Every Sunday afternoon, their father drank beer from plastic cups while watching Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The gorgeous ladies were fierce. Their bangs were teased into tidal waves that crested over their foreheads. Joe’s dad said their hair looked like armpit hair. Joe disagreed. He thought the wrestlers were exotic and beautiful. They stared at him intensely through the TV screen. Their eyes were heavily made up with metallic shadows and thick black eyeliner that tapered into points at their temples. They looked like they were wearing superhero masks. They were angry and mysterious in electric green onesies cut up to tightly belted waists, and the floor of the ring bounced under their strong thighs.
The boys’ father was sweaty with beer and enthusiasm, rallying the boys and cheering for Babe the Farmer’s Daughter and Brittany the Brat. Joe and Billy kneeled on the sofa with bowls of pretzels and bounced on the cushions.
By dinnertime, their dad was asleep in the pilling recliner. Joe practiced his moves on Billy, chop dropping him over his knees and body slamming him against the sofa. The cushions exhaled clouds of dust motes in the air above the boys’ matching buzz cuts. Billy’s laughter rang bells in the corners of the family room, and his smile split the seams of his face like an overripe tomato.
He was six years old and weighed thirty four pounds. He didn’t take up any room, like thoughts that float through your mind as you fall asleep, never resting anywhere and gone when you wake in the morning. He was nervous all the time but sweet and quick to smile, especially at Joe. A small boy sketched out quickly on grainy pieces of tissue paper and glued together with dots of paste. Joe lifted him easily but carefully, picturing Billy floating in a straw basket when he hoisted him over his head like a trophy. The boys spun in a haze of dust motes floating in the TV’s blue glow.
They lived around the corner from St. Mary of the Assumption and walked to school together in the morning, dry leaves tearing under their leather shoes. In the schoolyard, Joe left Billy with the first graders and ran off to play football with his friends on the low hill. Billy watched him, squinting his eyes against the morning sun and licking his lips. Freckles tiptoed across his nose.
When the boys passed one another in the hallways, Joe gave Billy low high fives. Billy sat at his desk in his basement classroom and watched Joe’s class playing dodgeball in the school parking lot. Joe was a team captain and he bent low before winging the ball across the cement and hitting his classmate behind the knees. Billy chewed on his lips and worked in his phonics workbook.
The whole school went to mass each Friday afternoon during Lent. Joe slid down the hallway in his leather shoes with the rest of the class. The boys pushed each other from behind. Girls in plaid jumpers pulled at one another’s elbows. They whispered secrets and passed plastic tubes of chapstick, sliding thick layers of warm wax across their lips. Shannon’s hair hung in long spiral curls to the middle of her back. Her bangs were swept into a perfect poof and held on top of her head with a gold barette. Her ears looked like small clam shells and big silver hoops pierced them. Joe reached for one of Shannon’s long curls and pulled it. She smiled at him and swept her long hair over her shoulder. A teacher held up a finger and blew sharp breaths through her clenched teeth. She cut her eyes at the students, and they floated into two long navy ribbons as they walked into the church vestibule.
Mrs. Finn lined up the squirming first graders under the arch of the rainbow painted on their classroom wall. Billy stood by a round white cloud at the rainbow’s end and licked his lips. His pink ears fluttered around his head like powdery moths. They reddened with heat when the fluorescent lights caught them.
Groups of children puddled around the baptismal font and the flat shelves holding pamphlets about the holy sacraments. Joe and the boys laughed and clapped one another on the back. They stood together like parade of lions. The girls reached down, pulling up knee socks and flattening skirt pleats. Their hair was teased into nets that framed their unlined faces. They blinked often, their eyes outlined in black.
The first graders trailed in with Billy at the end of the line. He pushed his fists into his pockets. His cowlick stood up and he licked his lips. With his hands in his pockets and his bent elbows tight against his sides, his scapula showed through his white shirt like wing plates, flapping along the hinge of his spine. He caught sight of Joe, and his cheeks colored pink. Joe lifted his arms in the air and shook his head, mouthing, ‘Chammmpion!’ Billy smiled and licked his lips until they were shining under the vestibule’s lights.
‘Who’s he?’ Shannon whispered across a few students.
‘My brother,’ Joe replied.
‘Why do his lips look like that? He looks like he’s been sucking his thumb all day,” she said, pulling her nose into a pile of wrinkles in the middle of her face. The oil of flowers was thick in the air.
Joe watched Billy’s thin chest crack into wet halves like the split breast of a chicken thawing on the kitchen counter, but he couldn’t stop even as his arms loosened at the shoulders and his legs pulled away from his pelvis. ‘Yeah,’ Joe said and laughed. ‘I’m always telling him to stop that shit. Makes him look weird.’
Billy’s back was a box of spilled toothpicks. He stood very still so he didn’t upset the pile.
The heavy church doors opened slowly, and the students shuffled forward in groups. Joe knocked his fist against Billy’s shoulder and said, ‘I’m just messing with you, man.’
Billy’s eyes picked up the shine from the floor’s slate, teardrops pooling like two tiny blue universes. His eyes and lips were wet and shining. He walked into church with his class, the cool air pulling a gritty tongue over his wet lungs and liver.