When I was a little girl my Pa told me a lie that I’ve never forgotten. In my small, country town “Pa” is what you call your grandfather. Yes, just like Little House on the Prairie. Except we aren’t surrounded by nosy neighbors and cornfields, but by sawmills and pine trees. Lumber City, Georgia, is a town so small you wonder how it ever even became a town in the first place. The river is the one mainly to blame, I reckon. It flows along at a nice pace toward the Savannah coast, drifting right through our little town—making it the perfect place for steamboats to pass through.
Around the turn of the century—though the exact date is much debated amongst the locals—it was decided the then-booming town of Lumber City needed a bridge for the train to pass over the river. But not just any bridge would do, of course. Lumber City needed a trestle bridge that would allow both the steamboats to sail through the river and the train to speed over it. A large metal structure was built, complete with a little house-looking building on top for the watchman to swing the bridge around when a steamboat came through.
The trestle is still used for the daily train, but hasn’t swung around for a steamboat in quite some time. The moist and humid river air has ridden it a brownish-red color—almost the color of dried blood. As a little girl I always wondered about that bridge and the tiny little house on top. One day, when I was about six years old, I finally asked my Pa just who thought themselves important enough to live in that tall, old house. That’s when he told me the lie.
We were driving in my Pa’s old Jeep—the one he bought with his bonus money that year—on our way to our weekly Thursday night destination: Livingston’s Family Restaurant in Lumber City. Some years later my momma married one of the Livingston boys. It was a simple wedding, with a big white cake covered in real flowers picked right from Mrs. Robbie’s rosebush that very morning.
Livingston’s Family Restaurant was just about as down-home and country as you could get. Mounted deer heads lined the walls of the dining area, while old donated copies of Field and Stream sat on the counter, desperately waiting to be discovered again. If the décor and atmosphere didn’t reel you in, the food certainly would. The specialty at Livingston’s was their juicy and tender hamburger steak, cooked lovingly by none other than Bryan Livingston—the one Momma married.
Pa’s Jeep hadn’t had air-conditioning in quite some time, and the September heat was cooking the black leather seats as my sweaty legs stuck to them. As we neared the trestle, I decided to distract myself. Pa was always good for a story, so I knew he’d have a fun answer for my question.
“Pa,” I said assuredly, “who lives in that house on top of the train bridge?”
“Well,” he began just like I knew would—as if his mouth needed to prepare itself for the words it was about to speak. “Nobody really lives there. But it’s a pretty important house. That building up there,” he pointed just as the Jeep passed the trestle, “that’s where Batman changes his clothes.”
“What?!” I demanded, now utterly bewildered.
“Yeah,” he continued thoughtfully, “Ya know how when Clark Kent needs to become Superman, he jumps in a phone booth and changes clothes?”
“Yep!” I confidently replied. “He takes off his glasses and everything.”
“That’s right. But Batman can’t use a phone booth if Superman’s using all of ‘em, so when he needs to become Batman, he uses that building up there where can’t nobody see him.”
I went to school the next day and informed my friends to be on the lookout for the Batmobile the next time they went to Lumber City. Eventually, though, I stopped looking. I started thinking more about homework, about boys, and about my future. The fun little lie my Pa told me drifted away like the steamboats in the river all those years ago.
It all came flooding back after Noah was born, though. After marrying the Livingston boy, Momma was soon pregnant with my baby brother. I was none too thrilled about it all at the time. I was twelve, for goodness sake, much too old to become a big sister! I had to worry about getting my first kiss before high school, steering clear of the worst teacher in eighth grade, and keeping my over-developed breasts under wraps. I didn’t have time for a little brother.
A few days after Christmas, I made time. Noah was born in the middle of the night, while the hospital still had their Christmas decorations up. Glittery snowmen waved at us from their places on the walls, while a miniature St. Nick graced the nurse’s counter.
“Y’all wanna see him?” My stepdad Bryan (whom we’d affectionately termed ‘Bubba’) wore an expression on his face I still can’t quite name—a mixture of fear, joy, excitement, and anxiety. I led the way to Momma’s room where perfect little Noah laid nuzzled in her arms. Momma had already promised I could be the first of the family to hold him, and I was more than ready. I sat down on the pink, plastic chair as Bubba gingerly placed the baby in my arms.
Noah’s jet black hair peeked through the blanket, resembling an ink stain. That hair was the first thing I ever noticed about him. No one in my Momma’s family or in Bubba’s family has hair that dark. I’ve never known where it came from, but it sure suits him. From that first meeting, when his little hand reached out and grabbed ahold of my finger, I was hooked. He had my whole heart.
As Noah and I both grew, our family began to notice some differences between him and other kids his age. Noah had not yet started to speak, he rarely waved or interacted with other children, and he always seemed to be in his own little world. The doctors started saying words like delayed, challenged, and special services. A year or two before I left for college, they finally started using the big one: autism. The word we were all fearing inside, the one we didn’t understand and didn’t want to believe. Pediatricians and child psychologists and behavioral therapists all told us that Noah may never talk, that he may never be a “typical” boy, that he may never be able to live successfully in our world.
We all took the news differently. I read as much as I could on autism—from Temple Grandin to Kanner and Asperger. Pa didn’t really understand it at first. He wanted Noah to be a “normal” grandson who he could watch NASCAR with and throw a ball to. Momma went straight into activism mode. She checked out books from the miniscule local library and was quick to educate anyone who gave Noah the side-eye at the Walmart checkout. As difficult as the autism can be, I wouldn’t change Noah for anything in the world. And he sure proved those doctors wrong—about the talking, anyway. The boy started talking overnight and hasn’t stopped since!
Car rides have always been difficult for Noah, especially when he was younger and still stuck in a car seat. Those straps and fasteners and cushions overstimulated his little brain and made him thrash about dangerously. Before I got my own car, I usually wound up sitting in the backseat with him while Momma drove us to the nearest Walmart or Burger King (Noah’s favorite to this day) in the nearby town of Hazlehurst. I often had to tune out his screams and cries because there was simply nothing else to be done.
One rainy day in April, in the backseat of Momma’s Honda next to Noah screaming in the car seat, I was thinking about the history paper I needed to write for Mr. Walker’s class. The Industrial Revolution has never been a topic which brings me much joy, but it was a welcomed reprieve from Noah screaming helplessly in the tentacular car seat. As I watched the rain hit the window and slowly slide down, my thoughts drifted to what Mr. Walker had told us in class the day before, “Boy, those steamboats sure made life easier for the folks back in the day. They were much faster and could near ‘bout glide on the water.”
What I wouldn’t do for Noah to be able to just glide right now. I thought. Just glide through all this pain he feels, glide through the next few minutes.
Momma’s car hit the little bump, indicating we were just over the river with the trestle bridge to our right. I wonder how long it’s been since that old thing has seen a steamboat, I thought. I can’t believe I used to think that little house was where Batman changed his clothes. Batman. Noah’s current fixation was superheroes, specifically Batman. He would run around the house echoing every single line to one of those cheesy cartoons. He carried around a Batman action figure and ran his thumb over the cape when he was anxious or over-stimulated. I might as well try, I reasoned as I repositioned myself around my seatbelt to see Noah’s tear-streaked face.
“Hey, Noah,” I nearly whispered. It always helps to speak quietly when he’s overstimulated. I gently placed my hand over his red and flailing arm. “Hey,” I whispered again, this time rubbing his arm a little with my thumb. After a few seconds, he stopped crying long enough to glance up at me, his sweet face covered with tears and snot. “Hey, buddy, you wanna know something cool?” Noah nodded his head ever so slightly, almost as if to inform me that it had better be very cool, whatever it was.
“You know what that building up there is?” I pointed just as the Honda passed the trestle. Noah shook his head. “That up there is where Batman changes his clothes.” I noted a faint, half smile—the one he does when he doesn’t want you to know he’s smiling. “Yep,” I continued, “since Superman’s using up all the phonebooths, when Bruce Wayne needs to save the day, he hops up to that building over there and puts his cape and stuff on. I bet if you look real close, you might could even see the Batmobile one day.” Noah’s eyes noted the sudden shift in his mood as they quickly changed from the sullen, pupil-filled fountains to those dark and watchful orbs. As he sat straight up and looked around and back at the bridge, I saw Momma flash a relieved smile in the rearview mirror. We made it through another meltdown. We could breathe for a moment.
At twelve years old, Noah has made some amazing strides. He doesn’t strip off his clothes at the sight of one raindrop, no longer eats from the same limited menu as he once did, and has even learned how to pour his own apple juice. But some aspects of his childlike nature will always remain. He still leaves cookies out for Santa and prefers shoes that light up. And sometimes, when he thinks no one is watching, he looks for the Batmobile as we pass the trestle bridge.