When I first spot Glen on the Monashee Rail Trail I almost wave to him. Instinctively, I almost call his name. Then I stop myself, think better of it, and decide to pass him by. It’s okay. After all, a whole year has passed since I last saw Glen and I am a new person― mother, wife, non-smoker; my hair cut to shoulder length, my face free of makeup. It’s all right to walk right past Glen. There’s nothing wrong in trying to keep this an after dinner walk with just my husband and my baby girl. There’s no wrongdoing in pretending not to see.
The rail trail stretches straight and flat in both directions, black tar mixed with crushed recycled glass poured over a disused railbed. Carlisle, where I live, sits at one end of the trail. West Albion, Glen’s town, is at the other end. Route 12 snakes along beside the trail, twisting under and over, sometimes nearly touching it, other times winding out of sight, obscured by the strip of woods on either side. I like the simplicity of the trail at the end of the day, everything laid out in an eight-mile line.
Tonight, the sky is threatening rain, and my husband and I walk with purpose, so quickly that I almost don’t see Glen at all. But he stands out. At first his hoppy adolescent stride seems just a touch off. Looking closer, it becomes clear that he isn’t a teenager at all but a man of thirty, perhaps thirty-five. Then there’s the noticeable stiffness of his legs, how he bounces along without actually bending at the knees, almost on tiptoes. But it’s his eyes that are unmistakably wrong. Those staring blue eyes appear fixed on a single spot in the distance. Pale butterflies pinned to a page. If you get close enough to see Glen’s eyes, you know, absolutely, that there is something not right about him.
It looks as though Glen is blind, but actually his vision is just cropped, the periphery cut away, leaving him only a narrow ten-degree arc to peer through. Glen is constantly owling his head around to bring pieces of the world into sight. People who drift into that slim window where his vision is perfect say it makes them feel uncomfortable, as if they shouldn’t move; as if they were frozen.
What isn’t clear is that Glen has a brain injury, that his memory is as cropped as his sight. He keeps a bright-red star sticker plastered to the play button on his VCR and a card in his pocket with his name and phone number — just in case.
With Glen’s cloudy memory and limited vision, I’m confident that I can slip past him in silence. I bow my head and pretend fascination with the sparkle of glass trapped in the pavement. I walk ahead of my husband to get by Glen quicker. When I’m almost shoulder to shoulder with Glen, I hear the slap of his wallet chain against his hip. I want to look to see if his flannel shirt is buttoned straight; if he’s wearing a new dollar-store digital watch (“These things are a piece of junk,” he’d say, after purchasing yet another); if he’s wearing the same tight, acid-washed jeans. But I resist. I hold my breath. Another step and Glen will be behind me. I exhale.
And then my husband—I’d forgotten about my husband—shouts, “Hey aren’t you…?”
Before I started the job I’d heard stories about Glen. Women who had worked with him in the past told me about his temper, his violent streak. They told me he’d thrown a girl off his balcony once.
Some of the clients had twenty-four-hour staffing, but Glen needed only about eight hours a day, split into two four-hour shifts. The morning staff person took Glen to work and coached him through his Meals on Wheels route. The evening person was responsible for practical matters―groceries, dinner, laundry, hygiene, and, of course, companionship. I was the evening person.
On my first scheduled shift with Glen, I walked across the parking lot at the massive low-rise apartment complex where he lived. I’d been told that punctuality was crucial. Glen spent the hours in between staff visits sitting in his armchair, listening to the sounds of his neighbors, gradually becoming more and more bitter about the volume of their voices and the frequency of their footfalls. I imagined an enormous man staring at a digital clock with oversized numbers, waiting impatiently for the last number to change to a zero. My watch showed five minutes before the hour.
I buzzed Glen’s apartment. Almost immediately there was a crackle and a voice.
“Is this Glen?”
“Oh, good. I’m Carol I’m here to . . .” I drew a blank. Why was I here? I felt rude saying “work,” but I’d be a liar if I said “visit.”
“You’re what?” he asked.
My face felt hot. This man was starting to dislike me already. I stood in the cold vestibule for several moments, fishing for the right words, a coded message that said, “Trust me,” “Like me,” and, “Let this be easy.”
“Is it laundry day?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. I don’t know. Do you want to do laundry?”
“No. I hate laundry. Terry makes me do laundry every time she comes. Always spending my quarters on friggin’ laundry.”
“No, it’s not a laundry day. I’m sure.Could you please let me in?”
There was a long pause and then the low hum of the buzzer. I grabbed the door and yanked it open.
Glen stood stiffly at the far end of the hall, in front of his open door: a small, wiry man with scruffy blond hair and beard, not even the slightest hint of a smile on his face. Why am I here? I thought.
This is the story Glen believes: he says it was about a girl, the one he really loved. He says they were out in the woods in his car. It was late, very late, on a school night, but Glen’s mother didn’t care. (His father had left years ago.) Each time Glen tells the story, he emphasizes a different part. Sometimes the year (1977), or the song on the radio (Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”), or the clothes he was wearing. Sometimes it’s the season, the way the falling leaves tumbled onto the windshield so hard and fast it felt as if he and Donna (always he remembers her name) were inside a cave. Sometimes he talks about Donna’s smooth brown hair, the way the steering wheel cut into his back, the way she kept her bubblegum in her mouth as they kissed. Once, he told me he would have married her.
This is Glen’s story, and I’ve chosen to believe it. He tells it with such exact detail that I can’t believe he has conjured it. Sometimes when he’s telling the story, he closes his eyes as though he can still picture himself in that place, on that night. As if he might see something else there.
Then Glen starts to get angry, and his language fills with crude curses and accusations. He says he was found unconscious in the car the next day with a blow to the head and a hose strung from the exhaust pipe to the back window. He remembers police interviews and hospitals. He says he thinks he knows the guy who did it, but he can’t remember his name. He says he never saw Donna again.
People who don’t believe Glen’s story say it was a suicide attempt; all the rest is imagined.
Tonight on the rail trail, Glen hears my husband call to him. Glen prides himself on his hearing, so of course he hears my husband. I turn around slowly and see Glen angling his head to bring my husband into view. Glen has his back to me, and I stare at the familiar silver chain attached to his keys and wallet. He is wearing the same jeans, the same flannel shirt. His hair is still long in the back, short on the sides. Nothing about him is different.
From behind Glen, I catch my husband’s eye and shake my head vigorously back and forth. Glen is silent, tilting his head gently, apparently trying to place my husband. They’ve met twice at staff-client parties: not enough for Glen to remember him. It is getting dark. Glen is far from home. Some exasperated staff person is probably searching for him.
It would be easy to make Glen remember me. I know I could be gentle and tactful enough to offer him a ride home without compromising his independence. But when I see how nothing is different, how nothing has changed for this man, I let my husband talk. I let him take my cue and tell Glen that he has made a mistake, that he must have mistaken him for somebody else. Glen says nothing, only lowers his head. As if a spell has been broken, we are released, free to continue moving quickly and deliberately in opposite directions.
Glen watered his plants with hot water. Very hot water. It was not something that was up for discussion. He said the cold water picks up chemicals from the pipes. I did not tell Glen that it is the other way around, that it is the hot water that leaches compounds out of the metal. I knew not to question his intelligence. Instead, I would wait for Glen to finish and then sneak up to the plants and douse them with ice water, hoping that this would save their lives. It was one of many topics that couldn’t be argued with Glen, part of the tension that surrounded him. There were days he was so edgy that almost any discussion at all could set him off. I would get to his apartment, and a stereo or VCR might lie smashed to pieces on his floor.
I learned that Glen actually had shoved a woman over his balcony. (It was only ten feet up.) She had made the mistake of coercing him into doing laundry on the wrong day. I also learned that, most of the time, Glen wouldn’t become violent when frustrated; he’d just run away. Once, I tried to teach him to use his VCR, and when he couldn’t follow the steps to record, he dropped the remote, began swearing, and lunged for his sneakers.By the time I realized his intention, he was out the door and gone.
On good days Glen laughed a lot and joked cynically about human services and the behavior of other clients. I’d drive him to the store for groceries, apologizing, yet again, that the passenger-side window wouldn’t roll up tight, and we’d laugh at what a piece of junk my car was. Glen didn’t care much about food, so getting him to shop was a matter of delicate seduction.
“How about spaghetti?” I’d ask.
“I don’t think so.”
“But I could fry you up some meatballs and maybe broil some garlic bread, and if we get the parmesan cheese . . .”
“Well . . .”
And so it went through each aisle until we had enough for sustenance. If things were going well, we’d stop at Dunkin Donuts and talk about Glen’s life before the accident; about Glen as a little boy with his older sisters, how they’d let him ride in their friends’ cars. Their Glennie, they called him, and he was free, like they were.
But then somehow the conversation would tip, ever so slightly, to the here and now. I would struggle to push him back into the past, but it was no use. He’d remember that his sisters never visited him. I’d tell him it was a long drive, remind him that they did call. Glen’s face would tighten, and he’d fall silent. It wouldn’t matter what I said now. The evening was over. We’d finish our coffees, and I’d drop Glen off at home.
Each night was a slightly different version of the one before it. Time with Glen just circled around and around, never moving out of the same tight loop until, at the end of one such night, I decided I couldn’t do this anymore.The first fat drop of rain lands on my cheek, and for a moment it seems as if that might be the only one: no storm, just a single splash of water on my sweaty skin. Then, cutting through the sound of the evening traffic, I hear the first low rumble of thunder. I look up and right on cue, the rain begins pouring down into my gullible face.
My little girl starts to whimper. My husbands shouts for me to run with the stroller into the coffee shop while he goes for the car. I think of Glen. I know he can barely see at night. I’ve watched him stumble through dark supermarket parking lots, leaning against a stranger’s car, trying to convince me it was my own. I start to calculate how far away he could be. I think of all the places where the trail intersects the main road, places where I could cut him off and bring him to safety. Lightning flashes, and I run with the stroller. The rubber wheels splash through puddles, wetting my daughter’s white-socked ankles. I can’t stop thinking I am a bad person. I have avoided this man who trusted me, this man I made promises to during my last week with him, telling him time and again that I would stay in touch; I would visit. We’d still go out for coffee. We would stay friends. “Yeah, right,” he said. “Everyone says that.” But you don’t know me, I thought. I mean it.
And I did mean it, for the first week or two, while I was waiting for some distance to develop. I still meant it a month later, when Glen had been distilled to a few memories: a sarcastic laugh, a chained wallet. I meant it over and over, each time I didn’t call, still thinking that I could be friends with a mentally disabled man, that I could truly want to spend time with him, without payment. I would remember funny things that Glen used to say, like his acronym for Ford: Fix Or Repair Daily. Chevys were far superior, he informed me. I thought of him many times, but I never had the slightest desire to see him.
Glen and I used to walk the rail trail during the spring and summer. It was my idea to start with, but soon he was asking other staff people to walk with him. Most didn’t want to, so it became something that we did, Glen and I: a reason for him to look forward to the days that I was on duty. When we were both depressed or grumpy, we would walk its entire length: eight miles each way. Once, I misjudged the time, and it was nearly eleven o’clock when we returned. As the trail turned dark, Glen slowed, his quick hop becoming the uncertain shuffle of an old man. His hand reached out, grabbing the edge of my jacket. Neither of us spoke as we walked the rest of the way home.
A few months after leaving the agency, I ran into Dave, Glen’s main staff person, in the cereal aisle of Safeway. He told me that Glen still talked about me.
“He definitely remembers you,” Dave said. “Said you didn’t make him do laundry.”
I laughed, and for that brief moment Glen became real to me again. I saw him, heard him talking about “friggin’ laundry.” I said to Dave, “Tell him I’ll give him a call. I’ve been real busy, but I’ll definitely give him a call, OK?” And in that moment, I meant it. I really meant it.
“He’d like that,” Dave said, and he waved and turned down the next aisle.
I stuck up a hand to wave back and then plucked a box of Frosted Flakes from the shelf, suddenly intenselyfocused on the nutritional information, absorbed by “invert corn syrup” and “hydrogenated palm oil.” I stood there for a long time. I never called Glen.
Sometimes a brain injury leaves a person paralyzed, or unable to speak or understand numbers. Sometimes it shackles the injured person to the point in time when the trauma occurred, perhaps rendering him or her forever childlike or adolescent. This man I’d come to know was forever seventeen, forever filled with teenage anger and energy. He would always smash stereos that he couldn’t operate. He would always run from women who tried to make him do laundry, bolting from his bare apartment, down the hallway, and through the parking lot. He’d charge instinctively down the stretch of road toward the rail trail, sprint with all his might for a mile or so, then slow to a walk. He’d cool down, give in to his natural forgetting, and find himself lost. He’d always look up to find himself lost.
My husband and daughter wait at home while I cruise the intersections of highway and rail trail, searching for Glen. I park on the side of the road and run down the path at every crossing, first east then west. I shout his name, knowing that if he is there, he will hear me. The rain drenches me; my wool sweater becomes waterlogged and heavy on my shoulders, the musty smell of it distinctly animal. Wherever possible, I park so my headlights shine down the length of the trail. The wet pavement, slick black and sparkling with shards of glass, looks alive, like a molten river that could swallow a man whole. Even with the headlights, I can see only a short distance. Beyond that, all is black, a solid wall of darkness.
I am convinced that I want to find Glen, that I am his friend who will guide him home. At each stop I shout his name and get no answer. Nine o’clock, ten o’clock: no sign of Glen. We were so close just hours ago, almost brushing shoulders. I could have grabbed him then, bought him black coffee, and driven him home. I begin to tire. My own home beckons. I’ve done what I can, made every reasonable effort to find him.
I sit in the car before I drive home. It is warm and humid, but I shiver. I turn the key in the ignition and watch in the rearview mirror as the cloud of white exhaust obscures my view. I pull away, wondering if maybe Glen is hiding under some bushes, taking shelter from the storm. Or maybe he moved onto the main road and hitched a ride, giving the driver an address he prayed was his current one. Or maybe he is still wandering scared down one of the long, dark stretches of trail, far from the roadway. I want to believe that he made it back to his apartment, that he ran in a straight line and in the right direction when he felt the first drop of rain hit. I could call and make sure. I could call and hang up.