This is an excerpt from Robert Martin’s novel, Boxcar.
Not every night. But four times in the last two weeks, Eugene had abandoned his post at the front desk and raced Cal down the street through the dark, tackled him, restrained him, and led him like an injured goat back to the Theroux House. Sometimes Cal made it multiple blocks before Eugene caught up. Sometimes Cal didn’t even make it through the door.
The chill, plus the room’s all-white décor, spawned the nickname “Antarctica.” As in, “After lunch we’ll head to Antarctica where we shall continue our perpetual tournament of Connect Four.” The tabletops of white Formica, the chairs a pale, flimsy plastic, the floor a speckled linoleum. You’d think it would stain, such a light colored floor, given that the Theroux house was home to nearly eighty poorly coordinated individuals. Sometimes Cal wondered if that was the reason for the ice-age theme: let the spills stand out, so they’re easier to identify and therefore clean up. That didn’t explain the temperature.
Maybe they heated Antarctica—there were baseboard heaters, though Cal had never felt warm air rising from them. Any warmth pumped into the room slipped easily through the plate glass windows, where Cal liked to sit. He could almost feel a breeze, the inside air rushing to mingle with the world outside. He wasn’t sure about the physics of this—whether air could slip through a solid material like glass. He wasn’t well read on physics, not as much as he was on some other subjects. The Theroux House’s library was limited in its offering. Plenty of children’s encyclopedias, nary a textbook.
Cal’s favorite seat in Antarctica was near the middle of the back wall, pressed right against the heat-leaking windows. Best light in the room. Here he sat and flipped through the pages of a ten-volume set called This Great Earth. He’d had the book memorized for years, but he never tired of the illustrations. Creatures sketched in colored pencil, their shapes only estimates, their colors unknowable. He felt comforted by the tentative gestures of the artist, as though all history, all knowledge, is conjecture.
Thoughts like these floated through his brain several times a week, little shocks of intelligence that reaffirmed his belief that he wasn’t like the others in here, that he was right to try and get himself out.
He flipped through This Great Earth’s pages, comparing his friends to the illustrated creatures in the book. Maybe his best friend among the specials, Tom, was definitely a woolly mammoth. He walked with a long stride, and rare occasions of eye contact always suggested depths of memory. Perhaps Cal’s least favorite cohort, Barbara, was definitely a saber-toothed tiger with her predatory moping—moody and fierce was she. Micah was a nice enough guy that Cal felt guilty calling him a macrauchenia, though he would never say this to Micah’s face. Macrauchenias were the silliest of the giant animals no longer with us: an ape with the nose of an anteater, the elongated limbs of a giant sloth. If there was a giant sloth among them, it wasn’t any of the specials but the new researcher Sandy, who now moved slowly through Antarctica as if not to startle anyone, as if sudden movements might launch an extinction-level event.
Cal shifted in his seat. He was alone at his favorite table, just him and This Great Earth, and he would have preferred it stay that way. But Sandy had seen him, and with Tom the Mammoth in tow, they were headed straight for his extra seats.
“Mind if we join you?” Sandy said, her speech a sugary drawl. This was the voice of the compassionate social worker. Markedly offensive in its inability to offend, the voice of the compassionate social worker usually wore off within two to three weeks of working with specials. Sandy had been here more than two months, and she still found herself unable to speak to the residents of the Theroux House like they were ordinary people.
Tom took up one of the chairs across the table, grinning ear to ear. He was lit up about something. Tom smiled so wide Cal could stick a penny in his dimples, if he’d had one. Tom would have let him, too.
“We had a good session,” Sandy said, sitting down between Cal and Tom and holding Tom’s hand like a child. She rubbed her thumb across the top of Tom’s fingers in a miniature massage, like they’d been doing heavy labor. “I brought you something,” Sandy said. She dug into a tote bag and pulled out another book of crossword puzzles, the third she’d given him since she learned he could write on his own. Her whole reason for being at the Theroux House, from what Cal could gather, had something to do with language and writing. Her grant was for teaching nonverbal clients like Tom to use a computer, or something.
Cal flipped open the book and read the clues. Sandy said, “Tough one,” though it wasn’t. This was another book for children—Cal could burn through the entire magazine in a couple of days. Which was fine. He didn’t do them for the challenge so much as for seeing how the words overlapped, contributed to one another. It was an elegant arrangement, an interdependency that Cal wished extended to other aspects of his life.
Still, it helped if you had a pencil.
He made the motion with his fingers and Sandy slapped herself in the forehead, which made Tom jiggle with laughter. Sandy said, “I’ve got a pen,” and reached again into her tote bag. She pulled out a composition book and opened it to the first page, blank, where a disposable ballpoint lay cradled in the crease. She didn’t pluck the pen from where it lay. Instead, she slid the entire notebook toward him. The pen, the blank page, an entire book to fill with whatever he wanted. “It’s ink,” Sandy said, “so don’t write anything unless you’re absolutely sure.”
Tom lolled in his seat, vaguely acknowledging the partly cloudy day passing by outside the windows. Sandy looked intently at Cal, the pen now poised in his fingers, and said in her most excruciatingly placid voice, “Can you tell me about the running?”
One of the things Sandy didn’t understand, that normals rarely understood, was that disability also contains a great deal of power. Sandy couldn’t make Tom type out his feelings just because it was convenient for her research. Sometimes he just typed out “boobs boobs boobs boobs.” In a place like the Theroux House, an honest desire to cooperate was in short supply. A well-timed tantrum, voluntary incontinence, or any variety of stubbornness was an effective negotiation tool. For social workers, doctors, researchers, family members, day-staff—for any normal, getting their way was a patience game more than anything, and nobody has more patience than a disabled person. It’s their one unifying feature, their shared special ability. The disabled can endure an unpleasant situation far longer than any normal, and they won’t be shy about exploiting this advantage. Cal, for instance, had been living at the Theroux House fifteen years. He predated half of the doctors.
“I was thinking,” Sandy said, “that we could use this notebook as a private place. Like a little room where only you and I talk to each other. No one else is invited inside. No one else will ever get to know what we say.” She said all this aloud, but then she moved her chair around behind him, put her hand on his hand, and moved the pen inside Cal’s hand. Tell me about the running, she made him write.
Cal considered the absurdity of this tactic. This was how she helped Tom pluck at keys on a keyboard, by holding his hands and letting Tom strain against her resistance. But Tom was a man who lacked the motor skills to bring a spoonful of pudding to his mouth. When he started to respond, Sandy’s fingers urged him to fight against her. He endured it, writing the slowest sentence of his life across the first page of the notebook:
Running doesn’t have words.
Sandy wrote, Why do you make Eugene chase you?
Sandy’s resistance slowed him down again, making him work for the language. I want to, he wrote. Simple and direct.
“Keep going,” Sandy whispered. “You want to what?”
Cal glanced around Antarctica, saw Eugene stationed by the door, keeping an eye on things. When his gaze met Cal’s, his eyes lingered. A slow nod, then a wink, and the hint of a smirk before Eugene continued to oversee the commons room.
Cal was still looking at Eugene when he felt the pressure against his fingers, the pen returning to where his last statement had left off. Sandy’s resistance had shifted to a pull, something more than an influence. Cal had to look at the page to learn what he was writing. I want to stop running, he’d written.
“That’s wonderful, Cal,” Sandy said, tears welling behind the lenses of her glasses. “That’s wonderful.”
Who knew what Eugene was thinking? Maybe he enjoyed running after Cal in the dark, before even birds were awake, the snap of wind off the lake in the air. Maybe he was testing Cal, giving him the chance to prove he deserved to leave the Theroux House, that the running was intentional rather than a neurotic misfire in his wiring.
Or maybe he chased Cal down because he felt something significant, something ominous and fulfilling, in the action. Something heroic. Maybe he was fascinated by that moment after they’d collapsed to the ground, wrestled to a heart-pounding draw, and begun to relax. That moment when Cal returned from his blind semi-autistic chaos, when Eugene transitioned from that endorphin-fueled frenzy back to a world where they lay sweaty and tangled on the sidewalk at dawn. It was a brief intersection of Cal and Eugene’s lives in which each occupied a similar mental space—a wordless, thoughtless place that lasted only a second, maybe, and then Cal was back to an escaped client, a victim of his disability, and Eugene was back to an underpaid PCA working above and beyond his job description. But that moment was enough to make Eugene see Cal as more than a broken body. Maybe that moment in which they were the same, in which they were together, was what convinced Eugene that Cal didn’t belong in the Theroux House. Maybe that’s what Eugene was thinking.
The night Cal succeeded in running away, something was different from the beginning. His feet lacked the familiar tingle, his thoughts remained coherent as he edged toward the door. The phrase he hadn’t written in his notebook—I want to stop running—persisted in his mind, as if urging him forward, as if motivating him to keep it together.
And he did, even when confronted with the surprising fact that Eugene wasn’t at his desk. The passage from his bedroom to the front door was unsupervised for the first time in weeks. He hesitated under the dimmed lights, thinking that they were waiting around a corner, behind a door, ready to spring with a net and the mitts and an injection to make him sleepy. But nothing changed. He stood alone in the center of the lobby, the phrase I want to stop running keeping his arms and limbs firmly attached, keeping his vision stable.
And Cal kept it together when, just outside the front door, lit up by the motion sensor lights, he spotted a red Jansport backpack stuffed like a present at the foot of the stairs. Straining at the zipper, begging to be opened. Inside, a powder blue blanket like the ones on each of the Theroux House’s beds. Beneath that, three pair of underwear in Cal’s size, and an extra small sweatshirt to fit him. He didn’t draw any conclusions, but looked up bewildered when he noticed that the book lining the back of the pack, as though for rigidity, was his favorite volume of This Great Earth.
Cal placed everything back in the pack and softly pulled the zipper along its arc. He slipped his arms through the straps, stood and turned, and in the glass door of the Theroux House he saw his reflection lit up by the motion lights, an image of a man prepared to move forward. The image fascinated him—he had never seen himself so clearly. He would have continued to gaze at his reflection had Eugene not returned to his desk inside, raised a pale palm in farewell.
This is an excerpt from Boxcar, a novel in four parts by Robert Martin. Read the other excerpts here.
Front page image by Rob Swatski.