They poisoned me.
They poisoned me. The doctors at the hospital.
David switched on his bedside lamp. His big brother Neil, muscular and pale, was walking a tight circle at the foot of the bed.
Who poisoned you?
I told you. The doctors. They gave me some pills that were poison.
Which doctors? You went to the hospital?
Yeah. I didn't feel well.
The clock said it was two am, and Neil was scaring the shit out of David, who was supposed to have been alone in the house—their parents were in Florida and Neil had his own place out on Long Island. Also, David was still high from the bowl he had smoked before bed.
Neil. I don't understand.
I told you. I was sick. The doctors gave me pills and I threw them away.
What pills? Where are they?
In the garbage. In the small bathroom.
David got out of bed and went past his brother and down the hall and through the kitchen to the half-bathroom off the den. He glimpsed himself in the mirror, a worried-looking seventeen-year-old with giant pupils. The pills were in the garbage can. He didn’t recognize the name of the drug on the label.
He found Neil in the kitchen. He had on a sleeveless t-shirt with Japanese writing and black parachute pants, and he smelled funky, as if he'd been wearing the same clothes for days. His hair was all fucked up too.
I told you. I don’t want those pills.
David put them in his pocket of his sweatpants. He watched Neil pacing until he realized it was cold in here. Their parents had put some kind of lock on the thermostat for the bedrooms. They had also taken their car keys, so if David wanted to go somewhere he had to call a buddy. But they had forgotten to do something about the thermostat off the kitchen.
David turned up the heat and then checked the fridge. No groceries had magically appeared in the night. He poured his brother the last of the Tropicana.
Sit down, he said.
Neil did as he was told and drank down the juice and sat panting. David rinsed the glass at the sink and filled it with water. Neil drank it, more slowly this time.
David was at a loss. He couldn’t call their parents because Mel had had a heart attack two years ago and he wasn’t supposed to be upset in any way. He could take Neil back to the hospital in Neil's car but that didn't seem like a great idea either. He could call his friend Jared and ask for help but even though Jared was cool he had a big mouth.
Do you want something to eat? I think there’s frozen mac and cheese.
Neil shook his head.
Okay, Neil. Let's just sit here for a while.
David woke up again at eleven, hungry, wanting toast and coffee. As he stretched in his bed, he felt something in his pocket—the pill bottle. He remembered Neil and he was scared again.
Neil was in his old bedroom downstairs. The air smelled thick.
Are you okay?
Neil screamed it: let me fucking sleep.
David flinched. Then he closed the door as quietly as he could and went upstairs. He stepped onto the porch into the cold and took a hit from his bowl. He was used to his parents screaming at him, not Neil.
Back inside, he made toast with the last of the bread, which presented another problem: he needed groceries. Maybe he could take Neil's car to ShopRite? But he was afraid to ask Neil for anything. And the fifteen bucks remaining from the seventy-five his father had left for incidentals—that wouldn't go far. And then David felt like an idiot for having spent most of the money, on weed, at the diner with Jared, at Waldenbooks.
He sat there thinking, but he already knew the answer. Reluctantly, knowing he was creating more problems for himself, he called the condo.
Hello. You have reached the Florida residence of Mel and Helene Bergmann. If you'd like to send a fax press star eight. That’s star, eight. To leave a message just wait for the signal.
David sighed. A normal person, if they got a lot of faxes, would put in a dedicated line. But Mel didn't get a lot of faxes. He barely got any phone calls. The one time David had accompanied his parents to Florida, the phone had rung twice. One call was to remind Mel to pay his club dues. The second was a wrong number. So clearly Mel wanted to be seen as the kind of person who received a lot of faxes. What the fuck was that?
David left a message.
After finishing college upstate, Neil had moved back to his basement room and gone to work in their father’s business. The expectation was that he’d take it over one day. But Neil showed little enthusiasm for the work, meaning no enthusiasm whatsoever. David had overheard his father grumbling about it: Neil screwed up orders, he was awkward with the customers.
But Neil was a solid brother. He took David to the library, to the Jersey shore. He taught David how to drive stick. After college though, he got weird. He bought a set of weights and the intensity of his workouts—ninety-minute lifting sessions followed by eight-mile runs—seemed unhealthy. He adopted a New Wave rockabilly look, sleeveless t-shirts, ankle boots, parachute pants with superfluous zippers. He wore his hair slicked back with one painstakingly maintained Superman curl.
Neil talked about becoming an actor, and when they watched Star Trek reruns, he repeated the lines in different ways, trying them out. (Live long and prosper. Live long and prosper.) After a few months, he mercifully stopped with the acting and tried standup comedy. Once David had some friends over, including a girl he liked. Neil had insisted on trying out his routine on them. He’d produced a microphone and a little amplifier and did his bit in the den: I think MacGyver would suck at a birthday party. It would be time to cut the cake and he'd be like, Wait I have dental floss and a paper clip. Somebody else would be like, Dude we have a cake knife.
David's friends laughed politely, but the girl winced at the volume. When he tried to kiss her later that night, she said she just wanted to be friends.
Neil bombed a few times around Rockland County—the clubs had names like The Chuckle Bucket and Giggletown—and started talking about pickle booths.
David had said, Pickle what?
Neil said, A booth at a flea market where you sell pickles. You can make fifty thousand a year.
Intense conversations followed between Neil and their father, conversations that excluded David, which was fine because David didn't know anything about business and wasn't interested in learning. He did know fifty thousand a year was about a thousand a week, and you could buy a pickle for what, a quarter? Which meant Neil would have to sell a lot of fucking pickles.
Mel, however, thought it was a good idea, or a good enough idea, and he lent Neil the money, and Neil found a flea market lacking a pickle booth on Long Island. He got an apartment, and he didn't visit much because he worked crazy hours.
David liked his brother, no doubt about it. But he was more at ease without Neil in the house. Now that Mel had sold the business, his parents weren't around much either. So David could watch what he wanted, read without interruption, have friends over without fear of embarrassment. And the winter break—even without cash or a car—promised to be a delicious week of liberty and marijuana, until Neil showed up claiming he’d been poisoned.
After leaving the message, David thought, Fuck it, and put on his coat and stepped out to the deck to finish the bowl. The day was very cold and clear, and the backyard was a solid field of snow right up to the woods. It was undeniably pretty, and with a burst of relief David remembered the mac and cheese in the freezer.
When he got back inside, Neil was on the kitchen phone.
Okay, Neil was saying, looking at his feet. Okay.
He pushed the receiver at David. Dad wants to talk to you.
Here’s what’s going to happen, Mel said. Neal is going to the doctor. You are going to break down his booth.
What do you mean break down his booth?
I mean break down his booth. Take his car, get the stock, and bring it to the house.
When am I supposed to do this?
You got something better to do?
David’s mother got on the phone.
Should we come home? Maybe we should come home.
David didn’t know how to respond. He wanted them to come home, and he wanted them to stay away. Also he was high as fuck. His mother's voice sounded distant and compressed, as if it were coming through an old-timey radio.
He said, Okay, I’m hanging up now. I have to go to Long Island.
But he was too high to drive, so he didn’t go until the next morning, the last Friday of his vacation, driving Neil's four-speed Tercel, which smelled like vinegar. He drove down the Palisades Parkway and across the George Washington Bridge to the Cross Bronx Expressway to the Cross Island Parkway to the Long Island Expressway to Sunrise Highway, the other drivers honking in rage or accelerating with psychotic aggression.
David stalled the Tercel twice, almost drove through a red light. It was a source of embarrassment, his lack of experience behind the wheel. His parents rarely allowed him the use of their cars, and David couldn't get a job to save up for one because there was no public transportation in their part of the county.
David had said, If I find a job will you drive me to me work?
Mel said, You can ride your bike.
He was referring to the Schwinn in the garage, which lacked tires and brakes. David ran through the steps in his head: fix up the bike, then ride around looking for a job, then ride to and from the job, even in shitty weather. No thanks.
He felt trapped and confused whenever he tried to think through this stuff. Then he’d wonder if there was something intrinsically wrong with him, some missing gene that would explain why there was never quite enough food around, why he had to mooch a ride to the library.
Sunrise Highway was lined by cut-rate furniture stores, fast-food drive-throughs, an old house turned into a porno shop. He was starting to think he'd made a wrong turn when he saw a long plain concrete building that said FLEA MARKET above the entrance. A desultory string of holiday lights framed the doors.
He parked and ran inside to take a piss in a cavernous bathroom that wasn't so much dirty as neglected, the tiles yellowed with age and the urinals from some bygone era of plumbing. When he came out, not many people were around, he guessed because it was the quiet days after Christmas. He saw high ceilings of mottled tile, fluorescent lighting, jewelry counters, a sneaker booth, t-shirts you could get lettering printed on: SAYVILLE JV FOOTBALL ROCKS. MINDY LOVES PAOLO.
Who was Mindy? Who was Paolo? Had their love survived?
The pickle booth was in a distant corner across from a plumbing supply booth and a jewelry counter. NEIL'S PICKLES the sign said. The booth was covered on three sides by blue tarps stretched between struts, the struts locked to rings set into the floor. David opened the locks with the keys Neil had given him, rolled up the tarps. And here was Neil's domain. One industrial metal shelving unit populated by jars of Ba-tampte sauerkraut and borscht. Four barrels of pickles labeled sour, half-sour, sweet, and dill. A shelf of plastic takeout containers, and a sign in Neil's crimped handwriting, YES! WE HAVE HORSERADISH, as if that were the burning question in everyone’s minds.
David's specific instructions were to load up the stock and get the booth deposit back from the manager, three hundred dollars, then sell the struts to said manager, one hundred dollars. Under no circumstances was David to give away the struts for free or allow them to be stolen by the assistant manager, a guy called Lewis, who had a reputation for taking whatever wasn’t nailed down.
David was looking over the booth, considering the best way to get moving on all these pickles and pickle-related materials, when a youngish lady came by with a small child. She asked for a gallon of half-sour, and David sold it to her while the child watched in mute fascination.
Come back soon, David called after them, and then felt stupid.
He took an armful of jars and walked them to the car and put them in the hatchback. Vendors watched as he passed. When he returned from the third trip, an old white guy with neatly combed gray hair and a flannel shirt was at the booth.
Are you the brother?
The man said nothing.
Sorry, David said. Who are you?
I'm the manager.
They looked at each other.
You’re supposed to give me the deposit, David said.
The manager nodded, and he took a thick roll of cash from his pocket, actually an astonishing roll. Before handing over a bill he crinkled it between thumb and forefinger, presumably to avoid passing an extra hundred. It made the whole business last much longer than it should have. Finally the manager got on a walkie-talkie and a moment later a younger white man, shortish and kind of fat, appeared with a big hand truck. He wore a Jets cap and a multicolored hoodie.
Both the manager and the other guy watched David as he lay the hand truck down and moved the handle so it could be used as a cart.
Had to show your brother how to do that, the guy said.
I guess I'm the hand truck expert of the family, David said.
Meanwhile he was thinking: Assholes. The end of the pickle booth was a show for them, a way of passing the slow days between Christmas and New Year's. Just as it was for the vendors watching David push cartloads to the parking lot.
When he had all the jars in the hatchback, he folded up the tarps and lay the struts atop the pile in a neat bundle. Then he started filling containers with pickles and brine, dutifully marking the lids with their appropriate level of sourness or dillness. He was at it for an hour when he realized he was famished, and he sure didn't want any pickles. He found the food court, or the row of booths beneath a sign that read FOOD COURT. He got two slices and a Coke.
After eating, he wasn't ready to face the pickles again, so he asked the pizza girl if they had coffee. She was a rock chick, the coolness of her spiky hair and eyeliner undermined by the winking Italian chef on her apron.
Coffee? No, we don’t have coffee. This is a pizza place.
David said, You know that occasionally pizza places sell coffee. That this is within the realm of human possibility.
She looked at him. What?
Nothing. Do you know where I can get coffee?
She pointed to a lunch counter kind of booth where he bought a coffee and sat down at a cheap plastic chair that bent beneath him. Someone had left a newspaper on the table. He read the comics and Ann Landers, which featured a passionate plea for advice on the proper way toilet paper should go on the holder, with the end over or under the roll. It was strange how small disagreements created giant emotions: in tenth grade Richard Yarnell had almost wept with rage when David insisted that the best Rush album was not 2112 but A Farewell to Kings. Their friendship had never been the same.
When David got back to the booth, it looked weird, naked somehow.
The struts were gone.
His father was going to kill him.
No, Mel wouldn't kill him. He would just see it as further confirmation of his uselessness. He would bring it up repeatedly while David seethed with shame.
Neil was a consideration too. What was wrong with these people, these nickel-and-dimers, who tried to fuck someone over when he was down?
David had to ask around until he found the guy in a darkened back office listening to talk radio. It was the sloppy-looking man who had brought the cart. He was eating a pickle.
I’m guessing you're Lewis.
Yeah, the guy said, wiping his mouth. You done with the hand truck?
Give me the struts.
Dude. Just give them to me.
Your brother said I could have them.
You're kidding right?
That's what he said.
Should I call your boss? Or the cops?
With a shrug Lewis got up and David followed him to a door at the furthest end of the flea market, a janitor's closet with an industrial sink, cleansers and mops, and in a corner, the struts.
I’ll give you twenty bucks for them, Lewis said.
I’ll take a hundred. I won't charge you for the pickle.
Lewis said nothing so David gathered up the struts and then walked back across the vast building cradling these coveted slim poles, thinking, Assholes, assholes. At the booth, he packed up the last of the pickles and dumped out the leftover brine in that janitor's closet and put the barrels in the dumpster. He was sweeping the floor when the jewelry guy from across the way came over. He had feathered hair and a mustache.
Is your brother having trouble? I don't mean to pry.
David looked away. Maybe, he said. Probably.
I’m sorry. You tell him I wish him well, okay? I'm Mario.
Okay. Thanks, Mario.
They shook hands, and as the guy walked away, David noted the gun at Mario's waist, a holstered .38.
David was ready to get the fuck out of this place. But he still had the struts to deal with. He figured that the manager would come back eventually, and he also guessed that the manager would make him wait. So he got another cup of coffee and stood around, wishing he’d brought a book. He wouldn’t mind a quick toke as well, but he’d left his pot at home, figuring rightly it was better to deal with this shit with a clear head.
Twenty minutes later, the manager returned.
I’ll give you fifty for the struts, he said.
David was sweating. He asked himself, What would Mel do? The answer: Mel would respond with a number above the price he wanted. Which in this case was a hundred.
I’ll take a hundred fifty, David said.
I can do sixty.
I know what these things are worth, David said.
One hundred twenty-five, said David.
We'll split the difference, said the manager. One hundred.
Mel had a shitfit when David said he got fifty bucks for the struts—yelling through the phone, I told you not to let them fuck you over—and it hurt, but not as much as David had thought it would, because he had the other fifty in his pocket. Which turned out to be more than enough for new inner tubes and a basic set of bike tools. He took cash from Neil’s wallet for groceries and his Tercel to the library for books on bike repair.
He skipped New Year's Eve at Jared’s house to work on the Schwinn and keep an eye on Neil. Their parents, by phone, had found some psychiatrist who gave Neil new pills that kept him in a state of sleepy indifference. David gently reminded his brother to eat and shower. He didn’t mind looking after Neil. He did ask himself, a bunch of times, why he had to go through all this alone, but he was no longer waiting for someone, anyone, to explain it to him.