The other day, I caught a whiff of it as I was leaving Walmart with a few rolls of wrapping paper. I half-expected to see him in the crowd with a well-chomped stogie jutting out the side of his mouth. For a few moments, it was the week before Christmas, 1981. And there was Big Ray, all 275 pounds of him, leaning against the tailgate of my pick-up truck. He was counting snowflakes.
Ray was one of the twelve residents with special needs that I worked with at a school in New England. He was a child trapped in the body of a twenty-year-old. When he was supposed to be making his bed, I would hear him singing children’s songs. If he was supposed to be vacuuming the stairway, I’d see him standing there sucking his thumb, his thoughts far away. When he saw me staring, he’d take his thumb out of his mouth, turn on the vacuum and say, “Well, today’s Saturday.”
That’s what he said when things were going right, regardless of what day it was. He told me that during the few weekends he went home, his favorite activity was to walk to Walmart on Saturdays and smoke cigars while watching the automatic doors open and close.
Ray was on a behavior plan to deal with his obesity. The nurses developed a diet for him and my job was to make sure he stuck to it. I did it with cigars.
Because Ray liked smoking cigars better than eating onion rings or spaghetti, I knew I had leverage. The plan was simple. He earned an after-dinner cigar when he followed his diet. He went smokeless when he broke it.
That fall, Ray reported to me each day after school with a teacher’s note regarding his diet plan compliance. On good days, I’d hear him lumbering down the hall toward the office. He’d stop before reaching the sliding, wooden door and pause to catch his breath. Then, mimicking the school receptionist who was constantly using the public address system for staff to call the switchboard, he would call out in a high voice, “Rich Kenney, please call the switchboard. Rich Kenney, please call the switchboard.”
I’d play along, picking up the phone, saying, “Hello, did you page me?” Five seconds later, Big Ray would appear from behind the door and laugh for the longest time, his entire body jiggling like a mound of Jell-O.
On bad-note days, his approaching steps in the hallway, heavy and slow, spoke volumes. There was no receptionist imitation. He’d plop himself down in the chair opposite my desk, hand me the note, and say, very solemnly, “Bad day, Rich Kenney, bad day.”
To cut down on the “bad days,” I added an incentive to his behavior plan. Whenever he had five good days in a row, he could walk independently to the store to purchase cigars. But – he had to bring back the package, unopened. That didn’t happen very often.
Big Ray smoked his bonus cigars outside the laundry room. Every now and then, I surprised him by firing up a stogie of my own. We’d sit there in thrift shop armchairs, our feet up on milk crates.
He taught me how to blow smoke rings. When I’d float a full one, he’d say, “Well, today’s Saturday.”
The week before Christmas was hectic, the many holiday parties causing behavior pandemonium. Denny was on house-restriction for flushing ski hats down the toilet while Clayton was grounded for unscrewing and hiding bedroom doorknobs. Friday’s noon dismissal for vacation could not arrive soon enough.
On Thursday afternoon, however, it started snowing. By the time we finished dinner, three inches of snow blanketed the grounds. After cleaning up in the kitchen, Ray stopped by the office to get his cigar. When I opened the empty box, I saw panic in his eyes. “Bad news, Rich Kenney,” he said.
I glanced out the window to see that the snow had turned to flurries. Reading my mind, Ray assured me he could walk to the store a few blocks away to pick up reinforcements. I agreed to let him go if he promised to come right back with an unopened package.
He didn’t. I found him in the staff parking lot, leaning against my truck with his head up and his hands outstretched, counting snowflakes. When he saw me, he handed me an opened package with a missing cigar. “I’m disappointed in you, Ray,” I said. “This means room-restriction.”
We walked back to the house in silence. He went straight to his room. When I checked on him ten minutes later, he was asleep.
At noon, the next day, cabs lined the driveway. Despite their blasting horns and residents sliding suitcases down the stairwell, I heard Big Ray’s steps in the hallway. He stopped just before the office door, pausing to catch his breath, and called out, “Rich Kenney, please call the switchboard. Rich Kenney, please call the switchboard.”
Still irked from the previous night’s incident, I didn’t play along. I said, “Let’s go, Ray. Your cab’s here.” Instead of the apology I was hoping for, he said, “Hey, Rich Kenney, what’s wrong?”
From the driveway, I watched the cab drive off. Big Ray stared at me from the back window, mouthing the words to his favorite expression. At that, I softened and waved back.
With everyone gone, I locked up the house and headed down to the parking lot to my snow-layered truck. I began clearing the windshield with my scraper, and as I lifted up the windshield wiper blade, loose snowman wrapping paper sailed across the parking lot in the wind. Under the blade was a frozen cigar.
That evening I sat by my Christmas tree with a dented White Owl Cigar. I lit up the bruised stogie, grateful for the opportunity to learn about life from kids who seemed to see it more clearly. I blew a smoke ring and said, “Well, today’s Saturday.”