In association with this site, I am beginning a new 30-part non-fiction series on Patreon. Themes will include autism, depression and navigating life as a cognitively disabled person in rural Arkansas.
These will be posting on a semi-weekly basis until the project is complete. Each chapter is part of an interconnected whole, but these are designed in such a way that they can also be approached individually, as stand-alone essays.
They are going up out of order, since I am unable to write/remember in straight lines. However, the overall structure and ending have been worked out in advance, so that a narrative destination is built into the series.
In other words, this is a difficult project to summarize. To help clarify, I will offer a sample chapter below. It is also unlocked at Patreon. At the moment, this project is subscription based, but I am keeping it at a pay-what-you-choose amount. This will allow for the support and continued ongoingness of Invisible Strings.
This is year 12
Spring, 1987. Southern Arkansas.
I’m laid out sideways in the backseat of the car, drilling angry thoughts into the silence. Dad is up front driving away from the school. He’s not saying anything.
I’m on my back, holding a non-adhesive bandage to my lip, pressing a plastic bag filled with ice cubes against the bandage to hold it in place.
Finally, Dad asks how it happened.
“Little confusing this time,” I say, voice muffled, half my mouth covered by the ice pack.
“Didn’t make a lot sense, really. Kid threw a punch out of nowhere. Usually you can kind of tell when it’s gonna happen. At recess, when they start moving around together, grouping up, getting this weird energy- it’s like they talk a little louder, start getting noisy or whatever- you can always tell when they’re working each other up to do stuff. This morning felt random. It hurts more than the not-random ones.”
The other student was huffy all morning. He came off the school bus tense and quiet. And then, in the middle of class, it’s like his fist bounced off my teeth; his knuckle snagged an incisor which then perforated my upper lip.
I stare up at the yellowy dome light on the car-ceiling above me. I press my feet against the car door, gently push against it; the top of my head slides back into the opposite door. The two points of pressure feel stabilizing. I grind sore teeth in slow figure-eight patterns, self-generating calm into my thoughts.
He uses the slow, gentle lecture-voice, says, “Son, we gotta figure out what to do here. This seems to be getting worse, not better. If boys are testing you and your confidence can’t hold up- and I’m not saying this is right- but they can be mean about it. And that’s not on you. I’m the father here, it’s my job to build you up.”
I don’t say anything. We’ve had this conversation too many times. I stopped participating in it a few years ago, I guess after the baseball times.
The car slows, turns. He parks in front of the pharmacy, says, “Before we go in, what do you think of this?”
He holds up a newspaper, pointing to an article. It’s a profile of a martial arts instructor who is opening a new training center near town. It features a picture of her in her uniform, surrounded by trophies. He lays the paper on top of me.
“I think you should learn some fighting skills. Thought it might perk up your interest if you saw the instructor. Ain’t she the prettiest black belt you’ve ever seen? Paper says she’s 24 and opening her own business and she’s got, I believe, three or four stripes on her belt.”
I do not care. My face hurts. And it’s an odd, uncomfortable feeling when prompted to react in that way to people, how they look. I let the newspaper slide off of me into the footwell.
“Just think about it,” he says. “Let’s go in and get you patched up.”
Bill, the pharmacist who has run this shop for ten million years, sees my face and says, “Hey now…playground again?”
“In class this time, so pretty much everywhere now, I guess. The library has been okay and I can…”
I bite my teeth together, force myself to stop talking, try to practice not rambling as much.
“And, anyway,” I conclude blankly.
Bill lifts his chin, says, “How’d the other one turn out? You give him a good pop?”
Shit no. I dropped and squirreled around on the linoleum and made a bunch of inarticulate pain-shouts. Even by me-standards, it was embarrassing. I don’t tell the pharmacist, though. Adults are not able to be helpful in the things they say.
“Yeah,” I say hazily, trying to get an answer out for his question. “Maybe I threw a punch.”
I look around the shop. Small and boxy, low-ceiling with sparse fluorescents. The spaces are too narrow between the product-crowded shelving; the air always feels squeezy here.
The ceiling plays elevator music.
A display table near the front features basketball-sized wicker baskets that are filled with dried, red leaves, all of them scented with horrible perfume. A sign above the baskets reads, “Potpourri Corner”. The entire shop- every atom within it- smells like the cloying stink of that corner.
Sometimes breathing makes my nose feel sick inside of its own imaginary stomach.
Bill has me sit in a chair. The town is small enough that the pharmacist doubles as a part-time “sort of” doctor. He won’t stitch, but he’ll do assorted patch up jobs and wrappings and advice and so on.
He looks at my swollen lip, with a puffy red dot where the tooth gouged it. He raises and lowers his chin, getting layered focals to catch it at helpful angles.
“Well,” he appraises. “Not enough damage to stitch, so we can get you looked after here.”
He has me move my lips around, checking for nerve damage. Seems okay. He applies an ointment, bandage, talks about the need to prevent infection. Off and on, he chats with Dad about sports.
Once everything is finished, Dad and Bill walk to the register at the front. I rush by them, exit the shop and start breathing in deeply, replacing all of the potpourri atoms in my lungs with non-potpourri ones.
Dad walks out jingling keys. I launch into the back of the car, roll onto my back, resume staring at the opaquely yellow dome light. Sometimes mundane things are comforting to focus on. Everything else makes me feel too many things. Never has the dome light made me feel anything.
Dad starts the car, then reaches back to fish the newspaper out of the footwell. He tries handing it to me again. I let it slide off of me again.
I hear the radio click on. Blurry voices sing gospel in ambient static.
A few days later, Dad is driving me to meet with the martial arts instructor. He has set up an initial meeting to see which class I should be sorted into.
He ruffles my hair. “On the phone, she sounded real nice.”
I stare at my left knee.
The radio plays a stray weather station, then one barking out sports commentary. The voices all sound metallic and consternated.
When we get to the gym or studio or whatever buildings are, it’s a small, recently constructed building next to the edge of a strip mall tendril. The instructor opens the glass door at the entrance and waves us in.
The place is a big, wide rectangular room with wall length mirrors and spires of trophies on hanging shelves (arranged bell-curvy like in the picture; smallers at the sides, tallers in the middle). The lighting in the room is bluish and mellow; I squish my eyelids together a few times so that my face can confirm to itself that it’s not so bad here, brightness-wise.
Everything smells like new wood and fresh paint; my brain feels pleasant about it; my nose relaxes.
The instructor says to call her Ms. Katy. She walks us around the rooms, talks about it. I’m too distracted by the mirrors to listen. Seeing my reflection is unnerving. I try to feel invisible most of the time; visible evidence of selfness is a jarring thing to have happen, especially in an unfamiliar room.
When they aren’t looking, I tap my foot on the floor a few times, try to get a feel for the textures and the echoes that reverberate back into my senses (the carpet is short and stubby and ash gray). It’s pretty quiet, feelings-wise, this flooring.
Wait, I’m getting too lost in the flooring; I need to be paying attention.
I shake my head, try to get more alert. I look around. The three of us are the only ones here. Mrs. Katy referred to it as an orientation.
Dad tells her about the “situations” at school, his goals for my confidence level. He tells her I get left and right confused a lot, he’s hoping I can learn to manage it better.
She listens, nods. When he starts to go on about my aim at deer camp, she interjects with, “You know, if you want to take off for a bit, maybe I can run him through some basic exercises, get an idea of his overall situation.”
She asks him to check back in thirty minutes or so, at which point I can, if I feel like signing up, choose a class and time.
He waves, strolls out of the entrance.
Once he’s gone, Ms. Katy points me into her office. I sit in a green plastic chair that’s in front of her desk. She crashes into a puffy black office chair, gives me a wry look and says, “So you got one of those dads, huh?”
She laughs, clamps a hand over her mouth, then adds, “So funny. My dad is the same type of guy. Was yours in the military?”
“Used to be. He’s a game warden now.”
“Yeah,” she says, “My dad’s an army dad. Goodness, you look miserable. It’s okay if you don’t want to be here, don’t worry about it. You’re not the first shy kid that a parent dragged to a Karate class, okay? We’re not actually going to do any training or anything today. I just wanted to chat a little, get to know you. Relax!”
I shuffle my feet around and tense up. I don’t say anything.
She nods gravely, says, “All right, you’re like that, I get it. Check this out.”
She opens a large drawer at the edge of her desk; it’s filled with books- Stephen King, science fiction, comic books; an assortment of pens and word puzzles.
“There’s always going to be at least one shy-kid in every group, so I put a shy-kid drawer together. It’s always better when they have a place they can escape to. That’s kind of the way it works here: if you’d be willing to spend part of class participating in stretches and learning some basic forms, it’s okay if you’d prefer to hang out back here a lot and get away from stuff.”
She raises her eyebrows, giving me a moment to respond. I bounce the heels of my feet on the carpet.
She continues. “I really, really don’t want my place to be an obligation. I want students to feel like this is safe harbor. That’s what I’m going for, all right? And so…that’s it, that’s my pitch. Ooh, give me some feedback here, check out the drawer if you don’t mind. At the bottom, there’s a few of those cheapo electronic games. I didn’t really know which ones to get. Do you play those? Are those cool?”
She probably means the Tiger Electronic handhelds. They sell them everywhere, even at the pharmacy. They’re terrible. However, because they are cheap, every relative buys them for me at Christmas. I love pressing the buttons, letting my fingers experience the edges and contours of the wiry, noisy device. Additionally, I like the chirpy music of them.
I walk over, dig out the handhelds, inspect them: three of them, all from Tiger Electronics. The LCD screens are gray nothings with stick-figure silhouettes on them that move like blocky puppets. These are probably my favorite things in the world right now, as of late.
The ones I have at home are all sports themed. Ms. Katy has two of those, but also a maze game where your character, a mouse, navigates through gray bars representing walls. The walls flicker and shift around as a way of simulating “movement”. This one is complex enough that you can even collect cheese as you go through the maze, Pac Man style. Probably I would want to play this one a lot, I imagine.
I put everything back into the drawer, retake my seat, and concede to her, “I like the games.”
“Good, good, What else? I got sodas, few different snacks. There’s a little radio here if you wanna play music.”
Radio. That’s interesting.
Ms. Katy asks if I’ll take a few simple written tests, just a few minutes each, to determine if I am experiencing confusion between my left and right hands.
I take the tests there at her desk. She gives me a round of questions where she hands me things with my eyes closed, monitors hand preferences.
She scores everything and concludes, “You know left from right. You know it consistently. I think it might be more of a direction thing?”
She leans back into her seat, thinks, asks more questions.
“Without looking around, where is the front entrance located?’
“Note quite. Opposite side. Do you remember roughly where the sun is right about now?”
I point one way. She points the other way.
“Huh,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “I don’t…know what that is. Honestly, how useful are these tests even, to be honest? Gee willikers. I guess you should know, I do say corny stuff like gee willikers. I’m one of those people.”
She knocks on the desk twice for emphasis, adds, “Fair warning.”
She’s nice. I tell her I’ll start the classes.
When dad gets back, they talk about fees and schedules. While they’re talking, I take the mouse game out of the drawer.
I sit, focus.
I click buttons and let my fingers press stress into the device, thumbs tapping like telegraph keys.
I let my form and movement create patterns in points of pressure.
I let my whole self send sensory notes to nowhere as I decompress on tactile plastic and electric mazes.