What’s a matter with you? You’re so stupid. Crazy. Look at those people over there looking at you. You’re ugly, that’s what they’re thinking. You’re worthless. You don’t even deserve to live. Hey, you, look at me. I’m talking to you.
She’s hot and tired. Her skin burns. She’s hungry. Charlie walks into the convenience store. She spots the sandwiches in the glass paneled refrigerator. She grabs the first one. She struggles to open the cellophane and finally tears it open with her teeth. She takes a huge bite and walks towards the exit.
“Hey, you! Stop. You didn’t pay for that!” Shouted the store attendant. “Hey, stop!” he came from behind the counter and started following her. Cough. Cough. He started gagging from the horrible stench. When he could catch his breath, he saw filthy dirty tall middle-aged woman walking zombie-like across the parking lot. She dropped the plastic sandwich container on the ground. He shook his head and walked back to his spot behind the counter.
A customer was waiting for him at the counter, “What is that smell?”
“Her,” the attendant indicated with a nod towards the door. “She just stole a sandwich.”
“Why did you let her in?”
“If I didn’t allow people in here because of the way they looked, I’d never sell a thing.”
“You should call the police.”
“For a sandwich? Nah. If someone keeps doin’ it, then I call the police.”
The woman plodded along the sidewalk. You’re an idiot. It’s your fault. You’re a suck ass mother. You’re pathetic. Everyone’s looking at you. I hate you. They hate you. Your son hates you. We all hate you. Why don’t you just die? We’d be so much better off. Just die.
“Shut up!” She screamed and gestured at the air. “Shut up!” She continued plodding. One foot after the other, one step at a time. No matter what she heard, she was determined to get to the shelter.
It was the middle of August at 3:00 in the afternoon. The temperature was 98 degrees making the asphalt 120. Each step she took was an effort. She didn’t have any water. When she reached the overpass, she decided to sit down to rest in the shade. A man with an overflowing grocery cart hollered at her, “Hey, lady!” She didn’t respond. “Lady!”
The man hobbled towards her using his cart as a walker to steady his gait. “Here lady, you need some water.”
The woman looked at the man. She saw him pouring something out of an old milk jug. “Here,” he handed her a dirty plastic cup. “You look like you’re about to fall out. You
need some water.” Without saying a word, she took the cup and guzzled the water. She handed the empty cup to him.
“You need to stay outta the sun. Just rest here in the shade for a little bit,” the man
handed her another cup, “Have some more.” She drank all of it, handed it back to him and laid down on the cement and closed her eyes. The man pulled a dirty shirt out of one of the bags in his cart. He hobbled over to her, wadded up the shirt and put it under her head.
A couple hours later she woke up and saw the man with the cart walking on the other side
of the service road. She got up and followed him, continuing her trek towards the shelters.
When she arrived, she stood in the long line behind other sweaty, dirty and sun weary
people. Each of them held a plastic trash bag, broken suitcase or dilapidated backpack full of all their worldly possessions and hard luck. When she finally reached the front door, the desk attendant greeted her, “Good afternoon, welcome. My name is Janice. What’s yours?”
“Charlie,” the woman answered robotically.
“Hi Charlie. Could I see some identification please?”
Charlie reached into her front pocket and pulled out a bus pass and business card.
“Thank you.” Janice looked at the pass and business card and handed them back to her. “Charlie, the card says you have an appointment at the county mental health clinic tomorrow morning at 9:00am.”
“Dinner is at 6:00. If you’ll go to that window behind me, John will give you supplies to take a shower.”
Without saying a word, Charlie lumbered to the window. John gave her a small bottle of all-in-one shampoo and body wash, a wash cloth and towel. Once she got to the shower room, she walked into a stall. Without taking her off her clothes, she turned on the shower. The ugly, swirling faces rained down on her. You stink. We hate you. Everyone hates you. Everyone’s watching and listening to you. They hear everything you say and see everything you do. You’re disgusting. We hate you. Everyone hates you. Charlie backed out of the stall.
“Shut up! Shut up!” Charlie yelled at the water.
“Ma’am, is everything okay?” The shower attendant asked.
Charlie walked passed the attendant without saying a word. She walked out of the shower room. She passed the window where John had given her shower supplies. She passed Janice where she checked in.
“Charlie. Where are you going? Aren’t you staying for supper?” Called Janice.
Without a word, Charlie walked back into the afternoon heat. She lumbered in the direction of the clinic, under the bridge and westward. She walked and walked until she just couldn’t take one more step. She saw the post office and found a dark corner that led to a basement entrance. She lay her head there, a couple of yards away from an overflowing dumpster.
Beep, beep, beep, beep. Charlie looked up and saw the dumpster truck moving towards
her. She squinted holding her hand up to her forehead to block the hot sun.
Svert. She heard someone whistle, “Hey, hold up!” yelled the young man from the side of the truck. The driver looked out his window.
“Toss me my bottle of water!” The man yelled. The bottle flew out the window and he caught it with one hand. “Hey, lady. You all right?” he continued to walk towards her and handed her the bottle.
She looked at him holding her hand up in front of her eyes to block the bright, hot morning sun. “Thank you.”
“Sure, no problem,” he jogged back up to the passenger side of the truck. Beep, beep, beep, beep, the truck continued backing up, it’s mechanical arms reaching for the giant blue metal box that dumped the filth into the truck.
Charlie only had a few more blocks to go before she’d reach the clinic. She tried to get up, but fell backwards and hit her head on the basement door. Her legs were stinging, were they on fire? She rubbed the back of her head and slowly tried to stand up again, breathing through the pain on the back of her legs. Once she was steady on her feet, she continued her trek to the clinic, kicking her full bottle of water over with her first step.
She’d been walking for an hour and could finally see the clinic. You’re not going in there. They’re mean. They’ll kill you. You hate those people and they hate you! Oh, you idiot, you’re going to go anyway. Of course, because you’re stupid and ugly. She continued at a snail’s pace, just putting one foot in front of the other. You’re gonna go anyways. Fool. You’re such a fool. Charlie suddenly stopped. She stared at the vicious, hateful collection of faces in front of her, “Shut up! Shut up!” She screamed and pointed at the bending, wavy faces. “Shut up! I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you. I swear I will!” She stared at each of them and poked their faces. She only had two blocks left to get to the building. You can do this, Charlie. You can do this. You’re an idiot. one step, then two. You’ll be there and everyone will be there to laugh and stare at you. “Shut up I said! shut up!”
“Charlie! Hey! Charlie!” She looked in the direction of the voice. She saw a familiar face behind a black wrought iron fence that was attached to the building that she had been trying to get to for nearly two days.
“Come get something to drink. Are you hungry?”
As Charlie was crossing the street, she saw the familiar lady standing at the front door.
“Come on in. It’s good to see you.” The lady held the door open.
She’s laughing at you. She thinks you’re stupid and ugly and evil and crazy. She hates you and she’s going to put poison in your food. You’re so ugly. You deserve to be poisoned. Charlie concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. She entered the building, the door slammed shut behind her.
“I’m glad you’re here. My name is Linda. Do you remember me?”
“Yes.” Charlie stood motionless.
“Would you like a hamburger? I can heat a frozen one up for you.” Linda walked into the small snack bar.
“It looks like you haven’t eaten in a while. Have a hamburger.” Linda insisted.
“No. You put poison in it.”
Linda looked at Charlie, “I promise I didn’t put poison in it, but if you don’t want something to eat, that’s okay.” Linda reached into the refrigerator to get a bottle of water. “At least have some water.”
Linda twisted the top off and handed her the water.
“Charlie, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I need to tell you that you smell really, really bad.” Linda said holding her breath has she talked.
“Oh.” Charlie took a drink of water.
“You know we have showers here. Why don’t you take a shower?”
“No.” Charlie said reluctantly.
“I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but you have feces running down your legs.” Linda darted her eyes towards the back of Charlie’s soiled white shorts.
Charlie stared straight ahead, motionless.
“There are some people here to see you.” Linda walked towards a set of glass double doors. “They’re out here.” She turned to make sure Charlie was behind her.
Linda opened the door to an open area that was fenced in by a wrought iron fence. There were wooden benches lined up against the building’s brick wall. Picnic tables and chairs were next to a half-court basketball blacktop. A sidewalk wrapped around the building which then led to a large porch with more chairs that flanked double doors to a county mental health clinic.
The building and fenced in area was a place for adults with severe and persistent mental illness to hang out during the day. Inside they could hang out with one another and play games, dominoes and cards. There was also a pool table and TV. Shower and laundry facilities were also available. The most important thing about the center is that it was a place where the vulnerable adults were safe from criminals, drug addicts, hustlers, brutal summer sun and the occasional cold front.
Charlie saw two people in uniforms. See. Told ya. They’re gonna take you away. Take you away. Take you away. Take you… “Don’t you think, Charlie?” The lady was saying. “A shower…feel nice…warm…?” The familiar lady continued. Charlie stared through the woman.
“You need to come with us.” Charlie looked in the direction of a man’s voice. Crazy. Ugly. Smelly. They hate you. Everyone hates you. She saw that the lady next to him was holding up some white paper.
Charlie felt a hand on her arm, she turned her head towards the familiar voice.
“Charlie, the deputies are trying to help you,” Linda explained, “…Shower. Take a shower.”
She heard several voices. You’re a crazy bitch. You disgust me. “Shower…” Hate. Hate you. “…with us.” She felt a gentle hand on her arm and the familiar lady was next to her. They were walking to the back of the building. The lady in the uniform was walking behind them. When they got to the door, the lady unlocked the door and guided Charlie and the deputy to the shower room that was just a few steps in front of them.
The lady turned on the shower. Charlie began to take off her clothes. The deputy continued to face her, but wasn’t looking at her, she was looking at the ground.
She walked towards the sound of the shower and stepped in. The warm water felt good on her feet. She walked closer towards the water. She felt the washcloth and soap on the back of her legs. Linda washed as gently as she could, but the feces was caked to her sunburned legs.
“Ow,” Charlie flinched.
“I’m sorry, Charlie. I’ll be more careful. I think I’ll just hold the soapy cloth on your legs, maybe the dirt will just melt a little.
Charlie put her head back and looked up at the water coming down on her face. The spray of water was morphing into long, skinny laughing faces. Hee, hee, hee, look at you. You’re even uglier naked. You’re even more disgusting. Hah, hah, hah…. “Stop!”
“Are you sure, Charlie?” asked the lady.
“Stop.” You’re pathetic. You’re such an idiot.
“Okay. Done. You can turn the water off.” Linda reached over for a towel, “Here you go.” She handed the towel to Charlie. Linda picked up the dirty clothes, “Your clothes will be on the stool.” Linda walked to the sink and washed her hands, under her fingernails and up her arms and stood next to the deputy. The two women smiled at one another. Linda glanced at the deputy’s name tag, “I did the best I could, officer Hernandez. I think she feels a little better. Hopefully it will make for a more pleasant ride to the hospital.”
“Yes. I think it will. Thank you,” The deputy replied.
Parsons waited outside on the black top while the women were in the shower room. He watched as the clients began to gather for the day. Men, women, young, old, black, white, tan, tall and thin, short and fat. Some of them were clad in dirty ill-fitting clothing, others were dressed in way too many layers for the August heat.
He saw a late middle-aged woman who was impeccably dressed in jeans, a starched white shirt with tasteful makeup and jewelry. She looked like someone who could be his own mother.
A young shirtless man who couldn’t be more than nineteen or twenty was wearing a dingy white tee shirt wrapped around his head, jeans and flip flops. He paced back and forth at the entry to the clinic talking and gesturing to an invisible enemy.
Lounging in the grass on his elbow with outstretched legs was an older man methodically taking puffs on a cigarette. His eyeballs rolling up in his head to reveal nothing but the whites of his eyes.
A couple of women sat together at a picnic table talking and eating pastries and drinking coffee.
To the untrained eye, nothing about this disparate group suggested they have anything in common. Parsons knew better. He’d been in law enforcement fifteen years. The one trait they shared was the unlucky fortune of having broken brains.
“Hey officer,” Deputy Parsons turned around and saw a tall, slender man approaching. “
Remember me? Mike.” The man held out his hand.
Parsons furrowed his brow and hesitated before offering his hand in return. “Yah, of course, Mike.”
The last time Allen Parsons had seen Mike, he was incomprehensible. He was yelling and gesturing at the sky, bruised and bloody. A kid had just beat him up for his rehabbed 10 speed bike and backpack. The backpack held his psych meds that he’d gotten filled at the county hospital before he was released just a week earlier.
Today he was coherent and friendly. His hair was still long, and he had a bushy grey nicotine stained mustache and beard, but he was clean. Even though it was the middle of August and the temperature would likely reach 100 degrees, he had on his trademark long sleeve flannel shirt over a long sleeved black tee, jeans and work boots. The bill of a dirty baseball cap was stuck in his back pocket. Over the past couple years, he had taken on the persona of a hillbilly. His favorite place to live was in the woods.
“Pretty good,” answered Mike.
“You’re looking a lot better than the last time I saw you,” Parsons smiled. “Where’re you living now?”
Mike looked down at the ground, “I’m on the streets.”
“Again, Mike? I hate to hear that.”
“I got kicked out of the group home,” Mike took a drag off his hand rolled cigarette. “I got kicked out because I wouldn’t take a shower. Nick said I was making the house stink.”
Parsons shook his head, “Why wouldn’t you take a shower?”
“Man, it’s nasty in there. Black mold all over the shower. There ain’t no hot water.”
“Geez, Mike. No hot water. You pay them money, don’t you?”
“Yah, my whole goddamn disability check. The day I moved in Bill took me to the Social Security office and I signed my check over to him.”
Parsons looked at the ground and shook his head. “Why don’t you report him?”
“To who?” Mike took another cigarette out of his front shirt pocket and lit it. “There ain’t nobody to report it to. Look, Bill’s place ain’t so bad as some others. You heard uh Jay’s place?”
Mike blew smoke out of his nose. “He has two homes. One for men. One for women. He sleeps with the women. Dope layin’ all over, always has a gun in his back pocket. Pantries and fridge chained and locked shut.”
“I don’t know how you do it, Mike. I really don’t.”
“Ah, c’mon, officer, it ain’t that bad. I mean look,” Mike stretched out his arms and turned from side to side, “I got this place to come to and all these guys.”
“Yah, it’s nice that you’ve got friends,” Parsons agreed. “So, when will you get your check back?”
“Don’t know. My caseworker’s workin’ on it.” Mike took a long drag on his cigarette. “’Til then, I’m doing some lawn work over on the East side. Pull weeds, stuff like that. Guy pays me in smokes and a few dollars.”
Parsons put his hand up to block the sun, “That’s it?”
“I also make a little bit a money sellin’ my smokes,” Mike said as he slapped his thigh and let out a huge belly laugh.
Parsons felt someone walking behind him, he turned around and saw his partner, Linda and Charlie walking in his direction.
“Hey, look man, I gotta go. Good seein’ you. You take care, Mike.”
“Don’t you worry ‘bout me. I always figure somethin’ out.”
“Charlie’s had a shower. I think she’s about ready to go.” Hernandez told her partner.
Charlie stood statue straight and didn’t speak.
Parsons reached for his cuffs.
Linda looked at his cuffs and then at him, “Is that really necessary?”
“Would it be okay if we walk through the building and then you can use them before you put her in the car?” Linda asked, pleadingly. “The clients have started to gather for the day, they’ll be playing pool, watching TV and generally just hanging out. It’s always upsetting when they see someone in uniform and it’s really going to be bad if they see cuffs on her.”
“Sure.” Parsons shrugged.
Linda led them through the double glass doors into the building. There were about twenty adults going about their day, some playing pool, some watching TV and just hanging out. Others getting laundry started or getting ready to take a shower.
As they walked through the building, well wishes could be heard, “Take care.”
“Good luck Charlie.”
“See ya soon.”
Charlie plodded through the onlookers and well-wishers. She gazed straight ahead. They’re watching you. You’re stupid. They hate you. They wanna kill you. They should kill you.
The four of them went out the front door. Deputy Hernandez went around to the driver’s side and unlocked the door, started the engine and turned on the air full blast.
Parsons put the cuffs on Charlie, opened the door and guided her into the back seat.
“Take care Charlie. Hope to see you soon,” Linda said as the door was closing.
Hernandez made a wide U-turn and headed in the direction of the county hospital.
Whether it be city police, dressed in navy blue, or sheriff’s deputies wearing khaki, they wore a heavy belt of gear including a gun, taser, pepper spray, cuffs, flashlight and billy club. Regardless of gender, ethnicity or size, they had an intimidating presence. The deputies that Linda greeted this morning were no exception. Through her many interactions with law enforcement, she always glanced at the name tag, saying the last name to herself, in case acquiescence was required at any time during the interaction.
“Hi, how’re y’all doing, officers? How can I help you?”
“We’ve got a warrant here for a Charlie McNeil,” the female deputy, Hernandez, answered as her partner held up the trifold paper. “Do you know where he is?” asked officer Parsons. “No sir, I don’t. We haven’t seen her for weeks and we’re really worried about her. She hasn’t been well for quite some time. She had been doing better, but then something happened to her on the streets that caused her to decompensate, to an even worse state than when we first met her. Word has it that she was raped when she was wandering the streets.”
Hernandez and Parsons stood in silence, unmoved.
“We know that she needs help, and we’ve gotten glimpses of her, but even when her friends try to talk to her she just doesn’t make eye contact and continues walking in a zombie- like state. I’m glad you’re here, I know this way she’ll eventually get help, even though it might mean jail.”
“What does she look like?” officer Parsons asked.
“She’s very tall, kind of what you’d call big boned, but definitely not over weight. The last time I saw her it looked like she hadn’t had a nutritious meal in weeks. She has beautiful green eyes and shortish brown hair with a little bit of salt and pepper.”
“She has an appointment at the clinic at 9:00, if she shows up we have a mental health warrant,” Hernandez said.
“Ok, I hope she shows up. If she does, it’s probably going to seem like she’s not listening to you. When I talk to her, I don’t take my eyes off hers, because, somehow, I feel like we’re connecting, even if she doesn’t respond back. She’s very vulnerable right now. We’re all devastated for her. She’d found her teenage son that she hadn’t seen since he was a little boy. Unfortunately, he’s not well, himself. I think she might have found him in a homeless shelter. But, it wasn’t long after that that she was raped, and, well, she just hasn’t been the same since. I think all of this happened in the last six months, or so.”
She opened the door, “Good news, y’all. It looks like we’re going to be able to help Charlie today,” Linda said to the expressionless deputies.
“You need to come with us,” was the greeting that Hernandez offered. Charlie stared, right past her. The deputy repeated the command. This time, Charlie showed a glimmer of acknowledgment.
Linda knew that the next couple of exchanges were going to determine the outcome for Charlie. Without her complete obedience, she would end up on the ground, hands cuffed behind her.
Linda looked at Hernandez and Parsons, “You know, Charlie hasn’t had a shower in days, maybe weeks, perhaps she would like to take a shower before she goes with you,” she looked pleadingly into their eyes. Linda turned her attention to Charlie, “What do you think, Charlie? It’s been a while since you’ve had a shower. I bet it would feel nice to have warm water run down your legs, a little bit of soap to freshen up?”
“Where am I going?”
“You’re going with us,” Parsons said emphatically.
“I don’t want to.”
“You have to.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” Linda said calmly as she looked at Parsons, and then his partner. “Charlie’s been on the streets for a while. I know she’d feel better if she had an opportunity to clean up before she left.” Linda could feel their impatience swimming around her and Charlie.
“I’m not going.”
“Ma’am,” Parsons took a step towards Charlie, who did not flinch.
“Look, Charlie, you don’t have to go this second, I know you’d feel better if you had a warm shower.” Charlie didn’t respond. She was completely unaware of how horrible she smelled. Linda made one last plea, “C’mon, sweetie, just a quick shower, you’ll feel so much better,” Linda gently touched Charlie’s arm, guiding her in the direction of the shower. “Ok,” Charlie agreed. Linda guided the empty body to the back door where the showers were located. “We’ll be back shortly,” Linda told the officers as they stood in disbelief that someone had usurped their authority.
Linda went into the large concrete bathroom. She gently coaxed Charlie to get out of her clothes. Slowly and mechanically Charlie began to take her clothes off. “Ok. Excellent, here, step into the shower, it’s nice and warm.” Charlie stepped in facing the spraying water. “Here, sweetheart, I’ve got some soap and a wash cloth,” Linda offered. Charlie didn’t move. “C’mon Charlie, I know the water feels good, right?”
“Yes,” Charlie said, again not moving.
“Here,” Linda tried again. Charlie didn’t move.
“Why don’t we try this. I’ll get some soap on the wash cloth and gently wash your legs,” Linda said while holding her breath. The stench of dried feces melting was now in her nose, mouth and throat. She kept thinking, concentrate Linda. Concentrate on the task at hand. If you just concentrate on what is right in front of you and not think beyond that, you can get through this. Gently Linda tried to get the mess off Charlie’s blistered legs. “Ouch,” Charlie said, “That hurts.”
“I’m sorry, I’ll be more careful,” Linda apologized. “You haven’t had a shower in a while and you’ve got so much dirt on your legs. I’ll just gently wash and won’t scrub hard. At least the warm water and soap feels good, right?”
Linda softly patted her legs with the warm soapy cloth.
“I’m done,” Charlie said unexpectedly.
“Are you sure? Just a little bit more?” Linda asked.
“No. I’m done.”
“Alrighty, done,” Linda agreed handing her a towel. “I wish I had clean clothes for you,” Linda picked up Charlie’s soiled clothes off the floor.
“Can you get dressed or would you like me to help you?”
“Ok. I’ll be waiting out here whenever you’re ready.”
Linda went out to give the deputies an update. When she rounded the corner, she saw that several people had arrived. The mental health clients came to hang out, play basketball, cards, pool, or just sit around, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and visit with one another. They were all very close. They’d seen one another throughout their lives, all of them revolving between, jail, homelessness, subsidized apartments, county and state mental hospitals.
“Ok. She should be out shortly. I think she feels a little bit better. She’s getting dressed right now.”
“Is she ok, Linda?” Asked one of Charlie’s friends.
“Yah, I think she’ll be just fine,” Linda lied. She never had the heart to answer such questions, honestly. She knew that what they were asking for was hope. Hope that maybe, just maybe this one time, someone would be cured. Linda would never offer such false hope.
“I’m going to check on her again, excuse me,” Linda turned the corner just as Charlie was coming out the back door. “Hey, you look a little better. You ready?”
“Yes,” Charlie mumbled.
Once the deputies saw Charlie, they turned to face her, “Let’s go,” Hernandez said as Parsons reached for his cuffs. Linda looked both of them in the eyes, “Is that really necessary?
“Procedure, Ma’am,” said Parsons.
“Can’t we preserve the last shred of dignity she might have? To get to the car she has to walk through a room full of people, many of whom have had to endure this indignity many times. Also, it’s going to be upsetting for many of them to see the cuffs. How about we just walk through the building, when she gets out the door and to the car, you can use the cuffs. The deputies looked at one another, shrugging in agreeance.
Linda gently touched Charlie’s back, guiding her in the direction of the double glass doors, the deputies following behind. When they walked through the building, spectators bowed heads in shame, focusing on the cement below their feet. Some of them offered words of encouragement, “Bye, Charlie. Take care. It’ll be alright.” They knew Charlie was so sick that she probably didn’t really register their words, but knew that she’d felt them. “Take care. See ya soon.”
Charlie obediently walked to the exit door, Linda glanced back and looked both deputies in the eyes, making sure that each of them were looking her in the eyes, “Looks like to me she’s ready to go. It takes more time than the other method, but it preserves what dignity may be left. Neither Hernandez, nor Parsons said anything, they just dropped their eyes, to look at the cement below their feet.
Hernandez went to get the car while her partner, Charlie and Linda waited on the sidewalk. When Parsons saw the squad car turn the corner, he reached for his cuffs. When the car came to a stop, he put cuffs on Charlie and assisted her into the back seat. Once her partner was in his seat, she put the car into gear and pulled away from the curb.
Deputies Hernandez and Parsons
The deputies pulled into the clinic parking lot at 9:00am and saw several people standing under the overhang smoking cigarettes.
“Look at her,” Parsons nodded his head towards the group, “She could be my mom.”
“I know, I was just thinking the same thing,” replied Hernandez.
“Shit. I hate this part of the job. What the fuck? Every time I have to do this, I can’t believe it’s part of my job. Look at ‘em. What kinda life is that. Shit,” said Parsons.
“I hate it, too. It never gets any easier. Why the fuck is this our job?”
“Hey, Julie, there’s Jack.”
“What the hell? We just took him in a month ago. At least he’s at the clinic today and not in jail for pissing under the bridge.”
“C’mon, let’s do this,” Parsons said.
“Mornin’ guys,” Parsons greeted.
“Jack, nice to see you, you’re looking good today. Looks like you’ve gotten a few meals in you since the last time I saw you,” Hernandez added.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s a good day today!”
“So, Jack,” Hernandez inquired, “Where you livin’ right now?”
“Oh, I got me a cot over at the night shelter. Been there about a week. Waitin’ for a place in a group home.”
“Oh, really? Which one?”
“Bill and Jan’s.” The deputies exchanged pained glances. The last time they were there to serve, they couldn’t believe the conditions. The smell, alone, was enough to drive a dog out. Six grown men packed in the three-bedroom, one bath dilapidated excuse for a house. Cabinets, refrigerator, freezer and pantry chained and padlocked. The bathroom was so filthy neither of them would step foot in it.
“Ok, Jack. Glad you’re off the streets.”
“Alright, we gotta git. See ya later,” Parsons said as he opened the door to the breezeway.
“Y’all have a good day,” Hernandez encouraged. Once the deputies were in the breezeway, both doors closed, “That is some kinda shit,” Parsons remarked.
“Breaks my heart,” added Hernandez.
“Yep. C’mon, let’s get this over with,” Parsons opened the door which put them in the sterile waiting area, black plastic chairs in rows facing the glass check-in windows, a small TV hung in the corner with cartoons playing, no sound. Hernandez bent down to speak into the hole at the bottom of the window.
“Good morning, Stephanie.”
“Oh, hey, Julie. Who you lookin’ for?”
“Charlie McNeil,” Hernandez answered while her partner waved the trifold paper.
“Well, good luck. Haven’t seen her in months. Got her down for an appointment this morning, but I don’t expect she’ll show up, hasn’t in a while,” Stephanie said indifferently. “You should probably go over there and wait for her.” Stephanie nodded to a second breezeway that led to an area where clients hung out during the day. Maybe she’ll show up there. They got snacks ‘n stuff over there. If she shows up she’ll probably go over there for some food.”
“Thanks, Stephanie,” Hernandez said, “Have a good day.”
“Yep. Y’all too.” Stephanie said.
“Ms. Hall,” Stephanie called to the poor souls sitting motionless and detached.
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s there,” Hernandez said.
“Let’s look over here,” Parsons walked around the sidewalk to the glass doors on the side of the building, flanked by more black plastic chairs. He pulled on the door. “Nope. Locked.”
“I guess we can wait a few minutes. It’s just now 9:10. Someone’ll show up shortly.” Hernandez said as she walked towards the basketball half court.
The deputies didn’t have to wait long before they saw a woman walking through the building and towards the doors. She looked irritated and wore a forced smile as she approached the doors.
“Humph. Never seen her before,” Parsons said.
“Nope. Me neither. Ya know how it is around here, staff’s like a revolving door. Shit pay, shit working conditions, too many cases. No telling what management’s like.”
“Kinda like us, huh?”
The deputies were caught off guard, with a polite greeting from the middle-aged woman. “Hello. Linda,” she offered her hand, “Nice to meet you.”
Hernandez returned the greeting and Parsons offered a handshake as well. “We’re looking for Charlie McNeil. We have a mental health warrant for him.”
“Ok. But I don’t know where she is,” Linda said.
“We got a call from county mental health services. They told us to go to the clinic because she had an appointment at 9:00am. We were just there and they suggested we walk over here because she hadn’t shown up yet. Stephanie, at the front counter, said that she might come here to get something to eat or drink.”
“You’re welcome to wait here if you’d like. But several of the clients are going to be showing up soon and they’re probably not going to be too pleased to see two uniformed individuals here.”
“We understand,” Parsons replied, “We’ll stay out of the way.” Linda started to walk back into the building when she saw Charlie walking towards the door. She greeted Charlie at the wrought iron fence and talked her into coming inside. She left the deputies to let Charlie in.
“We’re so lucky, Jeff,” Hernandez told her partner.
“I know. Me, my wife and kids are healthy and happy. I see these people out here and it makes me sick. It’s wrong, Julie, it’s just wrong.”
“It’s bullshit. That’s what it is. Bullshit. This state, this county do not take care of these people and they end up being our problem. Such bullshit.”
“Mental illness, truancy, domestic violence, lost dogs, the list goes on and on. I had no idea I was gonna be a social worker when I signed up for this job.” Parsons and Hernandez were no different than their fellow deputies. They all struggled with balancing being jaded and remaining sensitive to the struggles of the less fortunate. They never knew what they were walking into. What they did know, is that they wanted to get home to their family at the end of the day, safely.
Linda and Charlie walked outside. Immediately the deputies could smell the woman. They tried to say as little as possible so they could hold their breath. It was difficult to do that and be friendly at the same time. Parsons just wanted to get the cuffs on her and get out of there. As soon as he put his hands on the cuffs he could see Charlie and Linda stiffen up.
“Charlie hasn’t had a shower in several days, right Charlie?” Linda asked as she made eye contact with the deputies. Charlie stood in silence, staring blankly through the deputies.
Linda asked, “Charlie, would you like to get into a warm shower? I really think you’d feel better.” Charlie still didn’t respond. Hernandez was thinking, “What the heck? A shower? We don’t have time for a fucking shower. We’ve got three more people to serve before noon.”
Linda was eventually able to coax Charlie to at least rinse off. As they were walking towards the back of the building, the deputies saw what smelled so bad. Her white shorts were stained with feces, diarrhea running down the back of her legs, adding another layer to what the sun had already baked into her skin.
The officers bowed their heads and stood in silence.
The center was opening for business. Men and women of all ages and ethnicities began to gather, some of them going outside to play basketball or sit around and smoke cigarettes.
“Damn. This is a site.” Hernandez said.
“We’re so fucking lucky,” Parsons whispered.
“Hey, officer,” one of the clients greeted Parsons.
“Hey, Mike, how’re you doin’? You’re looking a lot better than the last time I saw you. Where’re you living now?”
“I’m on the streets, I got kicked out of the house because Nick got mad because I wouldn’t take a shower. He said I was making his house stink.”
“Seriously? He can’t do that, can he?”
“Sure he can. It’s his house. That’s ok. I’d rather be homeless and use the showers at the day shelter. They got hot water.”
“What? There wasn’t hot water at the group house?”
“Nope. Nick and Mary didn’t want to pay for it.”
“I don’t understand, don’t you pay them to live there?”
“Yep. They get our whole disability check. Take us right over to the social security office and get the check signed over to them. They get their money. What am I gonna do about it?”
“You should complain to someone,” said Parsons.
“Yah,” added Hernandez.
“Who am I gonna tell? No one gives a fuck about me. As long as all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, no one gives a shit,” Mike took the last drag on his rolled cigarette and through it on the ground. He was a tall man, around 6’ and weighed around 250 pounds. His hair was long and he had a bushy grey, nicotine stained unkempt mustache and beard. Even though it was 9:30am, and already 85 degrees, by noon it could easily be 100, he wore jeans and had on a long sleeve flannel shirt over a long sleeve black tee. The bill of a dirty baseball cap stuck in his back pocket.
“It’s already hot out here and it’s just gonna get worse. Why are you dressed like that?” Parsons asked.
“You know me. I’m a hillbilly. I dress like this every day. Don’t matter how hot it’s outside, I wear long sleeves because I never know when the boss man’s gonna ask me to come do some chores.”
Parsons looked at Hernandez, “Once in a while Mike pulls weeds for a guy over on East 5th.”
“Yep. He pays me in cigarettes and coffee. Then, I sell my smokes to my friends,” Mike says with a big grin. Parsons just looks at him, smiles and shakes his head.
“I know. I know. You don’t wanna hear that. I don’t sell all of ‘em, but a guy’s gotta make a living, ya know.”
Parsons shakes his head and looks at the ground. “So, Mike, it’s the middle of the month. How you gonna get your check this month?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll see what my case worker can come up with.”
“So, that’s it? You don’t have any money until next month? How are you going to eat?” Hernandez asked.
“No ma’am. But, I’m resourceful. I got friends, I get a sack lunches from the church and have a hot meal from the church on Thursday nights. I can get a hot meal over at the slab by the train tracks on Saturday. And, you can’t believe all the food people throw in the trash. I can find whole hamburgers and fried chicken legs.”
The deputies looked at Mike with a combination of shame and disbelief.
“Hey, y’all, don’t worry ‘bout me! I’m a survivor! I been survivin’ on my own since I was 16 years old!” The deputies saw Linda and Charlie walking over.
“Ok. Mike, good luck to ya man. Good seein’ ya.” Parsons said.
“Yep. You too, officer. Nice meetin’ ya ma’am.”
“I think she’s feeling a bit better, officers,” Linda walked towards the deputies, Charlie by her side.
Out of habit and per procedure, officer Parsons reached for his handcuffs. Linda looked at his hand and then his eyes.
“Is that really necessary?”
The woman requested that the deputies wait until they got to the car before they put cuffs on Charlie.
“I would imagine that three quarters of the people out here and inside that building have had run ins with the police.” The deputies couldn’t disagree with her. They’d already seen a handful of people they knew.
“We can go through here,” Linda led them through the double glass doors, “It’s much shorter than walking through the clinic.”
“We parked outside of the clinic, I’ll bring the car around,” Hernandez started walking in the direction of the clinic while Charlie and Parsons followed Linda through the double doors.
The sun shone through large windows at the front of the building where some folks were sitting at tables visiting with one another and enjoying pastries and coffee. A couple of men were playing pool while others watched the Price is Right. Parsons recognized one of the men staring at the TV. He didn’t greet him because he seemed to be calm right now, unlike the last time he saw him when he was dispatched to a restaurant where the man was stealing food. He was glad to see that he was clean and had put on some weight. When he saw him at the restaurant he was barefoot, with matted hair sprouting out from a dirty white t-shirt wrapped around his head and a cardboard knife sticking out of his back pocket.
The deputy had been in law enforcement for fifteen years. He had become so jaded that he had to remind himself that these were individual human beings. Not people to be feared, but protected because they spent their lives being victims of crime. He also felt pangs of guilt because he oftentimes found himself crossing the street to avoid someone who looked like them. He’d lost track of how many calls he’d responded to when someone was in a psychotic state and oftentimes he was the first one on the scene to bring some calm to the situation. However, calm usually didn’t come because the person wasn’t on medication and no amount of talking was going to ease the tension. Consequently, his instinct was to reach for his cuffs.
Charlie did not need cuffs and for this he was ashamed.
Linda, Charlie and Parsons stepped out onto the sidewalk, back in the beautiful, sunny day and saw the cruiser coming around the corner. It wasn’t until the car came to a standstill that Parsons continued with his procedure, reaching for the cuffs.