Used to be when the tour bus came down this way, it was to show the bull, or maybe just those columns in the Corinthian style plus sculpture overhead, “Integrity Protecting the Works of Man.” But me, I come on this ride for the light. The air. Wall Street air, kinda sweet. And the light slick with jaundice, which I know about cuz me and Bix was premature born and under the lamp for days. I been to the city five times and for each I take the bus, double-decker, and sit starboard. In the Navy, me and Bix was portside for being junior officers, so now I get my fill, though I know Bix would call me dumb for it. Last he thought about junior anything was the day we was discharged.
Mostly, when we meet, it’s at the McDonald’s three blocks from his work. Says he eats there all the time, though he brings wipes like what Mer used to fix the baby, and usually he just gets tea.
I check my watch. I am going to be late. We’re stalled in traffic or maybe we’re just pulled over because of an outdoor festival and people milling around and in the crosswalk. Visitors on today’s tour are from Shanghai or Boston, it’s hard to tell, and anyway, they are all come to my side of the bus for pictures of the fair. I stand up and when I do, a guy on the sidewalk with some kind of rope ladder tied round his head starts yelling, “Ja rule!,” I guess because that’s what my T-shirt says, though really it says Ja Rules, with an “S” Mer Sharpie’d in because our baby’s name was Jade. Jade rules. Anyhow, the guy’s flicking me the peace sign next to a real sign about stop gawking, start talking, and I wonder what kind of festival is this. I make for the tour guide because there’s no whiff of us moving soon, only here comes the guide for me, or for us, saying over the PA, “And on your right, some people who are here to be with other people and there’s pizza, too,” which news sends everyone into the square, except the guide who’s just no good with the ad lib, and me, who’s late as is. He tells everyone to be back in five. I ask, Can I stay? and he says, “No, man, go be a part of history.”
I wonder if Bix has been round this way. It’s a big city but a small city down here, so I figure guys who look like Bix probably know Bix, but I don’t see none of those guys eating PB&J or ice-cream, even though it’s free.
One thing about being here: if Bix doesn’t put me up for the night, I have no place else to go. Most times, he doesn’t put me up, not since the first, but now because of Jade being passed and Mer sending me away for a while, it’s not like I have the cash to find a hotel. We still owe the hospital 90K it’s not like I have the cash for a hotel. Another thing about being here: I see other people who maybe don’t have anyplace else to go, either.
I tack through the crowd. Someone gives me a purple scarf, kinda sissy-like but OK. Someone else asks do I want a pin and I say I’m looking for my brother, Bix, and I describe Bix, and she says, “Tell that fucker my future is fucked,” then offers me a bagel when I still refuse the pin. “From Montreal,” she says, about the bread or herself, I don’t know. She’s probably Mer’s age minus the years older Mer looks from crying and maybe no exercise, plus she’s in Wellies and cut-off jeans shorts that put me in mind of the calendar some of the guys gave me when Jade was near done — Women in Waders, it was called — which had me thinking there really is something for everyone.
She says her name is Tara. That if she had a job, she’d be at that job, but instead she’s here talking to me. Asks if I’m up from Texas or wherever the hick I’m from, and if I come for this, and so again I tell her about Bix, and how we was twins and look at our lives divergent, that’s how he called it last, and she shakes her head and says, “Fucker stole my future. And look how he’s left you. Sure you don’t want some bagel? If someone drops dead in this park, it’s all over for us.”
It’s true I have not slept in days and maybe also the truth that I have not had the stomach to eat, and it’s nice that this girl cares because when no one cares, you think about dropping dead all the time. In the Navy, Bix always said he’d jump in after if I went overboard and I have gotten a couple emails from him since Jade died, and so I guess that counts as jumping if you’re Bix.
Tara says, “Let’s find you a nap,” and she takes my arm. We pass round guys with drums and guys with fliers and guys in masks, and since I really am whupped and can see the bus still parked and I know where Bix works in case I miss him at McDonald’s, I just walk where she says until we’re at a tarp strung from tree to tree and underneath a sleeping bag she opens up for me. I say I can’t pay anything. That I owe Aiken Regional 90K, and she says, “Nuh-uh. Aiken Regional owes you. Sleep tight, Ja Rules.” And she zips me up so the bag turns cocoon, and once again I am alone with my life.
Down here, it smells like the brig even after a wash, but also like mud and rubber and just people together. I fall asleep thinking of Jade and how she wouldn’t go down unless me and Mer and two nurses sang her to sleep, just mom and dad not being party enough.
It is not long when Tara is back or maybe it is hours, but either way she’s yanking at the bag and going, “We got trouble,” and maybe because you never forget how to rise up fierce and ready to die no matter how wrecked, I am out of that bag and reaching for the nearest object of hurt, which is a broom.
“Not on me,” she says. “Them.”
I stand on a chair to see over about 100 people clumped around some folk, some folk being two guys who look like my brother and also my brother between them, calling my name. They are hanging tight like the crowd is bears and stay back. ‘Cept the crowd maybe is bears because they’re eyeing Bix like dinner.
I smile big and push on through. “Bix!” I say, and then remember myself, and call him by his work name, which is Ben. I try to hug him but maybe because he smells the brig on me, he steps away and says, “I saw you on TV. Just by chance. What are you doing here?”
I don’t know if he means here in the square or here in New York, so I say, “These your buds?” and the buds go, “Yeah, we’re with him, which means we’re also with you,” though they don’t talk this last part to me at all. I stand back and look them over. They look like they shop together. My one suit is Navy standard, but Bix has got a closet full and from the doorway, it looks like mini-men standing hut against the wall. Today he’s in gray with a blue tie.
The mob around them is not just me with a broom but many of us with brooms. They are calling my brother thief and trash and get out of here, you rich piece of shit. They are saying he’s the one percent. I feel like I should be swelled up proud for a comment like that, but today not so much.
“What do you want, Lew?” he says. And then maybe because the TV cameras are on us he takes out his checkbook and says, “To you or the 501(c)(3) here?”
I shake my head, but Tara says, “Take the man’s dough, Ja Rules. Take it all.”
Bix writes me a check for two grand. I take it, but feel like buttons just come off my life jacket.
“OK?” Bix says. “We good? Think maybe you ought to leave now?”
But I dunno. I think a lot of things. Like how if the Navy watched over its own after service. If I wasn’t laid off from Jimmy Creek Lanes. If we could have afforded a doctor sooner. If our savings wasn’t like dye in water. If we still had the house. If anyone cared.
“Shazam!” Tara says, seeing the check. “Dinner’s on you.”
I spot a cardboard sign bent against a tree. No illegals, no burritos. Bix asks again Please, will I go home? But I say no, I don’t think so. I raise the sign over my head. And as I walk through this party, it comes easy to chant my grief out loud.