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Please ignore vera dietz, p.6
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.6

           A. S. King
 
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  “You know, I think you’re cool, Vera,” he says out of the blue.

  “Why?” I ask, blueberry muffin crumbs shooting out of my mouth.

  “I can tell you’re really growing up since you listened to me and got a job.”

  Forget everything I just said. Clearly, the man is an idiot.

  CHRISTMAS BREAK

  Christmas was all about clothes, mostly. A card with $100 in it. Three vintage Funkadelic albums—with the original record sleeves. Dad says I’m old enough for the lyrics, as if I hadn’t already looked them up on the Internet. Dad tells me a few more times, between my holiday shifts at Pagoda and his new meditation routine, that he thinks I’m cool. He says, “You know, most kids these days are getting drunk and screwing boys. I’m so glad I raised you right,” which makes me feel partly like never drinking again so I can continue to make him happy, and partly paranoid that he looked under my driver’s seat and found my stash.

  PART TWO

  NEW YEAR’S EVE

  Marie brought in two drivers from day shift, every part-timer we’ve got who would come in, and three extra pizza makers—including ex-cheerleader-turned-food-service-worker Jill, who can’t stop making suggestive remarks about me and James.

  “You two would make a cute couple,” she says as she passes by with a full dough tray in her arms. I don’t know why she says it. We aren’t doing anything but folding boxes with the other drivers and telling dirty jokes.

  But we would.

  We would make a cute couple.

  First run of the night is in the rich part of town—Potter Farms, where the houses are huge and geometrically pleasing to the eye, but the tips are not. Three stops, six bucks, and once I get back to the shop, the night becomes a blur of pizzas, garlic bread, six-packs of Coke, doorbells, kids in pajamas, adults tipping more than they should, leftover glowing tacky Christmas shit, drunk people in party hats, and confetti. Every time I come back to the store, Marie has a new stack of orders to go out. She may have crazy-looking teeth, but man, can that woman run a pizza delivery store. Holy shit. I don’t think there’s one backup all night, which has to be a miracle on New Year’s Eve.

  Around 11:45, a customer at 362 Lancaster Road asks me when I get off work.

  “We’re having a small party, as you can see,” he says. Yeah. All six of you. Playing Monopoly. Excellent. I decline.

  At midnight, I ding-dong while a house on McMann Avenue erupts with cheers and party horns and “Auld Lang Syne.” I ring again a minute later and a tall kid I used to know answers the door. He’s swaying, and his eyes are bloodshot.

  “Don’t I know you?” he asks as he hands me the money.

  “I don’t think so,” I lie. We had film class together when I was a sophomore and he was a senior.

  “You look familiar, though.”

  “Have a nice night,” I say, turning back toward my car.

  “You should come back later! When you get off work!”

  “I’ll think about it,” I say. And I do. For about three seconds, and then I drive to the next house. On the way, I whisper “Happy New Year” to Charlie.

  At 12:10 I knock on the big green door of 21 Thirty-fourth Street. Two kids from my school answer it. Math geeks. They give me exact change and don’t say thank you.

  Last stop. 12:17. A loud party at the apartment complex where Jill lives. They are unprepared. I hand them their six pizzas and they take a drunken collection for cash, but can’t count it. I help them. They are a dollar short.

  “Come on! Pete! Pete! Where’s that cheap son of a bitch?” People look around for Pete.

  “I already chipped in, you asshole!”

  “Who has an extra dollar? We’re a buck short!”

  I say, “And a tip. You’re a buck and a tip short.”

  I watch them all dig deep into jeans pockets and shrug at each other.

  “Shit, man. I’ll have to spill out the penny jar,” the guy says. Behind him, two girls pass a smoking bong between them. Someone yells “Happy New Year!”

  I hold up my hand. “It’s cool, man. Don’t worry about it.”

  He stops searching his pockets for the third time and smiles at me.

  “Hold on. I have your tip, though,” he says, and he runs into the kitchen and returns with a four-pack of vodka coolers. “Something for when you get off work tonight,” he says.

  “Thanks, I—” I know I should give them back, but I don’t. Instead, I pop the trunk and secure them between my gym bag and the cardboard box for groceries (one of a hundred Ken Dietz practical ideas—never have jars of mayonnaise rolling around the trunk again!) and cover them with the sleeping bag I keep in there in case of emergency. I think of my mom. Is this how it started with her? Are there baby steps toward complete loserdom, and if so, how many are there to go?

  It’s 12:25. As I wait for the traffic light on Bear Hill to turn green, I can’t stop myself from reaching for the bottle that’s under my seat. I’ve gone all night without a sip, but it’s not about being addicted. It’s about being told what to do my whole life and doing it and then losing everything anyway. Let me explain.

  The night of Charlie’s funeral, I took two shots of chilled vodka that someone had left at their table. I don’t know what possessed me, but something did. (Probably Charlie.) The glasses were sitting there, I was walking by on my way to the bathroom, and no one was looking. So I picked one up in each hand and knocked them back one after the other. I had no idea how much it would hurt my throat, but loved the way it made me feel a minute later as I sat on the toilet, pondering the tiled floor. Warm. Happy. Safe. Now, on Bear Hill, I take the last shot left in my bottle, I think of my father’s lifelong alcoholism warnings, and I say, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” (Abraham Lincoln said that.)

  1:02. Another trip to Potter Farms and a teenage party with chaperones who look vacant and are dressed in neutral, catalog-bought clothing. I have to walk across a bridge that spans an indoor koi pond. The father is foreign and very nice, and escorts me over the bridge. The mother is clapping a lot to get the kids to come to the kitchen. They intentionally tip me ten bucks, which is my biggest intentional tip of the night. When we’re halfway back over the bridge toward the door, the father says, “Want to toss in a penny?” and sticks a penny in my hand.

  I turn to the pond and eye a bright pink fish the size of my forearm shimmering his way from shadow to shadow, and I toss in the penny and make a wish. I wish for world peace, because it’s about as likely to occur as anything else I can wish for.

  • • •

  At two, the phones stop ringing and Marie cashes the part-time drivers out. All the store help are gone but Jill, who’s doing prep, and a girl I know from school named Helen, who needs a ride home. There are three or four runs left, and James says if I wait a few minutes I can take Helen home and drop off a big order at the same time, so I wait.

  Halfway to her house, she says, “How are you doing? I mean”—she sighs—“uh, since Charlie died?”

  “I’m okay.”

  “It must be hard. I mean, I’m sad about it and I didn’t really know him.”

  “Yeah. It’s sad.”

  “Did you know about the animals?”

  It’s weird. Nobody really talks about the animals. The minute she mentions them, my heart pounds and the images come rolling back behind my eyes. Damn brain.

  “No,” I lie.

  “I just couldn’t believe that, you know? That such a nice kid would do that to innocent animals.”

  I think of what Charlie had seen. How his father beat his mother. How he pulled her hair out sometimes. I think about what it must be like to want to stop a thing that you can’t stop.

  “It’s pretty easy to blame the whole thing on the dead kid, isn’t it?”

  “I—uh—I guess.”

  We get to her house. “Don’t believe everything you hear, you know?”

  She cocks her head and thinks about it for a second.
Happy New Year, Vera.”

  As I watch her walk to the door, I realize that she’s just another person who probably can’t locate Florida on a map.

  I deliver my last run, get a five-dollar tip, and stuff it into the bag behind my seat. Then I get back to the shop and start mopping. It’s already three-fifteen and I want to be drinking the bottles in my trunk by four. James has stocked the cooler, Jill has done the dishes, and Marie has cashed me out. I hand her my money bag and she hands me my double commission in cash, with an extra twenty-dollar bill.

  “A bonus for my full-timers,” she says, and winks.

  The mix James made in the mop bucket is bleach-heavy. It sticks in my nose and as I mop myself into the back kitchen, Marie’s cigarette smoke thickens and mixes with it and I feel light-headed.

  I finish, dump and rinse the bucket, and clean the mop-head. I go into the bathroom to change, and toss my shirt into the washing machine, and start it.

  James is still here, in his car, in the parking lot. He motions me into his passenger’s seat and lights a cigarette.

  “You going anywhere special?” he asks.

  “Just home,” I lie.

  “No party? No boyfriend to kiss?”

  There is no doubt that James is flirting with me.

  “Nope. No party. No boyfriend. But some geeks over on Lancaster Road invited me to their all-night Monopoly party. Wanna go and crash it with me?”

  He feigns consideration. “Nah. Something tells me I won’t get any kisses there.”

  “Kisses, eh?”

  “Uh-huh.”

  He leans in toward me and my stomach does a bunch of flip-flops.

  “Is that all you’re after?”

  “Uh-huh.”

  So, I kiss him and it feels really nice, and I really don’t care that James is twenty-three, or a college dropout, or that he smokes. I wonder if this is step two on the baby-steps-to-loserdom trip I seem to be taking tonight, but I simultaneously don’t care. I’m eighteen years old and I’ve never had a real boyfriend. I’ve never got past first base or gone to the prom or got detention for PDA. All this time I thought that if I avoided all the slutty shit my mother must have done, I would be a good person. I’d be safe. I’d be better than her. But while James is kissing me and holding the back of my head with his strong fingers entwined in my hair, I realize I don’t really care about my mother and how she became a shallow loser capable of leaving her husband and kid. I realize that this feels nice and I really want to keep doing it. We stay there for about ten minutes, kissing, until I say, “I have to go.” James’s hand is under my shirt, around my waist, and part of me hates myself for making him stop.

  His cigarette has burned down to the filter in the ashtray, so he lights another one.

  “Happy New Year, Vera.”

  “Happy New Year, James,” I say.

  “You working tomorrow?”

  “Yep. You?”

  “Yep.”

  We smile at each other for a few seconds and then I push myself out of his car. It’s cold out, but I don’t feel it.

  Six a.m., two hours later, and I’m parked on a dirt track that leads to a dead brown cornfield on top of Jenkins’s Hill. It’s still dark. I need to get rid of the evidence. I open the driver’s door and toss the bottles into the field, one by one, until all four empties are gone. I crush the cardboard holder flat and fling it like a Frisbee.

  I know I shouldn’t be driving, but how else am I going to get home?

  Anyway, I’m only three miles from my house, and if I get home now, Dad will be sleeping and won’t know I’m drunk. I think this, but my body is falling asleep right here in my bucket seat. I think, Hey, Vera! Come on! Snap out of it and get your drunk ass home! but my body has shut down. I’m already drooling. Who cares what Dad thinks? I’m getting good grades, working his stupid full-time job, and saving for college.

  I think of James—how he kissed me and how I have to see him tomorrow. Then I think of Charlie and our first New Year’s Eve apart, and how I miss him. I miss him so much, but it’s confusing, because I missed him long before he was dead, and that’s the bitch of it all. I missed him long before he was dead.

  It appears that my body knew I was going to vomit, so it woke me up and got me outside of my car without telling me. I hold on to the back bumper and puke into the row of compressed cornstalks. Again. Again. Again. I dry-heave a few times, then wipe my nose and my mouth and look at the horizon. The light is just appearing—that bluey-violet color that my mother used to get up early to see.

  Then, like an army lined in marching formation, they are there. The Charlies—walking toward me between rows of shin-high skeletal cornstalks.

  They have needles? Are they needles? They aren’t threatening. They seem friendly this time, but machinelike. They seem like a thousand android Charlies. Coming to get me. With what look like dental needles. They are going to shoot me up with the past and show me everything that led me here. They are going to inject me with outer space truth serum.

  When I realize I can’t run away, I try to glue my mouth shut. I refuse to tell them anything. I convince my brain that I am a mute, change-making, tip-counting machine, nothing more. A pizza-delivering android. I do not have emotions. I do not have truth. A thousand Charlies know better. They outstretch their arms and hug me tightly until I bawl and tell them what they want to hear.

  If Mr. Jenkins, the owner of this field, was to walk onto his back deck right now to see the beauty of this bluey-violet morning, he’d see me standing by the side of my car, hugging myself, sobbing, “I couldn’t stand you anymore!”

  I couldn’t. I hated him.

  “I wished you were dead!”

  A thousand Charlies know this.

  But they don’t have to come to terms with it. I do.

  NEW YEAR’S DAY

  We’re at Uncle Caleb’s house for our traditional New Year’s Day meal. I’m sitting next to Jessie, my fluffy cousin, and her little brother, Frankie, who isn’t paying attention to what’s going on at the table because he’s watching the muted football game on TV.

  “I don’t get it,” my cousin Jessie says. “You could probably get into a good school, Veer.”

  “Yeah, but what does that mean, you know?” I ask, although I’m not asking. We’ve been through this before.

  “It means you’ll get a better job,” Aunt Kate says while shoveling a forkful of mashed potatoes smothered in sauerkraut into her mouth.

  “It means you’ll look better on paper,” says Uncle Caleb—Kate’s husband, Dad’s oldest brother.

  “I don’t care about how I look on paper.” I am so hungover I want to die. My head is throbbing. My eyes are still bloodshot. Dad either noticed and is saying nothing, or he really is the most inattentive man in the world, like Mom used to say.

  “Well, you should,” Aunt Kate says.

  I look down at my plate of pork and sauerkraut. This is proof that life is totally surreal here in our little Pennsylvania Dutch county. Who makes pork and sauerkraut a traditional lucky meal on the day after the year’s biggest traditional drinking binge?

  “I don’t see what the difference is, as long as she gets a good education,” Dad says.

  The table goes quiet and we get back to eating our good luck for the year. We are maniacal about it now, since six years ago, when we tried to change the tradition and had venison stew instead. That was the year Mom left, Jessie got sick with appendicitis, and Maw-Maw died. Last year I skipped it because I had the flu and what happened? I lost Charlie. Twice.

  Anyway, I think Dad’s right. What difference does it make what college I go to? There are idiots at Yale whose fathers get them in. There are illiterate football players at all of the state schools. Bottom line—the only thing I care about is how much my education will cost. Because Dad has made it clear that I am paying.

  Which may seem cruel, but it’s not.

  Sure beats being one of those kids at school who don’t yet understand what
“college loan” means. You know the ones. They think it’s free money. Think their parents will cover it. Or they just don’t think. Then suddenly, at twenty-two, they get the payment booklet and discover that they owe a hundred grand, and they can’t buy groceries or health insurance because of the school they picked—all so they could look good on paper. (And they still can’t locate Florida on a map.)

  Sorry. Not me. I’d rather pay class by class at community college, and deliver pizza at night while I live cheap in Dad’s house. Then, when I graduate, I can actually start fresh, rather than starting with a hundred-thousand-dollar stone around my neck.

  Jessie has her heart set on Penn State. She’s one of those college football fans who chant “We are … Penn State.” She has no idea what she wants to do outside keg parties and blow jobs. I know that sounds harsh, but Jessie is just—Jessie.

  Most of the family eats quickly and goes back to watching football on TV. I look at my watch and decide to save myself from any more unsaid criticism.

 
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