I was helping my sister with her math homework. She’s nineteen and has Down syndrome. She has trouble counting coins and adding them up. I got frustrated asking her what 6 plus 5 was. She said 8, then 12, then 14, then 87, then 2. I told her that it was 11, and she wrote it down with her stubby pencil, but it meant nothing to her.
As she does her homework, she clutches the pencil in her stunted fingers. Then, with a shift in her seat and a small whisper, her fingers become delicate and the pencil slides to the tip of her fingers and balances in the air. It slowly begins to bob up and down without effort. Her fingers begin to look long and sharp, and the pencil begins to decide who it is. It touches a surface and the tapping begins.
Everyone loves Julia, who’s short and round and a big hugger, but to call her cherubic is to generalize her power. Too often the tendency with our mentally handicapped is to fetishize their purity. But I know that Julia suffers from depression, romantic longing, obsession, deceit, and an acute awareness of her own limitations. Still, she always chooses the good, even when all she wants is frozen yogurt and a Disney Channel marathon. Sometimes she gets frustrated with kids, because they often put their own wants first, and she actively tries not to do that. Sometimes she says she wants “a new family.” I used to think this meant that she wanted to escape. Now, with her sisters grown and starting their own families, I think it means she just wants more family.
She’s tapping her stubby pencils on the back of a cracked CD case. Usually the CD case is the Love Actually soundtrack, and she taps her pencils rhythmically to whatever is going on around her. Sometimes, if a few of my seven sisters are laughing, she taps to that, and then later, when she thinks no one is listening, she re-enacts the conversation under her breath. Or if my dad yells “WHERE ARE THE DAMN COFFEE FILTERS?” she’ll mutter the exact thing, six hours later, with special emphasis on the “damn.”
She has hundreds of pencils. I don’t know where she gets them all. Some of them are colored, and some of them are the regular yellow type. Almost none of them have erasers or sharpened lead, but that doesn’t matter. The pencils aren’t for writing—they’re for tapping. We call them Pencil People. Sometimes somebody from my family gives her a box of pencils for her birthday or Christmas. But pencils always remain pencils to Julia. She’ll find a slightly sharpened one and use it for her homework; she doesn’t handle them with any ceremony.
One time I filmed her tapping a pencil. She was watching Peter Pan, and I filmed it in black-and-white so that I thought I was being very artistic. When I watched it again I could hear the movie in the background, and I realized that her tapping was somehow exactly on beat with the emotional rhythm of the movie.
Who a certain pencil represents can change from day to day. All of the pencils have names. All of the pencils are people in her life, acting out on her desk or on her CD case what she has seen them do in real life. If you listen closely to the muttering under her breath, you can hear what they are saying. You can hear their faults and their strengths. You can hear the changes in their tone when a different pencil is talking. And when she taps a certain pencil on her CD case, when she taps you for instance, everything about you and everything you’ve ever said or done to her is being tapped—all of your frustrations with her math homework, everything.
And sometimes, if you just stare at her, she’ll stare back for a few seconds, then look away, wipe her nose on her hand, and begin to tap that silence, whether she is holding a pencil or not. Then she looks back up from the corner of her eye to see if you’re still staring. She sees that you are, and she smiles, as though she were challenging you to tap her.
Will Arbery’s writing has been published by Better: Culture and Lit, Curbside Splendor, Word Riot, decomP, Snow Monkey, Chronogram, The Awl, D Magazine, and more. He lives in Evanston, IL, working towards his MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage at Northwestern. He grew up in Dallas, Texas, the only boy with seven sisters.