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Please ignore vera dietz, p.17
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.17

           A. S. King
 
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  Here’s me using timorous in a sentence.

  There’s a table of timorous kids in the back of the cafeteria, and I am one of them. They don’t have any pre-assigned seating and they won’t talk to you if you sit there, and that’s fine by me, because I don’t want to talk to anyone while I eat my soggy, too old, greasy grilled cheese sandwich that cost two hard-earned dollars. I make a mental note to pack my lunch tomorrow.

  Until last year, when the shitstorm began, I sat with Charlie in the back booth on the east side of the cafeteria. Sometimes we let other outcasts squeeze in with us, but for the most part we ate alone, just the two of us.

  And now he’s a series of molecules. He’s the wind. He’s my shoe. He’s your telephone and your eyeglasses. Now he’s the pickle on my plate next to the cafeteria’s limp grilled cheese sandwich. So when Jenny and Bill walk into the cafeteria, I pick it up and bite into it, hoping just a fraction of me can be as cool as Charlie was only a year ago.

  Later today, I have a meeting with my guidance counselor, who is monitoring me for Dad. He’s the only one in the school (that I know of) who knows what really happened to me during February. We told the rest of the administration that I was sick with mono. The family doctor even wrote me a note full of lies. It meant I didn’t have to go to school with the lump on my head and black eyes. It also meant that no one found out about my weakness for vodka coolers and older men.

  HISTORY I’D RATHER FORGET—AGE SEVENTEEN—JUNE

  The next time I saw Charlie Kahn, after the night he hit me, I was stopped at the APlus for a candy bar. Dad had loaned me his car (with an Earth, Wind & Fire CD in it, which I cranked to 10) so I could go to Goodwill for some new clothes for summer. When I emerged from the APlus already munching, I didn’t see anyone else in the parking lot until I heard Charlie’s voice.

  “Hey, Vera! How’s the stripper business?”

  He was slurring drunk. Stumbling. He was standing next to his bike, now fitted with all sorts of expensive accessories, over by the bathroom doors. I wanted to slap him back to life. Slap some sense into him. I wanted to slap him so he’d know how it felt to be slapped. So he’d know how it felt to be zero.

  “Shut up, Charlie.”

  “Don’t tell my boyfriend to shut up,” Jenny Flick said, stepping out of the shadows, her cleavage hoisted up to bulge out of her scoop-neck tank top. Charlie took a loud hit from what must have been a joint. I’d heard in school that he was officially a druggie now, but I didn’t know what to believe until I saw him.

  I shrugged and walked back to the car. I don’t know who threw the half-empty beer can at me, but it only skimmed my head and hit the car instead, leaving a small dent just under the driver’s side window.

  Dad smelled the beer. I didn’t even notice my sleeve was wet. I’d driven home in a trance, with the stereo off, trying not to cry.

  “Were you drinking tonight?”

  “No.”

  “So,” he said, and paused to look at my face. “Why do you smell like that?”

  “Someone threw beer at me.”

  “Someone?”

  “I’m tired, Dad. Can we talk about this tomorrow?”

  He went back to his Utne Reader.

  Around two in the morning, I could hear Jenny’s souped-up Nova drop Charlie off outside his house. He opened the car door and a mix of laughter, loud, unintelligible words, and thrash metal music flowed into our forest and infected it with them.

  I interviewed at Zimmerman’s Pet Store on a Monday afternoon. I thought I had it made. Mr. Zimmerman—a man I’d known since I was five and who knew me from my volunteering at the adoption center for three summers—was a complete sweetheart and winked at me on the way out.

  I drove home prematurely ecstatic.

  I parked Dad’s car and he met me at the door.

  “How’d it go?” he said, looking past me at the car. He tried to hide it, but every time I came home from driving by myself after that night when the beer can dented the driver’s door, he’d scour the paint job for scratches or dings.

  “Said he’d let me know by next week,” I said.

  “But did it go well?”

  “I think so. I mean, I didn’t kill any of the animals I handled.” He’d made me touch nearly all of them, too. Even the crusty old iguana and a gray parrot that bit me six times. “Anyway, Mrs. Parker will put in a good word for me.”

  By Friday, I was getting nervous. Dad purposely moved the pizza delivery application to the kitchen counter again and suggested I fill it out. “That way, you won’t have all your eggs in one basket,” he said.

  Saturday, when no one called from Zimmerman’s, I filled it out. Dad let me borrow the car to drive it down to the place, which was stuck into the side of a small, lame strip mall on the main strip of Mount Pitts. The place looked clean and the people who worked there seemed nice. But there was no point thinking about it. I was going to work at Zimmerman’s Pet Store.

  On my way back up the main strip toward my house, I stopped at a red light and heard the familiar buzzing of Charlie’s bike. I looked around and saw him, with Jenny on the back, pulling out of one of the roads in the next block. So when I got to it, I took the right and tried to get my instinct to take me to where they had just been. I tried to convince myself this was detective work or simple curiosity, but really it was a mix of jealousy and payback, as if having information about them could make me more powerful. I guess I cared, even though I was trying not to.

  About three blocks down Twenty-third Street was a dirty-looking house with the front curtains drawn and the old white Chrysler parked outside. 2301.

  When I called Zimmerman’s Pet Store and found out that I didn’t get the job, I wanted to scream. I called Dad from school. It was finals week.

  “I didn’t get the job,” I said.

  “I’m sorry to hear that.”

  “Don’t you want to say ‘I told you so’?”

  After a few seconds, he answered, “Don’t sweat it, Vera. Everything happens for a reason.”

  The reason was: Mr. Zimmerman wasn’t calling the shots anymore. The leftover medical bills from Mrs. Zimmerman’s cancer had all but wiped him out. His store had been bought by a corporate group who allowed him to make it seem like a family-owned store when it really wasn’t. The other reason was: They weren’t hiring anyone under eighteen now, on account of a new community service program they’d set up with the high school.

  During the early summer, I started work (day-shift pizza maker) at Pagoda Pizza at noon, while Charlie and Jenny were still asleep up in their tree house of lust, and I didn’t get home until six, when they were already down on Twenty-third Street doing God-knows-what. Dad finally gave me Mom’s old Nissan. He even put a decent stereo in it. (And even though I found it totally hypocritical that Mom had a PRACTICE RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS bumper sticker, I left it on to remind myself that I was not a low-road zero.)

  My job at Pagoda Pizza was okay. It took me about three weeks to hate pizza.

  One night after work, I drove over to Zimmerman’s to say hello to Mrs. Parker and Mr. Zimmerman, if he was there, but when I walked in the door, it was a sea of new faces. I finally found Mrs. Parker back by where they kept the large dog breeds.

  “Vera!”

  “Hey, Mrs. P.”

  She told me she was sorry to hear I hadn’t gotten the job. “Things have changed a lot around here,” she said.

  “It’s all right,” I said. “I was hoping to volunteer a few hours a week, but this new job is keeping me too busy.”

  “They’re moving us soon anyway,” she said. “The new boss doesn’t think it’s a good idea to mix business with—you know—charity.”

  “Huh. That’s sad. End of an era,” I said, scratching a black Lab mix under her chin until her paw started to move uncontrollably.

  “We’re going back to the old facility in town. Probably at the end of the summer. September, I think.” While she said this, two girls grooming a dog behind
the glass in the adoption area caught my eye. One of them looked like Jenny Flick. She was wearing a volunteer T-shirt and had her hair in a ponytail.

  “Is that Jenny Flick?” I asked.

  Mrs. Parker shrugged. “I can’t keep up with names. They send us new kids all the time. The community service program with the school is a mess,” she said. “They spend most of their time screwing around and think they can get credit for it. Such a waste.”

  “Huh,” I said, spotting Jenny’s ample eyeliner as she turned around.

  “It’s so different from how it used to work,” she said. “Half these kids don’t even like animals.”

  Even though Zimmerman’s wasn’t my favorite place in the world anymore since I’d been denied my dream job, I was steaming mad about this. All of it. After so many years of Mr. Zimmerman’s support, the adoption center would move back into town, where fewer people would get a chance to adopt pets that needed good homes. The mere thought of apathetic high school kids taking advantage of Mrs. Parker made me cringe. But of course it was more personal than that, because Jenny was working there—in my store, for my old boss. The only place in Mount Pitts that hadn’t been touched by her was now hers. But while twelve-year-old Vera stormed around like a drama queen inside my head, saying things like “Charlie probably made her do it” or “I should tell Mrs. Parker she’s a drug fiend,” I tried to look at things like an adult (Dad) would. I rationalized and used my head. When I was done, I arrived at a solution.

  I would ignore it. I would stop going to the Pagoda Mall. I would stop going to Zimmerman’s Pet Store. I would stop thinking about being a vet. Maybe Dad was right. Maybe it was cruel to keep birds in cages. Maybe cats weren’t meant to shit in a box. He always said human beings spent more money feeding their pets than they did feeding the world. He’d say children—some just miles away—were suffering from hunger and malnutrition while we spent our money on red-white-and-blue rubber bones, exercise balls, catnip mice, and hot rocks for iguanas who wouldn’t even be living in Pennsylvania if they had the choice.

  A BRIEF WORD FROM THE PAGODA

  It’s true. 47% of children in this town live below the poverty level. Many of them are hungry right now, while you’re reading this. Some of them would be happy to eat one tin of that dog food you slop out twice a day.

  MONDAY—FOUR TO EIGHT

  When I called Marie to tell her I was coming back to work part-time, she told me that James had agreed to move back to day shift so my dad wouldn’t freak. This, for a pizza delivery driver, is the ultimate sacrifice. He will lose approximately twenty dollars a day, probably forty on Fridays, which means James has made a $120-per-week effort to make my father (a man who would never give up $120 for anyone) more comfortable.

  Going back to work without James there is weird. Marie found this middle-aged guy named Larry to work four-to-close on weeknights, and he’s okay, I guess. Lazy. Can’t mop the floor without leaving black, dirty streaks and puddles everywhere. Folds about two boxes a minute (so he doesn’t get paper cuts) and smells like garlic.

  Ex-cheerleader-turned-food-service-worker Jill quit the job while I was out, which is a surprise. Marie says she’s chefing over at the local diner now, with the Greeks. I bet her skinhead Nazi boyfriend is thrilled about that.

  Marie gives me nearly all suburban runs, since, while I was grounded, two pizza delivery drivers were robbed in town. Nobody from our place, but still, she’s looking out for me, and I’m glad. Anyway, garlic man Larry can handle the town runs. He doesn’t seem to mind.

  “You going anywhere near Fred’s Bar?” Larry asks, squatting a little to see all the pies and figure out what goes on whose pile.

  “I hate that place.”

  “Well, I’m going into the east side,” he says, with that look on his face that only the east side of town can give you.

  “Yeah, okay. I’ll take it,” I say, although I know I shouldn’t be going to Fred’s Bar.

  My farthest and final run is out to the government townhouses that they just built on Hammer Lane. Nice place—new, beige siding, nice landscaping with mulch. A great way to drag your family out of the stinking town and raise them up in the fresh air while maintaining an income from welfare and remaining unemployed. (You should hear what Dad says about places like this.)

  I’ve only been here once before, so I’m unsure of the numbers. I slow down, find the even side of the street, and eventually find #224.

  I am so not paying attention when the guy opens the door with his pants down that I hand him the four sodas before I see what’s going on. Then, instinct tells me to ignore him. Keep eye contact. Do not look down.

  I hand him the pies. “That’s ten-oh-five, please.”

  He stands there, pants around his ankles, two large pizzas balanced in his right hand and four Sprites in his left. He stares at me as if I’m supposed to do something.

  It is erect and I wonder will this fuck me up for life.

  He shuffles to the hall table and puts the soda down. As he shuffles back, it bounces, like a diving board. This is becoming one of the funnier moments in pizza delivery.

  He reaches down into his back pocket, which is on the floor with the rest of his pants, and asks, “How much was that again?”

  “Ten,” I say, realizing that he has the use of his hands back and I just want to get out of here.

  He hands me a ten and two singles and stays at the door with his pants around his ankles and his hard-on. When I back out of his little driveway, he waves. I tell the air, “See? This is why we need signs.”

  PART FIVE

  SECOND DAY BACK IN SCHOOL—TUESDAY

  I ask Dad over breakfast, “Do you think Mom stopped loving you before or after she met what’s-his-name?”

  He chews his granola slowly. It bugs me. Maybe it bugged Mom, too.

  “I don’t know,” he answers. “I’m not even sure she did stop loving me,” he adds.

  I know the feeling. I don’t think Charlie stopped loving me, either.

  Now Charlie’s dead and I’m here in the kitchen—on my way to school, and then to work. It’s my senior year and I still have no idea what I want to do with my life. I am motherless, and in the last year, I lost my best friend twice, fell in love with a guy I shouldn’t have (twice), got beat up by a skinhead Nazi, and had things thrown at me, including beer cans, money, and dog shit.

  Oh. Yeah. And last night.

  “There was a guy out on Hammer Lane last night who answered the door with his pants down,” I say to Dad, who seems to still be chewing the same mouthful of granola.

  “In his underwear?” he says, between chews.

  “Nope,” I say, slightly embarrassed to describe the details. “Um—fully, uh—you know. No underwear.”

  He looks at me and bulges his eyes out, chews fast, and swallows. “Did you call the police?”

  I shrug. “What could they do about it?”

  “Vera! What’s wrong with you?” He’s now pouring the rest of the contents of his cereal bowl into the drain strainer and rinsing the sink.

  “I wouldn’t have even thought to call the cops. He was just a weirdo.” Right? Wasn’t he? Harmless?

  “You see? This is the kind of thing I was talking about when it comes to responsibility. You need to have a vision of community, Veer. What if that guy—what if—what if he does that when the Girl Scouts come around to sell cookies?”

  I shrug again. I didn’t expect him to freak out like this. We stare at each other for a minute.

  “Can you remember the address?” he asks.

  “Yeah. But what’s the point in saying anything? What can they do about it?”

  He looks at me, thoroughly disappointed. “Do you want me to call them?”

  “No.”

  “Well, one of us will.”

  Okay. I admit it. The only reason I mentioned it was to make him feel bad for making me work this job. I had no idea he’d freak. But now I’m looking at him and I’m thinking about what an
enormous hypocrite he is. I’m thinking about how my guts told me a million times to help Charlie. I’m thinking about the million times Dad told me to ignore it.

  “Let me get this straight,” I say. “You want me to report some loser who answered the door for the pizza delivery with his pants around his ankles, but you’ve been telling me my whole life to ignore the boxing match—” I am so angry, I feel my hand shaking as I point to Charlie’s house. “Right next door? What kind of person do you think I am?”

  “I—”

  “What about the Girl Scouts who came to the Kahns’ and sold Thin Mints to the lady with the broken arm? What kind of community lessons did they learn from that, Dad?”

  This approach is destined to backfire on me, so I decide to dump the rest of my cereal down the drain, too, and talk nonstop on my way to the door.

  “All you ever said was, ‘Ignore it, Vera,’ and now you think this creep from last night is worth talking about? Get a grip, Dad. That’s the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever heard. And that asshole is still beating her up. He’s still getting away with it. You’re still letting him get away with it.”

  I slam the door and walk briskly to the car. I see the bus coming up Overlook Road and remember how Charlie and I used to wait together, and how he’d smoke two cigarettes one off the other between 7:00 and 7:14, when the bus stopped. How he always made sure to exhale his last breath into the bus on the way up the steps.

  I wonder if I’d called the police back when I was ten or thirteen or fifteen, would Charlie be alive now. I regret it. I regret every minute I lived keeping that secret. I regret every time I didn’t talk to Charlie about it. I regret having parents who couldn’t try to help or seem to care. I regret not being reason enough to make them care more. I regret never saying what I was thinking, never saying, “But what if that was me? What if I marry some loser who hits me? Would you care then? Would you help?” And I regret not calling the police that first day we met the pervert. Because I’m sure he had something to do with how Charlie was acting at the end.

 
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