At the law firm, I follow Arturo to the mailroom. A woman is standing in front of a huge copying machine. I know it’s a copying machine because I can see a line of light move back and forth, just like the machine they have at Paterson. Arturo says “Good morning” three times before she turns around. Immediately, I feel her gaze scan me from head to feet and back again just like the light of the copying machine. When I force myself to look into her eyes, I am struck by their deep blue color. “Azure” is the word that comes to mind. A strand of soft black hair falls over her face. I am ready to shake her hand but she doesn’t walk up to where we are.
“This is Marcelo,” Arturo says. Then he pats me on the back and says to me, “This is Jasmine. Jasmine will be your boss this summer. Do whatever she tells you. But watch out for her, she eats little boys for breakfast.”
That must be another figure of speech, I say to myself. But I do not know what it signifies.
As soon as Arturo leaves, Jasmine turns around and continues staring at the copying machine. Maybe she’s been hypnotized by the moving light, I think. I stand there looking at the place Arturo calls the mailroom. It is a large room separated from the rest of the law firm by a wall with a counter like the one they have in post offices. The copying machine that Jasmine is staring at is located on the wall opposite the door where we came in. There are two desks, each facing a wall so that when people sit on them, they will have their backs to each other. I decide I like that arrangement, assuming that I will sit in one of the desks. It would be very uncomfortable to have another person sitting in front of me.
“You can put your backpack there,” Jasmine says, turning her head briefly in my direction. With her left hand, she points to the smaller metal desk next to the copying machine.
I remove the backpack from my shoulders and place it on top of the desk. Then I stand there mesmerized by the pieces of paper spewing out of the copying machine into a series of slots. Jasmine is not doing anything but watching the line of light move back and forth, back and forth. I think that copying is something that I will probably enjoy doing.
When the machine stops, Jasmine grabs the stacks of paper that have accumulated in the slots. “You can sit down if you want. That’s your desk.”
“Thank you,” I say. I pull out the black chair that is tucked under the desk and sit down. I notice that there are pieces of Scotch tape stuck to the wall in front of me. Maybe the last person that worked here taped up some pictures. I think that maybe I can bring a picture of Namu and tape it there. In the indentations that separate the cinder blocks of the wall someone has written something in tiny letters. I peer closer and read the following words: “Fuck this place and all the people in it.” I know from Paterson that “Fuck” is an inappropriate word that means sexual intercourse, but is more often than not used to convey anger and even hatred.
I turn around briefly. Jasmine has finished collecting the stacks of paper and is now putting them inside plastic binders. She’s doing this at the big wooden desk that’s behind me. That must be her desk. I turn around again. There is more stuff written on the wall, but I decide not to read it. I wonder if the last person who sat at this desk was also forced to work at the law firm.
“Your father said you had your own laptop.” It’s Jasmine speaking behind me.
“Yes,” I answer. “Would you like to see it?”
“Not necessarily. There’s a connection under your desk you can hook up with. I’ll tie you in to the office server when we get back from the mail run.”
“Thank you.” A sense of relief comes over me. With my laptop, I will feel less lost. If I don’t understand something someone says, I can look it up. I bend down to take the laptop out of my backpack. I place it on the desk and open it. I think that perhaps now will be a good time to show Jasmine all the special software that I have.
“I’m not happy about you being here.”
It takes me a few seconds to realize that Jasmine is talking to me. I turn in her direction. “I understand,” I say. I’m wondering where I should put my hands. Whenever I say something I don’t mean, I become conscious of my hands.
I want to explain that I understood what she said, not why she had said it, but it takes me too long to figure out how to say this.
“Let’s do the mail run.” I follow her to a corner of the room. “This is the mail cart. You can read, right?”
I wonder why she asks me that. Perhaps it’s a joke of sorts that I don’t understand.
“Yes,” I answer.
“When the mail comes in you put it in the folder with the person’s name. The folders are arranged in geographical order. They follow the way the offices are laid out, so when you go around the office you just move from one folder to the next.”
I think to myself that that’s an excellent idea.
She continues, “There’ll be some mail that is not addressed to anyone specifically and you’ll have to figure out where it goes. Lots of it is junk mail. If you can’t figure out where it goes, put it in this box. I’ll look at it later. Nothing gets thrown away without me first looking at it, do you understand?”
This time I really do understand. “Yes,” I say confidently.
“This morning I sorted out the mail already. We do four scheduled runs: One first thing in the morning, which we are about to do now, then at eleven-thirty, one-thirty, and at three. Of course, if something comes in by hand delivery or by overnight mail, we deliver it right away. You’ll also deliver the newspapers. You are coming to work every day, right?”
“Every day,” I say. I wonder if that includes Saturday and Sunday. Arturo comes to work on those days frequently. Perhaps he expects me to do the same.
“Let’s go then.” She pushes the cart full of green folders. When we are out of the mailroom, she hands me a piece of paper. “This is a layout of the office with all the attorneys’ and secretaries’ names and where they sit. You need to memorize that so you won’t waste time looking for people. Like I said, besides the scheduled mail runs, you’ll need to deliver hand deliveries and overnight mail as soon as they arrive. All mail, deliveries, packages, etcetera come to the mailroom first. We log them in and then deliver them.” She waits for me to catch up to her and looks at me. “I guess you can log the stuff in if I’m not around. Everything these people do is urgent and everything needs to be done yesterday.”
“Yesterday already happened.”
“Tell that to the lawyers who work here.”
We stop at the first office. A woman is sitting at a desk in front of the office. “Hello, Marcelo,” the woman says. “Remember me? From the summer barbecue at your house?”
I remember her face but I don’t remember her name. Does that mean that I answer yes or no to her question? I decide to say yes since it is at least partially correct. I stretch out my hand. “Nice to meet you,” I tell her. As soon as I say it, I know that’s not the thing to say to someone whom you’ve just told you remember.
“Nice to meet you . . . again,” says the woman. “Wow, you’re even more handsome than your father.” She looks me up and down just like Jasmine did, but unlike Jasmine, her inspection of me is slower and lingers on the middle part of my body. “My goodness! First Mr. Holmes brings Wendell and now this. How’s a girl supposed to concentrate with all the young fellows walking around?”
“Stay away from him,” Jasmine says.
“Let’s not be selfish,” the woman responds.
Jasmine starts to push the cart away from the woman.
“Oh, you’re just jealous cause you’re undersized,” the woman says.
Jasmine stops the cart and looks at her. “For your information I’m not jealous, but I am envious. I’m envious that if we’re both in a plane flying over the ocean and the plane goes down, I won’t have the same natural flotation advantages that you have.”
“Oh, you rat!” The woman laughs and pretends to take a swipe at Jasmine.
We move on. Flotation devices. I know the meaning of these words, but the context in which they are being used is baffling. I take the notebook out of my pocket while we’re walking and write down: What is the difference between jealous and envious?The distinction between those two inner states is something that has always confused me.
Once I finish writing, Jasmine says, “I’d stay away from the secretaries if I were you.”
“How can I deliver the mail to them if I stay away from them?”
“I mean, I wouldn’t let them get too friendly with you, especially the ones that are single and desperate, like Martha back there.”
“Martha for one would not hesitate to jump your bones.”
I think of the passage in the Bible where the prophet Ezekiel jumps up and down on a pile of skulls and bones. The rapidity with which I am encountering new concepts is making me dizzy.
“What’s wrong with you anyway?”
“You need to speak clearly. I don’t know what the phrase ‘jump your bones’ means. It would be very helpful if you were more literal.”
“If you used words in accordance with their primary literal meaning, not their metaphorical meaning.”
“I was being literal. Martha would literally bounce on your bones if she could.”
“I meant what’s wrong with you, with the way you think. Your father said you had some kind of cognitive disorder.”
“He said that.” It surprises me to hear Arturo refer to me that way. He has always insisted that there’s nothing wrong with me. The term “cognitive disorder” implies that there is something wrong with the way I think or with the way I perceive reality. I perceive reality just fine. Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others.
“I’m pretty sure those are the words he used.”
“’Cognitive disorder’ is not an accurate description of what happens inside Marcelo’s head.’ ‘Excessive attempt at cognitive order’ is closer to what actually takes place.”
“Yeah? I like excessive order myself. Is that an illness?”
“If it keeps you from functioning in society the way people think a normal person should, then our society calls that an illness.”
“Well, society is not always right, is it?”
I don’t answer her because I am still thinking about my father’s description of my condition. He has taught me to always question the labels that others want to stick on me. I hesitate for a few seconds, and then I speak. “From a medical perspective, the closest description of my condition is Asperger’s syndrome. But I don’t have many of the characteristics that other people with Asperger’s syndrome have, so that term is not exactly accurate.”
“Like what? What characteristics?”
This is a topic of conversation that I am knowledgeable about but not particularly fond of. Explanations about my condition are based on the assumption that there is something wrong with the way I am, and at Paterson I have learned through the years that it is not helpful to view myself or the other kids there that way. I view myself as different in the way I think, talk, and act, but not as someone who is abnormal or ill. But how do I explain the differences to people? It is easier to say that AS best describes my differences. It makes people more comfortable to have a scientific-sounding term. But actually, I feel dishonest when I say I have AS because the negative effects of my differences on my life are so slight compared to other kids who have AS or other forms of autism and truly suffer. I always feel like I’m doing the people who have these conditions a disservice when I use the medical term, because then people say, “Oh, that doesn’t seem so bad. What’s all the fuss about?”
Reluctantly, I attempt to answer Jasmine’s question. “The primary characteristics of AS, which is what Asperger’s syndrome is called for short, occur in the areas of communication and social interaction, and there is usually some kind of pervasive interest. The AS person is different than most people in these areas.”
I take my hands out of my pockets and button the top button of my shirt again. We are standing in the middle of the hall and people are passing us by as they arrive in the office. A few say good morning to Jasmine, but Jasmine is too absorbed in what I am saying to respond to them. “Yes, generally speaking,” I say to her.
“That pretty much sums up every guy I’ve ever dated.”
“Yes.” I take this to be an attempt at humor on Jasmine’s part so I try to laugh, but the laugh comes out more like a cough.
“And what is your particular pervasive interest?”
I put my hands back in my pockets and close my fists. This is the part that is always tricky. I have seen something like a glass wall descend between me and other people as soon as I talk about this. Therefore, I hesitate and ponder how open I should be with Jasmine. After a while I say, “Some people use the word ‘obsessive’ rather than ‘pervasive.’ But obsessive interest is not the right term. It implies some kind of compulsion or inability to stop the same thoughts and behavior from recurring. At Paterson — that’s the school I attend — we prefer to use the term ‘special or pervasive interest.’ It’s an interest that the person chooses to think about because he gets pleasure and even joy from doing it. It absorbs the attention of the AS person to the exclusion of other interests because it is more important and more fun than other interests. AS persons with special interests become experts in that field.”
“Like train schedules or adding up numbers real fast in your head.”
“Those particular examples come to mind for a lot of people. But memorizing train schedules and a facility with numbers are somewhat of a caricature. A lot of AS people have special interests that require complex thinking and understanding.”
“So what’s yours?”
I wish I had a glass of water. There is no saliva whatsoever in my mouth. I cough again. “My special interest is God.”
“Religion. What human kind has experienced and said and thought about God. I like to read and think about that.”
“Is that right?”
“I don’t know if it is right or not. It just is.”
She starts to push the cart again but this time very slowly. I think, Now she thinks I’m weird. I don’t want to be here anyway. At Paterson no one regards me with suspicion or stays away from me because I have an interest in religion. I have to remember never to talk about anything religious while I’m here. It scares people. Then it occurs to me to say, “That is my special interest. But I also enjoy listening to music. I have hundreds of CDs at home.” For some reason this has never been considered abnormal.
She stops the cart and asks, “What kind of music?”
“It is called classical music. Bach is my favorite. My favorite instrument is the piano. The violin is second. Solo pieces by piano or violin are what I enjoy the most. The reason for that is that in solo pieces I can hear the different notes and the different combinations of notes separately. I like that very much.”
“Really?” Her lips are partly opened, like she’s never heard anyone speak like that before. I think I might have overdone it in the description of my second interest.
It makes me happy to finally see her smile.
“I also like horses, particularly Haflinger ponies.”
“Really?” She widens her eyes, which means that she is surprised.
“Yes. Really. My job at Paterson this summer was going to be to take care of the fifteen ponies the school owns.”
We start walking again. After we drop off the next bundle of letters, she says, “Do you want to know why I’m not happy that you’re here?”
“Until three months ago I had an assistant. His name was Ron. To make a long story short, I had to fire Ron. But lazy as Ron was, he was still a help to me, and when we fired him, your father promised that I would be able to replace him. I found this girl Belinda who worked here one summer when she was in high school and I was delighted because she was great. Am I going too fast for you?”
“It doesn’t matter.” She’s actually speaking faster than I would have preferred. There are words and phrases that elude me. But one of the things I learned at Paterson was to let people talk even though I don’t understand every single thing I hear. As they go on the meaning becomes clear. It took years to train my brain to not question the meaning of every single word that landed there.
She continues, “So I’m ready to hire Belinda and your dad tells me to hold off because he wants you to work here this summer.”
“Now you know.”
“I am very good at concentrating. If Jasmine shows me how to do something, I will learn.”
We reach the end of the hall. Behind a glass partition there is a woman sitting at a desk bigger and somehow more elegant than the desks of the other secretaries. The woman is looking into a small mirror while applying a lipstick, the color of which I have never seen before. I think that perhaps this is what the word “carmine” looks like.
“This is Juliet,” Jasmine says to me, “Holmesy’s secretary.”
“Mr. Holmes,” the woman says, correcting Jasmine.
“Whatever,” Jasmine says.
“So,” Juliet says, smacking her lips together, “you’re the new mail boy. Mr. Holmes told me you would be arriving today. He wants to see you, so I’ll call you when he has a free minute.”
“Why?” Jasmine asks. “What does Holmesy want with him?”
“I don’t believe that is any of your concern,” Juliet says.
“He works for me,” Jasmine tells her.
“And you work for Mr. Holmes.”
“Wrongo mundo, Julie baby. I report directly to the boss, his father.”
“I’m sure you do,” Juliet’s lips twist upward at the corners as she says this. Then, glancing in my direction, she says, “I’ll call you when Mr. Holmes is ready to see you. I assume he’ll have the same phone number as the young criminal that used to work with you?”
Jasmine leans over Juliet’s desk and points her index finger at her. “Listen to me carefully. I’m going to tell you directly what I will tell Holmesy when I see him. He is not going to do any work that his secretary or executive mucky-muck, or whatever your title is, is supposed to do. He’s not going to file or copy or do anything that you can do. And he’s not going to be Wendell’s errand boy either. All work requests from you or Holmesy or Wendell go through me. If Holmesy needs work done that is above your intellectual abilities, he can ask Wendell there to do it for him.” Jasmine points at the office directly across Juliet.
In the quick second that I look at Juliet, I see her nostrils flare. Then she says to Jasmine, “Oliver Wendell is helping his father with the Vidromek litigation. He’s not here to do dummy work.” She looks at me when she says the last two words.
Jasmine turns to me and says, “Let’s go before I lose control and do something that lands me in prison.”
“Delighted to meet you,” Juliet says. But when I look at her, she does not have anything that resembles delight on her face.
When we are down the hall, Jasmine exhales loudly. “That woman is a bona fide bitch. And I’m being extremely literal. Listen to me. If she or Holmes or little boy Wendell asks you to do anything, anything whatsoever, you need to tell me immediately. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I know Wendell. He is not a little boy. He is about three years older than I am.”
“Yeah, well. He has the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old.”
“I played tennis with him once. Not tennis exactly. He hit the ball to me and I hit it back to him. He is going to Harvard.”
“Yeah, yeah! He thinks he’s God’s gift to womankind. The only good thing about having him around this summer is that it’s fun to see him miserable. He hates having to spend the summer here while he could be out racing yachts or something, but his father is making him do it, God only knows why.”
“God knows why,” I tell her. I wonder if mentioning God in the workplace is also something that should not be done, along with praying or quoting scripture. In any event, Jasmine does not seem to mind.
“Anyway,” Jasmine says, “that’s why I told you I wasn’t happy you were working here.”
It takes me a while to recollect the conversation we were having before the encounter with Juliet.
“I agreed to have you work with me, you might as well know, only because your father is giving me an extra two thousand a month and I need the money. But I would still rather have Belinda, two thousand or no two thousand. Just so you know.”
“I understand,” I say again.
“The early mail run is easy because there aren’t too many lawyers around. They get here around nine and work ’til all hours of the night. That’s the corporate culture here.”
“I am not happy about being here either.” I hear these words come out of me and I’m not certain that it is me that is saying them. “I would rather be working at Paterson taking care of the ponies.”
Jasmine looks at me steadily for the longest time and then nods like she agrees. She opens the door to the mailroom and pushes the cart inside. “This door needs to be locked every time you leave the room and I’m not here. I’ll give you a key. No one comes in here but you and me. If someone needs a file, they stand on that side of the counter while we get it. I’ll show you how the filing works. People used to come in and get files on their own and then one got lost and the firm got sued for malpractice. Since then no one is allowed in here, not even the cleaning people. At the end of the day, we put the trash baskets right outside the door. Okay?”
“So let’s get that laptop of yours hooked up.”
Excerpted from MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD © Copyright 2011 by Francisco X. Stork. Reprinted with permission by Scholastic Paperbacks. All rights reserved.