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Still life with tornado, p.19
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.19

           A. S. King
 
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  “Because I thought you were gone.”

  “What do you care if I’m gone?”

  “I don’t know,” I say, but I think about it for a few steps. “I guess because I wouldn’t have remembered anything about when I was you. And I wouldn’t have figured out what was wrong with me.”

  “There’s nothing wrong with you,” she says.

  “There’s a lot wrong with me,” I say. “And you know it.”

  “Does this mean you’ll go back to school and not throw our future down the toilet?”

  “Not going back to school until summer,” I say.

  “Will you tell me what happened?”

  I stop walking. I sit on the sidewalk with my back to the side of a building and she sits down next to me and I tell her the whole stupid story.

  “Sounds like some asshole was jealous.”

  “Yeah.”

  “Sounds like that whole art club is full of bitches.”

  “Carmen is nice,” I say.

  “Carmen didn’t have your back, though. Did she?”

  I look at her and try to figure out how she’s so honest and how she’s me but not me. I remember being honest. I can’t remember when I stopped.

  “Do you remember Bruce getting hit?” I ask.

  “How could I not remember that? It was a month ago. Dad knocked his tooth out.”

  “I mean before then.”

  “No. I do remember Dad being nasty, though. To Bruce, I mean.”

  “And Mom.”

  “And Mom,” she says.

  “I have to get home,” I say. “See you later?”

  “I can’t wait to see Bruce.”

  I say, “He can’t wait to see you, either.”

  • • •

  When I get home, Dad is locked in his room and Mom is up and doing things. She says, “There you are!” She looks so happy to see me. Looking her in the face isn’t as hard as I thought it would be.

  I say, “Want to go for a walk?”

  She says, “Fun! Yes!”

  When we get outside, she says, “I want to see—um—the other Sarah. You know what I mean.”

  “Later,” I say. “She’s busy.”

  Mom looks concerned. “How do you know?”

  “She’s me.”

  “This is very hard to take in, you know.”

  “It’s easier than some stuff I can think of,” I say. “It’s easier than a lot of stuff, really.” I’m cranky. I want to call her a liar. I want to ask what Tiffany the palm reader said to her yesterday. I want to forgive her.

  She doesn’t say anything. We just walk. I wonder can she see I’ve been through the meat grinder. I wonder can she feel Bruce four blocks away. I wonder if she knows that ten-year-old Sarah is about to save our lives.

  Somehow, I know this.

  That’s Earl

  Mom and I take a left up 15th Street. When we round the corner onto Spruce, I see Alleged Earl drawing on one of the plywood rectangles covering the window above where he sleeps. He’s using oil crayons. Mom sees him, too. I stop and watch. He’s in some sort of trance and I remember that trance. I remember weaving the headpiece that way. It was tedious work. Tiny, thin strands of wire in and out and in and out of the spokes.

  “That’s Earl!” Mom says.

  I look at her. “You know him?”

  “Yeah. He comes into the ER some nights. I haven’t seen him in years, though.”

  “His name is really Earl?”

  “Did you think it was something else?”

  “I don’t know,” I say.

  “I bet he’s hungry,” she says, and crosses Spruce to talk to him.

  I follow her a few seconds later because I have no idea why.

  Mom has a quick conversation with Earl. He looks over at me. I wave in my circular me-wave. He puts his oil pastel in his coat pocket.

  Mom says, “Earl, this is my daughter, Sarah. Sarah, this is my friend, Earl.”

  “We finally meet,” he says.

  “Yeah.”

  “You stopped hanging around,” he says. “I kinda missed you.”

  “I kinda missed you, too.”

  Mom says she’s going to the pizza place for a few slices for us. She crosses the street and leaves me standing here with Earl. No longer alleged. No longer painting on the plywood. No longer jumping up and down or throwing imaginary fruit.

  “Your brother is in town, eh?” he asks.

  I say, “Mom doesn’t know.”

  He looks at me sideways.

  “My parents don’t talk to Bruce anymore,” I say. “So his visit is a secret.”

  “Huh.”

  “Yeah.”

  “That’s uncomfortable, I bet.”

  “Not as uncomfortable as sleeping in that hard doorway every night,” I say.

  He doesn’t say anything.

  “There has to be a better place to go,” I say.

  “I like to be where the action is.”

  “But in winter, you could die.”

  “I haven’t yet.”

  “But there’s no action here. It’s all just the same old thing. Nothing ever really happens.”

  Mom arrives back with three slices on paper plates. The grease is seeping through them already.

  “Nothing ever really happens?” Earl says. He laughs a little.

  “Not around here, no,” I say.

  “You know Sarah is an artist,” Mom says. “Just like you.”

  I say, “See? That’s the problem. I’m not an artist. And I’m not like him.”

  “I got three sodas. What kind do you want?” Mom says, holding up three cans.

  “I’ll take the cola,” he says. “Thank you.” He turns to me. I finally get to see his eyes. They’re brown.

  “You know the truth will set you free, right?” Earl says.

  “That’s why I was following you,” I say.

  “I don’t have your truth!” he says and laughs again.

  “You’re a real artist,” I say. “I want to be like you.” I don’t tell Earl he is Spain. I don’t tell Earl he is Macedonia.

  “You see me in the art museum?”

  I shake my head while taking a bite out of my slice.

  “You see me at the art sales? With the college kids? Up in the galleries in Old City?”

  I shake my head again.

  “You know what art is?” he asks. “Art is the truth. Maybe you don’t feel like an artist because of, because of”—he swirls his hands around—“because of all this.”

  All this.

  My life.

  Mom is completely lost because she doesn’t know what Earl is talking about. Earl is trying to wipe a drip of greasy cheese out of his dusty beard and Mom holds his Coke can for him.

  “I can’t say I miss you in the ER, Earl, but I worry about you.”

  “My son’s up at Drexel now. He’s doing great.”

  “College already?” Mom says. “My God. It’s been a long time.”

  “He’s going to be a teacher,” Earl says. “Just like his old man.”

  “You’re a teacher?” I ask.

  “I was. Twenty-five years. Taught middle school.”

  “An art teacher?” I ask, thinking of Miss Smith. Thinking of how much I want Earl to be my art teacher.

  “History,” he says. Then he turns to Mom. “Helen, you know I think I saw your boy down on Pine Street? He looks good!”

  Mom stops eating her pizza. I stop eating my pizza.

  Earl keeps going. “He filled out. Last I saw him he was scrawny. How old is he now?”

  It’s like they’re two old friends. I ask, “How long have you guys known each other?”

  Mom says, “Bruce lives in Oregon now. You must have seen his
double.”

  Earl looks at me. I can’t say anything. I take a bite of pizza. Earl takes a bite of pizza but he keeps looking at me. Mom’s frown is deep in her forehead. It looks like a scar between her eyebrows.

  Earl says, “The first time I met your mom you probably weren’t even born.”

  Mom says, “You had pneumonia. You let it go too long.”

  “Your mom saved my life,” he says.

  “She saved your life?”

  “Saved my life,” he says.

  Mom eats her pizza. She knows Bruce is in town; I can feel it. Maybe mothers have an extra sense or something. Maybe they can tell when their son is in town and no one has told them.

  Earl looks back at me. “I’d be dead.”

  “You were dead,” Mom says.

  “That’s when I saw the light. When I got my calling.”

  Mom nods. “Thank God I walked in. That other nurse had no idea you were about to tank.” I think about this. I wonder if Mom has noticed that I’m tanking. I don’t think she does.

  “So, you were a history teacher,” I say. “So how’d you end up—um—here?” Mom and Earl look at me funny. I add, “If you don’t mind my asking.”

  “I gave up all my possessions. I freed myself from all my responsibilities.”

  “Oh,” I say.

  “I got laid off. I sold everything I had to pay hospital bills.”

  “The other way you said it sounded nicer,” I say.

  “The truth will set you free,” he says again.

  “But aren’t there places that could help you? You could totally get a job at one of those learning centers,” I say.

  “I have a job,” he says. “You know I have a job. You’ve been following me around watching me do it.”

  “You’ve been following Earl?” Mom says.

  “Her and her sister. I didn’t know you had another one,” he says.

  I look at Mom. “Ten-year-old Sarah.”

  She goes to say something but she just eats another bite of pizza instead. Earl does, too. I pick my slice up and am about to shove the crust into my mouth but I say, “Mom, Bruce is here. He’s staying at a B and B. I had dinner with him last night. Sorry I lied. I just didn’t want to make you angry.”

  I don’t know why I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m scared to make my mother angry. My emotions are smaller than they should be. I’m the one who should be angry, but I’m cranky or upset. As if a sixteen-year-old can’t be angry for real.

  A tear crawls down Mom’s cheek. It moves so slowly I can’t figure if it will drip onto her pizza or if it will be absorbed into her skin before it does.

  Mom says, “So while you’re skipping school, you follow Earl around?”

  “Just for a few days.”

  “Other days she goes up to places she shouldn’t,” Earl says. He looks at me. “That’s a dangerous place, that old school.”

  Mom is entirely confused.

  “It’s better than real school.”

  Earl chews and thinks on this a minute.

  Mom says, “Something happened in school and she won’t tell me.”

  They both look at me. I shove the crust into my mouth and when I’m done chewing, I say, “There is no such thing as an original idea.”

  Earl says, “Who told you that?”

  “My art teacher.”

  He shakes his head. “Is she an artist?”

  I never thought about this before. I’ve never seen anything she made. Mom goes back to eating her pizza. I want to tell Earl everything. Instead I just answer his question.

  “I don’t think so, no,” I say.

  He nods, slowly.

  Mom says, “How long has Bruce been in town?”

  “Yesterday.” Earl and I say this in unison. He says it calmly. I say it with anger. He looks at me and smiles and I have no idea why. It doesn’t make me any less angry. I wonder if Earl was following me and not the other way around. And this is art. Everything is art.

  Right About Now

  Here’s why I like making things. I like making things because when I was born, everything I was born into was already made for me. Art let me surround myself with something different. Something new. Something real. Something that was mine.

  I don’t know if this means I could also be a competent architect. Or a car mechanic. Or a carpenter. I just like constructing new things that are real.

  I believe this is a side effect of growing from seed in soil made of lies.

  I believe this is a side effect of being born into ruins—this need for construction.

  Mom is quiet on our walk up Spruce. I say, “I think you and Dad should get a divorce.”

  “You’re sixteen years old,” she says.

  I am sixteen, I am ten, I am twenty-three, I am forty. After last night with Bruce, I understand everything. “That doesn’t make me stupid.”

  “It means you don’t understand divorce.”

  “Do you even love him?” I ask.

  She sighs. “I don’t think so,” she says. “In fact, no. I don’t. Isn’t that horrible?”

  “It’s not that bad.”

  “It’s horrible,” she says. She has tears in her eyes.

  “Not really,” I say. “The truth will set you free, right?”

  “Easy to say.”

  She’s walking too quickly. I decide to slow down to see if she’ll notice. She doesn’t. She just keeps walking. Doesn’t look back. Doesn’t do much else but look both ways at intersections and then crosses streets. I lose sight of her and stop walking. I just stand on the corner of Pine and 17th and nobody is around, really. No chatting friends walk by. No random art students on their way to class carrying large black portfolios, nobody walking their dog, nobody at all. I look up at the sky and feel like someone has me under a microscope.

  I am safe—squished between two glass slides. I am easy to read, easy to identify. I am a human being. I am sixteen years old.

  Inside my brain lives the image of a woven wire headpiece. It’s the only place it exists—in my brain. If we focus in a little closer, there are many images of the headpiece. Partially made, wire sticking out from many angles. Finished and polished and mounted on a Styrofoam wig stand covered in black linen. Crumbled into a ball, pieces severed with wire snips, in a trash can behind Miss Smith’s desk. If I could go back in time and figure out who did this, if I could go back and stop them, who would I be now?

  Look. This isn’t a temper tantrum. I’m not some teenager you can blow off because you made a myth about teenagers being dramatic. You go work hard on something you love. And you find it in the trash like it’s garbage. Tell me how you feel. Tell me what’s missing when you’re done. I can tell you what’s missing. You. You are missing.

  I stopped going to school because I was missing. I was either in the past or in the future everyone always talked about. I stopped going to school so I could focus on the now. But the now is my mother telling me she doesn’t love my father. The now was always feeling like something was wrong, only I didn’t know what. The now is one of Carmen’s tornadoes. Since the meat grinder, I am trying to adjust.

  Ten-year-old Sarah walks toward me on 17th. Next to her is twenty-three-year-old Sarah. They look well adjusted.

  I wave to the ten-year-old Sarah and then focus on twenty-three-year-old Sarah. I ask her, “Do Mom and Dad get divorced?”

  “Yes.”

  “When?”

  “Right about now,” she says.

  “About time,” ten-year-old Sarah says.

  “Yeah,” I say.

  “I want to see Bruce,” twenty-three-year-old Sarah says.

  “Me too,” ten-year-old Sarah says.

  “Maybe tomorrow,” I say.

  “We can meet at the house,” they say.

  “Bruc
e isn’t going to the house,” I say.

  Twenty-three-year-old Sarah says, “Yes he is.”

  They are the glass slides on either side of me. They keep me safe under the microscope. Both Sarahs are carrying the umbrella. The umbrella can exist in two time periods and in one space. I can exist in three time periods in one space. Living for the now suddenly seems pointless.

  “Do I ever get to find out who stole the headpiece?” I ask her.

  “No.”

  “Do I stop caring?” I ask.

  “No.”

  “I have to go,” I say. They both know I’m going to see Bruce. They might even know we’re going to the Mütter Museum. “Please don’t just show up, okay? I really love you both but I want to just be in the here and now for a day.”

  “Sure,” they say. “We’re going to the park anyway.”

  They walk north. I walk south toward home, where a divorce is waiting for me. I’m oddly happy for Mom.

  I am a human being. I am sixteen years old.

  She is a human being. She is forty-seven years old.

  This should be enough.

  • • •

  Last night Bruce talked in therapy words. He said, “I was abused.” He used the term domestic violence. These aren’t terms I can relate to. I’ve lived in an abuse-free domestic-violence-free lie for sixteen years. And yet I live in a house with both a victim and abuser. Until I was ten I lived in a house with two victims and an abuser.

  If I think about it too hard, I end up in the meat grinder again. Earl said to me today that the truth will set me free. I don’t feel free yet.

  MEXICO—Day Six III: Tooth Fairy

  Mom and Dad went to look for Bruce. Day 6—last day. I was sunburned and stuck inside watching Mexican television. They told me not to open the door for anybody. They told me to lock the door with the inside door lock that nobody could open from the outside.

  But when Bruce came about ten minutes after they left, I let him in.

  “Did you tell Mom what I told you?” he asked.

  He was angry and I didn’t know what to say. “Maybe?”

  “About them getting a divorce?”

  “Yeah,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

  He sighed. “God, Sarah. Mom told Dad. He yelled at me so bad.”

 
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