WHEN WE WERE KIDS, my dad would twist a lemon off its branch and toss it into the swimming pool. The first one to grab it would get a dollar. Enrique and I would jump in and paddle furiously toward the yellow fruit, a little sun bobbing on the waves. I’d grab the lemon first or Enrique would and then my dad would reach into his back pocket and pull out his wallet. He’d hand me or Enrique a dollar bill and one of us got to feel rich for a day.
My dad worked long hours in a tall office building in Culver City. Sometimes he came home early with cardboard tubes of floor plans under his arm. In his office at our house there were blueprints thumbtacked to the walls, the bones of a gymnasium or bridge. His desk had a transparent T-square attached to the side that slid up and down. He used the lopsided coffee mug I made in kindergarten to hold his pencils. He had a snow globe paperweight, a miniature cabin surrounded by a dome of glass. Beside the tiny pyramid of logs, a man leaned on his axe. That, he told me once, is me in a nutshell.
Now it was my mom who had to work, who drove off to waitress at this fancy Thai restaurant called the Palace, who came home tired and smelling of spices—lemongrass and curry and tamarind. If she wasn’t too exhausted, she sometimes made us empanadas for dinner and rolled out the dough right on the kitchen counter.
It was a warm July evening and we sat down for dinner, the three of us, at a table designed for four. Where the bulk of my dad used to be was now an unobstructed view of the backyard, the pool’s diving board and lemon tree.
The empanadas glistened on a platter. Some were filled with ground beef, onions, raisins, bits of egg. Some only had mozzarella cheese. When we sank our teeth into them, we didn’t know what we were getting.
Damn, I said. These are good, Mom.
It’s been a while, huh?
You should make them more often.
It’s a lot of work, Marcus.
Yeah, well, I said, then scratched my chin with my stubby finger.
Enrique took a large bite from his empanada and the melted cheese stretched from his mouth like a rubber band. Hot, hot, he said, his mouth wide open.
My God, Enrique, my mom said. What happened to your hand?
We all looked at Enrique’s hand resting beside his plate, the pink and swollen knuckles.
Oh, he said, pausing. I dropped a dumbbell on it.
Enrique was always doing curls then—while he watched television, while he talked on the phone, five sets for each arm before bed. Still, I could tell that he was lying and imagined he’d punched the wall again, that he had to find something to tack over it besides his calendar.
Did you put ice on it? my mom asked.
After you finish dinner, I want you to put some ice on it.
Okay, he said, and glanced over at me before wiping his lips with a napkin.
We heard our neighbor behind us then. The father. He barked at his wife or his kids. A door slammed and then a threat, something about removing the hinges off the door. Then the pounding of manual labor, as if he was actually following through on his threat.
Now that family has problems, I said.
He should leave, too, Enrique added.
My mom clicked her tongue and shook her head and she reached for an empanada and bit into the corner. A ribbon of steam rose from the opening as if a little fire had been put out.
I looked at the empty seat where my dad once sat, remembering when he pointed his fork at Enrique. Eat your broccoli, he said. Now. When Enrique didn’t move, my dad stood and grabbed him by the neck, forcing him toward the only thing left on his plate, the little green trees of my mom’s favorite vegetable. Get off me! Enrique shouted. My dad let go of his neck and sat back down, his face flushed. Look what you make me do, he said. My mom covered her mouth with her hand and I just sat there quietly at the table, wondering what my little brother would make him do next.
Enrique looked at his watch. Shit, I’m late.
Language, my mom said.
Where are you going? I wanted to know.
Movies. Ashley wants to see that piece of shit with Johnny Depp.
My ears, my mom said, caging her ears with her hands.
Sorry, sorry. She wants to see that piece of feces with Johnny Depp.
Ashley who? I said.
Ashley Mahoney. You know, Beth’s friend. She said she met you at a party a couple weeks ago?
The night at the motel came back to me. Oliver’s Valium Baggie. The acid, the roses. Ashley’s green hair moving like sea life. All of us crammed in that darkened bathroom.
Oh yeah, I said. Ashley.
What about your hand? my mom said.
I’ll put ice on it later.
Enrique stood up from the table. My mom and I watched him rinse his plate at the sink, the muscles of his forearm as his hand circled underneath the faucet. Enrique had grown quite a lot over the year. He was taller and his shoulders were wider. His voice was more husky, a voice on its way to sounding like Dad’s. Much to Mom’s disapproval, he began to grow out his coffee brown hair, which framed his face. The antidepressants had added some plump to his cheeks. There was even stubble on his chin. And his eyes. All we had to do was look at his eyes to know that he wasn’t a boy anymore. Watching him rinse his plate, I felt like I was the younger brother.
Once Enrique was out of the house, I walked into his room and noticed immediately the Radiohead poster that was now taped on the wall beside the calendar. With my fingertip, I tapped around the poster until it buckled inward, warping Thom Yorke’s face. I knew it.
Later that evening, my mom stood in the doorway of my bedroom. I was on my bed with my back against the wall, knees bent with my sketchbook resting on my thighs. I was drawing a girl holding a beer bottle, a girl with black boots sitting cross-legged. I was drawing the rivers of her hair. I was drawing Ashley.
Can I see, Picasso? my mom asked.
I’ll show you when I’m finished.
You know, you can take some art classes at the junior college. You don’t have to wait until you graduate from high school.
Don’t start, I said.
Marcus, I worry about you, she said. You need to start thinking about your future, what you want to do with your life. You need to start thinking about how you’re going to make money.
Okay, got it, I said. My future, my life. I’ll start thinking about it now. I held my chin with one hand and looked upward, my tongue poking out from the corner of my mouth.
Don’t be a smart aleck, she said, turning away from the doorway. Maybe I should send you to the Army.
They won’t have me.
Why not? she hollered from the end of the hallway.
Because I don’t have a trigger finger, I hollered back.
I clicked on the television and watched the news for a while. Whenever my dad watched the news, he would insert his opinion between sips from his beer. It’s about time we invaded Iraq. Sip. If my neighbor did that, I’d punch his lights out. Sip. Everyone is shooting everyone these days. Sip. That’s what she gets for leaving her baby in the car. Sip. The world is going to hell in a handbasket. Sip. No one could beat the Yankees.
The anchorwoman said the botched terrorist attack in London was most likely attempted by the same group who were behind the last bombings. This time the bombs failed to explode correctly. I thought about how dumb the terrorists must’ve felt and imagined them pointing fingers at one another. I thought about the funeral and the tiny flowers on Mrs. Thompson’s veil. I thought about banging the anchorwoman, who had a brown helmet of hair and a pug nose but still looked hot to me, what with her big blue eyes and full lips. Then I thought about Ashley sitting beside my brother at the movies, sharing a tub of buttered popcorn. The whole thing made me ill.
That night I dreamed I was in our swimming pool, surrounded by hundreds of lemons. They knocked against my shoulders and chest. I could smell their fragrant yellow skin. Beside the empty lemon tree, my dad stood in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt. A dollar per lemon, he said. So this was how I was going to make money, I thought. And then another thought: Where’s Enrique? I looked at my dad. He shrugged his shoulders, his arms now gone, his empty sleeves blue flags waving at his sides.
I was slow-footed and stoned at the market with a Spoon album on my iPod. The joint was Britt’s, half of it smoked in the parking lot before I wet my fingers and pinched the end.
I pushed the shopping cart up and down the aisles, my face numb. Everything looked so good. The bananas and the peaches looked good. The garlic-flavored croutons, the jars of green olives, the cans of pinto beans. Even the filleted salmon on ice looked tasty.
There were eleven items on the grocery list, scrawled in my mom’s neat handwriting: milk, eggs, orange juice, lettuce, Raisin Bran, ground beef, mozzarella cheese, tuna, paper towels, razors (for Enrique), and peanut butter.
Someone tapped my shoulder and I turned around. It was Mrs. Thompson, dressed in jeans and a large sweatshirt, her hair in a messy ponytail. I pulled the earphones off and let the little speakers buzz on my stomach.
Hi, I said.
Hello, Marcus. I just wanted to thank you for coming to the funeral. It meant a lot to Oliver.
He’d do the same for me, I said, wondering how bloodshot my eyes looked, if she could smell the weed on my clothes.
Yes, he would.
How are you doing?
Not so good, she said, and smiled weakly. Her eyes got wet and I was afraid she’d lose it then, that I’d have to find a way to console her, stoned as I was, surrounded by the brightly colored boxes of cereal. I imagined the store’s intercom crackling overhead: Cleanup on aisle seven. Sobbing widow.
I’m taking it day by day, she said.
That’s the only way to take it, I said. I looked down at my shoelaces, then up at her face.
You’re right. You had to do the same thing with your father.
It’s better that he’s gone.
Mrs. Thompson blinked.
My dad, that is, I said. I didn’t want you to think—
I knew who you meant, she said.
I looked down at my laces again.
Well, she said, I’ll let you get back to your shopping.
It was nice seeing you, Mrs. Thompson.
Please, she said. Call me Gloria.
Okay, I said. Gloria.
She touched my wrist before rolling her cart down the aisle. I studied her ass, her wide hips, and felt my dick getting stiff in my jeans.
I skipped the razors (for Enrique) so I could push my cart through the 10 Items or Less lane. I couldn’t find them, I’d tell my mom. Look, I found everything else, even the tuna.
There was an abandoned house at the edge of Cerritos, ugly as sin—an old two-story box with olive green wood paneling, weathered down from decades of rain and sun. It was as if all the other houses said Get the hell out and this house hobbled down South Street, up Gridley, and plopped down where no one could see it. Whenever we drove by it we wondered who lived there. Britt thought they were hillbillies. Oliver imagined a meth lab. I pictured the oldest man in America sitting by the fireplace, milky white eyes and a long gray beard, a face crosshatched with a thousand wrinkles.
We noticed there was now a NO TRESPASSING sign taped to the front door. We decided to hop the fence, Oliver and I, while Britt stayed inside his Volkswagen Bug, sucking smoke out of his glass bong.
Come on, Bongoloid, don’t be such a pussy, I told him.
I’m staying here, Freak Show, he said, a white thread of smoke unspooling from his lips. He reached into the back of his jeans and slid out the starter pistol. It was black with a skinny handgrip, and at the end of the barrel there was a flat, red plastic ring. The pistol belonged to his father back when he used to referee track meets at our school and around the district. Britt thought the gun made him look tough, like a gangster or something, so he carried it with him whenever possible.
I’ll keep a lookout for you guys, he said, then sneered like a thug, unaware of how ridiculous he sounded.
The backyard was more dirt than grass. There was chicken wire and a row of empty five-gallon bottles of Sparkletts. A rusted tricycle was tipped over on the patio, one of its wheels missing. Against the brick wall in the corner of the yard was an old recliner, the gray cushions stained and ripped. I thought about the morning Enrique and I carried my dad’s lime green sofa chair out of the house and set it beside the trash cans. I was washing our station wagon in the driveway when the garbagemen came to pick it up. The one who emptied the trash cans held the back side of the chair with his gloved hand and shouted, This too? I nodded, my thumb on the hose, and in one swift motion he tossed the chair into the Dumpster as if it didn’t weigh a thing. Then came the whine of hydraulics as the Dumpster rose and tilted and my dad’s chair tumbled down from the sky.
Oliver peered through the sliding glass door that led to the kitchen. He made blinders with his hands to cut the glare, his forehead pressed to the glass where another NO TRESPASSING sign was taped. I heard your brother’s banging that Ashley chick, he said.
Yeah, I think he is.
You let your little brother cock block you?
Man, he didn’t cock block me.
Oliver turned away from the sliding glass door. You were drooling all over her at the Travelodge, he said.
How would you know? I said. You were passed out.
Look, he said, and walked over to a window that was cracked open an inch from the ledge. Oliver curled his fingers inside and lifted the window and it screeched as it slid up the frame. I bet someone’s shacking here, he said, wiping his hands off on his pants.
No way, I said. This dump?
Come on, let’s scope it out. Oliver hoisted himself up and pushed through the window. I followed behind him, headfirst, then swung my leg over with my knee bent.
We were standing in a bathroom with checkered tile floors, white and teal. Oliver opened the medicine cabinet, which was empty. Damn, he said. In the sink, two fat cockroaches were slowly swaying their antennas. The tub was all grimy as if a coal miner had just taken a bath. See, man, Oliver said, pointing at a cigarette butt in the tub. Someone’s shacking here.
That doesn’t mean shit, I said.
I know these things.
Five bucks. I bet you five bucks.
You’re on, he said.
We walked down the hall, opening cabinets, looking for something to claim as ours. All the carpet was stripped and our footsteps on the plywood floors echoed throughout the house, bouncing off the empty walls.
Honey, I’m home, Oliver shouted, his voice in stereo.
In the living room we found a cat curled up beside the fireplace, her mangy fur the color of smoke. I crouched and held out my palm. Here, kitty, kitty, kitty, I said.
I told you, Oliver said. Now pay up.
You said someone is shacking here. A cat’s not a someone.
Yes, it is.
It’s a something.
You don’t know what you’re talking about, Nub.
Who flunked English and had to go to summer school?
Mrs. Connelly is a bitch, Oliver said.
Doesn’t matter what she is, you still flunked.
Oliver took out his wallet and pulled out the small sheet of acid.
Get that shit away from me, I said.
Sorry about your bad trip.
Never again, man. I’d rather eat glass.
Let’s get this cat wasted, he said, tearing off a tab.
Give her a Valium instead.
That’s no fun. She’ll just lie around.
She’s going to freak out, I said. Maybe we shouldn’t.
Oliver held the paper blotter out on his fingertip. The cat sniffed the tiny square of paper and then looked at him timidly. Her eyes were light blue, almost transparent. Come on, Oliver said, and just like that the cat scurried away from us and up the stairs.
I wonder who used to live here, I said.
Who cares? This could be our hangout.
Yeah, we could bring chicks here and—And what? Oliver said, cutting me off. I bet you’ve got cobwebs on your dick.
Ha ha, I said. I imagined Oliver’s mom pulling down my boxers, brushing the cobwebs off. I imagined her taking me inside her mouth.
We heard the cat meowing somewhere upstairs and we both stood quiet, listening. Oliver went up the stairs first, two steps at a time, and I followed behind. At the top of the stairs I turned left and Oliver went right.
In the hallway there were nails poking out from the walls, white rectangles where framed pictures used to be. They were like the ghosts of photographs.
I stepped into a small bedroom that overlooked the front of the house and saw Britt’s car parked along the curb, the windows clouded with smoke. There were two silver bowls in the corner of the room, one filled with water, the other with brown pellets. On the sill was a syringe and a rubber cord.
Marcus, over here, quick, Oliver shouted.
I hurried back down the hallway, full of adrenaline.
Oliver stood in the doorway of what looked like the master bedroom. He pointed at the cat, who was sniffing at the closet. She meowed and lifted her paw and scratched the closet door.
Get out, motherfucker, Oliver said, trying to sound tough.
There was silence, a moment when nothing moved, then the closet door glided open.
The man standing there was thin and had dirty blond hair. I mean he was really thin. It looked like his skull was leaning against his face, pressing against his pale skin. He just stood there with his arms raised above him as if we were the police. The cat walked between his legs and curled back, stepping over his dirty sneakers.
You can put your hands down, I said, and he did.
There was a mattress on the floor pushed into the corner of the room, a tin ashtray and a spoon. He had a candle still wrapped in its clear plastic, fat and white like a tall glass of milk.
You living here? Oliver asked.
Yeah, he said. Just for a while. His voice was low and soft, almost feminine.
We just wanted to scope out the place, that’s all, I said.
Hey man, you guys have anything on you? He scratched his neck, his eyes darting back and forth between Oliver and me. The cat arched her back and yawned, her face nothing but tongue and teeth.
Nuh-uh, Oliver said.
How ’bout cash? You guys got any cash? He licked the corner of his mouth. They say I’m good, he said.
Nah, that’s okay, I said. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a crumpled five. Here you go, I said.
He didn’t move, so I dropped the bill on his mattress and it fell like a leaf.
Thanks, he said.
Oliver and I bailed, and before I closed the front door behind us I looked upstairs. The cat had her head poked through the bars of the banister, watching us leave.
You owe me five, Oliver said.
I just gave it to him, I said, jabbing my thumb over my shoulder. That was all I had.
Oliver tapped the driver-side window of the Volkswagen and Britt jumped in his seat, startled, then rolled down the window.
Move over, Stonehenge, Oliver said. I’m driving.
What’s in there? Britt wanted to know.
Just some dude who wanted to blow us, Oliver said.
And his cat, I added.
Really? Britt’s eyelids were half shut. There was confusion in his voice. He wanted to blow his cat? he asked.
You dipshit, Oliver said.
The day had nothing left for us, its pockets turned inside out. We drove around Cerritos itching for something to do. Anything. I watched Oliver’s eyes in the rearview mirror. They stayed on the road. I watched the back of Britt’s head swaying on the headrest. I watched the sun, low and red, staining the clouds above the tracking houses and making them look like balls of cotton, pink with blood.
What now? I said.
I don’t know, man, Oliver said. I’m just driving around.