“Did Sarah tell you about this place?” my brother asked with playful contempt, looking over from beside me. He was talking about the diner, or deli we were driving to. I didn’t have a clear picture because they had been calling it different things, the cafe, the Sunrisey Deli.
He told me it was run by a group, basically a cult, who lived and worked on farms across the country. There was some kind of living leader who looked like Jesus but wore a puffy vest and sunglasses every time you saw him, even on their literature and in frames up on their walls. They grew food and they sold it in their delis, that was what it was. Sunrisey Deli, the chain run by a cult.
We had to leave the car in a far lot and Sarah found us while we were waiting for the shuttle. It turned out to be an old Ford Windstar driven by an old man, himself a caricature of a farmer with a straw hat on and everything.
We arrived in about five minutes and the first thing I noticed upon walking in was the smell. It was cloying and sweet but with some kind of mold undertone, some dangerous dust with spores in it under that smell, or maybe some kind of slightly rotting fruit. Would anyone find that odor appealing? It was not enough to make you turn around. I could go in a bar that smelled like yeasty old beer everywhere and then just be walking right out of the bar. I would do that. The smell was too subtle here, and already I felt like I was being closed off, condescending, towards people trying to live a simple life. Maybe this is what it smelled like, the effort of it; a little bit musty. But musty wasn’t really the word because that would have been about air that was old, something that had settled in over time. The bad smell in the Sunrisey Deli was more vital and present.
The place was set up like someone’s idea of a gnome bar as translated through an Amsterdam coffee house. The room opened on a richly carved wooden spiral staircase heading to some mezzanine floor upstairs. There were polished, colorful stones embedded into the filigrees and ornate knots punctuating the walls. All the doorways were rounded and decorated with alternating colored wood. Macrame hung like dingy flags over railings and between the booths where the diners sat, conjuring first medieval pennants, otherworldly tapestries, before bringing the mind to some banal observation like “oh right... the seventies.”
Everything seemed like that there, the smell, the décor – it was unsettling at first but immediately sort of hammered its way through to your senses and memories, lulling you into a state where you couldn’t really put your finger on what was off. There were some of those portraits of their leader around but you would have never noticed them if you weren’t looking for them. Just some hairy head in shades peering through picture frames overlapped in dusty fake flower wreaths. More striking was the intricate support beam system attaching the low ceilings with the clay walls, making it necessary to bend down if you moved around.
And that was of no small concern because the second thing I really noticed was the stupor that everyone working there seemed under. They had long dirty hair, the men and the women, parted in the middle and hanging down their backs in loose ponytails. It wasn’t so long that it seemed like they were against haircuts but dull and utilitarian enough to give you an idea of how they viewed personal style. The girl who had been given the unfortunate job of hostess was looking lost into the spiral staircase snaking out over her head as she stood meekly at her little welcome stand by the entrance. We tried to greet her and after a beat she brought her face down and looked at us with her eyes of completely disparate shapes and levels on her face. She had been born like this or something very severe had happened to her skull when it was still forming. That much was clear immediately and again I felt this conscious struggle with my own disgust. Phrases like “these people,” the idea of them farming real food and trying to share it, a way of life, something simple; steeled me to smile while taking the menus, to try and look at her face in a real way when I thanked her. I was rewarded with the blank regard of someone who might as well be drooling.
And what the fuck were these people on?
We were then served with a brand of obsequious superiority worthy of any average hippie waiter. He didn’t seem so messed up, this guy. He had a UK accent and I was lead to believe that he hadn’t been with these people long. He was smug, really happy with his choices. It had been a choice, this Sunrisey place had been a goal of his and he had traveled to join this group. Or else he was using them for some money and lodging until he could move on. I didn’t really know if he’d make it out, somehow. He seemed even less aware of the weird atmosphere than we did and I had a feeling it would be affecting him a lot more than he realized, and soon at that. I started to sense something impending but it was too unshaped to create anxiety. I was very curious.
A trip to the bathroom brought me by the source of the unsettling smell and past some haunting faces shuffling around under the guise of fixing drinks. Beyond the spiral staircase there actually was a little bar, but with no stools around it. Two girls, their faces pasty and smoothed over too much, with this doughy incest or pre-birth trauma look to them, had their heads turned towards each other both talking slowly in monotonous tones, indecipherable to me. They looked like best friend children recounting their hushed fairy tales, each one picking up the story when the other left off, not a conversation but a cyclic talking experience, rapt and unending. Their faces were held a constant distance apart, the hair hanging and falling over their cheeks; and as they leaned in it created the impression that they were growing together, headfirst by way of the hair.
The side of the bar nearest the door had an espresso machine on it, and the other side had one too. I already knew that the first machine didn’t even make coffee because I had asked for some and been served instead with some kind of mate drink with steamed milk and a ton of maple syrup in it. The sweet thickness and getting caffeine had led me to drink it, but underneath it all was a slight tinny taste, and then that rotten mold finish.
The second machine was not making coffee either. It was one of those crazy Italian jobs with eagles and little turrets for steam all over it. It was seated lower, not on the bar itself but on its own smaller table with only about half the machine visible from the customer side. I had gotten a look at it, roving my eyes around as I walked across the restaurant. And I was surprised to see what was coming out, it looked like hot Kool-Aid.
Kool-Aid was more of a guess than a joke because the machine was grimy and every offending mark was a shade of purple. Smears and crusty knobs and even some ground matter piled on the counters, wet purple, dry purple. It looked natural. Ground flowers?
I didn’t know how I would get some because I didn’t know what it was used for. If it was a drug to them, I could get enough from them at least to try it. I don’t care who you are; drug users are drug users. I was sure, though, they thought of this as some kind of gift or ceremony or reward; however cults think about things. I was pretty sure I wasn’t someone who they would want to give it to. I didn’t even really know if it was technically intoxicating. Why would I think that? But it suddenly seemed very important to me to find out.
I was right by the bar, having just noticed this ill machine, all these realizations having already dawned on me and turning into informed steps of a plan by the second. I know it’s a drug because these girls are fucked up on it. I know it’s a drug and I want to try it. And I think I can - I know it’s distracting because these girls are building their own planet out of their stringy locks and the spit in the corners of their mouths. And I brushed behind the bar, my arm sweeping under the ledge of the machine and then towards me with a small pitcher, usually reserved for steamed milk, that was full of purple liquid. But it was so thick and like caramel, it was hotter than milk or water ever could be. The tiny drops coming down the side were molten, seeming to dissolve my skin where it touched me.
Somehow I didn’t make any noise. The reality of my strange actions must have overpowered the animal screaming trying to come out of my mouth. I didn’t make any noise and I kept the pitcher in the same hand so as not to make any jerky movements. I was counting on my smooth motion being imperceptible to the girls’ peripheral vision.
In the bathroom I ran cold water over my hand while I examined the liquid. I tried to put a little water on top of it to cool it but I couldn’t blend it without sticking my finger in the pitcher and I wasn’t going to do that. I had no pens to stir it because I hadn’t taken my purse with me. There were two separate bathrooms and not that much traffic so I was able to stay in one of them, sitting on the closed toilet, trying to think about how much I was going to take and what I would do with the pitcher.
I poured it in the sink and turned the faucet, watching the purple substance bob around and float. I ate a big clot of it, my teeth instantly gritting against the chemical taste in my mouth. Not flowers. I burned the back of my throat so I drank water out of the sink. By the time I left the bathroom I had stashed the milk pitcher under some tissues in the wastebasket, the contents of it I had half ingested and half flushed down the toilet.
It came on very quickly. This drug is like K, but the one for, like, elephants.
It was a rough, heavy burlap sack of a high. Like being wrapped in layers of twine in the space between yourself and your self. I sat at the table somehow because I found myself there with a menu in my hands. Will and Sarah were wondering why their sandwiches were taking over 20 minutes. I had ordered that mate, was there a meal coming for me too?
Food was put in front of me. It was a beautiful salad with vegetables that tasted like the sun. I was dimly aware that it was only a part of my lunch and that I was the only one at the table to have been given a plate so far.
That stuff, what if I took a congregation’s worth? And is living any different from being dead?
I stretched my neck to one side and then the other, settling into it. Sarah was on the phone outside and the nature of the call was such that there was no interrupting her. Will had gone to the bathroom I guess. I was seated facing the door, my back to the whole scene but this feeling, oh. First I just put words on the way it felt.
It was as if nothing mattered. But everything was so distinctly, so clearly, meaningless that it cast a crazy shade on the world and turned it into a cool, comfortable space. That was how I felt, as if my body ceased holding its shape against the atmosphere and I was as air is and as time is.
But I was open to the room then and I was picking up a vibe behind me. Slow motion legs pushing the ground to stand and pivot and then I was on the other side of the table looking at everyone in this warm wooden place.
The waiters were knocking into each other, but hard - like a grown man at a brisk pace body checking a big woman in an apron. I think some glass fell on the floor and I think the woman started to pull shards off the ground, gathering them into her front pocket while kind of grinding the smaller pieces into the ground. But no one was even looking up. And it took light years for an idea to register; that’s not how you clean up glass.
They were all just running around, and I realized I was looking at all cult members as the dining area had thinned considerably since we arrived, whenever that was. Had we come for breakfast? A big jewel encrusted clock said it was noon. I realized then that the light was different, the shades has been drawn and I was looking into the room illuminated by old colorful lanterns.
And then something was dawning on me. It’s troubling me, what? Well, how could these people possibly operate this business? We are on a street in a city in America for God’s only son, for Christ’s sake. It’s 12pm and it’s a deli and they don’t want to give anyone food. How could this be? How could it still be open? And with that machine... And I thought of that machine, on its short table, hiding a little, behind the bar, on its table, its table with little wheels, OK. Why does it have wheels? Because they wheeled it in today and why? Because it is a special occasion today, and what kind?
I had no fucking idea. It was a holiday. That was why we were barely being served, and by the new guy, a much less intoxicated person than the rest of them. The girls, did they seem happy or sad? They seemed excited, very secretly. Excited about a secret.
I was up moving and I passed the bar again. At the machine, I saw the final fat drops of a fresh batch lobbing into a new little pitcher, identical to the one I had taken. The girls had forgotten about it, so they had just fired up a new batch. I thought of a drunk person taking a drag from a freshly lit cigarette only to put down the smoke as they say one thing, forget about it and light up a new one 30 seconds later when they feel like smoking again. This was a party then, this was how cult members partied. They brewed animal tranquilizers and concord grapes and then melted into each other’s faces, crashed into each other’s bodies, in praise of something, anything, that they were not enough of on their own. This was a celebration and it seemed to call for an endless supply of this stuff.
Is this fun for them? Am I being rude expecting better service and judging their haircuts? Is it like trying to get a cup of coffee on Christmas? Am I impatient?
I don’t know how much you were supposed to take but it was difficult to walk straight. I was in that drunken body stumble of the tranquilizer, my whole skull starting to feel delicate and piecemeal with headaches when Will came across me by the bar and actually took me by the shoulders, asking me if I wanted to get the fuck out of there.
Well sure I did and I got that across, swooping my coat and purse to myself and throwing indeterminate money down on the table. I know we never got a check, and I am pretty sure that we never ate our food.
I was outside finding a cigarette to light in victory, imagining already leaving when an old man with a beard started gesturing to us meaningfully as he turned a quick corner - we’d had to park a mile away. That old man had drove us to the door calling his minivan a shuttle.
He pulled up in front of us and I sat in the back, ushered through the sliding door by the man who seemed more visibly intoxicated the closer I got to him. As we rolled over the uneven terrain of the parking lots behind all the buildings, a steady tinkling of glass came from the back of the van. It had been empty when we arrived. I had my arm on the back of the seat, stretching out, so I turned my head slightly to the rear and saw the van was full of open boxes and each box had an odd assortment of bottles in it. The mildew smell came off these boxes and immediately I snapped to, facing forward.
“Yeah, you guys are the last diners to catch this shuttle, I’ll tell you what, because I am headed straight to Atlanta after this haul. I’ll be going to Jackson and Miami too!” The old man was saying as he burst into laughter.
And I knew then, in some hollow of my mind, that these people would not go down in history for their farms or their delis. I couldn’t figure what exactly they meant to do, but I saw it as a culmination of all their efforts and again I came up with the feeling that I was not able to judge them. Their leader in his shades, their beliefs written in a book, hands pulling carrots out of the earth; these images remained obtuse and devoid of meaning to me. What does it feel like to be spiritual, and what responsibility does it create in a person?
I might have been thinking about that when I was getting out, but my thoughts turned to my feet stepping onto the pavement and my fingers clearing the door as I closed it. There were some clouds moving then. I didn’t remember where I was when my brother tapped me on the shoulder and I turned away from them. But I could feel the sun on my face, through the glass of our own car. And I remember my brother was making me laugh, that my cigarette tasted good.
There is so much space for worship right here on earth as it is.