by Alicia Cusano-Weissenbach

You ain’t supposed to see stuff like that, so you just pretend you don’t. It ain’t so weird, y’know. There’s lots of stuff like that—normal stuff that you ain’t supposed to see—so you just keep walking.

Y’know what I mean, don’t you? Like when some fat bitch smacks her kid upside the face in a store and you feel bad, ’cause y’know, you been that kid. Or when you’re walking home and you see some guy tweaking, and it’s the middle of the day and he’s on the sidewalk in front of his building, but you just keep walking.

This is like that, but it ain’t. Difference is that other people see them things and y’know it ’cause they’re trying so hard not to, but with this, no one but me and Benny see it. I saw it first, and then Benny did, but not ’til I pointed and made him look at it.

Well, actually, that ain’t entirely true, ’cause y’see, I think my intestines felt it first. They sorta clenched up and got all wiggly­feeling, like they was bursting, and that’s how I knew to look.

Benny says it’s probably ’cause I got a worm, like the one we saw at the Mütter Museum when his parents took us to Philly. That place was all full of messed-up shit, like body parts in jars and the original Siamese twins. Wish I could be stuck on Benny like that. Guess you’d get tired of being together like that after a while, though.

Still, I had to show Benny, ’cause nothing impresses him. He’s too smart for school, and he gets A’s even though he cuts class. He comes down to see me ’cause it really ain’t that far away from where his parents live. They’re the richest people I ever saw, and they live in the good part of the borough. We don’t go there ’cause people stare at us.

People here stare at Benny, too, but no one ever tried to jump him. He’s asthmatic and thin, and he’s got skin like cream. Wears a Rolex at age 14 and has his little suit like a little business person ’cause his school makes him wear it—and he walks down the street alone!

“You,” he’d said, pointing at me one day. I was reading The Outsiders and thinking how I wished our gangs was like them. I looked at him and thought I was seeing Gabriel. “I want you to come with me.”

I was ten, and he picked me, just like that. Ever since then, we been together. I ain’t never been able to repay him ’til I thought of this.

I was breathing real fast. I was so excited that I was holding his hand and pulling him along, even though I know he hates that. He don’t like being touched, but when I showed him, he stopped acting pissed off. He close to shit himself.

I mean, there’s a fuckin’ plant growing up out of the middle of the street and into the clouds. I always seen it, but the one time I pointed it out, Mamma slapped me right in my face and ’bout broke my nose.

“Liars go to Hell, you understand, Annunziata Bianca? Do I need to warsh out your mouth with soap?”

“But I saw it!” I insisted, spitting ’cause I could already taste the orange Dial.

“Do you want me to tell Papi?”

I shook my head real hard, ’cause Papi hits with his fist. ’Least Mamma and Nonna keep their hands open. Nonna was there too, and she grabbed me by the hair and drug me into my room where the biggest Jesus in the house is, with all the paint on His face chipped off so I used to get nightmares from it and cry ’cause it looks like someone jumped Him and fucked Him up good, maybe with acid. Nonna won’t throw that thing away, ’cause she brought it from Rome, and it’s the most important thing she got—that’s why it gets to hang next to her framed picture of Il Duce.

And she drug me in front of that Jesus and Mussolini and told me to pray and save my soul from the Devil and never to lie again. She warshed out my mouth with the Dial after, just to make sure, though. Blah.

Benny’s parents ain’t like that. They wouldn’t believe in the plant neither, but they ain’t like that.

When he saw it, all growing up out of the pavement like a ladder into Heaven, he told me we couldn’t tell no one. He was shocked, and I was proud of that. Usually he just smiles at me when I try to surprise him or make him laugh.

“We could tell your mom and your dad,” I suggested. I knew they wouldn’t believe it, but it was funny to think what they’d say.

My brother Angelo likes to say rich people are crazy. Instead of slapping you in your goddamn lying mouth, they smile, indulgent-like, and tell you what a good imagination you got, and maybe you should write it down in a journal. And they don’t drag you off to church and throw your ass in the hot box to confess, ’cause they want you to “have freedom to find your own spirituality.” Crazy, like I said.

I thought Kafka’s parents was like that, ’cause he was so creative, but Benny laughed at me for saying that, and said Kafka’s dad was actually a piece of shit. ’Course he never said “piece of shit,” ’cause Benny don’t ever cuss.

Thought for sure he’d cuss when he saw the plant, but he just walked all the way ’round, careful in that way he always is, looking at it intently, frowning. After a while of staring, he touched it, one finger, then two, then his whole palm.

I was waiting with bated breath like them girls in adventure novels do when their knight’s gonna kiss ’em. Benny tells me not to read that shit, so usually I stick to “good” stuff like Shakespeare. He’s okay once you learn how to read him, but when I found out he ripped off a bunch of dead Greek guys, I was kinda pissed.

“It’s real,” Benny said, all surprised. He’s got this lock of hair, all dark and shiny, that falls over his beautiful white forehead sometimes, and I noticed it was doing that. He was too distracted to move it, though. I wanted to move it for him, and I almost reached out.

“Yeah,” I said, stupid and happy.

He looked at me, and I got a thrilling chill right down to my belly. His eyes are blue, cool and frosty like a bottle of fancy vodka.

“How long have you known about this?”

“Oh, forever!” My chest ’bout swelled up big as a robin’s. “Been here since I was four. Just showed up one day.”

“Annie, only you could keep a giant beanstalk to yourself for nine years.”

The way he said it sorta made me feel bad. He didn’t need to ask why he couldn’t see it before and I could, or why a red Schwinn rode right through it, and the guys ’bout to steal the Schwinn walked through right after and passed by us.

Things are always that way. People don’t see things they don’t want to, even when they’re right there, obvious to me. Benny wants to see things clear, but he only sees people clear. Think that’s why he picked me, ’cause he was seeing that I was seeing. I didn’t tell him ’bout the plant before ’cause I was used to seeing it, and only thought of it on a whim ’cause he was bored.

“So what you wanna do?”

“It requires thought, don’t you think? I’m going to sleep on it. You hungry?”

I was, so he took me back to his fancy apartment. They call it their “flat” even though that word don’t make a lot of sense. British, they said. He used to take me places to eat, but when his parents found out he was doing it to avoid seeing them, they took his credit card. Fuckin’ 14­year­old with a credit card, can you believe it?

Already told you that his parents are crazy. I could tell Benny was hoping they was still out, but they came in and was all smiles. I want to be like them someday—they don’t do work, they just write shit all day about plays and paintings and crap, and they get paid for it.

Don’t make no sense. Mamma sews at her alteration shop ’til that space under her nails is bleeding, and Nonna’s fingers is all knotted up so they look like two big potatoes from doing the same thing. Papi hauls stuff for the city. That’s work, and ain’t no one ever got paid for doing work.

“Annunziata, sweetheart!” His mom was always calling me “Annunziata” instead of “Annie,” ’cause she thought I should be proud of my “ethnic identity.” Like that one Christmas Eve when she cooked all them fishes and spaghetti that wasn’t like no spaghetti Nonna ever made, saying it was so I could celebrate La Vigilia. I said we don’t do that and we eat ham, and she ’bout cried, so I lied and said I was joking. Then I choked down two plates of her shitty homemade spaghetti and Benny laughed at me later when I was throwing it up.

“Hi, Mrs. Engel.”

“How are you, Annunziata?” Benny’s dad asked. He squeezed my shoulder but he didn’t touch Benny. Like I said, Benny don’t like being touched.

They was 40-something, wearing silk like they was going out somewhere even though they was probably staying in, and Mrs. Engel had skin like a 20­-year-­old. Mr. Engel was blond and pale, and I guess pretty normal.

“I’m fine, thank you. Is it okay to stop by?” It’s almost another language when you’re speaking to them, like Italian or Shakespeare or whatever. They look all worried when I start to talk like I do with my brothers, so I talk the way they want. Makes ’em feel like they helped me or something. Benny don’t care how I say things, just what I say. Makes it hard to bullshit him.

“It’s always okay!” Mrs. Engel told me. She gave me a hug. Her perfume smelled real good, and if I’m ever rich like her, I want to smell like that. She picked a thread off of my shirt and pressed her lips together. “You certainly are rough on your clothes. When I was out shopping today, though, I found you some really cute skirts and blouses. I hope you don’t mind!”

I looked at Benny, and his eyes was frostier than normal. “Mom,” he said in a low voice.

“Oh, she doesn’t mind, does she?”

“Thank you,” I mumbled. She likes buying me clothes, but I always gotta rip the labels out and scuff ’em up. Ain’t no one gonna jump Benny, but me—they’d cut up my face and steal my shoes like they done to Sheena Watkins if they thought I was acting better than I am.

“Are you staying for dinner, dear?” Mrs. Engel asked. Mr. Engel didn’t say nothing; Benny says he learned not to say nothing around women a long time ago. He got real good at smiling.

“We just came for a snack, Mother.” Benny was staring ’em down, and if I ever looked at my parents that way, they’d lock me in a closet.

“Well, there’s cake in the kitchen if you want.”

“Yes, thanks, Susan.”

“Anything going on?” Mrs. Engel was smiling at Benny, looking like a desperate junkie, just waiting for him to say, “Yeah, I’ve got the dope.” And she wanted him to give her something so bad, and you could see it, like she was wanting to get baked bad on what he had, but he was saying, “No deal, keep your money. I already made bank off of some eighth grader.”

I looked at my beat-up Reeboks, feeling that kinda hot-box shame ’til his parents was gone.

When they was, I looked at Benny again, and all I could think was how that space between his dark eyebrows was furrowed.

After that, we talked about the plant every day. Benny would ask me to take him to it, and he’d walk all ’round it and take notes and make little pictures that he’d only show me half of. I knew what he was planning, but I never said. I didn’t think it was a good idea, ’cause it made my guts clench up. But I liked watching him concentrate and look at the plant with his frosted eyes.

One day, we was at it all afternoon, then we went to my house to get some water.

My brother Lorenzo was sitting on the couch doing his math, bent over it all careful. He’s 15 but he does a college calculus class, and even though he’s failing English, Stanford’s gonna take him for free ’cause of some project he did. Mamma and Papi’s proud of him, ’cause he ain’t gonna have to haul garbage like Angelo and he ain’t a girl like me.

Celestina was sitting next to him, looking like she was trying to steal a watermelon by hiding it under her shirt. Her dad, this fat Puerto Rican, was gonna shoot Lorenzo, and then him and Papi got into a fight in the park and got arrested, but now they friends ’cause Lorenzo’s gonna leave and be rich like Benny’s parents.

Hola, chica,” Celestina said. She didn’t say nothing to Benny, ’cause she hates him for being white and rich and cold. Most people just think my family’s Mexican, ’cause Sicilians are so dark.

“Hi,” I mumbled, heading for the kitchen.

Angelo came in and pulled my hair. “Hey, runt. Hey, Benny.”

“Ow! Fuck off!” I cried, rubbing my scalp. “What do you want?”

“Some serious shit’s gonna go down this week, okay, Bambolina?” He pinched my cheek and thought he was being nice, but it left a bruise. His voice was kinda joking, but his eyes was dead serious.

“Yeah, get lost,” I said. “And don’t call me that.” He tweaked my nose hard and I swiped at him with my fist.

“Quit it,” Lorenzo snapped. “Leave Annie alone, and shut up while you’re at it. I’m doing homework.”

Hai qualche problema? Ti prendo a sberle …” Nonna sounded real pissed from her bedroom, so we all shut the Hell up. She’s old, but she can hit hard. One time, she even smacked Benny for looking at her the way he looks at his parents.

“Why you gotta be that way?” I whispered to Angelo.

“What’s wrong? Don’t want to look bad in front of Benny?” He was smiling, but it was a mean smile.

“Shut up.”

“Aw, he your boyfriend now?”

My face was red. “He ain’t!” I thought of the Siamese twins.

Angelo looked at Benny seriously. His eyes are hot whiskey, and Benny couldn’t freeze ’em. “You better not be. Annie ain’t a stupid, fat slut like the other girls in our building, you got it?”

There’s me, Fran Goldstein, Maria Sánchez Castro, and Cassy López de Victoria, and I’m the only one who ain’t been knocked up before. I also ain’t never been alone with a boy. I was always alone with Benny, but I ain’t been alone with him. We ain’t like that. I ain’t like that.

“I seem to have a higher opinion of her than you do, Angelo.” His voice froze the worm in my guts; it was getting hypothermia.

“Shit, listen to this motherfucker, acting all tough.” Angelo pulled on the bill of his baseball cap, tugging it down towards his eyebrows. He always does that when he wants to look tough.

“I don’t have an Oedipus complex.”

Angelo stared at him and I giggled.

“What? What you laughin’ at?” Angelo was pissed.

“Shit, ’cause Oedipus slept with his mom, and Benny don’t—so he ain’t a motherfucker,” I said, giggling more. Benny smiled, barely.

Angelo turned red and I thought he was gonna be the first kid to lay a hand on Benny. I couldn’t let that happen, so I threw my body into his. Me and him went down, sister on top of brother, and I said, “No, ya don’t!”

Angelo cried out ’cause I slipped and my knee went into his crotch.

“Hey! Dai!” Lorenzo yelled, jumping up and sending Celestina into a disgruntled stream of Spanish. He picked me up easy—he was only two years older, but I was little for my age—and clamped his hand over my mouth. “Both of ya! Shut up unless you wanna wake up Nonna again!”

“What the fuck?” The voice was hotter than Angelo’s eyes. We all stopped what we was doing and turned at once to look at Papi, standing in the door, his jumpsuit dirty and stinking, his white hair a cloud floating ’round his mountainous, dark face.

“We was just playing, Papi,” Lorenzo assured him.

“You two—go home.” Celestina stood up and waddled to the door, but Benny hesitated where he was. He looked at me.

“See you tomorrow,” I told him stiffly from Lorenzo’s arms, and he left, looking like he didn’t wanna go.

It was like always, you know. We was bad, so Papi smacked us all good, and I bit him like I usually do, so I got an extra smack.

“You’ll learn to love your brothers!” he yelled, swearing and hopping to one side like the black tiles in the kitchen was lava and the white ones was safe. He shook his hand ’cause it was bleeding and had teeth marks in it.

“I love ’em!” I yelled, shocked. Shit, just ’cause you hit your brother in the privates don’t mean you don’t love him.

He didn’t believe me, ’cause he knocked my head against the icebox and sent us to bed without dinner. On the way, Angelo pinched my cheek in the same bruised spot.

“Hear that back there? Annie say she loves us.” Angelo was grinning. I took a swipe at him and Lorenzo grabbed my hand.

Hey, hey!” Lorenzo whispered. “Dai, dai!”

“Shit, who put you in charge?” Angelo reached for his hat, but Lorenzo took it first. His hand fell, empty.

“You wanna get knocked in the face again?” Lorenzo asked, staring us both down.

“Fuck, whatever,” Angelo muttered. He was older than Lorenzo, but he acted younger. He touched his head like he didn’t know what to do, and then smacked me on the cheek, and I would’ve hit him ’cept Lorenzo was still holding onto me. Lorenzo always gotta get in the way.

They went to their room and I went and climbed into bed with Nonna.

When I was staring at the acid­washed Jesus and the Mussolini, I was thinking. Both their faces was pale in the dark, lit by the votive burning under Jesus, and I decided I wanted to be like Mussolini, not Jesus. He never would’ve let no one smack him in his mouth for nothing. What’d Jesus get for listening to His Dad? His eyes was looking at me, gentle and loving in that awful face, and saying, “No, Annunziata,” but my lip was fat and stinging and there was dried blood in my hair, so I decided that was it. No more.

I rolled over and saw Angelo climbing down the fire escape. We was staring at each other, then he pulled down the bill of his Yankees cap and put his finger against his mouth. It wasn’t the first time I saw him do it, but it was the first time I saw something tucked in the front of his sagging pants. My guts squirmed and I just kept staring until he left.

Angelo wasn’t like Jesus or Mussolini; he wasn’t no one.

The next day, I went and got Benny. Took me a while to walk down there, so I had to leave before ten. My teachers never looked for me before class, ’cause they trust me to be in class or doing something for a teacher, but they were wrong for once. I was leaving through the front doors when Lorenzo caught me.

“Hey, where you going?”


“Annie, you don’t cut.” He was holding a pink backpack with a heart on the end of the zipper. I looked for Celestina, and she was coming out of the bathroom with fresh lip gloss on. She waddled over.

“I gotta go see someone.” If it was Angelo, I would’ve just left, or maybe kicked him and left.

“Only person you go see is Benny, Chica.” Celestina rubbed her belly.

“You ain’t going to class, are you?” Lorenzo looked kinda pissed, but only ’cause he was holding a pink backpack and he knew I was gonna leave after he did, and he couldn’t do nothing ’bout either thing.

“I ain’t.” I stuck my chin out so he knew I meant it.

Some older kid in the ninth grade pushed past me, laughing and pulling up his falling pants as he went out the door with his friends. I went after them, and I heard Lorenzo’s “Dai!” at my back.

I don’t have no money to waste on a bus, so I got there just when his class was getting out. I never saw so many kids looking like Mormons in my whole life. When Benny came out of that school that looked like a church, he was talking with some other kids, and he was laughing.

For some reason, I never thought Benny had no other friends, and it made me feel funny, like I either had to run up and grab Benny or run away. I was mad, sorta, but not like when Angelo pinches me, mad like maybe I wanted to cry, ’cept I ain’t the type for crying and I couldn’t make myself move, so I just stood there.

Benny didn’t really look surprised or nothing when he saw me. He just raised a dark eyebrow and said, “Annie, you must have walked a long way.”

His friends looked at me. This one girl smiled nice and friendly and so did this fat kid, but there was another boy who laughed when he saw me. I was pissed, but I just glared.

“I’m going home,” Benny told them, and without saying no more goodbyes than that, he started to walk and I walked with him. He glanced at me, like he knew something. “They aren’t my friends.”

It don’t matter if they was his friends, ’cause as soon as we got back to the plant, there wasn’t no one else that mattered anyway.

“I noticed it was glowing this morning,” I told him helpfully, and soon as I said it, he looked at it like he noticed for the first time. It don’t shed no light exactly, but it just looked bright from the inside, so you could see all the veins and little white hairs. When we touched it, it was warm, and Benny examined it as careful as always, pressing against it ’til we could see the bones in his fingers.

I didn’t go home ’til late, and Nonna and Papi was swearing ’bout how Angelo wasn’t there, and Mamma was on her knees with a rosary, which is how she spent most of her free time, seemed like.

“One of you better know where he is!” Papi screamed at us. He slammed his fist on the table, then yelled ’cause it was the hand where I bit him. I laughed at him, so I didn’t get no dinner again.

I went to bed early and didn’t have nothing to look at ’cept my old roommates. I told Mussolini not to worry, ’cause I didn’t forget. That Jesus looked sadder than ever.

Today, I say to Benny, “We gonna climb it.”

“What? Annie, do you really think we should?” He’s surprised and I feel proud. I know he’s been wanting to do it all along, but he was waiting for me.

“Yeah. Look: people can’t see it, so if we’re on it, they shouldn’t see us.” I’m sure. There’s nothing I want more than for Benny and me to be the only two people who can see each other. Just for a while.

He touches my mouth right where it’s split, right where nothing but a film of dry blood’s holding it together, and it hurts, but it’s so good. He never touches no one, and I’m ready to confess my whole heart to him and run away with him to get married and join a circus where he’ll be a lion tamer and I’ll be a trick rider. I never saw a real horse, but I know I’d be a natural.

But he turns away to look at the plant.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll go first, and if it seems okay, I’ll come down in a few minutes and get you.”

I nod, but I’m sorta worried ’bout Benny going up by himself. He’s pretty and soft, and if there’s a giant up there, it’s gonna tear off his head. But then he looks at me, smiles. Ain’t no way no one could ever rip his head off, not even Mussolini. He just gotta look at ’em with them eyes, and they won’t be able to do nothing to him, like the rest of the people he meets.

I ask him if he needs a boost, but he looks offended and wraps his arms ’round the plant, one foot on a shoot thick as Angelo’s bicep. Then he goes up.

I watch him go up and up ’til he’s in the clouds, and then I watch for an hour. Two. Three. I sit down in the street, my back against the plant. Four.

It starts getting dark, and my guts feel wiggly. There’s something wrong. I stand up, look up and down and left and right. No Benny, but Angelo’s running at me like his ass is on fire.

“Annie!” He plows me over, knocks me down so hard that my skull cracks and echoes in my brain. He’s on top of me, holding me down, and someone’s shooting a gun. I’m afraid, but my skull’s still echoing, squishing against my brain, and I can’t say nothing.

“Annie, fuck! Annie, I told ya, I told ya!” The sound rattles my brain, squish, knocking it free, a memory oozing out from a big vein: Some serious shit’s gonna go down this week. The bruise on my cheek aches where Angelo pinched me.

“Benny,” I whimper.

“Fuck, Benny’s here too?” Angelo gets up and raises his gun, looking ’round.

“Why you here?” I wanna know.

“Them fucking niggers are in our neighborhood, so me and the other—”

“Stop!” I cry, closing my eyes real tight. This ain’t how it’s supposed to be, and all I can do is lay there under Angelo when the guns go off again. Somewhere, some boys are yelling.

Where’s Benny?” Angelo screams, his nose pressed into my cheek, his breath and spit on my face, in my mouth. When I can see his eyes again, they’re hotter than I ever saw before.

My eyes roll back, looking up at the sky, and Angelo looks up too. He smashes his hand against my mouth and it tastes like salt and dirty metal. I gag and gasp on his fingers, and when he shoots the gun, I feel the impact through his body on mine.

I look up, searching for Benny, wanting him to stay wherever he is, and try to tell someone that I’m sorry for wanting to be Mussolini when Angelo gets his hand out of my mouth. I cough and almost puke.

“Shut the fuck up, Annie! You wanna die?” Angelo shoots again, rocking my whole body.

From my back, I see Benny falling fast, a bright light out of the clouds. Soaring down, he’s Lucifer, the most beautiful thing I ever saw, and tears leak from my eyes. He gathers speed, like a comet, and then stops above the ground. He’s wearing the moon on his beautiful white forehead and there’s stars in his hair. I’m crying.

Angelo yells and drops to the asphalt. Blood sprays silver out of Benny’s chest, onto my face and lips. I scream, leap up and crawl over to where he’s laying, my head near exploding from trying,

His blood’s turning red, now black.

“Annie,” he breathes, silver and black and red all spilling out of his mouth.

“No, Benny,” I mouth, and he touches my cheek. I’m screaming and my heart’s dying in my chest with every ragged breath he sucks in.

He closes his eyes and don’t move, and I try to push them open. He ain’t glowing no more, the plant ain’t glowing no more. He flickers like the broken light in the school gym, and dies.

I stand up, lost, looking for the plant ’cause I know it’s gonna help, but it ain’t there. I run over to where it was, hands raised upward, but I don’t see nothing. I fall down and crack my knees on the pavement, scraping at the asphalt with my nails, but it ain’t there.

Dai, Annie!” I look up in time to see Lorenzo take a bullet in the arm for me. I dunno when he got here. Why he don’t stay inside? He crumples on the ground like a used grocery bag and I crawl over to him. I hold his head and he cries in my lap, ’cause we both see it in the sky, I know we do: Jesus and Mussolini are taunting me, God’s Son riding by on a circus horse, and Il Duce cracking a whip at a lion.

Copyright © 2015 Alicia Cusano-Weissenbach