SOME STRANGE BIRD by John Vurro
LOOK. HERE’S YOUR six-year old autistic son, Jake, hustling wind-sprints down the feminine needs aisle of the Wal-Mart.
As he rips down the lane, he tilts his head, his chin touching his left shoulder, his eyes skewed right, so he can watch the kaleidoscope of boxes scroll past his peripheral vision. The packages transform into a blurred line, a continuous row of edges and angles. He spins his legs even faster. His compulsion fueled by this constant craving for sensory input. Repetitive motion. That’s somehow linked to his eyesight. And this running is endless. It’s not just the Wal-Mart. He bolts around your living room. Your basement. Your bedroom. Your backyard. His therapist calls it ‘stimming.’ His SPED teacher calls it ‘a tic.’ But you call it being ‘in the Zone.’
So you better hurry. Cause he’s completely ‘in the Zone.’ Plus he has a knack for choosing empty aisles. No idle shoppers to roadblock his breakneck pace. At first you jog, your arms pressed against your sides. But then you size up the distance, a good six feet, say fuck it, and haul ass after him. As you extend your arm, you swear you’ll find the shopping cart he escaped from during those careless seconds you thought you could browse for socks. Jake charges towards the end-caps. With each footfall, the blue lights fastened along the soles of his sneakers flash. His corduroys swish. Still running, he crouches then springs upwards. He lands, feet together, onto a red tile, as if it were a hopscotch box.
“Jake, get back here now.”
Your son bobs twice, releases this winding ‘Eeehaaaaa,’ then pivots right and disappears down the main aisle. You cut the corner, hoping he’s waiting for you. He’s not. You watch as he sprints down the lane, hugging the line where the carpet meets tile, head tilted, eyes skewed, until he disappears into the crowd of shoppers. Jake never backtracks. So you hustle after him, into unseen territory.
Plopped along the lane are bins stuffed with DVDs. Pallets stacked with flat-screen TVs. Pyramids built from boxes of diapers. The waxy floor smells like orange scented chemicals, reminding you of Jake’s neurologist, Dr. Chiamare’s, office. You pop onto your toes and listen for his squeal. You see two blond kids gripping orange pistols arguing about who shot who first. You see a woman wearing a purple jacket scold her pinch-faced husband about picking the wrong brand of cannellini beans. You see everyone except Jake.
What if he was kidnapped? Would he realize what was happening? Last week in Pathmark as you checked out your groceries, you watched Jake grab a man’s hand and try to yank him towards the exit doors. The guy, a construction worker with concrete dust wiped across his jeans, stood there, smiling. What if the next guy isn’t so innocent? What if the next guy leads Jake to his van, handcuffs and box-cutter waiting for him on the back seat? Or here’s something less dramatic. What if the electronic doors parted for Jake and he’s galloping around the parking lot? You picture your son sprawled across the hood of a gold Sonata. Icy gusts shake the car as wind whips across the lot. People are huddled around him, clutching their shopping bags as they ask Jake the simplest of questions, “Did you get hurt?” or “Are your parents in the Wal-Mart?” and Jake unable to answer, since those questions aren’t concrete enough, don’t express his needs - sleep, eat, drink, bathroom - so he points towards the asphalt, bruises cascading down his hip, but still burning with the urge to run, still ‘in the Zone,’ yelling, “Go that way.”
Your chest fizzes with panic. People swerve their carts around you as if you’re road kill. “No,” you say, “he’s in the store. He does this all the time.” You follow the loop of the main aisle until your cell-phone vibrates. It’s your wife Deana. It’s your turn to shop. That’s the deal. She shops for twenty minutes while you wrestle Jake. Then vice-versa. You call this plan ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Except today, your wife still has ten minutes. The phone trembles in your hand. Maybe it’s a pocket dial? Three buzzes and counting. You try to think positive. She found Jake, realized you lost him, and now she wants to rip off your testicles and wear them as earrings. You flip the lid, “Hello.”
“Hey, how’s Jake?” Her voice is the basic flat-line, not too cheery, not too angry. You call this her ‘Goldilocks Mood.’ She breathes into the phone, says, “Anyway, I’m buying better sneakers. My knees hurt from chasing Jake.”
She has no idea. So you concentrate on keeping your voice even. “Take your time.”
“Yup,” she says.
You walk down the holiday clearance aisle, blinking wreaths and Christmas trees. Their branches droop. Their plastic needles too thin and bristly, reminding you of giant toilet brushes. Sometimes, Jake gets fixated on running past the flashing lights. But the lane is empty. “So where are you?” you ask.
“I’m in the shoe department,” she says, “Aren’t you listening?”
You picture the veins in your wife’s neck and forehead that rise like quills when she’s angry, say, “Doctor’s orders.”
“You think that’s funny?”
Yesterday, you both visited Dr. Finger, the marriage counselor. Finger’s office had pine paneling and leather chairs that reeked of cigarette smoke. Placed on the edge of the glass coffee table was a timer. This was Deana’s idea, so you go, hoping he’d give you advice about managing Jake. Last session, Finger explained how communication was the key. The ability to share the frustration and sadness you both felt because of your son. Finger tapped his gold pen against his knee, said, “You’re mourning your past life.” Then he nodded slowly, letting his wisdom assimilate into your marriage. If he was that perceptive, you thought, he’d notice how your wife left an empty seat between you and her.
Next, you both had to reveal a secret about your relationship. Deana sat upright in her chair, the leather squeaking underneath her, and said, “He’s very removed from Jake. He just hides upstairs and plays his guitar. I feel like I’m a single mother.” Then she reached across the empty chair and rubbed your arm as if she just wished you a happy birthday.
You pushed her hand, “I work eleven-hour days processing insurance claims. I’m tired.”
“You look exhausted. Banging away on that stupid guitar.” She lifted her pant leg and revealed the bruises stamped along her shin. Finger sucked his teeth. “The noise agitates Jake. He kicks me while you’re off strumming away in la-la land.”
“Oh, yeah? You agitate me.”
Finger pointed at you, “No one is being attacked.” Then he smiled, your signal to share a secret. “Remember no judgments.”
“Fine. When I’m at work.” The timer on the coffee table still had thirty minutes. “Talking to the other guys.” Your wife nodded at you, her face soft, strangely understanding. You stared at her and for those few seconds you forgot how she just blasted you. Instead you remembered how, before Jake, her neck always smelled like mint. How on your wedding night, instead of sex, you plucked hundreds of bobby-pins from her curly hair. Maybe the Finger was right? You were mourning. You suddenly wanted to apologize for this life you shared. But then the feeling disappeared. Fast. So you leaned across the empty chair, touched your wife on the arm and said, “I call you Attila My Hun.”
Now, you watch a woman with frizzy hair abandon her cart lengthwise across the aisle and plunge her hands into a bin of pink slippers. You angle around her cart and cut down a lane packed with pillows and blankets.
Your wife clears her throat, “I know Christmas is over. But I found this toy.” You walk past sheets packaged in squares of plastic. “It plays music and shoots balls.”
“Music agitates him, right?”
“No, just yours.”
“Yeah, well one day he’s gonna shred the guitar.” But you feel stupid for saying it, letting a different life seep into this one. Then again, your wife is buying more toys.
Yesterday, after the Finger, you dismantled the fake tree, then stuffed Jake’s gifts, still in their boxes, into his bedroom closet. But before you could pack the new presents, you had to carry last year’s presents into the basement and stack them onto the moldy shelves. Jake doesn’t make Christmas lists. He doesn’t point towards toy commercials. He doesn’t flip through glossy catalogs. So from October until December, you’re buying and praying he’ll have that big breakthrough. This Christmas, as you watched Jake boot his wrapped toys, clearing a path so he could run, you swore to Deana that from this holiday on Santa’s buying him clothes. She stared into her coffee mug and nodded.
And now she’s buying a ball popper.
You rest your head against a pillow hanging off the shelf. You’re wasting time. But you say, “I thought we’re not buying toys?”
“What if he likes it?”
“What if a monkey pops out my ass?”
“Asshole all the time,” she says.
You twist around and stuff your face into the pillow, praying you suffocate. When you don’t, you step back and say, “Buy it. Who cares?”
“You can’t make it more obvious.”
“I said buy the toy.”
“Not the fucking toy. You don’t put any effort into Jake. You don’t go to his teacher meetings. You don’t help me with his therapies. You just babysit him. Feed him. Dress him. Make sure he doesn’t get lost. This is what I meant by single mother.”
“Yeah? This is what I meant by Attila My Hun.” You pull the phone away to hang up, when you hear ‘Eeeeaahhh’ blast through her side of the phone.
“Was that Jake? That yell sounded like it was behind me.”
“Nah, he’s right here.” You point towards nothing. “He’s blasting past the Christmas trees.” You hustle into the main aisle towards the Footwear sign. “Jake, come back.”
“Bullshit. I want to talk to him.”
You cut past a man checkered with liver spots, examining razors. “Go buy sneakers.”
“Yeah, you sonofabitch? You better find him before I do.”
“Gotta go, Hun.” You hit end and hang up the phone.
You jet down the aisle, hustling towards a woman around your wife’s age, her red hair fastened with a butterfly clip. She pushes her freckled daughter, nestled in the back of her shopping cart. The mother smiles, as if she knows you. You smile back and picture this mother tucking her daughter into bed at night. The girl clutches her favorite plush bear as her mother reads Goodnight Moon cover to cover, instead of how Jake forces you to reread the page with the kittens and their mittens until you lose your shit and toss the board-book onto the carpet. Why is her daughter okay? What did you do wrong? You pay taxes. You’re kind to animals. You don’t deserve this, this. What? This knowing that Jake will be sprinting around the Wal-Mart when he’s eight, twelve, twenty. At first it was funny, what toddlers do. But now, as he burns down the aisles, as if possessed by the devil, shoppers purse their lips and mumble. Judge your parenting skills. You watch the mother lean over the cart and laugh at something her daughter said. As she passes, you jam your hands into your pockets, stifling the urge to clothesline her.
You march towards the sign, a good football field away. You sidestep a woman as she pinches the shoulders of a sweater and holds it in front of her. You feel close. Then again, so is Attila. For some reason, you feel as if finding Jake would prove to her that you do care. But the feeling passes. Fast. No, It’s better to lie. Why give her the satisfaction of being right? You cut between racks of sweatpants. How can Jake not realize he’s lost? Your insides start to vibrate. You say, “Jake. Jake come on.” But all you see are shoppers.
This is the last time you’re visiting the Wal-Mart.
That’s a lie. It’s December and fourteen degrees, six with the wind chill. It’s either visit the Wal-Mart or watch Jake run wide-receiver patterns across your living-room, your bedroom, your basement. If it was say, twenty degrees, you’d pull on your thermal, zip up your coat and go freeze in the park. We’re all here. The four-year-old slapped with Down’s Syndrome. The tween kicked with Aspergers. The twins barraged with Pervasive Development Disorders. On a cold day look for us. As you watch kids sprint circles around the perimeter of the playground, or dump wood chips onto their head, or stand on the bottom of the slide and flap their hands as if they’re ready to fly away, it reminds you of that music video. The one that has the chubby bee-girl who searches the fields for the other bees. When she finally finds her friends, she hops and spins. Happy that she’s in the place where she belongs. You don’t speak to the other parents. We only need to smile in that glassy-eyed way that says, ‘I know. Boy do I know.’
Your phone rattles in quick bursts, reminding you of an AK47. You dig into your pocket. It’s Attila. She shoots, ‘YOU FIND HIM?’ Then she blasts, “SO IRRESPONSIBLE.’ Then she fires, “GET SECURITY, YOU ASSHOLE.”
As you power off the phone, your hand trembles. The click of hangers sliding along the racks sounds like a diesel train. You stick the cell into your pocket. You have to focus. A man wearing aviator sunglasses knocks into your shoulder, says, “Open your eyes, chief.”
You slalom around shoppers and back into the main aisle. How long has he been missing? Jake has probably lapped the store at least five times. You decide to forget about searching Footwear and walk counterclockwise, against his usual flight path.
Maybe he’s finally snapped out of it? Maybe he’s just shopping? You picture finding Jake idling in the Athletic department. He runs his fingers along the knobs of the bats that hang from the racks, the aluminum barrels clanking together. Sometimes at night you dream that you’re seated at your kitchen table drinking coffee. Jake sits across from you. He smiles, his eyes bright, his voice squeaky, as he explains how he built a plaster volcano or jumped a cinderblock ramp with his BMX. But the dream always ends the same. Just as you reach across the table to run your finger along his cheek, convince yourself this is really happening, his face goes slack and he bellows that twisting, “Eeehaaaaa.”
“Jake, where the fuck are you?”
You march towards Electronics. The overhead lights seem brighter, leaving shoppers shadowless, as if made out of plastic. Kiosks display cell-phones. Fifty inch televisions are bolted along the wall, all blasting the same movie: Finding Nemo. As you walk along the line of flat-screens and cut down a lane displaying alarm clocks, you remind yourself how a better father would’ve kept him pinned inside the shopping cart. How Attila will sing about this to Finger next week. You shove an abandoned cart into a shelf. It’s time to admit failure. You need managers. You need employees. You need yet another person to swoop into your life and critique you.
You remember a year ago this month. You see Jake’s neurologist, Dr. Chiamare, seated behind the desk in her windowless office. The air vent spewed heat that smelled like melted crayons. In the back of the room was a tiny table and chairs surrounded by oak cabinets. For three days she evaluated Jake, though it seemed more like playing: naming the animals in a farm painting. Asking Jake how a plush dog felt.
On the last day, the assessment over, Chiamare slid her report towards you and your wife and waited for you to flip through the pages. Make her verdict a reality. When you didn’t, she smiled at Jake perched on your lap. Deana insisted on dressing your son in slacks and a sweater, so each time Jake squirmed, the wool scratched against your face. You gripped him tighter and glanced towards Deana. But instead of picking up on marital cues, your wife stared at the report and spun her wrist in tight circles against her forehead.
Chiamare pinched her jade earring, “After redirecting Jake’s attention, he knows his colors, numbers.” Your wife smiled, as if that was all there was to say. There was a stillness in the room. The only sound was the heat thrumming through the vent. Then she leaned forward, the chair springs creaking. “But there are other signs.”
Your wife said, “What kind of signs?”
Jake pressed his head into your chest, “Eeeeahh.” You gripped him tighter, “No.”
“He can wander.” Chiamare said to you, “Really, it’s fine.”
You let go of Jake and it felt like you had released a missile. Jake said “Go that way,” then shot towards the table and cabinets in the back of the room. You swallowed hard, stifling your anger, said, “I’m sorry doctor, you were saying?”
“Your son lacks certain responses.” Jake opened the cabinet door and slammed it shut. “He has a hard time recognizing emotion. Making eye contact. Have you noticed any of this?” You remembered how Jake always glanced left when you talked, as if there was a person standing next to you. But you shot her this ‘News to Me’ face, just as Jake slammed the cabinet shut again. Chiamare sighed, “I think we need more testing, but from my preliminary assessment, I feel Jake is autistic.”
As you watched this doctor change the course of your life, you expected Attila to bark protests, then holster Jake onto her hip and stomp out in her fireball way. Instead, your wife slapped her hand, palm up, onto your thigh. She waited for you to grab her hand. Show her you’re in this, wife and husband, mother and father. But her sudden weakness tipped you off-kilter, as if the heat just pumped up two hundred degrees.
Chiamare pinched her earring, nodded. She’s wrong, you thought. You twisted towards Jake as he pressed his chin against his shoulder, skewed his vision, and hopped in front of the cabinet handles. This is an important moment. You needed to say something. So just as Jake swung open and slammed the cabinet door shut, you said, “Guess I should teach Jake how to count cards like in Rain Man?” Your wife yanked her hand off your lap and snubbed you for a clean month.
You cut the corner and find yourself in the Auto Department. The lane is dimly lit, alley-like. You smell rubber and chemicals. A man wearing a dungaree jacket is picking windshield wipers as his son kicks the bottom of the rack and complains in a nasally voice.
You reach into your pocket and jam power. No messages. No calls. You march into the main aisle, towards a huddle of shoppers. Once you told Attila that you wanted to buy one of those leashes parents use to tether their children. At the time you said it, your wife was chopping carrots, so when she spun around, she held the shiny blade towards you, “Like a fucking dog?” Watching her, knife out, eyes wild, you had this inkling that she wanted to stick you in the gut. But look at you now, sweating, trapped inside this airline hangar of a store. You haven’t bought a single item all winter. How can you? You’re always chasing Jake. You swerve around a woman scraping a walker along the floor and yell, “Jake. This is it now. If you don’t come out.” You reach into your pocket and grip the car keys. They’re hot from the heat radiating off your thigh. You run your fingers along the metal teeth. But then you hear, “Hey kid. Quit running and apologize.”
You let go of the keys and jog towards the crowd gathered in the main aisle. As you elbow your way into the circle, you spot Jake bouncing in front of a disco-ball. Rainbows spin along the floor. Jake points, “Eeeeahh.” He’s lost a sneaker so when he hops you see the sooty underside of his sock. You rush towards him, a thousand wings flapping inside your chest. “Jake, thank Christ.” You place your hand onto his shoulder to settle him, but he keeps bouncing in front of the twirling ball, excited by the colors.
A man wearing a blue jump suit steps next to him, a shopping basket hanging from the crook of his arm. Rainbow colored lights streak across his chest. He points towards Jake, says, “Hey, I’m talking to you, kid.”
Shoppers have parked their carts in front of this guy and your son. What could he have possibly done wrong? You grab his arm, “Jake, c’mon.”
The man runs his finger along his squarish chin, “Is this your kid?” He places his basket, filled with cans of soup, onto the floor. “Hey guy, I said is this your kid?”
You clench Jake’s shirt, in case he bolts, “Sometimes.”
He stabs his finger towards your son, “He knocked my basket to the floor. All my cans went flying. Then he didn’t even apologize. Just jumped around like it was a big freakin’ joke.” He juts out his chin, “He did it on purpose.” More shoppers have gathered around you, craning their necks towards the free entertainment. You imagine this man, who probably doesn’t even have kids, pointing towards his groceries. And there’s Jake hopping in front of the disco-ball. It’s almost funny. You decide to scratch this one as a loss and start to walk away. But when the guy blocks your path and says, “His father doesn’t answer, either. Now I see where the kid gets it,” your gums tingle with rage.
You square off, say, “Oh yeah? You solved the puzzle?”
“Good job raising your son.”
Jake starts to drift. You yank his collar and he falls into you. Jake presses his chin into your hand and pinpricks roll down your fingers. But you hang onto his shirt. The shoppers huddle closer. You swallow hard, trying to calm yourself, but every cell screams for you to strike at this man. And you must look like a complete psychopath because the guy steps back. As you step towards him, you bite your lip, trying to stifle the words, but you blurt, “He’s autistic, okay? He’s disabled. Okay you fucker?”
You feel the crowd focus on Jake, examining him as if he’s some strange bird. This morning in the Wal-Mart parking lot, Deana clicked the red button on Jake’s car-seat and announced, “Here come the intruders.” And that’s how you feel now, as if after months of trespassing, you’ve finally been made.
The guy’s shoulders drop, his face softens. You want anger, but all you see is sympathy. And nothing dissolves you quicker, renders you completely helpless, faster than sympathy. It’s everywhere. Finger. Chiamare. Even this mob of shoppers seems to let out a collective sigh. You say, “Now you feel bad? The jerk with the autistic son, right?” You march towards him, “Well go feel this.” You kick his basket across the waxy floor. Jake spills into you, bellowing a winding “Eeeeahh,” as the bin shoots across the aisle, hissing, until it crashes into an end-cap and flips onto its side. Cans scatter along the floor. You lurch forward, “Now get outta here before I break a law.”
You wait for him to charge, but he stares at his cans spread along the waxy floor, then pivots towards the crowd, “You guys see that? He assaulted me.” He picks up his empty basket, “Let’s see how tough you are when security escorts you out.”
“Don’t worry, I’m leaving.”
“Damn right you are.” The huddle of shoppers parts as he scurries through the crowd, his arms snapping forward. You pull Jake towards you, claiming him, then toss the crowd an ugly stare until they slowly separate.
Jake squirms free from your hand and bolts towards the disco ball. You hustle after him, say, “Jake, what are you doing?” He points towards the spinning lights. You crouch and twist him towards you. Your legs feel shaky, the adrenaline still pumping, so you roll onto your knees. Jake’s face is flushed. His copper-colored hair is sweaty, the tips pointy. He stares above you, towards the flashing ball. “You were lost. You can’t run away, Jake. Someone will take you.” You wipe his forehead and rub your palm along your thigh. His skin feels hot and you think of the overheating engine inside of him, the fire propelling him forward. You say, “They’ll give you back in ten minutes, but still.” You wait for him to smile like the girl in the shopping cart. He tilts his head to the left and skews his eyes right, catching the spinning lights in his peripheral vision. And this is how you see yourself, forever waiting, hoping, chasing. But he’s here now, with you. You lean forward. As you hug him he stiffens, then presses his chin into your shoulder, almost a hug, before squirming to get free. It hurts, but you let go.
Jake points, “Over there.” He crouches and springs towards the ball.
“No, Jake. That’s done.”
“Go, there?” He hops, “Eeeeahh.”
“We have to leave.”
You grip Jake’s wrist and hustle down the main aisle, towards the sliding doors. You don’t see that guy or security. But still, you feel this need to rush, to leave and not come back for a long time. Your cell-phone vibrates. As you reach into your pocket you spot your wife. She’s standing in front of the doors. Her phone is pressed against her cheek. Her other wrist spins tight circles into her forehead. Jake rushes forward, trying to break free. You give him a gentle tug, just as Deana looks up. You wait for her to yell, pounce like she usually does, but she bites back a smile and throws her hands into the air. And though you’re only steps away from her, and she could hear, you mouth, ‘I found him, I found him.’
JOHN VURRO lives in NJ with is wife and family. He was awarded the 2013 Harpur Palate's John Gardner award for fiction. His work is forthcoming in PWG and has appeared in the Evening Street Review and elsewhere.