Issue 15 / Fall 2018
When I received my high school aptitude tests results, smuggling drugs wasn’t one of the vocations listed.
“Honey, we’re home!”
I was startled awake by Danny yelling when he and Steve entered the hotel room; smells of exhaust fumes, fresh fruit, and cannabis followed the brothers in from the street. I rubbed my eyes and cracked my knuckles. Outside the dirty window, the orange, muted sun dropped behind the jagged skyline, which under normal circumstances wouldn’t seem so forbidding, but the risky agenda I’d signed up for had me on the ropes.
“Johnny,” Steve said, and slid the glass dish with three turd-shaped balloons in front of me, “there’s no rush here.” He looked concerned about his new protégé. “When you squat down, your colon will act like a vacuum,” he paused and looked at Danny, “and suck the balloons up.” He got up, patted me on my left shoulder, and said, “Just relax.”
“Yeah, Jon-bird,” Danny chimed in, “easy does it—I’ll be right behind you on the next flight. In 48 hours we’ll be back in L.A. whipping and dipping.”
It was show time.
I picked up the cocaine and stepped into the bathroom. I stepped into Ixtlan. I stepped into a puddle of tart, rancid cat piss, but there were no felines around. I closed the door behind me and my sweaty palms slipped off the doorknob. I hit the light switch. One at a time the fluorescents flickered on. The four walls and floor were covered in white tiles in need of repair; a corner of the sink was chipped and the shower curtain was torn. I set the Pyrex plate on the toilet seat and noticed the limestone-scaled bathtub faucet was leaking a constant drip.
I began humming “Outlaw Man” while I stripped naked. I let my clothing fall on the floor and grabbed the tube of hand lotion from atop the sink. I imagined the label reading: “Burro de Bogotá.”
I grabbed the plate and Nature’s Gate hand cream and placed them on the floor. When I squatted down on my haunches, the cool tiles felt good against the bottoms of my feet. I paused. For a moment I felt like a porcelain mannequin—one false move and my skin could crack like a mishandled Christmas ornament. I imagined my flesh, embarrassingly white, in pieces on the ground.
Nothing foreign had been up my ass since I’d been entered by Cody two years earlier.
It had been another Saturday night at the swinging bisexual’s house off Mulholland. I’d told my parents I was going to the movies with friends and would sleep over at my buddy’s house afterwards. Cody and I were in the living room on the couch—everyone else had left the party. I was seventeen. He was thirty-five. It was the first time we’d ever been alone. It was well after 2 a.m.
“Here, Babe,” Cody said, coaxing me with a 750 mg Tuinal. Joni Mitchell’s album Blue floated down from the speakers in the upstairs alcove. “Take this Rainbow,” he said. Popping sounds from pine cones in the lit fireplace harmonized with the record’s “Coyote” lyrics. “It’ll make you feel reeeaaal good.” He smiled.
I was totally stoned on pot and drunk on Cody’s homemade Sangria. We’d all been smoking and drinking for hours. Lit candles flickered, casting shadows on the walls. The room felt eerie and dangerous, but almost cozy. “Okay,” I said and snatched the barbiturate, then gulped it down with a stale leftover finger of wine.
When the sedative kicked in, we were making out on Cody’s bed.
I’d never been with a man. His tongue was thicker than a girl’s, and except for his chin stubble, he was gentle and tender. Soon he was stroking my cock through my worn Levi corduroys.
By the time the pill fully kicked in, our clothes were on the floor. I just lay there stoned, numb, and dumb. I hadn’t been that loaded since the time I was injected by the anesthesiologist for nose surgery. Dr. Feelgood told me to count backwards from 100 to one. At 99 I was floating in the backless, paper-thin gown, six inches off the cold gurney.
“Just relax, Babe.” Cody put a hand on my thigh and turned me over on my stomach. I was too blotto to resist, ask what he was doing, or have an opinion one way or the other—instead, I started counting: 99, 98, 97. I turned my face to the right and remembered seeing street lights through his bedroom window. They were hazy and blurred, like after a rain.
“You okay, Babe?” Cody asked. Leon Russell began crooning “Roll Me in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” on the Bell & Howell reel-to-reel in the other room. I turned my face to the left and noticed a naked ceramic figurine of a man on the nightstand. The ten-inch tchotchke was sticking its stiff penis into a small sphere painted like the Earth. On the base, written in goofy letters, was “Be Happy, Fuck the World.”
I wanted to say, “Take me home,” but needed his approval, so instead muttered, “uh huh,” and kept counting: 96, 95, 94.
At 93, Cody picked up something next to the statue. I turned around and watched him squeeze a dollop of goo from a silvery tube onto his left index finger. I put my head back on the pillow and lay still like a clubbed seal. Around 90, his finger felt good. At 87 he entered me. First I whimpered, and then I cried. The tenderness was gone, but I kept counting as if each number would render everything painless. By 75, I felt a trickle roll down my thigh, 74, 73, 72. Soon I lost track of the numbers. I woke the next morning, daylight streaming through the windows.
“How’s it going in there?” Steve yelled from the other side of the locked door.
“I’m working on it,” I yelled back and noticed a trail of ants marching from a crack in the crumbling plaster wall to the wastebasket beneath the sink. They trooped with purpose. They trooped with order. They trooped with diligence. I should have been inspired but felt mocked. I realized it was time to buck up and unscrewed the top from the bottle of hand cream. I squeezed a generous amount into my left palm. I grabbed the first balloon and began rolling it around in the lotion. I flashed back to when I was a kid during Passover. Mom would drop me off at my Bubbie’s to help with the gefilte fish balls. Ten years later there I was, on a cold floor of a cheap Bogotá hotel room, with three balloons of cocaine that looked like those damn fish balls.
I lubricated myself, and with the palm of my right hand, I eased the first twenty-three-gram consignment up, a quarter-inch at a time. It’s called “shoving,” but no way was I going to ram it in. Nice and easy, I thought, two more to go. Beads of sweat fell from my forehead onto the floor. I began counting again: 98, 97, 96.
Looking back, that’s how I lived my life—counting numbers down from a hundred, never giving a second thought to where I might land when I hit zero.
Packing the second balloon was easier. The third slid in like butter. I had to lie down on my side. I felt like the Goodyear Blimp entangled in high-tension electrical wires. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn the first balloon was tickling my tonsils.
Steve yelled from the other side of the door, “How you doing in there?”
I thought: How am I doing? Hell, how am I going to get up? Get dressed? How am I going to get in and out of a cab, and walk to the ticket counter, and get on a plane without crapping those fish balls down my pants?
“Like a harpooned whale,” I yelled and then reached over to the toilet and grabbed a length of paper. “Sinking fast.” I wiped and flushed. “But I’m finished.”
“You okay?” Steve yelled again.
“Yeah.” My eyes fixated on the cracked bathroom tiles. Some were missing grout, but at least they were clean. I tried to remember how all this made sense four months prior when Danny and I first met at the health food store, but I couldn’t. “I just need a couple of minutes to get myself together,” I yelled back.
I began dressing a millimeter at a time as though three quarters of my body was covered in fresh, third-degree burns. I clipped on my necktie and scanned the commode to make sure I had everything, but I avoided looking in the mirror.
I grabbed the door handle, then froze.
Maybe I could get my stock clerk job back at Quinn’s.
I wanted to turn around, hide in the bathtub, and close the torn, mildewed shower curtain. I wanted Lori to hold me and tell me it was going to be okay. But it was too late. I’d signed on the dotted line. I was in like Flynn.
I opened the door and entered the room like I had a Louisville Slugger up my butt. I leaned against the veneer bureau and double-checked my passport and the money in my jacket breast pocket.
Unwittingly, I’d entered a pact with dark forces. I was no longer a civilian and would die a loner with nobody attending my funeral.
“Okay, you guys,” I said, choking back tears, “I guess this is it.”
We all hugged, and I remembered Mom and Dad embracing my sister when she finally went off to college.
“Cab’s waiting.” Steve grabbed the worn leather suitcase I’d borrowed. “Let’s go,” he said, “I’ll walk you down.”
I lumbered down the four flights of stairs behind Steve. We walked through the lobby, outside, and straight to the curb. The driver was waiting behind the wheel and the car was idling. Steve gave me one last embrace.
“A donde vas?” the cabby asked.
“Aeropuerto, por favor.” I looked over at the laminated driver information placard. The driver’s name was Ignacio Jimenez.
“Si Señor,” he said and pulled away from the curb. We entered a rush-hour river of traffic. I laid horizontal on the back seat and looked at Ignacio in the rearview mirror. His long, manicured mustache made me feel safe and I dozed off.
I woke to a blowing whistle trilling between my ears and a sputtering air compressor. Men inserted time cards in a time clock. Bench presses folded stock. Stamping machines pressed parts. Milling machines cut holes and forklifts moved the whole kit and caboodle from here to there. But I kept my eyes shut. I needed to disappear. I needed to be magically transported to my Hollywood apartment. I needed to start over.
I should have been frightened of getting caught but, instead, was consumed with what people thought of me and worried about not pleasing Dad or Cos. I was scared of men, and scared I’d never be one.
Ignacio’s eyes and mine met in the rearview mirror. “Estamos aqui, Señor,” he said. “Aeropuerto El Dorado International.” The car came to a slow stop. Rain was falling on the windshield, and the wipers squeaked back and forth.
“Señor,” Ignacio asked, “que aerolinas tu quieras?”
“Avianca,” I replied, “por favor.”
We pulled up another one hundred yards and parked underneath a canopy. I was relieved the ride was over, but then, out of nowhere, a mob of protestors appeared in the loading zone, yelling, pushing, and baiting police outfitted with plastic shields and batons. Some were waving cardboard signs denouncing El Presidente López Michelsen’s cuts in working-class social benefits and wages.
Ignacio got out of the cab and opened the trunk as though the nearby commotion was routine. The police pushed back the demonstrators. But I waited.
“Señor, todo tranquillo.” Ignacio assured me it was safe.
I got out. The rain started to come down harder. The darkening sky bled a thin line of dankness over the mountainous horizon.
Ignacio placed my bag on the curb. “Eso será dos cien y cincuenta pesos, por favor,” he said.
I paid the fare, tipped, and picked up my scuffed bag.
I began my hundred-mile pilgrimage from the sidewalk through billows of cigarette smoke, Gucci-toting women, and a hodgepodge of airport chaos to the luggage check. The seventy grams of stowaway freight cramped my style, and I couldn’t put it into words, but I felt like a child castaway—bobbing and peeling apart. And by the way, who imported the Hare Krishnas? Their dancing saffron saris were making me landlocked seasick.
At last I was in line at the counter, two people from the front.
I rested my suitcase on the linoleum floor and scooted it in front of me with the toe of my right shoe. I felt the balloons move, but kept what little cool I had.
“Proximo!” the counter agent called out.
“Hola.” I handed her my ticket and passport.
Even though she answered with a scowl, her brown hair tied up in a bun and the broach that hung from her neck reminded me of Aunt Bee. She keyed in my passport number on some device, paused, and picked up the phone. I couldn’t make out a word of her staccato Spanish.
Is she onto me?
My passport was within arm’s length. I stood frozen, eyes glued to my ID.
Should I grab it and run?
She returned my identification and boarding pass. “El apuro, su vuelo sale pronto.” She warned me to get a move on. The plane was boarding soon.
I felt victorious having avoided handcuffs and walked down the hall from the gate towards the plane.
I began rehearsing Steve’s instructions in my head: Once the plane reaches cruising altitude, go to the john to shit out the dope. The balloons had been in me for over an hour and I felt as though I was going to burst.
“Bienvenidos,” a flight attendant said, welcoming me aboard; several others milled around. I wanted them to like me, to sense I was a big-time operator, to find me attractive, but I looked like I was fourteen. I continued down the Boeing aisle to my seat, 24C. A couple was already seated in the middle and window seats.
“Buenos noches.” I offered the obligatory greeting. They looked like Colombian nationals on holiday. Both were dressed in designer jeans. He was wearing a green Polo shirt and a blue sports coat. She had on a silk blouse and sweater. Each wore shiny leather loafers with tassels, and and were totally oblivious to the fact that Joe Gringo was muling a stash of Lady Snow. “Como estan ustedes?” I sat down and pretended to be respectable.
“Bien, gracias,” the woman answered and continued flipping the pages of a Time magazine. She looked bored and closed the periodical. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford were on the cover. The caption read: Watergate on Film. Less than two years ago, I was a high school senior and the Watergate scandal was coming to a head. When our government teacher, Mr. De Rigi, asked the class if Nixon should resign, I stood up, with shoulder-length hair, holey Levi’s, tie-dyed T-shirt, completely stoned off my ass, and bellowed, “RESIGN? HE SHOULD BE SHOT!”
“E tu, joven?” she asked.
“Estoy bien, gracias.” I grabbed the airline’s in-flight magazine from the seat pouch in front of me, buried my face in the paper foxhole, and worried: What am I gonna tell Lori tomorrow? How pissed is she gonna be when I sell the coke and leave again? Will she make a big scene?
A flight attendant rolled up with a drink cart. “Quieras bebida?” She asked if I wanted a drink.
Clammy palms. Gotta pee. Butterflies. Torn shoelaces. Busted lederhosen. Sweaty underarms. The fiber optic piano strings connecting my brain to my vocal chords were corroding like tin in salt water. All I could think was if this plane didn’t get off the ground soon I was gonna bust at the seams, and amigo, if I was lying, I’d be dying.
I glanced at the bottles of booze and beer and said, “Nada ahorita,” then remembered Steve’s warnings: “If you get nervous, just ride it out, everything will be fine.” The ace was in the hole, the ace was in the hole, the ace was in the hole—that was my mantra. He instructed me to wait until they announced we could move about the plane. Then I could do my cargo drop.
The PA system came to life: “Por favor, todas azafatas sieta te ahorita,” and then in English, “Please secure your seatbelts; we are cleared for takeoff.”
In a matter of seconds, the loud jet turbines were almost enough to drown out the stamp-and-die factory noise above my neck. At 160 knots, the bird was hauling ass, its nose pointing at a forty-five-degree angle.
Mother H., there was hope.
Clouds illuminated by the flashing signal wing lights engulfed the window.
Then a porthole broke through the soupy mist—my eyes locked on a crescent moon looming in the infinite black sky.
There were no other compasses.
Jon Epstein’s work can be found in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, The Coachella Review, Poeticdiversity, Foliate Oak, Forge Journal, Sanskrit, Pilcrow & Dagger, and Poetry Super Highway. He is also a member of The Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective. He’s an emerging writer and a fine artist—as well as a father, entrepreneur, musician, surfer, and sober recovering alcoholic of thirty-one years. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife of thirty years.