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Brian Trapp| Longreads | April 2021 | 26 minutes (7,917 words)
At the request of the families involved, some names in this essay have been changed to protect privacy. It includes depictions of bullying and cruelty and contains language that some people may find upsetting.
When I first saw him, I thought for a second that it was my twin brother sitting in his wheelchair. It was the beginning of sixth grade, and I was on the dirty gym floor trying not to hyperventilate. I had just moved from a small Catholic school in Baltimore with a class of 25 gentle Christians to a large public school outside Cleveland, and our whole class was crammed into the gym for orientation.
I spent the summer of 1994 studying MTV with my older sister, taking precise notes on how to be cool, and came that first day armed with a binder covered in band names written in black Sharpie: Mazzy Star, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Belly, Nirvana, The Crash Test Dummies. Never mind that I was thigh-chafingly fat and had boats for feet, wore surfing shirts hundreds of miles from any kind of ocean, and covered my bedroom in puppy centerfolds cut out from Dog Fancy magazine — I knew the names of cool bands, as if I could just walk up to a kid with a skateboard, whisper “Green Day,” and get invited to his house.
Then, across the gym, I saw him sitting up high in his wheelchair, his wrists curved down like a praying mantis, his body stiff with cerebral palsy. He was skinny with choppy brown hair, his mouth pinched into a nervous grimace with an occasional smile. Just like my twin.
I’d hoped in the move that Danny and I could finally go to the same school, that I could give him wheelies down the halls, slip him high fives in between classes, use his dimpled smile to attract girls, and listen to him laugh when someone got in trouble. We could ride the bus together and play our call-and-response, where my brother heckled me with his version of my name and I gave it right back: “I-an! Danny! I-an! Danny!” I knew twins sometimes switched places and went to each other’s classes, waiting to see who’d notice the difference. With his severe cerebral palsy and bone-thin frame, no one would ever mistake Danny for me, though it would’ve been fun to try. I at least wanted my twin to be in the same building instead of an absence I always had to explain. But Danny — who in addition to CP had intellectual disabilities, was legally blind, and could only say 12 words — was deemed too disabled to be accommodated at my school, and was bused to a larger special ed program 30 minutes away.
So perhaps, in the gym, I was missing my twin and shocked to see this stranger where I wanted my brother to be. His name was Robbie Baka. I introduced myself and said “hi” to him a few times in the halls. Maybe I didn’t need the bands. Maybe, through my brother, I had found my first friend.
Initially, I thought Robbie was like my brother but upgraded. While their bodies shared a similar spastic choreography, Robbie could fully control his head, which he used to nimbly toggle his power chair around corners and down ramps, dodging classmates and desks as he navigated the middle school. While my brother was limited to “eh” for “yes,” “eh-eh” for “no,” and several people’s names, Robbie was fully verbal, and spoke with a squeaky voice grounded in his sinuses. My brother was almost all vowels, but Robbie could fit his mouth around every consonant, every “ch,” “sh,” “f.” My brother revealed his intelligence through the jokes he would laugh at or a well-timed “eh-eh!” but couldn’t, for instance, read a sentence or solve a math problem. Meanwhile, Robbie was in mainstream classes — he needed his aide to write and take notes, but he completed the same book reports and took the same tests as I did.
But I quickly learned Robbie was not cool. In the hallways, he sang Disney songs at the top of his lungs, belting out in his gratingly high voice “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. He lapsed into revelry with The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata.” If he got started on The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea,” he would not stop. Then he’d somehow raise that voice an octave higher, and imitate his hero: “Whoo-hoo! Hey guys. It’s me, Mickey Mouse! Whoo-hoo!” If all that wasn’t awful enough, he was also a narc. He told on kids for saying bad words and throwing pencils into the ceiling. In his annoying nasal voice, he’d say, “Mrs. Schoffer, Nate threw a pencil!” Or he’d whisper to his aide, who passed up the intel to the teacher, a game of narc telephone. In the hallways, he drove recklessly, and would run over people’s feet without so much as a “sorry.” In choir, he shout-sang every song, ruining whatever harmony we had. And in history class, he’d derail the lesson to ask stupid questions: “Are there a lot of forests in China?” Sometimes his aide would raise her hand, and he wouldn’t even ask a question, saying, “Oh. Um. I forgot.” Only later did I realize that he was playing the heel, that he knew people like me thought he was annoying, and he wanted to annoy us even more. He wanted to run over our feet.
Robbie was one of the few physically diverse students at our school. In our grade of 130, there was one Egyptian, one Asian, and two Hispanics. Our only Black kid was adopted and swore he was Sicilian. Otherwise, it was an able-bodied white-out. Did I like thinking that the only visibly disabled kid in my school was insufferable? No. I wanted him to be as charming and funny as my brother but with all the words, to be one of the cool and witty crips you see on television nowadays: Speechless’ J.J., Special’s Ryan, or even that wheezy best friend from Malcolm in the Middle. But back then, they were not on television, and every time Robbie opened his mouth, I gritted my teeth.
Part of me hated Robbie for his abilities. What my brother could do with those functioning eyes, that coordinated mouth, that agile head. I rarely wished I had a “normal” brother. What I wanted were more opportunities for my actual brother to express himself: to drive his wheelchair where he wanted, to say, “Hey asshole. Shut up.” If Danny were like Robbie, he would just be more of himself. But what did Robbie do with his abilities? He was a rolling advertisement for Walt Disney.
And part of me hated Robbie because I was terrified about my own social status. I barely talked that first year. A girl in my class nicknamed me “the silent dude.” If I was his friend, I would have to eat lunch with him and the kid who reeked, the boy who talked to himself and still played with Power Rangers, or the girl who got bit in the face by a horse. He was a dark star of unpopularity, drawing losers into his orbit. Contact with Robbie risked revealing the real me: the Brian with puppy centerfolds.
But no matter how much I hated Robbie, the cool kids hated him even more. Mostly, they ignored him, as if to say, Are you still here? Though sometimes the boys mocked him behind his back, strangling their vocal cords into high-pitched imitations and chopping their hands spastically against their chests. When he was alone on the bus, they bounced erasers and spitballs off his face. They wondered aloud whether, in addition to helping him urinate, his aide also helped him whack off.
At my Catholic grade school, when my friend said “retard,” I told him to stop. I told my mother, who told his mother, and then my friend called me sobbing to apologize. But here, “retard” was everywhere: “Why are you such a retard?” “God, are you retarded?” “You retarded retard.” “You el-retardo.” My generation loved the word “retarded,” using it as a catch-all for anything bad. It was the bottom. It was the worst thing you could be. And it was so fun to say. Maybe we liked how it rolled off the tongue: Curve back and then three quick taps on the roof of your mouth — re-tar-ded. You could cut it up, remix it: Tarded. Tard. Re-re. Fuck-tard. At my new school, they said it so much that I got tired. I let it happen. I was the silent dude.
But here, “retard” was also Robbie. They made it personal. They said to each other: “You stupid Robbie. You’re such a fucking Baka.” In a twist of the penis game, they’d have competitions to see who could yell “Baka!” the loudest in a crowded room. “Baka! Robbie Baka!!!” In the end, I was relieved my brother wasn’t here. I didn’t want to find out what they’d do with his name.
“Stop,” I said. “Don’t.” I defended Robbie from the worst of the bullying, but I would not beat up Jim for a thrown eraser or punch Phil for saying “you fucking Baka” every other sentence. I would not fight for him. Because even I found him annoying. If he were my brother, I reasoned, I would make them stop. If he were my brother, I would kill these kids. But he was not my brother.
In seventh grade, I brought a Sunny Delight bottle to lunch half-filled with vodka and finally made some friends. They were into cool bands, were in cool bands. We took guitar lessons together. We shared CDs. We smoked cigarettes. We smoked pot cut with pine needles. We slept over at each other’s houses and skimmed our parents’ hard liquor into foul brown tinctures we sipped from Schweppes bottles.
They did not make fun of Robbie. They just felt bad for him. When they met my brother, I was terrified about what they’d think. Would they concentrate on his crossed eyes, his tight and wispy arms, his bony knees, his pastel dog-paw bib, the cavernous gape of his mouth, the string of drool rappelling down his chin? Would they think: Retard. Re-tar-ded. Or would they wait to discover the person in there who laughed when you burped or said the word “bathroom,” who flirted with their mothers, who heckled me with his version of my name: “I-an!”
They were nervous. “Hi,” they said. “Does he shake hands?” They picked up his stiff fist as if it would break.
My brother, shy at first, flashed them a smile. They smiled back. “Yeah,” they said, breathy with relief. “What’s up, Danny?”
When we were alone in the basement, they asked me questions: What happened to him? Will he ever get better? Can he not talk at all? How much does he understand? How does he go to the bathroom? Do you have to change his diapers?
With our pool table and my mother’s apple cake, my house became the preferred sleepover destination, and their curiosity developed into acceptance. I’d carry my brother down into the basement, where he’d lie on the couch and listen to us make fun of each other. When they’d catch him laughing, they’d say, “See, even Danny thinks you’re a little bitch.”
They’d use him to rib me: “Danny, how can you stand your little brother?” and Danny would respond, “I-an!” like I have no idea.
“Oh shit,” they’d say. “He’s making fun of you.”
We’d play with his adaptive equipment. We took turns torturing each other in his electric hospital bed, jacking up both head and feet, folding our victims into pretzels. We put each other in his Hoyer lift, the small portable crane my parents used to lift him, which held us six feet aloft in its netting and made us vulnerable to kidney shots from below. We convinced one of our friends that Danny’s Hoyer could understand English and would move up for “yes” and down for “no,” hiding the switch behind our backs. The Hoyer moved up and agreed. It thought our friend was a “fag.” When one of us bragged that he could escape from anything, we duct-taped him to Danny’s wheelchair and parked Houdini screaming in the middle of the road. Through it all, Danny smiled and laughed.
They did not treat him like Robbie. They said, “What’s up, Danny? You player. You pimp. You ladies’ man. Dan, you’re the man. Dan the man.” I felt proud to be his twin brother.
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While my friends seemed to accept Danny, my other classmates still called each other “retard” and “Baka.” I pretended it didn’t bother me but I held so much anger inside my body. I started taking kung fu lessons. I replaced the puppy centerfolds with pictures of bald and fierce Shaolin monks crouched with spears. I bought a heavy bag and punched the skin off my knuckles. In kung fu class, my classmates said, “It’s like you want to kill somebody.”
They were right. While training after school in my basement, this was my recurrent fantasy: I am pushing my brother at a high school football game, and we walk where the middle schoolers cluster and gossip below the bleachers. I push my brother past the boys who torment Robbie and they say the usual: “You fucking Baka.” But this time, they say it to my brother.
Cue the violins. “What did you say?” I drawl, readying my fighting stance, tightening my grip on Danny’s wheelchair handles. I’m a pudgy David Carradine. “Say it again,” I say. “See what happens.”
They surround us, and they say it: “You retards. You fucking Bakas.”
Techno music. My opening salvo: Launch a flying double-side kick from Danny’s wheelchair handles, followed by tipping his chair back for a “footrest of fury.” Then I step out from behind Danny’s wheelchair to snap-kick their knees, to upper-cut their ribs, to crescent-kick their temples, to dragon strike their faces (palm smashing nose into the brain, fingers raking eyes).
When they’re rolling on the ground, writhing in pain, when they know they’ve lost, the last one standing lunges for my brother, and I stop him with a flying kick to the solar plexus and grind my foot into the back of his neck until I hear his bones click. If they survive, they won’t even be mainstreamed like Robbie. They’ll be bused out with my brother, and somewhere in the back of their brain-damaged minds, they’ll be sorry.
Then I’d come upstairs covered in sweat and chug a glass of milk, my real brother safe in his wheelchair with no idea how many classmates I’d just murdered for him.
In eighth grade, my friends and I started a band, with me as the lead singer. My voice was too high and I got kicked out. No hard feelings. We traded copies of Penthouse and porno tapes, wishing that actual girls would let us touch them. We smoked better pot without pine needles. We got older siblings to buy us beer with fake IDs. We snorted Ritalin in the library. We wore hemp necklaces and cargo shorts. We played hacky sack in the middle of town, where we spat and smoked and slouched. We participated in zero extracurricular activities and declared so many things “gay.” When we grew tired of being cool, we escaped into my basement and pretended to be Jedi knights with pool-stick lightsabers.
When my friends slept over on the weekends, they marveled at Danny’s new augmentative communication device, which looked like a chunky proto-iPad. A small speaker on his headrest whispered phrases into his ear and he chose his option by clicking a switch with his wrist. The computer announced in a scary robot voice: “My bro-ther Bri-an is an id-i-ot.” My friends cheered.
But sometimes at school, my violence would squeak out. Once, in the gym, I watched sixth graders pour through the doorway as Robbie and his aide waited for someone to let them outside for recess. “Excuse us,” the aide said. “Please.” No one would stop.
“Wait,” I said. “Wait!” And still they streamed through. Finally, I stepped into the doorway and hockey-checked a boy onto the ground. The line halted. He stared up at me with tears welling in his eyes. “Why?” he asked. “Asshole!”
Robbie’s aide shook her head. “You didn’t have to do that,” she said.
Yes, I did.
One day at lunch, at the beginning of ninth grade, my friends stared across the cafeteria at Robbie eating Mexican pizza. They watched as Robbie’s aide fed him cut-up bites with a fork, Robbie’s mouth clumsily masticating as the pizza fell onto the napkin stuffed into his shirt. They watched Robbie as he coughed, as his face bloomed red and he struggled to breathe, as he took long swigs from his giant water bottle.
“Ugh,” one of them said. “Can you imagine what it’s like to be Robbie?”
“I know. You can’t even hold your dick to piss.”
“To never whack off?” said another. “Or touch a girl?”
I got quiet and still. Another friend shook his head: “Dude, I can’t imagine.”
“Someone has to take you to the bathroom? You can’t even wipe your own ass. I mean, look at her feeding him. Fuck.”
“Yeah, I can’t imagine,” said another friend. They all shook their heads, united in this not imagining. My fist clenched. My stomach knotted. But I was silent.
“If I was like that,” my friend said, “I’d kill myself. I’d blow my fucking brains out.”
They all shook their heads in agreement. It was only now that I slammed my fist on the table. “Stop,” I said. “Shut up.”
I stood. “You say that about him, you say that about my brother.”
“Come on,” they said. “We’re not talking about Danny. Don’t be so dramatic.”
These boys didn’t yell “Robbie” in a crowded room. They were my best friends, kids who’d slept over my house every other weekend, who called my twin “Dan the man” and made him smile by whispering in his ear that his brother was a “pussy.” They stayed for dinner and watched my mother feed my brother the exact same way Robbie’s aide was feeding him now, and when my brother coughed food into their faces, they’d yell, “Dan, you got me!” while my brother laughed. They’d watched with curiosity as I changed his diaper and fed him ground-up pills suspended in a cloud of apple sauce. They’d sat in the soft foam of his wheelchair, tried it out on their own bodies, and competed to see who could do the longest wheelie. I thought these were moments of play, of joy, but now I knew what they were really thinking: If I were like you, I’d kill myself.
Standing there, I wanted to flip over their lunch trays and bash in their heads. I wanted to punch their throats, rake their eyes, break their necks. But most of all, I wanted to run away and cry in the bathroom, to find new friends who wouldn’t say such awful things, who wouldn’t even imagine them.
“You are,” I choked out. “You’re talking about my brother.”
Their faces softened. They looked down into the tortured landscapes of their Mexican pizzas. “Alright,” they said. “Sorry. Now sit down.”
What did I think would happen if I walked away? If I went to sit with Robbie? What kind of adolescent hell did I imagine for myself? It is so difficult at that age to picture yourself cast out from the group. You cling so desperately to that “we” no matter what it costs. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be back in that silent year, that lonely and singular “I” on that dirty gym floor, awkward and alone with my binder of cool bands.
So I sat down. I wasn’t dramatic. We moved on. The next time someone said “retard,” I didn’t even flinch. I said it myself.
You retard. You Robbie. You Baka. You brother. You twin.
The rest of high school was both better and worse for Robbie. His bullies grew less cruel or more sophisticated in their cruelty: They mostly just ignored him. But if kids no longer yelled “Baka!” or threw spitballs at his head, he also grew more isolated. His middle school friends matriculated to the more diversified subcultures of high school: the goths, the freaks, the math nerds. His parents stopped throwing him birthday parties after freshman year when only three kids showed up. Sometimes the only person sitting with Robbie at lunch was his aide. And Robbie struggled with the more advanced classes and needed increased accommodations, doing subjects like math entirely in the resource room with the special ed teacher. While no genius myself, I was on the pre-college track. We rarely had a class together.
He still loved to sing, but had trouble with the increased rigor of high school choir. He struggled to learn and pronounce the songs sung in Latin and Italian, though when they started to practice “Candle on the Water” from Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, he already knew every word by heart. The more serious singers resented Robbie for his off-key voice, how he seemed to shout-squawk the lyrics, how in their beautiful wall of sound there was always the crack of his voice. He held them back. When they traveled to state-wide competitions, they were thankful that Robbie stayed home.
One class I did have with him was 11th-grade drama, where I saw a different side of Robbie. There was a lip-synching assignment, which Robbie refused to fake. He sang “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees, his body exuberant as he spun and writhed around the stage to the beat. For the monologue assignment, he inhabited Hamlet in the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, which he performed in a low strangled rasp that gave the words a doomed weight: “Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered … .” During improv scenes, he couldn’t stop laughing. He seemed so happy to be performing. On stage, he was comfortable with himself in a way that I envied. Didn’t he know what people might think?
He once told a friend that he loved choir and theater because he liked to express himself; he liked pretending to be someone else for a while. Sure. But I suspect Robbie also liked inviting the audience’s eyes onto his body. When so many people either ignored him or stared at him against his will, up on stage he sanctioned that stare. Elevated and under lights, he was impossible to ignore. He invited us to look and listen, translating the characters into his own choreography. In the able-bodied white-out of our small town, here was his disabled body inhabiting our heroes. Here was the song in his mouth, no matter how much he mangled it, and no, mean girl, he would not shut up.
Our senior year, I got my wish. My twin brother finally came to school with me. For the past three years, he’d attended Rosemary Center, a specialized school in Cleveland for severely disabled students, but his teachers worried he wasn’t getting enough opportunities to work on his social skills. So for the first two periods of the day, he’d come to my high school for commons and choir, and then they’d bus him back to Rosemary Center in time for lunch.
I developed spidey-sense. When he was in the building and I wasn’t with him, I tingled. I was a tuning fork for danger. I wondered: As his aide pushed him through the hallway, would the high schoolers whisper: Retard. Re-tar-ded. Would they imitate his moan? Would they chop their hands against their chests? Would they call each other, “You Danny. You fucking Trapp”? Would they take one look at him and think: If I were like you, I’d kill myself. I knew what my classmates had said about Robbie, and how easily their words could ricochet off his body and onto my brother’s, though I don’t think my brother threatened them the way Robbie did. Robbie was too close to normal — he dared to occupy their same space.
The tingle lessened when Danny was with me in commons, the free period in the cafeteria dedicated to socializing and homework. Robbie was also there but mostly sat in the front of the room, parked with his aide who loved to gossip with other teachers. He would always cheerfully greet my brother: “Hello, Mister Trapp. How are you this morning?” He was so nice and upbeat. He spouted inspirational quotes: “You can do it if you try!” At age 18, he still loved Disney, singing The Lion King songs and imitating Mickey Mouse, if a little less often. He told the kind of jokes found on popsicle sticks. I no longer thought Robbie was annoying. He just seemed immature.
We’d talk for a moment. My brother must have known Robbie was like him; he must’ve heard the spastic warble of his voice, saw with his limited vision the blurry outline of Robbie’s wheelchair. And Danny was the only student in a wheelchair Robbie would see all day. What would’ve happened if I’d let my brother linger? Would Robbie have become his friend? Maybe my brother would’ve liked Robbie’s popsicle stick jokes. Maybe the jokes were just an act, Robbie’s warm-up before he got to the dirtier ones, which Danny would’ve certainly liked. Maybe Danny would’ve called him “Eddie,” the name he gave to all his good male friends.
I didn’t give them a chance. Instead, I pushed Danny past him, into the senior lounge where we’d hang out with my friends in a carpeted corner with couches. Danny brought his Dynavox, his upgraded augmentative communication device. Like the old one, it scanned pre-programmed options across a plastic screen, but when Danny clicked, instead of the scary robot voice, it was me. Technology had improved so much that I could record his options into his computer, giving him my voice.
We asked, “Where’s the party at?”
We sang blues lyrics: “I want one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer.”
We said, “Shit.”
My classmates gathered around, astonished at my foul-mouthed voice coming from his machine, my brother smiling from his wheelchair with his wrist cocked and ready to click another.
From the computer, we said, “What’s up, bitches?”
We said, “Hey girl, can I get your number?”
We said, “Hey Thompson, you’re a fuck-face.”
They howled with laughter. Even Ben Stanley, who had loved yelling “Baka” in a crowded room four years before, smiled at Danny. “That’s so bomb,” he said to my brother, and then to me: “You are such a badass.”
“Me?” I asked. “Why? My brother said it.”
“Right,” he said and winked.
But one day we got too close to Robbie and his aide, and my brother clicked, “Steve Cooper sucks balls.”
Robbie rocked with laughter and said, “Mister Trapp, did you just say what I think you said?”
His aide shook her head. “Come on,” she said to me. “That’s not appropriate.”
“What?” I said. “Danny said it.”
She smiled at my gambit. “I see what you’re doing there.”
My brother laughed, knowing we were getting away with something. We were in trouble at school together like true twins.
But eventually, Danny’s speech therapist discovered our page, and we were busted. Our mother made us erase the most explicit options. From then on, she would monitor my additions. A year later, they erased me completely.
At 17, I had literally given my brother a voice, imagining what he would want to say. I knew my brother mostly through translation. Read his body language, listen to the tone of his “I-an,” analyze the context, and guess what he was thinking as “eh” or “eh-eh” options: “Do you want a milkshake? Are you mad at me? Are you sick of this song? Eh or eh-eh?” Through his Dynavox, I could finally lay down the tracks of his personality, and all he had to do was click himself into existence.
And what did I do with this awesome power? I made Danny into a crude, potty-mouthed cartoon of a teenager, a mirror of my own ID. I programmed his computer to say “bitch” and “fag” without thinking about their relationship to the word “retard.” I’m not even sure my brother always knew what he was saying through the machine, though he certainly enjoyed his audience’s reactions.
For years, I’ve regretted that I treated giving my twin brother a voice as just another joke. But now I see what I did as a reaction to Robbie. I wanted Danny to be a counterbalance against Robbie’s cheerful Pollyanna personality, his squeaky-clean Disney songs, and his Mickey Mouse impressions. I wanted Danny to be funny and subversive. I wanted him to shock those who would pity him. I wanted my classmates to hear a disabled person say “fuck” and “shit” and “shut up, asshole.” I wanted him to make fun of them. And no matter what Danny really wanted to say, he obliged me. He clicked my version of himself out into the world.
In the end, we played the twin trick. We traded places and waited for them to notice. But to this day, I’m not quite sure if they mistook me for him or him for me.
And yet, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t keep Robbie and Danny apart. After commons, Danny joined Robbie in choir without me, adding his moans to Robbie’s squawks. Together they sang a duet against that beautiful wall of sound.
After we graduated, I lost track of Robbie. I assumed he’d follow the path of most people at our high school: off to college, someplace like Wright State, an accessible campus with ramps and lifts, elevators and attendants where Ohio funneled its disabled students. I expected him to at least continue down the mainstream, for him to find gainful employment someplace with that agile head and coordinated mouth, where his coworkers would enjoy his cheerful presence but secretly wish he’d cool it with the Mickey Mouse impressions. I expected him to have a very different future than my brother, who aged out of the school system and moved on to a day program for people with disabilities at United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) in downtown Cleveland.
On Christmas break my senior year of college, I went to UCP to visit my brother. In the workroom, among the line of people in wheelchairs, there was Robbie. He was still skinny but now had a buzz cut and stubble on his chin. “Well, hello there, Mr. Trapp!” His body seized in excitement, his arms clenching down. His voice was still grounded in his sinuses but it seemed a bit lower. He had become a man, just as I had. On a long white table were scraps of wood, plastic boxes with nails, screws, and containers of glue. There was a stack of square boards, each with a hole in the middle. They were packaging boxes for birdhouses.
My mother had mentioned that Robbie was at UCP with my brother, that they actually rode together on the bus, but it was hard to believe. Wasn’t there something more he could do? They were both part of UCP’s sheltered workshop. They did “piece-work,” an absurd parody of work. Instead of earning a set wage, workers are paid “by the piece,” a salary commensurate with their productivity when compared to a “normal worker.” My brother, for instance, would click a hand switch that activated a paper shredder. At the end of the month, they’d mail him a check for 45 cents — negative 90 cents when you factor in the cost of postage and mileage for driving to the bank to cash the check. My mother asked UCP, “Can’t you just keep it?” They could not.
Certainly, Robbie could make a better living somewhere in the community. Certainly, he could make minimum wage. He had been in the same classes as I was. What did he learn — why endure all the mocking and isolation — if he was just going to end up in the same place as my brother? Surely our high school had prepared Robbie for a different kind of life.
No, my mother said. Robbie had significant learning disabilities. He had health problems — asthma and gastrological issues — so here he was packaging birdhouses with my brother.
Robbie said he liked it here. “They treat me pretty good. Everyone is super nice.”
“I wouldn’t go that far, Robbie Rob!” someone else said from his wheelchair, and they all laughed.
Robbie squealed and said, “Don’t start!” He turned back to me. “And your brother has become a good friend.”
“That’s great, man,” I said. “I’m glad you’re doing well, Rob.” I shook his hand and went to the next room to visit Danny.
That spring, to save money, UCP contracted with a cheaper bus company. The bus was late. The bus broke down on the highway. The new bus driver barely talked to Danny or Robbie. A mouth breather, my mother said. He often called in sick, and then they’d send a substitute driver who breathed even more from his mouth. When the bus got a hole in its roof, they didn’t fix it. Once, when it was raining, my mother opened the door of the bus to find Robbie with a tarp draped over his head like he was a piece of furniture. Robbie was good-natured about it, but my mother complained: “You’ve got to be kidding me. Here’s a kid with health problems and you put a tarp over him?” They fixed the bus but not the drivers.
I was three hours away on the other side of the state, in my last term of college. If I felt the twin tingle, if I sensed my brother was in danger that afternoon, I mistook it for an overdose of caffeine.
The bus driver pulled into the UCP parking lot to take my brother and Robbie home. I know almost nothing about this man, just what my mother told me: that he was skinny and quiet and in his forties. I know he was polite to her but wouldn’t talk to my brother. I know he worked for a company that paid him the least it possibly could.
When I imagine him that day, I see him drive into the UCP parking lot, past the brick columns at the front of the building. He’s wearing the bus company polo shirt, the insignia that his friends make fun of at the bar after his shifts, before his shifts. His life has not gone the way he wanted. Like all of us, he was once a child and briefly beautiful but now finds himself driving this bus, making chicken scratch working for the only company that would hire him, so bored with loading the cripples on-and-off, on-and-off, while their mothers eye him suspiciously from the lawns of their nice houses. Maybe on his good days, he makes the best of it: He has a picture of his favorite niece dangling from the rearview mirror; he blasts Fleetwood Mac from the blown-out speakers and taps out beats on the steering wheel; he sometimes turns to classical and practices deep breathing.
But today is not a good day. How much does he drink before he picks them up? He gets blitzed in the neighborhood on his buddy’s porch, passing a bottle back and forth as the bus idles on the curb. Or he drinks in a corner bar, trading stories and shots of whiskey and cheap tall-boys. Wherever he is, he stands up and is drunker than he meant to get but cannot be late again. Maybe he’s battled addiction his whole life and cannot have just one even though he’d like to be a responsible custodian of these vulnerable people. Or maybe he thinks: I don’t have to be sober for this. Look who I’m driving? If we get in an accident, it would be a mercy. If I was like that, I’d … .
He stops the bus in front of the one in the power chair, who is running his mouth, as usual, talking to the other one, who stares blankly into space. They have that pretty aide behind them. He puts the bus in park. As he makes his way to the back, the aide opens the side door, and he stares at her through the metal grate of the lift platform. He feels like he’s in a cage. The hydraulic motor whirs as the platform lowers down perpendicular to his feet. No more hiding. He steadies himself. She won’t notice. “How you doing, sweet thing?” he asks. He has never called her that before. Too far? Or not far enough? She glares at him and pretends not to hear. “Damn. No offense,” he says and laughs.
The platform lowers down to the blacktop, its lip curling flat, and the boy with the big head and the powerchair loads first, backing himself onto the platform. Robbie Rob, they call him. The aide buckles the belt, and clicks the switch to raise him to the bus floor. He shoves the chair into its space, fetches the Q-tie-downs, and straps him in. God, he hopes the kid doesn’t start singing those Disney songs. It’s too much for a man to listen to for 35 minutes. The kid continues talking endlessly to the other one, who, as far as the driver has seen, is like talking to a pile of meat. But sometimes when he glances back in the rearview, they look like twins.
The aide eyes him suspiciously like those mothers on their lawns. OK. On his best behavior. He’s not that drunk. He stands up straight. The quiet one with the bitch of a mom who got him in trouble for the tarp is already on the lift, waiting. He walks to the boy and pulls him in. “Come on, buddy,” he says. It’s easier today. It’s easier like this.
After he straps the boy to the floor, he climbs down the front steps to sign the pickup sheet. Maybe it’s here where he stumbles. Maybe his eyes are too heavy, his cheeks too flushed. Or maybe the aide has seen the signs this whole time: the swaying in the doorway, taking too long to strap in her clients, the “sweet thing” come-on and jovial laughing, the tell-tale slur. Before this, she’d worked as a bartender and knows what to look for in a drunk. She knows how to defuse his demands for another, how to call him a cab, but she’s at a loss on what to do when he wants to drive her two disabled clients half an hour into the suburbs. Now that he is ground-level, she gets a good look and is sure. She can smell it. “You’re drunk,” she says.
He laughs. “What’re you talking about?”
“You’re drunk,” she says again. “Wait right there.” She turns and runs inside the building to get help.
It’s easier today. He climbs back in the bus, slides the door shut, and fires up the engine. She comes back out and screams “Stop! Call the police!” He hits the gas and guns it out of the parking lot, the wheels screeching as he lurches right onto 101st Street. But it’s only a block to the stoplight on Euclid where the cars stream past one-way, and in the rear view he sees UCP staff members sprinting down the sidewalk, closing in. He lays on the horn and nudges the bus out into the lane. An SUV swerves and honks, nearly clipping his bumper, but the cars behind it brake and beep as he pulls the bus into the lane. There. Thank God. He drives straight, his hands at ten-and-two. He watches the UCP polo shirts grow tiny. He’s done it. He’s gotten away. Easy.
Except Robbie Rob, the one in the power chair, will not shut up. He’s been screaming since they left the parking lot. “Stop! You heard her! Stop! Pull over!”
“Quiet back there,” he barks.
“I heard her. You’re drunk! You’re drunk and you’re driving us! You’re drunk driving! Pull this bus over right now!”
The kid is thrashing in his chair, his face turning red. And now the other one starts, his teeth gnashing: “Ehhhh-ahhh-ehhhh.”
“Shhhh,” he tells them both. “That’s enough.”
He stops at the next light. He acts like everything is normal. He’s pointed the wrong way, going deeper into the city, at 95th Street, down in numbers, not up. He’ll have to turn around. He’ll drive the cripples home and pretend it was just a misunderstanding. He will nod to their mothers. They’ll have no idea.
The light turns green and he hits the gas. “I’m taking you home, fellas. Relax. That woman was crazy.” He looks in the rearview mirror. Robbie Rob isn’t buying it.
“You think we’re idiots? Fuck you! Pull this bus over right now!”
So the Disney kid can curse. He didn’t think he had it in him. He calls back, “You want to go home, don’t you?” He feels bad about the veiled threat, but that shuts the kid right up. He turns down a side street and goes east down Carnegie Road, finally in the right direction. “Don’t worry, gentlemen,” he says. “I got you.” He’s feeling good again. It’s easy. But then he swerves a little too much into the left lane and the cars honk. He needs to concentrate.
“You bastard!” the one in the powerchair yells. “Pull over right now, you bastard! Let us off!” The driver grits his teeth. That voice. How can one kid be so annoying? “Stop! Ahhhh!” the kid yells. He will not shut up. He will not give the driver a break.
The kid is yelling so loud that the driver doesn’t notice the sirens. But as Robbie pauses to take a breath, the driver hears the whoop whoop, sees the red and blue flashing in his rear view. “Fuck,” he says. It’s hospital security, the Cleveland Clinic police. They’re not real cops, right? He needs time to think. He could run the lights and speed through the intersections. He could barrel down side streets and ditch the bus in an empty parking lot. He could disappear into the city. And yes, there is a chance he could wreck the bus, that he could smash into another car and end up dead or maimed, not to mention what could happen to his passengers strapped to the floor. Their wheelchairs would not do well with the g-force, their skulls rattling against their headrests. If he overturned the bus, they’d hang from the ceiling like bats.
It could also be so easy. All he needs is to concentrate. All he needs is a little silence. If it was just the other one, the quiet one, he could do it. He could get away.
But the loud one will not shut up. The siren seems to make him worse and he’s thrashing more than ever, practically foaming at the mouth, and now the other one is moaning and for Christ’s sake they will not shut up. That Robbie Rob seizes with rage as he screams: “You bastard! My dad is gonna sue your ass, you bastard!”
And suddenly the driver wakes up to his own life: He is running from the cops in a short bus. He’s very drunk, and he’s kidnapped two disabled men in wheelchairs. And Robbie Rob, so annoying with that nasal voice, is right: He is a bastard. This is what a bastard does, and he is not a bastard. So he slows the bus and pulls off into a side street. He puts the bus in park, raises his hands, and waits.
When the cop opens the door, Robbie is still screaming: “You bastard! You fucking bastard!”
My whole life, I dreamed of protecting my brother. I would be there to put my body in between. I would be there to fight for Danny, to save him. But when my twin brother’s life was truly threatened, when a drunk man was speeding a bus down a Cleveland street with my brother in the back, it was Robbie, not me, who protected him. I cringe to think what would’ve happened if it had been just my moaning brother in the back, with the driver unable to interpret his sounds: What’s happening? Please stop. I’m scared. But there was Robbie being so annoying, yelling in that grating voice grounded in his sinuses, refusing to shut up. It was Robbie who fought for him. It was Robbie who may have saved my twin’s life.
When Robbie died five years later, I was away again, this time at grad school. My mother and brother went to his funeral. He’d passed away in his sleep. It felt incomprehensible that Robbie would die before Danny. With those functioning eyes, that coordinated mouth, that agile head, he seemed set up for one long life. But there he was, ashes in an urn. My brother was having his own health problems and my mother felt like she was attending a dress rehearsal for the death of her own son. She was right: My brother would last two more years, until the age of 28, one more year than Robbie’s 27. Now they’re both gone, twins in death, riding that bus together into the unknown.
I wonder, on those long rides home from Cleveland, if my brother ever called him “Eddie,” if he used it to heckle him when Robbie would light into his fourth Disney song that trip, or gush about their cute coworker with the long red hair, or for the second time that week ask him, “How can you tell a vampire has a cold? He starts coffin.” Maybe when I wasn’t watching, Danny learned to fit his mouth around the “r” and the “b” and added another word into his repertoire. I wonder if they passed each other’s names back and forth: Rob-bie. Danny. Rob-bie. Danny.
When giving directions, I have heard that instead of saying “hang a right,” the boys who tormented Robbie, now almost middle-aged men, sometimes say, “hang a Robbie,” a cruel artifact from their childhoods, an almost affectionate tribute to their tormentee, who by that time had been dead for almost a decade. After 25 years, his name was still a thrill to say out loud, to map the world with, to drive in its direction.
As I work on this essay, I write Danny’s name. I write Robbie’s too. As I approach the end, I feel terrified, like I’m that lonely and singular “I” again on the dirty gym floor, but instead of my binder of cool bands, I have this essay with their names. I want to retreat into silence again. I wonder what audience I’m writing for, if I’m still holding onto that “we” no matter what it costs. When you read their names, do you pity them? Do you secretly think: Retard. Re-tar-ded. Do you laugh along with my scenes of joy, of play, but really think: “If I was like that, I’d … .” Or can you imagine? Do you have a brother like mine? Do you look like my brother?
You Robbie. You Baka. You Brother. You Twin.
Brian Trapp is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer who has published work in the Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Narrative, Brevity, and Ninth Letter, among other places. He teaches at the University of Oregon, and will be a 2021-2022 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University.
Editor: Carolyn Wells
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk
Sensitivity reader: Ian Markauskas