Brother, yesterday I said to you that there were folks to talk to. That these folks, Mom and me, if talked to, would respond with what we sensed you needed – agreement or advice or humour, say, or silence – and in doing so, offer you what no one can deny needing, the water we pour on our grown-lonely insides: company.
"Company!" our Uncle Nunzo used to shout, the goofball, when we were kids and Mom would take us nearly to the end of the Red Line to see him, when we raced to be the first to punch his buzzer. He'd skip around in cartoony circles, screaming "Help help help, company!" like he'd opened the front door to flames.
"You know that", I said to you, tapping the table, not knowing if you knew it. "You can. You can talk to us."
You said you knew it. I watched you watch your hands scratch the label off your pop bottle. It fluttered in shreds to the floor. I'd guilted you, as you let me do just once a month, to a lonely Mexican joint in the Loop. Mariachi music plugged on around us, going places proudly. If I scooted my chair I smelled bleach and black mould.
You knew it, you said, but you couldn't.
I said, "It's that you won't."
You made the face you make when you're trying not to feel what's obvious to everyone. I made the face I make when I'm trying to stop myself from screaming, You don't understand what's obvious to everyone.
Understand isn't the same as agree with, said your face.
My face had nothing to say to that.
When the bill came it came with two candies. I cracked mine in the back of my mouth. You knew I was thinking, If I let you pay, will you feel like you've participated?
You picked up your napkin. I picked up the bill, half of which was my three beers. I hoped for the hundredth time that you'd someday have a drink with us.
"For the holidays", I said, tilting my head this way, that way, "if you come for the holidays, I hope you do, you don't have to talk. Even though you know it's hurt Mom. That you haven't. Talked."
You tore the tiny corners off your napkin.
I gave up: I said, "Thanks for answering my call."
You put down your napkin and said you're welcome but come the new year you'd stop paying for the phone plan you never used.
I didn't know what to make of that – everything inside me sunk.
You folded the napkin and put it in your pocket.
That you intended to no longer have a phone through which we could continue to try to reach you felt even further out than all the other acts of isolation – your acts, my acts, Mom's acts – and made me remember, not for the first time, that for longer than we liked to admit we'd been misunderstanding who we were on purpose.
On the street we shook hands limply, like kids, you wearing your gigantic gloves. Our eyes flicked away just before they met. The meanest wind we'd had all month ripped in from the lake, herding trash, bending everyone who hustled down the block. You walked off wearing the coat I gave you last Christmas – the last Christmas you said you'd ever go to, which was the last thing you said to Mom in person.
"Waitaminute", Mom had said that day, stepping away from the sink, making your exit certain, "scusi, stronzo – per favore, wait wait wait!" but you were in that coat and out the door, shutting it so hard the silver bells suicided off. At the window Mom slashed the air with her hands and scourged herself with curses – the first steps of the smashy-dance – as if doing so would get you to look back, to look up as you crossed the courtyard. I crushed her with a hug in case she moved to bust the glass, which she hasn't done since Dad. Together we watched you stiff-walk through old hard snow.
Yesterday I watched you stiff-walk through the Loop's lunch hour foot traffic, between the businessmen and -women, the work-jacketed blue collars, the street-cool students, the poky tourists – tourists even in December, even under all their layers.
"You're a tourist", you said to me years ago, on the first of the lousy Christmases. I'd come home from half a year of living in a different neighbourhood, eager to club you with my hipness. That you churned with a bitterness more awful than what I'd expected was in every sentence you didn't say: you were even more alone, and it was and wasn't on me. We moped in the kitchen, not doing dishes, as Mom readied presents in the parlour. I'd been drinking a can of beer because I was old enough. I took manly swigs. I wanted you to want some, to ask for it. You wouldn't. You turned to the sink. I waggled the can in your face, I pressed it to the back of your neck, and that's when you called me a tourist.
Do I need to say what I did next, or why I'm sorry?
I hit you in the head with the can until the can was crushed and foaming.
I'm sorry – I can't stop plunging my head into the past, even though it's hard to breathe in. You know I plunge the most when I've seen you. You know I know you're not actually okay with leaving everything where it is, Mom alone, old wine in old bottles.
"How do you like that", Uncle Nunzo used to say, mock-serious as he sniffed a popped cork. "New wine in a new bottle."
What I'm telling you, brother, is yesterday you walked and I followed, I followed because what you said about your phone plan made it hard for me to get out of my chair. You walked your stiff-walk, which was cocky if not nerdy, your arms looking like they were strapped to your sides, and you whacked shoulders with anyone who didn't give – a many-scarfed grandmother, a jock of a businessman whose bulk nearly knocked you over, who stopped to turn and glare. I waited until you neared the corner, then I hoofed it to catch up, to keep a bead on you. My lungs crackled with lake air. I leaned on a parking meter and burped pukey backwash into my hand.
You puked into Uncle Nunzo's rubber workboots. When we were kids, playing in the mudroom on the plastic rug. Me and Mom thought you'd been faking, acting sick at every Red Line stop to dodge the visit, even though we knew you loved Uncle Nunzo. I didn't want you to turn us around. Watching your miserable face on the train, I'd thought: I can let myself be angry, or not. This knowledge made me feel enormous. After you'd lurched over the toys to yak into both workboots, you wiped your mouth and looked at me that same way – I saw you deciding to be or not be angry. I could have laughed. If I had, you'd have joined me, and before long we'd have slapped the floor and flopped for breath, in cozy hysterics together. Instead I saw my look in your look. I stood up, above you. I grabbed and raised the dripping boots.
The backwash I wiped on my jeans. I managed to keep half a block between us. Your pace was steady except for when you slowed in front of an alley, as if window-shopping. When I got there I slowed too: a grinning two-coated bum sat in a shopping cart, tossing seed to a family of pigeons that muscled dumbly through themselves. "This one, that one, this one", the bum sing-said.
For half an hour you walked an expanding square-like path, a maze you were making from the inside out. That's how I knew you'd lost your job. What I didn't say at the Mexican joint was that I could take the long and beery lunch break because I'd lost my job too.
"A promotion", said Uncle Nunzo, when he got too sick to work, when he was hospitalised. "Pay's different. Different benefits!"
You agreed without saying anything, and he was grateful for it, and I disagreed but said he'd be better soon, and he forgave me for it, and Mom wept in Italian. She always wept in Italian in hospitals.
"Mi rompe i coglioni", she said, and from his bed our laughing Uncle Nunzo took a bow. When you weren't there he'd say to me, "Always kiss your brother on the head". In his last months he'd demonstrate. "It's easy!"
I want to know: what did he say to you when I wasn't there?
It had to be something, something just as easy.
It had to happen – your squares within squares broke on car-choked Lake Shore Drive, which you crossed. Then you crossed the Lakefront Trail, where bundled cyclists and joggers with sweatered dogs exercised insanely along the lake: a wind-whipped plain of caulk spilled from the sky's bucket. You trudged onto the nearest public pier and all the way to the rail closest to the water, furthest from the city. When you passed an old man he turned and left, as if piers were for one.
I stopped just short of the pier's concrete lip and stomped feeling into my feet on the frozen sand. Behind us, if you'd turned to look, skyscrapers stood, broad and black.
You didn't turn to look. What you did was take out your phone. You held it over the rail and dropped it into the lake.
You took off your glasses, folded them, and dropped them into the lake.
Then your gloves. Your keys. IDs and credit cards and business cards. Your wallet. The napkin.
You unzipped your coat and wriggled out of it and in it went. Your fleece, your button-down, your undershirt – I hadn't seen your torso in ten years – you shook as you undid your belt.
A bearded man in a peacoat jogged past me, to you.
I came up from whatever I was in and into something else, something even worse, and shouted, "It's okay!" to no one.
As you stepped out of your jeans, the bearded man slowed, like you slowed at the alley. He set a hand on your arm. The whole time he was talking.
At first you didn't do anything – you looked like you looked when I slammed the can of beer into the back of your head or dumped the two boots of vomit in your lap or lied and told you, to get you to speak to her, that after the wake Mom had broken both hands while breaking a table, that Mom was out of desperation going to marry Drunken Stanley, that Mom, wanting to make sure she died before you did, had resolved to kill herself with cleaning products.
You sat on the concrete. The bearded man sat next to you, like a dad.
He scooted a bit to unbutton his coat, which he offered you. You shook your head. He put the coat on you anyway. You took it off and gave it back, and said something – a long something, with gestures that went from small to big, from hands to arms – and he listened, his coat on his knees, and when you were done he stood up and pointed back to the city. You said something else, to which he listened, and then you turned to face the lake. He left. He came towards me, putting on his coat and looking grave.
A young woman had appeared at my side. Pins and buttons peppered her jacket and a sprout of green hair ran from her knit hat. That she was interested enraged me.
"Think he's okay?" she said.
I looked at her and laughed. I laughed! You're no addict, brother, you're not insane, you haven't been beaten or abused or abandoned. You're okay! You're okay, so what is it, what is it always, and why have we only ever talked around it?
The bearded man came up to her and me with a face that said, I tried, and the young woman hugged him. A kid with a beard, not a bearded man. They were students. Kids.
"I'm going to wait", he said. "Dude might jump."
I said, "Wait for what?"
"The cops", said the girl, "I called them."
"The cops! The cops will tell him to go the fuck away. He'll go the fuck away, they'll go the fuck away, he'll come back and they won't, and if he's going to jump he'll fucking jump. He won't jump."
My voice was high and tight. When I spoke I spat.
The bearded kid came out of hugging his girl in such a way that he stood between her and me.
"How do you know?"
Muscles flexed around my heart. I said, "You're crying?"
I peered into his face.
"It's the wind", he said, not backing away. "It's windy."
I grabbed his arm. I was crying.
"Okay", he said. He put an arm around me.
His girl tugged at him but he didn't budge.
A pair of cops passed us, the casual walk they reserve for the homeless.
"He won't jump", I said into the kid's arm.
"Jump", I said when they helped you up, when their hands kept the blanket on your back.
Joseph Scapellato is the author of the novel The Made-Up Man and the story collection Big Lonesome. He earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University and teaches in the creative writing program at Bucknell University. Joseph lives in Lewisburg, PA, with his wife, daughter and dog.