MERLIN KLOTZ SWEATED THROUGH HIS T-shirt with giant lettering that read, “OK BOOMER.” He questioned why he wore it in the first place. He was on a shuttle bus, leaving from his hotel in route to a drug retreat full of hippies, as the brochure he found in his mother’s apartment described. The retreat was probably full of Baby Boomers. Did he want to insult them right away? Worse, what if the brochure was misleading, and the retreat was run by Millennials that mistook him as a Baby Boomer, a Baby Boomer too old to understand that the joke was on him? Merlin considered this mushroom experience in Jamaica as a celebration of his 52nd birthday, which landed him solidly in the Gen X age bracket. But his fast-food diet, potbelly, and gray beard aged him into a Boomer, into the same generation as his mom, and he hated that.
He stood in the gravel driveway facing the neon pink house and absorbed the throbbing jungle’s noise. The animals and insects screeched in unison, and the more Merlin listened, the more his pulse started to match the wild beat. He considered changing into the newest Coachella tee he packed in his daypack, but the heavy air would saturate it in minutes. Plus, he wanted to save the shirt in case one of those jungle critters, be it bird or beast, shit on him.
“Good Morning,” a woman said. Merlin spun to face a leathery skinned woman who looked like she might have been old in the ’60s. “I am your psychedelic elder,” she said.
“Merlin. Merlin Klotz.” He stuck out a hand for shaking, but the tiny woman bowed in some kind of yoga fashion. Her beads rattled, and her sagging tits touched her knees.
“Please, come to the back. We’ve been waiting for your arrival,” she said.
Merlin followed the woman to the back of the patio where the jungle pressed close. Faded rugs and pillows littered the floor where three Millennials, all clearly American women and probably some kind of social media influencers, lounged about, bored.
“Welcome to the circle,” the tiny woman said to the group. “I am Elder Jan. Please, Merlin, be seated.”
Merlin grunted as he sank to the floor. “This looks like a preschool,” he said to the group, sweeping his hands across the carpets. “Am I right?” None of the kids looked his way.
“Welcome to the circle,” Elder Jan repeated. “I appreciate that you’re joining us on this journey. I know you’re anxious to start, but first, a brief history. Psychedelics have been part of human healing and spirituality for decades. In the ’60s, we had a battle between the hippies and the Baby Boomers, the drug warriors.”
Merlin stiffened and pointed to his T-shirt. “I’m not a Boomer,” he said, his raucous voice making the birds stop their chattering. “I’m Gen X.”
“Psychedelics were then criminalized in the United States,” Elder Jan continued. “But they’re back, and here in this Jamaican clinic, they are used in the context of treatment.”
The Millennials offered a weak round of applause. Merlin took the opportunity to dig his Lululemon yoga pants away from his crotch. Since they were made for women, they irritated his genitals. He’d bought them on deep discount, hoping to fit in if there was a younger crowd at this retreat.
“Despite the inventions of Prozac and Zoloft in the ’90s, depression, suicide, and anxiety are increasing,” Elder Jan said, swiping her frizzy hair out of her eyes.
“Don’t forget about Celexa,” Merlin said. “My mother starred in the first commercial that aired in the US for that drug. It’s a doozy—you swap your anxiety for headaches, dry mouth, gas—”
“We have one rule,” Elder Jan interrupted, looking down her hawkish nose at Merlin. “Keep your clothes on. No sex. You can cry, you can scream, throw things, hit the ground. Literally, anything goes.”
“You took one big thing off the table, so not literally anything,” Merlin said, hoping for a chuckle from someone in the group.
He was met with silence. The Millennials caught each other’s eyes and smirked. Elder Jan continued, her beads clinking with each word as she addressed a woman on the end. “There must be something that drove you all to have this experience, and I’m curious what it is for each of you so I can help you navigate this sacred multiverse. Bella, why are you here for a guided trip?”
“I’m just here to surrender to the experience and let it happen?” Bella said. Merlin’s sweaty skin crawled at the way Bella ended her statements with questions, and he swiped at invisible insects. “I will try not to mentally override what is happening?”
“Anything that happens is perfect. You can’t do it wrong. All you have to do is relax,” Elder Jan said, rubbing Bella’s hairless waxed arms. “Now,” Elder Jan moved to the second woman from the end, “We have another Bella. Bella, what are you here to explore?”
“I want to feel something bigger than myself,” the second Bella said. “I’m here for a spiritual experience, and I want to get rid of my anxiety.”
The first Bella stroked the second Bella’s hair in a way that made Merlin wonder if they’d started on the drugs without him. Elder Jan nodded her head so hard that droplets of sweat landed on the tea-stained rugs around her, at least Merlin hoped it was tea.
“The indigenous people use these drugs to cure illnesses,” she said. “They find it strange that us Westerners show up and want to use it to connect to the divine. But that is our illness—we don’t have a connection to anything other than ourselves and the material world.”
Elder Jan crawled down the line until she was next to the third Millennial. “And you, Joana, why are you—”
“Goddamn!” Merlin hooted, letting out a long breath. “I swear, if you told me this one’s name was Bella too, I was gonna die of a goddamn heart attack. The suspense was killing me!”
Joana twisted her river of hair into a bun and stared daggers through Merlin until he stopped chortling. “OK, Boomer,” she hissed.
“Sweat much?” one of the Bella’s said, and when they all giggled, even Elder Jan cracked a tight smile. Merlin’s face prickled with embarrassment, and he mopped his brow with the arm of his T-shirt.
“This is my first experience with mushrooms,” Joana said. Everyone clapped, and Merlin sagged, feeling trapped in an audience where he didn’t understand the social norms. “I’ve been creatively tapped, and I’m sure it has to do with the recent death of our family dog, Bella.”
His embarrassment forgotten, Merlin let out a howl of laughter. It was a full minute before he wiped the tears from his eyes, collected himself, and looked into the stony faces around him. “Sorry, sorry,” he said to Elder Jan.
“I want to move forward in life,” Joana continued. “Stop focusing on the past and open up my creative genius.”
“You’re in the right place,” Elder Jan said. “We use this medicine as a tool to gain insight. Mushrooms will amplify painful memories and emotions and bring them to the surface so you can deal with them.”
“How do I know it won’t be a bad trip?” Joana asked.
“Good question,” Elder Jan said. “Bad experiences, and there are many of them, occur with incorrect dosage, incorrect settings, and incorrect expectations. None of those things will happen here; we carefully manage all of this. You may have an intense experience, an upsetting experience even, but that doesn’t make it a bad trip. It is important to recognize the difference.”
Elder Jan paused and looked at each of the girls in the eyes, but not Merlin. She adjusted her cushion, and Merlin wondered if she was going to skip over him. She took a deep breath and spoke on the exhale. “Merlin? Why are you here?”
“I haven’t liked basketball since Charles Barkley threw the ball at Shaq’s head, and they wrestled on the court.”
“I believe I speak for the group,” Elder Jan said, “when I tell you that your sarcasm is growing tiring. Is this a joke?”
“Not a joke,” Merlin said.
“You’re here to love the NBA again?” She used both index fingers to massage her temples.
“Yes, and musical theater. The Grease hand jive was a pinnacle. Did you see the Cats movie? That was a horror flick.”
“You want to rekindle your love for the NBA and musical theater?” Elder Jan repeated.
“TV too. I like Keeping up with the Kardashians, but ever since Khloe lost weight, she’s not as funny.”
Elder Jan groaned and rubbed her neck. Merlin wondered if he’d crossed the line, talking about Khloe like that. Everyone had a favorite Kardashian, and maybe Khloe was dear to Elder Jan’s heart.
“It’s not just Khloe. My Alexa is a bitch. She barely tries anymore; when I ask questions, it’s like she’s not properly listening. Don’t get me started on Siri. Taylor Swift disappeared for a year. A year! The McRib is a limited time sandwich and only at select stores; I can never find it at my McDonalds. What I’m saying is, I want to reconnect with pop culture.”
“Merlin, you’re saying this backward,” Elder Jan explained. “Surely pop culture, the material world, is your distraction, not a connection point.”
Merlin wiped the sweat from his brow and looked at the edge of the jungle. The midday sunlight only penetrated the surface, behind which swirling darkness swelled and contracted, just like a heart. The jungle was like his mother, bright Dior and Channel on the surface, but with something twitching and dark underneath. A twinge of sadness pricked Merlin’s eyes; it was difficult to accept he’d never see her again, never visit her pristine apartment, never be able to break through her wall. This vacation was supposed to be his mother’s, but after she passed away, he cleaned out her belongings, giving everything away except the pre-paid trip.
Elder Jan issued a sharp clap bringing Merlin’s attention back to the group.
“I said what I meant, Jan. I want to reconnect to the material world because that was my connection point to my mom. I miss the thrill that Facebook used to give me. I want Fortnite to excite me like it did the first time I drew pixelated blood. I want to believe that Tony the Tiger is GRRRRREAT!”
“Merlin, this pop culture you are talking about, it’s just another word for materialism. You ask for a deep connection to objects when what you really seek is a deeper spiritual connection with your mom.”
“A spiritual connection with my mom and a deep connection to material objects kind of go hand in hand,” Merlin said.
“Money can’t buy your happiness,” Elder Jan said.
Merlin got the feeling that Jan’s heart wasn’t in that last phrase, that she’d given up and started spouting antiquated advice. “Tell me about it,” he said. “Everything I’ve bought lately just doesn’t satisfy like it used to.”
Elder Jan opened her mouth to talk, but closed it, her sun-beaten face looking like a raisin. “I’ve never heard anyone express this desire before,” she said. “But, keep an open mind, and some type of insight will come.”
Merlin felt shorted by Jan’s dismissive response. She took the millennials’ reasons for being here seriously, why not him? Elder Jan rang a rusted dinner bell, quieting the jungle for a moment. Three large men in hospital scrubs emerged from the house, one carrying a tray with teacups.
“My orderlies,” Elder Jan said by way of introduction. “They look like nightclub bouncers,” she paused for a laugh, “but they’re also trained professionals that will guide you through your experience. You could have experienced mushrooms on your own at home; they’re easy to procure. But what you get here, besides a beautiful view, is professional guidance.”
“We getting lunch? I didn’t pack anything to eat,” Merlin said.
“You’ll find that your appetite for food becomes inconsequential,” Elder Jan said.
She motioned to her orderly, and he handed Jan a lit bundle of sage. “We will pass this between us. Cleanse yourself as I’m am doing now.”
Jan fanned the smoke toward her heart, over her head, and down the front and back of her body. Merlin twitched as hidden speakers belted out an aggressive series of chimes. A sexy robot voice chanted a prayer over the speakers, “Sacred and holy ones, please clear this place of stagnant and negative energy. Thank you.”
Jan passed the sage bundle to a Bella. She copied Jan’s actions until the chimes sounded, and the sexy robot voice recited the same prayer. Bella passed to the next Bella, who completed the cleansing and prayer and passed to Joana, and then on to Merlin.
“No, I don’t have asthma. Thanks for asking,” Merlin said, waving the smoky bundle in the air. When no one cracked a smile, Merlin continued, copying the cleansing on his sweat-drenched body. The chimes sounded, the sexy robot prayed, and an orderly took the sage bundle away from Merlin.
“I will now call for the protection of spiritual forces to keep our ceremony safe,” Jan said. “Please sit quietly until our guardians gather.”
Jan convulsed, her eyes rolling to whites. The turkey waddle of skin at her neck shivered. For far too long, she spoke in a language that sounded suspiciously like Klingon, and Merlin considered slipping away for a quick bathroom break. As he was about to stand, Jan’s eyes snapped back to normal. “They’ve gathered. We’ll begin,” she said.
The orderlies, who all smelled strongly of Axe Body Spray, handed out a special tobacco liquid in miniature paper cups. “This opens up the neural pathways for the mushrooms,” Jan said. “Put it in your palm and snort some in each nostril. This is optional, but I encourage you to partake; it will tingle in your head in the most delightful way.”
Merlin sniffed, and the headache that was blooming at his temples dissolved, replaced by a pleasant but faint buzzing. One orderly sat at Jan’s right elbow to make the tea. He measured mounds of crumbled flakes on a food scale, three grams each, and spooned the Psilocybin Mushrooms into white cups.
“Within the hour, you’ll start to feel the effects,” Elder Jan said. “In hour two, you’ll go into a peak experience. I’ll be taking a microdose with you.”
“How you gonna watch over us if you’re dosing?” Merlin asked. “I could chop up the Bellas here with my Leatherman, and you’ll be high outta your mind.”
“Weapons always slip my mind,” Elder Jan said. “I’ve never guided a trip that has produced violence. If anything, you’ll become more docile.”
“Sir, do you have a knife?” one of the orderlies asked, holding out a massive hand.
Merlin dug the Leatherman out of the secret key pocket in his Lululemons. “I want that back at the end. That’s a quality knife,” he said.
“Does anyone else have weapons?” Elder Jan asked. One of the Bellas blushed as she handed Jan a canister of hot pink pepper spray.
Elder Jan distributed the cups, murmuring incoherent Klingon blessings into the steam before singing cheers and slamming her tea like a shot.
For the first time since arriving in Jamaica, Merlin was unsure about ingesting mushrooms. He put his drink on the rug and watched Elder Jan struggle to light a bundle of incense. Before his mind could object, Merlin picked the tea up and drank it in one swallow.
“Good,” Elder Jan crooned. “Feel free to lay down. Let go of everything you identify with.”
“Like my 100” Samsung flat-screen?” Merlin asked. “I’m not letting go of that. I call him my son Sam—worked hard to get Sam.” He clicked on his phone, the brightness burning his eyes, and flicked through several screens.
“Let go of identities like your name, your job title, time, gender. Let life go on without you.” Elder Jan tugged at Merlin’s phone, and it slipped from his sweaty palm.
Merlin covered the new Apple Watch on his wrist with his other hand, not wanting to have it confiscated along with everything else he owned. Joana sprawled spread-eagle on the rug and panted. Merlin, not feeling a thing except a tightening in his hips from sitting on the ground for too long, snorted at the youngster’s fakery. At least the Bellas weren’t subscribing to theatrics. They stretched and picked at their fingernails, looking bored out of their minds. Elder Jan and her orderlies surrounded Joana, petting her wet hair.
Merlin stared at the jungle for what felt like fifty years before the Bellas interrupted his trance with a fit of giggles. They rolled and clutched their ribs with their painted blue nails, their Birkenstocks kicked off in different directions, laughing until tears and snot mucked up their faces.
“This rug, is it from Pier 1? It has an extraordinary quality,” Merlin asked, grazing his hands over the fibers that bristled and swayed like seaweed in the current.
“Your trip is starting,” Elder Jan said.
“No, No. Everything else is normal,” Merlin said, looking around the patio, “but this rug is cheap and feral, like an unwashed animal pelt.” He swept his hands across the rug, the red and orange bleeding skyward.
Merlin stretched on the deck and lay for so long he felt that his body was made from the same wood planks. Each breath he took incorporated more of his skin into the decking and more of the decking into his skin. He forgot about his mediocre job, his lack of lovers, his disappointing apartment, and his newly dead mother. He startled upright when the dinnertime alarm for his pills sounded on his Apple Watch. How was it so late? Time had become slippery, something he could paddle back and forth with his hands, like water. He relaxed, merging with the wood planks again until he noticed the sky.
“Damn, the sunset. Everybody look!” Merlin said. The intensely-colored sun glimmered at the edges putting on a show of Aurora Borealis quality. Merlin patted his head, wondering if he’d lost another pair of the expensive Tom Browne sunglasses, the ones that made him look like a fighter pilot. He forgot about everything when dusk purpled the sky, pulsing like a frightened heart.
Most of the women were crying, and now he couldn’t remember their names. The orderlies fanned them, held their hands, wiped snot, and said things that Merlin found suddenly nonsensical and hilarious.
“We want the memory of the trauma to connect with the emotion of the trauma so you can have an empathic experience,” one orderly said.
“Keep your pants on,” another said.
The darkening jungle belched foul green air.
“Air conditioner on inside?” Merlin asked, struggling to stand.
An orderly snuck a glance at Elder Jan, who was helping one of the Bellas, and nodded, following Merlin into the blissfully cool house. Merlin traced his hand along the commercial-grade appliances that did everything short of cook for you, custom cabinetry, Italian Marble, and three chandeliers. Merlin stripped off his “OK BOOMER” shirt and restrictive Apple Watch, then bent over the cold marble counter, laying his torso down like a slab of meat.
“Who lives here?” he asked the orderly, his face still smashed against the frigid counter.
The orderly mumbled something about staying dressed as Merlin slid his sweat-lubricated chest across the cold stone. When he stood, his torso comfortably chilled, the orderly was lounging on a barstool and thumbing through a copy of US Weekly.
Merlin tried to open a few drawers and cabinets, but they were all locked. Elder Jan may not have been worried about her clients accessing weapons like kitchen knives, but someone was. The grates on the gas range smiled, and the microwave time winked at him.
“Oh shit! Is it really already seven?” Merlin asked. “It feels like time hasn’t moved.”
The orderly didn’t look up.
Merlin pointed to a canister of Quaker Oats on the counter. “That was my mom’s first break—playing a happy daughter in a Quaker Oatmeal commercial.”
“Yeah? She an actress?” the orderly asked, flipping through the magazine.
“She was a Baby Boomer,” Merlin said, pointing to his chest, forgetting that he wasn’t wearing his T-shirt. “Only thirteen when she had me, and boy did she look young. People confused her for my sister. That’s how she got the role of daughter, she looked so young.”
“What comes to mind when you think of your mom?” the orderly asked.
Merlin closed his eyes, searching for a meaningful answer. Still, all that appeared was the Kool-Aid Man carrying a Tide detergent box and Tidy Cats Kitty Litter.
“Logos. Slogans. Brand awareness. She’s the greatest commercial actress of her generation.” This struck Merlin as something that should be hilarious, and he wheezed out a weak laugh. “She smiled for all her fake families while drinking Coke or eating at Pizza Hut or driving in a new Ford or holding hands in Disneyland.” Merlin paused, panting a little until he remembered how ridiculous Joana had looked while she was panting. He forced his breathing to even. “She was Mom of the Year for all the fake families in commercials, but couldn’t bother to feed me half of the time.”
“Allow me to restate the problem, Merlin. Your mom valued her acting success, her career, over a relationship with you?” the orderly asked.
“Yes. That’s the tip of the mommy-issues iceberg,” Merlin said.
Tears streamed down his cheeks and snot slid from his nose. The orderly wiped him clean with a fresh handkerchief. Merlin closed his eyes, pretending his mom from the commercials was wiping his face with brand-name love, leaving colorful trails of logos and slogans clinging to his beard.
“Is it possible, Merlin, that you’ve been equating happiness with commercial goods? With brand names? With pop culture? That is when you saw your mother at her happiest, albeit fake, scripted happiness.”
“I guess. Yes.”
“Good, Merlin. Now relax and go deeper into your relationship with your mother.”
An orderly from outside yelled, his baritone voice so thick in the air that Merlin tried to touch it. “We’ve got a runner! Runner on the west side!”
The orderly in the kitchen glanced at the door and then back at Merlin. “Stay here in the kitchen, OK? I’ll be right back.”
“Are one of the Millennials hurt? Should I—”
“They’re fine; don’t worry,” the orderly said. “She’s probably experiencing a frightening memory, something that made her take flight. We’ll redirect her back to the house, and I’ll be right with you. Stay here.”
The back door hadn’t closed all the way before Merlin started wandering the well-appointed house. From the outside, it looked like a kitschy beach cottage, but the inside was deceptively massive. In the living room, textured gold wallpaper and mahogany floors breathed, swelling tight to Merlin on his inhale and moving far away on the exhale. Crystal candelabras ejaculated soft light in a dizzying rainbow.
“Hello? Who lives here?” Merlin asked, stumbling down a hall and into a master suite.
He opened the door to a closet as big as his garage back home. Ambient lighting illuminated a glass case of diamond jewelry. Merlin flashed to the old Zales commercial, the one where his mom posed with her feathered hair, smiling at a Christmas Diamond firmly planted on her finger by a fake husband.
A strong breeze blew through the house, slamming the solid closet door. Merlin’s stomach ached with hunger. Alone in the closet the same size as his childhood apartment, he found himself crouching on the floor and crying. The first time Mother left him alone, there had been no food in the house. She’d been gone for days, and he survived on water and by chewing pieces of old scripts into a pasty pulp that filled his belly. He’d been abandoned over the years for days at a time before he was tall enough, smart enough, and brave enough to unlock the door and venture out on his own.
Merlin sensed his mother in the corner of the dim closet on the floor, not the old woman she was when she died, but the girl she’d been when she had Merlin. Her sobs were delicate hiccups, dainty as the knobs of her skinned knees. Her pigtails trembled, and she wiped her snot on the back of her hand. Merlin understood for the first time, she was a horrible parent because she was still a child too. Her entire life was a bad trip; from getting pregnant by a man nobody would mention to becoming a commercial actress that won an Academy Award. Her big-screen acting skills weren’t good, and impersonating a mom for eighteen years must have been the toughest of all acting jobs.
Merlin scooted to the corner toward his sobbing mother, but just as he reached out, she was replaced by a rack of fur coats, snapping him out of the apartment from his childhood. He wondered what kind of cold-blooded weirdo wore fur in Jamaica. The pelts jerked with life, flopping toward his face and arms. Tearing free from the dead animals, he ran toward the kitchen.
Elder Jan rested against the marble counter, puffing a cigar. Her eyes were alien, consumed by too much pupil, black holes showing her soul. An orderly hovered by the door.
“Smell good?” she asked. “It’s a Cuban cigar. Want one?”
“No, thanks,” Merlin said. He fought to return his breathing to normal and wondered where his shirt had gone.
“I wasn’t prepared to share anyway,” Elder Jan said, hissing smoke as she talked.
She pulled a bottle from the wine fridge, uncorked it and poured herself a glass in a crystal goblet. Jan had dropped her façade, and the woman standing in front of him made Merlin itch.
“You live here?” Merlin asked. He hated how it came out more like an accusation than a casual question.
“All mine,” she answered.
Merlin was rarely at a loss for words, but now he stood mute, embarrassed by his hard nipples in the suddenly too-frigid kitchen. Somewhere a clock that he’d never heard before chimed ten times. Could that be correct? He moved his wrist to look at his Apple Watch and realized he’d left it on the counter.
“I think I had a breakthrough,” he stuttered. “It’s something I’ll explore more when—”
“I don’t give a shit about your breakthrough,” Jan said.