A tall figure wearing a black-hooded slicker walked quickly through the night carrying a large garbage bag. His pale face was wet with rain. He had picked a deserted part of town. Old warehouse buildings were being gutted so they could be converted into apartments for non-existent buyers. There were no stores, no restaurants and no people.
“Who’d wanna live in this sh– place?” he muttered to himself. Even the nice neighborhoods of this dismal city had more “For Sale” signs than you could count.
He was disgusted with himself and disgusted with her, but they were too young to be burdened. Life was already hard enough. He shook his head incredulously. She had been so da– sexy, funny, full of life. Why the hell couldn’t she leave well enough alone? She should have had some control.
He wanted to scream-out down the ugly street, “It’s her f—ing fault that I’m in the rain in this crap neighborhood trying to evade the police.”
But he knew he hadn’t tried to slow her down either. He kept giving her the drugs and she kept getting kinkier and kinkier and more dependent on him and that’s how he liked it. She was adventurous and creative beyond her years. Freaky and bizarre. He had been enthralled, amazed. The higher she got, the wilder she was. Nothing was out of bounds. Everything was in the game.
And so, they went farther and farther out there. Together. With the help of the chemicals. They were co-conspirators, co-sponsors of their mutual dissipation. How far they had traveled without ever leaving their cruddy little city. They were so far ahead of all the other kids.
He squinted, and his mind reeled. He tried to remember in what month of their senior year in high school the drugs became more important to her than he was. And in what month did her face start looking so tired, her complexion prefacing the ravages to follow, her breath becoming foul as her teeth and gums deteriorated. And in what month did her need for the drugs outstrip his and her cash resources.
He stopped walking and raised his hooded head to the sky so that the rain would pelt him full-on in the face. He was hoping that somehow this would make him feel absolved. It didn’t. He shuddered as he clutched the shiny black bag, the increasingly cold wet wind blowing hard against him. He didn’t even want to try to figure out how many guys she had sex with for the drugs.
The puddle-ridden deserted street had three large dumpsters on it. One was almost empty. It seemed huge and metallic and didn’t appeal to him. The second was two-thirds full. He peered into it, but was repulsed by the odor, and he was pretty sure he saw the quick moving figures of rodents foraging in the mess. The third was piled above the brim with construction debris.
Holding the plastic bag, he climbed up on the rusty lip of the third dumpster. Stretching forward, he placed the bag on top of some large garbage bags which were just a few feet inside of the dumpster’s rim. As he climbed down, his body looked bent and crooked and his face was ashen. Tears streamed down his cheeks and bounced off his hands. He barely could annunciate, “Please forgive me,” as he shuffled away, head bowed and snot dripping from his nose.
Edith and Peter Austin sat stiffly in the worn wooden chairs of Dr. Ronald Draper’s waiting room as if they were being graded on their posture by the receptionist. Edith’s round cherubic face was framed by graying hair that was neatly swept back and pinned. Her dress was a loose fitting simple floral print that she had purchased at a clearance sale at JC Penney. Their four-year old son, Bobby, sat between them, his shiny black dress shoes swinging from legs too short to touch the floor. Edith brushed the boy’s long sandy hair away from his light blue eyes that were intensely focused on the blank wall in front of him. Peter, dressed in his construction foreman’s clothes, yawned deeply having been up since five in the morning, his weathered face wrinkled well beyond his years. Looking down at his heavy work boots, he placed his hand firmly on Edith’s knee to quiet her quivering leg. When they were finally shown into Draper’s office, the receptionist signaled that Bobby should stay with her.
Ronald Draper was the Head of the Department of Child Psychology at Mount Sinai Hospital. A short portly man in his late forties, the few remaining strands of his brown hair were caked with pomade and combed straight across his narrow head. His dark eyes appeared abnormally large as a result of the strong lenses in his eye glasses and his short goatee accentuated his receding chin. Glancing at his wrist watch while he greeted Peter and Edith, Draper motioned for them to take a seat on the chairs facing his cluttered desk. Draper had been referred by Bobby’s pediatrician when Bobby’s condition didn’t improve.
“Describe to me exactly what you’re concerned about,” Draper said.
Edith cleared her throat. “It started about a year ago. At any time, without warning, Bobby will get quiet and withdrawn. Then he’ll go over to his little chair and sit down, or he’ll lie down on the window seat in the living room. He’ll stare directly in front of him as if in a trance and then his lids will close halfway. His body will be motionless. Maybe his eyes will blink occasionally. That’s it. This can go on for as much as forty minutes each time it happens. When visitors to our house have seen it, they thought Bobby was catatonic.”
Draper looked up from the notes he was taking. “When Bobby comes to, do you ask him about it?”
Edith’s hands fidgeted. “Yes. He says, ‘I was just thinking about some things.’ Then, when I ask him what things, he says, ‘those things I’m reading about.’”
Draper’s eyes narrowed. “Did you say, things he was reading about?”
“He’s four, correct?”
Edith nodded again and Draper scribbled more notes.
“Do you question him further?”
“I ask him why he gets so quiet and still. I’ve told him it’s real spooky.”
“And how does he respond to that, Mrs. Austin?”
Edith shook her head. “He says he’s just concentrating.”
“And what other issues are there?”
“Bobby always slept much less than other children, even as an infant. And he never took naps. Then, starting about a year ago, almost every night, he has terrible nightmares. He comes running into our bed crying hysterically. He’s so agitated he’ll be shaking and sometimes even wets himself.”
Draper put his pen down and leaned back in his worn leather chair, which squeaked loudly. “And what did your pediatrician, Dr. Stafford, say about all this?”
As Edith was about to reply, Peter squeezed her hand and said, “Dr. Stafford told us not to worry. He said Bobby’s smart and imaginative and bad dreams are common at this age for kids like him. And he said Bobby’s trances are caused by his lack of sleep, that they’re just a sleep substitute—like some kind of ‘waking nap.’ He told us Bobby will outgrow these problems. We thought the time had come to see a specialist.”
Tapping his pen against his folder, Draper asked Edith and Peter to bring Bobby into his office and wait in the reception area so he could speak with the boy alone. “I’m sure we won’t be long,” he said.
His chin resting in his hand, Draper looked at the four year old who sat in front of him with his long hair and piercing light blue eyes. “So, Robert. I understand that you enjoy reading.”
“It’s the passion of my life, Doctor.”
Draper laughed. “The passion of your life. That’s quite a dramatic statement. And what are you reading now?”
“Well, I only like to read non-fiction, particularly, astronomy, physics, math and chemistry. I’ve also just started reading a book called ‘Gray’s Anatomy.’”
“Gray’s Anatomy?” Draper barely covered his mouth as he yawned, recalling how many times he had met with toddlers who supposedly read the New York Times. In his experience, driven parents were usually the ones who caused their kids’ problems. “That’s a book most medical students dread. It seems awfully advanced for a child of your age.” Walking over to his bookcase, Draper stretched to reach the top shelf and pulled down a heavy tome. Blowing the dust off the binding, he said, “So, is this the book that you’ve been reading?”
Bobby smiled. “Yes, that’s it.”
“How did you get a copy?”
“I asked my Dad to get it for me from the library and he did.”
“And why did you want it?”
“I’m curious about the human body.”
“Oh, is that so? Well, let’s have you read for me, and then I’ll ask you some questions about what you read.”
Smiling smugly as he randomly opened to a page in the middle of the book, Draper put the volume down on a table in front of Bobby. Bobby stood on his toes so that he could see the page. The four-year-old began to read the tiny print fluently, complete with the proper pronunciation of medical Latin terms. His eyes narrowing, Draper scratched his chin. “Ok, Bobby. Now reading words on a page is one thing. But understanding them is quite another. So tell me the meaning of what you just read.”
Bobby gave Draper a dissertation on not only what he had just read, but how it tied it into aspects of the first five chapters of the book which he had read previously on his own. By memory, Bobby also directed Draper to specific pages of the book identifying what diagrams Draper would find that supported what Bobby was saying.
Glassy eyed, Draper stared at the child as he grabbed the book and put it back on the shelf. “Bobby, that was very interesting. Your reading shows real promise. Now let’s do a few puzzles.”
Pulling out a Rubik’s cube from his desk drawer, Draper asked, “Have you ever seen one of these?”
Bobby shook his head. “What is it?”
Draper handed the cube to Bobby and explained the object of the game. “Just explore it. Take your time—there’s no rush.”
Bobby manipulated the cube with his tiny hands as he examined it from varying angles. “I think I get the idea.”
“OK, Bobby—try to solve it.”
Thirty seconds later, Bobby handed the solved puzzle to Draper.
Draper’s eyes widened as he massaged his eyebrows. “I see. Well, let me mix it up really good this time and have you try again.” Twenty seconds after being handed the cube a second time, Bobby was passing it back to Draper solved again. Beginning to perspire, Draper removed his suit jacket.
“Bobby, we’re going to play a little game. I’m going to slowly say a number, and then another number, and another after that—and so forth, and as I call them out I’m going to write them down. When I’m finished, I’m going to ask you to recite back whatever numbers in the list you can remember. Is that clear?”
“Sure Doctor,” replied Bobby.
“Ok, here we go”. At approximately one second intervals, Draper intoned, “729; 302; 128; 297; 186; 136; 423; 114; 169; 322; 873; 455; 388; 962; 666; 293; 725; 318; 131; 406.”
Bobby responded immediately with the full list in perfect order. He then asked Draper if he would like to hear it backwards. “Sure, why not,” replied Draper.
By the time Draper tired of this game, he was up to 80 numbers, each comprised of five digits. Bobby didn’t miss a single one. “Can we stop this game now please, Doctor? It’s getting pretty monotonous, don’t you think?”
Draper loosened his tie. He went through his remaining routines of tests and puzzles designed to gauge a person’s level of abstract mathematical reasoning, theoretical problem solving, linguistic nuances, and vocabulary. Rubbing his now oily face in his hands, he said, “Let’s take a break for a few minutes.”
“Why Doctor? I’m not tired.”
“Well, I am.”
Taking Bobby back to the waiting room, Draper apologized to Peter and Edith for the long period during which he had sequestered Bobby.
“Is everything alright, Doctor?” Edith asked.
“Why don’t you take Bobby to the cafeteria for a snack and meet me back here with him in thirty minutes,” Draper replied.
When the Austins returned to Draper’s office, Draper had two of his colleagues with him. He advised Peter and Edith that his associates would assist him in administering a few IQ tests to Bobby.
Peter’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Draper. “What does that have to do with the nightmares and trances, Doctor? We came here for those issues – not to have Bobby’s intelligence tested.”
“Be patient, please, Mr. Austin. Everything is inter-connected. We’re trying to get a complete picture.”
Draper and his associates, one a Ph.D in psychology and the other a Ph.D in education, administered three different types of intelligence tests to Bobby (utilizing abbreviated versions due to time constraints). First, the Slosson Intelligence Test, then the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Revised (WISC-R) and finally, the Stanford-Binet L-M.
By the time the exams were concluded, Draper’s shirt was untucked and perspiration stains protruded from beneath his arms even though the room was cool. He brought Bobby back to the reception area, and took Peter and Edith into a corner of the room, out of Bobby’s earshot. “Your child isn’t normal. Are any of your other children like this?”
At 2:00 the next afternoon, Draper stood in the Austin’s living room.
“So, Doctor, what exactly do you want to see? Although, I’m not sure why you need to see anything,” said Edith, her brow furrowed.
“It would be very helpful if I could see Robert’s bedroom and the family room you mentioned, the books in the house, and the items that Robert plays with.”
“And the point of all that, Doctor? How does that relate to why we came to see you?”
“Mrs. Austin, as I told your husband—everything is interconnected.”
First, Edith showed Draper the living room book shelves on which Bobby’s college level text books were piled. Draper examined the stacks of treatises on astrophysics, mathematics and bio-chemistry that Bobby had printed-out from the internet which were strewn on a low table next to the computer. Draper photographed them as Edith described how Bobby would stand, surrounded by open books that he would read in an ongoing rotation, his concentration level so intense that he was oblivious to all household noises and activities.
Then came the family room where Edith showed Draper Bobby’s Lego constructions and explained how in a non-stop frenetic four hours of unbroken concentration, he would construct, without directions or diagrams, Lego projects comprised of 5000 individual pieces that would perfectly replicate the pictures on the Lego box.
As he snapped a few photos of the Lego creations, Draper’s face looked pale. “When did you first notice that your son was –shall we say — precocious?”
Edith smiled. “It started early. Bobby taught himself from the kids’ DVDs that we played on TV while he was in his playpen. He loved when we read to him and showed him pictures. He starting talking at five months, and his vocabulary grew quickly. By eleven months, he was a good speller. When Bobby was one, Peter found out by accident that he could already read, and by fifteen months he was reading and understanding fifth grade level books. At two, he was doing complicated arithmetic, all in his head. He got better at it every day.”
Examining Bobby’s bedroom, Draper thought he was in a college dorm. Open textbooks were piled everywhere. There was a large blackboard leaning against a wall that was covered with what Draper recognized as lengthy trigonometry equations, scribbled in the immature hand-writing of a four year old. Draper snapped a photo. On the floor were a few open boxes of plastic molecule building models—the kind that are used by pre-med students in college organic chemistry classes. Taped to one of the walls was a life-sized color diagram of a male human body which showed every muscle, bone and blood vessel in medical school level detail. In another corner of the room, was Bobby’s little five foot long junior bed with its railroad train-motif headboard, footboard, sheets and pillows, and a teddy bear dressed in a train conductor’s uniform sitting on the bed waiting for Bobby.
As Draper walked around the room taking photos, he almost tripped on some long strings that were tightly taped to pieces of furniture, each string at a different angle from the other, with paper circles of varying sizes hanging from them. He found a ruler and protractor on Bobby’s shelf and measured the angles and relative distances between the cut-out circles and the various strings from which they were suspended. Draper photographed it.
On the credenza, Draper picked up an odd looking home-made contraption that had instructions wrapped around it that were scribbled in a child’s handwriting. “What’s this?” Draper asked Edith.
“It’s a perpetual calendar that Bobby designed. If you follow the directions, it will let you do what Bobby does in his head.”
“It lets you figure out the day of the week on which any given date, past or future, would fall. Want to see how it works?” asked Edith.
“I can’t possibly believe that it’s accurate. I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Draper tested it out ten times.
“Robert designed this? When?”
“About a year and a half ago,” Edith replied.
Draper pulled out his camera and took a picture of it.
“Is there anything else I can show you, Doctor?” asked Edith.
“What I’ve seen is quite sufficient. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Several days later, at the Psychology Department’s weekly meeting, Draper said, “This boy, Robert Austin; there’s something unusual happening here. It doesn’t seem possible. But what I’ve recounted to you is fully accurate and not exaggerated, and Doctors Lewis and Mardin participated in the testing of the child.”
Draper then projected onto a screen the photographs he had taken in the Austin house and his list of measurements on the 3-D mobile made from string. Everyone stared at the photo of the mobile.
One of the psychologists said, “This is just a play thing the kid made, nothing more than that. Arts and crafts.” A part-time assistant of Draper, a graduate student in astrophysics, kept looking at the projection screen. He started to type into his laptop as he continued to view the projected photograph. He kept typing, looking at the projection screen, and pressing “enter” on his computer emphatically.
“Doctor Draper, with all due respect, I don’t think that mobile is meaningless arts and crafts. I’ll hook my computer up to the projection screen so I can show you something.” He was able to position on one side of the screen, Bobby’ mobile and juxtaposed on the other side of the screen, a scientifically accurate 3-D extrapolation diagram of the Andromeda Constellation which he had pulled off the internet. He super-imposed one side of the screen atop the other. There was a perfect match. Bobby’s string mobile perfectly represented the Constellation down to the exact degrees of spatial relationships between its components. Silence overtook the room.
Draper called Dr. Herman Knoll, the Chancellor of the city’s Board of Education, a recognized authority on gifted children.
“Dr. Knoll, I’ve discovered a highly unusual young boy. I would like the Board’s assistance in verifying the findings that my department has made.”
Knoll said, “I’ve never received this kind of request from Mt. Sinai before, so am I safe in assuming that this situation is really that special?”
“You are, Chancellor. I’m confident your time will not be wasted.”
“OK then. Send me your full report and I’ll review it with my staff. Then we’ll schedule an interview with the boy and his parents, and prepare to conduct our own tests.”
Two weeks after receiving Draper’s detailed report, Knoll called Draper.
“Well Doctor, Robert Austin does seem to be exceptional. But your conclusions appear extreme. Perhaps the Board’s experience over the years has brought us into contact with more highly gifted children than your department has encountered. You know, there are more children who are gifted in mathematics and science than you may think, and photographic memories are not that rare, particularly among the gifted.”
“But Robert isn’t just a child who can do calculations in his head and has a photographic memory. He has theoretical problem solving and mathematical reasoning abilities that are extraordinary, with very high powers of abstraction, conceptualization and synthesis. With all due respect, Doctor, in twenty-five years of being exposed to gifted children, I’ve never met anyone who comes even close to this boy. I’m aware of the differences —and I believe we’re talking here, not about ‘highly’ or ‘exceptionally’ gifted. I believe Robert fits into the category of ‘profound intelligence’ and we know how rare that is Doctor.”
“Coordinate with the parents and my secretary, and make an appointment. We’ll get to the bottom of it and see just how profound this boy really is.”
Dr. Draper didn’t have an easy time with Peter and Edith in getting them to agree to have Bobby tested by Knoll’s experts. But he did prevail, and after Knoll’s tests confirmed Draper’s conclusions, Draper had an even harder time when Knoll brought the Austin case to the attention of Raymond Massey, the dean of the State Board of Regents examiners. Massey wanted his experts to also examine Bobby. Exasperated, Peter told Draper, “Look Doctor. How many people have to test Bobby to confirm what Edith and I have known since he was five months old? My son is highly unusual. That’s obvious. He’s been tested enough. And we still haven’t gotten any answers to the questions we’re concerned about. His nightmares persist and so do his withdrawals. Does anybody care about that? Is anybody testing anything to fix that?”
“Mr. Austin, please. I understand your frustration. But you are asking us to help you with a boy that we are trying to truly understand. Hasn’t it occurred to you that his intelligence and these problems you are concerned about are products of each other—are interconnected in some way? The more we learn about Robert, the more likely we’ll be able to help him.”
Edith piped in, “You know, he’s not a guinea pig or a circus oddity. He’s our son and deserves to be helped.”
Draper nodded. “But we’re not hurting Robert. In fact, I think he somewhat enjoys these tests and interviews. He thinks they’re games. He’s entertained by them. The last thing he said to Dr. Knoll was, ‘So when are you guys going to give me some tough questions?’”
Edith and Peter relented and the experts of the State Regents Board subjected Bobby to six different intelligence tests including those designed for the most rarified levels. Their conclusions were the same as Draper and Knoll. Dean Massey summed it up in his report when he wrote, “The boy’s intelligence defies accurate measurement by any current means of testing. We can only determine Robert Austin’s minimum intelligence—we have no way of measuring its upper reaches—his real intelligence—because he quickly ‘ceilings-out’ on all of our test scales.”
Dean Massey knew what he had to do. In his thirty year career in education, he never had to even consider compliance with Intergovernmental Protocol 329. But it was obvious to him that he had to now. So Massey reported Robert James Austin to the OSSIS (the Office of Special Strategic Intelligence Services), a security agency of the Federal government. The discovery of profound intelligence is considered to be a matter of national security because such people are regarded as rare natural resources.
The director of the OSSIS, Orin Varneys, received from Massey, not only his report with copies of all the testing materials and results, but also the materials of Knoll and Draper. Director Varneys had more experience in these matters than any local or state authority, and he was quick to dismiss hyperbole. Intrinsically skeptical, Varneys was fond of saying, “Genius is a relative term and it’s used too loosely. Every educator and psychologist wants to discover the next Einstein, but we’re still waiting, aren’t we.”
The Austin family was enjoying one of their favorite weekend indulgences, a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, corn on the cob and coleslaw, when the phone rang. Edith picked it up.
A woman’s voice said, “Is Mr. or Mrs. Austin there, please?”
Edith answered, “Yes, this is Mrs. Austin.”
“Hold on for Director Varneys.”
“Hello Mrs. Austin. Is your husband home?”
“Who is this? Is this a crank call?” replied Edith.
Peter motioned to Edith and took hold of the phone. “Who is this?” he asked with annoyance.
“This is Director Varneys of the OSSIS.”
“We’re not interested in buying anything, and you shouldn’t disturb people on their weekends. I thought that became illegal.”
“Wait—don’t hang up. I’m not selling anything.” Peter slammed the phone into its cradle, and then a few seconds later picked it up and left it lying on its side so it would ring busy.
On Monday morning, an envelope was delivered to the Austin’s house by Fed Ex. No sender was indicated. Edith opened it. It was a letter on engraved stationary with the initials OSSIS at the top and a Washington, D.C. address.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Austin:
I am sorry we were unable to speak when I telephoned you on Saturday. I can understand that my call was unexpected. I am the director of a U.S. government agency called the Office of Special Strategic Intelligence Services. We are, among other things, in charge of monitoring unusual intelligence assets. We have been advised by Drs. Draper, Knoll and Massey that your son, Robert James, may possibly be of importance to this office.
I can assure you that it is in your son’s best interests that you kindly cooperate with us.
Please call me when you receive this letter.
Very truly yours,
Edith did something she virtually never did because Peter didn’t like it. She called him at work. Edith’s voice was shaky as she read Peter the letter and he was annoyed that someone had upset her. Telling her to calm down, he asked her for Varneys’ phone number, which was printed on the letter, and said he’d call him during his lunch break.
When Varneys got on the phone, Peter said, “Mr. Varneys, we received your letter. I’m sorry I hung up on you the other day, but we get a lot of phone solicitations and you certainly sounded like one. What’s your letter all about?”
“Mr. Austin. Let me ask you a question. What’s the most valuable asset that the United States has?”
Peter replied, “A lot of things.”
“No. One thing is the most valuable. Human talent. Superior human talent and intelligence. From this, stems everything—economic dominance, military security, our entire way of life.”
Peter responded, “Well, we’re not the only country with smart people.”
“Exactly my point, Mr. Austin. Many of our competitors have extremely intelligent people. So all we can do is to try to keep ahead. That’s why my agency exists. To identify extraordinary human intelligence. And to nurture and protect it. And that’s why we’re interested in your son.”
“What do you want from us?”
“All we want is to fly you, Mrs. Austin and Robert to Rochester, Minnesota for a few days. All at taxpayer expense, of course. We’ll put you up in the best hotel, deluxe rental car, fine restaurants, everything. It will be a nice respite for you and the family.”
“Why Rochester, Minnesota?”
“That’s where the Mayo Clinic is located. We want Robert to spend some time with a doctor who does work for us there. Dr. John Uhlman. He’s chief of Psycho-Neurological Development at Mayo.”
“More tests on Bobby?”
“I assure you that these will be the last. Uhlman is the biggest expert in the U.S. —-probably in the world.”
“And what happens after that, Mr. Varneys?”
“Well, let’s just take one step at a time Mr. Austin.”
“Is ‘no’ a viable answer here?”
The silence lasted long enough for Peter to think the line had gone dead. Finally, he heard Varneys say, “It really is in your family’s best interests to work with me on this, Mr. Austin.”
William has a Bachelor of Science degree from New York University (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) and a law degree from Columbia University. He lives in the village of Quogue, New York with his wife, Alexandria, and dog, George.
William wrote Miracle Man because of its humanistic and spiritual messages and because he feels that in our current times–when meritless celebrity has eclipsed accomplishment and the only heroes are those based on comic books, the world needs a real hero–and that, of course, is Robert James Austin, the protagonist in Miracle Man.