Amy would stop at nothing to bring up the rear. Instead of walking down the ramp she sidled, turning around occasionally to check for stragglers. If anyone was behind her, she’d adjust her pace: rather than resting just her hand on the rail, she’d rest her whole forearm and lean into it; or if she needed additional drag, she’d slide her shoulder along the wall, bringing her almost to a standstill. Any time I asked her to hurry, she’d nod her head and speak softly—“I’ll twy, Gwen”—then continue at the same pace. If a supervisor became impatient and told her to quit dawdling, she’d frown, then protest feebly, “Nooooo. I can’t help it.” She was the slowest walker at the Center.
The slowest—that was the only superlative anyone had ever applied to Amy, so she cultivated it carefully. Being last was her identity, her source of uniqueness. Sometimes it brought her laughs or pleas, other times it brought her threats or reprimands, but always it brought her attention.
Her work was as pokey as her walk. One time we tested all the clients on their skill with hand tools. The hammering test usually took only a few seconds—a client either drove the nail in or mangled it hopelessly—but Amy worked on her nail for a half hour a day, day after day. She took several minutes’ rest between blows, and when a blow did come it was so anemic it had no discernible effect. After four days the humiliated nail finally sank into the board, so Amy passed the hammering test.
In the Toy Department, while other clients sanded board after board, Amy would linger over each one, nursing it like a drink. Hoping not to get nagged by an irritated supervisor, she’d move her hand back and forth, but her work was as hollow as an empty husk: no interest, no energy lay behind it.
Amy raised loitering to a way of life—not just a means of avoiding exertion, but also her doorway to human contact. At the beginning of the day, when a wave of insistent clients was about to break upon the supervisor manning the lunch cabinet, Amy would step aside to let it pass. She’d stand against the wall until the crowd had ebbed and she could have the supervisor to herself. She rarely talked with other clients and was an easy target for the pushy, aggressive ones, but she enjoyed the pleasure of simple good mornings with staff.
Amy was stocky and very short. When her limp, oily hair was given a perm, it left her cute, round face topped by a pile of light brown curls. Her voice was hoarse and her laugh was a soft, rolling chuckle. Sometimes she spoke sadly about her sore throat, her nagging cough. Bullied by clients and prodded by staff, this defenseless little nobody had a nice smile, genuine but restrained, while her speech had a mournful tone, as if to say, all pleasures are fleeting—only weariness and persecution endure.
At the end of the day Amy would walk slowly up the ramp, often the last client in the building. A few supervisors, drained and uninspired, usually sat slumped in the lobby. One of them might say he was sorry, but the buses had already left. Amy sometimes laughed, sometimes frowned and shook her head, but always she knew her bus would wait. Most days she offered us a tired goodbye or a limp handshake, but one sunny March afternoon, when the exuberance of spring had energized even the most listless, she waited until all eyes were upon her, then ran the last few steps to the door. There, with her back to everyone, she danced a little jig, hopping from side to side, bringing some muffled laughs from supervisors, in spite of themselves. She walked out to her bus, but the driver closed the door in her face. Laughing, Amy displayed mock anger—“I’m gonna getchu”—which made the driver laugh in turn. He opened the door, and the last passenger slowly climbed aboard.