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.

Before he reached his stunted adolescence, Rico’s mother decided she couldn’t take it anymore and put him in a group home. She came to visit once in a while, on the bus, but she often said she would come and didn’t. When she called, twenty minutes after the appointed time, to say she wasn’t going to make it, Rico usually tried to put someone in the hospital.

It could happen like that, or for no reason at all. People were screamed at (a shrill Bitch! was his calling card), people were slapped and clawed. Shannon came into the house through the garage and Rico tackled her leg and bit her, badly. Tamara got too close on a hot, dull day, and he left four bloody furrows on her neck.

His strength was startling. He was simultaneously petite and plump, and where his muscles should have been looked like jelly under stretch-marked skin, but it took four cops to pin him to the blacktop when he lost it in the school parking lot and tried to kill his teacher. I, for one, was impressed. He had come into the full flower of his legend. His name, already notorious in the agency, was from then on a kind of secret password in Portland’s juvenile social services. “Oh, you’ve got Rico?” someone at the other end of the line would say. “Let me see what I can do.” Schedules were jiggered. Exceptions were made.

At Toys R Us, he knocked a battalion of robots off the shelf, sat down in the aisle, and refused to move. When security guards showed up, we tried, very calmly, to tell them that they didn’t want to force the issue, that he was sorry, we were sorry, everyone was very sorry, but they needed to leave him to us or they could get hurt. You could see these middle-aged white guys thinking, This little shitball’s gonna hurt me? They looked at him again, huddled there in a turquoise ball on the floor, completely still yet somehow radiating craziness. You could see them thinking some more. They took a few steps back.

Among his many misfortunes was something called pica: “a tendency or craving to eat substances other than normal food (such as clay, plaster, or ashes), occurring during childhood or pregnancy, or as a symptom of disease.” I had forgotten all about that diagnosis until one of the staff was going through the heaps of trash and soiled linens in his room and found a big hole in his piss-proof mattress. He was picking apart and eating the plastic cover; he was eating the foam guts. Pica, Latin for “magpie,” is in turn from the Greek kissa, meaning both “magpie” and “false appetite.” Rico’s appetite was anything but false. He was hungry enough to eat the bed out from under him.

Recall, for a moment, the hungriest you have ever been, and how it felt to satisfy that hunger. It’s futile, in a way. Like lust, or happiness, or fear, hunger belongs to the present, and when it passes the memory is a faint echo of the feeling. You remember what you felt like, perhaps, not what you felt. But try.

Maybe when you were a child your mother drank the grocery money one month. To complain was to invite a whipping, so you shut up and learned to shoplift candy. One Sunday, you crept out and went to a friend’s house, where a roast was in the oven. You planned to discreetly put away three platefuls, but all you could manage were a few mushy carrots.

Maybe you got lost on the last day of a camping trip. Nothing left in your packs, you and your boyfriend joked about who would eat whom, until it wasn’t funny. Your stomach hurt. You looked for berries. You were scared. You put up the tent listlessly, thinking you would die out in that wilderness, and hardly slept. You passed another day of the same: wandering, empty, bleak. The next morning you found the path, got to the car, and stopped at the first place you found, a roadside diner full of loggers. At nine in the morning you ate a steak and threw up in the parking lot.

Maybe you acquired a bug while traveling in Southeast Asia and couldn’t keep anything down for a week. The day the sickness broke, you were filled with a hard, clear
appetite. You had tea and a small cup of rice. It was delicious.

Maybe you’re anorexic, and you watch, nauseated, as others stuff their piggy faces. You take a terrible pleasure in telling yourself No, and again No, and all day No No No No No. They force you to take some soup, a saltine, and it is sumptuous and hateful. You become daily more radiant with hunger.

Maybe, and likelier, you’ve never come close to real hunger. Maybe you skip a couple of meals now and again, or you fast for some personal cause. Maybe you watch your weight, eat paltry lunches with your dieting friends, and fantasize about a dish of vanilla ice cream with nuts and chocolate syrup.

Whatever your particular Greatest Hunger Ever, imagine coming to it as Rico did. Imagine this: You have come to the moment of satisfaction. You pause, trembling, before your rare steak, your saltine, your sundae. Nothing has ever looked so rich and fine. And then you realize: it doesn’t matter. You will eat it, and you will wipe your mouth and belch, hoping to relish the fleeting contentment of satiety, and you will feel exactly the same.

At least Tantalus never touched the figs and pears that dangled overhead. How much more excruciating, how much more insane-making, to get hold of the fruit, to gorge yourself on it, and find that your hunger is still there, that it had never gone away.

He was an avid sleeper. Neither nocturnal nor diurnal, he slept when he was sleepy, which was most of the time. That was partly attributable to the awesome quantities of psychotropic drugs he ingested twice a day. But also, his life was profoundly boring. People were terrified to take him to the park or the movies or even the gas station around the corner, so he sat at the home and did thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, watched The Smurfs, and waited for the next meal. When all else failed, he sacked out, and stayed out, for twelve, fourteen hours at a go. His naps were five hours long.

It was one of the things that kept people from quitting: just when you thought you couldn’t take another day at the house, couldn’t take another episode, you’d show up at three in the afternoon and he’d be asleep. You’d leave at eleven that night and he’d still be asleep. You’d come back at three in the afternoon the next day and he’d have just woken up. Sometimes he’d be so groggy from these hibernations that he’d have to go back to bed for a snooze before he could make it to the couch.

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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