Less is more. Or not. 'Pruning' is a story that I wrote to suggest that underestimating children with disabilities might be ill advised. Along the way, David Littlease argues that minimalism is the path best taken.
“Send him in.” A gruff voice. The administrator.
A gaunt face and lean figure enters. Tall.
The administrator again thinks of Ichabod Crane. And I’m the headless horseman. Heedless. No, mindless terror this ain’t. Nope. A simple exercise in discipline. Disability notwithstanding. Hasn’t got a leg to...discipline. Put the fear of...no, a pruning. Proper analogy, that. Trimming his sails. It fits. Even if the metaphor is a tad clumsy.
Gaunt, lean, he stands watching, seeing. His clothes are common. Long sleeve plaid shirt with sleeves rolled, khaki pants, shoes. Basketball shoes. His clothes are common, frayed and faded; but they...fit.
Hello Ichabod. “Young man,” says the administrator, a firmness. Cow eyes there. They seem to absorb, don’t they now. They ... get on with it. Get this done. “Mr. Littlease,” fixing an eye on the boy.
The boy, or so he appears, takes three paces forward to stand before the expanse of desk. The administrator peruses pages bound by a cheap, green folder. His face lifts from the pages, his face set into a stern mask.
The boy, David Littlease, sees the office. Shelves of books, diplomas, degrees, certificates ornately framed, a painting of bright rectangles, the photographs of the wife and children in plain, black frames, fancy pen set and mug. Mug.
What did he know of Littlease? No one seems to know where he came from. Crawled out from under a rock presumably. His background obscure. His parents unknown. Illiterate. Profoundly retarded. Psych-eval inconclusive. Mute. Deaf. Ward of the state shuffled about from institution to institution always a bad sign ... a rolling stone gathers much mass, bowls one over ... the bad apple spoiling the bunch. As it falls. The gravity of the situation cannot be...perhaps a troublemaker. Troubling, certainly. I always get the problems. I always get the ones the others can’t...feeling a strange admixture of self-pity and self pride ... can’t ... now this is interesting:
... has never spoken. The subject is apparently mute. Deafness, as well, is probable. Neither condition has been proven clinically. Reports of communication have been documented.
David stands passively before the desk gazing about the office. No judgment marks this boy’s face. Just the looking. A perceptive individual would also mark ... the seeing.
No record of formal education public or private. Has been segregated for the past five years. Well, sometimes it’s for the best. Segregate. What does it mean really? To be set apart. Yes, well, he has set himself apart, now hasn’t he? This mainstreaming business not necessarily what floats everybody’s boat. Short an oar, he is. A paddle. Chicken wire canoe. Ha.
“I must assume,” begins the administrator, “ that you hear and understand. It does state here ...” a tap of the page with index and middle finger joined...”that you respond to direction. Or have responded. Whatever.”
The administrator marks that ‘whatever.’ It is a fluster word. It is a word that marks a loss of control. David Littlease has shifted his gaze with the word. From the nameplate, the desk, he raises his eyes to chin, to eyes. He sees the man. He stares.
Benjamin A. Madsen, nameplate across the back of the substantial base of the pen set, perfectly squared, all marble and gold plate, some gift, rearranges his face.
A cough. “Yes, well,” begins the administrator again. “I welcomed you here just a month ago as I welcomed each and every new member of our community.”
Even tones, a firmness returns. The folder is placed down carefully, centered with the edges of the desk. Eyes down. Eyes up.
“Yes, community. It must be. Full citizenship here. It must be. We are joined here in a common endeavor and towards a common goal. We strive together. We succeed together. And, yes, sometimes we fail together.”
Benjamin A. Madsen sits back in his leather swivel chair and folds his arms across his chest. “Yes,” he says. “Sometimes we fail together.” Said slowly, each word distinct. Lip reader. That’s it. Grow a bushy mustache and befuddled the dolt completely.
“This morning, David, you failed me. And I failed you. We all failed each other.”
Long arms extending below hips midway to knee. Bones. Knobs at wrists. Adam’s apple bob with a swallow. He looks to the window.
Has he grasped my meaning?
A bird, a barn swallow, perches on the sill; a head tilt, then away.
One hundred shades of brown. Each feather of a different hue. One hundred shades of brown. All one. The illusion of plurals. The clasp of claws, the strength of beak, the articulation of head. Integers. Brown bird.
What is that in is face now? Elation? Frenzy? This just might be a tough nut to ... Let’s get to it. Take responsibility for one’s actions. Deterring negative contributions.
“Why did you vandalize that tree, Mr. Littlease? Can you tell me? Will you? Speak up, young man.”
Vandalize. The dogwood there.
Is he with me? Still out the damn window, looking at his handy work, no doubt. Hello. Here he is. Read my lips.
Them eyes, them eyes, them...what does he see? Check the file. Probably blind, too. Picked up a hammer and saw.
Slowly the boy raises an arm bending at elbow, wrist limp, elegantly drawn upwards, hand rising, wrist extending the hand, bending backwards, to loop down around, hand scribing a curve, a loop, bird swoop. A smile.
The administrator stares. He becomes aware of dead air. Time passing. Tempus fugit. Silence which desperately needs a voice. Time passing. Time passing. Time is money, he thinks. Then: What a stupid thing to think of. My God.
“David,” he snaps sharply, stern where gentleness was intended. “We will talk about this again. We have expectations of everyone here. Everyone will do his part. I simply ask that you join this community, productive, expanding on relationships, learning, growing ...” The administrator rambles on, unsure of his purpose. He has spoken these words before; it has become a text. Finally, he concludes. “... And that this community joins you.”
He calls for Miss Formes; then swivels away, back turned on the subject, gazing purposefully out the window, a pose so practiced even he believes it.
Those eyes. Damn his eyes.
Until Miss Formes touches his shoulder, David Littlease stands before the desk, watching. He turns with her touch, and the two leave the room. At the sound of the closing door, the administrator’s shoulders sag.
* * *
“My God he’s hung himself!”
Running footsteps, a shriek.
Shrieking, running footsteps.
“My God my God he’s hung himself he’s hung himself! Come quick, Gladys. Gladys!”
When Gladys, come quickly, turns the corner sharply from the hall to the room extending a firm hand and locked elbow to push open a door that is not there, neither is David Littlease.
“But ... but ... but, he was hanging right there,” says the girl. “By the neck. In a noose thing.” She makes a face and tilts her head askew, hung.
* * *
“What is the meaning of this, Miss Post?” asks the administrator and does not stop for an answer. “The meaning, Miss Post. Some joke, some game? I will get to the bottom of this matter, speak up, young woman. I will have my answers. Speak up.”
“He was hung, sir.”
“Hanging there. In a noose.”
“Hanging ... there in his room.”
“By the windows.”
“Yes sir. The windows.”
“Enjoying the scenery, no doubt.”
Stung, Miss Post drops her eyes in silence. Then: “I ain’t lying, sir.”
Ah, Miss Post. Dumb as ...
A knock on the door. The administrator sits back and sighs. “Yes?”
“Not either,” sharply from Miss Post. Defiant.
Through the door, the secretary. “Joseph Quail to see you, Dr. Madsen.”
“Not you, Miss Post. Thank you, Miss Formes. Have him in.”
“Oh.” The girl’s eyes here, there, and everywhere. Out the window.
The administrator makes a gesture, a raise of arm, curl of finger. Come in.
Joseph Quail, a fat young man. Round face. Double chin. Dark hair cropped, a butch. Head large, feet splayed. Standing at attention awkwardly.
A little soldier. Pig-eyed, thinks Madsen. A case of retardation. Tumor was it? A six year old’s mentality. Dirt-poor parents who didn’t give a tinker’s ...
Surreptitious meeting of eyes, Miss Post and Joey.
Closer to them than me. Lonely at the top. Cliché. Whatever.
The door clicks shut.
“Now Mr. Quail. Explain this business.” To the point. Burst his bubble.
Lip quivering. “He ... he got to hang. Sir. He likes it.” Knees bowed outward. Round body. Stout.
“He likes to hang?” Eyebrows arched. Incredulous. One of my favorites.
“Yes sir. You bet. You bet he does.”
“We are speaking of David Littlease?”
Eyes close for a moment. “David Littlease likes to hang in his room, does he?”
“He did it. He did.”
A pause. Venetian blinds drawn. Curtains not. A soft, dim light. Confessional. A nice affect if I do say so myself. Must draw this boy out. A simple explanation for it all. What odd behavior. These people. Will have no mysteries under my thumb. Solution at hand.
“Eases him, like. Sir. That’s what he says. Eases him.”
The administrator reaches across the desktop and takes in hand the rope.
“Mr. Littlease ... David hangs himself from his shoulders,” holding the loops up, “ for relaxation. Yes? From his shoulders?”
“Yes sir.” Blushing. Embarrassed guilt flushing his face a splotchy red.
Might try it myself. Elongate the vertebrate.
Chin drops, eyes lower, squint shut. “My ... my ... my joke, sir.”
“Yes sir.” Softly.
“What’s that?” Sharply.
“Yes sir. A joke, sir.” Head up, eyes brightening. “David thought it was oh so good, oh so good. Thought it was ... thought ... he grinned to see it. He did. He thought it was oh so clever. He told me so.”
Again, the arch of eyebrows. Hands still. The administrator stares fixedly at the fellow.
“‘Told’ you so? David Littlease told you so. Now Mr. Quail ...” Blithering idiot. Birdbrain. Flush him out. Down the drain. Almost grinning at the imagery.
“He did, he did. Honest.”
“Now Mr. Quail, David Littlease has spoken to no one in all his recorded days. There is no record of his having made the smallest gesture of intelligent...that is, the last vestige of...” What am I saying? God. “Now listen to me, Mr. Quail. David Littlease is mute. Mute. Do you mean to stand there and tell me ...”
“He talks to me.” A monotone, eyes cast down, so softly. Intent.
“Something like. I hear him. I do.”
A pause, becoming a silence. The administrator rises to pace the length of his window, four strides, to the bookcase, fingering a volume, turns and says, benevolently: “Let me understand you, Joey.”
Whose eyes brighten.
“David does not actually speak to you, as I am now, does not actually utter words, as I am. Isn’t that correct? But rather communicates telepathically, that is, with his mind, and you hear him in your head, like thinking, isn’t it, just as though David were thinking for you. Is that it? Is that how he ‘tells’ you things?”
“I ... I ...” Staring dumbly ahead.
Lost him, damn it. How I do go on. Telepathically, sure, he’ll grasp that concept all right. Idiot, Ben.
“Does he speak words, as I am doing now?”
“I don’t know.” Face paled again. Eyes dull.
“But you hear him in your head, don’t you? The words, you hear them in your head.”
“I hear him. He talked to me. He did.” Brightening. “He thought it was oh so clever.” Bob of head, thin drool from a mouth corner.
What rubbish. “And he thought the noose would be quite the ruse, did he?”
“Well now. Isn’t that interesting.”
Turning to the blinds, prying two strips apart with thumb and forefinger, seeing...that damn tree.
Not seeing the new buds and blossoms.
It doesn’t bark how curious ... just pissed on.
* * *
The blinds now open. Afternoon light fills the office. David Littlease met with silence and the impassive stare of the administrator. Or nearly so.
Tension at eye corners, mouth corners, transitions, Benjamin A. Madsen’s face so busy holding the mask, lips so grim.
Simplify? replied Mr. Madsen.
Take it away. Nothing to do.
Take it ...
Take it away.
A furrow split Mr. Madsen’s brow. A cleft. Consternation. Eye twitch.
He clears his throat. He begins. “Mr. Littlease ...” A cough. He sits up straighter. Wrong tone entirely. Be singing a different tune, you’ll see. Looney ... whatever. Damn his eyes. Supplication will not do, for Christ sake. Start again, take command, take charge. When the going gets ... Shut up will you. Damn.
“Mr. Little ...”
Simplify. Strip it all away.
Do not confuse your aim.
It cannot be this way. My career, my reputation has been built on the principle ...
Building is negative. Subtraction leads to the integer. Addition to duplicity. Integration is the retention of essentials. Impeccability the act of doing only the essential. Just the right thing at just the right time. Take it away. Strip it all away.
Foundation of ... ideals here. A lifetime. Building. Belief.
Their eyes hold. A silence.
Madsen shudders and wrenches away. Chair squeak.
“See here, mister,” slapping his desk with a palm, turning, rising to pace to the books and back. He faces the windows, glaring out.
David moves to the window.
Control yourself. You are Benjamin A. Madsen. Doctor ... Benjamin ... A ... my father is ... was ... Alexander. The great. Madsen. The great. Great. And this kid is ...
"There will be no more pranks, mister.” A flat tone without conviction. “No more pranks. Do you understand me? Or there will be consequences. I’ll not have it. We are a community here and I’ll not have it.”
He might be reading a dull speech to a large room of empty seats.
David by the window.
Blossoms. A thousand shades of green. All green. Striated vertical texture of bark. The cedar. Tree. The swallows. Grass. Short, spindly branches of the dogwood tree. Fresh cut. Now budding. Soon to blossom.
There. You see it. Subtraction.
Madsen places himself in his chair. He straightens his pen set. Just so.
The boy raises slowly a hand.
The administrator’s pose. The man is dead.