There we were, the guy “Fly” and I literally dangling on a limb of this outstretched madrone trunk, gripping another branch for dear life with the small pack of dogs raising a ruckus at the base of the trunk.
“Hands up?” called the quivering voice from the same source as the flashlight beam and the apparent firearm, our captor. The fellow behind the front guy sounded tentative, hesitating, like it was uncomfortable for his party to say, “Hands up or I'll shoot!”
Since I was clinging to the limb above it felt like my hands were already up and if I let go I would fall, so I didn't budge, but my partner evidently let go the handle he was hanging on and dropped with cruel suddenness. Somehow his blonde dreads must have caught on a madrone snag in the act of descending, leaving him dangling and screaming bloody murder with flailing arms. The barkless madrone was slick with the spitting precipitation. Maybe that's why he came unglued. In a way Fly was lucky that the snag that caught his dreadlocks missed impaling his skull at the base of the neck, but he was equally unlucky that his feet weren't quite reaching the ground — the madrone trunk was just too thick for his bony fingers to grip and pull himself up to relieve the sheering pain in his scalp.
“What the hell?” inquired the voice with the gun and the flashlight. “What's going on?”
“Just a minute,” I said. There were the swiss pruning sheers in my pocket, leftover from harvesting hours earlier. I wrapped my legs and arms around the angled madrone trunk and set into snipping off the dreadlocks, one at a time, rather crudely. With each severed dread, Fly seemed to scream and flail more.
“What are you doing to him?” asked our presumed captor.
“Trying to cut the dude loose. He's caught by the dreads!”
One at a time the ropy clumps gave way to the snips, until the last few that literally ripped chunks of skin from his scalp, from the way it sounded when he dropped upon reaching critical mass. Fly was clutching his gourd without prompting from the mysterious actor who wielded the piece. Voluntarily I jumped down and joined Fly with my hands on the base of my skull, two prisoners of war in front of the flashlight beam as the fellow marched us back, a ring of basically friendly dogs neurotically hounding our every step.
Finally we encountered a veritable homestead with a light glowing on the back porch where the nebulous voice instructed Fly and I to remove not only our boots and coats but our pants — blue jeans in my case, cotton camo for Fly. I was glad to have worn boxers underneath, which was not always the case. The voice and light and unidentified firearm ushered us inside where a fire was raging in the woodstove. It must have been upwards of 80° with a crew of mostly young women and a few skinny dudes seated around an oval table with trimming snips, a pile of monstrous buds in the middle of the table. The trimmers were not overdressed, either. Most of the women wore those stretchy black tights over their legs and maybe cotton summer blouse things hanging by straps. There were two guys in the camo threads. The warm atmosphere was a welcome change for me, even as a temporary hostage somewhat grateful to take a seat near the woodstove and answer whatever questions.
“I've been ripped off before,” said the fellow who now revealed himself to be about the neighborhood of 30 with sort of a 70s hairdo — blonde and straight and not too long, covering his ears and reaching over his eyebrows, down his neck. “I knew who did it then, and both those guys died within one year. It was karma.”
“How'd they die?” I asked.
“They both got AIDS. One hung himself and the other guy was stabbed down in Oakland.”
“Well, we weren't ripping you,” I said. “We were just plain lost.”
The guy lowered his rifle and set it up against the wall. “Like I said, I'm not worried. Karma will take care of anybody who tries to mess with my shit. Anyway, it's not me you should worry about. You're lucky to have stumbled onto my place. My neighbor — he's a different story. Let's just say he wouldn't be so hospitable. A different kind of hospitality.”
“Kincaid. I don't care if you're rippers or not, steer clear of Kincaid.”
“You got anything to drink?” I asked.
They did. They had almond milk, soy milk, and rice milk. Evidently they weren't into alcoholic beverages because that stuff brought the vibe down, they said. Also they had dinner fixed by a guy who called himself, “Sprout.” He was a vegan chef. Sprout had come up with a bean sprout salad among other delights.
It was the first time I'd really tried bean sprouts. Just the effort of chewing the first bites threw my whole system into fits, and it was all I could do to prevent my guts from spewing over the table. Something about those bean sprouts caused me to shudder and shake in the act of swallowing. I couldn't do it. Cows would probably turn it down. It was the first food I'd run across in over two decades of my rapacious appetite that I couldn't hold down, worse than the salty oatmeal Mom used to make when she was in a bad mood, worse than the butterflies you feel when you're on deck to swing the bat against a lefty with a raging curve that hums by at 90mph. Besides the bean sprout salad they had these tofu dogs that were supposed to be like hotdogs. I ate about five of them with organic ketchup and downed them with the liveliest drink on hand: carrot juice they'd mixed with beets and turnips and kale and what have you from Tom Palley's garden down on the valley floor.
Catching my eye was a girl who called herself, “Mirage.” She had a shaved head and was mixing up the juice. She also had devilish eyes that led me to wonder if I was still together with the woman who was going to become my first marital ex.
“Humboldt honeys,” said Fly, whispering, examining the mottled blood his fingers were dabbing from his wounded dread rootstocks.
“Can't trust 'em. That's why they're down to tights and it's so hot in here. They can't hide a pound and sneak away with it.”
It was true, I noticed. An older guy with long, curly white hair and no front teeth who called himself “Einstein” was pretty much the guard in charge of us all — the trimmers as well as us suspected rippers. Einstein was no vegan like the rest, he assured us. “I'm a freaggin,” he said. “I eat freaggin everything.”
When the trimming was over at maybe three in the morning, the girls had quite a time snipping off the rest of Fly's dreadlocks. The next thing you knew, Fly looked like a different guy, sort of like me they said. After that we all ended up soaking in their hot tub that warmed a solarium on the south side of the hippie shack, at the boss's insistence. The solarium had banana trees and citrus growing in it. The boss turned everyone's laundry upside down while we got acquainted. Par for the course, I decided, locking eyes with the “Mirage” who turned out to be from the same county of Indiana where I'd grown up. I mean she'd been raised just the other side of a little hill range they call “The Knobs,” a few years younger than I, but we knew many of the same bus drivers and high school teachers. We ended up staying up half the night in adjacent sleeping bags, not yapping about Indiana because what is there to say about the past? But exchanging the soulful verses that people in their early 20s do until the sky starts to brighten in the east and it's morning.
Even when she was asleep I couldn't close my eyes because the five tofu dogs were churning in my guts like bubble gum in a concrete mixer. That was the last time I ever ate a tofu dog.