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Please ignore vera dietz, p.19
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.19

           A. S. King
 
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  Today I am in control because I want to be. I can set Jenny Flick’s future to zero. I can dial up Charlie’s reputation to ten again, even though he’s dead. I have my fingers on the switch, but have lived a lifetime ignoring the control I have over my own world. Today is different. On the night he died, Charlie said he left something for me. Today I’m going to find it.

  I have twenty minutes before I leave for work, so rather than go inside the house, where Dad is probably waiting to lecture me about calling him a hypocrite this morning, I leave all my school stuff in the car and disappear into the woods between our house and the Kahns’ house. I climb the ladder like I have a thousand times before and swing myself onto the octagonal deck that’s covered in a mix of old, crackling autumn leaves and a layer of spring-green pollen. There are spiderwebs. I pull out my key and am surprised to find he didn’t change the lock.

  When I get inside, I see that nothing has been disturbed. The bed looks slept in. There are snacks. A mug with a ring of dried liquid at the bottom. I don’t want to look around too much. The last thing this tree house saw was Jenny Flick and Charlie having sex, and I really don’t want to think about that. So I shift the mattress to the right and find the floorboard that Charlie wants me to find. I can’t pry it open without a tool, so I look back to his makeshift kitchen and find a teaspoon, still sticky, and insert its handle into the crack. After considerable wiggling, the board lifts, and I stick my hand in the dark hole beneath.

  It’s empty. I search the hole more and I feel stupid. I mean, seriously. Did I really think that images from a dream I had while passed out drunk would equate with real life?

  Then my hand feels a crumpled napkin and I pull it out and straighten it. It’s a Burger King napkin. My heart races. But all it says is Hi, Vera. I stick my entire arm in to see if there’s anything that feels remotely like a box, but there’s nothing. I fold up the note, stick it in my pocket, replace the foot-long floorboard, and hammer it in with the heel of my hand, then I shift the mattress over again. I back out, close the door, slip the padlock through the loop, and snap it closed. On my way down the ladder, I hear the patio door at the Kahns’ slam, and it gives me such a fright, I jump from too high up and almost turn my ankle on the forest floor. Then I run home.

  “Vera?” Dad calls from his office.

  I poke my head in. “Yeah?”

  “You want to talk about this morning?”

  “I have to get to work, Dad.”

  “Are we okay?”

  “I guess.”

  “I want you to be careful out there.”

  “I will.”

  “Don’t let them send you into the projects,” he says.

  I say, “It’s building character, remember?”

  I wonder does he feel bad yet.

  HISTORY I’D RATHER FORGET—AGE SEVENTEEN—AUGUST

  I had Sunday off, so I went school shopping at the thrift store across town. It was the safest place I could think of to go—I wouldn’t run into anyone from Mount Pitts, and I was guaranteed a good selection at a low cost. I already had my combat boots and jeans that still fit from last year. I only needed a few shirts and anything else I could find.

  The bonus purchase of the day was a dark brown 1970s knee-length sweater with fuzzy fur around the collar.

  On the bypass, Charlie passed me on his bike. Behind him, Jenny Flick raced her old Nova so fast, she wobbled a few times and nearly hit the concrete barrier. I couldn’t tell if she was chasing him or if they were racing for fun. I slowed down to avoid any bullshit. Up ahead, I saw Charlie zig and zag into places Jenny couldn’t keep up with. Then he took the next exit while she was stuck behind a truck and couldn’t see him.

  “Don’t care. Don’t care. Don’t care,” I said aloud, and then cranked up the funk.

  Charlie was standing on my porch when I got home. I didn’t see him until I got out of the car and got my bags from the trunk. I was surprised he’d come back after trying to talk to me the day before. Dad’s car wasn’t there, so I was nervous.

  “Jenny’s crazy,” he said before I could climb back into my Parliament funk spaceship. “I broke up with her, and now she’s crazy—like she’s either going to kill herself or kill me or … I don’t know. Something crazy.”

  “Your problem, Charlie.”

  “But I need your help,” he said.

  I didn’t say anything and just shook my head.

  “Fuck.”

  “Yeah. Fuck,” I said, opening my car door. I tossed my bags into the backseat and got back in. He came to the window and put his two sinuous hands on the frame.

  “You have to come to Zimmerman’s tonight.”

  I glared at him. “Why don’t you ask one of your new friends?”

  “They’re not my friends.”

  Silence. Then, “You let them carve the Master Oak, Charlie.” He opened his mouth to say something, but I stopped him. “You took them to the pagoda and played paper airplanes with them. You fucked them in our tree house, Charlie. And now you tell me they’re not your friends?”

  “I could go to jail,” he said.

  “Your problem.”

  “I could die!” he said.

  I rolled my eyes. “Oh, please.”

  He started pacing and muttering to himself.

  “You have to meet me at Zimmerman’s at seven. You have to help me stop her,” he said.

  “I’m working,” I lied.

  “Seven. You have to. My life depends on it.”

  Right then, I realized three things.

  He was completely serious.

  I still loved him.

  There is nothing more disappointing than the coolest kid in the whole world turning drama queen on you. Really. It was downright depressing. So depressing that I figured, what harm could it do to help him one last time?

  TUESDAY—FOUR TO EIGHT

  The whole way to Pagoda Pizza, I think about where Charlie could have hidden something for me. I’m pissed it wasn’t in the tree house, and half worried that it was in the tree house but that Jenny Flick already got her slutty little hands on it. But then I remember the note. Hi, Vera. No. Charlie was smart. The night when it all happened to him—and those poor animals—he knew Jenny was crazy. He’d have never hidden something where she could find it.

  When I get in, Marie says James was looking for me, and that he might be back later. Middle-aged Lazy Larry is pacing around, avoiding work, and then goes out for a smoke. While I balance myself on the back step and place a stack of flat boxes in front of me, I notice the little logo on the back. It says “100% recycled materials” in a circle, around an image of a tree. I stare at it as I fold a box’s side flaps and secure the tabs inside the slots. I fold another one, and then another—still staring at the logo. Until it hits me.

  Charlie hid something in the tree, not the tree house.

  I walk to the front and say to Marie, “I have to go. I’ll be back in twenty minutes.” I don’t give her a reason, and I don’t hear her response.

  Ten minutes later, I pull into the gravel parking area for the blue trail. I wonder how many pairs of Hanes briefs did Charlie sell at this very spot? I get out of the car and jog up the path to the Master Oak. Though I’m taller now than when I last climbed it, it seems impossible to get to the lowest branch. I try to clamp myself around the wide trunk and shinny up, using the rough bark as steps, but it doesn’t work. I scratch the inside of my forearms trying, though. I walk around the tree, look for knots, and remember how Charlie used to boost me up to them. I try the clamp/shinny technique again, aiming for a knot that will gain me a decent foothold. After several misses, I gently push myself higher, until I can grab a skinny limb and pull myself up.

  By the time I’m twenty feet up, I’m out of breath. I look down and give myself a fright, knowing I still have about ten feet to go before I reach Charlie’s favorite hiding spot. I sit for a minute and say, “If I fall and break my neck, it’s totally your fault, dude.”

  W
hen I have my breath and courage back, I continue up, branch after branch, until I’m standing with one hand reaching into the old hollow, groping around. I find an unopened box of Marlboro Reds and shove them back in the hole. I feel the other box—the cigar box from my dream—and grab it, and just as I’m pulling it out of the hole, I tip it against the edge and lose my grip. I do one of those crazy adrenaline overreactive catch things and secure the box, but not without almost tossing myself out of the tree in the process.

  I have it. It’s stuck in my armpit, and as I maneuver down the tree, I feel sad for the first time since Charlie died. Not angry or pitiful. Not hard-done-by or abandoned. Not sarcastic. Not protective. Just sad. I find myself hugging the Master Oak as I stop to balance on its strong, wise limbs. I find myself crying.

  Which Zen guy said, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That’s how I feel without Charlie. Like one hand clapping.

  I stash the box under my driver’s seat and drive back to the store. When I get there, I see Larry’s car in front of the store and assume the rush hasn’t started yet. So I park in the far end of the lot, outside the party store, and I pull the box onto my lap. I break the Scotch tape seal with my thumbnail and lift the lid. It’s a small stack of messy, scribbled-on (mostly McDonald’s) napkins—and under them, a sealed yellow envelope. Some of the napkins are stapled at the top, like a booklet. The cover page reads, in all caps, DEAR VERA. The writing on the envelope isn’t Charlie’s.

  I start reading.

  After you read this, you’ll probably hate me.

  “Impossible,” I think. “I already hate you.”

  Valentine’s Day, I was finally going to ask you to be my girlfriend. I sent the flowers—

  “Whatcha readin’?”

  It’s James. His head is right by the car door. I drop the napkins in the box, close the lid, and move it to the passenger’s seat.

  “Nothing. Just some old shit from when I was a kid.”

  We look at each other.

  “I miss hanging out,” he says.

  “Me too.” I give him a quick peck on the cheek. “That’s for switching shifts.”

  “How you feeling?” he asks, and points to his head.

  “I’m fine,” I say, instinctively rubbing the lump that remains.

  “I wish I would have beaten the shit out of him, Vera.”

  “Why? It was an accident, right?”

  “I just regret not doing something about it, I guess,” he says. I can relate to that more than he knows.

  We look at each other for a few seconds, until James says, “We can’t hang out anymore, can we?”

  I shake my head.

  “I thought so.”

  “And I can’t drink. Like—ever again.”

  “Yeah.”

  I see Lazy Larry driving down the hill to the main strip, and I know I need to get to work. “Dude. I gotta go. I’ll probably see you tomorrow.”

  James gets into his car and waves. I drive across the parking lot to the store and hide the cigar box under my seat. I feel the urge to drive home and lock it up somewhere safer before anyone else sees it, or in case it’s stolen. I panic at the thought of it being in my possession. There is no going back now.

  “Anything yet?” I ask Marie.

  She nods at the next order and holds up three fingers, which means I’ve got three minutes.

  I go to the back door and out to my car again, and to the box.

  I sent the flowers early, so they’d be there when you got home.

  I turn to the next napkin page, where the letters vary in size.

  But then everything went to shit.

  I turn to the third napkin. He’s scrawled diagonally on it.

  You have to understand, the whole thing was fine until she found out.

  I wasn’t getting hurt.

  Something inside my body is making me feel weak and tingly. I pull out the yellow envelope and feel what’s inside. Stiff and bulky in the front, and something round in the back. A CD or a DVD. The pervert from when we were eleven appears in my mind’s eye. He says, “Pretty blond pigtails.”

  Marie stands at the door and gives me the signal. It’s a quick run to the burbs outside of the old high school. I get a three-dollar tip and a wink from the anchovy-loving old lady. When I get back to the car, instead of driving to the store, I drive up Overlook Road to my house.

  Dad is there, in his office late because it’s April. I run upstairs with the box hidden in my baggy Pagoda shirt, and I wedge it between my headboard and the wall.

  “Everything all right?” he asks as I speed-descend the stairs.

  “Just forgot something,” I say, and wag my red Pagoda cap in front of him.

  There are a hundred of these at the store, but he doesn’t question me.

  “Be safe!”

  “You too,” I answer, a little pissed off at how obvious he is. “Don’t let the stacks of paper bury you or anything.”

  The whole way back to the store, I feel Charlie heavy in the air. I say, “Don’t worry, man. I’ll clear everything up.” But he doesn’t trust me. He’s trying to get me to steer the car back toward my house. He wants me to do it now. He’s waited long enough.

  When I pull into the parking lot, Lazy Larry is standing there, smoking a cigarette. I don’t know why, but I like him. He’s Dad’s age—around forty—and even though he’s lazy and can’t mop and hates cardboard paper cuts, he has an air of confidence that Dad doesn’t have. He puts the cigarette out and walks in with me.

  “James left this for you,” Marie says, and hands me a small, folded piece of paper.

  Charlie-in-the-air makes me crumple it, put it in my mouth, chew it, and swallow it while Marie and Larry watch me. I smile at them and go back to the steps and fold boxes.

  Larry arrives in the back room thirty seconds later. Marie shouts back, “I’m nearly out of large boxes up here, man!”

  “Grab a box,” I say. I sound cold, but I don’t mean to. I’m not really thinking about what I’m doing. I’m having an out-of-body experience. I’m floating to my bedroom and reading the rest of Charlie’s box of McDonald’s napkins. He’s making me do this. He’s like alcohol in my veins, completely dulling my senses except for what he wants me to feel.

  Larry says, “… do I?”

  I stare at him, trying to re-hear what he just said, but I fail. “I’m sorry. My mind was somewhere else.”

  “I was asking about the stupid hats. Do I really have to wear one?”

  I nod.

  “Can I wear it this way?” He puts it on backward and folds his arms like a bad rapper.

  “Nope.”

  “Damn.”

  I say, “We all know you’re cool, so who cares, right?”

  “I just never thought at my age I’d have to abide by pizza delivery guy dress code.”

  “Technician,” I correct. “It’s pizza delivery technician.”

  He laughs. “Okay. Technician.”

  I nod but don’t answer, because I am now distracted by the thousand Charlies racing toward me from the front of the store. They are as big as a jet plane, and are aiming for my head. They want me to climb on board and buy a ticket to the Mount Pitts police station.

  “You okay?” Larry asks, and then he leans in close—right in my ear—and speaks with Charlie’s voice.

  He says, “Please don’t hate me.”

  A BRIEF WORD FROM THE DEAD KID

  So I make him say what I want him to say. He doesn’t even know he’s doing it, but Vera will understand.

  She knows I am her pickle.

  I am the pizza box and the light switch.

  I am the note from James dissolving in her gastric acid, unread.

  One thing about the other side is, when you die, you find out the truth.

  If Vera were to die right now, she’d know everything that’s in that cigar box I left her. She’d find out Jenny Flick always hated her because she’s classy without having to try. She’d see how i
t all played out—how Jenny fought when I tried to break up with her. How she took my dad’s old gas can from the garage and took it to Zimmerman’s. How she stole my Zippo lighter, too. She’d see how I drank a bottle of tequila and ate the worm later on to forget and feel better about the whole thing. How John gave me a handful of pills while we drove around in his car, and how I’m not really sure how many I took.

  She’d see that her mother loves her but never wanted children, and feels so guilty about it, she’s paralyzed. She’d see that her father is just about to face his shit and get on with his life. (He’s going to start by asking Hannah at the bank out to dinner.)

  On one hand, it’s nice on the other side. Secrets don’t exist. There’s nothing to ignore, and no destiny. On the other hand, the same thing is possible in life, if only we’d start paying attention to the right stuff.

  DRIVE CAR, DELIVER PIZZA—TUESDAY—FOUR TO EIGHT

  I walk out the back door and stand in the fading, dusky sunlight. Larry joins me and lights a cigarette. The Charlies can’t get ahold of me here like they can when I’m in a small space. I don’t want any more drama. I just want to finish my shift, get home, and read the rest of Charlie’s note.

  The dinner rush begins. Larry takes the town runs. Charlie stays with me all night as I deliver to the nice parts of town. He continues to try and steer the car to Overlook Road, but I keep telling him that I get off work at eight and that he’ll have to wait. In protest, he makes me endure an AC/DC song on his favorite heavy-metal station.

  It slows down, like only a Tuesday can, and Larry and I are standing around in the back, talking and folding boxes. He tells me that he used to be a computer programmer, but hated it. So he’s working here and taking a few courses at the community college while he figures out what to do with his life. He wants to make movies. Says he’s written a bunch of scripts. I don’t tell him anything personal except that I’m a senior, and that I think he’s smart for going to community college.

 
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