The Boiler

Mason Hamberlin

BEFORE THE CHANGES TO THE DSM-V, CIRCA 2000–2007

for Diana C.

  1. Age six, soft-shelled, the boy doesn’t sleep at night without socks. Toes exposed, every breeze, texture, touch: elastane needles. Like peeling the skin beneath fingernails or the chill of cold, surgical instruments. Otherwise, he doesn’t care much. Contentment comes defined by shapes, hours alone with books or Legos.
    1. Also notable. No: 
      1. Nylon
      2. Shorts
      3. Nylon shorts
      4. Short nails
      5. Short hair
      6. Long stares

  2. Marina Beach, CA. Family trip (2002): 
    1. The boy wears neither a swimsuit, nor shorts. The Gap-brand bottoms that parents bought line the boy’s closet like mold, mostly asphyxiated by other suburban kid stuff—not that parents have checked. Parents just think they have a particular child.
      1. No, you can’t take your Legos to the beach, Mother says. Why’d you bring them if I said so at home? And, M, where’s your swimsuit?

    2. So the boy brings a book instead, tucks socks into sweatpants, undoes umbrella, avoids sun. The Pacific light powders the beach a brick-oven brown in the evenings, from dunes to water, a color not unlike that of passing elderly couples, their skin leathered and sagging. For the boy, this evokes an image of his chicken legs crisping.
      1. Why don’t you come off the blanket? Mother says. Come roll down the dunes with your sister and I—you can keep your socks on.
      2. I want to read, the boy says.
      3. M, please.

    3. Mother standing over the boy with sister, S. The boy shrimps around his book and pretends it’ll all go away. How can they not understand? He just can’t and, well, what about the seaweed and reeds and jellyfish and flies? And what about the sun—feels like a thumbprint smothered, hot on an electric stove—why is it there? He pushes out the light with the book’s spine.
      1. S, three years younger, bowl cut with tater-tot grubbing fingers, throws wet sand and teeters away.
      2. (The boy yells.)
      3. At distance, Father lofted on the dunes: S, no, stop that. C’mon, why can’t these kids get along, dammit?

  3. The boy doesn’t like S.

  4. Days later, a sort of self-mutilation begins in healing, when Mother tucks him in and connects the freckles on his neck.
    1. And says:
      1. If you ever hurt, pray and we’ll make you better. You shouldn’t ever have to hurt. Don’t tell anyone, but you’re my favorite.

  5. When they go to Safeway each week, S gets to ride in the shopping cart seat. But S doesn’t want to be there and M does, but Mother says otherwise, and M has done enough second grade math to know this doesn’t add up.
    1. What also doesn’t add up:
      1. How S wants to know what you’re doing right now.
      2. How about now?
      3. Now?
      4. How often Mother uses the word “socialize” when M cries.
      5. How Mother and Father always pick up S when she cries, which isn’t often and never in public. When they do, they say it’s because S has a good reason, and not having socks is not a good reason.

  6. LOUD // BIRTHDAY PARTY (2003) // NOT HIS BIRTHDAY // SISTER AND CANDLES AND CAKE AND // BALLOONS // OCCASIONAL LANDMINES // SILLY BOY // DON’T RUIN THIS FOR OTHERS // ACCIDENTAL POP // CRYING // ENTER: FATHER // LOOK, IT’S NOT THAT BAD // CRYING // IDEA // EXIT SIBLINGS // EXIT ROOM WITH BOY // ENTER BALLOONS // POP // BOY SCREAMS // FATHER BARS M’S ARMS BACK // POP // SCREAMS // BOY REDUCED // MOTHER: ARE YOU SURE THIS IS RIGHT? // BOY TRYING TO BREATHE // FLOOR TASTES LIKE SWEAT // SILLY BOY // POP // POP // SWEAT AND TEARS // PUDDLES // SCREAMING // BOY’S BRUISED WRISTS // SHAPED LIKE A MAN’S HANDS // THOUGHT BUT NOT CONFIRMED (?) // POP // POP // THINGS GO // GRAY // HOW LONG? // LONG ENOUGH // AT NIGHT, THE BOY CAN’T SLEEP // CORRECTION: NOBODY SLEEPS // PRAYERS // CRYING //

  7. S’s fault. She shouldn’t have been born.
    1. Just want to hurt her.

  8. The boy, still a boy, bounds around the suburban backyard, pretending he’s a giant, fighting robot who saves the day and decapitates annoying sisters. Defend the neighborhood cul-de-sacs from enemies, potato bugs. In his head, nothing can stop him.
    1. Not the neighbor boy, who once stole a swing right off the boy’s backyard playset. The neighbor boy who, with holes in his socks, painted their three-bedroom-two-bath with eggs when M couldn’t look him in the eye. 
    2. Not the hushed stories Mother tells. The ones about the apartments behind the house, where a man robbed a single mother of two with a screwdriver. Mother says: Nothing good can happen in a place surrounded by all those trees.

  9. Unexpected news (2005):
    1. Kids, we’re moving to France. 
      1. Your father got offered a job, Mother says. We’ve been talking. It’ll be different. But good different. It’ll be a good experience for us all.
      2. Do they have Legos in France? the boy asks. 
    2. Mother calculates it: Morgan Hill, CA to Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport is a thirteen-hour (or $1,775) flight per person. But Father’s new HR job will cover it all. The house, car, school. But the boy? Worries from Mother and Father. They research online to kill time between packing boxes. 
    3. An APA-approved website demands the following criteria:
      1. “A total of six (or more) items from (1), (2), and (3), with at least two from (1), and one each from (2) and (3):

        1. Qualitative impairment in social interaction…
        2. Qualitative impairments in communication…
        3. Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities…

      2. Delays or abnormal functioning in at least one of the following areas, with onset prior to age 3 years:

        1. Social Interaction
        2. Language as used in social communication
        3. Symbolic or imaginative play

      3. The disturbance is not better accounted for by Rett’s Disorder or Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.”1

    4. Other online literature says:
      1. “The elder of two sons, Hans Asperger had difficulty finding friends and was considered a lonely, remote child…He was interested in the Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer, whose poetry he would frequently quote to his uninterested classmates. He also liked to quote himself and often referred to himself from a third-person perspective.”2

  10. Bienvenue à la Plague spray-painted on the road sign outside. Vaucresson crossed out. New house. New country. All vines and gates and hundred-year-old buildings. From now on, the family buys more antique furniture than humanly necessary. Ungodly amounts.

  11. LDS Jesus looks down on the French congregation—brown hair, blue eyes, and canvas smile—hung from the manicured brick wall. Meanwhile, the Mormons sing, and somewhere near the front, a bishop palms the boy’s back and imparts the how-to routine of passing the sacrament.
    1. The boy (age ten): bent in half and sat in a folding chair. (Quiet? Crying?)
    2. Adjacent: a twelve-year-old sucks a pacifier. Another sneaks paper slivers of naked women, and whisper about the American basketballer, LeBron James.
      1. Après l’hymne et la prière, the bishop says, tu vas passer le pain et l’eau à ces allées, là-bas.
      2. (He points.)
      3. Continues: M, ta mère me dit que tu fais mal parfois? Eh bien, c’est ici que tu peux guérir. Tout est dans le Premiers Corinthiens 11:24. Lorsque tu touches les cœurs des autres, le toucher du Christ va t’aider.

  12. Supper:
    1. In theory, the boy says he sets the table for four. In practice, though, it’s always a puzzle—S set as far from him as possible.
    2. Come time, the soft creaks of feet down stairs notifies the boy that hungry bodies follow. He listens. The carpet—fastened down by brass rods at the root of each step—muffles each step. The old wood beneath, however, expresses pressure, like soft groans stretched between three thin floors.
    3. The family doesn’t sit how the boy imagines (paper nametags ignored), and S, most certainly instigating, sits next to the boy.
      1. She’s too close to me, he says.
      2. She’s your sister, Father says.
      3. The boy swings his hands—in defense—at a smiling S.
      4. SMILE INVERTS // WET // AND RED // AND CRYING // OLDER BOY’S HANDS HITTING SMALLER KID RIBS // BABY FAT // DAMMIT, M // WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? // FATHER SWINGING HIS OWN HANDS // PINS BOY // ONE CHILD VULNERABLE // THE OTHER: TICKING LIKE CLOCKWORK //

  13. The boy writes a note:
    1. I am so sad. S makes me so sad and I am sad because I hurt people. I hate hurting people. I wish I could die.”

    2. It has drawings of cartoon characters on it.

  14. Parents talk.

  15. Parents pray.

  16. At the office entrance, there’s a Turkish toilet—a porcelain hole in the ground. Something he’ll never use. Just like the pay-per-use pissiors filled with cigarette butts. The ones next to the Algerian street vendors with beautiful names like Réda and Pafardnam, who whisper to prayer beads and sell knock-off jerseys and watches so they can feed their families overseas.
    1. Be good and don’t talk to strangers, Mother says before hugging the boy goodbye. More for her comfort than his.
      1. Am I broken? the boy asks.
      2. Of course not, M. But I think that’s something only you can decide.

    2. Upstairs: warm air, soft space, and toys. A particular ten year old’s dream.
      1. How are you doing? the therapist asks. Fidget-y, I see?
      2. Yeah. (Eyes aimed at the bookshelf.)
      3. How so? Would you like some coffee or tea while you tell me?
      4. She puts down her pen and paper and reaches for a pair of cups and the boy knits his knuckles and stiffens. Posture noted, she stops.
      5. I can’t, says the boy. My family doesn’t drink those.
      6. Oh, I’m sorry! I forgot—your mother told me. You know, I’ve never known any Mormons to live this far away from the US. That must be a good community for you?
      7. I’m still trying to figure out how it will make me happy.

  17. Flipping through his mother’s albums, the boy sees a stained photograph of him and S. In it, he’s three years old and dressed as Batman, while she, no more than a few months, plays a bald-headed Robin. They’re slumped together, pressed like an infant’s fist. Both quiet. Both peaceful. If not for long, then at least that moment. The boy feels like he might hold the last of his baby teeth—something he lost and can never grow back. In the photo, a passed-out Batman puts his arm around Robin while she sleeps as if to say:
    1. This. I’m proud of this, my sidekick.

  18. Father will still anoint the boy’s head and pray for blessings of health. The laying on of hands, it is called. The whole congregation joins in each Sunday, the boy, the bishop, and Father elevated on a podium. The congregation, in its itchy pews, watches, prays. Older French women in floral prairie dresses tell the boy he has already shown signs of healing and the boy understands none of this, nothing of why these members of the congregation know his name, nothing of why they talk to him just now. Mother cringes, tells the boy to be polite. They are doing their best to care.
    1. An older woman to the boy:
      1. Vas-y! she says. Joue au basket avec les autres garçons. Tout ce que tu as besoin sont les Ecritures et des sports.
      2. Merci, the boy says.
      3. (He never looks up from his dress shoes laces. They’re untied.)

  19. When the boy feels ready, he and the therapist take trips out of the office.
    1. All around them, the 7e arrondissement de Paris alternates between postcard-worthy storefronts and back alley residencies. Some centuries old, with muted hues, some prewar chichi (think flower-haired cherubs carved above every second window). Others—presumably where tourists won’t venture—resemble concrete cubes with three-foot wide alleyways where they almost meet.
      1. Let me show you a place, the therapist says.

    2. Plastic and glass paneling slapped onto the Haussmann architecture: The Real McCoy Cafe. The boy and the therapist sit at a table for two, where she points out shelves stocked with American delicacies: Dr Pepper, Pop Tarts, pork rinds, Oreos, and jerky. Then the menu, which reads: american breakfast—your choice of cookie rrisp, froot loops, or kellogg’s frosties.
      1. Comfort food, she says. They tell you to grow up and then they make places like this.
      2. I haven’t had a Dr Pepper since we moved, the boy says.
      3. It’ll be my treat.
      4. (The boy cracks a smile.)

    3. Now comfortable, they begin. An exercise:
      1. Close your eyes. Inhale for three seconds. Exhale for four. Repeat.
      2. What do you hear?
      3. Smell?
      4. Taste?
      5. Touch. What do you feel in contact with your body?
      6. Slowly, let me let know, she says. Whenever you’re ready.

    4. The boy tries.
      1. Breathe.
      2. He hears the hum of bodies and vehicles in the street. Coffee shop klatch. An espresso machine hiss and the steroid-powered purr of a blender. Someone inflates a balloon: a noise like leaning off an edge.

        1. Good, the therapist says. Now try a little harder.

      3. He notices his own smell: a mother’s choice of detergent, clean clothes.
      4. He thinks about what he tastes. The acidic sips of Dr Pepper that nip and burn even after he swallows. He can’t recall what his mouth tastes without it, though. He can’t recall a time when he didn’t have a taste. Or went hungry. He thinks of the people who provided that security for him.

        1. Now, what do you feel, M?

      5. The boy feels the table’s vinyl skin beneath his palms, like thumbprints, like being hand-to-hand with a hardness, like he’d pour out feathers if cut open, more pillow than flesh and bones and boy. Even this attempt to describe it: a misnomer. He feels the shrill itch in his fingernails. He tells it that he’s tired of hurting because he feels too much. He tells it to quiet. He tells it to quiet, and for a few seconds, it listens.

Mason Hamberlin is an educator, editor, and essayist from Chapel Hill, NC. Most recently, he teaches young writers through Writopia D.C., and hopes to spark discussions about toxic masculinity and stigmas surrounding ASD. His work appears or is forthcoming in Duende, voicemailpoems.org, and Thrice Fiction. He tries to be cute @definitely_not_mason.