Some said he was dropped on his head as a baby. Others said his parents were cousins. I personally thought it was a genetic mutation; a microscopic malfunction, a fault in a twirling ribbon of DNA that left him challenged in so many ways.
He sidled up next to me, holding out a screwdriver. “Thanks, Simon. Can you pass a thirteen spanner as well?”
“A – number – thirteen - spanner.” I repeated the words slowly and understanding spread across his face. He lumbered off, a tank of a man with a thatch of mouldy straw for hair. His eyes were small green peas and his teeth an orthodontist’s dream. They stuck in every direction like shards of porous rock.
By the time he returned it was lunch break. We sat around a long table, food spread before us. Tony dropped into the seat next to him. “Hey, Simple Simon, the usual for lunch, eh?”
Did his mother know he was intellectually disabled when she named him, I asked myself.
Simon looked up, showing his teeth in a crooked grimace. “Huh?”
I imagined pictures from my science books at school; spidery neurons and dendrons, star-shaped synapses lying bleached and dead. No messages firing, no electrical sparks of life.
The personnel officer had called us aside when Simon started working with us. “Simon can hear, write and understand basic English but can’t speak it. I believe he can communicate using sign language like the deaf.” He chortled, “But that’s obviously no help to you lot.”
There was one thing about Simon that fascinated all of us. He kept a small wooden box in his backpack. “Hey, Lurch, what’s in the box?” Jack would goad. “Love letters?”
Simon would gawk at him. “Huh?”
We saw him with it from time to time. In quiet moments he would pull it out and insert a tiny key into the padlock that secured its secrets. “I can’t imagine what he keeps in there.” said Tony.
“Let’s open it.” suggested Jack.
“Don’t you think that’s overstepping the mark?” I wanted to know what was in there as much as the others but somehow it didn’t seem right.
“Loosen up, Frank, he’ll never even know. We’ll have a quick peek and put it all back as it was.”
We sent him on a mission down the road and sprung the lock. A few moments later I sighed, “I knew we should have left well alone.”
“What is it?” Tony craned forward and I lifted the papers to my chest. Mine was on the top and for a moment I had trouble getting the words out.
“They’re prayer lists. For us. He’s been praying for us.”
The other two went silent.
The written words floated before my eyes all day. Simon’s Prayer List for Frank. The requests were simple one-liners but the effect was astounding. How, I wondered, could a man who suffered so much verbal abuse and mockery, find it in his heart to pray for us?
Simple Simon, Lurch, the titles were cruel and unnecessary. In the space of a few hours I felt like someone had taken my mind and stripped it like an old engine, throwing out the worn parts and replacing them with new pistons and rings so it would work properly. Simon was human just like the rest of us. He had feelings and hopes and dreams and desires. Who were we to make fun of him?
The idea came to me that evening.
A week later, I went over to Simon while the others were busy jabbering in a corner. “Simon.”
He straightened up and looked at me, pea eyes small in his face, mouldy hair falling across his brow. “Huh?”
I raised my right hand and tapped two fingers against my head. I then dropped my hand to touch my chest before slowly finger spelling my name.
Simon came to life, face animated, fingers and hands moving rapidly as he signed an unintelligible message.
I laughed. “Hold on, buddy. I’ve only had one lesson.”
Simon stopped as a huge smile spread across his face. Then he signed two words, slowly and clearly, lifting his hand to his lips and then moving it toward me ... thank you.
I nodded and smiled too as I repeated the sign back to him. Thank you, Simon. Under my breath I added a few extra words. And thank you for teaching me what matters in life.
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