The fridge is empty. Nothing but an expired jar of mayonnaise and a half-eaten box of baking soda at the back of the icebox. I have $14.38 in my bank account. I’m praying that a check I wrote for the light bill doesn’t clear for a few more days, and the disconnection notices are stacking up. I haven’t worked in almost a month. Ever since The Dump opened a new location down the highway, the furniture store I drive for has had a hard time keeping up sales. No sales, no need for a deliveryman.
I try to make ends meet by picking up odd jobs. I worked for a bait-and-tackle store for a while. I loved being near the water. It made me feel like I was doing the Lord’s work, like one of the apostles in the New Testament. But eventually, the long commute to Galveston killed me. Some days, I deliver feed for local farms north of here. Other days, I use my box truck to haul books for the Shepard Library. It never pays much, but it’s kept my belly full . . . until now. I’ve always depended on community referrals for my next job, and I recently got a tip that this new restaurant may be looking for a deliveryman.
I lace up my Adidas. I put on my last clean white tee, though clean may be relative, slide on my black hoodie, and grab my keys. I jump in my truck and say a quick prayer that they’re launching a catering business. Yeah, that would be steady work. I could see myself making big deliveries on Saturdays before the game or Sundays after church. My mom raised me to believe that God would provide for me.
Just off the feeder road of I-45, I see it. A building with boarded-up windows and graffiti gang tags, but the presence of cranes and dumpsters makes me think it may be under renovation. I park in the empty lot. I think this building used to be a Frenchy’s Chicken—the one my mother used to go to on her way to Bush Airport. It still has the weathered yellow-and-teal awning outside and I’m sure it still reeks of stale grease. Next to where I’ve parked, there’s a single black truck near the service entrance. It isn’t big enough to haul nothing—it’s one of those just-high-enough-to-not-drown-when-the-service-roads-flood trucks. To each his own. This is what it’s come to. I say another prayer that He’ll make some money show up, just in time, like he’s done for me so many times before.
I exit my truck and try to find an unlocked door or a welcoming face. I tug on the service entrance—no dice. So I head for the main customer entrance. Before I get there, I hear keys jingle around the corner. I follow the sound to an old Cajun pimp-looking, redboned man trying to open an emergency exit door near the drive-thru. We lock eyes, but before I can say a word, his brown hands turn into a nervous frenzy and he darts for the back of the building. I chase after him, trying to explain that I just want to discuss business. I lose him for a moment, then hear something bang into the industrial dumpster. I slowly approach and look behind it and see the man cowering, his hands up in surrender. I guess the sight of a large blue-black man in a hoodie in the middle of January is still frightening, even at two in the afternoon. He just keeps repeating in a thick accent, “Please don’t hurt me. I’ll get you the money.” I should’ve known then that something wasn’t right, but the rumble of my stomach drowns out any sensible logic.
This is what it’s come to. I say another prayer that He’ll make some money show up, just in time, like he’s done for me so many times before.
I explain, “Sir, my name is Jamaal. I live down the street and am looking for some work. I have seven years of driving experience and—”
“Did Daveon send you?” he interrupts.
“Who is Daveon? I just heard you needed a deliveryman.”
“Oh. Uh . . . sure!” he says. He seems to be gathering his dignity as he stands up, wipes the tears from his eyes, and straightens his dress shirt. “I thought you were someone else. I’m Mr. LeFleur. I’m the owner here. We can go discuss it in my office.”
He grabs his keys from the ground and heads back toward the emergency exit. When we enter the building, there’s this weird smell. It takes me back to the sea, but this time something about the familiar stench is off. It reminds me of the fish spot that went out of business by the old community center on Montgomery. Someone was always getting sick from their food. One too many cases of food poisoning and the city shut them down. It’s a strong, pungent odor that almost knocks me off my feet. I search for the source as I wobble behind the counter, through the empty kitchen, to a small office near the back.
He tells me I can have a seat at his desk and I plop down hard, trying to regain my balance. His office is composed of a large mahogany block with stacks of papers overflowing off every side. He tells me to excuse the mess. He explains that he has a large shipment coming in, and all of this is the paperwork he has to file by the end of the week.
“So what exactly do you specialize in here?” I inquire.
He rolls my question around in his mouth for a second before replying, “We provide an exotic experience for some of the top foreign executives. You know, the Fortune 500 types. We deliver some of the most delicious cuisine for every palette. Ever worked with that type before?”
“No,” I reply. “But I don’t think it’ll be a problem. What’s the pay?”
“We pay by the delivery. Three hundred dollars a load, and we pay out at the end of every week. Would that work for you?”
He must not be able to smell the desperation on me through the other nose hair–singeing aromas in the air. I ask how soon they’re looking for someone, and he tells me that they need someone to start this weekend, when the shipment comes in. It sounds perfect. I’d be able to work a long day and get some extra money before the lights are cut off. With any hope, I might even be able to afford a case of beer. I tell him I’ll take it. He says he’ll see me Saturday around three p.m.
It’s a strong, pungent odor that almost knocks me off my feet.
I borrow twenty dollars from my mom to get me through the week. She’s just happy I have a new gig in the works.
Over the next few days, I try to conserve my gas, only venturing out when I need to. I pass the restaurant a few times. There are never any additional vehicles around. There are no signs that the renovation is progressing. With the holiday coming up, maybe they’re on hiatus. As long as they make sure I stay paid, they can look however they want. I wonder if it’ll be enough to get the used Cadillac parked in front of Mr. Johnson’s place over on Bradmar. I bet I could even put rims on it. Something real clean.
Saturday finally arrives, after a night of me barely sleeping because I’m excited about the new job and the easy money. I got a text this morning telling me to drive my truck to the restaurant for pickup. While two men load supplies into my truck, Mr. LeFleur brings me back to his office to fill out some standard paperwork. I wait in the hall while he finishes up a phone conversation. I hear him yelling and the smell of raw cod starts to swell again. Just before I pass out, he pulls me into the room. He explains that I’ll be carrying precious cargo and gives me a slip with an address to take the delivery. He says the package will need to be handled delicately. I’ll have his two men riding with me: one in the cab next to me, and the other in the back with the delivery. He tells me I’ll back the truck to the loading dock at the delivery address and allow the other two guys to unload it. He instructs me to stay in the vehicle so we can get back on the road as soon as possible. “Time is money,” he insists. If that means squeezing in additional deliveries today, I’m down for whatever weird procedure he has in place. I just want to make sure I’m not sharing my three hundred with these other two musclemen. He assures me I’m not.
I head back to my truck. One of the men, who speaks in nothing more than grunts, is already sitting in the passenger seat. He has a large tattoo on his face and answers to the name Slim. He’s anything but slim. His weathered jeans and wifebeater under what seems to be an old-school Members Only jacket look like they’re going to bust out at any second. The other man is much more refined. He has on a navy suit and carries a large metal briefcase. Since he never gives me his name, in my head I just refer to him as Suits. It isn’t until I see Suits that I start to think I might be getting into something illegal. I joke with him that he looks like he’s dressed for a massive drug deal. He laughs. I don’t know if that makes me feel any better.
The drive is only supposed to take an hour, round-trip. The address is off Richmond, near all the great nightclubs and high-end restaurants. Makes sense. I turn on some music on the way there, thinking it’ll help Slim open up. He just grunts, shakes his head in disapproval, and turns it off. I wonder what kind of food could be so important that it needs three grown men to deliver it.
We arrive at a gentlemen’s club about a quarter to five. Following Slim’s directions, I back the truck up into the alley next to the club’s back entrance. Slim gets out of the cab and I roll down my window to enjoy the cool air. This isn’t the kind of place I imagined we were headed. The building has no windows and only two entrances. Muffled music can be heard each time the back door swings open. I hear the back of my truck slide open and a struggle to move the cargo. I wonder if I can step out of the cab and smoke a Black while I wait on them to unload. I reach for the door handle. Slim suddenly appears by my door, reaches through the window, and grabs my arm. He twists it and grunts for me to stay put. He stares me down like he’ll hurt me if I leave. Then I realize he isn’t here for the package—he’s here for me.
I tell him that I don’t plan on running. That seems to put him at ease and he lets me go. Just then, Suits comes up to Slim and says they have a problem. One of the packages is stuck and they can’t get it moved. I offer to help and they both reply with an adamant no. Slim tells me he’ll handle it and urges me to stay in the cab.
Now, I’ve always been one for following the rules. But you get the itch to smoke, it has to be scratched. I slide out of the cab just as soon as Slim is out of sight. I find a little corner where they can’t see me from the back of the truck. The Black & Mild smells of cherry, even through the packaging. It’s been stressful, thinking about how money’s going to work out, not knowing if this new gig would be a good fit or if I’d have to find something else quick. Sometimes you just need to watch something burn in your hands. There’s always been something beautiful about destruction. The ashes gather on my shoes and I feel myself relax.
Since he never gives me his name, in my head I just refer to him as Suits. It isn’t until I see Suits that I start to think I might be getting into something illegal.
About halfway through the third smoke donut leaving my lips, I hear what sounds like trouble. There’s a loud ruckus coming from the loading dock. Maybe one of the packages has slipped off the truck. I hear the two fellas in what sounds like an argument. I want to help, but I wasn’t even supposed to be out of the cab. I wait to see if the yelling subsides, but it just grows louder and louder until I have no other option but to intervene.
I round the back of the truck, and I will never forget what I see at that moment. There, tangled between the men’s four arms, is a girl. She can’t be more than thirteen, though you can tell by the red lipstick and heels she was going for much older. Her heavy makeup is smeared and her mascara is pooling around her collarbone. She’s the kind of groggy that only exists at three a.m., after too many drinks, flopping and flailing like a fish fresh out of school. Her legs are a bundle of seaweed knotting in and out of themselves. To my surprise, in her stupor, she shows an amazing amount of strength. I’m impressed with how she’s leveraged her lean elbow into Slim’s throat. Her other arm is wrapped around Suits’s neck. It’s then that I notice Slim and Suits have seen me, but they aren’t angry. They need help.
Suits gestures wildly at the tire of the truck. I look down and see something on the ground behind it, catching the light of the setting sun. I look closer and realize it’s a syringe. Suits’s face is a deepening shade of midnight as he jerks his head at the girl and tries to pry her arm off his airway. He wants me to inject the girl. I can only guess that the syringe holds some sort of sedative. I reach down and grab the stopper. It feels like God’s eyes are on me as the seconds pile high.
Am I this kind of man, willing to shoot up someone’s child with only God-knows-what for a paycheck? My mother crosses my mind. I wonder what she would think if she saw me here. Then I think of my piling bills, the disconnection notices, and the debt-collector phone calls. I see Mr. LeFleur in my mind with a blank check in his hand. I think about the fridge and all of its hollow depression. There isn’t enough time to make the right decision. Is she more important than my hunger? I’ve been a good man up until now. Doesn’t that count for anything?
I know I have to make a choice when I see she’s all but free from Slim’s grasp. I say a quick prayer: God, you know me inside and out. You know that I am always seeking what is good and kind. I believe You will and have already provided for me. See my heart tonight. Amen.
I stab the needle into her thigh. I watch her body jolt and her eyes roll back like the tide. Then her arms go limp and her gill-cheeks sink back down, and she’s asleep.
Slim yells, “What took you so long? Now help us get her back inside.”
I’ve been so busy watching them, I haven’t looked into the back of the truck. There are four more girls, wrapped in net-like twine. They look unconscious, like they don’t even know they’ve been caught. Two of them still in their school uniforms. I help net our escapee and stow her with the others.
The ride back to Acres Homes is mostly silent. I understand now why Slim doesn’t want any music. There’s no soundtrack for this kind of journey. The whooshing of the tires against the road reminds me of the gulf. Slim mentions that’s where the girls are headed: out to sea. We get back to the restaurant about thirty minutes later than scheduled.
Mr. LeFleur comes storming out, demanding to know why we’re late. I stay in the cab, still in shock over what the day’s held. I watch in the side mirror as Slim and Suits get out and try to explain everything to Mr. LeFleur. I see his face changing from infuriated to concerned. He looks over at the cab of the truck. He fumbles some papers around in his hands, scratches his head, and slowly walks over to the passenger door as the guys empty the remaining catch out of the truck.
I notice that some of the girl’s hair attached itself to me as I was helping her back into the truck. I instantly feel dirty. I remember the last time I went fishing with my father and ended the night covered in scales. Too many to count. I don’t know how to wash any of this off.
Mr. LeFleur opens the passenger door and leans in, his arm on the seat. He peers up at me and slides an envelope against the torn pleather. “I’m gonna toss in an extra hundred dollars for all of the trouble tonight. Things like this rarely happen,” he says. “Hey, but for this kind of money, we all have to take some risks.”
I just sit there, still and silent.
He chuckles. “Sometimes things like this just come with the job. I have more merchandise coming in tomorrow. Pays double. I doubt you’ll have another day like this, but I can’t make any promises. Shit happens, you know?”
I look him in his eyes. All the fear he had when I first met him is now gone. He’s much more confident—almost cocky. Like he’s roped me into his net and knows I couldn’t get out if I wanted to.
He pats me on the knee and says, “See you tomorrow?”
I take a deep breath and whisper, “Sure thing, boss.”
Excerpted from “Where the Ends Meet,” by Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton, copyright © 2019 by Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton, included in the anthology HOUSTON NOIR, edited by Gwendolyn Zepeda. Used with permission of Akashic Books.