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B fell out of a two-story window at the age of 2.

C is 22. She enjoys riding her bicycle, dancing, music, and coloring.

D, who has a mental age of 3, would like a job working in a store.

"Ita!" Jay says, and Conchita giggles.

Conchita is hearty, giddy, and large. She is crazy about picking the colors, and it makes her giggle. Luz doesn't giggle. She seems not to smile at all, ever. But she is the one with working fingers. She can control the loop, the hook, the loom. Gravely, she pulls a red one through.

"Ram," Jay says, but Hiram declines. He watches from his wheelchair with amused detachment. If Helen is attached to any one consumer, if one of them absorbs her thoughts more than another (and all of them seem to hold sway there), it is Hiram, and it's not difficult to see why. Hiram sits every day in his slim black wheelchair, holding up his heavy head. He is a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. His shins are so slender you could encircle them with finger and thumb, and his hands bend into themselves like tree roots. Helen asks him if he wants to do his hand exercises, and she extracts a pair of shiny black stones from the pouch on the back of his wheelchair. "No," he says, though it sounds more like "Oooh." Hiram has epileptic seizures, sometimes daily, and Helen tells me, out of his hearing, that each one leaves a scar.

Meanwhile, something goes wrong in the bathroom. Pam was in there, sad-faced Pam with the eyes that don't face the world together. Pam has Down's, too. She's had an accident and soaked everything, even her shoes. It takes most of an hour for Helen to clean up the floor, the toilet, and Pam. But Helen never acts annoyed. She mops and mops and mops.

She looks up at the consumers who are watching her and says gently, "I've got ten pairs of eyes on me! It's called a mop, you guys. I'm mopping!" She laughs again and tells Jay, "Probably you could do this better than me, Jay. This mop weighs about ten tons."

While she's still cleaning and we're making the potholder, there's a huge shattering pop. A window that was propped open with a stick has crashed down and broken, throwing shards into the room. A job coach named Keith comes in with a broom. He's wearing lowrider, wide-legged shorts, looped with a chain. His hair is buzzed. It's as if a member of a white-skinned rap group has dropped by to help. He goes out on the roof to remove the shards, and Tabitha helps until the Arc is safe again.

I arrive the following Thursday with a toy called the musical tower, a two-foot-high structure composed of brightly colored wooden petals. The petals are smaller at the top and larger at the bottom, arranged like a spiral staircase so that a marble set at the top will roll drip-drip-drip to the base, making a sound like fat raindrops on a barn roof. I thought Blind Brian might like it, thought that many of them might take a childlike pleasure in the sound, but I have forgotten to think of them all as adults who are trying to join the adult world.

I also bring nail polish remover to do Sarah's nails, a children's atlas, and paper-making supplies because Helen had said to me, when we were making potholders, that she's always wanted to try making paper at the center.

My arrival has its ridiculous aspect. I have brought way too many things. Tabitha gives me the sort of look popular girls give nerds in sitcoms. So does Keith.

Helen makes a polite remark, then moves on. "Most of us are going on outings today," she says. She's taking three people to Wal-Mart on the bus at 10:30. You have to plan two days ahead, she says, to reserve a bus with a lift that can raise and lower Hiram's wheelchair.

Tabitha takes Sarah and two other consumers out to eat. Jay leaves, too, but Helen's group waits for the bus like the unblinking characters assembled in Dr. Seuss's illustration for the terminal called the Waiting Place. Although there are objectives for each consumer, and some of them are posted on the wall, and although there's a poster of the five W's (Who are you working with? What are you doing?), the coaches' efforts are subject to the ratios of the day, the compatibility or incompatibility of the patients grouped together, and unforeseen events.

A consumer I've never met before, a frail and stooped woman wearing a leather helmet to protect herself from seizures, wanders in. Her name is Charlene. Her face is tanned and middle-aged -- she's maybe 50 -- and the helmet has the curious effect of making her seem like a 1920s football player. She shakes my hand. She hears that Helen's taking Hiram on the bus, and she sits right down to join in the waiting.

"Bus," Charlene says. "Bus!" She says it happily, like a spell, but she can't actually go with them on the bus. Helen can only take three people. A problem is brewing.

Pam can't go either. Pam is round-bodied, round-faced, and round-fingered. She doesn't smile much, doesn't speak, and follows her own quiet routines in her own quiet way. Every morning, she brings a hairbrush to Helen, who helps Pam brush her soft, blonde hair into a ponytail, a ritual they both seem to enjoy. Then Pam draws a tiny, almost invisible flower on a large sheet of colored construction paper and hands it to Helen, who smiles and thanks her.

Helen is trying to teach Pam, who is scared of new things, to go out shopping, to trust her, and to make coffee at snack time. Helen tells me that Pam might think she wants to go out, but probably, once the bus comes, she won't want to get on. The experience is still too new.

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