I have always harbored a secret envy
for simple people. Facile intelligence comes in handy when you're watching Jeopardy or bluffing your way through essay tests but beyond that it's an enormous pain in the ass. A staunch intellect invariably leads one to self-examination, which can only result in self-loathing or self-love and neither one of those does anybody any good.
The town I grew up in was home to the state school for the mentally handicapped so every fifth person you met on the street had his own peculiar take on reality. An effort was made to merge some of the mildly retarded children into the mainstream so my elementary school had the same ratio as the general population of the town.
In those days they called it "mongolism," a generic catchall term for Down's Syndrome and any related malady. The "special kids" commuted from the state school on the short bus and were allowed to participate in regular class work with the rest of the children. We made friends with them but it was never quite the same as with our regular buddies because the special kids had to go home to the institution after school.
My own early childhood was a hellish melange of evil stepmothers and bad scenes so I came to covet their simple serenity and the predictable structure of their home at the state school. They always appeared so happy and content, two qualities that seemed to consistently elude me and mine.
The special kids had something going for them beyond their general good spirit in that they were apparently born without the capacity for meanness. Because they lacked guile they simply didn't expect to find it in others. If you played a joke on one of them or made fun of them for something it was like it just didn't compute. I had a dozen friends who were "special" and I never saw one of them exhibit anything resembling the cruelty of a "normal" child.
What really made me jealous was that they didn't seem to worry as much as I did. They were more engrossed by the matter at hand, less distracted by introspection and far more easily amused. Along with the rest of the "normal" kids, I wasted about half of my life concerned with what others were thinking about me. The fact was that most of the people I worried about were dwelling on themselves as well, so they weren't really paying attention to me at all.
I got ripped off when I was born normal.
was six feet, seven inches tall when he slouched. He was a crooked man, bone thin, all sharp angles and terrible posture. His head tilted and bobbed lazily forward from his shoulders and gave the impression that it might roll off at any moment. His hair was an unkempt thatch of greasy knotted curls that could never have accommodated a comb. The clothes were Salvation Army
rejects, high-water pants and paisley shirts with big collars that weren't stylish when they were brand new.
Aaron usually smelled bad, very bad. His stipend from the county was eighty dollars per week, just enough for a bus pass and bologna sandwiches, with precious little left over for personal hygiene. To the best of my knowledge his clothes were never laundered.
His parents sold their farm in Bismarck and retired to Florida, leaving Aaron to his own devices in Grand Forks. They had very little contact with him when they lived in the state and after their retirement he was entirely forsaken. His mental disability classified him as marginally functional, which meant that he was allowed to live on his own in a subsidized apartment but that there had been some debate about having him institutionalized.
Grand Forks is a University town and the well-coifed, snappily attired collegians had a field day with poor Aaron. He liked to hang around campus to play pool and ping-pong in the dormitories and the undergraduates liked having him around as a target of ridicule. Aaron's awkward manner and ungainly appearance made them appear smart and elegant by contrast, so he was encouraged to move freely in their world. He was naive, oblivious to their derision and considered them all his friends.
Aaron was exceedingly quiet and painfully shy, his every syllable was uttered with a little wince of apology for having ever been so bold as to speak at all. When he did talk there was little evidence of retardation, just a slight speech impediment that forced him to focus on the careful formation of each word.
He was an innocent child trapped in a big old goofy body, forced to make his way alone in a cruel and confusing scene.
I started hosting the eight ball
tournaments in the dormitory
game room to make extra money between financial aid
disbursements. I went door to door signing people up for the matches, collecting five dollars from each, confident that the tournament itself was just a formality. I was sharking grown-ups
in pool hall
s while these rube
s were slopping pigs or driving a combine
on the farm. They didn't stand a chance.
I pretty much had my run of the place until Aaron started showing up for the Friday night eight ball tourney. He didn't live in the dormitory and wasn't even a student at the University but the man had a nose for money games. Although he didn't seem exactly right in the head he could shoot a mean game of pool and more importantly possessed the requisite five dollars.
Aaron was obviously touched with some manner of mental infirmity. Sometimes his eyes would get "stuck" on a person or an object and for a minute or five his body would become paralyzed in whatever position it was in at that moment. He'd stand still as a statue no matter what you said or did to distract him and his gaze remained locked on the same spot long after the item of interest moved along.
We had to be patient with Aaron when we let him play in the pool tournament because he'd occasionally freeze up in the middle of a shot and you would just have to wait it out. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the objects of his fascination, sometimes it was a pretty girl and sometimes just a discarded cigarette butt.
"Aaron, I saw her too, she was gorgeous but she's not there anymore. Go ahead and take your shot. ... Aaron? ... Can you hear me?"
"She was a pretty girl, Aaron but she's gone now."
He might be in the middle of the pool stroke and his focus wouldn't waver from the last spot where the girl had been standing. Aaron wasn't in a trance because you could talk to him about it while it was happening.
"Aaron, are you ok?"
"I'm fine. The doctor says I have a condition."
"What kind of condition, Aaron?"
"He says I get stuck sometimes."
When somebody has a hot run on the pool table we say that he's "unconscious" and Aaron was all of that. The few times that he did miss a shot it was the result of getting stuck for too long and testing the patience of his opponent. A sore loser
would sometimes become frustrated with the interruption in play and harangue him for his disability, which made Aaron nervous and slightly unsteady. Poor sportsmanship
rarely detracted from his overall performance though and I didn't see him lose more than a couple of dozen games in over a thousand starts.
I only lost one or two of the Friday night tournaments before I decided to go with the flow and change the game to partners. Aaron and I didn't lose once as a team.
"How long is he gonna stand there that way? C'mon ya retard, hit the ball!"
"Hey man, lighten up, he's got a condition."
Aaron had a condition all right; a condition that allowed him to concentrate way better than the rest of us and to peel the financial aid money off of every hayseed that passed through the game room at Walsh Hall.
"Can't you do something to snap him out of it?"
"Sorry, man, you can't rush genius. Do you think they hollered at Michelangelo that way? 'Hurry up Mike, the Pope wants the chapel by Thursday!' I think not."
"He smells really bad too, worse than my roommate, it's hard to focus on the game."
"That's my partner, baby!"
After our third or fourth victory as a team I began to wonder what the rest of Aaron's life was like. We were dividing our winnings from the tournament one Friday night and it occurred to me that if I had his amazing talent for pool I would be a very wealthy man. I walked him home and discovered that he lived in abject poverty
, among the saddest circumstances I've ever encountered.
His refrigerator contained a loaf of bread and a package of bologna; that's it. There wasn't any mustard and there wasn't any milk. The boarding room had only one electrical outlet besides the 110 volt for the ancient refrigerator and that powered a table lamp and a crappy old radio. There were no other light fixtures or appliances of any sort and no bathroom.
"Where do you go to the bathroom, Aaron?"
"They let me use the one down the hall during the daytime."
"What if you have to go at night?"
"Sometimes they let me use the one at the gas station but not always."
"But where do you bathe?"
"Bathe? ... Oh, they let me use the shower at the Field House sometimes but not always."
"Jeez, Aaron, the way you shoot pool I thought I'd find you living in a mansion. What do you do with all of your money?"
"I get eighty dollars from the government every week but fifty goes to Mrs. Cavenaugh for letting me live here."
"You should be rolling in dough with the talent you have. You could be winning tournaments every single night."
"Oh, maybe some day. I was just learning how to play when I met you. I'm really good at ping-pong but the guys at the Field House don't play for money."
"You're telling me that you never played pool before I met you? That's just not possible, you hardly ever miss a shot."
"That game is easy because the ball sits still. ping-pong is much harder."
The "guys" who Aaron played ping-pong
with at the Field House were the Varsity Table Tennis
Team and they had been using him as a practice dummy for years. He bobbled a pool shot or two in his time but he almost never missed a return on the ping-pong table
Aaron may have lacked a traditional style and a strong serve but he wore down every single opponent with sheer resilience. The Varsity team played an aggressive game in the Asian fashion, several feet from the end of the table, smashing overhands with the velocity of a Pete Sampras Ace. Aaron held up the paddle in front of his chest and simply moved it slowly from left to right to block the ball.
The athletes who were playing on a scholarship told me that he rarely gave up a point and that he had never lost a game. They called him "The Retardomatic Ball Return" just barely out of earshot and occasionally something worse to his face after a difficult loss.
"Aaron that's amazing! Those guys go to college for free because they're good at ping-pong and they can't beat you on their best day."
"They say I play funny and wouldn't be allowed into tournaments."
"Aw, they're full of it. They just don't want to admit you're better than they are. I'm gonna take you on tour and make us both millionaires. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Aaron."
"I've got lots of friends now."