July 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
Almost without motion, without expression, Willy sits in the chair beside my desk. Short, thin, yet tough; white, but dark, reddened with age, maybe with dirt; his long face vacant, yet grave, yet durable, yet distinct with deeply cut features, yet pensive in the branching, in the involution of its complex lines—he seems large, and older than he probably is.
He leans forward and stares in my direction, but does not see my eyes or speak. His eyes, yellow, hard, and dull, glisten like glazed pots. And looking at him, at his empty gaze, at his taut jaw, at his thin lips split and dried shut, you would think that he has never spoken before in his life, or if he has, will not speak again. Only his hands move, above his lap, as if he is trying to join them but misses. I can’t remember if I said anything when he came in or if he replied, even though he just got here. A presence like his is disconcerting.
I sit back in my chair, trying to decide what I am supposed to do. I’m in a lousy mood and can’t shake it. Seeing Willy has sent it somewhere else, but nowhere higher. It is cold and gray out, but hot inside the building. Willy hasn’t taken off his coat, though, a denim jacket whose blue has faded. He also has on ribless corduroys and a pair of cowboy boots whose baroque tooled pattern has become obscured by the white cracks of wear. Nor has he taken off his hat—
It’s one of those fleece lined leather caps with a visor, turned up, ear flaps, down, and a strap that dangles by his chin. On anyone else the hat would look moronic. On him, I don’t know what to think. Then again, when you’re down, simple things make little sense.
There is, of course, something about him, but in this job we see all kinds and learn not to take notice. Better to be patient until he says what he wants. His is a silence I am reluctant to disturb.
No smell of booze, however.
When the receptionist said there was a Willy Newhouse in the waiting room, the name didn’t ring any bells. It is easy to forget names and faces here—I have a caseload of over two hundred—but I don’t see many men. AFDC—welfare—is for kids and their mothers. Last week the only guy I saw was Freddy Angel, who was working an angle to claim his ex-wife’s check. Not so fast, Freddy. The few men I do see usually come in to try to get IV-D off their backs. IV-D: the agency that tracks down absent fathers to collect support.
Or the name Willy, a throwback to our days of Uncle Willys, made me think he might be a black grandfather whose daughter had run out, who had taken custody of the kids and come to continue their aid. I don’t see many white grandfathers, but it is not because their daughters are good mothers.
Yet this Willy is white, and there isn’t anything about him that tells me he is trying to get out of something or take charge of anything else. There is nothing about him that tells me anything at all. I have no idea who he is or why he is here.
Reception has made a mistake.
Did he say that? I look at him. His lips are welded, his eyes are fixed somewhere on my chest. But Letty does ring a bell. Letty Newhouse was once in my caseload; Willy must be her husband. And since the case was in her name, since only Letty came for the reviews, I have never seen him before.
Then I remember: this is the man I tried but couldn’t reach all summer a few summers ago. I needed to talk to him, not Letty, to make some adjustment, the nature of which now escapes me. I assume that is why he is here, and I tell him this, though I don’t think he has followed. He does, however, watch me when I leave the room to get the file.
I feel I have seen him before—
But bells ring all the time here, and when they do they lack resonance. The things that come together seldom add up to very much.
Then in the hall it occurs to me: I’m the one who got this started, and he hasn’t spoken because he’s waiting for me to say what I want. Yet I don’t know why he hasn’t brought Letty or why he’s taken so long to come. I remember now I gave up on the case.
But Social Services is also a place where it’s easy to forget what you have done.
There’s a mob at the counter—Reception keeps the records. I weave my way up to the front and still have to shout the number of Willy’s file. Behind me, the push of clients. Hands, faces, the padding of winter coats; the smell of stale wool and sweat. Anxious voices, angry voices, the struggle to make oneself heard. You get used to it. I stay and stand my ground because I want to get back to the office. I don’t feel right leaving Willy there by himself.
But Judy brings the wrong folder. She glares at me, as if I have made the mistake, then goes back into the file room. After a few minutes, she still hasn’t returned, so I retreat and lean against the back wall, settling down. Letty’s file has probably been misplaced. You get used to this, too.
I was in good spirits this morning, almost elated, really for no reason. Moods come and go around here. You learn not to trust them. Also, you have to be careful: let yourself get too high and you only see how far you have to fall, and this is what happened, I was working on a good depression when Willy came.
Better to keep to yourself, because what I feel is not important compared to what my clients go through. Better, too, to be guarded, because they can turn on you for what has brought them here.
Next to me, the waiting room, also packed. Clients who have made it past reception. They look tired and worried—and are tired and worried—but loud voices have subsided to the low moan of boredom. Cold weather is now the problem, as winter is an expensive season. Bills pile up, they run out of money. Oil tanks empty in the middle of the month. So they come in to get a supplement to their check. Reception sends them to the department that handles emergencies, who sometimes send them to us, Eligibility, but we send them back to Emergency Services because this is not our job, and for each contact they have to go through Reception again and return to the waiting room until they lose heart and leave, or find someone who gives in and can get his supervisor to authorize a check. This is not a procedure. It just works out that way. Supplements are discouraged—bad form—but we also don’t have enough money to cover very many.
Some clients, when they run out of oil, try heating the house with their kitchen stoves, and then get stuck when the electric bill comes due. We’ve also run into a few fires.
Some come in not knowing what they want. Maybe this is somewhere to go on a winter day.
Some clients, however, know the system better than we do. Perhaps they even know us better than we know ourselves, because they know if they persist we usually do give in. They have a role to play, we have a role to play; the system keeps the game going.
Social Services is not a depressing place, though, only dismal. But here is an accomplishment, that we are able to subdue misery to the gray mood of a waiting room. The state keeps their checks at a precise amount just below what they need so that they scrape by without feeling too comfortable in the bosom of the state’s good grace. Because the state has more than the feelings of clients to weigh. Mood management, after all, is what we really do. A balance has to be struck between the guilt of those who see the poor as the saintly oppressed and the outrage of others who see demons on our backs. And because Raleigh answers to Washington, we have to consider the mood of the nation as well. Race, whatever is left of our old Southern business, complicates the equation one factor more. Like fashions our regulations change by slight degrees to reflect the shifts in mood. But it’s not easy telling devils from angels, someone’s benevolence from another’s malice. Everyone feels queasy about welfare, so it has to be kept out of the way, in its place. No one can stomach his ideals very long. If I side with my clients, it’s because the other players are harder to take.
It’s a difficult job, modulating the conscience of the world. And it’s a hard world, but it’s delicately constructed.
I’m on my fifth—sixth?—year here, still holding. Eligibility is largely clerical work: we fill out forms and add up numbers. There are other jobs at Social Services where I could make better use of my skills, other agencies where I could apply—and I have looked into these and I am going to school nights to get a MSW—but I feel I should stay put, because it is here, in Eligibility, that I probably do the most good. At least I get something tangible—money—into my clients’ hands.
Besides, after the last round of cuts, hiring is off everywhere.
Judy brings the right folder this time. Holding it, gauging its thickness, touching the softness years have worn into once stiff cardboard covers, seeing the fleshy beige color, I remember two things: Letty is still in my caseload, but also Letty is dead.
Willy, wifeless, sits in the chair beside my desk.
I carry the folder back through the institutional silence of our halls. Over an inch of forms—it is heavy, and feels heavier with what it no longer contains. I try to shape the appropriate emotion, but it is not sadness I can create. The best way to show compassion is not to give it. Clients neither want nor need nor believe our hearts. And my feelings won’t bring Letty back, or make his life or my work any lighter. There is no reason to add the weight of my sorrow to the burden he must presently bear.
Better, sometimes, to go under. It doesn’t matter what I feel. Still, I have discovered this much, the virtue of distance.
He is staring out the window when I return and doesn’t look at me when I sit down or at the file I rest between us on the desk. The coat lies in a heap beside his chair; the hat has been strapped tight around his jaw.
I apologize for the delay. Willy doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. I ask him if he is comfortable. He looks at his hands; his fingertips touch. His expression has not changed, or rather he has not found one.
I’m down. Willy is wherever Willy is. I won’t be able to bridge the space between us. I start to mention Letty, but what can I say? What is there to say? What else is there to do, what else can I do but get on with it?
I flip through the file, trying to figure out what needs to be done. After a few months here, names and numbers bleed together, and only through our forms can we find the order our grace has given. On the right side of the folder, Food Stamp forms. Below Food Stamps, agency memos, my notes, and other stuff we don’t know where else to put. On the left, AFDC review forms, the latest, mine, on top. Beneath mine, other reviews in other hands, gradually, increasingly yellow, filled out by the caseworkers before me, none of which I’ve had time to read.
Starting at the bottom, with the original application, I work my way up through the reviews that follow. It begins to fall into place. The check—about $200—was set up seven years ago for Letty’s two daughters from a previous marriage, Sarah and June, not long after she married Willy. The girls’ father had taken off or died—I can’t find which. Soon, a son with Willy, Sears, who was not added to the check. Sears was not eligible for AFDC because both parents were in the home. Letty was not eligible because she had Willy. Willy was not eligible because he was able to work—and did have a job. Only the daughters were eligible. The whole family, however, because of their income, could buy Food Stamps. My job depends upon understanding such subtleties.
The other reviews, a quick series in different hands, don’t tell me much, except that the family got shuffled around the department. Then I reach my handwriting, which tells me less. I return to the bottom. On the back of the application, crammed in unlined space, a long narrative from Letty’s first caseworker. He says that Willy is profoundly retarded, and in so many details of income and capability, outlines the situation of a man for whom he sees no hope. Willy must have come in with Letty for the initial interview. This caseworker also has his doubts about Letty and doesn’t think the family will hold together long.
Such analysis is not part of our job, however, nor does it serve any purpose. We’re not here to assess our clients’ character, their abilities, or their fate. And our work can distort vision; more often than not, our judgment is wrong. I remember the guy. He seemed serious and intense, but he burned out after a few years, quitting about the time I started. Letty lasted much longer at what she did than he.
Also, he was confused. Someone who is profoundly retarded would have trouble just tying his shoes. Profoundly retarded—I am struck by the term though, and find it somehow apt. There is something here, which might explain Willy’s silence.
I look at Willy. His eyes are still on his hands, restless before him. He begins working them together, fumbling, forcing his fingers in air, as if in something stiff.
He still has not looked at me.
I search for his age—57: another eight years before he can collect Social Security. On the other side of the folder there is a memo from Family Services, undated—something about child abuse. I don’t remember what this was about, but there must not have been anything to it. All kinds of things creep into our files. The memo, unfathomable in our cryptic jargon, tells me nothing. Also a memo from the fraud unit, warning me about my delay. I look back at my last review and wince. It is dated over two years ago. The law says we have to check up on our clients every six months. I’m not a stickler for rules, but I’m not careless, and the best way to keep from getting mired in regulations is to follow them.
What has happened? I go over my notes. The last time Letty was in my office, she said Willy’s back had given out, that he had to quit work. I told her he should look into Disability, though apparently nothing came of it. Going back through the Food Stamp forms, I see that I did reduce the amount they had to pay since their income went down when he lost his wages.
Letty. For a brief moment she comes alive. Also white, but also with a reddish complexion, Letty was a squat, confused, yet good-natured woman who always managed a smile, though it seemed to hurt. Now she is gone, I can only hope, to a place where her spirit brings less pain and more coherence. I only saw her two or three times. I found out she had died when I called one summer after she missed an appointment for her review, and one of the girls answered. Sandwiched between my notes, a clipping from the obits. We have to verify everything.
The next time I called, the phone was disconnected. Then I sent out four or five appointment letters that got no reply but were not returned by the post office. Later that summer, I went by the house. My notes stop there, and I can’t find anything else to account for the time since. I remember, however, why I put the case aside. I wanted to leave it alone to give the family time for their grief. I probably also knew it would be a hassle. Still, the delay—I should have eventually done something.
I remember my supervisor now, too—her memos I did not file. She told me to take care of Letty immediately and hounded me about her for weeks. The agency was getting bad press, and dead people receiving welfare was not a story we could afford, no matter what the circumstances. Besides, she said, you never know about some people.
What else is there to know?
She hasn’t mentioned the case since, however. No follow-up from Fraud—or Family Services, whatever their concern was. The last recession must have knocked us all for a loop.
But there is really only a slight technicality involved. The family is still receiving Letty’s share of the Food Stamps, yet only about twenty bucks. The check is still going out in her name, but Willy, as stepfather, is not legally responsible for the girls’ support, and they have not yet turned eighteen, so they can continue receiving the check in his name. Everyone can keep the Food Stamps—though I will have to subtract Letty’s portion—but I first have to terminate Letty’s case and have Willy fill out a new application. This is why I needed to have him come in.
I explain this to Willy and he nods without looking up. I don’t think he has followed, however, or knows what I am doing. His eyes, still on his hands, still fumbling, show not concentration but whatever its opposite is, yet an opposite equally intense.
Keep going. I pull out a fresh form and start the eligibility routine. I inform him that he is entitled to receive assistance from the state regardless of his race or creed.
I ask for the names of two people who are not relatives, who can testify to the information he gives.
No response, but his fingers straighten and spread out wide.
I look at the names on the last review.
Can I use Mrs. Wilson Porter, Mr. Justin Clyde?
He closes his hands. I decide this means I can.
Do they still live at the same address?
He squeezes his hands into fists.
I copy their addresses down.
Does he still live at the same address?
He puts one fist above the other.
But if he weren’t, he wouldn’t be getting the checks. The post office won’t forward them. The last review says he lives in a trailer park off I-85, at the edge of town. I copy this address, too.
Is anyone else living in the home, other than his two daughters, his son, and him?
His fingers fan out again.
What does that mean? Yet we’ve got a dialogue going, we’re making progress, and I continue down the page in this fashion, asking questions, looking at his hands and at the information on the last review, making my best guess. Letty’s interviews, I recall, went about the same way. The closer I get to the end of the form, however, the more I doubt what I have done.
Race?—but this is a sensitive question that we usually answer ourselves. I start to put white, then check the other reviews to make sure. The caseworker before me thinks Willy and Letty are half Lumbee. Perhaps I am wrong—his skin color suggests several shades. Newhouse, Lumbee. The name could be some kind of translation, but then again, it could be anything. Other than the cowboy boots, there is little to place him.
I turn back another year, to the worker before him, and she lists Letty as white and Willy as black. The caseworker before her says they are both black. The next checked Other for both, and the guy who took the application left the ethnic boxes blank. I can’t find anyone who agrees with me that Willy is white. Race, of course, does not matter here—though I wonder about some of us—but how can something that doesn’t matter yet has mattered so much so long be so uncertain?
I return to my notes. I did try to call the references after Letty died. The man who answered Mrs. Wilson Porter’s number did not know any Newhouses or Porters. Mr. Justin Clyde’s cousin, Mattie Hayes, answered his number and said he had moved out of state. She didn’t know any Newhouses, either. Then I went out to the trailer park—
Not a trailer park, more a scattering of mobile homes, wrecked cars, and mud among a clearing in the pines. I went out four times that summer. His trailer—a two-tone, off-white and a scabrous pastel—seemed bent, and listed on cinder blocks. No one answered when I knocked and the mailbox was empty. I didn’t see anyone inside when I stepped up to the small window on the door. Dust covered the kitchen countertops. Dry dishes were piled in the sink. What little furniture there was in the main room had no obvious arrangement, as if it had been left behind. Each time I went back, everything looked the same—
You never know about some people—
He still hasn’t looked at me—
Blood rushes to my head; his darkens with suspicion. Of all the things I should be used to here, this is the one that always catches me unprepared. It never happens the way you expect, but then that’s the way it always happens, and if there is anything familiar about Willy, this is what it is. His hands grope through air again, now in an awkward gesture of guilt. The image I had when he first came in undergoes vague racial transformations, then disappears, leaving in its wake the ghost of a fraud.
If I didn’t think of fraud that summer, it’s probably because it was too obvious, too simple, too sloppy. But he could have packed the kids off to a relative, and now live somewhere else, in another county for all I know, stopping by the trailer once a month for the check, which doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t have to. He probably couldn’t unload the thing anyway, which might be what got him started. And he may yet be in the trailer, because what I saw is how he lives, who he is, what I see before me. If he has come in today, it could be to find what else he can get from us, which doesn’t make sense either, but it’s how he would do this, too. There are other possibilities I can build, none of them neat, but they all come to the same conclusion.
I think of the questions I now have to ask, realize the futility, then consider calling Fraud. I look out the window, feeling angry and sick. I may have felt this way before.
The investigation would be a mess. It wouldn’t be my mess, but still it would be something I passed off, and too much gets passed off here as it is. Yet what would happen? We’d have to track down the kids, but then return them to Willy because while he’s not legally responsible for their support, he is still their legal guardian. Maybe we’d try to take them away because he’s not a suitable parent. But we couldn’t do that without a court hearing to find him incompetent, which is unlikely. And even if he’s declared incompetent, then what? They go back to where he sent them? Not without another hearing. Get placed in foster care? If anyone would take them. Odds are, whatever we do, they’d still get stuck with Willy.
I don’t know what to do.
I have to do something.
I look at him, he looks at his hands. They still work their awkward massage of the space between them, define and knead it, then, collapsing together, destroy it—but they take my anger with their embrace.
What is at stake here? Who would gain what? What is right for whom? If we pursue this, he won’t get thrown in jail, which shouldn’t satisfy anyone anyway because it would cost the state a ton. And we’ll never see the money. When we return the kids, he gets to keep AFDC, but we still have to nail him for fraud, which, though it’s not that much a month, over years runs into thousands, which he won’t have, so we’ll take a small percentage from the check, token installments for the integrity of our system. Whatever life the kids had with Willy before he sent them away will at best get slightly worse. The kids are probably OK where they are, certainly better off than with Willy. And what about Willy himself? His crime is not heinous and he still deserves some kind of life. Two hundred bucks a month is hardly plush, even if I leave things alone and he keeps it all to himself. And if we do pursue and do manage to place the kids, he’ll lose the check yet still have to pay, but then he will have nothing—
Unless he has gone back to his old job, or found another.
His hands are now apart, his curled fingers upturned, searching for what they just lost.
Not likely. But I look at my notes to see where he last worked: Triad Brick.
Memories of heat and darkness, the hellish world of a kiln—
I worked there.
I don’t know why this didn’t strike me when Letty last came in, because I had to call the place to verify he had quit. Perhaps it did. Perhaps I even mentioned it to Letty, but I can imagine how far that went.
When I finished school, I took junk jobs while I looked for real work. In one I was a brick palletizer at Triad, a complicated title for a simple task. At the beginning of each day four of us, two to a team, would enter one of a dozen large dome kilns by a small opening, climb the pile, and lift, lower, and stack bricks on wood pallets so a forklift could come and take them someplace else.
We may have worked there at the same time—
But that year is a fog. I signed up at a temp agency and was sent from job to job. Some lasted only a few weeks; others I’d quit because I got fed up with the work, the pay, only to move on to another, just as bad. Between jobs, the interviews that didn’t pan out.
We had to have worked at the same time—
But there is little worth remembering from that time, because it was a time when I was young and stupid, easily impressed, and just as easily overwhelmed.
Time at the kiln was measured in bricks: twenty to fifty bricks a pallet, depending on their size, two or three pallets an hour, sixteen to twenty-four pallets a day. Cramped between a mound of bricks and the curved wall of a kiln, we moved time, lifting, lowering, stacking, and thus diminishing it, only to return to a kiln full of bricks the next day. It was a time of endless subtraction.
Yet the fog lifts, the last seven years vanish, as if to reveal a landscape, a pattern, a world—
We may have worked there together—
But once inside the kiln, you couldn’t see who you worked with, and after a while didn’t care. All I can remember from Triad is bricks. They were sharp edged, heavy, and rough; we had to use thick rubber gloves to hold them that we’d wear out in a week. Stacked close to the ceiling, smallest on top, largest at the bottom, bricks blocked out, seemed to absorb what little light came in. You couldn’t even hear yourself think or cuss, because outside the opening fans the size of airplane propellers roared to cool us, the bricks off. As we worked, we bumped, dragged, and scraped the bricks against each other and ourselves, raising a dust the fans returned that burned our eyes and, mixed with our sweat, seeped into cuts and scratches. Our hands cramped, sometimes locked. The bricks, still warm from the firing, got hotter the closer we worked to the center of the pile, as if in some inferno. Even on the cold mornings—it was winter—we stripped to our waists ten or fifteen minutes into the day—
Except for the old man—
Who never took off his jacket—
Or that hat—
Now I see him in a kiln, crawling crablike over a pallet of bricks, his face covered with soupy, reddish paste, as if he secreted it, as if he were made of it, not flesh. Now I look at him on the chair beside my desk and see the same dark color, the same man—
I start to tell him—
But he still hasn’t looked at me.
Tell him what? He wouldn’t recognize me. And what could I mean to him if he did? I was just one of many others, and we couldn’t have worked together long. Teams changed, we came and went, mostly part-timers like me on the part-time circuit.
One day, we were together only one day—yet I know it was Willy who I worked with seven years ago. He moved slowly and deliberately, but with economy of effort, and I had trouble keeping up. I had the position on top, Willy, below. I was always stopping to straighten my back and catch my breath, and my halting labor broke the cadence of his. This irritated him, I could tell, but he never said anything about it. He never spoke about anything, or swore, or shrank, or groaned. The only interchange we had was the passing of hot, heavy bricks. Nor did he look up; he saw no further than arm’s length, than the bricks that came down in irregular rhythm—
Just as he now stares no farther than the form on my desk. His eyes, not focused, streaked with brown veins, moist but lifeless—do not show the light needed for recognition.
His hands, their quivering tendons, the large, knotted knuckles, his long, bent fingers, sinewy and scarred—clutch at something he cannot grasp.
Not a fraud—
But here he is, the man I spent a summer trying to track down, the man I once worked with one day seven winters ago, perhaps even the same day as today—it may not mean anything to him, but it must mean something. And though it may only be a coincidence, it is a large one, and like the blow that brings revelation, it strikes me with near celestial ring.
It was about the time he got married.
It was about the time Letty first came to Social Services.
It wasn’t long before the time I took this job.
And it was a time when I was young and stupid, but it was a time when I saw things precise and clear. While my body got stiff from the bending, the lifting, the lowering, my head grew sharp. Holding the bricks, I felt the weight of ideas, in the repetition of the labor, sensed an outline of new order. From the fatigue, the burning, the ill use of our bodies, I extrapolated the possibilities of meanings. And in the darkness of a kiln, I could see the afterimage of invisible cities, radiant, harmonious, and light—
The old man, one of the guys told me during a break, had been there twenty years. I only lasted a few weeks. Profoundly retarded—what could twenty years at Triad do to someone’s mind?
Not a fraud. It is no more likely he has cheated the state than it is he would realize that his wife’s death meant he’d have to come in so a name could be changed on a check. And it’s even more unlikely he has sent the kids packing. Willy is what he is, what I should have seen when he first came in, what I should have seen all along. He is a small man who has kept his family, his life together as well as he can, as well as can be expected—how much worse than any of us?—a man colored but not yet broken by the machinery of a huge and senseless plan—
But all I can do for him is finish the application so he’ll be square with the state, yet at least I have this to do. There are only a few lines left.
“Willy,” he says. “Name’s Willy Newhouse, not Will’m.”
He points to where I have written his name on the form.
And he looks at me, and his eyes flash.
And I tell him what I told his wife, that he might be eligible for Disability.
And he seems surprised, as if this is the first time he has heard about it. I tell him that if they do find him sufficiently disabled, he will recieve a check from Social Security, I will add him and his son to our check, and he’ll also get Medicare so someone can look at his back. Willy nods with me as I explain the procedure.
And there is so much more to be said, so much more I want to tell him, but I don’t know what or how—
I rise from my desk and go to the window, pointing out the Social Security building. He comes and, back bent, looks out.
But I still don’t think he has followed.
On one side of Social Security, the bus station; on the other a liquor store where a few drunks are standing. Beyond Social Security, beneath gray skies, a visible city: our city: a gray city, with buildings made of glass and steel and bricks.
The coincidence doesn’t mean anything. We did shit work together for a day. I moved on to Social Services. He stayed at Triad until his back gave out.
But his face, no longer vacant, is now eager, and as we return to our seats, his eyes, now alive, still look at mine. He’s waiting for me to say something else, but I don’t want to tell him what I haven’t yet told him that I know I won’t be able to explain. If he does receive Disability, we will have to count the extra income against his Food Stamps and it will also have to be considered for his son’s support, so the check from us I’m contemplating will need to be adjusted. My head races with the numbers, but I can’t figure it out. He should come out ahead, but not by much. I’ll have to wait several months for a notice from Social Security and then make the revision, which I will also have to explain—
If I can get him back in.
I doubt he’s thinking about a check from Social Security, however. I am afraid that, from all the letters I sent him, from my visits to the trailer that his neighbors must have told him about, from the widely spaced block letters of the words Social Services on the sign outside our building, from the hours he has just spent in my office—from all this, he might feel more is involved than my turning his wife’s check over to him or recommending other types of aid. I’m afraid he’s waiting for me to tell him something else, something he has been waiting to hear all his life.
He keeps looking at me, making me look down. When I raise my eyes, his fall, and though still glazed, once again look dull and dead. Then he looks at his hands, then begins to ply some new stuff he has found. This stuff is larger and stiffer.
I stare at the file, wondering how he and the kids have gotten by since he left his job. Their only income has to be Letty’s check.
A sweet guy, a nice man. Also a good worker. I remember this now—it’s what the secretary at Triad said when I called after I last saw Letty to verify he had quit. I asked if Willy had insurance or a pension. She said she thought we handled those things.
A pervert. Now I remember this, too. A woman phoned the agency, who referred her to Family Services, who sent me the memo in the file. And here they are, buried in the right side of the folder—my notes on the memo, dated that summer. The woman said he had an eye on one of the daughters, that we had to get that man out of the trailer, that Willy was dangerous. Family Services asked her how she knew this, and she said she knew what she knew. They doubted, however, there was anything to it. They got calls like that all the time. Also the informer was on our roll, and clients often strike at each other. Still, they staked out the trailer for several nights, as is their procedure, and didn’t see anything definite. A tossup, maybe, they said. At any rate, they needed hard proof before they could act, and let the case go. In my notes, the informer’s name: Mattie Hayes. The cousin of Willy’s reference, whom I called that summer, who said she didn’t know him. Did I make any connection then? What connection is there to be made?
A sweet guy, a good worker, a pervert—but what does anyone know about this man? What can any of us know about another?
Profoundly retarded—but how can we measure a man? How can we compare what he is with what he might have become, had his life been different, or gauge what he is or was or might have been against the endless workings of a world where things don’t work out?
Still, that hat—
But we protect ourselves as best we can.
Not a fraud—
Not a pervert—
I have to believe in something.
Profoundly retarded—I feel there is depth to what he cannot say. His silence is not the vacuum of empty mind, but has presence and weight, like the stuff his hands now try to mold. And there is something large in his perseverance, something lasting, something permanent in what must be his resolve, something monumental purely in the fact that he is here today before me. This is what I realize, the only significance my few hours with Willy might contain, that when you only have yourself to count on, you’d better learn how to count. I want to ask him how he has done it, where he has found the strength—
What I ask him is what I read from the last page of the form: Has he given his answers to the best of his abilities, does he understand that any deliberate misinformation constitutes fraud? Does he know the penalties for such behavior, a fine, imprisonment, or both?
He does not look up from his hands, still laboring with that stuff. The stuff has gotten larger.
I only need his signature to complete the application. I tell him to make an X, show him one, and rise to get a witness, but he leans over my desk, takes the pen from my hand, and pushes it against the form with his fist. He writes in large wavy letters:
—the letters falling away from the line.
He stops, ponders, then continues:
—down to the bottom edge of the page.
Twenty to fifty bricks a pallet times two or three pallets an hour times eight hours a day times two hundred and fifty days a year times over twenty years would make how many buildings, how many hueoses?
How small, how insignificant my life, I think.
He returns my pen and sits back.
There is nothing else I can do for him. I look towards the door. He looks at his hands, and goes back to working that stuff. Whatever he holds now is unmanageable and threatening, and he works it harder and struggles, and panic strikes his eyes—
It is a large coincidence that has brought us together again, but it occurs to me that our situation is really the same, that there is little difference between what I did seven years ago in a kiln and what I am doing now.
I am late for my eleven o’clock appointment.
There are others in the waiting room, waiting for me.
I fear he will sit there forever, and try to think of a way to get him to leave.
I had one when I was a kid and hated it.
What I think next is that it is time to quit this job and move on if I’m ever going to get anything out of life.
“Mr. Newhouse, I was sorry to hear about Letty.”
But it’s too much. The old fool starts to cry.
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