats one meal a day, sleeps on a hard board and awakes at 3:30 am to begin his daily meditations and chores.
He leads me on a tour of the temple's seven levels, culminating at the top, where he says the ashes of the Buddha are stored. I stare with skeptical wonderment.
"Those are the ashes of the actual Buddha?" I ask. He nods.
At times he attempts to plant seeds of wisdom, and tries to explain his dramatic transformation from a drug-addled, directionless youth to a man of spirituality.
"At one point," he explains, "I just stopped and said, 'Where is this going? Where is this leading?' And I just stopped."
We walk back down to the main level, where, before we part, an older woman begins barking at Wai Sang in a foreign tongue. He nods and then sheepishly attempts to lead me to the temple's gift shop.
"I lost all my money at the casino," I blurt without thinking.
"Ah," replies Wai Sang, "a temple of greed."
I say goodbye and head back toward the falls, finally reaching their brink. The mists rise and whisper of immortality. They carry the spirits of fool-hearted adventurers and doomed daredevils in makeshift barrels. They reflect the eyes of suicidal souls.
I reach into my pocket and toss my money clip over the edge. It catches the sun before it disappears.