As a kid I lived right across the street from a school for mentally handicapped kids. I used to watch them playing during their recess while I was washing dishes. It was a pretty regular routine: I’d come home from school, make Kraft Cheese and Macaroni, scarf while watching Bugs Bunny cartoons, and while washing my dishes in the kitchen afterward watch the kids across the street scream and run around, same as we always did.
One day, when I was a freshman in high school, I was at the sink, scrubbing away and watching the kids, when I saw that one of them had managed to place himself in a spot where no one on the playground could see him. There was a small dome-shaped hill between him and everyone else; he was hunkered down on the ground right up against the cyclone wire fence surrounding the school. I knew the grounds of his school like I knew my own backyard; after hours and on weekends, my friends and I goofed around on their playground equipment. Their shortened basketball hoops made us feel like the giants we aspired to be.
I knew that no one on the playground could see the kid. And it was obvious no one was looking for him, either. And from the way he was all crunched down and gripping the fence, he seemed to be aware of this.
As it occurred to me that he was planning to escape, a red rubber ball shot from the playground and rolled up the grass covered hill, coming to a stop at its exact top. A heavy girl from the playground, delighted by her ball’s mischievous behavior, followed it. When she reached the top of the hill the girl bent, picked up the ball, stood, and saw the kid.
“Kevin!” she screamed. “What are you doing there?”
Without even looking behind him Kevin then stood, clutched the fence, and started climbing.
“He’s doing it!” I cried.
But it wasn’t pretty. It seemed clear this was Kevin’s premier fence climb. He was all flailing limbs and huge red Keds. I wouldn’t spend as much energy climbing a mountain as he spent scaling that five-foot fence.
At the very top of the fence–wobbling, looking like some strange hulking creature from the sky—the boy froze, staring down at the grass far, far beneath him.
“Kevin!” screamed the girl. Taking that as his cue, Kevin leapt off the fence, flailing into midair like a man frantically drowning in nothing.
“Holy crap!” I cried.
He hit the ground flat on his side, like a sack of potatoes dropped off a truck. He did not move at all. The girl screamed, let go of the ball, and ran back toward the playground.
“He’s dead!” I said.
But he wasn’t. Like he’d been jolted with an electric prod, Kevin popped his head up off the ground. He clambered up to his feet.
“He’s escaping!” I hurriedly dried my arms as I bolted for the front door.
From our front lawn I watched Kevin make his getaway. You’ve never seen a guy run so hard to go so nowhere. It was like his feet and arms had never before gotten together to discuss the fine art of running. Each of his limbs seemed to have its own different idea about how best to go about that.
Nonetheless, Kevin was on the move. He made it across the parking lot onto the sidewalk. Pointing himself in one direction, he began to pump in earnest: red Keds slapping the pavement, knees practically knocking himself in the head, elbows threatening to take out passing cars.
I looked back at the school. The girl who’d seen Kevin jump was yanking on the shirt of a playground attendant, a blond guy, college-age. With her other hand she was pointing toward Kevin, now closer to me than them. But the attendant wasn’t listening to the girl; he was engaged with talking to another kid.
I looked back at Kevin. If he got about forty more feet down the sidewalk, the houses on that side of the street would block him from the school.
I started bouncing up and down on my toes.
I looked back at the school. The attendant was now paying attention to the pointing, screaming girl. The din of the playground prevented his too readily hearing her. I looked back at Kevin. Twenty feet and he’d be hidden. Back at the school. The attendant was now looking at … me! Jerking my head skyward I assumed a totally nonchalant position, like I’d just stepped out of my house to casually see if anything unusual was happening with the sky. Not much was—so, what the heck, maybe I’d now look around to see if anything just so happened to be happening across the street.
By then the attendant was at the playground gate. He was coming out.
Kevin was barreling full force down the sidewalk.
I could walk backwards faster.
With the easy, loping bounds of an athlete, the attendant ran to the sidewalk. Arms on hips, he stood looking up and down the street.
Kevin wasn’t exactly hard to spot.
The attendant begin jogging down the street toward his errant student. As he approached Kevin he slowed, and reached out his hand to Kevin’s shoulder. Kevin stopped the instant he felt the hand touch him. He dejectedly hung his head, panting. The attendant talked to him. The two of them turned and walked back toward the school, the attendant’s arm around Kevin’s shoulders.
As they were directly across the street, the attendant looked at me. I had forgotten that there something else about the sky that I had meant to check out, so I looked to that.
Then I watched them finish their slow walk back. Back to school. Back to normal. Back to life, where nobody ever really escapes from anything.
Just before Kevin entered the schoolyard gate he stopped, turned his back to the attendant, and faced me. With a smile that took up his whole face he threw his long arm up in the air, and waved to me, like I was standing on the deck of an ocean liner, and he was wishing me bon voyage.