They were born ten months apart. Their mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and their father was a capricious and powerful man with appetites like a toddler. He wanted their mother, he had her, he broke her, and he cast her aside. He stayed for a year and left her with two babies and a bad brain.
The boys were never apart, from the earliest they were inseparable. They slept in the same bed, ate from the same plate, fought the same fights. They were always fighting because of the things people said about their mother, which only hurt because they knew they were true.
They lived in a big city in a big world, but they never ventured beyond their neighborhood, beyond the ten blocks all around their building. But they were kings there, and they knew it. They were hard and lean and fierce, and they walked around their town with a loose, easy swaggering strut. They were small for their age because their beautiful mother was a petite and delicate creature. She gave them all of her elegance, but none of her frailty.
In elementary school, Gus had tried to stay back, so that he and Ray would be in the same grade. But Ray was held back, too. So they weren’t together in the same class, but they were together in being considered failures. When they hit their teenage years they began to change, one from the other, and this scared them, though they would never have told you so, because they’d never admit to being scared of anything.
In tenth grade Gus had a new teacher. He despised him at first, because he was bumbling and awkward. He was a nice man, and there’s nothing to respect in that. He was kind and quiet. He was kind even to the bad kids, the mean kids, the kids that were mean to him, and this made Gus almost hate him. One afternoon, towards the end of the school year, this new teacher was in charge of detention. Gus went along after school as he was told, for punching a kid in the cafeteria. The kid had swiped his milk and said something about his mom and milk and Gus, and he’d heard it before, of course, but he couldn’t help it, it made him angry every time.
So he sat at his desk in the detention room, and he knew all the kids there, it was always the same kids, but the teacher was different, this new English teacher that Gus despised. The teacher seemed apologetic, he seemed sorry to keep all the kids there, and what was that? What was that but a sign of deplorable weakness. He tried to talk to the kids—he tried to talk to them about their lives, when everybody knew a detention teacher was supposed to keep his head down and growl and maybe throw something, if it came to that. But this guy tried talking and Gus could hear people laughing at him. And then the guy stopped trying to talk; he went to try opening the window. But nobody opened the windows in this old school. They acted as if fresh air would drive the kids wild, or maybe the kids would all rush in a mass, to jump out the windows, if they were opened. But this guy—he tried to open the window, which was on a rope with a weight on it. The rope was frayed, the weight was heavy, and the window crashed onto his fingers. Everybody laughed. The teacher stood with his back to them. They expected an explosion, and they got a joke. A mild joke, a dumb joke. Everybody laughed at the teacher, not the joke. Gus’ heart hurt.
Ray liked to watch television through the windows of a furniture store. He liked the commercials, where everything was perfect and every kid had a sister a brother a father a mother and a dog. And they all looked happy, the damnblasted bastards. He liked to watch the boxing, standing out here. With no sound, it was just movement. And it felt perfect to him, the most perfect thing in the world. The guy that owned the store was an okay guy, with white hair and thick glasses, so skinny he looked like was caving in on himself. He yelled at Ray and pretended to chase him away like Ray was a rat or a pigeon, but they both knew Ray wasn’t going anywhere. He just stood, hands in pockets, easy and cool. And sometimes the guy would stand with him, in the evenings, when it was darkening and cool on the sidewalk, because he liked the boxing with no sound, too. And he liked his store from the outside, warm and full of life, like someone else’s living room. They never talked, but they stood on the sidewalk, hands in pockets.
In English class the stupid teacher had his fingers wound round with gauze. It was a mess. Gus sat and thought about this, and wondered if maybe it was a mess because the teacher had to do it all by himself, on his right hand, and he was right-handed. He wasn’t thinking about the class, he was thinking about the teacher’s fingers, red and raw under the bandages. He looked at the teacher’s face when some other kid was reading something, he didn’t know what, and the teacher looked tired, like he’d been up all night with sore fingers. Gus thought about how hard it was to sleep when you’re sore from a fight, and you can feel all your anger and shame and worry throbbing in your wound. The teacher looked up, straight at Gus, and he smiled. Gus felt his heart race, which he didn’t expect and didn’t like, and he looked down at the swarm of words in front of him, making sense of nothing.
On his way to school, Ray decided not to go. In June it always felt like such a waste of time. Even first thing the day was heating up, and a block out of his house he was sweating. He told Gus he was going down to swim in the river; sure he’d fall in step, without a thought and come along with him. But the idiot said, “Naw, naw, man, I’m going to school.” Ray shrugged and walked off, but he felt almost angry.
He never made it to the river, because he passed the furniture store, and saw the cool grey light of the televisions, like moonlight in the morning. He saw a guy with a funny haircut reading aloud from a storybook. Even with the sound down, Ray liked it. He couldn’t read too well himself, only a few words, but Gus read to him sometimes from a comic book, and he liked that. He stood and watched the man turn pages, and then some puppets came on, and it made no sense, and it was so strange it made Ray angry. And that’s when he realized the guy wasn’t there. Usually this time of day he’d be shuffling around opening things up, Ray knew that. But not today. So Ray did something he’d never done before; he went into the store, with a ringing of bells and some stale air that smelled like cheap varnish and cheap upholstery. Even in here, the TVs were quiet. He’d always wondered about that. The place was cluttered but empty of people, and you could hear a fan whirring somewhere, whirring and clicking. Ray walked in cautiously, his hands formed into fists. But he was stopped by a sofa. A long, clean, sofa covered in aqua vinyl. He sat down, and it was so new and crisp it made a small squeak. It was smooth and shiny, and he’d never seen anything like it. They’d never had nice furniture, and this was new, this was fine. He sat for a minute, feeling cool.
He thought the old guy was dead. He found him in a small room sitting in a big green chair with his head on his chest. The room was full of a powerful smell—off, but not bad, and very familiar. Ray yelled, “no!” The man turned around and squinted at him, not dead at all. Ray felt foolish for caring, which made him angry, so he said, “Aw, you dumb fuck.” The man didn’t seem to notice or care. He went right on peeling hard-boiled eggs. He peeled one until it was perfect and clean, and then he set it on a plate. He put another egg, whole, in his fist and squeezed to crack the shell, and then he peeled each piece, dropping them in a dirty paper cup. He put this egg on the plate, too, and then he shook salt on them from a pretty saltshaker, all crystal and silver. He handed an egg to Ray, and Ray had a memory of eating these when his mother made them, long ago. He sat by the old guy for a while, and then he went out and fell asleep on one of the beds in the store. He slept hard, and he had a dream of a bird flying from a flood.
The teacher had a garden in some old dirty yard in an allotment. He invited the whole class to go after school. Gus wasn’t going to go. He pretended to be headed somewhere else, he sauntered by. He acted surprised to see the teacher. The teacher saw Gus but he didn’t say anything. If he’d said something, if he’d been glad to see Gus, Gus would probably have had to leave, but he didn’t. Instead he cursed and scowled. He was trying to tie some vine to some stake of wood, but he was having a hell of a time because of his crushed fingers. Gus went in at a gate of wire and wood, and he tied the piece of twine with his quick clever fingers. He stood and looked around. He’d never seen anything like it; he’d never seen anything so green. It even smelled green—not pretty like flowers, but sharp and strong and fierce. The smell made him hungry. He felt stupid not knowing what to do, so he kneeled by the teacher and pulled weeds. He forgot about everything but the weeds and the wet dirt and the small bugs running from his fingers. After a time, he couldn’t have said how long, he stood, and felt a rush of blood to his head. In a daze he saw a bright yellow and black bird, tiny, flying away with a graceful swooping flight. He nearly fell over, and he saw the teacher laughing at the look on his face. But he couldn’t be angry, because it wasn’t a mean laugh.
Gus walked away, sweating and sore, thinking. When he walked by the furniture store, he found Ray, who yawned and looked crumpled. Without talking they went down to the river. They stripped to their boxers and jumped in. Ray pretended to drown Gus, like he always did. He looped a wiry arm around Gus’ neck and pulled him down. For once Gus didn’t fight back. He felt heavy, he was so full of thoughts, and they sank down together, strong skinny arms entwined, they sank down down in the dirty water.