This is how the end of the world began.
It was April, 1981. It was the warmest spring Celia could remember. As early as March, there were nights when the clunky, antiquated gas furnace didnít kick on at all. This was unheard of, summer arriving ahead of itself. And it was a tremendous gift, not just because of what it saved the home in heating expense, but because it allowed the children time away from the common room, the dreary makeshift playroom/classroom in which they were forced to spend so much of their lives.
How much better it was, Celia thought, for them to spend their days outside. In the back yard there was a sandbox to dig in, a jungle gym to climb on, cool grass to lie in. There were swings to swing on. Overhead, the sky served as a canvas for clouds which the children could study, could shape into whatever designs their imaginations (which might be as strong as or even stronger than the imaginations of any other children) would allow. In the distance, far beyond the splintery brown backyard fence, were the mountainsóblue-green with stripes of sand and rust in front, and silver-gray snowcapped behind. They could be glimpsed by a boy poised triumphantly, if never completely securely, atop the jungle gym, or a girl at the forward or backward summit of a perfect arch, legs outstretched, the yellow molded plastic seat of the swing pulling the delicate loops of the chains taut for an instant, and then giving way for the downward swoop.
Let the children be outside, Celia thought, for as many long, lazy afternoons as a summer chose to yield. Outside, where the hopes that she bore for them, that they might somehow bloom and flourish like the daffodils shooting up along the edge of the tool shed, seemed more substantial. Outside, where the shrill chirps of the birds, the chattering of the squirrels, the life, tactile and audibleóits odor sweet or pungent or acrid, but undeniably thereóinsisted on itself, insisted that that which lives can change, can grow.
It was Celiaís first official year running the home. She had worked and lived there for nearly 15 years, and she knew every creaking floor board and every dripping pipe. The house stood at the edge of town. It was white, or at least that was the intention behind its most recent painting, which had been done during her first year there. Time and the elements had worn the exterior to a faded, comfortable gray, which was beginning to crack, and would have to be looked to before long.
It was a cloudy morning, the day the boy arrived, and it seemed unlikely the children would be spending any time outside. There had been rain before sunrise, with the threat of more to come. Celiaís office was on the first floor, on the opposite side of the common room from the kitchen. She sat there at her desk, talking with the boyís parents, listening to the fatherís belabored explanation of why he and his wife, and, more to the point, their son, were there.
"This isnít easy for us, Miss Crawford" he said. "We never planned on it. If I could have kept my job here, maybe we wouldnít need to come and see you. But I have to take this new job, like I said, on the oil rig. Iíll be gone for six months. And my wife, she canít do it any more, not on her own. Sheís not been doing well. Weíre giving up our own place. Sheís going back to live with her folks, and thereís just no room there. And weíve got no more money."
They looked old, these two: old to be parents of a son of seven, anyway. The man appeared to be in his late forties; he was thin but broad-shouldered, with large, callused hands and a face deeply lined by the sun, and by worry. The woman was not much younger; she was pale and slight of build. It was easy to believe that she had not been well. She looked furtively around the room, seeming to listen not to her husband, but to the sounds of children playing in the common room. Their son sat between them. He had his fatherís thick black hair, cut short, and his motherís brown eyes, though more vivid and alert than hers. He sat perfectly still, unnaturally still for a boy his age, and stared at a point on the wall just above Celiaís right shoulder. This was not a vacant stare, howeverónot a dreamy "looking off into space" kind of stare. There was intensity to it. The boy was looking at something, something that was real to him. His face bore the burden of a prolonged focused mental effort, and the weariness that had resulted from it. It was a look that belonged to a much older face.
"And heíll be better off, wonít he?" the mother said, distractedly. She shot her husband a nervous glance, looking as though she had almost missed her cue.
"Well," Celia responded, "of course, we do everything we can for our children here. But all things being equal, we believe that a child is better off in a family setting than an institutional one. We do what we can to place our children with families that will care for them."
Celia thought of Grace, the one child in the home whom she was most eager to place. Grace had lived there all her life, nearly five years, but she did not belong in the home. She had no disability. She was born there to a girl who was now gone, who had long since been moved to the State home, which was equipped to care for adults.
Without realizing it, Celia began running the boyís parents through a mental checklist that she used to evaluate potential parents. There was no point in this. These people failed on the first criterion: they didnít want a child. In fact, not only did they not want Grace, they didnít want their own child. To Celia, there was something abhorrent, something fundamentally repulsive in this. She realized that it was unkind, perhaps even unfair, to feel this way. And she knew that, depending on what kind of home life these two had managed to provide, their son might very well be "better off" here in the home. Even so, there was something terribly wrong with this situation; Celia had felt it every time she had witnessed it. It was wrong, parents relinquishing their children to the home like disgruntled pet owners dropping off an unwanted dog at the animal shelter. She might well agree to take this child in. In fact, it occurred to her that she had already decided to do so. But she was not obliged to say things to make these two feel better about their decision, whatever their reasons for making it. On the contrary, she had a professional responsibility to make them see how serious that decision was.
"But if we canít take care of him any moreÖ" the mother began, apparently looking for someone else to finish her sentence for her.
"And we canít," the husband put in.
Celia began to thumb through the folder in front of her. In it was a thick stack of papers. She had to admit that the parents had been thorough in trying to get help for their son, and in keeping track of their efforts to do so. Several of the reports were nothing more than cramped comments written at the bottom of forms used to perform standard tests. Others were neatly typed and went on for several pages of observation and analysis. But all came to the same conclusion: autism, severe. She glanced up at the boy again, wondering what those words really meant, wondering what kind of curtain it was that stood closed between his young mind and the world that surrounded him.
"Has he ever spoken?" she asked.
"No maíam," the husband answered.
"But you believe he understands some of what is said to him?"
"Yes, maíam.. Heíll sometimes come when we call him. He knows his name, and if we tell him to sit down or go to bed, he knows what we mean."
"And he knows how to dress himself, too," the wife put in.
Celia looked at the boy.
"Corey," she said. "Can you hear me?"
The boy looked away from the spot on the wall he had been studying, and their eyes met for a moment. His face registered no recognition of his name, although he had apparently responded to hearing it. For a moment, he stared right through Celia, before fixing his gaze once again above her right shoulder. There had been no hint of human contact in the look he had given her; it was as though he could see no distinction between her face and the wall.
The boy reminded Celia of Jolene; he had the same dark hair and eyes, and the same intense stare. Celia thought of Jolene in her final days at the home, just after giving birth to Grace. This is how she had become in the end: unable to speak, seemingly unable to recognize the presence of others. And that was also how she had been in the beginning, and for a good deal of the time she lived in the home. Yet there had been that one long period, lasting perhaps five years, when everything was different. There had been so much hope for Jolene, the possibility of a future far different from what the other children could expect. What had brought about this amazing change in the girl was never known, just as there was no explanation for her condition to begin with. But Celia knew the cause of the later change that occurred, Joleneís reversion to her earlier state. The thought of it weighed on her mind, as it always did.
"Oh, he can hear just fine," said the father, gesturing at the file in front of Celia. "Thatís been checked a couple, three times."
"I see," said Celia. "And he understands. Does he like to listen to stories? Does he ever watch television?"
"Sometimes heíll listen to a book if you read it," said the mother. "Sometimes he even looks at the pictures. But then other times youíll be halfway through and he just walks away. Thereís no telling. But he never had use for TV."
"He likes music, though," said the father.
The woman twitched visibly at the mention of this, and was suddenly very careful not to look at her husband.
"Really?" said Celia. "What kind?"
"All kinds. Sometimes he used to sit by the radio for a hour or two. He figured out how to turn the knob and find different things to listen to. He especially liked old music, you know? Violins and harps and things."
"Classical music," said Celia.
The man nodded
"You said he used to sit by the radio." Celia continued. "He doesnít do it any more? Has he lost interest in music?"
The man glanced at his wife, as though aware that he had made a mistake.
"Uh, no, maíam. I imagine he still likes it. That is, we donít know for sure."
There was a long pause.
"You see, the radio broke, and we never got a new one. So he hasnít listened to music for a while."
The woman nodded.
"It broke," she said.
"Do you mean that Corey broke the radio?" Celia asked in a helpful tone. It was obvious to her that they were lying, or at least not saying something. "That happens sometimes; children break things."
The man and woman looked at each other.
"No maíam," the father said after a moment. "I donít think he ever broke it. It just broke."
"He never broke it," said the woman.
Celia looked at each of them in turn. Something had happened, but they didn't want to talk about it. She tried a different approach.
"Does he ever have bad days?" she asked. She felt uncomfortable asking such a question with the boy sitting there, and wondered whether it was appropriate to do so. Myra had indoctrinated her with the notion that the children were always to be treated with respect. How respectful could it be to delve into the boyís behavior in the third person when he was sitting right in front of her? But it was her only chance to talk with the parents, and there was no place else for the boy to be at the moment. He had not been introduced to the other children, and his presence at play time might be disruptive.
She looked once again at Corey: motionless, intent on his targeted spot on the wall. Granted, it was unlikely that he would be disruptive, but there was still the possibility.
"You mean like does he get sick?" the father asked.
"He hasnít ever been sick, not a day," said the mother.
"Iím glad to hear that," said Celia, "but that wasnít what I was getting at. What I meant was, does he ever have bad moods? Does he ever become angry?"
"Never once," said the mother. "Heís got nothing to care about." She put her arm over her sonís shoulder and looked at him for a moment.
"Do you see what Iím saying, Miss Crawford? If you donít care about anything, you donít get mad about anything." There wear tears in the motherís eyes as she spoke. Celia had not expected this; she had already tried and convicted the parents of indifference towards their son. And maybe they were indifferent, or less caring than they should have been. But the mother still had tears to shed on Coreyís behalf, could still feel anger or frustration at the thought of this life, her childís life, which was so far from what it was supposed to be.
"Has he spent much time with other children?" she asked, hardly realizing that her tone of voice had softened.
"He used to stay with my sister some when I had a job, before I had to quit on account of my blood pressure," the mother answered, wiping her eyes. "She has three kids. Theyíre all older than Corey."
"How did he get along with them? Did he play with them? Did he ever fight with them?"
"No, maíam," the father answered quickly.
"Never," the mother said impatiently. "Donít you understand? He doesnít fight; he doesnít play. He doesnít do those things, never has. I guess he never will."
"I see," said Celia. "So there were never any problems with other children?"
The father glanced at the mother and then answered too quickly, "No, never."
Celia looked at the mother.
"Thatís right," she agreed. "Never."
Celia sighed. She wondered whether there was any point even asking these questions.
"How does he sleep?"
"Good," answered the mother. "Real good. Sometimes heíll go twelve, fourteen hours. Once in a while he donít even get up at all."
"Thatís interesting," said Celia. "Have you ever noticed a pattern to his sleeping habits? Does he sleep longer after some change has occurred? For example, when you started your job? Or after you quit?"
Both parents sat back and seemed to consider the question.
"No," the mother said after a moment. "I donít think itís anything like that. I just think he likes to sleep, so he does.
The father nodded in agreement.
"And what about nightmares? Has he ever had them?"
A shadow fell over the motherís face. The father cleared his throat. Neither parent attempted to answer the question.
"Why would you ask that?" the mother said after a long moment. There was deep suspicion in the expression on her face and in her tone of voice.
"Well, it isnít unusual for a child with Coreyís condition to suffer from nightmares. All children have them sometimes. It can be a real problem for autistic children: to be afraid and to have no way of expressing it."
"Let me ask you something," said the father. "Iíve tried to find out what I could about this sickness. Have you ever heard of these retarded kids who can play the piano and solve math problems and that kind of thing?"
"Yes," said Celia, "Iíve heard of that, but Iíve never encountered it. Theyíre called autistic savants. Some people are as withdrawn as Corey and yet possess brilliant artistic or musical or, as you said, mathematical ability. Why do you ask? Has Corey shown some unusual ability?"
"No, he hasnít" the mother said, before her husband could speak.
"I guess not," said the father. But then he continued: "Maybe, though, it depends on what kind of ability you mean. Do some of these kids do other things? Not the piano and like that, butÖother things?"
Celia shrugged. "Iím sure it can take a number of different forms. What were you thinking of specifically?"
The woman glared at her husband, who now looked away and seemed to have nothing more to say. There was a long moment of silence.
"Look, sir," Celia said impatiently, "anything you can tell me about your sonís condition is going to help us. Itís best for him that we know as much as we can from the start. And whatever it is, I guess Iíll find it out sooner or later on my own anyway, wonít I?"
Neither of them said a word. Celia looked from one of them to the other.
"What are you not telling me?"
"Nothing," the man said at last. "I was just wondering, thatís all."
Celia sighed. She wrapped up the interview as perfunctorily as possible. The boyís parents grew less responsive with each ensuing question until it became clear that she would get nothing more than she already had. She would have to uncover whatever it was that they wanted to keep secret through the course of time, just as she had said. It might take years, or she might know within hours of their leaving, but no matter. She would get to the bottom of it one way or another.
Coreyís parents left him standing on the front porch of the home. There were good-byes and a few more tears from the mother; Celia noticed that the mother hugged the boy, but that the father didnít touch him, hadnít touched him once in the two or three hours they spent at the home. The mother said that they would be back to visit as soon as they could, but Celia knew it was a lie.
It had begun to rain again, this time in earnest. Celia watched as the rusty blue pickup drove away. At her side stood Corey, holding onto a small suitcase which contained a few clothes and some never-used toys. He did not wave goodbye, nor even look in the direction of his departing parents. He would never see them again; Celia was certain of that. She stood there looking at the new boy for a long while after the truck was gone, wondering what he saw as he stared with such intensity out into the rainy afternoon. Wondering whether he had ever seen his parents, or anyone else, at all.Posted by Phil at March 1, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack