All dolled up. Back at it in high heeled boots and a body con dress. Swiveling on my bar stool as an act of restlessness. Squeezing my lime into my gin and tonic and stirring it with my finger because I guess they don’t give out straws around these parts anymore. I lick the gin off my finger and eye around the bar. Back on the clock.
The bartender nods at me knowingly as he picks up his tip. He knows me, somewhat. We never really talk, but we don’t need to. He knows better than that. He’s a good bartender that way. He sees them come and go, and he watches me down my drinks and tip more than twenty percent. It’s why I like this bar: these tacit nods of discretion. Nobody ever pries. Everybody knows the keep to themselves – getting entangled in someone else’s business is rarely worth the price you pay, unless, of course, you’re willing to pay the price. We’re not here to socialize. We’re here to drink in public alone.
I can always tell a mark by the way he walks into the bar. I guess that’s the thing about this bar – it’s not for them, it’s for us. And they’re not used to it, not quite yet, at least not when they’re fresh. I guess I know this innately on some level. It’s part of the marketing scheme. It’s part of the charm. It’s part of the gateway into another realm. The realm of flesh, which is starkly different from whatever realm they’re coming from. Usually some nice home in the Berkeley flat lands so that their kids can get a good education. The office, where they get tipsy with their colleagues and make the money that they blow here. Some sort of social scenario that sees them as men of means and dignity, not marks who blow money on hookers.
He walks in with a glimmer of awe in his eyes. Awe and fear. Awe because here he is, he has finally found himself at this place he had always heard of but never dared venture to. He has been invited here, and it’s the awe of suddenly belonging in a seedy place like this. This place is different. Which is why there’s the fear – the fear of getting caught. But we all already know that the fear of getting caught is part of the thrill. It’s the adrenaline rush. It’s why they’re here and not back at home doing the same thing they always do, which is never challenging and never new. This is new. This is challenging.
The problem with marks is that they talk too much. Which I guess is what makes them marks. They’re easy to spot, they’re easy to read, they’re easy to milk. Come on, baby, tell me more about yourself. I rarely find myself in the mood for it, which is why I don’t do it anymore. Someone else does it, and I just facilitate the meet up.
This mark is familiar. He’s been here before. He’s done this before. But the thrill still hasn’t worn off. He approaches me. He’s too familiar. I can see in his eyes that he wants to hug me – I’m not sure why. Is he too comfortable? Or is this just a mixture of nervousness and familiarity? Or is he really that dumb? Instead, he leans in, touches me on the arm, says hello, says my “name.”
“Don’t touch me,” I warn him. They love it when you treat them like that. Men with power know nothing about other people’s boundaries. Again, the fear, the awe. He looks peeved, and he responds peevishly, but that’s fine. Am I in the business of customer service? Well, yes, in a way, I am, but the service is tailored to the customers, and they would keep spending even if I spit in their faces. Some would pay extra for it, even.
We do our trade. Cash for keys.
“This one better be good. Last time sucked,” he snaps at me.
I roll my eyes. Even after years of having done it myself, I still love it when my girls tell me about their marks. Oh, the crying. The little dicks. The mommy issues. The begging. The seventeen seconds in heaven. All of it. All these Mr. Tough Guys, reduced to rubble by one clean shaven pussy. Amazing.
She didn’t suck. It’s the same thing every time – he nuts too quickly, then tries to make her stay longer for free while he waits for that little blue pill to work its magic. I can’t imagine how many of those he has to pop nowadays just to get it working, and I’m not medical professional, but, heart problems much?
I let him rant a bit at me about it. After which I wave him off. Customer service. I’m in customer service. I have to listen to him complain so that by the time he gets to her, it’s not her problem anymore. It’s an act of protection. I appease him. And everything’s okay.
I sidle from bar to bar. Doing the same thing over and over again. Another one. And another one. Not too many. Not so many that it’s suspicious. But enough to keep it going. Enough to keep me busy. Enough to get me drunk. Enough to entertain me. Until it’s time for my girls to come back to me, and back to the home stretch.
I close my tab at the bar. Time to hit the final stop before last call. It’s warm out because I’m drunk enough. Walking along the waterfront, which glistens under the moon. Me? I’m almost floating across the pavement past each different bar, each one with its own charm and its own worth. People are still out.
One of them, a man, crosses my path.
“Nice dress,” he says in passing.
I barely look up, but even while drunk in my peripheral vision, I know: jeans and a t-shirt and sandals? The fucking gall.
“You’re dressed like shit,” I offer back. Hey, it’s open season to comment on people’s clothing, it’s open season and I abide by that rule.
I can see him tense up, unsure of what to do.
“Fucking bitch!” he shouts as he continues to walk away. Continue to walk away. I laugh without looking back because, well, I bet you don’t know what’s in my purse either. Do you? Here, let me show you. It’s small, it’s fully loaded, and yes I know how to shoot it, and I know I’m not afraid do it. This is Oakland, baby, so, no it’s not in my name, and yes I can get away with shooting him. Nobody gonna snitch on me. Not on me. They know better than that.
So into the last bar I go, and there she is, glowing underneath the dim lights. After everything that might of happened and probably did happen tonight, and there she is, make up still right, ass looking tight, pretty just for me with some money in her hand. I could eat her whole.
“Hey, Mama, how you doing,” she says, embracing me gently as I stride up to her. She hands me the money first thing and asks, “You been drinking? You cool?”
I smile. Yes, I’ve been drinking, and you know it.
“Yup, I’m cool, lovely. How was it.”
She unloads her evening into my ear. I take it willingly. Not because I’m in the business of customer service. But because this is an act of motherhood. This is nurturing. This is tenderness. Her sitting there, jangling around in her jewelry, still twacked off coke, and desperately in need of a drink. I buy her some Hennessy and lean in close with my hand on her thigh while I let her ramble on. Another funny story, another day at work. I know everything she has ever said, and I know everything that she will say. Because I know her. I was her at one point, and now I’m me, but I’m also still her.
I bump her up and let her go. That’s some high quality shit right there. Which is why I treat her nice and pay her well.
I leave slightly after she does, with no place in particular to go to. Just the water right there, and me with my cigarette in the cold of night. This is fine as I float off into the ether, my feet a few inches above the ground. I am light. I am ethereal.
“Hey.” The voice of a man in the dark.
I drop back down to ground and turn around with my hand in my purse, but it’s him. The dealer.
“Hey,” I reply, a bit bemused by his presence. He’s there, by his bike, helmet still on. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to say to each other.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. A question. It’s uncharacteristic.
“I assume the same as you. Working.”
I smile and nod. Oh, god, the alcohol. It occurs to me that I’ve never seen him like this: outside of the apartment. In the real world. We criminals hide in dark corners and don’t like to bump into each other. It’s part of the game.
“I think I’m done for the night,” I say.
“I can tell.” I’m not sure if it’s jab, but I smile regardless, bright white teeth sparkling out in the dark.
“You gonna offer me a ride home or what?” I ask, feeling forward, as I motion to the bike.
“Of course. Hop on.”
It’s strange to touch him. It’s strange to touch him at all, much less press my body against his and wrap myself around him. I don’t think I’ve ever touched him before, not even when I met him to shake his hand. And it’s strange to think about meeting him, to realize that he isn’t just static in my life. That I met him, and maybe now I know him, and here I am as the city whizzes by, and us together, on the back of this bike. I can’t even recall immediately how I met him – it was probably a couple partners ago, before I went solo, when I was still young. I almost feel a flush of embarrassment just thinking that he knew me back then, back when I was still green in the game. I remind myself: that was ages ago, and look at you now, baby girl. Just like I tell my girls when I get them out of the same game I was in back then. Look at us now. We’re better now.
Look at him, now, too. He was probably different when I met him, but I can’t remember, because I simply don’t like to remember. Memories are a fool’s game, but I’m here to win. So I don’t think about who we used to be, because then I might start thinking about who we might become, and all I know is that I’m okay with right now. Which is all I can really ask for, because right now is all I have. The future? I’d like to think it belongs to me, but who knows. It could belong to someone else. I’m not in the mood to speculate.
Where was he all day? What has he been doing since I last saw him? Pulling around town on his motorcycle, attending to the errands that are probably otherwise beneath him, but it’s a hustle isn’t it? Responding to the beck and call of incoming text messages from his junkies in training. It’s customer service, too, and time is of the essence when there’s an itch to scratch. I can just see him, gritting through the clenched teeth and blabbering of eager customers who of course talk too much, which is why when he sees me we don’t have to say a word. It’s our moment of calm together, beyond the outside world of junkies and johns with hearts spilling out of their mouths.
He had started his day like any other day – late. It’s an occupational hazard, not just because of the late night drug runs but also because he has to test the product. He likes to test the product. It’s part of the job. And it’s the only job he has, which is why he does what he does. There’s no boss to tell him he’s late, there’s no docked pay or missed holidays. Just the push and pull of the knocks and their whims and the constant back and forth with the plug. Starting his day late is just another perk of the job. Nobody’s slanging at 9 am.
He had started his day alone again because by 4 am last night the girl he had invited over to fuck was getting annoying on coke. He had called her a cab home after that mediocre blow job just for his own peace of mind – the idea of having to put her to sleep and wake up next to her had no appeal because he was starting to realize that she (and all the other ones) were just knocks to fuck. Perhaps the only difference between the girls who came and went intermittently was the false sense of intimacy that the exchange of sex for free blow and the ensuing moments of comfortable conversation afforded them. Better to wake up alone than fall too far into the ruse.
So, first things first. Flip on the TV. Cigarette. Any text messages coming in. Coffee. Shake off that headache that had become commonplace after all these years. Where to go now. A loving look at that cash. Is it all adding up. Scrolling through ass pics on Tinder. Is it getting dark already or is it just starting to brighten up. Meet this person there and with how much. Hop in the car. Go.
He worked alone for the same reason that he liked to wake up alone. It’s easier to get shit done when you don’t have to worry about someone else lying to you. Sure, there were things about being alone that made it more dangerous, but he tried not to think about things like that. He thought about as a job. Just like any other job. A sales and distribution job. A customer service job. As he drove out to Richmond with a blunt in his mouth, he told himself that this was the exact same skill set as selling insurance or being a bartender or freelance journalism – it’s all just sales, drugs just happens to fall outside of society’s arbitration of legality and also taxation. Which was fine by him. He figured that eventually these very useful job skills of distribution management and direct sales would translate into one of those other careers. Eventually. He wasn’t sure when eventually would be come soon and when soon would become now. Probably not for a while. He didn’t worry about it. Instead he just put in the part of his mind that worried about the future like some sort of guarantee that he didn’t think about too much lest it fall apart.
The pick ups and drop offs were never the same. Any sort of regularity in the cast of characters, their moods and their timing would rob the trade of what outsiders would consider the romance of the whole operation but that was in reality just the punishing side effect of fear. Being the middle man for anything required a panache when dealing with both the junkies and the higher ups on the food chain. Keeping things cool with the plug was its own special type of chore. What is it today. How will it go today. Calm and smooth? Quick and over? Hopefully? Or a deep dive into someone else’s paranoia? Would he have to prove his loyalty, yet again? He always tried to keep it quick, keep it short. Stay out of everyone else’s business. Keep his head low. As a rule of thumb he never did business with meth heads, but some things can’t be avoided.
Then back home. Cuttin up. Packin pills. He’d usually call that one girl whom he knew from the raves because she seemed happy enough to sit in her underwear, smoke cigarettes, fuck a little and do the tedious part of the work in exchange for a few caps. He liked her because she knew what the jig was and never expected more than exactly what it was. He figured she liked the thrill of it but knew that anything more thrilling than that was more than she could handle. She didn’t ask questions. She didn’t talk too much. She left when she was done and never tried to linger.
Just in time to set up the runs. Meet this person there with that much, then another, then another. Zipping from place to place to place on his motorcycle. Never staying too long in one place. Always keeping an eye on the police, who never knew to keep an eye on him, but were always sniffing around the periphery of the places where they knew people like him frequented. They were an empty threat, but a threat nonetheless.
The knocks were annoying as usual, but he had a certain fondness for them. He wasn’t quite sure if it was just an overly sentimentalized fondness for money or if there was something subtly endearing about the high strung tech bros waiting conspicuously in front of Make Westing with some body con bimbo by his side looking way too fiendish for Make Westing. Or the guys at the strip club with their bottle service trying to drag him in for a lap dance as though that would make the molly cheaper. It didn’t, but there was something heart warming about the almost imperceptible nod the strippers gave him as he politely declined. Ah, the camaraderie of the mutual hustle. Then there were the girls at the raves who were way too loud about buying drugs, which always struck him as odd because there was something cute about women buying drugs – like it was their progressive way of saying, “We buy our own drugs! We’re not going to flirt with the creepy dude for free drugs!” Even though half the time he wound up letting them come back to his place for exactly that.
It was after a full day of all of that he found himself done for the day. His last stop was at the Waterfront Hotel, where he had just witnessed yet another sordid yet somehow tepid scene involving a man with too much money and the women who vehemently practiced the art of the of his redistribution of wealth in exchange for sex. He hadn’t been down there for a while. He had forgotten that the waterfront at night was a moment of serene, something he hadn’t felt all day. It was cinematic, even, and he felt himself getting sentimental – a feeling he hadn’t felt in a long time because there are some feelings that drugs just can’t replicate. So might as well celebrate with a bump of blow. As it hit his senses, the scene illuminated yet again, and that’s when saw me, sitting on the bench, all alone, in our moment of sudden serendipity. He smiled.
We ride together over to the spot. I guess this is how well we know each other: he doesn’t know that I don’t live here. But I’ll sleep here tonight. That’s fine.
“Goodnight,” I say. He peels off without a word.
Inside, with the light on, and the first thing I can think to do is dump the contents of my purse onto the table. The loud clack of the gun, the soft roll of money. I am gleeful. Indeed, it was a good night, even though it’s almost morning.
He, on the other hand, has more shit to do. Nights are rarely the end of the day for him, just punctuation. He revved up the motorcycle, slid down the street and into the darkness. The incoming text messages had stopped lighting up his phone, which spelled out a brief moment of respite. The end of the work day, the beginning of some time to himself. Time to do things like buy groceries and other office supplies. He pulled up to the 24 hour Safeway with its dusty veneer and welcoming neon lights. 3 am was a great time to go grocery shopping – the store felt abandoned but still stocked with bright things to buy, with both the fellow patrons and the employees exuding a comforting night crawler milieu. 3 am was for the goons and the loonies and other haphazard people like himself. No one made eye contact. No one made small chat.
He meandered down the aisles casually. He enjoyed it – he could relish feeling normal for a few moments. He carefully picked out his brown sugar, his bananas, his bottle of Hennessy, the 24 pack of bottled water, the two ply toilet paper. You know, all the essentials. He breezed into the one line that was open, behind all the late night stragglers and the dead eyed cashier. It was pleasant.
“Hey! Hey, I know you!”
He froze. No, not him. Not at this hour. He tried not to turn around, but as everyone in front of him gave the same sour faced glare at the loud, obviously drunk man disrupting the calm of the 3 am grocery store, he couldn’t help himself.
“Hey, remember me? Lenny, from Berkeley High?” The man was clearly drunk and talking to him.
“Yeah, we went to Berkeley High together! Class of ’08! Ah, man, how ya been.” Yeah. They had gone to Berkeley High together. Ages ago. He recognized the drunk man as someone he had tried to forget years ago. Someone he had never hoped to run into again. Someone to whom he had nothing to say.
“Good, just grocery shopping.” He eyed the line. The dead eyed cashier as moving at a snail’s pace as usual. All the other patrons had curled up inside themselves, not envious of the loudness and the drunkenness that he was putting up with.
“Oh, man, it’s been so long! What have you been up to?”
“Dang, so, like, how’s your brother been? Man, he was the coolest! Ah, I remember him, we all, like, wanted to be him.”
“He’s still in prison.”
The loud man’s face fell. This is just the doldrums of tepid human interaction. He knew it as he watched the line ahead of him inch ahead. How much more of this would he have to endure.
“Well, how about you, what are you up to? I remember you were so good in art class! You ever make it to art school? I loved those comics you always drew.”
“No. No art school for me. Just working.”
“Ah, I feel it. You married yet? Kids?”
What’s with all the prying? Is this guy with the feds or some shit. “No.”
“Lucky you, man. Me – I got married a couple years ago. Two kids! Two! In this economy. Sure, I love ’em, they’re my pride and joy, but, man, that’s probably why you look so good. No kids. No wife. Doing whatever you want.”
“Man, we should grab a drink one of these days. Relive those high school years. Man. That was a great time.”
The checker finally grabbed his stuff, started scanning it through.
“Hah, you forgot to grab condoms! You gotta be careful, don’t wanna be like me! Anyways, what’s your number? Drinks on me. I got this plush job with Google, they’re paying me, like, way too much money, so, you know. I got you.”
“Here, just type it in.”
He grabbed the phone as it was being pushed into his hands. Trapped. He typed in a random number, any random numbers after the 510 area code.
“Okay, cool, I’m calling you right now! Are you getting it? Where’s your phone?”
“I left it in the car…”
“Then what’s the motorcycle helmet for?”
He dashed out without answering. Jesus Christ. What kind of hell was that. How the fuck did that just happened. The only solution was to go back to his apartment, away from all of this.
When he opened the door, the TV was still on. He set down the groceries and heard a groan from the couch.
“Mom, hey,” he said. She had passed out on the couch again. He flipped on the light, shedding light on the empty beer cans strewn on the table.
“Mijo…” she mumbled. He rushed over to the couch to help her sit up.
“Let me get you to bed.” He hoisted her up, walked her down the hall.
“Mijo, que estas haciendo,” she mumbled. She was drunk. Which wasn’t unexpected.
“I thought you were staying at your boyfriend’s tonight.” His mother waved her hand in disdain, barely slurring out words. “Here, go to bed. I’ll bring you some water.”
He tucked her in and went to sit at the couch. He cleared the beer cans off the table. Set up his work. There was still more to do before he could call it day. This shit never ends.