"Just like a forest, he's full of unexpected treasures and beauties, if one just takes the time to see them."
It was a rainy evening as Ellen wiped down the counter of her empty dumpling shop, thirty minutes before closing. Another slow night. Her son lay on his stomach behind the counter, drawing, where he always was during his mother’s evening shifts.
Just as Ellen was ready to call it a night, the front door of the shop opened, and a lone customer walked in—a tall, trim man wearing a long slicker. He shook his umbrella over the welcome mat and leaned it against the wall by the entrance.
“You still taking customers?” he asked, his voice thick with a smooth Southern accent.
“Of course,” Ellen said, waving him in. “Come sit down, out of the rain. It seems like a real storm out there.”
A peal of thunder rang out.
The man laughed, “Just a bit.” He hung up his coat and walked to the front counter, where he caught sight of two small sneakers kicking up and down on the floor below. Leaning over the counter a bit further, he spotted the boy. “Hello,” he called down. “I didn’t see you there before.”
The boy didn’t respond.
“He gets so engrossed in what he’s doing,” Ellen said, shrugging. “You know how boys at that age can be.”
The man nodded and smiled.
Ellen set down her cleaning rag and wiped her hands on her apron. “Now, what can I get you this evening?”
The man looked at the menu set into the wall behind the counter. “I’m just passing through town, and everyone here has told me I have to try Ellen’s dumplings.” He sat down at one of the counter stools. “I’ll take your sampler plate and a cup of coffee, please.”
Ellen smiled. She grabbed a mug, filled it with piping hot coffee, and handed it to the man. “I’ll have those dumplings right up,” she said. She opened the fridge and took out a dozen dumplings, freshly made that morning, then turned on a large pot of water. It was a one woman show tonight.
The man leaned over the counter again. “What are you drawing down there?” he asked the boy.
The boy remained silent, still kicking his sneakers up and down. The man sipped his coffee. “The silence is nice too."
A moment passed before the boy suddenly jumped up and grabbed a cup from behind the counter. He walked over to his mother and handed it to her. Ellen took the cup, filled it with water from the sink, and handed it back to him. The man noticed that no words were exchanged between the two.
The boy stood at the counter opposite the man as he sipped his water, both small hands wrapped around the cup. Curly brown hair, just like his mother’s, fell across his freckled forehead, almost reaching his green eyes. His gaze traveled over the man’s face—around his mouth, over his nose, across his hairline, but never met his eyes.
The man fashioned his mouth into a wide grin and tried to meet the boy’s gaze. “What’s your name?” The boy looked him in the eye for a moment, then away as he continued to sip slowly from his cup.
Ellen walked over to the pair. “You’ll have to excuse my son,” she said. “He’s in a nonverbal phase.”
“Ah,” the man said. “They can be moody at this age.”
“No,” Ellen said. “Perhaps ‘phase’ isn’t the right word. My son is autistic, and he hasn’t yet learned to communicate with verbal language.”
The man nodded his head slowly. “How can he communicate, ma’am, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Well, he can read and write, but mostly,” Ellen gestured toward her son’s drawings, still scattered across the floor, “he draws.” The man looked down at the pictures. Even from behind the counter, he could make out some of the most intricate drawings he had ever seen a child create. Some contained recognizable shapes: animals, buildings, plants. But others seemed to display designs or patterns straight from the boy’s imagination. One thing was clear to the man—the boy had real talent.
“These are incredible,” he said to Ellen.
“I agree,” she said. “I love how he thinks. But unfortunately, his school doesn’t…” Ellen trailed off as she slid the dumplings into the boiling water.
The boy was still standing in front of him, sipping his water, eyes wandering around the room but not lingering too long on any one thing.
The man had an idea. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small black notebook and pencil. He opened to a blank page and wrote, “Hello,” in clear print, then slid the notebook across the counter. Setting down his cup, the boy turned to the open book before him and gazed at the word for a long time. Then he grabbed the book and returned to his station on the floor. The man heard the soft scratch of pencil against paper break through the sound of rain and boiling water.
After a moment, the boy returned the notebook to the man. Underneath the man’s written “Hello,” the child had drawn a picture of boy just like him, but with his hand raised in a wave. In front of him, the boy wouldn’t meet his gaze, but through his drawing, he was saying “hello” in his own way.
The man smiled. He turned to another blank page and wrote, “What’s your name?”
Again, the boy stared at the page for a long time before returning to the floor, putting pencil against paper.
Ellen returned to the counter. “Here’s your dumpling platter!” The yellow plate she set before him was slightly chipped, but on top were the most perfectly formed mounds of dough, each stuffed with chicken, beef, or potatoes.
“These look delicious.” He took a bite and closed his eyes, savoring the tender meat, the rich gravy, the melt-in-your-mouth dough. “These are delicious.”
Ellen smiled. “I’m glad to hear that.” She reached for her rag and began wiping down the counter again. “This used to be the most popular place in town,” she said wistfully. “But anymore, so many people have been leaving that we barely get by.”
The man finished chewing his bite. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am.”
The boy stood up and walked over to the man, handing him the open notebook. On the page was a beautiful drawing of trees, grouped together, with a stream running between their trunks. The man looked up, confused, at Ellen.
“His name is Forest,” she explained. “It’s fitting, I always say, because just like a forest, my son is full of unexpected treasures and beauties,” she paused, “if one just takes the time to see them.”
“A fitting name, and a perfect answer to my question,” the man said, pointing to the page. He wrote underneath the boy’s drawing, “It’s nice to meet you, Forest. My name is Glenn.”
Out loud, he said the same to Ellen.
“Ellen,” she replied.
Forest lingered by the counter, waiting for another question. Glenn wrote in the notebook, “How old are you?”
For the first time, the boy seemed excited as he took the book and ducked back to his drawing position.
Ellen paused her cleaning and looked at Glenn. “Thanks for being so kind to my son. He doesn’t make many friends. Not many people try to learn how to communicate with him. I mean, he has me, and he does go to school, but they try to make him conform to verbal language without trying to understand him as he communicates, in his own beautiful way. He hates it there. I often think how lonely he must feel…” Her voice broke with emotion.
“Your son is clearly a special little boy,” he said. “I’m happy to be his friend for a little while.” Ellen smiled and continued cleaning.
Forest jumped up and returned the book to the man. On the page, he had drawn an intricate depiction of an astronaut floating toward Saturn, reaching out as though about to grab one of its rings.
Glenn looked toward Ellen for a translation.
“Look closely at the eyes,” she said. It was only then that Glenn realized the astronaut’s eyes were drawn in the shape of an eight. “He never writes his numbers without flair,” she said. “He can, but he much prefers to make whole portraits with them. He knows there are eight planets, so an eight to him usually means drawing a space picture.”
Glenn shook his head. “Ellen, your son is truly brilliant,” he said. Forest tapped his hand on the counter, waiting for another question. This time, Glenn wrote, “What is your favorite thing to do?”
The boy ducked down and busily got to work.
At this point, Glenn had finished his plate and leaned back in his chair. “He’s brilliant,” he repeated. “What kind of school doesn’t recognize that?”
Ellen sighed. “The only public school in town. He dreads going, and I dread taking him. But what can I do? There’s a private school in the next town over with a wonderful autism program, one that recognizes the kids as special and treats them with care. He would flourish there, I just know he would. I’ve been saving up since he was in preschool, but with times being so hard…” she shook her head, embarrassed. “The shop just doesn’t make enough these days.”
Glenn nodded his head sympathetically. After a moment he said, “You’re doing the best you can.” They remained lost in their own thoughts for a moment, silent.
Forest broke the silence by jumping up once more. He practically threw the book at Glenn, he seemed so excited. Glenn looked at the page, then paused.
“What did he draw?” Ellen asked. “I’m curious to know the answer myself!”
Glenn looked at Ellen, then turned the book so they could both see. On the page was a drawing of a curly-headed little boy hugging his curly-headed mother. Forest had drawn big smiles across each face, and hearts beaming across each chest. But the other side of the page surprised Glenn more. Forest had drawn a man, seated at a counter, just like him. The man was smiling at the boy and his mother. In the air above their heads appeared a string of letters, as though the people in the drawing were talking to one another. At the top of the page, he had written a single word: “friend.”
Tears filled Ellen’s eyes. Glenn was speechless. Forest looked around the room, no emotion reaching his face. But Glenn knew. Forest was happy, even if he couldn’t communicate it with a smile, or a spoken word. Glenn took the notebook once more and wrote, “I like being your friend, too.”
A few quiet moments passed, all gathered around the counter, before Forest returned to his own drawings on the floor. Ellen had finished cleaning by then, and Glenn realized the shop had closed half an hour ago. “I should go,” he said. He signed his receipt and placed it face down on the counter. “Thanks for the delicious meal, and the wonderful conversation,” he said.
“Thank you,” Ellen said, “for your friendship.”
Glenn took the notebook once more and wrote, “Goodbye, Forest!” He left it on the counter for the boy to see later.
Glenn grabbed his umbrella and walked out into the rain.
Ellen, finished for the night, took a piece of paper and wrote, “It’s time to go,” then showed it to Forest. He collected his drawings and stood, clearly ready for home.
Before leaving, Ellen grabbed Glenn’s receipt and was about to put it in the register when she looked at it and stopped, shocked. “This can’t be…” she said out loud. Glenn’s meal had been $12.00.
On the tip line he had written $20,000.
Ellen gasped. In the margin of the receipt she read, “Forest deserves a school that recognizes the brilliant boy that he is.”
Tears streamed down Ellen’s cheeks. She ran out the door and called into the storm, “Glenn!” But no one replied. The man was gone. She didn’t even know how to contact him.
Forest had his hand on the backdoor, waiting to leave. He didn’t look at Ellen as she continued to sob, then laugh, then sob. Finally, she reached for a piece of paper and wrote, “Forest, you are going to go to a new school. A nice school. Would you like that?”
His face remained expressionless, and for a moment Ellen worried that she had it wrong, that her son hadn’t wanted a different school after all. But Forest grabbed the pencil from his mother. On the paper, he drew a portrait of a boy with curly hair and freckles, and the biggest smile across his face. Forest was happy.
***If you liked this story, please give it a heart! I still can't believe people are reading my writing and liking it, so each heart makes my own heart beam. :) Also, to read more of my stories on Vocal, check out Pinky Promise or The Robbery of Mr. Gobb.