By Michael Chin
THE BEST MOMENT OF LUPUS IANNATELLI’S LIFE: Marianne Shepherd lying naked, intertwined and on top of his and his brother’s limbs, in between them, her neck at the crook of Lupus’s elbow.
In high school, no girl would date them—the conjoined twins who required special seating at the back of the classroom. Who never grew adept enough at matching one another’s stride to be athletic. Who struggled with conversation for the sheer fact that any attempt at talking to another person was uneven, and they would talk over and around one another in an effort not to be the third wheel.
But Marianne had been different. They met her when she was tending bar, the night Lupus and Marco turned twenty-one. From her purple hair and the tattoo of a razor blade over her wrist, any casual observer might have thought her to be rough stuff. But after she poured Marco his third beer and Lupus his second, Marco insisted on talking to her.
“Has anyone ever told you you’re beautiful?”
“Maybe we should go,” Lupus said.
Marco ignored him. “It’s your eyes. They’re violet. I’ve never seen eyes so violet.”
“You’re sweet,” Marianne said.
“You’re drunk.” Lupus started to walk away, a little jerk from either one of them, and the other would ordinarily follow.
Not this time.
“Why’s your brother in such a hurry?” Marianne asked.
Lupus felt his face grow warm. “I don’t want to bother you.”
She touched his hand. Her fingernails were painted black, but chipped so flecks of flesh color peeked out from beneath. “It’s no bother.”
Lupus was surprised by how cold her fingers felt.
The best moment of Marco Iannatelli’s life came a few seconds after Lupus’s: Marianne rolled over, and though her rear end touched Lupus’s hip and the bottoms of her bare feet were tucked under Lupus’s knee, she rested her head on Marco’s chest. Her hair curled up against his chin, a few strands twisting in the space just beneath his nostrils. He expected her to smell like grape soda with that purple hair, but the scent was more like strawberries. Just shampoo, he reminded himself. But it didn’t make him love her any less.
“Cold,” she said.
This was the discovery of a new language. A specific language born not out of vocabulary or inflection, but sheer proximity. One word a sentence. A story.
Marco rubbed his hand over her upper arm. She nestled her head against his chest as though she were pushing herself deeper into the feathers of a pillow. He heard a smile on her voice when she spoke again. “Good.”
Two years later, the brothers wore the same black slacks they had worn the night they met Marianne. Lupus recalled that she’d watched them take off their pants, and he’d watched for a sign. Maybe she would snicker at their clumsiness? They’d never perfected tasks as simple as undressing without bumping shoulders, knocking skulls. Maybe she’d be disgusted.
Marianne hadn’t shown any sign of such things. She’d eyed the space at the hip where Lupus’s skin flowed into Marco’s and they became one. She spread her thighs.
The black slacks had seen better days, now patched a dozen times over by the circus seamster. They didn’t wear them often, but never got rid of them, if out of pure sentimentality. The both of them clung to any part of their rendezvous with Marianne that they could. And though Lupus could only assume they had always been that way, it was only more recently that he noticed the fabric of the pants didn’t quite match. The leg of his half of the pants was a little gray-brown, Marco’s truly black. And though their legs were the same length, the ends of Lupus’s pant leg seemed to ride a shave higher, the cuff above his ankle.
They trudged through tall, wet grass. The miserable kind of grass the two of them had erected too many tents in. Uncut grass suggested a space no one had cared for, which was prime territory for their little circus to set up shop without anyone questioning if they had the right permits. It seemed to Lupus that a cemetery ought to have been better cared for.
They zigzagged through each row until they found her. No one in their hometown was wealthy, but her grave marker seemed particularly unremarkable, more a placard than a tombstone, hardly an inch off the ground and engraved in a clumsy scrawl, as though someone with no training at all had done it by hand.
“Here she is,” Marco said.
Lupus looked from the stone to his brother, and put a hand on his shoulder. That’s what people did, wasn’t it? So many gestures—handshakes and hugs and so forth—felt forced when the two of them had never experienced the sensation of not touching one another.
Marco was surprised at his brother’s touch. He was ordinarily attuned to his brother’s movements. Even the most sudden jerk predicated with some motion at the hip Marco would feel, or something in his brother’s eyes he could see coming the same instant Lupus thought it.
Marco supposed he had been too focused on the little gravestone. He remembered when he first heard Marianne had passed. Their first stop back to their hometown after they left with the circus. The two of them walked up to the bar. Marco had wanted to bring flowers. Lupus said they shouldn’t. Two years and who was to say she still worked there?
The bartender had told them she was gone. A boulder of a man, half-fat, half-muscle. He told them she hit a deer. A freak accident. The animal broke right through the windshield and one of his antlers impaled her. Lupus felt certain that last part was hyperbole, but the distinction hardly mattered relative to the fact that she was gone.
That morning after they found out—before they agreed to visit the cemetery—Marco hadn’t wanted to get up. He told his brother he couldn’t imagine carrying on with this life, going town to town. Leaving Marianne behind again.
After their night together, Lupus hadn’t expected Marianne would be there when he woke. She kicked his thigh with her heel, waking them both in the process. When she turned her head to face him and apologized, one of her curls went straight up Marco’s nose. He woke with a sneeze.
And the three of them had breakfast. Marco insisted on cooking rather than going out. So he scrambled the eggs while Lupus put the bread in the toaster. Lupus buttered the toast while Marco poured the orange juice. And Marianne sat behind them at the island wearing a plain white t-shirt, too big for her, a dress. Later, Lupus imagined he and Marco might disagree about whose shirt it was—they did keep separate wardrobes for the upper halves of their bodies. If they couldn’t agree, he mused he’d let Marco keep the shirt afterward.
“You make a good team in the kitchen,” Marianne said. Crumbs rained from her toast onto the island after she took her first bite. The brothers typically ate over the twin tubs of the kitchen sink so all they had to do was run the water to clean such messes.
Marianne was worth a bigger mess.
“We don’t get out much for meals,” Marco said. “We usually cook for ourselves.”
“I’m impressed,” Marianne said. “I don’t think my brother even knows how to crack an egg.”
“You have a brother?” Marco straightened his face, conscious not to look overeager. But it had started the night before—he found everything about Marianne so interesting. As though her life were the best story he had ever heard. She poured beer from the tap left handed, liquor from bottles with her right. Captivating. She painted the toe nails on her left foot orange, on the right blue. Enchanting. She liked to the slivers of pickles the bar served beside sandwiches more than she liked potato chips. Fascinating. “Older or younger?”
“Older,” Marianne said. “Twelve years.”
Lupus had a bit of egg hanging from his lower lip. “Were you an accident?”
“What kind of question is that?” Marco pointed his fork at him. “Dick.”
“It’s what most people assume,” Marianne said. “But it was more of a reboot.”
Marco’s orange juice tasted sour. “What’s that mean?”
“It means my parents started saving all this money when he was little for him to go to college, but he stunk at school. Then got in a fight in middle school. A really bad fight.”
“Was he alright?” Marco asked.
“The way he tells it, he had lost the fight. Was getting the shit kicked out of him. He had been in fights before and he had lost some of them. But there was always an understanding that when someone was whooped you let him alone. But this guy seemed like he was actually trying to kill him.” She paused for another messy bite of toast. “He saw this neck of a broken bottle in the dirt and the second he had some breathing room he dove for it. And when the other guy got on him again, he stabbed him in the gut.”
“He killed him,” Lupus said.
Marianne reached across the table, plucked a stray bit of egg from Lupus’s lip and popped it in her mouth. “Bad luck. Got him right in the liver. Nobody did a thing to help and they say he bled out far enough on the playground that there was nothing they could do by the time the ambulance got there.”
“But you know your brother,” Lupus said. “You know he can’t cook.”
“They can only keep you in juvenile detention so long. He got out when he was eighteen and he came to the house.” Marianne picked up a drooping piece of egg between her thumb and forefinger. Held it up, positioned her mouth underneath it and slid it between her lips. “He came to see me. He walked me home after school, or as close to home as he could get without my mom seeing him. And he’d give me things. Candy bars. Cash sometimes. Cigarettes when I was in high school. All the stuff he figured he would have wanted.”
“You didn’t go to college either,” Lupus said.
“Dad blames it on my brother. But I don’t think it was his fault I’m the way I am. The two of us are more alike than my folks ever wanted us to be” Marianne pressed her thumb against her plate, collecting crumbs. “He got me my job at the bar. We worked side by side until they let him go for missing too many shifts.”
“You think your brother will like us?” Marco said.
“Why is that funny?” Lupus asked
“My brother’s a little protective. He’d eat the two of you alive.” She drank the last of her orange juice. “Got any coffee?”
Clear day. No one around. They should have seen him coming.
“You guys need something?” He stood about three or four inches taller than Marco and Lupus. Thick enough stubble that it would have qualified as a beard by the brothers’ modest standards for facial hair. A ratty black t-shirt that read Hansel and Regretful with a worn away logo that looked to have originally portrayed a gingerbread house.
“We’re visiting an old friend,” Marco said.
The man took two steps closer, then a step back. He stopped and studied the point where their trousers met. “You for real?”
“I suppose we are,” Lupus said.
“You a part of that circus or something?”
“Then how do I know you didn’t tie yourselves together or something?”
“You want to see us naked?” Lupus said.
Marco elbowed his ribs. Lupus teetered to one side, dragging Marco with him.
“That’s good.” The man laughed. “Brothers stick together through thick and thin. I get that, you know.”
“You have a brother?” Marco asked.
“A sister. You’re standing on top of her right now.”
Lupus looked at their feet, then at the man, then at Marianne’s gravestone. “You’re Marianne’s brother.” He offered his hand.
“Name’s Gray.” He crossed his arms and his sleeves slid up, revealing the ends of tattoos on either arm. A curling tail on one. A swirl of red and black on the other.
“I’m Lupus. And this is my brother Marco. We grew up here in St. Cloud’s actually. We knew Marianne years ago.”
“She’s been dead for years.”
A cold wind blew in from the south, hard enough to blow Marco’s hair out of his face and back. Their hair was getting long. The old ringmaster sent them to a local barber shop in bigger markets to get the public spectacle of the hairdressers figuring out how to seat the both of them, and of going through the snipping and styling motions in duplicate to give them the same cut. Since the new ringmaster signed on, they’d quietly taken care of cutting each other’s hair with the same scissors the seamster used on cloth. It had been a while.
“We wanted to pay our respects,” Lupus said. “We can head along now.”
Gray rolled his tongue around the insides of his mouth. “If the two of you were friends of Marianne’s why don’t you come back to my place? I’ll fix you a cup of coffee.”
“You see this?” Lupus had edged to their left, a detour from their walk to the bus stop. The plain white sign, stapled to the telephone pole hand-written in black marker advertised:
“You think Marianne would want to go?” Marco asked.
Lupus put his hands on his hips. The two of them had gone to see a circus a few years earlier. The circus had its own bearded lady. Also a fire-eater, a strong man, a dancing bear. Lupus had looked for fakes. For where the beard was taped to the woman’s face. For when the fire went out before it would singe the man’s tongue, for signs the weights were gimmicked, for a zipper on the bear costume. He hadn’t caught any, which meant one of two things. The acts were really good or, he dared hope, all of these circus freaks were real.
It was too soon to think about running away with the circus then. They were still in school, still living under their father’s roof. They hadn’t had time to think about it yet.
Two years later, they had had the time. Their father had said it was time to be men and insisted they move out. And they had found they couldn’t keep what few jobs they could get. They had waited tables, mopped floors. Lupus surmised people hired them for the novelty of having them around—a spectacle for customers to come and see. But before long, each employer came to recognized them as slower than the other workers and unable to tend to more than one task between the two of them at a time. The kinder folks offered to keep them on, but only at one, combined hourly wage. More often, they were fired.
So they made up their mind that when the next circus came, they’d pitch themselves as an act. They’d start a life on the road where their deformity wouldn’t be a liability. It would be their livelihood. Lupus remembered that decision. He knew his brother did, too.
“We just found a good thing here,” Marco said. “You want to run off? Just like that?”
“I wish the timing were better,” Lupus said. “I don’t want to leave her either.”
“Then let’s stay.”
“And how long do you think we’ll have to wait for the next circus to come around?” Lupus asked. He remembered the words of their American History teacher—one of the few teachers in one of the few subjects that much appealed to either of them. A quote Lupus had written down and Marco had torn from their notebook to tape to their bedroom wall. History doesn’t happen. It’s made by those bold enough to take action.
Marco crossed his arms tight across his chest and rocked slightly. Lupus had to rock with him to keep from getting sore at the hip.
“We’ll go to the circus tomorrow night,” Lupus said.
“We’ll go. And if we don’t like the look of it—if it doesn’t feel right—we don’t have to leave with them. But we’re packing a suitcase. We’ll be ready to go if it’s right.”
Gray lived in a studio apartment. Putting aside the bed, the bathroom, and the kitchenette, the place was crafted as more workshop than abode. Mismatched plywood stood propped against the walls. He had a collection of saws, wrenches, and hammers on display beside them.
“You like to build things?” Marco eyed the teeth of the biggest saw and imagined there was every possibility this strange man might cut them to pieces.
Gray set a hand atop the drill press at the center of the room. “You’ve already seen some of my handiwork. Marianne’s tombstone.”
“You made it.” Lupus said.
“Blew four bits by the time I finished driving her full name into the stone,” Gray rubbed one of his big hands, tinged in black, over his mouth. “She was worth it.”
When Marco turned his head, he came face to face with a polar bear, open-mouthed and angry. He jumped right into Lupus and it took a moment for the two of them to settle. Another moment for Marco to recognize the head was unattached to the rest of the beast, mounted instead against a wooden plaque. Marco studied it then, it’s fur a shade so white that it seemed impossible nature would produce something that clean. Probably a fake.
Gray had crossed the distance to the kitchen counter in the seconds while Marco studied the tufts of white fur around the bear’s big black eyes. Gray had removed a glass coffee pot from the machine and poured thick, black coffee into a yellow mug. “I hope you boys don’t mind your coffee black. I don’t have any milk or anything.” He fetched a second cup and filled it before Marco could say he’d changed his mind about coffee.
Gray carried the mugs to them. The smell of burnt grounds overpowered the brew. Lupus and Marco each sipped slowly. By consistency, it was more broth than beverage.
“You know, I don’t have the happiest memories of the last time I went to see a circus.” Gray drank deeply and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “Had a little falling out with my sister, and that’s the reason I didn’t talk to her for a couple years. Was just starting to be friends with her again when she had her accident.”
Lupus’s mind jumped ahead. A fantasy scenario. They’d come to town and Marianne would not only still be alive and miss them, but would have put things together that they ran away with the circus, and come looking for them. Marco had said they should tell her what was going on and say goodbye. It was Lupus who had insisted they were better off disappearing.
That she should would go to a circus with her brother had to mean something.
“Some guy stood her up—she wouldn’t tell me the details, but she was upset. So I told her I knew what would cheer her up. I was taking my little sister to the circus.”
Other men might have stood up Marianne for a date. But was it possible Gray was talking about the night they left? Lupus dared a look at Marco. Did you see Marianne at the circus?
Marco looked back. No.
“We got in a few minutes after the show started. And the Reptile Man was doing his act, had all these snakes slithering over and around him. I thought it spooked her. So just as we were getting settled in the stands, she said she needed some air and left me.” Gray gulped down more coffee, then set the mug on the counter to top himself off. “I let her go. For Chrissake, I’d just paid twenty dollars to get us inside. It was supposed to be five bucks a person, but of course they only took cash and they didn’t have any change at the door.”
Lupus remembered that racket well, from the spell when the old ringmaster had them selling tickets outside the tent, before they had their act together. He remembered the fathers and mothers who cursed them under their breath as they laid bills into Lupus’s palm.
“I waited a few acts before I checked on her. I start asking around outside the big top and this little dwarf guy from the circus asks me how much the information is worth to me. Cleans out the last of my wallet, and the little bastard doesn’t have the decency to say a word. Just points his thumb to this truck.
“You boys have to understand that I’m what the doctors call my-o-pic. Nearsighted as an old geezer, and it’s worse at night. I could hear the gears shaking before I could see the cab of the truck bobbing and tilting.” Gray sipped his coffee this time, slow and measured. “I peeked my head in the driver’s side window—they had it down already. And the two of them looked up at me—my baby sister and the snake man from the circus. The both of them naked.”
“The Reptile Man,” Marco said.
Lupus elbowed him. He felt himself growing warm in the face and could feel the heat radiating from his brother.
“I mean, you called him The Reptile Man before,” Marco said.
“Guess I did. Don’t see as it makes much difference,” Gray said. “I looked Marianne in the eye and asked her if everything was all right. And she said yes. She asked if I would leave. So I did. And as I was walking off I got a little angry and a little hurt she wouldn’t even sit through a circus with me, but she’d take comfort in some freak.” He peered down into his coffee, swirling what was left in his hand. “No offense.”
Lupus waved him off.
“That’s when I figured she was all grown up. If she needed her big brother, she knew where to find me.” Gray sucked back snot and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I don’t regret much. But I regret that.”
“We’re very sorry for your loss,” Lupus said.
“It was a long time ago.” Gray set his coffee down and leaned back, palms against the counter, lifting himself in the air for a split second. “You said you boys knew Marianne.”
Marco cleared his throat. “That same night you two went to the circus—”
“We must have been long gone,” Lupus said. “We ran off before we finished high school. We knew Marianne in school, though. She was always nice to us. And not many people were. That’s why we thought we ought to pay our respects.”
Gray nodded. “She was always nice to folks.”
Marco had sat stone faced, leaning against the cab of the pickup truck, watching the road they left behind as everyone and everything they’d known faded.
The Ringmaster told them they’d set up camp about forty miles down the road. Close enough, Marco imagined, that they could make it back on foot if they changed their minds over night.
Lupus held his right hand in his left, massaging the knuckles. He wanted Marco to know that it had hurt him as much as it hurt his brother—literally—to have struck him. The two of them wrestled and roughhoused when they were kids, until they realized how fine the line was between where one’s pain began and the other’s ended.
Lupus wished that he hadn’t had to hit his brother.
They had seen the circus. On Lupus’s insistence, they had talked with the Ringmaster’s assistant, then the Ringmaster himself. They were wanted. They’d be fed and transported. They would have a place in the world.
Marco said they couldn’t go.
All of those words. Words as the circus workers packed the risers. Words as they collapsed the big top. Words as the trucks were ready to go.
Finally, Lupus punched Marcomk’s jaw. Not as hard as he could, but not softly either. Hard enough to hurt his hand. Hard enough for Marco to stumble and drag Lupus along with him. Lupus put his hands up ready to fend off blows. Ready to swing again.
“We have to go,” Lupus said.
Lupus did the talking. Accepted the terms. Figured out which truck to climb into.
Marco watched the road, imagining he could see Marianne disappear by degrees.
Lupus abdicated control to Marco when they returned to town. They visited Marianne’s grave. They followed Gray home.
They spoke with The Reptile Man.
“Do you remember sleeping with a girl in this town?” Marco spoke with a too-even tone that meant he was especially emotional.
The Reptile Man sat on a tree stump and filed his nails. A thin snake, no longer than eighteen inches sat perfectly still on his lap. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“The night we joined the circus.”
The Reptile Man licked his upper lip. Quick. His tongue forked at the tip. Rumor had it he had cut it that way in his youth. “Can’t say I remember.” The Reptile Man licked nail dust from the file, then spat into the dirt.
Marco edged closer to him. “She had purple hair.”
The Reptile Man switched hands with the file. “Tattoos, right? Violet eyes?”
“Yes.” The Reptile Man elongated the s, turned it from word to hiss. “Sweet girl. Soft and fragile and sad. Laid her down in the front seat of my truck. Some perv came and looked right in at us. That kind of thing spooks most girls, but after he left, I remember this girl bit my neck.” He shook his head. Laughed. “Crazy girl.”
The Fat Lady stood by, washing one of her enormous dresses in a steel bucket. She laughed, too. She and the Reptile Man caught each other’s eyes and laughed louder.
“Let’s go.” Lupus forced them into motion, moving hard and fast to one side.
Out of earshot, Marco muttered. “I hate that son of a bitch.”
Lupus stopped short. Marco took another step and they strained against one another.
“You still think we made a mistake?” Lupus asked.
“Every choice makes a difference,” Marco said. “We stick around, maybe she never gets in her car and she never hits that deer—”
“And that would stop her from fucking The Reptile Man?”
“If we hadn’t stood her up, she wouldn’t have gone to the circus.”
“She was into weird tricks.”
“She had purple hair.”
“Marker. The razor was smudged the morning after,” Lupus said. “She was trying it on for size. The Reptile Man was just another flavor.”
Marco hit him. A dragging punch, as much forearm as fist and a second later they were both on the ground. Lupus covered up as Marco swung again. And again. Lupus ducked under Marco’s arm the fourth time and wrapped his hands around his brother’s throat.
The strangling only went on so long. They wrestled and punched and kicked. Lupus became aware of a crowd around them. No one separated them, though, realizing how complicated it might be to try to keep apart conjoined brothers.
They probably didn’t care, either.
Marco hit his brother square across the mouth. Drew a trickle of blood. Lupus sagged, head back, body turned.
When you have a man whooped you can leave him alone. Or you can go in for the kill.
Marco’s side throbbed. He rolled next to his brother to put them back in alignment and they stood up. Clumsy. Awkward. An embarrassing spectacle for an audience of their peers. He wiped the blood from Lupus’s cheek and took a deep breath.
He’d have to let go.