I figured out a new way to set up the mixing machines in the bakery to speed up production. Mr. Donner says he will save labor costs and increase profits. He gave me a fifty-dollar bonus and a ten-dollar-a-week raise.
I wanted to take Joe Carp and Frank Reilly out to lunch to celebrate, but Joe had to buy some things for his wife, and Frank was meeting his cousin for lunch. I guess it will take time for them to get used to the changes in me.
Everyone seems frightened of me. When I went over to Gimpy and tapped him on the shoulder to ask him something, he jumped up and dropped his cup of coffee all over himself. He stares at me when he thinks Im not looking. Nobody at the place talks to me any more, or kids around the way they used to. It makes the job kind of lonely.
Thinking about it makes me remember the time I fell asleep standing up and Frank kicked my legs out from under me. The warm sweet smell, the white walls, the roar of the oven when Frank opens the door to shift the loaves.
Suddenly falling…twisting…everything out from under me and my head cracking against the wall.
It’s me, and yet it’s like someone else lying there— another Charlie. He’s confused… rubbing his head… staring up at Frank, tall and thin, and then at Gimpy nearby, massive, hairy, gray-faced Gimpy with bushy eyebrows that almost hide his blue eyes.
“Leave the kid alone,” says Gimp. “Jesus, Frank, why do you always gotta pick on him?”
“It don’t mean nothing,” laughs Frank. “It don’t hurt him. He don’t know any better. Do you, Charlie?”
Charlie rubs his head and cringes. He doesn’t know what he’s done to deserve this punishment, but there is always the chance that there will be more.
“But you know better,” says Gimpy, clumping over on his orthopedic boot, “so what the hell you always picking on him for?” The two men sit down at the long table, the tall Frank and the heavy Gimp shaping the dough for the rolls that have to be baked for the evening orders.
They work in silence for a while, and then Frank stops and tips his white cap back. “Hey, Gimp, think Charlie could learn to bake rolls?”
Gimp leans an elbow on the worktable. “Why don’t we just leave him alone?”
“No, I mean it, Gimp—seriously. I bet he could learn something simple like making rolls.”
The idea seems to appeal to Gimpy who turns to stare at Charlie. “Maybe you got something there. Hey, Charlie, come here a minute.”
As he usually does when people are talking about him, Charlie has been keeping his head down, staring at his shoelaces. He knows how to lace and tie them. He could make rolls. He could learn to pound, roll, twist and shape the dough into the small round forms.
Frank looks at him uncertainly. “Maybe we shouldn’t, Gimp. Maybe it’s wrong. If a moron can’t learn maybe we shouldn’t start anything with him.”
“You leave this to me,” says Gimpy who has now taken over Frank’s idea. “I think maybe he can learn. Now listen, Charlie. You want to learn something? You want me to teach you how to make rolls like me and Frank are doing?
Charlie stares at him, the smile melting from his face. He understands what Gimpy wants, and he feels cornered. He wants to please Gimpy, but there is something about the words learn and teach, something to remember about being punished severely, but he doesn’t recall what it is— only a thin white hand upraised, hitting him to make him learn something he couldn’t understand.
Charlie backs away but Gimpy grabs his arm. “Hey, kid, take it easy. We ain’t gonna hurt you. Look at him shaking like he’s gonna fall apart. Look, Charlie. I got a nice new shiny good-luck piece for you to play with.” He holds out his hand and reveals a brass chain with a shiny brass disc that says Sta-Brite Metal Polish. He holds the chain by one end and the gleaming gold disc rotates slowly, catching the light of the fluorescent bulbs. The pendant is a brightness that Charlie remembers but he doesn’t know why or what.
He doesn’t reach for it. He knows you get punished if you reach out for other people’s things. If someone puts it into your hand that is all right. But otherwise it’s wrong. When he sees that Gimpy is offering it to him, he nods and smiles again.
“That he knows,” laughs Frank. “Give him something bright and shiny.” Frank, who has let Gimpy take over the experiment, leans forward excitedly. “Maybe if he wants that piece of junk bad enough and you tell him he’ll get it if he learns to shape the dough into rolls—maybe it’ll work.”
As the bakers set to the task of teaching Charlie, others from the shop garner around. Frank clears an area between them on the table, and Gimpy pulls off a medium sized piece of dough for Charlie to work with. There is talk of betting on whether or not Charlie can learn to make rolls.
“Watch us carefully,” says Gimpy, putting the pendant beside him on the table where Charlie can see it. “Watch and do everything we do. If you learn how to make rolls, you’ll get this shiny good-luck piece.”
Charlie hunches over on his stool, intently watching Gimpy pick up the knife and cut off a slab of dough. He studies each movement as Gimpy rolls out the dough into a long roll, breaks it off and twists it into a circle, pausing now and then to sprinkle it with flour.
“Now watch me,” says Frank, and he repeats Gimpy’s performance. Charlie is confused. There are differences. Gimpy holds his elbows out as he rolls the dough, like a bird’s wings, but Frank keeps his arms close to his sides. Gimpy keeps his thumbs together with the rest of his fingers as he kneads the dough, but Frank works with the flat of his palms, keeping thumbs apart from his other fingers and up in the air.
Worrying about these things makes it impossible for Charlie to move when Gimpy says, “Go ahead, try it.”
Charlie shakes his head.
“Look, Charlie, I’m gonna do it again slow. Now you watch everything I do, and do each part along with me. Okay? But try to remember everything so then you’ll be able to do the whole thing alone. Now come on—like this.”
Charlie frowns as he watches Gimpy pull off a section of dough and roll it into a ball. He hesitates, but then he picks up the knife and slices off a piece of dough and sets it down in the center of the table. Slowly, keeping his elbows out exactly as Gimpy does, he rolls it into a ball.
He looks from his own hands to Gimpy’s, and he is careful to keep his fingers exactly the same way, thumbs together with the rest of his fingers—slightly cupped. He has to do it right, the way Gimpy wants him to do it. There are echoes inside him that say, do it right and they will like you. And he wants Gimpy and Frank to like him.
When Gimpy has finished working his dough into a ball, he stands back, and so does Charlie. “Hey, that’s great. Look, Frank, he made it into a ball.”
Frank nods and smiles. Charlie sighs and his whole frame trembles as the tension builds. He is unaccustomed to this rare moment of success.
“All right now,” says Gimpy. “Now we make a roll.” Awkwardly, but carefully, Charlie follows Gimpy’s every move. Occasionally, a twitch of his hand or arm mars what he is doing, but in a little while he is able to twist off a section of the dough and fashion it into a roll. Working beside Gimpy he makes six rolls, and sprinkling them with flour he sets them carefully alongside Gimpy’s in the large flour-covered tray.
“All right, Charlie.” Gimpys face is serious. “Now, let’s see you do it by yourself. Remember all the things you did from the beginning. Now, go ahead.”
Charlie stares at the huge slab of dough and at the knife that Gimpy has pushed into his hand. And once again panic comes over him. What did he do first? How did he hold his hand? His fingers? Which way did he roll the ball?… A thousand confusing ideas burst into his mind at the same time and he stands there smiling. He wants to do it, to make Frank and Gimpy happy and have them like him, and to get the bright good-luck piece that Gimpy has promised him. He turns the smooth, heavy piece of dough around and around on the table, but he cannot bring himself to start. He cannot cut into it because he knows he will fail and he is afraid.
“He forgot already,” said Frank. “It don’t stick.”
He wants it to stick. He frowns and tries to remember: first you start to cut off a piece. Then you roll it out into a ball. But how does it get to be a roll like the ones in the tray? That’s something else. Give him time and he’ll remember. As soon as the fuzziness passes away he’ll remember. Just another few seconds and he’ll have it. He wants to hold on to what he’s learned—for a little while. He wants it so much.
“Okay, Charlie,” sighs Gimpy, taking the cutter out of his hand. “That’s all right. Don’t worry about it. It’s not your work anyway.”
Another minute and he’ll remember. If only they wouldn’t rush him. Why does everything have to be in such a hurry?
“Go ahead, Charlie. Go sit down and look at your comic book. We got to get back to work.”
Charlie nods and smiles, and pulls the comic book out of his back pocket. He smooths it out, and puts it on his head as a make-believe hat. Frank laughs and Gimpy finally smiles.
“Go on, you big baby,” snorts Gimpy. “Go sit down there until Mr. Donner wants you.”
Charlie smiles at him and goes back to the flour sacks in the corner near the mixing machines. He likes to lean back against them while he sits on the floor cross-legged and looks at the pictures in his comic book. As he starts to turn the pages, he feels like crying, but he doesn’t know why. What is there to feel sad about? The fuzzy cloud comes and goes, and now he looks forward to the pleasure of the brightly colored pictures in the comic book that he has gone through thirty, forty times. He knows all of the figures in the comic—he has asked their names over and over again (of almost everyone he meets)—and he understands that the strange forms of letters and words in the white balloons above the figures means that they are saying something. Would he ever learn to read what was in the balloons? If they gave him enough time—if they didn’t rush him or push him too fast—he would get it. But nobody has time.
Charlie pulls his legs up and opens the comic book to the first page where the Batman and Robin are swinging up a long rope to the side of a building. Someday, he decides, he is going to read. And then he will be able to read the story. He feels a hand on his shoulder and he looks up. It is Gimpy holding out the brass disc and chain, letting it swing and twirl around so that it catches the light.
“Here,” he says gruffly, tossing it into Charlie’s lap, and then he limps away….
I never thought about it before, but that was a nice thing for him to do. Why did he? Anyway, that is my memory of the time, clearer and more complete than anything I have ever experienced before. Like looking out of the kitchen window early when the morning light is still gray. I’ve come a long way since then, and I owe it all to Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur, and the other people here at Beekman. But what must Frank and Gimpy think and feel now, seeing how I’ve changed?
People at the bakery are changing. Not only ignoring me. I can feel the hostility. Donner is arranging for me to join the baker’s union, and I’ve gotten another raise. The rotten thing is that all of the pleasure is gone because the others resent me. In a way, I can’t blame them. They don’t understand what has happened to me, and I can’t tell them. People are not proud of me the way I expected— not at all.
Still, I’ve got to have someone to talk to. I’m going to ask Miss Kinnian to go to a movie tomorrow night to celebrate my raise. If I can get up the nerve.
Professor Nemur finally agreed with Dr. Strauss and me that it will be impossible for me to write down everything if I know its immediately read by people at the lab. I’ve tried to be completely honest about everything, no matter who I was talking about, but there are things I can’t put down unless I can keep them private— at least for a while.
Now, I’m allowed to keep back some of these more personal reports, but before the final report to the Welberg Foundation, Professor Nemur will read through everything to decide what part of it should be published.
What happened today at the lab was very upsetting.
I dropped by the office earlier this evening to ask Dr. Strauss or Professor Nemur if they thought it would be all right for me to ask Alice Kinnian out to a movie, but before I could knock I heard them arguing with each other. I shouldn’t have stayed, but it’s hard to break the habit of listening because people have always spoken and acted as if I weren’t there, as if they never cared what I overheard.
I heard someone bang on the desk, and then Professor Nemur shouted: “I’ve already informed the convention committee that we will present the paper at Chicago.”
Then I heard Dr. Strauss’ voice: “But you’re wrong, Harold. Six weeks from now is still too soon. He’s still changing.”
And then Nemur: “We’ve predicted the pattern correctly so far. We’re justified in making an interim report. I tell you, Jay, there’s nothing to be afraid of. We’ve succeeded. It’s all positive. Nothing can go wrong now.”
Strauss: “This is too important to all of us to bring it out into the open prematurely. You’re taking the authority on yourself—”
Nemur: “You forget that I’m the senior member of this project.”
Strauss: “And you forget that you’re not the only one with a reputation to consider. If we claim too much now, our whole hypothesis will come under fire.”
Nemur: “I’m not afraid of regression any more. I’ve checked and rechecked everything. An interim report will do no harm. I feel sure nothing can go wrong now.”
The argument went on that way with Strauss saying that Nemur had his eye on the Chair of Psychology at Hallston, and Nemur saying that Strauss was riding on the coattails of his psychological research. Then Strauss said that the project had as much to do with his techniques in psychosurgery and enzyme-injection patterns, as with Nemur’s theories, and that someday thousands of neuro-surgeons all over the world would be using his methods, but at this point Nemur reminded him that those new techniques would never have come about if not for his original theory.
They called each other names—opportunist, cynic, pessimist —and I found myself frightened. Suddenly, I realized I no longer had the right to stand there outside the office and listen to them without their knowing it. They might not have cared when I was too feeble-minded to know what was going on, but now that I could understand they wouldn’t want me to hear it. I left without waiting for the outcome.
It was dark, and I walked for a long time trying to figure out why I was so frightened. I was seeing them clearly for the first time—not gods or even heroes, but just two men worried about getting something out of their work Yet, if Nemur is right and the experiment is a success, what does it matter? Theres so much to do, so many plans to make.
I’ll wait until tomorrow to ask them about taking Miss Kinnian to a movie to celebrate my raise.
I know I shouldn’t hang around the college when I’m thorough at the lab, but seeing the young men and women going back and forth carrying books and hearing them talk about all the things they’re learning in their classes excites me. I wish I could sit and talk with them over coffee in the Campus Bowl Luncheonette when they get together to argue about books and politics and ideas. It’s exciting to hear them talking about poetry and science and philosophy—about Shakespeare and Milton; Newton and Einstein and Freud; about Plato and Hegel and Kant, and all the other names that echo like great church bells in my mind.
Sometimes I listen in on the conversations at the tables around me, and pretend I’m a college student, even though I’m a lot older than they are. I carry books around, and I’ve started to smoke a pipe. It’s silly, but since I belong at the lab I feel as if I’m a part of the university. I hate to go home to that lonely room.
I’ve made friends with some of the boys at the Campus Bowl. They were arguing about whether or not Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. One of the boys—the fat one with the sweaty face—said that Marlowe wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays. But Lenny, the short kid with the dark glasses, didn’t believe that business about Marlowe, and he said that everyone knew that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the plays because Shakespeare had never been to college and never had the education that shows up in those plays. That’s when the one with the freshman beanie said he had heard a couple of guys in the men’s room talking about how Shakespeare’s plays were really written by a lady.
And they talked about politics and art and God. I never before heard anyone say that there might not be a God. That frightened me, because for the first time I began to think about what God means.
Now I understand one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be.
All the time they talked and argued, I felt the excitement bubble up inside me. This was what I wanted to do—go to college and hear people talk about important things.
I spend most of my free time at the library now, reading and soaking up what I can from books. I’m not concentrating on anything in particular, just reading a lot of fiction now—Dostoevski, Flaubert, Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner—everything I can get my hands on—feeding a hunger that can’t be satisfied.
In a dream last night I heard Mom screaming at Dad and the teacher at the elementary school P.S. 13 (my first school before they transferred me to P.S. 222)….
“He’s normal! He’s normal! He’ll grow up like other people. Better than others.” She was trying to scratch the teacher, but Dad was holding her back. “He’ll go to college someday. He’ll be somebody.” She kept screaming it, clawing at Dad so he’d let go of her. “He’ll go to college someday and he’ll be somebody.”
We were in the principal’s office and there were a lot of people looking embarrassed, but the assistant principal was smiling and turning his head so no one would see it.
The principal in my dream had a long beard, and was floating around the room and pointing at me. “He’ll have to go to a special school. Put him into the Warren State Home and Training School. We can’t have him here.”
Dad was pulling Mom out of the principal’s office, and she was shouting and crying too. I didn’t see her face, but her big red teardrops kept splashing down on me.. Ђў.
This morning I could recall the dream, but now there’s more than that—I can remember through the blur, back to when I was six years old and it all happened. Just before Norma was born. I see Mom, a thin, dark-haired woman who talks too fast and uses her hands too much. As always her face is blurred. Her hair is up in a bun, and her hand goes to touch it, pat it smooth, as if she has to make sure it’s still there. I remember that she was always fluttering like a big, white bird—around my father, and he too heavy and tired to escape her pecking.
I see Charlie, standing in the center of the kitchen, playing with his spinner, bright colored beads and rings threaded on a string. He holds the string up in one hand turns the rings so they wind and unwind in bright spinning flashes. He spends long hours watching his spinner. I don’t know who made it for him, or what became of it, but I see him standing there fascinated as the string untwists and sets the rings spinning</emphasis>
She is screaming at him—no, she’s screaming at his father. “I’m not going to take him. There’s nothing wrong with him!”
“Rose, it won’t do any good pretending any longer that nothing is wrong. Just look at him, Rose. Six years old, and—”
“He’s not a dummy. He’s normal. He’ll be just like everyone else.”
He looks sadly at his son with the spinner and Charlie smiles and holds it up to show him how pretty it is when it goes around and around.
“Put that thing away!” Mom shrieks and suddenly she knocks the spinner from Charlie’s hand, and it crashes across the kitchen floor. “Go play with your alphabet blocks.”
He stands there, frightened by the sudden outburst. He cowers, not knowing what she will do. His body begins to shake. They’re arguing, and the voices back and forth make a squeezing pressure inside him and a sense of panic.
“Charlie, go to the bathroom. Don’t you dare do it in your pants.”
He wants to obey her, but his legs are too soft to move. His arms go up automatically to ward off blows.
“For God’s sake, Rose. Leave him alone. You’ve got him terrified. You always do this, and the poor kid—”
“Then why don’t you help me? I have to do it all by myself. Every day I try to teach him—to help him catch up to the others. He’s just slow, that’s all. But he can learn like everyone else.”
“You’re fooling yourself, Rose. It’s not fair to us or to him. Pretending he’s normal. Driving him as if he were an animal that could learn to do tricks. Why don’t you leave him alone?”
“Because I want him to be like everyone else.”
As they argue, the feeling that grips Charlie’s insides becomes greater. His bowels feel as if they will burst and he knows he should go to the bathroom as she has told him so often. But he can’t walk. He feels like sitting down right there in the kitchen, but it is wrong and she will slap him.
He wants his spinner. If he has his spinner and he watches it going round and round, he will be able to control himself and not make in his pants. But the spinner is all apart with some of the rings under the table and some under the sink, and the cord is near the stove.
It is very strange that although I can recall the voices clearly their faces are still blurred, and I can see only general outlines. Dad massive and slumped. Mom thin and quick. Hearing them now, arguing with each other across the years, I have the impulse to shout at them: “Look at him. There, down there! Look at Charlie. He has to go to the toilet!”
Charlie stands clutching and pulling at his red checkered shirt as they argue over him. The words are angry sparks between them—an anger and a guilt he can’t identify.
“Next September he’s going to go back to ES. 13 and do the term’s work over again.”
“Why can’t you let yourself see the truth? The teacher says he’s not capable of doing the work in a regular class.”
“That bitch a teacher? Oh, I’ve got better names for her. Let her start with me again and I’ll do more than just write to the board of education. I’ll scratch that dirty slut’s
eyes out. Charlie, why are you twisting like that? Go to the bathroom. Go by yourself. You know how to go.”
“Can’t you see he wants you to take him? He’s frightened.”
“Keep out of this. He’s perfectly capable of going to the bathroom himself. The book says it gives him confi-dence and a feeling of achievement.”
The terror that waits in that cold tile room overwhelms him. He is afraid to go there alone. He reaches up for her hand and sobs out: “Toi— toi…” and she slaps his hand away.
“No more,” she says sternly. “You’re a big boy now. You can go by yourself. Now march right into that bathroom and pull your pants down the way I taught you. I warn you if you make in your pants you’ll get spanked.”
I can almost feel it now, the stretching and knotting in his intestines as the two of them stand over him waiting to see what he will do. His whimper becomes a soft crying as suddenly he can control no longer, and he sobs and covers his face with his hands as he dirties himself.
It is soft and warm and he feels the confusion of relief and fear. It is his, but she will take it away from him as she always does. She will take it away and keep it for herself. And she will spank him. She comes toward him, screaming that he is a bad boy, and Charlie runs to his father for help.
Suddenly, I remember that her name is Rose and his name is Matt. It’s odd to have forgotten your parents’ names. And what about Norma? Strange I haven’t thought about them all for a long time. I wish I could see Matt’s face now, to know what he was thinking at that moment. All I remember is that as she began to spank me, Matt Gordon turned and walked out of the apartment. I wish I could see their faces more clearly.