This story is extrapolated from personal experience. The character is not me exactly, but like me he does find himself suddenly questioning the foundations of his kindness to his fellow man, and discovering the paltry limits of what he fancied to be a great charitable nature.
The sweat on my skin turned ice cold when I entered the bank. It had been a long, hot day at work and the only thing between me and home was a payday deposit and thirty miles of asphalt.
At the counter, I tapped my foot behind a stooped old man in line. A spicy-sweet smell floated through the room, invisible and sharp. When the old man shuffled away, I deposited my paycheck and returned to the broiling world outside. Although I was tired, having all that money in my account on a Friday evening made me feel lighter. The balance was in my favor today. I owed the world nothing.
I was just about to reach my car when I heard a voice behind me.
“Sssir! Excuse me, sir.”
The old man was lisping at me from the sidewalk as if he were drunk.
“Sir.” He spat the word. “I hate to bother you, but could you give me a ride?”
He began every word with a hum or buzz, like a faltering machine. He wasn’t old or drunk at all. His clothes were rumpled and filthy and he stooped slightly, but he had a thick mop of shaggy brown hair and ruddy, smooth skin. A pair of glasses was slightly misaligned on his stubby nose. The thick lenses magnified his dark, wide eyes into grotesque saucers. His twisted lips were crusted with saliva. Was he just eccentric or was he mentally handicapped?
“Which way?” I asked.
“I. . . I. . . live that way,” he said and pointed west.
“Not far, just at Green Housing Project on Old Rivendell Road.”
Rivendell Road was all the way on the other side of town, much further than I felt like going. I lived outside of town to the east, so I had a perfect excuse to turn him down. I’ll never understand why I told him to hop in. Maybe it was that Friday evening feeling that everything’s right with the world. Maybe it was my mother’s own sympathetic nature that she had passed on to me and which suddenly kicked in as I looked at this pathetic creature asking me for a favor.
The spicy-sweet smell followed him. I pulled out onto the street and tried to start a conversation.
“My name’s Timmy, what’s yours?”
“Douglas,” he said. He looked at me. I kept my eyes on the road, but could still see his large saucer eyes out of the corner of mine.
“Nice to meet you Douglas.”
“Nice to meet you, too. I need to stop at the Seven Eleven store so I. . .I. . .can cash my check. Is that o.k.?”
“Sure, it’s on the way.”
I groped for a question to kill the silence that kept creeping back.
“Where do you work?”
“I draw disability. I have muscular dystrophy.”
“Oh, sorry to hear that.” That explained the slurred speech.
I turned onto Main Street, but not in the direction I really wanted to go. For a moment I regretted picking up this stranger, but then I felt like a giving man again. It wasn’t so bad to help the poor guy out.
“Yeah,” he said. “I have a speech problem. Tell me the truth, Jimmy, do you think my speech is bad?”
Had he misunderstood my name? I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to correct him.
“I have no trouble understanding you.”
It was the truth, mostly.
“People think I’m retarded sometimes when they hear me.”
“You don’t sound retarded to me, you just have a speech impediment.”
Douglas looked at me and furrowed his brow. I realized he might not know what the word ‘impediment’ meant.
“I hate it,” he said.
“Well, you seem to be able to say what you need to say just fine.”
“Yeah, but I’m not normal.”
How was someone supposed to respond to that?
“Nobody’s normal, Douglas. Everybody has some obstacle they have to deal with in life. Yours is a very big thing that you have to overcome.”
That sounded like something from a feel-good television interview. I felt strangely defeated. My giving mood waned a bit.
“I have to wear diapers,” he said.
“Really?” I hoped he wouldn’t lose control in my car and then kicked myself for thinking it.
“Yeah, and my doctor won’t let me potty train myself.”
“I don’t know.”
We had reached the store so I turned into the parking lot. Douglas groped for the door latch.
“Wait for me, Jimmy, and I’ll be right back.”
After he climbed out, he leaned into the car.
“You won’t leave will you?”
“No!” I said and laughed. “Of course not, go cash your check and I’ll take you home. Promise.”
No matter how hard I tried not to, I wished I hadn’t picked him up. His handicap wasn’t uncomfortable. But the things he said. And the way he was saying them. Sick and sorry words. People were supposed to be strong, weren’t they? At least this tense rapport would end when I dropped him off. I was feeling less and less giving, less and less powerful.
Five minutes later, Douglas was still in the store. Had he left me? I got out of the car and looked in through the store window. He was standing at the counter, not even in line. He tried to lay his check on the counter and the obese woman cashier pointed at the line of people. Her expression was not friendly.
Douglas moved slowly to the end of the line, head down. When he finally came out, he seemed embarrassed.
“Do you have a girlfriend, Jimmy?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“I’m trying to find me a girl, too.”
I pulled out onto the street again, wondering if he would actually be able to pull that one off.
“That’s definitely normal.”
“Have you had lots of them?”
He was turned, all of his attention focused on me. I was gripping the steering wheel more tightly than usual.
“No, not really,” I said.
“Do you think I should try to potty train myself?”
Where had that come from?
“I guess so, if you can do it, I suppose you should. I guess that would be your choice.”
“I’ve got better at it. The diapers the doctor makes me use cost a lot.
Sometimes I don’t use them because I don’t have the money.”
Oh, dear God, he was going to ask me for diaper money. I could feel it coming. I stopped at Old Rivendell Road and he pointed to the right.
“So I use towels instead,” Douglas said. “My roommate. . . he puts them on me because I can’t.”
“It’s good he helps you that way.”
Better him than me.
“I kicked him out because he wouldn’t pay the phone bill. He ran up a big one.”
There was a moment of silence while I tried to think of something to say.
“I let him come back,” he said. “He paid it. But I still have a problem.”
“No, I couldn’t ask you that.”
“See, my roommate has to work late tonight. And. . . I was wondering if you could put it on me.”
I felt something that reminded me of an electric shock. I glanced out the window at a little boy who was riding a bicycle up a large pile of sand on the side of the road. The bike was much too big for him.
“You mean pin the towel on you?”
“Yeah. Forget it. I don’t want you to do it.”
“No, look. . . .”
He would be naked. I didn’t like the idea of being in the same room with a naked man I didn’t know. He might be a pervert, or psychotic. He moved slow, and I could probably get away if he tried anything, but this was too strange. He was watching me with his huge saucer eyes. I gripped the steering wheel and pushed myself back into the seat.
“I’ll do it.”
We reached the end of the road.
“Where’s your place?” I said.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot to tell you to turn back there.”
“No problem,” I said and turned the car around. “This time show me.”
I had no reason whatsoever to offer my help. No reason to put myself into any more danger than I already had. Why had I said yes? Was it too late to back out?
Douglas guided me into his housing project and I pulled up in front of his apartment. Small children were running down the sidewalk and screaming. I was really ready to go home.
“Do you still want me to help you?” I asked.
“You don’t mind?”
His apartment was more organized than I had expected: a couch in one corner and an easy chair in front of the television, a table covered in old newspapers, a china cabinet doubling as a knickknack shelf. Birthday cards had been carefully placed on top of the cabinet in a row. There was a ship in a bottle behind the cards, beached in a sea of years.
“Hey, Douglas, did you know there’s a spider in your ship-bottle?”
He was in the next room.
“Yeah. I like spiders. I let him stay in there. He doesn’t cause any trouble.”
The spider’s web ran parallel to the mainsail. He wasn’t going to catch many flies in there.
Through the doorway that led into the kitchen, I could see a sink full of dirty dishes and an overturned box of corn flakes on the counter. The whole apartment was filled with Douglas’s sweaty sweet odor. It smelled like an animal. I wanted to leave.
“O.k.” I said. “You just get the towel ready and I’ll step in and do it.”
I definitely wasn’t going to watch him undress or put the towel on him. He could forget that. Douglas rushed into the living room.
“Shhh! The walls are thin. People might hear us.”
“Oh.” Strange that he would care what other people thought after years of knowing exactly what they were thinking about him already.
While he undressed, I stood in the center of the living room, too uncomfortable to sit down. A newspaper lay folded in the chair and other magazines were scattered about. On the couch was a dog-eared bible.
“I’m ready, Jimmy.”
I stepped into the bedroom. He was sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Where are the pins?”
“They’re in the jar on the shelf in the bathroom.”
I found two large diaper pins.
“O.k., here we go.”
“Oh, wait, Jimmy, I have to go to the bathroom.”
He got up and ran into the bathroom while holding the towel up on both sides. I went into the living room. This was taking too long. I was tired and hungry and I was in a naked man’s apartment. What a day.
Douglas called me in. I went in and sat next to him on the bed. It was about that time that I realized I had no idea how to pin his towel.
“Get it really tight,” he said. I pulled the two left corners together.
Was this some perverted game, after all? I was sure it was too tight.
“Oh, sorry.” I had stuck him with pin. “Almost done.”
I finished as quickly as I could and went back into the living room while he dressed. After a while, he came in.
“Jimmy, do you think I should potty-train myself?”
“I think if you can, you should.”
He paused a minute and looked at me. What did he want from me?
“I’m going to take the towel off,” he said. “Because I can do it a little bit already.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
Why did I even help this guy in the first place? He went into his bedroom and came back dressed a few minutes later.
“I need to be getting home, now,” I said and turned toward the door. Douglas started bouncing and flapping his hands.
“Uh, Jimmy, I think I should wear the towel. Could you put it back on me?”
“What? No, I got to go.”
“Please! I’m worried.”
“O.k., yeah, just go get ready.”
So this was the game. He was trying to see how long he could keep me here. I had to pin that towel on and get out while I still could.
Douglas called me and I stepped into the bedroom. He was sitting on the bed, but the towel wasn’t pulled up. His penis was huge. I ducked back around the corner and felt sick.
“Hold the towel up around yourself, Douglas. I don’t want to see you naked.”
“O.k., Jimmy, sorry.”
After a quick glance around the corner to be sure, I walked over to the bed.
“This is the last time.”
I pinned the towel and went into the living room. Douglas came out a few minutes later.
“That’s all right. You needed somebody to help you.”
“Shh!” He put his finger to his lips. “The walls are thin. People can hear us. I don’t want anyone to know.”
“Yeah, all right. I won’t tell a soul. I got to go home, now.”
“Do you think you might be able to come over sometime?” He fidgeted, shaking his hands like an impatient child.
“Well, I’m usually pretty busy, so probably not. But maybe I’ll see you around town sometime.”
I made a wish to never see him again.
“O.k.” He lowered his eyes. This one motion, with the weight of the last fifteen minutes, was enough to shatter my belief in human possibilities. He wasn’t a pervert. He wasn’t psychotic. He was a lonely guy trapped inside a malfunctioning body. He needed a friend, and I couldn’t help him. I felt as if there were a gaping hole in my gut.
That night, my dreams were dark, full of old friends who all lisped and fumbled and chased me through hallways covered in sticky webs. I ran and ran but eventually got stuck. Douglas found me and insisted on helping me put on my diaper.