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 5 and click through to 4,3,2 and 1 here. Stay tuned for a final post that has the entire series. We hope you've enjoyed Dispatches From the Front.
By Dan Burns
I caught up with Zero on the Capitol building steps in Austin 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 to be there?”
I snapped the photo. It showed a tall awkward kid; knock kneed, head too small for his shoulders, with a goofy look on his face, clowning like a youngster.
“It doesn’t look like you.”
“I can change my bone structure to look like I’m fourteen.”
“How do you do that?”
While we walked down the steps and strolled toward downtown, Zero shared his secret: using a Tai Chi energy ball to reconfigure his facial features. He rubbed his hands together as if to warm them, then pulled them gently apart, expanding the energy connection.
“Try it. Feel it?”
I sensed something like a magnetic force or an invisible ball of warm cotton 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. “That’s your Atman.”
Interesting but it wouldn’t pay the mortgage. The ranch needed funds, and Zero needed work. His job search was not going well. He’d put in a few on line applications in the outer shopping malls– night shelf stocker at Sam’s Club, desk clerk at Embassy Suites – 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 seeking to become your authentic self, and if you are anywhere near Texas, you will likely bring your dreams to Austin. It is the city of perpetual youth, fueled by live music, hormones, and hope. A good place for Zero and his Atman theory.
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 sheltered homeless GLBT kids. Fundamentalist father, gay son banished. Same story.
We turned left of Brazos Street, walking north past the old-world Firehouse Lounge, the city’s oldest 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.”
I was shocked. Wondered if I’d heard him right.
“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 the proposition stuck in my mind. Zero had clearly signaled that he was available. I filed that away in a dark corner of 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 behind a garden patio 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, long past due. 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. The boy’s hand freezes. I stop playing. The door closes quietly. An adolescent voice whispers in my ear, “Finish it. Finish it. Finish it.”