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Still life with tornado, p.21
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.21

           A. S. King
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  Bruce looks over to see who said that and I think twice about explaining, but I think he’ll figure it out on his own.

  She says, “Sarah is a cool name. It means essence.”

  Bruce looks at me. He looks at ten-year-old Sarah.

  “I know,” I say. “But what am I the essence of, you know? After last night, I guess I’m the essence of bullshit.”

  “I don’t think I understand what’s happening,” Bruce says.

  Ten-year-old Sarah says, “You will.” Then she walks back behind the hedgerow and doesn’t come back.

  • • •

  After the Mütter Museum, we go to the famous cheesesteak place on South Street and it’s crowded for no particular reason other than it’s the cheesesteak place on South Street. Bruce and I try to find a quiet table but there is no such thing as a quiet table so we find any old table and we eat. After last night, I don’t have that many questions. I don’t feel like talking.

  We walk home slowly because we both ate too much.

  “That girl in the garden looked exactly like you,” he says.

  “She is me.”

  “Does she show up a lot?”

  “Only lately. She’s the one who was talking to me when I was on the phone with you.”

  “Who is she?”

  “I told you. She’s me. When I was ten. About a month after we got home from Mexico.”


  “Mom sees her, too. She took her out to the movies on Sunday night.”

  “Mom took—I—”

  “It’s cool. You’ll meet her tomorrow. She wasn’t supposed to just show up like that, but I think she just misses you a lot.”

  We don’t say a word for a few minutes. I can’t tell if Bruce believes me or not, but he will.

  He says, “I’m going into the school tomorrow to talk to the principal about your art project.”

  “Waste of time,” I say. “That’s a complete waste of time.”

  “You’re coming with me.”


  “If you can’t face your demons head-on, you’re fucked.”

  “In that case, we have bigger demons to face head-on than some dumb principal.”

  Bruce walks me to the corner so he can see that I get in okay, then he waves and goes back to the B&B. Mom is waiting for me in the living room. She looks worried.

  “Were you out with Bruce?”


  She pats the couch for me to sit down.

  “How is he?”

  “He’s great. Loves Oregon. Looks good.”

  “But he’s okay?” Six years. And all she wants to know is if he’s okay?

  “He’s fine,” I say. “How are you? You don’t look fine.”

  “It’s been a day,” she says. Her hair looks like she was in a tornado. Or a joust. Her eyes look like they’ve been crying.

  “I want to bring Bruce over tomorrow. He wants to see you.” She shakes her head and her eyes dart around the room like she’s looking for a reason Bruce can’t come over. Her own son. “Why are you punishing him for something he didn’t do?” I ask.

  “It’s very complicated.”

  “It’s simple. I know everything. I know what Dad used to do to you and to Bruce. So you’re scared—so what? Bruce isn’t. He wants to see you. He’s your son. It’s not complicated.”

  “You know everything?”

  “I know what Bruce told me. He’s the only honest person around here, so that’s all I got.”

  “Why are you so angry?”

  “I’m angry because no one ever told me any of this before and you all thought I could grow up here and not know something was wrong. I feel like I’ve been festering in rotten water for sixteen years.”

  “We didn’t want you to suffer,” she says. “We made a deal.”


  It’s Thursday morning. Like all other Thursdays before June 17th, I should be in school. Instead, I am about to watch a divorce. Or a tornado.

  Bruce and I walk toward home slowly.

  “Are you scared?” I ask.

  “A little.”

  “Do you think he’ll punch you again?”

  “He better not,” he says.

  “He won’t.”

  “He might.”

  “He thinks you’re in Oregon. He believes you were baptized in a river and you don’t call us because you’re a God snob now.”

  “I think that’s very convenient for him,” Bruce says.

  “I don’t think he’ll punch you,” I say.

  “What’s he like on a normal day?”

  I think about Dad on a normal day. “He’s like—blank.”


  “Just blank. I mean, two weeks ago he was lecturing me on going to school, so he’s like—a dad or whatever. But he doesn’t do anything. He goes to work. He watches baseball. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Doesn’t say Time to make the art! or anything like that. Blank.”


  “He’s just a hole where a rat used to be,” I say.

  Bruce nods. “And he’s never hit you?” he asks. “Never?”

  I shake my head. “Mom said he made a deal.”

  “We had a family meeting about that deal.”

  “But he hit you in Mexico.”

  “He broke the deal,” Bruce says.

  • • •

  When we walk in the door, it’s eleven in the morning. Bruce leaves the front door open but locks the screen door. It’s a beautiful day. I figure he wants to let some light and air into the house. It’s a row house and the only windows are in the front and back. It’s an old house. It could use some fresh air. We find Mom in the kitchen, Black Sabbath pulsating from her headphones. Dad is probably in his room.

  Mom screams at first—a startled scream, not a scared one. She takes her headphones off and the music still blares from them—a tinny sound of something larger. Then, the house is quiet but for the sound of Bruce and Mom talking to each other. Mom is hushed. Bruce is not.

  I decide to sit on the couch. It’s like being in the water in Mexico all over again. I can decide the pillows are my friends. I say, “Hello, pillows,” and they say, “Hello, Sarah.” We are friends, the pillows and me.

  We are spectators, today. That is our role.

  From here, Bruce’s voice has the male bass that Dad’s has. It permeates the walls and the floorboards and I wonder when Dad will notice that there is another man in the house. I decide it will be five minutes. I decide that Dad will come downstairs and he will be wearing his pajamas at noon on a Thursday.

  The thing about decisions I make in my head: They are not real.

  Dad comes down in less than a minute. He is in a pair of sweatpants that have to be from 1985. His legs are too long for the pants because his middle has grown and he wears them higher on his waist. He looks ridiculous.

  “Who’s here?” he asks.

  I shrug.

  He walks into the kitchen quickly. Something is wrong with him. He isn’t himself. Or he is himself. Or he’s the rat. He left his hole upstairs.

  Before anyone can say anything, there is a crash. Since I’m on the couch, I have no idea what the crash is, who caused it, or anything. It sounds like someone threw something and it hit a wall and fell to the floor.

  There’s another crash. It’s definitely glass. Sounds like he just threw something through the window. Another crash. Furniture. Wood hitting wood.

  Mom and Bruce head through the study and toward the front door. Bruce unlocks the little screen door lock.

  Mom says, “Come on!” to me. I don’t know where I’m going, but I grab my umbrella from the handle of the coat closet and follow them.

  We close the front door behind us and we sit on the front

  There is a tornado in our house. The sounds are scary, but the three of us are okay. Mom is shaking her head. Bruce is sighing a lot. I’m just numb.

  I pull out my umbrella and open it. There is a tornado of bullshit in our house. When it’s over, we will be okay.

  Bruce says to Mom, “You can stay with me.”

  “I work tonight.”

  “He needs to be gone by the time you come home, then.”

  They look at me. I’m watching two cockroaches scurry across the drain cover on the street. “What?” I say.

  “That’s been the problem all along,” Mom says. “I can’t leave her alone at night.” This makes me feel like the problem-all-along but I decide not to think about it. Judging from the tornado in our house right now, I know she doesn’t mean it that way. We all know who the problem-all-along is.

  Bruce says, “I can stay here. I mean, if that’s okay.”

  “But you have to get back. You have a job, right? Or a family?”

  “Mom thinks you got baptized in a river,” I say.

  Mom looks confused.

  Bruce says, “I’ll take a few weeks off. Not a problem.”

  Mom says, “This is too much.”

  A loud crash comes from inside the house. It sounds like Dad just pushed over a bookshelf or maybe the TV. We can hear him yelling. Cursing. Goddammit!

  I think of Earl and his screaming and cursing. Dad is art.

  We hear Dad approaching the door and we all instinctively stand up from the step. He yanks the front door open. He says through the screen door, “I’m sorry.”

  We stand there. I decide we’re all thinking the same thing. I decide we’re all asking Who is he?

  “Will you come in? Can you give me a chance?” This is art.

  I decide that if I go in, I’m keeping my umbrella open.

  Mom says, “I want you out by tomorrow morning.”

  Dad says, “Give me a break! I just got fired.”

  “You didn’t get fired,” she says. “You got restructured.”

  “I got fired.”

  Mom sighs. “So you lied to us?”

  “It’s embarrassing when a man gets fired,” he says. Art. Art. Art.

  “Where are you from, Chet? The 1950s?”

  “I need you guys,” he says. He means me and Mom. He is pretending that Bruce isn’t here.

  “Out by tomorrow morning,” Mom says.

  “I still don’t hit you!” he says.

  Mom says, “You don’t get it.”

  I get it. The absence of violence is not love.

  Bruce says, “Do you want to go inside and talk about this like adults?”

  Dad ignores Bruce. He says, “Helen. Please. You can’t kick me out now. Sarah has two more years.”

  “I’m fine, Dad.” I keep telling myself that I’m not the problem-all-along.

  “You’re a kid! You don’t even go to school!” He pushes the screen door when he says this. He is fistfighting anything that isn’t human.

  “I’m not coming in if you’re like this,” Mom says. I look at Dad-behind-the-screen-door. He’s scary. Scarier than I’ve ever seen him. He looks a little crazy, too. I wouldn’t go in if I were her, either. I’ve never been scared of Dad, but now I am. I can’t tell if it’s because of the meat grinder or the present situation. He did just beat up my house.

  He says, “Then you go find another place to live. This is my house.”

  Mom sighs. “Chet, you’re acting like a child.”

  Dad mocks her with an exaggerated sigh. “Helen, you’re acting like a bitch.”

  Bruce pulls out his phone and dials 911.

  I can see through the screen door that Dad wrecked the living room. The coffee table is broken into two pieces. He’s pushed over the bookcase. He’s sweating and out of breath. His pants still look stupid.

  Mom looks pained that Bruce is calling the police. Her hand is on her head—fingertips on her forehead, her thumb on her cheek like she has a headache. She stays in front of the door so Dad won’t stop Bruce from calling.

  Here’s the thing, I think. You hope that you can get the rats out of your own house with things you can buy at the hardware store. But eventually, if they don’t leave, you have to call the exterminator.

  None of us ever wanted it to come to this.

  I look at Dad, now back in the living room looking for things to smash. He picks up the ceramic owl I made in elementary school and before he throws it, I scream, “No!” but he throws it anyway and it smashes against the tiles in front of the woodstove.

  I loved that owl. Mom loved that owl. Dad loved it more than anyone.

  The owl was the beginning of the dream. It was the night when we all sat around the dinner table and talked about how good I was at art.

  First grade. That was the beginning of the dream.

  Maybe before Lichtenstein painted Sleeping Girl he made an owl that was superior to his classmates’ owls. Maybe it was made out of dots. Maybe in that owl he kept his muse—the beginning of his dream. Maybe before the soap lady got buried in alkaline she had her own dreams, but now she’s just screaming forever over on 22nd Street encased and on display like art.

  This isn’t like the headpiece. The headpiece wasn’t the beginning of anything. The headpiece mattered but it was the end. The owl was the beginning. And now that it’s gone, I want to draw a picture of it so I can remember it. All the ruined things in my life, I want to draw. It’s like Carmen’s tornadoes. I suddenly understand her more than I ever have before. I get this feeling bigger than just anger—I think it’s rage. I think after so many years numb and quiet and smiling and faking, I am finally feeling something uncontrollable.

  Let him hit me. The police are on the way. Let him smash me on the tiles in front of the woodstove. Let him just be a rat.

  I push past Mom and walk into the house. Dad is standing by the shelf with all of our DVDs on it.

  “You’re going to end up in jail, Dad.”

  “I’m already in jail.”


  “Put that umbrella down!” he says. “It’s bad luck.”

  “You think?”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “I don’t know, Dad. I just know that you’re acting like a crazy person.”

  “I’m not the one calling the cops.”

  “Can you see yourself?” I ask. “Can you see what you just did? Look around, Dad. You have problems. Okay?”

  “At least I have a high school diploma.”

  I shake my head. If this is what living with Dad was like for the last twenty-some years for Mom, I don’t know how she did it. “Touché, Dad.”

  He stops looking at the movies and walks toward me. Fast.

  I brace myself for whatever he’s about to do but he stops short. He puts his hands in the air. Laughs. “Didn’t work. You’re just a kid. You can’t make me hit you. Bring your mother in here. She’s the one who did this. She’s the one who wrecked all your stuff.”

  He reaches over and grabs my umbrella. He twists my wrist to get me to let go. He turns it inside out, rips the fabric from the metal spokes and bends the handle over his knee until it breaks.

  I realize now that all my older Sarahs must have a different umbrella from this one. I could never tell the difference. I guess it doesn’t really matter what kind of umbrella you have—as long as it keeps the bullshit off you.

  I hear talking outside.

  I leave Dad in the living room breaking my umbrella and go to the door. Two police officers are there asking Mom about what’s going on.

  I say, “He’s lost it.”

  Bruce says, “Everything will be fine. Trust me. I do this all the time at work.”

  The cops go inside. I am now without my umbrella. And my ow
l. And my dream. And my headpiece. And soon, my dad.

  “I’m calling off tonight,” Mom says. “I think this qualifies as a family emergency.”

  MEXICO—Day Seven: The Windmill

  The drive to the airport was fast. We got picked up by a man in a white Mercedes-Benz with an off-white leather interior and it was just us—not like the van we had to take to get to the resort. We were the quietest family in Mexico inside that car. None of us said one word. Not a word. Dad sat in the front seat. Bruce had another ice pack on his jaw. Mom had slathered me in enough aloe that it wouldn’t dry and I had to sit forward in the leather backseat so I wouldn’t stick to it. Mom sat in the middle. Bruce sat to her left. I sat to her right. We both stared out our windows and Mom looked straight ahead.

  The driver started talking about ten minutes into the drive and he told us about things that happened in the news in Mexico and when we passed by a part of the road that had a lagoon to the left side, he told us stories about people who go fishing in the lagoon for small crabs. “It’s so stupid!” he said. “These crabs are so small they are not worth being eaten by a crocodile.” The whole stretch of road where the lagoon was, there were white wooden crosses to mark the places where people got eaten by crocodiles—just like the way we mark places along the road in America where people died from car accidents. But there were so many. Maybe twenty. The driver told another story about a man who got drunk and fell asleep at the side of the lagoon. Crocodile ate him. Another white wooden cross on the side of the road. A tourist who stopped to take a picture of a crocodile in the lagoon. Eaten. Another cross. As we drove by a crocodile farm and zoo on the right—a tourist attraction —he told us how the workers there hold a live chicken above where the crocodiles are so the crocs jump and people can get pictures. He said twice a worker at the zoo lost his hand just so people can take a picture. He said that there was an American man suing a golf course because he played from the rough that was a swampy area near the lagoon and got his leg chewed off by a crocodile.

  I was fascinated by this man’s crocodile stories, but I didn’t ask any questions. We were the quiet family. I watched the overgrown wilderness pass by me to the right. Then the entranceways with what looked like gates but with no gates—just the pillars, some crumbling and many only half standing and covered in aggressive vines—one after the other. The houses I saw were smaller than an American garden shed. There was a billboard for Coca-Cola. Stone walls around a small roadside kitchen. A cement truck. I loved the road signs. The signs for bumpy road ahead looked like boobs.

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