PERSON FIRST


BY PATRICIA DUTT


Mary waits in the hallway, in a basement reminiscent of church basements everywhere, and it could be said that The Center is a church of sorts, an establishment where individuals with similar interests gather and exchange their impressions of the world and express their dreams and their fears. To an extent they socialize. The door is still locked, good because Mary needs to be early: it’s part of her identity, an identity that includes discipline, sacrifice and loyalty shaped by 12 years of strict Catholic schooling.


“Hi Mary!” A man with bulging eyes eases up on his walk, and stops beside her, almost touching her, and sometimes he does, his senses failing to accurately gauge distance. His slouch is amplified by the backpack, an ungainly hump on his back.


“Hey Perry. How’s life treating you?”


“I’m okay.” Perry’s round eyes linger on her an extra second. “Not open yet.”


Unsure if this is delivered as a question or statement of fact, Mary nods.


When the deadbolt finally clicks, Perry charges in through the doorway, brushing Mary aside. He stops, apologizes, bows slightly, Mary smiles and shrugs, then Perry proceeds onward with renewed vigor, broad chest thrust forward, on a mission. He lowers his bulging backpack on a plastic orange chair whose three metal legs shiver with the explosive weight. He grabs the coffee pot, rinses it, fills it with water, pours the water into a coffee maker. Meanwhile Mary signs in, punches a code so that the glass door to the offices open, checks her cubby for messages and articles (Effective Communication from her boss), greets the other staff, and returns to the community room to rest her shoulder. She starts the day by reading The Simple Hello That Makes You Feel Good. The message surprises her: despite a genuine hello’s evanescence, a hello can validate one’s existence. It can also say: Did you have a tough time getting in? Did you lose your food stamps again? I’m sorry that life is so difficult, but I know you’ll make it through whatever you need to get through.


Moments later a steaming cup of black coffee appears on the table, directly across from Mary. Perry manages to squeeze into a chair with his loaded cup of coffee. Slowly he scans the room, to the right, to the left, as if monitoring vibrations from any sentient being audacious enough to materialize out of the air.


“Thanks, Perry.”


“How does your collarbone feel?” Through the smudged lenses, Perry stares at her sling, the thick frames impenetrable and dominating his face like a Halloween mask. The staring initially unsettled her, but in his universe, she understands, access to basic patterns of thought is convoluted, sometimes lost. The timing is off. It’s as if his brain is a puzzle with the pieces constantly changing shape. Appreciation of his position demands that she think very carefully about her words, their impact on Perry, and then what Perry actually hears. This curiosity about who people are is recent because like the typical twenty-something, she’s had little mind space to contemplate another’s existence. Except for Richard. Richard has been on Mary’s mind for years now. Two years.


“It’s fine,” she says, and looks at steadily at Perry because if the conversation doesn’t start with understanding, then the day is lost; Perry is lost, like getting lost in a cornstalk maze, with every cornstalk exactly the same, no one to shout This way!


They sit around a vinyl-clad table purchased at the Re-Use store down the road, next door to the thrift stores and small gas stations. The furniture is mismatched, off color, some with corners not quite 90 degrees as if the carpenter had decided Good enough.


“I broke my collarbone right here.” Her three middle fingers, the gold ring glinting in the overhead fluorescent light, lands gently on the middle of her collarbone. “I was going down a hill and jammed on the brakes. I was exhausted because I put in a full day at the apple orchard, and then I’d been working all week on the house Richard and I just bought. Working all the time.”


Perry nods.


“I did not realize how sensitive my brakes were.”


“Are you, Mary, sensitive?”


“Sometimes.”


“It’s not easy to be with most people when you have a sensitive nature.”


That should have been her line. Perry likes to believe that he is counseling her. Mary pauses, gathering her thoughts: a thought becomes an action, an action becomes a habit, and a habit becomes a life. Having mis-spoken before, she knows the uphill battle to regain trust. A relationship can be set back for days or doomed forever. She digs deeper within herself, an effort to reach out to him and consider any future implications of her words. Like Richard, she thinks she understands him, then he says or does something that disrupts her prediction of him. But then mystery in a relationship is not necessarily a bad thing.


“Yet it’s not good to be isolated,” Mary finally says. Perry thinks metaphorically, so she adds, “When my shoulder or collarbone hurts, I try to distract myself. Ironically, had I been more aware of my bike and myself on the bike, I would have let go of the handlebars and rolled. The adrenaline surge was phenomenal—I didn’t feel anything but suspension.”


“That must have felt good.”


Mary laughs and shakes her head. A scientist at heart, Perry knows all about the feel-good hormones and feel-good meds.


Perry looks suddenly crestfallen.


Leaning over the table Mary says, “I am not laughing at you, Perry. I would never laugh at you.” She looks him directly in the eye and still he doubts her goodwill. How painful, she thinks, life must be when everyone seems to be plotting against you and there is no one you can trust.


“Promise?”


She nods. The first time she and Richard slept together, she was hesitant and so inexperienced. Intimacy is always a risk, he said, but the deeper the relationship, the deeper the trust. Trust me.


“Sometimes, I’m not very smart,” she says, surprising herself. “I can’t even run anymore.”


“Why?”


“Because I need to keep my upper body stable.”


“No, Mary. Why did you say you weren’t very smart?”


“I should have let go of the handlebars.”


“I think you’re very smart. And pretty.”


“Gee, Perry. Thank you.”


“I bet your husband says that to you, You’re so Pretty.”


Mary’s astounded: that was the first statement Richard made to her in the apple orchard that indicated any interest in her. Because like her simple and plain name, Mary believes she is simple and plain, and that Richard selected her from among the crowd of worshipping students still stuns her, even after six months of marriage.


“I’ve never met anyone like Richard.”


“Why do you say that?”


She considers the question, then says, “He’s intelligent. Kind. Like you, Perry. And he has a wicked sense of humor.”


“Why doesn’t he ever come here?”


“He’s an adjunct at the university. A scientist. He works long hours because he’s up for tenure, which is –”


“I know what tenure is.” Perry’s eyes are cold.


“Maybe sometimes you’d like to visit his entomology lab? At Wilson Hall.”


“Sure.”


Mary instantly regrets the invitation: Richard doesn’t wear a wedding ring and hasn’t said anything to the department about his marriage, not yet. But she also knows Perry: his geographical comfort zone includes The Center, his two doctors, and his mother’s house.


“It’s hard to know what you will do, and who you are,” Perry says.


“Why’s that?”


“Because who you are changes. Look at me, Mary: I was a very handsome guy once who had his pick of any woman. Any girlfriend. Hard to believe?” He sits back in his chair, and it creaks, suggestive of an incipient crack. “Two years of college, solid As, promising biochemist. Then this?” He bows his head, shakes it slowly, looks up, his forehead the wrinkled brow of an old man with too many loses. His cheap jacket is greasy on each side of the straining zipper. His hair is wild and thinning. Perry is all of 24.


Mary wishes Perry were not so smart and reflective.


“Deep down, there is still that vestige of who I was, and who I am. There are times when I feel that I can’t live with this pain anymore.”


Mary waits. They’ve had this conversation before. Then she says: “Where’s the but?”


“But…. My Mom said that when you’re feeling lonely and down, find something – anything – to do for someone else.” He rises, almost knocking over the chair, rummages through his backpack returns with a squished white bakery bag and hands it gently to Mary. She opens it. Almond crescents. Her favorite he knows, because they have talked about this too.


“Perry,” she says.


“Mary,” he says, mimicking her tone. Then more seriously, “It means I care about you, Mary. It’s good to say that to another person. Words mean something. Even a simple statement like that.”


“And I care about you too, Perry.”


“All I ever want …. is to be treated like a person. When people believe in me, I do better, I become a better person. I have all of these conversations swirling in the background, trying to sort the real from the unreal, but I’m not always successfully. I’m getting better at it. And then once a week, I do something that moves me out of my comfort zone.”


“What is that this week?”


“You’ll see,” he says. He smiles, then adds: “Person first, illness second. Right?”


“Person first.”


“I am who I am and what I am. What I am not is a throw-away person. I want you to know that Mary.”


They bump knuckles.

After her shift, Mary walks to the grocery store. She winces at the expense of a tomato and a lime, but she has a craving for guacamole, she’s had many cravings lately, and it’s not as though she can bike up to Five Acres and buy the cheaper, fresher farm produce. She worked at Five Acres for seven years and is on leave until her collarbone heals. When she discovered the Halyomorpha halys, stinkbug infestation, her boss contacted the university’s entomology department. Shortly thereafter Mary and a tenure-track adjunct, Dr. Richard Morrison, began collecting data. They worked so well together that Richard encouraged her to take his fungi class. At first Mary felt self-conscious being among the 18-year-olds, but once she found that old school rhythm--sitting for 90 minutes, taking notes, studying for tests—anticipating the class became pleasurable, and soon, Dr. Morrison’s class was the highlight of her week. After the semester ended, they met at a coffee shop to review the Halyomorpha data, and that’s when Richard said, “You’re so pretty.”


Mary feels lucky to have the job at The Center. After a week of lying in bed, refusing any pain medication except for ibuprofen, she printed 30 copies of her resume and walked a mile into the city. The grocery store, the doctors’ offices and convenience stores all greeted her with the same skepticism and disbelief: You can’t possibly do this job the way you are. After enduring rejection after rejection, she found herself outside the red-brick building that housed The Center. Her water bottle was empty, and she went inside to fill it, and beside the water fill station was a Counselors Wanted sign. After modifying her elevator speech, she proceeded inside asking for the executive director. A man with a blonde ponytail and wire-rims looked up from a group of men and motioned her to follow him. He “deputized” Perry, then guided Mary through the glass door into his office.


“Two of my staff called in sick today, and honestly, I don’t think this type of work is for them. Tom,” he said, as he reached for her functional hand.


“Mary.”


He pulled a form from his vertical file, sat down behind a desk. “Tell me about yourself.”


“I’m good at problem-solving.”


He waited.


“I was working at an apple orchard, before this.” She raised her sling. “In addition, my husband and I just bought a fixer-upper and it’s my responsibility to do most of the work and I was pulling out carpets, removing the 30-year-old wallpaper -- a bargain we made because he’s so busy. Tenure-track professor.” She didn’t know why she said that. Come on, Mary, get with the program. This is about you. With her functional arm, she removed a copy of her resume from the cloth purse slung diagonally across her chest. “I’ve worked since I was 12. I do have a degree – it’s in horticulture—but I’m a quick study. I want to learn.”


“You think you can just jump into this position?”


“I can try.”


He scanned the resume. “Scientist, eh?”


Mary shrugged.


“We’ve never had a scientist work here.”


She nodded.


“But a scientist believes in facts.” He looked thoughtful. “And is not so quick to judge.” His glasses lifted heavenward. “We are a social-psycho club. Our clients have cognitive disabilities.”


Mary nodded again. What did she have to lose?


“Hiring is on a trial basis. That goes for everyone, even interns with the social science and psychology degrees. Read the Hire At Will disclosure. Sign here. Here’s your manual.” He grabbed a thin, blue plastic binder from the pile beside his desk and slid it towards her. “Our bible based on years of experience. This is yours. Then there’s the online training too. Notice there are pages in back that you are responsible for. Observations. Not judgements. Get to know the people here. The Center is a refuge for those who take a little longer to process information, those who process information differently from the average person.


There’s a lot of good in our people, but you have to search for it, and when you find it, you will understand that you are with a unique and unusual group of individuals that most of the world ignores.”


Mary signed the paper and slid it back across the desk.


“Think about your responses, and if you’re not sure how to respond, because there will be times when you won’t know what to say, then nod. It’s always safe to nod. The nod says, “I am Listening.” And you won’t know who they are unless you listen.”


For the next four hours, Mary shadowed Tom. The next day, the cook never showed up, and Mary, who had been the cook’s helper at summer camps starting at age 10 (the cook having taken pity on Mary, who had been abnormally shy) and knew how to cook with odds and ends, made the weekly dinner while Perry chopped veggies. The experience bonded them forever. The rave reviews from the normally unenthusiastic diners didn’t hurt either.

On the way to the grocery’s checkout, Mary passes the deli. The curry chicken salad with onions, currants, raisins and walnuts draws her in. After their civil ceremony, she and Richard splurged on the curry chicken salad, ten dollars a pound, then a movie, I, Tonya at a nearby town because Richard wanted to protect their anonymity. She loved the scene where Tonya meets her future husband and Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet floats across the ice rink. Tonya’s husband turned out to be a jerk, and he wrecked her career, but still, that was the best night of Mary’s life.


Perry’s statement, Do something nice for someone, echoes in her mind’s eye, so she buys two pounds of the chicken salad, and takes the bus up the hill to the University and in no time is sauntering along a gravel path, admiring the 19th century stone buildings with their tall windows and blue and green slate roofs. She revels in the fact that not only is she among the best brains in the country, but that she was accepted into the Natural Sciences Ph.D. program. She plans to start next August. She hasn’t told Richard yet—she wants to, but she senses he has too much on his mind. And Richard has asked her not to show her face at the University, not until he has tenure, because anything, such as dating a former student, could count against him. You just never know what the committee is thinking, he said. She pulls her wool cap down, close to her eyes, and plans to hang the plastic bag of food on his doorknob and leave.


She scans the entrance then ascends the long marble steps to his building and walks so softly that she barely hears her feet in the echoing hallways. Classes are in session, so the hallways are empty. She proceeds cautiously, making sure no one sees her. Quietly she ascends the wood stairway, listening for other footfalls. Nothing. Then she is in his hallway. Completely empty. Her heart is beating. There is no one on the bench between his office and the next one, and this emboldens her. She goes right up to the door, hangs the plastic bag of food on the knob, and lingers, reading his name: Dr. Richard Morrison. Pride wells up in her, and her stomach somersaults with love. There will be two doctors in the family. She puts her ear against the door, wondering if he listens to music while he works. She listens. Then she hears someone plodding up the stairs and is paralyzed by the vision of Perry at the end of the hallway.


“How did you get here?” she says, quickly walking toward him, trying to keep her voice low, and calm.


“My intuition told me to come,” Perry says, grinning. Then he sees the look on her face, and his face falls.


The door to Richard’s office opens, and Mary catches a fleeting glimpse of a young woman, her face flushed, hair disheveled, scurrying in the opposite direction. Then she sees Richard, his dark eyebrows lowered, his face distorted. He looks right at her, then closes the door, not quite a slam but with enough force that the plastic container of curry chicken bangs against the wood.


“Who was that?” Perry says.


Mary starts walking quickly down the hall, Perry lumbering after her, down the stairs, out on the landing to the gravel path, and when they are far enough away, Mary says, “I don’t know.”


“I don’t believe you, Mary.”


She’s about to cry or vomit, she can’t decide what her body wants to do, when Perry takes her hand.


“Mary, look at me. Listen to me. I am here for you, Mary. Person first.”

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