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News & Features » January 2014 » “Herbal Tea” by Steven Jay Flam

“Herbal Tea” by Steven Jay Flam

Thursdaze (because the weekend won’t come fast enough) features original flash fiction modeled after our Drug Chronicles Series. Each story is an original one, and each encapsulates the author’s fictional experience with drugs. Our print series has anthologized authors writing about marijuanacocainespeed, and heroin, but contributors to the web series can focus on any drug, real or imagined, controlled or prescribed, illegal or soon-to-be legalized. Submissions to Thursdaze will be judged on an author’s ability to stylistically emulate his or her substance of choice. Submissions are also limited to 750 words, so try to focus. (They have a pill for that.)

Steven Jay FlamThis week, Steven Jay Flam talks about the perils of selling faux-pot to 70s sailors.

Herbal Tea
by Steven Jay Flam

Harry was a twenty-two-year-old junkie who made his living pedaling marijuana to sailors on Telegraph Avenue. He would buy lid bags of Mexican for ten dollars apiece and resell them for twenty. Some nights he would sell five.

After a while, Harry figured he was taking too much risk for such a small bit of money.

He decided to cut his costs and fill the Baggies with tea instead of pot. He bought the tea from an Indian grocery store for forty cents an ounce.

In October of ’73, Harry and I lived in the same rooming house in Berkeley and were passing friends. He explained to me the genius behind his new business scheme. Not only did he double his profits, but if the cops snagged him, the charges could not stick for selling tea.

I asked, “Won’t the sailors notice?”

“Are you kidding? Those dumbasses are repeat customers!”

Sometimes we’d smoke a joint together, but he never offered me smack. He said he had a conscience.

He had a weird view of life. He asked me, “Who do you think are the best salesmen in the world?”

“I don’t know.”

“Junkies!” he exclaimed with pride. “A junkie could sell you the spit off his lips. Imagine, if the big corporations ever harnessed that power, they could rule the planet.”

I thought it over. “I don’t think so, Harry. Eventually a junkie would just rip off the company and go get high.”

Harry had a good laugh. “I guess you’re right.” And he strolled off casually to his room. After a while I heard Freddie Hubbard blowing the horn from Harry’s tape player and I knew Harry had just shot up.

For a few months the tea business was booming. The Navy had landed. Harry would see me in the hallway, say hi and go into his room. He was a loner and I never saw him with a single friend. He had a nice look too: clean-shaven with longish brown hair, quality shoes, and a mahogany leather jacket. He resonated coolness.

One night Harry knocked on my door and asked for help. He’d been manhandled by a couple of pissed-off sailors. His face was bruised and swollen. His eyes were shut like a battered prizefighter; his lips were split and he was spitting blood into a towel. But the worst was his nose. It was pushed all the way to one side.

I said, “Harry, you need to go to a hospital.”

He said, “Fuck it, I’d end up getting busted. You think I need that shit! I want you to push my nose back, okay?”

“Are you nuts!”

He said use the heel of your palm and push as hard as you can.

I did the best I could and he grimaced; then examined himself in the mirror and had me shove some more. After that he asked me to get ice. I went to the kitchen freezer and fetched all the ice trays; when I got back to his room, he was shooting up. Beside him was a spoon with a cotton ball and a lighter. He had a belt wrapped around his arm and gripped in his teeth. He shot it smooth, and the hard facial tension relaxed into a pool of tranquility.

Three days later, when I came to visit, Harry was shivering with a blanket draped over his shoulders. He told me he was broke and kicking cold turkey. He didn’t have the heart to ever scam sailors again. God had spoken to him.

He was plied with Valium and Early Times. He had busted a chair, punched holes in the wall, and his rage was a continuous rant against the universe. His bruised face was beet-red with withdrawal sickness. Balls of sweat were beading on his forehead like eruptions. When he wasn’t running to the bathroom, he was puking in a bucket.

He kicked in four days. Other junkies told me it wasn’t possible, that Harry must have only had a chippie habit. I couldn’t say.

One month later, his bruises were healed. He was his old self with a freshly crooked nose. He went back to selling herbal tea to sailors. He said, “What the hell, it’s what I do.” That night when he squeezed in the needle, before his eyes rolled back and he slipped into a nod, he whispered in a breathless rapture, “It’s like being a virgin all over again.”


After graduating from the New York Theatrical Academy, STEVEN JAY FLAM decided acting was not his bag. His destiny was to become a writer. Along his forty-year journey he worked as a waiter, NYC cabbie, truck driver, painter, scab, chauffeur, bartender, Santa Claus, door-to-door salesman, gold and silver importer, flea market dealer, day trader, water filter installer, and a vending machine operator. His last occupation was a twenty-year stint as a professional backgammon player. He was the Florida State Backgammon Champion. Now when he needs a good story, he opens up his book of life experiences and sorts one out. His first book, The Id and the Ecstasy for dreamers only, is a memoir of on the road adventures.


Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Thursdaze flash fiction series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines:

—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your submission should never have been published elsewhere.
—Your story should feature a drug, any drug, and your character’s experience with it. We’ll consider everything from caffeine to opium, and look forward to stories ranging from casual use to addiction to recovery. Stylistically, we’ll respond most favorable to stories that capture the mood and rhythm of your drug of choice.
—Include your drug of choice next to your byline.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—E-mail your submission to info@akashicbooks.com, and include THURSDAZE in the subject line. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.


About the Drug Chronicles Series: Inspired by the ongoing international success of the city-based Akashic Noir Series, Akashic created the Drug Chronicles Series. The anthologies in the series feature original short stories from acclaimed authors, each of whom focuses on their fictional experience with the title drug. Current releases in the series include The Speed Chronicles (Sherman Alexie, William T. Vollmann, Megan Abbott, James Franco, Beth Lisick, Tao Lin, etc.), The Cocaine Chronicles (Lee Child, Laura Lippman, etc.), The Heroin Chronicles (Eric Bogosian, Jerry StahlLydia Lunch, etc.), and The Marijuana Chronicles (Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Child, Linda Yablonsky, etc.).

Posted: Jan 16, 2014

Category: Original Fiction, Thursdaze | Tags: , , , , , , ,