When you don’t have a cat–no, when all you have to play with is a hammer, you name it. The first thing my brother Luis did after the handyman gave him the hammer was call our mother into our bedroom for “a special service announcement.” I was in the kitchen with her. She was spraying a pan with Pam, frying grilled cheese for me. I was telling her about this new girl I got at school. I tell her about stuff like this because she gets all excited and smiles so you see the pink part beneath her brown lips. She’s got a gap tooth too. I was telling her about how at first this older girl wouldn’t talk to me cause eighth graders were too immature for her, but then I was a real gentlemen, holding doors, buying her Sprite and whatnot, and then she got with it real quick. Mom smiled at me nice like I was a stranger, like I was the super or the deli guy with the wet lips and the fancy cross.
We came in from the kitchen to our bedroom and my brother’s there, standing on my bed, holding a wood-handled hammer with dirty gray duct-tape holding the head to the handle.
“Jose the super gave it to me,” he said from the bed like it wasn’t anything. He was taller than my mother standing up there, and she’s tall for a woman.
“Mr. Ortiz,” mom said. I considered rushing him off my bed but mom wrapped an arm around me like she heard my thoughts. He bounced a little as he talked and the bedsprings were creaking like horror-movie music: “Remember how I’m supposed to involve people in my games and how I feel and whatnot? Well, you guys could be a part of this.”
“A part of what, honey?” my mother said sounding tired like she just can’t figure this kid out, like he don’t act tough, like he almost acts gay, but the other day at the slide he just went windmill on this kid’s chest for no reason. She had to go across town to talk to some counselor. And he didn’t even have the guts to tell her to kick his ass.
“My ceremony,” he said all squeaky, like a happy little kid in a commercial.
“You ain’t gonna do nothing with that hammer, Luis, I swear to god…”
“Nah, mom, I’m doing the naming ceremony in front of you guys so you could know about it, like a baptism.”
“Your brother’s my witness, if you smash one thing…”
“Hear ye, hear ye” he said jumping up and down like an inch off the bed each second. The bed sounded like when people fuck each other on television. He raised the hammer over his head and held it there. My mother said, “I swear to god…” under her breath but my brother didn’t notice because he was too busy jumping and he’s got his eyes closed and his lips are moving like he’s talking with no sound, like he’s possessed. He lets his hammer-holding arm fall to his side, limp, and my mother says, “Ay.”
“Honey, what’s its name?” my mother said, like she was in a hurry and needed the name so she could drop it off somewhere
“I ain’t telling” he said, just like that.
“But that’s rude, Luis! Interrupting your brother and my conversation for nothing, like that! That’s just… rude.”
“But you guys saw the ceremony. You guys got to be apart of that.”
“Sometimes I just don’t understand you,” my mom told him like she was talking to a grown-up. “Don’t I try,” she said to me. Her brown eyes turned black and they shined and shook. “Don’t I try so hard,” her voice swelled and she sounded like a soap opera she watched. I nodded but she’d turned her head up toward the ceiling and then we all did. The white paint was peeling and Luis had somehow put a sticker of a dog up there that I don’t think my mother had noticed before.
“Don’t I try, Jesus,” she said, staring upward.
“The dog’s name is Jesús,” Luis said and laughed a little but he was faking.
“Gimme the hammer, Luis. And you tell me it’s name and it better not be a cuss word or some kind of joke.”
Luis didn’t move. My mom reached for the hammer but Luis jumped back. For a couple of seconds, we all just stood there, silent. My mom looked up at him sternly, her hands on her hips. Then my brother threw the hammer, sidearm, and it flew just over her head and shattered through the window. It fell two stories onto the street.
That night, my mother beat my brother down even though the hammer didn’t hit anyone. She never laid a finger on him before that, but she bruised his chest and one of his ears had a cut on it after.
Two weeks later I walked into our room and I saw my brother putting the hammer he threw out the window into a shoebox like it was a sick baby bird. It had a fresh ring of duct-tape holding the handle and head together.
“How’d you get that?” I asked him, nervous, like he was a holding a little ghost.
“I snuck out that night and nobody’d picked it up so I took it.”
“But mom kicked your ass so bad.” I couldn’t believe the size of my crazy little brother’s balls. “Aren’t you afraid?” I’ll be honest: My little brother was starting to scare me. Not like he could even hurt me at all, but like he was a secretly an alien or something.
“Yeah, I’m sick of you people bothering me.”
“Me? What people?” I asked him even though I know I should have just kicked his ass right then. “What the hell did I do?”
“Nothing” he said. “But nobody’s ever…nothing.”
“What’d you name it?” he wouldn’t tell me and then he buried it in a patch of dirt around a tree behind our building.
One night, a couple of months later, my mother was out with a man, so my friends and I got drunk in the kitchen on some cough syrup and I told them the hammer story. It cracked them up. They wanted to know the hammer’s name real bad cause they figured it’d be real stupid, so we decided to go to my brother and my room and wake him up.
My buddy Laz took me aside for a second before we went and said, “Yo, your brother ain’t retarded is he?” I told him that he probably wasn’t but even if he was, that’s no excuse for nearly knocking my mother’s head off.
My brother was wearing these pajamas with feet that made him look like an overgrown baby. “I told them the hammer story,” I said, standing in the door. My friends were being real quiet like we’d planned.
“That’s my story” my brother said all groggy.
“I know, I told them that. They liked it. They think you mad funny. They all wanted to know its name, but I was like, I have no idea. He wouldn’t even tell me…”
“Goddamit, I’m not gonna tell you,” said Luis angrily.
“Easy, boy,” I warned him.
“Not if you were in a bed with cancer, dying like a dog…”
One of my friends rushed in and the rest followed. They pinned him to the bed and then they rubbed their chin-stubble against his soft cheeks until he screamed like a tiny kid who can’t find his parents. “Faggots!” he shouted at them. I stood by the door, listening for my mother.
“Respect, your older brother, son,” said one of them.
“You gotta learn respect!”
They raised their chins for a second and gave him a chance to tell them the name. “Your stubble don’t hurt” he practically screamed. “You all feel like little cats! The name is “Lazaro is a bitch!” They started doing the stubble trick again but he wouldn’t talk. Finally, I couldn’t take it no more. I don’t know what it was but suddenly it felt like these guys were up in my business and I didn’t want them there anymore. I lunged over and grabbed my brother’s balls. He screamed something that was either “Felix” or “feelings” but I couldn’t hear cause my friends were laughing so hard. None of them had any idea what he said.
I knew I wouldn’t be myself for the rest of the night so I told them all that my mother would be home any minute. They left fast, laughing and giving each other pounds. I tried to go to sleep on the couch in the living room but I was sure that it’d never work. I had this strange feeling in my stomach…like being embarrassed. My body felt hot…I thought that my brother might wait for me to fall asleep and hit me with the hammer and kill me. I drank the leftover cough syrup and I didn’t get tired before I passed out.
My mother didn’t even come home until the next afternoon and she refused to tell me where she’d been. At first I blamed my brother for influencing her but then I realized that kids don’t influence their mothers. Those days man, I swear it felt like I was living in an insane asylum. She still hasn’t told me where she was, but now I don’t even give a shit anymore.
Yesterday my mom told my brother that he was going to a summer camp where he’d learn to behave properly. He hadn’t done anything new, but you could tell that she was still thinking about the hammer. My mother told me the name of the camp and I knew kids who’d went.
“You’re fucked,” I told my brother. “Just try not to look those kids in the eyes or we’ll have to drive up there and bring your deadass home.”
“Whatever. I don’t really care. They’ve got arts and crafts. I saw in the brochure. And a pool.”
“We’ve got a pool two blocks from here.”
“But kids shit in it.”
“That’s true.” I laughed and my brother cracked a half-grin.
“You think mom fucks guys all the time?” I asked him. He knew that I knew that he knew that I’d kick his ass if he ever asked me that, so he understood I was serious.
“Yeah,” he said. “But it don’t matter. I guess you got me if you need me cause we’re brothers and all. You wouldn’t care if I fucked somebody, probably.”
“That’s true,” I said, laughing. “I’d give you a pound. Just don’t bring any real fat chicks around here, alright?” My brother laughed a little but he seemed distracted all of a sudden.
Today, my mom and I walked him to the door of the bus and I couldn’t resist. As he was walking up onto the bus I grabbed my brother’s head and pulled it down to me, “No joking around now. We’re brothers,” I whispered. “You gotta tell me.” I looked at him real serious like I do if I want our mom to ask me what’s wrong. Mom smiled at us softly, like we were talking about something cute, like a girl from school we love, or a stray cat we took in without telling her.
“I can’t tell you yet,” he said to me, serious-looking but not like an insane person, or like we were both insane people for caring so damn much about something that didn’t even matter. “But I’ll try to tell you when I get back.” As he turned to go, he rubbed his soft cheek against mine in a non-gay way and I knew what he meant…
Now that he’s gone, sometimes I miss him and think about what it’s gonna be like when he’s back. I could teach him to act more normal, and he could hang out with me and my friends and we’d have each other’s backs more than anybody else’s. But other times, I get sad and tired-feeling just thinking about dealing with his shit. All the lies he tells me, all the lies he tells himself, all the shit he does like he’s gotta do it when it’s no big deal…how he won’t explain anything. Sometimes I daydream about him coming back and I’m hugging him like a puppy and it’s so easy. Other times I just can’t get through to him because he’s being so difficult, so I lay him out. And as I’m doing it, it suddenly stops making sense. It’s not just laying him out…I’m not just getting revenge… Even as I squeeze my fists tight, and I land the punches on his head and face, I don’t feel satisfied.