Brenda and I love to watch the retards through the windows. There’s this stubby building a few blocks away from the high school and it’s called Work,Inc. and the retards and crazies work there. Brenda and I drag the mangled milk crate up the fire escape of the next door HairHutt and share a smoke and watch the retards work.
We first noticed the place this summer when the Work,Inc. van dropped off in front of the building. “WORK, INC: WE HELP THE DISABLED BECOME ABLE”, was painted in rainbow letters on the van doors. When the van stopped, flashing lights went on. CAUTION: CHILDREN CROSSING.
Brenda squealed and pointed: “Children my ass! Look — they’re all too old!”
We were expecting a couple of kids in wheelchairs or maybe on crutches. Jesus, even a blind kid. But they were all pretty old, some twenty, some thirty, and a few teenagers, and they all seemed a little fucked up. They lurched and jerked out of the van like mini-Frankensteins.
A few had really big heads and little bodies. A girl with red hair was drooling, the spit in little webs from her chin to her chest. She wore a bib. A short fat guy in brown polyester pants with suspenders was dragging a giant rubber snake in the gutter, through the dead leaves and losing scratch tickets and Burger King wrappers that flew up like butterflies as he passed. A wiry looking kid with scratches all over his arms wore a hockey helmet covered with Muppet stickers and he was rocking back and forth. And hopping out of the other side of the van was a really hot guy with a black wispy mustache and long hair. He wore a faded KISS baseball shirt.
“Shit, he’s foxy!” Brenda whispered. “He must be the driver–he’s the only one who doesn’t have a giant Mr. Potato Head head.”
I had to admit that I was checking him out too.
Then a frazzled black lady in a pink smock zoomed around with a clipboard, herding the Work, Inc.-ers closer to the van. Her giant gold earrings tinkled like Christmas ornaments. “Okay you kids — I need to count you all to make sure nobody snuck out of the van. Frank, Frank, hey I see you!”
Mr. Plastic Snake smiled and whipped his pet around his head with a big whoosh.
“Okay, I see that Julie is here.”
The drooling redhead girl was lying on the sidewalk. She wasn’t going anywhere.
“Julie, please wake up. Thomas? Thomas?”
A crew cut guy with Mickey Mouse glasses waved his hand in the air without interrupting his quiet chant: “5 times 4 equals 20, 5 times 5 equals 25, 5 times 6 equals 30, 5 times 7 equals 35...”
The lady called out “Alan”, and saluted Hockey Helmet and checked off her clipboard. “And Rob, Rob, are you with us today?”
Our hottie answered, “Hey Marcia, I’m cool”, and waved. He had no hands.
Brenda and I freaked.
Instead of hands there were little bumpy knobs at the end of his wrists like tiny play-dough fingers that had never been stretched out.
“Shit, I never thought I’d think a guy with no hands was sexy. Man I didn’t know. Hey Karen, swear you won’t tell anyone, okay?”
“Who could I tell? I thought he was way sexy too!” I told her.
And that was the day my obsession with Rob began.
All day in summer school I kept thinking about Work,Inc. and Rob. Behind my fanned geometry book I retraced RobRobRob with my see-thru rainbow pen in red, blue, and green. Why was he at Work,Inc.? What did he do there all day? Was he retarded too or was it just the hand thing? Was he born without hands or was it from a snowblower accident? Was his family normal? What was Rob’s favorite tv show? How did he eat? Gloves or mittens or the dangling sleeve in the winter? Did he wear a watch? Could he ride a bicycle? How did he pee? Did he like to get high?
The teacher’s voice droned and drifted: “parallelogram, trapezoid, rhombus, equilateral triangle... measure off 60 degrees from the center with your compass...”
I imagined myself combing Rob’s long hair and feeding him Doritos one by one while we watched The Night Stalker. Rob would kiss me during the Stridex commercials and I would smear cherry chapstick all over his lips and we would be very happy.
Brenda and I went to the fire escape practically everyday and she brought her Mom’s binoculars and we started to figure out what went on at Work,Inc., the rhythms of the day. The main thing we realized was that everything took much longer for them than for regular people. Just putting away their lunchboxes and taking off their coats could last an hour. Some couldn’t unbutton themselves. Some couldn’t stop buttoning and unbuttoning, like firemen in a time drill. Some just stood there helplessly, forgetting what they were supposed to be doing in the first place. We stopped seeing the big picture and noticed the details even more: the chin hairs, the Ronald McDonald striped socks, the soggy candy necklaces staining chubby necks. Karen said she kept going because the Work, Inc. people made her feel better about herself and she liked to spy and we were the only ones from the high school cool enough to do it. I was too afraid to confess my crush and claimed to be doing research for the next science fair.
As far as we could tell, the Work,Inc.-ers did the shitty jobs that no one else would do. How were they going to be picky and say no? We chainsmoked and watched from the HairHutt fire escape as the workers tested Christmas tree bulbs in July. They each had a long board with six sockets on it. They had to screw in six bulbs at a time, flip the switch and see which bulbs were burnt out. Then they had to throw the lousy bulbs into a “Bad” box (with a magic marker sad face on it) and put the others into a “Good” box (smiley face).
No one could seem to get a handle on it. Frank-the-Snake kept stuffing the bulbs into the snake’s mouth; the snake soon looked like it had swallowed a rabbit. The Chanter was great at screwing and unscrewing all the bulbs into the board but couldn’t get much further than that. Julie-the-Drooler seemed like the only one who could master the complexities of the project even if it did take her an hour to go through twenty four bulbs. She chomped down on her fleshy tongue and squinted in cartoon concentration as she worked.
Operation Light Bulb lasted almost a month. Even though we were both fascinated -- the total slow motion underwaterness of it all, the very real confusion -- sometimes we just had to escape to save our own already shaky mental health. Brenda would take a Sun In break and squirt our heads with the sticky goo and I would do a puzzle from my Word Find book and we’d run off to Brenda’s house for a box of Jax Snax. And when we’d start watching again it was like we’d never left. Work,Inc. was like our own private family reunion and we were always the success stories.
I think it was between the popsicle project (“Please make a bundle of ten (10) popsicle sticks and secure them tightly with two (2) rubber bands”) and the soap bags (“Please insert one (1) miniature Irish Spring Deodorant Soap Bar into plastic bag; Next, please insert one (1) 15–cent off coupon”) that the binoculars and I figured out what Rob did at Work,Inc. He was not at the long tables with the others and the piles of popsicle sticks and tiny green soaps. Standing on the milk crate, I could see in a corner, near the Sad–Kitten–Doing–A–Pullup poster (Hang in There!), an easel and paints and family size cans of brushes and some scuzzy rags and a radio and an avocado green corduroy Lazy Boy recliner.
Rob’s hair was pulled back in a low ponytail and he was painting with a long brush in his mouth like those cigarette holders in old fashioned movies. There was a ripped out page from National Geographic clamped to the easel and Rob was slowly copying its bald eagle flying over the snowy mountaintops. Except in Rob’s version, the eagle was blue and purple and shooting out of the flames and oozing lava of a stumpy little volcano floating in the middle of a foamy green ocean. My Rob was an artist and artists are different than the rest of us — they don’t have to explain things, they just have to make stuff.
I watched with the binoculars until I got a headache from squinting. Rob painted very slowly. Every few minutes he put down his brush and sipped MelloYello through a crazy straw and stared at his project or tried to push back falling hair with a tiny hand. He never seemed satisfied, adding more fire, more lava, a few rockets. Brenda reminded me that the binoculars were hers and that she needed to check out Rob’s amazing mouth action for herself. I told her she wouldn’t understand but handed over the binoculars. While Brenda was spying, I put my magic marker in my mouth and tried to write my name on the cover of the puzzle book. It was impossible and the slimy marker kept sliding out and I felt like Julie-the-Drooler and I realized that Rob must truly be a master.
Rob’s painting changed everything — we would live in the mountains and I’d set out his MelloYello and his paints and I would feel like Audubon’s wife, and prop up the dead birds in plastic branches and styrofoam rocks and fill their beaks with gummy worms. Rob would be famous and sell his mouth paintings to museums and rich game show hosts and senile kings of faraway countries.
On Sunday I went to the Mall to meet Brenda and spend the money my mom gave me for school clothes. I got an Orange Julius from the Food Court and glided and slurped up the escalator to look for Brenda at the caboose shaped TShirt Xpress. I saw a strange flash of pink and turned. Sprawled on the ground in front of the Stairway to Heaven Headshop was Julie-the-Drooler, twisting the straps of her plastic bag tightly, so tightly the bag unwinds really fast like a small pink helicopter over her head. She smiles and with her red hair and orange sweatshirt she looks like a giant cotton candy explosion.
“Julie, are you okay?” I asked, actually talking to her for the first time though I had been spying on her for two months.
“Jean, my name is Jean. Jean Nate, just like the yellow lady on the television.” She smiled and patted the wrinkled pink bag. A snail’s trail of drool oozed from the corner of her mouth.
“Ok, Jean, are you here by yourself? Are you lost? What’s in your bag?” I asked her, still sprawled on the tiles. What the hell was the Headshop doing, selling paraphernalia to a retard?
The Mall security jerk came over to see why I was talking to a chubby mental girl happily lying on the floor. “Move along ladies,” he said, while smoothing his bushy mustache with his pointer finger. “Move along”.
I grabbed Julie’s hands and dragged her into a sitting position.
“My boyfriend is coming,” said Julie. “We’re going to meet the kittens at Pet Town. Want to come too?”
“Thanks but I’m meeting my friend in a few minutes.”
“The kittens are so cute and I bet you want to marry my boyfriend. All the girls in the stairs do.”
What the hell was she talking about? What went on in that puffy red head?
“It’s true, all the ladies love me,” said a voice behind me.
I turned and it was Rob, shorter that I expected, but Rob.
“I’m Karen. Are you Julie’s boyfriend?” I stammered.
“That’s her version, not mine. We work together.” Rob pushed his long hair behind his ear, a sliver of pink flashed from the cuff of his jean jacket.
“I think I’ve seen you at Work,Inc. Your name is Rob, right?”
“Yeah. The only way I can get out of the house is if I take Julie with me — she’s my 200 pound watchdog, and she’s my sister.”
This made no sense but maybe it did in a weird way.
“But you guys look nothing alike.”
“Kittens! Kittens!” wailed Julie, collapsing back on the floor.
“Christ, shut up Julie!” Rob yelled. To me he said, “We don’t look alike because we have different fathers. Our mom was a boozer and a groupie so our dads could be almost anybody with a warm van and all her drinking really fucked us up. That’s why she’s a retard and I have these.” He flapped the wrists of his jean jacket. “They’re the first thing everyone wants to know about so now the mystery is over. I’ve got it worse than Julie because at least I know I’m doomed but she has no clue that she’s a freak.”
“Come up to my office,” Rob commanded and started walking to the door marked GARAGE STAIRS at the end of the hallway near the telephones. He walked without turning as if he knew that I would be right behind him.
I followed, leaving Julie crying and drooling on the Mall’s checkerboard floor. Suddenly I didn’t care if she was molested in the bathroom or kidnapped for medical testing. Suddenly Julie became disposable.
He led me to the top level of the parking garage and we sat on the steps, leaning against the rough cement of the orange walls. The town looked flat and grey from so high up and far away. I tried to figure out why I lived there, why anybody did.
“My dad, or the guy who thinks he is my dad, is Gus from Gus AllBrands Vacuums. When my Mom took off we started to live in the back of the shop. He thought she might come back if she knew where to find us. It’s been seven years. There’s no kitchen or real beds back there — just a tv and a hot plate. I’ve slept on lawn furniture since I was in junior high.”
Rob wasn’t embarrassed or mad; he was very matter-of-fact. It was just the way it was. I remembered walking by All Brands a few times, a sad store with a year round display of dirty snowblowers chained together outside. Once a guy wearing a blue jumpsuit and an orange hat was leaning against the doorway with a can of cheap beer.
“Get out the bottle from my pocket,” Rob instructed, and twisted, and offered me his side. I stuck my hand in his pocket, feeling sharp keys, a lighter, maybe a purse–size Visine, a linty lifesaver. I pulled out the bottle. It had its own little plastic cup on top. Nyquil.
“We eat a lot of cup-a-soup and cereal and sometimes toast cooked in Julie’s easy bake oven. The hard part is making the bread tiny enough to fit through the door. Julie folds it up and it’s like eating origami.”
I opened the bottle and thought about the swan toast and pressed the bottle to his lips and he guzzled most of it, watching me. I drank the last sickly sweet sip and kissed him. His lips were slippery and when he smiled a single blue drop slid from the corner of his mouth.
“Okay, it’s your turn,” Rob said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, wiping my lips on the back of my hand.
“Don’t give me that confused suburban-chick shit. You got the sob story you wanted to hear. Now it’s your turn,” he repeated. “What are going to do for me?”
I shook my head. My mouth tasted like medicine.
“Let me decide for you,” he said.
Rob pushed my head down with one hand and I closed my eyes and I bent over and he was pushing his hand into my mouth and I could taste him and the denim scratched my cheek and I sucked and pulled on the little fingers that weren’t, trying to make them grow, to stretch them like a starfish, and I knew then, in that perfect moment, that I would never comb Rob’s hair and feed him Doritos — I would be lighting his cigarettes and forging his disability checks — I would be his hands — and I knew then, as I was tracing the little nubs with my tongue, that I would never be happy.