Drama Fiction Friendship

I exit onto the third floor, faking a conversation on my cell phone until key meets lock.  The heavy door clicks behind me. Nine a.m. is too early to exchange cheerful pleasantries in my book, especially right after the holidays.  It’s more small talk than I can survive sober.  No wife, no kids, no fur baby photos to pull up on my phone.  I’m relegated to talking about the weather.

A belated Christmas gift is waiting for me on the corner of my desk.  A navy blue tumbler, complete with flexible straw and festive bow. “I’m a social worker, NOT a miracle worker,” I read aloud with a chuckle.   A small gift tag under the bow reveals “Merry Christmas, this one is for water ONLY!” - Dot.  Tucked inside the tumbler is a freshly printed pack of business cards. 

Doug Bilgewater, LGSW 

Corrections Social Worker

Dot sure knows how to take care of me

She reminds me of Sheila in that way, before I fell off the wagon this last time.  Encouraging instead of condemning me.  Subtly too, so I don’t feel like a cornered animal, at risk of doing something crazy in the name of self preservation.

Before Dot,  there had been Secretary Phyllis.  She turned our waiting room into a damn high school english class, plastering the walls with inspiration.  The  famous “Hang in there” cat, dangling from a branch, was  matted and framed behind her desk. “Be a rainbow in someone’s cloud” and “Dare to dream” were above the  water cooler.  Last year, for secret Santa, I gifted her a trio of celebrity “Drink milk” posters, but she never did hang those up.  On the back wall, lined with chairs for our waiting clientele, hung a poster so large and long, it was more like a banner.  “Mistakes are proof you are trying!”  I kept that one up after Phyllis left, because I found it irreverently hilarious. 

I take a big swig of black coffee, uncap my pen with my teeth, and see saw it back and forth until the air whips in it’s wake. Might as well get this week started. Two more ex-con job placements, and the service excellence bonus is mine.

Arlo White, twenty one, caucasian male.  Black hair, blue eyes.  Five foot six and one hundred fifty pounds.  He was released from the state penitentiary eight weeks prior, but is still unable to find work.  

Enter Doug Bilgewater, social worker extraordinaire. 

His file is pretty sparse.  Looks like he originally came from money, but lost his way in the world sometime after puberty hit.  Boo-freaking-hoo.  There is an impressive string of larcenies, but nothing overtly violent. Good.

Next, a scanned copy of Arlo’s personal survey.  He lists his top three skills as:

  1. Cooking / Cafeteria work (no doubt gained in jail.)
  2. Gardening
  3. Skiing

Man, that Martha Stewart leaves a legacy wherever she goes. 

When asked to “tell us a little about yourself” Arlo tells very little.  “I am a Former.”  The space allotted clearly beckons for more.

Still, he’s not  an aspiring rapper, graffiti artist,  or prosperity preacher.  I’ll have this file closed in a week, tops.  I can feel that bonus check in my hand.  I’ll catch up on child support.  On alimony.  And then?  Forgiveness?  Dare to dream, old Phyllis would say.

I take a bow in my mind to the throngs of adoring taxpayers.  

The final attachment is Arlo’s photograph, provided by the jail.

I groan as each photo uploads, worse than the one before it.  My left hand rubs the stubble along my jawline in despair. Arlo is a gardening, skiing, cafeteria-working skinhead.  And he is plastered in hostile, vengeful tattoos. A swastika on his left chest, a German soldier on his right.  “White” spelled vertically down one calf and “Power” down the other. An aryan fist on his cheek.  SS bolts are everywhere; on his hands, in his hairline.  Boots and laces on his forearm. R.O.A on a bicep.

I deflate into the lumbar support of my office chair.  Arlo White was a thief. I can spin that, it’s what I do; sell second chances.  He’s served his time, paid his debt to society. At 21, he was practically a kid when he committed those crimes, and I will call him a kid. I will clothe him in a tasteful sports jacket, book a resume building and interview coaching seminar, and he will stand there reformed.

 But Arlo White is a blatant, vile racist.  Hatred on display for all to see. What am I supposed to do with that?

I rack my brain for job options.  Between the larcenies and his appearance, retail is out of the question. 

The cafeteria work is going to be tough to break into. I have a few connections, maybe he can late night food prep.

Gardening is off the table for now.  It’s January, and most farms won’t risk losing their migrant workers to him in the spring. I don’t blame them.

Which jobs involve clients who can’t read or recognize symbolic hatred?  Little kids?  God no.  Animals?   Maybe an agency that can put him in contact with sitting or walking pets?  I jot it down.  

Skiing?  He would never be welcome at a resort looking like he does now.  Maybe back in his rich boy days. Maybe if he wears his ski mask, I chuckle. 

I meet Arlo after lunch.  He’s waiting, in a button down and khakis, under Phyllis’ banner.   I extend my hand, like I do to all my clients, even though I find him particularly repulsive.

“No rock-paper-scissors gang bull crap,” I say. “Shake my hand like you want a job.”

Arlo White does as I instruct and follows me into the office.  We go over his file.  

“Can you pass a piss test?” I ask.  I remain intent on my paperwork, like a child instructed not to stare.

Arlo nods.

“Any drinking?” 

“No.” He shifts in his seat.

“Recreational drug use?  Illegal or prescription?“

“No, nothing like that.”

“It would be easier if that were your issue,” I mutter.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Arlo asks.

“I mean,” my annoyance and exasperation bubbling to the surface, “I don’t have a government funded face detox on speed dial. They don’t have rehabs for...” I pause and make large sweeping gestures to his face and body. “This.”

“Yeah, I got it,” Arlo says, annoyed but crestfallen.  “You don’t have to flap at me.  That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah well, no one is ever going to see you, when you look like that.”  

I think back to my own rock bottom, the DWI, how pathetic they all thought I was.

“But I told you, I’m a Former.  That’s got to count for something.”

“Former what, exactly?” I say.  “White supremacist?”

Arlo nods.  “Look, I’m not making excuses.  But I don’t think like that, I swear. I just, got sucked in and kept going along with it. I know it wasn’t right.”

I am dubious.  Seriously considering pouring something stronger than Coke into my tumbler.  I refrain from more flapping. 

“And how in God’s name exactly does that happen?”

Arlo White tells me he’s been estranged from his family since fourteen.  The classic case of too much money but not enough love.  At thirteen and troubled, he started going to punk rock concerts, where he met ‘The Skins’ and subsequently infuriated his father.  He liked the music, relished  embarrassing his dad, and wanted to fit in.  Despite being short, Arlo held his own in the mosh pits.  Davey, the head of the skins gang, took note of his impressionability and his ‘power kick.’  They accepted Arlo into their fold.  When Davey discovered Arlo’s last name was White, they nicknamed him “White Power” and delivered him to get that first tattoo.

“They sure used you.” I say when Arlo pauses.

Arlo shrugs. “I knew what it meant, but I didn’t care.  I cared about how I felt, not how it made anyone else feel.  Later though, I always wore pants.”  

Arlo goes along with the skins unquestioningly.  He’s easily the smallest and least intimidating in the gang, which helps him stay on the periphery of physical violence and intimidation. Instead,  he becomes quite the thief.

“I wasn’t busting heads, but it funded their message,” Arlo admits.

Eventually, Arlo gets caught. Again and again, until he is no longer a minor, and handed a sizable prison sentence.  In prison, the inmates quickly pick up on his tattoo.  He’s a prison rookie.  Short, slim, and scared.  

“That’s when I really played into it,” Arlo admits. “They assumed I thought like them, because of my tattoo.  So that’s the faction I joined.  I needed  the protection they offered me.”

“So you got all the other tattoos in prison?” I ask.

Arlo nods.  “The first few, I pretended to want.  They were still wary of me as the new guy.  After that, I was their practice dummy until I either ran out of skin or a newer recruit showed up.”

I sigh.  It doesn’t feel right to pity him, what he’s done.  How he’s completely derailed the life he could have had.  And I don’t pity myself for it either. I can only feel sorrow for us both.

A silence has settled over my office, so I glance back at our agenda.  “Tomorrow, I’ve got two interviews lined up for you.  Food prep at Toby’s Diner and a phone interview with Pet Match.”

Arlo frowns.  “I don’t do dogs,” he says.

“What?  Why not?”

“I don’t.....like them,” he eakes out.

“There are plenty of small, nice dogs we can find.  Pet Match is our middle man, you can book jobs over the phone.  Beggars can’t be choosers Arlo.  Just get your foot in the door.”

But Arlo just shakes his head emphatically. I see his fear.  He’s scared of dogs, I realize.  

“Thanks for scoring me the restaurant interview Mr. Bilgewater.  I’ll watch the seminars tonight.  Once I’m working, I’m saving everything I can to cover these up.”

Arlo stands and extends his hand to me.  Our hour is up.

We shake on it.  “Sounds good.”

“Hey Arlo?”

He turns at the doorway.

“I had a nickname for you too, after I read your skills list.”

“Oh yeah?” 

“Yeah, Martha Stewart.” I grin.  “What do you think?”

Arlo gives me a closed lip smile.  “I’ll take it.”

I slip my shoes off at my door, toss my tie onto the back of my armchair, keep my keys in my coat pocket. The apartment is dim and quiet, as always. I swing open the narrow pantry door, my dinner options before me. A blue box, or styrofoam cup-o-something with a foiled paper lid.

What would Sheila think if she could see me now?  Sheila, lover of all things wellness.  She would be horrified.

I close the pantry door sheepishly, scramble some eggs and pour some orange juice.  Better.

There’s no doubt Sheila had been my much, much better half.  The moral compass of our tight ship. She was actually an esthetician, which I had always just associated with vanity.  But if you knew Sheila, self care, not vanity, was her mantra.  She was the friend that insisted you put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others.  The rest, according to her, would fall into place.  

Sheila exuded love and acceptance.  As her practice  grew she obtained further certifications in lasers.  She started pro bono work in the evenings, minimizing the scars of domestic violence survivors.  Sometimes it was an obvious laceration.  Less frequently, it was the branding marks of a cult, or the tattoo left behind by traffickers.  Some survivors, she said, could wear the marks as a badge of courage.  But others needed them erased to truly move on.

When I broke her heart for the last time, she said I was killing us both.

The next morning, Arlo meets me outside of Toby’s Diner.  He’s dressed in the sports coat I’ve loaned him. His shoulders are squared, he looks confident.  I on the other hand, slept like crap, and it shows.

“Rough night?” Arlo asks me.  He extends his hand.

“You could say that.  Let’s do this.”

 A minivan pulls up along side us with a carload of kids.  I catch the driver’s eye, and he frowns.  I freeze, hoping they won’t engage us.

Arlo sees them too.  He drops his arm at his side quietly.  Even his social worker is too embarrassed to shake hands in public.

We linger in the lot, and let the family go ahead of us.

“Sorry about that.” I mutter.

Arlo shrugs.

When we enter, Toby ushers us into a back office.  A line cook grimaces as we pass. 

“Thanks for the opportunity of this interview.” Arlo says graciously.  

Just like the seminar.  Atta boy.

Toby seems genuinely surprised by how well spoken he is. By the end of the interview, Arlo has even gotten Toby laughing.  

“Let me take a peek at the next schedule.”

Toby rises and starts sifting papers on his desk.  A hostess knocks, opens the door a few finger widths, and in a hushed tone requests a word with him.  

“Pardon me for just a moment.” Toby excuses himself to the hallway.  A muffled exchange ensues, I’m not sure for how long, dread drags everything out.  When Toby returns, he has a serious look on his face.  “I’m really sorry Arlo. You’re just......” He trails off then corrects himself.  “It’s just not worth it. I wish you the best of luck.”

I stand, ready to plead our case but Arlo has risen too, already shaking hands and thanking Toby for his time. 

We make our way back to my car in silence.  Arlo winds up and kicks a chunk of snow clean from its bank, obliterating it.

We both sit inside for a bit, keys still

in my pocket.  I’m not sure where else to go.   It’s too early to go home and accept defeat, but I’m out of job leads for today.  Arlo fidgets and bounces his leg rapid fire off my floorboards.

What would Sheila do? She really could be my patron saint, I decide. Perhaps I should say a little prayer to her, but it’s not like she’s dead. Well, maybe I am to her. Does that count? I rack the universe for clues.  When I turn the car on again, I know.

“Arlo, we are going skiing.”

We stop at my place first to change.  I’ve never been skiing, and I don’t pretend to have high performance athletic gear.  

“Every man for himself!” I cry while opening the closet and dresser drawers.   I find the only swoosh adorned sweatshirt I own,  and my grandmothers knit socks. 

 “Wow. Doug. I’m impressed. I didn’t know you had such a sophisticated wardrobe.” Arlo finds a green tracksuit in the back of my closet that swishes too loudly when he walks.

“What do you think?” Arlo holds his hands out and gives a slow spin, grinning.

“I think that belonged to my ex wife,” I chuckle.

Arlo puts his hands on his hips. “Well in that case, who wore it better?”

”Definitely Sheila. You look like freakin’ Gumby!”  It feels good to smile.

Arlo laughs too, and is adamant we pickup a green ski mask from his motel.  “I’ve got quite the collection,” he smirks.

I add lightly “You should probably make sure it doesn’t come off.”

He gives me a small nod.

West Mountain is absolute magic.  Arlo still turns heads, but he’s met with smiles when people point.  He’s covered head to toe in green, others are chuckling with the same Gumby jokes that entered my mind. I think he might even start a new trend.

It gets even better when he skis. The masked Gumby is larger than life.  He bends and sways between flags.  Takes a few selfies with admirers on the chairlift, then tries to coax me out on the bunny hill.  

“Pizza!  Frenchfries!” Arlo instructs me how to point my skis, but I think I’m a lost cause.  I either fall down, or don’t move.  I’m busy jotting down local sports leagues anyway.  Could there be any vacancies for mascots?  That would be a first for me.

I’m on a bench when two boys, brothers probably, approach Arlo.  Their ages around 8 and 12, if I had to guess.  The smaller boy is absolutely swimming in a black sweatshirt and sweatpants.  The larger boy also doesn’t appear to come from great means; draped in layers of bulky cotton in lieu of a crisp nylon shell.

Arlo appears to be offering them the same beginner lessons I flunked out of.  But they take right to it, french frying  and pizza-ing all the way down the bunny hill, again and again.  Eventually, Arlo shows them how to pop off their bindings and someone tosses the first snow ball.  I catch my breath in my throat when it seems to devolve into a playful Gumby wrestle-mania.  The kids are hanging on him without warning, trying to take him down to the snowy ground.  Arlo fights to stay upright, swinging playfully, but trapped.

I’m too slow to make it to them in time.  Damn snow, damn skis.  “That’s enough kids!” That’s all I can call down to them through cupped hands.  

There’s five of them now, unable to control themselves in the quest to take down Gumby.

Arlo doesn’t fall until his clothing rips.  The vintage polyester windbreaker tears under the weight of dangling children. The sound of rotting fabric threatens to break me. Arlo loses his balance as one of the kids falls away, clutching the piece of cloth.  I am running and stumbling towards them.  

“Stop!” I yell out.

“Got ya!” The 12 year old boy shouts in glee, removing Arlo’s mask.  They both freeze for a moment,  eyes wide, inches apart.  At least half the mountainside takes a collective gasp.

The boy recoils and scrambles to his feet.  Anger flushes his face.  

“Man, what the hell is this!” He stands now between Arlo and his brother.

“I’m sorry.” Arlo says. “You weren’t supposed to see.”

Tears leap to the boy’s eyes “See what?  See that you hate me?” He wipes his nose with the back of his sweatshirt. “My mom says people like you actually just hate themself.”  He grabs his brother by the hand. “And I have to remind myself of that almost every single day.”

The brothers turn to walk away. Parents are hurriedly steering their children away.  “I just didn’t see it coming from you.”

Arlo and I walk back to the car, hushed disapproval from everyone we pass.  There’s nothing to say in the moment, and neither of us try.  I drop him off at his motel.

“I’ll call tomorrow to check in,” I pause.   “With any job leads, I mean.”

“Go home, Doug,” Arlo says quietly and shuts the door in my face.

I sit in my car for a long time after that. Asking Saint Sheila what she would do, but I don’t know.  Her heart was always for the victims of  life’s tragedies, not the perpetrators. I don’t even know what Arlo is anymore.  Messy, like me I guess.  But there was a time Sheila gave even me a second chance.  So I pick up the phone.

“Sheila.  It’s me Doug.  Look, if you’re there, it’s not about me.  I know someone who needs your help.”

She doesn’t hang up.

January 09, 2021 04:58

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04:42 Jan 11, 2021

Another top-notch story Isla! Great job!


Isla Wren
04:34 Feb 25, 2021

Thank you so much for the compliment!


13:23 Feb 25, 2021

Of course!


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