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       Reality Boy, p.5

           A. S. King
 
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  SPED class takes a while to get ready at the end of the day. Taylor needs to gather up her coat and her book bag and anything else she needs and has to be reminded five times not to forget anything in her desk. Deirdre needs help with her jacket, and her foot has fallen off the footrest again, so Fletcher puts it back on and secures it there, giving it a loving, sturdy wiggle.

  Have you ever seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Jack Nicholson in it? SPED class reminds me of it. We’re not crazy or in some mental ward being psychologically abused by some sadist nurse, but we’re an accidental family, the same way they are. I know from driving past the mental hospital a few miles away that people on the outside look in and just see mental patients. Not people. That’s how people look at SPED, too. But we’re all people. Real people. I’m like Jack Nicholson’s character—once demanding, hard to handle, violent, and scary, but now electroshocked into brain toast by the golden rule of anger management: Have no demands.

  13

  JACKO WALKS RIGHT up to me when I get to the gym and says, “Okay, mon. I know you can’t fight here, but how about outside here? How about you and me?”

  “Dude. You’re not Jamaican. Just give it up,” I say.

  “What you mean, I’m not Jamaican?” he says.

  “I mean you’ve lived in the Black Hills development since you were three. Two developments down from me, remember? And you go to a private school that costs, like, thirty grand a year.”

  He pushes me. “You didn’t answer my question, bumbaclaat.” He says this in a really convincing Jamaican accent.

  “Will I fight you?” I say. “No. Not even if you rip my head off and piss down my neck.”

  My anger management coach would have a field day with Jacko. He has all the physical cues. Clenched jaw. Shaking all over. I walk past him to the speed bag and drop all my stuff on the floor, in the corner. I take off my shirt and start on the bag.

  Jacko says something to me, but I don’t hear him.

  I stop the bag with my left hand and ask, “So why do you call yourself Jacko, anyway?”

  He doesn’t answer me, and after looking at me for a few seconds, he just walks away. Fists tight. Muscles tensed. I go back to the bag and superimpose faces on it. Tasha. Nanny. Tasha. Mom. Tasha. Nanny. Tasha. Nichols. Tasha. The cameraman from the first episode who said, “Look at his little pecker!” Tasha. Mom. Nanny. Dad. Nanny. Tasha. Mom.

  I start to sweat. I feel the war paint dripping off my face and arms. The chief rolls down my back and onto the gym floor. Now I’m just Gerald. My arms burn. My neck burns. The bag hypnotizes me, and I’m mesmerized by how it seems to know when my hand is coming toward it. How it knows me. Saves me every day from going to jail. Fuck jail.

  There is a rough push from the side into my rib cage. My first reaction is to pull my right back and let it fly. I stop mid-punch and see it’s Jacko. He’s saying some shit I can’t keep up with. I start to back up. I make him dance with me. His two friends are behind him. They walk me around the gym, weaving in and out of the equipment.

  He throws a slow punch and I dodge it. He throws a faster one and I dodge that, too. I feel the gym watching us. All other sounds have ceased except the drums in my head. I hop from foot to foot. I feel at one with the universe doing this dance with Jacko. Like I’m on one of the chief’s peyote trips.

  Jacko keeps throwing punches. I keep escaping them. I know how to catch his fist and flip him. I know how to knock him right out. I know how to kill him with my bare hands and eat his face, if I want. Instead, I make him dance. And dance. And dance. He’s starting to get tired. He’s getting slower. He’s sweating. I can see his American fat jiggling on the surface of his furious Jamaican muscles.

  “Okay! Enough!” A trainer steps in. “You! Back to the bag,” he says to me. “And you—come with me,” he says to Jacko the middle-class fake Jamaican.

  I go back to the bag, but instead of working out, I just pick up my things, put my shirt back on, and head out the door toward my car.

  14

  I AVOID THE boxing gym for the rest of the week. I don’t want that Jacko asshole sending me away. I bet they already have a reality TV show for that. Teen Jail. Pubescent Prison. I bet I’d get paid a packet to get in there. I am the original reality TV fuckup. What better way to follow my downfall than to air it on national TV?

  On Wednesday, I want to go work out because I miss it, but instead I buy a speed bag and when Dad gets home from work, we mount it on the wall in the garage, near my old rusty pull-up bar. He tries it but can’t keep up. When I show him how to do it, he smiles. And then he frowns.

  And then the banging sound starts down in the basement and we both leave the garage. He gets a drink and goes into his man cave. Mom throws random fruits and vegetables into the food processor in the kitchen and pretends she’s making a random fruit-and-vegetable puree, when we all know she’s just trying to be louder than the banging below her. I wonder, for the first time, if she does it to block out the sound not for our sake but for hers. I wonder, and then get instantly grossed out, if she and Dad even do it anymore. You know how your mother is. I go to my happy place and spend an hour in Gersday before I fall asleep.

  It’s a nice night in Gersday. Dad and I play Ping-Pong in the basement. In Gersday, the basement is still Dad’s home gym, and I lift weights and he runs on the treadmill and then I hit the new speed bag a little and then we play Ping-Pong again and he beats me. When we go upstairs, he doesn’t offer me a drink, and he doesn’t pour himself one. Instead we eat oranges at the kitchen table while Mom tells us funny stories about what happened to her at work today. Because in Gersday, Mom has a job. She doesn’t just turn pages in magazines, make pretend fruit puree, and fast-walk to meditate, and there are no handmade centerpieces.

  Then the phone rings and it’s Lisi and she wants to talk to me, because in Gersday, Lisi calls home and talks to me. We talk for an hour about how college is going and what it’s like in Glasgow. After I hang up, we play a family game of Scrabble and I win. Dad and Mom both high-five me. My score is 233.

  I have this dream and it wakes me up at four in the morning on Friday. I can’t fall back to sleep because I can’t figure out what the dream means, but I know it means something important. The dream goes like this: I have something in my nose. In my left nostril. So I go to a mirror and I look up my nose and I see this big thing in there, like a huge booger, and so I reach in and I pull out a perfectly wrapped Hershey’s Kiss chocolate candy. It even has the little paper Kiss flag sticking out of the top. And in the dream, I think, I wonder why this hasn’t melted yet. And then I think, Since it’s wrapped, I might as well eat it. And then I unwrap the Hershey’s Kiss and I eat it.

  I think this dream is about how messed up I am. I think it’s about eating the crap that comes out of my nose and pretending that it’s a perfectly wrapped Hershey’s Kiss.

  On Friday, the last hour of SPED is awesome. More games with linear equations, this time with two variables. More of Deirdre’s sarcastic flirting. More of Fletcher’s happiness and encouragement as if he doesn’t know who I am. As if he thinks his time spent on me is worth it. Can’t he see the permanent boom mike suspended in front of me? The reflectors? The spots? Can’t he see the cameramen following me around the halls? The behay-vyah chart with all the black spots that I wear on my chest?

  I have to go straight to work after school. Beth has me on register #5 and I tell her I can’t work #5.

  “I have to work number seven. You know that,” I say.

  She sighs.

  “But it’s closer to the cooler and everything,” she says.

  I shrug. “I really have to work on number seven.”

  She gives me a nod and tells the woman on #7 to move to #5. She switches the money drawers even though we’re not even open and there’s $150 in both of them. Then she sighs again.

  “You okay?” I ask.

  “Yeah. Tough day.”

  She’s never a downer like this.
Beth is awesome. Like—always awesome. I would totally be into her if she wasn’t, like, fifty. She’s the perfect opposite of me—she lives in her own sunshine state. Postal abbreviation SS. It is on an entirely different coast from FS. Her coast has beaches and seventy-five-degree waves, and mine has cliffs and the water is too cold to swim in.

  “Can I do anything to help?” I ask.

  She shakes her head and smiles a little. “You can make sure everyone has enough ice.”

  So I make sure everyone has enough ice and I start wrapping hot dogs and I do as much as I can to make Beth stop sighing. It’s not right, her being like this.

  “Yo, Crapper!” Nichols says from the walkway. “You gonna be cool tonight or am I going to have to sic Todd on you?” Todd looks mortified. Not just because Nichols is an idiot, but because he knows I could take him with my eyes closed. I keep wrapping hot dogs and hear nothing but the blood in my ears and my heartbeat.

  And then she’s here.

  She’s here saying, “Can I help you with those, Gerald?” and I’m so scared of what I’ll say or do that I just nod and we wrap hot dogs together silently. She gets the jumbo dogs and wraps them in silver. I wrap the regular ones in blue. The other five cashiers do other stuff. I don’t care. She smells like berries.

  “How come you’re always at register number seven?” she asks.

  “Dunno,” I say.

  “Really?” she asks. “You don’t know?”

  “Not as busy. And no credit card machine.”

  “Ugh. I hate that thing,” she says. She crinkles her nose up when she says it.

  “Yeah.”

  “Yeah,” she says.

  I think about this for a minute, and then I ask, “So why don’t you switch registers? Two and five don’t do credit.”

  She answers, “I can’t do two because”—she lowers her voice to a whisper—“I’m not eighteen.”

  “And five?”

  “I—uh—I just like number one. It’s, like, my place.” When I don’t say anything, she adds, “You probably think I’m a freak now or something.” I watch her expression turn pained.

  “No. I’m—uh. I’m always on seven for the same reason,” I say. “I like it there.” I don’t add that I like it there because she’s on #1 and I’m in love with her, even though I don’t even know her.

  I don’t add that.

  “Oh,” she says. “I guess we all have our quirks, eh?”

  15

  I CATCH HER looking at me a few times across the distance. When it’s busy, there’s a lot of space between register #1 and register #7. I counted on my way to fill the ice bucket. It’s nineteen paces.

  I don’t think I’m too dangerous to date anymore. I mean, I know Roger thinks girls are infuriating and that I shouldn’t be opening myself up to that shit, but she’s cute. She’s funny. We’re both weird. She’s weird because she writes in that little book. I’m weird because I used to crap on stuff. And because I wear war paint to school. And because I ate part of some kid’s face once when I was thirteen.

  I should clear that last part up.

  Tom What’s-His-Name was asking for it. I mean that in a strictly pre–anger management way. Now, I know that Tom was just being a douche, and I was to blame for eating his face. Tom did not deserve a hole in his face. I did not deserve justice. But anyway. He called me Crapper all the time. Like—never called me Gerald, ever. Just Crapper. And in middle school, we were stuck in the same class two years in a row, for seventh and eighth grades. As if middle school wasn’t hard enough.

  From the time Nanny left to the time I ate Tom What’s-His-Name’s face, I fell behind in school because no one helped me. Sometimes Lisi would, but I felt stupid a lot, so I didn’t always ask her. By middle school, Mom had petitioned to get me into SPED again. This was her mission in life, I guess. The elementary school wouldn’t let her do it, because they said I did fine in regular classes. But middle school was middle school. And the first quarter of eighth grade was just that Tom kid calling me Crapper all the time again and all the teachers letting him. It distracted me. I got mostly Ds and Fs on my report card.

  Then one day—it was a normal day—he didn’t do anything over the top. Just called me Crapper the way he would. Casual. “Hey, Crapper, can you pass me that book?” And I just turned into a hungry tiger. I think people tried to pull me off him, but before they could, I’d bitten him on the arm and the shoulder, and finally my teeth sank into his cheek. I took a bite, like he was an apple. I spat it out. He screamed.

  I don’t know. Something snapped, I guess. After five years of locking myself in my room with no one remotely concerned about that fact, and then a year and a half of being called the Crapper, I ate a kid’s face. Sometimes these things happen.

  Nichols doesn’t show up until the end of the second period of the hockey game, and when I see him approach, I look over at Beth and give her the come here motion with my head. She recognizes him from last time and pretends to be annoyed so Nichols thinks she’s the bitch.

  “ID?” she asks.

  Todd Kemp is already walking away, but Nichols just stands there staring at her. She could totally take him. She stares back. He gets that sarcastic smirk he has all the time, like he’s better than us.

  Nichols walks away and Beth nods, then motions toward the mob of people coming at us for food. “Here comes the rush,” she says.

  I look up and see Tasha standing right in front of me.

  This sends me to Gersday, where a bowl of ice cream awaits, and two tickets to the circus for me and Lisi.

  Tasha’s drumming her fingers on the counter. “Pretzel and a jumbo hot dog and a Pepsi.”

  “No,” I say. Beth stays by me when she hears me say this. I am in Gersday, so I don’t give a shit what either of them thinks, because Tasha doesn’t exist, so Tasha obviously can’t have a pretzel, a jumbo dog, or a Pepsi. Things that don’t exist can’t buy, eat, or carry things that do exist. That’s just a simple fact.

  “Dude, get me it,” Tasha says.

  I don’t say anything. In Gersday, the trapeze act is stunning. Lisi and I ooh and aah between bites of creamy goodness.

  “You’re a dick,” Tasha says.

  I don’t say anything, because saying something to someone who doesn’t exist would mean I’d be talking to myself, right?

  “Forget it,” she says, and walks away to get a pretzel somewhere else.

  Once she sees I’m fine with the next customer, Beth goes back to acting as runner for the busier side of the stand, where Register #1 Girl is working.

  Register #1 Girl has a name, but I don’t use it, because all girls fall into one of two categories and she has a 50 percent chance of falling into the bad one. And if she falls into the bad category and I use her name, then I will have another trigger, and I don’t want another trigger.

  After we close, clean, and mop, I go outside and she’s there, waiting for her ride. I want more than anything to offer her one, but I’m not allowed to offer beautiful girls a ride. That could put me in danger. Instead, I stop and talk to her while the two of us watch the next night’s crew unpack their stuff at the loading dock. It’s the circus, which seems like Gersday kismet. I wonder if there’s a trapeze act.

  “My dad is always fucking late,” she says.

  “So’s mine,” I say. “I think that’s why my parents bought me a car when I turned sixteen. Just so they wouldn’t have to taxi me around anymore.”

  I’m glad she doesn’t ask me about my car. I get embarrassed about it. Like I’m some rich kid because a bunch of people used to watch me crap on TV. I don’t have anything more to say, but I stand with her anyway. The PEC Center borders the bad side of town. During the day it’s fine, but at night I wouldn’t want Lisi standing around waiting by herself, so I’ll stay with Register #1 Girl until her dad gets here.

  “What do you think that is?” she asks, pointing toward something the circus guys are pulling out of a truck.

  “No idea
. Maybe a trampoline? Or some kind of platform?”

  “I vote for trampoline.” She squints. “Looks like those legs fold out.”

  A horn beeps. She turns toward the road and says good-bye. I watch the circus unload for a few more minutes before I go home. When I get there, Tasha and the naked mole rat are already in the basement making barnyard noises and Mom is already asleep, so she can’t start mowing grass that isn’t long or blowing leaves that aren’t there, to block out the sound and act like our life is normal.

  16

  EPISODE 1, SCENE 36, TAKE 1

  NANNY LEFT US alone for the last week but left her little spy cameras all around the house. It was creepy. I started to put a towel over myself in the bathroom. I looked down most of the time. I stopped picking my nose.

  One night we were watching TV in the living room, and Mom and Dad were somewhere else in the house doing Mom-and-Dad things. Tasha sat with her back to a camera and did what she’d do—called me names and poked me and wiped spit in my face—and then, when I didn’t react to any of those things, she pinched my nose and mouth closed until I turned pale. When I started to cry, Lisi said, “Tasha, just leave him alone.” This made Tasha punch me. She did it low down, so the camera couldn’t see it. Right in the balls.

  When I could catch my breath, I came at her like a train and I hit her over and over while she screamed and swore at me until I eventually pushed her right off the couch. I picked up the nearest thing I could find—a wood carving of a giant mahogany fish that Mom and Dad bought on their honeymoon—and was about to slam it into her face, but Dad got there just in time and pulled me off her.

 
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