The house was quiet, then things erupted. Harrison had finished his lunch. He was supposed to rinse his dish and put it in the dishwasher. He hadn't had much sleep the night before. He didn't want to take care of the dish. Stomping across the kitchen, he held the plate over the sink, then smashed it. White shards and larger pieces flew everywhere. No one was hurt. I got him out of the kitchen and spoke to him about communicating, reacting properly. He nodded, but I don't know if that was to get rid of me or because he understood, or both. I'm his staff. I stay in the home with him five days a week. He's twenty-four and autistic. He marched up to his bedroom, got into bed and took a nap. Like most of us, Harrison is a work in progress. Some days are better than others.
After I'd cleaned things up and coaxed him back out of bed, we played the card game Uno. Harrison is pretty good at cards. He's not bad at Monopoly either, or word searches. He won a few of the rounds, and we split a bag of barbecue potato chips. He put the cards away, then I stopped him from going into his dad and stepmom's bedroom. I'd been told the story of his getting hold of his father's credit card. He'd used it to buy hundreds of dollars worth of stuff. It was all a big surprise; no one had known a thing until the Amazon delivery trucks started showing up with Mickey Mouse posters, Disney movies and collectible pins. As a distraction, I took him to this park where they have a wooded trail. There's a little creek that runs beside it, a beautiful spot. The fall months we're now in are the best, leaves having turned color, a crisp barrenness about things. You park near some sheds and enter the path through trees. We started at a fast clip, Harrison in front setting the pace. Part way in there is a walking bridge. Past that, there is a bench built out of tree limbs and stumps, a professional job, left roughhewn on purpose. Harrison sat on the bench and would not get up.
At first, I was glad to sit next to him and rest. I'm not in the greatest shape and, honestly, I'm getting paid either way, so why not take a seat in the fresh air and daydream a while. Soon, though, the minutes began to grow a little long. It was unusual. Harrison is not one to linger.
What he wants above all else is to be home on his computer, watching snippets of cartoons over and over. In a calm voice, I attempted to coax Harrison off the bench. He wouldn't even look at me. I tried mentioning the computer. No deal. Harrison, I said, it's kind of cold with the trees blocking the sun. You want to go get warm? He grunted, Uh huh, a thing he does when he's not listening, or not in the mood to participate in conversation. Let's go buddy, come on. Nothing. The air had shifted by then. It had begun to smell like rain. Harrison hates the rain. Even a drop of water on his hand while he drinks from a cup can spiral him into a tantrum. There wasn't much I could do. I decided to settle in and wait it out.
Twenty minutes later we were still on that cold bench. Harrison had not said a word. He was not looking around at nature, watching birds sing in the trees. He was just sitting, stiff and unresponsive. Then he got up and started walking, and I swore I saw a tiny crooked grin on his face. Humor is not exactly Harrison's strong suit. Could he have been showing me who's in charge? I don't know. It felt like I'd been had.
Today I met again with Harrison's therapist. Harrison's father, Bill, who is his guardian, and Harrison's case worker, Meredith, decided a few months ago that it might be a good thing for him to participate in a version of one-on-one therapy. They have the idea that together with me, a therapist might be able to curb the behaviors, the violent outbursts, the verbal abuse. I recently turned thirty-two, but the therapist looks even younger than me. She has short cropped hair dyed fiery red. She has a lisp. Whenever Harrison hears she will be coming, he says, She is not to be here. Harrison really isn't much of a talker; it's difficult getting him to interact with anyone. Harrison's dad always responds by saying, No, Harrison. She is going to be here until you learn not to break things, or hurt people, or be rude to anyone.
The therapist, her name is Leah, sat with me at a table off the kitchen. We were able to see Harrison in the little alcove where his computer and desk are. He refused to join us. Leah said she was disappointed. Her lisp had begun to grow more pronounced; I think it gets worse when she's nervous. She suggested we go to Harrison, rather than continue trying to convince him to come to us. I reminded her how little he likes others being close to his computer. She said it wouldn't be a good idea to enter into a power struggle. Of course, she added, we musn't let him control every situation. I was tempted to respond with the truth: Harrison controls everything, or he throws a radio across a room, or hits someone with a chair.
I think he may have been listening to us the whole time. He came to the table and stood in front of it. Stretching his arms out, he intertwined his fingers, cracking his knuckles. I find Leah's lisp sexy. She's chubby and cute. Her mouth, her lips, are puffy, pink and luscious looking. I was nervous myself by then, worried Harrison was about to act out. Have a seat, the new-to-the-scene luscious lisping therapist Leah said. Harrison scratched through his pants, digging at his rear end. He turned then and walked back to the alcove, to the computer he loves. Immediately a clip of a cartoon called Animaniacs started from the speakers. Harrison screamed out a favorite part, his voice like a banshee in the wilderness, like a rebuke to the powers that be.
Bill, the dad, is having another fight with his wife. She is not Harrison's mother. Bill is on his third wife. He has children with the first two, but not this one. I am at my usual table off the kitchen. They are in their bedroom. The bedroom is about ten steps from where I am sitting. I've learned to keep my head down, pretend I'm not there. Sometimes it's like being a ticket holder at a play, a witness to other people's lives unfolding. They are really going at it. The door is closed but the whole house has wood floors, no carpet to muffle sound. It doesn't matter; they would have this fight right in front of me, they are so used to—maybe too used to—there being staff for Harrison in the house. In the alcove, Harrison is silently rocking his noggin like a bobble head, staring intently at the all important computer. Bill the dad comes out of the bedroom. After all the yelling he seems cheery, not fake cheery either, but the real thing. He calls to his son, who ignores him. They were fighting about the kids. The new wife has two daughters from a first marriage. Each parent was accusing the other of spoiling their own.
Dad wants to know what restaurant Harrison has chosen to have lunch at. We go once a week. It's always Wendy's or Bojangles, lately the latter. I've tried finding anything good at Bojangles, but it's all horrible in my opinion. Whenever I ask Harrison if he wants Wendy's, he seems to invariably say Bojangles. When I ask if he wants Bojangles, he says yup. Harrison loves Wendy's. They have a thing called the Baconator. He salivates at the very mention of the word. When I first started working with him, he usually chose Wendy's. I think he has realized I hate Bojangles. I'm starting to believe this is spite, resentment toward me for being the one always telling him what to do, of my being in his orbit at all. Is he capable of that? His psychiatrist might respond with a resounding no. I think his eyes tell a different story.
We end up, of course, at Bojangles. The entire ride there, Harrison sported a tightlipped grin on his mug. After we were seated, as kind of a test, I asked Harrison for a few of his French fries. To my surprise, he handed some over. When I couldn't get through the bony, putrid chicken breast I ordered, he reached over and touched it. He said, No more chicken? When I released it to him, he gobbled it like a fox that had been starving through yet another winter. I had to stop him from cracking the bones with his teeth and eating those too. Savoring the greasy flavor on his fingers, he asked for a chocolate frosty.
Leah, the new therapist, has agreed to have a drink with me. It seems she was taken with something I said about an obscure poet named Lola Haskins, someone I'd read in this journal I found abandoned on the seat of a bus a few years back. The journal had published a brutal little
poem by this Haskins woman, something about thick-thighed policemen and slapping someone in the face. I'd always remembered reading it as a kind of wake up moment. I still have the journal, on a shelf beside some record albums I've carted around since I was a teenager. I can't say what intrigued Leah. Maybe she thinks I read poetry. I hope she's not a fan of violence, or any kind of kink related to bruising. I ought to take the journal off the shelf and read the poem again. I can't remember exactly what Haskins was getting at.
The bar we meet in is downtown, at the end of a row of boutique shops and the historic Markson Playhouse. It's an English style pub, close to Adler University. The odors of stale beer and popcorn have fused themselves to the bar's warped floors and walls. Leah arrives a few minutes after me. She is wearing a short skirt and striped knee socks, a white blouse with flared sleeves covering her sumptuous breasts. I have taken a seat at a table for two. Decidedly, I've chosen a spot away from the back room; I don't feel a need to be near the pool table it houses, or the small but rowdy group of what I assume are Adler U. students currently shooting Eight Ball in there.
I greet Leah and we mention the weather, how nice it is that it's Thursday, so close to the weekend. Conversation stalls a bit after that, and we order drinks. I can't help wondering if Leah sees this as a date. I hope that she does. Almost immediately, we fall back on talking about Harrison, the one thing we have in common. Leah says it can be pretty impossible to crack the shell of an autistic person, but wouldn't it be nice if we could. I ask if it might be okay to just let them be who they are. Harrison loves his computer, I say. He's never going to be able to earn a living, marry. He's too severe for that; why not let him have what he loves. Quality of life, Leah counters, rather emphatically. I think but don't say we might just be projecting what we see as quality onto someone who has other ideas about it.
Music has been playing from speakers balanced in the eaves of the ceiling, Beatles, Stones, CCR. The loop switches, changing from classic rock to Madonna, Beyonce, Sade, Marvin Gaye. I am on my third drink, one more than I ought to have if this is a first date. Leah has been telling me about a client she recently worked with, an adult male who seemed to have inappropriate, intimate interactions with his mother, a woman Leah surmises might also have mental problems. Leah seems relaxed, nonchalant. I notice her lisp is all but gone. I miss it. It makes her seem so darling, so soft and sweet and cuddly. I ask her how bright she thinks Harrison is. She says he seems capable enough, just stubborn and a little spoiled. She tells me Harrison is probably at the level of an eight-year-old. I ask if she thinks Harrison might be more in charge than anyone gives him credit for.
Leah stares at me just a moment too long. It leaves the impression she is puzzled in a way that is not good. I try to recover, mentioning Bill the dad, the stepmom, the way they present themselves without any artifice. My maybe date for the evening frowns. They're nice, I guess, she says. They are loud, though. I think that has a negative effect on Harrison. His father makes excuses for him. Mom tries to make him toe the line. Mixed messages. A united front is always best, she assures me. The vodka tonics are at work and I blurt out how I have started to think Harrison's sole intent is to brutalize everyone into making the world what he wants it to be. I
confess I'm starting to believe he is a nasty bit of business. Leah's beautiful red lips part to speak, then close without a word. The lovely therapist stares down at her glass. I am left alone in a crowd, wondering if what I am seeing on her bright pale face might not be a more pitying version of the grin Harrison has been battering me with for I don't know how long.
The computer is blaring. Bill the dad and stepmom are at work. Harrison stands abruptly, jerks in cartoon fashion, imitating something playing out on the screen in front of him. I go to the archway of the alcove, stop and wait. He continues, hitting the mouse to repeat everything over again. Harrison. Harrison. Turn it down please. He says, Mmm hmm, but does nothing. I move a
little bit, as if I'm going to enter the alcove. He turns the sound all the way off. Remember, we have to do laundry. It's time now. You picked one-thirty. It's one-thirty. Harrison sits down. His voice rises: No laundry. Laundry is dead. Yeah, well. We all have to do our chores, right? He ignores me. I ask if he wants to go out to lunch this week. If he does, he has to do the things he has agreed to. It would be hard, Harrison, to go out in the community if you refuse to listen. It really wouldn't work well, don't you think?
Harrison has stomped upstairs and come back down with a laundry basket full of his dirty laundry. I'm seated back at my table, facing the alcove. Harrison drops the basket on the floor and sits at his computer. The cartoon sounds start again. I unlock the door to the garage and get a snack from the cabinet where they are kept. I come back in, hiding the snack behind my back. I've decided I'll bribe him with it if I have to. I put it under the sink in the kitchen. Straightening back up, I see a blur speed by. Instantly, I realize I have not locked the door after coming in. Harrison has taken off.
The house is on a three-acre lot. By the time I get outside, he has crossed the widest expanse of property, traversed a small pebbled driveway, and is almost at the neighbor's door. I shout his name and run. Huffing, I slow to a fast walk. He gets through a side entrance and disappears inside. Going up a set of stairs, I knock at the now open door, shout hello. The neighbors are a couple, probably in their seventies. They are on friendly terms with Bill the dad and stepmom. They are acquainted with Harrison, his diagnoses, though I'm not sure how well
they know him. I enter, tentatively, aware that, technically, this is breaking the law. Hello. Hello. Harrison screams in a cartoon voice, yelling about a crazed bear stealing a picnic basket. I follow the sound of his voice; it takes me to the kitchen. The husband and Harrison are there. No doubt having heard the yelling, the wife enters from another room, concern creasing her brow.
The three of us stand listening to Harrison. He has bowed his head but is clearly looking at me from the corners of his eyes. This is a persnickety predicament of violent proportions, he croons. Dig a grave and bury me with tulips, Ren. All you got is two lips, Stimpy. What a persnickety predicament of violent proportions. Harrison does a little jig and slams a hand down on a counter. The three of us jump in our own skin. Pointing a finger at me, he says, Get him out of the house, Ren. There's a firing squad in the yard for scary men. We don't want any terrible hurt on us again. The neighbor couple purses their lips. They've exchanged glances, and are now looking at me, as if waiting for an explanation for any bad behavior I may have been up to. What can I tell them, it's all a cartoon? Nothing to see here folks. We're all just fine.
Another mad dash and Harrison is out the old couple's door. Arms flapping, flat-footed, he makes it across their lawn, onto the road that leads out of the neighborhood. He's not running this time but walking at a furious pace. I hustle behind him, having no real idea what to do. As I've said, violence is always a possibility with Harrison. There have been incidents of severe attacks on family members, store clerks. At DisneyWorld on a family vacation one year, a ball cap he'd been wearing had been left somewhere and couldn't be found. Realizing it was gone for good, Harrison beat on his father and attempted to throw himself off the second story balcony of their motel. He once clobbered his brother with a frying pan. Trailing him, I call out his name, which accomplishes nothing.
Before reaching the main road, he makes an about face and rushes by me, all the way back to the door of his house. He waits as if nothing has happened. The door is not even locked, but I pretend to use the key, hoping the routine of it will help return things to normal. Will the neighbors call the police? It depends, I guess, on just how odd they thought it all was, how inappropriate or violent they think I might have been. They seem like sensible enough people. Under the circumstances, they remained pretty calm. I don't think anything will come of it.
Harrison goes right to the alcove and stands at the computer. The volume goes up as he plays out a scene, bellowing words and doing a herky jerky kind of dance routine. I take a seat at my table, waiting, watching. The clip on the computer comes to an end. Harrison walks into the kitchen. He gets a glass, fills it with ice from the freezer door dispenser, runs the water. He seems to be making a point of not looking at me. Ignoring my own best instincts, I ask him to please keep the volume down. I thank him, even though he hasn't responded to the request.
There is more noise from the computer now. The keyboard keys, Harrison is banging them furiously. I think he's smiling again, that small, crooked grin. I'm about to ask if he's alright, an attempt, at least, at doing the job I've been hired to do. Before I get a word out, he hauls the basket of laundry off the floor and stomps over to where I'm sitting. I see that his chin is cocked upward in the cocky way he sometimes employs. The laundry basket lands with a bang on the table, wobbling there in front of me. All you got is two lips, Stimpy. Dig a grave and bury me with tulips, Ren. The second the words are out, it registers with me, the possibility the cartoon voice is gone. I try to think but I can't exactly remember the voice on the show There's a firing squad in the yard for scary men. The little jig again. Get him out of the house, Ren. Get him out of the house, Ren. Get him out of the house Ren get him out of the house Ren get him out of the house...
Title image "Pieces" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2021.