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Ben At School

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Ben At School

On the home front, Ben was making good progress in his discrete

trial program. He’d mastered catch and throw ball, flush toilet, hang up coat, stack dominoes, chain paper clips, blow up balloon, fold wash cloth, pour water, nod yes and no, spin quarter, empty trash, hang up picture, kick ball, and zip pants.

He’d also learned to imitate the vowel sounds in saw, see, and up, and the consonant sounds M, S, F, Wh, B, and P. My student therapists were rehabilitating him like a polio victim, restoring his atrophied neurological system.

Best of all, he had learned to imitate. I could show Ben what I wanted him to do—make a fist, stick out his tongue, cover his head with a blanket—and he would do it. He no longer needed food as a reward: “Good job, Ben!” was reinforcement enough for him. I was confident that he could learn anything we had the patience to teach him. At age eight, he was ready, I thought, for school.

But I was apprehensive about the Dallas Independent School

District. They’d fired the only teacher who’d made a breakthrough with Ben. When I picked him up or dropped him off, I often stayed for a few minutes to observe and to chat with the pupils. Jason, a bright, attractive boy, about a year older than Ben, was bouncing on a foot trampoline.

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Aftershocks

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Aftershocks

Within a few months, Sue’s apartment deteriorated, the second

one she’d trashed. Roaches erupted and multiplied as if by spontaneous generation, hatched from festering food. The apartment smelled like a cat box. Judy refused to do therapy at Sue’s. She brought Ben over to my apartment. “Sue said something about my mother that was so repulsive and hurtful that I can’t repeat it.”

“Oh, that wasn’t really Sue,” I explained, “That was the White

Bitch.”

“I’m not going back there.”

Sue didn’t see her apartment as a rattrap; she saw it as a treasure box. She’d dubbed herself the Salvage Queen of Dallas. When an old

Highland Park mansion was scheduled for demolition, she’d sneak into the site looking for collectibles, pull up in her red Ford Escort, branded with yellow-and-green sunflowers the size of basketballs painted on the car. Camouflage, she thought, but it stood out like a circus clown car. She packratted chandeliers, fancy light switches, window boxes, exotic plants, carpets, drapes, and once even ten pounds of wild rice, found in the upper reaches of an abandoned pantry. She made art, kinetic sculptures, wind chimes, hanging mobiles, vases, and planters out of these recovered treasures, and she populated her living quarters with them.

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Over the Rainbow

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Over the Rainbow

In August of 2001, the summer that Ben turned fourteen, I bought

a condominium in Oak Lawn, a leafy, gentrified Dallas enclave near the city center. Sue would pick Ben up from school, feed him her home-cooked gluten-free dinners, and bring him to me for the night. We alternated weekends for a while, but Ben slept better at my place. He stayed. Ben and I became a family unit. Letters arrived in my mailbox addressed to “Dan and Ben.”

I poured myself into my work and taught an overload: as many as seventeen sections of communications courses, mostly online. In the evenings, Ben watched TV or read Dr. Seuss books while I e-mailed my students and graded papers, listening to WRR, the Dallas classical station. Tchaikovsky piano concertos, Mozart, or Bach played in the background. About nine thirty, I’d wind up the evening.

“Ben, do you want to go to Lucky’s?”

He’d nod yes, and we were off for bedtime snacks, steamed broccoli, or red beans and rice, at the corner café, floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over pedestrian traffic and the upscale urban landscape.

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Wished upon a Star

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Wished upon a Star

July 1990. Carrollton, Texas

The Carrollton Public Library didn’t smell like an office; it smelled

of cedar pencil shavings and Windex, an elementary school classroom. The tables were populated by schoolchildren writing their book reports. I was dressed for success: suit, tie, and briefcase. I didn’t belong here. Likely a pedophile, the librarian no doubt thought, playing hooky from work.

I should be in an office building downtown, handing speech drafts to a secretary, or on an American Airlines flight to New York to interview the CEO of IBM, or giving a presentation in the Dell boardroom.

The librarian, black-frocked Miss Colfin, hair done up in a Pentecostal bun, pretended to ignore me but I felt she was watching out of the corner of her eye. Would she think I was going to stash books in my briefcase and sneak out? Would she think it was full of drugs?

Trying to look professional, I found the card catalogue and pulled out the musty “AU” drawer.

“No, Blunderbuss,” a voice in my head said, addressing me.

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Cold War

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Cold War

Joining forces for Ben, Sue and I looked for a place to settle in

together. During the spring of 1997, I drew circles and lines on the map—school, Bachman Recreation Center, routes to work. All pointers intersected at a block of older apartments just a short hike from

Gooch Elementary, Ben’s school. The once-proud apartments, gone to seed and drug dealers, were being gutted and renovated, like me.

Southern-mansion style, low-rise, verandas, hanging gardens, oversized rooms, lavish space; real plaster on the foot-thick walls, steel and brick superstructure built to last a century. Bay windows looking out on the oak-shaded lawn. Playground and a swimming pool just around the corner. Foliage at the bottom of the stairs where Sue could plant a garden.

We rented a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor: master for Sue, study/bedroom for me, cubby for Ben. My Mom and

Dad bought us a new washer and dryer set, blessing our reunion.

The dining room table doubled as Ben’s therapy desk, where trainers could sit. Searching the Salvation Army for treasures, I selected a Queen Anne sofa and matching chair recovered in green fleur-delis. I paid from my savings and offered it as a gift to Sue, an open hope chest. She branded the living room with a red fleur-de-lis mismatched chair. Her mark.

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