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  • What You Want to Learn
  • Sonja Vitow (bio)

I heard Ben’s mom call Al Roker the n-word once when he got the weather wrong. Her eyeballs and teeth are a matching shade of pale gray, and her hair is limp and blonde. I think it would probably match the gray of her other features if she didn’t dye it. She always wears a strand of thick white pearls around her neck, which makes her eyeballs and teeth look even grayer than they actually are. Her first name is Angela, but I call her “Mrs. Petersohn,” because she told me it’s more respectful. Ben calls her “ma’am.”

The Petersohns live in Wynnewood in a large, square house with walls made from pale-pink quarry stones. Each room is decorated entirely in one color, and they distinguish them by color instead of function. We cook in the orange room, eat in the purple room, and lounge in the green room. When Ben and I were little, we used to play The Kaleidoscope Game, which involved peeking in the doorways and pretending we were inside a kaleidoscope. If you run down the halls really fast, the rooms all blur together. It actually kind of works, and you get really dizzy which can be fun.

Once a year all three of them go for a sit-down portrait with a photographer who has his own studio on Lancaster Avenue. Everyone else I know goes to the mall to get portraits done, and only around Christmas and just when their kids are really little. In the pictures, Mr. and Mrs. Petersohn and Ben are always dressed alike in matching white button-down shirts and khakis or something. Sometimes they have bare feet.

I never told Ben, but to me, these photographs are part of The Kaleidoscope Game. If I look at them when I run up the stairs, as Ben grows in the photos, his skin changes too. It completes a perfect bronze-scale, from pale to a dark cedar like the walls of my basement, which is dizzying in itself. When he was a baby, Ben’s skin was as pale white as his parents’, but it got darker every year, especially in the summer.

“He just gets so tan,” Mrs. Petersohn has always explained. She knew his birth-mother, a girl from Belmont Hills who got pregnant in high school. “She looked like she could have been our daughter.” Then she looks at Ben, and almost as an accusation: “I don’t know where he gets those curls.”

There are fifteen stairs connecting the first and second floors of their house, and there is a portrait hanging over each stair through the fourteenth. I have often wondered what will happen when they run out of stairs. [End Page 123]

Some of the portraits also contain Ben’s dog, who is a Sealyham Terrier named Queenie. She has stub-legs, an old man’s white goatee that hangs to her paws, and a curtain of fur that drapes over her sides and drags on the ground when she walks. She is always picking up bits of dust and dirt from around the house. Whenever I walk through the door, she opens her terrible little mouth with its pebble-white teeth and howls at me, not barks but howls, like it is a tragedy that I’m even there.

There is a framed photo of her in the green room and a certificate that says “Certified Pedigree” in curly-cue script. Under it is a family tree that traces Queenie’s bloodline all the way back to St. Margaret Mignificent of Clairedale, her great-great-great-great-grandmother or whatever, who won the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 1936. Mrs. Petersohn takes Queenie to dog shows like her great-grand-dog, and they occasionally win ribbons which they hang on the wall next to all of Ben’s academic achievement awards. Her show name is The White Queen, which could be worse. Mrs. Petersohn has a navy floral suit that she wears that was designed to make Queenie’s fur stand out against it.

One day when I was...


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pp. 123-136
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