My brother has a prostitute living with us. She came home with him one night and never left. I don’t know her name, but there are a number of her traits I have picked up on. First off, she steals. She sneaks into my bathroom at night to steal toilet paper—uses the whole damn roll. She leaves a trail of puddles on the floor and counter as evidence. Every time she washes her hands she leaves puddles. I can’t step into the kitchen without wearing galoshes. And the new roll of paper towels I just set out—gone.
She claims she’s a germaphobe. I don’t believe her. She won’t kiss friends or new acquaintances on the cheek like normal people in Miami. Won’t even shake hands. Claims she can’t risk the germs. But when I bumped into my brother and her at that Jah Cure concert two weeks ago, she was on her way to the Port-O-Potty. What kind of germaphobe uses a Port-O-Potty? My girlfriend, Jelly, pointed this out to me.
“And where’s her hand-sanitizer?” she asked me. “Where’s the Purell?”
On top of being a liar and a thief, she’s racist. At the concert, she looked uncomfortable being around so many black people. She didn’t dance or grind on my brother like your average party-girl would. Just stood there gripping her purse like it was the last banana at Monkey Jungle. Plus, one day last week, I overheard her telling my brother about some guy who’d harassed her.
“He called me a white-trash slut. So I said, ‘What’s that, nigger? I can’t hear you, nigger.’”
My brother found this funny. He laughed, anyway. Her recounting of the story echoed down the hall and out into the living room. I felt abruptly aware of my own blackness the moment I heard her say it. My brother, on the other hand—he’s not black, he’s West Indian.
His waist-length dreads and just-lighter-than-a-brown-paper-bag skin-tone make him look like one of the Marleys. Or so he enjoys being told. He sings “Three Little Birds” on Karaoke Thursdays at The Old Cutler Sports Bar three blocks over. The regulars buy him pitchers of Budweiser. He’s a staple there. It’s where he met his prostitute.
They came barreling in that first night, shit-faced, shouting as if they were still at the bar. Jelly was in bed with me, lying still, but I knew she’d woken when I had.
The first words I made out from this tart: “When I got my tits done?” She inflected every declarative into a question. Like a Jeopardy contestant. Like one who’d just been punched in the ear by Kimbo Slice. “The doctor told me I couldn’t fly across the Atlantic?”
“Like…ever?” my brother asked.
“Maybe she can float across,” I grumbled.
“Go tell them to shut up.” Jelly jabbed her elbow into my ribs.
“Let’s give him a minute. Maybe he’ll put something in her mouth to keep her quiet.”
“So you want this or what?” The girl’s voice became business-like. My brother lowered his to match.
“You think you can let me hit it free?”
Jelly sucked her teeth. “Your brother’s weak. I have to get up for school in like an hour.”
The hooker said something I couldn’t make out, followed by a high-pitched “Pleeeease! Say something Jamaican!”
“A wha’ ya se? ‘Ear me, nuh, B-A-B. Tek ‘way you frock ‘n mek me love you up good, nuh.”
I’d started pulling my pants on when we first heard the cackle.
See, the average laugh consists of hees, haws, or hehs. There’s even the ho sound, but unless you own an elfin sweatshop you probably don’t use it. Begin to say hot but stop before you reach the t and you have the start of normal laughter. Say heap but stop before the p—evil laughter. Say head but drop the d—sneaky laughter. But hat—hat without the t is something else.
Said once, silent-t hat is an acceptable, albeit obnoxious, way to tell someone they’re full of shit. But imagine Hat-hat-hat. Raise the pitch and volume, and picture this rhythm: Hat-hat-hat, hat-hat-hat, hat-hat-hat. Nine hats. Every-fucking-time, nine hats.
She calls him Brat now. I think he’s become her pimp. He stays in his room for days on end, the constant stream of marijuana smoke seeping from under his bedroom door, straight over to mine. She’ll get a call, say “Hey, babe,” yell hat nine times, and leave for about an hour and a half. When she returns, she brings tinfoil trays of macaroni and rice. One of her regulars must be a caterer. The macaroni arrives with a side of cheap whiskey or wine. She fixes his plates for him from the kitchen so he never has to leave the room.
Occasionally, a couple of my brother’s friends will drop by the house. My brother stumbles to the door to greet them. She comes out shortly after—says, “Hey, Brat, where’d you go?” Brat beams as if she’s some kind of prize, then introduces her. His friends gawk at her, exchange glances, and snicker. I wonder if they too see a trophy.
I see a platinum blonde bleach job on Sponge Bob Square Pants. Her getup is significantly different from Bob’s, though. Her dress—or dresses, if she actually owns more than one short, black strip of fabric—hangs from her nipples, and ends just below her square ass. Sponge’s boob job looks like the doctor stuffed two volumes of the OED into her chest.
Brat’s friends fix themselves plates of macaroni, pour drinks, and form a conga line into his bedroom. Then they turn the music up and let the weed blow. A typical Tuesday night.
“What do you think they do in there?” Jelly asks me. “Three grown men and a girl.”
I tell her, “Who gives a damn, as long as they stay away from our toilet paper.” I tell her anything that might keep the peace around here.
“When do we start benefiting from all this? When do we get in on the free ride?” Jelly’s pissed because I let it slip that my brother hasn’t been paying his share of the rent. My father owns the house we’re renting, and doesn’t have the heart to kick him out. It’s been over a year now.
“Maybe we should tag-team a hooker,” I tell her. “Get our own gravy train.”
“Not a hooker,” Jelly says. “A stripper maybe.”
“I dated a dancer once,” I tell her. “She wanted to move in and pay the rent, but I wouldn’t let her.” I tell her the dancer took me to Heat games and bought me three hundred dollar jeans.
“How do you date a stripper?”
“Well, not date-date. I’m trying to put it gentlemanly.”
“You’re disgusting. You and your gaudy jeans.” She snatches a pair of my jeans from the closet, and dances them around by the belt loops singing, “Stripper pants, stripper pants.” She throws the jeans at me. “Your brother’s a stereotype.”
“Which one are you referring to?” I ask.
My brother has kids he hasn’t seen or spoken to in years, and the child support statements are piling up, unopened.
“Another statistic,” Jelly says. “Another deadbeat dad. A black one, at that.”
“He’s not black,” I say. “He’s Jamaican.”
Jelly is concerned for the black race, even though she’s Cuban. Cuban-American. White Cuban-American, if such a thing exists.
Jelly thought she was white until she did a summer internship up in Tampa. They made fun of her accent. Said she was dark. Called her “little Spanish girl.” I never realized she had an accent until she came back. Now she says things like sangwhich and anygways to show her Latin pride.
She’s started leaving me little messages on the toilet paper roll, so we can tell if anyone’s taken any—Good morning, mi café con leche and the such. I’d suggested we put locks on the bathroom and bedroom doors, but Jelly thinks it’d be too insulting. I’m enjoying the love notes, just the same.
I come home from work and my brother is there on the couch with Sponge. They’re going through some of our old albums. I hear her mention a photo of him pushing me in a stroller. This dude has the nerve to show a hooker our baby pictures! But that’s not the worst of it. He’s pointing out photos of our grandparents. The white ones.
“Your grandfather looks just like Jon Hamm?” Sponge says.
He tells her that our last name is Italian. I wonder if he’s looking for some sort of promotion.
“My black grandfather was a heart surgeon,” I tell Jelly. “Helped found one of the first black hospitals in Detroit. You’d think he’d be proud of that.”
Jelly says she’s come to an important conclusion. “I don’t even think they’re having sex. Look at their body language. You can tell when two people have been intimate. Plus, wouldn’t we have heard it by now?”
“That just makes it weirder. What’s he keeping her around for?”
Jelly purses her lips and shakes her head. “No bueno.”
Dad stops by, but he won’t step inside the house. Instead, he peers down at the cigarette butts mashed into the steps leading up to the entrance, the green and brown glass bottles huddled and jutting from the concrete porch like so many bowling pins, the soil beds on either side of the front door bejeweled with glimmering bottle caps. If he’s studied the white picket fence cutting the porch from the lawn, he’s maybe spotted one of the black-tipped spliffs camouflaged against the fence’s dirt-speckled slats.
His eyes are slightly pink behind his glasses. Pinked might better describe them, as this is not their usual color. They’re moist too. Moistened. I feel ashamed when I open the door, before he even speaks.
“Unoo can live like real buttoo, eey? Unoo can live like dog.” He rests his knuckles on his hips and stares into the distance. “Chuh, man. Dog know enough not to shit whe’ dem eat an’ sleep.” His face trembles before turning to me. “I raised unoo to be nasty, lowdown people so?”
“I have a difficult time remembering you raising me at all,” I say. I step past him, down the steps.
Dad sucks his teeth. “The boy is here?” I look down the sloping hill to the space where my brother’s truck is parked. It hasn’t moved in weeks. Sponge’s car is missing.
“Go see for yourself.” I shoot a thumb toward the doorway, then take another downward step. “I have a class to teach.”
He turns to the threshold long enough for fear to contort his jaw. It’s a different face that pivots back to me. “Trelawny, please, go check for me, nuh.” I make a show of looking at my watch, then set my briefcase down on the grit-blackened step, head back up. His eyes follow me into the front entryway.
I head down the hall and rap on my brother’s door, lightly at first, then harder. I can hear movement within, the creaking of mattress springs. “Yo. Dad’s here.”
I come back out after about a minute. “Guess not.”
He looks through the threshold, unbelieving. “The boy is on drugs or something?”
“It’s a solid question.”
“Him is working?”
“I’m of the impression he’s delegating work to a lower-level employee.”
He pushes his fingers back through his hair. His lips part, teeth clenched. “I been calling and calling. I could o’ dead and him wouldn’t pick up.”
“If you were dead and calling…”
“You think it’s joke me a joke?”
“Which part don’t you find funny? Ironic, too.”
My pops went ghost on my mom for days on end back when they were together. He went ghost on us all.
“That I have to explain this to you elevates this to extremely ironic.” I lift the strap of my briefcase back onto my shoulder. “Look, you’re right. I can’t live in this filth much longer. As soon as I can save for a security deposit, I won’t.”
The surface of his sandy face quakes.
“But…What I’m to do if you move out? I can’t afford mortgage here and on my house.”
“Well…talk to him.” I wave my hand at the door. “Force him to pay somehow. Or kick him out and find a new tenant who will. Or sell the place. It’s your house.”
He leans on the wooden fence post, unsteadily, staring forward. His line of sight lands several feet above me. His eyes seem to lose focus.
“I don’t know what went wrong with this boy,” he says. “He’s turned out to be a real…” He whips his head from side to side. “You know he was suppose to buy the place?”
I shake my head.
“Me turn all of sixty-five this year. Him think I can afford to carry him forever?” Tears glaze the surface of his eyeballs. I can’t tell if it’s himself he feels sorry for, or if it’s my brother. “How I’m to pay two mortgage?” he asks. “He’s killing me.”
I look away. Two near-translucent salamanders squiggle across the front wall, over and under the ivy climbing it, towards the cracked frame of my bedroom window. “Kick him out,” I say. The words sound soft and pathetic. They taste acidic in my mouth.
“You can talk to the boy?”
“And tell him what? It’s your house.”
“Better if you just stay and he leaves.”
“Well…talk to him. I can’t evict him. It’s not my house.”
“Maybe you’ll buy the place,” he says.
“Me buy the house?” I laugh.
“I’d sell it off cheap, you see. Make me an offer, nuh. How much you could afford?”
I pull my wallet from my pocket, stretch it open. “You got change for a twenty?”
“I was going sell it to the boy for thirty down, if him can take over the mortgage. I’ll give you for twenty. Grand,” he adds.
“If I had twenty in the bank, you think I’d still live here?”
“Fifteen then. Chuh. A house for fifteen… I’m sure you could come up with that.”
I begin turning from him, but he halts me with, “Eleven-seven.”
The specificity of the figure stills me a beat longer than a rounder number might.
“Eleven thousand six hundred ninety-eight dollars and the whole of this is yours.” His arm gestures toward the house; the movement is that of a magician’s, sweeping the audience’s attention toward the final act of his trick, The Prestige.
I look at it; really look at it, forcing fresh eyes onto the house. Two rectangular, dilated pupils sit in its albino face. Beneath the ivy crawling up the bumpy stucco surface, tiny black specks cling in the pores, blackheads in the palest teenaged epidermis. A row of shingles hangs over the roof’s edge, near the peak, like uneven bangs. They’re pale-black, sun-bleached. What would it actually take to restore this house? I wonder. A pressure cleaner? A wrecking ball? What do I actually have in me?
“Dad, if he’s killing you…if you can’t afford to support him, then you have no choice. Kick him out,” I say.
He stares over my head, near-imperceptibly nodding. But I know he never will.
Jelly picks tonight to say “I can’t live like this anymore.” She’s just reached from work. Her handbag is dragging, nearly on the floor, as if the muscles in her arm have lost the power to contract, as though the bag’s been pumped with the weight of the world. But from the way her fist grips tight around the strap, veins popping green against olive skin, the bag might be the sole thing preventing her from floating away.
She’s poised in our bedroom’s threshold, between the door and the doorjamb and the bed’s too-large footboard. I straighten the papers I’m grading, the piles I’ve buried myself under, into a neat stack, then wave her forward, but she won’t enter. From my position on the bed she’s unreachable, in another dimension altogether.
“Their dirty dishes are all over the counter. Ants are crawling over everything. You have to do something!”
“Just let the ants clear the plates,” I say. “It’s organic waste disposal.”
Jelly’s eyes bulge. “Everything’s a joke to you. At what point do you realize your life is one big joke?”
“What exactly do you want me to do?”
“Something!” she says. “Kick him out. He doesn’t contribute anything. Why should he get to do this to us?”
“To us?” I crawl over the mattress, reaching to tug her into the room, but she backs out into the hall.
“I don’t care if they hear. They need to hear. They live like animals.”
“Chill out, Yelena, that’s my brother. Besides, it’s not my house. It’s not my say. Come sit for a minute and let’s talk about this.”
She shakes her head frantically, as though shaking the ants from the skin of her cheeks. “I can’t, Trelawny. I can’t. You need to make some decisions,” she says. “You need to decide.” But she doesn’t say between what and what.
Instead, she just walks out.
I’m out in the kitchen doing dishes—doing their dishes—which I normally wouldn’t do, but the funk of bacteria and mayonnaise has seeped from the sink down the hall, and is knocking on my bedroom door. I’m pouring bleach down the drain when I hear his door open. He stumbles down the hall and into the kitchen. Cupboard doors start opening and slamming, but I don’t look up.
“The water bill came,” I say.
“Cool,” he says.
“The light’s been sitting there a minute, too.” I peer over my shoulder. He’s at the kitchen counter staring down on the envelopes like he suspects they contain anthrax.
“I’m just waiting for this check to come in.”
I didn’t realize pimps took checks. I turn back to the bowl I’m washing, wondering why I bother paying for the phone and the cable and the internet when we spend a week out of every month with no electricity.
“Maybe we should trade utilities for a while.”
“I got it,” he answers.
“How long are we supposed to live like this?”
“You can’ hear? It’s taken care of, you see me.”
“I have student emails to respond to, papers to grade. I can’t be living like Fred Flintstone.” My plea seems lost on him. I glance back to see if he’s listening, and notice his cheeks look gaunt, slightly sunken. He’s always been skinny—mahgah they would say back on the island—but even his eyes are vacant. He looks hungry. I haven’t seen or heard Sponge for two days.
“There’s steak in the fridge if you want it. I cooked it for Jelly, but she says she’s turning vegetarian, or some such fuckery.”
He lets out a hollow laugh, pauses a second, then says, “I might take you up on that.”
Jelly found some porn I left in the DVD player. I hadn’t expected her back so soon. She tells me she’s watched some of it. It shocked her. “Those girls don’t look anything like me. I’ve never had a boyfriend that was into black girls.”
“Well, you’ve never had a black boyfriend before me.”
“Oh, please,” she says. “You’re not even black. No one sees you that way.”
“Fuck am I then?”
“You’re Jamaican,” she says after some pause. She waves the DVD at me. “If this is what you like, why are you even with me? What are you doing with a Cuban?”
“I’m in Miami,” I tell her. “It was a statistical inevitability.”
Meanwhile, I think my brother is growing tired of Sponge. Lately, she’s only making it to about five or six hats before losing heart. My brother no longer joins in on the laughter.
Last night, Sponge and I nearly collided as she slipped from my bathroom into the hall. She stammered to say, “Excuse me,” and ended up offering me a plate of macaroni and some wine. I hadn’t looked her in the face since I overheard her “nigger” story. Hadn’t responded to her hellos. Just turned the volume up on the TV. That, or walked away.
Do you think this is okay? I wanted to ask her. Do you think I enjoy supporting my older brother and his whore? There was a hint of sadness in her voice last night, though. I recognized the expression in her eyes, the weariness. “No, thanks,” I said.
“You know I’m not what you think I am.” She spoke softly in the dim hall. “I heard you and your girlfriend talking about me. I want you to know. I’m not that.”
She turned and disappeared into my brother’s room, leaving me standing in the hall’s vast emptiness.
I awoke this morning with a thought: I am going to buy my father’s house. I’m going to kick my brother out and live with Jelly in peace, and we’re going to fix and renovate and build this house into a home.
My brother will live with Sponge now, back wherever she came from. Of this I was certain, as I dressed for work.
When I came out into the living room my brother was asleep on the couch. Had a pillow and sheet and everything. How did we get here? As I left for work, I noticed Sponge’s car was parked in the driveway. And what do I do if it’s not there when I get home?