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Still life with tornado, p.4
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.4

           A. S. King
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  “We didn’t lose Bruce.”

  “I mean, that’s when he left. After that.”

  “Was it?” she asks. I want to call her out on playing stupid. How does a mother forget the last time she saw her own son? Maybe he’s an amputated ghost limb that still itches—but it’s not like a person forgets the day they lost the limb. “Why the sudden fascination with Bruce?”

  “Dunno,” I say. I’m good at playing stupid, too.

  “He’s fine,” she says. She takes a slurp of her coffee and puts the cup down too loudly.

  “He doesn’t call.”

  “He doesn’t need to call. He’s a grown man.”

  “But he’s still my brother,” I say. “He doesn’t even call on my birthday.”

  “We can’t do anything about it,” she says, and she does that thing with her eyelids where they flutter in condescension. Adults: quick to flutter their eyelids, slow to do anything about it.

  “I want to call him.”

  “Good luck finding his number,” she says.

  “You seem mad,” I say.

  She sighs. “I don’t want to wake up to another message from the school. I don’t want you to be expelled. There’s only three and a half weeks left.”

  She’s talking about school. I’m talking about bigger things. Lost brothers that itch even though they’ve been gone for six years. “I’m sorry.”

  “Can’t you just go back to school and make up the work?” she asks.

  “I can’t.”

  “You’re sixteen,” she says. “You were doing so well. Something happened and you won’t tell me.”

  “Nothing happened.”

  This is when I realize how much I lie. Real artists don’t lie this much.


  The most common cause of amputation isn’t trauma—IEDs in wars or car wrecks—despite what you’d think from movies or other bullshit. It’s diabetes, peripheral arterial disease—the vascular shit—that lands feet in medical waste bags on the pathologist’s desk with a little slip attached. We don’t amputate in the ER, but I’ve seen enough ruined, ulcerated feet to know what’ll happen when we send some poor old grandmother who can’t afford her insulin upstairs for a surgical consultation. They usually arrive three weeks late from the nursing homes because the patient-to-nurse ratio at those places is appalling. Like 30:1 sometimes. I get them in double diapers, unwashed, bedsores that drill right into bone. When I was in my thirties I wrote into my will that I didn’t ever want to go to a nursing home. I had two kids. One of them could take care of me somehow, I figured. Except now it was just Sarah.

  • • •

  We named Sarah after her father’s grandmother. Chet’s grandmother was a good woman and was always kind to me, which is more than I can say about his mother.

  Gram Sarah was ninety-seven years old when she died. Had all her limbs and never had to go to a nursing home because she was sharp right up to the end—in her own old tiny brick trinity row house in Old City, with neighbors who’d look in on her. She outlived her two kids and her husband and pretty much everyone she ever knew. Except us.

  When she died, I was there and Chet couldn’t make it fast enough from work.

  She said, “Where’s Chet?”

  “He’s coming. He left work a few minutes ago.”

  “Boy was never on time for shit,” she whispered.

  “He still oversleeps,” I said, and we both laughed slow, like old Southern women in movies laugh. I knew she was dying, though. I’ve seen people die a thousand times. She knew she was dying, too.

  She coughed. “I thought you two were splitting up.”

  “Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

  “Same place I heard you haven’t slept in the same bed for a year,” she said.

  I said, “We work different shifts.”

  Her chest rattled. “Bullshitting a woman on her deathbed is not you, Helen.”

  I felt bad talking about this. The woman was dying.

  “Let’s not talk about sad things now.”

  We sat in quiet for a minute and she wasn’t in any pain. I think that’s fair. After ninety-seven years on the planet, I think it’s fair to die with no pain. I held her hand because I knew she was at the end. Her breathing was mixed with the snoring sound of death. The rattle. Her eyes were closed and she still had a small grin on her mouth because Gram Sarah was destined to die with that grin.

  She opened her eyes and whispered, “Don’t die unhappy.”

  I leaned close to her ear and said, “I won’t.”

  “You could die tomorrow.”

  “I know.”

  “Chet wasn’t ever anything compared to you.” She took in two short, difficult breaths. “Boy never had dedication to shit.” And then she died.

  She didn’t know I was pregnant. I didn’t want to tell her I was pregnant because it would make the whole conversation even more depressing.

  Chet arrived ten minutes later and the nurses let us have extra time in the room so he could force some tears and seem sad. The charge nurse on duty that day was Julie and she’s a dipshit and she came in and rubbed Chet’s back and I rolled my eyes and excused myself to the bathroom.

  Did I daydream that charge nurse Julie and Chet had crazy hot sex right there, on top of dead Gram Sarah? I did. Those days I wished he’d fall in love with anyone—one of his younger coworkers, random waitresses at bars, my neighbor, another man, I didn’t care—and finally just get the hell out of my house.

  But there was Sarah, on the way. And Bruce.

  We agreed to stay together for the kids.


  All I want to know is why Bruce said that. You can always come stay with me, no matter where I am.

  Mom and Dad are normal-enough parents. They’re not cruel or anything. They took us to Mexico. I remember something happened but I forget what it was. I know it was bad. I know Dad was yelling. I know Bruce was yelling. I know Mom was yelling. I know I was crying. I know that sliding doors to the balcony are not soundproof.

  But I don’t know why Bruce said that. I don’t know why he had to go that far—to Oregon or to You can always come stay with me, no matter where I am.

  It wasn’t that long ago. I shouldn’t have forgotten it. It’s more complicated than that. I’m lying to myself but I don’t know why. On the mantel there’s a ceramic owl. I made it in the first grade and it’s my favorite thing I ever made even though I’ve made far better things. Dad wouldn’t stop praising me for the owl when I brought it home. It was when it all started—this talk about my talent and my prospects and my dad’s fascination with taking us to the art museum a few times a year. He said he liked art, but really he’d just researched it the same way he researches depreciation and deterioration of building structures. He learned the language of art but could only draw stick figures.

  I look at the owl and wonder what part of it is part of the lie. I ask it, “Hey, owl, are you lying, too?” The owl can’t answer back, but if he did, I bet he’d say, “Hoo. Hoo.” That’s what owls say. It doesn’t need an explanation. But what Bruce said needs explanation.

  • • •

  I say I’m going out and Mom says to be careful and I walk up to Rittenhouse Square, go visit the big frog statue, and then sit on a park bench, listening to the conversations walk by.

  Not one thing anyone says is original.

  I wish I could talk to twenty-three-year-old Sarah again. Ten-year-old Sarah doesn’t understand my struggle. She hasn’t come to this yet. She hasn’t come to the place where my present means nothing but my future is all everyone talks about.

  Twenty-three-year-old Sarah sits down next to me. She’s wearing a pair of shoes that look uncomfortable. You could never get me to wear those shoes.

  “How’s things?” she asks.

I don’t know. Good I guess.”

  “How’s school?”

  “I’m still skipping.”


  “Not really. It wasn’t the place where I was going to make my masterpiece or anything.”

  “Not everyone can be famous,” she says.

  “That’s not even the problem,” I say.

  She says, “You’re just going through a phase.”

  “I’m not going through a phase,” I say.

  “Okay, Umbrella,” she says, and smirks.

  When she looks like she’ll walk away, I ask, “Why are you so sarcastic?”

  “Because you’re a downer,” she says.

  This is the third time today I’ve heard this. I consider that maybe I really am a downer.

  “I want to ask you a question,” I say.

  “You should call Bruce,” she says, and then gets up and walks north in her stupid shoes and doesn’t look back.

  I sit for ten minutes. I think about how I’m a downer. I think about how I’m not a downer but something is happening here, even though I don’t know what it is. I think about calling Bruce, but I don’t even take my phone out of my pocket. Instead, I watch a homeless man draw on the sidewalk next to the fountain in Rittenhouse Square. I don’t go over to see what he’s drawing or even find a bench closer to him. I just watch him from over on the other side of the park.

  I wonder if he’s ever been to Mexico. I wonder if he’s ever talked to his twenty-three-year-old self. I wonder if he has a brother who never calls anymore.

  Twenty-three-year-old Sarah is sarcastic because she doesn’t take me seriously. I’m a sixteen-year-old girl. Silly and dramatic. Pretty much nobody on Earth takes me seriously. And yet, on the inside I know there is something wrong enough that someone should be taking it seriously. Maybe it starts with me. Maybe I have to take it seriously first.

  The Snowflake

  The homeless artist man sleeps in the doorway to a building that’s boarded up about four blocks from my house. I’ve seen him around since before I was ten-year-old Sarah. He never asks for money. Most homeless people here sit on upturned milk crates and say “Spare a quarter?” or something like that. Some of them have signs. HOMELESS VETERAN, ANYTHING WILL HELP—GOD BLESS, I NEED FOOD, HELP A BROTHER OUT?

  Some of them are high or drunk. Some are white and some are black, some are women and some are men, and some are foreign and have accents. This man—the one who sleeps in the alcove of the boarded-up building four blocks from our house—is white, has a scruffy beard, and is probably crazy.

  This guy makes headpieces out of tinfoil. I find it ironic that he shows up here and now. I’ve been trying not to think about headpieces since the art club fiasco. Anyway, he’s always wearing a different one. He’s always doing something new. Right now, he’s drawing on the walkway around the fountain and not even the bike cop who hangs out here some days is asking him to leave. He’s scribbling and blending with his fingers in some sort of rhythm like there’s music playing. Maybe there’s music playing in his head. Every so often he screams out. Hell yeah! Fuck no! What are you even trying to do, son? You ain’t worth shit! He doesn’t say these things to anyone specific. They’re like the lyrics to his music. The music in his head. Sometimes he stands up and puts his arms in the air like he just hit a home run. Sometimes he jumps hard on a piece of sidewalk chalk and grinds it into the concrete. Jumps over and over again, bringing his knees all the way up to his chest. His art is a temper tantrum.

  He’s an acceptable neighborhood oddity. A walking mural. Graffiti that no one ever scrubbed clean. One of those cats you feed but never touch. He’s always in a few layers of clothing, even when it’s summertime. He wears bags over whatever shoes he has. It probably keeps the rain out.

  He always has art supplies. Philadelphia is an art city. Students leave supplies for him as he sleeps. They are art supply fairies.

  He makes art anywhere, anytime, all day. The plywood boards on the windows of the building where he sleeps in the alcove are never the same. Each day he paints over them, just a little. The sidewalk in front of where he sleeps is always colorful. If he can’t find the right color for a piece, he digs through Dumpsters to find something that will give him the right color. Chicken bones, old pizza, the rubber from the sole of a shoe. Sometimes he burns wood and makes half-assed charcoal.

  He never writes words. He rarely paints forms that people would recognize. Just abstracts. Sometimes when he draws on the sidewalk and blends the colors with his fingers, there is blood.

  He is on a mission. A real mission.

  I want a mission.

  Not someone else’s mission, either. I want my own mission. Something I think up myself. Something I actually want to do. Something that makes me jump up and down.

  • • •

  The Social is all I cared about for the last two years. High school lives on The Social. I got an account the minute I was in eighth grade so I would be ready. Carmen and I posted our art projects and the pictures we took from when we’d walk around the city. For three weeks, we were each other’s only connections on The Social. Then we connected with black-coffee Vivian, even though she posted passive-aggressive comments all the time. And Vivian knew Leslie, who is Vicky-the-grand-prizewinner’s best friend, so we ended up connecting with her, too. And then Vicky connected with us. Slowly, the art club was born.

  A few months ago, I saw a study in my Social timeline about how The Social makes people depressed. I asked myself, Am I depressed?

  I am not depressed.

  I’m fine.

  The Social showed me I was fine every time I logged on. Everyone else groaning about their colds, their grades, their parents, their stomach flu: I’m so tired! Insomnia, why do you curse me so! Vivian and her subtext: You know who you are, you plebeian assholes! Vicky-the-grand-prizewinner: No two snowflakes are alike. Nature is the only original idea.

  On The Social, there is no such thing as an original idea. Not even about original ideas.

  On The Social, it’s raining bullshit.

  By the time I got to high school I got this rush of adrenaline every time I posted and then I’d erase the post before anyone could see it. Carmen asked me one time, “How come you always erase your posts, man?” I said, “I don’t know.” She said, “That thing you said the other day was really funny.” Even back then, before I knew it rained bullshit, before the art club fissure, before the pear, I couldn’t tell if I was funny or not. Even back then, I knew I was sitting too still to be an artist and I doubted the whole trick. That’s what I saw. A trick. Every time I logged on I felt duped into having to be a snowflake.

  The homeless man is different.

  He jumps up and down. He is a snowflake.

  And people must know it because he is never kicked out of Rittenhouse Square for drawing with sidewalk chalk. No one ever makes him move from his alcove while he sleeps. People care for him. He gets money because he doesn’t ask for it. He gets art supplies because he never asks for them.

  He has never logged on to The Social. You can tell just by looking at him.

  He is everything I want to be.

  He is Spain. He is Macedonia.

  Horizon Line

  It’s sunny this morning, so I don’t want to take the bus and I don’t want to go anywhere special, so I walk down Pine Street.

  It’s a weekend, so this doesn’t count as another absence, but last time I checked I only need three more to be expelled. I didn’t tell Mom and Dad I was going out, so they might be worried or they might never notice I’m gone. Mom will be sleeping off her night shift and Dad will be doing whatever he has to do at home on tiptoes. Not like it matters because living in a row house on a weekend is always noisier than weekdays. On one side, we have quiet neighbors who rarely come out of the house. On the other side, there are three families with nine hu
ndred kids total. But Mom can sleep through anything.

  The whole block between 16th and 15th is set up with a student art sale. I don’t know what they teach in these art schools, but the prices are always too high. Carmen can draw better than these guys, even if she does draw a lot of tornadoes.

  I take a left so I can escape the art sale and walk up 15th Street. That’s where I see the homeless man in his tinfoil headpiece. He’s got his back to the street and is drawing on the blank, windowless side of the corner grocery store. He’s just started—a few lines and a few shapes from a chunk of burnt-wood charcoal. I cross to the other side of the street and find a stoop to sit on and I watch him.

  From over here, he looks like a monster. Like Boo Radley or something. Children would run from him. Parents would point and say Stay away from that man. I can’t imagine how many coats and blankets he has piled onto his back, but it looks like ten or more. Layered. It’s almost seventy degrees out here and I can’t figure why he doesn’t take the coats off. I’ve seen him dressed the same way in mid-August.

  He adds color to one shape and for a minute it looks like a pear. He uses a dark green and a pale yellow and uses his finger to blend them. He screams out, “What the FUCK is your problem? Don’t fuck with me, man. Make it real!” He runs in place and looks at the sketch. Then he concentrates on the left side of the wall where he uses sharp, bold strokes to make some sort of horizon line. Miss Smith taught us about horizon lines. Horizon lines separate the background from the foreground. Even though there is no recognizable form in this drawing, I can see a foreground and background the minute he draws that line.

  I look out to the street and the cars that go by and the people walking with their groceries or their kids and I see the world’s horizon line separating foreground from background.

  Ten-year-old Sarah is in the background. All my future Sarahs are behind me as I view the scene. They aren’t in the picture yet.

  I am the horizon line.

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