Find Me at the Gates
Table of Contents
May 29, 2012
May 29, 2012
Why I Left India
February 29, 2012 Wednesday
Back in the USA
March 5, 2012 Monday
A Toast to the Remodeled Condo
April 29, 2012
The Last Real Thing I Remember
May 30, 2012
A Visit to Old Terrace Street
June 2, 2012 Saturday
Copyright 2012. Nori Muster, the author, retains all rights to the literary content and design of this book. This special edition of Find Me at the Gates appears exclusively at norimuster.com. All rights reserved. Nori wrote this story in 1991, during a Chemeketa Community College writing workshop, in Salem, Oregon.
May 29, 2012
It can't be, I thought, pulling over to the curb. The band of Indian men chanting Krishna songs and dancing looked as if they belonged in the last century. They were a blur of saffron cloth, drums, and ponytails. The performers danced barefoot on a Persian carpet, their sandals in a pile to the side. Who are they? The World Krishnas had been gone since the 1980s, especially from my life. The temple that once stood on the site where the men now danced had once been my home. Unfortunately, the place met an ironic end after court cases forced the organization into bankruptcy. A nearby movie studio purchased the property (along with a few neighboring parcels) in 2000 and built Cinema City, a movie theme park that opened in 2002.
The temple and other World Krishna Society buildings were leveled to make way for a preview theater, movie-theme shopping mall, rides, movie sets, and a movie history museum. It was a busy corner now. I sat in my car observing the chanters. They seemed out of place, but people stopped to watch the music. Some even joined in, dancing or singing along.
When the temple had closed down, I moved to San Francisco to stay with my family. My mother and stepfather own a Victorian house near Golden Gate Park with so many rooms six people could live there comfortably. While there, I attended grad school and wrote my book, spent a decade as an organizational counselor, then decided to go to India.
In the solitude of my car, listening to the echoes of my former life, I started to wonder what would have happened if the organization had been honest. It was easy to visualize the peach-colored temple with cement steps and cool marble floor; the sound of conch shells and bells. Sweet memories. After one last look at the chanters, I took off from the curb.
The chanters were there every time I drove by after that. I had parked several times over the last months to watch them chant. Krishna had been back in my life after the trip to India, but the priest in Ramesvaram taught me to relate to him as a friend, on equal terms. He taught me to trust myself, not place my trust in a guru with clay feet. The futility of trying to acquire a guru was illustrated in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her friends set off for the Emerald City. Dorothy had the power within herself, so she didn't need the Wizard. The Wizard was, after all, just an ordinary man who had gotten lost just like her.
One early July evening, as I watched the chanters, I felt compelled to investigate, so I decided to park in the tower and find out who they were.
Entering Cinema City on the sky ride, I could see the gates from above. They were like the Roman walls in northern England, thick, built with heavy stone. Along the top is a walkway with guard posts above the seven pillars. They flew the flags of America and California, with hundreds of smaller flags representing other states and countries. Thick carved wooden doors were propped open when the park was open, allowing people to pass freely under the gate's stone arches.
As the tram descended into the park, I tried to visualize the layout of the old temple. The site where the temple had once stood was now a monument to popular movie stars, a huge, white domed building reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol. Everything else was unrecognizable. Cinema City had torn up the asphalt and demolished all the buildings.
The tram stopped just inside the gates, but instead of following the crowd to the ticket booths, I went back outside through the gates. The jingling of brass cymbals and beating of clay drums filled the air. The chanting was more musical than the chanting they did in the organization. Back then it was all about how loud and fast you could chant, how high you could jump, and how much energy you could generate running back and forth. These chanters struck me as classical Indian musicians with an unlimited resource of melodies.
Observers came and went. The music began to wind down. One of the men addressed the crowd while the others packed up their instruments. His accent sounded Indian, perhaps Bengali. "While you've been watching, you've been seeing and hearing god. Thank you all for stopping. I hope you will chant the names of god."
As the crowd broke up, I stepped up to the man and bowed slightly. "Good evening," I said, slightly nervous. "Did you know this used to be a World Krishna temple?"
"Come," the man said, placing his hand gently on my arm. He led me through the departing crowd to a bench, where the other musicians were packing their instruments.
"Please sit down. We can talk."
Two or three devotees gathered behind us, listening. They all had dark skin and were dressed in cotton robes. Some wore beads or silk necklaces. Two of the men had shaven heads; the others had short hair with long ponytails.
"My name is Ganga," the man said. "What is your name, madam?"
Ganga and the other men laughed.
"What's the matter?" I asked, looking around at everyone listening in.
"We . . ." Ganga couldn't stop chuckling to catch his breath. "Last week our grandfather in India said one messenger would come. Now here you are. What is the chance? We will tell Grandfather about this!"
The men laughed warmly. It reminded me of the casual evenings in India, talking with the villagers. It made me yearn to return to India, and I would, except for my job at I.C. Inc. There were now six men huddled around me, obviously lifted directly from an Indian village.
"Miss Messenger, do you know where we are from?" Ganga asked.
"No, but maybe you're World Krishnas," I guessed.
The men broke into another wave of laughter. Now all twelve were gathered around.
"Just see, our messenger thinks we are World Krishnas," Ganga said. This brought more laughter from the others.
I laughed now, too, unsure of the meaning behind the joke.
"We are from Vaikuntha," one of the men said.
I recognized Vaikuntha as a Sanskrit word for the spiritual world of Krishna, the godhead, or heaven.
"No, no," Ganga gasped for breath, trying to control his laughter. "Just say we are from India."
"Yes, India," the other man said.
"But are you related?" I asked. "The World Krishna Society came from India. There were many members in India."
"This World Krishna organization," Ganga looked up at the faces of the men around the bench, nodding and smiling at them. "We know this World Krishna group, yes? Some of these World Krishna people came on pilgrimage to our village."
"Your place in India?"
"Yes, Vaikuntha, a district of West Bengal."
"But why?" I wondered out loud.
"Why are we coming here?" Ganga laughed again, followed by a ripple of laughter from the other men.
"What are you doing here? This was the World Krishna Society, right here!"
"We chant here because this spot is good," Ganga said. "Many people come to listen."
"But did you know this was once a World Krishna temple?" I said, pointing toward the Cinema City gates.
"We know." Ganga grinned, showing perfect white teeth behind his smile. "I have been here before to see the temple. Many years ago."
"You came here when it was a temple?"
"Yes, yes." Ganga smiled, looking into my eyes.
I studied the dark devotee. He looked older than he had appeared at first. He must have been close to my age.
"I lived here once," I said.
"We know." Ganga smiled, nodding at the others. The men began talking to each other in their own language.
I sat on the bench with my sweater draped around my shoulders. The night was warm, but with a slight, cool breeze.
"Miss Messenger," Ganga finally said, addressing me again. "We need your help. This is a good spot for chanting, but today the guard came out. He asked to see our permit. But we have no permit. We want you to get us a permit to chant here. We must talk to the community officer in the pyramid."
I made arrangements to meet Ganga inside the Cinema City pyramid the next morning, then we parted. I took the last sky ride back to the parking lot. It felt as though I was flying. They're from India, Bengal, India, yes, of course, where else? That was where the chanting of Krishna songs had originated. Most of the Hindus in Calcutta knew the religion; it was even more popular in the rural areas of the region.
The World Krishnas used to have a hundred-acre parcel in an outlying district north of Calcutta. They had built a temple and guesthouse there. During my years in the World Krishna group, I had visited the place several times. But in the last thirty years, Bengali devotees had taken over the property. They were generally inhospitable to World Krishna members, claiming the temple as their own. Maybe these men were from the branch of the World Krishna Society in Bengal that had broken ties with the Western, non-Hindu devotees. If so, why would they come to Los Angeles to chant? Also, they seemed so aloof from the wars of competition that had engulfed the World Hare Krishnas and their splinter groups.
Once home, J.D., my Australian shepherd, greeted me jumping and barking. The dog wagged its tail and barked.
"You missed me, boy, didn't you?"
He yawned and whined softly, still wagging his tail.
I heated up some rice and checked my answering machine. Max had left two messages. First there were some emergencies he needed to talk about. The second message said the emergency had blown over, but he still wanted to meet with me the next day.
"Well, how about that, J.D.?" I said, "The crisis was solved without me."
J.D., lying on the floor, perked up his ears and looked at me.
May 29, 2012
I walked through the cement jungle parking structure, straight to my car and got in. The BMW passed to me when my father died and it has been a good, reliable car for me for twenty-three years. The car was silver (like my hair now) and I had always enjoyed driving it. The engine purred with a sense of urgency. The music from the stereo sounded as clear as if it were playing in my own living room.
My plan was to leave the office to do a few errands, including a stop at the University Medical Center to pick up information for the project. Everything was on track. Even though I felt more like a figurehead than a facilitator, they said they appreciated my contributions over the last month since I became involved.
Soon I found myself stuck in traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard. The light was still green when I inched into the intersection to attempt a left turn and head north.
This had been my old neighborhood in the 1990s, so I usually enjoyed driving through. Suddenly a squealing of tires and crash of metal filled the air. I held the steering wheel, unsure of what was happening. Everything was a blur behind my gasping for breath and cry for help. Perhaps I'd had a premonition there would be an accident, but no, this was just going to be a pleasant drive into West Los Angeles.
The scene was bathed in utter darkness as people ran toward the car. I felt around for the door handle. I knew it was still daylight, but my peripheral vision was gone. A truck sat in the middle of the intersection with a twisted fender and broken headlight. Horns honked and finally sirens started and grew louder as they approached. Cacophony, shouts, crying; poor me, pinned helplessly behind the steering wheel, looking at faces pressed against the window. Daylight gradually returned, the sirens faded into the distance.
"I can't get out," I said, trying to roll down the window.
A man wearing brown slacks and a white, long sleeved shirt came out of the crowd. He opened the door and knelt beside me. The onlookers seemed to pull back.
"You aren't hurt too badly, are you dear?" He had cheerful eyes, red hair and a drunken smile.
"I can't tell."
"Your car isn't badly damaged. If you have the fender replaced, that should fix 'er up."
"But I'm trapped. Look at that truck over there." But when I looked at the intersection again, it was clear. Traffic was moving smoothly again.
"You had your seatbelt on," the man said. "Just undo it."
I pushed the release button, causing the belt to retract, and suddenly I was free to get out. A few more deep breaths made me feel more relaxed. Perhaps the car wasn't hurt too badly. But my hands were shaking.
"Let's see if you can walk."
The man offered his hand, assisting me out of the car. The fender was badly damaged, but there was no other evidence of an accident. What about the other driver?
"Let's think about you, huh?" the man said, as if in response to my thoughts. His eyes conveyed sympathy and warmth.
I nodded, unable to speak.
"What should we do about your car? How about this: get in and we'll see if it drives. It would be best to get it off the road, don't you think?" He led me around to the passenger side and helped me get in, before settling himself into the driver's seat. He started the car and drove carefully, completing my left turn and pulling into the driveway of a business establishment. He parked and turned off the motor.
I looked at the sign above the door of the building. "It's a body shop. Can you believe our luck?"
"Yes, we're just lucky today," he said. "Look, I have another appointment, or I would stay." He gave my hand a reassuring squeeze, then turned and started off down the street.
It seemed a miracle. I felt fine, except a little jittery, and with a dent in my fender. The body shop had four service bays, each with a wide garage door. Dozens of cars filled the parking lot; some of them badly damaged. Wishing I'd never come back to L.A., I sat there dazed, missing India.
Why I Left India
February 29, 2012
I had put off returning to the States and all it would entail: moving from San Francisco to my condo in Venice Beach, starting a new job in my family's business. India seemed so distant. Visiting the spot where I spread my father's ashes twenty-three years before had been an intense experience. Going back there helped me find peace with the world. Ramesvaram, a rural town in the South, was still a private paradise, just as it had been in 1989. The view from my hotel window was exactly the same: the Indian Ocean with islands in the distance; black crows playing in the branches of nearby palms.
My father was not religious, but since I had been a member of an Eastern guru group at the time, he said it would be okay with him to spread his ashes in India. He died peacefully at home after a two and a half-year battle with cancer. He was grateful for every day of life in those last thirty months and said 1988, his last year, had been the best year of his life. The island where we spread his ashes was visible from my hotel window.
It was ridiculous to graduate college, then go look for a guru. It was the fashion then, but looking back now it seems futile, like looking for a surrogate father figure to take care of me. Spending time in India again made me realize how much regret I had been carrying about my involvement in the group. I kept a journal the whole year in India and wrote about my religious feelings. I loved India and wished I could stay there forever.
I ate breakfast in the hotel, it had a sophisticated British feel, with its bleached white buildings, tidy boundary wall and flags atop every pillar. I checked out and said goodbye to the kindly Indian gentleman at the desk, then walked outside and hired a rickshaw. The driver put my suitcases into the back of his canopied, three-wheel scooter and opened the door for me. The rickshaw rattled as we sped down the driveway and out the open gates of the hotel grounds.
We buzzed down the road, with the ocean to our left. Several pilgrims stood waist-deep in the warm, sacred water, poised in prayerful reverence. Temple pagodas and ashrams had become a familiar sight along the shore. The Ramesvaram temple was on our right. A group of villagers walked down the road carrying bundles of food on their heads.
We continued on toward the bus station. It was just about eight a.m. We passed through an open-air market crowded with animals, motorized scooters, cars, and rickshaws. The floral scents of incense hovered in the warm air, blending with the smell of frying bread, as shopkeepers prepared their morning meals. It was an exciting chaos of bells and honking, people bustling, and merchants speaking in Telegu and English. The stalls displayed posters of the gods, strings of meditation beads, and flower garlands for offering. Every shop had set out trays of tilak, vibhuti, and kumkum, the clay, ashes, and red powder religious Hindus use to mark their third eye. Straw awnings extended from the stalls, forming a roof over the marketplace, to block the hot mid-day sunshine.
My driver navigated the crowded scene and took me to the temple where I had spread my father's ashes. I wanted to see it one last time and say goodbye to the priest. After that, the rickshaw driver took me back into town, to the bus station. I found a seat on the bus and waited as passengers gradually filled the empty seats. The driver jumped on, started the engine, then jumped off. Beggars passed down the aisle soliciting donations, then left. More passengers got on until the bus was full, then the driver got back on, closed the door, clashed the gears, and the bus growled and rolled out of the station.
The bustling marketplace gradually gave way to neighborhoods of simple bungalows and then to farmland. We crossed a suspension bridge with wide views of the Indian mainland and continued down the narrow highway. Brightly painted lorries seemed to head straight toward us on the narrow strip of highway, but then veer off to the right shoulder at the last minute. Indian drivers drive on the left and punctuate these maneuvers with honking, and our driver honked vigorously at every vehicle we passed. The Tamil Nadu countryside was dotted with farms. Beyond the fields rose brown, rocky mountains with thickets of palm trees around their base. Occasional clusters of roofs or a temple cupola showed through the trees.
After a few hours, the bus pulled into a village. Beggars and merchants crowded around the vehicle, hoping to catch our attention. A woman sold me some bananas, making the exchange through my window. Back on the road, I offered bananas to the other passengers and got them to tell me about the local news. Barreling down the monotonous, dusty road had a hypnotic effect. The dry air was too warm despite the air conditioning. Heat mirages played on the road. After a while I dozed off.
At four p.m. the bus pulled into Madras. I got off, claimed my bags and caught a taxi to the airport. I thought about the moving company that had been storing my belongings for the past year. All they needed was a phone call and twenty-four hour notice. It was so simple, yet the thoughts tumbled around in my mind. It was difficult to relax in the rumbling black taxi, hoping all the flight connections would go smoothly. The driver turned off his motor at every red light, perhaps to conserve gasoline. At last we pulled into the Madras airport, where the driver put my suitcases on the curb and sped away. I was still in India, but was already starting to miss it.
The airport was a simple cement building with a paved parking lot on one side and a runway on the other. Groups of taxi drivers stood in the shade, smoking and talking. Some wore cotton sarongs tied around the waist, while others wore cotton drawstring pants with faded cotton shirts. The day had been hot, but was quickly slipping into evening. A porter pointed at my suitcases and I nodded, offering him some rupees. He tossed the heavy bags on his head and balanced them with one hand. "Follow me," he said. He was tall and thin, probably from the North and old. He went through swinging glass doors and I went after, trying to keep up with him. He stopped at the check-in counter, set the bags gently on the ground, then disappeared into the crowd.
I checked in and soon boarded the plane. It felt good to fall into the plane's cushioned comfort. It would take another several days to reach Los Angeles. After this flight I would spend a couple nights in New Delhi, then catch another plane that would take me as far as Tokyo. I had several time changes still ahead.
It was a fateful decision to return to Los Angeles, a city that held so many memories. Maybe everything after that, including the mysterious chanters, was meant to be.
Back in the USA
March 5, 2012
I woke up wondering where I was. A wall clock said eight o'clock. My watch said 21:30, still on India time. It was obviously morning, because of the new day sun shining through lacy white curtains. I could see the tops of the ficus trees; it was the hundreds of birds singing that awakened me. I took a shower, letting the water pound my back for a long time.
Sure was nice of my brother and Alison to let me stay. The strangeness melted away and I felt comfortable, at home in familiar surroundings. After my shower I put on a bathrobe and slippers left for visitors in the closet. The house was a Spanish split-level with Mediterranean furniture. The hall carpet was a wine red color to match most of the furnishings and dark wood walls. My brother, Ray, looked up from the den to the top of the stairs and called out, "Good morning." Alison was working in the kitchen. Ray was reading the paper at the breakfast table, which was splashed with light from large patio windows.
"Did you sleep well?" he asked, folding his paper, as I took a seat. "Allison's putting on some breakfast. Tell us about your trip. You were a little out of it last night."
Alison came in, setting hot pancakes, oatmeal, a carton of milk, butter, and sugar on the table, then sitting down next to Ray. "Your letter about your father was so touching," she said, searching my face, perhaps noticing how I had changed in India. "Your photos were great. We both cried."
"Going back there made me realized how open minded he was to let me take his ashes to India, especially considering how the rest of the family felt about my involvement with the World Krishnas," I said.
"But we were right about the group," Ray said.
"It was so different for Don," Alison said.
"Because our stepfather died unexpectedly." Ray looked up at his soul mate for a moment.
We passed the bowls of food around until we all had filled our plates.
We ate heartily in silence for a few minutes, then turning to me, Ray asked, "Are you glad to be home from India?"
I wanted to say more about my trip and my writing, but I could sense Ray wanted me to say yes and be ready to talk about business. He invited me to come back because he thought I'd be perfect for some work he had.
"I'm glad to be back. What's happening at I.C. Inc.?"
"Well, now that you're here, I can't wait to get you started," Ray said. He had bought the business when our father died and turned it from a chemical manufacturing into a chemical clean-up company. They did everything from asbestos removal to oil spills and wetland restoration, but the new project was more ambitious. It involved research to address the climate crisis. I.C. Inc. was on hold for a year waiting to see if the necessary grants would materialize. When they did, my brother contacted me to come home and help manage the project.
"You two talk business," Alison said. "I have to get to work too. Make yourself at home, Ann. Ray has somebody to help with your condo." She took a few dishes to the kitchen, then disappeared into her studio.
"Have you been inside my place?" I asked. "What's the prognosis?"
"Just the usual wear and tear. Anyway, it's Monday. I'll take you over there on my way to work. My guy is already scheduled to meet you there about noon."
The waves were breaking just yards away, casting salt into the ocean breeze. I put the key in the gate, letting myself into the condominium complex. Located in Venice, on Ocean Front Walk, my condo was right on the beach, with a view of the water. It was very much like the view from my hotel in India. The building was modern and spacious, built in the 1950s by a respected architect. The windows were especially beautiful, the way they brought the beauty of the ocean inside, into the structure of the building. It was love at first sight when I bought it as an investment long ago. I had always dreamed of living there; now my dream was about to come true.
I turned the key and stepped inside. One word came to mind: cats. Opening all the windows and doors helped air it out. Unfortunately, I would have to re-carpet. Digging through my purse, I found some incense left over from India and lit it. Ray had already asked his contractor friend to bring a painter and carpet man along. I had a few hours to kill, so I walked out on the beach. The waves broke with primordial rythm, just like in India. My fears I would forget about god vanished. Everything felt perfect, as though meant to be. It seemed like the world was all complete harmony and peace, even if just for that hour.
After a long walk, I still had time before the contractor was due. I used my brother's extra cell phone to call the utility companies, arranging to have the power, phones, and gas put in my name, then walked around each room trying to decide what kind of carpet I wanted and where to put my furniture. The contractor arrived and spent an hour inspecting and writing an estimate for the many small repairs the place needed. His bid seemed okay, so I gave him a set of keys. His painter arrived and we looked at paint chips, choosing an off-white for the walls and sea green for the trim. Then the carpet man showed up and we looked at carpet samples and talked for about an hour. He also sold me on some curtains, which made the whole thing a bit more expensive, but thanks to the contractor, I got about five days' worth of work done in one day. The place looked bad, but there were no structural problems, and according to the contractor, the electrical and plumbing were fine. That was a relief. My furniture would look great. My antique stereo and TV cabinet could go here, my candy striped French chair there; my big comfortable couch would be perfect in front of the fireplace.
That night I told Ray and Alison my place would be ready in four weeks. Alison invited me to stay, but I needed to pick up my dog in San Francisco and spend some time with our mother up there.
A Toast to the Remodeled Condo
April 29, 2012
"I propose a toast," Ray said, holding up his glass, "to your new home."
Ray, Alison, and my new business associate, Max, sat around my antique wooden dining table. The weather was nice, so we left the windows open and we could hear the ocean.
"Ray, your contractor did a great job," I said raising my glass. "To the condo!"
Ray, Alison, Max, and I clinked our glasses.
Max had brown and gray hair like mine, and he let it lay loose around his white collar. He was the most attractive man I had seen in a long time.
"Max, you will like working with Ann," Alison said. "She's an excellent organizational psychologist."
"Yes, I have read your books," Max said.
We had a wonderful feast of organic green garden salad, pasta, soup, and drinks.
"I can't wait for you to see your new office, Ann," Ray said, passing the salad to Alison. "It's in our corporate headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard. You have a view of West Hollywood. You'll love it."
When we were finished with dinner, they helped me carry the plates and silver back to the kitchen and we loaded the dishwasher. I put on the kettle for tea and coffee and surprised them with a chocolate chip pie. The four of us settled down in the living room to talk about the new projects at I.C. Inc.
J.D. ambled in and curled up at my feet. Such a happy dog! My mother had hardly wanted to give him up.
The United Nations had gotten things started in 2010. Predictions of weather changes and melting icecaps were coming true, so the U.N. proposed a worldwide day of prayer for guidance. They invited every religion and denomination in the world to participate. For atheists and religions where the concept of prayer was absent, they called for the equivalent: a day of awareness. Although most people in the world took part, many thought nothing would happen. However, the following week, scientists in eleven countries simultaneously dreamed the sap from specific flowering plants would neutralize greenhouse heat. The dreamers woke up with strong feelings about how to manufacture the solution and add it to the air, water, and ground.
I looked up the dreams on the I.C. Inc. web site. The scientists left vivid records, and as I suspected, the dreams included spiritual imagery. Each of the dreams had specific information about the smell of the plant molecules. They said it smelled like rain or lotus petals. The plant rain bonded to free radicals to form a protective coating in the sky. Bonding images occurred in each scientists' dream. Many reported images of split atoms tearing the fabric of reality, or burning through it like a cigarette coal might burn through cloth. Tears from the flowers healed the wounds.
Each dreamer reported images of plants growing inside towers. The plants all had something to contribute, but certain plants could help more than others. There the dreamers' accounts differ. Some said it was the enzymes of the plant, while others just had a vague impression of a leafy green plant with flowers would supply the chief ingredients. They saw fountains atomize the solution, sending molecules floating into the sky like little umbrellas to shade and protect the earth.
Three of the dreamers felt strongly enough to dedicate themselves to discovering the formula for the dream substance. One of them happened to live in Russia and she took the lead in manufacturing the plant solution to restore the Barents Sea, one of the most radioactive bodies of water on earth. The other two worked on ways to release the molecules into the atmosphere.
Now it was up to I.C. Inc. to implement the scientists' work and save reality. I still had several moving boxes to unpack, but all that would take care of itself.
The view from my seventh story office was of the L.A. County Art Museum, Hancock Park, and the La Brea tar pits. It was exciting to visit the art museum and become a member once again. The Hollywood Hills rose majestically beyond the park and condo towers. Hollywood had been through changes since the 1950s when my parents had moved there. In the 1960s hippies had sold their psychedelic newspapers on the Strip; in the 1970s, the culture changed to drug dealing and prostitution - the dark days of Hollywood. In the 1980s, the commercial property owners formed a neighborhood association that set its sights on prosperity. Ever since then, expensive restaurants and specialty boutiques had prospered on the Strip.
Besides being beautiful, the view had sentimental value. Our father had bought a hilltop home above Sunset Strip after his divorce from our mother when we were young teenagers. My brother and I had taken turns living with our father, then our mother, when we weren't off at college.
Sunset Strip had cleaned up early, but it was only on the cusp of the new century that the rest of Hollywood finally came around. Patches of the city suddenly and inexplicably became safe again, and the new subway brought more tourists. About the same time, new entertainment centers opened and people took more interest in preserving the old art deco buildings. Tourists discovered the authentic treasures of movie history that had previously been covered, like a place of pilgrimage that had nearly been lost. Now the city thrives.
I sat at my desk, gazing at the hills for a long time before a friendly knock at the door woke me from my daydreams.
"Got a minute?" It was Max. He leaned on the open door and smiled.
"Oh, come in, sit down," I said, motioning to an overstuffed white couch near the window.
"Thank you. We have some things to go over. Actually, things are going pretty well." He loosened his tie slightly, then spread paper across the coffee table.
"You're doing all the work, aren't you?" I asked. "We should be online by late summer."
"Actually, it's better than it looks. This is the chemical engineer's report. Here are the test results from the ecological department. Here are some schematics from the facilitator proposing time schedules and listing the obstacles to completion."
We worked for several hours, going over the specifics of the project. I had grown attached to Max in the month we had been working together. When he left, I felt lonely, staring out the window at my past. The fluorescent lighting inside made it look like my own reflection was superimposed over the city where I had grown up. I felt disturbed, like there was still something I did not understand. It was ironic, since going to India was supposed to put the matter of my past to rest. Now it hung like a question mark across the glass wall of my office. It bothered me enough to make me decide to go out for a drive and get away. I told the receptionist I would be back later that afternoon, then took the elevator to the basement garage.
It was not my destiny to return to the office that day, because that was the day of my imaginary car wreck. It was also the first day I saw the chanters.
The Last Real Thing I Remember
May 30, 2012
Sunbeams shining through the bedroom window woke me just after six. I'd been dreaming about a house and the people in it. Soon, I was dressed and driving toward the seven-story glass and brick Cinema City pyramid. Although the building looked the same, the surrounding area had changed. The neighborhood seemed more prosperous. The same old buildings were still there, but they looked better than ever.
I wound down the circular driveway to the underground parking lot, then took the elevator to the main lobby, a massive room, enclosed in tinted glass. A fountain in the middle of the room splashed water into a tile basin. The front half was open, with escalators lifting people to tiers of balconies and offices above. Toward the back, under a drop-ceiling, a low glass and steel fence marked the perimeter of the restaurant. Ganga said he would meet me there, so I sat down at an empty table.
Waiters in black trousers, white shirts, and red vests moved through the area as if in a choreographed dance, carrying trays of drinks and food at shoulder height. Soft music filled the air. The atmosphere was utopian. When a waiter approached, I ordered a glass of iced peppermint tea.
I took out my list of things to do and studied it. The tea the waiter brought had a sprig of mint floating with the ice cubes. It was now three minutes to nine.
Ganga walked in with a cheerful gait and pulled back a chair to sit down. "Sister, I am glad you're here." In his Indian robes he looked like one of the cultural ambassadors in the U.N. building in New York. People of most countries these days were reviving their cultural roots.
"I haven't waited too long. Anyway, you look nice this morning. Why don't you go with me to talk to the officials?"
"Whatever you think," Ganga said, shrugging.
"I need to understand a little more about who you are. When we go in there we must appear united and focused on what we want."
"This is true. My friends and I came to this country at the request of Mr. Ravi Vedanayagam, a businessman in Inglewood. He came from my village, but moved to America in 1980. He owns a big hotel near the airport. One year ago, when he visited India, he invited the village men to come with him to America. I have been here since September last and we will return home soon."
"Why can't he help get the permits?"
"He is a very busy, but I told him we met an American woman who can help us. Now he wants to meet you."
"I would be honored," I said, thoroughly intending to meet Mr. Vedanayagam at the earliest opportunity. Ganga also ordered iced peppermint tea and we discussed our plans for some time.
When we were ready, we checked the building directory and took the elevator to the fifth floor to the public relations office, where a young woman in a plaid suit was answering the phones and greeting people who came through the door.
"Do you have an appointment?" she asked, smiling pleasantly, but very businesslike.
"My name is Ann Messenger, I'm an executive for I.C. Inc. This is my friend, Mr. Ganga. "We would like a permit for Mr. Ganga and his associates to play music in front of your property on Venice Boulevard."
The receptionist looked flustered as she punched buttons on the telephone, trying in vain to reach someone. Finally, she pulled off her headset and walked to one of the back offices. When she returned, she brought an older blonde woman in a brown cotton suit.
"Ms.--" the blonde woman began.
"My name is Dr. Messenger, Ann Messenger. Pleased to meet you." I extended my hand.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Ganga said, bowing his head.
"Please come in. My name is Sally Richardson." Sally led us into her office, an enclosed balcony with a view of the lobby below. Instead of sitting at her long, wooden desk, Sally directed us to a sofa and three chairs. We all sat down.
"My client is a representative of a Hindu sect called 'Vaishnavism,' " I began. "He and some of his associates are visiting our country from Bengal, India, as ambassadors of foreign culture. For several months they have been performing traditional religious music in front of Cinema City park."
"Oh, yes," Sally said, with a slight southern drawl in her voice. "Well, we've asked them to stop chanting there because their activities are dangerous to pedestrians."
"Dangerous?" I asked.
"They present a traffic hazard." Sally jutted her chin out; her voice had a distinct coldness to it.
I meditated for a moment, trying to understand her harsh attitude.
"I'm sorry, but we don't allow these things," Sally said.
"Are you afraid their singing will turn people away from the park?" I asked.
"Our concern is safety. What if there's an incident? We would be liable. The World Krishnas' presence blocks pedestrian traffic. We can't have that."
"My client is a representative of a respected, traditional religion. Cinema City could play a vital role in spreading cultural awareness. These men draw quite a crowd, but their presence doesn't create any hazard."
"This man looks like a World Krishna member to me," Sally interrupted. "We don't want any quarrels with those people. We don't want them protesting in front of our place. It's our property now, Ms. Messenger. We bought it in 2000."
"Dr. Messenger," I corrected.
"Okay, Dr. Messenger." Sally paused, shaking her head slightly. "Dr. Messenger? Seems like I've heard that name before."
"I've written some books about organizational psychology."
"Yes, that's it. I'm familiar with your writing. Oh, I'm so pleased to meet you." Sally put out her hand to shake mine.
"Sally, I of all people wouldn't be here representing this gentleman unless he and his friends were completely legitimate. You certainly must agree cultural sharing is important for fostering world unity. Just think, your company has a perfect opportunity to do its part. All you have to do is say yes right now."
Sally broke the gaze to take a deep breath. "Okay, but someone higher than me must give the final approval. Tell you what, I will bring it up at the next staff meeting and contact you. In the meantime, the music can continue. But before you go, I'd like to have you sign a statement confirming they are actually from India, not part of a fringe group that will harass our visitors. And no soliciting donations."
"Thank you," I said, taking out a business card. "Here's where you can reach me."
Ganga and I turned to leave. That was the last real thing that ever happened to me, because I fainted right there in Sally's office. After that, life became a blur of sleep and doctors. It came on suddenly. The doctor told me something had happened to my heart in the car accident. He prescribed medication.
I listened to my messages, then opened the bag from the pharmacy. The doctor's pills set off a current of energy that vibrated from my toes up to my head and back down. Feeling faint, I walked to the balcony and lay back on a lounge chair. As the setting sun shown down on me, my mind went blank. I opened my eyes and gazed through the railing toward the ocean. Birds circled above the waves, sometimes diving, then skimming across the top of the water. The sky was a pale blue, then pink, purple, orange. The clouds turned to colored puffs of cotton candy. People on the beach became paisley patterns, then swirling multicolored snowflakes.
I sat forward, leaning on the wooden railing, staring at the beach below. The waves were metallic bronze, then gold, spilling over into frothy silver snowdrifts. The foam turned pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue in a rainbow of spraying water. As the waves crashing against the golden sand, images of India began to infuse my vision: the beach at Ramesvaram, the temple and pilgrims; the heat, the incense, the rhythm of different languages.
Suddenly it was twenty-three years ago, 1989, and I was in the warm liquid atmosphere, my hair floating like seaweed around my head in the light blue water. The sky above was a darker blue. My father's ashes floated like universes around my hands. I came up for air. The Hindu priest held out the metal urn allowing me to take another handful to release under the water. This time it was a different lifetime. I was a different person, spreading the remains of a different man. It was a man I had loved, but never got to know. He had died of a drug overdose while I was in India. I never got to say goodbye to him and the pain remained buried inside for what now felt like hundreds of years. His name was Scott. I knew him a long, long time ago, before I had ever joined the World Krishna society. It still bothered me, losing him. The frustration would always be with me. Ashes to ashes. I went under again, releasing the ashes to drift away in the tide.
Although a hallucination, I could make out another Indian village. This time it was Puri, Orissa, in the Bay of Bengal, the fifteenth century. In the dark haze of my imagination, the Golden Lord Sri Chaitanya danced with his followers inside a stone temple. The sounds of their musical worship - cymbals, drums, and singing - filled my consciousness. Chaitanya had silky black hair, wide shoulders and raised arms. Village fishermen, hearing the singing from the beach, abandoned their nets and ran to the Lord.
It was the Pacific Ocean, but under the influence of the drugs, it was India. The moment felt perfect, eternal. During the vision I wanted to finally say goodbye to Scott. I wondered whether he ever loved me. I drooped back onto the lounge chair. The effects of the drug were fading. Too bad it's only a drug. One last time the clouds melted into a kaleidoscopic array of color. I drifted into a light sleep.
A man waved at me from the beach.
"Scott, is that you?" I said. "Come up. Please, I've missed you!"
He waved again, beckoning me to come down.
"No. Please, you come up here," I said.
After turning back to the water, he merged into the waves and disappeared.
"No, please! Oh, god, don't take him again." I sat up, shaken, rubbing my temples, trying to push the memories from my mind. Then it occurred to me, some people say Sri Chaitanya died by walking into the sea. Was this a vision of Chaitanya or my lost friend? Over the next few minutes the sun sank out of view.
Despite the doctor's medication, my fainting continued. I had to go into the hospital for a week. My brother was an understanding boss. He visited nearly every day. Sometimes he brought Max, but then he began to bring Max and Ganga. That's how I knew it was all over, even though they told me I could go home.
A Visit to Old Terrace Street
June 2, 2012
My refrigerator was empty. I needed to go to the market. Instead of driving straight there, I decided to drive around, then stop for food on the way home. I drove to the Coast Highway and went north, turning on Sunset Boulevard, and heading back toward Los Angeles. Its banked curves and infrequent traffic lights make it one of the best drives in the city. Most of the way it's residential, lined with lush greenery and mansions. It winds around the UCLA campus before coming to West Hollywood. The mild breeze felt good blowing my hair.
Instead of going into Hollywood, I cut south to Beverly Hills, then decided to drive past Cinema City to look for the chanters. Beverly Drive took me to Palms Boulevard. My head felt light. My body was numb from hunger, but soon I would stop for groceries and go home. Rather than following Palms to Venice Boulevard, I made a right on Terrace Street, the back approach to the old temple.
The apartment buildings and thick magnolia canopy looked familiar. Cars from the 1980s and earlier models lined the narrow street. Rounding a curve I realized, instead of the concrete perimeter of Cinema City, the street continued all the way through to Venice Boulevard. The street sign said Terrace Street. I recognized everything. Near the end of the block, I pulled over and parked in front of the old pastel green stucco apartment. It was the building that once housed the organization's legal offices. I parked by the curb and got out, feeling even more lightheaded.
The street was deserted at first, but then several women in saris walked out of the green building. They looked vaguely familiar. They didn't seem to notice me, but walked on down the street, engrossed in conversation. There were people walking on the other side of the street, near what had been the community kitchen. I felt a tingle in my gut, realizing this was definitely the old temple. The devotees' buildings were still there; the pink temple building and parking lot were still on the corner. Children played with a ball near the kitchen area in front of the houses that had once been a grammar school. A loudspeaker atop one of the buildings played Indian ragas that drifted in waves across the peaceful setting of the temple grounds.
I walked up the concrete steps of the green building into the courtyard. It was just as I remembered it, a split-level courtyard with two floors of apartments. If everything seemed so real, then how could it be in my imagination? I approached the door that had once been my office and noticed it was now apartment number one. It was really apartment two, but once upon a time I had taken the "one" off the front door and put it on my own. We never used the front door anyway, but a temple official had forced me to put the brass numbers back the way they were. Now the one was back on what was once my door.
I knocked; a hollow sound. A voice called out, "Come in." Shaking, I pushed the door open. Inside, behind a wooden desk sat a young, sari-clad woman. Even she looked familiar, reminding me of a younger version of myself. File cabinets lined an entire wall, just as they had when the legal offices occupied the space.
"Hello, welcome," the woman said. She was typing something on an IBM Selectric II typewriter, the same machine I had used there in the 1980s.
"I'm Ann," I said, staring at the typewriter, shocked. It seemed to be in perfect condition.
The woman stared at me for a moment, looking away when the telephone rang. She answered it and spoke for a few moments.
When she hung up I said, "I used to work here when Sat Swami earned his law degree and started traveling for the organization. Do you think anyone from those days is still here?" A shiver ran down my back.
"Yes, Sat Swami is here. Would you like me to tell him you're here?"
I felt dizzy. "Yes, tell him Ann Messenger is here."
The woman picked up the phone and pushed a button, reaching Sat Swami. "He'll be right out, have a seat," she said, pointing to a couch at the back of the room.
A Krishna World magazine lay on a side table, an issue I'd never seen before. There was no date on the masthead, but just the issue and volume number. Instead of the usual articles, the magazine was filled with pictures of temples in India. There was also a picture of the front gates of Cinema City, with the Indian devotees dancing. The headline said: "Visiting Devotees Draw Crowds at Former Los Angeles Temple Site."
I recognized Ganga. The other men looked familiar too. Then I saw my own face in the crowd. It made my heart flutter. I held the magazine closer, taking a better look at the photograph. Staring more closely, the picture turned into a mass of tiny, colored dots. The magazine dropped from my hand onto the couch.
Just then Sat Swami appeared. He was medium height and build, with olive brown skin. His head was shaven, except for a ponytail at the back and he wore the saffron robes of a monk. "I bet you didn't expect to see me here," he said. "Come in! It's been a long time." Smiling, he reached out to shake my hand. He looked exactly the same as I remembered him, but just a little older, like me.
I could only nod and follow him through the door. The room was small, with more file cabinets and another large, wooden desk, which sat squarely in the middle of the room facing the door. Sat Swami pulled up a chair for me, then took a seat behind his desk.
"Well, how are things going?" he asked. "I will tell the receptionist to hold all my calls." He picked up the phone and spoke briefly with her.
"I heard you wanted to talk to me," Sat Swami continued. "I also heard you were in the hospital for a while. Are you okay now?"
"It was quite relaxing, actually. I'm fine now, but yes, there are some things I've wanted to talk to you about. If you remember, the last time we saw each other wasn't very nice."
"There are some things I've regretted that would be good to clear up, too. After all this time we have a perspective."
"Is it you? Is it really you?" I asked. "You're normally so busy, but you act like you don't have anything in the world to do, except talk to me. It's almost as if you were expecting me."
"There's plenty of time to talk to an old friend." Sat Swami smiled in a way that seemed familiar and comforting.
"After all this time, isn't it too much of a coincidence we would meet again in this office? Weren't all the buildings torn down?"
"Good questions," the robed swami said, smiling and cocking his head. "You're thinking maybe it's all an illusion, right? That's what I thought at first. But now it seems just like home. We spent so many years here; so many productive years. Perhaps I will leave someday. In fact, I have been thinking of moving to India. I met some men recently who invited me to their village."
"I feel comfortable, too. It is as if I never left, but I need to talk to the real you, not just my imagination."
"Everything happens for a reason." His eyes seemed to twinkle with a secret as he smiled again and tried to reassure me. "I have been sitting in this office for some days now, visiting with all the old devotees. I've learned something about myself; about things we could have done differently back then. It seems only natural to me you would drop in. Now I want to clear everything up so I can leave. Go ahead and tell me what's on your mind."
"It's just that there was so much turmoil that was out of our control. I regret defending a corrupt leadership."
"You did what you thought was right at the time," he said.
"What made you stay? Maybe I already know, but would you tell me the real story from your perspective?"
"We had some major court battles, but I've always liked to think we did what was right," he said.
His words broke over me like an ocean wave. My head was spinning. Tears were welling up in my eyes. His words reverberated and I remembered how hungry I was. "I need something to eat," I said.
"I can order from the restaurant. It's right across Venice Boulevard. They deliver. What would you like?"
"The restaurant is still open? Didn't all the World Krishna restaurants close down with the temples? Isn't there a parking structure across the street now?"
"What will you have? How about a homemade pizza or lasagna? Their Italian food is great. Maybe we should order one of each and you can take the leftovers home. Who knows when you'll be able to get over here again." He picked up the phone and gave his receptionist the order.
"While we're waiting, why don't you tell me what you've been doing lately," Sat Swami said. "What made you come back to L.A.?"
"It was a job offer from my family's company. You know, there are a lot of things I've wanted to tell you. I was angry when I left. You were part of it. How could you continue to support the organization, even when you knew about the leaders? They were into some strange stuff, yet you stood by watching, helping them. It got to a point with me where I just simply could not do it anymore. You understand, don't you?"
"I didn't at the time," Sat Swami said, shaking his head. "I've thought about it a lot. Maybe you were disappointed at the outcome of the case. Maybe I let you down."
I closed my eyes, trying to remember. "That wasn't it at all. Why should I blame you? But you stayed, why did you stay? Did you think you could change them? Oh, god, maybe I'm still angry."
"You don't have to apologize," Sat Swami said. "It was a confusing time. The system had its problems and I don't blame you for wanting to change it. By the way, certain people made me mad, too."
"But you rode the fence, keeping your mouth shut."
Sat Swami pulled his shoulders in slightly, then took a deep breath. "I was afraid. They had a lot of power over me. I didn't want death threats."
We sat in silence for a moment, staring at the floor, then at each other.
Just then the receptionist knocked on the door and came in with the food. Sat Swami cleared a place for the boxes. The fragrance of melted cheese filled the small room.
"You said you were hungry." He opened the box of pizza. "We also have this," he said, opening the lasagna box. Steam poured out carrying the strong smell of oregano, basil, and thyme.
Sat Swami handed me a plate with one piece of pizza and big square of lasagna.
The pizza was wonderful, the crust surprisingly light and crumbly. The cheese completely melted over bell pepper and other veggies in the sauce.
Sat Swami ate all of his pizza first, and then sampled the lasagna. "You should try this, too," he said, with his mouth still full.
I finished my last bite of pizza, then tried the lasagna. It melted in my mouth. We ate about half of the food, talking and reminding each other of funny things that had happened and people we had met along the way.
"That was great," Sat Swami said, wiping his hands and face with a napkin. "Why don't we put the leftovers in your car, then have a look around. A lot of things have changed."
"I would love to," I said, feeling physically and mentally satisfied.
We carefully packed the food, folding the boxes and returning the extra napkins and utensils to the bag. We washed up, then headed out. Sat Swami took the leftovers and opened the door for me. We went out to the curb, where my car was parked, and put the food on the floor in the front seat.
"One thing I've missed is the temple room," I said, turning to Sat Swami. "Do you think it's open now?"
He looked at his watch. "Yes, in fact the deity should be giving his audience just about now. Shall we go?"
It felt as though we were floating across the street instead of walking. We approached the salmon colored building, which had once been a church. When we stopped on the cement steps to remove our shoes, I noticed the temple doors. They were the same carved wood and brass doors that had been there years ago. I rubbed my hand over the door, amazed to see and touch it again. He pushed it open and we entered the dark, cool room.
Sat Swami followed me inside, where we both bowed down on the marble floor. But something was different. At the far end people were standing in front of an altar; bells were ringing. There was quite a commotion, as the thirty or so people shuffled back and forth to get closer to the altar. A man on the altar was giving out flower garlands; sprinkling holy water and throwing pieces of sugar candy and fruit.
There were people standing among the pillars on the sides of the room. Beyond the pillars were caverns that stretched hundreds of feet into the darkness. The ceiling and walls seemed to be made of roughly cut stone, instead of plaster. Incense mixed with the cool, dank stone, and sweet smell of the oil lamps hanging from the arched ceiling. A droning chant rose up from around the altar.
I looked through the shadows for Sat Swami. "This is like India," I said, sitting down next to him.
"It is a lot better than the old temple room, isn't it?" he said. "Do you want to go to the front and see the deity?"
I recalled the thousands of times I had visited the deity in the old temple room, which had been much smaller; only about thirty by forty feet. The marble floors in this room were worn and ancient. With only the oil lamps to provide light, this altar was dark and mysterious.
"Come on, pretend you're in India. Don't be afraid," Sat Swami said. He looked at me and smiled, indicating I should go ahead.
As I walked toward the altar, the music grew louder. The crowd parted, making an aisle for me to approach. The priest on the altar had his back to me, tending the deity. The deity looked like Bankibihari, a tall, black Krishna from Vrindavana, a holy town in India. Bankibihari, although technically made of stone, seemed to dance, and it is said he walked off the altar sometimes to follow his devotees. The story goes that the priests would close the curtains every five minutes to prevent their Krishna from leaving. The tall black figure before me now was dressed in colorful silk with dozens of flower garlands around his neck. The black Lord's eyes roamed over the crowd.
The priest accepted garlands and food offerings from the audience, placing them at the feet of the deity. More and more people gathered around the altar now, jostling to get to the front to make their offerings. The priest climbed a small ladder to remove garlands from the deity's neck, distributing them to the people. He took handfuls of flowers from the deity's feet and threw them over the crowd. The people raised their hands to catch them. The droning chant continued. The deity swayed in celestial dance.
I stared at the black deity, studying his round face and smiling mouth. His nose was small and pointed. His eyes were decorated with white dots and eyeliner. A diamond tiara glittered in his thick, black hair. A silver flute was tucked into his belt.
The people in the crowd were also animated, swooning and crying out. The surging crowd pressed me against the stage, directly in front of the altar. Maybe it was all a hallucination, but it seemed the deity held his right palm out to me. He turned his head toward me and smiled. The priest climbed the ladder, removed a bright orange and red garland, and came directly to me, placing it around my neck. It was heavy, moist, and warm. The scent of roses and carnations overwhelmed me.
I looked at the garland, then back at the deity. He seemed to smile at me again. Nobody else noticed. My eyes met with Krishna's for a moment that seemed like forever. I lowered my gaze, tears were running down my face.
Sat Swami led me away from the altar to the shadows of the pillars. The chanting sounded more distant. We sat down on the marble floor and leaned against the cool stone wall. Sat Swami now also wore a garland.
"Is it what you expected?" he asked.
"Not in Los Angeles, no. Things have changed a lot."
"Anyway, we got here at the right time. I'm glad I could be the one to bring you to see this."
"I'm glad, too," I said. We sat quietly for a long time, gazing at the altar.
People began filing into the temple carrying musical instruments. Their dress reminded me of the clothing we used to wear, but more colorful and flowing. I recognized several old friends. A great flood of recognition and love swept over me.
Sat Swami motioned for me to remain seated. "Come back tomorrow. You will have a chance to talk to everyone."
The people began playing music. Sat Swami and I listened for a long time, then went outside. Hundreds of people were on the street. Many of them looked familiar. The neighborhood seemed so alive, so real, just as it had long ago, before the troubles. Sat Swami and I sat on the steps in front of the green building and visited with several old friends. Somewhere deep inside, an alarm clock went off, awakening me from a dream. It was all so casual, like it went on every day, but it was time to leave.
Sat Swami walked me to my car and we said goodbye. I drove down Terrace Street feeling wonderful, took a quick look in my rear view mirror, then turned right onto Venice Boulevard. Remembering the original purpose of my trip, I drove to the supermarket. I took the garland off, laying it carefully on the boxes of food.
The market was deserted like a movie set after the movie is finished. There it was, practically dinnertime. Where was everyone? I quickly got what I needed and checked out. Back on the road, I headed west, toward Venice. After driving for a few minutes, I noticed the food and garland were gone. Did I remember that correctly? Maybe we put them in the trunk. I continued on, as if on automatic pilot, but I started to get that feeling when you're having a dream and you start to realize it's a dream because it couldn't possibly be real.
The light was blinking on the answering machine, so I pushed the button.
"Can't wait to see you, Ann, hope you're doing well," Max's voice said. Outside the window the sun was sinking into the water with vivid red and purple clouds above and below it. Twilight set in at about eight o'clock. Tomorrow will probably be real again, I thought. I had something to eat, washed my hair, and went to sleep.
In the morning, I woke up to the smell of food cooking. There were voices coming from the kitchen; men's voices - Max and Ganga. I got out of bed, put on a robe and walked cautiously down the hall toward to the kitchen.
"Good morning," Ganga said. "Are you surprised to see us?" He chuckled as he put two more slices of bread in the toaster.
Max greeted me with a warm smile and said, "We wanted to come over and tell you our crazy new idea."
"What are you doing here?" I asked, smiling, as if trying to catch on to a practical joke.
"Max Sir told me you would be at home this morning. He invited me to cook for you." Ganga, wearing a chef's apron over his saffron robes, held a spatula in his hand. He was frying some tofu with some of the potatoes I'd bought at the market the night before.
"You don't mind, do you?" Max asked. "I hope we didn't startle you."
"A little bit, but I'm over it." I sat down on a barstool to watch the men cook.
The toast popped up and Ganga buttered it and put it with the other toast on a plate. "Everything's ready. Let's sit there," he said pointing to the dining room. He served the stir-fried veggies and hash brown potatoes, then handed plates to Max and me, and then produced a bottle of sparkling cider and three glasses.
"I must be a little confused," I said. "What's going on here?"
"We have come to invite you to go on a trip with us," Ganga said. "You can take your time to decide."
"Your stories about India made me want to go there and see it," Max said. "We came here to ask if you will go with us."
"But this is so sudden," I said.
"We are going tonight," Ganga said. "The plane leaves at six o'clock."
The thought of going to India seemed right, somehow, but I said, "I'll have to think about it."
While the men talked about the trip, I picked up the morning paper and scanned the obituary column. My eyes focused on one in particular. A chill ran down my back. It is a paradoxical thing to read one's own obituary. At first I could only make out my name. "I.C. Inc. facilitator Ann Messenger died yesterday after one week in a coma at University Medical Center following her car accident in Santa Monica."
The sound of the men's voices faded in and out.
"More apple juice, madam?" Ganga was smiling turning to me and holding the bottle near my cup.
"Max, look at this article," I said, leaning across the table.
Max read for a moment, rubbing his forehead. He looked at me cautiously. "You honestly didn't know about this?"
"Know about it?" Then suddenly it did seem I knew about it all along.
"Look at this one," Max said, reaching for his wallet. He took out a carefully folded piece of newsprint.
I read the headline, "Family grieves son, dead after car accident at forty-five."
"Look at the date," he said.
"This article was published the day after I was born," I said.
"I've been watching over you all your life," Max said. "You were my assignment. Now we have a sacred mission. We are here to take you to see the Father."
"I don't want it to end."
Max clipped out my article, folded it, and handed it to me. I opened it again, and instead of the article, it was something I had cherished, a memento from a class I had taken during grad school. It was a card all the students had signed to me. I had kept it for years, then lost it. I was happy to have it back.
"This is the beginning of your real life. We will come back here. You'll see. It just keeps getting better now."
I looked at Ganga. He sat quietly, listening. Suddenly I remembered him from somewhere else, and dozens of friends, including people I had forgotten for a long time.
A feeling flashed across my mind and I understood why I had this life and why everything happened as it did. It was as though my life had been a script, which ended precisely like this.
"What about the project?" I asked.
"That will succeed partly in memory of you," Max said.
I looked into the faces of the two men who had become my trusted friends.
"Our plane leaves tonight at six o'clock," Ganga said.
I pictured myself in India watching the sun rise over the ocean. It was a memory I thought about often. Now it was coming true.
That evening I settled comfortably into my window seat, along side my travel companions. The months of summer seemed to fade. Say what you like, but such things do happen.
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