When Michael calls wanting to know where I live, I tell him across the street from the gingerbread house. Melissa Sweet, from the gym, bought it a while back and is fixing it up. We wave at each other across the treed boulevard that divides her old residential neighborhood from the townhouse complex where I live. We’d be neighbors, except for the traffic. Last week, when I’d worked up the courage to try the treadmill, it was Melissa who showed me how to adjust the incline. “Crank it up to a five or six,” she said. “If you want a real workout.” Leaning over the console arms, she looked pretty athletic, except for a soft little tummy like a hot water bottle under her t-shirt. Up close, her gingery hair sweated to her skull, showing grey roots.
But Michael, on the phone–“I’m a changed man, DeRasha,” he says. I guess he doesn’t know that I’d seen him snoozing in the skateboard park, moseying around outside the liquor store, bumming money for liquor or drugs or both. When Mama was alive, she’d give him macaroni or even money sometimes but after she passed, well, I didn’t have the patience. Finally, he stopped coming around much. My brother.
Later, just after America’s Got Talent, there’s a thud at my door. When I peek out, all I see is a lump in the darkness but it’s a Michael lump. I crack open the door and poke him with my foot.
“Hey, what you doing?” I ask.
“None your fucking business,” he mumbles. Reeking, I tell you that. Whiskey, maybe, mixed with other things. Some change. I just close the door and went about my business. Next morning, I’m woken by a banging outside like it’s hailing pots and pans. Michael is hammering on the door with an old license plate he’d found somewhere.
“Bout time,” he says. He sits drinking coffee at my kitchen table, feeling better, I can tell, because he starts trying to get on my good side.
“Shower cap,” he says.
And because I’m a sucker, I say, “Door mat.” Scrambling eggs at the stove, I feel him watching me, old pathetic dog, smiling at nothing, and I don’t have the heart to get after him. Across the backs of his hands, scar tissue ripples in flattened waves, fish-white splotches against brown, disappearing into his raggedy sleeves. There had been eight or ten surgeries, I couldn’t remember, and he’d needed more but Mama had tired of dealing with it. By then, Michael started caring about other things besides his skin.
Mr. Goldstein, the social worker, started us on the game right after the fire, back when Michael was ten and I was twelve. You name something that matters a lot or something that don’t matter at all— no in-between. All or Nothing, we called it. The next person had to follow for at least one turn and then either person could change it from what mattered to what didn’t, or visa versa. Mr. Goldstein was part of our routine back then, after the fire, which was Tragedy of the Year, according to the Indianapolis Star and Michael and I were Miracle Kids, us two. Our distinction followed us to the homeless shelter, where Mama basked in the renown, somehow avoiding any accusations that might follow her, given that she had left us alone that night.
“Left Nike shoe.” His long legs stretch out half-way across my kitchen.
“Black coffee.” I refill his cup and wait because I can see he’s thinking, getting ready to throw a change into the game.
“Mutineer,” he says and big boulders of tears start tumbling down his broken face. He rests his head in his arms. The game was a way into what was bothering Michael, Mr. Goldstein had said. Renew his sense of control after how the fire had left him. Fact was, we both needed something to be given back to us, restoration, a word I recall, and restitution.
“You are a hero, DeRasha,” Mr. Goldstein had told me. When he crossed his legs, his wool pants lifted, revealing crumpled green socks. “You didn’t let the fire win.” I sat on his slippery office couch, my scorched scalp wrapped up in a polyester scarf. I was only 12 but I could figure it out. What he meant was that I could handle things and Michael couldn’t, which was true. The fire turned something inside both of us, Michael and me, but in different directions. Even now, when heat blossoms inside me at night, in the moments before sleep, flames crowd me and I rise, not floating but reaching.
Now, when it’s my turn, I say, “St. Jacob’s Therapeutic Restoration Center for the Temporarily and Long-Term Disabled,” adding “it’s where I work,” when Michael gives me a blank look. After high school, I worked third shift at Wonderco Plastics, inserting little strings of wire into tiny plastic tubes, and went to school for my LPN degree during the day.
“Who’s Mutineer?” I ask. That’s when he tells me about putting down his pit bull dog.
“You got money for a vet?” I slide the eggs in front of him and he starts to eat. He didn’t need no vet, he says. He got his friend to run it over in his jacked up Blazer.
“Then back over him, just to make sure. And he did.” Michael shakes his head. “You can’t let your best friend suffer.”
I have trouble believing what he said, that he’d do something like that. Besides, what kind of dog just lays down in front of wheels?
“I put him in a box. A box, DeRasha! You think I’d have a dog dumb enough to get run over? He was a motherfucker fighting dog!” His voice is high and his bad eye shivers on its own, like it had a plan it wasn’t sharing. He’s giving off that energy like fizz off a soda, sparking against your face. “He got messed up real bad. That no-good fuckin’ Jo-jo got him in a bad fight, no comin’ back from.”
“Animal cruelty,” I say. “That’s what that is.”
“You got it wrong, they love it!” He rubs his face and lays his head down on the table beside his plate. “That’s all those motherfuckers want to do,” he mutters. “Fight fight fight.” I watch him start to fall asleep at my kitchen table, but that won’t do, not in my house.
I hoist him to his feet. “You want to snooze, you do it in a bed.” I pride myself on my orderly house. Everything in its place and that includes sleepers. In the guest room (which I have outfitted with a twin bed that the previous tenant left, thank you very much), I help him out of his greasy clothes and get him under the covers.
“Why’re you so nice to me, DaRasha?” He asks in a low voice, eyes closing. I don’t have any answer except that he’s my flesh and even that’s worn through to the lining. I lower the blinds and set his battered Nikes by the wall. Before I leave and shut the door, he’s snoring, a broken fork of a man, and I still don’t have an answer. The last time he came round, he stole twenty dollars from my purse and bashed in the blue Wedgewood vase I won as a door prize at St. Jacob’s Christmas party last year. He thought he’d heard coins rolling around in it. I’m not sure which broke my heart more, losing that fine china that looked so rich in my dining room or that my brother thought so little of me. He’ll break something else of mine this time round, too. I cram his clothes into my washer and add extra detergent, then set it for the hottest water, so the heat can cleanse the grime away.
When I come home, nine hours later, first thing I saw was my gold velvet sofa and new shaker style coffee table on the front lawn, sinking into the muddy grass, and Michael sitting back, feet up. The TV was out there, too, with a long extension cord back into the house. Earl Sweatshirt tunes swirl like smoke out my open front door into the street.
“Come sit with us, sister!” Michael says. My sofa sinks a little further into the mushy grass, little designs of mud edging up the upholstery. Across the street, workers were carrying sheets of drywall into Melissa Sweet’s gingerbread house. An industrial dumpster is set up in the driveway, beside a contractor’s van.
A tall, spidery looking man comes out of my front door carrying two beers. My brother’s friend, Jo-jo, with his too-small head, like he’d been through a taffy pull and a little spray of star tattoos on his left cheek. His clothes are drapey and much too short, like he’d stolen them from some clown.
“You fools! What are you doing to my good furniture?” I’d stopped at Kroger and got stuff I knew Michael would eat—pizza rolls, oranges, swiss cheese—and now I wanted to throw them in his face for ruining my housewares. Jo-jo,can see my mood. He sets the beers down and, without saying a word, makes my brother heft the other end of the couch. In the greyed-out light of late afternoon, my brother lifts my new sofa and I clean up the kitchen, put the food away. In the living room, they watch TV, until a commotion brings me running. Michael is pulling the drapes down and yanking furniture away from the wall opposite the TV stand. He tips over my bookcase and all of my scrapbooking supplies fall in a tumbled mess.
“Murderer!” Michael shouts. Sweat is down his face, as if he’d just got off the treadmill. “Motherfucking murderer!” I try to grab at him but he lurches away from me and flings himself at Jo-jo who shoves him back. Across Jo-jo’s shoulders, my purple curtain are half-draped.
“He told me to run over his goddamned dog,” says Jo-jo regally, my purple curtain still over one shoulder. “Never paid me in the first place for the mutt and then in the second, said we’d split the winnings. Well, where the motherfucking winnings, you lying sonovabitch?” Now Jo-jo was bent low, his star-spangled face just inches away. Michael leaps up right onto the sofa, like he was ready to fly.
Jo-jo turns to me. “I ain’t leaving till he hands over my money.”
I clout my brother’s shins and drag him down off my sofa. “Is that why you came to see me after all this time?” I say to him. “So I’ll pay your sorry-ass debt?”
Michael sags back onto the floor, covering his head. “You should go,” I tell Jo-jo.
“He still owes.” He wraps my purple curtains around himself tighter and goes to the door. “You just make sure he knows that.”
“I want my curtains!” I yell as he leaves but there’s no helping it.
I crouch beside my brother, smelling his sweet muddy scent, my leg and arm muscles tensed, replicating how we crouched back then, the apartment alight, walls roaring in our ears, nostrils blackening. The memory still winds through my bones. I’m flame-cured now, but my brother is still gasping through the ash. The fire chief told my mother, much later—I only learned this as an adult—that a clogged dryer vent started the fire. He probably knew the truth, that my mother hadn’t been at home, that she’d been out doing whatever single mothers do when they are low on groceries and the rent is due, and they have a daughter who can hold the fort, watch over a younger sibling. That was what Mama had said, when she left. “Now you hold the fort, DeRasha,” like we were under siege.
“Why’d you throw my friend out like that?” Michael asks. “Now I got no one.”
“You think that’s a friend? He ain’t your friend, you know it, too. Friends don’t, don’t—” Now I’m floundering. What was it that friends did or didn’t do?
But Michael’s crying, over Jo-Jo, Mutineer, some girl named Saint Croix, or that’s what it sounds like, and he curls up against me as if he wants to burrow inside me, as if I’m the only thing keeping him from shaking apart.
My legs were starting to ache, so I say, “C’mon, Michael, let’s go for a ride. I’ll buy you some chicken and you can eat it in the car.” He’s panting like he’d run a ten-miler but he let me pull him to his feet and lead him out to the car. At the drive-thru, Michael gets out to talk directly into the speaker. When the clerk tells him they were out of curly fries, my brother curses and kicks the speaker stand until the clerk say they’re calling the police. The store manager comes out and leans against my window. He’s short, doughy, the color of mozzarella.
“It’s PTSD,” I tell him. “My brother’s a veteran of Desert Storm, twice decorated. He’s dealing with the aftermath.”
“Well, I did a tour in Afghanistan and I can tell you it weren’t no picnic but no excuse for harassing an innocent young girl,” he says severely, referring to the clerk, who didn’t look innocent and hadn’t been young since before Obama. “Get that boy on medicine,” he tells me, handing me a snack pack.
“See the trouble you get me in?” I say to Michael, who crams chicken in his mouth like he really had just returned from the desert.
“I want to meet your friends,” he says. “DeRasha! Let’s have ourselves some fun!”
“I work too much to have friends.” Six days a week at St. Jacob’s means I am too tired to pursue a social life after I come home.
“What about that lady in the Gingerbread house,” Michael says, sucking a wishbone. “She’s your friend, ain’t she?”
This is another lie told. See, I should know better. The last time he showed up at my doorstep, more than year ago, begging me to put up him and his slutty girlfriend, I’d told him that Melissa Sweet was staying over while her house deal closed. “No room,” I’d told him, closing the door in his stupid, loving face, and his girl with cheap rhinestones winking from her cheeks. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t such a lie. Melissa Sweet is the only other person I have transaction with outside of work. I suppose she is my friend.
Earlier this morning, playing All or Nothing, I could almost imagine Michael moving back in, mowing the front lawn on Friday’s, playing cards with me and—who else? In my vision, Mrs. Christman and Melissa Sweet make a foursome with us and we all drink sweet tea from the cut glass tumblers Mama left me. What I really want is to go home to bed but my brother is a wild, tender jack-ass that needs settling. It hurts that he thinks I don’t have friends.
I pull in front of the Gingerbread house. The porch light gleams like a new coin through the dark firs. I imagine her front door, the bell ringing royally for me and my ruined brother.
“C’mon,” I say to Michael. “Wipe the chicken off your lips. A minute is all, got it? A minute.” I shake his arm and he nods.
Melissa Sweet doesn’t recognize me at first. Michael throws her off, and the sight of me in my coat, with my hair done, instead of gym clothes.
“It’s DeRasha Jones,” I say. “From the gym.”
“DeRasha!” she cries. “Of course.”
“This is my brother,” I say. “He’s visiting.”
Inside, it smells faintly of onions and something flowery, like a candle, but with a chemical undertone. The walls are white, the area rug is white shag and on the white coffee table, three white candles glow dully. A white armchair is positioned in one corner, with a book facedown resting on it. In front of a gas fire, a white cat blinks in shock. Ornaments cluster on shelves, on the mantel above the gas fireplace, beside the candles on the coffee table, like Melissa has travelled to exotic places, Burma or Greece or Japan, and brought back fragile, impossible treasures that have travelled without breakage, that have survived. Unbroken, miraculously whole.
“Please sit,” Melissa says. She is in pajamas, fancy ones. Michael wipes his greasy hands on the sides of his pants, plucking at the fabric of his sleeves with his fingers and his eyes are darting here and there like little bright fish.
“Something to drink?” She asks. “Coffee? Or wine maybe?”
“Coffee is fine, thank you,” I say but Michael interrupts. “You got any Thunderbird?” When she leaves, my brother hefts a china figurine of a Dutch girl. Glossy, blued, maybe eight inches tall. He turns it upside down, as if to see under her skirts, then tosses it from hand to hand like it is hot before setting back on the mantel. On a side table holding a wispy fern, he picks up a paperweight that glows like a crystal ball and shows it to me.
“Lookit this shit,” he whispers. Inside the luminous glass two tiny children held hands on a path in the woods. They are perfect, so perfect, I can’t believe it. I see the tiny dimple in the girl’s right cheek, the way the boy’s hair juts out over his ears, even the miniscule band aid on his left hand.
“It’s us, DeRasha!” He says. “You and me, can’t you see it?”
“She’s coming!” I whisper and shove him away, the delusional fool. He slips the paperweight into the left pocket of his coat.
“Here we are!” Melissa sets a tray on the coffee table in front of us. “So, you’re visiting DeRasha? Where from?” She hands Michael his wine and sits in the armchair. Her pajamas are gold and white, still creased from where they were folded in the store. Like she was wearing them for the first time, even though she was only sitting at home by herself, reading some old book.
“Detroit,” Michael says with extra care. “I moved here to find work.”
“What do you do?” She leans forward, smiling as if she really is interested.
“Oh, this and that.” He drains the wine glass and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “So where’d all this weird shit come from anyway?” He wiggles his fingers at the walls.
“How’s your renovation coming?” I ask. Jab my brother with my elbow, hard.
“Oh, slow,” she says. “Not sure it’s worth it in the end. You want to see?” She stands but I shake my head. I’m not good with rooms torn apart, bare studs showing like bones, even if it’s the process of being built up instead of burned down.
Michael isn’t paying attention. “Motherfuckers just dancing all over the place, ain’t they? Lookit that!” He points to a landscape in a gold frame wide as his arm. “You ever see anything like that, DeRasha? Fucking museum.”
“My husband flew for United for a long time and was always bringing back souvenirs,” says Melissa. Then she looks at the side table, at the empty spot where the paperweight had been. Have you ever felt the shape and texture of another’s thoughts? Her inner words went rolling off one by one, each picked up and restrung across my own mind. She looks at the empty table, then at Michael. Then at me.
“Got anymore of that wine?” Michael wags his empty glass.
“We should be going.” I stand, hoist my purse.
“Oh, please, no,” Melissa says. “I’ll get you more wine. And more coffee, DeRasha?”
When she leaves the room, I whisper, “Put it back. She knows you have it.”
“Get that little motherfucker over there.” Michael nods to the Dutch figurine on the mantel. When I don’t move, he snatches the figurine and tosses it on my lap.
“We-are-not-thieves,” I whisper.
“In your purse, DeRasha, go on!” He rubs his head against my shoulder then whispers, “We’re fucking Teflon, remember?” And his old sweet coercion works, somehow, again, and I slide the ornament into my purse.
She returns with the coffee, a bottle of wine and a fresh glass, setting it on the coffee table in front of Michael. My purse is like neon blinking out our sin–it’s swelling up like a bad case of edema, like a radioactive toad. It’s so hot I can’t bear to touch it.
“DeRasha ever tell you about my Lassie-dog?” Michael asks suddenly. “I got is this beautiful collie named Mutineer and we’re walking down the street one day, just him and me and this motherfucker just appears out of nowhere and runs my dog over.” He rubs his spread fingers across his knees as he speaks.
“Did you call the police?” She asks. “I mean, that sounds like wreckless endangerment.”
I want to drag my brother out of there but at the same time, I see how she believes his lies, is eating them up, so he could tell even bigger ones. It is unbearable, watching Michael string this long rope of falsehood and her there, holding the other end.
“I sure did.” He leans forward, imitating her pose. “By the time they got there, the motherfucker had driven off and the cops didn’t believe me anyway. They hauled my ass off to jail for disturbing the peace or some kind of shit. Took me three weeks to raise bail and it wasn’t until DeRasha here came through for me that I got out. Ain’t that right, DeRasha?” He nudges me and I glance up to see them both looking at me.
“You know it,” I say. “Racist bastards.”
“All I want now,” he continues, “is to get me another Mutineer. Just like that poor, dear man’s motherfucking best friend.” He empties the bottle into his wine glass and takes a long slurp. “But they’re expensive,” he says sadly into his glass.
A phone rings from another room and Melissa jumps up. “I’m probably the last person on the street to have a land line. Excuse me, please.”
As soon as she is gone, Michael grabs a silver dish from the middle shelf. I try to wrestle it away but he slides it into his jacket.
“She’s not stupid!” I whisper. “She’ll call the cops on you and who do you think they’ll believe when they show up? Besides, she’s my friend! Don’t you care?”
But he just grins, his hands jammed in his coat pocket. I put on my jacket. “I’m leaving. You can find your own goddamn way but don’t show up at my door.” I’m about to replace the Dutch girl on a side table but I hear her coming.
Melissa reappears in the doorway. “Oh, are you leaving? Not yet, I hope. Please—I’ve been enjoying our visit so much. I don’t get many visitors.” But her eyes have a different light in them. Perhaps there is another reason why she wants us to stay. Security cameras! I should’ve guessed. She is exactly the kind to have motion detectors and cameras and microphones, the whole nine yards of high tech protection.
“You got security cameras?” I ask, suddenly panicked, not caring if she guessed why I was asking.
“Around the back,” Melissa says. “To discourage prowlers.” She pats Michael’s arm. “But you’ve got me thinking now. Maybe I should get a Mutineer of my own.”
I know in that moment that she is telling the truth. She is exactly what she appears to be, a middle-aged woman who sits alone, reading, wearing fancy, gold-trimmed pajamas that no one will ever see but herself, and that if we sit back down, in a few more minutes, Michael will get her to write him a check to replace Mutineer or to hand over the blue and white Chinese vase on the lowest shelf or the exquisite oil of a shepherd with his back to his herd. She will fetch a canvas tote for him and hold it open while he unloads his pockets into it, and this will be worse for us than when I groped backwards through the howling, infinite house and dragged him out, both of us aglow with flame that hissed like snakes when we rolled on the sweet wet grass.
“We need to go,” I say, hooking my arm through Michael’s. His hands are still locked in his pockets and I drag him toward the door.
In the morning, Michael is gone. I have a feeling he’ll be back so I’m not shedding any tears. He left the luminous paperweight on the floor by the chair where he fell asleep watching TV and I pick it up and put it in my gym bag along with the Dutch girl. I can’t find the silver dish he took, but the other items I will give back to Melissa tonight at the gym, when we both look like our old selves. She will be real nice about it, I know, but I will tell her about Michael, about us, knowing how it will change things between her and me—how can it not? She will tell me to keep the paperweight or the Dutch girl or both but I will refuse and press them back into her hands and I will explain and explain and explain.
Tanya Perkins’ work has appeared in numerous journals including The Woven Tale Press, Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, The Forge, The Raleigh Review and others. Her chapbook People are Naturally Attracted to You was published in March 2018 by WTAW Press. An MFA from Murray State Univ., she teaches writing at Indiana Univ. East.