WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Crossed paths

Where I spent my formative years

I can’t remember the family’s name, but maybe I will by the time I finish writing this.

We lived in a condominium complex called Southridge in a suburb of St. Louis. It was one of those high-density developments on not much acreage, with maybe twenty-five buildings, half apartments, half townhouses. We lived in a four-bedroom townhouse, which sounds large and comfortable for a family of six but was actually on the cramped side. I’d be surprised if it was twelve hundred square feet, though I remember it was equipped with the latest Hotpoint appliances and built-in AC.

Why my father had moved us from a single-family house with a big yard and lots of kids around, though, I have no idea. We were free-range kids, my two brothers and I, roaming all over our old subdivision on foot and on bikes, tribing up with other kids in amorphous packs that explored every inch of the sprawling neighborhood. I think my dad was reacting to his sister’s purchase of a showplace home in an upscale suburb — her husband’s family owned a couple of department stores — a custom-built modern house that was probably featured in Architectural Digest at one time or another. Short on the kinds of funding that could get him something similar, Dad went with the latest Hotpoint appliances as a salve and crated us all in the condo.

Immediately we began to aggravate the management of the new complex. We tried our free-range ways, using the apartment halls and groomed shrubbery as hideouts, forts, traps, lairs, and attracting the attention of residents — mostly older people — who thought they’d escaped this kind of thing by moving there. There was a shuffleboard court.

The manager spoke to my father about us. Riled him up. Dad fired off a letter to the HOA, telling them that this was no Shangri-La, and there happened to be families with kids here. Get used to it.

The main thing I remember about the manager’s family, though, was his son. His son had cerebral palsy, and his mother would wheel him into the swimming pool area most days — we were ever-present at the pool, living right across from it — to get some sun and some air. We were too shocked by his appearance to go near him, never having heard of his condition and getting no encouragement from his mother. She wanted nothing to do with us, after all. We were hellions to her mind. Still, I’d look at that boy in his wheelchair and wonder what was going on in his head as he leaned and fidgeted while we did cannonballs off the diving board.

The rumor, of course, was that he was “retarded,” which was a word used commonly back then, without the connotations it has today. But what I was to learn about ten years later was that there was a serious mind inside that boy, the mind of a scholar.

One day I was working at my college library, when the librarian asked if I could help a patron who had a disability. I said sure, and she took me to the elevator to the second level, where I found the same boy from my childhood — his name just came to me — David Morton. He had not changed very much. A little dark stubble on his chin and cheeks now, a lankier, longer frame, though he still sat in his chair as if he were about to slide out of it. He had a notebook on his lap.

The librarian said I was to take him up into the stacks and let him direct me to the books he wanted. I didn’t tell her that I knew him from years before. I didn’t tell him I knew him from years before. I wasn’t sure what ideas of me he might have in his head.

I trundled him into the elevator, then onto the floor above, where he nodded generally toward the religion and philosophy shelves. He made certain sounds when he wanted me to enter a row, then tipped his chin up as I moved my hand. He’d grunt when I was at the right shelf, then bob his head left or right to guide me. I touched a book and he nodded with a rough exhale. We repeated the process two or three times. Then, somehow, he indicated with a certain dance of his knobby elbows that I should open one of the books, and he said something close enough to the word “index” that I knew what he wanted. I leafed through the pages till he saw the entry that interested him. “Good,” he said.

When we were finished and I brought him downstairs again with his books, the librarian asked if I was headed back to the main building across the street. David needed to get over there. Could I take him with me?

So I pushed David Morton’s wheelchair out of the library to the pedestrian crossing, and this was when I decided to probe a little. I said, “I remember you from the neighborhood. You’re the manager’s son.” And he said, “I remember you too.” I told him I bet his father didn’t remember my family all that fondly. He conveyed something along the lines of “that was a long time ago.”

When we got to the room David was going, I left him in the hands of someone else. I said it was good seeing him again after all these years and wished him the best of luck. He said, “Same to you, Kevin.” And that was the last time I saw him.

As recently as 2010, Google tells me, he was serving as an associate pastor for a Baptist church in North Carolina. Life goes on.

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10 comments on “Crossed paths

  1. kingmidget
    May 24, 2017

    Good story, Kevin. The first couple of years I was law school, the student who sat next to me was a young man with cerebral palsy, wheelchair bound. While he was smart, he didn’t make it through law school, eventually getting kicked out because of poor grades. I often wonder what happened to him. He went back up to Chico when he washed out of law school. I googled him a bit some time ago and couldn’t find anything. So … your story inspired me to try again.

    Here he is: https://www.newsreview.com/chico/supporting-independence/content?oid=13442388

    I have this feeling I’ll be reaching out to him the next time I go up to Chico to visit my son.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 24, 2017

      Thanks, Mark. Fascinating story, about the other Mark. It’s amazing how both he and David just keep on keepin’ on. Inspiring.

  2. pinklightsabre
    May 24, 2017

    My god that’s solid and deep in many ways. I really love the description of David and the interplay, dense.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 24, 2017

      Thanks, Bill! I hadn’t thought about David in many years, and I still don’t know what brought him to mind now. Synapse shorting?

      • pinklightsabre
        May 24, 2017

        And I recall that term retarded, recall kids just like you described so perfectly. Takes some deft to do that I think.

  3. 1WriteWay
    May 24, 2017

    Wow. Great story and I’m glad you let him know you remembered him … although he probably already knew 😉 Now you’re reminding me about kids I had known who had some disability. One in particular was deaf and, by extension, mute. All he could do was grunt. I think his family tried to learn sign language or maybe just sign enough to communicate. He was known for his temper which is not surprising given how frustrating it had to be for him to not be understood. And this was in a small town where the favorite pastime was gossiping at the P.O. When we were teenagers, he tried to pick me up at a bar. I felt bad turning him down because he was cute and otherwise nice. But I didn’t have the imagination to try and communicate with him. Your story makes me wish I had tried harder.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 24, 2017

      I’m trying to imagine him picking you up at a bar. There’s a Seinfeld angle to it. But you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. I think most of us would be a little confused about how to handle that situation. I do remember a little girl who was deaf when I was a kid, and I was fascinated by her and her ’60s-era hearing aid gizmo. It was huge by today’s standards!

  4. John W. Howell
    May 24, 2017

    I’m glad you spoke up. I’m sure he was happy you remembered him.

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