Excerpt: 'Marcelo In The Real World'Marcelo, the narrator of Francisco X. Stork's novel, falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, and he's made a deal with his dad. If he can spend one summer working in the mail room at his dad's law firm, he won't have to transfer from the special ed school where he's been enrolled since first grade.
Marcelo in the Real World By Francisco X. Stork Hardcover, 320 pages Arthur A. Levine Books List Price: $17.99
"Marcelo, are you ready?"
I lift up my thumb. It means that I am ready.
"Okay, I'm going to wheel you in."
Then he slides me inside the tunnel of the machine. I like the feeling of being closed in. The lights are not bright enough to hurt my eyes but I close them anyway.
"Don't forget to lift your finger when you first hear the mental music." The tunnel has a speaker. Dr. Malone's voice comes out from there.
I wait for the music. It always comes. The hard part is remembering to lift my finger. There's a tiny camera that allows Dr. Malone and Toby to see me from up in the control booth.
"Marcelo, Marcelo." I hear Toby in the distance. I like Toby. He's a medical doctor just like Dr. Malone but he doesn't let me call him doctor. Once I called him doctor and he corrected me and said, 'Toby, please.' His face is covered with freckles.
"Ready for the so-called real stuff?" he asks when slides me out.
"Yes," I say to him. The "real stuff" is what he calls the music that is piped in through the speaker in the machine. The music that comes from inside my head is not considered real.
Toby is holding a piece of paper that lists different kinds of real music. "How about choosing from this side, this time?"
"Okay," I say. The music on the back of the page contains rock songs. That's Toby's favorite kind of music. I don't recognize any of the songs or composers. I finally pick a piece by a composer named Santana because the name looks like Sandoval, my own name. I also like the title of the song, "The Calling."
"Sweet," says Toby. The smile on his face means I made a good choice. "Santana and Clapton together. Sweet."
Sweet, I say to myself. I make a mental note to use that word the next time I like something.
A few minutes later Toby is back with the list. He is frowning. "You have to pick from this side. The old man thinks that rock will overstimulate your gray matter." Toby rolls his eyes while looking in the direction of Dr. Malone, who is up in the booth fiddling with some controls. I do not understand the precise meaning of Toby's facial expression.
I quickly pick Beethoven's "Largo" from Piano Concerto No. 3. I like the music's simple melody. Also, I know it only lasts about ten minutes.
Toby slides me back inside the tunnel.
"What's the mental music like?" Dr. Malone asks when I'm out of the tunnel. I stop tying my sneakers so that I can think about his question. But it is impossible to put into words what the internal music is like. (I prefer the word "internal" to the word "mental" when referring to the music. The fact that the IM, as I call it for short, is inside my mind does not necessarily mean that it is produced by my mind.) What is the IM like? How many times has Dr. Malone asked me that question and how many times have I not been able to answer it?
"Sweet," I say. "It is sweet." I look for Toby but he is up in the control room.
"You mean it sounds pleasant? The sounds are pleasing to the ear?"
"The music is not heard with the ears." Then I realize that "sweet" wasn't the right word. The music is pleasant all right, but it is much more than that.
"If it's not heard, then what?"
How do I describe it? It is like listening to very loud music with earphones. Only the music seems to be coming from inside the brain. It is actually a very neat sensation. "It is just there," I say to Dr. Malone. Then an image comes to my mind. "It is a big watermelon."
"Excuse me?" One of the reasons I like working with Dr. Malone is that his facial expressions are so clear and easy to understand. That one he just made, for example, is a textbook example of "baffled."
I expand on the image that came to me. It is the first time I have made this connection so I am not sure exactly where it will lead me. "When the internal music is there, Marcelo is one of the seeds. The music is the rest of the watermelon."
Dr. Malone frowns. Actually, it is a half-frown, half-smile, like he is trying to remain serious. "Do you know that you just put emphasis on exactly the right word right then? That's good. A year ago you couldn't do that. Paterson has been good for you."
Paterson. I look at my watch. Aurora is driving me to Paterson after the session with Dr. Malone to see the baby colt that was born last night. Harry (that is what we call Mr. Killhearn, the stable master at Paterson) called this morning and told Aurora that the colt had been born at 2:35 A.M. I pleaded with Aurora to take me today even though she worked all day at the hospital. I could have waited two days until Monday, when I start my summer job taking care of the ponies, but it is too hard to wait. I had hoped to be there when he was being born, and the hours of this day have seemed as long as a week.
I have half an hour left with Dr. Malone, I remind myself. This time, I must make sure that the session does not go over the allotted time, as it sometimes does.
Dr. Malone is speaking again. "But let's get back to the music. What is the content of the mental music? Does it sound like regular music? Does it have a melody?"
"Yes and no," I say. I hate sounding so imprecise. Imprecision in this case is as close (and as fast) as I can get to accuracy.
"Okaaay." Dr. Malone grins. "What part is like regular music?"
I close my eyes and imagine a cello as big as the Earth and a bow as long as the Milky Way and the bow moving sometimes slow and sometimes fast across the cello strings.
I hear Dr. Malone in the distance. "Music has a melody, rhythm, beat. Does the mental music have any of these components?"
Now I am thinking about my summer job and how I can be with the ponies all day long. I return to Doctor Malone and his questions. I am getting paid for this, I tell myself. I have to give this process as much as I can. Besides, I like Dr. Malone and I like Toby. "Not exactly."
"Can you hum it?
"Then it's not music."
"It is the feelings of music without the sound." There. That is as precise as I can get in the kind of language that Dr. Malone is seeking.
"What kinds of feelings?"
I have no idea what to call these feelings. Sometimes the music is lively and fast so I call it "happy." Sometimes it is slower and lower in pitch, so I call it "sad." Mostly the music is just incredibly peaceful. Sweet. I like that word.
"Marcelo! Come back. We're almost done here. Are they always there, these feelings of music without sound?"
"Yes. When I look for them. When Marcelo looks for them, they are always there."
"When Marcelo looks where?"
"Here." I touch the back of my head, just above my neck.
"Do these sounds ever come when you don't want them to come or stay when you don't want them to stay?"
I think about it. The truth is that the pull of the music is always there. Like just a little while ago when I was trying to describe it to Dr. Malone, I wanted to slide into the music again. And it is also hard to pull out when I am there. But this is not what I tell Dr. Malone. I don't know if I could find the right words to describe these thoughts. Instead, I say to him: "If that happened, then Marcelo would be crazy, would he not?"
Dr. Malone laughs and nods at the same time. He is always testing, doing his research but keeping an eye on my mental health as well. Despite his unanswerable questions and his silly sense of humor, I don't mind coming to see Dr. Malone. I've been doing it every six months since I was five, which means, since I'm seventeen, that I've seen Dr. Malone twenty-four times. The visits last two hours and serve three functions: First, he makes sure that my brain is physically okay. Second, the data he gathers helps other people who truly need help. Third, as of last year, I get paid three hundred dollars per visit in accordance with regulations from a grant that Dr. Malone received.
He starts walking towards the control room and I follow him. "This is amazing!" he says after he studies two computer screens. "Come here. I want to show you something."
I walk over to where Dr. Malone and Toby are standing. Dr. Malone says: "This is an image of your brain when you listened to the real music, and this one shows you listening, or remembering as you put it, to the mental music. See?"
I see two pictures of my brain. Each image has red and blue patches in different places. "When you listen to the real music, both sides of the temporal cortex are activated." Dr. Malone points to a bright red splash in the front part of my brain on one picture. "But over here, when you listen to the mental music, there's something going on in the hypothalamus, the oldest part of the human brain. You know, the part that made our cave ancestors fight or flight."
"The whole limbic system's lit up like fireworks over here," Toby says, pointing at the image of my brain listening to the IM.
Dr. Malone stares at me. "You're definitely absorbed with something, but you're not thinking." Then he turns to Toby and says, "Toby, look up those tests they did with the cats, you know, the ones where they scanned them while someone dangled a string in front of them. I think the hypothalamus was affected there too."
I can't help smiling to myself. I like knowing that my brain is like a cat's. It reminds me of something my uncle Hector told me once when he was teaching me to lift the weights. He told me to focus on the muscles I was using like a lion watching an intruder approach its den.
Aurora is waiting for me in the reception area. I walk past her, hoping that she won't spend time asking Dr. Malone about the session the way she usually does. I want to get to Paterson as soon as possible. Harry is not a patient man. He promised me the summer job as stable man when he saw how well I did with the ponies, working with them after school. But there were other kids at Paterson who wanted the job because it is a great, great summer job, and I am nervous about not showing up on time.
But my walking past her does not work. Aurora waits for Dr. Malone, who is close behind me. "Well," she says, looking at Dr. Malone, "did you find anything in there?"
"Empty, totally empty." Dr. Malone reaches out to touch the top of my head but draws back, as if suddenly discovering that I am now taller than he is.
"His father wants to send him to a regular high school next year," Aurora tells him.
I walk back to where Dr. Malone and Aurora are speaking. "No," I say immediately.
"I know how you feel, mister," Aurora tells me. "I'd like the Doctor's opinion."
I can see Dr. Malone hesitating. He knows how I feel about leaving Paterson and going to a regular school. "Of course he's ready. He could have gone to a regular school starting from kindergarten. Of course he can do it." Then he looks at me and says, "I'm sorry, buddy."
I fix my eyes on a spot in the floor while I struggle to find the words to explain why going to a regular high school would not be right for me. Then I hear Aurora say, trying to console me, "It doesn't mean you're necessarily going. Just cause you're ready doesn't mean we'll do it. We'll discuss it."
"I'm seventeen," I blurt out.
"Meaning?" Aurora inquires.
"It should be Marcelo's decision." I gather up all my strength and lift my eyes to look first at Aurora and then at Dr. Malone. "I should be allowed to finish the last year of high school at Paterson, where I've always been."
"Ahh, I think I'm going to stay out of this one," Dr. Malone says.
"Is Marcelo's developmental age the same as other seventeen-year-olds'?" I'm looking at Dr. Malone.
Dr. Malone nods. That means he understands the nature of my question. "Developmental age? What does that mean? Everyone is different. In some respects you're about fifty years ahead of other kids your age."
Dr. Malone never likes to give easy answers to complicated questions just to make people more comfortable. What I want him to say is that given who I am, I'm better off at a place like Paterson.
"Maybe it will be good to have a different experience," Aurora says.
"You know how I feel about that," Dr. Malone says to Aurora. "I don't believe in suffering. If a kid is happy, understood, and appreciated, he will bloom in his or her own time. Paterson has been good to Marcelo. Look at the results."
Yesss! Thank you, Dr. Malone, I say to myself.
"Mmm." The sound is coming from Aurora.
"What does 'Mmm' mean?" I ask first Aurora and then Dr. Malone.
Dr. Malone decides to answer the question. "You definitely asked the right person about that. We in the medical profession know all about 'Mmms.' I think that in this case, your mother's 'Mmm' means that she thinks there are still some things you need to learn and that maybe, if it were up to you, you would not choose to learn those things. Does that make sense?"
"Yes," Aurora answers.
"Mmm." The sound comes from me this time. I do not mean to be funny.
Excerpted from Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. Published with permission from Arthur A. Levine Books. Copyright Francisco X. Stork 2009.