Derrick Wore His Pants Too High

Paul Crenshaw | Essays

Derrick Stegan, developmentally disabled, thin as a coilspring on a box mattress, wore his pants too high, which made him look like a garden hose. Spring mornings after the rains he came swinging along in his cheap tennis shoes, plowing through puddles, his pants pulled so high the waist touched his armpits.

Donnie Joe, standing at the bus stop beneath the bone-white buildings that hovered over the houses where we lived, miserable in the cold, already hating the bus and the ride down the hill to high school, knowing he’d end up working at the Institute anyway, said, “Your pants are pulled too high, Derrick.”

Derrick, still swinging his feet through the puddles like a small child, wearing a grin almost as wide as his gait, pleased with himself and his pants pulled too high, said, “Your momma’s a whore cause she likes to fuck.”

Kyle Wore a Crash Helmet

And hot summer days the sweat welled up beneath it and ran down his face so he seemed more sweat than man, but still kept shooting baskets in the shadows of the buildings of the Institute. He had to wear the helmet to keep his skull from splitting open when his body seized up on him and he went down shaking like small earthquakes. My mother took classes on what to do if she ever saw him seizing, but all I remember was that she wasn’t supposed to put her hands in his mouth even if he was choking to death on his tongue.

“I’m supposed to use a wallet,” she said once. “Or a shoe.”

In the sweltering afternoons I’d see Kyle shooting baskets and, after I became almost comfortable around him—and Derrick, and Dalton, and Big Jim Brantley—I hoped his helmet would never be needed. Once one of my friends, spending an afternoon at my house there on the outskirts of the Institute, asked why Kyle wore the helmet and I said he used to play hockey. I’d tell you why I said it, but I’m sure you already know how, even at an early age, we can be embarrassed for other people, sure as we are of our own skin.

Big Jim Brantley Smelled Like Bologna

Even in the fall he wore overalls without a shirt underneath and always seemed to be slick with sweat when walking across the face of the Institute. He grunted instead of talking, and even though my mother said he only meant hello, I never knew what he was trying to say. At that age and in that place, all adults were unsettling, like the time around Christmas when Big Jim wore a fur coat that sat on his shoulders like a second skin and we said he was Sasquatch. We didn’t know why the clothes were so old, nor why he would wear them, but around that time he also carried on his shoulders with him a tiny kitten. It was black, the kitten, and its voice was so small you could hardly hear it, but Big Jim reached up a big hand and it started to purr, loudly.

Jamie Vanderburg Said Snotfuck

And pussyjuice. Dickass. Diarrheaface. This on days my brother and I got off the bus beneath the Nyberg Building and went through the shadows of the pine trees to Hamp Williams, where our mother worked. Walking the long halls we could hear Jamie shouting shitfuck and cuntbreath. It would be years before we understood the various syndromes that plagued the residents of the Institute, how Tourette caused Jamie to shout whatever words came to her. Her face twitched as if her skin didn’t fit right. She suffered from Fetal Alcohol as well, or maybe it was Klinefelter, and years later, when a friend said he wished he had Tourette syndrome so he could curse whenever he wanted and everyone would have to accept it, I’d remember reaching the end of the hall of Hamp Williams and peering into the classroom, where my mother was kneeling before Jamie, holding her hand, flinching a little in the face of each thrown “Fuck,” but always after saying “It’s all right, Jamie,” her calm voice trying to soothe out all the anger.

Jess Creighton Had Scales For Skin

And smelled like throw-up, which was how we said vomit back then, as kids, hardly caring that Jess Creighton saw us hold our noses when she went by. Our mother hissed at my brother and me, but there’s no way to stop a child from staring at scales or stopping up his nose when introduced to a strange smell.

“She doesn’t understand that there’s something wrong with her,” my mother said more than once, but I want to tell her now that we didn’t either.

Ray Ray Stone Was A State Kid

And once broke out the windows in one of the old buildings. Later, in my angry years, my friends and I would take tire irons to mailboxes as we went drunk along lonely country roads, so I thought I understood why Ray Ray went at the windows. He referred to himself as a State Kid, by which he meant he was owned by the state. They owned his room, he said, and the food he ate and the clothes he wore. He was the second black man I ever met, after Kyle and his crash helmet, and perhaps he was referring to slavery or the justice system and the long line of systemic abuse of African-Americans, or perhaps he only knew, unlike the rest of us, that he was never getting out of the Institute.

Dalton Whent Said One Word

Over and over. In his jeans and Western shirt he seemed as normal as any of us, and though normal is not a word I should use, I didn’t know then about Klinefelter or Down syndrome. I didn’t know there was a resident of the Institute who had been “normal” until he was a teenager and one day in the attic of his house sprayed bug spray without ventilation and when his mother came home he couldn’t remember whose house he was in nor who he was. Sometimes the word Dalton repeated was “here.” Sometimes it was “home,” so I thought maybe he was just trying to remember either where he was, or where he was supposed to be.

The Nyberg Was Built For Tuberculosis

In 1941, right before planes bombed Pearl Harbor. At the time it was the largest TB hospital in the world, but by the early ’70s, after antibiotics had mostly eradicated TB in this country, the upper floors stood empty. The Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium—a dozen buildings scattered among old-growth pine—shut down. It reopened a year later wearing a new skin, now a home for the developmentally disabled. My mother started working there in 1973, the year after I was born, and we moved there in 1980, after the divorce. The house we lived in didn’t fit, and we didn’t like the dark buildings, so we called it the retard place. Years later, revisiting it in writing, I named it the Institute because everyone in the town below the hill called it something different. The older people still called it the Sanatorium. The people who
worked there called it The Hill. Others said it was the Children’s Colony because the first developmentally disabled residents to live there were under eighteen. There were still people then who had once walked its halls,
like my grandmother, who’d been diagnosed with tuberculosis as a teenager and lived there almost a year.
When I asked her what she called it she said it didn’t matter
because it meant something different for everyone.

In the Rec Room They Sold Cigarettes

And sometimes my brother or I would have to buy them for our mother, who sat in the car smoking her last one while we went inside. Outside there always stood a crowd of men and women who smoked slowly, drew down to the filter, lit another. Like men with something else on their minds smoked, I thought. Like men in prison or facing the firing squad. Like my mother in the car with the window barely rolled down, the scent sticking to her clothes. Like her late at night, sitting at the kitchen table, or on the front porch, looking at the woods across the road, wondering, perhaps, how they would fit.

Derrick Fucked Your Mother Last Night

So he said to Donnie Joe at least once a week, until the time Donnie Joe, despite his patience, had had enough.

“I fucked yours,” Donnie Joe said, to which Derrick replied, with sorrow we didn’t know he wore around in his too-high pants, “She dead. My momma dead.”

Kyle Wasn’t Named Kyle

Maybe he was named Carl. More than one person wore a helmet so it’s possible I am confused, remembering wrong because of the years between then and now, all the hurt that goes on up under the skin, which makes me wonder if there’s a helmet for protecting what goes on inside someone’s head.

In Winter Big Jim Wore a Toboggan

The kind with eye and mouth holes, so his whole face was hidden. He was so big he could hardly breathe in it and lumbering along he looked like a murderer so we told the younger kids he was. I can only guess now this was because the world we lived in wasn’t tragic enough for us, and we wanted to invent one that was.

Jamie Vanderburg Yelled

Much louder when she wore a strait jacket. Her words were more inventive. Once I heard my mother whispering words to my uncle Jamie and they both laughed then looked and saw me and tried to keep a straight face. They were always making each other laugh at the most awful things, like the time at my great-grandmother’s funeral when they got to laughing and could not stop and everyone thought they were crying because, eventually, they were.

Jess Creighton Was The Creature From The Black Lagoon

Jim Brantley was Bigfoot. Kyle’s crash helmet made us think of Michael Myers from the Halloween movies, and Carl Haasen grew hair from every surface. Jamie Vanderburg turned demonic when the words came out of her and Derrick could have been any madman when he talked about fucking Donnie Joe’s mother.

Our father was a monster for leaving. Our mother looked like a monster when she hung up the phone after he called. Late at night my brother and I watched old movies starring Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, and in the light of a full moon with mist rising from the river, we thought there were monsters walking everywhere among us. We wore our fear like masks. The Institute looked like the setting of a horror movie, with its ancient buildings and boarded-over windows and two boys who were always afraid something was after them. But this was one of those movies, we’d realize years later, where everything was not as it seemed. There’s a twist at the end, the kind where you feel angry at the movie and all the wrong choices the characters made, when it’s revealed what you should have known all along.

Dalton Whent Wore Hand-Me-Downs

And Big Jim Brantley wore boots. Besides the crash helmet, Kyle wore a look of worry, or so I’ll say now, knowing that we project onto others what we think ourselves. Derrick’s smile hid the fact that he had no momma, and his assertions that he had fucked Donnie Joe’s must have come from somewhere in the sorrow.

I sometimes wore my brother’s older clothes. Our mother wore a wreath of smoke around her. We all wore the shadows of the buildings and we all wore the history of the halls, even in the town down below the hill, where every year around Christmas, boxes appeared at Wal-mart for donations of clothing for Dalton and Derrick and Kyle and Jess Creighton, though the clothing, as I remember, never looked quite right, as if we are always failing to fit into someone else’s idea of us.

On Halloween We Touched Hearts

And brains. We touched eyeballs and intestines. The basement of the Nyberg Building had been converted to a haunted house and in one room were bowls of eyeballs. In another was spaghetti noodles with some sort of slime that made them feel slippery, like your insides when you’re scared all the time. The brains must have been Jell-O, the heart a tomato, and we were all dressed like monsters or the men we’d grow up to be. I don’t remember if Derrick was there, or Dalton. Only mist from dry ice that smoked slowly throughout rooms where bodies had once been embalmed, back in the tuberculosis days, before the Institute became a safe haven for a different kind of disease. Somewhere someone was screaming. A chainsaw fired up behind a fitted sheet but all we could see was a silhouette. Everything was fake: all the hearts, the intestines, our own insides, which should say that we’ll submit to being scared as long as we know it’s not real, but I’ve always observed the opposite: everything we know to be real we pretend is fake, and that scares us.

My Uncle Saw All Sorts of Things

He worked nights and drove a white maintenance truck. He said there were steam tunnels all under the ground the Institute sat on and sometimes he had to go in there to
get someone out and sometimes he had to go in the upper
floors of the Nyberg where no one was allowed. He said there
were old clothes that had been left behind. He said there were pictures, notebooks, names etched on the walls. He said there were old machines once used to treat
tuberculosis and I remember wondering why there weren’t
any machines to treat Derrick and Dalton. I know now that most of the machines were almost medieval in their madness, and I know the surgeries killed many patients instead of curing them. I know there’s a difference in a disease of the lungs and a pattern in the DNA coded into the
body, but as a kid I imagined a machine that would suture all
the synapses, all the small wirings inside us that fail to fire.

A Friend Of Mine Cuts Herself

Like her skin doesn’t fit. She used to work at the Institute, which was, she said, where she got the idea.

Ray Ray I Don’t Remember

Only stories about the stones. About being a state kid. My mother can’t remember much either when I call to confirm whether it was Kyle or Carl who wore the crash helmet. If Big Jim Brantley died of a heart attack, if he ever had a kitten, if Kyle swallowed his tongue eventually because no one would put their hand in his mouth when he had a seizure. If Jess Creighton ever outgrew her scales, if Jamie Vanderburg ever learned the right words. Much of the past is speculation. I trust my memory less and less. I’m recounting stories we passed around often because the residents of the Institute touched our tomato hearts. I still have swirling in my Jell-o brain memories of walking to the bus stop each morning. Walking home to a cold house in the evenings. Big Jim Brantley, kitten or no, grunting what we would come to know as hello. Derrick saying to my brother and me, after he’d finished telling Donnie Joe what he had done to someone’s mother, that our mother’s name was Sandra, and we were her sons.

Derrick Needed Two Dollars

Because his radio had broken. I knew the residents of the Institute lived in little rooms. That they wore hand-me-downs and donations, which was why Derrick’s pants were pulled too high. They lived in little rooms and slept in little beds and wore other people’s clothing, and summer nights you could hear the tinny sound of transistor radios coming from the open windows of the buildings and see men like Derrick looking out at the town down below the hill, what they must have seen as a different world.

We were at the Christmas play. Derrick carried his radio around with him like a pet. He told me he needed two dollars for a vacuum tube or some other outdated technology and I fished around in my pocket to find two bills. We had just seen the part where Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room in the inn, but I hadn’t yet read Him saying that the woman who gave all gave more, so I separated one dollar bill and handed it over and Derrick smiled like I had given him everything.

The Easter Play Wasn’t About Rebirth

The Christmas play was about being born, but the Easter play wasn’t about rebirth, even though everyone wanted it to be.

The Stories We Tell

Are all about someone else, even when they aren’t. These are the stories I tell myself sometimes, about Derrick and Dalton, about Kyle and Jess Creighton. About when we lived at the Institute, and my mother trying to hold onto to herself even while helping others. About Dalton Whent saying “home” or “here.” About Big Jim Brantley always grunting, never able to find the words to express himself, even on the day his big heart began to hurt. About Jamie Vanderburg, and what words come from seemingly nowhere inside us to spill out all the frustrations we feel. About Derrick, and the words we use that show our sorrows, even if we fling them at others in anger.

We pass stories around as if they mean something, rarely realizing we’re talking about ourselves. That all the stories we tell are about ourselves, which is why we tell them again and again, as if we might become better people, as if we might learn something in the telling.

There’s Something Wrong With All Of Us

Said my mother many times. My brother and I ran wild with stories of murderers and madmen, Sasquatch and insane asylums. My father told stories that said he was coming back, and my uncle told stories about the residents trying to escape the Institute. Our mother tried to tell us everything would be all right when everyone knew it would not be. She told Jamie Vanderburg it was all right when the curse words came pouring out of her mouth, and she told Kyle it would be all right when his body seized up on him and his eyes rolled back in his head where only his helmet protected that thin layer of blood and bone. She told Jess Creighton it would be all right when she scratched at the scales of her skin. She told Derrick it would be all right when he cried about his mother being dead, and she told Big Jim Brantley it would be all right after his kitten died. Late at night, smoothing the hair back from our hot foreheads, she told my brother and me it would be all right, that Derrick was fine, that Big Jim was fine, that she was fine, that everything would be fine, a story she told to calm our collected fears, and what I wonder now is how many times she wore that song around her, and whether it warmed her.