The Shepherd

"George was breathing rapidly, his head and shoulders were bent forward, tense, and his color had turned ash gray. Inside he was throbbing: his eyes bulged and his head seemed even larger than usual, as menacing as the thick end of a club."

At 6’4″, 190 pounds, with his large skull and massive face, George resembled Lurch, the imposing butler who always appeared out of nowhere the instant the Addams family needed his services. George kept his dark blond hair cut short and combed flat. He was unusually stiff: during our occasional PE sessions, while other clients bobbed up and down doing deep knee bends, George, with great effort, would kneel on the ground, then remain there for the duration of the exercise. His hands added an element of refinement to the appearance of this twenty-eight-year-old man: though large, they were noteworthy for their smooth, trim fingers and long, clean nails.

Even more striking than George’s looks was his way of speaking. He found certain words, and the thoughts they stirred in him, terribly rousing, and he said these words, or particular syllables in these words, with great relish. The mere act of uttering them filled him with demented delight. He elongated his favorite words or syllables, raising his voice and flinging them with robust, exaggerated accents. His speech was intoxicating, with a rhythm you couldn’t get out of your head. Supervisors frequently kidded among themselves using George Kearney speech, trying to reproduce that alluring sound.

George was irresistibly drawn to the words and thoughts and images that swam ceaselessly through his mind. One day in grouting he turned to me with an urgent look on his face and said, “Sunday NIGHT The Wizard of OZ is on TV. I’m gonna WATCH it. You gonna watch The WIZard of OZ? I wanna see those FLYing MONkeys, FLY-ING MON-KEYS!” Worked up now, he laughed with fierce glee at the thought. Living in Boulder from ages ten to twenty-four, George became an accomplished practitioner of the Boulder Rock—the habit of endlessly rocking back and forth in one’s seat, a habit engendered by the idleness and self-absorption of institutional life. So now, titillated by FLY-ING MON-KEYS, George began doing the Boulder Rock—not pensively, as he sometimes did, but furiously, stroking his thighs as he rocked.

Looking like a big kid at a small table, this fan of The Wizard of Oz soon settled down. He picked up his glass and, without really looking at it, went back to smoothing the grouted edges. Grouting provided an outlet for George’s energy; the glass was like a ball that he could squeeze and rub and spin. He worked instinctively, while his attention remained elsewhere. As I walked to another table, he said quietly to himself, “I wanna see those flying MONkeys.” A few minutes later, rocking slowly, he recited, “‘There’s NO place like home’—that’s what DOROthy says in The Wizard of OZ.”

Before coming into grouting, George had been tossed from one work area to another. Wherever he was, he was restless and easily distracted, with an attention span of only a few minutes, or a few seconds. Very attuned to the other clients, he often glanced furtively, and sometimes turned to stare openly, at them. If he was in a somewhat isolated work area, he’d occasionally stand up, walk to where he could see more clients, then remain there, peering and pacing like a nervous sentry, until a supervisor directed him back to his seat. Other times he was preoccupied with the chanting of irrelevant phrases that only he found stimulating: “REYNolds Wrap!” “Naked PEAnut butter jar!” “Long-haired hippie WEIRDo!” George was only dimly aware of whatever he was working on; like background music or an object in his peripheral vision, it stayed on the outskirts of his mind.

George’s intellectual disability was classified as moderate. He had a mental age of six and a half, though he couldn’t read at all. George was an impatient learner, reluctant to listen or concentrate. He hoarded his attention like a miser, lending it to a trainer in meager amounts and for just moments at a time. In the Toy Department, I tried teaching him how to attach the rockers to a rocking horse, but with little success: if left unattended for even a minute, his carelessness could destroy the horse. George wanted work that tied down only his hands, leaving his eyes and mind free to roam.

For sanding boards, the Toy Department used small electric pad sanders. Sanding was the one task that, even if done carelessly, posed little threat to either the worker or the product. As a result, the sanding tables often became a dumping ground for inattentive clients like George. Sometimes he gazed at the floor, rocking thoughtfully while he sanded; other times he worked with reckless exhilaration. Once when I gave him a board to sand, he snatched his sander and said, “Okay, GLENN! GLLLENN!!” He whipped the sander back and forth in broad, sweeping motions, feverishly keeping time to his own internal symphony. “Sand the ROCKer!” he said with a delirious grin, as though he’d just been granted a license to kill.

So it surprised me when George quickly mastered the difficult task of grouting. But within those hands, previously unproductive, there was latent magic. At the start of every work session his mind stopped by the grouting area, staying just long enough to set his hands in motion. After that they went about their business by themselves. His long fingers would envelop the glass, molding the grout, and by the end of the day he’d have five or six glasses completed. The only hitch in this otherwise perfect match between client and work area was the undersized coveralls he wore without complaint. Though we bought him the tallest pair we could find, they still hunched his shoulders down and forward, making him look like a long sausage stuffed into a small, square Baggie.

Like a hen fussing over her brood, or a shepherd watching over his flock, George took care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves. He appointed himself the guardian of certain clients, especially Ray, Ruthie, Dave, Doug, and Candy. He directed them to the correct work areas, handed them their lunch pails at lunchtime, and fetched the hats or scarves they sometimes left behind. Usually without the staff’s knowledge, George perceived the needs of his wards and sent himself on the necessary errands. He constantly kept track of the less independent clients, especially those who lived at his group home. When supervisors needed to know whether a particular client had been on the van that morning, or if he was sick or at an appointment, we went to George for answers we could rely on.

He was aware of everything going on in the lunchroom. Some clients, seeing an epileptic seizure, would just watch, puzzled or apprehensive, while George was often the one who alerted the staff: “Glenn, Glenn, Holly’s having a seizure!” Every day after lunch, as the clients filed back to work, George would hover behind anxiously, moving from table to table, getting paper towels for one client, discarding a pop bottle or sandwich sack for another, shelving magazines for a third. He’d remain until all of his charges had left the lunchroom. At the end of the day, Dave would pick up the large box containing the lunch pails for his van, and each day seemed surprised to find it heavy and awkward. Usually he staggered only a step or two before George appeared, relieved him of the box, and carried it to the van himself.

George walked swiftly, with his knees stiff and his head up. As he walked, he talked himself through the day: “Gotta get Ray Murray’s GLOVES,” he might mutter, or “Candy ALlison has to go to the DOCtor today.” Never following the pack mindlessly, George always knew where he was going and what he was doing. He was a man with a mission. If, during one of his errands, he was detained by an inquisitive supervisor, George’s impatience was evident. “BOTHersome interRUPtion of my LIFE’S WORK,” he seemed to be thinking.

Candy, in particular, was the object of his solicitous gaze. Amidst the pandemonium of Candy and Jerry’s lunch table, George would sit quietly, watching over her. He didn’t seem jealous of Jerry, and never intervened in their romantic squabbles. But one day when Leroy was bothering her, George leaped to his feet in anger; Leroy wisely scurried to another table. In grouting, George frequently stood up and looked over the counter, into the glass assembly area, for a glimpse of the woman he adored. One of his cherished possessions was a snapshot of Candy in her pajamas.

George had a history of choosing friends to defend and bestow favors on. He was an only son whose one sister was born after he left home. As a child he liked to play with younger, smaller children—a preference that disturbed some of the neighbors and encouraged his placement in Boulder. There he grew taller, soon towering over his peers, and so saw himself as half resident, half aide. Often he retrieved stray residents who had wandered from their dorms. He had an overweight friend he was especially devoted to; George would make his bed, help him dress, and steal food for him. On leaving Boulder, George went to a group home, where he once punched a counselor for reprimanding one of his friends.

This attack on a staff member, however, was unusual; George’s violence was generally directed at a select group of clients. To reduce his aggressiveness, he took Thorazine, an antipsychotic medication. Perhaps as a result, George was ordinarily docile and agreeable. Unlike Grant or Dave or Leroy, who might explode at any moment, George became violent only once or twice a year at the Center, though more often at his group home. His victims were disruptive clients who got on everyone’s nerves; that they were continually corrected by staff did not escape George’s notice. The screaming, clapping, whooooooaaaa-ing Barry was his most frequent victim; others were Dave and Leroy and silly, drooly Ruthie. Some of these were the very clients who gave him a purpose in life, but at times his guardianship turned into an ordeal, and the job of regulating their anarchic lives became overwhelming.

When no supervisors were around, and a client had to be punished, George deputized himself: he was the head of his household, the next in command, the surrogate supervisor. His shepherding responsibilities involved more than benevolence. The maintenance of order required that he be part-time benefactor, part-time disciplinarian. Like a sergeant who reluctantly accepts the commands of officers, all the while feeling that he, being closer to his troops, is the one who really knows how to handle them—so George felt that staff meddled with his role as protector, while behaving too timidly when clients needed punishing.

One time when Barry’s piercing screams became unbearable, George wrapped his huge hands around Barry’s throat and shook him like a rag doll. Supervisors, running down the hall, yelled at George to let go. He did so immediately, but remained agitated. He was breathing rapidly, his head and shoulders were bent forward, tense, and his color had turned ash gray. Inside he was throbbing: his eyes bulged and his head seemed even larger than usual, as menacing as the thick end of a club.

George often came to the aid of clients who were physically disabled or otherwise needed special help, but other times he regarded these clients with disdain. One day at the top of the ramp I saw him corner Becky, who had been staggering down the hall with her crutch. He lowered his head, holding it just inches from hers, and tried to lasso her eyes with his deadly stare. Speaking with whispered intensity, he threatened to strangle her. He glanced around nervously as he spoke, not from fear of punishment, but because he didn’t want to be interrupted. I went over, got Becky out of the way, and told him to settle down. But at such times speech provided the only relief valve for the pressure within. Without a pause George rammed his face in front of mine, and the uncontainable rush of threats and epithets continued.

Speech allowed George to dwell upon images of violence and retribution, and it allowed his simmering feelings of contempt to come pouring out. Words were a tool of assault, a weapon with which he could bludgeon puny, unruly mankind:

Talking to himself one day in grouting: “LOW-grade Grant COLE!… I’m gonna CHOKE Barry Simmons.” Then quietly he reminded himself of the advice he sometimes heard: “If you can’t say somethin’ NICE about somebody, don’t say NOTHin’ at all, right? RIGHT? If you have problems, tell the staff.” He was silent for a moment, then spat out, “God says Grant Cole’s a SONuvabitch!”

*     *     *     *     *

As he walked past Bob, a sensitive client of near-normal intelligence who had a prosthesis for one arm: “LOW-grade ONE-armed guy!”

*     *     *     *     *

Fantasizing about a supervisor: “I’d like to see Karen’s LEGS. Karen DeMUN!”

*     *     *     *     *

“I went HOME on the BUS. I went for ThanksGIVin’ and I let my sister’s caNARy out of the cage. It was BUGgin’ me ’cause it was always SINGin’. Got TIred of that RACKet so I let it out when no one was around and it flew away. My sister cried.”

*     *     *     *     *

“George, that’s not the way I want you to fill the envelope,” Cynthia said one day while helping to supervise a mailing contract.

“Well, MAKE up your MIND, then!”

“George, I told you to put just one piece of paper in each envelope.”

“MAKE up your MIND…. One piece of paper…. You’re not the BOSS around here, so STOP tellin’ people what to do. DON’T tell me how to do it.” He returned to work for a minute. Suddenly he half stood and tried to skewer Cynthia with his stare. “I’m gonna put POIson in Barry Simmons’s MILK!”

“George!” she shouted, stunning him.

He shrank back in his seat like a submissive kitten, then tried to drum the rule into his head: “If I get mad at someone, I’m supposed to talk to my counselor.”

When his outbursts were under control, George was one of the staff’s favorite clients. His distinctive speech, his strange and surprising remarks, his self-directed missions on behalf of others—these characteristics gave him a freshness and a vitality that lightened the day.

One afternoon in grouting he was looking at the newspaper comics that were spread as protection over his work table.

“What’re you doing, George?” I asked.

“Reading the FUNny papers!” Laughs, vigorous Boulder Rock.

“How come?”

Subdued now: “I just wanted to see what that LOW-grade BEEtle BAIley was up to.”

Sometimes it took a moment to absorb what George said, because both his threats of violence and his benign but unexpected remarks frequently wore the same cloak of urgency. One morning we were having a staff meeting when, unknown to us, a van arrived and unloaded its passengers. While we continued our discussion, George, the first client in the building, walked swiftly and silently down the hall. Suddenly we all jumped in our seats as George, in one startling motion, burst into the room, wrapped his hands around his belt, swooped down upon Cynthia, and detonated words in her ear: “I got a new BELT buckle last night!” There was an instant of stunned silence; then what he had said registered, and we laughed in relief.

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