We were all seated around a miserable spread. Lumpy, gray mashed potatoes lying in a messy heap on top of a chipped ceramic plate. A big bowl of watery corn straight from the can. Creamed spinach that was more gelatinous than creamy. Drug store wine that tasted more like window cleaner than merlot. Dust was falling over the table from the whirring ceiling fan. My brother, Stanley, used to cook all our meals. We were all so busy staring at the empty seat at the table that none of us served ourselves any food. Out in the living room, the Mayweather Cotto fight was on. For two months, Stanley wouldn’t stop going on about the fight. I paid the sixty bucks for the pay-per-view because I thought it would be a shame to miss it, but I couldn’t bear to watch.
Stanley had a big bout lined up for the night after he was arrested. He was lazing around the house, too hungry to do anything because he was five pounds overweight and doing anything he could to shed them before the weigh-in. When the police came to our house, Stanley was taking a salt bath to suck all the water weight out of his body. Mom and Maddie were both at work. Maddie had taken a job at the gas station and Mom was a teller at the bank. I had just been fired from my warehouse gig, so I was home.
They didn’t knock. They barged right in holding their pistols out in front of them, scanning the house. When they got to the bathroom, Stanley stumbled out of the bathtub and fell down on the floor right in front of them. One of the officers dropped his knee on Stanley’s back while another grabbed his feet and another slapped the cuffs on him.
At the table, I kept replaying the image of them dragging him out in his underwear, and I kept wondering if he knew I was home and that I saw. Mom started to scoop some mashed potatoes onto her plate. Maddie prodded at the creamed spinach with her fork. I kept my plate empty.
“Any news from the lawyer?” Maddie asked.
“It looks like they’re going to take a plea bargain,” Mom said.
“Why the hell would they do that?” I said, loudly.
“So he’ll get less time,” Mom said, looking down at the potatoes.
“He won’t get any time if he just pleads not guilty!” I yelled.
Mom shoved a big spoonful of mashed potatoes in her mouth. Maddie took a swig of wine. I got up, grabbed my keys, and slipped out the backdoor. My next-door neighbor, Ralph, was taking out the trash. He was wearing a dirty wife-beater and a torn pair of denim shorts. We made eye contact and then he turned away and strode back into his house that was falling apart. The pieces of paneling that weren’t missing had turned a pasty yellow. He covered up a broken window with a big piece of plywood. On the garage door, someone had spray painted the word shit in huge swooping letters. I got in my car, a beat-up Civic that me and Stanley saved up for together. I turned the key in the ignition and the engine stuttered a few times before starting.
I drove down to the gym where Stanley was training. The owner, Carlos, was his long time friend and trainer. I opened the door and the smell of sweat hit me harder than usual. I walked up to the guy at the front desk and asked of Carlos was around. He told me that Carlos stepped out to grab lunch and that he would probably be back soon. So I walked out onto the gym floor and stood by the ring to watch these two mismatched guys spar, a real David and Goliath kind of deal. There was this big ape of a man in red trunks squared up against a short stocky guy whom I had seen around the gym a few times swinging his stubby arms fiercely against the heavy bag. I watched him land a few good body shots. He probably couldn’t reach the guy’s head if he tried. He danced around the big guy, sneaking in as many punches as he could, but once the chubby little guy tired out, the big guy went right for his head with these brutal sweeping hooks and put him right down on his ass. The bell rung as he stumbled to get up. The big guy patted him on the back and hopped out of the ring. The little guy rolled out under the bottom rope. He reached into his duffle bag by the ring for his water bottle, then tilted his head back and squirted water all over his face, getting some in his mouth. He dried off his face with his tank top, revealing his hairy pot belly. He caught me looking at him and he came over to me.
“Hey, you’re Stan’s brother, yeah?”
“I am,” I said. “My name’s Chase.” I stuck my hand out and he shook it.
“I’m Ray,” he said. “It’s a shame about your brother. We all do stupid things. I’m sure he had his reasons.”
“I know my brother. He didn’t do it.”
“You’d know better than me, I guess. Word around the gym is that he’s taking a plea bargain.”
Carlos must have told him. Stan tells everything to Carlos and Carlos won’t keep his mouth shut about anything. I didn’t feel like saying anything back to Ray.
“I don’t know how that got around. He’s pleading not guilty,” I said.
“Well thank God for that. The guy’s got a lot of potential. He’s got fists like Hams and he throws em’ like cannon balls.”
“I know. I’ve taken a few of those to the face,” I said, laughing.
“I don’t envy you. That mongoloid who just laid me out is the guy who took Stan’s spot last minute.”
“There’s worse things in this world than taking a beating. Thought it’d be fun.”
We shared a good laugh and the bell rung again and he went off to hit the heavy bag. I saw Carlos come through the door and I went over to him. He had a bag of Mickey D's and was sucking from a large drink. He put his arm over my shoulders and brought me into his office. The door opened to a long narrow room with a desk at the end sitting in front of a dirty window with a gorgeous view of the dumpster in the alleyway. Bookshelves filled with dusty boxing mementos went along the walls on either side, old photos of fighters he’s trained, photos of his own fighting days, even the gloves he wore in his first fight. The black and white checkered linoleum tile switched to moldy gray carpet mid-floor. He had a photo on his desk of him and Stanley from his first amateur fight. Carlos was hugging Stanley’s big sweaty body in the middle of the ring. You could see his opponent in the background with his trainer pressing a towel against his bloody nose. I sat in the chair in front of Carlos’s desk and he slapped his hands down on my shoulders and started rubbing them.
“How’s it going, champ?” he asked. “How ya’ holding up?”
“Not great, I guess.”
“Yeah, this is all a real shit show, isn’t it?”
“A fucking travesty is what it is.”
“I’m sure your brother had his reasons for what he did. He’s a good kid. Not the type to go around mugging people for the fun of it.”
“You really think he did it? Come on. This is Stan we’re talking about.”
Carlos took a swig of his soda, took a bite out of his burger, and stuffed some fries into his mouth with the burger still in it “Either way, Stan’s copping a plea, so he must not feel too good about his chances of convincing a jury he didn’t do it,” he said, chewing his food like a horse. “Now I’m no lawyer, but with all those robberies they got him pegged with, he could be looking at some serious time. With the plea bargain, he could be out in just a couple years, a slap on the wrist.”
“This has got to be that piece of shit public defender’s idea.”
“Chase, you and Stan are like my children. This whole thing sits just as bad with me as it does with you. One of the things you’re going to have to learn about the real world, kid, is that people do stupid shit. Sometimes it’s your brother doing stupid shit.”
“Don’t give me that shit, Carlos.”
Carlos shrugged and took another bite out of his burger. He leaned back in his chair, chewing his food carefully and looking at me with a curious stare.
“Stanley’s a great kid, a tough kid, a real fighter. He’ll get through this,” Carlos said.
I glanced back down at the picture of Stanley and him, then I got up, told Carlos I’d see him later, and marched out of his office. The smell of sweat hit me again and the chaotic symphony of leather hitting leather was dizzying. It was almost midnight. Carlos kept the gym open as late as possible so that the poor guys stuck working late shifts could get some training in. Stanley used to come in and train from 11pm to 2am after working from 2pm to 10pm as a waiter at this fancy shithole in downtown Manhattan where the fat cats loosen their ties over some pretentious food. I left the gym as fast as I could, making sure to wave goodbye to Ray first.
I got back in my car and put the key in the ignition. I turned the key and, again, the engine sputtered a few times before starting and roared like an RC car. I drove past the mile stretch of abandoned stores with boarded up windows and crumbling facades. I drove past the stores jus waiting to be abandoned, brandishing their big yellow GOING OUT OF BUSINESS signs. I drove past the worn-out houses with the dead grass and thriving weeds out front. I stopped in front of my house. I came in through the side door as quietly as I could to try not to wake my mom and Maddie. The lights were still on in the kitchen and the dishes were piled up in the sink. Most of dinner went into the trash. I went down into the basement and walked along the dusty, cluttered floor to get to Stanley’s bedroom. The flimsy gray door with the rusted knob opened up to a spotless white-walled room with a perfectly made bed against the center of the back wall. His room was the most immaculate room in the house. The only immaculate room in the house. I went over to his desk and started looking through it. He had a few books, mostly boxer biographies. He had a journal where he tracked all of his workouts and everything he ate throughout the day. He kept a framed photo of the family. Stanly stood in the middle, towering over the rest of us. He had his arms around me and Maddie. Mom stood in front of Stanley because she was too short to block the picture anyway. I opened up one of the drawers and found a rubber band ball, a few paper clips, some loose change, and a couple dollar bills. I walked over to his dresser and started trying on some of his clothes, which was all enormous on me. It was mostly just hoodies and sweatpants. But he had one suit in case he somehow ever landed the desk job he always wanted but never wanted. I sat on the edge of his bed and sat quietly for a while, careful not to mess up the perfectly laid sheets. I realized I was exhausted, so I laid down.
I woke up next morning in Stanley’s room wearing one of his over-sized hoodies. It was already past noon. I went back upstairs to eat breakfast, not because I was hungry, but because I couldn’t remember when the last time I ate was. Mom was at work. Maddie was in the living room watching some daytime soap opera. I smelled maple syrup and went into the kitchen without Maddie noticing me. She had made pancakes with blueberries cooked into them and saved me a nice tall stack of five. I poured syrup all over them and sat down on the kitchen counter to eat. They were delicious, the best thing I had eaten since Stanley was arrested, not that I had eaten much.
“I see you found the pancakes,” Maddie said, strolling into the kitchen. “Get your butt off the counter. It’s unsanitary.”
I got down from the counter and thanked her for breakfast. She was wearing her gas station uniform and had her dark hair tied up in a tight bun. Below her lively green eyes were dark purple bags. Below the dark purple bags were light freckles speckled against her milky white skin.
“You know, Stanley’s visiting hours are at three o’ clock. You have time to get over there if you hurry,” she said. “I was going to go, but I’m not feeling well and I figured you’d want to see him.” “I’ll do that,” I said, finishing up the pancakes in record time. I gave her a kiss on the forehead and put my plate in the sink. I went upstairs to my bedroom to get ready. My bedroom door opened to a squalid ten by fifteen foot sty. In the twenty years I’d lived there, I’d cleaned it only a handful of times. I still had my childhood superhero posters hanging up on the walls, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk. I had a big bin of action figures in the corner surrounded by a pile of dirty clothes. I stepped over another pile of dirty clothes to get to my closet and fished out a pair of old sneakers. I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth, staring myself down in the mirror the entire time.
I trotted back down the stairs and out the side door. The sun was shining bright, but the air was still frigid somehow. I got in my car and drove past the crumbling houses, past the dwindling businesses, past the forsaken shops, and got onto the highway. The highway was vast and empty. I pushed the rickety Civic as fast as it could go, maybe twenty miles over the speed limit. I blazed along the right lane past the towering trees that grew along either side of the road. I looked dead straight ahead the whole time and, before long, I was taking an exit into a town I’d never been to before. I drove past the houses that seemed to line up for miles, each one looking identical to the one before with their pristine brick walls and luscious lawns. I came to a long open road paralleled on each side by tall fences topped with barbed wire. Not far away, I could see the jail where Stanley was being held.
I pulled up to the entrance that looked like a highway toll booth where a portly old man with a thick gray mustache greeted me disinterestedly. I told him I was there to visit my brother and he lifted the orange bar that blocked the entrance. I parked my car and walked over to the heavy metal doors that were designated for visitors. The doors opened up to a sterile looking room with a few chairs and a guard standing behind a plexiglass window. I walked up to him slowly and he watched me carefully as I did. I told him I was there to see my brother. He told me to sign in and he led me through a narrow corridor into a room with a metal detector and a couple more security guards, one of them holding a dog by a leash. They told me to empty out my pockets. I reached into my hoodie pocket and pulled out my car keys and placed them in the plastic bin next to the metal detector. I walked through the metal detector without a problem then one of the security guards stopped me and patted me down. The other guard came over with the dog and the dog quickly sniffed me all over. I grabbed my keys and one of the guards led me into the visiting room where dozens of plexiglass windows were lined up against the back wall. I was a little bit relieved to see that most of the windows were being used. The guard led me to the scratched-up window at the very end where Stanley was waiting for me. I sat down in front of Stanley and he fought back a tear. I did the same. His dark brown hair was getting long and sitting in a greasy heap on top of his head. He was sporting a five o’ clock shadow and purple bags under his eyes. He picked up the heavy black phone on the wall next to him and I did too.
“Hey, little bro. I see you’ve taken to wearing my clothes while I’ve been away,” he said, laughing.
“I’d hate to see them go to waste.”
“How’s everything? How are Mom and Maddie? How’s Carlos?” he asked.
“They’re all good.”
“I’m good. Tired, but good. How are you holding up?”
“Good. As good as I can, I guess.”
“Any of these guys giving you trouble?”
“Come on, man. Have you seen me? I’d knock any of these punks on their ass any day.”
Stanley looked to his side to see if any of the other guys heard him. I looked to my left and saw the long row of visitors, some crying, some laughing, some yelling. The guard told one of them to quiet down. I looked back at Stanley and noticed the tan jumpsuit that made him seem paler and pastier than usual. I saw his hand on the counter in front of him nervously tapping his fingers.
“So when are you going to be out of here? We have to get you back in the ring as soon as possible.”
Stanley opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out and he tried again. “It looks like it’ll be a few years,” he said.
“You mean you’re really taking that fucking plea bargain?”
“I could be looking at some serious time if I don’t. I’d practically be an old man by the time I got out.”
“Stan, what about boxing? Everything you’ve worked towards? You’re just going to let that all go down the drain?”
“I told you, Chase. If I don’t take this plea bargain, I could be in here til I’m forty. And then what? I will have spent my all my fighting years in prison.”
“I know you didn’t do it, Stan. You can fight this.”
He looked down at his hands. He fought back a tear. He looked back up at me. I opened my mouth to speak again but I couldn’t form words. All I could focus on was how my reflection in the window lined up so perfectly with his face.
Bismarck Martinez is a native of Queens, New York and a reluctant migrant to Long Island. He is a student at John Jay College in NYC where he also works as a writing tutor and serves as editor and chief of the student creative writing journal, The Quill. His work has been previously featured in The Monarch Review and Poetry Quarterly.