2019 COG Page Screen Awards Finalist
That's Not How I Know You
A mom in slim overalls and a white crop top was edging ever closer. Kiddo had seen one of her earrings fly off and land by an overloaded electrical outlet behind one of the inflatables as she’d hurtled down the slide with her pudgy child five minutes prior. The slide shrieked, a rude sound close to a fart; the mom stood and dusted her bottom off and aimed her face around at the other moms in an I’m the Fun Mom! mask: lots of teeth, hint of uvula. She was very pretty. Her child looked like it had been squirted in the mouth and both eyes by a passing lemon. Lots of moms were looking at Kiddo. Most of the children were too shy to approach. His socks felt grimy on the outside and his hands felt coated in dried saliva. He pretended to hide behind a blow-up kangaroo so he could check his YouTube profile on his phone, scrolling up and down to see the Views count beyond the cobwebby cracks of the screen. He was in the thousands now; every time he checked, it inched higher and higher. He was being paid five hundo for this appearance alone, and he had two others after. He caught sight of his own mask, shattered in his phone’s reflection, an utterly plain face behind oversize purple glasses, no lenses. The mustache was real and painstakingly waxed. With relief, he saw that Jean had been right about the lip gloss. He jumped from behind the kangaroo and chortled his signature high-pitched laugh, something he’d picked up in a documentary about a serial killer. The murderer had slopey shoulders and crowded teeth; he loved jokes about homosexuals and he laughed like he was being stabbed in one testicle and tickled in the other. Kiddo had an ear for those kinds of things. Was great at impressions.
The children screeched. Kiddo pretended to punch one in the stomach, shook his hand out like the kid had iron abs.
“My boy just loves you,” Crop Top said, appearing before him like she’d been launched from a slingshot. She traced her lips with her fingertip, the nail admirably shaped and polished in a pale pink. Kiddo smelled menthols and citrus on her; her cheek skin shimmered subtly. A tortured wad of gum tumbled from molar to molar. The remaining earring undulated; was it an arrowhead, or a feather?
“He’s a cute kid,” Kiddo said, deploying one of a dozen phrases he’d memorized for conversations with parents.
“He has his moments!” the mom said, again displaying the molars, the uvula. Her hair was curly and golden, with rich browns near her scalp. Her face was symmetrical and pleasing. It looked lived in. “He loves your video about the whale poop.”
It was, in fact, Kiddo’s most popular video. Nearly ten thousand views. He’d taken video of a whale pooping that he’d found online and edited in green-screen footage of him pretending to be blasted off the screen. He reappeared against a tropical backdrop, this time covered in chocolate pudding he’d mixed with water, at which point he recited a few facts about whale poop he’d borrowed from Wikipedia. “Whale poop looks like a fluffy brown cloud,” he said, his voice squeaking the way he’d trained it to, “and watch out for those squid beaks!”
“The part where you lick your finger!” Crop Top bellowed. “Even my husband was impressed.” She pivoted quickly, her laugh cut off. She’d betrayed herself, mentioning the husband. Kiddo had seen it happen before.
He was an all right looking dude, with a normal face and straight teeth and gray-green eyes and a modern hair/beard combo. His costume of short-sleeved purple button down and houndstooth vest and gray jeans were all slim-fit. He had an acceptable shoe size, if you noticed that sort of thing, and most women did. He was young and becoming famous. At least moderately well known. His logo, embroidered on the flat-brim ballcap he wore (available in his Shopify for $30 plus tax and shipping) was of an eggplant wearing the same large glasses Kiddo wore. “That’s the universal symbol for a boner,” Jean told him, tracing the eggplant’s outline with her knuckle. But he’d already paid the guy he found on Craigslist for the design.
“Well, it’s purple,” he’d said. “And, you know, kids and veggies.”
Jean snorted. “You’ll be popular with the moms, anyway.” She was right.
He cupped a hand on Crop Top’s shoulder, which felt moderately oiled; he wondered why he didn’t smell coconut. “My fans are everything,” he said, delivering a probing, blinkless eye contact, total pro move. Her eyes were the color of coffee dregs; she’d frozen in place as if he’d caught her scratching something private. “I’m just this weird guy who loves helping kids learn. They’re the real stars!” He pumped his palm on her flesh, one-two, then released her and turned back to the room.
“Who wants to see Kiddo do a backbend?” he squealed. He could feel Crop Top reeling next to him; he knew she’d be following his personal social media accounts by the evening. He made no secret of his real identity. His name was Austin MacDougal. He promoted Kiddo on his personal stuff and Austin on his Kiddo stuff. He wanted potential agents and producers, modeling agencies, who knows, to be able to find him easily. He had range.
“I want Kiddo to give me a high five,” a small girl was wailing. But she’d been coughing into her hand all morning.
“Of course I will!” he shrieked. “After I do…this!” He did a forward roll combo, one he’d been practicing on the soft shag of Jean’s living room. It always ended in a messy splits and him pretending like he’d hurt himself.
“Kids love violence and pain,” Jean always said. The floor at this place was a whisper of carpet over cement, and he really did hurt his back, but he used it for the performance.
“Yow!” he whined, pretending to convulse. A boy in suspenders fell to his knees laughing.
Later, he mashed a slice of cake into the birthday girl’s hair, then pretended to pick at it with his fork. “I love brains in my cake!” he yelled. “Did you know there are train tracks in your brain called synapses?” He moonwalked out of the party just before it ended, reminding everyone to follow him on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. A boy pushed his face into the glass door, smearing his features downward, before being yanked away by his shirt collar. Once he’d rounded the corner, Kiddo tossed the gift bag he’d been forced to take—filled with Pixy Stix and off-brand toy racecars and crayons—into a battered trash can.
He checked his phone. It was barely noon. Jean had texted him twice. “Check your views!” and then an image he had to laboriously click to download. It was a closeup of her breast, the nipple perky and the areola enormous, a wiry black hair poinging out to the side. It was old-timey, that boob. Like the rotary dial on a heavy beige phone. He held his thumb over the image and then selected “HAHA” from the available options. He’d meant to select “thumbs up” but it was too late now.
A notification popped up on his phone. “MamaJamma is now following you on Instagram!” It was Crop Top. He scanned the first few photos, mostly of her kid, but there was one of her taking a selfie in front of a splotchy mirror. Bikini top. Duckface. Promising. He followed back.
The sun felt like the sting after a slap. His car had a flyer under its wiper for a new takeout place; he freed it and let it drift to the sidewalk. He liked to park at least four blocks from his destination, as he was still driving a dismal Tercel the color of children’s toothpaste. One day he hoped to upgrade to an Accord, or an F150. All black, even the rims.
At the next party, he breakdanced in front of the aquarium wall at an Italian restaurant. It was unclear whether the fish inside were to be scooped out and fried and served, or just admired. The birthday boy was a bit older than his target audience, his chin nearly throbbing with zits, and Kiddo kept a respectful distance, focusing instead on a bench of grandmothers by the bathrooms. “Very nice,” one of them kept saying. Instead of a gift bag he was given an envelope with six fives in it. Holding it made his palms itch.
The birthday boy was steered over to him by a man with a scorched-looking bald spot. “Say goodbye to the clown!” he growled through his smile.
“I’m not a clown,” Kiddo said, his voice short-circuiting and giggly.
“Huh?” the man said.
“Goodbye,” the birthday boy mumbled.
“Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram!” Kiddo felt for the boy. He made a mental note to do a video on the body’s various betrayals. Zits, farts, fat. Nocturnal emissions? Maybe he could write a song that talked about it in a vague way. He could rhyme dream with cream.
He called Jean as he walked to his car.
“You got me,” she said, the same way she always answered.
“How old is the kid at the next one?” he asked.
“I’ll have to check…” she said, trailing off. He could hear the TV in the background. Roar of applause, someone fighting to talk over it.
“Never mind,” he said. He hung up. He was standing in the middle of the sidewalk. He didn’t feel like walking. Jean did a lot for him. He’d met her at the mall, months and months ago. He’d been juggling plastic lemons outside the KayBee Toys. She looked like an actress in a dressed-down part, was his first impression of her. Like an aging starlet hiding under a raisin-brown wig. She asked him to Sbarro and told him her plan. Videos, appearances, build the base. He’d had all those ideas himself, but hearing them said out loud by her, by her specifically, so adult and no-nonsense that she’d divided her vagina into quadrants so she could efficiently and clearly direct his actions, made it all seem possible. But she could also make him feel like he was only mildly useful to her, to the world. He often had to fight the feeling that he was simply a vapor, only a smell or a hue. The Views count helped. He checked it again; his numbers were slightly higher.
He drove with the window down and the hot wind on his face to his final event for the day, which was at a park in the middle of a grid of brick apartment buildings and tiny single family homes. Everything looked dingy, even the dustcolored sky. His face hurt in the usual way; his tongue felt coated in grit. It took a lot to be Kiddo, whose jaw was locked in a perpetual rictus of surprise and who expressed excitement by dancing or doing cartwheels and whose voice made a hot crater of Austin’s throat. Still, he forced himself to skip over to the party table, a lone wooden picnic deal with drifty balloons taped at its corners. Half a dozen kids were slouched around it. Kiddo thought he maybe heard thunder.
“Who’s the birthday boy?” he sang. All the children looked at a small redhead with a party hat over one ear. “You must be Brayden!” Kiddo yelled. The boy didn’t confirm or deny. He was studying something in his lap. It was okay. Shyness was to be expected.
“Brayden!” Kiddo hissed. “I bet you can’t beat me down the slide!” He ran and climbed the rope ladder, which felt wet and reminded Austin that he had once again forgotten to put alcohol wipes in his back pockets, then ran down the blue plastic chute and ended with a headstand, his feet cycling comically and the top of his head screaming. “Aha!” he said once he’d righted himself. All the children were still sitting, even Brayden, like cowlicked bumps on a log. Kiddo took extra care to brush off his knees and hands, buying himself some time. He’d been working on a coin trick but Jean felt his mastery of it was weeks away. His feet were throbbing, what-now, what-now.
He did hear thunder, a low throat-clearing too far away to affect the party, a pity.
“Hey, Brayden!” Kiddo screamed, too intense but he was only human, “where’s your mommy, huh? Kiddo wants to meet your mommy!” There were no parents nearby, Kiddo suddenly saw. No other children playing in the park. Just this group of sullen children all staring into their laps like—oh.
“Okay, everyone,” Kiddo said in his best Kiddo-is-being-stern right now voice, which was similar to his Kiddo-is-sad right now voice—less squeaky, more clipped, “let’s all turn off our devices, okay? It’s time to HAVE. SOME. FUN!” He looked around for a parent, still nothing. He tried to remember the booking details. Jean usually handled that. All he knew was the location and the child’s name, which honestly was usually Brayden or Jack.
“Park on the west side,” Jean had told him, gripping and releasing the exhausted shaft of his penis. They were in Jean’s kitchen, her favorite place to talk business, with her color-coded bulletin board/calendar, and also her favorite place to have my way with you.
There was a conversation he needed to have with Jean, sometime in the near future, but it felt amorphous and dangerous, like a cloud of whale poop.
The best thing to do was take charge. Kiddo reached into Brayden’s lap to grab at the phone or tablet or whatever it was, but in fact Brayden wasn’t holding anything. He was looking at his own hands, wrists crossed and zip-tied so tightly that his fingers were purple.
“What?” was all Kiddo could think of to say. He looked around at the other children. One of them had a wine-colored birthmark at her hairline in the shape of a boot. Another had a painful-looking middle part, the line of scalp pink. They were all looking at their hands, though some risked upward glances at him. He let out a shuddery laugh, nervous Kiddo. “Who did this?” He scanned his memory. Had Jean mentioned some kind of theme to the party? But there was nothing.
Jean, with her tailored slacks and haircut of an elementary school teacher and her scent like woodchips and car upholstery. She would know what to do, here and now. She would, in her words, get to the bottom of this horse honky.
Kiddo knelt down, his knee in the cold dirt by the bench. “Hey. Brayden.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He saw now that the birthday cake at the edge of the table wasn’t real, was made of cardboard and tissue paper. He shook Brayden roughly. “Can you tell me what’s going on here? Can you tell me where your mommy is?”
Brayden began heaving. Gulps of breath, choked exhales. The breeze carried its scent: curdled milk. Murmurs of Stop it! and Shh! fluttered among the other children. The boys on either side of him kicked at Brayden’s feet and ankles. It only made it worse; Brayden was beyond himself now. His forehead hit the table in front of him with a dull thonk and then he was still. Kiddo felt his body lurch backward, felt his ass landing hard on the packed ground. Horror pumped from his heart out through his arms, his toes.
The ties. He could do something about those. He had a multi-tool in his glove compartment, a present from either his mother or Jean. His car was the requisite four-plus blocks away. He scurried on all fours until he could propel his body into standing. He ran his hands over his pockets, slowed momentarily when he couldn’t feel the familiar edges of his phone anywhere. Had it fallen out on the slide? He ran harder.
At his car he dropped his keys once, twice. His hands shook. Finally he got the door open, located the tool under the car manual, began running back toward the park.
“Hey,” a voice behind him called. “Stop.”
He looked back, saw a short woman standing by the car door he’d left open. He stopped and faced her; they were about half a block apart. “It’s okay,” he yelled. “I left it open on accident. You can close it.” He turned to keep running. His legs felt like overcooked pasta.
“Stop,” the woman said again, something odd in her voice. Fear. Or anger. Kiddo jogged back; maybe she had a phone, or maybe she knew some of the children and could explain what was going on. When he got close she nudged the car door shut with her hip and stayed there, leaning against the window as if she’d been waiting for him.
“I recognize you,” she said. Her features were small; she had a doll’s nose and colorless eyes and her lips were just two thin dashes of pink. Her hair swept up and away from her forehead in a style that seemed both futuristic and outdated, and she wore a scratchy-looking sweater over baggy jeans. Only her fingertips emerged from the sweater sleeves and the pants were cuffed several times. Even her shoes looked too big; when she shifted from foot to foot they moved freely, as though nothing was holding them to the earth but gravity.
“You might have seen my videos,” Kiddo said, because it was how he always responded to such a declaration; it was pre-scripted.
“I don’t do video,” she said. Her voice seemed compressed, playing on too high a speed.
“Oh. Okay. I’m sorry, I really have to get back,” Kiddo said. “There are some kids waiting on me.”
“That’s not how I know you,” she said.
Kiddo looked around. A skinny gray cat darted out from under one car and disappeared under another. Floral ironwork on ground-level windows, blinds tightly shut, curtains drawn. A bit of trash skittered past. No cars approached. A busy road was less than a quarter mile away and Kiddo should have been able to hear the inhale/exhale of traffic, but there was nothing. Silence.
“Do you have a phone?” Kiddo asked. The woman was ugly; Kiddo couldn’t help the thought. It flew its jagged red lettering in a banner across his brain: U G L Y. Not only how she looked; hate seemed to poke out of her in quills, even as she was now smiling at him. Her teeth were small and pink, like she’d just finished a lollipop.
“I don’t have no phone,” she said. Kiddo got the feeling that he’d guessed something wrong, that they were playing a game and he had a finite number of guesses left.
“Do you know Brayden?”
“Sure I know him.” She sniffed rapidly, like she was trying not to let something get out.
“Can you come with me to his party? I think he and his friends are playing a game and it’s gone too far…” She was shaking her head, her face spoiled, angry now.
The day felt like a sack of irons tethered to his every joint. Sometimes Austin allowed himself the question, Do I even like kids? But never the answer. He liked that they liked him. He liked that he was likable, even popular. He envied that they were simply themselves, and not even defiantly so. They just were. He’d always blended in; in high school plenty of kids thought his name was Andrew and he never said a thing. He’d never entertained the possibility that he didn’t have to blend in, be barely visible. Until Jean. Do I even like Jean? Never the answer.
The inflatables, Crop Top, even the row of grandmothers felt like other days, other lifetimes. What they asked of him seemed doable. But this dirty foot of a woman, her bony shoulder peeping out the neck of her sweater, she was asking a lot. Too much. She was asking something he didn’t know the answer to.
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” he said. He pushed up his glasses, the stupid plastic frames sliding immediately back down. “Bye.”
He began running again, with less urgency; the whole afternoon was starting to feel like a dumb joke he was too dim to understand. Maybe he could do fewer appearances, now that the views were going up. He could ask Jean when she was in a good mood; he would even beg her.
“That’s the wrong way,” the woman called to him. Another joke; he knew he was running back the way he'd come. “Bye!” he said again, though he wanted to scream at her, make a lewd gesture. But he couldn’t risk it. You never knew who had their phones out, who'd pressed record.
The tool dug into his hand. He’d been clutching it tightly the whole time. First, he’d cut the ties. Then he’d locate his phone, call Jean, ask her to get in touch with whatever parent had set it all up. The park was in sight now. A pitchfork of lightning flashed against the gray. He should have driven his car back instead of running; why hadn’t he done that?
The picnic table was empty. No balloons, no cake, no children. The slide seemed to be in a different place than he remembered too. And hadn’t it been blue, not green?
“Brayden?” he called. He turned in a slow circle. He remembered another park he’d been to that had two playgrounds, divided by a large green field. Maybe this was the same way, he convinced himself, though he could easily see to each fence marking the park’s boundaries. Maybe it looked different if you entered from a different direction. He began making his way up the slight hill, past the playground, over to the other side. He walked toward the playground from this angle, only now he couldn’t see the slide at all.
“Hello?” he yelled, and then he allowed himself to bellow a profanity and spike the multi-tool into the patchy grass. If he didn’t complete this appearance, Jean would have to return the deposit. He walked the perimeter of the park, then he did it again going in the opposite direction. He was in the wrong place; he’d run in the wrong direction, just as the woman had tried to warn him. Without the maps app on his phone, his sense of direction was laughable. He again crested the hill, made his way back down it, exited the park. He’d get into his car and drive around; what else could he do?
The woman was waiting for him at the corner, swaying ever so slightly where she stood. She held up a phone and waved it at him. It had the same teal case as his and when he got closer he saw that the screen had the same webby crack.
She wasn’t a woman, he could see that now. She was a child. He took the phone from her small hand. It wouldn’t power on. One of her shoes was at an odd angle and he again had the impression that she didn’t stand so much as float.
“You never let me finish saying where I know you from,” she said. She took the phone back and stabbed at it with her finger. She held it out for him to see: it was video of him, staring at his phone being held by a dirty child. The video was taken from about a block away and across the street, as if peering around the corner at him and the girl. He turned to look but there was no one there. He watched as the man on the video did the same thing. Darkness creeped in at the edges, as though the video were swallowing itself. He heard thunder again, a low rhythmic marching. Kiddo felt himself leaning toward the girl, like she was pulling him in. His body seemed out of sync with his mind.
“I have to get back,” he said. If only he could reason with her; explain. He thought of the multitool, thought of stabbing at her with the corkscrew, then remembered he wasn’t holding it anymore. “There are kids counting on me.”
A man in a peeling leather jacket hurried by, his head ducked and his fists in his pockets. Kiddo stared, waiting for the man to look over and see him. He considered calling out to the man, but couldn’t think of the words to use. The man rounded the corner and was gone.
“Okay now say what you say next,” she said, grinning up at him. Her teeth were the color of meatblood on a Styrofoam dish.
Kiddo pictured himself hitting the girl, pushing her down, covering her mouth and nose with his hand. He could see it so vividly, and it calmed him. He had a clear sense of what to do about Jean. He did what he was told. The man in the video did, too.