J Saler Drees
Paradise Point, the place I usually avoid. But here I am, winded after the climb, standing on the platform built for tourists to stare out at the Calico Mountains spiking pinnacles every which way, their colors blasting in the setting sun. At one time these mountains rose untouched, unseen, and for a moment I can feel this, feel the loneliness like a good thing, but then I look down, see the zigzag trails carved into the mountainsides, people marching up and down, ants on a pilgrimage from their resort spas, and beyond that, the Cinderblocks where people like me live. And when I look up front, crowds gather, giggling and snapping proofies in front of the steep glow of the mountains.
Soon their faces will be alight in photos posted on all the social media sources, their smiles unflawed, beautiful. But I will not be joining in on this fun, not yet anyways. For one, my face is ugly, and two, these tourists, marching up here taking their proofies, are what my brother Leeland calls “Milk Slurpers” in a tone of voice that curdles. If he found out I was here at Paradise Point, a popular tourist attraction, he’d spit in my eye.
But he doesn’t understand the beauty. He doesn’t need to since he’s beautiful himself. I, on the other hand, am the ugly brother, the one with the big gap in my upper lip. It runs up my nose, rests between my nostrils, like a pink angry finger pressing shush. Ig’s mark, Mamil says, after Ig, the womb hunter. He cuts pregnant women open, trying to steal her child. He tried to open Mamil, but she fought, and he only managed to nick my face. Pacil cringed at the first sight of Ig’s mark on his newborn son. An omen the year would not bless us. And he ran.
“Excuse me,” a girl pushes past, holding her phone above her face at an angle, her lips puckered as she swishes her hair, joining in with the crowds clustered on the platform’s edge. The phones snap at a circle of friends; a couple hugging; a family of four; a throng of frat bros; list goes on. I want to hate them, but I also can’t stop looking at them, so clean their skin, so symmetrical and flushed their faces, and it’s the reason I’m here, to be like them, to become worthy of pictures.
I scan for Dr. Karam’s business partner, someone I have not met yet, but imagine to be beautiful. How Leeland would piss in my tea if he knew I was meeting a Milk Slurper to do what I’m going to do.
Suddenly I’m being jostled, then shoved.
A man rushes to the edge, his phone turned away from himself. Pointing and murmurs: “Is that smoke? Where’s it coming from?”
Milk Slurpers gather around the rim to get a better view. I stay behind but see grey bloom above their heads.
“Could it be those rioters again?” someone asks.
I bite my tongue. The “rioters” are people like Leeland, fed up with the new resort developments bull dozing over our land and homes, the Pro-Residents, they call themselves, led by 0. Leeland has become quite obsessed with 0 and “fighting the new colonialization”—but I stay out of all that.
A tap on my shoulder, and I turn to a woman in dark shades, round, goggle-like. Unable to see her eyes, I’m drawn to her lips, plump and protruding, painted a deep purple, almost black, then her pinched nose, and arched cheek bones. She’s ageless.
“You must be the one I’m supposed meet,” she says, flashing superhero-bright teeth. “I can tell by your lip situation.” She circles her hand about her mouth to emphasize.
“Yes, it’s obvious,” I say.
“You have the down payment?” she asks.
I unbutton my breast pocket, the reality hitting me, stalling me, a heaviness in my hands. Back at home Mamil waits behind the dark curtain, wet cloth over her eyes, and Leeland’s out either swindling like he does, or lighting fires with 0. Little do they know, where I’m about to go using the money I’ve saved. Money out of my hidden peanut butter jar, money from long bellman days waiting at my podium outside the lobby of Sandy Ridge Resort, a place with the built-in waterfalls and the planted palms. The fancy cars pull up. I ask if they’d like assistance with their luggage. They usually say yes, and when it’s time to give me due, they stutter at the front desk, who was it who helped them? My name is Ravi, but people forget that. They call me “split lip” or “boy with the mouth.”
Typical, my deformity is all anyone sees. Even though birth defects are common enough in this city, due to poor living conditions in the Cinderblocks where a sewer system and proper running water isn’t available. The babies slip out, born with smooshed faces, missing limbs, caved chests, twisted backs, chipped skin. Except, we don’t become normal, we turn into less.
Now or never, I decide, unbuttoning the front pocket of my bellman uniform, and handing Dr. Karam’s business partner a wad.
She licks her fingers, flips through the paper like an experienced card dealer, unfazed as the smoke widens behind her and the Milk Slurpers flurry past, voices edged in excitement and fear, the words going from rioters to terrorists, from protestors to attackers. I try to concentrate on Dr. Karam’s business partner, her plastic calm. Don’t wonder about Leeland, if he’s down there with 0 starting the fires, dodging security, safe.
Dr. Karam’s business partner tucks the paper in an envelope and says, “I’ll get this to Dr. Karam and meet you at The Drinking Stall on Scallop Boulevard tomorrow morning at 6am.”
I wince. Scallop Boulevard is where Leeland sets up his mat, swindling “natural medicine,” his smooth voice sailing, “Have anxiety? Rub this Bog Tree sap into your forehead and feel its healing calm” as Milk Slurpers tiptoe out from their gated resorts along the cliffs and pitter patter their way through the market booths, soon flocking to him, his promises of recovery. When he smiles all shamanistic, he gets to most. Dark wavy hair, the kind made for shampoo commercials. Eyes, black as deep water, magnified by his glasses. And a body out of a myth, long and secret. Marfan Syndrome, Leeland has diagnosed himself. A genetic disorder affecting the connective tissues, leaving him abnormally tall, thin, limbs and fingers stretched. Something he’s proud of. He even has the gall to tell me I should respect my unilateral cleft.
But never mind him, never mind my family. Time to put them behind. I won’t be returning.
“How’ll you find me?” I ask.
“Not like you’re hard to miss. But soon you’ll have perfect lips.”
Like a Milk Slurper, I can hear Leeland sneer.
“I have your word?” I ask.
“Dr. Karam is one for charity,” she says still smiling.
Yes, my big discount. Remember the big book of before and afters. Look how many people restored to beauty, Dr. Karam had said, hooking me in.
I head home a final time. Part of me hopes Leeland is there with Mamil, that I can leave knowing he’s safe, but another part doesn’t want to deal with his cornering ways, his talk of 0 and abolish tourism and build an inside infrastructure. Can I continue to hide for one more night? The more I think about this, the slower I walk.
Up ahead, the Cinderblocks, shadowed rows of grey cubed units, neatly lined up, same. Bars on the glassless windows, metal screens on the doorways, but we people of the Cinderblocks know how to add flare. Bird cages hang from stoops. Curtains flutter bright colors in the warm breeze. Potted cacti, blooming little yellow flowers, rest on the porch steps.
A gold light hovers on the Calico Mountains beyond, putting dusk in a spell. Sounds and smells come soft: plates clattering, children squealing, splashing water, cooking oil, fried desert snake.
But there’s also a buzzing, a strain in the air. Voices snip and hush, dogs growl, and the smell of fire lingers, 0 and the Pro-Residents in whispers.
“Hey Split Lip,” the next-door children call, hopping about, asking for mints with their little voices. Sometimes I sneak mints from the front desk at Sandy Ridge. But today I forgot. Too busy trying not to worry. Can I do it? Meet Dr. Karam tomorrow and leave it all behind? Can I be someone other than Split Lip, Ig’s mark, a bad omen?
The children’s faces fall when they see I’m empty handed.
“Next time,” I tell them, and the smiles come back. They believe me.
I enter home, and there he is, Leeland, settled cross-legged and curved over the center of the floor, twining sage smudge sticks. He doesn’t look up at me. The drying herbs, hanging from the ceiling, shiver slant shadows across his face. His glasses wink, eyes unseen.
The bulb over the sinks blares sharp, making the room angular. The curtain separating this room from Mamil’s room hangs unmoved. Her rust-streaked tea pot rests where the curtain ends.
Everything appears so normal. I’m both relieved and guarded. So maybe he didn’t participate in the 0’s fire. Then again, maybe he did, and this is an act for Mamil’s sake. It’d kill her if he risked going. I must continue my act as well. It’d kill her to know I am going.
“Mamil got a migraine again?” I ask.
“You’re smart,” Leeland says, his way of “obviously”. She usually helps him with the herbs when feeling upward.
He squints through his glasses as he unsnaps an unwanted twig from his bundle. The tips of his fingers are bandaged, fumbly, perhaps a sign of his real where-abouts.
“Giving day? Tell.” Leeland leans back, lights up a teeg, the match flaring up his face and for a moment I see a charcoal smudge across his jaw, or maybe it was a shadow.
“Only 52,” I say.
I actually made 152, and have been lying this way for some time, keeping my secret tips in a peanut butter jar holed in the wall by the chamber pot. Mamil and Leeland don’t know I’m about to disappear into guesses. At least, I hope they don’t know.
“What’s your score?” I ask him.
“Making day,” he says, nodding toward the sage, a good cover.
He shakes the match out, sighs, shifts his shoulders down, dragging long on his teeg, and I can tell there’s something else he wants to say, but then a watery cough from the shady cracks of the room: Mamil awake. She pushes the curtain aside, hair wrapped up in a scarf, her eyes naked, blink-less in a face of slow wrinkling.
Leeland and I both chorus: “Feeling better?”
She slumps into the wicker chair, waving a prong fan at her face while Leeland leaps up, sets about with the kettle.
“I got you some tips, Mamil,” I stand, dig from the inner pocket, and place the paper in her outstretched hand. Her fingers creak around the bills.
“Only 52,” Leeland says.
“Yeah, well,” I say. “You hear about the fire?”
Mamil groans. “That 0 causing havoc again. He’s steering us all in danger. Ruining our city. Making anyone scared to come here, is what. How’s my boys supposed to make money?”
Leeland’s quietly scooping out the sweet berry into Mamil’s tin cup, teeg glowing out the corner of his mouth.
“Tomorrow will be better,” I add. “I got charms, listen to Milk Slurpers bla-bla about their brave climbs along the cliffs, their backpack glory hikes, their proofies among ancient ruins, and how they build schools for people like us, what a perfect memoir they gonna write. I haul their luggage, say, oh yes, I love this job, thank you so much for saving me.”
Mamil closes her eyes and nods a sad knowing.
But Leeland snorts. “Don’t be the fool, use the fool. Like me.”
“Pish.” I wave him away. “You think your lies are so much better.”
“Aren’t they though? Milk Slurpers believe I’m saving them. I swindle, you serve.”
Mamil laughs low at this.
I sit on the floor, grab a cluster of sage leaf and begin to bind, reminding myself, Get along. Leave this place happy, remember Leeland, his wizardly voice calling, Cleanse the soul with the positive energy of the yucca root. Go back to us as boys on Scallop Boulevard with our sticky fingers out for coins, and the first time a man chose me. The man was tall, wore a neat-pressed suit and smelled scorched-sweet. He had a funny expression, one that verged on wisdom when he saw me, and he grunted, Earn extra?
I took his hand.
But Leeland grabbed my arm and spat at the man. Get. I see the rot under your skin.
The man let go, face dimmed. Leeland has a way of making people feel shame.
You don’t want to be a bum boy. You die young. He told me.
At first, I wanted to knock his teeth out. For once someone looked at me in a way beyond my split lip. I felt beautiful, also dangerous. But on top of that, protected. Leeland saw me worth more.
And can I really leave happy, knowing I hid money from my family while they struggle to buy corn meal. The it’s-my-right, and I-earned-it suddenly don’t seem so legit. Perhaps I am swindled into the Milk Slurper ways, the Sandy Ridge guest climbing out of the Escalade, telling me he can make me perfect. Number one plastic surgeon in the country. He hands over his business card—Dr. Karam for your facial and aesthetic needs—and winks, adding, For you, I’ll give a discount.
That business card is in the peanut butter jar.
Leeland sets Mamil’s tea on the windowsill to steep. He’s standing there long. A shift in the air, a pressured silence, before he breaks it, “I heard Pro-Residents will raze Scallop Boulevard come morning.”
“You stay out of it.” Mamil sighs. “A fixing to get hurt. Can’t lose another of my babies, you understand?”
Leeland smooths his talk, “Ah Mami. You know I’d never,” but he glances over at me and smiles that smile few can resist, the smile that makes me want to fight him, yet also follow him, and this is where he wants me, the test of loyalties, like he suspects I’m leaving for plastic surgery, I’m siding with the Milk Slurpers. But he doesn’t get it. Not like he ever had Ig’s mark on his face. Him, the favorite of both Paxil and Mamil, his flaws beautiful, see how they even saved to buy him eyewear to accent his bad vision. Spent a fortune on his eyes, they did, but me?
I used to pick fights with him, bloody-nose fights, except it’s tough to stay jealous of Leeland. He’s so physically weak, I start feeling small for hitting him so hard, and me, the younger brother, shouldn’t always win. Every time I mercyed him, a satisfaction, like I had the control. Call it the Milk Slurper way, I call it will.
Mamil continues protesting about the Pro-Residents in a way that’s both resigned and hopeful. Leeland’s denial, both assuring and breaking. These doubles we all have, infinite and finished, the familiar room tilting, Mamil, Leeland, much too heavy in it, and me, I’m drifting away, the separation happening.
Pale morning. Up ahead, a black gorged sky. I’m praying not Scallop Boulevard. Could 0 and the Pro-Residents be lighting up this early? I hug the peanut butter jar under my shirt. Last night, pretending sleep, I waited ‘til the dark stilled, the aromas of tea faded, Mamil snoring, Leeland out on the stoop, hushed voices, before I crept to the chamber pot, lifted the brick in the wall, and took my hard-earned stash.
By the time I snuck out, Leeland was gone. I kissed Mamil goodbye on the forehead, trying not to think about her waking, her waiting for me to come home with the tips, and waiting another day and another, and realizing I won’t be back, just like the others, and her easy surrender now, that children go. It hadn’t occurred to me though, that maybe it wasn’t just me who was leaving.
A group of boys run past me, sticks and shovels and bats in their hands, whooping and hollering. One of the skinnier ones grabs my arm, “Come on, come on, watcha wait for?”
The streets quiver alive the closer I get to the smoke beyond. The smell clogs thick in my nose, something hot, rubbery, chemically. Ash sprinkles the air. People open windows and peer, slam doors, jog, skip, shout toward the action ahead. The noise balloons into shattering glass, feet on asphalt, jumbled voices, dog barks, car engines, firecrackers, until everything is so loud it all turns into a humming in my chest.
I’m pushing my way through elbows, backs, shoulders, arms full of cereal boxes, strands of plastic beads, candles, hats. People pour out of stalls usually set up for the Milk Slurpers to fawn over. Sunscreen smells. Burning smells. Walls spray painted ‘Locally Owned’, ‘Don’t Other Us’, and ‘Not your Vacation’. Glass and coffee beans and dried clay and rice crunching under my feet.
The Drinking Stall is a few blocks up. I see the torn flag waving in the smoke. But how’s anyone going to see me in this mess. Let alone come here. Dr. Karam’s business partner, a Milk Slurper herself, is probably scared magicless, won’t dare come, charity or not, down payment or not.
The humming fills me. Let her be here, let her be here. Listen, Ig, hold me no more. Sprinting now, searching for that dash of bleached hair, the pumped lips, oversized goggles. The peanut butter jar burns my skin, pressed so tight against me, it’s ripping flesh.
A woman tries to shove a bundle of sweatshirts at me, the kind that say, ‘I braved the Calico Mountains’. She must think I’m cold, the way my arms wrap around my chest, around my money, my out.
At the Stall. Bottles smashed, guzzled, spilled. Alcohol mingling with soot. Still no sign of Dr. Karam’s business partner. The clock moves beyond 6am as I stand, turning this way and that, eyes hurting, jaw unhinged, an island in the middle of the fray. Sirens wail. Screaming. The black thickens and the orange tips of flame jump in the breeze, closer, closer.
I don’t budge.
“Ravi!” a voice behind me, and then beside me. Leeland, hair caked in gray, his glasses—those damn expensive things—fissured. Blood oozes from his nose.
“You’re here. I didn’t think you’d come.” He whacks me on the shoulder. I can’t see his eyes under those cracked and smudged lenses, but sense this unfiltered joy, the way he jumps about, shakes his head, an amped up bull. He grabs a bottle knocked over on the shelf, and splinters the neck on the counter, liquor spewing out.
“Untoured!” he yells, and drinks from the jagged mouth, hands it to me.
Him grinning, the bottle hanging, and I realize it’s not the chaos he’s happy about, it’s me, come to join, us brothers together, so he thinks, and do I have it in me to make him the fool?
I unfold my arms, take the bottle and just as I lift—ready for the heated liquid down my throat, ready to smash the glass, topple bar stools, shred tent flaps, shout, Untoured! the flames shimmying across dripping booze—I see her, Dr. Karam’s business partner, waving wildly at me from the street corner, hair hidden under a scarf.
She’s coming toward me, pumped lips, rich-clean and perfect, and Leeland’s in front of me, his smile never more real.
One hand holding up the broken bottle, the other wrapped about the peanut butter jar: it’s torture. Won’t the fire burn any faster.
About the Author
J Saler Drees currently resides in San Diego, land of the Kumeyaay People. Recent works have appeared in Dillydoun Review, Evening Street, Hypertext, Litbreak, Literally Stories, K’in, Rain Taxi and Yolk.