BY JOSHUA MOHR
In the late ’90s, I worked at a French restaurant on Valencia Street that’s since turned over half dozen times, and after one shift or another, a bunch of us stayed to sit in the basement, drinking beers and blowing rails. This happened at least once a month, sticking around from midnight to six or seven in the morning, staggering out into the sunshine with our stampeding cocaine hangovers, pulling these tiny pellet-scabs from our noses that looked like watermelon seeds.
There was a revolving crew who participated in these all-nighters, but a few of us had perfect attendance: a busboy named Angel who sold the drugs, the executive chef, and another guy who tended bar with me, Shamus.
On this night, Angel brought along his cousin, who we were informed before he got there was Angel’s supplier. He was coming to give away some product, say thanks for all the grams we’d been buying. His coke was good and we were all excited to meet him, in the name of hitting it off and our newfound camaraderie leading to future price breaks on bindles. Of course, it never worked that way, but we held out hope, if that word makes any sense in this context.
There were eight of us, give or take, crowded in a small basement office. Angel’s cousin shook all our hands upon arriving, a slick-looking Mayan who wore a designer suit while the rest of us sat around in dirty t-shirts, Ben Davis pants, combat boots—a clog of nappy dudes listening to Minor Threat and burning through a case of Shiner.
I can’t remember our guest of honor’s name so let’s call him Javier. He pulled out two cue balls of cocaine. He distributed a few razor blades, and we chipped pieces off these cue balls, rowing them up, until the table looked like a Google Earth shot of a farm, crops lined up straight and immaculate and ripe, ready to feed people’s hungers.
The next few hours we feasted on these crops, time a blur of beers and rips and bad jokes. Shamus blowing his nose into a bar napkin and saying, “There goes twenty bucks!” and all of us sitting in this circle, laughing, even Javier.
We played records by the Misfits, Op Ivy, Fang, Bad Brains, SLF, NoMeansNo, Neurosis, the DKs, and a hundred others. We opened another case of beer. The room was hot boxed by spliffs. A flask of whiskey magically appeared. It was a party and we were happy.
But by four a.m. we were all totaled, too gakked, too bent up to drive ahead, though none of us would admit that. When it was our turn for a new line, we feigned enthusiasm, sucking up another rip and hoping our hearts would keep working.
On Shamus’s next turn, he said, “I’m passing.”
This gave us a gust of energy. “You’re passing?”
“I can’t do anymore.”
“My nose isn’t working.”
“Passing is for suckers.”
“I don’t care what you guys say,” he said, sitting there, folding his arms.
We were teasing, was all. Everything coming from our mouths was in good spirits. Like I said, we were all sideways wasted, but rules were rules and nobody bolted till we’d sucked up everything. That was how this worked.
But if he passed, that meant more for us.
Even if we didn’t want more, we’d do it. That was how this worked, too.
So we’d all got our digs in on Shamus, and now we’d keep the circle going, each of us holding dollars to our noses and doing our lines, Shamus’s lines.
Punk rock still cranking. Cigarettes lit on the butts of others. Still sitting in a circle around that table. The room reeking of body odor. We were ready to keep blowing rips, except here was when Javier barked something at Angel in Spanish.
Angel barked back.
Javier’s face going red.
The chef, a white dude, spoke Spanish, too, and he followed the conversation with his eyes bouncing between them.
Javier rocketing to his feet.
Chair falling over.
Javier barking again.
Javier stomping his foot to accent his words.
Angel, still sitting, hollering back at him.
The chef’s eye popping between them.
Javier screaming at his cousin. Poking him in the shoulder.
Angel averting his eyes to the floor.
Angel whispering something to his cousin.
Javier pacing back and forth.
Javier screaming still.
Us all sitting there. Not even ashing our cigarettes. Not even drinking our beers.
The chef saying to Shamus, “Do the line.”
“I can’t,” said Shamus.
Javier said something else to Angel in Spanish, really calm this time, which made it even worse for us, even creepier, hearing Javier all collected.
Angel said something back. Angel said something that ended with “Por favor,” and we knew what that meant and we didn’t understand how please belonged in this basement.
“Just do the line,” the chef said to Shamus.
“You have to.”
“Sorry,” said Shamus, his arms still crossed.
Javier lost his shit again, pacing and yelling and we just sat there with our rolled-up dollar bills. There might have been music playing at that point. It probably was. But I don’t remember. All I know is in my memory—at this point—the volume on the Spanish conversation cranked louder and louder, Javier walking faster and faster, circling the table, circling all of us, talking to Angel in huffs and screams, and all of these words I didn’t know the meaning of amping until they were the only sound in the world.
“What’s up?” I said to Angel.
He waved me off. Angel and I were friends. We ate menudo and drank Dos Equis together before work sometimes, so when he didn’t answer me I knew we were headed to hell.
“I’ll do his,” I said, pointing at Shamus. “I’ll do it, Javier. Está bien.”
“No!” Javier said.
“Está bien,” I said again.
Mimicking my terrible Spanish accent, he said, “It’s not está fucking bien!”
“I’m not trying to be a dick,” Shamus said to Javier. “I’m wrecked, man.”
That was when the gun came out. One second, none of us knew it was in the room, stowed away in his tailored suit, and soon it was in his hand with an arm extending toward the table. Javier storming over to Shamus and putting it right against his head. Shamus shutting his eyes. Shamus’s shoulders scrunching up. Shamus balling his hands and resting them on the table. Shamus gritting his teeth.
“Holy shit!” we said.
“What the fuck?” we said.
All of us looking at Angel. All of us expecting Angel to do something. But he just stared at his cousin, not saying anything.
Javier holding the gun to Shamus’s temple.
Shamus’s lips moving a bit. Probably praying.
“I give you free bolsa,” Javier said, so calm, “you do it all.”
We knew the word bolsa because that was what Angel called his little plastic bags of coke. Bolsa didn’t feel right for cue balls.
Javier bouncing the gun softly off Shamus’s skin.
“Okay,” Shamus said.
“I’m sorry,” Shamus said.
“I’ll do it,” Shamus said.
The gun grazing his temple. Shamus leaned over and blew his bump. Javier put the gun back in his suit. Simple as that.
He said, “There. Now está bien.”
He righted his chair and sat back down at the table. Smiling, making eye contact with the rest of us. A look like: Let’s go on as if nothing happened. A look like: Continue, friends.
From there, the night became a race, trying to do the drugs as fast as we could so leaving wouldn’t mean a gun to our own heads. If all these lines were in fact crops, we had to eat everything in a hurry before it all went rotten, before everything spoiled.
Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, including Damascus, which The New York Times called “Beat-poet cool.” He’s also written Fight Song and Some Things that Meant the World to Me, one of O Magazine’s Top 10 reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller, as well as Termite Parade, an Editors’ Choice in The New York Times. His novel All This Life recently won the Northern California Book Award. His first book of nonfiction, a memoir called Sirens, is due out January 2017.