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Please ignore vera dietz, p.4
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.4

           A. S. King
 
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  Things changed when I was thirteen. That year, Sherry Heller invited Charlie and me to her basement New Year’s Eve party so we could all watch her make out with her big-nosed boyfriend from Midland Catholic. He was a football player. He even put his hand up her shirt while the rest of us—the ten or so who showed up—watched from the mold-stained outdoor furniture that had been brought out of storage for the party.

  “Want to try that?” Charlie asked.

  “No,” I answered, knowing he was kidding.

  “How about you?” he asked, winking at Marina Yoder.

  She considered him. “Nah. I’ve got a cold.”

  I studied him. Other girls didn’t like him because he wasn’t groomed. But I liked that. He bought his clothes old—frayed, holey, faded. He liked oversized hooded sweatshirts with tattered cuffs—the more tattered, the better. If he had a string hanging from the seam of a ripped-up flannel shirt, he’d leave it there. Where normal people would want to cut it off, Charlie would want it to dip in his soup and let the liquid drip down his elbow.

  He wasn’t a slob, but his hair was greasy sometimes, and if it was, it was because he wanted it to be. I don’t think there was one time I ever saw him with combed hair. It suited him messy, sweeping over his thick eyebrows, and made him look mischievous and interesting.

  Mrs. Kahn gave up trying to make Charlie “look decent” in the fourth grade. I remember the day clearly. It was picture day. November sometime. I wore a pair of green corduroys and a nice blouse with embroidery around the collar. Charlie wore a gray sweatshirt with an oily stain on the sleeve, and his mother argued with him the whole way to the bus stop. She was holding a crisp-ironed white button-down church shirt and a comb. He finally turned to her, grabbed the shirt, threw it to the side of the road, thick with decomposing leaf mold, and ground it in with his foot.

  Before she could react, he snatched the comb and flung it far into the trees, and said, “Just go home. Who cares about stupid school pictures?” And she went home, like a trained monkey, after a lifetime of Mr. Kahn treating her like a trained monkey.

  The night of Sherry Heller’s New Year’s Eve party, I still had that fourth-grade picture in my wallet. His hair finger-combed over his left eye, and the edge of the oily stain on the sweatshirt barely visible in the bottom right corner.

  After another twenty minutes of Sherry and her boyfriend making out, Charlie nudged me and looked at the door. We walked the mile home together and celebrated the new year in the middle of the tree-lined road, full moon lighting the way, Charlie sucking on a Marlboro and me spinning around like a ballroom dancer on crack because I drank too much Coke.

  “Veer?”

  “Yeah?”

  “I say we never go to a fucking New Year’s Eve party again.”

  “You’re on,” I said, still spinning.

  “It’s always a letdown.”

  “Not for Sherry’s boyfriend, I bet.”

  “Yeah, I bet they’re doing it on the glide-o-lounger right now, squeaking up a storm.”

  “Ew.” I thought about my mother, pregnant at seventeen—gone for nearly a year at that point.

  I was still thinking about her when Charlie asked, “Aren’t you curious, though?”

  I stopped spinning and stumbled to the ground, right on the double yellow lines. Charlie lit another cigarette and held the smoke in his lungs.

  “My dad says boys are only ever after one thing.”

  “Right.”

  “He says that I shouldn’t even think about boys until after college.”

  “Huh.”

  I didn’t know what else to say, so I got up slowly and tried to get my balance.

  “But what do you think?” he asked, reaching out to help me steady myself.

  “I think—” Before I could finish, Charlie was kissing me on the mouth and holding me tight, and when I opened my eyes, the moon was shining on his tender eyelashes, damp with cold moisture. He dropped his Marlboro in the road and smushed it out with his boot. He moved his hands to my waist and I caught them and slipped my fingers in between his. It felt good, his tongue moving in my mouth. Then I remembered. This was Charlie. My best friend. Not a boy. I remembered that I was my mother’s daughter—fighting this very destiny. (Fighting it and losing, because nothing ever felt more right in my life.)

  When I could finally untangle myself, I said, “Dude! What’s up with that?”

  He shrugged. “I dunno.” He kicked his feet around and said, “Figured we could both use the practice.”

  A BRIEF WORD FROM THE DEAD KID

  I regret everything that happened with Vera. Even back in grade school when I cut up that leprechaun picture. It’s hard to explain. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t have a choice. I was born to a man like my father and a woman like my mother, and I had to save Vera from myself.

  This didn’t stop me from sneaking behind my own back a few times. The time I kissed her on the road on New Year’s Eve or the time I sent her flowers on Valentine’s Day were tests, I guess. Loving Vera Dietz was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. She was a good person from a good family. She could spell big words and remember to do math homework, and her father didn’t swear or drink like my father did. I know her mother was a stripper once, but that didn’t matter. Vera was classy.

  The thing you don’t see while you’re still there on Earth is how easy it is to change your mind. When you’re in it and you’re mixed up with feelings, assumptions, influences, and misconceptions, things seem completely impossible to change. From here, you see that change is as easy as flicking a light switch in your brain.

  I spent a lot of time on Earth wishing I could be as classy as Vera. I thought if I was, maybe we could have a future together. But I assumed I’d never be classy. And it was that feeling, and the helplessness and anger that come from a destiny like mine, that drew me to Jenny Flick—the girl who landed me here.

  FRIDAY—FOUR TO CLOSE

  Friday nights perk up around eleven. We close at one. There’s usually a run or two to Fred’s Bar at midnight, and parties—sleepovers with giddy preteens or drunken college dropouts who have access to beer.

  Two orders come in before we shut the ovens off. Marie is already tossing toppings from the translucent containers into the trash, counting receipts, and double-checking them on the computer. By the time I’m back from the final run, she’ll have my totals ready, and James will be doing the dishes. Jill has already done the prep work for tomorrow, which is my day off, so all I will have to do is mop the floor, start the washing machine before we lock up, and go home.

  When I leave, I stack up my orders in the car and have to run back in for a six-pack of Coke for the first stop. In the glass, I see James staring at the back of me, and I wonder has he daydreamed about me the way I’ve daydreamed about him. Maybe my father was right and a full-time job does mature a person. Maybe I’m twenty-three in my brain. Just old enough for James. Or maybe, since he dropped out of state college and started working at Pagoda Pizza, he’s more like eighteen. He waves as I stick the car in reverse, and I act cool and pretend I don’t see it.

  First stop—a bachelor, half drunk. Doesn’t even look at me. Needs the Coke for more rum and Coke. I doubt he needs the small pepperoni at all. He tips me a dollar, and I get back in the car and feel Charlie there again.

  He makes me put on heavy metal music. He tells me to drive places I don’t want to go, like Zimmerman’s. He warns me, too, not to take Linden Road or else I’ll die in a bad accident. I mean, I don’t know this for sure, but that’s what it feels like, so I do what he says just in case. Even in death, Charlie is frustrating as hell.

  In life, the minute he seemed like one thing, he’d change and become another. No matter what the fad—music, clothing, hairstyles, hobbies—Charlie remained this indefinable rebel. His number one priority was smoking his next cigarette. Always. Which is why he had so much detention last spring. And though he’d joined with me in dogging the school’s De
tentionheads and Potheads since I could remember, his time in detention brought him closer to them, and further from me. Which was how I ended up hating Charlie.

  I think back to last April Fool’s Day, when Jenny Flick told Charlie that I talked about him behind his back. Which was where everything started to go wrong.

  “I heard you were talking about me,” he said. He was livid. Every muscle was tensed.

  We were at the pagoda, and I was flying paper airplanes. He reached for his cigarettes in his breast pocket. I said, aware he seemed angry but thinking he was just putting on an act for April Fool’s Day, “Oh yeah? What did I say?”

  “Are you saying you weren’t?”

  I looked at him and smirked. “You’re my best friend. I can’t even figure out what I’d say if I wanted to.”

  “Oh really?” When I realized he was genuinely pissed off, I got a little frightened. “So you weren’t the one passing around the whole school that my dad hits my mom?”

  “What?”

  “You’re acting surprised, but I know you know.”

  What could I say to this? I’d kept the Kahns’ secret for my whole life, against my own better judgment, and I’d never said a word.

  “Of course I know, Charlie. I’ve only been your best friend and neighbor for seventeen years. But I’ve never said a word about it to anyone. Ever. Like EVER.”

  “So how does the whole school know, then?”

  “Who says they do?”

  “Jenny.”

  With that, the shitstorm began.

  I had a hundred arguments that made sense. I had a hundred proofs. I had a hundred truths. Nothing worked. Charlie believed Jenny Flick.

  “But you even know she’s a mythomaniac!” I said.

  “Stop using those big words. You sound like a fucking geek.”

  “Maybe I am a fucking geek.”

  “Maybe you’re more than a geek.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “I don’t know. What goes around comes around, I guess.”

  I could hear our friendship dying right there. Hit by a truck so big, going so fast, there was nothing left. Not a shred of our childhood, not a splinter of our tree house, not a bit of our New Year’s Eve kiss. Nothing. Jenny Flick had managed to take from me the only person I ever let in and replace me with beer, sex, and pot.

  So now I had no mother and I had no best friend.

  But, I assured myself, one day Charlie would come to his senses. One day he would see how he’d been led to the dark side by a lying little creep. I actually thought that this conversation at the pagoda was the worst that would happen.

  I had no idea what was coming.

  I think of a quote in Dad’s bathroom Zen book. “The willow is green; flowers are red. The flower is not red; nor is the willow green.”

  Same went for Charlie.

  Charlie was my friend; he was very nice to me. Charlie was not my friend; nor was he very nice to me.

  FRIDAY—FOUR TO CLOSE—LAST STOP

  Here’s me using mythomania in a sentence.

  Jenny Flick suffers so badly from mythomania, she believes her own lies. I could never understand what Charlie saw in her. I’ve known her since middle school, when I bumped into her at the bathroom mirror while she layered on eyeliner.

  “What’s your problem?” she said.

  “Sorry.”

  “Yeah, you are sorry,” she answered.

  She wore too much eyeliner then, at age thirteen, and now, at eighteen, she wears so much black under her eyes, she looks like a slutty linebacker raccoon.

  Jenny Flick could lie about anything. She’d tell you that she met the lead singer from your favorite band and dropped acid with them. She’d say she was screwing the biology teacher, or that her stepdad snorted coke with the principal. She drew pictures on herself with thin Sharpie marker and told everyone they were tattoos. I heard that she lied to her dad, who lived in California with his new family, about wanting to kill herself, and about an eating disorder or cutting or whatever else she could dream up to move in with him, but all that did was get her hooked on an array of antidepressants and land her in a shrink’s office once a week. She lied the same way to her friends. She had the entire third-period study hall convinced she was going to die of leukemia in freshman year. Some of them even bought her cards—even people who she’d lied and gossiped about.

  I’d managed to stay off her radar, for the most part, and maintained my invisibility. But once she started liking Charlie and wanted me out of his life, things changed. I became her target, and he became her prize.

  Now that Charlie is gone, she ignores me again. I think she thinks she’s safe now, because it’s been three and a half months and I haven’t said anything about what really happened on the night he died. But she’s not.

  My last delivery of the night is a four-pie stop in the old burbs. These are the small single-story brick places that are stuck so close together you can hear your neighbor peeing through the concrete alley between, though they do have front and back yards to litter with more Tacky Glowing Christmas Shit.

  556 North Gerhardt Lane. A red brick bread box with a red and green doorbell that plays “Jingle Bells” when I ring it, and a sign to the right of the door that reads WELCOME TO OUR HOME with two spotted fawns on it. Eight cars stuck multi-directionally in the driveway. Two on blocks. The sound of a party spills out into the sleeping neighborhood. One of the cars has a blue and white football jersey taped to the back window and the words GO PANTHERS painted above it. From the sounds within, I’m guessing we won the game tonight.

  The door jerks open and the music and smell of pot smoke hit me. I open the flap on the hot bag and say, “That’s thirty-four ninety-nine, please.” Then I look up and I see Jenny Flick, arms folded, glaring at me, and Bill Corso, the school’s semi-illiterate star quarterback, standing behind her. “Look who it is,” she says.

  I take the four pizzas out of the bags and hand them to Bill, and then I stash the hot bags under my arm, which is weak from the mix of fear and anger I’m experiencing right now, and get my change bag from the pocket of my black combat pants. Jenny is still staring at me with a scowl on her face, eyeliner drawn around her eyes like she’s a character in a Tim Burton movie.

  “Thirty-four ninety-nine, please.”

  She digs into her pocket and pulls out a wad of bills. Then she peels them off one by one and lets them float to the doormat. Two of them land on my feet.

  “How much was that, baby?” she asks Bill, who is too fucked-up to notice that she’s been tossing out handfuls of cash.

  “I don’t know, Jen. You know I can’t do math when I’m high.”

  She starts giggling and tosses the rest of the wad of bills into the air above my head, and then slams the door in my face. I look around at where the money landed, kick it all together into one place, and bend over to pick it up.

  The door opens. Jenny Flick appears again, and behind her, Bill Corso has a professional-looking slingshot, aimed at me. “And here’s your fucking tip,” she says.

  He shoots a penny that hits my shoulder and stings like a mother. They giggle like a pair of ten-year-old girls and slam the door shut again.

  In the car, I count the scrunched-up money and find that Jenny Flick has just unintentionally given me a thirty-three-dollar tip. Probably the best thing drugs will ever do for me. Before I take off, I look back at the house. A bunch of football guys have lined up in the bay window and are mooning me. Raised middle fingers fill the spaces between them. I can’t lie. There are parts of me that want to blow the house up right now. There are parts of me that would laugh while the whole lot of them burned. My shoulder, where the penny hit me, is throbbing and hot. I reach under my seat and grope around for the cold glass. Drink, anyone?

  HISTORY—AGE TWELVE

  The summer after my mother ran off with the bald podiatrist in the convertible, Charlie Kahn’s dad let him build a tree house. Even though I knew Charlie wanted to do i
t himself, he called it our project and our tree house. I think it was his way of trying to help me through a hard time.

  His dad bought him a bunch of supplies the week school ended—lengths of two-by-four, pulleys and screws, and sheets of weather-treated plywood—but Charlie didn’t choose a tree for three whole weeks. We walked around the woods between our houses and emerged covered in ticks and scratches to eat lunch, and then we dove back in. I asked Charlie what was taking him so long.

  “The Great Hunter needs to approve,” he said, then scribbled something on a small napkin and shoved it into his pocket.

  Half an hour later, Charlie told me that my asking him about the tree every five minutes was pressuring him, so he asked me to leave him alone for a week. Sounds harsh, but he meant well. I think he needed space to be eccentric, and he was driving me up a wall with all that “spirit of the Great Hunter” bullshit.

  We were twelve. Old enough to just pick a tree already.

  This was the summer my father stopped renting the office in town and moved his desk and filing cabinets into the spare downstairs bedroom that my mother used to use for peace yoga and forgiveness meditation, which apparently didn’t work out so well.

  This was also the first summer I convinced Dad to let me volunteer at the adoption center inside Zimmerman’s Pet Store at the Pagoda Mall. This was hard for him, because it was completely against his nature to care about pets. It wasn’t that he was heartless or cruel or anything like that. Dad just isn’t an animal person. He’d hated every single time I’d dragged him into Zimmerman’s as a kid to look at the hamsters or the puppies. When I’d nag him about getting something fluffy to cuddle, he’d show me on paper how much money it cost to keep a pet, and point out that kids my age were going hungry all over the world. “I think they could use four grand a year more than a dog could,” he’d say.

 
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