Ruth Z. Deming
Tyler Digby looked at his watch and then remembered the hours would go by faster if he didn’t look. Friends had told him there was an opening at the Willow Grove Giant Food Market. Everyone who worked there wore name badges, which was pretty cool, he thought. An Elsie Bonner interviewed him. She ushered him up a steep flight of stairs and unlocked a door which read, “Authorized personnel only.”
She told him you could pretty much wear your hair and beard the way you wanted to. Beards must be covered with a special net. At twenty-one, Tyler preferred no facial hair. It gave him pimples.
“Tyler,” said the long-haired blonde Ms. Bonner, from behind a desk. “I think you’ll make a great employee. Welcome to the Giant Superstore.”
He flashed a huge smile and thanked her.
His blue earrings had passed the test.
Friends were easy to make there. The hours did drag on and on, though.
“Beer Garden and Eatery” read the huge green sign on one side of the store. It might as well have read, “Tyler’s Beer Garden and Eatery.” He became a very popular young man who rang up huge sales of six-packs.
“What kind of beer samples you giving out today, Tyler?” asked the white-haired slumped-over man who arrived every day for free beer.
“A nice new pilsner,” said Tyler, who tilted the brown bottle and poured it into a tiny plastic cup. He vowed he’d only pour the guy one cup, but never had the nerve to stop at one.
At four o’clock sharp, he locked up his cash register – Jason would be along soon – and went over to the coffee kiosk. The best people worked there. Kathy with the long painted fingernails. Shemoka, a bit plump, but deliciously so, who had something about her that made him, well, adore her.
“See you tomorrow, Shemoka,” he said.
“I’ll be in the pharmacy tomorrow,” she said, tilting her head with that endearing smile.
As he left, and the doors parted for him as if he were Mr. Giant himself, he waved at Jason, his replacement, coming through the opposite way with rosy-cold cheeks.
He pulled his cap over his head. Old Man Winter had finally arrived and made sure everyone knew it. The wind swirled the crunchy autumn leaves in the parking lot like a cloud of birds. He ran to his car. It seemed like the wind was pushing everyone along and he heard clever banter between total strangers.
He only lived a few minutes away. He was anxious to get home as he was starving and tonight they were having meatballs and spaghetti. He got into his small blue Nissan and heard, off in the distance, the musical chimes of the railroad crossing. “Good,” he thought, “by the time I get there the train should be gone.”
Instead there was a huge queue of cars waiting for the gates to go up. Worse, there was no train there. Another pile-up due to the recalcitrant gates. “What’s going on,” he wondered as he made a U-turn and went home the other way. He turned up the radio and sped home.
Glenhurst Road was a long street. With the leaves all down, he could see all the squirrels’ nests high in the trees. There were a few squashed squirrels in the streets. He could see their white bellies and bushy tails. He groaned inside.
He entered at the side door and tossed his backpack on the living room couch.
“Yo!” he called. “Your favorite son is home!”
His dad was in his usual place. In the den, watching “thinking shows,” as Tyler called them.
Tyler went into his bedroom, papered with posters – The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix on a motorcycle, Lady Gaga in red high heels, and checked his emails on his phone. Nothing good.
The front door bell began ringing. Over and over and over again.
Tyler ran downstairs, stood on tiptoes, and saw through a high window it was Stan, a man with Down syndrome who lived next door.
“What’s up, Stan the Man,” said Tyler as he opened the door.
“It’s my mom,” said Stan, who was pudgy and was losing his hair. “Something’s wrong with her.”
“Mom!” he yelled upstairs. “I’m going to the Hoffmans. Something’s wrong with Mrs. Hoffman.”
Tyler quickly ran next door, practically tripping over acorns and pine cones on the side walk and up the drive. Stanley followed. From the Hoffmans’ large window he could view the ceiling fan, which always twirled round and round. Even when the late Mr. Hoffman lived there, before he was put in a home for Alzheimer’s, that ceiling fan was a witness to his ever-diminishing mind and occasional violent outbursts.
Mrs. Hoffman was a corpulent woman who never stopped talking. Her waist was as big as a mini-refrigerator and her huge ankles were swollen and pink. He hoped his own mother would never look like that. Tyler took it all in, as he looked at her. She was leaning back in a chair with her eyes closed.
“Mrs. Hoffman!” yelled Tyler.
“Ma!” yelled Stanley.
It was no use.
“Where’s the phone, Stanley?”
Stanley pointed. It was right there on the little table with a People Magazine and a few TV Guides.
Tyler had never dialed 9-1-1 before but easily punched in the numbers.
Within five minutes, they heard the wailing of the siren. Tyler’s parents had come over and patted Stanley on the back and told him everything would be all right.
Tyler thought he would pass out from hunger.
Mrs. Digby said, “You’ll come home with us, Stanley.”
Tyler’s sister was home from high school, so the four Digbys plus Stanley sat at the table slurping up the spaghetti. Mom and Dad drank red wine with their meal.
Mrs. Digby asked, “Stanley, why don’t you eat something?”
He shook his head no.
Mom and Dad said to one another that Mrs. Hoffman had probably had another mini-stroke and might even be home later tonight.
“Tyler, you know what would be nice?” Mom asked.
“What’s that?” he asked, chewing on a well-seasoned meatball, which had sliced black olives inside.
“Why don’t you take Stanley under your wing?”
“Sure, he doesn’t seem to have any friends,” she said with a low voice, “and he must be lonely spending the entire day with his mother, watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie and Batman.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
Then he said, “Be back in a sec.” He ran up into his room. In his closet were his art supplies. He pulled out a huge pad of sketch paper and a piece of charcoal and put them on his desk. He sketched Stanley’s entire body on the paper. Like his mom, he, too, was on the heavy side, and had an especially large rump. Why hide it?
Atop his balding head, Tyler drew a Phillies’ cap. He wondered how old Stanley was. If Mrs. Hoffman was eighty, then Stan must be around fifty.
Tyler ran downstairs to show his family.
“Hey, Stan,” said Tyler. “Look at what a handsome guy you are!”
Stan sat and stared.
Mrs. Digby explained they’d called Stanley’s brother Kevin who would bring Stanley home and stay there with him overnight.
At work the next day, Tyler, in his green shirt – all employees wore the same shirt – stood behind the counter greeting other employees. Eugene, a favorite, had a fancy beard he trimmed himself and sparkling earrings.
Tyler was like a carnival barker, the center of attention, in the beer garden. His life had changed since yesterday, though. He was thinking of his new pal.
What should they do together? Should they go to the movies? Walk in the mall and eat ice cream cones?
During a slow time at the beer garden, Tyler locked his register and walked over to the pharmacy. There she was. Shemoka, her back turned, was gathering a woman’s medication and slipping it into a white bag. He talked to her about Stanley.
He was off work the next day, Saturday. He slept until the aroma of bacon and eggs woke him up.
When he finished breakfast, he grabbed a Phillies’ cap and walked next door.
There was Mrs. Hoffman sitting in her easy chair, as if nothing had happened.
“That ambuLANCE man was so nice,” she said when Tyler entered. “And the nurses in the hospital made such a fuss over me.”
Tyler proposed that he take Stanley for a walk at nearby Pennypack Park.
“Well, you’ll be careful with my boy,” she said. “He’s been having bouts of crying. He’s very fragile.”
“Absolutely!” said Tyler.
He turned to Stanley. “You ready, buddy?”
Stan had been sitting in his chair, operating the remote control. He scrolled past Turner Classic Films, which Tyler loved, and came to a channel where Pat Boone was advertising a bath tub for old people. The phone number flashed across the screen.
“Stan!” shouted Tyler, “Turn off the darn thing. We’re going to experience ‘real life.’”
Mrs. Hoffman was about to protest, but Tyler began to sing “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.”
“Stan, dear,” she said. “Get your warm clothes out of the closet.” She pointed, as if Stan had no idea where they were.
Suitably bundled up, they walked out the door and into Tyler’s waiting car.
“Gotta buckle up, buddy” said Tyler, after Stanley climbed awkwardly into the front seat, one thick leg after another. Tyler belted in his new friend.
He felt nervous having him in the passenger seat. What if I crash?
he thought. What if he dies? This is precious cargo.
As they drove off, he noticed that Stanley wasn’t looking out the window, just staring straight ahead. Was that a feature of his Down syndrome?
“Look, Stanley!” said Tyler, slowing down. “Can you read that sign?”
After a moment, Tyler said, “Pennypack Park! We’re here, ole buddy!” Tyler noticed the excitement in his own voice which amazed him.
He backed into a parking space and unbuckled his new pal.
“You look sharp in that Phillies’ cap,” said Tyler, as Stanley followed him along a path made of wood chips.
This Pennypack Park was a place his folks would take him and his sister and her stuffed rabbit named “Hoppy” when they were kids. He remembered a creek and wanted to find it.
Tyler could smell the water. He started to hurry.
“Can you walk faster?” he asked.
Sure enough, Stanley began to do a little trot.
“Great!” said Tyler. He couldn’t wait to tell Shemoka.
And there was the meandering creek. Trees draped their limbs across the water. A little waterfall gurgled away. Tyler promised himself to come back and bring his sketch pad. Who knows? Maybe he would be a famous artist when he grew up?
There were even benches to sit on.
Tyler gestured for them to sit down, brushing off some crunchy leaves and pine needles.
Stan looked at the water. “The Little House on the Prairie is built near some water,” he said in his deep, halting voice.
They sat on the freezing cold bench.
Stanley laughed hysterically the moment they sat down.
Tyler couldn’t help but laugh, too.
They sat together and stared at the rippling water, the canopy of trees, and beyond that, a steep cliff. Then they heard a freakish sound.
“Ducks!” cried Stanley and pointed at them. “Quackers,” he said. “Quackers!”
“You’re right, Stan. Quackers.”
The two of them sat, engaged in their own dreams, and then walked back to the car, Tyler’s arm draped over his buddy’s shoulder.