Jalal laid out a fat line of coke, leaned back grinning and said, "There you go."
I bent forward and put the straw down and whoofed half of it. I went blind for a moment and pressed my fingers against my temples, yawning and twisting my head. Then I went down and did the rest.
Mary and Shanda were smiling. I'd done a good one. Then they each did a line, too.
Jalal was lining it up faster than we could snort it, while I poured shots of Gusano Rojo, swirling the little worm around that lay at the bottom waiting for us to arrive. We had some Steely Dan going, and the apartment door was open. Warm rich air full of the smell of jasmine drifted in, along with the sound of howling traffic just five feet away on the 10 freeway.
Jalal and I went out into the courtyard and we each lit a cigarette, which was the next thing to do after a line and a shot. No one else in the complex was up, now. We weren't blaring the music or anything, but we had those loud drunk voices. Everything had that sheen, that buzzing glow like seeing through a movie lens in delayed time. On the other side of the fence, cars went by like bullets.
We walked around the courtyard and over by the black iron gate surrounding the pool. The water sent out rippling electric bolts of blue and white reflection waves across the stucco walls of the buildings. What the hell were those huge twisted plants with killing needle points? They were made to kill. Or better yet, they had made themselves into killers. They had adapted themselves into plants that could kill. I was saying this to Jalal.
"That represents a kind of consciousness, don't you think?"
Jalal was from Morocco and his English was not too good, so I was not sure he understood exactly what I was saying. I asked him. "Do you see what I'm saying?"
"Yeah. That plant coo kill you."
"That's right." I nodded fiercely. At least we were in agreement on this. I interrogated Jalal's face, his passive grin, his veiled eyes. Perhaps no threat. No killing. No adaptations tonight. I was not prone to that kind of thought. It was just a word association going through my head. The world tweaked on its axis. I righted it.
"I like the way you and Mary..." Jalal was searching for the right word, but I knew what he meant.
"I know what you mean," I said.
"No, I mean, with Shanda. I am going to stay with just one woman, now. That. You, for you it's good?"
"Great," I said. Mary and I had been dating for about a year. Jalal was a wild player, good looking, and the girls went for him. He and his brother came from a rich family and they did nothing but party and chase girls.
"I want that," he said, meaning a stable relationship. But Shanda was doomed if she believed he would be exclusively hers. She kept catching him with other girls, dumping him, taking him back.
"Yeah," I said. "Good for you. Come on."
I went back inside and got the bottle. There wasn't much left, and I poured out the last few shots. "To night!" I said.
"Who's going to eat the worm?" Shanda said.
I looked at Jalal. He smiled.
"It's supposed to give you visions," I said.
"Split it," he said.
I poured the worm out onto the table and cut it in half with a knife and we both ate one half of it. Then we did another line of coke.
That's the way it went. That's what we did. We never did much else with Shanda and Jalal except party. They were party friends. What else would we do?
"Hey," Shanda said. "I think I hear your neighbor."
"No it's just the..." Mary started to say.
We all stopped and listened for a moment. Nothing. The music was not that loud, really. But a helicopter was hovering overhead, shining its spotlight down into the streets and the alleyways. We all went out into the courtyard, looking up like those people who get abducted by aliens, waiting for that spotlight to shine on us. "Drunk driver, I bet," Mary said.
"A robber," Shanda said.
"A rapist," Jalal said.
"Maybe he'll come through here."
Cop light. Helicopter engine, blades flup flupping. Sirens of L.A. The air was hot. I was sweating. My heart was fluttering like a trapped crow inside my chest. What were those vines hanging down like bloated snakes? Where do kumquats come from? Blown in on Pacific winds. Everything is in migration. I was saying this. Then I wasn't. The porch lights around the courtyard glowed like dandelion seeds. Our shadows twitched in independent ways having little to do with our movements, as though straining to dance their own lives. What? Helicopter lights flooded us and pinned us naked on the spot, then passed on. What an incremental moment held in stark relief, chromatic and cold. Strange feast of eyes. Mary leered. I worried about her heart. "Let's get inside," I said.
"Are you still going to that job interview?" Mary asked.
"You have a job interview?" Shanda said.
"I do. At eight A.M." I said. Jalal laughed. "So how about another drink?"
"You should try and get some rest," Mary said.
I laughed. "Another drink!"
"What's the job?" Jalal asked.
"Construction," I said. And it was like a trigger went off in my brain. I had not been able to find a job in three months and had finally gotten an interview, so to speak, with a construction company building a strip-mall up on Arrow Highway. I was supposed to meet the contractor in the morning. But sleep? Absurd! Who could sleep, now?
But I had become the object of concern. I had a job interview! Mary wanted me to get some sleep and began shutting down the party. I protested. "Aww, come on," I said. "What time is it anyway?"
"It's four thirty," Mary said.
Shanda and Jalal were getting ready to leave.
"You can't go," I said. "I don't need to sleep. It's just an interview."
"A job is important," Jalal said, but he was grinning like a Cheshire cat, his head disappearing around his bright white teeth.
I lay down. Mary lay beside me, her hand across my chest. I could feel both of our hearts racing. "This is ridiculous," I said.
My mind repeated every single image of the entire night in asynchronous order. Helicopter floodlight face worm teeth plant-blade coke-line drink shadow traffic siren helicopter teeth plant-blade porchlights gate drink coke-line TV shadow worm knife-blade kumquat swimming pool engine knife-blade teeth...like that while I tried to dig down into some sort of burrow of sleep that was inaccessible in the exposure of my electrified mind. I kept feeling the helicopter floodlight sweeping over my closed eyes, only to open into the darkness. I kept hearing the engine of that helicopter, the blades flup flupping like some apocalyptic movie moment.
I did not sleep at all. The alarm went of at seven.
I rose like a cadaver and changed my shirt and went downstairs and started a pot of coffee. I was still drunk. Still high. But I moved with the dull conviction of a condemned man prodded by guards unseen. There was no turning away. But I could not focus. My hands were shaky. I drank coffee. I could not eat anything. My stomach was a twisting knot of acid. I put on a pair of sunglasses and went out into the criminal blaze of sunlight and got into my car.
I drove out along Arrow Highway until the apartments and the restaurants disappeared and there was nothing left but the road and empty lots and fields of dirt.
I was early, so I sat out in front of the construction site and smoked a cigarette. They were mostly done. The outside walls were framed and sided. The roof was on. The ground had already been covered with asphalt. I could not see much left to do.
The contractor pulled up in a pick-up truck laden with equipment. He took a quick glance at me, said "You the guy I talked to?" and shook my hand.
"Yeah," I said. And that was it.
"Come on," he said, and I followed him into one of the structures. "You ever do any drywall?"
"Yes I have," I said.
"Ever use a nail gun?"
"Here," he said, "We've got this side tagged in. You can just finish it off." And he handed me a nail gun and pointed at a wall that was about ten feet high and maybe seventy five feet wide, the depth of a strip-mall business space. He said, "Put them in a line like on that other wall there, about every four to six inches apart, along the studs."
I looked at the other wall. It had columns of nails running up it. "Okay," I said. I started at the bottom and shot the nails into the wall. It was not difficult, but I had to climb up a ladder to get to the upper part of the wall, and I was not feeling too sure about my balance.
He watched me for about five minutes, then said, "I'm going to go check on another site. I'll be back in about an hour. Finish off this side and then wait for me."
He left, and I kept working on the wall. I worked for about half an hour as though he were still watching, then I stopped and sat down and lit a cigarette. I was a mess by now. My arms felt useless. My head was on fire. My throat was burning. There was no way I was going to finish the wall by the time he got back.
I had not brought anything to drink, and now I was desperately thirsty. I looked around, but it was an unfinished strip-mall. There was no water anywhere. I'm in a desert, and I need water, I thought. The nail gun and the heat had addled me. Fuck the wall, I thought. Fuck this job. Was this Cucamonga? Across the road, heat wavered over the dirt field. Mount Baldy was already obscured by the smog drifts. The sun burned through. The only plants I saw were the killing kind.
I got into my car and drove out of the lot and back onto the highway. Dust rose up behind me and obliterated the construction site, the job, my dream of work.