My Autistic Brother Reluctantly Finds a Job
Blank eyes stared at mine for less than a second. “Sorry?”
I sighed and reiterated, “We’re giving you nine months to find your own place.” My brother let out a long breath in frustration. “Look, we’ve loved having you here, but our place is small.”
“Plus we'll be adding another family member soon,” my husband put in. He rubbed my baby bump. “There’s just not enough room for three adults and a baby. Besides, you haven’t contributed to the family funds at all since you’ve been living with us.”
A vague “sorry” escaped his lips. Probably more sorry at having to find a job than a true apology for eating us out of house and home. I held up my laptop with a job search pulled up on it. “I’ve already looked into some jobs I think you would enjoy. Come on, let’s check them out.” I plopped onto the couch and patted the cushion beside me.
The rotund body turned and started down the hall. He was back to his room before I heard the muffled “no thank you.”
My husband and I looked at one another. “He’s going to have to get a job eventually,” he said with a shrug, “and he can’t stay here any longer without at least giving us something for the rent. They keep hiking those prices up, we’ll have to start looking into jobs for the little one.”
I grinned, then grimaced. “If he refuses, though –” My voice trailed off. Cale never inconvenienced people on purpose. He simply lived an extravagant lifestyle. From the comfort of our home. Without any kind of recompense.
He never had a job before, despite being in his early twenties. His aversion to people and panic at loud noises made it difficult to find something to suit him. Despite this, I managed to narrow down the choices to ones I think he would appreciate. After that nasty business with the sickness, almost everyone was hiring.
Nodding my head, I typed on the keyboard. “You know what, forget it. He’s bound to like one of these. We’ll just apply for them all.”
Cale stared vacantly at the mass of parked cars. His sister waved at him. “Have a good first day,” she called before driving off. He couldn’t drive. There was no escape now.
Panic welled up inside him. He was standing in front of a large building with multiple bay doors facing the parking lot. When he inhaled, he fought the urge to cough by waving a hand in front of his face. “Smells like gas.” Under the intense scent of gasoline was a plethora of other odors, like paint and oil. Drills and revving engines hammered in his ear, making him jump and clutch at his shirt.
A dark-skinned man wearing grease-stained overalls strode up to him. “You must be the new guy. Nice to meet you. Name’s Antoine. You ever worked on a car before?” Cale said nothing. The mechanic awkwardly cleared his throat and asked a little louder, “Have you ever worked on a car before?”
After a few seconds, Cale shook his head once, avoiding eye contact with the other man. Antoine let out a nervous chuckle. “So you can hear me. Good, good. I was worried there for a second we might have another Deafie on our hands.” He held up his hands in a defensive posture. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being Deaf! I would just need to get an interpreter and –” His voice trailed off as he realized Cale had wandered away during his speech.
The young man was checking out a Charger in one of the garages. He crouched down and looked underneath the car, ignoring Antoine who side-eyed him from a distance. “Hmm. Nice undercarriage,” he mumbled to himself.
Cale muttered to himself while he inspected the various cars lined up for servicing. Finally, Antoine clapped him on the shoulder. “Buddy, let’s get you to training. I can tell you’ll be a valuable asset here at our little garage.”
The newbie stepped out from under Antoine’s hand. His fingers opened and closed a few times, almost like he was holding a sock puppet. Then he said, “I don’t like being touched. And my name isn’t Buddy.”
The man backed away a step. “Sorry, sorry, man.”
His mouth blew a loud, exasperated sigh. “My name isn’t Man. It’s Cale.”
“I got it, I got it. Your name is Cale.” He grinned. “You’re definitely something, though, friend. Definitely something.”
With one more frustrated exhale, the twosome were off toward the only empty garage.
The next couple hours were full of talking and training. Cale nodded or shook his head to indicate if he understood or needed clarification on a subject. He never spoke to Antoine, only used his head or hands to communicate. At times, he would mumble something, but this was usually followed by “Nothing. I was talking to myself.”
“Yeah, my son used to come up here all the time and visit me.” The trainer was continuing a story Cale was unaware he had started. Cale himself was under a car, wiping rust with a microfiber cloth. It itched his hands, but he knew this was the only proper way to do the job. “He used to ask to climb into all the cars and honk the horns. I always told him no, but you know kids.” Antoine shook his head. “Sometimes, he would sneak into somebody’s car and blow that horn, scaring the bejeebies out of all of us.” He turned toward Cale. “You got kids?”
The younger man’s hazel eyes narrowed, and his deep voice rang clear. “No. I don’t like kids.” He scooted from underneath the car and started wiping down the sides. Rust peeled away at the cloth’s touch.
“Well, you’d probably feel differently if you had some of your own,” Antoine ventured, “I miss my son’s laugh and even those blasted horns he always honked.” He blew air out his mouth and excused himself to use the restroom.
Cale straightened his back and looked around. No one was near him. He stretched and tossed the rag he had been using to wipe the car. It landed on a control console which had materialized in front of him. Cale leaned backwards, falling into a plush leather seat and propping his elbows on the armrests. A young girl’s voice began to cycle through a list of checks and balances, to which he muttered affirmatives for all.
“Alright. Let’s get this show on the road,” she chirped, “Ready, big brother?”
The seat and everything attached to it lifted into the air, and Cale grinned. His old mech had returned to aid him in this trying time. The new car smell and background hum of its inner workings calmed his fraying nerves. An array of colorful buttons imitated fireworks on the console.
As he peered through the cockpit window, the rusty car in front of him began to swirl and fade. In its place lurched masses of brown glob monsters with broken glass teeth, hub cap eyes, and eroded tailgate claws. The grease dripping and rusty joints creaking signaled their charge.
Cale cracked his knuckles and his neck.
The first monster jumped onto the leg of the robot, and he easily shook it off. The mech was standing at full height, and it nearly reached the roof of the garage. “Whoa! I think we need to take this fight outside,” the girl’s voice asserted, “Cash me outside, how ‘bout dat?” She giggled at her outdated meme use, but the pilot ignored her. With a single nod for confirmation, the mech was headed into the parking lot.
More and more monsters swarmed outside. Cale swiveled his head and made his robot wheel in a tight circle like a tornado. Rusty beasts stuck to its arms like burrs. No amount of frantic shaking could remove them.
Cale blew out once and clenched a fist, tapping it to his brain. “Come on, think. Think.”
“Be aware of your surroundings, big bro,” cried his sister’s voice.
He spotted the nearby power poles running along the highway and grabbed one. A flood of energy engulfed the outer shell of the mech, and his cockpit filled with hundreds of shrieks. Cale smiled and wiped his fingers on his shirt, as the defeated creatures evaporated into flakes.
“Hey. So what do you think of the job so far?” A voice interrupted his reverie.
The mech was gone, and monsters vanished. Cale was scraping rust from a truck’s front bumper and sweating. He probably should have drank some water instead of all that soda this morning. “Good.”
“Great! Here, let me help you with this one.” Antoine grabbed a cloth and ran it over the passenger door. “Like I was saying before, my little Sammy doesn’t want to be a mechanic. He doesn’t even like cars anymore! If you can believe that.”
Cale scrubbed harder, but the man continued to talk. “He’s all about fashion now. My boy would rather design hats than rotate tires.” He huffed. “He’s changed. And not for the better, if you ask me.”
All this talk of hats sparked something in Cale’s memory. He knew someone who always wore a hat. His eyes narrowed as he continued to scrub. “I don’t like hats.”
Across town, Elizabet stood in front of a full size mirror. “Christa, I got a new hat for the occasion.” She titled the brown felt top hat on her head as she spoke into the cell phone. “What time does he get off work? Okay, I’ll meet you both at your place right after that. Thank you so much for the encouragement!” She hung up the phone and patted her hair. Those curls were more unruly than ever, but at least they matched her favorite accessory.
“This would look wonderful with some pink lipstick.” She applied the makeup to her face and pursed her lips, leaning so close to the mirror she could kiss it. “Will he like it, though?” She posed a couple more times before scrubbing it with a washrag. “No, he probably prefers natural girls.”
Her freckled arms pressed the colorful shirt onto her body, hoping it would hug her figure in the right places. Instead, it floated the length of her torso, engulfing her in a fabric burrito over the plain leggings. “I knew I should’ve gotten some smaller clothes,” she complained to herself, “Now I look like a fancy carpet.”
A pile of index cards sat on the dresser beside her. Words had been hastily scrawled, crossed out, and rewritten multiple times. The indentations on the poor cards showed almost a misuse of their purpose, but the speech had to be just right. “After all,” she had told herself, “he has to have everything perfect.” Thus, if she wanted to be around him, she also had to be perfect.
“Tonight, I’m going to do it. I really am! Wonder how much longer I have to wait.” She illuminated her phone screen. “What!” She sank onto the bed with a groan. “Five more hours? I can’t possibly wait that long.”
Her trembling hands picked up the book on the side of her bed and perused the first chapter. “I bet this one won’t be very interesting. I’ll just read a little bit.” Only a minute later, she was sucked into the story, forgetting about both her anxiety and her quest.
PTEW! A bright ray of light shot from the silver pistol in his robot's hand. It enveloped a purple humanoid creature with a bulbous head. Three eyes were set in a triangle on its face, and each one turned toward him. Another alien stretched itself towards the sky, becoming skinnier and as tall as the mech. It reached out and tried to swat the gun from the bot’s hands.
Cale sighed and tightened his grip. “I knew I should’ve attached the gun to its arm.”
With one smack, the creature from outer space flew into a car and splattered on the windshield. Its guts smelled like burnt syrup. “Now I’ll have to clean that up.” The pilot slammed his clenched fists into any button they could reach. Missiles shot from the robot’s head. Beams of heat blasted from its shoulders, and small jetpacks fitted into the feet lifted the whole contraption into the air. He screamed, a short burst of energy, and stopped moving. The robot settled onto the ground and went still.
Shimmering purple aliens were joined by navy ones, then white ones. They encircled the robot. Cale grinned and spun around once more, shooting each one in turn.
“Wow, you’re handy with that hose.” The aliens disappeared, replaced with tiny globs of squashed bugs and bird poop. Cale muttered a thanks and continued washing the vehicles.
“Ever seen a kid run through a hose like that?” He shook his head. “It’s magical” Antoine continued, “Like they don’t even know it’s water, you know?” He swallowed with a wry smile, which turned into a frown. “There’s nothing magical about fashion shows.” He stalked away, leaving Cale to his fantasies.
Once again in the pilot’s seat, the young man shot the last creature into oblivion. While its scream echoed in the air, an alarm began to blare inside the cockpit. A high voice exclaimed, “Warning! Hostiles detected. Warning! Hostiles detected. Watch out, big brother!”
He scanned the area and saw a car he did not notice earlier. A Mustang. His favorite car. He should have noticed a Mustang.
Its wheels turned and smoked. The air stank of burnt rubber and gasoline, and Cale could taste the exhaust lingering outside the windows. But the car didn’t go anywhere. Instead, the frame tipped backward until it was balancing on the back wheels. As it leaned, the front of the vehicle changed. Both sets of wheels shifted out and to the sides of the frame on long poles. The undercarriage rotated into the frame, showcasing a sleek, smooth sheet of metal with a design on it.
Cale recognized that design as belonging to the long-lost clan of transforming car robots. He raised his hands and moved his fingers as if they were speaking. “They were said to be lost long ago during the war between the Manuabots and the Trickticons.” A slightly different voice came from his own throat. “Yes, but they were all supposed to be dead.” He shook his head. “That wasn’t true, little one. You can’t believe everything you hear.”
A crash interrupted his history lesson, and sparks flickered from the console. He nodded once and mashed a button over his head. His own robot knelt and compacted itself. Its arms drew into the frame and were replaced by wheels; the legs did likewise. The cockpit sat inside the head, and it flipped until it was nestled over the front wheels. Its entire torso shrank together and clicked like booster rockets onto the space shuttle. The control console sank into the floor, replaced with two pedals at his feet.
Cale groaned in frustration. “But I just don’t know how to drive.”
“You may not know how to drive now, big bro,” the girl’s voice piped up, “but you’d best learn. ‘Cause here it comes!”
A small “eep” escaped his lips, and his foot pressed the right pedal as hard as he could. The car roared, blazing out of the parking lot onto the open road. Slight bumps jostled him until he reached an adequate speed, then the ride turned smooth. The Mustang robot transformed and followed, hot on his tail.
Cale swerved onto the opposite side of the road and threw his hands up, forgetting for a moment that he needed to hold the wheel to maneuver. “Shoo, shoo. Get out of here!” A bug had flown into his face, and Cale was so distracted, he forgot to steer.
At last, the fly was out the window, and he turned back onto his side of the road. “Good thing nobody is driving on this street,” he mumbled. The highway was clear of cars, bicycles, and any other vehicle for miles.
The young man drove recklessly, swerving left and right to avoid missiles and bullets shot by the pursuing bot. His left hand tightened around the steering wheel as the right mashed random buttons on the dashboard. Gunfire exploded from the backseat, shattering the rear window and impacting the robot following him. “Take this, Trickticon.” He pushed the button again, causing another spray of bullets to shower the pursuer.
This one managed to rupture its front right tire. It slid and spun, trying to stay behind the new mechanic, even as its tires popped and buckled. Eventually, it crashed into a tree at the side of the road, and Cale nodded once to show his approval. He rubbed his hands together and mumbled, “That’s done.”
When he blinked, the roadside disappeared. In its place was a Mustang sitting aloft near his head. Antoine wandered out of the office and asked him, “Finished rotating those tires?” He nodded. “Great!” The older man went to slap his shoulder but stopped and held up a fist instead. Cale held up his open hand with a limp wrist and gently tapped the offered fist.
Antoine smiled at him and straightened, pushing his back with his hands. He shaded his eyes with a hand and gazed out to the empty parking lot. “Looks like that’s it for today. It’s almost closing time, and all the customers have gone home in their nicely tuned cars.”
Cale nodded, eyes fixed on the ground. “Yep.” His hands spun in circles at his side, and he cleared his throat.
His manager tugged at the already loose collar of his white t-shirt. “That was a great day’s work, especially for someone who’s never had experience in a mechanic shop before. I think you’ll work out fine here.”
Antoine blinked. “Excuse me? I must’ve misheard you.” His smile was forced now.
“I said nope,” Cale reiterated.
“I’m not working here.”
“Why not?” The confusion was evident in the way Antoine’s voice twisted and warped around the words. He gestured to the Mustang, driving away in the distance. “You’re wonderful at this job! You can get a promotion in a short time and possibly a raise.” His voice trailed off as he noticed Cale shaking his head. “Why then?”
“I don’t want to be a mechanic. It just isn’t for me.” He stared at the ground near the man’s feet, though the tilt of his head was angled toward the manager’s pockets.
Antoine followed his gaze and stuck a hand into the overalls. When he removed it, a picture of his son flew into the air. He grasped the picture and stared at it for a moment. “It isn’t for you, huh?” He never noticed Cale typing on his phone and walking away.
“It isn’t for you.” Tears welled in his eyes. “You’re right,” he whispered, “If it isn’t for you, then you can’t be a mechanic. It would be wrong to force a tire to do the seat’s job.” A single tear splashed onto the photo, and he wiped it on his shirt before replacing the picture in his wallet.
Cale climbed into the passenger side of an unassuming car and barely heard a voice murmur, “I’m sorry, son” before he closed the door.
I grinned at Cale as we drove home. “So how was your first day at work?”
“What time should I drop you off tomorrow?” Silence. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a head shake. “You’ll have to use your words while I’m driving, buddy.”
“I’m not going back there.”
My head spun to stare at him, but he murmured, “Just keep your eyes on the road.”
I turned my gaze back to the window and tightened my grip on the wheel. “What do you mean you aren’t going back there?”
“It’s not for me.”
I didn’t expect a lengthy explanation, but an explanation of some kind would have been nice. I exhaled and shook my head. “Why not, pray tell?”
“It just isn’t.”
“Well, remember you have to move out in a few months.” He nodded. “So what are you going to do for a job then?” I pressed him, knowing if he didn’t think of something soon, he would forget. Or worse, become even more apathetic.
“Try something else.”
“What else?” He shrugged. “Words, buddy.”
“Play video games?”
“That’s not really –” I stopped, remembering my friends who streamed for a living. “Actually, yeah.” I smiled at him. “Let’s give that a try next.”
When we pulled into the driveway, a figure was standing on the porch. She clutched a silver handbag and wore a simple braid woven with ribbons. The yellow flowered sundress accented her tan skin and freckles. A felt top hat matching her hair perched on her head, cocked to the right side.
My brother refused to get out of the car while she was standing there. “You know it’s not safe to talk to strangers,” he growled. His puppet hands nodded in agreement.
“She’s not a stranger,” I protested, lengthening my stride, “She’s an old friend.” I rolled my eyes as I left the car and approached Elizabet. “Sorry about him; you know how he can be sometimes. Anyway, can I help you with something?”
Elizabet was Cale’s schoolmate. They had known one another since the elementary grades, and though he had no close friends, she always made it a point to talk to him at events. We had discussed her visit earlier in the day, so I knew why she was here. I was feeling nervous for her, watching her clench and unclench her hands around the purse straps.
“Um.” She glanced at the car, still running. Cale peered conspicuously out the window at us. “Can I ask him?”
I nodded with a laugh. “You don’t need my permission, Bethy. You’re both adults. Go for it.” I plucked at a strand of hair on my arm without looking at her. “Just don’t be too disappointed in case he –” She knew what I meant, but I could still see disappointment radiate from her body.
The young lady approached the car door. Cale rolled down the window, as if he were still in the parking lot at the mechanic’s shop. They spoke. Actually, she spoke, and he just looked at her. I was too far away to hear what was said, but I could guess by the way she swished her dress from side to side. A second later, Elizabet nodded and strode away. She never glanced back to wave at me, and I swear I saw her wipe an eye as she dashed down the sidewalk.
“What was that about?” I asked as my brother emerged from the car. “Don’t forget to turn the car off.” He reached back in and removed the keys, muttering the whole time. I chuckled. “Tell me one more time and face me, so I can understand you.”
He obliged and repeated, “She wanted me to go on a date.”
“What did you say?” I knew the answer but asked anyway.
“Why not? She’s a nice girl, and she’s had a crush on you forever.”
“I just don’t want a girlfriend.” With that, he marched into the garage and towards the house. I was left outside scrambling after him. My brother, the eternal bachelor.