by Ioannis Argiris
“Damn. Jimmy’s got to keep this shit on the low,” Jules says. The U-Haul truck’s suspension seems lower than what he remembers from the other night. The port lights lead a path to the exit. The smell of coal drifts in the air.
“Go slow over the tire spikes,” Athan says. “The last shift fucked up the cargo.”
Jules stares at him like he doesn’t know his job. Every night for the past month they’ve been hauling shit out of the port. Same route through Oakland—drive through the produce market, head up to the lake, go around it twice, stop for some food, then down through Chinatown until they hit the Webster Tube, pop up on the other side in Alameda, then west until they stop at the distillery warehouse. Seems simple. And the only reason he agrees to work with his cousin is because he can’t be at home. Can’t be there when his father loses too much at playing cards. Can’t be there when his father’s too far gone on the bottle. Plus, Jules likes the cash. Community college is expensive, loans are piling up, and summer gets boring without spending money. So, he drives, his cousin navigates, and if circumstances warrant it, the both of them fuck up anyone in their way.
“Are we finally going to stop at Vegan Mob tonight?” Jules asks. He likes the architecture of the drive-in spot with its large arches and glass façade—a different era. Tomorrow, he’ll bring his new Leica M10 camera to snap a few photos. He doesn’t know much about Leica other than that they’re on the higher end of cameras. Or at least that’s what he learned in his photojournalism class at Laney College. “If I’m going to eat fast food, I'd rather eat something remotely healthy.”
Athan rests his green Nike SBs on the dash. Leans back, pulls out his Glock, and lays it on the seat between them. “Drive, motherfucker.”
Jules tolerates his cousin’s tough-guy act because he knows they have each other's backs. His first week on the job, Athan had looked the other way when Jules swiped the Leica camera from an incoming shipment they were transporting for Jimmy. But more importantly, Athan had been there for him over the past three years when things turned violent back at home with his father. From time to time, Athan would pull Jules’s father out of the house, take him to who knows where for several hours, but afterward, when they’d come back, things were a bit more chill. So, when he hears Athan flex muscle the way he does, with a gun and all, he knows it’s just his way of saying, “Let’s go, dude, let’s get this over with.”
They exit the ports and head south on Third Street, into Jack London Square. Tourists walk in front of them, down toward the waterfront. Jules looks at the strangers—retail bags, take-out containers, baseball hats from the opposing team—fucking Yankees fans. He doesn’t remember the last time he was a tourist in another city. It was probably when his parents took him to Portland as a young child to visit some relatives. But the memories fade like images on old film. He thinks about cutting out cannabis and drinking, but where’s the fun in going dry when you’re still in your early twenties? He still had his whole life in front of him and plenty of time to go straight in his forties.
The route takes about an hour, but he can’t help but think about how he’s finally going to see Katia later tonight. They’re supposed to meet in Grand Lake at The Alley for karaoke. She likes to sing the standards with the guy who plays piano. Same fucking tunes because every night is karaoke night at The Alley. The truck gains some speed.
“What the fuck you doing?” Athan asks.
They ride over the train tracks. A thud echoes from the back of the truck.
“Slow the fuck down now,” Athan says.
Jules eases up on the pedal. Turns left onto Oak Street.
“I need to grab some cigarettes,” Athan says. “Pull over at the charging station.”
Jules doesn’t want to stop. Not tonight. He speeds up.
“Pull the fuck over.”
Jules parks to the side of the plug-in stations. Athan jumps out. From the side mirror, Jules sees him open up a latch on the side of the truck. Checking if the cargo is good. Athan does it every time they deviate from the route. Jules’s fingers tap against the steering wheel. He checks the charge on the truck. Full. The last shift doesn’t always charge it, but maybe Elias finally came down on them. Elias manages all the trucks. Jules knows him from when his parents used to throw parties. A family friend somehow. Maybe a relative. But his parents haven’t thrown a party for a few years, and Elias had stopped showing up.
An old 1970s motorcycle rolls up to the lonely gas pump among the plug-in spots. A guy in his thirties with neck tattoos fills up the tank. Jules hasn’t seen a bike that old since their grandfather used to ride a few. He reaches to his side, where his camera would be, but rests his hand on the middle seat instead, next to the gun. There’s something about a well-crafted lens that captures just the right light of an object. The shitty camera on his burner phone distorts an image with grainy static. He admires how a great photo evokes a curiosity to ask why. It’s his way of conversing with strangers. The camera lens is his voice, the lighting his mood, and the photo is the artifact to generate a curiosity to give people a new perspective.
Athan opens the door and jumps back into the U-Haul.
“Everything good?” Jules asks.
“You believe this joker?” Athan asks, pointing his cherry-tip cigarette at the biker.
“I like those old ones, they remind me of Papou.”
“The maintenance alone set him back, working till he was seventy to keep those bikes running.”
“So what? Just drive—”
“Drive the truck, got it,” Jules says. His cousin can be an asshole sometimes, but Jules knows he means well in the end.
“And yes, we’re good,” Athan says.
The truck travels under the overpass toward the courthouse and onto Lakeside Drive. They stop at Lake Chalet because the valet is rearranging the cars. Porsches swap for Range Rovers. “Look at these fucking assholes,” Jules says. Trust fund tech bros and young model types trade places with valet runners. The electric vehicles still don’t know how to park themselves.
“Just give it a minute,” Athan says.
But Jules doesn’t have any minutes to spare tonight. He needs to finish his shift so he can tell Katia how much he’s missed her. That they should try to chill more often. Jules pops his head out the window. “Come on, fucking move already.” The valet runner looks up and moves the Range Rover. Jules punches it. The truck jerks forward. Athan hits his shoulder. Jules waves it off. The truck turns right onto Grand Street, past the Fairyland entrance and onto Bellevue, making its way into Lakeside Park. Bicyclers, roller skaters, and skateboarders share the road. He hates this part of the route. Always feels like he’s going to accidentally hit one. But it’s less crowded than usual. He can’t remember the last time he skated through the park. Maybe not since early high school. Jules looks down at the boathouse and sees there’s a silent-DJ thing going on. Wishes he could take Katia there later. She’d like that. Dancing by the lake under the moonlight. They drive around the park until they finally hit traffic in front of Grand Lake Theater on the northeast side of the lake. The theater on the corner that uses its marquee as a political message board.
“Vegan Mob?” Jules asks.
“No, I need some protein before I hit the gym tonight.”
Jules knows that’s bullshit. Knows that his cousin hasn’t been to the gym in weeks. Knows that the “gym” is probably code for the strip club. Knows that Athan tends to disappear after their shift most nights. Jules doesn’t ask, doesn’t really care. He looks at Athan’s gut sticking out from under his shirt. “You sure?”
“Fried chicken,” Athan says.
The U-Haul pulls up in front of the fried-chicken spot, partially blocking the entrance to the Trader Joe’s parking lot. There’s a crowd gathered outside of the chicken spot, always a crowd at this evening hour. Athan gets out, pushes his way to the front, and fist-bumps the man behind the counter. Jules spots Katia across the street. She’s with a few people he doesn’t recognize. One of the men wraps his arm around her. Jules pulls out his phone and texts her. Katia pulls out her phone and then places it back into her back pocket. Jules stretches his arms over the steering wheel, deflating his lungs. He checks the fried-chicken spot and sees Athan grabbing a few bags. Back across the street, Katia’s gone. The horn blares.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Athan yells at the passenger window. “You want heat on us?”
“Get the fuck in already.”
“Give me a minute, let me check the cargo,” Athan says. He returns with a piece of chicken between his teeth. The bags are gone. He takes a bite, chews heavily. “What the fuck is wrong with you tonight?”
“Just have shit I gotta take care of.”
“Better take care of this cargo first.”
The cops have blocked off the south entrance to Lakeshore Drive—traffic control from the unlicensed vendors—so they enter Cleveland Heights. The hills aren’t San Francisco hills, but the U-Haul still struggles to make the climb through the neighborhood. Jules used to hang out nearby, a friend of a friend who used to smoke them out during high school lunch hours. Good times, except for the one time when he smoked LSD-laced cannabis without knowing it. Fucking tripped out of his mind, thought gravity was reversed because the water coming out of the sink went toward the ceiling instead of the drain. That was the last time he’d been in Cleveland Heights. Up in front of them, a man juts out from underneath a Honda. He’s holding a metal car part. Jules swerves, almost hits a mail truck making late deliveries, but gains control before the U-Haul tips to one side.
“Slow down!” Athan says.
“Fucking piece of shit loser,” Jules says. “Who still steals converters these days?”
“Take Eighteenth back to First Street,” Athan says.
Jules hits a right on Park Boulevard. Lucky’s supermarket glows in front of them. Neon lights bathe the truck. They end up back on Lake Merritt Avenue and continue west. In Oakland Chinatown, they turn onto Webster Street and stop at the diagonal crosswalk. Jules sees a shuffle of people to his left. Two assailants punch an elderly woman. They shove her, swiping her cross-body purse. A couple bystanders spot the action and jump in to help. One gets pistol-whipped. The other hits the ground. Jules opens his door.
“Dude, where the fuck are you going?”
“She’s getting mugged,” Jules says, turning back to his cousin.
One assailant jumps into a silver Mercedes with the woman’s belongings. The other fires his gun at the good Samaritans. They drop to the ground, howling in pain. The assailants speed off.
“What the fuck? What if that was my mom or yours?”
“Let the police handle it.”
“Police isn’t going to do shit about it.” If only he’d brought his camera tonight, he could’ve taken photos and given them to the cops. His father had pissed him off so much tonight that he ran out of the house without it. Didn’t realize he’d left his Leica back on his desk until he was already in the port parking lot. The photos would’ve been great to show in class. Maybe his professor would’ve helped him sell the photos to The Oaklandside too.
“Light’s green, motherfucker.”
Jules stomps on the pedal, and the truck jerks forward, heading into the Webster Tunnel toward Alameda Island. The electric motor hums in the tunnel. The sound vibrates in his jaw. He flexes it but can’t shake it until they exit the tunnel. They turn left onto Atlantic Avenue toward the Food Bank—a long line wraps around the building even at this late hour. He and Katia used to hand out free food back when they were in high school. She always brought the good out in him. The U-Haul stops at the end of Monarch Street. A neon green sign sits atop the distillery: Calamari & Sons. The truck creeps into the distillery’s loading bay. They both get out, walk to the back of the truck, unlatch the door, and help twenty men walk down the ramp. Gamblers will do anything to get their fix, even if it means riding in the back of a U-Haul for hours while playing cards. Most of the men wipe their faces, eyes adjusting to the lighting of the warehouse. A few continue to drink whatever’s in their cups. Others light up cigarettes. A few women in cocktail attire meet the gentlemen with food and drinks. The women escort the men to a table off to the side of the warehouse.
An older man in a blue suit walks out of the back of the truck last. He adjusts his belt, tucks in his shirt, pulls out a comb, and fixes his undercut hairstyle with a few strokes. He’s chewing gum tensely.
“Athan, what the fuck kind of driving was that tonight?” the man says.
“Sorry, Jimmy, not our best night,” Athan says.
Jimmy stands at the bottom of the U-Haul ramp. “The fuck, Jules, I thought you had your license,” Jimmy says. “It was getting rough back there. Spilt my drink on my new loafers.”
Jules didn’t think Mr. Calamari ever rode in the back. Didn’t think he played cards with the rest of the losers. “Sorry, sir, lots of street activity tonight.” He looks down, clutching his phone. “Lake shit.”
“You win from these chumps?” Athan asks Jimmy.
“Always, kid.” Jimmy laughs. “Always.” He takes a few steps away from them but turns around to Jules. “If you see Katia tonight, tell her ass to get home.”
“Will do, Mr. Calamari.”
Jimmy Calamari meets the group of men at the dinner table located on the far side of the warehouse. The patio gate is open, the fresh air from the bay flows in, neon purples and yellows from the San Francisco skyline glimmer in the distance.
“Did you know that he was back there tonight?” Jules asks.
“Nope. He doesn’t usually play his own cards.”
“You’re such a bad liar.”
“Whatever, dude.” Athan walks to the edge of the patio gate where the group of men are gathered. Jules follows but spots his father joking with a few of the men.
“Fucking loser,” Jules says.
“I thought he didn’t play till the last truck.”
“He couldn’t wait, so I brought him.”
They lean up against the gate, looking at the City beyond the waves. Athan lights up a joint. Jules plucks it from his hand and inhales.
“You two want a plate?” One of the cocktail waitresses interrupts them.
“No thanks,” Jules says, coughing, choking on the cannabis smoke.
“Want to hit the gym after I’m done with the next shift?” Athan asks.
A text message from Katia pops up on Jules’s phone. “I don’t know,” Jules says, “maybe later.”
“What? Katia will be around tomorrow,” Athan says. “How about while I’m on the next shift, you can deliver the next VR drop to Remi?”
“You still got that loser in the projects working for you?”
“Remi’s got magic when it comes to that VR shit.”
“I can’t stay here,” Jules says, pointing the joint toward the table of men, at his father.
“I get it.”
“No, you don’t.” Jules walks out of the distillery, leaving Athan behind. He walks onto the old landing strip, toward the edge of the island, and grabs onto the wire fence while the joint hangs from his mouth. Waves clap against the rocks on the other side. The earthy smell of algae grows stronger, overpowering the cannabis. The Bay Bridge lights illuminate the gap between the cities, distorting the waves below, connecting the lives of the haves and the have-nots. Dammit, if only he had his camera tonight.
Born to Greek immigrant parents, Ioannis Argiris is a first-generation college graduate. Ioannis's recently published work includes an interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen in The Coachella Review. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of California Riverside at Palm Desert and lives in Oakland, California.