What compelled me to visit him in that place? That foul-smelling place that reeked of urine and cheap disinfectant. Its long dull corridors were littered with bodies, some of which belonged to the sallow, listless employees. Blunted with caregiver burn-out, their expressions were as vacant as those of their charges.
“I’m looking for Daniel,” I managed to say to a male nurse who was spoon-feeding a mangled teenaged boy in a recliner. I noted the coarsely crushed pink pills with applesauce in a little pleated paper cup.
“Which Daniel would that be?” he croaked wryly in his smoker’s voice. “We have seven.”
“Oh…sorry; I think it’s Daniel Macias. Does that sound familiar?”
“Keep going,” he indicated with a nod of his head. “Make a left at the nurse’s station. His room’s the first door on the right – room 203.”
“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. The mangled boy gagged on the mixture, spluttering it into the air. A twisted arm shot up reflexively toward his face.
“Sorry, man…” said the male nurse to the boy as he turned back to him and wiped his mouth swiftly with a small white towel. I looked away, embarrassed, and moved stiffly on down the hall.
A cluster of wheelchairs was huddled around the nurses’ station. It reminded me of unhappy people who gather around a bartender on a Saturday night - people who cannot survive the lonely night unless they have a drink in them. This is the sum total of their lives. To wait desolately for the next medication, the next syringe feeding: The next opportunity for contact with another human being.
I heard them trying to communicate with each other, indecipherably, in words that wouldn’t set up on the tongue but, instead, dribbled out of the corners of their mouths in pools of saliva. I willed myself not to stare and tried to focus on my mission, which was to find Daniel and share with him the gifts I had brought with me. Chocolate chip cookies and Juicy Fruit chewing gum. I’d seen him devour them at school – his “primary reinforcers” for cooperative behavior: A cookie if he’d stay on task at his desk for five minutes without screaming, a piece of gum (which he always swallowed) for sitting on the toilet for five minutes without screaming; another cookie for walking back from the toilet without attacking the aide who had escorted him.
“If you take Daniel to the bathroom, don’t do it by yourself!” I was warned. “Always ask one of us to help. He likes to pull hair, and he hits us in the face. You should hear what the psychologist says about him! He says it’s a good thing Daniel’s retarded because if he were normal, he’d be a pedophile! Have you noticed how he fixates on the children in those magazines he’s got in his desk?”
“Oh… you mean the toy catalogues?” I asked skeptically.
“Yes! It’s downright disturbing! Especially when he starts to laugh…you watch him next time…”
I did watch him. He especially liked the page with the blue bicycles. It was page forty-three. An African-American boy, about eight years old, and a blonde girl, slightly older, with long honey-colored braids, were riding them on expensive brick walkways, bordered by well-manicured grass. Their helmets matched, I noticed.
Daniel would lean back in his chair, cock his head to one side and stare – longingly, I thought – at the wholesome, glossy image. It’s true, he did sometimes laugh, as though the children in the pictures had just said or done something funny. I found it neither ominous nor “disturbing.”
He was in his room, standing at the window. His angular body was covered by old green sweat pants and a faded white t-shirt. The battered black canvas shoes on his feet were probably the only pair he had. Certainly the only pair I had ever seen him wear during my stint as a long-term sub. Who on earth do they employ to cut his hair, the gardener?
It was newly chopped, jagged and uneven in a way that accentuated the smallness of his head. I could tell all of that before I stepped inside the door. Suddenly he turned toward me and his eyes glittered with recognition. I smiled uncertainly, feeling like an imposter. I half expected him to ask me what the hell I was doing there, but he merely tilted his head back a few degrees and scrutinized me enigmatically.
“Hey…Daniel…I brought you something,” I said brightly as I approached him and held out the cookies for him to see. The dark hungry eyes fixed on them, then shifted back to my face as he ambled across the room.
“There’s gum, too. Would you like some?”
He sat obediently on the corner of his bed and looked at the gum as I fumbled with the wrapper. A couple of pieces fell out of the pack and dropped onto the bed beside him. Quick as lightening, he grabbed them both, ripped off the foil and stuffed them into his mouth. As he chewed ravenously I let my eyes roam around the room, searching for clues. Dingy bare walls echoed the emptiness of the space that contained one twin bed and a small plain dresser alongside it. No photographs anywhere.
His orange-and-green bedspread looked like a thrift store find - something hoarded for the last thirty years in an attic and cast off after death. The only ornament was a small wooden crucifix above the bed where Jesus hung soundlessly in its center, painted on.
Daniel swallowed his gum and pointed to the cookies. Dutifully I opened the package and placed a couple in his hand. I took one too and nibbled it gingerly. I didn’t know what to do next. I had no plan beyond the sharing of cookies.
“Do you like your room, Daniel?” I said stupidly. Nothing like asking a nonverbal person a few questions to break the ice. He reached for more cookies and I placed another two in his hand. Then he looked at me rather pointedly and stood up. Instinctively I did the same and he led me out of the room, down the hallway in the opposite direction of the nurses’ station. There was a door at the end that opened out onto a patio. Daniel pushed through it ahead of me and then looked back to make sure that the cookies and I were following. The light was intense and assaulted my pale blue eyes, and I cursed under my breath for forgetting my sunglasses. He forged on in his bumbling, chimp-like gait towards a giant oak tree at the edge of the property. It had a bench beneath it. Could he really be leading me to the bench? Was this the same person whom everyone at school regarded with fear and derision? The so-called pedophile?
He sat down heavily on the bench. I sat next to him. It was made of stone and was cold, despite the warm day. Other ambulatory residents of the facility milled aimlessly near the patio or sat in a few carelessly arranged chairs, but Daniel was oblivious to them as he feasted on his treats. His eating was punctuated by moments of stillness, as though he were waiting expectantly for something to happen. Before long I discovered what it was when a little black cat emerged from some evergreen shrubs about twenty feet away. It approached us stealthily, seeking eye contact with Daniel. I watched Daniel’s face, mesmerized by what I was witnessing; watched him break into a smile of pure joy as he leaned over and touched the little cat’s head with his bony fingers. It purred rapturously, slinking in and around his legs, never touching mine.
“Is this your friend, Daniel?” I asked in amazement. He looked up fleetingly into my eyes as though he comprehended the question, then turned his attention back to his feline companion. Privately, I contrasted the image of exquisite tenderness before me with the admonitions I’d received at work. Daniel had reportedly scratched one aide’s face deeply enough that she bled profusely. Certain members of the staff refused to work with him. I wondered if any of them would believe me if I described to them what I was seeing now.
Ten minutes elapsed, perhaps more, in surreal silence. The little cat now sat contentedly at Daniel’s feet, still rumbling away, but looking in the direction of the shrubs. Every few seconds the tip of her tail flicked the ground. An oak leaf fluttered down and landed in my hair, but I did not reach up to remove it. I felt drowsy…intoxicated with mystery, and in the span of a heartbeat, it suddenly occurred to me why I had come.
“I had to prove them wrong, Daniel,” I blurted out. He was bent forward slightly at the waist with his hands primly in his lap, rocking gently.
“…For all their expensive educations and fancy degrees,” I spat, “they don’t know a goddamn thing!”
Tentatively I turned my head to look at him. At first there was no reaction - until I saw the corner of his mouth crinkle. Then his chest heaved a little and his head went back as he emitted his low guttural chuckle. He leaned in toward me as it took hold of him, growing longer and louder until I could no longer suppress my own urge to laugh. Doubled over, we giggled hysterically like two old friends recounting an inside joke, the last of the cookies between us, on that unforgettable day.