Knock Three Times and Ask for Attila

Knock Three Times and Ask for Attila
Chapter One

Bad Mr. 21

I wake up on this morning and close my eyes against the sun. What I see, in the red-and-black background, is the long tunnel of a hallway with what seems to be an infinity of doors, side by side, on both sides of the hall getting smaller as they stretch into the distance like railroad tracks.

I have seen this image many times upon waking, but on this morning, I know intuitively what the doors represent—they are the days of my life. Hardly a stretch into infinity, but a significant distance representing my thirteen years. I may have been vaguely aware of this before, but today I know I can look behind any door and retrieve the memories and feelings from that day. I open one to test this out; it’s my fourth birthday party, and Mom and Dad are still together. It’s at a park with big buildings all around it, and a white tall thin tower pointing into the sky. There are balloons, presents, and a cake on a folding table set out on the grass, and there are lots of children running around, screaming in delight. Almost all of them have round faces, slanty eyes, small button noses, and somewhat slack mouths. They all, both boys and girls, look a lot like me. There are a few children who don’t look like me, but most do. I know all of their names.

I shut the door and open my eyes. I am fully awake now. I’m at my father’s house in my bedroom, the translucent curtains are pulled back, and the windows are open—I always keep them open. Baseball pennants are tacked on the wall, as is a poster of Yogi Berra, my father’s all-time favorite. Baseball is one of the loves of his life. A whiteboard calendar on which upcoming events are written in black marker hangs on the wall. I walk downstairs and find my father eating cereal and reading the newspaper at the dining room table. He looks over the paper, smiles, and says, “Good morning, Mason, did you sleep well?” 

“Yeah,” is my monosyllabic response. On this morning, I do not speak with the vocabulary that I’m writing with now. But my mind is working. I walk around the table and hug him. This is our morning routine, and he hugs me back warmly. I know that my father loves me even more than baseball. But this morning I keep hugging him and look to what I now know is the masthead of the newspaper. “Whaz that say?” I ask, pointing. My father looks at me, surprised by the question. 

“It says Washington Post, it’s the newspaper I work at, that I write for,” he says in his precise and formal way. “Washington is the city we live in, even though our house is in a place called Georgetown. But that’s a little confusing. You don’t have to worry about that.” My father is unusually flustered. “Post, well, it means mail, but, but here it means,” he hesitates, “newspaper. Washington newspaper.” I move across the table to my cereal bowl, and as I munch my granola, I look at him closely, for perhaps the first time. He’s tall and thin, wears tortoise shell round glasses, sports grey slacks, a white shirt with a red tie, and is enclosed in a grey sport coat. He is cleanshaven, his blond hair cut short—shorter than mine. (My hair is always kept long to mitigate the somewhat odd shape of my head.)

I continue to look at him, taking him in. He seems uncharacteristically ill at ease under my stare that continues to seek information. This morning I have so many questions.

“Your mother is coming to pick you up to take you to that doctor again,” he says with a slightly critical edge to his voice.

“Ah huh,” I say. My mother is taking me to a doctor whom I have visited once before. My mother and father don’t live together, and haven’t since my seventh birthday. They interact civilly but without warmth; at this point in their history, they come together only around issues about me. 

That’s why it was unusual when a few days ago they had a terrible fight, with yelling and crying. My father at one point even drove his fist down hard on a table. “I won’t have my son take part in an experimental study, Marilyn.”

“It’s only experimental because this is the first time it’s been systematically tried. The science is well established, and the results are promising.”

“What you’re saying by this is that you don’t love our son as he is, that he’s not good enough without trying to modify him—make him better.” This is where Dad struck the table and Mother started to cry. Mother cried for a few minutes, then spoke slowly, controlling her words.

“That’s a cruel thing to say, William. It’s manipulative and untrue. It’s analogous to sending a child to college rather than trade school. It does not mean if he goes to trade school that he’s less of a person, only that by college you are making a commitment to his potential. If that’s not possible it’s all right, but if it is, I think it’s criminal to withhold the opportunity. You of all people should know this—should value this. Anyway, it’s a moot point, the court gave me the sole custody of Mason at the time of the divorce, you didn’t seem so passionate about his condition then. We have always shared Mason, but the custody has been mine, and I am going to have him participate, and that’s final.” Mother then left and Dad was quiet for a long time. I listened to their interactions, reacting to the emotions contained in their exchanges, but could not comprehend their meaning. I’ve had to open one of my doors for that. 

On the day after the fight, we left from my father’s house to a place called the National Institute for Health. It is a large series of buildings with which Mother seemed familiar. We went to an office where a few children who looked like me waited with their parents, sometimes both, most often just one. I wondered if the children with one parent had experienced a fight to get there.

One by one, the children were called through a door and went inside along with their parents. Since we arrived last, all of the other children were gone by the time we are called. “Mason Free,” the lady at the door called my name, and we went inside to a little room where I was met by a Dr. Malone, who was smiley and spoke a bit too loudly. “Hi, Mason, I’m Dr. Malone.” I shook his hand. The lady who called my name was also there and held a syringe, like they give you your flu shot with. “You’re not afraid of injections, are you?” The jocular doctor asked the rhetorical question, not waiting for an answer. I didn’t know what injections were, but I figured they must be shots—shots, my word for both the injection and the implement that does the injecting. I nodded, wordlessly saying “Yes, I am not afraid of injections.” I suppose it didn’t matter anyway because the doctor continued his jolly narration. The lady, with what I took to be the injection, passed it to the doctor. 

“You may think of this as a machine gun, or a bazooka,” he said, chuckling to himself as he held it up for me to see, “and it is the weapon we use to kill Bad Mr. 21. You see Mason, you have an enemy inside of you that has been causing you a great amount of distress, and we are about to kill him, not all at once, mind you, but with a series of bazooka blasts over a couple of months. You don’t mind that, do you?” I nodded to indicate “Yes, I do mind that,” but nobody paid attention. If I could have understood what he was saying at the time, I would have been terrified. Enemies in my body that needed to be killed with multiple bazooka blasts? I would need a number of door openings to make sense of all this, but that would come later. 

The doctor spoke to my mother, “Mrs. Free…”

“Ms.” said my mother.


“Ms., not Mrs. I’m no longer married.”

“Ms. Free,” continued the doctor, sounding slightly perturbed, “the injection, we believe, will neutralize the extra chromosome, and decrease some of its effects.”

“How many factors will it affect, doctor?”

“We won’t know until the completion of the study, but the therapy has shown promising results. This study will go a long way toward answering a variety of questions. As you are aware, in addition to the injections, the children will be observed and tested in our behavioral clinic to monitor ongoing progress and cognitive development; internal medicine will screen and evaluate physical changes.”

This was how it started. The door openings would help me make sense of much of what followed.