A swarm of cars, the frenzy typical of big city traffic, surrounded Dr. Arlo Perkins the day Lily spotted him on her way to the gym. She approached an underpass that harbored a ramshackle community of tents, bags of garbage, and one person, still as death, in a sleeping bag. The trucks and SUVs on either side crowded into her lane. She gripped the steering wheel and checked the space on either side of the car, wishing she had bought a newer model with the proximity warning alarms. Though, given the recent news about her state of health, did it really matter? Thoughts stormed through her head. Still, she knew the man she saw was Arlo.
Arlo sat on the median, using an overturned plastic crate as a chair. Lily recognized the white beard, a riotous overgrowth, and jaunty, broad brimmed straw hat from his Facebook photo. A serape of red, purple, and white draped his shoulders. A car honked. Lily recentered herself in her lane. In the darkness of the underpass, she waffled. It couldn’t be Arlo. But the glasses. The man she saw wore the exact same glasses Arlo wore the first time they met. Lily turned into a strip shopping center and circled to change directions. She slipped back into traffic toward the underpass for another look.
Gone were the muscled arms of youth. His beard failed to hide the gauntness of his face. He hunched over a backpack, eyes roaming without focus. Lily had seen the same lost look in her patients, confused by medications, lack of oxygen, and sensory overload from the alien world of ICU. She pulled into a carwash near where Arlo seemed to hold court on his concrete island. He peered at the windshields of every car with mouth opened as if to speak. Then his eyes squeezed shut. His face slackened. His mouth closed, pressing his lips into a slash of disappointment.
The cycle replayed countless times.
Lily locked the car and looked both ways. The rush of traffic wafted the smell of diesel fuel, dirt, and cigarette smoke in her face. Arlo hadn’t moved. When a break in the traffic came, Lily sprinted across three lanes and stepped onto the median, several feet from Arlo.
She surveyed the homeless encampment in the green space between the access road and the freeway. It consisted of four tents, some fairly new, one tattered and spotty with dirt. Near the tents, a wheelchair, a stack of wooden pallets, and a cement retaining wall provided places to sit. Bags of garbage split and spilled, forming a mountain of filth near the overpass. A puppy romped amid the garbage. Scurrying rats and The Plague flashed in Lily’s head.
Lily knelt down a few feet from her friend. “Arlo?”
The brim of his hat shadowed the top of his face. His beard swaddled his chin. Arlo’s eyes opened wide with the same astonishment and desire she inspired the day she pulled her t-shirt off braless breasts in the back of his rusty, dust encumbered van.
“Arlo. It’s Lily.”
The fire that had sparked smoldered and died. Arlo pushed himself up from his plastic throne and started hollering. Lily tried to glean words from the sounds, but could not. She had loved Arlo for his words, his ideas, and the world as he saw it. She moved closer, not believing these things were lost.
“Away. Away.” He flailed his arms.
Two men stepped between Lily and Arlo. Tattoos and scars attested to hard lived lives. One tattoo resembled the jailhouse ink portrayed on TV. Another depicted Christ’s crucifixion on a forearm scarred by a full-length burn. She looked at their faces, toughened by weather, unshaved, filled with concern. Their eyes possessed the clarity so absent in Arlo’s.
“I know this man.” When she leaned between the two men, Arlo tried to spit at her, but his mouth was too dry.
“Pffft,” came a sound rife with animosity.
“Step away. You’re scaring him.”
“He’s an old friend. What do you call him?” Lily leaned back without taking a step.
“Santa. We call him Santa.”
Arlo sprinted across the intersection and disappeared into the shadows of the overpass. Lily’s adrenalin rushed through her body. Her hands jittered. Her jaw clenched. Her teeth screeched from the pressure. “His name is Arlo Perkins. Dr. Arlo Perkins.” She didn’t bother looking both ways before she ran to her car.
Days prior to her encounter, Lily erased the voicemail from her doctor, called, and demanded a print copy of the pathology report. It arrived in the mail. The piece of paper wavered in her hands. She was a nurse who could answer any question about the heart, lungs, and all drugs and procedures related to them. The words on the page, some familiar, some not so much, sucker punched her. She doubled over and gasped for air.
“Please schedule a pre-op consultation at your earliest convenience.” That sentence ignited an all-consuming fear, a mental inferno. To Lily, knowledge meant power, but she didn’t have the courage to act alone. She refused to burden her ninety-seven-year-old mother with the news. She and her son communicated via text message, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him. She hadn’t seen him since he’d gotten out of jail.
Instead, Lily had reached out to her ex-boyfriend from decades ago with whom she’d maintained a long-distance friendship. Arlo Perkins had transformed himself from a dazed-and-confused hippie to an Emergency Room physician. She trusted him to be the first recipient of her news. Once she stopped shaking and could navigate her computer keyboard, she crafted a terse e-mail:
I think I’m in a bit of mess health wise. I know what you went through with your first wife, and I need some advice. See attachment. What do you think?
Hope all is well with you and Arianna. God, we have grand-kids! Are you driving through town any time soon?
Will appreciate any thoughts you have.
Minutes became hours as soon as she hit “Send.” One simple biopsy threatened her life. Lily needed to hear Arlo validate or refute what she suspected. For days, he didn’t acknowledge her with either a diagnosis or rote medical advice or his usual political rant about the inequities of modern health insurance. His cyber-silence allowed her loneliness to fester.
Lily slid into a pit of despair. Depression, snug and claustrophobic, engulfed her like a body stocking. While she waited to hear from Arlo, her daily trip to the gym distracted her. She took her usual back roads route to avoid interstate traffic. She passed two Starbuck’s, a Kroger, and a dumpy Cajun place. Donut Dynasty. Tacos y Mas. Food. Food. Food. Why had she never noticed these places before? One rehab hospital. Hastily built apartments with balconies crowded by two folding chairs and a tea table. Disposable life.
Then she had seen Arlo near the underpass.
Lily pulled into her garage. The car tick-tick-ticked as it cooled. His-and-her bikes hung from their ceiling racks. Cracks crisscrossed the dry wall. A brown halo around the garage door button documented a history of repetitious use. These details, usually unseen, somehow screamed out to her now. She tried to sit still on her recliner, shaken by Arlo’s condition.
When her husband died, Lily had done the same thing every day for a week. In the familiarity of the garage, she fantasized of opening a bottle of wine, plugging in her ear buds, and succumbing to a carbon monoxide/cabernet cocktail. It was an easy death. But something had pulled her back from the abyss. Life was not ready to give her up.
Lily reclined her seat. “Siri,” she said, “play my Joni Mitchell collection.” The lyrics spoke of troubled minds and bright mornings tapping into the conflict between Lily’s fear and hope.
a walk in the park
holding hands with parents
nearby, Blue Heaven Morning Glory
seeds, pseudo-hippie, real intellect, J.D.
Salinger, Carlos Castaneda, tight ass in a Speedo,
letters, lots of letters, letters on toilet paper, hands and
mouths and explorations, bodies hot and wet and open, total
acceptance, realizing she wanted more, she had more things to see and do.
The handle to the attic stairs hung down from the garage ceiling. Lily pulled it. The stairs unfolded and dust powdered her shoulders. She managed the rickety steps. Cobwebs snared her fingers. She tiptoed around squirrel droppings. The wooden floor creaked. She made her way to the back of the attic. A medal case holding ten rows of ten medals she’d won in swimming competitions leaned against the wall. The bottom row consisted of six gold hearts from the Valentine’s Day meet in Memphis, where she met Arlo. She unpinned one of the medals from aged velvet cloth. The cloth disintegrated.
The medal felt cool in her hand, a contrast to the warm explorations she and Arlo shared at the back of his swim team’s bus. Her finger traced the outside of the heart. As a nurse, she witnessed a familiar voice or an old song pull a patient back from mental confusion. Tomorrow she’d show Arlo the medal.
The next day Lily stuffed her driver’s license, a twenty-dollar bill, and the medal in her fanny pack. She parked at the fast food joint closest to the median. The plastic crate still marked Arlo’s territory. She recognized the two hulks who had warned her away. She patted her pepper spray for reassurance and jaywalked toward the men.
“Lady, what do you want now?”
Two sloppy shrugs and practiced scrutiny answered her question.
“I’ve got twenty bucks if you can help me find him.” She hesitated, fighting the urge to run. She shook out her arms and legs just like she did before a big swimming race. “He really is an old friend.”
“He took off after you left. There’s a camp by the spillway and another one under that bridge.” A grubby finger pointed to a walkway between a gas station and a collision repair. “It’s not safe for you there. Try tomorrow. He’ll be back.”
“What’s he to you?” The man with the burn scar asked. He snatched the bill from Lily.
Lily closed her eyes and swayed. Feeling comfortable for the first time talking about a future that didn’t look like the life her parents imagined for her. Getting away to become someone new. Unconditional acceptance.
“At one time, everything.”
Lily skipped her pre-procedure appointment. She unearthed twenty-year-old threadbare jeans, t-shirts, and a quilted jacket. The one t-shirt, navy blue with a white trimmed crew neck yellowed by age, bore the cracked white letters: Yale. Arlo sent her the shirt when he was a freshman in college, she a mere sophomore in high school. From the back of her closet, Lily salvaged an aged pair of running shoes with the waffling worn away and a backpack.
A collection of self-defense items she used when she walked in the neighborhood cluttered the table in the entryway. One cane, weighted by an oak handle. Pepper spray. A dog whistle. She tucked the spray into her backpack. The cane dangled from a loop at her waist reserved for keys.
Lily retrieved her gun from a compartment in the headboard of her bed. She’d found it the day she stopped to pick up an abandoned bumper with a Florida license plate from the shoulder of the freeway. She always collected oddities. When she lifted the bumper, a glint of metal caught her eye. She picked up the gun and stowed it in the compartment of her spare until she got home. It was the first and only weapon she ever possessed.
The weapon gleamed. A whiff of cleaning oil snaked its way up her nose. The gun fit into the front pocket of the backpack. The thick leather masked its shape.
Underwear. Thick socks. Toothpaste and toothbrush. Deodorant. Her meds. Did she need her meds? Or deodorant for that matter? Loose bills and a roll of quarters. Peppermint bark energy bars her best friend sent her at Christmas. She didn’t bother with makeup, jewelry, pajamas, or books. She never went anywhere without a book but now it seemed unnecessary. She left her iPhone on the coffee table. It would not help her find Arlo.
The heat in the attic had mottled the gold finish of the heart medal. It hung from a ribbon of faded blue ribbed fabric. She cut and discarded the ribbon, then replaced it with a length of black leather string. Using a loop knot, the medal hung below her Adam’s apple. Arlo couldn’t miss it.
After arranging for her neighbor to tend her cats, Lily walked the half-mile to the bus stop. She waved at the driver of a postal truck, the well-known curmudgeon, who refused to put catalogues in the locked portion of her box. Trucks filled the parking lot of a nearby sports bar. What kind of people stopped at a sports bar mid-morning?
The bus pulled up. Brakes hissed. The door yawned. Lily climbed the steps. She would miss morning lap time with her cats.
She stepped off the bus at Arlo’s intersection. The men who had come to Arlo’s aid sat under the overpass. Light traffic offered enough time for her to sprint in a diagonal from the bus stop to where they sat. An overstuffed garbage bag served as their footrest. They sucked on hand rolled cigarettes and exhaled the noxious odor of cheap tobacco.
“Look who’s back.” They snorted with laughter. “Y’all dressed for the dance?”
“I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you help me find him.” She patted her back pocket, bulging with bills.
“After you tell us why he’s so important to you.”
Lily could have explained Arlo was the first boy who didn’t bully her because of her intelligence or the muscled back she developed from swimming. She could have described a young man secure enough in his own insecurity not to take advantage of a young girl willing to have sex. She could have shared her loss of connection to life in general. What she could not explain was why she felt Arlo symbolized the story of her life.
“I love him like a brother. Fifty now. Fifty if you find him.”
The men exchanged a few words. One nodded. The other pointed to the row of tents on the green space. Their easy camaraderie, with its own language of gestures and sounds, reminded Lily of a distant past when she and Arlo didn’t need words to share their innermost secrets and desires, when a look inspired a kiss.
“I’m Cosmo. I’ll take you to where I think he stays.” Cosmo cupped one of her elbows and guided her across the street to the sidewalk. Three days ago Lily would have rolled up her car window to prevent breathing the same air as this scruffy man. But she was grateful as he gallantly escorted her toward a hidden homeless camp. They walked down the sidewalk in unison. If a member of the freeway tribe drew too near, Cosmo waved him or her away.
An overweight woman in a wheelchair struggled on the uphill incline. “Hey, I’ll push you to the corner and we can talk,” Cosmo said. “Have you seen Santa lately?”
The woman shrugged. “I don’t get around much, but I kept an eye on that one. He’s down away from the bridge. By himself. It’s a lean-to of cardboard with a flag for a flap.” She eyed Lily the entire time she spoke. “Sometimes he’s gone for a while, but he always comes back.”
“Stay here,” Cosmo said.
Lily watched him strain to push the woman up the hill. All the while, his head bobbed as he chatted. At one point, he and the woman both tossed their heads back and burst with raucous laughter.
A breathless Cosmo returned. He and Lily followed the sidewalk. It turned into a bridge over a small creek. A jogging trail wound along the top of the embankment. “If you follow the creek around the bend there, I think you’ll find his place.” A path of flattened reeds made a natural slide down to the creek bed. “It’s the only way down,” he said. “I’m going to leave you here. Be careful.”
Lily reached for the money in her pocket.
Cosmo stopped her. The tenderness of his touch made her feel she had been accepted as a member of a unique family.
“I hope you find what you’re looking for.” Cosmo turned and started back for the underpass.
Tears burned in Lily’s eyes. She didn’t want to lose sight of this man who seemed to understand her, when friends and neighbors she had known for years treated her as if she were invisible. Clouds overwhelmed the sun. A thrum of distant thunder shattered her thoughts. She scooted down to the creek bed. It took a turn at a place marked by the tendrils of an ancient weeping willow. Rocks and twigs studded an uneven path. She didn’t realize the sun had set until darkness swamped her. She patted her gun and felt for the pepper spray.
She found Arlo’s shelter. A big cardboard box sat between two burr oaks, its front a frayed American flag. With the first rain drop, Lily thought a bird shit on her. More rain peppered her face. Lily started to sing to calm herself. She kicked rocks and talked to a lone rat scuttling in the underbrush. Using her cane, she pushed the flag away from the box.
The acrid odor of stale urine rose from a jar with holes in the lid. Stacks of books supported both back corners of the box. A plastic bag of granola and jerky hung from a hook taped to the top of the box. A pair of scarred Doc Martens, running shoes with no laces, two pairs of sweatpants, and an unmarked container of pills provided the only traces of Arlo. The caps of three bottles of water peeked out from a dilapidated ice chest with no lid, no ice.
A dirt encrusted picture of Arlo and his first wife, a wispy redhead with a generous smile, leaned against one side of the box near a grass-stained sleeping bag. During their first conversation after reconnecting, Arlo confessed he gave his wife the final dose of morphine to end the torture of her metastatic disease. At the time, Lily felt honored by his trust. Now, she chided herself for violating Arlo’s private space. She pushed back the flag in search of her own realm.
Lily sheltered beneath her poncho, draped over the skeletal limbs of a fallen tree. The rain floated down like a diaphanous veil before it turned into a deluge. Her poncho sagged under the weight of the water. Moisture leeched into the bottom of her jeans. The enormity of the downpour felt like the grief of the world.
When morning arrived, Lily kept vigil. Cosmo taught her she could brush her teeth and sponge bathe at a Home Depot less than a mile away. He tried to share spare change he’d pocketed from panhandling. When she learned sharing meant belonging, she accepted as little as Cosmo would allow.
On the third night, Lily crept into Arlo’s box, so soggy it bowed and drooped. She threw her backpack inside and scrabbled in on hands and knees. Hunger tempered frustration. Fatigue kept her from eating. She fell asleep hugging her backpack.
The first punch didn’t hit anything vital. Lily awakened and shielded herself with the backpack. Blows from a clenched fist bludgeoned her back, one thigh, and finally her right eye.
“No. No. Away.” The guttural epithets and verbal protests did not sound human.
A flashlight blinded her. Lily knocked it out of her assailant’s hand with a wide swing. She grabbed it and pointed it. More painful than the beating was seeing Arlo. His eyes blazed and darted.
He’s afraid. She held those thoughts for a second too long.
Arlo pitched her backpack out into the night and straddled her. He pounded her shoulders again. Blood trickled from one ear. Nails scratched her as his rough hands ripped her t-shirt and jacket away. Arlo’s hand then glided across her chest and touched the tarnished gold heart. Lily didn’t move. Night creatures and the sound of Arlo’s breathing filled the air. Light jumped around the top of the box then landed on Lily’s face.
“Arlo. It’s me, Lily.” She wriggled away from him toward one of the stacks of books.
“Lily?” He helped her sit up without releasing the heart. Arlo attempted to clean his glasses on his shirt, and then he moved his face within inches of hers. He closed his eyes, tracing her face with his thumb and index finger.
“It’s me. I saw you on the street the other day and had to find you.”
“It’s the way it’s supposed to be.” He leaned against her chest and began to cry.
She inhaled the smells of his life on the street. Car exhaust. Unwashed clothes. Detritus of his new life in his hair and beard. She contrasted them with the chlorine, Aramis, and marijuana of their previous lives. Arlo stopped crying.
“You’ve got to help me. I’m disintegrating,” he said, still holding onto her by the medal. “Some days I don’t know who or where I am. Things have meaning for a few moments, then there’s nothing.” He sighed. “The past makes more sense than the present.”
Lily pried his fingers from around the medal.
“You can come home with me. I can take care of you.” She considered all the doctors she knew, medications, therapies, all the fix-its she would hate to admit she needed. He would hate those things, too.
“I’m ready to die,” he said, his voice matter-of-fact. “You know what to do.”
“We need some time,” she said, trying to figure out how to separate idealized memories from cruel reality.
“You won’t leave me like this?”
They nestled in the box. Arlo fell asleep. Lily spooned against him and listened to a lullaby of melodious snoring. A gecko scurried across her arm. She felt a peacefulness reminiscent of days getting ready for work in the pre-dawn hours while her husband slept. Before her husband died, she cherished the solitude. Now, when she was home alone, it infected every minute.
Lily held onto the moment of deceptive calm. Arlo shifted. His left arm flailed, then flopped to the ground. Light from a camping lantern highlighted a ten-digit number tattooed on his inner arm. Beneath the number she found: “If found, please call.” His second wife, Arianna, of course. An engineer. A woman of numbers and organization. Lily cursed her phone sitting in the center of her coffee table.
She committed the phone number to memory. Her mind planned for the next day. Attention to detail made her an excellent nurse. She’d figure something out; she always did.
Lily woke up alone. She stuck her head outside the box and smelled Cosmo before she saw him. He scooted down the incline to check on her and Arlo.
“Where is he?”
“We fell asleep together,” she said and sighed. “When I woke up, he was gone. Do you know anyone with a phone? Did you ever notice the number on his arm?”
Cosmo shook his head. “I’ve never seen anyone get close enough to see anything.” He slid a Tracfone from the frayed pocket of his cargo pants and handed it to her. “There’s over an hour on there.”
“Thank you.” She hugged him without hesitating.
“I’ll leave you to it.” He scratched the nest that was his beard as if he were contemplating the greatest philosophy of life. Reeds and twigs snapped under his feet as he shuffled away.
Lily hunkered down in her own makeshift castle and dialed the number. She resisted disconnecting after the first ring, because she knew the misery of not knowing, knew the pain of absence when her son disappeared the year before he was incarcerated. She owed this call to Arlo and to the person who put the number on his arm. After two more rings, someone answered.
“Hello, Arianna Perkins.”
Her voice sounded crisp, anxious. Arlo had described his second wife as a woman of blacks and whites, no shades of gray, no room for decisions relating to the murky shadows of human existence.
Lily hung up. Throughout her life, depression stalked her, an addicting, almost comfortable companion. She no longer wore it like an old, favorite coat; she wrestled with it and usually held it at bay. Arlo’s dilemma activated memories of days when suicide seemed like the perfect exit strategy. He wanted her to be complicit with his plan. She dialed the number again.
Arianna answered after the first ring.
“My name is Lily Jackson. You don’t know me. I’m an old friend of your husband’s.” Before she could go on, she was interrupted.
“Lily? Did he find you? Is he safe?”
Arianna spoke as if they knew each other. Lily wondered which intimacies Arlo had shared. She thought of his letters, the handwriting crimped, the misquoting of his intellectual idols, from Eldridge Cleaver to Hippocrates, and the descriptions of LSD induced frontiers. Arianna carried on a monologue of memories. Lily compared these with her own versions of the past.
“He loved to watch you swim. He said it was the most beautiful human thing he’d ever seen. You were the first girl who didn’t think he was a geek.” Arianna’s voice faltered. “It took me a while to get used to how his brain worked.”
Lily heard the plaintive sound of a woman who knew she couldn’t retrieve what was lost.
“He and I had a lot in common.” Lily, like Arlo, lurked on the perimeter of what people considered normal. Their friendship dispelled the loneliness inflicted upon them by a world into which they didn’t quite fit.
“What are you going to do?” Arianna asked.
Seconds of silence became eons. Time played its deceptive tricks.
“I could put him on a plane and send him back,” Lily said.
“He would never cooperate. Even on days he was himself, I had no influence. The night before he left, he called your name over and over and ranted in his sleep. In lucid moments, Arlo talked about dying. His mind was his prized possession,” Arianna said. “Without it, he felt he would be useless.”
Lily’s career had taught her survival was often worse than death. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said and hung up.
She worked her way up the slope to high ground and looked at the line of tents under the bridge. A scruffy mutt with a halter leash was staked in front of one. A man swayed side-to-side, naked from his waist up. With his face turned upward, he preached a potpourri of words to the underside of the freeway. She watched him, awed and humbled by his survival.
Lily meandered by the creek. She sipped acrid coffee bought from the gas station where she brushed her teeth. She wondered if Arianna was prepared to lose Arlo, or if she already felt she had. Lily phoned Arianna. She picked up after one ring.
“It’s Lily. How lucky we’ve been to have loved him.”
“In so many ways, he’s already gone.” Arianna’s voice broke.
“I promise I’ll take care of him.”
Lily walked the two miles to the nearby grocery store. She buried the phone in an overflowing dumpster to prevent implicating anyone from the tribe under the bridge if it were found. She bought bread, peanut butter, and water. She waited.
Lily scribbled in an old spiral notepad she found in Arlo’s box. She doodled her son’s name and sketched her Facebook avatar. Beneath that, she wrote her son’s phone number.
Finally, Arlo appeared. A layer of dirt reminded her how he looked after a day in the sun. That same dirt ribboned his beard, adding to his pathos. When he staggered and nearly fell, Lily noticed the front of one shoe had ripped away. He crab-walked, foot first into his box. Lily heard him root around. A shout was followed by a thud. A dead rat jettisoned from the box. Arlo spoke gibberish.
Lily sat outside the box, her back against one cardboard wall, her knees drawn up, the gun cradled in her arms. Arlo quieted. Lily switched off the gun’s safety, threw back the flag, and entered the box. She whispered the Vonnegut quote Arlo had painted on her bedroom wall in their youth: “Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”
She positioned the barrel beneath Arlo’s chin. She hesitated. His eyes opened. The moonlight allowed her to see his clarity, his look so direct that she knew he wasn’t afraid. He wrapped his fingers around her wrist, gently, as if he were taking her pulse.
“Peace out?” he asked.
Lily nodded and pulled the trigger. She imagined the others, some distance away, under the bridge; Cosmo hearing a car backfire.
“Peace out,” Lily said. She squeezed the trigger again.
Cynthia Stock pursued writing through various institutions and mentors during her forty-plus years’ career in Critical Care nursing. She considers herself in the process of reinvention as a writer. Cynthia self-published The Final Harvest of Judah Woodbine in 2014. Her short stories have appeared in Memoryhouse, Shark Reef, Lunch Ticket’s a-la-carte, HerStry, and The South Shore Review. Clocked Out: A Nurse’s Life After Hours is a work-in-progress of autofiction.