Una Vida Mejor - Brian Whalen

I’m sitting in a plastic chair at a fold-out table in my sister’s kitchen, eating pizza straight out of the box. It’s a hot afternoon in Richmond and the section 8 apartment doesn’t have A/C. The windows are shut, the curtains drawn. My sister tosses me a lemon-lime Jarritos soda from a six pack on the counter and slides a rusted bottle opener across the table. The bottle is a twist cap, but I use the opener for show.

“You want hot sauce?” she asks me. “For the crust.”

I tell her, “Ranch.”

She tilts her chair back, opens the compact fridge, and squirts some dressing on a napkin.

“Hey,” she says. “Chihuahua hates this stuff. He only dips in Tapatío.”

The ranch dressing is runny, a little gray. I pass the bottle opener to my sister and fold my napkin over when she isn’t looking.

“I hear Papa-tío John’s is the new Mexican national dish.”

My sister is distracted by the tight-fitting cap on her bottle.

“What?” she says. “Don’t be weird.”

When we’re finished eating, my sister sets the pizza box on top of a stack of used take-out containers piled on top of the garbage. My sister has a black heart tattooed on her chest, the first tattoo she ever got, back in high school – when she met Zeb, ten or so years later, she had the black heart engulfed in wild blue flames. The tips of the flames are visible over the neckline of her shirt as she bends to put the leftover pizza slices in the fridge.

“Maybe you want to wrap those first?”

She ignores me, grabbing an open pack of Rolos from the butter compartment. She peels back the golden foil and pops a candy in her mouth. She throws one in my direction but it lands on the floor behind me.

“Hey,” she says, closing the fridge. “Hoy es mi cumpleaños! Chihuahua’s teaching me.”

“Your birthday is in March.”

“It gets me better tips,” she says.

She shrugs me off while I search for a joke – something to say to her in Spanish, maybe – but I can’t think of anything. My sister misinterprets my silence.

“Don’t worry,” she says, with a mouth full of caramel. “I’ve lied about worse.”

Later, she tells me how everybody treats Chihuahua like a dog because he has no past, and she gets treated like a dog because she has a past. Chihuahua lived in a garage when they met, and she lived in a shelter. She tells me it’s like Lady and the Tramp, but there’s no lady.

I ask her, “Do you remember when Buster got his head stuck in the milk jug?”

“No.”

Buster was our family’s beagle, but my sister had always wanted a lap dog. The name of the man she lives with is Pablo – like Neruda. But my sister gets mixed up between Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges. I tell her Borges wrote those stories about labyrinths, libraries, wars. She says no, Neruda did. I tell her, Neruda wrote those love poems, he wrote “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines,” and I remind her she owned the Il Postino soundtrack on cassette back in high school, and we’d ride to school together in her Dodge Omni taking turns doing our worst impressions of Andy Garcia, who read the poem on the soundtrack. My sister can’t recall the tape, but she knows who Borges is. Neruda was a blind historian.

“You’re right,” I say, tapping the side of my head. “I get confused sometimes.”

My sister gets up from the table, opens a drawer, and removes a pack of Newports.

Hermano,” she says, slapping the pack against her palm. “Join the club.”

I wash my hands in the bathroom but the towel smells unclean. I wipe my fingers on my jeans, below the knees so my sister won’t notice. The bathroom opens into the kitchen, which is about the size of my SUV.

“Gross,” my sister says. “Close the door.”

“I only washed my hands.”

Close it.”

The handle slips between my fingers and the bathroom door slams shut. On the night Zeb died, my sister tested positive for gunshot residue. In her report to the police she claimed that she had been trying to pull the gun away from Zeb’s head when he pulled the trigger. Zeb spent 48 hours on life support before his brain shut down, and my sister spent twice that many days in jail until an investigation failed to discredit her story. Zeb’s death was ruled a suicide. My sister was released in time for the funeral. I saw her there, but kept my distance, and after that she disappeared. Four years later she called me up out of the blue and said, “You hungry?”

She’s sitting in her chair again at the kitchen table, counting a deck of playing cards.

“51,” she says, looking left, then right. “I need a pen.”

An IHOP mug chock-full of pens and plastic cutlery is sitting on a ledge above the sink.

“Red,” she tells me as I cross the SUV-size kitchen.

There’s no red pen in the mug. Reluctantly, my sister uses a blue pen to write the number 9 in a corner of the card, then she draws a heart around it. I sit across from her at the table and watch while she draws three more nines and four more hearts on the card, one for every corner. She draws a big blue heart around the joker in the middle. She shuffles.

I knock every other hand and she’s annoyed. She accuses me of cheating.

“Sorry,” I say. “College education.”

I knock the next hand and she under-pips me, gaining 25 plus 7 from my hand.

“Prison education,” she says.

We play, and after a while I’m winning big. I expect her to get bored, like when we were kids, or to come down with one of her headaches, but she’s into the game and popping Rolos. I’m the one who’s getting tired. It’s dark in the apartment – and humid, and smells like carpet – and each time the conversation lags, I feel the car keys in my pocket digging sharply into my leg.

Eventually I say, “I’m tired of keeping score.”

My sister closes the notepad, saying, “We’ll keep it in our heads.”

We deal, silently, for ten more minutes, when I tell her, “I’m pretty sure you won.”

I accept a soda for the road, but I refuse to let her pay for the pizza.

“I’m earning now,” she says.

I say, “Come on.”

“Hey hey,” she says, clapping loudly. “My younger brother, ladies and gentleman.”

She walks me to the door, which is double dead-bolted, security-chained, and blocked by a folding metal chair she lodged beneath the handle when I first entered. The light in the hall is bright and clean, compared to the dark interior of her apartment.

“Let’s not hug,” she says.

She closes the door, reopening it an inch with the security chain in place. I wait there while she lights another cigarette. I cross my arms, trying to look brotherly.

Hermana,” I say, exaggerating an accent. “Tell me, this guy – is he a keeper?”

My sister wedges her face in the crack of the door and exhales.

“He’s illegal,” she says, as I step away from the smoke. “He’s got a wife and kids in Juárez. He sends them letters, and money. American money. He lets me read the letters out loud, for práctica.”

I hear movement in the hallway behind me, the scuff of footsteps, the shuffling of keys.

I ask her, “Do they write him letters back?”

A veces,” she says, shutting the door.

Two dead-bolts and a chair.

 


 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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Brian Phillip Whalen received his MFA in Creative Writing from Iowa State University and currently teaches at the University at Albany, NY, where he is completing his PhD in English.  His poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Beecher’s, The Chattahoochee Review, Cream City Review, J Journal, Mid-American Review, PANK, RHINO, Tammy, and other literary journals.