By Jennifer Ratliff
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Sarah had Down's Syndrome. She was also legally blind and as dense as an iron sinker. She certainly was no idiot savant, though no one would dare call her an idiot (that would be politically incorrect). She was just a buck-toothed, four-foot, chubby little bumpkin who loved to bowl. But Janice liked her. Unlike other retarded folks she had a charm to her that made people think she was, if not intelligent, at least interesting. And that counted for a lot in the sphere of humanity, a fact Janice had come to know quite intimately, for her work, though not really impressive or scholarly (the critics’ words, not hers) was at least "obnoxiously interesting."
It was this image she was trying to change when Janice sauntered, Sarah clinging to her arm, into the misty-aired Bowlarama. The clerk, still nameless after eight weeks, already had Sarah’s favorite ball, an old dented house version that wobbled and creaked down the alley, never making a strike, ready and sitting like a lonely toy on the counter.
"Lane seven’s closed today," the clerk directed toward Janice, his eyes glued on Sarah. "Six okay?"
"Fine," Janice said, though the clerk had already cued the lane up and swept past her. He pulled the bowling ball off the counter and held it out to Sarah.
"Here’s your ball, sweetie."
Sarah grasped out with greasy hands and guffawed when she got a hold of the ball.
"Thank you thank you thank you…thank Bryan," the Sarah yelled, loud enough to turn the heads of the Indians buried under the building.
"Yes, thank you...Bryan," Janice added, secretly embarrassed that Sarah had remembered the man behind the counter when her own mind had faltered. It was not good for her image to forget such things.
"Bet you got paid today, Sarah," Bryan said as they headed toward their lane. Sarah stopped so fast Janice stepped into her.
"Yes," Sarah said.
"Can I see?"
Janice found her patience wearing thin. She had things to do after this--paintings to work on, networks to establish, markets to scour--and she couldn’t afford even five minutes. But they didn’t care, and as she watched, these two, a crude commoner and a feeble-minded oddity, took on a euphoric equality, sharing languid smiles and a appearance of casual comfort with each other.
Cradling the ball in the crook of her shoulder, Sarah pulled a finger-stained check from her back pocket and handed it to Bryan.
"Twenty-three dollars and fifteen cents," he murmured, flattening the check on the counter and fingering it delicately.
"You must have folded a million boxes to make this much."
Janice rolled her eyes, wondering when, if ever, she could finish fulfilling her civic responsibility and get home.
"Sarah worked hard," Sarah said, voice suddenly serious.
"Yes you did," Bryan said. "But you know what?"
He leaned down with that last question, like he was talking to a child.
"You’re rich!" he yelled, filling the quiet and making Janice jump.
"I’m rich! I’m rich! I’m rich!!" Sarah cackled, clasping her hands together loudly.
Janice glanced around her nervously, embarrassed and angry at the same time. She smiled at the few people who had turned at the noise. Still they stared. Janice felt her mouth go dry. They were staring, these people, her peers, but not at Sarah. It was Janice they were gawking at, scowling at.
Can’t you keep her quiet? The voices said in her head, and with a quick yank Janice grabbed Sarah’s arm.
"Shut up…hear me?!" she whispered fiercely. "This is a public place."
"Are you ready to bowl?" she said louder, so everyone in the alley could hear.
"Ready. Yes," Sarah blurted loudly.
Not caring whether she appeared rude or not, Janice grasped Sarah’s arm and dragged her to their lane. She stripped the ball from the woman’s arms and placed it in the holder.
"Where are your shoes?" Janice demanded, noticing the womans hands were now empty.
"Did you forget these?" Bryan said from behind Janice.
She turned and snatched the shoes. "Thanks."
"How’s the show in London going?" he asked as she struggled to put the shoes on Sarah’s feet. She was capable of dressing herself, and would have no problem putting the shoes on herself, but again, there was a time factor. It was already a quarter to four. Now this man wanted conversation.
"It’s going fine. Very good," she said, pulling Sarah to her feet and handing her the ball. "Go," she told Sarah. "Bowl."
In front of her Sarah hadn’t moved. "What is wrong, Sarah?" She found herself iterating the word "wrong", and for just one moment she felt guilty about taking that tone.
"I think that’s the problem," Bryan piped in, pointing to Sarah’s untied shoes.
"Can’t you do anything, Sarah? I swear, sometimes you act so stupid."
Of course she did what was stupid, Janice thought as she tied the woman’s shoes. She couldn’t help it anymore than a baby could help crying for food. She would have to learn not to expect so much from people.
"You know, it doesn’t sound like you enjoy what you’re doing."
Bryan was becoming more and more of a nuisance, and with that statement, Janice let her tact down.
"What I like or don’t like shouldn’t concern you."
She gave Sarah a little push toward the alley and lined her up with the center.
"Sarah, bowl. We don’t have that much time."
"Do the people you’re working for know how you treat this woman?"
"I treat her just fine."
"Yeah? I treat my dog like that."
"Then you spoil your dog," Janice retorted.
The man’s face tinged pink, and Janice could see her image diminishing, trounced by a bowling alley clerk with an over-anxious sense of political correctness.
"I’m sorry if I insulted you," she started, manipulating every word carefully. "I’ve been under a lot of stress lately..."
"Why don’t you tell her that?" Brian said, pointing to Sarah.
"She doesn’t care. Do you think she cares? Look at her, she’s not even paying attention to us."
Bryan couldn’t deny that fact. Sarah seemed perfectly content, standing in front of the ball return with a smile, rocking back and forth to some internal music. In fact, as Janice watched, this pitiable creature took on a semblance of beauty, with her hair shooting in undeterminable directions, saying to the world, ‘I’ll go where I please, thank you,’ and her hands grasping the bowling ball so gently Janice herself believed it would crumble underneath Sarah’s hands.
"She’s happy, don’t you think?" Janice said, more to herself than to appease Bryan. But her question stopped the attack.
"Yeah, okay. She looks happy. But it still doesn’t give you the right to treat her like a child. She’s got her own mind."
With that, Bryan sauntered back to his desk and busied himself with the computer. Janice caught him a few times, looking at Sarah, perhaps wondering as Janice did, how a person with such a lot in life could appear so happy. She caught him sneaking a glance at her every few moments also, then turning quickly as soon as she lifted her head.
"Hey, Sarah, you want me to paint your picture?"
Sarah was fumbling with her shoes, trying to tie the laces that didn’t want to twirl her way.
"Paint? I like to paint," she remarked, still weaving, still humming.
"Can I paint you?" Janice tried again.
"I can paint a picture," Sarah said.
"Okay. Next time," Janice crooned, looking at her watch. It was a quarter past five, and she was behind schedule. Her plans had changed, but not the workload. Janice had been hit by the creative spark, and it would take at least a week to prepare for what she had in mind for Sarah. She was going to give this girl a real life, if only on canvas, and she could feel it in her bones, this painting would be blessed.
The next Friday, Janice staggered into the bowling alley, Sarah on one arm and the other arm full of supplies: a sketchbook, colored pencils, ruler and strings to scale the drawing, all strapped clumsily to her arm like a bird’s broken wing. She deposited the materials in lane seven, leaving Sarah standing in the middle of the room.
The clerk didn’t say much, even to Sarah, and Janice felt his defeat. She smiled anyway, and he remained tactful in return.
"If you have any problems with ball retriever, just holler. It’s been on the blink today."
"Sure," Janice said.
"Hi, Bryan," Sarah said in the background, her body moving again to some distant beat.
"Hello, Sarah. Is Janice treating you okay today?"
"Okay today," Sarah answered, coming forward to take the ball from the counter. It was funny, Janice thought, how attuned Sarah was with her surroundings. She supposed it was more of an instinct than intellect, to automatically knew where things were, where they stood around her, and almost immediately the sudden respect Janice had felt for the woman diminished to her usual curiosity.
Janice smirked at Bryan and led Sarah to their aisle, taking the time only to tie her shoes with one loop and leading her out to the border of the alley.
"Do what you do," Janice said, lurching back to the seat to get her station ready. They only had two hours to do this, to turn Sarah into a goddess of the canvas, and Janice knew the task would not be easy. How do you turn a goose into a swan?
As Janice struggled with the colors, the forms on the page, she felt a little of her previous impatience with the woman coming through. A few times she had tried to ask the woman to pause in her game and pose for her. Sarah ignored her each time, scooting to the ball return as soon as she’d lobbed the ball into the gutter, as if the ball would be stolen, or disappear in the void. So, Janice had given up and let her bowl, for the first time actually watching her, studying her movements. She marvelled at the woman’s poise. Without seeing the path in front of her, Sarah moved almost robotically, taking the same steps forward to the lane and back. Her throwing arm even made the same loop each rolling of the ball.
Even more impressive, Sarah’s response never changed. In five games, Sarah squealed in pleasure after every pitiful throw, kneeling over like a confused sentry. She stood there until the ball hit the back plate and walked back to the ball return. Janice wondered what she was doing, but didn’t care enough to put a serious thought into asking. In all honesty, Janice was immersed in her own world. The canvas was her lover, her confidant and mentor. Every casual stroke she gave the canvas sent shivers up her spine; each color she chose whispered sweet nothings in her ear. This was what mattered in life. This was art.
As Janice drew away, she ignored the gnawing feeling that she was not making Sarah’s life any better. She ignored the clerk who glared at her from the corner of her eye. Her frenzy was complete, and not until the last line of the sketch had been drawn did Janice breath her first large breath. She pushed the piece away from her and looked. She nearly cried. She had drawn Sarah, scrunched over in that sentry pose, eyes closed and lips pursed as if bowling was the only thing important in life. It was a beautiful piece and Janice knew from instinct that it would be a telling
point in her career. And to think it was Sarah’s doing, Sarah’s essence giving her this opportunity. She had to stop herself from asking Sarah to look at the drawing. Such a shame she could never see how beautiful Janice made her. Instead she ushered the clerk over to their aisle, forgetting for a moment her opinion of his taste.
"Isn’t she beautiful?" She marvelled, watching Bryan expectantly.
After a few seconds, he replied, "Which one?"
"The drawing, of course," Janice said.
"She was always beautiful."
"Yes..." Janice said in irritation. "But isn’t she just glowing here?"
"I don’t think it does her justice."
Janice ignored him. She could see the difference, if he could not. This was the real Sarah, the Sarah everyone was meant to see. The shell that stood in front of her slobbering on her hand, dirt invading her fingernails, wasn’t real, but life’s representation of someone who had Down Syndrome, the image everyone expected to behold when their mind was fraught with the definition of what a mentally handicapped person was. In Janice’s lines and choice of colors, Sarah became more than she could ever be on her own. Her thoughts became important, her mind worthy of respect. With Janice’s rendering, Sarah became human. And when her piece was finalized and hanging on the wall in her London showcase, and the world marvelled at her wondrous piece, Sarah would surpass even humanity. She would be art.
Sarah remained oblivious to her new standing in life. As a matter of fact, the world probably could have ended. She was too busy bowling.