As an often delusional, always irrational, drug addicted petty criminal, Oliver Wexler’s mother, had long ago dissolved into the confusion of the city’s underclass of felons, druggies, and crazies. His father? You’ll have to ask the invisible mother. Good luck with that. So in his infancy Oliver had become a ward of the state, another abandanado to be blessed by the benefice of bureaucracy. Oliver, like many of his hapless contemporaries, bore the stigma of his mother’s drugs; he was mute and hunchbacked. The vagaries of growing up institutionally offer drastically distinct experiences than, say, the conventional family of three or four; it’s a different county. Add to the mix disabilities, like Oliver’s and it’s almost a different planet.
Be that as it may, Oliver survived the early years of warehousing, evolving as a precocious reader and acute observer. No doubt it was different in earlier times, but now, in a world without speech the computer and the printed word assume much, much larger importance. In his thirteenth year Oliver boarded as a student at the Munsler Eddins School, an institution for young people who were blind, deaf, and or mute. While already a capable signer and lip reader, the Munsler Eddins instructors polished and refined these skills. Signing and lip reading are mechanical skills taught by inculcation, repetition and drill. Quite necessary albit extremely boring. Endowed at the turn of the last century by Mister Valentine Munsler, millionaire piano manufacturer and chair of the state’s Republican Party, the philosophy of the Munsler School was to prepare alumni for independent living, or as old Mr. Munlser would have put it, “to get them the hell off the government teat.” Not surprisingly, vocations such as piano tuning, broom and mop construction, and basket weaving were traditions. Later, facing bankruptcy, the Munsler school was absorbed into the state school for the blind, simply called The Eddins and became The Munsler Eddins School. As a state enterprise, academic subjects were mandated and special classes were develop d for the physically challenged. Perhaps to counter the monotony of the mechanical skills emphasized at Munsler Eddins, young Wexler excelled in academic and computer skills. At 17 he was graduated one week before Christmas and thrust into the wide world like a watermelon seed pinched into the air.
Initially what young Wexler yearned for more than anything was a complete separation from the former life. Self sufficiency would bring contentment. As a minor he was still legally tethered to the state’s social service bureau. He wanted out. That and a room of his own and the glory of privacy. His assigned social worker was a benign overworked soul with a caseload of 134. As long as Oliver had no problems she had no problems, his check kept coming, and he was free with the sole obligation to report in to children’s services once a month for a 5 minute interview. No problem, and when he turned 18 he could petition for complete freedom provided he could prove that he had become self-supporting. And there it was, a suitable room in a clean three story building occupied the day before Christmas. Then between Christmas and New Years his social worker pegged him for an interview which led to full employment clerking in a news kiosk at the federal building. Alone, all alone at Christmas you may think as a sad, sad situation for young Wexler, but quite the contrary. He reveled in his new solitude and privacy. Christmases past had always been strange. Routines turned on end, staff behaved differently, affected and insincere. To be sure the profusion of sweets and the things wrapped in paper were nice, but why? He never understood. A pair of little red marionettes, articulated wooden soldiers at the end of strings had been his only memorable Christmas gift, this when he was 11. After holidays, a moody, hungover and snappish staff skulked about for weeks. Now a stack of books, a new teapot, cigarettes, a couple of joints, and a big bag of Cheetos, this Christmas was serene. Wexler would always remember this joy of his first independent Christmas.
At work the only really rushed times were early morning and mid to late afternoon. The morning crowd bought coffee, pastries, newspapers, and smokes; the afternoon, magazines, candy and tobacco. The job, while certainly not challenging, was easy. Checking inventories, making coffee, keeping things clean and neat and smiling at the customers – a breeze. A singular advantage of working in the Federal Building was wi-fi. There were always quite intervals mid morning and afternoon. Plenty of time to go online. The wireless network allowed anonymous internet access from Oliver’s kiosk. Because he had signed up for online college courses, social services had provided a laptop. By early summer he had saved enough to buy a much nicer more powerful unit which belonged, of course, exclusively to him. This proprietary feeling amazed and bolstered his sense of self. For Oliver this feeling was much as another might experience on buying his first car or first house.
He settled into an easy routine of work and study. Usually he did his coursework during the slack hours at the job. After work he stopped by the same Jewish deli or a Chinese place for takeout to carry home. His birthday was in January; then he would petition the state for his complete independence. Keeping his social worker buoyed to his cause was crucial. Remaining a ward of the state until he reached 21 was his worst fear. When she suggested the Pennington Group, a deaf/mute support group, he acceded, though he did not want to.
This group of a dozen met on Thursday nights in a church basement about a mile from Oliver’s. Rather to his surprise he found he enjoyed the interaction, especially signing with adult mutes. Of particular interest was Naomi Speers who coincidently worked in the Federal building for the U. S. Marshal’s Service. However she always entered and left by the north entrance and had never frequented his kiosk.
After this discovery Naomi made it a point to visit Oliver on her afternoon break. She’d buy a candy bar and the two would sign chat for a few minutes. He learned that she appreciated her job as a file clerk but enduring frequent practical jokes and ridicule of the marshals was more than unpleasant; it was painful.
“They don’t think I understand tricks. They think I can read lips only when they want me to. Like yesterday, Officer Khol increased the radio volume to the maximum. This made the boss come out of his office with an ugly face. Khol told everybody that I had increased the radio volume. Everyone in the office laughed. The boss laughed with the others. It is not nice to laugh because I cannot hear.”
“This happens. Bad people touch my back. ‘This will bring good fortune.’ they say. We read lips. We read faces and we can read eyes. They think we are stupid.”
Oliver and Naomi had a conversation on this subject at least once a week. Besides seeing each other at work and with the Pennington Group, they e-mailed and IM’ed frequently.
In a chat room one night in August, Oliver conversed with a college student in Boston. This evening Oliver presented himself as a 19 year old girl living on a ranch in Wyoming and he skillfully drew the student into the charade.
“Do you have snow in Boston? It is windy here with lots of snow. My dad and my brother are taking a load of hay to some steers”
“Wow. Yep we have about 4 inches here. It must be cool living out West on a ranch.”
“LOL Always work, work, work. I am supposed to be driving the tractor now, but I got the chicken pox, so my dad’s driving the tractor and my brother’s pitching hay to the stock.”
“Do you go to college?”
“No. My brother does. I am just a cowgirl. What do you study in college?”
“History and English. I want to be a teacher. What do you do for fun?
“LOL In the winter nothing but work. Summer I play on girl’s softball team. Brother ropes steers in rodeo. Dad drinks beer and watches the television.”
“What about your mom?”
“She died when I was little. Our cook is my ‘mamicita.’”
“That’s sad. Is the cook Hispanic?”
“Yep, most of our ranch hands are Mexicanos. Are you Hispanic?
“My dad says that Krakow is as beautiful as Vienna. Have you been to Krakow?
“No, no I’ve never been to Poland, but my grandmother and grandfather are from there. What was your dad doing in Krakow, in the war or something?
“No he was delivering bull semen he had sold to a customer.”
“Bull semen? LOL.”
“We sell bull semen all over the world, and we also raise beef we sell here. Before you ask, a vet does the collecting and packing.”
“LOL , my name is Stephen, what’s yours?”
“Stephen you don’t spell with a vee?”
“Nope, p h. Maybe it’s a Polish thing.’
“Do you play sports, Stephen?”
“Soccer, but not on the college team; it’s just a scrub team, buncha guys. Tomorrow we play the Brazilian Team. May I put you on my friends list, so we can talk again?
“My brother goes to college in San Francisco and he dates a girl whose brother plays soccer on the German team. The teams there are sort of divided by ethnicity. Is it that way in Boston?”
“Yes, but not exclusively. My team is all mixed up, Latinos and Anglos from all over. What’s your name?”
“After soccer games they all go to a German bar. That sounds like fun. Is it that way there?”
“Oh yes. But are you going to tell me your name?”
“My mamicita is calling me. Thanks for the good chat, I’ve enjoyed it, Stephen with a p h. Maybe we will meet again sometime. Gotta go.”
This was a thing Oliver often did in the evenings, posing as some invented character. He’d been all over the board as women, men, old, young, Black, Hispanic. Stringing someone along gave him enormous pleasure. Perhaps it was the underlying sense of control, but the sheer novelty of assuming another persona was very satisfying. It was a thing that didn’t need analyzing. He would retell his tales to Naomi who told him he was crazy to do such a thing, however she enjoyed the stories to no end.
“Why didn’t you give him some made up name?”
“No, I just like to play a little game. It’s not for making friends for real.”
But….to his surprise the next evening soon after going online he received an IM
“Hey cowgirl, Stephen with a ph here, howzit?”
“Hi Stephen how r u?”
“Good. We won our game today.”
“Did you go to the bar?”
“Yes but only for ONE beer. I felt like going online. Sometimes I prefer solitude to beer, believe it or not.”
“That’s a good quality. I too like solitude. You would think living on a ranch would have a lot of quite, but it is rare. Interruption rules this place some days.”
“How big is the ranch?”
“Somewhere around 80.”
“No, 80 thousand acres. Ranches here are much bigger than your Eastern farms. LOL. Our nearest neighbor has a 160,000 acre spread.”
“Jesus, that’s like a small country!”
“It’s a lot of territory. Of course not all of it’s good land. Lots of it is leased BLM land. We have a range of really steep hills and canyons that are too rough for pasture. Like to ride up there in the summer. There’s a canyon an hour’s ride away that has two big springs.”
“When you say ride, do you mean horseback?”
“Yes, silly. I told you I was a cowgirl.”
“Are you going to tell me your name, or will I go to my grave still wondering.”
“Well in the interest of contentment it’s Linda. Just Linda.”
“Linda, Linda, Linda . Que Linda es Linda.”
Thereafter, Stephen appeared on the monitor nightly as Oliver’s tapestry grew. By Thanksgiving artificial Linda’s artificial brother Robert was home from artificial college for the holidays with his artificial girlfriend Freida. Her artificial father had made a very profitable sale to a large estancia in Argentina and bought an artificial Argentine mare for Linda. She called the mare Evita. It was her 20th Birthday/ Christmas present. Her artificial mamacita had suffered a case of Bell’s Palsy but was doing much better now. Linda was having her artificial pick up truck’s leather seats tucked and rolled, etc. etc.
Stephen by then had related much of his life’s history – growing up an only child in middle class Boston, son of a Methodist minister and a speech therapist mom. Among his pet peeves were bad language and his mom’s clients. He detested so-called handicapped people who milked the system for everything from parking permits to monthly checks.
“Just because some dummy can’t hear or talk, I’m supposed to support him? I don’t think so. We ought to send some of my mom’s clients out West to your ranch for a taste of the real world of a day’s work.”
“I’m with you Stephen. I like Western self-reliance. That’s why you don’t see a lot of sniveling cripples around here. Back East they’re like pigs at the trough, aren’t they?
“Stephen what do you think about coming out for a visit sometime? Would you be able to?
“Would I? !!!!!! God, I’d love to. What about your Dad, would he approve?
“And why not? He was cool with Robert bringing Frieda home for Thanksgiving. We have a guest house we use for customers, so there’s plenty of room. Besides I’ve already asked. Can you come here for Christmas?”
“Jesus – somebody pinch me. I must be dreaming.”
“Well, get the tickets. There’s a daily flight into Casper from Denver. I’ll pick you up. You’ll sit on the most beautiful tuck and roll job ever.
“I’m buying the tickets online, right now……arriving Thursday on Western Flight 712 at 2:40Pm
© Gary Ives
First published in April 2012, “Freedom Fiction Journal”