Pepperoni Sky

Pepperoni Sky

Here’s a bit of story that might turn out to be part of something longer. I hope you enjoy it.—CT

MaryAnn Hardison was six years old when her family visited SeaWorld. She loved the dolphins and whales in a way that she could never love her brother, who was more like a toad than a mammal. Just as they were walking beneath the path of one of the park’s enormous sprawling roller coasters, someone passing above them hurled, and a reeking gelatinous mass of blue slushee and masticated but still recognizable pepperoni pizza landed, more or less precisely, on her head.

She was wearing her favorite dress at the time, a blue sundress, which did, by the simple happenstance of matching color, disguise most of the damage from the regurgitated slushee. Nothing short of body armor could have withstood the pepperoni vomit. Her mother tried to rake most of the mess off of her shoulders with a folded park map, the one they had been using to find the orca stadium. MaryAnn stood there, drenched and dripping blue with bits of pepperoni, listening to her father making deep guttural sounds, his hands held out at his sides, unable to vocalize language at such a moment. Her brother was laughing, howler monkey laughter, so that the sound echoed through the park and people turned to see.

Her mother ushered her to a nearby bathroom and disrobed her. MaryAnn stood on the damp cement floor while her mother wet brown paper towels from the dispenser on the wall and wiped at the doughy detritus on her skin. She held her head over the sink while her mother tried to shampoo her hair with hand soap, telling her all the while not to worry, that the hand soap had a lovely fragrance and might even be better than shampoo at leaving her hair manageable. MaryAnn squatted in her underwear under the jet stream of the hand dryer while other girls and women came and went, each of them staring at her and at the putrid mess on the floor that had been her beautiful blue dress, the one she had wanted to wear to see the dolphins.

Getting wet was fine. She had planned to get wet, planned wearing her loose fitting dress just so that she could enjoy the water splashed by the whales and the dolphins. Now her dress was a sopping malodorous heap on a concrete bathroom floor, she was nearly naked, squatting under the shrieking turbine of a hand dryer, and her mother kept telling her it was all going to be fine as she teased MaryAnn’s hair farther and farther out until she resembled nothing so much as an Addams Family freak, fish belly pale with electrified hair. A woman came into the bathroom with a plastic bag from the gift shop. MaryAnn’s father had bought some clothes while they had been washing away most of the vomit. The woman gave the bag to her mother, gaped open mouthed at MaryAnn, and said, “Oh, you poor thing. I can’t even imagine…”

During the entire humiliation, even over the turbine shriek of the blow dryer, MaryAnn heard her brother laughing. By the time the blow dryer stopped its final cycle, he was still laughing, but the sound had changed into something like a hyena bark, more like involuntary and painful heaving grunts than human laughter. She learned later that he had laughed so hard that he had, in fact, himself vomited into a park trash can, probably while her mother was trying to rinse her hair with the trickle of water from a faucet mounted two inches above the bottom of the sink.

The clothes her father bought for her, draw-string shorts and a SeaWorld t-shirt large enough for a professional wrestler—it hung past her knees—were an embarrassment, but worse than the appearance was the smell. The odor of the new fabric, redolent with the dyes that colored it, blended in the summer heat with vomit residue that the damp bathroom towels had not removed from her skin. The new smell was hitherto unknown by humankind. The fabric hitched and clung to the sticky spots. Of her original outfit, only her underwear and her flip flops had been salvaged, her underwear wet and cold from having been washed in the sink, since the blue liquid had seeped down her dress and dripped and run onto everything she had been wearing. Her mother had put her soggy dress and hair band into the SeaWorld bag from the gift shop, but the Florida sun rendered the mixture of vomit and cloth into something unbearable. At some point MaryAnn noticed that the bag had been discarded. She was glad to see it gone. No amount of laundering would have made the dress wearable or returned it to its former status as her favorite.

All of it might have been bearable, all of it something from which she could have recovered. She could even have endured her brother’s hyena laughter, which she already knew would recur all their lives each time he saw someone eating a pepperoni pizza or slurping a blue icee. The one thing that was unbearable, from which she could never recover, was the clear and immovable memory of looking up at the passing roller coaster just as the impact occurred. She could still feel the bits of dough sliming across her face, and the smell of pizza would forever make her nauseous.

Later, they sat on a stadium bench watching gargantuan black orcas circle their tank until one of them sent a wave of water over the side, drenching them all. No one said a word. Amid the shouts and shrieks of hundreds of other park visitors, her family sat silent, barely moving. Even her brother just lowered his eyes to stare at his ruined cup of popcorn, the soggy kernels now floating in buttery seawater.

After a minute her father said, “Well, at least now we are all the same.”

Only MaryAnn knew they weren’t the same. They were all wet, drenched with whale water, but so were hundreds of other whooping and laughing tourists. No, MaryAnn thought, we are not the same, for out of all the people in the enormous stadium, only she had squatted, covered in the vomit of a stranger, beneath a wall mounted blow dryer, her mother teasing and pulling her half rinsed hair until she looked like a lunatic wearing a SeaWorld tent.

All the time that they sat on the bench, dripping salt water and watching the rest of the show, MaryAnn imagined feeding her brother to the whales, and she smiled.

Orca Stadium at SeaWorld