My friend Brian joined a cult. He was always doing stupid shit like that. This one time when we were fifteen he jumped off a bridge cause fucking Mike Langer dared him to. He broke his shinbone when he hit the water and spent the rest of summer in a cast. It wasn’t all bad though. Langer sold weed and gave him a half-ounce for free because he felt terrible about daring him to do it even though we were playing Truth or Dare on a bridge which was dumb on everybody’s part. Honestly, we’re lucky it came up as short as it did on broken bones. We smoked that grass all summer long and had the time of our lives in many respects, so sometimes you come up on the downstroke I guess.
They were called Harmony Home and were based out of—fuck—actually, I don’t know where they were based out of even. I’m not gonna sit here and pretend like I have the facts. I don’t have the facts. I don’t have shit. All I know is they are spread out across the country and Brian got roped into it while living in Seattle trying to write grunge songs even though rock has been dead since before Sonic Youth broke up.
He and I lost touch like most people who went to high school together. Come on, don’t lie to yourself and tell me some bullshit line about how you still have the exact same friends as the ones you grew up with. You totally might still talk to the homies from way back but it’s not the same, is it? Something’s definitely missing, even if you’ve never been able to place exactly what that missing was. With Brian, it was always a whole bunch of weird shit that just didn’t compute. It made a whole hell of a lot more sense when he turned out to be the type of dude to get roped into following a guy named Steven LightSource like he’s the second coming of Christ. Sell his shit and shave his hair and go full steam ahead like other people do with stand-up comedy or Kickstarter campaigns or love.
Like the majority of Brian’s acquaintances, I saw this all go down on Facebook. It went from wow Brian’s posting an awful lot about this, to shit well ok, now he’s signing off permanently to join them in the woods and become one with himself and the universe simultaneously. All right buddy whatever makes your knees knock at night. The real problem was that Brian wasn’t the only one. This wasn’t some isolated incident or anything. Harmony Home has more followers than Jesus. I think I know three or four to be honest.
But now I’m on a bus with his Dad up to central Oregon, heading towards the compound they think he might possibly, theoretically, hopefully be at. Nobody has heard hare nor hide nor hello from him for well over twelve months and they are getting worried that maybe he drank the Kool-Aid or worse, but I don’t know what’s worse. I’m here because Bill asked me to come up with him. Bill was my Basketball coach in middle school and he still plays golf with my Dad. He thinks that since Brian and I have been friends since childhood seeing me will trigger something and make him be all like yeah, let’s fuck this popsicle stand. I’m not so sure about that, but it beats working. If Bill’s gonna pay me the money I’d normally make painting houses for him, fine I’ll be his deprogrammer. I’ll be whatever he wants me to be.
We cross the border and the bus pulls off the highway following a sign for McDonalds. 1.2 Miles says the sign but who’s counting. There’s a Jack in the Box across the street but we stop at McDonalds. Coffee and fuel so when we finally land and are ready to get to work it’s not like shit let’s get a bagel first. I don’t know what Mr. Rollins has planned but I don’t do so hot on an empty stomach.
“You want anything?” I ask the old man. His wearied eyes pour over a book about Harmony House that he took out from the library over by my house. He didn’t sleep a wink all ride. I slept like a baby.
“Oh, uh…” he says, trying to pretend like he heard me the first time. “Large coffee, cream, two sugars,” he responds as if present and accounted for this whole time. “And I don’t know, an Egg McMuffin or whatever you can get them to leave cheese off of.”
I hop off the bus, feet hitting pavement simultaneously. Sometimes I imagine myself landing skateboard tricks that I’ve never been brave enough to try in real life.
Fiddle around with the pipe in my pocket as I make my way around back instead of through the entrance like I’m supposed to. Next to a dumpster I sprinkle some green in the thumbprint indent on top of the bowl. I ground this flower up before we left, knowing full well that if I wanted to smoke anything this trip it would have to do it fast and loose. Lips, lighter, and the smoke hits my lungs. Hold it for a five count like I’ve been doing since Brian and I first started back in 2002. I have to be stoned to make it through this weekend. Or maybe it will be just the reminder that Brian needs to help snap his brain back to basics. Get all those cultoids so faded that they’ll be like this shit is wack, man you saved us, and those pretty cult girls will be like show me what a real man fucks like.
An Egg McMuffin hold the American for the old man and the Big Breakfast with Hotcakes for me, two large coffees, all the cream all the sugar. The girl behind the counter is this beautiful girl who couldn’t have been older than seventeen. Too much eyeshadow on, like maybe she was trying to look older but probably really because she listens to punk rock and is too young to have style with it. I want to talk to her about The Misfits or Morrissey but I’m too stoned to sound like a normal human and would probably just seem like I’m hitting on her. Which I guess I sort of would be, but only not really. It’s fun to flirt with teenage girls the same way it is with old ladies, like they love it and it makes them feel special but nothing’s going to come of it, because come on. Man those peepers pop and I could get absolutely lost in them for a lifetime if I didn’t have business to take care of, like literal transactional business.
“$17.18” she says like we’re talking about anything else. I want to say something clever. Same as you, right? Seventeen? Eighteen? And then she’d smile at me and we’d get out of there and I’d take her under my wing and protect her like Cherie Currie and the Runaways, but after a while with those doe eyes batting at me all the time we’d become something more and go live in Portland where this kind of age gap is not only accepted it’s encouraged. We’d open a coffee-shop/book-store/performance-space where we could live happily ever after and I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this bullshit.
Instead I say, “uhh yeah,” and fish into my pockets for that crumpled twenty I shoved in there on my way out of the house. I accidentally pull the pipe out with the bill and boy do those mascara monsters take in an eyeful like it’s some sort of lost fucking Indiana Jones treasure, but I guess it would be to a girl in East Klamath Falls, Oregon who probably hasn’t even heard of The Melvins yet. My eyes are shifty but we still manage to make contact. I smile uncomfortably, knowing I’ve blown it with the love of my life but it didn’t matter because I’ll never see her again. I pay with a $20 and don’t even wait for the change.
The whole bus is waiting for me after another quick detour to get high again adds an extra five past the time I was supposed to be back. Bill won’t let them leave though like he’s some sort of stand up guy for having my back, but really it’s just that he knows he can’t handle any of this without me. Imagine that! Me being a support system for anything! My therapist would be so proud.
“Thanks Bill.” I hand him the bag and plop my ass into the seat that’s meant for a man about four inches shorter and forty pounds lighter.
“Bus driver says we’re about two hours outside of Bend. We’ll rent a car there and get a hotel for the night. Get our heads screwed on right before we hit the road again.” “Okay.”
Bill sleeps the whole way to Bend and I can’t stop thinking. Funny.
Sitting in this Holiday Inn, I look out the window at a Best Buy across the concrete. The sun is out and Bill is snoring louder than a motorcycle with a fresh muffler testing out its new system at Sturgis. VRZZZZZTT—VRZZZZZZT—VRZZZZZZZT. Poor Guy. Guess I would be tuckered out too if I was dealing with the most stressful thing I’d ever dealt with. The hardest thing I had to do was bury my Mom, but my Dad did most of the work and it was so long ago now that I don’t remember if the pain was really that real or I’m just imagining it now.
I decide to take a stroll through the store and end up in the DVD section looking at the back of The Master hoping to gain some inkling of insight. Hmmm… Philip Seymour Hoffman gone too soon, that’s the best I got. I place it back on the shelf and move up the alphabet to Cheech & Chong: Up in Smoke, which reminds me…
Behind the box store next to the folded boxes, I’m cheefing through a bowl like there’s four or five of us passing it around. But it’s just me. It’s always just me. I don’t know why any of this matters.
When I wake up Bill’s already down having a hotel breakfast. I take a seat with my plate of sausage links and look at my Dad’s friend and not my friend’s Dad. He’s head down in that book again like it’s got the solution to his problems and isn’t just leaving him with a better understanding of why his son left his no-job, no-girlfriend, living-in-his-parents-basement existence behind. I roll the meat tubes around with my fork wondering what really makes this man in front of me tick. Is it really about saving his son? Or is it more about saving face? What if his son already is saved? What if after we get there father and son look each other in the eyes and we just turn around and go home? Nothing needs saving here he’ll say and we’ll take the long ride back to Carlsbad in complete silence. I swear if that happens I won’t say a word.
From Bend we fill up on gas twice, get a cup of coffee each, and I take approximately one piss. When we end up in a town called Burns I know it’s the place before Bill even tells me. It’s just got the vibe.
Turns out Bill never really had too much of a plan, which I find out the hard way after he drives through town and parks somewhere inconspicuous on the outskirts. He turns to me and says: “So what do you got?” Like I’m the one here to save my son.
“Uhh…” I say.
“Shit,” he says.
He drops me off at the diner, Frank & Marys, with a vague plan of “finding out information.” I put it in quotes because he did when he said it like there was some sort of extra meaning I wasn’t entirely getting. He tells me that he’d do it if he could but he can’t because he looks like a cop. That he’ll sit in his car and think of next steps while I dig around with the locals. Bill leaves me with a twenty and a boot out the passenger side and tells me to call him if I find anything.
Tuna Melt, Coffee all the milk all the sugar. Sit at the counter and MARY, that’s what her name tag says, can hardly even look at me when she takes my order. Another young person stumbling around Burns looking for the quick and easy path to salvation that Steven LightSource advertised on his YouTube channel. I watched one or two of the videos when Brian first disappeared but it all seemed like metaphysical mumbo jumbo to me with the real truths hidden behind the paywall.
“For 9.99 a month you can have unlimited access to the ‘Source of Eternal Happiness.’ Subscribe here.” No thanks. I’ve got Netflix
Mary drops off my plate and it clatters on the counter like it only can in cartoons. She tops off my coffee letting it steam just like I like it, piping hot, too much to even drink yet. I want to ask if she knows where Harmony House is but know it would become some awkward thing where I have to backtrack and explain myself like no I’m not trying to join—my friend is there and I’m trying to rescue him—I don’t have to explain myself to you MARY.
A girl slides in next to me and orders a bacon cheeseburger and a Coke. She’s pretty in a way directly marketed to me like when you’re talking about a product on the phone and then all of a sudden that exact product is in your Instagram feed. She smiles at me. I turn away.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” she asks.
“Yeah yeah.” I say brushing her off.
“No seriously,” she continues. “Kurt?”
I mean that’s my name so obviously I turn.
“Oh my God that is you! What are you doing out here?” She says.
“I should ask you the same thing.”
I take a look at her face trying to place it. It does look familiar, but my mind has been playing tricks on me lately. The other day I watched an entire movie start to finish before realizing I’d seen it already. The last frame was a total oh shit you’ve seen this moment, but with two whole hours of NOTHING before that.
We eye each other for a long time while she makes faces that she must think will help jog something. They don’t. Finally: “Sam? Samantha Kersaw…”
“Come on. We dated for a little at ASU. I sold mushrooms.”
FUCK I had dated this girl. I think. Pretty sure I broke up with her over text. “Oh shit! How’ve you been?” I say, trying to deflect years of built-up anxiety in the turn of a friendly phrase.
“Great, Kurt. I’ve been really great.” She says before jumping right into it like she’s got no shame whatsoever about being in a cult. Because I guess to her it’s not a cult. It just is. “Have you heard of Harmony Home?”
What utter convenience, right? Travel 700 miles just to run into a girl I used to fuck in college. Or did we ever? It’s not that surprising though, not really. Harmony Home has a tendency to target former or current drug abusers like Brian, Sam and myself. It’s part of their ‘thing’ according to that New York Times exposé that Bill read out loud from on the first leg of our trip. And plus, the world is a minuscule place full of happenstance and coincidence. Synchronicity is as universal as any other thing that happens regularly.
“It’s the um—” I want to say cult I want to say cult I want to say cult—“religious organization that I see on the news all the time.”
“Exactly! My husband and I run the Oregon chapter. It’s a dream come true really. I was so lost when you knew me back in college. Tune in, turn on, drop out was right. Just had the wrong turn on.”
Is she talking about me?
Mary scoffs as she delivers Sam’s order with the same level of spite she had with mine. Cartoon Clatter 2: The Animated Adventures of Platey and Cuppy. “Cheeseburger and Coke,” she says through gritted teeth, staring Samantha down like they’re old enemies who have had this confrontation many many times before. “You people aren’t welcome here anymore.”
“Please be reasona—”
Mary turns away, without filling me up even though I could clearly use it. My eye stays on the coffee swirling behind the glass. “Come on, let’s take a booth,” Samantha says to me. “Catch up.”
I see Mary making eye contact like don’t do it man but I can’t help myself. We pull into the stretched red leather of the booth. Classic diner fare. She barely gives me a moment to breathe before rocketing right back in.
“So, what’s the real reason you’re all the way out here in the middle of nowhere? You’re interested, right? Came to see what all the fuss is about? I can sense it on you.” I pause.
For what feels like forever.
And maybe it was.
Maybe it was 2 and 1/2 minutes.
Maybe it was eternity and she aged a thousand generations right in front of my face. Maybe it was 2 and a 1/2 seconds.
We’ll never know.
After that I say the only thing I can think to say: “You smoke?”
She doesn’t look over her shoulder, doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t look me in the eyes and tell me that every decision I’ve ever made has been wrong and I need to give up such filthy habits. No. She says, “Yeah, sure.”
I drop the twenty and we get the fuck out of there.
We smoke that bowl and then another one on the drive to Harmony Home. We pass the pipe back and forth in silence as her Jeep bounces on dirt roads that will probably never be paved. If Bill were smart he’d be following us right now, but I refuse to look over my shoulder and check. Fact of the matter is he’s not very smart. He’s probably sitting in a supermarket parking lot crying into his phone about how badly he’s failed as a father. I heard him doing that once to his girlfriend so I can only assume it’s what he does every time I’m out of earshot. Maybe he’s got his finger hovering over my name in his phone, too afraid to find out what I’ve found. He never calls.
Sam rests a hand on my thigh and I feel something for the first time in a long time. It’s a familiar touch, but if I’m being completely honest, it’s not one I totally recognize. I remember a girl selling mushrooms and I remember this face, but I don’t really remember being with her in that kind of way. Life was a blur back then, Xanned out more often than not. What the fuck is wrong with me? This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife, how did I get here? Fuck, I’m high.
Windows down as we roll up to our destination and I’m greeted by a chorus of friendliness in a clearing cut out of the woods just for us. A giant mansion stands behind them like they even make houses this big? Step out of the car and both feet land at the same time like it’s some sort of compulsion. I swear it’s not. I pass through a gauntlet of smiles that look like they’ve been tipped off and waiting for my arrival. “Hi, welcome to Harmony Home, I’m Jennifer.”
“Oh, he’s got such a beautiful aura. Where did he come from?”
“Once in a Lifetime, brother. Same as it ever was.”
“Anything you need just let me know, I’m your guy. Glad to have you here with us.” At the end of this hallway of humans I see a guy I know. Hey, I know that guy! “Welcome, my friend,” Brian says as I approach. His head is shaved, with a smile planted far further than ear to ear. I wonder if it connects in the back of his head or what. I don’t think I’ve ever seen his eyes as lit up and alive as they are right now. Nothing needs saving here. Turn around and go home. Brian pecks Samantha on the cheek and I slowly but surely connect the dots to who exactly is married to whom. Now, that’s fucking happenstance.
Arm on my back, Brian draws me nearer to the house. Samantha and the thirty-some others follow behind. No processional, no pomp, none of that shit. No overly excitable people asking if I’d ever heard of their lord and savior. These weren’t brainwashed monkeys. No. They are people, just regular guys and gals splitting off into casual conversations that have nothing to do with saving my soul.
I had expectations and these weren’t them.
Turns out that the ‘Source of Eternal Happiness’ isn’t anything we didn’t already have inside of us this whole time. We are in control of our own destiny. Harmony Home simply provides daily affirmations and necessities to those who seek to live a life in peace and with purpose. For $9.99 a month. Not so bad if you ask me.
I wonder how long Bill ended up waiting before he went home.