This is the first in a series of stories about a group of friends taking on a neighborhood drug cartel.
The sunshine seemed brighter, somehow. Houston Jones knew it was the same sunshine that had beamed down on him when he was in the yard, the same as when he last experienced it as a free man nearly thirty years ago, but his heart didn’t believe it. His skin didn’t believe it. Everything else had changed for him; why not the sunshine too?
When he stepped outside Thousand Oaks Federal Correction Facility, into the brighter sunshine, the gate slammed behind him with such finality that he nearly jumped. He at least turned around to look behind him, at his home for the last three decades. What now? His mama was dead. Nana, her mother, was dead too. Pops had taken off about five years in — probably the reason Nana had lived so long — and Houston’s own dad may as well have been dead too, for all his son had ever seen him. Other than one sister sending a card every year at Christmas, he hadn’t had any contact with his siblings, and he had no plans to change that. Which left him with nowhere to go, no one waiting for him to get out.
The prison’s social worker had hooked him up with a small efficiency apartment on the edge of downtown. The landlord apparently had no problem with his renters’ backgrounds, as long as someone paid up, and Houston was guaranteed at least the first month. The social worker had arranged for a ride from Thousand Oaks to the town’s central bus station but had neglected to get him a bus pass or tokens, or give him directions to the apartment, so he was left walking along the sidewalk, carrying a small shopping bag with all his worldly possessions: a toothbrush, the Bible Mama had given him, a change of clothes, and an extra pair of socks. The social worker had also neglected to give Houston coins to call her or his PO and let them know he was out, and he had no way to contact them.
“Hey, man, spare a quarter?” he asked a guy in a suit walking towards him.
The man’s eyes flicked toward him, probably taking in his shaved head, dark tattooed skin, and sheer bulk, then straight ahead as he kept walking.
No biggie, Houston told himself as he too continued down the sidewalk.
But it became a biggie when the next dozen or so people turned him down too. He didn’t blame them — he probably wouldn’t have given someone like him a quarter either, if he were someone like them — but that didn’t change the reality that he was getting pretty close to being screwed, especially as it was getting late in the afternoon and he hadn’t passed any open businesses that he could duck into and ask to use the phone.
Something would come up, though. He fingered the cross around his neck and said a quick prayer to Jesus or Allah or Buddha or whoever might be listening, asking them to help a brother out. He wasn’t asking for a miracle or anything, but maybe just a little break.
“Hallelujah,” Houston proclaimed a few moments later when a diner came up on his right, a diner with a large sign that read “Open 24/7” underneath an only slighter larger sign that read, simply, “Carl’s.”
He pushed open the door but paused inside the restaurant. It was a straightforward place, with just a row of booths along the front windows and a row of high stools along the counter in front of a semi-exposed kitchen. A couple guys sat at the counter. Other than them, it was empty.
A waitress approached. She was squeezed into a uniform that may have fit her decades ago, her blonde hair teased and swept up into a messy bun, bright pink polish on her obviously fake nails. “Can I help ya, hon?”
“Can I use your phone?”
She jerked her thumb at a sign behind the counter. “Paying customers only.”
“Yeah, well, I ain’t got no money, for a phone call or for food,” he mumbled.
He chanced a look at her, expecting derision, but saw only pity. And not the kind that made you feel like shit and want to punch the smug bastard right in the face; this was the kind of pity that said she knew how he felt because she’d been there before. Houston hadn’t seen looks like that very often.
He waited while she studied him, his gaze focused on the floor. He could wait as long as it took, if she might be willing to do him a favor. He’d spent a lot of time waiting over the years, and a little more wouldn’t hurt him any.
She let out a short breath and glanced over her shoulder at the kitchen, then slipped a cell phone out of her pocket. “You can use my phone, if you promise not to steal it.”
Houston took the device from her, holding it in his big hand like he would a tiny chick on Nana’s farm. “I, uh, ain’t so good with these.” And by this he meant he’d never used a cell phone before. They weren’t around when he went in, and he’d been careful not to use one during his time in prison because it wasn’t worth it when you were caught. That was definitely a when, not an if, unless you were bribing a lot of someones and he didn’t have the money or skills or inclination for that. And he didn’t have anyone to call, anyways.
Another glance over her shoulder. “Okay, so you hit this button here on the side, then click on the phone picture. Type in the number, then hit the green button.”
He nodded, trying to follow along.
“Have a seat in that booth over there and I’ll bring you some coffee while you’re talking.”
“Ma’am, that’s right nice of you, but like I said, I ain’t got no money.”
“Just right over there,” she said in a louder voice.
Houston glanced towards the kitchen where a guy with a faded pinstripe shirt, burgundy tie, and bad combover was looking back at him and the waitress. “Yes, ma’am,” he said louder too. “Decaf, please.”
He made his way to the booth as she hurried away behind the counter. He managed to get the phone on and dialed, but he had to leave a message for the social worker. “I’m at some diner just down the street from the bus station. Carl’s, I think. I ain’t got no number here, so maybe you should just come get me.” He didn’t want to start out like this, already needing services, but it wasn’t his fault if she had messed up on him.
He sat in the booth, not sure what to do next, and stared out the window. Cars zipped by, smaller and less rusty than Before, foreign brands he wasn’t familiar with. He used to have an ’83 Crown Vic, dual exhaust, after market stereo, fancy rims, that had been his pride and joy. What happened to the vehicles, the possessions, of people like him? Seized as evidence, probably, and sold at auction or scrapped out. Or returned to family, maybe, who sold it when it became clear he wouldn’t need it, not where he was going, or drove it into the ground. RIP, baby.
The waitress interrupted his thoughts with a cup of coffee. “You call who you needed to?”
“Yes ma’am, but they ain’t answering.” He handed her back the phone. She glanced over her shoulder before slipping it into a pocket. “You mind if I stay here a spell?”
“We’re slow at the moment, so it’s all right with me. I might have to ask you to leave though if we get busy.”
She smiled at him. “You need anything else, Houston, you just let me know.”
He nodded again.
Nadine flitted around the diner, flirting and refilling and feeding the patrons trickling in and out. Houston just sat and watched: Nadine, the patrons, the world going by outside. Funny thing that he was finally free to do whatever he wanted and here he was, sitting and watching, just like he’d spent the last nearly thirty years doing. But here, at least, he had fresh coffee.
A couple guys entered and sat at the booth next to Houston’s. The tall, wiry guy in paint-speckled jeans and an open flannel shirt slid in with his back to Houston, while his companion, a squirrelly little man in a t-shirt and a shock of graying hair, faced him. Houston studied the second guy. He looked familiar but he couldn’t quite place him. An old coworker? Neighbor, maybe?
The man caught his eye and did a double take. “Why, if it ain’t Houston Jones!”
“Dom.” The name came to him with a blurred memory of drinking with him, somewhere. “How you been?”
“Living the dream, man. Living the dream.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” muttered the tall guy.
“I ain’t seen you for a while. Why don’t you join us and fill me in?” Dom stood and slid in next to his friend.
“A’ight.” Houston picked up his coffee and joined their table.
“So…” Dom prompted.
“Ain’t much to tell.”
“Whatda mean? I ain’t seen you in forever. There gotta be something to tell.”
Houston shrugged. “Nope.”
“Always were a man of few words.” Dom shook his head, smiling, and gestured at his companion. “This is my coworker, Jared. Jared, meet my old drinking buddy, Houston.”
Jared extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Jared and Houston fell silent, with Dom grinning beside them.
Before Dom could ask another question, Nadine reappeared with a tray.
“Your food, boys,” she said as she slid plates in front of them.
“Thanks, darlin’,” said Dom as he immediately tore into his food.
“Thanks, Nadine.” Jared smiled at her and she blushed slightly.
“Houston, you want anything to go with your coffee?”
“No thanks, ma’am.
“In that case, I’m gonna leave the ticket here but you just let me know if you change your minds any.” She flitted back to the kitchen.
“I take it y’all are regulars here?” Houston asked, watching Jared and Dom tear into food he hadn’t even seen them order.
“We stop by from time to time.” Dom paused and swallowed a bite of toast. “So, last I heard you was involved in some trouble. You good now?”
“I’m gonna be clean with you, Dom, on account of old times.” The prison chaplain had stressed the need to be clean with everyone and Houston had internalized his message. “I just got out of prison. I don’t know nobody. I got an apartment somewhere around here, but I ain’t got no way to get there. I ain’t got no money. But I got my health and my freedom, so yeah, I’m good now.”
“Well, as long as you got your health.” Dom shook his head, smiling. “You always were an optimist.”
“Your health don’t mean shit if you ain’t got money,” Jared said. Straight and to the point. Houston appreciated his directness.
“He can get on at the garage, with us.”
“Bill ain’t hiring right now.”
“Bill owes me.” Dom turned to Houston. “What kinda skills you got?”
“All of them.” Houston laughed; he’d worked just about every job the prison offered. “I’m big. I can lift. Basic carpentry, machine shop, whatever you got. I’m a fast learner and a hard worker.”
“That you are,” said Dom. Houston still wasn’t sure where he knew him from.
Jared frowned. “Assuming Dom can convince Bill to hire you, it’s working in a garage, hauling scrap, general maintenance. Think you can do that okay?”
“I can do whatever it takes.”
“Then come on by tomorrow morning and we’ll see about hooking you up.”
“Is it far? I ain’t got a ride.”
“Far from where? Here?” Dom gestured at the diner. “We’re just down a couple blocks. But it all depends on where you are.”
“I don’t exactly know yet.” Houston laughed. “I got an address, but I don’t know much more than that it’s at the edge of downtown.”
Nadine came back and refilled Dom’s coffee.
“Nadine, I’d like you to meet my old buddy, Houston. He’s fixin’ to work with me and Jared.”
“We’ve met,” Houston mumbled. He’d never considered himself a shy person but all this attention, all this helping him when he’d done nothing to deserve it, left him self-conscious.
“Had I realized you were friends with Dom, I might not have given you free coffee.” She winked at Houston. “Watch out — he’s trouble.”
“Hey now!” said Dom.
“Thank you for the warning, ma’am,” Houston said with a serious voice, “but I think I might’ve been just as good at finding trouble as him, back in the day.”
Nadine laughed. “You’ll have to tell me about it sometime.”
“Nadine?” called the bad combover guy from the kitchen entryway.
She rolled her eyes. “I got other customers to get to. Y’all back to work now?”
“We’re behind schedule on our framing job right now, so we should be getting back.” Jared didn’t move though. “Everything okay with Carl?”
“He’s just being Carl.” She shook her head. “I’ll see you later this week, right?”
“Sure will, hun.”Dom grinned. “You know you can’t get rid of us.”
“Oh, I know. Enjoy the rest of your day, boys.”
Jared dropped a twenty on the table, then stood. “Ready to go, Dom?”
“I need a smoke. Meet you out front.”
Once Jared was gone, Dom turned to Houston. “What you got going on for the rest of the day?”
Houston shrugged. “I’m waiting for a ride, but I don’t know if she’ll show, so I guess I’ll probably try to find my way to my new place.”
“Tell ya what. Why don’t you come with us to the garage now and we’ll sweet talk Bill into giving you a job? Then I’ll cut out early and give you a ride.”
“I don’t want you getting in trouble on account of me.”
“Nah, it’s no trouble.”
Houston followed Dom out of the diner. Back out in the sunshine, it still didn’t feel real to Houston. He watched Dom and Jared head up the street, Dom rambling on as Jared nodded politely, as if it were a movie where they were on screen and he was just an observer, an audience member, as if he was waiting for someone to tell him to follow them, until he remembered that he’d be the one telling himself what to do from now on. For a long moment, he wanted to be back in the familiarity of Thousand Oaks.
But then Dom turned and grinned at him, a happy not-a-care-in-the-world smile that flashed up memories of loud music and cheap beer and weak joints. He gestured as if to say, “What are you waiting for?”
Houston grinned back, his first free smile in over half a lifetime.
He was free.
Continue on to part 2, “Nadine Gets Harassed.”
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.