(wherein reporter Jed Berman runs into his old friend “Doris” and ends up breaking down outside the Old Town smoke shop)
Life settled down after a while and I got back into the old routine, and for a couple of months I didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on the questions. At the station, DeMarco kept jacking up his expectations for everybody, including the anchors. It was all part of what was happening in the business. Everybody was trying to figure out how to deal with the skyrocketing popularity of the Internet, and the new 24/7 news cycle that viewers expected us to work on.
Fred hired a couple of reporters who only posted stuff on the station’s website, and everyone, reporters, photogs, anchors, even producers, took home a digital video camera. In the meeting where they handed out the new gear, Fred told us we were now all on call twenty-four hours a day, not just the designated photogs, like in the old system. Anyone was expected to be ready to run out and shoot a story at any hour of the day or night; the new overnight assignment editor doled out the work based on who was closest to the scene and could get there, she hoped, before the competition.
In practice, I didn’t get the call that often. I’d worked pretty long hours over the years, like the twenty-one hour days at the national political convention. Hell, I once worked twenty-three days straight just to impress a new news director. It wore you out after a while, but it was kind of exciting to be hustling all over the place, trying to get great stories, and show up the competition.
This time around, if I got the call in the middle of the night, I felt it a lot more when I finally drove in for my anchor shift that afternoon. It turned back the clock in a way; I found myself moving around in that same sleep-deprived state you expect to be in as an up-and-coming reporter. Your basic thought is: When can I get some sleep? And the other effect of being tired came back to me, too: My self-discipline started to evaporate, which explains why I found myself heading over to the Old Town smoke shop to buy a pack of smokes, something I hadn’t done for several months.
As I turned off Stillwater into the parking lot, I thought about Doris—or Kenneth, as I now knew was his legal name, but I still liked thinking of him as Doris—probably for the first time since our visit in the county jail. I still felt a little sorry for him. As far as I knew, he wasn’t a bad guy. I remember thinking to myself while we were talking in the jail library that I hoped he wouldn’t have to take too much crap inside. He seemed like a fairly gentle guy, certainly not interested in hurting anybody. But I hadn’t had any contact with him since then. In fact, as I said before, I kept my distance so I didn’t end up on the wrong side of the cops.
Anyway, my approach to the strip mall put me dead in line with the bench outside the grocery store where I’d first met Doris. And wouldn’t you know it, there he was, on the same old bench, slouching down in exactly the same way he always did before he got busted. Considering that he’d paid his debt to society, I thought it was probably safe to make contact with him now, at least to find out how he was doing.
From a distance he didn’t look any different, but sometimes the scars left by an encounter with law enforcement don’t show on the outside. And the impact of exposure to society’s bad boys inside a jail can be negative in the extreme, as we all know. I parked the car and walked up to him. He was looking across the parking lot and didn’t see me until I started talking to him.
“Doris, how the hell are you?”
He slowly turned his head to look at me, in that slow-motion way he did everything. When he focused on me, a broad smile spread across his face.
“Jed, the Jedster, man, it’s been a long time since I saw you, man. Need a smoke?”
He held up his hand which had a cigarette lodged between his second and third fingers, as usual. And it looked just like the ones I’d always seen him smoking, that suspiciously homemade style. He took a drag and exhaled it. I thought I detected that familiar musty aroma in the smoke. He slid over a little on the bench and invited me to join him. I sat down and turned to look at him.
“You’re not smoking what I think you’re smoking are you?”
“Oh, yeh, what else would it be?”
“But aren’t they still keeping an eye on you? I mean, you got off easy when they knocked it down to a misdemeanor for growing, but couldn’t they jack it back up and throw you back in jail if they caught you still at it?”
He took another long drag, held it a while, and let it seep slowly between his lips. He held up his hand so I could get another good look at the cigarette.
“This, my friend, is absotutely, perfectly legal.”
“How can that be? You’re a convicted pot-grower, and as far as I know it’s still illegal to grow it and to smoke it. How can that possibly be legal?”
“Well, it turns out I had some positive experiences in there, when I wasn’t avoiding the bad asses who just generally try to make life miserable for everybody.”
He paused to take another drag. His storytelling pace certainly hadn’t changed. He just refused to let anything wind him up as tight as most of us are.
“See, I had some health problems inside, Jed. The kind jail doc gave me a good workover and wouldn’t you know it, he discovered I’m in the very, very early stages of glaucoma.”
“Geez, Doris, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. ‘Cause the doc caught it and he prescribed a treatment that should help me postpone or maybe even stop the glaucoma from developing.”
He paused for a moment and a sly grin played around his mouth. I had a feeling I knew what was coming next.
“So, when the doc sees I have this problem, and he knows what I’m in for, he asks me if I would have access to marijuana, which he firmly believes is the best treatment for glaucoma. And I say to him, I could have access to it, but not without some kind of official prescription from my physician. He hears what I’m saying, and he’s a young guy, you know? So we work this thing out. I am now legally permitted to use this stuff for my condition and,” he paused a smiled again.
“And the doc has access to grass anytime he needs to prescribe it for his patients. Oh,” he raised his forefinger for emphasis, as he had way back when we talked about Attila and the Huns, “and you’ll never guess who needs to toot a little grass now and then to ward off the same condition.”
“The doc?” I wasn’t sure if he was bullshitting me or what. Doris nodded and kept on smiling.
“Yep, the doc got diagnosed with early stage glaucoma, too. So he had medical need for himself as well as his patients.”
“Wow! Great thing he caught it for you and for himself.”
“Yeh, but we’re not the only ones. The guards somehow heard about my diagnosis and about half of them trooped in for an exam when he was there, and wouldn’t you know it, we got ourselves an epidemic of early-onset glaucoma, and the doc sends them all to me to fill their prescription.”
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
“Doris, you are some piece of work. Is all of that legal in Maine?”
“Absolutely, since back in the late 90s. But enough about me, how are you doing? I guess I should have saluted when you got here. I saw all of your war hero stuff on TV. My new friends in the slammer got real excited about your stories. Whatever else they did that got them in there, most of them were real all Americans when it came to that stuff. They considered you a true, blue patriot, dude. You’ve been a busy boy.”
I hadn’t meant to get into all that stuff with Doris, at least not at that point. But I figured I owed him some kind of response, since he was nice enough to ask about it.
“Yeh, I’ve been busy. That war stuff came from my news director. I didn’t ask for it.”
“I never thought you did. But it happened. Knowing where your head is, I had to wonder what it was like for you.”
I tried to downplay it and get onto some other topic, but Doris really seemed to want to know. So I opened up a little.
“You know what they say, man. War is hell. And what’s going on over there is war. Not the kind we used to fight. It’s all happening in the middle of people’s lives. But it all boils down to the same thing: We try to kill enough of them so they’ll stop killing us.”
Doris thought about that for a moment.
“Yeh, I guess I can see that. But it seemed like there were some things you weren’t saying in your reports, starting with the stuff about that Thibodeau guy who killed his family. That was just plain awful, man. And then some of the stories you did in Afghanistan. That stuff about pumping American kids full of drugs so they can stay out there and keep fighting. And then that one about when you got attacked in the mountains. How bad was that?”
I really didn’t want to talk about that one, so I just sat there for a long moment. Doris seemed to sense my discomfort, but he pushed gently to get me to say more.
“Hey, I don’t mean to invade your personal space or whatever. But with all of your feelings about violence and killing, I had a hard time picturing you in the middle of a firefight with young American soldiers dropping dead at your feet. How did you handle that, man?”
It was strange, but I felt all of the rotten feelings, the sick feeling in my gut, the fear of that day rising up inside of me, even stronger than when I told Jane about it. Doris kept pushing.
“Seriously, man, I don’t know if I could have handled that shit.”
My attempts to hold it all in, to suppress the blackness, dissolved in that instant. There was no reason for me to do it, but I turned to Doris, my eyes filling with tears, and confessed.
“Do you remember the part in that story where I showed you the young Taliban my unit took out that day? The kid who couldn’t have been a day over fourteen?”
Doris looked at me, with concern in his eyes, and nodded.
“Well, I helped kill that kid. I didn’t pull the trigger, but I spotted that soldier across the way and showed the American guy beside me where he was and he took him out with three, well-aimed shots. I saw the kid’s brains splatter on the rocks, and I found his ID in his pocket when the shooting was over.”
My voice rose as it spilled out of me, and tears started rolling down my face. Doris didn’t turn away; he just looked at me, sympathy in his eyes. I was amazed when he reached over and patted my shoulder.
“I get it, Jed. That was a hell of a situation to be in.”
“Yeh, it was. But after all the self-righteous bullshit I’ve doled out all these years, basically condemning people who’ve killed other people, innocent people, enemies, children, old women, that felt like a total failure. It still feels that way, no matter how hard I try to rationalize what I did and why I did it. Like a lot of those soldiers, I’ve been trying to push the experience and the feelings that go with it way down inside so I don’t have to deal with them. But I’ve just demonstrated how unsuccessful I’ve been at that. It ripped up all of the thoughts I’ve had trying to understand why people have done those awful things to each other for so long. It’s like I’m back at square one and this time I’m on the wrong side.”
Doris slouched back against the bench and let out a long sigh.
“I’m really sorry, man. I didn’t mean to upset you. We don’t have to talk about it anymore, if you don’t want to. But I don’t think you’re a hypocrite for doing what you did. And I don’t necessarily consider all of the killers of history—including all the soldiers and all the armies that ever squared off—completely responsible for what they’ve done. Not anymore.”
I wiped the tears off my face and looked at him.