(This story first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)
“How’s your back?” asks Marvin, handing me cash for pruning his fruit trees.
“Pretty good,” I say, lifting my ladder into the back of my pickup.
“Mine’s all fucked up,” he murmurs, looking away. “Can’t lift a damn thing.”
“You need something lifted? I’m good up to fifty pounds.”
“Well,” he says, fidgeting. “I…the thing is…” He frowns. “You want to earn a quick hundred?”
“How quick?” I say, looking at my watch. “I have a couple big apples to get done before dark.”
“Half an hour,” he says, nodding. “Hour at the most.”
“I charge forty an hour for pruning, so…”
“This isn’t pruning,” he says, taking a deep breath. “This is pot.”
“You have a prescription?”
“Two,” he says, beckoning me to follow him. “One for me and one for Candy. Need to empty the old mix and fill the pots with new stuff, but the bags…”
So I follow him to the house where Candy appears on the front porch and shields her eyes from what I don’t know since the sun is hidden behind dark clouds. Candy is seventy-two, petite, with shoulder-length gray hair and a penchant for long skirts and mono-colored long-sleeved shirts. She sometimes wears a brilliant red tie, which sets her apart from the other hippie gals. Marvin is a heavyset seventy-four with bristly white hair, a wearer of suspenders and a smoker of an enviable manzanita pipe. Candy is a batik artist and calligrapher, Marvin a retired carpenter.
“Would you care for some tea?” asks Candy, her accent faintly British. “My sister just sent us some fabulous Darjeeling.”
“He’s in a hurry,” says Marvin, obviously uncomfortable about involving me in their agricultural enterprise. “Can you show him what to do? I gotta take a pain pill and lie down.”
So it is Candy who leads me to the grow house, a well-insulated single-room shed about twelve-feet square, with walls and ceiling covered with aluminum foil to reflect the light of several grow lamps. Twenty black plastic five-gallon pots crowd the floor; the plants having been recently harvested so only a little stump remains in the center of each pot.
“To start, if you’ll empty this old mix into the wheelbarrow and take it out to the compost pile,” says Candy, smiling brightly, “that would be a great help.”
“Where would I find your wheelbarrow?”
“Oh, sorry,” she says, hurrying away. “I’ll get it.”
But she only goes about twenty feet before she turns back to me and says plaintively, “Would you mind getting it? My sciatica…”
I follow her to the garage where the big old wheelbarrow sits beside their big old station wagon, the back of the wagon loaded with large colorfully illustrated plastic bags of organic grow mix concocted in Humboldt County.
“Marvin tried to unload these, but his back…” She laughs gaily. “We’re helpless.”
“How long have you been growing pot?” I ask on our way back to the shed with the wheelbarrow.
“Well,” she says, “we always used to grow a plant or two down by the spring, you know, for ourselves and friends, but we didn’t start doing this whole indoor thing until four years ago when I got laid off at the gallery and we didn’t have enough money to pay our property taxes. Our daughter helped us get started. It was this or lose the place, so…”
Three trips in fifteen minutes from shed to compost pile takes care of the twenty stubby cylinders of compacted root-bound soil; and Candy has me hack up the cylinders with a shovel so they are not so obviously the aftermath of a grow. And it takes me another three trips and fifteen minutes to haul the big bags of grow mix from car to shed.
“These are certainly heavy,” I say, dragging the first bag to the mouth of the room where Candy is waiting to supervise the filling of the pots. “How do you guys do this if you can’t lift the bags?”
“Marvin’s always been able to get the bags here until last time,” she says, handing me a razor blade for slitting open the top of the bag. “But his back is terribly inflamed now, so last time we had to drag the bags out of the car and then cut them open in the garage and scoop enough for a pot at a time into the wheelbarrow, which was all we could lift, and even that killed us. Took forever and we were both wrecked for days after.” She laughs her musical laugh. “It’s insane, but we can’t think what else to do.”
One bag of the pot-specific ingredients fills four of the pots, and in another fifteen minutes I’ve got all the pots full and arranged as Candy wants them.
“You’re a godsend,” she says, giving my hand a squeeze as we walk to the house. “How much did Marvin say he’d pay you?”
“Forget it,” I say. “Glad to help.”
“Oh, but…” She struggles to find the right words. “We would very much like you to help us again. In about two months? Could you? We don’t really know anybody else we can trust.” She laughs. “That is, anyone who can still pick up a fifty pound bag.”
“If you can’t find anybody else, give me a call.”
“Do you grow?” she asks, squinting at me.
“Smoke? I’d be happy to…”
“No. I’m a reformed addict, so…”
“Me, too,” she confides. “Marvin smokes for his back, and it so helps him relax and sleep.”
“How do you sell the stuff?” I ask, smiling at the thought of Marvin and Candy consorting with shady characters driving BMWs.
“Our daughter,” says Candy, sighing. “She comes up from San Luis Obispo and helps us trim. We both have arthritis in our fingers, so it would take forever without her.”
“Can she lift a fifty-pound bag?”
“I doubt it,” says Candy, “and besides, the timing doesn’t work out.”
“So she pays you wholesale and takes the stuff back to southern California?”
“She drops some of it with somebody in San Francisco and sells the rest in Los Angeles.” Candy shrugs. “We are blissfully ignorant of the details and wish to remain so. Come in and say goodbye to Marvin before you go.”
We find Marvin in the living room, sprawled on the sofa, his pipe stuffed with glistening bud awaiting ignition. “I got all settled and forgot the matches,” he says, his voice suffused with pain. “Bring me one, sweetie?”
She fetches a match from the hearth and lights her husband’s pipe. He takes a deep hit, holds the smoke inside for a long time, and now, with a marvelous sigh of relief, releases a pungent cloud.
“So…how are the trees?” he asks, smiling at me. “Think we’ll get some plums?”
“The prognosis for plums this year is not good,” I report. “And that prognosis is not specific to your trees. The cold and rain this year coincided with most of the early blossoming, so…but we should have another prolific apple year.”
“You’ve resurrected our trees,” says Candy, putting a kettle on. “You’re sure you can’t stay for tea?”
“No, thanks,” I say, raising a hand in farewell. “A Fuji and a Golden Delicious await me.”
“Did you pay him?” asks Marvin, wincing at a sudden jolt of pain. “For…”
“Yes,” she says, winking slyly as she ushers me out the door. “And he said he’d help us again if we need him.”
“You’re an accomplice now,” says Marvin, closing his eyes. “Thanks so much.”