Bug on Water

“Stan was convinced he always had, and always would, irritate people. Criticism was what he expected from the world; it was what he thought he deserved.”

Stan had nervous eyes. In the steelwooling area they rarely stayed still: like a butterfly they flitted here and there, alighting on his work only on occasion and only for a brief stay. He’d look at the walls, at the floor, at the doorway, at the clock, at his lap, at his work table, at the other clients, at me. If he saw me standing nearby, his head would snap down to within inches of his glass and he’d work in short, frantic spurts. Between spurts he’d slowly turn his head toward me, inch by inch, until, out of the corner of his eye, he saw I was still there; then his head would shoot back down for another burst of hectic, mindless activity. After I moved away, he’d sometimes close his eyes, put one hand on the table, and rest his forehead on his hand—even while his other hand, in an attempt to maintain the illusion of working, continued to stroke the glass lightly with the steel wool.

In every area Stan worked in, there were times when, out of boredom or nervousness or both, he would damage the item he was working on, using his fingernail to tear off chunks of wood or grout or Craft Steel. When supervisors expressed their exasperation, Stan would offer no defense, no resistance. Guilt practically oozed out of him as he recalled similar reprimands he had heard for all of his twenty-five years. He was convinced he always had, and always would, irritate people. Criticism was what he expected from the world; it was what he thought he deserved. Stan would listen silently to the supervisor, but his downcast eyes were eloquent enough: “I had it coming, didn’t I?” they said—thus articulating his deepest conviction about himself.

Stan was about 5’8″ and had short blond hair. His IQ was fifty-two. According to his parents, whom he had lived with all his life, he was a light sleeper who woke up at the slightest sound. A psychologist—observing his darting eyes, his fidgeting, and the frequent wringing of his hands—once noted that Stan seemed to want to climb out of his skin.

At the Center he was friends with Jerry, and indeed they were much alike. There were obvious differences, of course: Jerry was much louder, much more talkative, and much more disruptive than Stan. But both suffered from low self-esteem and an overpowering sense of shame. And both were careless workers who often left supervisors frustrated. When supervisors expressed this, however, Jerry and Stan reacted very differently. Jerry protested vociferously—“You’re always pickin’ on me!”—while Stan, in silence, blamed only himself. Jerry thought reprimands were his lot, Stan thought they were his due. Both were sad figures.

Also like Jerry, Stan had a girlfriend. Susie was short, with almond-shaped eyes (from Down syndrome) and long, straight brown hair. They rode the same bus to work and always walked into the building together. If they passed me coming down the hall, Susie would say, “Hiya, Clint,” while Stan would mumble, “Morning,” then say out loud, “Morning, Crint.” He would often mumble a word, or several words, to himself before venturing to say them to the other person, as though he wanted to practice the words, make sure they’d come out.

Stan also said hello most mornings when he came onto the workfloor. But some days his feeling of inferiority was so strong that instead he gave me a series of quick, guilty glances as he tried to get to his seat unnoticed. He was like a dog that’s been beaten so many times it slinks and scurries to stay out of reach.

In his bolder, more confident moments he would talk with staff, but always his conversations had an antsy, impulsive quality. He skittered helter-skelter from one subject to another, like a bug on water.

One day in the lunchroom he approached Ellen and me and said, “Hey, I want to talk to you, Crint.”

“Okay, sure.”

He fidgeted and swayed and shifted his feet, and finally mumbled, “Whud you do,” then said to me, “Whud you do last night?”

“Oh, not much, Stan. I watched a ball game on TV.”

“Oh, stayed home? Fix supper?” Before I could answer, he turned and said, “Ellen, I’ll take you out to dinner—okay, Ellen?” When he said you, he pointed to Ellen in that diffident way of his: with his hand close to his chest and his index finger barely extended, he made a short, quick motion, like the pecking of a scrawny, insignificant bird.

“Sure, Stan. Who’s buying?”

“Me, of course. Crint, too—take Crint, too?”

“Whoever you want,” Ellen replied. “You said you were buying.”

“Oh, Ellen!” he said, laughing. He took a couple of steps toward his and Susie’s lunch table, then returned just as abruptly and said to Ellen, “You don’t like me any more, do you?”


“I don’t like you any more,” he mumbled. Then suddenly: “Hey, whud you do last night, Ellen? Take Crint out to dinner? [Laughs.] Oh well. See you later.” Quickly he walked back to Susie and the sanctuary she provided.

She was eating a sandwich when he sat down beside her. Resting his head against her chest, he wrapped one arm around her back while his other hand stroked her shoulder. Susie, accustomed to his smothering insecurity, did her best to continue eating, while Stan spoke to her secretively, in hushed tones.

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