Art by Jeff Gauntt-Quiceno
We were sipping coffee in front of a café in Denver when my brother Tom mentioned his sugar daddy. A lady marched by with a pink yoga mat tucked under her arm like she was going to war. On the cracked sidewalk, a group of pigeons converged over a decimated muffin. I spat my coffee back into the porcelain mug.
“Like a pimp?” I asked. I scanned Tom’s bony body for bruises. He stopped working out after our father died. A scratch near his thinning hair, but he looked like he always does—pale, hairy, and sick.
“Not a pimp,” he said casually. “More like a friend.” His narrow eyes fixed on another yogi entering the building. I checked my phone—4 p.m. Must be time for the afternoon flow. Tom lit a cigarette and folded his hands behind his head and leaned back in the metal chair while my heart raced.
“I knew you’d freak out,” he said. He flexed his foot and kicked the muffin wad onto the street and the pigeons scurried behind.
I leaned forward, planted my elbows on the table and rested my chin on my hands.
“I’m not,” I said. A bus honked and the mess of pigeons exploded into the air. “I just need you to explain.”
“On the cracked sidewalk, a group of pigeons converged over a decimated muffin.”
I was in the sixth grade and Tom was in the eighth when he got his first hand job.
“What was it like?” I asked into the dark bedroom, as the window fan blew cool air from his side of the room to mine. After his voice dropped last summer, I stopped peeing at the same time as him when we woke up on Saturday mornings.
“The best feeling you could imagine,” he said. He slapped his stomach to imitate the sounds of a fast hand job and let out a fake moan. I giggled and muffled my face in my pillow. Mom’s faint snores carried from across the hall.
“How’d you get her to do it?” I asked. I thought of Sara Jacobs looking down at her shoes and shaking her head when I asked her to dance to Brian McKnight at the sixth-grade social.
“We were in the stall in the locker room near the showers,” he said. “The one no one uses.”
“And she kind of just—grabbed it.” I felt my small prepubescent penis grow stiff.
“What’d she say?” I asked. He paused. The silence in the room was thick.
We erupted into laughter and I buried my face in the pillow, but it was too late. Mom’s heavy footsteps thumped down the hall. I pulled the blankets over my head and fake-snored as she swung open the door. Amidst the threats of grounding and no television, I felt Tom’s radiant smile.
After Mom left the room, Tom got out of bed and stood in front of the computer by the desk. The webcam glowed red, and the white light from the screen illuminated his naked skin. I saw his body transposed onto the screen and then he clicked the mouse and a fake camera sound echoed from the speakers. He opened up AOL Instant Messenger and typed furiously before sending the photo. Then the screen went black, and I heard him shuffle into bed. His body made a silhouette in the faint streetlight.
When Tom and I walked through the glass doors to Eliot Middle School the next Tuesday, I slipped and caught myself on his shoulder. A thin layer of computer paper covered the floor. Sara Jacobs held a piece in the air like a trophy and ran down the hall laughing. By the time I looked down and recognized Tom’s face and naked body, his name was being called over the PA system.
Will Tom Watkins please report to the front office immediately?
The system screeched and I covered my ears. Then, I felt the breeze from the open door behind me and heard the door click shut. I turned and saw Tom sprint across the courtyard, up the concrete steps, and disappear behind a bush.
“Your brother’s a freak,” Sara Jacobs said to me. She stood with her hands on her waist and one hip splayed to the side. “I bet you’re the same way.”
I stared back at her with such hatred that her cocky, metal-picket smile dissolved, and she looked down and picked a cuticle. Then she crumpled the paper, threw it at my chest and ran away. I burst out the door and across the courtyard, until I found Tom crying in a bush.
That night I lay on my bed, as my brother stuffed an Adidas duffel bag with sweatpants and hoodies and plotted his escape. I heard the dial-up modem downstairs, as Mom sent emails to regional boarding schools, begging them to take my brother midyear. I heard the front door open and then heavy feet up the stairs. My father burst through the bedroom door, and Tom pulled the cloth belt off of his bathrobe.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” my dad bellowed. He waved a picture of Tom’s naked body in the air like a headline from the morning paper. He still wore his surgical scrubs from the hospital—hair cap and all.
Tom gritted his teeth and tied a slipknot around his neck and pulled until his face was a fleshy pink. My dad lunged forward, and Tom pulled harder on either end. My dad wrestled the rope with his calculated hands and worked his hairy fingers between the belt and my brother’s neck. He looked like he was performing surgery—forehead scrunched—eyes focused and firm. Tom’s face was purple, and he released his grip and pummeled my dad’s chest with tiny punches.
My dad finally broke the knot and pulled the belt so fast that it cut through the air like a whip. I felt my teeth chatter. He crumpled the cloth belt into his fist and shook it in the air. The naked photo lay on the floor between them.
“What made you like this?” he yelled. His voice was high and frantic.
Mom emerged and brushed past my father and shielded Tom. She rubbed his back as he bent over and breathed. His face went from purple, to red, to pink, and settled there. Then he stood up and shoved her. I leapt to my feet as she stumbled backwards and fell into the closet door. She looked up at her thirteen-year-old son—wide-eyed and afraid.
That summer I waited on my bed for Tom to get home from boarding school on the Greyhound bus. He barely looked at me when he walked into our bedroom. His hair was buzzed and he had glass stud earrings. His forearm muscles bulged like he had lifted weights. He pulled boxes from the closet.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To the basement,” he said. “I can’t share a room with a kid.”
The yoga class let out, and the chatty women with their Easter-egg mats poured onto the sidewalk and made plans for happy hour. Tom flicked his cigarette across the sidewalk and it bounced into a storm drain.
“He’s a nice guy,” he explained. “A doctor actually.”
I looked up. A cloud passed over the sun, but it was thin and wispy and did nothing to block its rays. Denver was known for three hundred sunny days per year. I cleared my throat.
“How does it work?” I asked.
“I see him once a month,” Tom said. He shrugged his shoulders in a nonchalant way. “And he sends me money.”
“Rent?” I asked
Tom nodded as he lit another smoke. He’d been living in the South End of Boston for a year now without a job.
It was stupid but the tears welled in my eyes and I remembered finding Tom in a bush behind the courtyard crying after the photos leaked. He sobbed into his palms.
“Everyone’s going to hate me,” he said. I draped an arm around him, and we waited until the principal passed the lot, before running home.
Tom leaned forward and raised my chin with a single finger.
“I’m kidding,” he said. I looked up and that warm smile returned to his face. His pupils nearly vanished in the Denver sun.
“Me? With a sugar daddy?” He leaned back and slapped his knee.
I laughed too, and the tears kept coming.
“What kind of guy do you think I am?”
For a second his eyes got sad and he glanced towards the street, but the pigeons were gone, and only the muffin wrapper remained. Then he forced a smile, flattened out a crumpled ten-dollar bill with his palm, and pinned it under the weight of the mug.
“Come on,” he said. “I want to see your new apartment. I didn’t fly out to Denver for nothing.”
He draped a frail arm around me, and I rested my head on his shoulder as we walked down the street. His stained undershirt smelled like our old room.
Back in my apartment, I said he could sleep on the couch or I could blow up the air mattress for him in my bedroom. I remembered the late-night talks, the window fan, Mom’s hushed whispers, and the streetlight strewn across his sleeping body. I prayed he’d choose the latter.
Spring / Summer 2023
Pete Prokesch is a writer who lives in Watertown, Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Four Way Review, The Westchester Review, BlazeVOX Journal, The Bookends Review, Ponder Review, TINGE Magazine, The Wise Owl, Across the Margin, and Hare’s Paw Literary Journal, among others. He reads fiction submissions for Epiphany, and he’s received support from the Mass Cultural Council. You can reach him about his writing at PDProkesch@gmail.com.
Jeff Gauntt-Quiceno grew up in Texas. He studied painting at the University of Houston. He moved to New York where he received his MFA from Pratt Institute and was represented by Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Jeff makes paintings, objects, and prints; designs and builds costumes and props for performing (cosplay) at genre conventions; and makes signs and prints for covert interactive fan performances at live events. He has been awarded grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation. Jeff currently lives and works in Los Angeles.