The Convenience Store by liaoqinmei

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									                          CALL ME CRAZY

                                Jennifer Mann
                               Word count: 38,000




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                        1
                                ANOTHER SATURDAY

       “Hurry, hurry!” my mother shouts into the bathroom at my older sister, Jessica,

blow-drying her hair. Jessica doesn‟t hear her, but it‟s not the screechy hum of the blow

dryer that stops my older sister from hearing my mother. Jessica never hears my mother.

Jessica never hears anyone. My mother ignores the fact that Jessica ignores her, and

continues in all of her hovering and directing glory, up and down the hallway, and in and

out of the kitchen, depending on who pops into her line of sight.

       Although our position on the living room couch puts us directly in that line of

sight, my mother has no orders for my baby sister Sarah and me. Sarah is curled up

asleep on my lap. I have her all wrapped up tight in her blanket, which I keep re-tucking

under her after she takes a couple of breaths and it comes loose. The November wind

knocks the chimes around outside the living room window, adding a depressing sound

effect to the morning.

        I take Sarah‟s sound asleep hand in mine. Her fingers are so soft and squeezable.

I‟m tempted to just squeeze and squeeze and squeeze, but I don‟t want to wake her up.

So I just dream about squeezing them as I run my thumb back and forth across the top of

her soft, sweet knuckles. I know they smell sweet even though they‟re nowhere near my

nose, because I have kissed them so often that even if I‟m at school, and Sarah is home

with my mother, I can just think of her tiny hands and smell them.

       Different members of my family rush back and forth in front of me making it feel

like I‟m sitting on a bench in the middle of the mall instead of on the old blue couch in

my living room. I close my eyes and try to block out the day ahead of me, but I know it



Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                2
can‟t be done. I‟ve been here too many times…sitting on this couch at four o‟clock in the

morning on a Saturday with my nerves popping and crackling under the light of this

lamp. This Saturday feels worse somehow, though. But if you‟d asked me last week, I‟d

have told you the same thing. Each Saturday seems more impossible than the last, and

last Saturday I told myself that I‟d reached bottom, and I couldn‟t despise a Saturday

more…but there was more bottom. Maybe there‟s always more bottom to a Saturday

piano competition.

        We‟ve done it a hundred zillion times, this getting ready early in the morning and

driving forever to some out-of-the-way place, and then sitting through hours of piano

competition just so that they can hand the ribbon, trophy, plaque, certificate or whatever

the heck they are awarding that day, always to my sister Jessica. I wish there was a way

we could call ahead and tell the competition judges that we had planned on coming and

could they kindly just mail out whatever “winner‟s object” Jessica was obviously going

to be standing on a stage holding later that day, and save us all this horrific trouble. But

everyone else seems to enjoy this.

        My father is a pretty good piano player himself, and he sits through every single

note of every single competition, tapping his right toe to the music the entire time. And

when the playing gets bad, and let me tell you it can get pretty bad, my father taps that

toe of his a little slower and with a little more force, like he‟s trying hard to help

whatever poor kid is banging away up there.

        I don‟t really know why my mother likes these competitions. She never seems to

listen to any of the playing. I think she just likes all the work it takes to get us there and

back. Not while it‟s happening though, because she never looks too happy during the




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                     3
long drives there or while anyone‟s playing, but every time we get on the road heading

home, after being at one of these competitions forever and a day, she pins this satisfied

look on her face like a giant campaign button that says, “yes, I did the impossible, I

dragged three children, one baby, and a grown man hours away from home, over a bunch

of highways, feeding them carrot sticks and warm thermos water from the front seat,

enabling one to win some sort of award, and am now dragging them all home safely.”

Okay, it‟s a pretty big button, but that is exactly what it says.

        And of course Jessica likes them - she likes any event with a winner, because she

is always that winner.

        My little sister Amanda plays the piano too, and she‟s been dying to get up there

on that stage and play. Today is her first competition. So there will most likely be two

giant trophies taking up space in the van on the way home today.

        I have to admit that even Sarah likes going to these things. I guess because they

mostly happen inside of schools with big gyms that echo and long hallways she can run

down, ending with a slide to her knees, and any three-year-old can‟t help loving these.

        But me, I hate them. It‟s just as simple as that. I absolutely and completely hate

them. And I guess I could tell you why, list all my reasons one by one, but there really

are a lot of them and I don‟t want to waste a bunch of your time.

        This morning is crazier than usual. My mother is running around yelling orders to

no one in particular, and from what I can see from my seat on the couch, no one in

particular is listening to her. Not my father, that‟s for sure. He‟s busy with being busy.

He‟s really good at it, too. And not Amanda, who is trying on every dress she owns, and

a couple that she doesn‟t. And certainly not Jessica, endlessly blow-drying her massive




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 4
amount of hair. I swear, she has the carbon footprint the size of a jet plane, not that she‟d

ever worry about stuff like that.

       Sarah and I, we just sit here on the couch. The orders aren‟t for us. I don‟t need a

dress on because I‟m not in the competition, and my hair pretty much dries natural in the

air. And by the way, I play the piano, too.

       I also play the flute and the tuba. I play the flute because my father thought it

would help me get better on the piano. I think he finally realized that all the tapping of

all the feet in all the world wasn‟t going to help me, and that maybe the soft hollow sound

of a flute would be better than the constant pounding of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed

Reindeer” - page three of the second book in the beginner series that I just for the life of

me, couldn‟t get past. My music teacher did say that I was one of the most earnest flute

players she‟d ever worked with and that getting the flute to the volumes that I was able to

bring it to certainly was amazing, but she recommended I pick up the tuba anyway. She

thought it would temper my flute, whatever that means. Out of all the instruments I have

to sit with each night, piano- flute – tuba, I think that tuba has the coolest name. Tuba. I

don‟t really know if I‟m any good at the tuba. And I don‟t think that the tuba has helped

my flute playing or the flute has helped my piano playing, but I am not allowed to quit

any of them, no matter how many of her nerves my mother says I‟m shattering, because

we do not quit in our family. It‟s a rule.

       My mother made it up. She makes up all the rules. Even though she‟s a pretty

busy person, she somehow fits rule-making in because we have a ton of them. We have

the regular rules like everyone else, “don‟t run on the stairs” and “turn the lights out

when you leave a room,” but we have these unregular rules too, like “one hour of music




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                   5
appreciation each day.” And just in case you‟re wondering, the practicing of three

instruments each night doesn‟t count, only sitting and listening to the classical music on

my father‟s list counts. Then there is the “one hour of television a week” rule, yes a

week, you didn‟t read that wrong, I mean a week. If you want to watch more than that

you have to petition my mother, and there is a form, it‟s called the “Television Petition

Form.” And then there is the biggest rule of them all, “Everyone goes to Saturday

competitions.” And so that means me, Kate, even though I don‟t play well enough to get

into one of these lousy competitions, and even though I have some pretty important plans

sometimes on a Saturday, and even though I would rather have every last eyelash plucked

out one by one than to climb into that van today and head to another Saturday piano

competition. I go.

       It just so happens that on this Saturday, I had wanted to hang out with my friend

Emily and her dad. Emily‟s parents are divorced and her dad takes her on Saturdays.

Sometimes they invite me to come along. We usually go bowling, which I don‟t like.

But Emily‟s dad lets us order anything we want from the snack bar, which I do like. In

my family there is another rule, we eat the whole-wheat sandwiches and mixed nuts and

dried fruit that we bring with us, we never order from snack bars. And for dinner,

Emily‟s dad gets us a pizza and lets us drink Pepsi…you can guess that yes, there is a

soda rule, and I might as well get caught sucking down floor cleaner because that‟s about

the same reaction I get from my mother when she‟s found out I‟ve put a bottle of soda to

my lips. But the best part of spending a Saturday with Emily is that when we get back to

her house from a day of pizza and Pepsi, we flop together on her couch - she has her own

couch - and turn on the television – she has her own television. And I don‟t even think




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 6
about appreciating anything but a big bowl of ice cream and the first dumb show we

bump into.

       “Into the van, into the van everyone,” my mother shouts. No one makes a move

for the door. We know that we have at least two more of these leaving announcements

before we actually have to move.

       Jessica heads for the piano. “Don‟t do it,” I mouth. She sees me, but she doesn‟t

listen. Jessica never listens to anyone. She sits down at the piano and pauses with her

hands hanging over the keys, just to demonstrate how helpless I am. I throw myself over

the top of Sarah with my whole body to protect her from what‟s coming. Jessica drops

her hands to the keys. The force of the music is like a car crash, and Sarah starts crying

before she even opens her eyes.

       Jessica is fifteen, two and a half years older than me. When she was ten and I was

around seven or eight, she‟d chase me around the playroom downstairs, tackle me, pin

me to the ground, and then let a tiny bit of spit hang out of her mouth over my face,

waiting patiently for it to string out slowly, and then drop. Jessica was not one of those

loving big sisters. Nothing has changed since then.

       Jessica pounds away at the keys enjoying every obnoxious note. My mother

hustles through the living room. “Into the van, into the van everyone,” she announces in

her very best “music appreciation” shout, which sounds just like a regular shout but with

her eyebrows raised in apology due to the fact that Jessica is playing. And then she

disappears down the hall again.

       Evolution has given Sarah certain survival skills, one of which is the ability to fall

back to sleep in the middle of one of Jessica‟s musical attacks, although her little eyes are




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 7
squished tightly closed with the effort. I wrap Sarah‟s old blanket that she sleeps with

around her head like a turban to help protect her from all the madness and then grab my

book from off the couch next to me and place it on top of Sarah so I won‟t forget it. I am

reading The Catcher in the Rye – a book about this kid named Holden that gets kicked

out of school for not applying himself. His parents don‟t know yet, and he leaves school

and is kind of running around out in the world alone. I have been reading it since the

beginning of summer. I finished it two times already, and still don‟t feel like I‟m done

yet, so when I reach the end, I just turn to the first page and start over. This happens to

me every once in a while with a book, where the author got done writing before I was

done reading. So I have to start the book over again. Eventually I catch up with them.

       “I don‟t want to wear that dress, I want to wear the pink one,” Amanda whines

from her room. “Daaaad, tell mom that I can wear the pink dress.”

        My mother yells from the opposite end of the house, “You are not wearing a

summer dress, it‟s two weeks before Thanksgiving for goodness sake Amanda, we‟re

late, put on the red dress and let‟s go.”

       “Daaaad,” yells Amanda.

       My father says some muffled thing that somehow means that he isn‟t getting

involved.

       The tempo of Jessica‟s piece speeds up hysterically, and it seems like it is actually

trying to get away from Jessica, this I understand, because I‟m always trying to get away

from her myself.

       “Into the van, into the van everyone,” my mother shouts from the bathroom, her

tone no longer appreciating anything at this point.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  8
       This time I move. I carry Sarah to the door and grab my coat and throw it over

her shoulder, picking hers off the peg. The sound of the piano follows me through the

door, down the front walk, and into the van. I put Sarah, still asleep, in her car seat, hop

in, and slam the van door shut. And then there is quiet.

       “You can all go,” I whisper, my breath fogging the van window, “Go, go,

go…but leave me out of it…out of the stupid program listing your names…out of the

stiff carnation corsage that take forever to be pinned exactly right.…out of the trophy

ceremony, the praise, the applause. Just leave me out!”

       Oh, if only it was Monday.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                   9
                                         ZERO GRAVITY

       It feels like I‟ve been sitting here freezing in this van, waiting for them all to get

the heck out here for like ten decades. Little kids are like human heating pads, so I lean as

close as I can get to Sarah in her bulky car seat. Soaking up her warmth, I can almost

forget that I‟m trapped in this van…trapped in this day. The car door isn‟t locked, but it

might as well be. And I might as well be wearing one of those old fashioned ball and

chains around my leg…only instead of being chained to a heavy metal ball, I‟m shackled

to Jessica!

        The mental picture I get depresses me more than world hunger…Jessica dragging

me around her stupid life, endlessly jabbing me with the pointy end of a trophy, making a

huge deal out of every word I pronounce wrong, reciting my latest quiz and test scores to

anyone who‟ll listen, and asking me stupid history questions that I know I should know,

and that she definitely knows, and that she definitely knows that I don‟t know, in front of

people that I like and wish would like me, and that might like me if Jessica wasn‟t so

good at pointing out what an idiot I am.

       If only I could feed Jessica to the hungry world, I would be able to kill two birds

with one stone.

       I focus out the window to get my mind off Jessica. The moon is still out, but

behind thin clouds, making our backyard look kind of mysterious, as if the tree next to

the driveway with the sandbox under it could somehow be evil and not just the crabapple

with the tire swing hanging from it that I‟ve swung on a million times. Big gusts of wind

bump into the van as if by accident, as if they didn‟t see us sitting here in the driveway.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  10
But they can‟t touch Sarah and me. We may be trapped inside this van, but at least that

keeps us safe from the wind and the evil crabapple.

        The crabapple tree kind of always creeps me out because it once starred in this

nightmare I had right in the middle of Science class.

        Anyway, my science teacher, Mr. Teitsin, was lecturing us about the earth‟s

atmosphere. It was a pretty cruddy day outside, dark and cold. And then all of a sudden I

was in my yard and it was this bright sunny day. I was pushing Sarah on the tire swing,

making her go all crazy, spinning and stuff. Everything was great. And I was having a

much better time than I had been having listening to Mr. Teitsin drone on and on about

the troposphere or thermosphere or some stupid sphere. But then there was this tiny

scraping sound behind me.

        When I turned around, I was shocked to see the orange sand shovel lift slowly off

the ground and begin to float into the air, and then the soccer ball lying next to the roots

of the crabapple began to float up, too, just like a black-and-white helium balloon without

a string. Next went the bucket filled with half mud, half sand. Just as I looked over at

Sarah and saw her tire swing starting for the sky, I lost my balance as I too was lifted up

into the air, first just an inch, and then two inches, and then three inches, and then three

feet.

        Instinct made me grab for Sarah, catching the hood of her green hoodie just as she

was about to float right out of the tire swing. I wrestled with a bunch of the smaller

branches of the old crabapple as we passed by before I could get hold of a thick one.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                   11
       I pulled Sarah in close and we clung together in the crabapple as we watched

everything that wasn‟t attached to the earth fly past us and up into the air along with the

soccer ball and sand toys…my scooter and Sarah‟s tricycle, my father‟s grill.

       Sarah kept repeating, “Kiki? Kiki? Kiki?” into my ear.

       “Everything‟s fine,” I lied. “It‟ll be over soon.” But of course I had no idea if it

would be over soon.

       My hands started to cramp from holding onto the crabapple branch and Sarah, but

I was too scared to loosen my grip even a tiny bit. Sarah started to whine, making my

heart flutter like a piece of paper held outside a car window while you‟re driving down a

highway. I began to sing, because that‟s what I always do when Sarah‟s upset - first a

few of those kid songs that she likes like Four and Twenty Blackbirds, and then songs I

made up. She loves it when I make up songs, especially when they‟re about her.

       Nothing changed, though, and Sarah started crying. “Kiki, I wanna go down,

Kiki, I wanna go down.”

       I held onto her tighter than I‟ve ever held onto anything in my life. Smiling into

her tiny white face, I told her that everything was great, and that the whole thing would

be over in just a second. And then I promised to push her extra hard and crazy on the tire

swing when we got back down. She hugged me.

       My hand holding on to the branch started losing its feeling. I stared at it, trying to

help it keep its grip with my eyes. But even as I watched, one by one my fingers began to

uncurl and Sarah and I were pulled from the tree…anyway, you get the point, nightmares

and day-mares are basically the same thing, they both end badly.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                12
        BANG…the front door slams and my father heads down the front walk with the

newspaper under one arm and his coat in the other. He opens the driver‟s side door and

the cold air rushes into the van past him like a rude old woman pushing to get onto a bus.

He tosses his newspaper onto the front seat and slams the door shut, waiting outside the

van for my mother. I squish myself even closer to Sarah. The van can hold seven people,

two up front, two in the middle and three in the back. Sarah and I always sit together in

the middle, and Jessica and Amanda sit in the back with a seat between them. Everyone

needs a seat between themselves and Jessica.

        My mother and Amanda come out of the house. Amanda snaps open the sliding

door and jumps in. Pulling it shut, she takes her seat behind me.

        I twist around so I can look at her. She blinks back at me in the dark. “Are you

all right?” I ask.

        “Okay, I guess,” she shrugs, “I just hate this dress, it itches.”

        “You look pretty in it though, why don‟t you ask mom if you can take it off once

the van gets warm, and just wear your undershirt for the drive,” I suggest.

        “Ooh, I hope she let‟s me do that, Kate.” But her face still looks all crunched up

somehow.

        “You‟re going to do great today, Manny,” I tell her and I make my crazy face

where I push my lips under my teeth and open my eyes really wide.

        “Stop, stop,” she laughs. “Hey Kiki, maybe soon you‟ll be good enough to play

on a Saturday, too. And then we‟d have all three of us in the competition, at least until

Sarah starts to play.”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                13
         I turn around in my seat and open up my book, even though I can‟t see a thing in

the dark. I wish that we‟d just get going. I want this day over with.

         My mother is standing beside the van going through the list of all the things in the

bags surrounding her feet, making sure she has everything, and my dad is standing close

to her pretending to be part of her inspection. Jessica is still no-where to be seen.

         “But first you should probably get better in Science and Math,

though…”continues Amanda. “You only got B‟s, remember?”

         “Yeah, thanks Manny, okay, I‟m trying to read,” I tell her, pushing the words out

of me.

         “I got all A‟s,” she goes on not listening, “maybe I could help you, you know, the

way you always help me make my bed.”

         “Listen Manny, I „m reading,” I say, trying to keep myself from turning around

and popping her one.

         My parents get into the car. I can see the lower edges of the world starting to

brighten, making it look like we are all sitting in a giant spaghetti pot, and someone,

maybe God, is slowly lifting the top off. It‟s almost 5 a.m. now. We all sit quietly with

our own thoughts. Its funny how no one‟s thoughts but mine are wondering where the

heck Jessica is. No one ever seems to question anything she does. You can tell her to

move faster, you can tell her that she is playing too loud, you can tell her that you don‟t

want her stinky feet by your head when she throws them up on the car seat next to you,

but why would you…she wouldn‟t care and she certainly wouldn‟t listen. Jessica finally

emerges…slowly, calmly, carrying nothing…as usual.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  14
         We pull out of the drive and are on our way. I hold Sarah‟s hand as she sleeps.

Her head is slumped against the side of the car seat. Amanda asks for the car piano my

father made for her when she first started playing the piano. It is a long piece of

cardboard with all the piano keys drawn onto it. She likes to put it on her lap and finger

her music when we take long drives in the car. My father bought her a keyboard and

earphones for the car like three years ago, but Manny just kept using the card board car

piano.

         Jessica throws her feet up onto the back of my seat. I pretend not to notice and sit

with my book open, looking out of the window at the world lighting up as we drive out of

town. I can‟t get comfortable with Jessica‟s stinky toes wiggling in the corner of my eye.

Trees whip past my window. I want to reach out my hand and grab the biggest branch I

see and hang on tight…another Saturday piano competition…nothing but zero gravity

could ever lift my heart out from the bottom of my stomach today.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               15
                 YOU CAN‟T WIN (AND BY “YOU,” I MEAN “ME”)

       “Don‟t forget that Monday night is the spelling bee, Mom,” Amanda says, taking

a break from tapping on her cardboard keyboard.

       “I know, dear,” answers my mother, “we‟ll all be there.”

       “I won‟t be,” I say, happy to be disagreeable. “I promised Emily that I‟d help her

with her cloud project for Science.”

       “Didn‟t you hand that project in last week?” my father asks.

       “Yeah, she did,” snickers Jessica, “a bunch of cotton balls stuck to a big piece of

paper. You should have at least made them rain or something.”

       “They were cumulous clouds,” I say, trying to explain why of course they

wouldn‟t be raining.

       “They were cotton balls,” she laughs, “from the bathroom cabinet.”

       I wish I could come back at her with something witty and cutting, but I never can.

       “It sounds as if Emily‟s project is going to be late if she‟s handing it in next

week,” worries my father. My whole family has this thing about being late. We were

sure to show up at least an hour before the competition today, we showed up at least an

hour early wherever we went. In fact, I don‟t think I‟ve ever eaten popcorn during a

movie, because by the time the movie begins, we‟ve already been sitting ten lifetimes in

the theatre. (My mother has no rule against popcorn because it has fiber. But due to the

soda rule, by mid-bucket, the popcorn has sucked up all your saliva and you end up

feeling like a snake swallowing an egg whole trying to push balls of dry, chewed popcorn

down your throat.)

       “Is her project going to be late, Katherine?” He pushes.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              16
       “I don‟t know,” I mumble. But I do know. It will be late. Not that Emily cares.

She hands in everything late. She even got C‟s on her report cards and didn‟t mind.

       “You act like I failed or something,” she said once when she showed me her

report card. I probably shouldn‟t have gasped as loud as I did. I know that I had gotten

two B‟s just like Amanda said, but at least I was kind of upset over them. I try enough

for A‟s, I guess, but I‟m really okay with B‟s. But C‟s, that‟s another thing all together. I

had never gotten a C. Jessica and Amanda had never gotten a B. A‟s just seem to

propagate all over their report cards.

       Once, Mr. Teitsin, my science teacher, handed back a test that I didn‟t do that

good on and said the words that are on the tip of every teacher‟s tongue that I have ever

had, “Why can‟t you be more like your sisters?” I didn‟t answer him. I just stared down

at his old, brown shoes, the kind that have those little hanging knots on them, until they

finally moved away from the side of my desk.

       We ride in silence for a while, my ears still throbbing from the clanging and

banging of the morning. The sun is completely up now, shining through the clouds in

that harsh way that hurts your eyes. We‟re almost to the Interstate. We‟ll be stopping at

the convenience store before we get on the highway. We always do. My father will fill

up the gas tank and the rest of us will fight over who goes into the bathroom first. We

never buy anything. That is another rule, “never purchase anything at a gas station but

the gas.” When I was little, I thought that the giant stand of candy and gum that sits next

to every register in every gas station and grocery store in the world was like the food in

my play kitchen, long lines of pretend plastic squares in the shape of juicy fruit and

Hershey bars, something colorful to look at while you waited on line. Plucking




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 17
something off one of the shelves never even occurred to me. Like fairies and magic

beans, it was the stuff of fantasy.

          My father finally pulls us into the convenience store parking lot and we all twist

and stretch in our seats. Before the car can come to a complete stop at the gas pump,

Amanda is up and climbing for the door. We always have this big race to get to the

bathroom first. Jessica will sometimes join in, in which case, she of course wins. But

this time she doesn‟t move. I see that I have a chance. I try to leap over Sarah to get to

the door before Amanda. Amanda has to jump over Jessica, so it‟s a pretty even game.

On my way over the top of Sarah, my knee knocks into her car seat and she awakes with

a yelp.

          “I‟m so sorry, sweet pea,” I soothe, leaning over to hug her head. My book slips

out of my coat pocket, and I reach down to pick it off the dirty car floor before it gets all

cruddy. I know that I‟ve lost…Amanda is halfway to the gas station door. I shove my

book back into my pocket and trot after her. At least I will be second.

          As I walk into the store, a bald man walking out bumps right into me. I see him

coming, but I can‟t react fast enough to get out of his way and he crashes into me pretty

hard, dropping his plastic grocery bag onto the floor. He looks up at me with small dark

eyes, flustered and angry.

          I go to pick up his bag for him, but he grabs it off the floor ahead of me and then

pushes past me to get to the door. I say something about being sorry. I always say I‟m

sorry, even when it‟s not my fault. I hate that I do it, and try not to, but it just flies right

out of my mouth. It‟s like I‟m sorry for everything. Sometimes, it all feels like it‟s my

fault.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                   18
       Jessica slides by me and then races for the bathroom.

       My body jerks as it jumps into - and then out of - race mode…it realizes even

before my brain that the thing is hopeless. I take my time walking to the back of the store

to the bathroom.

       Amanda is still in there and Jess is leaning on the wall next to the bathroom door.

She doesn‟t even look up at me to acknowledge her win, she knows I know that she won,

and that‟s enough. To somehow acknowledge it, would be giving me something, and so

of course, she doesn‟t do it. I lean against the other side of the door, and listen to Jessica

pick at her braces.

       She has had braces on for three years. I can‟t remember what her teeth even look

like. I guess they must have been pretty bad. Amanda has a retainer already, and the

orthodontist has begun planning out her mouth full of metal. My teeth seem to be okay.

At least, that is what the orthodontist said. My top ones aren‟t so bad looking but my

bottom teeth are kind of crooked, but I guess not bad enough to warrant the metal.

Jessica is constantly picking at her braces, which is really gross and I try not to watch.

       I turn my back to her and stare down the hall and out the backdoor of the gas

station at a patch of yellowish grass sprinkled with old squashed garbage. A skinny,

orange cat walks by the door, stopping for a second to glance down the hall at me.

Instantly bored, it looks away and walks out of sight. The day is turning gray. I‟m happy

for it. It‟s always nice when the weather matches your mood. There‟s nothing worse

than a bright sunshiny day when you feel like crud.

       My mother comes down the hall with Sarah in her arms as Amanda skips out of

the bathroom and back out toward the van, and before Jessica can jump in, my mother




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 19
announces that she and Sarah are going in next, leaving Jessica and me standing in the

hall alone again. Jessica pinches me for no reason, just because my mom and Sarah took

her turn I guess. I pinch her back, but barely get her, and she grabs me and pinches me

back so hard sparks light up in my eyes and my mouth fills with syrupy spit. I know

never to fight back, but sometimes I do it without thinking.

       Through my tears I see someone head down the hall toward us. He is a boy, older

than me, maybe even older than Jess. His hair is white blond and his eyes are very green.

Still nursing my wound, I see Jessica stop picking her braces and smile at him.

       I do a double take, shaking my head, confused. She doesn‟t even look like Jessica

when she smiles – she looks like someone new, someone I don‟t know. She looks kind of

sweet even.

       The boy catches the smile, but instead of smiling back, he laughs, and Jessica‟s

smile evaporates. There have been so many times in my life that I would have done

anything to make Jessica look like she does right this second - I think I have even prayed

for her to at least know what this feeling is like, but my prayers were never

answered…until now. Sucking in a big breath, I open every cell in my body and wait for

the flood of joy to come crashing in - but there is no flood of joy, in fact, there‟s not even

a tiny trickle of gladness. Instead, I kind of just feel like the stupid blonde boy laughed at

me, too.

       “What a jerk,” I say after the boy is safely inside the Men‟s bathroom. And

Jessica pinches me harder than she has ever pinched me before. My mom and Sarah

come out of the bathroom and Jessica flies in, slamming the door.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                20
        “We‟re leaving girls, hurry, hurry,” my mother says over her shoulder, not

noticing me convulsing in pain as she carries Sarah back through the aisles of the

convenience store and out to the van. Sarah reaches out at the candy and gum as they

pass the shelves. A little sob pops out of me like a hiccup. Sometimes hope is disgusting

to watch.

        Jessica comes out of the bathroom, closing the door behind her, just so that I have

to open it. I open it and go in. But once inside, I swear I don‟t even have to use it

anymore. It‟s like she kills everything around her, even your need to pee.

        I stand in front of the mirror blurring myself into familiar shapelessness…brown

eyes, brown hair, brown brain. No wonder the cat was not impressed. The idea of

shrinking into nothing wraps itself around me like steamy shower air.

        But before I can shrink into nothing, I notice the quiet…not the actual lack of

sound, but that feeling of quiet when you know that you‟re alone. I unlock the bathroom

door and head to the front of the store, my eyes scanning what little I can see out the glass

windows that aren‟t covered up by stacks of soda and coffee machines. There are people

wandering in the aisles, but none of these people are my people. Before I can even see

the gas pumps, I know that the van won‟t be sitting in front of them. It‟s like my skin can

tell that they‟re gone.

        I push open the glass door, and though I somehow already felt that they had left

me, this doesn‟t stop a zing of fear from ringing through my chest. My family is gone -

absolutely and completely gone. The gas pumps are there, but the van isn‟t.

        I search both sides of the small parking lot, but I know my father wouldn‟t have

pulled away from the pump to park, he has never done that before and my father‟s a man




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               21
of habit. They are nowhere. I stand staring at the black asphalt, waiting for them to

materialize, wiggly and slow, like a mirage. But they don‟t.

       Maybe I should walk back into the store and then back out again. You know, like

when your computer has a glitch that you can‟t figure out, you shut it down and then

switch it back on, hoping that the small rest it took, along with the jolt of being turned

back on, will help it remember how to perform. And that somehow, if I try again –

walking back out – the van will be there. I almost do it too, even though I know it‟s

stupid, but my eyes are somehow stuck staring down the road to the highway.

       After watching twenty cars go by that have nothing to do with me, I look up at the

gray sky. Not to find them, really, but just because I „m tired of not seeing my family

pulling back into the parking lot for me. The clouds lie thin and flat, covering the sky in

big sheets.

       “Stratus,” I whisper.

       And then it starts to rain.

       “Stratus nimbus,” I add.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 22
                                    HOLDEN‟S DUCKS

        So they really left me. Jessica jumped in and they pulled out and left me. I

picture the van door sliding shut and my father pulling away from the pumps toward the

exit. Everyone‟s thoughts probably went right back to thinking about what they were

thinking about before we pulled in, except Jessica‟s thoughts. I can just see her noticing

my empty seat, her lips curling into a hideous grin. Good people smile, only the cruel and

the insane, grin.

        How far will they get before they notice I‟m not there? Never mind...I don‟t

really want an answer to that question.

        I sit down on the curb outside the gas station a little ways down from the door so

as not to be in anyone‟s way. The rain is kind of hitting me lightly here and there, and it

feels like the sky is spitting at me. I can‟t believe they left me.

        The curb is hard and cold. I‟m not really getting wet, but I squint my eyes and

shiver anyway, just to make it more dramatic…although, really, your family forgetting

you at a gas station doesn‟t need much else to make it sound bad.

        It must be at least 6 a.m. by now, maybe later. A few people come in and out of

the store, and at first I feel like everyone is looking at me and wondering what I must be

doing. But after a little while I can see that no one really notices me. Cars zoom by on

the way to the Interstate. Everyone has somewhere to be but me. All my stupid drama

catches up to me and my eyes get a little watery for real.

        If I was allowed to have a stinkin‟ cell phone like every other kid in the universe,

I could simply call and remind them of my existence. But no, my mother has a rule, “cell

phones at sixteen so they don‟t stunt your growth.” I swear she just picked sixteen




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               23
because it was forever away and sounded like an age where something was supposed to

happen, and anyway, stunting my growth isn‟t an issue, not only has that ridiculous fear

been put to rest by science like twenty years ago, but I‟m like the tallest girl in the entire

class.

         Getting mad about not having a cell phone warms me up a little. I wonder what

Emily is doing right now? Oh, yeah, it‟s still the crack of dawn, I forgot. She‟s sound

asleep for sure. Her dad usually doesn‟t show up until at least noon. He‟s supposed to

pick her up at 10 a.m., but he‟s always late. Emily‟s mom throws a fit when he‟s late.

But I don‟t think that her mom is actually really that mad, she just pretends it so that

Emily‟s step dad, Bob, doesn‟t get mad.

         Emily‟s mom is kind of a nervous person, especially around Bob, but she mostly

looks nervous all the time. Once, when Bob went away for a week for some conference

or something for his job, Emily‟s mom actually hung out with us after she made us

dinner. She told us this story about when she was our age, and how she had snuck out

one night to meet this boy she liked. Mothers usually don‟t tell you about their sneaking

days unless they‟re pretty relaxed or they‟ve been drinking wine.

         I don‟t understand why someone would marry a man that they had to feel nervous

around. I feel nervous around Bob, too. He doesn‟t talk a lot. Or at least he doesn‟t talk

out loud. You can tell that it‟s not so quiet in his head, though. He‟s just not going to tell

you about it. Plus he ends every sentence saying, “for Christ‟s sake.” It doesn‟t matter if

it‟s about taxes and that, “taxes are killing this country, for Christ‟s sake,” or if he can‟t

find the remote control, “where‟s the remote, for Christ‟s sake.” Sometimes he just says,

“for Christ‟s sake,” out of the blue, and not connected to anything like a sentence or a




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                     24
conversation or an event in the room. Anyway, those words just make my teeth clamp

together.

        Emily isn‟t bothered by Bob one bit. She just kind of ignores him, which on the

day to day, is not so hard to do because Bob never goes downstairs to Emily‟s rooms in

the basement and Emily almost never goes upstairs to the rest of the house. It‟s kind of

like they have two houses, an upstairs one and a downstairs one. Emily is an only child.

I think that‟s why she is so laid back about her C‟s and having to live downstairs and

being late with everything and all. Maybe she just doesn‟t know any other way. And

Emily‟s mom kind of runs up and down those stairs taking care of Bob at the top of them

and Emily at the bottom.

        The only time the houses come together is for dinner every once in a while,

because mostly Emily‟s mom brings her dinner downstairs on a tray, and Emily actually

gets to eat it in front of the television while Bob eats his dinner in front of the television

upstairs. Sometimes I think of their house like one of those doll houses that are only a

half a house. And you can see Bob eating his dinner in front of his TV over top of Emily

eating her dinner in front of her TV directly underneath him.

        When Emily is around her mom and Bob together, she barely ever talks. She puts

this “screw you, Bob,” look on her face and stares off at some spot on the wall. Bob‟s

not stupid, he reads her face like an Easy Reader, but he never says anything to Emily,

instead, he starts in on Emily‟s mom.

        Emily‟s mother and Bob never yell at one another, they do this other version of

arguing – the kind that is silent and mean. They‟ll talk about work or the weather in

really nasty voices and you can tell that they‟re fighting. It‟s always weird to be around




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 25
that kind of argument – listening to how it might rain and all, and having a stomachache

while you listen. Emily just shrugs when I ask her about it. She says that she doesn‟t

even notice it. But after they have one of these silent fights, Emily always gets really

picky with me about things. Like this one time, when Bob and her mother were getting

mean about a coming snowstorm, Emily started on me about biting my nails. She got so

frustrated with my nail biting that she slapped at my hands and told me that she thought

my hands were ugly. I always bite my nails and it never bothered her before.

       I‟m not used to arguments where nobody yells. My mother likes to yell a lot. She

would always start out just fussy, you know, speed walking around the house and picking

up stuff to put away that didn‟t need to be picked up and put away. You always knew

that she and my father were about to battle when she did that. I usually took off then, if I

could, to my room or just out in the yard, grabbing Sarah on the way. But sometimes you

got stuck, because when she was in that mood and there was a fight coming between my

parents, she always enlisted you into the picking up and putting away things that didn‟t

need to be picked up or put away…and by the time you quickly put away the thing that

didn‟t need to be put away…she would have something else for you to pick up and put

away that didn‟t need to be picked up or put away.

       And it always seems like I‟m the only picker-upper-and-putter-awayer. Jessica

makes sure to hole up in her room with the door closed studying or reading, and my

mother never asks her to put things away. And Amanda scoots to the piano and plays,

and since to my mother, playing the piano is sacred, of course Manny doesn‟t have to put

things away.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               26
        Then the yelling would start. My mother mostly took care of this part. My father

liked to sit tight, knowing his best argument was none at all. This would make my

mother go out of her mind. She‟d get louder and more hysterical with each word he

didn‟t say, trying to get my father to have some kind of reaction, which eventually he

would, just not the one she was looking for. He‟d leave the room. This is when you

knew things were bad. She‟d follow him, of course, hotter than ever. And the yelling

would move up and down the hallway, into the kitchen, down to the basement, infecting

every almost every room in the house.

        I hate it when my parents fight, it‟s like all of a sudden you can see all the juice

stains on the cream carpet in the living room, and the missing slat in the French doors to

the kitchen looks like a toothless smile laughing at your life.

        Amanda would be playing this one long piece by Bach that is all sweet and soft

and my parents would be wandering around the house yelling and I‟d be picking up

things and putting them away.

        Amanda plays the same song every time they fight. I hate that song, even though

it‟s really not a bad song. One time when my father and I were driving Emily home after

she had eaten dinner over, that song came on the radio. My father only listens to classical

stations on the radio. As he reached toward the dial, I was like, whew, yeah, turn that off.

But he didn‟t turn it off. He turned it up. And then he started whistling along. I couldn‟t

believe that he didn‟t know that this was his and my mother‟s fight song, but he didn‟t

know.

        My finger starts to bleed where I bit it too deep, next to the nail. I hate when I do

that. I stick it in my mouth to stop the blood with my tongue. My finger is freezing cold.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                   27
God, where the heck are they? Someone‟s got to miss me. I‟m sure Jessica is sitting

there with her feet up on the back of my seat, humming away, staring happily at my

empty seat.

       My butt is seriously cold, and although not officially wet, I can at least say that I

am extremely damp. Cold and damp…just like Holden‟s ducks. There is this part in my

book where Holden - that‟s the main guy in my book - asks this cab driver as they drive

by the frozen pond in Central Park if the cab driver knows what happens to the ducks in

the winter. He had already asked one cab driver, but that cab driver got all mad about the

question and wouldn‟t answer. But Holden can‟t stop wondering about the ducks. It‟s a

good book. I like it a lot and I usually only like to read about dwarfs and trolls and stuff.

Fantasy is the best. And this book is about a real kid in the real world, with no magical

skills to learn or evil wizard to fight, or anything. But I like Holden. His thoughts are all

screwed up, but he thinks them anyhow.

       Like the ducks – he‟s all worried about these ducks, and at the end of the book,

you‟d think you would find out what happened to the ducks. I‟ve read the book so many

times and you never do find out what happens with the ducks. It‟s probably one of those

things that you‟re supposed to figure out yourself. I hate that kind of thing.

       I‟m sure that Jessica knows where the ducks go, but I‟d rather have my fingers

snipped off with hedge clippers by some mafia guy than ask Jessica anything about

Holden. Suddenly, being left on the side of the road when that road is far from Jessica

and not anywhere near a piano competition…well, it isn‟t so bad, actually. In fact, sitting

around thinking about Holden and ducks makes this place feel kind of friendly and

familiar. Rubbing my shoulders and arms to warm up makes me feel even better, and I




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                28
settle back against the sharp stucco of the gas station and crack open my book. Life is

good.

           …and then the blur of a blue van catches my eye as it pulls back into the

parking lot.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              29
                                     SUFFOCATION

   The first thing I see is the glint of Jessica‟s braces beaming through the van window.

My father pulls to a stop in front of me and my mother rolls down her window two

inches, like anymore would waste time. “Katherine Ann,” she says, with her mouth

twisted like a wet shoelace. She doesn‟t say anything else, but instead, rolls it back up

with a thump. This was supposed to say it all, I guess.

   I pull open the door and try to ignore the gleam of Jessica‟s braces. “What an idiot,”

she whispers under her breath.

   “You guys just left…” I start.

   “I don‟t want to hear any of your excuses,” my mother interrupts, “close the door, for

goodness sake, we‟re late.”

   Grumbling under my breath about a cell phone (I have to get it in), I close the door

and my father takes off before I even get into my seat. I grab the back of the head rest to

keep myself from falling, and accidentally knock Jessica‟s stupid feet off the back of my

seat.

   “Watch it,” she snaps. She‟s done smiling at me, even if the smile was just to solidify

my stupidity. And because I guess calling me an idiot obviously didn‟t meet her high

standards of evil, she swipes at me - but I‟m too fast. So instead of trying again and

looking like she didn‟t mean to miss, she shoves Amanda‟s sleeping body next to her.

“Get over on your own side.”

   “Whaa?” Amanda half opens her eyes, and then falls toward the window, away from

Jessica, and asleep again.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                30
   I belt in, and when I look back out of the window, the convenience store is almost out

of sight. I watch it until I can‟t see it anymore, and then I turn back in my seat to face the

dry, blowing sand dunes of the day ahead of me, stretching out like one unbearable

minute after another after another after another, as far as my mind can imagine, which is

pretty far.

   These dunes of boredom are as familiar to me as my own long, skinny toes. Every

piano competition follows the exact same unbelievably dull pattern. When we first arrive,

Jess and my mother will head straight to the nearest ladies room to begin the competition

primping. One entire reusable grocery bag sitting up front next to my mother‟s legs is

dedicated to making Jessica look like a human, even though the only real way to do this

would be to stick the bag tightly over her head. I remember Mrs. Petruskovik, my sixth

grade science teacher once telling us that assuming animals were like humans, you know,

believing that your dog was sitting around at home wondering how your school day was

going, was a dangerous mistake. I wanted to raise my hand and ask if assuming that

certain humans were human might also be a dangerous mistake (for instance, believing

that the bond of sisterhood might compel a certain someone named Jessica to jump in and

save your life when you and your younger sister are stuck in a knot of inner tubes upside

down in a municipal swimming pool).

   Amanda and Sarah always go with them to the bathroom. Amanda goes so that she

can watch the competition right from its very beginning. She‟s been dreaming of being

up on that stage clutching a trophy with her name on it since the second she sat down at

the keys. In fact, I think it‟s the whole reason that she first sat down to begin with. Even

before she could stand on her own two feet, she would shimmy up the molding of




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               31
Jessica‟s trophy case and cling to the bottom of it with her chubby little fingers smudging

the paint and fogging up the sliding glass doors with her hot baby breath. My mother had

the case built right into the wall with its own set of lights sunk into the top of it to

illuminate the giant crowd of gold and silver trophies and medals. My parents leave the

trophy case lights on each evening when they go to bed. It serves as the hallway

nightlight, preventing me from ever getting out of bed during the night to use the

bathroom because the urge to smash it with my elbow as I walk by is so unbelievably

strong when I‟m half asleep. Crazy ideas can feel so completely acceptable, almost

necessary, at 2 o‟clock in the morning. At least they do for me.

   Sarah goes with them to the bathroom for the primp session just so she can roll around

on the bathroom floor, and bang the stall doors open and shut. I can‟t stand watching

Sarah do this. It‟s so dirty, but she never cares. She just keeps rolling around, old toilet

paper sticking to her jacket, laughing and banging those doors with her feet as she lays on

the disgusting tiled floor.

   My father will head straight for the front row of chairs in the auditorium, choosing the

five directly in the center. He‟ll pile all our stuff on them - coats, coolers, bags - to warn

off others. Now you‟re probably asking yourself, “Who is going to be fighting for front

seats at a piano competition?” Well, you‟d be surprised. Parents are out of their minds

when it comes to watching their kids do anything on a stage. I‟m sure that most of these

parents never even listen to their kid play at home, but put their kid up on a stage and

parents can‟t get enough of them. Their eyes lock onto the piano and drool pours out of

their stiff smiles, because God forbid they swallow, they might miss their kid blink or

something.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                32
        And the funny thing is that the very back seats are just as completely filled up as

the very front seats. And I should know, because it‟s my favorite spot. But they‟re filled

for the opposite reason that the front seats are filled. The front is crowded with parents

that are too stubborn to give up the dream that their kid is the smartest, most interesting

kid in the universe, and the back seats are packed with the cousins, aunts, and family

friends that aren‟t under any of these delusions as they watch their relative‟s kid bang out

a version of Away in a Manger that would have even Mary and Joseph‟s mind wandering,

mentally double checking whether or not they turned down the fire, closed up the

shutters, and fed the goats before they left for Bethlehem.

        And anyway, normal people might have to stretch their legs or cough or

something, and they might have to do it in the middle of the second verse. And no one

wants to have some nut-ball parent giving them nasty looks because they weren‟t holding

their breath in awe while some kid beat a worn out Christmas carol to death.

   After about twenty minutes of watching Jessica primp, Amanda will head onstage,

picking her way through the microphones and wires and general stage junk surrounding

the piano like musical land mines. She loves to play to the empty auditorium. The piano

has a hollow thin sound to it when the room is empty, like it knows that no one is around

and so it isn‟t going to go all out or anything. They always let Amanda play before the

competition starts. She is really cute and she does play pretty good. And plus, no one is

ever there yet except for the few people that are running the competition. Although, there

have even been times that we have actually showed up before these people.

   When this happens, we all sit in the van, breathing each other‟s wet air for twenty

centuries waiting for that first car to finally slip into the parking lot. I love to pretend to




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  33
hear the person‟s thoughts when they first pull in and see us there…“Oh, that must be

Susan, or maybe Donald…oh no, it‟s not Donald, he drives a green van.” Then my

mother would step out of the van. “Oh, it‟s not Susan, either.” And then I picture them

worriedly checking the clock on their dashboard, scared that maybe they‟re late or

something. And when they see the early time, they get angry at us for making them

worry, even for a second, that they were late. “Who are those people and why are they

here so ridiculously early?” They‟d wonder out loud to themselves in the car, feeling

satisfied to vent their righteous anger. It always gives me a little thrill to think of this

person hating us, even if I did make it up.

    We hit a bump and Sarah‟s head bounces off my shoulder and then back onto it. It

doesn‟t even wake her up. I swear, little kids can sleep through a tornado. I smooth her

hair out of her eyes and watch her tiny eye lashes twitch. It amazes me how beautiful she

is. I mean, maybe all little kids are beautiful and I just can‟t see it. But Sarah‟s our little

kid and I‟d breathe in her wet air any day of the week. The feel of her fat little cheek on

my shoulder makes me sink deeper into my seat.

   The green exit signs slide toward me, and then whip overhead, listing towns and

places I‟ll never see. At every sign and underpass with a name on it, I picture myself

living in that town or on that street, trying to pretend that at any moment my father will

be pulling off the interstate, and that we‟d almost be home. Katherine Ann Asprey,

Andover, New Jersey. Katherine Ann Asprey, Hawthorn, New Jersey. Katherine Ann

Asprey, Broome, Pennsylvania. Katherine Ann Aprey, Lake Tilden, Pennsylvania,

Katherine Ann…

   “Katherine Ann Asprey, Idiotsville, Pennsylvania,” Jessica says from the back.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                   34
          “What the…?” When I turn around, she keeps reading her book, ignoring me,

which is normal, but her face is red…and a little bloated.

   “Jessica?”

   She doesn‟t answer. She keeps reading.

   Her head seems to be getting bigger, like a balloon slowly being blown up. Or maybe

it‟s the back seat shrinking? No, it‟s definitely her head…and her body, that‟s growing,

too. She’s growing. Her head is the size of a big watermelon and her hair is growing off

her head like Play Doh being squeezed through one of those plastic clay pumps, piling up

into the back of the car behind her and Amanda.

   I scream, but my father just keeps driving, tapping his thumbs on the steering wheel to

some song that nobody hears but him and my mother never even turns her head to look

back. When I look down at Sarah, she‟s wide awake.

   “I‟m hunting blue houses, Kiki,” she says, ignoring the fact that I just screamed.

“Want to hunt, too?” She loves the color blue and is always watching out for blue

houses.

   What‟s wrong with everyone?

   Jessica is now oozing up into the aisle next to Sarah and me. I shriek, pulling Sarah

toward me as Jessica‟s arm, big as an elephant trunk and growing, inches closer and

closer to us.

   “How did that sound?” Amanda asks from behind me. She‟s sitting right next to this

hideous ballooning Jessica, playing her car piano…which weirdly I can hear.

          “Manny!” I shout. She doesn‟t even notice Jessica about to smother the life out of

us all.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               35
       “What?” she says. But now she‟s growing, too, and even faster than Jessica. She

is spilling over the top of my seat, pressing against Sarah‟s car seat. Sarah screams…

 Something hits me on the top of my head. “Get up, dork,” Jessica says, climbing out of

the van and slamming the door shut again.

   My brain feels like a wet roll of toilet paper. Sarah is sound asleep, with her little red

lips hanging open in a perfect circle. Amanda yawns loudly behind me. “Can you button

me, Kiki?” she asks. There is a loud squeak of metal and then a wave of cold air as my

father opens the back door of the van.

   “Let‟s go, everyone,” my mother sings, “we‟re here.”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                36
                                      A SLICE OF HEAVEN

           “Up, Kiki, up,” whines Sarah, reaching at me to pick her up. I swing her

hollow little body up on my hip and lean back against the van while my mother picks

through her bags, performing an inspection that would make Lewis and Clark feel like

they took off for the great unknown a little too willy-nilly. This “arrival inspection” can

take between five minutes and a half an hour, depending on when she remembers the one

thing that she‟s sure she forgot - at the beginning of the inspection or the end. If it comes

in the beginning, she‟ll have to freak out on all the bags, and that can take a lot of time.

       Sarah wraps her arms around my neck and leans her head on my shoulder. The

rain has stopped, but the sky is still a dark blue-gray. The small parking lot glows from

the wet of the rain and the sunlight struggling to get down through the clouds. Around

the edges of the parking lot are clumps of those skinny-ish white and black trees. These

trees always look like they‟re right in the middle of a game of Simon Says, and Simon

just yelled, “Simon says, „freeze,” right after Simon just got finished yelling, “Simon

says, dance.” I like these trees. But for the most part, I pretty much like all trees.

       “Okay, we better hustle it up,” my mother announces, her inspection over. “We

are so late.” And she glares at me like getting left at a gas station at the crack of dawn

was some big plan of mine.

        “Hmm,” my father says. I can see his eyes scanning the empty parking lot. But

he knows not to cloud my mother‟s perception with facts and stuff - she knows what time

the universe expected us, end of story.

       We head toward the front entrance of the school, and no matter how slow I‟m

walking with Sarah in my arms…or how slow my mother and father are walking loaded




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                   37
down with competition junk…or how slow Amanda is walking in that ten-year-old way

that requires stepping on every crack in the sidewalk, running along anything resembling

a wall, and taking the long way around flag poles and all significant landscaping between

themselves and the stated destination…Jessica brings up the rear. She‟ll stay behind us

all until we get to where we‟re going, but she‟ll be in front of us when we get there.

       The school looks like any other school in any other place - the front doors have an

overhang to protect the kids from the rain when they get off the buses, it has the big

windows in the front with turkeys and stuff stuck to them, and it has some kind of statue

surrounded by dead marigolds on the front lawn.

       We have a giant bell on a white slab of cement standing in front of my school.

The class of “did that date really exist” gave it as a present and I‟m sure that they had a

good reason for it being a bell, instead of say, a guy sitting on a horse or something, and I

bet it says that reason on a plaque stuck to the front of it, but because of some unwritten

rule that requires all statues to be placed in places that people never walk, no one will

ever know.

        “It‟s Kate‟s fault if I lose today,” Jessica snorts from behind me. “I don‟t play

well under pressure like this.”

        “For heaven‟s sake, Jessica,” my mother shouts back over her shoulder without

breaking her stride, “lose?” she huffs. Her gaze stays focused on the door, like there are

fifty people racing her for the handle or something. And then she has to add, “Kate,

please apologize to your sister.”

        Yeah, right. I just keep on walking.

       Jessica shoves me from behind, almost knocking me and Sarah over.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  38
         “Jessica!” I shout, stumbling, maybe a bit more than I have to, yes, but come on,

I do have a baby in my arms.

         “Kate, stop the antics,” my mother says.

         “But she just…”

         “Please don‟t start,” she cuts me off.

         Start? What the heck does that mean anyway? I hate when she says that, “don‟t

start.” I never start anything. Jessica starts everything. I‟d bet my soul that Jessica‟s the

one that lit the fires of hell.

        My mother never catches Jessica doing anything wrong. It‟s like Jessica has this

super ability to hide the hideous side of herself just like the bad guys in movies.

Everyone in the theatre can see the guy is rotten to the core, plain as day, just like I know

Jessica is, but the people in the movie are busy inviting him in for a drink or getting into

his car to go for a drive or something. Only my mother never gets into the car with

Jessica, instead, she makes me get in the car. And then Jessica drives it straight over a

cliff, jumping out herself, of course, before the car soars over the edge. And when I try to

say something, like, “Hey, I‟m going over a cliff,” my mother‟s always like, “Come on,

Kate, stop acting like there is some kind of an emergency,” and then there I am, flopping

about on two broken legs with my spine crushed in ten places.

        But it‟s not just my mother, and it‟s not just that they don‟t see how evil she is,

it‟s even worse…everyone thinks that Jessica is a slice of heaven. In fact, adults can‟t

stop ooing and ahhing over her. They ask her questions and listen to her responses like

she is some kind of an oracle. I swear, as a kid all you have to do is say a few words you

found in the dictionary, talk about how important you think the future is, and tell some




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  39
dumb joke using a word that has two meanings, and adults flip out over you. Maybe they

wished they‟d spend more time racking up cheesy vocabulary words or getting all teary-

eyed over their dumb futures when they were younger or something, and so now they

can‟t help getting all steamy over Jessica. Who knows? But they flip out over Amanda

too, only they don‟t treat her like she‟s some kind of oracle, but more like a cute circus

performer. They ask Amanda to tell them riddle after riddle from her dumb book of 5000

riddles that she got for Christmas two years ago, or beg her to say the alphabet

backwards. Amanda can say the alphabet backwards in three different languages in less

than ten seconds. And for some reason, people over thirty are thrilled by this. Someone

should teach them all how to use YouTube.

       I can‟t perform like them. And I don‟t even want to. Although, sometimes I do

wish that I could play songs on the piano so that everybody could sing along. I always go

too fast or too slow, or lose my place so that everyone has to stop singing for a second,

and then they lose interest in the song.

       Out in public, when Jessica and Amanda are wowing a crowd, I can sometimes

feel that crowd slowly notice me. I can tell that they‟re about to make the mistake of

asking me to do something, you know, maybe like name the original tribes that made up

the Iroquois Nation or something. But before it goes from being a thought in their head

to being a statement, “Hey, Kate,” they somehow detect it…and they know that I can‟t

say one cruddy thing backwards…that I don‟t sparkle.

       Well, maybe I‟m not completely sparkle-less, my Aunt Edith thought I sparkled.

I mean, she never said that exactly, but when everyone else was all busy clinging to

Jessica while she recited one of her never-ending poems where every word started with




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 40
the letter “z,” or holding their hands in their faces listening to Manny play the Jeopardy

theme song on my father‟s old harmonica, Aunt Edith would hang around me.

        Sometimes she‟d ask me stuff. And not questions like, “How‟s school?” or

“What will you study in college?” but bigger questions. Like, once she asked me…when

she was visiting and first got sick with the cancer in her stomach…she asked me if I

thought that she would beat it. You know, beat it like get over it and get better.

        The question kind of made me choke, but then I just went off, I told her she‟d beat

if for sure. She always wanted to be a professor and work in some dusty college, instead

of being a bookkeeper for an insurance company like she was, so I told her that I thought

she‟d finally get done with school and become a scholar somewhere, a healthy scholar,

maybe in Greece or something. I told her that she was sure to end up in Greece with a

bunch of leaves stuck to her head teaching people sitting on marble steps.

        She got a kick out of it that. She always thought I was smart too, even though she

was sitting right next to me at dinner the night that Jessica asked me who I liked best

from the League of Nations, and I said Aqua Man. It was a trick question and could have

confused anyone. I mean, League of Nations…Justice League, its close.

        But I was wrong about Aunt Edith getting better. I mean, she actually did get

better for a little while, but then she got sick again. She died two weeks after school

ended last year.

        Sometimes I think I‟m wrong about everything, like I know nothing. Zero. That

not a single thought in my head is ever right. When I start feeling this way, it‟s almost

like I step into Jessica‟s car all on my own, without any help from my mother or anybody

else.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 41
       Jessica opens her stride and slides past me as we get close to the front door of the

school. She doesn‟t look at me –but just passes by me with a big stupid Jessica grin on

her face just so I can see it. She opens the door and goes in. I picture her walking

through the door and then falling into a pit of flames, her braces melting together forever

so I‟ll never have to see another one of her nasty smiles ever again.

        My father holds the door open for my mom, me and Sarah. Unfortunately, Jessica

isn‟t lying at the bottom of a pit filled with flames writhing in pain, and Sarah leaps out

of my arms onto a perfectly solid-looking gray welcome mat and then races down the hall

after my mother…visions of swinging stall doors and loose strands of toilet paper

dancing in her head.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  42
                                      DEEP IN A BASEMENT

       In the gym, a man in a blue uniform is putting out silver folding chairs. He

doesn‟t bother to look up when I walk in even though I know he felt the gym door open

and close. You don‟t really hear gym doors open as much as you feel the air sucked out

of the gym by the opening of the door, and then the soft poof of air pushed into the gym

when the door slides shut. His face is the color of the folding chairs, and come to think

about it, so is the wispy bit of hair that he has, too. He picks up each chair and sets it out

like he‟d rather be having his foot repeatedly run over by a garbage truck than be here

right now. I guess that makes us teammates or something.

       I spot a small stack of mats lying in the back right-hand corner of the gym.

Perfect. I head over and plop down. They‟re so cold that they feel a little wet.

       The only lights on in the whole gym are the ones up on the stage lighting up the

huge piano that will soon bring Jessica her weekly dose of glory. I hate pianos. I mean I

really hate pianos. They‟re stiff and fat and have that smell to them - you know, that

smell that reminds you that you‟re probably in some uncomfortable place. What are they

good for, really? I picture myself shoving the piano into the same pit of fire that I had

Jessica fall into a few minutes ago, and then listen for the imaginary, yet strangely

satisfactory anyhow, crash of wood and keys as it hits hell‟s rocky bottom.

           The janitor has one side of the gym done and is working on the other side. I

should offer to help, but the guilt of not helping isn‟t stronger than my absolute hatred of

this day, which in my mind, gets me out of doing anything nice. Of course, it‟s always

hard to take advantage of my right not to care, and with his keys jingling on his hip like




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 43
sleigh bells and his big round belly, he reminds me of Santa Clause, making it even

harder, so I twist around on my mat to get him out of my view.

       Behind me is a rolled up volleyball net and posts laying on their side. Thinking it

might help to get in an “anti-nice” character, I stick my feet up on one of the volleyball

posts and stretch my arms over my head to complete the look of me not caring. I love

volleyball. It‟s my absolute favorite sport. Every time the ball gets hit into the air, it‟s

like another great chance to keep it there, and for some reason, this thrills me. We play it

a ton in gym class. I‟m pretty good at it, too. Emily is a horrible. She‟s always running

toward the ball with her face all stiff with determination, but you just know she‟s going to

miss it…or worse, hit it…and then someone will be taking an awful long walk to retrieve

it from the other side of the gym, or even down the hall. It‟s almost like she runs toward

the volleyball with the goal of having it hit the strangest angle of her body with some

specific amount of force that will send it off in a direction that even a mathematical

genius like Albert Einstein couldn‟t have figured out. I mean, Emily once hit a volleyball

right into the guidance office, and that‟s all the way down the hall from the gym and off

to the right. If anyone even tried to hit a ball into the guidance office, I bet they couldn‟t

do it. But Emily did it. I never met anyone so spastic in all my life. But in true Emily

fashion, it never even bothers her that she is the lousiest volleyball player that ever lived.

And when Mrs. Hesse, our gym teacher, announces that we‟re going to be playing

volleyball that day in gym, Emily always meets my eyes and smiles real big, like, “Yeah,

did you hear that, volleyball!” She loves to play volleyball. I don‟t understand that at all,

loving something you stink at.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                   44
       The longer I lay on the mats the warmer they get. I close my eyes and listen to

the light sound of squeaking metal brushing on wood and the jingle of keys. Then a

swish of air from the gym door blows the little strands of hair un-captured by my ponytail

onto my face, carrying with it the sounds of high pitched voices and laughter. Before I

can raise my hand to brush the hair off my face, the door closes, pulling the strands back

off my face. The janitor is gone, leaving me alone in the ringing quiet of the dark gym.

       I once read a short story about this great town. I can‟t remember who wrote it.

Everything in the town was beautiful and wonderful. The grass was green, there were

flowers everywhere, and everyone always threw their garbage in the garbage cans, they

never let it get caught under bushes or stuck to the side of curbs. The fact was that

nothing bad ever happened in this town - no crime and no sickness, no sadness or

meanness. Everything was perfect…except for the one thing that wasn‟t perfect. In the

center of town, deep, deep in a basement, was this child. No one loved the child. No one

took care of him. And as long as that child stayed down there alone in the dark, the town

stayed perfect.

       The gym door farthest from me opens and my father walks in laden with bags,

jackets, and the cooler. I‟d get up to help, but there‟s the un-nice rule and all to consider,

so I stay put. He doesn‟t have far to walk, anyway. He heads for the front row, center,

and plops down all our stuff, and then spreads it out onto four chairs. Only four chairs? I

take a breath to yell out that there are five people in our family that need chairs, not four,

when it pops into my head that Amanda should have been here by now, banging away up

there on the stage…but she isn‟t, and that‟s because Amanda is in this thing today, too.

She‟ll be up there with Jessica, behind the curtains, wandering about in the crowd of kids




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                45
being shepherded around by some lady wearing a scratchy-looking blue suit and too

much perfume, their eyes darting back and forth between the growing audience and the

plastic golden columns of the trophies shining in the florescent lights.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                           46
                                          THE PRODIGY

       The gym door bangs open, giving me a jolt. A little boy that looks to be maybe a

few years older than Sarah runs past my mats without seeing me. He stops in the center

of the folding chairs and looks around, obviously looking for a place to hide. He slides

onto his knees behind one of the chairs, holding the chair legs like they are prison bars

and peering underneath the seat at the door he just came slamming through.

       The lights flip on, and it‟s like we‟re in some sort of kindergarten play and

morning has come. Without the darkness, the kid‟s hiding place is kind of stupid. It

takes him a second to notice this, and when he does, he also notices me.

       “Hey,” he says. He stands up and walks over to my mats. He‟s wearing brown

corduroy pants and a thick green and red polo shirt, and you just know that someone

bought that shirt and those pants at the exact same time…a real outfit. Not one that you

piece together by scrounging through everyone‟s closet, and that you walk happily to

school in truly believing you look great until the moment you take off your coat at your

locker and that first person walks by, their eyes catching for just one split second on your

choice, and like Cinderella hopping about on one foot next to her pumpkin, you‟re not

that surprised to find out that you‟re really just wearing a bunch of rags. He stops in front

of me, tapping the toe of one of his expensive sneakers a few inches from my face.

“What are you doing?” He asks.

       “Nothing,” I say, sitting up and redoing my ponytail. “What are you doing?”

       He peers out from under his perfectly trimmed bangs at my question, and then he

sticks out his pointy little chin and says, “I don‟t like you.” And to drive his point home,

he stands there blinking at me, just to show that not only is he more than happy to say a




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                47
mean thing, but he‟s so okay with it, that he can follow it up with a stare. I can‟t even say

the mean thing, let alone stare at the person I just said the mean thing to, watching their

hurt reaction.

       Anyway, when a little kid says that he doesn‟t like you, you have to pretend like

you don‟t care…like you know that they‟re just a little kid and that what they say doesn‟t

really matter or carry any weight. But really that‟s a load of crap and it stinkin‟ kills me

to have anybody say that they don‟t like me.

       But this little kid, with his bangs and his chin, just stands there in front of me like

a three foot bully. I feel like saying something mean back, but that‟s kind of unfair…even

though the little crud-head deserves it. Emily would say it. She doesn‟t have any weird

barriers in her brain that stop her from doing this kind of stuff, you know, telling off first

graders.

       When me and Emily were in the fourth grade, these two girls, Michelle and Eileen

from the sixth grade, started pushing me around. Sometimes they‟d get me in the hall,

where Michelle did the pushing and Eileen the giggling, and sometimes after school, an

environment where Eileen‟s nasty side seemed to flourish. She‟d call me pretty gross

stuff under her breath, stuff that you know exists but that you didn‟t think they had names

for, stuff that only me and Michelle could hear. Her eyes would become two black pieces

of coal, like a snowman, and her body would grow with every nasty thing she said until it

towered over me even though in the actual world, I was taller than she was.

       The two of them would stand so close I could feel the warmth of their bodies. It

always struck me as strange that even a mean person is warm. I always think of Jessica

as a lizard of some sort…cold blooded. Anyway, I didn‟t know what to do. It‟s like the




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  48
barriers in my brain were so thick that I couldn‟t see through them, and so I would stand

there and let the spit collect in my mouth and the horrible whispers head straight to my

chest, not moving unless Michelle got bored and shoved me.

       I hadn‟t done anything to these girls. I couldn‟t figure out why they were being

so mean. That‟s the problem with brain barriers, they get in the way of the proper line of

thinking…Emily‟s line of thinking…which is not, “What did I do?,” but, “Why are you

in my face?‟

       I tried to tell Emily about it. I brought it up one night on the phone while we were

doing our math homework. I asked if she knew Eileen and Michelle in the sixth grade.

       “You mean Eileen, Gina‟s sister?” she‟d asked.

       I had forgotten that Eileen was related to Gina, this girl in our class that Emily

was friends with from after-school tutoring. I dropped it. Just the thought that Emily

might not be that sympathetic to me because it was Gina‟s sister burned me inside, and

she had only done this in my mind. I couldn‟t give her the chance to do it for real.

       A couple days later, Emily and I were heading out of school to her house with

plans to eat cheese doodles and drink grape juice, my favorite combination of foods ever,

when there they were again, waiting for me in the front of the school. Michelle stepped in

front of me and Eileen circled around behind. I did my usual, which was to let my head

swing loose on my neck and shuffle my feet. Emily stopped and looked back at me.

       “Hey,” she called out. “What are you doing?” It took her less than two seconds to

understand.

       “Come on, Kate,” she said, glowering at Eileen, “let‟s go.”

       With a glance from Eileen, Michelle stepped in front of Emily.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                49
       Emily looked back and forth from Michelle to Eileen, and then out came a little

laugh. Michelle shifted her feet and looked over at Eileen. Eileen‟s thinly plucked

eyebrows twitched. But neither of them moved.

        “Well,” Emily demanded in all her barrier-free glory, “if you‟re gonna do

something, do it.”

       Michelle and Eileen openly looked at each other in confusion. It‟s weird to see

evil people confused because you kind of think of them as not having real thoughts. I

mean, if they had real thoughts, wouldn‟t they not be able to do this to people? Anyway,

it was obvious that they were already doing what they had planned on doing, and being

asked to do something else had completely thrown them into unknown bully territory.

Emily got bored with the situation pretty quick, she always does.

       “We‟re done here. Come on, Kiki,” she said. And then she grabbed my elbow

and pulled me away. I don‟t know what Michelle and Eileen did next, because I was too

scared to look back.

       When we got about two blocks away, Emily said, “What jerks, right? And Gina‟s

so nice, too.” She shook her head and then made little circles around her ear with her

finger indicating the global sign of insanity. After laughing at her own joke, she started in

about this kid, Eddie Kinney that she used to like. She was always talking about Eddie

back then.

       Michelle and Eileen were nasty to me other times after that, but it was a kind of a

half-hearted mean, or, I guess, a half black-hearted mean. It just felt like they were out to

fulfill their bully obligation and nothing more. But they still made sure to do it when

Emily wasn‟t around. I never said anything to Emily about it. I just tried to stay away




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              50
from them, take the side door out of the school…race from class to class to stay out of the

halls. I didn‟t want Emily to feel like she always had to save me, or something.

       Anyway, my brain barriers stopped me from ever telling Michelle and Eileen to

get away from me, just like they stop me today from telling little banged-boy, here, how

much I don‟t care if he likes me or not. And although it‟s hard to see things clearly

around all these barriers, I can see him well enough to know that he‟s thrilled by my

attempt to hide the fact that I care that he doesn‟t like me…until we‟re interrupted by two

women walking into the gym. The little kid takes off and begins to run up and down

through the chairs, totally forgetting all about me.

       “Anthony!” calls one of the women, moving the silver chain of her shiny black

pocketbook from one arm to the other. She has dark red hair, really red lips, and a black

leather coat that looks like a stiff quilt and makes squeaking noises when she moves her

arms. She calls out to the kid without ever moving her head to actually look for him.

Anthony doesn‟t pay any attention to her. The red-haired lady is gabbing away to

another lady who is wearing that open-eyed, breathing-through-the-nose look on her face

that says that she is going to have to tell this red-haired woman something she doesn‟t

want to hear. Not that it matters, because the red-haired lady is talking away without

even taking a single pause to breathe, and it doesn‟t look like the other lady will ever get

the chance to tell her anything.

       Anthony dashes through the chairs, messing up the janitor‟s nice lines. I pull out

my book and settle onto my mat with my back against the cement wall. Every minute or

so, the red-haired lady, I guess his mother, shouts the little kid‟s name even though you

can tell that she doesn‟t much care where he is and what he‟s doing. I hate it when




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                51
parents shout their kid‟s names like that – because they always make it sound like they‟re

the ones standing around waiting for their kids for hours – when it‟s really the poor kids

who are waiting - not that I want to extend any sympathy to this little brat racing around

between folding chairs.

       It‟s funny how all little kids are kind of the same in that they all like running in

and out of aisles, or rolling around on dirty floors. And it‟s funny that if you watch adults,

they don‟t know it, but if you watch kids, they can feel it. The little kid feels me

watching him over the top of my book and comes stomping over to my stack of mats.

       His mom shouts for him again, “Anthony!”

       Anthony doesn‟t even look her way. “Is that Harry Potter?” he asks.

       The cover of Catcher in the Rye doesn‟t even look like a Harry Potter book.

“No,” I tell him.

       “I read all the Harry Potter’s, and all the Spiderwick books, too.”

       He gives me time to express how impressed I am, but I‟ve had years to perfect my

blank stare, so much so that when witnessing it in the bathroom mirror, I get a little thrill

down my spine just thinking of all the money I‟m going to make one day playing poker

in Las Vegas…after I learn how to play poker, that is.

       “I read „em all before I got to first grade,” he says. “My teacher says it‟s a

record.”

       Ugh, records. I‟m all too familiar with records. Jessica has never gotten below

an A on anything. Amanda has never missed a day of school. Jessica has never gotten an

answer wrong on a test in Math. Amanda has never gotten below a 100 on a Spelling

test. Jessica has never missed a day of writing in her journal, never lost a class election,




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  52
and certainly never failed to win every single piano competition she has ever entered. I

picture Jess and Manny in my head…I picture them winning spelling bees, opening up

congratulatory envelopes from writing contests, and standing at the head of the dinner

table reading their dumb poem from out of the local newspaper about one of the four

stupid seasons…I hear the praises gushing out of my mother, and see the self-satisfied

smile of my father…I picture them winning, winning, winning, and winning.

        “I have a record, too,” I smile at Anthony, “I can eat an entire little boy in one

sitting. But wait. I know what you‟re thinking. You‟re thinking, „Maybe she can eat the

torso, yeah, sure, but she can‟t eat the arms and legs, too?‟ But I can. I can eat the entire

boy, arms and legs, included. Now that‟s a record.” It always feels so good when you get

past the barriers, even if the only time I seem to be able to do it is if I hide behind the

tinge of a joke. Anyway, my un-nice rule is in effect, and I was sitting in a dark gym for

a reason. I wanted to be left alone.

        “You‟re not even funny,” he snaps with his little hands on his corduroy hips.

“And anyway, I‟m going to beat you today in the competition.” I can tell I pissed him off.

So what if he‟s only like two years old, I still got to him.

        “You‟re not going to beat me, today,” I smile.

        “Oh yes I am,” he‟s totally recovered from his anger and is back to being a

condescending brat, “I beat everybody. I win every time. I‟m a prodigy.” He crosses his

arms across his chest and flashes a smile made up of a large group of tiny little teeth,

waiting, I guess, for his words to sink in.

        “You‟re a what?” I didn‟t want to have to ask the two –year-old what the word

meant, but I have to know.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  53
        “A prodigy,” he says slowly, swinging his bangs out of his eyes with the

confidence of someone that knows they‟re back on top. “It means I‟m the best. I‟m

better than anybody, even old people.

        “Not better than…hmmm.” I stop, not wanting to praise Jessica, even if it is to

some little brat.

        “Who‟s that?” he asks. “I‟m better than him, too, though.

        “ANTHONY!” shouts the red-haired lady, and she means it this time, just like my

mom‟s leaving announcements that she makes every time we are about to go somewhere

– you just know when your mother says something that this time, she means it. Anthony

takes the long way to get to her, running back through every single aisle of chairs to make

the point that he‟s really in charge.

        When Anthony finally reaches her, she grabs his arm and drags him out of the

gym.

        Alone again, I close my eyes, but instantly picture the little kid with his chin

sticking out at me, and so I open them up and roll over on my side and stare out at the

folding chairs. I dream up a little scenario where this kid and his mother lose all their

money when she‟s fired from her job at the bank for stealing printer paper, are forced to

watch their Range Rover repossessed, and end up living in one of those falling-apart

track houses along a two-lane highway somewhere in New Jersey. But before I can enjoy

my scenario, pity crashes in and ruins it. I tell myself to stop wasting time this way and

go back to my book. Before I listen to my own advice, I quickly conjure up a visual of

them on a plastic-covered couch staring at some reality show about failed dieters on their




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                54
TV, and then I pick up my book, and allow the thoughts about the red-haired lady and her

horrible little kid to evaporate.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                         55
                                             SHARING

   The hallway is bubbling with people, and they are beginning to trickle into the gym.

Even with my book in front of my face, I feel a little stupid sitting in the corner on these

mats. So for no other reason than that I have nothing else to do, I wander toward the

bathrooms to see if I can find my family.

   “Program, honey?” asks a woman in an orange blouse sitting behind a table by the

doors.

   “No, thanks,” I tell her. I used to take the programs just because I thought that you

had to, and anyway, I‟d use them to draw in, or write little notes about how long I

thought each piano piece would be. I‟d put a circle on the ones I thought would be long

and tiny X‟s on the pieces that I thought would be short. They usually start out with the

cruddiest players, the junior players, and then move toward the good ones, or senior

players, toward the end. The senior players always have long pieces. I guess they think

they have to play for ten years to impress the judges. So the beginning of the program

always had tons of X‟s and the end of it was filled with circles. But even with such

predictable results, monitoring it this way made me feel better. It became a game where

if it was short and I had marked it with an X, I would give myself a point, and vice versa.

   I have a million ways to get myself through the actual playing part of the piano

competition. My favorite way is to make up these mini-Westerns in my head where I

play the main cowboy. The plot is mostly the same each time. Bad cattle rustlers come

in and kidnap whoever it is that I most want to like me that week in real life, and then I

would have to go after the rustlers to save this person‟s life. The best part of every one of

my Westerns is when I ride after the rustlers. Sometimes I ride through thick forests,




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 56
sometimes across open fields, sometimes through a dusty Western town. But no matter

where I ride, I‟m good. I ride fast. And I can do all those tricks like standing up in the

saddle and twisting around backward while riding. If I got into a good Western in my

head, I could get through, say, the entire junior competition…and maybe even make it a

bit into the Senior Competition.

   “Katherine,” my mother calls from down the hall. She waves me toward her with her

entire arm, like she‟d been looking for me for forever or something, and then she

disappears into a classroom. I should have stayed on my mat.

   The classroom looks like a tornado has blown through and torn apart an entire small

town inside of it. There are clothes, banana peels, backpacks, and juice boxes thrown

everywhere, and little kids, some dressed up and some not, running in and out between

small camps of adults. There‟s a piano in the corner by the far window, and adding that

final touch of madness to the room, some kid is banging out the same two bars over and

over again, obviously a trouble spot in his piece, because he keeps messing it up. I spot

my mother and Amanda and start toward them.

   “Katherine, over here,” my mother calls when I‟m like ten feet away and looking

straight at her.

   “Where have you been?” she asks. And then, not giving me any time to answer, she

hands me a clump of Amanda‟s hair, saying, “Hold this.”

   “Hi Manny,” I smile. She looks up at me with her eyes, but doesn‟t move her head.

   “Don‟t move your head,” my mother snaps.

   Amanda and I laugh, which of course means that she moves her head.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 57
   “I‟m going to let you go out on that stage with a rat‟s nest in a minute,” my mother

warns, as if it‟s Amanda who cares about her hair and not my mother.

   “How do you feel?” I ask her.

   “Nervous,” she says.

   My mother takes the clump of Amanda‟s hair from me and I sit down on the desk in

front of Manny. “You‟ll do great.”

   She doesn‟t look too convinced. “Hey,” I say, “why don‟t we play „note toss‟ tonight,

okay?”

   “Yeah, really, okay, Kiki,” she says, smiling. “Even if I mess up in the competition,

we‟ll play, right?”

   “Even if you completely fall apart, we‟ll play,” I tell her.

         Amanda and I share a room. I argued with my mother forever to try and get my

own room. Jessica has her own room. Sarah has hers, too. We call it a nursery, but it‟s

really just the tiniest bedroom in the house. I keep trying to get my mother to agree to

have Sarah move in with Amanda, and let me have the nursery. But she won‟t. She says

she likes it the way it is, and that I have to wait until Sarah gets a little older.

         It‟s not that I hate sharing a room with Amanda. I don‟t hate it. In fact, Amanda

and I have some great times together, especially at night. We aren‟t allowed to talk, or

even whisper to each other after the light goes out. So we invented this game called,

“note toss” where we use our baby blankets…we still have them, not that we need to

sleep with them, but we just want to…to transport notes back and forth to each other. I

write a note under the covers with my flashlight, and then, so Amanda can get my note,

she throws out her blanket so it lies across the room, but she still has a corner of it in her




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 58
hand. I toss the note onto the blanket, and then she pulls it back in, reads it by the

hallway light that shines into our room by her bed, and then answers me. I get her note

the same way she got mine. If I miss on the toss, we have to smother our laughter by

smashing our faces into our pillows. I almost always miss and then have to write the note

over. I am so good at throwing and catching balls, but I really can‟t throw a little piece of

paper very well. Amanda can‟t either, and so in the morning, we have tons of tiny papers

to collect. It‟s kind of fun. So I don‟t hate it, sharing a room. But sometimes I just want

a space in the world that‟s mine, you know, to hear my name – Kate – without names

coming before it and after it.

   “Can you get me a juice box, Kiki?” Amanda asks.

   “Sure,” I tell her. On the back table is a huge bowl of ice with juice boxes sitting in it.

There aren‟t too many juice boxes left, but there are about a zillion boxes of raisins

sitting in a smaller bowl next to the juices. I grab two juice boxes and pick my way back

through the swirl of people and things to my mother and Amanda.

   “Thanks, Kiki,” she says. I put my juice box down on the desk and open up her straw

and poke it through the aluminum hole. I hand it to her so that she doesn‟t have to move

while my mother does her hair. Reaching down for my juice, it‟s snatched out of my

hand.

   “Hey!” I say.

   “What?” Jessica says. “These are only for the kids in the competition.” She rips off

the straw and pokes it hard into the hole, and then takes a long, smiling sip while she

looks at me over the top of the box.

   “Did you get the program, Katherine?” my mother asks.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               59
   “They weren‟t out on the tables yet,” I lie.

   She looks up from Amanda‟s hair and searches the room. “Where is your father?”

My mother is always asking questions that she doesn‟t want anyone to actually answer,

so we usually wait until she asks the questions a couple of times, just to be sure she really

is looking for an answer.

   Before we find out if it was a real question, my father and Sarah walk into the room as

if our life is a movie and the director, hearing my mother‟s question, signaled the father

actor and daughter actor, waiting patiently off camera, to enter stage left. He spots us

right away and waves the program in the air.

   “Finally,” Jessica says. “It‟s like no one cares that I still don‟t know where I am in the

line-up today.”

   Like we don‟t know where she is up in the line-up. We always know where she is in

the line-up…exactly where she and my mother like her to be…last. This way she can

walk out and wow the judges and they have Jessica on the brain when they score.

   My father makes his way across the room while Sarah is swallowed by the roving

group of small kids leaping and twirling about the room. Two feet before he gets to us,

Jessica reaches out and plucks the program out of his hands. She flips through the pages

until she hits the senior category, her category.

   “Read them out loud,” my mother says, still busy digging around in Amanda‟s hair.

   “Christopher Weaver, that freckled kid from the Montrose competition, Vernique, the

Heller twins, and some kid named Anthony Degregoria.” She says.

   “Anthony Degregoria?” questions my mother. “Is that the boy who always wears the

sweater vest and tie?”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               60
   “No,” Jessica says. “That‟s Andy Cullen. Remember his sister stepped on his hand

last month and broke his fingers. He won‟t be back losing to me for at least a few more

months.”

   “Let me see my list,” Amanda says.

   Jessica tosses the program onto the desk next to her, and out of Amanda‟s reach,

completely ignoring her. Picking her juice box back up, I mean, my juice box, she takes

that last sip out of it, which always sounds like a bathtub sucking the end of the bath

water out after a bath. She tosses the empty container into the garbage behind her and

announces to no one in particular, which means me…“That hit the spot.”

   “I know Anthony,” I say, more than glad to share my knowledge of the banged brat.

   My mother stops doing Amanda‟s hair and Jessica‟s ears prick up, even though she

doesn‟t move her head.

   “Yeah, I met him a little while ago. He‟s a little kid…” I pause for dramatic effect.

“Like about four years old,” I exaggerate. “He‟s a prodigy,” I announce, letting the “e

sound” sit on my lips longer than necessary.

   “What?” Jessica asks annoyed.

   So glad you asked, I think inside my head. “It‟s someone that never loses.” I smile.

   “I know what a prodigy is, jerk,” Jessica snaps.

   “Jessica,” my mother says in a slightly disapproving way.

   “They say he‟s better than Beethoven,” I add, just for the „jerk‟ remark.

   There is this tiny little silence that if someone wanted to sell it to me, I would have

paid all the money I had in the world for it. But I didn‟t have to pay for it. I just got it

for free, which made me enjoy it even more.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                   61
  “I‟m dying of thirst,” Jessica says. “Isn‟t there anything to drink around here?”

  My father does a little hop and then heads toward the big bowl filled with ice and juice

boxes.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                           62
                                    REALLY EXISTING

   My mother‟s not that big into competitions with surprises in them, and Jessica‟s not

that big into competitions with competition in them, so now we have to go speak to the

head of the piano competition about the prodigy. I don‟t know why they have to drag me

into it. Although I‟m not the most miserable of the group, that award belongs to the wide-

eyed competition lady whose wide eyes dart around the room, I assume, looking for some

kind of an escape route. My mother doesn‟t notice her misery. She‟s been going on and

on so long that she could be talking about cattle ranching right now for all I know.

   “We have to think about this,” my mother is saying. “And it truly comes down to this.

Is it really fair to the child?” She stops to suck in a breath, but then I can see that she

likes the sound of that last line, and so she stops talking, nodding her head to agree with

her own point.

   It takes a second for the wide-eyed lady to understand that my mom is finally finished

talking. She obviously spends way too much time discussing things with people where

the word discuss means less of an exchange of ideas and more of an endless stream of

words strung together like electrical wire from telephone pole to telephone pole across

states like Iowa and Kansas, and so she isn‟t ready with a comeback, probably thinking

she had at least another fifteen minutes before she even had to start thinking of one. She

opens her eyes even wider and breathes in through her nose, “But,” she says, “Anthony

Degregoria is at a level where he belongs in the Senior Competition, and, well, I don‟t

think that you have to worry about having Anthony feel that things are unfair for him.”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  63
   “But what do the rules say?” My mother doesn‟t give up so easy with this stuff like

this.

   “Yes,” adds Jessica, who‟s been standing quietly next to my mother with her lips in a

sugary smile, and her eyes blinking like an innocent deer standing quietly by the

roadside, “don‟t the rules say thirteen and older for seniors and twelve and under for

juniors?”

   “That is true,” says the woman smiling down at Jessica, “but Anthony won‟t be

challenged in that age group. But this aside,” she says looking back at my mother, “I

think it‟s wrong to put someone of Anthony‟s talent next to a junior player. It could be

very demoralizing to the junior players.”

   “Weeeeelllll,” my mother draws out the word, searching for something to follow it, “I

for one think that the rules are there for a reason, and that the age cut off should be

upheld over skill level. What do you think, Melvin?” She nudges my father, who‟s been

standing by my mother in the function of a decoration, never thinking that he‟d have to

serve a higher purpose.

   “Uhm, well, skill level can be very subjective, especially at this age,” he says, rubbing

his chin. My mother‟s face brightens like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. That

sounded good. I think probably because he might have actually meant it. “If you move

this child,” he continues, “you may be setting yourself up for parents wanting their

children moved up to senior level, or even down to junior level, at their whim, or

according to who is in the competition that day.”

   I can see the woman squirming. He has got her.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               64
   “If Anthony moves down to the junior level won‟t that mean that he will go against

Amanda?” I ask.

   The woman glances over at me in reaction to my voice, but I can tell she really didn‟t

hear what I said. She‟s too busy thinking about what my father just said. My mother

didn‟t hear me either because she‟s too busy trying to keep from smiling like a jack o‟

lantern. But Jessica heard me.

   “Pay no attention to her,” she says to the woman, “we just got her out of the detention

home this morning, and you know how it is.” She smiles at the woman as she steps back

onto my toe, crushing it into the gym floor.

   “Ouwwch,” I cry.

   “Katherine, shush,” my mother says annoyed, stepping in front of me to block me

from the lady‟s view so that this woman can concentrate on making the decision my

mother wants her to make.

   So my parents want Anthony to compete against Amanda, not Jessica, and their

reasoning to this woman is so that she doesn‟t have to deal with manipulating parents in

the future…as per my own manipulating parents in the present. And I just got out of the

detention home?

   I take my mother‟s back being two inches from my nose as a sign that I‟ve been

released and walk away. The gym is full of people and there is a crowd of little kids

jumping on my mat in the back, but I don‟t have enough energy to go looking around for

some other place to sit, so I walk over and slide down the cement wall onto the dusty

gym floor next to the volleyball net. I could care less about the woman‟s final decision.

I‟m sure it will be in Jessica‟s favor. It always is.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              65
       Jessica is the one that belongs in the detention home – I‟d love her to know how it

feels to have her foot crushed, her arm pinched, or her ear poked by a smelly, hard,

pointy toe every time she got into a car.

       But I don‟t want detention homes to be bad places more than I want Jessica to

suffer, because that‟s where my friend Derek is. That‟s why Jessica used it. She knows

that saying the words “detention home” would not only embarrass me in front of this

lady, but would also punch me in my heart. Jessica is so skilled in evil that she can make

one sentence hurt you twice.

       I first met Derek the week before Valentine‟s Day in the fifth grade. He came

into our class while we were making valentines out of construction paper and pasting

doilies around the outside of them. Pretty corny, yes, yet kind of fun, and I always loved

the way that paste in the white screw-on containers smelled.

       I remember thinking that it was strange that his parents would move him half way

through a school year. It seems that they should have waited until one year ended and

another started. I mean, it‟s hard enough to do a good job learning when you already had

to move and start in a new class with new people and stuff, but to have to do it right in

the middle of the year is the worst. Everyone knows that.

       That first day, Mr. Fetty told him to take the seat behind me. And for almost two

straight months we‟d start every morning together in the same way, with me lending him

a pencil. Derek never had a pencil. He was nice. He had nice eyes. He was pretty

smart, too.

       We used to have these long talks about stuff. We once had a long talk about The

Hobbit, a book by this guy Tolkien. It‟s the book about Bilbo Baggins and how he goes




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                66
on this great adventure. If you have ever read this book, then you know how great it is. I

never had long talks with anyone before...even Emily. I mean, me and Em, we have fun,

but we don‟t talk like me and Derek did. I tried to get Emily to read The Catcher in the

Rye after the first time I read it because it was so good. She tried. She got about twenty

pages in when she threw it down all frustrated. She said that Holden just went on and on.

And it‟s true. She‟s right. Holden does go on and on. But the on and on seemed like the

point to me. Derek always got that kind of stuff. Plus, he always had something to say

and then he wanted me to say stuff, too.

       Anyway, the day we talked about Bilbo, Derek was going on and on about how

Bilbo thought he wasn‟t a good guy to be chosen to go on an adventure, but how Gandalf,

the wizard, thought he was the best guy. And Bilbo turns out to be the best guy. Derek

liked that. I told Derek that I was more like Bilbo at the beginning of the story and that I

liked my warm hobbit hole and wouldn‟t like adventures because I wouldn‟t be any good

at them. Derek said that he never had a warm hobbit hole, and that everywhere he lived

seemed kind of cold to him. That got him started in on how maybe he was really Smaug,

the dragon. Mostly all Smaug did was lay around in a cave until Bilbo came and killed

him. Derek got sad thinking about how he was Smaug and I tried to change the subject,

but he stayed kind of sad.

       After that Derek did become like Smaug. He curled up in his cave and barely

ever came out. I still gave him pencils every morning, but I had to ask him if he needed

one. It was like he did it to himself, thinking of himself as Smaug, the terrible dragon.

Our talks just stopped. And then Easter break came, and he was gone.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                67
       When Derek didn‟t come to school for two days in a row right after Easter break I

walked down Dead Man‟s path, which I so wasn’t allowed to do, to get to his

neighborhood around the other side of the lake, and bumped into Melanie Campfield

when I was walking past his house.

       “You looking for Derek?” She‟d asked.

        For some reason I felt embarrassed about it, and almost said no. But instead I

said nothing and just hoped she‟d keep talking.

       “His foster parents sent him away,” she said, and she waited for my face to form

the question, and then she let out the real news, “to a detention home.”

       I really don‟t remember anything else after that, like if she knew where or why or

anything. The next day, though, I heard some of the sixth graders talking about it,

confirming what Melanie had said. I hated hearing people whisper about him, but I

listened because it was better to hear bad news about him than to hear no news at all.

That Friday morning when Mr. Fetty moved Jeremy Snedecker up one desk, and into

Derek‟s old seat behind me, I knew he was gone for good, and I kind of lost it.

       The nurse called it a little breakdown when she was on the phone with my mother.

I was still bawling into that scratchy paper pillowcase on the nurse‟s cot when my mother

picked me up. First the nurse talked to her behind the curtain, and then my mother led

me to the car, took me home, and put me in bed. It‟s weird how she never asked me why

I was crying, no one did. Maybe the nurse told her that sobbing went with having a “little

breakdown.” But I was glad that I didn‟t have to come up with some lie about it. I mean,

I really couldn‟t have told her the truth, anyway, because it sounded so stupid and, like

nothing, you know…that I was missing my friend that I only knew for like two months of




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                68
my entire life. But no one had to tell Jessica why I had the “little breakdown,” she just

knew. It‟s like she can sniff the reason for your sadness right out of you. She didn‟t say

a word about it at the time. She just put it in her pocket along with all the other tragedies

in my life, to be used at a later date.

        For the next few weeks I walked around school trying to block out all the Derek

talk. Its funny how no one talked about Derek, or to Derek, when he came to school

every day…it was like he didn‟t exist. But after he was gone, he was all anybody could

talk about. He just became these stories…and again, he didn‟t really exist.

        One of the little kids loses her balance jumping on the mat and bashes into me.

She‟s so small and light, like a little baby bird, that it doesn‟t hurt me at all. She doesn‟t

say she is sorry or anything, but just goes right back to the mat and the jumping. That‟s

little kids for you, when they‟re having a good time, they‟re all giggles, elbows, and

teeth, and they really have no idea what‟s going on around them.

        Maybe I will end up being my family‟s story, the one that they talk about over

Christmas dinner. And all the little cousins will be scared of me as they listen to the

stories of how I was sent to the “detention home,” never to return again.

   I can‟t help dreaming of how it would be to live in a detention home with Derek, even

though I‟m not that stupid to think that the reality of it would be that dream-like.

Sometimes I do this crazy thing where I tell the air to go tell Derek that he was never

Smaug, but that he was actually one of the eagles of the Misty Mountains, who in the end

of the book, freed the Lonely Mountain from all the goblins. I hope the air delivers my

message to him once in a while…because I know he‟s out there in the world…really

existing.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                69
                                  EVOLUTION AT WORK

        The lights go out the same way they went on, all at once with a loud snap. The

crowd of people moving about the room suddenly feels like one big squirming being –

and like an old dog turning around two or three times before he settles on his dog bed –

the crowd slowly comes to rest. A spotlight clicks on and the black and white monster on

the stage pops into view. Two seconds later, the lady with the wide eyes walks out to

applause. She gets in front of the microphone and starts to talk. This part of the

competition is like when the stewardess comes out and tells you about the safety junk on

the plane, no one listens to any of it.

        Her speech drones on. And one by one, the jumping kids are collected from the

mats, their high pitched whining silenced by harsh whispering parents. By the time the

lady with the wide eyes is finished with her “the exits are over here – turn off your cell

phones” speech, the mats are empty. There is more clapping as some old guy walks out

to the piano. They always start these things out with a few people that know how to play.

My father never misses this part. He‟s all alone up there in the seats covered by bags and

coats because my mother and sisters are still in the back room. My mother usually stays

in the waiting room until the Senior Competition starts, but today, I guess she‟ll have to

come to see Amanda in the Junior…Amanda and probably, Anthony, too.

        The light from the hallway shines through the long rectangle windows in the back

of the gym. Every few seconds a shadow passes by, blocking out the light for just a

quick moment. The competition started and people still moving about out in the hallway

can only mean one thing…the concession stand is opened. There is almost always some

kind of concession stand or bake sale at one of these things and I have my money ready.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 70
It‟s the only thing I look forward to. Although, not even a huge brownie can make days

like these bearable, and if someone said you have to eat this cake of mud, and then you‟ll

get to stay home from the competition alone in your house with the TV, trust me, I‟d be

all over that mud cake. So the brownie is a sad consolation, but even a sad consolation is

better than no consolation. And I pull out my money and count it.

        I don‟t have much and what I do have is mostly in quarters because I get them

from my great-grandmother, Marie. My great-grandmother Marie is pretty old - the skin

on her arms kind of swings when she moves and sometimes she forgets what she is

saying right when she just started saying it. But even if she remembers what she‟s

saying, it still takes her a ton of time to say it.

        Every time my great-grandmother visits she gives me like ten quarters. She puts

them in my hand one at a time and then closes my hand with hers and gives me this little

speech about saving money and being responsible. I know the speech by heart, so most

times I don‟t really listen. I can kind of feel when I‟m supposed to nod my head yes. She

forgets about it in about five minutes, and so then she pulls another quarter out of her

change purse that always smells kind of sweet, and does it all over again.

        I‟m the only one she gives those quarters and that speech to. I don‟t think that

anyone would want to give a quarter to Jessica because then they would have to hold her

hand. Sometimes my great-grandmother Marie gives quarters to Amanda. But I don‟t

think she likes giving them to Amanda much because Amanda gets real serious about the

quarter speech, getting right back in grandma‟s face about responsibility and saving and

all. Amanda has about a million bucks hidden away in this old jewelry box – you know

the kind with a ballerina in it that turns and plays music when you open it. It doesn‟t




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               71
have a ballerina any more, although the plastic thing that the dancer was attached to still

spins around while the music plays. I don‟t think that grandma Marie likes Amanda

getting more serious than she gets, so I mostly get the quarters.

        I‟ve got almost five dollars, and that should be plenty for stuff at a concession

stand. I want to be able to get something to eat, plus a soda, and something for Sarah,

too.

        The pianist is in this part of his piece that sounds like if it was used in a movie,

someone would be pulling apart a room looking for the stolen money or something.

Anyway, it‟s a good time to be creaking across the old gym floorboards to the door and

sliding out of it.

        The lady sitting behind the table handing out the programs looks up when she

hears the door. I feel like I need to give her some explanation as to why I‟m sneaking out

when the competition just started.

        “It‟s a little stuffy in there,” I smile.

        She gives me this weird look, probably because I used the word “stuffy” like I

was about fifty years old or something.

        The concession stand is down the hall, and I walk slowly toward it, pretending

like I‟m just wandering around for less “stuffy” air and not heading directly to the

concession stand. As soon as I get about twenty feet from the program lady, I relax and

just walk down to the tables filled with food.

        It‟s one of those stands that has potato chips and Doritos instead of brownies and

chocolate chips cookies, and I‟m a tiny bit disappointed. I‟m more of a sugar person than




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                   72
a salt person. When it comes to chocolate, I can get a little crazy. I blame this on my

mother.

        There are only two times each year that candy is allowed to enter the house,

Halloween and Easter. On Valentine‟s Day we get whole wheat pancakes made in the

shape of hearts and at Christmas we get oranges and tangerines in our stockings like

we‟re some kind of Dutch family walking around in wooden shoes in the front yard of

our windmill. The first thing that Jessica and Amanda do when they get their Easter

basket, or when they return from trick or treating, is to make a detailed list of the contents

of the basket or treat bag. And then each time they eat something, they cross it off the

list. I know you‟re thinking, just take something and then cross it off the list…they’ll

never know. But trust me, they keep those lists hidden like they‟re some kind of pirate

treasure maps or something.

        Sarah lets me have anything I want out of her Easter basket or Halloween bag.

And I have to really hold onto myself so that I don‟t ask her for her big chocolate bunny,

and just stick to asking for a little chocolate egg or a couple packets of Sweet Tarts.

Sometimes Amanda will let me have stuff, too. She can be really generous when she

feels like it.

           “What‟ll it be?” the guy behind the table at the concession stand asks with a big

smile on his face. The dads at these things get a kick out of working these stands. They

act like they‟re bartenders or something. The moms always just stand there waiting for

you to decide. I guess they have to run these tables all the time so they don‟t get so into

it.

        “Can I have a Coke, one bag of Doritos, and a bag of chips?”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               73
        “Pepsi okay?” he says, his big smile intact.

        “Yeah, great.”

        He tries to slide the can of soda across the table to me, but it‟s cold and wet from

sitting in ice, and it sticks to the plastic table and then rolls over on its side. I can tell

he‟s disappointed, so I grab it and say thank you like I‟m some kind of cheerleader at a

state championship. I hate it when people get disillusioned right in front of me. My

extreme enthusiasm over a Pepsi perks him back up a bit.

        He hands me my Doritos and chips and I hand over most all of my money. These

stands seem to be getting more expensive every week. My great-grandmother ought to

start giving me dollar bills.

        Now I need to go get Sarah somehow without my mother seeing “the goods.”

She‟d just about die if she found out that not only was I going to eat packaged snacks, but

that I was going to feed them to Sarah. Whenever she finds these snacks on us, she

confiscates them and throws them out, but before she does, she reads the package

ingredients out loud to us in this tone of voice like she‟s reading war atrocities. And she

does this really annoying thing where she stops and looks up at us every once in a while

after reading some impossibly long, unpronounceable ingredient…I guess to get our

reaction on certain ones that she believes to be even worse than the others. She never

even considers the fact that the pained look on our face has everything to do with having

to endure yet another list off the back of a snack that we were two seconds ago, pretty

excited to be eating, and now, we can only watch longingly as she reads what it is we‟ll

never get to enjoy. She doesn‟t get it that none of us cares if we‟re eating different

combinations of impossibly, long unpronounceable ingredients…they taste good.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                     74
       And really, not caring what we eat is her fault, too. I know that lots of times kids

blame their parents for stuff, but this time, the blame is truly sitting on her shoulders for a

good reason. She is the cruddiest cook ever. Since the day we were born she‟s been

wearing our tongues down like a relentless desert wind, leaving a smooth hard surface

where our taste buds used to be.

       My Life Sciences teacher always says that cooking is a combination of knowledge

and skill. My mother has no lack of knowledge. It‟s just that this knowledge seems to be

speaking a different language than her hands. I‟m sure her brain is saying a ton of good

stuff like tender and savory and juicy, but all her hands ever hear is, “cardboard.”

Anyway, how much skill do you need to make a veggie burger eatable? In my family,

we‟d settle for her just getting the shape and color right, because at least we could

pretend it was a hamburger.

       Her first problem is that she cooks everything at 500 degrees. That “thorough”

part of her includes “thoroughly” cooking everything. She makes her very own pizza,

which is like starting your homework by cutting down a tree in the backyard to make

paper, but whatever. And then she‟ll stick it in her 500-degree oven while she sets the

table. I was in the Second grade by the time I discovered that there was cheese on the top

of pizza.

       “What a good idea,” I remember saying to Emily at our very first pizza party. She

laughed so hard that she choked out a big gob of half-chewed crust onto her desk. I

instantly pretended it was a joke before I even knew what joke I was pretending to make.

Looking around the classroom for a clue, it didn‟t take me long to realize that I was the

only one in the room who thought this pizza was different than any other pizza, and that




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                75
everyone else knew that there was supposed to be cheese on top of pizza – my mother

had just burned it clean off.

          After that, I learned to keep my mouth shut when I made what I liked to call,

“food realizations.” Like the moment I discovered that a “rare steak” didn‟t mean it came

from a cow found only in the jungles of some far away exotic place, but a steak that was

lightly cooked, and made your mouth explode in saliva. Or the time I realized that spices

were still around today - and not just something that Columbus was looking for, and

because he discovered America, didn‟t ever end up finding.

          I head toward the competition room where they put all the kids waiting to play.

Sarah is probably still down there with my mother, Jessica, and Amanda. My mother

always kept Sarah with her as long as she could because she isn‟t so good at sitting still

next to my father. And my father isn‟t that good at noticing that she isn‟t sitting still next

to him.

          I twist a couple classroom door knobs to see if I can find an unlocked classroom

to hide my stash until I can get Sarah. I finally find one halfway down the hall toward the

competition room. The empty classroom is dark. I walk in, sliding to a stop when

Jessica walks in behind me. My immediate reaction is to protect my face.

          “What are you doing?” she laughs.

          “I don‟t know,” I shrug, my body holds onto itself, waiting for the pinch or jab

that my evolutionary journey through life has taught me is most likely still coming.

          “What are you doing?” she asks, looking down at the food in my hands.

          “Oh, this?” I lift the snacks slightly in the air, like I just noticed them, “I, a,

well…”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                    76
          “I don‟t mean that,” she says, “I mean, just what are you doing, you know, in

general?”

          My body relaxes, but not my brain…it‟s not going to be a physical attack, but a

mental one, and I brace myself so as not to be swept up into her sick little world.

          “I was looking for Sarah,” I tell her.

          “In here?” she asks. “She‟s in with mom and Amanda.”

          “No, not in here, I was…I don‟t know.”

          “Hiding that stuff so mom wouldn‟t see, and then getting Sarah so that you guys

could eat it?” She asks. I never said she was stupid. We laugh.

          “Come on,” she says, taking my arm. “I‟ll hold the food and you go in and get

Sarah.” I hesitate and she rolls her eyes, smiling. “Okay, you hold the food and I‟ll go in

and get Sarah.”

          We walk down the hall toward the competition room. “Tell mom that I‟m taking

her out to the playground until the juniors start,” I tell her.

          The noise in the room is intense. “Stay here,” mouths Jessica. She stands at the

door and scans the inside of the room. Spotting them, she nods and then looks back at

me. “I‟m going in,” she mouths with a shrug and a laugh.

          One minute later Sarah bursts from the room. She can smell impossibly long,

unpronounceable ingredients from ten miles away. Some animals grow long tongues to

get ants out of logs or a strong jaw to crack the bones of their prey, Sarah has grown a

“junk food sensor.” It‟s one of her evolutionary skills that she‟s developed living in this

family.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                77
       She grabs my hand and yanks me down the hall toward the back door of the

school. She also has a pretty good “playground sensor.”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                      78
                                    THE STORY OF MY LIFE

       The wind attacks us the second we step out the doors. Sarah spots the swings and

bounces back and forth in place, caught between the pull of the playground and the red

and orange bag of Doritos in my hand.

       “Let‟s go down by those trees,” Jessica shouts over the wind, pointing to a cluster

of small pine trees by a bench inside the playground, giving Sarah the best of both

worlds. We head down the hill.

       “This is better, right?” Jessica says, as we duck under the trees and slide onto the

bench. It is better, but still cold. We huddle together over the bags of junk food like

they‟re a warm campfire. I open up Sarah‟s Doritos and she quickly snatches at them.

       “Sarah,” Jessica says, frowning. “At least say thank you.”

       “Thuunnks, Kiki,” she says, with her mouth filled with a giant Doritos. I open up

my bag of chips and offer it to Jessica.

       “Nah,” she says, “I have that scared stomach right now. I always get it before

competitions.”

       “You nervous?” I ask.

       She looks out over the playground and shrugs.

       “Well, at least you don‟t have to compete against that little kid like poor

Amanda,” I remind her. “That must make you feel better, right?”

       She doesn‟t take her eyes off the sliding board. “I might have to.” She says.

       “Really? I thought that he was going to be put down in the Junior Competition

because of his age.”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              79
       “No,” she says, looking back at me just for a second, and then turning her head to

look out over the treetops away from the school. “They decided to suggest the Junior

Competition to him, but that if he decided to stay in the Senior, they would allow it.”

       “Wow, I can‟t believe that. It seemed like that lady was totally into putting him

into the Junior Competition.”

       “People can be hard to read, sometimes,” she sighs. But then perks up, “and he‟s

such a jerk, you know. I was there when they told him, and he was swinging those stupid

bangs of his around.”

       “I know,” I say. “What is up with that kid and those monster bangs!”

       We laugh, and Jessica pulls a handful of chips out of my bag and munches.

       “Done,” cries Sarah, smashing the Doritos bag into my stomach and reaching for

my soda.

       “Wipe your nose, first,” Jessica says.

       Sarah smears her sleeve across her face and then reaches again for my soda. I

hand it over and she sucks out a few sips like its hot tea, and then hands it back. And then

she pops off the bench and races toward the swing set that‟s obviously been calling to her

throughout her entire bag of Doritos.

       “But that‟s not the worst part,” she continues. “The worst part is that after they

finished telling him, he followed me around for ten minutes telling me about how he‟s

read all the Spiderwick books, like I care.”

       “Me, too,” I say, handing her my soda.

       She takes a gulp and hands it back, turning to watch Sarah hanging by one knee

on her swing, dragging her coat in the dirt beneath it. “I hate fantasy.”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                80
        I shrug. I love fantasy, but I like the feeling that we‟re agreeing on stuff and don‟t

want to ruin it.

        “I swear,” she says, turning to look straight into my eyes. “We should give that

kid a taste of his own, „I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread,‟ medicine.” Her eyes are

dark with evil happiness, a familiar sight…but not usually one that draws me in. She

rolls her eyes back to think, and then claps with joy. “Listen,” she says, holding onto my

arm and pulling me toward her. It‟s not too often that I‟m this close to Jessica where I

wasn‟t in physical pain. It‟s weird. Maybe this was all we needed, an outside threat like

Anthony to pull us together. “He wants to beat the best so that he can be the best, so let‟s

trick him, you know, fool him into thinking that he‟s going against the best and then we

take that giant trophy right out of his hot little hands.”

        “What do you mean, I don‟t get it?”

        Instead of calling me a dunce or an idiot…her usual…she explains a little slower.

“Anthony is going to compete in the Senior Competition because he thinks that I‟m the

best and he knows that to really win, you need to beat the best, right?” she says.

        “Yes.” I nod.

        “Well, let‟s trick him into thinking he has it wrong. Let‟s get him thinking that

Amanda is the best. He‟ll enter the Junior Competition and lose!” She lets go of my arm

and does a little cheerleading move with her hands.

        “But then wouldn‟t Amanda be playing in the Senior Competition if she is so

good?” I ask.

        “Good question,” Jessica says. My heart does a little flip. She‟s never

complemented me in her entire life. “But listen, don‟t you think that his mom already




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                81
told him about what happened, about how Mom and Dad went and spoke to the judges to

put him down into the Junior Competition. So he‟s, of course, going to think that since

we thought he should be in the Junior Competition because of his age, that we‟d put

Manny in the Junior Competition because of her age, no matter how good she is. Get it,

now?”

        I did, kind of. In other words, Anthony and his mom would believe we were

sticking to the rules like we wanted them to do. But all I said was, “yes.”

        “So, Kiki, all you have to do is go drop the hint that Manny is the best, and poof,

he‟ll compete in the Junior Competition and lose!” She stamps her feet and laughs. “It‟s

a great idea, right?”

        “Yeah,” I say, “it‟s a good idea. But I don‟t wanna have to…”

        “Come on, Kiki,” she says pouting. “You can do it. We have to beat him.”

        I hate to have our magical moment end, so I agree to the plan. Jessica jumps off

the bench. “Okay, Kiki, I‟ll stay here with Sarah and you go and do it, and then come

back out and report to us.” She snaps her feet together and salutes me.

        I‟m a little slow coming off the bench from the combination of cold and

confusion. I want to be in on this with Jess, but I really don‟t want to go do this thing

with Anthony.

        “Here‟s two dollars for more chips,” she says, handing me two dollar bills.

“Sorry I ate some.”

        “Thanks,” I say, standing up and taking the money. “Stay here and I‟ll bring

down another bag and we‟ll share it.”

        “Great,” she says, smiling.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                82
         I start up the hill bracing myself against the wind. And then run for the doors, my

eyes streaming with wind tears. It‟s locked. Shoot. I look both directions to see which

way would get me to the front doors of the building faster. I can‟t tell. I decide to head

right.

         Why don‟t they just make buildings square like they should be? Why do they

make them like mazes so that you feel like a laboratory mouse looking for the stupid

piece of cheese that is called a front door! Every time the wind blows I‟m sure I won‟t

make it around without freezing to death. This obviously was the wrong way, and every

turn I make brings me to another long wall that definitely does not look like a front door

is around the corner. When I turn the millionth corner, I encounter a little group of

dumpsters with a picnic table next to them. You see this a lot, where they put a lunch

table next to a bunch of dumpsters, so that on a nice day, I guess, the poor work guys can

go eat their lunch with the flies.

         I think about turning around, but that determined feeling takes over, you know,

the one that you wish would take over during a math test but never does, and I start

running as fast as I can. When I turn the next corner, there is the parking lot peeking

around behind a row of bushes. Yes! I keep running, turn the corner, and slow down to a

walk to catch my breath. Pulling open the front door, I jump inside and let the door close

behind me, my ears stinging in the heat of the school.

         Now that I‟m alone, I really don‟t want to perform my end of the bargain. I don‟t

know about this plan. It doesn‟t seem like it would work, anyway. I turn back to the

door, but the thought of disappointing Jessica stops me. Plus there‟s the fact that it‟s

freezing out there.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               83
       “What are ya doin?”

       Ugh. It‟s him again. Jessica is so almighty that she probably felt me hesitating

and used her power to stick him right out in front of me. And he‟s always asking that

question.

       “What did ya do,” he says, “steal that money?”

       “What?” I ask, following his eyes to Jessica‟s two dollars in my hand. “I didn‟t

steal any money. What are you talking about?”

       “You look guilty to me,” he says.

       I ignore him and stuff the two dollars into my pocket. There‟s an old bottle of

spray candy in there, and I pull it out. Hmmm, cherry, my favorite, and unfortunately,

the reason it‟s empty.

       “What are you gonna do,” he says looking at the candy in my hand suspiciously,

“spray me in the face with perfume or something so that I can‟t crush your big sister in

the Senior Competition.”

       “What?” I ask.

       He swings those stupid bangs out of his eyes and sticks out his pointy little chin,

sending tiny pinpricks of annoyance crackling through my veins, “My mother told me

that you guys were trying to put me down into juniors.”

       “I‟m not doing anything.” I tell him.

       “Suuuure,” he says.

       “Listen, kid, you can crush either one of my sisters. Go for it. I could care less.”

And weirdly, I‟m telling the truth.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               84
         “I just need to crush the best one,” he says, sticking his hands deep into the

pockets of his expensive corduroys, suggesting like he doesn‟t even need either one of

these appendages to do it.

         “Well then I should let you in on a little secret,” I say, tossing my own hair out of

my eyes and sticking my hands in my coat pockets, mocking him. “Amanda is the one to

beat, not my older sister, Jessica. But you go for it. Beat any one of them you‟d like.”

         He narrows his eyes at me, thinking, wondering if I‟m telling the truth. I shake

my head, “Whatever, I don‟t know why I‟m bothering even talking to you,” I mumble.

         And then I see it…the moment where he believes me.

         Anthony‟s mother appears carrying her own stash from the concession stand.

“Oh, hello,” she says, not expecting to see anyone but Anthony, but it comes out

sounding like, “who the heck are you?”

         “I can‟t concentrate with all the interruptions,” Anthony whines. He walks a little

ways away from me with his eyes closed in frustration and his hands still in his pockets.

         Anthony‟s mother stiffens. She watches him walk off into the corner of the front

hall, „my poor little baby‟ written all over her face, where „my big fat baby‟ should have

been written. And then she turns to me, “I‟m sorry, but he really needs time to himself

before he performs, so you‟ll have to…”

         “I was just heading to the concession stand,” I interrupt her.

         “Well, we wouldn‟t want to hold you up.” She looks past me with a small, thin

smile.

         I laugh a little because that‟s what you do when someone says something so

unbelievably rude to you that you are embarrassed for them. And then I apologize for, I




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                85
guess, using the front door. But mostly because that‟s what I do best, apologize. And

then I head down the hall, just catching Anthony‟s smirk as I pass. Little kid smirks are

always eerie, that‟s why they use them in horror films, because they naturally make you

shiver.

          “That girl got me all upset,” he moans. His B-movie pout and weepy eyes are

enough to make me vomit.

          “Oh, sweet heart, don‟t think about her one more minute.” She coos.

          I want to scream back down the hall that I‟m right here and can hear her. But

what‟s the point. If only life were like a B movie and I had special powers to lock him up

in a tanning bed and burn him into a little pile of ashes.

          The concession stand is in full swing and the dad that was so happy to help an

hour ago is nowhere to be seen, replaced by sweaty women that say, “next, next, next,”

without looking at anyone, so you‟re never exactly sure which next you actually are. I

have a couple of false starts before I get it right. “Hmm, I‟ll , oh.” I stand and wait.

“Thanks, I‟ll, oh, okay.” Finally, I get it right, “I‟ll have a bag of chips and a soda.”

          My head clears enough from my encounter with the banged beast to come up with

the good idea to walk through the warm school back to the door by the competition room

where we first went outside to the playground instead of trekking back around the

colossal building outside in the freezing wind. There is a bit of weaving in and out of

people to be done because the real competition is about to begin. I make it back to the

hallway just in time to see someone open the door for Jessica and Sarah.

          “HEY!”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                86
       But they don‟t hear me over the crowd, and they walk into the competition

classroom before I can stop them.

       Shoot. I‟ll have to hide my chips and soda so that I can go in and get them. I try

the same door as before, but it‟s locked. There‟s a cleaning bucket and garbage can

sitting in the corner by the door, and I‟d rather not do it, but I don‟t have much of a

choice, so I stick the soda and chips behind the cleaning bucket when no is looking, a

dangerous move, but a necessary one under the circumstances, and then I head into the

eye of the tornado.

       My lips are actually shaking to get to the words out of my mouth about Anthony.

Just the thought of telling her the good news makes me giggle in my head like someone is

tickling my brain.

       They‟re all in the back. Jessica is already sitting in the corner on a stack of coats

with her book, Sarah has reunited with the roaming band of squealing kids, and Manny is

watching the scene from her tower, a desk that my mother probably won‟t let her off of

so that she doesn‟t mess herself up.

       Jessica looks up as I approach and I smile, nodding my head to convey my

success with Anthony. She looks immediately back down to her book before I can mime

our extra bag of chips that is waiting outside the classroom.

       I try to re-catch Jessica‟s eye, but it‟s hard when both of them are now stuck to

her book.

       “Mom?”

       She‟s rustling around in her bags.

       “Mom?”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               87
       “What, Kate, what Kate?” she says looking up, like I‟ve been standing here

bothering her for an hour or something.

       “I‟m gonna take Sarah down the hall to dad, okay?” I say, loudly, and not just

because of the noisy room, but so that Jessica can hear that I‟m getting us out.

       My mother relaxes a little, probably feeling guilty for being a jerk to me when I‟m

offering to do something as nice as taking care of my little sister. “Yes, yes, that‟s a good

idea, honey.” She says. She checks her watch, “It‟s almost time.” And then she dives

back into her bags.

       Amanda calls from her jail cell, “Mom.”

       “No,” my mother says without looking up. “You‟ll stay right where you are until

they come for the junior players.”

       Amanda gives me a look like it‟s my fault.

       I shrug at her with open hands, trying to show my helplessness, but she turns

away, not ready to give up being mad at me, even though she knows it‟s not my fault.

       I look down at Jessica, waiting for her to look up, or stand up, either one. The

only thing that moves is her eyes across the page of her book. I clear my throat to get her

attention. She doesn‟t look up.

       “Jessica.”

       “What?” she asks, staring straight into her book. But I can see the small upturned

corners of her mouth.

        I don‟t know what to say. I look over at Amanda and my mom, and then back to

Jessica. “Uhhh,” is all that comes out of my mouth as I wait for her to remember the last

fifteen minutes of our life…the bench, the plan, the second bag of chips.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              88
       “What a dweeb,” she says under her breath.

       I can actually feel the chemicals pouring out of my cells creating the flash in my

brain that is the story of my life…that old dream of the new friendship that I thought this

time, was really happening…followed by the memories of all the other times where I

thought this exact same thing - in the backyard on that Saturday afternoon playing

kickball, the night we sat in her bedroom on her blue plastic rug whispering in the dark

after Saturday Night Live, or the time we tried to ride our bikes all the way to the mall -

there are so many of these memories, and they all come crashing together, mixing into a

dark river that rolls through my body, heading down, down, down to that empty place

inside me, where it all pools, cold and deep. Shivering, the flash ends, leaving me

swimming in the bitter knowledge of what I‟d just done…betray Amanda…and myself.

       “Well, what do you want?” Jessica looks up from her book with an innocent

exasperated look on her face, mixed with the absolute awareness of what she‟d just done.

       “Nothing,” I whisper, which is the only thing I am ever going to get from Jessica.

       I turn around and head for Sarah.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               89
                                               DO OVER

        “Come on, let‟s go,” I say, stepping in front of Sarah to separate her from the

merry band of little kids with sweat plastering the hair around their faces.

        She jumps and twirls, giggling.

        “Sarah!”

        She stops twirling and looks up at me, “Kiki?” she asks, “Are you mad at me?”

        Maybe she sees my lips quiver or my eyes fill with tears…or maybe she does it

because she always does it…but she grabs me around my middle and squeezes me as

hard as her spaghetti string arms will let her…which is pretty hard. And even though it

hurts, I‟d never tell her to stop. Instead, I suck in her beautiful baby smell, letting it fill

my insides. It immediately begins to eat up the poisonous fumes that spontaneously erupt

inside me whenever I lose to Jessica - just like one of those air deodorizers on the TV

commercials where the woman sprays it in a room and it makes the cartoon symbols of

yucky smells pop into oblivion. But even Sarah‟s essence can‟t eat up all these fumes -

they are too strong this time.

        My father wanders into the noisy classroom and heads over to my mother, Jessica,

and Amanda. He sits down next to Amanda on her tower and puts his arm around her

neck and she leans her stiff, hair-sprayed head on his shoulder. As I watch him whisper to

her quietly, his cheek against her forehead, the two of them tucked into our little camp of

bags and coats, my stomach chews loudly on my life. He is telling her. She is finding out

that Anthony has chosen to play in the Junior Competition. I watch Amanda‟s eyes

crinkle with tears and her body lean closer into his. And I know that this is my moment.

This is what I did. How could I have done this?




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                      90
       You‟d think that if something hurt you over and over again that you‟d eventually

toughen up and be able to walk over that something as easily as you walk barefoot down

your driveway on a late August afternoon, your hardened summer soles laughing at the

steam rising from the black tar. But it doesn‟t work that way. At least with me it doesn‟t.

       There are no calluses that build up over my heart to protect me, but instead, the

spot where it hurts gets worn straight through…and the hurt walks right inside me

without even knocking. And the first thing it does when it gets in there is gather up all

the other stuff that hurts - stuff like Aunt Edith and detention homes. It doesn‟t even

have to be real stuff. It can even be the sad parts in books, like Allie, Holden‟s brother,

who dies of leukemia in Catcher in the Rye. All the hurt builds inside me until my chest

burns with it, and I swear, it feels as though my heart is flopping about on that black tar

driveway in the hot summer sun.

       Looking back over my shoulder at my father and Manny as I lead Sarah out of the

classroom, I get this incredible urge to shout, “DO OVER,” at the top of my lungs…you

know, like you do in kickball when you‟re playing after lunch without a gym teacher

watching, because gym teachers never let you do it over. I wish I could start all

over…not this day, but this life. I wish I could be six again.

       There was this day when I was six that I will never forget. Not because anything

big happened, because it didn‟t, but because it was just fun, you know, the kind of fun

that just happens. Amanda and I played in the sandbox all day long with our Barbie dolls.

We would pull off the arms and legs of our dolls and bury them in the sand, and then we

would make our dolls say things like, “Oh no, I‟ve lost my arm,” and “Pookie (a made up

name for one of the Barbies) have you seen my leg?” We spoke in what we thought were




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  91
“rich people voices,” but which we found out later, were really just English accents.

English accents make everything sound funnier. Try it. Say anything in an English

accent, it really is funnier.

        Anyway, we spent a lot of days in the sandbox burying the arms and legs of our

Barbies and talking “rich,” but I just remember this day above the others. We were lining

up our limbless dolls to use this pretend toilet we made out of sand. And we‟d tell each

other to “Hurry up in there,” in our rich accents over and over again. I think you had to

be there, and maybe be like six years old, too. But anyway, the sand was warm and the

day seemed so, so long. And me and Manny couldn‟t stop laughing. Then my father

called us in for dinner.

        I remember dropping my Barbie body into the sand and running for the back door.

On my way into the house, my father stopped me. “Whoa, Katherine Ann,” he said, “are

you bringing a friend for dinner?” And he carefully picked a daddy-long leg off the top

of my head and placed it onto the iron stair railing. I think this is why I won‟t forget that

day. It was that daddy-long leg on my head.

        At the time, I remember being pretty freaked out about the thing being on my

head and all…but I‟m so glad that the daddy-long leg decided to sit on my head that day,

because it somehow saved the day from being lost in my life along with all the other

days. And the day is still in there, caught in my brain like an old grocery bag in a tree

branch – Manny‟s laughing face, the plastic smell of Barbie dolls, the warm, shifting

piles of sand. It was just a day. But it was a day before pianos, before competitions,

before B‟s in Science, before detention homes, before cancer. It was a day before I felt




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                92
so empty and stupid. It was a day when I could still imagine my father‟s arm hanging

around my neck.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                           93
                                        CALL ME CRAZY

       The soft tones of loudspeaker bongs fill the hallway, and Sarah and I stop to

listen. A woman‟s voice announces that the Junior Competition is about to begin, and

that all juniors are to report backstage. The second set of bongs unhinges us from the

hallway floor and we start toward the gym. I could care less about the stupid chips and

soda now, and I just leave it in the corner behind the bucket.

       Sarah drags her feet in such an exaggerated way that I swear she‟s going to end up

twisting her ankle. I give it another minute, and then I can‟t stand it anymore. I start

dragging my feet along with her. Sarah looks up at me and laughs. Little kids can‟t tell

the difference between when you‟re pretending to be happy and when you‟re really

happy, I think God did that on purpose…a survival thing.

       Sarah stops foot dragging. “I have to go, Kiki.”

       I look into her eyes, “Yeah, right,” I tell her. “You just want to roll around in that

bathroom again.”

       “No, no I really do, honest, honest, double honest,” she says, her eyes round

circles of perfect innocence.

       “Okay.”

       She hops down the hall and into the bathroom. I catch up to her just in time to

hear her slam the stall door, shaking the entire stall system. I lean against the sinks

avoiding my reflection in the mirror - seeing myself right now after what I just did is

something I can‟t do. The bathroom is warm. I close my eyes and listen to Sarah‟s

scuffling and bumping. I can hear her pulling reams of toilet paper off the roll, and I‟d

bet my front teeth most of it‟s not being used for its intended purpose.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                94
       “Sarah!”

       I hear a little giggle followed by a flush, but still no Sarah.

       “I‟m going to kill you, come on.”

       There‟s a loud bump, and she comes out of the stall by crawling out from under

the door.

       “Sarah!”

       She throws her head back, opening her mouth full of tiny white teeth, and sucks in

a deep laugh.

       I go for her arm.

       “My hands,” she says, backing away from me with a look of horror on her face,

like I‟m the disgusting one for not remembering that she has to wash her hands when

she‟s the one that just crawled all over a dirty bathroom floor.

       She puts the sink on high and I jump back from the spray. Then she pumps

enough foam soap out of the dispenser to wash a tractor trailer and lathers it up so that it

drips down her elbows and onto the floor.

       “Come on,” I say, “that‟s enough. It‟s not like I‟m dying to get into that Junior

Competition to witness my disgusting mistake in action or anything, but watching her

mess around is so hard sometimes.

       “I‟m killin‟ germs,” she says, pulling her eyebrows together into a tiny brown V.

“One, two, three…”

       “Sarah!”

       “Miss. Smith says you need to count to twenty when you soap, to kill all the

germs.”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               95
       “It‟s fifteen,” I tell her. I had Mrs. Smith, too.

       “Oh, okay,” she smiles. I just fed right into her soapy little hands.

       “One, two, three, four, five, six…,” she takes a real look at my face and decides to

speed it up, “seveneightninetenlevintwelfthirtnfourtnfiftn.”

       I open the door and hold it for her. She walks over to the hand dryers and pushes

the button. I try not to smile, but I can‟t stop myself. Even when I‟ve just committed the

most heinous crime against nature - actually doing the devil‟s bidding - little Sarah can

still make me laugh. I don‟t know what I‟d do without her.

       One morning when Sarah was like two years old, we were all in the kitchen

getting ready to leave for school. My mother was going on about something, I can‟t

really remember what it was…maybe missing homework, or was it about a forgotten

lunch? Anyway, that doesn‟t matter. But at the end of a really long speech about

something, my mother stopped and threw her hands in the air and said, “I don‟t know.

Call me crazy.”

       Sarah piped right up from her highchair, “Crazy,” she shouted.

       We all looked over at her. I started laughing so hard, and then Sarah joined in

with this hysterical mad scientist giggle that she does. She didn‟t really get her own joke,

but she still laughed. After that, it became our thing. And every now and then she‟ll look

over at me and say it, or I‟ll look over at her and say it. “Call me crazy.” And the other

one will answer, “Crazy.”

       Most nights when I look around my dinner table, I feel like there‟s a cold wind

blowing through a giant hole in my chest. But then I look over at Sarah. She feels like a

part of me. She is the only thing that keeps me from going crazy. I sometimes wonder if




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                96
Jessica feels a part of anyone. After meeting Anthony, I guess I can stop wondering. She

and Anthony are like two evil peas in an evil pod.

       Anthony. Maybe I can get to him before the competition starts. Maybe I can

explain what happened…tell him that it‟s Jessica, not Amanda that he needs to be beat.

But why would he believe me now? He‟d just think I was crazy.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                             97
                                   GNAWING OFF MY FOOT

       Here I am again, for the millionth time in my life, trapped in a folding chair.

Once, in the fifth grade during history class, we read this story about the fur trade out

west, or up in Canada, or someplace. I don‟t remember much about it, except for one

bloody fact - an animal caught in a trap will chew its own foot off to get away. I think

about this fact a lot. If the animal stays put in the trap, it doesn‟t have to commit the

awful act of gnawing off its own foot. But then again, it loses everything. If it chews it

off, it is free. But free to what…die slowly and painfully of gangrene? Maybe an animal

strong enough to chew off its own foot is strong enough to survive having chewed it off.

I hope so. When it comes to rooting for the trapper or the trapped, I‟m definitely pulling

for the trapped.

       A man with a big nose and black wavy hair walks out onto the stage and picks up

the microphone.

       “Good afternoon,” he says, and then waits for the audience to mumble „good

afternoon‟ back. I already don‟t like him. I hate it when speakers try to engage

audiences in conversation. We‟re part of a big group and it‟s our right not to respond. At

least he doesn‟t do one of those ridiculous, „I can‟t hear you,‟ lines afterward. I really

hate that. I also hate it when they repeat themselves, and we‟re supposed to know that

we‟ve disappointed them, and they‟d like us to be more enthusiastic in the future. In

these cases, I make sure to never answer again.

       He goes on for a while about stuff that I don‟t bother to listen to. And then he

introduces the first Junior piano player, a really small kid in an even smaller suit, who

walks out onto the stage and has to hop up to take a seat at the piano.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 98
           It begins.

           My father‟s foot starts tapping. My mother stares straight through the kid on the

stage and off into space. Sarah kneels in front of her folding chair with her back to the

stage playing with a small piece of clay. It‟s amazing how interesting clay can be. If you

give me a little piece of clay, I could be happy for hours, too, just like Sarah.

           I check out the program to count the number of kids. Nine. Amanda is last in the

line-up, of course, because that is how my mother likes it. Well, nine is nine more than

what I was wishing for. And since it is a fact that most wishes are granted by half-

dressed men that live in bottles, it is also a fact that they don‟t have to be grounded in

reality.

           Anthony is not on listed on the Junior program and I quickly make a wish to the

half-dressed guy in the bottle that the banged-boy wonder change his mind and decide to

stay in the Senior Competition.

           Two Junior piano players down, seven to go.

           Halfway through the third pianist, my confidence in the genie coming through

with my wish slackens, so I move to plain old hope. Maybe Anthony won‟t play in

Juniors. Maybe his conceit will force him into the Senior Competition. Maybe my father

wasn‟t even telling Amanda that she was going up against the prodigy. Maybe he was

telling her some sad thing that he‟ll tell me later, too. Maybe Anthony didn‟t believe me

when I said that Amanda was the best. Without meaning to, I picture Anthony‟s face in

the front hall at the moment when I betrayed Amanda…how his eyes flashed when I said

Amanda was the one to beat…and good old hope slides down to the floor next to Sarah

and slithers away into the far reaches of the dark gym.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 99
       I sigh and look down at Sarah. She doesn‟t even give me the chance to ask for a

piece of her clay…without looking up, she moves her skinny arms to the other side of the

folding chair away from me…I obviously can‟t.

       Back on the stage, a girl in a short red skirt and a long crocheted vest is playing

one of those songs that sounds like happy water dripping. I‟m not that into happy water

dripping songs. I like the thundering ones better.

       I look around the audience as far as I can without having to really turn my head.

My father has us front and center, and I can‟t see too many people. I don‟t see Anthony.

But just because I don‟t see him, doesn‟t mean he‟s backstage with Amanda right now. I

can pretty much hear hope chuckle at me from the corner of the gym. I know that it does.

       The next kid walks out on the stage passing the happy water dripping girl walking

off. My mind wanders into a dream. It‟s the end of the competition and Anthony is

standing with his mega trophy, smiling for the cameras. Jessica is next to him holding

onto a trophy the size of a salt shaker. After the picture taking stops, she walks over to

me with her little salt shaker trophy and hands it to me. “I know it‟s small, Kate, but you

deserve this trophy more than me after what I did today. I‟m really sorry that I made you

do that.” My heart heats my blood to the temperature of warm toast. Even after the little

daydream is over, and I‟m back to just sitting in my folding chair, the air flows in through

my nose and fills my lungs like bright white sails, sending me skipping across a blue

ocean of happiness. It‟s amazing how something you make up in your head can

completely change the way your body feels, even when you‟re head knows perfectly well

that it‟s never ever going to happen.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                             100
       Applause pulls me out of my little dream. Sarah stands up and sucks in a breath,

but before she can get her hoot out of her mouth, my mother snaps her back in her chair.

To get even at my mother for interrupting her fun, Sarah slides out of her chair and onto

the floor like all the bones have left her body. My mother reaches for her, but she scoots

away, ducking under the man‟s chair in front of us. The next kid on stage starts his piece

and my mother is helpless. Sarah sees it, and makes herself comfortable, glancing up at

my mother under her eyelashes, making sure she‟s still safe to be flaunting her

managerial position two inches from this guy‟s feet.

          The last kid before Amanda shows up onstage. He starts off badly and it just

gets worse. As a faithful audience, we root heavily for him with our clenched jaws and

tight stomachs, but the missed notes and the stops and starts begin to exhaust us, and by

the end, we‟ve given up and we start the applause before he hits the last chord.

       After sitting through what feels like the Paleolithic Age, Amanda finally appears

on stage and without me saying a word to it, my body snaps up in its seat. Manny walks

toward the piano like someone glued her hair to the back of her neck and tied hockey

sticks to her legs, and you can almost hear her inside her head, saying, “Step, step, step.”

Or maybe that‟s happening inside my head, I‟m not really sure. The room is so quiet that

the arranging of her papers next to the microphone sounds like the loud crackling of fire

in a movie. She squirms into position on the bench and places her hands over the top of

the keys. She pauses, as if waiting for her hands to take over and begin. And then they

do.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                             101
       I don‟t move throughout her entire piece even though the chair is jabbing me in

my back and my ankle is turned in a funny position. When she hits the last chord and the

clapping starts, my body lets go, aching in relief.

       Amanda turns to the audience and smiles like a shy lunatic. She hadn‟t hit a single

wrong note, although her timing slowed here and there in some of the spots that she

didn‟t feel as confident. Or maybe her timing had sped up during the parts that she knew

too well. Either way, that‟s the only thing I could hear that the judges might take points

off for. I know they have a whole system for scoring, mainly because this is what we, or

rather, my mother, father, and Jessica, talk about the entire ride home from every single

piano competition. But I never listen to it, so I‟m not sure how much an unsteady tempo

will cost Amanda.

       Before I remember that this is the moment and my life is hanging in the balance,

fate cuts the chord and I‟m completely shocked by the jolt of my heart hitting the floor as

Anthony Degregoria steps from behind the curtain.

       I run my tongue over my teeth and look down at my ankle. If only I were brave

enough. I‟d chew my way right out of here.

       He takes a few seconds and glances out at the crowd, and then glides across the

stage to the piano. He isn‟t carrying any music. My brain doesn‟t get a chance to process

exactly what this means because he slides onto the bench and starts to play and then the

answer is obvious. The audience, including me, gasps. His fingers move up and down

the keys like he‟s typing an amazing English paper, only instead of some voice-over

narrator reading the words to all of us sitting in our folding chairs we‟re surrounded by a

storm of notes. His playing seems to be coming from inside me.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                            102
       By the time the final chord bounces off my rib cage, my only thought is, “What

have I done?” But I knew what I did the moment Jessica wouldn‟t take her face from the

pages of her book back in the classroom. That‟s a lie, because I knew what I was doing

the moment I took that two dollars out of her hand and ran up to the school. I always

know…because I am that animal in that trap…losing everything.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                            103
                                 THE WAY IT ALWAYS GOES

       I pull Sarah through the crowd and down the hall to the competition room where I

find Amanda in the back of the room clinging to her whole wheat sprout sandwich

looking on the verge of tears. And she‟s not the only one. I mean, she‟s the only one

with a sprout sandwich, but she isn‟t the only one struggling not to fall apart.

       I hate Jessica. I hate her, I hate her, I hate her, I hate her…but it‟s me I‟m talking

about. I‟m the one I hate.

       I pull out the small plastic chair from under the desk Amanda is sitting on and fall

into it. It‟s lower than I judge it to be, and my teeth clang together when I hit. Pain. I

deserve it. I wish I‟d bit my tongue right in half, and that it would gush blood like a

wide-open fire hydrant. I‟d deserve that, and more. I cover my hands with my face and

silent scream into the light-speckled darkness.

       Rubbing my eyes, I survey the damage that I‟ve caused. Anthony‟s performance

has snatched the win away from each and every junior player and they lay deflated and

white-faced across desks, chairs, and piles of coats. Even the junior player that barely

made it through his piece is sitting ten feet away with his hands thrown helplessly into his

lap while his mother hovers over his ear, whispering something into his blotchy face.

       I look back over at Amanda. Giant tears roll down her cheeks as she chews her

sprouts like she‟s eating paste. She stares over at the white board across the room and

beyond, gazing into some hole of sorrow that only she can see.

       “He‟s going to win,” she says, not taking her eyes off the white board. “He‟s

going to win.” The tears keep rolling down her cheeks at uneven intervals, big ones

sliding down fast, bumping into the smaller ones, and then picking up even more speed,




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               104
until they hang from her chin, where some roll under and into her dress collar, and others,

the brave ones, drop from her chin and splat into her lap with a group of fallen sprouts.

        “Manny,” I put my arms around her waist and my head in her lap, until I

remember the tears and the sprouts, and I quick pick up head and make sure nothing‟s

sticking to my ear or my hair. “You did great,” I tell her, pushing my words out with as

much enthusiasm as I can. I give her knee a squeeze to back up my words.

        “Not as good as your friend,” she mumbles into her crust.

        “My friend?”

        “Yeah,” she looks at me from over top her sandwich. “Jessica told me that you

were all excited that your friend Anthony was in the competition.”

        “What?” I answer. “You‟ve got to be kidding. He‟s like three years old.”

        This starts her sobbing.

        “Manny,” I snap, and she quits her little breakdown. “I don‟t even know him. I

don‟t know what Jessica is talking about…my friend.” I really hate, Jessica. She‟ll say

and do the stupidest things, and you‟ll be like, that is so stupid, but just because she does

or says these things with a straight face, and with authority or something, it‟s like

anything that comes out of her mouth is right…even when it‟s out of the world

ridiculous. Its stuff like this that makes my head feel like it‟s going to pop right off my

shoulders. And the worst part is, my head popping off my body adds to her argument

somehow, like the more upset I get, the more right she is. I know it doesn‟t make sense,

but it certainly is the truth.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              105
       “Do you think I can still win, Kiki?” Amanda looks down at me in my little

plastic chair, her eyes holding onto about ten tears apiece, a bunch of whole wheat

crumbs clinging to her lips, and a single sprout hanging like a whisker from her chin.

       I want to say something to hurt her to get her back for her stupid comment about

Anthony being my friend but I can‟t stay mad at her when she has that dumb sprout

sticking to her chin like that. I mostly can‟t ever stay mad at her, sprout or no sprout,

because Manny and I are a team, we always have been…when I pick a tree in the yard

that I say is mine, Manny picks another tree in the yard and says it‟s hers. When she says

that she heard something move in the closet, I say to come over into my bed and sleep

with me. We‟re a team…even against Jessica…although we‟re the losing team. And our

team has an unwritten, unspoken pact, and that is that when Jessica comes between us,

when it‟s over, we forgive each other. But will she forgive me for this?

       “Kiki!” she says, again, “Do you think I can still win?”

       I don‟t think she can, so I change the subject. “You looked great when you

finished and stood, you know, when you did the head bowing thing after you were done

playing. Were you scared up there?” It‟s pretty easy to change the subject on people.

All you have to do is ask them a question about themselves.

       “Kiki, come on, do you think I can still win?”

       But it seems that today, nothing is going the way it always goes.

       Bong, bong, bong. The loudspeaker saves me. “THE SENIOR COMPETITION

BEGINS IN FIFTEEN MINUTES. THE SENIOR COMPETITION BEGINS IN

FIFTEEN MINUTES.”

       Or maybe is it going the way it always goes.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                106
                         IT‟S JUST A STUPID PIANO COMPETITION

        “Senior is starting in fifteen,” my mother repeats as she approaches us, like we

didn‟t just hear the loud overhead announcement. I can tell she‟s happy about Anthony

playing in the Juniors because she‟s singing her words instead of saying them. She

immediately spots the sprout on Amanda‟s chin and swipes it off.

        “You want me to stay in here with you?” I ask Amanda.

        “No,” my mother answers for her. “Amanda is part of this competition and needs

to act like it.”

        “Mom,” Amanda whines. My mother doesn‟t respond. She‟s back in her bags

rummaging again, and when she‟s in her bags, you might as well as be talking to the

dead, because they were more likely to respond than my mother was.

        She pops out of the bags with a folder in her hand, “Where is your sister?” She

asks.

        “Here I am,” cries Sarah, crawling out from under a makeshift fort of coats, most

of which are not ours.

        “Hi honey,” my mother says, “go back and play, okay.” And Sarah disappears

under a black pea coat. “Jessica, where‟s Jessica?” She looks first to Amanda and then to

me. We just blink back at her. We‟ve learned not to answer this question, because if

Jessica is somewhere nearby and you happen to mention the last time you saw her, she

immediately twists the skin on your arm with her iron fingers or says some soul crushing

thing about how stupid you are, punishing you for even thinking you knew anything

about her like where she might be at any given moment in the day.

        “She must be in the gym already,” my mother says to herself.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               107
       “I‟m right here,” Jessica says, appearing behind my mother. “I need my music.”

See…she‟s evil incarnate, lurking everywhere.

       My mother hands her the folder. Jessica takes it without saying thank you.

       “Thanks, mom,” I say, sarcastically, getting out of the little plastic chair and

stepping a safe distance behind my mother.

       “Don‟t stir the pot, Kate,” my mother says. “There‟s no time for that. Let‟s go.”

And she walks off, leaving me completely open to attack.

       “Yeah, there‟s no time, Kate,” Jessica says, mimicking my mother, and giving me

one of her “obviously false to anyone who can navigate Facebook,” but “strangely

sincere to those that even slightly understand how insurance works,” smiles. “Oh, wait,

you‟re not doing anything here today but standing around looking stupid. So I guess you

do have time. I know, why don‟t you go spend a little of that time with your friend,

Anthony?”

       “Mom!” I call.

       My mother stops at the door and turns around, “What, Kate?” she asks annoyed,

and then she turns and walks out the door before I can say one word about what.

       “He‟s not my friend,” I say to Jessica, stepping back. But I know that no matter

how far I step back, she‟ll step that amount forward if she‟s in the mood for blood. Plus

she‟ll be that step more angry at me for making her have to move a little bit more to hurt

me.

       “What? He‟s not your friend?” She scrunches up her face with false concern, but

concern is so alien to Jessica that she can‟t even fake the expression and it ends up




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              108
looking like she just ate a mouthful of sour Skittles. “Then why were you so happy to tell

us all about him? Or did you just want to wreck the day for the people that matter in it?”

       Before I can even say anything, not that I had anything to say, my father appears.

He walks up to Manny and gives her head a hug, sandwich and all. “Nice job out there,

Arthur,” he says. He likes to call her Arthur after Arthur Rubinstein, his favorite pianist.

He doesn‟t joke like that with Jessica because Jessica‟s aura is lethal to jokes - just

looking at her with a joke on your mind, causes the joke to flat line instantly, and no one

breaks out the electric paddles because you can feel the hopelessness of it.

       “You‟re up, Jessica,” he smiles. He tries to reach out and give some sort of

affectionate gesture, but he ends up just tapping her on the head like you do when you

play Duck, Duck Goose.

       My mother comes rushing through the door with her eyebrows practically on top

of her head. “What are you doing? Let‟s go,” she says.

       My father hops to it and heads toward the door. And Jessica follows.

       But then she stops and turns around. “Amanda, why don‟t you ask Kate why her

little friend decided to beat you today instead of compete against me,” she says, rocking

back on her heels.

       “What do you mean?” Amanda says, “I thought he had to play in Juniors, you

know, because he‟s so little.”

       “Oh no,” Jessica says, her lips frozen in the shape of a smile, “he had the choice

to play in either competition and Kate here helped him decide.”

       Amanda looks over at me, confused.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              109
         Jessica lets out a long, loud sigh, “My work here is done.” And she turns around

and walks out the door leaving Amanda with her mouth hanging open and me with my

heart hanging open.

         “Manny…”

         “Did you tell him to play in Juniors?” She asks, backing a step away.

         “It didn‟t happen like that,” I tell her.

         “Did you tell him to play in Juniors?” She repeats.

          “She tricked me,” I tell her, “She got me to do it, but I didn‟t mean it, Manny.

It‟s not my fault.” But as soon as the words leave my mouth I know how absolutely

untrue they are and so does Amanda.

         “It‟s totally your fault,” she screeches.

         Sarah scrambles out from underneath the coats, her eyes wide and her hair

standing on end from electricity.

         “What?” I yell back at her. “Afraid you won‟t be able to tell everybody in your

life that could care less that you‟ve never lost a piano competition? Afraid that maybe

you‟ll have to stick to boring the crud out of people with the old, „I‟ve never missed a

homework assignment,‟ or the even more boring, „I‟ve never gotten a single question

wrong on a math test?‟ God, Manny, no one gives a crap about your stupid records.”

         It takes her a second, but she does find the single flaw in my statement. “Mom

does.”

         Her answer whips up a storm inside me. “IT‟S JUST A STUPID PIANO

COMPETITION!” I spit, my words dripping with thirteen years worth of backed-up

venom.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               110
        Sarah wilts back into the pile of coats, while Amanda takes in what I just said and

then gathers the air she needs to scream at me with.

        “IT IS NOT STUPID! BUT YOU WOULDN‟T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT

IT BECAUSE YOU‟VE NEVER TRIED TO BE IN ONE.” Her face crumbles into a

tight red ball. “If you had you,” she says, in a small, tired voice much more horrible than

any shout, “you‟d know how it feels to lose.”

        She gives a sad little howl and then runs from the room, leaving me with a tight

ball of rage in my chest and no one but myself to throw it at…because she is right…so

right…I have never tried…and she is so wrong…so very wrong…I know exactly how it

feels to lose.

        “Kiki?” Sarah whispers from her pile of coats.

        I sit back down in the plastic chair and Sarah crawls out from her coats and climbs

in my lap. Her hair is still standing on end and it tickles my nose.

        Bong, bong, bong. “THE SENIOR COMPETITION BEGINS IN FIVE

MINUTES. THE SENIOR COMPETITION BEGINS IN FIVE MINUTES.”

        I smooth down Sarah‟s hair and hold her close to me, using the warm, familiar

weight of her against my chest to slow the beating of my heart.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                            111
                                                 SHARK!

        I‟ve been having the same nightmare for what feels like forever. Sometimes it

comes for three nights in a row, and then it goes for a week or two, maybe a month, and

then it comes back. I get to where I‟m kind of afraid to go to bed. When that happens, I

stay up as late as I can, sweating as I read under all my blankets using this giant flashlight

that my father bought for the car. It‟s so bright that I‟m always a little afraid that my

book is going to burst into flames from the heat of it shining so close to the pages.

        Anyway, I try to read to where my brain is so exhausted, that it won‟t be able to

produce this awful dream. It works, just in case anyone is wondering. It‟s just that

you‟re pretty tired the next day…which isn‟t so bad because you don‟t have to read as

long the following night to exhaust your brain again.

        I‟ve had plenty of nightmares before this one, but never the same one over and

over again for such a long time. It‟s kind of torturing me. I told Emily that I think the

dream is trying to tell me something, and that until I understood it, it would keep coming

back. Emily agreed. She said it was trying to tell me to stop drinking that juice my

mother makes out of grass, because she said, “a dream like that definitely comes from

indigestion.” Sometimes you can‟t talk to Emily about this stuff. And anyway, it‟s not

that I like the grass juice, but we all have to drink it, it‟s a rule.

        But back to the dream – it‟s the same every time. Jessica, Amanda, Sarah and I

are swimming at the lake by my grandmother‟s house. It‟s a little lake. The beach has

this sparkling white sand. It‟s kind of a fake white sand and isn‟t very soft on your feet,

but gritty, and when you‟re wet, it sticks to you in dark clumps. There is a playground at

one end of the beach, but no one ever plays on it because there is always a lot of goose




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                112
poop. The lake water heats up pretty quick in the summer, and is kind of mucky and

warm. But we love swimming there because it‟s never very crowded, there isn‟t some

long list of dumb “swim rules” to follow, and it‟s got this great raft anchored out off the

shore that you can swim to and is pretty fun to jump off of.

        Sarah is splashing around in her swimmy vest a few feet from the water‟s edge

and me, Jessica, and Manny are having races from the shoreline to the little raft, and then

back again to the shoreline. Jessica is winning them all, but Manny and I keep racing her.

Hope dies hard even in dreams, I guess. But we‟re having a good time. It‟s a sunny day

and the water has that soft feeling to it as I dive in and out of it.

        Then Jessica calls to Amanda and me from the beach. I wade in slow, pulling

myself through the shallow water like a crocodile. The heavy wet sand at the bottom of

the lake is gooey and thick between my fingers. Jessica gets all fussy, and yells at me to

hurry up. She wants to have the “official last race,” the one that will determine the

winner for the whole day. Manny and I snap to attention, jumping out and meeting

Jessica at the water‟s edge.

        Jessica gives us the one, two, three go – and I take off, splashing past Sarah until I

am in water deep enough to dive in. I swim under the water as fast as I can and for as

long as I can. I‟m fastest under water. I wait until my lungs are burning before I come

up for air.

        Popping my head up, I gasp and spit. I don‟t see at first that the lake is gone. But

I do notice that the air tastes different.

        Back in I dive, still focused on beating Jessica, wanting to win. But then I stop

swimming because I remember the taste of the air, and the cliffs and the pine trees, too. I




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              113
panic a little trying to find the way out of the water, and come up choking and coughing

on a trickle of water that I swallowed.

        I am in some big lake I don‟t recognize. Or maybe it‟s a bay…because I can taste

the salt water on my lips. There are high cliffs all around covered in pine trees. The

cliffs seem to open up to a bigger place, like the ocean. Jessica, Manny, and Sarah all

swim happily beside me - they don‟t even notice that we aren‟t in Nana‟s lake anymore.

The water is deep and Sarah is bobbing like an adorable baby buoy in her swim vest as

tiny waves smack her over and over again. We are not too far off shore, and I can see a

long pier jutting out toward us. I feel bad inside, kind of a mix of nervous and sad.

That‟s the thing about nightmares, since they‟re yours, and since somehow you must be

making them up, there is always going to be a spot on your body that knows what‟s going

to happen next.

        I tell Manny and Jess that we should all swim in, but they don‟t listen. They are

busy playing foot tag, where you have to dive under the water and try to tag the other

person‟s foot and then they‟re it. I usually love foot tag, but I want to get out of the

water, so I start for the pier, calling to Sarah to follow me.

        And then I hear it. I don‟t know who it is that screams. It might even be me.

        “SHAAAAAAAAAAARK!”

        I see it. Back there coming for us. A shiny, wet triangle, slicing through the

rippling waves like a silent table saw through soft wood. I start to swim as fast as I can.

Sarah is not too far behind me and Jess and Manny behind her. “Swim, swim, swim,”

my heart thumps…but coming from down a million dark hallways inside my brain, I hear




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               114
a whisper, “go back for her.” My heart bangs louder inside my chest, so loud that is

drowns out that voice. “Swim, swim, swim!”

         Jessica passes me first. She has always been a stronger swimmer than me.

Manny splashes by in a fit of spit and swinging arms. My heart is shrieking now, “swim,

swim, swim…” and I can‟t hear the whisper anymore, but I can feel it, impossibly small

and far away…“go     back for her.”


         I hit the pier with my arm, but in dreams, there is no physical pain. I jump so fast

up onto the pier it feels like the water almost throws me out. I turn for her – my eyes

hysterically searching, making it hard to see.

         She is swimming faster than I‟ve ever seen her swim. She is getting close.

Maybe, just maybe…there is the fin, behind her. She isn‟t going to make it. It‟s too

close.

         “SWIM!” The word rips through my throat. I reach for her. She‟s not swimming

anymore.

         “It‟s okay, Kiki,” she tells me, her little eyes shining, and then she is pulled under

and away from me forever.

         “NOOOOOOOOO!”

         That‟s always when I wake up. The blankets are usually on the floor and the

sheets are sticking to me. But none of that matters because it‟s over, and I‟m back - back

in my glorious bedroom, breathing my own glorious air…dark air that tastes and smells

so beautiful and familiar.

         When I first wake up from the dream, I‟m flooded with giddy happiness - it didn‟t

really happen, it‟s only a dream. But sometimes…if I don‟t fall right back to sleep, a




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               115
weird feeling settles on me like dust. This is the time that I most feel like the dream is

trying to tell me something. But maybe because I‟m tired, or just too stupid, I never

understand.

       That I failed to save Sarah is obvious…but from what? What is coming for her?

This I can never figure out. After the first few times I had the dream, I thought that at

any moment a speeding car would come crashing out of nowhere or a kidnapper was

plotting to steal her away. And everywhere we went, I wouldn‟t let Sarah out of my

sight, just about crushing her fingers at every street corner. But the dream kept coming.

Eventually I stopped thinking that there was going to be a car or a kidnapper. Next I

figured it was telling me to save her from becoming like Jessica. That maybe I didn‟t

have a chance with Manny, but with Sarah, here was my chance. So I started spending

every second I could with her, not that I hadn‟t been doing this anyway. But the dream

kept coming, and I never could understand why - why would it keep coming when I

understood it? But it kept coming.

       Sitting here with Sarah in this ransacked classroom, I finally get it. It isn‟t Sarah

turning out like Jessica that is scaring me so much…it‟s not about saving her from

becoming a sparkly, winning, nasty, sub-human. In fact, it‟s not about Jessica at all. It‟s

about me. I‟m afraid that I can‟t save Sarah from turning out exactly like me.

       I jump up with her in my arms. I have to swim back…now. And the only one

that can help me do this is the one person in my family that hates more than anything to

get involved.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                116
                           RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER

       “Dad.”

       He smiles up at me from his folding chair, without looking at me. I put my face

close to his so that he has to see me, and also because I don‟t want to have to look at

Amanda sitting next to him. I‟m afraid if I make eye-contact with her I‟ll lose my nerve.

       “Sit Kate,” my mother says. “It‟s starting any minute.”

       I don‟t listen, but Sarah is about to pull something out of the bag of the people

sitting next to us and she forgets about me.

       “Dad, can you come here for a minute?”

       “I‟m right here, Kate,” he says.

       “I know, but can you come out in the hall for a second?”

       He tries to wave me away, hoping like he always does that if he doesn‟t commit

to a yes or a no that I will just fade away. But not today…I‟m busy swimming.

       “Dad,” I say, looking directly into his eyes, “I need to talk to you in the hall and

I‟m going to stand right here in front of you until you come talk to me.” I actually

wonder if I‟ll do this. But obviously he doesn‟t, and he gets up.

       “Where are you going?” my mother calls. My father waves his hand at her in a

“don‟t worry about it, I‟ll be right back,” manner. He‟s very good at these waves.

       “Okay, now what is it, Kate?”

       “I want to play in the competition.”

       He blinks at me.

       “I want to play in the competition today, right now. Can you find that lady and

ask her if I can play?”




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               117
       “What? Kate, no, I mean, you can play next time if you want. When there is time

to sign you up properly, but its starting.”

       “Please ask, just please ask. I need to do it.”

       “But Kate, its Seniors,” he says, backing up a little. He eyes the folding

chairs…and I can see that he‟s going to try to turn and re-enter the gym.

       I grab his sleeve so that he can‟t get away without physically pulling from me.

“You said that skill level was subjective.”

       “Yes,” he says, shaking his head, “but…”

       “But I stink. I know. But I have to play.”

       “But play what?”

       I shrug and look up at him until he gets it…Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -

page three of the second book in the beginner series.

       “Oh, Kate, sweetie, no, you can‟t play that. It‟s a Senior Competition.” His

shoulders drop. “Why are you doing this, Kate? It doesn‟t make any sense.”

       “I have to, Dad, I just have to. I can‟t explain it all right now. But can you

please, please, please go ask that lady. Dad, I need you to do this for me.”

       He squirms for a second, as a last effort to get out of this somehow, but then sighs

and heads backstage. I follow.

       “No, Kate,” he says, glancing back into the gym where my mother is sitting.

“You stay here.”

       “But…”

       “No, you stay here.” His eyes seem greener than I remember them and the gray in

his sideburns glows in the fluorescent lights of the hallway.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                             118
       “What are you gonna say?”

       He stops and rubs his palms over his face, making his eyebrows stick out more

than they already do. “I‟ve watched your mother get her way for eighteen straight years.

Hopefully I‟ve picked up a thing or two.”

       “I have to be in it, Dad,” I call as the door closes behind him.

       Alone in the hall, I lean in the doorway and look up at the stage. There are a few

people still running around up there, making final adjustments before the second half of

the competition. The crowd is loud, having had time to get comfortable in their seats and

with nothing to do but talk to their neighbors. The stage, the crowd…I look back up at

the piano, and then out at the colorful moving people, and a tiny dribble of fear ping

pongs around in my stomach…am I really going to do this?

       The door to the stage opens and my father slides through. His lips are set in a

line. “You are on fifth, right before your sister, Kate.”

        I grab him around his middle, like Sarah always does to me, and I squeeze as

hard as I can. “Thanks, Dad.”

       He hugs back and kisses the top of my head. “I have no idea what you‟re doing,

but you‟re a good girl, sweetheart,” he whispers. His words make my scalp tingle.

       The lights flick off in the gym and the crowd shuffles around as it begins to settle.

       “But a bad piano player,” I say, into his sweater.

       “The things the world values most aren‟t necessarily the most valuable things,” he

says, his deep voice rumbling in my ear through his chest.

       I don‟t really get it, but I know that he is just saying he loves me.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                             119
       “Do your best, Katherine Ann,” he winks. And then he disappears into the dark

gym just as the spotlight snaps on and the wide-eyed competition lady steps into it.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                           120
                                         NUMBER FIVE

       “Good afternoon, everyone,” she says into the microphone. “Thank you for

bearing with us today. I have a few thank yous…”

       I wonder what Derek is doing right now? I wonder if he ever thinks about me?

We were a lot alike, me and Derek. He thought he was Smaug and he became Smaug. I

thought I was someone that I didn‟t like so much and then I became someone that I didn‟t

like so much. Maybe that‟s what Holden is doing… running around thinking

everybody‟s a phony when he‟s really just scared that he might actually be the phony. I

don‟t know who exactly I am, but I know that it isn‟t that person that ran to help Jessica

win a piano competition. It isn‟t her.

       “…Katherine Asprey will be playing in place of Anthony Degregoria in the

Senior Competition Program.” I swear I hear my mother gasp. “Anthony is competing

in our Juniors today. We were all delighted by his playing earlier this afternoon.”

       My name being announced makes what I‟m about to do real for the first time, and

I back into the hallway, my stomach doing flips and my heart beating like a snare drum.

Wrapping my arms around myself, I lean my forehead against the cold cement wall and

try to calm down. I have four people ahead of me. I‟m Number Five. I have plenty of

time to…to what? Learn how to play the piano? Okay, maybe I‟m not doing the right

thing here. My father was right. This is a Senior Competition. These guys are going to

be playing…my ears pick up beautiful classical piano playing…that!

       Applause.

       Only three more people ahead of me. I feel like I can‟t breathe. I gulp down huge

mouthfuls of air, but it all gets caught in the top of my chest, squishing my pounding




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                             121
heart up into my head and leaving my lungs begging for oxygen. “It’s just a stupid piano

competition. It’s just a stupid piano competition.” But this chant only seems to work if

you‟re standing on the outside of the competition looking in, and not trapped inside the

competition looking out…and I keep panting like a freak until my hands tingle and my

head feels like it may just roll right off my neck.

       One night not too long ago, my mother found out about a piano competition late,

and announced over a dinner of overcooked organic noodles that Jessica would be

playing in it. I remember Jessica freaking out, saying she wouldn‟t do it. But my

mother‟s face did that setting itself into stone thing where you just know that she‟s never

going to change her mind. Jessica kept up the fight, although I knew that she could easily

see my mother‟s face was set. The rest of us went on eating those noodles, even if they

did taste like they‟d been soaked in dish detergent. After like ten straight minutes of

Jessica freaking out, my mother told her to quiet it down a little. Quiet it down a little.

She didn‟t tell her to stop. I guess Jessica was allowed to uselessly protest, just as long as

she did it a little quieter so that it wouldn‟t annoy us so much while we were eating. That

night, I was all behind my mother, I mean, what the heck, it was just another stupid piano

competition. And now here I was…and I realize that the one you‟re at is the only

one…and that there probably was no such thing as “just another one.” Wow, my brain

must be completely oxygen starved if I‟m beginning to feel for Jessica.

       Light staccato notes bounce out into the hall, followed by…

       Applause.

       And Number Two takes a bow as Number Three walks out onto the stage. Only

Number Four now separates me from complete humiliation. I think I might throw up.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              122
Maybe I should go get my father. Maybe he can explain to the competition lady that this

was all a mistake.

       My eyes search the front row and then lock onto Amanda‟s eyes looking straight

back at me. Her eyes are open so wide that I can see her dark pupils floating in the

middle of all the white. It‟s like looking in a mirror because I‟m sure that this is exactly

what my eyes look like right now. Her mouth breaks out in a giant, crocodile smile and

she gives me a goofy “thumbs up” sign.

       Oh crud, I have to do this thing.

       I smile back at her and wave, or at least I think I do…I‟m not quite sure because

my body is so numb right now that I don‟t really know what I‟m doing or not doing. And

not knowing what your body is doing seems like a pretty bad thing before you stand up in

front of a huge crowd of people to play the piano.

       Number Three is playing a familiar song. I don‟t know its title, but it‟s one that

my father plays a lot. I start to hum along. What am I doing standing in this hallway

humming? I‟ve got to get up to that stage.

       Applause...every clap of which feels like the entire crowd is throwing darts at me,

and hitting me every time.

       I walk up the back steps to the stage. Anybody looking at me right now would

see a very normal, although probably a little white-looking, Kate. But my heart is beating

so hard in my chest that I‟m afraid it‟s going to pump my blood straight out of my ears.

       Then the glint of Jessica‟s braces catches my eye and any thoughts of attributing

human characteristics to her disappear. She‟s standing by the curtain…waiting for me. I

can‟t totally see her face. Not because I don‟t want to look - although I don‟t - but




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              123
because the blood that is not coming out of my ears is stuffed into my head so tight that I

can‟t see that well through my eyes. Jessica is not the shark in my dream. I know that.

But right this second, as I swim toward her, it sure feels like she is.

        From behind Jessica, I can hear Number Four playing hard. I guess my ears still

work.

        I come up to the edge of the curtain and hold on, staring out at Number Four.

Jessica leans in toward me. “What are you gonna play, Kate? Rudolph?”

        I freeze my face and clench my stomach muscles to hide the effect her words just

had on me.

        Applause.

        “You are going to look so stupid,” she laughs in my ear as Number Four makes

his way off the stage.

        She‟s right. She‟s always right. And if fear feels like someone pouring bleach

through your body, killing off every one of your cells one at a time, then I am really,

really afraid.

        My legs walk me out from behind the curtain toward the big black monster in the

spotlight. All those years of watching Jessica do this…and this is how it feels, like

you‟re floating in a really bright hot place…like maybe heaven. But I only wish I were

dead right now. Unfortunately, I‟m very much alive, as my pounding heart and Sarah

calling out to me from the audience proves.

        I make it to the piano bench and knock my knee into it trying to sit down. The

squeak of the leg as it scrapes across the wood of the stage is so loud that it sends an

electric shock through my body. I get my legs to bend so that I am on the bench in a




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               124
sitting position and then without thinking, I scoot it up to the piano like I have watched a

ka-drillion other kids do on a Saturday. Strangely, this simple scoot of the bench forward

makes me feel a little normal, like I might know what I‟m doing.

       I rub my hands together to make sure my fingers work…they are so cold. I‟d

gulp right now, but there is not a drip of spit in my mouth.

       And now there is nothing left to do but play.

       My ten fingers hover over the very familiar first keys of Rudolph The Red-Nosed

Reindeer. And then…I do this thing.

       I wish it could end there, but it doesn‟t. My one finger trips over my others

during the second verse and I have to stop and start the whole verse over. I imagine that I

can hear my father‟s foot tapping out in the audience, forcing me to find my place and go

on. And when I hit the last chord, I take a couple of extra keys down with me, making

for what I will later call, a more modern ending to the song.

       And then the thing is done.

       Applause.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                             125
                                    WINNERS AND LOSERS

       Jessica chuckles in my ear as we pass each other on stage. A chuckle is a little

laugh that is pushed out of you by an evil, happy thought. I have a feeling that I have just

given Jessica something to chuckle about for the rest of her life. But this unhappy

thought has no effect on me right now. I am blank inside.

       Amanda‟s head bobs out of the darkness. And then I am no longer blank. In fact,

I am so filled with a million feelings worming around inside me that that my heart feels

like it might pop right out of my chest.

       She gives me a shy smile. “I‟m sorry I yelled at you,” she says.

       “I‟m sorry that I set you up to lose,” I whisper.

       “We‟re both losers today,” she laughs.

       Her words loosen up all the tight heaviness inside me. We stand together

listening to Jessica‟s frenzied piano playing onstage. As always, her playing has the

effect of a sledgehammer hammering me hard into the ground.

       “So, you really don‟t think I can win?” I ask.

       She hugs me. “Mommy is pretty mad at you,” she says into my shoulder.

       Applause.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              126
                                    AND THE WINNER IS…

       The judges are squirreled away adding things up while Amanda, Sarah, and me

are busy committing a nut-mix crime back in the competition classroom. We are picking

out the seeds and nuts from the raisins and yogurt covered things. My mother can usually

smell us doing this from like two states away, like an airport dog sniffing out drugs, but

she‟s busy hovering outside the room with the judges. My father must have said

something to her about me because she never said a word about me playing in the

competition, although she did look pretty tight-lipped when Manny and I waltzed into the

competition classroom arm in arm.

       I‟m not really that into eating nuts, but more just into crunching on them to keep

my excitement down. Even though it‟s over, and I did it, I still feel all twisted up inside.

Somehow, chomping on hard stuff helps you to keep your cool. It‟s kind of funny that

I‟m eating nuts to keep from feeling nuts. On a regular Saturday, I‟d be lying on two or

three desks pushed together in some dark classroom drooling onto eraser crumbs, but it

isn‟t a regular Saturday. Today, I was up on that stage, too.

       Sarah is picking the raisins out and lining them up in rows across the desk.

“Why don‟t you make snowflake shapes out of these white ones,” I suggest.

       “How bout ghosts,” she says, not looking up from her raisin line making.

       “Sure. Ghosts are good.”

       “Hi Amanda,” Jessica slides between us and puts her arm around Amanda,

making Amanda do a little shaky hop like she‟d just had a mini seizure. “What did ya

think of „ol Kate Fish Bait‟s rendition of a Christmas classic,” she says, using the stupid




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                             127
nickname that my father gave me when I fell into the ocean at Cape Cod while we were

crabbing back when I was like three years old.

        Amanda and I look at each other. I search her face for all the telling signs that

she‟s gone instantly to the dark side. Jessica doesn‟t have to sweet talk anybody for too

long to get them to pull a Darth Vader. We‟re just so used to getting kicked around, that

any small token of sweetness, however disgustingly false, makes your insides flutter like

a herd of butterflies.

        “Here‟s an almond, Kate,” Amanda says, ignoring Jessica.

        Almonds are my favorite.

        “Girls,” my father calls, “the results are in.”

        We jump up and make for the door. I have to drag Sarah from her yogurt ghosts.

        The lights are still on in the auditorium but mostly everyone is already in their

seats. I notice the giant caged-in clock on the gym wall. It‟s almost 3pm. Emily will be

getting home soon. I think about what she‟ll say when I tell her about what I did today,

although, really, I kind of know that she won‟t get it. She would have told me to just say

sorry to Amanda and go on with life. That‟s the way Emily is. She doesn‟t get upset

over too much, so she doesn‟t think anybody else does either. And she doesn‟t get the

Jessica thing. Emily kind of sees Jessica as not so bad, like I‟m exaggerating the fact that

Jessica is Satan. But that‟s because Jessica acts nice to Emily, as if she likes her. And

sometimes, I even get a little unsure, like maybe Jessica really does like Emily. You can

never be sure with Jessica. But I know it‟s just all fake because if I say Jessica likes

someone then I‟m also saying she has certain human qualities, and I‟m not really ready to

say something that radical.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                128
        The competition lady walks out onto the stage to a sprinkling of applause and my

nerves all turn on at once. I mean, I know I lost and all, but still, I‟m excited anyway.

        She checks the microphone by clearing her throat. “Thank you all so much for

your patience today. There have been so many fine performances in this competition and

scoring talent like this is difficult work. At this time, I‟d like to invite all our competitors

to the stage please.” She steps back as the audience bends and twists, releasing a few

pieces of itself to line the sides of the gym and snake up the two side stairs like a river

flowing around a rock and coming back together behind it. Jessica is first in line. Little

banged boy isn‟t far behind.

        “Come on,” Amanda says, grabbing my arm. And for the first time in my life, I

become a part of the snake.

        As we settle into lines on the stage behind the competition lady with the

microphone, she turns around to look at us. “Aren‟t they all just wonderful?” It‟s a

signal for the audience to clap.

        A bunch of women come out with bouquets for each kid on stage. I forgot about

this part. They always get a rose or a corsage or something at every competition.

Sometimes this part can come in the beginning, or before or after each one plays, or at the

end. All I know is that I can‟t wait to get mine.

        A kid drops his bouquet and the audience laughs lightly…and so do I.

        Once all the women disappear from the stage, the competition lady asks for one

more round of applause.

        “It‟s now the time to announce the winners of today‟s competition. It‟s what

we‟ve all been waiting for,” she says, opening up a piece of paper in her hands. But I




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                  129
wasn‟t waiting for anything. I was done. I lift my roses to my nose and sniff. They are

cold and don‟t have too much of a smell, but I love them anyway.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                         130
                                       BE THE DUCK

       “Into the van, into the van everyone,” my mother says. We are getting close to

my mother‟s favorite time of the day and she is looking awful happy. And this Saturday,

she isn‟t alone with that emotion.

       I look over at Amanda. She looks back at me. I smell my roses. She gives her

small second place trophy a kiss. We are partners again.

       “Well?” my mother asks. We all just stand and blink at her. “Let‟s go,

everybody into the van, NOW.”

        My father is carrying one of the biggest trophies I have ever seen. They‟re going

to have to punch another hole in the hallway wall to make a new case for that one,

because it certainly isn‟t going to fit in the one we have now.

       With a click of my father‟s keys, the van doors open. I go to jump in, and Jessica

pushes ahead of me.

       Sarah leaps into the van after me and onto my lap, squeezing me around the neck

until I think she may just snap it. And even though it hurts, I don‟t stop her. Instead, I

breathe her in until my lungs won‟t hold even one more speck of her. She hugs my neck

right through the sounds of rustling bags, snapping seat belts, and the rocking motion of

bodies settling into the van. But before my mother can tell me to put Sarah in her seat, I

kiss Sarah‟s ear through her hair, making her squeal and leap off my lap and into her car

seat. She grabs the straps, pulls them down over her head and buckles herself in. That

always gives me a thrill, the site of a little kid buckling themselves into a car seat.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                                 131
        My father backs out of the parking space. Dust-filled sunshine floods the car.

Before my father can maneuver us out of the parking lot, Jessica has her smelly feet

thrown up on the back of my seat.

         “Hold my hand,” Sarah says, interrupting my thoughts on all the ways that

Jessica could be accidentally buried in a cement foundation. I stop mixing cement in my

head and hold her hand, watching her little eyes struggling to stay open against the

magical movement of the van…around a few bends, down a little hill, and through two

red lights, and she‟s lost to sleep by the time my father pulls onto the ramp to the

interstate.

        The sky darkens and the air in the van instantly cools. Still holding Sarah‟s hand,

I pull my legs up onto the seat and lean a little closer to her. One…then, two... then

twenty large drops plop against the front windshield in fat little splats, sounding like big

bugs splattering on the windshield, and then it‟s like someone turned up the volume and

the rain pours down.

        “Duck weather,” my father says turning on his wipers as he pulls into the middle

lane, his favorite one, and the one he‟ll drive in the entire time on the highway, no matter

what kind of overloaded crappy-looking truck pulls in front of us.

        The green and white glowing highway signs flash overhead, and every minute or

so, a dark figure of a car swooshes by in the corner of my eye as I watch the rain drops

slide across my window leaving their raindrop trails like letters flowing across a

computer screen. I wish that I could read Raindrop. But no one can, I guess, except

maybe the ducks…the ducks?




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                              132
       And then for some reason, it‟s like I really can read Raindrop - but probably it

was just time, you know, the time for me to get it, and I get it. I finally get why Holden is

so worried about the ducks. It was because he knew he was becoming a duck.

       “The ducks have to take care of themselves.”

       “What are you doing,” Jessica asks, “talking to yourself about ducks like a mental

person? What are you quacked?” she laughs at her own dumb joke and knocks me in the

head with her hard pointy toe.

       “You‟d think that someone who just got their butt kicked in a piano competition

would be a little more humble, wouldn‟t you?” I say, before I can stop myself.

        “Excuse me, Rudolph,” she hisses at the back of my head, “but the large trophy

sitting behind me with my name on it equals, I won.”

        “But didn‟t you hear Anthony play? Just because he won for Juniors doesn‟t

mean he didn‟t beat you. Remember, Jessica, to really win, you need to beat the best.

How could you miss your own point?”

       “Ha,” she laughs. And then she leans forward and whispers into my ear. “You‟ve

never met a point in your entire life, you idiot, so don‟t tell me what I‟m missing. I won.

Manny lost. And you definitely lost.”

       But Jessica is wrong, I have met a point…this point…that whether or not she gets

it doesn‟t matter. I get it. And that is all that matters. Just like the ducks, I have to take

care of myself.

       “I think you‟re a great loser, Kiki,” Manny says from behind me. Jessica

snickers. But I know exactly what Manny meant.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                               133
        I twist around in my seat to look at her, “Thanks, Manny…a lot.” Sometimes you

have to lose to win, and that is exactly what I did today. I won

        I turn back in my seat just as my father snaps on his right blinker. It‟s the

bathroom exit…we‟ve come full circle.

        The van slides into the gas station. “Hey Kate,” my father says, turning his head

halfway so that I can see his profile, “do you want to pump the gas for me?”

        “I want to pump the gas,” Amanda yells.

        “I asked Kate,” my father says.

        I know what he‟s doing. He‟s trying to get me out of the race to the bathroom. He

didn‟t have to do it because I wasn‟t planning on racing…ever again. But I‟m still glad

that he did.

        “How about I pump it this Saturday and Amanda pumps it next Saturday?” I

suggest.

        “That solution is music to my ears,” my father says.

           Next Saturday. Maybe I should practice Rudolph a little more. Maybe then I‟d

be able to get through the whole song without messing up next time. Next time? I know,

I know…call me crazy.




Call Me Crazy, Jennifer Mann                                                            134

								
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