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Please ignore vera dietz, p.7
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.7

           A. S. King
 
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  “Sorry to eat and run, but I’ve got to work at four and I need to do some stuff at home first.”

  Before anyone can say anything, I have my coat on and am out the door.

  I pull into our driveway and sit in the car for a second. The woods are still covered in a shallow layer of snow, and though everything is dead and brown, there are birds and squirrels making it move and sing. Birds always remind me that spring will come, and the brown will be green, and the dirt will sprout a million blades of grass and scrub where ticks will live and crickets and cicadas and spiders. The stream between Charlie’s house and our house will fill up with the snowmelt and then slow to a trickle. In summer it will barely be there, and the crayfish will hide in the wet mud under rocks until the next rain. Salamanders will dry out and die next to fish that never made it to the lake in time.

  Something about death reminds me of birth, I guess. I have my own version of afterlife now that Charlie is dead. There is one. People there can see you and they live on in the things around us. In the trees. The birds. Like that feeling you get when someone behind you is staring at you—I get that all the time, but it’s Charlie who’s staring. From up there, or over there, or wherever it is that he went.

  Since I developed this idea, I sometimes joke with him when I eat things. I say, “Charlie, if you’re part of this Big Mac, I’m really sorry.” Then I eat the Big Mac. Because it’s possible, isn’t it? Isn’t anything possible? Charlie the pickle? Charlie the woodpecker? Charlie the raindrop?

  I took three Tylenol at Aunt Kate’s house and I feel better, but my mouth feels like something died in there, and I can’t get it to feel normal. I’ve got an hour before I have to leave for work, so I stupidly go to my dead-rodent-smelling room and set my alarm for 3:45 and sleep.

  When I get up three snooze alarms later, I feel worse.

  I rush to the kitchen, scarf down a granola bar, tuck my hair into the Pagoda Pizza hat to hide how one side is plastered down with drool, and run out the door.

  Right when the cold air hits and the door slams behind me, I hear it through the trees.

  “You’re a fucking idiot, you know that?”

  “You’re lucky I don’t kill you right now!”

  I don’t know where they are. Back deck, where Charlie and I used to play Uno? The front porch, where raccoons used to shit on the doormat because Charlie said it had some weird chemical that communicated “Shit here” in Raccoon? The upstairs balcony, where Mrs. Kahn would go every Saturday morning to beat the small sheepskin rugs they had in their bedroom?

  I can see movement through the trees, but rather than think about it, I ignore it, like I should. As I drive to work, though, I wonder about every house I pass, because I’ve read the statistics—haven’t you? Which of these houses hold the wife beaters? The child abusers? The rapists? The drunks and gamblers? Which of these houses hold the parents who hurt their own kids? Where are the signs? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were big flashing signs to warn us about these people?

  When I get to the main strip, I remember James and our kiss last night. He’s not the kind of guy I can bring home to Dad and call my boyfriend. I can’t take him to the prom.

  Because I barely ate anything at Aunt Kate’s, I go to the McDonald’s drive-thru and get a Big Mac. Because Charlie could be a pickle, I say, “Sorry, dude,” before I bite into it.

  HISTORY—AGE FOURTEEN

  Charlie and I were sitting in our normal spots in the Master Oak. The leaves were nearly all fallen now, and the forest allowed the autumn sun rays to press through. He climbed two limbs up and reached into a gnarled old knot that had doubled as a squirrel’s nest. He pulled out a box pack of Marlboro Reds and swung back down into the crook where he usually sat, and unwrapped the cellophane. He banged the pack a bit on his hand, coaxed a smoke out of the middle of the front row, and popped it into his mouth. Fourteen, and I’d guess Charlie was already at a pack a day.

  “Where’d you get those?”

  “What?”

  “You always have a new pack.”

  “I have my connections, I guess.”

  I thought he meant his father. After all, there was no one at school who could get that many packs in a week.

  “Do you buy them by the carton, or what?”

  “Let’s go and check out the pagoda,” he said. “I’m bored as hell.” Then he pulled out a brand-new shiny Zippo lighter. It had his initials engraved on it: CDK. Somehow, I didn’t think his dad would buy him that.

  “Nice lighter,” I said as he used it to light his cigarette.

  “Come on,” he said, starting his descent.

  “I can’t. I have a stupid essay to write.”

  He continued down the tree, and I followed him. When we got to the blue trail, he went toward the pagoda by himself and I went home. The essay was about Romeo and Juliet, our first journey into the mind of William Shakespeare. The assignment was: Many writers and filmmakers have used the classic story of Romeo and Juliet as the theme for their works. If you were to write a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, what would make yours stand apart from these others?

  Pretty hot question for eighth graders, if you ask me, but I was excited by it, too, because I liked when teachers asked hard questions. It’s safe to say that when all other students in the class said “Ugghhh!” it was an assignment I was going to enjoy. But this time, there was a problem. I couldn’t picture Romeo and Juliet without picturing Charlie and me.

  Part of me was repulsed by the thought. Dad had just told me, the year before, about Mom’s old job at Joe’s and had made it clear that Charlie Kahn was off-limits to me as a boyfriend. (Though to give him credit, he did it in a nice way and was nothing like Lord Capulet. I think his closing words were: “I hope you understand I’m saying this because I love you.”) The other part of me was excited. Charlie was such a strange sort of attractive, it was hard to explain—I felt a mix of wanting to kill him and wanting to kiss him at the same time. When I thought of what true love must be like, I figured it must be a mix like this, and not the stupid eighth-grade infatuation most girls my age felt. True love includes equal parts good and bad, but true love sticks around and doesn’t run off to Vegas with a podiatrist. Anyway, somehow, in my weird, mixed-up brain, Charlie was Romeo and I was Juliet. I wrote my essay about how in my version, Romeo was a total slob and Juliet was a tomboy, and they decided that the fake suicide was excessively dramatic, and instead, ran off to live in the forests beyond Verona. When Charlie asked me what my essay was about at the bus stop the next morning while he picked some old blue-trail dog crap out of the tread of his shoe, I told him it was about Shakespeare, and he made a yuck face before I had to go any further.

  That winter, we fidgeted a lot because we were too old to do the stuff we used to do, like play card games in the tree house, and too young to do anything interesting. Charlie went hunting with his dad on the weekends, which was the only thing they ever did together, and I felt happy for him. The only tradition Dad and I had at that point was Friday-night pizza from Santo’s.

  When the forest sprouted in between our houses, and the brambles grew new bright green leaves, we took to spring-cleaning the tree house and Charlie started to talk about building The Amazing Deck. Charlie had found a book in the library about tree houses—real ones, like real houses all over the world built around trees. He said that he wanted to rip down the house he’d already built but his dad wouldn’t let him, so he planned to add The Amazing Deck. He worked with the shop teacher to figure out how to support the thing, and they drew a plan together.

  The first Saturday it was warm enough, he walked in circles around the base of the tree with a calculator and a cheat sheet of geometry equations. He’d stop and scribble some numbers down on a small spiral notepad and then measure again, and say something like “Better safe than sorry.”

  After that, he furiously wrote cut lists. All mitered cuts because, he announced, The Amazing Deck would be octagonal. Because with Charlie, nothing
was ever easy. Everything was windswept and octagonal and finger-combed. Everything was difficult and odd, and the theme songs all had minor chords.

  I helped him build the deck every day after school, but my spring weekends changed because, since I was fourteen, my father filled out my working papers and made me get my first job, at Mika’s Diner as a busgirl.

  Which sucked.

  The pay was shitty and the waitresses hated splitting tips, so my ten percent would equal two bucks if I was lucky. And I had to wear the stupidest uniform on the planet—a brown 100% polyester apron-style wraparound skirt thing with a white blouse underneath. Thing was, the wraparound part was too short, so it only overlapped about eight inches in the back. This made bending over a problem, because busgirls have to bend over a lot. Which, I suspect, was Mika’s point in making us wear them. I daydreamed constantly about working at Zimmerman’s that summer to save me the embarrassment of the stupid uniform, but I knew Mr. Zimmerman didn’t hire people under seventeen. I put my name in to volunteer at the adoption center again, but Dad stressed that a summer job at my age was about making money, and volunteering wasn’t in the cards.

  When I came home from work on a Sunday afternoon in late May, I looked into the woods and saw Charlie sitting on his newly finished Amazing Octagonal Deck, binoculars in hand. I waved. He waved back. Once I changed and walked out to meet him, though, he was gone. I could hear yelling from inside the Kahns’ house. More than the usual amount. More than Mr. Kahn drunkenly lambasting Mrs. Kahn for missing a spiderweb in a dark corner or not beating the rugs properly. I could hear Mrs. Kahn yelling, too—a first—which meant it was Charlie they were yelling at.

  NEW YEAR’S DAY—FOUR TO CLOSE

  I’m the only driver in on time. Marie loves me. I still feel like something died in my mouth, even after a chocolate shake and a Big Mac. I still have a headache, too, even though I took two more Tylenol before I left the house.

  There’s a big order waiting to go out, so I don’t get a chance to walk into the back room. Marie just hands me my change envelope and my Pagoda Phone and eight pies in hot bags, and rattles off four addresses.

  The run takes me an hour, so by the time I’m back, the place is a madhouse. Dylan Pothead has called in sick, when everyone knows he’s just hungover/still partying/hallucinating too much to drive. Tommy Pothead is working but must have done one too many bong hits, because he’s unable to comprehend the map. James finally comes in and winks when he sees me, which makes me feel oddly all-over-the-place, even though last night was amazing. We’re so busy, Marie is thinking about leaving ex-cheerleader-turned-food-service-worker Jill in charge of the store and taking her old Ford out on a few runs to help us out.

  Jill says, “I bet Mick will do it.” Mick’s her boyfriend. He’s a skinhead Nazi. But Marie decides not to call Mick. Which is great, because nothing gives me the creeps more than skinhead Nazis.

  I take another run, and when I get back to the store and stack my empty hot bags under the stainless-steel counter, there is relative calm. People have settled into their New Year’s Day rituals. They’ve watched their football and eaten their pork for midday and their pizza for dinner. My next runs are normal, and by eight, the phones stop ringing. At ten, Marie actually checks the phone line, she is so surprised. She sends Tommy—who is staring at his own hand and giggling on the back steps—home, and asks Jill if she wants to go, too.

  “I’m not letting him drive me home,” Jill says.

  “No shit, bitch,” Tommy says. “Who said I would?”

  “I’ll take you home,” I offer, stupidly. I think I said it so I wouldn’t have to be alone with James, who has now slipped outside with Tommy to smoke a cigarette. The most we’ve said to each other tonight is “Hi,” and I’m still not sure what to say after last night’s impulsive … thing.

  Five minutes later, I am driving into Jill’s apartment complex and I have the music turned up so we don’t have to talk. I have Sly & the Family Stone in. “If You Want Me to Stay.” Mick is standing on the concrete porch with his arms crossed and no shirt on, to show off his trillion nasty tattoos. His head is completely shaved, and his jeans are riding so low, I bet they’d fall down if he didn’t stand that way—with his junk pushed out. When I pull up to Building A, before she opens the door to get out, she turns the volume knob down all the way.

  I find this annoying, and my face must show it, because she makes the “What can I do?” face and says, “Thanks for the ride.”

  James is waiting for me in the parking lot when I get back. Seeing him there, under the streetlight, breathing smoke and hot breath into the cold night, makes me forget about Jill and her asshole boyfriend. Makes me forget that I shouldn’t be kissing a guy who’s twenty-three. Makes me forget I’m supposed to avoid all boys and men or else I’ll end up the pregnant loser my mother was.

  He’s so awesomely gorgeous and manly and hunky. His hair is grown out a little, so he doesn’t look messy, but rugged. He keeps himself shaven, but sometimes leaves a stubbly goatee, which he’s done today. He wears a Pagoda shirt that’s a tiny bit small for him, so his biceps and deltoids are really defined and I can’t help but want to squeeze them. But this isn’t all physical. He says smart stuff. He’s funny, sarcastic, and cynical. He can see outside this stupid little town because he’s been out of this stupid little town. None of the guys in school have all this going for them. They might have muscles, but they don’t have brains. Or they might have muscles and a few brains, but they still think the world revolves around them. The fact is, being twenty-three makes James even more attractive to me. If you think about it, it’s only five years. When I’m thirty-five, he’ll be forty. When I’m eighty, he’ll be eighty-five. Doesn’t seem like such a bad thing when I put it that way, does it?

  I guess the next argument would be that James doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. That’s true. At least he can admit it. I’d rather go out with a guy who’s facing his shit than a guy who’s running from his shit. Beats finishing college and hating what you do. Beats going to college just to please your parents, which is probably what half the kids in school are about to do anyway.

  “Hey,” I say.

  He exhales a chestful of smoke. “I thought you were avoiding me.”

  “Had to take Jill home.”

  “Sure you did. Because she’s your BFF, right?”

  I hit him on his arm. “Her asshole boyfriend was waiting on the porch for her like some kind of prison officer.”

  “Yeah. I know him.”

  He puts his hand on my waist and the flip-flopping in my rib cage happens. “You mean you know him? Or you know him?”

  “He goes up to Fred’s Bar sometimes and I see him there. I went to school with a few of his buddies, too, I guess.”

  “Nice guys,” I say, trying to remember if I ever saw Mick the skinhead Nazi at Fred’s before.

  “Yeah. They weren’t quite as fucked-up when we were kids, you know?”

  Marie knocks on the window and waves us in. James puts out his cigarette and grabs me by the hand before I pull the door open.

  “Are we cool?” he asks, and stutters, “I mean … last night?”

  “Sure.”

  He looks at me and smiles. “You want to go out after work?”

  I think about what awaits me at home. My stinky-dead-mouse room. My snoring and oblivious dad. My fucked-up neighbor who beats the crap out of his wife. And somewhere—a thousand dead Charlies trying to make me find the proof that Charlie didn’t kill those animals.

  “Where to?”

  “How about we go up to the pagoda and make out?”

  This makes me so happy, I whistle while I do the dishes—which makes Marie wink at me—which makes me even happier, because she approves, and I stop worrying about what Dad would think.

  HISTORY—AGE FOURTEEN

  The day after Charlie finished building the deck (and I heard all that yelling), he arrived at the bus stop, seething. He lit a smoke
while I asked him what was wrong.

  “My mom is making me go to the doctor,” he said.

  “Are you sick?”

  “No.”

  “Then why?”

  “My colon or something.”

  “Your colon?”

  “She thinks I shit too much.”

  “Oh.”

  I wondered how much shitting is too much.

  “Why does she think that?”

  “Because I keep throwing my underwear away.”

  The bus roared up the hill as I pondered this and Charlie fast-smoked his cigarette.

  He wasn’t on the bus home, so I assumed he’d caught a ride to the doctor’s office. I sat in our seat—number fourteen—with my earphones in, listening to a mixed Motown playlist I made from Dad’s old vinyl. It was in that stack of old records (that he got from his mom) I discovered Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. I was on my third way through “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” when Tim Miller, a senior who lived down by the lake, jumped into the seat next to me and pulled my earphone out.

  “What you listening to?”

  I was startled. I’d been taking this bus for two years, and never had anyone from the high school talked to Charlie or me. We were eighth graders—bottom of the Crock-Pot. Plus, I knew what Tim Miller would think of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. He threw the n-word around like it was a conjunction.

  I pressed STOP and stuck the whole thing in my pocket. “Nothing. Just some oldies.”

  He looked me in the eyes and slipped his arm around the back of my neck, pulling me closer. “You want to know a secret?”

  “No.” I pushed myself into the cold metal seafoam green bus wall so hard I could feel the rivets press into my arm.

  “I know something about your boyfriend that you ought to know.”

  “I don’t have a boyfriend.”

  He put his hand out. “A dollar will buy it.”

  “I don’t have a dollar.”

 
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