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Reality boy, p.17
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       Reality Boy, p.17

           A. S. King
 
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  She gets out of the car.

  “Thanks for the card,” I say. “I thought it was funny that you said I give a shit. You know, because that’s my life—giving people shits. Only those people never really appreciated it.” I laugh. “But no. Seriously. Thanks for the card. It’s sweet.”

  “You’re welcome. And don’t forget to listen to the CD.”

  “I won’t. And that thing—the love shit,” I say.

  “The love shit? That’s romantic.”

  “I mean, let’s just keep going slow, okay? This shit scares me.”

  When I get home, I go to the kitchen table and find my birthday present and a note. Sorry we missed you!

  It’s a gas card for three hundred dollars. I hear the loud TV downstairs in the basement and think about packing right now and going wherever three hundred dollars will take me.

  Once I get to my room, I watch the amazing Monaco trapeze act twice before I go to bed. I count the spins and the somersaults. The performers are like birds. They have probably been forced to practice trapeze from the minute they were born, twenty-two hours a day, seven days a week, but they look free. At least, in the air they look free.

  46

  EPISODE 3, SCENE 2, TAKE 2

  EPISODE THREE WASN’T a full episode. It was one of those let’s-look-back-on-our-past-families-and-see-how-well-we-did episodes, and I couldn’t have the world thinking that anyone in my house had done well.

  No one had done well.

  Mom still treated Tasha like a princess even though Tasha hit her all the time and had invented the pillow trick to scare Lisi and me worse. The pillow trick was when she’d take a couch pillow and put it over my face until I would start to kick and scream and nearly lose consciousness. Then she’d remove it and I’d be in Gersday, lying there with her invisible and Lisi by my side, looking concerned. Then Tasha would run to Mom and tell her that I’d done something bad, and Mom would come in and scold me while I was mute, staring into space and eating ice cream with my favorite cartoon character or something.

  Dad stayed away more. If that was even possible. The market was good then. Houses were flying. I overheard talk of storing money away like squirrels hiding nuts. He mentioned moving because so many people knew us now. Reality TV stars. Photographers would come to the end of the driveway and snap pictures. Articles would appear in the local paper. People would write letters to the editor. I was six, so I didn’t know that then. I’ve since read some of those letters. Many were cruel. Some weren’t. I’m pretty sure one was written by my hockey-lady/ketchup-coated dream mother.

  Lisi was not okay. She feared for our lives. The pillow trick was avoidable, she reckoned, by staying in her room all the time, where Tasha couldn’t get her. She read every book she owned a hundred times. She wrote things in a little locked diary and worked ahead in her textbooks.

  Mom was not okay. Her eyes were empty. Translucent. She’d started walking for hours at a time. She even applied for jobs, but no one would hire her, since she didn’t know how to do anything except fuck up her family. No one said that part. That part was mine.

  When Nanny Lainie Church/Elizabeth Harriet Smallpiece and the crew arrived on the first day, they walked in as if they owned us. Nanny didn’t even bother wearing her Nanny costume. She was dressed in a dress that showed her every curve and her ample cleavage. The crew didn’t mount any secret cameras on the walls. This was going to be a three-day-long visit, once and done, they said—just a way to reestablish the rules and make sure the family was doing okay.

  The first scene with us kids in it was scene two. We were all washed and dressed and sitting at the kitchen table with Mom and Dad at the head seats and Nanny next to me, with Tasha and Lisi across from me and Nanny. All I could see was my invisible turds there in the middle of the table. It got me to thinking about the days when I put them there. Back when I was five, which seemed like a lifetime ago.

  I felt older than seven.

  What other seven-year-old could claim he’d escaped being murdered by his own sister at least a dozen times? What other seven-year-old could claim that when he went to school, he was seen as part movie star and part maniac? I couldn’t understand if those kids in first grade had actually seen the show or if their parents had distilled it for them. I’m guessing both. Parents let their kids watch all sorts of shit they shouldn’t watch.

  “Nice to see you all again,” Nanny started. “I’m very excited to hear of your proh-gress.” Nanny said progress with the long o sound. I’d grown to love her accent even though I wanted to slap it right out of her mouth for her being so naïve as to think there had been any proh-gress.

  “Tasha tried to kill me again last week,” I’d said on take one. They didn’t like that. Tasha protested. Things got loud.

  So someone yelled “Cut!” and we started over and I was given instructions not to speak until a question was posed directly to me.

  Nanny looked worried, though. She eyed Tasha. She knew.

  “Action.”

  “Nice to see you all again,” Nanny said. “I’m very excited to hear of your proh-gress.”

  Mom smiled and said we’d been better behaved. She said she felt more able to handle the family now that house rules were in place and chores were still getting done.

  Dad said he’d been busier at work than usual and felt that “the kids” were doing great. He said that he and Mom got to go more places together—once-a-month dates made possible by our newest babysitter.

  “Gerald, how are you doing in school now that you’re in first grade?” Nanny asked. This was my cue to say something that wouldn’t ruin the scene and that would segue us smoothly into scene three, which would be an overview of our charts and chores and all the things Nanny had done for us. I was told to say School is great. My teacher is really nice.

  But I thought about the question. Gerald, how are you doing in school? I thought about my answer. How do you think I’m doing? And why would I think you really care? What a load of bullshit.

  “School would be better if Tasha wasn’t trying to kill me all the time,” I said.

  “Cut!”

  47

  I DEMAND A mother who isn’t this person.

  When I tell her I’m sick today and not going to school, my mother responds with, “Well, I’m not letting this get in the way of my plans with your father.” She bends her forehead into the shape of a W.

  Dad sits there looking confused. I shrug and apologize.

  “We RSVP’d to this wedding ages ago,” Mom grumbles. “And we have to leave at ten.”

  “I’m sorry,” I say again.

  “You go pack, Jill,” Dad says. “I want to talk to Ger on my own.”

  She leaves, still clearly disappointed in my behavior even though I haven’t crapped in her shoes.

  I demand to crap in her shoes. One. Last. Time.

  “You okay?” Dad asks.

  “Yeah. I just feel sick,” I say. I point to my stomach.

  “Hungover from birthday celebrations?”

  “That was two days ago. And I worked, remember?”

  He nods. “Anything you want to talk about?”

  “Nah.”

  “You’re not doing drugs, are you?”

  “Jesus, no.”

  “Drinking?”

  “Not unless you’re there,” I say.

  “You got a girl?”

  “Maybe,” I say. “Nothing serious.” My poker face is perfect.

  “You’re not going to bring her here while we’re gone, right?”

  “Never,” I say, thinking of the screwing-rodent rodeo in our basement.

  He looks at me, worried. “You sure nothing’s wrong?”

  I look at him, worried. “I’m sure everything is wrong,” I say. “I just have to wait it out, like Lisi did.”

  “Huh,” he says. As if I’m being unreasonable.

  “Or we could buy that house with the pool,” I say.

  He sighs.

  “Think a
bout it,” I say.

  He looks at the clock and motions for me to follow him into his man cave, where he shuts the door behind us and opens the liquor cabinet. He pours himself a small glass of liquor and mutters about how Mom will drive anyway. It’s nine o’clock in the morning.

  “I hate going to weddings,” he says. “Everyone is always so fuckin’ happy. It’s all about futures and celebrations and all these people acting like marriage is some dream-filled Twinkie.”

  “It isn’t?”

  He smirks at me. Before he can say another word, the racket starts. Quietly at first. Ba-boom-ba-boom-ba-boom-ba-boom. Slowly.

  He swigs back the end of his drink and says, “Mom is leaving Tasha in charge. I know that sucks. If you want to sleep at a friend’s house, that’s fine with me.”

  He knows I don’t have any friends.

  “Call me if she does anything stupid,” he says. Ba-boom-ba-boom-ba-boom-ba-boom.

  “Do you have unlimited minutes?” I ask, and we both laugh.

  Once they finally leave, I pick Hannah up from school (she sneaked out the band room door and met me on the street) and we drive to Franklin Street. On the way there, I tell her about what I’ve figured out.

  “I don’t belong in Mr. Fletcher’s class. I never did. I’m fine,” I say.

  She nods.

  “But my mom wanted me to be retarded so Tasha would be happy. And she wanted Tasha to be happy because Tasha used to hit her all the time, and Lisi and me, and there’s more stuff to the whole thing, but we can talk about that another day. I mean—what kind of mother wants her kid to be retarded?”

  “Can we please start saying learning disabled or something?”

  “But that’s what she called me,” I say. “It hurt and shit.” You know how your mother is.

  She squeezes my arm. “That totally sucks, you know?”

  “But I’m fine, right? I’m not re—learning disabled, am I?” I look over at her as I drive. “Am I?”

  “Gerald, did you ever think that her calling you that could have, you know, let her off the hook for all the shit she did to you? Like—the stuff from the show?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “This is totally going to break rule number three,” she says.

  “Go for it.”

  “Well, maybe she needed a reason for you to be, you know—doing what you did? So she decided that something was wrong with you, not her.”

  “You mean a reason for me to be crapping?”

  “Yeah,” she says.

  “Huh,” I say. Then my brain races. So, my mother needed me to be retarded learning disabled because it would explain why I crapped during Network Nanny.

  Shit.

  My mother wanted me to be retarded because it was easier than her turning into a good mother.

  Shit.

  Nathan and Ashley are watching a National Geographic miniseries about the deepest parts of the sea. It’s their day off.

  Ashley isn’t baking anything and Nathan says it’s too early for beer. I find this ironic because I watched my dad drink straight Scotch at nine o’clock this morning.

  I demand that Nathan and Ashley adopt me.

  Hannah curls up in the chair that’s surrounded by three fish tanks and says hello to Lola and Drake. She notes that there’s a fish missing.

  “Yeah. One of the Plecs died this week,” Nathan says.

  Hannah frowns. “Poor Luis. He was the best cleaner in the world.”

  I sit on the couch by myself and watch Hannah, mostly. She doesn’t even know I’m watching her. She doesn’t notice when Ashley offers her a soda before she goes to the kitchen. She doesn’t see Ashley and Nathan look at her and laugh a little. She doesn’t notice when her phone buzzes in her pocket. She’s in those tanks, swimming around the algae-covered faux castle and the driftwood with her fish friends.

  It’s as if Hannah has a Gersday.

  As I watch her, I realize that I’m tired and I close my eyes. Napping isn’t something I do. Napping was dangerous in my house while I was growing up. Napping made me an easier target. No one here seems to mind, so I try it.

  Next thing I know, Hannah is waking me up, asking what I want for lunch.

  “It’s on me,” Nathan says. “I get a discount at the Chinese place.”

  “I’m not hungry,” I say. Napping made me not hungry. I yawn.

  “He can share mine,” Hannah says.

  A half hour later, we’re all eating Chinese food around Ashley and Nathan’s kitchen table. Nathan talks about his job as a driver for a local appliance company. Ashley asks Hannah if she likes working at the PEC Center.

  “It’s okay,” Hannah says. “My boss is cool, which is a change.”

  “You work there, too, right?” Ashley says to me.

  I’m still tired. My stomach is all twisted from my nap. “Yeah,” I say.

  “You want an egg roll?” Nathan asks.

  When I say “No, thanks,” he offers it to Hannah, who eats it in three bites.

  I watch the three of them have a conversation about some news story they saw on TV about a high school junior who got expelled for a bomb threat. Nathan doesn’t agree with Ashley about one part of it and Hannah does. They laugh while they disagree. There’s calm—as if the ninety-nine fish in the house have taught these people how to live in the same tank without resorting to drama. They’re just swimming, eating, living.

  Maybe what we needed in the Faust household when I was little was an aquarium.

  Maybe that would have made everything better.

  And it’s pretty hard to crap on an aquarium. I’m staring at the big one now and trying to figure out how little Gerald would have done that. Nearly impossible.

  “Gerald?”

  I look at them at the table and they are not Ashley, Nathan, and Hannah.

  They are Snow White, Donald Duck, and Cinderella. I don’t want this to happen, so I say, “Yeah?”

  “What do you think about it? Do you think she should be allowed to go back to that school after what she did?”

  I’m staring at Ashley, who is asking this question, but she is Snow White, with that fucking bluebird on her shoulder.

  “Gerald doesn’t watch TV,” Cinderella says.

  “Righteous,” Donald Duck answers. He holds up his white wing for a high five. “That shit just makes you stupid anyway.”

  I high-five his wing and can feel the feathers.

  I reach down and pinch my leg, but no matter how hard I do it, I can’t snap myself out of Gersday.

  Cinderella says, “Anyway, she only called in the bomb threat. It wasn’t like she planted a real bomb. She had every reason to blow the whole school up, as far as I’m concerned. They all treated her like shit.”

  “That’s no reason to freak people out,” Donald Duck says.

  “So freaking people out is now a crime?” Snow White says.

  “Um, yeah,” Donald answers. “Bomb threats are illegal.”

  I pinch my leg harder. I blink. I breathe in. Breathe out. I tap my foot. I dig my fingernails into my palm.

  I am still sitting at the table with Snow White, Donald, and Cinderella. So I ask where the bathroom is and I lock the door behind me and stare at myself in the mirror. I am not a Walt Disney character. I am Gerald.

  I am Gerald and I will never be anyone but Gerald.

  I splash my face with water and flush the toilet and I look at myself one more time and I do not want to punch Gerald. Violence seems so out of place here.

  When I return to the kitchen, I am relieved to see Hannah, Nathan, and Ashley cleaning up. No webbed yellow feet and no gaudy ball gowns.

  “You want the rest of this?” Nathan asks as he offers me some lo mein.

  I accept and sit down and eat it out of the white carton with a fork. They talk excitedly about watching Jaws next—a Friday tradition. Hannah makes her way to the chair in front of the big saltwater tank and touches the glass where a starfish has attached itself. I sit next to
her, on the arm of the chair.

  “Does he have a name?” I ask.

  “He’s an it. This species is hermaphroditic.” When I look clueless, she adds, “It creates sperm and eggs.”

  “I know what hermaphroditic means. I just want to know its name,” I say.

  “Oh, sorry,” she says. “I call it Sal. Could be short for Sally, you know?”

  “Gotcha.”

  We stare at Sal for a while and she tells me the names of the other fish. Harry, Sadie, Kingsley, Bob, and the big clown triggerfish named Bozo.

  “Don’t they give you a feeling of hope?” she asks. “I mean, like one day we’ll be free?”

  I fail to see how fish trapped in a two-hundred-gallon glass tank should give me hope. I would think freedom for Harry and Sadie and Bob and Bozo would look more like the ocean where they belong. I don’t say this. Instead, I say, “Free?”

  “They have their own house. They have jobs. They have everything they want. They go on vacation in summer to Wildwood. It’s just—it’s just so much hope.”

  “I thought we were talking about the fish,” I say.

  “Oh.”

  “But yeah. They do give me hope, I guess. They’re so nice,” I say. “Are they always this nice?”

  “Yeah.”

  “I’m not used to it,” I say. “Like I said in the car, you know?”

  She stares at the fish and thinks for a minute. “Shit,” she says. “That thing I said about hermaphrodites. It was something like your mom would have said, wasn’t it?”

  I laugh. It’s a real laugh. I check to make sure.

  This makes her laugh, too.

  “My mother probably doesn’t know what a hermaphrodite is. Not unless it was in some article in a magazine,” I say.

  “You guys are missing the beginning,” Ashley says. “You can’t be here on a Friday and not watch Jaws. It’s a house rule. Even you, fish girl. Come on.”

  Hannah and I sit in two different chairs. She sits where she can see her fish and the TV at the same time. I sit on the couch where I had my nap. Halfway through the movie—right when the shark starts chasing down Quint’s boat—Nathan goes to the kitchen and brings back beers for all of us and we sit there mesmerized until the very end.

 
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