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I crawl through it, p.17
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       I Crawl Through It, p.17

           A. S. King
 
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  “She’s in a stupor of some kind,” she says.

  Lansdale produces her two quiches.

  “Kenneth said you were coming back today. I figured you might be hungry.” She hands Gustav’s to him now that he is fully dressed in a tracksuit. She puts Stanzi’s in her blanket-covered lap and Stanzi doesn’t move. The quiche falls into the dip in her crisscrossed legs. Lansdale leans down to balance the aluminum foil pie dish on Stanzi’s lap, but it won’t balance. She opts for leaving it in the grass in front of Stanzi.

  Lansdale walks back to the bush man and tells him, “I’m not cut out to be an interviewer.”

  “You’re not great.”

  “You set me up to fail.”

  “I guess.”

  “That’s why you gave me the wrong answers,” she says.

  “If you say so,” he says.

  China Knowles—Early Saturday Evening—My Type

  I’m China, the former rectal canal, and I’m going to introduce Shane to my parents.

  Dad left for a business trip without saying good-bye, but he left me a card. It’s one of those sappy cards that are made from textured paper and use script font. There’s something on the front that’s trying to impersonate a poem, but it’s so thick with adjectives under the I Love You Daughter title that I can’t read it.

  Inside, Dad wrote You’re always my little girl.

  Considering I’m about to produce a boyfriend from my room, I’m glad Dad isn’t here, especially because he thinks I’m still his little girl.

  Mom should be okay with this.

  Why wouldn’t a woman who walks around in latex and who washes her sex toys in the dishwasher want to work this out? She has to have a solution. Shane has told me it’s okay to use his background as a way to soften her up.

  “I want you to meet somebody,” I say.

  “That’s the same thing you said when you won that awful goldfish from the Boy Scout stand at the block party.”

  “This time, he’s a little bigger than a goldfish,” I say.

  Shane walks in and sits on the couch next to me.

  “Mom, this is Shane. Shane, this is my mom.”

  “Hi,” Shane says.

  Mom smiles. “It’s about time. That dumbass Irenic kid wasn’t your type.”

  “Wasn’t my type?”

  “A mother can tell these things,” she says. “Plus you look a lot healthier now, after this running-away drama. Did you go vegetarian or something? Your skin looks fantastic.” Then she turns to Shane. “Where do you go to school?”

  “Uh. Nowhere at the moment,” he says. “I—uh—I just moved.”

  “Oh. That’s nice. How’d you two meet?”

  We both stutter a bit, and then say it simultaneously. “On the Internet.”

  “You were Internet dating?” she asks me.

  “Not quite,” I answer.

  Shane laughs.

  “Anyway, I have a big favor to ask,” I say. “It’s, like, a huge favor.”

  “A huge favor,” Shane repeats.

  “Can Shane live here for a while?” I ask. “I mean, just until we can find him another place to live or something?”

  Mom tilts her head.

  Shane says, “I ran away from my foster home last month. And then I was staying in New York with some other friends from our group.”

  “Your Internet group?” Mom asks.

  “Yeah. But then it got annoying hanging out with people in real life.”

  “It got annoying hanging out with people in real life?” Mom repeats.

  “Yeah.”

  “Well, how does China know she won’t be the next person you leave because you don’t like hanging out in real life?”

  This is a good question and I’m happy she asks it.

  He says, “I love China. I know what she’s been through. She knows what I’ve been through. We understand each other.”

  “Was this one of those game chat rooms?” Mom asks. “I hear about those.”

  “It doesn’t really matter where we met,” I say. “Shane needs a place to stay.”

  “I’m not a foster home. You’re not eighteen. I don’t know if you’re running away from people who’re looking for you. This is no small favor.”

  “It’s a big favor,” Shane says. “But I promise you, no one’s looking for me. I’m free of the system. I could go back for help, but foster homes aren’t really helpful. I mean, for me. I’m sure they are for other people, I guess.”

  She looks at me. “So you went to New York to bring him back?”

  “I went to New York so I could stay there. But it turned out this way by accident.”

  “You weren’t going to come back?” Mom asks.

  “No.”

  “What about your sisters?” she asks.

  “What about them?”

  “They would have been devastated. And me. And Dad.”

  “I’m sorry,” I say. “There are things you don’t know.”

  “There are things I don’t know?”

  “There are things you don’t know,” I say. And then I hear a familiar sound. Thwap-thwap-thwap.

  Mom goes into the kitchen and returns with a piece of paper and a pen.

  “Write on that paper what I don’t know.” She puts the paper on the coffee table and goes back to the kitchen. She says, “Shane, what do you like to eat? I was going to make dinner tonight for myself and China, but I think we should celebrate by ordering Chinese or pizza or something.”

  I whisper to Shane, “She says this almost every night.”

  “I’d love a pizza,” Shane says.

  “Pizza it is,” Mom says, then disappears into the downstairs bathroom.

  And it’s me and a piece of paper and a pen and Shane and the truth and I’m fighting every urge I have to swallow myself.

  Thwap-thwap-thwap.

  Stanzi—Early Saturday Evening—Talk to the Screen

  I’m a television in your living room. I’m watching from inside.

  You carried me from the helicopter to the grass. You crossed my legs so I could balance. You wrapped me in blankets.

  You put a quiche on my lap but it wouldn’t balance. You took my pulse. You checked my pupils. You moved my arms and let them flop down to my sides.

  You kept calling me Stanzi. Stanzi Stanzi Stanzi. And you know it’s not my name, but you called me Stanzi anyway and then you called the doctor and she came with her medics and you put me in an ambulance. You found my parents. You sobered them up with black coffee. You told me I would be okay, but you don’t know what’s wrong.

  I don’t know what’s wrong.

  Ask my DNA. Ask my little chimera. Ask your television what it wants for dinner and it won’t answer back.

  I have a dream. There are no coffins. There are no wombats. There is a blue sky. There are two clouds. I’m on one cloud. You’re on the other. You’re a thousand people. I’m one. You’re one person and I’m two. When you ask me questions, I understand them, but what do the answers matter?

  China Knowles—Early Saturday Evening—Hospital

  There are sirens. This can’t be good.

  I call Lansdale while Shane sits at the table with the pen and paper, offering to tell my mom for me, and I tell him no.

  “Stanzi is in a stupor,” Lansdale tells me. “They took her to the hospital.”

  “She’s in a stupor?” I say.

  “Yes.”

  “Is Gustav okay?”

  “Yes. He’s at Las Hermanas with Kenneth and a woman named Patricia. He said he wanted tamales,” she says. “Has Shane met your parents yet?”

  “Yes,” I say. “Stanzi’s in the hospital?”

  “Yes.”

  “I think we should go see her,” I say, and hang up.

  I take the piece of paper and the pen and I write Mom, Stanzi is in the hospital and we’ve gone to see her. I’ll talk to you later about what you don’t know. I did go vegetarian, though. Thanks for noticing.

  Stanzi—Sat
urday Night—Dr. M*A*S*H

  China is right side out, unswallowed. She brought Shane. I know this because she comes right up to my face and yells as if I can’t hear her through my human screen. She says, “THIS IS SHANE!”

  But I’m a television with no remote control and I can’t say anything or do anything except think on the inside. I can think on the inside. I think, I am eighty-nine cents’ worth of chemicals walking around lonely.

  Lansdale is pacing. Her hair is shorter and it maintains its structure when she talks to China or Shane. Mama and Pop have gone home. They didn’t leave a note for me because they know the nurses will feed me and turn out the lights.

  I don’t have any homework, but I wish I did.

  I wish I had a worm to dissect. Or a bird. Or a frog. Maybe if I had something to do with my hands, I would do it. I’ve tried reaching for my guilt gland a hundred times since we landed, but I can’t move my arm.

  I can only blink.

  I think I’m drooling.

  China looks worried.

  She holds a poem up to my face, and I see it as a block of text, but can’t read it because my eyes can’t move.

  The doctors asked Mama and Pop if they knew what was bothering me. I watched as Mama put her hand on Pop’s lap and told them about the years of therapy. The PTSD. My nightmares. My obsession with biology.

  Obsession. They called it an obsession.

  The doctor asked if we were in family therapy. Mama and Pop said, “We’re fine.” I’m inside this television, looking out. Even I could tell the doctor didn’t believe them. And if she had half an olfactory system, she’d have smelled the gin two doors away.

  Another doctor comes in and asks China, Shane, and Lansdale to leave.

  He sits on my bedside and says this:

  “____________, you’re a one hundred percent healthy girl with a bright future. I understand you had something traumatic happen to you when you were eight years old, and I’d like to talk about it.”

  I’m inside the television looking out. He’s a funny man, this doctor. He looks like Sidney, the psychiatrist from M*A*S*H. I’m Hawkeye Pierce. It’s the final episode of M*A*S*H and I know it by heart. We’re fighting over what happened in the back of the bus. Sidney knows I’m lying when I tell him that the lady in the back of the bus smothered a chicken. He knows she smothered her own baby. He knows I’m damaged. He knows I will never be the same again. He knows I’m split in two, no DNA test needed, no need for tetragametic chimeras, no need for biology.

  All I need is my lab coat. I have two more of them. They’re in my bedroom closet.

  China Knowles—Saturday Night—House of Letters

  I’m China and I am no longer a walking anything other than a human being.

  Lansdale and Shane and I go to talk to the dangerous bush man.

  He’s not in his bush so we ring the doorbell at his house.

  When he answers the door, he’s dressed in shorts and an old T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and he’s not wearing his trench coat. He invites us in, but we stand at his doorway looking in.

  Patricia sits, freshly showered and hand-combing the knots from her hair. She is naked, but not in a bad way. In front of her is a lamp that shines hot light onto her and in front of the bush man there is a block of plaster already partially carved, white dust on the floor, of her basic shape.

  “Forgive me,” the bush man says. “I can’t stop working.”

  He leaves the door open and we stand on the doorstep and watch him pare away at the block of plaster in long, sweet strokes.

  “If you come in, please try to be quiet,” he says. “My mother is sleeping upstairs.”

  We can’t come in. It’s too full of quality letters. There’s a kitchen and each plate is a letter. Each fork. Each glass is a letter. Every inch of the walls is a letter. Every crack in the ceiling, every spill on the carpet. Every piece of furniture is a letter. Patricia is sitting on an L. The bush man is sitting on an M. The door is an enormous lowercase i.

  We can’t walk through the i.

  “My house is full of answers,” the bush man says.

  This is when we realize we don’t understand the questions.

  I’m China, girl with many questions, girl with no answers.

  Shane asks, “What’s with that guy’s house?”

  “The dangerous bush man loves letters,” I say. “It’s his thing.”

  “Oh.”

  Lansdale says, “Doesn’t really clear anything up, does it?”

  “No,” Shane answers.

  “You’ll understand,” Lansdale says. “Our town is very strange.”

  “Our town is very ordinary,” I say.

  “What will you do about your friend?” Shane asks.

  “Stanzi will come back,” I say. “She probably needs more therapy.”

  “Her lab coat,” Lansdale says. “She needs her lab coat.”

  “Yes,” I answer. “Let’s take it to her.”

  When we get to Gustav’s house, I ask him if he’ll come with us and if he’ll bring Amadeus with him.

  We are a gang of four teenagers now. We walk down the street as if we own it because we do own it. It’s our street. We were born here. We’ll either stay or we’ll leave depending on how you treat us.

  Stanzi—Sunday Morning—Mental Health Profile

  Last night they shoved me into a giant doughnut called a CAT scanner and took some other tests. I heard them all talking. The EKG tech was nice and actually talked to me. The chest X-ray people talked about a concert they wanted to go to—as if I was a cat on the dissection table. As if I was a frog. At least the nurse who catheterized me was nice.

  Then I was officially admitted. They dressed me in paper clothing. They called this a voluntary admission. I can’t volunteer for anything. I’m a paper doll who pees into a plastic bag. I’m a Mental Health Profile with a needle that feeds saline into my blood. Saline. Seawater. Tears. No one here knows they are filling me with helicopter fuel.

  Gustav, China, Lansdale, and Shane are hiding under my bed right now. The nurse is here to check my IV and the first doctor of the day is the psychiatrist who looks like Sidney from M*A*S*H.

  He says my parents will be here soon and I’ll get my own room after that.

  “Would you mind asking your friends to leave?”

  I’m inside a television. I can’t tell my friends anything. All I can do is drool.

  “That’s a cool coat. You trying to fit in around here?” he asks.

  I try to move my arm to feel the sleeve of my lab coat, but I can’t move anything. I’m inside a television and it’s all clear now. Gustav was wrong about everything. There are no insects. My dreams were wrong. I know how to waltz.

  We are babies being born.

  I can’t feel my lab coat, but I know China and Lansdale dressed me—flopped me forward to get it over my back, lifted each arm and slid them into the sleeves, smoothed it out under my butt. They knew not to button it. They knew to put a pen in the chest pocket, but pens aren’t allowed here, so they pretended.

  “We’ll see you later,” China says to my television screen.

  “I’ll bring you a cake,” Lansdale says.

  “Get better,” Gustav says.

  Shane doesn’t say anything. He’s cute. You can see his damage all the way down to his toes. China will never save him completely. That’s what my television brain says. It says: China will never save that boy.

  Mama and Pop are here. They tell the doctor I was fine all this time. They tell him about my good grades and my group of friends. They tell him about how we spend a lot of time together.

  “We go on vacations several times a year,” Pop says. “Once we went to Scotland.”

  The doctor looks at me. “That sounds nice,” he says.

  “We went to Colorado twice last year,” Mama adds.

  The doctor looks at Mama. “That does sound nice. However, I think the problem here is not lack of vacation time. There’s something
deeper.”

  “Ask her if she misses her cat,” Mama says. “She raised it since it was a kitten.”

  Inside my television head, I’m laughing. I laugh so hard, I think I accidentally spit a little and a snot bubble forms at my nose. Mama, Pop, and the doctor look at me then, waiting for a breakthrough. As if the breakthrough is inside me, not them.

  The doctor tells them this is a matter of flipping the switch inside my brain. I want to ask Which switch? There are more switches in here than there are on Gustav’s cockpit control panel.

  “I want to recommend family counseling,” the doctor says. This is the third time he’s said it in twenty-four hours. Pop hangs his head. Mama follows suit.

  If I could speak, I’d say: Gone to bed. TV dinner in freezer. Make sure you turn out the lights.

  They move me to a room that has a plastic window. Mama and Pop have told me this is the psychiatric ward.

  I am in the looney tunes.

  Mama looks mortified that of my friends, I landed here first. She says it right in front of me, as if I really am a television. “What about her friend who built the helicopter no one could see? Why isn’t he in here?”

  Pop says, “It’s not his turn. It’s ____________’s turn.”

  “This isn’t a game,” Mama answers.

  “I didn’t say it was,” he says.

  She walks up to my screen and yells at it. “This isn’t a game!”

  They both keep looking at their watches. They must have somewhere to go. Anywhere but the looney tunes. When they finally leave, I’m alone in my room.

  I say, “Her name was Ruth.

  “I called her Ruthie.

  “Sometimes I called her Ruthless if she was on my nerves.

  “I taught her how to braid yarn. I taught her how to pull a splinter from her own finger. I taught her about the antibiotic properties of dog spit. She taught me everything. She taught me everything about life and how to have real fun.”

 
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