We’re being lied to about cannabis, marijuana, weed, ganja, chronic, or whatever the fuck you want to call it, some arguing for its medicinal value, assuming that everyone must be sick and in need of a cure, others figuring how to monetize it by substituting clear thinking with a foul, smoky fog, falsely proposing that art’s created through your subjugated brain, a brain seeking something ever more exhilarating, more powerful than the last blunt, reefer, joint, laced with who knows what, chemical reactions creating new toxins to enliven moribund body temples by some pseudo chemist who flunked out of ninth grade because he was always high, having been miseducated in inferior schools before that, that same chemist rearranging atoms, stretching the product further merely to survive in a jungle advantaged for the privileged, someone who never realizes how the cards have been stacked, the system rigged, how pharmaceutical and tobacco companies simply wait on the sidelines, knowing that by day’s end, with government help, they will control the market, knowing then that drug deals will become prescription-only and non-doctor prescribers will, once again, be jailed, inextricably, inevitably, like the sea change following alcohol prohibition, controlled, taxed, as legal as my itchy ass.
“Dope p-problems grow like bacteria when left unattended,” I say to Xochitl De León, the Hue and Cry newspaper reporter covering our protest, posing for her picture, warily smoothing back my coiled salt and pepper Bozo hair, my aching back propped against Davis Middle School’s security fence, cold bars towering over me with an outward curve, terminating with triple-pointed spear tips as black as I imagine Snoop Dog’s lungs to be.
“I-I want it to stop—one unemptied trash can means the job is incomplete—Compton deserves better,” I say like any good hospital janitor will. Curbside lay clumps of tobacco, a crumpled, quivering 7- Eleven receipt, no doubt trashed by some weed-stoked zombie, sunlight glinting off a disposable lighter cap and the metallic stripe on a grape flavored Swisher Sweets cigarillo wrapper. I point to Rosecrans Avenue as we turn toward Queen Egypt, Chattom, and other protesters about a half block north up Matthisen Street. An early spring pandemonium of thick, leathery, dark green oleander leaves with scented yellow flower clusters (? Oleander flowers are white or pink) bursts through iron pickets, “See how close it is to this school?” Bending, I pick up the cigarillo wrapper before it blows onto the schoolyard.
“What other reasons do you protest Mr. Neal?” Xochi wears no makeup. Her face is the color and shape of a marmalade plum, hair short, dark, and roughed-dried, two yellow pencils stick like hairpins, forming a V, from her practical bun. She looks fresh out of college and had probably partied high on drugs like college kids do. What the hell does she know?
“Truth is, weed once retarded me. I hallucinated and failed a four-way stop sign. My road dog crashed through the windshield. I’d go back and change that if I could,” I say, breathing hard, teeth grinding. “Nobody had told me shit. My son chased dope to the Midwest after my wife died. She helped save me.” I hold back sobs. “I told him addiction’s probably in his genes—his DNA. I told him truth nobody told me. He went out there anyway.”
At first it amused me when my two-year-old son sucked on my joint roach left smoldering in the ashtray. Twenty-eight years later he’s somewhere in Kentucky hooked on OxyContin. I wave off Xochi and swipe away tears before I say, “I’ve been clean and sober for years, though old habits and temptation never fully leave you.” My body’s numb, heavy, before my muscles tighten. “My truth will spare other families the downside to marijuana’s cachinnation. That’s why I believe in total abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. That’s my mission this past decade.”
On Rosecrans, the sheriff’s spy camera lens moves and whirrs atop a streetlight pole, watching from some remote location, sheriff’s deputies monitoring us and all activity along the avenue, looking over my shoulder, scanning the area for their swift, unwanted arrival. They’d said we needed a permit but I don’t believe we need government permission to protest. Besides there’s so much money involved with marijuana, who can you trust? Still, in the back of my mind deputies could break up our party at any time if we leave the sidewalk, like when Alvarado Park May Day protesters overflowed onto city streets. LAPD had driven their motorcycles through the crowd using their batons and rubber bullets on people. My heart pounds against my rib cage. It would be my fault if that happens today.
“We’re weed protesters, rebels,” says Chattom, his brown fist outstretched for Dap. A retired prison guard from Puerto Rico, he was third runner-up to Ronnie Coleman in the Mr. Olympia contest and wears a gold rope chain with a crucifix of a body builder on it.
“No, we’re WEED KILLERS,” Queen Egypt says as we draw near, her royal blue gele is knotted at her temple and covers her hair and ears, leaving her periwinkle ankh earrings dangling.
Some among a few dozen rebels stray into the street, causing Saturday morning traffic to slow along the grassy median that divides four east-west traffic lanes between two marijuana dispensaries. Drivers are bumping potholes to avoid hitting inattentive rebels pitifully sneering down the block at a clutch of drunks hunkered on discarded furniture and wood crates in front of a new 7-Eleven, recently built beyond an empty lot next to a tiny shotgun house. Others are putting finishing touches on protest signs, or pointing across to a line snaking around the cannabis storefront in an abandoned church. Several doors down from the old church cars creep like pill bugs in and out of a 24/7 drive-through smoke shop, an apartment building, a house, and, in between, an auto parts store crowd the avenue.
From a rise on the median, Councilwoman Ethel Last Word Vickers’ voice floats above murmuring rebels mingling in view of the sheriff’s camera, “When we fight, we win,” she says.
Why is she here? Conniving politicians usually come only to skin and grin before the camera, to distract. A thick woman, Vickers’ skin is deep brown, hair gold. She’s wearing a white summer dress and clutching a white purse that, when she speaks, she crazily waves around as if she’s going to throw it at you. Her stiletto heels clack against the street when she approaches, thrusting a sign at passing vehicles that says, No Mas Drogas. Vickers eyes Xochi’s phone camera and says to me, “We should take a picture together, Tallent.”
“Uhh, no thanks.” No way is she using me for her re-election campaign photo.
Within the avenue’s discombobulated zoning scheme dogs bark, a rooster crows, and children play. Occasionally a car passes and honks support for us rebels. Others slow, lower their dark tinted windows and shout, “FUCK Y’ALL. Go lay your old gray asses down somewhere.”
Not wanting to appear stupid publicly, I spell-check my THINK CLEAR! picket sign, paying particular care to exclamation point punctuation, wondering if I even need it since the words are all capitalized, deciding one instead of three will suffice, before meeting up with antsy rebels on the corner next to one of the clandestine storefronts, a faded sand-colored building projecting from its wall a mural of pine trees set against an amber backdrop, suggesting a Garden of Eden or, at worst, a tranquil outdoor gathering spot, supposedly to capture the essence of the products made inside or perhaps to offset an otherwise depressing location. One sliding door and three rectangular windows are covered with thick steel plates. On one end is a pale-white side entry door behind a rickety wrought iron driveway gate. Across Rosecrans looms cavernous Greater Love, a single-story dull gray converted church, insidiously used to harvest and distribute weed, carefully embedded in its stucco facing are three large white wooden crucifixion crosses, starkly reminiscent of Jesus’ death and return to life, leaving me to ponder if He had also smoked pot.
Weed Killers stink-eye Xochi, the media being, as a rule, Compton unfriendly, writing about our potholed streets calling it a backwater, always reminding us that several corrupt governing officials had gone to prison, always talking about our gang problem, yadda, yadda, yadda, ignoring that nearly all of us simply work hard to survive like everyone else, ignoring too that whatever our problems are, they were made in America. Bastards. Xochi presses her elbows into her side which makes her look smaller, studies something on her cell phone and says, “The majority of California’s voters favored recreational marijuana use. Why do you think Compton residents voted against it?”
“It’s dr-drug dealing,” I say, “made legal, like p-prescription opiates. Superfly showed us how to snort cocaine. It got worse when Ronald Reagan dropped the crack bomb on us.” My skin crawls. “Now Trump has his finger on the button.”
Trump. The rebels hoists their signs and erupt, “Fake president——Fake president——NOT MY PRESIDENT.”
Like a symphony conductor Vickers waves her purse and snarls, “Ten years ago we passed an ordinance that outlawed medical weed dispensaries.” Facing Xochi, her back is to me, she says, “We didn’t want it then, don’t want it now.”
I shift from foot to foot as the number of rebels grow and began to block eastbound traffic, listening carefully for wailing sirens, picturing in my mind riot gear clad deputies beating down on rebels, them running away bloodied. My gut Jell-O’s. From behind Vickers some Weed Killers give her a silent look, narrowing their eyes.
Vickers fails to mention how her tax-crazed, money-grubbing fellow Democrats supported the recreational-use ballot measure, birthing cash-only, fly-by-night operations, spawning an infestation like cockroaches, willy-nilly throughout the city.
“First weed, next gentrification,” I say. “We’re pushing back. We’re resisting.”
Xochi jumps when rebels behind her shout, “No gentrifuckation—No gentrifuckation—NO GENTRIFUCKATION.”
She white-knuckles her phone recorder and pushes it toward my mouth. “Some would say that yours is a lost cause Mr. Neal.”
“I don’t need to prove nothing to you,” I say. I elbow around Vickers, throw up a fist like John Carlos and Tommie Smith did in 1968 and say, “When we fight, we win.”
Xochi frowns. The protesters raise their knuckles and chant, “When we fight, we win—When we fight, we win—When we fight. WE. WIN.”
“I followed the crowd as a kid—I used to chug cheap wine, smoked cigarettes and marijuana by thirteen, and celebrated my fifteenth birthday high on LSD, downers, and weed, on a rocket to nowhere,” I tell her. “For some reason, it all felt right. Normal.”
A voice booms over the rebels parting the crowd, “Give thanks and praise to the Most High, Emperor Haile Selassie the First.” Hearing Winfrey’s Caribbean accent tightens my chest. Why’d more bad news show up now? A Compton native who’d visited Jamaica and returned Rastafarian, Winfrey says, “Lamb’s bread is a sacrament for the use of man—a cool meditation, mon.” Short in stature, he was once a 1960s Black Panther, now he’s wearing a red, gold, and green tam with long dreadlocks sewn onto the sweatband, flat nose and pitted-black skin making him look fierce. To anyone listening, he gladly embellishes the story of how he and fellow Panthers fought SWAT back in the day. “I was in the ‘69 shootout against LAPD’s first SWAT team. We kicked their asses all over forty-first and Central——fuck pigs,” he’d say. He was once uncompromising, hated police, and they hated him back. But when it comes to weed, all skin-folk ain’t kinfolk.
“Sure, you helped us get porta-potties in public parks from the City, dude, but this fight ain’t for you,” I say. “That is, unless you’re gonna put the weed away.”
He’d been drinking and slurs, “Nah mon. Me never do dat. Ganga never hurt nobody mon. Whoa. You usta puff collie herb Tallent Neal, now you ‘gainst it.” Reaching under his purple dashiki he pulls, like a magician, a baggie full of buds, pushing it my way. As in times past when on autopilot I’m tempted, that old familiar taste of Zig Zag gum arabic returns, the pungent smell, and lung irritating smoke. Baited, my shoulder twitches and hand trembles, but I check myself, refusing to revisit the self-centered spaced-out asshole that I once was. “What ya know mon?” he says.
Winfrey’s trying to pull my cover, I shout, “That was years ago.” Heartbeat pounding loud in my ears. I do a little breath-of-fire Kundalini yoga, awakening spine energy, harnessing dangerous subtle impulses enticing me to bloody Winfrey’s mouth, calming myself. “Now, I’m clean and sober my brother.”
“Ghost yourself fake-assed Rasta!” Chattom yells.
“Go fuck with LAPD,” Queen Egypt says from the middle of the rebel crowd. “Go back to Jamaica.”
Winfrey drags his palms down his legs and tries to facedown the rebels.
“You can’t even get a job,” a rebel says. “Your stinky old piss’ll test dirty.”
When the crowd closes in, Winfrey rocks slightly and raises his hand to ward them off.
“Bumba clot!” he says, red eyes gazing up to the churring spy camera, giving it the finger, undoubtedly drawing the ire of deputies at the controls, deputies who never liked Winfrey, deputies he always hated, deputies I hope will not roll up now that they have an excuse to. He holds the gesture as he squeezes through and away from the rebels, stops, fires a spliff. “Ras clot! Make we leave ya,” he says stumbling toward the new 7-Eleven.
Xochi scribbles onto a notepad and asks, “Is there any upside to marijuana cultivation and sale in Compton, Mr. Neal?”
“Hell NO. It’s a scheme by entrepreneurs and their political puppets to make money off poor people. They want to market it, ‘Straight outta Compton.’”
“Fuck that,” Chattom says.
I say, “If cannabis benefited Compton, we’d already be rich. A lot of people went to prison behind it. It’s a trick-bag. Especially for black people.” I squeeze the THINK CLEAR! sign stick, hands hurting, palms turning red under pressure, picturing them around the neck of anyone responsible for us having to be here on Saturday morning.
Queen Egypt pushes out from the rebels, earrings glistening in the sun, her pinched face exposed, aggressively arguing, “Trick-bag is right. My husband’s been in prison ten years for weed.” She takes several quick breaths. “My son wants to open a dispensary one day.” A scrawny kid about thirteen, maybe fourteen, with big eyes in a black wave cap snatches his wrist away from her and, with his untied Vans, kicks at a breeze blown cigarillo wrapper and traces sidewalk cracks. “Something’s wrong with this picture,” she says.
Crouching to the boy’s eye level I say, “Respect your mama.” His name is Cory. “Do you smoke or vape?” The boy yawns, clearly bored with our exercise, probably a Davis student, looking like he’s on the cusp of gangbanging, reminding me how I started smoking around his age, reminding me of how no one ever told me shit, nothing about drugs, nothing about sex, nothing about life.
Xochi overlooks the boy and says, “But Mr. Neal, you seem to have turned out okay—kinda.”
“With help I was able to t-turn away from drug dependence and from the thefts, robberies, c-crimes to support it—in and out of jail—police target practice.” My arm twitches. I’d once done a bullet in Men’s Central Jail, a whole goddamn year for selling herb to support my cannabis habit. “—Always chained to probation, parole,” I say to Xochi. “Parole agents can bust in on you in the middle of the night if they want, like you’re a runaway slave.”
The boy mutters under his breath. “Whatever,” he says. Cory’s daddy is in prison for what’s no longer a crime.
“So, how’d you clean up, Mr. Neal?” Xochi says.
I threw the big-eyed boy a sidelong glance. He shrugs placing his hands in his pockets. “What do you know about running a business?” I say to him. “You do know that dispensaries are businesses?”
His voice hardens, “Nothing. I don’t know nothing about it.”
“Have you ever s-sold anything before? Lemonade?”
“Chocolate turtles in the fourth grade,” he says.
“H-how’d it go?”
“Kinda hard. Mom sold it for me.”
“T-then you might have a clue. Weed is different because people believing they need it will come to you like moths to a flame. You could make a lot of money off the weakness of others—if it’s only about money.”
“What else is it about? I wanna come-up like everybody else—wear bling, drive cars like Bonk Loc.”
Bonk Loc is the street level dealer who has managed to support his three babies by apparently slinging chronic and who knows what else. He’s street smart but doesn’t have enough business intelligence to really break through or to get out of Compton, a guy who’d lace weed with chemicals and swear it’s the bomb. He’s dumb as a brick.
Cory continues to look down when I say, “Even if others are harmed? D-do you really want to profit off the pain of people that look like you?” I picture my own son, glance at Cory’s mother. “Your mama raised you better than that. I can tell.”
Cory squishes his big eyes together. “What else can I do?” he says.
I lightly touch Cory’s shoulder and say, “Learn business if that’s your interest. Learn capital access, marketing, product development. Compton needs way more products than weed. There’s a world for you. You might have to look, work hard to find it, and do it. Weed? Yes, if you must. But not in Compton. It’s illegal. L-love yourself FIRST, God, then others. You can do it Cory.”
Cory nods slowly. Weed Killers don’t miss the beat and say, “Love yourself—Love yourself—LOVE YOURSELF FIRST.”
“You can do better,” I say. “We have always loved each other, Cory. We don’t need drugs for that. Let the white boys have it.”
Cory exhales, looking me in the eye, his gaze darting to Queen whose eyes go dewy, she’s cupping her face, weeping, several rebels sniffle. Of course Vickers chimes in, “Don’t worry about anything——instead pray about everything,” she says to Cory and hands his mama her business card. “Tell God your needs and remember to thank her for her answers,” she tells him.
I turn Cory to face me. “Make the library and a dictionary app your new BFF. Educate yourself with that cell phone. I return to Xochi. The rebels hold their signs and quietly lean in.
“How’d I clean up? Paraquat poison still burns my blood. Th-That’s another thing——now cattle are out the barn, they’re out, dope is legal if you’re over t-twenty-one,” I say. Three felony strikes got Cory’s daddy twenty-five prison years. I say to Xochi, “Decriminalization is good but instead of jail time, now my brothers camp around smoke shops.” I was on a roll. “Th-There’re more drug storefronts in Compton th-than are places for people to kick drugs, if they choose—” My fingers pill-roll. “I-I was l-lucky. There were social recovery homes before they cut ‘em out—a village to love and support me. One day at a time.” I squeeze the sign stick. “Recovery is hard work so now they coddle you, give you pills to detox—a different slavery. It’s senseless. I didn’t need shit. Did it cold turkey,” I say, a bit taller having voiced my accomplishment. “Everything will be alright if I do one day at a time——one day at a time,” I say.
The protesters repeat, “One day at a time—One day at a time—ONE DAY AT A TIME.”
Several passing drivers honk their support, another cusses us.
At first rebels mill around the muraled storefront with their hand-drawn signs, some placing their signs along the wall under the painted pine trees, some leaning on their sign sticks nonchalantly as if they’ve forgotten their purpose, others posing with their signs for cellphone photos for Internet uploading, complaining about how the city has only one Starbucks, grumbling about the difficulty of staying caffeinated on this Saturday morning. Patiently, Xochi’s interviewing a gesticulating Chattom under the sheriff’s camera, until Queen Egypt, baring her teeth with Cory in tow, yells, “We didn’t vote for this shit. Shut it down. Shut it all down!”
Grabbing their signs aggressively, marching past the mural, and approaching the side entry door the Weed Killers spring alive chorusing, “Shut it down——Shut it down——SHUT IT DOWN.”
Behind the driveway gate a security guard is posted on trash-strewn barren dirt, styling knockoff Armani wraparound sunglasses, arms folded across his pudgy chest, sporting a blue polo shirt with black collar and epaulettes, his pot-belly hiding his belt. Guzman is sewn on a fabric plate above where a pocket might have been on a real uniform shirt. On his upper arm is a patch like California’s state bear, only his looks more like Yogi Bear. He hitches his head, smirks, and sits in shade under a tree that grows just above the slanted roof; its spindly branches weighted like Christmas ornaments with red Chinese globes the size of soccer balls.
Guzman jumps from his high chair, shuffling back when the rebels reach the gate, checking that the side door is locked, clutching a Taser attached to his belt, fastening the gate latch to keep Weed Rebels out.
Next to me are Chattom’s muscled thighs and calves testing his cargo pants, speaking to Xochi through his teeth while passing around a petition, petitioning to Band the Box, advocating that ex-felons deserve jobs too, juggling leaflets about Compton’s unsolved homicides. “Read this. The list includes ones killed by PoPo too. Murder by deputy is still murder,” he says.
A wispy androgynous white person steps from behind the driveway gate in a dark gray baseball cap. Across the cap’s crown is a green caduceus, a short rod entwined by two snakes, topped by a pair of wings. “I’m Tosh,” the person says, also wearing a lavender T-shirt, a sad lap dog surrounded by roses staring out from it.
The sharp odor of hydroponics shadows Tosh even though this person’s eyes aren’t red like deadheads under the influence usually are, looking plausibly sober, pupils aren’t dilated. The scent is powerful but not unfamiliar, reminding me of the far weaker bunk weed that I once copped years back. My chest runs gooey.
I decline Tosh’s fist bump. Who is this Tosh?
Weed Killers whisper, some shake their heads disapprovingly, ogling Tosh who’s much too tiny to take on a hostile crowd, Tosh having, to them, just beamed down from space.
The moment is long and uncomfortable before Xochi asks, “What pronoun do you prefer?”
Reaching for the petition, “They or them,” Tosh says in a high bubbly voice. “It’s my dispensary and I don’t understand your protest.” Tosh, quickly reading and folding the petition, stuffs it in their jeans pocket and seems to carefully consider what to say next. “We care about customers and don’t sell to children. We require ID—must be twenty-one,” Tosh says.
Riled from their complacency, the protesters shout, “Get the fuck outta of Compton. Get THE FUCK OUT NOW.”
Xochi clicks on her cell phone recorder and up goes my hand to quiet the rebels.
I point toward Davis Middle School, recalling the windblown cigarillo wrapper, steel fencing with pointed tips, scented yellow flowers. “We’ve seen kids make b-lines from school to your d-doors,” I say to Tosh.
“We turn them away and they cross the street,” Tosh says.
Ever the interloper, with each word Vickers casts and reels back her purse as if she’s fishing.
“We have enough problems and don’t need you people bringing more drugs to Compton. I’ll have the health department investigate.” She lowers her sign. “Do you assess the quality of your dope?”
“It’s high quality, healthy.” Tosh bounces on their toes. “We don’t sell to people without a doctor’s recommendation. Across the street, maybe they do.”
I cut off Vickers and say, “You use p-pesticides on your products? Herbicides? Right?”
“No. Our growers don’t use anything—maybe ladybugs,” Tosh says. “It’s organic.”
“Sheesh,” Chattom scoffs. He lisps, “¡La puta! Maybe we should eat the shit like goats,” he says, hands to his throat mimicking a gag reflex.
The rebels deride Tosh, “It’s organic—It’s organic—It’s organic—LET’S EAT THE SHIT.”
Xochi says, “Organic? Let me get this straight—your product contains no mycobutinal or other pesticides?” She writes something in her pad. “If you don’t grow it yourself, how do you know?”
“That’s what they tell us,” Tosh says.
“Psssh—whaaat?” Body temperature rising, I taste bullshit. “Th-that mycobutinal is like malathion p-pesticide and Paraquat—systemic—stays in tissues for years.” I go for the gut. “That stuff’s a slow death—like antibiotics fed to cows and pigs that’s in hamburgers and b-barbeque.”
Xochi stops writing and says, “Surely your suppliers certify against fungicides?”
“Well,” Tosh crosses then uncrosses their arms. “—it’s shipped from Seattle. I think it’s sun-grown.”
“Really?” Vickers says. Her purse juts back and forth in Tosh’s face like a toilet plunger, causing Tosh to cross their eyes and lean back, the purse stopping just short of Tosh’s sharp nose, giving Vickers the advantage. “You think its sun grown in rainy Seattle? I think you’re full of it. You think we’re stupid. I think you’re wrong and need to get your ratchet ass up out of here. Think on that.”
Weed Killers weigh in, “Ratchet ass—Ratchet ass—RATCHET ASS.”
Refusing to allow Vickers the last word, I drop the heavy picket sign like a rapper drops his microphone, showing everyone that she won’t bogart my protest, grinning slyly I say, “Weed smoke causes cancer like tobacco. Do you warn them?”
Tosh fidgets and doesn’t answer, their head spinning like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist.
Weed Killers huddle tight, shake the weakened gate, vociferously taunting Guzman, “Burn ‘em down—” they repeat, “BURN ‘EM DOWN.”
Guzman grips the doorknob but the side door is locked from inside. Tosh squeezes their tiny frame between the gate and the rebels. Like slanting rain, the red globes on the spindly tree dance on a slight breeze. Chemical smells drift in. The sheriff’s camera focuses steady. A news helicopter rumbles overhead. I spit.
“We don’t cause problems and our customers mostly have medical issues,” Tosh says. The crowd swells like my enlarged prostate thanks to rebels’ Facebook posts, hundreds of people getting harder for me to control, mostly non-whites, which usually triggers a gang activity response from sheriff’s deputies.
Pressed against the fence next to Tosh is a sweaty wooden guy with facial scars and eyelids that quiver, ratty auburn hair, and rumpled clothes, appearing to be about thirty, around my son’s age. He separates hairs on his head and, pointing to a stitched scalp gash, says to the rebels, “I need pot for seizures.” His tongue is coated silver. “I took shrapnel when our convoy hit a roadside IED in Afghanistan,” he says rubbing at the injury.
Vickers’ purse stills at her side. “Thank you for your service,” she says respectfully before her purse explodes into action, “But, you’ll have to find your medicine elsewhere—not in Compton,” she says. “It’s illegal.”
The rebels weigh in, “Thank you—Thank you—Thank you—BUT NOT IN COMPTON.”
Clinching his jaw, Gash Head tries, but backed against the fence, there’s no retreat and the rebels don’t budge. His arm jerks; eyes widen and dart from place to place. “It’s there in the box soldier,” he says, clearly agitated. He mutters under his breath, “They got it on film. Get out, get out—Holy shit. It’s in the road. FUCK. Did you see that? It’s in the road.” He pulls at his clothing as if it itches, trembling, clearly having an episode, plucking from his pocket a cigarillo from a red package with a watermelon on it, leaving me to wonder just how good could watermelon- flavored tobacco possibly taste. The crowd surrounding him steps back when he uses his fixed blade survival knife to slice along the glue seam on the smoke, dumping its content and filling it with weed, snapping open his Zippo, sparking the blunt, and inhaling deeply, his contorted face straightening, exhaling butane-infected smoke into my and Chattom’s faces, causing me to cough and Chattom to react. Whack! He slaps the back of Gash’s head, snatches the smoke from his lips, squishing it into the sidewalk with his heel. “Shit stinks,” he says. “Secondhand smoke kills.”
“Awww mannn,” Gash Head says. Face flushing, he glances at his knife, elbows away from the rebels, and bends down hands on his knees breathing hard. Guzman’s lips form a straight line, Tosh gawks, and Xochi’s mouth makes an O.
What the f…? I breathe deep, turning to Tosh, “I don’t care what your purpose is,” I say lifting the THINK! sign to my shoulder. “Mary J and cheap wine was my gateway to harder stuff, always searching for the higher high.”
The crowd stops pushing, quiets.
“That’s your experience. Everyone doesn’t go there.”
“How do you know? What do your customers lace their weed with? Do they snort, shoot, or drink too? Do you even know?”
“Medicinal marijuana, especially the old ones,” Tosh says.
Vickers chisels in pointing her purse down the street to drunks congregating on crates outside of 7-Eleven. “They’re lost in the wilderness,” she says. “They waved the white flag, gave up the fight in order to get their drunk on. It’ll be the same with dispensaries.”
Tosh’s pitch rises, “People have rights. A choice to do what they want.” Tosh glances quickly at Vickers, Xochi, Guzman, and then looks away.
“And we have a right to feel safe, where children can p-play, women can walk at night. Drugs sabotage th-that right in our city. People high on drugs do stupid stuff, run red lights, spin donuts for fun, and smoke in public spaces as if everybody wants to smell that shit. PoPo uses it as an excuse to add to Chattom’s murder list. Freedom’s not free.”
Looking amused, Guzman smirks, leans one hand on his chair.
“Are you blaming all of those problems on marijuana?” Tosh asks.
“Yep. Th-that and all that comes with it—we gotta start somewhere.”
“That’s just old-fashioned reefer madness,” Tosh says. “Prohibitionist!”
“Prohibitionist?” Xochi repeats.
Tosh’s cheeks redden, jaw sets. “That’s right, and I reject your moral argument. It’s bullshit and I’m not moved by your unenlightened thinking. Read my lips, ‘we’re not leaving.’”
My mouth sours. “We’ll c-control what goes on within our city—just l-like any other c-community.” My fingers pill roll again. “D-Drug problems affect us different than in Beverly Hills, Palos Verdes Estates, or wh-wherever you come from—Trump wants to take our Obamacare. Then what? We ain’t got no Betty Ford down here. Just Say ‘No’ is crap.” Edginess replaces my shoulder pain. “You suck the money out of Compton and leave us cranberry-eyed in a fog, unable to think on how we can do better.” I slam the sign to the pavement, lean in close, picture my hands squeezed around Tosh’s neck. “I’m keepin’ it real.”
“WORD,” Queen Egypt says. “I’m one hundred with that.”
Vickers’ busies her purse. “You need your own church, Tallent,” she says to me. “Chill out.”
My gut hardens. I fire back, “And for a change you need to work for the people of Compton.” I feel betrayed but Vickers is right. If I assault Tosh, I’ll look like that crazy Compton nigga, could end up in jail which might actually create sympathy, help Tosh’s business.
Xochi smiles, her face softens, but her tone doesn’t. “Do you remind your customers that it’s illegal to smoke marijuana in public? —not parks, not sidewalks” she asks Tosh.
“Not everyone gives a damn about other people,” Tosh says, nodding their head to where Gash Head rocks back and forth on periphery command.
“I—,” before I can finish Vickers horns in.
“See,” Vickers says, purse fully engaged, sign moving up, then down. “How does Compton benefit from your dispensary? You bring in outsiders who cop and hop. Smoke shops, 7-Eleven’s, weed dispensaries, and empty churches are what we’re left with. The cost outweighs tax revenue.”
“We do our part,” Tosh says. “Just look across the street.”
People many times the number of the Weed Killers stream through metal doors into the converted church. “They sell Green Hornet to little kids.”
“What’s that?” Xochi asks.
“Pure THC made like Gummy Bears,” Tosh says, voice shaking. “Their Fifty-One-Fifty Bar is nothing but THC and sugar.”
Vickers’ nostrils flare, “Oh, HELL NAW—it’s genocide. Let’s block the doors,” she says.
She turns, heels clacking across the street but the rebels don’t follow her. “What should we do, Tallent?” Chattom says. I hesitate, my breath caught in my chest. Another rebel says, “Who’s calling the shots?” Vickers tries to hijack the revolt like politicians always do in Compton, them making empty promises, incompetently governing the city, treating it like a lifetime job entitlement. I roll my neck and say, “CHARGE.”
“Let’s riot,” a rebel says over rowdy voices. “Ha! We need a Molotov,” laughs Queen Egypt sipping a red raspberry smoothie through a straw. “Turn this bitch into one big blunt,” she says.
Chattom stops car traffic and we cross against the traffic light, belligerently waving our signs, shouting profanities, pissing off frustrated drivers, inviting sheriff intervention, tossing smoothies that splash red against crosses on the re-purposed church. “The blood of Jesus,” a rebel shouts.
In front of the church Tosh explains how Tosh’s grasses contain high levels of cannabidiol, which to Tosh has medical benefits. “CBD doesn’t get you high like THC, but is good for pain, acne, and PTSD,” Tosh says.
Xochi turns away momentarily, tapping her cell phone against her lips she says, “Um, PTSD? That’s a clinical term for people experiencing trauma. Are you suggesting that cannabis will help psychiatric disorders? If so, what do we need psychiatrists for?”
“Excuse me. You make weed sound like the Emancipation Proclamation, the do-all end-all cure for everything.” Belly knotting I say to Tosh, “Well, what about Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome? Is it good for that too? For multiple traumas over lifetimes, over generations?” Tosh is wearing a quizzical expression as if surprised to see that one coming, seemingly caught short, with no snappy comeback. Many of us have been traumatized, past generations terrorized by slave patrollers, Klansman, currently by police, many struggling against manmade barriers like racism, inequity, some even believing bullshit lies about themselves like the misfits who’ve given Compton a bad reputation, being betrayed by incompetent and unethical leaders, scornfully tolerated, marginalized, and segregated, souls getting crushed to the point of almost being unable to recover, all gift-wrapped in the American flag. Admittedly however, even in my time, marijuana reduced anxiety and made an otherized existence somewhat tolerable. I couldn’t study, do homework, or job interviews, but could zone-out, scarf junk food, and self-absorb on meaninglessness. Pain shoots through my shoulder when I press my fist to my lips. Could a case be made for cancer patients and those in severe pain? What about epileptics like Gash Head? Winfrey’s so-called religious beliefs? Bull. Maybe Tosh had a point but why then sell anything other than CBD? We can do better than stay high all the time. Can’t we? In my mind total abstinence is best even though smokers simply choose dispensaries in Lynwood, the next city, or Bonk Loc to buy. We need more recovery spaces, a new endgame; we need to devalue getting high. “PTSD?——a lot of us have that aw-awright. But smoking just to get sprung, or twisted? FUCK NO,” I say to Tosh.
The customer line snaking around Greater Love vanishes when set upon by Weed Killers. The workers pack a Navigator with boxes and hurry away.
“One storefront down,” Vickers says.
We’re back across the street in front of Tosh’s storefront, the pine mural looking less tranquil, red globes on the spindly tree bouncing helter-skelter, rebel numbers growing larger, more boisterous and almost riotous given their accomplishment.
Xochi faces Tosh and says, “Assuming that your business is legally organized as a non-profit collective—” She thrusts her recorder close to Tosh’s thin lips. “Does your business have a state seller’s permit?”
Tosh buries their face in their Smartphone. “Yes. We do,” Tosh says.
Weed Killers shake and rattle the gate that Guzman snorts and paces behind.
Knowing full well that Compton does not issue permits, I ask Tosh, “Do you have a b-business license?” Next to me, Chattom punches his palm, observes. The lap dog’s eyes on Tosh’s t-shirt seem to droop.
Crash! the gate slams the sidewalk. Guzman, holding up both hands, backs away. Weed Killers reach for him. A voice shrills, “Yeah muthafucka——what you gonna do now?”
Guzman puts down his head and straightens his arm like Mickey Cureton did once upon a time on high school gridirons, “No mas!” He barrels over Queen Egypt and Cory. Eeeow! The kid screams like a child would who scrapes face-first across concrete. With Chattom and Cory in pursuit Guzman rushes onto Rosecrans, wobbling east on the median toward Lynwood, having no chance of escape.
Looking confused, Winfrey and Gash Head take refuge in the empty lot between the 7-Eleven and shotgun house next to Tosh’s storefront. The smell of burnt rubber follows screeching tires. A black Escalade packed with dispensary supplies, equipment, and the scent of hydroponics careens out of the driveway where Guzman had stood guard, Tosh behind the wheel.
“HIP, HIP, HOORAY,” Smoothing back my coiled salt and pepper Bozo hair, I cheerlead, ecstatically Weed Killers high-five, pose for Xochi’s group photo, and for the surveillance camera above, collectively knowing that cannabis money is like a smoldering ember on a wood shingled roof waiting for that right gust of wind. Going forward, we’d need to remain vigilant, stay woke.
“Here’s my headline,” Xochi says, turning her note pad to me, ‘When They Fight, They Win: Compton Burns Weed Stores.’
I point my pill-rolling fingers at the sheet of paper, basking in the word glow of our success, hoping in some small way that we’ve created our own narrative and made a difference. “That’ll make a great t-shirt slogan. Maybe get Cory a business start. Why, Xochi?”
She says, “I’ve never used and wanted to know more about drugs after my nephew, Juan Carlos, killed himself in Guatemala.” Her voice cracks. “A river of drugs flowed through there to the U.S. We lived in a place called Dump City when he started smoking marijuana, moved on to sniffing glue, and later crack cocaine. I requested this assignment.”
My stomach squeezes.
A cluster of blue hydrangeas poke through a crack in the concrete at the base of the streetlight. A sheriff’s cruiser slows, its tires stir a Dutch Masters chocolate flavor cigarillo wrapper from the asphalt that, from instinct, I reach for.
Vickers forces her body between Xochi and me and says, “Two down, sixty more to go—where to next?” She pumps her purse and says, “We should take a picture together, Tallent.”
Ron L. Dowell holds two master’s degrees from California State University Long Beach. In June 2017, he received the UCLA Certificate in Fiction Writing. His short stories have appeared in Oyster Rivers Pages and in Stories Through The Ages: Baby Boomers Plus 2018. He is a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow.
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