Bourbon Penn 20

The Kool-Aid Stoppers

by Elisa Abatsis

We are at a potluck mixer in Guyana, preparing to rescue the followers of the cult leader Jim Jones. The People, they call themselves. The program director says that we — the ordinary, faithless, uncapitalized people — have been very generous to donate our time like this. Everyone is at a different skill level, and that is the thing to remember as we embark upon this soul-transforming, cult-eradicating journey. That, and drink enough water to pee clear. The orientation email instructed everyone to bring something nourishing to share at the Jonestown potluck, but we volunteers have fancied ourselves such evolved agents of change that not one person has actually brought anything edible. We squint gamely at one another in the thick jungle sun, exchanging all manner of things practical and transcendental — worry dolls and sweat-wicking socks and chemtrail protection bracelets. You give me a hand-cooling packet. I give you Mountain Pose.

“It’s the easiest yoga pose,” I say. “Just stand up as tall as you can and inhale deep.”

I explain about the spaces in the spine and how to find them. You tilt your head back, which is not correct. You are crunching all of your cervical vertebrae together, squashing your spine-spaces like cockroaches, but I can’t find it in me to correct you. Your jaw is relaxed; your lips are parted. You are a grizzled, chiseled man basking in the sunlight instead of just enduring it and who would want to correct anything about that? I tell you to exhale with a business-casual smile that says “Hey. I am not someone who would climb onto the fire escape naked to scare you out of leaving me.” I do not avoid eye contact, but I do measure it out precisely. You do not know me, so I must concentrate on not knowing you. The program director told me this sometimes happens, especially in Jonestown.

“People come with their friends, or their partner, or whatever?” she’d said. “And by the time they transition to Jonestown, they don’t even recognize each other. But sometimes it’s better, you know what I mean?”

I did not.

“Because ultimately? They end up knowing each other more authentically.”

Then she reminded me that the universe is not static; it holds many mysteries, and only by stepping outside my comfort zone could I embrace and engage and “like, really dance” with all this yummy and tempestuous magic. She didn’t say anything about what to do if one person experienced recognition, but not the other, or about what to do if you used to be lovers, but to be fair, I didn’t ask.

So, what brings us to Jonestown? Well, you were recruited, and I volunteered.

You were recruited because you’re an accomplished survivalist. Places you’ve been that I’ve begged you not to go include the Pakistani side of K2 and a substantial portion of the Appalachian Trail.

I volunteered because you might not know this, but I am a good person now. I go to a Unitarian church and donate things I still want to rummage sales. I nod the right amount when other people cry and I have a rescue dog. I’m three-quarters of the way certified to teach yoga. If someone I used to know writes a social media post imploring his friends to offer their time or money or both to the Jonestown mission, I give what I have, which is time.

So, what mission troops are we on? I’m on Dreamcatcher Troop; you’re on Mandala Troop.

Dreamcatcher Troop is designed with the novice in mind. Unlike Mandala Troop, you have to pay to join. I am a good person, but still not a rich one, so I talked to the Unitarian church and got them to pay my way out of their social justice budget.

“This program seems a bit like a vacation,” the church’s treasurer said as she flipped through the mission’s brochure, rife with images of white people grinning and gardening. Help to stop a cult-driven mass suicide! Learn communication techniques from our licensed counselors and experience tragedy in a safe space!

She wasn’t wrong. Dreamcatcher Troop does contain certain shades of vacation. We’ll get a break every three hours. In the evenings we’ll swim with baby elephants, which are not native to Guyana; the program brought them in as an amenity. So yes, a free vacation, but not without strings — I’ve agreed to lead a workshop on retroactively extricating people from spiritually abusive situations with loving-kindness when I get back, and I will get back. This trip is not actually dangerous. If I die in Jonestown, all that will happen is that I will wake up in the program director’s office and we’ll debrief over tea.

“We can change the past, but the past can’t change us,” is the way the program director explained it. I told her the concept made me think of those snake-biting-tail tattoos people get around their biceps, at which point she told me no, in this situation, the tail is biting the snake. I said that one would think that the tail was the past, but she said I was being too literal.

Mandala Troop requires actual skill. You’ll have direct contact with Jim Jones, and the choices you make actually impact the timeline. The snake can bite you. Mandalas have to carry machetes to beat back the jungle brush. Yours, lightweight and collapsible, lives in one of your ergonomic jacket pockets. You take it out to show me, but I am being my best self so I don’t make any jokes about bushwacking. I merely admire the ingenuity of the design. They gave you a gun, too, just as a precaution, but that you won’t show me.

“I don’t even want to touch it,” you say.

So, why Jonestown? Why not Auschwitz, or the London Bombings? It was the cheapest for me, the easiest to pitch to the church. And you didn’t have enough vacation time for Auschwitz. It bodes well that neither of us asks why not 9/11. Only desperate basement dwellers sign up for 9/11 if the program’s Yelp reviews are any indication.

“You know no one’s ever actually saved The People’s Temple, right?” you say. “We could be the ones.”

“The Kool-Aid stoppers,” I say, to see if you still take jokes. You do. You’re one of those people who repeats it when you really like it.

“The Kool-Aid stoppers,” you say, “That’s great. And the yoga, too. Yoga is great.”

A whistle blows. The program director tells us it’s time to get to work. You tighten your bootlaces and pat at your jacket. I tell you that everything is yoga and wish you luck, so much luck.

• • •

Us Dreamcatchers are making flower crowns to give as a welcoming gift to the baby elephants who, rumor has it, are not adapting well to Guyana. We sit at the newly dug elephant pond and braid hydrangeas in with tiger lilies while the program director leads us in cult desensitization role play. I’m paired up with a lawyer named Kezia. She’s the victim; I’m the desensitizer.

“You’ve got to let go,” I tell Kezia, woodenly there-thereing her shoulder. She pokes out her lip and makes crying noises.

“Don’t tell her what to do,” the program director says. “Empathize. Think about how she must feel.”

“You must miss your family,” I try.

“Remember that the word ‘family’ might have a different definition for Kezia right now.”

Kezia stops whimpering. “Fun fact,” she tells me. “My Mimi died in Jonestown. For real. That’s why I came. My mother’s mama.”

I say something about how her mother must be proud of her.

“She thinks I’m batshit. She thinks the program is just virtual reality nonsense and that The People are just paid actors. But batshit’s in the eye of the beholder, right?” Kezia sniffs her flower crown and plops it on her own head instead of an elephant’s. We both laugh, and then there is that magical thing that sometimes happens with women where one moment we’re asking each other careful, teacuppy question-compliments about how her work must be fascinating and how I must be so brave to be trying something new and then we’re suddenly Jell-O wrestling in truth. She’s telling me about how she peed her girlfriend’s bed during an episode of sleep paralysis, causing her to conclude that she is subliminally dealing with inherited trauma from her Mimi’s tragic fate. I’m about to tell her about how I came here for a man who either hates me or doesn’t think about me at all when the program director claps us back to order. Tomorrow is Kool-Aid day, she reminds us. We must prepare ourselves emotionally. We must release our psychic traumas and absorb the gentle energy of the elephants. Kezia and I press back our giggles and roll up our jeans and wade toward the elephants. I scratch their flanks and rub water on the tops of their heads like a mother soothing a fever.

“You’ll be home before you know it,” I coo, though I have no idea if this is true.

There are gunshots in the distance, but we are not to worry. We should enjoy the setting sun, and take note of how the elephants spray their trunks against the sky.

• • •

“What’s your name, again?” you ask me after dinner and meditation. Also, do I want to have a drink? I should be warned — the beer is warm. You found it this morning and slipped it in your jacket pocket.

“I thought The People didn’t drink,” I say.

You tell me that they don’t, but Jones does. Mandala Troop snuck into Jones’ office while The People were out working in the fields. We plop down on the dying grass and you tell me about the glittering bottles of liquor, the vats of cyanide, the red plush chair with the sloppily painted gold trim, the pages and pages of incoherent sermons. About the bolts of mosquito netting propped up against the wall and how they’d startled you; they’d looked like monks with their heads bent in prayer. About the air conditioner and the cases of chocolate bars, the Ziploc bags filled with pills, the stacks of Social Security checks, the locked safe. The hemorrhoid cream. You didn’t see Jones, but you saw all of the things he hides, and it’s almost the same.

“Did you see the Kool-Aid?” I can’t not ask.

“It was Flavor-Aid, actually.”

“Wow,” I say. “Saving a buck.”

We riff a while, tossing back and forth the concept of The People’s Temple being without an actual, physical temple. The temple, we decide, is the bowl of ricewater soup that The People are served for dinner. The temple is hiding beneath the fruitless fields that The People must tend from rise to set. The temple is being hydrated enough to pee clear.

I ask you about the gunshots, but that you cannot talk about.

“Tell me about you,” you say.

Your voice is light, happy hour-conversational. I was a singer at a piano bar in the city, I tell you, until I became disenchanted. Now I am trying to do something good.

“People still do that?” you say, smiling. “Sing at piano bars? Seems kind of retro.”

It is, but they do. There’s lots of us, nice girls from New Hampshire and Indiana and, in my particular case, Ohio. We emerge from the chrysalis of cap and gown believing we’re destined to move to New York and become an intoxicating ratio of winsome-to-cynical. We’ll sing anywhere that will let us. When we find love, it’s on our own turf, where the lighting is kind and the drinks are free. You flirt-smirked at me while I was in the middle of “I’m Still Here,” and during a break you wobbled over and said that you were tired of showtunes and could I sing a Pixies song? I could. I don’t know what you thought of my rendition because you were so stuck on the fact that I knew the song at all. I, of course, was equally stunned that you knew of the song, you in your Brooks Brothers shirt.

“That’s amazing,” we kept saying that first night, lighting each other’s cigarettes. “Amazing.” And it was. I was at that age where it really was amazing that someone else could like the Pixies. Amazing enough to warrant the telling of scar stories and the making of Rorschach tests out of ceiling cracks and the revealing of favorite poems, favorite food carts, favorite positions.

“What do you do for work?” I ask now, even though you’re a heart surgeon and I grew, after prolonged exposure, to hate the language of the heart. The moist, clinical words evoked images of a bearded man slurping oysters. Angiosclerosis! Cardiomyopathy! Pitting Edema! Now I listen to these words again; will them back toward mystery and metaphor. I ask you which is the most deadly chamber to have an infarction. I know it’s the left ventricle, but I let you tell me. I say “widowmaker” in a horror movie voice to make you laugh. I lower my eyes and let my lips linger on the beer bottle. I simper out a question about the circulatory system. When you start to talk I tell you no, show me. You work your fingers up my arm, along the edge of my clavicle, teaching me how the blood moves.

“So, where do the problems come from?” I say, just like I did that first night. You trace your way up my carotid artery and rub along my jawline. My muscles unfold themselves in your hands, the blood running smoother and cooler toward the heart and away and then back. You talk as you rub, telling me about a new program at your hospital.

“For my transplant patients. We used to just dispose of their native hearts. Most hospitals do. But we just opened a storage lab. People can actually go in and see their old heart. They can hold it if they want to.”

“Do they do it?”

“Yeah, a lot of them do. And it’s great, because they can physically see what went wrong. One of the techs walks them through the whole thing and points out the blockages. Seeing that reminds people to take better care of the new one. ”

“Wow,” I say. I click my empty bottle against yours.

“The People are having a party later. You want to go?”

I am a good person now, so I ask you if I can bring a friend.

• • •

The People are packed into a wooden pavilion. “Temple?” I whisper, but you shake your head. Jim Jones is leading everyone in song. In the tradition of all celebrities seen in real life, he is shorter than I thought he’d be. He’s wobbling at the lip of a rickety stage, wearing a preacher’s collar and dirty sunglasses. The song is “You Are So Beautiful,” but he’s made some changes. Guyana is what’s beautiful. The People twist and shout, hands raised and wanting. They wear threadbare clothing printed with things one associates with vacation. Tiki men and pineapples so faded they’re barely visible, loud prints silenced by sun and sweat. The People don’t recognize us as anyone new or different or from the future. They smile at us the way everyone does at my church at home. Brother, their eyes say. Sister.

Kezia and I have dolled ourselves up to the best of our combined jungle abilities. We’re lip-glossed and sundressed and vanilla cake batter-lotioned, prepared to meet and alter our destinies. Her eyes are darting all over the place. I am proxy-flirting, showcasing my ability to be a good friend. “Is that her?” I keep asking, pointing in a way that I hope makes my arm look toned from your angle.

“I keep thinking I’ll see someone and just feel it,” Kezia says. “But that might not be right. I wish I had at least thought to bring a picture.” Our voices do battle with the music, trying to put together some sort of profile — sixtyish, medium-dark, short but sturdy, maybe pointy glasses, but maybe Kezia just invented that; maybe that’s just how she thinks Mimis are supposed to look.

When the singing stops, Jones says that we must keep dancing even though people are dying. You tell us not to worry. “It’s just word salad,” you say, patting Kezia on the shoulder.

The People shake it to an invisible beat, smiling and clapping and twirling. There are no chicken dinners like they were promised, but there is love, music, babies. These are good people, you have to remember. Before they were People, they were schoolteachers and scientists and future Mimis. They were activists and poets. They wanted to build a better world, just like at my church at home.

“We had to kill some of the biggest supporters,” you tell me, your hand at my hip, your lips at my ear so Kezia can’t hear. “Earlier today.”

You’re Mandala Troop, so this matters. This will stay. The snake can bite you.

• • •

Right when we were settling into each other, starting to fuck sober and accompany each other on fluorescent-lit errands, you lost a baby. It was a routine procedure, one of those congenital defect repairs where you go in and close the duct running between the lungs and the heart. We went to the funeral. You brought a teddy bear, which to me seemed sadder than flowers, but you told me that it’s what people do, and you were right — almost everyone did. The funeral director had swaddled the shoebox-sized casket in cotton batting to make it look like the baby was sleeping on a cloud. One by one, the mourners went up to pay their respects by nestling their teddy bears into the cotton. Only yours — a drugstore bear with stiff fur and, thanks to poor stitching, a menacing expression — was tucked inside the casket when it came time to close it. Those crumpled young parents couldn’t believe that a doctor had thought so much of their son. On the walk back to your apartment, I said that we should have picked a better bear. I kept thinking of that rough cotton against the baby’s face. We could have gone and bought one of those German bears from FAO Schwartz, made from rabbit’s fur.

“I had time,” I said. “I could have done it if you’d asked.”

Then it began. The Could you just try to remember to turn the tap back to the bath setting when you get out of the shower? and the I don’t feel like it tonight and the There was this ad on the subway for an Adult Studies program at NYU and the Could you take your work clothes home with you? They smell like fryer grease.

“I’m sorry,” I kept saying.

“What are you doing to change the world?” you snapped a couple of weeks after the funeral. I was working on a song arrangement. You were working on your Doctors Without Borders application. You said it without even looking up from the computer and I knew you were going to leave. We were in the middle of something wonderful and that baby pricked through everything.

“I’m making art,” I said, but shouldn’t have. Make no mistake; I’m not one of those people who believe art will save the planet or impeach the president. Art can’t fix a heart that was born broken. Here’s what I have, I was trying to tell you, like a dog dragging out the bones he’s secreted away. Here’s what’s mine.

I tried a joke. I asked you if “Borders” was your new nickname for me. You didn’t laugh. It is then that I should have let go but instead I called all the people I knew who understood how a man could change temperature. Upon multiple recommendations, I bought the relationship advice book that all the nice girls were buying that year, Why Men Love Bitches, but I never even opened it. I didn’t have to. The title was printed in such an aggressive shade of pink that the words pulsed in front of me like a neon sign whenever I looked away from the cover, a mantra that wouldn’t leave me alone until I swallowed it whole.

Turns out it’s true. Men love bitches. Men love bitches who innocently ask if everything’s okay with your hands; you spilled a little wine when pouring. Are you sure you’re up for surgery tomorrow? Have you noticed tremors, memory problems? Men love bitches who disappear for days without calling. Bitches who fuck another man and don’t hide it all that well, even if that man is your best friend and surgical partner, Roger. Bitches who don’t give a fuck and don’t give a fuck and don’t give a fuck until, very suddenly, they crumble on the bathroom floor like fallen ballerinas nestled in tulle, clutching bottles of Clorox and threatening to drink. The Man will hold the newly-crazy Bitch by her irresistibly fragile shoulders and beg her to please stay with him, just stay with him, and even if the Man happens to be a doctor and knows how to check vital signs, the Bitch will see his pupils turn to desperate, manic planets. She will see her reflection within them and she will know that the Man is not leaving, not yet, at least not tonight. It worked for a surprisingly long time, being a bitch. A bitch is a thing to survive.

I ended up in your heart-holding hospital. They pumped your antidepressants out of my stomach. My parents took off work to drive in from Dayton. “Mom brought you a neck pillow,” my father bargained. “You can sleep the whole way.” I knew the pillow he meant, printed with sunglassed dogs, stuffed with buckwheat and lavender.

I got into the car with them. I got into the car with them even though the anemic blue walls vibrated with the promise of your eventual cool hand at my forehead. I got into the car with them because the word “pillow” had snuck itself behind my neck and straightened me up; alchemized me back into someone who was not a bitch at all. None of the city — the singing, the bar, you — none of it had to be real if I it didn’t want it to be. The past can’t change us Dreamcatchers.

I spent months shuffling around, reorganizing my mother’s kitchen and meeting high school friends for complicated lattes. They asked me questions like, “Do you cook from magazines much?’ and paid me to watch their children. We felt sorry for one another but pretended we didn’t. I went to karaoke at a local place and took it seriously and drank too much when it didn’t go the way I wanted, and then I found the church, which is where most people end up when they’ve already had their ten psychiatric appointments for the year and there isn’t a designated anonymous group for what ails them.

There’s not much designated about being a Unitarian. We’ve got Buddhists that don’t meditate and people who speak primarily in Walt Whitman quotes. We’ve got atheists and good witches and Jesus-was-the-man type Christians. Every week, we have a ritual called Joys and Sorrows, where you get up in front of everybody and light a candle or slip a stone in a little bowl of water. You can say what your joy or sorrow is, but you don’t have to. Sometimes I light silent candles for you. Your joys — the woods, the smell of pussy on pantyhose, satisfying little projects, explaining the difference between centipedes and millipedes, making hummus. Paris. Low cholesterol. Skiing. Poutine. An especially elegant stent placement.

Your sorrows — you know.

• • •

There’s a break in the music, and The People’s eyes roll up toward Jones, their mouths open and waiting.

“The wife of Lot might be one of the ladies I lay to make a socialist,” Jones snarls, swaying at the lip of the stage. “Let the night roar.”

Kezia comes up to us, arm slung over the brittle shoulder of a possible Mimi. “We’re gonna go,” she says. I hug her and she tells me to be careful. I remind her of what the program director said about how the snake’s tail is biting the snake’s head in this situation; nothing bad can really happen. She looks past me, at you. “Take care of this one,” she says.

“I am so grateful,” one guy screams. His shirt rides up when he raises his arms. There are ribs, hip bones. “It’s been a joy living this peace. Such a joy, living this peace.”

Jones smiles down on all of us, sick on his own fever. His jaw is dissolving into his neck, like late-stage bowel impaction Elvis. The glow of charisma has left. All that remains is the reckless thing clawing at his insides, the thing that needed all of this and still needs more.

“Home is in you, Father,” a blissed-out blonde woman says, pointing at Jones. “I see home in you.”

Jones belches in response, but it’s true: The reflection of a temple — a real temple — has appeared in Jones’ dirty aviator sunglasses. We turn around, all of us. It’s no trick of the light or starvation-induced miracle — what appears to be a half-formed building has indeed flowered in the distance beyond the pavilion. It’s not much, low and vaguely mosque-like, a tangle of windows and doorways edged in moonlight, the unfinished parts jutting out across the sky. I ask you if The People built it. You say that they must have, but you don’t remember reading anything about it. “Maybe the program director did it,” I say. “Maybe it’s supposed to be a safe space for processing emotions.” You laugh and say that in that case, we should go.

“I don’t know,” I say, playing with that old catch of tension, that jangle of desire. “Being in the dark with a killer. I don’t know.”

“I’ll ask forgiveness,” you say. “Let’s go live this peace.”

We start toward the temple. Wind slides through the jungle air. We run like the end of a movie, like we’re about to jump adorably into warm water.

Behind us, guns are drawing, clicking, raising. The People are following us.

“Keep going,” you whisper. “Keep going.”

We run. We run. We run.

As we get closer, the temple changes shape. The doors and windows have twisted. A beam curls itself toward the sky. A window closes. A doorway bisects itself and thuds against the earth over and over. The temple brays and shuffles and kicks up dust until we see that it is not a temple at all; it is the elephants. They are clustered together, still wearing their flower crowns. Their soft eyes turn cold. They charge toward us.

Here, you stop. Press your nose to the earth. Surrender. Like in child’s pose. I grab at your shoulders, try to pull you up, but I can’t lift you. I thought I could, in some adrenaline-laced feat of strength, like those mothers that lift cars off of infants.

“This is how to survive,” you say, rolling onto your back. “Elephants won’t touch a prone body. They’ll side-step it. Even during a stampede.”

I am processing the possible logic of this, but my body is not. You are Mandala troop, and it matters. The snake can bite you. I grip the collar of your jacket and pull again. Your gun falls from your pocket and I grab for it before someone else can. The weight of the metal suspends me for a moment. Everything is still. Your eyes are closed; your limbs sprawl like rivers undammed. “Tense muscles,” you whisper, “make any injury worse.”

When I look up, Jones is standing behind me, breathing hard, his hands on his knees. His shirt is transparent with sweat. He is watching the elephants. “Beautiful,” he rasps out. “God’s world.”

The trigger digs at my finger like it’s asking me if I’m sure. Jones’ mouth opens. He hinges forward like he’s about to say something else; then there’s a darkness and red blooming beyond it. The elephants scatter into the jungle brush. Jungle dust and flower shards and screams fall over us.

“Father, father, father,” the People keen over Jones, staining their shirts. They will turn toward me eventually, but for now they hold him.

“See?” you whisper from the ground. You’re smiling a little bit, but it’s close-lipped, respectful. What I am supposed to see is that it worked: we have indeed survived an elephant stampede. I put my hand on your chest and feel the chamber doors of your clean heart opening and closing over and over again. I tell you that whatever happens now, it will only be for a moment. What will really happen is that you will have your tea, and then you will go home.

Elisa Abatsis’ plays have been seen throughout New York City. Her prose has appeared in or is forthcoming in Sequestrum, Elsewhere, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her work has been supported by the Sewanee Writers Conference. She lives, writes, and hikes in the woods of Massachusetts.