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The summer when Tommy was nine and Luis was twenty, they found a circle of cut stones in the weeds and started the hole. They took turns at the shovel, clawing a ragged scoop from the middle of their mother’s backyard each day after she left for work in the city. The dirt came up rich and tarry on the blade, like the grounds of strong coffee, and smelling of cat piss, night soil, gasoline, poisoned rats, and, strangely, oakum. They made good progress and changed their system many times, finally adopting the use of a bucket. Soon the hole reached a depth such that when Luis, who was tall, nearly six feet, stood at its bottom, he disappeared. Now we should start finding things, Luis said. But something cold moved at his feet. Something lapped at the tongues of his shoes.
The Friday before the brothers started digging, their mother, Anna McGrail Solano, whose name Luis always heard as a song, whose name pleased Anna McGrail Solano herself when spoken aloud, though not so much as a signature because she wrote it illegibly, as she did all words, so each time she signed her name she felt as if she was signing, again and again, some lonely contract, but to return to the subject, Anna McGrail Solano caught Luis reading Ulysses on the sofa and thought what a strange thing for a young man to do. Here in Brooklyn, in such a big city, such a big world. Could it be that her son was lost? “So Luis, are you still majoring in structural engineering?” she asked him, to which he answered, after marking his page—327—and looking up, “Of course.” What a soft brown his eyes are—it occurred to Anna McGrail Solano to make no mention of her observation to Luis because what she would end up telling him next—that he’d grown to be as kind a man as his father—would not help Luis find his way in life, not at all, and would probably be met with an uncomfortable silence. If Anna McGrail Solano was right, then Luis was more kind than truthful, since “of course” was not the answer he should have given her, but it was much too early in his visit to announce he was not going back to college, to say, no, he was not majoring in anything at all.
For what would Anna McGrail Solano have done with the discovery that in her home lived not one, but two troubled heroes? It wasn’t Luis who brooded in front of his Watchmen comics, who subsisted, stubbornly, on nothing but Nutter Butters washed down methodically with sips of cold tap water—bite, sip, bite, sip—who drew on his bedroom wall an entire agrarian intergalactic kingdom, a precise fantasy executed with a mechanical pencil. This phenomenon, this strangely fashioned self, was Tommy.
That was such a long time ago. The brothers moved on, their lives unspooled not unpredictably to the present. Their mother died. Their house changed hands, though remaining in the family in possession of a favorite aunt. But home is a wormhole, Luis Solano has learned, through which you drop in and out of the story of yourself (and mind you the story is a shredder, a fucking shredder), without ever getting truly to return, or escape. Twenty summers pass and you still reach back with hopeless longing. At least, that’s been Solano’s experience.
• • •
His tía Nilda calls, insists he needs to see Tommy. “Your brother’s not doing so good, Luis. Check in, okay?”
“When’s a good time?”
So Solano drives to the old neighborhood that he hasn’t visited since his mother died two years before and pulls up in front of the asphalt-shingled three-story he grew up in, one floor theirs, two floors rented, across from the pump house on a treeless block, across from the Gowanus Canal that sat and stank just yards from the brothers’ shared bedroom window, that flooded each breath they took. Okay to breathe, yeah, but otherwise pure poison. The smell is better now, Solano notices. Tommy, looking slim and sleepy-eyed and ragged, is so startled by the buzzer he doesn’t have time to button the plaid western-stitched shirt he’s been wearing for days. It’s all he can do to stumble to the door and stand there, registering mild surprise at the sight of his brother, then stepping aside and motioning him in. Solano settles into a faded and familiar blue sofa, turns the small clay pipe he’s lifted from the coffee table over in his palm. “You still have this, Tommy?”
Tommy doesn’t answer, doesn’t even look up. Solano puts the pipe back.
• • •
The system was this. Luis filled the compound bucket halfway, a concession to Tommy’s runt-like frame, and passed it out of the hole to his brother. Then Tommy sifted the dirt in the bucket through his fingers, shook it free from clods of fibrous roots, feeling for promising lumps and solids. He tossed the lumps into one pile and the dirt into another. When Tommy had enough lumps, he turned the garden hose on them, his eyes shining. But the pile of dirt towered over the pile of lumps. Hosed, the lumps glistened yet did not transform into anything other than what they were: rocks and chunks of cinder block, broken bottles, oily rags, shreds of blue plastic tarp knitted to chicken bones, and a category of things that made Tommy yelp and yank back his hand—used needles, razors that packed enough rust in their bite to lock a jaw. A bunch of fucking crap, Tommy sighed, wiping his hands on the last clear spot of his T-shirt. This reminded Luis to tell Tommy to let him know of any blood. And also, to trust the system despite all evidence to the contrary. Not all systems, of course, but this one.
His brother had battered his heart, again and again, in endless waves.
Still, Luis worried he’d involved his brother in an effort without conventional rewards. What if Tommy just wasn’t cool with that? There was already enough between them, not just years, too much—and it started with their fathers. Tommy’s father was a miscreant, or, less romantically, a common deadbeat. While Luis’s father, he was a gentle, fallen knight, a poet detective. Where was the fairness in that?
But Tommy’s father was not a miscreant, Anna McGrail Solano would have protested if she’d been there with her sons. What he did was courteously, graciously step out of the way. He was not loved. He was not needed. Under such circumstances, a man can understandably vanish. Now Luis’s father, who died when Luis was ten, the year before Tommy was born, was he as noble and true as Luis remembered? He was. Luis would have no choice, being such a man’s son, but to become a detective himself.
Luis’s first case was Tommy Solano, at least it felt that way, like a summer job that exceeded his qualifications by far, but really it just fell to Luis to get some kind of handle on this little muchacho, a boy who was a stranger to his name, who stood blinking, filthy, and tired by a hole, his chest heaving, awaiting further instructions as the sun beat down and baked him in his pale skin. Anna McGrail Solano worried about how many fights Tommy kept getting into at school. He was really getting his ass kicked. Luis advised Tommy to stop picking such strong opponents. To which Tommy replied but then he might hurt someone. What the fuck was wrong with him? As Luis watched Tommy’s ribby chest rise and fall, he saw pain, or he imagined it, and he saw a fragility that didn’t stand a chance, or he imagined that, too, but it all made him want to cry out his brother’s name in alarm, or despair. Does no one else see this? Luis almost wept, my little brother’s heart, it’s not inside him where it should be, it’s outside, alone, it’s beating like an injured bird, it’s fucked up. On the other hand, Tommy’s grades were excellent, and Luis noted that Tommy had a real capacity to ask astonishing questions. It’s all so up in the air. Luis saluted his brother and climbed back down the hole. “Get back to it, Tommy,” Luis said before he disappeared.
• • •
The living room in the apartment still smells of fresh paint. The walls, an eggshell white, neatly done. Nilda had ripped out the old rust-colored carpet to reveal a hardwood floor beautifully patterned in concentric rectangles, which she had sanded and burnished to a warm, rich hue that glows in the afternoon sun. Solano notices some white spatters on Tommy’s jeans.
“You paint the place for Nilda?”
“Yeah. I did the floors, too.”
“Nice. Listen, Tommy.” Solano stretches his legs out in front of him, notices a hair on his trousers. Cat? Dog? He flicks it off, watches it land beside him on the couch. It’ll be back. “I can always talk to, you know, his name is Mr. Pink, and he can help you out.”
“Do you think he could?” Tommy’s been looking down the whole visit. This is the first time he’s looked up.
“Otherwise you’re fucked.” This puts Tommy in a tripod position. Elbows on knees, head clutched in his hands, a bloom too heavy for its stem. It’s a posture of distress Solano sees a lot. A posture that for the most part people put themselves into, though it can also mean that someone’s having difficulty breathing.
“Nilda says you’re back for awhile, huh?” Solano thinks of reaching across, tapping Tommy’s knee, then thinks better of it. Go soft and a user sees an opening. Slips out. Tommy nods vaguely.
“You tell your P.O. your whereabouts?”
Tommy shakes his head no. “Not yet.”
“See, that’s a violation. I need to know them all. I need to hear from you what they got on you. All of it.”
• • •
In the hole Luis identified what he was feeling. The space around him was filling with water. Not a slow rise, but a rapid ascent. He’d hit the water table, to be expected, but it was worse than that. The water was now engulfing his knees. Its stink was overpowering, strangling. He looked down in horror, but the blackness was drawn around him like a curtain. What had he done? Chopped a sewer line? Was that even possible? With a shovel? A fucking shovel? And then he knew. It was the canal. He’d broken through, broken it, and let it in. To his mother’s backyard. Run, Tommy! He wanted to scream. Or drown. Luis felt himself sinking, his body easing into the depths, brushing against some larger body, some leviathan, whose single staring giant eye met his own. Fuck that.
To calm his nerves, Luis closed his eyes and reviewed the progress he’d made with his summer reading list. The first book was Ulysses. He had not finished it, but he hadn’t abandoned it either. The second was a novel whose system was love. Fuck, what was he, a girl? The third was a novel whose system was violence. The fourth was a novel whose system was war. Or empire. It featured a massive nation. The fifth was a novel whose system was joy. Its hero was picaresque. Luis had his work cut out for him. He was changing, and he knew in his heart that he could not read his way out.
But in the hole, the water stopped rising. He could fix this. They just needed to throw the dirt back in. They just needed to put it all back. Admit their mistake. He heard Tommy yell his name. Luis! Luis! He braced his arms against the stone sides of the pit and heaved his legs out of the muck, which released him with a great sucking sound, claiming his right size-eleven Converse All Star, but that’s all. In a flash, he’d clambered out of the hole like a pissed off spider, landing with a plop at the surface. “Luis, look!” Tommy was standing above him, holding out some small bent thing, a goofy grin on his face. Of course, Luis let Tommy have the honor of presenting the clay pipe to their mother, who, as a teacher of history in the public schools, was delighted and knew where to look in order to identify what it was. Nevertheless, the whole business of the hole was regarded by everyone in the family as some serious dumb shit.
• • •
Solano was not responsible, though, for all the dumb shit Tommy would continue to pull over the course of the next twenty years. That shit? That was on Tommy.
• • •
Solano slaps his palms down on the sofa seat all of a sudden and springs up.
“Let’s see your kitchen, Tommy.”
“I’d rather. . . ”
“You’d rather what?”
Tommy’s planted himself now in the entrance to the kitchen but he’s a halfhearted door at best. Solano breezes past.
“Seriously, a jar of grape jelly,” Solano says, when that’s all he sees in the refrigerator. “Make me something, Tommy.”
Solano slams the jar on the counter and Tommy flinches. “No?”
“Not expecting company, huh?”
“I wasn’t expecting you.” Tommy closes the refrigerator door that Solano’s left open. “I don’t have much.”
“That’s not the point.” Solano stares steadily at Tommy, and now Tommy stares back.
The silence holds, keeps holding, ticks down. Tommy breaks first.
“Mr. Pink? Really? Like the guy in Reservoir Dogs?”
“That’s an excellent flick.” Solano, standing in their old kitchen, loses track for a moment, or, more precisely, switches tracks, expertly, and goes on a ride. It’s all different now. The fridge, the stove. New. Cheap. White. The go-to combination for a certain class of rental property. Solano prefers stainless steel, but these appliances, they’re perfectly acceptable. Reminders really, to temper expectation with gratitude. To the prospective tenant, the stove says, you are lucky to not have to deal with someone else’s dirt. While it’s impossible to eradicate all traces of former occupants, to evict memories that persist beyond the desire to remember, there should remain relatively few ghosts here. Should you encounter one, such as a coin wedged between the floorboards or a torn corner of a photo that flutters to the ground when you first draw the blinds, it’s up to you what to do with it. Basically, you are fortunate to be here at all, and, by the way, could you really afford more? Count your fucking blessings. Solano’s blessing? His daughter Isobel Anna Solano, graduating next week from Bronx Science, then on her way to Yale. God, he’s proud of her. He’s got to remember. He will not succumb to sadness. Nor anger. He will help his brother. Isobel adores Tommy. Nilda adores Tommy. Solano himself? His brother has battered his heart, again and again, in endless waves. His brother is an ocean. His brother is a dark, dark sea. Of course he loves him. Of course he does. Solano fiddles with a knob; the electric ignition clicks, the burner flames on. Did he think it wouldn’t? Such a little soldier of a stove. He turns the burner off. Tommy’s been watching his brother nervously through the lull, Solano’s prisoner awaiting a verdict. Solano silently assesses the rest of the kitchen, all remodeled—the cabinets, the floor tiles, and the light fixture—not cracked and not full of bug husks; in fact, it’s not just new, it’s exactly the same as the light fixture he bought for his own place in Inwood. Huh. Somebody’s been to Ikea. Meanwhile, by now, Tommy has stopped believing in Mr. Pink.
“Wasn’t the old stove the color of an avocado?” Solano asks.
“It was green.” Tommy half agrees, leans against the counter and bites a nail that’s gotten a little long, gnaws it down to the quick. “Remember, mom asked you to shoot it?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Because she was scrubbing something and it wouldn’t come off.”
“Tomato sauce. Burnt on.”
“You just started on patrol. You’re so cocky you’re carrying. Strutty, Luis, a gunslinga. You drop by and she’s like ‘Luis, shoot the bitch.’ And you get into your cop stance and draw your weapon.”
“That’s embellishment, Tommy.” Solano continues, “Mr. Pink hails originally from Sarajevo. Has a shrapnel fragment the doctors left in his gut. Some things better left alone, you know? Says it’s the shape of a crescent moon.”
Tommy’s looking back down at his hands, where a little pearl of blood gleams at a fingertip. He’s overbitten. Wipes it on his jeans. “Can you stop playing with me, Luis? I mean, I’m really in trouble here. I need help. Please.” Tommy blinks, his eyes dry, his mouth dry, too.
“Mr. Pink’s who you call when your brother can’t get his act together enough to piss clean urine in a motherfucking cup two weeks out of jail. Mr. Pink’s called Mr. Pink cause no one, and I mean no one, can pronounce his name. And cause even if I could pronounce his name, I couldn’t spell it, and even if I could spell it, he’d want me to leave his name out of it. You follow?”
Tommy nods. His dark hair falls in front of his eyes and he pushes it back with a sweep of long fingers. No prison tats anywhere Solano can see—hands, forearms, that scrawny chest, neck. No indication the kid’s moved an inch closer to hard from where he started three years before, which was soft, not timid exactly, but nice. He’ll give Tommy that. Nicest guy ever to be sitting on eleven priors if you count the juvenile collars—Tommy started young. Such a clusterfuck of stupid shit you could hardly believe it, misdemeanors, minor mayhem, and dickishness that began with him throwing up tags all across the fucking city—painting buildings, tunnels, overpasses didn’t ask to be painted—and moved on to the kinds of offenses associated with sticking a needle in your arm, inhaling all manner of powders and vapors one really should fucking not. Culminating in felony possession. So now he’s a felon. Gonna be thirty next week. But next week is Isobel’s week.
“Plus, Mr. Pink? He’s a cheap motherfucker, never leaves a tip. He’ll give a call to your P.O. But I gotta say, your P.O.? You drew an asshole with that one.”
“I heard she was okay.”
“Yeah, Castro. Ms. Castro.”
“No. Your P. O. is Delgado.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, Luis. It’s not.”
Solano takes a seat at the kitchen table and Tommy sits, too. It’s not too much to say that by now they both slump.
“Alright. Forget Mr. Pink.”
If it didn’t make him a pussy, Tommy’d cry right now. Just let it go, his life, in a sob, a body-quaking, bone-shuddering sob. He can’t go back. He can’t go back.
“Tommy, I don’t know.” Solano reaches across the table and clasps Tommy’s forearm—his hand fits around it, kid’s so thin—gives it a little shake of reassurance. “I’ll work this. Find another back door. But you gotta stop this shit. This whole criminal enterprise of yours. Cause seriously I have never, ever, seen someone so bad at it. Look at me, Tommy. You’re bad at it, not badass bad, simply fucking bad. You’re a bad criminal and you need to get back to what you’re good at. You feel me?”
What would she have done with the discovery that in her home lived not one, but two troubled heros?
Solano leans forward like he’s gonna head-butt him, the little puke. “And another thing. Fuck you, Tommy. Fuck you. Fuck. You.” He gets up from the table and his chair clatters to the floor behind him. He leaves it where it is. Turns his back on his brother. Maybe it’s time. Maybe it’s been time. Let him go. Let him go.
Tommy’s voice, behind him, soft. “Remember that cat?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The one from the neighborhood.”
Solano’s making a show now of opening all the cabinets and drawers—he swears he sees so much as a fucking Sharpie his brother’s going through the fucking wall—making a show of keeping his back turned—but Tommy goes on anyway.
“There was that cat. Always ate the ears first. Every mouse it caught that’s all it wanted was ears.”
“You a sick fuck now too, Tommy? I gotta be worried about that?”
“No. I just remember things is all.”
Solano turns back around. “You’re random, Tommy. Very random.”
Tommy shrugs. “Yeah, I don’t have a point.”
“You’re not the cat.”
“And you’re not the mouse.”
“Give me some fucking credit, Luis.”
“You’re a man with one ingredient, Tommy. That’s your point, maybe.”
“Listen, don’t be an asshole. You know what I mean.”
“I’m really trying. You’re telling me I’m jelly and I’m not arguing.”
“I’m saying you have jelly.”
“Oh.” Tommy pauses for a moment, flashes a slight smile that Solano just catches before it dissolves. “True that, Luis.”
“You can do better, Tommy, you know?”
“I know. I should go rack some shit. Fill this kitchen up. Fill the whole place up with . . . merchandise.” Tommy divvies up the last word like a beginning reader, fashioning a little archipelago of three islands, a syllabic sneer. No one is going to be okay with that.
“Yeah? You do that, Tommy. Make me proud. Again.”
“Luis, I’m kidding.”
“You know what?” Solano straightens and rubs an imagined knot at the base of his neck. No pain there yet, but of all the trouble spots he’s got, at least this one small space on his spine he can locate exactly, put a finger on. “We’re done here.”
“Luis, hey, I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? For what?”
“For making a joke of it.”
“You mean it’s not a joke? Cause I’m looking at you and what I see here? A joke.”
“I don’t steal.”
“The fuck you don’t.”
“Come on, Luis. A couple cans of Krylon?”
“Yeah, but you know what they say—you don’t pay for spray. It’s the principle of the thing.”
“Your crew’s not doing so good now. Dash OD’ing on eight bags in a hotel bathtub. And what’s whatshisname, Snothead, up to?”
“Headsnot. He’s doing fine. And they aren’t my crew. I wasn’t good enough, remember?”
“Right. They all got galleries. Got to be Downtown stars. While you got—what?”
Tommy stays quiet. He remembers a cold winter night. 1999. The G.W. Bridge, six colors of Krylon stuffed in his jacket and a frayed rope around his waist you wouldn’t trust to tie out a dog. Air like an icy knife in his lungs. Slid over the railing, and when he dropped into space it was like hopping off the world, you know? His hands were so numb he lost the color blue. It dropped into the river. It occurred to him, as he dangled alone in all that dark, how the fuck was he going to get back up? But the southbound headlights above him flashed like shooting stars, and not the kind you had to wait for. They were everywhere. It felt good here, his heaven spot, he wouldn’t mind staying. Maybe he even wished for it, to stay. Anyway, by the time he was finished, he’d laid down a burner, best work he’d ever done. It stayed up til spring. His brother’s got a need to land some blows on him? Let him. What’s he got to defend? Keep his own hands at his sides. Cause his brother was right about what it all added up to—an unimpressive sum, a dumb shit of a life.
“What else you sorry for, Tommy?”
“Everything.” Solano sighs. “That’s some shallow ass contrition right there, little bro, but yeah, that about covers it.”
“My sheet’s long.”
“Yes, it is.”
“I tell you about the time I went to heaven?” Tommy figures it’s time to change the subject.
“No, I’d of remembered that. So,” Solano almost smiles. It kills him to give in, but he can’t help it. He rights the chair and sits. “Tell me about your motherfucking heaven.”
“First thing, mom wasn’t there. Cause this was a long time ago. She wasn’t dead yet.”
“Otherwise . . . ”
“Yeah.” Tommy thinks about it. “Hell, yeah. Though as a point of information, and I hate to be the one to tell you this, Luis, but there is no heaven. ”
“You don’t fucking say.” Now the brothers both grin. “But you went anyway.”
“You know what, Luis? Never mind.”
“Alright. You keep that to yourself, Tommy.”
Tommy does just that. Starts idly twisting a small piece of wire in his hands, giving it legs, or wings. Solano watches its progress.
“Listen, Nilda’s gonna let you stay here, I don’t know, two, three months, but then she’s got to rent the place out, you understand?”
“I got it . . . she’s been great, you know? I’m not even related. Not blood or anything like she is to you.”
“Yeah, well, no one’s putting you out on the street. We’ll figure something out.”
Solano watches the wire man, now complete, stand for a second, then fall. Tommy’s left eye twitches. What’s that about? Solano wonders. And something else. Tommy’s eyes. They used to be piercing. Now they’re just blue.
Photograph: Erik Bremer
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