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Still life with tornado, p.9
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.9

           A. S. King
 
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  The note said, “I’m sorry.”

  It wasn’t me who’d done anything wrong, but I was still sorry. Just like the art club. Just like everything in my life. Things happen that aren’t my fault and I say I’m sorry.

  “I don’t want to talk about Mexico anymore,” I say.

  MEXICO—Day Three: Mango Tango

  Bruce and I decided that after our kayaking adventure the day before, we wanted to do something indoors for the morning so Mom and Dad headed out to the beach and we went to play Ping-Pong, and we all agreed to meet up for lunch at one. Bruce beat me every other game. I was ten. He was nineteen. There was a clear advantage, but he let me win half the time because that way I’d want to keep playing.

  We stayed out of the sun, out of the grungy water, and away from Mom and Dad, who kept talking about the resort like it was some sort of heaven even though the day before it was all about selfish bastards. The difference: Dad reserved chairs under an umbrella at six in the morning with two magazines and a rock. He said, “When in Rome.” I didn’t know what that meant.

  We met for lunch and Dad was clearly drunk. Mom said after lunch we had to come down to the beach and have some fun. “We didn’t come all this way for you not to swim in the Caribbean!”

  So after lunch Bruce and I went for a swim, me in my one-piece bathing suit and him in his oversize surfer trunks, which looked even bigger on his lanky frame. There were no other kids on the beach. They were all in the crystal clear pool surrounded by drunk adults in bikinis. We trudged through the seaweed toilet water, and I didn’t mind it as much as I did the day before. I even took a few blobs of it and put it on my head. Bruce followed. We crowned ourselves prince and princess of the seaweed. I felt tiny fish brush past my legs but I still couldn’t see anything. I tried not to look down. I floated awhile in the water and asked the sea god to please get rid of the seaweed. I asked him to make the people at the resort stop being selfish bastards. I asked him to make me a famous artist.

  Bruce and I played a game of catch where the water came up to my chest and it came up to his waist. I always tried to throw the little Nerf ball hard and high so he’d have to jump for it. Each time he jumped, his trunks ended up a little lower on his hips.

  I thought this was funny, but Bruce didn’t, so he stopped playing catch.

  Under the thatched umbrella, I asked Bruce why he got so mad at me for throwing the ball high.

  “I don’t want my junk out for everyone to see,” he said.

  “Junk?”

  “You know—my penis?”

  Mom disallowed weird names for body parts. I knew what an uvula was by the time I was four. And a patella. And a sternum. And a penis. I didn’t know what Bruce was learning at college, but junk was a step backward if you ask me.

  Bruce ordered himself a beer. He was nineteen and in Mexico you can drink beer at nineteen. When the beer came, he drank it like he was drinking Windex.

  “Why’d you order that if you don’t like it?”

  “I don’t know,” he said.

  When Martín the bar waiter came back around, Bruce ordered a Mango Tango—the drink of the day. When it came, he drank it down like it was lemonade. He let me try a sip and it was good. But he wouldn’t let me have more than a sip. I went out to where the tide was coming in and I drew a few pictures in the sand with my finger. First, it was a fish. The water washed it away. Then, I drew my feet. The water washed it away. Then, I drew a pelican. It was a really great pelican and I wanted Mom or Dad to see it but they were still under the umbrella drinking Mango Tangos and the water came and washed the pelican away.

  None of this is original, but when I was ten-year-old Sarah, I didn’t care about things being original. I just wanted to have fun on the beach and with my brother. I’d missed Bruce during his first year in college. Even though he was nine years older than I was, we were a good match. We both knew the right name for body parts (even if he’d stopped using them). We both still cleaned our rooms on Saturday mornings like we’d been trained to. We both still made grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the same way and, even though he was so much bigger than I was, we had the same walk, the same logic, and the same curiosity about things.

  The one thing that was different was how we saw Mom and Dad.

  He told me, in Mexico—on night three when we went to the buffet restaurant together while Mom and Dad had a reservation at the hibachi at the Japanese place in the resort—“I think Mom and Dad are finally getting a divorce.”

  I said, “They are not.”

  I remember looking at him like he was breaking my heart. And I remember him looking at me like he knew he’d just broken my heart.

  He said, “I thought you knew.”

  “They’re normal.”

  “So? Normal people get divorced all the time,” he said.

  “They don’t even fight.”

  “They fight all the time,” he said. “And they don’t even sleep in the same bed.”

  “This is bullshit,” I said.

  “I’m sorry.”

  “They’re not getting a divorce,” I said.

  “They’re only together because of us,” he said. “That’s the only reason they’re not divorced yet. Because of you. They’re waiting until you go to college.”

  “Bullshit,” I said, stuffing tortilla chips into my mouth.

  Bruce didn’t say much after that.

  • • •

  There was a magic show that night in the theater and we all went. It was the cheesiest thing I ever saw. The hostess of the preshow spoke in Spanish and occasionally translated so the audience knew what she was saying. The music was loud and the preshow was just this woman in her high heels and crazy outfit asking members of the audience to play a game. After the game, the magician came on in a puff of smoke and fancy multicolored lighting. His jacket had wide sleeves and he kept straightening his shirt collar, over and over again.

  I was ten and I knew each tug at his collar was another trick he was setting up. Each tug resulted in a dove. See this empty hat? Look! A dove! Tug. See this empty box? Look! A dove! Tug. See this ball of scarves I just pulled out of my arm? See how there’s nothing here but colorful scarves? See how I crumble them all in a ball? Tug. Look! A dove! Between doves, there were the usual tricks and the usual sequin-adorned female assistants. Audience participation resulted in a surprised woman from Kansas holding an empty box and then suddenly holding a duck. Then, the sword tricks. How many times can you put a woman in a box and slide swords through the box and then reveal the woman as unharmed and still call yourself a magician? The doves were cool, though. And the duck. The duck was cool.

  Dad and Mom ordered drink after drink. Dad complained they were watered down. Mom said, “Just order two next time.” They acted surprised at every dove. They applauded when they were supposed to. They seemed like good parents. They didn’t seem like they were getting a divorce.

  I didn’t know why Bruce was bullshitting me about that. But every time I thought about it, I got this feeling like a burr right at the top of my sternum.

  On the walk back to our rooms, Bruce, Mom, and Dad whispered. I walked ahead trying to find wild animals on the path. They said there was a howler monkey that lived here, but I’d never seen it. Only heard it. It’s a horrible sound—less like a howl and more like a roar.

  Once I got my pajamas on and brushed my teeth and got into bed, Bruce finally talked to me again.

  “I’m taking you somewhere tomorrow,” Bruce said. “It’s a surprise.”

  “Where?”

  “Just rest up. You’ll need your sleep.”

  I daydreamed that he was taking me scuba diving or snorkeling—or to a beach where I could see my feet in the water the way Mom had explained the Caribbean to me before we left Philadelphia. I fell asleep dreaming of seeing real fish in real Caribbean water that didn’
t look like a sewer.

  Day Three: over. Day Three: junk, magic, and bullshit.

  Pop Quiz

  When Alleged Earl gets up and out of his alcove, he stretches and leaves his art supply box in the corner. He walks west and I follow him. He walks north and I follow him. On the corner of 18th and Market he stops and points at the sky and yells, “You’re all going to die one day, you know! You’re all wasting your time!” I note he is pointing in the direction of the skyscraper where Dad works.

  Some guy walks by and says, “Oh, shut up.” Alleged Earl says, “I’d kill you with a ripe peach and two green apples.” The guy says, as he waits to cross the street, “You’d kill me with how bad you smell. Take pride in yourself, man. Get some fucking help.” Before Alleged Earl has time to answer, the guy crosses the street and Earl takes an imaginary ripe peach and two imaginary green apples and throws them at the guy’s back. He mutters, “Asshole,” and continues west on Market.

  His pace is faster than usual. Still slow, but not snail-slow. It makes me wonder why Alleged Earl walks so slowly every other day. Sometimes I don’t even think he’s really crazy. When he threw that imaginary fruit at the guy a minute before, he didn’t really seem crazy-crazy. More like eccentric or bored with how everyone else acts. We have this in common. I couldn’t be more bored with how everyone else acts.

  Eventually, we cross the bridge and I see he’s going to the train station. I can’t imagine what business he has there, but I follow Alleged Earl to the train station.

  Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station has Corinthian columns. It has a portico. Architecture like this doesn’t seem to belong here in the middle of the ugly tracks and graffiti on the concrete barriers between the tracks and the world. Homeless people don’t belong here, either, so 30th Street Station is off-limits to Alleged Earl unless he has a ticket and he doesn’t appear to have a ticket. He just looks inside and looks up and then smells the air as if there’s something different in it here, over the bridge from Center City.

  University City is not our turf. He is a homeless artist man. I am a high school near-dropout. He shuffles south to Chestnut Street and I walk at the same rhythm about twenty feet behind him. I wonder if he thinks I’m some crazy girl who has no purpose in life. I wonder if he’s right. He stops on the corner of 32nd and Chestnut and pulls a piece of sidewalk chalk out of his coat pocket. He sits down on the sidewalk—right in the middle, blocking people’s way to work or way to class—and he draws a chicken in one line without looking at the concrete canvas. It’s like a blind chicken drawing except that there is no real chicken. He’s drawing the chicken from memory in bright blue chalk. It’s abstract, but I can tell it’s a chicken so it’s not abstract. He finishes with a rooster’s comb on top. He makes it look like a headdress—as if the chicken’s head is pouring out of itself. He takes a piece of cloth—an old T-shirt or a towel or something—out of another pocket and he spits at the chicken drawing and rubs his spit into the headdress and the feet, which look gnarly and rigid. He spits until his spit runs out and then he gets up and dances on the chicken. Moves his feet back and forth like the jitterbug. Waltzes around the chicken. He says, “Not today!” and continues up Chestnut. I stop and take a picture of the chicken drawing with my phone. I see brown-red in spots—the spots where he spat. I wonder if Alleged Earl is spitting blood. I wonder when he last saw a dentist or a doctor.

  We get to 37th Street. He walks into a building marked INTERNATIONAL HOUSE. I stay outside because I don’t know what International House is and don’t want to be kicked out of a place I don’t know about.

  I go to the Wawa across the street and buy a bottle of water. I can’t imagine how hot I’d be if I was covered in a bunch of blankets and coats. I buy a second bottle of water for Alleged Earl because maybe he’ll need it. I sit in the shade under the awning of the Wawa and drink my water. Five minutes later, the manager comes out and says, “Move your business elsewhere.”

  Who talks like that? Move your business elsewhere.

  Then I see Alleged Earl and a young man come out of International House together. The young man looks sharp. That’s something Mom would say. Sharp. He’s dressed just right in preppy University City student clothes. His hair is light brown and he’s shaved and he’s got the right haircut. He’s smiling and Alleged Earl is talking to him and only now do I realize that Alleged Earl can laugh or even be nice. He’s never said a word to people who give him money. Not a thank you or a much obliged. He throws imaginary fruit and spits. But here he is, smiling. Throwing his head back in laughter. He puts his blanket-wrapped arm around the young man and they walk back toward Center City. I didn’t know anyone could be close to Earl—or that he’d ever let anyone in. Now that I see him walking and laughing and being close with this preppy guy, we have even less in common than we did a minute ago. Or, I’m more of a fraud than I thought I was. Or something.

  They walk into a small café and I follow them. I buy a blueberry muffin and sit down at a table on the opposite side of the café. The muffin is dry so I open the bottle of water I bought for Alleged Earl.

  I’m halfway into my muffin when I see the young man approaching. I expect to feel some sort of emotion—fear, excitement, anything—but I don’t feel anything because I decide he must be walking toward someone else until he says, “Can I sit down?”

  “Sure. I guess.”

  “My dad says you’ve been following him around.”

  “He’s your dad?” I ask.

  He nods.

  Here is the son of an original idea. I have no idea what to say to him.

  “He doesn’t want my help, if that’s what you’re about to say.”

  “I wasn’t going to say that.”

  “He wants you to stop following him.”

  “He’s an original idea,” I say. “I really admire him.”

  He doesn’t smile. “Stop following him.”

  “I don’t know,” I say, which makes him pause. It makes me pause, too, because I want to talk to Alleged Earl. It’s all I’ve wanted to do for days but I never do it and he’s sitting in a café with me and his son is talking to me and he can answer so many of my questions right here and right now and—

  I get up and leave the café. Maybe that’s the most original thing I can do. Girl finally gets a chance to meet her idol but just gets up and walks away. Seems original enough. I try to think, as I walk back over the bridge to Center City, what next original thing I’m going to do.

  I wish I could levitate.

  I wish I could be Spain or Macedonia.

  I wish I had a piece of sidewalk chalk in my pocket so I could draw a chicken on the corner of 17th and Spruce.

  I catch a bus. I catch another bus.

  I walk into my new school and I go to my seventh-period class, which I’m failing because I haven’t been here in two weeks. As I sit in a broken three-legged chair and listen to my teacher talk about American politics, I can’t help but see how unoriginal she is. She’s taught the class for at least ten years. She needlepoints while we fill in worksheets or tests. Behind her is graffiti in six-foot-high multicolored letters. HEED. That’s what it says. HEED. A cockroach skitters across the dusty floor and into a pile of broken plasterboard.

  When the teacher gives us a pop quiz on the week’s work, I realize that I could be back in the café talking to Alleged Earl. I could be finding out if his name is really Earl. I could be discovering what college his son goes to. I could be hearing stories about art or form or color or what makes an original idea.

  I take the quiz paper and I write this on it:

  I have to stop following Alleged Earl. He’s original, but following him isn’t original. Tomorrow I will try something new. I don’t know what yet. I hate this class. I’m going to get up and leave now.

  I fold the paper and put it in my pocket. The teacher says, “Oh, hey, Sarah. I . . .”

 
; That’s all I hear. I’m down the hall before anyone can stop me. More graffiti. More piles of rotting plasterboard. The stairwell door windows are smashed into a million tiny pieces of safety glass, no longer safe. They glow green and blue and look like gems. I scoop up a handful of them and put them in my pocket. I don’t notice that my hand is bleeding until I’m outside. On the street, some kids yell something at me but I don’t hear them. I just see their mouths moving and their hands pointing. They’re laughing at me.

  I wish I had my umbrella. There is so much bullshit.

  HELEN TAKES SHIT SHE DOESN’T DESERVE

  Three times a month I have to go to meetings. Floor meetings, ER meetings, and charge nurse meetings. Because most people don’t work the night shift, these meetings are scheduled at the stupidest times. Usually ten in the morning. So I work a seven-to-seven and then have to stay awake another three hours before the meeting starts and then I have to sit there while the day nurses in Snoopy scrubs eat doughnuts and talk about their kids and shit. Sometimes I put my head on the table and slowly bang it. Sometimes I say, “Has anyone else here been up since four yesterday afternoon?” Sometimes I fall asleep. Sometimes I just walk out.

  Luckily, I’m liked. I do my job. My boss has asked me why I behave like this in meetings and I tell her that maybe next time the meeting should be scheduled for three a.m. I mean, at least once a month that would make it fair.

  She always says, “Three in the morning? I sleep at night!”

  I’ve been doing this for too long not to know that nobody appreciates the night shift. Unless you personally have some shit go down at night, people could care less about the fact that some of us have to do this.

  • • •

  Chet and I have monthly meetings. We schedule them. We tried marriage counseling once. He lasted three appointments. Two and a half, really. He walked out in the middle of appointment number three because the therapist said he had anger issues, had to face those anger issues, and had to stop giving me shit I didn’t deserve.

 
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