Wednesday
Feb082012

Pot Farm

By Matthew Gavin Frank


 

University of Nebraska Press
March 2012
978-0803237841


 

In the Residents' Camp, rain and digestion. It's pushing midnight, but still, Johanna and I are captivated by our stomachs, engaged in a croaking call-and-response symphony, likely spawned by Antonio's corn cakes. We're huddled in the center of our Coleman Cimarron tent, trying to stay dry as the weather knocks at the side walls.

We listen to the Camp's shutting-down sounds—the series of "goodnights," the zippered closings of the final few tent doors. I can tell that, for me, sleep is still a long way away. I have a head full of pot smoke, and it's beginning to ache. This does not bode well; tomorrow is a cutting day.

 

Earlier, as our seasonal compatriots, Lance, Crazy Jeff, and Gloria enjoyed their after-dinner joints with Johanna and me, and Charlie the Mechanic (whose duty it is to fix and drive the tractors that transport the trimmed marijuana from field to shed) licked the last of his herb sauce from his paper plate, Lady Wanda, reefer heiress and owner of Weckman Farm, made her nightly cameo appearance. For such a large woman, she has a way of appearing out of nowhere, as if a fat-fetishist magician's assistant, emerging from a cloud of barely-legal smoke. Tonight, she graced us with one of her tighter tank tops—the red one that has become a joke among some of the crewmembers. This was, of course, before the rain.

She loomed over Charlie, as cumulous as the gathering clouds, her planetary bosom, keeping time with the earth. Part of me—the deviant part—wanted to plunge headfirst into her cleavage and reemerge with a giant nipple in my mouth—something to do with a hazy brew of sexuality, warmth, comfort, protection, womb, shame. Hell, most of me wanted to do it. Instead, I quietly kissed Johanna's ear. Before Lady Wanda spoke, she placed her hands on Charlie the Mechanic's shoulders. Charlie leapt, his tongue retreating from his paper plate back into its proper lair as if he were just attacked by a pair of nail-polished biscuits. A hush fell over the collection of rust-painted picnic tables, the mish-mash of stories finding their space breaks.

"Sleep well, my babies," Lady Wanda announced, "for tomorrow is a cutting day."

A cutting day, as Lance had informed us in his infuriating, desirable manner, is a way to groom the crops, to encourage further growth. Just before breakfast, we were to meet at a converted tractor shed toward the east side of Lady Wanda's house. Here, we Pickers would each be given a set of pruning shears.

"The earlier you get there," Lance told us, "the better the shears. My advice: go for the ones with the blue handles."

We were to follow Lance, the too-young, too-beautiful field manager, to a designated segment of the crop. Here, we would find, attached to each plant by a rubber band, a number written on a paper tag. These numbered plants were to be cut about two inches above the base, whereupon we would be put to the task of hewing through each branch and cutting off the large outermost leaves, each about the size of a baseball mitt finger and held to the center branch with a thick stalk. We were expected to complete this supposedly rigorous task with the delicacy required to keep the marijuana buds undamaged.

"Thank you everybody," Lady Wanda said, and whirled from the dinner tent, bounding like a cue ball for her mansion.

When she was out of earshot, Charlie the Mechanic crumpled his paper plate in disgust.

"This is bullshit," he complained, "I worked another farm where the Pickers just picked. They had Cutters for the cutting and Fanners for the leaves. And she expects us to do this in a day?"

"It always works out fine, Charlie," Lance crooned, his experience at Weckman Farm asserting itself in his voice.

"Fine for her, I'm sure," Charlie said, "But this is stupid. She just doesn't want to pay for a proper crew."

He looked to Hector, one of the day-shift Treetop Snipers, for a measure of support, but Hector just shrugged.

"I'm up in my tree sunrise to sunset, man. Don't look at me."

"That's why your dick looks like a little piece of bark," Charlie growled.

Hector swatted at the air. "That's redwood bark, man." Tomorrow, he will be back at his tree fort, heavily armed, scouting for poachers and independent anti-marijuana militia groups, also heavily armed. Now, he holds his forearm to his crotch, wags it, makes trumpeting sounds.

As if in the rear of a junior high school bus, big dick/little dick jokes thrive on Weckman Farm.

"I'm done with these small farms," Charlie said, "No fuckin Cutters, no fuckin Fanners. Pretty soon, we're cooking our own food."

Fanners earn their names because of the toughness of the stalks that connect leaf to branch. On many other farms, Charlie assured us, the Fanners are supplied with electric machines that resemble a square of chain-link fence impregnated with rotating fan blades. His explanation though, was punctuated with a lot more fuckins.

"And she has us doing it with clippers. It's just fuckin stupid," Charlie whined.

"Easy," Lance said, "It works every year, it's energy efficient, it's..."

"It don't do nothin for my energy," Charlie interrupted.

Lance just shook his head. Crazy Jeff and Gloria, both AIDS patients working the farm for their medicine, had already left for the Residents' Camp or the Sofa Room. Hector stood up.

"Can't listen to anymore of this," he said, a blotch of dry blood holding to his cheek. I think mosquito. I hope mosquito.

I looked at Johanna. We followed Hector, walked with him in silence to the Residents' Camp.

The crops, from their privileged position atop a small hill, taunted us with the thickness of their stalks. Surely, there's a dick joke in there somewhere—my ticket to belonging. The fields tonight, encased in shadow, darker than the sky, looked like a lot of work.

"I'm out," Hector said to us, unzipping the flap of his eight-person tent.

As soon as he was inside, the rain began.

 

 

Johanna's stomach says something in Esperanto. Anyone can understand what it means. Her trip to the portable bathroom takes her into the withering pulse of the Residents' Camp. I leave our tent with her, stepping into my damp shoes. The rain, while cold, feels good. Now unburdened by my desire to stay dry, I am graced with the sight, for the first time this season, of a silent, people-less Residents' Camp. Everyone tucked inside their tents, the Camp holds to the dirt like sixty beached manatees, still slick with the ocean. Nothing more than a community of sodden tents looks so much in need of saving.

I try to imagine my parents out here, roving like polar bears in search of their seal dinner, my father, like Johanna, shunning any food that didn't once have a heartbeat (he's stubbornly been on the first stage of Adkins for almost a decade; yes, for almost a decade he's eaten only meat and cheese); my mother disapproving, even with her dwindling team of white blood cells, of a farm of this sort, and its varied (but all unreasonable) lifestyles.

I watch Johanna run to the row of eight portable bathrooms, each the size of a walk-in closet. She chooses, as always, the second one from the left. She thinks that it's consistently the cleanest. I think that she's starting to go crazy. I listen to the rain and the first set of snores arising from the far end of the Camp. One of the manatees is beginning to moan. It must be Charlie the Mechanic. Perhaps, in sleep, he's having trouble with tonight's dinner as well.

 

Except on the worst days, my mom insisted on cooking for my dad, Johanna, and me, even through her treatments. It would be something simple—matzo meal pancakes with crappy maple syrup, chicken she could throw into the oven and forget about. Anyhow, if this sick mother thing is disturbing you, picture her cooking in yellow bandana, with FUCK printed in red across the forehead. And if you think that a mother who so vehemently shuns the smoking of pot would never, ever wear such a bandana, then kiss yourself on the elbow. You are right. The bandana was actually one worn by the famous (now dead) Native American artist R.C. Gorman, whenever he would come for lunch at the Taos, New Mexico restaurant I worked at a few years prior to these events. The bandana served to keep autograph hounds and disingenuous fawners at bay, lest they interrupt his afternoon bender on Sterling Merlot by-the-glass.

Every Thursday, Johanna and I would wake up to a house populated only by my parents' three dogs. My dad, earlier that morning, had driven my mom to her chemotherapy sessions, and Johanna and I would wait for their phone call. So began the tradition of Chemo Breakfast. There wasn't a shiver or a vomit, a fever or a migraine that could keep us from our sides of ham and crispy hash browns. In my family, food—breakfast most of all—was our ticket into acceptable selfishness. We could commit most crimes short of murder and, to each other at least, justify them with a simple, "I was hungry."

At eleven o'clock or so, we would get a call from my dad, impressive in its concision.

"We'll be at Granny Annie's in ten minutes. Meet us there."

Since the owners and staff of Granny Annie's are engaged in an operation that is entirely legal (unless weak coffee is now punishable by law), I am using the restaurant's real name. I can not tell you how liberating this is. I've never been good with secrets, and have been prone to blurting out people's birthday gifts in living rooms and kitchens across America.

Telephonically, my dad would leave us no time to ask how my mom was doing, to ask if she was really up for this. He's one of those people who hangs up the phone without saying good-bye. This drives me crazy, as, each time, I end up saying a few last words to an empty connection and am answered only with the mysterious hisses and burbles of unseen wire.

Johanna and I would give the dogs their various medications and treats, each of the three having a distinct ailment and palate that came to define our morning routine. Eyedrops and a pig's ear for Juneau, eardrops and a liver-snack for Bear, Vaseline on Kodiak's dry nose, and a piece of stale bread spread with plain Greek yogurt. As Charlie the Mechanic would have said, these were high-maintenance motherfuckers. The dogs' names have not been changed since their many illegal activities can be explained by the fact that they're dogs.

Granny Annie's was a biscuits 'n' gravy sort of diner that became such a comfort to the family during my mother's treatments, that we developed a shorthand for our favorite menu items. Skirt steak and eggs became "Arrr!" This exclamation was to be spoken like a pirate, which was how my dad initiated the abbreviation.

Arrr! Steak 'n' eggs! Yes: Good clean fun.

 Ham-off-the-bone, my father's usual meat option alongside his jalapeño and cheddar omelet, became HOB. The ham was so delicious that its nickname became the alter ego for both Chemo Breakfast and Granny Annie's.

When it looked like my mother was having a bad Wednesday, the often-asked question was, "Are we still doing HOB tomorrow?"

My mother would muster, "of course," and burp a plume of chamomile tea. They would rival, in their disease-fueled intensity, my father's infamous Diet Coke burps. For these reasons, though I embrace most edibles from durian to grasshopper, I tend to shun, on most occasions, anything chamomile, and anything Diet Coke.

My parents would usually arrive before us. Johanna and I wanted to see my mother already sat, instead of weaving, post-chemo, through the tables and booths to the confusion of the other patrons, even if she were wearing that FUCK bandana. At the beginning of her treatments, when she started losing her hair, she would be slumped into our usual back booth beneath a disheveled wig, my father sitting open-faced next to her. She looked like a mugged transvestite, strung out on raspberry wine cooler. I remember thinking that at the time, and even jotting down the comparison on a Granny Annie's napkin, next to a butter stain. As the treatments progressed and she accepted the side effects, she would, now wigless, eat two bites of her breakfast (blintzes or oatmeal), from beneath a pink cancer hat (sorry to change the image on you), clinging tightly to her head, lending an obviousness to her baldness. We would talk about what we were going through to our favorite waitresses, looking for anyone to whom we could unburden ourselves, to confess. Johanna and I were two sub-ghosts within this ghost family, impervious to much of the world, and sometimes to each other. As such, when we ate and drank and made love, even in my old bedroom, under the pin-up gazes of Ryno Sandberg and Alyssa Milano circa Who's The Boss, and the King Kong hologram that reflected the sun in the mornings, the air mattress making way too much noise, we did so with an intensity that pushed us further into ghosthood. Spitting at death became a hobby, and a vivid one, and one that, according to Johanna, clearly depleted my chi.

So my family treated food as salve, as celebration, as birthright. Well: meat, really. When Johanna and I announced our engagement, it was Gibson's Steakhouse. When it was my dad's birthday, roasted lamb shanks. My family, for generations, wore heart disease, diabetes, and abandon as badges of honor—the stuff that distinguished us from the neighbors. Eating anything that once had a bone, let alone an entire skeleton, was, for my family, like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. We took the term transfat literally: across fat, beyond fat, on the opposite side of fat. How can that be bad? Depending on context, that can mean, skinniness. Of course, it can also mean really, really fat. Most of us towed the line, dying in our sixties, or, if we took care of ourselves (because we're a vain bunch), our early seventies, but that's like some George Burns shit in my family. My Uncle Murray was legendary for being a Frank male who made it to seventy-six, but he was widely reviled for his miserly tendencies and, given his eating habits, those liver spots on his head could have been made by actual, if wayward, chopped liver.

But my mother's affliction was something else. This had nothing to do with the comfortable territory of saturated fat and clogged arteries. We had to fight this the only way we knew how. Food would turn cancer into ceremony. We would make sure of that. Turn this into transcancer.

Just before Johanna and I left for Weckman Farm, my mother took a turn for the better, as evidenced by her renewed ability to finish an entire blintz at Granny Annie's. This let us know: it was time for Johanna and me to step out for a little while, see what would happen— to us and to them. This decision did not come without a lot of speeded-up heartbeat.

When we heard that the meals at Weckman Farm were predominantly vegetarian, I (if not Johanna) was pleased. I wanted to remove myself as much as possible from the self-destructive habits of my family, from so much as a drop of fat, from what is probably my inherited nature. After Chicago, harvesting the marijuana crop was the sort of risk into which it seemed easy to escape. Johanna and I would regain our sanctuary not in solitude, but in a communion that was decidedly not in my family's style; in healthy eating habits; in hard physical labor on the fringe of legality. This is how we thought, and high-fived each other like teenage ghosts on that night-time swingset.

 

The snores subside. Johanna runs from the bathroom quickly, annoyed by the rain.

"What are you doing out here?" she asks me.

"It feels good," I say.

"You're going to soak the tent," she says.

She's right. My hair is hanging in strings. The rain whispers against this nylon village like a swarm of cicadas. I wonder who of the crew is getting wet, who's staying dry.

Johanna and I crawl in. Our sleeping bags are clammy, but dry. The Cimarron is new, having first expanded its belly here in the Residents' Camp. Weckman Farm is all it knows. I am jealous.

"This sucks," Johanna says.

We lie down on the outside of our sleeping bags, pull two blankets over us.

"Try to sleep," she says, "it sounds like it's going to be a hard workday for you. Ok?"

"Ok."

Johanna throws her leg over me. I think about lifting it, kissing the back of her knee, but I remain still. My stomach is calming down, and the rain is more persistent. Soon, by her breath, I can tell that Johanna is sleeping. I close my eyes, but keep envisioning plates of ham, omelets with too much cheese.

I really want to sleep, to wake up early, to secure a set of those blue-handled shears that Lance was talking about. The weight of Johanna's leg is wonderful, a massage in itself. I listen to the rain lighten, then intensify, and lighten again. Our tent keeps everything out. The crops must be having a field day, I think to myself and smile.

"The crops must be having a field day," I speak aloud into Johanna's hair, wondering if she'll hear it in her dream, dismiss me a phantasmal dumbass. I watch the sky grow light through tent canvas, the rain devolve into a drizzle.

I don't mind working tired. Tomorrow's just a cutting day, in the middle of a cutting year.