Mom promises she’s not leaving us and then she leaves us. The next morning, Darren and I share the bathroom sink and mirror because we only have the one and not a lot of time. We walk to school. We pass Hartley’s Sub Shop, the dog with the mashed face, Clear Bright Laundry, and Marshall’s Automotive. It’s not the scenic route but at least there’s only one intersection. We wear glasses. At this stage in our lives, we are not that good looking.
After school, I turn on the TV and then Darren calls out “Kevin!” from the bathroom and I come running. There’s a big black garbage bag and about a thousand and one puzzle pieces in the bathtub.
“What’s all this?” I ask him.
He grins. “Puzzle.”
We start trying to put it together. We’ve been working for almost twenty minutes before I say, “So what’s this thing supposed to be of anyway?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Darren says and keeps right on working.
“Didn’t it come with a picture or painting of what it’s supposed to look like?”
Darren says that maybe that’s the way puzzles used to be but nowadays they don’t do pictures with puzzles anymore.
“Why,” I ask.
“Because,” he says, “it’d be too easy. What’s the point of buying a puzzle if you can do it in like fifteen minutes? What would be the point?”
We work on the puzzle for eight days straight, taking breaks to eat hotdog sandwiches and Cheezos. The picture the puzzle is forming is a flock of gray-black birds or flakes of ash being carried by a wind, and we’re already running out of room on the bathroom floor. Pieces are crowding the wall behind the toilet. All this time spent crawling is rubbing shiny spots into the knees of my jeans. I complain I’m beginning to be able to see the threads. “They’re turning all cobwebby.”
“What?” Darren says. “You scared?”
“You a pussy?”
“I can’t get this stupid piece to fit.”
Darren takes the piece from me, eyeballs it, then looks down at the puzzle and puts the piece between his teeth. For a few minutes, he works with another piece, roaming over the territory. Then suddenly he snatches the piece I’ve given him from out of his mouth and snaps it into place. “Who’s your daddy,” he bellows. “Who’s your daddy!”
When I go to the tub to fish out another couple pieces from the pile, it looks as if we’ve hardly even made a dent. At the same time, we’ve already covered most of the bathroom floor.
“Darren, how much further you think we’ve got to go on this?”
By week two, Darren’s pale and getting skinner. His forehead looks pointy. In some versions of light, it looks like he might be losing his hair. When he works, he sweats profusely. Dribbles of grayish brown water trickle down his temples. A dark blue ring forms around the neck of his shirt.
After nine o’clock at the end of week three, I plomp down on the couch and eat Cheezos as I watch the Cubs play in the wildcard. They’re clobbering the Pirates’ scrubby asses and I shout updates on the score to Darren as he works. At midnight, I ask him when he’s going to quit so we can go to bed.
Darren grins proudly. “I’m an industrious motherfucker, ain’t I, Kevin?”
“Can you get me my toothbrush? It’s in the cabinet.”
“I most certainly cannot,” he says. “If I tromp across this floor it’ll screw up the whole puzzle. You want me to wreck all the progress we’ve made?
I ask him if he ever ate any dinner.
“We’ll get you a new tooth brush tomorrow,” Darren grumbles, not listening. “Alright? I said, ‘Alright?’”
“It smells like turd in here.”
“Do me a favor. Go and get me that little boom-box that’s in Mom’s old room.”
I leave our bedroom door open a crack to let in some light but close the blinds. I tear the corners off a paper towel, wad them up into little pebbles, stuff them into my ears, and turn off the lamp. I can still hear the garbled voices on the radio and the sound of Darren foraging in the bathtub for a successful piece. Once in a while, the bathroom goes silent, like he’s in there thinking, maybe. I picture him crouched over the puzzle, examining the colors of jagged cardboard coast. He is imagining the possibility of a solution and doubting it. In the middle of the night, I wake up and imagine him showing himself a piece in the mirror, describing its pattern and dimensions, turning it over, tasting it, coaching himself. “You bastard . . . You tricky little shit . . . Who’s your daddy? Who’s your daddy?”
We’re walking home from school when Darren takes a wrong turn. There’re actually no turns that need to exist between our house and the school; it’s just a straight shot, but he’s hauling ass. His legs are longer than mine, too, so I have a hard time keeping up with him.
“Where’re you going?”
“We need to visit the hardware,” Darren says. He’s been using his lunchtime to return kids’ trays for them. For a quarter, he’ll take up two or three trays at a time, whack them against the inside of the garbage can, then deliver them to the tray belt.
He lays a retractable knife and a pack of Starburst on the checkout counter and the lady says, “$8.99.”
Darren plunks down a wad of cash and sorts his coins into teams. When he finishes, he counts everything again. “How much money you got?” he asks me.
“I don’t got none.”
He makes me empty my pockets and the lady lets us have the knife. She keeps the Starburst for herself.
“This is it . . .” Darren keeps saying, on our way home. “This is it, Kevin . . . Here we go . . . Here we go . . .”
Darren makes an incision where the carpet meets the vinyl floor of the bathroom. He hacks at the carpet, using the thin silver plate between the carpet and the vinyl as a straight edge. At first, the carpet doesn’t want to come up, but once Darren gets it going, it peels like a banana. We laugh, coughing dust. We work with our shirts pulled up over our snouts.
“It’s the carpet pad,” Darren explains, “she must be disintegrating.” A few minutes later, he howls triumphantly as if he’s struck gold.
“Hardwood, baby!” he says, knuckling it. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”
It takes two days to rip out the carpet and scrub the gummy gray scabs of the carpet pad up off the floor. We have to do this, Darren explains, because we need to be able to lay the pieces down flat. When we’re finished, the dumpster out in the parking lot looks like a giant flower pot stuffed with rolls of carpet.
I brush my teeth using water from the kitchen sink and pee at our new spot behind the trees near the dumpster. “The bathroom belongs to the puzzle now,” Darren says. “It’s off-limits.”
Darren shovels the remaining pieces onto a queen-sized bed sheet and drags them gently down the hall and out into the den. He spreads out the sheet and talks to himself while he works, colonizing the cold creaky floor with brightly colored pieces.
In the hallway, the puzzle looks like a picture of a chimney or just a column of bricks, which is letting the tiny flock of gray-black birds out into the purple-dark sky scene that is the floor of our bathroom. The den is coming together quickly. Darren is assembling large chunks of puzzle, then linking them together with other chunks. It’s a jungle scene: broad, dark green leaves, vines, lions’ eyes, monkeys, parrots, panthers, frogs, snakes, mosquitoes, and orchids.
Last night, Darren punched sleeve-holes into the big black garbage bag that the puzzle came in and started wearing it like a uniform. Our apartment smells like sharp cheddar cheese and he is the source. At school, my teacher keeps asking me to deliver notes home to Mom, notes she’s written to the nurse. The nurse gives me other kids’ sweatpants, jeans, t-shirts, and underwear. Darren thinks it’s funny to point out that a lot of the nurse’s shirts make me look like I’m wearing a dress.
At home, tonight, Darren works without a shirt on. “Why aren’t you wearing your bag?” I ask him.
“Because I’m sweatin’ my balls off.”
He moves like an insect, browsing the floor where it becomes puzzle. He has developed the habit of carrying one piece in his hand and two or three pieces with his teeth. I can see his ribs now, skin poured over his bones like wax. He is sniffing constantly and touching the nose piece of his glasses, which seem these days to be constantly sliding off his face. His socks are threadbare and the color of butter.
“You know,” Darren grumbles, tapping a piece of puzzle on the floor. “This thing’d probably be going a lot quicker if you weren’t such a lazy bastard.”
I almost say, “You’re starting to sound like Mom,” but I don’t because I’m watching the Cubs play. Sometimes, watching the Cubs makes my eyes sting after a while. If Darren wasn’t such a spaz, I would tell him I’ve lost interest in trying to figure out what the puzzle’s supposed to look like. I would tell him I want it to be over, which is how I’ve felt about puzzles all my life. You’ll never see me go out and buy one.
The next night, I finally think to ask Darren, “Where’d you get this thing from anyway?” and you know what he says? “None of your goddamn business.”
He probably found it in the dumpster.
“You’re going to have to get up,” Darren says to me.
It’s almost eleven o’clock and my fingers are fuzzy with cheese dust and couch fur. The Cubs are on channel eleven, and they’re blowing it. We have Jake Arieta, we’ve been unstoppable all playoffs, we pounded the Pirates in the wildcard, then we stomped the Cardinals who (need I remind anyone) had the best record in baseball, but now this? I’m not listening to Darren. I’m in the middle of a commercial break from Darren.
“Hey, deaf-boy.” He jabs me in the chest. “Move. Couch has gotta go.”
“I’m watching the game.”
“Get up.” His fingers close in a fist. The TV screen blinks. The Cubs are about to lose to the Mets. The New York Fucking Mets. It sucks most when you go from being the sweeper to the one that’s getting swept. I want to be able to yell at the players and make them change. I want to reach out and grab them by the buttons of their shirts and scream, “Are you guys following some sort of script? Are you trying to fuck this up?”
“Kiss my ass,” I say.
“What’d you say to me?”
“Kiss. My. Ass.”
Darren’s fist flies at me slowly because I know it’s coming. I see it rise up from behind his back and come chugging down on me like a satellite that’s falling from the sky. When Darren’s fist lands, my face shrieks, and he turns off the TV.
“When you’re finished crying,” he says, “we’ll eat dinner.”
I blow my nose in my shirt and hear the freezer door slam and get up from the couch.
He drops a hunk of hotdogs in a pot and it sounds like a hockey puck. He turns the hot water on and we watch for it to thaw more.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Darren says. “It doesn’t.”
He estimates it will take another couple weeks before he finishes the puzzle. There’s still the den to finish, then the kitchen, not to mention our bedroom and Mom’s, and the entryway. There’re leaves from autumn on the floor, a stinky white bag of garbage, Darren’s ripped-up jeans, my ripped-up jeans. Flip-flops that were Mom’s.
Water rips from the faucet and stings the hunk of hotdog meat. Steam rises from the pot, a stiff head of grandma hair. The skin under my eye feels like it’s turning the dark purple color of the lakes I see shining some nights on the surface of the moon.
“How bad is it?” I ask him.
He turns me by the shoulder. “Not bad,” he lies.
“Is it a shiner?”
“No.” He pokes the hunk of meat; it’s still dense and icy in the middle.
“I’m gonna go look at it in mirror in the bathroom.”
“You walk across my puzzle,” Darren says, “I promise I’ll kill you.”
Darren yanks on the door but the lock is stronger than him. In the reflection of the bathroom mirror, I see our towels first. My washcloth is gray and stiff and wrinkly like a dehydrated baby elephant’s ear. There’re puzzle pieces sticking to my feet. Water drips from the ceiling, staining the puzzle’s flock of gray-black birds. Hair’s stuck to the toilet seat. Shards of Mom’s bar soap are nested in the soap dish. I fish the big black garbage bag out of the bathtub and I put my arms through the sleeves and scream and dance with it on until the puzzle is all jumbled, then I look at myself in the mirror. My eye’s sunk in a purple-black mash. I look stronger than Darren wearing the bag. I look like I know what’s left after promises are broken.Sam Leuenberger’s fiction appeared in Fourth & Sycamore. He lives north of Pittsburgh where he has written and directed three one-act plays and continues to teach.