Date Published: June 20th, 2020
Publisher: Splitrail Publishing
Tommy Crutcher is 8 years old and has autism. Although he can’t speak to humans, he appears to have an uncanny ability to communicate with chimpanzees. How Tommy, his father, and a biomedically abused chimp named Albert come together in life-altering ways is the story of LIKE NO OTHER BOY.
“The Voice in my silence.” –Helen Keller
It was a Saturday afternoon at the San Diego Zoo, a beautiful day with a pale blue sky. Tommy and I were standing in front of the zebra exhibit. The zebras were running around and nipping at each other, kicking up dust, tails swishing. But instead of watching the zebras, Tommy stepped away from the enclosure and looked down at the ground. He made his usual droning noise that sounded like a motorboat engine, then put a hand to his mouth and gnawed on his knuckles. They were already reddened to the point of almost bleeding. He was eight-years-old and still biting himself. I watched him and winced. As his father, Chris Crutcher is the name—nice alliteration, I think—no matter how much I’d seen him do this, it still hurt to see my little boy harm himself.
In the distance, a lion roared as if he were trying to remind himself of his own kingliness.
“Wow! Look at those zebras, Tom-Tom,” I said, hoping to squeeze at least a drop of interest out of him. I was always trying to make Tommy pay attention to something in the real world, anything, desperate to get him to look and respond. “See their stripes? Aren’t they cool?” I gently pulled his reddened hands away from his mouth. “Zebras like stripes. Strange, huh? If they see stripes painted on a wall, they’ll stand next to the wall. Is that crazy or what?” I’d just read that on a sign nearby. It was an abstract idea to present to him, I knew, but I did it anyway.
Smells of espresso, popcorn, and grilled hot dogs filled the air while crowds of people swarmed around us. Tommy chewed on his hands again, the backs turning wet with saliva that glistened in the bright afternoon sun. He’d been biting himself, self-abusing like that for nearly three years and nothing we’d tried, none of the therapies, seemed to be able to make him stop. Frustrating wasn’t the word.
“Wouldn’t it be cool to ride a zebra? I sure think so,” I said, still trying to draw Tommy out of himself.
I stepped closer to him and knelt down to his level, bringing my face close to his, but Tommy’s foggy stare continued to wander off into the distance. He shrugged and said nothing. This was no-speak, his own secret code. He turned completely away from me and hummed louder. “Ouuuu . . . drrrrrr . . .” Sweat stains dampened the back of his blue shirt. He was being his typical disinterested self. Just another day with my son. I rose back to my full height.
Though his mind was an odd black box, Tommy’s face was close to angelic: symmetrically aligned features on porcelain skin, curly, honey-wheat hair, and long lashes that shadowed eyes so big and blue there was little room for the whites. A gorgeous kid, for sure, a potential child model, tall and gangly for his age. He walked on his tiptoes with a kind of pelican strut, head before body, neck outstretched, legs following.
As I watched four young boys gawk and giggle at the zebras, Tommy spun around, arms extended like a propeller, eyes closed. He looked like he was trying to make himself dizzy. The whirring sound he made turned into “beeeeep, beeeeep.” Then he stopped spinning and slapped himself on the forehead. Just like that. Thwack. I felt a resonant pain in the deepest regions of my gut that seemed to spread through my entire body; empathy pain. I felt it all the time.
“Please don’t slap yourself,” I said. “You know that’s not right. Come on now, let’s have fun here. Zoos are fun.”
But Tommy just looked away, still staring into space. He kept to his own planet, my far-away little boy. I felt like his distant moon.
This was our first trip to the zoo and I was on tentative ground. I’d been looking forward to our time together all week, since seeing the ad on TV that had grabbed me: lions, tigers, polar bears, plus some dandy pandas as well—oh, my! Tommy was mine on weekends, thanks to the shared custody agreement after my divorce. Usually, on Saturday afternoons, we went to the park near my house or worked on puzzles indoors, or just kicked back and watched TV. For us, this was quite the unusual outing.
We left the zebras and their antics and shuffled along the winding sidewalk that flowed around the exhibits. I showed Tommy the giraffes, a nosy lamb at the petting zoo, and two enormous elephants that flapped their ears and lumbered lazily around. He hardly seemed to notice them.
Even a unicycling juggler throwing yellow balls into the air didn’t stop Tommy from going after his hands again, chomping away at his nails and skin. Wearing a polka-dotted shirt and a great big smile, the juggler stopped in front of us. He tossed balls up and down in revolving circular patterns, catching a ball or two behind his back. It was a show, a real eye-catcher.
“Wow! Look at that juggler, Tom-Tom,” I said, pointing. “Isn’t he good?”
But Tommy was more interested in a nearby pile of dirt. Moving away from me and withdrawing even deeper into himself, he picked up clods of it, squeezed, and then let them fall. Now his hands, already wet, were a mess. Great.
As I reached for a wipe from my backpack—wherever Tommy and I went, Mister Backpack went, too—I noticed a father and son sitting on a bench not far from us. The boy, dark-haired and pudgy, appeared to be around Tommy’s age.
“Daddy, a juggler!” the boy said, excited. “Look!”
“He’s good, isn’t he?” The father fiddled with his phone as he spoke.
“Maybe I could learn to juggle like that. He’s so cool! Hey, Dad, can we go see the reptiles next? Please? We learned about them in Miss Wexler’s class.”
Jealousy stabbed me, although I knew I shouldn’t feel it. While that kid was having a normal talk with his dad, Tommy was picking up a rock and putting it down, picking it up and putting it down, then crumbling a leaf in his hands. He said not a word. This was his way, hyper-focusing on a particular object and blocking out everything else around him.
The juggler moved on. I swallowed hard. “Okay, Tom-Tom, let’s go check out some more animals,” I said, trying to maintain my encouraging tone.
“Daddy.” Tommy shook his head, looking past me. It had been his first word in a half-hour. “Go. We go.” He spoke in what I called brick-words, words that all sounded the same, as if they dropped heavily from his mouth pre-formed, one on top of the other in monotonic units.
“Really? But we haven’t even seen the reptiles.” I faced him. “Don’t you want to see the reptiles? The snakes and stuff?”
“Go. Go. Pleeeeease. Go.” Tommy hung his head and fidgeted. He put his right thumb into his mouth, then whirled around. I always saw his persistent hand biting, his spinning, and his motorboat buzzing as sounds that reflected the storms deep within his mind.
“Sure. Of course, we can go.” I gave him a smile. I wasn’t about to push him past his limit.
Tommy seemed unfazed by the big things in life, like being shared between his parents, living in two houses, and getting emotionally tugged this way and that ever since Cheryl and I had divorced two years ago—my uncivil war as I called it. Yes, he had his fixed routines, but he’d seemed to take the change in his parents’ relationship in stride. It was the impact of unexpected sensory experiences—crunchy peanut butter, the label on the back of his shirt, even the sight of the Sunday newspaper in disarray on the floor—that made him whine and pitch fits. These roadblocks could bring the neuron highway of his mysterious mind to a painful standstill.
When Tommy found a cigarette on the ground and reached for it, about to pick it up, I pulled his hand away just in time.
“Don’t, Tommy. No! You know better than that.” He would have put it in his mouth if I hadn’t stopped him. I took a long breath and released it slowly, my eyes landing on a red-haired child eating pink cotton candy, swirls of it like edible clouds. “Okay. Let’s go, then. I guess we’ve seen enough.”
“Go . . . Go,” he said. His words seemed so disconnected, as if they arose not from his wants and needs and emotions, but from some kind of word-producing system inside his body that mechanically emitted vowels and consonants.
But on the way to the exit, we wound up near an African bird exhibit in a less populated area of the zoo. With Tommy still humming and murmuring by my side, oblivious to the world around him, I followed a long and winding trail. Instead of taking us to the exit, the shade-covered path ended in Primate World, which was set back on its own. Sounds of chimpanzees shrieking in the distance made Tommy stop dead in his tracks. He blinked, then moved forward with caution. He stood higher on his tiptoes and made a soft, inquisitive sound. “Oooouuuuwoooo.”
“What’s wrong, Tom-Tom?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. I knelt down to his level. “Are you all right?”
Tommy just sucked in a big breath as if he were about to blow out a birthday candle, then shuffled on as I followed behind. Instead of complaining, he headed straight for the exhibit and entered. He seemed suddenly curious. Interested. And I was intrigued.
From a distance of about fifty feet, we could see a single large and hairy chimp, chomping on leaves in the sunlight, separated from us by a thick glass panel. Tommy’s face flushed.
“Hairy so much,” he said, pointing at the chimp. “Wow.”
“Yes. They’re cool, for sure. They’re chimpanzees. You like them?” I rubbed my chin as I studied him, then glanced at the chimps.
“Wooooow.” Tommy clapped his hands. “Woooweeeee. Go. Here.”
“Sure.” His newborn enthusiasm made me smile broadly. It was just so completely unexpected.
As we made our way down a narrow path shaded by large overhanging trees, we found a group of chimps set behind glass walls, nestled in a jungle-like atmosphere. Large climbing rocks and verdant trees abounded in a field of grass and bushes. It looked homey, like an outdoor chimp hotel. Some of the chimps were playing or cuddling, some lumbered around, and others simply sat by themselves and stared vacuously into space. Tommy pointed at one of the chimps shuffling around near the glass.
“Woweee.” He stood unusually motionless and just took it all in. “Wowweee. Cooool.”
This sudden curiosity made my mouth drop open. I’d never seen him so engaged and he wasn’t biting his hands or anything. A slow-moving chimp shook his head, scratched an ear, and shambled past us, lazily heading for a rope swing. Another chimp stuck out his tongue and then flicked his hands in the air. Tommy watched them all with such focus, his eyes fixated on the animals.
He turned to me and pointed at one of the larger chimps sitting by the window. “She baby in tummy, Daddy.” He cocked his head. “She chimpie baby in chimpie mommy tummy!”
“Really? You think so?” I raised an eyebrow and folded my arms across my chest.
“Yep. She baby.” He spoke so matter-of-factly as glimmerings of excitement shone in his eyes. “She chimpie baby. Chimpie in there and happy!”
“That’s using your words. I really like that.” I laughed and stepped closer to him. “But how do you know she has a baby?” The chimp didn’t have a protruding belly as far as I could tell, though I was far from an expert.
“Baby! Daddy! Chimpie!” He actually hugged himself and giggled.
I couldn’t believe it, this new eagerness of his. My breath caught in my throat as I stepped back, accidentally bumping into another onlooker, a short man with a full beard. Stroking his beard and scratching his head, the man shot me a nasty look.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
The man replied with a grunt as he moved past us. The adult chimp that Tommy had pointed at stood up, screeched, then raised a smaller chimp on to its shoulders with the ease of an acrobat.
“Can you tell Daddy how you know?” I pushed back my Padres baseball cap as I gazed down at him.
But once again, Tommy said nothing. He brought his hands back up to his mouth and nipped the backs of them.
“Tommy, can we please not do that?” I shook my head, hoping he would listen.
It was as if Tommy’s brain had gone into loop mode, playing a certain behavior over and over again like a song. In desperation, I turned to Plan B—speaking cartoon-ese. As a professional voice-over actor in the San Diego area—Loco Bob’s out of his mind with price cuts! Discounts galoooore!—I could produce a number of cartoon voices—“That’s-that’s all, f-f-folks!” This skill had made me a hit at kids’ birthday parties and, to be honest, some late-night adult parties as well.
“Hey, Tom-Tom.” I channeled my inner SpongeBob SquarePants and spoke in his goofy, clunky, cartoon voice. “Let’s put our hands in our pockets, okay? No biting, okay? You know that would make me sooooo, soooo happy. Pockets please, my little starfish.”
“Okay, SpongeBob.” The words plopped out of his mouth and I was gratified. Tommy looked down shyly and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his khakis. As he rocked on the balls of his feet, he looked past me and stuck out his tongue, making a long circle with it around his lips, sides, top to bottom. “’Kay.”
“Thank you. And,” I winked, switching to a deeper tone, “oh yeah, Larry the Lobster thanks you too.”
But then Tommy threw me another curveball: he pulled his hands from his pockets and pressed his index fingers against his roughened thumbs, a motion similar to snapping his fingers. He moved them against each other, producing what seemed like a soft, scratchy flick, rub, flick, rub, rub . . . flick-flick, rub. I’d never seen him do anything like that before. He knew some sign language—about fifty signs. He’d learned them at school as a way to improve his communication abilities and relieve his frustrations. Of course, Cheryl and I had taught ourselves some signs, as well. But these motions were nothing I could recognize.
“Are you okay, Tommy?” I bent down to his level once again and frowned, worried the new hand gestures could be the prelude to another tantrum. In fact, he’d already thrown a fit this morning over a spilled-milk issue and had nearly split his lip on the kitchen counter. My muscles stiffened. Tommy’s tantrums were living nightmares. They haunted my dreams.
Tommy stopped flicking his fingers, cocked his head as if listening to an inner voice. “She baby in tummy. Baby mommy, see?” he said again, pointing at the same chimp.
When he was seven, Tommy had tested at the four-year-old level in terms of expressive language, and typically his days and nights were filled with bouts of prolonged and remote silence, followed by short, sporadic glimmerings of monotonic speech. There were times when he seemed to be improving, then other periods when he regressed, his disordered mind fighting the very basic nature of communication. It was heartbreaking. There was no other word to describe it. But on that afternoon at the zoo, I felt a glimmer of hope. For him, “She baby in tummy,” was practically a speech.
He made the sign for chimp—I had no idea he even knew that sign, though I remembered it—putting your hands at your sides and scratching upwards, as if you were an ape.
“How do you know about the baby, Tommy?” I asked.
He tugged at his juice-stained, olive-green T-shirt, folded his arms across his chest, and offered something I was always yearning for—direct eye contact. Though he didn’t speak, direct eye contact was gold to me. His blue eyes, which usually skittered and darted around like butterflies, landed on my face and stayed there, holding my stare for several long, spectacular moments.
“Daddy belly,” Tommy insisted in his staccato-like talk. “She . . . baby . . . baby belly in tummy.” He spoke as if he were lecturing me. I grinned. The mild breeze wafting in from the coast seemed to reflect my elevated mood.
I pointed to a larger window exhibit of chimps down the path. “Let’s go over there. I think we can get a better look.”
“Okay, Daddy.” He scrunched up his face and clapped his hands, then surprisingly doled out a burst of enthusiasm. “Yeah!”
“Wow, Tom-Tom. You really do like these chimps, don’t you?”
Again, Tommy nodded vigorously, a serious expression on his face.
Although a crowd had gathered at the glass, I stayed close to Tommy and eased us both to a spot where he could watch the primates without obstruction. I had no idea what to make of his uncanny interest in these creatures, though, I, too, was mesmerized by the chimps and their almost human mannerisms as they lolled around, picked at each other, or wandered in search of a new leaf to mash on their teeth and tongues. Some looked sleepy, some content. Regardless of their actions, they paid no attention to the Homo sapiens on our side of the glass.
But when Tommy started flicking his fingers again, a big chimp with a wrinkled face and dark, watery eyes took notice. He shook his head, then waddled over to where Tommy stood. Again, Tommy made the sign for chimp, curling his hands at his sides. Big Guy’s eyes remained glued on Tommy, who placed his hand against the glass, and then . . . damned if the chimp didn’t do the same. Hand against hand, boy and chimp. Big Guy bellowed.
The two locked eyes and stood stock-still, focused so intensely it seemed like each was channeling the other’s thoughts.
Tommy beamed at the chimp while I watched, stunned, my lips parted. Tommy bobbed his head and, in imitation, the chimp bobbed too, sticking his tongue out. Then the two started swaying together like synced metronomes. When Tommy made another odd, flicking gesture, the chimp rubbed his thick fingers together as well. I laughed out loud. Truly, this was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. Tommy just stood there, an intent look on his face. He seemed so absorbed, so focused, like I’d never seen him before.
Three other chimps shuffled over, using their own hand movements and facial expressions, gawking, stretching their mouths wide. They gestured to each other with large movements of their arms. They eyeballed Tommy and Tommy alone, intent expressions fixed on their friendly faces. One chimp with gray, wispy hair under his chin screeched, flailed his arms, and jumped up and down as if trying to get Tommy’s attention. But Big Guy and Tommy ignored him, mesmerized with each other. When Tommy touched the top of his head, Big Guy did the same. Then when Tommy rubbed both of his ears, Big Guy rubbed his ears as well. The bearded man I’d bumped into earlier stood next to me, his arms folded across his chest.
“Now ain’t that somethin’,” he intoned. I turned away from Tommy and realized we were surrounded by a growing group of onlookers.
“Hey, Brandy,” I heard a voice say. I spied a tall woman in a white dress standing next to her black-haired female friend. Smiles had blossomed on their faces. “Look at that kid. The chimps can’t take their eyes off that little boy. It’s so cute!”
On the other side of us was a lanky teenager with pimples on his chin. He’d whipped out his phone and was recording Tommy’s interactions, the way the chimp was imitating Tommy. “This is so rad,” he mumbled.
Oh, God. A YouTube moment. I thought about tapping the kid on the shoulder and making him stop. But why cause a scene? Besides, when you were out in public, wasn’t privacy a thing of the past? Maybe I should record this, too. But my cell phone was just about out of battery power.
“Whose kid is that?” asked a man behind me as I swung around.
“There’s the dad,” a woman said in a New York accent. She was short, with black hair and black glasses. She pointed at me. “The tall guy with the Padres cap.”
“That’s me, all right.” I raised my hand slightly and everyone laughed. I felt my face flame up as fatherly pride melted like warm butter in my chest. I stood a little taller, straightening my shoulders.
Tommy flicked his fingers even more vigorously. Then he made the sign for play: hands turned sideways, shaped like the sign for Texas Longhorns, wiggling up and down. Then back to the flicking, which looked as if he were somehow tapping out the primate version of Morse Code.
Big Guy opened his mouth wide and let out a jungle-shriek. He returned the finger flicking, and then wiggled his hands and held them in a way that looked awfully similar to Tommy’s “play” sign. Wispy Hair tried to shove Big Guy out of the way, but the big chimp refused to budge.
“Play . . . make . . . chimps.” Tommy gazed up at me. He made the play sign, then the chimp sign.
“I see that,” I said. “I had no idea you liked chimps so much!”
“Do, Daddy. Doooo.”
I reveled in another delightful moment of Tommy’s lingering eye contact and in the brightness on his face. He seemed unlocked by the experience, transformed.
Before we left the exhibit, I turned around and gazed once more at the chimps, who were still scampering around. They were so human-like, with their contemplative gazes, their self-conscious movements, their gestures. Surely, there was more than a bit of Homo sapiens running in their blood. And were we humans more chimp-like than we realized?
Maybe some of us more than others. I smiled to myself, thinking of the bearded man I’d bumped into, then edged closer to Tommy, who now fidgeted and hung his head, silent as ever. What was Tommy contemplating? His shoes? The shadows that dangled around him?
“Those chimpies really like you, Tommy.” I crouched down to his level. A bead of sweat dotted his upper lip.
He didn’t say anything, but he gave me another wondrous moment of direct eye contact and I drank it in. Then snot bubbled from his nostrils. I produced a tissue from Mister Backpack, which was stocked with a change of clothes, tissues, band aids, the works, and tried to wipe Tommy’s face clean. He grimaced and jerked and twisted away from me, but I persisted.
“Nooo!” He folded his lower lip in defiance.
“Come on, son. Let me just wipe your . . . there,” I said when I was done. “Thank you.”
“Daddeeee.” Tommy rubbed his nose with the palm of his hand, reddening his nostrils. His stubborn refusal to allow me to touch him had always hollowed me out. He pointed back at the chimps. “Like.” He spoke loudly, then expanded his arms like wings and made the “like play” sign. “Like chimpies, Daddy. Big lots!”
“Well, that’s great, Tom-Tom.” I beamed, grinning.
“Chimpies,” Tommy said. “Chimpies.” He clapped his hands and jumped up and down, excitement flashing on his face.
Did you know chimpanzees only have babies every four to five years? We are very proud to announce that here at the San Diego Zoo, Wanda G, our newest chimp, is expecting a baby in approximately eight months!
I read the sign twice, blinking rapidly. Damned if there wasn’t a picture of Wanda G herself on the sign—the chimp who looked awfully like the one Tommy had said was pregnant.
I stood still, hairs on the back of my neck tingling. How in the world had he known?
About the Author
Larry Center has a degree in philosophy and has written four novels. He is especially interested in the relationship between animals and humans in terms of communication overlaps. He lives in Nashville, TN and writes constantly.