“Daddy hates to cruise for parking,” Sean says over his shoulder. Squinting at the strands of chrome and glass unwinding to either side under a hazy white sky, he adds, “Talking in third-person makes daddy sound like a jackass.” In back, his six-year old recites car commercials to the vehicles they pass. Paul Simon warbles Graceland on the radio.

A bubble-eyed mini-coop beats him to an open space; the drivers exchange fingers. “Almost there, little man,” Sean sighs.

The Happy Bear is brought to you by a grant from the Global Corporation—”

Sean finds his son in the rear view. Exquisite little boy’s beauty, all sandy hair and peach cheeks and long tender eyelashes, clings to him still. Strangers stop in the street when they see him. “Jude. Video talk must end.”

“—and by the Chester Butler Hastings Foundation—”

“Video talk must end.”

“—and by contributions from viewers like you. Thank you!”

“Jude the dude! Want to ride the carousel?”

The child snaps to attention. “Carousel!”

They squeeze between a pair of SUVs. “If you want to ride the carousel, then video talk must end.”

“Video talk must end.”

“Right.” Sean checks himself in the mirror, while Jude flaps his hands and croons The Happy Bear is Happy to See You. Sean takes a deep breath. “Time for some fun.”

But when he opens Jude’s door, Captain Spacebrow tumbles out and lands with a crash on the black asphalt. “Ouch,” Sean says.

“Ouch!” Jude exclaims. “Capt. Spacebrow, are you okay?”

“Unbuckle, love. Let’s go.”

“Capt. Spacebrow, are you okay?”

“He’s fine. Unbuckle, please.”



The boy screams. Sean snatches up the toy. “He’s okay. See?” Tapping the exalted crest of Spacebrow’s brow, Sean hands the toy over. Jude hurls it back to the ground.


“Jude, that’s enough. Unbuckle.”

“Capt. Spacebrow, are you—”

“Enough, Jude! Out of the car.” A man Sean’s age, with two young longhaired daughters in tow, turns to look as he passes by.

“Come with? Come with?”

Sean crosses his arms and waits.

Jude sighs. With a furrowed brow rather like his hero’s, the boy scales the steep cliffs of language posed to every autistic mind. “Daddy… can I… bring Capt. Spacebrow?”

Sean nods. “Sure, sweetie.”

“Daddy, can I bring Capt. Spacebrow?

“Daddy, can I—

“Daddy, can I—”

“Jude, do you want to bring Spacebrow?”


“Unbuckle and let’s go!”

Jude pops his belt and scrambles out of the car.

Hand in hand, father, son and toy thread their way through the jammed expanse of Willow Grove’s parking lot and into the cool vastness of the mall, where Sean scrambles to keep Jude from launching Spacebrow over the railing and down three floors upon the unsuspecting shoppers below.

“Nice try,” Sean says.


“First things first, honey.”

They pass movies and music, shoes, cameras, jewelry, athletic apparel, a travel agency. In Nature they search for a brand of magnesium supplements Deb is keen to try. No luck, and with Jude tugging on his arm, Sean refuses the alternatives pressed on him by Naturewoman. He doesn’t believe magnesium will make a difference. He doesn’t believe any pill will. But Deb is always keen to try.

On their way again, Jude sings, “Best I ever had! Ford Explorer, rated number one—”

“Jude the dude. Video talk must end.” Then, to the tune of Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall, Sean serenades back:

“Video talk must end must end

Video talk must end

Sing a song, tell a joke,

But video talk must end.”

Which he ends with an emphatic “OY!” to secure the boy’s attention and make him grin. “Oy!” Jude echoes.

At the escalators, Jude pulls back from the rolling maw of black and white teeth, the sinking steel slits hungry for little feet to grasp and not let go of, gasping, “No dad.”

But Sean has him beat. “See what’s down there?”

“No dad.”

“Look! Do you see?”

Grudgingly: “Yes.”

Sean waits for the explosion he knows will come.

“The bookstore!” Gripping his father’s hand, he rides the escalator down.

Once inside the bookstore, parent and toy are cast aside. Kneeling in the children’s section, Jude pulls out book after chunky book, moons and pirates and mice and apples and mommies and castles and trucks and cows and fish and rainbows and warm smiling faces. Close by, Sean skims new releases on display, and plays with a loop of rope dangling from his wrist.

Must be Awareness Month, he thinks. The Eccentric Child. Applied Behavior & PDD. Lost Voices: The Mysteries of Autism. Understanding Pervasive Developmental Disorder. The Inner Keep: Conquering Autism & Asperger’s. He thumbs through each one, ticking off chapter titles as familiar to him as days of the week. What is Autism? Your Child’s Diagnosis. Coping. Family Structure. Search for Answers. He’s read them all before in different places in different books.

A young woman from the bookstore appears at his side. “Good morning,” she says with a calm smile.

Sean smiles back. She is slender, blonde, and absolutely beautiful. Her simple black top exposes a pale swath of belly, flat and beckoning. The Grace Kelly of bookstores, Sean thinks.

“Anything I can help you with?” she asks. Her glance, quicker than most, is a familiar one. No ring.

“Not sure,” he says, returning one book for another, a mother’s memoir called Sunflower. “Not sure I know yet what I’m looking for.”

Smile undimmed, she says, “Let me know when you do,” and moves on.

The boy piles books like sandbags before a flood. Sean leans in close to remind him where books go, and the boy gives his words back to him.

Sean reads the blurbs on the back of Sunflower. Birth, love, sorrow, ignorance, despair, struggle, triumph. Shining across the book’s front cover, a golden image of mother and son, the one staring raptly down at the other looking away… presumably, not at the father. Always the mothers in these books, he thinks. Never the fathers. Their absence chills him. He wonders: is there some kind of conspiracy against the fathers? Amongst them? Am I the only one out here?

He puts Sunflower back.

“Oh, boy!” He surveys the crumpled mess surrounding his gently rocking son. Clapping and rubbing his hands he sings, “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad… pick up these books, and put them baaaack.” Together they restore the entire children’s section; he encourages Jude to take one to the counter.

Grace Kelly is behind the register. “Find what you are looking for?” she asks, her eyes lingering upon him.

It would be quite a thing, he thinks, to lean across this counter now without a word and kiss someone like you on the lips. “I think so,” he says.

“Little Boo’s Errand. One of my favorites.”

Jude can’t meet her gaze. Sean whispers, “Say ‘hi’ to the pretty lady.”


Grace smiles. “Your change.” Her fingertips brush his palm.

“Okay, Jude, let’s go.”

“No let’s go!”

“Come on, little man. More to do.”

“Pleasant day,” she says.

“You too,” he turns and calls back to her.

Jude sways to mambo music in Coffee Palace as they wait for soft pretzels and boxed apple juice and a tall cold latte. Ahead in line, three women with bright lipstick and tight hair talk very quickly to one another; a skinny pair of teens in low slung jeans and turned Yankees caps stare into space, looking slumped and in want of a couch. In a booth by the window, a man with a spider tattoo on his left hand sips hot coffee from a paper cup. In another, a round mother in purple sweats and a NIKE tee-shirt cleans her round baby with a moist wipe. The baby’s chubby fingers leave fresh dabs of pink yogurt everywhere.

Jude follows him through a crowd to the great mall fountain where, along its marble rim, they sit and nibble their pretzels. Jude asks for a penny, drops it with a plunk into the gray water. Tearing huge salty chunks of dough with his teeth, his son shifts restlessly on the polished stone like a pigeon on a museum step. Sean chews slowly, elbows resting on his thighs. Nothing quite so unmanly, he thinks gloomily, as a man sipping latte through a straw.

“The Happy Bear is brought to you by a grant from the Global Corporation—”


“—and by the Chester Butler Hastings Foundation.”

“Jude the dude.”

“And by local support of—”

“Video talk must end.”

The boy throws his hands over his ears and screams, so loudly Sean gags on his pretzel. “AHHHHHH!” His screams echo from the highest reaches of the glass atrium above; people stop on every floor. “AHHHHHH! No video talk must end!”


“No video talk must end!”

“Jude, stop it.”

The boy howls.

Doing his best to ignore tiers of staring faces, he whispers into Jude’s ear, “No carousel!”


Sean sighs, keeps his hands moving to hide their shaking.

“Carousel? Daddy, can I ride the carousel?”

“First things first, honey. Finish your pretzel.”

Before Jude’s diagnosis, Sean’s saddest day occurred when he was a boy. His father, Joseph F., after taking Sean and his older brother Charlie to the summer carnival at St. Jude’s, abandoned his family. Sean recalls little of the day himself; he knows it better now as an angry story his brother tells. Only after his own son was born did he begin to grasp the immensity of his loss. In the time since the diagnosis, the months and then years of examinations, therapy, tears, screams, silence, failure and incremental success, Sean learned to hate his father more than any man on earth, because he began in a way to understand him.

Regrouping, father and son linger in the mall’s pet shop. Jude warmly greets every animal in the store. “Hi bird. Hi bird.”

“What color is the bird?”

Jude frowns, then explodes. “Yellow!”

“Very good.”

“Hi yellow bird!”

“It’s a parakeet.”

“Hi yellow pa-ra-keet!”

Afterward, courage mustered, Sean leads his son to Silly Cuts. As the purple and orange children’s hair salon looms up before them, Jude cries out, “No hair cut!”

“Sorry, Jude. I promised mommy.”

“No mommy! No promise!”

“Come on, love—”

“No! No hair cut!”

“But it’s Silly Cuts!”


Jude lurches, breaks his father’s grip; at once he is off, and Sean after him.


He makes it as far as the elevator, where he stumbles and falls with a plastic crunch. The elevator slides open and mothers with strollers gape at the prone boy before them.

Sean scoops him up and bears him away. “Are you all right?” he asks, checking Jude’s forehead, kissing his tiny palms.

“Yeah,” he snuffles.

“Are you okay?”


“You fell down there, buddy.”

“No fall down.”

“Gimme a hug.”

Sean gathers him into a great bear hug. Jude clasps with limp arms, until Sean prompts, “Big hug. Both arms.” Then Jude circles him around the shoulders. “Big squeeze!” Sean whispers. Jude squeezes, and Sean kisses his cheek. “I love you, buddy.”

“I love you, daddy.”

“Don’t ever run away from me.”

“I love you, daddy.”

Another kiss. “I love you, too.”

“Capt. Spacebrow, are you okay?”

“Lemme see.”

“Kiss Capt. Spacebrow, daddy can you kiss Capt. Spacebrow?”

“You want me to give Spacebrow a kiss?”

“To give… a kiss… to Spacebrow?”

“But Jude, he’s an astronaut.”


“Okay, okay.” Sean plants one on the stern-faced hero. “There you go, Capt. Spacebrow.”

Jude smiles.

Sean smiles. “Now—”

“No Silly Cuts!”

As Jude gamely endures his silly cut, made possible by the giant TV screen above his chair, Sean leans against a poster of the pink beast they call Happy Bear and tugs at the white rope bracelet around his wrist.

“Two things in life are essential, babe,” Deb likes to say. “Love and Advil.”

“You forgot football,” Sean notes, always.

“Silence, you,” she replies, always.

Deb has her own way with words. She calls Sean’s stubborn streak her man’s “notorious relentlessnicity.” In rare joking moments, she refers to her beloved only child’s condition as “chronic obliviosity.”

They can hardly remember now how it was before. When they first learned she was pregnant, both were dead set against marriage. Deb, 26, had one under her belt already: “Brief and awful.” Sean, 22, was in no hurry at all. They weighed choices over bagels and coffee, slept on it, separately reaching the same conclusion. On Jude’s third birthday, they decided at last to get engaged. That night, from a dusty cabinet above the refrigerator, they scrounged a tiny bottle of champagne from someone else’s wedding day, toasted themselves with the dreadful stuff, then rubbed knees and elbows raw as they made love. “I hope we don’t miss this,” she whispered.

“Miss what?”

“Living in sin.”

A week later, the nursery school recommended a hearing test. Two weeks after Deb and Sean were told their son was autistic. Talk of wedding simply died away. They were already married, they soon discovered, to autism. The rope bracelet, won by Deb years ago in a game of skee-ball, remains her sole mark of claim upon him.

“All done!” Jude exclaims, as the haggard stylist lowers the chair.

“Yep, you’re done.” Sean runs his fingers through Jude’s sandy hair. “Look awesome, Jude-man.”

“All done. All done. Thank you! All done.”

The two have one errand left to run.

Strung out and brittle from his cut, Jude balks at every step. Even the carousel is not carrot enough now: his tank is empty. Jude wants to sit down. Jude wants to climb up. Jude wants a piggyback ride. Jude wants go home. Jude wants to scream. Sean’s mall courage sags. If he had a free hand, he’d use it to massage the migraine swimming up behind his right eye. Pulling Jude along, he takes one wrong turn and then another; “Goddamn it,” he whispers, as they weave through blunt white kiosks of sunglasses and swimsuit calendars, perfumes and piercings and hand-woven cell phone holsters. In the crowded elevator, they glide past their floor.

End in sight, Jude crashes.

“Go home? Go home? Daddy, can I let’s go home?”

“A minute, honey. One more chore.”

“No one more chore!”

“Come on, sweetie. Give daddy a break.”

“Home. Go home. GO HOME.”

“Jesus Christ, Jude, stop it or no carousel.”

“No carousel! Stop it. All right!” Jude yanks and twists his father’s rope. “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”

Sean stops.

“No carousel? Please daddy let’s go home daddy can I go home? Please?”

Sean sinks on one knee. It dawns on him just how very difficult the next few days are likely to be. “Okay,” he says, taking a deep breath. “Listen: I’ve had enough.”

“Go home daddy let’s go—”

“Yes, Jude.”

“Home? Let’s go home?”

Sean slips the rope off his wrist and offers it to the boy. “Do you want this?”

Jude freezes. “Yes!” he exclaims.

“It’s a bracelet.”

“Bracelet! Daddy bracelet can I have bracelet?”

Sean eyes him and waits.

The boy stomps his foot. “Can I have… the bracelet… please?”

Sean slips it onto his arm. “All for you, love.”

“Wow, a bracelet.”

“Jude, I need to tell you something. The next few days are going to be hard. It may seem like mommy and daddy aren’t paying attention to you, but—”

“Wow, a bracelet.”

“That’s enough, Jude. You’ll get to spend some extra time with Uncle Charlie and—”

“That’s enough, daddy.”

Sean tugs the loop on Jude’s arm with his finger.

“I love you, Jude.”

“That’s— I love you, daddy.”

Sean stands up. “Let’s go.”

Jude throws his head back and grins. “Go home daddy let’s go!”

“After one more stop.”

“No after!”

Sean drags him past Candy Haven, Chocolate Delight and Miss Cookie. The sights and smells both revive and drive the boy to the brink of madness, pleading and clawing to partake of treasures just beyond his reach. At last, Sean swings him into the narrow space of Tiny’s Tuxedo’s and Fine Apparel for Men. A large, well-dressed man greets them from behind the counter. “Good afternoon.”

“Is it?” Sean sighs.

“Daddy, I want a cookie.”

“Sean Fawley. Appointment for a fitting.”


“All right, sir. Wedding?”

“It is.”


“JUDE THE DUDE! One minute, please.”

Jude tears at his new rope bracelet in a huff.

The man smiles and reaches for a stack of yellow slips. “We’ll make this quick. Whose wedding, sir?”

Sean looks down at his wrestling, restless son, finds him glaring back up at him, as if they each can see all that the other is thinking.

“Mine,” he says with a tender, weary smile.

“I want a cookie,” Jude says.


A native son of the city, Patrick Madden has been writing stories as long as he can remember. A freelance writer and editor, he lives around the bend from Chestnut Hill in a lovely rowhouse with his wife and two sons. Obliviosity is his first work of fiction to appear in print, and he’s proud that it should be in Philadelphia Stories.