Babang Luksa

Salt had crept in while he was away, and now the freshwater wetlands of Gino’s childhood are a marsh, brackish and fickle. There is the soccer field where he’d stained his knees; it had been a low, dry rise of earth bracketed by mud and cordgrass, and today is impassable, a thicket of cattails in algae-skinned water, a humming choir of insects. And here the Jiffy Lube where Gino got his first job, and the stand of trees outside it where Gino smoked his first cigarettes. A line of fat, old maples that in the summer had dropped their seeds in spinning helicopter wings by the whirling hundreds, and in the autumn had lit up like matchheads, screaming into the sky. First week of June now, and they’re not doing much of anything, their branches almost bare, bark corpse-grey from drinking saltwater. Around the corner to Mifflin St, past the stripped bones of the gas station, up two blocks to the high tide line at the sandbagged steps of the Shop & Go, the empty lot opposite repurposed into a dock for the neighborhood fleet: half a dozen rowboats with their oars padlocked athwart, one eight-seater bowrider with yellowing upholstery, one jet ski, and, as they come into dock, the roofed pontoon that Gino caught a ride on, a Habitat for Humanity donation.

“Forty.” Benji, the helmsman.

“Get outta here.” Gino, sucking his teeth.

“We got a problem?”

“Nah, man. Nah.” Gino digs out his wallet.

“Cash.”

“Yeah, I figured. Y’all getting a lotta outages?”

Benji counts through the ones and fives. “More power outages than power. We on generators, if we on.”

“Shit.”

Benji shakes his head. “Is what it is. You need directions?”

“I’m good, thanks. I grew up around here.”

The boardwalk from the boats to dry asphalt is made of wooden shipping pallets, new ones stacked on top of old when they’ve started to molder as the mud takes them. Gino slings his bag over his shoulder and walks across with his eyes on his feet, distrustful of the dark patches where it looks rotted through. The street is a relief, even with sedge and woolgrass cutting up through cracks in the pavement for the first few yards past the waterline.

The distance from the Stop & Go to his childhood home is the length of time it took to eat a bag of spicy pork skins and throw the evidence in a neighbor’s garbage can so his mom wouldn’t know he’d been ruining his dinner. But he’d measured it in a teenage boy’s appetite, and the walk seems quicker now. The streets narrower, the telephone poles shorter, the sky closer, everything more squat, and the gritty smell of the marsh clinging on even two blocks up the street. Still, it’s late in the afternoon and the sun on the clouds is starting to blush, so folks are setting themselves up on front stoops in threes and sixes with cigarettes and beer bottles and babies on bouncing knees, their friendly racket sounding to Gino something like a first language, so familiar, unheard for years. He gets a couple nods and throws them back, but nobody knows him on sight.

He turns the corner onto S Bonsall St. The sidewalk is broken in all the same spots he didn’t know he knew until he sees them again, and then he knows every fissure and crack, every dog paw immortalized in wet cement. No parked cars. A lot more boarded-up doors and windows than there used to be, although there’d always been some. There were never any front yards in the neighborhood, all the basement windows looking directly out onto the sidewalk. Now every house on the row that still looks occupied has a rain barrel out front, and a couple have one of those larger, galvanized metal cisterns that look like fat little grain silos. There’s a line of grass growing right down the middle of the street. Sedge, probably—a bad sign on what used to be high ground.

And then, inevitably, there’s #2017. He’s been gone almost twenty years and it looks . . . not the same, but like a faded photograph of itself. Gino doesn’t know if it’s looked like that for a while, or if it happened all at once. If a year ago, when his father died, the color drained from the house’s façade. He could still turn around.

It’s not that he hasn’t thought about his father’s death, or how it would be to come home and see the place without him. But he’s been able to think about it from a distance, know it without seeing it. And that’s worked out for him, overall. But from the bottom of the steps and through the screen door, there’s his mother’s voice telling someone to bring out the good plates, the ones for company. So much clearer than her voice over the phone, telling him she’d understand if he couldn’t make the trip, like she was forgiving him for disappointing her even before he did it.

Gino wants very much to be someone who doesn’t need to be forgiven. So, up the stairs he goes.

Gino was five years old when the bulge of the Schuylkill River met the fattened trickle of Cobb’s Creek to the east, and together they fingered their way west through parkways and backyards to touch the glutted Delaware. It was then declared that everything south of the Roosevelt Expressway was officially part of the greater Chesapeake floodplain. The majority of Philadelphia was under at least six inches of water, so the entirety of it was legally classified as inundated. The news, his folks, everyone adult he knew, kept track of the losses. The city took bids on where to relocate the Liberty Bell, and crowdfunded the removal and transport of the arch at the foot of Chinatown. The neighborhood threw up barriers around the Pentecostal church on Snyder Ave, and bought up and replanted mangroves from nurseries on the Jersey shore. They were losing more ground than they saved, though, for as long as he could remember.

When he was eight, the block half a mile away where his mom grew up was evacuated, and his grandpop moved in with them, slept on the couch. His sharp-pressed slacks and red-striped shirts displaced Gino’s clothes in the closet. His basketball games and bocce club pushed Gino out of the afternoons he’d spent with his dad. And his voice, old Philly, short vowels running up into each other, filtered into every room and out the front door onto the stoop, every day adding to his eulogy for the city. Grief was the background static of Gino’s childhood—everyone else’s grief for a place he’d never been.

Gino’s family’s place was in West Passyunk, a little too distant from the heart of old Italian Philadelphia to benefit from touristy nostalgia, and too Black and brown for their one sob story among many to generate charitable donations. Like for the Black folks down in Kingsessing, up in Kensington, the official plan was to leave it to rot in the water. But the less-than-a-mile-square from 20th St to 26th sat on a rise known only to kids who’d biked it, pushing and sweating up one way and gliding, legs storked out, down the other. While the rest of the neighborhood went to algae and rot, Gino’s old block and the couple dozen around it became an island in the marsh.

It was almost lucky. A mile in any direction, the government offered to buy homeowners out of their property for less than a quarter of how much it would cost them to start over somewhere further inland. Most people took it because, in the choice between an insultingly low offer and nothing at all, they figured it was better not to wait around for the insulting offer to expire. Up in the neighborhood, basements flooded, tap water went funny, electricity flickered and failed, but no buy-out offers came. And even as everything else changed, the old rule held true: if you didn’t get out of the neighborhood by the time you were eighteen, then chances were you were never getting out.

Gino left when he was eighteen. Gino’s older brother Stevie got married at eighteen. Stevie’s in his forties now, and on the couch this morning, his knees as high as his chest because his spot in the far corner has sagged under the years he’s spent there. There’s a stack of dishes and cutlery on the coffee table in front of him. He’s the ghost of their dad: heavy brows, a twice-broken nose, an ancient, thick sweater despite the heat, and a smile that’ll never let you in on the joke. More him than their mom, so more Filipino than Italian, and Gino, never pegged as either, remembers again to resent him for it.

“Jesus, you actually showed,” Stevie says to him. There’s a pause where Gino’s supposed to say something biting, but he doesn’t rise to it. Stevie shrugs. “You got about a minute to turn around and leave before the rest notice you’re here.”

“Eugenio.” Stevie’s husband, frozen halfway down the stairs. “Got some fuckin nerve showing up here.”

“Kevin,” Gino says. He hasn’t set his bag down yet. “You look good. Change your hair?”

“Don’t tell me how I fuckin look you—”

“Gino!” His name ricochets down the hall and around the kitchen, then back out into the living room, carried on the high voices of his nieces who make him hug them. One of them takes his bag upstairs, whispering something strident to her dad on the way. Jasmine, Gino thinks. The one with the freckles is Jasmine, and the other one is Roxie, who’s telling him about what they’re making in the kitchen, what they had to substitute in the pancit, and what they grew in the community garden. Cousins, assorted children, and neighborhood aunties and their husbands cycle into the room with dry kisses and slaps on the shoulder, telling him he hasn’t changed at all, telling him he’s gained weight. Kevin slips behind them all and into the kitchen, and Gino tells everyone that he needs to go volunteer to help out his mom before word spreads that he rolled up to her house expecting to stand around being waited on.

He steps heavy down the short hall back to the kitchen, less to give Kevin and his mom warning he’s coming, and more to spare himself whatever they were saying about him. Which might have been a sound strategy, in another family.

“Don’t know why he bothered,” Kevin is saying. From less of a distance now, Gino can see the white in his hair, and that the pinched line between his brows never quite disappears. Kevin spots Gino in the doorway and turns back to tell his mother-in-law, “It’s a cruel thing to do to you, Francesca. God knows he’s just gonna turn around and leave tomorrow.”

His mom, her small hands shiny with oil and flecked with carrot skins, turns and sees him. “Well,” she says. “Will you? Head out tomorrow?”

“Hey, Ma. Nah. No, I took the week off. Takes about a day to get back, though, took a day to get here, so. I can stay a couple days.” She looks him up and down, then away just as quickly, and goes back to chopping a lemon. He adds, “Right now there’s a break between the last project and this shoreline thing in Maine, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it.”

“Real glad you could squeeze us into your busy schedule,” Kevin says. “About a year late for the funeral, but it’s the thought that counts, right?” He leaves, a heaping bowl of rice under one arm and a pan of lasagna under the other.

For a long minute Gino just watches his mother work. Reaching for this and that. Washing her hands. There’s less of her in reality than there had been in his imagination. She tells him the garlic bread is ready, and he falls into the routine of ducking outside to turn off the gas, grabbing the wire basket off the top of the fridge, a cloth from the drawer on the left, and plucking the steaming slices from the oven pan, folding them under the cloth with the buttery smell of a thousand ancient dinners around the kitchen table. There’s a lot of chatter coming from the front room, and someone comes in and out of the back door to bring in the folding chairs that have been rusting out there since before Gino was born.

Gino hovers in the middle of the kitchen. He’s spent an inordinate amount of time over the past weeks thinking what he’d say to her. Even in his imagination, he never got it right. Finally, he asks, “Is there anything else to do?”

His mom waves a hand at him without turning around. “Take those out there.”

“Okay.” And then he tries, “I’m sorry, Ma.”

“For what?” She’s wiping down the counter now, piling pans and ladles in the sink.

“For . . . .” Gino takes a couple breaths. He’s feeling a little sick, which isn’t the same as feeling sorry, but is close enough that he’s sure it’s what he should say. “I should have been here. Last year.”

His mom is brisk, businesslike, with her hands. She shakes her head. “You were gone a long time before that. He knew you weren’t coming back.” She says it plainly, without accusation.

“Right,” Gino says. “Okay.” He carries the basket of bread into the front room.

Out front there are people everywhere on mismatched chairs, kids cross-legged on the floor, and not enough plates for everyone. A neighbor comes in the door with a package of paper plates to make up the difference. Stevie gestures Gino over to a spot he’s saved on the couch, and their mom comes in and settles herself into the big cracked-leather armchair that used to be their dad’s. There’s a moment where everyone pauses, leaning over their plates. The youngest kid in the room asks if they can eat now and uncle Lenny turns to Gino’s mom and says, “Hold up. Francesca? You want to say something?”

She says yes, and puts her plate down on her lap. She’d insisted on taking one of the paper plates. She runs a quick hand over the arm of the chair. It’s strange to see her in it. It’s strange to see her.

“I hear it’s not always easy to get here across the water these days, and it’s nice to see you who did.” She nods at some folks who Gino didn’t know had moved away. “The house is always better with a whole lot of people in it, even if it’s a little crowded. Nato and I moved in here a few months before Stevie was born. All the way cross town for an extra bedroom. When we had Eugenio and he wanted his own room, Nato told him, you can make a down payment, then you get your own room.” There’s some laughter in Gino’s direction. His mom turns to her own brother. “And Lenny, you know our dad, God rest him, he didn’t like me taking up with Nato, didn’t like us moving away from the old neighborhood, and we had some conversations about all that.”

Lenny chuckles, incredulous. “That what you wanna call it?”

“Alright,” she says. “We had some loud conversations about all that. But then give it ten, twenty years and him and Nato were best goddamn friends, getting up to all sorta trouble together, here in this house. When dad passed, I was a mess. You know what I mean, I wasn’t ready for that.” She looks at Gino for a moment, then at Stevie. “And your father, he held me up and gave me ways to say goodbye. We did this for my dad, the year after. And if anyone said it was a little strange to have a babang luksa for some old Italian from South Philly, then they had to have a loud conversation with me.” She clutches a hand on Lenny’s knee. “This year yous’ve all held me up. So. Let’s eat, and say goodbye to Nato.”

Kevin and a cousin who Gino can’t place take charge of dishing out food. There’s a massive salad that he hadn’t noticed before, weighted down by a mound of black olives and grated parmesan. The lasagna is meatless, but the pancit bihon has chicken and liver, and there’s something that smells like adobo even if it doesn’t look like it. Jasmine and Roxie start a fork war over the best-looking corner slice of lasagna, which Kevin settles by taking it for himself. Gino lets mostly everyone be served before him while he tries to unclench his hands and his jaw.

From his left, Lenny shovels all the olives from his own plate onto Gino’s, an old joke he’d forgotten they shared. “Good to have you around here,” Lenny says.

“Can’t get anyone else to take these off your hands?”

“Not all of ’em at once, I gotta do two here, three there, hit five, six plates. It’s a logistical nightmare.”

“That’s rough, man. Lucky I’m a logistics guy.”

“Oh yeah? You still with the ah, what’s the thing?”

“Army Corps of Engineers, yeah.” Gino catches Lenny’s searching look. “Almost ten years now,” he offers.

Roxie breaks off talking to the neighbor kids and shoots Stevie an accusing look. “Uncle Gino’s in the Army?”

“No,” Gino answers for her. “Corps’ mostly civilians. They do, we do infrastructure projects. Building stuff. They did the levees downtown.”

“You worked on that?” Roxie lights up. The levees would have been big news in the city when she was a kid. They’re half the reason their little island is still above water.

“No,” Kevin says. “He was long gone. But the mail still came then, he sent you postcards from all his little projects. When was the levee, what year was that, hm?” Roxie looks uncomfortable, but Jasmine puts in that she was in sixth grade. “Right! Big year. You were in that inter-city youth boxing thing, Jas. She made the quarter finals. Where were you that time, Eugenio?”

Gino isn’t sure what year Jasmine was in the sixth grade, or exactly how old she is now, but he can see Kevin waiting for him to ask. “Connecticut,” he says. “Coastal restoration.”

“Oh, yeah? How’d that work out for Connecticut?”

“C’mon, Kev,” says Stevie.

Gino says, “Not bad, last I heard. I’ve seen worse.”

“Yeah, me too,” Lenny says, and jerks his chin at the front window. Everyone laughs. Gino nods, which is close enough to laughing.

Another neighbor, a big guy whose name Gino can’t come up with, asks, “Yous guys got work planned down here?” And the woman next to him, his wife maybe, says, “Oh, they should put up boardwalks!” And somebody else, “We’ve been saying, there’s plenty of high enough ground for boardwalks to connect up to downtown. They gonna do that, Gino?”

“They don’t really tell me that kind of thing. I just keep the truck and everything running. I’m a, you know what I mean, a glorified mechanic.” He trails off, and his brother laughs.

“Please,” Stevie says. “They’re not gonna do shit. I mean, sorry, but you’re not, right? The levee was what, eight years back, and nothing since that. They gave up.”

Francesca, who had been quiet, eating, says, “They did. But that’s okay. Everyone is allowed to give up when they gotta.” From the tension in the room, it’s not a popular statement, but nobody argues her on it.

After a second, someone brings up the NBA finals, and how pissed Nato would have been that the Raptors made it this far again. And then his general grudge against Canadian teams in the NBA, and then his earnest incompetence on the court himself, as a young man. And then a picture is brought out of a shoebox, and it’s Gino, perhaps three years old, with a bowl cut and a look of childish ecstasy, up on his father’s shoulders, his father’s hands holding Gino’s chubby child-legs, Gino’s arms up at the end of an arc, a basketball in the air, suspended in the moment before it fell short of the net.

Gino ducks out to sit on the front stoop and finds a pack of Stevie’s cigarettes where he’s always left them, in the nook of a broken corner of the top step. He lights one just as the screen door creaks open and shut and his brother sucks his teeth at him and says, “Hey, asshole.” Gino hands him the one he’s lit and takes another for himself. They settle into their old arrangement, Gino facing the street on the middle step, Stevie behind him, leaning back against the railing, between the two of them a view of the narrow street and the intersection nearby, and of all the folks who would wander over to shoot the shit. Nobody wandering today, just the distant figures of other stoop-loiterers at another house. A familiar view, but uncanny.

“It’s so quiet around here,” Gino says. “It’s weird.”

“It’s been this quiet for, hell . . . years. You just weren’t around to notice.”

Gino grimaces, shakes his head. “I’m not gonna keep apologizing for living my own life.”

“Didn’t ask you to, I’m just saying.”

“Right. Sorry. Shouldn’t put words in your mouth.”

Stevie, never one to let discomfort sit for long, asks Gino how work is. “And you still seeing that girl? Tina? Trisha?”

“Tonya,” says Gino. “We called it quits. It’s the job. I’m somewhere for six, eight months, then a couple weeks of nothing, being a bum on her couch, then some other place, do it all over again. I like the work. Get a project, see it through, tie it up, I like that. But I think she got sick of the whole thing.”

“Condolences, man.”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“So whose couch you bumming on between projects now?” Stevie asks. Gino shrugs.

“Just around, really. HQ has some temp housing, so I’m there mostly.”

“Bro, hold up, are you homeless right now?”

Gino shoves back against Stevie’s knee. “Fuck off, man, I don’t need a place is all.”

“Alright, alright! I was gonna say you could crash here, but being honest, I think I’d have a heart attack if you said yes.”

“And Kevin would fuckin’ kill you. Or me.”

Stevie grunts an agreement. “You wouldn’t stand a chance. He’s a biter, too.”

Gino sputters. “Come on, man, I don’t need to know that shit.” He hesitates, then says, “You guys don’t have to stay here either, you know.”

“Gino . . . .”

“Just saying, I know what it’s like to feel trapped here, but you’re not. You don’t have to stick around and watch it all sink, you know, I can help, we can pack up Ma, and . . . .”

Stevie cuts him off. “Come the fuck on, man. You think Ma’s leaving this house? You wanna pry her out with a crowbar? You’re gonna break her heart with that, and who’s gonna take care of her then, you?”

“I could help you get set up somewhere.”

“Get the fuck outta here with that, come on.”

“I’m just saying,” he says.

“I know what you’re saying. But be real, okay. Ma’s not going anywhere. And if Kevin and I leave, there’s no one to be with Ma—you’re not dropping everything and coming back. So yeah, you’re not trapped, because I am. And that’s not on you, I’m glad you’re out there doing your thing. You’re my little brother, you know, you’re a smart kid.”

“Stevie, I’m thirty-six.”

“See? You can count real high and everything.” Stevie laughs at his own joke. That loud, unselfconscious snorting that always makes Gino smile. “Jesus, listen to us. Like we’re in therapy or some shit.”

“I am, actually,” Gino offers.

“For real?”

“Yeah.” Stevie nudges Gino’s back with his foot, so he goes on. “Work has these folks on staff, and it’s free, so I figured might as well, y’know what I mean.”

“Huh. Nice of them, I guess. So what do yous talk about?” Gino cranes his neck around to glare at him. “What? I’ve never been to therapy before, I’m curious, come on.”

“It’s personal.”

“Alright, fine, don’t tell me anything.”

“It’s like AA, you know, it’s confidential.”

“How much confidential shit can you even have?”

“Aw c’mon, screw you, Stevie.”

He laughs again. “Kidding, I’m kidding.”

Gino finishes his cigarette and rummages in the pack for another. Offers Stevie one, lights them both. Overhead, the sun is behind gray clouds, and some sort of hawk or kite is making high, irregular circles. “He’s cool, the therapist they got,” Gino says. “He thought coming here for this was a good idea. He’s kind of a hardass, though, you know. Calls me on my bullshit.”

“That’s a big job, you’re full of bullshit.”

“Hilarious.”

“I know, right?” Stevie taps a little song on the top step with his fingertips. Inside the house, Roxie and Kevin are talking fast, back and forth, loud and happy enough. “So, go on,” Stevie says. “What kind of bullshit?”

Gino sighs. He gestures with his chin back at the front door. “This kind, mostly. First session we had, he gave it fifteen minutes before asking why I kept getting angry at myself for having feelings.”

“Oh, fuck.”

“Yeah. I almost walked out and he was like, see? Right there, there it is again.” He shakes his head, smiles. “Bastard.”

“You still do that, though,” Stevie says, with all the self-assurance of someone who’d changed his diapers.

“I do. But I notice it now, which he says is good.”

Stevie blows smoke out the corner of his mouth and they watch the hawk drop out of sight somewhere over the marsh. “Is it? Good?”

“Nah, it sucks. Now I get angry about being angry.”

Stevie laughs so hard that both his daughters and his husband bang out through the front door to see what they’re missing, the three of them fitting themselves into Gino and Stevie’s stoop arrangement in a new configuration that makes him feel crowded, but at least not crowded out. The kids surround him on the steps, long teenage limbs getting everywhere. Kevin even offers him a bite of the slice of pie he carried out with him, and barely makes a face when Gino uses his fork.

Gino walks with his mom to his dad’s grave, about a five minute trip up the street. It was Kevin who pointedly herded his family and everyone else left at the house to clean things up and follow along afterwards, so Gino and his mom are alone together for the time being in the dim late afternoon, walking through sticky air and the droning noise of a neighbor’s household generator. It’s slow going, not because of any infirmity on Francesca’s part, but because she walks slowly, and always has. An infuriating trait in a city person, finally at home now that this part of the city has been cut off, made circumstantially provincial. Gino doesn’t mind meandering, but he’s not used to the sound of his mother not talking.

“Stevie’s girls look all grown up,” he says. She nods. She puts her hand on his arm and he folds it so her hand is tucked in the crook of his elbow and they walk like that, a dignified little procession.

“He’s a good father,” she says. “You still not seeing anyone?”

“Nah.”

“Would you tell me if you were?”

Gino ducks his head. “Probably.”

They come to the graveyard. Stevie had written to Gino about the place, and sent some pictures, but it’s more odd, more abrupt, to see it in person. What used to be a messy, six-way intersection in the middle of the neighborhood had become just so much useless space when the seasonal flooding stopped being seasonal, and residents were cut off from the closest gas station, now half an hour away over the water. Folks brought out the sledgehammers and tore it down to dirt. The original plan had been to till the soil and put in vegetable crops, but before they started planting, someone on 23rd St died, and all at once the residents of the newborn island realized they didn’t know what to do with their dead.

Cemeteries in South Philly had been exhumed and relocated long ago, well before most of the living started to leave. If the bereaved were so inclined, and could afford it, they’d ship their dead up to a plot in the northwest of the city, or even to the suburbs. Churches and mosques and synagogues pitched in, but most people, if their faith allowed, opted for cremation. The shore had been in flux their whole lives, and there was no assurance their kids wouldn’t have to dig up grandpa and ship his bones even further inland a couple decades down the line. Unfortunately for the remains of West Passyunk, however, when the water rose around them, no crematoriums remained on dry land. So they had the body of a young woman whose heart gave out, and a fresh field of open dirt. They planted her in it. And then the next death, and the next one. By the time Gino’s dad was buried here, he had plenty of company.

The graveyard has the long triangular shape of the old intersection, enclosed by a chain-link fence to keep out dogs and raccoons. The grass is clipped short, the regular sort of lawn grass instead of the mess of marsh grasses that have crept in everywhere else. White forget-me-nots are dotted in among the plots, and one corner of the yard is taken up by a huge mess of purple aster. The markers are pale wood, names and dates burned into them in a dark, neat script. Gino’s mom leads him to his dad’s plot, which is catching some late light.

Gino knows his father is dead. He’s known it for a year, but seeing a grave with his father’s name on it feels like coming down off a high wire—sickening, and sudden. He sits down in the grass, and after wiping some dust and grit off the marker, his mom sits down next to him.

“You should come visit him in the morning, too,” she says. “A lot of bees then, and bluebirds. I almost moved that feeder over here, the one he put out by the back door. But then they wouldn’t come to the house so much, and they come here already anyhow.”

Gino doesn’t trust himself to speak yet. He hadn’t known it would feel like this. He had hoped to avoid feeling like this, indefinitely. The finality of it, and the premonition that she would be gone soon enough too, and even Stevie one day, and that this gentle garden of the dead would flood with saltwater, and he wouldn’t get another chance to be brave enough to stick around. He thought he’d buried them for himself already by leaving, by not watching it happen. But they’re still here, and all he’d done was lose time that he’ll never recover, and let Stevie dig their dad’s grave all on his own. Gino’s squeezing his hands, one in the other, and his mom rests hers on top of them, a question. He shakes his head convulsively. “It’s fine, sorry. I’m fine, sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Alright,” she says. She squeezes his hand, rubs his back. “Alright, you go on.”

He knows what Stevie said, but he’s gotta ask, it’s clawing at him. “You and all them could come back with me,” Gino says. “I can take some more time off and find a place, doesn’t have to be that far, there’s a whole lot of Pennsylvania. We can get you outta here, it’s time to get outta here.”

“All of us?” She looks at him like he just spat in her face. “Your brother can make his own decisions. And you, baby boy I’m happy to see your face, but you can go anytime.” She nods at the grave. “But I’m not about to leave him. Don’t you ask me to.”

“I’m sorry, Ma.” For leaving, for coming back. For the moment a few days from now when he’ll leave again.

“That’s alright. It’s alright to have things you’re sorry for. Your dad lived a good long life, and he left still sorry for all sorts of things. You go on, be sorry. That’s okay.”

A trio of swallows have landed on the fence and are calling their clear, tittering trills into the dusk. Insects are flitting around, and the birds take turns launching themselves from the fence, diving in wild arcs, then coming back to rest. The other two waiting, chirrup-laughing, the insects droning on, oblivious to the game that’s been made of their fate.

“I couldn’t watch,” Gino says, leaning into his mom’s hand on his back. “I couldn’t watch it happen. Dad, the neighborhood.”

Her hand stills, then she pats him briskly, and stands. Stevie, Kevin, and the girls are coming through the gate and into the yard, chattering like birds. “Well, anytime you want to see us, we’ll be here,” his mom says. “Whether you’re watching or not.”

mm

Author: Nicasio Andres Reed

Nicasio Andres Reed is a writer, poet, and essayist whose work has appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Lightspeed, and Fireside. He spent a long span of his itinerant childhood in Philadelphia, and now lives in Tagaytay, in the Philippines, with four dogs, some family, and the occasional uninvited monitor lizard. Find him on Twitter @nicasioreed or at nicasioreed.com.

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