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Still life with tornado, p.23
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.23

           A. S. King
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  I tell him, “You can always move back, you know.”

  • • •

  The Sarahs and Mom are all sitting around the big table in the study and they’re having a conversation about me. I know this because when Bruce and I walk in the door, they stop talking.

  I walk Bruce over to the windowsill where he sits in front of the last geranium Mom ever bought. I say, “Bruce, this is ten-year-old Sarah. You remember her, I’m sure.” Ten-year-old Sarah waves her circular wave and has tears in her eyes.

  “That’s twenty-three-year-old Sarah. She thinks she knows everything but she really doesn’t. But she means well.” Twenty-three-year-old Sarah gives me the finger and I give it back to her.

  “And that’s forty-year-old Sarah. You’ve already met.”

  Bruce leans against the windowsill and smiles. I don’t know why he’s smiling. On the table is a large bowl of tortilla chips—already half empty—and a little bowl of homemade white queso dip. “Sarah made that,” Mom says, pointing at forty-year-old Sarah.

  I try some. “Wow. That’s good,” I say.

  “Nice to know I improve,” twenty-three-year-old Sarah says. “Last time I made this it was runny and tasted like plastic.”

  “You used the wrong kind of cheese,” forty-year-old Sarah says.

  “Okay, so this isn’t a joke,” Bruce finally says. “You’re all really . . . you.”

  I say, “Yeah.” I look at my three other Sarahs and I don’t feel as numb as I did yesterday. I feel like doing something with my hands.

  Ten-year-old Sarah says, “I’m so glad you came back!” and gets up from the table and hugs Bruce. Of the four of us Sarahs, she is the most traumatized by what happened in Mexico. I am most traumatized by what happened before Mexico. Twenty-three-year-old Sarah is most traumatized by having once been me. I have no idea what forty-year-old Sarah is most traumatized by.

  When I ask her, she says, “Traumatized? I don’t know.”

  I go to the kitchen and open the bottom drawer and retrieve the tinfoil. I return to the table with it and start ripping off pieces that are long enough to fit around my head.

  Mom sits at the head of the table. She smiles—like maybe it’s cool to have four daughters instead of just one truant sixteen-year-old. I start to scrunch the tinfoil into strong bands that will act as the base of my crown. I add shapes every few inches by molding the foil into itself.

  Bruce says, “It’s like I suddenly have four sisters.”

  “We didn’t want to freak you out,” twenty-three-year-old Sarah says. “We came to help Mom pack Dad’s things.”

  “He has to pack his stuff by himself,” Bruce says. “He’ll probably be back tomorrow. We should all stay.”

  “That would make me feel a lot better,” Mom says.

  “I can make dinner,” forty-year-old Sarah says.

  I say, “I’ll help.”

  All Sarahs head for the kitchen. Ten-year-old Sarah sits at the study table with my tinfoil pieces. She adds beads and foam stickers to what I’d started. Then she grabs a few pieces of paper and my box of colored pencils and comes into the kitchen at the table. She draws all of us making dinner.

  Bruce and Mom talk about divorce in the living room. I’m glad to have a wall between me and divorce. I’m glad it’s happening, but I’m glad the adults are taking care of it. I want to be sixteen. I want to be a human being. Or four human beings. Or whatever I am.

  Twenty-three-year-old Sarah is surprisingly less judgmental around forty-year-old Sarah. Neither of them talk about art, which I find strange.

  “So, did we become an artist?” I ask them.

  “We can’t tell you that,” they say. “We can’t tell you what happens with you.”

  I point to ten-year-old Sarah. “She knows that in six years her parents will get divorced.”

  “And look at how well she draws!” they say. Ten-year-old Sarah looks up and grins. “She’s so talented!”

  “I’m having an existential crisis and you guys show up and you can’t tell me how it’s going to work out?” I think back to Tiffany and what she said. With talent comes pain or something like that.

  “You live,” they say. “See? We’re proof that you’ll figure it out.”

  “Doesn’t help,” I say.

  “But it’s original,” they say. “Isn’t that what you wanted? To be original?”

  “You’re original,” I say. “I’m still just me.”

  “If you want to see it that way, that’s up to you, Umbrella.”

  The phone rings. Mom answers it. She takes the call upstairs and stays there for a while. Bruce comes into the kitchen and sits with ten-year-old Sarah as she draws. After half an hour, I decide to see if Mom’s okay. Her bedroom door is open a crack. I can’t hear any talking.

  When I peek in, she’s curled on her bed with a box of tissues in her arms. A thousand scenarios go through my head.

  “Is everything okay?”

  She looks up, nods, and beckons me inside while she blows her nose.

  “I’m sorry, Sarah.”

  “For what?”

  “I’m sorry we’re getting a divorce.”

  “It’s not like anybody died or anything,” I say.

  She laugh-cries at that. A little bubble of snot forms and pops under her nose.

  “Well, it’s not,” I say. “Dad can move out. We can stay here. Everything will be fine. Plus, he won’t ever hurt you again.”

  At this, she cries a little because it must be hard living a lie for so long and having the person you were trying to save, save you instead. Not like I can take credit. I’m pretty sure it was ten-year-old Sarah who saved us both.

  • • •

  At dinner, I wear my tinfoil headpiece—seven sturdy rings intertwined with colorful additions from all the Sarahs. Twenty-three-year-old Sarah added a small rubber cupcake. Bruce used tape to secure a small pterodactyl toy. Forty-year-old Sarah went outside and found a feather from a pigeon and placed it long ways. Ten-year-old Sarah insisted on a unicorn sticker for the front. I am the queen of unicorns, cupcakes, pterodactyls, and feathers. I’m not sure over whom I rule, but I have a feeling it’s me.


  I’m a goddamn ER night nurse. Do you know what I’ve seen in my life? I’ve seen a thousand ways to die. I’ve met every kind of person you can imagine. I’ve met murderers and child molesters and people who starve their mothers to death.

  I’ve met men who killed their ex-wives. I’ve met the dead ex-wife. I’ve recorded her time of death on her chart. I’ve seen me in her.

  I’ve met the nicest people, too. Kids and moms and dads and uncles and nephews and grandmothers who are simple and kind.

  I’ve met Earl and a hundred more like him.

  I’ve met Rose and a hundred more like her.

  Every night there’s a drunk—sometimes a big one, sometimes a small one. Sometimes they swing but I know how to duck after living with Chet for twenty-eight years. I know how to duck.

  • • •

  It’s quiet in the house without Chet. It’s a quiet I wished for a million times but never got. When he left today, I wanted to feel relief but I didn’t feel it. I don’t think I’ll feel it until the papers are signed, the lawyers are paid, and the whole thing is over.

  I will never understand why he didn’t change. We could have had such a great life. We could have had some fun. Once he was gone there were no bottles hidden in the garage or the toilet cisterns. No pills or bags of smack or weed or anything. All that meanness was inside of him. Not a bottle. Not a pill. Not a needle. It was him.

  Nineteen years old. At nineteen years old I knew what he was. I stayed with him anyway. Make a note: You can’t change people with love. It doesn’t work that way.

  I’m forty-seven. I’m not going to sit here and tell
you I wasted all those years because I didn’t. I made a name for myself at work and helped thousands of people. I raised two excellent children. I know how to cook a decent Sunday roast. But the love I wasted on a man who couldn’t love himself is lost with those years. Lost as my twenty-twenty eyesight, lost as my beach body, lost as my hair color, lost as my ability to do a cartwheel.

  It’s like tossing a gourmet meal into a sewer.

  • • •

  I’m giving my middle fingers a rest.

  I’m not singing that song anymore and I’m not lying.

  That’s going to be the hardest part.

  I never thought I’d be a liar. Not to my own kids. Not to myself. I’m a goddamn ER night nurse. I tell the truth in dark twelve-hour shifts. Harsh truth. Maybe I needed one place in my life to not be an emergency. Maybe lying to myself was the only way I could sleep.

  I wanted quiet for so long.

  Now I can have it.

  You have no idea how much I want you to be careful. You have no idea how much I want to save you from what happened to me. Listen closely.

  Thick Skin

  I’m not sure what comes next. I don’t know where to find my future.

  I wake up in my room and ten-year-old Sarah is playing with my old Legos on my floor. Today is the day Mom meets with the lawyer. Today is the day Dad probably comes home to get his stuff.

  Up until now, I wasn’t nervous.

  As I lie in bed, I visit scenarios I shouldn’t visit. I think about Dad coming home and shooting us all. All four Sarahs, Bruce, and Mom. And probably himself. I shake the thought out of my head. I think about Dad coming home and not leaving ever again. Locking himself into his room. Barricading the door. I decide to get up and take a shower before the other Sarahs use all the hot water.

  How does this work?

  How do so many Sarahs exist in one place at one time?

  Does the answer matter when all the answers so far have been lies and windmills and half-truths and get-on-with-its?

  Thick skin is a fallacy. The skin is an organ. It isn’t just about pimples and freckles and sunburn and wrinkles. All skin is thick skin.

  I hear Mom and ten-year-old Sarah giggling and my skin absorbs the sound. The feeling. The idea of giggling. Skin lets things in and lets things out. It’s a two-way system. Right now, in the shower, I let out the art club.

  There are more important things in the world than the art club.

  Art can’t exist in the vacuum of emotion. It’s why Carmen draws tornadoes. It’s why Dad doesn’t draw anything at all. He’s the hole where the rat used to be. I guess if he wanted to change, he’d draw the rat. A million times, he’d draw the rat.

  I can’t figure out what I am if Dad is a rat.

  I can’t figure out what I am at all.

  I guess that’s why I’m here. Not in the shower, but in a houseful of Sarahs, in a city full of Earls, in a joust with a windmill. I can’t figure out what I am at all.

  Mom knocks on the bathroom door. She tells me to hurry up. She says, “We’re going out for breakfast.”

  I try to imagine four Sarahs, a Bruce, and their mother going out to breakfast. What restaurant could handle all of us?

  The only thing the waiter says is “What a beautiful family!”

  And we are. We are a beautiful family.

  • • •

  Mom and Bruce go to the lawyer’s office together. All Sarahs stay at the house and hope Dad doesn’t come home. We sit at the study table.

  10: You’re all so uptight. Dad isn’t gonna freak out again.

  ME: You don’t know that.

  23: She has a point. We’d just call the police again. He knows that.

  ME: It doesn’t matter what he knows. He can’t control himself.

  40: His whole gig is control. He’ll be fine. We’ll talk to him.

  23: He won’t know what to do with us.

  10: I’ve met him twice and he still has no idea who I am.

  ME: True. She even came over for dinner.

  23: You went to dinner?

  10: We ate tacos.

  ME: He thinks her name is Katie.

  40: Katie?

  10: It was the first name that came to mind.

  ME: She even played “Eleanor Rigby” for him on piano.

  40: God, I’d love to hear that.

  Ten-year-old Sarah sits at the piano and plays her rusty version again. She tells me to play, so I do and it’s a little less rusty than it was when I played for Mom last week. Twenty-three-year-old Sarah looks sad. Forty-year-old Sarah says, “I really should take up piano again.”

  23: Me too.

  ME: The skin is the largest organ in the human body. Did you know that?

  10: If you know it, then we all know it.

  23: We have thick skin. I know that.

  ME: I’m still mad about never finding out who stole the headpiece. I know I shouldn’t be. I know I should get over it. I just want to know.

  40: You find out.

  23: I do?

  ME: I do?

  10: Who was it?

  40: It’s exactly who you think it is.

  ME: How did you find out?

  40: Carmen.

  ME: You still know Carmen?

  40: She’s my best friend.

  23: I’m so glad. She’s been so hard to reach lately. I thought things were going to go bad between us.

  40: You’re spending too much time with your boyfriend. She thinks he’s an asshole but can’t tell you.

  10: I don’t even know how you can go with boys. They’re so dumb.

  ME: So it was Vicky? Or Miss Smith?

  40: Trust your gut.

  I know it was both. Vicky. And Miss Smith. I find my queen of the unicorns tinfoil headpiece and start working on it again. More foil. Spikes like the Statue of Liberty, but longer and more disorganized.

  ME: But the whole art club knew, though, right?

  40: Carmen didn’t know, but then she found out. The art club still has a page on The Social.

  23: That’s pathetic.

  ME: Do they all become famous artists?

  40: What do you think?

  23: I very much doubt any of them become famous artists.

  10: Most famous artists only become famous after they die, anyway. Like José Guadalupe Posada.

  I try on my new crown and stand up to see myself in the mirror. It needs work. The spikes aren’t looking as good as I thought they would.

  40: So, I took care of the Miss Smith thing yesterday. I figured you’d want to know.

  23: Sick bitch. I read about that.

  40: I know you wanted to let it go. I did, too, when I was you. But some things you just can’t paint over.

  Some things you just can’t paint over. I think about 40 and how she doesn’t seem married or in love with anyone. I think about how Tiffany ignored my question about love when she read my palm. I don’t know how much control I have over my Sarahs. Are they really me or are they the me I think I’ll be? I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer to this. Not until it happens.

  10: Can I wear your crown?

  I hand her the crown and say, “You can keep it. It looks best on you.”

  A car parks in front of the house and a car door slams. Ten-year-old Sarah goes to the front window and says, “It’s Dad.” I text Mom the way she told me to. I text Bruce, too, in case Mom is too busy to read her texts.

  All Sarahs stand in the living room. 40 has her hands on her hips. 23 blocks the way to the kitchen. 10 opens the door. I sit on the stairs because I want a good view.

  Dad hangs his head. I have seen this act before. He is now sorry for everything he did when he did it. He is now in control by being sorry for losing control. If his character had a name in ou
r play, he would be called Pathetic Rat.

  PR (doesn’t look up): Please don’t ask me to leave. Let me say some things first.

  40: Who are you talking to?

  PR stops and slowly looks up. His face contorts.

  PR: Who are you?

  40: Who are you?

  PR: Sarah, who are these people? Oh, hi—um—Katie. Nice to see you again . . . I don’t understand what you’re all doing here.

  23: We’re waiting for Mom to get back.

  PR blinks and his frown is a thinking frown but an angry frown at the same time. His tail is between his legs.

  40: We’re here to help you pack.

  23 (points to boxes in living room): I have a few boxes I found in the basement.

  40: Bruce got the suitcases out of the attic this morning.

  • • •

  There is something in the room with us. It’s familiar. It’s a feeling I’ve known my whole life but never talked about. It’s an invisible man or monster under the bed.

  History. That’s what it is. History is in the room with us. You absorb it even if it’s not happening right in front of you. You absorb the feeling of it. It’s there even though it’s not there. It’s in your skin.

  ME: You should really get started before Mom gets home.

  PR: I don’t have to go anywhere.

  40: Don’t be a dick, Dad. You have to go and you know it.

  23: It’s about time.

  10: You never fooled me, you know.

  If this were a movie or a cartoon, Dad would faint. That’s what it looks like and feels like. It feels like something big just happened. Like we’re all inside a cloud of thick magician’s smoke. Magic has happened. The truth has set him free. History finally caught up with him—the rat who never admitted he was a rat.

  I think of the joust. Two riders galloping at full force toward each other. We are one rider. Dad is the other. All of us in armor meant to protect us from the storm of bullshit. As we ride, the adrenaline rises as we aim our lances. But then Dad falls off his horse before we ever get to knock him off.

  This is Art

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