Fall 2020, Volume 29

Fiction by Bill Schillaci

The Proper Order

I told Brett I would do him if he promised not to pee in my mouth. There was a grunt, which I interpreted as consent, but he peed anyway. Just a trickle, but there was no mistaking it for anything else. Without a murmur of protest, I rose from my knees, put my head in the sink as Brett fled the bathroom and with my hand cupped in many mouthfuls of cold water. After a time, it became apparent that no amount of rinsing was going to take away the salty infusion. A better idea, I thought, was to scorch it off with the miniature bottle of Grim Reaper habanero sauce I’d bought at a curiosity shop when we were spending a July weekend at a Jersey boardwalk. Mom rolled her eyes when I asked her for three dollars because I was entranced by the hooded figure of walking death on the label. Still, she handed over the bills. She was ahead of her time when it came to allowing her male children to be phenomenally odd as long as no blood was spilled.

I turned off the faucet and decided that the taste was not so bad after all.  The more I thought about it, the more I got, um, affected.  I looked in the mirror.

“So sick,” I told myself and smiled.

It was 1964, South Bronx, River Avenue, three blocks from the old Yankee Stadium when Mantle and Maris were batting third and fourth—or was it fourth and third? —something I tell people who today are surprised I know the difference between a line drive and a chorus line. I was fifteen and not a sports fan or an athlete, in contrast to Brett, my older brother by a year. There are two other brothers, but Brett was the shy one and I liked him the most, even before I started lusting for him after his swim meet. He marched out of the locker room at Astoria Pool with the other competitors for the 100-meter butterfly and pulled off his letter sweatshirt. Before this, I had no particular reason to pay attention to any part of Brett except mooning at his wavy Tyrone Power eyebrows. But now there was his back, cast in shadow and light under the midday summer sun. Above his girlishly tiny waist his rhomboid muscles elevated symmetrically from his spinal column and spread in smooth hillocks to his square shoulders. Brett had what I later learned bodybuilders call thin skin. This has something to do with the body not retaining water or having about three percent fat so that even if you don’t have big muscles, they seem so because every curve, sinew and vein appear to be bursting through the epidermis. How long, I asked myself, had I been living under the same roof with this? Once made aware that Brett resembled a Greek kouros, I kept finding excuses to accidentally walk into the bathroom when I thought he was stepping out of the shower or the bedroom he shared with Donny when the clock said he’d be changing into his PJs so I could catch a glimpse of that back and any other undraped part of him.

The peeing episode was preceded by months of alternately tortured and ecstatic fantasizing on my part and, I learned, at least an equal period of the same for Brett, but probably not about me. This I heard from Donny, Brett’s senior by a year, as I was senior by the same to Mike, who slept across from me in the third bedroom and still sucked his thumb when he thought I was looking elsewhere. Mom efficiently cranked out her four boys in a mere six years and then shut down production. She wasn’t yet thirty. After fourteen years of domestic management, she earned an RN degree at CUNY and was working at Lennox Hill the day I cornered Brett in the bathroom and told him I knew what he was up to.

“What am I up to?”

“That you’ve been jerking off into your gym socks every night. Sometimes twice a night.”

His face hardened and from his eight-inch height advantage he locked his hands around my neck and squeezed. I expected something like this and had planned my response—nothing, nothing at all, total non-resistance and a fetching flutter of my eyelids. The absence of self-defense threw him. The last time we’d fought—I think I was seven—I threw a fork at him across the kitchen—and missed—so he was probably expecting more from me.  Before my air circulation was cut, his grip loosened.

“Have you decided not to strangle me?” I cooed.

It was February, the sixteenth, a date chiseled into my memory. Brett’s splendid anatomy was cloaked in thick corduroy slacks and a woodsman’s flannel shirt. His expression went quickly from enflamed to heartbreak. He tried to walk out but I stepped in front of him.

“I can do something for you,” I said. “It will help.”

“This is none of your business, Jimmy,” he said miserably.

“All you have to do is stand there,” I said. After spelling out the single condition, I dropped down and went to work to the extent I understood the mechanics of the procedure. Brett squirmed a little but stayed put. Later it occurred to me that my comment about urination may have been the problem. It put the idea into Brett’s head and when it became apparent that we weren’t clicking, at least at Brett’s end, the idea became a leaky reality. Of course, I felt bad for Brett, but I was entranced by myself. I had actually accomplished it, what I had envisioned every day, maybe every hour of every day, from that revelatory moment at the swim meet. Well, what I had really envisioned was a little different, something more conventionally romantic—HAH!— in a bed, our parent’s king, actually, the place where Mom and Dad tried to iron out their unresolvable differences and, for brief stretches at least, succeeded enough to keep us all together.

Reluctantly, I stopped congratulating myself in the mirror and left the bathroom. For my brothers and me it was a vague neither-here-nor-there time of the day, after school and before dinner, the four of us drifting around the parentless apartment, knowing we should be at our homework but preferring to waste away the opportunity until the evening when the cops on the beat were home and we had no choice. I came across Mike reading his DC comics at the kitchen table and Donny ruining his dinner with potato chips and watching Queen for a Day.

“Where’d Brett go?” he said as I joined him on the couch.


“He ran out of here like he had a hot date.”

“Dunno. Who got the tiara?”

“The what?”

“The crown.”

On screen, the bedazzled victor with a fifties bob was draped in her momentary robe and seated on her momentary throne.

“She’s from Oklahoma. Her husband’s tractor rolled over his leg.”

“Did he lose it?

“Oh yes.”

Jacky Bailey began the promenade of prizes, a Hoover Dial-A-Matic, a Maytag washer and dryer, a Bassett sectional sofa, and a forty-four-piece set of Wedgwood Romantic England Blue tableware. The queen was smiling, a little forcibly, I thought.

“Her dreams come true,” I said.

“I bet they sell everything before it’s out of the box,” said Donny.

Of course the anticipation was building as the audience waited for the corker. This turned out to be a two-week all-expenses-paid vacation at the Caribbean Hotel in Aruba.  Upon their arrival at the airport, the broken farmer would be provided with his new motorized wheel chair and taxi service for the entire trip. Given that Aruba is the same geographic size as Brooklyn, there probably wouldn’t be much on the island the knighted couple couldn’t see if they wanted to. Finally, the audience got what it wanted as the queen’s Dust Bowl stoicism cracked and she started bawling. Donny turned off the TV and told me to do my homework.

“Fuck you,” I said. I put on my pea coat and went out to look for Brett.

The week before, it had snowed, twenty-one inches and two days of school closings. We all attended the Catholic high school near the bridge over the freight tracks. We were the Sullivans, but one short of the five fighting brothers who all went down in the same warship in the South Seas. Donny and I watched the movie on Channel 5 one drizzly Saturday afternoon. We’d never heard the story and sat in stunned silence as the screen went black, signifying that their cruiser had exploded under Japanese bombardment, and then Ward Bond playing a naval officer bringing the news to the parents. Their reactions were stupefying. Dad put on his cap and went to work at the railroad yard. Mom even smiled when Captain Bond said sure, he’d love a cup of coffee. Five sons! Who are these people?

It hadn’t warmed and the public athletic fields near the stadium were still cottony white and dreamily empty. For a while I waited and watched and wondered about Brett and me.  When the wind picked up, I walked across one pristine expanse, sinking past my ankles, cold but not wet by the time I reached the opposite side.  I continued to Jerome Avenue and under the El as the No. 4 clamored north, steel wheels hammering steel tracks, overwhelming all ambient sound. After climbing the 161st Street hill I cut around the county courthouse, reached Grand Concourse and headed south toward the high school. It’s not that I’d planned this route. Actually, I had no plan, except to find Brett, which was folly because except for the fields and blacktop courts where he played pickup basketball and before that center field on his little league team, I hadn’t a clue about where he went and what he did with his free time.  It made no sense that he would have headed to the school, for Brett a place of torment where some of the teaching priests, who were not distracted by his contributions to the school’s trophy case, hounded him mercilessly for his poor grades. The school was colossal, bigger than the courthouse, puke green on the outside and jam packed with three thousand respectfully dressed, groomed and behaved young Christian soldiers who filed in from every borough and parts beyond. Like most oversized things, the school and the people who ran it were simple-minded, marching lock-step to an ecclesiastical curriculum that contained only three foreign languages, one of which was Latin, obsessed with militaristic discipline, and riddled with outbreaks of jaw-dropping violence against those who strayed and could not fight back. Of course I was intoxicated by the place, acres of pink and pimply boyhood and gym classes twice a week followed by communal showers, all more than enough to compensate for a third world education.

Brett wasn’t at the high school. He was across the street. There was a little borough park named after a German officer who served the Union during the Civil War, and my brother was sitting on a sidewalk bench in front of it, hunched over and writing on a sheet of paper balanced on his thighs, an implausible sight in a winter landscape. When I sat next to him, he didn’t look up.

“What’s that?” I said.

“Job application.”

“For what?”

“Bakery assistant at Cohen’s Bagels.”

“Oy, from what do you know about baking?” My best friend Larry Fine had a live-in grandmother who talked like that.

“He said he’d teach me.”

“Who said?”

“Mr. Cohen.”

Of course he was making a mess of it.

“Jesus, Brett, that looks like you write with your feet. Here.”

I shifted on the bench and he placed the sheet against my back so he could write in his references, Dad, a couple of coaches at the high school, and his boss the summer before when he sold magazine subscriptions door-to-door. I stayed still, feeling the faint circular pressure of his fingertips through my coat. I tried not to make more of this than it was, business. But it was hard not to drift.

We walked back the way I had come, around the courthouse to 161st Street. Cohen’s was midblock, in terms of square footage the biggest small business on the street, although the place didn’t have much in it except a counter, four or five clear plastic bins with assorted bagels, a cooler behind the counter with tubs of cream cheese and some pink slabs of lox on trays, a coffee maker and a few beat-up tables and chairs scattered across the unnecessarily spacious floor space on the customer side. In addition to being the only dedicated bagel business in the Melrose area, Cohen’s was a well-known pickup spot for the local numbers racket. Mom told me later that this had something to do with Cohen’s young wife, whose uncles occupied the absolute lowest rung in the Jewish mafia. Cohen, in a white tee shirt and white full-length apron, came out from the kitchen and sat with Brett and me at one of the tables.

“Who’s this?” Cohen said.

“My brother Jimmy.”

“You want work too?”

I shook my head. Cohen studied me.

“You come in here with Larry Fine,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Sunday mornings. Bakers dozen.”

“What about church?”

“Church, sure, I go. Sometimes.”

Cohen looked thoughtful. He’d had enough contact with the local Irish and Italian subpopulation to know that “sometimes” wasn’t in the Catholic vocabulary. As children, our parents emigrated from Ireland, Dad from the Midlands, Mom from Cork. Dad became a lawyer, worked in the Wagner administration and was involved in a suit to rid the city of gay bars in anticipation of the World’s Fair. Mom commenced with baby making and along the way joined the League of Women Voters. Inspired by her pinko girlfriends, one day she boldly confided in her confessor that following the birth of their fourth heir, Dad would be using condoms. The gentle Franciscan friar informed her that should they take that path, neither would be welcomed at his church. The threat caused some short-term fear of the Lord, but Mom ultimately chose reason over religion. She still considered herself a Catholic and never discouraged us from practicing the faith, but neither did she encourage it. Dad was out of the picture, having ceded matters of the here and the after to Mom.

Cohen squinted at Donny’s application. 

“What, you write this when you wiping your ass?” said Cohen.

Brett blushed. I was sitting at Cohen’s side and I leaned over to glance at the sheet.

“Brett, you didn’t put in your work at the Salvation Army,” I said.

“What’s that?” said Cohen.

Brett’s eyes sunk to the table. Among us, he was the closest thing to a true Christian, an instinctual believer in Jesus’ commentary on charity, the thing about not letting your left hand know what your right is doing. I, on the other hand, had made the un-Biblical decision that the advice did not apply to job hunting. I tapped Brett’s calf with my foot and urged him with an eye-popping glare.

“Uh, I volunteer, holidays and some Saturdays,” he said.

“You cook?” said Cohen.

“Sort of. I chop, you know, carrots, celery. And I stir the stew. Mostly, I just fill the bowls and then wash them after.”

Cohen nodded and wrote something in the margin of the application.

“And he coaches, that’s not there either,” I said, my forefinger jabbing the air above the application.

“Coaches what?”

“Swimming,” said Brett.

Cohen waited. So did Brett. I’d never had a job interview in my life, but it was crystal clear to me that I should not take lessons from Brett.

“He does it at Cascade Pool,” I said. “Little kids.”

Brett looked embarrassed. Cohen nodded again. Cascade was the neighborhood private club, frequented mainly by the local Jewish families who didn’t send their kids to camp.

“You need to get working papers at high school,” Cohen said.

“I have already,” said Brett, more news to me.

“Okay, I give you a call.“

We all stood. Cohen and Brett shook hands.

“You be a lawyer some day, like your daddy,” Cohen said to me with a sly grin.

“Why do you want to work?” I said to Brett after we left.

“That’s what people do, Jimmy. You think you’re going to get through life just being cute?”

“It’s worth a try.”

In a matter of minutes, the winter light above the dun-colored tenements north of the stadium went from dim to non-existent. Brett stopped at the edge of the playing fields.

“Let’s go in,” he said.

“I already did. See the footprints?”

“I don’t see anything.”

“It’s late.”

Brett stepped over the low chain fence and plowed ahead, kicking as much as walking, spraying hard pieces of the crusty snowfall before him.  I followed through the furrow he left behind. Near the middle of the field, he turned and faced me. It was abrupt, it was odd. I stopped also and didn’t close the distance between us.

“Come here, Jimmy.”


He waited, his form, buttressed by shadows, looking twice his size, his face unseeable. I took a few baby steps toward him. There was an interval, no more than the space between two anxious heartbeats, but long enough for a primordial fear to flip through my stomach. A thump against my chest propelled me backward, arms flailing, and onto the thick mat of snow. Brett moved in and hovered over me. I was surprised, but only for a moment.

“Get up,” he said.

I did, slowly, one hand, knee and foot at a time, bracing myself as much as I could. Courteously, I thought, Brett waited until I was ready. This time, even in the gloom, I saw it coming, a single blunt thrust with his right-hand palm, harder than the first, squarely against my sternum delivering me to the ground in exactly the same configuration, flat on my back, as the first blow had. From below, I observed Brett and the blue-light YANKEE STADIUM letters hovering regally above him.

“This is fun,” I said, cranking myself to a sitting position and then to my knees. “Do I get to push you too?”

Brett was silent. Poor baby just didn’t get irony. While he wrestled with my question, I made my move, a lunge straight from my knees. I was aiming for his midsection, but one foot slipped and I barely reached him, my shoulder feebly impacting his ankle. I half groaned, half laughed, hanging on. Shockingly, Brett fell. Actually, he toppled utterly as if a prodigious swing from a baseball bat had knocked him out cold. Thinking, nonsensically, that my pathetic counterattack had caused this, I pressed my advantage, scrambling on top of him, locking his arms with my legs and raising my fist. This close and with the aid of the big overhead letters reflecting off the snow, I saw Brett’s eyes fixed on me and eerily calm. That’s where everything stopped, me straddling my brother, blowing chunks of white breath, ready to strike, him immobile, as unperturbed and soft as he could be in those sheaths of muscle, looking at me lazily as if he was drifting into an afternoon siesta.

Instead of slugging him, I sat down on his belly. He didn’t slap me off, so I scooted south a bit until my butt was exactly where I’d been yearning for it to be. We waited. I tried to move things along with a little backdoor shimmy. I wondered in a hazy way how it would work if Brett fucked me right there in the middle of a snow-covered field. The cold wouldn’t be an obstacle; I hardly felt it, and Brett probably felt it even less. Actually, I wasn’t feeling much of anything even though it seemed that Brett, after the obligatory reminder of physical superiority, was leaving things up to me. I bent over so my face was inches from his, close enough to see flecks of ice on his cheeks and in his hair. I wanted him to say something to me, but words weren’t Brett’s strong suit. The image of him lost and bewildered by the challenge of impressing Cohen flashed in my head. With my gloved hand, I dusted the ice off his face. Brett blinked boyishly.

“There,” I said. “My dashing brother.”

That words hung there, between us, another moment frozen in time. Then Brett flicked his head sideways, just enough for me to know we were done here. I hoisted my leg over him, got to my feet and wordlessly headed home across the blue-white expanse. After a while I heard the crunch of his following footfalls.

“Don’t say anything to Mom,” Brett said behind me as we climbed the stairs to our apartment.

“Ah, Brett, you know this has to be our little secret?”

“I mean about Cohen’s, the job.”

 “Why not?”

“It doesn’t mean anything until I get hired.”

I puzzled over this until we walked through the door where Mom ambushed us. Of course she had to pick this day to catch a bug at work and come home early. She lashed into us for being out past dark on a school night and then crashed in her bedroom with a damp towel over her face.  

After Brett and I finished off our cold dinner, Donny cornered me in the kitchen as I cleaned up.

“What were you two up to?”

“Building a snowman in Macoombs.”

Donny shook his head and walked out. He knew it was futile to pressure me when I was playing hard-to-get. Donny wouldn’t bother questioning Brett. The two weren’t getting along, something about Donny being the second string shooting guard, right behind Brett. Both were feeling they’d been stuck with the wrong roommate. Donny had seniority and could have easily asked to switch to the other bedroom and have Mike or me move in with Brett. But that would have upset the proper order of things, which Donny followed, which we all followed. So living conditions stayed as they were until Donny graduated and went off to SUNY Oswego and Brett had the room to himself.

Oh, and Brett didn’t get the job at Cohen’s. The son of a bitch gave it to Larry Fine.




BIO: Bill Schillaci is freelance writer who covers the environment and worker safety. He lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey.