Cornerstone – A Noir Short

“… I started to die 36 hours before I was born, so dying was a way of life for me.” -Hubert Selby, Jr.

The high was starting to hit Seth more than ever. His arm had been in pain for about half an hour now but it didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. He had gotten used to it. The rush, the fuzziness, the swirls that were starting to develop in front of his eyes, those were the only things his mind was focused on at the time being, not the sting from the needle or the infection that probably had developed where that red mark beneath his elbow was. Pain was secondary now. It was always secondary.

The high was really all that mattered.

And the high was just how he liked it. It was exactly what he imagined when he initially cleaned off that needle with the handkerchief he had back in his apartment. One shot right in the vein underneath his elbow, and instant happiness, instant pleasure, instant forgiveness came in one fell swoop. Now, thirty minutes in, the thoughts of what brought him to where he was now all came together as he stared at his half-empty cup of coffee.

The four words that he had been waiting months to say. The four words that could change any man’s life forever.

Sara. I love you.

Of course, to say such words was so much easier said in the mind than done in action. As he mulled over in that brain of his whether or not he still had the courage to do such a bold maneuver, he took another drag of his cigarette and sip of his coffee while his stomach began to intertwine a little more by the second. His mind was in a different state right now, a zone one would say perhaps. He could hear the ticking of the clock that hung up on the wall above the waitress, who was sitting right behind the counter, reading a senseless paperback that was the typical drivel read by middle-aged women. The sound annoyed him. Tick…tick…tick…tock. Tick…tick…tick…tock. Three annoying ticks, not two not one. Why did it have to be three? Every clock had two ticks than a tock. Even more clocks had a simple tick tock combo. This one seemed to be the exception. Three lousy ticks, and than a lousy tock. It drove him mad. The three ticks, the lousy coffee, the third Pall Mall he was on. All this caused by the anxiousness of saying four words.

She needed to come quick. He was starting to go insane. The high from shooting up, the anxiousness, being all alone in that coffee shop. All of that now was slowly starting to get him. Seth needed her more than ever.

He took another sip of his coffee and another drag of his cigarette, and then he heard the door behind him open and a gust of cold wind hit his back.

Seth didn’t turn around to look who it was; he heard the footsteps walk towards him and a hand touch his back. He expected an aura to surround him. He could picture the feeling of warmth engulfing his body when that gentle hand would caress his back. It was supposed to be like the movies. He turns around to see her inviting face and then end all that anxiety he had felt earlier with one final act, an act that neither him nor her could explain. How he wanted that. It was the sole thing that had consumed him solely these past eight months. He wanted to end that waiting tonight here in this coffee shop called “Cornerstone”.

“Seth I’m sorry.”

The hand was not gentle, and the voice was not of hers. He recognized the man’s voice even though he didn’t want to say his name. It would only bring further pain to his gut.

“Shit.”

Now he felt lost. The feeling of hope, anxiousness and desire had now sunk, and he suddenly felt as if he were falling off a building. He could feel the rush, the chaotic swirl of emotions that pulsed throughout all his nerves. Maybe it was the high. Heroin could do that to a guy sometimes. But maybe it was the feeling of utter hopelessness too. He couldn’t quite say for sure.

“What did she say?”

“Seth, she says, she’s sorry.”

Sorry. All she could say was she was sorry. He didn’t quite expect that. He expected something else. Maybe something dramatic such as “I’ll never love a goddamn heroin junkie!” or “I hope you live a miserable life!” But “sorry?” He sort of wished it were one of the other two, something emotional, or something more concrete so he knew how she really felt about him. Now, he was only more confused, and instead of having the opportunity to ask her what she meant, to maybe truly understand from her lips what she truly felt, he had to deal with this sap. A big dumb oaf who could only relay four damn words: She says she’s sorry.

“Tell her thanks.”

“She couldn’t be here. It would’ve been too hard on her. You know how she feels about you and your…you know…addiction.”

“I’m sure.”

She never understood what it meant to him, how important his addiction was to his life, his existence. She was too caught up in all the Christian bullshit to really understand how it could change and shape one’s life. To Seth, it was the only thing that kept him going. That and her of course. If it wasn’t for those two things, he was just a normal guy, an everyday salesman who punched in his card everyday from 9 to 5. Some people, Seth especially, couldn’t live on that. People like him needed an extra drive to keep on living.

However, now one of those drives was taken from him.

“I’m sorry to break it like this. I wish it were different. You have anything else you want me to say to her?”

Seth shook his head as the guy took his hand off of Seth’s back. He put out his cigarette on the counter, and after flicking it to the ground underneath his seat; he reached into his coat pocket. The handle of his 9 mm felt warm, but it felt like it had been ages since he last touched it. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t remember the last time since he fired the thing. He didn’t like carrying his gun around too much, but he did anyways tonight. After he shot up back at his apartment, he had a funny feeling that it would come in handy for tonight.

Sara. I love you.

To some people, one woman was all you need in your life. Furthermore, to some people, one bullet was all you needed to find yourself from that feeling of being lost.

All he needed was one bullet right in the forehead, and when he would pull the trigger, it would feel just like shooting one up in the arm. It comes quick and then all of a sudden….

nothing.

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Thursday Night at Sinbad’s

“Melancholy were the sounds on a winter’s night.” -Virginia Woolf “Jacob’s Room.”

It was a mild Thursday night in October, probably around 50 degrees, a sign that Winter was on its way in the Midwest. There were about 10 people in Sinbad’s that night, a hookah lounge in Midtown right off of Broadway on the outskirts of Westport. It had been a long day for me. I needed a smoke, needed to relax, needed to end the day on a bit of a chill note after constantly moving, constantly thinking, constantly improvising and working with people. Well…teenage people. I was a high school teacher, and if there was one thing being a high school teacher did, it was drain me energy-wise by five o’clock.

I debated where to go for hookah as I drove toward Midtown, where my apartment was located. I had lived in Midtown for almost a couple of years now. I was at that age where I needed to be thinking about settling down, according to most people older than me. A few weeks ago, a middle-aged Filipina asked my why I was still single at 29 years old. I shrugged her off. I told her “I hadn’t met the right person yet.” She told me that I needed to find a relationship and possible wife soon, that I wasn’t getting any younger, and that I needed to settle down and have children. In that moment, I thought for a second I was talking to my Mexican mother back in California.

I usually rotated between two options for hookah: Sahara off of 39th street near Kansas University Medical Center, and Sinbad’s. Sahara had better hookah. Sinbad’s was closer to my place and located in a great spot in Midtown. Speeding cop cars down Broadway; drugged out bums walking down the sidewalk humming Drake and punching air; young 20-somethings drunkenly migrating in and out of Westport like San Diego college students crossing the border from the United States to Tijuana, Mexico and back. There was always something to see. Sahara was just couches, chairs, and older Arab men playing cards, drinking Turkish coffee and tea, talking loudly in Arabic.

I opted for Sinbad’s.

The cashier was new. He wore a blue hooded sweatshirt and had a receding hairline. He looked out of shape, skinnier probably in his younger years, but age and inactivity had recently gotten the best of him. He was a far cry from the last guy who mainly worked here, Dia. Dia was from Jordan. Muscular, clean cut, always wore clothes that were probably too tight. He looked like he could have passed for a professional wrestler. Maybe he was. I heard there was a small independent wrestling promotion that put on shows once a month at Turner Rec in the Turner neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas.

But Dia no longer worked here. He moved back to Jordan a week ago to be closer to his newborn baby. His wife and newly born girl still lived in Jordan and he wanted to spend a couple of months with her. After a couple of months, he planned to bring his family back to Kansas City and open up a restaurant. He said his family owned a couple of restaurants back in Jordan, and he wanted to get back in that business. He had grown tired working in hookah lounges the past couple of years.

I was going to miss Dia. He was a charming guy, and he knew how to make his customers feel at ease. It was going to be hard to replace him and this new guy wasn’t off to a good start.

Rap remixes boomed through the speakers as I looked at the menu. The new guy was high energy. He swayed from left to right unprovoked. He mumbled a bunch of questions to me and I couldn’t understand or comprehend what he was saying due to the combination of his ruffled voice and heavy bass in the background.

“Umm…I’m Raul?”

“No! ID bro. I’m new here. Haven’t seen you around but I got to ask.”

What the fuck? Fine. I showed him my ID. He probably looked at it for a second, if that and said it was cool. He asked me what I was feeling to smoke.

“Minty? Fruity? Cirtus-y?”

Only in hookah lounges was the word “citrus-y” used. I doubt I would be able to use it when I played on my Scrabble app.

I was just going to order a Watermelon Mint. I didn’t trust anybody creating mixes beyond Dia. The owner, Sammy, made crappy mixes. He usually took the bottom of the bucket stuff and mixed it together. It usually proved to be dry and harsh. Not worth the 15 bucks, which was a bit overpriced considering Sahara was a buck or two less, and was much better quality.

But he seemed insistent. I decided to just go with it. I was tired. The kids had gotten to me today. It was October. These were the dog days of teaching. Bickering, laziness, procrastination and panic as the quarter reached its end. I couldn’t wait to get to Thanksgiving break where I would have an extended period of time to chill the hell out.

“Okay, citrus-y I guess.”

He put up his finger to tell me to wait and in a flash, he brought back a silver opened bag and held it in front of me.

“Smell bro.”

This shit was getting tiresome. I smelled. It smelled like fresh-squeezed, not yet ripe lemon. God damn, it smelled like I was cutting up lemons before a crawfish boil. But whatever. I just wanted to smoke. I said that was cool, paid, and took a seat in the corner, on one of the couches.

The couches were prime real estate in Sinbad’s. Not only were they most comfortable seats in Sinbad’s, but they also had outlets, which was good because my phone was on 20 percent power. I had just put it on low power mode, to help it charge quickly. I plugged in my IPhone charger to the outlet underneath me and put in the jack to my phone. It made that charging noise as I put it on the table. I didn’t feel an incessant need to be on it right away. Let it charge organically and be off the grid for a bit.

About five minutes passed before the new worker came with my hookah. However, he forgot my plastic smoking tip and it took him another minute to fetch one before I could take a pull. I don’t think he mixed anything with it. It was pretty harsh. It tasted like steamed lemons, and not in the good way (though I don’t think steamed lemons would be good anyways beyond a seafood boil). Oh well. It was Thursday night. I was off tomorrow. Some holiday. I couldn’t remember. That was nice thing about teaching. Time off made up for the meager pay.

I laid back, put my feet on the chair in front of me and checked out the scene around me. A guy with thick, messy, curly hair and dark skin approached a college-aged blonde who seemed to be glued to her laptop. She could have been working on a paper, studying for a test…but most likely she probably was just on Facebook, catching up on her friends’ relationships or what her ex was doing. Not that I knew. I was just hypothesizing. I liked to do that. Guess what people were doing. Especially while I was smoking hookah in a hookah lounge.

The guy wore a baggy white t-shirt and jeans, as if he were a product of the 90’s rap world. He was high strung. His arms and body moved in all kinds of directions as he talked to her. She was polite. She gazed at him like she gave a fuck, but she probably didn’t. She probably came from a solid family background, probably went to a private Catholic high school or a nice public high school in the suburbs. She had that kind of look to her, that “I graduated from St. Theresa’s but I hated my girlfriends in high school and I hate the frat boys at UMKC so I’m going to meet people in hookah lounges instead” vibe.

I couldn’t tell what he was saying to her, but he was all over the place. Minutes passed. She began to look a bit more uncomfortable, but not enough so for him to notice. He either was lit or high, maybe a bit of both. In Northern California, we called that “hyphy”. I hadn’t heard the term migrate this way toward the Midwest.

He took out his phone. Really? She’s giving him her number? No, she’s not. He’s showing something to her. Maybe some artwork or the cover to his mixtape…or his friend’s mixtape. He looked like a “let me tell you about my mixtape, it’s fire” guy. He resembles the light brown skinned guy in “The Rookie” and “Coach Carter”. The guy who hates his coach or thinks he’s too good for the team but changes his way for the good of his colleagues. God, whoever that actor was, he played that role great. I haven’t seen him in a film though since “Coach Carter.”

This guy however is a more tweaked version of that character. She grabs his phone and nods politely. She must be Catholic. Who else would give this hyperactive dude this much time? A few people walk through the doorway. An older white couple and a dark-haired girl who probably is no older than 13 years old. There is a 21-and-over law for hookah lounges in Missouri. I get asked for my ID, and this girl strolls in. The new guy has to pick it up.

The couple look middle-aged and worn. The woman sports medium-length curly red hair and is overweight and wearing a black fleece and jeans. The guy is even more overweight, has a neck tattoo and is wearing a beater of a black t-shirt that hasn’t been washed in weeks from the look of it. They are odd for this time of night, this day of the week, and the crowd currently in Sinbad’s. The crowd is young: all Millenials and chill, except for the hyped up “savant” talking to the polite liberal Catholic college student. They looked like they could be from Raytown or Independence. Not quite country; not quite whiskey tango; not quite Johnson County suburban; and not quite Hyde Park denizens either.

They tapped the “Coach Carter” understudy on the shoulder and said a couple of things to him and pointed to the underage girl, probably giving some instructions to him. My guess was that he was their son and the girl was their daughter (though they didn’t look related judging by her paler complexion; step-siblings perhaps). He barely broke from his conversation (or should I say monologue) with the blonde. The couple then left. The pre-teen to teenage girl stayed next to him. The blonde switched glances from the girl to the guy. She probably was thinking what most of us were at that moment: what the fuck is this girl doing in here and why did her parents (allegedly; I couldn’t say for sure) leave her with you?

He wrapped up. He put out his hand and she shook it. The guy with the messy, bouncy black hair took a seat back on the couch underneath the flat wide screen television. The underage girl followed him and took a seat in a chair next to him. She looked uncomfortable. I bet she didn’t want to be there, but maybe they were brother and sister and he had to take her home.

For about 10 minutes they talked. He showed the girl stuff on his phone. He took pulls from his hookah in front of her but didn’t offer her any. She just sat there, sitting up straight, listening intently to every word he said. She had long black straight hair that was parted to the left side. The black t-shirt she wore appeared to have a punk band design to it. She wore a gray hooded sweater unzipped over the shirt. The two were polar opposite. She looked too scared to say a word and he looked too overly-confident to shut up. The new worker didn’t do anything. He just remained behind the cashier, talking to Jacob, one of the servers who also prepared hookah. Jacob would’ve done a much better job with my hookah, but he arrived 10 minutes after I ordered.

After his one-sided conversation ended, the high-strung guy took the plate of his hookah and returned it to the cashier. He then walked back to his seat and table and took apart his hookah, putting the coals on a deserted hookah next to his, and the bowl on the table in front of his seat. The girl stood up and put her hair in a pony tail and re-strapped her teal backpack over her shoulders. Judging from the size of the pack, I was guessing she had homework. I didn’t know if any of the public schools had the day off tomorrow. I worked at a Catholic school and our schedule often varied from the public school system.

He grabbed the water pipe bottom of the hookah and then told the underage girl to follow him. He shouted over and waved with his free hand to the blonde in a loud fashion, probably to not just grab her attention, but to let everyone know he was talking with her. He probably thought it was a major accomplishment to talk to a cute girl like that. Everyone talked to her. She was polite and young. She didn’t know any better. Wait until she reached her late 20’s. Her patience would be more thin.

They walked out. They both sprinted across Broadway toward the Broadway Mission Church. I was surprised he didn’t drop his hookah on the road considering it had started to mist a bit outside. Friday’s forecast called for rain. They disappeared into the Midtown night.

I took another pull. It now tasted like slightly burnt, steamed lemons.

This new guy sucked. I missed Dia.