I arrived 15 minutes early for today’s apple-picking field trip. To pass time until the other parents appeared, I chatted with a Romanian Grandmother visiting American relatives. Radiant, she wore pastel florals perfect for a 1982 Iron Curtain Victory Day parade. Her genuine delight to be out with her grandson bubbled through her broken English. When she discovered I spoke Russian, it was my turn to bubble brokenly to her. We enjoyed a tacit camaraderie as over-40 outsiders among the young mothers gathering around us. I mentioned that Liev is autistic, to prepare her for unexpected behavior, and she seemed stricken. Meeting him, she praised his well-spoken manner and sharp memory. In an aside, she confided her abiding belief that autism is over-diagnosed. We parted after she spotted her daughter arriving with a car. Liev, tossed out an amiable “Kharsho!” to her before she fluttered away.
Instead of driving, Liev and I opted to load onto a titanic yellow school bus with the rest of his class. We sped to the very back row since the hum of the rear engine resembles 220 horsepower white noise machine. After the bus staggered into motion and shook around curves, we stopped at another school to pick up more kids. Liev shouted, “All aboard!” like on Dinosaur Train, as we parked in front of Mastricola. On the open road, the bus lurched like a vast, unwieldy battleship, swaying as if wallowing is a difficult patch in the South Atlantic. Liev, thrilled with the entire process, sang Dinosaur ABC’s from our favorite program, Dinosaur Train. I joined in gleefully:
“A – Apatosaurus! B – Brachiosaurus! C – Corythosaurus! D – Deinonychus! E – Einiosaurus! F – Fabrosaurus! G – Gallimimus! H – Hadrosaurus! I – Iguanodon! J – Jaxartosaurus! K – Kentrosaurus! L – Lambeosaurus! M – Megalosaurus! N – Nodosaurus! O – Ornithomimus! P – Parasaurolophus! Q – Qantassaurus! R – Rhabdodon! S – Stegosaurus! T – Tyrannosaurus! U – Utahraptor! V – Velociraptor! W, W? – Wannanosaurus! X – Xenotarsosaurus! Y – Yangchuanosaurus! Z – Zigongosaurus!”
Other passengers tittered and nodded during our lighthearted recital. When a young child can memorize so many dinosaur names, it’s astounding, but lisping them to a tune is adorable beyond belief. Miss Ann, one of Liev’s paraeducators, wore an inscrutable smirk during our performance. Had Liev been reciting his dinosaur ABCs all week? Nah, most likely, she was thinking, “Two peas in a pod!” Regardless, the distraction was welcome since the bus driver was a maniac.
She swung turn after turn fast and dizzy. Sweat crawled down my limbs since the bus teetered as if it would tip over or at least ski on two wheels on the descending dirt road to the orchard. I reminded myself, “She is a professional!” but when she twisted up a rutted and uneven road, the jostling shudder that rattled teeth and windows surely damaged the vehicle. When we slid to a stop, I sighed and almost clapped like they do in airplane landings. The placid faces about me suggested everyone was too traumatized to process the mortal peril they had braved. Eager for a smoke, the driver shooed us to debark with raspy croaking.
Liev, whooping and shoving, mowed down classmates to exit the bus. Eyes swiveled as he thrust past people, despite my admonitions. What was I to do? Shout? Tackle him? He was halfway across the dusty, worn parking lot before I caught up with him. As we caught our breath, we took in the splendor of the farm — ancient apple trees towered above us, at least half a century old. Maintained more for history than fruit-bearing, the old orchard stood sentinel over our kid-friendly low-hanging grove in the distance. To reach it, we strode amid imposing rows of trees fashioned into odd topiary shapes specialized for harvesting fruit. Lush mowed grass lined the paths, imparting a botanical garden feel.
Before we chose apples from petite trees, we tried a tractor-drawn “hayride.” Rickety was a fine word for the wagons awaiting us, and I was glad our bus driver was not a chauffeur. Children, parents, and teachers crowded onto carts. Acutely aware of the mothers and children crowded next to Liev and me, I tried to block him off some personal space to keep him from biting anyone. A teacher from another school pressed me to move with an authoritarian huff and wave of her hand. I was about to refuse (autocrats infuriate me) until I spotted Miss Jerry, scrunched up with one of Liev’s autistic peers. Since they endured cramped conditions without complaint, I grudgingly moved. Suddenly, the side rail to my right disconnected with a resounding tang. As if she had sensed I might rip it from the wagon and whap her with it, Bossy Teacher held it in place as the ride commenced.
Amazingly, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride despite the poking closeness of other people. Liev chattered about the pleasant smell of diesel exhaust (once again, loud engine=white noise) and the joy of cows. Halfway through, the novelty and excitement became too much for him. While the other autistic children rocked or crouched into their teacher’s skirts, Liev tossed out loud complaints. “It’s hot. It’s hot! I AM HOT!” “Mama, this jacket is hot. Take off the jacket!” I helped him out of his jacket. Despite being asked to sit, Liev stood but I captured him between my knees for safety.
Bossy Teacher opened her mouth to repeat her request, but I fixed her with such a menacing stare she avoided me ever after. Complaints continued to tumble from Liev’s mouth. Now he wanted out. He was the only kid protesting and all I could say was we’ll be there in a second honey. “I’m HOT!. I want out! When will we get there? I want OUT!” Clueless, I scrambled for the right words. The more I thought about knowing what to say, the more sweat pooled in the folds of my flesh. My entire goal became not to look as panicked as I felt. Being present for Liev was secondary. Before Liev could sprint off the wagon or I could die of nervous collapse, the ride ended.
Despite his complaints, Liev disembarked from the hayride with amiable patience. In retrospect, knowing how long the ride was and counting it down would have helped him tolerate the trip. Liev ran off once outside the bus, which seemed like an excellent plan. I followed him to a quiet spot while everyone else gathered around the farmer for his apple orchard spiel. Liev and I were the only ones off on our own. I steered back to overhear the plans, find an apple, pick it and eat it. These trees are acceptable for apple-picking, these are not.
Far from the others, we found a misshapen fruit dangling from a stunted tree. Irregular, bite-marked fruit littered the ground around it. Other children squealed as they picked fruit as flawless as the supermarket fare. “Looks weird, tastes great,” Liev observed and handed me his apple which looked as if a tiny black hole had sucked a third of it into another dimension. In the distance, teachers crowded students for a tour of the cider factory. I waved them off. We poked at rotting fruit with twigs and pebbles and walked across dark furrows to chase squirrels. Busses and barnes no longer held our interest.