Charlie had an older brother named Rob. I liked Rob. I thought he was a good guy, but I could never let on because of how jealous Charlie would get.
“You’re always taking his side,’ he’d insist, no matter what we were talking about. “Why don’t you just admit you wanna fuck him? Then you ain’t gotta be such a dirty fucking liar no more. You fucking liar. Whore.”
Rob was big, but not nearly as big as Charlie. He didn’t have to be. He was still scary when he lost his temper which, thank God, wasn’t often. And he did seem to have a gentle side. There were glimpses, here and there.
Rob looked after the kids in the neighborhood. He fixed their bikes. He bought them juice and cereal when their mothers had nothing in the fridge except beer. Old ladies adored Rob. He drove them to the check cashing place and stopped at the Mini Mart on the way back so they could get their scratch offs. When Rob had money, he filled big aluminum pans with cat food and left them by the back door of the house. All the strays came to eat. When he was broke, he shot at the same cats with a bb gun.
Buried beneath all the mean parts, there was goodness. Charlie was wired similarly, but he wasn’t nearly as nice.
Rob kept everyone at arm’s length – to protect himself, maybe. He had to. None of us were trustworthy. But I could tell he hated me the least. He grabbed me by the elbow one afternoon when Charlie was off somewhere getting high.
“Is he still hitting you?” he asked, turning my wrists over and pointing to the bruises on the inside of my arms, where Charlie liked to twist the skin.
“It’s not so bad.”
“You know, I used to think you were smart, when you first started coming around here. But now, I realize you’re an idiot.”
“You don’t mean that, Rob.”
“Sure, I do. You think you can change my brother? He’s a fucking beater. You ain’t worth shit to him. Everybody warned you. Mom, cops. They’ll keep telling you. He’s gonna kill you someday, stupid. It may happen by accident, but that don’t matter. You’ll still be dead.”
Rob did two and a half years on a robbery charge upstate. He got off the needle when he went to prison and stayed clean the whole time I knew him. The boys smoked crack in the house so he moved into a small Budweiser trailer they kept in the front yard.
Rob’s aluminum home had a door, and he cut a hole in one of the walls to let air and light in. Winters on the water could be bone numbing, especially in a little metal box. Rob remedied this situation by running a heavy duty extension cord up the steps of the house and into the kitchen so he could power a space heater and not freeze to death in his sleep. Come July and August, he enjoyed the artificial breeze of a box fan.
I never set foot in the trailer. Rob kept to himself, and he didn’t need company. His only occasional guests were the prostitutes who called to him around the clock. They hollered into his homemade window, hoping for the opportunity to swap goods for services.
“Rob, you in there?” You got a cigarette for me?”
“Janey needs one, too. C’mon, Rob. Help us out.”
“Scram, bitches. I’m sleeping.”
“Go wash yourselves.”
“We will. Just let us have a few puffs.”
“You smell like piss. Get outta here.” He scolded them like a disappointed parent.
The girls in Harding Park scared me. They wandered up and down the road that stretched along the jetty, waiting for men in cars to stop and ask how much. I’d convinced myself I wasn’t like those crackheads. I had a job and a place to live. I bought my drugs with my own money. I was just there visiting.
Charlie’s mother, Mabel was a tough old lady. The boys broke her leg one night during a fight. They fell on top of her while she was trying to pry them apart. When they asked her how it happened at the hospital, she wouldn’t say. She loved her sons and didn’t want them to get in more trouble than they already were.
Mabel owned the house they all lived in. She paid the bills whenever she could. Rob worked odd jobs and gave her money regularly, with which she bought groceries and cooked for everyone who was hungry and needed a meal. After supper, she fed the dogs in the kitchen. The ones that fought over food ate on the porch.
One night while Mabel scraped leftovers into the outside bowls, she heard a noise and saw something tearing open the plastic bags in the garbage can. She called to Rob who grabbed a woolen afghan off the back of the couch. Together, they creeped into the darkness and flung the quilt like a dragnet over whatever was out there. The sounds it made were exactly like what I imagine a lady being murdered sounds like.
They gathered up their bizarre prize and hurried back inside before the police came. When Rob unwrapped the blanket, a magnificent blue and yellow macaw flapped its wings and crashed repeatedly into the ceiling, frantic for a way out. She clearly did not see herself as having been saved. She lurched and careened from chair to table, screeching and shitting everywhere. Eventually, the poor thing came to rest on the shower rod in the bathroom, panting and sobbing, “Raw! Raw!”
“She practically knows my name,” Rob said. He looked almost happy.
There wasn’t any room for Mackey to stay in the trailer. Plus, the temperatures in winter and summer made it dangerous. Instead, Rob built a five foot pen and bolted it to the floor in the living room so nobody in the house would get any ideas about stealing his bird. He put a padlock on the door. There were two keys. He kept one, and Mabel wore the other around her neck on a shoelace.
Rob fed Mackey people food – sweet potatoes, macaroni and rice. He cut up fresh fruits and vegetables. He made treats from strips of rawhide rolled in peanut butter, covered in bird seed and crushed nuts.
Mackey was a mean motherfucker. If you got too close, she’d growl in a menacing way. She only loved Rob. She recognized the sound of his truck pulling up in front of the house. She fluffed her feathers and swung from the rope that hung from the center of her crate. When she saw him, she screeched with delight like a lovesick fool.
Charlie’s cousin, Pete lived in a tent on his dead mother’s property. Her house burned down the year before, and he had nowhere to go, so he slept on the ground. For a while, he had two dogs that kept him safe from the other crackheads who tried to collect on the debts he owed or steal what little he had. But he couldn’t take care of anything, and the dogs ran off.
Pete pushed a shopping cart around the neighborhood, digging through dumpsters and other people’s garbage for stuff he could trade for liquor and dope. Maybe Pete was 45, but he looked a thousand years old. He hadn’t a single tooth left in his head, his fingernails were long and sharp. His body curved forward and back, in the shape of a question mark. Cousin Pete wasn’t long for this world.
One afternoon, Pete stopped by to see Rob. He wasn’t allowed in Mabel’s house anymore because he stole meat from the freezer, and she put him out. He waited by the cars while Rob finished taking a shower, pacing back and forth in the street, ranting and raving about this friend of his who told him some important news Rob absolutely needed to hear.
Rob came to the doorway wearing a Muppet Babies beach towel around his waist. He stood there cleaning his ears with a Q-tip and examining what he found. “What do you want, Pete? I ain’t got all day.”
“I know that’s right, cuz. You’re a very busy man. I see how busy you are. You’re straight up, Rob, and I respect that.”
He rattled on and on about a story he’d heard from someone who knew somebody that saw something on the news where two junkies broke into the bird sanctuary at the Bronx Zoo and took off with seven or eight parrots.
“How much you think something like that costs? A parrot,” he asked, checking Rob’s face for a reaction. “Anyway, my friend told me people were saying you had something to do with it. That maybe you had some kind of fancy bird up there in Aunt Mabel’s house you ain’t telling nobody about.”
“I’m going inside,” Rob said, turning back toward the kitchen.
“Hold up, hold up,” Pete begged. “I just thought maybe if I told you what they told me, you might wanna, you know, speak your truth and what not. Then I could go back to my friend and let him know there ain’t no reason to be wondering about what you did or didn’t do. You follow what I’m saying?”
“No. Get off my property, Pete.”
“C’mon, cuz. You gotta know I respect your privacy. All I’m saying is how everybody needs to mind their own fucking business. Am I right? Pete didn’t wait for an answer. “But if I could just come inside, maybe use the bathroom and get a little something to eat, I’d be so grateful.”
If you leave right now,” Rob said, “I won’t have to shoot you. Your choice.”
“Rawb! Rawb!” Mackey squawked through the living room window when she heard the sound of his voice.
“You hear that?” Rob asked as he took one last drag off his cigarette and flicked the butt toward Pete’s shoes. “You go tell your friend I got his mother inside my house, and I gotta get back to her.”
Rob shut the door and rummaged through the toolbox that he kept locked and chained to the radiator in Mabel’s bedroom. He reached into Mackey’s cage and pulled her from her perch. Tucking her body under his armpit, he pried the ID band off her leg with a pair of pliers. She screamed the whole time.
High on crack, I spent hours staring into Mackey’s cage, trying to fix Charlie with the power of my mind. I worried whenever he disappeared and waited in fear for him to return. I watched Mackey frantically ring her bell and peck at her blurry reflection in this little toy mirror she had. She chewed her own chest and back, breaking the skin with her razor sharp beak. She scratched her face with those giant claws, tearing herself to pieces for reasons she couldn’t explain. She cried out for an angry man to save her.
Years later, I was sad when I found out that Rob had died. I don’t know how it happened, and it wasn’t my place to ask. I had left that world behind and all the people in it.
Everyone in this story is dead, except me. And sometimes, it feels like I should be doing something more with this information, knowing that they’re all gone. But what? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s enough to just treat these memories gently and keep moving.