It was wicked of me, but I like him and the guy is just plain interesting. He's as old as any autistic person I know, nearly 50, blessed somehow with a unique warmth. But because he is driven by his schedule, his own well-plotted labyrinth of rituals, any opportunity which threatens the march of events he's already charted in his head is troublesome.
"Is there church tonight?" is the first thing he asks when I pick him up on Sunday morning. And when I say yes, he'll say, "And will you pick me up?"
Okay, that's a lock.
So I told him he should come along to a potluck we were having at church next week—after the worship. The guy loves to eat. He's slippery as an eel if, after church, someone brings cookies. By edict, he's supposed to eat only one, but he'll slicky-slicky as many as he can get if no one calls him on it. His paunch makes seat belts a chore. Besides, he's told me a thousand times—literally—that he has a TV dinner for Sunday lunch.
I told him about tomato-y lasagna, barbequed chicken, a dozen cheesy hot dishes, and a whole cafeteria of deserts, muffins too, muffins galore.
"I like TV dinners," he told me again, but I knew I had his heart wrenched. Coming to dinner with us meant departing from ritual, but the forbidden apple was dripping with sweetness.
"How long will it take?" he asked me. Sunday afternoon he does his laundry. I knew that too. He's told me fifty times. I told him the potluck would take an hour.
"How long is an hour?" he asked.
"About as long as church," I told him. "From the moment we sit down until Pastor Herman says 'amen'—that's an hour. That's it," I said.
"I do not know how long an hour is," he said.
"From the time a TV show starts until the next one does," I told him.
"I do not know how long an hour is," he said again.
"It's not all that long, Stuart," I told him. "Great food, too—cakes. Chocolate cakes."
"I do not know how long an hour is," he said again and again and again and again, until it was clear that he'd already bulldozed the potluck, no matter how chocolate-y.
It was evil of me, the tempter, so I retreated. "Besides," I said, "you like TV dinners, don't you?"
"Do you like TV dinners?" he said.
I could not resist. "I'd much rather have church potluck," I told him, devilishly.
He started again: "I do not know how long an hour is," he said, at which point the sentence became a solace, a mantra, not only to him but even to me. "I do not know how long an hour is," he said again, and so did I, and that blasted line stuck with me all day, as well it should have—a man whose impatience overflows regularly, who wishes all too frequently for the end of this, the end of that: "I am anxious to retire," "I can't wait for spring break," "if I can only make it to the end of the week. . ."
"I do not know what an hour is. I do not know what an hour is."
One of the most beautiful psalms of all doesn't belong to King David, but to Moses, a man whose impatience kept him from the promised land after 40 years of wandering the desert with a multitude of whiners. In Psalm 90, Moses begs God to teach him to number his days, his hours, as if they were precious.
Because they are.
It was Psalm 90 that dropped from the sky just then, when the words of Brother Stuart, the oracle, started making sense in my soul. I wish it weren't true, but far too often, just like Brother Stuart, I too do not know what an hour is.