You will be twenty-seven when you see the prison again. You will be wandering through aisles of junk at a flea market, holding your fiancée’s hand. “You don’t hate this, do you?” she’ll say, leaning into you, loving you for letting her decide what to do with the Sunday. “Don’t you find it interesting? All these pieces.” She’ll make up stories for them. She’ll pick up a mortar and pestle and say it belonged to a little girl who wanted to be Madame Curie. She’ll run her hand, the one you’re not holding, along a simple wooden table and say a woman used it to knead bread for Union soldiers during the Civil War, and you’ll tell her she has a real imagination. Then she’ll point to a painting, to the mystery of the painting, except this particular painting will not be a mystery to you.
You will recognize the central cell house, the surrounding stretches of stone walls, the mountain range that lies just beyond. You will recognize the backstop fence in the corner of the courtyard and the seven watchtowers, rising like turrets but looking, in the flatness of the painting, as if they couldn’t possibly see as far as you know they can. Though the dimensions will appear squashed—the aerial view of the prison shadowless, horizonless, like an architect’s scale drawing, the nightmarish distortions of a child’s pop-up book—those spaces will fill out in your memory, like a tunnel of lights fading up, first the ones closest to you, then the next set, and the next, until all you can hear is their fluorescent buzzing.
Your fiancée will scrutinize the painting, trying to see if it will go anywhere in her future Cape Cod vacation house. “I’ll guess it was painted by someone who lived up in those mountains,” she’ll say. “Maybe two someones. A husband and wife.” She’ll squeeze your hand. “They would look down at the prison, watch a bus drop off inmates from time to time. And they would take turns on this canvas. He would get the initial strokes down, and she would clean them up.” She will take a step closer to the painting. “What do you think?”
You’ll be staring at the watchtower nearest the prison’s entrance, the one with scars in its stone facade. You’ll barely hear her over the buzzing of the lights inside of you. “Sure,” you will say. “That sounds right.”
There was nothing else to do in Deer Lodge, other than follow Aunt Linda around the ranch, so Mom took us to the old penitentiary for a tour. “This isn’t some ‘scared straight’ ploy,” she joked as she parked the car alongside a stone wall that ran three blocks and looked oddly placed in the middle of town, as though it had traveled, stone by stone, from some ancient Scottish hillside and reassembled itself here in Montana, where history wouldn’t follow it. “This is just for fun,” Mom said.
We took a week out of every summer to visit the ranch. It was only Aunt Linda who ran the place now, and her husband, who never looked at me or my older brother, Mac, never tipped his hat or shook our hands when we arrived. Linda would say to him as he moved from room to room, from indoors to outdoors, always busy and needing to be so, “Babe, the boys need something to do. Show them how to lasso.” When he kept moving, with not so much as a grunt, she’d say “Asshole” and wink, like it was supposed to make us laugh, an adult cursing.
Mac and I would pitch in here and there. We fed horses, cleaned stables. We tried to bale hay, but we were slow and inaccurate, would get in the way of the ranch hands who didn’t have time for kids. So we stayed inside for the most part and watched television.
“You should take them to that old prison,” Linda had said while fixing breakfast the morning of the tour. My mother looked at us as if she’d forgotten we were there, sitting next to her at the table, the same mild-panic expression she would get when she realized she’d forgotten to thaw the meat for dinner or when she hit the garbage can when backing out of the garage. Not that she was neglectful. Just half-present. Every now and then I could catch her attention if I was hurt or said something unexpected. Once when Mac and I were just seconds late calling into a radio station for free tickets to a Bon Jovi concert, I ran to her—she was watching a soap on TV, but not really watching—and I said, “God, Mom, we’re not the first twenty for anything.” She looked at me and laughed, almost thankfully, before phasing again from a grip I barely had.
Besides an older couple with caps and T-shirts that advertised some brewery in Montana, it was just Mom, my brother, and me for the tour. Our guide—a chubby girl with a pretty face and a gap in her front teeth, maybe in high school like Mac, maybe a little older—asked me my name and how old I was. “Thirteen,” I said, cheating ahead half a year, trying to sound authoritative, like I was correcting her for thinking I was only a boy. She said I was a cutie and must have a bunch of girlfriends back home. She told everyone her name was Sandy and welcome to the Deer Lodge Penitentiary, asked if anyone was afraid of the dark, looking at me. The old man raised his hand, which made everyone laugh.
“What’s your name?” Sandy asked my brother as we stepped into the prison courtyard on our way to the main cell house, which had been free of prisoners, we were told, since ’79. Mac was dragging the bottoms of his oversized jeans along the sidewalk a few paces ahead of me and Mom and the beer folks who were already taking pictures. His hands were shoved into his pockets. I could see the tip of his ball cap turn toward Sandy, and I heard him mumble his name. “Well, Mac,” Sandy said, leaning in close to him. “You’re in for a treat.”
I noticed Mac’s heels stopped dragging after that. I remember not liking that.
You’ll be fifteen when Mac comes into your bedroom. It will be eleven or twelve at night and you’ll have just shut off your lights.
“Hey, Denny,” he will say. “Look at me.”
You will look at him. He will be sitting on your desk. The way he’s sitting, you’ll be able to see a small triangle of skin at his hip where his tee shirt almost meets his boxers.
“I’ve got a problem,” he will say. “I can’t go to work tomorrow.”
“Are you sick?”
“No, man. I just can’t go. I can’t put on that stupid hat. I can’t take people’s greasy credit cards. I can’t watch any more fat parents stuff their fat kids with chicken nuggets and fries. I can’t pretend any of this is me on the way somewhere.” He will be breathing fast. His hands will be open and reaching. It will be exhilarating to see him agitated, expressive, your brother who always holds himself so inward, who even dances inward at parties and weddings, like someone who’s about to start dancing, just taking in the beat. “I mean, is this it for me? Is this all I’m supposed to do with myself?”
“Maybe,” you will say, proud that Mac has come to you for advice. Proud that you know, at fifteen, exactly what he should do, and what you should do. “If you stay here.”
Looking at him now, you will recall another Mac. Not the one who smokes cigarettes by the Carl’s Junior dumpsters and meditates on passing traffic, but the Mac underneath, waiting with recycled tension and anxiety—all the things he should have said today, should have done, and why couldn’t he, what’s stopping him—waiting for his moment of release.
You saw it once. He was driving you to school and was cut off by some middle-aged woman who looked, from what you could see of her saggy eyes in her rearview, like she had very little luck in life—and so, by God, she would have this lane. This is what you reported to Mac, and he became angry, shouting. You were fearful, but more than that, you were excited. “Follow her,” you said. And he did, grinning and wild and shrieking profanities. At the grocery store lot where she parked, you watched Mac get out of the car and jog up to the woman’s window, his arms wide as if to embrace her, his voice pitched high and spraying nonsense: What the fuckin goddamn you crazy bitch, think the road is yours, don’t you, ugly fuckin slut off to get some fuckin eggs . . . He came back to the car laughing, telling you how terrified she was. Then he took you to get milkshakes.
That’s the Mac you’ll want now. A Mac of possibilities.
“But where would I go?” he’ll ask you.
“Where do you want to go?” you will say. And you will wait, sitting straight up in your bed, for his answer. You will see it on his face, the idea taking shape. He’ll shake a finger at you as if to say, Yes, you’re onto something, little brother. You’ll see it like it’s already a memory. Him dancing alone on a dark stage, just little ticks in his heels and wrists, then turning. Spotlight on you. The two of you opening into louder movements, Mac spinning on his head and you kicking into the air above you, holding yourself up by a single flattened palm.
You’ll think you should laugh for imagining such extravagant things.
Your brother will look at you and say, “I can’t go without you,” and you will know by the steadiness in his voice, those fumbling, searching bass rhythms finally landing on a single chord—the sound of an arrival—that this is for real.
The cell house was large and small at the same time. An open hallway as long as a football field, maybe two, and wide enough for all of us to walk side by side and not touch. Even the sounds of our shoes clacking against the concrete seemed not to touch; the sounds we made had their own distinct paths, hitting the walls, the ceiling, and returning at their own speeds—plenty of room to live, resonate, die out.
But then there were the cells, lining the side of the hall without windows, stacked alongside and atop one another like rows of gym lockers three stories high. Some of the cell doors were open, and Sandy let us step inside one of them, two at a time. I felt cramped just looking at the space, like an empty slot in the side of a building where a brick was taken out. While the older couple was inside, trying not to touch the unfolded
mattress and the toilet in the corner, Sandy told us about the living arrangements.
“Plumbing, electric. The prisoners were allowed to decorate as they saw fit, but they couldn’t bring anything in from the outside. Most hung artwork that they made or taped up pages from magazines and books that they checked out from the prison library. In the early days, there were so few prisoners that they could each have cells to themselves. But later, in the ’50s, the prison was filled to capacity. Two per cell, three hundred cells, six hundred men total.”
When the older couple slipped out of the cell, my brother ducked in. I wanted to jump into the cell with him, pretend we were roommates for once, him on the top bunk, me on the bottom, him taking a piss in the toilet while I lay telling him jokes, laughter bouncing his stream and making him piss on the seat. But Mom, oblivious as ever, stepped in front of me. “Wow,” she said, handing me the camera to take a picture of her and Mac. “It smells in here.”
I went in by myself after Mom and Mac, and it did smell, like the rest of the building smelled, but concentrated. It was what you’d expect of any old building—rotten, wet, the baked mildew smell of a tool shed after a hot rain. But there was something else too, in that small compartment, something I recognized though I wasn’t sure exactly how. It was the smell of men, the pungent, sour essence of men that lies underneath the soaps and colognes women make them wear to cover it up. The smell of a century’s worth of men who’d lived in this room, if it could be called a room. Living, pissing, shitting, jizzing men, soaking a century’s worth of sweat into a century’s worth of clothing, having to strip off those clothes due to the heat and sleep, one atop the other, naked, the sheets bundled at their dirty feet, their oils and greases seeping into the mattresses. The real smell of men.
I was staring into the iron-stained toilet bowl when I noticed I had an erection. I heard Sandy say something about moving on with the tour and stuffed my hands in my pockets, hoping to distract any attention from my crotch. I turned around. And I met my mother’s eyes.
Her face was blank, the kind of blankness that masks busy thoughts, and her eyes were wide, staring into my head like she could see all the random naked pieces of men flashing on the other side of my eyes as if from an old, rickety projector—some things sharp, others far from focus—like she could see my mind’s hands touching those naked parts.
I scurried out of the prison cell and followed the group to the next site, Mac still up front with Sandy who was walking backwards on her tiptoes talking and smiling at my brother, my mother somewhere behind me, me thinking, She knows, she knows.
You’ll have to leave her, just like your father left her, just like every man she tried to fall in love with left her. What will she do without you, you’ll wonder. She has no man. She has no friends. She has you and Mac, and Mac is either working or running around with his burnout buddies. It’s you she stays up with, playing cards or Scrabble, talking here and there about her cowgirl days in Montana, about how she used to sneak away from her duties to watch Dana the blacksmith, the only lady blacksmith she ever knew, hammering a glowing piece of metal against an anvil. About how, sometimes, if Aunt Linda didn’t come after her for a while, Dana would show her how to forge a hoof pick—“I’ve still got one of those around here somewhere,” she’d say, looking about her like it was just lying out on the kitchen counter, and when she couldn’t find one she’d go back to quietly contemplating her cards, or the letters on the board.
Who would she have to talk to about these things? Who would she have to beat her at Scrabble, to help her buy clothes that fit her right, to wake her up in the mornings to go clean houses, to go to movies with on Sundays when she’s too lonely to stay home? What will she think when she realizes you are gone and she will have to figure things out for herself?
You will try to write her a note, but you won’t know what to write. You’ll decide to find her a postcard when you and Mac are on the road, or maybe find an Internet café where you can drop her an email. This will never happen. You will never know the proper way to desert someone.
Sandy took us into a room that was empty except for a desk with an old typewriter atop it, and on the wall behind the desk, a painting of a sturdy-looking man, his pursed lips pushing a bushy mustache up toward his nose. “This is Warden Colby Greer, and this was his office,” Sandy said, sitting on the edge of the desk in a way that suggested this privilege was hers alone. “A wonderful man, wife and three sons, brought here in ’57 to help reform the prison, which was in danger of being shut down. He did a lot for this place, was even pushing to get all the guards’ guns taken out, usher in an era of peaceful imprisonment. Then one day in June, 1959, two escaped inmates carrying stolen rifles burst through that door”—she pointed to the door behind me and I turned, as if I really expected to see those men there—“one of them took the warden by the arms, the other stabbed him in the stomach with a knife.”
The woman of the older couple clicked her tongue. My mother was looking out the window, maybe at the far wall of the prison, at the mountainscape on the other side, maybe at nothing. My brother was looking right at Sandy now, enthralled with the story. He shifted occasionally on his feet, crossed and uncrossed his arms, his eyes a little too wide, staying open for long periods of time before he had to blink. Five or six blinks in a row, then open again. I watched him as Sandy told the story, letting Mac’s image blur as the characters became real in my mind:
Jim McNally, fifty-four, con boss, learned how to become a con boss while doing time in Alcatraz, studying and taking notes from other con bosses. Shortly after his release from Alcatraz, he performed an armed robbery so he could get thrown into a new prison, here at Deer Lodge, and before anyone knew it, he was on top, manager of the prison’s garment industry, in charge of all who worked there, the final say on hiring and firing and willing to accept favors for granting admittance. People respected him, were afraid of him, sought his protection. And he had the affections of his right-hand man, Chet Felton, eighteen, beautiful (at least I imagined him beautiful until I found a book in the gift shop later that pictured him—lanky, acne-ridden skin tightly stretched across the bones of his face, his eyes looking in slightly different directions, his mouth so small you could hardly imagine it functioning as an actual mouth, talking, eating, making out with his con boss boyfriend—but even so, in my head, he was beautiful).
McNally’s life was just as he’d planned. Then Greer came along and started changing things, slowly stripping McNally of his powers, as well as all the other department managers—the license plate guys, the woodworkers and furniture makers, the kitchen staff—taking away their rights to hire and fire, assigning co-managers and committee members and threatening “the hole” for any exchanges of goods or favors for work. Until one day, McNally was not a con boss anymore.
“Can’t let him get away with it,” Chet pleaded one night, in McNally’s arms. “This is our life. You won’t give up on us, will you?”
They made a plan, and they put it into action. While they were on cleaning duty the next day, McNally set fire to a mop as Chet tossed a bucket of gasoline onto the nearest guard (or maybe it was the other way around—Chet with the mop, McNally with the gas; they kept changing places in my fantasy). They threatened to burn the guard alive if he didn’t hand over his keys. When he obeyed, they threw him into the hole and went about their raid, stealing guns, setting loose a few allies.
If they had gone for the exit immediately, they might have made it to the outside, but McNally (or was it Chet) decided to make the detour to the warden’s office, to the man responsible for their downfall, the man who had to pay for interfering with happiness. By the time they finished with Greer, the only entrance was surrounded.
They took hostages. They holed themselves up in one of the watchtowers. The National Guard fired a cannon at the watchtower, allowing the hostages to escape in the confusion. Now it was just the two of them, McNally and Chet, taking their final stand in the home they’d come to know, whispering words of love to one another. And when the footsteps came down the hall for them, McNally lifted the gun to his young lover’s head, said, “Goodbye, my friend,” and pulled the trigger. Then he put the barrel, now splattered with Chet’s blood, into his own mouth.
I tried to imagine what was going through my brother’s head as we listened to the story. Tried to believe he was thinking of us, thinking of me trapped in the hole, of the plan he’d devise to come rescue me so we could take the prison ourselves. I wanted for Mac to look at me at some point, wink at me from underneath his ball cap, but he kept his eyes, unblinking, on Sandy.
You’ll be seventeen when you break into that house in Spokane with your brother. After having staked it out for a week, you will be certain that its owner, a short but thick middle-aged man who looks like he could handle himself, is gone for the night.
Inside, you will take the place apart, loading the back of your truck (also stolen) with anything that might make a profit: flat screen TV, computers, a small safe you’ll have to break open, clothes (maybe for you), espresso machine, artwork that may have been done by the homeowner himself (easy to convince a buyer that they are genuine finds), a large doll that resembles a fairy, so lifelike that you are surprised when you lift it off the sofa and it doesn’t fight you off.
“What’s a guy doing with a fruity thing like this?” your brother will say, laughing.
You will feel bad for a moment, like this fairy is not just a piece of the man who lives here, but the man himself, being dragged off and sold for twenty bucks. Then you will feel bad that your brother said “fruity” like that, with a laugh, and you will wonder if he finds the things you do together when you’re both drunk and high, or simply restless, “fruity.”
You’ll think for a moment that this was all a bad idea. Hitchhiking to Seattle, roaming the city, homeless; the occasional intimate moment with Mac, those mornings in someone’s basement or under a bridge when his arms surround you, his sleeping self—what you believe to be his real self—fully in tune with your desires, with his own desires, until he wakes up and leaves you to take a leak, talking about some hot girl he fucked in the bathroom of a club, and you’ll think, Where did this guy come from? Two years; one long bad idea.
But then, after the truck is loaded, you will share a bottle of Cabernet from the kitchen and wander about pretending to be a married couple who came home to a looted house.
“Oh, honey!” you’ll say. You are the wife. “Do you think they found my pearls? They better not have taken my pearls!” And you will run upstairs to the bedroom, of course knowing there won’t be any pearls, knowing that this place belongs to a lonely man, the evidence of his loneliness all around this empty house: one set of dishes in the sink; one toothbrush; one book splayed open on one side of the crisply made bed.
“Oh, my Stradivarius!” Mac will call from downstairs, imitating Larry’s voice from a Stooges episode. “They took my beautiful Stradivarius!”
You will run back downstairs and you will leap into your pretend-husband’s arms, fake-sobbing. “My pearls! They’re gone! Everything’s gone!”
“Those bastards,” Mac will whisper, almost tenderly into your ear. “If it’s the last thing I do, honeybee, I’m gonna make them pay.”
And that’s when the lonely man who was supposed to be gone for the night will walk into the house.
In the courtyard, Sandy pointed out the place where the cannon ripped a hole into the watchtower and ended McNally and Chet’s raid, a gritty blond dent in the red-brick facade. I couldn’t look for too long, not at the place where they died, so I scanned the courtyard and I noticed the baseball diamond in the far corner, the backstop fence that stood between the game and the brick wall of the main cell house. I was in disbelief, overwhelmed with a feeling like being in a house you’ve never been in before and discovering all the things you can do in those new spaces. They actually let these men play? Let them laugh and sport together?
I quick-stepped up to my brother. He didn’t seem to notice me next to him, was watching Sandy, so I tried to get his attention without touching him, kicked rocks and sniffed my nose loudly; touching him would let him know how much I needed him to look at me.
I finally just spoke: “Wanna play ball?”
Mac looked at me, a confused sort of look, then at the baseball diamond behind me. He smiled, and I thought it was because he was imagining a bunch of guys in stripes, maybe us among them, all bent over with their hands on their knees. “Have you ever played ball in your life?” Mac said. “You don’t even have a glove.” He slapped my shoulder to let me know he meant this kindly, a brotherly letdown, but I hated him for it, for that kind of touch, for not seeing the things I saw.
So, before he could look away, I snatched the hat from his head. His curly, matted hair flopped out over the red impression on his forehead. I recognized the look on his face. Somewhere between instant, wide-eyed embarrassment and the glorious anticipation of a skirmish.
I ran with the hat, damp in my hands from my brother’s sweat. Ran away from Sandy, away from that old couple, away from my mom, toward the baseball field, Mac right behind me.
When he caught up, only a few strides later, he pulled me into a chokehold. His free arm stretched itself toward the cap, but I managed to keep it out of reach. I could hear him breathing and struggling and nearly laughing in my ear. “Give it to me, you little shitter.”
Then I tossed the hat, tossed it as far as I could in that awkward, bent-over position, my head locked forward, lodged against him, the inside of his elbow clamped over my mouth. But he didn’t go after it. Not right away. He kept me in that chokehold, kept me in a place where I could smell his acrid, careless-living smell, the same smell that came off his sheets whenever he let me sit up late in bed with him and watch scary movies, the lights out, only a bowl of popcorn and the remote between us. Kept me in a place where I loved him again.
You will leave your brother the day after the break-in. You’ll be at a rest stop, in that stolen truck. He will be reclined in the passenger’s seat next to you, curled up tightly in sleep, one hand tucked under his head, the other reaching out as if expecting you to do something with it.
In that moment, you won’t be able to recall whether it was the man who provoked Mac, or the other way around. You won’t be able to recall whether it was Mac or you who lifted the poker from the fireplace, if it was Mac or you who took the poker to that man’s head, again, and again. If it was out of self-defense or panic or something else—the continuation of the fantasy you’d been sharing; a husband and wife surprised by an intruder. We had every right. What else could we do?
That old prison story will come to mind, and you won’t be able to recall who it was that pushed the knife into the warden’s stomach, or which one took the other’s life before taking his own. Was it McNally or was it Chet, and was it really even Chet with whom you’ve been identifying all these years?
So you will take your duffel bag, which now contains the wardrobe of a man who may or may not be dead on his living room floor. You will step out of the truck, unable to wake your brother, unable to tell him he’s on his own now. You will tell yourself, as you start walking, that you are doing this for him, so you won’t have to hold a gun to his head and someday say, “Goodbye, my friend.”
There was an ice-cream parlor—more of a shack than a parlor—just outside the gift shop exit, and since the older couple was taking their time picking out souvenirs and Sandy was already starting the next tour, it was just the three of us examining the different flavors under the glass.
If there had been a photographer there, I’m sure he would have taken our picture, maybe for the prison museum brochure, maybe for himself. “Family Enjoys Day at the Deer Lodge Prison,” the caption would say on the back sleeve of the brochure, and there we would be: Mac looking beautiful, that clumsy beauty between boyhood and maturity he would never outgrow; me looking at Mac, staring, insatiable, wanting to climb into him, to know his quietest of thoughts and pretend they were mine as well; my mother looking at the two of us in that far-off way of hers, as though we were not her children, as though we were someone else’s, someone who did not deserve these boys and whom she was almost envious of.
It’s silly, I know, but even though we went back to Aunt Linda’s ranch after that, and went back to our hometown where we would live together for another two years, in my memory this is our last moment as a family. In my memory, we walk out of that ice-cream parlor, my mother says she knew this was coming and she is ready, no sobs, no hugs, and Mac and I leave, on foot, for Seattle.
The old man behind the counter watched us, waiting patiently for our order, maybe wondering if he would be ringing this up together or separate. He noticed Mac looking at the waffle iron and started telling him about how he made waffle cones. Right then, watching the old man’s delight at being noticed and admired, I thought how ridiculous it had been for me to imagine Mac in prison.
“That was fun, wasn’t it?” my mother said to me, still looking for the right flavor.
I jumped, as if I’d been caught again, staring and thinking things I shouldn’t be thinking. “Yeah,” I said. “Real neat.”
“So much history,” she said. And she pinched my shoulder, letting the old man know he’d be ringing us up together. “Fun,” she said.
Two years after the murder, if it really was a murder, you will go back home, walk up to your old house and knock on the door, having seen the new truck in the driveway and wondered what Mom did with the Oldsmobile. The woman who answers will not be your mother, and when you ask about the woman who lived there before, she will say the house had been deserted, and what a state it was in before she fixed it back up. You will try to imagine your mother living some other life. You’ll conjure up for her a house on a ranch and horses and the sound of a hammer striking an anvil. You will leave this woman who now owns your childhood, and you will wonder, with relief, if your mother ever really needed you at all.
All week, Mac had slept on the couch in Aunt Linda’s living room while I slept on the floor. But tonight, he stripped down to his boxers and slid under the covers next to me. He lay on his back, his hands behind his head, and he talked to me, for hours.
He talked about the prison, how cool it was. He talked about Dad leaving, something we’d never discussed before. He said he could remember the day he left. “I was six, I know, but I’m telling ya. Like it was yesterday.” He remembered that they were fighting about a tube of superglue he couldn’t find. Dad accused Mom of misplacing it on purpose because she hated how much he liked building models, building planes. He said he’d go crazy if he didn’t have anything to look at besides the house. She said she understood, and he left. “And this is the funny part. When he was gone Mom went about the rest of the day like normal. Better than normal. She took us out to dinner. Just the three of us.”
“Maybe she didn’t want us to worry.”
“Maybe she was celebrating.” He didn’t laugh when he said this.
“Why do you think he really left?”
Mac smacked his lips. “People always got someplace they want to go. That’s why it kills me about those guys in the prison. That McNally guy. He wanted to stay there, in that cell. That cell was the life, man. He never wanted to get out.”
Mac’s eyes were wet and flickering with midnight light as they darted about, parsing thoughts in the darkness. I was sure I was seeing something new in him. This wasn’t the guy who could just as easily be here as anywhere, hiding under a ball cap and nodding politely when spoken to. I was seeing into Mac’s dreams. And he wanted me there, seeing.
“I tried to ask that girl out,” he said. I noticed his chest had fallen. “Sandy. Pretty cute, right? And she was giving me the go-ahead and everything, but I don’t know. I couldn’t figure out how.” He moved to scratch himself somewhere under the blanket, his face scrunched as if trying to figure it out now. Then he lay back, closer to me. I knew he was closer because his elbow grazed my shoulder and his voice dropped. “And you wanna know what I thought about?”
“You,” he said, “watching me. I’m the big brother. You’re supposed to look to me to know things. How to talk to girls. How to get what you’re after, you know?” He made a sniffing sound with his nose. Then he did it again, as if the tickle were the emotion he couldn’t have. “At least Dad knew that much. He knew how to get what he was after.”
I wanted to scan the room, make sure we were alone. Part of me was hoping my mother would be there, coming down the stairs or standing in the shadow of the kitchen doorway, to keep me from doing the things I shouldn’t do. But she was gone now. It was just me and Mac.
I reached out, flattened my hand against his waist, right on the place where his boxers met his skin. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t move my hand. I could feel his breathing under my palm. I focused on the feeling. The bunched fabric of his waistband, his breathing pulling and pushing that waistband—slightly, millimeters—against his belly, and the hard ridge of a protruding hipbone. The wetness that my palm transferred to the small hairs below his navel.
“Pretty cute,” he said. “Bad teeth, though.”
I’d thought this touch, my hand on his body, would have been enough. But all I could do for the rest of the night was think of ways to get his arm around me.
You will want to tell your fiancée about the painting, about the day you spent at the prison with Mac and your mother.
Of course, she will have asked about your family before, and you will have told her, as simply as possible, that you left as soon as you could, that you all left, that you didn’t know where your mother was, where your brother was, or if either of them were still living. When she asks if you regret this, you will say, “It’s just the way it happened.” And though this response will unsettle her, she will never ask you for more. You will love her for that.
But sitting in the passenger’s seat, your fiancée driving you back to her apartment for leftover Chinese and sex and wedding plans in bed, you will want to tell her everything. You’ll want to tell her the history you devised for the painting: at first you’d imagined Jim McNally, sitting in his cell with an easel and a palette full of colorful mixtures. But then you realized, almost laughing at yourself for thinking it could have been anyone else, that Chet Felton had been the artist, and you wondered how that young boy, trapped within those walls, could have seen that place, from that height, so accurately.
You’ll wonder if telling her these things will make her want to leave you, or make you want to leave her. “Strange, huh?” you’ll say, picturing her only a few seconds from now, tearful and betrayed. “The things we do to keep people close.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just something I was thinking today, when we were looking at that painting.”
She will glance at you and you’ll wonder if this is it. You’ll think she is able to guess your whole story like you are one of those antiques, a hideously marred one, one that will stop her from antique-shopping altogether. But it’s only a glance. She’ll turn back to the road. She’ll reach out and play with your earlobe. “I know you don’t like the antiques, sweetie,” she’ll say. “Thank you for humoring me.”
You will put your hand on her leg and try to feel what you felt that night on Aunt Linda’s living room floor. “It’s what I do,” you will say.
Nicholas Maistros has published stories and essays in Bellingham Review and Nimrod, and his book reviews can be found in Colorado Review. He lives in New York City.
“Someone Else’s Boys” was originally published in Cry Baby (TLR Fall 2013)