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Peace by the Gram

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Life on the Ridge was never easy, but the past few months had descended upon us like a storm, bringing with it all manner of unsavory maladies and injuries. I’d seen a record-breaking number of broken limbs, inflamed boils, and oozing sores since September, the quick onslaught of autumn having spurred everyone’s bodies into violent revolt.

One of my frequent patients was Alistair Gibbons, the most irascible man I’d ever met—and I was well acquainted with Tom Christie. Like anyone who was newly settled on the Ridge, Mr. Gibbons regarded me with a gimlet eye, as if I might sprout horns at any moment and whisk him off into the fiery depths of Hell. In fact, Alistair often met my prescriptions with colorful variations of go to hell—to which I said I’d be more than happy to oblige. Would he kindly lead the way?

This was a rhetorical question, and one that was meant to vex him. Alistair Gibbons was as blind as a bat, being a longtime sufferer of untreated glaucoma. I was forever spotting him with his head between his knees, hands pressed against his skull with such force, I thought he might crack himself in half—if the glaucoma didn’t get to it first.

But aside from his short temper and ill health, Alistair Gibbons also had aspirations, chief among them wealth and status. So when I casually mentioned that Jocasta Cameron—Himself’s auntie and the owner of no small fortune—had used hemp flower, at my direction, to treat the same ailment…

“Jocasta Cameron, ye say?” he repeated, eyes wide. His gaze drifted over my shoulder, as though expecting Jocasta to materialize in my surgery. Not that he’d be able to see her very well if she did. “Why, she’s a braw lass—and smart, too.”

“Quite,” I said, and, sensing impending victory, tried my best not to smirk. Clearly Alistair Gibbons admired Jocasta for more than just her connections and money.

 “Weel, if it’s good enough for a lass such as her, then I—I suppose I may try it,” he conceded. “Just a wee bit, mind.” Whereupon he seized the proffered pipe and nearly smoked me out of my stock.

‘Wee bit,’ my arse.

Several minutes later, Alistair was far more inebriated than I had anticipated, but at least pleasantly so. As I showed him to the door—he could hardly reach it on his own, even in the best of times—he began to sing what I could only presume was a Gaelic tribute to the braw, smart Jocasta. Should anyone else have witnessed this performance, they would think the man deaf, not blind.

I relayed this tale to an audience of Jamie, Brianna, and Roger, who were all seated round the table, finishing their suppers. Roger was particularly amused by the notion of me “doping up the Ridge,” though I assured him this wasn’t exactly the case—hemp flower contains much lower THC levels than its headier cousin, marijuana.

“On second thought, though,” I amended, “the merchant has told me more than once that he has ‘secret methods.’ And Ulysses did tell me Jocasta once ate an unseemly amount of pastries after she smoked it…”

“I thought ye said the hemp flower helped in matters of eyesight, Sassenach,” Jamie said, laughing at this image of his engorged aunt. “No’ appetite.”

“Well, it does help—with the glaucoma, that is—but it affects everyone differently. Sometimes it makes the user, err, rather hungry, if consumed in large quantities.”

“They call that the munchies,” Bree affirmed, earning a scandalized from Roger.

“Aye, and what would you know about it? Yer as square as a they come!”

Annoyed by this (rather accurate) assessment of her character, Bree made a deliberate show of finishing her wine in one loud gulp. And belched.

“I’ll have you know, Roger Mackenzie,” she said, wiping the wine from her lips, “that in high school, I…”

I knew already the story Bree was about to tell, for it stood out in my mind as one of those instances where I was never sure if I’d done the right thing: Do you cut your delinquent child some slack? Or do you come at them firm, to prevent such incidences from happening in the future?

This particular incidence occurred in 1964, when Bree was finishing her sophomore year. Frank was away at an academic conference, and I had an evening off from Boston General—a rare occasion I had planned to celebrate with whiskey and a filthy romance novel. But while strewn lazily across the couch, weighing the pros and cons of a single or blended malt, the phone rang. By the time I held the receiver up to my ear, Bree’s voice was already talking a mile a minute.

Bree, darling, slow down, I’d said, struggling to follow the thread of her rushed, slightly jumbled sentences. (I have a 4.0 GPA! And I—I do my own laundry! And I’m taking piano lessons—even though I hate piano!)

Hold on. You hate piano?  

Bree groaned.

Brianna, what’s going on? Are you all right?

Yeah, I’m fine. It’s fine. But—Mama, please don’t be mad.

That depends. Are you about to reveal you’re sitting in jail cell? Because if that’s the case, I can’t make any promises.

She’d laughed, then, though it wasn’t her usual laugh, which was loud and throaty and not at all the slow sound coming out of her mouth now.

No, I’m not in a jail cell. I’m just sitting on Katie’s front stoop. I could hear a party beating behind her, a cacophony of raised voices, bouncing ping-pong balls, and too-loud music. Mama, I—well okay, I guess I’ll just say it. I smoked a little, um, pot, and— 

How much?

Just a little! Like a couple puffs. But I feel weird and tired and I want a burger and itwouldbegreatifyoucouldjustpickmeup.

This last bit was said with great embarrassment, which I felt was punishment enough. And though I had so been anticipating a night of uninterrupted leisure, I also knew the days of Brianna needing me—truly needing me—were coming to an end, and they’d leave nothing but a gentle, persistent ache behind. One day soon, I’d wish for calls like these.

Give me twenty minutes, I said, and the sigh of relief that came from the other end was the best sound I’d ever heard. I’ll be there.

When I arrived, I found a despondent Bree sitting on the curb, shoulders raised around her ears. Affecting nonchalance, I rolled down the window and called out, Furey Street Express, step right up!, but she merely burrowed into a tight cocoon of elbows and knees.

Bree, baby, I promise it will be all right. You aren’t in trouble. Just—just get in the car, please.  

No response.

I’m offering you door-to-door service, and you won’t even look at me? I joked, though it came out harsher than I meant. No Carmie’s for you, then.

Chastened, Bree unfolded herself from the sidewalk and plopped—limbs as heavy as lead and as formless as Jello—into the passenger seat, from which she began to cry, very softly. 

Are you going to tell Daddy? she sniffled. Mama, please don’t. If he found out, he—

I was momentarily struck by her fervency—how deeply her need for Frank’s approval ran—and was reminded of the countless hours she’d spent in his office, the two of them conjuring her Ivy League future. No, I wouldn’t tell him.

It’ll be our secret, I said and tapped the side of my nose.

Brianna seemed to relax at that, her shoulders slumping as if freed of some unbearable burden (the weight of Frank’s expectations, perhaps). I could smell, faintly, the earthy fug of marijuana—green and sleepy and clinging to her clothes—as she sat in dejected but grateful silence.

So, I take it you aren’t a fan of pot?

She scrunched up her nose. It's, uh, interesting.

So will there be further experimentations? Or have we learned our lesson?

She cleared her throat—I could see the indecision in the set of her jaw, in the wavering line of her mouth—but then she reached into her pocket and withdrew a small joint.

I bought this—a little preemptively, I guess. Austin was selling them to everybody, and I just… She shrugged, eyes downcast. I just wanted to seem cool.

I’d seen this Austin boy before. Or rather, I’d seen part of him, for most of his pierced face was hidden behind a thick layer of black fringe. I hardly thought him a good barometer of what was or was not cool but kept these judgments to myself. Instead, I reached for the joint and rolled it meditatively between my fingers.

I felt suddenly, irrationally, envious of teenagers like Austin, whose primary concerns were where the next party was and who was kissing who—a relatively stress-free life, spent fretting over things that, in time, wouldn’t matter anymore. I’d never had that.

I won’t bust you for weed, I’d said to Bree in a conspiratorial whisper. An idea was slowly taking shape in my mind. As long as you don’t bust me for littering. Deal?

“And then Mama threw it right out the window, onto the highway!” Bree announced to us all now, beaming with pride at our ‘joint’ delinquency.

It was my turn to be embarrassed.

“Err…” I said, looking everywhere but at Brianna’s eyes, which I imagined were narrowing in suspicion—and in belated comprehension.

“Wait. You didn’t throw the joint out the window? But—but I saw you!”

“Well, yes.” I felt a faint blush creep up my neck. Any minute now, and I’d be the shade of the roasted pig who so graciously scarified his life for our supper, and which now sat on Jamie’s fork, suspended in front of his open mouth. “I acted like I threw it out the window, but I, err…didn’t.”

“So you’re telling me that…”

“She kept it for herself!” Roger crowed, nearly howling with laughter.

At this, Lizzie shuffled into the room with Jem, who’d eaten his own supper with friends at the home of a nearby tenant. Thrilled to now be in the company of adults, and thus privy to adult conversation, he eagerly ran to his father and hopped up onto his lap.

“I must admit, Claire,” Roger continued, shifting uncomfortably beneath Jemmy’s weight. “I didna take you for a stoner. A secret hippie, were ye?”

“A hippie?” Jamie repeated, fork still hanging in mid-air, while Jem—having found an ally in his grandfather—chimed in with, “Daddy, what’s a stoner?”

“Someone who…really likes rocks.”

I like rocks!” Jemmy said, looking to each of us for approval. “I try to travel froo them! Buzz buzz!”

The four of us darted nervous glances at Lizzie, who was still lingering near the sideboard. But the girl was clearly distracted by her own thoughts, for she was staring at the floor, pitifully morose. She must have fought with one—or both—of her husbands again, I thought.

Meanwhile, Bree was staring at me with a mix of open curiosity and wild disbelief. I cleared my throat under the force of her gaze and offered further explanation.  

“Yes, all right?” I began. “If you must know, I saved the joint for a rainy day. Although I most certainly wasn’t a ston—” I checked myself at the sight of my grandson’s earnest eyes, “I wasn’t a s-t-o-n-e-r. I only smoked weed the once. Or, well, twice…All right, there was one other time at—”

“Mama!” At this point, even Bree was suppressing laughter, while Jamie was still rolling the foreign words out on his tongue, sounding not unlike a hippie-stoner himself.

“It was a handful of times,” I finished lamely. (Just a little!)

“Boston General was that stressful, aye?” Roger said, green eyes alight with mirth. He squeezed Jem and tickled the boy beneath his armpits. “Yer granny just wanted a wee bit of peace, love, and happiness. Isn’t that right, Claire?”

“Mmm, groovy.”

“Granny, groovy!” Jem cried in a sing-song voice. “Granny groovy, and we both like rocks!” This was sufficient to send the entire table—even Jamie, who was still not entirely following but merely delighted by everyone’s delight—into fits of laughter. Bree snorted like the White Sow, Roger started humming “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and Jem continued rhapsodizing about our mutual passion for rocks. In all the hilarity, the wine pot toppled over, landing with a wet thunk on the floor.

Thinking something amiss, Mrs. Bug appeared in the doorway with a broomstick, prepared to fight off whatever cackling beasts had disturbed our supper. Seeing the five of us doubled over with laughter—and the wine seeping steadily into the carpet—she turned swiftly on her heel and harrumphed back to the kitchen. (Heathens, the lot of ‘em!)

This of course only made things worse, but Bree at least had the presence of mind to kneel down and take a napkin to the spill.

Looking down at the crown of her head, I was reminded of how I’d done the same thing on that night, so many decades ago. As I’d driven us to Carmie’s, Bree had leaned across the center console to rest her head against my shoulder, humiliated and exhausted—but content in the knowledge that she was safe. I was there.

“Well, Mama, you are always full of surprises.” At this, Jamie made a spectacularly Scottish noise, implying he felt ‘full of surprises’ was a gross understatement. “Anything else you care to share while we’re at it?”

Thankfully, I was spared of another confession by the sudden return of Mrs. Bug, who swept into the room like an angry dervish. Despite Bree’s insistence that she’d taken care of the spill herself—no worries!—Mrs. Bug promptly dropped to the floor and began to scrub with a soapy rag. So vigorous were her ministrations, I rather thought she imagined herself scrubbing the rug of our ‘heathen’ sins.

“Thank you, Mrs. Bug,” I said, trying my best not to laugh.

The faint but delectable smell of sweets had followed the woman into the room and, like a hound on the scent, Jem sniffed the air.  

“Cookies?” he asked expectantly.

“Aye, ye wee rascal,” Mrs. Bug replied from the floor, rather deflated. “There’s some fresh baked in the kitchen, but dinna eat them all—or I’ll have yer mammy skelp ye!”

Like a shot, Jemmy was off Roger’s lap and bounding for the kitchen, trailed by an exasperated Bree (“Jeremiah Mackenzie, did you hear what Mrs. Bug said?”)

“Say, Claire…” Roger ventured now, his grin so like Jem’s troublemaker smile that I would’ve declared the child his, then and there, had there been any remaining doubts. “D’ye have any of the flower to spare?”

“Surely a minister canna be doing such things, Roger Mac.” With reflexes that would bamboozle even Adso the cat, Jamie swiped the last bit of meat out from under Roger’s fingers. “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Do ye no’ think that applies to the weed—” Jamie crinkled his nose at the foreign word, as if to sniff out its illegitimacy, “as well as drink?”

“I didna ken you’d be joining us, Mr. Christie,” Roger teased. “Quick, Mrs. Bug, fetch the man an extra plate.” But Mrs. Bug, still scrubbing industriously away—I had the sneaking suspicion she was merely eavesdropping now—did not appreciate the joke.

“Well if that’s indeed what the Bible says, then it’s too late for us all anyways,” I reasoned, taking a hearty swig of wine in demonstration. “We’re already debauched.”

“Already debauched, aye,” Jamie mumbled. He looked up at me, then, eyes filled with sudden mischief.

On second thought, perhaps Jemmy got it from him.

“Sassenach…do ye have flower to spare?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. And why do you ask?”

“It’s as ye say—we’re already debauched—and it seems you've enjoyed it…”

“Mmm, quite. Interested in trying it yourself, are you?” I said, one brow lifted. “Mind you, you’ll need a bit of supervision…”

“What kind of supervision d’ye have in mind, Sassenach?”

“And that’s my cue,” Roger said, practically running out of the room. Meanwhile Jamie—looking exceptionally pleased for having discomfited his son-in-law—came round the table to plop a wet kiss on my cheek.

“If bedding you on the flower is anything like bedding you on the drink…” he whispered into my ear, “then I’ve half a mind to smoke ye out of yer stock like Mr. Gibbons, and take ye upstairs.”

I’d all but forgotten about Mrs. Bug, who squeaked—outraged—from her sentry’s post on the floor. Jamie, though, seemed well aware of her presence, for he shot the woman a playful wink as he left to join the others in the kitchen. (“Think about it, Sassenach.”)

Following Jamie’s departure—and after some considerable effort to still my racing heart—I took mental stock of my surgery shelves. The recent wave of medical emergencies had left them rather the worse for wear, but yes—I’d remembered correctly. I had purchased several grams of hemp flower about three weeks ago, with the usual assurances from the merchant that this was his “strongest batch yet.”

While wondering just how strong, Mrs. Bug popped up beside me like a mole, the wine stain sufficiently attended to and the scintillating conversation now at an end. I could tell her mind was still on what she’d overhead—she wouldn’t make eye contact, at first—but then she turned to me, suddenly all business.

“Beg yer pardon, Mistress,” she began, forehead crinkled with much seriousness, “but what is a hippie?”