Close up Hands Tea x

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

Fallon Hotel – Chapter Nine

Creepy MirrorJoJoLeaning back in her chair, Jeri stared at the mess they’d made. Meals had always been stressful with Andy, but Jeri thought in light of today’s unusual (both quirky and unexpected) polite interaction with the waitress, that this meal would be different. It wasn’t. Dining was always a frenetic ballet of sorts, consisting of Andy rhythmically rocking in his seat, and occasional dramatic leaps in the air as he’d attempt to escape, only to be held tight by his mother, playing the role of both dinner and dance partner. Bites of food would fly through the air via poorly held utensils and sometimes the food would hit their original target of a mouth, which now and again was Jeri’s, if she thought food was headed for the table or floor. Rarely was a meal about anybody just enjoying what was prepared. Instead of a petal-strewn stage after the “performance” (after all, Jeri was certain they provided quite a show for most dining patrons), the table was littered with torn napkins, silverware all askew, glasses tipped over and packets of sweetener in various formations around the table which Andy quickly color-coded as fast as his mother could gather and re-shuffle them, in an effort to keep him occupied. As an act of contrition, Jeri used to tip dining establishments really well. But, knowing that their financial situation was now precarious, at best, she made a quick attempt to just bus the table as best she could before the waitress returned.

“Buddy-boy, let’s get out of Dodge while we can.” Jeri pulled a small red Jolly Rancher candy from her purse and held it up. Glancing sideways at it, Andy put his hand up and waited for his mother to give it to him.

“No-no. You have to look at Mommy’s eyes, Andy.” With all of the eye contact she’d watch her son make since they’d arrived in Columbia, Jeri was hopeful that this time, out of the thousands of times she’d asked before, he’d comply.

With a whimper, Andy tensed his body and pulled away. Jeri knew that the color and flavor of the candy were Andy’s favorites and he could not resist for long.

“Come on, Andy. Look at Mommy’s eyes.” It was a simple request, but such a painful one for the boy who, since he was an infant, found eye contact so ridiculously uncomfortable. It wasn’t that she didn’t have compassion for his pain, but Jeri knew in her heart, that it was going to be one of the most important learned behaviors she could teach her son as he made his way in a world that expected that simple courtesy.

Jeri held the candy closer to her face and watched as Andy, still looking sideways at her, twitched and moved a tiny bit closer. Another small victory, since he didn’t like being in close proximity with anyone, not even his mother. For a brief moment he lifted his chin and looked his mother squarely in the eye. Jeri immediately placed the jewel toned prize in Andy’s hand and grabbed him in a fierce bear hug, which was one more thing she thought was important to teach him, despite his protestations. “Good job, Andy!! Your Mommy loves you, honey bear, more than anything in the whole wide world.”

Once outside, Andy stepped off the edge of the wooden sidewalk, plunked his feet down onto the dirt road and opened his candy. Mindlessly, exactly as though they’d done it one hundred times before, Jeri sat next to Andy, opened her hand to take the wrapper and without looking, he gave it to her, as they exchanged a cursory ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome.’ It was parroting, but Jeri was grateful that it was one of the jack-hammered social lessons that had sunk in.

Jeri leaned back onto her elbows and stretched her legs out in front of her, kicking at rocks and pebbles in the road. She looked out and smiled at the sight of the old bookstore across the street. Her heart ached. In every city and town she’d ever visited, she considered a bookstore to be a home away from home. Wherever there were shelves filled with books – a store, a library or someone’s den — it was immediately transformed into a place of comfort and welcome, a spot where you were encouraged to linger and unwind. To Jeri, the Columbia Booksellers and Stationers, was comfort and discomfort – rolled into one – because it was like having a crush on someone you were never allowed to speak to. As a kid, her dad had given her a severe time limit when they’d visited and when she’d returned years later with her husband, he sniffed as they walked past saying, “Maybe later,” which was easily translated (and later proven) to “Maybe never.”

Now, the bookstore stood before her and Jeri remembered that she was mistress of her own destiny. Well, sort of. If she could find something interesting enough to keep Andy distracted, then she’d linger as long as his attention span would allow. Then again, maybe linger was too optimistic a word. No matter, it was still an improvement over the past.

Reaching in and down to the bottom of her purse, Jeri felt around for the cardboard “Rosy View Glasses” for Andy. It was just a pair of 3-D glasses she’d altered a few weeks earlier by removing the blue lens in one pair and replacing it with the red one from a second pair. Red was Andy’s favorite color and she was hoping that staring at mostly faded covers in the bookstore through these rose-colored glasses would keep him busy for awhile. Out came the glasses and with only minimal protest from Andy, she placed them on his face.

With a big sigh, Jeri opened the door and breathed in the familiar scent of dust, paper and an almost vanilla-like smell that made her so happy. Looking around, she longed to just meander from shelf to shelf, but knew she had a purpose. To the side of the door was a large rack of featured historical books and pamphlets about the area, giving suggestions of Things to Do While Visiting the Gold Country! She grinned, thinking how ironic it was, that the only guides to local spirits were the ones heralding the nearby wineries. Standing there, Jeri suddenly felt foolish, thinking there might have been something in any bookstore that would help her, in her current situation. Surely there weren’t going to be any booklets on Facing your Phantom or other unnatural things. Besides, she didn’t really know what she was looking for. What she did know was that she wanted answers and that most of the answers she had ever found in life (answers about developmental disabilities in children, answers about available therapies for children with autism, answers about failing marriages, etc.) were in books.

Running her finger down the spines of the books closest to her, she felt her shoulders drop and heard herself exhale louder than she’d anticipated. Books had always been her friends and standing in the old bookstore, she felt as though she’d finally answered an invitation from long ago, to be with friends she hadn’t met yet. There were ragged, dusty old books that had obviously been befriended by others long ago and brand new shiny publications looking to make new acquaintances. Jeri hoped that even if Andy never learned the art of socialization, he’d come to learn the joy of interacting with books, but she knew that his language processing disorder might make that difficult. Yes, difficult maybe, but not impossible. She knew it was corny, but believed what Audrey Hepburn had said, “Nothing is impossible! The word itself says, ‘I’m possible’!”

Placing her hands on her hips, Jeri laughed slightly to herself, seeing that there were plenty of books about ghosts, after all. The store was filled with books about ghosts, but specifically ghost towns, since almost every gold encampment in California was eventually abandoned, leaving behind dilapidated buildings and untold stories, with words that whipped in the wind in towns like Bodie, Panamint City, Cottonwood and more. The ones that had become state parks had an awful lot written about them. She picked up one titled, “Ghost Town” written about her beloved Columbia, but froze when she saw who the author was – someone by the name of G. Ezra Dane. The price was steep, more than she was prepared to pay. She stared at the $40 penciled inside the cover, but to Jeri it felt like it was a sign and she decided she had to buy it, though she was not at all certain what she expected to find inside. Nonetheless, it was somehow strangely encouraging, so she carried it up to the counter along with the free pamphlets she’d picked up on their way in.

As Jeri stood at the counter, Andy came up behind her and held a book up next to her. It was a reproduction of a Peter Parley book of stories for children. He hugged the book as he smiled and stated plainly, “I want to hear the story of The Little Drummer. ‘…closed his sleepy eyes, and his prattling mouth is dumb’…”

Pushing her credit card toward the clerk, Jeri closed her eyes and tried to catch her breath, feeling the familiar lump rising in her throat and tears perched on her lower lids, ready to spill. She wanted so much not to cry in this bookstore and found herself angry that the boy standing next to her is a stranger, despite knowing him all the days of his life, since birth. Biting her lips, nearly drawing blood, she swallowed hard, hoping that when she did manage to open her mouth to change the subject that her words will be firm and clear.

Speaking almost more to the clerk behind the cash register than anyone else, Jeri spoke quickly and brightly, “Andy, look at all of these pamphlets I have! Tomorrow, I think we’re going to take a drive to see if we can scout out nearby towns. We’re going to look for our new home. Maybe find a town to call our own, near Mercer Caverns or Murphys, wouldn’t you like that?” Experience had taught her not to expect a response.

Pulling the glasses off his face and banging the book of stories on the counter, Andy turned to Jeri and whispered harshly, “No! No leaving Ezra! Alone so long, with no Mama and his Papa too busy for him. He lost Adelaide and sweet Miss Bella. Bella who cried and cried when he wouldn’t wake up after the fire! No, no, NO-NO!…”

Andy’s voice got higher and higher and louder as Jeri quickly signed the receipt. Then simultaneously grabbing the bag of books in one hand and Andy’s arm with the other, she practically pushed him out of the bookstore, trying not to let the judgmental stares and shaking heads of the other patrons affect her. Sure, she felt sorry for the disruption they’d caused, but it also disappointed her that autism had no outward sign to indicate what she was dealing with, so that people wouldn’t be so quick to judge what they thought was happening. She’d spent so much of Andy’s life absorbing the critical looks of strangers who didn’t have a clue about her son’s disability because there was no sign on his forehead to announce it; Hey! I have autism! She almost wished she’d thought to print up fliers to hand out, with a list of symptoms: You can’t catch it! But, here’s what to look out for so your day isn’t ruined by what you perceive to just be a bratty kid!

She even pictured what her imaginary flier would look like:

People with autism:
• Can be overly sensitive about everything — sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste… all the senses.
• Have unusual distress about changed routines.
• Perform repeated body movements (called “Stimming”).
• Have unusual attachments to objects.
• Have difficulty with communication like starting or maintaining conversation.
• Communicate with gestures instead of words and develop language slowly or not at all.
• Do not adjust gaze to look at objects that others are looking at.
• Repeats words or memorized passages (called “Echolalia”).
• May not respond to eye contact or smiles, or may avoid eye contact
• Shows aggression to others or self and tantrums.
And, just so you know — these are only TEN (of many) things to look out for!

Then, if people were interested after that, she would list the many other identifiers of autism and how people affected do not make friends or play interactive games; are withdrawn and may treat others as if they are objects, preferring to spend time alone, rather than with others; show a lack of empathy and disinterest; get stuck on a single topic or task (called “Perseveration”); have a short attention span and very narrow interests; and are often overactive or very passive.

Yes, a flier would be incredibly helpful in these embarrassing times. But, Jeri found there often was no window of opportunity to educate others when you only had enough time and energy to deal with the autism deck you held in your hands.

Grabbing Andy in the bear hug he sometimes despised and sometimes tolerated, they both sat down in the dirt and took a time out, heads down. She could hear the voices and footsteps of people as they passed by and obviously weren’t ashamed to wonder aloud what was going on (honestly, she hadn’t heard the phrase “What in tarnation?…” since childhood), but right now Jeri didn’t give a fig. She and Andy were both desperately in need of a Time Out and she was giving it to them, regardless of who was watching or what they were thinking. In the long run, she knew everybody would be better for it, even the strangers of the future, should she ever have the chance to actually release her boy into the wild.

Not exactly sure how much time had passed, Jeri glanced down at her watch. Since they still had plenty of time before their evening engagement, she thought that Andy might benefit from a brief nap or decompression time back at the hotel. They weren’t expected at Ruth’s house for dinner until 6pm and if she could, Jeri wanted to get Andy into a shower, (never an easy feat) before that. Looking down at her dusty jeans, she figured she could stand to freshen up, too – not that she thought Ruth would even mind. Ruth seemed like the kind of woman who actually would mean it if she said, “Come as you are.”

Wrapping her arms around Andy to both hug him and lift him up, Jeri whispered, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Her son might not be able to process language as efficiently as the average bear, but his mother was going to make sure that he heard that one phrase repeatedly in the hopes that it sunk in and maybe, just maybe, one day he’d say it back. Just once.

Heading south back along Main Street toward the Fallon Hotel, they walked pass the Pioneer Emporium, a store Jeri thought was awfully cute with its window display of toys and games, perhaps even ones to offer some distraction back in the hotel room. Sleigh bells jingled on the back of the door, which would normally have caught Andy’s attention, but instead he made a beeline straight for the collection of rubber snakes, wooden guns, yoyos and a number of replicas of children’s playthings from the 19th century. Despite all of the brightly colored balls and blocks, items that were typically of interest to him, Andy picked up a toy that, according to a nearby box, was called a Bilboquet. Jeri picked one up, too – to try and figure out how it worked and before she could even venture a guess, much less put it into action, Andy grinned like a Halloween pumpkin and immediately started to swing the wooden ball, attached to a string, to catch it on the spindled handle as though he’d played it all his life. He was enthralled and happily sat down on the floor, giggling as he tried to catch the ball over and over again, succeeding more times than Jeri really thought possible, first time out of the gate. Without disturbing him, Jeri walked up to the counter with her Bilboquet. “Excuse me, but apparently my son has completely bonded with this toy and rather than take it from him, I was hoping to pay for the one in my hand. That way, we can quietly leave with the one he’s holding, and likely not letting go of, anytime soon.”

The cashier, who was fiddling with the tie on her floorlength dark green apron, which was made even longer by the fact that the woman was less than five feet tall, turned and nodded knowingly at Jeri. “No problem. I understand completely. Love-at-first-sight with a toy is not a relationship easily severed.” She extended her arm and punched the keys on the large register above her.

Making a soft clucking sound, she then placed a bag of horehound candy on the counter in front of Jeri. “Might I also interest you in a bag of candy? It is specially made here locally, and we happen to be running a special today! Four for the price of two, two for the price of one or you’re welcome to just purchase one at half price.” She bit her index finger and giggled, shaking her head at her own crafty humor. “Oh! It’s fifty percent off, no matter what.”

Looking down at the bag, Jeri thought of how this particular candy represented the first self-expressive language she had ever heard her son use to date, having apparently asked the desk clerk at the Fallon Hotel for it when they arrived. But, at this point, Jeri had to wonder if it was even Andy who had asked? Had he been cajoled by Evil It or led by some other force? Despite the knot in her stomach, Jeri nodded. “Y-Yes, thank you. We’ll take a bag.”

Turning to look at Andy, still grinning like a Cheshire Cat and completely captivated by the Bilboquet, Jeri tried to ask herself what it was that she was so afraid of anyway. Was it that she felt she’d already lost her son long before to a world of autism, and that he might never lose those autistic traits? Or, was it that these new affectations of personality were now pulling him even farther away from her, leaving him strangely present but not present-day present? Either way, it felt as though Andy might never be a part of the world she walked in and that was what scared her. He was a boy lost to her, no matter what.

[Once-a-month, on the first Wednesday of the month – I post a new book chapter. Feel free to tell your friends!]

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