False Cypress – John Larson
January 19, 2021
I spent the night in the backseat, curled up under this drop cloth like a blanket. It had gone from fifty-five down to twenty-five overnight and I woke up with no feeling in my toes. My nose was running. I got out and did jumping jacks. This was in the parking lot of the Cabela’s that had just went bankrupt. I warmed up in the gas station across the street. I sat on a metal barstool with a large coffee and an egg sandwich looking out at the people pumping gas. I tried committing every person that came by to memory, telling myself, “I’m never going to forget you.” Fat guy in the blue hat. Woman in the leather Bulls jacket. But always when someone new would come along I’d forget the one before. I don’t know what possessed me to do this. I just wasn’t feeling like myself. What was next for me, I wasn’t sure.
I was sleeping in my car because of what had gone down the day before, when my girlfriend Britt had called me into the bathroom. I opened the door and she showed me the positive pregnancy test she had just taken. I asked if this wasn’t maybe a false positive. This was her third test, she said, so it was the real deal. It felt like a vase had just fallen off a table inside my head and shattered. “That’s incredible,” I said. “Such a beautiful thing.” And we had sex there on the floor, on a pile of towels that had gathered there. Our pants were around our ankles. We lay there in silence afterward. Just breathing. Both waiting for the other to say something. Finally what she said was, “I’m going to be a mommy.” And then my head started catching up with the rest of me. I started thinking about what I was supposed to do now. I asked her to repeat what she just said. She looked afraid. “I’m going to be a mommy, Andy.” There was something about the way she said it that sounded so wrong. That’s when I knew I needed some time away. So I said I would find a place for a few days. That’s how I ended up in my car. It was an easier night for her, I imagine. She can call on her parents for help. She’s still just a teenager, they expect this when you’re that age. But me? I had no one.
So I sat at the gas station drinking my coffee, warming up, using their wi-fi to scroll through Facebook. I saw a post from this guy CJ offering fifty bucks for someone to drive him and these two other guys up to the botanic garden on the north side. He wanted to take these shrooms his little brother gave him as an early Christmas present and needed a driver. CJ and I were good friends in middle school but the last time we’d talked we were fifteen. I looked up how long mushrooms last. People said about five hours. I figured they would take them in the car and I could drive them back while they were coming down. So that’s ten an hour, minus the gas up and back. But he offered lunch and anyway I was lonely.
But when I picked him up, he told me that since he’d made that post the other two guys had backed out.
“So tell me what that means,” I said.
“I’ll give you some mushrooms if you forget about the payment,” he said.
“They didn’t pay you in advance?”
“No.” He brushed his shoulder length hair behind his ears.
He wore a small gold hoop in his left ear that he started to play with while he talked.
“You said they were a gift, right?” I asked.
“I don’t want to keep pouring money into this, man.”
I thought about things I’d heard about bringing a bad state of mind to a psychedelic. How it can drive you crazy. My ex had told me how she marathoned DMT right after her brother died and it gave her depression because her serotonin receptors were scorched. She said they’d be that way forever. I didn’t think mushrooms were included in that same category of drug, necessarily. But I didn’t know enough to know.
“So you said ‘some mushrooms.’ How much is some?” I asked.
“Fifty-fifty,” he said, holding up a Ziploc bag. “Fat dose.”
“All right,” I said. “But you still pay for food.”
We shook hands.
He had a backpack with a bag of mushrooms, a grinder, and lemon juice. He also had a butane torch and a dab rig. I started driving north on 57. Pulling away, it struck me for some reason that his house had no Christmas decorations.
“You homeless now or something?” he asked.
He was looking at my toothbrush in the cupholder.
“No,” I said. “My girlfriend and I are just taking a break.”
“She got pregnant.”
“That sucks, man.” He was looking out the window at a girl in a cat suit jogging. “What the fuck is going on there?”
Most of what I know about CJ’s life the past few years I’ve gleaned from Facebook. He went to school at Roosevelt for business and never finished. From his posts it seemed like he sold door to door for a meal delivery service that sounded like a scam. He came from a poor family, for our area. Single mother, she was a nurse. Diane. Among the most beautiful women I’ve seen. Sleepovers at his house were vaguely sad. It was never clean and the fridge was never stocked and we’d just be home alone for long stretches of time even though we were nine, ten and his brother was probably like five. His mom looked like she could have been a movie star. Tall, delicate features. She moved gracefully. Britt has a certain cheruby, baby-fat look I can find some appeal in, but truth is she doesn’t hold a candle to my memory of CJ’s mom. It’s fucked up to say that about the woman carrying your child. But that’s how it is. If we were awake when she got home, CJ’s mom would microwave us soft pretzels, the kind you had to rub with tap water so the chunky salt would stick. I’m still getting over her, in a lot of ways. I haven’t been to his house in ten, twelve years.
“How’s your mom doing?” I asked.
“She died in 2015,” he said.
“I’m sorry, dude.”
It took me a little while to think of something else to say.
“You still live at the same house though?” I asked.
“With my little brother. I’m trying to get out of there though, too expensive. Me with my job. He sells so he can manage it for now. Mostly just weed, but it’s good money.”
“I’d like him to get a real job when he graduates.”
“Right. That’s the smart thing.”
I was still thinking about his mom. Now it felt too far into the conversation to back track and ask what happened to her.
“Then again he makes more than me,” CJ said. “Almost forty thousand.”
“Holy shit,” I said. I imagined making that much just for selling weed.
“It’s crazy. He bakes a lot of edibles is where he makes his money.”
He told me to get off in Chinatown. We stopped at a Speedway to take the mushrooms in a parking space.
“Are you sure we’re close enough to the garden?” I asked.
He nodded, pouring a few grams of mushrooms and lemon juice into a disposable coffee cup from the floor of the passenger seat.
“God, I hate this neighborhood.”
“Your ex lived here right?” I asked. “I remember the posts of you two.”
“She was my Chinese TA.”
He shrugged. “She went back to China.” He stirred the mixture with his pinky finger. “She was almost thirty and I was just out of high school. It was a stupid relationship.”
We both swallowed the brownish cocktail.
“It doesn’t really taste like anything,” I said.
He shrugged. “Nah, not really.”
Then, after we got back on the expressway, I started to feel like tiny spiders were crawling up and down my legs. CJ pulled the torch and pipe out of his bag.
“Where do I turn?” I asked.
He tilted his head right and dropped a dab of wax into the banger. He took a hit and held it up to my face.
“Are you sure this is the turn?”
“It helps intensify the visual hallucinations.”
I brushed my legs, trying to get the crawling feeling to stop.
“I’m fine,” I said.
He started laughing and then stopped abruptly.
“You good?” I asked.
“The trees are breathing.”
There’s a lot I don’t remember about the garden that I told myself, at the time, I wanted to remember forever. But there are a few things I do. The gauzy light of the greenhouse behind the banana tree. The shadow of the towering cactus. The camera flash off some round waxy leaves that reminded me of rich happy families. At one point we wandered out onto a street and had to be ushered back to the garden. It was in the upper thirties, cloudy and drizzling. Not many people were there that day. As the sun went down we sat on a kind of Japanese looking gazebo, underneath something called a false cypress.
“You calming down?” he asked me.
I kept my hands close to my face. “I feel great.”
My fingers still smelled like the frankincense I’d rubbed in the African greenhouse. It took me elsewhere.
“I was afraid you’d freak out back there on the street, man.”
“It just felt like I was in a maze.”
He closed his eyes. There was a waterfall in this garden.
I thought of something to say next.
“How have you been?” I asked.
“Okay. Trying to figure out how to live. Took six years to graduate. You kind of fell off the radar after first semester, man.” He wagged a finger at me in a way that felt like we had never stopped being friends.
Now it was my turn to say something again.
“I studied art for a semester. Then I lived with this commune in Massachusetts. I emailed them and they took me in.” I laughed. Remembering this time in my life seemed funny now. “It’s a communal kind of deal. We lived in common, shared everything. But they were just faking it though, deep down. I’m not sure what, but something was wrong about that place. Threw me into a kind of spiritual turmoil, I guess. Not really sure what I believed in anymore. Still working that out.”
“I think you had to go through it, if that makes sense. You were meant to be tested like that.” He was leaning forward, his damp hair draped over his right shoulder. “Maybe you need to take better care of yourself. I started running. I’m trying to quit smoking.”
“I should start running. Would it be weird if we ran together?”
My hands were getting cold so I put them in my pockets.
“That would be fantastic.”
“Good, man.” I said. “Really good.”
We sat there for a while. I was listening to the waterfall and the rain.
“Hey, I remembered something when I picked you up today,” I said. “I hadn’t thought about it in a long time.”
“Yeah?” he said.
“Can I talk to you about it?”
“Of course, man,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
Then I sat there thinking for a minute. I gathered the words I needed to say.
“I wanted to say your mom sort of sexually abused me when I stayed over once,” I said.
“Did you know that? We were in seventh grade. Me and you had been playing softball in the rain. You went to take a shower. I was waiting for you to finish, but she told me I could wash off in her bathroom. So I didn’t have to sit there in my wet clothes.”
“I remember. I remember that day,” he said.
“Yeah. So she followed me in and she undressed me and then she molested me.”
He covered his ears.
“I never said that out loud and I just had to say something because I saw your house earlier. I think it’s been the source of a lot of strife in my life. Meeting up with you, it feels kind of predestined.”
“It was, man.”
I couldn’t tell if he was crying or if it was the rain or what.
“Growing up I felt trapped in my body. That was such a pivotal age for me.”
“I know. I’m so sorry,” he said. “That’s part of your trial. Don’t let that define you.”
“And now I’m really not ready to be a father,” I said. “I think this is why.”
“You need to learn how to be yourself before you can bestow new life upon the world, I think,” he said.
“Most days I don’t even care what happens to me,” I admitted. I felt calm now. “I feel like I could die and nothing would change for anyone.”
“You want to run with me, right?” he asked. “Let’s go running. Not tomorrow, we’re going to have bad headaches. The next day.”
“Isn’t that Christmas?” I asked.
“Let’s run on Christmas,” he said.
“I’ll drive out to you, yeah. Show me your route.” Running with CJ seemed exciting to me, life-affirming. “We’ll run on Christmas for as long as we can.”
He laid on the bench and held his hand over his eyes. “Why did you decide to sleep in your car last night?”
“I kept thinking Britt would call me and tell me to come back. I fell asleep waiting. I don’t know.”
He nodded vaguely. “You ever get a girl pregnant before?”
“I don’t think so.”
“The thing is you let them go their own way. It doesn’t matter what you want. They decide what to do with it. Whether you get a role in the bigger picture, all that. Then you just learn to go with it. That’s life.”
“Do you have a kid somewhere?”
“Limei got rid of it. Five years ago in February,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
“Have the hallucinations stopped?”
“I think so.”
“It’s good you held off on the dabs. Weed makes it more visually intense.”
“Yeah, I think you told me.”
“I saw a rhino. The extinct one. I think it’s black that’s extinct. He walked across the water to me. We had a psychic connection.”
He was talking into his hands.
“Did he say anything back?” I asked. “Like, psychically?”
“No, nothing. He wasn’t even looking at me. He was looking at you.”
“I didn’t see him,” I said.
We sat and talked by the cascades and the false cypress for four more hours. That’s when I started to come down enough to drive. It wasn’t very profound like some people say it can be. Well, it was but then it wasn’t. But talking to CJ was the closest I’d felt to someone in a long time.
After that, I just wanted to go to a Greek diner. I wanted to get eggs benedict with fries and a milkshake on CJ’s dime. Then I’d shell out for a bed somewhere and sleep until they kick me out.
We were in my car. I was on my phone. The drugs leaving my system, it started to weigh on me what an enormous waste of time this had been.
“There’s a place down Winnetka, Athenian Corner,” I said. “Like ten minutes.”
CJ shook his head. “I don’t have any money now, Andy.”
“What? I drive you to Wilmette, stay with you for fucking hours.”
“I’m working on it.”
He was typing fast. I recognized the colors on his screen.
“Are you on Tinder?” I asked.
“I have some of my brother’s stuff and she wants to buy, man. Maybe a couple grams.”
“How much is wax?”
“I could sell it for like sixty, seventy. She doesn’t know any better.”
“Give her the normal price. You just need to cover dinner.”
“Turn right out of here. She’s on Couch street. It’s this suburb over here.”
I drove out of the garden and found the neighborhood. The street was brick, which looked cool but was a pain to drive on. The houses were like ones I’d only seen in movies. They were big, but they weren’t like the ugly mini-mansions the new developments threw up. They had this Kennedy’s vibe, or something. Refined wealth. Stability. Lights were on inside most of the houses. People having Christmas parties in chinos, button downs, black dresses, pearls. It seemed like the life.
“This shit irks me,” CJ said.
“Kind of stuffy,” I said. “I like it though.”
We pulled up to the house. Black iron fence around the front yard. Cars in the driveway. Another party going on inside. A girl snuck around the house, making her way toward our car. She just had a tennis skirt on and a school sweater, no coat. CJ moved in back with her when she got in the car.
“Madi,” he said, “this is Andy.”
Neither of us said anything to each other. CJ and her side-hugged, his hand around her waist.
“How’s the party?” he asked.
“I was going to blow my brains out sober,” she said. “I just want to be back in school with my friends.”
“Where do you go?” I asked.
“You graduating this year?” I asked. “I mean, are you a senior?”
She ignored the questions.
“I like your earrings, Madi.”
CJ took one in his hand, his knuckles lightly touching her cheek.
“Just give her the wax,” I said.
“Easy, we should drive around for a while,” he said.
“I’m not going to hang out with my Dad’s school-board friends completely dabbed,” she said.
“Drive around, Andy,” he said.
I looked at him in the rearview but he wasn’t paying attention.
“Seventy for the wax?” she asked him. “I only have a hundred.”
“We can negotiate.”
He was still holding her earring. It was a gold crescent.
“Let’s just smoke now,” she said. “Get out of my driveway though, holy shit.”
I backed out onto the street.
“I’m driving to the diner, CJ,” I said. “We’re eating and then I’m taking her back. That’s it.”
“Fine, man. Fine.”
He was heating the nail, his hair draping down and flirting with the red halo of flame coming from the torch. He took a hit and passed it to her. She dropped the better part of her gram and after was coughing for about five minutes. I took a small hit at the next stoplight to calm down. When I went to give the pipe back they were making out. I set the rig on the floor of the front seat. For no reason, I started thinking out loud, pretending to be oblivious.
“So Madi, did you grow up here? This is a really beautiful area,” I said. “I paint houses now and one time I was up here inside this just gorgeous one. It was a sort of colonial, you’d call it. Anyway the wife of the home was a collector of these like Cherokee wood carvings. I’ve been thinking, like, man people on this side of the city really have taste, you know? Your parents do that kind of thing? Not specifically Cherokee. Maybe like something like that though. I’m just trying to gauge the lifestyles.”
Then she vomited on the floor.
“Oh shit, Madi,” CJ brushed his hair out of his face. “Pull over, Andy.”
“What the fuck happened?”
“She just passed out. I don’t know. KO’d.”
“She going to be okay?”
“I think so. It’s weed, man.”
“I’m taking her home,” I said. “Or the hospital.”
“No, come on.”
He was lightly slapping her cheek, but she was out.
“She’s fine,” he said.
“She’s not hanging in my car.”
“What are we going to say?”
“How old is she, CJ?” I asked.
“You fuckhead.” I reached back to try and hit him.
He laid down to stay out of my reach.
“I thought she was older, that’s what her profile said.”
“Then how did you know?” I yelled.
He was getting emotional.
“Man, this could finish me.”
“No it couldn’t,” I said. “Shut up.”
I turned the car around and drove in silence back to Madison’s. I pulled up in front of her house.
We got out of the car. I lifted her under her armpits. He grabbed the ankles.
“I can’t do this,” CJ said.
He dropped his end so I dropped mine. She was just lying there on the salted sidewalk.
“She has a skirt on, don’t leave her legs splayed like that,” I told him.
I picked up a rock from the landscaping around the fence and threw it at the window to try and get their attention. The first one missed, so I picked up another. That one went clean through the glass. People started coming out the front door. We hopped in the car and drove off onto Wilmette again. I realized my back door was still open.
“Close that,” I said.
CJ turned around to reach for the back door.
“Oh fuck,” he said. “Andy, there’s a cat back here.”
“Shoo it out.”
“Pull over first.”
Police cars sped in the opposite direction.
“It’s hissing. It’s a black cat.”
“There are cops looking for this car. Does she know your last name?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
I turned into a small parking lot hidden behind a brick retaining wall. I unbuckled my seatbelt.
“Pick it up,” I said. “I’ll open the door and you can toss it out.”
“It’s licking the vomit.”
“You left the door open, you get it out.”
“Come on, man, it’s freezing. And we took it far from its, like, territory.”
“And what the fuck am I supposed to do about that?”
Then, looking out the window, I saw a building I had missed on the drive. It was an enormous domed temple. Completely symmetrical and all white. It had these engraved pillars with flowers in relief and vines intaglioed. There were circular pools of water all around it. It was just across the street.
“Am I still tripping?” I asked.
“What is it? A mosque or something?”
“I feel like I’m in a different epoch all of a sudden.”
The cat hissed angrily behind us.
“It’s blowing my mind,” I went on. “I have to go inside. It’s calling me.”
“You’re high. Help me with this cat.”
“The deal is, CJ, I’m having a genuinely spiritual episode right now and I need to go inside. Okay?”
“Oh stop eating that, kitty,” he said.
I stepped out of the car and crossed the street.
There was no paved walkway to the temple only a soft mossy lawn. Unless I missed the walkway. It was night and the lake shined like onyx. “The temple is always open,” a security guard told me when I asked. She also told me not to wander around. I grabbed a pamphlet. The temple was Ba’hai. It was the “North American Center.” There’s only one temple like this on each of the six inhabited continents. Me and this security guard were the only people inside. The pamphlet was filled with prayers. I got a couple lines in and realized I’d grabbed the Spanish one. There was a beautiful word on the ceiling. Something either in Arabic or Farsi. The pamphlet said in Spanish this word was “Dios.” My mind started to wander without the prayer. I wasn’t sure anymore if what I heard was a real authentic divine calling or not, but I guess you could say it was a spiritual experience anyway. I ended up finishing the prayer in Spanish. For the “muertos.”
“What time are services tomorrow?” I asked the security guard.
“Schedule’s by the door,” she said.
“When you’re alone at night working here do you ever feel called by a higher power, or whatever?”
“Are you on something?”
She wasn’t mean about it or anything, she just seemed concerned.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.”
Then I walked back toward my car across the soft moss that seemed like it shouldn’t be able to survive the winter. I stuck my hand in one of the very clear pools around the temple but it turned out it was drained. CJ was standing outside the car crying.
“I’m sorry, Andy,” he said. “She didn’t make it.”
All the air ran out of my lungs. We’d left her passed out in the slush with nothing. Like she was garbage.
“But we saw them running outside,” I said. “How did they not get her?”
“No, the cat, man. She didn’t make it.”
“Oh fuck off.”
“I was getting ready to take another dab and I heard something going on back there. She’s dead in the back seat. I felt her go limp in my hands. I couldn’t take her out, it was too much.”
“Get back in the car, CJ.”
“I can’t with that dead animal in there, I get fucked up thinking about it.”
I felt a moment of lucidity and sympathy. I tried to remember the prayer.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll get something for her.”
I dug through the trunk and found a box from some old boots.
“What if I keep her in here?”
He nodded, so I took the box with me in the backseat. She was warm, and her eyes were peacefully closed. I tucked her tail in the box, across her body, closed the lid and set it in the netting at the front of my trunk. We started back home. On the way, I processed some pretty heavy thoughts. Some thoughts I wasn’t very proud of.
“Hey CJ,” I said. “About your mom, what I said when we were high wasn’t totally true. She took my clothes off and kissed me. That was it. I don’t know what to call that but the truth is it didn’t mess me up. It didn’t ruin my life. It’s just a thing that happened.”
He nodded. “I understand. It’s a complicated thing.”
“I’m sorry she died. I would have liked to see her again.”
I drove CJ the rest of the way home without saying much of anything. He told a big involved story about how his brother was an animal lover and so was he and how they nursed a kitten from a bottle when they were in high school. He said that maybe this was a sign the two of them should do something good for the animals, like start a rescue. It was still in the brainstorming stage, he admitted. I told him it sounded like a nice idea. Then, when I dropped him off, he told me he was sorry about everything. I wasn’t sure what to say to that but I told him I was too.
After that, I stopped at a motel off the highway that happened to be the same town my dad retired in. He lived with his girlfriend a couple blocks over. The two of them and her son. They had a half acre and three bedrooms, which was a lot for around here. I thought about them, what their life might be like.
I opened the trunk to get my change of clothes. The box in the netting was open, the lid off to the side. The cat was now alive and sitting on one of my shirts. I don’t know if this is possible or not but I think it maybe got high from the vomit and just went to sleep. It was looking at me now with clear eyes.
“Sorry for putting you in the box, girl,” I said. “At least I don’t have to bury you.”
I reached out to pet it and it accepted. In my head I named it Jewel.
“We’re both happy about that, aren’t we?”
Inside the motel, I gave the desk lady a five to let me keep a cat in the room. Once I set my stuff down, I took my clothes off and then I sat in the shower for a long time. The door to the bathroom didn’t close right, so eventually Jewel came in to start licking the moisture that had gathered on the floor. I turned the shower off and got out.
“You need water. Of course,” I said. “I forgot about the water.”
I was filling up the glass in the sink when my hand started shaking and I dropped it. It lay in pieces in the sink and I couldn’t even pick them out I was shaking so hard. I realized then that I was crying.
“I’m such a fuck up.”
Jewel jumped on the counter and rubbed her head against my hand. I filled a second glass and this time my hand was steadier. She started lapping up the water. I felt so tenderly toward this animal it’s difficult to explain. But as I petted her soft fur I realized I couldn’t keep her. Britt was badly allergic. Our place was so small. There was the baby coming. I had to think about those things. I had certain responsibilities. I didn’t want to make things harder for anyone.
So I thought about it and thought about it and decided that the next day I should bring the cat by CJ and his brother’s. They’d like that. I enjoyed the thought of it. I told myself I needed to remember what this felt like. I had to. I’d really try this time.