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Please ignore vera dietz, p.15
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.15

           A. S. King
 
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  He looks at me impatiently and rolls his eyes.

  “Can I at least change?”

  “I’m starting the car,” he says, trying to hide how concerned he is.

  I lock myself in the upstairs bathroom and turn both lights on. Oh man. I look like I got the shit kicked out of me. Did I? While I wash my face and brush my teeth, I think back to Mick the skinhead Nazi and how nice he was in between the intimidating Nazi stuff. Surely this was an accident. He hadn’t meant to drop me on my head. No one would do that sort of thing on purpose—especially at a nice Christmas party with fifty people around to witness it. Or so I decide, here and now. No. Mick just accidentally fell over. He was drunk—like I was. I couldn’t blame him.

  But my memory has this little piece of information. A sound bite. The sound bite I have from when I was passed out on the hardwood floor. Maybe I was dreaming. Maybe I could hear while my brain took a minute to find consciousness again. But the sound bite won’t let me forget it.

  JAMES: What the fuck did you do that for?

  MICK: That chick’s a freak!

  JILL: Jesus, Mick.

  EXTRA #1: Is she okay?

  EXTRA #2: Out cold.

  JAMES: Vera? Vera?

  MICK: (From a distance.) (Laughs.) Who’s racking?

  JAMES: Veer? Vera?

  I hear Dad rev the car a few times and then open the front door.

  “VERA! Let’s go!” He sounds scared as hell.

  PART FOUR

  GROUNDED, COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY—PART 1

  Okay—here’s me using stultify in a sentence.

  My father, who won’t let me go to school with a contusion the size of a baseball, has grounded me and banned me from working to stultify my life. I’m not even sure I used that right, but who cares? Being in the house all the time is fucking me up.

  Plus, thanks to the stupid hospital consultant who called in a lab-coat-wearing guy from some unit called “Crisis” after my head X-ray and bloodwork came back, we have four insurance-covered “Family Meetings” with a local therapist before we have to start paying out of pocket.

  Dad thought this was a great idea until halfway through the second appointment, when he realized we’d be role-playing and he wouldn’t be allowed to hide behind his calm and cool Zen master bullshit anymore.

  DR. B: Mr. Dietz, why don’t you really act like you think Vera acts? I’m sure she isn’t as subdued as you’re making her out to be.

  DAD: I don’t want to hurt her feelings.

  ME: Please, Dad. I think making me quit my job and locking me in the house did the trick. No need to spare my feelings. Really.

  DR. B: See? Why don’t you start with that? Can you capture that sarcasm?

  DAD: Really, Dad, you totally SUCK for giving a shit about me.

  I laugh.

  DR. B: Perfect. Try some more.

  DAD: Like, now I have to sit around doing nothing all the time, and my twenty-three-year-old boyfriend can’t see me or bring me alcohol.

  DR. B: Vera? Do you want to play?

  ME: (Sits up straight, clears all emotion from face.) You will thank me, Vera, in a few years when you realize how stupid you’re being.

  DAD: I never call you stupid!

  DR. B: Mr. Dietz. (Holds hand out.)

  ME: Like I was saying, one day you will see how stupid and silly this is. It’s simple.

  DAD: What’s simple about my having to work a full-time job while I’m a senior?

  ME: You’ll thank me for that job when you’re older. (Eyebrows in serious knot, doing best Ken impersonation.)

  DAD: (In annoyingly girly voice.) The only reason I even like my job is because of James! I love him!

  ME: (Rolls eyes.) You don’t know anything about love yet, Vera. If you did, you’d see that I grounded you this month out of real love. I’m concerned that you’re throwing your life away.

  DAD: It’s all your fault, Dad. I would never be doing this if you really gave a shit.

  ME: You have to learn how to give a shit about yourself, Vera. You’re eighteen. You’re soon going to go out on your own. I’m only teaching you responsibility.

  DAD: I already know responsibility, Dad! Remember? The kid who keeps straight A’s and a full-time job? The one who has always helped around the house? The one who helped you get over Mom?

  ME: (Noticing twitch in Dad’s eyes when he says “Mom.”) You never helped me get over Mom, Vera. I’m still not over Mom.

  The room goes silent and Dr. B can see that Dad and I are realizing something. We are realizing, simultaneously, that we have never dealt with Mom leaving. We pretended—like role-playing—but we never really did anything about it.

  DAD: Well, I am. I’m completely over Mom.

  ME: You are?

  DAD: Aren’t you?

  ME: (Confused.) Hold on. Are we role-playing or not, now?

  Silence. Dad still has a twitch in his eyes.

  DAD: I’m not sure.

  DR. B: How about for next week, you both write me a little something about Mom? I think this might be something we need to work on.

  We both nod and don’t say anything. Because we know he’s right.

  When we leave the office, part of me feels like holding Dad’s hand and acting like I’m ten again. Like going back in time and remembering the warm love we used to have will help us. But then I remember I hate him now.

  A BRIEF WORD FROM KEN DIETZ (VERA’S HATEFUL DAD)

  Vera thinks I’m a self-help book and a room full of crystals. She thinks I’m a yoga mat and a bowl of granola and fresh fruit. She’s trying to figure out if I’m worth her time or not—a trustworthy grown-up, and not just some worn-out old alcoholic who wasn’t good enough for her mother. Or who drove her mother away. Or whatever. It’s all related to Cindy Sindy. But I guess that’s fair. Losing your mother at twelve probably isn’t easy. But whose relationship with their mother is easy?

  I only discovered the truth about my mother at her funeral.

  We were lined up in the receiving line—Caleb to my left, Jack to my right—and the people came through. Most of the people had known us since we were kids, but a bunch of people came up from Arkansas, where Mom had lived in a retirement village until she died. They’d tell Caleb how sorry they were. They’d make their way toward Jack, shake his hand, say something nice about Mom, and then move on to the buffet. They skipped over me like I was a space between words.

  It wasn’t until her best friend and neighbor from the Arkansas retirement complex came through that we figured out what was going on.

  “Caleb,” she said. “I’m so sorry to hear about your muthah. You were such a good boy to her.”

  He wasn’t. To the last month, he was pinching from her Social Security checks.

  She waltzed right past me to Jack. “I’ve heard so much about you. She was so proud.”

  That’s true. Jack lives in London. He’s an international banker. She was very proud. Bragged about him every chance she could. He’s the family favorite—even though he hasn’t been around since 1986.

  Caleb kindly nodded to me, and she looked me up and down and said, “Now, who’s this?”

  “It’s Ken,” Caleb said.

  “Who’s Ken?”

  “Our youngest brother.”

  “She had two boys. You and Jack.”

  “No. She had three. Me, Jack, and Ken.”

  “You boys are crazy with grief. Kitty had two sons, and I know it because we talked all the time. Why are you trying to confuse me on the day of her funeral?”

  It hit Jack first. I saw his heart break for me.

  “Mrs.—uh—ma’am,” he said quietly. “I think you should move on now. The line is backing up.”

  Caleb figured it out then, and though he was always a total hard-ass, he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. She denied me. For all those years, as I paid her medical bills, as I filled in her 1040s and helped her with her Medicare paperwork and her will. As I bought her a hospital bed, an
oxygen machine, and paid for the nurse who helped her at the very end. Even as I arranged to have her cremated—her final wish—she denied me.

  I think I can safely say that finding out that my mother never told her Arkansas friends about me was worse than her dying. It was probably worse than Cindy Sindy leaving, too, which coincidentally happened earlier that same year. I stood in the line shaking the occasional hand for another fifteen minutes, keeping an eye on Vera as she sat talking with Caleb’s daughter in the funeral home folding chairs, realizing that if my mother had denied me, then she had denied Vera, too.

  Most people don’t think past themselves. I know that. But I want Vera to see other people. To respect other people. To realize that the whole world is not here for her. I want her to see her duty to the world, not the other way around. Caleb let his girl walk all over him and gave her something for nothing her whole life. Now she expects him to pay for college when he has a sole-proprietor business and Kate’s a receptionist at the car parts place.

  When I was a teenager, my mother let me do whatever I wanted. Let me stay out all night. Let me smoke pot in her house. Let me drink openly as early as twelve years old, because she figured I’d outgrow it, which didn’t really happen. But when she realized I was in trouble, rather than help me again my mother kicked me out and made me solve my own problems. Now, strange as it may sound, I see that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Well, that, AA, and Vera.

  KEN DIETZ’S SPOILED KID FLOW CHART

  HISTORY I’D RATHER FORGET—AGE SEVENTEEN—SPRING

  During March, Charlie avoided me and I avoided Charlie. He was tied up with a Vo-Tech project and I was determined to stop loving him. He never explained why he sent me the flowers and I never asked why he took me up to the pagoda. He was getting detention again—weekly—for smoking and other rebellious acts, and hanging out full-time with the Detentionheads when he wasn’t busy becoming his father.

  The first time I realized things were going to get nasty was the first week in April, when Charlie broke our friendship off at the pagoda because he believed the lies Jenny Flick told him. First it was the one where I told the whole school about his dad beating his mom. Then, a few days later, she told him that I told people that his penis was small. Why he believed these things, I do not know. If he’d taken a minute to think about it, he’d have realized I never even saw his penis. But I guess when you believe the word of a complete liar, logic doesn’t come into it.

  Because I hadn’t said any of these things, I didn’t defend myself. I just waited for things to blow over, which I was convinced they would do on account of Charlie having a brain. But then, in late April, Jenny told him that I’d told the whole junior class that he was gay, and he finally retaliated by sharing the most obvious ammunition, which was the fact that my mother was once a stripper. Awesome. One minute I was Vera Dietz, invisible junior, next minute I was Vera Dietz, junior with a mother who used to be a stripper. People ate this up.

  Inside, I died a little bit. I didn’t know what to feel. On one hand, I hated my parents for being who they were. On the other hand, I hated Charlie. Most of all, I hated Jenny Flick. But none of that mattered, because I was faced with the harsh reality that the biggest secret I ever had was out, and I had to continue going to school, and sitting through Chemistry, and eating lunch. On the inside, I was so embarrassed, I could barely look up from my shoes. It was like walking around naked.

  Somebody wrote SHAKE IT BABY on my locker, which turned my cheeks hot every time I saw it before the janitor washed it off. I got pushed or pinched by invisible hands in the crowded halls between classes, a few times by Jenny herself, but other times I looked behind me and saw no familiar faces. On the bus, kids who knew me sang that sultry song people sing when they’re pretending to strip. Tim Miller’s brother actually took off his shirt, twirled it around and flung it, and then started unbuttoning his pants until the bus driver told him to stop. I sat in the front seat after that day, with my earbuds in, and ignored them all.

  While I quietly hoped it would all go away and sent my old PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ signals into the atmosphere, the rumor grew. First they said that I also stripped, in town, at night. Two seniors told their gym class that they’d watched me and stuffed money into my G-string. Then, it was said that my mother had been a hooker. Also that my mother was still a hooker in Las Vegas. And also? Vera Dietz was a hooker, too. As crazy as these things sound, people believed. Within a week, Vera Dietz was a porn actress and had starred in films alongside her porn-star mother, who was also a hooker in Las Vegas. (If only she’d moved to Salt Lake City or Boise.)

  I faced each day with a mix of dread, tears, and disappointment. I couldn’t figure out why people (Charlie) had to be so cruel and why others were so stupid to just believe and tell their friends, who told their friends, until everyone knew ten versions of my story but didn’t know which one to believe. I had thoughts of running away and changing schools. I even thought, once, how easy it would be to just die. It was as if living next door to the person who did this to me was a torment I would never shake. I don’t think the word betrayal covers it—more like high treason or defection or Iscariotism.

  But after two weeks, I realized that I was looking at things all wrong. First, who in their right mind would believe that a geek like me was really a hooker or a porn star? Second, as time went on, the only people saying this stuff were the mega-losers at school. Everyone else went on like normal. Essentially, by the time two weeks had passed, I was the only person who was thinking about it anymore. And I was slowly realizing that it wasn’t the end of the world.

  No doubt, it was hard to come to public terms with my mother’s past employment at Joe’s strip club, but confronting it made me feel a certain degree of freedom. I was not my mother. My mother did what she had to do. Anyone who didn’t get that could believe what they wanted and I wouldn’t care.

  And soon enough, anyone who believed any of it would move on to Jenny’s next victim, and forget about me.

  Yeah, I had some pretty evil thoughts about telling Charlie’s real secret—about the pervert in the white Chrysler—but I reminded myself that the high road is paved with positivity. I took deep breaths. I did homework. I ignored. Then I’d have thoughts about how to make people hate Jenny Flick by outing her lies about leukemia and everything else. But then I’d breathe some more. I’d do more homework. I reminded myself that the one thing Jenny Flick couldn’t buy, no matter what she used as currency, was a ticket to drive on the high road next to people like me.

  And then spring sprung. I missed being outside, so I started walking the blue trail. Since Charlie was doing work-study, I didn’t have any fear he’d be around, and anyway, if he wasn’t working, he’d probably be somewhere else drinking and smoking pot with his new friends, and nowhere near his sacred oak tree where the Great Hunter could see him. I bought myself a new pair of hiking boots and did the full three-mile circle every day. When Dad showed concern that I’d be in the woods by myself, I wiggled my cell phone and said, “I’ve got you on speed dial. Plus, I know those trails better than anyone.”

  He said, “Huh. I guess cell phones are good for something.”

  One warm day in early May, while I was walking, I heard voices coming from the trail ahead of me. Before I could turn around, I saw Charlie and Jenny Flick and Bill Corso, and a few other kids, hanging out around the Master Oak. Bill Corso had a pocketknife and was carving his initials into the bark.

  “Hey! Look who it is!”

  I turned and started walking back down the trail, so angry that they were in my woods. On my trail. Up my tree.

  Jenny yelled, “Run home, little Vera!”

  One of the boys yelled “Slut!” so I turned and looked back, and then something landed in my hair that smelled like dog shit. (Because it was dog shit.) I knew deep down that Charlie had thrown it, because he was the only one who was facing me, but I didn’t admit it to myself. How was I supposed to do that? How was I
supposed to admit that my lifelong best friend had just thrown dog shit at me? It was as if he had been abducted by aliens. That was not Charlie. Charlie would not let anyone carve the Master Oak. Charlie would not wear new clothes that fit him right, or have that new haircut. Charlie would not use hair gel. (Charlie would not throw dog shit at me, no matter who told him to do it.)

  I stopped hiking after that and spent my free time inside, reading. As the nights grew warmer and the leaves filled the gaps in the forest, I started to sit out on the deck and look at the stars at night. One night, about two weeks after the Master Oak/dog shit episode, I saw the light go on in Charlie’s tree house. I heard talking. More than one person. Then I heard giggles. Girlish ones.

  No matter how hard I tried not to think about it, I knew he was having sex with Jenny Flick up in that tree house. It killed me, because that was our tree house. (Because it was me he was supposed to be having sex with.)

  I felt evil again for a second. I felt like telling everyone that he sold his dirty underwear. But could I ever respect myself again if I stooped to their level?

  By mid-May, it had become glaringly obvious that I needed a job.

  Dad picked up an application from Zimmerman’s and left it on the table with two others. One was from Martin’s, the department store at the Pagoda Mall, where, at best, I’d be stuck behind a cash register all day, swiping cards and saying “Debit or credit?” The other was from the pizza delivery place we ordered from back on Valentine’s Day.

  “Why’d you get these?” I asked, holding up the extra two. I was sick of him manipulating me with his calm, innocent suggestions.

  “I figured it’d be good to have more than one choice,” he said.

  “I’m not working at Martin’s,” I answered.

  “Okay.”

  Why didn’t he argue like a normal parent?

  “If I apply for the pizza thing, will you let me have Mom’s car?” It was worth a try. I was five months from eighteen. He’d said he’d consider it the last time we talked. Plus, we’d worked hard to get in all the driving hours I needed to get my license, and I’d passed with flying colors.

 
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