“Brothers, Regardless” by Amber Lee

“Brothers, Regardless” by Amber Lee

 

The restaurant was dim and cool inside, and the back mirror was as frosty as the glasses on the bar. Not many people were here this time of day, but just give it a few hours. There’d be a stampede of people through those doors guaranteed, probably for steaks and wine. A nice dinner for some out there, but not for Cicero. A little too rich for his blood, and not to mention his wallet.

“So, what’re you getting to eat?” Cicero asked. He’d hardly touched his drink so far. He wasn’t really thirsty for alcohol right now, but he’d gotten a glass anyway. Maybe his guest would get one too. A guy could hope for that.

His guest didn’t answer, and just kept staring at the menu.

“Anything you want, Ang. I’m treating.” He had enough of a windfall at the moment to afford that, at least.

Silence. The guest turned the page.

“…Need any help?”

The guest shook his head. A few minutes more, and he finally turned the menu around for Cicero to see. With one finger he tapped at a listing.

“The risotto, eh? It’s real good here.” Cicero smiled. “Good choice, Angelo.”

Angelo smiled too.

Cicero handled the order with the waiter, and got Angelo a refill on his water.

“So, how’s your studying?” Cicero asked. He glanced at the back of the departing server for a second before returning his attention to Angelo. “Been a while since I’ve been home.”

Angelo nodded. “It’s going great.”

Cicero didn’t understand too many of Angelo’s hand signs, but that sequence was unmistakable. Even if he hadn’t recognized it, he’d have been able to guess its meaning easily. Angelo had the biggest smile on his face.

“Excited, huh?” Cicero said. “My brother, going to college. Who’d ever have thought?”

Angelo had beamed like this only one other place before, back at that old neighborhood store they’d gone to when they were kids.

Cicero remembered the way Angelo had pressed his face against the window, breath fogging up the glass as he grinned at the thought of the barrels and baskets of candy inside. He could still hear himself yelling at Angelo for eating all the chocolate they’d bought by the time they got home.

He still regretted doing it, too.

“And then you’ll be mister medical school in a couple years.” Cicero said. “Up there with all those fancy professors.” He reached around and patted Angelo on the shoulder. “Real proud of you, making something of yourself.”

Angelo looked shyly down at the table, but he was still smiling.

“Hey…how are ma and pa?” Cicero kept his hand on Angelo’s shoulder, resting it there. “Haven’t seen them in weeks.”

“They’re alright.” Angelo signed back. But that smile of his was wavering. He looked into Cicero’s eyes.

Cicero knew full well what his brother was searching for. He drew his hand back.

“Listen, Ang, I know it’s not the nicest work in the world, but it’s all I got. I mean, can you see me going back to the docks with a leg like this? And it’s not like I’m going to go work at the grocery for peanuts. A guy like me can’t really live on that wage, can he?”

Cicero shrugged. “I’d survive, maybe, but you know how it is, don’t you? If I’m smart with my money now, I might be able to live the good life someday.”

Angelo’s gaze didn’t move an inch. His mouth twitched.

“I could get stuff for you, too. Help you out with school bills, set you up in a nice house. Ma and Pa, too. They’re getting older, and they need somebody to help with the finances. Besides just you, I mean.”

Angelo remained silent, staring at him. Strange how those baby blues could get so cold.

Cicero turned his eyes to a nearby table, looking over the two empty, red-cushioned chairs and the spotless tablecloth. He couldn’t stand having Angelo’s eyes burning into his soul anymore. What right had his brother to judge what he did with his life?

True, Angelo had helped him out back when he was basically bedridden. He’d kept him fed and as healthy as possible, and had assisted him with daily life to a degree that Cicero knew he never could have managed if their positions had been reversed. But for all that, his brother still didn’t have permission to rag on his line of work. It was the only job he could really get these days without the stares, the questions.

Well, not as many stares and questions, anyway. The guys weren’t really the most understanding crowd. They’d given him a nasty nickname at the last sit-down, after all.

“Look, I’m not the smart one.” He pointed a finger in Angelo’s direction, aiming right between his eyes. “That’s you. You’re the one who’s going to make it big, Mr. High Society

Doctor. Me, I’m different. Do some favors, keep my head down, and get paid. Nothing wrong with that.”

He shrugged again, taking a sip of his drink. “’Sides, I wasn’t the best in school.”

Angelo shook his head. “That’s a lie.” he signed. “You were better than me.”

“Only because the teachers didn’t call on you. You had to work harder to get noticed. But just look at how the tables have turned.” Cicero said. “At least I can hope to move up in this…this thing of ours. Then I’ll make more money than Pa ever did, at least.”

“They don’t like it, Cicero. They don’t like it at all.” After that, Angelo’s signing seemed to get more urgent. More upset. He started signing off a bunch of gestures that Cicero couldn’t understand.

“Who’s the ‘they’ you’re talking about? Ma and Pa?” Cicero asked.

Angelo stopped signing and nodded.

“Ang…hate to say it, but at this point, I don’t care what they like. They have you to make them proud. I gotta live my own life, and if they don’t like it, tough for them. I’ll send ‘em the money anyway, and they’ll spend it, too.” Cicero let out a sigh. After spilling his guts like that, he was glad he had a drink at hand. Maybe the alcohol would take the edge off.

He took a bigger gulp, watching his brother’s expression.

“Is that all you ever do, worry?” he said, setting the drink down. “Everything I do, worry, worry, worry. I can’t do anything without you getting upset. How’re you even going to work as a doctor, huh? Patients’ll give you plenty of stuff to fret over. Enough to give you a heart attack!”

Angelo looked away. He just sat there, studying the ice in his water and not signing a thing, for a good while. Then the food came and he homed in on the risotto. It was just as well that he did.

This lunch meeting had probably been ruined anyway. And to think Cicero had looked forward to it all week.

Amidst the clatter of silverware and glasses as he and his brother ate, Cicero heard the soft sound of footsteps on the carpet. There weren’t any other diners in this part of the restaurant, since he’d chosen this table for peace and quiet. That didn’t matter now, though, and overhearing a little side chatter might be a good distraction.

He felt a hand on his shoulder.

Oh. So it wasn’t just another restaurant customer, then.

“Hiya, C.” said the hand’s owner. “How’s tricks?”

“Malone! Didn’t think you’d be out this time of day.”

Cicero looked up at the man smiling down at him. The only occasions that he ever looked up at Malone were the ones where he was sitting down. The guy was short. But then, Cicero never could say he found himself to be the tallest person in the room either.

“Everything’s good. Hey, you ever meet my brother here?” He gestured across the table to Angelo. He realized it was the first time he’d looked at him after they both set fork to food.

Angelo looked uneasily over at Malone. He waved a little, too.

Malone laughed. “What’s the matter with him? Don’t he talk?”

“He doesn’t much.” Cicero replied. He noticed Angelo was shivering a little. Maybe it had gotten cold in the restaurant. Or…was Malone scaring him? Something in Cicero wanted to go over there and give Angelo a hug.

But no. He couldn’t do that in front of Malone.

Cicero hoped he’d leave, but no such luck. Malone sat down at the table and ordered a frosty one.

He took a big drink of it, foam frothing at his lips. “Something’s gotta be wrong with him.” he said as he put the mug down. “Guys that don’t speak always have something wrong with ‘em. Like this Mack fella I knew over on the south side, never said a word in his life. Then last year, they hauled him up the river ‘cause he shot up a bunch of guys over a bad card game.”

“That…that’s not like Ang, Malone. He’s not like the guy you’re talking about. Being quiet is just the way Ang is.” Cicero said, his quick answer surprising him. “He’s no different than you or me. Than any guy. Honest.”

But of course, there was something different about his brother. Angelo experienced the world differently than other people. He had a condition. His childhood doctor had said that much, plus that shrink he was seeing now had said the same thing. There were only a few situations and places he felt safe enough to talk in. For all the rest, he had his sign language. Or whatever it was called.

They’d had their arguments. Angelo wouldn’t talk when he needed to, and was a chatterbox just when Cicero needed him to shut up. It was frustrating sometimes.

But when Malone said what he did next, Cicero wished with all his heart that Angelo would say something. Do something. Respond like any strong guy would, with a punch to Malone’s motor of a mouth.

That he’d do anything but sit there, eyes wide and hands trembling, before bolting from the restaurant.

Cicero narrowed his eyes at Malone. Angelo, if he hadn’t left, would have known what that expression meant instantly. After all, he’d been on the receiving end of it many times.

But Malone only grinned, quirking an eyebrow. “What’d I do? I told ya, the guy’s crazy!” He laughed so loud Cicero’s ears rang.

Still laughing, Malone raised the mug and took a long drink. He put it down and breathed a loud, obnoxious sigh. Cicero could smell the beer on his breath already. “You’re strange people, you know that? You and your brother.” The smile was equally obnoxious. “Full-on Sicilians, I guess. That’s where it comes from. The sea air makes you all wacky in the head.”

Cicero was sure of two things now: that he had no more appetite, and that the meeting was over. This time, it was for keeps.

For the rest of the meal, Cicero just listened to Malone jaw off. But he barely heard what was said. It didn’t matter anyway. In the end, Malone left like he always did, a smile on his face as he waved without turning back. His fingers danced over his shoulder, like he thought he was a fancy blueblood. Cicero paid for the food and drinks, plus that big plate Malone had decided to order. That guy…he always skipped out before check time.

After sitting by himself for a while, Cicero went out the restaurant door. He stood under the shade of the dark green awning, blinking in the bright afternoon sun. Then he saw his brother, sitting on a nearby bench and gazing up at the sky.

He went over to Angelo, and laid a hand on his shoulder. He could feel the tremor beneath his palm.

“Angelo…Angelo, please. Look at me.” Cicero said.

Angelo didn’t even turn his head. Cicero sat down beside him on the bench anyway.

“Please. Look, I couldn’t do anything, alright?” Cicero hated the pleading note that had crept into his voice, but it couldn’t be helped. “I’ve talked to you about Malone before, before you met him today. He’s got his ways, and you have to live with that. Otherwise he gets unpredictable. The guys don’t like it either, but you know, their hands are tied. They know what he’s capable of.”

“…It’s done, Cicero.” Angelo said. “You don’t have to talk about it anymore.”

“Ang. Ang, don’t start crying on me now-“

“It’s done.” Angelo hesitated, but he laid himself against Cicero’s shoulder. Fresh tears sparkled at the corners of his eyes. “It’s over.”

Feeling like he had a pit the size of a grate in his gut, Cicero put an arm around his brother. It wasn’t long before he heard the sobs start.

Really, it was just like when they were kids. This was the second time he’d been brought back to the past today.

So many years ago, Ang had found a dead gull on the docks and cried about it for what felt like hours. No words could help, no candy or toys, and all Cicero could do was hold his younger brother and hope he’d be okay.

Time had changed so much about them, and about this city. But it seemed that some things never changed.

And Cicero felt sure, as he watched the clouds float freely above them, that some things never could.