Never Had It So Good
My brother never had a real girlfriend, but I didn't expect him to start dating his housekeeper. After everything I had been through over the past three months--the divorce, moving back to Florida, my dinky little apartment--this disturbed me the most. Mort is six years older than me and mildly retarded, what they used to call "educable" back in the early Sixties when he was in school. He dropped out anyway after the eighth grade and worked in our uncle's corner grocery store. Just before Mort's eighteenth birthday, Dad built him a one-bedroom bungalow in the back yard.
"It will give him a sense of self and independence," Mom said. "And peace of mind for us," Dad added, "long into our golden years." Two years later, Dad suffered a heart attack and died--so much for golden years--and Mort has lived there ever since.
I stopped by to check on things since Mom's been worse lately. Like a warning, there sat Rita's yellow Vespa scooter parked outside the bungalow. She was in there again, probably whispering Portuguese into Mort's ear, clouding his already cloudy mind. And that damned bossa nova music she always plays, full of pauses and shifts, those weightless voices. Astrud Gilberto's "The Girl From Ipanema" I love, no matter how many times I hear it; the rest of it Rita has just about ruined for me. But Mort, he's hooked.
"Desafinado", tuneless and haunting, floated from inside; shadows on the couch sipped their drinks. I rang the bell. The shadows shifted; one rose and came to the door.
"Ooh, Morty, it's your irmãozinho!" she squealed. I hated when she called me "little brother." And odd too, considering her stumpy, squashed features. She was not what you'd consider a midget, but pretty close--touched ever so lightly somewhere in her ancestral line--and not cute like a dwarf either, but sneaky and cunning. Her stiff blonde hair showed a half-inch of black roots, and she looked at me with bloodshot eyes. She was lit, and I feared Mort was just as bad. He waved. She could always talk him into a good binge.
"Running out of money again, Rita?" I waved back.
"Don't worry, Alberto. I don't want more than my share, just something for the effort, eh?" She hacked a smoker's laugh, blowing tequila vapor in my face.
"Did he promise you something?"
"You don't listen. I say I don't want but a little bit," she said more softly. "Because I make him happy. We have fun." She looked back toward Mort, then winked at me. "I know you getting a big chunk from Mámi anyway, since you've been such a good híjo. Hah, you could share with me. I would make you happy. We'd have fun together too, eh? You never had it as good as me."
I shuddered in the warm room. "Hola, Mámi!"
"Have you congratulated the newlyweds, Albert?" Mom let herself in. Mid-afternoon, and she was in pajamas and a bathrobe.
"What are you talking about?" Rita had slipped in beside Mort on the couch. "You didn't."
"Yeah, we tied the knot," he said. "It was fun!"
"Where did you...? Who? How?"
Mom moved to stand next to them. "We all went to Las Vegas! It was Las Vegas, wasn't it, Rita dear?"
"Sí, Mámi, and you were so nice to treat us. We had a time, didn't we? Whoooeee!" She raised her glass and drained the tequila, then excused herself and wove down the hall to the bathroom.
Mom patted Mort's arm. "I think I'll pop into the kitchen and make some finger sandwiches. That's just what we need." She went off humming to herself. "Now where is that small bread? Finger sandwiches call for small bread, yes indeedy."
Dad had been lucky; he went suddenly. I could picture Mom lingering for years in a feeble fog, searching for things that no longer existed or never were. Mort stood by the picture window looking out at a 40-foot catamaran gliding by on the waterway.
"So, Mort, you and Rita really got married?" Housekeeper no more, would she still clean the bungalow?
"Yeah, I felt like a movie star out there in Las Vegas." He grinned, still watching the sailboat. "Mom had fun, too, but I don't think she knew where she was a lot of the time. She's really getting old, isn't she, Al?"
"Yes she is. I can't leave her by herself any longer." Mort gazed at the sailboat. "She'll need help all the time and I'm not sure I can do it alone." He nodded thoughtfully. The boat glided on. "I have to go back to Chicago next week to finish up some other things with the house, with Wendy," I said, "just for a few days, but I'll get someone to check on you."
"Rita will take care of me. She's my esposa." With the sailboat out of sight, he turned to me. "That's Spanish for 'wife'!"
I imagined Mort and Rita's domestic life as one big sloppy party full of tears and booze set to a ubiquitous bossa nova soundtrack.
"Let's get Mom back up to the house now."
Hooked. Maybe she had fooled him into thinking she was Brazilian with a few whispered Portuguese phrases, but I didn't buy it for a second. And what was the point? Brazilian. Puerto Rican. Make up your mind.
Mom was in the kitchen holding a bag of flour and staring into the pantry murmuring,"I just don't know, I just don't know," her lower lip trembling, tears welling up in her eyes. She looked frail and older than I had ever remembered. I took her hand and walked her out of the bungalow, across the yard to the house. Mort trailed behind us talking about his new wife and Las Vegas and how he was going to buy a big sailboat after Mom died. God! I could have smacked him right there for saying that! I didn't think Mom heard him though; she was sniffling so much.
"Mort, where will Rita be staying?"
"She has a month left on her lease, but she's moving her stuff in Friday. She says you can help her." How nice of her to offer my services. "She's going to her place later to pack some things, because she's spending the night here." He glanced back toward the bungalow. "I'm gonna ask her if I can ride along."
I got Mom inside and sat her down in the living room. I didn't know what else to do so I got her a glass of water. She looked at once sad and ridiculous sitting there in her wingback chair, her feet together, both hands gripping the glass as it rested on her knees. "No ice, Albert?" I turned away and sighed.
We'd never been very close. Sure, she loved me and Mort because we were her kids, and welcomed our good traits as a positive reflection on her, but she never really liked our personalities, could never let herself enjoy us for who we were. In the end, we always seemed to disappoint.
When he was a kid, of course, Mort had serious trouble academically, accepted foolish dares from other kids, and got caught shoplifting a few times. As an adult, he was prone to public drunkenness; Mom bailed him out of jail a half dozen times. I, however, disappointed by being average at just about everything, from academics, sports, number of friends, girlfriends, sense of humor, marriage, career, you name it.
The Vespa kicked in as I popped the cubes out of the tray. Shadows of palm fronds on the trees high above swayed and brushed over the couple's little faces as they talked. I was struck by how closely they resembled each other.
They were about the same height--Mort maybe three inches taller--and moved with quick, jerky bursts of energy. They fit together. Then they kissed and she zoomed up the driveway, with a wave and a grin at me.
During the last Christmas holiday--she was just the housekeeper then‹I had driven her home from work once, so I went next door and asked Mrs. Ellsworth to keep an eye on Mom.
Vespa leaning against the wall by the front door, she lived in a crumbling, sea-foam green stucco duplex. From inside, drawers scraped, latches opened and closed. When I knocked, she muttered something crude in Spanish.
"Alberto, what a nice surprise!"
"I need to talk to you."
"I'm sure glad you're here. Yes, cunhado, come in and let's ... talk." She opened the door, caressed it, her little face peering out at me.
"So, it's 'brother-in-law' now, not 'little brother'?"
"Handsome and smart. I like that. Have a drink with me."
"I don't think so. I'm not here for pleasure."
"That's always your problem, not enough pleasure." She got a fresh beer from the fridge, fiddled with the stereo, and then took the couch. I grabbed a stained orange velour ottoman and sat, our eyes nearly level.
"This marriage scheme isn't going to work, you know."
"Are you talking about the money again? I keep telling you I don't want all your family's money. Besides, I like Mort. I really do."
"You've been..." I resisted the urge to gesture air quotes, "...'dating' for two months, right? Do you really know much about him?"
"Hey, I know he's not smart like you, and he has not much experience with women, but he isn't stupid, he can learn. He's fun and he knows how to live, take chances, try new things. I think you're the one who doesn't know him. Your own brother!" She took a long pull of her beer, then leaned in. "You could be fun, too, I bet. I could go for you if you weren't so uptight. You gotta relax, Alberto!"
I recognized the song on the stereo immediately‹as she well knew.
"You've never even been to Brazil, have you?"
"Boy, you are one cool dude," she sighed, and then smiled at me. "Yeah, you got me. My parents are from Mexico, but I grew up in Amarillo. So what? Now I'm in sunny Florida and happily married." She raised her bottle in mock salute.
"You know he reads on a fourth-grade level, right? He's practically a kid. He'll go along with anything you say if it sounds like fun."
"Sí, like a good husband should." She set her beer down and leaned in still closer. Ah, but he watches so sadly... While Astrud sang in English, Rita was translating, her Portuguese breathy like tiny claws tapping across ceramic tile--Yes, he would give his give his heart gladly‹her whisper like seashells clicking together in the sand. Suddenly, she was leaping, her lips wet on my cheek, my mouth, pawing at my shirt, her fiery puppet face in mine. I grabbed her muscular wrists and jerked her hands away.
"What the hell is your problem?"
"You didn't come here to talk. I think you like me some. I could be your esposa tonight, eh? You never had it so good!"
"Dream on!" I wiped my chin. Am I gasping here? "Listen. If my brother really wants to be married to you, if he's happy with you, fine. But I'm going to keep an eye on you."
"Ooh, even when I'm in the shower? You naughty boy."
"If you try to fuck with him--"
"--I'd much rather fuck with you, Alberto."
"Knock it off."
"I'm just having a little fun. Keep your shirt on." She let out a spastic giggle.
"It's all fun and games for you. Don't you take anything seriously?"
"Fun and games, eh? Ah, my life's been a real party, cunhado. Carnival every night! You want to know the real story about me?"
"What? Convent school?"
"You probably won't believe me, but I'll tell you anyway since we're family now." She picked at the skin around her thumb. "Remember the Mariel boatlift back in '80? I was in the middle of that."
"Oh, so you're Cuban now."
"I am. Really." She stared at her hands, not smiling. "My father was one of those ten thousand people who rushed the Peruvian embassy in Havana looking for asylum. My uncle's cousin in Tampa said he'd send his fishing boat down to get us. A week later, me and my parents, my sister, two little brothers, two aunts and an uncle, and three of our neighbors and their kids got on that small boat. We left everything behind, brought only one change of clothes each." She looked up at me. "How many clothes you take on your business trips? More than one, I'll bet."
"What happened to your family?"
"Mámi lives in Hialeah, Pápi died three years after we got there." She downed the last of her beer. "Heart attack. My big sister's a doctor in Austin. We talked on the phone when she was studying, but now we don't much at all. I think she didn't want to be reminded of the past; she was always so smart growing up, always off by herself..."
"Where are your brothers?"
"Them I don't hear from a lot. They do construction jobs mostly, send me post cards from up north every coupla years."
"Why do you pretend to be Brazilian or Mexican?"
"I feel stupid telling you." Her voice softened. "Since I was a kid I always wanted to be in the movies. An actress. It's fun to be other people once in a while."
"Yeah, right. What are your plans?" I felt like a patriarch grilling a suitor.
"Plans? This is it. My search is over," she laughed. "I will live comfortably with Mort in our little house of love."
"So you're taking the easy way by marrying my brother's money. Well, I hate to tell you this, but he's no millionaire and never will be."
"I know." She seemed unsurprised.
"He gets income from investments my dad set up for him years ago, and that pays his utilities, buys his groceries, all the fun stuff. When Dad died Mom got more, paid off the house, but it's just enough to live modestly."
"That's all I want. Modest living." She smiled at me now, almost cooing, "What'd you get?"
"Enough that I can scrape by when I retire. You notice I'm still working, don't you?"
"Right. Anyway, your mámi likes me. I'm in," her voice turned hard again, "so get used to me."
"Whatever." I stood up and headed for the door. "Live it up."
"Always," she said.
Back at Mom's, I found the three just finishing cake and coffee at the kitchen table. Mrs. Ellsworth got up and put her dishes in the sink, said goodbye to Mom and Mort, then assured me on her way out that Mom was fine, not to worry.
"It will be nice having Rita around," Mom said. "She's so much fun."
Too soon, the Vespa pulled up outside. Mort kissed Mom goodnight. She smiled after him.
"He seems awfully happy with her. I think he likes her."
"Likes her?" I snorted. "They're not going to the senior prom, Mom. It takes more than that to make a marriage work." I immediately regretted the remark.
"Much more." She sipped her coffee. "Really, though, I think you have to genuinely like someone to spend your entire life with them. Have a piece?" She inched the plate toward me. "It's delicious. I wonder who made it? I'd love to have the recipe."
You made this yesterday, remember? She was slipping again. I wondered how she would handle having me around more, or if she would even notice as time passed. No matter, we were stuck with each other. All of us.
That night I slept in the spare bedroom. Across the yard, Mort and Rita sat talking on the front steps of the bungalow, their voices low, audible only between songs on the stereo. Gil, Jobim, Gilberto, Veloso, they dipped and dove with sweet sadness, saudade, that rolled on waves of cool, slow air making me want to hold my breath, be very still.
The next morning, Mort was sitting on the dock dipping his toes in the water. I joined him.
"Uh-huh, just too much to drink last night. I always have too much."
"Rita still asleep?"
"Yeah, she had too much, too. She talked for hours last night about her family and it made her really sad."
"Not your fault."
"Are you excited about being a married guy?" I tried to sound excited myself.
"She's like a permanent girlfriend. I haven't had too many--unless you count the ones I paid... Did she try to kiss you?"
"She told me she was going to try to kiss you, just to see, you know, if you were honorable." I shook my head and gritted. "I didn't think it was right, either. I told her not to try it, because you're the best brother in the world."
"Well, thanks for that." My new cunhada. God help me. "Promise me something? Promise you won't let her change you."
"Is that what happens to people after they become married? Did you and Wendy change and have to get a divorce?"
"No, Mort, we didn't change. I guess we were never right for each other in the first place."
"I hope I don't change. I sure don't want a divorce."
"No, you don't, believe me... Wanna know something that will never change?"
"I'll always be your brother and I'll always watch out for you."
He stared out at the water. "I have this dream where I'm like you and you're like me, and these kids are teasing you, and I stick up for you. I always wish I could do that for you in real life. That's what big brothers are supposed to do, you know."
"Okay, then. How about we watch out for each other?"
"Good enough!" He patted my back and slung his arm around my shoulders, squeezing my neck just like a big brother.
"One more thing, Al?" He looked me dead in the eye. "Try to have more fun."
I smiled, closed my eyes against the bright morning sun, and let it go for a while.
(James Simpson is a native Floridian and now resides near Atlanta, Georgia, where he
works as a writer and graphic artist. "Never Had It So Good" is his first published story.)