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       Reality Boy, p.3

           A. S. King
 
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I checked to make sure I wasn’t still smiling. “Sorry,” I said.

  “Gerald, you and I are trying to work on some very serious behay-vyah issues and I can’t do it without your help.”

  “Yes.” Close-up of me nodding. I could see the camera’s lens swirling right into my face.

  The boom camera panned left as Nanny hugged me. It was a fake hug, like we were onstage. Her rib cage stabbed me. “I can help you do it, but I can’t do it for you. You undah-stand that?”

  I nodded because the director nodded.

  “Good. Now go tidy up your room and get ready for suppah. Your favorite tonight! Spaghetti and meatballs.”

  Thirty minutes later, I was chasing Tasha down the upstairs hall with a plastic lightsaber. When I caught up with her, I hit her with it so hard that it finally broke. The sharp edge of the broken plastic scratched her arm a little. There was no blood or anything, but when Mom saw it, she acted like I was some kind of an ax murderer and gathered Tasha into her arms and yelled at me. I ran back down the hall and down the stairs and was about to run out the door when I felt the tight, skeletal grip of Nanny.

  She dragged me to the behay-vyah chart in the kitchen. All my stickers for the day were removed and replaced with black dots and Nanny told me I’d be sent to bed with no spaghetti and meatballs. Tasha stood there and watched. She was pretend-crying—one of those noises that drove me to violence.

  “See what you did?” Nanny said. “Only a few minutes away from your favorite dinn-ah and you ruin it by being mean to your sist-ah! Gerald, I don’t undah-stand you at all.” When the cameras panned to me crying, Nanny checked her hair and makeup in the oven door. She was wearing shiny pink lipstick, like pink mother-of-pearl.

  “Cut!” the director yelled. After conferring with the other guys in charge and Real Nanny, he called Nanny over. Then he came over to me, Mom, and Tasha.

  “Look, our guys didn’t catch that fight with the lightsaber. I sent Tim out to buy a new one and if it’s okay with you, we’d like to get Gerald and Tasha to reenact it so we can get it in the reel.”

  Mom looked at the guy like he was insane. “You want my daughter to get beat up again for the sake of your show?” she asked.

  “We’d just like them to reenact it. If you don’t mind. Tim will be back in a minute. There’s a Toys“R”Us only a few minutes away. In the meantime, I’ll explain to Gerald and Tasha exactly what I want them to do. No real hitting.”

  Real Nanny didn’t look happy about this, either. She crossed her arms and said something to Fake Nanny, but Fake Nanny just shrugged.

  Mom blinked back tears and gave her precious Tasha to the director. I went willingly because this might be my chance to actually kill Tasha once and for all. On camera.

  The director set us free until Tim came back with the new lightsaber. I went straight into Mom’s walk-in closet and squatted over her favorite pair of penny loafers and left a hot, steaming turd inside each one.

  The reenacted fight was far lamer than the real fight because Tasha just sat there and cried and didn’t scream or punch me the way she had before. Plus, my lightsaber didn’t break, so I couldn’t try to plunge the sharp end into her eye or brain. Afterward, the cameramen went back downstairs because we were going to have a one-on-one scene with me and Nanny before she sent me to bed with no dinner.

  Then there was a scream from my parents’ room. The cameramen raced in to see the fuss as it unfolded. They started wide, with a view of Mom’s amazing closet and her impressive collection of shoes—from her dressy heels to her walking-sneaker collection—and then they zoomed in until the only things in the shot were her penny loafers and my turds.

  While Tasha and Mom were freaking out on camera, I escaped back to the kitchen. I sneaked a Rice Krispies Treat and went back to Gersday to buy another ice cream. In Gersday, there’s ice cream everywhere. Nobody’s there to storm into your room and knee you in the stomach to make you chase them with a lightsaber. Nobody is drowning.

  8

  “CRAPPER!”

  It’s Nichols. He walks past our stand and gives me the finger up high so I can see it above the heads of the people waiting in line. After our short break to eat leftover chicken and fries from the matinee at the PEC Center, it’s time to get ready for the five o’clock hockey game, and there are seventy people waiting in front of us.

  The hour before the game starts is a blur of large Pepsis, five-dollar Molsons, pretzels, fries, hot dogs, and nachos. All the while, I’m eating ice cream in Gersday because I can live in two days at once. This is another advantage I have over lesser humans.

  When Nichols comes back, he’s still flipping me the bird as he approaches my register.

  “Hey, Crapmeister. Can I have a Molson?” He throws down a five-dollar bill.

  I stare at him. I imagine how easy it would be for me to pull him over the counter, drag him behind the fry table, and press his face into the hot dog rollers. How fun it would be to dunk his head into the deep-fat fryer.

  “Dude. Did you hear me?” he yells, too loudly. I can feel Beth’s attention from the other side of the stand, and I know there is no way Nichols is getting his Molson.

  “I heard you. Sorry. My Molson is tapped,” I say.

  “I just saw her tap one a minute ago!” He points at Register #6 Lady. My hand reaches out toward him just a little and he sees it. His expression changes. I can’t tell if it’s fear or anger, but suddenly my heart rate goes up and I get ready to pounce. Everything goes silent in my head.

  “Is there a problem here?” Beth asks.

  Nichols smiles. “No. No problem. I was just asking this young man to get me a beer,” he says. Like a bigger moron than the moron he already was.

  “Can I see your ID?” Beth asks.

  It’s nice to see Nichols scurry off like a scared insect.

  Beth says, “Do you know him?”

  I say no, but she can tell I’m lying, and then she has to go over to #2 to check a hundred-dollar bill with her magic pen. I watch her walk away and catch myself staring at Register #1 Girl as she works. She even works beautiful.

  I face the next customer. “Can I help you?”

  “Can I have a pretzel?”

  “Sure,” I say. “That’ll be four dollars.”

  The kid fumbles with a handful of quarters and hands me sixteen of them.

  Nichols shows up at the side of my register, now with Todd. “Yo, Crapper. How about that Molson now?”

  “Excuse me. We’ve been waiting for five minutes,” the lady in front of me says to him. She’s in her full hockey-fan outfit, complete with this year’s new jersey, a pair of stonewashed jeans, and a pair of shit-kicker construction boots.

  “Yeah, well, I waited, too, and now I’m back,” Nichols says, leaning into my face, right over the counter. I lean into him—so close I can feel his breath. You can’t bully a bully. I’m the Crapper.

  I feel my right arm tense up. My fingers tingle. My adrenaline has already left the building. It’s heading to my fist, which is ready to fire in three… two… one…

  Hockey Lady grabs Nichols by the collar and says, “Little prick,” and pulls him back to the end of the line. Then she returns and smiles at me.

  “Thank you,” I say. I flex my right fist to get the feeling back. My insides feel woozy from the rush.

  “No problem,” she answers. “They should know not to mess with hockey fans. We don’t take any shit.”

  This makes me want to become a hockey fan. I would love to not take any shit.

  She orders a bunch of stuff and while she’s waiting on the buffalo wings, she scoots over so the next person can go. While I’m filling that person’s drink refill, the buffalo wings appear on the hot tray and I reach back and grab them. Then, as I’m handing them to the hockey lady, Nichols pops up in the back of the crowd. “I hope he crapped on those wings for you, bitch! That’s what the Crapper does best!”

  She looks at me and I can tell—she recognizes me. I avoid eye c
ontact, but she doesn’t go away. When I look back at her, she has this look on her face. I can’t describe it.

  I hand a soda to the customer in front of me and ignore her even though she’s still staring at me. As I’m making nachos for the next guy, one of her kids comes up and says, “Mom? Are you coming?” and she leaves with the kid.

  During the first period, we get a chance to clean up our counter and refill the condiment stations. Because I’m brawny, I always take the big bottles of ketchup and mustard over to the stand and fill them. Plus, it gets me away from the other six cashiers, who tend to want to talk and get to know their coworkers. Most of the time, they talk about TV shows.

  And I don’t watch TV.

  Ever.

  As I’m filling the second container of ketchup, the hockey-fan lady in the shit-kicker boots from before comes up to me and puts her hand on my shoulder.

  “You’re Gerald, aren’t you?”

  I stop and look at her. I can feel my face drop, and I nod.

  She has tears in her eyes. “You are?”

  I nod again.

  She squeezes my arm and says, “I am so sorry for what those people did to you.”

  I find myself paralyzed. It’s been more than ten years since it first aired, and I’ve tried to make it part of someone else’s childhood and move past it, like Roger says. I’ve tried to forget Network Nanny by not watching TV and by writing her pretend letters to tell her how I really felt. I’ve done all that. None of it made it go away. But this hockey lady is something brand-new. She just says it and I can’t move. Can’t speak.

  “You okay?” she asks. “I know it’s none of my business, but I couldn’t help it.”

  All I can do is nod.

  “I always wanted to find you and take you up into my arms and give you a hug. You poor boy,” she says.

  I nod again. I try to get back to my ketchup, but I can’t see anything through the glaze on my eyeballs. Everything is blurry.

  “Do you mind if I hug you?” she asks.

  I shake my head no.

  And when she hugs me, something really weird happens. Before I can even figure out what’s going on, I’m crying. Like, really crying. It’s like someone is twisting open a spigot. I’m facing the ketchup containers, so no one at stand five can see this. And the harder I cry, the more she hugs me and the softer she is. The longer I cry, the more I realize what’s happening.

  I am being hugged. In ten years, I have been recognized, scrutinized, analyzed, criticized, and even terrorized by a handful of the millions of Network Nanny viewers. Never was I hugged.

  I am completely silent as I cry. She is completely silent as she hugs me. After a few moments, she reaches behind me and grabs a few napkins and hands them to me. Beth comes over and asks if everything’s okay and when she sees I’m crying, she pats me on the back and tells me she’ll take register #7 for the rest of the day if I need her to.

  “No,” I say. “I’m fine.” I face the wall and the condiments and blow my nose and wipe my face. Beth goes back to the stand. I take a few deep breaths.

  Hockey Lady squeezes my arm and says, “I’ll stay in touch.” Then she walks away.

  I stand there for a minute and locate my invisible roll of plastic wrap and cover myself in it again—the barrier that keeps me from them. The armor that protects me from the whole fucking world. The polyethylene that keeps the tears in.

  Register #1 Girl looks at me as I walk in the door and she has that look on her face like she wants to cry, too. I ignore her and go back to register #7. I make a pact with myself to never let anyone hug me again.

  9

  I’M STILL WEARING my brand-new hockey jersey when I get in the house. I bought it so I don’t have to take any shit, just like the hug woman. I never got her name. I will never be able to see ketchup again without thinking about her.

  Dinner is long over, but the house still smells of roast chicken and homemade gravy. Dad is in his man cave, doing whatever he does in there. Probably drinking. Tasha and her rat boy are downstairs blasting some awful country-and-western song and singing along.

  Mom is at the kitchen table sawing off the bottoms of moisturizer bottles to use the inch and a half that never gets pumped up by the too-short pump straws.

  She’s wearing safety glasses, wielding an electric knife—like the kind you slice turkey with. There are eight moisturizer bottles on the table, and next to them is a tub. She’s filling it with the lotion she gets out of the bottles that she’s sawing.

  This is the shit she cares about. Not what Real Nanny told her about being fair and equal to all of her children. Not the twenty-one-year-old daughter getting planked in her basement and becoming more dependent by the day. I admit, part of me wants to take the electric knife and, well, you know.

  She waves. I wave back and go upstairs to my room, where I can unsee what I just saw.

  GERALD’S HAPPY PLACE. That’s what the sign on my door says. GERALD’S HAPPY PLACE. I’ve had that there since I was thirteen and got suspended the first time for fighting. I mauled this kid’s face. Tom something.

  Tom had it coming.

  Back then, Tasha was still off pretending she was in college and Lisi was in high school while I was stuck in middle school with no one to protect me from all the assholes who called me the Crapper all day.

  So I took a bite out of Tom What’s-His-Name’s face. Scarred forever. Mauled by a crazy, untamed warrior.

  I mauled him so bad they sent me straight to Roger, the anger management guru. That first day, he asked me where I was happiest. I didn’t tell him about Gersday. I just said, “My room.” So we made this sign and I hung it on my door.

  I guess I am happier here. I have my own bathroom with a shower. I have a loud stereo. A computer. An Internet connection. Everything you need to separate yourself from everyone else.

  Except: Tasha still lives in the basement. And Mom still never wanted me as much as she wanted that inch of moisturizer at the bottom of those bottles.

  10

  HERE’S HOW I handle Monday mornings. I put on my headphones and listen to a crazy playlist of tribal drumming from Native American powwows. Lisi got it for me at a powwow she went to with her stoner boyfriend last year.

  I listen to it from the minute I pack my backpack to the minute I park in the school parking lot. If I’m early, I even sit there and listen until the very last minute. Then I put on imaginary war paint. Three red lines under my eyes. One black stripe across my face. The same red stripes down my arms. One red stripe from my bottom lip down my chin. I have already decided that if I ever graduate from this shithole, I will wear the real paint on graduation day.

  When I go into school, I am a warrior. I’m noble. Fair. I’m the chief of my own tribe. I could scalp you. I could be dangerous. But I choose not to, which is why I’m the chief.

  Up until this year, things were different. I wasn’t choosing anything. I still had all Roger’s bad anger words in my vocabulary—should, have to, deserve. I was still out of control.

  It wasn’t just Tom. There were others, too. The broken arm in freshman year. And nose. And that time I tried to crush a kid’s neck last year. I memorized the walls of the middle school principal’s office. I memorized every inch of the high school’s in-school suspension room. I memorized every time they told me I had one more chance. That was five chances ago.

  Roger was never impressed. Now he is, though. Because now I know about my triggers and how to block them all out. I put on my war paint and my feathers and I walk into high school and play chief.

  “Hey, Gerald. I heard we won yesterday.” That’s the kid whose locker is next to mine. He’s a cool kid, pretty much. Plays in the jazz band and smokes a lot of pot.

  “Three to one,” I say.

  “Nice jersey,” he says.

  I look down at my jersey and remember the hockey lady and how this is my not-taking-any-shit jersey. It’s like I’ve got a double layer of chief on today.

 
Thanks.”

  He nods and goes to his homeroom. I get my books and head to Mr. Fletcher’s room. That’s the SPED room to everyone else.

  “Hey, Gerald!”

  “Hi, Gerald!”

  I wave and look at the floor.

  “Nice shirt, Gerald!”

  All you dipshits who think the SPED room is full of half-wits are wrong. This is the best room in school because no one gives a shit about how bad you are or how dumb you are or how you limp or stutter or how you can’t think right because you spent most of your childhood crying in your bedroom because you were dubbed the Crapper before you ever even got to first grade.

  No one cares what clothes you wear, what brand name your shoes are, how rich your family is, or how many songs you’ve uploaded to your iPod. No one cares about my car. No one cares about my gated community. No one cares about my past. They know, I’m sure, but no one has ever mentioned it, and if someone did, I think Mr. Fletcher would probably shut them up faster than they could even say it.

  Mr. Fletcher is a real chief. Compared to him, I’m like a chief in training, because he has patience that I will never have—dealing with violent little assholes like me, who don’t need to be in his classroom, and then helping Deirdre do everything because she’s got cerebral palsy. And some days Jenny starts having a fit and throwing shit around and he has to calm her and get her to the nurse for whatever the nurse does to make her normal again.

  “Gerald, are you still working out in that gym?” Jenny asks me. “Because you’re getting bigger every time I see you.”

  “Yeah. Man, you’re buff,” Karen says.

  “Oh my god, you guys. Shut up!” That’s Kelly—he’s a guy but he’s named Kelly, which is just messed up, considering he’s been slow since birth. Seriously. If you have a slow kid, don’t give him a girl’s name. Right?

  “Yeah,” I say. “Shut up.”

  Deirdre aims her electric wheelchair toward me and then reaches over and squeezes my arm. “Soon you’ll be too hot for us retards,” she says, and laughs. Sometimes when Deirdre laughs, she spits a little. None of us laugh at her, because we’re a family—which is something the school guidance counselor can’t understand when I tell him this.

 
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