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Reality boy, p.14
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       Reality Boy, p.14

           A. S. King
 
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  I hang up and instantly regret nearly all of that voice mail. Voice mail was invented by confident people to make unconfident people say stupid shit that gets taped and haunts us forever.

  As I walk by Hannah on my way to register #7, I say, “Oh, and nice touch writing asshole on my dashboard. Your maturity is oozing. Maybe you need to spend less time analyzing me and more time asking why you’d vandalize my car.”

  “Because you were being an asshole,” she says.

  I turn around at register #3. “All depends how you look at it. Because from my side, it was the person writing on my car who was being the asshole. All I did was tell you the truth,” I say. “It’s not my fault if you can’t handle it.”

  “Dude, that’s what I was doing. Telling you the truth,” she says. More tears in her eyes.

  “You don’t know anything about me, Hannah. Nothing,” I say, and I walk to #7. As luck would have it, the employees come to buy their pregame food and I ring them up and get busy while Hannah gets some time to sulk. If nothing else, I hope she’s learned that playing head games with a kid whose whole life is a hellacious head game is a bad idea.

  I always forget how bad Dollar Night sucks. We sell out of our four hundred hot dogs before third period. Before we do, we have this crotchety old man telling us that the hot dog is cold and we tell him no, just the bun is cold and he says that the cold bun is making the hot dog cold and that we should steam our rolls and that he’d like to return a half-eaten hot dog for his dollar back.

  Roger has a name for this kind of thing when he’s in therapy mode. He calls it priority confusion. This guy is so worked up over the temperature of his hot dog that he can’t see how unreasonable he’s being about returning a half-eaten hot dog.

  We all have priority confusion throughout the day. Some have it more than others, I guess.

  This brings me to Roger’s lessons about the high road. Not only did I have to give up the words of anger—should, deserve, etc.—but also I had to start owning my shit. So, for example, I have no trouble admitting that I bit Tasha’s hand last Saturday. I’m not sorry about it. Frankly, in the case of calling Hannah a brainwashed moron today, I’m also not sorry about it. But as Roger so cleverly points out, just appearing to be on the high road puts you on it. And so I know that part of my head game with Hannah will be to apologize first. That way it’s her problem and no longer my problem. Roger calls that cleaning the slate.

  There is a lull before we start closing down the stand and I go to Hannah and she looks at me with her mean face and I say, “I know I’m hard to talk to sometimes. I know I go off into my own world. I do that on purpose.” I shift in my shoes a little because her expression hasn’t changed. “Because I don’t trust anyone because—uh—you know. People aren’t really trustworthy and they bring up my past and shit and it’s not very comfortable.”

  She doesn’t say anything.

  “So I’m sorry I said that at lunch, but there are a lot of people who believe what they saw on TV and I don’t want you to be one of them, okay? And at some point, whenever it hits you that you were wrong, you can feel free to apologize for vandalizing my car,” I say. Then I go out to the condiment stand and start to haul over the big containers of ketchup, mustard, and barbecue sauce.

  Dollar Night crowds are slobs. I had to come out here twice tonight and clear off their mess, and now it’s filled again—mostly with hot dog wrappers. There are trash cans in every direction, but they just leave them here like this is acceptable behavior.

  And if anyone knows about acceptable behavior, it’s me.

  41

  SCRUBBING THE HOT dog roller tonight is a long job made for someone with a lot of upper-body strength. That’s me. By the time I’m finished and taking the grease tray to the sink, everything else has been done and Register #4 Guy is about to start mopping. Hannah has taken off her PEC Center Food Service shirt and is standing there in her punk rock black sleeveless T-shirt that says UP YOURS on the front.

  As I walk by her with the clean and dry tray for the roller, I say, “You want a ride home tonight or is your dad coming to pick you up?”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asks.

  I keep walking. I’m the clean one now. I made my apology and owned my shit. So I replace the tray, grab my coat from the little cubby next to register #7, and go out the door to the bathroom, where I pee, wash my hands, and check my face for any stray grease or barbecue sauce.

  On my way out of the bathroom, I bump right into someone familiar and I can’t place her until she smiles and holds out her arms for a hug and then I flinch because of my ribs. She looks at me and asks me how I am.

  “I’m good,” I say. I say this loud enough so that Hannah can hear, because I can feel her watching me.

  “Good,” Hockey Lady says. “I worry about you.”

  “I’ll be seventeen in a week. Only one more year until I’m out of that house,” I say.

  She nods. “What did you ask for, for your birthday?”

  “I asked for a gas card. That way I can save for college instead of putting all my money from this job into my gas tank.”

  “Practical,” she says. “You take after your father.”

  If staying married to a neglectful, magazine-page-turning nutcase is practical, sure, I think.

  She hugs me again. “Well, if I don’t see you before next week, happy birthday, Gerald. Seventeen,” she says, and shakes her head. “I’m so glad you made it.”

  “Me, too,” I say.

  “I had my doubts,” she says. And that’s what’s left echoing in my head as she walks away. I had my doubts.

  I take off my PEC Center T-shirt as I walk toward the door of stand five and I can feel my other shirt go up with it, which means Hannah is getting a full view of my very muscular and bruised upper body and I take my time straightening myself out.

  I find Beth and ask her if she needs any more help closing the stand.

  “Nope,” she says.

  “You sure?” We smile at each other. I’m pretty sure she knows what I’m doing.

  “Everything okay?” she asks.

  “Totally.”

  She smiles. “Don’t look now, but Hannah is waiting for you at the door,” she says. “Want me to put you on register number two tomorrow?”

  “Seven,” I say. Very seriously. “I’m always on seven.”

  I say good night and tiptoe over the mopped parts of the floor and head toward the door and there’s Hannah, just like Beth said.

  “Hey,” I say, as if she didn’t write ASSHOLE on my dashboard.

  “Hey,” she says, as if she didn’t write ASSHOLE on my dashboard.

  Then, before we can talk, my phone buzzes again and I say, “Sorry, Hannah. I have to get this really quick. Do you mind?”

  I look at the number on my phone. It’s Joe Jr.

  “Hello?” I say.

  “Dude,” he says. “What’s shaking?”

  “Nothing much. Just leaving work now. What’s up, man? You okay?”

  “Uh—nah. You got room for a circus freak in your house?”

  “Did you run away?” I ask. This makes Hannah’s ears perk up. She’s still very interested in running away. To anywhere. Apparently with any ASSHOLE, too.

  “Not yet. But I’m thinking on it,” he says.

  “I wish I could, but I think my parents would freak,” I say.

  “I can do more than just clean fucking buses and run around being the talent’s gofer,” he says. “I’m just so ready to go find another show and get to use my own talent, you know?”

  “You’re not a dentist clown, are you?” I ask.

  He laughs. “No.”

  “So what are you?”

  He’s quiet for a second and then he says, “What’s your e-mail? I’ll send you a link. You can check it out when you get home.”

  “Cool,” I say. “I will.” I give him my e-mail address.

  “Sometimes I can’t figure out what I’m doing
here,” he says.

  “I feel the same way,” I say. “Just without the clown dentistry part.”

  “Fuck this shit, man.”

  I answer, “Fuck this shit.” And then we hang up.

  I can’t figure out if I helped him or not, but just talking to him made me want to run away tonight.

  “So?” Hannah says.

  “So… what?”

  “Is he running away?”

  I stop and look at her. Man, her freckles are gorgeous. “Why are you so interested in running away?” I ask.

  She shrugs. “I just am.”

  “Isn’t your dad coming to pick you up in a minute?” I ask. “I have to go to the parking garage,” I say, pointing toward it. “You should be out front.”

  She looks down. “I told him I had a ride,” she says. She looks at me and pushes her mouth over to the left, as if she’s chewing on the inside of her cheek.

  “With the asshole,” I add.

  “Yeah,” she says. “I have a ride with the asshole.”

  I don’t smile. I have all these thoughts. Crazy thoughts. Like, on the one hand, I want to kiss her passionately, like they do in movies, and just paralyze her with this feeling of how much I want to take care of her. On the other hand, she’s like Tasha somehow. She’s a girl, for one thing, and she wrote ASSHOLE on my dashboard. And she hasn’t apologized, so if I let her in my car and take her home, I will be like Mom and Dad, who never punished Tasha for writing ASSHOLE on my whole life.

  “Look, I’m sorry,” she says. “I’ll clean it off tomorrow. I promise. I was just so mad at you!”

  “Doesn’t mean you had to do something crazy,” I say.

  She throws her hands up. “I’m not fucking crazy!”

  “I didn’t say you were. I said writing asshole on my car was crazy,” I say. “But Saturday night, before I picked you up, you were walking right toward murder central to go to Ashley’s house and you didn’t care, so maybe you are crazy. I don’t know.”

  We’re standing still now—I think because I haven’t indicated that I’m actually driving her home. I start walking down the block toward the parking garage and make a sign like she should follow me. The wind is harsh. I zip my coat to my neck and she wraps her scarf extra tight around her chin. Then she slips her arm into mine, and we walk, connected, with our hands in our pockets.

  When we get into the car and I start it up and crank the heat, she says, “Dude, that’s not hot yet. Now you’re just blowing cold air.”

  I turn down the fan and rub my hands together to get warm. I stare at what she wrote on the dashboard. I look for something to say, but I can’t find anything except the truth about how I’m feeling, which is: like an asshole. I sigh.

  “That was dramatic,” she says.

  “What?”

  “That big sigh you just did.”

  “You’re sitting in front of the word asshole, which you wrote on my car, and you call me dramatic? Seriously. You—the girl who ran away to get murdered,” I say. “That’s some pot calling the kettle black.”

  “That’s racist,” she says.

  “It is not,” I say.

  “It is. Totally.”

  “Fine. Then you’re the snow calling the clouds white. Whatever,” I say.

  The heat kicks in and I turn the fan up and we both put our cold hands on the vents to get warm.

  “You know,” I say, “you’re not the easiest person to talk to, either.”

  “Oh, really?”

  “Yeah. Really. You could be nicer,” I say.

  “Well, at least I don’t just disappear into another world like you do. Because that’s just weird,” she says. “And I want us to have a nice relationship.”

  I back out of the parking space and head down the exit ramp.

  She asks, “Don’t you want us to have a nice relationship, too?”

  I point to the word ASSHOLE. But I smile, so she hits me lightly on the arm and says, “I promise I will clean that off tomorrow morning when you come get me for school. I have the perfect stuff to do it.”

  “Tomorrow morning? So part of this nice relationship is me being your chauffeur?” I say. Still smiling.

  “Yes. And I promise to never break rule number three again,” she says. “Unless you want to talk about it. Because I’m sure it will come up at some point, considering it must have messed you up really bad.”

  “Yes. Yes, it did,” I say. “But I’m not as messed up as I was.”

  “Good,” she says. “Because I’m getting more messed up every day living with my crazy parents and there’s only so much room in this asshole’s car for all our emotional baggage.”

  I laugh and she laughs and I don’t feel like an asshole.

  Until she’s gone.

  Driving home by myself, I feel like an asshole. In fact, the closer I get to the house, the more it comes on, as if my proximity to my mother and sister makes me into exactly what they need me to be.

  Fuck that shit, Gerald.

  When I get home, I get Joe Jr.’s e-mail and I follow the link to a YouTube video. It’s titled Great Trampoline Act. Under it, the info says: Two acrobats on a trampoline in Bonifay, FL.

  It’s Joe on a trampoline doing flips and twists and other cool things with another guy who’s dressed the same. I assume it’s his brother, because they look alike. They have the act down and it goes for about two minutes. It was filmed in a big empty barn with no seats or people watching, but they’re in costumes and they bow after each big trick as if there is an audience.

  That’s my whole life, right there—bowing as if there is an audience. I still can’t pick my nose in my own bedroom, even though the guys from the TV channel came and patched up the little holes in our walls from the camera mounts ten years ago.

  42

  FRIDAY MORNING I am in Snow White’s guidance-counseling office in Gersday.

  “I want to get out of Mr. Fletcher’s class.”

  Snow White the guidance counselor looks concerned.

  “I mean, I love Mr. Fletcher,” I say, and I look at him sitting to my right. “But I shouldn’t be in the special ed room. It’s a long story. It’s just—all that stuff from my past and how my parents handled it and stuff. But I’m fine up here.” I tap my head with my index finger. “And I want to go to college.”

  “Your grades aren’t great. And you know your discipline record, so I don’t have to tell you that.” Snow White the guidance counselor tries to keep a straight face while pretending to be stern.

  “But I can do it, right? I can go to college?”

  “We’ll try, Gerald,” she says. “You just keep this positive attitude and stay out of trouble and it’s totally possible.”

  I nod because my inner director told me to nod. This is the scene I want on TV. Boy makes good of himself. Boy takes a shit sandwich and turns it into a scrumptious meal. Boy calls himself on his walkie-talkie and says, Dude—you’re better than this. Why are you letting them do this to you? Boy meets girl. Girl writes ASSHOLE on his dashboard and then erases it with magic junkyard solvent the next morning. Boy finds life worth living.

  This should be a reality TV show. Except nobody would watch because it’s no fun to watch normal people do normal things. Because happy stories aren’t all that interesting. Because everyone wants to eat that shit sandwich, or watch other people eat it, along with exotic bugs and rotten eggs and diesel fuel and everything else producers can think of to keep viewers’ thumbs away from the channel button on the remote control.

  Not me.

  I’ve eaten enough shit sandwiches, thank you.

  Hannah meets me at my locker at the end of the day. She has her phone in her hand and is reading text messages and says hi while I exchange some books for other books and stuff them into my backpack. I’ve spent the whole day in Gersday, pretending that I talked to the guidance counselor. I’ve spent the whole day looking for Lisi, but I can’t find her anywhere.

  “You ready for the big night?” H
annah asks.

  I make a face like I don’t follow.

  “Rivals. Should be packed. Hockey—you know? Our job?” she says.

  “Oh. Right,” I say. “Shit. I forgot my pants.”

  She laughs.

  “No. I mean I forgot my work pants. We’re gonna be late,” I say. “Shit.”

  “Can’t we just go to your house and get them? It won’t take that long, will it?”

  We and your house just don’t sound right in the same sentence. I can’t take Hannah to my house.

  “The mall. We can stop at the mall. I know where to go and I know my size. It’ll be easier,” I say.

  “Easier than what? Going to your house to get a pair of pants? Seriously, Gerald. You’ve seen where I live. It can’t be much worse than that.”

  “Uh. You—uh. Look. If we leave now, I can just stop at the mall. No big deal.”

  “I’ll even hide in the car if you want,” she says. “Is it that bad? You having a girlfriend?”

  We walk down the hall toward the exit doors and Hannah seems sad now. I want to ask her what’s wrong, but I don’t want to fight again. I just want this day to keep going right. Straight to college. I want this day to just lead me to college.

  “Does this have something to do with your chest?”

  “My chest?”

  “The bruises. I saw them. Last night.”

  “Oh,” I say. “Shit. No. I box. That’s from a fight I had on Monday at the gym. Guy was like a train.”

  “Mm,” she says. Once we get into the car, she asks, “It’s me, isn’t it?”

  “What? No. Shit. Of course not.”

  “I’m the junkman’s daughter.”

  “You are not the junkman’s daughter,” I say.

  “Then why can’t we just go to your house and pick up a stupid pair of pants?” she says.

  I look at my clean dashboard. I worry what she’ll write on it if I say no.

 
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