his mother beats him every day with an old plastic slipper, and when the boys—Mexican boys, Black Boys, Filipino boys—knock on his door to call him for kickball or candy stealing at 7-11, his brown face is streaked with tears. “Yo, sad boy,” they will say, nudging him and offering peanut butter cups, sticks of gum, tiny sour things. “Sad boy, you okay?” The nickname will stick, and in time he’ll tattoo it in squid-black ink across his chest.
His eyes are big like an anime hero, the same as the man in the photo his mother thinks is hidden, the one who left before he was born. His sisters have a different father who is gone now, too, but who was not unkind, at least, and for that he’s grateful. He stands between them and The Plastic Slipper, and he learns to braid their hair. In the mornings he oversees the brushing of teeth and the making of guava jelly sandwiches. He tucks fruit cups into lunch bags. They are almost-six and nearly-five, his sisters, his own small birds.
he keeps to himself in the halls, sometimes raising his chin to the boys he’s known for years. He sees her, of course—who could miss her?—standing like a queen outside her geometry class during passing period. At the end of the first week of school, for no reason at all, she extends her right arm, palm up, as he passes by. He stares at her long, thin fingers. He looks at her face. He keeps walking. The next day, she does it again. And so this time he takes hold of her hand, but only for a moment, so briefly that neither is sure it happened.
He knows her name because everyone knows her name. And he knows she has a boyfriend, a defensive lineman who makes a show of their romance. The boyfriend carries her up flights of stairs while she covers her face and screams, hoists her 40-lb backpack over his shoulder like it’s a bag of feathers, brings her coffee and a chocolate croissant before the first period bell. Sad Boy doesn’t disapprove; these are things she deserves, these are good things.
He isn’t sure why she holds out her hand, but every day he takes it now, holds it to his chest for a moment, says a prayer for his sisters who have stopped listening to him, to anyone.
he changes his mother when she wets herself, he works at the 7-11 where he used to steal candy, he reaches for whiskey in the morning. His youngest sister appears at the apartment one day after a two-year absence, but won’t come in. She pushes her son through the door, says: “You take him.”
“I take him?”
“Yeah, you take him. He’s four. He’s good. He’s like you.”
He follows her to her boyfriend’s truck, shoves fifty dollars into her jacket pocket. She won’t notice until weeks later, and she’ll have sense enough to hide it.
“The fuck you looking at?” the boyfriend says.
“I’m looking at you, asshole,” Sad Boy says. “I’m looking at you.”
is at work
ringing up six-packs and sunflower seeds, he worries that his mother is beating his nephew with The Plastic Slipper, though he knows she is too weak now to cause much damage. He checks the boy for welts and cuts, anyway, questions him gently: “You okay? You sure?” The boy nods, but never speaks. When he’s done with his nephew, he washes his mother—tiny like a bird now—and sets her in her bed. And then he drinks.
His other sister has been dead five years now (“injuries sustained from a blow to head with blunt object”), and he wishes, sometimes, most of the time, that he was dead, too. At these times, these most-of-the-times, he thinks of playing kickball, he thinks of his sisters’ long braids. But mostly he thinks of the girl who stood in the hallway outside her geometry class, the one who held out her hand every day of junior year. If he could he would tell her what it meant to him then, and what it means to him, still, now.