Aric Hammond removed a triplicate form from his desk drawer and a rollerball pen from his lapel pocket, then scrawled a service order for the maintenance supervisor to test Minnie’s oven for damage.
“I assume we will talk about all this on Monday,” Katrina had asked as he had straddled the apartment’s threshold before leaving. To be on the safe side, he had unplugged the oven, a disapproved act as indicated by Katrina’s tone.
“And you’ll be on time?”
“Unless something unforeseeable happens.”
“Does that happen to you often?”
“The answer might surprise you.”
“But, does it ever surprise you?” The crease between her eyebrows deepened. “You don’t strike me as someone who appreciates surprises.”
He had checked his watch. “Speaking of time, I need to be somewhere. Until Monday, then.”
He checked his watch now, aligned his pen and papers on his desk, then secured his office door. After entering the Minnesota fall afternoon, he slid into the driver seat of his Buick Regal and promptly leaned his forehead against the steering wheel.
Why was he surprised neither of the two women had recognized him? Even so, he wished one had.
He expelled a shuddering sigh. Raising his head, he saw his reflection in the rear-view mirror. If only he could see what was coming up behind him every second of the day the way he could see approaching headlights. But, he knew he must live his life like a vigilant driver, always aware of the gages, the dials, the side mirrors, the other drivers, his own competencies. Even his own impairments.
He left The Refuge for his short commute home. He crossed Main Street and turned into his subdivision. Elementary and middle school boys played a game of rag-tag football across three front yards. He pulled into the driveway of his modified two-story home, turned off the ignition, and watched. An undulating spiral dropped into a cluster of nail-bitten, grubby fingers. A red-haired boy broke from the mob and ran for the electric box in the farthest yard. Skinned-kneed legs scrambled after his long strides. He sprinted beyond the electric box with hands raised high, his teammates rushing him into a huddle of rousing cheers while the opponents argued about their unwritten playbook. As Aric exited his Regal, the cheering stopped. He briefly caught the curious green eyes of the redhead. A dozen eyes followed the gaze of their victor as Aric strode to the front door.
Inside rose a tumult of another sort. A blur of green bolted past him, a thunderous yell resounding. Down the hall came a twenty-something brunette. By the look of her scowl and crossed arms, he sensed a stormy report.
“Hello, Deidra,” he said too brightly. “Thanks for coming here at the last minute. How did Gunnar do?”
“To quote, ‘Hulk Smash!’” she sighed.
“His wall has a doorknob-sized hole in it.”
“Hmm.” Aric added “wall repair” to his mental to-do list. “Any more damage?”
She held out her arms. Red welts in tracks and dots covered her pale skin. A row of black and blue teeth marks darkened her wrist.
She held up a hand. “I signed on for this, Aric. I know what comes with the job.” She shouldered her purse and slipped on her shoes. “By the way, you’re not fooling me. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Noting his narrowed eyes, she smirked. “Fine, fine. I’ll give it a rest. Tell Bruce Banner good-bye for me when he shows up.”
“Actually, I’ve been meaning to discuss that with you. Make sure you refer to Bruce Banner with comic books and David Banner with the TV show. I find it easier just to call Gunnar ‘Banner’ since I don’t know which he is thinking about in the moment. It makes a difference.”
The word to describe her smile escaped him until she spoke, “I can’t tell if the fact that you know the difference is quirky or adorable.” She brushed a slender index finger along the crease of his shirt.
He knew she took his shudder for surprised pleasure, not the emotion that matched his thinking. Pity! She pities me for trying to understand my own son!
“See you on Monday morning, Aric.”
“Thanks again, Deidra.”
Closing the door behind her, Aric pressed his head against its cold steel as a bang sounded from Gunnar’s bedroom.
Gunnar listens to the voices below him from under his comforter. Deidra is leaving soon. He smiles. Deidra touches Dad’s arm too much when they talk. Dad does not care. Gunnar cares. Deidra does not get it. Some people just do not like to be touched. Not even a little touch. Gunnar thinks of the shock he gets after he slides across the floor and flips the light switch. That is fun to do over and over again. Dad does not like that kind of touch. Not even a little touch. Gunnar only plays Shock-Flip when Dad is in the shower or on the phone. Gunnar screeches if Dad catches him. Dad thinks the shock-flips hurt. He says e-lec-tri-city on skin hurts. It does not hurt! People-touch hurts more than shock-flips. Shock-flips tickle and shoot blue light. People-touch pinches and buzzes inside. It holds on too long. The corners of Gunnar’s eyes see red. Deidra-touch pinches, buzzes, and stings.
Dad-touch is air between a fist-pump. Gunnar likes Dad-touch because it means they share power. Sometimes they do the fist-pump with finger-flutters. That means they let others see their power.
Gunnar hears Deidra leave. Gunnar’s stomach grumbles, but he stays under the comforter. He thinks about his mom.
He wonders if Mom-touch stings like Deidra-touch or fist-pumps like Dad-touch. Maybe Mom-touch is something else. If Deidra-touch holds on too long and Dad-touch knows when to let go, maybe Mom-touch holds on just right. Or not at all.
Mom-not-at-all-touch feels bad, feels mad, feels like Smash! He does not wince when his fist hits the wall.
Aric walked slowly up the stairs. He used to take the stairs two at a time when Gunnar was a preschooler. Gone were the days when a bang or a crash startled him. Often, silence surprised him more. The times between bangs seemed loaded with uncertainty like driving in a fog and not knowing if the bridge ahead would lead to the other side or straight down into a raging river.
He knocked gently on the door.
“Enter at your own risk,” said a muffled voice.
Aric opened the door to see a mounded green blanket baring the visage of the jaded superhero. He knew his Banner lay beneath it, but he decided to wait for the full transformation. Whipping the blanket off could catapult him right back into Deidra’s earlier battle.
He surveyed Gunnar’s room instead. Posters of superheroes and villains lined the walls. Because, as Gunnar would say “heroes face villains,” the good and the bad adorned opposite sides of the room. The only exception was the picture over Gunnar’s bed. It was a vintage poster from the 1970’s TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferregno. Half the face was the calm, pensive Banner. The other was the “raging monster” with flashing green eyes and a gaping, roaring mouth. Aric smiled at the memory of his father pretending to rip the phone base from the wall mount in verdant rage. Seeing the knob-shaped hole behind the door, he felt the fantasy fade.
The rustle of blankets caused him to focus once again in the direction of the bed. A green plastic mask emerged. Gangly arms donned in a green Halloween costume threw back the comforter. Long legs swung over the side of the bed, revealing the one-piece costume stretched across Gunnar’s eight-year-old frame. The pant legs and sleeves came just below his knees and elbows. Aric knew, if Gunnar stood, a rip in the seat would reveal his son’s superhero boxers. Many times the costume, first worn when Gunnar was six, had been thrown into the Wednesday morning trash only to reappear on Gunnar Wednesday evening before Aric arrived home from work. Many times, Aric’s glimpse of his son at the end of the day was this mask.
“Rough day, Banner?”
“Mr. Magee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
“I’ll try not to make you angry. But, I can’t help liking you.”
Plastic-lidded eyes looked down.
“Gunnar, take off the mask. Please.”
His son’s golden hazel eyes and russet hair appeared. Teary streaks ran down his olive-toned cheeks to his jelly-covered mouth. But, the eyes remained averted. Aric approached the bed and placed his right hand palm up. Gunnar’s hovered above it.
“Pizza or hot dogs?”
“Banner has good taste.”
After he and Gunnar downed two hot dogs each, they watched a rerun episode. Then, Gunnar showered and prepared for bed. His countenance calm and compliant, he listened as Aric read from a comic book. Classical music on, lights out, door closed, and Gunnar’s day ended. But, not Aric’s.
“Rough day, Banner?”
He entered his office and opened the pencil drawer. Next to the pens and pencils organized by color lay a small bundle of fading photographs. Removing the top one from the pile, he smiled back at the woman standing in profile, her cotton dress draped taut over her pregnant frame.
Anticipating Gunnar’s birth had been surreal. The joy was contagious, but vicarious, because of how she had responded to each kick and roll. The joy hadn’t hit him until he held his son and named him for a warrior-king.
But, in the aftermath of delivery, joy battled with uncertainty. He arrived at the hospital the next day, anticipating a morning of sweetness with his family. Instead, he saw the chaplain leaving the room and heard racking sobs behind the door.
“What’s wrong?” he asked the woman in a dated, tweed suit.
“Your son experienced complications in the night, Mr. Hammond.”
“He inhaled amniotic fluid in the birth canal. It’s common. But, the suctioning didn’t get it all before he aspirated. His oxygen levels dropped. He’s alive…”
“But, he’ll need to be in the hospital on antibiotics for forty-eight hours.”
“Can we see him?”
“By appointment only. He’ll be in the NICU.”
“She’s understandably…upset. Go to her. Then go see your son.”
Aric walked into the room. Face covered and shoulders heaving, her diamond glinted under the florescent lights through strands of bedraggled hair.
“The chaplain just told me.”
She continued to weep.
“Go away, Aric.”
She looked up with red-rimmed, glaring eyes. He backed out of the room and headed for the NICU.
Gunnar lay in a glass-sided bassinet. His skin, gray and pasty, reminded Aric of ET’s at the end of the movie. Nurses moved around him checking infants’ vitals and barking orders about sanitizer and masks. Aric noticed a large African-American man hunched in front of an incubator. The baby weighed ounces. Turning to Gunnar, he gazed at his eight-pound infant. How could they be here? Why wasn’t she with them?
Gunnar recovered quicker than expected and came home in thirty-six hours. She tried to nurse him. Whether it was her half-hearted effort, Gunnar’s clumsy sucking, or a lack of bonding in the hospital, it didn’t work. Aric realized he was glad. He loved watching Gunnar’s eyes roll with euphoria after draining a bottle. He enjoyed the camaraderie of sitting in front of their first football double-header with Gunnar snoozing on his chest.
He tried to reassure her that Gunnar was fine. But, she just cried or sat in the glider for hours, staring out the window while Aric nurtured their son.
Her doctor said it was post-partum depression. She seemed to improve a couple months later. He felt he could return to work. Then the police called.
Katrina had been right this afternoon. If he disliked surprises before, he hated them after that phone call. He hired Deidra and made sure his hours were flexible. But, that didn’t erase the fatigue of late nights and early mornings. It didn’t erase the growing knowledge that Gunnar wasn’t achieving milestones.
Aric could dismiss the inchworm crawling and the late walking. But, Gunnar wasn’t talking by age two. His tantrums of throwing himself backwards onto the floor scared Deidra and him. It scared them more that he didn’t cry after he did it.
When the Early Intervention staff came out to do an evaluation after Gunnar’s preschool screening, the results were conclusive and overwhelming—Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Gunnar started preschool, but under an Individualized Education Plan. They said it would help him integrate and achieve goals. Even though Gunnar brought home more undesirable behaviors than stellar progress reports, Aric felt Gunnar was getting the education he needed. But, he could see Deidra was buckling under the strain.
Rough day, Banner?
It had been, but not because of Gunnar. Or Deidra. It was because of her. It would always be because of her.