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Still life with tornado, p.2
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.2

           A. S. King
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  “No,” Dad says. “She’s sixteen. She’s talented. What about her future?”

  “That doesn’t seem to matter to her,” Mom says.

  “You said you’d back me up on this. We made a parental deal. She can’t drop out of high school.”

  “It’s that or expulsion. Expulsion would stay on her record.”

  “I should have called. You’re a shitty communicator,” Dad says.

  I sit soaked and cross-legged on the hall carpet at the top of the stairs and I zone out. This is the most unoriginal conversation I ever heard. Two parents discuss their truant daughter and within five sentences, one of them is blaming the other for something that isn’t even relevant.

  And yet, this conversation is a novelty. They are rarely awake or at home at the same time. Today, Dad was only home before seven to meet with some guy about inspecting the roof for damage. There was hail last week, and Dad is in insurance. He’s a fanatic about maintaining façade and building-envelope integrity. He knows all about code and how our kitchen bathroom does not meet code because it’s too small. I do not meet code because I’m not going to school. Mom doesn’t meet code either because they made a parental deal and she’s not keeping up her side of the bargain.

  As I listen to them bicker about who should have called the principal and who’s busy keeping a roof over my head, I notice they call each other by their real names. They never do this in front of me. In front of me they call themselves Mom and Dad, and frankly, it’s annoying. But when they argue, they call each other Helen and Chet.

  Example: “Why do I have to do all the important stuff, Chet?”

  “That’s the problem with you, Helen. You never give me credit for all I do around here.”

  “Shove your credit, Chet. I save lives every night and I never expect shit for it, but you take out the garbage and you need a gold star.”

  We eat dinner together. It’s a quiet dinner and I shove food into my face as if I’m starving, because I am starving. I didn’t eat lunch today. I don’t think I even ate breakfast.

  Dad says, “I heard you didn’t keep our deal.”

  Mom turns to me and says, “The school called.”

  Dad says, “Just one day, Sarah. For me?”

  Mom mumbles something under her breath and I don’t hear it. Dad does. He gives her a look I know all too well. It’s like someone scraped his face off and replaced it with a guy who hates us all. Her, me, even himself.

  I imagine I will go to school tomorrow.

  • • •

  Last week, on the third day of bus riding, I decided to transfer every time I saw the same bus shelter advertisement twice. It seemed like an original game. Eventually, I ended up in a neighborhood I’d never been in, in front of a boarded-up high school. It was an old building with graffiti-covered columns at the front entrance and the name of some dead educator carved in stone over the doors. I decided this would be my new school.

  A guy in skinny jeans, curated high-tops, and chunky, hip glasses was standing on the sidewalk across the street staring into a camera on a tripod. He kept pulling his face away from the eyepiece and looking around. I could tell he was nervous. It wasn’t the nicest part of town. I decided he had to be an art student. They infest this town like hipster cockroaches. Every one of them thinks they’re original.

  This guy looked like he was into ruin porn—breaking into abandoned buildings, climbing bare girders, and taking pictures of collapsed ceilings and piles of rubble. This was a thing now. Ruin porn. But this guy hadn’t even broken into the building; he was just taking pictures of the outside. First, from the tripod and then he walked around and tilted his camera in different directions and did close-ups of the usual things: graffiti, rust, broken windows. I knew if I looked hard enough I could find his page on The Social and look through his online portfolio. Maybe he went to the University of the Arts. Maybe he could sell me heroin. I didn’t look him up, though. Totally unoriginal. Plus, I don’t actually want to do heroin. I want to go to Spain or Macedonia. And I have more guts than to just see a thing from the outside.

  • • •

  When I wake up to my alarm, I smooth out my clothing and I don’t even change my underwear. I hear Mom getting in from her night’s work and I hear her collapse into her bed and turn on the sound machine that she needs to sleep all day. White noise. It sounds like someone left the TV on static.

  I get my favorite umbrella and put it in my backpack even though there is no rain predicted for the day. Dad is in the kitchen making me breakfast, but I walk straight out the door and up to the vendor who makes the best egg, cheese, and ham breakfast sandwiches, and when he asks “Salt, pepper, oregano?” I say yes to all three even though I don’t like oregano. Then I sit on the curb and slowly eat every bite.

  • • •

  I’m late to my new school, because I don’t exactly remember the buses I took to get here before. There are no ruin porn photographers this time.

  The minute I step into the building, I pretend this is my old school on any normal day. I open my umbrella. Superstition abounds. Students act as if I’ve brought a curse upon the building, but that’s only because they don’t know that there is already a curse upon the building. The curse is: Nobody focuses on the now.

  In first-period English, the teacher asks me to close my umbrella and I comply. She says, “It’s nice to see you again, Sarah.” I smile. It feels like I have a disease.

  By lunch, I’m ready to leave and take the bus to anywhere, but I decide to stay. I sit in the cafeteria at a table of the other sophomore art club geeks. Carmen is here and she’s talking about tornadoes. Henry is sketching his milk carton à la Warhol. Vivian eats Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpets one after the other and washes them down with bottomless black coffee. None of them know that my name is now Umbrella. The senior and junior art club geeks sit at a different table now.

  Three weeks ago, our art club suffered a fissure.

  The art club seniors would say the fissure was my fault, but it wasn’t.

  I should have bought two sandwiches for breakfast. I’m hungry, but the ceiling seems to have collapsed on the empty vending machines.

  I skip gym class the next period and stand in the locker room shower stall. I imagine curtains where there should be curtains, but there are no curtains because my new school isn’t a school anymore. There is graffiti on the inside of the shower stall. The absence of violence is not love. I think about it for a minute but I don’t understand.

  I close my eyes and listen.

  “I hear [popular girl] is getting a nose job.”

  “She should.”

  “And I hear she’s thinking of getting a boob job while she’s at it.”

  “What I wouldn’t give for rich parents.”

  “I think I’m going to fail my English test.”

  “I can help you study.”

  “I’m so bad at tests.”

  “Did you hear that Jen broke up with [popular boy]?”

  “It means you can go after him now, you know.”

  “Shit, we’re late.”

  “Can I borrow a pair of socks?”



  Here is proof that nothing ever really happens. The proof is everywhere. I just have to stand in one place and listen.

  “Brrrrring!” I yell into a room full of empty toilet stalls. “Brrring!” My voice echoes down the row of spray-painted half-size lockers with random pried-off doors. In one of the torn-apart lockers is a diorama—a prison cell made of sturdy twigs with a papier-mâché sphere inside of it. The sphere is painted red. The twigs are painted silver. On the floor of the diorama are the words WE WERE HERE in black Sharpie marker.

  Next period is art. I imagine the art club sophomores walking toward the art room and I join them but nobody says hello or anything.
  Halfway down the hall, someone hands Vivian a note. It’s from her wannabe boyfriend. She reads it to us: “I was disappointed to find your name in the boys’ locker room bathroom stall. It was on a list titled GIRLS WHO DO ANAL. I always thought you were better than that.”

  I say, “How original.”

  Carmen says, “Henry, go scratch that out.”

  Henry says, “I don’t go to the locker room. They all call me a fag.”

  Vivian asks, “How do you change for gym?”

  Henry says, “I skip gym.”

  Carmen says, “I’ll go with you. We’ll get a lav pass and do it next period.”

  Vivian says, “It’s probably not even there. This guy is such an asshole.”

  “So why do you want to go out with him?” I ask.

  She doesn’t answer. I decide she would say: “I’m attracted to assholes, I guess.”

  I don’t expect to get nervous walking into the art room. I know I can do whatever I want. I can leave when I want. I can say what I want. But when I kick over the pyramid of Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys (not original) arranged in front of the art room door, I’m nervous. The seniors trickle in and take their places at the back table and pull out their new projects. I haven’t been in school for nearly two weeks, so I have no project. I just want to get my stuff and get out. This is very easy to do when everyone in the room is ignoring me because none of us is here. Or I’m here, but they aren’t. Or they’re there, and I’m not. I have so much to learn at my new school. I sit on a three-legged desk and close my eyes again.

  Miss Smith, who should be taking attendance, is at the back of the room with the seniors and the rat shit chattering about art college and what her four years at Tyler were like. All I hear is “And the parties!” Miss Smith is an asshole. I wish one of Carmen’s tornadoes would suck her up. It would make things convenient for me, considering what I know about Miss Smith.

  Vivian and Henry get their projects and supplies and go to work, and the seniors make an effort to say hello to them. One of them tells Vivian that she likes her T-shirt. Another one walks over to Henry and gives him a random hug.

  Carmen is friends with everyone. It’s just her nature. She says, “What up?” and the seniors all wave. I’m standing right here. For the first time in weeks. Not one person says “Nice to see you back!” or “Hey, look! It’s Sarah!” or anything like that. Everyone gets to work sifting through the broken glass by the windows, looking for the perfect piece. The glass never seems to cut their skin even though they’re picking it up by the fistful. I turn and leave the room.

  Not even Carmen says good-bye.

  I stop a few feet from the door and stand in the hallway and listen.

  First, silence.

  Miss Smith says, “Well that was awkward, wasn’t it?”

  Answers follow:

  “I don’t know why she even came back.”

  “She’s so weird!”


  “Can’t make it as an artist if you don’t have thick skin.”


  That’s when I start walking. I go to my locker to empty what’s left inside. Thick skin? I have thick skin. They have no idea.

  Someone is sleeping in front of the locker I decide is mine. I see his pink rain boots first. His head is resting on a balled-up coat and his face is covered by a filthy cap. He has one arm slung through a backpack strap. The other arm cuddles a can of spray paint.

  I decide he’s welcome to whatever’s in the locker.

  Anyway, it’s not about thick skin. It’s about one of them being a liar. Or all of them being liars—even Miss Smith.

  It’s a long story.

  When I get out of the building, I open my umbrella and walk home rather than taking the bus. It’s not raining. No one seems to care that my umbrella is open. Philadelphia is full of all kinds of crazy people. Maybe I’m one of them now. Yesterday I had a conversation with myself in seven years. This might make me crazy. Yesterday I changed my name to Umbrella.

  • • •

  When I get home, there’s a message blinking on the house phone’s answering machine and I listen to it. It’s the daily Sarah-isn’t-in-school-today message. I delete it and walk up the steps toward my room. I don’t have any homework because homework isn’t original and I’m not going back to real school tomorrow. Or ever.

  At the top of the stairs there is a decorative mirror on the wall and a trio of pictures of my parents and me. I am not an only child. My brother is nine years older and lives out west and he doesn’t contact us anymore. He wrote me a private message on The Social about a month ago with just his phone number. Then I deleted my profile because what’s the point of having a profile if nobody wants to talk to you?

  The last I heard about Bruce was that his church people are his family now. Mom and Dad never baptized us, so Bruce got himself baptized. Apparently he got naked in a river or a lake or something. Dad said that that’s why he doesn’t contact us. Dad said Bruce thinks he’s better than we are because he found God.

  This was a while ago, so I don’t really know if any of it is true.

  This was Dad, so I don’t know if he’s the right person to believe when it comes to Bruce.

  I think that’s why Bruce sent me his phone number. Maybe he wants to set the record straight. Maybe he wants to convert me. Maybe he has cancer and will die soon. Maybe he got married and had a baby. If I don’t call him, then nothing will happen.

  • • •

  Mom gets home from the grocery store and after unloading bags in the kitchen, she walks up the stairs and sees me standing here and asks me if I’m okay.

  “I’m fine.”

  “You went to school?”


  “Was it good?”

  “Nothing ever really happens,” I say.

  “Okay,” she answers and then walks toward the bathroom.

  When she comes out of the bathroom, I’m still standing here and listening to the world. It’s pretty quiet. Traffic outside is picking up, but no one is honking their horn and no car alarms are going off. The neighbors on both sides of us work until five and their kids won’t be screaming up the block until six or so.

  Mom comes out of the bathroom.

  “Are you on drugs?” I imagine she asks.

  I get asked this question a lot. For the record, no. I am not on drugs.

  I say, “I’m thinking about taking a trip somewhere.”

  “School, Sarah.”

  “Maybe just a weekend thing.”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Maybe I could go out and see Bruce.”

  She looks concerned. We don’t talk about Bruce. I don’t see what’s so scary about him.

  • • •

  When Dad gets home I’m still standing at the top of the steps in the dark.

  Since I don’t say anything to him, he’s the first one to speak. “Holy shit, Jesus Christ, what the fuck are you doing up here in the fucking dark? Christ! You scared the shit out of me!” That’s what he says.

  Shitty Hair

  I’m at the bus stop again. This isn’t the same bus stop as the other day. Philadelphia has a lot of bus stops.

  I was thinking last night about our trip to Mexico when I was ten. It’s the last time I saw Bruce. I don’t remember some things from that trip. I remember the fish. I remember the food. I remember the flight home—me and Dad in two seats up front so Dad had extra legroom, Bruce and Mom in two seats a few rows back even though Bruce needed leg room, too. Maybe the answer to why Bruce left us is still there in the airplane. Maybe if I find ten-year-old Sarah the way twenty-three-year-old Sarah found me, I can ask her.

  • • •

  She’s on the bus, sitting in the long backseat, so I sit next to her when I get on.

I say to her, “Did you know that there’s no such thing as an original idea?”

  She says, “Okay.”

  I say, “I want to have original ideas.”

  She says, “We have original ideas all the time. Whoever told you that is full of shit.”

  I used to have quite a swearing habit. I tell her that one day she won’t swear as much. She laughs like I’m not real. Which is ridiculous because she’s the one who can’t be real. I am the dominant Sarah. I am sixteen.

  I say, “Do you remember the trip to Mexico?”

  She holds out her arms and shows me her tan and the speckled evidence of peeling skin on her shoulders. “It was a month ago.”

  “Do you remember how you drew things in the sand and the water washed them away?” I ask.


  “That’s what original ideas look like.”

  She stares at me for a while and frowns. I think she’s going to say something about Mexico or the sand washing away the things she drew. Instead she says, “Why don’t you wash your hair?”

  I say, “Don’t be mean.”

  “I just don’t want us to have shitty hair,” she says.

  I say, “Do you remember Bruce?” It’s a stupid question, so I rephrase it. “I don’t mean do you remember him, but I mean do you remember if he was nice or not? Did he ever feel like a brother?”

  “He’s a great brother. He takes me out for ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s when Dad works late,” she answers. Ben & Jerry’s closed years ago. “Hold on,” she says. “Did he die or something?”

  “He didn’t die,” I say.

  She looks sad. “Did he come back yet?”

  “No,” I say. “It’s been six years.”

  “Do you remember that thing he said to me in Mexico?”

  I don’t remember what Bruce said in Mexico. I suddenly feel stupid. Like maybe I’m going crazy beyond sitting next to myself on a bus. Ten-year-old Sarah has freckles and her face is browned. She seems happy enough to be riding the bus with me even though the bus smells like farts. I don’t want to ruin her day. I don’t even know if her day is real. I don’t even know if my day is real. I say, “Can you tell me what Bruce said so I know I remember it right?”

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