Dorothy Frye keeps the ever-growing stack of bills, many unopened, all unpaid, in a neat pile on the table. She knows they signify trouble, but there is so little she can do about them.

Dorothy Frye is a mentally retarded person whose story up until now was one of triumph over her handicap, over the system. Yesterday, however, with her husband Robert starting his third month in the hospital, with the rent money stolen during the Christmas weekend by burglars, with unscrupulous neighbors coming into her apartment to make long-distance calls -- yesterday, there was little she could do but stare out her window at the long winter shadows.

In a world that many retarded people find harsh and puzzling, Robert and Dorothy Frye have built rich and independent lives. Now illness and bureaucracy threaten to leave them helpless and dependent.

The $456 rent on their one-bedroom apartment at Edgewood Terrace in Northeast Washington is unpaid. The doctors' bills pile up. Robert Frye's health benefits from his job as a tool attendant at the National Institutes of Health could lapse because he has been out of work, unable to pay his premiums. The phone company wants $65 -- today.

Dorothy Frye, who cannot write and can read only a bit, has never written a check. Her husband lies strapped to a bed in Washington Hospital Center with neurological problems, his 57-year-old body maddeningly shaken by seizures, his legs now useless, sentenced to a wheelchair.

Every afternoon at 4, Dorothy Frye climbs aboard a Metrobus to visit her husband. Theirs is a lifelong love. They grew up together at Forest Haven, the city's institution for the mentally handicapped in Laurel. Their families had sent them there; through most of their lives, they have had little contact with their relatives.

They both hated Forest Haven. They were determined to get out.

"That place was terrible," said Dorothy Frye, who is 40. "It was no good. People were kind of mean. They locked us up. The food was bad. My mother put me away. I got my release papers from the court."

That was 20 years ago. She moved first to a halfway house. Then, 11 years ago, she married Robert Frye and they got an apartment of their own.

At her first job, serving hot food at a cafeteria in Beltsville, Dorothy Frye met the woman who has been the only constant in her life, Shirley Morgan.

Robert Frye calls Morgan "Shirleymama." Dorothy Frye calls her "Shirley Morgan." A retired woman who lives in Suitland, Morgan calls the Fryes "my children."

"I fell in love with Dorothy," Morgan said. They speak every morning and every evening. Yesterday morning, Dorothy Frye said she was hungry and needed some bread. Yesterday afternoon, Morgan brought over a loaf.

While she was there, she saw the phone bill and took out her checkbook.

"I am writing you a check for $100 for the phone," Morgan said. "Do you know how to pay it?"

"Yes, I take the bus downtown," Frye said.

"Good," Morgan said. "Now listen. I am mad at you. I don't want you letting people in here to use your phone and make long-distance calls, understand?"

"Yes, Shirley Morgan, I understand," Frye said.

Later, Morgan's voice cracked as she detailed the Fryes' problems.

"I gave her $200 for the rent and now it's stolen. She is afraid. She sees their lives going down. I said to her, 'Don't you worry, sweetheart. God is working things out for you.' But I don't know."

Morgan is trying to find help for the Fryes. She has persuaded her church, Queen's Chapel United Methodist, to take up a collection for them on Sunday. She has spoken to the building manager about the rent.

And the Fryes have other friends. Terry Miller, site manager at Edgewood Terrace II, a HUD-built and privately run building for elderly and lower-middle-income families, said the company will wait for its rent. Miller also is trying to lower the Fryes' payments from the $456 market rate to the $406 basic rate because Robert Frye is no longer working.

Horace Bryant, the Fryes' caseworker at the D.C. Bureau of Community Services, said he is trying to "cut through the red tape and get them into Section 8 public housing, which will lower their costs." Bryant also is working to get the Fryes other public assistance available to retarded people.

"The Fryes have been self-sufficient, which is commendable," he said. "They are unique for retarded people. They've been rather independent for many years and so the system wasn't ready to help them. It's a shame they had no other resources to turn to before they got to a critical point."

Bryant said the red tape is frustrating, but he is hopeful that the Fryes can get help. Meanwhile, tenants at Edgewood Terrace are collecting money to pay the Fryes' rent.

"Dorothy and Robert have lots of friends here," Miller said.

The Fryes do not know how to seek help. They wait for it to come. Bryant brought a bag of canned food the other day. Morgan visits when she can.

"It's kind of dead around here now," Dorothy Frye said. "Sometimes I go for a walk. I say to myself, 'I hope the day will go by.' Robert has nothing to do. You got to pay $3.50 to look at television for one day in the hospital. We don't have that."

The burglars who struck this weekend took not only the rent money, but also the little television Dorothy Frye had bought her husband for Christmas.

She is not the only person who misses Robert Frye. A 5-year-old girl for whom Dorothy Frye baby-sits wishes he would come home to play Trouble and Headache with her.

"We need to make Robert get well," she said. "I like to do a puzzle with Robert and Dorothy, like a puppy puzzle."

The girl and an 11-year-old boy spend afternoons at the Fryes', waiting for their own parents to come home. Although many parents in the neighborhood pay about $50 a week for informal day care, Frye gets only $25 for every two weeks.

These are terrifying days for the couple. A strong-looking, chunky woman who is polite to everyone, Dorothy Frye sits in a crammed living room just off a kitchen infested by dozens of cockroaches. She does splendid needlepoint; she is making a pillowcase for her husband.

He lies in the hospital, the weeks passing in a blur.

"It's kind of rough," he said. "Dorothy said someone broke in the place, stole things. If I was there, those things wouldn't happen." He speaks in a strained, halting voice, especially when the subject is his wife.

"Once in a while, I have a television here," he said. "Television doesn't mean anything when you have a wife. That's something. She comes and sees me. You miss something like that. That's a big drop."

Robert Frye hopes to leave the hospital soon. But he doesn't tell his wife.

"I don't want to bring up hopes," he said. "Because if you bring up hopes, let me tell you, daddy, people get their hopes all up. For nothing. They don't understand."