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Please ignore vera dietz, p.10
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.10

           A. S. King
 
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  John. John and I.

  “Is he the guy from the day when we were eleven? In the white car, who said my pigtails were pretty?”

  He nodded, still smiling. “Yep.”

  “Are you sure he’s not—um—dangerous?”

  He leaned toward me and said, “He’s harmless, Vera. He’s loaded—he inherited millions from his parents—and he has a thing for underwear. I’ve been to his house. He has it in Ziploc bags, labeled by date and piled up in his computer room. I think he might sell it on eBay.”

  “On eBay?”

  He laughed again. “Well, pervert eBay or something.”

  “How do you know he’s harmless?”

  “I don’t know how to explain it, but I—uh—I trust him.” He was so confident about this—about this trust—that I saw clearly the hole in Charlie’s process. What does a boy who’s witnessed what Charlie’s witnessed know about trust? How does a boy like that discern right from wrong?

  Charlie moved into the tree house as soon as school was over in June. Now that he had his deck and his screened windows, he looked for other ways to improve it, so since he’d just finished his eighth-grade shop class introduction to electricity and had a wad of underwear cash, he decided he’d get some sort of electric out there so he could run a fan on hot nights and listen to his radio without having to use up so many batteries.

  The summer was unbearably sticky. When I walked anywhere near the forest, the gnats stuck to me and flew into my eyes, mouth, and ears, and it drove me crazy. Dad finally shelled out for central air-conditioning, now that he worked at home, and it was too easy to stay inside and comfortable rather than go and help Charlie wire the tree house. Plus, electricity scared me. Always had, ever since I’d stuck the tip of a dinner fork into the toaster to pry out an Eggo whole wheat waffle and got a little zap from it.

  Mika’s Diner closed three months after I started working there, and because of the up-and-down economy, regular people were taking summer jobs that used to be saved for students. Even college students were having trouble finding decent jobs that summer, so Dad agreed that I could take the volunteer position at the adoption center on Wednesdays and Fridays. I hoped to see more of Mr. Zimmerman so he could get to know me better and like me enough to hire me to work in the store one day, but he was so busy between the store and taking care of his wife, who was at home with cancer, we rarely saw him. When he did take the time to visit, the adoption center ladies fawned over him.

  I asked him, on a hot Wednesday in July while we all ate ice pops, “Did you know I’ve dreamed of working in your store since I was five?”

  He laughed. “Since you were five?”

  “Yep.”

  “That was probably back when we only had one unit. Remember that, Elle?” Mrs. Parker, the volunteer manager, nodded. “How old are you now?” he asked.

  “Fourteen.”

  “Come back to me when you’re seventeen and I might make your dreams come true,” he said, winking.

  Mrs. Parker told me that he always hired seniors the summer before their last year in school. She hinted that if I kept volunteering, I’d have a better chance and he’d “remember my face.” Of course, Dad probably wouldn’t allow me to volunteer if there were paying jobs around, but it was nice to daydream.

  No matter what I did in summer while I lived under his roof, I knew that when I could, I wanted to work with animals, whether Dad liked it or not. Humans just couldn’t love unconditionally like animals could. Humans were too complicated. Mrs. Parker had the perfect bumper sticker on the back of her ugly Subaru hatchback. THE MORE I KNOW PEOPLE, THE MORE I LOVE MY DOG. When I told her how much I liked it, she got me one, too, and when I showed it to Charlie, he plastered it on the door of the tree house before I could tell him not to. I mean, wasn’t it stupid to have that on the door when neither one of us had a dog? Plus, the tree house had always been more his than mine, and that summer, though I still considered Charlie my best friend in the whole world, I kind of wanted to have a bit of individuality or something. I wanted the bumper sticker for myself.

  We both would turn fifteen that fall. He was starting to grow fluff on his chest. I was starting to feel attracted to him more than I ever had before, and I felt totally lame about it. There was no way, now that we were going to go to high school, that I was going to have a real crush on Charlie Kahn—especially if I wanted to slip through high school quietly, with no one noticing I was an ex-stripper’s daughter.

  Plus, one day in August, I went out to the tree house when he wasn’t there and I found a few porno magazines sticking out from under his bedside milk crate. From then on, I couldn’t picture Charlie sitting there contemplating the spirit of the Great Hunter. I couldn’t see him drawing plans for his next octagonal addition or a crazy idea for how to make his own solar panels. From then on, I saw him more like a real boy, and not a superhero.

  I had promised myself to avoid my mother’s destiny by staying boy-free until after college, and I knew that once I went looking, I’d need a man like Dad—dependable and respectful toward women, and not into porn or weird rich old guys who bought teenage kids’ underwear. But promises aside, Charlie Kahn was still the most exciting boy I had ever met, and part of me (the part we learned about in biology class) wanted nothing more than to run off with him the minute I could, and leave Mount Pitts behind us where it belonged.

  PART THREE

  MONDAY, JANUARY 2ND—NIGHT OFF

  The phone makes that beeping noise once it’s off the hook for too long and I can hear it from the sliding door, where I’m standing, watching Dad pick up winter debris. I feel an urge to escape, but then I remember that my car is still at Pagoda Pizza. And really—is there any realistic way to escape how much I hate my mother right now? (Which Zen guy said, “Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself”?)

  Dad sees me and raises his chin to acknowledge me. My need to escape inflates exponentially and the beeping on the phone is getting annoying, so I walk over and hang it up. But I want to know what happened to James last night, so I pick it up again and call Pagoda Pizza, and Marie answers.

  “Hey, Marie—it’s Vera.”

  She laughs a bit. “Hey, Vera. You okay? Your dad said you’re sick.”

  “I’m fine,” I say. “Is James there?”

  “Yeah. Hold on. He’s in the back.”

  I hear her yell for him and I feel relieved. He didn’t go to jail or lose his job. Everything is fine.

  “Hey,” he says.

  “Hey. What happened to you last night?”

  “They let me go with a warning. I only had two beers. You working tomorrow?”

  “I think so. I have to convince my dad to drive me over there to pick up the car.”

  There’s a brief, awkward silence as I realize that this is our first phone call. For some reason, this causes me to realize our age difference again. I remember what my mother just said to me. I wonder if James thinks I’m making a joke out of myself.

  “I had a great time last night,” he says.

  “Me too.”

  “I hope we can do it again soon.”

  “Me too,” I say.

  Dad’s still outside, finishing his lawn cleanup, so I go upstairs. Thirty minutes later, after a hot shower and a quick run through half my vocabulary words for the week (incandescent, contumacious, ingratiate, chawbacon, and banausic), I find my father on the white den couch, reading the New Yorker.

  “Dad?”

  “One second.”

  I go to the kitchen and fix myself a plate of cheese and fruit. This is a novelty. Another snack, time to study, an extra shower. It’s like I’m a normal kid or something. The view from our breakfast bar is dead forest. It reminds me of Charlie, so I usually eat facing away from the window, but today I want to think about Charlie. I look out to where he showed me his first buck and I remember his smile and the way he’d look up through his unkempt bangs, how he’d look at me that flirtatious way, and how I’d ignore it
. I pop a grape into my mouth and think about how maybe the whole thing was my fault. Maybe if I hadn’t been so hell-bent on not becoming my parents, I could have saved Charlie. Maybe I would have been his girlfriend. Maybe we could have gotten married and been happy, regardless of who our parents were and what they did to each other.

  We have a bird feeder out there that every squirrel in the forest is trying to infiltrate, which drives Dad crazy. Now, there’s a red-headed woodpecker making the thing swing, and cardinals dot the forest scrub with red coats, waiting until the bigger birds have their fill.

  Dad sits down across from me and folds his hands together. “We need to talk,” he says.

  I nod and chew on my mouthful of cheese.

  “I talked to your manager today and she told me that you and James have been working together for months.”

  “So?”

  “Is that how long this has been going on?”

  Oh man. What a dork. “No. Last night was our first ‘date,’ if that’s what you mean.” I brought my fingers up to make the quotes around date.

  “He’s twenty-three.”

  “And I’m eighteen. And he’s a nice guy, so who cares how old he is?”

  “I do,” he says. “And before you get all high-and-mighty—‘I’m eighteen and can do what I want’—with me, you might want to consider your options.” He’s so calm, it’s starting to spook me out.

  “My options?”

  “You live under my roof, which means you still have to do what I say.”

  “Geez. Are you going to take away my allowance next and ground me for a month? For liking a boy?”

  I push my plate aside and stare at him. He’s serious.

  “My main concern at the moment is your work schedule. Can you work with this man and stop being friendly with him?”

  “Oh my God—can you please stop being so weird?”

  He sighs. “I’m not being weird. I’m your father and it’s my job to make sure you—you, uh”—he looks around the kitchen for his next word—“it’s my job to make sure you don’t make any mistakes.”

  I laugh. “Oh, come on! Who doesn’t make mistakes?”

  “I didn’t mean it that way. I know everyone makes mistakes,” he says. “But you know. The same mistakes we—your mother and I—did.”

  I really can’t believe he just said that. “I can’t believe you just said that.”

  He shrugs. Inside my head, there are a million angry monkeys.

  “No. Seriously, Dad, think about it. Was Mom working a full-time job and saving up for college when she was eighteen? Was she making good grades? Or was she too busy picking dollar bills out of her G-string to study?”

  “Don’t—”

  I cut him off. “I’m not YOU. Okay? I’m not MOM. I’m ME.”

  He breathes deeply through his nose. I see his diaphragm move. In. Out. In. Out.

  “You didn’t answer my question,” he says.

  I stare at him until he repeats it. “Can you continue to work with this man and control yourself?”

  Inside, the monkeys are Kubrick monkeys. Inside, I’m saying, Control myself? CONTROL MYSELF? But when I open my mouth, it says, “Okay—fine. I won’t hang out with James anymore. No problem. For God’s sake, Dad. I’m not some sex-crazed tramp. He’s just a friend and we grew to like each other.”

  “Stop making it sound innocent.”

  “It is innocent.”

  “Not if he’s twenty-three, it isn’t.”

  He walks over to the coat rack and pulls something out of his coat pocket—a handful of pamphlets—and brings them over to the table. Two cardinals balance on the bird feeder behind him.

  Teen Drinking. Talking to Your Child About Alcohol Abuse. DUI. Drinking and Driving. Making Responsible Decisions. Peer Pressure. Teens and Drugs.

  “Will you read these?”

  Is he serious?

  “Vera, I don’t know how long you’ve been drinking and I don’t know if you understand how bad it is for your body or how susceptible to alcoholism your genes make you, but more important to me, you planned on driving home last night. You can never do that. Never. Do you understand me?”

  “Yes, Dad.”

  “You’re smarter than that.”

  “Yes, Dad.”

  “Especially after that Brown kid last year.” Kyle Brown. Fifteen. Killed by a drunk college kid while he walked home from his neighbor’s house.

  “Yes, Dad.”

  “I’m not raising another one of these senseless, irresponsible idiots!”

  “I know. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

  “You weren’t thinking. That’s the problem,” he says. “You can’t ever let that happen again.”

  “I won’t.”

  “And you can’t drink anymore. Obviously. I mean, you’re not even legal, Veer.”

  “I know. It was stupid.”

  He takes a deep, disappointed breath and it’s over. Thank God. He putters around the den, tidying, and I read the brochures. Stuff I learned in grade school, when the D.A.R.E. cops used to come around and teach us about the so-called war on drugs. Alcohol kills brain cells. Alcohol causes depression. Alcohol causes memory loss. Nowhere does it say, “Alcohol causes your dead friend to show up in the form of inflatable two-dimensional aliens.”

  Nowhere does it say, “Alcohol numbs the pain.” But I know it does.

  Two hours later, after dinner, after I memorize the rest of my Vocab words (ephemeral, exacerbate, jettison, vacuous, gumption) and after I vacuum the upstairs and clean both bathrooms, Dad takes me to Pagoda Pizza to pick up my car.

  “Can I tell Marie that I’ll be back to work tomorrow?” I ask this because I’m really not sure of anything. He seems to be a new person. Robo-Dad. I ask this because James’s car isn’t in the lot, and he could be back any minute, and I want to see him.

  “Of course.”

  “You can go,” I say, before I shut the door.

  “Nah,” he says, “I’ll follow you home.”

  So I tell Marie that I’ll see her tomorrow while Dad watches me, and then I get into the car and drive down the hill and onto the main strip. Dad drives behind me the whole way home. I ask Charlie, “If I tell him now, will you leave me alone?” not knowing what I want the answer to be.

  FOUR WEEKS LATER—SUPER BOWL NIGHT—FOUR TO CLOSE

  Every driver we have is here, even drivers I never knew existed. This is the craziest day in pizza delivery.

  We’ve been folding extra boxes all week, but still, all the part-timers are back on the steps folding more. Marie is sweating, but that’s only because BMW-driving Greg is coming in—to help. Oh boy. Last time he came, he snafued half the runs because he didn’t know there was a road connecting Butter Lane and Lisa Avenue, and he got upset when he splashed sauce on his beige preppy dickhead wide-lined corduroys.

  When I see him pressing the lock button on his keychain for the Beemer in the parking lot (where it would never get robbed), a bunch of recent Vocab words come to mind.

  Here’s me using exacerbate in a sentence. Greg thinks he helps on busy nights, but really, he only exacerbates the problem.

  Here’s me using dickwad in a sentence. Greg is such a dickwad, he locks his car in the Pagoda Pizza parking lot. (No. That isn’t a real Vocab word.)

  The rest of the night is a complete blur of boxes and hot bags and change and six-packs and twenty-dollar bills. I see winning men and losing men. I see happy fans, sad fans, and mad fans. Did you ever hear the statistic about Super Bowl night? How there’s a spike in wife beatings? I think of that statistic when I see the mad fans.

  By midnight, we’ve slowed down. Greg struts out of the store like he’s some sort of hero, even though he managed to drop two pizzas (no kidding) facedown onto the floor during the rush. I’ve never seen anyone do that—not even people who are on serious drugs.

  The phones have stopped ringing and Marie is cashing out the part-timers who came in to help. I go out to my car, pull ou
t the Dunkin’ Donuts bag from the backseat, and count my tips. $109. James comes out and slips into my passenger’s seat.

  “You sly dog! That’s more than I made tonight.”

  “Yeah—I kept getting burb runs. Tough luck, big guy.”

  He leans in and kisses me and I kiss him back, but only for a second. I don’t want Marie to see us. I don’t want anyone to see us. For the last four weeks, we’ve only made out in covert places. Like the bathroom in the back of the store, or behind the Dumpster. Once, we drove up to the pagoda again, but instead of parking where all the other morons park to make out, we went farther down the road to the old parking lot, and we didn’t bring any booze.

  I get my cash bag ready to cash out and scribble my total on a napkin so I don’t forget it. When we get inside and Marie starts counting cash, she asks us both, “You coming to the Christmas party?”

  I look at her, confused. Christmas is a month gone. She explains that the annual Pagoda Pizza Christmas party has always been on the second Friday in February, because Super Bowl night marks the end of our busiest season.

  “You have to come,” James says.

  “Sure,” I answer. “Where is it?”

  “Greg got us the fire company in Jackson,” Marie says.

  “They have a great bar,” James adds, smiling.

  Marie stops to look at us and then shakes her head and goes back to counting. She compares her numbers to the computer’s numbers and punches in a bunch of decimals for our commission. She pays us that and a bonus, which makes my Super Bowl total $185 cash, plus the eight bucks an hour I’ll get in my next paycheck. Not too shabby for one night’s work.

  James goes out for a smoke and I take a quick bathroom break before closing duties. I put my face really close to the mirror and try to see inside my brain. I try to get the Charlies to come and suffocate me. I breathe on the mirror and beg him to write something. He doesn’t. I wonder why not. Is he using reverse psychology? Does he think I’ll tell if he stops haunting me? Doesn’t he know it’s more complicated than that? That it’s not all about him?

 
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