MY MOTHER TOOK A RECEIPT from the junk drawer and wrote a note reading, ďMy name is Frank Zeniere. I am retarded and need a job to care for my mother who is sick with cancer.Ē She pinned it to my t-shirt with a thumbtack. The part about her sickness was a lie.
And Iím not retarded. Iím autistic. My brainís performance may even be above average, though I canít hold a pencil long enough to take any sort of standardized test. My body has problems communicating. It wonít listen to my mind. It flails and flaps and waddles against my will. I used to spend hours in the bathroom as a child, straining to grip the towel rack, knocking over tissue boxes and sending toothpaste tubes into the toilet. I felt like a parent forced to watch his child crawl across a busy interstate.
I was fourteen when my mother sent me downtown with the note on my chest. She wasnít concerned for my well-being. She was lazy, and she heard the retarded possess extraordinary physical strength. A boy like myself, she said, could always find manual labor. Her fictional cancer convinced Saul Davidson of Saulís Shoe Repair to hire me on as part-time help, and Iíve been sitting behind a wooden counter the last eleven years.
Most of the time my body settles into some repetitive, harmless motion. Right now, itís rocking back and forth on a stool. It does this a lot. I think it likes the squeaky noises the top of the stool makes as it pulls on a loose screw.
But I donít listen. Iím not here.
Iím sinking sideways through the blue. Itís bright but not too bright. Like the Earth is made entirely of ocean, turned inside out, and Iím suspended at its core. Paper clips rotate around me Ė big as broadcast towers and some as small as paper clips.
Most of our customers remember when shoe repair was common. Theyíre of Saulís generation, and heís eighty-three. But a few times a week, a young person with sculpted hair comes into the shop by accident. He looks around, wondering, and sees me rocking behind the counter or Saul napping at his workbench in the back. Heís used to shiny white shoes made in green, humid countries by children too skinny to be American. He believes shoes are disposable and wants his replaced. He doesnít understand how to fix things.
Iím thinking of paper clips and the blue and ignoring what my body is doing. But even though the electric meat in my skull has been fine-tuned to this suspension, itís hard to ignore the pain of my forehead thunking against the cedar floor.
It hurts, but I canít make my idiot mouth scream. My head could be split openómy brains seeping through the rotting floorboardsóand here I lie silent as an awkward pause.
Through blood-filled ear canals, I hear a lungless old man trying to form words while gargling fish tank pebbles. He knocked me off my stool. He is leaning over the counter to stare down at me. He smells like tires and pancakes. Iíd turn to look at him if I could, though Iím grateful my head doesnít move.
I hear another voice. It mutates from harshness to kindnessóone mood directed toward the pancake tire man and the other toward me. This voice is soft, yet sinks intact through my ear blood and into my brain meat.
The pancake tire man is reading the back of my t-shirt. It warns the reader that I am mentally disabled and provides a toll-free telephone number to call in case Iím found wandering around unsupervised. My name is written on the back in magic marker. The pancake tire man tries to read it, and the woman corrects his pronunciation. She must be homely and bookish. I want to roll myself over and see her. She will smile politely and stare at me, her head tilted. She will hold her gaze longer than most. But, eventually, she will find something less revolting.
Sheís concerned about the blood. She says Iím going to bleed to death. She says I need help.
A puddle of red stain spreads from my ear.
The pancake tire man stomps his way to the back workshop, looking for a telephone. The woman makes no noise when she moves. I wouldnít even realize she is standing beside me if her aroma of wet asphalt and lilacs were not so strong. Itís the smell of comfortable safety, like a fat nurseís arm. My idiot body doesnít filter her presence or dumb it down. She has a direct line, and the sensation is violating and welcome.
My limbs are awakening from their shock. Sudden movements scare them. They panic, sending my torso into a fit. I am flopping around in my own fluids like a suicidal fish, but thereís nothing I can do about it. There is no way for me to speak to this aromatic woman as she speaks to meĖwithout so much as an unintelligible gurgle. My neck convulses, and Iím looking at her feet just inches from my face. Her toes are white with toffee-colored calluses. They are held down by the straps of her sandals as if at any moment they might break free and hop to the woods.
I want to keep her toes.
She is lamenting my convulsions. When Iím injured and still, Iím a pitiful creature. When my forearms slap against bloodstained cedar, Iím dangerous as a giant squid. I expect those toes to move toward the front door, leaving me only with an echo of sandals slapping against heel.
But they flatten and strain as she squats beside me.
She says everything will be okay, and the universe bends to obey her. Her hand touches my shoulder, and a liquid rushes to fill the space where I had been screaming. Cold drool and warm blood run down my chin. I feel everything. For once, my body is still. I am its commander. It withholds nothing from me. I want so badly for my eyes to roll toward this woman, and they do.
She is blond. She is blue. She is the virgin vessel.
She is paper clips.
I take her hand and smile. Itís not the gummy smile my lips sometimes direct at insects and childrenís toys. Itís a smile like her smile. We share a mouth. Her tongue is my tongue, and we both swoon over the taste of certain foods. We talk and listen at the same time, and we donít talk at all. We mouth words weíve taught to each other and laugh at those who arenít a party to our love.
We are conquerors. Monsters.
We breathe fire on Japanese extras in atomic Tokyo. They want to destroy us, and we screech at them and stomp them.
We are the first married couple to land on Mars. The symbol on our flag is a hybrid of our favorite shapes.
Iím only well when sheís touching me. Thereís no piece of myself that can ignore her. When we sleep, she holds me through the night so I donít shake and flop. She guides me to places where people can see us and be jealous. This isnít happiness, what we have. Happiness is something to be shared. What we have is kept close and secret. Itís buried at the bottom of the Pacific, where thereís a hole in the world.
She pulls my ear to her lips and tickles my neck with whispers. Christmas lights and Mariachi bands play tag in her eyes while we eat exotic food in crystalline towers. I point to the stars outside and they explode, spelling her name with their fading dust. We leap through the window, sparkles of glass snowing on a parking lot full of black, Italian cars. With her help, I can control my body. I can move it under her. I can break her fall.
I am crying because I want to cry.
She asks me if it hurts.
I open my mouth, and it is wet and it is mucky, but I am able to say, ďNo.Ē