Dispatches from the Front; A series of sketches for parents of children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, their relatives, caregivers, and friends.
Read chapter 4 and click through to 3, 2 and 1 here.
By Dan Burns
“My dad is twying to get wid of me,” said Zero.
“To steal my disability check.”
Zero and I were in the car heading south on Interstate 35 for downtown Austin and the Texas State Capitol to solicit funds for the ranch. Zero sat beside me with his seat leaned back, window open, head resting between the seat and the door, wind blowing through his hair. His computer was in his lap, connected to speakers, keyboard, mouse, a rat’s nest of wires sticking out like a Phyllis Diller fright wig. He was using his computer to play his iTunes collection of love songs. Coming through the speakers, from the movie Shrek, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah
I felt a glow of empathy. Zero’s heart had been broken, like mine.
“Where were you before Hope Ranch?” I asked.
“A gwoup home.”
“Why did you leave?
“I was kicked out. For fightin’ a bully.”
“And before that?”
“Did you graduate?”
“No. My pwofessors flunked me out.”
Zero took a breath. “I’ve been in every gwoup home and juvie jail in Twain County Missouwi. I could wite a book about how to suvive in a psych wahd.”
“What’s your advice?”
“Nevah ask questions. Nevah let anyone know you’re sad. Nevah, evah let anyone know you’re angwy. They’ll dwug you.”
I felt sorry for this uprooted kid. Marooned in a time and place that did not suit him, unmentored, boiling with rage and grief.
I could relate. Fifty years ago, when I was a junior at Stillwater High School, I was eager to break out of the platted land of my Oklahoma college town and explore the mythic coastal cities of America. I snuck out the window at night and I met with my friends in secret. We drank beer, smoked cigarettes, howled with Allen Ginsberg, flouted obscenity laws with Lenny Bruce, travelled Highway 61 with Bob Dylan, and dreamed of freedom. I wished I could go back in time, rejoin the Rebel Alliance, relive the days of wine and roses. I couldn’t, of course, but maybe I could be Obi-wan Kenobi to Zero, who had no friends.
“Okay,” I said. “So you’ve been bouncing around these institutions like a pinball since what age?”
“Why so many facilities, Zero?”
“I destroy things,” he confessed.
“Stuff. Phones, doors ...”
“People?” I prompted.
He seemed to think about that. Then, earnestly, “What’s the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath?”
“Zero, you are not a sociopath or a psychopath. There’s a yin and yang in everyone. Creation and destruction. We choose our path.”
On that note, we arrived at our destination. From the visitor garage on 12th we scurried across San Jacinto toward Capitol Park, through the black iron picket gate, past the bomb sniffer dog and the Ten Commandments monument.
I asked Zero, “What do you believe?”
“Basically, nothing,” said Zero.
“Nada,” I said, thinking of the character in Hemmingway’s A Clean Well-Lighted Place. “Hail Nada, full of nothing. Nada be thy name.”
“Wight,” said Zero. “I’m a Fweethinker. There is no God. Question everything. That’s what I believe.”
We were approaching the front steps. “Look,” said Zero. He pointed to a trash bin. “What’s that?” he asked.
“A barrel,” I replied. “What does it look like to you?”
“That’s not reality, Zero.”
“There is no weality. Just thought, ideas, illusions.”
How to expose the error in this thinking? Considering metaphysics, I might have agreed with him. Parallel worlds, multiverses, vibrating strings struck by our imaginations and conjured up out of subatomic foam. Had Zero been reading Brian Greene?
It didn’t matter. These days I had a real life to live, a family to care for, a cash-strapped ranch struggling for breath. I wanted to pull Zero into my world. Until his case file arrived I could at least befriend him and try to talk some sense into his stubborn head.
I asked the key question:
“What do you want out of life?”
“To weach the top.”
“What does that mean to you, Zero?”
“Second Life. Cweate your own reality. ”
“There’s only one reality that matters, Zero, I said. “And you’re not in it.”
He grinned. “Hmmmm … Wanna hear a joke? Twue stowy.”
“A few weeks back I wasn’t sleeping well. Midnight. Knock on the window. It was the Loch Ness Monster!”
“That’s not a joke. No punch line.”
“Wait. Long stowy showt, we’re dating. And I’m still not sleeping well!”
We were at in front of the grand entrance to the Capitol. I pulled on the carved handle of the ornate door, tall as Big Tex, which opened onto the central atrium looking up through three stories to the top of the ornate dome. Two uniformed guards were stationed by the scanner, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, pressed at the seams. “The eyes of Texas,” I said.
Zero smiled. “I like meeting new people.”
“Walk through,” said Roy.
I’d already emptied my pockets into the grey plastic tray – wallet, driver’s license, pen, keys, cell phone – while Zero strode through the scanner ahead of me. It blasted. He dug into his pocket and handed the guard a brown pocket knife with “Be Prepared” stamped on the side.
“Texas ID?” asked Roy.
“He doesn’t have one,” I said. “He just came down from Missouri.”
“Step aside, please,” said Roy.
“Wait,” Zero signaled to me. He whispered something to Dale. She laughed. I picked my cell phone up out of the scanner tray and got busy with my email while he chatted up the guards. This kid had been president of his Salesmanship Club in high school, but could he talk his way through a security checkpoint? Yes. Soon Roy and Dale were laughing and joking with him, shooting sideways glances at me.
“Go ahead,” said Roy, returning to his checkpoint, smiling. “Your son can pick up his knife on the way out.”
I looked around the rotunda, searching for a building directory. Didn’t see one.
“We’re looking for a representative’s office.”
I pulled card out of my billfold. It read Representative Elliott Naishtat, District 49.
“Nash-tat?” I asked. “Room GW sixteen.”
“Turn left and take the elevator down one floor,” said Roy.
By the time I put away the card, long-legged Zero was striding ahead of me. He reached the elevator first and hit the “up” call button. When the door opened I beat him to the floor selection panel and pushed the “GW” for the ground floor.
“Why did you want to go up, Zero?”
“To see how high I can go.”
I thought about Zero’s goal: to get to the top. “Tell me about Second Life,” I probed.
“It’s a virtual world.”
“Oh, a computer game.”
“It’s not a game. It’s wheah I live at night.”
The elevator door opened onto the ground floor, which was in fact underground. We walked west down the musty-smelling dark-paneled hallway toward Room GW16, continuing our conversation.
“What do you do in your night world?”
“I design islands. And spawns.
“What are spawns?”
“People like you.”
“What do you do with your islands?
“I lease them to avatars.”
“Why would an avatar want to lease an island?”
“Mmmm … spawnkilling.”
I felt a chill. Was I nightly prey, killed for sport in a virtual world?
At GW16, the receptionist, Ms. Nancy Walker, greeted us. She was cleaning out the office, putting things in boxes.
“We’re looking for Elliott Nash …”
“He’s not here.”
“When will he be back?
“Oh he won’t be. He’s retiring.”
Naishtat was our link to funding for a model ranch for ASD teens and adults. The pilot project, launched under a former governor, was on hold after the Texas legislature had declined to fund it. But with a tidal wave of ASD kids aging out of Texas high schools and pouring onto the streets, homeless, jobless, no place to go, I felt the funding initiative could be revived. Representative Naishtat had been one of the visionary sponsors. Now, he was a goner.
“Governor Perry will miss him,” I ventured.
“I don’t think so,” replied Ms. Walker. “Mr. Perry threw us under the bus. Do you know Elliott?”
“I met him at an Ann Richards reception.”
“She was the last real governor.”
Ms. Walker resumed her packing. I turned to leave. Zero was already out the brass-handled door.