After her husband died, Mrs. Matthews sold the house and moved to a small cottage on eleven acres in Sequatchie Valley at the foot of Walden’s Ridge near the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau where she aimed to live out the remainder of her days in gardening, reading, and quiet contemplation. Long and patiently had she fought against the illness that had deprived her of her spouse. She was tired of the work, the struggle, the anxiety. She needed rest and solitude.
The new location had been chosen carefully. The town near her property had become an increasingly popular destination for New York and California émigrés; but she was far outside the town limits and had little doubt her serenity would remain untroubled for years sufficient to her ends. The house was near the terminus of a long lonely dirt road. It was small and comfortable and possessed of its own well. It had been recently remodeled, and her time would not be consumed in banal house projects. Everything seemed to promise the rest and solitude she sought.
These she enjoyed uninterrupted, for a time. Twice a month only did she venture into town for groceries, for gardening supplies, for a visit to the library, for an occasional raid on the local thrift store. First through disinclination, and then through habit, she avoided interacting with other humans at anything more than a transitory and superficial level. She performed her to-do list and retreated back to the safety of her eleven acres. She attended church most Sundays but always came late and left early, without once filling out a visitor card. The pastor, himself running late one Sunday after guest preaching elsewhere, had ambushed her in the vestibule but had been unable to obtain much information from her, as the sound of the choir wrapping up its “special” obliged him to hurry in. (She had resolved to come even later thenceforth.)
And though after two years she found herself largely content with the rhythm of existence, she was yet lately aware of a nagging sense of loneliness. This surprised her, as she was actually living the life she had always imagined to be fulfilling, and she was not conscious of a desire for fellowship of any kind. In the end, she managed to distract herself from the emerging feelings of separateness by staying occupied in the things that interested her.
One of these was gardening, and she was tending her tomatoes one morning when the sudden loud rumble of a diesel engine startled her. Then vexed her. She had sworn off skirmishes with diesel engines. She had taken the cure; she had moved to her mountain Brighton. She could not disregard such a coarse incursion against her domestic tranquility. Walking quickly toward the front of the yard, she caught sight of a passing pickup truck. The truck was pulling a bright red camper with some words painted in large white letters on one side, though Mrs. Matthews was too far away to make them out. She had thought herself the only person occupying that particular corner of the valley, and she turned back to the house, sullen. Only twice in two years had a vehicle of any description passed in front of her residence. She decided to put the driver down as disoriented and returned to her tomatoes.
The truck appeared the same time next day. Mrs. Matthews was on the porch making her first labored attempt at a Thomas Wolfe novel that had loomed for years from her bookshelf like a portent of coming strife with words. Throwing down the book, she hurried into the yard to confront the mechanical interloper. But again she was too late and caught only the red back of the camper and enough of the license plate to divine that the peace-disrupter was from out of state. She reckoned that her house was lying in a sort of acoustic shadow, allowing the truck to appear without warning. She would discover its identity next time, she resolved.
Early next day, Mrs. Matthews again wrestling with Wolfe, again came the truck. She rose hastily and moved quickly to her car, letting the truck push well past the house before she eased out of her driveway. She watched it go around a distant curve and shot out after it, according to an understanding of “shot” that considers “the tortoise shot out after the hare” an acceptable usage. But like the fabled tortoise, Mrs. Matthews was determined not to suspend forward locomotion until her end was attained. She inevitably lost sight of her quarry within minutes, just managing to catch it turning right onto the main highway before it escaped her field of vision. But not her clutches, she thought to herself, for the truck appeared to be heading through Wheeler. And if it stopped in Wheeler, she knew concealment was improbable.
Mrs. Matthews drove the several miles to town and had crossed nearly halfway through it when she spotted the truck in the parking lot of the thrift store. The camper was now separated from the truck. In front of it was a sign: “ADDA Chai Stall. OPEN.” She parked her car nearby and walked over to the camper. As she approached, she saw a young man of apparent Indian extraction standing behind the counter. She drew near.
“Excuse me, I haven’t noticed you here before,” she said to the man.
“Yes ma’am, this is fairly new,” the man replied. “I’ve been here about three months.”
“Three months. I guess I haven’t driven by in a while, or I certainly would have observed a chai stall, of all things. I suppose Wheeler has descended on you in force?”
“It’s making cautious advances,” he said. “Have you ever had chai?”
“Yes, once or twice at a coffee shop back home.”
This provoked a look of sympathetic concern. “A coffee shop,” he said, nodding.
“Well, I liked it. Is yours different? Is it better?” Mrs. Matthews had not failed to perceive a low view of coffee shop chai.
“Ma’am, as to different, yes. As to better, I cannot say.”
“So you’re above the passing judgment fray, is it?”
“No, not really. I communicate my judgments freely enough. Only, how does one compare chalk and cheese, chai and chai lattes?”
“Young man, your hubris is electric. I’m expecting great things. Let’s see …” She looked in vain for a menu.
“ADDA Chai comes in regular or low sugar; in three sizes: small, medium, and large. A chai with the spices doubled is called BOSS Chai. The tea, milk, water, and sweetener proportions remain the same.
“What spices are doubled?”
“ADDA Chai is made with fresh ginger, cardamom, and black pepper.”
Mrs. Matthews ordered a regular ADDA and sat down at the adjacent folding table. After five minutes, the man brought her a cup of steaming chai, in an unglazed ceramic cup.
“When you are done, you can throw it on the ground,” he said.
Mrs. Matthews looked down at the ground around the three tables.
“Throw the cup or the chai?” she said.
“I think you will not have chai left to throw.”
“I do hope this beverage is as refined as your swagger.”
“It’s a close question,” he said with a wink.
She took a sip of the spiced creamy tea. It was indeed very, very good. She drank more. It was rich and intensely aromatic and invigorating. She knew immediately she had discovered a ritual. Weighing the chai and the daily annoying diesel engine on a mental balance, she concluded she had secured a net gain.
“Pardon my inquisitiveness,” Mrs. Matthews asked, “but you don’t happen to do any work down Barrett Road, do you? I have seen your truck passing my house a few times.”
“Actually ma’am, I just moved there, after staying in a motel for several months.”
“Moved where? There are no houses that way. Rather, no actual houses. Surely you don’t live in that vacant lean-to at the end of the road, do you?”
“In point of fact it has four walls and a roof, and it’s vacant no longer.”
“But I saw it not six months ago. It was so … so ad hoc. And so small. Someone evidently built their first tree house, misplacing the plans and forgetting the tree.”
“An abode well suited to my uncommonly humble nature.”
“Another modest man who has much to be modest about, it would seem,” Mrs. Matthews said. “I do hope you get an upgrade soon. To behold such a ramshack is to tremble anew at the precariousness of existence. Looks like it may fall in at any moment. You’ve been warned.”
“Your solicitude is neighborly. Thank you. By the way, my name is Sharan. I think you’ll find me neighborly in kind. I’m young, but I’m quiet. When I wrap up here, I go home and generally devote hours to evening reading.”
“A bookish neighbor. Splendid. What are you poring over at the moment?”
“I’m going through early detective writers – Poe, Collins, Doyle. Highly diverting.”
“Yes. Three or four of those were enough to divert me. Well my name is Bridget Matthews, and when you decide to move beyond your current choice of literature, let me know. Maybe we could start a book club.”
Sharan expressing his interest in the suggestion, Mrs. Matthews finished her chai, thanked him, and headed for home. She decided that her every visit to town must include the chai stall. Something about the young man pleased her, in spite of his polite impudence. And the chai was resplendent.
Mrs. Matthews soon became one of the few regulars at ADDA Chai, frequently driving to town for no other purpose than to enjoy a cup and conversation with Sharan, who would take tea with her when business was slow, which was often. She had been curious about Sharan’s background, and on her third visit she let loose some questions. Where was he from? How did he get into the chai business? Why was he trying to sell chai in a place like Wheeler? Wouldn’t his chances of success have been far better in a mid-sized town like Knoxville or Chattanooga? People around Wheeler were still drinking hot brown water and calling it coffee, she said, and tea was usually consumed with case loads of ice. Food and drink experimentation was a low priority in the county. She frankly had grave doubts about the endeavor.
“Mrs. Matthews, I had similar misgivings before I came. But I didn’t choose this location. It was chosen for me. In fact, I’m here because of a wager.”
He explained that he was born into an Indian family living in Malaysia and that when he was a small child his father moved back to India to help oversee some tea plantations, first in Karnataka, then near Coonoor, Tamil Nadu.
“In the lofty blue Nilgiri Hills of South India,” he said.
From there his family emigrated to the United States when he was still a teenager. He got a job at a software company after college. He knew that someday he wanted to start a chai business, and he was waiting for the right opportunity.
“Then one day, I was talking over ideas for new enterprises with my childhood playmate Vasu (whose family had come to the U.S. a few years after mine). This became a back and forth about whose ideas were superior, which evolved into a debate over who had the greatest business acumen. After some time, we agreed upon a challenge: Each of us would start a business in another state and operate it for a year. At year’s end, the person with the most profitable concern would be declared the savviest businessman and would take the lead on a subsequent joint venture.”
“That was an impressive leap from chitchat to war to the knife.”
Sharan said he had previously honed in on a few mid-size cities in California as offering the best opportunities for his chai business. His friend Vasu had been interested in experimenting with a new model of Christian bookstore and identified eastern Tennessee as a promising market. After talking over their plans, they both recognized with some amusement that if they crossed some wires, the contest would prove more entertaining.
“I see,” Mrs. Matthews said. “So you would go to Tennessee and your friend to California?”
“Yes, that’s right. But with a twist. Each would choose a specific location within the other friend’s state. Vasu chose Wheeler for me. I chose for him … San Francisco.”
“Your friend is trying to sell Bibles in San Francisco?”
“Bibles and Biblish books.”
“It seems a disadvantage, doesn’t it?”
“It was a bit rascally of me, I confess. But he insisted he could make it work.”
“No, no, I meant a disadvantage for you. San Francisco is so many times larger than Wheeler.”
“True, and novelty fare is not a great pursuit here, as you’ve stated. But on the other hand, I’ve got no competition. The next chai vendor is at least a hundred miles away; whereas in San Francisco, for instance, chai is taken with mother’s milk.”
“I’ve never been to San Francisco, so I’ll have to take your word on that,” Mrs. Matthews said. “But how is your friend doing there?”
“Last I heard, he’s made few sales.”
“Not flourishing, though I think it’s a bit early to make a judgment on it.”
“How has the feedback been?”
“Absent, mostly. Or negative. But mostly, people just aren’t returning.”
“These people have no idea what they have. Have you done any promotions?”
He said that he had tried several “free gift with purchase” promotions. He had given away energy bars, movie tickets, and ceramic figurines. His last attempt involved calling in a favor from his friend Kartik who owned a small chain of gun stores. The friend sent him boxes of .30-06 ammo and sample buck scents, which he put into small boxes that were gifted with large chais. They went fast, and he sold a lot of tea for a week, but then business went back to where it was. Customers were not returning. He was beginning to run out of ideas.
“Be patient,” Mrs. Matthews said. “The pace of change can be slow in rural eastern Tennessee, and habit acquisition takes time.”
“So I’m learning. Unfortunately time is a limited resource for me. I have eight months to make something happen.”
“What else do folks in the area need besides hunting supplies?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they need friends.”
“That’s not something one can offer with the purchase of a chai.”
“I imagine not. But it does seem like people are lonely around here.”
“People are lonely everywhere.”
“Yes, even those who live down Barrett Road.”
Mrs. Matthews flushed slightly. “Oh, you have been feeling lonely?”
“Respectfully, I was referring to you.”
“Oh, I’m lonely am I? What else can you tell me about me, since you know so much?”
“Well, let me see … you are a nice lady. You obviously have good taste, liking my chai as you do.” He grinned.
“That’s all you’ve got to say? That I’m a nice lady with good taste? Come now. Justify those worthless detective novels you’ve been reading.”
“Oh I see. Okay. Hmm. Ah yes. I ascertain you to be an avid gardener, by the soil particles beneath your left middle fingernail.”
“As if you haven’t seen me out there multiple times,” Mrs. Matthews retorted.
“And I can tell that you read Thomas Wolfe novels …”
“How could you possibly–”
“…. And that when you drive, you drive slow. Very, very slow,” he said, chuckling.
“The arrant cheek. You saw me following you last month, didn’t you?”
“Ha, yes, I confess. Shortly after I relocated, I noticed your car behind me, two minutes after I had seen you sitting on your porch. It did seem like you were giving chase.” He laughed. “Just not fast enough.”
“Perhaps, young man, because you were driving too fast. Doubtless well over the speed limit. But you didn’t escape me, did you?”
“You caught me at last.”
“Still, I’m puzzled how you knew what I was reading.”
“Ah, so this is yours.” He reached behind the counter and held out a book to her. “I found it just off the road as you turn onto the highway.”
Mrs. Matthews took the book and examined it. It was hers. She had given no consideration to the book or its author since her discovery of the chai stall. She supposed she must have set it on top of her car in her hurry to get behind the mysterious truck. She set the book down and took a sip of tea, looking up at Sharan.
“To your previous point: I can’t deny I’ve been feeling a bit removed from the world. Honestly, though, it is my own fault. I really have gone out of my way to avoid people. I’ve been thinking lately that I should make some attempts to involve myself with others.” She paused. “Which leads me to something I wanted to address with you. I was curious about the meaning of ADDA and discovered it to be a sort of gathering for informal conversation.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Sharan replied. “The name comes from my childhood.”
Sharan said that when he was young his father would regularly have a group of friends over. Large pots of chai would be made, and they would spend hours conversing. They did not shy away from politics, he said, though three political parties were represented there. Nor did they avoid religion, though from different religious backgrounds. They regularly grappled with themes considered verboten in polite society. They had zealous but good-humored, lively, full-throated debates on a range of issues.
“Sometimes a bit too full-throated,” Sharan said. “I remember at least two interruptions by irritated neighbors.”
But at the end, he said, the friends would always hug and shake hands and smile, parting usually well past midnight.
“You never got the sense there was any acrimony,” he said. “I think the key was that they truly liked each other. They called that group ADDA. Of course, I can’t help but think of it almost every time I drink chai.”
“Why not try facilitating something like that here?” Mrs. Matthews said. “Maybe move this indoors and advertise a meeting space?”
“It’s interesting you say that,” Sharan said. “Are you friends by chance with a Pastor Bryan?”
“If you mean Charles Bryan of Wheeler Baptist Church, I know who he is. That’s where I attend. We’re not friends though. I’ve only spoken with him briefly. Why?”
“Last week I actually had been mulling over trying to move indoors. It occurred to me that that a business basically called ‘The Gathering’ should have a place for people to gather. I eventually dismissed it as too costly. But then Pastor Bryan visited yesterday. He ordered some chai and we had a long conversation. A personable fellow.”
Sharan said that after they had chatted for a while, Pastor Bryan told him that he had been looking to start a simple café in a Main Street building owned by the church. He envisioned a kind of community hub in which people could work, study, and hold discussion groups. Pastor Bryan himself wanted to organize a series of theological discussions, inviting guest presenters from around the area. He offered to let Sharan move ADDA Chai into the building, cheap to free, in exchange for closing it to the public one night a week to cater the theology meetup, which the pastor proposed calling Chai House Hermeneutics.
“So when you made a similar suggestion just now, I wondered if he had spoken with you about it,” Sharan said.
“No, but I think it’s a great idea.”
“Good. I told him I would do it. Though it does mean scrambling to come up with some pastries and cookies. I’ll maintain a drive-through, but I think having an indoor area will encourage more regulars. At the moment, there’s not a lot of those. There’s you, and …”
“And a few others. I think the pastor is now. He seems to really like the chai.”
A month later ADDA Chai was settled comfortably on Main Street, in a former bank next to a variety store. Mrs. Matthews noticed a few “Chai House Hermeneutics” posters around town announcing the topic for the inaugural “Chai Session” to take place the following week. The first session was surprisingly well attended, in view of the relatively short run up to it and given the topic, a favorite of Pastor Bryan’s, which both Sharan and Mrs. Matthews privately considered to be of dubious popular accessibility: “The Gospel According to Leviticus.” The second session saw almost twice the turnout and the third even more. Pastors from nearby communities were invited to give talks, and many of these lecturers were accompanied by their own townspeople, increasing sales significantly on those nights.
The meetings were going well, with high levels of participation, and Sharan was beginning to see signs that word about his chai was spreading. At the eighth session, however, there was a noticeable drop in attendance. Afterwards, Mrs. Matthews asked Sharan if he knew the cause.
“Yes, I do. Wheeler Brewing Company. It opened last month.”
“Brewing company. Where beer is made.”
“A largely Baptist crowd attends Bible discussions for weeks, shows every sign of growing engagement and enthusiasm, and abandons the discussions devil-may-care at the first rumor of fresh beer. Naturally.”
“It seems a group has started meeting at the brewery on Thursdays,” Sharan said. “They call it ‘Theology at the Brewing Company,’ and apparently many of our people just defected to that. I can’t speak to how many of them are motivated by the beer.”
“This time, no. If you doubt me, talk to Pastor Bryan. I had this from his own mouth. He said he is going to occasionally give presentations there.”
“The rank turncoat.”
“Some pastor friends of his started it. He said he told them a long time ago he would participate if asked, though he didn’t know then it would be held in a brewery.”
“I don’t understand this,” Mrs. Matthews said. “First of all, I didn’t get the impression that this was a beer in one hand and Bible in the other kind of county. Also, Pastor Bryan is Baptist. Rural Baptist.”
“His pastor buddies are from much less ethanol averse communions. He said he prayed about it and decided that he couldn’t justify not honoring his commitment.”
“Who’s been attending this group?”
“Well, this was only their third evening,” Sharan said, “but I’m told it’s been a lot of bikers and roustabouts and Presbyterians. Joined tonight by quite a few from our group. The schedule was published at the outset, and the first meetings are consecrated to a four-part series on the ‘Theology of the Sexual Body.’”
“Of course they are. And they couldn’t meet on another night?”
“Followed by a debate advertised as the ‘Melee at the Brewing Company: A Calvinist and Reformed Arminian Throw Down.’ Attendees are asked to ‘check their weapons at the door.’”
“Theology? Sounds more like professional wrestling. And apparently Thursday was the only available evening for them?”
“I think you’re missing the main issue here,” Sharan said. “It’s not a scheduling conflict problem, it’s a marketing problem. It’s the ‘Gospel According to Leviticus’ and ‘Systematic Theology for Our Times’ against sex and single combat. I would encourage a new approach, but I have a feeling it’s too late for that.”
Indeed, Chai House Hermeneutics had sustained a mortal blow, and this would prove a setback to Sharan’s business. He needed the custom it brought. Though other groups had begun meeting at the café, and though patronage had steadily grown, the growth had been slow, and he was running out of time: He had recently gotten word that Vasu had had a breakthrough in San Francisco and was making estimable sales. Meanwhile, he was barely in the black and knew that he was likely far behind his friend.
Finally, on the evening of the much ballyhooed Calvinism-Arminianism “Throwdown,” only four people made it to Chai House for the conclusion of the Leviticus series. Over twenty-five had been in attendance just two weeks before. The decision was made after that to pause the sessions temporarily and retool. The following Thursday Sharan and Mrs. Matthews found themselves at Wheeler Brewing Company, along with Pastor Bryan, for the standing-room-only talk, “Exorcism and the AI Apocalypse: A Retired Navy SEAL Priest Speaks Out.”
A few months after this, Mrs. Matthews was reading on her porch when she heard the rumble of the now pleasantly familiar diesel engine and then heard it abruptly shut off. She went out to the road where the truck had stopped adjacent to her gate. Sharan approached.
“Good morning. Mrs. Matthews. I am leaving. I came to say goodbye.”
“You don’t mean leaving for good?”
“Actually … I am leaving town for good Mrs. Matthews. Just this morning. I spent yesterday night moving out of the building.”
“But I thought you had several more months here.”
“I did. However, Vasu and I talked last week, and we agreed to wrap up the contest, as he’s so far ahead. He asked me to come out and help him for a while. His curated ‘Shelf of Books’ collections have proven popular, and sales have been soaring. He’s sold to a lot of individuals but also found customers in several churches and businesses in the area.”
Mrs. Matthews felt herself starting to cry and looked away in an attempt to control her emotions. The announcement of his parting made her feel some of her previous isolation. She had become good friends with this impudent and delightful young man.
“I really will miss you, Sharan. I don’t think I’ve ever made a friend so quickly. You were right about my being lonely here. I just wasn’t able to acknowledge that to myself before you broached it.”
“I will miss you too. But I don’t think you have much more loneliness to look forward to, for several reasons. First, because I have observed your interactions with people generally, at the Chai Sessions and the brewery. It’s clear people like you and want to be friends with you. Second, because one person in particular always lights up whenever you deign to acknowledge him. And they say he is the most eligible bachelor in town. Pastor Bryan really is a charming man, don’t you think?”
“Didn’t your mother ever teach you to respect your elders?”
“And lastly, because I’m gifting you this camper and everything in it.”
Which is how Mrs. Matthews found herself the following month—and for several years—ladling out cups of steaming chai to the residents of Wheeler, Tennessee. But that is another story.