ENRIQUE’S PSYCHIATRIST was in Downey, four flights up a beige building with windows tinted so dark it looked as if the entire structure was filled to the roof with ink. There were six palm trees rising from the sidewalk and a brick path to the front entrance, a heavy wooden door that reminded me of castles and galleons.
Enrique’s appointments with Dr. Kumar were every two months, usually a Wednesday, and my mother always drove him and waited in the lobby for his session to end. Always, that is, except for the day she was sick in bed with the flu.
Can you take him, Mijo? she said, coughing.
Do I have a choice? I said.
The lobby at Dr. Kumar’s office was a small room with eight cushioned chairs pushed against the walls, four on each side with a glass coffee table in between and magazines fanned out: old issues of Time, Sports Illustrated, People, and National Geographic. It looked like any other lobby. There was even an aquarium against a wall with colorful fish that glided from one end of the tank to the other. They were vibrant, striped, quick in the water. One fish was velvet black and had its mouth suction-cupped to the glass. It reminded me of Enrique when he was a kid, how he’d press his mouth to a window and blow, lips smashed, his cheeks ballooning out.
Help yourself to some water if you like, the receptionist said, pointing to the watercooler beside the aquarium.
Thanks, I said.
She smiled and turned back to her computer. She had bleached blond hair, almost white. Her face was pale, her lips colorless. She looked like the ghost of herself.
I stared at the fish for a while, sliding back and forth, but that got boring really quick so I picked up a Sports Illustrated from the bottom of the pile. Buster Douglas was on the cover wearing his fat red boxing gloves and heavyweight title belt. The issue was ancient, from 1990. The cover barely held on to the staples. I was surprised no one had swiped it yet and sold it on eBay.
I thought about Buster Douglas pounding on Mike Tyson, the stunned crowd as Tyson was knocked out, fumbling around for his mouthpiece, dazed by the fists of an underdog.
I never punched anyone, never got into a fistfight, but I often wondered how it would feel. To hit and be hit. To hurt someone who was doing the same to you.
I imagined Enrique in red trunks, my dad in blue trunks, the twelfth and final round. Enrique on the ropes and my dad throwing punches into his midsection, his own belly spilling over his trunks, love handles jiggling with every jab. Enrique’s left eye swollen shut, a deep cut on his brow dripping blood. My dad throws an uppercut and misses and Enrique bobs to the side and throws his own uppercut, landing square on the chin. The crowd gasps as my dad’s knees buckle, as he teeters and falls with his arms limp at his side. He slams to the canvas and the referee counts him out, cameras flashing everywhere, the crowd roaring, chanting my brother’s name in three syllables: En-ree-kay, En-ree-kay, En-ree-kay!
The door to the lobby swung open and a man walked in wearing blue jeans, a sweater, and a baseball cap. He stood at the receptionist’s desk with his back toward me as he signed his name on the clipboard. When he turned around I saw that his entire face was scarred, mottled by fire. He had no eyebrows, no hair that I could see under his hat. He picked up a Time magazine and sat directly across from me.
I tried not to stare.
Birthday candles, he mumbled.
My face, he said, pointing at it. I was blowing out birthday candles and whoosh!
No, not really. He smiled and his splotchy pink skin stretched over his cheeks.
I felt like a dumbass so I flipped through the Sports Illustrated and started reading this article on Jennifer Capriati. There was a photograph of her fiercely swinging her tennis racket. She’d just turned pro and was only thirteen years old when the issue came out. Thirteen. I was four years older and hadn’t accomplished squat except graduate from middle school.
I lost money because of that guy, the burned man said.
I looked up from the Capriati article. What guy?
I flipped over the magazine to the cover and looked at Buster’s plump face, his dopey smile.
It was a fluke, he said.
What really happened to you? I blurted out.
He closed the Time magazine and tossed it on the coffee table. I’m a fireman, he said. Was, I mean.
Oh, I said.
The roof caved and I fell down with it.
The door to Dr. Kumar’s office opened and Enrique walked out carrying a brown paper bag. The bag reminded me of the lunches my mom would pack for us, our names felt-tipped across the brown paper. The one my brother carried now was blank. It could’ve belonged to anyone.
You ready? Enrique said.
I stood up and looked at the burned man. See you later, I said, even though I probably wouldn’t.
He nodded and did this quick hand motion, a salute with two fingers against the bill of his baseball cap. It was all backward. I should’ve been the one saluting him.
In the hallway, Enrique began to snicker.
What’s so funny? I asked him.
That guy looked like a circus sideshow.
Don’t be a dick, I said.
Am I right or am I right?
I woke up with Oliver’s bare feet beside my face. We’d slept on the same bed at the Best Western, our heads on opposite ends of the mattress like the dual profiles of the jack of spades. Quietly I climbed out and looked at Enrique and Ashley on the other bed. They had made up the night before and her arm was now flung across my brother’s chest, her green hair splayed on the pillow like the fronds of a palm tree.
In the bathroom I splashed water on my face and brushed my teeth and got dressed. I opened my wallet and pulled out the folded piece of paper that had my dad’s address written in my mom’s neat handwriting.
There was a knock on the bathroom door.
It’s me, Enrique said.
I opened the door and my brother’s eyes darted like a hunted animal.
What about them?
I forgot to bring them.
That was smart, I said.
Enrique stepped into the bathroom. He turned on the faucet and cupped his hand underneath and lifted water to his mouth. He splashed water into his hair and raked it back with his fingers.
You’ll be okay, I said. You took one before we left yesterday morning, right?
He looked at me and said nothing.
Are you kidding me? I said.
I had other things on my mind.
How do you feel now?
I feel okay, he said, but it’ll probably hit me later on this afternoon.
The last time I saw Enrique off his medication, a couple months after Dad left, he was curled up in his bed, facing the wall. He cried for hours, his body quaking underneath the blanket. Afterward, his face went rigid, his temper spiked. He grabbed a lamp and slammed it over and over against his desk until the lightbulb popped inside.
I sat down on the toilet seat. Maybe we should drive home now, I suggested.
No, he said. We’re already here.
I don’t think it’s a good idea, Enrique.
Where’s the pistol anyway?
It’s in my backpack.
He’s probably the reason I still need those pills in the first place, he said.
I stared at the bathtub, the drain and black rubber stopper. I know, I said. Then I started crying like a damn baby.
Hey, my brother said.
I’m sorry I didn’t do anything.
It’s okay, man.
I should’ve helped you.
You think you could’ve stopped him?
I don’t know, I said, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. I should’ve at least tried.
You jumped on him that last time, he said. Surprised the shit out of me. Usually you just sit there like you’re watching a school play.
I chuckled. I cried some more. That bastard, I said, sniffling.
Let’s do this, okay?
I stood and went to the sink to wash my face for the second time. I patted myself dry with one of the motel’s white towels hanging from the towel rack.
Okay, I said.
They were all inside the Picklewagon waiting for me to get off the phone. Oliver honked the horn and I walked to the window and pulled back the curtain, the phone cord stretching behind me. I raised a finger and mouthed, One minute.
Enrique’s fine, Mom, I said. I told you already.
Make sure he takes his pills.
You have to watch him take them. Sometimes he forgets.
I’ve been watching, I said.
How was the circus? she asked.
We’re going tonight, I lied.
Can I talk to Enrique? she asked.
He’s in the shower.
Oliver revved the engine and began tapping the horn, making it chirp.
I have to go, I said. Oliver wants to use the phone.
Be good, Mijo, she said.
Once I was outside, Oliver slammed the horn and didn’t let go until I was in the car and sitting in the passenger seat. That’s funny, I said, my voice flat.
What did she say? Enrique asked.
She just wanted to know if we were enjoying ourselves, that’s all.
Some of us are, Oliver said as he pulled out of the parking lot. He readjusted his rearview mirror. Right, Enrique?
What are you talking about? Ashley said.
You didn’t hear anything last night? Oliver asked me.
I shook my head.
I’m sure, Ashley said. Like I would do that with you guys there.
It sounded like you did.
Ashley’s voice was stern. I was having a nightmare. Enrique, tell them.
We did the hokey pokey all right, he said.
Ashley punched my brother on the arm. You’re a pig, you know that?
Catface jumped from the backseat and climbed onto my lap.
Damn, I was kidding, Enrique said, rubbing his arm. She was having a nightmare.
Is that what all that groaning was about? Oliver asked, still unconvinced.
What was your nightmare about? I asked.
Ashley leaned forward in her seat. It was really weird, she said. This witch was chasing me all around school. And there was this man hanging from that huge tree by the gym. It was awful. His face was all blue and he was kicking his legs like crazy.
The car grew quiet. It was as if the world was on mute. And then it hit Ashley: Oliver’s dad. The cord, the basement.
Oh my God, she said. Oliver, I’m so sorry.
It’s okay, he said. Where am I going, Nub?
I had the map unfolded on my lap, a black circle marked around the street where my dad lived. Make a left at the next light, I said. We’re looking for the Monterey-Salinas Highway.
I completely forgot that—
Ashley, don’t sweat it, Oliver interrupted.
There it is, I said. Get in your right lane.
Oliver turned on the blinker and merged over. I rolled down the window and the coastal breeze blew in, smelling of the Pacific. We drove past a vineyard where thousands of sticks were evenly spaced on the dirt with vines coiled around them. We passed a golf course with perfect grass and pine trees out of a textbook, white carts gliding over the green landscape. I saw a man standing in one of the sand traps, one gloved hand on his waist, the other holding his club like a cane. Thinking.
How far away are we? Enrique wanted to know.
I looked down at the map. The black circle I’d made with a Sharpie had bled through to the other side.
Not far at all, I said.