“Ace in the Hole” by Jon Epstein

Issue 16 / Winter 2019


This piece is a continuation of Jon Epstein’s essay, “Shoving,” which appeared in Issue 15 of the Quarterly.


It was my first run. Inside me, I’d shoved 70 grams of the raciest Colombian coke three mom-and-pop, vegetarian dope smugglers could procure. Nine hours ahead of me waited unblinking U.S. Custom Agents. I knew I was no match for their emboldened brawn; but I still had the best hand a man of my newfound profession could hold; the ace was in the hole.

The captain announces we’re free to move about the cabin. If I were a Catholic, I’d genuflect. My colon’s ready to burst open. I rise on feathered cotton ball tiptoes and retrieve my carry-on from the overhead; it’s time to offload.

Steerage is filled with foreign tongued chatter and jiggling wheeled carts making their booze deliveries. I run the gauntlet of judgment and condemnation back to the little boy’s room.

The unoccupied john gives me hope. But the handle is either jammed, or somehow locked from within. I wrestle with the dull chrome lever, but no go. Did I break it? Warm breath of someone looking over my shoulder drafts upon my neck. Their tapping foot eats at my nerves and my clammy neck becomes clammier. I crack the code, open the door, and whip around to leer at whoever’s behind me, but there’s no one, and there seldom is. Only a mirage of my disappointed father.

I rush inside and secure the door behind me as though I’m closing a submarine hatch before diving. I slide and click the metal latch, shimmying the handle, being certain it’s locked. The contraband inside me screams: “LET ME OUT!” My fingers, independent of any thought, release my bag handle and it thuds to the floor.

I rest on the toilet seat exhausted, and I haven’t even given birth yet. I sigh like a back-drafting bellows while my palsy sausage fingers fumble with my gym bag zipper. I reach inside like I’m playing some carnival midway snatch and grab game that’s mostly rigged and retrieve the Ziplocs. I set the blue and red Glad-brand box on the sink and begin undressing. I first peel off my coat. I’m sleepwalking but hang it on the door hook. Off come my shoes, pants, socks and underwear; only my long sleeved, hand-me-downed Van Heusen remains.

I climb on top of the commode seat and squat. Don’t strain, you’re not constipated. Steve’s words pinball inside my head. Eliminating is the opposite of shoving. Nice and slow. Easy does it. I poop out the turd-shaped balloons, catching them like a midwife delivers crowning triplets, and place them in the sink. I sit back down—shaking, sweating, and out of breath.

The plane jolts. I grip the toilet lid edges and think back to when Danny and I met on his first day at Quinn’s. He came up to me in the breakroom, offered a handshake and said, “Hey man, I’m Danny.” I reciprocated and said, “Jon.” Then he asked me if I smoked. “Not cigarettes,” I said, “but I get high if that’s what you’re asking.” My smugness didn’t faze him. “Are you holding?” He got right to the point. “No, man,” I told him, amused, “but I got hash oil at home!” I was so proud of my drug cache. “You got grease?” His big smile, big teeth, and dark peach fuzz mustache were alluring. He was his tall, lanky, and relaxed. A red, rat-tailed bandana hung from his back pocket. I loved him more than my brother for calling the hash oil grease.

I stand up, a hundred pounds lighter, and grab my underwear, then my pants and partially dress. I turn on the faucet. A puff of air precedes the water. I think back to the bus ride that first night Danny and were on our way to get stoned. We were sitting on the masonry window ledge of the Security Pacific building at Hollywood and Highland waiting for our transfer. Danny looked this way and that, then leaned closer and said quietly, “Truth of the matter, Jon-Bird.” (I loved him calling me Jon-Bird.) “I just got out of Australian prison for smuggling three kilos of hash oil in false bottom typewriter cases.”

Looking back, anybody with their feet on the ground would perceive the words, prison and smuggling as red-flags, but for me, they were words of redemption. I felt like I’d just gotten a call from the Boys upstairs telling me I’d was done with the farm leagues and it was my time to join the Majors.

I pick up the balloons, rinse them off, then dab them dry like a neonatal nurse cleans a vernix-covered baby after the umbilical cord is cut. I protect the balloons like they’re the last three eggs on earth. I place the three latex Hope Diamonds inside my lucky, purple velvet, Crown Royal bag, and bury it deep inside my inner breast jacket pocket. I put on my socks and shoes and tuck in my shirt, then clip on my tie.

The plane hits an air pocket and takes a big dip. I lose my balance and stumble to the floor.

Thank God, I already shat out the dope. I stay put until the plane settles.

A loud pounding on the door scares the crap out of me. Shit, fuck, shit. Is it the fuzz? Am I busted? I freeze while blood drains from my face.

“Occupado!” I yell.

My heart races like a bull chasing red. I stay frozen and revisit all the lies I’d fabricated. I told my parents I was going to work on a farm in Oregon. Danny and I both told our Quinn’s manager Bob Reedar we were traveling to New Zealand. Coz was the only one I was straight with.

Danny and I were sitting on Coz’s couch at the Hoffman Street Blue House. It was winter, the wind was howling through the tall eucalyptus trees and it had been a half an hour before I’d gotten warm and shed my down jacket. We were smoking a fat Thai stick joint and Danny, who’d sworn me to secrecy about are our upcoming enterprise, blurted out: “Truth of the matter, Cozmo,” he paused and took a huge hit off the joint and continued his saga with smoke-filled lungs, “me and Jon-Bird,” he sipped some air, still holding in the hit, and continued, “are going on a rift to Bogata.” He exhaled a giant cloud of smoke. Coz wasn’t amused. I wasn’t sure if my best friend and mentor’s expression was disappointment, sadness, or just plain astonishment. The next day Coz asked me if I’d really thought it through, and after I explained the financial upside, and how Danny and his older brother Steve were professionals and had been smuggling for years (I didn’t mention the Australian prison part), Coz gave me his blessing.

When Lori got home from school, I laid it all out lying through my piranha, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be a one-time deal” (which I really thought was true, or hadn’t thought at all), “when I cash out, you can quit school, leave the cannibals, and we’ll strike out on our own—we can buy some land far away, build a little shanty, and start a family.”

I wait on the floor, back against the wall, holding my knees, until the coast is clear. The other bathroom door clicks shut and locks. I wipe my forehead with the back of my coat sleeved arm and stand.

The trek back to my seat is in excess of ten miles; I avoid eye contact with the suspicious, nosey passengers.

I arrive at my seat, store my tote underneath the seat in front of me, and collapse. I push the little button on my arm rest and Oil Can Harry backwards. Eighty-dollar profit per gram times a hundred and forty, 11 grand profit, plus or minus, less expenses divided by three is going to be at least three grand apiece. I see stacks of one hundred-dollar bills in my desk drawer and I’ll laugh at the guys in the white hats!

I close my eyes and pat the Crown Royal nest egg snuggled in my breast pocket. I escape in the moonscape behind my ocular muscles, pretending the turbines’ low vibrating hum are ocean sounds, and nearby rattling ice cubes are windblown chimes. Seagulls screech, fighting one another for the remains of a dead whale. The hushed Spanish voices are distant beach vendors hawking their handcrafted souvenirs and fresh fruit.

My Island in a Stream is interrupted when Jimmy Hansom’s voice trumpets in my inner ear; my eyes electroshock open. “The battle between your ego and the silent screams of your soul will soon run their course.” He lectured me in his pseudo-spiritual speak as he drove me to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to catch the LAX Flyaway. “Uh huh,” I said sitting tall in the leather upholstered seat of his showroom shiny, black El Camino given to him by his father for high school graduation and thought: what a sellouttraded in his Freak Flag for a Working-Class Hero’s timecard.

Finally, my anvil-leaded eyelids come down like heavy, pleated, movie house curtains. I spiral down into an ebony horror show. Lori. Catch a cab. Backdoor key. Move the product. Never sold coke before. Weed’s different. Shit. Fuck. Shit.

It’s no use, I raise my seat and begin flipping through a magazine. Gonna have to shove again in eight or so hours. Seconds are hours, minutes are days. Get off plane. I flip another few pages. The surrounding passengers are oblivious to the churning caldron in my head. I flip ten more pages. Baggage. Customs. Luggage search. Visiting Aunt. Wool blanket. Grocery clerk. Get cab, Yellow. The machinegun thoughts are too much to bare, but I keep flipping. I’ve no other choice.


Jon Epstein is an emerging writer and fine artist inspired by the daily trials and joys of simple life—as well as a father, musician, and sober, recovering alcoholic of thirty-two years. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife of thirty-one years. Epstein’s work can be found in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, The Coachella Review, Santa Fe Writers Project, Poeticdiversity, Foliate Oak, Forge Journal, Sanskrit, Poydras Review, Pilcrow & Dagger, and Poetry Super Highway.

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