One day he started to smell.

“He’s poopy,” the house manager said. She phoned the other houses for backup. Backup came over. We sat around feeling tense. Protocol called for clients (I believe they are now called “consumers”—irony is lost on social workers) to be forcibly bathed if they refused to wash for forty-eight hours. Rico wasn’t fond of showering, but as long as he didn’t smell you could kind of pretend he’d bathed before you got there. The ritual of asking him to do something undesirable, like admit he had feces in his underwear and needed to clean himself up, was time-honored and mutually understood. Ask, silence; ask, silence for a while. Then ask in a different way, be told no; ask in a still different way, be told no again. Ask again, and get knocked silly. The asking was punctuated with cheery assurances: “I’ll check back with you in a bit and see if you’ve changed your mind, okay?”

Rico liked me, sort of. We had shared some moments. But the countdown to throwing him in the shower was like riding in one of those floating troop-transporters motoring toward Normandy. I was nominated to sit up front.

“Talk to him,” Elizabeth said. “He likes you.”

“Sort of,” I said, and went down the hall to ask.

His room was a hard white cube. There were unbreakable windows and linoleum flooring; the walls were paneled in textured plastic. Evening light was dying at the window. He lay in bed with the covers over his face.

“Hey buddy.” No answer. “How’s it going?” No answer. I decided boldness was best, and asked if he might like to grab a quick shower. No answer. I offered to get the water going and make sure it was warm. No answer. I said I thought if he took a shower we could fix some Jell-O and maybe work a puzzle.

“Leamealone.” He had a small, cracked voice, like a cat.

The good sense of his suggestion struck me. I went back and told Elizabeth.

“He wants me to leave him alone.”

“Tell him he gets up and does it or we do it for him.”

“That’s a nice idea, Elizabeth. Why don’t you tell him?”

“Fuck no.”

I went back to Rico.

“Dude, this is stressing you out. I don’t want you to be stressed out. To be honest, it’s stressing me out too. Look, you don’t even have to get in the shower. You can wash up right here. What do you want me to do?”

A long pause. “Don’t look at me.”

I thought about that. “Okay,” I said. “I won’t.”

There were towels in the closet. Entering his room, I puttered and made noise, letting him know I was coming. I talked in a mild, stupid voice about nothing and piled him high with towels. I told him I wouldn’t let anyone see him.

“Roll over, Beethoven,” I said, and he did. Delving into the layers of cloth, I made an opening around his bottom. His shorts were bunched and sweaty; I slipped them down. A turd poked out from between his flabby buttocks. Draping my hand with a washcloth, I extracted it and wiped him in the same motion. “All clean!” I said.

Someone gagged softly. People huddled in the doorway wearing looks. I carried the turd to the toilet and flushed it. Rico went to sleep.

On a clear spring day, we sat out back while he collected bees. I tried not to pay attention. Every so often he gave the jar a hard shake. Once in a while I looked up from my book and said, “How’s it going, dude?” and he said, “Mm.” We had known each other for two years.

I noted a stillness from the corner of my eye. In the garish pink blossoms that lined the house, he was holding up his jar to the sun. He held it up for a long time, so long that I stopped breathing. I thought he was going to throw it against the wall, or smash it over his head, or scream.

There was nothing special about that day. The following day nothing had changed. His life was sad and he was hungry and alone and he scared people and he put people in the hospital. But he lowered the jar. He unscrewed the lid and watched the bees crawl, drowsily, stunned, to the rim. One by one they flew away.

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