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Still life with tornado, p.20
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.20

           A. S. King
 
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  “I’m really sorry. It just slipped out when Mom and I were taking care of my sunburn. I don’t know. It just slipped.”

  Bruce plopped on the couch next to me.

  “I don’t want them to get a divorce,” I said. “They’re my parents.”

  Bruce didn’t say anything.

  “I’m really sorry,” I said again.

  “It’s okay. I just know I’m never coming back home now. I can’t live with him.”

  “You’ll still come home for holidays like last year,” I said.

  “No.”

  “What do you mean no? Of course you will.”

  “No.”

  “I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”

  “After this, I can’t come home.”

  “It’ll be fine. Dad’s just mad because the housekeeper stole his ring.”

  “I took the rings,” Bruce said.

  I looked at him hard for a few seconds. He didn’t look guilty or ashamed. He looked satisfied somehow. “You?”

  “I probably shouldn’t tell you. You’ll tell them.”

  “I will not!”

  “Just don’t tell Mom. Or Dad. It was about time someone stopped pretending around here. I’m just mad I was the one who had to do it.”

  “Mom and Dad are out looking for you,” I said.

  “I guess they’ll find me here, then.”

  “I didn’t get to go bungee jumping.”

  He looked at my shoulders. “Wow. Your sunburn is bad, man.”

  “Mom says the blisters will drain. Gross, right?”

  “Totally gross.”

  “Why did Dad yell at you if he’s the one who told you that they were getting a divorce?”

  “There’s a lot of things you don’t know about them,” he said. “There’s even things you don’t know about me.”

  I turned off the TV. “So tell me.”

  “He’ll kill me.”

  “He won’t kill you.”

  “He could.”

  “Anyway, we’ll be home tomorrow and everything will go back to normal.”

  “I’m moving. I told you.”

  “To Oregon?”

  “Probably.”

  “Tomorrow?”

  “As soon as I can.”

  I started to cry a little. “It’s dinnertime. I hope they come back soon,” I said. “I’m hungry.”

  “You just want tortilla chips.”

  “I wish you weren’t moving away. It’ll just be me and Mom and Dad. I won’t have anyone to hang out with this summer.”

  “Do you know what I think?” Bruce asked. But right when he said it, Mom’s knock came at the door and Bruce shut up and got real tense and I got up and undid the lock on the door so Mom could come in.

  She took one look at Bruce and shook her head. She produced a huge handful of single-packaged Earl Grey teabags and told me I had to have another tea bath for my sunburn. She said we were meeting Dad at the restaurant. She said he had things to take care of before we left the next morning.

  • • •

  Last dinner in Mexico. You know what happened at the end. You know we all told Bruce to shut up because he was so mad. But before then, I got to eat a lot of empanadas (actually good) and taquitos (mostly flavorless) and piles of tortilla chips. Mom and Dad kept drinking fancy Mexican drinks. The drink of the day was a piña colada, Dad’s favorite.

  During dinner, we didn’t talk much and it was awkward. My back was on fire and freezing cold at the same time. Mom put so much aloe on it that it never dried.

  Finally, Mom said, “So, let’s talk about our great vacation. Who has memories?”

  “I do!” I said. That’s when I talked about the fish and how they were my friends and how we said hello to each other every day and how I’d remember them forever. Complete lies. I have no idea why I told them.

  Mom and Dad said some stuff about how nice that was.

  Bruce said, “They aren’t your friends. All the people here see them.”

  Mom and Dad told Bruce to shut up. I said, “Yeah. Shut up, Bruce.”

  Bruce said, “Fish don’t like humans, Sarah. Not even you.”

  “I think they like me,” I said.

  “You’re delusional,” he said.

  “She’s ten,” Mom said. “Can’t you just pretend to have a good time?”

  “Why pretend?”

  “Jesus Christ, son. We brought you here. We paid for the whole week. Why are you such a pain in the ass?”

  That’s when Bruce got up from the table and went back to the room.

  You know I ate cake. You know Mom thanked Dad ten times for the vacation. She looked scared, that’s what she looked like. Scared. I’d seen that look before and I’d heard Dad be rude to Bruce before and I felt bad right then for telling Bruce to shut up. I guess I was just used to everybody ragging on Bruce. It was a tradition in our family. But when I ate the three cream cake and cried, I wasn’t crying because the cake was so good. I was crying because I’d goaded Bruce the way he’d been goaded his whole life. Maybe I was why he was moving so far away. Maybe I was one-third of it, anyway.

  I was ten. I knew better than that. We had no-bully rules in our school. We had be-kind rules in our school. I vowed to be kind to Bruce from that moment forward. In my head I vowed this. I couldn’t tell Mom and Dad because they were too busy being mad at Bruce.

  But I vowed it.

  • • •

  What happened next went as fast as I’m going to tell it.

  I didn’t tell Mom and Dad about the rings.

  Bruce did.

  I was on the balcony again. Mom closed the door all the way again. It was a clear night and I could see the stars. It was a quiet night at the resort—no pool parties or beachside romantic dinners—and I could hear them all fighting through the sliding door to the balcony. The people in the room next door even called the manager about how loud they were. The phone ringing made Dad madder.

  I didn’t hear whole sentences. I heard words and phrases. I heard divorce, Sarah, liar, you’re the liar, divorce, rings. In the ocean now. Because you’re living a lie. It’s not helping her. Oregon. Never giving you another penny. Stay away from this family. Never coming back. Bruce was right near the sliding door when he said this last thing. He said, “You think because you stopped beating on us that this isn’t the same? It’s the same, Dad. You’re the same psycho you’ve always been.”

  I heard that.

  Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a punch. Just like in movies or cartoons—I heard it land and I heard Bruce fall and scream out and I heard the reading lamp go down with him. And I heard Mom yell, “Stop!” and the phone rang again and Dad let it ring and Mom tried to answer it and he said, “Don’t you dare, Helen, or you’re next.” And Bruce said, “See? See?” from on the floor. You must know that a part of me had to make up another story right there and right then when I was sitting on that balcony by myself with my sunburn and looking out into the sea where the sea god had no idea how to help me. You have to know. You have to know that this crisis didn’t start with the headpiece in tenth grade. You have to know that from that moment when I turned around and saw my brother on the floor, spitting blood and my mother held tight by Dad’s hand as the phone rang and rang and rang that I was alone and life meant a little less than it ever would mean again.

  • • •

  Bruce lost a molar. He showed it to me before bed. Mom had given Dad something to sleep. She packed our bags herself and didn’t fold anything. She just threw in the clothing—wet and dry together. She threw in our souvenirs. She used the foot of my double bed for each suitcase—packed all of Dad’s things and her things and then zipped everything up, looked under the beds one more time, and then zipped our bags up, too.

  Bruc
e had a huge plastic bag of ice on his jaw. Mom said it wasn’t broken. Mom said she was sorry. Mom said Bruce was wrong for taking the rings. Mom said anything she could to get Bruce to talk but Bruce wouldn’t talk.

  I went over to the side of his bed and I knew he was awake but he had his eyes closed. He was crying. I said, “I’m so sorry.”

  “It’s not your fault,” he said, but he sounded like his mouth was full.

  “I love you. Please don’t go.”

  He said, “You can always come stay with me, no matter where I am.”

  I stayed until he fell asleep. Mom had given him something for pain and it didn’t take long. She checked on him one last time and I was back in my bed pretending to sleep. I opened one of my eyes and watched her pull out a string of cotton from Bruce’s mouth. It was soaked with blood. Instead of putting it in the trash, she flushed it down the toilet.

  When Mom went to bed and closed the door between our rooms, I went to my suitcase and found some shells I’d collected. There was some loose American change on our table so I grabbed that, too. And the notepad and pen with the resort’s logo. I went to the bathroom and I wrote two notes to Bruce. One said “I’m sorry.” The other said “I love you.” Then I sneaked back into the room and slid the items under his pillow as he slept. His pillow was soaked from either the melting ice or tears—I couldn’t tell.

  My sunburn didn’t hurt at all that night. I didn’t feel a thing.

  Day Six: over. Day Six: sunburn, a molar, you can always come stay with me, no matter where I am.

  HELEN’S IN MOURNING

  Last week I met a woman. Her name was Rose. Rose was eighty-five years old and she came by ambulance to the ER after the police found her. They found her on the floor of her bedroom.

  Rose lived with her new husband, who was spending her Social Security checks on prostitutes. Two nights ago, the new husband, twenty years younger than Rose, brought home a prostitute who heard moaning from the bedroom where Rose was and the new husband told her to ignore it. She tried to go in, but he stopped her. She did her job. She got paid. When she left, she called the cops because, she said, “Something very weird is going on in that house. He has someone locked up or something.”

  The police had to break the door down. They found Rose and called the ambulance. She told them the story. A year ago she fell, broke her hip, and this is what her new husband did: He came into her room and found her on the floor. He put her pillows under her head and left her on the floor. For one year, Rose lay on the floor eating food the husband threw in to her once a day. She scraped the food from the floor into her mouth. She pissed and shat where she lay. He threw a bucket of cold water over her every month or so. Her hair grew through the pillowcase. Her fingernails were long and curly. Her toenails had been rotten for at least a half a year. A lot of her body was necrotic.

  I was lucky I even got to meet Rose before she died later that night.

  It’s hard to believe that some people can be so cruel to other people. But then, it’s not. I work here. I see things. I know things.

  And then I look in the mirror and there I am.

  Pretending. Always pretending.

  Name Tag

  Carmen lives at her mom’s house one week and her dad’s house the other week. She has a bedroom in each house. At her mom’s she has to share with her little stepsister. At her dad’s she doesn’t have to share with anyone. She has two of everything. Two hair dryers, two flattening irons, two favorite cereal spoons, two sets of paints, two easels, two toothbrushes, two makeup kits, two pairs of slippers, two bathrobes. Her life is like Noah’s Ark. She still has two parents, but they still don’t get along. When I asked her about it back in sixth grade, she said, “It’s not like anyone died or anything.”

  I thought that was a smart thing to say. Carmen has always handled life as it comes. If it had been her headpiece, I think she would have just shrugged it off and never looked for it. She’d have rolled one of her joints and forgotten it even existed.

  If she’d have walked in on Vicky-the-grand-prizewinner and Miss Smith kissing like that, she would have kept her mouth shut.

  I want to call her. I want to tell her I am about to walk into a divorce and I want to know if it’s anything like her tornadoes. I want to know what will be inside my divorce. Will there be a box of corn flakes? A family dog? Will there be a place for Bruce? Will we survive or will this be the end of our family?

  It’s not like anyone died or anything.

  • • •

  Bruce is staying at the B&B on Pine. I’m walking down 17th Street. Dad is at home, being restructured. Mom is probably at home by now, too. Maybe she is restructuring Dad even more than he’s already been restructured.

  When I think about it, I figure maybe it’s good timing. Maybe Dad can just take off and do something cool. Maybe he can move to California or Mexico or Wisconsin or something. Maybe he can figure out a way to stop being so angry inside. Or maybe he’ll just find some other sucker who lets him do all that stuff he did to Mom and Bruce and repeat the whole nightmare again. I already pity her, whoever she is. I already want to send her a letter and tell her about the sliver of tissue on the TV and how he doesn’t really care about baseball even though he pretends to care about baseball.

  When I walk into the house, it’s silent. I go to my room and grab a hoodie because it was chilly last night. I don’t hear Dad in his room, talking, typing, nothing. I don’t hear Mom in her room. The door is open. I peek inside and she’s not there. I stop by the kitchen and they aren’t there, either.

  The door was unlocked when I came in, but I decide to lock it on my way out.

  On my walk toward the B&B, I decide that Mom and Dad went out for a divorce. It’s better than getting one delivered, I guess. I decide that it’s not like anyone’s dead or anything.

  On the street I find a name tag. It’s blank except for the preprinted part on top that says HELLO MY NAME IS. I pick it up and put it in the pocket of my hoodie. When I get to the B&B, I use the pen next to the guest book to write my name on the name tag.

  I write: UMBRELLA. I stick the name tag to my hoodie.

  Bruce doesn’t even see it until we’re in the Mütter.

  The Soap Lady

  Bruce pays my admission fee to the Mütter and we both stop at the entrance to breathe in the familiar smell. Old, weird things. That’s what the air smells like. Old, weird things.

  Albert Einstein’s brain is as cool as it always is but this time I feel bad for Einstein. What’s his brain got to do with anything? I mean, take it out of his body and it’s just a blob of tissue. It can’t do anything without Albert—especially when it’s sliced twenty microns thin and slapped between slides so we can look at it.

  The wet specimens are Bruce’s favorites. Just the name is awesome. Wet specimens. Babies in jars. Brains in jars. Tumors in jars. Body parts that can’t be used anymore being preserved so we can see weird shit on a Wednesday afternoon.

  “Does that say Umbrella?” Bruce says as we walk from one exhibit to another. He points to my name tag.

  “Yes.”

  “Is that your name now?”

  “Yeah. I think so. Do you like it?”

  “It’s got something,” he says.

  I want to tell Bruce that I am the layer between him and a sky full of potential bullshit but I don’t think saying that in front of the soap lady would be appropriate.

  The soap lady is like a mummy. She’s just lying there in her case with her mouth wide-open like she’s screaming. But she’s not really screaming. She’s just dead and encased in an alkaline substance that gave her the name the Soap Lady. They dug her up in Philly in 1875. Some expert doctor said she’d died from the yellow fever epidemic around the 1790s. That expert doctor died a long time before someone discovered he was wrong (because she was wearing buttons that were not manufactured in America until
the mid-1800s). I wonder if we’d have sliced the expert doctor’s brain into twenty- micron-thin pieces and slapped them between slides if we could find out that he was wrong about the soap lady. I bet we couldn’t.

  I can’t pull my eyes off the soap lady’s mouth. Her scream is so familiar. I want to touch it the way I’ve wanted to touch great paintings . . . except what would I get from touching a scream? I wanted talent from the paintings; maybe if I touch the soap lady’s scream, I could feel better about everything without having to actually scream. Either way, I wish they’d bury her somewhere so we didn’t have to look at it. She doesn’t look at peace right now, screaming in a glass case being ogled by anyone who can afford an admission fee.

  I can’t remember why I used to love this museum.

  I used to love all the oddities and the science, but now it just seems like humans showing off shit they know very little about. Like: Here’s a museum of the things that went wrong and the ways we did things that were wrong and the facts we got wrong.

  I have grown up around people who can’t talk about what’s wrong, so maybe I’m just stuck in my own hang-ups.

  Bruce says, “You look uncomfortable.”

  “I am. I don’t know why.”

  “We can go.”

  “No. You go ahead and look around. I’m going to check out the garden.”

  There are benches around the medicinal plants in the garden. Mom used to grow some of these in the little yard behind our house. She used to grow lemon balm and sage and wormwood, only she called them by their Latin names because she’s Mom. Now she doesn’t grow anything anymore. I try to remember when she stopped. I’m pretty sure it was right after Mexico.

  Eventually, Bruce comes out and sits on the bench next to mine. We’re the only ones here.

  “So, why Umbrella?”

  “Why not?”

  “Did you just pick a name out of thin air?”

  “Sarah is a boring name anyway.”

  “It is not,” ten-year-old Sarah says. She’s sitting on a different bench on the other side of the garden.

 
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