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Please ignore vera dietz, p.5
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.5

           A. S. King
 
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  But he must have realized that summer that I was different than him—and that his coldheartedness was only making me worse. I loved animals. Partly because he didn’t and had denied me one, and partly because it’s in the manual. What twelve-year-old girl doesn’t daydream about nurturing a puppy or a kitten? What twelve-year-old girl whose mother just walked out doesn’t want a companion who loves her no matter what happens? So he helped me fill out the volunteer application, shelled out ten bucks for a purple volunteer T-shirt, and drove me down to the store one day a week, which was the maximum I was allowed to be there, because I was only twelve. I loved it. All of it. I loved the adoption people, who rescued animals and found them good homes. I loved the pet store and Mr. Zimmerman and his wall of exotic aquarium fish. He had a gray parrot who talked and sat on a perch by the register and would make phone-ringing sounds so accurately that none of us could tell if the phone was really ringing or not.

  My first day volunteering, I took care of three Old English sheepdog puppies that had been rescued from one of those houses where crazy people have too many pets until their neighbors complain about the smell or the noise. I bathed them and brushed them and helped the visiting vet nurse apply lotion to their over-scratched flea bites. It was a feeling I can’t really describe. I felt like I had purpose or something—like I was doing something bigger.

  For the rest of the week, while Charlie still searched for the perfect tree for his tree house, I hung around and watched TV. I drank lots of yogurt smoothies and ate lots of low-salt no-frills tortilla chips.

  “What are you doing?” Dad asked, openly annoyed that I was on the couch with the remote control before noon on a weekday.

  “The Price Is Right is on in a minute.”

  Before he could start giving me a lecture on how I should be doing something more productive with my time, like weeding the vegetable garden or inventing a board game that would sell for millions, Charlie walked through the kitchen door.

  “I found it!” he said.

  I turned off the TV, then turned to Dad and shrugged. “Gotta go.”

  He nodded and went back into his office.

  We walked out into the forest. Charlie said, “The Great Hunter picked this tree. What do you think?”

  It was a great tree, no doubt.

  “We start with the ladder, and then the floor.” Charlie reached into his back pocket and pulled out a tattered and taped piece of lined spiral notebook paper. “This is what I want it to look like.”

  I studied the paper. There were two distinct rooms. One had a bed, the other a small futon couch. Up to that point, I’d envisioned a tree house Dietz-style. A piece of old plywood, a rope, and a great imagination.

  “Are you planning on living here?”

  “Yeah.”

  I looked up through my bangs. “Over winter?”

  He looked at me as if I was making fun of him. I wasn’t.

  “Why are you always trying to make me feel stupid?” he asked, pulling the napkin out of his pocket that he’d scribbled on earlier.

  “I wasn’t.”

  He glared at me—testing. I looked as serious as I could and didn’t laugh, even though I wanted to because when Charlie got testy, it was funny. He added something to what he’d already written and ripped off the corner where the writing was. Then he popped the paper into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.

  “Let’s get to work on the ladder first and then stop for lunch.”

  We were ten minutes in, me holding a two-by-four’s end while he sawed perfect thirty-inch segments on a pair of carpenter’s horses, when a car stopped in the gravel shoulder of the road. We were so deep in the woods, I couldn’t see much, except that it was white.

  Charlie said, “Hold up. There’s something I have to give this guy for my dad.”

  I waited for ten minutes and tried to creatively visualize the tree house. This was Dad’s new thing since Mom left—creatively visualizing everything from making dinner to the weekly grocery shopping. He made me do it for tests, too. (And I had to admit, it worked. Though it did not work for getting him to let me adopt a puppy.)

  Charlie arrived back out of breath and red-faced.

  “You didn’t have to run,” I said.

  “I’m just pumped to get this thing up, you know?” He leaned back against the tree, and balanced the wrinkled paper napkin on his knee again, and scribbled something else on it. He’d been doing this since we were kids, and it annoyed the hell out of me. It’s one thing to be purposely mysterious, but it’s rude to be scribbling stuff right in front of someone. It’s like whispering or something. So I reached over and grabbed it off his knee.

  “Give it back!” he screamed, instantly losing all control. “It’s mine!”

  “Dude, I—”

  He grabbed my arm roughly and twisted it behind my back, which made me drop the stupid napkin onto the forest floor. He kept hold of my arm while he leaned down to pick it up.

  “Holy shit, Charlie.” I didn’t know what else to say.

  “Don’t ever do that again,” he said. “Some stuff is private.”

  “Sure,” I said. “Of course. Me too.”

  “Everyone is allowed to have secrets,” he said.

  “Yeah,” I agreed, though I never knew anyone like him, who scribbled those secrets on napkins and ate them, or stuffed them in their pockets, or burned them ceremoniously on the rocks around the pagoda.

  “Just don’t do it again,” he said, then he grabbed the saw and quickly cut three more step segments, kicking the scraps into a pile at the base of the trunk. He was like an angry machine, shaking as if he’d just eaten those caffeine pills my mother used to take to stay skinny.

  HISTORY—AGE TWELVE—MID-AUGUST

  From the finished tree house, we could see both our houses and the road. Charlie kept a pair of binoculars by the west window, next to his bed. He started to sleep out there, and had screened in the windows and made shutters for when it rained.

  Only after Dad had climbed up and checked the tree house out did he consider allowing me to sleep there one night. I know he had to think about it because Charlie was a boy and I was a girl, and I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t ever like that. I didn’t understand yet that I was fighting my own destiny and Charlie was fighting his. I just wanted to sleep in the tree house.

  “Charlie doesn’t like girls,” I tried, only hearing myself after I said it, and then correcting. “I mean, Charlie and I are only friends—like, ew, you know?”

  “I know.”

  “So can I?”

  “Veer, I think it’s time we had a talk about this stuff,” he said, visibly uncomfortable. “Boys Charlie’s age can sometimes think and do things that you don’t expect. You have to be careful.”

  “Charlie is twelve, Dad. Just like me.”

  “I know, but twelve can be—uh, it can be a confusing …,” he stuttered.

  I tried to creatively visualize him shutting up. It didn’t work.

  “I know you know about sex. And I know you’re smart. But you’re about to enter a whole new part of life where things aren’t as simple as they once were.”

  We stared at each other, silent. I was frowning; he gnawed on his lower lip. A minute ran by.

  “So can I sleep in the tree house or not?”

  He sighed. I could tell he was really broken up about it, so I added, “Really, Dad, you’ve got nothing to worry about when it comes to Charlie Kahn. He’s about as interested in me as he is in combing his hair.”

  He leveled his eyes with mine. “I think you know why I don’t want you near his house, right?”

  I nodded. “We won’t be in the house. We’ll be in the tree house.”

  “I know, but what if you have to pee during the night? Or what if you need a drink of water?”

  I thought about it. “Okay. I got it,” I said. “The tree house is halfway between our house and theirs. So if I have to pee, I’ll just come here.”

  He smiled.


  “So can I? Tonight?”

  “Let’s see if we can dig out your sleeping bag,” he said, and I was jubilant.

  Charlie and I ate popcorn and drank soda and talked about stupid stuff, like kids from school and what we daydreamed we’d be when we grew up. (Me = vet, him = forest ranger.) We listened to the radio a little. Then we snuggled into our sleeping bags and said good night—and after that, all we could hear was the loud screech of cicadas and crickets. It was awesome. Until midnight, when a car barreled up the hill and stopped in the gravel of the blue trail’s parking area. Then Charlie snuck out of the tree house and didn’t come back until dawn.

  HISTORY—AGE THIRTEEN—SUMMER

  The summer between seventh and eighth grade, Dad put me to work stuffing envelopes for an advertising campaign he was doing to get more customers. He had me doing most of the garden work, too. He still allowed me time with Charlie (we’d become Uno masters and had an ongoing ten-thousand-point tournament), but no more tree house sleepovers.

  He said, “I hope you know you can never date Charlie,” and claimed he was saying this to save me from a destiny like his and Mom’s. He said, “Charlie isn’t like us, you know?” and I knew what he meant, but somehow it was that not-like-us that made me love Charlie more.

  I had too much on my mind to digest this. I was still digesting the whole mother-was-a-stripper thing on top of the mother-never-coming-back thing. I felt a deep resentment toward Dad that summer. I think part of me blamed him for her leaving and part of me wanted to leave him, too. I got two half days a week at the adoption center at Zimmerman’s, which was my way of getting away from him.

  The pet store had been renovated with easy-to-clean tiled floors, and each type of animal had its own windowed area now so dogs and cats for sale and rescued animals for adoption could have their own space. We even had a rescued reptile room. In contrast to the previous summer’s mishmash of metal cages and confusing signs to differentiate between the store and the adoption center, there was now just one long wall of windows, and shoppers could just as easily adopt from us for free or go farther along and pick up a purebred puppy.

  The memories I have of that summer at Zimmerman’s are all scratched, like old films. I see myself leaning over the stainless-steel sink in the back room, scrubbing a large Labrador retriever with flea shampoo and plucking fat ticks from her skin, while she shook and whimpered a little. I remember feeling bad that I’d accidentally hurt her—because my mother used to hurt me that way, too. She hated removing ticks, and claimed my father was no good at it and would leave the heads under the skin to become infected. So if I didn’t sit still, she’d kneel on me and pin my arms down while I freaked out, screaming, and she’d forcefully remove them. No patience. No kisses. No hugs. Just a tweezers and some rubbing alcohol, and a stinging sensation that never goes away.

  VARIOUS TIMES SATURDAY MORNING—DAY OFF

  When I get home from work, it’s one-thirty in the morning and I can smell something weird the minute I walk down the hall to my bedroom. I only figure it out once I open the bedroom door. A mouse died in the wall and the stench is overwhelming. This happens a lot in our house because it’s an old hunting lodge and there’s no way to control where the mice die, and no way to get them out once they do. The only thing we can do is cover up the smell somehow, and avoid the area until the thing rots completely. This happens faster in summer than it does in winter.

  Dad’s snoring so loudly that the house is rattling and he doesn’t hear me rooting around the kitchen pantry for scented candles. Mom bought them—that’s how old they are. She went up to the Poconos one afternoon before Christmas and came home with two cases of scented candles.

  “It’s the candle capital of the world!” she said.

  That’s what they’ll call anything if they want you to buy stuff there. People believe it because people are stupid. Apparently, that’s adequate now. There are kids in my class who can’t locate Florida on a map and they’re going to get the same diploma I’m going to get. They’re going to get accepted to college and become physical therapists or kindergarten teachers or financial analysts and they still won’t be able to locate Florida on a map. They spend gallons of cash on tacky Christmas crap, and they drive sixty miles to buy candles because someone made a sign that says CANDLE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD when really, their local store sells candles just as nice.

  I finally get to the case of scented candles in the back of the pantry, dig out three vanilla ones, and snatch the lighter from the shelf. I go back to my room, run in, light them, and run out and close the door again. Then I go to the kitchen for a snack. My shoulder is killing me. I stop in the downstairs bathroom to look at it in the mirror and there’s a big red welt. Seeing it makes me feel delayed embarrassment. I wonder did I handle it okay? Did I look like an asshole? Should I have told Jenny Flick to fuck off, or thrown her pizzas on the ground? Dad is snoring so loudly, I can hear him over the crunch of my cornflakes. I remember that tomorrow is the second-to-last Saturday before Christmas and we’re going to put up the tree.

  When I arrive back to my room, it smells like a dead vanilla mouse, which is a bit better than just plain dead mouse, and when I close my eyes to sleep, I see it behind my eyelids, in a state of decomposition—legs stiff, eyeballs drying out—and suddenly I’m strangled by visions of what Charlie must look like now, nearly four months dead and underground, rotting. Maybe this makes me crazy or weird, but I can’t stop myself from thinking it.

  I tell Dad about the stench in the morning, but he says he can’t smell anything. “Not like we can do anything about it anyway, Vera. If it’s that bad, sleep on the couch,” he says. It’s almost noon. He’s already gone out and bought a Christmas tree, which I’m staring at.

  “Wow, Dad. That’s one ugly-looking tree.”

  “It cost me twenty dollars, too,” he says, still pissed off about it being too expensive.

  “We putting it in the living room again this year?”

  He looks from the kitchen into the dark and unused living room. Times like these, I think we both realize that the house is too big for just the two of us. Times like these, I can see how much Dad loved Mom and how much we both miss her. It’s as if we left the living room there, dark and empty, like a parent leaves a child’s room after they die.

  “I was thinking we could change tradition and stick it in the den. What do you think?”

  “Cool.”

  “Good.”

  “I’m going to take a shower,” I say. “When I’m done, we’ll put on some of that corny Christmas music you like.”

  In the shower, I note that I’m reshaping. Again. I thought this was supposed to be over by now. It’s not like I can ask Dad about it. I bet if I did, he’d suggest meditation or come out with some Zen koan to counteract it. (“Breasts grow. Breasts shrink. The farmer still plants corn in rows.”) Just getting him to buy the right brand of tampons is difficult enough. I don’t have any girlfriends to talk to, so I don’t know how other people deal with things like this, but I think it’s about time I told Dad that I’ll buy my own. I make enough money. A few bucks a month won’t eat too far into my college savings. Part of me feels bad for cutting him out, though. I still remember the day I got my period, and how he looked at me with proud eyes, hugged me, and then drove me to the drugstore down in the Pagoda Mall.

  Thinking of this reminds me of Charlie and the day I had to change my tampon while we were hiking Big Blue—the six-mile-long extension of the blue trail. It was only two years ago. I was sixteen.

  We were halfway up Big Blue when I asked him to hold on for a second and ducked behind a tree.

  “It really must suck,” he said.

  “What?”

  “You know—bleeding.”

  Geez. What a thing to say. “You get used to it. Not like I can make it go away, right?”

  “I guess.”

  I took the used one, flung it deep into the brush, and ripped the wrapper off the new one.

/>   “Does it hurt? You know. Putting it in?”

  “No,” I answered, now feeling awkward about the whole thing. He must have felt funny, too, because he got quiet. Then he sighed.

  “My dad won’t let my mom use them,” he confessed—which was probably the weirdest confession I ever heard.

  “That’s weird.”

  “He says it’s like her having sex with another person.”

  “That’s gross. He’s fucked-up, Charlie,” I said, standing up, trying to un-hear what he just said while I pulled my jeans up.

  “Yeah, I guess.”

  “I mean, you don’t think I just got some kick out of that, do you?”

  “I guess not.”

  “Well, do you think wiping your ass with toilet paper is like having sex?”

  “Ew. No.”

  “Well, it’s the same thing. Your poor mom. Geez. Why does he think he has any right to tell her how to deal with her period?”

  “That’s just how he is,” he said, and I knew we both knew that already, so I buttoned up and came out from behind the tree and continued up the trail, realizing that Charlie’s dad was ten times worse than I already thought he was.

  “Where’d we put the spike last year?” Dad asks from the bottom of the stairs when he hears me open the bathroom door. The spike is the funky 1960s green thing we put on top of the tree instead of an angel or a star. My mother hated the spike, so Dad makes a huge deal out of it every time we decorate.

  “With the lights, I think.”

  “I can’t find it.”

  “I’ll be down in a minute,” I say, inspecting my Jenny Flick penny welt in the bathroom mirror. It’s less swollen today, but the bruise is red-blue and dark.

  I dry my hair and put on a pair of sweats. Saturdays are better now than they ever were before. Working full-time has given me an appreciation for days off—sweatpants and slippers and skipping breakfast.

  When I get downstairs, Dad is untangling the lights and making three straight lines from the socket across the den floor. He’s knocked over his stack of self-help books, and they lie like shallow steps between the couch and the radiator. I watch him secretly from the kitchen, where he’s left a blueberry muffin for me on a small plate. I see what my mother saw in him. He’s handsome, smart, and fit, which is a miracle in this part of the world, where everyone is spilling over their edges. His only flaw seems to be linked to being cheap, which really isn’t that bad of a thing. So what if he buys the discounted cans of dented tomatoes at the grocery store? So what if he wears socks until they’ve got holes in them? He’s raising me while my mother is off in some flashy hooker town with some retired bigwig doctor who likes to play poker. He’s reading self-help books and learning new things about himself and the world. Only last week he learned how to make vegetarian lasagna and tried a new dish at the Chinese place. Back in October, I got him to try pineapple on his pizza, and got him hooked on Walt Whitman. What’s not to love about that? As far as I’m concerned, Mom must be an idiot. If it were me, I’d marry him in a heartbeat. But I don’t mean that in a gross way.

 
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