I don’t like stories that begin with the words *this is a true story* because they generally aren’t. Since I believe honesty is important I will state this story is semi-true, I say semi because of course I was not privy to their sex life, Dave talked about different aspects of it, but I was never in the bedroom so to speak. I’ve chosen to use a fictitious name for myself, (Ed) Dave and I grew up together, ran together, graduated and went into the military together ultimately being discharged within a few months of each other. Returning to our small city in fly over country we married hometown sweethearts and spent the rest of our lives as close friends, this story is about Dave and his amazing abilities as a husband and father. I tell it from his point of view considering he’s no longer around to tell it and since we remained close throughout our lives I know most of the details, the love scenes are a byproduct of my imagination. Dave’s wife Sofia was indeed learning disabled, they did raise five kids, she did die in 2011, all their kids are successful and have families of their own.
I wrestled with writing this story for a long time, it’s so close to my heart that I had a difficult time writing it without feeling maudlin. I realize this is a delicate theme, I’ve attempted to be sensitive while telling it as it happened, if a story about a person with learning disabilities might offend you, please pass it by. Otherwise I hope it strikes a chord in your heart, one of simple love and lifelong devotion. For those who will want to criticize how I’ve described Sofia’s speech and mannerism’s, let me say this, I was there, you weren’t.
Another Memorial Day, another weekly trip to put fresh flowers on Sofia’s gravesite at Button Cemetery, this Memorial Day would be different, all five kids and their families are going to meet me here followed by a bar be que at my house. Tears ran down my face as I stood looking at the two head stones, Camila Ortiz 1936 – 1976, right next to it Sofia Stephenson 1952 – 2011, both headstones inscribed with Loving Mother. Two rows ahead and about thirty feet to the right was a headstone engraved with Ada-Mae Stephenson 1944 – 1961, my older sister who had died when I was eleven. She had been born severely retarded, in a wheelchair or in bed all her struggling life, she never knew any of us kid’s names, but we loved her with all our hearts. Anytime we could make her smile or laugh was monumental to us, she succumbed to pneumonia at the tender age of seventeen.
Looking at the headstones in front of me what wasn’t apparent unless you knew them is that they were mother and daughter. How I became a relevant part of this story began in 1962 when I first met Sofia on the playground at the end of our street, we neighborhood kids called it a playground, the adults called it a vacant lot.
For all intents and purposes, it was as our parents described it, nothing more than a vacant lot, but to young minds with adventurous souls it was a fantasy land, mostly sand with a smattering of weeds and crab grass here or there bordered on one end by a bunch of mature maples. We made a haphazard ball field using discarded pieces of board for bases and a two by four as pitcher’s mound, the treasure in our eyes though was the fort we managed to build in one of the trees. We scrounged boards and scraps of plywood anywhere we could, we pulled and straightened nails from old boards, sneaked our dad’s tools and cobbled that thing together.
It was in no way fancy, and by today’s standards we’d have been attacked by the wacko environmentalists for hammering nails into a tree, but that was 1959, another time, another era entirely. Living in the lower mid-west we played outside nearly year round, it was when I was twelve that I, David Stephenson, officially met Sofia, who at that time was four months away from her tenth birthday, and her mother Camilla. I knew of Sofia, at the same time I really didn’t know her, she lived three doors down from us, had moved in just five years earlier and didn’t have a dad, beyond that my knowledge of her was sketchy at best.
She didn’t go on the same bus that I did, a smaller bus picked her up in front of her house and though she went to our school she was never in any of my classes. Mom told me she went to special classes, I would soon learn that she was what was referred to in that day as mildly retarded, as educable as she was, in this day and age she would be regarded as learning disabled. Her mom told my mom that even though she would age and mature physically like the rest of us, she would always be behind socially and mentally.
It was late on a Sunday afternoon when most of the guys were home doing their household chores that I met Sophia and her mom, I had stayed to play longer in the tree house, Mrs. Ortiz and Sofia were walking when Sophia began to point and tell her mom she wanted to climb the tree. As her mom was telling her no, I stuck my head out an opening we called a window and told her it was okay, I would help Sofia climb the rickety ladder and make sure she didn’t fall.
Her mom responded in a heavy Spanish accent, “You would do that? You would help her into your tree house?” I nodded. “You are the boy a few houses away from me aren’t you, I’ve seen you playing.”
I had been climbing down as she was talking, by the time my feet hit the ground Sofia and her mom were at the base of the tree, Sofia smiling ear to ear, she acted differently than I expected, more like a little girl than someone her size and obvious age. I climbed behind her encouraging her with each step, once we crawled into the tree house she was all giggles and excitement, looking out the opening saying *mama* loudly over and over. We were up there probably ten minutes when her mother told her it was time to come down, I went before her staying a step below in case she might lose her footing.
Once on the ground with Sofia at her side she beckoned me to where they stood, in an accent I almost didn’t understand she looked at me and said, “You are a good boy, I tell your mother.”
I thought *tell my mother, I didn’t do anything wrong* before realizing she was saying she would tell my mother I’m a good boy. We three walked toward our homes, as they peeled off into their front yard Mrs. Ortiz thanked me again and Sofia kept saying *goodbye David*. I snuck the tools that had once been my dad’s back into the garage, entering the back door I began to tell mom what had occurred earlier.
“Yes, I know, I just got off the phone with Sofia’s mom, you make me smile Davey, your daddy would be so proud of you. You didn’t have to be nice to that little retarded girl, but you were, you’ll probably be teased by some of the other kids but pay them no mind, just keep being nice to that girl.”
Like Sofia, I was without a dad, mine having died when I was too little to remember, I didn’t worry about the other kids picking at me, I wasn’t the biggest kid in our group, but I was the scrappiest. Growing up without a dad I had a chip on my shoulder and damn near dared anyone to try and knock it off, I had gotten my butt kicked many times, I had also earned the respect of every guy I went up against, they may have won but they knew they’d been in a fight.
It was as my mom had said, I was teased and made fun of because I was friends with Sofia, in the beginning I smiled and sluffed it off, that is until Tom Weatherly called her a retard during recess. By the time I was through with him I was facing a week’s expulsion and an ass whipping from mother when I got home. When the principal heard my version of the story my sentence was reduced to a three day expulsion and two weeks of detention after school with Mrs. Berton the librarian, shit, I’d have rather had a week’s expulsion. There was no way to avoid the ass whooping from my mom.
In my mind it was worth it, Sofia and I weren’t all that close, but I was her only real friend and he had no call to be mean like that. I will say it never happened again, not by him or anyone else, as the year progressed, I found myself being her protector and friend. By the next summer I had convinced the others that she was cool enough to play ball with us once in a while, she didn’t quite grasp the nuances of the game, we made sure she got to hit the ball and run the bases, she had fun and that was all that counted, by summers end all but Vinny Carlino had accepted her as one of the gang.
As we all grew and progressed, I noticed more than ever that Sofia wasn’t keeping pace, she was a pretty young lady with a bubbling personality, but she was still a little girl in her mind. Puberty was probably the hardest for her to understand, guys would tease her about her quickly developing body, because she was so gullible and trusting a few tried taking advantage of her which pissed me off greatly. It soon became common knowledge that if anyone tried messing with her, they would answer to me, from that point forward she became like a little sister to me.
In my senior year she began attending a different school, one designed to help kids with learning disabilities. I didn’t see her much that year, I dated a few girls off and on, the relationship usually went okay until they’d bring up my friendship with the *handicapped girl* as they called her, that was always my cue to exit stage left. They never seemed to know what her name was, instead they would utter hurtful words they’d heard others say, I would see her on weekends at times, or I would walk down the street and pay a short visit to she and her mom.
Vietnam and the draft were in full swing when I graduated, my number came up within three months of graduation, which meant basically one thing, if drafted I’d be a grunt and probably nothing more, Tom Jenkins and I thought *what the hell* and enlisted for a two year hitch the next day. Sofia was fifteen when I left for basics, I’d stopped in to say my goodbyes, Sofia couldn’t understand why I was leaving and cried throughout my twenty minute visit. I wrote her a few times while in Nam, she had written back each time, the content was always simple and innocent, yet heartfelt.
Being in Nam was anything but favorable, returning back to the states was almost worse, once the protesters found out you were infantry they were merciless pricks. We had animal urine and feces thrown on us, under orders from my CO I had to stand my ground in the airport and not retaliate while some smelly hippy love child spit in my face. I wanted to strangle the bastard on the spot, to this day I still want to, no group of veterans before or after Vietnam has ever been treated with such disdain. It was and will remain a blemish on this great nation.
With six months of my two year enlistment remaining they stuck me in some worthless job at Fort Bragg, upon discharge I flipped them the bird and claimed my bus ticket home, they were too f-ing cheap to get me a plane ticket. I was a few months shy of twenty one when I walked into my old home, I hadn’t told mother I was coming home and she nearly wet herself with excitement, then slapped me on the side of the head for not letting her know I was out of the Army. I think my final kick in the balls concerning my combat time was when the VFW decided they weren’t going to allow Vietnam vets into the organization because as they put it, it was only a police action, not a war.
I remember thinking, *tell that to the thousands who have come home in body bags*, from that point forward I thought of my time and the service to my country as no more than a wasted season of my life. Within two days of being home I walked down to the Ortiz’s on a pleasant autumn evening, I stood on the stoop after ringing the bell, as Mrs. Ortiz opened the door her jaw dropped and tears began to fall as she called out.
“Sofie, Sofie come here, right away.”
Mrs. Ortiz looked frail, as though she’d been sickly. When Sofia saw me, she ran and jumped just as her mother stepped aside, with her rams tight around my neck and her feet dangling in mid-air she said my name over and over. We moved into the living room where Sofia sat next to her mother while we talked, Sofia’s greatest concern was if I had to go away again, when I reassured her I didn’t she seemed to relax. I noticed that her speech was more articulate than when I’d left, she had matured not only mentally but physically as well. Even in a baggy sweatshirt and sweatpants it was obvious she had a nice figure, nothing overwhelming, average for her age I suppose.
I asked Mrs. Ortiz if I might take her with me for pizza on Friday, sort of like a homecoming party, after pondering it a few minutes she agreed, Sofia was beside herself with excitement. Friday evening I walked to her house to collect her, we were only five blocks from the pizza place so I suggested we walk. I wasn’t ready for what came out the front door as I walked up to the house, she was radiantly beautiful, her hair was softly curled, her makeup was light but flattering, and she was sporting a lovely floral dress with a light wrap over her arm. She was neither buxom nor flat, had slender sloping hips and a cuter than imaginable butt.
Walking side by side into town we laughed and joked, she continuously thanked me for taking her along for pizza telling me she felt like all the other girls she knew that went to pizza with friends. While at the pizza joint she kept looking around at different groups of people, it made me wonder what was going through her mind, I finally asked.
“What’s wrong Sofie, why do you keep looking around at all these people?” Her response broke my heart.
“Those people say I’m a retard, those over there call me stupid, those boys keep trying to lift my dress up, I don’t like those people, I’m afraid can we go?’
I gently took her hand in mine and reassured her, “Those people won’t hurt you anymore Sofia, I’m back home now and I’ll protect you. You don’t need to be afraid, let’s have our pizza and talk, never mind them, tell me all about your school, oh, my mom says you work at the grocery store now.”
Those words seemed to wipe away her fear as she excitedly told me about her school, she was reading and knew arithmetic, her job at the grocery store was stocking shelves mostly at night from four thirty after school until nine when it closed. She hung her head when she told me her mom had to walk her home after dark because the boys kept trying to get her to go behind the store and take her clothes off.
“I know that isn’t right, I know I can’t let boys see my underwear, if mom is late Mr. Jerrod stays behind until she gets there. I like Mr. Jerrod he’s a nice man.”
I had all I could do to contain my anger and still be polite as we ate. I knew who those guys probably were trying to rob her of her virginity, they were guys I’d gone to school with, I wanted to take her home, find them and hurt them. I determined I would deal with them soon enough, tonight was about Sofia having fun and feeling as though she fit in for a change. After pizza we walked another few blocks to a small malt shop and shared a malted milk, something she’d never had prior, I knew it would be huge so I had them pour it into two glasses.
It was dark by the time we were headed home I could tell she was afraid as she kept leaning into my side and looking around like a small child would. As we walked, I asked if she would like to hold onto my hand which she did instantly, from that point on she seemed to be more relaxed. Mrs. Ortiz was looking out the living room windows as we neared the house, Sofia saw her and waved … she was like a child in so many ways, like an adult in many others.
Mrs. Ortiz smiled as she hugged Sofia, “Thank you for taking Sofie with you David, you’ve always been so good to her and I trust you completely. I was worried at first, she’s never been out after supper without me, then I remembered she was with you and I was okay.”
I had some things I needed to talk with her about, “Mrs. Ortiz can I come visit tomorrow, there are some things I need to ask. Is it possible to speak with you privately?”
“Yes of course, her class is going on a field trip to a horse stable in the morning, why don’t you stop by after nine.”
Bidding them goodnight I walked toward home, just before I reached the edge of my yard a car pulled up next to me and stopped at the curb, Tom Weatherly the local draft dodger got out of the passenger side walking like he was mister somebody special. I greeted him but didn’t shake his hand as he tried to stare me down.
“Home from the Army huh? I suppose you think you’re a big man now, I don’t care if you do have a purple heart, you’re nobody. By the way I’m gonna fuck your little retard friend real soon, now that she’s 18 and no longer jailbait I’m gonna ram my cock in her so far she chokes.”
We had drifted to the side of the car next to the fender of his relatively new Camaro, before he could move I had him by the back of the neck and slammed his face into the hood, pulled him back and slammed it down again. As his brother John was opening the driver side door I yelled.
“Sit motherfucker or you’ll get worse.”
Dragging Tommie boy to the open passenger door I told him if I ever heard of him touching Sofia, I’d put him in the ground, then I threw him into the car. The door wasn’t even closed as John sped off, an hour later mother woke me, the police were at the door wanting to talk with me. It was Mike Mensing, one of the old sandlot gang, we talked a minute and exchanged pleasantries, then his face stiffened.
“Dave, we got a complaint from the Weatherly boys that you assaulted them. Is that true?”
“No, not at all. I had taken Sofia to pizza with me, they had seen us there and as I walked back from her house they stopped to tell me since Sofie was eighteen they were gonna fuck her. When Frank got out of the car he slipped on the curb and hit his face, I tried to help him up, but he slipped a second time. John was too drunk to help so I pushed Tom inside the car and they raced off.”
Mike looked down then back at me, “That son of a bitch, I knew he was lying, but in the future, you need to make sure they don’t slip off the curb with so much force. I really am glad you’re home safe and whole, I’m sure Mrs. Ortiz is as well.”
“Don’t know how whole I am, my stomach is still messed up but thankfully the bullet missed my liver. Now that I’m home I’ll keep a close eye on Sofia.”
The next morning I was sipping coffee with Mrs. Ortiz and enjoying a warm autumn morning on her backyard patio. I wanted to know more about Sofie, how she was doing in school, did she have friends outside classes, I wanted to know more about who Sofia had become.
“Well David let me start at the beginning. My parents emigrated here right after world war one, papa was a physician, my mama a nurse, I was born in 1936 and orphaned at the age of fourteen when my parents were killed in a car crash. I went to live with my Uncle who wasn’t very nice, he didn’t hurt or molest me, he just didn’t care, I think the only reason he took me was for the money. I got pregnant by a schoolteacher when I was fifteen, he knew I was lonely and gullible, I was like putty in his hands.”
A few more sips of coffee and she continued. “He went to prison for statutory rape, my uncle got a huge settlement because he was my immediate guardian, I was a mother at sixteen, had it not been for my kind and loving aunt he would have probably put me on the streets. It was apparent that Sofie wasn’t advancing normally within her first year, I decided she would be my priority in life, which she has been.”
“You don’t work though, how do you support her how do you make a living?”
“Ah, that. When my parents died I was left with a large sum of money, while I lived with my aunt and uncle a monthly stipend was paid to them, the entire trust became mine at the age of twenty one, that’s when I left and moved here. The first thing I did was talk with a lawyer who steered me to his brother in law, he set up investments for me and I have lived off the trust ever since. As it is, I receive forty thousand a year which isn’t a mountain of money, but it supports us just fine, if the cost of living doesn’t go up too badly the trust will last at least another forty five years.”