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Please ignore vera dietz, p.13
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.13

           A. S. King
 
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  Spring was late that year. It snowed in April. Charlie had a job at the APlus, which Dad said was “too weird,” seeing he got a job at a convenience store when he was in high school, too. I kept my job at Arby’s and hoped to work a lot of hours in the summer to save up for my own cell phone—something Dad was vehemently against paying for, on account of him being stuck in the Dark Ages. (Best line from that argument: “I don’t care who says it makes you safer. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a marketing scam aimed at children who don’t know any better.” Sweet.) Also, he still wasn’t letting me drive Mom’s car, which was getting more aggravating by the day.

  That summer, Charlie and I took a few walks to the pagoda together, and climbed the Master Oak for kicks. I still loved hiking the blue trail with him, him in his red bandanna and combat shorts that I could smell from a yard away, but we didn’t get to do that much. Both of us were working a lot, and Charlie dated a few more girls. He didn’t tell me, but I heard.

  I’d met Mitch, a private-school kid who worked the breakfast shift at Arby’s with me on weekends and who asked me out to the movies twice. He brought his little sister, so I did not consider these real dates. More like babysitting. But I tried to act normal and spend time with a normal boy. We held hands. He smelled like onions. In the end, I realized he wasn’t daring or cool, and I hated how he dressed up all the time. So after the two movies, I slinked into my manager’s office and asked to be moved to evening hours on weekends.

  I missed Mrs. Parker and Mr. Zimmerman and caring for the animals, but bringing home a paycheck was nice. I stopped by the adoption center a few times, and sent Mr. Zimmerman a card when I heard his wife died. Though I did that out of sympathy, I also did it because I really wanted a job in his store the next summer.

  School started again. We were juniors. I was an invisible junior and Charlie was a very cool motorcycle-driving Tech junior. We’d occasionally see each other outside of school, but he quit the APlus and started work-study with the HVAC company his dad worked for, and often came home late. I bought myself a pay-as-you-go flip phone and we started texting each other sarcastic things about people in our lives. He’d tell me how lame some of the Vo-Tech kids were, and I’d tell him how dorky the geeks in my Trig class were and how they watched Red Dwarf on the Internet.

  Dad had a busy autumn because he had to take two courses to stay up to date with some weird corporate tax return changes, and he asked me to tone down my work schedule on account of him not being able to drive me. I just couldn’t believe he was going this far to deny me driving a perfectly good car that was sitting in the garage.

  Before I could answer, he put up his hand and said, “Don’t say it.”

  “But—”

  “Don’t.”

  I sighed and waited a minute, but couldn’t stop myself. “It’s so stupid!” I said, which wasn’t what I would have said had he let me speak in the first place. Then I stormed to my room. I flipped open my phone and sent a message to Charlie about how much I hated my life. A minute later, I heard his bike on the road. When I looked out the window, he was parking it in the driveway and looking up at me. Even though it was getting dark, we walked up the blue trail to the Master Oak and climbed high enough to see the glowing red neon through the thin forest.

  Charlie didn’t say much and smoked a lot. I didn’t say much, either. I wanted to flip open my phone and write Kiss me. But before I could, Charlie started to descend the tree. The next week I turned seventeen.

  NO PLACE, NO TIME

  I am in the dark forest and I can’t move. I am lying flat on the forest floor. There are bugs. I feel wet. I smell gas. Above me is the Master Oak. It drops acorns on me, like hail.

  The tree explodes into flames. I still can’t move. The acorns are now flaming acorns, and I am wet with gasoline, bound to die. The strippers arrive.

  Dancers with green sequins, G-strings, fishnet stockings, and garter belts dance around me. Tassels on their breasts go in circles, and fan the flames closer to me. One girl looks new. Her tassels don’t synchronize. My attention is held by the lead stripper. My mother is taking off a feather boa and swinging it around with her lips pouted. She stares at someone in the audience, but I can’t move my head to see who it is.

  I am on a swing, swinging high above a river. I am a little girl again, holding on so tight, my hands hurt and the cold chain of the swing gnaws itself into my knuckles. I wiggle my legs. I yell “Stop!” but the swing won’t stop.

  Dad says, “But this is fun!”

  I start to cry and scream like someone is stabbing me. I hope he will get the picture. Instead, he laughs and the swing does not slow down.

  “Stop!” I cry. “Stop! Stop! Stop!”

  There is a paper airplane floating on a current. I am riding it, wedged into the center fold, arms spread along the wings. I am flying over the town and up toward the pagoda. I zip down Pitt Street and then Cotton Street, full of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and American-made trucks. I hang on as the plane navigates around the S curves, and my hands grow stinging paper cuts. By the time we arrive at the pagoda, my fingers are bleeding, but I am overjoyed. It is beautiful up here. Flying is beautiful. Until I am thrown off, sent bouncing off the rocks to my death.

  The strippers are now Nazis. I mean, they are in sexy Nazi uniforms—something out of a Mel Brooks movie. Fishnets and swastikas. The dancers’ tassels are red and black, and behind them crosses burn. I look around and see no one. I look down and see I am back in the paper airplane. Parked. Someone has put bandages on my bleeding hands. My mother has been replaced by Charlie, who is twirling a pair of white briefs above his head. He tosses them to the nonexistent audience, and as I watch to see where they land, the pervert from Overlook Road appears an inch from my face. “What pretty pigtails.”

  Charlie is leading me through the dark woods. We are in real time—I somehow know this. Charlie holds my hand firmly and tugs. He is pulling so hard, my hand starts to bleed again. We get to a clearing and he stops and looks up.

  “Look at that, Vera.”

  I tilt my head back and see a sky full of stars.

  “Can you tell which one is me?” he asks.

  I point to the brightest one.

  He grabs my hand again and we arrive at the foot of the tree house ladder. Then we are in the tree house and Charlie is showing me his secret floorboard under the mattress.

  He says, “You have to do this.”

  I say, “I know.”

  He says, “I’m sorry.”

  I say, “I know.”

  He says, “Do you forgive me?”

  I say, “Not yet.”

  He says, “There’s not much time left.”

  I say, “For who?”

  He says, “People will get hurt.”

  I become annoyed.

  He says, “What’s wrong?”

  I say, “I’m scared.”

  He says, “Just do it.”

  He hands me an old cigar box.

  I say, “Why me, Charlie?”

  He says, “You’re the bravest.”

  HISTORY—AGE SEVENTEEN

  The first time I ever rode on a motorcycle, Dad displayed a shade of fear I’d never seen before, and said, “Charlie Kahn, that’s my only daughter you have on that machine.”

  “Be cool, Mr. D. I’ll take good care of her.”

  We went to the pagoda. When we got there, I felt like a new person—a seventeen-year-old grown-up. When I pulled the helmet from my head, I felt, for the first time in my life, nearly as cool as Charlie. When he turned around and kissed me, gently, on my lips, I blushed and told him to stop.

  But I didn’t want him to stop.

  Then we put our helmets back on and drove back down the hill—and when I put my arms around Charlie’s waist, I held on tightly, like a girlfriend would. It was nearly Halloween. I had just turned seventeen.

  We had a movie night every Friday that winter. Dad would make popcorn and then leave us alone. Our friendship hadn
’t suffered from the gaps of high school, like many did. Though we had our own lives, Charlie and I were able to come back to where it all began—just the two of us.

  Sometimes Charlie would reach over and hold my hand, which made my brain explode so much I couldn’t concentrate on the movie. All I know about Apocalypse Now is that it’s about Vietnam. I can’t even remember who starred in it. What I do remember is Charlie’s hand and how strong it was, and how he rubbed my palm with his thumb and how he smelled of buttery popcorn.

  I lost my job at Arby’s in January because I had become so part-time, I was useless. I blamed Dad and his inability to cough up Mom’s car, but he exhibited no signs of guilt.

  Then, Valentine’s Day came. There was a dance, and balloons and flowers and cheaply made rings and all sorts of lame teddy bears and stuffed animals, as if teenagers can be wooed with the same shit as five-year-olds. It was the Dietzes’ most hated holiday of the year, too, because it dealt with the consumerization of something sacred. Mom and Dad had agreed never to buy each other anything on the day. It was a false, Hallmark holiday. A sham. A moneymaking sideshow for insecure couples who didn’t have true love. I agreed with this, for the most part. (I disagreed that Mom and Dad were the poster children for true love, though. Obviously.)

  So, when I got home from school and there were a dozen red roses for me on the kitchen table, I tried my best not to be cynical. Dad had put them in an old crystal vase we had, and left the sealed envelope at its base next to a note from him that said Back at 5. Had to go to the notary. I opened the card and Charlie’s messy handwriting read, Let’s go out tonight. I’ll pick you up at 8. Love, Charlie.

  Love? Love, Charlie? Out? Out where? You’d have thought I’d be used to Charlie and his spontaneous weird shit by then, but I wasn’t. Not when it amounted to a hundred bucks’ worth of roses and a date in three hours. Though he meant it to be sweet, all I could see was control and manipulation.

  Over dinner, Dad said, “Nice flowers. Who are they from?”

  I blushed. Sighed. “Charlie.” I added, “But I don’t know why he sent them.”

  He looked up at me from over his glasses. “Occam’s razor, Veer.”

  My father was obsessed with Occam’s razor, which, in short, says that the simplest solution is the best solution. (Meaning, Charlie sent me roses because he loved me.)

  “We’re going out tonight, I think.”

  Behind his eyes, I saw a thousand worried monkeys, knitting his eyebrows together into an indecisive frown. He’d told me a long time ago that I wasn’t allowed to date Charlie, but in the years that followed, he’d said more than once that we were cute together. I don’t think he knew what he really wanted anymore—and I wasn’t sure what I wanted, either.

  I came downstairs at 8:05, sat down on a kitchen stool, and looked at my reflection in the patio door until 8:15. I’d put on my favorite pair of jeans and a pair of Doc Martens boots I hadn’t worn in yet.

  I should have known Charlie would be late. At 8:30 I called his house, feeling so stupid I can’t even explain it. Mrs. Kahn answered in her usual chirpy hide-the-bruises sort of way, and when I asked if I could talk to Charlie, she told me he was out.

  She didn’t sound surprised that I was looking for him. Or that I wasn’t out with him.

  “Nice that he’s doing something social, isn’t it, Vera? After all these years of trying to be so different.”

  I wanted to tell her that it was okay to be different. That different made Charlie who he was. But she would never get it. To her, anything weird was scary or stupid. Something to roll her eyes at. If Charlie was the next Einstein, she would have told him to not be weird, to comb his hair, and to stop thinking about physics, while his father forced him to go to Vo-Tech and learn about HVAC.

  “Will you tell him I called?”

  “Sure. But let’s not ruin his fun, okay?”

  She hung up. I wanted to kill her. I wanted to kill him, too.

  “Everything okay?” Dad asked.

  “Yeah,” I said. Right when I said it, I heard Charlie’s bike buzzing up the road. When he arrived, he seemed distracted and upset by something. I figured it was just Charlie being intense.

  I didn’t know how to feel, wrapped around Charlie, driving up Overlook Road. While I bounced around on the back of his bike, I felt stupid for not asking him where we were going first—for allowing him to lead me, like I was some blind idiot disciple mesmerized by his coolness, like everyone else. When I talked inside the helmet, it echoed.

  “Where are we going?” I asked quietly. And the echo asked, “Where are we going?”

  He took the left toward the pagoda and carefully maneuvered around the S curves until we came to the straight part in the road, about a hundred yards from the parking area. He took his hand from the handlebars and patted my right knee. Because he was slowing down, I took this to mean that our first stop was the pagoda, which I thought was pretty romantic.

  I thought back to the note he sent with the flowers. I said, “Love. Love, Charlie.” My helmet said, “Love. Love, Charlie.”

  The place was deserted but for two cars, and I couldn’t see any people.

  Charlie slowed down and pulled into the first parking space, the one right in front of the pagoda itself, and put his feet down to steady us. I stepped off, and then he balanced the bike on the kickstand and got off, too. We took our helmets off, and I reached up and tousled my hair to feel better about it. Charlie smiled and opened his mouth to say something, but before he could, someone yelled, “Hey, Charlie! Over here!”

  It was one of his Vo-Tech friends. He was down on the rocks, waving at us. Charlie waved back, then turned to me and said, “Come on.” I gave an obvious scowl, but he didn’t see it. As he walked, I saw him reach back for my hand, but I slowed instead and kept my arms to my sides.

  There were six of them. Two couples curled up with each other and two extra guys, goofing around on the rocks. They had beer.

  “Do you all know Vera?”

  There were grunts of different answers. Yeah. No. Hey, Vera. Welcome. Nice to meet you. Weren’t you in my gym class last year? Are you in Tech? Isn’t she the one who …

  I managed, “Hi.” What I meant was: Take me home.

  “Wanna beer?”

  Charlie caught a flying can of beer. Then another. I declined and he stuck mine in the pocket of his leather. I was starting to get cold. The wind was bitter. This didn’t seem like a date to me.

  “You cool?” Charlie asked.

  I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say, so I said, “Yeah.”

  The two couples sat at the very edge of the far rocks. They giggled and tossed their empty beer cans into the air and listened to them bounce off the rocks and land farther down the hill. Charlie guzzled down his beer really fast, then pulled the one meant for me out of his pocket and cracked it open.

  “You want to sit down?” Charlie asked.

  “I’m freezing,” I said. What I meant was: I hate you.

  Ten minutes later, the two couples who were on the rocks got up and walked over to us. They were Jenny Flick and Bill Corso, and Gretchen and her drunk boyfriend, who I heard was in college.

  “She isn’t drinking?” Jenny asked Charlie. I was standing right there, but she asked Charlie.

  “I don’t drink,” I said.

  This caused a chain reaction of snickering. Someone passed out more beers. Two guys headed toward the edge of the rocks to pee.

  “You okay?” Charlie asked.

  “Yeah,” I said. What I meant was: No.

  Bill Corso reached into his back pocket and pulled out a joint. The rest of them circled around him to block the wind. My brain was sprinting through a trillion thoughts. Nothing made sense. They passed the joint around quickly, taking loud hits from it, and when it got to me, Charlie spared me by taking it from the person who was passing it. When she was done exhaling, Jenny said, “And she doesn’t smoke, either.”

  Charlie looked ann
oyed. “So?”

  Jenny shrugged and moved her eyes from me to Charlie, back to me, and then back to Charlie. I could see her brain working. Then, while the others passed the joint around again, her eyes undressed Charlie while I watched. It was so obvious, it made me sick to my stomach.

  Charlie must have noticed I was shivering, because he put his arm around me and enclosed me in his leather jacket, next to his warm chest. This made Jenny sneer and put her arm tightly around Corso, and it made me warm enough to realize that I had to pee—which was a problem, because the pagoda was closed for business and there were no bathrooms.

  When the stoner circle broke up, Charlie lit a Marlboro and the couples went back to making out on the rocks. I whispered in Charlie’s ear about having to pee.

  “There’s a great spot down by the wall that Jenny uses sometimes. I’ll stand watch.”

  I said, “Thanks.” What I meant was: You’ve been here before with Jenny?

  I walked down in the red glow, with my right hand on the stone wall to keep my footing. Charlie stopped at the top of the path. When I reached a dark enough spot, a few steps into the trees, I slid my jeans down, and once my body adjusted to the freezing cold, I finally peed. Above the sound of liquid on frozen ground, I heard Jenny say, “Why’d you bring her?”

  Charlie said, “Vera’s cool, man.”

  “You think?” one of the guys said.

  I reached into my coat pocket for a tissue to wipe.

  “Shut up. She’s not deaf, you know.”

  “Isn’t she a geek?”

  “No,” Charlie said, annoyed.

  “I heard she was.”

  “I heard her mom slept around.”

  “That’s kinda hot,” one of the guys said.

  “It’s skanky,” Jenny Flick said.

  My heart beat in my chest as I zipped up and followed the wall back to the glowing red scene. Charlie held out his hand, but again, I didn’t take it. I thought he could see things the way I was seeing them, and figured we were about to say goodbye and go wherever we were going next. But when we got back to the rocks, he walked over to the two Vo-Tech guys and pulled out a small bottle of booze from the inner pocket of his leather, took a swig, and passed it on.

 
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