Literary Orphans

Where A Kid Can Be A Kid
by Anthony Santulli


Jasper T. Jowls—the doggondest banjo-strummin’, country-singin’ hound around—and the rest of the Pizza Time Players lift their heads like someone just woke them from a long, deep sleep. Jasper wears a cowboy hat with denim overalls and plays a guitar made of cheese. He starts flirting with Helen Henny in a southern accent; I’m old enough now to get his innuendos. A waitress in a red polo brings a fresh pitcher of Hawaiian Punch and I give her a slight nod.
Last time I was here, my sister Meredith put a bandage and some hairs in my younger cousin’s birthday cake and threatened to call the police. Then the manager started with the pleases and I’ll lose my jobs and he told us right then and there with his crooked tie and greasy slicked back city boy hair almost crying that we could eat on the house for a year if she just don’t tell a soul. She never spoke a word of it again and now we’re here eating our cheap pizza and watching people go by.

—Peg, could you pass the parmesan? she asks me.
Meredith and I are in the corner of the dining area by the bathroom, just watching. The only other people here are a group of about twenty kids and adults. Now the big rat himself walks past with his signature buck teeth and stoned eyes saying,
—Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to Chuck E. Cheese’s, the birthday capital of the universe!
We watch the little ones’ eyes ignite like popcorn at the sight of him. A mother pushes her daughter towards Chuck but the birthday girl looks afraid of how he might hug her. The daughter, all dressed up with a little pink bow in her hair and everything, starts to cry and throws her paper birthday hat on the carpet. I watch her mother roll her eyes as if this sort of thing happens a lot but she doesn’t want to fix it.
The color of Chuck’s fur looks dirty under the flat lighting that flickers in certain spots and leaves everything with a thin film of gray. The moms who wear too much mousse in their hair to keep it looking thick and healthy glare at us with a look that says what are you doing here like it was a crime for two girls to grab some bad food on a Tuesday night.

The costumed man, or maybe it’s a woman, lowers its giant paw so the kids can shake it.

—I wonder if it’s hot in that thing, my sister says. She graduated high school two years ago in 1985 but never went to college—she calls this a sabbatical. She’s waiting to discover herself before she goes to school again. She knows too many people go to school with no idea what they want to do in life and how that’s a waste of money. Somehow, she still gained the freshman 15 from smoking so much and pigging out at cheap dives like this every weekend. Some nights she gets dropped off in that tan Chevy C/K pickup and says to me, in that piss drunk kind of way, that she’s sorry but never tells me what for or why it is she can’t look me in the eye when she says it.
By now, the whole animatronic band is playing and singing but their choppy movements don’t match the music well. A group of sweaty kids sits Indian style in front of the stage while the mothers all stir their Diet Cokes around and around, talking about politics or maybe getting a job just to get out of the house again now that the kids are at school. I can’t help but wonder if this will be me someday. One of the fat kids runs by my chair and I feel the small sweep of wind that trails his stride hit me a few seconds later like a thunderclap.
The show is in full swing. Pasqually tells the band he doesn’t want to make pizzas anymore and ends most of his words with an “a” like a true Italian. His mustache wiggles when he talks but suddenly gets stuck at a tilt. The kids don’t seem to mind. Most of them are barefoot now, swimming around the ballpit or looking out through the plastic bubble at the top of the slide that gives you a view of the whole restaurant. I can hear the laughter of a brother and sister riding one of those coin operated space shuttles that rocks back and forth and I smile at them when they catch me looking. A couple of boys cheat at skee-ball by climbing up the ramp and dropping the balls into the holes until one of their mothers comes and claws them away.
The mothers are all leaning in close now. They whisper like it matters if I hear them talk about their children, as if when they come back all giggling for another slice of burnt cardboard pizza I’m gonna tell them how their moms all think they’re rotten little brats.
The birthday girl trades in her hard-earned tickets for an inflatable guitar from the prize wall. With the leftover tickets, she buys some of the smaller prizes—whoopee cushions, some pencils, Chinese finger traps, and those glow in the dark vampire teeth—that they keep behind a glass counter like watches at a department store. ­­­
Meredith and I are talking about dad when she asks me,

—So how’s Leo?

She says it fast like sowsleo?
When I don’t respond, my sister starts to interrogate, asking me did he hurt you and saying I knew he was a bastard when he first kissed the back of my hand with that devilish charm of his that’s just too damn good to be true, and I knew it, too, I swear to God I’ll kill him just give me a reason and I will. The whole time I’m just looking down at my counterfeit Coach purse and wondering why I felt so weak, like a burnt piece of toast that crumbles at the slightest touch. I try to tell her that he didn’t hit me, but my lips start to quake at the thought of telling her the whole truth. I reach into my bag and pull out the box under the table’s plastic skirt, my hands so sweaty and nervous that my grip puts a dent right in the side of it. I put the box on the table and my sister grabs it so quickly like Mr. Munch with his razor sharp teeth was going to come off stage mid song and try to give me my daily dose of sex-ed if he saw it on the table.
—Why do you have this? my sister whispers with her head leaned forward like if anyone hears they’ll start with those pitying, sorry stares that I’m so afraid of. Damn vultures. Now that it’s out in the open, I’m not so afraid until I spot the gray hairs and bald spot on the birthday girl’s mother. I think to myself that she can’t be that old with a daughter so young and then I remember what a kid does to your body and that brings me back to Earth for a moment.
—I’m late, I answer. My eyes probably look like those Styrofoam balls ma uses to make Christmas ornaments as they drop into my lap in shame. My sister makes a face like she’s in shock but I can see the contempt in her brows, maybe even a hint of jealousy behind those coffee eyes sans-pupils. She wears her chestnut hair short and curly like a sorority girl.
—I don’t know where you get that blonde hair from, Peg, she used to tell me. She asks me what the test’s gonna prove­­ and you’re keeping that baby, I won’t let you kill it.
—I need to know for sure, I tell her. Then she goes off in that false undergraduate way of hers like she knows better but really she doesn’t because I have a future and I don’t need her telling me about love in a children’s restaurant.
—How did this happen? she asks. I want to tell her that we were in his car just petting when all of a sudden he touched me and I flinched backward saying not yet and that’s when he pinned me down and did something I can’t quite say. And that’s why I’m here holding this box I bought from the pharmacy where the cashier saw what I had and didn’t ask me how my day was. Maybe she’ll understand if I lie and tell her I was raped, if I say that I bought it with my own money.
All of a sudden a scream comes from the slide because some kid went head first and banged his head on the purple padding at the bottom. One of the employees attending the Pacman kiosk, a stocky redhead with a flat face like it was a piece of clay thumbed in, stops chatting and twirling her hair long enough to call for help. The boy’s mother comes and picks him up and cradles him but it looks like a struggle; the kid is much too big for this now and the mother too old.
It’s dark out and I can barely see my white Bonneville parked outside the Windex streaked windows. I can’t take the test at home because ma will find out with that instinct of hers that always catches me when I’m doing something wrong like slipping brandy into my coffee or not keeping up with school. My sister’s still going like a broken record about didn’t you hear what President Reagan said about abstinence and how you can’t defile your body like that it’s a sin and what’s worse you could have gotten AIDS and died, just gone to bed one day and never woke up.
Finally I speak. I tell her about how I thought I used protection but I didn’t know what that was like really because the lady at school only showed us diagrams of what I should look like on the inside but now I know that my insides are different from the other girls and how they’re distended because there’s something in there that doesn’t belong and it’s growing all the time.
—I’ve got to take this now, I tell her.
I make sure to push my chair in and I walk towards the bathroom with the test in my hand. I wait for the girl in the stall to leave before I go in and start. My sister follows and stands in front of the mirror, picking at her forehead for any pimples and pulling out her makeup case like she cares what a child might think of her naked complexion. Chuck E. Cheese and the rest of the band start to sing a hooting, hollering, foot stomping song about being a country boy at heart but I can’t make out the muffled music from where I am.
The box says it should take around an hour to work so I sit on the toilet with a bladder full of fruit punch and get it over with. The whole time I’m sitting there looking at my pale chicken legs thinking to myself how many other girls done this right here in the middle of a bathroom at a Chuck E. Cheese’s and starting to get anxious like someone was going to come in and take my baby away from me.
I put the stick back in the box and hide it at the bottom of my bag. Relief starts to hit me like it doesn’t matter if the screen shows two lines or one and I feel honest to God happy again. I even get some tokens to play a game of pinball like I used to with Noah back when he was younger and I can only think of how ridiculous I look, a seventeen year old Georgia peach in a place like this with her twenty year old sister. I’m not as good at the game as I remember so I sit back down and just watch the people go by at different angles like I was at a drive-in movie.
Their prizes won and tokens spent, the birthday party is back at their tables again to open presents and blow out candles with their tiny breath. I remember how Jeanine got pregnant back when I was a freshman and suddenly I don’t feel so lonely like I have someone who can understand what I’m going through.
The birthday girl rips the wrapping paper off her first present and her mother reminds her that she needs to read the card and say thank you before she opens it so she stumbles over the words she doesn’t understand and mutters a thank you to the Lehman’s for her new jigsaw puzzle. This goes on for a while until the cake is served and I feel like I’ve spectated long enough that I deserve a piece, too.
An hour finally passes and I see as clear as day what the test tells me and I breathe a sigh of relief that I won’t have to worry about getting married to Leo so soon. My sister tells me it’s normal for a woman to be irregular sometimes and I believe the sincerity in her voice for once. She runs her knuckles along my bangs like she’s feeling for a fever.

—You need to be careful next time, she says and I nod, saying to her in that droning kind of voice that I know I know.
We pay our bill and leave the waitress a good tip to celebrate. All the robots go back to sleep for the night and as I walk out of the restaurant I can see the mother of the birthday girl, her eyes still rolling, dragging her screaming kid across the floor without a word like she doesn’t want the other mothers to see, like she has it all under control. But I see the look of fear in the child’s eyes when the mother wags a turgid finger in her face and tells her to hush up and I can’t help but want to take this little girl home with me and show her how to play with all her new toys and how to say no when you don’t want to better than her real mother ever could, but once again I fail to act and I leave.
The next morning, I throw up from what I think is too much pizza grease and remember ma telling me how she used to squat in front of the same toilet when she was pregnant with me. She would laugh and pantomime how she vomited from the darkest depths of her belly for hours. And for a second, I imagine that she was trying to purge herself of me on those fertile summer mornings, like if she kept at it eventually she’d look down and see me and everything I might become one day floating all flesh and bones in the water.

–Story by Anthony Santulli
[note from the Ed. Anthony Santulli is the first recpient of our “Featured Teen Writer” submission. It is especially designed for teen writers, to try help give exposure to their work. We’re so glad Anthony submitted, and his work makes a great addition to LO’s catalog.]Buy Kicks | Jordan