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Please ignore vera dietz, p.3
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.3

           A. S. King
 
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They’re wearing his favorite Sonic Youth T-shirt with the hole in the front left shoulder. They’re wearing his favorite oil-stained Levi’s 501’s with the frayed bottoms. They don’t say anything. They just glide in, surround me, and then inflate themselves to fill the space completely and breathe my air right out of my lungs. I am suffocating.

  I look at the nearest one and see through his translucent skin. I say, “You aren’t Charlie.”

  I say, “Charlie is dead.”

  He smiles at me. I see four eyes behind his Charlie mask. Eight eyes. I see sixteen eyes. Thirty-two. He is an alien. From outer space. He is a trick-or-treater. He is an embryo. He is a dream.

  “Did you say something?” Jill asks, poking her head around the corner from where she’s making a big vat of sauce.

  I look over at her, and they are gone.

  THE FIRST NIGHT IT HAPPENED

  The first night it happened, I followed them into the strip mall parking lot. They were all stuffed into a silver-gray Honda—all thousand of them. This was back in November. Charlie had only been dead two months then.

  One minute I was sitting on the side of a country road, taking shots of Smirnoff and counting my tips before I went back to the store to close, the next minute I was in the middle of a science fiction movie, complete with a jet-powered Honda Civic and a thousand translucent zombielike beings who looked like Charlie.

  When I followed them to the mall, they stopped outside Zimmerman’s Pet Store and all thousand of them got out, holding hands and two-dimensional, like cutout accordion dolls. They climbed into the front window with the black Labrador puppies and beckoned with flat, paperlike fingers.

  They are trying to get me to come to terms with what happened there. They are trying to get me to clear Charlie’s name, but I’m just not ready to do that yet.

  HISTORY—AGE ELEVEN

  The first time Charlie Kahn tried to make me smoke a cigarette, I was eleven years old. I combated him with health class facts and my father’s numbers.

  “Did you know a pack-a-day smoker spends one thousand, five hundred dollars a year on cigarettes? Holy shit, Charlie, that’s like the price of a car!”

  He inhaled, and then exhaled through his nose. He never coughed. Smoking was probably good for him. It was the only time he’d actually sit still for five minutes.

  “What’s fifteen hundred bucks? People spend that in a month on shit they don’t even need. Like lawn ornaments. Who the fuck needs lawn ornaments?”

  We’d just walked past the Ungers’ house on our way to the blue trail. The Ungers were my neighbors on the other side, though their house was at least a hundred yards away from mine on Overlook Road, which put it close to two hundred yards from Charlie’s house. (The order, starting at the hairpin curve, was the pagoda, the Ungers, us, the Kahns, and then the Millers way down the hill, on the other side of the road, and then the lake.) The Ungers had a boat in the driveway that they used twice every summer and two Cadillacs. The Ungers had three faux-Grecian birdbaths and a garish assortment of rose-and-blue-tinted lawn balls. They had lawn jockeys (the black kind) and three cement deer—a doe and two fawns. They had gnomes.

  Charlie and I liked to hide the gnomes. Or just move them around. One time, Charlie got two of them and laid them down on top of each other. “Gnome sex!” he said, which embarrassed me completely, but still, I laughed.

  “Well, smoking’s bad for you,” I said. “And you know it.”

  Charlie put out his cigarette on the road and the two of us headed toward the blue trail—a three-mile-round hiking path on the city’s land between the pagoda and the lake, where people walked their dogs (but didn’t clean up after them) and brought their families on weekends. Just as we got to the trail, a car crept up Overlook Road. It slowed, and then stopped.

  “Hey, kids! What’re you doin’?”

  “None of your business,” Charlie said, scowling.

  “Want ten dollars?”

  “For what?” Charlie moved in front of me on instinct.

  “I—uh—take pictures for the newspaper.”

  “And?”

  The guy was too weird to be for real. His car was too skanky—a white boxy Chrysler that hadn’t been washed in months.

  Charlie stared at him.

  “Pretty blond pigtails,” the guy said, shifting his head around to see me behind Charlie.

  “Fuck off,” Charlie said. “You fucking pervert.”

  “Hey, come on now, kid, I wa—”

  “Vera! Run!”

  I ran. Up the blue trail to the first fork in the path. I took the right, which was the circle back to the small parking area on Overlook Road, right across the street from our houses. I didn’t look back until I heard fast footsteps behind me. Then I heard the car take off.

  Charlie was jumping, he was so full of adrenaline. “Holy shit. That guy was a real pervert.”

  “You think?” I asked, checking each shoe sole for dog shit.

  “He offered me twenty after you left.”

  “Ew,” I said. “I think we should tell my parents.” I knew his wouldn’t believe us or care. There was a reason Charlie was such a bright blazing sun. He came from endless cold, black space. “Did you get his license plate number?”

  “No. Let’s go to the tree,” he said, reaching into his pocket for another cigarette. “We can think about it then.”

  “But what if he comes after us?”

  “Let him try and climb the Master Oak. The spirit of the Great Hunter will protect us.”

  HISTORY—AGE SEVEN

  The first time Charlie Kahn told me about the spirit of the Great Hunter, we were seven. We were in Mrs. Grogan’s first-grade class, counting to one hundred.

  He leaned in and whispered, “The spirit of the Great Hunter loves the number seventy-two.”

  “Why?” I whispered back.

  “I don’t know. Maybe that’s when he died.”

  “You mean 1972?”

  “No, like how old he was.”

  “Oh,” I said, naturally embarrassed, even though being wrong with Charlie was something I was used to by then.

  As far as Charlie was concerned, the Great Hunter was an Indian spirit who lived in our woods. He drank from the lake. He watched the stars from the ridge. He protected hikers and hunters and tree-climbing little urchins like us, and he created the most sacred tree of all, the Master Oak, for us to grow up in.

  “How do you know?” I asked.

  “My dad told me.” Charlie adored his dad, like any seven-year-old son adores his father. Mr. Kahn loved to take him deer-spotting in mid-autumn, let him shoot a BB gun at targets behind the house, and told him stories about the Great Hunter.

  Later that morning, we had library time. The librarian gave us a picture to color. It was March. The picture was of some sort of leprechaun wedding. There were a bunch of forest animals on the fringes, throwing shamrocks at the happy couple.

  “Do you think we’ll get married one day?” I said.

  “To each other?” Charlie asked.

  “No, silly. I mean to other people.” (But really, I’d meant to each other.)

  He was cutting out the leprechaun even though that wasn’t the point of the project.

  “I don’t want to get married,” he answered, separating the bride from the groom. “Too much yelling.”

  I nodded as if I agreed, but my parents meditated and did yoga together, and didn’t yell.

  “Anyway”—he crumpled the paper with the hole from the groom and the image of the bride and tossed it, basketball-style, into the dull gray wastebasket ten feet away—“the Great Hunter rides solo.”

  Secretly, I mourned this.

  FRIDAY—FOUR TO CLOSE

  Today was a Vocab test and I drew a complete blank on the word swivet. So here’s me using swivet in a sentence.

  The thousand Charlies have me in such a swivet, I forgot to study for my Vocab test. I will not follow them into Zimmerman’s Pet Store no matter how many times they
try to drag me there. I will avoid the Pagoda Mall for the rest of my life if I have to.

  When I get to Pagoda Pizza after school, Marie is standing in the front with Greg, the owner, a BMW-driving yuppie who talks down to women, and she is nodding her head as he tells her crap she already knows.

  “You need to have the employees stock the cooler whenever it gets half empty so there’s always cold soda,” he says. “And make sure when they cut the six-packs into fours and twos that they don’t puncture the cans with the knife.”

  Marie has to pretend she’s interested even though she knows much more than he does about how to run his store. This is Greg’s first time running a business, I bet. Any other business owner would be more concerned with the employees cutting themselves, not the stupid cans.

  I walk into the back, where James and two part-time Pothead drivers are folding boxes and Frisbee-tossing them to the top of the stack, trying to land them without teetering the whole thing down on top of us.

  “Greg’s here, man. You might want to stop fucking around,” I say.

  “Greg’s an asshole,” Tommy Pothead says.

  “Yeah—Greg can suck my dick,” Dylan Pothead says.

  “Hey.” James slaps Dylan lightly on the forehead. “Don’t talk to Veer that way, man.”

  “Sorry, Vera.” Dylan makes a mocking bow. “I meant Greg can place his delicate BMW-driving mouth around the throbbing head of my member.”

  James shrugs.

  “Whatever,” I say. I turn to James. “What am I? Your little sister?”

  James grabs me, tucks me under his arm, and gives me a gentle noogie. He smells like Marlboros and soap.

  I squeeze onto the back steps after getting my change envelope (a ten, a five, four ones, and a dollar in change) and Pagoda Phone from the office, and fold boxes until the store phones begin to ring. Then I work up front because I have the ability to talk to customers and enter their orders into the computer, and the Potheads don’t. I send James on the first run—a five-stop cockroach-part-of-town circle—and then I set myself up for a trip through pastel suburbia. This time of year, it’s twice as fun because everyone has their Christmas lights up and is participating in the Who-Can-Flaunt-the-Tackiest-Collection-of-Obnoxious-Holiday-Bullshit Contest. This may prove me as parsimonious as my father, but who spends that much money on corny inflatable light-up Santa Clauses and spinning, singing reindeer? Who thought it was a good idea to mold plastic Nativity scenes that light up at night? Seriously. There are still children starving in Africa, right? There are still children starving right here in this shitty little town.

  I take as many suburbia runs as I can. Part of it is for better tips. Part of it is for safety, too. I can’t send James or the Potheads on every town run, but I can’t ignore the fact that I’m a girl. I never thought about this until I had a delivery on Maple Street during my first week delivering. I was about five minutes early, but the guy who answered the door said I was late. I knew I wasn’t. The sticker on the box said 7:32, and it was 7:55. I was seven minutes early. But he argued with me at the door, and when I told him to call my manager, he somehow got me to come in and walked me all the way through the skinny row house to the kitchen in the back, where I put the pizza down on so many skittering roaches, the box made a crackling noise. He got agitated then, when I reminded him to call my boss, and I realized I was so stupid to have ended up in this guy’s kitchen. Luckily, he wasn’t a crazy rapist. Luckily, he was just a poor guy who wanted free pizza.

  Though most people don’t even look at their pizza delivery person and most people never even figure out I’m a girl—especially in my steel-tipped boots with the Pagoda Pizza baseball cap down over my eyes—I still prefer suburbia. I guess it feels familiar or something. I know the roads. I know people who live there.

  I forget, until I drive by the high school on my way back from the burbs, where a thousand spinning, singing Santas live, that there’s a football game tonight. We’re playing Wilson, an old rival. The last Wilson versus Mount Pitts football game I went to, I was fourteen and Dad and I took Charlie with us. When we dropped him off after the game, I saw Mrs. Kahn was crying and seemed really shaken.

  As we drove out of Charlie’s drive, I said, “Dad? Do you think Mrs. Kahn is okay?”

  Dad said, “She’s fine, Vera.”

  “But she didn’t look fine, did she?”

  “Just ignore it,” Dad said.

  When he said that, I felt myself deflate a little. I’d spent the better part of my life hearing my father say “Just ignore it” about the loud arguments I’d hear coming through the woods from Charlie’s house.

  In summer, the trees cushioned us. I couldn’t see Charlie’s house and I couldn’t hear Mr. Kahn yelling. In winter, I could hear every word, depending on the direction the wind blew. I could hear every slap and every shove. I could hear him call her “stupid bitch” and could hear her bones rattle when he shook her. If I looked out at night, I could see the tiny orange ember at the end of Charlie’s cigarette getting brighter when he inhaled.

  “Ignore it,” my father would say, while my mother fidgeted in her favorite love seat.

  “But can’t we call someone to help her?”

  “She doesn’t want to be helped,” my mother would say.

  “She’ll have to help herself,” my father would correct. “It’s one of those things, Vera.”

  Dylan Pothead is smoking a joint in the parking lot when I get back. He holds it toward me, soggy end up.

  “No thanks, man.”

  “Suit yourself.”

  “Is it slow?”

  “Dunno. You tell me,” he says, giggling.

  There’s another reason I like James. He doesn’t smoke pot. Says it makes him paranoid.

  When I go in, it’s Friday night chaos. There are three different stacks of orders and the oven is packed with more.

  “Where are the rest of the drivers?” Marie asks, wiping sweat from her forehead with the back of her wrist.

  “Dylan’s outside,” I say.

  She looks up and squints out the plate glass. She knocks and startles him to attention, and he arrives in the store, still exhaling pot smoke.

  “Get your lazy stoner ass over here and pick this up.”

  She throws the hot bags to him, inserts the pizzas, shows him where they’re going on the map on the wall, and just as he’s forgetting the two six-packs of Coke, she runs over and balances them on top of the pizzas and opens the door for him.

  We watch him burn rubber as he takes off down the parking lot.

  “That kid is a total idiot,” she says.

  Marie says the basic requirement for employment these days is a heartbeat, which is why she doesn’t fire him. Even though he doesn’t mop the floor right when he closes, he still gets the same money I do, and I mop right. When he does the dishes, there’s dry food stuck on them in the morning that someone has to chip off with a table knife, but he’s still on the schedule, week after week.

  It seems the older people get, the more shit they ignore. Or, like Dad, they pay attention to stuff that distracts them from the more important things that they’re ignoring. While he’s busy clipping coupons, for instance, and telling me that a full-time job will teach me about the real world, Dad is overlooking that the guy on Maple Street could have killed me and chopped me up and distributed my body, piece by piece, along the side of the highway. He’s overlooking every story on the news about drivers being robbed at gunpoint, or getting carjacked.

  It’s one thing if he wants to ignore it. I guess that’s fine. I mean, I ignore plenty of stuff, like school spirit days and the dirty looks I get from the Detentionheads while I try to slink through the halls unnoticed. But there’s something about telling other people what to ignore that just doesn’t work for me. Especially things we shouldn’t be ignoring.

  Kid bullying you at school? Ignore him. Girl passing rumors? Ignore her. Eighth-grade teacher pinch your friend’s ass? Ignore it. Sexist geometry
teacher says girls shouldn’t go to college because they will only ever pop out babies and get fat? Ignore him. Hear that a girl in your class is being abused by her stepfather and had to go to the clinic? Hear she’s bringing her mother’s pills to school and selling them to pay for it? Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. Mind your own business. Don’t make waves. Fly under the radar. It’s just one of those things, Vera.

  I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. If we’re supposed to ignore everything that’s wrong with our lives, then I can’t see how we’ll ever make things right.

  It’s ten-thirty and we’re nearly down to closing crew. Dylan wants to leave early to go to a party, so he has Marie cash him out while I take my dinner break sitting on the cold stainless-steel counter in the prep kitchen, next to the sink.

  “You working New Year’s Eve?” Marie asks, counting out his commission.

  “You kidding?” he says, shaking his head. “Count me out, man.”

  “We could really use extra drivers. I’ll pay double commission.”

  Dylan isn’t even listening.

  “I’ll do it,” I say. Because what else do I have to do on New Year’s Eve now that Charlie is gone?

  HISTORY—AGE THIRTEEN

  The first New Year’s Eve I can remember making it to midnight was when I was eleven. It was snowing and my mom was still there, and when the ball came down in Times Square, I ran outside, barefoot in the snow, and I yelled “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” Charlie answered, “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” and it was so quiet from the insulating snowfall that it sounded like he was standing right next to me, even though he lived a hundred yards down the road and a skeletal woodland separated us.

  The next year, Mom said that we had to celebrate New Year’s Eve as a family. She made homemade eggnog and put out a bunch of leftover holiday (we couldn’t say “Christmas” anymore, because Mom and Dad “leaned toward the Buddha”) cookies on a tray. We didn’t know it yet, but this would be her last New Year’s Eve with us. It wasn’t any different than the previous ones. She looked into space a lot, didn’t say much, and kissed my father when midnight came, as if she were punching a time card.

 
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