B-R-I-C-K-S.

Gary Poe used to know that word. He's sure of it. He hadn't studied in three years, though, and this is payment. He blames himself.

"Brrriiicks," he says hesitantly, his head leaning forward over the dining room table as if to coax the word from memory. He smiles broadly.

If only he could remember things, Gary Poe believes, he would be flying airplanes or running an office somewhere. He'd never again wash a plate or clean a urinal or bathe a dog. The army of counselors would harass someone else. He'd be driving a car and carrying a Ward's credit card. He'd figure his change from a $20 bill without a calculator, tell his left hand from his right without looking to see which arm his watch is on. There wouldn't have been a vasectomy. He'd read every item on the menu at the Wheaton Howard Johnson' instead of always ordering the Big Breakfast No. 1. Women would never again take that tone and call him "darling." And once he knew that 9 x 9 equals 81, he would know it, instead of hitting the number 9 on the calculator nine times. He'd just reach back past the tip of his tongue, think for an instant, and . . . remember!

But Gary Poe isn't smart -- at least not about 9 x 9. He sits in his apartment hunched over a third-grade reader two nights a week, a 32-year-old man smoking a Benson & Hedges cigarette and determinedly working his way through the u-sounding words: mother, brother, some, from. He sits prayerfully below a single hanging lamp, his good left hand and his bad right hand resting gently on his knees, which knock permanently from cerebral palsy. As always, the words scramble in transmission from symbol to meaning.

"This is Buck . . . " There is a long pause. "This is Bud Buck . . . Mr. Buck is Ed's uncle . . . Uncle Buck -- Uncle Buck? -- Uncle Bud comes from the city in his truck." This is Workbook 2. Years ago, Gary Poe was through Workbook 3 and ready to start Workbook 4. Then he moved to Montgomery County, couldn't keep a job, got married, and got lazy about his studies. When he started up again, he was in Workbook 1.

"It gets you discouraged," he says. "You shouldn't have forgot." A CENTURY AGO, Gary Poe might have been called "feeble-minded." Before World War II, he might have been called a "mental defective," many of whom were forcibly sterilized. By the '50s, he might have been seen as a sad, "mentally retarded" creature deserving of sympathy, but doomed to perpetual childhood. The '50s wisdom often called for virtual imprisonment, and it was only the insistence of his father that kept Gary Poe from Maryland's infamous Rosewood Center for the retarded.

Much has changed since then. The knowledge that intelligence isn't fixed, but shaped by experience and education, among smart people or dumb, took root. Retarded people need not be incompetent -- especially the 95 percent of America's 6 million retarded citizens who, like Poe, are only slightly retarded. Even the label "retarded" became a stigma, and the words "slow" or "disabled" came into vogue.

The Gary Poes of the world do grow up, although it is often a battle. Poe is every father's favorite son. At Montgomery's job training center for the handicapped, he was seen as a model for the 240 adults there. He will work until he drops, he is neat and well-spoken, he knows which fork is which, he is always on time, his humor is wry and self-deprecating. He wants only to be "normal" -- free of handouts, social workers and sympathy.

"You take one day at a time," Poe says. "And even if things don't seem very funny, you laugh anyway . . . You just don't give up. You prove to yourself that you can do something.

Yet Poe is out of work again. He is, after all, slow -- clinically slow, his measured intelligence falling in the bottom few percent of all Americans. So he fights not only his limitations, but also the fears of his father and in- laws, the cynicism of embittered friends who are themselves slow, the prejudice of bosses, the guaranteed federal disability paycheck that can sap ambition, and, sometimes, even the attitudes of the counselors and teachers assigned to help him. Through fear and good intention, they conspire to keep Poe a child forever. The catch is that Poe does need help. He resists, however, when the price is his dignity. About that, he is very smart. THE WOMAN LISTENS, but she doesn't hear.

"It is absolutely important that you tell the truth," she says, as Poe and two other slow men sit before the blackboard in their weekly "job club" meetings at Montgomery County's Centers for the Handicapped. Poe con siders it a step backward to be ut he has no choice. Without the help of the Centers' job counselors, no one would hire him when he moved to Montgomery from Prince George's County five years ago.

They'd look at him and say, " 'You don't look like you really have the qualifications' -- for a dishwashing job you know you've done for seven years!" Poe was kept at the Centers, at a cost of about $5,500 a year, for two years -- complaining constantly that he was ready for the outside. When he lost his most recent dishwashing job, however, Poe returned to the club -- not to learn, but to plug into Montgomery's bureaucratic job pipeline for the disabled.

Gary Poe sits stiffly, open black binder on his lap, head cocked back, his direct brown eyes intent on the woman at the blackboard, the hint of a smile on his face. The cerebral palsy gives Poe an ostrich-like strut when he walks, but his more subtle movements are not jagged, but deliberate. When he rubs his hair with his left hand, the motion is only vaguely robotic. He wears dark blue casual slacks, black wing tips, and a light blue shirt with a sheen. Its top button is hooked, and the shirt pulls across lean and muscular shoulders and arms. He sips his coffee and the slurp is delicate but audible.

The woman leading the session asks Poe to read a question from his application for a dishwasher's job at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour Restaurant in Wheaton Plaza. He reads clearly, though as usual his speech is slow and monotonal: "When did you last see a doctor? Why?" Poe's confusing answer: "No."

Poe had been to a doctor late last year after repeated dizzy spells. The doctor feared Poe was suffering seizures and prescribed a seizure medication. Poe, who had never had seizures, believed his trouble was exhaustion. When tests failed to confirm seizures, Poe immediately asked to stop the drugs. His doctor agreed -- meaning Poe takes no regular drugs.

"Weren't you having a problem with your medication?" the womn at the blackboard asks. She suggests that Poe say he had last seen the doctor for a "change in medication." Sitting a few feet away, Poe says he takes no medication. His words are lost. What if you were having problems with "the new medication" and your employer found out? the woman asks. "You don't have to tell everything you know," she says, "but you do have to tell the truth."

Poe says nothing. He has been ignored, talked down to, gawked at, or belittled so often that practicality, not pride, usually governs his reaction. "I started to speak up and say, 'I don't think you understand me,' " Poe says, but the woman's point about telling the truth was a good one. Besides, he's known a lot worse: one Centers instructor, angry at a remark from Poe, once stooped to one-upmanship: "What college did you go to?" asked the instructor.

No, an accidental snub from the woman at the blackboard, a woman Poe knows and likes, just isn't worth worryig about. Poe is here for a job.

"Why did you select Farrell's," asks Earle Goss, Poe's job counselor, when he joins the group.

"It's a dishwashing job, and it's close to home."

"Do they have glass dishes?"

"Mostly glass dishes."

Then out of the blue: "Unbutton your top button there, Gary, you can talk better." Startled, Poe straightens up and touches his collar. The exchange has nothing to do with talking better: Goss has told Poe repeatedly that he looks "weird" with his top button hooked. Poe unbuttons his button. He appreciates the reminder.

Goss asks: Are the dirty dishes pushed on carts or carried on trays?

With shy grin and deadpan delivery, Poe says: "With my condition it would be better with wheels, for their benefit -- and for mine."

The list of such arcane considerations is long: Does the restaurant run out of dishes during its rush times? Poe cannot always keep up during peak periods. Would he do more than wash dishes, perhaps take out trash, mop the floor, clean the kitchen? Too many tasks can make Poe forgetful. Has he ever run this type of dishwashing machine? Would he need to read written instructions? What was the expression on the manager's face when Poe first walked in? For Gary Poe, everything from the physical dynamics of the task to kitchen design to intuitive vibrations separates another two- week stand from a job with tenure.

"I'll add it to the 160 others in your file," Goss jokes.

In the next few days Earle Goss will talk to Farrell's and type a "clean" application (Poe's is barely legible), adding Poe's work history. It is an impressive record: First job at 16; seven years washing dishes at the now-de- funct Joe Theismann's restaurant in Camp Springs; a year bathing cats and dogs at a Rockville animal hospital. Unlike most slow adults, Poe has spent much of his life living and working among, as Poe calls them, "straight people."

"I believe I can work my speed up to theirs," he says. "And then I would be classified as seminormal."

Poe is a success. His psychological profiles confirm what anyone who spends a few hours with him knows: he is emotionally stable, confident, and without anger or bitterness about his disabilities. He has achieved the mythic goal of disabled adults: He faces the world -- and all its painful rebuffs -- with humor, dignity and determination, forcing straight people to see him not as disabled, but as an individual with strengths and failings. It wasn't until he moved to Montgomery (with one of the nation's more progressive programs for the disabled), was out of work and was forced to go to the Centers that he really began to feel disabled.

"Gary had it rough as a kid," says Ray Jenkins, an old and straight friend of Poe's. "But in the long run it may have done him some good." GARY POE was 12 when they told him he was mentally retarded.

"I thought they didn't know what they were talking about," he says. Sure, he'd gone to special schools. He'd spent a lifetime in hospitals. It took him longer than other kids to pick up on things. But somehow that always seemed connected to his cerebral palsy. To his body, not his brain.

"I always thought I could catch up with them . . . ," he says. "I just thought I had to try a little harder."

Poe was 3 months old when his father, headed out the door for work, stopped at his crib. The baby looked dead! For the next six weeks, he lay in a coma. His father remembers no cause, though malaria was mentioned. When he awoke, they said the brain damage meant he would never walk or talk or feed himself. In the naked language of the day, he was a "vegetable."

"It was just something that happened," says Poe's father. Gary was the family's third child. His father, a laborer, was going from job to job then, and keeping the baby seemed impossible. The doctors suggested Rosewood. "It had a pretty bad reputation even then," recalls Gary's father, and he refused. The boy went to a foster home in Clinton. The wisdom of

the day held that it was best for Poe

not to see his real father, and it was

only a few years ago that father and

son were reunited.

The doctors, so often wrong about

the retarded in those days, were wrong

again. Poe's foster mother, who died a

few years ago, spent hours massaging

and doing special exercises with his

legs. His earliest memories are of the

ropes hung from tree to tree around

the yard. They were his highway. With

braces up to his thighs until age 7, Poe

learned to walk by dragging himself

along those ropes. A wheelbarrow

eventually became his walker.

"I'd smack the ground," he laughs.

He remembers few friends. The kids

called him "retard" and he was often

nixed from games such as basketball.

The words became a refrain: "You

would just slow us down!" Poe became

stubborn, insisting that he try everything.

He was angry at the world. "Why

me?" he'd scream. Sometimes, he'd try

to plead disability: "

room's a mess, you clean it up.'

Self-pity eventually became self-esteem, however, as Poe transformed his

disability into a badge of honor. Each

accomplishment was a sweet victory --

a dishwashing job, an apartment of his

own, learning to ride a moped. "I wasn't supposed to walk or talk!" he says.

Disabled people, Poe explains, can be

"better" than straight people, because

straight people can coast through life.

For Poe, just getting dressed is a challenge. The result: "You can care more

about yourself."

Poe became a local character in the

Clinton area of Prince George's County, where people took a benign attitude toward the image of him wobbling down busy streets on his bicycle. By his early twenties he was pretty much on his own. He shared a $400-a-month apartment with a succession of roommates. He remembers being stuck for the rent regularly.

"One was supposedly normal," Poe says. "But he wouldn't work."

Poe would take a job wherever he could get it, and over the years washed dishes or cleaned up at the Port of Italy Inn, Jack's restaurant, Bob's Big Boy, and, of course, Theismann's. One year they threw a birthday bash for him at Chason's Ltd. -- where Poe danced simultaneously with five women to the tune "Macho Man" and, as a finale, tore open the buttons on his shirt to expose his chest. It was a good party -- and it was a good time in Poe's life.

Even then, he had trouble keeping up with the rush-hour flow of dishes. But at Theismann's someone from the kitchen might pitch in for a few minutes. A waitress might take an instant to remind Poe that the silverware was running low. People liked Poe; he was a person, not a disability.

"P.G. was my territory," Poe says proudly.

It was during these years that Poe hooked up with Ray Jenkins, a house painter and a friend of Poe's brother. Poe started dropping by Jenkins' house. They'd go fishing. ("I'd have to bait up his hook and throw it out, but I have to do that for half the people I go fishing with," Jenkins says.) Or they'd go ou for a beer or maybe watch TV. When Poe couldn't find a decent place to live, Jenkins invited him to move in.

It was the beginning of an unusual friendship. Researchers know that retarded people often name normal people as friends, but those normal people, asked to do the same, often list the retarded as only acquaintances. Poe, on the other hand, was about to get a crash course in straight friendship.

"He didn't have dreams when I met him," says Jenkins. "He started to dream about things getting better."

Poe looked and acted differently in those days. He often wore clothes that neither fit nor matched -- wrinkled high-water plaid pants and a striped shirt. The whitewalls over his ears had for years been cut too high. Poe might stare at a woman's legs with embarrassing obviousness. Jenkins rarely gave advice. And Poe was duped more than a few times -- a girlfriend would lift money from his wallet, for instance. (Poe knew it, but figured this girlfriend was better than none. So he'd hide his wallet under the sofa when she came over.)

"He gave me a place to stay and didn't treat me like I was handicapped," Poe says of Jenkins. "He'd say, 'Get your crippled self out of bed!' I'd say, 'There's snow out there!' He'd say, 'If I have to go in, so do you.' "

The two men became "running mates," tooling around in Jenkins' T-top Corvette, (a real "girl-catcher," Poe called it) and hitting the nightspots. The men came home so looped one night that Poe passed out in the rosebushes. Jenkins went to bed, got up at dawn, and dragged Poe in the house -- before Poe even knew he'd slept outside.

Gary Poe began to change. He'd watch Jenkins get dressed for dates, and pretty soon Poe's clothes matched. Jenkins told him that after a day's work, it was smart to take a second shower, change his socks and his underwear before going out. Poe expropriated Jenkins' cologne -- his "smell- good," as Poe called it -- and eventually learned about too much of a good thing. One day, an exhilarated Poe burst into the house: "Man, I've got a date! I've got a date! Everybody clear out!"

Poe's secret goal then was to date "straight" women and occasionally he did, though more often they were women with disabilities. Moving from friendship to romance was always hard for Poe, but he became a ladies' man in his own way. Poe could do his laundry, fold and crease his clothes perfectly, Jenkins recalls, but Poe would inevitably flash his "dog-eyed look" and "Cool Hand Luke smile" at some woman in the laundromat. Soon enough, she'd be laughing and joking with Poe -- and folding his laundry.

"He'd call me at 3 in the morning and say, 'I've got a hot one here! I need your car,'" Jenkins remembers. "So I'd get up and take him to an all- night caf,e and they'd drink coffee and talk." The help was mutual: Jenkins would bring his dates to meet Poe -- after the two men realized that women always seemed to think Jenkins was a rare and sensitive man to have so disabled a friend.

"We were really the odd couple," laughs Jenkins.

During the years they shared a house, Jenkins found himself abandon-

doning bias after bias. He saw that people often stared at Poe, but that Poe seemed oblivious. Jenkins noticed, however, that when kids gawked, Poe responded -- he'd walk over, pat them on the head, smile, and make a joke. He'd known all along. Poe volunteered to paint the garage, but Jenkins figured he couldn't. He did, perfectly. Jenkins was certain Poe would never learn the Metro. He did. When one of Poe's sisters gave Poe a moped, Jenkins doubted he could drive it. But he did -- complete with characteristic smoking pipe poking from his helmet.

"If he says he can do it," says Jenkins, "I believe he will do it."

The time eventually came for Poe to go out on his own. He moved to Inwood House, a federally subsidized apartment building for the disabled in Montgomery -- and left his job at Theismann's bcause it was too far away. The apartment's price was right, but Poe despised living in a ghetto for the disabled -- it made him feel disabled, too -- and he missed Jenkins terribly. He adjusted. And when Poe married Maureen, a 32- year-old slow woman with cerebral palsy and mild epilepsy, Ray Jenkins was the best man.

Even years later, as Jenkins lay in a hospital bed -- his legs temporarily paralyzed from treatment for cancer he successfully fought -- it was a visit from Gary and Maureen that buoyed Jenkins most. The couple came by bus -- and managed to find his 13th- floor room among the 59 buildings on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda. Poe loaded Jenkins into a wheelchair, and the three of them, guffawing all the way, headed for the cafeteria -- Poe steering erratically ("those gimpy legs," laughs Jenkins), as the wheelchair bounced off walls and doors all along the way.

Says Jenkins: "Gary Poe is my best friend." MAUREEN MacCallum and Gary Poe married and another taboo shattered: Slow people rarely marry. But then, they seemed a perfect match.

He wanted someone to take care of, because that is what normal men do. She wanted to be taken care of, because she always had been -- and she badly wanted to marry before her younger sister. Gary is calm, articulate, and something of a loner. Maureen is frenetic, easily lost in her words, and a social butterfly. He can barely read and easily forgets. She reads at an eighth-grade level and rattles off the phone numbers of people she hasn't seen in years. His disabilities left him tough. Her disabilities left her vulnerable. He is obsessed with making it in the outside world, but she would just as soon ignore it. That has not been so easy since marrying Gary Poe.

"I married into it!" she laughs.

Maureen Poe was almost 2 years old before her mother realized Maureen was dragging her left foot. The pediatrician gave a blunt diagnosis: Maureen had cerebral palsy and, they later learned, slight mental retardation -- probably due to lack of oxygen during birth. The doctors said she would never make her own way in the world.

"The idea was to keep them in the closet," says Eleanor MacCallum, Maureen's mother.

Maureen, too, went to special schools. She lived in Fort Washington with her mother, sister, brother and father, a career military officer. She was, says her mother, pampered. She did her chores so slowly, Eleanor MacCallum recalls, that it was often easier to do them for her. Maureen -- warm, friendly and bright for a slow child -- became expert at manipulating her disability: "My hand doesn't work so I don't have to do that -- I'm handicapped," she often told her younger brother and sister.

Unlike Gary, the childhood taunts of "retard" and "idiot" didn't toughen Maureen; they frightened her. And one evening, as Gary talks about the "outside" world, Maureen interrupts with this story:

When she was a girl Maureen had a bicycle with training wheels and she happily rode it everywhere. Think of the bike as retarded, she says, because it had training wheels. One day her father removed the training wheels -- making the bike "normal." She couldn't ride it. Although she fell so many times that it seemed her entire body was scraped and bruised, she finally mastered it.

"But I feel my banging-up days are over," Maureen concludes.

Yet as Gary changed after he moved in with Ray Jenkins, Maureen also changed after moving in with Gary. Maureen always knew the little rules of getting along -- dressing nicely, acting mannerly. But a couple of years ago, if she didn't get her way, she might pound her fist on the table. If she missed the bus and was late to the Centers, where she has been in job training for six years, it wasn't her fault. After all, it was "not fair" that she had to take the bus, while others drove cars.

Today, Mauren seldom loses control. Late returning from lunch, she tells her instructor: "It's my fault. I lost track of the time." While visiting home last fall she gave her stunned mother a point- by-point rundown of why she and Gary voted for Walter Mondale. Slightly overweight, she went on a diet and lost 20 pounds. She has even begun to talk about what it would be like to someday have a job on the outside.

"I used to be against him going into the outside world and fighting it out," Maureen says of Gary. "Just settle for handouts, because people take you in like they care and then they just drop you -- you're like a yo-yo on a string! I don't feel that way anymore." THIS IS Gary Poe's dream.

He starts his new job at $3.35 an hour, and over the years it rises to $7 or $8, the ideal is $10. The $351 in monthly disability payments stops. He and Maureen go off Medicaid. Visa, MasterCard and Ward's credit cards are granted. Maureen gets a job. He gets a driver's license. They buy a car. They move out of Inwood. The caseworker comes only when Poe calls. They save their money. They buy a house. They take a vacation. It is a modest dream for most. It seems pie in the sky for Poe.

"He'll get in a dream world and want a house or a car," says Poe's father. "I tell him: 'Dream about it, but forget it!' He'll agree with me but a couple months later he'll get back in that dream world again . . . He may luck into a job like Theismann's someday, but there'll be 10 handicapped people who won't -- and there's nothin' that says he will either . . . It's just something you got to face." The father fears failure for the son.

Yet driving is a practical dream, because leading a normal life, even holding a job, is tough without a car. But Gary Poe, as ever, is a special case.

Gary's father said absolutely no -- it would be too dangerous. Maureen's mother first said good luck, but later changed her mind. Poe isn't physically capable of driving, she believes. His reaction time is too slow, and he can't see well enough to read traffic signs. Poe's caseworker, in the style of caseworkers, didn't say yes or no, but asked whether Poe could afford a car, insurance and car maintenance. If not, why get a license?

Only Ray Jenkins saw Poe as no special case: "I don't think it would be too safe for him to drive, but he's got every right to try." If the state of Maryland gives him a license, Jenkins says, he will be the first to let Poe drive his car. But what of Poe's terrible disappointment if he fails? Says Jenkins: "He told me he'd try to get his license this time and then if he can't, he'll forget about it."

But the dream of a good job -- the path to self-esteem for the straight and the slow -- cannot be so quickly forgotten. Poe's last job was cleaning cages and bathing animals at the North Rockville Veterinary Hospital. He'd wash down six large animal runs each day, clea out about 30 occupied cages, bathe and dip pets in various medicinal treatments, and then put them in and remove them from the air dryer. It sounded simple -- except for the arcane considerations.

Earle Goss, Poe's job counselor at the Centers, rolled up his sleeves and taught Poe how to wash a dog. Poe had trouble matching the animal names on the daily bath list to the names on their cages. Goss devised a system of tags. Poe had trouble remembering which chemicals were used for which treatments. Goss came up with a color-coded system. Poe had trouble seeing when the animals were completely rinsed. Goss devised a step- by-step checkoff list to ensure his close attention. But worst of all, Poe had trouble doing everything at once. Finally, he forgot a dog in the dryer: It was found sprawled out and panting, but, fortunately, unhurt.

At the same time, Gary Poe had the arcane considerations of daily life. He sprayed a whole can of Mr. Muscle oven cleaner in the oven and it caught fire. He realized that he could no longer read the product labels at the Giant and he started reading lessons again. His new dog, Brownie, was backsliding on her housebreaking. Maureen was having frequent seizures in the middle of the night -- and Poe was up taking her to the hospital. It also was an hour bus ride to the animal hospital, and, as ever, Poe was there 15 minutes early. Because the cerebral palsy leaves his body muscles knotted and aching in the morning, Poe must take a long steam bath to relax. So to be at work by 7 a.m., he was up at 4:30. He never missed a day.

It was then that his exhaustion began. After a year, Poe finally quit.

Said his boss at the animal hospital: "I wish I had a thousand like you." THE MAN at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour hasn't called, and Gary Poe is fidgety. He has applications in at Howard Johnson's and the Hot Shoppes. He's got interviews at two nursing homes. He even called the animal hospital about a job. And Earle Goss is talking to some "big- wig" at Marriott. Now that's the clout Poe figures he needs!

"I've had people ask me, 'Why do you want to work when you can have taxpayers pay?'.. I hear it so much I turn and walk away. I know different. Even if you are making just minimum wage, you feel better about yourself . . . I want to own my own place someday!"

Yes, he gets depressed, wonders whether everyone isn't right: Maybe the future won't get brighter. "I'm probably not worth minimum wage," he says in a rare moment of self-pity. But then, he still wishes that guy from Farrell's would call. If he doesn't call soon, Poe decides, he will call him instead.

"I don't care if he does give me a job or he doesn't give me a job," he says. "I just want him to call. So I can move ahead."

Poe called. The man hired him -- part-time, at $3.35 an hour. Poe started on a Sunday. On Monday, he began looking for a full-time job.