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Still life with tornado, p.16
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.16

           A. S. King
 
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  I asked, “Is this the kind of sunburn that causes cancer?”

  She slipped on her shirt first and then her underwear and shorts. “No. It’s fine. It’ll hurt for a little while but it’ll go away.”

  “We heal fast,” I said. That was Dad’s line. We heal fast in our family. Every scraped knee, every stubbed toe, everything that ever happened to me, that’s what he would say. We heal fast.

  “I’m so sorry,” she said.

  “I should have remembered,” I said. “I was just so excited about our last day.”

  “I know. And I was—distracted.”

  She sat while I soaked and someone knocked at the door and brought her the stuff she ordered from room service. She drank her Mango Tango in about two gulps and sat back on the sink counter in the bathroom.

  “Are you guys really going to get a divorce?” I asked.

  “What?”

  “Bruce told me that you were supposed to tell me that you’re getting a divorce. Is it true?”

  “No!”

  The tea leaves were making a design on top of the water. I swirled the designs with my fingers and made spirals. “Well, Bruce doesn’t lie,” I said. “He wouldn’t make that up, would he?”

  “It’s a long story,” Mom said. “But no. We aren’t getting a divorce. You need two parents. A mom and a dad. I’ll talk to Bruce later. I’m sorry he said that to you.”

  “Don’t be mad at him. He thought I already knew.”

  “Just don’t say anything to Dad, okay?”

  “Okay.”

  “Everything is fine. I mean it.” Nurse translation: It could be worse.

  “Okay.”

  “Nothing bad is going to happen to us. I promise.” Nurse translation: We’ll probably have to amputate that leg.

  I kept making designs in the tea leaves. The hotel room door opened and Dad came in and Mom shut both doors to the bathroom and left me in there alone. I heard them talking low to each other. I remember hoping that I didn’t get Bruce in trouble. But I somehow knew I’d gotten Bruce in trouble.

  Eleanor Rigby II

  After my choking episode, we’re all relatively quiet as we eat. Ten-year-old Sarah isn’t her usual happy, talkative self. I find that weird because she can leave anytime she wants and there’s no reason to be careful. She looks up at Dad a few times, and he just eats his food like he’s a food-eating machine and doesn’t say anything. We finish our tacos. Mom rinses dishes and I put them in the dishwasher. Ten-year-old Sarah is in the study looking at her painting above the piano. She asks Dad, “Do you mind if I play?”

  Dad says, “Please do!”

  She plays a rusty early version of “Eleanor Rigby.” Mom and I come in to see if Dad will recognize her. He doesn’t.

  With Vigor

  When ten-year-old Sarah goes home—wherever home is—Mom and I are left in the living room alone.

  “If Bruce came to Philly right now, would you let him come over?” I ask.

  She looks at me with a very dubious face.

  “Hypothetically,” I add.

  “Of course!” she says. With the exclamation point. With vigor.

  “I know his phone number,” I say. “I’ve been meaning to call him.”

  Mom starts plumping pillows. This is probably the first time I have ever seen her plumping pillows. “That would be great!” she says.

  I decide not to say anything else. I decide that if Mom didn’t work at the hospital four nights a week, she’d probably become a crazy pillow-plumping lady.

  It’s when she sits on the couch, hugs a pillow that she’s just plumped, and starts to cry that I decide to say more.

  “Are you okay?”

  She says, “They say the number one rule of parenting is to never let your children see you cry.”

  “Who says that?”

  “I don’t know. Everyone.”

  I grab the box of tissues from the side table and put it next to Mom’s leg. “So why are you crying?”

  This makes her cry more.

  “If it’s because I brought up Bruce, I’m sorry,” I say.

  “No, no. It wasn’t that. It’s not your fault.” She blows her nose. “It’s just—everything.”

  Here’s what I’m deciding. I’m deciding that Mom is crying because of Dad being restructured. She’s crying about Bruce, even if she denies it. And she’s crying about ten-year-old Sarah because she saw how little ten-year-old Sarah had to say at dinner. Ten-year-old Sarah has only been home from Mexico for a month. I think that’s why Mom is crying.

  That is Mom’s everything.

  She shoos me upstairs with her free hand. The other hand is hiding her face.

  I tell her I love her.

  This makes her cry more, so I go upstairs. There is a text on my phone from Bruce. My flight lands at 4:15 pm in PHL tomorrow. Dinner?

  Tiffany

  Mom and I go shopping. At least it’s not a museum. We go to the underground mall in Center City, and on the walk there, I see two other Sarahs but I don’t point them out.

  In the misses’ area of one department store, forty-year-old Sarah shows up. Her hair is perky and shorter. I say, “Hi, Sarah.”

  She says, “Hey there,” and does the circular fun wave. “You still haven’t told them, have you?”

  I am talking to myself in twenty-four years. I’m ignoring her question. I look her up and down, and she smiles and tousles my hair with her hand. “You’re a lot cooler than twenty-three-year-old Sarah,” I say.

  “Ya think?”

  “She thinks she’s better than me. And everyone. But especially me.”

  “The twenties are complicated,” she answers.

  “She thinks I’m stupid.”

  “But she’s you. Think about that for a minute.”

  She walks through the racks and picks out clothing and drapes it over her arm. She stops periodically to look at me, then grabs more items. I have no idea what she plans to do with the clothing until she hands them all to me and points to the dressing room.

  “How are you with bras?” Mom asks me through the dressing room door.

  “I hate them.”

  “Necessary evil,” she says.

  The clothes forty-year-old Sarah picked out for me are cool, but not me. I think of Alleged Earl. I wonder when he went shopping last. I wonder when he wore a new shirt last. I think it was probably a while ago.

  Thinking of Alleged Earl makes me feel like a coward. I sit on the little bench in the dressing room and I think about the day in the café across from 30th Street Station and how I could have met him. When I walked out of the café, I’d have felt stronger or prouder or like I’d done the right thing.

  I haven’t thought much about original ideas in the last week, though.

  I haven’t thought about how nothing ever happens because things happen. Or they have happened. I am shopping in the mall with my mother. We had ten-year-old Sarah over for dinner. My mom got me out of school for a “mental health break.” I called Bruce. Dad restructured. Things are happening.

  Some of those things are original.

  Some of them happen every day.

  Some of them are art.

  Today it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Or it matters less because I will tell Bruce about what happened at school.

  I put all the clothing back on the return rack.

  “I didn’t like any of those,” I say to Mom. “I think I’m better off at a thrift shop or something. More my style.”

  Mom says, “Bras?”

  “I really hate them.”

  Forty-year-old Sarah is over in the accessory section looking at wallets. She holds up a sign that says, TELL MOM. I notice that she’s not wearing a bra.

  “Let’s skip them today, then,” Mom says.

  • •


  We eat lunch at a crepe place across from the mall and it’s good. Mom doesn’t have a lot to say. I don’t have a lot to say. We just eat and look out the window at the people going by. On the two blocks between the crepe place and Walnut, we pass three homeless people and Mom gives them each a dollar.

  She says, “You really have Bruce’s phone number?”

  “Yes.”

  “Have you called him?”

  I don’t answer this. I just keep walking. Then I say, “Do you remember in Mexico when I asked you if you were going to get a divorce?”

  “Yeah.”

  “I know Bruce got in trouble for telling me, but why was it such a big deal? People get divorced all the time.”

  “I don’t know. Your father can’t handle it, I guess.”

  “Dad can’t handle dusting the TV screen.”

  “True.”

  “I just don’t understand why he had to hit Bruce because Bruce told me.”

  “He didn’t hit him!”

  I stop on the sidewalk and she takes a step to notice and then steps back to where I am. “Don’t lie for him, Mom. I remember. Ten-year-old Sarah remembers. She’s still scared of Dad. Didn’t you see that at dinner last night?” We’re in front of a palm reader’s door. Mom looks at the image on the glass—a woman with a mystical-looking scarf over her head, blowing stars out of her hand. The rest of the glass is covered by stars, a graphic of an upturned hand, three tarot cards, and the words PSYCHIC READINGS BY TIFFANY.

  “Your father is a complicated man. He goes inside himself.” She says this while still staring at the door.

  “So?”

  “So, he had a rough childhood. He does what he can.”

  He does what he can, my ass. That’s what I want to say. But I don’t say anything. A minute ago she denied Dad even hit Bruce. She’s still staring at the door to the palm reader’s place.

  “Want to go in?” I ask.

  We open the door. The first thing we see is an overturned trash can. This is not a good sign. A man comes into the hallway from a first-floor apartment with a trash bag and starts to put the spilled trash into the bag. He asks, “You here to see Tiffany?”

  We nod.

  He yells something foreign up the steep staircase in front of us and says, “Go ahead up. She’s there somewhere.”

  Tiffany appears and she looks as if she’s been napping. There are little children running around. I want to ask Tiffany where her family is from, but she doesn’t seem to want small talk. She’s wearing a long blue skirt with tiny bells at the bottom. When she walks, they jingle. When we get into her palm reading room, there are three chairs. This is the waiting area. She looks at us and frowns. “Who’s first?”

  Mom says, “How much?”

  “Depends on what you want.”

  “A palm reading?” Mom says.

  “Twenty-five.”

  Tiffany looks at me when she answers Mom. She doesn’t smile. She doesn’t not smile. She could still be napping in her mind, but it doesn’t look it.

  “I’ll go first,” I say.

  “Yes,” Tiffany says. “That would be best.”

  Her accent is extraordinary, her voice strong, and she’s scary, but in a comforting sort of way. She could be a drill sergeant. A drill sergeant of your future. She opens a door to a tiny room where there’s a table covered in thin, brightly colored scarves and on it is a deck of tarot cards. She sits down in her chair and I keep standing.

  It’s now I realize I don’t want to know my future. I don’t want to know anything. I just saw forty-year-old Sarah at the mall. What else do I need to know?

  “You need to know your present,” Tiffany says. Shit. “Your name?”

  “Sarah.”

  She says, “Give me your hand, Sarah.”

  I give her my left hand and she looks at it for about a second. Then she looks at my face. Then she grabs my hand and pulls it closer to her. She looks at my face—right through it—and she says, all in one breath, “You’re healthy. You’ll live a long life. No illnesses or anything like that. You’re hiding things from other people and from yourself. This isn’t good for you. You want to live an honest life. You have little faith in people. You have little faith in yourself. Something happened to you.”

  I nod. I wonder why she isn’t looking at my hand. How can a palm reader read your palm if she doesn’t look at your hand?

  I think about how many times I’ve drawn my left hand without looking at it. Two hundred times at least. I think back to the magician in Mexico. I wonder if this is all a scam.

  “You are unhappy and lost. You have no home,” she says.

  “I have a home,” I say.

  “A home is more than a roof over your head.”

  “Can you see marriage and kids and love and stuff?”

  “How old are you?”

  “Sixteen.”

  “You have talent,” she says. “You already know with great talent comes great pain. Something happened in the winter that changed you. Spring, maybe. It was cold. It changed you. For the worse.”

  “Yes.”

  “You’re surrounded by negative energy. Black magic. I could cleanse this from you.”

  I find myself wondering if I want to be cleansed from black magic. After five seconds, Tiffany realizes that I’m not the one with the money.

  “I’ll do your mother next,” she says. “Just send her in.”

  “That’s it?”

  “Send your mother in,” she says.

  I feel like I was only in the room for about two minutes.

  “Why can’t I draw anymore?” I ask her.

  “It’s the black magic. I can cleanse that for you. Just pick three cards.”

  I try not to laugh. This must be how fortune-tellers make their money. I’m sixteen, not stupid.

  “I’ll get my mom.” I get up, nod, and say thank you, and go to the door to tell Mom it’s her turn.

  As I sit in the waiting room, I try to remember what Tiffany said to me. I don’t have a home. I’m unhappy. I saw something when it was cold and it changed me. With talent comes pain. Black magic. Negative energy. She never answered my question about love.

  I try to remember the positive things she said. Long life. No illnesses. Talent. That’s all I remember. I take her ignoring my question about love to mean that I won’t ever find it. This isn’t a positive, but it feels like one. I don’t know why.

  Mom stays in the room for about the same amount of time. A little longer, maybe. Four minutes, tops. I hear them laughing at the end before the door opens. Then I see it’s just Mom laughing and Tiffany still looks like a drill sergeant. Mom hands her some money and says thank you. She has tears in her eyes.

  “Come back one day,” Tiffany says. “You both need a cleansing.”

  We say we will and we walk through the chaos of little children and an old man toward the staircase and leave the place and walk south to Pine Street.

  “Holy shit,” Mom says.

  “Yeah.”

  “What did she tell you?”

  “A bunch of stuff. But then at the end she said I had to get cleansed of the black magic.”

  “Me too,” Mom says. “I told her that the black magic was working for me, so I didn’t want her to cleanse it. What a shyster.”

  “She said some good stuff, though,” I say. “She read me.”

  “Me too,” Mom answers, and her face is a block behind us. Far away. Somewhere else.

  I didn’t want to tell Mom that I would never find love. I didn’t want to tell her that I’d never been looking, either. I didn’t know why this idea was so new to me. I knew I’d never cared. Since second grade when kids got married at recess, I never got married at recess. Kids had passed me will-you-be-my-girlfriend? notes in fourth and fifth grade an
d I always checked the NO box. No one ever even assumed I was gay, which is saying a lot because everyone is assumed gay at some point if they never say yes to those notes. All anyone knew about me was that I drew pictures. All the time. Got in trouble in class for it, won primary school competitions for it, was the middle school art teacher’s pet for it. No one ever expected me to be anyone’s girlfriend.

  Not even me.

  And I don’t know why. Tiffany knew why. The answer is on Mom’s face, now two blocks away.

  “I’m hungry,” she says. “Those crepes were small.”

  “Yeah,” I say.

  We are a scribble—two people stuck in a dark scribble of black magic—walking home to eat a snack. We are not ourselves. Tiffany just changed us. We don’t know what to do with this.

  • • •

  When we get home, Dad is in the kitchen making a snack of queso and tortilla chips. He says, “Want some?” He’s dipping the chips right into the jar. He’s double dipping. He double dips right in front of us so we’ll say something. This is called bait. What he’s doing is fishing. I watch Mom watching him. He’s a complicated man.

  HELEN’S LYING

  I lie. I lie. I lie. I lie.

  I lie. I lie. I lie. I lie.

  All I want is a quiet place. Six days in a quiet place. I need some sort of head space so I can figure myself out.

  My parents died before I was twenty-five. I’ve been alone in the world from long before that, though. I’ve been busy. Too busy to listen to my own heartbeat. Too busy to look at my own hands. Too busy to figure out what I’m doing wrong. I’m doing a lot wrong.

 
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