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       Still Life With Tornado, p.1

           A. S. King
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Still Life With Tornado

  For Julia

  The farther you enter the truth, the deeper it is.—Bankei Yotaku

  Everything you can imagine is real.—Pablo Picasso

  Dutton Books

  An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

  375 Hudson Street

  New York, NY 10014

  Copyright © 2016 by A.S. King

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: King, A. S. (Amy Sarig), 1970-, author.

  Title: Still life with tornado / by A.S. King.

  Description: New York, NY : Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, [2016]

  Identifiers: LCCN 2015049462 | ISBN 9781101994887 (hardback)

  Subjects: | CYAC: Family secrets—Fiction. | Family violence—Fiction. | BISAC: JUVENILE FICTION / Family / Marriage & Divorce. | JUVENILE FICTION / Art & Architecture. | JUVENILE FICTION / Social Issues / Physical & Emotional Abuse (see also Social Issues / Sexual Abuse). Classification: LCC PZ7.K5693 St 2016 | DDC [Fic]—dc23 LC record available at

  Ebook ISBN: 9781101994894

  Jacket design by Samira Iravani

  Paper texture and labels courtesy of

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



  Title Page




  The Tornado

  Bus Stop

  Suit Yourself



  Shitty Hair

  MEXICO—AGE TEN—OUR Family Mexico Getaway

  Art Museum




  The Snowflake

  Horizon Line


  Alleged Earl

  Standing in Random Places

  MEXICO—Day One: Vomitorium


  Vodka Cranberry



  MEXICO—Day Two: Selfish Bastards



  Kids Love Tacos

  Your Mother and Me

  Art Show

  MEXICO—Day Three: Mango Tango

  Pop Quiz


  MEXICO—Day Four I: Ruins

  Six Days (Tornado)

  Enough (More Tornado)

  Mexico—Day Four II: The Whole Sky


  Sweet Sixteen

  The Movies

  MEXICO—Day Five I: Kids’ Club

  Second Chance


  Honest Things

  Doctor’s Note

  Mexico—Day Five II: Edgy


  Pity Shower

  Eleanor Rigby



  MEXICO—Day Six I: SPF 0

  Eleanor Rigby II

  With Vigor



  A Rat

  MEXICO—Day Six II: Finding Bruce

  Voice Mail

  Meat Grinder

  The Whole Stupid Story

  That’s Earl

  Right About Now

  MEXICO—Day Six III: Tooth Fairy


  Name Tag

  It’s a Hole

  The Soap Lady


  MEXICO—Day Seven: The Windmill

  Be Reasonable



  Thick Skin

  This is Art

  All Before It


  The Tornado

  Nothing ever really happens.

  Or, more accurately, nothing new ever really happens.

  • • •

  My art teacher, Miss Smith, once said that there is no such thing as an original idea. We all think we’re having original ideas, but we aren’t. “You’re stuck on repeat. I’m stuck on repeat. We’re all stuck on repeat.” That’s what she said. Then she flipped her hair back over her shoulder like what she said didn’t mean anything and told us to spend the rest of class sorting through all the old broken shit she gets people to donate so we can make art. She held up half of a vinyl record. “Every single thing we think is original is like this. Just pieces of something else.”

  • • •

  Two weeks ago Carmen said she had an original idea, and then she drew a tornado, but tornadoes aren’t original. Tornadoes are so old that the sky made them before we were even here. Carmen said that the sketch was not of a tornado, but everything it contained. All I saw was flying, churning dust. She said there was a car in there. She said a family pet was in there. A wagon wheel. Broken pieces of a house. A quart of milk. Photo albums. A box of stale corn flakes.

  All I could see was the funnel and that’s all anyone else could see and Carmen said that we weren’t looking hard enough. She said art wasn’t supposed to be literal. But that doesn’t erase the fact that the drawing was of a tornado and that’s it.

  Our next assignment was to sketch a still life. Miss Smith put out three bowls of fruit and told us we could arrange the fruit in any way we wanted. I picked one pear and I stared at it and stared at my drawing pad and I didn’t sketch anything.

  I acted calm, like I was just daydreaming, but I was paralyzed. Carmen looked at me and I shrugged like I didn’t care. I couldn’t move my hand. I felt numb. I felt like crying. I felt both of those things. Not always in art class, either.

  When I handed in a blank paper at the end of class, I said, “I’ve lost the will to participate.”

  Miss Smith thought I meant art class. But I meant that I’d lost the will to participate in anything. I wanted to be the paper. I wanted to be whiter than white. Blanker than blank.

  The next day Miss Smith said that I should do blind drawings of my hand. Blind drawings are when you draw something without looking at the paper. I drew twelve of them. But then I wondered how many people have done blind drawings of their hands and I figured it must be the most unoriginal thing in the world.

  She said, “But it’s your hand. No one else can draw that.”

  I told her that nothing ever really happens.

  “Nothing ever really happens,” I said.

  She said, “That’s probably true.” She didn’t even look up from the papers she was shuffling. Her bared shoulders were already tan and it wasn’t even halfway through April. I stood there staring at her shoulders, thinking about how nothing ever really happens. Lots of stuff has happened to Miss Smith. I knew that.
br />   My hands shook because I couldn’t draw the pear. She looked up and I know she saw me shaking. She could have said anything to me then. Something nice. Something encouraging. Instead, she repeated herself.

  She said, “That’s probably true.”

  So I stopped going to school.

  • • •

  It’s true about the letters they’ll send when you stop going to school. After a week or so they come after you and make you meet with the principal. But that’s happened before, just like tornadoes, so it didn’t impress me. My parents escorted me into the school building and they apologized a hundred times for my behavior but I didn’t apologize even once.

  I couldn’t think of one reaction to the meeting with the principal that was original. Apologizing, crying, yelling, spitting, punching, silence—none of those things are original. I tried to levitate. I tried to spontaneously combust like a defective firework.

  Now that would be original.

  Bus Stop

  I’m at the bus shelter two blocks from school and it’s raining and I’m pressed back as far as I can be into the shelter and I’m not doing or thinking anything original. I am on my way to City Hall to change my name. Still not original, but at least I won’t be Sarah anymore.

  Dad was perky this morning. He said, “I wish you’d do something constructive with these days. You could paint or sculpt or something. At least you’d be productive.” He didn’t hear the spaces between those words. He didn’t hear the rests between the notes. “But I know you’re going to school today because we have a deal, right?”

  Deals. That’s what life with Dad is—a series of deals. He thought I was going to school on the bus and I did go on the bus, but I didn’t get to school. I got off one stop early to catch another bus, like I’ve done for the last eight school days. I could be shooting heroin or dabbing or smoking meth. I could be flirting with boys after school like normal girls do. I could be pregnant. Of course, none of those things are original, but they would be constructive and productive, which is what Dad seems to want. Right now, I’m going to City Hall.

  I still don’t know what name I’ll choose. I have twenty minutes until I have to decide. I catch my distorted reflection in the windows of the passing cars, and I think about how people elope to City Hall and get married without telling anyone. I’m doing that, but I’m doing it by myself. I will elope with the new me. I will come out with a new name but I’ll still have the same face and everyone will call me Sarah but I’ll really be whoever I decide to be. I will confuse the Social Security Administration. My number will now match the wrong name. I will not tell my parents what my new name is. I won’t even tell myself.

  A woman walks up and sits down next to me in the bus shelter. She says hello and I say hello and that’s not original at all. When I look at her, I see that she is me. I am sitting next to myself. Except she looks older than me, and she has this look on her face like she just got a puppy—part in-love and part tired-from-paper-training. More in-love, though. She says, “You were right about the blind hand drawings. Who hasn’t done that, right?”

  I don’t usually have hallucinations.

  I say, “Are you a hallucination?”

  She says no.

  I say, “Are you—me?”

  “Yes. I’m you,” she says. “In seven years.”

  “I’m twenty-three?” I ask.

  “I’m twenty-three. You’re just sixteen.”

  “Why do you look so happy?”

  “I stopped caring about things being original.”

  When the bus comes she gets on it with me, and to prove she’s really real she stops and slots a token into the machine. There are two Sarahs on this bus. We are going to City Hall.

  “We’re eloping,” she says.

  I’m conflicted. Is this what eloping with the new me looks like? Riding to City Hall on a bus with myself? How will I ever fool the Social Security Administration if there’s a witness? Even if the witness is me? I try to concentrate on names I like. Wild names. Names that surprise people. I can’t come up with any names. I just keep looking at twenty-three-year-old Sarah and my brain is stuck on one name. Sarah. Sarah. Sarah. I can’t get away from myself.

  Suit Yourself

  I’m stuck on a bus with Sarah who is twenty-three. She has a snazzy haircut and highlights. My hair is still long and stringy like it always has been. It doesn’t stop people from staring at us like we’re identical twins. She’s comedy and I’m tragedy. Even that thought isn’t original.

  She says, “You’re not really going to change your name, are you?”

  I say, “You tell me.”

  She smiles again and I want to tell her stop smiling so much. We have an ordinary smile and it annoys me.

  She says, “I’m still Sarah.”

  “I’m still going to City Hall,” I say.

  “Fine with me.”

  “I don’t want you to come with me.”

  She smirks. “You can’t even change your name yet. You’re only sixteen.”

  “I’m practicing,” I say.

  She rolls her eyes. “I guess.”

  When the bus nears the next stop, I repeat myself. “I don’t want you to come with me.”

  “Suit yourself,” she says.

  She gets off at the next stop, and as the bus pulls away, I watch her walk up 12th Street and see she still has our favorite umbrella.

  Maybe I’m snapping. Maybe I’ve already snapped and I’m coming back to real life. Maybe this is some sort of existential crisis. I couldn’t tell you right now whether my life has meaning or value. I don’t even know if I’m really living. Either way, I’m going to City Hall. Either way, I’m changing my name.

  • • •

  As the bus goes east, we pass through the University of the Arts campus. This is where I say I want to go to college. Except I’m skipping school, so I probably won’t get to go to college. Or maybe I will. I’m not sure. Going to college doesn’t seem original. Not going to college doesn’t seem original unless I plan to do something original instead of just not going to college.

  I thought being an artist would be the right thing to do. Since I was little, everybody told me I was good at it. Every year on my birthday Dad gave me something a real artist should have—a wooden artist’s model, a set of oil paints, a palette, an easel, a pottery wheel. When I was nine, he woke me up every summer morning saying, “Time to make the art!” And I made art. Sometimes I made great art and I knew it because people’s expressions change when they look at great art. When I was ten, after we went to Mexico, he stopped waking me up that way, but I still made the art. Right up until Miss Smith and the pear. It wasn’t the pear’s fault. It was building for months because sixteen is when people stop saying great things about a kid’s drawings and start asking questions like “Where do you want to go to college?”

  I just don’t think college is where artists go. I think they go to Spain or Macedonia or something.


  By the time I get to City Hall, I figure the idea to change my name isn’t original anymore. The idea is now two hours old. I don’t even go to the sixth floor to get the paperwork so I can practice how I’ll do it when I turn eighteen.

  I decide my name is Umbrella, but I won’t tell anyone else. Not even the Social Security Administration. Changing one’s name without actually changing one’s name has been done before, but I doubt anyone else on Earth ever opted to call themselves Umbrella.

  I take the next bus that comes around. The rain has stopped, which makes my new name ironic. I am useless now in every possible way. I am a sixteen-year-old truant. I am Umbrella on a day with no rain. I am as blank as a piece of white paper in a world with no pencils. While this may sound dramatic and silly, it’s comforting to me so I don’t care how it sounds. The whole world thinks sixteen-year-old girls are dramatic and silly anywa
y. But really we’re not. Not even when we change our names to Umbrella.

  Everything I see from the bus window is the same. The streets, the sidewalks, the people are all the same. Homeless people sit on corners. Businesspeople walk with purpose. Tourists look at maps, trying to find the Liberty Bell or Betsy Ross’s house. Half the people are looking at or talking into their phones. Other people are holding their devices as if they could ring any second—like soldiers in wartime—guns always at the ready. But nothing ever really happens.

  It starts to drizzle again and I think back to Miss Smith’s art class two weeks ago. I couldn’t draw the pear. I couldn’t draw my hand one more time. If someone asked me to draw anything right now, I wouldn’t be able to do it. My hands do not work. Not in that way. Mom tells stories about patients in the ER who need amputations. Arm/hand/multiple-finger amputations. People who drive with their arms out car windows. Unlucky motorcyclists. Lawn mowers. Snowblowers. At least I still have hands. I have nothing to complain about.

  I can’t draw a pear, though. Or anything else.

  My hands ran out of art.

  I am simply Umbrella. I am the layer between the light rain and a human walking down Spruce Street talking into her phone, maybe finding out her cat just threw up on the new Berber carpet. I am the barrier between the bullshit that falls from the sky and the humans who do not want bullshit on their pantsuits. In eight days of riding around, that’s what I’ve discovered. It’s raining bullshit. Probably all the time.

  Twenty-three-year-old Sarah gets on the bus again. She sits next to me and smiles, just like last time. But now, there’s something condescending in her smile. Unsympathetic. It says I am silly and dramatic. We don’t say a thing to each other and when we get off at the stop near home, the rain has started again and she opens her umbrella and walks north. I walk south and let the rain hit me until I’m soaked.


  “She told me that we should let her drop out for the year,” Mom says. “She could do summer classes and then she’d be able to come back next year and reenroll as a junior.”

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