I’m one of the lucky ones, I mean, I never got hooked. Could’ve happened of course, that’s always a danger when you’re a Trader. Got a whole supply at my fingertips, could tap in anytime I want, be like those kingpins over there, rattling their yellow teeth my way, hopped up on the stuff, eyes crazy. But that’s not my style. A Trader’s gotta be fair, has to be clean. If he ain’t he’ll just be pushing for his own benefit. That’s not what it’s about, you know? It’s about helping people.
I’ve been doing this a long time, know all the tricks. That’s why I can call this side of town my own; everyone comes to me. They know I’ll be good to ’em, that I won’t cheat ’em none. I’m running a good thing: got drop points all over the place, a few Runners and a couple Recruiters. Good ones too.
They know I’ve only got one rule: don’t get hooked and I’ll keep paying. Get hooked, and I’ll make sure you pay double-double. They all know how it is.
See, a few things have changed over the past couple years. ‘Cause of the Ban, everything had to be government regulated. Put up shops on every corner, and started mailing out tokens. Everyone got thirty tokens a month; one token, one cup. Then some activist group petitioned to close the Farms. When that didn’t work, they set to burning them down. Production dropped. Stores closed. The government stopped issuing tokens and people panicked. Soon, the effects of withdrawal began to show: everyone was calling in sick to work and grocery stores couldn’t keep Advil on the shelves. Everywhere you went, people were glaring, with bags under their eyes, so irritable that even the smallest jostle would send them flying. It was pure mayhem.
When word got out that some government employees were selling from the backseats of their cars, I thought I’d capitalize on the situation. See, no one ever knew what to get me at Christmas, so they’d all bring me beans. I had shelves and shelves of them in my garage. So I started asking around, made a few connections. Soon people were askin’ if I wanted to take business to the next level; wanted to know if I was willing to build a cooperative. I had nothing to lose, so I took a chance. Best decision I ever made.
Today’s delivery day. My boy Tim H. has a truck coming full of bean juice and empty needles. Everything’s intravenous now; much easier that way. Quicker. Quieter. Our supplier in Canada makes the juice, but he won’t touch a damn needle so we’ve got to fill ‘em ourselves. That’s the dangerous part. One air bubble and your customers are flat-lining. Trader’s go under ‘cause of shit like that.
Told Tim I’d meet him down at Maxwell House around one, but I’ve got to pick up the van from Bob’s first, so I’m on foot. I try and keep my head down so no one recognizes me, but there’re a few who know me just by my walk.
“You got?” a woman named Nadine asks, tugging at her ear. She’s been a regular from the beginning. Got hooked early, you know? She has all the usual symptoms: weight loss, thin hair, smells like she hasn’t showered in weeks. But they’re all like that on this side of town.
“Yeah. What’cha need?”
“I’ve . . . I’ve got . . .” She holds out her hand. In it are two crumpled twenties from the old days. Who knows what she did to get them.
“You want to give ‘em both up?” She pushes the bills on me.
“Alright. Come on.”
We walk down the nearest empty alleyway. It’s daylight, but a streetlamp still flickers above us. Then, the Exchange. She can’t even wait until I leave before shooting up. In less than a minute, she’s a whole different woman: back straight, head high, no more frown, eyes bright. Even her hands stop shaking. She nods and, without a goodbye, or even a thank-you, walks to the end of the alley before disappearing around the corner. Oh well, not like I take it personally. People don’t like sticking around and chatting with guys like me, anyway.
“So, you’re a Trader.”
I turn around. A middle-aged man with slick brown hair and a cocoa jacket stands in the shadow of a dumpster to my right. Must have been there the whole time.
“Yeah, I am.”
I don’t know where to place him. He looks clean, like he’s never touched the stuff.
“Are you Schultz, by any chance?”
“The one and only.”
“They tell me you’ve got a few rooms for rent. That true?”
Now I understand. He’s a Joe. See, in the old days, people would gather in large rooms with a bunch of tables and drink the stuff. Back then, you didn’t have to hide. It was so normal, you could walk down the street with a tray of four cups in your hand and not even get stopped. I already had some property when everything went spiraling, so I decided to fix some rooms up. Did my research, made ‘em look just like they used to: armchairs, bookshelves, art work. Each room’s equipped with one of them old Black & Deckers. If you pay enough, you can have the room all day. Coffee’s extra, of course.
“I’ve got a few down in the Market.”
“Two hundred, by the hour.”
“When you need it?”
“Immediately, if possible. I’m here only a few more days. Want to experience the real Seattle, if you know what I mean.”
“I see. I’ve a few available. I can take you there now, if you’d like.” Tim can wait. He knows customers always come first.
We walk down to the Market in silence, the heels of his leather shoes clicking on the broken pavement. My building’s just off of Pike Street, down around 3rd, so it doesn’t take us too long to get there. I let him look at each of the rooms, and he settles on my favourite: tacky wall-paper, well-worn wooden floors, two bookcases and four antique armchairs, each a different colour. I’ve got a few paintings on the wall too, from a kid who couldn’t pay for his fix.
“So, how long’ll you be staying?”
“I think the day should be sufficient. Would you care to deal with the payment now?”
“Listen, uh . . .”
“The name’s Donald Caff, but my friends call me D.”
“Alright, D, I do things like this: you sit here, enjoy yourself, and brew as much coffee as you like. I’ll just total everything up when I stop by later. It’s just after one now, so I’ll do you a favour and we’ll start your time at two. Sound okay?”
“Excellent. Quite wonderful.”
“Do you need any help with the brewer before I go?”
“I don’t think that will be necessary, though I wonder: would you be willing to join me for a cup?”
I almost say yes. There’s something about him, you know? Like he’s a real gentleman or something. Awe, what the heck.
“Listen D, I’ll sit with you for a bit, but I don’t touch the stuff myself.”
“Fine, fine. Are there any mugs?”
“In the cupboard, with the beans.”
“Ah, yes. Thank you.”
He scans my selection, taking his time.
“Mind if I mix?”
“It’s your fix, D.”
He takes a bag of Guatemala and carefully measures two scoops into the grinder. Then he does the same with an Ethiopian blend. He grinds the beans, smells them, and then puts them on to brew.
“Ah, nothing like the sound of a percolator in the afternoon,” he says, sitting in the ochre recliner next to mine.
“If you say so.” We don’t speak again until the coffee’s done.
“There’s cream and sugar in the fridge, if you’d like.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dare.”
“No. There’s something special about the connection between a man and his coffee. Adding cream and sugar is like . . . like marrying an especially passionate lover. It ruins the flavour, tames it. But thank you for the offer.”
“You really like coffee, heh?”
“I won’t deny it. I was raised during a time when coffee was still good for you.”
“Yes. Coffee isn’t unhealthy, only the addiction is. Back before . . . well, before all of this, it was a culture. Coffee signified friendship, commonality. It was something you did while engaging in intellectual conversation on a Sunday in September on your porch with your neighbours.”
“You’re not so young yourself, you don’t remember?”
“I was never really into coffee. I tried it once, when I was seven, but-“
“Seven!” D gets up from his chair. I can tell the stuff’s hitting him from the look in his eyes. He starts pacing up and down the room, sipping from the mug in his hand, deep in thought.
“No seven year old boy likes coffee, Schultz.”
“Oh no. None of the one’s I’ve met anyway. Listen, I know you’ve said you don’t touch the stuff, but I’m going to make you a cup. One never hurt anybody. You get comfortable and I’ll start the brewer. How does that sound?”
I don’t answer him. He’s so casual about it. Classy, you know? The kind of guy who wouldn’t lead you wrong if he could help it. In about three and a half minutes, I have a mug steaming in between my fingers. D sits across from me in a turquoise chair, his legs up on the table between us.
“You know what they used to call these things?” He taps his foot on the table, “Coffee tables, can you believe it? Coffee tables! Tables specifically for coffee consumption!” He laughs. I raise the cup to my nose and take a deep breath. It does smell good. Like cocoa with a hint of cherry.
“Go ahead, don’t want it to get cold.” His feet are on the floor again and he’s leaning toward me, waiting. I dip my finger in and take a lick.
“Oh, come on Schultz! Take a sip, already.”
It’s bitter at first, but like any good liquor, it warms my throat. I take another sip.
“You like it?”
“Tastes pretty bold. When will it hit me?”
“In a couple of minutes, but don’t worry about that. Here, lets cheers. To you, Schultz!”
We raise our glasses and, as the minutes pass, my head begins to tingle. I take another drink and look at D. Our eyes meet, and we both start laughing like we’ve known each other for years. Before I know it, my second and third cups are empty, and D is starting a fresh batch. My hands are shaking. Everything is so bright and exciting. I look at the art on the walls. I want to paint something. I could paint. D grabs a magazine from the shelf and does a dramatic reading of an article in the National Geographic. It isn’t long before I’m rolling on the ground, laughing and laughing and laughing. Laughing so hard I can’t stop. My head is spinning. D keeps refilling my cup, and I keep drinking and drinking and drinking. We drink until there’s nothing left.
“More.” We both say. I take him to the next room. There are people there, and they join us for a cup. Then two. Then three. My heart is racing. I can barely see, I’m so dizzy. I’m talking and laughing. Everyone thinks I’m funny. I have so many friends.
Then everything goes dark.
“Schultz? Schultz is that you?”
Tim’s standing at the end of the alley.
I don’t want to come out. The light hurts my eyes.
“Schultz, get out here. What are you doing? We’ve been looking . . .” Shit. He’s seen me.
“Schultz, what happened? We were supposed to meet at Maxwell’s last week, but you never came. And our rooms are empty! Everything’s gone!” He’s at my side, shaking my shoulders.
“Stop. Stop . . . my head.”
“Schultz, did someone inject you? What happened?”
“D . . . Caff . . .”
“What? Decaf? Shit Schultz! Is he behind all this? I’ve just seen him selling . . .”
“Tim, do you have . . .?”
“Have what? What are you talking about?”
“There’s none left . . . I need . . . I need . . . Do you have?”
“Jesus Schultz. You’re a mess. Sure, yeah, I’ve got.” He grabs a syringe from his breast pocket and dangles it in front of me.
“Th-thank you . . .” I try to take it from him, but he moves a step backward and holds out an empty hand.
“What? What’re you . . . ?
“Schultz, you know how it is. You’re hooked. Now you’ve gotta pay double-double.”