I tell the landlord I have a look-a-like brother down south who wears a straw hat and laughs with his mouth wide open like he’s trying to swallow up all the blue of the sky. He’s a man that takes all he can get, my brother. That’s what I’ve made him out to be.
We were once in the same womb. We listened—entwined and forming—to piping headphones our mother put up against her growing belly. Muffled through fluid, The Beatles’ Two of Us played because our mother was so literal. It’s a song about partners in crime, as if she wanted us to be petty delinquents. It worked on my brother. He refused to be born.
I tell the landlord about him because I don’t want him interrupting my date tonight, like he always does. Every evening, the landlord sits on the landing I pass to get to my apartment, waiting for someone to come talk to him. He’s in that rusted metal folding chair left over from some office in the ‘70’s with the door open to his apartment so he can hear the TV. I see the screen and it’s people driving fast through a desert, tires kicking up dirt into clouds. I name my brother Tex.
Because the landlord is a guy who uses the gripes of others as a crowbar to make room for his own, he tells me about his brother, who’s younger by three years and makes a lot of money up in Silicon Valley. He’s the one who actually owns the building and several more along the beachfront. I know this because he talks about him all the time. The landlord looks past me like he’s imagining his brother in the middle of Pico Boulevard, like that car from the desert is gonna leap right off the screen and crash into him.
I tell my landlord about my brother Tex’s successful ranch, how he’s running for mayor, how he co-created an app that analyzes the dirt and how he stiffed investors out of the profits. Tex has many beautiful girlfriends too. The landlord lifts himself up eye-to-eye with me. He’s open like a mouth waiting to be fed, because complaining of the undeserved successes of my pretend-brother, I might as well be talking about his own. There’s no way he’s going to come up to complain if Tex is there unless he comes up with a gun ready to be warmed.
Twins, huh? he says, and I reply, he almost suffocated me in there, but I got out first.
I’m trying to end the conversation, get up the stairs to get ready for Shaina but he keeps me captive, so I make Tex grow real into a mass of flaws and budding cracks. I talk about all his bad qualities, because he did exist once and even a twin never born would come out to do some sort of harm in this world.
I tell him Tex, who open-carries and never tips, looks exactly like me. I say there’s no way you could ever tell us apart. Except for that hat. I wanted us to look the same, be the same, but I’m spinning him and he grows into a rich asshole who had so many of the things I would never have and I am jealous of things you’re not supposed to be jealous of; people that walk over others to get higher on the chain, people that don’t exist, people I was born to love.
Shaina was on her way over. I thought I had a chance with her roommate, Debbie who was never there to answer the landline number she’d given me. Shania always picked up. After a walk on the pier, Shania left that stupid floppy cowboy hat on my bed—just tossed there—like that wasn’t the harbinger of the worst luck you could ever bring upon yourself. I flipped the hat off my sheets and it landed near my window, brim up, like a dead bug on its back. Now it belongs to my brother.
In the darkening evenings, when he was done sitting outside trying to catch all his tenants and returned to face his television alone, the landlord listened for reasons to come to our places. If I crossed the floor too heavy, he’d come up to bitch about the noise. I’ve stood there in fluttering boxers, telling him Top Chef made me hungry and I was sorry I just getting a snack and how I always wanted to be a chef but somehow I ended up a cook. He would say they’re the same thing and I told him no; one is eventual product lines, one is labor and kinked backs. I am a minimum wage chump, Tex is the chef. A farm-to-table restaurant right on the ranch visited by the ghost of James Beard himself.
I shower and I’m drying off next the sketch of the Beatles I’d done when I was sixteen. It’s been over every bed I’ve called my own since. George’s face hovers in the center. He’s the one that caused trouble. People are always hard to get right. The beard! The moustache! I’d erased it so many times, the paper grayed. On a clean sheet, I redrew his face and glued it over the one I’d blurred. I put a stack of books on top of him, suffocating him, so his skin wouldn’t wrinkle and pucker. You couldn’t even tell for the longest time but lately his face started peeling away from the one that was underneath.
There’s a knock. It must be Shaina. I hop into my jeans and grab her straw hat so I can look like Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise and we could do a little cosplay even if that means I steal all her stuff and disappear the next day. I loop into the bathroom and stick a hairdryer in my waistband like a gun, just like in the movie. Already practicing Pitt’s accent, I whisper, I might be an outlaw but you’re the one stealing my heart.
The knocking is quicker and harder like someone’s jerking off the door. I hear the landlord call my name. The bangs formulate a beat, a record sped up. I don’t know what I’ve done this time; a leak from the shower, the thud of my towel on the floor? He must think I’m still waiting for Tex to arrive and it’s safe to use his excuses to come talk, but he doesn’t understand his loneliness is so brined it becomes too salty to swallow over a tongue already burned by the stuff.
He keeps screaming my name and as I get closer I hear it more clearly. He’s calling for Tex. I open the door and the landlord stops knocking.
I somehow grow taller when I become Tex. Maybe it’s the hat. My hands are on my hips, my wrist nestling up against the hairdryer cradled in my pants. The landlord stands and mimics my pose and I see tucked into his waistband, a pistol. And for one moment, the doorway becomes a mirror.
Melissa Ragsly's work has appeared or forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Small Fictions, Iowa Review, Epiphany, Hobart, Joyland and other journals. She is an Associate Editor for A Public Space and a Program Coordinator at the Authors Guild. More can be found at melissaragsly.com Image: The Actor Nakamura Tomijuro as a Tall Woman in a Flat Straw Hat, Katsukawa Shunshō, 1778