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Sit a bit and hear some observational stories I’ve been steeping.

Fallon Hotel – Chapter Eight

vict-chandelierIt would soon be past the window of opportunity for Andy’s lunch time and Jeri was nervous about what might happen if she didn’t get some sustenance on a plate, onto a fork and into his gullet tout de suite, so they popped into the closest restaurant. It was enough for her to know how cranky she got when her own blood sugar was low and she was in no hurry to discover whether or not it was genetic. As if having autism wasn’t enough. So, she always made sure to keep Andy’s appetite under control.

Sitting down at a table, Jeri was struck by the beautiful old gas lamps, brass fixtures and oak furniture. Andy was enthralled with the sawdust on the floor and sat perfectly still. No matter that their interests varied, it was all good and for the moment — there was peace on earth. It was quite a change from the times in the past, when Jeri would have to use one of Brian’s leather belts to strap Andy into a dining room chair, once he was too old for a high chair. She didn’t grow up in a home where kids were permitted to hop up and down from the table and she was firmly committed to never giving in to Andy’s constant Whack-a-Mole approach to dining. The first fifty times she had strapped him down, he roared like a like an angry, confined lion, not caring one little bit for the restriction. It was a slow process (and Brian didn’t approve), but eventually, the tantrums decreased and he would acquiesce and sit still. It also caused quite a stir the first time Andy started to act out in a public restaurant and Jeri asked her son if she needed to “get the belt.” One of the other patrons took offense and thought it was her business, before the appetizers arrived, to take Andy’s parents to task for child abuse. It took nearly five full minutes for Jeri to calm the woman down enough to explain the situation. By that point, after the woman huffed a half-hearted apology, the food had arrived, but Jeri lost her appetite and spent the rest of the meal quietly watching Andy and his father vigorously (and obliviously) eat their meals. It occurred to Jeri that autism wasn’t called an anti-social disorder for nothing, as everyone seemed to have a habit of retreating into their own painful corners.

“Hello and howdy! Can I get you two, something to drink?” A cheerful voice brought Jeri back to a happier place.

“Water for me, please. No ice.” Jeri answered. Glancing up, she saw yet another Columbia resident dressed in period garb. It was consistent, that every establishment in town made it seem as though the 21st century didn’t really exist. Truly, if not for the tourists in their brightly colored 49ers, Lakers and Giants sweatshirts talking on their cellphones, you really could forget where (and when) you were. Walking down the center of town, every man you ran into wore chambray bib-placket shirts, jeans and corduroy pants held up by buttoned suspenders or thick, hand tooled leather belts. The women of Columbia wore long dresses, with hoopskirts or petticoats underneath, often with aprons. Many of the dresses were high collared, made with lace and fastened with a jeweled pin or cameo. Almost all of the women wore their hair pulled up in a bun or braided, usually topped off with caps or bonnets. Most of the men sported facial hair, with a mustache at the very least, but some of the “miners” walked around with great big full beards and long hair under their rumpled, dusty hats.

Glancing around the restaurant, with only the staff and no other patrons in sight, Jeri found it easy to imagine that they had been transported back in time. In fact, it wasn’t until the waitress asked Andy if he wanted a soda (running down a short list that included root beer and Sarsaparilla) that she mentioned Mountain Dew — and Jeri remembered exactly which century they were in.

Clear as bell Andy answered the waitress’ question. “I’d like a Sarsaparilla and a Hangtown Fry, thank you kindly.”

“We have the sarsaparilla, kid. But I’m sorry, I don’t know what a Hangtown Fry is. That’s not on the menu.” The waitress pulled at the collar of her dress, clearly not comfortable with either the high neckline choice of the 1800’s or perhaps having a young boy stray from the printed menu choices.

“Hangtown Fry? Why, it’s found in the best eating places and fine dining establishments.”

Jeri watched the exchange between her son and the young lady, awestruck and not wanting to interrupt, if for no other reason than to see where it would lead.

The waitress poked the eraser of her pencil at the menu. While she might have been outfitted in a 19th century dress, the young lady was all 21st century attitude and sass. “Uh-uh. Not here. We’re not fine and we’re definitely not the best. What we do have is burgers, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese…”

“No Hangtown Fry? I’m terribly saddened.” Andy rested his chin on his hand.

“Will you excuse me?” Despite asking the question, the waitress turned, mid-sentence, without waiting for the permission she asked for and stomped off into the kitchen.

Still under the spell of watching this boy who looked like Andy, but did not sound like him, Jeri found she could take her eyes off her son, a boy who sat kicking the flakes of old fashioned sawdust under his very modern Velcro fastened shoes.

The waitress returned with the cook, one of the first men Jeri had seen in Columbia who did not look anything like the miners, cowboys or other men making their way around town. Tall and lean, with multiple piercings, tattoos and droopy white painter’s pants, he looked down at Andy, in more than one way. “The young lady tells me you want a Hangtown Fry. Do you even know what that is, Sparky?”

“It’s a chicken egg omelette, sir. One made with oysters and bacon.”

The cook put both hands on his hips and smiled, his incisors flashing the first gold, Jeri thought, likely to be seen in the mining town for years.

Jeri’s turned to the cook, and back to Andy. “Is that right?” She continued to look back and forth, between the cook and Andy, anxious to hear the answer, not sure at this point which one of them would provide it first.

The cook grinned even wider. “Yup, that’s what it is. Hangtown Fry was one of the most expensive dishes ever invented during the Gold Rush. Story goes that a prospector struck it rich, walked into a hotel north of here, up in Placerville, and demanded that the cook make him the most expensive dish they had on the menu. Well, the cook went back into the kitchen and created it for him, right there on the spot. See, it cost more mostly because of the oysters. Not just any oysters, either — fresh oysters that they had to ship in on ice from San Francisco, which is more than a hundred miles away. Dang funny to have a kid right here, right now asking for it.” The cook shook his head, obviously bemused.

The waitress impatiently shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “So, can you make that, or what? And, seriously? How do I even key that in to the cash register?!”

“Nah. We don’t have any oysters. We’d just have drive over the hill to
Sonora, I suppose. But, that’s not gonna happen today. What else strikes your fancy, buddy?”

Andy sighed. “Would you perhaps have stewed kidney and lima beans?”

The cook laughed. “You’re killing me here, pal! What, do you work for the Food Network or something? I never met a kid who didn’t want a dish of mac ‘n’ cheese or a cheeseburger.”

Andy sighs. “Flapjacks, then.”

Try as she might, Jeri could not ever recall a time in her young son’s life, or even her own, when anyone had ever mentioned the word flapjacks, much less prepared them.

Rubbing his chin the cook smiled and looks at the ceiling. “Ha! Flapjacks, I can do. Crystal, you’ll key that in as ‘pancakes’ okay?” He turned to Jeri. “How ‘bout you, Mom. Are you going to be as creative and difficult as your boy here? Don’t tell me, you craving some Squirrel Bisque? Or, how about Bison Aspic or some other food that hasn’t been prepared in about a hundred years?”

Weakly, Jeri managed to smile and shake her head. “No-no, thank you. I’ll just have that cheeseburger you mentioned. Please forgive us, we’re so sorry to trouble you.”

“Alright then, a cheeseburger and flapjacks, comin’ right up. Listen, lady. It was no trouble at all, really. It was totally worth coming out the kitchen for that. Darnest thing.” The cook walked away, scratching at the back of his neck, chuckling and muttering as he made his way back to the kitchen.

Ignoring everyone and everything, Andy got up out of his seat and wandered over to the wall. The sunlight pouring through the window had shifted, catching a few of the crystal prisms hanging from the old brass lamps and was now shooting tiny rainbows all around the dining room. Tensing his body and arching his back, Andy pulled his arms up, elbows against his waist and fingers wiggling near his face, as he started to stim like mad. Jeri watched her son and wondered how it was that he was bobbing and weaving on a fine line between being adrift in a world of autism or in this strange new state, one of being present, but not at all in-the-moment or present-day present. No matter what, she realized that he was equally lost, in either realm.

Since day one of the diagnosis of autism, Jeri had been working tirelessly with Andy at home and in the offices of multiple therapists to bring him into the “real world” using all of the therapeutic modalities available to them: Applied Behavioral Analysis, Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Floortime, Sensory Integration, Therapeutic Horseback Riding and others. She’d spent hours on the computer, after her household was asleep, creating personal Social Story booklets to show Andy exactly what to expect when he went to get a haircut, to the dentist, to the grocery store, and any other place he might encounter outside of the home. It had certainly been a labor of love, but she knew that the hard work was instrumental if she was ever going to chip away at the shell that seemed to keep her beautiful boy locked away. Away from her, away from the world and in some ways she thought, perhaps away from himself. To see him acting abnormally, yet neurologically typically now and again since they’d arrived in Columbia was frustrating. There was no rhyme or reason to where or when a shift would happen. In her mind, she went over and over the events and conversations, trying to guess how she could have possibly intervened at any given point, to assist her boy and help him out. It wasn’t until she bumped into the back of her chair that Jeri realized she was rocking back and forth in her seat, an obvious attempt at self-comforting. Just like Andy did. It made her question, when it came down to brass tacks (as her father would have said), what was and what wasn’t normal.

The waitress returned with their drinks and set them down on the table with straws, napkins and silverware. Just then, Andy walked back to the table and sat down, without Jeri having to place her hands upon his shoulders, to lead him back, as she often did. He put his napkin in his lap, glanced up at the waitress and smiled. “I thank you, kindly, M’am.”

The odd formality with which her son now addressed others, along with the strange new speech pattern made Jeri wonder whether her square peg would ever fit into the round holes of the “real world” or if she would now have to climb a whole other hill she hadn’t planned on. No matter what, Jeri had never even thought about giving up on him before and she wasn’t going to start now.

Pressing her lips into a tight, fine line, she felt her heart beat a little faster and what she’d always described as her Mother Bear Instincts rose up into her chest and in the back of her throat. It had always fascinated her that even in nature the need to protect a child was neck-in-neck with the desire to teach them how to survive in the wild on their own. Jeri didn’t know anymore what was affecting her son from moment to moment, but what she did know was that he was vulnerable and still teachable – and whatever was trying to influence him, she was going to have to fight back… and hard.

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