Danger Cycle

 (Author’s Note: This excerpt from my forthcoming novel Beautiful Revolutionary takes place in the summer of 1969 – a period in which many hippies and college-educated youth were drawn to Peoples Temple. After his first wife leaves him for Temple leader Jim Jones, young pacifist Lenny Lynden finds himself in an arranged marriage and living communally in Northern California. While a generally idyllic time, the seeds of destruction are there: infighting, superstitious thinking, white favoritism, Jones’ self-aggrandizement and interference in his followers’ sex lives. Here, Jones is seen manipulating the relationships of Lenny and his new wife Terra, and another young couple, Minnie and Roger Luce.)

Most nights, they eat quick at the Red Creek commune, sopping up lentil stew with home-baked bread. Quick because their days have made them hungry: long hours at the mental hospital for Lenny, at the Temple daycare for Terra. Because there are chores, allotted and taped up on the fridge: dishes to wash, clothes to iron, animals to feed. Because they haven’t had a honeymoon, and time alone is precious.

“I can’t believe you like me even when I smell like chicken poop.” Terra giggles, stripping off her overalls in the bathroom. For the first time all day, they have a few minutes to themselves. She admires her reflection. “Well…maybe I can.”

“Are you going to wash your hair?” Lenny likes helping with Terra’s hair.

“Nope. I washed it Saturday. Martha’ll kill us if we use up another bottle.”

Sister Martha is a single mom who lives in the back part of the house with her twin sons, Joey Dean and Bobby James. It’s Martha who starts banging on the bathroom door within five minutes, yelling about hot water.

“Dried-up bitch was probably timing us.” Terra rolls her eyes, turns the tap off with a hiss. “Don’t you think it’s racist how she always sits so far from Nessa at the table?”

“I never noticed.”

“Just watch. Every time they’re side-by-side, she holds her arms like this.”  She tucks a towel under her armpits, curls up her hands like a cripple. “Some of these old white people, it’s like they’re all about integration on Sundays, but when it comes to living it…?”

Lenny watches her pat her breasts dry, her belly; twist the towel around her dripping blond locks and pull it off seconds later. She shimmies into her waiting shift dress; combs out her hair; checks her flushed face. As an afterthought, she steps into her underwear—the wholesale Woolworth’s kind they all wear, T. Lynden sharpied on the waistband.

She’s quick. Why not? They’ve got a meeting to get to.

Sister Nessa is in the kitchen, mashing something in a bowl. A tiny girl, hair in tiny braids, belly a boulder between her and the counter. Practically mute and prone to flinching when Lenny or any other white guy comes upon her unexpectedly. But she seems to like Terra; flashes her gums and mumbles, “Nah, I’m okay,” when Terra fusses over her being on her feet so late in her pregnancy. Not for the first time, Lenny wonders what it’ll be like having a newborn around, then wonders whether he and Terra will ever have one, then guesses if they do, it’ll probably be adopted. In the den, Brother Corbin is helping Joey Dean with his homework, and Terra leans over their shoulders. “You know, Moby Vagina is a way better book,” she says straight-faced, then rears up laughing. She’s still laughing as they walk under the dark trees to the station wagon, and Brother Eustace is running the engine of his pickup, nodding his head idly to a murmur of Motown. He looks up when they reach the station wagon and nods, “Hey,” and Lenny nods, “Hey…you going to work?” and Eustace nods again, “Yup,” showing him the nightwatchman’s cap on his dashboard.

Lenny doesn’t quite know what to feel about him and Terra being the only ones from the commune invited to this meeting. Lenny doesn’t quite know what to make of all the meetings, but he doesn’t dwell on it; the drive is too nice, balmy night air blowing and a first-date excitement in his belly. When they reach the Temple, there’re fewer cars in the lot than usual and, in the meeting room, about fifteen young people gathered, all white except for Minnie Luce. Lenny wonders if he and Terra are tardy, but Jim Jones just waves them in with a lilting, “Lyndens,” and keeps advising Roger and Minnie, seated Indian-style at his feet.

“…People looking up to you. Means there’s people gonna talk behind your back, that’s inevitable. I know it. Every day. But you gotta be above it. Don’t have an ego, you won’t be touched by personal attacks. Minnie, you’re stronger than most; damn sure stronger than this whiteboy. His weakness, can’t let it affect you. Now, I’m not saying total abstinence—”

“I don’t care about that, Father,” Minnie speaks up. “I just thought, now Roger and I are married…we’d make each other stronger.”

“Ideally, honey. And don’t get me wrong, you’re well-matched. Wouldn’t have advised this union otherwise. But Roger’s got issues to work through and you can’t let him hold you back. Strong, proud black woman like you—I think you could stand to be more withholding, Minnie.” Jim gestures from Minnie to all the young couples clustered on the plush carpet. “Masturbation, that’s fine. But no sex. We don’t want any pregnancies at this time and we don’t want ego-trips. It’s egocentric to waste time on sex when you could be contributing to the Cause.”

Lenny catches Terra’s eye. She smiles a little and bobs her head. Lenny does the same.

After that, Jim lectures Roger for a while. Lenny is sort of glad to see Roger Luce in trouble. Roger is handsome. Roger’s nose side-on is like a Greek statue’s. Roger’s eyes are blue ice chips. Roger lived in the same house as Terra, until recently. But the incessant talk of ‘overcompensation’ and ‘latent homosexuality’ is boring; Lenny has heard it enough times in midweek meetings, where guys like Roger and Johnny Bronco are often brought up for being vain or playing the field. So Lenny turns his attention to the carpet, pretending it’s blue moss; to the children’s fingerpaintings tacked on the wall; to his new wife and the women who aren’t his wife: Jo…Laura…Minnie…

It’s only when Jim’s speech takes a sudden turn that Lenny’s ears prick up.

“My marriage ain’t no different from anyone’s. I trust all you here to understand that,” Jim utters modestly, hands clasped, chin doubled down at the carpet. “There’s highs and lows. Strength and weakness. Rosaline, I love that woman, never saw a better mother, but she’s not so strong.” He shakes his head. “Physically and mentally, she’s unstable. It’s not easy for her, living with the burden of my future assassination.”

There’s a melancholy hush. It’s not the first time Jim has mentioned that he will someday have to die for the Cause, but it’s always a bummer to think about.

“Sometimes, darlings, the burden gets too much for Mother. She loses sight—and this is something not many in this church know, but I think you’re advanced enough to hear it—loses sight of her destiny as a mother to our people.” Jim sighs. “Some of you may have heard rumors. Lenny, Terra…”

They flinch, one after another, as if catching a jolt of static electricity.

“I thank you for your discretion. You’ve shown yourselves to be deeply worthy of my trust. But we don’t got nothing to hide.” He unclasps his hands. “So long as Mother is struggling, I’ll continue to hold her up. I know how much you need her, and she needs you.”

“What can we do?” Jo pipes up, her voice dopily drawn-out.

“Exactly what you’re doing, sweetheart. You keep on putting our Temple family first, that’s enough. Mother, she’ll regain her strength, but till then, we gotta maintain the order. Make sure the old folks, the little ones, they don’t worry their heads over empty gossip. Children need to know they’re loved.” Jim raises his head. “Terra? Terra, sweetheart…”

Lenny watches Terra stir; flick her hair and rub her legs, as though cold.

“Sister Phyllis tells me you doin’ wonderful work at the daycare. Now, some of us been talkin’ ’bout putting together a camping trip for the school-age kids. And we want you to be Head Counsellor.”

Me?” Terra widens her eyes. “Wow…Hey, what’s ‘Head Counsellor’ do anyway?”

“Well, first order, honey, you wanna nominate some co-counsellors. I’m thinking five sisters, five brothers—”

Terra beams over her shoulder. “Brother Lenny?”

“Notsofast, there.” Jim laughs. “I want you to be objective as possible, sweetheart. Bear in mind, Lenny’s got his own responsibilities: alternate service, weekend job…Right, son?”

“Yeah,” Lenny says, feeling the glow of Jim’s gaze. “I guess…it’d be hard to get the time off.”

“Not to mention, we gotta keep the communes operating smoothly. Both of you gone from Red Creek, gonna put an unfair strain on the other residents, isn’t it?” Jim turns back to Terra. “I want you to consider this socialistically, honey. Don’t be swayed by personal attach—”

“Laura?” Terra butts in. She starts counting on her fingers. “Dale, Jorge, Angie…”

“Sonofabitch, you gonna let me talk?” Jim blusters, and they all laugh. “I said, not so fast. You see Phyllis tomorrow. Give her ten names and she’ll pass ’em on. Got it?”

“Yes, Father.”

Terra straightens her back like a class pet, and everyone laughs some more. Jim’s sunglasses flash as he tilts his head, twists his lips. “Can’t get a word in edgeways, that’s the truth. Now, all you: don’t matter if you’re part of this or not; your contributions, they’re just as valued. Every letter you write, every toilet you scrub, it helps the Cause…”

He goes on in this vein for some time, before turning to Dwight Vandenberg, the desirability of Su-mi taking a secretarial job in the DA’s office instead of starting college as planned. Terra rests her arm against Lenny’s, mouths, “Sorry,” and Lenny smiles, shrugs. Sure, he’ll miss her, and sure, there’s a feeling he doesn’t want to acknowledge, like milk left to sour. But a couple of days, her and a bunch of kids in the woods, no big deal, right?

It’s nearing midnight when the meeting breaks up, and Lenny’s stomach is grizzling again; his legs are tingling and stiff. Jim says, “Remember, we’re in a danger cycle, so don’t forget to walk around your car three times,” then embraces each of them as they filter out in hazy, foot-dragging clusters. “Son,” Lenny notices Jim beckon Roger just as he and Minnie are making a beeline for the door, “I need you to stay for one-on-one counselling, remember.”

Roger blanches. Blinks quickly and mumbles something Lenny doesn’t hear. Too bad for him, Lenny thinks, without really feeling bad.

But Minnie, she’s got those beautiful dark eyes flashing at the sight of Jim encircling Roger’s neck, talking close, his tone at once chastising and tender. Minnie drops her gaze. Shoves her hands deep in the pockets of her India-print dress; heavy-lidded eyes, long eyelashes; long neck, lovely oblong face, widow’s peak. Hurries past Lenny and Terra through the sanctuary, out to the parking lot, then stops, like she doesn’t know where to go for all those galaxies blinking down on her.

“Minnie!” Terra calls. “Wait up.”

 Minnie turns. Swipes a tear.

“Minnie, what’s wrong?

She only shakes her head, mutters, “Oh, Jesus.”

And that’s all she’ll say, no matter how much Terra coaxes. Unease eats at Lenny as he looks away from the girls: at the clouds drifting over the moon like dirty water, the blinds lidding the sockets of the great glass windows. Or maybe he’s just hungry. He looks across the parking lot at Laura, Jo, and Dwight as they laughingly trot in circles around Dwight’s shiny Aston Martin—a gift from Dwight’s rich dad, frowned upon by the Temple. Terra asks if Minnie’s going to wait for Roger. Minnie doesn’t know. Terra looks at Lenny.

“Hey…Can we give you a ride?” he offers.

* * * * *

They drop Minnie at her parents’ house down in Prosperity. Ursa, Minnie’s adopted white sister, runs out to meet the car in her nightie like a kid from some Amish backwater, and spends a long time admiring the yellow paintjob, making Minnie admonish, “Ursa, it’s late.” Then there’s the dark, winding journey back to Red Creek, just a hamlet to the northeast, named for the trickle running through its red dirt. Through the ride, Terra talks about poor Minnie, who Roger shouldn’t take for granted; she’s so nice, so smart, so pretty, not just ‘pretty for a black girl’, but maybe prettiest in the Temple—don’t you think? On and on until they get inside and have to be quiet, can’t wake Martha and Nessa needs all the sleep she can get before the baby comes. Looking at the strip of darkness under Nessa’s door, Lenny thinks of the times he’s seen it lit up, Nessa and Eustace’s voices crawling out from under it, and wondered if black couples talk about the same things in private as white couples do. In their own room, Terra turns on the lamp with the colorful scarf draped over it, casting psychedelic patterns across the walls, the bed. She sets the alarm for four-thirty. Undresses. Lies down, hands on her midriff.

“I can’t believe Father chose me,” she says, to Lenny or maybe to the ceiling.

(Laura Elizabeth Woollett is an Australian writer. Her Peoples Temple novel Beautiful Revolutionary is due to be published in Australia in early 2018. Her guest blog for the Melbourne Writers Festival about her research trip to the United States is here. Her other piece in this edition of the jonestown report is Leaving Jonestown. Visit her website at http://lauraelizabethwoollett.com.)