by Rita Ciresi
The other mothers tell me I’m lucky. Their sons are screamers, biters, head bangers. My boy is soft and silent as a bunny. Sometimes he’ll use the sign language he’s been taught at school: a hand to the throat for thirsty, a finger to the mouth for hungry. But his voice—or rather, his infant wails—now are nothing but a muted memory.
Since I can’t afford a sitter, I take my boy everywhere. At the nursing home where my mother ended up after her stroke, the staff greets my son as if he’s one of the therapy dogs who visit twice a week.
“Good boy!” An aide reaches down to ruffle his light brown hair.
“He doesn’t like to be touched,” I say.
She looks back and forth between my silent boy and my now-silent mother, strapped in her wheelchair.
“You can take them to the community room,” she says, “if you want to watch TV there.”
The community room is empty. A spider plant droops on the windowsill. Next to the old-fashioned television console sits a plastic shelf full of board games and puzzles in battered cardboard boxes.
I park Mom by the window, turn on the TV to a figure skating competition, and sit on the vinyl couch. My boy wanders over to an unfinished jigsaw spread on a card table.
I haven’t done a puzzle in years. When I did, I segregated the pieces with a straight edge and then constructed the outer frame. But my boy starts in the middle and radiates outward.
How does he know to separate the sea from the sky? How does he link one cloud to the other? I’m not certain. I only know his progress is swift and sure. By the time the gold medal is awarded in the skating competition, the puzzle—which shows a lighthouse on a craggy cliff overlooking a tumultuous ocean—is done.
On each subsequent visit, my boy quickly puts together the rest of the puzzles in the community room—a cottage on a lake, a red barn in a field, a covered bridge fording a stream. But he refuses to re-do any of them. Once complete, a puzzle no longer interests him.
Garage sales are the way to go. On our first stop, I pounce upon a box picturing Niagara Falls marked $1.00.
“Will you take fifty cents?” I ask the elderly woman sitting in a lawn chair in her driveway.
“Seventy-five, and it’s yours.”
I hand the box to my boy and reach into my fanny pack for three quarters.
She smiles at my boy. “Can you tell your mama thank you?”
“He can’t speak,” I tell her.
“No, he’s what they call . . .”
“Well, bless his heart. And yours.” She holds up her hand and refuses to take my three quarters.
At home, I sit next to him at our rickety kitchen table and nurse a mug of cinnamon tea. I watch him build Niagara Falls. The next weekend it’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Monet’s garden at Giverny. Yosemite Valley at sunrise. The Grand Canyon at sunset. Together we climb Mount Everest. Laze our way down the Mississippi on a steamboat. Scale the heights of the Empire State Building.
But even a dollar here and there at garage sales is more than I can afford on my part-time salary. I put an ad on Craigslist.
“Melanie Roper.” The morning anchor of Sunshine 7 News states her name as if the whole world already knows who she is. “Rotary Club gave me your number.”
“I don’t belong to Rotary,” I say.
“The president said you traded puzzles with him.”
I sift through my memory and land on a pie-faced older man who came to our door bearing half a dozen puzzles donated by Rotary members. He stayed to watch my son put together the Golden Gate Bridge in record time. Well, I’ll be darned, he’d said. I’ve never seen anything like that.
Melanie wants to feature my son on “Our Sunshine Stories”—the feel-good news segment used at the end of the broadcast to help viewers forget about all the shootings, drug busts, home invasions, and road rage.
“I’m not sure I want the publicity,” I say.
“Everyone wants publicity! Will Saturday work? We’ll come to you.”
I panic, knowing I’ll have to nuke the gray from my hair, paint my nails, buy a camera-worthy outfit.
“I can do late afternoon,” I say. “But you’ll have to bring him a puzzle—of a place, not people—he hasn’t done before.”
“Do you think he’ll perform for us?”
“He doesn’t perform,” I say. “He just . . . exists.”
Melanie Roper sweeps into our kitchenette in a fuchsia sheath dress and pearls tinted to match. She carries a soft leather tote—in a light shade probably called “dove” or “oyster”—so luxe it makes me want to cry.
The nervous smile she gives my boy—who stands in the corner, flicking the overhead light switch on and off—makes it clear she has no children of her own. The cameraman accompanying her drags in so much equipment I fear we won’t be able to get to the bathroom if we need it.
“Hey there, buddy,” he tells my son as he starts setting up lights.
“Wait,” Melanie says. “I haven’t decided where to film yet. Can you show me the rest of the apartment?”
“You’re looking at it,” I say.
She glances at the plaid sleeper sofa, which I fold out every night to make our bed, then reaches into her tote and produces a puzzle that pictures a tall white castle set against a steep mountain. It’s easy to picture Snow White sleeping inside its stone walls, waiting for the prince to wake her with a kiss.
I hold up a finger at my boy—our sign for wait—and slice the plastic wrapping off the box.
My son ignores Melanie and the cameraman, but I don’t have that luxury. Melanie orders me to sit on the couch next to her, and the camera turns on us.
“Tell us about yourself,” Melanie says.
“I don’t have a self,” I say. “I mean, beyond being mother to my son.”
“Tell us about him, then.”
I give her the barest of details—his age, his school, how old he was when we realized . . .
“And his father?” Melanie asks.
“No longer in the picture,” I say.
She nods, satisfied she’s gotten all the initial darkness “Our Sunshine Stories” requires—struggling single mom living in a studio apartment, ditched by a spouse who couldn’t deal with a “special” child.
Now for the feel-good component: How did I discover my boy’s penchant for puzzles? Has he been evaluated—by a psychologist or some other expert—as to why he’s able to put them together so quickly? What’s his favorite puzzle? Why does he prefer places over faces? Any theories about why he never wants to do the same puzzle twice? The average price of a puzzle in a retail store is . . . If he finishes one puzzle a day, that would cost me . . . Viewers who want to help can . . .
I saw our “Sunshine” story when it aired. It opened with Melanie telling viewers, “Today, we’re here with a very special five-year-old who has an amazing aptitude for putting together—in a matter of an hour—the kinds of puzzles that take most adults days to complete!” And ended with her asking, “What does the future hold for this amazing young man who knows how to put all the pieces together?”
Online viewers posted the following suggestions:
Winn-Dixie hires people like this as bag boys
I know a blind guy who puts together clocks
Maybe this boy could be a mechanic
To his mom please call me I just bought a desk from Ikea and can’t figure out how to put it together
Soon, packages piled on our doorstep. Viewers sent us their cast-off jigsaws in care of the news station. Top puzzle makers in the US and Canada sent us a dozen puzzles each. The Lions Club gave us a Barnes & Noble gift card.
As my boy and I stood in front of the puzzles in the bookstore—the air thick with the tantalizing smell of coffee and pastries from the in-store café—customers pointed and whispered.
“That’s the boy who was on the news.”
“I wonder which puzzle he’ll pick.”
“I want to watch him put it together.”
I couldn’t wait to leave. I reached for a box picturing the Taj Mahal and made the mistake of handing it to my boy. He carried it to a table outside the café and waited for me to cut off the plastic wrap.
“We have to pay for that first.” I put my hand on his back to guide him to the cash registers.
My boy didn’t budge. So I pressed my hand harder on his back. The more pressure I placed on him, the deeper he dug his sneakers into the carpet. When I took his elbow, he let out a long howl, as if the universe had ventriloquized him to call out all the sadness that blanketed the earth.
I stood there, stunned. The baristas craned their necks over the counter. A pair of well-heeled women at the next table frowned over their frappuccinos.
“I heard the famous puzzle boy was here!”
I turned. A clerk in a polo shirt—whom I later found out was the assistant store manager—pulled a box cutter out of her cargo pants. “Let me open that puzzle for him.”
“But I need to pay for it—”
“It’s on us, Mom. Take a seat. What can I get you from the café?”
I looked down at my boy silently watching the manager slice into the Taj Mahal box.
“Just a small coffee.” Then—because I felt so rattled by the strange sound he had uttered—I added, “And maybe a scone?”
“You got it!”
I sat opposite my boy. Customers, armed with iPhones, gathered to watch him build the Taj Mahal and ask me: You’re his mother, right? Are you good at puzzles too? How does he know which piece goes where before he even tries it? Can you get him to smile for my selfie?
I drank my coffee and ate my scone. When the manager circled back to check on his progress, I even dared to ask her for another scone and coffee refill. Why not? I deserved some reward for all the stares and questions I had to put up with—not just at that moment, but for the past five years and counting.
By the time we left the store—and left the Taj Mahal on the table for someone else to dismantle—my stomach hurt and my nerves jangled.
A man I didn’t know phoned a few days later.
I frowned. “If you’re calling about my boy—”
“I was calling about you. For you. I saw you at the Barnes & Noble. I’ve got a son. Sorta like your son.” He paused. “I figured we had something in common.”
It took a while before it registered: I was being asked on a date.
I met this man at the bookstore cafe. He was a good-looking guy, but a good ten years older than me—or at least he seemed that way with his graying hair and stooped shoulders.
He offered to get the coffee and returned with two steaming cups of coffee and a plump paper bag. “I remembered you liked those scones,” he said, as he put the bag on the table.
My face grew hot. I peeled the lid off my cup and kept the scone in the bag.
I let him ask the opening questions: Where do you work? Where do you live? How long have you been “primary caretaker” of your son? I tried to put a positive spin on things. But even my vague answers couldn’t mask that my whole life was just me and my boy, marooned, on our own silent island.
“What about your son?” I asked. “Does he live with you full-time?”
He nodded. “My wife—I mean, my ex—sees him once a week. If that.”
He waited for me to say, My ex . . . . But I didn’t want to tell him, My ex has disappeared along with what little child support he once gave me.
“Does your boy go to school?” I asked.
“He’s at the same learning center as yours.”
“That’s odd. I’ve never seen you at drop-off.”
“I try to get him there before the other kids arrive.”
“He doesn’t like crowds?” I asked.
“He doesn’t like a lot of things.”
I took too quick of a swallow and the coffee scalded my tongue. “Is your son in the same learning pod as my son?”
“No, he’s eleven.”
Every question I asked myself about my boy growing up—from, When should I stop taking him into the ladies room? to Where in the world will he live when he comes of age?—filled me with anxiety. Yet, eleven was an age I especially dreaded. What will happen to my boy when his body starts to change? How will I cope with that?
“I’m guessing eleven’s a hard age,” I said.
He shrugged. “I used to worry about him hurting himself. Now I have to worry about him hurting others.”
I didn’t want to ask, but had to. “What’s your son’s name?”
“Charlie. He’s the one who wears—”
He didn’t need to say anything more; everyone at the learning center knew Charlie. He was the kind of boy I once feared my own son would become: so prone to violent outbursts he had to wear a helmet to protect himself from himself.
Charlie’s father seemed to be everything I wanted in a man: honest, patient, sincere. So every minute that passed made me more disappointed in myself. I knew what he was going to ask before he even asked, and I knew how I would answer before I even answered.
“Maybe we could get dinner some night?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You’re very nice but . . .”
But I’m not looking for a relationship right now?
But your son wears a helmet?
But I can’t handle anything more than what I already have to handle?
He nodded. “I get it.”
He held up his hand. “I don’t blame you. The whole thing is too much for women to deal with. Hell, it’s too much for me to deal with.”
“If it’s any consolation,” I said, “I feel the same way sometimes.”
“It’s like being in jail.”
“I don’t think of it that way.”
He pushed back his chair and it screeched on the bare floor. “Wait a few years,” he said, “and it’ll sink in: You’re doing life.”
I looked down at the scone he had bought for me. I was too embarrassed to pick up the paper bag, and too polite to leave it on the table.
“Thank you for the coffee,” I said. “I wish you all the best with your boy.”
At home, I devoured the scone then followed it up with a good cry. Life with my boy went on as before. Or, maybe not. Every puzzle took us someplace new. Someplace majestic. Someplace wondrous. Snow fell on the Matterhorn. Autumn leaves crisped in Vermont. Clipper ships sailed through buoyant seas. And a lone polar bear—stealthy and quiet as the night—lumbered across the ice.
Rita Ciresi is author of the novels Bring Back My Body to Me, Pink Slip, Blue Italian, and Remind Me Again Why I Married You, the story collections Sometimes I Dream in Italian and Mother Rocket, and two award-winning collections of flash fiction, Female Education and Second Wife. She is professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Christian McCulloch is a prolific Scottish writer with a background in fine art. He’s been an international teacher in British West Indies, Singapore (Principal), Japan and Hong Kong, also 10 years in special needs in the UK. He now writes full time. He has written 10 novels, 12 novellas and many short stories.