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Please ignore vera dietz, p.18
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.18

           A. S. King
 
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  I realize, sitting here in my car, watching my neighborhood wake up, that I can’t let my regret stop me anymore. I say, half to Charlie and half to myself, “I’m so sorry. I promise I’ll change this somehow.”

  As I back out of the driveway onto the road, I see Dad looking at me through the front bay window. He waves, which means truce, which means he still can’t handle talking about anything remotely heavy and would prefer to ignore it. I think of the Post-it note he tacked near the sink. “Fundamentally, the marksman aims at himself.”

  Fundamentally, Dad is ignoring himself.

  Fundamentally, Mr. Kahn is beating himself.

  Fundamentally, then, I am delivering myself. I wonder if I want a six-pack of Coke with that? Garlic bread?

  HISTORY I’D RATHER FORGET—AGE SEVENTEEN—AUGUST

  The summer wound down. I got good at ignoring Charlie and Jenny or whoever else he brought into the woods for pot parties and sex, or whatever he was into now. I got good at ignoring the Pagoda Mall and any leftover urges I had to work at Zimmerman’s, now that I knew the adoption center was moving, and especially now that Jenny Flick had started showing up there to rack up community service credits for graduation.

  I liked working at Pagoda Pizza, and even though I was dying to switch to night shift and start delivering once I turned eighteen, I got along great with Nate, the day manager, who said my love of Al Green made me an “honorary sister.” I liked working so much, I was kind of sad to be going back to school to become Vera Dietz, the whatever-lies-Jenny-Flick-and-Charlie-told-people senior. There was a week left, and I hadn’t bought any supplies yet. Or clothes. I hadn’t even opened the envelope with my schedule in it, which had come in the mail two weeks before. I was thinking of these things as I pulled into the driveway after a ten-to-four shift. When I noticed something moving toward my driver’s side window and then looked up and saw Charlie, I was scared.

  “We have to talk,” he said.

  “Please, Charlie. Go away.”

  “I’m in trouble.”

  I looked into his eyes. He looked in trouble.

  “Why should I care?”

  “Will you take a walk with me?”

  “No.”

  He stopped as I continued to the house. Dad was there, so I felt safe.

  “Just to the oak?”

  “Go home, Charlie.”

  “Vera, I’m serious. I need your help.”

  “I’m serious, too, Charlie.”

  We looked at each other.

  “Jenny’s crazy. She’s going to hurt the animals,” he said.

  “Your problem. Not mine.” I said that, but my heart twisted at the thought of it. Who hurts animals?

  “She is,” he said.

  “Just go home, Charlie. Leave me alone.”

  “Can’t you call one of your dog people and warn them?”

  “Can’t you?” I asked.

  We stared at each other for a few seconds, silently, and I walked toward the front door.

  “She’s going to kill me,” he said, dead serious.

  “Your problem,” I answered, rolling my inner eyes. Yeah, sure. She’s going to kill you, Charlie. Right.

  “But I thought you were my friend,” he said, his voice quivering.

  I thought about May Day, when he hit me. “I was your friend, Charlie. But I’m not anymore.”

  “When did you turn into such a bitch?” he screamed.

  Dad opened the front door right then.

  Charlie was still jittering next to the car as I walked past Dad and into the house. Dad stayed at the door until Charlie walked back into the woods, muttering to himself.

  While I took a shower to wash the smell of grease and pepperoni out of my hair and skin, I had awful daydreams. I thought about Charlie coming back with one of his dad’s guns and shooting us up. Or himself. I thought about what kind of trouble he might be in and hoped it wasn’t too bad. Then I remembered that he was an asshole now. I’d probably been right to doubt him. Jenny and Bill Corso and Gretchen the squirrel-brained were probably all waiting in the woods, sad I hadn’t fallen for their lies.

  And seriously—the story about Jenny Flick hurting animals? What a sorry piece of bait that was. I wondered if it took all four of them to think it up. Morons.

  Dad made dinner. Fettuccine Alfredo.

  “What did Charlie want?”

  I wanted to tell him everything. But Dietzes don’t do drama.

  “Nothing important,” I answered. “Nice pasta.”

  “Thanks. I found the recipe in the paper.”

  I hadn’t talked to Dad about what was happening with Charlie since Valentine’s Day. He hadn’t asked, either, and that was fine.

  We sat at the breakfast bar, me facing the sliding doors, him facing me. I stared at the fading light, which was fading earlier these days.

  I looked at the calendar on the fridge.

  “Less than a week left,” I said.

  “Yeah. I went to the mall today to get some staples and the place was packed.”

  “Ugh. Shopping.”

  Dad laughed.

  “Everything is overpriced crap.”

  “You make me proud, Veer,” Dad said.

  I did make him proud. I had become his mini-me—a parsimonious, self-sufficient Vulcan who pretended everything was great when it really wasn’t.

  A BRIEF WORD FROM KEN DIETZ (VERA’S PROUD DAD)

  Cindy Sindy always said I saved myself like I saved money. Said I was emotionally thrifty. She used to tell me how bad it stank to go nowhere all day, and when I suggested that she take Vera with her, she said, “I can’t take Vera to the places I want to go.”

  I never asked, but it occurred to me the night she left that she might have meant the grocery store, or the movies, or the hairdresser’s, or just in the car by herself for a drive to nowhere special. Time alone. She meant she wanted a break. She wasn’t even twenty yet. The least I could have done was give her a break after knocking her up and marrying her so young.

  To say it was a shotgun wedding would not be inaccurate. Her father owned several shotguns, and he did refer to them twice the night we went to his place to tell them the bad news. Cindy Sindy told me she wanted to keep the baby, so before any mention of shotguns, I’d already prepared to marry her.

  “You think the paychecks you get from the gas station can support a wife and baby?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “How much do you get a week?”

  “One ninety-eight.”

  Her mother stopped crying for a second to say, “One ninety-eight? An hour?”

  “A week, Janet,” her father said, and then turned back to me. “Just how do you suppose you’re gonna raise my grandchild on less than eight hundred bucks a month? Where you gonna rent a place for that kind of shitty money?”

  “We’ll move into my mother’s house,” I said.

  After considerable silence and visible relief that we didn’t choose them to leech off, he said, “And how did she take the news?”

  “She’s as shocked as you, but okay with it.”

  Mrs. Lutz cried louder. Mr. Lutz said, “I bet she is.”

  But I hadn’t told my mother yet.

  For three months, Cindy Sindy and I lived out of my bedroom, her sleeping a lot and puking occasionally, me drinking beer and watching bad sitcoms on the black-and-white mini TV I found in the attic. One Sunday morning, I woke up to loud noise right next to my aching head. I opened my eyes to find my mother in our room, cigarette hanging from her mouth, emptying my dresser drawers into black garbage bags.

  “Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”

  “Notice what?” I asked, slipping on a pair of boxers under the covers. Cindy Sindy rolled over, groaned, hugged a pillow to her chest, and kept sleeping.

  “That you knocked up a teenager and moved her into my house?”

  “Her name is Cindy.”

  “Her name is statutory rape, Kenny.” She went back to emptying my stuff in
to a bag until I grabbed it from her.

  “We’re getting married. Her parents are fine with it.”

  She stared at me the way she had a million times before—like I was nothing but a regret.

  “Then you can live with them.”

  I had to go to work in the afternoon, and when I got back to the house, she not only had all my stuff in the backyard, but there was a for sale sign by the mailbox.

  After a week in the Lutzes’ basement, we found an apartment in town for $350 a month. It was infested with roaches and lacked air-conditioning. That’s where we lived when Vera was born. Two months after that, we got married. A month or so after that, Cindy Sindy took the strip job at the club because I was drinking our rent. Five months after that, I quit drinking.

  But quitting drinking didn’t save my marriage, because quitting drinking is only what it is: quitting drinking. I had no idea how to be a friend or companion to Cindy Sindy. I never asked her how she was, because I didn’t really think about how she was. I just thought about what she thought of me. And because I’d been conditioned to think I was an asshole by my chain-smoking mean-assed mother, I didn’t know (or want to know) what Cindy Sindy really thought of me, because I was sure she thought I was an asshole, too.

  When Vera turned one, Cindy Sindy stopped stripping and started waiting tables at the diner down the street. I’d watch Vera until three, when Cindy Sindy would come home, and then I’d go work the four-to-midnight shift at the gas station. Cindy Sindy seemed happier at the diner than she’d been at the club, but the money was less than half.

  I went in one day before work and I saw the lunch guys flirting with her. I saw them leering and laughing, and something clicked inside me. I realized that I was the one in control of my being a loser. I realized that I wanted to give Cindy Sindy and Vera a better future. So on my way to work, I stopped at the community college and told them I needed to do something with my life. The admissions people were friendly and gave me stacks of information, which I leafed through all night at work. The next morning, I enrolled in the summer session for accounting. Just after Vera’s fourth birthday, I passed my CPA exam and got a real job at a firm in the center of town. I tripled my salary and told Cindy Sindy to quit her job, which she did. But she didn’t stop complaining about me. Because getting a great job didn’t save my marriage. Because getting a great job is only what it is: getting a great job.

  “You went from alcoholic to workaholic, Kenny. We never see you anymore.”

  “I just want to provide for my girls,” I’d say.

  “You just want to avoid me.”

  I said, “That’s not true,” but she was right. I was scared to come home. I was scared to explore the hole I still had inside myself.

  She called it baggage. “You’re scared to open your suitcases and see what your mother packed.”

  That Cindy Sindy. She was so damn smart. But I never told her that. I also never told her that I loved her, or that I loved the two little stretch marks she got from carrying Vera. Or that I loved that freckle on her forehead. I never told her that I loved her lasagna or that I thought her views on politics were clever. I just kept my mouth shut because I thought that made me safe.

  I see Vera doing this now. She hasn’t said a word to me about Charlie, even though only a year ago, she was clearly in love with him. Before that, they were inseparable since they were four years old. She acts like I didn’t see any of this. No. She acts like she didn’t see any of this. I want to tell her it’s no use hiding. I want to tell her that the only thing you get from walling yourself in is empty.

  KEN DIETZ’S FACE YOUR SHIT FLOW CHART

  PIGGY’S REVENGE—TUESDAY

  I have three minutes to get to Modern Social Thought and I am being pressed into the back corner of the library wing bathroom by a thousand Charlies. They are translucent enough for me to see the gross pink tiles behind them. They are heavy, though, and I feel the air being sucked out of my lungs. My arms instinctively guard my chest, crossways.

  They are all talking at the same time. The noise is like a busy train station. No words are coming through. It’s all chattering. But I know what they’re saying. Their sole purpose is to push me to look for the note Charlie left me. The note that’s haunted me from the moment he said, “I’m leaving something for you.”

  Through the thousand Charlies, I see the mirror steaming up. I walk slowly toward the sink, against the weight of them. I press through like I am battling a series of strong waves to where the breath is—without wondering how a hallucination/ghost/spirit/lost soul can even have breath. I am so busy surfing the Charlies that I do not see, until I arrive, that a message is scrawled—in Charlie’s messy handwriting—in the steam.

  The door squeaks open. Charlies disappear.

  Gretchen, head Flickite, walks in, sees me hyperventilating, then looks at the mirror, sees the writing, and smirks.

  “Freak,” she hisses. “What are you? Some sort of baby?”

  I look at the mirror. It says help me.

  When I get to Modern Social Thought, Bill Corso is there, and he’s coughing a lot. Like the way I used to cough when I was in third grade and wanted Mom to come and pick me up from school.

  The bell rings, and Mr. Shunk sits at his desk doing work for a minute before he gets up, sits on his stool at the front of the class, opens Lord of the Flies, and points to me. So I start reading the chapter where we left off.

  A minute after I start, the classroom is quiet and Gretchen is back from her trip to the bathroom to smoke one of those stupid-looking long and extra-skinny cigarettes. Mr. Shunk says, “Corso. You next.”

  “I—uh.”

  “Pick up where Dietz left off.”

  He coughs and whispers, “I can’t.”

  “Of course you can.”

  “Doc says that if I talk, I could lose my voice,” he says. This causes a few Vo-Tech computer-programming geeks to snigger.

  “That’s odd,” Mr. Shunk says. “I saw you last period in the gym playing badminton and you sounded perfectly healthy.”

  “I—uh, can’t. I just can’t,” he says, getting up from his seat.

  Mr. Shunk stands in the aisle between table one and table two. He leans into Bill Corso and says, “Mr. Corso, if you take one step toward that door, I’m failing you. You’ll lose those precious few athletic scholarship dollars you have. Sit your ass down and read.”

  Bill sits down. He puts his finger on the book where I left off and he reads, slowly.

  “You … are a silly little boy … said the … Lord of the Flies. Just an ig … igno …”

  “Ignorant,” Gretchen whispers. Bill kisses his teeth and glares at her.

  Mr. Shunk says, “Continue.”

  Bill blinks. “Just an ignorant, silly little boy.”

  He stops and sighs before he stutters his way through another sentence. The room is still. I wonder if Charlie is here. In the bookshelf, on my pencil eraser. I wonder if he’s spread himself through the air—as molecules of oxygen.

  I wonder is he as sad as I am for Bill. What sort of future does the kid have? What’s this place doing to ensure his destiny isn’t for shit? Who taught him that football was everything?

  During lunch, everyone is talking about it. I sit with the dorks in the center back, by the long, rattling heating and air-conditioning unit. I think about the fight I had with my father this morning. God, adults are hypocrites. Look at Corso. The only way Bill Corso got to be a senior in high school was by adults overlooking his reading problem in order to help our school make it further in the PIAA championships … which never happened. Now he’s been accepted to a small college with a crappy football team, and he can’t read.

  “What do you think you’re looking at?”

  It’s Jenny Flick and Gretchen. Jenny is looking especially nuts today—her eyeliner has curlicues at the edges.

  “Nothing.” I’m staring out the window. I’m looking at the huge oak tree out by the parking lot and c
reatively visualizing climbing it.

  “So you think you need help?” Jenny says.

  I look up through my bangs, now long and unkempt, like Charlie’s used to be. “What are you talking about?”

  “Gretchen saw you in the bathroom.”

  “So?”

  “So this is about Charlie, isn’t it?” she says. I think: Isn’t everything about Charlie?

  Jenny leans into my ear to whisper something and I get chills up my back and shiver. She says, “Too bad you never got to know him like I knew him.”

  I jerk away from her, pick up my books, and walk out of the cafeteria. Everything seems like Lord of the Flies now. We’re all animals. Out to compete. Out to win. Out to kill. This means Charlie, in the end, is Piggy, right? I think about this through my next classes, because if Charlie is Piggy, then I should feel more sympathy for him. I know I do. Deep inside. I know he’s sorry. He’s been telling me he’s sorry for nearly nine months.

  Nine months is how long it takes to grow a baby. (Can you tell I’m in eighth-period Health class?) When my mother was my age, she was just about to have me after I’d spent nine long months growing inside her. Now it’s my turn. I am going to birth myself. I am going to be a better mother to me than she ever was. I’m going to stay faithful and stand up for myself. I am going to do more than send me fifty bucks on my birthday, and if I ever call myself on the phone, I’m going to act like I care, just a little, because I’m aware that I might need it. I will comb my own hair gently and never make myself get into bathwater that’s too hot. I am going to be the kind of mother who shows warmth. A mother who would call the police when Mr. Kahn hit so hard, we could hear it all the way at our house—or who might drop in on Mrs. Kahn the day after to try to help her figure out how to leave that abusive bastard.

 
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