"Hey, man, could you pick me up at the sandwich shop? I need to get out to River Road."
It was Chase on the line, a regular customer for about a year now. Throughout the spring and summer, he'd been painting houses with a contractor friend, but that work was drying up as fall approached. Wanting something steady to get him through the winter, he'd recently taken a job managing a chain of local delis.
Chase was waiting for me at the curb as I pulled up to the store. We'd never talked much of his past, but he's clearly post-college age - maybe as old as 30. His hair is brown and wavy, brushed back behind his ears, and his facial features are strong. Everything about the guy suggests forthrightness, including his simple attire, which looks clean even after a hard day on the job.
As he climbed into the shotgun seat, I noticed Chase was carrying a small brown bag. It smelled like dinner. "Ya got a sub in there?" I asked.
"Are you kidding? I can't even look at the fuckin' things anymore. This stuff is from that cool Thai place next door."
"So, I see you're still crashing at your friend's place out in Essex."
"Yeah, just another couple weeks, though. I found a great sublet in the South End."
We sliced through the UVM campus, which was flooded with newly returned students. I always enjoy my conversations with Chase. He's knowledgeable about the world - not from books, but from living. He projects an air of competence that makes me wonder why he hasn't pursued a professional career.
Chase is the type of guy I'd have sought out as a friend when I was young. Back then I was attracted to people who appeared solid and together, perhaps because I was so all over the map myself. Some things don't change much, I thought, steering around a jaywalking collegian.
We spun around the cloverleaf, drove from Exit 14 to 15, and merged onto Route 15. Chase said, "Hey, Jernigan, I'm real sorry, but I don't think I can tip you for this fare. They still got me technically in this 'training period,' so the pay sucks. I'll take care of you next week, though. Is that cool?"
"No problem whatsoever, man. Don't worry about it." When Chase had the dough, he always tipped me large - my kind of customer. "This summer you were raking it in, though, weren't you?" I asked.
"Oh, man - I was making mad money. Remember that one Friday I told you about, when Paul and I really pushed it and I took home, like, $900 for the day? I don't even know what the fuck Paul made that day. Jeeeez." Chase paused for a moment, contemplating the fat days of summer, then added, "It's tough for me now on this fast-food salary. I'm really something of a shopaholic, if you want to know the truth."
I thought of the times I'd picked him up at Radio Shack or some sneaker store, his arms loaded with merchandise. "Yeah," I said with a laugh, "I can see that."
"The problem is," Chase continued, "when it comes to money, my frame of reference is totally distorted from my years dealing the chronic."
This was something I'd not heard before. I suppose, after riding around with me for a year, I'd gained a level of trust in his eyes.
"Now, by 'chronic,' you're referring to marijuana, right?"
"Yeah, that's it. In my early twenties, me and a friend were probably moving about 300 pounds a month. We had this Montréal supplier who would deliver the stuff to a Newport drop-off. The jack was sick. Towards the end I had, like, five or six separate bank accounts, each one with just over $9000. You don't want to go over 10, because that's when the IRS checks on things."
"How'd you get the pot over the border?" I asked. "That's a lot of product."
"We were careful. My partner and I would spend, like, days preparing at the border section, wrecking the motion detectors and whatnot."
"What made you get out of it?"
"The Canadians were busted, and copped a plea where they ratted out the entire supply chain. My partner ended up doing some time. To this day, I'm not exactly sure why they nailed him and not me. Maybe because he was the one who mostly dealt with the Montréal guys. Anyhow, I figure I must have escaped by, like, the skin of my teeth."
We arrived at his temporary digs in Essex, and Chase paid the fare. Before getting out he said, "You know, I rarely tell anyone about my past because they think I'm totally bullshitting. But why would I make this shit up? To impress chicks or something? Like, how lame is that? At this point in my life, I'm kind of ashamed of it, to tell you the truth."
"Well, I believe you, Chase," I said, looking right into his eyes. "It's great you got out of that world - it's fool's gold, man. I truly believe it. The karma eventually catches up with you."
Chase smiled and chuckled. "Sure don't need any more of that bad karma," he agreed.