go north to work on the railroads. “Work”—that doesn’t come close. Their sweat becomes another skin, as glistening as a frog’s. At night they fall into sleep like boulders tipped into a black lake. This goes on for a year. But the money is good, and they each send a monthly tithe of it back home, and every Sunday night they phone their mother, taking their turn in line at the crew boss’s office. “Doing good, Mama. Yes. No. How are you? How’s Sissy? Yes, Mama. Love.”
Roberto is the oldest. Tino is younger by eighteen months. And Tino always had, ever since he was a brat on the stoops, a kind of panther grace and panther musk that dizzied the ladies. He liked to drink. And when he drank he’ d have ideas that life was meant to be more than a sledgehammer in a relentless drench of sun.
One Sunday Roberto tells his mother that Tino’s throat is sore. The next week, that the foreman’s sent Tino to town on important company business. Maybe she even believes it, at first. Maybe she doesn’t suspect that Tino’s taken up—and taken off—with a high-hemmed lowlife hoochiekoochie flirtygirl, and they’ve disappeared as completely as two dust motes pirouetted from light into shadow.
Or maybe she does suspect but, out of a motherly courtesy to Roberto’s kindly fictions, plays along. “Oh, tell him: before bed, drink tea-and-honey. Oh, my Tino—I’m sure the foreman sees that little glimmer of good in him! Are there any nice girls up there, Roberto?” “Yes, Mama. Tino is seeing a very sweet schoolteacher lady, she works in Cedarville right nearby, I’ve heard her reciting poems to the children.”
Fictions, like anything else, require fuel. Roberto must send his mother two tithes out of his monthly pay. And he must invest continually in the tales of Tino’s absence. What next? Tino’s a monk and he’s taken a vow of silence. Tino’s become a poet; he and his lady teacher-friend, they’re off on a reading circuit at colleges scattered around the lakes.
The truth is, Tino was often truculently silent, unrevealing of his dreams and his simmering angers, a cipher. He’ d stretch out under the blanket on the bunk bed as inert as an iron doorstop, as inscrutable as the carved god of some alien culture. What’s troubling you, bro? (No response.) In his absence, Tino becomes more present than ever. In his fictional lives, he’s more real.
And from that point on?—you can choose your own story. One—and it’s the likeliest one—would be that the compulsion of Tino-X takes over Roberto’s interior life completely. Tino in charge of the order’s bee hives, moving in silence among that apiarian city’s gridded rows, the buzzing so eternal that it is this city’s silence; Tino overseeing the jars upon jars of honey that, in the rising sun, become the color fire must have when it’s asleep and dreaming. Roberto has never one day in his life been religious, but he finds himself kneeling every night and muttering words he thinks might be the words a monk thinks, summoned from the quiet, at the foot of the throne of God.
Nor has Roberto ever read a page—of anything. But his brain (and this might not be unlike a hive accreting its honey) fills with poetry, the poetry of Tino-X. He sees himself at a lectern, raging—or would it be simpering over doves and hollyhocks? Or would it be the kind of gassy philosophizing he loosely links with the air over eggy mineral springs? He likes it. He starts to twiddle language around, to play with it—in his mouth, on paper, he plays with it. In the twilight consciousness just before sleep he finds himself saying The geese are bound for somewhere. / Bound and gaggled.
But then there’s the story in which their mother dies. This news comes in a telegram from Sissy, ten words, that’s it. This is the woman who’ d wiped Roberto’s snotty nose and runny ass and secretly bought him out of trouble when Delvecchio’s thugs—excuse me, Delvecchio’s “policymakers”—came looking for him with lead pipes over a matter of “pecuniary interests.” The woman who’ d saved his browning dried-up flap of foreskin, like a saint’s toe, in a silver filigree box, to give as a keepsake to his bride one day, a day that’s not yet come. His grief is intense, and his anger that Tino isn’t here to share in the . . . Tino! It just now occurs to him: he won’t be faking Tino’s salary-tithe any longer, he won’t be fronting for Tino’s absence!
And yet this story finds him hooked. He can’t give up those other lives by now. They make him more alive. Roberto is someone pounding a rail into the earth and keeping the company’s trash-drunk hooligans in line. It isn’t much and it sure isn’t bait with which to woo a proper recipient of that foreskin reliquary. But Tino? Tino is an aviator, gone on record-breaking transatlantic expeditions. Tino owns a South Seas beach house, where a cloud of hula-hula girls and coconuts and sailfish is always providing the weather. Tino is off to deliver serum to a hospital in the frozen North—huskie sleds and igloos. How can he shut the door on these extra selves? The locals are gathered gratefully on the front steps of that hospital, under the radiant sky-bunting of the Northern Lights, delivering a cheer. T! I! N! O! they yell. If Tino ever returned now, how could Roberto give up this addiction?
And then there’s the story where Tino returns, Tino and his trinkety overeroticized inamorata. Tino the loser, the hard-luck fool, returns, having “struck it big.” It’s from “investments,” he says; and then, the next day, “a ranch”; the next, “a dance hall business”—none of it rings true, although that last might be a sanitized revisioning of some dirtier truth. He wires money back home to Mama. Terrific: Tino, who never gave a shit, who couldn’t tell you her birthday, Tino who was nowhere when one of the southtown Polack brothers knocked up Sissy . . . Tino’s the hero now. Roberto’s driving his millionth goddam spike and Tino’s the family’s savior. Here, bro: Tino gives him a solid gold pocket watch with an eagle fob—a beauty! That night, Roberto walks to the middle of the Cedarville Bridge and flings the watch into the inky black, soliloquizing current.
Perhaps my favorite is the one where Tino never returns—but the woman does. The floozie, the strumpet—she comes back one day, bedraggled, borne into town on the breezes of loss. She doesn’t know “where he went.” One day she woke up in their room above the dance hall “and he was gone like he’ d never been.” She’s carried a cheap valise—through God knows what adventures on the return trip—with his remaining belongings, to give to Roberto: a lace- less pair of lumberman’s boots; a solid gold watch with the crystal and both hands missing; an ivory tooth-picker in the shape of a dancer’s gartered leg (the sexy spike heel serves as the pick); a fish-gutting knife in an oiled-cardboard sheath; a cardsharp’s bowtie. She’s weeping. It’s all that she has, and she’s turning it over to him, the older brother. Does he believe her? He looks: the front of her dress has been ripped by rough manhandling, and she’s made a makeshift closure for it out of a fraying pair of lumberman’s boot laces.
And in fact it isn’t fair to say “the floozie.” Whatever of her is in that word, well . . . there are other words Roberto discovers over the next few days. Patient. Tender. Parsimonious with button-thread and bacon fat, but generous with a kind of infectious, unselfconscious laughter. And she reads. To herself, of course, and sometimes to the children up in the Cedarville school, but also at night to him. She reads him poetry in the jitter of the oil lamp, and when the flame is near to its end she slips from her shift into ready sex as easily as a goose slips into water, and then she is a kind of poetry. The following spring, Mama and Sissy visit—they like her!—and Mama brings the silver box with the delicate filigree webbing its lid, and everyone has a laugh over that.
And these seem truly endless, in potential—these alternative lives—but dangerous as well, and officially frowned upon. You could get a ticket for exceeding the speed of truth. You could be issued a citation for not complying with actuality, for impersonating a likelihood. Cultural norms suggest prioritizing the people and the objects of the empirical realm—the ski lift and the burglar’s mask and the nave and the breast and the hoof and the font and the architect’s stencil—and not their ghostly correspondences tapping at our consciousness for admission from out of the realm of conjecture, and into the realm of reality. Ah, yes . . . but who doesn’t enjoy a ghost story, or realize that we, too, were conjectural once, and rode here into incarnation on iffy winds of wish and will? Who doesn’t feel a twin—Good-Me or Evil-Me, Me-X, Me-Raised-to-a-Higher-Power—sometimes yearning to separate out of the psychic matrix, to declare an independent presence in the world?
In the final story, Tino does return, alone, and with no explanations; he just picks up his hammer and bowl of soggy beans and shaving kit and begins again where he left off. Tino, yes. And yet: not Tino. Tino was left-handed. This one, the new one: right-handed, just like Roberto. And something almost mild and conciliatory guides him now. His silences aren’t truculent as much as . . . thoughtful. What happened out there? Who happened out there? It’s as if, somewhere in the deep of the woods, he entered a wormhole and came out reversed. Everybody notices it, the rail-thumpers, the camp cook, the saloon girls, even the unit boss who’s usually above particulars. One day when they’re in from a break at work, a woman who’s been working the camp all year stares with a kind of wonder at him and says, “You remind me of someone.” Tino looks up—not at her, at his brother. He says to Roberto, “All that time I kept thinking of you. I made up stories about you and I became those stories. I turned into you.”