Homeless man found dead on park bench. Not exactly headline news. Not because our society views homeless people as a drain on our resources. An inconvenience. A crushed spider carcass stuck to the bottom of a shoe, preferred to be wiped away on a curb and forgotten.
Twenty-five-year-old nurse found dead. Now that’s something to talk about.
Niecy Lang worked at my building. Though, I couldn’t tell you what she looked like. I didn’t know too many people on the nursing staff. “She missed four shifts,” Mike said. He made himself comfortable in the office Terri and I shared, leaning back against the refrigerator that whirred beside my desk. “After we contacted her apartment complex, we got the news.” Terri sat behind her desk in rapt attention. He went on about how the manager of the apartment complex reached out to Niecy’s sister, who then reached out to our Director of Nursing. The body was found lying in a gutter on Stockton Boulevard.
“That’s just awful,” Terri said. “She was a newlywed, wasn’t she? Her poor husband.” I heard all of this, my eyes never straying from my computer screen. The clock at the bottom triggered a mental alert in my brain.
“I need to move my car,” I said, abandoning my spreadsheet. I grabbed my keys from my desk drawer and squeezed past Mike. My office stood adjacent to the front door, allowing me to come and go without the worry of getting roped into unwarranted conversation. I walked down the front drive to the picturesque tree-lined street.
It was almost beautiful.
I waited, one hand on the signal button. The orange lights blinked around the edges of the pedestrian walking signs. Drivers ignored them, hustling to make it to their destination. They know the traffic signals will turn red at some point, forcing a break in the cars. They know I will make it across the street eventually. Just not at their expense.
Normally, I alternated parking between 36th Street North and 36th Street South. That morning, the house on the corner of 36th Street North had a shipment of cement blocking the road, so I parked on 37th Street instead, which used to be unmonitored parking until last week when the dreaded 2-hour parking signs cropped up overnight. Two shirtless men sat in white plastic lawn chairs outside the small house, smoking. Beneath their feet, rolled out synthetic grass carpeting. I saw the house through the office window overlooking my desk often. Recovering addicts roamed around the property. They yelled during the day sometimes, breaking my concentration. I looked down, avoiding eye contact as I passed the shirtless men. Unlocking the car, I slid into the driver’s seat. The moment my hands positioned themselves on the steering wheel, my foot poised over the brake pedal, I imagined driving away and never returning. I pulled off, driving past both 36th Streets. The freeway on ramp came into view. The road to freedom. I turned left, pulling into the Chevron.
The bell tinkled, and I made a bee line for the wall of refrigeration units. I pulled out a Red Bull Total Zero. I told myself it was the healthier choice, the alternative to having 38 grams of sugar on top of all the caffeine. It was a shit justification, but I couldn’t help myself. I was so fucking tired.
The man at the counter bought lottery tickets. He wore a golf shirt and khaki colored slacks that give him an odd proportion, widening at the hips. But his shoes were eye catching. Alligator skin. He turned around, acknowledging me as I took position in line behind him. The gas station attendant typed on the little monitor, the orange tickets printing out. At the last minute, alligator shoes asked for another ticket. He took them, pulling the last one out and offering it to me. I stared at it.
“You might win big,” he said. The action felt foreign. Paralyzing. Like when a toll booth operator refuses your money, saying, “The car in front took care of you.” I took the ticket and thanked him. He left.
“He comes in all the time,” the gas station attendant said, taking the Red Bull and mini chocolate donuts I grabbed as an impulse buy. “Really nice guy. Buys tickets for everyone in the store while he’s in.”
“That’s nice of him,” I said. I headed back to my car, reading the numbers on the little orange ticket. Throwing the black generic gas station bag holding my treats into the passenger seat, I drove back to work. On the drive, I imagined how I’d quit if my numbers hit.
* * *
Riley lived a quarter mile down the road from my parent’s house, so I asked her to meet me there. I stood outside in the driveway. My sister came out, her weekender bag in hand. She loaded it in her car, headed back to San Francisco that morning.
“You hear about the shooting?” she asked.
“What shooting?” I asked. I thought it must be at the park down the street. It happened before, just last year. Drug deal gone wrong. But she pointed across the street. “Seriously?”
“See the holes?” she asked. I squinted. Sure enough, three small bullet holes could be clearly identified in the white metal of the screen door.
In the last fifteen years, the house across the street never held occupants for long. The latest, a single mom and her teenage sons, quickly became the subject of late night neighborhood meetings. I moved out before they came around, but I still saw my fair share of hot boxing and raucous gatherings during my visits.
“Where were mom and dad?” I asked.
Riley’s Ford Focus pulled up in front of the driveway. She looked tiny behind the wheel, her UC Davis sweatshirt drowning her. I waved goodbye to my sister. Not much of a hugger. She invited me to the museum where she worked for some skull exhibit. I nodded, closing the passenger side door. I pointed out the bullet holes to Riley as we pulled away.
“Fuck,” she said. “Shits gone downhill around here.” She turned out of the residential onto the main street. I pointed toward the new construction to the right. Section 8 housing tucked away behind a McDonalds and other small shops.
“That’s why, right there,” I said. She nodded. “It’s awful. I waited in line at the drive-thru of that McDonalds when it first opened. In my side mirror, I witnessed a drug deal. Broad daylight. The exchange was clear as day.”
Homeless stood at the intersections, looking out of place in the clean cut four corners of suburban shopping centers. We stopped at a red light. A man stood on the cement divider of the adjacent street, cardboard sign in hand. He wore baggy jeans, his brown sweatshirt tied around his waist. Somebody in a green Toyota held a bill for him from their open window. I expected this in Oak Park. Hell, I expected worse in Oak Park. Dead people found on park benches and in gutters. But not at home. Riley agreed with me. But we agreed on pretty much everything.
By the time we reached the 12th Avenue freeway exit, the conversation navigated toward the activity of the day: the zoo. “I don’t know. I don’t agree with animals being held captive. But I think there are more humane places than others. Like, fuck SeaWorld,” I said.
“I’m never stepping foot in SeaWorld again,” Riley said.
“But how is the zoo different?” I asked. School traffic from the community college backed up the exit. We debated the whole wait as the car inched up toward the street light. Of course, I noticed the homeless man at the off ramp immediately. I thought nothing of it. Until we get closer. His crippled cardboard sign saddened me, black marker scrawling a plea for help. Then, I saw his face.
Red lights normally infuriated me. Forcing me to stop, to prolong my journey. But this light, I hoped would stay red forever. Long enough for me to decide what to do. He did not recognize me. Or he did not let on that he did. He looked sick. Cheeks sunken in. Pale. But those eyes. They chilled my insides. Wide. Alert. Searching ahead, beyond that moment. Focused on the next fix, not the road getting to it.
“What is it?” Riley asked.
David. My future brother-in-law. “I know him.” Scenarios played out in my mind. Me yelling out to him to get in the car. Taking him to the zoo. Or out to eat. Or back home. Anywhere that’s not a freeway off-ramp in summer, with a crumpled cardboard sign.
“Who is he?” she asked.
“What do I do?”
Both at a loss, the light turned green. Cars moved, and so did we. It happened in slow motion, and still he did not look at me. Did he recognize me? Or is he too far gone? Would he even get in the car? Riley asked what to do, but I say nothing and she is forced to keep driving. I did the only thing I could manage in that moment. I texted Todd, telling him where I saw David. Asking if I should do something. If I should go back. He didn’t respond in time, and we were gone.
* * *
It rained all the next morning. Fat water droplets collected on leaves and fell on top of my unprotected head on the way into work. My hair, as a result, flat and frizzed on top after drying. Terri puttered at her desk, and I at mine. Very little conversation between us. Then, a knock.
“You Business Office?” The man at the door walked in, his boots squeaking from the moisture between them and the faux wood floors. I knew because I saw the maintenance man putting new flooring into one of the rooms before. The planks curved like rubber. I nodded toward the man. He pulled out a plastic bag from the inside of his oversized coat. “From Vi.” The man’s musky odor hit my nostrils, unleashed from within the zippered coat prison. Once I took possession of the bag, feeling a manila file folder housed within for protection, the man dipped back out the front door and into the rain. I pulled back the grey plastic, revealing the folder. The name Winston Leonard scrawled across the tab in messy cursive.
Winston Leonard lived in room 19. He drank O’Doul’s all day and cursed at the activities girl when she took his cigarettes. Tried to curse. His words always came out a low grumble. He rolled around in his wheelchair, with his long grey beard and his cowboy hat, pushing with his good foot, the other resting on the foot rest. I’d been trying to get payment from his sister, Violet, for his bill for months. Though, recently, I hadn’t been able to get a hold of her.
I opened the folder, and a note written on a piece of yellow legal paper greeted me. It explained that Violet had lost her house, her phone, that she now lived in a van. It explained that I held the entirety of Winston’s financials in my hands. That she would be no help to him now. And just like that, Winston Leonard’s only somebody disappeared.
Outside the hall, near the smoking patio, Winston loitered with his head drooping over the detachable padded armrest. Smoke break wasn’t for another two hours. I moved him outside with me, holding a cordless phone in one hand and a face sheet in the other. I explained that Violet lost his Direct Express card. That we needed to call Social Security so that he could have his money. He stared, his eyes squinting up at me.
“To get your cigarettes,” I said. This he understood.
Once the hold music cut off, and a real woman’s voice cut through the silence, I handed Winston the phone. He listened, grumbled an answer, listened again. Each response more agitated than the last. I held his face sheet in front of him to read his personal information. He squinted at it, but couldn’t read it. Finally, I began saying it aloud for him to repeat.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I cannot understand him,” the woman said. She had an accent. Middle Eastern, I guessed.
“Well, I can give it to you, then.”
“I’m sorry. I cannot accept that. It must come from the beneficiary. You cannot feed him the answers.”
After some more back and forth, the representative giving me a hard time, Winston began to roll away. Smokers lined up in the hallway behind the glass sliding doors. I told Winston we’d try again later, hanging up the phone. Inarticulate grumblings, punctuated by the oddly placed enunciated curse word, tumbled from his mouth. He finished with, “Bullshit.”
“Okay, Winston. We’ll try again later,” I said.
Mike sat in my desk chair when I returned to my office. A newspaper sat open on the desk, to an article on a local nursing home’s negligence. An activities assistant supervising an outing gave food to a resident without checking his diet restrictions. Turned out, he couldn’t swallow. “How could they be so careless?” Terri asked. She and Mike read over the rest of the article together. It was scathing. Not just toward that particular nursing home, but toward all nursing homes. “If they had their way, they’d shut us all down. And then where would these people be?” Terri asked. She took her disgust out on her Chobani, stabbing the contents of the yogurt cup with a plastic spoon.
“Homeless, most of them,” Mike said. He motioned to get up but I waved for him to stay, looking at the clock.
“I have to move my car.”
Garbage collection clogged up the open spots on the residential streets that day. I found a spot in front of the gate that separated the facility’s parking lot from the one for the doctors’ offices next door. While not a designated parking spot, a mutual understanding developed among everyone involved, the reigning power being the parking lot attendant, Hank. It pained me to give up the spot. The stereo paired with my phone, and then began the soothing voice of Diane Keaton reciting Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Even though the drive was short, too short to progress in the story, to lose myself in another’s musings, I let it play.
They didn’t have Red Bull Total Zero at the Chevron station today, so I grabbed the Sugar Free. The cashier spoke in another language in the small Bluetooth headset in his ear, facing away from the rest of the store. The only inhabitants of which were me and a blonde woman in cycling gear holding a beef jerky stick. She and I both approached the counter at the same time. A conflicted look crossed her face, her eyes traveling down to the beef stick in her hand. Then, she smiled. “You go ahead. I have to lock my bike.” She rushed to the door, then stopped, setting the beef stick on a stack of Coors Light 18-packs displayed near the window.
Orange lotto tickets taped up over the counter caught my attention as the cashier rang me up, not letting the presence of a customer interfere with his conversation in the slightest. I pointed up at them. “Can I get a ticket?” I asked. The cashier stopped talking.
“Whichever’s the soonest.”
He turned to the lotto ticket kiosk and tapped the screen. I interrupted him again. “Two, actually. On separate tickets.” The bell on the door tinkled above, the cyclist returning and grabbing her beef stick, wallet in hand. Once the orange slips of paper spat out of the machine, he handed them to me along with the Red Bull. I held one ticket out to the girl behind me. “You might win big,” I said. I was already halfway out the door when she thanked me.
* * *
Winston ran out of cigarettes two days later. He sat outside by the smoking patio, like always. Only this time, he wore a black leather jacket. I brought the phone and sat with him, attempting to call Social Security again. Wind rustled the papers on my clipboard, and I set my cell phone on top of them to keep them down. Winston stared down at the cement.
“It’s a beautiful day out,” I said. He didn’t respond. The wind picked up, and I searched for something else to start conversation. “I like your jacket, Winston.” I hadn’t seen him in the jacket before. He held out his left arm, as if to show it off better. “Did someone give it to you as a gift?” He nodded, mumbling something and jabbing at the front chest pocket. “That was nice of them, wasn’t it? It’s very nice.”
A gust of wind swept the leaves above and a snap sounded. Something hard fell down onto my head. I leapt in my seat, crying out in surprise. An acorn bounced off the table and onto the floor, rolling behind my chair. Winston’s eyes crinkled. I thought he might have even laughed, a chuckle too quiet to hear. But he smiled, something I had never seen before.
“You think that’s funny, Winston?” I asked, rubbing the top of my head. Winston only smiled wider.
Someone picked up from Social Security a few minutes later. A much more agreeable woman than the last, one not so devoid of empathy. She agreed to help us. I thanked her at least twenty times on that phone call. Though it would still take up to sixty days to process the request for Winston’s money. “She’s going to help you, Winston,” I said.
Through the sliding glass door, residents started forming a line. Val, the activities director, came from the side door that led to her office holding a plastic bin full of cigarettes. Each pack had the corresponding resident’s name written on it in black Sharpie. I pat Winston on the shoulder, telling him I will get this all fixed for him, and ran to meet Val. I pulled out a ten dollar bill from my pocket.
“Here. For Winston’s cigarettes,” I said.
“Oh, I know. Poor thing. He’s been asking all day about them,” she said, taking the money. “You got his money already?”
“Not yet. But I’m working on it.”
“That’s so sweet of you. Ever since his sister stopped coming, smoke break is the only thing the poor man looks forward to now.” She reached forward and touched my shoulder, leaning in. “Thank goodness he has you, at least.”
I skipped Chevron today, opting for the McDonald’s drive thru window instead, unable to muster the energy to even get out of the car. I asked for a 10-piece chicken nugget and got upsold to a 20-piece instead. I sat at a red light, munching on my fries, when I noticed the man with the cardboard sign standing on the cement divider just ahead. A woman sat next to him, wrapped in a blanket, a dog laying at her feet. I chewed, already feeling a protest of my stomach at the thought of eating all the food in the McDonalds bag on the seat beside me. Suddenly, ‘Only fifty cents more!’ didn’t seem like such a good deal. I rolled down my window.
“You want some nuggets?” I asked. The man, lean and tan from standing outside all day long in the summertime, nodded and approached the driver’s side. I handed it to him through the window.
“Thanks a lot,” he said.
I watched him kneel down and hand it to the woman. She opened the cardboard container and fed a nugget to the dog, the German Shepherd wagging his tail in gratitude. He set his chin down on top of her hand, waiting for another treat. Then, the light turned green, and I drove toward the freeway on ramp.
The road to freedom.
Though, that day, I didn’t mind turning left.