By Dan Burns
For my son Ben
1987 – Present
In Dispatches from the Front, I tell my story of Hope Ranch, with all its challenges, disappointments, and sometimes unexpected and gracious results. I hope to inspire the creation of well-organized intentional communities where our injured children can thrive, heal, and give back to society. To that end, I am grateful to the editors of Age of Autism for this opportunity to share my experience with you, the reader. Please comment on the chapters as together we discuss and share the questions to be asked and the lessons to be learned. I hope you enjoy reading about my friends!
The characters in Dispatches are inspired by real people. To protect their privacy, I‘ve given them nicknames. For dramatic purposes I have embellished scenes, created composite scenes, and invented dialogue. While the narrative is not factual in the most scrupulous sense, at its heart, the story is true.
Chapter 1 The Revolution
Ben is my beloved son. Expressions play across his face like light reflected from rippling water. He says up, go, yes, but never no. He likes green apples and almond butter. Craves wheat, cheese, and sugar. Trained for a career in food service, but fired from Cici’s Pizza for grazing at work. Feeds himself with his fingers when he can get away with it. Breaks out laughing at odd times. Hits himself in the nose when angry. Sticks his fingers in ears for God knows why. Strips off his clothes. Hikes and bikes state park trails. Can out-sprint me. Vaccine injury. Autism.
In the spring of 2010 Ben and I walked down the steps toward the deck of Mozart’s Coffee Roasters, overlooking Lake Austin, on task for Autism File magazine to interview a dangerous man. A British doctor, gastroenterologist, writer, film maker. Discredited; struck off the medical register, a notorious menace to public health. A fraud, it was claimed by the mainstream media, who must be silenced.
Ben took in the scene with deep, intense eyes that flashed around the deck, looking for food. What he saw: blue-jeaned young professionals, Earth mommas, and backpack-toting graduate students who sipped cappuccinos, surfed the internet, writing or chatting, grazing on fresh bakeries, carrot cake. Birds and squirrels sparred for scraps.
“Go,” said Ben. He hopped toward a picnic table under a knurled live oak. A sign on the trunk said “Keep Austin Wired.” A squirrel leapt from the oak tree and perched near a distinguished older patron. The man was hunched over his computer, head down, eating a blueberry muffin.
“Are you …?”
Ben lunged for the muffin. The writer choked, put it down, and lifted his head. Beard. Could have been Hemingway.
Still choking, “No.”
The squirrel pounced for the undefended goody, but Ben’s hand was faster, muffin to mouth. I grabbed his shirt, pulled him to me, flashed the “no” sign, and clawed the crushed mess out of his hand.
“He can have it,” said Hemingway.
“Makes him crazy. Gluten, sugar.”
“You need to put a leash on that kid.”
I felt a flash of anger. “I hear that a lot.” I tossed the gutted muffin to the squirrel.
Ben pounded himself on the nose. “Uhhhhh.”
I spun him around toward me and made eye contact, face to face. “What do we do when we get mad?”
Reading my lips, Ben whispered. “Don’t. Give. Up.”
Ben and I had come a long way. I remembered an incident from age two. He was running from wall to couch in the doctor’s waiting room, flinging himself on the cushions and laughing, twisting as if immersed in a tank of piranhas, upshifting from giggle to scream. I grabbed him, made eye contact, distracted him for a few seconds, but the receptionist wanted a form filled out. Perhaps she did not understand that if I took my eyes off this child long enough to write my name he would have his arm in the piranha tank. I picked up a pen. He darted to the bookcase. The other patients pretended we weren’t there, but they were not fooling me. No one can fail to notice a child who is screaming and tearing the pages out of a Dr. Seuss book. I locked my hands on Ben’s forearms and crossed them over his chest. He was biting me. The receptionist asked me if my contact information had changed. Yes, my name, telephone number, and email address are exactly the same as they have been for years. But I no longer live on this planet.
The doctor is forty-five minutes late.
“Mr. Burns?” the nurse says, holding the hall door open. Now she is going to try to weigh my son. It’s futile. Why doesn’t she get this? Ben screams, hits, grabs. “He weighs the same as last month,” I announce. How much that was is anybody’s guess. What difference does it make? Dr. Stansen will prescribe another round of pink, bubble-gum flavored Amoxicillin. I will need to double the prescribed amount because Ben will spit out half of it. But Dr. Stansen will keep prescribing antibiotics and I will keep experimenting with novel methods of inducing Ben to swallow them – did I mention the turkey baster? – because no one has a better idea.
The nurse locks us in the examining room, our padded cell, and I hunker down while Ben destroys the systems. He tears paper off the examining table, bangs the doctor's chair against the wall, turns the water on and splashes it out of the sink, stuffs a handful of disposable ear inspection cones in his mouth and spits them out. The nurse brings in some paperwork.
“The doctor must be very busy,” I observe.
“She had an emergency.”
This is an emergency, I think. “Perhaps we could come back some time that is more convenient for her,” I suggest.
The nurse looks alarmed. “She’ll be here any minute.”
“Yes, but Ben and I won’t.”
“Dear Dr. Stansen,” began the letter I would never send. “I understand you had an emergency. So did I. Can you imagine what I had to go through to get Ben to your office? Getting him out of the car and maneuvering through the parking garage, a kid who twists out of your grip, your hand on his collar but he still slips away, determined to fling himself over the second floor guard rail or lose himself in the labyrinth of the stairwell, who runs toward the street, who opens the nearest car door and honks the horn? Then the terror of the elevator ride, the bad elevator, the one that takes him to the doctor. Can you understand this, you and your nurse with her dangerous thermometer that he will bite and break, your impotent chart, your insurmountable scales? With preparation, I can keep Ben quiet two, maybe three minutes. Those minutes were spent long before you arrived.”
Suddenly Ben was quiet, looking at me. Why? Because I had grabbed him by the collar. I fled through the open the door of our cell and down the hall toward the emergency exit, dragging my petrified child with me. The exit was locked.
Where will I go? Who can help us?
I sat on the cold hall floor with my terrified son, weeping.
I was drawn from my memory by a voice behind me, British accent. “Dan?” I turned around to face a gentleman in a blue sports jacket, a collarless polo shirt, and jeans. Backpack on the table top beside him. Younger than I expected, he could have been taken for a post-doc student.
“Will you and your son join me?”
“Call me Andy.”
“This is Ben.”
“How old is he?”
“Twenty three. Diagnosed at age four, on my birthday.
“Looks like he’s doing well.”
“He’s a wonderful son. I wrote a book: Saving Ben. I plan to follow up with Saving Dad.”
“Yes. Parents are casualties of this epidemic too, battling for their children.”
“And you’re carrying the battle flag for us. Shall we get started?”
“Go,” said Andy.
Ben sprang up. I grabbed him by the shirt, signed “sit,” turned on my iPhone recorder and asked, “What brought you here from England?”
“One, as your Autism File readers know, I lost my license to practice medicine, my reputation, and my job.”
“Revolutions are more likely to succeed in America.”
Well, the British should know, I thought.
Andy continued. “The medical systems in the UK and the US are broken. Vaccination has reduced communicable diseases, but one in four children is neurologically or immunologically damaged. Allergies. Autoimmune disorders. ADHD. Autism is the tip of the iceberg. We’ve seen prevalence go from one in ten thousand twenty years ago to epidemic proportions today. Within five years it may well double. By then, we’ll see thousands of teens and young adults, many like your son, graduating high school and pouring into the streets, the emergency rooms, the jails. We are totally unprepared to care for this population.”
I was taking notes. “And the revolution?”
“The first challenge is to end the epidemic. And we must care for our injured children, and give these young adults jobs and a safe place to live … a village where they can thrive, heal, and give back to society.”
“By telling our stories.”
“He’s gone.” Ben. I was on my feet. Andy scrimmaged to the street exit. I headed for the boat dock and yelled an audible: “Lower deck.” At the coffee shop door I nearly bumped into Ben, eating a muffin, bewildered by the fuss. I wrapped my hand wrapped around his wrist and dragged him back to the picnic table.
“Write,” said Andy. “Tell your story. Let’s end the epidemic. Then build a village.”
“I’m just a mild-mannered professor.”
Dr. Andrew J. Wakefield settled back in his chair. “So was I.”
Chapter 2 After the School Bus
I shoulder-pushed my way through the ranch house door, loaded with gear, computer cord dangling, and lurched into my new life. Fundraiser for Hope Ranch.
I’d organized a parent task force to conjure up Andy Wakefield’s grand vision. The idea was to create an archipelago of sheltered communities that would be self-originating and self-sustaining, villages where our kids could safely live, work, play, and mend.
Angela took on the project and branded the first village Hope Ranch.
“Is the TV crew here?” I asked. News 8 Austin.
“Not yet.” Angela from the kitchen.
I dumped my gear on a card table and grabbed the computer cord. No wall socket. “Help!”
Zero dropped his iPhone and sprang up from the couch. Tall and skinny; stork legs, hawk eyes, a flying Valkyrie. Able to karate-kick a door in half, rip a telephone off the wall. “A furry creature,” he wrote of himself on Facebook, “dragon, wolf, cat person, and rarely but sometimes a human.”
Zero grabbed the plug and alligatored under the table. The computer whirred and died. Damn!
Knock at the front door. It was the New 8 reporter, video camera in hand.
“Where’s the crew?” I asked.
“Just me,” said the reporter. “I shoot, edit, and file.”
“Ok. Let’s take the tour.”
I opened the back door and drew a deep breath of the cedar-scented air. To me, Hope Ranch was a magical place. The mountain cedars and live oaks of the Balcones Canyonlands spilled down to our doorstep. What the camera saw: a brown dry empty field, wasteland enclosed by scrub brush, dotted with fire ant mounds and littered with horse dung. What I saw: an oasis, a shining village on a hill.
Beyond the ranch: shopping centers, universities, Dell Computer headquarters. Jobs for our kids.
Beneath the ranch, the Edwards Aquifer, an underground river, tangible as a heartbeat, the rush of blood.
“So what will you do with all this land?” asked the reporter.
“The gift shop goes in the northeast corner,” I said. “Over there, the restaurant, hotel, and clinic.”
“Let’s meet the kids."
Behind the ranch house, where the chicken yard met the woods, Ben basted a two-by-four with brown stain. Sue, his mom, guided his brush up and down the edge, hand over hand. “Get this spot,” she said. Ben stomped his feet and bit his tongue.
“Picnic table kits,” I explained. “Brookwood Community started around a picnic table in the founder’s back yard. So we chose this project for good luck.”
“Cool,” said the reporter.
Van Go, our resident artist, balanced a paint brush on his leg and blew on his blue-gloved fingers.
Behind us, Hamster and his shadow, their boards stained and their task completed, bumped fists. “The deed is done,” said Hamster.
Sue cat-herded the campers to ring two, the horse wash. Tethered to a shade tree between the corral and the horse barn stood a blue-bridled Shetland. Goat Boy filled an orange bucket with soapy water. Ben dipped his brush, carried it dripping over to the hapless pony, dabbed it on his back, and walked away.
“Come back, Ben,” yelled Sue, “you’re doing a good job.” He shrugged and kept walking. “Wash it, Van Go. Wash the donkey.” He stroked the animal carefully with his brush, as if he were painting it, then shook his head, raised his neck, and brayed.
“Why the animals?” the reporter asked. It was a good question, one I’d wondered about myself. “Caring for the horses, goats, and chickens models a community,” I ventured, as if I knew what I was talking about.
Hamster, our drama major, hypersensitive to smells, walked past us, shirt pulled up over nose, carrying a horse patty on a stick. “Such senseless stink will suffocate,” he said, quoting Shakespeare as usual.
“It’s fertilizer, Hamster. Chuck it over there.”
Behind the ranch house, ring three, the vegetable patch. Goat Boy, Van Go, and Hamster attacked the muddy earth with spade and shovel. Clods flew.
“See, this is a weed,” Sue called out. “If you see a weed like this, throw it into the wheelbarrow.”
“Plans?” asked Channel 8.
“We’ll add an aquaculture pond,” I said. “This little garden will stretch half an acre back to the edge of the property.”
The reporter finished the shot and turned off his camera. “What’s next?”
“Let’s talk to Annie’s parents. Today’s her birthday.” I herded him toward the BBQ pit and Annie’s dad.
Annie ate like a horse. Breakfast at 8:30; fridge leftovers at 9:30. Then she’d make herself breakfast again. Agitated, she lumbered through the living room on her way to the kitchen and back, trumpeting like an elephant, necklaces flying around her, looking for all the world like Raggedy Ann.
Behind the trumpeting and roaring were the face of a sweet Catholic girl and the voice of an angel. She played the keyboard and sang Ave Maria to melt your heart.
“Since she came here,” bragged the dad, “she’s a new person. “Focused, patient, happier. Loves the animals. Making money with her jewelry. And she has a job! The changes we’ve seen are literally beyond our wildest dreams.”
There was more to see, but the reporter was on deadline. “Six o’clock news comin’ up.” He left.
We were on our own.
Chapter 3 You Wanna Kiss the Girl
Angela pulled me aside, concerned. We were by the outdoor grill at Hope Ranch. “Zero woke me up this morning, hungry,” she said, “jumping up and down on my bed like a child.”
“We didn’t get a file on this kid,” I said. “Why is he here?”
“Because his dad brought him, special delivery. Harland – that’s the dad – asked to see the camp director. I am the camp director. He asked me if I’d met the Lord. I said no. Then he asked me if we had an alpha male here at the camp.”
“Someone who wouldn’t spare the rod?”
“I guess. I had to bite my tongue. If we didn’t need the money … Look. I don’t think the boy’s autistic. Just a sweet, mixed-up kid. The dad’s the one who needs a drubbing.”
“We need a medical and psychiatric history on Zero.”
“Go for it.”
I walked to the BBQ pit to meet Dr. Harland Stoker, Ph.D., Department of Agriculture at Missouri University. Colonel Sanders in a straw cowboy hat.
“I’m Dan, fund raiser, chaos coordinator and kid wrangler.”
“I’m Harland. You in charge here?”
“About as in charge as I’m gonna get,” I replied. “Your son’s a bright kid.”
“Sharp as a tack.”
“What’s his disability?”
“Doesn’t have one.”
“So why is he here?”
“To get a job, like your ad said.”
“Can he work?”
“He worked for me. Agronomy. Rice harvest. Best hand I ever had. Quit to go to missionary school. Quit that, too.”
“He has an autism diagnosis?”
“Yep. And half a dozen others. He’s figured out how to behave in such a way that the government’ll take care of him.”
“Is he violent? Has he ever harmed anyone?”
“No,” answered Harland. “Been in a fight, though. Tried to take a baseball bat away from a bully who was attacking a little kid. No good deed goes unpunished. ”
Zero called from the horse barn. “Dad!”
Harland barked back to him, “I’m having an adult conversation.” To me: “Talk your ear off, that kid. Re-incarnation, energy fields.”
“What about his mom?” I asked.
“She passed the pearly gates, and none too soon. I’m gettin’ married again tomorrow.”
“We’ll take him for a month trial,” I said. “Beyond that we’re going to need a clinical history.”
“I’ll send his file,” said Harland.
“I’ll pray for you and your son,” I offered.
“And I’ll pray for you,” said Harland. “If he can’t make it here, just cart him to the homeless shelter and drop him off.”
That night I took our gang out to dinner. I whipped my red Honda CRV, loaded with kids, out of the Hope Ranch driveway, spewing gravel, punched into the traffic stream, and careened west on Farm to Market 1431, bound for the Texas Roadhouse.
“We’re gonna die!” screamed Zero, pulling his cap over his mullet. He was riding shotgun, navigating with my iPhone. Behind him, in the back seat: Annie, loaded with necklaces; Ben, my 25-year-old son, fingers jammed in his ears; Goat boy, a pumpkin-headed shaggy blond wheelbarrow of a kid, angling for an apprenticeship at the veterinary clinic. In the cargo seat, in heavy rimmed dark glasses and entranced in an iPad paint program, eighteen-year-old Van Go, doodling dinosaurs. And Hamster, who speaks in iambic pentameter and fancies himself Shakespeare.
I switched on the CD player: All You Need Is Love.
“I don’t agree with that song,” said Goat Boy.
“What else do you need?” I asked.
“Hey, li’l critter,” screeched Annie, picking up on the animal theme. “I want you to spell mouse. M-O-U-S. But what's on the end? A tail! Hey, hey, hey …”
Zero opened the vanity mirror, pulled a strand of curly black hair from under his cap and arranged it over his right ear. “Would I look betta with a boy or a gull?” he asked. Everyone ignored him. I pulled up to the stoplight at Bull Run Road. “Which way, Zero,” I asked. “Right?”
“Your wight or my wight?”
“They’re the same.”
The light turned green. I screeched right.
“Look on the bwight side,” said Zero. “At least there’s something to wowwy about.”
We possied through saloon doors into the Roadhouse: wood plank walls, mirrored beer posters, back-lit rainbow bar, peanuts spilling out of tin buckets, and took our seats around a table. Annie stomped to the country western band. Zero watched the line dancers: two servers – college-age kids – clapping hands, slapping thighs. The cowboy, a beardless youth, T-shirt cut to reveal his underarms, tight jeans, boots. The cowgirl, long flowing hair, green vest, thumbs hooked in her blue jean pockets, shaking her breasts. I felt renewed, relaxed.
The cowboy strutted to our table, waiter pad in hand. “Howdy ‘pokes. What’ll ya have?”
Zero: “I’ll take the gull.”
“She’s not on the menu.”
“A Gween Wussian then,” said Zero.
“Got an I.D?”
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” said Zero, displaying his knack for sexual innuendo.
I was proud of the kids that night. That they did not act like inmates let loose from the asylum; that they took turns ordering; that Ben did not grab the bottle of ketchup and gulp it down like soda pop or put peanuts in his ear; that Van Go did not insist on a McDonald’s hamburger and fries; that Annie did not scream or stomp or fidget or scratch her bird’s nest of a hairdo with both hands. That no one threw peanuts, or removed his or her clothing. And that the green-vested waitress bringing the desert cart, Natalia, seemed amused.
Zero handed her a napkin with his phone number scribbled on it. “Call me,” he said. “I like meeting new people.”
“Yeah,” she said, winking at me. “You make a great first impression.”
Annie sang a tune from Disney’s The Little Mermaid:
“Sha-la-la-la-la-la/Don't stop now/ Don't try to hide it how/You wanna kiss the girl!”
The waitress, Natalia, bent toward her. “Are you Annie?”
Natalia: “I have a surprise for you.”
She took the top off the food flamer, revealing a birthday cake, and set the candles blazing. Ben leaned over to blow them out but I restrained him.
“What’s your wish?” I asked.
Annie, smiling through tears: “Friends.”
I raised my iced tea glass, toasting. “To friends.”
Annie: “You’re my hero, Dr. Burns.”
I put one arm around her and one arm around Ben. “Happy birthday, Annie. Happy birthday, Hope Ranch. We’re going to live …”
She blew out the candles and finished the sentence.
“ … Happily ever after!”
Chapter 4 Zero’s Path
Angela had a job lined up for Zero: a cell phone repair technician at a mom and pop shop. “I can do anything with a cell phone,” bragged Zero.
The day before his interview, the ranch was short staffed, so I drove down from Dallas and took the night shift. Zero walked passed my work station, barefoot, pajama clad, on his way to the Hope Ranch fridge.
“Tonight’s the night,” he said.
“I’m gonna kill myself.”
I looked up from the computer. His first suicide attempt, he’d told me, was at age eleven, overdose in the psych ward. “It was the only way I could make them stop giving me dwugs.”
He opened the fridge and loaded his bowl with leftovers. Barbecue chicken and french fries.
“How, Zero? Rope, knife, pills?”
“I’m gonna slow down my hawt until it stops.”
That made sense, in a Zero kind of way. He claimed he could raise and lower his body temperature by focusing his energy. Same for astral projection and remembering former lives. And time travel. He claimed them all.
But Zero was an insatiable attention seeker. Tough love needed. I called his bluff.
“Have a good trip. Get some rest. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Zero, walking off, “I’m not comin’ back.”
I could have called the state mental hospital, Shoal Creek. Or I could have said, “Leave your feet sticking out the end of the bed. Tomorrow morning I’ll tickle your toes. If they don’t twitch, I’ll call 911 and have ‘em dump your body in the creek.”
Instead I said, “Close the fridge.”
“Nobody believes me.”
He stomped off toward the bedroom, carrying his dinner bowl. “Tell my dad I wanna kill him.”
“Don’t make a mess,” I called out. “We’ve got another camper waiting for your bed.”
Next morning Zero was up and dressed early, cheery as I’d ever seen him, shirt fresh, blue jeans pressed. I punched the cell phone repair shop address into my iPhone GPS and spewed gravel down the driveway toward Whitestone Boulevard, Zero navigating, my phone in his hand.
“Go left,” he said.
I’d been there, knew the route. I turned right.
“Wong way,” he said.
“You’re holding it upside down.”
“I was testing you,” said Zero, grinning.
On to our destination: a strip mall near a convenience store.
Trash, water, and pop cans littered the cracked asphalt parking lot, power poles leaning this way and that, a vandalized newspaper stand with the local rag, “Green Sheets,” spilling out. Here, a broken glass window repaired with plywood. In red letters over the door: “Cell Phone Repair.”
It wasn’t a Dell Computer campus, but it was a start.
“Stay heah,” said Zero. “I don’t need help.”
“Good,” I said. I gave him the owner’s business card. “Go get it.”
Risky? Nope. I’d already met the shop owner. Zero was as good as hired. “I’ll wait next door,” I said.
I ducked inside the Stop ‘N’ Go. Hot dogs rotated on a spit. I thought about the botched convenience store robbery in Zero’s favorite show.
In Smallville, teenager Clark Kent is marooned on a farm in Kansas, stranger in a strange land: a fantasy world of heroes and villains, girlfriends and boyfriends, love and betrayal, high school angst, family secrets, and a mysterious destiny waiting to be discovered. On the way to saving Earth from a meteor, Clark robbed a filling station, grabbed a hot dog, and then politely paid the store owner with the stolen cash.
Who writes these things? Someone like Zero.
I bought him a Sprite, his favorite drink, to celebrate. I walked back out into the parking lot my Starbucks Cold Brew coffee in hand, expecting to sit in the car until he’d finished his interview and sealed the deal.
But Zero was waiting. Not good.
“Did you get the job?”
“There’s a two week twaining pewiod, no pay.”
“You’d be learning a trade for free.”
“I’ll be home in two weeks. My dad’s comin’ to pick me up.”
Looking back, I wish I’d said, “Zero, Smallville is over. Austin is your new home. We’re your family now.”
But I didn’t. I held onto the hope that this abandoned child would set his feet on the path that I had chosen for him. He’d get a job, buy an old truck, settle down with a partner and live happily ever after.
But no one had consulted Zero. I turned right, but he turned left.
What future did he see for himself?
It was time for us to have a good long talk.
Chapter 5 Question Everything
“My dad is twying to get wid of me,” said Zero.
“To steal my disability check.”
We were in the car heading for the Texas State Capitol to lobby for funds. Zero sat beside me, seat back, window open, wind in his hair, computer in his lap, a rat’s nest of wires like a Phyllis Diller fright wig. Through the speakers, 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.”
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 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. We choose our path.”
On that note, we arrived at our destination. From the visitor garage 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?”
“A barrel,” I replied. “What does it look like to you?”
“That’s not reality, Zero.”
“There is no weality. Just thought, ideas, illusions.”
Had Zero been reading Brian Greene? Parallel worlds, multiverses, vibrating strings struck by our imaginations and conjured up out of subatomic foam.
To me it didn’t matter. 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.
“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?” “Okay.”
“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. 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. Two uniformed guards were stationed by the scanner, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
“Walk through,” said Roy.
I’d already emptied my pockets into the grey plastic tray. 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. 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. “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. Representative Elliott Naishtat, District 49.
“Turn left and take the elevator down one floor,” said Roy.
Long-legged Zero was striding ahead of me. He reached the elevator first and hit the “up” call button. I beat him to the floor selection panel and pushed “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. We walked west down the musty-smelling dark-paneled hallway. “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. The pilot project, launched under a former governor, was on hold. But with a tidal wave of kids with autism pouring onto the streets, homeless, jobless, no place to go, I felt the funding initiative could be revived. Now, Naishtat 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?”
“Yes.” I turned to leave. Zero was already out the brass-handled door.
Chapter 6 Keep Austin Weird
I caught up with Zero on the Capitol building steps looking south toward Congress Avenue. I asked him to pose for a picture and got out my iPhone.
“Knock knock,” he said.
“Mmmm …” said Zero. “Who do you want?”
I snapped the photo. It showed a tall awkward young teen, knock kneed, head too small for his shoulders, with a goofy look on his face.
“It doesn’t look like you.”
“I can change shape.”
“How do you do that?”
While we walked down the steps and strolled toward downtown, Zero shared his secret. He rubbed his hands together then pulled them apart slowly, palms curved, as if holding an expanding balloon.
“Try it. Feel it?”
I sensed something like a light warm ball between my palms.
“Now thwo the ball to your left hand, then back to your right.”
It felt like rocking a slinky back and forth.
“Bwing your hands up beside your head, but don’t touch.”
I felt warmth in my head.
“Enowgy,” said Zero. He took my picture and showed it to me.
“I look like that?” I asked.
“Mmmm … not weally,” said Zero. “The camwa sees your Psi.”
Interesting but it wouldn’t pay the mortgage. The ranch needed funds, and Zero needed work. He’d put in a few on line applications – night shelf stocker at Sam’s Club, clerk at PetSmart – but there were no call backs. “Zero, you’ve got to follow up,” I’d advised him “Go there in person and apply.” “I pweach followup!” he’d exclaimed, but his heart wasn’t in it. Who could blame him? I thought of the bland suburban superstores of Cedar Park. Not exciting. Austin was a different story.
“Now I’ll show you something,” I said.
The North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Un had released a propaganda photo tracing the line of a missile path from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to Austin. Why, of all the targets in the world, would this small river city that calls itself a town rise to the top of a despot’s must-destroy list?
My guess: Freedom.
If you are an aspiring musician, artist, writer, filmmaker, or techno-entrepreneur, and if you are anywhere near Texas, you will likely bring your dreams to Austin. The city of perpetual youth, fueled by live music, hormones, and hope. A good place for Zero and his metaphysical illusions.
We walked down Congress Avenue then turned left on 6th street toward the entertainment district. A young woman approached us in front of the landmark Driskell Hotel, soliciting funds for Time Out, an LGBT Youth Organization benefitting homeless gay kids. I fished out two dollars out of my billfold and dropped it in her can. Zero spotted a five dollar bill in my wallet. “Give her the five,” he said. I did. We walked on.
“I wish I was homeless,” said Zero.
“I’d be fwee.”
“Ever been homeless?”
“Ummm … sort of. When my dad found out I’m bi he kicked me out.”
So Zero was coming out to me. I wasn’t surprised. Angela and I suspected that family dynamics were at the root of his problems. My church, Cathedral of Hope, sheltered homeless GLBT youth. Fundamentalist father, gay son banished. Street kids. Sad old story.
We turned left of Brazos Street past the Firehouse Lounge, the city’s historic fire station, now a bar and youth hostel.
“Knock knock, said Zero.
“We already did that,” I said. I was tired of his juvenile prattle.
“I know something we haven’t done,” said Zero.
“We haven’t dated.”
“Did you date staff at the group homes in Missouri?”
“Ummm … it’s complicated.”
“I don’t date campers,” I said. His proposition was, to use the staff term, “inappropriate.” Shocking. Preposterous.
Zero saw that he had gone too far and backed off. “I nevah dated an old guy like you.”
Mutual rejection. Now we were even. But Zero had clearly signaled that he was available. I filed that away in a dark corner or my mind. A very dark corner.
We turned left on 8th Street, past the State Paramount Theater playing “The Dark Knight Rises,” then north on Congress Avenue, sweating. We stopped for soft drinks at the Hickory Street Bar and Grill, a cool cozy half-basement tucked into a hill one block south of the Capitol. Zero made himself a large suicide soda, a combination of all the soft drinks in the machine. Braving the rising heat, which was approaching body temperature, we took our drinks to the patio and watched the tourists.
“Well,” I asked Zero, “What do you think of our fair city?”
“Where can I buy an AK-47?” he asked. He was grinning, conspiratorial. Was he joking? I flashed on the Aurora, Arizona, movie theater massacre just weeks before.
“Zero,” I asked, “why were you institutionalized at age five?”
He replied, sadly, “Nobody can wemember.”
When I got back to Dallas I sent an email to Angela: “I spent the morning with Zero. He’s in and out of reality and boiling with suppressed rage. We still have not received his case file. If he stays unconditionally, I fear that Hope Ranch is in for a rough ride. Your thoughts?”
She replied, “We are still not completely breaking even each month and I am making up the difference. The awkward truth is that can we cannot afford to lose Zero.”
That night I dream of fingers on the piano keys and I hear the slow heartbeat of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. On top of the old upright piano, a poster of Che Guevara and a human skull. A boy’s hand appears on the back of the pianist’s neck, my neck. I feel someone stroking my left earlobe. Before the final, somber Moonlight chord, a door opens, my bedroom door. I stop playing. The boy’s hand freezes. The door closes quietly. An adolescent voice whispers in my ear, “Finish it. Finish it. Finish it.”
Dan E. Burns, Ph.D., is the father of a 29-year-old son on the autism spectrum and the author of Saving Ben: A Father’s Story of Autism. Dr. Burns is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism and serves on the Executive Leadership Team of Health Choice, advocating for vaccine-injured children and their parents. As a writer, Dan inspires parents to organize businesses and communities where their adult children on the autism spectrum can live, work, play, and heal. As proprietor of Appleseed Ventures, he is developing and marketing the Fountain of Life, a small indoor aquaponic system for teaching ecology and growing herbs.