To picture him: begin with a boy’s skeleton, shy of five feet tall, and drape it with soft bolts of fat. Fat that hangs and waggles at the knee. The way some children draw themselves—pears with pencil flecks for digits, topped by a smiling pea-head—would not grossly misrepresent his shape. His hands and feet were tiny. He didn’t hold a thing; he clutched at it.
He was in the backyard tearing apart bees.
He was seventeen and had the face—there is no other way to describe it—of a baby dinosaur. Pale gold skin, hairless and pliant. Flared nubbin of a nose. The eyes hooded, almondine, above a pursed mouth. Everything set close in the wedge of his skull.
He was in the backyard tearing apart bees. In the dead of summer he stalked among flowers in short-shorts and a turquoise parka, plucking them from the air. He put them in a jar and studied them awhile. He shook the jar hard, as if mixing a cocktail. Then somehow, from the jar of stinging insects, he extracted the one he wanted and dismantled it with his hands.
There was nothing messy about it. He was accurate, respectful. He was intent upon his work.
“Hi,” I said.
“Mm,” he said.
He was massively cute. He was clearly bonkers. I wanted to give him a hug.
Then he came over and opened the jar of bees in my face.
Rico lived in a group home in a low-rent suburb called Wood Village, a thin buffer between the interstate and a larger low-rent suburb called Gresham. These un-places, at once sterile and grimy, run down from the moment they’re put up, hopeless and exuding a particularly American variety of false hope, are where group homes abound. Neighbors learn that one is coming and fuss for a time, on the grounds that their families won’t be safe, their property values will plummet; then, usually, they give in. They are just the sort of working-class people whose children wind up in these homes, people who feel powerless in the face of institutional power.
The people who staff the houses tend to be poorer, which helps to explain why they work long, grim hours for $8.86 an hour and consider themselves lucky. It also helps to explain why they tend to be untrained, uneducated, and unversed in the pieties of working with the vulnerable and weird. The day I was transferred to Rico’s house, my colleagues warned me: Watch out, that fucker bites. They said: He’ll put you in the hospital. He puts everybody in the hospital. And: Don’t bring up Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson makes him crazy. Michael Jackson makes him put people in the hospital.
I was feeling a certain kinship with him up to that point. What got me was this: Whatever you do, don’t say shit about the tooth fairy. Somebody did one time and he scavenged up a pair of pliers and started ripping out his own teeth. For the money I guess. At least he couldn’t bite anyone for a while.
From the locked kitchen, Desenia brought out dinner on a plastic plate. Rico sat and stared. When it was set in front of him, he curled an arm protectively around his food, shut his eyes, and went someplace far away. In a room full of people he was utterly alone. The nutritionist who devised the menus had apparently learned her trade at a medium-security prison, but Rico appraised each morsel with gastronomic intensity. He licked a floret of yellow broccoli dressed in fat-free ranch, considered it, and placed it in his mouth like a secret. He savored a withered chicken thigh, a spoonful of Uncle Ben’s, and washed them down with sugar-free Kool-Aid from a gas station mug. Dessert was a bowl of sugar-free Jell-O that he tucked into like crème brûlée.
He ate without haste, but finished in minutes, waking from a glorious dream to the disappointment of the world. He slid from his chair and went back to his urine-smelling bed. His plate was very, very clean.
Hell, I thought, I’d want to take a chunk out of someone’s arm, too.
He had a rare genetic disorder with the unpleasant name of Prader-Willi Syndrome. It happens like this: you have in every one of your cells twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, long strands of DNA wrapped tightly around proteins. You get one copy of each from both your mother and father. If your copies are intact and ordered, you get to look and live like everyone else. But parts of them go missing, wander off—are deleted, in the argot of genetics. As though someone had gone through the data with a mouse and a backspace key. If certain patches on chromosome 15 are deleted, or if you get two maternal copies, or two paternal copies, or if the chromosome reproduces too much of itself and the extra bits hang around like bad guests, you are born with Marfan syndrome or albinism, deafness or probable midlife cancer. Or you get Prader-Willi.
Once in thousands of embryos, region 15q11-13 is deleted, and a supremely weak baby is born. This baby can hardly suck, hardly breathe. He (or she: deletion of 15q11-13 is an equal-opportunity event) has poor muscle tone and barely extant sex organs. Lethargic in the womb, he stays that way. He’s ravenous for sleep. As he grows older, he fails to do ordinary, joy-giving things on time: make eye contact, smile, hold up his head, crawl. But around one or two there’s a shift; suddenly he’s always hungry. You feed him and feed him and it’s as though he hasn’t eaten. So you keep feeding him. After the difficulties you’ve had getting him to nurse, after all the fears, the strangeness, the late milestones of infancy, it feels wonderful. He’s become such a lusty little guy! Such an eater! Making up for lost time!
That turns. Food becomes the central fact of his life. He gets irritable and throws fierce tantrums for third helpings and fourths. He starts stealing food, stashing chicken fingers in his pockets and old bread in his sock drawer. You find you’re scared of this, your own child, who’s capable of doing you violence for a handful of animal crackers. (In theory, if you give someone with the disorder an unlimited supply of food, he’ll eat himself to death. I’ve never seen that scenario play itself out, but I have seen Rico eat a cheeseburger, and I’m willing to give the theory some credence.)
He gets fat, of course. He becomes one of those kids clever men point out to their own kids in the mall and say, “Looka that big boy.” Odds are good, odds are terrific, that he’s retarded to some degree. And always this uncontainable, this eating-him-from-within rage to eat. He never feels full. He never ever feels full.