The digital clock in the truck's dashboard flicked over to 12:51 as I pulled back into my parking space. Broad tree limbs swayed above my truck cab, providing shade from the noon-day heat.
My lunch break had been spent at a nearby park, barefoot in the grass, reading about fictional characters... fictional events. But the beginning of my second shift was closing in, and the fiction had ceased.
I sighed and closed my eyes. The long, red scratch marks on my forearms, residual Connor pain, were already healing. The waves of cool air from the dashboard coated me, spreading over the canvas of my skin like paint on rollers. Where he'd broken the skin at my wrist, I'd placed a band-aid. My Little Pony. The only kind in the preschool first aid kit, certainly, but also kind of cool.
My afternoon Diet Coke, the third of the day, hissed to life. I fingered the metal tab and absently ticked off the letters of the alphabet as I wobbled it back and forth at the hinge. It snapped away in my hand at J.
I gulped it down fast, wishing for the energy to erupt through my body and carry me through the afternoon. But my exhaustion was overwhelming.
In the four hours I'd dealt with Connor that morning, he'd bear-hugged a little girl in his class until she'd begun to cry, broken another child's toy and, in a climactic move worthy of Broadway, he'd waited for my eyes to drift somewhere else for a moment and then sprinted out of the classroom and into the school yard... proceeding to strip naked and skip around the playground, twittering and flapping his arms.
As I turned off the engine, I groaned at the memory of the subsequent chase. By the time I'd pulled him to the timeout bench and wriggled him back into his clothes, the morning had ended. But it meant that he hadn't completed his lessons or participated in the group activity.
I swung the blue, curve-topped gate open and walked into the playground again. A sleepy silence hung over the yard. It was nap time in the classrooms, and as I sat on the bench near the office to wait, I could see rows of small, flushed faces, rosy lips parted, as the students breathed through their mid-day dreams.
The gate creaked open behind me and I turned to greet Christopher, my charge for the afternoon.
My boys were day and night. Connor was the bounding, gregarious sunshine, tossing words around in disjointed attempts at communication. He had all the energy, the blond hair, the possibility of mischief. And Christopher was my twilight boy.
Everything about him was soft and light, from his stick-straight brown hair, to his high, lilting voice, to the delicate palms of his hands. He was thin and pale, his opalescent skin refusing to absorb any tint from the sun (a trait we shared). His Autism manifested itself as a preference for solitude, books and shadows. Each one of his movements was slow and shadow-like. Christopher could do so many things Connor could not... turning the pages of his books, acting out scenes with his stuffed animals, building with blocks... but each gesture seemed to float for an eternity between conception and completion.
His mother, a bright, vivacious woman, handed him off to me, but not before she knelt in front of him, maintained eye contact, and said goodbye to her boy. On a good day, like this one, he would give her a slow, half-smile and say, "Bye, Mama," before wrapping a hug around her neck.
When she'd gone, I took Christopher by the hand. His fingers remained limp in my palm, but he didn't pull away. Where Connor's devotion to me was that of a magnet, a severe, law-of-physics type pull with which neither of us could argue, Christopher's desire to be near me stemmed from comfort. I was always the same. Jeans, t-shirt, ponytail and fair skin. (I add fair skin to this list because, when I tried a fake tan once that summer, he threw a fit, refusing to recognize me.)
The rest of the classes woke from their naps and were sent to the playground for a quick burn-off of excess energy. Christopher didn't play with other children willingly. He didn't seem to notice them at all. Instead, he would walk straight to the bookcase inside his classroom and choose a book.
I let him. God help me, I let him.
I wasn't supposed to. No, it was my job to facilitate play and increase his use of language as a communicator. Later on in the afternoon I would fulfill my duties and graft him onto the budding games and adventures of other children. I'd push him from the periphery and make him the center of something. And every time I followed through and did those things, prying him away from his wordy, booky comfort zone, it felt like I was peeling the scab off the wound. He protested, though softly, each sad, indignant word sounding like a sigh. And my heart hurt.
But it was worst when he looked me in the eye.
When he would make eye contact with me, a rare occurrence, it was usually because I'd frustrated him. Most of the time, there was a precious vacancy pervading those big brown eyes of his. And so, when I had him locked on me, it wounded me to know that he was only acknowledging my presence as a last resort. He was desperate to sit quietly and read.
So, to make up for the fact that I was allowing him his avoidance a while longer, I had him read aloud to me. The reading was darling. Just like everything else about my boy, when he read aloud, the story came out light as air. He had a habit of droppin' the "g" from all "ing" words. In the stories he read, beanstalks were growin', Cousin Louis was dancin', and the Little Drummer Boy was drummin'. I fell in love with those lost Gs, and found myself speaking that way from time to time.
When group time came, Christopher sat in my lap. He was gangly already, at six years old, and his knees and elbows were sharp. But he never hurt me. He had no intention of punching or kicking, stripping naked or screaming. He watched the lips of his teachers, moving to some special rhythm. He understood it all, but not as it applied to him. There was no underlying purpose to the speaking. The words themselves, sounds, syllables, weight on the tongue, were the point. Self-defining and essential.
That was the secret.
I seated Christopher across from me on the carpet. He focused on something over my right shoulder. I took each of his hands in mine. And then I spoke words.
"Around the rocks the rugged rascal ran."
His hand twitched.
"Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously."
His eyes flickered, landing on my mouth.
"Now Moses, he knowses his toeses aren't roses, as Moses supposes his toeses to be."
His brow furrowed.
"In Hartford, Harriford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen."
His jaw set.
"The pellet with the poison is in the flagon with the dragon. The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true."
The smile started at the left corner of his mouth and crawled across his face at his trademarked molasses speed. I was dying for that smile. So, I stopped borrowing movie quotes and hit him with pure, unadulterated alliteration.
"Precocious penguins paraded around the palace with preposterously plump pretzels."
Christopher smiled. His teeth showed. And then... he looked at me, to me, in me, through me. His brown eyes eyes locked with mine and searched me for more. He wanted the magic patter of my speech and the thrill of rhyme. His laugh, setting my whole analogy awry, lit up the room.
It was a glimpse, and only a glimpse. The rest of my summer afternoons continued to be cool and shadowed. It was never easy to unlock the smile or the giggle from within the gloomy, oblivious chasm of Christopher. But I'd seen it. My twilight boy could glow.
NOTE: This entry is subsequent to The Fight for "Good Morning"