A divorced father goes against the odds to help his autistic child overcome his isolation by using the boy's uncanny ability to communicate with chimpanzees.
A divorced father goes against the odds to help his autistic child overcome his isolation by using the boy's uncanny ability to communicate with chimpanzees.
LIKE NO OTHER BOY
By Larry Eisenman Center
“Oh! What things unspoken trembled in the air.”
—Johnny Mercer, A Handful of Stars.
“The Voice in my silence.” –Helen Keller
It was a Saturday afternoon at the San Diego Zoo, a beautiful day with a pale blue sky. Tommy and I were standing in front of the zebra exhibit. The zebras were running around and nipping at each other, kicking up dust, tails swishing. But instead of watching the zebras, Tommy stepped away from the enclosure and looked down at the ground. He made his usual droning noise that sounded like a motorboat engine, then put a hand to his mouth and gnawed on his knuckles. They were already reddened to the point of almost bleeding. He was eight-years-old and still biting himself. I watched him and winced. As his father, Chris Crutcher is the name—nice alliteration, I think—no matter how much I’d seen him do this, it still hurt to see my little boy harm himself.
In the distance, a lion roared as if he were trying to remind himself of his own kingliness.
“Wow! Look at those zebras, Tom-Tom,” I said, hoping to squeeze at least a drop of interest out of him. I was always trying to make Tommy pay attention to something in the real world, anything, desperate to get him to look and respond. “See their stripes? Aren’t they cool?” I gently pulled his reddened hands away from his mouth. “Zebras like stripes. Strange, huh? If they see stripes painted on a wall, they’ll stand next to the wall. Is that crazy or what?” I’d just read that on a sign nearby. It was an abstract idea to present to him, I knew, but I did it anyway.
Smells of espresso, popcorn, and grilled hot dogs filled the air while crowds of people swarmed around us. Tommy chewed on his hands again, the backs turning wet with saliva that glistened in the bright afternoon sun. He’d been biting himself, self-abusing like that for nearly three years and nothing we’d tried, none of the therapies, seemed to be able to make him stop. Frustrating wasn’t the word.
“Wouldn’t it be cool to ride a zebra? I sure think so,” I said, still trying to draw Tommy out of himself.
I stepped closer to him and knelt down to his level, bringing my face close to his, but Tommy’s foggy stare continued to wander off into the distance. He shrugged and said nothing. This was no-speak, his own secret code. He turned completely away from me and hummed louder. “Ouuuu . . . drrrrrr . . .” Sweat stains dampened the back of his blue shirt. He was being his typical disinterested self. Just another day with my son. I rose back to my full height.
Though his mind was an odd black box, Tommy’s face was close to angelic: symmetrically aligned features on porcelain skin, curly, honey-wheat hair, and long lashes that shadowed eyes so big and blue there was little room for the whites. A gorgeous kid, for sure, a potential child model, tall and gangly for his age. He walked on his tiptoes with a kind of pelican strut, head before body, neck outstretched, legs following.
As I watched four young boys gawk and giggle at the zebras, Tommy spun around, arms extended like a propeller, eyes closed. He looked like he was trying to make himself dizzy. The whirring sound he made turned into “beeeeep, beeeeep.” Then he stopped spinning and slapped himself on the forehead. Just like that. Thwack. I felt a resonant pain in the deepest regions of my gut that seemed to spread through my entire body; empathy pain. I felt it all the time.
“Please don’t slap yourself,” I said. “You know that’s not right. Come on now, let’s have fun here. Zoos are fun.”
But Tommy just looked away, still staring into space. He kept to his own planet, my far-away little boy. I felt like his distant moon.
This was our first trip to the zoo and I was on tentative ground. I’d been looking forward to our time together all week, since seeing the ad on TV that had grabbed me: lions, tigers, polar bears, plus some dandy pandas as well—oh, my! Tommy was mine on weekends, thanks to the shared custody agreement after my divorce. Usually, on Saturday afternoons, we went to the park near my house or worked on puzzles indoors, or just kicked back and watched TV. For us, this was quite the unusual outing.
We left the zebras and their antics and shuffled along the winding sidewalk that flowed around the exhibits. I showed Tommy the giraffes, a nosy lamb at the petting zoo, and two enormous elephants that flapped their ears and lumbered lazily around. He hardly seemed to notice them.
Even a unicycling juggler throwing yellow balls into the air didn’t stop Tommy from going after his hands again, chomping away at his nails and skin. Wearing a polka-dotted shirt and a great big smile, the juggler stopped in front of us. He tossed balls up and down in revolving circular patterns, catching a ball or two behind his back. It was a show, a real eye-catcher.
“Wow! Look at that juggler, Tom-Tom,” I said, pointing. “Isn’t he good?”
But Tommy was more interested in a nearby pile of dirt. Moving away from me and withdrawing even deeper into himself, he picked up clods of it, squeezed, and then let them fall. Now his hands, already wet, were a mess. Great.
As I reached for a wipe from my backpack—wherever Tommy and I went, Mister Backpack went, too—I noticed a father and son sitting on a bench not far from us. The boy, dark-haired and pudgy, appeared to be around Tommy’s age.
“Daddy, a juggler!” the boy said, excited. “Look!”
“He’s good, isn’t he?” The father fiddled with his phone as he spoke.
“Maybe I could learn to juggle like that. He’s so cool! Hey, Dad, can we go see the reptiles next? Please? We learned about them in Miss Wexler’s class.”
Jealousy stabbed me, although I knew I shouldn’t feel it. While that kid was having a normal talk with his dad, Tommy was picking up a rock and putting it down, picking it up and putting it down, then crumbling a leaf in his hands. He said not a word. This was his way, hyper-focusing on a particular object and blocking out everything else around him.
The juggler moved on. I swallowed hard. “Okay, Tom-Tom, let’s go check out some more animals,” I said, trying to maintain my encouraging tone.
“Daddy.” Tommy shook his head, looking past me. It had been his first word in a half-hour. “Go. We go.” He spoke in what I called brick-words, words that all sounded the same, as if they dropped heavily from his mouth pre-formed, one on top of the other in monotonic units.
“Really? But we haven’t even seen the reptiles.” I faced him. “Don’t you want to see the reptiles? The snakes and stuff?”
“Go. Go. Pleeeeease. Go.” Tommy hung his head and fidgeted. He put his right thumb into his mouth, then whirled around. I always saw his persistent hand biting, his spinning, and his motorboat buzzing as sounds that reflected the storms deep within his mind.
“Sure. Of course, we can go.” I gave him a smile. I wasn’t about to push him past his limit.
Tommy seemed unfazed by the big things in life, like being shared between his parents, living in two houses, and getting emotionally tugged this way and that ever since Cheryl and I had divorced two years ago—my uncivil war as I called it. Yes, he had his fixed routines, but he’d seemed to take the change in his parents’ relationship in stride. It was the impact of unexpected sensory experiences—crunchy peanut butter, the label on the back of his shirt, even the sight of the Sunday newspaper in disarray on the floor—that made him whine and pitch fits. These roadblocks could bring the neuron highway of his mysterious mind to a painful standstill.
When Tommy found a cigarette on the ground and reached for it, about to pick it up, I pulled his hand away just in time.
“Don't, Tommy. No! You know better than that.” He would have put it in his mouth if I hadn’t stopped him. I took a long breath and released it slowly, my eyes landing on a red-haired child eating pink cotton candy, swirls of it like edible clouds. “Okay. Let’s go, then. I guess we’ve seen enough.”
“Go . . . Go,” he said. His words seemed so disconnected, as if they arose not from his wants and needs and emotions, but from some kind of word-producing system inside his body that mechanically emitted vowels and consonants.
But on the way to the exit, we wound up near an African bird exhibit in a less populated area of the zoo. With Tommy still humming and murmuring by my side, oblivious to the world around him, I followed a long and winding trail. Instead of taking us to the exit, the shade-covered path ended in Primate World, which was set back on its own. Sounds of chimpanzees shrieking in the distance made Tommy stop dead in his tracks. He blinked, then moved forward with caution. He stood higher on his tiptoes and made a soft, inquisitive sound. “Oooouuuuwoooo.”
“What’s wrong, Tom-Tom?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. I knelt down to his level. “Are you all right?”
Tommy just sucked in a big breath as if he were about to blow out a birthday candle, then shuffled on as I followed behind. Instead of complaining, he headed straight for the exhibit and entered. He seemed suddenly curious. Interested. And I was intrigued.
From a distance of about fifty feet, we could see a single large and hairy chimp, chomping on leaves in the sunlight, separated from us by a thick glass panel. Tommy’s face flushed.
“Hairy so much,” he said, pointing at the chimp. “Wow.”
“Yes. They’re cool, for sure. They’re chimpanzees. You like them?” I rubbed my chin as I studied him, then glanced at the chimps.
“Wooooow.” Tommy clapped his hands. “Woooweeeee. Go. Here.”
“Sure.” His newborn enthusiasm made me smile broadly. It was just so completely unexpected.
As we made our way down a narrow path shaded by large overhanging trees, we found a group of chimps set behind glass walls, nestled in a jungle-like atmosphere. Large climbing rocks and verdant trees abounded in a field of grass and bushes. It looked homey, like an outdoor chimp hotel. Some of the chimps were playing or cuddling, some lumbered around, and others simply sat by themselves and stared vacuously into space. Tommy pointed at one of the chimps shuffling around near the glass.
“Woweee.” He stood unusually motionless and just took it all in. “Wowweee. Cooool.”
This sudden curiosity made my mouth drop open. I’d never seen him so engaged and he wasn’t biting his hands or anything. A slow-moving chimp shook his head, scratched an ear, and shambled past us, lazily heading for a rope swing. Another chimp stuck out his tongue and then flicked his hands in the air. Tommy watched them all with such focus, his eyes fixated on the animals.
He turned to me and pointed at one of the larger chimps sitting by the window. “She baby in tummy, Daddy.” He cocked his head. “She chimpie baby in chimpie mommy tummy!”
“Really? You think so?” I raised an eyebrow and folded my arms across my chest.
“Yep. She baby.” He spoke so matter-of-factly as glimmerings of excitement shone in his eyes. “She chimpie baby. Chimpie in there and happy!”
“That’s using your words. I really like that.” I laughed and stepped closer to him. “But how do you know she has a baby?” The chimp didn’t have a protruding belly as far as I could tell, though I was far from an expert.
“Baby! Daddy! Chimpie!” He actually hugged himself and giggled.
I couldn’t believe it, this new eagerness of his. My breath caught in my throat as I stepped back, accidentally bumping into another onlooker, a short man with a full beard. Stroking his beard and scratching his head, the man shot me a nasty look.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
The man replied with a grunt as he moved past us. The adult chimp that Tommy had pointed at stood up, screeched, then raised a smaller chimp on to its shoulders with the ease of an acrobat.
“Can you tell Daddy how you know?” I pushed back my Padres baseball cap as I gazed down at him.
But once again, Tommy said nothing. He brought his hands back up to his mouth and nipped the backs of them.
“Tommy, can we please not do that?” I shook my head, hoping he would listen.
It was as if Tommy’s brain had gone into loop mode, playing a certain behavior over and over again like a song. In desperation, I turned to Plan B—speaking cartoon-ese. As a professional voice-over actor in the San Diego area—Loco Bob’s out of his mind with price cuts! Discounts galoooore!—I could produce a number of cartoon voices—“That’s-that’s all, f-f-folks!” This skill had made me a hit at kids’ birthday parties and, to be honest, some late-night adult parties as well.
“Hey, Tom-Tom.” I channeled my inner SpongeBob SquarePants and spoke in his goofy, clunky, cartoon voice. “Let’s put our hands in our pockets, okay? No biting, okay? You know that would make me sooooo, soooo happy. Pockets please, my little starfish.”
“Okay, SpongeBob.” The words plopped out of his mouth and I was gratified. Tommy looked down shyly and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his khakis. As he rocked on the balls of his feet, he looked past me and stuck out his tongue, making a long circle with it around his lips, sides, top to bottom. “’Kay.”
“Thank you. And,” I winked, switching to a deeper tone, “oh yeah, Larry the Lobster thanks you too.”
But then Tommy threw me another curveball: he pulled his hands from his pockets and pressed his index fingers against his roughened thumbs, a motion similar to snapping his fingers. He moved them against each other, producing what seemed like a soft, scratchy flick, rub, flick, rub, rub . . . flick-flick, rub. I’d never seen him do anything like that before. He knew some sign language—about fifty signs. He’d learned them at school as a way to improve his communication abilities and relieve his frustrations. Of course, Cheryl and I had taught ourselves some signs, as well. But these motions were nothing I could recognize.
“Are you okay, Tommy?” I bent down to his level once again and frowned, worried the new hand gestures could be the prelude to another tantrum. In fact, he’d already thrown a fit this morning over a spilled-milk issue and had nearly split his lip on the kitchen counter. My muscles stiffened. Tommy’s tantrums were living nightmares. They haunted my dreams.
Tommy stopped flicking his fingers, cocked his head as if listening to an inner voice. “She baby in tummy. Baby mommy, see?” he said again, pointing at the same chimp.
When he was seven, Tommy had tested at the four-year-old level in terms of expressive language, and typically his days and nights were filled with bouts of prolonged and remote silence, followed by short, sporadic glimmerings of monotonic speech. There were times when he seemed to be improving, then other periods when he regressed, his disordered mind fighting the very basic nature of communication. It was heartbreaking. There was no other word to describe it. But on that afternoon at the zoo, I felt a glimmer of hope. For him, “She baby in tummy,” was practically a speech.
He made the sign for chimp—I had no idea he even knew that sign, though I remembered it—putting your hands at your sides and scratching upwards, as if you were an ape.
“How do you know about the baby, Tommy?” I asked.
He tugged at his juice-stained, olive-green T-shirt, folded his arms across his chest, and offered something I was always yearning for—direct eye contact. Though he didn’t speak, direct eye contact was gold to me. His blue eyes, which usually skittered and darted around like butterflies, landed on my face and stayed there, holding my stare for several long, spectacular moments.
“Daddy belly,” Tommy insisted in his staccato-like talk. “She . . . baby . . . baby belly in tummy.” He spoke as if he were lecturing me. I grinned. The mild breeze wafting in from the coast seemed to reflect my elevated mood.
I pointed to a larger window exhibit of chimps down the path. “Let’s go over there. I think we can get a better look.”
“Okay, Daddy.” He scrunched up his face and clapped his hands, then surprisingly doled out a burst of enthusiasm. “Yeah!”
“Wow, Tom-Tom. You really do like these chimps, don’t you?”
Again, Tommy nodded vigorously, a serious expression on his face.
Although a crowd had gathered at the glass, I stayed close to Tommy and eased us both to a spot where he could watch the primates without obstruction. I had no idea what to make of his uncanny interest in these creatures, though, I, too, was mesmerized by the chimps and their almost human mannerisms as they lolled around, picked at each other, or wandered in search of a new leaf to mash on their teeth and tongues. Some looked sleepy, some content. Regardless of their actions, they paid no attention to the Homo sapiens on our side of the glass.
But when Tommy started flicking his fingers again, a big chimp with a wrinkled face and dark, watery eyes took notice. He shook his head, then waddled over to where Tommy stood. Again, Tommy made the sign for chimp, curling his hands at his sides. Big Guy’s eyes remained glued on Tommy, who placed his hand against the glass, and then . . . damned if the chimp didn’t do the same. Hand against hand, boy and chimp. Big Guy bellowed.
The two locked eyes and stood stock-still, focused so intensely it seemed like each was channeling the other’s thoughts.
Tommy beamed at the chimp while I watched, stunned, my lips parted. Tommy bobbed his head and, in imitation, the chimp bobbed too, sticking his tongue out. Then the two started swaying together like synced metronomes. When Tommy made another odd, flicking gesture, the chimp rubbed his thick fingers together as well. I laughed out loud. Truly, this was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. Tommy just stood there, an intent look on his face. He seemed so absorbed, so focused, like I’d never seen him before.
Three other chimps shuffled over, using their own hand movements and facial expressions, gawking, stretching their mouths wide. They gestured to each other with large movements of their arms. They eyeballed Tommy and Tommy alone, intent expressions fixed on their friendly faces. One chimp with gray, wispy hair under his chin screeched, flailed his arms, and jumped up and down as if trying to get Tommy’s attention. But Big Guy and Tommy ignored him, mesmerized with each other. When Tommy touched the top of his head, Big Guy did the same. Then when Tommy rubbed both of his ears, Big Guy rubbed his ears as well. The bearded man I’d bumped into earlier stood next to me, his arms folded across his chest.
“Now ain’t that somethin’,” he intoned. I turned away from Tommy and realized we were surrounded by a growing group of onlookers.
“Hey, Brandy,” I heard a voice say. I spied a tall woman in a white dress standing next to her black-haired female friend. Smiles had blossomed on their faces. “Look at that kid. The chimps can’t take their eyes off that little boy. It’s so cute!”
On the other side of us was a lanky teenager with pimples on his chin. He’d whipped out his phone and was recording Tommy’s interactions, the way the chimp was imitating Tommy. “This is so rad,” he mumbled.
Oh, God. A YouTube moment. I thought about tapping the kid on the shoulder and making him stop. But why cause a scene? Besides, when you were out in public, wasn’t privacy a thing of the past? Maybe I should record this, too. But my cell phone was just about out of battery power.
“Whose kid is that?” asked a man behind me as I swung around.
“There’s the dad,” a woman said in a New York accent. She was short, with black hair and black glasses. She pointed at me. “The tall guy with the Padres cap.”
“That’s me, all right.” I raised my hand slightly and everyone laughed. I felt my face flame up as fatherly pride melted like warm butter in my chest. I stood a little taller, straightening my shoulders.
Tommy flicked his fingers even more vigorously. Then he made the sign for play: hands turned sideways, shaped like the sign for Texas Longhorns, wiggling up and down. Then back to the flicking, which looked as if he were somehow tapping out the primate version of Morse Code.
Big Guy opened his mouth wide and let out a jungle-shriek. He returned the finger flicking, and then wiggled his hands and held them in a way that looked awfully similar to Tommy’s “play” sign. Wispy Hair tried to shove Big Guy out of the way, but the big chimp refused to budge.
Tommy and Big Guy swayed a minute more, continuing to gaze at each other, flapping fingers and bobbing heads. Big Guy did a little dance to the beat of Tommy’s hand clapping, and then Big Guy clapped his hands and it was Tommy’s turn to dance, elbows angled out and knees bent as he hopped up and down. It was amazing. The crowd resounded with laughter and a few Ooos and Aahhs. The teen continued recording, looking amused.
Then just like that, Tommy backed a few feet away from the glass, and the chimps scampered off to their playing, grooming, and swinging around, completely ignoring the humans, as if the show was over. A few kids tried to replicate what Tommy had done, trying to get the chimps’ attention. They failed to get a response. I just stood there, keeping an eye on Tommy.
“Play . . . make . . . chimps.” Tommy gazed up at me. He made the play sign, then the chimp sign.
“I see that,” I said. “I had no idea you liked chimps so much!”
“Do, Daddy. Doooo.”
I reveled in another delightful moment of Tommy’s lingering eye contact and in the brightness on his face. He seemed unlocked by the experience, transformed.
Before we left the exhibit, I turned around and gazed once more at the chimps, who were still scampering around. They were so human-like, with their contemplative gazes, their self-conscious movements, their gestures. Surely, there was more than a bit of Homo sapiens running in their blood. And were we humans more chimp-like than we realized?
Maybe some of us more than others. I smiled to myself, thinking of the bearded man I’d bumped into, then edged closer to Tommy, who now fidgeted and hung his head, silent as ever. What was Tommy contemplating? His shoes? The shadows that dangled around him?
“Those chimpies really like you, Tommy.” I crouched down to his level. A bead of sweat dotted his upper lip.
He didn’t say anything, but he gave me another wondrous moment of direct eye contact and I drank it in. Then snot bubbled from his nostrils. I produced a tissue from Mister Backpack, which was stocked with a change of clothes, tissues, band aids, the works, and tried to wipe Tommy’s face clean. He grimaced and jerked and twisted away from me, but I persisted.
“Nooo!” He folded his lower lip in defiance.
“Come on, son. Let me just wipe your . . . there,” I said when I was done. “Thank you.”
“Daddeeee.” Tommy rubbed his nose with the palm of his hand, reddening his nostrils. His stubborn refusal to allow me to touch him had always hollowed me out. He pointed back at the chimps. “Like.” He spoke loudly, then expanded his arms like wings and made the “like play” sign. “Like chimpies, Daddy. Big lots!”
“Well, that’s great, Tom-Tom.” I beamed, grinning.
“Chimpies,” Tommy said. “Chimpies.” He clapped his hands and jumped up and down, excitement flashing on his face.
As we headed away from the chimps, Tommy shuffled along by my side, his hands in his mouth again, walking with that pelican strut. We passed a small sign planted at the edge of the primate area. I stopped to read the words:
Did you know chimpanzees only have babies every four to five years? We are very proud to announce that here at the San Diego Zoo, Wanda G, our newest chimp, is expecting a baby in approximately eight months!
I read the sign twice, blinking rapidly. Damned if there wasn’t a picture of Wanda G herself on the sign—the chimp who looked awfully like the one Tommy had said was pregnant.
I stood still, hairs on the back of my neck tingling. How in the world had he known?
* * *
We stopped at the Zoo Brew and I bought an iced latte, something I really couldn’t afford given the dire state of my job situation. But what good was living without an iced latte every once in a while? I mean, really. I tried to interest Tommy in a treat, but he refused.
I found a shaded bench near the lake, where ducks glided past and children played around the edges, their shrill voices rising in the air. Walking behind me and finally catching up, Tommy plopped down next to me on the bench, staring into space as he put one finger up his right nostril and another in his mouth. Was he just zoning out? Or was he contemplating his time with the “chimpies?”
I was, for sure. Tommy didn’t have the reading skills to read that sign. It was totally out of the question. And yet he had known Wanda G was pregnant.
I studied my son’s face, pensive and twisted with worry—the way he almost always looked. Now he stood, kicked at the ground, then rubbed the side of his head, where the infamous scar was. Two and a half years ago, while Cheryl and I were still barely hanging on to the threads of our marriage, he’d fallen in the yard outside our home and hit his head. We’d rushed him to the hospital, bleeding and nearly unconscious. I’d been out of my mind with fear. The diagonal scar on the left side of his head still remained, along with the painful memory of that awful day, the emotional scar as real as ever.
“Hungry, Daddeee,” Tommy said, rubbing his stomach.
“Know what? Me, too.”
Ten minutes later, we returned to our bench and I was cutting Tommy’s hot dog into circles and squares, throwing away half the bun, and adding exactly two dabs of ketchup. Three dabs would throw him into a fit.
He needed his food sliced into shapes. That was his way. Squares, circles, triangles—the geometric diet.
We’d tried all kinds of diets—gluten-free, non-dairy, vegetarian, even camel milk, and on and on—but nothing seemed to help him. Like all autistic children, his gastric issues abounded—constipation, diarrhea. The works. If only treatment was as simple as choosing tofu over hamburgers, apples over potato chips.
When we finished our meal, Tommy took my plate, and along with his, tossed our trash into a nearby receptacle, then returned to the bench.
“Good job.” He’d offered to take my plate without me even prompting him. I was impressed. I had the urge to mess up his hair. Since he always moved away whenever I tried to touch him, I restrained myself. And yet, the distances he kept from me, emotional and physical, his intractable inwardness, had somehow drawn me closer to him than I was to anyone else I’d ever known.
“Want anything else to eat?” I asked.
Tommy just bit his fingers.
“No, Tom-Tom. Not your fingers. You’re not that hungry, are you?”
I smiled. He didn’t get the joke, this one and only child of mine.
He’d planted his hooks deep inside me, really, ever since he was born, a normal-looking, beautiful healthy baby boy. We’d named him Thomas after Cheryl’s grandfather, who died just a few years ago. I liked the name, solid-sounding, an oak of a name. The delivery went without a problem, and we proudly brought our little bundle of joy home where we had prepared a nursery. Cheryl and I felt blessed. We watched him curl his miraculous little fingers into fists, felt the smoothness of his angelic face, adored his inconceivably perfect nails.
Ever since I’d witnessed him coming into this world, I felt it was my duty, my obligation, to see this son of mine through whatever hardships he endured. If love is the bond between two people, ours was surely made of emotional superglue.
“Tommy? You ready to go, or do you want to see something else?” I tried to get his attention.
Nothing. He looked everywhere but at me.
He looked down and scratched at his shoes, messing with the laces. He hyper-focused on them and I just let him go at it. I crossed one leg over the other and simply sat there, not wanting to get up from the bench either. This March Saturday afternoon was just too ridiculously gorgeous, the breeze too hypnotic; seventy-two degrees, crisp and sunny.
Leaning back, I studied the crowds of people roaming past us, herds of them, like buffalo wandering over sun-swept plains of pavement. They formed an interesting display, these zoogoers: the long-legged females with their designer purses, their smartphone-appendages and stylish footwear; mothers leading toddlers by their hands accompanied by paunchy, pale-faced fathers whose twitchy expressions and long faces made them look like they were suffering from ESPN withdrawal; the weirdly tattooed and nose-ringed; the proud, grey-haired grandparents. I smiled. Maybe the real zoo existed outside the cages, and the true spectators were the animals, calmly eyeing this odd assortment of human beings who traipsed by. Tommy and I were just two more animals in the pack.
I recalled Tommy’s interactions with the chimps again. How was it possible? I would’ve Googled chimps and children with autism to see if there was any known relationship if my phone wasn’t about to run out of juice. I still couldn’t get over what had happened.
Still, we’d been at the zoo over two hours and now it was definitely time to go. Too much time out and about was not a good thing. It would lead to fatigue and most likely, a Tommy tantrum.
“Okay, Tom-Tom, ready to go?” I asked, turning to him.
“Beanie,” Tommy said. He tossed two monotonically shaped and packaged words out: “Beanie. Me.”
I reached into Mister Backpack and withdrew Radar the bat, Tommy’s ever present Beanie Baby, and handed it to him. Radar was black all over except for his white flappy ears and looked mostly like a rat with wings. But it was cuddly and soft. Theirs was an intimate relationship. Tommy was always playing with the stuffed pet and at times even spoke to Radar in bizarre, nonsensical phrases.
Tommy zoomed Radar in the air, then snuggled the bat as we trooped through the massive parking lot, joining the rest of the Home sapiens who were checking their phones, hurrying kids along, or sipping sodas.
I glanced at the leather-strapped watch I was wearing: It was 2:45.
The watch was a gift from Cheryl, my ex.
What a ride, my marriage. Yes, we’d had a history all right, beginning with our own version of the Garden of Eden, and ending with Exodus.
As we approached my cringe-worthy blue Altima in the vast parking lot—we were in section CC-12—a security alarm went off from someone’s nearby car. The loud, continuously beeping horn startled Tommy, who slammed his hands over his ears, doubled over, and let out a high-pitched scream. Loud sounds almost always threw him into a fit. The doctors had a name for it: hyperacusis, but naming the problem did nothing to solve it. Radar slipped out of his hands and fell to the ground. As the blaring continued, the car’s lights flashed as well. Adrenaline pumped through me, my mind in a whirl.
“Ouuuu! Eeeee!” Tommy pounded his feet on the asphalt, the delicate lines of his face all twisted into crooked pathways. “Ouuuu! Stop!”
Passersby gawked at us, some slowly taking it all in while others quickly scurried by.
“Settle down, Tom-Tom.” I crouched next to him and kept my voice calm, trying to find that smooth surface in an emotional undercurrent that only wanted to suck me under. I whispered as gently as I could. “If you settle down, I’ll give you a token.” I reached into Mister Backpack. “I’ll make this one red. How’s that sound? Red’s your favorite color, right?” I had twelve tokens ready to go. If he earned all twelve, he would be allowed a bevy of sugar packets to play with. He loved playing with sugar packets, arranging them in all kinds of shapes and patterns on the kitchen floor.
But when I showed him a token, Tommy just knocked it from my hand and grew even more upset. The token fell to the ground, an unwanted little orb, spinning away.
He screamed even louder, closing his eyes, his face screwed up into a fierce contortion. “Ooouuu!”
The horn had stopped blaring, but it didn’t matter. The residual aftershock lived on. Tommy went berserk now, entering into full tantrum mode, and there was no telling how long it would last. I didn’t dare try to move him. Once, I’d tried to pick him up while he was in the midst of a tantrum and he’d poked me in the eye and I’d strained my back. No, it was not a good idea.
This much was true: if raising a child with autism and dealing with all its responsibilities had placed me in the major leagues of fatherhood, Tommy’s tantrums had upgraded me to the World Series.
Tommy wailed as if I were beating him. His eyes turned inward and unfocused.
“Noooouuuu!” He doubled over again and started breathing in quick, successive spasms; tiny gulps of air, snot bubbling from his nostrils. “Nooouuu!” My only hope was to wait it out. I felt myself go red in the face as he self-stimulated, shaking and wriggling his fingers in front of his eyes. He bit the backs of his hands, twisted his head side to side. The backs of his hands started to bleed.
“Ooooouuuuu . . .” He ran his tongue around his lips.
“Tommy, please.” I spoke gently, making sure I didn’t aggravate him anymore than he already was. “Can you stop that? Please?”
I pulled his hands away from his mouth, and he quickly returned them. I clenched my teeth and sighed. Just as I was about to try another token, a tall woman wearing a flowery dress approached us, stepping right into our daytime nightmare.
“Is he okay?” she asked timidly as Tommy proceeded to cry out and slap his ears, then stomp on the ground and scream at the sky.
She was holding her daughter’s hand, a child of around four or five, with freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose and wide eyes that absorbed Tommy with awe and wonder. The calm little girl sucked on the remains of a green lollipop that matched the color of her eyes while Tommy continued to wail at the sky.
“Is he all right?” she repeated.
I stepped back and wiped my forehead with the front part of my bicep. Sweat dribbled down my sides as if I’d been digging ditches. This was emotional construction. “Yes. Thanks for asking. He’s fine, I think. Just overtired. That, plus his autism.”
“Oh.” She looked suddenly sympathetic and at a loss for words. “I see.”
Tommy groaned and then whacked himself across the face, hard. I felt the sting inside my body. Empathy pain, again.
“Tommy,” I said, trying to hold onto my calm while the winds of my own Daddy-tantrum crept my way and the woman looked on. “Please. Settle down. Don’t you want a token?” Patience, Lord. Patience.
He surprised me when he stopped screaming and studied the new little plastic orb I was holding up. A gagging sound blurted from his throat, then he coughed. He tried to snatch the token from me.
“No, no. First, you settle down,” I said, holding the token away from him.
“’Oken.” He kicked a foot out.
“’Ooooken! ’Oken!” He wriggled his fingers in front of his face. If I was going to follow the rules of the program, I couldn’t give him a token until he stopped fussing. Otherwise, I’d be rewarding bad behavior.
“Well, good luck,” the woman said with a sorrowful expression. “Come on, Amy. Let’s go.”
“Mommy, that boy’s crying,” Amy said, moving closer to her mother.
“Yes, darling, I know.”
“We’ll be all right,” I said. Then, turning to Tommy: “Breathe, Tommy,” I urged as the mother and daughter departed. “Breathe.” I felt my face burn with embarrassment. “Breathe. Come on. Please? You can do it. Settle down, Tommy.”
But now he gasped for air, lungs heaving. It was as if he were forced to suck in oxygen through a straw.
“Come on, Thomas Crutcher. Breathe.”
He started hyperventilating, his back arching, chest heaving, then bent down and put his hands on his knees.
“Uhhhhh…. ouuuu . . . eee . . .”
He looked like a person who’d almost drowned. The panic in his troubled eyes when he looked up at me for Daddy-help turned my anger into complete sorrow. I felt totally helpless. What could I do but suffer through this with him? I shoved the token in my pocket, then thought about retrieving the blanket I kept in my trunk for meltdowns, wrapping him up in it and giving him body pressure. Body pressure sometimes soothed him, but it only worked when we caught his tantrum in the earliest stages, right at the beginning. Now it was too late for that.
Finally, Tommy did the only thing he could. He screamed one final time, blew out a gush of air, then held his breath until his face turned red, and then—one, two, three—collapsed solidly against me with one final whine. He wasn’t unconscious, just suddenly and overwhelmingly exhausted.
I looked up at the sky and said a thank you—relief at last. I smoothed a hand down the side of my face and exhaled slowly, my heart thumping.
“It’s okay, Tom-Tom. It’s all okay. You’re going to be fine.”
“Fine?” he mimicked, finally catching his breath and breathing normally again.
“Fine? Fine. Fine? Fine . . . Fiiiiinnnnne . . .” Saliva drooled from his lips down to his chin.
Then a hand went to his mouth. Hunched over and weary, Tommy moped by my side as we trudged toward the car at last. I nudged him forward. Lines of sweat continued to stream down Tommy’s face, which had turned pale. He clicked his teeth together.
“’Oken?” He looked up at me again, his eyes connecting with me for just a second. “’Ooooken?” He stretched out his hand.
“Sure, ’oken.” I handed him a blue one, wondering if color might have made a difference. Unfortunately, the desire for the token hadn’t been strong enough to intrude on the tantrum. I made note of that to tell the teacher. “It’s all yours. Have at it.”
He stared at the token and turned it over in his hands. “’Oookennnnnn.”
When we finally made it to my car, I buckled Tommy into the backseat with a dusty Radar at his side and exhaled loudly. I slung Mister Backpack into the passenger’s seat. My back was hurting. I climbed into the driver’s seat and just stared straight ahead for a long moment, hands on the steering wheel. A great wad of sadness filled my gut. I blamed myself, too. I should have seen it coming. I carried ear plugs in Mister Backpack because of his noise sensitivity, but why hadn’t I given them to him? This surely wasn’t the first time I’d screwed up. I had to be more on the ball. But it wasn’t just me, either. What about all the therapies he’d undergone, all the time and money we’d spent? Applied Behavioral Analysis, psychologists, so many so-called experts on how to deal with autism, and this was where we stood: Tantrum City. Gnawing on his hands. Self-abuse.
Tommy started zooming Radar in the air, then hugged the stuffed pet. “Fine . . . fine . . . fine . . . buuuuuu . . . Ouuuuuoooo . . . mmmmm . . .”
I took my pulse, which was still racing NASCAR style, while Tommy was now acting as if the tantrum hadn’t even happened, as if the past fifteen minutes had simply disappeared from his awareness. “Fine . . . ouuuuu . . . ” He hugged Radar and talked soft, gentle nonsense to his pet. “Ooouuuu . . . goooom . . . treeeeeesta . . . beeeesh . . .”
Sometimes, I wondered if my son even had a sense of the past.
“Well, time for home, Tom-Tom.” No sense in wallowing at this point. I started the car, pushing down the accelerator a few times to get the old man cranking. This car suffered from mechanical arthritis, unlike the leased Benz I used to drive when my financial life was hitting on all cylinders.
“’Kay, Daddy. ‘Kay.”
Keeping the car in park, I turned around and studied Tommy and his reddened hands, the dull distance in his eyes. I thought of something.
“Hey, would you like to come back another day and see the chimps again?” I asked.
“Yes, Daddy. Yes.” He gave me direct eye contact.
Bingo. That was the answer I’d been looking for. I turned around in my seat and plugged my phone into the car’s charger, then dialed Cheryl’s number, excited to tell her what had just happened at the zoo. The tantrum, I would refrain from mentioning. When she didn’t answer, I found myself rambling into her voicemail.
“Cheryl, look, it’s me. The craziest thing just happened at the zoo with these chimps, I mean, Tommy and the chimps, I don’t know. Christ. I don't even know how to explain it all. Give me a call ASAP, all right? It’s just totally bizarre. You should have seen it.”
I ended the call and sat back in my seat, my mind already flowing around the idea of getting access to chimpanzees on a regular basis so that Tommy could, what? Talk to them?
Published on January 21, 2021
Genre: Contemporary Fiction