In Luigi's mind, there were three constants about his family's new apartment in Brooklyn. One: getting to see the bright lights of Manhattan from his window was beautiful, but it kept him awake every night. Two: everything smelt wet all the time, even if he was the only one who noticed. He swore his favourite green sweater was getting mustier by the day. Three: Carlo Fieri waited for him outside of his family's pizza parlour every day after school, sometimes with a bat, sometimes with a posse, but always with his fists. Lights, wet smell and Carlo Fieri. Luigi missed Harlem.
"If it isn't Luigi Mario," called Carlo from a block away, "the biggest bitch in New York City!" Luigi hugged his many books tighter. He looked around for an alley to escape into. Mama would worry if he took too long to get home, but if he was fast, maybe he could…
"Don't think I don't see you trying to run, Luigi! You're just a big chicken!" Luigi swung his knapsack over his shoulder, trying to stuff his books into it before he got too close and Carlo saw them. "Nah, you're a big nerd, with all those stupid books!" Porca miseria! Luigi thought bitterly. Carlo would go after the books for sure now, and they both knew Luigi was on his last strike with mean old Mrs. Jenkins, the librarian at school. Luigi tucked the books in quickly and shouldered his pack, gradually speeding his steps. If he could just get past the restaurant…
Vincenti, Don, and Carmine pushed out the squeaky doors of the parlour and Luigi knew he was done for. Carlo would get yelled at for going too far from the steps of Fieri's, but the other ruffians wouldn't. He was taller than all of them, easily, but that just gave them more to hit. His heart beat louder and louder and the bullies grew closer and closer.
"Please Carlo," Luigi begged, "I'll give you my lunch money tomorrow, okay? I just want to go home."
Vincenti and Carmine laughed cruelly as Don cracked his knuckles. Carlo sneered. "You should have thought of that at school today, instead of hiding with the teacher like a little bitch." Carlo and his gang closed in on Luigi, and one swift punch sent him right to the ground. Luigi curled himself around his books and tried to keep his head tucked as blows rained down upon him.
"HEY!" He heard, looking up through an already swollen eye. All he could see was a bright red blob pointing at him, but he knew the voice anywhere.
"Beat it, Mario, this don't concern you!"
"Yeah, scram, ya lard-ball!"
Luigi could hear a colourful string of Italian insults as his older brother got closer. Michelangelo Mario, just Mario for short, was almost a foot shorter than him, and at least 30 pounds heavier, but he was built like a truck. One swing of Mario's fist sent Carmine flying out onto the street, where he narrowly dodged being hit by a cyclist. Don and Vincenti began to back away, but Carlo, as usual, wouldn't let up.
"You think you're so much better than me because you play sports, big man? Well, you're garbage. Your whole family is garbage!"
Mario stopped right in front of Carlo, gave him one look, and laughed. "No, I think I'm better than you because I have a magnificent moustache!"
Luigi rolled his eyes, always about the moustache with his brother. Mario was the first in his class to grow one and he basked in the envy of the other boys. It didn't hurt that Mario was also the best baseball player in the whole school, the star of the track team, and had a different girl following him at recess each week. Luigi, well…Mario assured him that in time, he would also grow a glorious moustache, just like him and Papa.
"You're so full of shit, Mario!" Carlo spat.
"So is Fieri's food!"
Carlo launched himself at Mario, who waited right until Carlo was about to swing before jumping out of the way and driving a fist straight into his kidney. On the way down Mario delivered a brutal kick to his back. Carlo hit the ground with a thud and stayed down, a small pool of blood forming under his nose.
"Mama said you shouldn't fight no more, Mario," Luigi said as his brother pulled him up. "She's not going to like this."
"Then we tell her a story, just like your books, eh?" Mario laughed. Luigi sighed, brushing the dirt off his clothes.
"I thought you had baseball practise."
"We ran some laps and then Mr. Wilson told us to get off the field, he was cutting the grass. Coach Floyd didn't like that, and we left when Principal Ross came out to split them up." Luigi struggled to pick up his backpack. "Don't worry, Luigi, I got it." Mario picked it up and threw it over his shoulder. In Luigi's mind, he looked like a fool with two bags, both covered in dirt for different reasons. "Porca miseria! You need to read easier books."
"I didn't ask you to carry my bag," Luigi mumbled.
"Forget about it. I need to work on my shoulders if I want to pitch next week." Mario started walking and Luigi ran after him, barely keeping up with Mario's naturally confident saunter.
"This ain't over, Mario brothers!" Carlo yelled. Carmine and Don reappeared to help him up. "I'm gonna just get you worse at school!"
Luigi felt an involuntary shudder go through him. Mario just patted his back and doffed his hat. "He's garbage and he knows it, little brother. One day, he's going to be working for you. Mark my words."
Luigi nodded and smiled, though his heart wasn't in it. Mario didn't notice and whistled "take me out to the ball game" all the way back to their apartment.
* * *
"Luigi, you finished the reading assignment?"
"Yeah Mario, are you?"
Mario lay with his face down in The Little Prince, grumbling. "I hate this stupid book. Che pelle! It makes no sense!"
"The whole book is a metaphor, Mario. If you didn't sleep in class, you would know that."
Mario threw an errant shirt at his brother. "We can't all be little geniuses like you, Luigi."
"I'm not a genius," Luigi rolled his eyes, "I was just moved up a grade."
"Dai, Luigi. Rodney James on the team is in grade eight and he probably can't even spell metaphor," Mario interjected, "trust me, you're a genius."
"Bad example, big brother. Too much time in the hot sun catching tiny balls will make anyone stupido," Luigi laughed as Mario threw another shirt at him. Luigi tried to throw it back, but it fluttered in the air like a crippled dragonfly and landed on the floor a good foot away from Mario. The brothers looked at it, then looked at each other, and burst into laughter. Luigi shut his school book so he wouldn't shake it apart and Mario had to wipe tears from his eyes.
The laughter quieted to a chuckle, then to a snort, before fading. Luigi reopened his book.
"Luigi," Mario said. Luigi lifted his head. Mario's normally jovial expression was gone. "You're going to make something of yourself, brother, you know that right? Maybe a doctor like our cousin back in Italy, maybe some big shot professor. You're too smart to be a plumber."
Luigi sighed. They had this conversation maybe twice a week. It always ended the same.
"You know Papa will never let me go to college, Mario. It's always been "The Mario Brothers Water Works", and it always will be."
"Don't worry, Luigi. I'll talk to Papa, you'll see."
Mario had never talked to Papa. Papa was always away or preparing to leave, or coming home and going straight to bed. Plumbing emergencies happened at all hours of the day and night, even to the rich clients they had moved to better serve. Perhaps things would be better when Uncle Paulo moved to the neighbourhood like he was planning to.
"Alright, Mario," Luigi said. That seemed to satisfy Mario, who went back to his book for fifteen minutes before falling asleep.
* * *
The lights from Manhattan streamed into Luigi's room, despite his closed blinds. Tonight, for a change, the glinting beacons of avarice weren't keeping Luigi awake.
Mario had started to bring up college more and more, but Michelangelo Mario Senior always shut him down. Luigi would sit quietly and watch his father and brother whisper, then talk, then yell, then scream.
"You must be outta your mind! Che palle! What nerve, to talk to your father in this way?"
"But Papa, think of how proud Nonna will be if she has another doctor grandson!"
"Nonna does not pay the bills in this house!"
"Then when I pay the bills, I'll send Luigi to college!"
"Over my dead body!"
The argument had begun at supper and continued through the night. Sophia Mario, the matriarch of the house, had quietly whisked Luigi to bed with a bowl of minestrone and a pat on the hand before his father could bring him into the argument. She had asked him quietly why he was making his father and brother fight like this.
Neither Mama nor Luigi had the sheer force of will to argue with Papa, content to read and bide their time for a rational discussion. Mario, on the other hand, could move a mountain itself with his stubborn tenacity. This was the third such argument this week.
Luigi jumped when he heard the sound of a breaking plate, followed by a slamming door. Mario stomped up the stairs and stormed into the bedroom, slamming the door.
"Be careful Mario, you'll wake Mama." Luigi whispered.
Mario softened. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"It's not me to apologise to, it's Mama, in the morning, when she gives you extra chores."
Mario sat down on his bed. It creaked under his substantial weight. "Luigi, how long have you been awake?"
"Not long," Luigi lied.
"Luigi, it's me, Mario. You don't have to make fibs."
Luigi sat up. "Why do you insist on doing this, Mario?"
"You’re my brother, Luigi."
"That isn't a reason."
"Yes," Mario said solemnly, "it is." Luigi opened his mouth to speak, but Mario said, "Go to sleep, Luigi. I'll talk to Papa again in the morning."
The tone of this voice meant it was the end of the discussion. Luigi laid back down and fell into a fitful sleep.
* * *
Luigi loved his brother. It was hard not to. Everyone loved Mario, except for Carlo and his friends. While everyone saw his brother as a happy, athletic guy who was quick to smile and quicker to laugh, Luigi loved his brother because he was selfless. Mario shared his lunch with the kids who had no lunch money and told jokes to his classmates when the air-raid drill sirens went off. Mario protected Luigi. Sometimes, he protected him from making his own decisions.
Luigi told Mario that he didn't want to go to college anymore. Mario asked him why, and Luigi just stated that he knew where he belonged. Mario and Papa stopped fighting, but Mario would watch him read with sadness in his eyes that Luigi didn't like.
* * *
"Mama Mia! Have you ever seen pipes this old?"
Luigi dropped his wrench on his foot and swore before joining his brother under a sink worth more than their apartment. Water was only beginning to spray from the joints. It would be a quick job—if Luigi didn't "happen" to it.
"I think they're older than Nonna!" Luigi said. Mario's booming laugh filled the enormous bathroom. Luigi smiled despite himself.
His "on-the-job" training had begun only one month ago, but already Luigi had started two fires, three floods and a complete sewer backup. If Mario hadn't been able to fix them before the homeowners arrived, it would have been curtains for the "Mario Brothers Water Works" business.
"This might be harder than we thought, Luigi." Mario wiped the sweat off his brow and flipped his bright red cap backwards on his head. "Any missteps and the whole thing could fall apart."
"This is a job for you, brother," Luigi said. "I'll pass you the tools."
"No, you will do it."
"Porca miseria! Mario, you must have finally gone crazy!"
"Too much time in the sun catching tiny balls, I guess." Mario winked.
"Very funny," Luigi replied.
"The pressure will force you to do well, Luigi," Mario tapped the pipes with his wrench, "this is how Uncle Carlo taught Papa, how Papa taught me, and how I will teach you. This is the "Mario brothers" style."
Luigi took a deep breath. He was grateful for his work gloves or his wrench would have dropped again. He secured it around the pipe, only enough to grip, and turned it just slightly to the right.
The water trickled to a stop.
"You did it! Hurray!" Mario threw his cap in the air and patted his brother on the back. "I knew you could, Luigi, I always knew it!"
“It was easy, Mario. There’s no need to fuss.”
“It wasn’t ‘easy’ two minutes ago when you were frightened, now was it?” Mario ruffled his brother’s cap and got him in a headlock. Luigi tried to struggle away but his brother held fast. “You oughtta listen to me more, brother.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Luigi wriggled free.
“We should go out, celebrate this moment!” Mario said. “Luigi’s first day with no accidents!”
“You just want to go to the bakery,” grumbled Luigi teasingly, “with the lovely young lady and the good cakes with strawberries.”
Mario’s stomach grumbled. “Well, that’s true. But it is still a great day for celebration! Perhaps you should flirt with Miss Paulina, no? Tell her about your day of triumph?”
Luigi shook his head. The college argument had been replaced with the girlfriend argument. He simply didn’t see the need to have a lady simply to say one had a lady. He liked most girls he met just fine, but he couldn’t see a future with any of them beyond a casual acquaintance. It also didn’t help that he rarely left the house without Mario. Mario, despite being shorter and larger than him, had only grown more muscular with time, his moustache even more magnificent. Luigi, on the other hand, had a late growth spurt and was lanky and scrawny. He towered above Mario, but his brother looked like he could hoist him over his head with one hand. However, Luigi had grown his own magnificent moustache, just as Mario predicted. Perhaps, one day soon, he would find the nerve to talk to the beautiful redhead at the book store...
“No Mario, that’s alright. Miss Paulina only has eyes for you. Besides, we have been working since 5 am this morning, and it is now 6:30 pm. Ah, basta! I just want to go home and read my book, perhaps listen to the radio before bed.”
Mario shook his head. “Luigi Mario, one day I will force you to speak to a lady. You cannot live with your big brother forever. How about this, I will go to the bakery and bring you back a treat, yeah? We can have some cake while we listen to The Green Hornet.”
“Mario, I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“Figurati, little brother. I want baking, you want rest. We will meet in the middle and have both!” Mario clapped Luigi on the back, nearly knocking his tired body over. “I’ll meet you at the apartment. You take the van, I will walk.”
“That’s...wait for just a momento. You just want to walk Miss Paulina home at 7, when the bakery closes.” Luigi raised an eyebrow. “I see what you’re doing.”
Mario laughed and shrugged. “Just because you would rather read books than court women, does not mean that is the life for me. This way, I will have help carrying our bounty! You see, Luigi? Good things for everyone.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Luigi caught the keys his brother tossed at him. “Don’t be too late. You’re not the only hungry one.”
* * *
Luigi fumbled his keys into the lock and opened the apartment. The musty smell of old carpet greeted him, mingled with the calming aroma of his books, old and new. Luigi smiled. It was good to be home.
He hung his green cap on a rack near the door and wandered into the living room. Mario would be home soon, and Luigi wanted to enjoy some peace and quiet before his brother returned. His battered copy of War and Peace lay half-open on the coffee table. He picked it up, flipping the book over and giving it a quick peruse on the way to the kitchen to make tea. He turned on the radio on the way there, twisting the knobs until he found the right station. The opening theme of The Green Hornet filled the apartment. A rebroadcast, of course, but the Mario brothers tuned in every week for the adventures of the Hornet and Kato.
The kettle began to boil. Luigi set his book on the dining table and went to open their rickety window. Their view was only of the back alleys of Brooklyn, but he enjoyed looking out into the crisp New York nights. Since Papa and Uncle Carlo were still operating in Manhattan, the Mario Brothers Water Works had the two young men servicing some of their old clients in the less ritzy parts of the city. Occasionally they’d get the odd upper Manhattan call if Papa and uncle were busy, but they mostly helped out blue-collar families and a few businesses. Luigi enjoyed it. Those folks didn’t care if he accidentally started a waste bin on fire during the course of the job, they cared if he could fix their rumbling toilet or their hissing pipes.
The kettle finished. Luigi started a pot, knowing his brother would want some tea with their cake. He heard something rattle but didn’t look up. Probably Mario returning, he thought, struggling to open the door with the giant box in his hands. I keep telling him, no one needs that much cake. But the door didn’t open to a boisterous laugh. The rattling got louder.
Luigi put down the teapot. He grabbed a rolled-up newspaper from the table, forgotten when they rushed off for their first call of the day and crept into the living room. He stayed quiet, still, as he stepped around the creaky floorboards and further into the apartment.
The door swung open, nearly knocking Luigi over in fright. Mario grabbed his collar to steady him, protecting the cake from his flailing arms with his other arm.
“Porca miseria, Luigi! You nearly gave me a heart attack!” Mario set the cake on a coffee table. “What are you doing, sneaking around the house with the paper like that? Did you spot another cockroach?”
Luigi shook his head. “I heard rattling. I thought it might be a thief trying to get in through the window.”
Mario grabbed his arm, hauling him to his feet with a laugh. “You’re so jumpy, little brother, always making a fuss at the smallest little sound! Well, it was probably...” Mario paused, listening. His back straightened. Luigi saw the little black hairs on his brother’s neck rise. His Mario’s fist clenched. “No, I hear it too.” He pulled a wrench out of his work coveralls. “Come on. No miserable leccaculo is getting in here without a wallop.”
“I’m afraid,” Luigi whispered.
“Stay behind me,” Mario ordered. “I’ll keep you safe. I always have, yeah?” Luigi nodded, following not an inch away from his brother as they moved through the apartment. It sounded like it was coming from Mario’s room, likely a thief trying to get at the expensive gifts from Nonna Mario kept in a small wooden box on his dresser. Luigi knew their neighbourhood wasn’t the safest, but he never thought someone would be desperate enough to break into a 12th-story apartment. The rattling got ever louder, but as they grew closer, a sound more like knocking emerged. Why would a thief knock? Luigi thought. What is going on?
Mario’s bedroom door was shut. The two brothers stopped in front of it, Mario putting up a hand, still gloved for work, to halt Luigi. Mario spread his hand across the poorly painted wood of the door. He held up three fingers. Luigi tilted his head, confused. Mario mouthed the phrase ‘on the count of three’ and Luigi understood. Mario held up his fingers again and counted down. Luigi’s grip on his paper tightened, the ink starting to bleed onto his sweaty palms.
One. Mario raised the wrench over his head. Luigi held the newspaper like a sword.
Two. Mario grimaced. Luigi started to shake.
Three. The door swung open and the brothers charged into the room, Mario yelling and Luigi shrieking, just a bit, a fact that he would admit to no one. To the brother’s surprise, there was no thief awaiting them. To their greater surprise, a star hung in the middle of the room. It looked almost like a cartoon, with five perfect points, glowing bright yellow, casting the room in golden light. It was also huge, easily the width of Mario’s body and the height of Luigi’s. It hovered in place, and Luigi swore it was watching them. Mario’s white curtains flapped in the breeze from a now open window.
Luigi and Mario looked at each other. “We inhaled sewer gas,” Luigi offered, “and we’ve gone insane.”
Mario walked towards the star. Even as Luigi spoke, his eyes did not leave its luminescence. “It’s bellissima.”
“It is,” Luigi agreed, looking towards it. Hallucination or not, it was one of the most magnificent things he’d ever seen. It reminded him of his favourite novels, like Jules Verne and The Little Prince, but it still did not compare. He started walking towards it, following behind Mario. “I feel like it’s watching us.”
“Me too,” Mario agreed, reaching out for the star. He placed his hand on its centre. “It’s not as hot as I imagined,” he said, pulling his hand away to look at his glove. “It’s warm, but it didn’t burn me. What is this?”
Luigi was about to answer, but the star’s glow changed from golden to stunning white. Luigi and Mario hid their eyes, the bright light quickly becoming too much to handle. The glow softened as the star spoke. “Are you the brothers Mario? Michelangelo and Luigi Mario?”
“We are,” Mario replied.
“What are you doing?” hissed Luigi.
“You don’t just say no to a star, Luigi.” Mario hissed back. “Don’t ask me how, but I feel like it came a long way to talk to us.”
The star’s voice was high pitched, almost excited, as it continued. “You are the star children. I have searched far and wide to find you. The kingdom needs you, and we must leave at once.”
“Star children? What kind of hippy mumbo-jumbo was that? What kingdom?” asked Luigi. “Where is this kingdom? We have jobs here. We have papa and mama and nonna and uncle Carlo....we can’t just leave.”
The star began to glow green, beams of light radiating out from its centre. Two beams of light shot the two brothers, encasing them in radiant emerald. Luigi struggled to break free of it, but could not. He looked to Mario with wide, panicked eyes. Mario stared back at him with the same expression, trying to fight through the green to take Luigi’s hand. “We must leave at once,” the star said again. The room filled with white light and Luigi shut his eyes. The world around him rattled and shook and spun. It seemed like he no longer had ground under his feet. He kept squirming, trying his best to escape. The delusion was getting out of hand.
As soon as it began, the spinning stopped. Luigi felt brief weightlessness before being dropped straight to the ground. He rubbed his backside as he struggled to stand, his own dizziness nearly knocking him back down. His vision swum and he couldn’t make out anything. A hand grabbed his arm and pulled him up.
“Luigi,” Mario said, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
Luigi’s vision steadied. At first, he thought he was still in the green embrace of the star. There was green as far as the eye could see, rolling hills, sweeping valleys, and very odd moving trees. Small mushrooms grew from the ground, and a long yellow path stretched before them. In the distance, Luigi could see a towering pink castle waving a toadstool flag. He’s right, Luigi thought, I think we might be in Oz.
The star hovered ahead of them. Where it had been blank before, two long black eyes blinked at them, watching their every move. Luigi leapt back. “Where are we?” he asked it,
“Just where did you take us? This ain’t New York.”
“We are in the Mushroom Kingdom,” the star chirped, “and you are needed at the castle at once!”
“Uh, no. You’re taking us straight back to Brooklyn.” Mario crossed his arms. “This is real funny, but we have work in the morning and an uneaten cake on the table.”
“I do not have the power to go back,” said the star, “only to bring you here.”
“What?!” Luigi sputtered.
“We’re stranded here in fairyland!?” Mario yelled.
“Yup!” The star did a little twirl. “Don’t worry, Michelangelo Mario. The Princess will have cake at her castle. She’ll be more than happy to share!”
“It’s just ‘Mario’.” The red-clad plumber looked around again. “Once we do...whatever you said, can we go back to New York?”
The star tilted. “I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask the princess.”
“Perfect,” Mario groaned, “just perfect.”
The star wiggled one of its points at them. “Come with me, brothers Mario. I’m to take you to the castle so you can receive your hero’s welcome and meet the princess.”
Mario sighed and adjusted his hat. “Come on, little brother. There’s no way back.”
Luigi nodded and did the same. “As long as we’re together.”
Mario smiled. “As long as we’re together. Who knows, Luigi. Maybe you'll make something of yourself here."