Doxology by Nell Zink Read Online (FREE)
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Unknown to all, and for as long as he lived, Joe Harris was a case of high-functioning Williams syndrome. He displayed the typical broad mouth, stellate irises, spatial ineptitude, gregarious extroversion, storytelling habit, heart defect, and musical gift. To the day he died, he had no more wrinkles on him than an action figure. He was never tested, because he lacked the general intellectual disability that was the syndrome’s defining feature. However, his capacity to irritate others was near infinite. He spoke his mind, trusting everyone he saw.
For example, once when he was walking through Washington Square with his friend Pam, an elderly man of the kind who might be forty approached them and asked them to hold his asthma inhaler for just one second. Pam rolled her eyes and walked on, but Joe held out his hand, into which the inhaler was promptly placed in a forceful way that made it fall to the ground in two pieces. The man declared that replacing the broken inhaler would cost Joe fifteen dollars.
Joe replied, “I don’t have fifteen bucks on me. But you could come with me to work! Most days I make more than that. Yesterday I made a lot more. You know what else I made? About a million paper napkins folded in half! After my shift I can give you all the money you need. My work is about a mile away. I can give you free pie, if we have pie that’s stale. I’m going there now.” He touched the man’s arm. Shouting that bowl-headed faggots should leave him alone, the man ran away. Joe picked up the inhaler and yelled, “You forgot your thing!”
HIS FATHER WAS A PROFESSOR OF AMERICAN HISTORY AT COLUMBIA. HIS MOTHER HAD been a forever-young party girl in permanent overdrive who could drink all night, sing any song and fake the piano accompaniment, and talk to anybody about anything. In 1976 she died, running uphill and laughing, in the middle of a departmental picnic at Wave Hill. The students mimed heartbreak while her husband mimed CPR. Joe held her hand and said, “Bye-bye, Mommy!” He was only eight.
At her funeral in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, he clapped his hands through the syncopated bits of the doxology and lifted his voice meaningfully on “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Professor Harris immediately understood that the Holy Family had been redefined to resemble his own. The child schmoozed his way through the reception, telling stories about the funnest times with Mom. Adults patted his head and made meaningful eye contact among themselves. Joe, in their view, was not precocious. They had firm ideas on what to do with him, most of them involving boarding school on another continent. They were concerned about his dad’s capacity to attract another wife.