*Companion song inspired by this story, written and sung by the author.
My best friend Kenny: a year older and far more culturally attuned. He knew all the cool music, TV shows and movies. He was the first to get the Sgt. Pepper album—or “alblum,” as he’d say. He had a speech impediment that he tried to pass off as a British accent. On Halloween, we two dressed as hippies. I pull out the Polaroids my mother snapped back then; I wore love beads and a wig—but Kenny slathered on excessive amounts of lipstick, rouge, mascara, eye shadow. He looked like a full-on drag queen.
Kenny was a very entertaining fellow in the fall of 1968—the time of long hair, riots, crappy TV… Summer of Love mortally wounded at a motel out in Memphis, finished off a year later at the Ambassador Hotel. Vietnam: Some rhymed the last syllable with bomb, others damn. Either way, the word rings sharp in my memory like an iron curse forged on an anvil. It was the place that stole away my father for months and years at a time. Afternoon paper on my doorstep. Elysian fields of Camarillo across the street.
This was back when Camarillo meant only one thing to anyone from California: Loony Bin. The State Mental Hospital sat just up the road, beyond several miles of orchards and fields. Some (incorrectly) rhymed Camarillo with armadillo. Sax legend Charlie Parker wrote Relaxin’ at Camarillo after an extended smack-related stay. Cheesy cop shows sometimes mentioned Camarillo as the ultimate destination for criminals in need of “further psychiatric evaluation.” Every Saturday night we never missed Adam-12. We both thought Kent McCord, who played Officer Jim Reed, was the coolest guy we’d ever seen. I wanted to be just like him. Kenny, I guess, wanted to marry him. Sometimes we’d race our bikes and yodel a siren sound as if in hot pursuit with red lights ablaze. One Adam-12, Code Three.
Yes, everyone had heard of Camarillo.
Kenny was ten, I was nine. We crawled through a farmer’s field across the street, mashing down stalks, pretending our forearms were threshers. Sometimes we’d lie back in the paddock, stalk of alfalfa clenched between our teeth, contemplating the sky. Sometimes I’d think: God’s beard is a cloud. Then we’d resume our threshing.
All at once we broke into a clearing with a hundred potted plants all in a row. There were a few other plants too, much larger, growing straight up out of the ground. Kenny leered and said, with a cockney drawl, “Waaallll, whaddya know?”
The two threshers stood, boys once again.
A kid named Harold abruptly skidded to a stop on his bike. He was older, had a mustache and chin whiskers. Harold wore a canvas delivery pouch around his shoulders like a poncho. It gave him the aura of a blond bandito.
“Hi,” I said.
Harold leaned back on the banana seat of his Schwinn Stingray, resting against the sissy bar, gunning the handlebar grips as if he were straddling Harley. He suddenly leaned forward, seemed to recognize Kenny.
“Hey man, I know your older brother—Mike?”
“You were a hippie on Halloween.”
“We both were,” I said. My hand went for the peace sign medallion no longer there.
“What are these?” Kenny asked, indicating the plants.
Harold slowly got off his bike, pulled out a Hills Brothers Coffee can from the pouch. He removed the plastic lid and started watering.
“My secret garden,” said Harold, a little too casually. “High school science fair.”
Harold tended his garden, we watched. He offered us each a menthol cigarette. We declined. Harold was “heading up to Frisco” that weekend. Could we take care of the plants while he was away?
“What kind of plants?” I said. “They look like little weeds.”
Harold laughed. “You got it, man: weeds. I’ll pay you.” We pocketed our respective quarters. Harold warned us not to tell anyone.
“Don’t worry,” said Kenny. “You’ll get first place.”
Off Harold’s confused look, I said, “Science fair?”
He nodded. “Right. Science fair. Cool, man.”
He mounted his Stingray and peeled out.
We took one of the potted plants to a scoutmaster neighbor named Larry Hoops. Mr. Hoops had a flat-top crewcut, boxy plastic-framed glasses and a high-pitched tenor voice. He immediately dialed the sheriff and warbled:
“I have what appears to be a plant that resembles marijuana!”
Kenny and I looked at each other and mouthed: Oops.
I couldn’t know then I’d soon lose track of Kenny, move out of state, live several other lives. I couldn’t know how twenty years later I’d find myself living in Los Angeles.
I take a solo trip up the coast, stop in Camarillo to see the old neighborhood. The orchards and fields long gone, nothing but endless tracts of identical houses. Still no trees.
Kenny’s mother remembers me. I’m in luck, for although Kenny moved to West Hollywood, he happens to be home now, visiting.
In the TV room, I find Kenny stretched out on the couch, dying. Too many pills and anonymous tricks. He desperately craves weed to ease his pain. He looks older than he should, as if his metabolism has been stuck on fast forward for two decades.
“Where’s Harold when you need him?” I say.
“The pot-farmer paperboy?”
Of course Kenny remembers. How could he forget? Police cars; the almost sexual tingle of celebrity. Harold led away in handcuffs.
We knew exactly what we were doing, our naiveté calculating and false. Every Saturday night, watching Adam-12. This was how it was done. This was good citizenship. We had a pretty good idea what was going to happen to us and Harold. And still, we took the potted herb, marched it across the street to the straightest white man we could find. We basked in the approval, sat on the curb, waited for Officer Jim Reed to arrive.
Charlie Parker, looking down, blesses all the children of the town.
# # #
Robert Morgan Fisher’s fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review Soundbooth Podcast, Red Wheelbarrow, The Arkansas Review, 0-Dark-Thirty, The Huffington Post, Psychopomp, The Journal of Microliterature, The Seattle Review, The Spry Literary Journal, 34th Parallel, Spindrift, Bluerailroad and many other publications. He also has a story in the Night Shade/Skyhorse Books Iraq War anthology, Deserts of Fire. He’s written for TV, radio and film. Robert holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, where he works as a Book Coach and Writing Specialist. He also develops courses and teaches for Antioch’s online I2P Program and runs a weekly writing workshop for veterans with PTSD in conjunction with UCLA. He often writes companion songs to his short stories. Both his music and fiction have won many awards. Robert also voices audiobooks. (www.robertmorganfisher.com)
Photo credit: Terri Malone