“I got cane,” Rickey told Donald without preface. “You got cash?”
Donald Lasker didn’t mind the bitter cold of the morning, for two reasons: He knew he’d soon be in his warm office — and he’d be there all day, in fact, and likely well into the evening, given how much work he and his colleagues had to get done by the end of the week, in order to close the deal the company was chasing … but also because it wasn’t snowing, which made all the difference to Donald as he walked through Quincy Adams Park, which was nowhere near his office. But if he was going to make it through that week, then that particular park, at that time of the morning, was just where Donald Lasker needed to be. With any luck, he wouldn’t be there long, and he wouldn’t attract the wrong kind of attention while he was there. Or maybe the cops overlooked businessmen in suits, overcoats, and expensive shoes, such as Donald Lasker was wearing… which is why he was very glad that it wasn’t snowing.
Well that was quick, Donald thought, surprised that he hadn’t even noticed anyone approaching him. Nonetheless, he was already been solicited.
“I got pink and blue,” the other man told him.
“You got cane?” Donald asked, maybe a bit too loudly. Those were the first words he’d spoken aloud that morning.
“Talk to Rickey,” the other man said, stepping aside to let Donald continue further into the park, to find Rickey, as if Donald was supposed to have any idea who Rickey was.
Rickey found him (but not before a second dealer offered to sell Donald sacc, which Donald had been warned by more than one friend not to mess with). These dealers were skillful salesman, Donald thought.
“I got cane,” Rickey told Donald without preface. “You got cash?”
Donald had cash. Of course Donald had cash. Did Rickey think that Donald was going to try to buy cane with a personal check? Donald passed a wad of bills to the other man, then felt something drop into a pocket of his coat.
“We’re done,” Rickey muttered and turned away.
“Wait,” Donald whispered. The other man stopped. “You got feen?” Donald asked quickly and very quietly.
Rickey wheeled back to face Donald again, looking him square in the eyes now. “You crazy, man?” Rickey asked. “I ain’t got feen. There’s no feen in the park,” Rickey added.
“Then where?” Donald inquired. Rickey paused. Donald appreciated that the other man had more business to transact before the city fully came alive that morning, and every minute spent with him was time Rickey couldn’t spend with other paying customers, but Donald pressed him. “If not in the park, where?”
“Mala’s,” Rickey said, then briskly fled the scene.
Donald headed out of the park, but not the way he’d come in. Mala’s was on the other side of the square. Donald had eaten there once or twice, years earlier. They didn’t serve breakfast, though, so the restaurant wasn’t open at that hour. But even if it had been, Donald wouldn’t have walked up to the hostess and asked if they had feen on the menu. So Donald walked around the corner, looking for an entrance to an alley that ran through the block.
Behind the restaurant, some young, cocoa-colored men were loading in supplies — cardboard boxes of all sorts of produce, burlap bags of rice and of nuts — and Donald waited for one of them to notice him standing there. After what felt like several minutes, during which the young men continued to work with admirable focus, Donald put a gloved hand to his mouth and coughed. One of the young men looked up at him and simply jerked his head in the direction of a door in the back of the building. Then the man went back to moving foodstuffs into the cellar.
Donald walked around the men, nearly slipping on a rotten plantain on the ground as he did. Donald opened the indicated, unlocked door and stepped inside to find a narrow, dimly lit staircase. He climbed the stairs to another door, also unlocked. On the second floor, Donald looked around until he discovered a man about his own age, but clearly from a different part of the world, hunched over a cheap desk in a small, cluttered room. The man appeared to be writing in a ledger, but before Donald could discern the specifics of the bookkeeping, the man raised his head.
“Ah …” Donald began.
The man behind the desk then raised his eyebrows, inviting Donald to continue.
“I was told you could help me,” Donald said.
The man behind the desk looked Donald over slowly, carefully. “You’re with the Health Department?” he asked. His accent was thick.
“No,” Donald assured him.
“I’m looking to buy feen,” Donald said.
The man behind the desk looked Donald over again. Then he gestured for Donald to come closer… no, to give him something. For the second time that morning, Donald handed over a wad of cash to a stranger.
Rickey in the park hadn’t counted Donald’s money. This man did. And when he had counted all of it, Donald thought he saw the man smile, but just a little, and only briefly. Then the man asked Donald: “Bean or leaf?”
“Bean,” Donald said. “Please,” he added, remembering his manners.
The other man picked up the handset of the telephone on his desk — an old, heavy device, a relic of an age long past — and spoke a few words of Spanish into it.
In a moment, a girl in her twenties had silently, dutifully appeared at the door to the small room, offering a plain brown paper bag to Donald. He accepted the package, and the girl departed. Donald turned back to the man at the desk, but he had already returned to his ledger, so then Donald went back down the staircase and out into the alley again. All of the food had been brought in, and the young men were nowhere to be seen. It was time for Donald to get to work himself.
Finally seated at his own desk — a large, sturdy affair, made for long hours of serious white-collar labor — Donald Lasker arrayed three items on his blotter: the small glass vial that Rickey had slipped into his overcoat pocket; the brown bag he’d received at Mala’s; and a paper cup of steaming hot water he’d bought from a vendor cart on the sidewalk outside his office building. From the brown bag he withdrew a tin can with a plastic lid, which he removed in turn. From a drawer of his desk Donald took out a plastic spoon. Then, very carefully, Donald transferred some of the feen from the tin into the water, stirring it with one hand as he gingerly tapped some of the cane from the vial into the mixture. Donald had heard that some people added milk as well, but to him that seemed criminal.
Donald looked into the cup. What he saw was a black abyss … but it smelled heavenly.
He had lifted the cup to his lips and was about to take a sip when a colleague popped his head into Donald’s office.
“Don — ,” the other man began, but Donald interrupted him.
“Bill,” Donald said, holding up a finger of warning, “do us both a favor: Don’t talk to me until I’ve had this.”