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I am perched on a footstool in the philosophy section, sorting through some new arrivals, when I hear a ruckus outside, followed by loud footsteps. I stand to find a man in quasi-military dress: black ballcap, boots, flak jacket. He holds a large black weapon with all manner of spidery attachments. I have only seen such a thing in really bad movies. My first thought is that the Christian Right has decided to take me out.
“Sir! Please stay where you are and put your hands on your head!”
Nope. The Christians would not be that polite. The clean-cut muscleface, mouth like a mail slot: pure cop. Two more muscleheads bang their way in. One of them turns and I see the letters on his shirt: DEA.
“Sir!” Mail-slot. “Is there anyone else in the store?”
I shake my head.
“Are you the proprietor?”
His partner comes over and gives me a pat-down that borders on molestation. The third guy paces the perimeter, waving his gun toward phantom cartels.
“Okay,” says molester. He’s Asian, broad-faced, his brows two perfectly trimmed hyphens. “We have reports that you have cannabis plants on the property. Please lead us to them, and please do so without making any sudden moves. Is that clear?”
I report to the dining car and find that I will be seated at a table with three strangers. If I were not so terribly hungry, I would turn right around. The waiter seats me next to a teenage girl plugged into some kind of music player. But the elderly folks across from me seem more than eager to talk. The lady smiles at me with perfect artificial teeth and says, “I’m Irma. This is my husband Sal.” “Hi. I’m Kelly.” The girl says “Cecily,” which surprises us all. Irma scans the menu and then gets back to me. “Where are you from, Kelly?” “Um, Montana.” “Oh! So you’re returning home?” “Yes, I was… visiting San Francisco.” Irma’s eyes light up. “Isn’t it a lovely city? We had so much fun. Of course, Sal saw it as one big lunch bucket.” Sal pats his belly. “Some of the best damn food I ever tasted.” I smile and give a little laugh. Perhaps this is survivable. They’re a talky couple. I will smile and say “gosh” and volunteer nothing about my shameless Muslim fraternizing. Why is it that I can drift into sin without even trying? It’s not fair. Sal and Irma are conferring on some technical matter, so I take a look outside. We’re on a long plain of high desert scrub, swales of snow like patches on a cow. A big plume of dust, a truck, perpendicular to the train. I grab onto Cecily, I grab onto the table.
I imagine the supervisor talking to the painter. “Gray. Grayer than gray. If someone arrives here in a depression, I want them to leave suicidal.”
That would explain the walls, at least. I’m a little fuzzy about my location, but I do know that the drive was a half-hour. The door clicks open and in comes Eva, her hair frazzled into a semi-Mohawk. The next character is a short, bald man whose suit matches the walls. I stand to accept Eva’s hug.
“Paulie! God, I am so sorry about this. This is Stan Gardner. He’s from the Marijuana Legalization Board. He’s taking up our case.”
I take Stan’s handshake and laugh. “No offense, but you don’t really look like a pothead.”
Stan is determined to stay serious. “Never touch the stuff. That’s kind of the point. It’s not about getting high. It’s about rights.”
We sit at a small table. Stan sorts his way through a sheaf of papers. “So let me get this straight,” he says. “They came in armed.”
“Did they point the weapons at you?”
“Not aimed, really. Brandished.”
“Searched you? Cuffed you?”
He checks the sheet on top. “Warrants check out. They confiscated all the plants.”
“Jesus. So excuse my language, Stan, but what the fuck?”
“Same old shit. The feds have been screwing with medical marijuana ever since our wise citizenry okayed it. Our little Green Enlightenment is threatening a lot of jobs at the War on Drugs, so every once in a while they stomp on a local grower. The difference in this case is the weaponry. I’m fairly certain they scared the shit out of you, and they also put your life in danger. Imagine if you had been holding a pricing gun.”
I like Stan. He talks like a non-lawyer.
He stuffs his papers into a worn-out satchel. “We’re getting you released right now. You will likely face a court date – in two to three months – and we will be there to help you with whatever bullshit charges they come up with. And here’s the really annoying part: you can’t go home. They’ve sealed off your store.” Stan folds his arms across his chest and gives me a long study. “Paul, you strike me as a very calm hellion. Would you be comfortable going public about this? Talking to some media?”
I place my hands on the table. “Just point me to a fucking microphone.”
It turns out that Stan knows how to smile.
My flight comes to a halt when my face hits the table. The sounds go on forever: squeals, explosions, shouts, percussion of flying objects. I touch my forehead and come away with blood. I turn carefully and find Cecily with a cut lip. She’s conscious. I whisper to her, only I’m shouting. “Get out of the train! Cecily! That exit, there!” I point to the red letters, two tables down. She nods and disappears. I find Irma on the floor, crouched on a scattering of smashed plates. I take her by an elbow and help her to her feet. The car is filled with similar scenes, people moving like zombies, food and silverware, ripped clothing. A moan, agitated chatter. Smoke. “Irma! Can you make it to the exit?” She nods. Her dentures are gone. I see flames. Irma stops at the stairs. “Sal! Where’s Sal?” Sal’s in his seat, head back, unconscious. I wave Irma off. “Don’t worry, I’ve got him.” There’s a redheaded man in the booth behind us, writhing. He’s gripping his leg, which is bent at an unnatural angle. I try not to look. “Help! Help here!” A black waiter, broad-shouldered, jogs over to carry him away. I give Sal a slap. “Sal!” Nothing. I can feel the waves of heat from the car in front of us. I’m choking. I have to do this. I grab Sal by an arm and a leg and slide him from the booth. He lands on the floor with a sloppy thud. I spin him around, put a hand under each arm and pull him through the refuse, then down the stairs, his poor old butt bouncing on each step. By the time we reach the exit my arms feel like rubber bands, so I lock my hands around his chest and fall backwards. We land in a pile and keep going, down the dusty soil of the embankment. I come to a stop in a tumbleweed. I can hear Irma bending over Sal, saying hopeful things. When I open my eyes, the engine and the truck are no longer there, just a pile of metal and rock, followed by two cars lying on their sides. The sky fills with black.
Photo by MJV