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Still life with tornado, p.7
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.7

           A. S. King
 
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  Carmen was born to be the art teacher’s pet. There is nothing original about being the art teacher’s pet. I only hope Carmen steers clear of Miss Smith’s lipstick. I don’t think Carmen is her type anyway.

  Either way, Miss Smith is kinda right about it being her fault. But telling Carmen this wouldn’t be original because Carmen already knows, only she can’t talk about it. So I say, “Nah. It wasn’t Miss Smith.” I look at the sidewalk and a piece of gum that’s been ground into it. “We’ll see you around,” I say. Ten-year-old Sarah has been walking around a signpost for the last minute and she’s making me dizzy.

  “I hope things get better,” Carmen says.

  “Have fun painting your tornadoes,” I say.

  I walk up Broad Street, and ten-year-old Sarah follows me until I realize that she brought us here and I have no idea where she wanted to go.

  “We lost Alleged Earl,” I say.

  “He’ll be near City Hall,” she says. “It’s Sunday.”

  “You’re ten. You never followed him when you were ten,” I say.

  “You don’t remember things all that well, do you?”

  “I remember lots of things.”

  “You don’t remember asking his name. You don’t remember that he goes to City Hall on Sundays. You don’t even think we did this before.”

  “So this isn’t original?” I ask.

  “Nothing is original. We know this already.”

  Ten-year-old Sarah walks under City Hall into the underpass. I’m about to ask her if she knows that Philadelphia City Hall is the tallest municipal building in America, but then I remember she’s me and she knows because I know and I’ve known for years.

  She says, “Did you know that City Hall is the tallest municipal building in America?”

  “Yep,” I say.

  “Did you know that this is where Dad proposed to Mom?” she says. “And then they went upstairs and got the license?”

  I search my brain archives. I seem to have forgotten this, too. I say, “Not very romantic if you ask me.”

  Alleged Earl isn’t at City Hall. Ten-year-old Sarah says, “He must have changed his routine.” She walks west toward the art museum, and I walk back down Broad. “See you tomorrow,” she says. “Maybe you can tell me why we dropped out of high school.”

  “Stop saying we.”

  MEXICO—Day Two: Selfish Bastards

  I was mortified that Mom wore a bikini. She never wore a bikini on the New Jersey seashore, but in Mexico, nearly everyone wears a bikini. As I watched the drunk adults—most of them younger than Mom and Dad—swagger around in their bikinis, I felt like Mexico was all about sex.

  Sex and drinking.

  I was ten, and this was obvious. So looking at Mom in her bikini, ordering drinks from Martín the beach bar waiter, just grossed me out.

  The other people at our resort were animals. They left their empty beer cans on the sand. They talked in that loud, drunken way all day and night long. One time I saw a couple making out so hard that it was nearly sex right there on the water’s edge. There was a kids’ club place—glorified babysitters—but there were only a handful of younger kids in there. The thatched hut sat next to the spa-massage tent between the pool and the beach, and the little kids could look out at the animal-people doing their animal-things while they made crafts or played bingo.

  Every thatched beach umbrella had a hand-lettered wooden sign nailed to its trunk. The sign said:

  RESERVING BEACH SEATS AND UMBRELLAS IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED. DO NOT LEAVE PERSONAL BELONGINGS OR TOWELS ON BEACH CHAIRS. CHECK LOST & FOUND IF YOUR ITEMS HAVE BEEN REMOVED.

  This sign was also posted on the wall behind the beach chairs. It was posted at the towel exchange hut, and it was even posted in our hotel rooms. And yet every single morning on vacation, 85 percent of the beach chairs had random towels and personal items on them and there were no people in sight. If you were late to the beach, you didn’t get an umbrella until you waited long enough to figure out which chairs were really being used and which were inappropriately being reserved while the people who reserved them went to breakfast. Sometimes people would just walk around the beach chair area, scoping. Sometimes they would make the towel attendant come to the beach and remove things from the chairs so they didn’t have to do it themselves. It drove people crazy. This was resort behavior. No rules—even when there were rules.

  Our family followed rules. It was in our nature. Dad was in insurance. Mom was a nurse. We never reserved beach chairs. Day Two was the first time we realized that everyone else did.

  Day Two started with a two-hour-long “vacation club” time-share presentation. I’d explain it to you but it was so boring there’s no point. The only things that came out of it were resort credits for all of us—Bruce and I got a kayaking adventure and Mom and Dad got a romantic dinner on the beach—and my fascination with people who can do math upside down on paper. I still try it sometimes. My best numbers are zeroes and ones.

  By the time we got to the beach, it was eleven o’clock and all the chairs were taken—some legitimately, some not—but it was hard to tell which were which. Dad walked around three times until he found one chair under a thatched umbrella with a dry towel slung over it in the way that chair-reservers do it. Dad removed the towel from the chair, and Mom said, “We’ll have to share until we can find more chairs.” Dad went off to find a beach attendant to get us another chair. Mom took the extra towel and spread it on the sand, sat down, and looked out to sea. I said I wanted to get in the water so she covered me in sunscreen and looked at her watch and said, “You can only stay out there an hour.”

  I ran into the surf and then stopped at ankle deep and walked slowly instead.

  The water wasn’t what I thought it would be. Mom and Dad told me it would be crystal clear and turquoise. But seaweed had come in from the Atlantic. That’s what the Amstar vacation-guide guy said later. He said, “Nothing we can do about it. Storms do this.” The water past the huge globs of seaweed still looked dirty because the seaweed had been tumbled there on its way to the shore, and if I looked at it long enough, it looked like watery diarrhea. No chance of seeing fish. No chance of seeing my feet or even my own hands underwater. Once I saw what it looked like, I didn’t want to get into the water at all, really, but I did. In my head I imagined what it was supposed to look like. Clean, blue-green, with white angelfish. Just like the website picture Mom showed me. I didn’t last the hour. I managed to avoid waves and clusters of seaweed for about fifteen minutes and that was it.

  By the time I got back to the towel, Dad was agitated because the beach attendant wouldn’t give him another chair. Dad kept pointing to two chairs a few feet from us and saying, “They just throw a magazine or a rock on the chair and then leave for the day. Selfish bastards.” Selfish bastards. He said that every time he saw a reserved chair. Rule followers don’t know what to do with selfish bastards.

  Mom went into nurse mode. She solved the problem. She said it was time for Bruce and me to use our adventure credits and the three of us went over to the kayak shack while Dad stewed over all the selfish bastards.

  The kayak adventure wasn’t all that exciting. Not exciting enough to call it an adventure. They made Bruce and me wear life jackets, and it was maybe a hundred degrees out there. It was midday and I wore a thin, long-sleeved dive shirt and a wide sun hat because no amount of sunscreen would keep me safe at noon in the Caribbean sun. I put it on anyway of course, but I put the shirt on over it.

  I had never kayaked before so that part of it was adventurous. Bruce taught me how to paddle and we got out past the string of buoys and the sea was rougher than it should have been. We battled just to get from one end of the resort’s water boundary and back to the other. Salt water got up my nose and I almost started to cry because it stung so much. Bruce said if we paddled out between sandbars, we would find a calm place to just
sit in the kayak and talk so I paddled with him to get there.

  Once we could rest and bob in the kayak for a while, Bruce asked me if I thought Mom and Dad would be mad if he dropped out of college. Just like that. First thing he said. “Do you think Mom and Dad would be mad if I dropped out of college?”

  I said, “Does it matter if they get mad?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Why? You’re, like, almost twenty.”

  “You know what it’s like when they’re mad at you,” he said. “Doesn’t change just because I’m older.”

  “I think you should do what you want to do,” I said.

  He didn’t answer. He just sat there and looked into the water. “God, this water is disgusting.”

  “I know.”

  “And the pool is filled with drunks.”

  “Yeah.”

  “That’s a shitty vacation right there,” Bruce said. “Bet Dad picked the cheapest place to go and never even looked at any reviews.”

  “I don’t think he plans on swimming.”

  “Wanna head back?”

  “Is our hour up already?” I asked. I looked up at the sun as if it were a clock.

  “I just want to wash all this crap off me.” He had bits of brown seaweed stuck to his arms. I looked down. So did I.

  We started paddling back over the breaking waves, and the ride back was a bit smoother than the ride out.

  “Why do you want to leave college?” I asked.

  He stopped paddling, which made the boat go in a circle until I stopped, too. “It just seems pointless,” he said.

  “I thought you wanted to be a psychologist,” I said.

  He laughed a little. “I think I need to see a psychologist, not be one.”

  We paddled to shore and gave our life jackets back and walked to the outdoor showers and rinsed off. Bruce said he had seaweed in his swim trunks and told me to tell Mom and Dad that he went to the room to shower. I went back under the thatched umbrella and told them. Mom said, “Aren’t you going to swim, honey?”

  I wanted to tell her that the water was a toilet bowl but I thought it would be rude with Dad sitting right there. So I said, “Sure,” and went back into the water. I closed my eyes. I imagined the fish and I said hello. They said hello back.

  That night at the buffet, I imagined I liked seafood tacos and runny refried beans. Bruce ate his lasagna and Caesar salad. I told them about the fish as if they were real. I ate three desserts and we stopped to take pictures of a two-foot-long iguana on our walk back to the room. We all fell asleep the minute we hit our beds.

  Day Two: over. Day Two: kayak adventure, swimming in a toilet, selfish bastards.

  Triangles

  Mom wakes up at four in the afternoon on Sunday. That’s a good day’s rest for her. I hear her go into the shower while Dad is in the living room half dusting the entertainment center. He just goes over the tops of things with a feather duster and forgets the filthy TV screen all together.

  I walk into the kitchen, but I stand in the doorway and watch him vacuum. He runs it in every direction and misses most of the dirt. He’s not even watching TV. There’s nothing to distract him from the sliver of tissue right in front of him on the carpet but before he can vacuum it, he turns the vacuum cleaner off and puts it back into the closet. Then he sits in the chair by the door and picks up a Time magazine and leafs through it.

  I stare at the tissue sliver. If I can see it from here, he should be able to see it from there. It’s white and the carpet is dark blue. No one could be that lazy without knowing it. He picks his nose while he reads Time, and he wipes a booger on the armrest of the chair. I wait for him to have his finger up there again to walk in.

  “Hi,” I say.

  He removes his finger from his nose and doesn’t know what to do with the booger this time. He wipes it on his sweatpants.

  “Anything good in Time?”

  “Not really,” he says. “Did you clean your room today?”

  “I cleaned it yesterday. Today is Sunday.”

  “Oh,” he says. “Right.”

  “What are we having for dinner?”

  “Probably breakfast,” he says.

  “I’ll make waffles,” I say. “Mom loves waffles.”

  “Sure,” he says.

  I know Dad hates waffles. I don’t care. Before I go to the kitchen to make batter, I draw three triangles on the TV screen’s dust. The small one represents me. The medium one represents waffles. The biggest one represents how much I don’t care that Dad hates waffles. Then I pick up the sliver of tissue on the carpet, wet it with my spit, and stick it right in the middle of the smallest triangle.

  • • •

  I make corn waffles and I put on a pot of coffee for when Mom comes down. She sings in the shower. Today she’s singing a Nirvana song called “School.” I love that song. I played it for Carmen once but she said it’s too angry. And she’s the one who paints tornadoes. Seriously. What’s angrier than a tornado?

  Dad.

  Dad at breakfast-for-dinner is angrier than a tornado.

  He’s a shrugging machine as he makes himself a fried egg and toast while Mom and I eat corn waffles at the table.

  “Dad told me you were out with a friend today,” Mom says.

  “Yeah. Neighbor girl I see a lot.”

  “Is she nice?”

  “Totally nice.”

  “She’s a bit young for you,” Dad says.

  “It’s like a little sister thing,” I say.

  Mom nods. “Tomorrow is Monday.” I have no idea why I need a human calendar until she adds, “Do you think you could make it back to school?”

  “I don’t think so,” I say.

  “It’s a high school diploma,” Dad says. “It’s not rocket science. You need it to get a job. You need it to get to college.”

  Mom nods.

  I say, “I’ll think about it.”

  “Good,” they say in unison. And then they look annoyed that they said something in unison. Then they fake smile at each other, but I’m starting to understand that smiling is really just another way of baring one’s teeth.

  HELEN’S SONG

  I get fakers all the time in the ER. Last week a college girl said she swallowed staples. We rushed her to X-ray, and there wasn’t a staple to be found. She cried and screamed and kicked and said she was sure she swallowed staples. “A whole roll of them!” she said.

  Staples don’t even come in rolls.

  She begged me for painkillers. She said she was dying. She said she was going to sue the hospital for not taking care of her. And she wasn’t even a psych case. She was just bored, I think. She walked out of the place just fine an hour and a half later.

  • • •

  There’s a song I sing sometimes. It’s a terrible song. I feel bad for singing it but I also know the truth will set me free. I call the song “You’re a Dumb Prick and I Hate You.”

  It never has the same words except for the chorus, which goes like this: You’re a dumb prick and I hate you.

  I’ve been singing this song since about two years after I married Chet. I never sing it to any other people. Just Chet. I dedicate the song to Chet as if it were the radio days when we were young and you could call a number over and over and when someone finally answered at the radio station, you could request a song and the DJ would read out who the song was dedicated to and who it was requested by. Sometimes before I sing the song, I say, “Dedicated to Chet from Helen.”

  Do I hate Chet? I might. I think I do. I look mean when I say it here. I look mean and awful and you’re reading this thinking I’m glad she’s not my wife or I will never be like that to my husband. You have no idea.

  Chet isn’t here. Chet was never here. I married him when I didn’t fully understand how he would disappear because he only knew
the men he saw around him. Abusive father. The sportscasters on the TV. The annoying weatherman on CBS. The guys he works with who watch porn all weekend.

  He says, “At least I don’t hit you.”

  He says, “At least I’m not jerking off to porn.”

  He says, “I wish I could show you how much I love you.”

  I wish he could, too. If the weatherman just shrugged all the time, would anyone know what the weather was going to be? Would he say, “I wish I could tell you what the weather could be,” and still manage to keep his job?

  Chet’s happy like this. As happy as he can get, I guess.

  He’s a natural-born faker.

  And I have no time for fakers.

  I have the song. I sing it loud in my head and, when I have the house to myself and I see the peanut shells Chet dropped on the floor during the baseball game he watched on TV the night before, I sing it as loud as I can.

  It’s like swallowing staples.

  It’s like every single day, I’m swallowing staples. And yet I can’t figure out if I really hate him, but I’m pretty sure I do.

  Kids Love Tacos

  I stand in the hall outside of Mom’s room. Dad is in there.

  MOM: We should invite that friend of Sarah’s over for dinner.

  DAD: Okay.

  MOM: Maybe on Tuesday. I’ll be back on my sleep schedule by then and I’ll make curry.

  DAD: Too hot. She may hate it.

  MOM: Tacos, then. Kids love tacos.

  DAD: (silence)

  MOM: I don’t think you pushing Sarah to go back to school is helping.

  DAD: She’s rebelling. She needs boundaries.

  MOM: She’s never had a problem before. Maybe she just needs someone to talk to.

  DAD: You’re better at talking.

  MOM: (silence)

  Dad goes back to his room. I stand in my bedroom by my open window. It’s Sunday late afternoon in the city. Not much traffic. No one talking. No dogs barking. No kids playing next door. Nothing to hear.

 
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