MAKE A RIGHT AT the next stop sign, I said.
I’m really looking forward to meeting your father, Ashley said.
I looked at Enrique in the side-view mirror and our eyes met.
Some other time, babe, he said.
Why not today?
You can meet him in a couple weeks. He’ll be living with us then.
What? There was a pause. How come you didn’t tell me? she asked.
I forgot to.
You’re lying to me, Ashley said.
We almost there? Enrique asked.
Yeah, I said. This is the street.
Why are you lying to me?
Stop it, Ash, Enrique snapped. Goddamn.
The car fell silent.
I looked out the passenger-side window. It was a quiet neighborhood with lots of tall trees and houses far away from the curb, their lawns manicured and lush green.
What’s the address again? Oliver asked.
It’s 771 Belshire, I said. It’s an apartment building.
You’re acting strange, I heard Ashley whisper to Enrique.
That’s it, I said, pointing. The gray building with the balconies.
Oliver parked the Picklewagon three houses away from the building and killed the engine. A woman in red sweats walking her Labrador glared at us suspiciously and then picked up her pace, the dog’s nose skimming the sidewalk, sniffing.
So I guess we’ll just wait here, Oliver said, meaning him and Ashley.
How long is this going to take? Ashley asked. Her arms were crossed and her eyebrows were furrowed.
Not long, Enrique said.
How long is not long?
I don’t know. Ten minutes, a half hour. Just sit tight, okay? Enrique leaned over to kiss her on the cheek, but she backed away, dodging his lips. What the fuck? he said.
Don’t talk to me like that.
I wouldn’t have to if you’d stop acting like a bitch.
I stepped out of the car and slung my backpack over my shoulder and waited for Enrique, who was still inside the car arguing with Ashley. Oliver looked at me through the windshield and lifted his fists to his cheeks and turned them back and forth. Ashley was crying.
Minutes later Enrique stepped out of the car and slammed the door and walked briskly to where I stood.
Is everything okay? I asked.
Yeah, everything’s cool, he said. Come on, let’s go.
We walked up the tree-lined sidewalk, both of us quiet. I was nervous as hell and rubbed my sweaty palms on my jeans. Enrique stared at me.
Why are you freaking out? he said. I’m the one he beat.
I’m not freaking out.
What’s his apartment number again?
He’s in 105, I said. Probably the first floor.
I should clock him, he said. Enrique made a fist and socked the meaty part of his palm. He hadn’t taken his pills for two days and now I could tell.
There was a concrete path at the front of the building. It curved through the grass and then split in two directions, forking around the building with smaller paths that branched out, leading to the front door of each apartment. There was a FOR RENT sign stapled to a piece of wood and hammered into the grass. Below the phone number it read: DO NOT DISTURB OCCUPANTS.
This is the wrong way, I said. The apartment numbers are going higher.
We doubled back and went around to the other side. The gray paint and black wrought-iron balconies made the building look more like a penitentiary than anything else. It didn’t seem like a place you’d want to visit, let alone call home.
Let me say a few things first, Enrique said.
I might say a few things too.
It’s in your backpack, right?
Yeah, I said, patting the bag with my hand.
Vertical blinds clattered open to our right and my heart flinched.
There it is, Enrique said, pointing at a door.
We walked up the narrow path, me in the front and Enrique trailing behind, and I remembered then the rope bridge we crossed at the county fair when we were kids. It might’ve only been ten or so feet off the ground, but I was scared out of my mind as the wooden planks wobbled underneath my sneakers. At the end of the bridge was a small wooden fort with fake cannons and iron telescopes. There was a pirate flag whipping in the wind, a skull with an eye patch wearing a musketeer’s hat. Go, Marcus, Enrique shouted from behind. You chicken shit, go!
I rang the doorbell and we waited. I let out a deep breath. There was a swarm of butterflies fluttering in my stomach. I stared at the peephole and waited for the little circle of light there to go dark. We waited and waited.
Ring the bell again, Enrique said. And I did.
He must be working, I said.
Enrique cut in front of me and knocked on the door forcefully.
I was somewhat relieved that he wasn’t home, but I also wanted to confront him, to say things to his face that needed to be said.
Let’s come back later on, I told Enrique.
Fuck, he muttered.
We turned around and headed back. Where the blinds clattered open there was now a boy at the window, his little hands pressed against the glass. Enrique waved and then the boy was gone and the door to his apartment opened.
The child was barefoot and wore a diaper and a lemon yellow T-shirt with Winnie-the-Pooh on the front, his paw stuck in a jar of honey. Hi, the boy chirped.
Nice shirt, I said.
Look what I got, the boy said, and crouched, lifting an action figure off the ground. Batman! the boy shouted, and tossed the toy up, somersaulting in the air. When it slammed against the walkway he ran out of the apartment howling, his diaper slipping off of him.
A woman’s voice roared from within the apartment. Alex! And then she was standing in the doorway, cigarette in hand, her face flushed. Get back inside here!
When Alex didn’t move she went to the boy and lifted him up by one arm, still holding on to his Batman, also by one arm, so the two of them—the boy and his action figure—looked like monkeys in a barrel.
How many times have I told you not to run out that door? his mom scolded.
We turned away from the two of them and seconds later we heard the door slam and the boy wailing behind it.
That was quick, Ashley said once we were back inside the car.
He wasn’t there, Enrique said.
Oliver started the engine. Where to, Nub?
Don’t call him that, Ashley said.
It felt good, Ashley sticking up for me. But ten minutes later I heard her and Enrique whispering to each other, then kissing, and it felt like a thumbtack was pushed into my heart.
When I was a freshman I used to play this trick on people with my finger. I’d jam the stub deep into my nostril so it looked as though I were picking my brain. I did this to Christine Walsh in biology class. Christine was the captain of the cheerleading squad, the most popular girl at school, and her parents were filthy rich. On her sixteenth birthday they bought her a convertible Volkswagen Bug. It was cherry red and had a white leather interior. Her license plate read QTGRL4U, which made it sound like she was a hooker or something.
Hey, Christine, I said, my stub already in my nose.
I pulled my finger out. I’m not really digging, see? I said, showing her my little stump.
Oh, she said, her face twisted in confusion.
Omar Ramirez, a slim Mexican boy with crooked teeth, leaned toward me from his seat. She’s a snob, he said. She has a maid to wipe her ass.
What happened? Omar asked.
What do you mean?
Oh, I said. That. My pops. I’ll tell you about it later.
After class, in the hallway, Omar asked again about my finger and I described an imagined scene. How my dad yanked me by my hair into the garage. How he pulled down my mom’s garden shears. How I never felt anything so painful in my life.
Omar’s eyes widened with horror. Jesús Cristo, he mumbled. While students shuffled around us, while lockers opened and clanged shut, Omar gazed off over my shoulder, stunned by what I’d just told him.
Man, I’m just playing with you, I finally said, smiling.
He punched me on the arm and we were officially friends.
Omar and I hung out during lunch break and after school. At his house we played ESPN NFL Football on his PlayStation. We were always the Raiders and after each quarter, we’d pass the controls over to the other.
One afternoon, Omar said to me, You wanna see my dad’s gun collection?
I had the controls and right then my quarterback was sacked in the end zone.
Damn it, I said. Sure, why not?
I followed Omar into his father’s office. On the desk there was a stack of manila folders, bills lined up evenly in an envelope holder. There was a Swingline stapler, a coffee mug filled with sharpened pencils of equal length, a multicolored rubber-band ball. Omar opened one of the drawers and lifted a tray and took out a small silver key. He went to the mahogany wardrobe in the corner of the office, a junky wooden thing that looked like it had been pulled out of a swamp. He slipped the key into the keyhole and swung open the double doors.
The inside of the wardrobe was another story. It was upholstered in green felt, the kind used on billiard tables. Propped like tools in a shed, from top to bottom, was his father’s gun collection: 9mms, .33s, .45s, Glocks, Berettas, Smith & Wessons. You name it and it was there. He even had rifles hanging from the doors, one with a scope. Resting on the bottom of the wardrobe were clips and magazines and boxes of ammunition. Omar opened one of the boxes and took out a bullet.
Feel how heavy these are, he said, placing the bullet in my hand.
I rolled it around my palm for a while and then put it where my finger used to be. Omar laughed. I gave him the bullet back and he slid it inside the box as if it were a silver crayon with the wrapper peeled off.
The following week Omar shot himself in the head, but somehow he survived. They said if he’d tilted the gun a little higher, just a couple more degrees, he would’ve been dead. The suicide attempt left him drooling in a hospital with tubes snaking out of his arms and nostrils. Some blamed his parents, some said a Marilyn Manson song made him do it.
This happened when I was a sophomore. By the time I was hanging out with Oliver and Britt and Darren the following year, getting wasted and lifting CDs at Tempo Records, I’d almost forgotten about Omar.
Until I got his postcard from Dallas.
On the front of the card was a rodeo clown poking his head out of a barrel, a black bull charging right at him. On the back, my name and address was neatly printed, but the handwritten note was in a child’s scrawl. My name was spelled MARKUS and everything afterward was practically unreadable, as if it were written in a school bus going over a thousand speed bumps. The only sentence I could figure out was this: When you put finger in nose was funny I remember.
After we chowed down on some burgers at McDonald’s we decided to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We left Catface in the car with some Chicken McNuggets and hoped she wouldn’t leave her own nuggets in the car while we were gone. I pushed my backpack with the starter pistol under the front seat. Just to be safe.
Enrique and I had a moment alone while Ashley and Oliver were using the bathroom at the aquarium. When do you want to go back? I asked him.
Tonight, he said. It has to be tonight.
We don’t have to do this, you know.
Maybe you don’t, but I do.
Okay, I said. Tonight it is.
We checked out the sea otters first and then the penguins. We checked out the indoor tide pool and dipped our hands in the water. We touched starfish, sea anemones, brown turban snails, and hermit crabs.
Pretty, Ashley said, her green hair dangling down the side of her face like kelp.
This is boring, Enrique said. I’m going over here.
We followed him down a corridor and soon we were standing with others in a dark room before a giant wall of blue water. Hundreds of fish glided by: spotted and striped, silver and rainbowed, ones shaped like torpedoes and ones that looked like silver pancakes. A manta ray skimmed the floor of the tank and another hid in the pebbles, his one visible eye slowly blinking. There was a black fish with fat lips pressed to the glass and I thought of the small aquarium at Enrique’s psychiatrist’s office. I thought of the burned man in the waiting room and how his face resembled the sea turtle that floated past, flapping his arms in slow motion.
For a long time we stood there and didn’t move, in silent awe.
A shark emerged from the dark blue shadows of the water and headed straight toward us, all stealthlike.
Creepy, Oliver said.
I like sharks, Ashley said.
Enrique turned to her. Really?
Yeah. Not the mean ones, though.
They’re all mean, Ash.
I looked at Enrique and noticed his jaw tightening. He was clenching his teeth.
No, they’re not, Ashley said. Not that shark over there, she said, pointing at one that was spotted like a leopard.
The shark reminded me of my bad acid trip, the one I saw coming out of the bathroom’s darkness with all those fins and my dad’s face. I remembered how just before then, Ashley winked at me and then someone turned off the lights. I remembered the strong scent of roses. But then I remembered something else, something I never remembered before: a kiss, quick on my mouth. I racked my brain, wondering if it was true or if my mind was playing a trick on me. Or maybe the acid I’d taken had destroyed a part of my brain that stores away memory. As soon as I convinced myself that I’d imagined the kiss, I remembered it again, real as anything.
Hell-o, yoo-hoo, Ashley sang, snapping her fingers by my face.
What? I said, embarrassed.
They were all looking at me. Ashley, Enrique, and Oliver.
Sharks, Ashley said. What do you think of sharks?
I like them. They’re cool.
Let’s go this way, Enrique said, stepping away from us and through the mob of people.
He’s cranky, Ashley said over her shoulder.
We moved through the crowd and found Enrique in another room standing in front of a smaller tank. He was surrounded by a group of excited kids on a field trip, screaming at one another and jumping in place as if they all had to use the bathroom. Their teacher was a tall man in khakis with a white long-sleeve shirt rolled to his elbows.
Inside voice, you guys, he said. The kids’ hollering didn’t even lower one decibel. He might as well have said, Keep shouting until my ears bleed.
What is it, what is it? one pigtailed girl asked.
It’s a monster, a boy roared.
Where’s his head?
It’s a spider.
Stop pushing me!
Spiders can’t swim, retard.
He doesn’t have a head.
What’s that on his arms?
Mr. Hall, Billy called me a retard!
When Mr. Hall finally calmed his students down and rounded them up in the next room, Enrique stood alone, eyeing the giant octopus. It moved across the water like a strange nightmarish hand. The tentacles waved and curled and arched, its thousand suction cups fastening and unfastening from the glass.
Ashley walked up behind him and placed her hand lightly on his back. Hey, is everything all right? she asked.
Enrique turned around. Yeah, he said weakly.
Oliver was reading a plaque at the base of the tank and I stood by him, giving my brother and Ashley space.
It says here that it has a beak, Oliver said.
No shit, really?
And it changes colors to express emotion.
Like a mood ring, Oliver said.
I examined the octopus, the fat, rubbery laces of its arms. They were peach colored and I wondered what that meant, what emotion it was feeling. I thought that if I had to spend my entire life inside a tank, I’d be pretty pissed off. I’d be bright red.
The octopus crawled over the rocky floor of the aquarium. Its alien head bloomed to violet and the color slowly seeped down to each of its tentacles.
I glanced over at Enrique. His back was turned toward me and Ashley’s arms were wrapped around him, her head resting against his shoulder. And I could tell by the expression on her face that right then, while the octopus turned completely purple, Enrique had begun to fall apart.