Daniel wakes up at seven; it’s what he does every weekday. He picks up a pair of worn blue jeans from the floor beside his bed. They are the same pair he took off last night. Underneath them is a blue button up shirt with his name embroidered on the left breast above the pocket. He slips it over his head and fixes the top two buttons, the rest are still fastened from the previous day. The socks he finds on the floor have become stiff. He throws them in a basket in the back of his closet. He walks to the dresser and opens the top drawer. As he lifts a fresh pair of socks from the drawer he catches a glimpse of a Polaroid photo. It’s of him and a young blonde haired woman. In the picture, he has black smudges across his cheeks. The woman is standing above him, her hand on his shoulder and her temple rests on the crown of his head. Her almond shaped eyes are bright blue. Crow’s feet have only started stretching toward her temples. Her blonde hair falls onto his blank forehead. He is smiling, just enough to look like he is trying to. So is she.
He slams the door in a hurry. He will look at the picture after work, during his walk.
The woman at the front desk hands him a clipboard. On the clipboard is a piece of paper that reads “NEVADA HOME FOR THE HIGHLY FUNCTIONING MENTALLY DISABLED SIGN OUT/IN.” He writes his name under the “OUT” column and, after checking his watch, writes a clean seven thirty in the time column to the right. The lady thanks him. Her hand comes away from the keyboard but her eyes stay locked on the screen. Daniel places the board between her thumb and fingers and turns away.
“Have a nice day,” she says as he walks through automatic doors.
Daniel rides the bus to the post office where he works. He walks to the third street stop; it’s a block away from the home. Daniel stands while he waits because the Plexiglas bench in the vestibule is always a gamble. There is no way to tell where the sticky spots of spilt beer are.
The bus driver is a large woman, all curly hair and corduroy pants.
She never says anything to anyone. Daniel looks at the scar above her right eye when he presents his pass. He walks straight to the second to last row staring at the floor. The whole trip takes half an hour.
The air conditioning in the post office is persistently set to keep people uncomfortable. That way, nobody sticks around. All the window workers wear sweaters and the mailmen, in their uniform shorts, shiver. The people in line never come prepared, not with warm clothes or patients. Daniel works at a table in a small room in the back.
Before he goes to the room he finds George, his supervisor. George is tall and the ceiling in his office is low. He has removed the ceiling tile above his desk so he can stand and shake people’s hand without hitting his head.
“Hey, Daniel, how’s it going today?” George’s voice fills his office. Daniel looks at his receding hair.
“I’m okay, George.” Daniel watches George’s fingers clasp his time card.
“Good to hear it.” George ducks to avoid the remaining ceiling tiles and door frame. Daniel follows him to a closet in the hallway where George hands him a stack of flat cardboard boxes. Daniel takes the flats to his room across the hall from George’s office. It is his job to glue the boxes so they are ready for customer use. He sits at a table bathed in the light of an east-facing window. It’s enough to keep him warm for the six hours he is there. He folds the right side over to the left, puts down two lines of glue, and folds the flap on the left over. Daniel places the finished boxes on the left side of the table. When he finishes the stack he rings a bell, and George puts another stack of flats on his right.
It wasn’t a bad job. Daniel didn’t think so. He got the job through the home shortly after becoming a permanent resident. It was his second job. The first was at a diner owned by his mother’s friend. She picked him up in the morning and let him wash the dishes.
He did well through breakfast, practically made mirrors of the plates.
When his mother’s friend came to pick up the dishes she smiled, slapped him on the back and told him to keep up the good work.
The lunch rush caught him off guard. There were too many plates coming too fast. He couldn’t get them clean, not as well as he had that morning, the way he had been told was so good. Plates stacked up like small mountains in the sink. Eventually, Daniel had an avalanche on his hands. He didn’t clean up the mess or wait for anyone to tell him he had done a bad job. He hit the back door and ran. There isn’t anything he has found he can do wrong with gluing boxes. About half of his paycheck is used to help his parents with the expense of keeping him at the home. The rest goes into a bank account and stays there.
Daniel approaches the lady at the front desk. Most days, by this time she has switched her gaze from the computer screen to a book. Her actions remain the same. She doesn’t look away from her novel or say a word, just hands him the clipboard. He checks his watch. Two twenty-eight. The bus got him home ahead of schedule. On the sheet, in the time columns by his name, there was a perfect row of seven thirties under “OUT” and a perfect row of two thirties under the “IN” column. There was no place for a two twenty-eight.
The numbers on his digital watch don’t change fast enough.
“Do you need help?” The lady at the front desk looks at Daniel.
He doesn’t answer. He waits and, under his breath, counts. When the digital bars in the eight change to nine he begins, to keeps time, one-foot tap per second. After sixty foot taps he quickly signs his name and whispers thank you. The lady takes the clipboard and returns to her novel.
Daniel halfway un-tucks his shirt. He takes off his belt and hangs it in his closet on a hook on the door. Across the room, the picture hidden in the dresser drawer is calling in a smooth singsong voice. He opens the drawer and hastily pushes socks aside. The picture is waiting, frozen. Carefully, he picks it up only touching the edges. He puts it in his shirt pocket.
Daniel leaves his room. He heads down the hallway past the dining room and out the back door. There is an asphalt walking path behind the home. It wanders through gardens and past flowerbeds planted and maintained by residents in the gardening programs offered at the home.
Daniel does not participate in these programs. He did once. Before he was a full time resident, he took part in planting the flowerbeds. He planted an entire bed of yellow chrysanthemums. For the first week he was there he watered them and did his best to keep the bugs at bay.
The weekend after the flowers were planted his mom and dad took him to a family reunion at Lake Tahoe. He had a good time there. On the way back, he had the back seat of his dad’s hatchback all to himself.
His parents had been whispering in the front seat. He didn’t think it concerned him, he paid more attention to passing gas stations.
Daniel watched a dirty looking dog when the hatchback stopped at a traffic light. The dog sniffed a light pole. Its fur was long enough to be moved by the brief gusts of wind. The dog moved from the post and sniffed his way to a brown bush, but it didn’t stay long. The dog was still moving, still sniffing for something else, when the light turned green. The front seat had been quiet for several miles when Daniel’s mother spoke up. She turned to face Daniel. Her eyes got wide and the bottom lid was low. She took a deep breath and told him they were worried about him always running away and wandering around the city. And they didn’t have time to keep a constant watch on him. And she cried in front of him like she always tried so hard not to do because when they took him back to the home on Monday that’s where he was going to stay. Daniel yelled about how they didn’t love him. About how they didn’t want him. He tried to open the car door, but his dad had activated the childproof locks.
Daniel’s mother didn’t yell back. She faced forward and tried to hide her gentle sobs. Ten miles or so passed before Daniel settled down.
Back at home, his old home, his parents helped Daniel pack his clothes and told him they could and would visit. They told him it was the best thing for him and honestly they thought he would be happier there. There would be things to do and he could get a job. Daniel sat on his bed for the last time disagreeing with all of it. When the family arrived at “The Nevada Home for the Highly Functioning Mentally Disabled,” his parents put his suitcase next to the dresser. He had stayed in this room for the past week but never noticed how sterile it was. How blank and quiet it was. The bed was already made up in blue and white sheets pulled firmly against the mattress and tucked tightly under the box spring. The walls were white, the shelves were empty and the room sounded like people who didn’t want to be quiet. Daniel laid face down on the bed while his parents unpacked his things. His mom sniffled when she hugged him goodbye. His dad put a hand on his shoulder and said I love you. Then they both left. The flowers Daniel planted had been trampled that weekend and replaced with pink chrysanthemums. His parents visit once a week. Usually they go to dinner as a family. His mother always asks what he has been doing. Daniel never has much to say. The conversation from his father is more sparse. He usually only nods or grunts agreements. The nights end with Daniels parents dropping him off at the home. His mother will, on occasion give him something small like a notebook or deck of cards, before she leaves.
“Something to keep you busy.” His dad calls the gifts.
The whole thing, the path behind the home, is a quarter mile. He walks it four times. On the fourth lap, he stops to sit on bench near the back fence by the gardening shed. He looks around before pulling the Polaroid out of his pocket. The muscles in his cheeks pull his mouth. He tries to fight them. He loses. The terms of his surrender require him to smile and greet the photograph.
“Hi.” The word barely makes it through his excitement.
“You know that skinny blonde chick? Used to come and teach the retards art?” Daniel hides the photo back in his pocket. He looks back at the gardening shed. There are two orderlies who have jumped the fence to avoid the home’s anti-tobacco policy.
“No way, she’s at a brothel now?”
“Yeah, man, at the Starshine. She’s making bank too. I went with enough cash for full service. I didn’t think it would be a problem.
But when I saw her in the line up I had to go for it, you know?”
“But I could only afford head at her prices.”
“That expensive already?”
“It was worth it.”
“Did she recognize you?”
“You kidding me? A girl like that doesn’t notice guys like us.
At least she didn’t act like she remembered me.”
“Could’ve been professionalism. You know, keeping things casual.”
“Could’ve been. Doesn’t matter. You should get down there before her prices get higher.” The two men flick their cigarettes away and hop back over the fence. Daniel waits for them to pass and their smell to follow.
He retrieves the picture of him and the young woman from his pocket.
Her name is Mel. Her art class was the only program the home offered that Daniel had been able to stick with. They held the classes on Thursdays in the dining room. She sat a projector at the back of the room and displayed pictures on the big white wall in the front. Daniel always sat near the projector. He figured he would get first and last input from Mel, and would never have a difficult time hearing her voice, and he could smell her quiet lavender perfume when she walked by. She had nice things to say about his work. Like this one time, a big picture of a beagle lit up the front wall, and Mel was walking around the tables looking at what everyone was doing and giving suggestions but when she got to Daniel she didn’t give a suggestion.
Instead, she called everyone, the whole class, over to look at his drawing.
“See how he’s using very light, thin strokes to get the texture of the fur. And here, see how they get thicker where the light gets darker.” She patted him on the shoulder and told him good job. Just like that. And she really meant it. When most people said good job, they meant good job for you, Daniel. But she didn’t linger on it.
The words just came out of her mouth, they were thick and sweet and then she moved on to something else.
Daniel got up from the bench and finished his walk. He had heard of the Starshine Brothel. There was a billboard he saw on the way to work. It was only two extra stops on the red line.
Daniel knows there is a list of places he is allowed to go, and the Starshine Brothel isn’t one of them. He knows he will have to lie to get there. He had lied before and it didn’t go well. It was after high school. His mom had enrolled him in some classes at a community college, cooking, an art class. She needed to put him somewhere while she was at work. He went to the classes and he tried. He took the notes and the tests. When the tests came back, they had D’s and F’s written on the top. He didn’t want to let his mom down, so he didn’t tell her. Instead, Daniel let her drop him off, tell him to have a good day and then he would sit in the library until she came to pick him up. It worked well enough, until the school sent a letter advising him to drop all the classes he was enrolled in due to his poor attendance. When his mom read the letter, she sat on the couch in the living room. She didn’t yell, and she didn’t cry, not really.
Her chest heaved just once and a sigh pushed through her lips. Daniel didn’t know what to do with that. He crept up the stairs to his room and laid in his bed even though it was only five o’clock. At breakfast the next morning, his mom told him she had dropped the classes. She told him next week she was going on a business trip and since he had nowhere else to go, he would have to stay at “The Nevada Home for the Highly Functioning Mentally Disabled.” He shouted. She shouted back, told him it was the only option. He ran out of the kitchen and through the front door. She let go and cried all the tears she had held back.
Daniel is standing in front of the lady at the front desk again. He runs his hands up and down the straps of a beat up backpack. She looks at him over the top of her glasses.
“Do you need the sign out sheet?” Her voice is flat. Her eyes get bigger as she waits for Daniel’s answer.
“I want to go to the park.” He enunciates, making his voice direct and clear, so there can be no confusion.
“Okay, well, you need to sign out.” She hands him the clipboard and returns her focus to the computer. Daniel scribbles his name. Next to the time out column, he writes “to the park for picnic.” He puts the clipboard on the desktop. He is already between the automatic doors when the lady at the front desk says thank you.
The bus is different on Saturday. It is full of old people with groceries and children who don’t have to be at school or anywhere else. Daniel sits next to a pair of kids with skateboards. They give him an odd look. He looks back and says hello. Neither kid says anything. Instead, they move to the other side of the bus. They whisper quiet things into each others’ ears and giggle.
“Don’t worry, young man.” An old woman puts her hand on his shoulder. Daniel looks there, not at her face. “They’re just a coupl’a little bastards. Earlier they tried to steal my ‘medicine.’” She shows him a bottle of sloe gin in her paper grocery bag. Daniel hears the kids making noises. He looks at them.
They are making faces and pointing at him. They don’t stop even when they see him looking.
The woman gets off at the next stop; Daniel still has two left. He sits and waits, tapping his toes on the floor, his fingers on his knees. Occasionally, he tries to look at the two boys out of the corner of his eye. They are still there, still looking at him, but not making faces anymore. They continue to stare for the next two stops and follow him off the bus.
“Holy shit,” Daniel hears one say as he walks from the bus stop towards the Starshine. “That tard is going to get laid.” They stop following and start laughing.
A creaky ceiling fan cools the air in the brothel’s lobby. The floor is concrete and the wood paneled walls are homey and calm. A wrinkled woman sits in a booth right next to the entry.
“You want to see the girls?” Her voice is in her nose and is already soaked in whiskey. Daniel doesn’t know what to say. “Yeah, you want to see the girls.” She rings a silver desk bell. One by one, women in heels and small underwear gather in front of Daniel and introduce themselves. Daniel doesn’t let them finish before he turns to the old woman in the booth and says, “I want Mel.” He takes the picture out of his shirt pocket and puts it in front of the woman’s face too close to focus. She takes the picture. She smiles and looks back and forth between Daniel in the picture and Daniel in the brothel. The crow’s feet on the sides of her eyes get deeper when she squints.
“You knew her before she was here, huh?”
“And you want to see her now?” Her voice slows.
Daniel takes off his backpack and pulls out a large rolled piece of grey paper. He holds the paper under his chin and unrolls it. On the paper there is a charcoal sketch of a sad chrysanthemum with a bent stalk in the kind of tall plastic glass they used in the cafeteria back at the home.
He drew it the last time he saw Mel.
On that day, Daniel entered the cafeteria and began breathing heavily when he saw the tables arranged in a circle around a pink flower.
There was no back of the room in this arrangement and no projector for Mel to stand by when she talked. Daniel stood in the doorway looking for an answer. Mel stood at the door talking to the home’s program coordinator. He couldn’t hear all the conversation, only the occasional word found his ear. She was saying things like “paycheck” and “can’t afford.” The program coordinator nodded and said something about rent being high and the “economy.”
They gave each other a final nod. Mel walked by Daniel, told him he could take a seat. He stayed frozen. She pointed. He followed. Her direction sat him near the same back wall he used to sit. Mel walked around the circle passing out the big grey paper and distributing pieces of charcoal vine. She told everyone she was leaving; this was her last class. And, she wanted to stop using projections and try an actual object today. Daniel didn’t start drawing right away. When he finally got to it, his lines were rushed, short, and bold like violence. He watched Mel walk around the circle, trying not to look at her when she could see him. She stopped and complemented every person, and the program coordinator took a picture of her with each student.
“This is very different,” she said looking over Daniel’s shoulder. He didn’t say anything or look at her. “All right. Well, do you mind if we take a picture?” Daniel wiped his face before he turned. She put her arm around him and smiled. He was trying, unsuccessfully, to hold back tears. They slid slowly down his face streaking the smudges of charcoal on his cheeks; the flash went off.
Daniel didn’t add anything to his drawing after she walked away.
“I want her to have this,” Daniel tells the woman at the brothel.
She stands. “I would like to give it to her now.”
“She’s in room seven, right around that corner.” Her eyes are wide and the words are cautious, like they aren’t sure if they should be said.
“Thank you.” Daniel rolls up the paper. He counts the door numbers out loud as he walks down the hall. He stops at seven. The air smells flowery. It is hard to breathe. He knocks, waits, and knocks again. The door opens. Mel stands in the doorway wearing nothing but little blue underwear and a matching bra. Daniel smiles. Mel’s blue eyes get bigger. Her face gets long.
She stays quiet as long as her curiosity allows. “What are you doing here, Daniel?” She sees herself, or at least becomes aware of what she is wearing, and retreats to the closet. She puts on a blue terrycloth robe.
“I wanted you to have this.” He steps into the room and unrolls the picture. It is propped up beneath his chin, right below his smile.
“You came all the way here just to give me your drawing?”
“Yes. I want to give it to you so you can think about me and come back.” She holds the bottom of the paper to get a better look.
“I can’t take that.”
“Why not?” He quits smiling.
“I just can’t.” Her lip quivers. “You don’t want me to have it anyway.”
“No, I want you to think about me and come back to teach art.”
“I can’t do that, Daniel. I work here now. Keep the drawing, you worked too hard on it.” Daniel sits on the bed. It’s soft, so is he. “How did you know to find me here?”
“I heard talking behind the shed,” he tells her. She swallows.
“Please keep the drawing. I want to you to have it.” She takes it and rolls it back up.
“I can’t. You have to leave.” Tears are running down her face but she doesn’t sob. “You don’t need me to teach you anyway.”
She hands the rolled up drawing back to him. Daniel hangs his head. He feels her weight on the bed next to him before her hand falls on his shoulder.
“Let me draw you.” Daniel digs in his bag and finds a thin notebook.
“I want to draw you, Mel.” The book is open on his lap. Mel slides her hand under the cover and takes the book before Daniel can get a pen from his pocket.
“Stop it! That’s mine! Mel, I want to draw you.” As Daniel stands up his shoulders square.
“Please,” She whispers as she hands him both the notebook and the charcoal drawing “I can’t take this from you.” Daniel grabs the drawing and walks out. She closes the door behind him and he can hear heals hit the floor as she walks away, but nothing else. Daniel opens the drawing again and slides it under the door. He runs down the hallway and out past the woman in the booth and through the door.
Outside the kids from the bus have been waiting for him to leave.
“How was it?” One of them asks as he runs by.
“I need Mel!” Daniel Shouts.
Daniel runs past the bus stop. He doesn’t stop at the intersection causing cars to slam on their brakes. He runs block after block without stopping until he trips on a curb more than a mile away from The Starshine Brothel. His chin hits the sidewalk taking a patch of skin from his face. It burns when he brings his hand to touch it and he jerks his head to the left. He lays out of breath on the sidewalk looking at a fenced in park. Daniel pulls himself to his feet. He walks slowly down the sidewalk to the gate. The mechanism takes some effort open but the gate isn’t locked. Daniel walks in and closes the gate behind him. The asphalt path is lined with flowers and trees on one side. On the other is a downward slope leading to large a pond.
Daniel is careful to stay in the middle of the path. He looks down to keep himself centered and to avoid anyone else who might be in the park. Because he is looking down he sees the statue’s feet first. He follows the marble form until he reaches the top. The sun is setting behind the statue. A halo of sunlight circles her head and a shadow hides her face. Daniel removes his backpack and falls to his knees. He digs around in his bag and removes the notebook and pen. With large lively lines, he begins drawing the statues feet. He works his way up her legs and torso continuing his active lines up to her shoulders. He stops drawing and digs in his pocket before finishing his work. He holds the Polaroid up to the statue, they both look so still. He brings his arm down and lays the Polaroid on his sketchbook. Looking at the picture, Daniel puts the pen on his sketchbook where the head should be on his drawing. He looks again at the picture and instead of moving his pen Daniel begins to cry. He sits at the feet of the statue crying soft tears until the home reports him missing and the cops come to find him.
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