“A Sample Boy” is part of Maxine Rosaler’s novel in stories, Queen for a Day, which will be published by Delphinium Press in June 2018. The novel has received a starred Kirkus Review and has been nominated for a National Book Award. Rosaler’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, Glimmer Train, Witness, Fifth Wednesday, Green Mountains Review, and other literary magazines, including these pages. Her nonfiction publications include a young adult book published by Houghton-Mifflin, which was both a Junior Literary Guild and starred Booklist selection. She is a recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fiction Fellowship, and stories of hers have been cited in editions of Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays.
Photo credit: Ann Slavit
A Sample Boy
When Mimi went into Danny’s room to tell him lunch was ready, she found him asleep on the floor, under the poster of the periodic table of the elements that hung on the wall beside his bed. Mimi stood in the doorway looking at her son: the spray of pimples across his cheeks, the shadow of a mustache above his mouth, the unfinished look of his nose and mouth made him look like any other teenage boy. His room reeked of sweat and farts and pheromones, reminding Mimi of her brother’s room when he was thirteen.
Although it wasn’t especially cold, Mimi covered Danny with a quilt, and after gathering up the laundry, she went down to the basement. The washing machines were all in use. She got back into the elevator. The doors slid open at the lobby. A woman pushing a bright orange stroller stepped in, apparently a new client for Norma’s day care center next door.
Mimi looked at the child in the stroller and thought of Danny at that age. The signs had been there already. She recalled with the usual regret how determined she and Jake had been not to see them. The child looked up at her and waved his hand and said hi.
“What a handsome boy,” Mimi exclaimed. “He has flaxen hair. I guess that’s what is meant by ‘flaxen hair.’ That’s rare, isn’t it? Flaxen hair.” Averting her eyes, the woman nodded and smiled at Mimi politely as she bent down to scoop her child out of his stroller and into her arms. Mimi, anxious to escape, blocked the closing door with her foot, and lifting the blue plastic laundry basket up into her arms, she shoved her way past the baby carriage, startling the young mother even more.
She decided to stop off at her mailbox until the elevator came back down. There was a bill from Con Edison, a bill from the cable company and a letter from the American Jewish Congress, addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Borden, the elderly couple who had lived in Mimi’s apartment before she and Jake had moved there, fourteen years ago.
When Mimi turned around to go back to the elevator, she was surprised to see her old landlord standing in the lobby. He was looking up at the recently painted ceiling—a hideous blend of pink and green and yellow—one of the touches the new landlord had given the building, along with the new boiler, which allowed him to raise everyone’s rent by twenty-three dollars a month forever.
“Mr. Gotbaum,” she said, going over to him, “what are you doing here?”
“I was in the neighborhood. I thought I would come take a look at the old place,” he said. It had been five years since he had sold the building and a little longer than that since Mimi had last seen him. He looked so pale and so thin. Cancer. She hoped it wasn’t cancer. Afraid to find out, Mimi just stood there being uncharacteristically silent.
“How is the boy?” Mr. Gotbaum asked. Her old landlord had never seemed to realize that there was anything wrong with Danny. Maybe that was because he didn’t live in the real world any more than Danny did. He lived somewhere up in the sky with the God he loved so much. Or maybe it was because he was an immigrant, and had the blurred vision of an immigrant, living in a country whose language and customs would be forever foreign to him; he couldn’t read the signs the way the natives could. If only Danny could live in a world filled with immigrants, a world where no one belonged.
“Fine,” Mimi said. “He’s fine now.” Then she told him about how Danny had crashed his bike into a tree, going down a steep hill. He and Jake were practically home when the acorn Danny had picked up along the way fell out of his basket, and disobeying Jake, he had turned his bike around and raced down the hill to retrieve it. He had a head injury, which left him drifting in and out of consciousness for five weeks. “He’s going to be okay,” Mimi said.
There had been tubes going down Danny’s throat and up his nose, and attached to his arm. The right side of his face had blown up to three times its natural size.
They said that, according to the MRI, her son would be back to “normal” within three months. She stopped herself and thought about all the days and nights she had spent by the hospital bed, watching Danny breathe, entreating a vaguely imagined, yet cruel and demanding, God to give her back her son, exactly as he had been before the accident. Later, when it became clear that Danny was going to be all right, she hoped that God had not taken her too literally. She hoped He understood that in pleading for Danny’s life, she had not relinquished her earlier request that Danny be given the chance to live a normal life, like all those lucky children all those lucky mothers had written books about; children who had been cured by miracle treatments the medical establishment was too arrogant to recognize. Mimi wanted Danny to be one of those children.
“Danny will be graduating high school in five years,” Mimi told Mr. Gotbaum.
“That’s good,” Mr. Gotbaum said, his eyes shifting up to the ceiling again.
Something awful had happened to her old landlord, she was sure of it.
“How are you, Mr. Gotbaum?” Mimi blurted out. “How is Susan? How is Wendy? Mr. Gotbaum, is everything okay?”
Susan had told Mimi that it was a second marriage for both her and Mr. Gotbaum. They had had their families; all their children were married with children of their own; they were in the clear; but they wanted to have a child together and now they were burdened with a girl who at age fourteen still didn’t know how to tell time or tie her shoes.
Mimi used to feel guilty whenever she and Susan talked about their children. Danny was making so much progress then. He was going to recover, she was sure of it. Probably, he would always be a little strange. So what? He would have a career—most likely something having to do with science, and one day maybe he would find a girl to marry him, someone odd like him, or maybe someone who had a thing for weird guys. That was nine years ago. Now at thirteen, Danny still couldn’t be trusted to go outside by himself; there were days when he didn’t say anything except the same things he had said hundreds of times before; he was still incapable of carrying on a simple conversation; he had never had a friend.
“Wendy is gone,” Mr. Gotbaum said.
“Gone?” Mimi asked, thinking that she must have misunderstood what Mr. Gotbaum had said. His English was not very good.
“Gone,” Mr. Gotbaum repeated.
“Oh, Mr. Gotbaum,” Mimi said.
“She had a heart condition. No one knew.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Gotbaum.”
“An angel,” he said pointing up to the ceiling. “He does this to an angel?”
“Oh, Susan, how is Susan?” Mimi asked.
Mimi said she would like to call Susan and she asked him for their number. He reached into his pocket and found a pen, but he couldn’t find anything to write on. Mimi tore a corner off a flyer advertising a couch for sale in apartment 4F and gave it to him.
“This is just for you,” Mr. Gotbaum said, explaining that since he sold the building, he had gotten an unlisted number; the tenants were always calling him, complaining about the new landlord.
“Send Susan my love.”
“I have to go. She doesn’t like it for me to be away for so long.”
Mimi watched him walk out the door and to the corner, where he stood waiting for the light to change. Then, as though he had just remembered something of vital importance, he turned around abruptly, and when he saw Mimi, he rushed back into the building. There was an odd expression on his face, a cross between euphoria and madness. “Do you have a minute?” he asked Mimi.
“I want to tell you something.” He was breathing heavily, and Mimi waited for him to catch his breath. And then the words rushed out of his mouth.
“I saw it on the television. They say the universe, it began with one single atom,” he said, his eyes widening. “Everything, all the planets, the moon, the sun, the earth, the stars, they say it all started with this thing that you can’t even see. Billions of years ago. There’s a thing called the Hubble Telescope. They looked through this telescope, and you know what they saw?” he said, putting his hand to his chest. “They saw the universe, there’s an end to it. It doesn’t go on forever. And it won’t go on forever either. One day, everything will end. The earth will get colder and colder and human beings, they won’t be able to survive. Everything will be gone. The earth will be gone, all the planets will be gone, the sun will be gone and the stars and the moon and whatever else that is out there will be gone, too. And human beings. Forget it. Human beings will be gone, kaput, like everything else.”
He stood there for several seconds, not saying anything, trying to catch his breath again, looking at Mimi, the crazed look still in his eyes.
“How old do you think I am?” he asked her.
“I don’t know, Mr. Gotbaum. I couldn’t say.”
“I don’t know,” Mimi said. She figured he was in his eighties. “Maybe in your seventies?”
“I’m going to be eighty-five on my next birthday. Eighty-five years old. I should have been in the ground long ago.”
As Mr. Gotbaum went on his way, Mimi wanted to run after him. It made her sad to think of him abandoning his beloved God. The same God who had given him the strength to survive three years in Auschwitz-Birkenau and everything he had witnessed there. She refused to believe that the apocalyptic vision of the world he had painted for her was all he had left to comfort him.
The neurologist had told them they could start taking Danny out for short walks around the neighborhood. It was time to go back to teaching Danny how to be more independent. One day she and Jake would be dead and then who would there be to take care of their son? Who would there be to love him?
When Jake got home from his daily stint at Starbucks, she would tell him to take Danny to the bodega on the corner to buy a quart of milk. He would trail behind him and prompt him to pick out the milk himself and then he would prompt him to go to the cash register to pay for it by himself.
In a couple of weeks, Danny would be going back to school. Mimi would let him walk to school by himself. She would trail behind him to make sure he didn’t wander off. Bit by bit they would teach him. They would teach him how to cross the street by himself. They would teach him not to talk to strangers and not to touch people. They would teach him to be more independent. And they would be gentle. They would always be gentle.
If only Danny could just go on being Danny, Mimi thought to herself as she unlocked the front door of their apartment. If only he could spend the rest of his life being the sweet, guileless person he was, doing the things he loved doing. But one day she and Jake were going to die; they were going to leave Danny all alone, with only the state to take care of him.
Tomorrow she would get to work trying to find out how to see to it that Danny would have a good life after she and Jake were dead. She would figure out a way to make sure he would be happy. That he would always be happy.
When Mimi went to check up on Danny, he was still sleeping. He was in bed now, lying upside down the way he always did, his head at the foot of the bed, his quilt wrapped around him like a cocoon, the origami Pegasus he had been working on all morning beside him on the pillow. Danny’s first week home from the hospital, Mimi had tried doing origami with him, but she didn’t have the patience for it. She didn’t want to let him out of her sight, however, so she would sit on his bed copyediting while he sat on the floor making mythical creatures out of kami paper or paper he took out of the printer and meticulously cut into squares.
Copyediting romance novels usually relaxed Mimi. She would mark off choice passages to show Jake when he got home. But this morning she had been beyond the reach of comic relief. She had put down the manuscript and decided to sit on Danny’s bed and do nothing. That was what everyone was always telling her to do: nothing. And it was nice doing nothing, just sitting there, being with Danny in the mysterious zone of silence that surrounded him.
“What is it? What? What? What?” he kept on asking as he showed her the origami Pegasus he had just made.
“You know what it is, Danny. Tell me.”
“What is it? What? What? What?”
“Remember what we said about asking rhetorical questions.”
“Don’t ask things you know the answer to!”
“So tell me. What is it?”
“It’s Pegasus! Pegasus! Pegasus!”
“And who is Pegasus?”
“Hercules’s flying horse! From Greek mythology. Real horses don’t fly. It’s just imagination.”
“That must be nice to be a flying horse.”
“How many steps did it take?” he asked.
“Sixty-nine steps, seventy if you include the last step, which is just showing it.”
That was Danny’s routine when he finished a model: to report, in the form of a series of questions, what he had made and how many steps it had taken. It was impossible to tell if he was proud of his accomplishment or if he showed it to her out of an impulse as obscure as the one that led him to phrase statements as questions. Nothing about Danny’s state of mind was ever obvious. All one could say with certainty about it was that he seemed to like having the same conversation over and over again.
Every now and then he would surprise her with something new, sometimes something so astonishing that it seemed to signal the emergence of a whole new Danny. Like four years ago, when Mimi was in the kitchen making dinner while trying to keep Danny focused on his homework, and out of the blue he had looked up at her and said: “God picked me to be a sample boy,” he said. “God picked me to have my own unique point of view. That’s what’s unique about me—I have my own unique point of view. After I die, God will pick another sample boy to take my place.”
Mimi had decided she wouldn’t say anything about it to Jake. He would spoil the moment for her with his infuriating rationality. He would say that Danny was probably just repeating something he had heard in a video. But he would be wrong. This was important. It could be the moment they had been waiting for, the first sign of Danny’s recovery. She would wait until after everything was okay to tell him about it. Then she would say, See? I knew! But Jake wouldn’t mind. He would be so happy. They would both be delirious with happiness.
Watching Danny sleep comforted Mimi. During all those years, when at the end of each long day she would be exhausted yet still unable to sleep, she would go into Danny’s room and stand in the doorway and look at him. Sometimes she would climb into bed with him and hug him and he would hug her back. Hugging was something that autistic children were not supposed to do. In all the breaking news reports about the latest cure that friends and relatives would call to tell them to watch, the ultimate proof of a cure, the heartrending affirmation of a life restored, was often the image of a child, previously averse to human touch, hugging his mother for the first time. Before the diagnosis, Mimi had also assumed that autistic children did not like to be touched. But Danny had always craved physical contact, more so than other children, it seemed to her. During those last months before the diagnosis, when her fears about her son had begun to multiply, hugging Danny had been her only comfort.
Mimi wanted to climb into bed with her son now. She knew it was wrong: Danny was thirteen now and, technically speaking, practically a man. But what harm could it do? She unraveled the quilt and lay down next to her son, wrapping her arms around him tightly. Soon she was asleep and dreaming. She dreamt they were flying into the sky on the back of the paper Pegasus. She was sitting behind Danny, who was steering the horse into the clouds, past the sun, past the moon and past the stars. All the while, Danny was talking to her in a foreign language she had never heard before. She couldn’t understand any of the words, yet everything he said made perfect sense to her. Soon they were flying to the edge of the universe, where all the planets had gathered together in a circle, as if to greet them, or as if to say good-bye. Mimi held on to her son and rested her head on his shoulder as he steered them out beyond the edge of the universe to where there was nothing, nothing at all.