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Vol. 6, No. 4

Children of God
by Eric Puchner

The ad said they needed someone to model patterns of survival." At the interview, a woman with an E.T. poster on her door told me about the job. You'd be working at their house," she said, "taking care of two clients with special needs."
    I couldn't even take care of myself, but I needed a job. "Are they retarded?"
    "Okay, yeah. We don't say that anymore." She coaxed herself out of a frown, in a way that suggested I was the only candidate. "There's a new name: developmentally disabled."
    They gave me a new name, too: Community Living Instructor. This was in Portland, Oregon. I started working at a home for people who couldn't tie their shoes, helping two grown men get through the day.


Jason was worse off. At twenty-eight, he was afflicted with so many diseases that his meds were delivered in a briefcase. He made Job look like a whiner. Enlarged by hydrocephalus, his head drooped burdensomely from his body, which twisted in his wheelchair as if it were trying to unscrew from his neck. His mouth hung open in a constant drool. His hands, crippled from dystrophy, curled inward as though he wanted to clutch his own wrists. Among other things, he was prone to seizures and cataleptic fits. He had chronic diarrhea. Every evening, after dinner, I was met with a smell so astounding I had to plug my nose with cotton. I'd wheel Jason, besmirched and grinning, to the bedroom to change his mess. "I made a bad, bad meeeesss!" he'd yell, flapping his arms. "Now we're cooking with oil!" For the most part, his vocabulary consisted of clichés he'd picked up from former care workers, many of them bizarre or unsavory to start with: "cooking with oil" was one, as was "you said a mouthful when you said that." Other times, he was capable of surprising clarity. He loved action movies—particularly ones in which nature avenged itself on humanity—and would recount the death of a dinosaur hunter as if it were a sidesplitting joke.
    The changing of the mess, though, was the high point of Jason's day. He giggled uproariously when I lifted him from the wheelchair, his arms kinked around my neck as I carried him to bed. He never failed, during our brief walk together, to burrow his tongue deep into my ear.
    Dominic was more dignified. Moody, unbalanced by palsy, he staggered around the house like a drunk. Down syndrome had smudged his face into the flat, puttylike features of a Hollywood gangster. He was beautiful in a way that startled women. He was thirty-two years old and owned a bike with a banana seat and training wheels. The bike was supposed to be impossible to tip over. He'd strap a helmet on his head and wiggle into an armature of pads and then go for a ride down the street, returning ten minutes later covered in blood. I cleaned his wounds with a sponge. About ten times a day, he'd sneak into the bathroom to "fresh his breath." He always left the door open and I'd watch him sometimes from the hall. He'd nurse the faucet first, sucking on it until his mouth filled with water. Then he'd pop up suddenly and arch his back in a triumphant stance, face lifted toward the ceiling. Sometimes he'd stay like that for thirtyseconds—moaning, eyes shut tight, arms outstretched like a shaman receiving prophecies—before puking his guts out in the sink.
    His voice, when he spoke, was sleepy and far-fetched. He only pronounced the middle of words. "Abyoola!" he liked to say, meaning "Fabulous!" When he told a story, it was like Rocky Balboa channeling a demon.


I'd moved to Portland after a month of sleeping in my car, driving aimlessly around the West and living off my father's Mobil card. The driving had to do with a frantic feeling in my stomach. I felt like Wile E. Coyote when he goes off a cliff, stranded in midair and trying to crawl back to the edge before he plummets. In the glovebox, sealed with plastic and a rubber band, was a Dixie cup of my mother's ashes that I'd nabbed from her memorial when I was twelve. I kept it there for good luck. Before my month of driving, I'd taped Sheetrock in Idaho, sold vacuum cleaners in Missoula, Montana, worked as a baggage handler at the Salt Lake City airport.


To pass the day, I took Jason and Dominic on field trips. There was a special van in the garage, and I'd load Jason onto the lift and strap down his wheels so he wouldn't roll out the window. The van had been donated by a traveling magician and was painted purple. We'd drive to cafés, outdoor fairs, movie theaters. They liked easy-listening stations—"I Write the Songs," "Send in the Clowns"—and I'd crank the old AM stereo as loud as it would go. I'd roll down the windows and listen to Jason scream words at the top of his lungs, naming the passing creatures of the world like Adam on a roller coaster. "Dog!" he'd yell. "Girl! Pizza boy!" Dominic would stick his head out the window of the front seat, his hair exploding in the wind. Someone had taught him how to flip people off and he'd give pedestrians the finger as we passed. It was a good test of character and I liked watching people question the simplicity of innocence.
     Once, at a stoplight, a guy in a fraternity sweatshirt returned the gesture and then strode up to Dominic's side of the van, his girlfriend sloping behind him. The guy's arm was outstretched to better advertise his finger, which he was following like a carrot.
     "What the fuck, man," the guy said to Dominic. "You looking for a new asshole?"
     Dominic wagged his finger at the guy's face, enjoying himself immensely. "We're going to get some ice cream," I explained.
     The guy took a closer look at Dominic and turned red. He dropped his hand and glanced at his girlfriend, who was regarding him with distaste.
     "You should teach them some manners," he mumbled. "This isn't the goddamn circus."
     At Baskin-Robbins, we waited in line while the customers ahead of us sucked on little spoons. Dominic ogled the women. He was only a pervert because of his IQ; otherwise, he'd be concealing his interest like the rest of us. It was more metaphysical than sexual. Sometimes I'd find him staring at a lingerie-clad model in a magazine, struck dumb with fervor, his lips moving silently as if in prayer.
     While we waited, Jason slumped in his wheelchair and I wiped the drool from his chin. The woman in front of us kept glancing back at him. It was always the same expression, a coded kind of smile directed at me as well, like we shared some secret knowledge about the afterlife.
     Finally, she couldn't resist any longer and squatted beside Jason. "What's your favorite flavor?" she brayed, as if she were speaking to a foreigner.
     He seemed to study the case of ice cream. "Like trying to sell Jesus a jogging suit!"
     "That's right, dear," the woman muttered, but didn't talk to him again.
     When it was Dominic's turn to order, he staggered around the counter before I could stop him and stood by the cash register. The girl behind the counter laughed. He stared at her breasts without speaking. I might have done something to ward off disaster, but I wanted to see what would happen.
     "Show me what you want," she said. It was the wrong thing to say. Dominic grabbed one of her breasts. "Hey," the girl said, laughing. She tried to pull away and he held on, clutching at her shirt. He wore an expression of deep, incredulous despair. "Hey!" the girl said. Finally, I ran around the counter and pulled Dominic off with two hands, leading him back to the customer side, where he seemed unembarrassed by his conduct.
     It was always like that: the world scorned them, but they were freely and openly themselves. I admired them greatly. We tried to order ice cream, but the girl was shaken and refused to serve us.


I lived in a studio apartment with no phone. The only piece of furniture was a pea-colored sofa I'd bought at the Goodwill and dragged up five flights of stairs by myself. For three days, because of my poor grasp of geometry, it remained lodged vertically in the doorway. I was still on the Mobil dining plan: maple bars and hot dogs and Snapple iced tea. I had a box of books and a box of cooking utensils, but I never unpacked them.


My dad moved away when I was in college and took up with an ex–movie star. Actually, she wasn't a movie star at all but somebody who used to stand in for movie stars during long or onerous shots. She hadn't been on a set for years, but liked to talk about "Bob" Redford and "Marty" Sheen. My father had convinced her he was rich. Now they lived in Utah, in the middle of the desert, and he was taking care of her children.
     I'd called my dad from a pay phone, the month I was living out of my Subaru.
     "You surprised me," he said. "Where are you?"
     "Las Vegas."
     "Jesus, Drew. What are you doing in Vegas?"
     "Good one. Seeing some friends." Actually, I'd spent the afternoon in a casino bathroom, shivering on the toilet and battling suicidal fantasies, visions of myself with my brains blown out and soaking in a puddle. "I was thinking I'd drive up and stay with you guys for a few days."
     "Sure," he said. "That would be fine. I mean great. Come on up." He hesitated, and I could hear a woman's voice in the background. "It's Drew," my dad said. "Drew? Hang on a sec, will you?"
     He put his hand over the receiver. For a long time, I couldn't hear anything but the ring of a slot machine behind me. Then the sound came back and I caught the tail end of a sentence in the background, the woman's voice saying "running a B&B."
     "Drew? This weekend's a little hectic. You know we've got five of us here already and the place is a mess."
     I laughed, but it sounded as far-off as the slot machine. Chink chink chink.
     "The thing is," my dad said, "I'm not sure where you'll sleep."
     "Jackpot," I said before hanging up. "Do you hear that?"


Every afternoon, at Jason's and Dominic's, we'd sit at the dining room table and sift through the day's mail, giggling at the letters addressed to "Cigar Lover" or "Channel Surfer." Sometimes, from the mailbox on the corner, I'd send them postcards I'd collected on my travels, thirty-cent souvenirs picturing places like Orchard Homes, Montana, or Mexican Hat, Utah. "Wish you were here!" I'd write. Or "Having the time of my life!" We put the postcards in a shoebox in case the happy stranger returned.
     One day, sometime in March, Dominic got a Clearing House Sweepstakes letter and we opened it excitedly. I filled out the necessary information, showing him how to paste the publishers' stamps in the little squares. For a week after we'd sent it in, he seemed mercurial, distracted. He was particularly excited about the grand prize—a 1969 Mustang convertible with a galloping horse on the grill—and I helped him put the glossy picture of it on the refrigerator.
     Filling in for a graveyard shift one night, I started from a nap at 5:00 A.M. when the front door creaked open. I went to investigate and saw Dominic sitting on the steps like a gloomy wino in his Fruit of the Looms, squinting at the half-lit street.
     "What are you doing, Dominic?" I asked, putting my hand on his shoulder.
     "Ooing," he said, in his no-consonant drone.
     "Yes, doing. It's five in the morning."
     He looked at me queerly. "Ar," he said, meaning "car." Since his subjects were limited, I'd learned to translate his words into their probable correlates. "Red car no roof!"
     In my tired state, I pictured the red convertible rolling down the street, tied up with a giant bow, Ed McMahon sitting pretty behind the wheel. I explained to him the chances were one in a trillion. "There's no car, Dominic. It's a scam—a game, you see? We just did it for fun. You've got no chance at all."
     He stared at me without comprehending. "Car! Red car go fast!"
     "Besides, you can't drive. You'd crash it anyway."
     "No crash!" he said angrily, rising to his feet.
     Spit flew from his lips. Such passion! I would have given anything to care like that. I got Dominic to bed finally but lay wide-eyed on the couch, relapsing into suicidal fantasies. Live each day as your last, they say, but nobody in their right mind would try it. I reminded myself it was Jason's birthday tomorrow, that I was the only one—of the three of us—who knew how to bake a cake.
     The next afternoon I returned to the house and started getting ready for the party. We strung up balloons and I bought party hats and noisemakers. Jason's parents were supposed to arrive at three o'clock. At 2:45, the phone rang and a woman's voice drawled bashfully into my ear. She told me that their car was in the shop with brake trouble.
     "I'm so sorry. I know Jason was expecting us."
     "He's waiting for his presents," I said.
     She fumbled with the phone. "I can't tell you. We feel just awful about this."
     "Look, we'll just come over there. Give me your address. I'll bring the cake and noisemakers."
     An awkward pause. "Oh, no. Don't trouble yourself. I mean, it's too far a drive for them. They won't enjoy it."
     "It's no trouble," I said loudly. "They love riding in the van."
     It was a long ride on the freeway and we heard "Send in the Clowns" two times. Jason sat in the back, displaying none of his customary excitement at being on the road. "It's your birthday," I kept reminding him. When I told him we were going to see his parents, he just stared out the window with his head wilting like a sunflower. Eventually we found the exit and climbed a steep, suburban street into some hills, rising above the great cloverleaf of the freeway into a development of newly built houses. I looked for some signs of recognition on Jason's face, but then realized he may have never been here before.
     Jason's parents greeted us at the door and invited us into the kitchen. Even though it was rainy season, they both had sunburns. Their faces were blank behind their smiles: I could have shaken them like an Etch A Sketch and made them disappear. The Kreighbaums seemed shy around their son, talking to him in special voices and exchanging covert looks. Mr. Kreighbaum wore a winded expression and a white polo shirt that emphasized the redness of his face, as if he'd just completed a succession of cartwheels. He watched me empty the contents of the bag I'd brought, peering at the party favors I laid out on the counter.
     The whole place made my teeth hurt. In fact, I was clenching them in rage.
     "Put on a party hat," I commanded Mr. Kreighbaum.
     "Oh, no." He chuckled, glancing at his wife. "I don't think it'll fit."
     "I promised Jason."
     He took the little hat from my hand, sneaking a glimpse out the window before stretching the elastic cord around his chin. His head looked gigantic under the paper cone of the hat. We walked, wheeled, and staggered into the dining room and sat at the long oak table, which held a meager stack of presents. Mrs. Kreighbaum brought out plates of fruit salad and served us without speaking. I went to the kitchen and re-entered with the cake, and we sang "Happy Birthday" to Jason, but he just sat there and refused to blow out his candles. His eyes were rheumy and distracted. I tried to cheer him up with a noisemaker, but he batted it from his face with one hook.
     "When's the last time you've seen Jason?" I asked Mrs. Kreighbaum.
     She looked at her husband. "I don't know. Gosh." She turned her smile in my direction. "He seems so happy where he is."
     "I'm gonna open up a can of whup-ass," Jason said.
     Mr. Kreighbaum tried to interest him in the presents, but he pushed them away with a listless shove. Undeterred, Mr. Kreighbaum opened up the biggest box on the table, feigning surprise at the contents. It was a plastic trout that flapped its tail when you came near it and sang "Take Me to the River." You were supposed to hang it on the wall. Clearly, the resourceful man had run out to Walgreens before we got there and bought whatever he could find.
     He slid the toy from its box and laid it on the table to demonstrate. The trout was more convincing as an allegory of death, flapping its tail against the table and pleading for our mercy. Jason, incredibly, showed little interest. In the end Mr. Kreighbaum had to open the presents himself, slumped over the table in his party hat, holding each toy up for our approval.
     Mrs. Kreighbaum—out of politeness, probably—tried to engage Dominic. "How's the fruit salad?" she asked.
     "Amen on that," I said to Dominic. "I agree with you one hundred percent."
     Dominic asked where the bathroom was and I had to repeat the question before Mrs. Kreighbaum would answer him. He lurched out of his chair. I thought he might knock something over, but he fumbled his way down the hall without disaster. Soon we could hear the yaaks and spits, the sounds of retching emanating from the open door.
     "It's a masturbation thing," I explained, trying to hide my elation. "He's sexually frustrated."
     About halfway through the presents Jason got a sheepish, self-occupied look. The stench was tremendous. It was no illusion: we were working together. I let the Kreighbaums sit there for a while, watching them stare at their plates while the house echoed with bulimic groans.
     "Do you have any diapers?" I asked eventually.
     Mrs. Kreighbaum shook her head. I went to get an Attends from the emergency stash in the van and threw the diaper in Mr. Kreighbaum's lap. I asked him to change Jason in the bedroom, managing to bestow the task with a sense of honor. He glanced at his wife—a quick, despondent peek—and then looked at me pitifully.
     "I think Susie might be better equipped."
     "He only lets men," I said.
     "But I'm his mother!" Mrs. Kreighbaum said.
     "Please—this is no time to take things personally." I turned to Mr. Kreighbaum. "Grab a bucket and some dish towels. You'll need to wipe him down first."
     He nodded. Clutching the Attends like a book, Mr. Kreighbaum stood up obediently and rummaged under the sink in the kitchen until he found an empty paint can. He held it up for approval and then wheeled Jason into the open door at the far end of the hall. The door closed behind them with an air of accumulated doom. Mrs. Kreighbaum and I picked at the remnants of our cake. Something about her face, the way it stared helplessly into her plate, gave me a twinge of guilt.
     Eventually the noises stopped and Dominic staggered back into the dining room, grinning from exhaustion, eyes glazed from the effort of his puking. He smiled at Mrs. Kreighbaum and said something I couldn't decipher. She glanced at the closed door at the end of the hall, eyeing it with a look of canine longing. How hard was it to change a diaper? I asked her to watch Dominic and then went down the hall to investigate.
     It was worse than I'd expected. Jason, naked and white as a canvas, was curled up on the king-size bed, his ass and legs obscured by a painterly mess. Mr. Kreighbaum stood above him with sagging shoulders, hair thorned with sweat, holding a wet rag that was dripping on the carpet. The party hat had slipped down and was sticking out of the front of his forehead. He looked like a big, melanomic unicorn. There was shit on his hands and shirt and all over the denim comforter covering the bed. His hands trembled. He looked at me with a despairing face, surrendering eagerly to defeat, like a refrigerator repairman asked to do an autopsy.
     I burned the image in my mind, savoring it while I could.
     I brushed Mr. Kreighbaum aside and cleaned Jason myself, changing his Attends and setting him carefully back in the wheelchair. He looked at his father and laughed out loud. "You're cruising for a bruising!" he said. He giggled all the way back to the dining room, his mood magically improved. Dominic, however, had disappeared.
     "I asked you to watch him!" I said.
     Mrs. Kreighbaum clutched a chair. "I had to use the rest room."
     I saw that she was weeping. My teeth had stopped hurting, finally, but I didn't feel any better. The two of us went to look for Dominic and found him standing by the curb across the street, bent over someone's Jetta and peering through the window like a burglar. The dandruff in his hair sparkled in the sun. He turned to us with yearning, half-open eyes.
     "Red," he mumbled. "My car for zoom."
     "That's not your car," I said. "We're at the wrong house completely."

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