When my studies at the university ended for the year each spring, I would return home, forty-five minutes away, to work for the summer. My hometown was, when I lived there, a small, sleepy prairie town, and it remains virtually unchanged today, two decades later. For me, while it was a small town, it did have an abundance of summer job opportunities perfect for students. Getting a good job, for the most part, meant getting a well-paying one that earned you enough money to fund a summer of drinking. The best job in town, because it paid well, was as an orderly at the School for the Mentally Challenged. Regular staff took vacation during the spring and summer months, and school officials replaced these staff with university students; it was a longstanding tradition. The locals called the hospital and residence by its truncated name, “The School,” or euphemistically referred to it as “the Puzzle Factory.” The origin of the nomenclatures is lost to history, and with it, the hazy logic of its supposed comedic value. Perhaps the denizens of my hometown had a lock on irony.
The school is actually a campus that has grown from a single home—the Home for Incurables—to over one hundred acres of green space with a farm, recreation areas, major paved roads, and an assemblage of sandstone and granite buildings housing thousands of mentally challenged residents. Today it serves, as it has for well over a century, as a home to all varieties of mental disability. On campus are residences or “cottages,” for those who might be transitioning into an independent living situation; for the mildly to severely impaired, there are rooms and common eating areas in several three- to four-story buildings. The buildings themselves have stratified wards for levels of severity.
The easiest situation for a student was to work in one of the cottages; it was a summer of ballgames, movies, and beach trips. The hardest ward was Eastgrove, home to babies born, some said, of a lesser god; the summer was spent holding deformed babies in your arms and crying over their enlarged skulls or the flippers that lay crooked from their bodies where arms and hands should have been. My brother worked on that ward as a psychiatric nurse and told me there was nothing sadder in the world. My sister worked at The School too, and my mother made a career there. In 1966, playing catch with residents, my mother was hit in the eye by a wayward baseball toss and was irrevocably blinded. She stayed with the school thirty more years, teaching mute residents to speak using pictograms aptly called Blisssymbols for their inventor Dr. Charles Bliss. To this day, we jokingly call my mother Dead-Eye Dick, and she laughs.
In the summer of 1984, I was hired as an orderly on the Westhaven wing, the ward of geriatric female residents across the way from Eastgrove. On Westhaven, the mild to severely disabled women were bathed and fed. They lived most of their lives in its antiseptic hallways and common rooms, being attended to by a corps of nurses and orderlies who helped with everything from wiping away excrement to the allotment of medicines required to keep complete and utter terror at bay.
Every part of the day was understandably scheduled, partly to institute a sense of normalcy, but also in deference to bowel movements—the barometer of health for those who could not communicate their aches and pains. Bathing occurred each morning for rotating segments of the population of fifty-some residents; then it was on to breakfast and a morning activity. The afternoon was for medical checkups and therapy. Then came lunch, afternoon naps, and instituted bathroom visits; dinner came early, and bed couldn’t come soon enough. The night shift was serene and dreamlike.
The residents of Westhaven fit together like a family and were separated into sleeping chambers based on myriad criteria: level of challenge first and foremost, but this came second over the years to resident companionships. They slept together in smaller wards within the ward, each room containing perhaps six to ten beds. It was institutional, to be sure, but made comfortable with wall art and special blankets, although nightstand ephemera was kept to an utter minimum given the penchant of some residents to swallow almost anything. At night, one of the more important jobs was conducted, an oddly tranquil procedure compared to convincing angry, protesting residents to take a drug or swallow a spoon of soup or have a bath on a sleepy morning. During these activities, their fits reached epic proportions—but not when the night-shift orderly gently bathed the sleeping residents, who, on their own, could not turn over in bed or separate their own legs.
It is hard to now remember, some twenty years later, the names of specific residents I attended to that summer, even though I washed their bodies with a cooing voice and combed their thin hair with my fingers, even though I was in charge of when they went to the bathroom and what happened afterward. Still, it is hard to recall their names. Tookie, Big Beth, and Kathleen stick in my mind, but few other names. I recall the faces, a few of them angelic but distorted with hydrocephalic foreheads, split lips, and mottled skin. But their eyes, reasonably, come back to me for their startling brilliance, even on drugs, and for their alertness and their knowing. I remember those unsullied eyes, their unbridled laughter followed by flatulence, and how surprised I was to hear a woman speaking to me, speaking to me and startling me because I’d thought she was asleep. I had been washing her and she said, “You’re my boyfriend, right?”
To which my only reply, following a gulp of air, was, “Tookie, you know you have my heart.”
That early summer, I was seeing my best friend’s girlfriend Teresa, who was seven months pregnant. Jay had left Teresa when she told him she was pregnant, and he wasn’t in town for the summer, having taken a job on a highway construction crew. Teresa and I remained friends. One night in June, at a party down on the banks of a muddy river, we found ourselves alone in the waning darkness, sitting on a sofa that had been ditched in the grass. We were watching the sunrise. Drunk and probably stoned, joking about babies and sex, we leaned into one another to rejoice the dawn and found our lips meeting. We kissed, but not for long. We were talkers. We made some kind of pact following the kissing, a pact that can only come as the result of sleep-deprivation, endless cigarettes, and Led Zeppelin. The pact was that we would take care of one another that summer. We had Jay in common and our highly cynical and acerbic wits. We both loved Jay, and we could both make fun of him and the situation together. We both found it hard to figure him out.
Over a few weeks, Teresa and I went everywhere together. After work at The School, we’d hook up at a lounge or a bar and dance ourselves silly, Teresa resembling a fat duck flapping its wings, me a gyrating lunatic with sweat pouring down my zonked-out face. We loved to dance. People bought us drinks and said great things about us; everyone knew, of course, that the baby in Teresa had not come from me.
One late night, we talked about making love. Licking or sucking on her breasts was out of the question, but intercourse wasn’t entirely implausible. We just couldn’t figure out a way to do it without my weight somehow impinging upon Teresa’s protruding stomach. After a few bowls of marijuana Teresa sat on a desk chair and slouched down in order for her legs to rise, part, and rest on two chairs opposite her at forty-five degree angles. The space beneath and between her legs gave me ample room to move, as it were, we rationalized, while not interfering with the baby bulge. I had to crawl beneath her legs and come up between them in much the way an obstetrician might position herself between stirrups for the baby’s birth. This image was not lost on us stoners. We both burst into great peals of laughter. It was silly. It didn’t seem right. We didn’t fit together that way. We were not in love. Teresa laughed so hard she wet her pants. No matter where she is now in the world, no matter what she is doing, I picture her slouched in a desk chair, legs either side of me, wetting her pants and laughing her ass off. I hope she knows it is a beautiful thing that I see, her face, her tears, that laughing.
At work, the once-surrealistic oddness of the job gave way to a banality best illustrated by conversations over mugs of coffee and burning cigarettes during a work break.
“How was Tookie’s?” the question would be asked about a patient’s stool.
“Soft,” might come the response.
“Dark?” was usually the follow-up inquiry.
“As bark,” came the reply.
In my memory, those conversations remain along with a few episodes like the morning mayhem of bathing the ladies under bright lights and squeals. But there also remain memories of pushing a resident’s prolapsed rectum back in, and horrific projections of vomit and shit.
Mealtime was an easy, enjoyable thing to remember. The ward had a rather large dining room for the residents, who sat in groups according to diet and degree eating assistance required. Food was delivered from a central location on carts, but the dishes and clean up were all for the summer orderlies. One dinner I recall fondly. It was a bright, sunny, early summer night; light poured into the room from its many windows. After dinner, I had been selected to mop the floor and get the dishes ready to be cleaned. I don’t remember exactly why, but on this evening I found myself alone—all the other staff were at some sort of meeting. I had under my care two residents: Big Beth, and quiet Kathleen. The dining room had a sound system, so I turned on the radio to help pass the time. As I was mopping the floor, the song “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” came on, and I began to dance around the tables with my mop, much to the delight of Beth and Kathleen.
Big Beth, an Inuit of enormous proportions, propped up in her electric wheelchair, began to writhe and wiggle and squeak with ecstasy. Her tongue protruded and she squawked a call from her twisted mouth. When she was happy, she’d squeeze her eyes shut, and as I danced about her, moving her chair back and forth to the beat, her eyes were clamped down, her tongue out. It felt like a rare moment, and it was—the kind of moment when there is a fluted joy in your chest from the beautiful ache of sun, of mortality, of being one of God’s challenged orphans. I danced and kissed the top of Beth’s head, and the privilege was all mine, to be sure.
But at this Kathleen screamed, as she did, and shrieked, as she did, and began hitting herself in the head, as she did, and I went over to quietly place my hand where she’d been striking in order that she stop. And Kathleen stopped, as she did, because we all knew Kathleen, a woman who was born slow, knew it was wrong to harm a fellow human being.
Later that shift, I sat with the chief nurse, Bev. She was the kind of Catholic I liked: in one fist, I imagined her clutching a rosary, and in the other, a beer and a smoldering cigarette. Bev disliked the phony Christians who believed The Fall never happened. The head nurse was stout and a hard woman who had everyone’s respect because she often showed she had a heart of gold. When the ward was erupting into screaming turmoil, shit flying everywhere, Bev would stand, legs apart, and thrust her arms in the air, “This is nuts!” Westhaven and her women were her life.
“How do you do it?” I asked her, thinking of my hand on Kathleen’s head.
“Well, honestly,” she said, “it has to be done and someone’s got to do it.”
“But it seems to make no sense!”
“It’s not always possible to find sense here. But you just keep on with it. One day, you’ll figure it all out, it’s what we do. They make me a kinder person. Make us all better people, or thankful for what we’ve got. I wonder sometimes why it’s got to be this way and it’s baffling. It is the Puzzle Factory.”
Evenings away from Westhaven were filled with debauchery—in order, I told myself, to handle the things I saw at work, the things wanted to do and did but felt sad about having to do. The evenings were all about drinking and card games, beach volleyball in the dark, driving crazy and drunk down corduroy country roads, screaming at throttling trains, and plenty of stupid, meaningless sex, sometimes all in one evening. After the parties and the bars, I would ride my ten-speed through the quiet streets of my town, drunk and elated to be alive. I would fantasize sometimes that on my rides through town, I would see in the doorway or window of an unfamiliar house an upright and cleaned-up Big Beth waving hello to me, or Kathleen behind a window quietly knitting. It made sense to render the world this way; the soul abhors rough edges, even the finite frays found on leftover puzzle pieces.
I met Renee later that summer. A soccer teammate of mine had invited me back to his house after a game for a few beers. Those few beers lasted well into the night, and shortly after midnight, the door opened and in walked Renee. She was my friend’s cousin, a model, visiting from the West Coast for a few weeks. Renee was stunning, a sylph with cheeks of the purest geometry and eyes like sin. She told me later she was sexually enlightened by Cosmopolitan. Renee had an easy smile, and her brown hair fell onto her shoulder in cascades. Her voice was smoky, and her perfect skin was cool to the touch when I shook her hand, holding her forearm in a light embrace. She joined in our conversation, and it appeared she had absolutely no interest in me. When my friend excused himself to go to bed, I thought the night was over.
“Well, I’m off to bed too,” she said and rose.
I was in the process of getting my stuff together and leaving when she said, “Wanna come?”
I followed her up the stairs of the turn-of-the-century house to the attic, which had been refinished and turned into a guest room with not much in the way of furniture other than a sleeping bag and a suitcase. Light streamed in from two dormer windows at opposite sides of the room. Everything was steely white.
We sat down on the sleeping bag, and as we discussed Nietzsche’s madness, we drew closer and helped each other undress. In the light, her skin was the color of skim milk. Her sweet anatomy and pliant regard drew me in deep. It was slow love-making, not the kind a college boy is used to. It climbed into darkest apex of night and ended with exhaustion and an ebbing dawn. We parted that morning speaking of kismet.
A foreboding aura of inevitability hung over the next ten days we were together, going to parties, hitting the beach. Our friends spoke of us as somehow fated to be together. We had so much in common, they said, and they broke it to Renee that I too was a model. They produced a flyer for a supermarket, which had a picture of a grocery clerk holding a sack of produce and smiling. “It was me,” I said. “It paid the bills.” I was lying just a little bit; it was one of only two or three modeling jobs I got while in college. Renee told them I was the one. I told them that this one is different. It felt like the right fit.
At Westhaven, the summer’s turn continue with great regularity. I learned when each of my residents needed the commode nearby to forestall accidents. I learned what meds were required and how to get the entire ward of staff and residents under general control each afternoon by two o’clock in order for the staff to watch the latest episode of As The World Turns. I briefly toyed with the idea of staying on and working full time as an orderly. Bev dissuaded me of that notion, drawing on her cigarette and shaking her head back and forth very, very slowly. “Go back to school.”
Of course, summer came, and comes, to an end. I cannot now reason it out why I did not attend Renee’s going-away party. We had spoken about it. We had talked about the future, of me moving out to the coast. We were just kids, both twenty. But I missed her party. The night before she was to leave, I left the Puzzle Factory on my bike and drove by the house where she was staying. It was late, and the lights were out. I wanted to let her know that I’d been there, but lacking anything to write with, I came up with another plan. I rode around the town and found the choicest flowers to steal: pink and yellow butterfly gladioli from the front of the local funeral home. Clutching the batch of flowers to my chest, I rode my bike back to the house where Renee was sleeping up in the attic. I wove the gladioli through the screen-door grill. When she opened the door in the morning to leave, there would be a cascading bouquet.
Months passed. My Westhaven stint was over. I had returned to the university, to resume my studies on the ways of the world, but more importantly to serendipitously attend an evening class where I would meet my future wife. One day that fall, a letter came in the mail, forwarded by my mother. Inside was a short note from Renee and a photograph. In the photograph, Renee is clutching to her chest the pink and yellow butterfly gladioli torn from the parlor grounds where my hometown goes to pay its final respects.
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Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.