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Still life with tornado, p.5
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.5

           A. S. King
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When I look back to the wall, he has started to scrawl some sort of blurry still life in the foreground. This is the second time in five minutes he’s reminded me of the pear. I couldn’t draw the pear. I don’t know why I’m sitting here torturing myself over it by watching him. He’s an artist. I’m Umbrella. We have nothing in common.

  When people walk by him they aren’t paying attention to what he is, what he’s doing, or what he’s making. They don’t even look at him.

  I was like that.

  I must have walked by his building with the painted plywood windows a hundred times.

  “His name is Earl,” ten-year-old Sarah says.

  “You don’t know his name,” I say.

  She sits on the stoop next to me. “Yes I do. I asked him in the park last summer, remember? When he was painting the box?”

  I try to remember when I was nine and asked the homeless man what his name was but I don’t remember.

  She says, “It was the day you bought water ice and tried watermelon because Dad always said watermelon was good but you hated it and he wouldn’t let you buy another one.”

  “I remember that,” I say. I still hate watermelon water ice. Dad said I was good at art, too, and now art hates me.

  “Well, you walked through the park on the way home and that guy was painting an old box. You asked his name.”

  I shake my head. “Earl, huh?”


  “Dad ate the rest of the watermelon ice,” I say.

  “Yeah. Remember the fight?”


  “Did you start smoking weed or something? How can you not remember stuff anymore. You’re, what? Sixteen?”

  “I don’t smoke weed.” Smoking weed is unoriginal. And Carmen smokes enough for both of us.

  “Well his name is Earl and Mom and Dad had a huge fight that night,” she says.

  “Over him eating my watermelon ice?”

  “How do I know? They never stopped,” she says.

  A woman stands in front of us and we look up at her. She says, “Would you girls mind moving so I can get into my house please?”

  This is not an hallucination.


  Last night I had a hallucinating pregnant teenager come into the ER. She was convinced she was going to—in this order—have the baby, die, come back as a bird, and then shit on me. That’s what she said. “When I come back as a bird, I’m going to shit all over your ugly face.”

  She wouldn’t tell us what drugs she took. (They never do.) She wasn’t even close to having the baby. Or dying. Or coming back to shit on my head. She was younger than Sarah. Just turned fourteen. She had a stuffed animal with her—a furry horse that used to be white but looked like it had taken a mud bath. When one of the techs tried to take it from her she fought him hard and then kneed him in the groin. We had to put her in restraints. That’s never fun. Not with a drunk regular or a psych case or, in this case, a pregnant teenager. If she hadn’t been pregnant or hallucinating, we could have done chemical restraints, but this time we had to go with old-style straps. Rules are rules. If you hit my staff, you go in restraints until you make a deal that you’ll behave. If only those rules applied in the outside world.

  • • •

  Bruce told me once when he was in high school that if Chet and I didn’t stop arguing that Sarah would be one of these damaged girls who gets pregnant at thirteen or gets addicted to heroin or something. I blew him off at the time, but he put it in my head and I couldn’t stop thinking about my own parents and Chet’s father and how fighting adults were normal for us both.

  Not like Chet ever put a knife to my throat or abandoned me like his father did.

  But we wrecked Bruce. I didn’t want to wreck Sarah, too.

  I called a truce. Chet shrugged. It’s what he does best. Shrugging. Even when he’s not shrugging, I see him shrugging. It’s like a mirage for me now. He’s got to have the most-toned trapezius of any man in Philadelphia. And I have the most-toned middle finger, which is saying a lot for Philly.

  Every time he shrugs I just flip him off. A lifelong game of charades. Chet is always a person who doesn’t know what to do and I am always a person who is flipping off people who don’t know what to do.

  I flip Chet off all the time and he doesn’t know it. Under the table, through walls, in my pocket, behind the curtain next to the couch. I grew up in a house where cursing wasn’t allowed and I wonder what my parents would think of me now, flipping Chet off all the time. I think they’d be fine with it.

  My parents adopted me when they were quite old. Probably too old to be adopting a baby, but they loved me. They fought a lot as I got older because they’d just retired and were sick of seeing each other all the time. They weren’t mean.

  Sometimes I think of my father’s stories about working on the big skyscrapers in Philadelphia—walking the iron girders fifty stories high and welding joists and climbing scaffolding—and I can’t figure out how I married a man who works in a cubicle all day processing paperwork and making deals. On one hand, it’s less dangerous and brings in more money. On the other hand, it causes a lifetime of shrugging.

  Which has caused me a lifetime of flipping him off.

  When we were still sleeping in the same bed back before Sarah was born, I used to sleep with one hand pointed at the back of his head, finger up. A truce is one thing. But I can’t live a lie.

  Except I am living a lie.

  It’s complicated.

  Alleged Earl

  Alleged Earl leaves the drawing on the grocery store wall unfinished. I get up and ten-year-old Sarah walks back up 15th Street. She says, “See you later!” She has her hair in braided pigtails. It was my favorite look. Maybe my mission should be to bring braided pigtails back into fashion. Maybe I can paint some pop art dots of braided pigtails and one day it will sell for forty-five million dollars. Not original, but at least it will be mine.

  Alleged Earl puts his box of art supplies under his arm and it’s devoured by his coats and blankets. He shuffles when he walks. He’s not that old—maybe in his forties—so I wonder what’s wrong with him that he walks this slowly. I think about the stories Mom brings home about ulcerated feet and stuff like that. It makes me want to help him carry something, but then he yells out, “I don’t have to do what you tell me!” and I just walk a few yards behind him and stay in his shadow.

  With Alleged Earl as my pace car, it might take me a half hour to round the corner and walk one block of Spruce Street. I wonder where he’s headed next. I wonder if he’s hungry, because I am.

  It takes a whole minute to shuffle past the pizza place. It feels like an hour. My stomach growls. I want to ask him why he left the drawing unfinished. I imagine that I ask him and I decide his answer is Because I wanted to. Because I can do what I want. Because who cares if I finish it? Because none of your business, girl, go back home to your parents. Of course, I don’t ask and he doesn’t say any of these things. He just shuffles and occasionally stops to adjust his tinfoil headpiece or his box of art supplies.

  When I see the people in the pizza place sitting at tables and eating, I picture Alleged Earl and me in there one day. Middle-class girl takes homeless man to pizza place = not at all original. I decide he’ll say no if I ask him. I can see the viral video on The Social already. She wanted to buy him a slice for lunch, but what he said will make you cry.

  I decide he must know I’m following him, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it so I keep with him all the way to 17th Street where he starts to walk south. Past South Street, 17th isn’t safe. Once I see that’s where he’s going, I split off at Lombard Street and walk toward home. In my head I say good-bye and I decide he says Good-bye, Sarah. I decide he says See you tomorrow. It feels like the fish in Mexico. Fast friends. Someone to talk to. Except really it’s not.

  I think about ten-year-o
ld Sarah and how she said that last thing she said about my parents on the stoop. They never stopped.

  I try to remember them fighting. They bicker over little things sometimes, like who should have called the principal, but I don’t remember fighting. I barely ever see them in the same place at the same time. I’m sixteen and have some sort of parents-fighting amnesia. Bruce said it in Mexico—You can always come stay with me, no matter where I am. Now ten-year-old Sarah said they fought all the time.

  They can’t be lying.

  Maybe I’m just pretending like I did with the fish in Mexico or with Alleged Earl today. Maybe I pretend my parents say “I love you” to each other when they pass each other between work shifts. Maybe I pretend that my family is normal when I know it’s not normal to have a runaway brother. Maybe my whole life I’ve been living inside of an imaginary painting. I can’t figure out how I feel about this. But I know I feel uncomfortable. All the time.

  Standing in Random Places

  I observe Mom and Dad during the two hours they have together. I observe them while standing in random places—the thing I do. I stand behind the door to the kitchen while they talk about dinner.

  “I’m making fettuccine Alfredo,” Mom says.

  “As long as there’s garlic bread,” Dad says.

  “You make the garlic bread,” she says.

  “Okay,” he answers.

  Then silence until Mom plugs her phone into her headphones and plays heavy metal and I hear the thumping bass-drum triples of Lars Ulrich a room away. And if you think night ER-trauma nurses who listen to Metallica are original, you’re wrong. A lot of her coworkers are metalheads, too. She says metal makes them feel more at home when they’re away from the chaos of car accidents, crude drunks, and strokes.

  Dad hates metal. He makes the garlic bread. I hear the oven door open. I hear the oven door close. I hear him set the timer. He says, “That’ll be ready in twenty minutes.”

  She says nothing because she can’t hear him through her headphones. If she does hear him, she probably just nods. I can’t see them. I can only hear them.

  I move to the upstairs hallway and listen to Dad talking on the phone in his room. He has a room. Mom has a room. I never thought of this as unusual.

  I can’t hear much. I hear him say “I’m sorry” twice. I hear him say “Good-bye.” I don’t move when I hear his doorknob turn. I don’t care if he sees me. I congratulate myself for being original compared to most eavesdroppers.

  “Oh. I didn’t see you there,” he says.

  “Me neither,” I say.

  I want to ask him who he was saying sorry to, but I don’t.

  • • •

  Fifteen minutes later, I’m cracking black pepper onto a steaming plate of Alfredo and crunching a piece of garlic bread. I wait for dinner conversation between them, but there is none. Between bites, they only talk to me.

  “Where’d you go today?” Dad asks.

  “Just walked around town,” I say.

  “You should have told me where you were going,” he says.

  “I had my phone. You could have called,” I said.

  Dad nods and shrugs.

  Mom puts her hand under the table for a second and I think she’s wiping it on her napkin, but her napkin is on the table next to her plate.

  “I saw the museum ticket on your dresser,” Mom says. “So you’re skipping school to look at art?”

  “You were in my room?”

  “Delivering laundry. Can’t afford drones. Yet,” she says.

  “What are you going to do about school?” Dad asks.

  “I’m going to get expelled,” I say.

  “Great life plan,” Dad says.

  I shrug and nod.

  Mom looks at me a little too long and then takes a deep breath. Before she can say anything, I say, “I think I’ll just drop out this week if that’s okay with you.”

  “It’s not okay with me,” Dad says.

  Mom chews on her garlic bread.

  “You can’t go to college if you don’t have a diploma,” Dad says.

  Mom says, “Picasso didn’t have a diploma.”

  Dad shrugs. Mom puts her hand under the table. I just eat my food because no matter what they say, I’m not going to school.

  • • •

  I stand in the study while they do dishes.

  Mom says, “Did you unload the dishwasher?”

  Dad says, “No.”

  Mom says, “What did you do all day?”

  Dad says nothing. I picture him shrugging.

  Mom turns off the water and says, “I have to get ready for work.”

  When she walks through the study, she does it backward with her hands aimed at Dad in her sweatshirt pockets until she sees me. Then she turns around and walks normally through the living room and goes upstairs to take a shower and get ready for work.

  • • •

  I don’t think they love each other. I don’t think they even like each other. I can’t figure out what to think about this, but I feel instantly lonely.

  Since I deleted my profile on The Social, I don’t have anything except real life. And this is my real life. Anyway, by the time I deleted my profile everyone I’d connected with disconnected from me. Vicky-the-grand-prizewinner posted some crazy stuff about how she was accused and how she was innocent and how anyone who knew what she was talking about should block the accuser.

  I didn’t accuse anyone of anything.

  I just asked the same questions anyone else would have asked.

  Vicky-the-grand-prizewinner is lucky I didn’t ask more questions about other things. Because there were other things.

  It’s a long story.

  MEXICO—Day One: Vomitorium

  Day One, when we arrived at the resort and checked in, a man was supposed to take us to our room but instead he took us to a desk claiming that he had to “show us around the resort map.” Mom and I had to pee, but we sat in the chairs in front of the desk because we were told to. Dad kept his eyes on our luggage, which was stacked on a cart and sitting next to twenty other carts. The lobby was wide and open. There were cushioned benches, ceiling fans, a bar, a baby grand piano, the sounds of foreign birds. Paradise.

  Bruce was still okay then. He was excited to come on vacation with us. He’d just finished his first year of college. He said he really needed the break.

  The man behind the desk, Alejandro, talked so fast none of us could keep up. He wasn’t talking about the map or the resort. He was talking about the opportunity we had as a family to increase our vacation potential. It wasn’t a time-share, he said. It was a vacation club. After listening to him for ten minutes, we had a raffle ticket and breakfast appointment at ten the next morning for—we weren’t sure. But we could finally go to our room and pee.

  I let Mom go first because she said something about her pelvic floor. I had no idea what a pelvic floor was and, come to think of it, I still don’t know. But I’m thinking it’s something you get later on.

  When it was finally my time to pee, I went into the bathroom and saw it had a bidet. It was my first bidet and I didn’t know what it was for. While I peed, I stared at the bidet and tried to figure out what it was. I decided that it was a special toilet where one throws up. It was clean. It had that nozzle thing. It didn’t have any water in it to splash back. And it was right next to the toilet. I’d heard about Montezuma’s Revenge and Mom had warned us not to drink the water in Mexico. She’d packed every type of medication there was for vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea. I decided that this thing next to the toilet was a vomitorium. I’d heard the word. Had no idea what it meant. Now I had a face to put with the name.

  I turned on the water in the bidet as I sat on the toilet, peeing the pee of a hundred little girls who’d just deplaned in Cancún after accepting every beverage offered b
y the flight attendant, and I tried to move the nozzle around and I went too far and the water started to spray onto the bathroom floor and even though I turned the water off right then, the floor was pretty soaked. When I was done peeing, I took the hand towel from the bathroom and cleaned the floor and I threw the towel under the sink basin so everyone would know it was dirty.

  I didn’t think it would be a big problem.

  I was a kid and I’d never seen a vomitorium before.

  A half hour later while Mom was putting sunscreen on me and Bruce was already in his swimming trunks and flip-flops, Dad came out of the bathroom holding the dirty towel.

  “Who used this towel?” he asked.

  Bruce said he didn’t know. Mom said it wasn’t her.

  I said, “I used it to clean up some water I spilled on the floor.”

  “How’d you do that?” he asked.

  “I just . . . did.”

  He was far too angry for our first day in Mexico. Maybe he knew we’d just been had by Alejandro.

  Mom said, “Chet, don’t make a big deal.”

  Dad said, “We’re not even here an hour and they can’t be mature.”

  Bruce said, “I’m mature.”

  I said, “I was just checking out the vomitorium.”

  Day One: over. Day One: vacation potential, a dirty towel, and a vomitorium.


  A vomitorium has nothing to do with vomit. If you’ve been to a baseball game, then you’ve probably been in a vomitorium. The word comes from the Latin vomō, which means to “spew forth.” And as a baseball fan, once the game is over, you spew forth through the vomitorium to get back to the parking lot.

  Some dumbshit got the meaning wrong once, and for all time, we think it’s about some gastrointestinal bug that made Caesar hurl in a vomitorium. The irony is fine, but it still doesn’t mean that people go there to vomit.

  I hate when people think they know a thing they never even thought about. I have to deal with this every single night in the ER. People hit the Internet for medical advice and suddenly they’re diagnosticians. Last night it was a guy convinced he had gallstones but had indigestion, another one with assumed throat cancer who really just had postnasal drip, and a woman who was convinced she had a tapeworm. She actually did have a tapeworm. Did you know they poke their heads out of the anus at night? True story. If you want to be in medicine, remember—you might one day see a tapeworm wave at you.

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