Derek was snoring when I crept in into his bedroom a bit before 8 am. His sandy hair had tousled itself into one big cowlick. His eyelids clamped shut, fighting to keep the day at a distance.
“I’m going to look at your sketchbook, ready or not,” I announced loud enough for him to stir.
He had sat past midnight on the floor in his room, scribbling on 15 by 15 sheets of paper. The oversized tablet and one black pencil laid on the floor next to his bed. He always refused to sit at a table. He drew, watched movies, and ate on the floor. Often all at once.
I picked it off the floor and took a deep breath, dreading what I expected.
The first page rendered a pudgy barista. She wore a heart pendant around her neck, a foolishly small boating atop her frizzy hair, and a coffee stain shaped like China on her light t-shirt.
The second presented a rickety old man, standing at a near 90 degree angle while leaning on a cane. I remembered his painful shuffle as he passed us on the street. I didn’t notice Derek even looking at him.
The third was a tall woman with regal posture and perfect hair. She carefully checked her reflection in store windows as she walked. Derek’s self-soothing guttural shriek scared her into a brisker pace.
And on and on, page after page.
Each drawing was as exact as a photograph, capturing minute details – an unruly swish of hair, a baggy polo shirt pulled taut by a bulging gut, even blemishes on hands.
Yet each omitted one thing: a face. Below the hairline, above the neck, between their ears, there was nothing but blank white paper.
I watched him wrestling with his blankets, hoping to return to slumber before I could grill him. His two-month-old hobby of drawing portraits stunned and unsettled me.
First, he never seemed to look at anyone for more than two seconds. He hasn’t since diagnosed with severe autism 27 years ago. He rarely looks at me and I am with him all day, every day. Yet those two-second glances were all he need to absorb their features, even their essence.
Derek was 3 when his language turned to mush and then disappeared. He stopped pointing and gesturing. Then he stopped looking us in the eyes. That’s when he became unmoored.
Over decades, his mom and I chased every therapeutic lead from rote matching to electronic impulses, from mainstream to Hail Mary with no success.
He’s 30 now and still doesn’t speak. His form and level of autism is severe and isolating, an amalgamation of befuddling quirks.
Second, I didn’t even know until a few weeks ago that he could draw. Someone on an autism support group suggested I try to give Derek an outlet that connected him to others. He had never shown interest in drawing or anything else for that matter.
The void, the vacuum, the black hole. His mother would use all these terms to recognize the disconnect between what he demanded and what he gave back. Until one day, a year ago, she left us. “I’m dying in slow motion, every day,” was about the last thing she said to me.
And lastly, where were the faces? How could someone leave out the first thing most of us look at, the most connective aspects of a person?
Raising him involved detective work, looking for clues. Why he did this or that, what is he thinking, where is he hurting? But this was a whole another thing. Did he not see the faces or were they just unimportant?
He is a fulltime job and I have multiple sclerosis, which is akin to carrying around bags of sand. I have nobody to watch him, so I began looking to him for a group home.
“Quite a pair, aren’t we,” I said to him, this time much louder. “It’s time to get up. The doctor Harris is coming to visit you.”
He rustled, turned, stretched his neck, and rubbed his eyes. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer me. I figured the more I talked to him and greater chance he might one day respond. I got him a squeeze bottle of water.
“Time for the bathroom,” Derek. “Got to get going.”
He sat up, still slumped and dazed. “Bathroom,” I commanded
He followed me, the plastic diaper he wore to bed was plump with urine. He knew the drill, emptying his bladder, washing his hands, putting on a fresh pullup. He turned to leave when I put my arm on the door frame of the bathroom, blocking his exit.
“Derek, I need you to look in the mirror.”
He didn’t move at first. Then he tried to edge past me.
“The mirrrrr-orrr,” I said. I rapped one of my knuckles against the cabinet mirror above the sink. He didn’t look. I grabbed both his shoulders, turned his body, and pushed up his chin until he faced the mirror.
Derek is 6’4 and more than 200 lbs. He leaned on me to clear a path out.
“C’mon Derek, can you see your face?” I watched his eyes, searching for a glint of recognition. It struck me at that moment that I had never seen his look in a mirror or linger on any photographs of himself or his mother.
“That’s you, Derek!” I touch his face and then the image peering back at us. He looked toward ceiling. I grabbed his left hand, placed it on his face and then stretched the hand to the mirror.
“That’s you! That’s your face!”
He jostled his way past me and into the kitchen, meaning he was hungry and wanted to change the subject. “What’s with you? Why no faces? C’mon, help me understand.”
He sensed my rising irritation and kept his eyes trained on the floor.
He was never a performer. Decades ago, before he was a toddler, he walked up to a piano in an old bookstore and, instead of banging on the played like most 7-year-olds, played a lovely, lilting melody. Everyone in the shop stopped, rapt by his music. As soon as I stood over him, he jumped off the bench and never again touched a keyboard (even after I bought for him).
Dr. Harris, an expert in autism at the local university, arrived early.
She was striking. Tall and pretty despite oversized glasses dominating her prim features. I imagined her faceless portrait.
She declined my coffee and knocked on the open door of Derek’s room. He watched an animated video while eating cut-up waffles. The drawing tablet sat nearby him.
“Hi Derek!” She sounded like a long-lost friend. He glanced over his shoulder and turned back to the video. “Can I look at your drawings?”
He didn’t move, so I grabbed the tablet and led her into the living room. She examined each portrait, shaking her head in amazement.
“Have you ever heard of prosopagnosia?” I asked, her, knowing she did. But I pressed on. “Some people call it face blindness. About 40 percent of people with autism have it to a degree. They can recognize shades of colors, identify patterns, and see most things correctly, “just not faces.”
“I think he’s the opposite,” she said. “Our faces bring expectations, unpredictability, and real life, like sadness and anger or deception. I think Derek feels the power of a look more than anyone.”
She asked about Derek’s mother. How she related to him and why she left.
“She was absorbed and obsessed by him,” I said. “She was his lifeline, but he wore her down. She just wanted… I don’t know… she would have settled for a second glance; an acknowledgement would have meant everything.”
She looked down at the tablet and rifled through all the pages.
“Notice that he doesn’t draw scenes or things?” she asked. “It’s always people and they jump off the page. He’s involved. I think faces pressure him. Being mute, he has few if any options to change a person’s mind.”
“So, I’m not supposed to look at him?”
She glanced at him sitting on the floor in his room. I often forget that he hears and understands everything. His silence made me sell him short.
“Look, this is easy for me to say, but I suggest you appreciate his gift,” Harris said. “He is not trying to upset or unsettle you. He is communicating.
After a few more minutes, she handed me his tablet, headed for the door, and just before leaving, said, “think I can get my portrait if he draws one?”
After she left, I went to Derek’s room. I got on my knees and hugged him from behind. My eyes watered with each blink. I placed a photograph of his mother on the tablet.
“Can you draw her?”
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Loved your story. Interesting characters - the son and the father. I don't know much about autistic people, but they seem to be fascinating people with lots of amazing talents. You've portrayed one well, and captured a realistic father also, with all the challenges and frustrations of being a single father, handling an autistic son on his own. Not an easy job. Love the ending you chose and the symbolism of it. Lot of emotion packed in two lines. Excellent job, Richard. Impressive first submission for sure.
Thank you for your thoughtful feedback and encouragement.
That ending really got to me. So much said in so little. Sometimes there are no need for more words, indeed. Congratulations for this beautifully restrained and touching story.
Thanks for reading and reacting!
I think your story is lovely. Some of it reminds me of my 13 year old nephew who has Phelan-McDermid Syndrome.
Really interesting take on the prompt, well done. The idea of this autistic man drawing people without their faces was intriguing. Be careful while editing as there are quite a lot of typos in this. For example - "instead of banging on the played like most 7-year-olds, played a lovely, lilting melody. " is it supposed to be "banging on the lid", maybe? Well done on the story.