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Please ignore vera dietz, p.21
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.21

           A. S. King
 
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  The Pagoda Mall closed until Halloween, when they opened a new, improved Zimmerman’s Pet Store. Before then, the newspaper ran a few articles about the fire, with details about how the deceased Charlie’s Zippo lighter was found at the scene. Stories went around town about how Jenny had broken up with him and he was so angry, he burned down the store to kill her. People said, “Thank God it wasn’t the school he burned down,” or “That boy was trouble from the start.” The Kahns had to go through a series of police interviews and in the end, no one went to jail. But no one knew the truth, either.

  The night of the funeral, a pickle talked to me inside my head. It said, “Eat me and you will know the truth.” Sure, it was after I took those shots of vodka, but it did talk to me, and I did eat it. I’ve been waiting ever since.

  WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO CHARLIE KAHN—PART 2

  There are three more napkins. The first one has only four words on it.

  Please don’t hate me.

  I’m crying now, and there’s snot dripping off the tip of my nose. I feel so bad for Charlie. I wish he had told me this stuff. I wish he had told my dad or the guidance counselor or a teacher or something. I wish he had stopped before it went this far.

  I’m going to run away tomorrow. I’m going to get on the bike and drive as far as I can. I’m going to start over. Either that or by the time you get this, I’ll be in jail.

  “I wish you were in jail, Charlie,” I say. I do. I wish he was in jail. I’d visit him tomorrow and bring him a carton of Marlboro Reds. I’d be his best friend again. I’d show him that it’s possible to become the opposite of your destiny.

  The last napkin I find, unattached to the others, has been crumpled and then straightened out again. It says,

  I wish we could go back in time and climb trees together again. I love you, Vera. I always will.

  I stare at the yellow envelope and wonder are its contents enough to make a small-town cop reopen a closed case? Will anyone care that a dead kid didn’t set that fire? (A dead kid who died choking on his own puke, with a blood alcohol level of .31?) I pull the sheets up to my neck and look around my room. I look out the window at the trees swaying in the night breeze. No one will ever know if Charlie died on purpose or if he was just being reckless. No one will know who saw him last or who kicked him out of their car. I thought, when I found this box, that I’d know more about how he died, but I don’t. I’m not sure why I thought it would matter, though. Knowing won’t bring him back.

  I flip through the napkins with my thumb. There is nothing left to read. So I read I love you, Vera. I always will over and over again. Then I put them all back in the cigar box and shove it into my backpack. I see my Vocab notebook and I take the study sheet out and browse the words, and every single one seems fitting. Fugacious, tourbillion, moiety, repugn, sacrosanct, censure, morass, El Dorado, and turpitude.

  None of them matter, though. Because I’m not going to make it to my Vocab class tomorrow. This should make me feel relief, but it doesn’t. It makes me scared and nervous and jittery. I’m afraid I won’t ever see the thousand Charlies again, and that he’ll stop making me turn on heavy-metal radio stations.

  As I lie here in the dark, I say, “But if I do this, then I’ll lose you.”

  Clear as day, he says, “You’ll never lose me, Vera. I’m the Great Hunter now.”

  LIVE A LITTLE—WEDNESDAY

  Charlie is the almonds in my granola. He is the 2% fat in my milk. Ingesting him is making me stronger.

  Dad looks at his watch. “You’re late, Veer.”

  “It’s cool. My Vocab quiz isn’t until ten.”

  “I’ll write you a note,” he says, searching for a spare piece of paper in the earthenware bowl on the breakfast bar.

  “What are you doing today?”

  “Oh, you know. Exciting stuff. Tax returns and payroll.”

  “Want to come with me?”

  He looks up. “To school?”

  “Eventually.”

  “You’re not making sense,” he says, and then he notices the tears in my eyes and adds, “You okay?”

  “Better than ever. You want to come, or what?” I say that confidently, but really, I’m scared.

  He stares at me.

  “It’s a magical mystery tour, Dad. Live a little.”

  He smiles and nods. “Okay. I trust you. Why not?”

  I drive along the road through Mount Pitts for five minutes with the stereo up, and Dad is trying his best to maintain a laid-back Zen appearance about not knowing where we’re going. When we’re two blocks away, I say, “I lied to you.” He’s having too much fun to notice the change in my tone. I pull out the cigar box from my backpack. “We’re going to clear Charlie’s name this morning. He didn’t burn down Zimmerman’s. He was messed up in a bunch of other stuff. The proof is in this box.”

  He’s staring at me now as if I just smacked him.

  “I need you to help me talk to the police.”

  “Vera, I—”

  “You wish you knew more? Seriously. You don’t.” I think, And when you do, you’ll wish you didn’t.

  Dad says nothing for the next two blocks, but that’s because he’s leafing through Charlie’s stack of napkins and fingering the yellow envelope. He won’t feel too bad until I tell him about where it all started. Back on Overlook Road—so long ago, Mom still lived with us. When I tell him, he will be consumed with regret like I am.

  We get a guy who knows Dad from community college. What luck. I start with what I should have told the police nine months ago. I tell him everything about what I saw on the night Zimmerman’s burned down.

  I hand him the cigar box and explain about John the pervert. I tell him about the underwear and the things Charlie wrote about in his note to me. Dad looks so appalled, I feel scared to answer the detective’s questions about when it all started, but I figure it’s all or nothing.

  “Charlie and I were walking one day, when we were eleven. We were right across from my house when he stopped his car and asked us if we wanted to get our pictures taken.”

  Dad tenses.

  “Charlie told me a few years later that was the first time he sold something to him.”

  The detective asks, “And you know where he lives?”

  I tell him.

  At the end, the detective makes us sign a few forms and tells us we’ll have to come in again for more formal affidavits, but that they’ll need some time to prepare a case.

  Dad says to me, when we get back into the car, “Vera, I—” He shakes his head as if he doesn’t know what to say. “What you just did was really responsible and right,” he says.

  He can see that I’m crying. He says, “Oh, come on. Don’t be sad.”

  I manage “That was so hard” before I can’t say any more. I’m thinking about how regret begets regret begets regret, and about the cycle I’ve just broken. I thought I’d feel better when I did it. I thought part of me would feel lighter. It doesn’t.

  “I really loved Charlie, Dad.”

  “I know,” he says, rubbing my back.

  “I really wish I could have saved him,” I say.

  “I know. But it was out of our hands.”

  “I really wish I could have stopped the whole thing,” I say, still unable to erase the image of the barking puppies and the screeching birds and the mewing kittens and the fish, belly-up, floating atop the water. No matter how many police I tell, these images will always be with me.

  “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he says. “You just did something most people can’t do.” He holds my chin in his hand and wipes my tears. I take a deep breath.

  I say, “Is that why I’m so hungry?”

  Ten minutes later, we’re in the local diner. It’s slow—between breakfast and lunch rushes. Dad orders a sunny-side-up platter with whole wheat toast, and I order scrambled.

  “It must have been a hard year for you,” Dad says.

  “Yeah.”

  “I wish you would hav
e told me about that creep.”

  “I know,” I say. I look at him. “I just didn’t think it was something to bother you with at the time—or Mom. You know how she got when I’d come to her with stuff.”

  He nods, staring out the window with that look on his face. Either he’s still thinking about John the pervert or he’s remembering how hard it was to talk to Mom about anything.

  “I’m sorry, Vera,” he says.

  “For what?”

  He looks into my eyes. “I wish I could have been a better parent—you know—to fill the void.”

  “You did fill it.”

  “But I couldn’t be your mother.”

  “Bullshit,” I say. “You were a better mother than Mom was. Can’t you see that?”

  He shakes his head.

  “I think you’ve got it all wrong,” I say, eyeing the approaching waitress. “You’ve always been the one I could count on.”

  Two plates are placed before us, and we say thank you in unison.

  He looks at me and says, “I tried to compensate.”

  “For what? Mom didn’t want to be here, and we all knew it.”

  He shakes his head again, so I say, “The void was inside her. When she left, she took it with her.”

  He puts his elbows on the table and rests his mouth on his knuckles and looks at me. I know what he wants to say—stuff about being proud of me and how much I’ve grown up. It probably sounds stupid, but I want to tell him that, too. It’s like we were both living inside a lie and now we’re free. Isn’t it funny how we live inside the lies we believe?

  Halfway through the meal, he says, “You knew she wasn’t really there?”

  I nod. Anyone with eyes would have seen she wasn’t really there.

  He sighs. “I thought there was something I could do, you know?”

  I shake my head. There was nothing he could do, and he knows it.

  “I just wish it had been different.”

  I say, “For the record? I liked it just the way it was.”

  He is emotional through the rest of the meal. He mentions twice more that he’s pissed off that I never told him about John the pervert. He apologizes twice for never doing something about Mr. and Mrs. Kahn. A few times, I see him take his napkin from his lap and dab the corners of his eyes. I realize that all he ever wanted was someone to love him. So when we’re a few steps out of the diner, I hug him and tell him how much I love him.

  Once I pull out of the parking lot and head down the main strip, he says, “We’re going home now, right?”

  This makes me laugh. Like—maniacal laughing.

  He says, “We aren’t?”

  I put on my shades and smile. “I told you that we were about to live a little, didn’t I?”

  An hour later, when we’re both done packing an overnight bag, I make a sign on a large index card and ask Dad to tape it to my back. It says: EX-STRIPPER’S DAUGHTER.

  He wants to make one for himself, but doesn’t know what to write on it, so I help him. PARSIMONIOUS. I tape it to his back.

  Here’s me using tandem in a sentence.

  We will learn to forgive ourselves in tandem.

  EPILOGUE—ROAD TRIP

  “I haven’t done anything daring since I met your mother,” Dad says, slurping a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

  We’re on I-95, headed for a beach. James Brown is blaring. Dad’s eyebrows look worried.

  “Stop worrying about your clients,” I say. “They’ll live two days without you.”

  I peek at him from the corner of my eye. He still has his sign taped to his back: PARSIMONIOUS. I still have mine on, too.

  We hit the Beltway around Washington, D.C., and roll down the windows. Dad sits forward to put on his sweatshirt. His sign flaps in the wind, then detaches and is sucked out the window.

  “Shit,” he says.

  I see it as symbolic. The label no longer fits. His emotional parsimoniousness just got sucked away by the beautiful blue sky. I lean forward and reach my hand behind my back, then take my sign off, and I toss it out the window, too. I am no longer an ex-stripper’s daughter, either. I have gone from invisible Vera Dietz to invincible Vera Dietz.

  Five hours later, we’re eating seafood at a little shack on a North Carolina beach, looking out to sea, licking tartar sauce from our fingers.

  “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you about drinking,” I say. I am apologizing to myself as much as I am apologizing to him.

  “We all find our own way, Veer. I’m glad you finally figured it out.”

  “Yeah,” I say, and crack open another crab leg.

  “I’m sorry about Charlie,” he says.

  “Me too.”

  “I’m sorry he got caught up in that mess,” he says. “And I’m proud of you.”

  It’s been a long day. I look at the ocean and take a deep breath. I feel like an adult—his equal, and his friend. I feel like we’re in this together, and I’m glad for that. I can’t think of another person I’d want on my team. He’s a good man.

  “I’m proud of you, too, Dad.”

  He looks at me as if he’s expecting me to say more, but I don’t know what to say. So I ask, “Can I have your pickles?”

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  I owe thanks. Specifically, to my parents and my sisters. To my friends, who offer endless support, and to my many writing buddies, who keep me sane. Thanks to Lisa McMann for invaluable feedback on this book, and to Robin Brande and Joanne Levy for laughing at my jokes about hot Italian sandwiches.

  Thank you to Gary Heidt, who sold this manuscript, and to my brilliant editor, Michelle Frey, and to editor Michele Burke, who helped shape the book into what it is today and who taught me many things along the journey. Also, thanks to Michael Bourret for understanding who Heidi of the Field was the minute I mentioned her.

  Thanks to Tim Button, who schooled me in modern-day pizza delivery, and to Jay Carnine, who helped me with the details of fire.

  I owe huge thanks to my fans. Every one of you who has written to me, come out to see me at signings, or spread the word, thank you. To the amazing booksellers, librarians, teachers, and bloggers who have supported my work, thank you so much.

  And as always, to Topher and the kids. When this job feels like the factory, one look at you inspires me to punch my time card. All my love and gratitude for your daily support and affection.

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  A.S. King is the author of The Dust of 100 Dogs and many published short stories. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and children. When she’s not writing, she’s swimming. You can visit her online at www.as-king.com.

 


 

  A. S. King, Please Ignore Vera Dietz

 


 

 
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