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       Reality Boy, p.9

           A. S. King
 
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  “You’re just a kid, too,” I say.

  “Yeah, but I’m a circus kid. It’s different. I don’t have any $%#*ing choice, dude.” He looks into my eyes. “Fuck this shit, remember?”

  Register #1 Girl is getting edgy. I can tell because she’s frowning at Joe Jr.

  “I don’t have a choice, either, man. If I stay here, I’ll end up in jail. And I don’t want to work counting $%#*ing hot dogs my whole life.”

  Joe Jr. sighs. Register #1 Girl is still frowning at him. “Look,” he says. “You go to school, right? You have a girl. You have a house. You have a job. You even have this $%#*ing awesome car.”

  “It is awesome,” I say.

  “What does that have to do with shit?” Register #1 Girl says. “If Gerald wants to work for the circus, who the $%#* are you to say he can’t?”

  Joe Jr. ignores her. He looks at me in the rearview mirror. “Don’t make me tell my dad that you’re not eighteen. I don’t want to bust on you like that.”

  In my head, there is a series of explosions—like Joe Jr. and I just blew up all the circus buses and the trucks and my house and the school and the whole $%#*ing PEC Center. But really, it’s not an explosion. It’s an implosion.

  Because he’s right. About everything.

  And why hasn’t Register #1 Girl told him that she’s not my girlfriend? What’s her deal? And why am I so especially pissed off about Tasha today, anyway? Hasn’t she been calling me gay since before I ever knew what gay meant? Hasn’t she been drowning me in plain view since I was born?

  27

  EPISODE 2, SCENES 7–15

  CAMERA NUMBER ONE was on Nanny. “I think we should have one day that’s all for Gerald. He gets his favorite foods, plays his favorite games, and can do whatever he wants so long as his behay-vyah is good.”

  Camera number two panned to Mom and Dad. They nodded.

  Camera number three was set for a wide shot of all of them at the kitchen table. “I think his ‘outbursts’ are his way of trying to get your attention and because you’re working so much, Doug, and you’re his male role model, he needs to spend more time with you. Not a lot. Just a bit of boy time, you know?”

  Camera number two focused on Dad trying not to look pissed off. During this time, Nanny fluffed her hair in a mirror she’d propped against the wall. She took it to all her scenes with her. She had somehow become bonier since the last time she was here, so her cheekbones were jutting more than usual.

  Camera number one again. “And Jill, sometimes you’re so busy telling him to hush up you forget to listen to him. I think he feels that. I think he feels like he’s in the way. I think he may even feel like you don’t want him around. You spend so much time with Tasha that the others feel like you don’t want them,” she said. “We need to have a better attitude.”

  Mom looked stunned that this had been said aloud. Stunned. She excused herself from the table and went to the bathroom for five minutes.

  After a short coffee break, Nanny clapped her hands and clasped them together. Then she got on one knee—which she often did to talk to me—and said, “Well. Today is your day, Gerald. What would you like for breakfast?” Camera one came in close.

  I asked for waffles and Mom fixed me waffles. I asked for more maple syrup and Mom gave me more maple syrup. Mom asked me what I wanted in my lunch for all-day kindergarten and I said I wanted a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich, potato chips, and Jell-O.

  “We don’t have any Jell-O,” Mom said. “But I have pudding. Will that do?”

  “Yes, please,” I said.

  Such acceptable behay-vyah. I could tell that Nanny, on the sidelines, was pleased. She kept winking at me the way Real Nanny used to. Camera number two caught my smile, I think. They wanted as many angles of me smiling as they could get during episode two.

  I ate all my waffles and I asked for more, and Mom gave me more even though it was against her nature. When I was done, I was allowed to go to my room, not make my bed if I didn’t want to, and get dressed in whatever I wanted to wear. I made my bed anyway, and I wore my favorite camouflage pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt under a cool short-sleeved T-shirt of two T. rexes with boxing gloves on.

  Mom hated those pants. She grimaced when she saw I was wearing them, but that was the point. I showed her my perfectly brushed teeth and my unsticky, lemon-fresh washed hands. She acted impressed, but by then she was too busy doing a homework sheet for Tasha to really care.

  Nanny stepped in, motioning for a camera to follow her. “Jill? What are you doing?”

  “Tasha forgot to do her homework last night,” Mom said.

  “Yes,” Nanny said. “But what does that have to do with you?”

  Mom looked at her and scowled.

  Nanny sat at the table, gently reached over for the paper, and pulled it toward herself. Then she slid it across the table to where Tasha usually sat, and left it there.

  “What are you doing?” Mom asked.

  “I’m making Tasha do her own home-wehk,” Nanny said. “That’s how we do things now, yeah?”

  Mom looked mad. “She just forgot, that’s all.”

  “Do you know what my mum used to call it when I’d forget to do my lessons?”

  Mom didn’t answer.

  “She’d call it hard knocks,” Nanny said. She knocked on the table two times. “Hard knocks for me at school that day, right? Because it’s my job to get my own work done, isn’t it, Jill?”

  “I don’t do it all the time. Besides, you don’t understand. This is America, not England. It reflects on me,” Mom said.

  “I undah-stand completely,” Nanny answered. “And it only reflects on you because you let it. We’ll talk about it lay-tah.”

  My school day was good. I came home to spaghetti and meatballs. I could smell it from the minute I opened the door, and I felt like something had changed.

  I was so happy about my dinner, I ignored Tasha humping the couch arm while I watched an after-school cartoon. I was so happy about my dinner, I ignored how she shoved me in the upstairs hallway for no reason. As the garlic bread went into the oven, I was so extra-happy, I stuck close to Mom and the kitchen so Tasha couldn’t do anything crazy to me. Dad came home. We went out and played ball because he asked me what I wanted to do and that’s what I wanted to do. The cameras ate it up.

  And as we all sat down to eat dinner, I almost cried about how great this was. The happiest day of my life. The spaghetti was perfect. The meatballs were fried just right. The garlic bread was crunchy.

  Cameras one and two caught the whole dinner from every angle. Then they caught Dad tiptoeing over to the counter and grabbing a box of something called fresh cannoli and bringing the box to me for first pick.

  “What’s a cannoli?” I asked.

  “Try it,” Dad said. “I bet you’ll love it.”

  A fresh cannoli was one of the nicest things I’d ever eaten. It was almost better than ice cream.

  Nanny came in at the end of my day and gave me a big, bony hug.

  “You had a fantastic day, didn’t you, Gerald?”

  I nodded because I wanted to nod.

  “What was your favorite part?” she asked.

  I pretended to think about it awhile, but I knew the answer already. “Playing ball with Dad. And the dessert Dad brought home.”

  Nanny looked at Dad and smiled. From the way she flipped her hair, it almost seemed like she was flirting with him. “Isn’t that the best feeling in the whole world?”

  Dad nodded, even though he could see from Mom’s face that she wasn’t feeling very good about my answer. Or about Naughty Nanny’s hair-flipping.

  When I was on my way upstairs for the night—to change into my pajamas and pick two stories—Tasha came bounding down the steps. She pushed me hard and I fell down the stairs backward. When I landed at the bottom of the stairs headfirst, I cried, but not out of pain as much as out of fear. No one came to me but Nanny. The rest of the family just stood in the hall, s
taring. Nanny checked my head and said it wasn’t bleeding. I told her Tasha had pushed me.

  “I caught him trying to take a dump at the top of the landing,” Tasha said.

  None of them believed her. Not even Mom. I could see it. So Tasha started that high-pitched wailing she did, and she latched on to Mom’s side and begged, “Please believe me! Why would I lie? Please believe me!”

  Mom switched sides and muttered something about how I was impossible. The rest of us knew the truth. My pants weren’t even unzipped.

  “Go upstay-yas and get those jams on, Gerald,” Nanny said after inspecting my head again. “Who do you want to read you stories tonight?”

  “Lisi and Daddy,” I said.

  “Very well,” she said. “You and Lisi brush those teeth and do your bathroom business, and Daddy’ll be up in a minute.”

  I nodded, but once I had my pajamas on and Lisi was in the bathroom, I sneaked halfway down the stairs and listened.

  Mom was crying.

  “I’d never push Gerald down the steps on purpose. I love that kid,” Tasha said.

  Nanny had her stern voice on. “I do not believe Gerald was trying to defecate at the top of the stairs, Tasha. He’d just had a brilliant day, and I can’t see why he’d do that. Can you?”

  Tasha answered, “He’s retarded, right? Isn’t that the answer to everything?”

  This was the first time I’d heard it.

  28

  I DON’T THINK life can be boring at Register #1 Girl’s house. Boring to me always spelled middle-class venetian-blind window treatments, perfectly mowed lawns, and white picket fences. Her house is not any of these things.

  As we drive down the quarter-mile driveway, I can feel her cringing. She told me I could drop her at the mailbox, but I wouldn’t do it. She insisted, but I refused. When you take a girl home, you take her to her door and make sure she gets in safely. That’s what you do.

  I’ve never done this before, but I still know that’s what you $%#*ing do.

  But now she’s wincing as we drive through a tunnel of junk that started about ten yards back. Mostly scrapped cars and tractors. Some farm equipment. And then a bunch of stuff I can’t ID in the dark. Cardboard boxes that have been outside so long they’ve melted into each other, plastic children’s toys that used to belong to Register #1 Girl, I’ll bet—a seesaw and a faded-pink pretend car.

  Things are organized, though. It’s not like those hoarder reality TV shows kids talk about at school. It’s—a job site. It’s a business. To my left, there’s a barn and there’s something spelled out on it in hubcaps. There is some sort of order to the cars and how they’re parked and where.

  “What does your dad do?” I ask.

  “Isn’t it obvious? He’s a—a—” she says.

  “He sells scrap metal? And parts?” I try.

  “Yeah. That. Whatever. He’s a freak.”

  We reach the house, which is a modified ranch house with nice flower beds and no junk around the front, and she gets out of the car before I can say anything, so I call her back.

  “Hey!”

  She stops and comes to the driver’s-side door.

  “If I was going to run off to the circus with anyone, I’d pick you,” I say.

  She smiles. “We totally should have done it. Just for something to do.”

  “Maybe next time,” I say.

  “You working the hockey game?” she asks.

  “Yeah.”

  “See you then,” she says. She flops her arm in a halfhearted wave and then goes toward the back-door carport, which is a tunnel of small machinery. A band saw. A lawn mower. As I watch her go through the back door, I realize that I just spent the evening with the girl of my dreams. It’s like having a winning lottery ticket in my hand and having to climb $%#*ing Mount Everest to pick up the prize.

  But I have the ticket.

  I have the ticket.

  Except seriously, Crapper. There is no way in hell you’re ever winning that lottery.

  At the end of the driveway, I pull out my phone. Another message from Dad. I don’t want to call the police. Mom’s worried. Let us know you’re okay. And a text from Joe Jr. You have no idea how good you have it, Gerald.

  As I drive back to the house, I think about this. About how lucky I have it. Sure, Joe Jr. doesn’t know I’m the Crapper, so he thinks my life is roses and rainbows. He doesn’t know about the infestation in my basement or the fact that I will never get anywhere if the starting line is SPED class, where I don’t even belong.

  My phone buzzes. And your girl is cute.

  Somehow this fact—that he thinks she’s my girl and that she’s cute—makes it okay to go home and face the planking gerbils.

  Is this all it would have taken for me not to have been the world’s biggest asshole for the last four years? A girl? I don’t know. I don’t think Register #1 Girl is just any girl. She smells nice. She’s beautiful because she doesn’t try to be beautiful. She has that little book. She is at one with the fish in the tanks—like me. We are both looking out into a distorted world and we are stuck, maybe. Stuck between feeling safe in the tank and feeling confined.

  And she likes me, no matter how impossible that may seem.

  Roger would say I’m just thinking about myself again.

  Somehow, tonight, I don’t think there’s anything so wrong with that.

  Maybe sometimes it’s okay to think about myself.

  29

  DAD IS WAITING for me in the living room with the light on. It’s 1:50 by the time I walk in the door because I took the long way home from Register #1 Girl’s house. Dad is probably drunk.

  “I thought you weren’t coming home,” he says.

  “I wasn’t.”

  “Shit. I was all ready to rent out your room, too,” he says. Definitely drunk. “Can I fix you one?” He holds up his glass.

  “Nah,” I say. “I’m beat. Long night.”

  “Hockey game?”

  “Circus, remember?” I say.

  “Ah yes! The circus. No animals, I hope. Nothing sadder than poor circus animals, as your mother would say.” Wasn’t she the one in charge of making our whole family circus animals? I want to ask that, but I don’t.

  “No animals,” I say.

  He shuffles the ice in his empty glass around and then sighs. “Shit, Ger. What do I say to you?”

  “Don’t know, Dad. I don’t know.”

  “I can’t kick Tasha out,” he says. “But I don’t want her living here, either.”

  “Why can’t you kick her out?”

  He sighs again.

  “If she stays, I can’t stay,” I say.

  He laughs. “You know, I saw that place today—the one with the pool and the decks? It’d make a perfect bachelor pad for us.”

  I stare at him. What the hell is he talking about now? Leaving Mom? Us moving out? Just drunk banter? “Are you serious?” I ask.

  “About which part?”

  “All of it. Any of it,” I say.

  “I don’t know, kid,” he says. “Lisi is gone. You’re about to go. The only reasons I stayed. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Tasha and she’s my firstborn daughter and all, but she fucked up my marriage, man. I mean—completely fucked up my marriage.” He sits there trying to remember what he was going to say, but he’s so drunk he can’t grasp it.

  “I can’t stay here if she stays here. That’s all I know,” I say.

  “Well, Ger, then we’re in the same creek on the same boat with the same shitty paddle. Because there’s no way your mom will let us sell this place and she’s not going to make Tasha move out.”

  “We could rent,” I say.

  He makes an index-finger cross. “Jesus Christ! I’m a real estate agent! Are you trying to kill me?”

  “Well, can you buy the place with the pool? Can you afford it?”

  He shakes his head.

  “What about with my money from the PEC?”

  “You’re a kid,” he says.<
br />
  “Who cares? I make money.”

  “Can’t do it,” he slurs.

  “Well, unless you want me to run away and never come back, it’s time to have a talk about this with Mom. And maybe Roger… because he agrees that Tasha is a problem.”

  “Who the hell is Roger?”

  “The anger management coach you pay every other week,” I say.

  On cue, the banging in the basement starts. Dad looks at me and I raise my eyebrows. Good luck rowing your way out of this creek with that shitty paddle.

  I look at Dad and I know he’s resigned. He’s almost fifty, I guess. Maybe that’s when you resign. He disappoints me. It’s like he’s willingly staying in jail after he found the key to his cell.

  When I go to bed, I stop thinking about Tasha the trigger rodent. I think about Register #1 Girl and how big her eyes are and how they seem to be saying something to me, but it’s like I don’t speak big-eye language. I look forward to tomorrow’s hockey game, even though it’s Boy Scout Day and the place will be insanely busy.

  And then I think about how close I came to running away tonight with Joe Jr. and the circus. The $%#*ing circus. If I’d done it, I’d be halfway to Philly by now. Wheels ditched. Talking to Register #1 Girl in a bus full of strangers. Ready to set up a circus before tomorrow’s matinee. Ready for a new life, crazy as it might have been.

  But what’s crazy and what’s sane when everything is possible and yet nothing ever happens?

  30

  WHEN I GET into Fletcher’s SPED room on Monday, war paint applied, Deirdre is telling a story about her new heated wheelchair cushion.

  “I didn’t mean to make them mad. It was a nice gift,” she says. “But it makes my ass sweat.”

  Kelly boy and Karen are cracking up. So is Mr. Fletcher. I take my seat and look at Deirdre. She’s got this delicate skin that’s really soft. You can tell just by looking at it. Her head is always cocked a bit to the left and her hair sticks up in spots no matter how much her aide brushes it. She’s smarter than all of us. Maybe even Fletcher. Thing is, her body doesn’t work so great, so she’s here, stuck with us.

 
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