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Reality boy, p.22
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       Reality Boy, p.22

           A. S. King
 
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  “Like leaving didn’t make him think you were serious?”

  “I don’t know. I just thought we’d have a list, I guess.”

  Hannah grabs a napkin from the shiny stainless-steel napkin dispenser and pulls out her pen. She writes:

  We’ve kidnapped ourselves.

  We’re safe.

  We’re sick of how you treat us.

  She takes a picture of the napkin with her phone. We make it lighter and more contrast-y through some app she has, and we crop it, but we leave in the random pepper shaker because it seems to add to the whole thing.

  She sends it to me.

  Once I get it, I attach it to a text for my dad: I’ll call you later.

  We count to three and hit SEND.

  We stay at another motel because I don’t feel comfortable barging in on Joe Jr. late at night. Plus it gives me time to send him two more texts. I even call him twice, but he lets it ring out. While Hannah is in the bathroom, I try to look the circus website up on her phone, but the reception is terrible.

  Breaking rule #5 again puts me in a new state. Magic. Postal abbreviation MG. It doesn’t need a zip code because it’s too big.

  But just like FS, it follows you around.

  As we drive into Joe’s circus town, using the address I scribbled on a napkin from the lobby where I looked up the website on the computer this morning, we are both still in MG. I aim to keep it that way no matter what awaits us.

  I called my dad last night.

  He said he didn’t think the kidnapping note was funny.

  “I won’t come back until Tasha is gone or I can live somewhere else,” I said. “I’m willing to move into my own place. I think I can find a roommate.”

  “I’ve been fighting with your mother since Friday night,” he said.

  “Good for you. A little late, though, don’t you think?” I asked.

  “Will you tell me where you are?”

  “Nope.”

  “You know that’s my car, officially.”

  “So?”

  “So I can have you arrested for stealing it.”

  “Geez, Dad.”

  He was silent.

  “Did you really take a girl with you? Is that who this we is on your little note?” he asked. I could hear him squinting.

  “I didn’t take her. She ran away with me. Big difference.”

  “You know that won’t look good on your record.”

  “Since when does having a girlfriend go on a kid’s record?” I said. “I’m sick of having such a messed-up life.”

  “Me, too,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant.

  “Look. I’m going to go now. But I’ll call you tomorrow night,” I said. “Think about what our life is like at that house. It’s not safe there, Dad.”

  “That’s going a bit far, isn’t it?”

  “Call Lisi. She’ll explain. I’m not coming back until I don’t have to live with Tasha anymore. Sorry to be dramatic or a douche or whatever you want to call me, but it’s just time I stand up for shit, you know? Just talk to Lisi. She’ll tell you the truth.”

  I hung up then, thinking it was good to end on something edgy. Maybe then he wouldn’t drink himself into a coma and forget the whole conversation happened. Maybe if he heard it from Lisi, he’d know it was true.

  Hannah’s mother panicked at the note, but she also wrote some sane things sandwiched between her insane things.

  I still can’t find my white bra.

  I’ll find other help.

  This isn’t fair to you.

  We’re eating cereal because I can’t use the stove.

  I’m afraid of the stove.

  We should have asked other people to help, too.

  We’re sorry.

  Hannah just stared at the texts as if she couldn’t see the sanity there. I said, “Now that’s progress.”

  “You think?”

  “Beats what my dad said.”

  “Which was what?”

  “He isn’t taking it seriously at all.”

  She ran her fingers through my hair and curled it behind my ears, which put me back in MG. MG is a hundred times better than Gersday. For one thing, it’s real. We broke rule #5 a few more times before we took off this morning for Joe’s house.

  As we’re driving up the road to our destination, I realize that Joe Jr. either doesn’t know I’m coming or doesn’t want me to come. Hannah doesn’t know this, or else she does, and doesn’t care. I am either about to fuck everything up or make it better. That should be my motto for this whole trip.

  An hour later, Joe has us cornered in some sort of barn, where the trapeze rigging lives among trampolines and nets and straps, and the decorations on the walls show decades of circus history. I can’t help but stare at them while he yells.

  Hannah and I hold hands.

  I don’t think she likes him yelling like this, but I don’t mind, because I like how honest he’s being.

  “What the $%#* did you think you’d $%#*ing find here? A $%#*ing job? A new family? Did you see those assholes out there? You really want a bunch of circus freaks to be your new family? And what the hell can either of you do, anyway? Nothing. You can’t do shit. You work at a food stand. You can make change and fry shit. How’s that any good to us? And how’s working with us any good to you?

  “And next time you drop in on people, why don’t you call first? $%#*. I could have at least warned them that you were coming so they’d be more sane.”

  “I called like twelve times. You need to turn on your $%#*ing phone,” I say. “Anyway, I like your dad.”

  “Then you’re an idiot,” Joe Jr. says.

  “Which one was your dad?” Hannah asks.

  “The biggest prick you saw today.”

  “Stop, Joe. He’s not that bad. He has redeeming qualities.”

  “Like what? Being able to $%#* over his own family for money? Working us like $%#*ing animals?” Joe looks toward the door as if he’s afraid someone might hear him. “Look. If I was you guys, I’d get the $%#* out of here now. Before he puts you to work and you can’t get out.”

  “Come on, Joe. It’s not that bad,” I say.

  “Dude, get out while you can. You have everything to live for up there in New York.”

  “Pennsylvania.”

  “Right,” Joe says.

  I look at Hannah. She doesn’t seem concerned that my friend doesn’t know where I live. “Can I try that?” she asks, pointing to the trampoline.

  “No $%#*ing way,” Joe Jr. answers.

  “You don’t have to be a douche about it,” Hannah says. “Shit. Gerald here thought you were his friend.”

  I look at him and shrug.

  Joe sighs and crosses his arms. “Yeah. Well, friends tell each other how it is. And this is how it is.”

  I stare at Joe. I try to figure out what I’m doing here. Why I came. Why I dragged Hannah along. What we’re going to do now. I stare at the trapeze. I try to picture Lisi and me. I try to picture ice cream, but it’s all gone now. All that Gersday. MG has completely landed me in the present. No more future Gerald at nineteen. No more bluebirds.

  Joe looks like he feels bad now. “Look. You can stay in our chalet. Just for the night, though, okay? Big Joe will kill me if he thinks I invited you.”

  Only circus people can get away with calling something a chalet.

  57

  JOE’S FAMILY EATS together at a huge table in the main house. There are four chalets that surround it at a distance, and an uncountable number of sheds and barns. Joe introduces us as his “friends from New York” and we are introduced to two other sets of visitors—a couple from Colorado and a couple from England.

  Joe’s mother says, “All the way from England!”

  They have accents like Nanny’s. I instantly want to coat their plates with toilet water.

  Then Hannah puts her hand on my leg under the table as if she sees that their accents grate on me. Her hand reminds me that I am in Florida in 2013,
not on TV in 2002. It’s hard to remember sometimes that a normal life is possible for the Crapper. Joe’s family doesn’t recognize me. Yet.

  “I think the $%#*ing French act sucks,” Big Joe says. “It’s all $%#*ing fire and flashy but there’s no talent in it. So what if some guy jumps through a $%#*ing ring of fire? Jesus! It’s been done to $%#*ing death.”

  “True,” Joe Sr.’s wife says. “It’s been done a lot.”

  “I don’t know,” the Englishwoman says. “I think it’s sweet the way they’re imitating the old animal tricks. The ball balancing and all that. It’s cute. Arty.”

  Joe Sr. looks at her as if she’s an idiot and goes back to eating his roast beef.

  At last count, Joe Jr. has five siblings. It seems all of them are married. The only people who seem to notice Hannah and me are the kids, who are eating in the adjacent room, having a loud conversation of their own. Twice now, a little guy—maybe four or five years old—has come up to me and given me some of his clay.

  There’s something about the tension around the adult table. It’s like they’re all about to kill one another, but something is stopping them. Maybe it’s the fact that they have company all the way from England! Maybe it’s the fact that they have a TV on—a flat screen mounted to the wall behind Mrs. Joe’s head—that’s airing the day’s local news. Something about an alligator. Something about a shooting. Something about an accident. Something about a bald kid with cancer.

  Then a story comes on about tonight’s finale in Dance On, America!, a reality TV show, and Mrs. Joe says, “Oh my god, if Helen doesn’t win this show, I’ll be so angry.”

  “She deserves it,” someone says.

  “I like Jennifer. I think she’ll take first place,” a sister says.

  “Yeah. Jennifer.”

  “Jennifer can barely stand up straight,” someone else says. “Helen totally deserves this win.”

  Mrs. Joe nods at this and can’t keep her eyes off the news-show footage from last week. Two women in dancewear evening gowns, grinding and doing the latest pop-dance moves.

  “Helen is too old,” a brother says.

  His wife smacks his arm. “Age shouldn’t matter. You’re such an idiot.”

  “She’s not that old,” a sister-in-law offers. “She’s only twenty-nine, I think.”

  “Like you’re twenty-nine.”

  “$%#* off,” the sister-in-law says.

  “Jennifer is better at the sexy stuff. Helen is better at the older-woman stuff.”

  “Christ,” someone says. “The older-woman stuff? What the $%#* does that mean?”

  “It means more men will vote for Jennifer,” a brother-in-law teases.

  “No doubt.”

  “Do you guys ever think about anything other than sex?”

  Most of the men in the room shake their heads.

  “Helen is more talented. If she loses, then I’ll lose faith in the whole world. She deserves it,” Mrs. Joe says.

  I think: Wow. And I thought I was the only one who was allowed to base my faith in the whole world on reality TV.

  “Sex sells,” a sister says.

  “It’s why you married me, right?” her husband says.

  She hides her head in her hand and says, “Not in front of my parents, Don.”

  Joe Sr. says, “How’d you think we brought you all into the $%#*ing world?”

  The sister’s face gets redder with embarrassment. “Oh god.”

  “I’m just saying Helen is a better dancer. It’s Dance On, America! It’s supposed to be about who the best dancer is.”

  “I think Jennifer is the better dancer,” a brother says.

  “That’s because you’re a man.”

  “You’re a $%#*ing idiot,” he replies.

  “And you’re a lazy asshole,” someone says.

  A sister—the youngest-looking one, maybe in her early twenties—stands up and throws her empty plate at the floor to shut everyone up. It works. We all stare at her. “Who gives a $%#* about Dance On, America!?” she says. Everyone looks at her, ready to pounce on whatever she says. Then she smiles and looks at her boyfriend/husband, who’s sitting next to her. “We’re $%#*ing pregnant!”

  After the loud response and the many claps on the back and hugs, the women start clearing the table. I excuse myself and go back to the chalet. Hannah stays. Joe Jr. eventually shows up at the chalet and knocks on the door before he lets himself in.

  “Sorry,” he says. “My family is a freak show.”

  “Not really,” I say.

  “Totally. We’d be candidates for some reality TV show. People would love to watch us fight over who’s going to win $%#*ing Dance On, America!”

  I chuckle. He senses my mood.

  “You okay?” he asks.

  “Yeah. Just taking a break. It’s been a weird week,” I say.

  As Joe Jr. takes out a cigarette and lights it and then digs around in the kitchen of the chalet for an ashtray, I try to figure out what day it is. I think it’s Monday. I ask, “Is it Monday?”

  “Yep.”

  “Shit,” I say.

  “You supposed to be somewhere else?” he asks.

  “Kinda.”

  “I was serious when I said all that shit today, Gerald.”

  “I know.”

  “You have choices. You have so many things you can do,” he says, spreading his arms wide. “So many things.”

  “So do you,” I say. “Are you chained here? I think not.”

  He takes a drag on his cigarette.

  “The reason I stayed friends with you is because you were like an escape,” I say. “When the shit hit the fan at home, I could dream of coming down here with you. We could clean the buses together. We could bitch about your dad together. You could teach me how to smoke.”

  “That’s exactly why you shouldn’t be here. You don’t want to learn to smoke. You shouldn’t want to live like this,” he says. “You’re either born into it, or you’re not.”

  I think about what I was born into.

  He drags on the cigarette again. “And being born into it isn’t as great as it seems. But it means I have something. Like roots, but not roots.”

  “Do you know who I am?” I ask. I feel like I don’t have control over my mouth.

  “What do you mean? Like—should I?”

  “Maybe. Depends.”

  He looks at me more closely. “I don’t recognize you from America’s Most Wanted or anything. You’re not in trouble, are you?”

  “Do you remember a little kid named Gerald? From Network Nanny?”

  He cocks his head to the side to think better. “Nope. I don’t remember that,” he says. “When was it on?”

  “When we were little. Probably six or seven,” I say. “The kid crapped on stuff all the time.”

  Joe Jr. cracks a smile. “Oh! The Crapper! I’ve heard of him but never saw him. Dad makes jokes about how bad the talent is sometimes and says he might as well have got the Crapper for the second act and stuff like that.” He nods as if this is all great until he realizes that I might be the Crapper. “Hold on,” he says. “Is that you?”

  I raise my eyebrows and smirk.

  I demand to be the Crapper and be proud of being the Crapper.

  “Shit,” he says. “Sorry.”

  “You’re not the only person who grew up in a circus,” I say. “And maybe my staying here wouldn’t be as bad as you think, you know?”

  “Except that you can’t. I mean—it’s the off-season. We don’t go anywhere for another month and a half. We sent the crew home. There’re no paychecks until we start again.”

  “Oh,” I say, and I feel a distant relief because I didn’t really want to clean buses for minimum wage anyway.

  “Yeah,” he says, then stubs his cigarette out in the ashtray.

  Once we get out into the darkness, he says, “No shit—you’re the Crapper?”

  “Yep.”

  “I never saw you in action. I’ve heard stories, thou
gh.”

  “I bet.”

  “You’re not going to crap in my chalet, are you?”

  I hit him on the arm. “Dude. I’m seventeen.”

  “So?”

  “So, no, I will not crap in your chalet,” I say.

  “Why’d you really come down here?” he asks.

  “We wanted to run away, so this was as good a place as any. Plus, I’ve been watching this video.” I stop here. I don’t want him to know about my obsession with the video.

  “Porn?” he asks.

  “No!” I say. “Shit.”

  “What’s wrong with porn?” he asks.

  “It’s a trapeze video. From Monaco,” I say.

  “It’s $%#*ing incredible, isn’t it? The one with the Chinese girls?”

  “Yeah.” I nod. “$%#*ing amazing.”

  We walk to the main house and don’t say much more. There’s something about Joe Jr. that makes me know that we’ll be friends for life. I can see me taking my kids to his circus. I can see us drinking beers on a summer night in my backyard or something. We stand outside the back door of his house and listen to the family arguing. It’s loud. Someone bangs a table. There is cackling laughter. There is outrage and more laughter.

  “Welcome to my hell.”

  “You can always come to New York with us,” I say.

  “I thought you were from Pennsylvania.”

  “I thought you thought I was from New York.”

  We look at each other. I think: Why did I just make it easier for him by saying I was from New York?

  I demand to demand that I am from Pennsylvania.

  I demand to stop being such a $%#*ing pushover.

  “Forget it,” I say. “I mean you can always untie your roots and come visit us, wherever we end up.”

  We walk into the loud celebration. Someone has found a bottle of champagne to celebrate the new baby-on-the-way. Someone else is still talking about how Jennifer shouldn’t win and that the world is an oversexed mess because of people like Jennifer.

  Hannah is sitting in the middle of all of it on her own, smiling. When she sees us walk in, she smiles even wider. I take my place next to her at the table and we hold hands.

 
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