Early morning. Crisp autumn of the schoolyard. Beginning of the school day. Donna’s father crouches. Squatting he points. To guide Donna. Long high wall. Blocking October sun. In front of the wall Donna’s father. Gray and shadows and dark brick and Donna looking straight. The door. Brown entrance door. Moments for others. Immeasurable length of time inside Donna’s mind. Crispness from shadow. Morning October umbrage. Full sun when it falls upon the pavement. A faint reminder of summer. Just beyond late summer. Its warmth captured in early October school mornings. Donna looking. Feeling resentful to need her father pointing. Feeling proud to show her father she remembered. Car horns intermittent. Parents leaving. Pebbles scraping on pavement. Bits of glass. Crunch under school shoe leather. Quick to praise. Forever patient. Admiring his daughter. For trying on these mornings. Donna’s father in dreams sees the schoolyard. The brown door. The high wall keeping faint warmth away from the concrete. Seeing himself kneeling. Gently holding his uncertain daughter. Feeling the eyes of teachers upon him. Feeling the sting of their pitying eyes. Knowing he brings a burden to them each day. Knowing that on all of the different days there are always the same conversations. Words spoken not too close to him. Words spoken not too far that he cannot hear parts of what is said. Teachers and parents. School aides and counselors. He hears their voices in his dreams. He hears them speak. Talking about the tragedy of Donna. No special place for her. Not in this day and age. Bureaucracy of the mid-century public school system. Prohibiting special treatment. Donna must remain. The same fourth grade class. Same as the other children. The normal children. Donna’s father never uses that word. He never says “normal” in her presence. Nothing helps. Nothing restores what was carefree in her. Nothing reactivates the laughter. Of her infancy. He alternates between helpless weeping and monstrous rage. He weeps only when he is alone. At home. When his wife is shopping. When Donna is at school. His primordial anger bursts across the steering wheel that he pounds. Driving home after dropping Donna off at school. Stopping at traffic lights. Striking the wheel. The fleshy side of his palm turning numb. Donna smiles in his dreams. They run along the shore. The zenith of summer creates true heat and energy. There is nothing in heaven or nature to separate him from Donna. There are no trapdoors of fate or tragedy through which his hopes for Donna must fall. There is no well of infinite depth to swallow and imprison even the smallest of his aspirations for her. Gulls, elegant whitish gray aviators, gracefully circle frolicking father and daughter. Iridescent shells everywhere. She picks up each one and names its color. Spells each word. Recites the alphabet. Names the capitals of the American states. Names all the Presidents since Washington. Then it is morning. It is the new school year. Donna’s father is pointing. She leans against him. Fingers in mouth. Eyes wide trying. Wanting and trying. Her father says, “That’s where you go.”
* * *
now it’s friday go to grandma’s where’s the pretzels I want a pretzel with the milk wait oh no I don’t have any money look over there donna bought hers sucking it staring at it she’s not normal why is she like that always smelling her fingers her glasses are so thick never looks like she knows where she is I don’t think I ever saw her laugh or anything like that sometimes I hear mom talking over coffee to a couple of the mothers of the kids from down the street talking over coffee and I can hear them in my room they say donna is mentally handicapped I had to ask what that meant I thought it was that she was in an accident but she doesn’t need crutches or anything oh I wanted a pretzel really bad I like that grandma lives on mulberry street it’s near chinatown lots of lights in the windows of all the markets and souvenir stores and restaurants I like to smell all the incense in the stores there’s lots of colored paper lanterns and little dragon figures I like to look at the boxes of incense sometimes they have tiny cones of solid incense packed in rows like a bunch of wizard hats and I can play in the park tomorrow why such weird glasses and nothing about the class seems to get her attention she flips her notebook pages so fast like there’s something secret to find I don’t know it’s not like the rest of us I want to eat something now oh why didn’t I remember to ask mom the teacher had to help donna yesterday when we did the art tracing all the leaves starting to fall so many nice colors and big ones I found some really big ones they haven’t all gotten dry yet we traced the leaves with the construction paper on top of them rubbed the fat flat crayons back and forth making the veins come out from the leaf but donna kept ripping her paper she used the crayon edge and she rubbed too hard she was very rough with the paper why she didn’t just do it like the rest of us it was really pretty easy just rub back and forth back and forth keep rubbing the flat part of the crayon to get the leaf traced donna must have made mistakes three or four times she had ripped papers on her desk some of the kids looked I guess she was embarrassed she took them off her desk and stuffed them into her book bag then she tried again she kept trying to do it the right way
All of the children assembling in rows and columns in the early morning. In the crisp autumn of the schoolyard. It is the beginning of the school day; Donna’s father crouches; as usual, she is confused. So after squatting he points as patiently and gently as he can. He must do this to guide Donna so that she will go in the right direction and enter the building through the right door. There is a long high wall behind Donna’s father. It blocks the early October sun from spreading at least a modicum of warmth across the schoolyard pavement. In front of the wall, focused on his daughter’s mixture of disorientation and fleeting attention, Donna’s father moves his arm with the gray sweater and, pointing for his daughter, shadows and dark brick seem to secure the two of them in a tableau of light charcoal shade. Fingers in mouth, looking straight but without lucid memory, Donna nods, eyes wide, trying to connect the location of the brown school door with her father’s soothing gesture and calming words. Donna’s entire existence is, of course, a matter of perpetual wanting and trying. There is no impatience or abject pity in her father’s regard of her permanent mental limitations. He strives at all times to show her that he believes she can succeed. It is not only a father’s love. The man fervently subscribes to the notion that those unfortunate enough to be born with emotional and intellectual handicaps deserve all the respect and encouragement one can give. Unfortunately, Donna’s temperament is such that unprovoked hostility and a stubborn streak of irrational anger are never far from the surface of her thoughts, actions, and words. Yet, in all fairness, no one who lives in the world she cannot inhabit, who does not participate in her painful mental life, can truly know how difficult her struggles must be. She wants her father to know that she understands his words (“That’s where you go”). That is what her father says, each time, on these school day mornings.
just sits there staring sucking her pretzel but it’s like she’s not really here like awake but not really never talks to anyone glad it’s friday tonight we’ll have chinese food at grandma’s so hungry now I forgot to ask mom for change this morning what would happen should I try maybe ask donna for some pretzel I see her father in the mornings all the time while he’s squatting with her and pointing to the main entrance where her class has to go but she gets to stay with him until it’s time to go in I guess he wants her to feel good I see the parents talking about her no one ever looks at donna’s father it’s like they pretend he’s not there they all look like they are embarrassed when he leaves the schoolyard after donna finally goes into the entrance sometimes she looks back at her father to wave goodbye and he always waves back with a smile and waits until she goes in before he leaves the schoolyard I like fridays because fridays are always chinese food at grandma’s and when it’s the beginning of school like the first week the way it is now it’s still almost light out when mom and I get to the chinese restaurant to pick up the food there’s a big window by the bar at the front of the restaurant where we wait and I like to watch all the store lights and the street lights go on because it starts to get dark by then it’s night time when we go back around the corner to grandma’s building carrying the food
So this image of Donna standing while looking and Donna’s father crouching while pointing is a tableau quite familiar to the students and the teachers assembling in the schoolyard. The rows and columns of students ready to go inside; the crisp autumn of the early morning. It is the beginning of the new school season. Donna’s father crouches as usual. Which door is the right one? Donna is still confused after her father squats and holds her gently from behind. The distance between Donna and the door is always the same; the direction in which Donna’s father points is always the same; the long high wall behind Donna’s father is always the same; the early October sun blocked by the wall is always the same. There are times when the students hurrying into another school entrance, watching this tableau and feeling chilly, miss the temporary October warmth blocked by the high wall and kept away from the schoolyard pavement. There is an unspoken yearning for the recently ended summer. But there is also the excitement of the new school year. A strange, paradoxical mixture of lament over the loss of vacation freedom and the happy ascension to the next grade, the welcome faces of friends who live in different neighborhoods and haven’t been seen since June, and the compelling morning energy that somehow provides the children with a rush of interest in the continuation of their academic lives. The high wall keeps a large section of the schoolyard in shadow. Acting like an emotional border, it separates the counterfeit warmth of the October sun from the realization that the heat of the real summer is indeed over. Every child in the schoolyard has this feeling, to one degree or another. For young children coming out of the dreamy cocoon of their summertime fantasies, congregating in the schoolyard during this first week of school, there is a kind of therapeutic camaraderie, the way family members and cherished friends try to comfort one another at the wake of a beloved soul. The children mourned the loss of their summer in this way. They sought solace and comfort in one another’s company. Sadly, for Donna, there was nothing in the character of her facial expression, or her demeanor, or her voice that reflected even the most microscopic awareness of these feelings. The weary emptiness in her eyes betrayed no recognition or acknowledgement of the psychological gestalt of the situation. It would have made no difference if Donna were standing alone in a foul wilderness or surrounded by the pleasures and beauty of paradise. Her expression would have remained the same.
from the golden dragon I’ll go with mom we go around seven to pick it up hmmm I really love the hot mustard in that soup donna stares like she is somewhere else I think I’ll ask her just want a little piece break off a piece at the end all she has to do break it off with the round thin slices of pork and then some beef with oyster sauce she could snap it I guess I could ask anita but she’s still up front getting her pretzels she sits in the next desk behind donna and I also like the beef with oyster sauce dish really like all the sauce on my rice but it’s not really from oysters I guess they just call it that for a name I couldn’t eat it if that was true I mean really made from oysters they’re shell fish I can’t eat shell fish because of an allergy and I’m going to have to turn around and face the blackboard soon the milk and pretzels are almost all given out all I had to do was ask mom for change I like all those little shops that we pass on our way to pick up the food there’s so many fish and meat places they are all next to stone steps that go down there are basements all over the block they look kind of scary all dark and a little smelly and in the shops they do these things I don’t understand there’s all these cooked ducks all dark brown hanging in a row from hooks right in front of the big shop windows their heads are still connected but their eyes are closed and their beaks point in different directions when donna walks it’s like there’s a wind or something that moves her the way she swings her book bag she even stumbles sometimes but nothing is there she’s just awkward moving the way the wind gives you a little push when it’s really strong in the winter
It was natural that this daily tableau of Donna looking absently while being held gently by her father pointing steadily would remind some of the students of pictures they had seen, photographs in books of statues of angels in cemeteries, pointing upward, or statues of George Washington, in parks, pointing forward. It may have been that the collective memories and imaginations of the students, the parents, and every other adult connected with the school, used this sameness of Donna and her father, the schoolyard mornings, and the angles of the shadows, to mentally construct a kind of pure visual permanence, an irreducibility of imagery that somehow lingered in their minds, as they mingled or stood apart, observing the dual presence of Donna and her father. As they made their way into the school, they were completely baffled by the power of this imagery, of something so mundane and unchanging. That power created a primitive social element that became embedded within their group consciousness. In an anthropological sense, it negated all other aspects of recollection and understanding, as if no basis for knowing Donna and her father was possible other than the communal status of these shared perceptions and memories of Donna looking and her father pointing. The summers between school years nurtured this subconscious process. Those students who lived in the same neighborhoods had ample opportunities to play together. They would invariably share stories about Donna’s strangeness. Yet the only common ingredient in any of these narratives was the mythological component of Donna and her father as a self-contained image. Donna was always looking and her father was always pointing. One of these students was a boy in Donna’s class, the one who teased her about the pretzel, who pretended that he had taken a piece of her pretzel when it was his other neighbor, Anita, who had given him a piece of her pretzel, and who, by fooling Donna this way, had caused her to become most agitated and upset, to reach out in anguish, to reclaim what she believed to be her stolen property, aggressively exclaiming “Gimmmmmeeeee!” in a tortured howl of anger, until Anita, trying to ameliorate and soothe the situation, hurriedly explained to Donna that it was she who had shared some of her pretzel with the boy, demonstrating the fact by showing the remaining pretzel to Donna. Approximately two inches were missing. Apparently, several minutes before, the boy had asked Donna for a piece of her pretzel. Without looking in his direction, staring off as if the boy wasn’t there, Donna adamantly shook her head, saying blankly, “No, get your own.”
like everybody else there’s something wrong donna sure doesn’t talk or act like us it’s weird it’s like she needs all her concentration just to do the easiest things mom even asked me do you need anything I said no and we kissed then I had to get in line it was almost time to go inside we all looked at donna and her father one more time before we went inside it was just something that everybody did because all the lines of the students had moved up and the teachers usually told us not to stare at them stupid that I forgot I could have gotten change from her right there so hungry now I have that burning feeling in my stomach I really hate that and there’s anita up front getting her milk donna staring and sucking I wonder if she even sees all of us maybe she doesn’t even know where she is who we are like somebody in what they call a trance like I saw in a spooky movie over the weekend I really love to mix that mustard in the won ton soup then the soup turns brown from the last time I went with mom that nice chinese lady was there her name is francis she’s the owner very friendly to me she talks to mom while we wait for the order to come out of the kitchen I guess I have what the grown ups call a crush on francis she talks to me like I’m a young man even though I’m only a kid she’s very pretty but has a few patches of gray in her hair she doesn’t seem too old maybe it’s because she’s not much taller than me I liked that for some reason and I liked that she always wore gray dresses she spoke very quietly I guess because she was being polite and also not to bother the people at the tables near the bar
So this early morning represented, for this early period of her life, and for the rest of her life, all of the trials and frustrations and confusion and anger that, for Donna, were the inherent characteristics of her mental disability. It may be that, after bringing Donna to the same spot on so many occasions, her father often dreamt of the crisp autumn of the schoolyard, when Donna was most frightened, because of the new classes and different teachers and the overall anxiety of the beginning of the school day. It may be that, in his dreams, Donna’s father felt a sense of pride in his protection of Donna, that the high wall did not prevent the early October sun from spreading a few final layers of warmth upon the schoolyard and the students and the teachers, and that the sharp black blocks and angles of shapes of shadow that were only he pointing and Donna looking, had assumed the heroic contours of some great act, some kind of majestic signature of humanity.
“Donna’s father crouches like that every day, showing her where to go,” whispered the art teacher to one of the mothers standing close by.
“I know,” the mother replied, “and every time I see him squatting he points to the same door. What a patient man. Such a shame with that little girl. Maybe she ought to be in a special school?”
“I thought that, too. It’s so hard on her teacher, I mean these classes are up to thirty children and that’s hard enough. A classroom full of fussy, frantic ten year olds! And then to try to get through to a child like that. You know, I’ve never seen that girl Donna smile. It’s like she’s a bitter old woman sometimes.”
“I know what you mean. It’s not fair to the teacher or the school. Not to disrespect the poor girl, and her family, after all, look at what that man does for her, every morning. But there should be something else in the public school system, something that’s designed to work for children like that.”
“It’s really a shame. I don’t know if it’s a birth defect or what. She’s obviously mentally handicapped but not beyond reach, I mean, she does talk, she seems like she can do some of the homework assignments. But I can tell you: she keeps to herself like an old maid praying in church. Nothing friendly about that child at all,” the art teacher declared as she finished muttering her observations to the mother, not wanting anyone nearby to hear her words, although the schoolyard was very noisy with shouting children, the scuffing of the leather soles of their dress shoes on the concrete, the staccato beeping of car horns as some parents drove off after saying goodbye to their child, and the nasal, intermittent bells signaling that it was almost time to go inside.
I saw something on television about what they say are emotionally disturbed people I asked mom what that meant because I didn’t really understand what they were talking about I thought when you disturbed someone they were usually busy concentrating on something and donna never seemed able to concentrate for more than a few seconds then she almost always became angry but mom explained that we should have respect and sympathy for people like that because emotionally disturbed meant being lost or trapped sometimes and everyday things are a thousand times harder to understand for someone like that and the last time I saw francis it was a busy friday night it was the first time she couldn’t really stay by the bar at the front of the restaurant to talk with me and mom people kept coming in she took these dark maroon menus from behind the bar and walked the people over to their tables mom said don’t bother francis now she’s busy I thought maybe it meant crazy I knew that word from before but mom said no and not to ever say that to donna it would not be sensitive or polite to say that word I wanted those circular thin pieces of pork I think I’m going to ask donna what’s the worst that could happen maybe she will say I can have a piece of pretzel I don’t know for sure it’s the soft restaurant lights that make the red lipstick francis wears look so real I mean real like flowers she’s a really pretty lady I told mom I don’t want to ever make donna feel bad so I was glad mom explained about what it all meant because it was really strong mustard they called it the house mustard I don’t know why but when I put too much in my soup my eyes burned a little and my nose dripped a bit I liked it there was something nice about having that next spoonful and getting that tingle in my nose
To give Donna a kind of emotional prosthetic of security and reassurance, to guide Donna in his usual position beside the long high wall, day after day, school year after school year, these humble, self-sacrificing tasks bestowed purpose and grace upon Donna’s father. They became his reasons for living. It was this almost iconic image of Donna’s father, in front of the wall that was always blocking October sun, crouching behind his daughter who was always agitated, confused, and angry, that teachers and students, attendants and aides, put into the mental storage of abstract imagery, an image that somehow possessed a kind of dignified autonomy, a majestic spirit, like the sight of a forest or a dam or a river. The effect of this image was such that it left an indelible impression upon the minds and memory of all those at the school who saw it. Each of them, as the years passed, in various stages of their lives, by crouching to do something in a certain way or feeling a momentary chill in early October sun, would experience a flash thought of recollection, smiling a little more wisely each year, their souls enriched by the lessons of time, and their minds seeing Donna’s father performing those endless rituals of protection. The unpredictable aggressiveness that sometimes accompanies mentally hindered people was certainly prevalent in Donna. Whether provoked or cajoled, she could often be nasty and mean. Of course, everyone had empathy for the sight of Donna staring blankly, fingers in mouth, eyes wide trying to identify the door that her poor father must have pointed at hundreds of times. In the sweater he always wore, creating the same reassuring image of gray and shadows, by the high wall and dark brick and Donna always looking, wanting (to go to the right door) and trying (to remember while her father pointed).
why is she yelling like that hope I don’t get into trouble good thing the teacher is in the hall I was just making believe I guess I shouldn’t have teased donna like that just wanted to get even with her for being so stingy I only asked her for a tiny piece of pretzel and she didn’t even look at me just kept shaking her head saying to go get my own and then when she wasn’t looking and Anita was coming back with her milk and her two pretzel sticks I asked her and she gave me some right away she’s nice but then after she went to her desk behind donna I turned around to show donna the pretzel and made it seem as though I took it from her she got so excited and upset I didn’t want to make her get so afraid that some of her pretzel was missing and anita even felt bad about it she called out from behind she said no donna I gave it to him see look and she held out the pretzel where she broke some off at the bottom what’s wrong with donna why is she so upset over things like that
It is Donna’s twentieth birthday. Pointing to the bus stop, her father still says, “That’s where you go.”
Leading her away from the toy store, he thought of the phrase he had uttered so many times when Donna went to elementary school. That’s where you go. As he pulled Donna away, this recollection made him realize that, although a twenty year old, mature woman, Donna was now no more emotionally and psychologically evolved than she was on those school mornings from the past: forever lost in her own world of petulance, confusion, and dysfunction. The intervening years brought no deliverance. There were no miracles for this daughter cherished by a father who had been so wearied by misfortune and chaos. The gulls used their beaks to penetrate the underbelly of blue and dark green crabs. They tore out the flesh, gulped it down, and flew up again, looking for their next hapless target. There was no beauty in it. The mechanical precision of their hunting skills was accompanied by total indifference to the fate of their prey. They did what nature had programmed them to do. Donna was having a tantrum over something she had seen in the window of the toy store. There was a little birthday party arranged for her at home. Some relatives and friends were already there, so Donna’s father wanted to get back. He refused to buy the toy; there were many gifts waiting for Donna and it was getting late. Holding his daughter’s wrist, rushing towards the bus stop, digging for tokens with his other hand, Donna’s father failed to notice his tall, strong daughter placing her foot in his way. She was angry and upset that he did not buy the toy. As usual, she couldn’t suppress her nasty impulses, her desire to retaliate against her father with all the self-absorption of a bratty child. She wanted to trip her father; she wanted him to fall. Because of Donna’s silence, no one would know the truth; she would never reveal anything about the accident she caused, resulting in an injury that would ultimately take her father’s life. He fell, hitting his head on the concrete, resulting in a massive heart attack because of his life-long cardiac condition. He would go into a coma and die within several days. By expressing her anger over not getting the toy, Donna was demonstrating her resentment like young children committing rebellious acts of violence. Reacting on that primitive level of behavior, Donna thought her hostility towards her father was innocent and harmless. She did not intend to kill him. She would never fully understand that she caused his death.
Sitting next to her father as he lay dying on the street, Donna thought she heard someone calling for an ambulance. Many loud sirens were screeching inside Donna’s head. She was staring at something, her fingers in her mouth, her eyes wide. The words her father spoke seemed to be mixing in her mind with the repeating ambulance noise.
…nee-naw…nee-naw…That’s where you go…nee-naw…That’s where you go…nee-naw…
nee-naw…That’s where…nee-naw…you go…nee-naw…nee-naw…nee-naw…nee-naw…
About the Author
the poetry and fiction have appeared in various literary magazines, including Antenna, Aero-Sun Times, Bogus Review, Pen-Dec Press, Both Sides Now, Cross Cultural Communications/Bridging The Waters Volume II, and The Mascara Literary Review. Dramatika Press published a volume of his one-act plays in 1983. One of these, The Seeker, appeared in an issue of Collages & Bricolages. Peter was a contributing editor for NYArts Magazine, writing art and film reviews. He authored monographs on several new artists as well. He was co-publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Artscape2000, a prestigious, award-winning art review e-zine. He has also taught poetry and art for LEAP. He is an artist himself: https://www.saatchiart.com/peterdellolio.com. His paintings and 3D works offer abstract images of famous people in all walks of life who have died tragically at a young age. He lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.