My Brother's Keeper
“Aw, and look who tagged along with ya. Detective Sergeant Hutchinson. How ya doin’, Hutch?” Nick Starsky, his arm still draped around his brother’s shoulders, grabbed the bastard’s big hand and gave it a hard shake.
“I’m just fine, Nick. And you?” As usual, Captain America’s voice was smooth, cool and refined. It set Nick’s teeth on edge.
“Never better, man, never better! ‘Specially now that David’s home – right, Davey?” Nick hugged his grinning brother again, noticing how thin he still seemed. There was some strength in those arms though, and that was a big improvement over the last time they’d seen each other. Nick squeezed tighter before David’s soft gasp reminded him not to. “Sorry,” he whispered, releasing him. Nick straightened the collar of his brother’s dark blue shirt, then gave him a little push toward the front door. “Go on in, go say hi to Ma, give her a heart attack on her birthday. Hutch and me’ll get the bags.”
“Thanks, kid,” laughed Davey. “God, it’s good to see ya.” He messed up Nick’s hair and slapped him playfully on the cheek, then winked at Hutch and made a show of tiptoeing off to surprise his mother. He was moving in a careful, taut way that was unnatural for him, but still – it was amazing to see him back on his feet. Nick sighed. He knew Ma would be happier the second she saw her firstborn than at any other moment all week. Month. Year.
Turning back to Hutchinson, Nick was annoyed that he had to look up to meet that cold, superior gaze. Eyes narrowing, he decided to start this visit off right. “So. What the fuck ya doin’ here, huh? Really think Davey needs ya to hold his hand on a visit to his own mama and kid brother?”
“Fuck off, Nick,” answered Mr. Refined.
Nick shook his head. “Not gonna do that, Hutch. Not gonna fuck off in my own home, on my own turf. You walk through that door, it’s ‘cause I let ya.” He grabbed David’s suitcase and headed indoors. “Welcome to the Big Apple,” he called back over his shoulder.
~ * ~
“Look at your face,” Ma was cooing. She had her hands on David’s cheeks. “Look at your handsome face!”
Nick could actually see his brother blushing. “Ma, let him alone. Don’t tell him he’s handsome, it confuses him.” Hutch snickered at that, and Nick looked blankly at him. Who was he making fun of? Davey? Nick? Ma? Didn’t matter, Nick didn’t like it.
”Don’t tell your mother what to do, Nicholas,” David said. “Go ahead, Ma, you were saying?”
”I was saying how handsome you are, boychik.” Ma pulled his head down and kissed his forehead. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. “No fever, no fever, and with a little more flesh on your bones. I could ask no better present! The last time I saw you….”
“That was months ago, Ma, of course he looks better. Let him go already.” Nick dropped the suitcase sharply on the wooden floor while Hutch set his own bag quietly aside.
“And such eyes! Clear blue eyes… and you know your mama, don’t you, you can see me this time….”
“Of course I can see you, Ma.” David looked stricken. “When did I – ”
Nick laughed. “You were so spaced out the day we flew back, big brother, you didn’t have a frickin’ clue who we were when we came to say goodbye.”
“I said frickin’, Ma.”
“Well, we all know what you meant.”
“What the—I can’t even say frickin’ now? What’s next, for chrissake?” Nick paused, having noticed the expression on David’s face as he looked beyond him at Hutch. Nick turned and saw Hutch’s answering look. Some goddamn message was passing between them – something wounded from Davey, with some soapy, tender bullshit back from Hutch. “Hey, Ma,” Nick said loudly. “Did you see who else came to visit? Ya got two extra mouths to feed, not just one. Don’t ya love surprises?”
“Ken!” gasped Ma. “Oh, my Kenny.” She dropped her hands from David’s face and opened her arms wide. Hutch pushed past Nick and walked into a big motherly hug.
“Happy Birthday, Mrs. Starsky,” he said, smiling and kissing her cheek.
Ma clucked at him and held him at arms’ length. “What have I told you? It’s my birthday, now you have to obey me.”
“Yes, Ma,” Hutch grinned. With his stupid moustache, perfect blond hair and cheesy smile, Nick thought he looked like a game show host. Picture him in a cheap suit instead of jeans and a tweed jacket, and you’d have the real deal. Fuckin’ suck-up.
“My beautiful boys, come to visit me.” Ma pulled Davey in, and the three of them fell into another big clinch. Nick saw his mother pat them both on the back. He saw Hutch’s arm tighten around her while his other hand slid up and gripped the back of David’s neck.
“Let’s get this party started, huh, gang?” Nick called. “Who wants some wine? I’ll take these bags up, and we’ll pop a few corks.” David had turned away, sweeping the heels of his hands across his eyes. Ma was whispering something in Hutch’s ear.
Nick grabbed the bags and went upstairs.
~ * ~
“The Manischewitz is in the corner cupboard, honey.”
Nick sighed. “Ma, we’re not servin’ Manischewitz on your birthday.”
“What’s wrong with Manischewitz? Who doesn’t like Manischewitz?” Ma was reaching around him, getting napkins to put on the tray with the wine glasses.
Nick rummaged in a drawer under her arm, looking for the corkscrew. “I brought some good stuff along, Ma, let’s drink that, okay? It’s a special occasion. I’m home, Davey’s home. Let’s celebrate! Break out the Manischewitz tomorrow when everyone else comes over.”
Ma stopped suddenly and put a hand to her mouth. Nick slung his arm around her. “What’s wrong, mama, huh? Don’t be sad on your big day.”
“I’m not sad, baby. I’m happy. Your brother looks good, doesn’t he?”
“He looks great, Ma.”
“And Ken looks better, too. Oh, he was so worn out. He hardly left your brother’s side.”
Nick snorted. “Yeah. Apparently he can’t break the habit. What’s Davey need a babysitter for, huh, when he’s just comin’ home a couple days? He never told me he was bringin’ his gatekeeper along.”
“Oh, Nick.” Ma patted his hand dismissively, and Nick shrugged away, reaching for a bottle of the expensive Barolo he’d brought over. He flipped open the corkscrew.
“Whaddaya mean, ‘Oh, Nick,’” he said as he set to work. “Am I bein’ crazy? How come Hutch has to horn in on our family stuff? It’s stupid.” The cork popped.
“What? Ya gonna tell me Hutch is family now?”
“Honey, he’s done so much for David. I love him like a son, and the two of them are closer than brothers. Of course he’s family! Now be good, Nicky, and go visit with the boys. I’ll get out cheese and crackers and bring the wine in a minute.”
Nick got a quick kiss on the cheek from his mother, and then a pat on the rear. “Be good,” she repeated, and gave him a little shove.
~ * ~
“I know, I know,” David was sighing. “But God. My Ma had to see that? I just… why didn’t ya tell me, Hutch?”
The two of them were sitting on the couch all cozy, David with one pillow behind his back and another hugged to his chest. Hutch sat next to him, facing him, a hand resting on his shoulder. He spoke quietly, though Nick could hear him just fine from his spot in the doorway.
“Starsk, to be honest, it slipped my mind. You’d taken a bad turn, and there was a lot to… to deal with that day, and the week after, and then once the fever broke.…” He shrugged.
“Ah, Hutch. I didn’t know my own mother? I don’t even remember that! What’d I say, huh? What’d I do?”
The hand on David’s shoulder tightened. “Starsky, don’t. What difference does it make now? You don’t want to know this stuff, babe, you don’t need to —”
“So you’re telling him what he wants, now?” Nick pushed away from the door and dropped into the chair near David’s corner of the couch. “You like to tell him what he needs and don’t need?”
“Come on, David, I’m just curious.” Nick smiled at his brother, and then at his brother’s keeper. “Just askin’ Hutch a question. How ‘bout it, Hutch? You still in charge, even though he’s back on his feet?”
“Cool it, Nick.” David sounded tired.
“Ah, I’m not hot. Hutch ain’t offended, are ya, Hutch? I’m just askin’ a question. You the man in command?”
Hutchinson was giving him a laser-beam stare, and Nick grinned. Good thing Mr. Superhero didn’t have special powers, or Nick’s head would have exploded by now. Impressive, though, the big guy’s obvious determination to hold his tongue in front of David. “Aw, that’s okay, Hutch, you don’t gotta answer. I know you’re just tryin’ to take care my big brother here. We’re all real grateful for that.” Nick scrubbed a hand in his brother’s hair.
David reached up and grabbed his hand, then held it against his chest for a moment before releasing it with a little squeeze. Nick was startled. Somehow he knew everything Davey had just told him: thanks for saying you’re grateful – now quit playing with fire – love you, you stupid kid – don’t mess with my hair.
Nick swallowed hard. “Hey, Hutch, ya wanna do me a favor? Ma thinks she’s gonna carry a bunch of food and wine and glasses in here, and I bet she could use a hand.”
The laser beam got more intense for a second – Nick almost flinched – then Hutch glanced at David, who gave him a crooked smile. Hutch bit his lip, then said lightly, “Certainly, Nick. I’d be delighted to assist.” Suddenly he was Joe Genteel again, as he climbed up on his long legs and sauntered out of the room.
Nick watched him go. David was watching, too.
“Doesn’t it drive you crazy?”
“What’s that, kiddo.”
“Him – Hutch – tellin’ ya what to think, how to feel, what to do.”
David sighed. “He doesn’t do that, Nick.”
“I heard him do that! Jeez, Davey. You ask him somethin’ and he tells ya you don’t wanna know, you don’t need to know. You wanna hear about that day, I’ll tell ya. I was there too, you know. Everyone seems to forget that.”
David looked straight at him, and Nick saw fear and fascination in his eyes.
“I mean it, Davey, if ya really wanna know, I’ll respect that and tell ya.”
“…okay.” The word was quiet, and David pulled the pillow tighter against his chest.
“Okay, then.” Nick gave a firm nod. “So how much ya remember about our visit?”
“Oh… bits and pieces.” David grinned. “I remember you tryin’ to feed me pastrami.”
Nick laughed. “Ya got shit for pastrami in California. I knew you’d want the real thing.”
“Yeah, I wanted it. Nurses had something to say about that, though.”
“Nurses and Hutch.”
“Well.” David shrugged. “It was early days, still. Guess it wasn’t the best thing for me at the time.”
“Ah, what do they know. They ain’t never had Katz’s. Anyway – remember Ma made you chicken soup?”
“God, yeah. They let me have the broth, and it was the best food I’d had in a million years.”
Nick nodded. “There, see? You remember the pastrami and the soup. That’s all good stuff. And Ma and me reading Get Well cards to ya?”
“Some of that.”
“Well, you were sleeping a lot. But man,” Nick chuckled, “you didn’t sleep much on that last morning.”
David grimaced and gave his face a brisk rub. “Okay, let’s hear it.”
“Well, you had some kinda, I don’t know, drug reaction or something and your fever kicked in and your brain went haywire. Ma and me were in the room when you woke up – we were flying out that day so we went into the hospital early – and when you woke up, you started jabbering.”
Nick waved a hand. “Ah, a lot of it was just crazy stuff about calendars. You needed a calendar, you had to find one, you had to keep searching, time’s running out. You actually tried to climb out of bed and go looking, so we had to hold you down. And then – sorry, man – when we held you down you, uh, you started crying.”
David propped his elbows on the pillow in his lap, hiding his face in his hands.
“So, you were crying, and talking about the fever getting higher, and not being able to breathe, and about fun and games and dying. You had no idea who Ma was. Called her Mrs. Yates, or Mrs. Yeager, some damn thing. And you kept grabbing onto us, saying you needed to find a calendar, and you needed some – uh – blood. It was creepy.”
“Oh God, Nick.” David’s voice was muffled. “I don’t remember any of this.” He looked up. “How was Ma during all’a this?”
“You know Ma. She was a champ when we were in there alone – really strong – but once the nurses and Hutch came running in and shoved us out of the way, that’s when she finally lost it.”
“Oh, man. I hate thinking that… that… Ma actually saw me crying?” David looked pretty distressed.
Nick winced and nodded and gave him a consoling pat on the leg. “Yeah, you were messed up, it was kinda embarrassing… and when Hutch grabbed you, you started to laugh and cry both, which was sorta worse. But really, that calendar stuff was almost funny. And honestly, David, you were completely out of your mind, you aren’t responsible for what you did.”
“Jeez, Nick.” David leaned back and sighed. He stared at the ceiling and started rubbing at his chest. “I didn’t think I could be humiliated any more. Now I gotta wonder about all the crazy, degrading shit I did that I don’t even remember.”
“Hey, you asked.”
“I know. I know I asked.”
Nick pointed at him. “And I respected your desire to find out. I want ya to remember that, David.”
“We’ll all remember that, Nick,” said Hutch tightly as he came in and set a laden tray on the coffee table. “Congratulations on your good deed. Your Ma’s coming in, so shut up now.” He sat down on the couch, and pressed his leg against David’s for a moment. Nick figured it was another wordless communication, something along the lines of ‘sorry I left you with your lousy, worthless brother.’
“How much did ya hear?” muttered David.
“Heard him say you were embarrassing, out of your mind. Heard you say you were humiliated. Not bad for a five-minute conversation.”
“Hey, look,” hissed Nick, but then Ma came in with the wine, apologizing for keeping Kenny to herself in the kitchen and delaying the start of the party.
~ * ~
And what a party, thought Nick later. One 60-year-old woman, one recuperating invalid, one swingin’ bachelor making the best of a night in, and one pompous asshole. Quite a combination.
Nick had been the life of the soiree – after all, he’d brought the wine, which even Mr. High Society had to admit was terrific. And he’d been the one who arranged for a three-course Italian dinner to be delivered. And hadn’t he been extra gracious about getting another plate and dividing the food four ways instead of the three he’d expected? Still, David had kicked him under the table when he’d mentioned it again.
Ma had been crazy happy all night, which was nice. She wanted to listen to Dean Martin records and play Yahtzee after dinner, so that’s what they did. Davey teased her by crooning along with the love songs and kissing her hand. Ma had always had it bad for Dino.
Davey, though. He had exactly one glass of wine, nursed it all night long, and didn’t even finish it. A kindergartner couldn’t have caught a buzz from that. It made Nick kind of sad. And Nurse Hutchinson tried to be sneaky about it, but Nick saw him slipping David drugs at dinner. He snuck another pill to him later, too, during the game.
Now that was an intriguing part of the evening…. Nick had suggested making their Yahtzee game more interesting with a few little side wagers. Ma had said, “Oh, Nicky,” in her distracted way, and David had said, “Some other time, kid.” Hutch said nothing. But when Ma was getting the game out and Davey was putting on records, Hutch had looked over with those icy eyes and mouthed, “You’re on.” Nick lost fifty bucks to the bastard. No big deal, since he was making a lot of bread these days, but it pissed him off to lose a bet to that Ken doll. Still, the most interesting thing was that Mr. Perfect had hidden it from David.
~ * ~
Ma had kissed them all good night, and David was taking a shower in the upstairs bathroom before bed, so Nick decided to pay ol’ Kenny-boy a little visit. Only he wasn’t in the guest bedroom. He was in the brothers’ old room, digging around in his suitcase on the one of the twin beds, making himself at home.
“What the fuck?” said Nick as he entered. “I put your suitcase in the guest room. Where the guests stay. This is my old room, and Davey’s old room. What the fuck you doin’? Did you move my stuff?”
“Your brother asked me to,” Hutch said shortly.
“He did not, you fuckin’ liar.”
“Yeah, he did, Nick. Just let it go.”
“I am not gonna let it go! You come in here and move my bag, sleep in my bed, steal my time with my brother?” Nick got right in Hutch’s space and started shoving. “This is my house, ya hear me, this is my family. What the fuck are you even doin' here?”
“Nick, quiet down, don’t make your mom hear this.”
“You… you shut up about Ma!” This shove was harder, and Nick suddenly found himself in a headlock, short of breath, with Hutch talking low and quiet right in his ear.
“Listen, you little shit. Do not ruin your mother’s birthday with a tantrum. Do not give your brother grief about this room. He has his reasons. And guess what, you seem very late in learning this lesson, but not everything is about you.”
Nick stomped on his big foot, which made the bastard curse, and he was ready to give the asshole a hard jab to the gut, when David walked in.
“Jesus Christ,” breathed Nick. He was frozen, staring at his brother’s ruined chest.
David had one towel around his hips and one draped around his neck. Horrible, vivid scars and still-raw wounds were framed by the white terrycloth, until David pulled part of the towel over to cover himself.
“Jesus Christ,” repeated Nick.
“I, uhh….” David blinked, and cleared his throat. “Sorry, Nick. Thought you were downstairs.”
“Oh, my God,” Nick whispered. Hutch’s hand closed around his upper arm and tightened like a vise, waking Nick up enough to take a step forward. Still, he couldn’t think of anything to say. He felt sick and light-headed, like he might throw up at any second… and there was Hutch again, pushing him to sit on the bed, pushing his head down. Nick shut his eyes, squeezing blackness out of his vision.
“…hey, Nicky, come on now, you’re okay, kid….” Davey’s voice was right beside him. Nick swallowed with difficulty and looked up. His brother was right there, sitting right by him, dripping on him. His hair was all wet. There was a crazy flash of orange, which turned out to be Hutch moving into the picture, helping David into an old bathrobe. Nick saw the backs of Hutch’s fingers brush the skin above the robe’s collar, and he could tell it was a question. David closed his eyes for a second and answered with a little nod. Then he took a breath, patted Nick’s knee, and gave him a half-smile. “You okay, now? Nicky, you okay?”
“Want some water or somethin’?”
“’Kay. You hang on a second, I’ll be right back with ya.”
Nick kept his head down, but he raised his eyes just enough to see David walk to the door with Hutch. They whispered a word or two, but most of what they said was non-verbal. Hutch’s raised eyebrow – David’s slight shrug – a touch to the wrist – a palm to the hip – a shared smile. Then the door closed and David was sitting beside him again.
“How ya doin’, kid, huh?”
“Fine.” Nick was staring down at his own hands. “Hey, David.”
“Why don’t he just tongue-kiss ya and get it over with?”
“Uhhh… what?” Now it was Davey who sounded faint.
“Ain’t that next? Or maybe he already does, but you’re keepin’ it a secret.”
“I... no, he… we don’t… we’re not…”
“Listen to you stammer. I’m only kiddin’. But jeez, Davey. Sometimes he acts like he’s in love with ya.”
“Nah, he… he’s just – ” David shook his head sharply and rubbed his eyes. “Lookit, this is… not at all what I want to talk about with you.”
“Yeah. Me neither. I don’t wanna… I don’t –” Nick couldn’t believe it, but suddenly he felt like crying. He had to swallow twice before he could speak again. Even then, it was only an indistinct mumble.
“What’s that?” David leaned closer and put a hand on his shoulder, and Nick had to swallow hard again.
“I said… does it hurt? Your, um. Your chest.”
There was a pause before David answered. “Yeah. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. Wish I could tell ya different.”
“Me, too. I don’t like to… to see you…”
David gave an awkward laugh. “Thought maybe I could spare ya the grim details, but I walked right in, on display. Your own late night horror show.”
Nick started fiddling with the tie of his brother’s robe. “Ya gonna get any better?”
“Sure, kiddo, I’m getting better all the time.”
“God, David. You look bad.”
“Well… I got a ways to go. But I’ll get there.”
“Ya know, when I watch how you walk… man, this is stupid, but I been wonderin’ – you gonna be able to dance again?”
“What? Hell, I don’t know. I hope so. You nut, what in the world are you worried about that for?”
“I dunno.” Nick shrugged, pulling the strip of orange fabric through his fingers. “You love to dance. We went dancing together when I came out to visit ya, and it was pretty fun. It was fun, wasn’t it?”
David mimed a cigar. “Kid, I could dance with you ‘til the cows come home… on second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows ‘til you come home.”
“Yeah, yeah. Duck Soup. Your Groucho’s the worst.”
“What’re ya talkin’, my Groucho’s great. Sure, Nicky, I’ll dance. Maybe not well, but I’ll dance. …Hey listen, can we move up to the headboard? I gotta lean against something for a while.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Nick sprang to his feet. “Ya need pillows? Here’s pillows, you lean against that. Here, lemme help ya –”
David accepted a hand up, then cuffed him in the head. “Thanks, but you can cut it out. I ain’t a fragile flower. I could still take ya.”
“Bullshit. No, ya couldn’t.” Nick bunched another pillow behind his brother’s back, then dropped down next to him a bit too eagerly. David grunted as he was jostled. “Whoa. Sorry, man.”
“’S all right. Yeah, so maybe I can’t take ya quite yet.” David was arranging the lapels of his robe, closing them more securely over his chest. “But don’t get used to that. I’ll always be the big brother, don’t forget it.”
“Like you’d ever let me forget. Hey, you comfortable? We don’t fit in this bed like we used to. Remember when we’d sit here and you’d show me your cards?”
“Yep. I still got my cards.”
“No shit? You still collect ‘em?”
“Nah. But I get ‘em out and look at ‘em every other year or so. Still got ‘em memorized.” Davey tapped his temple. “It’s all up here.”
“Yeah? Maybe you oughta make room for other stuff. You’re real slow sometimes. Hey! Ow! Why ya gotta pinch?”
“’Cause I can’t wrestle you right now. I gotta make do.” David bounced a fist on Nick’s thigh. “Hey. Speaking of brawling. Wanna tell me what was going on between you and Hutch when I walked in? You were about to throw a punch, Nicky. Not too smart. He’d eat ya for lunch, never break a sweat.”
“Oh, ya think so?”
“I know so.”
“Christ, that fuckin’ bastard.”
“Hey!” David gave him a lightning-quick slap to the cheek, hard, shocking them both. “You don’t getta talk about my partner like that! I’m serious, Nick. You do not talk about Hutch like that, not to me.”
“God! Fine!” Nick rubbed the sting away. “Jesus, David! What is it with you two?”
David was looking startled and upset, almost afraid. “I’m sorry, I just… he’s my partner, Nick. He’s my friend. I don’t wanna hear you badmouth him, because he’s – Hutch is the whole reason I’m alive. If it weren’t for him, I.…” He paused, obviously gathering himself. “Lookit, these past months… sometimes, Nicky, it seems like just breathing, just living, is the hardest damn thing I’ve ever had to do. And without Hutch, I couldn’t have… I can’t…”
“All right, all right already. He’s a frickin’ saint. Don’t get worked up.” Nick watched his brother. David was biting his lip, still frowning, looking inward. Nick gave him a little nudge with his shoulder. “Hey. Lighten up.” He put his hand to his heart. “I shall only say beautiful things about Mr. Beautiful. In front of you.”
David glanced at him out of the corners of his eyes and smirked. “Fair enough.”
“If ya wanna know why we were fightin’ before, it’s because he moved me out of my own goddamn room. I mean, what the hell, David. That’s shitty. Then he told me you asked him to, and I saw red.”
“I did ask him, Nicky, and come on, ya gotta know why. You almost fainted when you saw me, kid, you don’t need to… to look at me all weekend, the way I am.”
“But… this is our room. You’re my own brother.” Nick’s protest was weak, though – he could hear it in his own voice. He didn’t want to see David’s wounds again, not even for a second.
“Let me keep a little dignity, huh?” David’s voice was thick, and Nick stared at his own hands again to avoid seeing pain in those eyes. “When I, uh, found out what happened in the hospital, what you and Ma saw, I…. That takes somethin’ outta me, Nicky. And I’m still kinda tough to look at, and at night things start to ache and I can’t always… Nick, I can’t watch you see me like this. Don’t make me. Please.”
Nick nodded, still looking down. His eyes were full, and he felt about eight years old, as old as he was when his brother still lived in this house with him.
David coughed and cleared his throat. “You okay, kid?”
“Yeah. I guess Hutch is used to… seeing you.”
“Oh, yeah. He’s seen the worst. I had to get over that a long time ago." David sighed. "So, lucky guy, he wins the ‘who gets to bunk with Davey’ raffle. Quite a prize.”
“Ah, he wants to be in here. He doesn’t like me being with you, it drives him nuts.”
“Nick, it does not.”
“Does too. We, uh, clashed a couple times back in the spring. At the hospital. Things got pretty heated, and our… excellent relationship suffered.”
The brothers laughed a little.
"You shoulda seen him, David. He was constantly on my case. Don't talk so loud - don't stay so late - why'd ya wake him - why'd ya upset him. He said I was insensitive! Now, I think I'm a pretty sensitive, perceptive guy, but Mr. Self Righteous don't think so. And Christ, the pastrami! You shoulda seen Nurse Hutchinson then, he nearly – "
"I get the picture, Nick."
"I'd tell him to lay off, remind him who was blood, you know? Who was family. And that'd take the wind out of his sails for maybe five seconds before he'd yell at me again for eating pizza in your room or putting a movie on the TV or something. Like you'd notice, being drugged up and half-asleep most of the time."
"Sometimes he'd turn Ma against me, too, and then she'd start nagging – "
"What! Don’t pinch!"
"Then shut up, willya?"
"What, now you don't wanna know about this stuff?"
David was rubbing his eyes. "Nicky, I'm gonna try to explain something to you, and I want ya to listen and not get defensive. Can ya do that?"
"Defensive! Whaddaya mean, defensive! What makes you think – "
"Hey. Just listen." David quit rubbing his eyes and took hold of one of Nick's hands. "You, Nicholas Marvin, are my little brother, and I love ya. I always will. And nothin's ever gonna change that. But... you don't know me as well as Hutch knows me."
"Oh, what does he know. If he thinks he can – "
David tugged on the hand he held. "Nick, I'm tellin' ya, be quiet and listen. Do I gotta sit on ya?"
"'Cause you know you hate that."
"I ain't twelve, David."
"Then quit acting like an obnoxious kid I gotta sit on. Now where was I."
Nick scowled. "Hutch knows you better than I do."
"Right. He does. And lookit, that's no reflection on you, or on him, it's just a fact of life. Hutch and me have... we’ve been through a hell of a lot together over the years. And during some of those years, kid, you and I didn't lay eyes on each other at all, through no real fault of our own. Money, work, miles, whatever. Those can be big obstacles.”
David was trying to catch his eye, but Nick wouldn’t look at him. He resented those years of distance. Nick pulled his hand out of his brother’s grasp. He didn’t want to hear his excuses.
“Look, Nicky, the point is, Hutch has seen me through some heavy stuff you don't even know about, and I've done the same for him. There's a bond there as strong as blood, kiddo. And if you get territorial about your big brother, and you think you're gonna put Hutch in his place? He's in his place, Nick. If he's right beside me, he's in his place. You're not gonna move him. And I don't want ya to try."
Nick nodded slowly, then shrugged. “Fine.”
“Fine, I get it. Mr. Marvelous is closer than a brother, and I’m just a kid you used to know.”
Beside him, David sighed, “Nicky,” and his head dropped back with a thunk against the headboard. Nick ignored him. He was staring down at their legs, stretched out side-by-side on the narrow bed. David’s bare legs and feet under the ratty orange robe, and his own, in well-creased tan trousers and Italian leather shoes. Suddenly he felt something that wasn’t too far from contempt.
“You know, you’re right? I mean, what are we to each other? We’re nothin’ alike, you and me.” Nick slid briskly out of bed and stood up, shooting his cuffs, toying with his bracelet and ring, straightening his well-cut jacket. “We might try to pretend from time to time, but… hey, David, you realize you haven’t even asked me what I’m up to, how I’m doin’, professionally? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m doin’ really well.”
“I noticed,” David said wearily. “I noticed your clothes, and your gold, and your food and wine.”
“Did ya? Well, yes, big brother, thank you for asking, I’m doing great. Got a fine little storefront that’s doin’ good business, a small electronics concern, turnin’ a pretty profit.”
“Yeah?” David was working to sit upright. “Turnin’ over a lot of product, are ya? If I had to guess, Little Nicky, I’d say your expertise was in laundry, not electronics.”
Nick laughed sourly. “Always thinkin’ like a cop, aren’t ya.”
“Am I wrong, huh? You on the up-and-up? You gonna tell me laundering’s not your specialty?” David had a hand on the headboard and was trying to pull himself up. “Whose payroll ya on, Nick? Marcano’s? You workin’ for your ‘Uncle’ Tony now?” He gave up the attempt to stand, and sat on the edge of the bed, one hand pressed against his sternum. “Why the… hell do you think I never asked… what you were up to, huh? I don’t… wanna know this shit, Nick.”
“My life’s shit to you, huh? Big hotshot cop thinks I’m shit? Hotshot, hell, more like washed-up. Hey, tell me, what do you got to show for your life’s work, huh? You’re breathin’ hard just from tryin’ to crawl out of bed. That’s what bein’ a cop did for ya! Who’s standin’ here lookin’ sharp with his pockets full of cash, and who’s the flat-broke cripple? Who’s the home team, now, David?”
“You… idiot. They didn’t shoot me… ‘cause I’m a cop.” David seemed focused on every harsh breath. “They shot me… ‘cause they’re criminals.”
“What? What the fuck’s that supposed to mean? What the fuck’s the difference? Ah, I’m done talkin’ to you. I’m gonna clear out so Hutch can get a good night’s sleep.” Nick reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. “Here, do me a favor, give Hutch the fifty I owe him. Gotta hand it to him, the man knows how to roll dice.”
“Nick….” David wouldn’t even look at the money. His head was down.
“Go on, take it! Yeah, okay, fine.” Nick dropped the fifty-dollar bill on the other bed. “Congratulate him when he comes in.”
David’s only answer was a soft, repeated gasp. Nick finally took a good look at him. His forehead was braced in one hand, and the other was twisted behind him, pressed against his back. “What’s the deal, does your back hurt?” Nick was still angry, and he felt annoyed by his own sudden concern.
David nodded. “It… happens. Get Hutch.”
“You gonna be okay?” Nick knelt in front of his brother, who was clearly struggling to breathe through pain. “Davey?”
David spoke through gritted teeth. “Get. Hutch.”
Nick nodded, touching his brother’s hair. “Okay, hang on. Hutch! Hey, Hutch!” Nick scrambled to his feet and went for the door, but it opened before he could shout again.
Hutch strode in, took one look at his partner, and knelt where Nick had been a moment before. “What’s up, Starsk?” he asked calmly. He stroked a hand from the back of David’s neck downward.
“Guess,” David hissed.
Hutch nodded, concentrating. Then his eyebrows rose. “Mm, found it. Here we go.” He pressed his hand firmly in the middle of David’s back, just to the right of his spine. David arched, gasping.
“What are you doing? You hurtin’ him?” Nick asked from his nervous perch on the other bed. “Are you hurting him?”
“Doing great, partner,” said Hutch quietly. Nick could see David’s white-knuckled grip on the back of Hutch’s shirt. “You’re fine, you’re doing fine.”
“Easy for… you to say.” David’s forehead was against Hutch’s shoulder, his temples glistening. “Ahhh… you’re killin’ me here.”
“Hey – hey, maybe you should stop,” Nick said, getting to his feet.
“Can you feel it easing?” Hutch asked. “I can. There. There. Easy now, buddy, relax. It’s over.”
David stayed leaning where he was, shoulders rising and falling. “Sometimes feel like it’s never over,” he said, sounding resigned. “God, that wrings me. One back spasm, and my whole chest seizes up.”
“It’s been a long day,” Hutch said reasonably. “Muscles are tired.” He was smoothing his palm down David’s back in long strokes, and had anchored his other hand in his partner’s hair. “Just rest. Don’t move ‘til you want to.”
Nick moved a little closer. “Hey. Is it done? He okay?”
“Hope your knees are in good shape, pal, ‘cause I might fall asleep right here,” David muttered without moving. “Hey. High roller. Did you really gamble on Yahtzee?”
“I, uh… refuse to answer on the grounds it might incriminate me,” said Hutch.
“Your fifty’s on the bed.”
“Remind me to get mad at ya later. Wagering at my mother’s birthday party. Really, blintz.”
“Well… for some reason I couldn’t resist. Seemed like it might be fun.”
“Got a competitive streak in ya.”
“You just now noticed? Some detective.”
“Yeah,” sighed David, “I’m some detective. Okay, let’s get me up, huh? Want to go to the can before bed.”
Hutch helped him up with a few easy motions. Nick could tell they’d done this before – it seemed well-practiced to them both. They started toward the door.
“Hey, David… Davey… you okay?” Nick asked.
“I’m terrific,” David said as he passed. “And tired. And done talkin’. See ya in the morning, kid.”
~ * ~
Nick carefully poured himself another glass of wine, spilling some on the table in the process. What a lousy place to get drunk, he thought. The stupid chair was uncomfortable, there was no music, there were dishes in the sink, the only light in the room was the one over the stove. Shoulda gone out, he thought, tapping idly at the spilled wine, watching the little splashes. Coulda gone to a club, found a likely prospect, done some drinking and dancing and… aw, hell. Hell of a place to get drunk – in the dark, in your mother’s kitchen, alone. Make a guy feel like a fuckin’ loser.
“I’m a loser,” he sang quietly to himself, remembering another time, “And I’ve lost someone who’s dear to me; I’m a loser, and I’m not what I appear to be.”
Nick laughed, taking a long drink, and over the rim of the glass, he saw Hutchinson – a dark shape in the kitchen doorway, leaning there, arms crossed. A little light glinted in his hair, but otherwise he was all shadow.
“What are you starin’ at?” Nick asked.
“Nothing,” shrugged Hutch. “You.”
“Why? You gonna hit me?” Nick gestured with the hand that held the glass, sloshing a trail of Barolo across the table. “You gonna come over here and punch me?”
Hutch pushed away from the door. “Why would I punch you, Nick? And don’t do that. You’re wasting some excellent wine.”
Nick nodded. “It’s good wine all right. You want some? Come ‘ere and have some. Jus’ opened a whole new one up.” He drank and wiped his mouth with his hand. “Figured you’d punch me ‘cause of David.”
Taking a wineglass from the cupboard, Hutch sat at the kitchen table, helped himself to the bottle and poured. He took an appreciative sip but said nothing.
“’Cause I made David have that… attack,” said Nick. “I guess that happened because of me.” He resumed splashing in the little wine-puddle.
Hutch shook his head. “I already told you once tonight that not everything is about you, Nick. He has those muscle spasms most nights, especially if he’s over-tired.”
“Really? You mean – I didn’t do that to ‘im?” Nick took a shaky breath. “Oh, God. I made him mad, and I thought… maybe I…”
“You didn’t cause it,” Hutch said lightly. He drank, but kept his eyes on Nick while he did it.
“Why are you watchin’ me?” complained Nick. “You’re creepy. Are you gonna punch me?”
“No. Do you want to tell me why you made your brother mad?”
“Why would I want to tell you that? And why would I have to? You gonna pretend you weren’t listening in?”
Hutch smiled a little. “Believe it or not, I refrained.”
“Huh. Bet that was hard.”
“You have no idea.”
“You don’t like me bein’ with him. Then screw you, I don’t gotta tell you anything.” Nick drank off his glass of wine and set it down, hard. “And you know what? Maybe I made him mad, but he pissed me off, too. He can’t tell me my life’s shit and then get upset if I call him a cripple.”
“You—” Hutch paused and laid his hands on the table. “You called him… what?”
“A cripple, I called him a cripple, a flat-broke cripple.” Nick’s eyes were brimming. “Told him he was a washed-up cop. Gimme the wine, I want more.” He took the bottle, poured some, and spilled again.
Hutchinson was breathing slowly, with effort. “You… said that to him? You said— Put down the fucking wine! You said those things, to his face?”
Nick nodded, and wiped his eyes.
“Well, I’ve got to hand it to you, Nick. Just when I think I’ve grasped.…” Hutch shook his head, at a loss. “Just when I think I’ve seen the worst of your self-absorption… of your… your capacity for cruelty to someone who, beyond reason, loves you…” He shoved back in his chair suddenly and began to pace, his hands flexing. “I… I can’t believe I said I wouldn’t hit you!”
“Is he okay?” Nick sniffed and wiped his nose on his expensive shirtsleeve. “Is he asleep?”
“Yeah, he’s asleep, you asshole. His pills knock him out. Dammit!” Hutch slapped the table in front of Nick. “I know I can’t trust you alone with him, why do I keep giving you chances?”
“Yeah,” muttered Nick, “you always give me so many chances. You’re his friend and his partner and his nurse and his keeper, I can’t get near ‘im half the time.”
“Nick, so help me God, if you can’t—”
“I had him for eight years! Eight lousy years before he moved away!” Nick stood up, swaying, and gave Hutchinson a feeble shove. The effort nearly made him fall, but Hutch braced him. “How come you get him now, and I don’t? ‘S not fair.”
“Sit down, Nick.”
“Get offa me, I don’t wanna siddown.” Nick pulled away. Overbalancing, he hit the counter and started to slide, until Hutch caught him again. Nick looked up into his face. “I was just a little kid, you know? And Pop was gone but I had Davey, then he was gone, and that was it. God! I missed him so much. I miss him. Why’d he go, why’d he have to leave?” Hutch seemed to have no answers, so Nick tried to make him understand. “I got summer visits, thass all. Couldn’t wait to see ‘im. Have a big brother every June, July. S’ fun! But shit. He went in the army and stopped coming. Barely saw ‘im anymore.”
Hutch was putting him back in his chair, propping him against the table. Nick grabbed his sleeve and shook his arm. “Listen about David, okay?”
“I will. Let go of me.”
“Okay, but you listen, huh?”
Hutch tugged his sleeve away. “Listening to drunks. My favorite.” But he sat down, leaned back, and pulled his own glass of wine nearer. “What are you going to tell me about your brother, Nick? Want to tell me how he looked when you called him a washed-up cripple?”
Nick’s eyes flooded again. “Don’t be mean.”
“Yeah. I love hearing that from you.”
“I didn’t want to hurt ‘im.”
“You sure? For someone who doesn’t want to hurt him, you seem to do it a hell of a lot.”
“Well, he hurts me!” Nick flared. “He left me! An’ he told me you know him, an’ I don’t. An’ when I called you a fuckin’ bastard, he hit me!”
Hutch smiled. “My hero.”
“Right,” snorted Nick. “I told ‘im you were in love with him.”
“You… did what?”
“Told him you loved ‘im.” He smirked. “And wanted to tongue-kiss ‘im.”
Hutch closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Ah, relax,” said Nick, making a sloppy soothing gesture. “’M only kiddin’, blondie.”
“Do not call me blondie,” grated Hutch.
Nick pointed at him. “You are blond, don’t deny it! And maybe wanna kiss ‘im.”
“I’m not denying it! That I’m… blond, not that I want to… I’m not saying… Nick, this is ridiculous, I’m not discussing this with you.”
“Thass what David said. After stammering for a year.” Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe you oughta get your stories straight. If straight’s the right word.”
“You’re drunk.” Hutch was pouring himself more wine. “You should go to bed and put me out of my misery.”
Nick thought he looked sad, which was strangely disappointing. This guy was more fun with an edge. “Hey. Hey, cheer up, Kenny.”
The look Hutch gave him was blistering. “Cheer up? I’m having the time of my life, can’t you tell?”
“Nah, you hate my guts. But you like David’s, and I’ll tell you a story ‘bout him, huh? I want more wine.”
“Knock yourself out.”
Nick reached for the bottle and nearly tipped it, but Hutch grabbed the neck in time. “Wait,” he said. “Let me pour, it’s too good to spill. Here. How much do you need to pass out? Anything beyond that is wasted on you.”
“Fill ‘er up, blintz.”
“What the—why the hell would you call me that? I don’t want to hear that from you. You get half a glass. Drink up. Please, literally, knock yourself out.”
“Thanks. Cheers! Salute. L’chaim.” Nick drank, suppressed a belch, and set his glass down with care. “So here’s a story ‘bout my big brother. I was, I dunno, seven. An’ he was pro’lly twelve, thirteen. Too cool to want a little kid followin’ him around. He’d always tell me to go home, go home, but he’d never do anything about it. He’d lemme tag along. You know he likes baseball?”
“I know,” smiled Hutch.
“He’s good, too, he’s a slugger. So he’s playin’ ball with the guys in this piece of shit sandlot, and he’s hittin’ like crazy that day, can’t miss. Real big rivalry goin’ on,‘cause they’re playin’ these kids from a few blocks over. Game’s tight, but Davey’s the stand-out, and he’s up to bat and the guys are all cheerin’.” Nick mimed a cheering crowd. “Hey, we got any cheese left? I’m hungry.”
“God, you’re drunk. There’s no cheese.”
“Shoot. I thought maybe… oh, well.”
Hutch sighed. “Focus, Nick.”
“What? Oh. So he’s up to bat, guys are cheerin’, a fastball’s pitched an’ he gets a piece of it – and it fouls and smacks me right in the face. Christ. Hurt like hell. Instant nosebleed, huge knot on my forehead. Two black eyes in about two seconds. I’m just a kid, ya know, so I start wailin’. And David drops the bat and comes runnin’.” Nick stopped, took a drink, and gazed at the refrigerator.
“Well?” asked Hutch, after a pause.
“I just told you! God, ya tell me to focus. Thass my story. Davey was the star, he was the prince, he was ridin’ high, all eyes were on ‘im… and then I got hit. He jus’ dropped the bat an’ ran over. Guys are callin’ me a crybaby and tellin’ him to get back to the plate, but it’s like he don’t even hear ‘em.” Nick shook his head. “He was so nice to me. Walked me home, put ice on my face, made me lay down. Never got mad that I followed ‘im. Promised to get me a popsicle, and then he did. He coulda been back at the game, right? Hittin’ home runs and bein’ king of the hill. Instead, he’s tellin’ bad jokes to a dumb kid to make him laugh.”
Hutch had propped his chin in his hand and was looking at the tabletop. He tapped a finger in what remained of the wine puddle.
“Hey, Husch.” Nick kicked him under the table. “What’d the duck say when th’waitress came?”
“Put it on my bill! Hey, Husch. What’d the policeman say to ‘is belly?”
“You’re under a vest! Cop joke. Pop an’ Davey liked those. Hey, Husch. Why was the baby ant so confused?”
“I don’t know. Why was the baby ant confused.”
“Because all of his uncles were ants! Ha! That one always slayed me as a kid, ‘cause we have a couple hundred uncles an’ aunts.”
Hutch smiled. “Yeah, you do,”
“All his uncles were ants,” Nick laughed. “Man. My goofball brother.”
“I never had a brother.”
Nick looked up, squinting at this unexpected comment from Mr. Snooty Aloof. “Wha?”
“I would have liked that. An older brother. Or a younger.”
“Well… yeah. Brothers’re good. What do you got instead?”
“An older sister.”
“Oh.” Nick didn’t know what to do with that information. “Okay. Thought maybe you were an only child.”
“Why is that?”
“I dunno. ‘Cause you always hafta get your way. Seems like you always get what you want.”
Hutch’s expression was wry. “I don’t always get what I want.”
“Oh yeah?” Nick felt annoyed. “You jus’ said you wanted a brother, and hey look – you already got mine. Ma said you’re closer ‘n brothers. David said your bond’s stronger ‘n blood! What more do ya want, anyway? What the fuck more do ya want?”
“Quiet down, Nick,” sighed Hutch.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Nick grumbled. “You’re not my brother. Maybe you can control David, can tell him what to think an’ who to see an’ what to do, but you can’t tell me. I don’t gotta listen to ya.” He finished his wine and leaned forward, pointing an unsteady finger. “This is my own house, huh? Not the goddam hospital. You can’t tell me what to do.”
Hutch swatted the finger away. He looked really disgusted now, no longer aloof. “God, you are such a child,” he grated. “Will you quit with this petty jealousy and territorial bullshit? Everything is all about you, all the time, isn’t it, Nick. I’d blame it on the fact that you’re stinking drunk, except that you’re the same goddam way when you’re sober.”
“Hey,” protested Nick feebly. He was feeling dizzy and gripped the edges of the tabletop.
Hutch rose and took their wineglasses to the sink to rinse them, slapping the water on and off with angry motions. “I’ve had enough of you. I’m tired of trying not to wring your neck.” He turned suddenly and pointed at Nick. “If you were capable of thinking about your brother instead of yourself, we would not have clashed so often at the hospital. But it was always ‘poor me, David got shot – poor me, he might be dying.’” Hutch’s voice seemed to catch on that word. “And these past months… have you even tried to understand what he’s been going through? He’s working so hard, accomplishing so much… and he has so far to go. What you said to him – that he’s washed up as a cop, that he’s crippled – those are real fears for him, Nick. He’s probably already forgiven you for saying that shit, but he’s not going to be able to forget. Especially hearing it from you.”
“Why ‘specially from me?” Nick mumbled. He rested his forehead in one hand and closed his eyes.
“Because, dummy, you’re his little brother. He cares what you think. He wants your love and respect, not your contempt.”
“I don’t… contempt ‘im.”
“Yes you do, the second he says something you don’t like. Then you lash out. Will you please grow up? Grow up and figure out that he didn’t abandon you when you were eight years old?”
“He did, he…”
“He was sent away, Nick. What choice did he have?”
“Sent away ‘cause of things he did. If he hadn’t…”
“Nick, he was 14, angry, and grieving. He made mistakes. Leaving you, leaving your mom – he didn’t choose that. It broke his heart, don’t you know that? But he made the best of it, he made the most of it, because that’s who he is.”
Even blind drunk, Nick could hear the pride and affection in Hutch’s voice. “Listen t’ you talk,” he said blearily. “Whadda you know ‘bout his heart, anyway?”
It took Hutch a while to answer. “I know it’s beautiful,” he said softly. “I know it’s good. I know it stopped for six minutes four months ago, and I have loved every beat of it since.”
Nick caught his breath and looked up, his throat tight. Images of David flashed through his mind – a kid in pajamas with a shoebox full of baseball cards. A grinning 12-year-old with dusty high-tops and a Dodgers cap. A handsome teenager in a cool leather jacket, talking non-stop about cars and girls. The sly older brother who would help him hustle pool.
Nick tried to bring into focus the blurry form by the sink. “Me, too. I love ‘im. I love him, too.”
“Good. Tell him that.”
…The short-haired stranger in Army fatigues. The cocky Los Angeles cop. The drugged and bandaged man in a hospital bed.
“I’m… oh, God… I’m so glad he’s alive, Husch.”
“I know. Tell him.”
“I will!” Nick tried to push himself upright. “Is it now? Can I wake him up?”
Hutch had a hand under his elbow and was helping him stand. “No, you can’t wake him. You’re going to pass out halfway up the stairs anyway.”
“I’m gonna tell him, though. Tomorrow, I’ll tell ‘im.”
“Mm hmm.” Hutch was guiding him through the door. “Let’s see if you remember tomorrow.”
Nick clutched urgently at his shirt. “If I forget, you remind me.”
“I’ll tell ‘im first thing I see ‘im. If I pass out on the steps, thass okay, you leave me there.”
“Sure thing, Nick. I was going to anyway.”
~ * ~
Jesus Christ, it was a million degrees in the house. Nick shoved through the screen door and stumbled out onto the back stoop, loosening his tie and wiping sweat from his upper lip. Too hot, too crowded, too loud, too… too much spinning. He grabbed hold of the iron railing, closed his eyes, and tried to concentrate on not being sick. It took a lot of focus.
Behind him, he heard the screen door open and crash shut again. “Hey, kid. How’s about a drink?”
Nick kept his eyes closed. “David, I swear to God, if you hand me a glass of Manischewitz, I will puke on you.”
David’s chuckle was amused, but at least it wasn’t nasty. “Nah, I brought you ice water. Thought you seemed a little dehydrated.”
“Mm. Gimme.” Nick stretched out his hand and felt a cold, damp glass against his fingers. He took a sip. It was so glorious he drank it all, then pressed the glass against his forehead.
“Gotta say, you’re makin’ me look good in there, kiddo. Seems rare these days I’m in a room with someone so pathetic I seem healthy in comparison. It’s refreshing.”
“Very funny, you’re a very funny guy. Here, take this glass before I drop it.”
David took it, and Nick managed to open one eye and look at him. “Gonna lecture me, Davey? If you’re gonna, I need to sit down.”
“Nah. Why would I lecture? Just like virtue’s its own reward, vice is its own punishment.”
“Yeah, thanks, Ma.”
“Actually, I’ve figured out vice sometimes punishes, sometimes not.” David punched him on the shoulder. “Guess that’s why the world needs cops, huh?”
“If you say so.”
Leaning against the railing, David tilted his head, assessing him. Nick knew he looked like shit – bloodshot eyes, pasty skin, bad hair. Even his excellent new suit seemed rumpled and cheap for some reason. In comparison, David did look good. His clothes were too big on him these days, but still, he looked pretty sharp.
Nick broke the silence. “Quit lookin’ at me, huh? Quit thinkin’. What’re ya thinkin’, anyway?”
“Oh, just wondering about last night. What happened after I crashed.”
“You’re a detective, you can’t figure that out?”
“Well, obviously, I can figure out the easy stuff. You didn’t crawl out of bed ‘til noon. You look worse ‘n crap. The good wine’s gone, and we’re drinkin’ concord grape. Pretty easy deductions, there. By the way, thanks for all your help setting up Ma’s party. You were really useful.”
Nick snorted. “Give up. Hutch is way better at sarcasm than you.”
“You’re right about that,” smiled David. “So, ya gonna tell me what else went down? Don’t say ‘nothin’, ‘cause I know better.”
“Yeah?” Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Whadda you know? Did Hutch say somethin’?”
“Riiight,” said Nick suspiciously. Strange though – looking at David, he seemed to be telling the truth. “Hey, big brother, ya wanna sit down? ‘Cause I have to sit down. And you probably need to sit down. C’mere.” Nick lowered himself stiffly onto the top step, then held up a hand so his brother could steady himself as he sat. David’s little grunt of discomfort as he moved was barely audible, but it hurt Nick to hear. “How you doin’, Davey, huh? This party wearin’ you out?”
“Nah, I’m good. Feels nice to sit, though.”
“Yeah, it’s kinda rough in there, with all the damn hugging and pinching and slapping and noise. And Jesus, is it a million degrees in there or what? Thought I was gonna spontaneously combust.”
“That’s your hangover, kid. But yeah, it’s a little warm. Feels great out here. Nice breeze.”
They sat quietly for a time, looking at the tiny backyard, its strip of shade from the neighbor’s overhanging tree, and its two bushes with a few red and yellow late-September roses.
“Hey,” Nick said, “the tree’s really grown. Remember that time we –”
“Heck yeah, that was fun. You ever do that again?”
“Nah. Didn’t really want to without you.”
David nodded silently, then cleared his throat. “Guess you spent a lot time alone here, huh?”
Nick gave a nonchalant one-shouldered shrug.
“Always figured you knew this, Nicky, but I guess it can’t hurt to say it. I wish things had been different. I wish I’d been here more for ya.” He paused. “I just… I only had eight years with my baby brother before I moved, and every summer after that you seemed so… I dunno, older. Bigger. Different. Sometimes I’d wonder about all the stuff I was missing, but it hurt to think like that, so I made myself stop.” David gave a mirthless laugh and looked down at the empty glass in his hands. “I don’t know how healthy that is, but hell, I was a mixed-up Brooklyn kid trying to figure out how be a California boy. Tryin’ to fit in, tryin’ to rebel – I didn’t know what the hell I was doin’ half the time. Anyway, I’m, uh… I’m sorry. I hope you know I didn't wanna leave you.”
Nick sighed. He felt very old and very young, all at the same time. It was weird. “Yeah, okay. I guess I know that. Hutch told me the same thing.”
“Hutch told you, huh? What else did Hutch tell you?”
“Oh God, I don’t know. About a thousand things. He’s full of helpful information and opinions.”
David smiled. “Can be.”
Nick shifted to face his brother better. “David, will you tell me somethin’? What’s up with you guys, huh? There’s somethin’… It’s almost like…” Nick abandoned the description and just lifted his hands in question.
David chewed on his lip for a minute and stared at the roses. Nick half expected he’d pretend not to understand what was asked, but he didn’t. “Well… I think… I mean, I know, that I’ve changed a lot since… since May. So’s Hutch. We’re maybe more thoughtful. Both a little calmer, more patient. A lot less competitive. And more kind, especially to each other. I think our perspective on some things has changed. Or… is changing.” He chuckled, sounding a bit embarrassed. He met Nick’s eyes and shrugged. “All I know is, I need him around me for the world to make sense. And he needs me the same way. That’s not really new, it’s been that way for years, but… I guess we’re more honest about it now. More content.”
Nick looked down and twisted the ring on his hand. “Hutch told me he loves your heart.”
“He did? How ‘bout that.” David sounded charmed. “Well, I love his, too.” He laughed. “I do.”
“Well, that’s… great.” Nick felt restless and got up, taking the three steps down to the grass. He shoved his hands in his pockets and bent to smell one of the roses. “Guess he takes pretty good care of you, huh?”
“Yeah, he does.”
“Like last night when you were hurting. He knew what to do, how to help. He have to do that a lot?”
David drew a hand down his face. “Yeah. Hey, how are ya, kiddo, you wanna go back inside?”
Nick shuddered and shook his head. “Nah, not yet. Too hot, too crowded. Too many cheek-pinchers and back-slappers, my hangover can’t take it.” He looked up suddenly and smiled. “When you see Uncle Lenny, whadda ya think of?”
“All your uncles are ants,” David supplied with a grin.
“Poor Lenny. All right, Nicky, let’s stay out. But we can’t abandon Ma forever. Or Hutch.”
“David, Ma is queen of the day, she’s in heaven. Everyone’s waitin’ on her, she’s fine. And they’re all talking about you to Hutch, and since you’re his favorite topic…”
“… he’s in heaven, too.” Nick took a little stroll around the small yard, kicking a stone toward the fence, picking a leaf off the tree. At the end of his circuit, he lowered himself back onto the step and knocked his shoulder gently against his brother’s. “Hey, I got stuff to say,” he announced.
“Yeah? Should I be afraid?”
“Nope. Or maybe so, if shock’s bad for ya.”
“Nah, it’s not bad, it’s… it’s good.” Nick looked up and held David’s gaze for a second, then bumped lightly into him again. “Here goes. I wanna apologize for the shitty stuff I said to you last night. It was mean, and I only said it ‘cause I was jealous, and defensive. I’m gonna ask you to try an’ forget what I said, David. I don’t know if you can, but I’d be grateful if you’d try.”
David studied the glass in his hands, rolling it between his palms a few times, then after a moment, he nodded. “Sure,” he said easily. “No problem, Nick. It’s forgotten.” But since Nick couldn’t catch his eye, he knew better.
“Look, I know it’s a lot for me to ask, and I know it can’t happen right away. Just… thank you for trying.”
“You got it.” David smiled one of his big smiles, and Nick relaxed a little.
“There. That’s part one. Here’s part two: I wanna tell you how much you… you mean to me.”
“Ah, Nick, you don’t hafta—”
“Yes, I do! I gotta say this, or maybe I won’t ever say it. God, Davey, I mighta lost any chance last spring to tell you this stuff, and if I don’t say it now, when I can, that’s sad.”
“Okay,” David said, almost warily.
Nick took a deep breath. “I know you and me are… different people, and I know we got different outlooks on some things. And I think we missed out on some important stuff when we were growing up apart, and that hurts. It hurts us both.”
“Yeah,” David quietly agreed.
“Well, lookit. You’re my big brother, and you were always my hero. You still are. I, uh… I love you very much, David. I want you to know that.”
Nick watched his brother swallow hard a couple times before responding. Then David said, “I love you too, Nicky. Always have.”
“Well, good. We’re good, then, right?”
David nodded. “Yeah, we’re good. I’m still gonna worry about you, though. Worry what you’re up to.”
“Ah, fine, I guess that’s your job. As the oldest, I mean.”
“Yeah. It is. Look, Nick, about Tony Marcano—”
“Oh, Christ, David, don’t start.”
“C’mon, kid, ya gotta use your brains here. He’s a fuckin’ criminal! Ya really gonna—”
“David Michael.” The screen door slammed, and both Starsky boys looked up to see their mother standing above them on the stoop. “You watch your language in this house.”
“We’re not in the house, Ma!” defended Nick, at the same time David muttered, “Sorry, Ma.”
“Such profanity at my party. You should be ashamed.”
David smiled up at her. “Did I tell ya how pretty you look today, Ma? You’re a real knock-out.” He nudged his brother with an elbow.
“Yeah, Ma,” said Nick. “Is that a new blouse? Lavender’s really your color.” He grabbed the railing and pulled himself to standing, then extended a hand. “Come on, David, I told you it was rude to stay out here so long. Whatsa matter, huh, you too good for your own mother’s party?” Nick bent, slipping an arm around his brother’s back and taking more of his weight as he rose. “Sorry, Ma, I tried, but he’s impossible. You know how stubborn he gets.”
“Don’t listen to him, Ma.”
“I know both of my boys, Nicholas, better than you think.” Ma put a hand on David’s waist to steady him as he stepped onto the stoop, then she gave him a hug and kiss. “You’re a good boy, David.” She slapped him lightly on the cheek. “But don’t swear.”
“I’m a good boy, too, right, Ma? Aren’t I a good boy?” Nick was playfully shoving his way between them. “Where’s my hug, Ma? Where’s my kiss?”
“So insecure, my Nicky,” sighed Ma. “Come here, baby, here’s your hug.”
Nick knew that, behind the long-suffering mask his mother was wearing, she was genuinely moved to have her two sons in her arms.
When David winked at him, Nick got kind of choked up, too.
~ The End ~