peopletemple

The Peoples Temple by Stephen Cooney

Pat had only joined because of Caroline. She was the most unbelievable person he had ever met.

     She had resurrected a kitten on their first date. They had been walking up Sunset Boulevard on the coldest night of the year when she stopped.

     “Oh no!” she said, frozen, her eyes fixed under a dumpster. She approached what looked like a frosted clump of fur.

     “Oh… Is that a dead… rat?” Pat asked.

     “Could you hold my purse for a moment?”

     She bent and stroked the clump with her pinkie until a squeak and a meow made Pat’s heart stop. The kitten opened its eyes, as though waking from a deep sleep. It teetered, squinting, and walked to Pat, licked his tattered Converse. What had once been ice was now dripping from its coat into a small, steaming puddle.

     Beyond what seemed to be her supernatural powers, she was beautiful. Her hair was dark brown yet somehow luminous, brighter than the whitest blonde, as though she were continually backlit. Her eyes changed from blue to gray to green depending on her mood. Blue when she was happy, gray when she was feeling compassionate, and green when she was being especially kind; the colors inevitably stirred themselves into two shimmering green, gray-blue pools.

     “Would you like to come to church with me?” she asked after he had walked her home.

     “Yeah, I’d love to.”

     “Great. It’s on Hoover and Alvarado. The Peoples Temple.”

     “Sounds great.”

 

A man with slick dark hair, sunglasses, sideburns, and a voice that slid easily into song led the congregation. He spoke and sang of freedom, racial equality, an end to class apartheid, to economic servitude, to all the injustices Jesus had decried nearly two millennia ago, and to which most modern Christians seemed oblivious.

     “We have no need for the condescending saviors who visit us from their judgement halls. All you need is Jesus to resurrect you. The keys of the resurrection are buried in your heart. Jesus put them there. The condescending saviors will drag you out of the gutter only after you shine their shoes. You’re not gonna be shining the Father’s shoes in Heaven, and you needn’t do so here. Burn your rag, family. Take your black rag and burn it. There are no rich in Heaven. There are no poor. And the Kingdom of Heaven is upon us.”

     The congregation ranged from toddlers to white-haired women, all of whom danced to black Gospel, well. Half the congregation actually were black, mainly from South Central; there were Koreans from just west of the Temple, Chinese from the north of it, Latinos from the south and east, and whites from the west and nearby USC. The reverend himself had several adopted children of color, and one white, the ‘homemade one,’ as Pat later heard him referred to.

     Pat was into it. These people took the Gospels for the radical directives they were; they were committed to selfless love that translated into genuine self-sacrifice. They were proper apostles.

     They sold their possessions, gave to the poor, bore each other’s burdens, loved their enemies, let the dead bury their dead, and took in the world’s widows and orphans, who counted as so many amongst them. It seemed like they were the first people he’d ever met to actually try Christianity.                                     

     “Thank you for coming, Brother.”

     “Thank you.”

     “Father Jones,” the preacher took his hand, crushed it, but somehow stroked it tenderly at once.

     “I’m Pat.”

     “Be blessed, Pat.

     “Thank you, Father.”

     Pat was dancing slightly as he filed from the church. Apparently he’d been dancing for most of the service. Hadn’t realized. He’d never danced before in the twenty-six years he’d been on earth. Yet, somehow, the steps came naturally.

     “What did you think?” Caroline asked, as they walked home.

     “Yeah, it was great,” he said, his feet still tapping every few steps.

 

Yet, when the next Sunday rolled around, Pat couldn’t drag himself out of bed. The duvet was heavy, warm. The bed like a hot tub, his room a tundra, or just a very cold bedroom.

     Yes, he’d had a great time, had enjoyed the music, agreed with the message, at least the bits to which he’d paid attention, and liked the people, but it just wasn’t his thing. He’d gone the first time because Caroline had asked. And he’d wanted to solidify the relationship. They had hung out three times since then, smoked some really special weed, gone to see Star Wars and The Rescuers – church no longer seemed necessary. He called Caroline and told her he’d go next week, which he did.

     So he became a sort of part-time member, or frequent guest, of the Los Angeles chapter of the Peoples Temple. He might join someday. But, for now, popping in with Caroline once a month seemed to keep her happy.

     Winter passed, as did spring, summer, and he and Caroline became permanent parts of each other’s lives. That is, it seemed not like they’d met nine months ago, but that they’d known each other since childhood, since before they’d even been born, since before time.

 

And then Pat’s phone rang.

     “I’m moving to Guyana…” he felt as though he were dying of stomach cancer. He slumped from his chair to the floor, where he lay, curled, the receiver whitening his ear. He knew it would happen one day. Knew she’d leave. She was too good to be true. Nothing, no one, so good could last.  He should’ve gone every Sunday. The Temple had been so important to her, and he couldn’t even bother to roll out of bed, shiver for a minute, and go. No wonder she was leaving.

     There were other things… he should have called more often, should’ve given her more and better back massages, should’ve bought her a whole cake for her birthday, not just the individual slice in the plastic container. But it was too late now. She was moving. She was moving from his life, forever. He wanted the stomach cancer to take him. Life without Caroline was worse than death. Of course, the cancer would take too long. He would shoot himself in the heart; there was a shotgun at his parents’ house, in the basement; he would use the wand from the magic kit that they had given him for his fifth birthday to reach the trigg—  “And I want you to come with me.”

     “Yes.”

 

The compound was a bit like paradise, as she’d told him it would be.

     Caroline had flown out ahead of him. He’d not heard from her since she had left, aside from the note about paradise, which included a small sketch of a kitten (that looked exactly like the one she’d brought back on their first date) staring into the sunset.

     He’d heard about the compound from the services he’d attended before the entire congregation had flown south. The San Francisco members had laid the groundwork, had cleared hundreds of acres of jungle, constructed a massive pavilion from native wood, built bungalows, cultivated simple crops. All Pat had to do was move in.

     From the tiny plane, it was a vast pale green square amidst the black jungle, almost a pool of lush light grass. He walked with six others from the rocky air strip. Within a minute, they were jogging, skipping, unable to keep their feet on the ground. And soon, the jungle swept back like a curtain, and a backlit brown head was running toward him.

     He ran, sprinted. And they hugged, spinning, her heart pounding into his, until the jungle blurred.

     They sang and danced that night with what must have been a thousand others. Old women, young men, toddlers hugged Pat as though he had been a lost son, brother, father. People he’d never met before said, “We love you, Brother,” and he knew they were telling the truth. These were people who had given up everything for love. People who were too good for the world they’d left behind. Whose hearts were huge, spilling. Hearts that had been spurned by the world, stepped on, swept under dumpsters, left to freeze in the night.

     “I love you, too,” Pat said to each and every one of them.

 

Pat picked fruit in the fields, ate simple meals, day-dreamed through meetings similar to the services on Alvarado, only which now occurred daily, and watched the sunsets with Caroline from their bungalow, a tiny one-room shack that was the greatest place he’d ever laid his head. The sunsets seemed to last for hours, days.

     He overheard a few whispers in the fields – beatings, bullying, a dog that had been hypnotized and made to do hard labor until it died – but he knew they weren’t true. Though it annihilated his heart to think that people who had been so badly treated in the world they had left behind, vulnerable, sweet, self-giving people, could suffer such treatment in a place that promised peace and pure love. It could not be. And he’d never seen any evidence of such. So he dismissed the possibility.

     Despite working the fields for twelve hours per day, he danced all night, every night. He’d never had more energy in his life. Perhaps it was that he’d never before accepted the love of God, given it, shared it, as he had then.

     It seemed to seep into their world through every imaginable crevice. The flowers were redder, whiter, bluer, than those in LA, the bees larger, furrier, their wings buzzing in an almost-melody. And they didn’t sting. The sunrises lasted so long, they seemed to meet the sunsets at noon. There was an unending sense of awe that hung over the camp.

     Yet however awesome it was, it still felt to Pat like a holiday, a year abroad, and not like home. He planned to head back to California with Caroline, someday, when the time was right. But for now, Jonestown was a beautiful place to be.

 

Pat had been at the commune for two weeks when the congressman arrived.

     There had been much talk of Congressman Ryan and his visit, which would be documented by an NBC news crew. It would be the Peoples’ chance to share their love with the wider world, to send it glowing into living rooms across the country, the globe.

     The children were scrubbed, their hair combed for the first time in days, weeks, the pavilion cleaned, the plates and cups washed in the Dawn that had been reserved for special occasions. Pat aired out his only collared shirt, hung it in the sun.

     They heard the plane before they saw it. A small glint stroked the sky. And within half an hour, though it felt like days, a silver-haired man in a wet white shirt and paisley tie emerged from the jungle. A child ran to greet him.

     That night, the congressman danced, ate, laughed with the near-thousand in the pavilion. His shirt half-open, his mouth never closed, stretched in a continually growing grin. He was given the Reverend’s mic. Asked to speak.

     “I think all of you know, I’m here to find out more about your operation. But I can tell you right now, from the few conversations I’ve had with folks here this evening, whatever the comments are, there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that ever happened in their whole life.”

     Pat’s shirt billowed. The roar was deafening. Everyone was on their feet, teeth bared, clapping, shouting, whistling. It was like a stadium of 60,000 after a World Series win, condensed, even louder, longer. And no one had lost. The only tears were of joy. The congressman smiled, shifted his weight, kept smiling, partly due to the awkwardness inherent in a twenty-minute standing ovation, but mostly from the love that he could not deny.

     His affirmation seemed to make the love they knew all the more poignant. That love, of course, was self-evident, self-affirming, didn’t need a US Congressman to seal it, but he seemed to represent a connection with the world that would now know that love; there was a sense that that world was already sharing it.

     Pat and Caroline’s room glowed gold the next morning, yet the sky was black in their window. He kissed Caroline’s forehead, her bare, swollen stomach, and strolled outside. The clouds were heavy, yet the sun was warm, bright, as though a spot-light were set on the scene.

     He heard laughter from the pavilion, faint song – a nursery rhyme – from another bungalow. The spotlight seemed to tilt away, and a crack of thunder rolled from the jungle, rattling the millions of leafs that surrounded them. The sky gushed within seconds. Pat jogged back to the bungalow. Caroline was still asleep.

     The storm hummed overhead. He lay beside Caroline, matched his breaths to hers. And, within minutes, his eyelids were heavy from the lulling drone and patter.

     “Please report to the pavilion! Everyone to the pavilion!” the PA boomed through the bungalow village. He didn’t know how long he’d been out.

     The sheets were warm, heavy. But Caroline was already on her feet, his hand in hers. She tugged, and he followed. He didn’t even have time to put his shoes on. It didn’t matter; it was always warm in Jonestown.

 

“How very much I’ve loved you,” Jones was calm. Seemed to speak almost in slow motion, slurring slightly. The pianist played in a melody that matched Jones’s voice, hitting only long, placid notes. The whole of the congregation stood packed in the pavilion, staring. Pat and Caroline were in the middle, his arm around her waist. “How very much I’ve tried my best to give you a good life. But in spite of all of my trying, a handful of our people, with their lies, have made our lives impossible. There’s no way to detach ourselves from what’s happened today.”

     Pat had no clue what had happened. Though none of the others appeared confused. Even Caroline, who had been asleep as well, seemed to know exactly what Jones was talking about.

     “Not only are we in a compound situation, not only are there those who have left and committed the betrayal of the century, some have stolen children from others, and they are in pursuit right now to kill them because they stole their children. And we are sitting here waiting on a powder keg. 

     “I don’t think this is what we want to do with our babies – I don’t think that’s what we had in mind to do with our babies. It is said by the greatest of prophets from time immemorial: ‘No man may take my life from me. I lay my life down.’”

     The crowd roared. Pat’s shirt billowed, the hot breeze tickling his back.

     “We’ve been so betrayed. We have been so terribly betrayed. But we’ve tried andif this only works one day, it was worthwhile.” A woman leaned in, her lips touched Jones’s ear. He lowered his head, raised it, the dark glasses flashing.

     “The congressman’s been murdered.” Pat must have heard wrong. The congressman had just been dancing, shirt open, teeth glowing where they stood now. “It’s all over, it’s all over. The congressman’s dead,” Jones confirmed. A few faces gaped, most were blank, other smiled, as though they had foreseen the congressman’s death, had foreseen it as something to be desired. “You think they’re gonna allow us to get by with this?” Jones asked. “You must be insane. They’ll torture our children here. They’ll torture our people. They’ll torture our seniors. We cannot have this.” He spoke rapidly, the calm in his voice evaporating, the pianist struggling, Jones’s sentences overlapping, as though he were cutting himself off. “We’ve got to go, people. We’ve got to go.” Caroline appeared calm. Stared straight ahead. “We’ve got to go to sleep.

     “If we can’t live in peace,” his voice had calmed again, as though an obvious solution had been reached, “then let’s die in peace.” Another cheer, a roar, gushed through the pavilion.

     “Anyone who has any dissenting opinion, please speak,” Jones said softly. A middle-aged black woman in a red dress about a size too small stood up. “Yes?”

     “When we destroy ourselves, we’re defeated. We let the enemy defeat us. I look at all the babies and I think they deserve to live.”

     “I agree. But what’s more, they deserve peace,” Jones said gently, and the congregation cheered. Pat saw his own hands clapping with them. Peace. Pat hadn’t been paying impeccable attention; had been focusing on Caroline’s back, her spine, shoulder blades, he’d been getting better at his massages, had been untying a knot in her neck with his right thumb when he withdrew it to applaud. They definitely deserved peace.

     A forty-something black man wearing a crumpled yellow, wide-collared shirt, probably the same one he’d worn to greet the congressman, stood up, smiled at the woman as if to reassure her, and addressed the room. “It’s like Dad said, when they come in, what they’re gonna do to our children – they’re gonna massacre our children. And also the ones that they capture, they’re gonna just let them grow up and be dummies like they want them to be. And not grow up to be a person like the one and only Jim Jones. So I’d like to thank Dad for the opportunity for letting Jonestown be not what it could be, but what Jonestown is. Thank you, Dad.”

     Jones smiled, let the applause die down. “It’s not to be feared. It is not to be feared. It is a friend. It’s a friend… Sitting there, show your love for one another. Let’s get gone. Let’s get gone. Let’s get gone. We had nothing we could do. We can’t – we can’t separate ourselves from our own people. For twenty years laying in some old rotten nursing home. Taking us through all these anguish years. They took us and put us in chains and that’s nothing,” Jones’s voice fluctuated, placid to ragged and back. Pat found himself stooped forward, as if to better understand.

     “They’ve robbed us of our land, and they’ve taken us and driven us and we tried to find ourselves. We tried to find a new beginning. But it’s too late. You can’t separate yourself from your brother and your sister. No way I’m going to do it. I refuse. I don’t know who fired the shot. I don’t know who killed the congressman. But as far as I am concerned, I killed him. You understand what I’m saying? I killed him.

     “So my opinion is that you be kind to children,” Jones continued, calm again, “and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide.”

     Not committing suicide. They were not committing suicide.

     Jones called for a solution to be mixed. Pat wasn’t sure if it was a metaphor. Wasn’t sure of much of anything. Had been day-dreaming again, the words floating, hazy, lost in the sunset that was beginning to dawn behind Jones.

     The pavilion grew quiet, still, as the light streamed in. The only things that seemed to move were sticks. Men with sticks were walking the perimeter. Guns, they were long guns, circling the pavilion. Five or six of them moving in opposite directions, throwing thin shadows over Caroline’s face, her swirling eyes.

     One of the armed men spoke to Jones. Put down his gun. Took a baby from a mother’s arms, carried it to a table, upon which was a brown vat, stirred by a young woman. The mother had let the man take her child, had handed it over. When it screamed, she stepped forward, stopped, her hands outstretched but unmoving, as though withheld by an invisible tether.

     Murmurs grew, the beginnings of cries rose from the children. Soft, questioning cries, like those that precede the full realization of a skinned knee.

     Another baby was taken. This mother didn’t let go. Yet she didn’t fight the woman who was taking her child, either. It was more like the mother was handing the baby to a relative, a grandmother, yet wanted just a few more moments.

     It was difficult to make out from where Pat stood, his hand crushing Caroline’s, hers stroking his. Something seemed to be placed in the child’s mouth, a pen, and the mother lunged.

     “Mother, mother, mother, mother, mother, please,” Jones called, crooning. “Mother, please, please, please. Don’t do this. Lay down your life with your child, but don’t do this. Let us not fall into the hands of the enemy. Hurry! Quickly! Quickly, quickly, quickly!”

     Pat watched, still. His heart had slowed, yet something seemed to cry in his throat, to match the sound the children were making. Warbling, ancient cries.

     “I just want to say something for everyone that I see that is standing around or crying,” a frail, forty-something woman was speaking into the mic, her white dress fluttering, slapping black, stick-thin legs. “This is nothing to cry about. This is something we should all rejoice about. We should be happy about this. They always told us that we cry when we’re coming into this world. So now we’re leaving it, and we’re leaving it peaceful. I think we should be happy about this. I was just thinking about Jim Jones. He just has suffered and suffered and suffered. I’m looking at so many people crying. I wish you would not cry. And just thank Father. Just thank him.” The people cheered, clapped, as though this were just another evening service. “I’ve been here about one year and nine months. And I never felt better in my life. I’ve had a very good life. I’ve had a beautiful life. I don’t see nothing that I could be sorry about. We should be happy. At least I am,” she handed the mic back to Jones.

     “It will not hurt, if you’ll be quiet,” he said. “This is a million times preferable to ten more days of this life. Death is common to all people. Adults! I call on you to quit exciting your children, when all they’re doing is going to their rest.”

     Caroline’s palm had moved up Pat’s shirt, as the toddlers, the children, the teenagers, walked, jerked from the pavilion, into the fields, and the vat grew larger. He and Caroline had been nearing it in unnoticeable increments.

     A man with an afro that glowed in the sunset turned to the mic, said, “You go from that crippled body, you step into the one you want to have,” and stepped away, the afro going dark.

     “It’s the only way to step,” Jones took the mic, as a particularly high-pitched child screeched. “It’s only hard at first. It’s only hard at first. Please. For God’s sake, let’s get on with it. We’ve lived – we’ve lived as no other people lived and loved. We’ve had as much of this world as you’re gonna get. Let’s just be done with it. Let’s be done with the agony of it. It’s far, far harder to have to walk through every day, die slowly. And from the time you’re a child ’til the time you get gray, you’re dying.” He sat down in his chair, crossed his legs.

     “The adults can begin,” Jones said, business-like. “No more, no more, no more. Just relax.”

     An elderly black woman drank from the vat with both hands, stumbled from it into her son’s arms. He held her, squeezed her to stop her shaking. It worked.

     “We laid down. We got tired,” Jones said. A dancing woman screamed, foam floating from her lips, carried by the wind. “Don’t be this way. There’s nothing to death. It’s just stepping over into another plane. Die with a degree of dignity – this is not suicide. This is an act of revolution. And even if that – even if that… at least we did something; we tried. And that alone is protest against an inhumane world. A world that didn’t want us, didn’t want our love, just like it didn’t want our Lord, two thousand years ago.”

     A woman on the edge of the pavilion shook a baby that was quiet, although its eyes were wide. Her mouth foamed, dripped down her cheeks, and the convulsions slowed. The cry in Pat’s throat had seemed to solidify. Seemed to have become a chunk of gristle, trapped, growing, yet of which he was barley aware.

     “Free at last, free at last. No more pain now. No more pain. No more pain. We just want peace.”

     A young black man, nineteen or twenty years old, with whom Pat had danced almost every night over the past two weeks, who had taught him a move in which they had both done the splits simultaneously, held the mic, his body still. “All I want to say is that my so-called parents are filled with hate and treachery. All I say is I think you people out here should think about how your relatives were and be glad that the children are being laid to rest. And all I’d like to say is that I thank Dad for making me strong to stand with it all and make me ready for it. Thank you.” The young man hugged Jones, who nodded, patted his back once, took the mic back.

     “All they’re doing is taking a drink,” Jones said. “They used to sing: ‘This world is not our home.’ Well it sure isn’t. One thousand people. We set an example. We said we don’t like the way the world is. We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide. Protesting the conditions of an inhumane world. We left this world. They didn’t want us. And we had the dignity to leave it. We had the dignity, like our Lord, to leave it.”

     Slowly, it came to look like a sleepover.

     And through it, Pat’s feet moved silently, one after the other, his hand in Caroline’s. He smelled urine, vomit. The bell-bottoms with black crotches came into focus. Why hadn’t he done anything? Why hadn’t he taken Caroline, ran? This church had never even been his thing in the first place. Why hadn’t he snatched babies, children, taken as many as he could? Ran for the jungle. He could have fought, dodged the gunmen, fled the crowd that surrounded on all sides but which, he saw now, had disappeared in front of him. There was the brown vat. Caroline had brought the cup to his lips. Tasted quite decent; like blue Kool-Aid yet not too sweet.

     She said, “Please hold me,” and he did. They walked outside, sat down, laid down, Caroline shaking, trembling, her head knocking drops from the tall grass, making a small storm that rained into a small puddle. His stomach burned, his throat foamed, spilled down his cheeks and onto her hair, hair that was haloed, radiating gold, shining brighter than was humanly possible.      

THE END                                                      

 

Note: This is not a factually accurate piece of historical fiction. And while much of Jones’s and other Peoples Temple members’ dialogue has been appropriated directly from recordings and transcripts, some lines have been rearranged and their content edited, omitted, and/or invented.