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Still life with tornado, p.15
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.15

           A. S. King
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  Dad comes down for lunch and makes himself the same lunch he always makes himself and then takes it back upstairs to his room. He doesn’t say hi to Mom or me. I think we’re supposed to be understanding that he is a man who has been restructured and that he is pretending to be in his office at work, with us not there. So we don’t say hi to him, either.

  Mom says she’s going to the grocery store for a few things. I say I have to call a friend.

  Since Dad is in his room—or office or whatever it is now—I can’t call Bruce from my room. I have too much to say.

  I decide to go outside and sit in the spring sun and talk to him there.

  He picks up on the first ring.

  “I’m so glad you called back.”

  “Me too,” I say.

  “I thought about you all night,” he says. “I should have said so many other things yesterday. I just didn’t know what to say. It’s been six years. You don’t know anything about me. I probably don’t know anything about you.”

  “I sang ‘Eleanor Rigby’ this morning,” I say. “I haven’t changed as much as you think.”

  “I can’t believe they told you I got baptized in a river.”

  “It was Dad, I think.”

  “How’s Mom?”

  “Still working the night shift. She told me this morning that she can get me an excuse for not going to school. So that’s cool.”

  I don’t want to tell him it’s a mental health break because even though I know that breaking your brain is the same as breaking your arm, I’m still ashamed that my brain is broken.

  “And Dad?”

  “He got laid off or something this weekend. As of today, he’s working from home.”


  “I have a lot to say about Dad,” I say. “I have a lot to say about everything.”


  “Lately, I’ve been connecting with the old me—the girl you knew,” I say, careful not to somehow spill that ten-year-old Sarah is real and is coming to eat tacos at my house tonight. “I think I’m remembering some stuff about how Dad is. Or was. Or maybe why everything fell apart with you and him and us. I mean, I can’t really remember it, but I’m starting to.”

  “He has a lot of problems,” Bruce says.

  “He came downstairs to get lunch today and didn’t even say hi to me or Mom. We were sitting right there.”

  “He’s probably freaked out over his job. Shit. He worked that job since college. He doesn’t know anything else.”

  “Yeah. That’s what I figured, too.”

  “So why are you skipping school? Can you tell me that?”

  “Nothing ever really happens,” I say.


  “Meaning nothing original or new ever really happens and school is just a place where we all pretend like we’re new and original and we’re not. We’re all the same.”

  “Did something happen?”

  I wish people would stop asking me this question. “Yes. Something happened.”

  “Did a guy do something?”

  I think: Why does everyone think a sixteen-year-old girl’s problem has to do with a guy? “No. It’s nothing like that.” See? This is the other reason I can’t talk about the headpiece. In the weekend that passed between showing up at the annual art show and the day I found the headpiece in the art room, so many horrible things happened to people in my school. Not like I know the details, but I know the statistics and I hear the rumors. Between violence, depression and suicide, rape, bullying and all of those really heavy things, my problem is like a hangnail. I wonder if this is how Vicky-the-grand-prizewinner feels. I wonder if she even realizes that what she’s doing is illegal. Miss Smith treats it like a hangnail, anyway. Miss Smith treats everything like it’s a hangnail.

  “Do you want to tell me what happened?”

  “Not really.”

  “I was looking at flights this morning and I can be there tomorrow or the next day depending on whether I can get a guy to cover me at work.”

  “That would be awesome,” I say.

  “But you’d tell me if I came there?”

  “Yeah. It’s not all that exciting, though. So don’t think it’s a big deal or anything.”

  “It’s a big deal if you stopped going to school because of it.”

  “Nothing ever really happens. That’s why I stopped going to school.”

  “We’ll talk about it when I get there,” he says.

  “So you’re twenty-five and you don’t have a girlfriend?” I ask. “I mean, I’m not trying to pry, but what’s with that? You’re a cool guy.”

  He laughs. “Well, I’ve had girlfriends. I thought I even wanted to get married a few years ago but it didn’t work out. Twenty-five isn’t old. I’m sure I’ll find someone one day. I don’t know. I just like to work a lot. It keeps me happy and busy and probably too busy for having a girlfriend who needs me to be around a lot.”

  “You must like your job.”

  “I love it. Every day I get to help kids like—kids like . . .”


  “Like me,” he says. “Every day I get to help kids like me.”

  Do you see how we skirt around it? How we maypole dance? We’re not tilting at windmills—we’re talking about a real monster. We’re just not allowed to talk about it. Which makes my stupid headpiece story even more ridiculous.

  “I’ll text you later once I buy tickets. I already called the B and B and they have a room. I’ll stay for a while. We’ll do some stuff. Maybe take me to the art museum!”

  “Christ,” I say.


  “I don’t want to go to the art museum.”

  “How about the Mütter?”

  The Mütter Museum is the grossest museum on the planet. It’s filled with medical oddities and skulls and Civil War amputation kits and the livers of the most famous conjoined twins in history. There are centuries-old gynecological tools. There are babies in jars. Parts of Albert Einstein’s brain. Seriously. Albert. Einstein’s. Brain. It’s the perfect place.

  “Yes. You’re on.”

  “I’ll text you,” he says.

  We say good-bye and hang up.


  We make tacos. Chicken and black bean mix—extra spicy because Mom and I both know that’s how ten-year-old Sarah likes them.

  “Did you know that she only got back from Mexico about a month ago?” I ask Mom.

  “No,” she answers, and she looks concerned.

  “That’s why she’s still peeling,” I say. I feel like I’m still peeling, too, six years and one month later.

  Mom pours the taco sauce over the chicken and the beans. She mutters something about wishing she’d had time to make it homemade. “Your father didn’t recognize her when he saw her last week, did he?”

  “I don’t think he’d be able to believe it.”

  “I hope he’s ready,” she says. She stops and laughs to herself. “Maybe I should just take dinner to him upstairs.”

  “Nah. I think we should have dinner as a family.”

  This is a joke. It’s a joke on Dad. He’s the one who always said to me, when I wanted to eat in the living room, “We should have dinner as a family.” Not like it ever helped much. He called Mom “Mom” and she called him “Dad” and they never held hands or smiled and they never talked to each other. It was just his rule. Dinner as a family. I think he should live by it as we all have had to live by it.

  “We never got to do anything fun today,” Mom says. “Tomorrow? I have to work at seven, but I’d love to go somewhere fun during the day.”

  I think about Bruce. I think about the Mütter Museum. I think about what’s fun. I have no idea where she could take me. “Yeah, sure.”

  “Also, I talked to
the principal today,” she says. “You’re all set for a break but you have to do a little summer school.”

  “God,” I say. “Summer school.”

  The doorbell rings. As I walk to the door, I realize how weird it must be for ten-year-old Sarah to ring the doorbell to her own house.

  • • •

  When Dad sits at the table, ten-year-old Sarah is taking a bite out of her taco. This is against every one of Dad’s rules. He’s very strict about table manners. You eat only once all people are sitting and served. But we did wait five minutes for him and his tacos have been getting cold, so Mom, ten-year-old Sarah, and I decided that his rules didn’t count if he was five minutes late for dinner.

  He appears to be a different person. Unshaven and in a pair of sweatpants. His hair looks greasy. He doesn’t care that we’re eating. He doesn’t make eye contact. But he’s as cheery as he can be about ten-year-old Sarah.

  And out of the three of us, it’s ten-year-old Sarah who has planned for his first question. Mom and I never even thought about it.

  “So nice to see you again . . .”


  “Katie! Yes. Now I remember!” Dad says.

  “Thanks for having me to dinner,” she says. “I love tacos.”

  Dad looks at her, sitting in my seat—her seat—our seat for the last sixteen years. I’m sitting in Bruce’s old seat. Mom and I planned it this way.

  “It’s our pleasure, isn’t it, Mom?”

  Mom says, “Dad and I rarely get to meet any of Sarah’s friends.”

  Ten-year-old Sarah nods as she chews on her taco. Dad takes a bite. Mom looks at me and smiles.

  Dad says, “Wow! You made these spicy! Katie, I’m sorry if it’s too hot for you.”

  Ten-year-old Sarah says, “I like tacos spicy. They’re perfect.”

  Dad stares at her for a minute and Mom and I watch him, checking for signs of impending brain implosion. So far, he’s clueless.

  “Could you pass the tortilla chips, please?” ten-year-old Sarah asks.

  I push the bowl closer to her so she can refill her side plate.

  “My dad once told me that I’d become a tortilla chip because I eat so many,” she says.

  This is where I choke on my taco. I mean, I literally choke. A piece of taco shell lodges in my throat and I cough and clear my throat and my eyes are watering and I can’t get it out or inhale and Mom tells me to sit forward and I’m panicking and she tells me again, “Sit forward!” and I lean forward and Mom pushes the table toward Dad and ten-year-old Sarah/Katie and they back up and I sit forward and Mom slams me hard on the back and I know I’ll get a bruise and I don’t care because she hits me again and I can feel the chunk of taco shell unstick itself from my throat and she pounds one last time and it’s out, on the floor, and I’m gagging and coughing and Mom is handing me water and there’s snot coming out of my nose and my adrenaline is high and I’m embarrassed.

  But everyone around the table looks calm when I look up. Calm as if I weren’t just choking on my taco shell. Calm as if this were just another night at the dinner table. Dad is staring at ten-year-old Sarah. Mom is rubbing my back as I drink water and get my breath back.

  “Sorry,” I say.

  No one tells me I shouldn’t be sorry for choking.

  “You okay?” Mom asks.

  I nod.

  “Wow. That was close!” ten-year-old Sarah says. “I never saw someone choke before.”

  “Glad Sarah could give you your drama for the night,” Dad says, but no one laughs at his joke.

  He tries again. “If I had a dollar for every dramatic episode in this house, I’d be a rich man.”

  No one laughs at that, either.

  MEXICO—Day Six I: SPF 0

  Mom and Dad didn’t wear their wedding rings to the beach. I noticed this because every day before we left for the beach, they opened the little safe in their closet and asked us to sacrifice our electronics. On top of those, they would put their wedding rings.

  This was our last day in Mexico and we wanted to enjoy it. We got to the beach early to claim our thatched umbrellas. We left towels and one beach bag under each one before we went to grab a quick breakfast. Dad went to the resort’s lounge for a cup of coffee and a few Mexican pastries while Mom, Bruce, and I went to the buffet restaurant.

  None of us talked about Dad. Looking back, we should have. We should have talked about Dad.

  Bruce came swimming with me after breakfast. We didn’t play catch. We waded out past the larger lumps of seaweed and I showed him my imaginary fish and they said “Hello, Bruce” in my head but I didn’t tell Bruce that because I could tell he was getting annoyed by my stories about the pretend fish. Bruce suggested snorkeling and we got some gear from the resort and we swam near the jetty where there was less seaweed and some fish, hiding in the shady water.

  I could feel my skin getting hot but I didn’t think anything of it. The Mexican sun was different from the Philadelphia sun. I finally got to see real fish in their real environment, even if it did look like we were swimming in a sewage treatment plant.

  We stayed in the water for almost two hours, peeking under the jetty, looking at coral and fish, and we even had a swimming race in deeper water and Bruce won because he was twice my size so of course he won. I didn’t mind. It was nice having him in the water again after a few days of him not coming to the beach.

  We were out deep—Bruce couldn’t even stand—and we looked back to shore and saw Mom and Dad under their umbrella. They were talking to each other, but not in a good way. Dad was flailing his arms the way he does when he tries to make a point. Mom was making gestures with her arms that said “Calm down.”

  “God. I wish they’d just split up already,” Bruce said.

  “Yeah,” I said, but I didn’t mean it. I wasn’t ready for that. They were normal parents. That’s what I kept believing.

  “What kind of guy brings his whole family to Mexico and then just sits around and complains the whole time?”

  “I don’t know.” I was treading water fast and it was getting tiring.

  “He’s not right in his head, you know.”

  “He’s not crazy,” I said.

  “You just don’t know all the facts yet.”

  “So tell me the facts.”

  We swam to where we could stand and I waved at Mom once I was chest high in the water again so she wouldn’t worry. She waved to me and then went back to talking to Dad.

  Islands of brown seaweed bobbed around us. The seeds stuck to our skin like tiny ticks.

  “The facts are, they should get a divorce. Now. They keep putting it off. It’s not doing either of us any favors to live with that guy. I don’t want you to be around him. He’s dangerous.”

  “Dad isn’t dangerous.”

  “You don’t know him.”

  “I’ve known him for ten years.”

  “You don’t know him like we know him.”

  “You’re like talking to a puzzle,” I said. “I know they fight, but Mom says that’s normal.”

  “She used to say that to me, too. But it’s not normal the way he fights. There is good fighting and bad fighting.”

  “I don’t know,” I said. I looked back to Mom and Dad and they were just sitting there now, watching us. I didn’t want them to get divorced. They were my parents. I was ten. I didn’t know what life looked like without both of them.

  When we got out of the water and walked back to the thatched umbrella, Mom got up and held my towel for me. She wrapped me in it and did that thing where she rubbed her hands over the towel to dry me off and that’s when the pain hit me.

  My shoulders and my back were on fire. When I said “Ow!” she stopped rubbing and put her sunglasses on her head and squinted at my skin.

  “Oh, shit,” she said.

bsp; “Ow,” I said again.

  “Honey, we have to get you inside.” She grabbed her beach bag and rifled through it, found the key card, and put her sunglasses back on. Dad lay there with his hands across his belly and didn’t even open his eyes, but I knew he couldn’t be asleep. Mom fast-walked me to the door and for the first time in a week she went to the elevator and didn’t make me walk the three flights of steps to our rooms.

  “I have sunburn, don’t I?”

  “I don’t think it’s too bad,” she said.

  Nurse translation: It’s really, really bad.

  We got into the room and she told me to take my bathing suit off. She ran warmish water into the bath and put in all the teabags she could find in our rooms. Six tea bags. She ran the water hot for a while to let the tea steep into the bath.

  As I watched the tub fill up I noted how all the teabags kept rushing toward the water and getting sucked into the stream and when one of them broke I said, “Mom! One of the bags broke!” and she said, “It’s probably better that way.”

  I didn’t think being covered in tea leaves was better. I had no idea what tea had to do with sunburn.

  “Why are you putting tea in the bath anyway?”

  “It cures sunburn.”

  “Cures it?”

  “I can’t believe I forgot to cover you up, Sarah.” She came back into the bathroom with shorts and a T-shirt and put them on the sink counter. She checked the temperature of the bath and when she leaned over, her Mexico tanned belly separated into three sections. I leaned over to see if my belly did the same thing. It kinda did, but it wasn’t the same. She started adding cold water to the bath. “I’m a nurse, for God’s sake.”

  “It’s okay. It’s not bad, right?”

  She looked at my shoulders and my back and made a wincing sound. “Let’s get you into the bath.”

  The bath wasn’t like a cup of tea. It wasn’t brown. It was just tan with the leaves floating in it. It was weird. I got in and sank down and got my shoulders in like Mom told me to.

  She sat on the sink counter and called the front desk and ordered aloe vera, more tea bags, and a Mango Tango. She asked them to please hurry up. She said, “I’m going to change here. Close your eyes, okay?” But I didn’t close my eyes, really. I watched Mom take off her bikini and stand there naked for a few seconds, brushing the sand off herself. I hadn’t seen Mom naked before—not like this. It felt weird but okay, too. She was my mom. I wanted to know what I’d look like when I grew up. She didn’t seem to care or notice that I didn’t have my eyes all the way closed. She looked at me and smiled. There was something in that moment—me in the tea bath and her being naked—that made me want to hold on to her forever.

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