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Hal Ackerman

Stein,stoned

ONE

The bud of Sinsemilla was long and green and graceful as a Russian ballerina. Its crystallized resins sparkled like perfect dewdrops and reflected the outdoorsy good looks of Brian Goodpasture as he held the bud to the sunlight and inhaled its minty perfume. He had cloned the sproutlings from choice stock, cradled them in creches of peat moss and potting soil, nursed them in a hydroponic solution of nutrients he had formulated to promote a short growing cycle, robust flowers, and his signature joyful Goodpasture high. Discerning buyers had been clamoring for weeks to purchase his new crop of “orchids” sight unseen; such was the reputation of the brilliant young horticulturist. But this harvest was not for sale.

He snipped off a tiny quarter-moon-shaped wedge and gently crushed it onto the wire mesh inside the bowl of the stone pipe his mother had passed down to him, given to her one starry night in a meadow outside of Woodstock by the replacement drummer for a band that had once opened for Country Joe and the Fish.

This would be the first pipeful of the new batch that Goodpasture would smoke. He lit a match and let it flare a few moments to burn off the phosphorus and sulfur, then placed the pipe to his lips and toked long and slow. The oxygenated smoke passed cleanly through the wire screen, along the smooth stone walls of the pipe, down Goodpasture’s trachea and into his lungs. Instantly a feeling of well being infused his senses. He noticed the banana trees dancing in the wind, their jagged leaf tips catching the points of sunlight that leaped from leaf to leaf like balls of mercury. Yes, this crop will do very well, he thought. He visualized the faces of the patients at Dr. Alton Schwimmer’s hospice when he arrived there on Christmas Day with his special ‘boughs of holly’ with which they would deck their halls. It was absurdly sad to him that nature’s benevolent palliative should be deemed illegal. They loved Goodpasture up there. They called him Robin Hoodpasture.

He brought his shears and sealing apparatus up to the drying shed on the tiered hillside behind his Topanga Canyon home. The house had been built in the 1920s for a local oil baron, who had commandeered telephone poles and railroad ties and had them pounded into the bedrock as foundations. The back shed had been used to store his extensive collection of pornography. Later it was converted to a studio and atelier for its long-time second owner, the water colorist, Ruth Ashton-Hayes, before evolving into its present incarnation. Goodpasture spun the tumbler of the combination lock and punched in the eight-digit security code. He waited for the electronic response and punched in a four-digit reply. He rolled up the corrugated-steel safety cage and braced himself for the deluge of redolence that would envelop him from the two hundred plants he had hung upside down on the rafters to dry.

The thieves had left the room spotless. Not a leaf remained. Not a bud, not a stem, not a mote of resin. Nothing.

TWO

The phone rang too early for it to be good news. Stein pulled himself out of a blurry sleep onto one elbow and waited with dread to hear his ex-wife’s voice on the answering machine with an urgent message about some appointment she had forgotten to tell Stein about that would require his rearranging his schedule to accommodate her. Their joint custody arrangements were already as gerrymandered as a crooked political district. Angie, their fifteen-year-old daughter, stayed with Stein half the week and alternate weekends, then with Hillary the rest of the time unless something unexpected came up, which it almost always did. All these years divorced and he was still her first call in any crisis. It drove him nuts.

But it was not Hillary calling. It was worse in a different way. It was Mrs. Higgit from the warehouse. Her voice cut through him like a fish knife. There was a serious problem, she was saying. The inventory count of shampoo bottles that Mister Stein had just completed was short by a thousand cases from the amount the computer said should be on hand. Mister Mattingly was extremely upset and wishes Mister Stein-on to call back promptly. Mrs. Higgit put extra syllables into words to emphasize their importance. She pronounced Stein as if it rhymed with lion.

Stein sat perfectly still lest his breathing betray his presence. He had spent the last fourteen days in an airless warehouse hand-counting a quarter-million empty octagonal plastic designer shampoo bottles. His skin reeked of polypropylene. It leeched out of his hair, permeated his sheets. He smelled like he had been stored in Tupperware. So, no. He was not going to call back promptly.

He creaked out of bed and pulled on a pair of sweats. The framed picture of him with John and Yoko taken twenty-five years ago today-on his twenty-fifth birthday-hung on the wall above his dresser. Half his life had passed since then, and nineteen years to the day since John had been killed, December 8, 1980. Stein’s beard in the photograph was longer than his hair was now. He felt the ghost of his amputated ponytail. He padded down the hallway to Angie’s room and knocked.

“Are you up?” He tried to make the prospect sound pleasant.

Her monosyllabic answer splattered against the inside of her door like a thrown object. “NO.”

“And good morning to you, too,” he bowed, and continued down the stairs to make her breakfast.

Stein’s ancient arthritic terrier, Watson, had peed on the tile floor again, so on Stein’s first step into the kitchen his leg skated out from under him and he had to grab onto the counter to keep from wish-boning. His flailing arm knocked over the container of milk that Angie had left out despite Stein’s reminding her a dozen times the previous night to put it away, and her assurance that she would. A stream of white lava flowed along the counter toward the rack of washed dishes. Stein lunged from his knees and just managed to swoop the dish rack up before the advancing white liquid tongue lapped over its edge. He knelt there in full extension, holding up the dish rack like an offering from a supplicant at the altar of Chaos. He wondered who those people were whose mornings began with freshly squeezed orange juice, pressed shirts and a crisply folded newspaper.

Watson was asleep alongside the heater vent in the living room. Stein unwound his leash from the front door handle. The sound awakened in him a deep Pavlovian response, and he tried gamely to scramble to his feet. His lame hind legs splayed out behind him like someone trying to use chopsticks for the first time. Stein gently lifted Watson’s bony, urine-stinking rear end and wheel barrowed him down the front steps into the semi-circular courtyard of their cozy little fourplex in the Fairfax District. It was a dank and cool morning for Los Angeles. Two joggers in their sixties clomped through the mist discussing their portfolios. One was in diversified mutual funds and wore hundred dollar Reeboks. The other had a headband and rental property. Stein had ten extra pounds around his middle and no investments. Watson could no longer lift his leg and had to squat like a girl.

The phone was ringing again as Stein eased Watson up the stairs and back inside. This time it was the voice of Mattingly himself on the machine. Stein could see the squeezed throat and pinched lips that produced the panic in Mattingly’s voice. He was sure the missing bottles had been hijacked and that a knock-off version of his Espe “New Millennium” shampoo was going to hit the streets before the release of the real thing. He implored Stein to please please please please please call in as soon as he could.

People like Mattingly sapped Stein’s soul. Wasn’t it obvious that a discrepancy as neat as a thousand cases was not going to be the result of a ‘hijack’ but rather a transposed decimal point in one of a hundred tedious mathematical operations? Stein had enough trouble explaining the world to his daughter; he wasn’t going to waste time on strangers. Especially strangers who made fifty times what he made.

Angie’s platform shoes clomped across her bedroom floor above his head, and Stein realized he hadn’t started her breakfast yet. He poured a teaspoon of olive oil into a cast-iron frying pan and diced an onion to brown. Then he cut up the leftover baked potato from last night’s dinner into little squares and threw them in with the onions to make home fries. Getting into a good rhythm, he heated the griddle and whisked the egg white into a bowl of pancake batter then added his secret ingredient, vanilla extract, and ladled the first batch onto the skillet.

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