A year after my wife died, I took a job at Offerings, a residential facility for adults with moderate developmental disabilities. They all came from wealthy families. They were slow, of course. You can call them “retarded”—that word doesn’t offend me as long as it’s used the proper way, without pity. I was already sixty-four when I took the job. I didn’t need the money, but I had the rest of my life on my hands and I wanted to spend it among people who would appreciate me. Of course I’d gone through the requisite training over the summer and was stable and willing, so there I was.
I was responsible for the daily care of three grown men. They were reasonable enough people, kind and conversational and generally decent, and they seemed to benefit from my attention and company. Each day I guided them as loosely as possible toward whatever activities the facility had planned and away from things that could be harmful or self-destructive. Most evenings we ate dinner together in the dining hall, a room designed to look something like a country club—pastel tablecloths, dark floral wallpaper, waiters in white dress shirts and burgundy aprons refilling wine glasses. The place had a well-stocked bar. Smoking was even allowed in certain areas. The residents were adults, after all. We weren’t there to discipline them, change them, improve them, or anything like that. We were merely being paid to help them live as they pleased. The official title of my post was “daytime companion,” though I stayed at Offerings later and later into the evenings as time went on.
Paul, the eldest of my charges, had a real enthusiasm for food and fire. He liked to make jokes, mostly bad puns, and he had a few catchphrases that never failed to draw laughs at the dinner table. “The poop is in the pudding,” he’d say every Thursday, wide-eyed, mouth hanging open in anticipation. Thursday was pudding day, of course. Paul’s IQ was up in the high sixties. He could have lived independently with occasional help shopping and clean- ing, but he said he liked it at Offerings. He enjoyed himself.
“Larry,” Paul said one day, motioning for me to follow him. His room smelled of Christmas all year round. He was permitted to light candles, so he burned cinnamon- and pine-scented ones constantly, almost religiously. I’d often find him spaced out at his desk, staring at the flickering flames, his hand moving robotically between a bag of chips and his mouth.
“Check this out,” he said, pulling a cardboard box full of Penthouse and Hustler and Playboy magazines out from beneath his bed. He looked up at me and opened to a full-page spread of a blonde in soft light lying in a bed of autumn leaves, knees wide. She wore little leather moccasins on her feet and a feather tied around her neck, and nothing more—Miss November. Paul put a finger from one hand down on the page right over the girl’s private parts, then pressed a finger from the other hand against his pursed lips and grinned. He put the magazine back in the box and stood looking at me, beaming.
“That’s very good, Paul,” I said, punching him lightly on the shoulder. I hadn’t received much training in how to handle those types of situations. I did the best I could.
There isn’t much to say about Claude. He was younger and more on the folksy side. He had his heart set on being a father one day, as though it were a status he could earn simply by being considerate and well liked, and so he tried to be kind, cute even. He had an aunt who came to visit him every now and then, brought him stuffed animals and picture books and French pastries. “Is he happy?” she’d ask me while Claude picked crumbs from his pale goatee. I’d just nod and put my arm around his shoulders. Each time I did, he’d rest his head against my chest and close his eyes. It was hard to have any respect for Claude.
I had an even harder time with Francis. He was only nineteen, a fearful guy with nervous habits like picking at his skin and biting his nails and patting his hair down, habits I was supposed to try to curtail by handing him a Slinky or a Rubik’s Cube to keep his hands busy, but I rarely did. I just smiled when he got agitated, tried to say something soothing, did my best not to condescend.
“It’s all right, Francis,” I’d tell him. “Nobody’s going to bite you.”
But he was rarely soothed. I had to hold my tongue when he’d caution me not to drive too fast in the Offerings van on field trips or stir too much sugar into my coffee. “Rots your teeth,” Francis said, wiggling a finger. The others cast him as a party pooper, a wet blanket. “Fwancis,” Paul called him. Francis looked like the runt of a litter—small shouldered, pale, with blackheads and pimples around the corners of his mouth and nostrils. His anxiety was ridiculous sometimes. “When I die, will somebody eat me?” he once asked.
Most days they were all happy. Like children, the residents seemed to have the wonderful ability to forget themselves in simple activities. They could be moody, but rarely did a worry or care transfer from one day to the next. Each night I stopped by Marsha’s office to hand in my report. She and I shared a sense of humor about our work there, how an entire day could be spent playing tiddlywinks or watching cartoons or marathon episodes of Family Feud, a show that had a cultlike following among the residents at Offerings. Marsha was a kind and thoughtful woman, and troubled in a way I could never figure out. I tried to be friendly, compliment her on her earrings, wish her a good night, what have you. She was married and twenty years my junior, so of course nothing ever happened between us.
Not long after my wife had died, Lacey, my daughter, had come and emptied the house of its finer furniture. It was my wife’s stuff—her eye, her taste—and looking at all of it just sitting there collecting dust disturbed me. I was glad to see it go. I never cared much for nice things or money anyway. It had been my wife’s idea for me to go into business with her father. The man had started a company renting out construction equipment, built himself up, succeeded. I cared nothing for that business. He kept me on the in-house end of things, which protected me from the gritty details. The worst I ever had to do was fire one of the cleaning ladies in the office for stealing food from the break room. “It came from upstairs,” I told her. “If it were up to me, none of us would work here.” She took it well enough, and I went back to my files, literally pushing papers around on my desk until I could go home. The best part of my day was the drive home at sunset on the freeway—the silhouettes of high pines black against the pastel sky, the sun smoldering as it disappeared.
It went on like that for decades, me twiddling my thumbs behind that desk, my wife at home filling the house with antiques and fake flowers, dipping her fingers into cheesecakes and frostings and hollandaise and gravy. She died young of a heart attack, out of the blue. She wasn’t as fat as other women I’ve seen, and she was never crass or inarticulate, but I hadn’t found her attractive for years. Sometimes I feel I barely even knew her. The only times she seemed truly joyful were when she was on her way out to go shopping or to get her hair and nails done. My poor wife. I didn’t know how little I loved her until she was dead.
Once it was emptied of all my wife’s things, the house felt as though it had returned to the earth, some natural state of being. Maybe that is why, when Marsha Mendoza gave me a small succulent in a terra-cotta plastic pot for Easter, I stopped off at the public library and picked up a book about the species. They’re such hardy little bastards. Stick a leaf of one in a cup of dirt and it will sprout roots all on its own. Its ability to regenerate, to thrive, is astonishing. By mid-May I had propagated a dozen new plants in china teacups and platters and little soup bowls that my wife had kept in a display hutch. My daughter had taken the hutch and left the dinnerware in piles on the hard- wood floors. I wasn’t going to use the dishes for food. I ate everything off paper plates, a bachelor in the classic sense. It filled me with great pride to watch those succulents grow. I got in the habit of giving them out as presents whenever there was an occasion. I even gave one to Paul for his thirtieth birthday.
“Fuck-you-lent,” he said, setting the little plant on the table. He spread his palm and held it out to me for a high five. We had all gathered around to watch him blow out the candles on his birthday cake.
“What if it dies?” Francis asked. “What if he kills it?”
“Those plants are almost impossible to kill,” I said. “Their Latin name is Sempervivum. Live forever. Don’t worry about it.”
Claude distributed huge chunks of cake around the table. I helped Paul up out of his chair and hugged him. He was about sixty pounds overweight. His parents lived in Florida, visited him rarely, took issue with the incidental costs he incurred at Offerings, mostly from extra food. At least once a week, a delivery guy would wander into the foyer looking for Paul with a satchelful of pizzas and chicken wings. Paul could sit contentedly for hours in front of the television with bags of yogurt-covered pretzels and caramel popcorn. Occasionally he overate to the point of being sick. “Gotta throw up now, Larry,” he’d say. Fifteen minutes later he’d be at it again. What could I do? I wasn’t there to keep him on a diet. Besides certain rules for safety within the facility, the residents could do whatever they wanted. The handbook only stipulated that a resident’s contract at Offerings could be terminated if he or she violently attacked a staff member or another resident. And overnight visits were not permitted.
I often wondered whether Paul understood what it meant to make love to a woman, just the basic practicality of what goes where, what it would mean to begin and finish. Perhaps he’d had some experiences with women he didn’t care to share with me, though I think if he’d had any, he’d have bragged about them plenty. “Sex o’clock, Larry,” he said daily before waddling over to his room, shutting the door, and pulling out his box of pornography, I assumed. A birthday trip to Hooters had been his idea. He’d gone to a Hooters once in Las Vegas, he claimed, and had the time of his life.
“Las Vaginas,” he joked. “Food and girls, girls and food. Mm,” he said. He licked frosting off his fingers. “Hooters has everything.”
“I’ve got money,” said Claude, though I don’t think Claude had much sexuality.
“They’ve got food here,” Francis reminded us, poking at the cake with his pinky.
“Larry will take us to Hooters,” Paul announced, smiling proudly. “Girls,” he said. “Ooh.” He shut his eyes and lifted his arms, twisting invisible knobs as though they were a woman’s nipples. He gyrated, licked his palm. I hid my revulsion behind a cough. “Girls,” he cried again, his eyes rolling back in ecstasy. “Girls, girls, girls.”