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Uneasy with the drunken violence and prejudice of his brother and others in his Irish neighborhood in Boston, Mick makes friends with a somewhat enigmatic Spanish-speaking loner at school.
A New Game
Family was my problem. Not simply the obvious problem of who was in my family—my brother, Terry—but the whole idea of family itself. Where I come from, it's a big word, family. You hear it a lot in my neighborhood. And it means the neighborhood as much as it means actual blood relations. It includes the guys you grew up with and the guys your dad grew up with and the girls they hooked up with and the kids they all squeezed out. It wasn't all important that everybody in your "family" be all Irish; you could throw in a little Pole here, a little Goomba there, without it mattering too much, as long as they lived inside your boundaries and acted like you acted and were Catholic. What family was, mostly, was what it kept out.
But the new thing I was learning was that family was as hard to get out of as to get into. All the old jokes were coming too true for me: You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family; Family—can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em.
Maybe they couldn't shoot you, but they sure could break your head if they wanted to.
When I opened my eyes, lying there on the sidewalk in front of Evelyn's house, the first thing I felt was confusion. Could this have happened? Could I have gotten my ass whipped just because I wanted to visit this particular girl, and because I was walking with that particular guy? Everybody has these scary, violent dreams, I told myself, but then you wake up sweating to find that it wasn't real.
Or you wake up bleeding to find that it was.
Some of the blood was already dry when I reached up and touched my eyebrow lightly. Something was dripping, though, new and cold, dripping on my head. I looked up. Evelyn was standing over me, a sandwich bag full of ice hanging from her hand.
"You've been bleeding up my sidewalk," she said, pushing the bag at me.
I sat up and took the bag. I didn't even try to talk yet as I pressed the ice that felt so good into my crackling skull.
"This like an elephant thing or something, where you wander off looking for a place to die, and you pick my house?"
I could die now, I thought; I at least got her talking to me. She made me smile, even if she didn't make herself smile. Not much ever did make her smile, actually.
"You going to live?" she asked.
I gave it a little thought. "I'm going to live."
"Fine." She turned and walked away.
"Wait," I yelped anxiously, hurting my head in the process.
Evelyn turned, arms folded. "Why?"
"Because," I said, trying to think of why she should. "Because I'm your guest. I'm in this situation because I was coming here to see you."
"You were coming here?" she asked sweetly, "to see me?"
"I don't recall, did I invite you?"
How mean could she be? For how long? Even blood wasn't good enough for her. She didn't wait for a response to that last one.
When she was gone, I sat there, my legs splayed out on the sidewalk in front of me, the ice melting in my hand but pleasantly numbing that corner section of my brain.
It's not like I've got anything more to lose, I thought, climbing to my feet. I trudged slowly up the stairs and rang the bell.
The door opened. "Yes, who is it?"
It was Ruben. "Goddamnit," I said, delighting him.
"Hello? Who is it, please?" he asked, looking past me. "Is there anyone there? Hello?" He stood on his toes to look over my head, then back down to look left and right, like I was invisible. "Hello, is there anybody out there?"
I turned around and walked back down the stairs, back toward home.
Maybe it was blood loss. Maybe it was the numbing effect of the ice, slowing me down, chilling me dead, taking away the pain from my head and now taking everything else with it. The small patch of temple gone dead with the cold, then the feeling spreading until my whole skull simply teetered up there like an empty shoebox.
Everybody else in the neighborhood seemed to have the deadness too. The eyes I met on my slow serpentine weave down the sidewalk showed me nothing. Nobody showed me any pity, not that I should have been looking for any. But nobody showed any surprise, either, at what must have been a pretty gruesome sight. And nobody showed any smartass, good-for-you sucker kind of pleasure that you might have expected. Nothing. No thing. Smaller than nothing and farther away than Jupiter, that's what I saw they saw when they saw me. The high school kids I recognized, nothing. The couple strolling past me, licking ice cream cones and pushing a baby carriage together, nothing. One giant four-generation family massed on the front steps of a yellow triple-decker, nothing. Not that I expected love from these people, but I was looking for something when I took the trouble to look at them instead of at the ground. I mean, somebody should notice a thing like this, shouldn't they? I would, if it was me. I'm hurt, I thought, and I don't know if I will make it to the corner without falling and hurting myself more. I was walking sideways like a crab, dizzy and weak, and if I fell I would be left there on my face like a piece of garbage until I could get myself up and out by myself. Just then I got a picture of me like that, in my head, lying there alone, and I felt like I wanted to cry for him, for myself, the self I was watching there alone in a heap on the pavement.
By the time I turned the corner from Centre onto my street, Scotia, I'd regained some strength. I was walking steady now, but I still felt like I'd been hit by a car.
"What happened to you?" marveled Mrs. Ryan as she hung laundry on the clothesline in her front yard. Her clothesline in her front yard, like it's attractive. "Come over here now, you."
I went to her unquestioningly because I seem to automatically do anything I'm told by women my mother's age. She took my chin in her hand and yanked it side to side to get the best look.
"You're a good boy, Michael, so I know you didn't start it. I hope you got the better of it."
"Try a piece of raw red meat," she said, turning back to hanging her bloomers in the breeze.
"I'll try a piece of red meat," I echoed, already walking.
"Boy's earnin' his stripes," Caughey called from his window, from where he watches every move on the street, every day, instead of working. The drapes didn't even part when he talked, just ruffled a little bit.
"Who gotcha, the spooks? The ricans?" said the guy they call Southside as he drove his wheelchair right into my path. He was always doing that, springing out from behind his wooden fence to surprise people walking by his house, like a bridge troll. "Here, have a pull, tell me about it," he said, shoving a forty-ounce, brown-paper-wrapped can at me. "Didja kick 'em in the balls? Kick 'em in the balls, is whatcha should do."
I did hear a few disapproving tongue clicks, indicating not everyone thought this was great. And just before I got home, I heard Mrs. Healy moan from her porch, as her husband leaned over his fence to get a gander at me, "The poor mother, she's just the sweetest creature on god's green earth. She don't deserve any more o' this."
"Ah, yer makin' too much outta this," her old man said. "Boy's cuttin' his teeth, establishin' hisself. You're the spittin' image a yer brother, kid, more like that crazy damn Terry every day." He laughed.
He thought it was a compliment.
Instinctively, as if I was smacking a mosquito, I lunged out and snatched him by his loose-skinned fifty-five-year-old throat.
"Stop that!" Mrs. Healy screamed, tripping as she hurried down the stairs, falling to her knees. Mr. Healy tried to pry my hands off but I had a vise grip on him. I was pulling him by the neck over his five-foot chain-link fence.
Mrs. Healy had gotten to her feet, her knees all scraped, and was slapping my arms. "Let him go! Stop it! Let him go!"
Mr. Healy was running out of fight, going purple and struggling less, when I turned to look in his wife's face. Then I heard her. Then I stopped.
Mrs. Healy wrapped her arms around her husband, hugging him, holding him up. I leaned into him, pointing, the tip of my index finger touching the tip of his needly nose. "Go to hell!" I screamed. I turned to go and saw a circle had gathered around me to watch. My neighbors.
I walked around the circle, sticking my finger in every face. "And go to hell. And go to hell. And go to hell," I said, to all the people who hadn't done anything to me. Southside. "Go to hell." Fat, flowered-dress Mrs. McMillan. "Go to hell." The impossibly ratlike, pointy-headed, wide-hipped, ten-year-old Mason triplets with their filthy freckled faces and too small clothes. "And you go to hell."
When I reached the steps of my own house, I dropped. I sat there on the bottom step, my legs stretched out into the sidewalk in front of me. The numbness from my head had spread, wending its way down and through me. I felt nothing everywhere. Did I just strangle somebody? Did a lifelong friend just crack my skull open?
Where was Sully? Who was Sully? How come he pulled out just before me and Toy got whacked?
Toy? Jesus, Toy. Did Toy make it?
The questions just rolled around in all that empty space way up there in my head. I couldn't answer them, couldn't get near them, couldn't hold one thought long enough to figure it out.
When I was in first grade I was out sick the day they took the class picture. They took my photo separately when I got better. The print came back a month later, an eight-by-ten, and everyone got one. There was everybody in my class huddled together, shoulder to shoulder, stacked in three rows. And there was me, a cutout, a small oval with my gap-toothed, crew-cut face, floating toward the upper right-hand corner, above and apart from the rest. The oval floating head.
That was exactly, exactly, how I felt here again.
Suddenly, Terry was standing in front of me, leering, taking me in in all my wonder, knowing everything by now of course.
"Fall down, little boy?" he chuckled.
I lifted my head. "I did," I said, almost as if this was a real conversation. "I fell in the forest, but nobody heard."
"Gee, that's a shame," he said, giving my head a little sideways shove as he passed me on the stairs.
"Well then, you did have a big day for yourself, didn't you?" my nurse said with a little smirk.
I had just explained to her what I knew about why I was there in the hospital with a concussion and a cracked sinus. It got harder for me to detail it, the further I got into the story, because things kept getting fuzzier. I remember little after seeing Terry on the porch. I think my father brought me in, yelling about what I did to the neighbors. That was the big thing, for the nurse—how I got myself all smashed up and choked a guy in completely isolated incidents on the same afternoon.
"Have they got you on Ritalin yet?" she asked.
"I'll mention it to your doctor," she said, winking.
"Thank you." I closed the bad eye so the good one could focus on her as she left. I was still trying to work it out when the nurse disappeared out the door and was replaced by ...
I rubbed my eye.
She was replaced by ...
I took the pills the nurse left me.
Evelyn. The Evelyn. My Evelyn. Heartless Devilyn Evelyn.
"You gotta be kidding me," I said.
"I might be," she answered. "Might be a hallucination. A medication thing. Or a conk-in-the-head thing. I wouldn't trust it if I were you."
"I won't," I said. I rolled over, pulled up the covers, and pretended to ignore her even though my blood was gushing so hard I was afraid it would come out all my seams. Thirty seconds into it, I sprang up in the bed, exhaling as if I were breaching from under the sea.
She remained motionless, leaning in the doorway, wearing a baseball cap. The blackness of her hair, the shiny satin of it, lay against the shock-white doorjamb, softening the room. "I heard the details," she said. "I also heard a rumor you're maybe not such an ass."
"I didn't say I believe it. Just that I heard I should come see for myself. So far I'm not seeing anything convincing."
"You've been talking to Toy. Is he all right? How is he? Where is he?"
"I don't know," she said.
"What do you mean, you don't know? Did you see the guy or didn't you?"
"No," she said, and stopped. She was going to make me work for this. She was going to make me be nice.
"Please," I said more respectfully. "What's going on?"
"I don't know. Toy just called me up—which was strange to begin with, because he doesn't do that—and asked me to come and have a look at you. Explained a little about the mission you were on when you prostrated yourself on my sidewalk, and then he said good-bye because the pay phone was clicking and he was out of change and after he hung up the operator was going to call him back and he was going to have to walk away with it ringing at him and he hated that."
"So where was he?"
"I don't know. He wasn't in school today, either. But he said to tell you hi. He's a weird guy. I like him a lot."
"He is," I echoed, looking away from Evelyn to stare out my window at the other half of the sterile hospital building across the way. "And I do too."
The two of us sort of hung there silently for a while. I continued to stare out across the courtyard, looking hard to see if there was another me way over in one of the matching windows of the other wing, staring back to see me seeing him seeing me. I never did believe in that parallel universe business, but at the moment, I don't know, it felt like it was there. Like I was out there, over there, or at least like part of me was.
"Look, I have to be going," Evelyn said, simultaneously bringing me back into the room and wrenching my heart. It dawned on me that I was blowing it, the grand, heroic, lying-in-the-hospital moment that girls are supposed to be crazy for. I wanted to get her to stay but in lieu of words I hyperventilated.
"You really were coming to my house, huh?" Her head was tilted way over to the side, still in disbelief.
I nodded proudly, dumbly.
"That's awfully sweet. Stupid and completely divorced from reality, but sweet anyway," she said, and reached into the bag slung over her shoulder. She pulled out two flowers. "I brought you a present, like you're supposed to when you visit somebody in the hospital. I brought this one, the lily, in case you were dead when I got here. And the yellow carnation in case you were better." She looked me over for a few seconds. Sighed a breathy sigh of indecision. "Here, take 'em both."
She placed the flowers on my chest, in front of my folded hands. Just like I really was a dead guy. She patted my hand and told me she'd see me around.
It didn't take much, did it? I smiled up at her like a baby, felt something warm and spikey expanding through my chest near where she touched me. Barely touched me. When she'd left, I quickly turned to try to catch a glimpse, a peek of the other guy just like me who, I was feeling sure now, was over there, staring out his window. I wanted to see how he looked now. But I couldn't find him, so I turned back and grabbed the hand mirror off the wheeled tray table beside the bed. I was going to see this, this happiness thing, at its peak, to see what it looked like.
That's not what it's supposed to look like, I know that much, I thought as I looked at my face. The part that's supposed to be flattened out, between my nose and my cheekbone, was all swelled up, as if my nose were not growing out of a regular contoured face but just stuck onto a big bumpy round surface like Mr. Potato Head's nose. My eye was half shut, the inside glistening with healthy shiny new blood, the outside black. A big letter C of slashes curved around from over my eyebrow, down along the side of my face, and hooking back in under the cheek. It did not, to me, look at all like me. I could not take my eyes off of it.
I buzzed the nurse. "My head's really hurting me bad now," I said. Then I looked back down and watched myself, or whoever's face that was, talk to her. "Could you get me something? I really need something." I felt very sorry for the wreck I watched in there. I would definitely have given him something.
"Well, you aren't due for anything for another three hours. All I can give you in the meantime is a couple of Valium. You want them?"
"I want them," I said. I watched my face say it, and with every syllable, with every second, that face seemed further away from me, seemed less me. It wasn't the first time I'd looked in a mirror and hadn't recognized myself. But it was the first time I wasn't sure the feeling would go away.
I didn't look at the nurse as she placed the tiny pills in my hand. There was something like a numbness, and like a supersensitivity in my palm at the same time as her nails lightly scratched it. The other painkillers were actually working just fine. She left. I took the Valium, sat back against the propped pillows, and stared some more.
"One punch," I marveled. "All this from one punch. Is my face that soft?"
Excerpted from Blood Relations by Chris Lynch. Copyright © 1996 Chris Lynch. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted March 28, 2003