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The Nub of the Roach

Reefer sadness: a thoughtful fantasy about a legalized future

smokes, marijuana, cigarette, Lincoln Memorial

A young woman smokes what appears to be a marijuana cigarette at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on July 4th, 1970.

David Fenton/Getty

Dad has got to be one of the biggest grouches in the whole world. Really! I mean, I know he works hard every day, down at the cassette shop, so that mom and I can have all the nice things we have, like the holojector and the simulator, but it seems to me that when he comes home he could at least be a little more civil.

“Where the fuck is the stash?”—that’s all he says to mom when he walks in the door. Now he knows perfectly well that she’s been working hard all day teaching tai chi at the day-care center, but he still orders her around like a slave, or something. And he won’t even talk to me, at least not until he’s had his smoke. And mom always has it all rolled up, in those weird French papers he likes, sitting on a little brass tray right beside the tape machine. Once, she ran out of his favorite—some awful African stuff that he used to smoke in the War—and he started to throw himself around the house like a ping-pong ball. Mom had to do First Form for 20 minutes before she’d calmed down enough to run the kitchen.

And as for me—I might as well be a toadstool. A lump! Like tonight, for example. He was watching the paper, I know, but I just wanted to tell him one little thing about my friend Bobby, before I forgot. Bobby and I are in the Boy Scouts together—the Coherent Light Patrol—and Bobby was coming for dinner, this very night.

But dad wouldn’t even listen to me. “Can it wait, Seymour?” was all he said, toking, and when I started to say, no, it can’t!, because Bobby was coming over to meet the family that very night, he just said, very loudly, “Seymour, can it wait?” And so I said, of course, sure.

Which was a lie, really. It can’t wait. For one big reason. Bobby’s family—and Bobby is only three months older than I am—lets him smoke after dinner every night. And my dad says NO SMOKE, until I’m over 15, because it will wreck my hormones. Some joke, you probably think, but it’s not, because I’ve been lying to Bobby for months and telling him that I smoke at home and now when he comes over and after dinner sees my dad and mom light up and ignore us he’s going to know for sure!

So I went to tell mom, and she understood right away. I told her how Bobby’s parents are both guidance counselors, and since they don’t believe in pre-adolescence, they let my pal Bobby have all kinds of primal experience that I’ve missed out on completely.

Especially the smoke.

I’m 12, I told her, just about, and lots of parents let their kids smoke a long time before that.

What parents? she wanted to know.

Bobby’s parents, I told her.

Who else? she wanted to know.

Everybody, I told her. Everybody‘s parents.

Well, said mom. We’ll see.

Half an hour later, Bobby was at the door. His hair was braided and he was wearing his Zuni vest. He shook hands with dad, who never took his eyes off the newspaper, and then we went into the kitchen and helped my mom set the table.

“He’s darling,” my mom said, when Bobby was out in the dining room with the plates.

We woke dad up and sat down at the big burl table. It was a nice dinner. Mom had made brown rice and veggies and TVP patties with soy gravy, and for dessert we had synthetic yogurt and peach pellets. Dad had smoked two numbers before dinner, so he was pretty close to wrecked, and really didn’t get out of hand. Mom told us about a letter in Ann Landers that morning, from a girl who wanted to know if it was all right to do psychedelics on the first date. Ann said that psilocybin or mescaline were okay, if they were organic, but that synthetics should wait.

Mom seemed to think that was good advice, and told us some sort of story about when she was a girl, doing acid with someone she didn’t know, and spending the whole next day hallucinating through Mass and Sunday dinner and everything, and then finding out that the acid had really been belladonna. Bobby pointed out that belladonna was an organic anyway, and I started to giggle, and mom looked over at dad but he’d fallen asleep with one sleeve in his TVP.

Dad woke up for dessert, and then mom asked Bobby and me to clear the table. When we came back from the kitchen, dad had a number going, and was leaning back in his chair and staring up at the ceiling.

Bobby and I sat down. I had my fingers crossed, and my stomach was full of knots. I looked at mom, but she was chopping powder. Mom doesn’t use powder very often, and when she does, she and dad usually go to bed early. There was a little silence. Bobby smiled across the table at me.

Dad finished his toke, and sat for a minute, not looking at anything in particular—and then he reached over and handed me the number! Just like that!

I took it, very cool, like it’d been happening all my life, and glanced over at mom, who was smiling, very slightly. I took a little hit and passed to Bobby. I felt like I could walk on the ceiling.

The number went around the table for a long time. Dad’s African stuff, I know from the times I’ve poached, is cured too wet, and it takes forever to burn. And those French papers might as well be cardboard. “Men who’ve been in wars get funny tastes” is what my mom always says. I don’t know. I just wish my dad’s funny tastes had happened to end up in his mouth.

Bobby looked happy; he smoked European-style, like holding a pen, which is something he learned from his parents. My dad smokes like a wino. And mom smokes, of course, like a bird.

Finally, we were down to the nub of the roach, and it came around to me. I took one last drag, glanced at the stub, and started to put it into the big iron-glaze ashtray that mom made at camp last year. I felt wonderful.

“WHAT,” dad said suddenly, and my hand froze, “THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING WITH THAT ROACH”

“I am,” I said quietly, glancing toward Bobby, “putting it out.”

“You-are-putting-it-out,” my dad repeated, in his big-bad Green Beret voice.

“Yessir,” I said, reaching for the ceramic ashtray.

“Don’t touch that ashtray,” my dad said.

Bobby coughed a little. My mom looked off toward the kitchen.

“Why don’t you,” said my dad, “hand that roach right over here. Right,” he said, “now.”

I handed. Dad examined.

“This,” he said finally, “is shameful waste.”

I looked across the table at Bobby. Bobby was trying not to watch. But I knew he couldn’t help hearing.

“Do you understand me?” dad insisted. “Sir?”

What could I say? I just stared down at my plate. I wanted to sink into the floor. The roach was the size of a soybean. “Awwww,” I started. Don’t, I prayed, give us the save-your-roaches speech.

“If you’re going to smoke in this house, sir,” dad said, “then you are going to smoke like a grown-up.”

“Awwww,” I said, “it’s just …”

Dad held the roach up over his head like it was a gold nugget. I could have died. He’s absolutely insane about this.

“There was a time,” my dad said, “when we saved roaches half this size, for months, in little metal film cans just so we could roll one more number. There was a time,” he said, raising the roach higher, “when we knew about resins“—he looked over at Bobby “I bet you don’t even know what a resin is, young guy” — and Bobby made an innocent face and shrugged, which was a lie, because Bobby has been making hash oil since he was eight.

“There was a time,” dad went on, “in Texas—when we still had Texas—where a roach like this could get you life in prison. There was a time when five roaches like this in a bong could get a whole party off. There was a time when roaches like this were a delicacy—when the guest got the roach, and people still knew how to take smoke up the nose.”

My face was on fire. Bobby must be freaking! His dad smokes Arabian imports, prerolled, in little plastic holders. “Awwww, dad,” I started.

“Don’t you interrupt,” dad said. “That was a long time ago, I’ll grant you that, but there’s truth in those old customs. I don’t care what it costs you now. I don’t care if you grow it in school, I don’t care who buys for you, I just don’t care. You’re not going to learn a damn thing if you ignore the past. Hear?”

I could barely keep the tears out of my eyes. I nodded, not looking up. Dad was acting like he was 200 years old.

“You’re a big guy now,” my dad said, “and I don’t mind you smoking at the table, but I’ll be damned if you’ll ever take another toke in this house unless you learn some manners. Look up here!”

I raised my head. By now it looked like he was trying to write his name on the ceiling with that oily butt.

“What are we going to do with this roach, sir?” he demanded.

Oh God, I thought. Here it comes. “Uh,” I said, “well. . .”

“We’re going to do the same damn thing with this that we do with every roach that’s smoked under this roof,” he said. “And what is that?”

I tried not to know. I looked away. I didn’t want Bobby to know. Bobby had probably never even seen it before. I blushed. Now I thought I would die.

Bobby was staring at dad, entranced. Mom was paying no attention. Dad took the roach, and with one elaborate flourish, popped it into his mouth and swallowed.

I died. Mom yawned. Bobby stifled a giggle, and didn’t even look at me. I started to feel sick. Dad belched.

I’m almost 12. Bobby is 12, and we’re both Boy Scouts. Tomorrow I’m going to ask him to run away from home with me. If, that is, he still wants to.


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