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       Reality Boy, p.8

           A. S. King
 
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  “Hannah already called mopping,” Beth says. That’s Register #1 Girl’s name. Hannah.

  I clean the hot dog rollers and take all the dishes back to the sink where #2 is washing. Beth asks the remaining cashiers if we want any of the leftover food and I realize I haven’t eaten all day and I’m really hungry. She gives me a little tray of chicken fingers and fries, and when I get to the condiment counter, I take a napkin and put my chicken fingers on it and fill the rest of the tray with ketchup. I coat the fries in it. I dip the chicken in it. I think of the hugging hockey lady the whole time. I coat my food in her so I can be hugged from the inside.

  As I eat my ketchup-covered food and watch Register #1 Girl mop the floor behind stand five, I rethink my ideas about India. No one there would know me. No one would call me the Crapper. Tasha doesn’t live there.

  India would be great.

  I wish I could fly there right now so I can keep my word. I’m not coming home.

  A half hour later, I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot. Not the garage I parked in, but the PEC Center parking lot, where the circus workers are busy loading their trucks to move on to Philly. I’ve texted Joe Jr., my new friend, and I haven’t heard back. I don’t want to leave the lot until I get to say good-bye or something. (A psycho’s good-bye: Fuck this shit!)

  As I look around for Joe, his father points and yells a lot. Yells a lot. He swears in almost every sentence. I rolled down my window a little and I’ve been listening. They’re $%#*ing driving tonight. They $%#*ing start setup at the next place at three in the $%#*ing morning. The $%#*ing $%%holes who quit today were supposed to be driving the $%#*ing talent bus so they could get there early and $%#*ing sleep before matinee tomorrow.

  “And if that isn’t $%#*ing bad enough, I’ve got $%#*ing gas,” he says into his cell phone.

  I like him. He’s the opposite of Dad. Dad, who has called four times in the last hour and left two messages. Gerald, I hope you weren’t serious about not coming home today. We’ll talk about everything later. Message number two was more serious. Gerald, call me when you get this.

  Joe’s dad would leave a far more straightforward message. I know this from watching him for a half hour. He’d say something like this: Get your $%#*ing ass home and don’t be $%#*ing late.

  Then I see Register #1 Girl. She’s walking across the alley and talking on the phone. It’s dangerous here at night. Especially on a Saturday. Especially for a pretty girl who smells like berries. I leave my car and I try to follow her on foot, but she’s gone, so I go back to my car and start driving around the block. After two circles, I start to panic a little. I want to roll down my window and yell her name. Instead, I widen my search area and I find her four blocks away already. Heading for a worse part of town.

  “Hey,” I say. “Let me drive you to wherever you’re going.”

  She stops and crosses her arms. Sighs.

  When she gets into the car, I can tell she’s been crying. I still want to hug her, but I know not to. Instead I ask, “Where are you going?”

  “Nowhere.”

  “Oh,” I say. “You seemed to be going somewhere.”

  “I was.”

  “So tell me where and I’ll drive you.”

  “I was going nowhere,” she says.

  “Oh,” I say again. “Can I come with you?”

  She laughs at this and it breaks the tension in the car, which was getting pretty high because she is the first girl I have ever had in my car. And all I can think about is all the things ever said to me about girls. It’s like girl-talk soup in my head.

  Don’t go out with girls.

  Don’t even walk with girls.

  Girls lie about stuff.

  Girls need more than you can give, Gerald.

  One wrong move and you’re arrested.

  Girls aren’t worth the trouble at your age, anyway.

  Maybe you swing the other way. That would explain a lot.

  24

  I DON’T TELL Register #1 Girl that I have a plan tonight, but I have one. I texted Joe Jr. again and told him, but he still hasn’t replied. We drive around for a while, and when she asks me when I have to be home, I say, “Never.”

  “What’s that mean?”

  “I don’t know,” I say. “I guess I’m not going home.”

  “So where are you going?”

  “Nowhere,” I say. “Just like you.”

  She nods and asks if she can put on some music. I say sure and she plugs her phone into my stereo and blasts out some old punk rock. I don’t know who or what kind, but it’s not bad.

  After two songs, I start to feel like this is wrong. I don’t trust her. Maybe she’ll tell someone that I picked her up and tried something that I didn’t. Maybe this is all a big joke and her girlfriends are waiting for her somewhere so they can all laugh about how she made the Crapper think he had a friend.

  Wouldn’t be the first time someone did that.

  We drive around aimlessly for almost a half hour. Register #1 Girl talks about work mostly. Small talk. I say some stuff, but I think I’m mumbling. She looks out the window a lot. When I look at the clock and see it’s nearly eleven, I turn down the music. “So what are we really doing?” I ask. “We can’t just drive around forever. Do you want me to take you home?”

  “How old are you?” she asks.

  “Almost seventeen,” I say. “Ten more days.”

  She’s surprised. “You look older.”

  “Yeah. I know.”

  “I’m sixteen, too. Not sweet, though.”

  At first I don’t get it. I think she’s teasing me about something I don’t understand.

  “You know—sweet sixteen?”

  “Oh,” I say. “Right. You’re not sweet. I get it.”

  The clock hits 11:04.

  “Look,” she says. “I kinda lied.”

  I hate lying girls, so I just shrug until she tells me the punch line. The joke’s on you, Gerald.

  “I was going to a friend’s house. Well, two friends. But then we started talking, you know? And I—uh—I always wanted to know what you were like,” she says. When I don’t respond because I’m too busy trying to figure out what that means, she adds, “They live over on Franklin. You can come, too, I guess. They’re nice.”

  Franklin Street, depending on which block you’re talking about, is a mess of crack houses and dive bars. I can’t imagine Register #1 Girl has friends there.

  I can feel her looking at me, waiting for an answer. I say, “Do you want me to take you there?”

  “Don’t you want to come in with me?” she asks.

  I can’t tell her that I’m afraid my car will get stolen on Franklin Street. I can’t tell her I don’t like meeting new people. I can’t tell her I am wrapped in plastic wrap so tightly sometimes I can’t breathe. So I say, “Sure.”

  She directs me to the house and there’s a parking spot about a half block away. In the summer on a Saturday night the street would be busy, but now it’s not. We just pass a few guys walking down the sidewalk. They don’t say anything, but as they approach I remember that I was a tiger earlier today and that I can be one anytime I want. I’m not scared of anyone. Except Register #1 Girl and her friends I haven’t met yet.

  She walks up the steps and I follow her. It’s a house, not an apartment. It’s a row house attached to about twenty other houses. The porch light is on and I can see the door knocker is a set of brass testicles.

  Register #1 Girl doesn’t knock. She just walks right in and I follow her. I don’t know if it’s the invisible plastic wrap or my nerves, but I think I’m sweating.

  “Hey!” someone says. “It’s Hannah!”

  Register #1 Girl says, “Hey! It’s Ashley!”

  She walks in from the kitchen and is gorgeous. Red hair in a braid. Tank top and a half sleeve of colorful tattoos. Barefoot. Wedding ring. She hugs Register #1 Girl and then shakes my hand as I’m introduced, and smiles at me.

  “Nice to meet you, G
erald.” She doesn’t look twice to see if I’m that Gerald. She just says, “Nice to meet you, Gerald,” and goes back into the kitchen. “I’m baking.” We follow her into the kitchen and Register #1 Girl goes to the fridge and grabs a bottle of water as if she lives here.

  “You want something to drink?” she asks.

  “No thanks,” I say.

  She shrugs and walks through the kitchen into the back room, where Ashley’s husband is sitting. Register #1 Girl tells me his name is Nathan. He is as handsome as Ashley is gorgeous. They are the beautiful people. I had no idea the beautiful people could live on Franklin Street. You’d think it wouldn’t be safe for them. Especially since they don’t lock their front door.

  “Nice to meet you, man,” Nathan says. “Sit. Relax. Grab a beer.”

  “I don’t drink.” That’s what I say through the plastic wrap. To me, it’s sound waves bouncing off polyethylene—like a kazoo just said something.

  I am suddenly distracted by the fish tanks in here. There are eight of them. I realize I am sweating because they make the room hot and Ashley is baking. Cookies, I think. It’s hard to smell through the layer between me and the rest of the world. But I think it’s chocolate chip cookies.

  Register #1 Girl sits in a chair that’s surrounded by three of the aquariums. She watches the fish and says, “Gerald, come here.” She pats the chair next to her leg as if I could fit in that space—or as if I’d want to.

  I stay on the small couch next to Nathan, who is watching a documentary about Jacques Cousteau. Register #1 Girl doesn’t ask me a second time. She just sits there and stares at the fish. She’s totally relaxed—I can see it in her face. I am the opposite of totally relaxed. I look at Nathan and I envy his beard. I decide when I’m older I’m going to grow a kick-ass beard.

  Fuck this shit. Let’s grow beards.

  “Ashley! Beer me!” he says. Not in a bad way. “Bring one for Gerald, too!”

  When she brings us both a beer, she kisses him on the lips right there in front of us. A big, loving kiss. I’ve never seen people act like this. It must show.

  “We’re newlyweds,” Ashley says. “Have a cookie.” She points to a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

  “Congratulations,” my kazoo-self says.

  “Has Hannah told you all the names she’s given the fish?” she asks.

  “No.”

  We both look at Register #1 Girl. She is lost in the fish. This makes me wonder what might be in the cookies. These people are too mellow. Their house is too relaxing. The fish are too colorful.

  So I open my beer.

  25

  “AREN’T THEY AMAZING?” she asks.

  I’m busy worrying about if I’m sitting too close or if she can tell that I’m sweating too hard to answer.

  “That’s Lola. I named her that because she’s yellow and just looks like a Lola, you know?” She points to the bigger, blue fish. “He’s Drake. He’s always biting everyone.”

  I look around to all of the fish tanks and try to estimate how many fish are in the room with us. I’d say there are about a hundred. We’re outnumbered.

  “Get it? Drake? Dracula?”

  I pretend to look at the fish, but really I’m looking at Register #1 Girl’s face. Her skin reflects the fluorescent lighting of the tanks, and she looks translucent.

  “One day, I’m going to get fish,” she says. “I’m going to get a huge tank like that one.” She points to the long tank at the end of the room. “It’ll be cool. No more parents. No more rules. No more anything except a job and a house and my fish.”

  Nathan scratches his beard. “You rock, Hannah.” Then he bends his head toward the kitchen and yells, “Ash! You’re gonna miss the best part of this documentary if you don’t come in now!”

  Ashley comes in and sits on the love seat next to him and they hold hands. Register #1 Girl cares about nothing except the fish. I sit here, nervous. I never realized how uncomfortable I am around happy people before. I feel like one of those fish—behind glass.

  When I finish my beer, I figure I’ve been here for about an hour. I’ve learned a lot about Jacques Cousteau and underwater life. My clothing has absorbed about a pint of sweat. Register #1 Girl has had two bottles of water and three cookies and has rotated from tank to tank so that she’s acknowledged every fish in the room. Then she just gets up and says good-bye. Just like that.

  “See ya.” She waves, and Ashley and Nathan wave from the love seat and keep watching the documentary.

  “Later,” Nathan says. “Hope to see you again, Gerald.”

  “Take some cookies for the road,” Ashley says. “I’ll eat them all.”

  Register #1 Girl grabs a half dozen cookies and we walk through the kitchen and out the front door. I lock it behind me out of habit. Or maybe because I liked Ashley and Nathan so much I don’t want anything bad to happen to them before I can go back.

  As I walk toward the car, I realize I want to go back almost immediately.

  I want to live there.

  I can tell by Register #1 Girl’s sad face that she feels the exact same way. She wants to live there, too.

  We don’t say anything until we’re five minutes out of town. I check my phone, and there’s still no reply from my new friend Joe-Psycho-Jr. Even after my second text. I’m coming with you to Philly. Don’t leave without me.

  “They’re really nice,” I say.

  “Yeah. They’re awesome.” She says it like she couldn’t care less about them—like she’s only using them for their fish. I can’t describe her right now. It’s like when we were there on Franklin Street she was herself, but now she’s wrapping herself in my plastic wrap. Probably because she’s stuck in the car with you, loser.

  “Are we just going to drive around now?” I ask.

  “I don’t know. You’re in charge. Where do you live?”

  I think about what I said to Dad today. I think about Tasha. “I guess I don’t live anywhere. But I have an idea. I just don’t know if it’s a good idea,” I say as I drive back over the bridge toward the PEC Center.

  “I’m open to ideas. Except that we run off and get married,” she says. “I’ll never get married.”

  I feel myself blush when she says this. Dear Register #1 Girl: Marry me right now.

  “Kidding,” she says. “I don’t think you want to run off and get married.” When I don’t say anything, she adds, “Wow. Sorry. I hope that didn’t make you mad. Sometimes I don’t know when to shut up.”

  “Nah. I don’t get mad,” I say. Breathe in. Breathe out. “I think I probably want to get married one day, though. I mean, when I’m old. Not now.”

  “So what’s your idea?” she asks.

  “It’s not Morocco,” I say. I turn into the PEC Center parking lot and drive to the back where I won’t be in the way of any of the circus trucks. I stare at the crew loading the trucks.

  After three minutes of us watching them together, she says, “You’re going to run away with the circus?”

  I figure I can lie to Big Joe. I’ll tell him I’m eighteen and he won’t ask me for $%#*ing ID. He’ll tell me, This isn’t some $%#*ing picnic, boy. It’s $%#*ing work. Hardest work you’ll ever $%#*ing do.

  That’s how I see it in my head.

  “Am I allowed to talk you out of it?” she asks. “I mean—would that even work?”

  Gerald, be real. There is no way this beautiful girl likes you. She only wants to talk you out of it because it’s a crazy idea. “I don’t want to count hot dogs all my life, you know?” I say. “And I’m not going home.”

  She senses it in my voice. Register #1 Girl is very observant like that. “Did something happen? Are they bad to you?” She cuts that sentence short. I can see her rewinding the tapes in her brain. I can see her picturing the five-year-old me squatting on the kitchen table.

  “Do you want my car?” I ask.

  “Seriously?” As she says this, her phone buzzes again and she presses the IGNORE button. I saw it sa
id Home on the screen, though. I check my phone. No more messages from Dad. Still nothing from Joe Jr. “Aren’t your parents going to want it back?” she asks. “You’re only sixteen. You’ll be, like, a missing person. I’ll be driving around in evidence. Shit. I’ll have to lie,” she says. Then she punches me lightly on the arm. “Way to put me in a bad spot, Gerald.”

  “Sorry,” I say. “I can just abandon the car downtown. Someone’ll steal it. It’s the perfect alibi.”

  “I’ll still have to lie,” she says. “Or, you know… I could go with you.”

  “I don’t want to get you into trouble,” I say. “You should go home. I can drop you there. Then you can say that you thought I was just going home.”

  “Or… not. Life is boring here. India, remember? Morocco?”

  I want to tell her that being bored is not a reason to run away. I want to tell her that she’s got a chance at a decent existence. No crapping videos to haunt her. No rodent-planking siblings. No anger management. No SPED class. No crazy fake Jamaicans out to kill her. Instead, I don’t say anything because it feels right, her coming with me. And then the back driver’s-side door opens, and my new friend Joe Jr. is sitting in my backseat.

  “Are you $%#*ing crazy?” he asks.

  26

  “DIDN’T YOU HEAR anything I $%#*ing said on the steps today? My life sucks. Why the $%#* would you want my life?”

  “I—uh—don’t know,” I answer.

  “Hi,” Register #1 Girl says. “I’m Hannah.”

  Joe Jr. nods at her. “And you have a $%#*ing girlfriend? Gerald, as your friend, I have to talk you out of this. It’s a shitty life with shitty pay, and while it may look good to you because of some shit at home or whatever your problem is, it’s not as cool as you $%#*ing think it is.”

  “I think it’s cool,” Register #1 Girl says.

  “You’re just a kid,” Joe Jr. says. To both of us.

 
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