My Crooked Neck

by Irene Hsu
Art by Annie Yang and Ashley Wu
Issue: Elysium (Spring 2012)

Photo of bookshelf rotated 90 degrees.

Well, Mom tells me, you’ve done it again.

This is Mom’s favorite sentence. She says it about nine times a day, but what the “it” is that I’ve done again, she never says. This is a good indication that she will grab my hand and charge out of the door, which she does, and that I will flop along right behind her, which I do. When Mom charges forward, and she does it every week (usually on Fridays after her work), the whole world whizzes by we’re leaving it behind. Last last week at the grocery store, everything was just zooming by, like the row of cabbages, and the other day it was her rolly chair. Mom always beats the whole world though, and I tell you, that rolly chair is a speedy one, because my sister Marie and I always race on rolly chairs. Of course, I’m the only one who ever gets in trouble, but I like racing Marie on those chairs because it’s the only thing I can beat her at.

This time, as she grabs my arm and pulls, all I can see is Ms. Jenny, whom I hate more than people who make fun of my name, which pretty much happens every time. When I hate the world, I usually go to the library across the street to read some titles, but once, I was making a break for it, and Ms. Jenny asked me what I was doing, and I said nothing, and she said go to the office, and then Mom came to drag me away at supersonic speed and to yell some words that Marie says pretty much mean “stupid” and “dumb” at Ms. Jenny. Every day now, Ms. Jenny gives me the stink eye on account of Mom calling her stupid and dumb, but I don’t really care because she has a mole on her left cheek, and Marie told me that people with moles are secretly witches in disguise, haven’t I read any books? Yes, I have, but I guess after Dad was gone I didn’t have anyone to read with and skipped the books about witches. It’s a good thing Marie told me, because even though witches don’t scare me, I don’t want to get eaten by Ms. Jenny, of all witches. That’s when I figured that since Marie knew everything, what would be the point of two of us knowing everything? We linked pinkies and said that when we grow up, she’d do all the reading and I’d do all the nodding along, and she can tell me all about witches and George Washington and Nate the Great. So from then on, I decided not to read any more books. Plus, it makes me sad when I read books, because then my head reads them in Dad’s voice, which is very thick and velvety, like hot chocolate, and I miss him.

Anyway, as Mom is storming out the door, I wish that Jimmy would pick me up if I were ever in trouble. Jimmy is no Dad, and even though he and I are mutually not so hot on each other, I like sitting in the car with him because it’s nice and quiet and I also find coins in his car. I don’t care much for the quarters and nickels, it’s the pennies that interest me most because they’re so shiny, and the best part is that Jimmy always lets me keep them. When I get home, I drop the pennies in my jar and I hear them clinking together, and I feel like I am rich. So that is why I like when Jimmy takes me home Plus, Mom likes Marie more anyway, which is probably why she named her Marie while I got stuck with a crappy name like Herman which everyone always makes fun of and pronounces as “Her-man” instead of “Hur-min”. Everyone just gets it wrong, even Ms. Jenny, who is fortunately whizzing so I don’t have to look at her left mole for forever.

British 1-pound coins.

Mom is telling me some things about my posture as she yanks the seatbelt over me, but I don’t really listen to her, because she is always telling me something and dragging me somewhere, especially after that time last week when she told me to sit straight, but I was sitting straight so I don’t know why she told me do that. And then she frowned at me like I am frowning now and asked me if there was something wrong with my neck. Since then she hasn’t really smiled a lot, but she has these angry looking wrinkles on her forehead and she also does a lot of talking on the telephone and I’ve been hearing my name getting all mingled and bunched up with “posture” and “neck.” It’s not really a big deal, since she loves to talk about me and how I give her migraines. Once I told Ms. Jenny that Mom gives me migraines and also scratches the inside of her nose so that it looks like she is picking it, but apparently Mom doesn’t like copycats and she gave me a time out.

Mom is saying, Her-man, we are going to the doctor right now, this instant. She yanks the steering wheel to the left, and then we almost run over a squirrel so I scream a little before remembering that boys aren’t supposed to scream. Marie told me that, too. Marie tells me a lot of things, and so does Mom, but I only like listening to Marie and not Mom. I used to listen to Mom, but only because Dad promised that for each word I listened to, he would help me find that many pennies. But he died before I even got up to a hundred. I wonder how many pennies I’ll need to buy him back; I’m guessing more fifty, because that’s how much I bought my fish Abel for and Dad is much less boring than Abel is. Abel just swims around, and Dad can find pennies. So now, I don’t really feel like listening to Mom since Dad’s not here. Plus, it’s hard to do things the way Mom wants them, so I usually just do things the way Mom doesn’t want them, it’s much easier like that, and sometimes it’s funny when she gets mad. Last year, I told Mom that I hated Ms. Jenny because she looked like a witch, and Mom told me not to judge a book by its cover, so since then, I’ve been trying very hard just to judge books. The good thing is that by not listening to Mom, I’m not missing Dad, and I’m also listening to Marie. I promised that I would never read a book in my whole entire life, I figured that titles don’t really count, so that’s what I do to judge a book by its cover—reading the titles. It’s like hitting three stones with one bird.

The best way, I have discovered, is to run around the library in a zigzag. I started in the A’s last year, but the top row is hard to reach because it’s taller than the bathroom sink, so I’ve decided that when I am twelve and can reach the spare change box on top of the refrigerator to look for pennies, then I will come back to the books at the top. For now though, I’m on the second row of the D’s, and Marie says that I have probably judged about a gazillion million books by their covers now. Most of them are pretty straightforward, like Beowulf which is probably about being a wolf, but I think they spelled it wrong; adults are always sticking their nosein the air, except Dad, but that’s just because Dad was so tall that if he stuck his nose up it would just hit the ceiling. Anyway, their secret is safe with me, I think Beowulf looks much cooler than Be a Wolf. Another books is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I’d imagine is about the adventures of a fish called Huckleberry Finn. I feel kind of sorry for Huckleberry, because that’s an even worse name than Herman. I bet the other fish make fun of him for his name and he probably cries in the painting corner, which is what I do sometimes so no one can see me, because I hate being called names that aren’t mine.

Bubbles that vaguely look like coins exit the mouth of a goldfish.

The thing about running around judging books by their covers is that after a while, my head gets sort of heavy for my neck, like it’s going to roll off my shoulders and someone is going to play wall ball with it. See, all the books are always propped up in stacks, but horizontally so that the title is sideways. Then I have to crane my neck to the right so that my ear is pressed into my shoulder, and after three hours of doing that, it gets very tiring. But Dad told me once that if I work hard, I can make my dreams come true, and my dream is to read all the books in the library. Their titles, I mean. So whenever my head feels like it is going to fall off my neck, I say “I can make my dreams come true” and my neck gets better, sort of.

Then I wake up, and I guess I was asleep because Mom is yanking my seatbelt out and saying, good Lord, Herman we’re late and it’s all your lazy stupid fault, or something along the lines of that, and then she charges again and my neck feels like it’s going to snap any minute now. Then, I squeeze my eyelids together and cover my eyeballs and whisper to myself, “I can make my dreams come true” to make my neck feel better, but I remember that I am outside a doctor’s office and not in the library. And then Mom tells me to stop talking to myself, because then people will think I am crazy. But Mom doesn’t talk to herself, and I think she’s crazy.

When Mom charges into the doctor’s office, a man with no hair shakes my hand and asks me what my name is, but I’m not supposed to talk to strangers so I say, hey man, none of your beeswax. He straightens up and laughs, which sounds like a cow dying; then I see that he has a nametag that says “Hello, my name is Dr. Miller,” so I ask him if he is knows Arthur Miller who wrote Death of a Salesman, and if he knew why the salesman died. I was judging the D books by their covers today, and it struck me as miserable that someone would write about someone’s death. Once during Dad’s funeral, I asked Uncle Freddie if he was dead, and he told me never to speak of death, and that Dad passed away and was with the angels, whatever that means. If he really is with the angels, then they are probably mad at him because he used to play tic-tac-toe with me at church.

Dr. Miller, no relation to Arthur Miller, tells me that he doesn’t know, but then I’m wondering, if he doesn’t even know that, how is he a doctor. Whatever. I’ll just ask Marie when I get home. Marie knows everything

Then, Dr. Miller takes my X-Ray, and him and Mom talk about life and their children and the migraines that they get from their children. I am about to say that Mom gives me migraines to and secretly picks her nose to boot, but then I don’t really feel like making Mom nag so much, so I slouch a little to keep my thoughts from sneaking out of my mouth. Dr. Miller disappears for about a hundred years, and then Mom wipes off her mile-wide smile that she uses when she talks to people who know everything, and tells me to watch the way I sit because frankly, Her-man, she is getting so tired of the way I cause so much trouble for her. She thumps my back a little like she is hammering it out to make me sit straight, which I do. Then Dr. Miller comes back with some X-Rays tucked under his armpit, and Mom asks him in this syrupy chirp that spews from her mile-wide smile how my neck looks. He says, Mrs. Lotova may I please speak with you privately, so they disappear for another twenty decades.

I am looking around, and I see that there is a bookshelf in the corner of the room, so I go over to read some titles. I tilt my head a little bit and boy does that hurt like a stubbed toe, only in my neck. Unfortunately, my efforts go unrewarded because the only words I can pick out from the titles are “the” and “a” and “of” and “spine” and “neck,” so instead, I lie down on the floor to take a nap. That’s when I see something shiny beneath the shelf, so then I lie down on the ground like I am taking a nap, and squash my cheek against the ground, and huzzah! I see five pennies—no, six! It is, as Marie would say, a one chance in one lifetime.

This is exciting, I have never found four pennies at once! There was this time when I was pulling up the sofa cushions to throw them at Mom, and I found three—but never six! That means I can get Dad back soon, so I won’t have to watch Abel swim in circles and listen to Mom tell me, Her-man do this, Her-man do that, for the rest of my life. When I get Dad back from the angels, he can help me find even more, and then maybe I will be able to buy the whole library, or maybe find a cure for cooties. Or he can just read to me in his velvet voice, I would like that too. So I stick a hand under the bookshelf, and hooray! It just fits under the shelf. I jerk it around a little and then the pennies all whiz out from under the shelf, along with some fluffs of dust and a breadcrumb.

I scoop the pennies and then hold them to the light, like Dad used to do for good luck. But then one slips out and rolls away from me, and I am kind of upset because how am I supposed to get Dad and his hot chocolate voice back?

I chase after it, and it rolls right into the hinge of the door. So I roll behind the door too, and I’m glad I chase after it because this is an especially shiny penny. I stick my fingers between the hinges and yank it out, and I look at the man on the penny—he looks just like Dad! And the house on the back looks just like a library. So I make a wish, but then Mom and Dr. Miller are coming back and chattering so loudly that I can’t hear my own wish. But before I can make another wish, the door opens, and I guess they can’t see me because I feel my shoulders being mashed together, and something clomps on my finger, and something else is pushing my neck to the left, and I hear Mom cry out something, but it is too late because I hear a snap, and the last things I see are the pennies spilling out of my palms and rolling away, away, away.

A hand reaches into a jar of pennies.