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Still life with tornado, p.24
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.24

           A. S. King
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40 got Dad to pack his bags. 23 helped him figure out where he could stay. She had her phone app set to one-bedroom apartments in Center City. 10 stayed with me because she was scared. I played a game of Uno with her and she beat me and left me with a handful of high-value cards. Neither of us wanted to be home when Mom came back, but we stayed because 23 and 40 told us we should.

  40: You should watch it end. If you don’t, you’ll always wonder.

  23: Nothing bad is going to happen, I promise.

  10: It’s too sad.

  ME: We’ll be safe now.

  When Mom and Bruce come through the door, the Pathetic Rat hangs his head again. He starts his entrance speech from the beginning. He says, “Please don’t make me leave. Let me say some things first.”

  Mom says, “We’ll talk in the kitchen. Alone.”

  We all know that you can’t be alone in our kitchen. We all sit down in the living room because we’ll hear it from here. 10 sidles up next to Bruce on the love seat and he puts his arm around her and gives her a side-hug. I sit between 23 and 40 on the couch. 23. 16. 40. Our arms touch. Only our skin is between us. Thick skin. We heal fast.

  23 says, “I’m sorry I was such a bitch to you at first.”

  “You didn’t take me seriously,” I say.

  “Yeah. I guess.”

  “You made fun of my new name.”

  “Sorry. But—Umbrella?”

  I say, “It has deeper meanings.”

  “I know,” she says. “I’m you.”

  “So why choose to make fun of me? Why not just be nice?”

  40 says, “Being twenty-three is hard. You’ll see.”

  “No one takes me seriously, either,” 23 says.

  We hear Mom say “You never took me seriously” in the kitchen.

  She’s forty-seven years old. Maybe we’re destined to never be taken seriously.

  Dad is begging in the kitchen. Mom has taken the weekend off—first full weekend since Mexico she won’t be in the ER sewing people together at three o’clock in the morning. We have plans.

  40 says, “It’s getting late. We have to go or else we won’t have enough time.”

  Bruce says, “She’ll be done in a few minutes.”

  In the kitchen, Mom says, “I have to be somewhere.”

  “We can still talk, though, right? I’ll call you over the weekend. We’ll call it a trial separation,” Dad says.

  “Call it whatever makes you feel okay about it,” Mom answers.

  Bruce says, “He’s staying with a friend for a week.”

  23 says, “We’ll have to rent the apartment for him. He’ll never do it himself.”

  “Mom took care of it,” Bruce says. “The lawyer knows a guy. It’s all taken care of.”

  It’s all taken care of.

  40 calls Dad a taxi on Bruce’s phone. She gets up from the couch and tidies the mantel after Dad’s rearrangement of the house yesterday. She says she wants a picture of all of us so she can give it to Mom.

  We all pile onto the couch and put our heads together. 10 is up front, lying across our laps. Bruce holds his arm out as far as he can and takes a bunch of pictures of the five of us with his phone. A few of them are serious—we smile and look posed. Toward the end, we’re laughing. I tickle 10 and then 23 tickles 40 and someone tickles me and some of the pictures on Bruce’s phone are priceless, like Three Musicians.

  I think of Earl.

  This is art.

  The five of us. 40, 23, 10, me, and Bruce.

  The two of us. Me and Bruce.


  I am art.

  I have become Spain. I have become Macedonia. Life is art. Truth is art. Art doesn’t steal. Art just is. You can take a break from art. You can make art for seventy-two hours straight if you want. You can breathe in and out and that is art. You can hold your breath and that is art.

  Blinking is art. Snoring is art. Sneezing is art. It’s not complicated. No one needs to be better than anyone else. That is not art. That is anti-art. Art is inclusive and it’s the murals all over this city and it’s the kids in the park and the old people you see at the corner grocery who only buy four things at a time. Art is dog shit next to a tree on Locust Street. Art is the sound of the Dumpster service behind the pizza place at four in the morning. Art is as big as Liberty Two. Art is as small as two wedding rings at the bottom of the sea.

  You get the picture.

  Nothing new ever really happens.

  All Before It

  The museum closes at five and we get there just after one. We travel in a pack and don’t split up even when Bruce drags us through the medieval art. Ten-year-old Sarah really wants to see the armor room, but she knows we’ll get there. She holds Mom’s hand, and I’m not jealous even for a second.

  We get to the gallery with Salvador Dalí’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civl War), and Mom stops in front of it. “Grotesque, but I like it,” she says. This is a woman who reaches into people’s bodies and removes foreign objects and sometimes small animals and sometimes four hundred pills.

  I tell them I want to show them Sleeping Girl. They follow me through the maze of contemporary galleries and I get to where the Lichtenstein was, but it’s not there anymore. I ask the security guard, “Where’d the Lichtenstein go?”

  She answers, “They moved it last week.”

  Sleeping girl. On the move. Maybe she woke up. Maybe she’s happier now.

  40 says, “Where’s the Twombly room?”

  I lead us to the Twombly room. Ten-year-old Sarah gets impatient for the armor. She says, “This looks like scribbling!” I tell her to be quiet and point to the writing at the bottom of my favorite piece in the collection. It says: Like a fire that consumes all before it.

  All of us stop here.

  All of us stop at this scratched message meant just for us.

  We are allowed to relax now.

  Mom takes a deep breath and I hug her and Bruce hugs both of us and the Sarahs gather round and we form a family of Spain. A family of Macedonia.

  This family—no matter what it looks like on any given day—we are art.

  Mom says, “I’m so sorry,” and her words are art.

  I say, “You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” and my words are art.

  Bruce says, “I missed you so much,” and his words are art.

  We are so consumed by all before it we don’t see the others leave us. We are suddenly three. Three relaxed people. They didn’t even say good-bye.

  This is what’s left.

  It’s everything we need.

  Nobody said There’s nothing we can do about it. We did something.

  It’s not like anybody died or anything.

  I wonder if I’ll ever see ten-year-old Sarah again. I decide that I will.

  Then I see my reflection on the glass outside the Twombly room and I see her there. Ten-year-old Sarah is there. In my reflection.

  I did this.

  I did it my own way, just like the headpiece. No one else would understand what my skin absorbed in all those years of lying.

  I will sweat out the lies.

  I will sweat out the truth.

  My scars will tell stories until the day I stop breathing.

  Thick skin? You can’t make art if you can’t feel the tips of your fingers.

  So I had an existential crisis. I didn’t know why I was here. I couldn’t draw a pear. Who cares? I saw a teacher kissing a student. I had my art project sabotaged. I lived inside a thirteen-million-peso windmill that couldn’t generate electricity. Some days I carry an umbrella in case it rains bullshit.

  I am a human being. I am sixteen years old.

  And that is enough.

  • • •

  I get a text on my phone from Bruce, who is standin
g in the same hallway with me. It’s our picture—all four Sarahs on the couch, and Bruce. I regret not taking ten-year-old Sarah to the armor room one last time, so I go there myself.

  There’s a detour. Strange. I have to slow down behind a guy on the steps who’s carrying a ladder, then weave around to the right to get into the armor gallery from a side door. But I want to see where the guy with the ladder is going, so I follow him to a gallery room that’s sealed off with plastic. There’s a sign. PARDON OUR APPEARANCE. WE’RE SETTING UP A NEW EXHIBIT! The whole second floor smells like fresh paint.

  He parts the plastic and walks through it and I stop because I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble if I go into the room. I stand there and try to see through the plastic, but it’s several sheets thick and everything is blurry like heavy rain on a bus windshield.

  I open the plastic overlap a little and peek in and it’s just blank walls. Whiter than white. Blanker than blank. Just like me. But this is a fresh start. In a week or two, this room will house something new—something I’ve never seen before. Just like me. I stand there until the security guard from the adjacent armor room taps me lightly on the shoulder. I say, “Sorry,” but I don’t really mean it. I’ve been to this museum so many times and I’ve never been as moved as this—by something so ordinary. A blank room. A man with a ladder. The smell of fresh paint. Construction.

  The burr in my sternum melts and I can’t feel its spurs anymore. I walk around a big pillar and into the armor room with my hand on my chest. I think of ten-year-old Sarah and I remember she had the burr. I never met six-year-old Sarah, but I know she had the burr, too. And now it’s gone. Just like that.

  • • •

  I stare at the sixteenth-century Saxon armor with its chest spike. I picture this armor in action. Jousting—galloping full speed at another man on a horse, aiming a huge stick at him and thinking of nothing else but to knock him off. It’s a furious pace. It’s a violent game. Your heart beats out of its cage. Every time it’s original because you never know what’s going to happen.

  As I stare at the armor, I decide to get back on my horse. I decide that tomorrow, I’m going to draw a pear. I decide originality is inborn, same as my circular fun wave. I decide something new happens every single day.

  I am left with myself—I can’t get away from her.

  I tell her: Slow down.

  I tell her: You can’t listen closely when you’re galloping.

  I tell her: Maybe if you take off all that armor, you won’t feel so heavy.


  Books don’t find their way to readers all by themselves. I owe thanks to many people.

  None of my books would have been possible without Andrew Karre, who plucked me from obscurity after fifteen years of rejection letters. But this book wouldn’t be possible if not for his continuing belief in me. Thank you, AK. Also, to the fine people at Dutton, all of you—thank you. And Michael Bourret, thank you for always steering me in the right direction. You are my ambassador of Kwan and I am so grateful.

  My sister Robyn, a solid-scrubs kind of ER nurse: Thank you for Mexico where this book was born and thank you for putting people together again in the middle of the night. Kathryn Gaglione Hughes, thank you so much for the bus stop—this book is proof that graduate lectures inspire. Azaan, Kate, Isabel, and Lilly from Austin TBF in fall 2014: Thank you for encouraging me to keep writing a book that was causing me pain and confusion. Your words were gold.

  These friends helped me deal with a lot of crazy stuff during the writing of this novel: Kathy Snyder, C.G. Watson, e.E. Charlton- Trujillo, Beth Kephart, Zac Brewer, Sr., Kim Miller, Andrew Smith, Beth Zimmerman, and a few others not listed here because it’s hard to remember everyone at one time. I can’t thank you enough for your advice, listening ears, kindness. Without friends like you, nothing new would ever happen. And as always, thank you to my readers. All of you. And to the librarians, booksellers, teachers, bloggers, and anyone who digs my groove enough to pass the word along. Your support means the world to me. My gratitude is galaxy-sized.

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  A. S. King, Still Life With Tornado



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