Adam shivered slightly against the cool predawn morning air as he glanced over towards the tent perched askew high on the embankment between the overpass and Admiral. Detecting neither lights nor movement, he turned into the QuikTrip parking lot and inhaled deeply as he turned off the car. Having played this part of the rescue effort over in his mind dozens of times since receiving the green light from Women and Children First the week before, he’d convinced himself that Ruth, spooked by uncertainty and terrified of Dan’s wrath, had tipped her hand. And in his mental storyboard, this was the scene wherein he’d most likely get stabbed or beaten. Nonetheless, he slowly got out and walked towards their camp, feeling as though caught helplessly in a current as the sun’s first blood orange light guided his steps.
Ruth and Dan’s encampment had remained intact and unbothered for years, located at the edge of an overgrown expanse known by some as the “I Wish You Woods,” a sort of Bermuda Triangle rumored to have entombed at least a handful of souls who’d sought cover in its tangle of brambles, honeysuckle and poison ivy. The couple had somehow dodged the violent city-enforced sweeps that regularly upended the lives of Tulsa’s unsheltered denizens, perhaps because they’d kept their particular site relatively tidy and free of public drama. Tucked behind some brush, Adam could just discern the silhouette of a makeshift shelter made of tarps strung between a rusted shopping cart and hackberry branches, its lone occupant splayed out motionless and uncovered on the bare ground. As he followed the fenceline toward the overpass, plastic bags crackled, snagged up in barbed wire and waving like woebegone prayer flags. A reek of piss-dampened campfire smoke infused the air.
Even before joining Welcome Home Tulsa’s outreach team, Adam and Ruth’s paths regularly crossed. When going to his favorite dispensary for his monthly ounce of herbal escapism Adam would pass by Ruth’s roadside art show, and had occasionally stopped by to admire her talent. The income from her simple scrapwood paintings of unicorns, flowers, puppies and Harley-Davidson emblems sustained Dan’s supply of Steel Reserve and kept Ruth’s beloved pug, Louie, in kibble. Adam had commissioned a piece–a sacred heart with a black dahlia in the middle, which he’d nestled amongst his collection of hunky Jesus novena candles on his mantle to create an irreverent shrine.
Adam began agitating for assistance removing Ruth from Dan’s abusive grasp shortly after taking her onto his caseload, but over subsequent months Women and Children First made no moves towards providing her refuge. Then two weeks ago, Ruth approached him during his weekly case manager check-in, eyes flashing in panic. Dan was snoring in the tent a short distance away, his socked feet poking through the unzipped door.
Shielding her mouth with her hand in embarrassment, Ruth hissed, “You gotta get me out of here. Dan’s gettin’ scarier. He hid my dentures and locks me in the tent when he’s mad and says he’ll burn me up in it. He thinks I flirt with you. He threatened to throw Louie onto the highway if I try to leave. I can’t take it anymore. Please help me.” Tears welled before carving runnels in the grime on her cheeks.
Despite, or perhaps because of, what Adam felt was his obvious gayness, this sort of jealousy had emerged between every couple he’d worked with, the men feeling disempowered by his ability to provide basic resources–food, clothes, bottles of water– when they themselves had little more than protective violence to offer their partners. Once, when Adam showed up to speak with another pair of clients, the man threatened to brain him with a pipe for some imagined slight.
“OK Ruth, I’ll do what I can. Should I call the police?”
“No cops! Don’t call them–they won’t help.”
“I’ll get in touch with WCF again to see if they can do something.” While driving home, he left an urgent, detailed message for Al, the organization’s client services director. Adam also updated his well-meaning but overwhelmed supervisor Rana, appealing for some intervention. His expectations for any meaningful response were low.
A week passed with no word from WCF. In the meantime, Adam avoided Ruth’s camp, not wanting to show up empty handed. He’d busied himself signing his other clients up for housing waitlists from which, due to a chronic dearth of low-income rentals, they’d likely never be selected, and handing out snack bags with saltines and Vienna sausages from the local food bank.
Adam didn’t immediately recognize the phone number. “Hi, it’s Adam.”
“Hey Adam, it’s Al with WCF. I got your message and we have a plan for Ruth.”
“Oh, hey, Al. OK. What’s the plan?”
“You need to lure her partner away from their camp for a while next week. Make up some pretext to keep him busy for 3 hours or so. While you’re gone, my team will go get Ruth and take her to temporary housing while we’re waiting for something more permanent.”
“Wait. You’re doing this next week? Is that enough time to get everything in place? I’ve been trying to get her safe for months. Why now?”
“Trust me. I’ve been doing this work for 20 years,” his condescension evincing impatience. “We’ll get her housing, insurance, employment–everything she’ll need to live happily ever after. As for why now–I got a spicy call from your boss. Seems like you’ve expressed some frustration with our timeline. So, here we are.”
This quip about Rana made his face flush hot with embarrassment. “OK, I’ll take Dan to get his ID. His birth certificate just arrived at our office the other day, and we’d discussed a trip to the new processing center. We’ll leave early in the morning to get in line. I’ll wait around with him, then drive him back when you give me the all-clear. It should work out as long as he actually shows up. Once this goes down, WHT won’t be able to send anyone to that corner for a while due to safety concerns. He’ll be pissed and possibly dangerous.”
“That’s fine. Y’all have a whole city full of homeless people to serve; you’ll be busy regardless. And besides, guys like Dan are cowards at heart. I doubt he’d actually ever do anything to you, since you’re a dude.” This did little to reassure Adam, and he wondered how an asshole like Al had come to work with abused women. But it was clear the conversation was over.
Two days before Ruth’s extraction, Adam stopped by to explain the ID center details to Dan. As usual, Ruth was at the corner with her paintings and Louie, while Dan squatted on his haunches, glowering at him from the shade of the overpass. Adam approached, noticing some new graffiti on the concrete embankment: “1488” alongside dual SS lightning bolts. The symbols unnerved him, even though he figured the tagger was more likely some bored teen than a real Nazi.
A lime green sportbike rode up alongside the two, the rider revving its engine to amplify the whine and echo it off the overpass above, the din drowning out the thundering traffic overhead. Dan shot his middle finger towards the man’s back as he sped away.
“Assholes always do that under here. They think it’s funny to mess with us. Sometimes people throw bottles or other shit at us when they drive by.”
“I’m sorry you have to deal with that. People can be really unkind.”
“Honestly, the worst is the people who look the other way when they pull up at the light, so they don’t have to see us. Like we’re not even human to them.”
Adam was surprised and felt a bit softened by this show of vulnerability. “Well, I have some good news. Your birth certificate arrived, so we’re all set to get your ID. I’ll stop by early Thursday to pick you up for the processing center.”
They ducked and strained their eyes shut as a human-sized dust devil conjured up by the overpass’s wind tunnel effect peppered them with bits of glass, sand, plastic lids and other roadside detritus before it spun off and dissipated. Adam wiped the grit from his cheek and neck as Dan drew deeply on a hand rolled Bugler, exhaling stale, boozy smoke towards him.
“6:30 or so. They open at 7:30, but we should get there before the line gets too long. Does that work for you?”
“Yeah. I’ll be ready. If I’m not at QT, just walk over to our camp, and Louie’ll wake me up barkin’. That bug-eyed bastard farts like a demon, but he’s a pretty good security system.”
Adam couldn’t help but chuckle. “OK, Dan, see ya Thursday.”
“See ya. Thanks, Adam.”
As Adam stooped down to pet Louie, he whispered, “It’s happening Thursday. Be ready after I take him to get his ID. Pack like you won’t be coming back.”
Ruth nodded discreetly as Adam stood up and walked back to his car. He spent much of the next two days trying to tamp down his anxiety with weed and booze.
Before reaching the edge of the “Woods,” a wolf whistle startled Adam back into focus just as his thoughts had turned to the dark lore surrounding the place, wondering if he would soon join the disappeared. Turning, he saw Dan emerge from behind a thicket, hair slicked over like a kid on school picture day.
“Just had to take a leak. I’m ready to roll.” A slight burnt chemical smell clung to his breath as he sidled up alongside Adam to turn back towards QT. Once in the car, Adam offered him some coffee.
“No thanks. Gets me all jittery and I’ll have to piss like Trump’s Russian girlfriend. Can I smoke in here?”
Under normal circumstances, Adam would have denied this request, but he needed things to go smoothly. “Sure, just please roll down the window.”
Dan produced a crooked pinner from behind his ear, lit it up, then sputtered an errant tobacco stem onto the dash. “I appreciate you taking me to get my ID. I haven’t had one in like 15 years. I had my birth certificate, license, social security card, everything in my bag and left for a little while to party. You know how men do. When I come back the next week, the dumb bitch had lost it all. Said she got beaten up and robbed or some shit. And because of her losing that stuff, I couldn’t work or get us a place to live so we’ve been stuck out here this whole time. Fifteen goddamn years. But thanks to you, I’ll get my papers and then I’ll be able to work and get the fuck off the street. Hell, I might even take her with me.”
Adam sensed Dan was more amped up than usual, his speech agitated and icy. “Well, I’m just happy it’s all working out for both of you.”
“You kinda like her, dontcha?”
“Like Ruth? Sure, she’s a nice person.”
“No, I mean you want to get with her,” Dan’s words serving as both accusation and invitation.
Nonplussed, Adam stammered, “I’m, I’m not really into women.”
Dan’s head whipped around towards Adam. “What, like you suck dick?”
“Not exactly, no. But I’m not going to talk about my sex life with you, no offense.”
“Fine by me. Just don’t try none of that gay shit.”
Adam didn’t respond, knowing he just had to get through the next couple hours, then he’d never see the pig again.
The parking lot of the ID center was filling up as they arrived, a line already snaking down the sidewalk and around the corner. The more time this took, the better–unless Dan got antsy and wanted to bail and head back to Admiral.
Once the doors opened, the column moved along steadily. The center, situated within the old Eastland Mall, could accommodate a lot of people at once, having been built to deal with the huge number of Real ID requests it received as the federal deadline approached. Dan spent most of the time on his phone, texting with Ruth to keep tabs on her. After a half hour, they entered the building and Dan was assigned queue number 38. Adam received a text from the WCF team saying they were running a bit late but would be at the camp in 15 minutes. This made him nervous, but there was nothing he could do about it now.
Dan’s number flashed on the monitor, and they approached the window.
The clerk smiled saccharinely, “Good morning. May I see your birth certificate, Social Security card and a piece of mail with your name and address on it?”
“I only got the first two. I didn’t know about the mail.”
Adam tried to explain, “Mr. Davis is experiencing homelessness, so he doesn’t have an address where he can receive mail.”
“I’m sorry, but we have to have an address for the ID.”
“What the hell, man? He just told you I’m homeless. That means I ain’t got no home. No home means no address.”
The clerk remained calm, “I’m sorry, but I’ll need some proof of address to create an ID for you.”
“Forget it, Adam. Let’s get out of here. These dummies don’t understand anything.”
Adam began to panic–returning now would put Ruth, and likely himself, at risk. He fished around in his pocket, removing the birth certificate’s envelope. It listed Dan’s name with WHT’s address.
“Here, sir. I just remembered we have this. This is Mr. Davis’s address.”
The clerk looked skeptical. “This is a residence, not an office, right?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Davis resides at this address much of the time.”
“OK, but I won’t be able to give him a Real ID. It’ll just be a traditional ID that can’t be used for air travel.”
“That’s too bad. I had a fancy vacation to Hawaii planned.”
Adam tried to make nice, “Thank you, sir. We really appreciate your willingness to work with us.”
“It’s OK. Now, Mr. Davis, stand right on that X and look at this camera.”
Dan finger combed his hair and smirked as the camera clicked.
“It will just be about 15 minutes as we print the ID. Please have a seat and the folks up front will call you when it’s ready.”
The two responded in unison, “Thanks so much.”
Adam’s phone buzzed again. “We’re here. Loading up Ruth, Louie and artwork. Be gone in 10.” Relief washed over him.
Dan alternated between staring at his new temporary ID and texting frantically on the ride home.
“Where is she? She’s not texting me back.”
“Her phone might have died, or she could be in QT getting something.”
“Yeah, I guess. She better not try to get cute with me.”
Adam’s heartbeat thrummed in his ears as the overpass came into view. Al had left the dropoff out of his planning and Adam hadn’t thought this far ahead. The tent was still up but, of course, there was no sign of Ruth.
The light turned red, forcing Adam to stop just opposite the campsite. Dan opened the passenger door to get out.
“What the fuck? Where is she?”
Traffic lined up behind Adam’s car, the light about to turn green. “Hey Dan, I gotta go. I’ll touch base when your plastic ID arrives.”
“Hey man, are you fucking with me? She’s gone, the dog’s gone, all her shit’s gone. Did you set me up?”
Adam quickly closed the door, put the car in gear and drove away, his body recoiling as a chunk of cinder block caromed off his back door, leaving a fist-sized dent. His phone buzzed with a new message from a WCF case manager: “Ruth and Louie are safe and sound at the extended stay on Skelly. Can you stop by tomorrow to check on them, maybe bring them food?”
Back home, Adam called Al to clarify his expectations around his continued involvement in Ruth’s case. As far as Adam was concerned, he’d done his part and now the domestic violence experts should take over. No answer, so he left a message asking for a return call that never came. He then called Rana to describe the morning’s events, explaining that he was taking a half day of PTO to recover.
Adam stripped down to shower, being careful to disrobe to the side of the mirror so as to avoid seeing himself. Before starting this job, he had taken decent care of himself, eating thoughtfully and taking morning runs along Riverside. He’d even gotten to a point where he felt comfortable jogging shirtless. But the emotional weight and irregular hours of outreach work had upended his regimen such that he couldn’t remember the last salad he’d eaten or the last mile he’d run. So for months now he’d hidden from his nakedness, knowing that viewing the bloat of his body would force him into confrontation with his shame.
For this same reason, Adam only very rarely sought out physical intimacy. While he was once an avid user of hook-up apps, relishing the excitement of easy and non-committal sex, he now feared the rejection of the leftward swipe. And because he was neither bold nor hirsute enough to promote himself as a bear, his only form of corporal arousal now came from occasional visits to porn sites to watch videos that sometimes helped him feel sexy but, upon climax, left him feeling more alone.
Once showered, he reheated leftover noodles from Mo’Pho and opened the first can from a pack of double IPA tallboys, chosen for the beer’s treacly bitterness and high alcohol content. Settling in on the couch for a screentime binge beginning with some of his favorite TikTokkers, Adam cackled at standups and pranksters. As soon as he drew the flannel comforter over his lap, Emma and Alexander– stray tuxedos he’d taken in and given the names of the infamous anarchist lovers–curled up in his leg nest. “Hi babies. How are my little sabokitties? Did you blow up any fascists today?” The twins purred in response, spooning and grooming each other as the afternoon sun filtered through prismed windows, blanketing them in rainbows. Adam took a long pull from his beer, then fired up a high-octane preroll he’d picked up on the way home, the limonene smoke swirling around, and inside, his head. The numbing began.
Even though two beers and a quarter joint usually ensconced him within his crossfade’s fuzzy sweet spot, and knowing from experience that any more would provide diminishing returns (and make for a painful next day), he cracked open a third can, draining it halfway in a single, impressive slug. His brain fogged and his mood grew more somber with each swallow, but he finished off the can with a hoppy, gurgly burp. At this point, it was easy to convince himself that he might as well finish off the four pack, not wanting to leave a lonely last beer behind. He relit the sizable roach, tapping the ash hissing into an empty’s dregs.
He transitioned to watching classic psych-rock videos, selecting Spiritualized’s “Medication” as he opened the final beer. Something about the band’s use of drugs as a metaphor for Jesus and vice-versa had long resonated with Adam, himself still recovering from his childhood and teen years spent captive to the guilt and terror of evangelical Christianity. As always, he began to cry as the chorus hit, J. Spaceman’s voice plaintive:
I’m waiting for the time
When I can be without
These things that make me feel
This way all of the time
Every time I say this
I just know this time I mean it
But a feeling deep inside
Says “it’s okay one more time”
Adam awoke the next morning moderately hungover and emotionally raw, his skin crawling and clammy. He’d missed several calls, and Ruth had blown up his phone with urgent texts. Apparently, the WCF team had dropped her and Louie off at the motel with neither food nor money, so she was understandably distraught. A voicemail from her new WCF case manager indicated it would be a while before anyone from the organization would make it over to meet with her and asked that Adam take the lead on her care in the meanwhile. He shook his head in frustration, then set to getting ready for the day, starting with a quart of Ethiopian coffee and the roach from the previous night.
Having gotten some snacks, dog food and hygiene supplies from the discount grocery, Adam drove to the Come On Inn to visit Ruth. She was posted up outside QT with Louie, panhandling and trying to sell some paintings. He walked over with the supplies and squatted down next to her, patting Louie’s haunches as the dog snorted and broke wind.
“How are you feeling?”
“Oh, not too good. They just put me way out here in BFE away from everyone and didn’t give me any food or money or nothing. How am I supposed to eat? But I do love having a bathroom and TV and my own bed. I took my first bath in I don’t know how many years last night. Actually two baths. I took one to get off all the gunk, drained the tub and refilled it and just soaked till I turned pruney. And I found my dentures before I left, so I have my teeth back,” offering a cheesy grin as proof. For the first time since knowing Ruth, Adam understood that she had once been beautiful, and guessed that her beauty had frequently made her the target of unimaginable ugliness.
“Yeah, I’m not really sure what’s going on. They were supposed to set you up with whatever you needed. I brought a little food for you and Louie.”
“Thanks. It’s so nice to be away from that man. He was getting really mean.” This mention of Dan triggered a spasm of emotion, and she began to sob uncontrollably as she spoke, “He’s a terrible person. Always bullying me and putting me down. He takes all my money and blows it on dope. He’s constantly high or drunk and he won’t let me out of his sight except for when he passes out. He makes me do stuff with people I don’t want to do. Even with cops. That’s how we’re able to keep our camp. They don’t move us because–” With this, she submitted to the flood of tears, heaving as the trauma engulfed her.
Adam sat in silence, unsure what to do aside from simply bearing witness to her suffering. After some time, he reached into his bag and plucked out a pack of cigarettes he kept on hand for clients. He jiggled one up and angled the pack towards Ruth. “Smoke?”
She looked up and wiped her nose with a bandana, then pinched the filter, revealing freshly painted Revlon Red nails. “Yes, please.” He lit it for her as she settled against the wall. A sly smile gradually replaced the tears. “I got me a boyfriend. He’s a real man, not like that chickenshit Dan.”
“What? Who? You work fast!”
She beamed. “He’s a guy who comes by when I’m selling my art if Dan’s at QT or asleep. He rides a Harley. He’s bought some of my pieces. Dan turned off my phone, so we’re just talking on my tablet over Messenger. But he might come visit me.”
“That’s pretty exciting. What else are you looking forward to?”
“I’m gonna try to take some art classes at TCC to become a real artist. I also need to get a job so I can make some real money. But I can’t do that until WCF gets me housing.”
“I’m happy for you, Ruth. I know things are scary now, but you have a lot of people who care about you. We’ll work on getting you the resources you need. I’m not going to be able to stop by for a little bit, because I have some appointments with other clients. But stay in touch and let me know what you need. I’ve brought you enough food for three or so days, and here’s twenty bucks so you can get treats for you and Louie. And don’t go on any wild motorcycle trips with the Harley guy. I would also try to avoid being out here for too long, ‘cause someone who knows Dan might tip him off. It’s a small world.”
“I was just trying to make a little money and be around people–it’s boring in that room. But I should be good now. Thanks for your help, Adam.”
“You bet. Send me a message to let me know how you’re doing. You can also call from your room phone. The WCF folks should swing by tomorrow or so.”
Adam’s phone buzzed the next day. “Hi, it’s Adam.”
“Hey Adam, it’s Robin, the case manager with WCF. Do you have a minute?”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“We just stopped in to see Ruth and she was out panhandling.”
“I saw her yesterday, and she was trying to make some cash so she could eat.”
“Well, we’re just worried that being outside so much might put her in danger.”
“Did you bring her any food, cash, or cigarettes?”
“Just some of the food pantry bags. We’re prohibited from giving clients money.”
“So, she’ll continue panhandling until y’all place her somewhere else with more resources. I’m a little confused about this situation– Al reassured me that everything was already put in place to make her feel safe and taken care of.”
“Yeah, well, Al didn’t do any of that, and sort of punted to us. But we have a lot of other clients to manage, so she’s not really a priority.”
“I get that, but you do understand that this whole thing will blow up if she’s not placed in supportive, sustainable housing soon, right? And I’m just an outreach person–I don’t have access to those kinds of resources.”
“I understand your frustration, but we’re doing what we can. When you talk to her, please encourage her to stay put in her room until we can come get her.”
“When will that be?
“A few days.”
“You expect a woman who’s just been pulled out of a long-term abuse situation to sit around in a room by herself? And has there been any thought about getting her some mental health support in the meantime? She’s going to freak out.”
“You don’t have to explain how PTSD works to me, Adam. Like I said, we’re doing all we can. But she needs to lay low.”
Adam hung up, crestfallen and angry. How could people whose sole mission is to protect abuse survivors be so callous and irresponsible? Or was it just ineptitude? Either way, Ruth would bear the brunt of their mishandling of the situation. And he felt largely to blame, for if he hadn’t complained to Rana none of this would be happening.
Two days later, Adam received a call from a blocked number. Turning on the speakerphone, Ruth’s frantic voice filled the air.
“They brought me to this place, and they took Louie! They took all my stuff! They’re saying they’re not going to help me anymore because they found drugs in my bag, but that shit’s not mine–it’s Dan’s. You gotta help me! I don’t want to be here. You gotta help me get Louie back!”
“Oh, Ruth, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Where are you? Who has Louie?”
“It’s Women and Children. They came by this morning without calling first or nothing, but Dan was in my room. He’d tracked my tablet somehow and found me. They brought me to some shelter and took Louie from me. And they went through my bag and found some needles and stuff and they said they’re going to kick me out!”
“Please put someone from WCF on the phone.”
“Hi Adam, it’s Robin. This is a mess.”
“What’s going on?”
“Well, we stopped by to bring her supplies and Dan seemed to have spent the night. We made him leave, then brought her to our emergency shelter. We don’t allow pets to stay in the rooms, so Louie was taken to a kennel. And we run everyone’s things through a steam machine to kill bed bugs so they don’t bring them into the facility. When we searched Ruth’s belongings to remove any electronics or items that would be damaged by the steam, we discovered syringes and what appears to be meth. She claims it belongs to Dan, but because it was in her bag, we don’t know how to proceed. We might not be able to support her.”
“OK, please let me talk to Ruth again.”
“I want to leave. I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“Ruth, I totally understand. This feels scary for you and you miss Louie and it’s all very confusing, but I need you to try to stick this out. If you leave now, they might not be able to work with you to get you housing. And I don’t have a long-term plan for you yet. Please just try to make it through tonight to see what happens. Give me some time to sort something out.”
“I’ll try, but I don’t like this.”
“Ruth, you’re so strong and so tough. You’ll make it through this. And then you’ll have your own place and you can have Mr. Harley-Davidson over.”
“OK. Bye, Adam.” The call ended.
“Fuck–fuck–fuck! Those stupid fuckers. Fuck them. Goddamnit!” His phone’s screen spiderwebbed as it hit the wall.
For days, Adam’s calls to WCF went unanswered, and his texts to Ruth were undelivered. The next week, he slowly drove by their corner at the overpass on his way to work. Ruth, her lips collapsed inward around empty gums, was setting up her paintings for the day with Louie sunning himself nearby as Dan crouched up on the hill like a smug gargoyle, a beer in one hand while flipping Adam the bird with the other. Ruth was home.