Now here’s an ominous sign: man goes to hunker down on his preferred snoozin bench little past two in the a.m., half a bottle of rotgut keeping his insides snug, and before the first cock a-doodles, he wakes to a boy peering over him like the pale rider himself. Shoulda known then and there to say no siree, but I was taught it best to be an all-loving God in business as in life. I have paid and paid again for my munificence.
This was at my international headquarters, abandoned but for a couple mutts curled up beside the gazebo, flies tanning theyselves in the lamplight. Back in 2000, when that boy found me, I was crossing into Hidalgo County three, maybe four times a week. Locals called me El Payaso, and anyone who was seeking me out in that moon-lit plaza in Reynosa was looking for one thing.
“Texas, Our Texas! All hail the mighty state,” I burbled, still prone. Boy couldn’t have been more than fourteen years, but even in my bleary-eyed delirium twas apparent he was playacting the tough: sweat-hood up, chin jutting. “What you want, son?” I asked. That boy just stared me down from two paces back, like he was trying to determine if I was real or apparition.
In fairness, I should confess that whilst south of the border, my habit was to stay clowned up. Not my normal going-out look, but circus cosmetics are a little more science than art, and I like to take my time with the outlines: nice big ovals round the brows and under the eyes, little horns curling off the ends of my spout. “Don’t tell me you never seen a man in a romper before,” I said, sitting myself up.
Boy started to speak, hesitated. He was a small fellow, fists burrowed in the kangaroo pouch of his pullover. “You a coyote?” An amateur ruffian, this one, never sure if he was ending his words in a period or question mark.
“Kai-oh-tee? I look like a coyote?” I rubbed at my polka-dotted paunch, bit of the dyspepsia kicking in. “Use them peepers, son. No coyotes in the circus.”
Lucky Larry’s Clown Spectacular: Affordable birthday parties in English and Spanish from Texas to Tamaulipas!
“You’ll take me across?” he asked, accent thick as a water moccasin.
“Across?” I rose and began to circle him, nice and slow, my shoes squeaking against the cobblestones of the plaza. No fun sleeping in your rainbow laces, but forty-five years-old, five-foot-seven, one-sixty: you try stuffing your bunions each morning into red-and-blue sixteen-inchers with bulbous toes. “You DEA?”
He stared blankly.
Boy craned his neck to keep me in sight.
“DPS? FBI? CIA?”
He scrunched his face, confused. “I’m no one.”
“We all someone, I’m afraid.”
Whilst I scoured my deep pockets for some dip, that boy explained he’d been trying to get Texwards but didn’t have the money. Said he’d spent the last summer in Austin, needed to get back before the next summer. Said he had three-hundred dollars U.S. and word was The Clown would go for that.
“That’s what the competition saying these days, huh?” I leaned in to inspect him. “How old you anyway?”
“Liar,” I scoffed. “You ain’t close to sixteen. Fourteen, maybe. How stupid I look?” Spit some chaw on the cobblestones. “How you learn English?”
Boy shrugged. “Just learnt it.”
“Liar,” I said louder, coming in closer, our snouts almost touching, foam to flesh. He was a bumpy-skinned creature, little wisps of hair above his upper lip. “You don’t just learn nothing. Someone teaches. What’s your name, boy?”
He looked to those mutts like they might give him the right answer. “Juan,” he tried.
“Bullshit your name Juan. That’s a lie. You a liar. And how you get that money, assuming you actually got it?”
“It’s my money.”
“Liar!” I shouted and slapped my knee and grinned a grin beneath my painted one. Boy didn’t flinch. “That’s good son. We can make that work. Now,” I said, pointing to his jeans pocket, “Let’s see the skrilla.”
He took out three crumpled c-notes, returned ‘em where they came from.
“Funny little co-inky-dink,” I said, ambling back to my snoozin bench. “My brother’s up in Austin. Love of my life, my brother. Best man I know.”
Boy nodded, but I spect he didn’t understand. “You take me across, I gotta wear the paint?”
“Shit, son, won’t be any worse than the skin you got. We got a deal?”
Boy gave me one of those tough-guy nods, so slight it almost weren’t no nod at all, then moseyed off into the darkness real slow, like he had a fifty-pound weight between his legs. Adolescence a fun time, ain’t it?
“Clown car moves out ten tomorrow,” I called after him. “All three-hundred before I paint you up. And wash up beforehand, kapeesh? With a mug like yours, I’m gonna need to be Pablo fuckin Picasso to do this right.”
The idea was simple, see: No papers but wanna ditch that peso-an-hour at El Rey de hamburguesa to flip pink sludge in service to the American King? Smile wide and jump on in to Lucky Larry’s 1984 wood-paneled Plymouth Voyager of fantasy and fun.
Lucky Larry’s Clown Spectacular: Affordable birthday parties in English and Spanish from Texas to Tamaulipas! Even by my standards, pure genius.
None of this lips-so-chapped-you-don’t-got-‘em-anymore dying-across-the-desert kai-oh-tee nonsense with me. No, Lucky Larry provides you with proper documentation and a seatbelt all your own, only fifty-dollars extra for air conditioning from pick-up to drop-off, and I’ll throw in half-a-can of Fanta to be shared with your neighbor and a Slim Jim for good measure.
See, border crossing ain’t so complex long as you follow one simple rule: get that pigmentation out of your system, sister. BP sees so much as a hint of tanning oil darkening your sideboob and they’re on you like a roof rat to dog food. Pelt like marshmallow is to what we aspire. And you know the blanco-est species on God’s green don’tcha?
Step right up for the Greatest Show On Earth!
I mean, who’s to say that bright white little lady in the tri-color wig ain’t Sally M. Wilson of Alpine, T-X?
You, Agent Roberts? Go ahead, wake her up.
You can see those papers are valid . . . Brown eyes, four-foot-eleven . . .
. . . well, no sir, we didn’t wash it off ‘fore we left. That takes the magic out of it for the little ones, and besides, this is the professional stuff, heavy-duty, and you know the water down there . . .
Yes, Lucky Larry’s Clown Spectacular. Beaucoup bucks and a near-perfect batting average! The secret ingredient: my clowns clowned. Never know when a patrolman with a hornet in his helmet gonna want you to pull a quarter out from behind his ear or blow and twist the condom in his back pocket into a short dog. We’d practice entire afternoons, not rolling out till my zanies could handspring or headstand sure as any merry-andrew worthy of the name.
Course by the time I met that boy in oh-oh, whole country was tensing up. And after the September following, border patrol took it to a new level and I had to close up shop altogether. These days I’m back on the coast, cornering Galveston’s door-to-door cutlery market. But nothing’s brought me closer to success than the Clown Spectacular.
See, I was the big shit in Reynosa’s nappy before those narco thugs started angling to shut the big top down. Nasty fellows. In fact, just the day before I met that boy, I had an ugly encounter in that same plaza with the gilt-fanged representative of an organization-that-shall-not-be-named. Sat right down beside me and without even turning his neck, murmured that next time he saw a patron of mine clowned up, he’d chop that jester’s head square off with a machete, as a message to anyone else thinking bout joining my circus.
A lesser man might’ve hightailed it home then and there, but I wasn’t just providing for myself, see, for a portion of my profits were intended for my beleaguered twin brother, without whom I could not comfortably walk this Earth.
That’s the only reason I said yes to that boy. A few final pennies to drop into the collection jar, even if it meant dealing with a child drenched in the stank of pubescence!
Yes, I owed it to my duplicate to earn for him what little I could. A schizophrenic’s Mr. Ed Hooley. Pure of heart and troubled of mind, my brother. A hearer of sounds and seer of sights hidden from the rest of us. Would care for him myself, but a medical professional is not what the Lord made me. And Mama always said it ain’t about being together makes a family, it’s about looking out for each other from wherever we are.
She’s the one who taught us how to survive in this cruel world. Best rodeo clown ever come out of Galveston was Claudette Hooley. Woman could juggle five torches whilst Irish dancing atop a star-spangled barrel: hell, even the bulls couldn’t look away. On the circuit she was known as Johnny Fingers. Maybe some of those boys suspected Señor Fingers had a secret, but Mama, she was flat and wiry, knew how to tamp those orange curls down under her bald cap, and she brought in enough scratch for the overlords no one bothered fussing in the first place.
Well, almost no one.
Once, at five years, I barged in on her pissing and, acting the wise-ass, asked if she was man or woman. She didn’t even get up off the commode, just signaled me close and slapped me hard from her throne. “You got more or less than me down there?” she snarled, pointing at my crotch. When I whimpered more she said, “Yessir, and let that be a lesson. Don’t you ever take less when more is an option.”
Ed and me, we grew up on the circuit with her, which is how we mastered all manner of the performing arts: cloud-walking and unicycle, prat-falling and basic pickpocketry. Seven days a week before sun-up, Johnny Fingers could be found in the main arena, barking instructions as we rehearsed our two-man somersaults, smacking at our stilts till we could umbrella step from twelve foot high. Mama always told us when you’re poor, versatility’s a necessity. Ain’t no point in stealing a coconut unless you planning to drink the milk, eat the meat and halve the shell for a young girl’s brassiere.
Another Fingers-ism: know your strengths, which was why she taught me to throw a punch and Ed to evade one. Cowboys on the circuit called me Offense and him Defense, and more than one puffed-up 4-H-er lost his balance swinging at Ed only to make contact with my fist as he fell.
Even back then, Ed was different: blank-faced and literal-minded, a most sensitive soul, unlike his brother. Ed was a daydreamer and a dawdler, with a taste for the simple things, like a hot dog loaded with catsup or a moist Ho Ho on a cool autumn day. While I could leave no tent unscoured, was always checking out the pre-menstrual set at the broiler competition, he was content to watch steer-roping for hours, and in Room 212 at the Beachcomber, where we stayed during the off-season, Ed could entertain himself with little more than a Warner Brothers coloring book.
Twas only his sweet tooth which could lead my brother astray, resulting in our one persistent collaboration: the Hooley Switcheroo. On a weekday afternoon when ticket sales were slow, we’d repair to the nearest village green to scout out the local confectionery. Ed would loiter outside while I strutted in, stockpiling as many Walnettos and Flipsticks as my denims would allow. Then I’d dash out like a common thief, Ed lollygagging behind. Every time those bumpkin storekeepers would nab him, thinking they’d nabbed me, and every time they’d end up apologizing to my empty-pocketed doppelganger.
Later, Ed would scarf down his Abba Zabbas, clean out a Pixy Stick or two, but once the feasting subsided, he’d confess a guilty conscience. “Quit your brittle-brattle. We ever get caught, I’ll take the rap,” I always assured him, but he’d only calm after we’d swung by the main arena to offer a sacrifice to our Almighty. “That’s a nice haul, boys,” Mama would say, popping Razzles three a time. “A nice haul.”
Course if any of those candy-hawkers paid a lick of attention, they mighta noticed the difference between Ed and me carved right into our scruffs: a numeral 1 on my neck and a 2 on Ed’s, supplied by Mama’s cold steel bowie at the age of two-and-one-quarters. She’d carved a crooked zero into the top of her own sternum afterward. Always said this was what linked us, for without her one and two, she was nothing.
Miss Johnny Fingers. Our Mama was a good woman but cursed with the aching knowledge that she was destined for something greater than what she born into. Promised one day she was gonna open up a three-ring all her own and would bring us in to run it with her. Had the faculty and the flair, she said. Just needed the bacon. Two children in tow, well, once she’d taught us to survive, that was an expense she could no longer bear. Her parting words the final night she tucked us in: “You a man and you American. No excuses not to prosper.”
And thus, at the age of ten years, when my brother and I awoke at the Beachcomber to find ourselves alone but for the talents our Mama had bestowed upon us, I knew then that Ed was my responsibility.
Folks called us The Fighting Hooleys, This One and That One, Kind of Good and Mostly Evil.
Which brings me back to that boy . . .
We met at this itty-bitty dive bar mornin after he found me in the plaza. Place didn’t exactly scream happy hour, especially at ten a.m. on a Wednesday. Three grizzled old dogs in Texas tuxedos half-slept at the bar, enough dust on the counter I could’ve signed my name with my ring finger. A single string of white Christmas lights hung along the wall, only one bulb still flickering. Found the boy in the way-back, at the only table in the place, a Coke-stained plywood number next to a jukebox with its glass smashed.
He kept up the silent macho act from pancake to clown-white, legs spread, arms crossed, a master of the sulky shrug, the international sign of the puerile. Was especially surly after handing over the dinero, and who can blame him? Fourteen on your own at a dive in the red-light? I’d feign courage, too, lest I reveal myself the mark.
Tough guy or no, once I had the moolah secured under my corkscrew peruke, I insisted we imbibe, as I’ve found it best if everyone’s a smidge loosey-goosey before the big show. Boy examined the inside of that first bottle like there might be a soupcon of cyanide in there, but once we got going . . .
“Let’s have some real talk, grumpkin,” I said, my paintbrush slathered in ruby. We was halfway to Bozo and two brews in. “Lot of tittle-tattle about Lucky Larry among my rivals. He not a professional because he ain’t affiliated and this prevarication and that, so I know why you suspicious. But truth is, here we are and soon,” I pointed skywards, indicating north, “There you’ll be. And hell,” I added, passing him my compact mirror, “This artistry.” Couldn’t see a speck of burnt umber on him: high-arched ebony eyebrows and a devilish incarnadine grin. “So what gives, huh? Running from the cartel? Po-lee-see-uh? A&B? B&E? DUI? D&D?”
Boy brought the mirror real close to his face. “I’m going for my girlfriend.”
“Isabel,” said the boy.
“You kill her or somethin?”
From the same pocket he’d taken the greenbacks, he pulled out one of those wallet-sized photographs. She was a strumpet of some possibility, I admit: wavy-hair past her shoulders, just the teensiest hint of a smile, like she thought the whole arrangement a bit silly but knew she looked fine. “How old this one?”
“Sweet sixteen! Man after my own heart. Austin gal?”
Boy gave his tough-guy nod, finished his drink.
“Dos más!” I called to the barkeep, a grim-faced man with jowls like the dewlap of a heifer. From my doctor’s case, I procured my best persimmon hairpiece. “One-hundred-percent yak hair. Retails for two-fifty.” I stood up and moved around him barber-style, ready to disguise that buzz-cut pate. “So let’s hear it.”
Every summer, or so the boy claimed, he’d leave his grandpappy in Tampico for Austin where he stayed with his auntie in a mobile park. Last summer, that girl moves into the double-wide next door. Three months, boy says, this duo gallivanted about town, she teaching him Americanese and, if I had to guess, the intricacies of touch. Summer ends, boy goes back to his grandpappy, and for seven months Romeo and Hoo-lee-etta exchange mail. Then old abuelo drops the bomb that our protagonist won’t be returning to Tejas this summer forthcoming, and boy takes matters into his own hands. The dénouement to this tale o’woe: “I’m gonna marry her someday. I’m gonna make her my wife.”
“Tampico?” I said, returning to my seat. “You telling me you voyaged three-hundred miles north on your lonesome, stole a purseful of shekels from someone who’s undoubtedly gonna want ‘em back and now you trampling across international borders with me all so you can visit your three-months girlfriend?”
“I told you,” boy said softly. “It’s my money.”
“Fuck, son.” Downed another brew. “You are fourteen.” One of the drunks had roused from his siesta and was gaping at us. I winked to confirm for him he wasn’t suffering a hallucination, watched as he twisted himself back toward the bar.
“Thing is,” boy said, slurring a little. “I got a plan. I’m a boxer. Good, too.” Soft-jabbed the air. Said he was gonna train in Austin, get himself a belt, settle down . . .
I told that boy I didn’t see how he was affording a gym subscription on his limited budget, and you know what he tells me? Says last summer he worked out of this establishment called Tucker’s Boxing Gym, where the proprietor would train certain individuals in exchange for them cleaning the mirrors or wrapping folks’ hands. Said one time, when he lost his house key when his auntie was out of town, Tucker even let him sleep in a room at the back. “Gonna make me a champion someday.”
“That so?” I said. “Sounds like quite a place. Have to check it out sometime. And what name should I be looking for on that marquee outside the Astrodome? Juan, right?”
Boy clinked his empty against mine. “Alexis,” he said. “Cepeda.”
“Cepeda, huh? You was my kid, Cepeda, we’d have a real sit-down to discuss your situational awareness.” I reached into my jumper pocket, took out the passport. “But you’re not my kid and you’re not Alexis Cepeda.” I tossed it to him. “Nathaniel Rothstein,” I said. “Born in Newton, Mass. January 17th, 1982. Moved to Texas with Dr. and Mrs. Rothstein a decade later. Currently a student at Lucky Larry’s Clown Academy and a fine addition to the Dallas Jewry.”
“Rothstein?” repeated Cepeda, examining the passport.
“That’s you.” I saluted. “Shalom, cabrón. So how you feel about heights?”
Back room of a boxing gym: I’d be lyin if I said the idea didn’t stick in my cerebrum as a possibility for Mr. Ed Hooley. Would be another couple years after I met that boy ‘fore I’d go and see Tucker’s myself, but sounded like a place my simple twin brother might be at ease, for he knew a little something about the sweet science.
It was in Sinton where we perfected the act, at a rowdy roadhouse called Monk’s Saloon. This was back in ’66, just before our eleventh birthday. Ed and me, we’d been traversing the coast for weeks, using the gifts Mama gave us to put meals in our bellies: thimblerig outside North Beach in Corpus, coin smack and other small cons in Aransas Pass, all manner of misdemeanor in Texas City.
That night in Sinton, it was cold and we were hungry, so I told Ed to wait out in the parking lot and snuck inside, hoping to find me a yokel of the inebriated variety whose money clip might somehow end up in my breeches. “You be careful,” Ed chirped, left eye twitching, as it did when he was nervous. I left him with his crayon book, Indian-style against the bloated bumper of a Chevy pick-up.
Inside twas a regular charivari: dance floor crowded with two-steppers, drunkards packed tight against a long bartop, the sickly-sweet smell of cigarette smoke and whisky breath, hot piss and peanuts. All would’ve gone smoothly if I’d found a mark right off the bat, but I had to feel the place out some, and Ed got scared outside, come in to find me.
Later, Ed would tell me that man’s wallet was practically falling out his back pocket. “I had to try,” he would declare, but Ed was too slow, and no sooner had he tempted to make our money for the night than I heard my brother yelp and turned to see him by the bar, in the grips of an overalled, ruddy-cheeked brute to this day I swear was not fully human. He was a six-foot swamp thing, holding my brother above his head like an infant he was thinking ‘bout eating.
A crowd had formed around them by the time I made it over from the dance floor. “You let go of him,” I called, and before that man knew what was happening I’d climbed up on a bar stool and leapt toward him, left-hooking him in the ear. He dropped Ed and we ran as the crowd cheered, which made me think there was money to be had from this particular attraction.
We developed something of a reputation after that. Folks called us The Fighting Hooleys, This One and That One, Kind of Good and Mostly Evil. We worked every ramshackle beer joint, dingy gin mill, stinky taproom and sticky public house from Brownsville to Beaumont, Brazoria County in between. Late in the evening, usually when the mean blood alcohol level was approaching the mean IQ, I’d climb atop the counter and announce we had a presentation the likes of which none of those people had ever seen. Then I’d give Ed a helping hand up and we’d spar a round or two, all choreographed, me jabbing and Ed ducking past smoking ashtrays and around empty bottles, every good ol’ boy and their good ol’ gals tossing coins our way in appreciation. Sometimes, I knocked Ed a few on accident. It was no matter. Truth was, he didn’t have much brains to lose in the first place.
Course, all this was just a warm-up, for next Ed would clear his tiny throat and declare that his brother Larry was the toughest ’leven-year-old this side of the Rio Grande, and any man who thought he could withstand the child’s punch ought line up and try his luck.
Here’s a secret: any grown man drunk enough to think this a good idea is drunk enough to get punched out by an eleven-year-old. They’d come for me, smirking and snarling, “Gimme all you got boy,” and I’d throw my right with my full strength straight at their jaws. Some would bust out laughing, caught off guard by my velocity, others would tend to their wounds with cold bottles, but they’d return again and again, thirsty for flesh against their numbness, punched and punched again until the lot of ‘em passed out, heads against bartops or stomachs-down on tacky floors.
After I got him wigged and rompered, we went out to the alley behind the bar, where I’d left the clown car
Ed would pluck their wallets from the sleeping ones as I distracted the others—
strutting around the counter, charming the womenfolk as I do—and then we’d scram, off to the next hamlet before those saps knew what hit ‘em.
Oh, what a glorious time! Tenting on the beach, cabbage in our pockets, every supper a smorgasbord of Heinz Baked Beans and fresh-stole Lemonheads . . .
We coulda gone that way forever, Ed and I, if not for the changing body times. Hit us both at the dawn of our twelfth year: deepening our voices, stretching our appendages, stealing our act. Boy hits a man, it’s entertainment. Man hits a man, well, that’s just a fight.
For me, maturation meant fresh wonders daily: new associates who understood wampum and women; the pulsing finish to a marked-down tryst with a competent fellatrix, her teeth lost to the scourge of amphetamines (God be praised!); my body suddenly as greedy as my ever-needy heart.
But the change changed Ed Hooley in ways unanticipated and malign. That eye started twitching as never before, and though one would never describe my brother as clack or magpie, his word-faucet slowed from tepid trickle to irregular drip. He turned somber and suspicious, and on occasion I would find him walking the coastline, murmuring to souls unseen.
In our trade, shyness and capriciousness lead only to lost lucre, and a pauperized Larry Hooley would do good to no one, my beloved twin most specially of all.
And so, early one June morning, on a quiet patch of beach near Baytown, I taught Ed Hooley how to throw a punch. “Don’t need to know,” he kept muttering until I shoved him to the sand, and, once he rose, shoved him again. He swung a wild and most ineffective blow in my direction, and using this maneuver as our rough draft, we set about revision, Ed smacking at my tummy and thumping at my gourd, each smash ever so sharper, little bit more precise.
We went about this work in silence but for the low growl that emanated from somewhere deep inside my brother each time he came for me. After an hour, I could announce any limb or organ and Ed could make contact there. At the ninety-minute mark he broke my nose.
“Sorry Larry,” he mumbled, his first words since I’d thrust him to the ground, for Ed was not accustomed to violence inflicted on him by his other half.
“Again,” I said, and though Ed wavered, he knew I would not budge until he followed my command, and threw again, a power-right, and again, and again, the thin stream dripping from my beak-holes strengthening into an epic gush, until my chin and chest were covered in the sanguine meat-juice of a broken Hooley.
Seeing what he’d done to me, Ed began to cry. I’m not too much the man to admit I cried, too. Cried for my mama. Cried for my brother. Cried for what I knew I had to do.
“Pull yourself together now,” I said, as much to myself as to Ed. I tried to remember what my mama always taught us: it ain’t about being together makes a family. “Say, here’s an idea,” I told him then, wiping my nose with the back of my sleeve. “In honor of your newfound talents, how’s about a Hooley Switcheroo?”
We set out on foot toward Sadie’s Candy Haven downtown, the gleaming jars of jelly beans and Jawbreakers no doubt etched into Ed’s mind. So transfixed was he by this prospect that my brother did not think to wash the dried blood from his fists, nor did he notice, a mile before we arrived, when I dropped a single Big Hunk chocolate bar into the back pocket of his dungarees.
And when he was apprehended, I did not turn back, for though I wanted Ed at my side, wanted it with all my soul, I knew he’d be better off if I watched over him from afar. I did not turn back till I was all the way to the city of La Porte, eleven miles south, observing the seagulls as they made their rounds above Tabbs Bay.
It was there I vowed that, best I could, I would keep eyes on Ed from a distance, and every nickel I netted, every penny I pilfered, would one day go to ensuring my dear brother never went wanting for nothing again . . .
Now here’s some hard truth: Every now and again turns out that blue-tongued skink they sellin at the exotic pet shop ain’t nothing more than a common lizard force-sucked a grape lolly.
Yes, for all that bluster, the newly minted Rothstein proved himself to be a downright feeler once perfused with ale. It was plans, plans, plans after brewski numero seis. He was gonna move that girl to a McMansion in the suburbs where they could re-watch his pugilistic triumphs on a big-screen teevee. Six kids, seven kids, maybe I’ll call ‘em all Alexis he said, just like George Foreman. “An Alexis Cepeda Grill,” he said, and laughed his sloppy laugh.
Boy was pickled, plastered, hammered, tight. And, sorry for me, turned out a besotted Rothstein lost the ability to ever once shut the fuck up.
After I got him wigged and rompered, we went out to the alley behind the bar, where I’d left the clown car, to find a talent for the child. I opened up the back of the van as he leaned against its side yammering, no foreseeable terminus to his boozy harangue. Trunk was teeming with all manner of whangdoodle: metal horns and giant toothbrushes, putty eggs hidden in the ductile be-hinds of rubber chickens.
“In Texas,” Rothstein declared, “everyone’s gonna know my name.”
“You the big man, huh?” I said, sorting through a Piggly Wiggly bag of squirt flowers. I stepped over to face the boy. “Tell me now, honest. Where’d you get that money?”
Rothstein stifled a burp. “Washing dishes,” he said, at a steakhouse off the interstate last summer. Three-hundred dollars all he had to his name. “Worth it,” he mumbled, “cause I’ll see Isabel, you’ll see your brother, everyone’ll be happy.” He put his paw on my shoulder like we was old pals. “Has it been long? Since you seen him?”
That’s when I noticed it: a sign from the Heavens. The paint wasn’t settling on that boy like it should. It was clumpy round the forehead, too thick atop the ears. He’d been picking at his chin and one of those pimples had popped, a squirt of dark blood now dry on his otherwise-gluelike exterior. Rothstein looked like a clown all right, but not the kind we were going for.
“What you just say?”
“Just asked if it had been a long time,” said Rothstein. “Since you’d seen him.”
“What business that of yours?”
“Not my business. I was just—”
“I’ll see him this time. Taking you. That’s when I’ll see him.”
“That’s all I was asking.”
“Been providing for my brother my whole life. What kind of person would I be otherwise?”
“Will I see my brother? Yessir, what in the hell kind of person would I be?”
“Not much of one, I guess.” Rothstein laughed then, a short little smirk of a laugh, a laugh I didn’t much care for. “I gotta piss.”
What was so funny, I wondered, about a lifetime spent raising funds for my beloved twin? Did he think he would’ve acted differently had he to care for a troubled child as a child? Did he think his situation—trying to prance cross countries for some three-months girlfriend—was akin to mine?
Boy piddled his fiddle, and when he turned ‘round he found me leaning against the clown car, holding an old pair of six-foot cloudwalkers upright betwixt my legs.
“You want me to wear those?” he asked, uncertainly.
“You talking the big man, figured you might like the height.” Told Rothstein to sit on the bumper. “Aluminum adjustables, son. Step on in.”
“Maybe I can do something else?” he suggested as I buckled him into the stilts, leaning them at a diagonal against the ground.
I told him to use the vehicle for leverage, gave him a helping shove. Boy almost half-mooned right into the ground, would’ve too if I didn’t grab those long legs to keep him from toppling. “Careful now,” I said, releasing the stilts so the boy could stand on his own.
“I don’t think I can walk,” Rothstein called, still wobbly. Boy was too high to brace himself against the van.
“Sure you can,” I said, slamming the back door to the van. “Try taking a step now.”
Boy started to lift his leg, shuddered. He yelped and regained balance.
Who’d old Rothstein think I was, anyway? Offering three-hundred for a job worth thousands. Some mark he could con into smuggling on the cheap? “C’mon now: Take a step.”
He wasn’t even in his right head if you thought about it. Hundreds of miles, life savings, all for some girl he hardly knew.
Above, the boy stood paralyzed.
“I thought you were the big man, Rothstein. What kind of big man can’t walk the sky?”
“Just get me down,” said Rothstein. “For real, just get me down.”
And to compare his situation to what Ed and me had, to question my loyalty to my own flesh-and-blood? He acted as if it was always so easy, running toward the ones we love.
It was then I knew that enduring hours more under the forever-raised eyebrows of the child-clown I could not abide. If he was above it all, he could stay above it all. I’d gotten what I came for.
“You want down?” I called. “You so wise and good, Rothstein, I’m sure you’ll find a way.” I got my driving keys from my romper, headed toward the van.
Rothstein tried to move again and faltered, arms windmilling to keep himself afloat. “Where you going?” he yelled, voice cracking. “You can’t leave me here. You got my money. My money!”
That boy called and called but El Payaso was no longer listening. In the van, I ditched the wig, uncrumpled the cash and drove off. Sometimes, the only choice you got is to leave.