Creative nonfiction from David Sapp

Clare Short for Clarence		
At sixteen I got a job at Ron’s Pizza to pay for gas, books, and records and to save for a camera. The shop was a tiny, white unremarkable cube on Coshocton Avenue, once named “The Milkhouse” in the 60s where, like everyone else, we picked up milk and ice cream after Sunday mass. As a pizzeria it was filled with ovens, coolers, bags of onions, cases of tomato sauce, and the aromas of fresh dough, cheese, and finished pizza – the best in town. 

It was there that I became acquainted with Clare, short for Clarence. Clare was a shy, amiable Hotei, a pudgy man of about thirty or forty who lived with his mother somewhere in the neighborhood. Clare was labeled mentally retarded as in 1976 the kinder intellectually disabled designation did not yet exist. The word “retarded” was used clinically, matter-of-factly but also had derogatory connotations. On the playground children often called one another “retard.” 

	Clare always wore a bright orange hunter’s cap and a blue winter coat. Only on the hottest days did the coat remain at home. He stuck with long sleeves, though, with his top button buttoned. Never shorts. Clare was proud of his Sears bicycle, a streamlined model from the 1950s he’d had since he was a boy, tricked out with white wall tires, two lights, two mirrors, and a speedometer. Every couple of weeks he repainted it, covering all the original chrome in a thick red or blue enamel. We speculated the bike was held together with paint rather than welds.

	A big kid really, Clare easily offered a wide smile and was willing to befriend anyone but was instinctively wary of everyone. I got the impression, after a few conversations, that the neighborhood boys teased or maybe abused him. When business was slow and Clare stopped in, Ron, the owner, a petty, insufferable lout who attended an obscure and highly evangelical church where people spoke in tongues, asked Clare questions to illicit humorous responses for our amusement. Ron thought Clare was always good for a laugh to pass the time. 

It was well known that Clare found body hair repulsive and regularly shaved head to toe. Occasionally Ron would say, “Hey Clare. Look,” and stroke his bear-like arm (not usually hovering over a pizza). Clare recoiled, distressed, almost nauseous in disgust. It was apparent that this was some kind of trigger for Clare. In the summer, Clare mowed a narrow strip of grass around two sides of the shop. Ron paid Clare with one can of soda. Just one. I wondered, why not two cans? How about five bucks to pay for some of Clare’s bike paint? Hell, why not a pizza with Clare’s favorite toppings? I never saw Ron offer one slice of pizza to Clare – as if his generosity would invite some kind of bad luck contagion.

	Clare had his own peculiar way of saying things, his sentences pressed tightly and cautiously through his teeth. “Heey Deeve” meant hey Dave. “Bat-trees” was batteries. “Sheeze” was gee. “Shcooze-me-sumbuddy” translated as excuse me somebody. Occasionally he announced, “Heey Deeve. Got new bat-trees for my beek (bike).” After mowing, Clare downed his single soda in one long, noisy gulp and belched loudly. Once, this customary and predictable belch occurred with a customer present. After the customer left, Ron admonished Clare saying, “When there’s somebody here, say excuse me.” Thereafter, any time he belched, no matter who was around, Clare declared, “Sheeze. Shcooze-me-sumbuddy.” For many years, Clare’s phrase was fondly mimicked by those who knew him. 
Following Clare’s “pardon me,” he nodded his head vigorously ten times to his left and ten times to his right. In other situations, if he was upset, there were additional nods with greater intensity. Clare exhibited several compulsive routines, but the head nodding was the most pronounced. At sixteen, I didn’t know what obsessive-compulsive disorder was (OCD was not yet used so casually and pervasively), but I recognized in Clare my own anxiety and my version of weird, inexplicable compulsions. Our rituals were a means to make sense of an uncertain world. When I got my new camera, I took Clare’s picture and he was thrilled, even hamming it up a little, nodding happily to the left and right between snaps. I still have the pictures somewhere, but I don’t need them to remember him.
Some ten years later, after Ron and Ron’s Pizza were long gone, after college and on the cusp of marriage, I happened upon Clare riding his bike in circles near the restrooms at Memorial Park. I imagined picnickers and soft ball girls were leery of him if they didn’t know him. I guessed Clare simply liked the flat concrete surface there. I heard that his mother died and he lived in a group home across town, an alien neighborhood with new kids and anxieties to navigate. He was much thinner, I thought gaunt, and now talked to himself in repetitious phrases. He looked weary, drawn inward. I called out to him, “Clare!” After completing three more requisite circles, he paused, looked up, recognized me, smiled, and said, “Sheeze. Heey Deeve.” And continued riding.

David Sapp, writer, artist, and professor, lives along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. A Pushcart nominee, he was awarded Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Grants for poetry and the visual arts. His poetry and prose appear widely in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. His publications include articles in the Journal of Creative Behavior, chapbooks Close to Home and Two Buddha, a novel Flying Over Erie, and a book of poems and drawings titled Drawing Nirvana.

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