Dino drives up to the microphone and says, “Yes, please, could I have two bacon cheeseburgers, two fries, and two Diet Cokes?”
At the second window, the usual guy with the green Mohawk hands him his paper bags. “What’s up, my man?” He says, like always.
Dino’s rusty Jeep Cherokee coasts a few blocks down the wide avenue, and he sneaks a hand into the bag to grab two French fries. He keeps his eyes on the road, watching the same row of one-story houses crawl past. By the time he finishes chewing, he pulls into Lanzo’s little driveway.
On the walkway, Dino waves his hand in front of his face, but he’s used to the bees that hover and dart around the house. With so many ceramic pots, so many spider plants, so many flowerbeds and blossoming cacti, the house attracts a lot of bugs, especially honeybees. The front porch is a forest of hedges, leaves, fronds, spines, and petals. From the street, you can’t even see the front door through all the greenery. Their father calls this place la selva.
Dino takes a long breath, just like he does three times a week. He slides his spare key into the door, and pushes into the living room.
There’s his brother. He sits on the couch. Lanzo, alone, staring at the TV. But the TV is off, because it’s never on. The lights are also off. The old furniture is even dustier and more cluttered than last time. Lanzo is wrapped in an afghan, leaning against the couch’s armrest.
“Hey, bro,” Dino says.
Lanzo nods back, but their eyes don’t meet.
Lanzo peels back the paper and nibbles at his burger. After all those weeks in the hospital, all the months of physical therapy, all the family talk, all the balloons and get-well cards and welcome home parties, Lanzo can finally eat the burger on his own. One by one, he draws fries out of the cardboard box with trembling fingers. When he drops a fry on the old rug, he blinks at it, confused. But after a while he wipes his mouth with a napkin. He sucks soda through a straw, because he finally can.
Dino says, “Jocelyn, you remember her?” He waits a second and says, “She used to date Rico, back in junior year? Anyway, she says hello. Saw her at the Safeway.”
Lanzo nods. This is their ritual. Dino lets silences pass, then he gives Lanzo some news—tidbits from family and friends, gossip from the neighborhood—and on a good day, Lanzo wobbles his head. A sign that he’s heard. Deep inside that broken skull, a part of him understands Dino’s words. Somewhere, Lanzo is still his brother, the certified master gardener, the home-brewer, the guy who always wins at ping-pong.
Time passes, and Dino empties his own mind. He chews and swallows, licks his lips, and belches. Mostly he just sits and lets his eyes drift around the almost-empty room. It’s like a dream, this time he spends at Lonzo’s. His thoughts coast along. This is just how it is. Todo es así y nada más.
Dino crumples the paper bag and says, “Okay, bro, you wanna take a dip?”
Lanzo nods again. Dino lifts him off the sofa. One brother leans against the other, through the hall, into the bedroom. Dino strips off his brother’s T-shirt and athletic shorts, then he helps him into swim trunks. They toddle outside to the little in-ground pool.
Step by concrete step, Dino eases Lanzo into the water. He floats on top of Dino’s forearms, and his hairy legs stretch out a little as they drift. Lanzo lies on the water’s skin, gazing at the plain blue sky.
“That feels good, huh?” Dino says, in the unthinking way he always says it. “Just like that baby pool we used to have. The one with all the polka dots. You remember?”
Lanzo’s lips change shape. It could be a wince. But Dino pretends it’s a smile.
* * *
Jazmin comes out of the house with two glasses of iced tea and says, “Hey, I was thinking.”
Dino sits in a lawn chair. He’s staring at nothing. He takes the iced tea from his wife, which is full to the brim, and he slurps off the top so it doesn’t spill. Jazmin sits down across from him at the milky glass table. She runs fingers through her thick black hair and adjusts a bra strap.
“What’s up?” Dino says.
“What do you want for your birthday?”
Everything changes in that moment. Dino snaps out of his trance. The words shock their way through him. Suddenly he senses the sweltering Arizona heat on his skin. Color comes back to the world. He feels his own body, his heartbeat, his breaths. He feels the crick in his neck, the many aches in his big shoulders. He realizes he’s slouching into his plastic seat. He feels the weight of his cell phone in the pocket of his cargo shorts. But most of all, he feels the loss of time. It’s been a year, he thinks. Holy shit, it’s been a whole fucking year.
“Oh,” Dino murmurs. “That’s coming up, isn’t it?”
“You want anything special?” asks Jazmin, sipping tea. She digs out her little black box and latches her teeth onto a clove cigarette. As the smoke curls in the dry air, Dino smells its tang. He sees the slight sway of the palm trees beyond the chain-link fence. He hears the electric saw running in a garage a few houses down. He notices the passenger jet cutting across the sky. Twelve months have passed. Poof! A year is gone! His birthday’s coming up, which is also Lanzo’s birthday. They’re still alive. They’re still here. Does he want anything special? How will they celebrate, after all these numbing months? How can they even celebrate, if Lanzo can’t talk, can’t even leave the couch on his own? Where did all this time go?
“Not sure,” is all Dino says. “Let me think about it.”
* * *
Dino leans against his shopping cart. He stares at his pile of stuff—new drill bits, a packet of batteries, a floor mat for his car, and a net full of avocados. Things that don’t belong together. They’re not worth all this waiting in line. He wishes this was his regular Wal-Mart, where he knows people. His own Wal-Mart is smaller, more familiar. He doesn’t understand the point of a Super Wal-Mart. He feels lost among the endless aisles. He stares at the back of strangers’ heads. The line is a loose bunch of people and carts. The ceiling looks like a corrugated metal sky. But this is the closest store to Lanzo’s house. And tomorrow Jazmin will need the car, so.
Dino stiffens. He turns to see a man approaching—a tall man, fit, shaved head, unbuttoned Hawaiian T-shirt. The man walks fast in his white high-top shoes. His arms spread out. His bright smile overwhelms Dino. Before he can speak, the stranger launches himself into Dino’s chest and claps him on the back with a big hand.
“What’s up, my man? How you been?” The man clenches Dino’s shoulder with his strong fingers and leans in close. “You doing all right? We all heard about the accident. Everything cool? You look good, man!”
Dino puckers his lips, but a long second passed before he gargles, “I’m—I’m not Lanzo.”
The man sniffs. He flashes bright teeth. His head meanders from side to side. “What you talking about? How hard you hit your head, coz?”
“No.” Dino swallows dryly. “Lanzo’s my brother.” He claps a hand on his own chest. “We’re twins.”
“You’re shitting me,” the stranger says. “Wait—is your name Reno?”
“Daaaamn!” The man cries, hopping straight up, arms clenched against his side. “Yo, he’s always talking about you. I didn’t know y’all was twins! Man, I’m Rudy.” He throws out a hand and they shake. “I’m at the greenhouse.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dino mumbles.
“I could’ve swore you was Lanzo!” Rudy cried. “Same face, same everything.”
“Yeah. Well. Twins.”
“You said twins,” the man echoes nicely. “You ain’t lying. So what’s his story? How’s he doing?”
Dino feels like he’s underwater. Pressure builds around his temples; his jaw hardens. His lungs collapse inside his chest, and he can’t suck in enough breath to speak. He touches the handle of his shopping cart and edges it closer to the customer ahead of him, because at first this seems natural, then not.
“He’s—he’s not too good.”
The words sicken him. But Rudy’s face is worse—the way his smile fades. The way his eyes go flat. The way he takes a few steps back. The way he squeezes Dino’s forearm. The way he nods, like they’re talking about someone already gone. Something Rudy’s heard is now confirmed. A rumor is now true. All the hope of seeing Lanzo—alive and walking around, recovered, happy, going through the regular motions like always—fizzles into the stale Wal-Mart air. Lanzo isn’t too good. And now everyone will know it, including their mutual work buddies at the plant store. News will spread. Beyond the family. Past the phone trees and email chains. Statuses and tweets will blow up across the city. A second wave of news will pass through all those other people, tearing the scars wide open. They’ll know—the reason he hasn’t come back to work, why he never calls, the awful truth of his bullshit new life.
“But he’s getting better,” Dino chokes out. “Every day.”
“That’s good, man.” Murmurs Rudy, who obviously doesn’t believe him. Rudy bounces on his feet. He wants to leave Dino to his denial. He smiles in that upside-down way, the way that men send good vibes to other men in pain. “We’re praying for him. All of us.”
Robert Isenberg is a writer, filmmaker, and stage performer. He has written about fine art for such diverse publications as the Pittsburgh City Paper, the Phoenix New Times, and The Tico Times of Costa Rica. His latest books are The Green Season, about his two years as a journalist in Central America, and The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermilion, a collection of pulp adventure stories. Visit him at robertisenberg.net.