Walter Kirn

LIVINGSTON, Mont.Next door to my office, even as I write this, people are being cured of cancer. Cured! And not only of cancer but of AIDS, arthritis, and a host of other baffling maladies. The treatment involves a so-called “Tesla Coil”–a Frankenstein’s-lab-type device, all wires and tubes, that hisses and fizzes with static electricity and, allegedly, throws off healing vibes. Every day at noon a score of pilgrims stand around the device with upraised hands while its handsome male operator dazzles them with talk of hertz and watts and disappearing tumors. After his spiel, the believers shut their eyes and lean in close to the coil and concentrate. Most of these people are women in their 60s, and most appear to be members of the religious cult that’s based on a local ranch near Yellowstone National Park.
       The cult’s called the Church Universal and Triumphant, and it promotes, among other exotic practices, coffee enemas, all-night chanting, and the wearing of purple clothing. The year I moved out here, its leader set a date for the end of the world. This morning, through my office’s thin walls, I’m hearing talk of yet another apocalypse. Our calendars, according to a voice, are actually four years slow; the year 2000 is only four weeks away. The voice predicts three days of darkness. Chaos. Earthquakes. Then another voice chimes in, a man’s. He tells the group of a perfect crystal skull that was recently unearthed in Central America. The skull has incredible powers. It gives off radio waves. Our government is monitoring these transmissions.
       It’s like this nearly every day for me. I work in the basement of an abandoned school whose rooms have been rented to artists and small businesses. Struggling painters and poets wander the halls. Astrologists give readings behind locked doors. A woman who’s set up a Montessori program strums a guitar and sings “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” to a single, tired-looking 3-year-old. The kid is still in his snowsuit, a grumpy mummy. And then, at noon, without fail, the halt and lame show up, mumbling of crystal skulls and joint pain. When the coil turns on, I have to leave my desk: The radiation screws with my computer, causing the screen to fill with endless strings of random characters–8jkl2rtijoaroi19k. Like that.
       I fear for the people who stand right next to the thing.