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Still life with tornado, p.17
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.17

           A. S. King
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  I just want to listen for a while. Stop lying. Stop talking. Stop pretending. I just want to listen for a while and see if I can hear my heart beating.

  Chet provides the noise. Even when he’s not here, his noise is in my head. Sometimes it’s so loud I scream and when I sleep I can’t escape it and I clench my jaw and bite my cheeks until they bleed.

  I never get to listen. I never get to stop and figure out this puzzle. I don’t have a table big enough to fit the puzzle.

  If I could listen to the quiet for just a day. If I could listen closely to the quiet for just an hour, I could figure everything out. I’d make a plan. I’d know what to do.

  A complete stranger looked at me today and said, “You are living a lie, Helen.”

  Why did it take a complete stranger to get me to hear this? The noise. The noise. The noise.

  A Rat

  My father is not who he seems. He’s a complicated man.

  Last week, he was processing insurance claims in a cubicle in a skyscraper. This week, he is an unshaven, greasy man who locks himself in his room. He doesn’t even come out for baseball. He doesn’t say hello.

  Mom says that he goes inside of himself but Mom doesn’t know that I remember. Not everything, but I remember enough.

  Dad has been a grizzly bear. A prizefighter. He’s been a bully. A rat.

  Outside of that, he’s been a blank space.

  He’s some sort of time bomb—Mom and I can feel it every time he walks by us and we can smell his two-day beard and his anger. You can smell anger. That’s what they say. They say you can smell anger and danger and I smell it now.

  It smells like trash day in mid-August.

  It smells like burning rubber.

  It smells like the day before the end of the world.

  Bruce texts me when he’s in the B&B. Unpacked. Where do you want to go to dinner?

  I reply. I’ll come to the B&B. We can decide from there.

  Bruce: I have stuff to tell you. I want to know why you left school, too.

  Me: We can talk about that.

  Bruce: I want to get it out of the way. So we can just hang out.

  Me: Sure. We can talk first if you want. I’ll come early.

  Dad is back in his room. Mom is taking a nap. I leave a note on the study table. I say I’ve gone to Katie’s house for dinner and that I’ll be home later. Of course there is no Katie. Katie was invented for Dad’s sake on the night we ate tacos.

  I bet if Bruce came to dinner for tacos, Dad would pretend not to see him, either, the same as he didn’t see ten-year-old Sarah.

  He might call him Jimmy. Might crack a joke about how me choking on my taco shell was drama to imaginary Jimmy. Imaginary Jimmy wouldn’t laugh, either. Do you know why? Because anyone can see through Dad’s complicated-man shit. He’s just a big hole. A big hole who takes up space and doesn’t mind being a big hole because he doesn’t know what else to be since he stopped being a rat.

  MEXICO—Day Six II: Finding Bruce

  We couldn’t find Bruce anywhere. It was lunchtime and I’d been sufficiently steeped in my tea bath and Mom put aloe vera on me and helped me put on the most comfortable shirt I packed—a loose-fitting thing with tiny straps.

  When I saw myself in the living-room-wall mirror I said, “Holy shit!”

  Dad said, “Sarah! You can’t say that.”

  “Did you see my back?”

  “You still can’t say that!” Dad said. “You’re ten!”

  “I have blisters on my shoulders,” I said.

  Mom said, “It’s okay. They’ll drain.”

  The idea of draining blisters was not what I wanted to think about.

  “I’m hungry,” I said. “Can we go to the restaurant? I want some of those tacos.”

  “We need to find Bruce first,” they said.

  “Bruce can get lunch by himself. He has all week.”

  They talked again in hushed tones and Dad said he was going to find Bruce on his own. Mom said we could go to the buffet. I ate the soft corn tortilla tacos again and Mom had some, too. She didn’t talk much. She just kept asking how I was feeling.

  “You’re not dizzy, are you?”


  “Do you have a headache?”


  “Okay. That’s good.”

  I didn’t know if that meant it wasn’t good. She had her mystery nurse face on.

  I just ate more tacos because if I was going to die of Mexican sunburn, I wanted to at least eat more tacos before I died.

  She kept looking at the entrance of the restaurant as if Dad and Bruce would walk in any second, but after an hour they still weren’t there.

  “It’s our last day,” I said. “I still want to do stuff. It’s just a sunburn.”

  “They have a siesta movie today. Finding Nemo. We should go!”

  “I want to be outside,” I said.

  “You need a break from outside until at least after three or four,” she said.

  “I wanted to bungee jump at the kids’ club. That’s at four.”

  “I don’t think you can bungee jump.”

  “It’s just a sunburn!” I said. But I saw the looks on people’s faces as they walked past our table. This was not just a sunburn. “And it’s not a real bungee jump. It’s like a mini-really-safe bungee jump for kids. It’ll be fun. I can totally do it. The sunburn doesn’t really hurt that much. I promise.”

  “We’ll see,” she said. Nurse translation: You will not be bungee jumping.

  When we got back to the room, Dad was freaking out and yelling into the phone. “Well, somebody had to steal them! I didn’t steal them myself.”

  Mom went into the room where Dad was and I looked in our adjoining room to see if Bruce was back, but he wasn’t there.

  I went out to the shady balcony and sat on the chair. I left the sliding door a little bit open so I could hear what Dad was yelling about. But he just said, “If you won’t call the police, I will!” and hung up.

  I sat on the balcony and pieced together the story. Someone came into our room and robbed our safe. They took Mom’s and Dad’s wedding rings. They didn’t take anything else. I decided this was the reason they didn’t wear their wedding rings on the beach. Maybe in Mexico, gold is really valuable or something.

  Mom came to the door of the balcony. “How you feeling?”


  “Do you see Bruce out there?”


  “Keep an eye out for him.”

  “Okay. Are the police coming?”

  “No. It’s not a big deal.”

  “Dad thinks it’s a big deal.”

  “He’s never been robbed before,” Mom said. “It always makes a person very angry when someone takes their things.”


  “I’m going to close this door now so the air-conditioning doesn’t leak out.”

  I stayed on the balcony and looked for Bruce. His swimming trunks were drying in our little bathroom so I didn’t worry that he’d drowned. He was probably at the restaurant or something. That’s what I thought.

  The manager came to the room. I heard all the adults talking. Dad was talking louder than anyone so I could hear things he said. He said thief. He said housekeeping. He said police. He said I’ll sue you! I kept looking out to sea. My shoulders were on fire again. The heat out there wasn’t helping but I couldn’t go back into the room.

  By the time the manager left our room it was four o’clock and I could hear the kids bungee jumping over at the kids’ club and I didn’t get to see the movie with Mom and Bruce wasn’t back yet because I saw him walking on the beach.

  I saw him stand at the water’s edge in the no-swimming coral reef area, and I saw him throwing rocks into the water as far as he could throw them. One
after the other, he just stood there and threw little rocks.

  Except they weren’t all rocks.

  Voice Mail

  Bruce hugs just like he always did except now he doesn’t have to pick me up anymore. I can barely look at him without getting tears in my eyes.

  I remember the Christmas when he pulled out his old car-racing track and set it up for me and we played for days even though he was seventeen and I was eight.

  We just look at each other and hug and then look at each other again.

  I remember him babysitting me one time when Mom and Dad went out and he fed me four milk shakes. Four. Two chocolate and two vanilla. He made popcorn. He let me stay up until eleven.

  The B&B has a small foyer and we move to the small living room lobby and sit on the couch. We talk about where to go for dinner and Bruce makes a reservation at his favorite Italian place. We sit there awkwardly for a minute. I have this mix of sheer happy and a little bit of fear that I’m doing something wrong by seeing him. I don’t know why I’m so emotional. It’s just—he’s my brother.

  “I have no idea how to start this conversation,” Bruce says.

  “Me neither.”

  “Shit,” he says. “I want to just tell you everything now and then you’ll know and I won’t have to carry around secrets anymore.”

  I look around. “Shouldn’t we go somewhere more private?”

  “The owners are out. It’s just us.”

  The couch is bright colonial blue. The wallpaper is insane. The room looks like the Victorian era threw up.

  “How are you?” Bruce asks.


  “How was school?”

  “I didn’t go. I went shopping with Mom.” I don’t want to talk about Tiffany so I don’t mention her.

  The gaudy clock on the wall chimes gaudily. It’s four thirty.

  “Could this be any more awkward?” Bruce says.

  “I want to know about Mom and Dad. I want to know about everything,” I say. “I just don’t know anything so I don’t know what to ask.”

  “And I don’t know where to start.”

  “It would have been easier to have this conversation through voice mail.”

  Bruce laughs.

  “I’m serious,” I say.

  I hold my hand to my ear in the pretend-phone position and start. “Hi, Bruce! It’s Sarah. Why did you really leave? And why don’t you call?”

  Bruce holds his pretend hand-phone to his ear. “Hi, Sarah! It’s Bruce! I left because of a bunch of reasons. Mostly because Dad was abusive to us and it really messed me up and then he hit me again in Mexico and I couldn’t really forgive him, you know? And then Mom said—”

  “Beeeeeeeep,” I say. “My voice mail doesn’t have all day. But did you say he hit you before Mexico?”

  “Let me try again,” he says. “Hi, Sarah! It’s Bruce! I left because Dad was abusive to Mom and me and, yes, before Mexico.”

  “Hi, Bruce, Sarah here. But why don’t you call me?”

  “Sarah, it’s Bruce. I don’t call because after the whole thing in Mexico, he told me I wasn’t ever allowed to contact you.”

  “Hi, Bruce! It’s Sarah! He told you that you couldn’t contact me? Me specifically? I wonder why he did that.”

  “Hi, Sarah! It’s Bruce! Yes, he had this paranoia that I would tell you that he was a wife-beating jerk. So he told me he’d call the police if I got in touch with you.”

  “Hi, Bruce! It’s Sarah!” But then I don’t know what to say. Dad said he’d call the police. That’s harsh. “But you’re my brother. What could he tell the police?”

  “Hi, Sarah! It’s Bruce. I really don’t want to repeat what he said because it makes me want to vomit, but I’m a male and you’re a far younger female and I think you can figure it out if I just say this and hang up now. Click.”

  “Hi, Bruce. It’s Sarah. I can’t believe he said that. I mean, I can believe he said that. He’s so schizo, you know? Is that how he was when you were little? Did he just lose it and then hit you? I’m sorry he hit you. I feel bad about that. I feel bad I never knew. I feel—I—”

  “Beeeeeeeep! Never feel guilty for not getting hit. It wasn’t your fault I got hit. It wasn’t my fault I got hit.”

  I think back to Mom’s face after we came out of the palm reader’s today. I think about what Tiffany must have said to her. “I worry about Mom.”

  “Hi, Sarah. It’s Bruce. Welcome to the club.”

  “Hi, Bruce. It’s Sarah. I’m pretty sure Mom and Dad hate each other. So why are they still married?”

  “Hi, Sarah. It’s Bruce. They agreed to stay together for our sake. Didn’t you ever hear Dad go on and on about what it was like to grow up with no father? They didn’t want us to come from a broken home.”

  “Hi, Bruce. It’s Sarah. A wise woman once told me that home is more than a roof over my head.” I take a deep breath. “Anyway, Dad doesn’t talk to me much, so I never heard him say anything about him coming from a broken home.”

  “It’s like we had two completely different sets of parents,” Bruce says.

  We sit there for a minute just looking at each other. Bruce has filled out. He used to be so skinny and now he has something inside all that skin. He looks like a man. His phone dings and he looks at the text that’s come in and then looks back at me. I put my phone-hand back in place.

  “Hi, Bruce. It’s Sarah. How bad did Dad hit Mom?”

  “Hi, Sarah. It’s Bruce. Pretty bad. One time he broke her arm. You’re probably going to ask how often this happened, and since I was a kid, I can’t quite remember, but I know it was at least once a month. Sometimes every weekend. They fought verbally all the time.”

  “Hi, Bruce. It’s Sarah. And how often did Dad hit you?”

  “Hi, Sarah. It’s Bruce. Dad hit me a lot. If you count slapping and hair pulling, then it was every day sometimes. I was nine when he stopped, but I never stopped being afraid of him.”

  I don’t have anything else to ask. I feel so guilty. I want to cry but I don’t know how. I just feel like I wish I had been there to help him or to help Mom. But I wasn’t even born yet.

  “Hi, Sarah. It’s Bruce. Can we go out to dinner now? I’m starving. Plus, when is it my turn to ask the questions?”

  “Hi, Bruce. It’s Sarah. Let’s go. I’m hungry, too.”

  We hang up our pretend hand-phones and Bruce asks, “Do you need a hug?”

  I nod and we hug. I remember a hug he gave me once when I was tiny—maybe three or four—and he was sweaty after getting yelled at by Dad for over an hour. It might be my earliest memory, that hug—that sweat. He rubs my back and I cry a little because even though I was never hit by my father, I feel as if I just got hit by him a hundred times.

  I say, “I hate Dad.”

  “Don’t hate Dad.”

  “Don’t you hate Dad?”

  “I used to. But then I figured him out. I’m still angry, though. I’m really, really angry.”

  “He didn’t really change,” I say. “He just stopped hitting people, I guess.”

  “I meet little Dads all the time. Angry. Abandoned. Scared. If you see Dad as a kid, it really helps with not hating him.”

  We walk up Pine to the restaurant. We’re a half an hour early, but they don’t mind. It’s Tuesday and the place is nearly empty.

  When he orders lasagna and a Caesar salad, I laugh.

  “I don’t understand why she stayed,” I say. “He broke her arm. He hurt you. She’s put up with him for twenty-six years. That’s too long.”

  “She wanted what was best for us.”

  “I hate to kill the forgiving mood, but this was not the best for us,” I say. “Not for her, not for you, and not even for me.”

  “I can’t deny that.”

  “I feel like I’m living a
huge lie inside of a huge lie inside of a huge lie.”

  The waiter brings us a basket of bread. I eat some and try to figure out what’s really going on.

  “I’m the last to know about everything,” I say.

  “I know. I’m sorry.”

  “Not your fault.”

  “I’m so glad you called me.”

  “What are we gonna do? I can’t stay there anymore.”

  I feel like running away. I feel like going home with Bruce and living in Oregon. I feel like I’m two different people. Maybe three. Maybe ten.

  Bruce finishes chewing his piece of bread. “So why’d you leave school?”

  “It’s a long story.”

  “You keep saying that.”

  I realize that it really isn’t a long story. Not if I just say what happened. But it’s not about what happened. It’s about how I pointed at what happened and said, “Look! That happened!” How do I even bring it up in the middle of a conversation that includes both my mother getting her bones broken and Bruce getting hit every day of his life until I was born? It just makes me feel the pervasive feeling of being sixteen—silly and dramatic. It’s not a long story. It’s an unimportant story.

  I am saved by a steaming hot plate of goat cheese ravioli.

  • • •

  “Hi, Bruce? It’s Sarah. Did he ever break your bones?”

  “Hi, Sarah. It’s Bruce. Yes. Two times we know of for sure.”

  “Hi, Bruce, it’s Sarah. Why didn’t Mom help you? I don’t understand why she didn’t help you.”

  “Hi, Sarah. Bruce here. I think when you’ve been abused by someone for a while, it’s like being in a cult. The longer you stay, the more brainwashed you get. It’s not her fault. She didn’t have anywhere to go.”

  “Hi, Bruce, it’s Sarah. So, they were going to get a divorce? You told me that in Mexico. That they were getting divorced.”

  “Hey, Sarah! It’s Bruce! Yeah, they were always going to get a divorce. At least four times a year. Probably more. But it never happened. As you know.”

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