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Still life with tornado, p.14
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.14

           A. S. King
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  I look at her well-done hair and her stylish boots. I can’t tell if she’s an artist or someone who works in the mall, at the Gap or something. “You don’t realize that carrying an umbrella on days when no rain will happen is a bit weird?”

  “We’re weird. We can handle it.”

  “Don’t say we.”

  “So? What would you talk to your therapist about?”

  “None of your business. Unless you’re a therapist.”

  She shrugs.

  “You know what I’d say. You’re me. In seven years. You know what I’d say.”

  “I don’t remember what I thought when I was sixteen. I don’t remember if I knew yet,” she says.

  “Well, it’s none of your business.”

  “You don’t have to be so immature,” she says.

  “I really don’t need your judgments right now.”

  “Get over yourself.”

  She walks down 17th Street with her umbrella.

  I’d talk to my imaginary therapist about a bunch of things, really.

  But I’d never tell the therapist about the Sarahs.

  I’m pretty sure I’m going crazy. And if I’m going crazy, then Mom is too because right this very minute, she is in a movie theater with ten-year-old Sarah but I’m pretty sure Mom doesn’t think she’s going crazy because she seemed perfectly fine with it. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that she sees real mental illness all the time and she knows it’s no different than a broken arm.

  Doctor’s Note

  When Mom comes home she is by herself. She tells me that ten-year-old Sarah had to go home. She said she offered her to stay with us, but ten-year-old Sarah said that would be too weird. I agree. One Sarah is plenty.

  “I don’t know what to say,” she says.

  “About what?”

  “This is a lot to take in.”

  “There are other ones,” I say.

  “Other whats?”

  “Other Sarahs,” I say. “Like, tonight I saw twenty-three-year-old Sarah.”

  She looks at me very seriously.

  “She was the one I saw first. At the bus stop. When I started skipping school.”

  “Twenty-three-year-old Sarah?”


  She looks relieved. “I’m so glad to hear this.”

  “She’s kinda snobby,” I say. “Thinks she knows everything.”

  Mom nods.

  “Do you think I should see a therapist or something?”

  She says, “Let’s make a snack.”

  I follow her into the kitchen and she pulls out bread from the cupboard and cheese from the fridge and I sit at the little round table and watch as she makes a cheese sandwich and then piles it high with potato chips, puts the second piece of bread on top of the potato chips, and then smashes it down.

  “Want one?”


  “A slice of cheese?”

  “No thanks. I’m not hungry,” I say.

  She sits in her usual chair and I move back into the corner chair and she says, between crunchy, cheesy bites, “I think I can get you excused from school. I have a friend. A doctor.”

  “You’re going to tell him I’m crazy?”

  “I’m going to tell him that we’re having a family crisis and that you’re in need of some time.”

  “You’re not going to tell him about ten-year-old Sarah, are you?”


  “Are we having a family crisis?” I ask.

  “I think so,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I am.”

  “Okay,” I say. “Where’s Dad?”

  “Who knows?”

  “Aren’t you worried?”

  “About what?”

  “I don’t know. That he’s not home?”

  “Not really.”

  “Okay,” I say.

  “Do you really think you’re going crazy?” Mom asks.



  “Did you know that sixteen is a popular age to have an existential crisis?” I ask.


  “Well, it is,” I say.

  “Good to know.”

  Dad comes home about a half hour after I go to bed. I know this because he slams his bedroom door. It’s past midnight. I wonder was he out with the person he was saying sorry to last week—if he has some sort of girlfriend or something. I wonder if he slammed his door to wake us up on purpose.

  I’m not paranoid. I’m remembering.

  Dad has not been the kindest man on the planet.

  I’m going to call Bruce again tomorrow. We’ll talk about it. We’ll talk about everything.

  Mexico—Day Five II: Edgy

  By the middle of Day Five, things got edgy. Edgier than normal. Very, very edgy. Bruce was edgy because Dad was edgy and Mom was edgy because Dad was edgy and I was edgy because everyone was edgy. I think that’s why I ended up making friends with the fish I couldn’t see and the sea god I’d never named.

  I think, really, if Dad was the one making everyone edgy, then we had always been edgy and would always be edgy.

  He drank all day under his selfish bastard thatched umbrella. It seemed normal in Mexico to do this, but by Day Five, it also made him act like a complete asshole. Mom said please and thank you to waiters. Dad just barked orders. Mom tried to have fun with us in the water despite the seaweed, which stuck to her exposed bikini belly. Dad just rolled his eyes and said that wasn’t his idea of a good time. Dad was—and I knew it that day for sure—the pervasive seaweed in our family’s ocean. No matter if his surface looked calm from the shore, once you got into the water, the waves of crap just crashed and crashed.

  I remember wondering what his idea of a good time was. I remember thinking it while floating faceup on the water. I even asked the sea god. I know it’s hard to understand and it was hard for me to understand it when I was ten, but I think Dad’s idea of a good time is sitting in one place, doing nothing. It reminded me of the commercials on TV for depression pills. I remember asking the sea god if Dad was depressed. The sea god didn’t have an answer. I remember asking the sea god if Dad could be helped. The sea god rose out of the water, forty stories high, and reached onto the beach and plucked Dad out from under his thatched umbrella and held him up by the leg. Dad was screaming. Then the sea god turned him into a chicken and swallowed him whole. I felt bad for that daydream, but who was I to control the sea god?

  Anyway, Dad drank all day. He snapped at Mom a few times. When we all ate together he kept telling Bruce to stop eating so fast. He kept telling me I would turn into a tortilla chip. He kept looking at Mom like she’d caused him these problems—a son who ate too fast and a girl who was a tortilla chip.

  Those days in the middle of the vacation were too long. Bruce went for long walks down the beach by himself or stayed in the room watching TV. Mom and I went to a movie at the resort. But during the day, we just hung out on the beach and it got boring. I was ten. I didn’t have a problem saying that I was bored.

  Dad said, “Figure out something to do. We’re on vacation, for Christ’s sake.”

  So I drew more pictures in the sand and let the tide wash them away. I built a sand castle. I talked to the fish. I floated in the seaweed and talked to the sea god.

  Here’s one thing the sea god told me after he turned Dad into a chicken and ate him. The sea god told me that I should make sure to make myself happy. I don’t know why he told me this, but he did. I remember floating there thinking about it and wondering how the sea god knew I wasn’t happy.

  The sea god told me that no one else would make me happy. Only me.

  And then later that night, when Mom and I were coming back from a movie, she said it to me in the elevator. The exact same thing. She said, “Just remember, Sar
ah, only you can make you happy.”

  I had no idea how when I got back to school I would put this into the “What I did on my summer vacation” travel report for the first week of fifth grade.

  Day Five: over. Day Five: more selfish bastards, Dad turning into a chicken, only you can make you happy.


  Document everything. It’s the golden rule. Every single thing I do when I’m with a patient, it goes on the record. For their sake, for my sake, for the hospital’s sake. Documenting saves asses and I am a born documenter. When the kids were small, I could tell you the last time I changed a diaper, the last time they ate, and the last time they burped. It’s something drilled in. Even in the chaos of the ER, I write everything down. In the chaos of life, I had a little book. Since I was nineteen and Chet broke my rib, I wrote down the dates and times of his moods. Not like it helped me not marry him. Not like it saved my ass.

  • • •

  You could always tell about two weeks out when Chet was going to blow up. Two weeks. Almost to the day. He’d be a mix of quiet and trying too hard. Hot and cold. Chet ran hot or cold. Black or white. 0 or 10. Chet has no in-between except silence. It made him look like he could be in-between, but really, he was just building to the next 0 or 10.

  A week out, he’d become a half-assed taskmaster. Taking out trash, cleaning little things. Making dinner. If you’d ask him to do anything at that point, he’d give you a look. He’d start picking and disappearing. Like a mosquito.

  Two days before, he’d start staring at things. At nothing, really. Just staring.

  It was like he was a drunk, but he’s not a drinker. It’s one thing to reach for a bottle and become a monster—a mean drunk—but it’s another thing to have that bottle inside you. A rage organ.

  I think it would be easier to understand if Chet was a drunk, but he’s not one. But when he drinks, the process speeds up. In Mexico, he drank all day every day. In Mexico, two weeks compressed into one week.

  I saw it coming. I didn’t know who was going to get it, me or Bruce. Or Sarah.

  I stopped drinking so I could stay on my toes for when he blew up. So I’d know what to do. But when it happened, I didn’t know what to do. It never changes. Not since I was nineteen and the roast beef fell on the floor. I never know what to do.

  Pity Shower

  This is what happens when Mom wakes up the next day. She knocks on my door and asks to come in. She lies down in bed next to me, but on top of the covers, and she puts her hands behind her head. She is clearly not herself. This is just weird.

  “Did that really happen?” she asks.

  I’m just waking up.

  “Did I go to a movie with my daughter last night? When she was ten? You? When you were ten?”

  I try to move, but she’s taking up so much of the bed that I can’t turn over because the quilt is so tight across my chest. I grumble.

  “Was it real?” she asks again.


  “You said there were others?”

  “Yeah. A few, I think.”

  “She’s coming for dinner tonight,” Mom says. “We’re having tacos.”

  “Yeah. I know.”

  “We have all day,” she says.


  “What do you want to do?”

  “I kinda want to be by myself.”

  “We can go to the museum,” she says.

  “I’d rather not.”

  She rolls over and looks at me. “Are you mad at me? About last night?”

  “No. I just have stuff to do.”

  “Can I do it with you?”

  I sigh.

  “Let me get up and get a shower. We can do some stuff.”

  As she’s leaving my room, she says, “I don’t get it. Does she go to school during the day? I mean. I didn’t mean that you don’t and she might. I meant—shit. I meant what does she do all day?”

  “I don’t know,” I say. “I was pretty sure she was just a hallucination until you took her to the movies last night.”

  “Is that why you asked me if you were crazy?”

  “Maybe,” I say.

  “We’ll talk later. Go shower. I’ll make breakfast.”


  Dad’s bedroom door is closed, but I hear him in there. This is weird. Dad should not be home. Dad should be at work.

  I take a shower, my second in two days—a change from the dirty teen-Earl I was trying to become last week—and try to figure out how to talk to Bruce. Try to figure out how to explain to him that I was in some sort of mental hibernation for all this time. Try to figure out how to tell him that Mom went to a movie with ten-year-old Sarah last night. How she loves that Sarah more than she loves me and she’s only known her for a few hours.

  It’s a pity shower.

  I am awash with pity.

  I don’t want my umbrella. I don’t want to be Umbrella. I just want to stand here and feel for once, even if I’m pitiful.

  Eleanor Rigby

  “Your father is working from home now,” Mom says during breakfast.

  This is not going to work out. I know it. She knows it. My scrambled eggs know it. My turkey sausage knows it.

  “They did some restructuring at the office,” she says.

  I applaud their restructuring. If they were trying to get rid of lazy assholes, they picked the right guy. The sliver of tissue has fallen off the TV and is now lying on the carpet right in front of the entertainment center.

  • • •

  After breakfast Mom pays bills on the computer in the study. The piano is still there but I never play it anymore. I decide to play.

  I sound like a girl who hasn’t played the piano in three years. It’s slow and though I’m reading the right notes, I’m also hitting the wrong keys. When I was ten I went through a major Beatles thing. I pull out the book and look over the music for “Eleanor Rigby.” If you don’t know the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” then you can’t understand why it’s relevant. In the end Eleanor Rigby dies. Nobody comes to the funeral. Nobody cares.

  It’s a little like ruin porn.

  The piano is electronic. The house was always too small for an upright. The house was always too small for a lot of things. Maybe that’s why Bruce moved out and never came back. Maybe the house is too small for any of us to be who we are. Mom can only listen to metal on headphones. Bruce had to practice his lines for drama club in the garage. When I think of this, I realize Dad watches his baseball games with the volume way up. He is the only one allowed volume in a house with thin walls. I don’t know what this means, but I want to play the piano.

  I plug in a pair of earphones and, while Mom sits with her back to me entering numbers into her bank account to make sure the lights stay on, I relearn “Eleanor Rigby.” I am surprisingly good at this song. After three practice runs, I unplug the headphones and play it and sing, too.

  I have a good singing voice. I’ve always hidden it because it’s something I like to enjoy by myself. At home. In the study. When I was ten-year-old Sarah, I would sing for my parents and Bruce and they would look as if I were Aretha Franklin or something. But I am not Aretha Franklin. I just have a decent singing voice when I play “Eleanor Rigby.”

  So I sing it.

  Mom stops doing the bills. I hear the chair swivel. I hit the keys as if I’d never stopped practicing. I hit a few bum notes, but it doesn’t hurt the song. It almost helps the song. It’s “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s supposed to be sad. It’s supposed to make Mom cry. Last night, she went to a movie with ten-year-old Sarah. Today, sixteen-year-old Sarah is singing her a song. It must be weird for her.

  When I finish, we are both crying a little. Not like sobbing or anything, but we have tears in our eyes.

  She is remembering a daughter she once had.

  I am
beginning to remember where I really came from.

  She turns and goes back to the bills and says, “I’ll only be another minute or two.”


  “Why don’t you want to go to museums anymore?” she asks.

  “I don’t know. I think art is everywhere or something. And the art in museums is just art people paid a lot of money for. It’s depressing.”

  She swivels around again to face me. “You used to be so excited about art.”

  “I grew up, I guess.”

  “Christmas was only five months ago. You were excited then. You were talking about ceramics class. You were talking about getting into the art show this year. It’s like you’re in some sort of shell. I miss you.”

  Mention of the art show makes me shiver. “I miss me, too.”

  “I want my daughter back.”

  “We’ll talk about it later.”

  When I say this, I don’t know what I’ll talk about. I can’t tell her about the headpiece. It’s stupid. I’ll look like a whiner or something. It was just one mean person, probably. Just one person who decided it. That’s what I keep telling myself.

  I’ve wanted to ask Carmen for months now. I’ve wanted to ask Carmen again because I already asked her, and when she answered, she was like one of her tornadoes. She looked like one thing from the outside, but inside, she had hidden other things. The answer is in her tornado.

  She knows who did it.

  But now it’s been so long that if I bring it up, I’ll look like a girl who can’t let go of things. Teenage girls always have to let go of things. If we bring up anything, people say we’re bitches who can’t just drop it.

  Anyway. There’s nothing we can do about it.

  That’s what Miss Smith said when I found it. She said, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

  I’m sixteen years old and this is the main idea the adults in my life have given me. Whether it’s seaweed in Mexico, missing art projects, or Dad shrugging, the message is clear: The older people get, the less they can do about things. They seem to be stuck. They seem to be glue.

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