By Anna-Marie McLemore
As the 487 left me at the corner, I looked back up the road to the San Gabriel range, the foothills looming so close I was sure if I reached out to them my fingertips would be indigo when I pulled them back.
These streets stood beneath them, one apartment building after the other, beige or stone, dense as a mosaic, all boasting heated pools and month-to-month leases. Frankie’ s current home was a stucco-heavy collection of units that stood nameless, lacking placard or marquee, and surrounding a Bermuda grass courtyard littered with the neon of plastic toys.
Certain members of my family-my mother, her father, my big sister Ginny and her husband-instructed me to forget I had a brother, and they were better off not knowing I was here. More charitable souls-my father, my father-would have said that I shouldn’ t have called first, and left it at that.
The consensus that Frankie would never come home had formed with the same steady evolution as live birth or a second ventricle, but this adaptation of my family’ s had eluded me. They treated thoughts of my brother the way I treated failed math tests, broken pieces of a family heirloom declared priceless but never missed because there were so many others declared equally priceless, and the Punnett square worksheet in science class that left naked the truth that a green-eyed mother and blue-eyed father could not make a brown-eyed daughter.
This was, in turn, how I treated their opinions about Frankie, their insistence that he had resisted Thanksgiving after Easter after Fourth of July, and that all they could do now was send fast food gift certificates and discarded but still working appliances. But I had never asked. Dad taught him to oil paint, but Frankie taught me to eat funnel cake right before riding a wooden coaster without throwing up. Mom taught him Handel and Liszt, but he taught me Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan’ s Isis on the fifth day of May, Derek and the Dominos. Ginny taught him to read, but he taught me to smoke on my fifteenth birthday, and went to Alvarado Street to get me a fake ID so I could buy cigarettes when he wasn’t around.
My palm still bore a smudged 5A from the phone call the night before, when Frankie gave lukewarm consent for a visit along with his unit number. After a few staccato knocks, he answered the door. His features peeked out from patches of cream mask obscuring his face, and as a drop of watery white fell from his chin, the scrap of a tabby he held close to his body made a single flick of her head and shook it from her ear.
“Oh, hey,” he said, as though I was visiting unannounced. I followed him through the narrow room that served as both kitchen and hallway into the living room.
My brother remained much as I remembered him from two years ago. Wiry. Dark year-round, while his two sisters showed off the blood of our South American mother only in summer. Dressed in undershirts and khaki shorts and the tube socks my parents now mailed to him every Christmas because holidays no longer brought him around.
He set the kitten down on the carpet and gestured at his face. “I got this stuff for my acne. It’ s kinda burning but I think it’ ll work, you know. Marissa’ ll be out in a minute, she’ s in the shower,” he said, thumping the bathroom door with the heel of his hand. “Yeah, Marissa, she’ s a trip, you’ ll like her. She-last Tuesday-she was picking up from Carmen’s, and this collared shirt starts grabbing at her in the parking lot, you know, wants a free ride,” he smiled, and his face seemed both thicker and hollow as the white of the drying mask cracked at the corners of his mouth, “and she, she flips out her Gerber-the one I got her for her birthday-and she gutted him.” He sliced his hand up through the air in front of him. “I mean, damn,” he laughed, as though grasping a punch line days later, “balls to collar, just like a mackerel.”
I cringed, trying to offer an amused smile. Inhabiting both sides of the scene made me dizzy and sick until I felt I had a knife in my open hand and another in my stomach, and I wondered how Frankie, who had the proper anatomy to empathize with the blade’ s receiving end, could laugh as though at an off-color joke or an amusing newspaper typo. I closed my empty fingers. “You worried about her getting taken in?”
“Na, no,” he said, shaking his head toward the ceiling, “she got a warrant from when we were doing business in Dana, never gonna do that again…hey, I was gonna come see you when we were down there, but we just, just got busy, you know?”
I clicked my tongue against my teeth and looked away; it wasn’ t a question, so I didn’ t answer.
“Yeah, so it’ s just common sense, like rubbers or toothbrushes. We had to get outta there ’cause the warrant, but, uh, we got smarter.” He chuckled, then continued. “So yeah, she’ s a smart girl, ’cause, fuck, I wouldn’ t-a had anything with me, ’cause it wasn’ t even six, and it was dark but not completely and I always say, you know, you’ re not fair game until, ten, nine maybe. Maybe. Yeah. You know this thing’ s really burning,” he waved at his face, “but it says you gotta leave it on for the whole time or it won’ t work.”
I gave a single nod and followed the kitten’ s movements as she alternated clawing the carpet and chewing the tinsel that hung from the radiator. She tried batting at a corner of the sofa, but her claws fell into a few gashes where the stuffing already burst out. She observed her own work and then scampered away.
“Cute cat,” I said. With every family member I had a fallback topic of conversation: orchid breeding with Aunt Marley, carpentry with Grandpa, the feline race with Frankie.
“Oh, thanks. Her name’ s Ariel Ravenwood. I liberated her. I got her out of a van that this homeless guy was sleeping in ’cause he really wasn’ t taking care of her. It was a bitch, ’cause the trick was to get her to the back of the van so I could bust the front window. But yeah, she was a mess, I mean, fuck, she had oil on her fur. But she’s good now.” He knelt down and scratched her chin, and she reciprocated with an audible purr.
I tried to imagine the stolid contempt such a story would evoke from my mom or Ginny, but I was already smiling; the brother who commemorated my birthday with bloodstones and incense and greeting cards with artistic renderings of the anja chakra was alive and well and living on Sierra Madre Boulevard. “You allowed to have pets here?”
“Naw, not really. But I put invisibility shields around her so nobody sees.” Ariel followed his hand with her head as he circled it around her and then banged his palm on the bathroom door. “Hey, Marissa!” he hollered, “get it done, my sister’ s here.” He cocked an ear to the door, listening for her reply.
Next to the bathroom the other door in the apartment stood ajar. The bedroom, furnished with a mattress on the floor and a couple of functional-for-now dressers, hummed with the dull sepia darkness California-born Hispanics take with them wherever they live. Our mother had chased it away with white walls and bushy floral prints, but it rushed back in for a few moments each time our grandfather clock chimed the quarter hour, when we shot each other wide-eyed glances that it was still working.
The bathroom door opened, and a slip of a woman emerged wrapped in a towel, her mousy hair falling in soaked curls and dripping down her back as steam rushed out behind her. Pockmark scars patterned her cheeks, what looked like the aftermath of the teenage acne that, I thanked God for the hundredth time since I was thirteen, Frankie and Ginny and I had escaped through a turn of genetics. I wondered what sort of vanity had possessed Frankie to adopt an unnecessary meticulousness in caring for his skin; my father would be appalled if he knew any son of his used moisturizer, let alone a facial mask.
Constellations of punctures on Marissa’ s arms and legs and the few on her neck looked raw from the heat of the shower. Last night Frankie had warned me, told me she had taxed every vein but those around her jugular, but that they were going to church, that she was getting help, that he was helping her.
I winced as I imagined her looking for open veins the way our family had looked for the sick among us to live, all the while losing a grandmother who had just passed the first chapter of her memories from her fingers to an old typewriter, a baby cousin whose heart broke before she could use it, an uncle who died manic or diabetic or something else we knew would kill him- just not this soon. In the past year, our neighbors and friends must have felt what I felt now, the sensation of tiny pinpricks deepening and spreading over the body like water just above freezing, that half-numb feeling that came in watching someone look for something they would not find.
“Hi,” she chirped, rubbing a towel against her head, “You must be Aimee.” She flashed a congenial grin and went back into the bathroom.
“She’s the one who bought this stuff,” Frankie said when the door closed, “It was twenty-six dollars and I told her not to spend the money but she said it worked but I say it’s just kinda burning.”
Marissa came back out and wiped at Frankie’ s face with a washcloth. “That’ s because you’ re not supposed to leave it on this long.” She laughed as he tried to push her away, repeating the first syllable of her name in frustration, but she persisted with the intermittent, “Come on, Frankie,” and kept running the cloth over his face until he slapped her. She reeled against the wall. Ariel skidded away from Frankie’ s legs, and I caught her and picked her up before she ran into mine. I held her tight against me, our shallow breaths syncopated and off-rhythm.
Marissa looked back at him, narrowing her eyes, then slammed her first into the side of his face. “God,” she whined, shoving his shoulder, “talk to me when you come down.” She kissed his damp cheek and left, closing the bedroom door behind her in one resolute motion.
The lock on the bedroom door clicked. I stood still, waiting on Frankie, staring at the landscape of sores and scars on his face. I couldn’ t decide whether to cry, be the second woman in the apartment to hit him, or ask him to get on the bus with me to Huntington Pier because I had a pack of cloves in my pocket tucked behind the ID I had used to buy them, and once, a while ago, that was all we needed to pass an afternoon.
I placed Ariel down, and my body felt like it was floating away in pieces like bits of a nebula or glass breaking underwater. Frankie scooped her back up before I thought to look at his arms. I stared at him, my lips parted, my breath heavy in my chest. “Frankie,” I said, my voice raspy and barely audible, and I had no idea what I would say next.
He shrugged his shoulders, then the corners of his mouth, and turned away.
I waited for a few seconds, staring at his back. When he didn’t look at me again I went through the kitchen, walking silent on the balls of my feet. I had clicked the screen door open before I heard Frankie’ s voice again. “Hey, Aimee.” I turned around to see him holding Ariel out to me. “Why don’ t you take her, for a little bit, ’til we get someplace they’re okay with cats?” He shrugged. “Hey, I missed your birthday, and Christmas, right? She’s, she’s a make-up present.”
I hesitated, staring at Frankie, trying to catch his darting eyes, and when I did the half smile and casual mirth told me that if I wanted company on the bus home, she was it. I glanced at the floor, at the dish of stale cat food in the corner, next to the peach-pink film of mildew at the bottom of the water bowl, and I opened my arms. He slid the kitten into my grasp, and gave an upward nod. “See you around, Sis.” He walked through the kitchen to the bedroom door.
For a moment I considered stopping him, but as I felt Ariel burrow against my body, I knew that whatever question I could ask, I already held the answer in my hands. Through the window I saw the last rays of gold falling into the mountain indigo, and Ariel’ s weight against me, slight but existent, drew the gravity back to my body. I grasped her tight with one arm, reaching into my back pocket, and I set the pack of cigarettes on the kitchen counter before I left.