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The Rounds

Henry opened his eyes to sunrise slanting beneath the overpass. Summer humidity clung to his skin like wet cotton. From the distance, approaching quickly and swelling with immediacy, came the wail of a siren.

Why do they call them sirens? he thought, shaking off the night. These aren’t mythological vixens luring us to our doom, just sharp reminders that tragedy is with us at all hours and all places.

He took a breath of dank air, sat up on his sleeping bag, and surveyed the makeshift encampment around him. Tarps and boxes, worn and tattered tents, some of them rustling as people stirred from their sleep. Mumbling voices rose against the swoosh of traffic from above. A man in a ragged army jacket fed newspaper into a barrel fire, despite the risk of drawing attention from the authorities. The city, long known for its tolerance of the homeless, seemed to have reached its limit, pressured by citizens from adjoining neighborhoods. Just a week prior, heavy-handed police officers had dispersed a similar camp. Everyone was on edge.

Henry’s neighbors called this Freedom Camp—a name he thought was both hopeful and incongruous. Perhaps more than any other population, these people knew the underworld of the American Dream. How minimum wages, especially for a family, kept you one paycheck away from the street. How soaring prices for food, medicine, and childcare demanded a juggling act that many could not accomplish. How affordable housing, debated by armchair liberals secure in their suburban homes, never seemed to become a reality. The numbers of those experiencing homelessness, rising even before the COVID-19 pandemic, were continuing to outpace services. These people knew the systemic inequities of the system, not its lauded freedoms.

He reached over and rummaged through his backpack. His toolkit, he called it. Large and aluminum framed, it was the same one he had used along alpine trails during his years of wandering. His fingers wrapped around the small leather pouch that held yesterday’s alms from St. Francis, then the series of large metal thermoses. They were top-of-the-line Stanley brand, able to keep the coffee from St. Francis piping hot until morning. The items gave him a sense of satisfaction. They should be more than enough for his morning rounds.

He stood up, patted the scratched cell phone in his front pocket, then shook himself again. First stop, Cindy, a woman who had arrived yesterday evening dressed in a soiled T-shirt and board shorts. On the back of one of her dirty legs was a long cut, uncared for, at risk of infection.

He had approached her cautiously, using the non-threatening body language he had mastered from years on the street.


She turned and eyed him warily.

“What do you want?”

“I don’t want anything,” he said. “I’m offering something.”

Her face contorted with a twisted smile.

“Heard that line before,” she said.

“I’m sure you have,” he responded. “It’s just that I noticed that gash on the back of your leg. I have a good first aid kit here.”

He lifted it like someone showing his lack of a weapon to the police. She seemed to focus on him, really focus on him, her eyes flickering with fear, anger, regret, cynicism.

“I was squeezing through a fence,” she said, “trying to get away from someone’s fuckin’ dog. It hurts like hell.”

In the end, she let him clean the wound, slather it with medicated cream, wrap it in gauze and adhesive tape.

Now he could see her faded green tent rustling with signs that she was awake. He poured a cup of coffee from one of the thermoses into a paper cup, then went to the front flap.

“Cindy,” he called in a voice loud enough for her to hear but not disturb others. “I’ve got a cup of coffee here if you want it.”

“Who are you?” she responded.

“It’s Henry,” he said. “The one who helped you with the cut on your leg. How is it feeling?”

There were some seconds of silence.

“Better,” she said, then thrust her hand through the flap to receive the steaming cup. As she did, the odor of stale alcohol seeped into the air around him. And he drifted…

“Dad…look at that,” a girl’s voice, always her voice, disembodied, penetrating his blackout. “Disgusting!”

Then the crushing midday heat of Las Vegas, a brick wall in front of him, the sound of his urine trickling down bricks into the grimy alleyway at his feet. And the stench, not only of nearby trash bins, but his own breath, laden with undigested vodka.

His first thought when he turned and saw the family was always, “How unlikely.” Four of them—a man and woman, their two children—strolling through the streets of downtown. In prior years, that area of Sin City had been so seedy that foot traffic by tourists was rare, but efforts to clean it up and provide attractions like the Fremont Street Experience had sparked a renaissance.

The little girl pointed at him again, despite her dad tugging at her arm.

“Leave the man alone,” he said.

Then, as always, the girl’s gaze locked on his and everything else faded away. Her eyes were old soul, boring into his, and the expression on her face turned from disgust to something other worldly.

“Are you still standing there?” Cindy’s voice from inside the tent snapped him back to the present. “Don’t start creepin’ on me just because I let you help me one time.”

“I won’t,” he said with a smile. “Take care of yourself.”

She grunted in response.

He turned and looked farther into the shade of the overpass. Roger, one of the camp’s longest residents, was at his usual post, perched in a niche halfway up the concrete embankment, sporting his kente cloth headband, surveying the camp like a Bedouin shepherd, his skin bronzed in North America via Africa. He was bopping his head to tunes delivered through earbuds. His jazz library was saved on an old scraped and faded iPod, a possession so prized that he stuffed it down his underwear at night for protection.

Henry crawled up and sat next to him as Roger took off his earbuds.

“Morning,” said Henry. “What’s the soundtrack today?

Roger smiled.

“Monk. That recording of him at the Palo Alto Concert in 1968. It still trips me out that Thelonious would agree to play at the request of a 16-year-old high school student. And that the janitor was the one who recorded the session! Far out, as we used to say.”

Henry nodded, familiar with the famous appearance by Monk and his band.

“Did I ever tell you, "said Roger, “that I saw him at the Minor Key in Detroit, 1960?”

Henry smiled to himself. Only a dozen times.

“It was epic. I remember Monk getting up during one of Charlie Rouse’s sax solos and dancing around the stage. That man was improvisational down to the secret vaults of his soul.”

Roger caught Henry’s bemused smile and laughed.

“I know, I know. Told you that a few times. But the best ones are worth repeating.”

“True that,” said Henry.

“I know you’re not a jazz fan, but that ethereal stuff you listen to—Eno, O’Hearn, Wollo, Hammock, Brennan—I don’t get it. Puts me in a trance on the edge of sleep.”

“Maybe that’s what attracts me to it,” said Henry. “I can self-medicate without going down that old dark road of destruction.”

“I hear you,” said Roger. “And I must admit, that Harold Budd plays some nice piano. A little too impressionistic for me, but I see the attraction.”

“Eno said he was like an abstract painter trapped in a musician’s body.”

“That’s spot on,” said Roger, nodding his head, then looking reflectively into the distance.

“One of the things I miss about the old days living in a house was my vinyl collection. You feel me?”

“I do,” said Henry. “For me, it would be access to my books.”

He envisioned booklined shelves in the home he had shared with Marsha. He saw light refracting through the leaded-glass windows of his study.

“Anyway,” said Roger, “let’s get this party started.”

He pulled out an old bronze bell from his rucksack, as if he’d snatched it from the neck of a swiss dairy cow. He held it above his head and clanged it a few times, the sound echoing along the underpass.

“Hot coffee! Hot coffee!” he yelled, like a hawker at a county fair.

Immediately there was widespread rustling in the camp, people emerging from their tents to come and get their share. They lined up down the sidewalk, single file in the “no judgement zone.”

Henry reached into his backpack and removed all the thermoses plus a stack of paper cups. He hoped there would be enough.

One by one, they issued morning caffeine. Henry held the cups and Roger poured. As he handed the offering to each person, Henry made eye contact if they would receive it, trying to show the compassion he felt more strongly each day. Many of them he’d never seen before; the population of the camp was in constant flux. But others brought back instant memories.

John, the man Henry had taken to the Social Security office to apply for a new card. Lisa, who had allowed Henry to talk her down from a fit of rage. She had been throwing her belongings at anyone near her, screaming, “That’s for the first time, you motherfucker! That’s for the second time! The third, the fourth, the infinity!” Henry was able to calm her, get her some water, settle her into her tent. That was weeks ago, and today she looked better, almost peaceful.

Victor, who once sat alongside Henry during a meal at St. Francis recalling how he lost his job at a shuttered factory, then drifted through the U.S., never able to find a sense of belonging or meaning. How he ended up sitting in a Texas cotton field at dusk, lifting a gun to his head, ready to fire, then falling back and convulsing with sobs instead.

Towards the end of the line, Henry noticed a tall sunburned white man. There was something about his face that triggered a memory, and he drifted…

“My name is Arlen,” the man said, “and I’m an alcoholic.”

The group members murmured their welcome. Most of them were old-timers at the noon meeting held in the basement of St. Francis. They practiced AA tolerance with each other but would privately admit that they had long ago tired of hearing each other’s stories. A newcomer perked up their ears. Even Henry leaned forward in his seat.

“I hit bottom, literally, in a gully along Highway 287, about 10 miles northwest of Midlothian, Texas. Came out of a blackout as my truck careened off the road and flipped. I can still see it in slow motion, the fifth of vodka from between my legs flying back over my head as I crashed through a fence, hitting an oak tree, settling back. I guess I blacked out again until the sound of the Jaws of Life cutting through the cab, the ambulance ride, the time in the hospital. I think I was there for a week.

“By all rights, I should be dead. No one can tell me it wasn’t my Higher Power looking over me, helping me get out of that hospital and into rehab, helping me get accepted to an HVAC school and landing a decent job. I even have a girlfriend today.

“Five years sober now.” He paused and ran his hand through his hair slowly. “I guess the simplest thing I can say is that I am here. I AM HERE. I’m comfortable in my own skin. And I am so damn grateful.”

The man broke down and started crying softly. Henry felt warm tears on his own cheeks. If it had been an evangelical prayer circle, he thought, they might have gathered around Arlen for a laying on of hands. Instead, the woman next to him lightly touched his knee.

Roger tapping his shoulder brought Henry back. The thermoses were nearly empty, but they had reached the final resident and she still got her share. Roger and Henry turned to each other, smiled, and fist-bumped.

“Allah will provide,” Roger said with a grin, then grew more serious. “The numbers keep growing. Are you sure you can get enough thermoses in that old backpack? Are you sure the guys as St. Francis will keep working with us?”

“I’m positive on both counts,” said Henry. “It’s an extension of their work. They’re on board with both the coffee and the alms.”

The money was a recent addition. Henry had asked for it as a petty cash sum that he could use to run errands for those in need. The medical supplies to doctor Cindy’s leg had come from those funds. He kept a small notepad in his pocket where he catalogued the expenses, and he always turned in receipts.

As he was stacking the thermoses carefully in his backpack, the shriek of a baby echoed beneath the overpass. It was far more than a hunger or dirty diaper cry; it had the stinging ring of pain.

“What was that?” Henry exclaimed.

“Not sure,” said Roger, “but a new woman and her baby arrived last night. See the blue tent over near that column, right next to the rusted barrel? That’s where she set up.”

“Watch my stuff,” said Henry. “I’m going over to check it out.”

“10-4,” said Roger.

Henry slid down the embankment and hurried towards the tent. The baby had lapsed into a low set of sobs that seemed unnatural. When he reached the tent, the flap was open to reveal a young woman clutching a little girl to her chest, rocking back and forth. She looked up at Henry with a blend of wariness and desperation.

“Don’t be afraid of me,” said Henry, “I’m here to help if I can. What’s your name?”

Her eyes met his and she seemed to acquiesce. “Aisha,” she replied.

“What happened?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Last night, right after we got here, Tanika’s breathing got a little hoarse, but I thought it was just this awful humidity. Now look at her.”

The woman held the girl away from her chest. Henry looked down and tried not to let shock register on his face. The child was taking short gasps for air and her lips had taken on a bluish cast. Henry had seen this once before with a toddler, signs of acute COVID-19 infection.

“We need to get her to the hospital right now,” said Henry.

Aisha nodded as he pulled out his cellphone and dialed 911. To the city’s credit, even a location in Freedom Camp warranted a quick response, especially since they were near a downtown fire station. The EMT’s arrived in five minutes, lights flashing along the underside of the bridge. Two of them brought a stretcher and, after a quick assessment, placed an oxygen mask over Tanika’s face.

“You’re the mother?” asked one of the EMTs, facing Aisha.


“Come with us in the ambulance.”

“Can he come also?” asked Aisha, tilting her head towards Henry.

“Is he the father?”

“No, just a friend,” said Aisha.

The EMT looked Henry up and down—a tall, lean man, his hair a bit unkempt, dressed in threadbare clothes and scuffed shoes. His face, perhaps handsome once, was now deeply creased by sun and wind. There were scars on his forearms.

“No, ma’am, only you are allowed.”

“It’s all right, Aisha. I’ll see you at the hospital,” said Henry.

He followed the procession out of the concrete gully until they reached the ambulance. They loaded Tanika into the back, wrapped in a clean blanket, then Aisha scrambled up behind them. As they pulled away, she leaned towards the back window waving tentatively at Henry, and he drifted…

Marsha’s last ambulance ride occurred on a cold Nevada night around 2:00 a.m. Hospice care had allowed Henry to keep her at home during her final days of metastatic breast cancer, but when she began moaning loudly from her pain, he called 911.

He rode with her, holding her hand, heavy with a premonition of the end. In the Hospice Unit of the Valley Hospital Medical Center, the doctor shared some final words.

“It’s just a matter of hours,” she said. “Feel free to stay as long as you wish, but don’t expect any responses. That said, just remember that hearing is the last sense to go. Whatever you say may indeed get through at some level.”

Marsha was heavily sedated with morphine, and her breathing had taken on the death rattle common in a human being’s final transition. Early during her illness, Henry had wrangled with the questions of why a woman so intelligent and beautiful, who had touched the lives of so many in her career as a nurse administrator, could be reduced to skin and bones. No more futile musings. He simply held her hand and wiped her brow with a cold rag, so present in the moment that it seemed razor-edged.

He had never spared his words or feelings. Unlike other men he knew, he repeatedly told his wife how much he loved her, how much she meant to him on so many levels. He didn’t want to leave things unspoken until it was too late. Nonetheless, sitting there alone with her, he poured out his heart once again.

“I know I’ve said this before, my love, but please—if you can—hear me one last time. Your grace in my life has been such an unsuspected warmth and encouragement. Your love has been a brightness I never expected, and perhaps felt I never deserved. Please, please know that I will truly never forget you and all the joy you brought into this world. Into my world.”

In the silence that followed, punctuated only by her ragged breathing, had it been real or his imagination? She seemed to softly squeeze his hand.

* * *

As he walked along the alley towards the back door of St. Francis, Henry replayed the events of the afternoon.

He had used some of the alms to take a taxi to the hospital. He sat with Aisha as medical personnel worked on Tanika. The diagnosis was indeed COVID-19, but they were able to stabilize the child and bring her blood oxygen back to normal. The doctors were optimistic.

While Tanika slept in the pediatric ICU, Henry took Aisha to the basement cafeteria and bought her some food. Despite her distraught state, she ate with gusto; perhaps it was ages since her last decent meal. Afterwards, in the waiting room, he heard her story, one that was sadly familiar. Living as a single woman in the city, involvement with a young man who had promised his allegiance to her but disappeared even before Tanika’s birth, the decision not to abort, then postpartum depression, the loss of her minimum wage job, a gradual descent to the street. He had listened without interrupting, then assured her he would check in on her regularly.

He reached the back door of St. Francis and used his password knock—three, two, one. It took a moment before Arturo opened the door. Arturo was a success story at St. Francis, an unemployed chef who had fallen to the street because of drug use, then found his way to one of the cots at St. Francis. He had stayed on as a volunteer, gradually working his way to a paid position as manager of the center’s kitchen.

He reached out his hand to shake Henry’s, his arm sleeved with tattoos. Steam from the kitchen’s dishwasher billowed around his head.

“Hey, Henry,” he said. “What’s your day been like?

“Eventful,” said Henry. “An infant in the camp needed emergency care. Fortunately, it looks like she’ll be OK.”

Arturo held Henry’s eyes for a moment, a smile lighting up his face.

“What’s fortunate is that they had you nearby,” he said.

Henry shrugged and returned the smile.

“Anyway,” said Arturo, “let’s get you hooked up.”

Henry slipped off his backpack with the empty thermoses. He handed it along with the alms pouch and receipts to Arturo. It only took a few moments before Arturo returned with the provisions.

“Namaste, God bless you, as-salamu alaykum,” said Arturo with a chuckle, part of their daily ritual.

“Mitakuye oyasin, the Force be with you, keep on truckin’!” said Henry.

They both laughed, then Henry nodded, turned and departed. As Arturo watched him recede down the alley, a volunteer in the kitchen came up alongside him, a young man named Brad. Sirens bayed in the distance.

“What do you really know about that guy?” asked Brad.

“Not a lot,” said Arturo. “For about a year, every time I asked him where he came from, he said, ‘I’m just making the rounds.’ I didn’t find out his last name, Thornwood, or that he once lived in Las Vegas, until one of the nuns here confided in me.”

“Henry Thornwood,” said Brad, as if speaking the words put flesh on the situation.

“Yep,” said Arturo. “I googled his name and the only thing I found was a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The photo was from 10 years ago, pretty different, but it was definitely him. Then he just seemed to drop off the face of the earth.”

“That man has some mileage on him,” said Brad.

“Don’t we all,” said Arturo.

“I get this powerful vibe when I look at him,” said Brad.

“A vibe?”

“Yeah,” said Brad. “I don’t quite know how to describe it. The best I can do is fierce but not dangerous. Know what I mean?”

“I do, I do,” said Arturo. “That’s perfect.”

* * *

Henry sat perched on the edge of the overpass, high above Freedom Camp. It was near midnight, but many of the camp’s denizens were still active, chattering with each other or with the voices in their heads. Two small fires poured acrid smoke into the night.

He had his earbuds on, listening to How Close Your Soul by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd. The day’s clouds had cleared, but as he gazed upwards he could only see a few stars due to the city’s light pollution. No matter. In his mind’s eyes he remembered another night, and he drifted…

The Milky Way was stunning in the desert sky, lights that had streamed their radiance for up to billions of years. He was sitting on a precipice near the summit of southern Nevada’s Mt. Charleston. He had spent the day hiking there—past the ancient bristlecone pines that predated Christ; past the wrecked fuselage of a CIA plane that crashed in 1955, killing 14 passengers. He made his camp just a few feet from the edge that dropped off precipitously into Carpenter Canyon.

He leaned forward until vertigo swept over him. Then he leaned back until his spine rested on stones still warm from the day. Rocking forward and back, forward and back, not yet given over to his original intent for this hike, but simply pondering a phrase he had read in an interview with Francis Weller: “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand, gratitude in the other, and to be stretched large by them.”

He was tired, so tired of the stretching, and it had become increasingly difficult to find gratitude, the grief like a gray fog in which everything seemed to be equidistant and uninspiring.

He leaned forward towards the canyon, the abyss with its dark promise of pain’s cessation. Then, again, back to the solid earth beneath his back.

Am I just afraid to let go? he whispered to himself.

A bright shooting star arced over his head towards the horizon.

An ambulance siren snapped him back to the present. Someone down in the camp was yelling, “It’s time! Can’t you see it! It’s time!”

He leaned forward until the familiar vertigo surged through his body like a rush of 100 proof whiskey. Then he leaned back and felt the warm sidewalk on his back.

“Don’t worry, my love,” he whispered. “Tomorrow you and I will make the rounds for one more day.”

Krin Van Tatenhove was a Presbyterian pastor for 32 years, with simultaneous experience as a Hospice chaplain, Coordinator of projects with Habitat for Humanity, and Director of a nonprofit. In 40 years of professional writing, he has produced countless articles and over a dozen books, including (as co-author) Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission, chosen as the 2019 study book in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Krin is a published photographer and has curated several art books downloadable from Krin and his wife, Donna, have a blended family and live in San Antonio. Texas.

Photo credit: Krin Van Tatenhove via Midjourney AI

1 commentaire

Tom Eggebeen
Tom Eggebeen
19 nov. 2022

A fine piece of writing ... allowing the reader to step into the tents and pathways of an underpass community ... hats off to Henry, and others like him, who manage to give still more of themselves.

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