The world expanded when a stranger, who would have slammed back Reverend Jim Jones Kool-Aid without question, asked me if I knew where the molasses was.
“Sugar is the yeast beast,” she said. “Only bake with molasses.”
This was a gas station with beer, wine, chips, ice cream, tampons, and motor oil. My head moved horizontally. Molasses did not fit into the repertoire until Kool-Aid rounded a corner of a three-aisle gas-stop with a bottle in hand.
I had just moved into a shack in a mining town outside Santa Fe. My existence for over a decade had been parked in downtown Chicago in a high-rise working at advertising firms. Everyone was an addict. Gucci bags with gold tiny spoons were Christmas gifts. We wore long linen skirts in muted colors, snorted through the most expensive bathroom stalls in the city. It was either leave or die.
After shivering for a week buried under covers with snow filtering through cracks in the split seams of this shed, I decided to put a coat over my pajamas, throw myself in the car, and drive to get some supplies. This was the only store for miles, as far as I knew.
“Are you on vacation?” I asked, as if I was a local.
She set her molasses on the counter and pulled a change purse out of some unseen pocket of her patchwork skirt. “Have you been to the Tibetan stupa on Airport Road?” she asked.
I stared at her. I had actually landed in a place exempt of chit-chat. And Tibetans were here.
“You should come to the chantings on Saturdays. Padmasambhava’s mantra will reignite you.” I could taste the dust in my teeth when she studied me. I was a gray storm in the distance, whether seen or not, easily forgotten.
I honed in on ‘Kool-Aid’ eyes. There was potential here to unhinge the scourge of sobriety without snorting or swallowing.
“Have you been to a channeling?” she asked.
The addict in me was reactivated. “No, but I would,” I said. “Have you?”
The sunken bulbs of her overcast lids lifted without surprise or thrill. She wasn’t one of those converts who puts another gold star in their book each time they lasso another bloodless sack. More like the carnival guy who takes everyone’s ticket before they step into a caged egg and straps them in upside down, whether they’re ninety, or four years old, with a shrug.
“Friday night Sartorius and Schnikter are going to be here.”
“Schnickter?” I could imagine a Sartorius, but a Schnikter had me in drizzly Eastern Europe at a cafe with a bald, shipwreck of a man who’d survived the Holocaust.
“They’re coming from Los Lunas.” Kool-Aid put her hand over her lips. “I mean, that’s not where they live, you know. They stay with friends from up here.” When she said, ‘up here,’ she used air quotations with her index and middle fingers.
‘Up here,’ only heightened my exuberance. She got out a pen and wrote an address down. “This is where the meeting will be, at six.”
“Can you drive?” I asked. Lost in my body of frayed nerves, I barely made it to the homestead less than a mile away, still circumventing whether this backroad life without drugs was going to be a long voyage or a wrong turn.
* * *
Kool-Aid and her stick-shift had no sense of rhythm. We lurched toward a luminous adobe house flickering lights and prayer flags weary from indiscriminate welcoming, jolted to a stop before smacking one of the BMW’s packed into a gravel driveway. It was a car lot of Volvos, Mercedes, BMW’s without the balloons and litany of optimistic salesmen, except for one alien Subaru with bumper stickers collaging its backend with ‘world peas,’ ‘kill your TV,’ ‘God is Green,’ dented and aged amidst this nocturnal haze of wealth.
Thirty people circled an open kitchen and living room separated by a bar lathered with food I’d never eaten in my life. One woman walked us through a tour of hors d’oeuvres. Pear and gorgonzola pizza, roasted eggplant in duck sauce, quiche, frittatas, artichoke and lemon fritters, and desserts that made me rethink what kind of empire kept the cosmos in motion. I wished I’d worn the blue peacoat with the fat pockets.
Kool-Aid’s body exiled itself into an oppressive container, hunched and scarcely visible, as a round, cramped woman barely over five feet waddled towards us with crumbs framing her lips. “Delusion is no more than illusion,” she said. Her dyed hair was definitely a home-job. The roots were black, and a reddish-blonde hue consecrated the bottom half of her stringy hair; one of those wash-your-hair-once-a-week girls.
Kool-Aid put her hands together and bowed.
The pseudo-blonde dismissed her and turned her gaze on me, giving me a grainy windshield swipe of a haunting. “Your chakras are clogged. Lazaria does colonics. Make an appointment.”
Lazaria walked toward me with card in hand. She was thin as a bottle, skin stretched like a drum. “You have sex with cookies, eh?” she asked in either a Polish or Russian accent. “Take card. We open gate, clear out acres of you.” Her make-up was its own landscape. She patted my rotting intestines, shook her head at the loaded pile of food on my paper plate and sashayed away.
A woman clapped her hands. Scripted as a fire drill, flowing, gilded women and men sat in a semi-circle on the carpet around the kitchen, while the squat blonde and a guy, not much taller than her, with a beige mullet tufted on his head in a high-five, stood before us.
The hostess, a woman with a debased smile that licked any version of happiness raw, seemed more afraid of life than I was. She must have had one of those punchcards, ten colonics and the next one’s free, a regular of Lazaria’s. All elbows, cheekbones, and hollow where a body should have been. “We are most humbled and honored to welcome Sartorius and Schnikter who have come a long, long way to connect with us.” The woman lowered her scoliatic spine, dropped her shrunken head and limped off stage right.
Kool-Aid had tears in her eyes, clapped zealously with the group and hugged me. My armpits emanated gorgonzola-pickled terror. I held my head in my hand so it wouldn’t tremor.
Sartorius raised her dimpled, waffling arms up and out. She may have been short, but she was no Lady Finger. She was a bagel in a violet mumu.
“We come from Earth’s inner core. Human contamination leeches into the crevices where we reside.” The bulk of Sartorius sifting through any crevice was hard to envision. Schnikter kept nodding his overly-bleached head. “We have been called up to speak of the end. Water is a gift, not an absolute.”
I’m guessing S & S didn’t have a landline. I looked around the room. None of these people gave a shit about water. They were definitely golfers, every one of them. Golf courses in the desert were as rampant as souvenir shops selling turquoise bear and turtle fetishes, dusty bags of red chile. I’d taken a few road trips over the years. It took a blast of Niagara Falls every day to keep those greens as emerald as they were. Juniper, cacti, tumbleweed and arroyos, splash a few Elm trees and Russian Olives here and there for the exotic effect, and that was the cracked and weathered sigh of inertia that echoed its lack in clumps between bald space.
We listened to our dismal destiny ahead. California, Texas, and New Mexico ravaged by droughts until no human could exist: temperatures rising, water evaporating; flattened by tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, recessions and wars, hate crimes and pollution. Sartorius and Schnikter took turns flaunting disasters or staring ominously at us. When one of them dead-eyed me, I had to use both hands to hold my head steady.
People raised their hands. We were back in grade school.
This could have been doctors and golfers anonymous.
“I’m a doctor,” said one, rattling off statistics on the significant increase of breast cancer. S & S nodded, raised blonde eyebrows letting us know this had been foreknowledge.
“Yes,” another doctor said foraging more statistics on ovarian cancer.
And then another and another: gynecologist, plastic surgeon, chiropractor, acupuncturist all waving arms as a merry-go-round of cancer and birth defects erupted like abscessed marriages throughout their waiting rooms.
A few people wanted information on investments they’d made.
Another wanted to know if her suicided daughter had a message.
A couple had an autistic boy who only played with blue toys. “What did blue mean? He gnaws on food but won’t swallow it. His tongue clicks when his cheeks are filled like a chipmunk. Should we worry?” they asked.
Sartorius and Schnikter were fierce sonars as they answered questions, their conviction infallible like two dogs’ genitals sucked together in coitus.
I blanked out much of what they said. I focused on breathing. When closed in by bodies, I forgot to inhale, shook more visibly. I saw mirrors with lines of coke. Heard the melodious staccato of razorblades slicing through powder on glass. The few times I navigated in on S & S backlit by the kitchen bar, they merged into one of those lunatic dolls from a horror film or creatures with lizard-tongued lassoes shooting in and out.
Did I wash these jeans? A chance of salvaging a tinfoil treasure of white dust clinging like lint was possible. I stuck my fingers in the front pockets and searched desperately, imagined someone behind me wondering if I was masturbating. My notebook was open in my lap. If I could sniff one pinkie-ful, I’d be aggressive and absurd as the sun. The few questions I had scribbled in my cabin before the gathering would be asked.
1. Do you think there’s a connection between dinosaurs zapped off the planet and an increase in architects and high-rises?
2. What is it about the past that persists on doubting itself into the present?
3. If there’s reincarnation, why can’t we just kill someone who isn’t making the cut in this life without being held accountable?
4. How come drugs are illegal?
I couldn’t look at my notebook, let alone talk. Yes, I had somehow infiltrated this room permeated with my vision of the illuminati, but why did this experience arrive at the same time I was saturated with terror, under attack from my body that craved to go fetal?
Schnikter detached himself from what was happening and pointed at me. “Drugs are a contrived antennae. Your revelations are merely static, nothing more.”
He could see my toxic interior. Holy shit! I put my quivering pen to page and started writing.
“We are Root people, live with a community in the middle of the Earth. We eat roots, have no need for sunlight. You can survive on what propagates around you. Grocery stores and processed food have deluded generations into torturing land. Human hands supply you and will ultimately destroy you.”
I recompassed this pudgy couple. It made sense that they had tree-trunk-hued hair roots. But, how could squishy, flabby bodies live on tuberous stalks alone? Many of the women around me were either anorexic or bulimic, evoked images of deprivation and sucking on celery, unlike this couple who appeared no different than anyone else raking their way through Burger King, Wendy’s, Dunkin Donuts, and McDonalds before they blasted back to their loathsome lack of light and flavor.
* * *
Five years later, Mom moved out to Santa Fe to die. She had ovarian cancer. I lived with her, sat by her bed with a notebook. Writing was an intoxication and much cheaper than drugs. Documenting time was less painful than watching the clock. When Mom’s eyes opened, the tedium and stench of existence dissolved into stories.
“Spent the afternoon with the boys,” she said.
“Do I know them?” I asked.
“The pompous bastards believe anyone who doesn’t know them is an idiot.”
“What did they say?”
“The usual crap men spew on and on about themselves.”
Mom had a bad marriage. “Like what?” I asked.
“Who made the biggest impact on the world. Dead and still fighting.”
This sounded good.
“Socrates and Plato. Heard of those boys? Isn’t it enough that people study, read their work? They’re all still in the sandbox,” Mom said.
I wrote everything she said in my notebook. Mom saw Emily Dickinson and Don Quixote, William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe.
“You know, Wolfe, right?” she asked. “He couldn’t keep his hands off his package when he was writing. The top of the refrigerator was his desk. He was 6’5, wrote those beauties while ransacking his own goods. Quite an accomplishment.”
Mom was a librarian. Her last days were fused with exceptional writers and characters in the room with her.
When Mom dozed, I passed out in the chair next to her bed.
She’d cough, her eyelids, swollen and yellow would crest us back to a here, whatever here that was.
“Do you want me to make a smoothie?”
“How about coffee and a Whopper?” Mom asked.
“Okay.” I got whatever she craved. Burger King was not a stop we’d ever made. Fast food was a rare occurrence like contracting pneumonia or breaking an arm when we were kids. Dad was an opinionated hippie. Mom cooked meat, vegetables and potatoes for five kids and a husband, endless mouths of dusk-devouring lifetimes.
I unwrapped and placed the Whopper on one of her antique pink glass plates when I got back. Mom’s collection glowed on shelves to be admired, never used before she got cancer. Meals were all about presentation and smell now. The floating tumors only let food get so far in her system and then she’d vomit.
I made coffee while she examined the specimen. “It’s fueled with the pulse of back alleys and fists, can you smell it?” She rotated the burger, held it close to her nose. “Singapore, Malaysia, The Isle of Wight.” She stroked the bun. Her fingers were wrinkled and bruised, notched trees. Her eyes scrutinized me, impossibly blue. “I never went anywhere. Books were my only way out.”
She caressed the Whopper. “That’s it,” she said. “The greasy stench of sweet grief. Look at it.” She tried to lift the tri-layered monstrosity up to her mouth. Tomatoes, lettuce, onions, pickles, burger patties, and slathering innards of condiments collapsed from her grip, slithered down her nightgown onto the sheets and powder blue bedspread into a bloody massacre. She lifted her hands covered in ketchup and grinned. “Now, that’s a crucifixion.”
Dying was a renaissance. Mom was silent most of my existence. Vacate burnt its neon sign across her ‘knick-knack’ features that lined up while she cleaned, grocery shopped, cooked, ironed. The only difference between her and the other mothers on the block was that she read. She didn’t discuss the books she’d read, barely commented, yet here was a sharp-tipped, thorned woman of truth propped up in a hospital bed in a stagnant trailer.
My notebook was a mausoleum of Mom’s unleashed words. The staccato of pen skating across pages paled beneath the trek of her predictions moving like a train rifling over tracks.
“A repelling place for such a precious group,” Mom said, while I was changing her nightgown and sheets, rolling her from side to side as the hospice nurse had shown me, washing the remnants of Burger King off of her with a sponge bath.
I nodded, as if I’d been there.
“The Root People,” she said.
I stared at her. It had been years since that night. Weirdness doomed to be forgotten; a castaway with other unresolved, traumatic, and humiliating experiences in those huge, blank cavities of a synaptic-free cortex.
“Root People?” I asked.
“Cordial and inviting, but the food was an abomination. Rats eat better than that,” she said.
I never told Mom about that night or any of the others. Drugs, boyfriends with GED’s or any ‘spasmodic behavior’, as she called it, was dismissed when she picked up whatever book she was reading and ignored me.
“Strange,” she added. “I don’t get how they eat gritty twigs and still gain weight. They’re short. They’re chunky. They’re blondes with bad haircuts. But very knowledgeable.” She motioned for the bedpan.
I wedged it in place and left the room.
The window in the kitchen opened out to a back lot of chollas reaching up from barren fields like antlers of dead animals. This was a city of wasted space and withering reflections.
I opened up the notebook and started reading everything she’d said from the beginning.
Photos: Dianne Richards
Deanne Richards is a photographer/artist/seamstress who lives in Santa Fe, NM. She enjoys creating images that create another type of reality and tell a story.