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       Reality Boy, p.7

           A. S. King
 
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  I look at the guy. I wish he had manners.

  “Pretzel?” he says, with his hands out like he’s now exasperated with my lack of giveashit about his pretzel. I look at his outstretched hands and think of a thing Dad says. Wish in one hand and shit in the other. See which one piles up first.

  The guy stands there for a few more seconds, and then I walk away. That’s the only option because I’m not getting him a pretzel and I’ve already been a tiger once today, so I’m not sure I can stop myself from being a tiger again. I walk right out of stand five and into the arena. I pause at a main door and watch the circus.

  There’s a clown in the center ring and he’s pretending to pull his own tooth. The audience is laughing hysterically. I have no idea why this is funny. Pulling one’s own tooth seems like a bad thing to do. I figure I must have missed something. He has a cartoon-dentist outfit on. Next to him is an oversize pair of pliers. They are as big as a bicycle.

  An usher motions for me to come all the way in and close the curtain, so I do. As I stand in the darkened doorway, I breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

  I am eating ice cream on the trapeze. Strawberry. I put it down and begin to swing on the bar, and then I jump and I catch the next bar and swing high and flip and am caught at my wrists by Lisi, who is swinging on the other bar. As we swing and do tricks, she talks to me.

  “After this, do you want to move to Glasgow with me?”

  “Yes, please.”

  “We can talk then.”

  “Yes, please,” I say again.

  Because in real time, we’ve never talked about it. Not as adults. Or whatever we are. We hinted about it. We dealt with it in whatever ways we could. But never the drowning. We never talked about that.

  The day she left, she locked her eyes with mine. She has green eyes like I do. She said, “Take care of yourself.”

  “I’ll have to,” I answered.

  “Call me if you need me.”

  “I will.”

  She hugged me—the only one in my family who ever did that—and she kissed me on the cheek. “Stay out of trouble,” she said. “We’ll talk soon.”

  But we never did talk. And she never calls. It’s been more than three months. I’ve stayed out of trouble. Until today. Until the tiger.

  On a high swing, I let go of Lisi’s wrists and fly through the domed ceiling at the PEC Center and become a bird. I’m a pigeon. I’m an escaped canary. I’m a bald eagle. I soar to the mountain to the east of town and I sit atop the tallest tree and I look at all the people. Lisi the bald eagle perches next to me. She asks me, “Gerald, what are you doing?”

  I say, “I don’t know.”

  “Come back and do the trapeze with me,” she says.

  After a few more swings, we’re doing our synchronized double flip. We do it twice. Three times. The crowd is awed. They think we are the two most talented people on earth right now. They want to be us. They want to fly, too.

  They toss flowers at us. They give us a standing ovation.

  This?

  This is entertainment. If anyone had asked, this is what I would have answered.

  ANYONE: Do you want to be on TV?

  ME: Yes.

  ANYONE: Would you like to play the part of the naughty boy who craps on his parents’ kitchen table?

  ME: No.

  ANYONE: Well, what do you want to be, then?

  ME: I want to fly on the trapeze.

  ANYONE: You’re too little. We can’t let you do that.

  ME: Well then, I want to be a bald eagle.

  ANYONE: This is why we don’t ask five-year-olds questions like this.

  ME: How is a kid crapping on his parents’ kitchen table entertaining?

  ANYONE: I don’t know. But people seem to like it.

  ME: You haven’t noticed that it’s a little perverted? Watching a kid poop on TV?

  ANYONE: That’s ridiculous. Why would you say something like that?

  ME: Because it’s true. Isn’t that the only reason to ever say anything?

  21

  I HAVE NO idea how I got back to register #7. I don’t remember leaving the arena. I don’t remember knocking to get back in. I don’t remember squeezing by irresistible Register #1 Girl. I don’t remember counting out my drawer, but my money is in the zippered bag and my tally sheet is filled out and signed. By me. I have no idea where I was for the last hour. Last thing I remember is watching the circus.

  We have an hour break before the next show. Half the cashiers go out to smoke or call their loved ones. I think about my loved ones. I think about what happened in real life this morning. So I decide to go out and call Dad.

  “Hey, Ger, how’s work?” he says.

  “Fine,” I say.

  “Great,” he says.

  “Are you with clients?” I ask. He’s always with clients.

  “Nope. Driving to that place with the indoor swimming pool. Our secret, okay?”

  “Sure,” I say. Then I don’t say anything because I want him to talk first.

  “So… that was crazy this morning, wasn’t it?” he says.

  “Yeah. It was. My whole life’s been crazy, though, you know?” I say. “I mean, when it comes to—uh—Tasha.”

  “Yeah,” he says uncomfortably. “She exaggerates.” Not She totally had it coming because she was trying to suffocate you. Nothing like that.

  “I like girls,” I say. “So she’s wrong.”

  “You don’t have to tell me that,” he says. “Anyway, we’d love you no matter what.”

  I feel that’s code for something else. Like he believes her. Like he believes that I swing the other way.

  “So, did they call the police?” I ask.

  “The what?” he says, distracted by his GPS telling him to turn. “No. Of course not. It’s all fine.”

  I bit my sister in self-defense because she was trying to kill me in front of our parents. It’s fine. Clearly.

  I hear his door binging when he opens it and I hear him close it and mutter to himself about some key code. “Look, we should talk about this at home. Over drinks. Tonight? After work?” he says. “When do you get off?”

  “I’m not coming home,” I say. I surprise myself when I say this. I check the concrete where I’m standing to make sure it’s not made of ice cream. Nope. Still cement.

  “Of course you’re coming home,” he says. “You’re sixteen. You live there. And we’ll work this out. I promise.”

  A puppy. A hamster, Rollerblades, baseball cards. I promise, I promise, I promise.

  I hear his shoes taking each step to the front porch and I hear him breathe more heavily as he gets to the top.

  “I’m not coming home,” I say. “Not while she lives there.” I feel a rush when I say this. Panic and fear and tiger all at once.

  “Look, we can talk later,” he says as he swings the front door open with a creak. “I’ll make sure this works out right, okay?”

  “I’m not coming home,” I say.

  I hang up and wander through the skinny smokers’ alley to the back of the PEC Center, where there’s a huge parking lot and loading bay. I hear yelling, so I walk until I can see who’s saying what. There’s this tall, round, bald guy and two skinny guys up against him. A woman sits behind them on a suitcase. The two skinny guys get right in the bald guy’s face.

  “We’re fuckin’ out of here, Joe,” one guy says.

  “This is such bullshit,” the other one says.

  “Tomorrow we’re in Philly. You can leave after that,” (assumed) Joe says. He rubs his bald head. “I just paid you! How can you fuck me over like this?”

  “Fuck Philly and fuck you,” the first guy says, and the three begin to walk away from Joe. I’m tense because, as much as this sounds crazy coming from a face-eating, neck-crushing, sister-biting table-crapper, I’m not a big fan of confrontation.

  “Well, fuck you, too!” Joe says. He stands there for a minute, furious. “Good luck finding a way out of this
shitty little town!”

  I watch the three of them walking, and once they get across the railroad tracks, one of them pulls out a smartphone and they get their bearings and start to walk in the direction of the bus station that’s ten blocks away.

  Joe, the tall, bald guy, stands outside for a minute, and I hear his last words echo in my head. Good luck finding a way out of this shitty little town.

  I turn around and run right into Register #1 Girl and another cashier.

  “Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t know you were here.”

  “We heard the yelling,” she says.

  “It’s over now,” I say.

  It’s over now, Gerald. Good luck finding a way out of this shitty little town.

  22

  REGISTER #1 GIRL and her cashier friend turn around and go back toward the side door. (Have I mentioned that she has the cutest ass in the universe? I probably haven’t. The boys’ combat pants work. That’s all I’ll say.) I walk back to the edge of the parking lot and sit down on a step and watch people. It’s pretty quiet. The security guards are wandering around doing security-guard things. Maybe I can be a security guard. I’m big enough. Beats counting hot dogs.

  I feel like I just fucked up by telling Dad that I’m not coming home. At the same time, I really don’t want to go home. At the same time, I pretty much have to go home.

  A kid appears at the bottom of the steps—he’s about my age. He’s tall and his hair is just long enough to fit into a ponytail. As he climbs the steps toward me, he looks over his shoulder to the loading bay, and when he gets out of sight he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a box of cigarettes, and lights one. Then he screams, “FUCK THIS SHIT!”

  I admit this makes me jump. He sees me and moves his head to acknowledge that I’m sitting here. I scream back, not nearly as loud but loud enough, “FUCK THIS SHIT!”

  We look at each other for a second. I have my usual Gerald-thoughts. He recognizes me. He can see the behavior chart and all the black marks. Any second now, he’s going to say, “Hey! You’re the Crapper!”

  He walks up a few more steps and sits where he can talk to me—about three steps down.

  “Fuck this shit, you know?” he says.

  “Dude. I know. Seriously. Fuck. This. Shit.”

  Then we laugh. Really laugh. He has to wipe his nose because he snots from laughing so hard. I can’t tell if my laughter is real. I think it is.

  After he stops laughing he asks, “You work here?”

  I nod.

  “Good money?” he asks, taking a long, hard drag on the cigarette.

  “Better than none at all, I guess.”

  “I don’t make shit. Not until I’m older.”

  “Oh,” I say. We sit in silence for a minute and I try to place his accent. He’s not from here. He’s got a Southern accent, I think. But not all the way. “How old do you have to be?” I ask.

  He drags on his cigarette and says, “We work as hard as anyone else on the show, you know?”

  Now he has a New Jersey accent. Or New York.

  I ask, “You’re with the circus?”

  He laughs again and smoke comes out his nose. “I am the fuckin’ circus, man. Every fuckin’ day of my fuckin’ life.”

  Down by the loading bay I can hear big, bald Joe yelling. “Where the hell is that kid? I told him to get that bus cleared out before matinee! Useless son of a bitch!”

  “Huh,” I say, because I don’t know what else to say. Then I add, “What’s with the clown-dentist thing? How come that’s funny?”

  “I don’t know,” he says. “I never understood clowns.”

  “You’re the circus and you don’t understand clowns?”

  “Nope. I think they’re totally stupid,” he says, taking a pull from his cigarette. “But the kids like them.”

  “Huh. A clown pulling his own tooth doesn’t seem like kids would like it,” I say. “I guess that proves I’m not a kid.”

  “What do they pay you? Seven, eight bucks an hour?” he asks.

  “Seven fifty.”

  “You cook?”

  “Nah. I work the register. It’s okay. Keeps me out of the house,” I say.

  He laughs at this.

  “What?” I ask.

  “I sure as shit wish I could get myself out of my house.” He takes a last drag on his smoke and crushes it under his boot while it’s still only half smoked. Then he points to the circus buses in the parking lot. “I’ve wanted to blow it up for years,” he says. “I know how, too. I could do it. Blow the whole thing up. End this shit for good. For all of us.”

  “Shit,” I say. Because I feel like I’ve just met myself. Hello, other Gerald. Nice to meet you. Would you like to blow up the world with me? The whole fucking world?

  “Can’t blow up your own family, though, you know? I got sisters. Nieces and nephews. And a grandmother…” He trails off because Joe is yelling again. “Find that little shit for me and get him into that fuckin’ bus. It has to be clean in an hour.”

  “True,” I say. “You can’t blow up your whole family. Been there.”

  “Really?” he asks.

  “Yeah,” I say.

  “We should be friends. I don’t have any friends, so why not be friends with another psycho like me?” When he says this, my heart aches a little for being a psycho like him. But I can’t deny it.

  “We should,” I say. “What’s your number?” I give him mine.

  He enters the number into his phone and sends me a text. It says I’m Joe Jr. While I enter his number into my contact list, I text back I’m Gerald and I half expect him to look at me and point and say something about Nanny-Fuck-This-Shit, but he doesn’t.

  “I’d kill to come with you,” I say. “Everything sucks here.”

  “Trust me, nothing sucks more than my life. Anyway, you make seven fifty at your job, and you’ll never make that with us. Big Joe is a cheapskate.” On cue, Big Joe starts to yell again. “Shit. I’d better go. My dad is pissed,” he says.

  As he walks down the steps and out into the open lot, his father screams stuff at him and he ignores it as he goes to one of the buses and stands out of sight and lights another cigarette. I realize that I want to be him, even though I’ve only known him for five minutes.

  “Fuck this shit!” I yell after him.

  He nods and I can hear him as I walk away. “Fuck this shit!”

  23

  THE GIRL AT register #1 has told me her name again, but I still won’t use it. I just smile at her and feel scared of her and want to smell her hair. Which sounds creepy, but I don’t mean it in a creepy way at all.

  When I look over at her during the preshow rush, I see that she’s not happy today. I think back to when I saw her in the smokers’ alley between shows. How she had a quiet conversation on her phone. How she wasn’t her usual smiling self. At the time, I thought she was mad at me because of what I said when she and her friend came over to see what the yelling was about, but now I’m thinking this has nothing to do with me.

  So when I see her on my way to refill her drawer with hot dogs, I say, “Hey,” and she says, “Hey,” and she makes it really clear that she’s not going to smile and so I smile at her but she still won’t smile.

  Fact: Being in a five-foot radius of her makes me not want to kill anyone.

  Once the circus starts and the crowd dies down, I walk to register #1, where she’s leaning on the counter writing something in her tiny book. I don’t want her to think that I’m reading it, so I stand back and wait until she’s done.

  “Whoa. Gerald. Way to sneak up on me.”

  I ask, “You okay?”

  “No.” She sighs.

  I nod, and I want to hug her because I can tell a hug would make her feel better. But Roger told me that I need to stop thinking that I know what other people need or want. He said, “Because of your childhood—uh—situation you have a larger sense of self than many.”

  I remember that frustrated look he gave me when I d
idn’t understand this.

  He translated. “You think the world revolves around you.”

  “No I don’t,” I said. What does Roger know anyway? He’s just another guy like me who graduated from lame anger management class. I hate when he talks like he’s some sort of headshrinker.

  Thinking about him makes me mad, so I look back at sad Register #1 Girl and I say, “Can I help?”

  She laughs a little. “Only if you have a magical time machine.”

  “And if I had a magical time machine?” I ask.

  “Then I’d want to be in the future, two years from now. Preferably with some money and going somewhere exciting. Like Morocco. Or India.”

  “Wow,” I say, because I’ve never known anyone who wanted to go to either place before. I don’t think, in nearly seventeen years, I’ve ever even heard a person use the word Morocco in a sentence.

  “Would you come with me?” she asks.

  I want to make her smile, so I say, “Yes.” But I don’t want to go to India or Morocco.

  “Really?” she asks. “You’d want to come with me?”

  “Sure,” I say. “I mean, I guess. I don’t know anything about India.”

  “I can’t figure you out,” she says. “One minute I think you might be nice and then the next minute, you’re—uh—just hard to figure out.”

  “A puzzle.” That’s what the guidance counselor calls me.

  “A puzzle,” she says. And then she smiles. This makes me smile. And then Beth shows up. She’s in manager mode, which I guess is how I will always know her. But she seems like she’d be fun outside of the PEC Center. Sometimes she sees her friends here and they talk about what they’re doing on the weekend. One time a guy mentioned skinny-dipping. It made me think about how I will probably never go skinny-dipping.

  Beth says, “Gerald, can you do a dog count for me?”

  I leave to count hot dogs.

  Once we close the gate after intermission, I move slowly. Everyone else rushes to get home. Registers #4 and #5 had to leave right away to pick up their kids from babysitters. Beth asks me if I can clean the hot dog rollers and I say yes, and I tell her I’ll mop, too, because if I mop, then I’m the last one out.

 
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