“Fucking Simón… late again,” Drew said, looking at his watch. A ticket started to print, errr, errr, errr – burger, mid-rare, side of fries. Drew read the time-stamp on the ticket, “Eleven-oh-two. That fucker.” The restaurant opened at 11:00am. Drew was always pissed at the first ticket of the day, regardless of when it came in.
I reached into the lowboy, unwrapped a half-pound, pre-formed patty from its 38-degree drawer and threw the burger on the grill. “He’ll get here,” I said, “always does.” Drew was at the beginning stages of making our in-house salsa. He had all of the ingredients laid out at the ready, jalapeños, tomatoes, garlic, etc., but he hadn’t actually started anything yet because he kept getting distracted by the sound of his own voice. Drew was a manager, and what he managed to do, mostly, was talk.
“He probably spent the whole night driving around selling that shit to all the fucking amigos,” Drew said. “That’s why he can’t get here on time, man, I swear.”
I grabbed our in-house seasoning (a mix of salt, sugar, and paprika) and doused the patty with enough mix to extinguish a small brush fire. “Whatever, man,” I said. “You know he closes down Vine’s after he gets out of here, and they don’t stop service until midnight.”
The printer errr-ed out another ticket – burger, mid-well w/fries, and two chicken sandwiches w/side salad/ranch – and I hung the ticket on the rail. I opened the low-lowboy, grabbed the pair of tongs that hung on the railing of the oven, plucked two boneless skinless, butterflied chicken breasts from the nine pan, sprayed the grill with a bit of oil, slapped the breasts down onto the fire, kicked the low-low closed, opened the burger drawer, unwrapped a patty and threw it on the grill next to the birds.
“Bullshit, dude,” Drew said. “You don’t know?”
“Know what?” I said, walking over to the fryer and grabbing three handfuls of fries. I dropped the fries into the mesh basket, and then headed back to the grill where I seasoned the three pieces of protein that I’d just laid down. Drew cut the ends off of one Roma tomato – the first of forty sitting in the 12 quart in front of him.
“Man, I’m telling you, Simón sells cocaine, man,” Drew said.
“Dude, fuck yeah he does, man. I’ve seen that shit go down.”
“What do you mean you’ve seen it?”
“Man, I’ve seen that motherfucker talking to some sketchy ass dudes in the parking lot after work. Like, and I know, I know, I just know, because I used to be big into that shit.”
I flipped the first burger and then dropped the basket of fries into the fryer.
“Man, that doesn’t mean shit,” I said.
“Bullshit, man,” Drew said, pointing his knife at me instead of the skin of another tomato. “I’m telling you, that fucker sells cocaine. I promise you.”
“The guy works like 90 hours a week, man, when the fuck would he have the time to sell cocaine?”
I pulled four buns from the stainless steel shelf above the make-line, and built them up with some good-looking LTOPs (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle). The printer made its incessant noise again, errr, errr, errr. Chx Ten/FF/R. I walked down to the freezer at the end of the line and grabbed four pre-made, frozen chicken tenders from the hastily ripped plastic bag that rested on the middle shelf. Walking back towards the fryer, behind Drew, I dropped the tenders into another basket, submerged the basket into the oil, pulled up the basket of fries that I’d had going for tickets one and two, slammed the basket against the backstop of the fryer (forcing that extra oil to spray off the fries), threw them into a bowl, added seasoning, tossed the bowl and fries around, plated the fries for ticket number one, grabbed my spatula, flipped ticket number two, plated number one, topped the burger, grabbed the first ticket, walked back behind Drew, slid the burger into the window, and hit the bell. Ding.
“Look at that car he drives, man,” Drew said. “You can’t tell me that thing doesn’t scream drug money.”
Drew was referring to Simón’s Lexus, sedan.
“I mean, yeah, okay, I’ll give you that much,” I said. The car was sick. It had tints, a system, slick rims, nothing ugly, just slick, proper, and clean.
“See, man,” Drew said. “There’s just some shit that doesn’t add up. And he always looks fucking so high when he gets here man, his eyes are all red, and he’s always sniffing back man. That’s the drip. I used do a lot of that shit, man, and I know when someone’s snorting back a drip. I know that much.”
I plated the fries for order number two, grabbed the three pieces of protein off the grill with the turner, topped the buns, spun together a quick side salad with ranch, hit the bell, tossed the tenders in the bowl, plated the tenders and fries, grabbed a ranch, hit the bell, walked behind Drew, grabbed the two tickets from the rail, walked back behind Drew, threw the tickets in the general direction of the window and hit the bell again.
“I don’t,” I said. “I don’t see it.”
“They’re all into some shit,” Drew said.
“Man, fucking Mexicans!” Drew said.
Simón was Guatemalan, but I didn’t bring it up because it would have fallen on deaf ears.
One of the surly, daytime servers walked up to the window and begrudgingly grabbed the tickets and began plating the plates onto her tray. Daytime servers were always pissed they worked days, because days were slower, and slower meant less money. But, daytime servers were also pissed when they had to work nights, because the restaurant was busy, and when the restaurant was busy they had to work harder. Daytime servers believe in this strange equation that they deserve maximal income with minimal effort. A lot of people around here think they are better than what they’re doing, so they view mild inconveniences as egregious transgressions.
“You forgot a ranch,” she said. She was new. I didn’t remember her name.
“Sorry,” I said, opening the lowboy next to the window and slapping the ramekin of ranch on the counter. Drew was staring at her, his eyes filled with contempt. She walked away, and I started scraping down and seasoning the grill. Drew turned to me.
“What a fucking bitch,” he said. “And dude, don’t fucking apologize to her, man, who the fuck is she? Fucking slut, she probably looks that beat up from all the fucking dick she takes, big fucking hogs too, nailing her around the eyes, fucking her face up.”
Drew started laughing and slapping his own face with limp hands as if they were giant dicks. I oiled up the grill and smiled, he was a complete asshole but also kind of funny in that sick and twisted, hate-filled kind of way.
Maria, the bartender, poked her head into the kitchen and said, “Guys, we just sat two ten tops, two six tops, and the patio just filled up so get ready for it.” This was lunch, on a Thursday.
“Goddamnit!” Drew said, as if this wasn’t the job. “I’m never going to get this fucking salsa done. Where the fuck is Simón?”
“I don’t know, man?” I said. “What do you want, the grill or the fryer?”
“I’ll take the fucking fryer,” he said.
The printer started making its errrs, and it didn’t stop for a while. Life during a rush looks like this 2CB/FF/R, 6CHX/3SS/3FF/6R, 4CT/FF/R, 6CB/86 TOM,ON/FF/R, APP PLATE, CB/SS/R side of CHED “CHEDDARONTO,” but for two hours at a time
I stared at that last ticket and looked at Drew.
“Dude, what the fuck is a Cheddaronto?”
“This ticket,” I said, laughing, holding it up to Drew, “says Cheddaronto.”
Drew turned and yelled, “Maria!”
Maria poked her head into the kitchen. “Yes,” she said.
“What’s the new girls name? Never mind, it doesn’t fucking matter. Get the new girl back here,” Drew said.
“Gina,” Maria said. “Hold on.”
Gina walked into the kitchen, “Yeah,” she said.
“What the fuck is this?” Drew said, pointing at the ticket.
“What?” she said.
“What the fuck is Cheddaronto?” Drew said.
“Oh, I wrote cheddar on tots,” Gina said, “There must not have been enough room or something.”
“Oh my god,” Drew said, yelling. “The next time you have some stupid fucking request, please, just walk back here and tell us, so I don’t have to decipher the fucking ticket like it’s some sort of hieroglyphic pyramid, I’m not Gandalf, alright, I don’t have a fucking wand.”
“Excuse me?” Gina said.
“I’m not a fucking magician,” Drew said. “Do you see a wand in my hand?”
I was praying that she didn’t try to answer that question.
“When you modify something, come back here and let us know exactly what you want, okay, your job isn’t that fucking hard.”
Drew was being pretty harsh on her, which, honestly, was Drew’s style.
“Now go back to your tables,” Drew said.
Gina walked out of the kitchen, clearly frustrated. I would have been too. Drew hung the ticket back on the rail, and he said, “Cheddaronto, I’ll show you a fucking cheddaronto,” grabbing his crotch and smiling. “Seriously, man, you don’t think I will?”
“Please don’t whip your cock out,” I said.
“I’ll do it man,” Drew said, smiling.
I looked at the rail, there were only two tickets hanging. It was the end of the rush, close to one-thirty. I asked Drew if I could go smoke, and he nodded. He was still steamed about the whole “cheddar on tots” thing. I knew he was still steamed, because he hadn’t shut up about how stupid Gina was, and how many dicks she probably sucked every day, since their interaction.
I walked out the back door and lit a cigarette. Took a couple of drags. It was quiet out back, and the breeze felt fresh compared to the salty, hot air of the kitchen. I watched Simón turn into the lot in his black Lexus. Simón had the windows down and was bumping some Spanish crooner music that featured a heavy dose of tuba. I leaned against the building, nodding my head at Simón as he parked his car in the space directly in front of me. He left the car running and got out.
“Que onda, Guey?” he said.
“Nada amigo,” I said. “Tranquilo.”
Simon had this piece of toilet paper sticking out of his left nostril.
“What’s up con eso?” I said, pointing at his nose.
“No sé,” he said. “Fucking bullshit.” Simón pronounced bullshit like, boo-chit.
“Is Drew mad?”
“Yeah amigo,” I said. “Cuidado.”
“Okay,” he said, sticking his fist out.
I bumped Simón’s fist, and he walked inside. I took a drag off my smoke and looked around the parking lot. Simón’s car was definitely the nicest. I didn’t have a car, but if I did I’d want it to look like Simón’s. A few minutes passed. They were good quiet minutes. The chaotic churn of service was the yardstick by which life in this kitchen was measured, and moments of peace were found out back, in the parking lot, in the inches that spanned the length of one cigarette.
Simón came back outside as I was finishing my smoke.
“Fucking bullshit,” he said.
“Seriosa?” I said.
“Damn, amigo,” I said. “Lo ciento.”
Simón shrugged his shoulders, and then his phone began to ring. He took the phone out of his pocket and said, “Hola.” He looked at me, “Si, a, one second, please.” He held the phone out for me to take, and he said, “Please, hablas. Por fa.”
“Who is it?” I said.
I took the phone and said, “Hello.” The voice on the other end said, “Hello, I’m calling from Doctor Snyder’s office, and I’m trying to confirm an appointment today for Simón Nuñez.”
“One second,” I said, pulling the phone away from my mouth. “Ellos quieren confirmar your appointment para…”
I put the phone back to my ear. “When’s the appointment for?” I asked.
“Mr. Nuñez has an appointment for 4:00pm, today.”
“Para las quatro, hoy,” I said to Simón.
“Si, necessito cambiar,” he said.
“Hi there,” I said.
“Mr. Nuñez is wondering if he can reschedule his appointment today, for…” I looked at Simón, “Quando?”
“Oh, no importa. Dos semanas. Tres.”
“If he could reschedule for two or three weeks from today,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “Does the 17th work?”
“El dies y siete?” I asked Simón.
“Si, esta bien,” he said.
“That will work just fine,” I said.
“Okay, thank you,” She said. “Tell Mr. Nuñez that we’ll see him on the 17th at 4:00pm.”
I handed the phone back to Simón.
“Thank you, Guey,” he said.
“Yeah, man. Sin problema.”
“I already cancellar, like, tres otro veces, three other times.”
“Oh yeah?” I said.
“Si,” Simón said. “No quiero que ellos piensen que estoy parjero.”
“They wouldn’t think you’re a liar,” I said. “People cancel that shit all the time, no big deal.”
“Okay, Guey,” Simón said, getting back into his car. “Thank you.”
“Si, amigo,” I said. “Sin problema… why couldn’t you go?”
“Fucking ir al otro trabajo, very busy tonight, mucha gente.”
“Okay, amigo,” I said. “Maybe I’ll see you later. Give me a call or texto.”
“See you,” Simón said.
He pulled the car out of the spot, turned his music up, and sped out of the parking lot. I walked back inside. There were no tickets hanging from the rail, I opened the lowboy below the grill and took a look at the depleted ranks of uncooked meat.
“You fired him?” I said.
“Had to, man,” Drew said. “Did you see him? Fucker’s nose was all bloody probably from snorting fucking lines all night. Can’t do that shit and then show up three hours late and expect not to get fired.”
“True,” I said. “I’m gonna stock some stuff up.”
“Okay,” he said.
I closed the lowboy, and as I passed Drew on my way to the walk-in, I saw him cutting the ends off of his second tomato.
Around 4:00pm, the guys working the dinner shift started trickling into the kitchen. They made themselves some food, darted out of the kitchen to eat a quick meal, and then reappeared fifteen minutes later smelling like a combination of red bull, weed, and cigarettes. I told them that Drew had been in the office meeting with the owners for about two hours, and that he’d fill them in on the night when he came back. I told them he fired Simón.
“Balls,” Nick said, “That means one of us is going to have to start working more fucking mornings.”
Geoff and Mickey mumbled something to show solidarity with Nick’s disapproval of the possibility of more early shifts. I told them to have a good shift, and, almost in unison, they told me to go fuck myself.
After clocking out, I started drinking at the bar. Shot and a beer. Shot and a beer. I’ve always preferred establishments that pay you to work, and then, when you’re off the clock, let you give back the money you just earned. Day shifts that turn into a seven-hour drinking session have the tendency to make me feel like I’m winning, losing, and breaking even at the same time. I blew through my day’s pay with a determined zeal. Losing. Gina, the cute enough new server, grabbed a seat next to me and started pounding margaritas. Winning. Shift beers turned into an open tab with Gina, who, unsurprisingly, looked much more attractive as the afternoon turned into the evening, and surface-level pleasantries flowed into conversation whose tributaries were fed by a shared desire to establish a connection, quickly. Breaking even.
Sometime after ten while Gina and I were out back smoking, one thing led to another, and we wound up in her car and then she blew me in the parking lot. I was too drunk to focus on her, admire her technique, so I just leaned back in the worn, black leather seat of her Jeep and stared off across the lot, at the cars, the restaurant, and the moonless night sky. Her head bobbed up and down, in and out of my peripheral. Her hand felt cold against my penis, and I wondered how heavily she smoked and if she suffered from poor circulation. The parking lot was dark, and I could barely make out the smoke bellowing up from the hood vents that jutted up from the roof of the building, above the kitchen. I wondered how the night guys had handled service. I grabbed Gina’s hair and felt the wave of elation mutilate my senses for exactly three seconds – a moment of clarity in the midst of a boozy wash. She swallowed, wiped the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand, and then told me she thought I was cute. I laughed and asked her if she told that to all the guys? She smiled like a cat that’d just caught a sparrow and said, “Maybe.”
A Tribe Called Quest was playing on her stereo, and we smoked a couple of cigarettes and talked. She seemed like a good girl, maybe too good. She was in school, had a dog, and talked about her future with an ease and certainty that made me shift uncomfortably in my stupor – as if honesty and self-reflection made me recoil. I heard my sister’s voice on the phone, “Of course she seemed cool to you, she bought you drinks and blew you in the parking lot while you guys listened to hip-hop.” I wondered if that made me shallow and obvious, and then I forgot about it. She gave me her number and said goodnight. As I walked across the lot to the bar, I heard the hesitant revving of an engine as Gina drunkenly pulled out of her parking space and made her way to the street. I glanced over my shoulder as she hung a right out of the lot, heading, I imagined, home. Another conquest that was sure to lead nowhere and mean nothing, ending before it began, like all the others, land lost to apathy before ever being truly explored.
It wasn’t ten minutes later, after another shot and half of my new beer, that I got a text from Simón. “Donde?” was all it said. I told him that I was still at the restaurant, and that I needed to go home. I drank and waited for his response. He said he was off work in fifteen, and that he’d pick me up. I finished another beer and smoked a cigarette before he arrived.
I could hear the Simon and Garfunkel blasting from Simón’s car before he turned the corner. Simón loved Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, and Hall and Oates, aside from all the mariachi and romantic shit that he listened to. I hopped into shotgun, and slapped Simón’s hand.
“Que onda, amigo,” he said.
“Fucking boracho,” I said. “Drunk.”
“Donde esta las chicas?” he said, as he put the car in gear and floored the gas pedal. When he hit the gas the car lurched, and my stomach reeled. I thought about telling him to take it easy on the Jimmy Johnson shit with me being this drunk, and that I didn’t want to hurl anywhere in the vicinity of such a nice car, but I couldn’t think of the words in Spanish, so I forgot about it.
“You just missed ‘em,” I said.
“You see any with me right now?” I opened my arms and looked around the car just to make sure I hadn’t hidden any women in the back seat when I got in. Simón started laughing.
“Ahhhh, s’okay,” he said. “Quieres ir a la casa? Home?”
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “I should. Fucking voy a abrir el restaurant mañana. I’ve got to open that shit tomorrow.”
Simón started shaking his head, smiling, and then he rattled off a slew of obscenities in Spanish followed by the refrain from Scarborough Fair.
“Puto mierda pinche restaurante parsley sage ros-a-merry and thy-me.”
I started laughing.
“You’re fucking funny, man, I mean it,” I said.
“No, Charlie, you,” he said.
“No man, I’m drunk, you’re funny, and there’s a difference.”
“Okay, Chaaaaaaaa-lie,” Simón said, turning onto Paradise Ln. a nice, wide, six lane road that split Millville, North/South. He slammed on the gas, shifted from second to third and before I knew it we were doing sixty.
“You want come to mi casa?” Simón said. “No hay una fiesta grande, pero mis amigos tienen cervesas. Small party.”
“I don’t know, man,” I said.
I thought about it for a second, picturing myself opening the kitchen in the morning with bloodshot eyes, the same clothes as the day before, no shower, Gina’s lipstick caked to my dick, hung over, or, more likely, still drunk. I watched as tomorrow me flipped on the lights, unwrapped everything from the walk-in, set up and stocked the line – a routine I’d done thousands of times. I saw tomorrow me operating on autopilot. Working. Getting through the day without concern for the one that came before it or would come after.
“Yeah, fuck it,” I said. “Let’s fiesta.”
“Okay, Chaaaaaa-lie,” Simón said, and he slapped my thigh.
I’d been to Simón’s house before, or, at least, I’d seen the outside of it from his car. I knew he lived with his brother, Victor, but he never told me that there were nine of them living in that two bedroom house. When we walked in, he briefly introduced me to everybody out in the backyard and then gave me the grand tour. Each room had two bunk beds, like the kind Irene (my sister) and I had when we were kids. When we got to the living room, Simón explained that the couch folded out and that was where Miguelito slept – Miguel, the youngest of the crew was a slender, hundred-and-twenty-pound-soaking-wet kid from El Salvador.
Christmas lights bordered the frame of each window throughout the house, lending a festive vibe to the whole place. A random thought about fire safety struck me, but I didn’t bring it up. The house was a house like any other I’d ever seen in Millville, a small, ranch-style home with a nice back yard. The guys were hanging out back. Simón grabbed a couple of Modelos from the fridge, and we walked outside.
Discarded aluminum soldiers were scattered about underneath and beside each chair. Everybody was pretty drunk, myself included. Simón, it seemed, was the only guy who looked or could be considered sober. I recognized Simón’s brother, Victor, and said, “Que Onda, Victor?”
“Oh! Pinche guero habla español?!” one of the guys yelled, and everybody started laughing.
“Claro,” I said. “Pero, solamente un poquito.” I held up my fingers, showing them exactly how much Spanish I spoke.
Simón grabbed a couple of extra chairs and we slid into the group. I had caught their names at the beginning, Nico, Thomás, Edgar, Miguel, the small guy with a Mohawk, Victor, and they mentioned the two guys that were still at work, but right after they told me I had already forgotten who they were or where they worked.
We had been drinking for a couple of hours. Music was playing off one of the guys’ phones through the Bluetooth speaker that rested on top of a case of beer in the center of the pack. It turned out that it was Nico’s last night in the US. After fourteen years of working two jobs in the States, he was heading home for good. Conversation had melted from one topic to another with a natural ease, like we’d all been friends for years.
We had covered countries of origin (Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama), coyote stories (three day walks across the border, evading agents and patrolmen, linking up with rides to anywhere and everywhere in the US), soccer teams (club, CONCACAF, Barcelona, Real Madrid, the upcoming World Cup), restaurants we’d worked at over the years, cities that they had worked in (NYC, LA, San Francisco, Houston, Minneapolis, Chicago), hot newscasters on Univision, girlfriends, wives, children, the state of boxing, World War Two, North, Central, and South American Politics, and just as we were getting into the subject of immigration, one of the guys, I think it was Thomás, pulled out a little baggie, opened it, took out his set of keys, dipped a key into the baggie, brought the key up to his nose, and he sniffed back a bump of what I was soon to find out was good fucking cocaine.
Each guy took two bumps out of the bag, one for each nostril, and when it was passed to me I did the same. A shock of electricity hit my head, first, moved down into my chest where I felt its heat, and then it grew up from my chest back into my eyes, where I felt a switch flip and my thoughts and sight went from transient and malleable to solid and focused.
“Wow,” I said.
“Te gustas?” One of the guys said.
“Yeah man,” I said, passing the bag over to Simón. “Si, esta bien. Muy, muy bien.”
Everybody laughed, and one of the guys said something to the effect of crazy white boy. Simón passed the bag to Miguel who took his two bumps and kept the rotation alive. I lit another cigarette, cracked open another beer, leaned back in my plastic chair, and I took a deep breath. Two bumps were all it took, and I felt beyond sober. Empowered. Lifting a beer to my lips became a secondary motion to lifting the key to my nose. The bag moved around the circle quickly, and before I knew it, it was my turn again, and again. When the first bag was finished, Thomás pulled a second one out of his pocket and then a third.
“What was I saying before?” I said.
“About immigracion,” Simón said. A couple of the guys were having side conversations in Spanish of which I was tuning in and out of the way somebody eavesdrops on a phone call happening next to them at a café.
“Yeah yeah,” I said. “Si the problem y lo ciento if mi español es terrible, ummm, but the problem is la majoridad de las personas no recuerden que ellos estan immigrantes tambien They don’t remember because too much time has passed Eso es una pais de los immigrantes But people forget that because some of them of them they they think that they aren’t their families have been here for too many generations and they think that somehow they’re different from los immigrantes que vienen aqui ahorita.”
The baggie came my way again, and I sniffed at the key.
“But why,” one of the guys said, “why do they hate us?”
“They don’t hate you,” I said. “They’re just stupid.”
“Pero,” he said, and then he blazed through a couple of sentences to Simón of which I didn’t understand.
“If there’s nobody to do the work,” Simon said, “then why make it so hard for people to come work?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It shouldn’t be. But you have to understand I think that the greatest lie ever told was that this country was about something other than making money, at all costs. Forget all the shit about moral high ground and freedom and all that bullshit that el gobierno likes to talk about, this country is about making fucking money, and that’s all it’s about, making money and apparently war, never-ending war.”
I trusted Simón with the translation of what I’d said, and when he relayed it to the guys they seemed to take what I’d said in stride.
“You know,” I said, “every country has problems, and we’re no different. We have a shitload of problems. But, I don’t know, I mean, we’re all making money here, right?” The drip slid down the back of my throat and I shook my head.
The baggie came around again, and I took my bump. The powder bit into my face like a needle. I felt it in the back of my nose, then behind my eye, and the sharp burn settled into the center of my head for what seemed like two minutes but was probably only fifteen seconds. I passed the baggie to Simón. With my left hand, still holding my beer, I rubbed my left eye. My eye watered until the pain subsided.
“Whoa,” I said, shaking my head back and forth. “That shit has some bite.”
Simón passed the baggie to his left, and the conversation turned away from whatever it was we’d been talking about to a series of random moments, of which I cannot exactly remember. There was talk about money, of which I didn’t have any, and Simón pulled out a couple of twenties and handed it to one of the guys. There was talk about changing the music, when I said that we should change the music, but that idea went to conference and, aside from me, was unanimously voted down.
I had lost the focus that I’d had earlier and I found myself drowning in and out of the conversations, as if I was watching a movie and kept falling asleep, intermittently. Simón had caught me gazing off into space a couple of times and asked me if I was okay, to which I replied with a toothy grin and an emphatic, “Tranquilo.” In what had to have been an incoherent mess, I told the guys of my family’s own history, my grandfather’s immigration, how he’d come from Ireland to the States, how he’d met my grandmother, how he’d worked in the mill for thirty years, put my mother through college, and then promptly died of a heart attack at 50. How I still felt connected to the land my grandfather left, although I’d never been there. I tried to explain the meaning of the expression “blue collar to blue collar in three generations.” After I’d lost my train of thought for the twentieth time, however, I decided to shut up for a while.
The bag came around again, and I took a bump, and, again, it seared some part of flesh in the back of my nose, in between my eyes, but even harder than before. My eyes were shut as I passed the bag to Simón. I drank from my beer and lit another cigarette. I watched the smoked drawl from the tip of my cigarette and in the distance, behind the trail of smoke, I noticed that the sun had partly risen and was tacked on the edge of the horizon like a brilliant orange wedge.
“Shit,” I said. “What time is it?”
Simón looked at his watch.
“Seis,” he said.
“Fuck, dude, I have to work in three hours.”
“You okay?” he said.
“Yeah, man. Estoy bien.”
The baggie came my way again, and I took another key bump. The bump made me cringe. Everything went blurry for a second, and I heard Simón say something. It was too quiet to understand.
“What?” I said.
He responded again but I didn’t hear him.
“What?” I said, again.
“That’s it, Charlie,” he said. “That’s it, no more. Finito.”
“Okay,” I said. “Finito. That’s it.”
“Yeah, man. I’m done.”
“Si, Guey,” I said. “Seguro. Man that last shit bit so much harder than the stuff we were doing earlier.”
A couple of the guys started talking.
“Es differente,” Nico said. “Como se dice, Simón?”
“It’s crystal,” Simon said. “Differente.”
I sat back in my chair, my arms loose at my side, and I tried to comprehend what the fuck they meant by different. I looked around at the guys surrounding me. Everybody was laughing, talking. The orange and yellow light of the early morning spilled over the trees in the back of Simón’s yard, and I tried focusing on each face before me but with every second that I stared, cheeks and eyes grew puffy and bulbous, and I realized that I was high out of my mind and that I might as well just look off into the distance and smoke another cigarette.
My thoughts wandered as I smoked and smoked, and I overheard the guys talking about their families back home, their kids, their farms, their wives, brothers and sisters, and their plans for the future. I lifted my head from my shoulder as Nico was telling Edgar about how excited he was to go home, to Colombia. He spoke of his plans to open a music school and spend time with his children. Nico pulled out his phone and passed it around the circle. When it came to me, I looked at the three little faces on the screen – his wife, and their two daughters. The girls were striking poses like seven-year-old girls do, arms and legs flailing, mouths roaring, and his wife stood in the middle of the girls, smiling, her long brown hair hung over her shoulder across her chest in a braid. I managed to tell him that they were beautiful before passing the phone over to Simón. I tried thinking about my plans, my future, but all I could muster was to take my pack of cigarettes from my pocket, find my lighter, light one, and smoke as I watched the sun crest, fully, from behind the trees, in all of its beauty. And, for that moment, that was, and had to be, enough.
Nico had been gone from the circle of chairs in the yard for I don’t know how long, and when he returned to his seat he was holding an accordion and wearing a patterened black and white hat, both of which made me chuckle for some incomprehensible reason aside from being the last two things I would have expected to see at that moment. Nico sat on the edge of his chair, propped the accordion on his knee, looked straight at me, and said, “Guero, listen.”
He started to tell me a story about the music of his family. He explained that the waters of two rivers flowed through the city of his birth, the Cesár and the Guatapurí. His city was called Valledupar, and the music of his family was called Vallenato. It was only by chance, he said, that Vallenato music came to feature the accordion. Generations ago in the days of my grandfather’s father, he said, a ship, transporting various goods through the region of La Guajira, headed to Argentina, supposedly, fell victim to a tumultuous storm and sunk into the bed of one of the rivers, near the coast of the Caribbean. The goods, from the bowels of the capsized ship, flowed downriver, traveling twenty, fifty, one hundred miles, no one knows exactly how far. In some places jewels washed up along the shores of the river, and in others weapons and gold. But on a set of rocks in the Guatapurí, a series of wooden crates had traveled further than any of the jewels, weapons, or gold, and when the villagers fished the crates from the river and broke them open they discovered that inside each crate was an accordion. It had seemed, he said, that the destinies of Valledupar and the accordion were as intertwined as the fibers of my Sombrero – his Vueltiao. And then Nico pulled his arms apart, and the accordion showed its colors like a peacock beckoning to a captive audience.
I’d never understood the accordion until I heard Nico play, and I’d never heard a singer, I mean a true singer, until I heard Nico. His fingers lit buttons and danced across the keys with a simple grace. His voice bellowed, crisp and strong, and he seemed to sing in all octaves and pitches. When it was time for the chorus, he puffed out his chest and let the words glide out half-open lips. And when he pitched high, Nico slowed the movements of his arms and hands, and the accordion became almost silent, a nearly imperceptible accompaniment to the delicate vocals. I was dumbstruck. I tried to remember if I had ever heard anything as beautiful in my life, and I couldn’t come up with an answer. The tears burned my eyes, as if a callous had been removed and the tender flesh beneath had been revealed. The tempo grew faster, Nico’s voice rose to a boom, the instrument writhing under the force of his hands, the sound was incredible, omnipresent. And then just as quickly as he had started, Nico stopped. For a moment, we were all silent.
“Eso,” Nico said, taking a deep breath of morning air through his nose. “Eso, es la musica de mi familia.”
I couldn’t find the words, I had nothing to say, so I walked over to Nico and nodded. He looked me in the eyes and shook my hand.
Then it was time to leave, and Simón helped me get to the car. I sunk into the leather seats of his Lexus, and when he turned the key Simon and Garfunkel came blasting out of the speakers. The boxer. We made a couple of turns, and then we pulled into a gas station. Simón handed me a coffee. I sipped at it as we made our way down Paradise, North, back towards the restaurant.
“I’m surprised you can drive so well after a night like that,” I said, although I’m pretty sure the words fell out of my mouth, languidly. My head was slumped to the side, and I watched as we zipped by strip malls and used car lots, banks and fast food joints.
“No me gusta las drogas,” Simón said. “Just a little cervesa.”
“What? I was passing that bag to you all night.”
“Si,” he said, “but I passed it. Solamente passed.”
“Come on. Seriously?”
“Seriosa,” he said. “No me gusta.”
We pulled into the parking lot behind the restaurant where my days always seemed to begin and end. As I turned to Simón to tell him to take it easy, I noticed that he had another wad of toilet paper plugging up his nostril.
“Are you going to go see a doctor for that?” I said, pointing at his nose.
“Not today,” he said. “Necessito buscar otra trabajo.”
“You need to get that shit checked out, man. That’s not normal, might even be more important than finding a new job right now, comprende?”
“Si, Charlie,” he said. “Claro.”
I thanked him for the night and the ride, and stumbled towards the back entrance to the kitchen. As I approached the door, I had a feeling that I’d been gone from this place for a measly five minutes, the span of a cigarette. I opened the door and walked into the kitchen.
“You look like shit!” Drew said. He was standing near the dish tank, talking on the phone. “Clock in, grab some coffee, do whatever you have to, and then let’s open this bitch. The fucking new guy I hired is already late, he was supposed to be here at eight, what kind of shit is that?! Fucking Simón, man. He totally fucked me yesterday and now today. What a dick.”
I stared at Drew for a second, without speaking, and then I walked over to the computer and punched in my employee number. The printer erred out my time stamp. 9:15am. I was late. As I poured myself a cup of coffee I considered the hand that I’d been dealt and whether or not, someday, I’d start playing.