by Phil Mayhew
I am sitting in my mother’s car in the Dollar Store parking lot, and the sun coming through the windshield is getting hot. She’s left the keys, but I’m trying to wait as long as I can stand it before I put down the windows or turn on the air conditioning. This, to her, would be additional evidence that I am defective; any boy should be able to stand a little sunshine. Children are supposed to enjoy being outdoors in the sun.
A rattle-trap truck pulls in beside me and shudders to a stop. It’s splotchy with mauve paint that I’m sure was red at one time, as red as the shiny Confederate flag stickers that border the back window. No one in this town would paint a truck mauve. I smell smoke as a woman with hair dyed the color of coal hauls herself out of the driver’s seat, taking a last huff from her cigarette before she scuffs it out underfoot with her flip-flop. She gives the door a hard slam, adjusts her grubby orange shorts, and strides into the store.
I look at the truck more closely, now that she’s gone. The seat is patched with brown duct tape, and the dashboard is messy with mail and crumpled cellophane wrappers, but there’s a newish black steering wheel cover with bright yellow snakes curling around the wheel. There’s also a pair of shotguns on the gun rack in the back window. The truck windows are down; anyone could reach in and take the guns. We could have a shooting right here in the Dollar Store parking lot. But there’s no one else around right now, and I don’t like guns. They’re loud – startling, up close – and that makes me nervous. (This is further evidence that I am defective, says my grandfather.) The ones in the truck window are just something else for me to worry about while my mother is in the store.
To try not to think about this, I start a game in my head. My new teacher taught it to me; it distracts me from whatever’s making me upset by getting me to focus on something I know – like letters and words – and pairing them with something I don’t know as well, like math or geography. Sometimes I take a word I see – like “Ford,” on that car over there – and give all the letters a number and then add them up. F=6, O=15, R=18, D=4. 6+15+18+4=43. That was kind of hard, for me, because I think it ought to equal 615,184. The game I like best uses the alphabet and you go through it thinking of names of places. Africa, Belgium, Canada – like that. Denmark. England. France. Germany…
The dashboard clock reads 12:34 now, and I tap my fingers on my leg ten times, as I do every time I see a digital clock that says 12:34. Not 12:43 – the numbers have to be in order. I try to remember what time my mother went into the store. I have no idea. Nor do I have any idea how much time a person would reasonably spend in the Dollar Store. It’s hot. I reach over and flip the keys, hesitating while I consider whether to start the car or just put down the windows. I don’t really want to have an open window between me and the mauve truck, in case the coal-haired woman returns soon – open windows invite people to talk – but maybe putting down the windows will make me less defective than starting the car. I put down the windows.
The coal-haired woman comes back to the truck, throws her bags inside, and climbs in. She lights a cigarette before revving up the motor and pulling out of the parking lot, and now I’m torn. Do I leave the windows down and try not to smell the smoke (which almost never works), or do I put the windows up and start the car and risk being thought more defective? My mother will complain if the car smells like smoke. She already thinks I’m defective. I start the car and turn on the air conditioner. Maybe I can run it just long enough to cool off and then turn it back off before she comes out.
I watch as several more people come to the store, get what they need, and leave again. None pull in beside me like the truck did. None are remarkable, except for the woman who is nicely-dressed enough to be noticeably not from around here. Her hair and dress give her the appearance of someone who works in an office, and I wonder how she came to be shopping in the Dollar Store of an out-of-the-way town of 1,500 people. Maybe someone died. (This occurs to me because I notice some cars parked at the funeral home next door.) Sometimes people who don’t live here come for the funeral if a relative who lived here has died. I can’t imagine any other reason why someone would be here if they didn’t have to be. I try to recall if her face looked sad. I don’t know.
I’m not very good with knowing how people feel from their facial expressions. My mother smiles sometimes when she’s really mad at me. People hide it sometimes when they’re sad. It’s very hard for me to tell from their faces.
Eventually I see my mother coming outside with her shopping cart. I’ve forgotten, while I was wondering about the nicely-dressed lady, to turn the engine back off, but it’s too late now. I get a glare from my mother, and this makes me very nervous, so I jump out of the car to collect the bags from the cart for her. I feel incredibly anxious but I don’t know how to remove the glare from her face. I think about the phrase non-glare glasses that I heard the last time we were at the optometrist’s office, and my train of thought goes off into imagining that non-glare glasses would keep you from being stared at the way my mother is staring at me now, as though I haven’t any sense. I don’t know how long I’ve been thinking about this when I feel my arm being yanked sharply as she bends down and hisses in my ear that I’m being an embarrassment, and orders me back into the car.
Then we’re in the car, creeping through town toward the grocery store. My mother is grumbling about the price of something in the Dollar Store being too high, and this, I gather, is why we must go to the grocery store as well, even though the Dollar Store has groceries. As we approach the post office, I remember that she had a letter to mail, and I point, tentatively, not wanting to get yelled at for interrupting her rant. At the last minute, she veers into the post office parking lot.
“Why can’t you speak up?” she scolds. “Am I supposed to be a mind reader?” I’m not sure if this is one of those questions I’m supposed to answer or not, so I don’t say anything, but then realize that she’s complaining about me not saying anything, and I become incredibly anxious and feel sick because I don’t know what to do. “Go put this in the slot,” she says, handing me the letter. The stamp is upside down, and this bothers me, but I know better than to say anything about that. I’ve done that before. The post office doesn’t care. My mother cares, but not in a way that’s going to make her fix the stamp. More likely I’ll be yelled at or belted for it, so I don’t say anything, and try not to look at the letter as I go into the post office.
The post office building is old, and it smells kind of like school and kind of like the doctor’s office my mother used to take me to when I was younger. That was before my father went to live in the place with the ten trains. I’ve counted them, of course; going over the bridges to get to the house where he lives with his sister, there are exactly ten sets of railroad tracks. He’s an engineer, but not the kind who works on a train. My mother took great pains to make this clear to me when she took me to see him the first time. My father said it was probably so I wouldn’t get excited about visiting him. He didn’t say that to me. He was talking to his sister, and I probably wasn’t supposed to hear it. I’m thinking about this so that I don’t notice the smell so much in the post office. The smell makes me feel sick. I hurry and drop the letter in the slot, and run back out to the car.
Then we’re nearly to the grocery store. I wish I’d brought a book to read. If my mother spends as much time in the grocery store as she did in the Dollar Store, I may feel sick enough to throw up. She says she won’t be long, but her idea of a long time is very different from mine.
She’s been gone only a few minutes when the sun comes back out and the car gets hot, and I realize that she didn’t leave the keys in the car this time. I could open the door, but there are more people at the grocery store, and opening the door would be like inviting them over to talk, and I don’t want to do that. I try not to think about how warm it’s getting. I try to think of a plan in case I feel like I’m going to throw up. I could use one of the bags from the Dollar Store to catch it. They never completely fill the bags. This is wasteful; this usually bothers me, but today it doesn’t bother me as much because I can shift the contents of one bag to another and use the empty one for a sick bag, if I have to.
Having a plan makes me feel a little less sick, so I sit and look at things, since I don’t have my book. There are signs in the front windows to let everyone know that watermelons, baked beans, ice cream, and carckers are on sale. The sign about “carckers” makes me notice a funny taste coming into my mouth – something like metal. I know it means crackers, but knowing doesn’t keep the taste from happening. I shift my view away from the front windows.
I notice the sandwich shop down the sidewalk from the grocery store, where there are several older men gathered on the sidewalk, spitting and hitching up their pants and talking about old men things. I can’t hear what they’re saying, because the outdoor loudspeaker is blaring Johnny Cash, but I’ve seen enough old men do this around town that I know they are probably talking about the weather and their gardens and who got laid off at the factory. If they’re there a long time, they may move on to complaining about the government and how the Braves need better pitching.
Johnny Cash is singing about shooting a man just to watch him die, which I’m pretty sure is something he just made up for a song. The sick feeling I’m getting makes me think the old men really would shoot a man just to watch him die, especially if he were too different from them in some way. I wonder if there are any trucks in the parking lot with open windows and gun racks. I think there probably are. I look away from the old men and try to be invisible, try not to let my defects show, though it’s not like I have any control over it, not really.
I notice that there are dark streaks running down the concrete wall under the letters that spell out GROCERY – DELI. There are tiny birds’ nests in the G, O, and C, and a sparrow peers out from the G. I hope the old men haven’t seen the sparrow. I don’t think they have.
Then I notice that the light fixtures are full of dead bugs. There is a strip of three-inch packing tape, about a foot long, hanging between the two light fixtures nearest the sandwich shop. The tape is covered with dead bugs. This doesn’t seem very sanitary, to be so close to the sandwich shop, but neither does the group of old men spitting on the sidewalk. I stop looking at things outside the car.
Alphabetical geography, world cities: Aberdeen, Beijing, Calcutta, Damascus…
After I finish a game of this, I feel calmer, so I go back to noticing things, but not outside the car. Things outside the car are too unsettling.
In the console between the seats is a jumble of things that belong to my mother: a notepad from some church organization, many pairs of sunglasses, nearly as many tissues with lipstick blots on them, breath mints and cough drops, pieces of a phone charger, a pen. The funny taste in my mouth has developed into something like metallic lemons, so I open one of the breath mints and chomp on it. It’s peppermint. After a minute, my mouth tastes like minty metallic lemons and I start feeling sick again, so I spit the mint into its wrapper and drop it into the trash bag hanging from the gear shift.
The notepad catches my eye next, and by the time my mother returns to the car, I’ve drawn ten squares in four rows on the corner of one page, crossing them, then crossing them again at a ninety-degree angle to the first cross, then connecting them. I quickly snatch this page off the pad, crumple it tightly, and drop it into the trash bag, replacing the pad and pen in the console so my mother won’t know I’ve been drawing and yell at me. I get out and carry the grocery bags from the cart to the trunk.
“Oh,” says my mother, “did I forget to leave the keys in the car?”
I nod, glad to have the air conditioner running again.
“Why didn’t you come inside and get them?” she asks.
I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a taunt; there’s something in her voice that makes me think of the boys at school, just before they attack someone. It must be a taunt. The entire reason I’ve stayed in the car while she shopped today is because of the scene it caused the last time she dragged me along into the Dollar Store. I know she hasn’t forgotten about that. She will never let me forget how I embarrassed her when I got so upset about being hemmed in between two groups of shoppers in the narrow aisle. I got so jittery and shaky inside that I couldn’t breathe and fell down on the floor. All the Dollar Store workers and customers were gathered around, staring at me when I woke up, and they were too close, all their strange smells and the feel of their hands, rough and sweaty and nicotine-stained, and I couldn’t stop screaming and crying. They kept whispering about calling an ambulance and my mother yanked me up by the arm and dragged me out to the car, telling the store workers how sorry she was. “There’s something wrong with him,” she told them, her face red. “He’s sick. I’ve got his medicine at home.”
But there wasn’t any medicine at home, just my mother screaming at me about how embarrassed she was. There wasn’t any medicine to make me better. I was “defective,” she said. Like when you get a pen that doesn’t work, no matter how you scribble or bang on it or take it apart, piece by piece. “You showed yourself, and now you have to take your medicine,” she said, whacking me over and over as I cowered in a corner of the kitchen, trying in vain to draw myself into a small enough ball to roll away out of sight.
We had been to see the new doctor earlier that day, the one whose office was near the city of ten trains. My parents rarely did anything together anymore, but they had both taken me for the appointment. They had both been in the office when the doctor talked with them about Asperger’s syndrome and anxiety disorders. They had both been at the kitchen table later that afternoon when my father’s sister talked with my mother about the testing she’d done with me. She works at schools, and this is her job. She asks children about numbers and words and has them look at pictures and do block puzzles. I did very well on the puzzles and quizzes, and for this, I was sent to a doctor.
No – that’s not right. That’s what I thought, but my father explained it differently. I was sent to a doctor because the people at school thought there was something wrong, because I don’t speak in class, because I don’t play with other children at recess, because I pay more attention to what’s going on in my head than what’s going on in class. I made 100s on all my language arts tests, but my teacher thought I was cheating because I didn’t pass anything else; that’s why my father asked his sister to give me tests. I don’t cheat. He told my teacher this, and she said I needed to see a doctor, not the kind you see when you’re sick, the kind that looks at brains. I was sent to a doctor because I don’t act like other children, and they think something’s wrong with you if you don’t act like them.
I had been nervous about the doctor, but his office was very clean and neat, and he didn’t smell like alcohol or have needles lying on a table nearby like the doctor at the old hospital did. He was calm and asked very clear questions that were easy to answer, not hard questions like the ones my mother yells at me when she gets angry. I remember feeling waves of relief, that finally someone understood the fear and uncertainty that lived in my head and took over my body all the time. The relief didn’t last long; my mother refused to let me see a doctor for “bad nerves,” as she called it. It didn’t stop her from informing the school that I had been diagnosed with a form of autism, which I don’t think was true but also wasn’t exactly a lie. No one seemed to doubt her.
Since she’d done that, I’d been put into a different classroom with a teacher who never slapped my desk with a yardstick or threw books across the room like the other teacher did. This new teacher spent most of her time coaxing the alphabet and numbers out of the five other children in the room, but I was allowed to read my textbooks however I liked, as well as other books, and every afternoon she spent an hour going over my work with me while the others colored or played Snakes and Ladders. Once a week I took a test for her, filling in dots with a number 2 pencil. If I did well, she brought me a New York Times crossword puzzle book. When I finished my textbooks and passed tests on them, I got the next set. I had been moved from a fourth-grade class, and now I had seventh-grade textbooks for language arts, a fifth-grade textbook for science, and third-grade textbooks for math and social studies. We did not have gym. We had yoga stretching, and breathing exercises.
My face stings suddenly, and I realize my mother has just smacked me while I was thinking about something else. “I asked you a question!” she shouts. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you!” I was right; she was taunting me when she asked why I didn’t come into the store to get her keys. Knowing this doesn’t help me know how to answer her question, which wasn’t really a question so much as a way to make me feel defective. “There really is something wrong with you,” she grunts. “Something bad wrong with you, Aspie Boy.”
I don’t like it when she calls me that. It’s different when my father calls me that; he smiles when he says it, and I know he means it in a good way, like a fun nickname you get when people like you – Buzz or Ace or Flash – something like that. When my mother says it, she always has a taunting tone, something angry and disgusted and snarling in her voice.
This makes me very nervous and upset and I start to rock in my seat so I won’t cry, which will surely set her off again. “Stop that damn rocking!” she yells, swatting at my chest. I grip the seat tightly, trying to make myself stop, but it keeps going, just smaller movements, and I pull inside myself until I can’t tell whether my body is really rocking or if I just feel the motion. I flail around wildly, in my mind, grasping for something to focus on, something to take me away from what’s happening right now. I feel too anxious for doing math in my head right now, so I go to alphabetical geography, U.S. cities and towns. Albany, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Edmonton – no, that’s in Canada. El Paso. Fresno. Green Bay. Houston. Indianapolis. Jacksonville. Kansas City. L…
When I finish my game and look out again, the car is parked diagonally in front of a shop on Main Street where my mother goes to get her cosmetics. They’re cheaper at the drug store, but she says this shop has “a more personal touch.” I can see her now through the window, holding out her hand as the lady tries a new nail polish color on her.
I feel calmer now, alone in the car. It’s not too hot since the sky is now overcast. I look at the signs around the shop window. They don’t just sell cosmetics. They also repair computers, and you can buy the latest Halo game here. If you don’t like video games, you can rent a movie from their DVD library. They don’t have Blu-Ray yet. You can also call them if you need locksmith services, or if you need to have your car towed. The wrecker is parked right beside me, a hulking black truck; from my seat in the car, I am looking straight into the center of its hubcaps. Its hood is higher than the top of our car. I look into the shiny silver hubcaps, wondering if my defectiveness is something that shows on my face.
I wonder if I started over at another school, a bigger school in a larger town, if it would be the same – if the teachers in the classes for “normal kids” would stalk around the classroom, bellowing at children who’ve made mistakes on their papers and refusing to let them go to the restrooms. Would kids who don’t know me think there’s something wrong with me, or would there be others like me – enough that we would just be different, not defective? I don’t know. I’m okay in my class at school now, since it’s quiet and I can study by myself and just ask my teacher when I have questions or need things. I still get taunted and threatened and roughed up on the bus, but that would happen anywhere, wouldn’t it? They’d know, just like my mother says she always knew there was something wrong with me.
My mother returns to the car, looking happier now that she has a bag of new things to make herself feel pretty. She even smiles. I don’t trust her smile, but I think I might be safe until my father comes at six o’clock to pick me up for the weekend. I’ll be okay as long as I don’t do anything stupid or embarrassing or strange. As long as I don’t show myself. Can I manage to not seem defective for – I look at the clock on the dashboard – four hours and thirty-six minutes? That seems like a really long time to manage something I can’t control.
Atlanta. Birmingham. Cleveland. Dallas….
© Copyright 2015 by Phil Mayhew.
Header art via Pixabay.
Share and Enjoy