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       Reality Boy, p.6

           A. S. King
 
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  The cameras saw all of that.

  Mom and Dad knew they were on camera, so they tried to discipline me the way 1-2-3 Fake Nanny had instructed. As they doled out punishments, I felt like I was floating through the deepest parts of the sea, holding my breath. A whale swam by and brushed against my back. A school of fish swam around me in a fish-cyclone and then swam away again. I could see the surface and the vague brightness of life above the water, but I was tied to something by my ankle.

  I was five years old and I already knew it—that the day I inhaled would kill me.

  17

  SATURDAY MORNING I have to get to the PEC Center by eleven for the circus. I’m at the kitchen table with Mom and Dad at nine. It’s very civilized. Mom is reading an issue of Walker’s World and Dad is talking about this great deal across town with an indoor swimming pool and three decks.

  “It’s the perfect house at a quarter of what it’s worth. I’d buy it now if I could.” He puts printed pictures on the table and Mom stops to take a look at them. Downstairs, it starts quietly at first. A few squeaks and then small sounds like a washing machine. Then ba-bang-ba-boom-ba-bang-ba-boom-ba-bang.

  I look at the picture on the MLS real estate listing. The pool looks warm and one of the decks looks high enough to push Tasha off and make it look like an accident. Or frame Mr. Trailer-Park Whiskers.

  “Why don’t you buy it?” I ask.

  Mom makes a chuckle through her nose in that cynical way she does.

  I reach over and grab the other pictures. It’s a really great house. Even in this market, we’d make money selling this place and moving. More acreage. Different school district. New start. Maybe we can move one day when Tasha is out and forget to tell her where we went. Ba-bang-ba-boom-ba-bang-ba-boom.

  “This place would sell for a lot, right?” I ask.

  Dad nods. “At least four hundred. At least.”

  “We’re not moving,” Mom says. She gets up and opens the lower cabinet next to the sink and retrieves the blender. “I’m not leaving a gated community for some house in the woods. I feel safe here,” she says. Then she opens the fridge and pours some apple juice and yogurt into the blender and starts it.

  Dad yells, “We’d save in community fees. And taxes.”

  Mom hits a higher speed on the blender. We can all still hear the ba-bang-ba-boom-ba-bang-ba-boom.

  I say, “Yeah. And we wouldn’t have rats in our basement.”

  Dad gathers the pictures and the MLS papers and stuffs them into his briefcase. Mom stands there pretending like she’s making a smoothie, but we all know she’s not. I get up and walk over to the basement door and kick it before I open it and scream, “Jesus, will you two just stop it already? Grow up! Move out! Just shut the hell up, will you?” I slam the door.

  Mom turns off her blender and we all look at one another. They look at me like I just shot a bear in the leg or something. Like the bear is about to come at us. I look at them like maybe I’m okay with the bear coming at us. I can take the fucking bear.

  Seconds later, it starts up again and it’s really loud and she’s moaning extra-vulgar on purpose and Dad gets up and washes off his plate and puts it in the sink and Mom just stands there with her left hand on the blender’s lid and her right hand hovering over the LIQUEFY button and we hear them both—uh—you know—arrive—and then, inside of fifteen seconds, Tasha’s in the kitchen in her bathrobe.

  Dad, Mom, and I stand there looking at her for a second: freshly inseminated, hair standing straight up, cheeks pink, last night’s mascara chipped around her eyes.

  “What the hell is your problem, you little prude?” she says to me.

  “Hey,” Dad says. This is his attempt to what? Defend my prudeness? What?

  She walks over to me and shoves me in the chest. She says, “Dick.”

  I stand there and take it. I breathe in. I breathe out. I do not react. I enjoy every millisecond of being her trigger instead of her being mine.

  She shoves me again. Mom puts her hand on Tasha’s shoulder.

  “This is my house as much as it’s your house,” Tasha says. “I can do what I want in my room.”

  “Fine,” Dad says firmly—as a sort of gut reaction to make her just go burrow again.

  “It’s not fine. He’s messed up,” Tasha says.

  “You make too much noise,” Dad says. “He’s right.”

  “Doug, we offered her a pla—” Mom starts.

  Tasha turns to me. “Why are you so hung up on sex anyway, Gerald?” She stands inches in front of me with her arms crossed. “Can’t get a girlfriend?” I imagine how bad the screams would be if I grabbed her now and stuck her palm on the burner Mom used to make her tea. I picture the perfectly circular ring burns on her fingers. Breathe in, breathe out.

  “Tasha,” Mom says.

  Tasha taunts, “No one wants our fucked-up little crapper.”

  I’m chief all the way. Not a word. Not even a rise in blood pressure.

  She stares at me.

  I stare at her.

  Mom and Dad are frozen for a second and then they say “Hey” or “Whoa” or “Enough.”

  When she sees she isn’t getting a rise out of me, she leans down to my face and puts me in the patented Tasha grip: my nose pinched between her index- and middle-finger knuckles and my mouth held shut by her thumb. She pinches my nose hard and it hurts. She says, “I always knew you swung the other way. That would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?”

  Mom and Dad just disintegrate into two piles of incapable, lifeless flesh. My chief dissolves. My joy is gone. I am brought back. I am drowning right here in the kitchen, surrounded by people who don’t care if I drown. They just stand there, watching. Home snuff movies, reality TV.

  As I start to run out of air, I panic. I remember I have arms. And teeth. So I grab her hand and I bite it. Hard. Like a tiger would bite a hand—the same tiger that bit Tom What’s-His-Name in eighth grade. I am not myself. I can only see me from the angle of the camera that was once mounted on the kitchen wall. My stripes are magnificent. Nothing else in the world is that shade of orange.

  I watch myself wipe Tasha’s blood on Mom’s sparkling white tea towel and leave for work. Then I turn off the show.

  I am eating ice cream in Gersday and driving down the highway at about 234 miles per hour. I may have run red lights. I can’t be sure. I could be driving on the wrong side of the road.

  I am four. Tasha calls me gay and holds my head under the bathwater. I don’t know how to drive a car, but I like to sit in the driver’s seat and pretend.

  I am six. Tasha calls me gay and holds her hand over my mouth and nose while I sleep. I love to ride the shiny, coin-operated race-car ride outside the supermarket.

  I am seven. Tasha calls me gay and tries to suffocate me with a living room pillow. I am driving bumper cars at a country fair.

  I am almost seventeen. Tasha says I swing the other way and puts me in the Tasha grip in the middle of the kitchen in front of our parents. I am driving through a watery black hole, never to return.

  PART

  TWO

  18

  THE HIGHWAY IS made of ice cream. The bridges are made of waffle cones. There are smiling, waving Walt Disney characters as mile markers. Each one says, “Hello, Gerald!” I take the butter pecan exit. The road is bumpy from pecans. I bounce into the backseat, where Snow White sits with her hands on her lap and says, “Good boy, Gerald! You’ve made us all very proud.”

  Snow White looks out the window and waves to her friends as we pass each one. Goofy. Pluto. Mickey. Donald. They blow kisses to her.

  She says, “Would you like a regular cone or sugar?”

  “Regular, please,” I answer. She hands me a chunky cherry regular cone, and I begin to eat it.

  The limousine driver asks, “How’s the weather back there? Are you too hot? Too cold? I can adjust it if you want.”

  “I’m fine,” I say.

  Snow White says she’s cold, so he turns u
p the heat. “Ladies first,” the limo driver says. “You have to make them happy or else we all suffer, right, Gerald?”

  “Right,” I say, but I don’t mean it. I can’t see why ladies have to come first. Not in Gersday.

  When I look out the window, I see we’re driving to Disney World. There are signs that say ONLY 100 MILES TO THE MOUSE! or BE OUR GUEST! I eat my ice cream and try to ignore the stifling heat. Snow White doesn’t seem bothered. She just keeps waving to her friends.

  “Gerald,” the limo driver says, “do you want to go to the circus before or after we drop Snow White at home?”

  I don’t know how to answer this question.

  Then Snow White hands me an inflatable hammer. It’s the same one I won at the fair when I was five. I wondered where it went. I hug it even though I am nearly seventeen and there is no reason for me to hug an inflatable hammer. Then she hands me a Ziploc bag of Game Boy games. When I look closely, I see they are all the games I ever asked for. The ones I never got. Before I can hug those, she hands me a puppy. And a hamster. And then she hands me a card that says Happy 8th Birthday! On the inside, she has forged Mom’s and Dad’s signatures perfectly. I realize that Snow White is a lot craftier than she seems. I’d never have pegged her as a forger. She always seemed so sweet.

  Suddenly I don’t want to be in the backseat with crafty Snow White, but I’m covered in all the things she’s given me. A shoe box full of baseball cards. A pair of in-line roller skates. A little ball for my hamster to run around in. And it’s hot back here. And the puppy is thirsty—he makes that thirsty breathing noise with his tongue out. Snow White looks at me and smiles, but I don’t trust her anymore. She knows too much.

  I am driving again.

  I look in my rearview mirror and see there is no one in my backseat. I glance around the car and there is no inflatable hammer, no puppy. I am not driving to Disney World. The road is made of tarmacadam. I am Gerald. I am Gerald and there is no way I can ever be anyone but Gerald.

  19

  EPISODE 2, PRESHOW MEETING

  A YEAR AFTER Nanny left us alone, Mom wrote another letter.

  I couldn’t stop myself from crapping on stuff all the time because it was the only method of communication that worked to remind them that I was still alive and still angry. Nanny hadn’t fixed us. She hadn’t fixed Tasha, who now, at age eleven, had started to hump pillows on the couch while we were all in the room. Dad would just leave. Lisi would go to her room and read. Mom just turned the volume up on the TV and pretended that humping couch pillows was normal—that her daughter making those weird, erotic faces while watching a Kraft Macaroni and Cheese commercial was totally okay. I was too young to understand any of it.

  But just old enough to get yelled at for picking my nose.

  So, the rules were: I couldn’t pick my nose, but my sex-fiend sister could hump stuff in plain view of the entire family with no problems.

  And so crapping became how I got my point across. We are not okay. Fake Nanny messed us up worse. Mom isn’t doing anything different. Maybe if other people saw it and she had to clean up dressing rooms at the mall or drive home barefoot from her friend’s house because I dropped one in her sneaker, she would have to make so many excuses and apologies that she would get the message. But she didn’t get the message.

  She wrote the letter, and Nanny agreed to come back.

  The ratings had been good, the producers said. Network Nanny had competed with the other established nanny shows on TV and won. Elizabeth Harriet Smallpiece had finally found her fame in being a nanny who wasn’t really a nanny. She was so good, they let Real Nanny go, which was a bummer because I was pretty sure Real Nanny had Tasha figured out.

  They negotiated for more money. I overheard Mom and Dad’s conversation about the whole thing. Dad sighed a lot. Mom talked about the one thing that really worried her.

  “I think we should get the kitchen redone,” Mom said. “It’s so outdated.”

  “We can’t afford that.”

  “But we’re getting money for the show and all,” she said. “And the kitchen is getting old.”

  “It’s only fifteen years old. What’s wrong with it? Everything works,” Dad argued.

  “But what will people think when it’s on TV? They’ll think we don’t care and that we don’t take care of our house,” she said. “They’ll judge.”

  Dad made a grunting noise in his throat but didn’t say anything else.

  We had two months until filming. Mom had some guy come and measure the place up and he had a kitchen installed in less than six weeks. He was a cool guy, too. Talked to me like I was normal. Let me help him and gave me my own little screw gun so I could play with offcut pieces of wood. I didn’t crap in his toolbox once.

  And then Nanny came back—first for the initial visit, which was mostly reintroductions. I tried to find her purse so I could crap in it on the first day, but she put it up high on the new fridge and I didn’t have a chance to get it. I planned on doing that at least once, though.

  But then the weirdest thing happened.

  She pulled me aside.

  “Gerald, I know things are very unfair for you he-ah,” she said. “I’m going to try to get your mother to see that this time ’round.”

  I didn’t trust her, but I nodded even though no one was telling me to nod, because there were no cameras yet.

  “Did you hear me?” she asked. Her hair was even bigger now, as if it was inflating to keep up with her idea of herself.

  “Yes.”

  “And what do you think?” she asked.

  “I think that’s good,” I said.

  “So you’ll help me sort things out, then, will you? And be good?”

  I nodded.

  “Where’s Real Nanny?” I asked.

  She looked a little hurt but then smiled. “She’s taught me everything I need to know. I’m flying solo this time ’round. So you’ll be good, yeah?”

  “Sure. I’ll be good,” I said.

  Nanny didn’t say much to anyone else before she left. The producer and director had talked to Mom and Dad and said they’d be back the next day for the usual setup. I looked forward to it.

  After Nanny left, Mom and Dad sat the three of us down and promised us that we would go to Disney World if we could show TV viewers that we were cured. All four of them looked at me when they said this. Lisi and Dad smiled and did encouraging things. Mom and Tasha frowned and squinted at me.

  Afterward, while I was brushing my teeth, Tasha came into my bathroom and slammed me up against the wall with her hand around my throat. As I swallowed a mouthful of toothpaste out of fear, she said, “I’ve wanted to go to Disney World my whole life. Everyone else in my class has gone. So if you mess this up for me, I’ll kill you.”

  I couldn’t sleep that night. I was too full of thoughts about my promise to Nanny-Big-Hair and about how Tasha was going to kill me. These two facts duked it out in my head for hours. And then I realized I didn’t want to go to Disney World, because Tasha was going to Disney World.

  So at two in the morning, I got up and sneaked into her room and got her Barbie Princess Cinderella’s Carriage and laid a turd in it. In the morning, without a word to me or anyone else, Mom put the horse and carriage and turd in the trash. Before the camera crew arrived at nine in the morning, she went to Toys“R”Us to replace it.

  20

  I AM HUGGING the ketchup. To everyone else, I am simply filling the condiment containers. But in Gersday in my head, I am hugging the enormous industrial bottle of ketchup that is really the anonymous hockey lady who cares about me. I need her in my life. I want to find her at the next hockey game and ask her if I can come over for dinner. No one at her house would say I swing the other way just because I don’t like to eat my breakfast to the sound track of my sister getting laid. No one would try to cut off my air supply. They probably don’t care about the inch of moisturizer at the bottom of the bottle.

  I somehow manage to fill all the
ketchup containers without spilling a drop. I somehow manage not to disappear into thin air. I somehow manage not to finally die of embarrassment on the spot.

  That could happen any minute. I might be the only person who ever actually died of embarrassment… if the cops don’t come and arrest me for biting Tasha first. The courtroom scene in my head is so disappointing. Mom sits over in the prosecution’s area. Dad stands hesitantly in the aisle. No one sits in my area. Lisi never finds out I’m in jail until I write her a letter. Why didn’t you call me?

  I go back behind the counter and shuffle sideways down to register #7. Register #1 Girl smiles at me and I smile at her and I get this feeling as if I’m an idiot. Like a beautiful girl would ever like you, Gerald. Seriously.

  Saturday at the circus. Little kids and their parents who grip their little hands too tightly. Little kids and parents who don’t grip their little hands at all. Little kids screaming and crying and squealing and laughing. I watch one. Her laughter is so pure. It’s like electricity. I wish I could plug into it and be her laughter. I watch her cheeks turn into perfect, round plums. Her hair is in pigtails and she’s holding a souvenir stuffed toy.

  I can tell she hasn’t seen anything bad yet.

  No one has used her as entertainment.

  No one has done anything to her but love her.

  “Pretzel.”

  I look up and there’s this guy. He’s in a suit. He’s short. He’s saying it in that way like I’m a machine. Like I’m a Star Trek replicator.

  “Pretzel,” he says again.

  I stare at him. I want to say Snarky-Nanny things. Yes. Pretzel. That’s a noun. Very good.

  “You deaf?” he asks.

  I keep staring at him. I think about jail. I think of Roger and my anger management knowledge. You can’t demand that other people have manners. You can hope it, though. You can wish.

 
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