The boys—Mark and Steven—were giggling at dinner, looking down at their phones under the table, which was forbidden in the Preston home.
“Put your phones away,” their mother said. “You know the rules.”
The two burst out in laughter at the same time, causing their father to intervene.
“Guys—c’mon, you heard your mother.”
“He’s so funny,” Mark, the younger, said.
“Who are you talking about?” their father asked.
“Ricky Theobald,” Steven answered. “Look at this,” he said as he handed his phone to his father, who took it and turned it off.
“Perhaps this will put a lid on things,” he said as he put it in his pocket. “Mark?”
His father extended his hand and Mark gave him his phone, but not before he broke out laughing one last time.
“What did he say?” Steven asked.
“He wants to know my birthday—he’s going to tell me what day of the week I was born on.”
“Whoever it is, he must be pretty smart if he tell you that,” his mother said.
“He’s autistic, mom,” Mark said. With the source of his amusement removed, he picked up his hamburger and began to eat.
“I don’t think it’s very nice to laugh at someone just because he has something wrong with him,” their father said. “You can laugh at people for things they can change—like they’re cheap, or . . . or they brag, or something like that. You don’t laugh at people for things they can’t change and that aren’t their fault.”
“It’s okay, Dad,” Steven said. “Ricky doesn’t mind.”
“He probably doesn’t even know you’re teasing him,” their mother said.
“I think he knows but he doesn’t care,” Mark said.
“So you admit that you tease him?” their father said.
The boys pursed their lips and shook their heads inconclusively while they tried to decide how to respond.
“You can’t avoid him, dad,” Steven said. “He comes right up to you and starts bugging you.”
“He has no sense of personal space,” Mark said.
“Still, I think you could be a little more sensitive,” their mother said.
“We have fun with Ricky,” Steven said. “And he has fun with us. If we ignore him he gets mad.”
“He’d rather be around us than lonely,” Mark said.
A quiet descended on the table as adults and children observed a temporary truce in the wars of parental discipline. The parents recognized that their children had a point, the sons didn’t press their temporary advantage too far, fearing an escalation.
“I tell you what,” their father said.
“What?” Mark asked.
“If you guys want to prove to me you’re serious, and that you aren’t just being mean to this boy, why don’t we invite along to the lacrosse game?” The father had a block of tickets to see the new local indoor lacrosse team for Steven’s birthday. He’d bought them at a discount through his firm, which did some work for the owner.
The two teenagers sat in silence, then Steven shrugged. “It’s fine with me, it’s not my party.”
Mark’s eyes made the circuit around the table, from his brother to his father to his mother. “I don’t care. Everybody’s cool with Ricky.”
“How many tickets did you buy?” the mother asked the father.
“Twenty. I figured twelve or thirteen kids, and the rest for me and any dads who want to come along. Would Ricky’s dad like to come?” he asked Mark.
“His parents are divorced. He lives with his mom, his dad’s in New York.”
“If he can’t come, fine, but I want you to at least ask him.”
Mark shrugged and gave his father a look of adolescent indifference, as if the punishment—since that’s what it was—would have no effect on him.
In truth, he didn’t think it would because the boy Ricky was in fact a fun, if sometimes annoying companion. He would say things out loud that others would only mutter under their breath, or behind an adult’s back, like “Hey Mr. Byrum”—the assistant principal—“do you really dye your hair?” When he would come out with such cracks in a perfectly innocent tone of voice and a straight face, it was hard not to find him likeable.
But the invitation, which Mark made in a jovial manner, touched off a manic phase in Ricky’s life. He was so excited at the prospect of joining other boys on an outing, and one not under the auspices of the school, that he could talk of little else in the two-week run-up to the event.
“Hey Evan, are you going to the lacrosse game with Mark?” he asked one boy out loud in the cafeteria, causing some hurt feelings among two boys on the fringes of high school social acceptability who had not been invited. Why had Mark chosen to invite Ricky, they asked themselves. Was there something so bad about them that he preferred a handicapped kid to them?
“I’m going to a lacrosse game with Mark!” he had blurted out in social studies class one day when the teacher had asked if anyone wanted to discuss a current event.
“That was very nice of you to invite Ricky,” said the teacher—a grey-haired, bespectacled woman with a formal manner named Mrs. Forman who tried to incorporate ethical principles into her instruction. Mark smiled but simmered silently within, avoiding the admiring smiles of girls he had no interest in.
When the day of the game came, Mark and Steven had basketball practice after school and their mother was out with friends, so their father was home alone when Ricky’s mother pulled up in a car. It was a foreign sports car that had gone to seed a bit with age and hard use during New England winters–there was a thin ring of rust around the wheel wells, and a ding in the front fender. He suspected that she hadn’t made out well in the divorce, and hadn’t much in the way of marketable skills to maintain an affluent lifestyle and care for a hyperactive, loquacious boy at the same time.
Ricky got out of the passenger side and started to run for the house, but his mother stopped him with a sharp call. “Ricky—hold on a minute.”
The boy went around to the driver’s side of the car. His mother got out and the two stood talking so quietly that the father couldn’t hear them. He had come out on the front porch to greet them, but when he saw they needed time together he stepped back inside and out of their line of sight. He peeked around the doorframe when he heard the boy begin to run again, and he opened the door to say hello.
“Hi Mr. Preston is Mark home?” Ricky blurted out. “Is his room upstairs?”
The boy blew past the man and was up the stairs in three bounds, then down the hall to inspect the room of his classmate. The man watched him go, took a few steps up and said “He’ll be home in a little while. Would you like something to drink?”
“No thank you, I’ll just look around. Does Mark have any models, like airplanes or cars? Do you let him have a bb gun?”
“Uh, no to both. Why don’t you come on down, the guys will be home in a minute.”
“That’s okay I want to look in Steven’s room.” Ricky moved down the hall at a rapid but controlled pace, as if he was on tracks, then entered the older boy’s room.
“I, uh, don’t think Steven would want you in there.”
“That’s okay, it’ll only take a second. Does Steven shave . . . does he wear after shave . . . does he have a girlfriend.”
The man smiled. “You ask a lot of questions—and very quickly too.”
“I know but I have a lot of questions in my mind. Ms. Forman says it’s good to ask questions, there are no bad questions, then she tells me not to ask any more questions.” The father listened while Ricky puttered around in Steven’s room. The boy had a nervous energy that the father was not prepared for. He had been expecting a quiet boy after having heard the report of his ability to calculate dates many years in the past.
His boys were dropped off by their carpool and entered the house, where Ricky greeted them like a happy dog, talking even more excitedly than before. “Did you guys win your game?” he asked.
“It was just practice, Rick,” Steven said.
“So you didn’t keep score?”
“No,” Mark said. “There’d be no point, it doesn’t count.”
Two more cars pulled into the driveway, one dropped off two boys and drove away, the other parked with two boys in the back seat and a father, Will Harris, in front.
“Anybody need a ride?” the man asked out his window as Mr. Preston came out to greet him.
“Those two who just arrived,” he said. “The others are going straight to the game from their homes.”
The two boys got into the Harris car and Mr. Preston waved as they drove off after giving Mr. Harris five tickets. He went back into the house and told his sons to get their coats and get in the car. Ricky walked with Mr. Preston to the garage and on the way noticed a picture of a much younger Mrs. Preston, when her hair was long, touching her shoulders with a flip.
“Where did you meet Mrs. Preston?” Ricky asked.
“We met in college, Rick.”
“How’d you meet her?”
“It was at a dance.”
“Did you just go up and talk to her?”
“Let’s see. There was a bunch of us standing around and we found ourselves next to each other. The others started dancing so we did too.”
“Did you take breath mints before you went?”
Preston laughed. He could remember worrying about things like that when he was in college, and figured it was a good sign that Ricky cared enough about his effect on others that he did as well. “I think I probably did, Rick.”
Once they were on the highway into the city his boys became subdued, laughing in low tones as Ricky peppered them with questions. “Do you play lacrosse?” he asked.
“I do, he doesn’t,” Steven said.
“Is it hard—could I learn?”
“You have to be able to catch the ball with your stick.”
“Is it different from baseball?”
The boys laughed. “Yes,” Mark said. “Just because they both have a stick and a ball doesn’t mean they’re the same.”
“How are they different?” Ricky asked.
“Well, the big difference,” Steven said in a tone that reflected his critical view of the relative merits of the games, “is in lacrosse you can hit other players with your stick.”
“You can?” Ricky asked, incredulous.
“Yeah, to try to knock the ball out of the other player’s stick,” Steven said.
“Are there fights?”
“Not really. You get your aggression out just playing.”
Ricky turned quiet, and gazed out the window. It had started to rain, and the car’s tires made a sound like wish which went down in pitch as they slowed to pay the toll at the end of the turnpike.
“How much does it cost to go to a lacrosse game, Mr. Preston?”
“Don’t worry about it, Rick. I got a bargain on these.”
“But how much would it cost if I bought a ticket for myself?”
“I don’t know. Not as much as basketball or hockey.” He didn’t want to go into too much detail for fear the boy would try to pay him.
They parked in a lot near the arena and met some others at a statue of a hockey player outside, their agreed-upon landmark. Mr. Preston handed out the rest of the tickets and they joined the stream of people flowing into the narrow walkway that fed into the entrance.
“You guys watch Ricky,” Preston said. “Try to steer him away from strangers.”
“He’s a pretty big guy,” Steven said.
“People can get crazy in crowds, you never know who’s going to flip out over nothing in a situation like this.”
They climbed two ramps to a mezzanine where their seats were located, and the boys and men began to sort themselves into two groups that sat together by age. At first Ricky was enthralled by the scale and pace of the place—the convex of the dome above, the players warming up on the floor, the scoreboard with flashing lights and loud music. The rest of the boys were veterans of the venue, having attended games there since they were little, and so focused instead on gossip, checking their phones, cracking jokes and horseplay. By the time Ricky had taken in the spectacle before him, he found he was outside the flow of the group’s conversation. He turned to the adults, who were chatting quietly among themselves.
“How did you meet Mrs. Harris?” Ricky asked Mr. Harris, who was startled both by the substance of the question and the blunt manner in which it was asked.
“Huh?” was the only reply the man could produce at first. Preston realized he should have briefed the other fathers on Ricky’s condition.
“How did you meet your wife?”
“Well, we, uh, worked together when we were both starting out.”
“Do you have a picture of her then?”
“No, I don’t.”
Preston moved to steer Ricky away from the men, standing up and calling out to his sons.
His sons looked up.
“Why don’t you guys take Ricky and get hot dogs and drinks?” As he said this he nodded at Ricky, who was standing up and facing the group of seated men like a lawyer speaking to a jury.
The three boys went off with a few others to the concession stands, and Harris gave Preston a quizzical look.
“He’s autistic. I . . . uh . . . encouraged the boys to invite him. To . . . include him in their activities,” Preston said, omitting the boys’ perceived misbehavior that had prompted him to do so.
“Oh,” Harris said. “Well, that was good of you to do.”
“Like a lot of them, he has incredible mental powers for some things, like doing numbers in his head, but he’s pretty, uh, primitive in his social skills.”
The men nodded with pursed lips and distant looks in their eyes, as if imagining what their lives would be like if they had sons like Ricky.
The boys returned with cardboard drink carriers, popcorn and hot dogs, then settled into their seats as a booming voice came over the loud speakers to ask the audience to stand for the national anthem. Ricky was late getting back because he had stopped to buy a pennant as a souvenir, and so he took the seat at the end of the row.
The boys lowered their voices as a florid singer launched into The Star Spangled Banner, but Ricky—missing the announcer’s cue and not very sensitive to ceremony in the first place—continued to talk loudly, drawing stares from people around him.
The game began and the boys were, on the whole, attentive to the action. Ricky was the exception, continuing his chatter, asking questions whose relation one to the next was apparent only to him, in a voice that projected several rows from where he was sitting. The crowd was sparse, though, so there were fewer people to be disturbed by his logorrhea, and no one objected.
The action held the boys’ attention for awhile, but soon their interest began to fade, most visibly in Ricky’s case. He returned to his inquiry into how men meet their wives, and after asking all of the fathers he hadn’t asked before, he turned to the boys who came by themselves. “Do you know how your parents met? Was it in school? High school or college? Had they ever broken up? What does your dads give your mom for Valentine’s Day?”
“When you get through, you’re gonna know everybody’s love life,” said a young man in the row behind the group who sat with his arms and legs draped over the empty seats on either side of him. “What you wanna know all that crap for?”
“It’s very important,” Ricky said with a trace of defensiveness. “It’s the most important thing in the world, who you end up married to.”
“Not me, man,” the young man said, as he lifted a cup of beer to his lips. “I ain’t never getting’ married when I can get what I want for free.”
Ricky turned around to face the game, his lips pressed tightly together. He felt the need for someone outside the group, someone he didn’t know from school, to validate his belief there was nothing better than a happy home with a mom and dad living together under the same roof with their kids. He needed it to even up what the young man had said. He looked across the aisle at another, older man , one who had scowled at him during the national anthem.
“How’d you meet your wife?” he asked the man.
“That’s none of your goddamn business kid, and I wish you’d shut your trap so’s other people can enjoy the game.”
Ricky’s face reddened, and he stood up. “It’s a simple question. I could ask you a lot more complicated questions you couldn’t even answer.”
“Kid—I told you to leave me alone. Do I have to call security on you?”
Ricky made a move to charge the man but before he could reach him he was grabbed from behind by Mr. Preston. “Easy, Rick, easy. Let’s get back in our seats, what do you say?” He signaled for Mark and Steven to escort Ricky to the other end of the row, where the other fathers were sitting.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Preston said to the man. “He’s autistic, we were trying to give him a good time. He doesn’t get out with kids his age much.”
“Pretty damn inconsiderate if you ask me,” the man said. Mr. Preston tried to form his face into an expression of apology, but found that he couldn’t.