Wished upon a Star
July 1990. Carrollton, Texas
The Carrollton Public Library didn’t smell like an office; it smelled of cedar pencil shavings and Windex, an elementary school classroom. The tables were populated by schoolchildren writing their book reports. I was dressed for success: suit, tie, and briefcase. I didn’t belong here. Likely a pedophile, the librarian no doubt thought, playing hooky from work.
I should be in an office building downtown, handing speech drafts to a secretary, or on an American Airlines flight to New York to interview the CEO of IBM, or giving a presentation in the Dell boardroom. The librarian, black-frocked Miss Colfin, hair done up in a Pentecostal bun, pretended to ignore me but I felt she was watching out of the corner of her eye. Would she think I was going to stash books in my briefcase and sneak out? Would she think it was full of drugs? Trying to look professional, I found the card catalogue and pulled out the musty “AU” drawer. “No, Blunderbuss,” a voice in my head said, addressing me. One of my inner characters was afraid that Miss Colfin might put two and two together and deduce that I was searching for books on autism. “The pedophile must have an autistic son,” she would surmise. And that would make Ben autistic. Turning my back on Miss Colfin to shield the file drawer from her view, I thumbed through the cards. There was only one book on autism, and the title was not reassuring: The Ultimate Stranger. I pulled the book from the shelves, found a secluded table, and flipped through the pages. “Endlessly biting his own hand, screaming like a wounded animal when you approach, endlessly slapping his own face, finger-painting his body with his own feces … this is the autistic child,” wrote Carl H. Delacato, the author. If had been in the bathroom I’d have thrown up. I saw myself straddling the space between the washbasins, looking in the mirror. “This is not me,” I would have thought, hands trembling. “Not me furtively scouring the back shelves of a public library at two-thirty in the afternoon, not me with baby puke on my suit, red-eyed, wrinkled, and unkempt. I’ve wandered off the set of the movie they are making about my life and stumbled into somebody else’s film.” This is not me any more than the children described in this accursed book are like my three-year-old son. Sometime in the dim and distant past, distracted by grief, I’d turned my old gray Buick left in front of speeding motorcycle. The bike hit the passenger door, flipping the rider over the top of the car. This is not happening, I thought. And for a moment I believed it. Whew. That was a close one. For a minute there I almost thought—ha ha—Ben was autistic. Silly Dad. He’s as normal as you or me, just slow, like Grandma and Grandpa said. Boom. And the body hit the ground. I stashed the book in my briefcase and fled.