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Glory obriens history of.., p.12
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       Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, p.12

           A. S. King
 
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  But the bomb will change all of that, because Nedrick the Sanctimonious will get on the airwaves and declare war.

  It’s not like no one will see this coming. Nine states will have already seceded and become their own bizarre country. Ten states will have already forced women to stop working. But no one will know New America is going to war. No one will know New America has an army.

  Nedrick will say, “You all thought we were stupid hillbillies. Guess you might want to rethink that.”

  The president will amass the National Guard. It will take a month for him to realize that he will need more than the National Guard.

  Am I making sense?

  After I dropped Ellie off at the commune, I drove to the nearest Chinese restaurant and got the spiciest food I could order because from the minute Ellie mentioned it, I wanted some. I ordered Dad an egg roll and a large pad Thai, his favorite from that place.

  As I drove I tried to block out what Ellie had said, but it was hard.

  I thought you were over it.

  People are so stupid sometimes.

  When I got home, Dad was AWOL, so I sat at the kitchen table by myself and ate my dinner facing the place where the oven used to be. It was a vacuum of not-oven. I stared at it because I knew particles of my mother were still there somehow.

  I looked at the vacuum of not-oven and I thought: I will somehow create a descendant. And that descendant will be trapped in a tunnel near the end of the Second Civil War.

  I was pissed that I hadn’t talked to the USS Pledge man when I saw my future in him. I had so many questions, and he might have the answers. Maybe more visions of a baby or something. Anything.

  I smiled even though I’d never liked babies. The first baby I ever held was my aunt Amy’s daughter when she was less than a month old and all Aunt Amy did the whole time was screech about how I had to hold the kid’s head up as if her precious God would make a creature so frail that not holding its head up every single second could snap it off like a dry twig.

  I stared at the kitchen cabinet that had replaced the oven and wondered what it was like to bake bread or make a pie or roast a chicken or do any of those oven-themed things. Things that didn’t taste like radiation. Things that suffered real-oven side effects. Things that got crispy and browned. Things that rose or fell. If I was going to live past eighteen, I wanted those things.

  I opened my fortune cookie. Everything serves to further.

  Huh.

  Everything serves to further.

  I looked up at the not-oven vacuum. I decided to tell Dad that I planned on using part of my fifty thousand dollars to buy a new oven—electric—so I could learn to be a normal human. It was about time, right? To be normal?

  Like anything about life after the bat is normal. Like anything could ever be normal knowing what I know—about now or the future.

  I returned to the darkroom after dinner to find my negatives dry and Why People Take Pictures behind the cabinet where I’d left it. Where Darla had left it. I wanted to sit there all night and read the whole thing now that I had time.

  I opened it to the next page and it was a two-page spread of old-time pornography. Nothing too shocking, mind you. Calendar stuff. Bikini-clad models on the beach, then bikini-clad models on the beach missing their tops. Then formerly-bikini-clad models on the beach showing their tan lines. Under each one, Darla wrote captions.

  You.

  Are.

  All.

  Worth.

  More.

  Than.

  This.

  On the next page there were two pretty gross pictures of Jasmine Blue Heffner. Her legs were—uh—open. It was—uh—uncomfortable. Not just because I was looking at Jasmine Blue Heffner’s privates, but because I knew she’d given these pictures to Dad. And because I knew Darla had found them. And I knew it must have crushed her. I turned the page and found a large picture of a tub of anti-aging cream. Under it, Darla wrote:

  You’re a pornographer too, you know.

  On the next page was a self-portrait. Darla was plain and beautiful. Her eyes looked like she’d seen a ghost. Underneath, it read:

  I have wrinkles. I am not tortured by them. I am no one special and so what if I have wrinkles? One day I will be no one special and be dead. Am I making sense?

  I stared at that last paragraph for a while and I wished I had Darla and her wrinkles rather than Dead Darla. Live Darla sounded like she would be fun to talk to. Honest. Not scared to say shit that most people are scared to say. Live Darla probably would have great taste in music. She might have had wrinkles, but she would have shown me around that darkroom and made me feel like I belonged there instead of feeling like a burglar.

  I doled out three trays and started the print washer. It made a swooshing noise that calmed me as I mixed developer, stop bath and fixer for the trays. I stared at the setup. It was so simple, wasn’t it?

  No microchips or megabytes or silicone or software. Just chemistry and water. Just silver on paper. Just light and darkness.

  I inspected my dry negatives and cut them into strips and put them on the countertop in order. I turned on the amber light and hit the main switch so the room got dark. It was quieter then, inside the room and inside my head. Everything was quieter. I got some glass and risked some of Darla’s old 8 x 10 paper and I made three contact sheets of my negatives. So simple. Light shines on the paper, through the negative, makes a tiny picture. Then I slipped the paper into the developer and moved the tray back and forth until the image formed. By the time I was finished and the contact sheets were in the dryer, I understood the therapeutic value of Darla’s darkroom.

  I thought again about what Ellie had said. How could anyone think I would be over it? I thought about the thirteen years I’d lived while no one ever talked about it. I thought about how I always thought people just had a problem with death. I’d read articles. It’s true. People totally have a problem with death. But what’s worse is the problem they have afterward. They just don’t know what to say. They still have normal lives to get on with. They still have ovens.

  I wanted to talk to Dad, but I was mad at him. For a list of things it was too late to bring up now.

  I wanted to talk to Ellie, but I was mad at her, too.

  Why hadn’t either of them helped me? Why hadn’t they asked? Wasn’t it obvious? Was it that hard to connect the dots of Glory O’Brien? Or had I been so good at hiding everything that they’d simply done exactly what I needed them to do… even though I needed them to do something entirely different?

  It wasn’t Ellie’s responsibility to make sure I was okay.

  Dad should have at least brought it up once by now.

  I turned on the main light and opened some of Darla’s regular not-secret, not-hidden-behind-the-print-dryer sketchbooks. They were wonderful. So many obscure images of life. So many smart captions. So many indications that she was once happy. All there. Not crazy. Not ready to go. But then there was this one picture. It was of me and Dad. The caption read: When I’m with them, I feel trapped inside a latex balloon. It’s like witnessing an amazing father and his adorable daughter walking down the other side of the street.

  I knew that feeling.

  I knew what it was like to be in a latex balloon. It was suffocating. Somehow this connection didn’t make me cry. It made me understand a little. It made me wonder what I could do to get out of the balloon.

  Then, as I turned toward the door, something caught my eye.

  The tooth.

  She’d hung it from the ceiling over the door, like morbid mistletoe. It shimmered—reflecting back to me, through Darla.

  It had a small fortune-sized message attached to it. I stood on the stool and reached out with shaky hands to read it. It said: Not living your life is just like killing yourself, only it takes longer.

  BOOK THREE

  The road to nowhere

  The train is yours. You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to. You don’t have to pick up a
ny passengers or cargo. You can go it alone. Sometimes there will be tunnels. Sometimes there will be baking sunlight. It all depends on where you steer.

  Shit, Cupcake

  Dad looked scared of what I was going to say next. I didn’t blame him. I was talking a mile a minute and must have said “Darla” six times. It wasn’t fair. But I needed to know.

  So I slowed down.

  “Why did Darla say she was a pornographer?” I asked.

  “Shit, Cupcake. Where are you reading this stuff?”

  “I was meant to read it. She wrote it for me. But she didn’t tell me details. So you have to tell me.”

  He sighed and sat down at the kitchen table. “She took a job at that photo lab at the mall because she wanted access to a color processor. The owner worked out a deal with her, you know? She printed what orders were given to her. Some was that kind of stuff, I guess. It wasn’t good for her.”

  It wasn’t good for her. Oh well.

  “Wilson used to take these calendar shots,” he added. “Not like the stuff you see now.”

  “Ew. Mr. Wilson was a pornographer?”

  “Can we stop using that word?”

  “Okay,” I said. “Mr. Wilson took naked pictures of people? Is that better?”

  He looked pained.

  “Did he take the ones of Jasmine Blue?”

  “How do I know?”

  “Oh.”

  “Don’t look at me like that,” he said.

  “Like what?”

  “Like I’m some kind of pervert.”

  I didn’t know what to say to that. For all my crying that day, I was still mad at him for never talking about it. Maybe he thought I was over it too, like Ellie did. Maybe he kept the pictures Jasmine gave him because it was nice to be wanted. Because it is, right? Nice to be wanted?

  “What?” he asked.

  “You weren’t even a little bit flattered that Jasmine wanted you to be—you know.”

  “No.”

  “So why’d you keep the pictures?”

  “Look,” he said. “Your mother and I were soul mates. Monogamous. Not like it’s any of your business, but I never slept with anyone in my life except your mother. Not before, not since.”

  “Huh,” I said. And then I felt sad, because it seemed too long for Dad to be without—um—sex. I mean, Darla was dead thirteen years.

  But I understood. When someone you love chooses to go that way, a large part of you dies along with them. I don’t know how else to explain it. I was four and I understood it. I was now seventeen and I understood it.

  They take you with them.

  “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable. I just—I don’t want you to think the wrong thing about us, either.”

  “So what’s with the tooth?” I asked.

  He looked puzzled and then he smiled. “Is that still there? Wow. I forgot all about it.”

  “Still there.”

  “Number forty-six,” he said, pointing to his jaw where number forty-six usually resides in the human mouth. “She had to get it pulled,” he said. He frowned. “She wasn’t herself after that.”

  “Wasn’t herself?”

  “The job. The tooth. All of it kinda came down on her. She wasn’t the same.”

  “You think that’s what did it?” I asked.

  “She was depressed. I told her. She kept saying it was just a phase. That she would solve it.”

  We sat there silently.

  “She solved it, all right,” I said.

  He started to tear up then. This wasn’t something he did. So I joined him, considering I’d had plenty of practice that day already.

  We cried. Then we hugged. Then we blew our noses and he made the elephant sound he always makes when he blows his nose and it annoyed me like it does every time. And then we laughed because he knew he’d annoyed me.

  “She wouldn’t get help. Escaped into her darkroom. And then the shit hit the fan with those damn pictures.”

  I didn’t know what to say. This was the most we’d ever talked about… anything.

  “I could have helped her. But she was so mad at me,” he said.

  “It wasn’t your fault,” I said.

  “You know when I found her, you were in the living room with her shoes?”

  “Her shoes?” I didn’t remember this.

  “You were hugging her shoes. And you’d put all your acorns into one of them and you wouldn’t let me have them back.”

  “God. I don’t remember that,” I said.

  He was crying full force now. I’d never seen him like this. “I relive it every day, you know?”

  “I want us to get on with our lives,” I said. “I want you to start painting and stop feeling like it’s some guilty pleasure. It’s not.”

  He looked at me while he wiped his eyes with the palm of his hand. “All I’ve wanted to do since the day Darla died was move somewhere else. Take back that land.” He pointed toward the commune. “Sell up and get out, you know? California. Or Italy. Or the Virgin Islands. Maine. Vermont. I don’t care where. I can’t function here.” He pointed toward the kitchen to the space where the oven was. “Every day I see her there.”

  I stared into his bloodshot, tear-filled eyes.

  Transmission from Dad: His father didn’t talk to him much after Darla died. He didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t say anything. On his deathbed, he said, “Sorry about your girl, son.” His mother hadn’t talked to him in twenty-five years, since she left to be a tree-hugging hippie who traveled with a group called the Skyforce Coalition, who may or may not have believed in the existence of benevolent unicorns. She didn’t know I existed. She didn’t even know Darla was dead.

  Now that’s convenient.

  Everything serves to further

  Dad’s crying was big. I asked him if he needed anything and he shook his head no. I wanted to give him space so I told him I’d be back in a little while and I went to the darkroom. I checked on the print dryer, and the contact sheets were dry.

  I got the scissors and cut out the little negative-sized pictures and I stuck them into my sketchbook and taped my fortune under it.

  Everything serves to further.

  I wrote it, too. Everything serves to further.

  I opened Why People Take Pictures. I heard Dad blowing his nose upstairs and wondered if one day I should show him the book. Or if maybe he’d seen it and left it hidden for me to find. Maybe this was all planned. Maybe he wanted me to meet Darla on my own terms. Or maybe he wanted me to meet Jasmine on my own terms. You choose.

  Next page was a smaller print of Bill—the man with no head. Above it was this: I saw Bill again today. He was in the darkroom with me. Still no head.

  Below it was this: Why did you shoot your head off?

  As I read those words, Why did you shoot your head off?, I realized that Darla had been trying to find the answer to the same question I was. I didn’t know when her quest started—was it early in life? Had she wondered since she’d heard about it the first time? When do normal people really think about suicide for the first time? Darla was seven when Jim Jones slaughtered his followers in Jonestown and called it mass suicide. Maybe she’d seen it on the news. Maybe it came later, in art school when she learned about Diane Arbus, one of her favorite photographers, who died in 1971—the year Darla was born. Maybe it was Kurt Cobain in ’94. Roy and Darla were big fans.

  The more I looked at that page—Why did you shoot your head off?—and compared it to my page—Everything serves to further—the more the two blended together. Maybe I’d found Darla her answer.

  Why did he shoot his head off?

  Because everything serves to further.

  Even if it makes no sense.

  Even if it leaves behind a hole so big you can’t breathe some days.

  My phone rang. It was Ellie. I ignored it and let her leave a voice mail. And then I checked the voice mail because for all my pretending, I was still on the fence about our fri
endship… even if she was a dipshit.

  “Hey, Glore. Can you call me back? I have to talk to you.”

  I didn’t call her back.

  But everything serves to further. Even inaction.

  Everything serves to further. Even naked pictures that your best friend gives to your husband.

  Everything serves to further. Even birthing a baby who will birth another baby who will die in a smoke-filled tunnel sometime in the future.

  There’s got to be another door

  I went back upstairs to Dad on the couch. He wasn’t crying anymore, and he looked emotionally lighter, if there is a way to look emotionally lighter. “Do you hate Jasmine Blue?” I asked.

  He thought about the question for a few seconds. Rubbed his chin. “Yeah. I pretty much do.”

  “I think I’m starting to hate Ellie, too,” I said.

  “Let’s not use the word hate, okay, Cupcake? Your mom would freak out.”

  I sputter laughter. “Like she didn’t hate Jasmine after she found those pictures? Yeah right.”

  “She didn’t. She kinda felt sorry for her. Same as she felt sorry for all those other women—you know—in compromising positions.”

  “And then she committed suicide, Dad.”

  He looked at me.

  “If that’s not an act of hate, I don’t know what is,” I said.

  “She hated the world,” he said. “She was mad as hell at the world.” He looked at his hands then. “I always figured it was her final joke—leaving us on her own terms. Getting the hell out of here. All the politics. All the bullshit. Your mother? Was too honest to live. That’s what it was. She was too honest.”

  I looked at him and smiled because he was smiling. There we were, smiling about Dead Darla.

  But I could picture him then, the way he used to look—cargo shorts and a cut-off flannel shirt and some faded T-shirt that had holes in it. Long, curly hair. Boots. Doc Martens, probably. Young, like Darla was. He was a handsome man. She was a handsome woman. I was their handsome offspring who was also too honest to understand bullshit. And I didn’t fit into any conversation I ever heard because all people talked about was dumb crap that I didn’t give a shit about. Nobody talked about art. Nobody talked about how the mourning dove lied. Nobody talked about the Zone System.

 
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