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Still life with tornado, p.6
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.6

           A. S. King
 
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  I don’t know what Chet sees in his cubicle during the day, but it’s nothing compared to what I see. Whatever he sees, he’s always taken it out on the kids. Poor Chet. That’s what he should call his memoir. Poor Chet. Except his memoir wouldn’t be all that long. All he does is go to work, shrug, and eat vendor hot dogs on the way home because I refuse to buy hot dogs. Nitrites. Avoid ingesting them. Trust me.

  • • •

  You probably think I’m being hard on Chet. I am. Life is hard. Marriage is hard. Parenthood is hard and if you add all three up, it’s harder. Chet’s still acting like he’s at home with his mother. He treats me the way his mother treated me when she was still alive. Mean. Like it’s my problem that he doesn’t do things right.

  I’ll own my problem. My problem is that Chet doesn’t do things right and it makes more work for me. When the kids were little and I went to work seven-to-seven, Chet called his time with them “babysitting.” I’d come home at seven thirty in the morning, and the dinner dishes would still be in the sink, the house was a mess, and the kids would be late for school, homework undone. That’s not even babysitting.

  Remember this. If you plan to get married and have kids, find someone who will never say they are “babysitting” their own kids. They’ll expect trophies for just being there and by the time the kids grow up and leave the house, you’ll have nothing but contempt for all of them.

  The time in Mexico when he yelled at Sarah because she’d played with the bidet and cleaned up her mess, I took Bruce and Sarah out to the beach. Bruce didn’t say much. I told Sarah I was proud of her for cleaning up the mess with the towel.

  “It shows real independence that you cleaned up after yourself,” I said.

  All she could see was that her daddy was mad at her.

  Vodka Cranberry

  On Sunday morning Mom comes home from her seven-to-seven shift and makes herself dinner-for-breakfast. She has a vodka and cranberry, a rare steak, a baked potato, and carrots, and she blasts Rage Against the Machine in her headphones while she cooks. She sings every word out loud, though, especially the “Fuck you” parts.

  Dad stays in bed even though he can’t be sleeping through this. I pour myself a bowl of cereal. Mom takes off her headphones, turns off the music, and gestures to me to join her for dinner-breakfast.

  “It was a good night,” she says. “Nearly cleared the whole ER before I left. That never happens.”

  I crunch on my cereal.

  “Three days off,” she says.

  “Awesome,” I say.

  She taps me on the shoulder. It snaps me out of an early-morning stare-at-my-cereal daze. She’s smiling at me with her head cocked to one side. Rage Against the Machine always makes her this sort of aggressive-happy. She says, “You want to do something fun?”

  I want to say What happened to you? because Mom has never asked me to do something fun since I turned thirteen, but I just say, “Depends.”

  “You’re dropping out of high school at sixteen. It’s not like you have anything to do, right?”

  I can hear my cereal go soggy as I look at her with my confused face.

  “Well?”

  “You’re okay with me leaving school?” I say.

  “I’m okay with anything,” she says. “I just want to have fun.”

  “This is new.”

  She looks at me with her confused face. Then she takes a bite of steak. “So you don’t want to have fun with your mom. I get it,” she says. “What do you plan to do, then?”

  “I’m sixteen. I can get a job or something.”

  Her Rage Against the Machine happiness disappears. Her concerned-mother face arrives. She says, “You need to go to summer school and get your diploma. Then art school. You shouldn’t mess up your plan.” I feel like I’ve just witnessed a magic trick. Magician’s assistant goes into the sword-trick box in one costume, comes out, unscathed, in another. With a dove or a rabbit or something.

  “I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t think I want to do that anymore.”

  Confused face again. “You have real talent. I mean, real talent. Why give up on it?”

  “I just don’t see myself ever being an artist. And what kind of dream is art, anyway? It’s so subjective and stupid.” All around me on the kitchen walls, I see imaginary Lichtenstein dots.

  “When did you figure this out?”

  “About a week before I stopped going to school.”

  “No wonder, then.”

  “Yeah.”

  She fixes herself a second vodka cranberry. She’ll be sleepy in about fifteen minutes.

  “I didn’t want to freak you out before. I just want us to have fun on my days off,” she says. “I miss fun.”

  “Okay.”

  “You sure nothing else happened?” she asks. “I mean, at school? With a boy or . . . or a girl or anything?”

  “I’m sure,” I say. “Nothing happened with a boy . . . or a girl.”

  I never told her anything about the art show. The opening was on a Friday night and she was at work. My project was so secret I hadn’t even shown it to her or Dad. The plan was to take them to the art show the next day—it ran from Friday night to Sunday afternoon—and present it like you present a prize cow at a farm show or something. I thought they’d be so proud. But, of course, by the time that Saturday rolled around, there was nothing to present. My cow had disappeared.

  It’s a long story.

  I wash my cereal bowl and put it in the drying rack. Mom goes back to her dinner and vodka. She doesn’t mention anything else about fun. She doesn’t ask me anything more about what happened. She just chews her steak twenty times and swallows. Do you know how many people come to the ER after swallowing unchewed steak? You wouldn’t believe how many problems it causes. You’ve been warned.

  • • •

  I find Alleged Earl at eight thirty curled in his alcove with his back to the world. I sit on the sidewalk with my back against the wall and my knees to my chest and I wait. After an hour, I think Alleged Earl might be dead. I can’t see him breathing under all his coats and blankets. He doesn’t move in any way. I wonder if he dreams.

  I didn’t shower before I left. I have a bandanna on my head, two sloppily braided pigtails in my hair, and I’m wearing an old sweatshirt and jeans. As people walk by, they don’t see me most of the time, but when they do see me, they look away. I think they must think I’m homeless, too. This is funny to me at first, but then I think seriously about it.

  This could be me. I’m about to drop out of high school for no real reason except that high school isn’t original and while dropping out also isn’t original, it’s not like I’m a normal case. Good grades. Art club. Even Mom says I have talent and Mom doesn’t bullshit.

  I feel stupid for saying that stuff to her today about getting a job. Who hires a sixteen-year-old high school dropout?

  Alleged Earl stirs. He rolls onto his back and coughs. The coughs are wet, and he spits into the side of the alcove. He sits up slowly and looks like he’s in pain. He sleeps on concrete. It can’t be comfortable. He digs into his blankets and coats and comes out with a small bag of Doritos, opens it with a tug, and eats the chips in fistfuls. Little bits of Doritos fall into his massive beard and to me they’re like Lichtenstein’s dots. Alleged Earl would know what to do with those dots. I wouldn’t. He backs up against the boarded-up door and lets his legs stick out like a little kid would do—in the letter V. I look at how he’s sitting and how I’m sitting. I flop my legs out in front of me even though if anyone walked by, they could trip over me. Maybe that’s the point.

  When Alleged Earl slowly makes his way to his feet, he shuffles across Spruce Street and puts the empty Doritos bag in the trash and starts shuffling east.

  I follow him.

  I follow him all the way to 12th where he takes a right and sits down in
a bus shelter. I don’t know why I never imagined Alleged Earl on the bus, but we make assumptions when we have a bed to sleep in, I guess.

  I check my pocket and I have my SEPTA bus pass in my wallet. Also in my wallet are my school ID, seventeen dollars, a copy of my health insurance card, and behind the billfold area, there is a slip of paper with Bruce’s phone number on it.

  This is more than Alleged Earl has. Alleged Earl doesn’t even have an address. When the bus comes, I step onto it and sit across from him. He sees me now, but he looks like he’s looking past me and I smile and say, “Hi.”

  Alleged Earl shifts in his seat and looks right. The bus stops twice, but he doesn’t get off and neither do I. I decide that wherever he goes today, I go. Even if it’s dangerous.

  The bus turns and makes its way up Lombard. At Broad Street, three people get on and I stare at Alleged Earl and try to get an idea of what he looks like, what color his eyes are, or what his skin looks like under all the hair and dirt, but he’s still hidden under all those coats and he’s got a hood up over his head and pulled right over toward his nose. He isn’t wearing a tinfoil crown today. He looks like he’s in his own sort of armor. Maybe he’s in his own sort of joust. His lance is an oil crayon or a piece of sidewalk chalk. His opponent is everyone who doesn’t believe in art. Which could be me now. I’m no longer sure if I believe in art.

  Ten-year-old Sarah sits next to me.

  She says, “Didn’t expect to see you up so early on a Sunday.”

  “I’m dropping out of school,” I say.

  She thinks. “So doesn’t that mean that you shouldn’t be up this early on a Sunday?”

  “Every day is Sunday,” I say.

  “Oh,” she says. “Why are we dropping out of school?”

  “Don’t say we.”

  “I think I have a right to know what you’re doing with my future,” she says. “Or at least why you’re doing it.”

  “Have you met twenty-three-year-old Sarah?”

  “Have you?” she asks.

  “We turn out okay,” I answer.

  “You following Earl again today?”

  Alleged Earl should be able to hear this. He doesn’t take notice. I consider that maybe Alleged Earl is deaf. Who knows? I don’t. All I know is a bunch of ideas I made up in my head—like ten-year-old Sarah did with the fish in Mexico. We all do it. I bet thousands of passersby have decided why Alleged Earl ended up where he is the way ten-year-old Sarah used to decide what those fish said to her.

  Alleged Earl gets off at 16th and Lombard. I follow him. Ten-year-old Sarah follows me. We just went in a big circle, really.

  “We’re a block from home,” ten-year-old Sarah says.

  “I know.”

  “He’s walking us home,” she says.

  “I see that,” I say.

  As we walk by our house, ten-year-old Sarah crosses the street and heads for the front door.

  “What are you doing?” I ask.

  “I have to pee.”

  “You can’t just walk in there and pee.”

  “It’s my house,” she says.

  “It’s—” I have no idea how to finish this sentence. I’m talking to a ghost or a hallucination. I don’t know what I’m talking to. Alleged Earl can’t go too fast; we won’t lose him if we stop to pee.

  So I cross the street and walk in the door ahead of her just in case.

  Loser

  “You know what you are? You’re a loser, Chet. You’re just a loser.”

  “Then you married a loser. How’s that my fault?”

  Ten-year-old Sarah closes the downstairs bathroom door behind her. I can hear her peeing. Hallucinations don’t pee.

  “I’ve always been a loser.”

  “Well then, why don’t you try not being a loser?”

  “You won’t give me the chance.”

  “Jesus Christ! So now I have to give you a chance to not be a loser? I just worked a twelve-hour overnight. I need to fucking sleep. Figure it out yourself.”

  When ten-year-old Sarah comes out of the bathroom, I go in. Our downstairs bathroom at the end of the kitchen is smaller than an airplane bathroom. Now that I’m tall, I can’t close the door and sit on the toilet at the same time. So I watch as ten-year-old Sarah wanders around the kitchen.

  She says, “They changed this. It looks nice.”

  “I don’t know why we’re doing this anymore!” Dad screams upstairs. He says something else that ends in the word divorce.

  I say, “Yeah. A pipe burst and the old kitchen got ruined.”

  I finish and flush and when I come out of the kitchen area, I find her looking at the old painting behind the piano no one ever plays.

  “Still my favorite,” I say. It’s colorful and abstract. When I painted it, I said it was flowers, but really I didn’t know what it was when the paint was going on the canvas. That was when Dad taught me about the muse. The muse is a made-up person who gives you the images in your head when you paint was how he put it. I don’t know where my muse is now. Every time I look at any old paintings, that’s what I wonder. I wonder Where the hell is my muse?

  “I did it in second grade,” she says. “Mom bought me canvas and acrylics. She painted one, too.”

  “Just get out of my room and let me sleep, will you?” Mom yells.

  Dad comes down the stairs and we’re still standing in the study looking at our painting of abstract flowers. He storms past us and into the kitchen. He opens the back door and then stops.

  “Sarah?”

  “Yeah?”

  “I thought you were out.”

  “I was. I just had to pee.”

  I hear him walking back toward the study and I try to hide ten-year-old Sarah behind me, but she won’t stay hidden.

  He looks at us—both of us—from the doorway between the kitchen and the study and he says, “I didn’t know you had a friend over.”

  Oh

  Ten-year-old Sarah smiles at Dad and I say, “We’re going back out now. Home by dinner.”

  He says, “I’ve seen you before,” to ten-year-old Sarah.

  “Yep,” she answers. “I live a block that way.” She points east.

  Dad blinks a few times and says, “Oh.”

  We can still see the anger on his face from the fight he just had with Mom. There’s a line that curves like a c above his nose. When we went to Mexico and he got a dark tan, that line stayed white because even when he lies in the sun, he’s angry.

  Ten-year-old Sarah walks to the front door first and I follow her. Dad stands in the doorway to the kitchen watching us. I can feel it.

  I follow Sarah east even though I know Alleged Earl has gone west. I suddenly don’t care about Alleged Earl. I care about my parents getting divorced. Or I care about how they call each other names. Or I care about what Bruce said to me in Mexico. I feel this burr in my chest, right behind the top of my sternum. It’s where my tears live. They never come out. Maybe my muse is there, too. Stuck on a burr in my sternum.

  We keep walking, me following ten-year-old Sarah, and we end up on Broad Street. It’s Sunday and it’s pretty empty. The banks are closed. The theaters are closed until later today when the matinees will open and people will drive in from out of town and try to find the cheapest parking.

  I see Carmen taking pictures half a block up Broad Street. She’s never been afraid to lie flat on the sidewalk to get the right angle for a shot and, when I see her at first, she’s sitting, brushing the dirt off her T-shirt and looking through images on her camera. Part of me doesn’t want to talk to her but part of me knows she’s Carmen—the only one who stayed my friend after the art club fissure. We walk up to meet her and she says, “We miss you in school.”

  She looks at ten-year-old Sarah and smiles the same strange smile Dad had. I’ve known Carmen since I was in fi
rst grade. She knew ten-year-old Sarah when she was ten.

  “Nobody was even talking to me when I left,” I say.

  “Well, I miss you.”

  “I miss you, too,” I say.

  “They say you got expelled.”

  “I didn’t.”

  “They say you got caught with drugs.”

  This makes ten-year-old Sarah laugh. She laughs so well. I don’t laugh like that.

  “I don’t do drugs and you know it,” I say to Carmen.

  “Yeah. I told people it was a lie.”

  Ten-year-old Sarah asks, “So why aren’t you going to school, anyway?”

  I look at Carmen looking at ten-year-old Sarah and see she’s blinking and trying to figure us out.

  “I drew four more tornadoes,” Carmen says. “Big. On pieces of recycled wood. We’re doing acrylics on canvas for the next month.”

  Ten-year-old Sarah says, “That sounds so fun.”

  “Yeah,” I say, but I don’t really mean it. Carmen can paint all the tornadoes she wants. I’m not painting anything. Muse, burr, sternum.

  “I know you,” Carmen says to ten-year-old Sarah.

  “I live down the street,” ten-year-old Sarah says. “That way.” She points south.

  “So . . . are you ever coming back?” Carmen asks me.

  “I don’t think so,” I say. “Things are kinda messed up right now.”

  “Miss Smith thinks it was something she said,” Carmen says. “I’ve been helping her after school. She says she thinks she’s the reason you’re not coming to school.”

 
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