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Please ignore vera dietz, p.9
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.9

           A. S. King
 
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  “I went out with a guy from work tonight. That’s all. He was driving a little fast on the way home.”

  “So where’s the car?”

  “I told you—it’s at the store. I’m working four-to-close tomorrow anyway.”

  “Who’s the guy?”

  “James.”

  “James what?”

  Of course, I have no idea what the answer to this question is.

  “Vera?”

  “Yeah. James—uh—I can’t pronounce it. Starts with a K.”

  “James Starts-with-a-K?”

  “Can I go to bed now?”

  He leans in and inhales. I am so up shit’s creek.

  “Yeah. Go to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.” He puts his coat back on the hook and looks out the front window. The flashing cop car is gone, and so is James’s car. I go to the bathroom and wash the feeling of getting caught off my face. I’m feeling more like my mother every day.

  A BRIEF WORD FROM KEN DIETZ (VERA’S FRUSTRATED DAD)

  Vera thinks I don’t know she’s drinking. As if my past is just a vocabulary word (alcoholic [noun] 1. a person who habitually drinks excessive amounts of alcohol) that will stay in the past. She has no idea what it means to be me. She has no idea that when she came in the house stinking of liquor, part of me wanted to hop off this seventeen-year-old wagon and tap into her veins to suck out the booze. In one way, I hope she never understands this. In another way, I wish she’d look beyond herself once in a while. But that’s a side effect of alcohol, isn’t it? Stopping to think about other people is not on the bar menu.

  I had my first beer when I was ten. My teenage brother Caleb and his friends were having a tent sleepover party in our backyard and one of the boys brought a six-pack of Michelob. I stole a bottle and drank it in the shadow of our brick bi-level. It didn’t make me feel drunk. It made me feel a little bit sick. From my bunk bed a half hour later—where our brother Jack slept above me, seemingly immune to the low self-esteem Caleb and I inherited from our father walking out when we were kids—I could hear the boys fighting over who drank the last beer, but no one ever figured it was me, because I was ten and still messing around with cap guns and frogs.

  But from that night on, all I ever wanted was the next drink. Which was easy to get, because my brothers and my mother always had something in the fridge I could steal.

  In junior high school, I became good pals with the truancy officer in the area. He’d pick me up from home a few mornings a month when I’d oversleep from a hangover and bring me to school in the back of his cop car.

  “You know, son, I think I know why you’re oversleeping.”

  “So?”

  “So I think you should know that if you get caught drinking at your age, you won’t be allowed to get a driver’s license.”

  “So?”

  “So don’t you want to get a car and drive the girls around? Don’t you want to get a job and grow up and make some money?”

  “No.”

  He sighed. “Well then, you’d better get used to sitting in the back of squad cars,” he said. “Because I’ve got my eye on you.”

  Mostly, I’d steal liquor from my mother, or from her friends’ houses when I went to mow their lawns on the weekend. Then I’d go to the 99¢ noon matinee and drink up through whatever movie was playing at the time. I was a complete drunk by the time I was in tenth grade. I got a part-time job at the Burger King at the end of our road, and started stealing from the till once I found a manager who would buy me a fifth of Jack Daniel’s at the state liquor store. That job lasted three months. Then I got a job at the Snappy Mart across the road. Rather than steal from the till, I started to give wrong change to customers for my booze money. It worked, too. I got really good at reading people to see if they’d count their change or not. The best were distracted mothers who either had kids with them or left them in the car, with one eye always toward the window. They never checked their change, and if they did, by the time they noticed I’d shorted them five bucks, they had the kids strapped into the car and wouldn’t bother coming back in.

  The worst, of course, were old men. Old men always count change.

  That job lasted a while. Almost two years. I’d shortchange enough people each night to pay Caleb for a trip to the liquor store or beer distributor. My boss didn’t mind me working drunk, and Cindy Sindy, my girlfriend since junior high, didn’t mind me not buying her anything. She’d say, “I don’t love you for your money.”

  I dropped out of high school after Christmas my senior year. The vice principal had it in for me and gave me detention every day for not making it to detention every day before that. But I told him I had a job and couldn’t miss it.

  “If you felt the same way about school, you wouldn’t be in this position in the first place.”

  “I work until midnight and I’m tired,” I’d say. But really, I’d work until midnight, drink until about four, and then pass out until noon, when I’d decide, ultimately, that I’d missed too much of the school day to go in. My mother had given up on me long before the vice principal did. Our last conversation about school, while she signed the forms the vice principal gave me to drop out, went something like this:

  “Why couldn’t you be more like Jack?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “I wish I could be.” Jack loved school. Loved dissecting frogs, doing word problems, going to football games, and dating cheerleaders. He was already in college, learning how to make money off money.

  “At least Caleb got a trade. At least he got something.”

  “Yeah. He was lucky.” Caleb was a cabinetmaker and worked in a shop making kitchens.

  She looked up from signing and slapped the pen down on the table. “Damn it, Kenny! When’re you gonna stop blaming everyone else for your shit? Caleb isn’t lucky! He’s responsible!”

  What I’d meant was, Caleb was lucky to land a job and keep it while being a closet drunk. Because he had my father’s drinking genes, too.

  In the end, I went to AA first, after one night babysitting Vera when she was seven months old. She wouldn’t stop crying and it started to drive me crazy and I thought, just for a split second—a split second that would turn out to be life-changing—that I should shake her or stuff her head in a pillow or something to make her stop. The only reason she was crying was because I was too drunk to remember to feed her. Lucky for both of us, Cindy Sindy came home from the club and found me half nuts, pacing the house, hugging the baby, crying like Vera was. I remember she said, “Ken, look at you! You’re worse than her!”

  The next day, I went to my first meeting. Caleb followed me eight years later, after losing three of his fingers to a table saw because he was drinking on the job.

  I’ve warned Vera about the drinking genes, but she acts like it’s funny. She jokes about stripper genes too, but she’s too young to understand the situation Cindy Sindy was in when she was born and I was drunk. Plus, youth is judgmental. With time, she will experience enough shit to free her own demons. I just wish I could give her a ticket to pass Go faster.

  KEN DIETZ’S FLOW CHART OF DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOR

  MONDAY, JANUARY 2ND

  Here’s me not using fainéant in a sentence.

  My Vocab teacher, Mrs. Buchman, looks concerned. I failed. I didn’t even try to guess. My head hurts and no matter how much gum I chew, my mouth is like a highway in lower New Mexico.

  “Vera, I’m concerned,” she says.

  “I just forgot. I don’t know what got into me,” I say, but what I mean is: Who gives Vocab words over Christmas break?

  “This might lower your grade,” she says. But I don’t care, because all I can think about is James and whether I’ll ever see him again. I imagine him in the small police station over in Mount Pitts getting his mug shot taken. I imagine him having to leave Pagoda Pizza. I imagine him leaving me no note, no number, no word. Like, maybe the universe is trying to save me from my destiny now that I’ve given up on saving myself.
>
  Still, I walk around cocky all day. I have a secret life. All these idiots are caught up in their stupid sports or their college choices. They’re caught up in trivial fashion or who’s getting laid or who’s snorting coke or who likes what music or who’s going to the prom with who. And I have a full-time job, a twenty-three-year-old boyfriend, and a secret binge-drinking problem.

  I arrange a ride to work from Matt Lewis—my Vocab partner. He drives a VW Beetle—a vintage one. He has self-decorated the entire interior with Sharpie marker manga-style drawings and it is the coolest thing ever.

  Right before the end-of-day bell rings, the secretary comes on the intercom and makes the usual announcements. All the kids who did something dumb to get detention today (Bill Corso and Jenny Flick and their minions) are called to the assistant principal’s office. Then she says, “And will Vera Dietz please report to the office. Vera Dietz to the office.”

  As I approach the glass-enclosed office, I see Dad there, waiting, leaning over the front counter, talking to the secretary. When I walk in, he turns to me and says, “Are you ready to go?”

  “Go where?”

  “Work.”

  “I have a ride, Dad. Really—you can go.”

  “Go and get your things. I’m here.” He’s cold and weirdly robotic.

  “But I have to tell Matt not to wait for me.”

  “That’s fine. I’ll be here.”

  So I go to Matt’s locker and tell him I don’t need a ride. Then I go to my own locker, pull out the books I need, and head back to the office. I see Dad through the glass wall, still talking to the secretary, and I sit down on the padded bench outside the door until he’s finished.

  When we get to the car and I click my seat belt into place, he says, “I got you the night off.”

  He’s freaking me out. He’s too chipper. He’s like a happy maniac.

  “From work?”

  “Marie says she’ll see you tomorrow.”

  My whole body goes a little bit numb when I hear that he talked to Marie. I want to ask him if he asked Marie about James. I want to ask him if he knows where James is and if he’s okay. But I don’t ask him anything, because he’s driving with that weird fake-happy look on his face, as if he’s about to chop me up into little pieces and feed me to a tiger.

  When we get home, he gives me a bowl of dried fruit and granola and a glass of milk. Talk about weird. This was my favorite after-school snack when I was a little kid. Before I can comment about how weird he’s acting, he hands me the phone and a phone number scrawled on a sky-blue piece of notepaper. Cindy Sindy—702-555-0055. My mother. She changed the C to an S when she left us.

  “I’m not calling her.”

  “Yes you are.”

  “How is this a good idea?”

  He puts his hand up, as if nothing I say will change his mind. Because nothing I say will change his mind. “I’m going outside to clean up some branches. You talk to her. She’s smarter than you think.”

  Smarter than I think? Do I think she’s dumb? Huh. Yeah. I guess I do. Wow. Well, let’s see just how smart she is, then. 1-702-555-0055. Rings once. Rings twi—

  “Vera?”

  “Hi, Mom.”

  “Don’t you ‘Hi, Mom’ me. What the hell are you doing? Trying to kill your father?”

  “Whoa. Hey. Happy New Year to you, too.”

  “Don’t be impudent.”

  Wow, she just used impudent in a sentence. Awesome. Now I don’t know what to say. I haven’t talked to my mother in six years—since the day she left—and now she’s yelling at me as if she cares?

  “Did you hear me?” she says.

  “Yeah.”

  “So? Let’s hear it. I don’t have all day.”

  I can’t seem to harness my hate for her, and it seems she’s having the same problem. I am instantly aware that she left us because she never wanted to have me. I am instantly aware that I don’t want her to come back, either.

  I say, “What did Dad tell you?”

  “You were out drinking with a twenty-three-year-old man last night and were lucky not to lose your goddamn license because of it.”

  “Oh.” So he knows I was drinking, and he knows how old James is.

  “He also told me you were planning on driving yourself home. Is that true?”

  “I guess,” I answer, still computing the information that my dad knows way more than he lets on.

  “Are you that stupid?”

  “Charming, Mom.”

  “Seriously, Vera. Are you that hellishly stupid?”

  I don’t say anything.

  “Are you there?”

  I don’t say anything. I notice I’m tearing up a little.

  “Look, I know when your boyfriend died it was hard on you, but—”

  “Charlie wasn’t my boyfriend.”

  “Well, whatever he was. I know you took it hard.”

  I don’t say anything. I hate her. She doesn’t even know me. She doesn’t know what happened. She doesn’t know about Zimmerman’s. Or about Jenny Flick. Or about the screaming parakeets. Or about any of it.

  “You don’t know anything about that, Mom.”

  “I knew Charlie, Vera. I did live there for twelve years.”

  “Not like that counts anymore,” I say.

  Surprisingly, she doesn’t answer this. There’s silence on the phone, and I munch on the dried fruit Dad gave me. Is it just a coincidence that I am eating a ten-year-old’s snack and simultaneously feeling like a ten-year-old because I’m talking to my mother?

  “You may hate me for saying this, Vera, but don’t make yourself a slut this early in life.”

  I do. I do hate her for saying that.

  “Vegas is full of girls who thought putting out a lot was a high idea once, but now they’re just washed-up jokes sliding themselves around oiled poles.”

  She is comparing me to Las Vegas strippers. Who told her I was making a slut out of myself? Who told her I was doing anything more than drinking occasional vodka?

  “Some of them think this is a really hip way to live, you know. Freedom from the oppression of men! Sexuality personified! Morons, Vera. Morons. I met one the other day reading Whitman. She said it made her smart even though at night she’s taking her clothes off for money. Making a joke out of herself. Making a joke out of all of us. Don’t make a joke out of yourself.”

  “Okay, Mom. I get the point. No stripping or turning into a hooker—intellectual or otherwise. Gotcha.”

  “I’m serious. These girls used to think it was no big deal to down a few drinks at the pagoda with a college dropout, too.”

  I’m irate now. There is no other way to describe it. If she were in the room with me, I’d pick up sharp things and throw them at her.

  “Okay, I’m done,” I say. “I really don’t give a shit what you think. And thanks for the fifty bucks on my birthday every year. I’m sure it will make a huge dent in my college tuition. You’re the best mom ever.” I hang up, roughly.

  Before she can call back and yell at me (though I doubt she will, because she was as forced into that call as I was) I pick up the phone and get a dial tone, and then leave it off the hook.

  HISTORY—AGE FOURTEEN

  I sat in homeroom that morning thinking about what Charlie told me on the bus. I thought back to all the times I climbed the Master Oak with him, and all the times we hiked the blue trail. Suddenly, every time I ever saw his buttcrack rushed back at me in a vivid slide show I never wanted to watch. I used to think Charlie just wore low-riding boxers or something. He was skinny, and his jeans and shorts often landed right around his hipbones. I just figured, like everything else about him, this was another way Charlie could be sloppy. But now it was different. This was not the same as greasy hair or ripped-up flannel shirts. My mental list looked like this:

  Every day in the cafeteria while we ate lunch, when he leaned forward.

  Every day on the bus, when he leaned forward.

  When we built the tree
house and the deck (at least two hundred times as he ascended and descended that ladder). Especially the time I asked him as a joke if he was going to be a plumber. He was so mad!

  When he leaned forward for handfuls of chips on the glide-o-lounger at Sherry Heller’s New Year’s Eve party.

  The time we went canoeing on the lake.

  The time at Santo’s Pizza after Dad dropped us off. Charlie leaned over the table to snatch my purse to get the dumb picture of him from fourth grade that was in my wallet.

  Every time we sat on the big rocks at the end of the blue trail to scrape the dog crap off our shoes.

  The time he got that buck behind our houses and dragged me out of bed to see it lying there, dead. I remember thinking, Who forgets to put on underwear when it’s twenty degrees outside?

  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Charlie had been without underwear a lot over the last few years. I tried to remember when he was missing his socks, too, but then the thought of the pervert in the white Chrysler popped into my head. Surely he hadn’t been doing this since we were eleven. Had he? Everything rushed back. The night in the tree house when he disappeared. The times I heard a car turning around in the gravel at night. The times Charlie had new things—not just cigarettes. The Zippo. The pair of fake Ray-Ban sunglasses. The turquoise and silver ring he wore. Only the week before, the new MP3 player. Not an iPod, but close enough. Could dirty underwear really buy a new MP3 player?

  When I saw him at lunch that day, I had a bunch of questions.

  “So—you just give him your underwear?” I asked.

  Charlie laughed and laughed. “Yeah.”

  “And what does he do with it?”

  “I dunno. I just give it to him. I don’t really care what he does with it.”

  He was embarrassed and wouldn’t look me in the eye, but he was laughing, too. He really thought this was funny.

  “What about the night you left me in the tree house?”

  “What about it?”

  “You were gone for hours,” I said.

  He laughed. “John and I just sat around and smoked and talked about the world,” he said.

 
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