Something new I just finished.
The first time I met Donald he was eating a cookie. He stood in the doorway of my office, nodding as though ending a conversation with a close friend, chewing and smiling, and holding a handful of envelopes in his left hand, which, oddly enough, he was able to bend so far his palm laid against his forearm.
“Hi! I’m Donald and I work in the mailroom.”
“Hello, Donald,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Sometimes if there’s not enough people to deliver mail they let me leave the mailroom so I can deliver mail.”
“Oh,” I said. “How nice.”
And he stared down to his untied, blue shoes.
Donald was stout, about five two, with a round belly that gave him a pear shaped figure. Bald, but with thick curls on top of his ears that stretched down into a patchy, grey beard. I assumed he was close to sixty-five, based on his wrinkles and sagging eyes, though when he smiled he was able to shed decades, as if the simple emotion of joy transformed him into a little boy.
“You have a window in your office,” Donald said. “Windows are nice.”
“Yes,” I said. “Windows are nice.”
“Wish I had a window like that.”
Besides his chewing and the occasional shifting of his weight, Donald had yet to move since entering my office, nor did it appear he had any plans to.
“Well, thank you for bringing me my mail,” I said.
Donald walked closer, limping with each step, and I noticed he was unable to bend his right knee. He stopped three feet short of my desk.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
Donald widened his eyelids, stretching his thick eyebrows.
“You have lots of cookies on your desk,” Donald said.
“Yes,” I said. “I do have lots of cookies.”
“But why do you have so many cookies on your desk?” Donald asked. And he licked his lips.
It was the Friday before Halloween, and I had baked a plateful of cookies for my coworkers, each one decorated like a ghost or monsters, well over a dozen.
“Would you like one?” I asked.
“Yes,” Donald said, not even pretending to sound polite.
I smiled and held the plate out.
“Which one?” Donald asked
“Whatever one you’d like.”
“Really?” Donald said.
“Really,” I said.
My phone rang, and I lowered the cookies, giving Donald the chance to exam each one however he saw fit.
I talked for a few minutes, maybe three or four, as Donald sat in a nearby chair. I knew he was odd, but nevertheless a harmless man. An errand boy. Someone to move from office to office. Someone to easily forget.
In fact, the moment I hung up the phone I forgot Donald was even there. Until I heard him chewing. The plate was on his lap, his face was red, cheeks full, and his pear shaped belly was pushed wider than before, as if making room for an incoming feast. Donald had eaten all of my cookies, an entire plateful, well over a dozen.
“Donald,” I said. “You ate all of my cookies.”
He looked down, dripping a few crumbs from his beard. There was a half eaten cookie in his hand, the last one, which he quickly let go off. He then looked to his side, as if assuming the cookies had all fallen.
“Oh, no,” Donald said. He reached the plate out, letting it drop an inch too high, causing the ceramic to bounce against my desk and echo through the office.
“It’s okay, Donald” I said. “Don’t worry.”
“Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no!” Donald said, and he began hitting his head, shaking his left hand freely like an empty glove.
“Donald, please stop.”
“Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no,” he kept saying. Envelopes now covered the floor, and his feet stomped. I swallowed, unsure of what else to. Call security, yell for help, or run away is what I wanted. But instead I reached out; grabbed his hands. I feared he might hit me as I did this, scream and fall to the ground, but all Donald did was become still; as if it the sensation of warm touch was all he needed to solve everything.
Donald’s hands were freezing and covered in calluses.
“I’m sorry,” Donald said.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“But I ate all of your cookies.”
“It’s fine, Donald.”
He wiped a tear from his eye and began organizing a pile of crumbs on the plate.
“Donald, stop,” I said. “You don’t have to do that.” He slowly looked up, lips quivering, eyes closed, hands shaking. Donald had been here before, I knew it.
“I wanted you to have all those cookies,” I said. “Every one of them. I did.”
Donald opened his eyes, as if waiting for more. When nothing came, however, he turned his head like a child, like he was seeing the ocean. Donald was once again a little boy.
“You can have the last one,” Donald said. “I didn’t eat all of it.” He pointed to the half eaten cookie, decorated like a happy monster.
“You can have that one too, Donald,” I said. “I want you to.”
“Really?” Donald said.
“Really,” I said.
My phone rang. I picked it up and dropped it to the side, stopping the ringing. We sat in silence, both still, until Donald began to laugh. I quickly followed. Both of us laughing at a joke neither of us understood.
Donald grabbed the cookie with a smile.
Just minutes after Donald left my office a few coworkers came in. I expected concerned comments, as anyone might expect after having a man breakdown in their presence. But no. Donald, I would soon realize, was quite popular in my building, carrying a reputation that was less than desired, but regardless, supplied an abundance of water cooler banter.
“Donald’s on to you!” one of them said. “You gave the kitten some milk.”
“You’re new, and young!” another said. “Donald is going to love you!”
People often liked to comment that I was both new and young at my office, as if trying to warn me those features would soon be gone.
“He seems harmless enough to me,” I said. “What’s the problem?”
The room turned silent. A few people even rolled their eyes. I had been at my job for less than a month, though I was already becoming used to this feeling.
“Trust me,” one of them said. “There’s a reason the mailroom is in the basement.”
And I nodded, trying to tell everyone that I understood.
“But what about that hand?” my coworker continued. He limped across the floor, bending his left hand as far up as he could, which was only half of what Donald could do.
They laughed, so I laughed. I had to. But l still looked away, focusing my eyes on the only thing worth seeing. The small pile of crumbs Donald had made on my plate. The perfect little pile.
In an office with over a dozen people, it seems that at least four times a week there’s either or a party or dessert being presented, be it to celebrate a birthday, engagement, birth, retirement, or anything else to break up the monotony of an office job.
On the Monday following my first meeting with Donald, it was a coworker’s birthday. Still being relatively new at my office, I was present for most of the celebration, doing my best to listen and show anyone and everyone how friendly I could be. Since it appeared prewritten conversation had been assigned like memos, however, none of which included me, I stood to the side, alone, eating three pieces of cake to keep my hands and mouth busy.
People laughed, danced, shared stories from their past, all while I began to back away to my office. I sat. I sighed. I lowered a piece of half eaten cake to my desk and looked out to my window. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to vomit for so many reasons, but instead I closed my eyes. In the background Happy Birthday was being sung, for the third or fourth time. Another celebration.
I opened my eyes and reached for my phone.
Donald began coming to my office at least once a day. I brought him candy, cookies, took extra pieces of cake during office parties, and kept them all in the bottom drawer of my desk, safe and sound until I could give them to Donald.
He didn’t talk much in my office, in fact, most of the time he was silent, content to simply stare out of my window as I typed and made calls. He would eat his candy or cookies, and only occasionally make comments to break up our time.
“It’s going to snow soon,” Donald would say. “I hate snow. Makes it harder for me to walk.”
“I’m not a big fan of snow either,” I would say. And then it was back to work.
Eventually, however, I began opening up to Donald more than I had with any other coworker. I discussed my family, friends, and even a few girls I was seeing, always doing my best to give a childproof abridged version of each topic. Donald listened to everything, often asking me to repeat certain phrases or define a multi syllable words, as if he refused to miss the smallest thing.
In return, Donald began discussing his own life. How he lived with mother, Mildred. How he owned a stamp collection, and how one day he planned to fly an airplane, all by himself. Most importantly, however, was a piece of information that Donald seemed to find hours of entrainment in, a common ground that held the base of our friendship.
“You lived in Bay Ridge?!” Donald said. “That’s funny, because I’ve lived in Bay Ridge forever!”
“I lived there last year, Donald,” I said. “That is funny.”
“Oh, yes, oh, yes, oh yes!”
Bay Ridge, a southern neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, was not only Donald’s home, but, as I would soon discover, his favorite place in the universe, giving him an endless amount of conversation material.
“Do you know the store that sells candles?” Donald would say.
“I think I know that store,” I would say.
“What about the store that rents videos, with the blue letters?”
“Yup, sure do.”
Over and over, place after place. It was as if he had kept an entire world a secret, and now finally had the chance to share it.
One day, Donald brought in a map of Bay Ridge. It was neatly folded, crisp, something he had obviously taken care of for many years. He carefully placed it atop of my desk and we examined different landmarks.
“There’s a restaurant that has old tables and chairs. That’s my favorites,” Donald said. “They make it look old on purpose.”
“Sounds great, Donald.”
“Would you go with me?”
I leaned back and smiled. I knew Donald in the context of my work, that’s it; a man who sat in my office. Seeing him outside of it, not to mention with the rest of the world, was something I had given little thought to.
“Sure,” I said. “Someday we’ll go.”
“Really?” Donald said.
“Really,” I said.
And Donald smiled. He was always a little boy when he smiled. He then raised his hand, his right hand, which had the support of a wrist, and we shook. As I expected, it was cold and covered in calluses.
My coworkers, as nosey as they were, began noticing that Donald was spending an unusual amount of time in my office, which, to my pleasant surprise, kept them away, a side effect of Donald’s presence I had not sought out, but, nevertheless, was very thankful for.
“Giving Donald another treat?” a coworker once asked. He laughed and nodded, raising his hand in search of a high five. I walked past him without saying a word.
“Why do you let me sit here?” Donald once asked. It had been well over a month since our first meeting, and, since then, it had honestly not occurred to me that Donald might begin questioning our time.
“Because you’re my friend, Donald,” I said.
“Friend,” Donald said.
He nodded and ate his cookie. For a moment, I thought he might ask me to define the word “friend”. Instead, he simply stared out of my window. It was a Thursday in November, the first snowfall of the season.
In December, Donald’s mother became sick. He rushed into my office at 9am, earlier than ever before, pacing, humming, and clenching his fists. It looked like he might hit something. Donald told me she was coughing up blood.
“How old is your mother?” I asked. Age was a topic Donald and I never discussed, and by his reaction I began wondering if he was able to fully comprehend its concept.
“Old,” Donald said. “She’s very old.”
“Well, I’ll help you,” I said.
“We’ll look up a doctor. On the computer.”
Donald turned to my window. He was always skeptical of computers, not necessarily because he was incapable of using them, but because he knew they played an important role in everyone’s life but his own.
“Donald,” I said. “I’ll help you. I promise.”
He kept facing away, motionless, and despite the fact I knew it wasn’t the most appropriate time, I did the only thing I could to help make him smile.
“I have cake, Donald,” I said. “A big, big slice.” And I revealed a piece of chocolate cake, the largest piece taken from my coworker’s engagement party the previous day.
“Not hungry today,” Donald said. He didn’t even look at it. In fact, he didn’t look away from the window for over an hour, as if his eyes were a damn for tears, waiting to be broken with the slightest turn of his gaze.
Who will take care of Donald? I thought.
Later that day I asked to speak with my boss. Despite the terseness of my coworkers, I found her to be a kind woman, and someone I hoped would share the same concern I had for a worker in the mailroom.
“Are there programs here,” I asked. “For handicapped employees?”
She looked up from a folder, which was leaking with paper, as if reminding me she was far too busy to devote all of her attention to one topic or person.
“Donald has been spending time in your office. Is that right?” she asked.
Since my boss rarely came to see me, or my office, I imagined she had obtained this information from my coworkers, giving me more than enough reason to move past it.
“I believe that Donald is having trouble at home right now,” I said. “He’s incapable of taking care of himself, or others, and needs help. I assumed he was brought here with some kind of work placement, and I’d like to talk to them-“
She raised her hand, as if knowing the end to my words and trying to save me from their disastrous effect.
“Donald is not your problem,” she said. “And yes, there are programs in place to help him. When he asks.”
“But what if he doesn’t ask?” I said
“What if he’s only asked me?”
She gripped her folder and closed it halfway. Her eyes soften, and she turned to her window.
“Donald is not your problem,” she said. She then swallowed and fully reopened the folder. “At least not while you’re working here. Therefore, you can either help him outside of the workday, or you can stop working here all together. Understood?”
There was a candy dish on my boss’ desk; something I had just noticed. I grabbed some chocolate and left.
The rest of the afternoon was spent searching the internet for Doctors in Bay Ridge, and different organizations that might be able to help a person like Donald. Unfortunately, my search lacked a specific detail I was only now just realizing. I didn’t know what type of person Donald even was. I didn’t know anything about him. Just that he liked Bay Ridge. Just that he hated the snow. Just that he loved cookies. I knew he had a disability of some sort, anyone could tell you that, but how that translated in to me calling the aid of disabilities group was something else entirely. Honestly, I didn’t even know if Donald needed help, or the details of his mother’s sickness. Or, in reality, if she even was sick. Maybe Donald was just confused. It was possible. And maybe I was just confused about Donald.
In the background Happy Birthday was being sung. Another party in my office; another celebration, except this time I wasn’t invited.
Once I made Donald cry like a little boy. It was a busy day, a Wednesday, and Donald limped into my office, swinging his unbendable right leg three feet out with each step. He often visited on busy days, which was fine since he knew to sit in silence and eat his candy. Today, however, Donald needed more.
“Mom is getting more sick,” Donald said.
“Donald, I can’t help you today.”
“But she’s coughing up more blood.”
I turned to him. His hands were shaking and his bottom lip quivered, just like the first time we met.
“Then you should ask someone to help you,” I said.
“But I asked you,” Donald said.
I didn’t respond. I just stared at him, at his pear shaped, helpless body and his wrist less left hand, which, not to my surprise, was holding a bright red backpack, the type a kindergartener might use.
I began to type. Donald put his bag down. He took out his map of Bay Ridge, which was no longer neatly folder and crisp, but instead covered in wrinkles, as if he had reversed years of care with only a few days of neglect.
“I’m sorry, Donald, we can talk about this later.”
I continued my typing, and Donald placed the map on my desk, without asking. He then knocked over a stack of papers. Everywhere. All over the floor. I stood and pushed my chair back.
“Jesus, Donald. Look what you did!”
“I brought the map of Bay Ridge in so we can look for doctors.”
“Well, that’s not how you look for doctors, Donald.”
“You wouldn’t understand how!”
And Donald began to cry. His shoulders moved forward, but his body was still, as if he was begging me to reach out, to solve all of his problems with a simple, warm touch. Instead, I sat. I continued my typing.
“Donald, I have to work,” I said. I didn’t look at him; I couldn’t, though I still heard his whimpers. They were long and soft, each one a wheeze, as if Donald was relearning how to breathe. I closed my eyes, I had to, taking away all of my options to see him. And Donald left. I waited for a moment, typing the same letter over and over on my keyboard, and then stood from my chair, pushing it back farther than before. I ran to the exit, almost tripping over some papers, and stopped at the doorway, the exact place I first saw Donald eating his cookie so many weeks ago.
A coworker appeared in front of me. “Giving the kitten some milk,” he said.
I slammed the door in his face.
The next day I didn’t go to my office. I went to the basement. A ceramic plate was in my hands, draped with a white towel to help me avoid any questions I might find if I happened to bump in to a coworker. In the basement, however, I saw almost no one.
The mailroom was in a far corner, clean and with freshly painted walls. When I asked where Donald worked, however, they sent me deeper into the building. It was dark there, with most of the overhead lights blinking on and off. Exposed pipes dripped colored liquids, and flakey paint exposed grey bricks. This is where Donald worked.
His office, as I soon discovered, wasn’t actually an office, but instead a room with two cubicles. It had a pungent smell, something I couldn’t recognize at first, and by the sidewall were dozens of boxes, stacked from the floor to ceiling. I wondered if it was Donald’s job to sort these; to organize, perhaps. From what I could see, however, this room had nothing to indicate that any work could ever be done here.
“You here for something?” a man asked. He moved from behind the boxes, revealing his thick grey bread and an eye patch covering his right eye socket.
“I’m here for Donald,” I said.
“So you the guy from upstairs?” I said nothing, and he looked me up and down. He then laughed and spit to his side. I wrapped the white towel tighter around my plate.
“He sits over there,” the man said. I walked away, not wanting to spend a second longer with this man than necessary.
Donald’s desk, if you could call it that, was empty. There were only a few scattered cookies on the top of it, and a framed black and white photo of an elderly woman. She was beautiful, with Donald’s smile.
“Donald’s a slob,” the man said. He walked past me and dropped a dustpan on the desk, knocking over the frame. “He wouldn’t clean a thing if I didn’t yell at him.” The man smiled and licked his dry lips. I said nothing, but finally realized what the pungent smell was. It was this him. It was day old meat.
“Have a nice day,” I told him, and I left the room.
Halfway down the hall I saw Donald. In the new setting I didn’t recognize him at first, and with the dim lighting I almost missed him all together.
“Hello, Donald,” I said.
“Oh,” Donald said. “You’re in the basement.” He looked from side to side, as if searching for somewhere to hide.
“How are you, Donald?” I asked. He hummed and tilted his face down.
“Donald, I’m sorry I yelled at you yesterday,” I said.
He laughed; the last thing I expected. His breath was smooth and steady.
“You don’t want to go to Bay Ridge?” Donald said. “Do you?”
“Bay Ridge,” Donald continued. “You don’t really want to go to the restaurant. The old one with old tables and chairs.”
“Donald I do, it’s just-“
“Why did you say you wanted to go there when you don’t?”
It was the first time Donald had ever interrupted me. Now I was looking down.
“I don’t know why,” I said.
“Well, did you lie about being my friend, too?”
“No, Donald, of course not.” I smiled, helplessly. I looked everywhere I could; searching for multi syllable words I knew Donald would never understand. Then I did the only thing I could think of to help make him smile. I pulled the white towel off from my plate and revealed over a dozen cookies, which I had spent three hours baking the previous night. I had burnt the first patch, and then started again from scratch. For Donald, these needed to be perfect.
Donald stared at them. He sighed. I wanted him to laugh, for his eyes to light up. But he just sighed.
“We’re friends, Donald. We are.”
“Friends?” Donald said.
“How old are you?”
I widened my eyelids, surprised Donald could ask such a logical question and turn the conversation so easily.
“I’m twenty-five,” I said.
“Twenty-five,” Donald said. Then I realized it. Donald was the smartest person I had ever met in my life. He spoke what was true. He had to. He wasn’t an errand boy. He wasn’t someone to go from office to office. And he wasn’t someone to easily forget.
“Well, do you want to be my friend?” I asked. My lips quivered and my hands shook.
Donald nodded. That was it, as if he was answering the most mundane question in the world.
“Which cookie should I pick?” Donald asked.
“You can have them all,” I said.
“Really?” Donald said.
“Really,” I said.
Donald smiled, though for the first time he didn’t look like a little boy. I was the little boy. He was the old man. Donald grabbed a cookie, only one, and began limping away.
“Let’s go to Bay Ridge soon,” I called out to him. “We’ll go for the day. To the old restaurant with the old tables and chairs.” But there was nothing. He just kept walking, farther and farther, never once turning back.
“Donald?” I called.
And he vanished around a corner. I was alone. Only with the cookies.
The mornings in my building were always still, the most beautiful time of day, as if it knew to enjoy the silence before the chaos of life seeped in. I wanted to stand in it forever.
Maybe I could give some cookies to my coworkers, I thought. Maybe today there would be another celebration.
I would invite myself.