“Ace in the Hole: Part III” by Jon Epstein

Issue 19 / Fall 2019

This piece is a continuation of Jon Epstein’s “Ace in the Hole,” published in the Quarterly’s Issue 16, Winter 2019, and “Ace in the Hole: Part II,” published in Quarterly’s Issue 17, Spring 2019

It’s a few minutes before 1:00 a.m., officially daytime. The corridor leading towards customs is unfriendly and over lit with gossip. Lobotomized grains of sand fill imaginary cavities behind my eyes, and the three balloons of coke up my ass beg for freedom.

I ride down the escalator leading with my chin, conspicuous as a priest in a cathouse. In front of me is a woman carrying a pinata; behind, a man wearing a ten-gallon hat, a belt buckle like an oblong discus, and pointy, reptile skin boots.

The once beautifully colored mosaic tiles have been defaced. Cock, fuck, Chico and peace, are etched randomly in graffiti.

A red-tide of acid spiders from my stomach to the roof of my mouth. I pretend I don’t taste it, but I do, and despite all that, it’s now official: I’m a professional, part of a dope smuggling crew, but I’m fresh out of boot camp, wet behind the ears, and greener than kale.

I come upon the infinite loop of luggage. It drifts by with a mind of its own. Of course, my bag is nowhere to be seen and the ninety grams of contraband in my backside is not only uncomfortable, but life threatening.

Two holstered men with canines pass by me and an exaggerated spike of paranoia, adrenaline, and endorphins rush through my veins as though a cattle prod was hermetically sealed inside my gut.

I replay Steve’s pep talk: Just remember Johnny, the ace is in the hole. I replay the rational. Interpol has no authority to x-ray based on suspicion alone, use of those machines is only permitted for those already in the International Data Bank. I visualize a Yellow Taxi whisking me away to Kingpin-dom and clicking my heels on the sidewalk in front of my Lexington Avenue apartment after I’m done paying my fare.

A dozen years later, my psychoanalyst Dr. Loughstein will tell me: “You were thumbing your nose at your mother and father.” He charged me a hundred bucks for the fifty-minute session, and asked, “Same time next week?”  

Beads of sweat gurgle from my forehead like an artesian spring and my kitty litter-coated tongue needs a rinse. I spot my suitcase and grab it, then proceed to the end of cattle shoot #9. I find my place behind the long line of innocent travelers.

The over-air-conditioned terminal is crushing. Two baggage handlers, chins on chests, snooze on upholstered metal stools against a far wall. The conveyor belt halts with a loud mechanical clang and startles them awake. Several unclaimed suitcases rest like beached whales.

I scratch my head and look side to side. I see lips moving and heads nodding but only hear the droning hum of the commercial ventilation systems. Cold recycled air is evident by fluttering faded tape tied to several slatted metal vents. The dreadful, slow-moving inspection line machetes my hamstrings.

Twenty-five minutes of water-boarding elapse, and my line converges with another. Now, only one passenger stands between me and the first gatekeeper. She’s an oversized woman struggling to close her oversized suitcase. The oversized SNAP SNAP of the brass painted Samsonite buckles jab me in my prehistoric infancy.

“Next,” says the armed customs man. I watch the large woman walk ahead to Shangri-La.

I want to bypass the police-state gauntlet, and advance past GO, straight to Free Parking, but first I place my bag on the wide stainless-steel inspection table and face the hangman’s helper.

Quasimodo stands about six-foot-two. His gut spills over his wide leather belt weighed down with accessories of detainment. Compared to my scrawny vegetarian frame, he’s a Goliath. The dark circles under his hollow eyes, pock-marked skin, and unsavory overbite are menacing. His overpowering Aqua Velva aftershave hits me like nerve gas.

“Open your bag, please,” he says. His pseudo-polite manner doesn’t fool me; suddenly and unexpectedly, I become the unlucky punk staring down the barrel of Dirty Harry’s .44 Smith & Wesson Magnum. My rice paper skin labors to shield me from his surliness.

Border-man Salazar looks me up and down. I’m worried my garage sale wool suit is insufficient armor. The Federal employee desperately in need of dental work begins rifling through my weathered brown leather suitcase. He finds nothing of interest and looks up; his eyes reflect holographically tattooed bullseyes. Steve had coached me with scripted answers to the predictable questions Salazar would ask.

“Where were you in Columbia?” he asks.

“Bogota,” I say.

“What were you doing there?”

“Visiting my aunt and some friends at the University.”

“How long were you there?”

“Nine days.”

“Your declaration card doesn’t list any gifts or souvenirs.” Salazar acts like a cat, but I won’t be the rat whose tail would be clenched in his teeth. “You didn’t bring anything back?”

“Just this handmade, wool Indian blanket,” I say and point at the textile I stole

off my Hotel Gerber bed. I was attracted to the colorfully dyed wool, and its indigenous feel.

“What is your occupation?”

“I’m a stock clerk at Quinn’s Nutrition Center in West Hollywood.” Or at least I was.

“Humph.” Salazar fantasizes he’s inches away from cracking the Jimmy Hoffa case. “Wait here,” he barks, and walks away, disappearing behind an office door with a frosted-window painted with black block letters that read, “Sgt. Anderson.”

The ace is in the hole. The ace is in the hole. The ace is in the hole. I hold steadfast to my mantra.

Salazar returns accompanied by a John Wayne-type wearing a crisper, starchier uniform; it’s heavily decorated with patches and insignia. The man’s name tag says Sergeant Anderson. He has a chiseled chin and military posture. Salazar walks around the metal table and grabs my bicep. “You’re coming with us,” he says, and whisks me away.

“What about my bag?” I make a feeble stall attempt.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Anderson says. They escort me away like Juvenile Court bailiffs to another door that says “Customs Only” in the same block lettering. Anderson unlocks it. They take me down a long metal staircase. Corrugated tin-can metal clangs and echoes through the dungeon corridor.

As we descend, my eyes tear and throat contracts; ammonia disinfectant whitewashes the blood-caked walls. The odor is nauseating; we trudge deeper into the damp inner bowels of the customs complex—the officers’ Voltron Rubber soled, black polished work boots squeak with each step on the linoleum floor, gnawing at my nerves like some freakish flesh-eating virus.

The ace is in the hole. The ace is in the hole. The ace is in the hole. I hold tight to my mantra like a mother unwilling to let go of her stillborn baby.

Sergeant Anderson unlocks and opens a metal door. Salazar pushes me into the dark room. One of them flips a switch and bright fluorescent tubes buzz awake, angry and artificial.

“Strip down to your underwear and touch the wall with your nose,” Anderson orders while Salazar slips on latex medical exam gloves. There’s a big pot on the table, and they think they have winning hands.

“Yes, sir,” I say. I undress and face the wall.

“Now spread ‘em.”

“Yes sir.” I play the game.

Salazar moves me this way and that. His cold hands on my naked flesh are cancer-causing. He slides both palms and fingers up and down my legs like I’ve some secret trap door sutured inside me. He does the same with my arms. Then he inspects my armpits, combing through my sparse hair with his pallid poly fingers.

“Lift your left foot,” he commands and feels up my arch as though I were Harry Houdini. “Put your foot down and lift your right.” He palms the other.

“Now put your foot down and turn around,” Salazar orders and I do as he says. “Open your mouth.” He shoves his fat index finger past my lips, then jabs behind my teeth and into my gums. His poking and prodding are relentless. He retracts his finger and pulls a pen-clip flashlight from his front shirt pocket and flicks it on. “Open wider and hold still.” He looks inside my mouth as though I’m harboring Patty Hearst. “Now tilt your head back.” He shines the light up in my nostrils. Never put anything in your nose smaller than your elbow. My kindergarten teacher Mrs. Goldawitz’s forewarnings flash through my mind. “Now head straight and look down.” His motorized mannequin fingers search my hair then attack my scalp. Then he pulls my ears forward and inspects behind them. “The kid’s clean,” Salazar says. He steps away, gravity of defeat weighing down his shoulders and belly.

I stand shivering but victorious in my tighty-whities and barefoot feet.

“Put your clothes on back on,” Anderson lashes, “but if I ever see you again, you’re going to the X-ray room, Interpol or no Interpol.”




When it came to concepts such as cause and effect, negative consequences, or pausing,

I had no comprehension. I acted as though I were invincible, but underneath the veil of delusion was fear. I lived like someone cheating at solitaire. Ten years would pass before I understood, I was only cheating myself, but this time, the ace really was in the hole.



Born in 1957 at Cedars of Lebanon in Hollywood, now the center for Scientology, Jon Epstein grew up in a household riddled with alcohol abuse and eating disorders. Epstein is a sober drug addict/alcoholic active in his recovery and local outreach work. He resides in the Fernando Valley with his wife of thirty-one years. He considers himself an emerging writer and a fine artist inspired by the daily trials and joys of simple life—he’s a father, grandfather, musician, and surfer. Epstein’s work can be found in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Foliate Oak, Forge Journal, On the Bus, Out On the Stoop, Pierce College Voices Collective, Poydras Review, Pilcrow & Dagger, Poetic Diversity, Sanskrit, Santa Fe Writers Project, The Coachella Review, The Judean, and Poetry Superhighway. He’s a member of The Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective.

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