11:54 a.m. - Friday, Mar. 24, 2006
When I first met Arley he was drunk in the park, laying on the ground like a fallen oak. The second time I met him, he was drunk in the park, sitting at a picnic table. We were giving out bread and pastries, and when I offered him a pie, he wept in thankfulness. When I asked him if he wanted one for his sister, who let him park his camper in her back yard, he wept a little more. When I offered him a couple of cigarettes, he put his big, calloused mitts on mine and nearly broke down.
When I asked him his name he pointed at his left hand and said “Arley.” I glanced down at his well-worn hand and there was a tattoo, written in childish printing, which read “A R L E Y.”
“I did that when I was fourteen,” he said, and we talked some more. Mostly, he just cried as he told me about losing his keys in the park because he was drunk, and how he felt so bad about being drunk.
“It’s okay, Arley. Don’t worry about it. It’s okay,” I assured him. Of course, it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay that he was feeling the pain of lonliness and isolation. It wasn’t okay that he didn’t have a friend to share that with. It wasn’t okay that a man who had done so much in his life would end up with so little life to live. It wasn’t okay. But a friend is someone who lets you weep when you’re drunk with tears and alcohol, and then tells you, “It’s okay.”
The next time I saw Arley, he was sober. Completely sober, and I very nearly didn’t recognize him. Perhaps he had looked at his left hand and started to remember who he really was. I hadn’t been able to tell in his drunken slurring that he had one of those calming southern drawls.
“I’m doin’ a lot better today,” he said, relaxing on the green grass, “A lot better. I haven’t been drunk since the last time you saw me.”
I would see Arley depressed and drunk one more time. I would help him roll some cigarettes (because it’s hard to roll them when you’re crying), and listen to his stories. In tears, he would ask me to get him a bible, and I would say, “For sure. No problem.”
A week later, I found a good translation with good, big letters, and I presented it to him. He was sober again, and thanked me and thanked me and thanked me.
Over the next few weeks, I’d see him from time to time. We’d sit down at a picnic table. I’d give him a couple of ciggs, and we’d talk. “Man, those Psalms,” he’d say, shaking his head slightly and looking off to the sky over my left shoulder, “Those are powerful.”
When my friend Jimmy talked to Arley while I was away for a couple weeks, Arley talked some more about those Psalms. He shook his head slightly, and looked off to the sky above Jimmy’s left shoulder. When his eyes came back to meet Jimmy, there was a tear in one of them. “He bought me that bible with his own money.”
I saw Arley a couple weeks ago again. He smiles a lot. He speaks like a gentle cowboy talking to his horse. “That’s quite a book,” he told me. “Powerful, powerful stuff.”
Perhaps Arley loves that book because it’s a bit like Arley’s tattoo. When he starts to forget, it reminds him of who he really is: A strong, tender, powerful, and loving man named Arley.