“Except for lunch and break and class, he stood beside the workfloor sink all morning, then all afternoon—arms folded, head drooping, silent. I had heard about Earl’s work stoppages before, but this was the first one I’d witnessed.”
Author

“Hey Glenn, I went to Butte this weekend.”

“You did?”

“Yeah, for basketball. Can I tell you about it?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

It was a little after nine and the clients were just getting settled in their work areas, but I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to hear one of Earl’s curious, meandering narratives. He looked down at the table as he spoke, never once checking my face for reactions.

“Well, we went there for the basketball tournament and we played the first game and we won.”

“You won? Way to go!”

“Yeah, and you know what the score was? It was one-oh for them and three-five for us, and we beat ’em fair ’n’ square. And the second game we played Special Ed, and we won that one, too. But the third game we lost.”

“Well, you won two out of three, so it sounds like you did pretty good.”

“No, we didn’t. You know why? ’Cause we didn’t win ’em all! We didn’t get no trophies! We got ribbons, though.”

“Where’d you stay in Butte?”

“We stayed in a motel. I slept with Richard, and Roger slept with the other guy.”

“Who’s the other guy?”

“I don’t know, Glenn, I forget his name.”

“Oh.”

“And at night we went to the bar at the motel. And you know what? At the bar there were people drinking beer!”

“So did you have a beer?”

“Oh no, Glenn, I had tea.”

“Say, I think you guys are playing us next month.”

“Yeah, and we’re gonna beat you. You know why?”

“No, why?”

“’Cause when you guys get the ball, I’m gonna go like this… [Spreads his long arms out to the sides.] And if you try and go around me, I’ll just step to the side and block you.”

“Not if we move faster than you.”

“Oh no, Glenn, I’m faster than anybody. Hey, you know what?”

“No, what?”

“That guy on your team, I call him a big ape.”

“A big ape? What, you mean Craig?”

“Yeah, that guy.”

“Well, he’s big, but I’m not sure he’d like being called an ape.”

“Know what I say when that guy guards me? I say, ‘Get off me, you big ape!’ Then I put the ball behind my back, so he can’t see it. Hey Glenn, who’s that lady on your team?”

“Which one?”

“You know, the one who wore a clown suit last year.”

“That was Ellen.”

“But Glenn, you don’t wear a clown suit for basketball.”

“Well, she just wore it because it was a funny thing to wear.”

“Is she gonna wear it this year?”

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out pretty soon.”

“No, Glenn, I already know. You know why? ’Cause you can’t wear a clown suit in basketball—it’s against the rules!”

All this time I was keeping an eye on my work area, making sure everyone had what they needed, but mostly it was Earl and his idiosyncratic observations that held my attention. He happened to glance at one of the newspaper sheets on his work table. “Hey Glenn, you see this movie?” He pointed to an ad for Neighbors, with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

“Yeah, I did.”

“I did too. You know where?”

“Well, I think Cine 4 was the only place that showed it.”

“Wrong! I saw it in Florida.”

“Is that right? When you were visiting your family?”

“Yeah. It had two guys: this guy and the other guy. Hey, what’s this movie called?”

Neighbors.”

“Yeah. Hey Glenn, I don’t go to shows in Great Falls no more—know why? ’Cause people won’t sit next to me! They all think I’m a stranger. So you know how I sit? I sit like this… [Crosses his legs, folds his arms, and frowns.] Know why I sit like that? ’Cause I’m mad, ’cause nobody’ll sit with me!”

“Why don’t you go to the movies with somebody, Earl?”

“Well, Glenn, it’s like this. I used to take a friend of mine, Candy Allison. But she can’t go no more ’cause she threw her glasses and broke them.”

“Why’d she do that?”

“She said they didn’t help her see any better.”

“Oh.”

“But I used to take her and I’d hold her hand when we went to sit down ’cause she couldn’t see in the dark. And when we walked home, she’d get scared. Hey Glenn, know what? I saw Cannonball Run four times.”

“You must have liked it.”

“Yeah. It had that guy in it.”

“Burt Reynolds?”

“Yeah. But you know what?”

“No, what?”

“One time I went to the theater and said, ‘I want to see Raiders Ark,’ but they said, ‘You got to go to the other theater’—you know, the one with the star.”

“Twi-Lite Cinema?”

“Yeah, that one. And another time I went to Cine 4 and I bought my ticket for Superman, but you know what? I didn’t know what door to go in. The doors had signs but I didn’t know what they said.”

“Well, if you ask someone who works there, they’ll tell you.”

“Oh no, Glenn, I didn’t want to do that. So you know what I did?”

“No.”

“I walked out, Glenn! I didn’t see any movie.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Hey Glenn, know what we did last week?”

“No, what?”

“We went to see graves.”

“Graves?”

“Yeah, me and my brother went.”

“To a cemetery?”

“Yeah, and you know what? You got to walk on one side and then you can read, you know, the name and address and phone number for everybody.”

“You mean the stone tablets?”

“Yeah. And it was getting dark when we were there, and that was spooky. But you don’t have to worry. You know why?”

“No, why?”

“’Cause the people in the graves are dead, Glenn! Dead man can’t hurt you!”

Earl Bryan Turner III was the second of five children. He attended private school for several years and was in Boulder from ages fifteen to twenty, then moved to a group home in Great Falls. His IQ was in the low fifties. When Earl’s father died, he left him a large inheritance, though Earl could not withdraw money without his trustee’s consent.

Earl was twenty-seven years old and was about 6’1″ and 170 pounds. He walked with his head down and his eyes on the ground, but always swiftly and purposefully. He had a narrow face, but his long, broad sideburns lent fullness to his cheeks. The sideburns, instead of being carefully trimmed, were rough around the edges. In winter he wore a knee-length, fur-lined overcoat, and the wide fur lapels, when combined with his tall bearing and his rough-hewn sideburns, made him look like someone out of an old vodka ad.

Earl was a fairly good grouter and steelwooler, but he wasn’t going to wear himself out. After finishing a glass, he’d close his eyes and perhaps doze off.  During lunch and break he usually sat in a corner of the lunchroom, a few feet from Candy’s table, eating from his lap. Earl was sociable enough, but some isolation inevitably accompanies the man who is always right.

One time when he was working in the steelwooling area, production in the grouting area began falling behind. Since Earl had worked there before, I asked him to go help out for a few days—something we often did with clients. Earl, however, refused.

“No, Glenn, I can’t go to grouting,” he said. “I got my orders.”

“Orders? Where’d you get your orders from?”

“From God, Glenn! I got my orders.”

He wouldn’t budge on this, so finally I told him that the work tables were for people who were working, and if he wouldn’t do the work we asked him to do, he’d have to move away from the tables. Earl said okay, then walked over and stood beside the workfloor sink.

Except for lunch and break and class, he stood there all morning, then all afternoon—arms folded, head drooping, silent. I had heard about Earl’s work stoppages before—his refusal, two or three times a year, to do the work we needed him to do—but this was the first one I’d witnessed. Staff couldn’t give any client that kind of veto power, but Earl met our steadfastness with a steadfastness of his own.

The next morning he again refused to go to grouting, but this time he added that his stomach was upset. He said that instead of standing on the workfloor, he wanted to spend the day in the first aid room—a room that had a bed and a comfortable chair. I told him that the first aid room was only for people who had been working.

“Yeah, Glenn, but what if I throw up like this?” he asked, sticking his finger down his throat and gagging.

“Well, Earl, here’s a garbage can,” I said, dragging one over. “If you have to throw up, you can throw up in here.”

I was annoyed that he could be so obstinate, but at the same time I couldn’t help feeling that there was a certain dignity about him. Like a sentry at his post, he stood by the trash can hour after hour, never arguing or complaining or admitting any discomfort.

About mid-morning I asked if he’d like to go to grouting now. He said he’d have to think about it some more. After break, he told me he couldn’t go to grouting yet—he had his orders—but that after lunch he would. And so he did, thus ending, after a day and a half, his one-man strike—Earl’s quiet protest against the caprice of authority.

He wasn’t going to be pushed around by anybody, supervisor or client. One morning when Earl was about to go to class, Leroy became envious because he didn’t have a class at that time. Incensed, he hit Earl, then yelled in surprise when Earl hit him back. Later, Earl gave me the play-by-play: “He went like this… [Taps the air lightly with an open hand.] So I went like this… [Throws a ferocious body punch.] But later I told him I was sorry.”

“Good for you, Earl,” I said.

“Yeah, we shook hands.”

Earl’s aggressive side also showed itself on the basketball court, as I found out during the client-staff game. In fact, Earl did guard me on one play, though not quite in the manner he had described. I had just rebounded the ball and was dribbling downcourt when Earl came up from behind. Around mid-court, he slapped his hand on my back, then kept it there the rest of the way, making angry growling sounds the whole time. Finally, as I approached the basket, he gave me a sharp push. I stumbled, then threw up an off-balance layup that missed.

Earl waged an intermittent war against authority, with some of the conflicts arising because he felt a client had been mistreated. One day Molly was trying to break Doug of his time-consuming habit of rubbing grout on the insides and bottoms of glasses. Doug got mad, stood up, grabbed her arm, and was about to kick her in the shins when she called out, “Doug!” Startled, he sat back down, just as I came into the grouting area.

Earl, who had been watching this, could no longer contain himself. He was very upset and said in a high, shaky, almost breathless voice, “Nobody treats Doug that way!” He held his glass behind his head, ready to throw it at Molly.

“Earl, I was trying to help Doug do a better job of grouting.”

“Oh no, Molly, you don’t hit back at Doug.”

“I wasn’t going to, Earl. I don’t hit back at people.”

“But I do, Molly. I’ll hit you.”

“Earl, be quiet.”

“No, Molly, I won’t be quiet. Don’t threaten me, Molly; I’ll threaten you.”

Doug, unaware of the argument he had provoked, was once again engrossed in grouting his glass. Molly, knowing the futility of debating with Earl, dropped the subject. The grouting area became silent, and soon afterward Earl put his glass down and went back to work.

Most of the time, however, Earl’s confrontations with authority sprang not from the perceived mistreatment of others but from his own incapacity to yield. His ways of interacting with people—including the way he avoided eye contact, the way he dominated conversations, his difficulty remembering names, and especially the seeming indisputability of his perceptions and assertions—together point to a personality not easily affected or swayed by other people. Earl was ensconced in his own psychological fortress. His way of seeing things was so intense, so absolute, that he was almost impervious to other points of view.

One Monday morning, I told Earl his 11:30 class was canceled that week because Craig was on vacation.

“Well, Glenn, I still have to go upstairs myself and see,” he said.

“What for, Earl? The class has been canceled. You’d just be wasting time.”

“Yes, Glenn, I know, but I have to check it myself.”

Around 11:25 he went upstairs, then came back down five or ten minutes later. “Well, Glenn, I went up there, but the door was closed and there was no one inside.”

“I guess they canceled the class, Earl.”

“Yes,” he said, returning to his seat.

The next day he again insisted on checking, but I wasn’t going to let this continue. “Earl, there’s no point in going upstairs. Craig isn’t here and the class has been canceled. I need you to keep working.”

“No, Glenn, I do things my way. I got my orders. Don’t try and stop me.”

“I’m not interested in stopping you, Earl, but if you waste work time by going upstairs now, you’ll have to work through your next break.”

Earl slammed his glass on the table. “Don’t give me orders, Glenn! I don’t take orders from you!”

“Settle down, Earl.”

He stood up and pointed his finger at me. “You can’t keep me from my breaks, you son of a bitch! I’ll fight you!” By this time, everyone in the Glass Department had stopped working and was looking at us.

“That’s it, Earl! You’re done. You can’t talk like that here. You get off the workfloor.”

“Don’t try and make me leave, you son of a bitch! I’ll fight!”

“Either you leave the workfloor or I’ll take you off.”

“Don’t try it, Glenn.”

He wasn’t going to move, so I took hold of his arm and began leading him off. Partway across the workfloor, he turned and was about to take a swing at me. I reached around and grabbed both his arms from behind, then steered him out to the hall and let him go.

“After the way you talked, Earl, you can forget about going to the lunchroom the rest of the day.”

“Okay, Glenn, then I’ll just quit the Center and walk out now.”

“That’s up to you.”

Earl knew the way to his group home and was capable of walking on his own, but it was a cold winter day and he stayed where he was. By now, several staff members were standing nearby, in case things escalated, and we all listened silently as he spoke.

“I’m going to leave the building. Don’t try and stop me…

“I don’t need money from the Center. I have lots of money in the bank…

“I’m going back to the workfloor. Don’t try and stop me…

“That guy doesn’t understand. I have my own orders; I don’t listen to his orders…”

Since no one was arguing with him, he began to calm down, but he also ran out of things to say. After a while he blurted out, “Hey, somebody, say something!”

Barbara, his case manager, suggested they go upstairs and talk about what happened. Earl agreed, staying up there the rest of the day. The next morning he came down to the basement and said, “I’m still mad, Glenn. I can’t work.” I told him he could go back upstairs, where he spent the day in an empty office.

The following morning, Thursday, he came downstairs, sat at his work table, and said, “That lady says I’m supposed to apologize, but I just told her, ‘Well, he started it and I finished it.’” He held out his hand and we shook.

His recollection of events didn’t quite match my own, but I let it slide. “Well, let’s just have a good day at work—okay, Earl?”

“Okay.”

As 11:30 approached, I noticed he kept looking at the clock. I thought I’d better get it out in the open, so I said, with some trepidation, “Remember, Earl, there’s no class today.”

“I know that, Glenn. That lady told me.”

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