The summer of ‘87 was a nightmare. New York and the whole East Coast was suffering under a terrible heat wave and it wasn't even June yet.
The stiletto heels of the Upper East Side Princesses got stuck in the melting tarmac on Park Avenue, old people in residence houses in Morningside Heights died from heat strokes and the transport to Staten Island, Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan collapsed for almost a day when traffic on Verrazano, Brooklyn Bridge and in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel simultaneously came to a complete standstill due to several cars and trucks that had broken down with overheated engines and were blocking the lanes in both directions.
While everyone complained and fled to the beaches, the shady groves in Central Park or occupied any available public location with functioning AC or at least a spot on a kitchen chair in front of the opened fridge before electricity broke down again from general overload, fifteen-year-old Lincoln and his younger brother Michael thrived in the heat like two exotic flowers. Their volatile, austere life had taught them to adapt easily and deal with any obstacles. So they had moved the big mattress in a joint effort over the fire escape up onto the flat rooftop of No. 34, Ivy Street and spent the last two weeks sleeping almost naked under the stars. During the day they drank in every molecule of ozone, absorbed every ray of sunshine and collected every bit of warmth like little solar cells, subconsciously trying to harvest as much as possible, well knowing that the next cruel winter with expensive heating costs would come way too soon.
Lincoln still vividly remembered last year's extreme cold snap between December 20th and Epiphany when he and Michael hadn't left the bed except for work, urgent hygienic matters and some food. Although desperately trying, Linc had failed in making enough money to pay off at least one rate of their outstanding energy bills. The company had promptly reacted and consequently the temperature in their small one-room flat had been so low that their breath had constantly billowed out in front of their mouths like white smoke.
Mr Bink from Apartment 3B had given them two spare blankets and old Mrs Janovitch from 1C unravelled all her son's old woollen sweaters and surprised the boys on Christmas Day with a set of hand-knitted scarves, caps, mittens and a pair of thick, scratchy socks. At first Linc had intended to flat-out refuse to wear the ugly and mouthball-reeking gifts but Michael's reproachful glance and the fact that he couldn't even utter his aversion due to the violent chatter of his teeth had finally made him cave. They had survived the holidays on peppermint tea, cookies and canned tomato soup, curled around each other at night under an insulating protection of duvets and clothes piled over their shivering bodies in what Michael had called their little ‘cocoon of warmth '.
The eleven-year-old had importantly informed Lincoln about an old survival trick of mountaineers trapped in a snow storm - Mike had been reading a lot from the adventure section of the Brooklyn Public Library at that time - and so Linc had grudgingly followed his brother's example by stripping down to his boxers and Mrs Janovitch's woollen socks before he'd joined Michael underneath the pile of sheets and blankets, pulling them over their heads. Soon enough their little cave had been filled with wonderful, luxurious warmth and although Linc didn't admit it he soon indulged in the intimacy and assuring, soothing atmosphere of serenity in their survival iglu and only left it every morning - stepping outside into the biting cold for a few hours to make some precious bucks for each snow-cleared house entrance and pavement in Prospect Heights - with great reluctance.
Michael was too kind to tease his brother about it and generously allowed Linc with increasing frequency to delay the moment he had to rise and leave. All Lincoln had to do every morning was snuggle up against Michael, cuddle his drowsy, skinny frame that was always smelling deliciously of sleep and faint traces of Mrs Janovitch's cinnamon cookies and ask his younger sibling about his dreams. Michael remembered all of them and enthusiastically regaled Lincoln with fantastic tales of heroic quests, exotic places and fights against wild, scary beasts or evil oppressors. It was always well past noon when Linc finally left their comfy refuge and hastily put on his stiff and cold clothes. The last image, that kept his insides strangely warm in the grim cold, one of Michael: waving and grinning at him from beneath the blankets with tousled hair, shining eyes and a beatific smile on his pretty, little face.
Lying on his back and gazing up at the velvety beauty of the summer night sky Lincoln thought that their cocoon of warmth had lately spread wide around them - like a benevolent, ink-blue globe instead of dusty blankets - and now included Brooklyn and the East River before it settled a good deal behind the twinkling Manhattan skyline. Smiling he looked down at the prone figure next to him. As usual Michael's scrawny frame was occupying at least two-thirds of the mattress, his arms and legs flung about. His naked body, brown and smooth like a coffee bean, was clad in nothing but a blue pair of briefs with a red Spiderman logo on the crotch.
Lincoln decided then and there to buy his little brother some decent boxer shorts tomorrow. It was embarrassing enough that Michael refused to part with his beloved Looney Tunes swim shorts. Linc still blushed remembering Veronica Donovan's cascading laughter at the public pool last week when she'd seen Michael's attire. He had wanted to give his sibling a good spanking for humiliating him in front of a girl that he liked but in the end it had bought him the first proper conversation with Vee and that had made him forgive Mike instantly.
As if sensing his thoughts, Michael stirred and snuggled up closer to Lincoln despite the heat, tossing one lanky arm across his brother's bare chest. For a moment Linc's impulse was to push Michael away but instead he touched him, gently caressing the warm, slightly damp skin with his fingertips. What would it be like lying up here with Veronica Donovan at night, her arm flung across his body in a gesture of subtle ownership? What would she look like, sleeping naked next to him? Would her wrist be as delicate as Michael's? Her hand as graceful? Would her skin be equally soft and have that intoxicating smell of sleep and sun and serenity? So far Michael was the only person Lincoln had ever shared a bed with. He had no recollection of their mother, although there must have been times when he had cuddled up in bed next to her, watching her feed the baby. But his memories were only vague and those days seemed to have happened an eternity ago.
After mom's death Linc had quickly taken over the role of guardian and parent for his brother, who was four years younger. They had been in several orphanages and foster families with variable success until Lincoln had met a new social worker in Foster Care, responsible for their case. Mrs Resvik had supported the brothers, found them a savvy and dedicated pro bono lawyer who had argued Lincoln's case of independent living and legal guardianship for his younger brother through all authorities until they had finally succeeded and Lincoln had become Michael's guardian at the age of fifteen. Mrs Resvik's last good deed before she had died in a car accident had been finding a small, affordable flat for the brothers in Prospect Heights, so that Mike wouldn't have to switch schools again and could keep up his excellent grades.
Linc had already been struggling to successfully finish 9th grade. Juggling several jobs now to earn money and increase the mediocre benefits for Michael he missed his sophomore classes more and more frequently. Every morning before school he cycled over to Manhattan on his old bike to work the early morning shift in the MePa district, unloading meat from the delivery vans at 5am. On the weekends he worked at Fulton's Fish Market and during the last summer season he had booked several part-time construction gigs he worked on in the afternoons on a rotating basis and for which he'd had high hopes to continue them well into winter with painter and carpenter jobs.
Soon enough his physique had improved impressively while his grades had dropped dramatically and after witnessing another discussion between his brother and the school principal about Linc's grades and his attendance record, Michael had interfered with a vigor no one would expect to find in a skinny little eleven-year-old boy.
One evening after Lincoln had returned from work for Craye Carpenters Ltd. Michael had stated that he was old enough to contribute to their household, too, and with a proud gleam in his eyes informed Lincoln that he had convinced Mr Giordano, the grumpy Italian expatriate from the local groceries and deli store down on Rose Avenue, to hire him as a part-time shop assistant. Every morning before school Michael would check the delivery lists, sweep the pavement in front of the store, clean the shop window and displays inside and help Mrs Giordano to set up her flower stall outside. After school he would sort and arrange the cans in the shop, pack bags for the customers and do home deliveries. His most important duty when business was quiet would be to read Mr Giordano the newspaper, entertain him with stories, school trivia or a game of chess - though never dare to beat him at it - and regularly take un latte macchiato or un bicchiere di limonata outside for Mrs Giordano and help her sell the flowers if she needed a break. In return he would be off the street, eat lunch with the old couple, get reduced prices for all shop items, damaged produce or outdated cans for free and his wage would be enough for Lincoln to afford dropping the meat packing job at dawn and instead attend his classes on time and after a good night's sleep.
Linc had been at a loss for words at Mike's thoughtful, adult attitude and had felt strangely embarrassed to notice the dazzling happiness illuminating Michael's face when he'd gratefully accepted. He couldn't understand why Mike was so happy to treat in his free time and the insouciance of childhood for the adult hardship of an employee.
Shortly after Michael's clear, young voice had been heard all the way down to Gibson Square, offering luxurious lilies, pretty peonies and ravishing roses to the delighted pedestrians on Rose Avenue. His boyish charm and courtesy paired with a quick-witted, literate mind and guileless attitude left people besotted with the little flower boy and brought Giordano's business to bloom and his mood to brighten. Sitting contentedly behind his till with Michael perched next to him on the wooden counter, reading him the New York Times with his articulate, pleasant tone, carefully repeating and explaining difficult phrases and vocabulary to the Italian, was soon a common sight at the store. While Mr Giordano worked the till and deli section, Michael stood on a stepladder and arranged the different cans and packages in neat and fascinating accuracy. His creative, varying displays of fruits and vegetables quickly became almost legendary - though sometimes sudden victims of gravity - and while packing their bags he entertained shoppers with tidbit stories like the origin of canned food, how the spaghetti had come to Italy or the first invention of a tampon by the ancient Egyptians, though that was usually the moment when Mr Giordano threw Michael a glaring look and decided it was time for the boy to step outside and Porta alcuni dolci a la Signora Giordano, adesso, rapido, Michelangelo!
Lincoln grinned. Michael's guileless innocence was almost legendary and he would do whatever he could to protect him and keep him that way for as long as he could. Grabbing Mike's hand he lifted it to his lips and pressed a tiny kiss against its palm before he rested both their hands over his own - steady and faithfully beating - heart, that was completely devoted to his little brother: snuggled close and trustily sleeping under the star-studded velvet of the summer night sky.