MARY ran away if ever a door were left open - gone like a sea gull riding a force nine gale, destination unknown. Then after her I'd dash, close in, catch her by the hand, draw her back. Her brown eyes never registered anger or regret. So expressionless were they that I thought I must be to her an invisible force of nature, an undertow too powerful to be escaped, too impersonal to be rebuked. Like most of my day campers at the Harris County Center for the Retarded, Mary looked like a normal eight-year-old. It was her behavior that made her special. Besides bolting for the blue, she never spoke - never made a sound.
But she enjoyed the (enclosed) playground as much as the other kids in my group, built Lego palaces with the best of them, and positively relished our afternoon Vanilla Wafers and Hawaiian Punch. During sing-alongs she sparkled, silently.
That silence was an enduring enigma in a summer that began with my mom's unexpected announcement. She informed me that I would not fritter away this vacation, nor work for no higher purpose than earning spending money. Mother dragged me along on rounds of the social-service agencies. Lighthouse for the Blind didn't have any use for me? Fine. Off to the Center for the Retarded, which hired me as a co-counselor for a classroom, a playroom really, of preteens.
Great, I thought glumly. Fourteen is an age for affecting hip and cool. Other kids would be lifeguarding at country clubs or operating rides at Astroworld.
And the job would be just short of everlasting, the way summers always sweated and scraped along. At last 4th of July would crawl to the top of the calendar - and still the season would be barely a third out of the way. But my new job was not the drudgery I anticipated.
ONCE I started sharing a room with 20 retarded children for seven hours a day, I enjoyed it. Far from being uninteresting or difficult, my campers were eager, considerate, and trusting. We had a blast swimming, making Tinker Toy marvels, and competing in talent contests with the other classrooms. Limitations gradually lifted. I learned the names of my campers, and they learned mine.
Except for Mary. The hundreds of times I tied her shoes, pushed her swing, or bounced a basketball to her never elicited a flicker of acknowledgment, let alone recognition. I remained an invisible force. At the start of camp I didn't dream I'd connect with any of the kids, or want to. Now I was frustrated that there was one whom I couldn't reach.
Camp ended - how quickly 10 weeks went by! - and parents came to pick up their kids for the last time. There was lots of hugging and goodbyes and promises to see you next year.
Mary's parents drove up. Car doors yawned open. I crossed the driveway and sat on a low wall next to the playground. Chin in my hands, elbows on my knees, I watched the family prepare to go. Suddenly, Mary was running away - running to me. She threw her arms around my neck.
I had reached her after all. Mary was aware of me. She knew who I was. She kissed me.