Spring 2008, Volume 4

Excerpt from In Loco Parentis
by Christina Guillen

Chapter 14: For Whom the Bong Tolls

The bong is wedged between a crate of records and a Star Wars sleeping bag in Giovanni’s closet. I free the green plastic tube from its obvious hiding place. The water at the bottom sloshes against the sides. A moldy, rancid odor travels up the tube and into my nostrils. Ugh. I examine the tarnished metal cup with its tiny nest of ashes surrounding two charred seeds. This part smells more like burnt cherry tobacco from my grandfather’s pipe. I realize as I hold the bong up to the light that I have never smoked one. My marijuana experiences were brief and limited to a few hits from a joint. Nothing happened the first time. The next time, paranoia set in. I walked through cow pastures all night to keep myself sane. While my friends were laughing their asses off in my parked car, I tromped through weeds and manure having conversations with dairy cows about my stupidity. I determined that feeling stupid came naturally, why would I take a drug that intensified my poor self-image?

These days I find myself home alone more than ever before. Paul goes to school. And most afternoons, Giovanni goes to Rivka’s house or she picks him up for a grooming job. It’s been two weeks and, though he complains, Giovanni is sticking with it. He says the dogs smell, the RV smells, and so does Rivka, but she has paid him in cash two times now. He likes the feel of the money being counted off into his hand. Rivka is already teaching him some basic grooming techniques, but he says he prefers to go out for a cigarette break once he finishes a dog bath. He did admit to me once that he thought it was “cool” when a dog licked him after the towel dry. The dog-kiss was like a thank-you for being gentle.

Paul comes home each night with his shoulders hiked up to his ears, just waiting for the news that Giovanni has quit his job. I love how his shoulders release gradually and slump into their rounded posture once he knows that we have made it through another day of Giovanni’s employment.

Now my employment outlook is not as promising. I have sent out resumes for any job related to publishing or teaching or marketing or advertising. Not one interview offer has come along. Nada. Desperation is creeping in. The telemarketer job with the water filter company may not have been that bad. I wonder if they’re hiring.

I just discovered that my car was found, stripped and demolished, somewhere near the Tijuana border. My insurance company is still fighting me on the claim because I left my purse and keys inside the car. If I get any money from this two-bit company, it will be a pittance toward the down payment on another car, even used. I pay the minimums on my credit card bills and feel bad about that because I’m borrowing more and more money from Paul. I realize we’re married now, but it’s killing me to not pay my own bills. My savings account holds steady at exactly ten bucks, the minimum amount to keep it from closing. Christmas is just a month away, and I am in a panic about buying gifts.

Each day I awake to the bleak forecast of my financial future and career plans when I turn to the want ads in the Times. If something doesn’t turn up soon, I’ll have to crawl into a temp agency and beg for that minimum wage filing job. One would think that with all this time off and with the house to myself for hours at a time that I would be writing like mad, returning to the novel I started years ago before I met Paul. Each time I open the computer file, I am so sickened by my own prose that I end up changing a few words here and there on the manuscript before giving up. My pathetic egg salad life could only get better, but one call from my former co-worker plunged me into a deeper depression. It was Jesus calling from Greenleaf to let me know that

Gayle hired him back. Didn’t I get a call, too, he wondered. No, no call, Jesus. Just about everyone was back to work peddling textbooks after the lay-off scare and wondered why I hadn’t returned. Well, except for Dale, the 82-year-old sales rep, I was the only one still jobless. Sure, I could ponder the logical reasons why I was excluded, but I can’t say that logic guided me through the torrent of my daily existence.

Perhaps that is why I find myself in Giovanni’s room, sitting on his unmade bed, studying his bong. I contemplate the advantage of such a device over, let’s say, a joint or pipe. The murky water tilts as I move the bong from side to side. The water must make the smoke more palatable, steamy? I realize that I know so little about this world, Giovanni’s world. Certainly Stan, he of hookah fame, knows more than I do. It’s been weeks since I’ve contacted my friend, a person of the employed universe where I no longer exist. Last time we talked, he wanted to get together after the semester for a pre-holiday celebration. “Sure,” I said, but now I’m not in the mood to be up for anyone.

So the crushed leaves go here and then the smoke comes up the tube? How does it do that? Then how does enough smoke get into the lungs? The physics of the device puzzle me. I imagine an odd scene. Wearing goggles and a lab coat, Giovanni enters his room and from the wall pulls down a blueprint schemata of “The Bong: Parts and Operation.” With a pointer, he traces the path of the smoke from the mini-incinerator through the tube and into a cross-section of a human lung.

The next thing I know I am rooting around looking for one of Giovanni’s baggies. He keeps a stash in his car, but knowing him, he has one in this room somewhere. I start with the three-legged nightstand. The drawer sticks but contains some burned out pipes and a deck of playing cards adorned with photos of naked Black women. I cross back to the closet and poke around with a drumstick Giovanni once caught at a Metallica concert. That was before his reggae/rap/hip hop phase when he wanted nothing more than to play in a heavy metal band. The top shelf sags with board games and old computer equipment. Clothes dangle half on, half off the metal hangers. Shoes pile up along the floor in such disarray that I can’t find the matches to any. No baggies here, at least not easily accessible ones. The dresser is next in my search, and I have to say that of all things Giovanni I have encountered over the last three years, this piece of furniture is the most organized. The socks and underwear are folded and placed at right angles in the top drawer. The t-shirts, sweatshirts, and jeans are relatively neat and not over-packed into the small spaces. The drumstick comes in handy because I don’t want to mess up the neatest part of Giovanni’s room. Poke, lift, poke, but I find nothing. Then to the bottom drawer I go. It amazes me how I persist in my search. Miss Snoopy is not worried about being caught with the Metallica stick in her hand while she violates her stepson’s privacy. This drawer is devoted to odds and ends, action figures and a few prize-winning ribbons. He has kept all the little plastic toys from Happy Meals and movie theater give-aways. He has kept his ribbons from grade school spelling bees and athletic games like the three-legged race and the obstacle course. Creased and dusty, the ribbons are all third place. How could anyone consistently get third place—not lower or higher but always third?

A stack of pictures clusters in one corner, so I turn my attention to these different sized photos, some Polaroids and others 35mm, that have no sense of order. The top one is black and white and appears to be Giovanni’s mother Terry as a girl. She is playing cello alongside her father who is playing a violin. The two look so old-world, as if this photo was taken in Poland before the Nazis invaded. I know so little about Terry’s family except that Terry’s mother died young, so her father, a professional violinist, raised her. Her father, too, died relatively young, not long after Giovanni was born. Although she has been a thorn in Paul’s side for decades, I do feel for Terry, who has been alone in the world for most of her adult life. Apparently, there was a much older brother who was mentally retarded, but he died a few years ago in a group home near Sacramento. Paul told me that Terry rarely mentioned the brother and didn’t attend the funeral when she found out he died. Another black and white is of Giovanni as a small boy. He is lying on the grass giggling, as if he had been tickled before someone snapped a close-up of his face. And the next one, a Polaroid of Paul, looks like Giovanni took it. The horizon tilts to one side, cutting off the top of Paul’s long, bushy hair. It appears he is making bubbles come out the bell of his trumpet. Everything about the shot screams early eighties, with Paul in his camel leather jacket, checked pants, and Wallabies. I chuckle at the twenty-something father entertaining his son with a trumpet bubble machine.

I reach into the drawer and pull out the stack of photos. Underneath, behold, I find a baggie inside a baggie inside another baggie. When I peel away the layers of plastic, the pot aroma swirls toward me. Whoa. This is not loose-leaf stash. It’s a bud, a greenish brown stalk with the leaves intact. I run my thumb along the rough yet sticky surface and watch a few fibers drift down to the carpet. The smell in this purer form is intoxicating, unlike the after-smoke odor that lingers in this room and Giovanni’s car. I wonder about the time and check my watch. Only 1:30. No one will be home for hours. Paul is at school. Giovanni has three grooming jobs today. Maybe a little self-medication is exactly what I need. I can find out why Giovanni loves this stuff. I can rectify my pathetic pot smoking experiences from the past. Of course, none of this makes any real sense, but I find myself crawling on the floor to find the bong that I left by the closet door. Uh. This skanky water has to go. I walk to the bathroom and empty the brown sludge down the sink. The nest of ashes and seeds falls in too, so I rinse it down. I take some tissues dunked in water and wipe the top lip of the pipe and cram the rest inside with the bottom end of my toothbrush as if I’m cleaning the barrel of a musket. One more tissue takes out a layer of tar in the metal cup. Doesn’t Giovanni ever clean this thing? It’s disgusting. Now for the fresh water. I fill the tube until the level reaches the indelible water line.

Back in the bedroom, I pluck a small chunk from the plant and pack it into the bong’s fire-pit. Finding a lighter is never a problem in this room. A clear plastic disposable sits on the nightstand and is within reach. Okay. Time to fire up the bong.

As the chunk of weed turns red from the flame, I just start inhaling in hopes that something will happen. At first, the embers die out. But then I try again and get a moist, burning hit of smoke that stings the back of my throat and spreads rapidly through my bronchioles.

“Whoa,” I hear myself rasp with the intonation of a true stoner. The burning sensation diminishes with some exaggerated swallowing. I wait for the high. Nothing. I take the bong and the lighter down to the floor so that I can look at the photos again. The snapshot I find is creased down the center and not very clear, as if the colors have run together. I can make out, though, that it’s Giovanni as a little boy with his arms draped around the neck of a dog that looks like an Australian Shepherd. This was the dog. The one that escaped when Giovanni didn’t close the gate. This photo makes my eyes well up. Maybe I need another hit off the bong. I decide that this is a very good idea and gather my equipment. I fire up another chunk of the weed but this time with more confidence. The water bubbles inside like a beaker in chem. class.

I’m starting to feel a floating sensation in my limbs. I look around Giovanni’s room and it’s as if the space has mutated into a tunnel shape with rounded corners. I find this funny. How does his furniture fit in here? G.’s skinny body can maneuver through this space, but I wonder about my own. I need to get out, but I’m so anesthetized that getting off the floor will be tough. I grab onto the iron footboard of the bed and hoist myself up to a standing, yet teetering, position. Somehow I reach for the bong on the floor and put the sloshing tube back into the closet behind the coiled sleeping bag. The bud is next. I fumble with the baggies and place the stash underneath the photos—at least that’s where I think I found it. Wait. Was it under the action figures? No. The pics. It was the pics. Then there’s the smoke. I rush to the window and feel the screen with my hands. Open. Good. I pick up a magazine opened to a centerfold of a naked girl leaning over a boat railing, her bronzed butt snagged by an oversized fishhook. I fan the room with the catch of the day and toss the magazine onto the bed. A nap would be good right now. I make my way down the hall and collapse on the bed strewn with laundry to be folded---later, much later.

Christina GuillenBIO:  Christina Guillen has taught composition, literature, and creative writing at Long Beach City College since 1991. A graduate of USC's Master of Professional Writing Program, Ms. Guillen has published short stories in Pearl and Ellipsis magazines. Her novel In Loco Parentis is a work in progress.