The Room of Wonders

After Jay told Miguel and their stepfather Hank about his firefighter training—climbing three-story ladders, rushing upstairs as controlled fires raged, running sprints at the college track—Miguel made his first mistake. He rocked back in his barstool at the kitchen counter and looked at his younger brother. “Yeah, well, I’ve still got it. That squat Mexican speed thing. Waste you on the pavement.”

Hank blinked, but Jay didn’t. Didn’t move a muscle.

“I doubt it,” Jay said.

“You doubt it?” Miquel felt an old heat in his chest, one that hummed any time he was with his brother.

“You smoke,” Jay said, eyes on his breakfast: two eggs, bacon, toast. Large cup of coffee with milk. In the oven, their mother’s cinnamon rolls bloomed hot and sweet. “You’re older.”

“So?” Miquel sat up straight. He did smoke, though he counted them out per day like gold. They cost almost as much. He kept half-smoked, longer butts in a baggie in his back pocket. Besides, he was only twenty-six.

At the stovetop, Hank turned on the flame, a whisk of heat and blue. From the back, his bald spot glowed moon white. The room rose with heat as the pan warmed. Then the sizzle of eggs. Butter flecked the early winter kitchen.

Jay here for five days, Miguel driving up from the flats a half-hour earlier, they were gathered for something to eat and then a hike in the redwood forest before a standing rib roast and Christmas presents.

“Lungs,” Jay said, eating his eggs in a one forkful, two. “You don’t run anymore, anyway. Swim, either.”

Jay swallowed and looked at him as if to say, “You don’t do anything, anymore.”

“I’m like Dad,” Miguel said. “Like I said, built for speed. You’re long and lanky. Like Mom. White on all sides.”

Jay snorted, and for effect, stretched out the lean plank of his right leg. AT 6’4”, Jay seemed almost like two of Miguel, especially now as they were fully grown, in their mid-twenties,

Miguel with little hope of a late bone bloom. At this point, Jay was more Jay than Joaquin, early on losing his Spanish name, and never learning the Spanish Miguel had felt forced to learn in high school, his mother adamant that he be able to speak properly to his Mexican relatives. Jay? Somehow, by the time he rolled through high school two years later, his mother has loosened her grip on her cultural diversity program as well as her first marriage.

And Jay was hardly diverse. Blondish to Miguel’s darkness, tall to Miguel’s squat Mexican speed thing. Green-eyed to Miguel’s black stare.

So here Miguel sat next to this younger brother. Jay. Tall. A guy of indeterminate racial identity. Greek. Middle-Eastern (especially when he grew a beard). Jewish. Northern Italian.

Jay shrugged, wiped his plate clean with the toast. “Let’s do it,” he said.

“What?” Miguel asked.

“A race. Now. Up on the street.”

At the stove, Hank flinched, turned to look at them both, and then went back to his eggs. He made his eggs as if trying not to rustle the air, or worse, set flame to another brother skirmish, the kind that had ruined prior holidays.

Like Easter, Miguel’s comment about Jay’s girlfriend’s booming ass. Friendly! Or at least Miguel thought so. Jay? Slammed his plate on the table, hunched over, ate his food, left the house. Didn’t come back, even though Miguel waited four hours and called twice. Miguel’s mother stood in the kitchen, arms crossed, shaking her head.

“Just once,” she’d said. “You could let something go without remark.”

But now, their mother was in the shower, unaware. The smell of her bath gel whisked up the stairs. Hank slid his eggs onto his plate and walked out of the kitchen into the dining room. No one would come out to watch this race, not like when Miguel and Jay were little and sped down this very street on their bikes, skateboards, Razors, as well as on foot. Their parents clapped and cheered and tried to pretend that winning didn’t mean anything. Patting of backs. Kissing of cheeks. But, of course, Miguel always won, Jay sullen and downcast for hours afterward.

“Mula,” their father said as Jay sulked in his room, arms crossed across his small body, refusing to listen to anyone. Then later, when Jay refused to come out for dinner, “Pobracito.”

Jay was scrawny, a plucked chicken, all knobs and ridges and wild hair. Miguel never went through a skinny or chubby awkward phase, always tight, lean, bantam weight. Now? Still muscled. Even if he did smoke.

And everyone knew, winning did mean everything.

“Sure,” he said. His second mistake.

There was the point in the race where Miguel and Jay were together, hip-to-hip, neck-to- neck, both of them pumping, elbows churning, faces forward, both of them breathing as if one beast, or a pair of beasts pulling the same cart.

But then Miguel saw the rise and heft of Jay’s quads, pumping high, the same way their father’s had, years ago, back when he ran the hills every morning, sprinting the last quarter mile toward home. Then Jay’s elbow was winging ahead of his. Jay’s back, the power and churn of his lats. Jay edged farther ahead, Miguel focused on the soles of his brother’s hiking boots that seemed to weigh nothing.

The pavement banged hard under his thin-soled Chuck Taylors. Miguel’s lungs caught and released air too fast. With each burning breath, he sucked in harder and took in less. He felt his body splay, his rhythm breaking down, his arms and legs out of sync even as he willed himself to fly.

But Jay pulled all the way ahead, his arms whipping, his body one smooth and solid thing, a magical creature Miguel had never before seen. All at once, something that had long held them together snapped.

Jay was down the street, around the bend. Gone.

At his own apartment, Christmas dinner over, his presents humped on the couch, Miguel slumped back and scrolled through his messages. Two from Annalise, all questions.



Where are you? and  Are you coming over?

Miguel wondered how Mark—his alter-ego—celebrated his Christmas holiday. Ham with pineapple rings. Egg nog.

Other texts. One from Dulce, no caps. Papi! You promised!

He tossed his phone on the cushion and stood up, flicking off the living room lights as he walked through the room. No tree here. That ritual he left to his mother. Apparently, though, Jay had a tree in his house in Seattle, the one he shared with his college friends. But soon, he was moving in with Maya of the fine ass. Eventually, Jay and Maya would get married, Jay’s firefighter buddies burly in their suits in the church pews. There Miguel would be, best man.

But hardly.

Miguel opened the large closet in the hallway, the space that was supposed to be a quasi-laundry room, but had been converted by the cheap-ass landlord into a walk-in coat closet, drywall patches still visible where the washer and dryer hookups used to be. When he’d moved in, Miguel had taken down the coat rod and put up shelves. There he’d placed all his trophies, starting back from when he was seven. Twenty-five yard freestyle. His stroke. Butterfly, too.

Later, as he got older and actually paid attention to Brad, his coach, he took on the IM. Backstroke. Breaststroke in a pinch. In high school, he made the varsity team his freshman year. USS swim teams. Junior Olympics his junior and senior year of high school.

The dim closet light shining down on the fake gold plate and plastic silver, the red and blue and white, Miguel stepped closer, reaching out, touching the long ribbons, reading the certificates and commendations. Staring at the photos, the news articles. Ridiculous, really, Miguel standing alone or with a couple of other swimmers, all in swimsuits. Almost naked. But they all clutched trophies, smiling broadly, the sun shining on their chlorinated, green-tinged hair.

Swim meets, wins, travel. Awards banquets, clapping, gifts. Girls. Lots of them. Colleges sending him letters of interest. Assuring him his swimming career was safe in their hands. Back in the corner of his life, far away, was the other childhood, the one with Jay, a place Miguel could visit. But more importantly, a place he could leave.

All that excitement before graduating high school. And there was no accounting for that thing inside him, the part that made him push. He could feel it, the water in front of him opening up and letting him through like a magical gate, everything easy after that. Like birth maybe, which seemed stupid, but it was just that, and he was ahead of everyone. But there was the part before the breaking through, the place where he had to set aside everything in order to allow it to happen, willing his body through the tremendous wall of water and fear in front of him.

That last race, the 400 meter IM. A home meet, but no one was there to watch him, his parents just split. Winter, the sky cracked gray over the pool, steam rising. Later, he had a lot of excuses. Not enough sleep. Too much training. Not enough. A bad suit. A bad start. Goggles loose. Goggles too tight. But really, some part of him said no. Just like that. The magic ended, the water caving in front of him, the rest of the field passing him by, hitting the wall before him.

“Forget about it,” Brad said.

Miguel did, at least the next three times the water failed to move, his body unable to push through the barrier he’d smashed so many times. And then there was no forgetting, everyone’s eye turning to the next fastest guy who became the fastest guy.

He was passed over for the relays. He started missing a practice here, there. He smoked pot with the waterpolo players when he was supposedly in training. Next thing he knew, he caged one cigarette, two. In garages and basement rooms and on backyard decks with people he’d never hung out with before, he drank beer until the cops or someone’s parents showed up.

By the time he entered Cal, Miguel knew he was done, swimming only one season before quitting. And the failure continued. Losing his scholarship, going only part-time, and then dropping out, 13 units shy of his degree in business.

“Forget about it,” he told everyone, but he never could. That one race always there, just as it had been today as Jay rushed past. Forget about it, Miguel had thought as his brother disappeared down the street, the wall of winter air heavier than any water had ever been.

The closet gloomed a dull gold, his medals and ribbons flat and motionless against the corkboard. He snapped off the light, slammed the closet door, and walked into the living room, grabbing his car keys.

He drove up and down Grand Avenue, deciding on a bar he’d only been to once, years ago, back when he was in school. He’d gone with some of his teammates, none of whom he was in touch with anymore, except on Facebook.

How ya doing, man?

Are you in town?

Drinks over the holidays?

Miguel liked and shared things and made funny replies, but he kept his page clean. A couple holiday shots. Posted articles about global warming. That thing about the elephant in the small pool. What a swimmer!

But no mention of his job at the Imperial Lighting. Project manager, sure. Yes, he facilitated the installation of enormous, individually designed light fixtures in Miami and Hollywood and Nashville—that actress’s house, the Chinese mogul’s, the famous theater in Westwood—but the rest of his Cal swim team? Went on to the actual Olympics.

Then business school. Wall Street. Silicon Valley. Stanford, Harvard, Yale. Those guys? They were the ones—just barely thirty—who ordered, or would soon, the light fixtures that Miguel installed.

Out on the street, it was edging toward midnight, the damp air full of water that would later and many miles away turn to Sierra snow. In the slick, black, and shiny asphalt, streetlights glared like sunrise. Pedestrians and probably the homeless, dark and lumpy silhouettes, walked down the street toward the lake.

The Shoe was a dive, the kind that used to be exciting to go to but was now only sad. But Miguel pushed the door open, hit by a slap of stale air and Christmas carols, the old jukebox at the back winding out Bing or maybe Dean, the kind of music his grandmother—Grandma Lillian, his mother’s mother—used to listen to.

He slipped onto a seat at the bar, a space between him and the patrons on either side. Light shot through the glasses hanging in the rack. Ahead of him, rows of bottles, all glimmering. Behind him, a couple, alone as a lamppost, danced to the music. He could almost smell the thousands of cigarettes lit here before the law passed a few years back. If he squinted his eyes, smoke.

He ordered a Scotch, neat, and sighed, his back slumping, elbows hard on the beaten bar. His calves ached from the race with Jay, and he stretched them. How long had it been since he’d really worked out? More than the elliptical machine or a run in Redwood Park?

“’Sup,” the guy to his right said.

Miguel nodded. “Not much.”

“Merry fucking Christmas,” the guy said, lifting his glass. He looked as if he’d sat down when the bar first opened and had faded and aged along with the wood and the paint. His face was rubbery and large-pored, his hair a combover that wasn’t working (not that any did). The cuffs of his coat were worn and frayed, the wale of the corduroy wide and wobbly as an old highway.

“Salud.” Miguel raised his own glass.

They slammed back their drinks. Miquel whirled his finger for the both of them. “On me,” he said.

“Like I said, Merry fucking Christmas,” the guy said. “Dean.”

Miguel opened his mouth and felt before he heard what he said, the name he used with every new white girl he dated. “Mark.”

“Happy holidays, Mark,” Dean said, now raising his new drink.

“Back atcha.” As Miguel sipped, Mark slipped under his skin and assumed his position. An average guy. High school. Some community college. Sometimes Mark was a cop. Others, he cut trees. Maybe a manager at Best Buy, working customer service.

Mark was happy, even if he was at this bar on Christmas night. All he wanted was a quick drink before heading home after an emergency shift—all that overtime would come in handy. Back at home, a girlfriend, a fiancé, a wife—someone permanent—a plain but pretty woman with average-sized breasts and an ability to make a roast chicken with those tiny potatoes, golden and smooth on the tongue. A lasagna bubbling with tomato sauce.

Did Mark have a baby? It was possible. Probably. Miguel knew what Mark would want to name a girl-child. Amber or Tiffany or Katerina. If it was a boy, Marcus. No nickname or shortcuts.

But for sure, Mark was an only child or maybe one of six, both his parents average, middle-class, ordinary. Mark was Italian. Or just really tan. Nothing special had ever happened to his family but nothing bad, either. More importantly, Mark had never done an exceptional thing in his life. He had no idea what it felt like.

For a moment, Miguel floated in Mark’s life. Bad music all around him, he sipped his drink, thinking about Mark’s journey home. That wife. That baby. That normal, safe life. In a flat, solid pause, Miguel saw Mark’s house, the light from the living room, the still sameness of every day.

Breathless, Miguel stared into the bar mirror. Seeing only the impossible. And then Dean slapped him on the shoulder, a friendly move, but Miguel slipped a bit on his stool, grabbing the bar to right himself.

Miguel jumped up, grabbed Dean by both shoulders, the ugly corduroy making this wrenching easy. Miguel looked at him not as Mark, but as himself, the guy who went out after work to bars and drank. Who picked up women he barely knew. Who wanted to kick his own brother’s ass.

But then Mark—that placid, wonderful dude—saw Dean, too. An older man, weepy eyes, bad breath, old, almost rotten jacket, the fabric just about tearable under Miguel’s tense fingers. A slight ring of dirt in the creases of Dean’s lined and spotted neck. Yellowed—and two missing—teeth.

Dean’s eyes were wide, his face slack with panic. At his sides, his hands churned like fish. Without touching him, Miguel knew the man’s skin would feel like room temperature butter, slick, oily, off.

“Sorry, man,” Miguel said, letting Dean slump back onto his stool. “You freaked me out.”

Dean adjusted his jacket, smoothed his random hair with a stiff hand, and then picked up his drink. The bartender stared at them both until Dean cleared his throat. “As I said earlier, Merry Fucking Christmas.”

Miguel pulled into his parking space just after two, an amber buzz of Scotch in his head, but not enough to keep him from driving. He smashed his smoked-to-the-quick cigarette under his shoe and pushed into his apartment.

On the table where he’d left it, his phone buzzed, casting the room blue. Vrr vrr vrr, it droned, finally stopping. Flicking on a light, he threw his coat over a chair and moved down the hallway, past his trophies, medals, and ribbons.

“The room of wonders,” Jay had teased him back when Miguel moved in and set up the shelving. “Amazeballs,” Jay had gone on, flicking his eyes around the room before turning back to Miguel with a smirk. “You are so all that. And really, let’s pay homage to the king.”

“Fuck you,” Miguel had said.

“Whatever you say, my liege,” Jay had said. “I live only to serve.”

Miguel opened the doors, turning on the light, stunned as always by the glow, almost stepping back. Squinting, at least. How had he done all this? So many races. He stepped in, the heat and air in his body rising, the slight Scotch buzz lifting him up and out, almost into a freestyle stroke. His arms reaching. There the air. There the water. There his body moving toward everything that was open.

Oh, the wonder of it. And wonder was all that was left. As in what. As in how. As in if. The would, would, would? The when, when, when?

Miguel lifted himself up and long, into the shape of his best stroke, grabbing a ribbon and pulling it down, wrenching it off the corkboard and letting it fall to the floor. Then another, letting the old races go, hitting hard, smashing into the crash and crumble of it, whole question, wanting nothing left, wanting to go back to the start, to the point where he’d never stepped into a locker room, onto a pool deck, on a starting block. Never heard the starting gun.

He took the shelving in his hands, yanking each shelf off the frame, stepping on the thin wood, feeling the cracks of their useless spines. And another.

More than anything he wanted to whoosh back to the beginning. Back when his parents were still together, before he won anything. The years when he and Jay sat out front on the street, their father running somewhere in the hills. The weekend afternoon ticked by in yellow heat. He and his brother kicked dirt clods. They threw rocks into the gutter. Flies landed on their shoes. They breathed, waiting for something to happen.

He smashed and flung, and beat at the drywall with marble and cheap, painted plastic, ignoring the pounding from the apartment below, the apartment above.

Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press in March 2016. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.