Issue 17 / Spring 2019
This piece is a continuation of Jon Epstein’s “Ace in the Hole,” published in the Quarterly’s Issue 16, Winter 2019.
A vague whisper in my gut said, “Your soul is being eclipsed by a locust cloud of misdeeds,” but I was deaf. The only thing that mattered was re-shoving those three cocaine balloons back up my ass before landing.
Something wakes me. Kneejerk instinct electroshocks the tendons connecting my wrist and hand. Blistered, cannabis-resin-stained fingers frisk my breast pocket. The parcels are safe and asleep. A sliver of hope flutters in the distance, one thinner than the brass ring I’ve unsuccessfully grasped for throughout my short life.
I rub the fear and second thoughts from my eyes then realize the woman sitting next to me is nudging my shoulder.
“Con permiso por favor?” she asks. “Necesito usar el baño.” She needs to visit the restroom.
“Si.” I rise. “Pasame.” I trip over my feet, but somehow out maneuver gravity. My courtesy morphs into annoyance. Then I realize: I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Before long, I’ll pull my ripcord, activating engaging my stage-5-state of reckless abandon, not knowing ten years would pass, before I’d land back on Earth.
“Damas y caballeros, estamos por encima de Phoenix, Arizona, y nuestro descenso final en LAX será en una media hora.” The pilot announces we’re above Phoenix and our final descent is less than an hour away.
I look down at the sparkling ocean of city lights. Two weeks earlier, Coz and I drove into West Hollywood via Laurel Canyon a day before my flight. We stopped to smoke a joint off Mulholland, admire the sky, and criticize the chaos down below on Sunset Strip.
Don’t wait till the last minute to re-insert the balloons. Steve’s instructions rattle in my head. You don’t want to be shoving at the last minute. I look at my watch and calculate the best time to revisit the john, after all, I want this coke up my ass for as little time as possible.
A sinister cranial synapse occurs, catching me in a childhood rip tide of Los Angeles memories: Sunday family outings to the Angels Flight trolley, Grand Central Market, and if we behaved, an early bird at Ohn Luck’s down on North Broadway, the other side of China Town, as Mom would grovel. Years later, I’d stumble inside the defunct restaurant to order a $.75 cup of coffee after being released from the Los Angeles Twin Towers Men’s County Jail.
My neighbor returns.
It’s time to ante up.
I rise from my seat and reach for my doctor’s bag. The bulkhead is quiet. Several isolated cigarette cherries burn, but for the most part, the masses sleep.
I begin my Saharan trek back to the lavatory. Arbitrary pupils reflect subdued cabin light. I feel judgment lurking behind the indiscriminate corneas.
I arrive in the aft wobble-kneed and disheveled. Both toilets are occupied. Perturbed, I lean against the smooth Formica wall between the crew’s seats and galley. Whining turbines vibrate and buzz through the thin wall, penetrating my coat and shirt. Not in a massaging way, but like an imaginary pack of fire ants scurrying on my skin.
I shift my weight from one foot to the other. The muted lighting reflects off the polished stainless-steel kitchen cabinets and countertops. The depleted drink cart is fastened to the opposite wall by cam hooks and is rattling. My mind drifts back to my arrest in the undercover Hollywood High Drug Bust two years prior. My teeth are still coated with humiliation, and I can still hear the angry onlookers chant like Winston-Salem witch-hunters. “Epstoned,” they cursed, “finally getting his.” Their hateful words, “no more of that big mouth,” reveled. I was degraded by their stone, casting looks as I was escorted away in handcuffs by the two plainclothes cops to their bruised unmarked car. The bumpy, rush hour, stop and go, no air in the backseat car ride downtown to Juvenile Hall may as well have been a death camp cattle train. My spine and bony butt were reconfigured to the unforgiving plastic backseat’s contour. Tom Price and Rudy Flores, two of my competitors, were jammed up next to me, the three of us were all dumb enough to sell dope to a narc posing as a kid in auto shop. Then the never-ending penal processing, the property surrender, the mug shots, the finger printing, the embarrassing strip searches, and the deputies poking and prodding with their black aluminum Maglites.
The blonde-bobbed stewardess who doesn’t know I’m alive drops a metal food tray. The loud clang vibrates up my spine like a middle C Major piano chord. Finally, the left toilet door opens. A snot nose kid appears. My stomach growls a menacing and medieval groan. The kid looks at me as though I were Beelzebub and hightails it up the aisle.
I enter the little boy’s room and lock the door behind me. The orchestra pit tunes, the light men adjust their spots, and the audience hushes. I retrieve the contraband from my breast pocket and hand lotion from my bag. I place them inside the sink, and undress.
Only wearing my shirt, I squat atop closed toilet seat and slather hand lotion on the three latex parcels and set them on the plastic baggie between my feet. One at a time, I shove the contraband torpedoes back inside me, grunting each time.
While I re-dress, I mistakenly glance in the mirror, only to be confronted by a serpent-headed Medusa. I recoil from the venomous fangs and chant: “The ace is in the hole. The ace is in the hole. The ace is in the hole.” My mantra is only a tad more soothing than a strained graveyard whistle.
“Eighty dollars in profit per gram times a hundred and forty divided by three is thirty. Seven hundred and thirty three dollars each before expenses,” I give myself a fiscal pep-talk.
Static squelches through the low fidelity lavatory speaker followed by some rapid-fire Spanish. It’s time for our descent and I wonder: What the fuck did I sign up for?
Born in 1957 at Cedars of Lebanon in Hollywood, now the center for Scientology, Jon Epstein grew up in a household riddled with alcohol abuse and eating disorders. Epstein is a sober drug addict/alcoholic active in his recovery and local outreach work. He resides in the Fernando Valley with his wife of thirty-one years. He considers himself an emerging writer and a fine artist inspired by the daily trials and joys of simple life—he’s a father, grandfather, musician, and surfer. Epstein’s work can be found in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Foliate Oak, Forge Journal, On The Bus, Out On The Stoop, Pierce College Voices Collective, Poydras Review, Pilcrow & Dagger, Poetic Diversity, Sanskrit, Santa Fe Writers Project, The Coachella Review, The Judean, and Poetry Superhighway. He’s a member of The Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective.