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Still life with tornado, p.8
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.8

           A. S. King
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  • • •

  I stand at the front door and say good-bye to Mom at six thirty as she heads out in her scrubs. Mom is strictly a solid-color scrubs kind of nurse. She says all those flowers and prints are for the day nurses.

  “Think about school tomorrow,” she says to me.

  “I will,” I say, but I’m lying.

  “And we’re going to have your friend over for dinner!” she says. “I can’t wait to meet her.”

  I don’t know what to say to that, so I just nod.

  “Why don’t you pull out your sketchbook tonight and draw me a comic or something?” she says. “Something about you and me having fun.”

  I want to tell her that she now sounds like the mother of a six-year-old, but I know she’s trying, so I say, “I’ll try,” even though I never drew a comic in my life.

  When she gives me a hug, she whispers, “Maybe this week you can take me to the museum or something. We can go out to lunch. Fun, right?”

  “Okay,” I say.

  As she turns to leave, she misses my eyes filling up with tears, and I’m glad because I don’t know why it’s happening. I think it’s because she has to say things like this now—about having fun.

  My skipping school is throwing off her plans, but she rolls with it because she’s a solid-color-scrubs kind of nurse. She’s going into the ER tonight and she doesn’t know what to expect. She has mastered the art of the unexpected.

  Sometimes it’s college students who have a cold. Sometimes it’s an unexplained seizure or some Jane Doe who’s all slashed up. Sometimes it’s little kids who broke a leg or broke a collarbone or got shot by accident by one of their cousins. Mom has put her hands in a man’s chest and pumped his heart back to life. Mom has had to strap down drunk people who spit at her. Mom doesn’t really care about plans because Mom sees people’s plans change all the time at three o’clock in the morning.

  Your Mother and Me

  Dad is sitting on the couch watching a baseball game on the TV. My triangles are still drawn on the screen. The sliver of tissue I stuck to the smallest triangle is still there. It blocks right field if the camera is behind the batter. Dad doesn’t seem to care. I wonder how many tissue slivers I’d have to stick on the TV before he’d care. I decide the number is probably five.

  I sit down on the couch and draw a blank comic on a stray piece of paper. It’s five panels long. I decide to draw whatever comes to me in each panel. No thinking first, no planning. I just rough sketch right there on the couch next to Dad.

  The first panel is a tornado.

  The second panel is my family—all of us—Bruce included.

  The third panel is the tornado hitting my family.

  The fourth panel is just a tornado again, but like in Carmen’s tornadoes I can see many things in the tornado. Miss Smith, my art teacher, is in there. Alleged Earl is in there. Oregon is in there. Two lawyers and a judge are in there.

  The fifth panel is me and Mom at three o’clock in the morning. The clock is in the foreground. Mom and me are tiny in the background and we are changing plans.

  I have no idea what this comic means. I don’t plan on showing it to Mom, that’s for sure.

  A commercial comes on. It’s one of those louder-than-life commercials, as if boosting the volume would make us buy the thing they’re selling.

  Dad talks over the commercial rather than muting it.

  He says, “You’re making a big mistake.”

  He says, “You’re too smart to make such a bad decision.”

  He says, “I really think you should listen to your mother and I.”

  I say, “Me.”

  He says, “What?”

  I say, “Your mother and me.”

  He says, “Don’t be a smart-ass.”

  “I only got to be a smart-ass because you’re a smart-ass.”

  “Touché, my creative little clone.”

  Dad and his creativity. Time to make the art! He must be so disappointed after all those trips to the museums and all those summer art classes and all those birthday gifts. I am, too. I’m disappointed. I just drew a comic, so why can’t I draw a pear? My hand? A vase of spring flowers?

  I mute the commercial. I say, “Do you ever wonder about Bruce?”

  Dad says, “No.”

  I say, “That’s kinda cold, isn’t it?”

  Dad says, never taking his eye off the screen, “Bruce decided to leave our family. There isn’t much I can do about it.”

  I say, “You could call.”

  “Don’t have his number.”

  “You could find it.”

  The game comes back on TV, and Dad puts the sound back on and talks loudly. “He doesn’t want to hear from us. He made that quite clear.”

  “Don’t you miss him?”


  “Well, I miss him. He’s my brother.”

  “ . . .”

  The guy on the TV hits a single and Dad gets all excited and says, “Yes! What a hit!”

  I look around the living room. Everything is normal here. There are framed pictures of me as a little kid on the mantel. My ceramic owl lives there, too. We have art on the walls—some prints of classics and a few oils Dad bought at student art sales over the years. A lot of still lifes.

  I think about still lifes. Until I met ten-year-old Sarah, that’s what I had. A still life. The more I pay attention, the more I see I was wrong.

  I look back at my comic and pencil a thick title at the top.


  Art Show

  It’s Monday and Alleged Earl is curled in the alcove like he is every morning. I didn’t even get on the bus. I just ate breakfast, waited for Dad to leave, and walked here.

  As I sit on the sidewalk near Alleged Earl, I think about school and what happened. Sometimes the whole thing just washes over me like a river gone over its banks. No matter what I do, I can’t stop thinking about it.

  I had an original idea once.

  Sculpture class, third quarter, sophomore year. Final project, two and a half months ago.

  • • •

  First, Miss Smith gave us materials: a few spools of wire; a big box of colorful Plexiglas; a bucket of broken-up tiles in case anyone wanted to do a 3-D mosaic; clay. We were all still friends then. Vicky-the-grand-prizewinner was extra nice to me because she knew what I’d seen. She’d sent me a private message on The Social the day it happened. It said, Let’s keep that between us, okay?

  Everyone in art club chose the Plexiglas because we’d never worked with Plexiglas before. Miss Smith explained that she had special epoxy to bond pieces to other pieces. We took a day to sketch ideas and to figure out which colors we wanted to work with, which pieces. On the second day while some people still riffled through the box for the right piece, I cut my three pieces—primary colors—with the little band saw we had in the art room that no one ever used. I cut out shapes. Triangles and squares and rectangles. The saw spat plastic dust as I worked and it smelled awful, but there was something cathartic about cutting up a big thing into little things. Miss Smith ignored my doing this. She didn’t even tell me to put on safety goggles, which is probably against the law. Miss Smith didn’t care about laws. I knew that.

  In the end, I had a pile of small random shapes in red, yellow, and blue. I planned on mounting the shapes on a larger piece of neutral-colored Plexiglas. I thought the idea was boring. The rest of the class was drawing on their Plexiglas and most of the art club was lining up behind me at the band saw to cut their pieces into curvier shapes than mine. I could see the curves drawn in Sharpie on their Plexiglas. It was always a competition, the art club. If I did something, they would do something-plus-one.

  I took my pieces of Plexiglas home and showed them to Mom and complained that I thought my project was boring. She asked if I’d e
ver tried bending it and she showed me how to bend Plexiglas over the heat of the electric stove. She gave me a pair of silicone oven gloves to wear but I found them restricting so I took them off once she left the kitchen. I spent an hour bending the shapes I’d cut out—my squares were now wavy, my rectangles were cylinders, my triangles a mix of both. I burned my fingertips a little, nothing awful, and I turned on the exhaust fan so the whole house didn’t smell like burning plastic even though the house already smelled like burning plastic before I turned it on. When I was done bending, I laid my new pieces out on the countertop and they were less boring and I felt happy enough with the Plexiglas project.

  When I got back to class the next day, the band saw was already on and Vicky-the-grand-prizewinner was cutting curves into her flat Plexiglas. Miss Smith stood behind her, smiling. Vicky-the-grand-prizewinner was wearing safety goggles.

  I pulled out my flat piece of neutral-colored Plexiglas and then, one by one, I started to pull out my bent, curved shapes. Vivian asked, “How did you do that?” and I explained how I did it, which was probably a mistake. By the end of the day, Miss Smith produced an electric hot plate that she stored on the shelves behind her desk. By the end of the week, all the art clubbers had bent Plexiglas projects, too. They said they planned on painting theirs. Carmen twisted a tornado out of a large triangle and planned on drawing the things within. My project still seemed boring to me. There’s only so much an artist can do with Plexiglas. I had a week before the final project was due.

  So I changed my project. This time, I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing. I started to weave a basket out of thin wire. I had stainless steel wire, brass wire, and copper wire. My fingers were still a bit scarred from the Plexiglas bending, so when the wires bit into my fingers until I bled, I barely felt it. I went into the zone when I wove. It was far more interesting than working with plastic. The faster I wove, the more I went into the zone. The more I was in the zone, the more I wanted to make something other than a basket. I sat staring at what I’d done so far. I stopped weaving. I opened my sketchbook and started drawing. I knew what this project could become. I knew it could be great. And when Carmen said, “Are you weaving a basket?” I lied to her. I said, “Yes.”

  But I wasn’t really weaving a basket. I was weaving a headpiece. I wove a curved rectangle about five by eight inches and wove in complicated designs and threaded in decorations like beads and other flotsam. Everyone was so busy bending Plexiglas and decorating it with pop art dots, Miss Smith didn’t even notice I’d changed mediums. I did most of the final touches at home so no one would steal my idea.

  When I was done weaving, instead of clipping off the extra wires that acted as warp spokes, I turned them to the sky and made them into shapes and curlicues and other things and spread them out so it looked like you were wearing the sun on your head. I spent the final weekend sewing a lining into the headpiece. Stitch by stitch, I knew this was the coolest thing I’d ever made. My hands were a mess—fingers red with old burns and pricks and a few tiny blood blisters from pinching myself with wire snippers. As I sewed the black felt and padded it out with stuffing, I felt tired—like an artist should feel after pouring her soul into a piece. I felt quiet, at peace, and not like the chattering art club every day in class. I polished the wire when I was done, and I put it in a box to take to school for the day we would unveil our final projects.

  All the other students still just had their curvy Plexiglas projects. Carmen’s tornado was the best of the lot. She even cut some thin strips of Plexiglas and bent them to represent wind.

  They got As.

  I got an A+.

  Miss Smith was wowed. She said she wanted my headpiece in the annual art show. She said, “This is really awesome, Sarah! This could win!” I remember feeling humble because artists should be humble. I looked at my hands. I picked at the scabs on my fingers.

  I could see the art club seniors getting all worked up over it—feeling sorry for themselves and feeling like their projects were better—but mine was original.

  Either way, the headpiece never made it to the art show.

  That was how they showed me my place.

  • • •

  I wonder how the world showed Alleged Earl his place was in the alcove. I don’t think anybody should have to sleep on the street. I don’t think anybody should have to dig in the trash for food. It seems wrong in every possible situation. If he’s poor, someone should help him. If he’s mentally ill, someone should help him. What kind of place do we live in where so many people have to live on the street?

  Doesn’t make any sense except that people have to show other people their place. And Alleged Earl’s place is in the alcove. And my place is not-in-school.

  We both have original headpieces, but he makes a new one every other day and I only made one, which was stolen.

  It’s a long story.

  “Skipping school again?” ten-year-old Sarah asks.

  I didn’t even see her coming because I was so busy looking at Alleged Earl.

  “I guess,” I say.

  “Let’s go for a walk,” she says.

  I get up off the concrete and walk with her.

  “Something happened at school,” she says. “That’s why you won’t go back.”

  “Nah. I just don’t feel like it.”

  “Something happened. Stop clamming up.”

  “I’m not clamming up,” I say.

  “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” ten-year-old Sarah says. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s happened before.”

  I think about this. She’s right. I’m sure a disappearing art project has happened before. It is not at all original. Maybe had something happened to me that was original I’d feel better about it.

  “I’m not embarrassed.”

  “Do you remember Julia?” she asks.

  “I know a few Julias in school.”

  “No. The one from the restaurant. The little girl.”

  I remember Julia. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Julia. “Yes,” I say.

  I was six. We were at our favorite Mexican restaurant for Día de los Muertos. We ordered dinner and, like always, right after we ordered Mom took me and Bruce to the bathroom. Bruce complained because he was fifteen and didn’t think he should be told to go to the bathroom anymore. Mom and I went into the ladies’ room and found only one stall open. The other stall had a roughly written OUT OF ORDER sign.

  Mom said, “Just come in here with me and we’ll take turns.” We went into the stall and I got to pee first. While I was peeing, the ladies’ room door opened and a woman came in and started yelling at her kid. She was so mean, my pee stopped. She said, “Come here.” The kid made a little moan. “You can’t act like that at a restaurant!” Slap. “I told you to be good tonight!” Slap. “You need to behave, Julia!” Slap. At the third slap the little girl wailed. And when she did, I noticed she was really little. I was six and I didn’t wail like that. The woman said, “Are you ready to go back out? Stop crying! Are you ready?” The girl quieted down and huffed a few times. She finally said yes, and that was when Mom and I knew that the kid didn’t even really talk yet. She was probably, like, two years old.

  Mom was frozen, a lump of toilet paper in one hand that she was handing to me, and her other hand on the door. By the time the ladies’ room door slammed shut, only about fifteen to twenty seconds had passed. I was able to finish peeing, but everything in the bathroom was different.

  The fluorescent lights were flickering. I hadn’t noticed that before. I could hear one of the taps had been left running. Mom sat down to pee and even though we had a rule of turning our backs when we shared stalls, she said, “Look at me.”

  Since she was sitting on a toilet, her eyes were at the same level as mine. She was crying a little. Tears were on her cheeks. Her face looked old. It looked tired. It looked scared. She just stared
at me for what felt like a whole minute with this face. With those tears. I didn’t know what to say.

  “I will never hit you, Sarah. Okay?”


  “I will never ever hurt you.”

  “Okay,” I said again. Then we hugged.

  She motioned for me to turn back around after the hug. She finished peeing and flushed the toilet.

  As we washed our hands, she took a bunch of deep breaths. She wiped her eyes with her used paper towel and she helped me dry my hands. At the time, I didn’t see what the big deal was. It was sad the little girl got spanked or whatever, but I never thought of anyone hitting me before, so I don’t know why Mom was so weird about it.

  When we got back to the table, Mom looked around the restaurant for the woman and her daughter. I scooted into the booth next to Bruce and said, “Some lady just hit her baby in the bathroom and it made Mom cry.”

  Mom looked down at her fork.

  Bruce looked down at his place mat.

  Dad looked at me like he was angry that I brought this scene back to the dinner table.

  Then dinner came and I ate enchiladas. That’s the Julia story.

  I look back at ten-year-old Sarah. “Yeah. I think about her sometimes. She’d be just a little older than you now.”

  She says, “Anyway, you shouldn’t be embarrassed about whatever happened in school.”

  “I’m not embarrassed.”

  I am. I’m totally embarrassed even though I didn’t do anything wrong.

  “Bruce was embarrassed, too. In Mexico. When it happened. You know.”

  “I don’t know what Bruce would be embarrassed about.”

  “Like Julia. Don’t you remember playing tooth fairy?” ten-year-old Sarah asks.

  I stop walking.

  I remember playing tooth fairy. To a nineteen-year-old boy. My brother.

  I remember slipping my tiny hand under his pillow in our hotel room.

  I remember leaving two dimes, three shells, and a note.

  The note said, “I love you.”

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