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Please ignore vera dietz, p.12
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.12

           A. S. King
 
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  “I’m sure you can fix it, Charlie. You can fix anything.”

  “Meh,” he answered. “What do you think of the rest?”

  “Freaking awesome, man. The paint job. The posters. All awesome.”

  “And my kitchen?” he asked, gesturing to his electric kettle and a milk crate on its side that held cocoa mix, the box of Noodle-o-Pak Spicy, and two boxes of assorted-flavor instant oatmeal.

  “Uh-huh. Great,” I said.

  After he filled the kettle and set it to boil, we sat on the octagonal deck. I noted the thinning leaves and felt a ball in my stomach. There is something about a dying forest that’s sad, no matter how many times I reassure myself that it will come alive again in spring. And of course, autumn meant school. Our sophomore year would start in less than a week. Another 180 days of keeping my mother’s secret. Another 180 days of sending out the PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ signal so no one would even see me.

  We swung our legs through the railing he’d made out of saplings. I had to admit my Noodle-o-Pak Spicy tasted extra nice that high up in the trees. Charlie told me about his new plan to do half days at the vocational school for either HVAC like his dad, or maybe carpentry, because he liked wood.

  “Plus, it’s not as boring as being at school all day. My dad says I’m a blue-collar guy, like he is.” He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself more than me.

  “Really? Huh.”

  “I like the idea of a Harley and a truck and a nice house one day. Working for a living, you know? Not like some accountant or—Oh. Sorry.”

  “I don’t care,” I said. “I’m not the accountant in the family.”

  “You know what I meant, right?”

  “Yeah.” He meant destiny, and I hated him for it. Because if we were all supposed to carbon-copy our parents, then I’d end up a brain-fried loser who runs away with a foot doctor, or a downtrodden Zen calculator. I was steering well clear of my destiny, thank you very much.

  “Anyway, my dad said he’d buy me a bike if I went to Vo-Tech.”

  “A bike?”

  “I have my eye on a little rice burner at The Corner.” The Corner was a creepy car lot/gun shop with a small blinking sign on wheels that displayed a different Bible verse each month.

  I wanted to ask him if this was his choice or his dad’s. It didn’t seem fair that no one had talked to him about college or any other options. It didn’t seem fair that he’d get a free bike for doing what he was told rather than thinking for himself. It didn’t seem right that he would be rewarded for turning into a trained monkey at the age of fifteen.

  THE PAGODA PIZZA CHRISTMAS PARTY—PART 1

  “Tonight you will experience the snakebite,” Mick says, and buys us all a round of shots. It tastes like sweetened lime juice and goes down smoothly. Except for the fact that a Nazi skinhead bought it for me.

  But I’m trying to come to terms with it. It’s where I live. God bless the USA, where you can love or hate anyone you want as long as you don’t kill them doing either. I’m trying to see Mick as a person, you know? With a mother and father. As a baby—long before he got the word SKIN tattooed inside his lower lip.

  The music starts after about two shots. Mick and Jill disappear into the poolroom and James and I sit at the bar, watching Marie and her look-alike husband step dance to country and western music. Fat Barry, the day manager from the store across town, joins in, and works up a red-faced sweat before the song is over.

  James smokes a few cigarettes and orders me a beer.

  “I don’t like beer.”

  “You can’t mix snakebites with vodka coolers, Veer. You’ll hurl.”

  “But—”

  “Just try it. It’s not bad beer. He’ll put a lime in it for you so it will taste fine after the shots.”

  The bartender brings me a Corona with lime and I monkey what James does with his. I push the lime past the lip of the bottle, into the gold beer. “What do you think of Mick?” I ask.

  “You know.”

  “Yeah. Gives me the creeps,” I say.

  “Yeah. But he’s here with Jill. And he seems to want to play friends, so why not?”

  “Free drinks, right?”

  He laughs. “Yeah.”

  An hour later, we’re sitting at the plastic tablecloth-covered long tables, eating our plates of roast turkey. Thank God. Mick bought two more rounds in the last half hour, so I’ve had four snakebite shots, two beers, and a vodka cooler, and I was feeling a bit wobbly until I started eating this turkey. James keeps telling me to eat slowly.

  The music starts again once the plates are cleared, and I make my way to the dance floor for “Black Dog” and bang my head, which makes James laugh. Marie pulls out her camera and snaps a few pictures of me. I’m certainly buzzed and I get dizzy moshing my head, my hair slapping me in the face, but I’ve still got balance. Though the turkey is sloshing around my stomach now, so I leave the dance floor before the song is over and go back to the bar, where James is working hard to fill the ashtray with butts.

  “Another round for my friends!” Mick slurs.

  I hold up my hand and smile. “No thanks, man. You can skip me this time around.”

  He gets in my face quickly and loudly. “Hey! What are you trying to say? You don’t want my free drink?” I feel his breath. He’s an inch away, with the angriest, most intimidating face I’ve ever seen. Ten times worse than Mr. Kahn.

  I’m completely fucking scared. Then he laughs and steps back and says something like “I was messing around” or “I was joking” or “Take it easy,” but I don’t hear it because my adrenaline level has just tripled and all I can really hear is the blood going through my ears.

  James puts his arm around me. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take Vera’s this time if she doesn’t want it.”

  “Seriously, man. I was only kidding around.”

  “I know,” I say. But they all know I’m lying.

  “Two for the freaked-out chick, Keith!” Mick yells, and the bartender winks at him, which creeps me out even more. Suddenly I realize I don’t know what they’re putting in my drinks. I don’t know if they have some skinhead Nazi master plan. I don’t know anything. I’m a naïve eighteen-year-old girl who doesn’t even belong in this bar.

  I look around and see Marie and her husband hugging at the table, sucking down cigarettes, and occasionally locking crooked nicotine teeth. Fat Barry has brought his son, who is the only person in the room younger than I am. He looks like a stupid kid, sitting there between his mom and dad with his baseball cap on. I don’t think he’s moved all night, except when the dessert buffet came out. His mother used to be the playground lady for us when we were in elementary school, and I know she’s an incurable gossip. Suddenly I want to play the rest of the night safe.

  Actually, I want to leave.

  An hour later, James has talked me into one slow dance, and has requested “Stairway to Heaven.” We’re acting like a couple, and everyone who comes around to talk to us is treating this like it’s totally cool. Fat Barry even tells us we look like a cute pair—which is the kind of thing Dad would say if he’d just give James a chance. But of course, he won’t. Because James is a whopping five years older than I am and he dropped out of college.

  After the slow dance, my first ever, I’m in the bathroom—it’s cruddy—and I look at myself in the mirror and touch up the small bit of brown eyeliner I’m wearing. I’m feeling more at ease than I was an hour ago, because these people can accept me for who I am. They can accept my feelings for James.

  I’m even growing to like Mick, the skinhead Nazi. He tells funny jokes and has a very witty way about him. Better yet, he has a few set pieces about Corduroy Greg because he used to work for him, too, and hates the guy. When he sees a growing audience around the bar, he talks louder.

  “What do the gynecologist and the pizza deliveryman have in common?”

  “Dunno,” I slur. I accept Mick’s last snakebite shot because he’s apologized for scar
ing me like ten times since he did it. He seemed sincere, too.

  “They both get to smell the goods but neither one of them can eat it.”

  Though this isn’t all that funny, I start to laugh uncontrollably, and I stumble enough for James to reach out and steady me.

  “Veer? You okay?” he whispers into my ear.

  “I want to get out of here soon,” I answer, and he thinks I mean I want to make out. I know this because he winks at me, and it takes him all of thirty seconds to gather up his cigarettes and lighter from the bar and slip his coat on.

  Mick sees this and quickly struts over with his mean face on. “Where do you think you’re going?”

  “Vera needs to get home, man.”

  “But the party’s just starting!”

  “Yeah—but we’re going,” James says.

  “But I bought you all those drinks!”

  “So what?”

  “So, you were supposed to get the next round, asshole.”

  James reaches into his wallet, slaps thirty bucks on the bar, and nods to the bartender. “This should cover him and his girl for the rest of the night, okay?”

  Mick walks over to me with his arms out, as if he wants to hug me, and I flinch into James’s side. I do not want to hug a skinhead Nazi. Even if he might be okay. Even if he tells funny jokes. Even if he’s really just a misunderstood nice guy who hates certain races of people.

  “Aw, come on! You’re not scared of little old Mick, are ya?”

  I giggle because he’s giggling. He has a huge smile. It makes his lower lip curl out a bit, so I can see the very top of his SKIN tattoo.

  He steps back like a 1950s sitcom dad and cocks his head, holding his arms out in the universal code for “Aw, come on, give me a hug!”

  So I sheepishly separate from James and approach him.

  He gets an excited look on his face and sweeps me off the ground before I can embrace him. He holds me around my hips, with my arms pinned down to my sides, so that my breasts are level with his forehead. And then he begins to wobble.

  “Uh … uh … uh …,” he says. I wobble from side to side and try to get my hands free, but his grip is too strong. I start to kick my legs. I can feel he’s losing his balance and I try harder to pull my arms free to catch myself.

  But that doesn’t happen.

  He falls backward, and I see the hardwood floor coming at my face so fast, I can’t even swear. Then, blackness.

  HISTORY—AGE SIXTEEN

  The first time Charlie got high school detention, it was for smoking. We were sophomores. I was an invisible sophomore and he was a Tech sophomore, just without the leather jacket yet. I told him a hundred times that he should wait to smoke until we got off the bus, but he couldn’t help it. He had to take a few drags after lunch in the bathroom.

  “This place doesn’t understand addiction,” he said. “They should pity me, not punish me.”

  Detention was a bore, he said, and he came back with stories of the regulars, who he called the Detentionheads, and he’d make fun of them. There was Bill Corso, a sophomore like us and the up-and-coming star quarterback. There was Frank Hellerman, a senior Vo-Tech kid who built souped-up cars on the weekends and was rumored to drag race out on Route 422. Last, there was Justin Miller, a junior—Tim’s little brother—who was worse, Charlie said, than Tim was.

  “A bunch of losers,” he called them. “And the girls are worse, because the only reason they’re there is to follow the losers.” He listed them. Jenny Flick, Gretchen So-and-so (“She’s so dumb, Corso told her that humans mated with apes and created a half man-half ape and she believed him, Vera”), and some girl named Michelle who was a senior and always wore Deep Purple T-shirts. He said they all ignored him.

  He got detention twice that month before he bought a pack of nicotine gum and chewed it instead of smoking because his dad said if he got detention again, no bike.

  Meanwhile, I was busy bugging Dad for Mom’s car, which had been locked up in the garage for four years at that point and was only taken out for an occasional run. It didn’t make sense for a man so concerned with saving money to be wasting a car like that. Plus, I was sixteen and it was time for me to have it. He was reticent, and I reminded him that this was a step toward real self-sufficiency for me. I added, “You’ll have to let me go sometime, right?”

  He sat under the reading lamp, still pretending to read, and then turned to me. “Who’s going to pay for the gas?”

  “I will.”

  “With what?”

  “I’ll get a job.”

  We exchanged looks.

  His look said, “Volunteering at the animal center isn’t a job.”

  My look said, “Duh—who doesn’t know that?”

  “I’ll think about it,” he said.

  “Can I take the permit test this weekend?” I asked. I’d been studying the rules of the road all summer, and my sixteenth birthday had passed two weeks before. (I got a savings bond and a gift certificate from Dad and the same lame fifty bucks my mom always sent me.)

  Charlie got his bike a few weeks before Christmas. I got my license and a fast-food job, but Dad still wouldn’t give me the car. Even when I got opening shift at Arby’s and had to be there at 5:50 on Sunday mornings he’d get up and drive me. It sucked and didn’t make any sense at all. Plus, I still had to take the school bus—now by myself, because Charlie would drive his bike to school, no matter the weather. I don’t know how he got down Overlook Road, which was so full of grit, it made Dad slow down in his car, but he did, and it meant I had to sit on the bus by myself with all the other bus people. Most of them had cell phones and sat there with zombie looks on their faces, texting their friends in the next seat.

  During Christmas break, Charlie arrived in our driveway clad in a full set of blue and red racing leathers. Up until then, I’d toyed with the idea of dating him, even though I knew I wasn’t allowed. But seeing him in those leathers was the first time I really melted. I was a Vera puddle. I had to steady myself on the kitchen counter as he took off his full-face helmet, adjusted his bangs to the left, over his eyes, and walked to the door and knocked.

  “Hey,” I managed. The closer he got, the more liquid I became.

  “Hey.”

  “You want to come in? Dad left me some real hot chocolate.”

  We went in and sat at the breakfast bar, stared out the window at the bird feeder, and talked.

  “I don’t see you much anymore. You liking school?” he asked.

  “Yeah. Still invisible,” I said. “Which is cool.”

  “Me too,” he lied. I knew he was more popular than ever since he got the bike. Kids gathered around it in the student parking lot after school, and tried to look as cool as he was. I saw them every day from the school bus as it headed for Mount Pitts, and eventually Overlook Road.

  “Nah—you don’t have to say that. I know you have a ton of new friends. That’s cool.”

  “But you’re still my best friend, Veer. You’ll always be.”

  “This is turning into a Hallmark vomit fest,” I laughed. “Hot chocolate and all.”

  “Well, it’s true. I don’t know how I’d have turned out without you being my best friend.”

  “Me either.”

  We were quiet, aside from slurping our hot chocolate, and I decided to ask him about the pervert guy who used to buy his underwear. I was sure he’d stopped selling them, because I was sure he knew better by now.

  “Can I ask you something?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Do you still—uh, you know. See that, uh—guy?”

  He flashed his mischievous grin. This was why teachers passed him when he should have failed, and why the gym teachers let him wear whatever he wanted to gym.

  “Do you want in?” he asked.

  “Uh—no!” I said, laughing.

  “It’s easy money, man. All you do is take them off at night and put ’em in a bag,” he said. “I know it sounds gross at first, but hey, man, at l
east he’s not molesting little kids or anything.”

  “Do you know he’s not?”

  “No.” He paused. “I guess not.”

  Dad walked in then, fresh from buying our Christmas tree. “Hey! There’s my two favorite kids!”

  “You are such a dork,” I said.

  “Hey, Mr. Dietz.”

  “I see you’re still completely insane, Mr. Kahn, driving a motorcycle in this weather.”

  “I have to keep up my reputation, you know.” Charlie turned to me then. “Thanks for the hot chocolate, Veer. You want that book?”

  “Book?”

  He gave me a signal with his eyes.

  “Oh, yeah. The book.”

  “See ya, Mr. Dietz. Have a nice Christmas.”

  “You too, Charlie. Give my regards to your mother,” he said, which had to be the most obvious thing he ever said in his boring little accountant’s life.

  When we got to his bike, Charlie hugged me tightly (Vera puddle again) and then held me at arm’s length. “We’re cool?”

  “Sure,” I said.

  “Really? Like, you won’t breathe a word?”

  “About the—uh, no. No way.”

  “It’s all harmless fun,” he said, putting his helmet on and attaching the strap.

  “Merry Christmas,” I said.

  “You too.”

  Watching him drive down the road, you’d never know he was a reckless boy. You’d never think a kid who knew his hand turn signals and used them even when the road was empty would be the same sort of kid who would sell his dirty underwear to a complete stranger. But again—that was the thing about Charlie. It was the thing we all fell in love with. He was the most exciting kid on Earth.

  “I hope you don’t think I was spying,” my father said as I walked in the house, “but you two sure make one cute couple.”

  An uninvited anger boiled up inside me and raced out my mouth. “Jesus, Dad. Why would you want me to be with a kid you know will beat me up one day? What kind of sicko are you?”

  He stood there, dumbfounded, while I rinsed the hot chocolate mugs and put them in the dishwasher, all the while thinking about Charlie and how good we looked together.

 
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