Short Story: The Ex-Con Gets a Car

Now that I had a license I needed a car, but unfortunately I didn’t have the money for one yet. I needed a job too—it was kind of a chicken and the egg type situation. What are you supposed to do when you need cash to buy a car to get to the job, but you don’t have a job to get the cash to buy the car? My mom told me we could both go give plasma for money as that’s how she got money to put in my commissary account when I was in prison, and maybe my brother could give before his shift at the auto plant. Mom heard the prices for donations went up, it was now $100 per donation for the first eight visits, and you could go twice a week. With three people that’d give me $1,200 in just two weeks. I could get a car in no ti—shit I forgot about insurance and registration. Well, maybe not that nice of a car.

I decided to start right away and hopped a bus downtown to the plasma donation center. The initial questionnaire took about an hour, then the intake appointment was another half an hour. I always thought this was a place for junkies to get money for the next fix, but it really wasn’t—those people never make it past the screening. In reality it was just a bunch of people down on their luck, you could see the soles of the shoes because they were worn away and couldn’t afford another pair. 

The intake receptionist took me in the back to set me up in the reclining bed. The phlebotomist was a cute young girl, she couldn’t have been older than 21. Her smile reminded me a lot of my daughter’s from the pictures my mom used to send me while I was in prison. She was 18 now and about to graduate high school soon, I hope she will invite me to come watch. I’ve missed so much of her life so far, I’d like to be a part of it as much as she’d let me be.

The phlebotomist says “Hi there, I’m Stacy. So which arm do you want to do today?” “The left.” I replied. “You’re going to feel a little pinch,” she said. I saw the two inch needle in her hand and I couldn’t watch. I certainly wasn’t a little pinch, that shit hurt. Stacy says “This will only take about an hour so relax and lay back.” She handed me a roll of tape and said “Here, squeeze this so it’s easier to keep the blood pumping.”

The hour went by quickly, that was the easiest $100 I ever made aside from selling coke to rich kids when I was in high school. My arm was stiff and hurt a little, but it went away within 15 minutes. I didn’t realize how cold it was going to be in there because I was freezing, it reminded me a lot of how cold prison used to be. At least I got out of there before CoVID ran roughshod over the penal system.

When I got back to the halfway house the P.O. said I had a letter come in the mail. I trudged up the stairs and went to my room. I picked up the letter off my bed. The tweaker popped his head in the door “Who’s the letter from?” I said, “Mickey.” Mickey and I were cellmates for 17 years. He was sentenced to 40 years for first degree murder. He never talked about it. Mickey kept getting denied parole over the years, but he only had six months left on his sentence. He told me before I left that he would write to me.

“Hey Jeremy! I gotta tell you man, after being cellmates for so long it’s been hard not having you around. The new cellmate has been kind of a prick. No one can stand him, it’s only a matter of time before he pisses someone off and catches a shank. What’s your first month on the outside been like? Did you get yourself a job yet? I can’t wait to hear all about it! — Mickey”

I missed Mickey too. Mickey was more of a father to me than my real old man was. I asked the tweaker if he had a pen and paper. The tweaker brought me a steno notepad and a pen he swiped from the DMV. I sat down and started writing:

“Hey Mickey! Don’t worry, in six months you’ll be out and completely free—no P.O. for you. Hey, I know you’re getting out right before Thanksgiving, you should come spend it with me and my family! My mom’s heard so much about you, it’s time she finally met you. I got my license two weeks ago…I’m working on getting a car now. I think I can get one in two or three weeks. I was going to talk to my brother about maybe getting me a job down at the plant—they pay $15 an hour there. If they hire me I’d be making enough to put a little money in your commissary account every paycheck. You helped get through me all those early years, it’s time I help you. I’m sending you a copy of my license, my advice to you is figure out how to smile again before you get out otherwise you’re gonna look like you’re taking a shit, like me. Write me back as often as you want. I miss ya man, see you soon. — Jeremy”

With the help of my family I had $1,200 cash to go buy a car within two weeks. $1,200 doesn’t buy a hell of a lot, especially since I really only had $800 to actually spend. I went to 14 used car lots that week and I didn’t find anything that didn’t look like it was stuffed with newspaper and bondo for under $1,500. When I came home on Thursday there was another letter from Mickey on my bed. I wasn’t expecting one so soon.

“Hey Jeremy! Good luck finding that car! Do you remember that time one of the guards was telling that story about how he bought that Chevy Nova for $500 at the scrapyard when he was in high school? He said it was about to get crushed, but the fucking thing still ran. He said if you make the crane operator a cash offer he’ll probably take it. Maybe you can go there and check it out? Oh yeah, my new cellmate ended up getting shanked in the yard…stabbed 43 times with a sharpened toothbrush for a shiv. They broke it off when it got stuck between his ribs. He’s been in the infirmary for the last three days on a ventilator because they punctured both of his lungs, they said it’s 50/50 he lives. Let me know what kind of car you find! — Mickey”

Mickey was right, I should head to the scrapyard. It couldn’t hurt, right? If there’s anything useful my deadbeat father taught me it’s that anything that runs is worth $500.

The next day I headed to B&W Metals down on Division Street. All you see is mountains of scrap metal…all types of things from old from fridges to ironing boards. I walked to the back and saw a line of cars ready to be crushed. The crane operator was just getting back from lunch. “Hey!” I yelled, “Do any of these cars still run?” The crane operator walks up to me and says “Yeah man that Ford Tempo does. It’s got an oil leak, the transmission slips, a hole rusted through the floorboard and no rockers.” “I’ll give you $500 for it,” I said. The crane operator replied “It’s all yours. If you go up to the counter in the office and slip the woman at the desk the cash then she’ll give you the title.”

I was the proud owner of a 1996 Ford Tempo. It was a piece of shit jalopy, but it was mine.  A smoke plume blew out of the exhaust as I started it. I drove straight home to show my mother and brother. I pulled in the driveway and got out, my brother was sitting on the porch smoking his menthol Kools. “Well, it’s a piece of shit alright,” he said. My mother walked out the front door. “Oh how wonderful, you found something!” She said. “I mean it’s not really that bad, I’m going to have to do something about that hole in the floor though because water is going to get everywhere when it rains.” I said. “Don’t worry, I got you covered. Remember Jimmy Blangero from high school?” My brother says. “Yeah? What about him?” I reply. “His kid is a welder down at the auto body shop on 6th. He owes me a favor. I’ll text him and we’ll drop by tomorrow and get a plate welded over the hole.” “Shit that’s great Jack, thank you.” I replied.

I stayed for dinner and then drove back to the halfway house for the night. The first thing I did was grab a pen and the steno notepad and started writing to Mickey. 

“Hey Mickey! You were right about the scrapyard, I found a car for $500! It’s a total piece of shit man, but it’s mine. It’s a 1996 Ford Tempo with an oil leak, fucked transmission, no rockers and a big gaping hole in the floor. My brother is helping me get a patch welded over the hole tomorrow. You know if you play your cards right I’ll come pick you up in six months when you get released…if it lasts that long. Your chariot awaits! — Jeremy”

The next morning I stopped by the house to pick up Jack. On the way over I dropped Mickey’s letter in the mail. I pulled in and my brother was waiting on the porch. “You remember how to get to Dutch Auto Body?” He says. “Yeah, I do.” Jack says “I see your car had its antenna snapped off, does it still play any music?” “I actually haven’t tried yet,” I replied. We both get in the car. I crank the ignition and smoke plumes out of the exhaust. “I think they were talking about people like you when they were referring to things that contribute to global warming,” my brother says. “Can I smoke in here?” He asks. “No,” I reply. “Come on it’s not like it can make this car any worse, it already smells like a foot,” Jack says. “That’s still a no,” I respond. “You know this car is just old enough to get historical plates?” Jack says. “Okay, I get it. How long are you going to keep this up for?” I said. “For as long as you have the car, amigo, which I put the over/under at three months.”

We got to Dutch Auto Body at about 9:00 a.m., Jimmy’s kid was ready and waiting for us. Mason walked up to us and said, “Alright, let’s see how big of a hole we’re talking about here. Where is it at?” I replied, “Front passenger side.” Mason walked over, opened the door and took a good look. “Jesus this car is a piece of shit,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve been hearing that a lot,” I replied. “If that hole gets any bigger you’ll be Flintstoning your ass around town,” Mason said snarkily, “So what I’m gonna do is take the die grinder and cut the crap off around the hole, then I’m gonna going to take a 12”x12”-⅛” steel plate and weld it over the top. It’ll take me about two hours if you want to wait around or go do something in town.” I replied, “I got something we can do to kill time. Thanks a lot man for helping me out.” I told Jimmy “Let’s walk the five blocks to the plasma donation center, that’ll take enough time for him to weld on the plate and we’ll have $200.” 

We filled out our prep questionnaires on the way over. Stacy was working again that day, it was always nice to see that beaming ear to ear smile. “Glad you’re back! I’ve got a spot for you and your brother in the back.” We headed to the beds and Stacy set us up. “So I got a car!” I exclaimed to Stacy. “It’s not much, but it gets me around. We’re actually here just killing some time while I have a little work done to the floor.” “That’s great!” Stacy said, “You’ll be picking up the single ladies in town in no time.” Stacy walked away and my brother says “You couldn’t pick up a woman in that car with a $100 bill hanging out of your zipper.” I sighed. I sat back and was as relaxed as one could be with a two inch needle stuck in their arm. My brother played games on his phone the whole time. I still had to get a phone, but I don’t know anything about these smartphones—I just had a Nokia before I went away. An hour later we had filled our plasma jugs and Stacy pulled our needles out. She said that we could come back in two days for our next donation.

We headed down to Dutch Auto Body with a quick stop at McDonald’s along the way. We arrived and Mason said “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.” I said, “Alright, hit me with the good news.” Mason says “I got the hole covered up.” “And the bad news?” I replied. “I just had to use a bigger plate, but I shot everything with undercoating so you won’t have to worry about any more holes,” Mason said. “That’s great man, I really appreciate it.”

I dropped Jack off at the house and went back to the halfway house. I grabbed the steno pad and pen and started to write Mickey another letter, and since I had a little bit of extra cash from my plasma donation I sent along $50 of forever stamps so we could keep talking.

“Hey Mickey! So guess what? The hole in the floor is fixed! Yeah man, my brother called in a favor from a guy and he welded a big plate to the floor to cover it up. Now water won’t get all over the inside of the car when it rains. In other good news I only have two more months in this halfway house and then I can move in with my mom, I just need to clear out a bunch of stuff because she has been using my room for storage for the last 17 years. Did I tell you about giving plasma? There’s a girl there that has a smile that reminds me a lot of my daughter, Ashley. You remember all the photos hanging on our wall right? I don’t know if she knows I’m out or not and I haven’t tried to get in contact with her or her mom yet…I don’t know if they want anything to do with me now. Anyway, I’m going to drop you $20 into your commissary account–buy yourself some extra Ramen with it. Take care. — Jeremy”

I have a car now, it may be a rust-bucket that is on its last leg, but it gets me from point A to point B. The next thing I need is a job, which I hope Jack is able to put in a good word for me down at the auto plant, at least giving plasma helps me get by.

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