Inquire at the Front Desk

Excerpts of Stories by or About Persons with a Disability

Carlos could walk, but only barely. Carlos could read, but only barely. Reading at a second-grade reading level, and requiring a cane to walk (slowly) Carlos felt stupid and useless.

From his window he saw other teenagers on the street enjoying the freedom of summer, punctuated by shouts of laughter and rambunctiously slurping popsicles. How he yearned to join them, to have one of them knock on his door, call his name, and invite him to hang out. But whenever he passed by them he felt their stares on him, judging his lead-footed walk and his cane.

Day after day Carlos sat alone in the shade of his family house, with only the silence of his mother’s noontime nap for company.

One day, a bright yellow flyer tumbled through the mail slot. He read it, slowly, one word at a time. “Now hiring at the community library. Inquire at front desk.

His heart jumped. Did he dare? The thought of approaching the librarian turned his insides to jelly. People would surely stare at him, his cane, his uneven walk, his slow words. They would probably tell him no.Did he dare?

He dared. Approaching the librarian at the front desk he could do little more than gather his courage, take a deep breath, and do his best.

“Excuse me. I… I’d like to work here. Or… volunteer. Please.”

The librarian’s smile slipped, her eyes doing the familiar flick down to Carlos’ cane and back.  “We’re currently hiring shelvers or storytime readers. You’d need to be able to lift things and read fluently.” He had dared, and he had been rejected.

Standing alone outside the library, embarrassed and sad, Carlos suddenly thought of Anabela, his neighbour and best friend from another time, another city. When the younger Carlos had thrown down his books in frustration, Anabela would take his book in one hand and his arm in the other, sit him down, and read to him, her voice animated and her eyes full of life.

It had been too many years. Suddenly, he felt a desperate need to see Anabela.

What luck, as Dad was about to take a business trip to his hometown. Carlos begged and pleaded, and found himself waiting in a cafe in the old city a week later, jetlagged but full of anticipation.

The door swung inwards, and there was Anabela, recognizable at once. Carlos waved, beaming at her.

“Carlos!” Anabela sailed towards him. She had grown taller, but so had he (he hoped). She studied him. “You haven’t changed one bit.”

As the conversation went on, Carlos felt himself deflate. He could tell that his slow, slurred speech and his cane were putting her off. She asked about school. He didn’t want to talk about school. She asked about his hobbies. He had none. She asked about his new friends. He didn’t know what to say. Did he have a job? Did he volunteer? Did he go anywhere? Did he ever leave the house? Her smile was slipping, and it had barely been half an hour before she ostentatiously glanced at her watch and said she had to go.

“Can we… meet again?” Carlos asked, suddenly afraid of her answer.

She hesitated, not meeting his eyes. His heart sank. “Look, Carlos, I’ve been really busy. I’ve got a job, I’ve got an exam, I’ve got endless things to do. I’m really sorry, but I don’t think I have time to meet again before you go.”

With that, she was gone.

The rest of summer crawled by. Carlos sat in his chair by the window, moving only to eat, shower, and sleep. His mother was worrying. He didn’t care. Why worry about a useless thing like him? She dragged him to a horribly bright place with white walls and white coats. He caught the words “clinically depressed”. Carlos wondered if that was the medical definition for not doing anything because he was too useless to do anything at all.

September came, and it with the news that Carlos had been put down a grade for his dismal English grades. The school would help him, the ESL teacher said, with this new software that was just waiting to be installed.

October, and then November passed. The software was nowhere. Everyone looked at him the way Anabela had looked at him. Carlos stopped trying at all in school. His mother was in turns tearful, furious, and hysterical. “Stop acting so stupid, Carlos!”

He blinked lethargically at her. “I am stupid. Go away.”

The final attempt to revive him came in the form of Peter. Peter was twenty-five, had a Master’s degree in psychotherapy, a part-time job at an electronics recycling centre, and a devastatingly charming crooked smile. The first meeting with Peter destroyed Carlos’ attempts to doze through anything the guy said. He was loud. And he actually grinned genuinely when Carlos finally gave a response that was a full sentence.

Soon after, Peter all but dragged Carlos to the electronics recycling centre, slapped the title of ‘volunteer’ on his chest, and coerced him into reprogramming old computers. By lunchtime, Carlos had gotten a basic grasp of Java.

“You’re good,” said Peter.

Carlos’ fingers paused in their erratic dance on the keyboard. For the first time in months, Carlos felt himself really, truly wake up. “I’m good at this… really?”

Peter nodded. “Absolutely.”

Carlos almost smiled, before he remembered something. “I’m terrible at everything else. I can’t read, I can’t walk. I’m useless.”

Peter snorted. “No you’re not. You’ll probably never win the Nobel prize for literature, but you can learn to read fluently. There’s this software you can try -“

Carlos cut him off. “I can’t. My school can’t install it.”

You can install it.”

I… can install it…”

Two days later, Carlos carried that statement like a talisman as he gingerly stepped into his school’s computer room. He downloaded the program. He installed it. The launch screen activated, and the words Learn to Read, Learn to Fly flashed onto the screen.

Carlos felt a bubble of something rise in his chest.

He might have called it hope.

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