The Brothers Salerno at Home
Little Johnny and Anthony had been sharing a room for as long as Anthony could remember. Their mother Gina swore the brothers hadn’t roomed together back in the old Brooklyn neighborhood, that Little Johnny had been allotted the twelve-by-fourteen living room with the queen-sized, plastic-covered, foldout sofa. Anthony didn’t recall that. He was five-and-a-half when the Salernos moved from Canarsie to cleaner, quieter Bay Ridge, but wouldn’t he know if he’d had his own room?
Gina was always trying to show Anthony up, even though Little Johnny said it was just Anthony’s imagination—and that Gina didn’t care for either one of her sons.
Little Johnny was the important one here, not Gina. Anthony scratched the back of his neck. Why was Anthony thinking of her? Anthony’s father, Anthony Sr., said his son always went off the topic when it suited him, when he didn’t want to deal with something important that was staring him right in his stinking, punk face.
Anthony Sr. had a bug up his ass about “the straight and narrow” and “the redemptive powers of work,” stuff he’d read in books. Anthony scratched his balls through his dirty jeans. What did his father know, anyhow? Anthony Sr. fixed cars. He came to the breakfast table every morning with grease under his fingernails.
Maybe Anthony hadn’t shared a room with Little Johnny in the hinterlands of Canarsie. If Anthony closed his eyes and squinted hard, he could make out a house with black iron railings and front and back yards, and his parents, young and happy, and Little Johnny, Aunt Viola, and Grandpa Vincenzo. Plus Grandpa’s friends, a bunch of old guys with rounded backs playing bocce and spitting tobacco juice on the back yard grass.
Little Johnny told Anthony that Anthony must have made that up, that it was too stereotypically Italian to be real. Anthony probably saw it on TV, Little Johnny said smugly, but Anthony knew it was real. Besides, they called Johnny Little because he was the youngest, so he didn’t remember anything either, including being spoiled enough to sleep on a queen-sized bed at the age of four. What did Little Johnny know?
Now Anthony scratched his rear end. Why was he so itchy? “Maybe if he put his pants in the washer more often,” his mother Gina was always telling his father, “if, God forbid, he’d do his own laundry and clean up his side of the bedroom rather than expect his mother to do it for him....Sure, I’m working now, but I’m not gonna be around forever.” Out of the corner of his eye Anthony often saw his mother scowl as she grabbed sweat-stained T-shirts, uniforms, and foul-smelling socks off his side of the bedroom─but she continued to pick up after him.
Could be his mother was right. Anthony knew how to operate a washing machine. Or he could figure it out. Nah, he must have this rash from the store-brand detergent Gina started using ever since his father told Anthony’s mother that “name brand or no brand didn’t make no difference when it came to household supplies.” Anthony Sr. was cheap, no-family-vacations cheap, no-money-for-movies cheap, “pay-your-own-way-if-you wanna-go-to-college—like you’d get in with your grades”—cheap. Anthony rubbed his itchy back against his brother’s bookcase.
Little Johnny and Anthony had been roommates at least since the Salernos had moved to Bay Ridge, and Anthony thought there were no two brothers closer than them, he’d bet on bocce no two friends closer, because Anthony considered Little Johnny his best friend as well as his brother.
Not Little Johnny, though! His own brother—who’d won a spelling bee in junior high, the kind of so-called accomplishment Anthony thought a guy should be ashamed of; his own brother—who took the subway into “the city” with friends to go to concerts, museums, and bookstores; his own baby brother no doubt imagined somebody other than big brother Anthony to be his best friend.
Anthony’s nails picked, through his blue jeans, at the skin behind his right knee. Anthony knew there was no other reason for what Little Johnny had said this morning while Anthony hiked up his work pants and Johnny wiped sleep crust from his eyes. The only explanation was that Anthony was not Little Johnny’s best friend.
“Jesus, Anthony!” Little Johnny had said, even though Anthony could never get away with using the Son’s name any place other than church, “I’m just talking about moving out. And I’m talking about moving to Northern Manhattan, not to New Jersey or the West Coast! It’s not like you can’t catch the subway to visit me.”
Anthony would have sworn up and down Bay Ridge Avenue that Little Johnny had rolled his eyes then, even though Anthony couldn’t prove it. No, little brother was too shifty to get caught. Anthony didn’t know if he trusted his brother anymore. Could be Little Johnny was underhanded enough to move out in the middle of the night, leaving Anthony with one half-empty closet—and one half-assed note.
Anthony unzipped his fly and poked around his privates. Had he locked his door? He didn’t need a rerun of two weekends ago, when his parents burst into the bedroom to tell him Aunt Viola had made her spinach manicotti and that if he wanted some while it was hot he’d better take a ride with them now! You’d think his mother had never seen a silk hankie and a jar of Vaseline before.
Now Anthony had what his father would call a “legitimate medical reason,” but Gina and Anthony Sr. would be the last ones to believe him. He lowered his head to examine himself. Where Anthony had been scratching everything was blotchy, and when he looked real close he thought he saw black specks. This couldn’t be good. Anthony needed his brother for advice, but didn’t know where Little Johnny was—maybe half-moved-out already.
Just Anthony’s luck, to get fleas or mites or lice down there—when he hadn’t even been laid yet. Maybe Little Johnny was moving out because of Anthony’s fleas. Or Little Johnny could have shoved fleas under his sheets so he could justify running away to Manhattan.
How did Anthony know his father hadn’t planted them there—to prove to the family that Anthony Jr. was a slob? A brain-drained, embarrassment of a son? With fleas. Or mites. Whatever the hell they were.
Anthony picked and scratched—his testicles, his inner thighs, the back of his neck, the small of his back. What was he going to do? How could he see the family doctor about this?
Anthony had just finished zipping up his pants when he heard his baby brother knock on the door. Little Johnny always knocked, unlike their mother or father, or Grandpa Vincenzo, or Aunt Viola. Little Johnny had class. He was a Benedict Arnold, but he had class.
At first Little Johnny was reluctant to inspect Anthony’s private parts. Johnny exhaled loudly, shut and opened his eyes, and shook his head back and forth.
“Come on,” Anthony begged him, “it’s not like I’m a pervert. And this is a legitimate medical emergency here!”
“All right,” Little Johnny finally gave in, “but get your nails out of your private parts, which, by the way, are called that for a reason. Reason number one: your brother shouldn’t be seeing them. Jesus! Seriously, stop picking. You’re going to make things worse.”
Anthony felt his skin redden with shame as his brother peered closely at Anthony’s privates, his legs, behind his ears, his neck, even between his toes. Anthony was starting to feel sorry that he’d ever asked his brother for help.
“O.K., big brother, you can cover up now.” Little Johnny threw Anthony’s pants and briefs at him, then grinned the biggest grin Anthony had seen on his little brother’s face since Johnny had discovered Anthony Sr.’s dog-eared Playboys in four boot boxes in the garage.
“What’s so damn funny?” Anthony’s left hand flew to his backside for a good scratch.
Little Johnny was laughing now, and he continued to shriek like a mating hyena for the next minute. Anthony pouted, and wondered why his own brother was happy as a nun on Sunday at Anthony’s expense.
Johnny’s laughter subsided. “Well, Anthony,” Little Johnny managed to squeeze out between gasps and hiccoughs, “it looks like, for once, mama Gina is right! Papa Anthony, too.”
Anthony glared at Johnny, this traitor against Anthony and Bay Ridge, now siding with their parents, too!
“You don’t have mites. You don’t have ticks. You don’t have fleas. What you have, brother, is dirt! I’ve never seen so much dirt on a person with a solid roof over his head. Anthony, when was the last time you showered? Madre di Dio! No wonder you’re drenched in buckets of cologne!”
Anthony hung his head. “I don’t know when I showered last.” He looked at his feet. “A couple of weeks ago?”
Little Johnny muttered words Anthony couldn’t understand, then headed for the bedroom door. Anthony jumped over his bed and playfully blocked his brother. Little Johnny swatted malodorous air.
Anthony stepped back, stuck his hands in his pockets, and peered into his brother’s eyes. “Johnny, are we still best friends?”
Johnny Salerno took a deep breath. He placed his hands on his older brother’s shoulders. Anthony knew he wasn’t going to like what he was about to hear. “I love you, Anthony, but I’m still moving out. You can visit me anytime—but take a shower first.” Then Little Johnny walked out of their room.
Anthony quietly ventured into the hallway, scratching his balls through his jeans.
“Jesus,” he heard Little Johnny grouse, “I can’t wait to get out of this place.”