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A gunshot sounds distinctive, even over the phone, especially when followed by your wife screaming.
The sharp bang ricocheted around Ed Rosenberg’s brain like a pinball on espresso. Someone was shooting at Julie! He felt unseen hands close around his neck and squeeze. “Julie! Are you all right?”
“It’s Dave!” she shrieked. “Oh my God! Dave!”
“He’s on the ground! He’s bleeding! Oh—! Ed, I can’t talk. I’ll call you back.”
“Julie! Wait!” The line went dead and Ed’s screen said Call Ended. He jabbed Recents, then her number. Voicemail. Damn.
Sitting in the car, parked between errands in the Mission, Ed realized he was holding his breath. He forced a long exhale and felt a sharp stab in his gut. He had only one thought, to fly to Julie, to be with her, hold her close, make sure she was all right. But … where was she? He had no idea.
Ed gazed through the windshield toward Twin Peaks. Wisps of fog blew over the ridge and somersaulted toward the Bay. The way he felt resembled somersaulting, but it was more like being locked in a front-loader on high spin. First they get fired, now this.
To find Julie, Ed knew he had to calm down and recall where she was. He conjured her face. Her skin was an alluring caramel mix of black and white. Her deep brown eyes sparkled, and her luscious lips formed a word. Breathe. Yes. Breathing was good … and even better after a hit, but what little he still had was in his stash back home. That was one of his errands, but now it would have to wait.
Ed rewound to breakfast, to their usual hectic flail. As he’d filled the dishwasher and readied Jake for daycare, Julie had hustled Sonya out the door to school and run down her plans for the day. But given what had just happened—Dave Kirsch shot!—her words were sand castles at Ocean Beach that an angry wave had just swept away. Where was she? He slapped the steering wheel so hard his hand hurt. Then the fog cleared and it came back to him, Golden Gate Park … the band shell … some rally.
A spider of cold sweat scuttled from his armpit down his side. The shot, the hot bam of it, so loud, so menacing, it echoed between his ears and made the breath catch in his throat. He hadn’t felt this frantic since his father’s stroke. He could survive the Foghorn shoving them out the door, he could endure almost anything, but not losing Julie.
The curtain opened on Hell: The Movie. He slouched over an open grave, holding the kids’ little hands as their mother was lowered into the ground. He opened his mouth and forcibly exhaled the nightmare. It was Dave who got shot, Dave. Julie was all right. Or was she? Someone was shooting and she was right there.
Ed texted her: On way 2 band shell.
He threw it into drive and stomped the accelerator. Tires screeched as he pulled out of the space by the cleaner and headed from the lowlands of the Mission up to the hilly plateau of Noe Valley on his way over the ridge and down through the Haight to the park.
He hit the button for the news station. “Moments ago, San Francisco mayoral candidate Dave Kirsch was shot in Golden Gate Park. The Board of Supervisors member and marijuana activist was walking across the museum concourse when a single shot to the chest felled him. No word of his condition. Police are—”
Ed ran a yellow and hurtled across Valencia, narrowly missing two guys holding hands walking a cocker spaniel. Slow down. Get a grip. But that was impossible. Someone was shooting and Julie was—
Ed held his breath. He was at the beach, his toes curling in warm sand, everything fine, and then the writhing Pacific reared up to a monster wave that raced right for him. He turned to run but could hardly move. He was standing knee deep in oatmeal. Their careers had been guillotined. Their finances teetered on the edge of the abyss—and now bullets were flying. What next? Shot in the chest. Fuck. If Kirsch died—! Such a decent man, the best advocate stoners ever had, and so good to Julie. What was the world coming to?
A red light stopped him at Market Street. He reached for his phone just as it chimed.
“He’s dead,” she whimpered. “Dave’s dead.”
Ed didn’t know what to say. “Sorry” seemed so feeble. His mind replayed their argument over this job. Why give up steady work for the paper? Because I hate it. The gig’s over on election day. If he wins, I’m the mayor’s press secretary. Kirsch can’t win. Yes he can. Then a miracle, he was rising in the polls, he was number two and gaining, and then—
All Ed cared about was Julie’s safety. “Are you all right?”
“No! Dave’s dead! Didn’t you hear me?”
The light changed. Ed crossed the wide boulevard and pulled up by Café Flore.
“I mean: Are you injured?”
“No, no, I’m okay. But Dave—It’s horrible. Blood everywhere, all over Cindy!” Cynthia Miller was Kirsch’s campaign manager.
“I’m on my way. You’re at the band shell, right?”
Ed heard muffled voices.
“I have to give a statement,” Julie said, blowing her nose. “Ed, don’t come here. You won’t get close. They’ve got everything cordoned off. Cops everywhere.” To someone else she said, “Julie Pearl, Media … yes … all right … in a minute.” Then she returned to the phone, “I gotta go—”
“Wait! When will you be home?”
“No idea … I have to handle this. The first TV truck just pulled up. Oh, shit. It’s my day to pick up the kids.” Her voice caught. “Can you?”
“Yes, yes, don’t worry about it.” Ed heard a piercing siren. “What’s that?”
“The ambulance.” She sobbed then pulled herself together. “Oh, God, a body bag.” Ed’s gut ached.
Julie said, “Don’t forget the spoon.” Their year-old son’s security blanket was an old wooden spoon. He carried it everywhere and slept with it. If they left it at daycare, Jake bawled inconsolably.
“The spoon, yes.”
“Now three TV trucks—and Wally.” Police reporter Wallace Turner was one of the few San Francisco Foghorn old-timers who still had a job.
“I’m in no shape for a press conference,” Julie moaned, “but it’s show time.”
Ed felt like he’d been thrown into a pool of ice water. He was simultaneously shocked and numb. How could Kirsch be … dead? Dave of all people. He’d been a fixture in San Francisco for decades, first, as the ex-hippie dope dealer turned guru of growing, then as the politician with the strong libertarian streak, and finally as the seriously lighthearted candidate for mayor. John Kennedy. John Lennon. Bill Graham. Some people are so embedded in your world, you take them for granted, and then, bang, they’re gone. Ed thought of Julie and how she must feel. All he wanted was to hold her as she cried, to feel her warmth, her heart beating. She was tough as steel, but even I-beams fail.
Ed knew he should return to the Mission, but his errands seemed so trivial. He could barely breathe. Ever since the Foghorn had reamed them, he’d been waking up in the wee hours bathed in sweat from a recurring nightmare, the water rising, lifting him until his head bumped a concrete ceiling, the water up to his neck, his chin, his lips. Now the feeling of imminent doom had pursued him into daylight. What would become of them? He’d always considered himself nimble and shrewd, but he didn’t know what to do.
A garbage truck rumbled by and startled him back to reality. He was in a bus zone in the Castro. Seagulls wheeled overhead under puffy clouds as an antique streetcar clattered toward downtown. His cheeks felt odd and he touched them. Have I been crying? He forced himself to breathe and worked his shoulders in circles the way Julie did to her yoga DVD. They’d been kicked in the gut and now Julie’s Kirsch gig, their one candle of hope, had been blown out. But he wasn’t a widow. Julie was okay. That was the main thing….
Still, his intestines cramped as though stabbed by a dagger. It seemed like just yesterday he was a newly minted Berkeley Ph.D., with a job teaching history at Cal State East Bay. But after a few years, he and his department chair both decided that he was oil sprayed on the waters of academia.
Then Ed stumbled into a job writing for San Francisco’s alternative weekly, and suddenly, much to his surprise, he loved going to work. Instead of lecturing gum-cracking kids who couldn’t care less, he was reaching a hundred thousand people a week and occasionally even making a difference.
Then he jumped to the Foghorn and fell in love with Julie, the daily’s PR chief. Eventually, a new executive editor bought his pitch to write a column devoted to local history, “San Francisco Unearthed,” which became a modest hit. San Franciscans loved their city’s golden, quirky, raunchy past and Ed had a knack for making it come alive. Macy’s noticed and started paying a premium for ad placement next to the column, and every few years, the Horn’s book division published collections that had allowed them to buy and renovate their modest Mission starter home, and now, a dozen blocks away, their second place, large enough for two kids. The new house needed more work than Jericho after the trumpets, but hey, they had good jobs and assurances that they were safe.
Journalism. Ed felt acid burning his throat. As a young reporter, he’d reveled in working among the best and brightest. Now he realized that many journalists were dolts, with media pundits the biggest idiots. Not one had predicted that free classifieds on Craigslist would devastate newspapers. Not one had foreseen the Internet devaluing information to the point where Pulitzer Prize winners were groveling to get into law school.
Ed and Julie had survived two buy-outs and three rounds of lay-offs, but then the ax fell. The features editor had pushed the glass door of his little office and said, “Sorry, Ed, you’re history.”
He called upstairs immediately. Julie had just gotten her pink slip—by email. And what about management’s promises? That was then, this is now.
As the sun set on their final day, Ed, Julie, and forty other newly laid- off Horn-folk gathered at The Poets, the venerable Irish bar down the alley behind the paper. Ed had written about the place, a fixture in the South of Market since the Civil War, when the neighborhood was Irishtown. He sipped one Guinness and stopped, but Julie lost count and had to be helped to the car.
Then they were offered their jobs back—freelance, at a third of their former salaries and no benefits. They’d been proletarianized, outsourced to themselves. They gnashed their teeth and cursed corporate America. Julie refused to crawl back to the paper insisting she wouldn’t be humiliated. Ed sympathized, then implored her to reconsider. With young kids, a monster mortgage, savings depleted by renovations, and now paying out of pocket for health insurance, what choice did they have?
They sent out dozens of resumés and scrambled for work like pigeons pecking the gutter for anything resembling food. Nothing like self-employment to catapult you out of bed in the morning.
In addition to his column, Ed picked up a California history class at City College, but it didn’t pay much. The history chair at USF said they might have something down the road, but who knew when. The California Historical Society invited him to contribute to their magazine and website, but they paid next to nothing. And the Bancroft Library at Cal hoped to launch a new California archive project, but in this economy….
Then a buddy on the board of the San Francisco Museum emailed about a Silicon Valley zillionaire who was interested in funding an exhibit on the Summer of Love, and was Ed interested in compiling research for the curator? Is the Pope Catholic? But that was ten days ago, and no word since. Ed wasn’t religious, but he found himself praying. Please, God, I need a job.
He drove down the hill to Rainbow Grocery, the Mission’s worker-owned vegetarian supermarket. He pulled out the list Julie had written, hoping the routine of shopping would lift his spirits, but no such luck. He felt lost in a cold black cave. He also felt angry, which was nothing new. He hated the paper, and worse, hated himself for believing his editor’s lies and blithely plunging into renovations. But this particular rage burned with a special heat. By the dairy case, he realized why. He was furious at Julie.
When the Kirsch possibility bubbled up, she faced a conflict of interest. She couldn’t represent the campaign while doing PR for the paper. Ed thought she should stay put. The Kirsch job was a short-term long shot, while the Horn was steady money. He begged her to be sensible, but she couldn’t jump ship fast enough. Then Kirsch began rising in the polls, and Julie had embraced a rose-colored fantasy. The mayor’s press secretary! Huge salary, great benefits! Now Kirsch was on a slab in the morgue, and her silly dream was as deceased as her employer.
Shoveling green beans into a plastic bag, Ed tried to look on the bright side. He was no longer in chains from nine to five. He could run errands on weekday afternoons when lines were short and parking plentiful. He’d gone to the bank, bought a hose, and dropped off the dry cleaning in just twenty minutes, half the time the chores would have taken on the weekend. On sunny days, he enjoyed lunch in their yard inhaling the fragrance of the jasmine Julie and the kids had planted. And he could catch bargain matinées.
But the silver lining barely peeked out from under the coal-black cloud. Their severance was lousy and their savings were going fast. With newspapers in rigor mortis, no one was hiring, and hustling for freelance work made their former grind feel like a paid vacation. Who had time for bargain mats?
Ed filled his cart, finishing in the beer and wine aisle. Julie had written: Sauvignon Blanc, followed by a one that she’d crossed out and replaced with a two. Since the big kiss-off, she’d been drinking more, but when Ed made the mistake of pointing it out, she’d retorted that he was smoking more weed, so there. He sighed and nestled two bottles into the cart.
As Ed hoisted the bags into the car, his phone chimed. He didn’t recognize the number.
“Hello, Ed. Pat Lucas.”
She was the principal at Sonya’s school and she sound perturbed. What now?
“I’m sorry to report that Sonya disrupted the DAP lesson and Jane sent her to me.” Jane Dornacher was Sonya’s social studies teacher. DAP was the Drug Abuse Prevention program that San Francisco Unified required in grades five, six, and seven. This was a first. Never in all her years of school had Sonya ever been thrown out of class.
“Uh….” Ed slumped against the car. He couldn’t decide which felt more inconceivable—Kirsch getting killed or Sonya getting busted. He wished he could start the day again, a do-over.
Pat said, “She ridiculed the DAP program’s treatment of marijuana—and she wouldn’t shut up.” Then her tone became stern. “I detect parental influence.”
Ed liked Pat and had every reason to believe the feeling was mutual. He was in no mood for a fight, especially not today, but he couldn’t help himself. “I’m sorry Sonya got carried away, but you know the curriculum stinks.” Ed and other parents had complained about DAP’s contention that weed was as dangerous as alcohol, tobacco, heroin, crack, and meth.
“I know how you feel and you know I’m sympathetic. But I don’t control the curriculum. What I control is the school and we can’t have disruptive behavior.” Ed heard her sigh. “Now that she’s been sent to me, I have to follow procedure.”
“A conference, the four of us, as soon as possible.”
Ed pulled into traffic and found himself staring at a bumper sticker: Unemployment Isn’t Working. He couldn’t decide if he should laugh or cry.
He parked by The Healing Center and checked his wallet. He had just enough for a quarter-ounce. From a dark corner of memory, a line he’d once read flashed like neon in the dark: Addicts buy drugs instead of shoes for their kids. He pushed the thought away. He wasn’t an addict, just a long-time pot-head who also had a nervous stomach, now more nervous than ever—and weed helped. His doctor, bless him, had written the letter qualifying Ed for a card. Buying at a store sure beat sending cash to his old high-school buddy in Jamaica Plain and hoping the stuff was packed well enough so no one at UPS smelled anything and stole it.
The Healing Center resided in a former shoe-repair shop. Now the little storefront had a stout metal gate with barred windows and a sign, a bright green palmate leaf overprinted with the establishment’s initials, THC.
Behind the locked gate stood a skinny white kid whose dreadlocks coiled down to a “Kirsch For Mayor” T-shirt. “Card?”
Ed slipped it through. He wondered if the people there had heard about Dave. The gate opened with a metallic click.
Ed stepped inside and discovered they had. Everyone was riveted to the flat screen mounted in a corner of the ceiling. It cut from Julie, distraught but professional, to Cindy Miller sobbing inconsolably, to a bio of Kirsch, who’d parlayed legalization activism into fortune, fame, and elected office. The half-dozen people arrayed around the café tables shook their heads as they sucked on joints, bongs, vaporizers, and one-hitters. A few wiped their eyes.
A stereo playing reggae competed with the TV. Posters adorned the walls: Bob Marley, Legalize It, Visit Amsterdam, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, arm in arm, passing a doobie and uttering their signature line, “Dope gets you through times of no money better than money gets you through times of no dope.”
Beneath the posters, display cases offered pipes, paraphernalia, spiked confections, and several books, including two by the late Dave Kirsch, Grow It! (16th edition) and Grow It Indoors! (3rd edition).
Ed stepped to the counter in back. Behind it, a clean-cut young man smiled under a Giants cap. His lapel pin read “Pharmacist.” Behind him, one whiteboard listed grades and prices, another a dozen brands of sativa, indica, and blends of the two. Ed was a Cannabis sativa man. Indica smelled skunky and gave him headaches.
“What’ll it be?” the pharmacist asked. A “Kirsch for Mayor” bumper sticker was tacked to the wall behind him.
“A quarter,” Ed said, “high-grade sativa.”
Ed surveyed the list then glanced at the kid, who had to be at least twenty-one but didn’t look it. Ed realized he’d probably been getting high longer than the pharmacist had been alive. “Not really. I’ve been using Train Wreck.”
“Gets the job done … but—”
“What are you looking for? Pain relief? Sleep? Tranquilizer?”
“Train Wreck’s good, but have you tried Ambrosia?” The young man pulled a large Mason jar off a shelf, unscrewed the cap, and invited Ed to sniff. The buds, cherry-sized and bright green with golden threads, burst with fragrance. That was nothing new. Ed had to store his stash in the shed out back to avoid stinking up the house.
“Powerful healing,” the pharmacist intoned.
Ed nodded and the kid weighed out seven grams plus a smidge more and scooped it into a plastic bag. “Free cookie? Papers? Lighter?”
Ed used a bong or one-hitter, so he didn’t need papers. And he’d never liked eating marijuana. Dose control was a problem, and it took an hour to get off. “Lighter.”
The pharmacist dropped a disposable into the paper bag and accepted a wad of bills.
On his way out, the gate-keeper said, “Feel better.”
Ed sighed. He had problems not even his favorite medicine could cure, and now his hit would have to wait. He had to pick up the kids, make dinner, and call Julie. He pulled out his phone and held it, wishing he were holding her.
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