The doorbell rang.
Arnold, crouched on a stool in the living room, looked up from his work in surprise. Quickly, he blew the remaining dust off the little toy train (it had a name, but he couldn’t quite remember it) and set it cautiously on a shelf, nestled between a miniature statue of liberty, and a snow globe filled with children ice-skating. They looked happy there, he thought — left to themselves.
But then there was the door.
Arnold hurried to the door, careful to step between the cracks of the brown-tiled floor. Each foot had its place, if only briefly, until he looked through the peephole.
Joe? What was Joe doing here?
He opened the door for his brother.
“Joe!” Arnold exclaimed, hugging his brother warmly. “It’s good to see you.”
“You too, Arnold,” Joe said, smiling, glad to see his brother..
“Don’t hesitate, come in, come in,” Arnold beckoned. “What brings you over here? It’s such a rarity.”
Joe shuffled through the threshold, looking around. “Oh, I was just in the neighborhood for a little bit, and you’re always here, so I thought I’d stop by. Maybe you’d like to get lunch?”
“Just let me go get my shoes,” Arnold answered, briskly hop-scotching his way to some cluttered back-room to retrieve them.
Joe couldn’t help but look around in Arnold’s absence — the walls were covered with all manner of oddities. Leaves, stamps, postcards, a particularly ornate circus ticket — everything was framed, either in wood, steel, or glass; Arnold liked everything to be in a box of some kind. As such, the walls were so plastered with the odd little boxes that only a bit of their painted green shone through.
And where there weren’t frames, there were shelves, just as full themselves. There were be dried-out Play-doh figurines, bits and pieces of childhood toys, and of course the locomotive — worn, a bit dusty, yet far from underused.
Then Arnold returned.
It didn’t take long to get to Tía Juana’s. Joe drove his little blue pickup, and Arnold sat in the passenger seat, humming to himself a little as they pulled up.
“You know, I always thought it was funny how they do that. These little Tex-Mex places with their apostrophe names,” Arnold counted examples off on his ever-twiddling fingers. “Gloria’s, Juan Pablo’s, Mamasita’s . . . “
“How’s that?” said Joe, biting the inside of his cheek a little.
“You know, it should always be ‘de someone.’ ‘De Tía Juana. De Pablo. De Gloria.” He annunciated every syllable. “–Like that.”
“De Pancho,” Joe said, grimacing a bit at what was now just a foul culinary memory.
“Right,” Arnold smiled. Laughing a little, they went in.
* * *
“Just two?” the hostess asked.
“Oh, no, we’re meeting someone,” Joe told the white-shirted hostess when they got inside.
“Really? Who?,” Arnold asked.
Joe bit his cheek, a little harder this time. That someone was their father, looking out-of-place against the restaurant’s bright green walls. Arnold, on the other hand, felt right at home.
“Oh, I didn’t realize you were coming.” Arnold said, sliding into the booth. “You didn’t tell me he was coming, Joe.”
“I already ordered you some salsa,” their father smiled, eager to appease. But Arnold looked on at Joe.
“Oh, I thought I . . .” Joe wasn’t much of a liar.
“You know, Joe, I just don’t like this at all. I don’t see you for six months, and then you resort to this . . . trickery to bring me here?” Arnold neatly folded his napkin.
“You know, Arnold, I didn’t have much say in the matter,” Joe pleaded.
Mr. Schatz started to answer, but was interrupted by the waitress.
“What would you gentlemen like to drink?”
“I think we’re ready to order, actually. We’d like to keep this quick,” said Arnold.
No one disagreed.
“I think I’ll have . . . Hmm . . . something con puerco.” He persued the menu. Ahah! Tamales! That’s perfect!”
“I’ll have the beef enchiladas,” Mr. Schatz grunted. “De carne,” the waitress nodded.
“And I’ll have the nachos con free-joe-lays,” said Joe.
“Oh, and a glass of leche, too, por favor,” Arnold added.
“Okay, I’ll have that right out.”
“What I was about to say, Arnold –” Mr. Schatz began.
“You know, you always did butcher your Spanish, Joe,” Arnold prattled on.
“Arnold, he’s . . .” Joe interrupted.
“You just never had a mind for the structure of it all. Far too organized, for our little Joey.”
“Arnold, don’t patronize me!” Joe shouted. Forks throughout the restaurant clinked to a standstill, but Joe went on. “It’s not like you ever went to school, or leave the house, so it’s hardly fair for you to hound me just because Mother didn’t teach me your language,”
The waitress brought Arnold’s milk out, but his eyes were glued to the ceiling.
“You know, I always liked the piñatas here,” Arnold said. “All these hanging things just kind of makes the place come alive, don’t you think?”
“Arnold, stop being so damn dodgy!” Now Mr. Schatz spoke. “Your mother would be ashamed, the way you’ve been carrying on.
Arnold’s eyes danced about the ceiling, never leaving the suspended herd of burros. But a question dangled somewhere within them.
“Arnold, you never leave your house . . . ” Mr. Schatz said. “You, just huddled away there, keeping her house and all those things she bought you — it just isn’t healthy. I just wish she hadn’t coddled you so — ”
Arnold almost spat up his milk.
“Coddled? I was her favorite! You just wish she hadn’t left you for me! That you could have lived with her, in that house, for all those years.”
“I think the divorce is hardly the issue at hand, Arnold,” Joe added.
A mariachi’s whooping cries came through the speaker.
“The truth is, Arnold, we’re worried about you.” Mr. Schatz softened. “You need to get rid of some of those things, live a normal life. It’s what your mother would want.”
Arnold stirred his milk with his straw, glowering.
“Come on, Arnold. You can at least get rid of some of those things. It’s for you as much as for us.” Joe helped.
Arnold quit stirring his milk, biting his lip as the miniature whirlpool swirled below him.
“Fine.” he said, sulking a bit. “I’ll do it.”
Mr. Schatz and Joe exchanged surprised looks as the waitress brought out the nachos.
* * *
It took the better part of the weekend for Joe and Arnold to clean out the house. Mr. Schatz only came for a little while that Friday — his back was a bit weak for that sort of thing. By the time they were finished, though, much of what had been on the walls was bound up in cardboard boxes. The wall still looked tiled, though, with shadowy little squares where everything had been.
“It looks a lot better, doesn’t it?” Joe said, wiping his brow with a sweatier hand. “I’ll be happy to help you repaint this next weekend.”
“Yes, it’s nice,” Arnold replied, pacing across the living room, hands behind his back, biting his lip a bit.
“I’m so glad you let us do this, Arnold. I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t worry, Joe.” He hugged his brother, his eye twinkling a bit.
“I’m sorry, Arnold, I wish I could stay, but I really have to go now. I’ve got work early in the morning.” Joe apologized.
“Don’t worry, Joe, I understand,” Arnold assured him, escorting him to the door. “I really appreciate the help.”
“Sure, any time,” Joe answered, crossing the threshold.
“Take care, now,” Arnold called, closing the door. Then locking it.
He made his way to the back of the house, to a little seldom-used half-bath, his hand deftly finding a drawstring tucked away in the dark.
They hadn’t even seen what was in the attic.