“Is that him?” I ask Nina, tapping my finger on the television screen, at a man running out of a car.
“No, no that’s not him, that’s not Mikey.”
When Cops comes on Nina and I like to sit on the cheaply tiled floor in the living room. The edges turn up at some of the corners. Nina and I pick at the residue absentmindedly. We wipe the glue on the shirts of our matching pink cloud pajamas when our fingers get too sticky. We sit in front of the television, a boxy brown set heavier than me and Nina put together. We sit close enough to its thick screen for our mother to shout, “That’s not good for your eyes” if she catches us, but far enough away that we could scoot backwards if we hear the shuffle of her slippers or the sweep of the broom drawing near.
Cops isn’t a cartoon, so it falls into what Nina and I categorized as a “Real Life” show. If you look at the screen and then look beyond it, what you see is the same. “Real Life” shows are boring, dull. They lack in imagination and vibrant color, like the grown-ups who watch them. The only thing worse than a “Real Life” show is a “Real Life” show with puppets. “You can see the strings” I say on a number of occasions to Nina. How stupid do those kids on Sesame Street have to be to think Oscar the Grouch was in anyway near as real as Bananas in Pajamas? And doesn’t Mr. Rogers know those ugly dolls aren’t real royalty—that he is talking to a bunch of hands and calling them King and Queen? When Nina and I channel surf, and click past shows such as these, I picture the people we do not see. I picture the ducked heads and cloaked fingers, the hunched bodies and hidden faces.
Nina and I sang along to the Cops theme song, the only part of the show we really enjoyed. It was the least boring show on TV during weeknights, when the television lineup began its unwelcome transition from afternoon cartoons to “Real Life Shows,” news, and weather.
We clasped our hands, interlaced our pinky, ring fingers and middle fingers, jut out our thumbs and index fingers, our guns of flesh ready. Bad boys bad boys, watcha gon’ do, watcha gon’ do when they come for you?We bobbed our heads, rocked our shoulders, watching the montage of men in white t shirts running, cars speeding down highways, half naked women in small dirty apartments, turning their faces away from the camera.
When the theme song was over, one of us, whoever was nearest, switched the black knob on the side of the television a couple of clicks: 4, 3, 2, static, static, static, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9 11, 13, static, static, back around again 13, 11, 9, 7, okay 5 it is, Cops it is. The show was repetitive—there was always a car chase, a car crash, a man running out of the car, into the woods, into an alley, into the street, tripping over himself the closer the cops got. Why did they always run? Nina and I wondered. Don’t they know they’re going to get caught?
“They’re stupid,” I told Nina.
One night, my mother walked through the living room. Nina and I were sitting on the floor watching the show, shoulders slouched forward, resigned. She stopped a few feet away from us. I froze, sure she was about to yell at us for sitting so close to the screen. We didn’t hear her slippers. My mother pointed her chin at the television, holding an empty glass in her right hand.
“That’s just like your brother Mikey,” she said, extending her arm to point at the TV. She headed towards the kitchen, adding over her shoulder, “That’s what he does.”
I looked at Nina. Nina looked at me. Her expression mirrored mine: eyes the color of pencil lead opened wide, thick unruly eyebrows raised, mouth agape, a slight twitch at the corners of the mouth, signs of a smile.
“Did you hear what Mommy said?” Nina asked. We scooched closer to the television. I could feel the static tickle my nose. My mother passed through the living room again, her glass full of dark soda.
“Mommy, Mikey’s a bad boy?” I asked.
“Yup, that’s what he is. Watch, you’ll see. Keep watching and you’ll see him.”
So we did. Every episode where we couldn’t find him only meant we were getting closer. This sparked a newfound interest in the show for Nina and me. Our brother Mikey was on TV! I couldn’t remember the last time I saw him, the last time he asked me “what’s up” before my standard reply: “the sky”, the last time he bought me a twenty five cent ice cream cone from McDonalds, the last time we played airplane, his back pressed firmly on the black couch in the living room, his bare feet on my belly, hoisting me up so that I could pretend to fly, our interlaced hands shaking with the effort it took to keep balanced, to keep me in the air. We would play until he complained my armpits stunk or if I sneezed on his face mid-flight. “God bless you,” he’d say grudgingly.
Perhaps our mother’s amused smile as she walked away that night, suggests she knew she had begun a game of hide and seek between her only son and her youngest daughters. I wonder if she knew that it would be a game that would go on for years.
At that time, Nina and I didn’t understand what exactly our mother meant when she gestured at the television and said, “that’s what he does.” And we never learned. Even now, years later, I don’t know what my brother has done. And I don’t know where to find him.
“He’s sleeping by a river,” my mother says. “Your brother Mikey is sleeping by a river.”
- I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my mother in our small apartment in Bayonne, New Jersey. I just got home from my assistant job in New York City. I am in my usual just-got-home-mood—I don’t want to talk to anyone; I don’t want anyone to talk to me. The minute of silence I am afforded between entering our building and turning my key in the knob of our third-floor apartment is usually the only minute to myself I am afforded during the evenings. But on this night, as I make my way to my bedroom, my mother is uncharacteristically quiet. As much as I want to lay on my bed, I turn back and sit on the rickety wooden chair in our kitchen instead. The spine of the chair broke months ago. I am careful not to hunch over or lean back in my seat, otherwise I risk falling through. I glance at my mother’s back as she wipes down the kitchen countertop with a damp rag. I take a deep breath.
“You okay, mama?” I ask.
“Yeah” she says, while shaking her head no. She twists the rag in her hands before folding it and setting it down. “It’s not me,” she says before pulling an empty glass from the red dish rack on the counter and placing it on the table. The glass was recently washed. I glance at the droplets running down its surface, and then stare at the ones that are too small to move, that stay suspended on the glass, defying gravity. My mother shuffles towards the fridge barefoot, but then pauses when she reaches it, as if she has forgotten what she needs. “It’s your brother, Mikey” she says.
As soon as I hear Mikey’s name I have an urge to leave the room. Immediately, and almost instinctively, my hands fly up and grip the edge of the table. I am ready to push off against the chipped wood, slide my seat backward, and make my exit. I am sick of hearing about Mikey’s messes, having tuned out of the novella that is my brother years ago. But like the droplets on my mother’s glass, and like my mother’s hand on the refrigerator door, I remain still.
“What happened now?” I ask.
“He got into a fight with Kathryn’s dad again,” she says. Kathryn is Mikey’s drug addict girlfriend, whom he refers to as his wife. I have never met her. The little I know about Kathryn and Mikey’s relationship stems from overhearing their sporadic phone calls to my mother. The phone conversations usually consist of Kathryn calling my mother to tell her that Mikey is in jail, or Mikey calling to announce the same about Kathryn. The last I heard, Kathryn and Mikey lived in a small apartment in Iowa with two stray cats they took in but couldn’t afford to feed.
“Why were they fighting?” I ask.
“Kathryn’s parents don’t like him. They don’t get along.”
I want to tell my mother that this isn’t a good enough reason. I want to tell her that her answer isn’t really an answer and that something specific must have happened that night. But I figure that she is only repeating what my brother has told her. My brother Mikey who has always been more street than stable, my brother Mikey who blames his alcoholism on the friend that gave him his first drink, my brother Mikey who wrote me a letter on yellow legal pad paper when I was eleven years old, to tell me he was framed. My brother Mikey who does harm, but swears he speaks none, my brother Mikey who thinks he walks on water. No seriously, he tells people he can walk on water.
“He hurt his foot running away from the cops,” my mother says before opening the fridge door and pulling out the Brita filter. My shoulders sag and I lift my head up towards the ceiling, stifling a groan.
“Why was he running away from the cops?”
“He didn’t want to get arrested for beating up Kathryn’s dad.”
“And how did he hurt his foot?”
“Jumping out of the window.”
“What! What floor was he on? Is he crazy?”
“The second floor” she says before adding, “We need to help him.”
By we, my mother means me. She stares back at me, her youngest child and daughter, like she expects me to save him, her oldest child and only son. She does not tell me how to save him. She does not answer my question about whether Mikey is crazy. And I don’t ask the question that has been lingering at the back of my throat like bile for years, only now rising up and settling on the roof of my mouth like thick paste, Where was Mikey when I needed saving?
It wasn’t long after my mother and I talked that I started seeing Mikey everywhere. My brother manifested in my imagination during my daily commutes into the city. I saw Mikey in the greasy grey bearded man that slept against the wall at the 14th street PATH station, in the young brunette sprawled at the corner of Union Square outside Petco asking for spare change, in the scruffy elderly man that sat on a crate with an empty paper cup in hand outside the Dunkin Donuts on 6th Ave. But the closest I came to seeing Mikey was one evening on my way to Journal Square. A man in his mid-thirties like Mikey’s, wearing dingy wire rimmed glasses like Mikey owned, announced on the train car that he was homeless and hungry. When I exited the path train I struggled to find him in the crowd as people pushed onward towards the escalator. I spotted the Mikey-look alike standing outside the train door ahead of me, as if he were still deciding which direction to take. As I neared him, I held out a dollar bill and he gently removed it from my fingers. When he shoved the bill into his pocket, I briefly imagined the flesh under his shirt sleeve and thought how strange it would be if he had a skin graft on his forearm like Mikey does, pink, raised, and angry. I looked up at his smudged lenses, and glanced briefly at his eyes, wishing for the first time in years, that I was staring at my brother’s. “God bless you,” he said.
“God forgive me, I love my son, but he is sick in the head.”
My mother slides out the green stool she bought as a replacement kitchen chair from under the table. She sits across from me, sips her water, and then purses her lips. When my mother is lost in thought, she mouths words, almost imperceptibly. Her lips are word ghosts, reliving conversations on her face.
“Do you know what else your brother told me?” she says.
“What?” I ask.
“He told me that he’s Jesus. He told me that God sent him down to save the world.”
“Jesus?” I say. “He told you he’s Jesus?” This sounds like a joke. I feel a laugh coming on deep in my gut. I bite my inner cheek and stifle it. I know I shouldn’t find this funny. But this isn’t the first time I heard of Mikey and his moments of grandiosity, and they always happened when he was drunk. The image of my brother drunk dialing my overtly religious and eternally sober mother felt ridiculous, cartoonish even.
“Yeah he told me ‘Ma, I have to tell you, what people don’t understand is, I’m Jesus. Why do you think I always got my cross on? God sent me down from heaven to save the people, to save the world.’
“And what did you tell him?” I say.
“I said, ‘Mikey, you’re not Jesus. How can you be Jesus when I gave birth to you?’ She shakes her head before continuing, “And you know what he said to me? He said ‘but Ma, don’t you see? Don’t you see why you keep all those angels in your room? You’re Mother Mary.’” I drop my arms onto the kitchen placemat and lean my forehead on the crook of my left arm before finally letting out a laugh. The “angels” my brother was referring to are my mother’s figurines, adorned throughout her bedroom.
“And what did you tell him?” I ask.
“I said, “Mikey, God forgive me, you’re my son and I love you, but you’re sick in the head.” My laughing stops.
“And what did he say?”
“Nothing, he hung up on me.”
That night, I laid in bed and thought about my brother’s conversation with my mother. I thought about how ironic it was that Mikey had claimed to be the father of a religion, when the best thing Mikey has ever done, according to my mother, was never become a father. It’s a statement my mother has made so often that I cannot pinpoint the first time I heard it. For years, I agreed with her. But that night, as I thought about my brother, the brother I only knew in spurts, I realized how likely it could be that he has children he does not know. How very likely it could be that he left a child fatherless, the way my father left me and Nina. Then, I thought about my brother telling my mother he is Jesus on the phone, and I started to laugh. I laughed and laughed. I laughed even after I thought it wasn’t funny anymore. It was easier to sleep that way.
Angelica Roman earned her B.A. in Creative Writing from New Jersey City University in 2015. She is a recipient of The Walter Glospie Academy of American Poets Prize and The Kathy Potter Writing Award. Angelica enjoys writing poetry, fiction, and memoir on napkins and old memo pads. She explores her family history and Italian ancestry in her writing and is currently working on her book-in progress, tentatively titled The Man In the Dark Green Jacket.