A work of fiction, centered on a family at the fringes of American society desperately clinging to a lower middle class existence, that celebrates the daily struggles of a father trying to make his daughter’s life magical…
by: John C. Krieg
I can’t remember a time when my Papa didn’t struggle. He was always under financial pressure, and as he grew older, the physical pressures of failing health bore down upon him. Towards the end, he had to fight to get to his feet, and no matter how bad the pain, he never gave up until the day he died. Papa wasn’t my father, or for that matter, my grandfather. In fact, none of the blood coursing through my veins had ever flowed through his. Papa was just a man who loved my grandmother, and who loved me. Papa was an old hippy who adhered to the dictates of peace and love even when he had to pay dearly for his beliefs. Those who knew him best, however, would attest that Papa would live and let live, just so long as you didn’t cross him.
My biological mother and father hated Papa and made no real effort to conceal that fact. I suppose you could write that off to generational differences, but the cut went much deeper than that. Papa and Grandma hooked up when my mother was thirteen and just beginning to embark on a lifestyle of partying and drug addiction. My parent’s dysfunctional drug-fueled relationship staggered on and off course for six years before they had me, and I’d spent the preponderance of my life in Grandma’s home. Through all the chaos Papa remained true to Grandma, although in his weaker angrier moments I sometimes heard him tell her: “Nobody named Landry has ever done a goddamn thing to hurt us. It’s just your family, and in particular, your kids.” This obviously hurt Grandma, which was the last thing Papa ever wanted to do, but the truth is the truth, and she didn’t argue the point.
Grandma was the youngest of eleven children lucky enough to not to be born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Her mother had gone over the deep end long before she came along so there wasn’t any alcohol coursing through her tiny veins while she was developing in the womb. Not that her father was any better, but Grandma never talked about him. Papa’s parents were hopeless alcoholics as well, and he didn’t talk much about them either. Even though neither were much enamored with their formative years, they were both united in their efforts to not be like the blockheads who raised them. Grandma became the quintessential adult child born of an alcoholic parent with the ingrained ability to tune everything out, especially Papa when he was in an arguing mood. For his part, Papa had lucked out at age ten and had lucked out at age ten and left home to live with an uncle who taught him right from wrong and instilled in him a strong work ethic. If I had to sum them up in one word each, I would say that Grandma was kind and Papa was driven. Both traits were needed in abundance seeing as it was difficult to raise both my brothers and me. Dad was in-and-out of prison, mostly for beating mom up, and mom was more-or-less in a perpetual crystal methamphetamine stupor incoherently raving that Grandma didn’t care about her and that Papa was a bastard. Even though she couldn’t (or more correctly wouldn’t) raise us, my mother was never shy about voicing her opinion as to what she felt they were doing wrong. Dad would always say that he was going to get Papa for all his perceived injustices towards us kids, and when he thought he was out of our earshot Papa would always say, “I suppose he thinks he can catch bullets with his teeth.” Needless to say, my biological parents were adept at turning contention into an art form.
Initially Papa must have thought that mom was going to eventually straighten out. He gave her more than enough chances, suffered through a succession of her worthless violent boyfriends, and tried to keep a roof over her head and food on her table. He tried to give her a well paying job in his construction business, bought her three cars (two of which dad totaled), and allowed her to live in the guest house for nominal rent (which she never paid). When Papa eventually had enough of dad and finally threw him out, predictably, mom went with him, leaving us kids behind. Mom said that it was “temporary” until she got back on her feet but shortly thereafter she became so thoroughly addicted to drugs that she couldn’t even see her feet. My mom was always going to come for us; we heard it so many times that we ultimately stopped believing it. We had Grandma and Papa to depend on, and we had mom constantly berating and trying to destroy the only two people who were capable of taking care of us. Mom was always trying to chop a hole in the bottom of the boat that kept us all afloat. She was hell-bent on killing the goose that laid the golden egg. In fact, if it seems like my mother was hell-bent on self-destruction that’s because she truly was. I suppose that was the driving motivation behind her turning Papa into Child Protective Services (CPS) for growing marijuana. Mom called Papa a pothead and claimed he was just as much of a drug addict as she was. At first I didn’t understand because I was three, but as the years flowed by I came to realize just how wrong she was. If I have to choose between alcoholics, meth addicts, potheads — give me potheads every time.
I moved into Grandma’s and Papa’s home at three months of age, and was the first baby Papa had ever raised in his life. Shortly thereafter mom performed her floor show for CPS, and the only solution was for Papa to move out of his own home into the guest house that mom and dad had tried to destroy with notable success. Papa put it back together again, and my brothers and cousins and I came to refer to the onsite living accommodations as either, “Grandma’s house,” or “Papa’s house.” We were too young to seriously question why they were living apart. They had a genuine affection for one another, and everything seemed “normal” to us. Papa did everything he could to help Grandma along. Early every morning he came to her house to wash the previous nights’ dishes and twice a week he would sweep the floor and vacuum the rugs. On those rare occasions when he did our laundry, he loved to fold my clothes while telling Grandma, “This reminds me of how tiny she really is.” He took his turn at preparing supper, being a maestro with the Crockpot and a deft chef on the barbeque grill. Not that he didn’t enjoy getting under Grandma’s skin by referring to us kids as “jack-a-mites” (half jackass and half dynamite). Papa would laugh hysterically whenever Grandma rolled her eyes in response to this.
Being the first baby in Papa’s life, he rationalized that he could have more of an impact on me than he did on any of Grandma’s three children because he was basically starting from scratch with (hopefully) minimal outside intervention from ex-husbands, and disgruntled relatives. Papa felt he had a fighting chance at bringing me up the way his aunt and uncle had brought him up, of pointing me down the right path, and of ultimately placing a civilized human being into society. He was determined to spend time with me and to really try and make an effort at nurturing me. When mom tried to do him in, Papa was hurt, but he wasn’t going to quit on this goal. The CPS battle was long and weary, and Papa and Grandma feared that my brothers and I would be placed in foster homes. It galvanized them to fight the system, and fight they did. Papa had spent time in a foster home before going to live with his aunt and uncle. He was humiliated and beaten and thoroughly brainwashed in the belief that he would never amount to much. Two of his three sisters were sexually molested at the homes they were assigned. While he could have pulled away from me and distanced himself to protect his feelings he was resolved to spare me from such a fate. My older brother told me at Papa’s funeral how many times he had heard Papa tell Grandma, “They’re not putting her in a foster home to be molested by scum!”
It took three grueling years for Papa and Grandma to be free from the shackles of monthly CPS home inspections and having to jump through adoption agency’s numerous hoops. It galled Papa that Grandma was treated so rudely, that my own flesh and blood Grandma had to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ just like anyone else who wasn’t blood would have had to do. At its core, Papa suspected that the state angencies felt that he and Grandma were simply too old, and that they were dragging their feet and waiting for them to fail. Nobody seemed to care about my other brother because he was over six years old at the time, but I was a baby, and everyone wants a baby. Baby’s are valuable and older children fall through the cracks. Papa wasn’t going to allow Grandma to fail, and they played the waiting game until the agencies couldn’t deny her any longer. At long last the issue was finally settled. I became Grandma’s legal child and Papa became my preferred papa. My other brother existed in a state of legal limbo until he turned eighteen. Dad continued to go in-and-out of prison, and mom never stopped bitching about what a degenerate pothead she thought Papa was. You might think that my adolescent life was a serenade of complete dysfunction, but I’m here to tell you that my Papa made sure that my life was magical.
We lived on five acres in the hills of Southern California. We had dogs, cats, and chickens. Our summer garden supplied all the vegetables a kid could ever want, even though I didn’t want any of them. And out back Papa had his garden — the garden that supported us all. I loved every square inch of the land Papa started introducing me to when I was six months old. Papa would hoist me up on his wide, square shoulders and walk me around as if I were the queen of all I surveyed, and as far as he was concerned, I was. The shadow cast by my tiny arms held in his powerful hands warmed Papa’s heart. He pointed out the flora and fauna, and made sure I noticed the activity at the hummingbird feeder he placed outside my bedroom window. I planted my first seed — a cucumber — at age three, and although I was interested in any number of plants, it was the plants out back in Papa’s garden that interested me the most.
Papa taught me that the secret to natural knowledge is to be observant. The world is a wondrous place for those who stop to notice it, and if I didn’t, Papa was sure to point it out to me. Papa loved showing me the shining galaxy of stars at night, and our favorite thing was to howl together like coyotes whenever the full moon was out. He encouraged me to make the effort to see the sun set each evening, telling me that it was the greatest validation of the rhythm of life. Grandma’s children were too old and set in their ways before Papa came on the scene. They had no interest in nature and natural processes. They didn’t like the things that Papa liked, and they certainly couldn’t be bothered to stop and notice the teeming life that surrounded them. But not me. I was an outdoor girl plain and simple. I always wanted to be outside with Papa, enveloped by the wide open spaces of the west. The blue sky was my preferred ceiling, and the distant horizon held the promise of my future. Grandma just couldn’t keep me in the house. She tried to slather me with gobs of sunscreen, but my face became as deeply tanned as Papa’s. I drank it all in, and to this day, I still love it all. Papa was right that you learn by observing, and in telling me that he created his own little monster, because I watched Papa like a hawk.
After one particularly good harvest Papa built a park for us kids that had everything the public park did and a lot of things that it didn’t. I learned years later that Papa needed a truck but decided that it would have to wait. He had had many vehicles in his life and would probably have many more in the years to come, but I would only be young once — so the park it was. We went there every day after I came home from preschool, and later elementary school. As with most things you become familiar with, I started taking the equipment for granted and was sometimes reckless in how I used it. After a spill off the merry-go-round I was more embarrassed than hurt and I started crying to demand attention. Papa held me tightly in those comforting arms and reassured me: “You’re okay. You’re tough like Papa.” That is what he would always tell me whenever I was hurt physically or emotionally: “You’re okay. You’re tough like Papa.”
The degrading experience with CPS had left a scar on Papa. Out of the many things he had to fear, because of the business he was in, the thing he feared the most was a child endangerment rap. There was good reason for this as law enforcement likes to pile on once they get you, and Papa knew that if they really want to get you, they will get you. Grandma was always on him to be careful, to keep the weed operation separate, that just like the song “Mrs. Robinson,” that most of all he had to hide it from the kids. But some things you just can’t hide. Every summer brought the onslaught of police helicopters hovering over his garden. Every fall the spicy pungent aroma of primo cannabis wafted through the kitchen window. The strange cars of buyers populated the driveway in October. The money always flowed just in time for Christmas, and by summer we would once again be tightening our belts as that worried brow deepened on Papa’s forehead as he plotted and schemed on how to get to the economic salvation of the next harvest.
Contrary to mom’s self-serving opinion, Papa was not a degenerate. He let my older brother work with him in the garden only after he had turned eighteen, obtained the proper paperwork, and practically begged for the job. And Papa didn’t take advantage of him, paying him the same wage as any other hired hand. He told both of my brothers that this is not the life he wanted for them, that they should make their own decisions and cut their own path in the world. Little did Papa know at that time that they were the least of his worries, because I had plans of my own which didn’t include college, picking a man who was a good provider, or being a subservient housewife. It is true that Papa liked marijuana, although I had never actually seen him smoke it. It was common knowledge that he would dry out and not smoke at all each year between April and September so that he could determine the quality of the harvest on his own and not rely on the opinion of others. There were other reasons as well, the biggest one being that he had to prove to himself that he wasn’t dependent on it, that he could put it down and walk away at any time, because the surest sign of an addict is when they can’t.
Papa grew marijuana organically and felt a responsibility towards his eventual end consumers.He would never use any harsh chemical fertilizers or finishing agents. He never cheated anyone, and there was never any mixing of a high quality strain with a cheaper strain to stretch the weight of the more expensive product. The strain provided was always what he said it was.
As we both grew older Papa would tell me, “Papa’s old and creaky.” He seemed to take a special pleasure in this statement which was not far removed from the truth. When I would tell Papa that, “I’m going to grow up big and strong,” he would reply, “You won’t hurt me then, will you? You won’t hurt old creaky Papa?”
Papa could never turn me down, and I found it hard to disappoint him. When I wanted a puppy he said I could have Mac, one of the garden guard dogs. Mac was a gentle sweetheart of a Golden Retriever and some other unknown lineage, but he was five years old. I said, “But I want a puppy!” Papa replied, “Yes, I know. Everyone wants a baby, but what about all the other good doggies?” I instantly knew that he was referring to my other brother and simultaneously trying to teach one of life’s harder lessons via the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I accepted Mac and Papa always called him my dog after that. When I would come home from school, the first thing I would do is tell Papa, “Let Mac out.” Papa would smile broadly to let me know how pleased he was and say, “Mac loves you. He’s a good doggie.” We would all go to the park, and I would hug Mac, beaming with pride while telling him, “You’re my dog Mac. I love you Mac.” For his part Mac would lick my face while furiously wagging his tail. I like to think that he understood.
By the fourth grade I began to notice that some of the kids seemed to look down on me. There were the whispers about my family being a bunch of potheads. I felt the burden of having to keep a family secret even though everyone else apparently knew what it was. I unwillingly had to live a life of compromise. I grew weary under the pressure of what I knew and feared that I would slip up, bringing trouble down upon all our heads. I was a normal grade school student who just didn’t talk about how my parents supported themselves — ever.
I wouldn’t let Papa keep everything a secret. I would always find some excuse to get into the garden enclosure to see the plants. I would worm my way into his house to see the clone room. I loved the bright green glow of the plants setting under the fluorescent vegetation lights. Seed germination is a very exciting event. The tiny cotyledons spring apart in one direction and the succeeding initial set of true leaves spring apart in the opposite direction. Looking straight down upon these tiny plants they look like miniature birds floating aloft and free in the air. Papa called them doves, the natural world’s symbol of peace. One year we named the smallest seedling “Tiny.” I would say, “Papa, she’s so tiny!” Papa would tell me, “You once a little one.” Tiny grew to twelve feet high and yielded over three pounds of bud. During the dog days of summer Papa had no fear of the sativa stretch. “Let them go,” he would say. “Let them express their genetic potential. Let them do their thing.”
Papa would put his foot down and never let me in to see the trimming operation during harvest season. Grandma would scold him about letting me get so close to the plants, and he would tell her that only the dried buds were psychoactive. “When it’s green it can’t get anyone high,” he would tell her. “My God, you act as if it’s nitroglycerin.”
I would hear them talking out in the courtyard that connected their homes late into the evenings about how they could make ends meet. Sometimes Papa would complain about the help (or lack thereof). His pet peeve was workers who just couldn’t pick up the pace when it was necessary. He likened harvest season to a concrete job where it’s all hands on deck until the pour and finishing are completed. There are no breaks when the concrete starts setting and there are no breaks when there’s bud to trim. Some people just can’t adjust to what amounts to a crisis situation, and those types of people can get everyone around them hurt. In short order those who refused to pick up the pace when he told them to would be gone.
As the years flew by, Papa started to walk that bent walk that old people invariably seem to fall victim to. He started wearing glasses, and I could hear the muffled moans and groans as he would rise out of his chair at the dinner table. Paradoxically, his financial life seemed to get a little easier as his physical life started to get a lot harder. It became common knowledge in certain circles around town that he was a top notch grower. Papa, however, kept it on the down low. “Loose lips sink ships,” he would always say, and a braggart has no business in this business.
California legalized marijuana recently, which was good news for the corporations but not for us, as the state applied their rules and regulations to squeeze the little guy out. Papa just went about his business as he always had. By the time I entered high school Papa was having a hard time getting around but he was always up and at it by 5:30 a.m. sharp. “I just want to see her sweet little sixteen,” he told Grandma. Grandma was having her own problems. Her figure had bloated, her eyesight was worsening, and her hair had turned pure white. I never realized the pressure mom had saddled them with until it was too late. Mac died my sophomore year, and it was the only time I ever saw Papa weep. I was devastated. That portended the future as much as I hated to admit it. Time marches on, and death remains undefeated.
Grandma and Papa threw a big bash for me when I turned sixteen during my junior year. Papa had reached his goal. That fall produced a bumper crop and Papa bought me a brand new Toyota pickup truck. Much to Grandma’s chagrin, he sensed the path I was on. Now he wanted to see me turn eighteen because he would be free to teach me the business. In truth, it would have been just fine with him if I were to become the best grower in these parts. Papa had just turned eighty-one, and Grandma wasn’t sure that either of them would make it so she relented, and I secured a special doctor’s recommendation and started working for Papa during my senior year. That’s when it finally dawned on me just how much Papa had to adjust his schedule and sacrifice to make time for me in the afternoons. Almost a year after graduation, and at the end of that spring I’d turn eighteen. I had promised both of them that I wouldn’t smoke at least until then. Papa advised that twenty-one would be a better age citing his belief that adolescent brain development could be compromised if I started before then. I kept my word which was hard because the teenage rationalization for everything was starting to kick in: “But everyone’s doing it.”
I was wrong on that count. The local bible thumpers were mobilizing to conduct a cannabis eradication campaign. I suppose that by appearing that they were on the side of law enforcement, they assumed that they could actually act as law enforcement’s proxy vigilantes. Whatever they thought, five members of the local CECO (Cannabis Eradication Campaign Officials) showed up at Papa’s door in the spring of my senior year to warn him that he should not try to grow that season, which was a day late and a dollar short because the crop was already in the ground. Papa told them: “My property is properly posted against trespassers. You’re not law enforcement. You have no warrant. So…get the fuck off my land!” “We could make a citizen’s arrest,” the apparent leader indignantly told Papa. Papa’s face started to turn purple as he blurted, “You fucking self-righteous pricks want to arrest me? Fuck you and the horses you rode in on. We’ll see.” Papa immediately dialed 911 on his cell phone and told the operator, “I got five ass-wipes wearing jet black CECO jackets with gold letters just like the fucking DEA harassing me here on my private property and refusing to leave. Can you send over a real officer to arrest them?” Papa looked the leader dead in the eye, and said “She wants to talk to you dipshit.” He looked at his cronies shocked and bewildered and muttered under his breath, “Fuck you.” “Oh no junior, fuck you! And don’t let the driveway gate hit you in the ass on your way out. Are you going to talk to her or what?” Papa screamed. They shuffled away, hopped in their cars, and disrespectfully sprayed dirt and dust as they peeled away while one shouted, “We’ll be back.” “I’ll be waiting junior,” Papa shouted back.
Papa held it together until they disappeared from view, then he started shaking uncontrollably. Grandma rushed to him and held him up as he started to collapse. A rage seethed deep inside of me. The bastards! Who do these self-righteous bastards think they are? Grandma helped Papa get into his house, get to his bedroom, and crawl into what would be his deathbed before midnight.
It was a simple funeral. Papa was cremated. A throng of local old hippies and growers showed up. Two police cars were parked outside the community center. Those CECO boys had the nerve to show themselves. I walked up to them and flung myself at their leader scratching for the whites of his eyes. The others fell on me, but I wasn’t about to let go of his neck. Grandma was the one who finally got me to let go of him. The police just sat back and let it all happen. When he shot his big bullying mouth off, the top officer told him, “Shut up Harry, else-wise we’ll let this little girl finish kicking your ass.” He shot back “Jesus, do we have to do your fucking jobs for you?” “What job would that be? Picking on old men and children?,” Grandma asked him. “Fuck you bitch!” Now the real fight was on. A few of the old hippies joined in with me keeping his buddies off of me and holding him back as I got him to the ground and tried to punch his face in. Grandma didn’t try to stop me this time. The police finally pulled me off. One of the younger officers shouted above the hubbub, “We certainly don’t need this brand of justice.” “Aren’t you going to arrest her?,” Harry asked incredulously. “Or give her a medal?,” one of the old hippies said. The top officer announced, “Folks, the show’s over. Just go home. Everybody just simmer down and cool off.” Harry flung his CECO jacket to the ground screaming, “Oh fuck it! You fucking marijuana people are all fucking crazy!” “And proud of it,” one of my old hippy brothers retorted.
The mid June sun was starting to get its bite on as the marijuana plants swayed gently in the breeze. Soon the summer solstice would arrive, and shortly thereafter the flowers would appear. By mid-August solid colas would start to form and be reaching skyward like giant middle fingers pointing towards the CECO, the bible thumpers, and law enforcement in general. Maybe I would wind up behind bars; the biggest fear of peaceful growers everywhere. I kept a low profile and didn’t show my face in town much knowing the gossip mill was churning at maximum revolutions per minute. The old hippies and growers and more than a few rednecks were having a high time of it swapping tall tales about the little girl who tried to single-handedly dismantle the CECO, which was falling apart all by itself under the mounting inertia of public outrage. If they didn’t stop me, I would bring this crop in and support my family and carry on just like my Papa had for all those years as I was growing up happy and loved on this magical patch of land.
Grandma and my brothers and I spread Papa’s ashes over the rich and fertile garden soil, and the plants seemed to grow thicker with deeper colas in response. It was hard work which would become even harder if I managed to make it to harvest. I didn’t care. Hard work and these plants were in my blood. Somehow I would be okay, because I was tough like Papa.
John C. Krieg is a retired landscape architect and land planner who formerly practiced for over 40 years in Arizona, California, and Nevada. He is also retired as an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist and currently holds seven active categories of California state contracting licenses, including the highest category of Class A General Engineering for over 25 years. He has written a college textbook entitled Desert Landscape Architecture (1999, CRC Press). John has had pieces published in A Gathering of the Tribes, Alternating Current, Blue Mountain Review, Clark Street Review, Conceit, Hedge Apple, Homestead Review, Indolent Books, Inlandia, Line Rider Press, LOL Comedy, Lucky Jefferson, Magazine of History and Fiction, Oddball Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Pandemonium, Pegasus, Pen and Pendulum, Saint Ann’s Review, Squawk Back, The Book Smuggler’s Den, The Courtship of Winds, The Mindful Word, The Scriblerus, The Writing Disorder, True Chili, Twist & Twain, and Wilderness House Literary Review. In conjunction with filmmaker/photographer Charles Sappington, Mr. Krieg has completed a two-part documentary film entitled Landscape Architecture: The Next Generation (2010). In some underground circles John is considered a master grower of marijuana and holds as a lifelong goal the desire to see marijuana federally legalized. Nothing else will do. To that end he has two books hopefully coming out this year entitled: Marijuana Tales and More Marijuana Tales.