John and I both lived alone. Each of us ate dinner at the counters of neighborhood diners. All of the diners in our neighborhood were owned by Greeks and all of them looked the same: the Venus, the Five Brothers, the Californian, the Athena, the Ram's Horn.
When I went to diners, sometimes I wore my glasses and sometimes I wore my contact lenses. I convinced John, who was an actual idiot, that I was two separate people, identical twin brothers who hated one another.
When John would say to me, "I saw your brother at the Athena last night," I would say, "Aah, don't talk to me about that creep."
Then John would say: "Brothers was meant to be friends. I woulda been friends with my brother but he died when we was just kids. Got run over by a tractor, y'know?"
I knew, I knew: John had told me the story at least twenty times before.
One time Vivian, the fat waitress at the Arch, said, "I talk to my dog all the time."
"Yeah, me too," John said. "But the difference is my dog talks back to me!" Then he asked her: "So, Vivian, are you getting rich?"
Vivian snorted and said something like, "This snow is killing us. Monday no business, Tuesday no business, Wednesday no business . . . If it snows again, I'm gonna kill myself."
"Nah, don't do that," John said. "But just in case, can I have your apartment?"
"My apartment," Vivian said, spitting out the two words. "My apartment is even worse than yours."
John turned to me and I knew one of his moronic questions would follow. "Tell me," he said, "can you tell me who the guy is who puts flowers, roses, on Marilyn Monroe's grave every day?"
I nodded. "Joe DiMaggio."
"What about the other one?"
"What other one?" I asked.
"Me," John said, pointing to his grizzled face. He had hardly any teeth.
Another time John asked Myrtle, the redheaded waitress at the Ram's Horn if her daughter was working now.
"My daughter?" Myrtle replied. "She can't work."
"She's lazy. Lazy people don't work. She sits around on her ass all day."
"Why don't ya do something about it?" John asked Myrtle. "Why don't ya use your hand?"
"My hand? Better I'll use my luggage and tell her to get out. Eighteen and she don't want to work. Ever hear anything like it? Well, she's not gonna get another dime from me."
John sipped his cold coffee—he liked it cold—and then said, "But ya didn't say you wouldn't give her any quarters and nickels." After which he elbowed me in the ribs, nearly upsetting my bowl of New England clam chowder.
I laughed falsely, but John didn't know the difference. He appreciated an audience. "See, your brother's a sourpuss. He don't have a good sense of humor like you do."
"My brother's a cocksucker," I told John and went back to my clam chowder.
One night at the Five Brothers, John asked the waitress, Reba, if her son still wanted to be a priest.
"Yeah," Reba said, serving me my cheeseburger de luxe and drawing me a large Tab. "I told him if he keeps it up I'm gonna take him to a psychi—a psychi—a psychologist."
"Priestes can have fun," John assured her. "Years ago I used to see all these priestes at the burlesque."
"They're not priestes," I said. "They're fucking priests, you moron. One syllable."
John wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Motioning towards me, he said to Reba, "Wouldya believe this guy's got a brother who's real nice? No wonder the two of 'em can't get along."
"We fight like catses and dogses," I said sarcastically.
John ignored me and went on with Reba. She wore too much makeup and her skirts were too short. "Reba," he said, "maybe your son wants to be a priest so he can marry you off again."
"I don't want to get married no more."
"Aah, come off it, Reba, you girls gotta fall three or four times."
"I already had my three or four times."
John coughed a sick man's cough. He was always unshaven. Appearing to think for a moment, he said, "You girls can't live without us men. Why, if it wasn't for you girls, we men could go around without any trousers. It's because of you we have to wear 'em. Otherwise we could just go around naked."
Reba laughed. I swallowed some French fries and said, "Oh, so that's why we wear trousers!" I was being deliberately nasty. "Jeez, I'd always wondered! It's such an education, sitting here with you, John! Why don't you say something else stupid?"
John just shook his ugly old head. "If you was your brother you wouldn't talk to me like that. Your brother's a real gentleman."
"My brother's a cocksucker," I said as I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose.
John just sat there after that, ready to spit.
The next night, at the Venus, he complained about how my brother had mistreated him the day before.
Tonya's real name was Maria but she hated Maria. "Every other Puerto Rican girl is named Maria," she told me. "Besides, I feel like a Tonya." This was before Patty Hearst.
When Tonya was about sixteen years old she became pregnant from a fellow who she said knew less about life than she did: "All we knew was that kissing felt good and it brought out other ideas about sex."
Pregnant, Tonya felt the world was coming to an end. Everyone was against her: the boy's mother, his sisters, his entire family. They insisted that Tonya had seduced him, that she talked him into having sex. The boy was two years younger than Tonya.
Tonya's family went on a warpath of their own. Her mother continued to rant and rave about how she would refuse to let the boy "get away with it." Both families wanted revenge: they took out warrants and there was a knife fight between Tonya's uncle and the boy's brother. Tonya's mother told the judge it was statutory rape. The boy's mother said he was involuntarily seduced. "It was just an experiment," Tonya cried to the judge, but both the mothers were going berserk and couldn't hear her.
Tonya's mother wanted them to get married. The boy's mother wanted Tonya in a home. Tonya resolved to herself that neither one of the mothers would get what she wanted. She just kept repeating to herself, "Everything must come to an end. Everything must come to an end." Eventually, she thought, if she repeated the phrase enough times, it would have to come true.
Tonya's baby took its father's last name. He said he would support the baby after he graduated from school and got a job. The baby was a victim of circumstances, Tonya said. That was where I came in.
"What do you know about raising a baby?" I said to Tonya the first day she showed up at my desk in the social services office.
"What do you?" she spit out. I liked them when they acted up like that. I thought I heard her mutter "faggot" under her breath.
"Why aren't you living with your mother?" I asked her. I was making sure to frown.
"I can't relate to my mother," Tonya told me. "She thinks I'm the only one in the whole world ever to get pregnant without having a wedding. She keeps carrying on like a crazy lady."
Tonya's heavy perfume was the only thing I could smell that day. I stared at her faint mustache and shook my head. Then I tapped the pencil on my desk. It was my desk, after all.
Tonya continued: "She wants me to drop out of school, man. My life ain't an extension to her future. She's got this terrible hangup, she cries and prays for me all the time. The Roman Catholic Church is supposed to solve everything. To her, I committed a sin and she talks all day to God and the Virgin Mary to forgive me . . . "
"Yeah?" I said, nodding. "Go on."
But Tonya wouldn't cry; she knew I was hoping for that. Instead, her voice just got louder. "Her attitude is really negative, y'know? I mean, I want some kind of career in the future—what, you think that's so funny?"
"Was I smiling?" I asked innocently. "I didn't realize."
"She's just like you, you cocksucker, putting all these obstacles in my path! She won't babysit, she wants me to go to work . . . Oh, fuck it, man, I'm not telling you any more of this!" Then she ran out.
I knew she'd be back, of course. It was a couple of months later. She looked more than a couple of months older. She wasn't wearing perfume and her mustache had gotten just a shade darker.
"So I'm working in this lousy factory from four o'clock to twelve o'clock midnight. It's in this basement and all the other workers are men, nine of them. We make booster cables. During the day I go to school. And it's hard, but I'm going to get my freaking diploma and I'm going to go to college . . . "
"Really?" I said. "I'm sure the Ivy League universities must be all excited over that possibility. And the child?"
"Johanna? She's just great, she's not like you or my mother. Johanna's my means of having someone to talk to. I release my emotions with her mainly, my ideas for the future . . . You see, my Johanna don't laugh at me."
I smirked. "Babies her age aren't able to laugh. If she could, she probably would."
I thought she was going to spit at me and I got excited, but she wasn't quite up to it. Too bad. Instead, she went on talking: "See, Johanna just looks at me and she helps me more than you do. She understands my suffering. She is gonna know the real truth about this, about me being unfairly punished . . . "
This time it was me who left the desk. It was my lunch hour and I didn't want to miss seeing John at the Arch. When I came back from lunch—without my glasses, I was the nice brother that day—my desk was as tidy as ever. She hadn't touched a thing.
Tonya got transferred to another caseworker, a black woman who was supposedly very sympathetic. This woman later told me that Tonya was keeping a notebook in which she recorded all of her frustrations. Tonya titled the notebook The Imprisonment of My Mind. When Tonya read back what she had written so angrily, my colleague explained, she could understand herself better. She was beginning to deal with her mother.
Yeah yeah, I thought. But what I said was: "I always liked Tonya, but I got the feeling she could never quite open up with me. Probably because I'm a man." The black woman agreed.
The last time I saw her, Tonya came over to my desk while she was waiting for her caseworker to get finished with another client. "I'm going to college," she announced defiantly.
I just shrugged. "You call your own shots."
"Oppressor!" she yelled. The whole office turned around to look.
Three years after that, she ran for the city council as a Communist. I didn't live in her district, but I wrote her in anyway.
My first cousin once removed Alan was a few years older than me. Unlike myself, he was crazy.
Uncle Fred made Alan crazy, him and Aunt Mary. Uncle Fred was also paranoid but somehow he managed to function for most of his life. He and Aunt Mary were retired by the 1970s. They would go to sleep at 7 p.m., awaken at 3 a.m., have lunch by 10 a.m. and eat supper in mid-afternoon. That was a sure sign of insanity.
As a kid, Alan could never play with anyone else because Uncle Fred and Aunt Mary wouldn't let him get dirty with other kids' germs. Aunt Mary followed him around with a washrag soaked in Lysol. Alan wore rubbers when there was one cloud in the sky and he had to have a sweater on always, even when it was ninety degrees out.
When the teacher at our school—Alan was two grades ahead of me—told Uncle Fred that Alan needed a psychiatrist, Uncle Fred hit the ceiling. "My son isn't crazy!" he shouted. "Psychiatrists are who's crazy!" He tore up the rollbooks on the teacher's desk.
One summer Alan actually went to the same sleepaway camp that I did. On Visitors' Day the camp director told my mother: "If I had Alan away from those parents for just one year, I could make something of him. As it is, he'll end up in a loony bin." Of course my mother couldn't say a word about it to Uncle Fred.
Naturally, Alan did end up in a psychiatric institution, spending most of his adolescence there. Paranoid/schizophrenic was the diagnosis. He was let out, for some odd reason, when he turned twenty-five. I never got to go to the place because my mother said I shouldn't see what went on there. I would have liked to.
Alan ended up saying he was a minister in some obscure Christian cult. He closed all his letters to his parents—they refused to see him—with drawings of stars and comets and crosses and the message, "Jesus can save even your lives." Prior to this he had been a Buddhist.
There were tattoos up and down Alan's skinny arms. He had the words HATE and LOVE on his knuckles, HATE on his right hand, LOVE on his left, like in the old Robert Mitchum movie.
Uncle Fred refused to deal with Alan, and because of my work, Uncle Fred assigned me the task of giving Alan his money.
But I would not go to Alan's apartment, of course. He shared it with two prostitutes who sometimes beat him up. Alan would come to my office. Everyone assumed her was a client and not a cousin. He was actually a client in a different office.
I treated Alan like any other client except that he got cash from me.
Alan carried a cane with a sword inside it. Why? "To protect me from mine enemies," Alan told me. If a man brushed him by on a crowded sidewalk, Alan would start a fistfight that he'd almost always lose. For a while all he talked about with me was UFO's.
"Don't you think there are people on other planets?" Alan asked me. "People who are better than these fuckers here on earth?"
"Maybe," I said.
Alan frowned. "Come on, there's gotta be. It can't just be earth, earth, like that's all there is. Jesus foretold the coming of UFO's. It's right there in black and white in your Bible."
I responded by handing Alan the envelope with the money in it. "Your parents want you to spend this carefully, now. Not like last time. No more blowing it all in one night."
"Jeez," Alan said, his eyes wild as usual but with tears in them for a change. Although Alan was older than I am, he thought I was the older one. I sat at a desk. I was an authority figure. Alan listened to me. Both of us were only children.
Every time Alan would leave the social services office, he shook my hand with a different unusual grip. He told me he knew fifty different grips and that if I wanted, he could teach me all of them.
"I don't get much call for shaking hands," I told my crazy cousin.
At Sunday dinner at my mother's house, my mother would always say, "It's a pity on poor Alan." Then she'd look at me and say, "Sometimes you've just got to be grateful."
The food at my mother's was better than at the diners, but the company was nowhere as interesting.
Back then I was a solid citizen. I even voted in school board elections. Before anyone else did, I ate only whole wheat bread. I jerked off twice a day, just before bed and then again when I first woke up. I didn't want to get into any kind of trouble.
I wore corduroy sports jackets and ties that were neither too narrow nor too wide. I had a master's degree in social work. I went to high school reunions, got regular haircuts, read the newspaper every single day. At night, I read good classic literature, not crap, really good writers like Carlyle. He was impotent, you know.
To enlarge the fraction of your life, Carlyle said, don't try to increase the numerator. Instead, decrease the denominator. I attempted to do that every day back then.
At night I would dream that I was making love to my twin brother. Sometimes, though, my brother looked like Alan and not me. All I knew in those days was that I loved this dream-brother totally, the way a man should love his actual brother.
When my phone rang one day at work, it was Tonya. "I'm now in medical school in Riverside, California," she told me. "But I wanted to phone you to let you know there's still a chance I could love you."
"I'm busy right now," I said, even though it was my lunch hour. "Call back later."
A few minutes after that, I was walking in the street and John passed me by. He had no face. "I know you," John said to me.
"You must be mistaken," I told him.
"No, I know you," John insisted. "You look exactly like your brother."
That was the day my life ended, or maybe the day it actually began.