My Autistic Brother Reluctantly Finds a Job
“In, out. That’s it. Just keep breathing.”
“I can’t.” My breaths were coming in short bursts. Though my eyes were closed, I could feel Nathan’s hands on my shoulders. I imagined Cale standing in the hallway, looking like he wanted to simultaneously run away and help. I put a hand over my stomach and leaned over. “I–”
“Don’t try to talk. Come on, let’s get you in the car.” Nathan herded me toward the front door. “You can do this.”
Cale’s voice floated over to us. “Is she going to have the baby?” The voice itself was flat, but I could sense his nerves.
Nathan chuckled, and I tried to focus on my breathing. “Nah. It’s still a couple months early for that.” He patted my shoulder, and I opened my eyes. “She’s just freaked out about the birthing classes.”
“I don’t… want… to know.” I panted, struggling to stop the hyperventilation. As my husband lowered me into the passenger seat of the car, I sucked in air without letting it out. If I could not breathe correctly, I would force my body into not breathing at all. Not until it calmed down. Just as I thought my lungs might pop, I blew out. My lips vibrated, and spit flew onto the dash.
“There, feel better?” Nathan backed the car out of the drive and looked over at me. “Is your anxiety all gone now that the dash is covered in slobber?”
I guffawed. “Sorry about that, but yeah. I feel a little better.” He grinned and placed his hand on the center console. I wrapped my fingers around his and leaned into his arm. We had been fighting a lot this past month or so. Not just over the crib (still unfinished, by the way), but over lots of random things. It was probably just stress, but neither of us seemed to be handling parenthood very well. And the baby wasn’t even here yet! I was terrified of how things would go once our new bundle did arrive.
“Wait a second.” I squeezed his hand. “If we’re going to class, how is Cale getting to work today? He has a second interview.”
When Nathan said nothing, I glanced at him. His smile shone from every part of his face. “I lined up another driver for him.”
My eyebrows met together, and my voice dripped with skepticism. “Alriiiiight. Who?”
“Caaaaallllleee, I’m heeeeere.”
A singsong voice rang through the house as Cale finished buttoning his shirt. He poked his head out the bedroom door and asked, “What are you doing here?”
Elizabet wore her hair in a simple bun without a hat, and her outfit was hidden by a full-size apron. “I’m your ride, silly. Nathan told me they’d be in a birthing class today, so he asked if I would pick you up.”
“I’ll walk.” Cale slid his sneakers onto his feet without untying the lace and marched outside.
The unfamiliar car in the driveway beeped as Elizabet unlocked it. “It’s quite a ways to the restaurant,” she stated, holding up her phone. The GPS on the screen showed travel was twenty minutes by car but an hour on foot. “Besides (She fell into the driver’s seat and opened the passenger door.) I’m going to the same place. It would be a waste not to ride together.”
Cale stumbled. “Why are you going there?”
“For the same reason you are. Second interview.”
He squinted at her but sat in the vehicle, nonetheless. “We’re not working at the same job.”
“Whatever you say, Cale.”
Cale thumbed open emails on his phone; it had been weeks since he checked and deleted them. One email’s subject line boasted “Yesterday’s Winner”. Remembering his stint at the movie theater, he opened it and discovered he won the competition, as expected. More people watched family-friendly movies than surreal flicks that day, and for the next month. Elizabet tried to look over his shoulder, but he had already erased the message.
When they arrived, both of them were given white chef hats and official aprons to wear over their clothes. The kitchen was filled with hopeful young chefs of multiple genders and races. Spice smells lingered in the air, mixing with the odor of nerves. Cale coughed once, his lungs struggling to adjust to an atmosphere of pepper and sweat. Everywhere he turned, there was a metal table with some kind of food on it. The one nearest him held bowls full of vegetables and fruits. Across the room, he could see raw meat. He gripped the metal for balance; his head swam just trying to take in everything.
Elizabet, on the other hand, swung her apron back and forth and bounced on the balls of her feet. Her eyes landed on every seasoning canister and copper pan. She took a deep breath and tried to memorize the scent of this moment.
Before either of them could speak to one another, a man emerged from the staff room. He walked with perfect posture, and though he was obviously middle-aged, his face showed no signs of wrinkles. His salt-and-pepper hair was combed back from his forehead like the perfect rock garden design. An apron flowed over an egg-colored bragard that accentuated his broad figure. Everyone quieted and stared at him.
“I am Josef Hart. Welcome to Neon Lemon Eatery.” A few of the younger hopefuls sniggered. His glare found them before words did. “Leave.” Someone gasped, but his gaze did not waver. He pointed to the door. “We may not be the most expensive restaurant, but we pride ourselves on respect and cuisine. If you cannot respect this establishment, leave.”
The four gigglers shuffled out the door, and he continued in his slight accent, “There are now eleven of you vying for a position in this kitchen.” He gestured to the group. “But only a handful will succeed.” Elizabet’s fists clutched her apron. Cale gulped audibly. “You have all dazzled us on paper. Now, it is time to dazzle us with your culinary skills.” He grabbed a spoon from one of the tables without looking. “This is a Cuisine Challenge. You will all cook according to a prompt from me, and your meals will be fed to the judges. At the end of the day, I will announce who gets to stay and become a part of Neon Lemon Eatery.”
One girl with two braids raised her hand. “Excuse me, but who are the judges?”
“The owners of several eateries in the area and other cooks from Neon Lemon Eatery.”
A boy groaned, and others kicked at the floor. None of them expected to be facing one another in culinary combat. Especially not with professional chefs and restaurateurs tasting their creations.
“Your first piece,” his voice boomed over the moans, “must be an appetizer.” Everyone glanced at one another. No specific ingredients. No instructions. No recipe. Just an appetizer. “Start cooking!” He waved his arm like a flag, and the group scattered.
Young chefs cut and grated their ingredients. Some mixed sauces in bowls; others searched for the perfect addition to their already perfect recipe. Elizabet hummed and gathered ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Her hum was like the lyrics to a delicious song blossoming in the kitchen.
“What should I make?” Cale tapped his head with a fist, closed his eyes, and imagined his favorite appetizer. “Got it!” His eyes shot open, and he started to work.
A sprinkle of parmesan floated into the saucer. Cale wore a bragard instead of his normal clothes. His apron was longer and flowed as he danced around the kitchen, grabbing pots and arranging them over the stove. He picked the ingredients delicately from the shelves. His footsteps never missed a beat, tapping to the rhythm of music created by promising chefs working in tandem. He chose a variety of elements befitting his recipe, one crafted from his own machinations.
The time he spent toiling into the late hours with only books and an oven would not go to waste. His mind opened to the possibilities of spices and natural flavors. No time was wasted in his preparation. Even the meat of the dish was being prepped while he created every other portion of the appetizer from scratch.
“Chicken boiled in my own organic oils for ten minutes, wrapped in China grown lettuce, topped with hand-crafted Valley Deep Ranch drizzle. Order up.”
“Excuse me?” The female judge stared up at Cale who turned away. She smiled awkwardly and gestured to his tray. “What did you make for us, young man?”
Cale realized he had been lost in a fantasy and never told them the name of his appetizer. He mumbled into his chest, “Wings.”
A well-dressed man sitting beside her leaned forward. “Speak up, man. What did you make?”
His face burning with embarrassment, Cale plopped the tray onto their table and scurried to the next. The scene was the same each time. By the time he reached the last table, he did not bother explaining himself. He set down the food and practically ran to the kitchen, pumping his arms like a soldier. “I hope they like it.”
Moments later, all the appetizers had been served, and the group huddled together, awaiting the verdict. Gagging sounds floated from the other room. Elizabet’s face went white. The girl with braids turned red and hid her face behind her hair. Some boys on the other side of the kitchen shifted their weight on their feet. No one wanted to be responsible for that noise. Only Cale’s face was impassive. Elizabet forced a grin at him, and he nodded at her.
Josef entered from the dining area, his apron blowing behind him. “The judges have finished eating and made their decisions on the best plates.” He pointed to a spiky haired boy who yelled his triumph to the ceiling. Cale clapped his hands over his ears and cringed. His fingers almost dropped from his head when the head chef pointed at Elizabet. She twirled in a circle, giggling. “The rest of you did wonderful jobs,” Josef said, ”Continue to work hard in this next round.”
Everyone nodded and returned to their posts. He stopped Cale with a hand on his shoulder. Cale shrugged it off and turned. The chef shook his head. “Not you.”
Cale blinked. “I thought no one was eliminated in this contest.”
The older man sighed and shook his head. “The meat was undercooked, and your mixing of spices was nearly poisonous. Do you have any idea what you put in that sauce?”
“It was more than just ranch seasoning. The judges are afraid if they eat any more of your food, it’ll make them sick.” His eyes softened. “I’m sorry. You’re welcome to wait in the dining room while the others finish.”
When Josef turned away, Cale’s hands curled into fists. He stalked into the dining area, muttering to himself. The first empty table was along the wall near the door, and he dropped into a chair so fast the wood splintered. His fists pounded the thick wood of the table, and he grunted. “It wasn’t going to make them sick.”
Nathan’s hand rubbed my back as I leaned my head into the toilet and puked. We were squeezed into a unisex bathroom at the Warlington Pregnancy Care Center. Birthing class was going well, even if it was duller than watching grass grow. We learned about the hospital’s procedures for after the water breaks. Then they showed an epidural injection video. Even now, my lunch heaved into my throat as I remembered it.
Finally, I sat up and wiped my mouth with cheap brown paper towels. My body leaned against Nathan’s. “Now I see why Cale didn’t give that guy a shot back when he was a nurse.” Everyone thought my brother was the town hero because he recognized the wrong medicine. We knew the truth; needles made him squeamish. Thinking of needles, I held a hand over my mouth and inhaled through my nose. Squeamishness must run in the family.
“Can we go home, Nathan?” I turned my leaky eyes to him.
“Do we have to?” He sagged against the wall. “I was really enjoying myself.”
Before my fiasco, we had sat around tables with other couples. An all-too-perky blonde woman my age showed a slideshow with pictures of the hospital and its staff. She explained where to park the car when you were in labor and what to tell the receptionist.
When she was three slides in, I raised my hand. “You look awfully young. Do you have kids yourself?”
She beamed, showing perfect rows of white teeth. “Six.”
“I got married young, and my little angels have been coming ever since.”
I put my mouth up to Nathan’s ear. “They know about birth control, right?”
He jabbed me in the ribs. “Be nice.” But I saw the smirk before he turned.
We had listened to an hour of her lecture before watching the dreaded video. Nathan took notes on his phone; I thought he was playing an idle game. He answered every question correctly and even filled out both of our personality questionnaires. I had no idea what my personality had to do with going into labor. My husband was excited, though, so I decided it must not be too bad.
That was before the video.
“I know, and I’m sorry.” I rubbed my aching stomach. “I just feel awful right now.”
A grin twitched at his lips. “I thought the morning sickness was over.” I punched him in the shoulder. “Alright, alright. We can leave if you want to, but we already paid full price.”
I groaned. He knew how to hit me right where it hurt – in the wallet. “Fine, but if there’s another video, I’m getting up and leaving.”
Cale leaned back in his chair. “I wonder if they’ll let me judge,” he murmured. Since he was eliminated from the job proposition, he wanted to taste everyone else’s food. His stomach gurgled, and he checked the time on his phone. “It’s past my lunchtime.” He ate at noon every day, but the new jobs had been throwing him off schedule.
He watched the judges at their own tables. They took small bites of food and made notes on clipboards. Some of the appetizer plates went back into the kitchen half full. This was so they could try all eleven contestants’ entries, but it still seemed wasteful. Cale balled his fists and grumbled, “I could eat the rest.”
None of the judges or the participants paid any attention to him. They were too busy picking apart tiny foods to even notice he was in the same room. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and tapped the icon for Monster Catcher Anywhere. “Oh, this is a Ball Spin Area.” His fingers swiped and spun until they grew sore.
A few minutes later, Elizabet emerged from the swinging doors carrying trays of quiche. As soon as Cale saw the food, his world exploded into a rainbow of colors. He was flying through a vortex with dragons, fairies, and alicorns (also known as winged unicorns). He smiled and ran his hands through the colors, feeling their warmth and chill. Chuckles exploded from his mouth as clouds brushed past his face. They stuck in his hair and smelled like cotton candy.
One of the dragons scooped him up and soared faster. As he wrapped his legs around the beast, the rainbow vortex gave way to a bright, peaceful food realm. Bacon trees, sunny side up egg houses, maple syrup lakes and rivers, pancake boats, and biscuit mountains. He inhaled the breakfast scents and listened to the slow gurgle of the syrup river. All the creatures from the vortex began eating anything they could touch. His dragon found a mound of whipped cream and flung Cale into it.
Upon splashing down, he jolted back to reality. Elizabet stood in front of him offering a plate of quiche. “I know you can’t participate anymore,” she started. He sucked in his lips to prevent another growl. “I, uh, had an extra entrée, though. Would you like it?” She blushed and presented the dish with a small flourish.
Cale held up a hand, spun it in a circle, and nodded his head. He forked a piece of the egg meal into his mouth, chewed, and gulped it down. A sigh blew from his lips. “It’s delicious.” He pushed his glasses up his nose, and the light reflected off them.
“Oh good!” Elizabet let out a breath and turned to look toward the doors. “I think they’re starting the dessert round, so I better go.” He nodded, and she rushed into the back.
“I just don’t eat quiche.” Cale stared at the empty plate in front of him, wondering why he liked eggs all of a sudden.
Light from his phone distracted him from the unwelcome thoughts. A text from his sister. “Our class is over. Hope the interview is going well. Can’t wait to hear all about it. See you at home!”
He picked up the mobile and typed, “Bring me home.” Before he could press send, Elizabet appeared beside him. “I made the top three again!” Her face was pink, but she beamed. “I hope you’re ready for some delicious dessert. I might end up with an extra.” She winked and hopped back through the doors.
Cale stared at the phone for a moment before deleting the text and writing instead, “How was class?” He learned about Christa’s unfortunate incident and the boring details of her future hospital stay. In return, he said little to nothing about his own day, still pondering why he had not asked her to bring him home.
Josef announced the desserts would be served, and his mouth watered. People whispered all around him. They knew his reputation as the harshest judge in the entire region. No one has ever received a perfect score from his divine tasting skills. Few words from him had left the wisest people in tears. Now, he appeared at this humble contest of cook champions to choose the next prodigy.
The girl with two braids was first. She had a down-home favorite – Ice Cream Sundae. Chocolate sauce, neapolitan ice cream, bananas, nuts, whipped cream, and a secret dash of cinnamon. Cale bit into it and gagged, spitting his mouthful into a napkin. The chef was horrified. He shook his head and pronounced, “Too much chocolate sauce.” He stood and walked away, giving no rating. She collapsed into a salty puddle on the ground.
And so it went for the next contestants. He tried butterscotch candy, cherry pie, red velvet cake, and rice crackers. Each one had something contemptible. His tastes were refined, and these desserts were below subpar.
He arrived at the boy with spiky hair and a confident smile, who proclaimed, “What I’ve got is going to blow you away!” He uncovered a plate of macarons, and the crowd was flabbergasted. Murmurs of jealousy swept through the room.
Cale bit into one and smirked. “They’re okay.” He strode toward the next contender, leaving the boy sobbing from happiness. He received the first praise. Others did not fare so well.
Finally, Cale faced Elizabet. She blushed and pointed to her dessert – Chips O’ Boy flavored ice cream. The crowd mumbled that she would lose. After all, the first girl used ice cream and lost.
Cale took a bite and beamed. “This is delicious.”
The crowd was in shock, Elizabet was in shock, and the rest of the judges were in shock. He started back to his chair, bowl in hand, while the room went crazy. People crowded around him, asking what made it so different. He said nothing, opting instead to finish his dessert.
Elizabet and Cale shared the couch in my living room while I lounged on the recliner. Cale squirmed, even though there was more than a cushion’s length of space between them. Nathan bounded into the room and perched on the armrest of my chair. “Is this some kind of interrogation?” He scrunched up his face and pointed at Elizabet with a bobbing finger. His voice grew scratchy as he tried to imitate the cops on television. “Where were you the night of the twelfth?” We all laughed at his horrible impersonation.
“I was just about to ask Bethy and Cale how their interview went,” I told him, “I had no idea you guys would be there all day. Good grief, what did they make you do?”
Elizabet launched into an excited speech about the cooking competition and the profound cooking skills she never knew she had. When I turned to Cale and asked how he did, my brother growled, and the girl picked dried food from her apron. “He, uh, didn’t get the job,” she stated.
Nathan and I exchanged a pained look, and he cleared his throat. “That’s too bad, buddy. I’m sorry about that. But there’ll be other jobs, ones more suited to your strengths.”
Cale surveyed the group before once again staring at the ground. “Well, Elizabet just got the job.”
I’m sure my mouth hung open like a gasping fish. “Really? Congratulations, Bethy!”
She shook her head. Loose hair flew from her former bun; now it was more like a sleeping creature waiting for the perfect moment to escape. “I didn’t take the job.”
There’s that gasping fish again. Nathan frowned. “Why not?”
She glanced at Cale and flushed. “I guess I’m just waiting for the perfect one. A profession that really speaks to me, you know?”
Cale caught her eye, and they nodded in unison. He couldn’t have said it better himself.