My mind tried to close my left ear, which was filled with the messy noise of city traffic coming through the opened apartment window. My little brother, Georgie, plugged his ear with a finger. We stood in front of the bathroom door, our other ears pinned against the cheap wood, and listened to our Uncle Milo’s bowel movement.
Sweat was accumulating between my ear and the door. It was a hot July day, so Georgie and I had been out of school for a few weeks. The Fourth had come and gone with no fireworks or fun. We spent that summer before my seventh grade year in our apartment because our mom thought the neighborhood was going to hell. Drug dealers had made their way into the neighborhood that spring, after the city college built a dormitory for graduate students across the street. They started dealing to the M.B.A.s and Pre-Meds who were willing to drop their tuition money for a quick fix. They made a lot of money doing it, too.
Georgie and I were pissed about the whole thing, but we tried to make the best of it. Listening to Uncle Milo’s painful bowel movements was one of the many little adventures we created to pass the time. With our ears pressed to the door, we heard the toilet flush. The sounds of water being sloshed around the bowl and sucked into ancient pipes were familiar.
“That’s three,” Georgie said. “Three flushes. Jeez. Can you believe this, Mikey?”
I pulled my ear from the door and jabbed his shoulder with my fist. “Quiet,” I whispered. Being older than Georgie, I wanted to eavesdrop on Uncle Milo’s shit with a certain level of discretion.
Georgie drew his finger to his lips, promising to be quiet. I pressed his head against the door. I put my ear back and tried to refocus. The rattle of the toilet paper dispenser made me grin as another flush went through the pipes.
“That’s four,” Georgie giggled.
In the two weeks he had been staying with us in the apartment, Uncle Milo had never taken four flushes. He took three the day after the Fourth, when Mom’s “firecracker” potato salad razed through him like the Cardinals through Wrigley. But four flushes was unmarked territory. Muffled profanities grumbled through the door.
“What’d he say?” I whispered to Georgie.
Georgie turned to me and smiled. I heard the jingling sound of a brass belt buckle.
“Fuck these son of a bitch fissures,” Milo said before slapping the toilet lid closed.
The bathroom faucet ran—our signal to hit the couch, unmute the television, and act as if we hadn’t been listening. When Uncle Milo came out of the bathroom, Georgie laughed into a couch pillow.
“What are you laughing at?” Uncle Milo asked as he carefully lowered himself onto the couch in between me and Georgie. His receding hairline was damp with sweat, and his face flushed.
“Georgie was laughing at the TV,” I told him.
“Oh, yeah?” Uncle Milo said. He squinted to see the score of the Cubs game that was on. “Ten-three, Giants,” he read.
“Yeah,” Georgie said. “They’re really laying an egg.”
Milo grimaced as he shifted himself on the couch. Georgie planted his face back into the pillow.
A week before Milo moved in, our dad sat Georgie and I down to explain the situation. My dad made a big show about it, waiting until we were done with our homework and watching a rare Cubs night game. Milo had lost his job at the microchip factory that spring. Then, he lost his apartment.
“He’s my brother,” Dad told us. “He’s family. And we never turn our backs on family, right?”
Georgie and I mumbled our affirmatives. Dad rubbed our freshly-buzzed heads like we were dogs who didn’t piss on the carpet. “Good boys,” he said. He tossed the remote back to us and went into the bedroom.
I really didn’t care that Milo was moving in. And Georgie, who flicked the TV back on, was too big of a Cubs fan to care about anything while a game was playing. I leaned back on the couch and glanced at Mom, who stood with locked arms next to the TV. She hadn’t said a word while Dad made his speech.
I knew she didn’t like Uncle Milo. I never heard her say anything bad about him, but every time she was around him, she seemed uncomfortable. I liked Milo. He was always nice to me. Mom, though, was a different person. A focused person. Grocery shopping and checkbook-balancing were serious missions to her. Planning dinners weeks in advanced, calendaring every birthday, and itemizing every chore list were essential to keep the machine that was our family running smoothly. Milo was the opposite. He was messy and unmotivated. He didn’t take care of himself, and every time we saw him, he was around to ask Dad for money.
He ran away often, from one dead-end job to the next, one low-rent district to another. “You win some, you lose some,” he had told me once, which, even then, sounded like an excuse for all the failures he had carved out his life. That summer, he finally ran into the last corner he could find. Unfortunately for my mom, life knocked him down and out, onto our hideaway bed.
“I can’t eat this,” Milo said.
Georgie and I were at the kitchen table with him and Dad. We knew to look down at our dinners. Mom ignored Milo completely and continued to fix her plate in front of the stove.
“What’s wrong?” Dad asked Milo.
“I can’t eat potatoes,” Milo said. “Or carrots.”
“Why?” Georgie asked.
“Yeah,” Mom said with her back turned. “Why?”
“She knows why,” Milo said to Dad as sweat started to bead on his forehead.
Dad peered at Georgie and me. “Drop it,” he told Milo.
“I can’t eat this,” Milo repeated. “These potatoes just sit in me like lead weights.” What about peas, beans, or brown rice?” He raised the volume of his voice. “I put them on the grocery list like you asked, Nina.”
Mom planted her plate on the countertop and turned to Milo. She held up a spoon covered with mashed potatoes and pointed it at him. Before she said anything, though, she looked at Georgie. His fingers were over his lips, trying to shush her.
A dollop of potatoes fell to the kitchen floor.
Milo wiped his brow. “I’m just saying,” he said. “I guess I’ll just wait for the roast.”
Mom turned back to the stove and dropped the spoon into a pot. Dad grabbed his napkin, crouched, and wiped the dollop of potatoes off the floor. “We’re just budgeting, Milo,” he said. “You know?”
Mom slipped over to the sink and started the tap.
“Hey,” Milo said. “I get it, little brother. You don’t have to tell me about it. I’m just thinking about my problem.” He twisted on his seat and grimaced. “It’s hard for me, too.”
“I know,” Dad said. “And I’m sorry. We’ll work things out so everybody will be happy. This is still all new to us. You’ve only been here two weeks. It’ll get better.”
Mom leaned over the rushing faucet and struggled to lift the kitchen window. The muscles in her bare arm swelled. She desperately wanted that window open. As soon as she succeeded, the messy sound of traffic came into the kitchen. She took a deep breath and exhaled it into the humid night. Dad went over to her and rubbed her back. She twisted her shoulders and retreated back to the stove. Standing alone, Dad threw his napkin into the sink and turned off the faucet.
Milo fiddled around with the carrots and potatoes on his plate. “It’s fine,” he said. He shoved a thick clot of potatoes into his mouth. “I guess they’re all vegetables.”
The five of us remained silent until the roast was ready. The traffic coming through the window filled the void until the egg timer pealed.
“Damn it,” Mom said as she pulled the burnt roast from the oven and threw the pan onto an empty stove burner. “This oven’s a piece of junk. It’s no good. We need to get a new one.”
Milo cleared his throat. “You know, Nina,” he said. “This is just an olive branch, but I can go down to the super’s tomorrow and see what he can do.”
Georgie looked at Milo, so he covered his lips again and shook his head.
“We’ve tried that, already,” Dad said. “He’s tinkered with it so many times.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s too cheap to buy us a new one. He thinks this one’s still good. We’re saving up for a new one, though. A good one.”
“Does he know about that?” Milo asked.
“No,” I answered. “Dad says we could get in trouble if we get a new one. Besides, we’re not that close to affording it.”
“Michael!” my mother commanded.
“That’s bull,” Milo said. “It’s his piece of junk. He should replace it. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, Nina. I will. This guy doesn’t sound like he could screw a light bulb into his butt.”
Mom bowed her head. “It’s not necessary, Milo.”
“Bull,” Milo yelled over the rising din of traffic outside. “This guy’s a flake, and you’re good tenets. He should treat you better. You should get a new oven, nor should you pay a dime for it. My buddy will install it. Free.”
Mom turned. A thin string of sweat had run down the side of her tan cheek and left a stain. “Seriously,” she told Milo. “Don’t.”
“Are you sure?” Milo asked, wiping his brow again.
My dad closed the kitchen window.
“Yeah,” Mom said before turning back to the stove. She poked at the burnt roast with a fork. “You’ll probably just screw it up anyway.”
After saying that, she looked to the closed window.
“Damn it,” she whispered.
July came and went with nothing to show for it but ear-shaped sweat stains against the bathroom door. August was even hotter. The pretty lady on the local news—the one with the big hair, bright red lipstick, and shoulder-padded jackets—announced a heat alert every day that month. The mayor’s office gave vouchers for electric fans to low-income citizens. We got two, thanks to Milo, but the fans just circulated hot air.
Georgie and I didn’t mind the heat after a while. In fact, we wanted to feel more of it. We were stuck in the apartment all day. We wanted to go outside, to sweat and melt in the wave—to see those ripples of heat that dance up from the concrete like charmed cobras—to get lost in games of stickball. We wanted to escape.
I usually spent my days looking out of the living room window, three stories up, my ass on fire from sitting on the radiator’s sun-cooked metal. At the end of July, my parents decided that cable was an expense not worth paying, so sitting at the window was my television. I had to make the most of it.
The sound of angry car horns kept me from hearing Uncle Milo’s flush pass through the pipes, but Georgie was up against the bathroom door and ready to give the report.
“That’s three,” he whispered to me across the room. “Three.”
Milo was doing badly. At the end of July, he had stopped looking for a job. He just spent his days in the bathroom and his nights around the neighborhood, trying to cut-up with the city college coeds.
I could hear Georgie giggling outside the bathroom, but I wasn’t listening. I was watching another episode of “Mr. Chin and the Man in Black,” my own personal television show. Mr. Chin was a young Asian guy who lived in the dormitory across the street. Truth be told, Mr. Chin wasn’t his real name—at least I wasn’t certain about it. He looked like a decent guy. He dressed nice: khaki pants and button-ups like the ones my dad wore, plus he had a thick head of black hair parted on one side.
From my window, I watched him hurry to his corner, where he minded the crosswalk signal with an impatience that sucked his ass into his hips and made him look constipated. When the signal came, he crossed to my side in an awkward, walk-run style you see from those goofy Chicago Marathoners who were too old to really beat the pavement. On the corner, he hovered outside the drugstore, checking his watch every thirty seconds and tugging the windbreaker wrapped around his waist, waiting for The Man in Black.
The Man in Black was a drug dealer. A shady guy with pale white skin and greasy hair that that was braided into a ponytail, he was bad news made worse by the creepy black-leather trench coat he wore all summer long.
It was hard to imagine Mr. Chin, a seemingly clean-cut kid, getting involved with a character like The Man in Black. It made my lips dry. The two dealt in broad daylight, trying to be sly and unassuming, like they were perfect strangers who just happened to strike up a pleasant conversation on the corner, though Mr. Chin was always bopping around, a nervous wreck. After the exchange, they would go their separate ways. Mr. Chin would rush back up to his room, probably to get his high. The Man in Black would pocket the easy money and disappear around the corner, walking with a swagger and wearing that ugly leather trench coat like it was a superhero’s cape.
“Mikey,” Georgie said, tugging on my t-shirt. “Milo’s on four!”
I ripped my sleeve from his grip. “Get off me.”
“But he’s on four,” Georgie said.
“So what?” I said. “Grow up.”
I had gotten sick of eavesdropping on Uncle Milo. After my birthday, at the beginning of the month, I started having second thoughts about everything I did. I tried thinking like my mom, asking myself what an adult would do. Listening to someone else’s bowel movements wasn’t on that list.
Georgie and I weren’t talking as much as we used to, either. He wasn’t my brother anymore, but rather he was my little brother. And I made sure he knew the difference.
“Just get away from me, Georgie,” I said.
He shrugged me off and went into our room. A minute later, he came out with the ratty old handheld tape recorder Milo gave him for my birthday. It was funny how he got a pawn shop tape recorder for my birthday while I got a shitty attitude.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Georgie put his finger to his lips to keep me quiet. He pushed a red button on the recorder and set the handheld behind a yellowing potted plant by the bathroom door.
“Grow up,” I said again while closing the window. I said a quiet goodbye to Mr. Chin.
Georgie turned his head to me and pouted. Milo’s fifth flush sloshed around the bowl until it was sucked under. I could hear the strain in the old pipes trying to bear the load.
Georgie’s body cringed. He got off his knees and tiptoed to me. “Why doesn’t he go to the doctor?”
“He can’t afford it,” I said.
Georgie thought about it for a moment, and then smiled. “I guess that’s good,” he said. “I mean, what’s he supposed to say? Hey Doc, I can’t shit right? Fix me?”
I laughed, then caught myself and stopped.
Georgie’s eyes lit up when he saw my grin. “That’s what he’ll say,” he chuckled. “Doc, I can’t shit. My sister-in-law’s food sucks and I can’t shit right. Help me, Doc. Help me shit good.”
“Shut up,” I told him. I punched him hard in the shoulder. The happiness in his eyes faded. He ran into our bedroom and slammed the door.
“What the fuck?” Milo yelled after hearing the noise. He closed the toilet lid, ran the bathroom faucet, and came out pinching his red nose. “What was that?”
I shrugged my shoulders, too horrified by his sweating face and wide eyes to speak.
In bed that night, I thought about what I had become. With Georgie in the bed next to mine, his back turned to me, I felt alone. In my mind, I was buried in the crack that lay between two worlds. That whole summer, I couldn’t wait to be thirteen. I thought I’d be more mature, more reasonable about things—things I told myself Georgie couldn’t understand. As I blew out the candles to the birthday cake I never wanted, I blew away the idea that I could spin my problems to the nearest warm body. That was weak, I told myself—a child’s trick. I was thirteen. I could handle my own problems.
I had jumped the gun.
Fortunately, Uncle Milo derailed my lament when he knocked on the door and then entered before getting permission. Light from the living room slipped over our beds, then disappeared. Georgie, hearing the creaks and strains, turned and saw Milo sitting at the corner of my bed. His weight caused my legs to fall into the slump he had created. He reeked of sweat and alcohol.
“Your parents are talking out there,” he whispered to us. “I can’t go to bed yet. I’ll give them time to talk.”
“Okay,” I said, putting my hand under my nose.
“Shhhh,” Georgie told me.
Milo looked at me, and then rubbed his own nose. Though it was dark, I could see the electricity in his eyes. He seemed nervous, wired wrong. “Were you asleep, Georgie?” he asked.
“No, Uncle Milo,” Georgie said. “What are Mom and Dad talking about?”
“Grown up stuff,” Milo said. “It’s hard to explain. You guys try to go to sleep.”
I could hear shouting coming from the kitchen.
“We shouldn’t listen,” I said.
I climbed out of bed and opened our window. We listened to the college kids across the street, the ones smoking and laughing outside the dormitory.
Milo shook his head. “You kids,” he said. “You don’t know how lucky you got it. You get your summers off to be kids. To have fun, shoot the shit. Grown-ups, well, we gotta work. Put food on the table. Bills. No time for fun.”
I wanted to ask Milo what he had done that summer. He wasn’t working and he certainly wasn’t paying any bills. He was just another mouth to feed. He was another four dollars in laundry. He was driving everybody around him crazy. I wanted to say it all. I didn’t.
“Hey, Milo,” Georgie whispered. “Do you know what kind of grownup stuff they’re talking about?”
The outline of Milo’s shoulders shrugged. “Don’t know,” he whispered. “But don’t worry about it. Just sleep. Dream about the Cubbies.”
“Yeah,” I whispered. “Have a nightmare.”
Georgie lay down on his pillow and crossed his hands behind his head. “I’ll know what they’re talking about,” he said. “I’ll know everything.”
The sun was out again. With my face in front of an electric fan, I imagined myself flying. I was at thirty thousand feet, splitting clouds in half and breaking the sound barrier like an F-16. I had tried to curb these childish fantasies, but being cooped up in that sticky apartment, amid the record-breaking August heat wave, I had to find some way to make myself free. I wanted August to be over. I yearned for Labor Day. Actually, I yearned for school. School meant air conditioning. School would get me out of the apartment.
Uncle Milo was looking for a clean plate in the dishwasher. He was always nervous those days, always sweating. “Doesn’t your mom wash these things?” he asked.
I turned the fan off. “She didn’t have time. She had to leave early today.”
“She should load it up at night,” he said. “That way, she can start it before she goes to work. Then we’d have clean dishes to use.”
As he bent down to examine the other dishes in the washer, he clutched one side of his ass. His movement had gotten worse over the summer. His walk was more of a waddle, and he had trouble bending over and picking up things. Just picking up after himself—whenever he actually did that—left him red with pain and short of breath.
“You can clean them,” I said. “Just set the dial and push the button. It’s easy”
“Then why don’t you clean them?” he said.
“I don’t need any dishes,” I said.
Milo turned to me. “Quit giving me shit, kid.”
“Okay,” I said, pleased with myself.
Milo wiped the sweat that was collecting on his hairline. “It’s hot in here,” he said. “I’m hungry. You want anything at the drugstore?”
“Nope,” I said.
He rubbed his round stomach. “More for me, then,” he said with a smile. He dug into the pockets of his baggy sweatpants. He counted the loose change he had fished out. Dissatisfied, he went to the small wooden recipe box where Mom kept some extra cash. He pulled out a small fold of bills.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m going out and picking up something to eat,” he said. “Stay here with your brother.”
“How long?” I asked.
“Twenty minutes,” he said. “Fifteen. Just do me this favor.”
“Georgie doesn’t need a babysitter,” I said. “All he does is fiddle with that tape recorder you gave him.”
Milo clutched his ass and grimaced. “Well, then,” he said, “that’s one less thing you have to do. Jeez, you kids. You don’t want to do anything.”
He grabbed the apartment key Dad had given him and opened the door. “You want anything?” he asked.
“You just asked me,” I said. “No. But we could use some more toilet paper. That stuff just goes nowadays.”
“I know,” Milo said. He thought for a moment, grimaced, and then shrugged his shoulders.
As soon as he closed the door, I pushed the fan over and ran to the window. Mr. Chin was at the corner, fidgeting. I checked the clock in the kitchen. It was fifteen before three. The Man in Black was late, again.
After a few minutes passed, Uncle Milo emerged from our building. As he started towards the drugstore, Georgie came out from our room.
“Did Uncle Milo leave?” he asked.
Below, Milo counted the money he had stolen two times. He shook his head after each count. Mr. Chin continued to pace.
“Where’d he go?”
“To the corner,” I said. “Get out of here.”
“What’s he getting?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“When’s he coming back?”
“Screw you,” Georgie said. “What are you looking at?”
Georgie came to the window, slipping himself in front of me. We watched Milo approach Mr. Chin.
“What’s he doing?” Georgie asked.
I frowned. “I don’t know.”
Milo walked past Mr. Chin, then snuck up behind the student and tapped him on the shoulder. Mr. Chin jumped into the air and spun around. Mr. Chin threw his hands up, probably thinking Milo was a cop or something. Some bills Mr. Chin had tucked into his windbreaker fell to the ground.
“Jeez,” Georgie said. “That guy’s going to pee his pants.”
“Asshole,” I said.
“Who?” Georgie asked.
We watched Milo calm Mr. Chin down, trying to assure the young guy that he wasn’t a cop or a thief. They both scrambled for the bills that were tumbling on the wind of the passing cars. Milo pocketed a few, something Mr. Chin was too jumpy to notice.
“Did you see that?” I asked Georgie.
Mr. Chin smiled and bowed to Milo before running back across the street. He didn’t mind the streetlights and was almost hit by a city bus.
I shook my head. “Bad news,” I said.
“You’re weird,” Georgie said. He headed back to our room.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Georgie stopped in the doorway and turned back. “Everybody’s getting jumpy about Milo,” he said.
“That ain’t news,” I said. “He’s been driving us crazy all summer.”
Georgie went into our room. A moment later, he came out with the tape recorder in his hand. “Yeah,” he said, “but Mom’s had enough. She and Dad were fighting again last night.”
“Really?” I said, though I wasn’t surprised.
Georgie pushed a black button on the recorder and held it up to my face. “Listen,” he said. I grabbed the recorder and put it to my ear. The crunching of static made me bring it down. I started to hear voices.
“Where’d you get this?” I asked Georgie.
“That night Milo slept in our room. You know—when he kicked you out of your bed and you had to sleep on the floor? He said Mom and Dad were talking about things?”
I remembered Milo’s smelly feet hanging over the edge of my bed and hovering over my body. His fat body broke two slats on my bed frame that night.
“I had the recorder hidden in the kitchen,” Georgie continued. “I put it in that little space between the counter and the fridge. Man, this tape recorder’s old, but it has a great microphone. I got everything. Listen.”
Georgie turned the volume dial up so we could both hear the tape. I recognized our parents’ voices, though the static made it hard. Mom was complaining about money. She mentioned frozen salaries and premium hikes—stuff I didn’t understand. Money was tight, she kept saying over and over, and Milo wasn’t helping out. Dad didn’t say much, but when he did, he stuck up for Milo. They went back and forth—Mom saying that Milo needed to start paying rent and Dad refusing to ask his brother to do such a thing. During the middle of the conversation, above the static, I could hear strain in my mother’s voice, like she was trying to hold back tears. She said she had tried being patient with Milo. Dad objected to this. Mom told Dad to go fuck himself. I remember those words exactly, since it was the first time I heard her talk like that to my father, or anyone for that matter. After that, static.
When we heard Uncle Milo put his key into the lock of the front door, Georgie and I flinched. I shut off the tape recorder before Georgie swiped it from my hand and ran back into our room. He and Milo shut their doors at the same time, which made a loud clapping noise that made me jump.
“What’s the deal with you?” Milo asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
Milo was carrying a small brown bag from the drugstore. He shifted the bag from his left hand to his right so he could check his watch. A pocket on his sweatpants was full.
“Cubbies are on in five,” he said. “Where’s your brother? Still in his room?”
Milo fished the change out of the brown bag. A couple of bills, wrinkled. He put the brown bag on the kitchen table and put the bills back into Mom’s recipe box.
“Get your brother,” he said while replacing the lid on the box. “We need his radio.”
I went over to the door and gave it a couple of knocks. Georgie opened it and looked at me as if he hadn’t seen me all day.
“What?” he said.
Milo plopped himself on the couch and set the brown bag on his sloped stomach. “Game’s on, numbnuts.”
Georgie got his boom box and dragged its extension cord across the floor. He set it on the coffee table and I plugged it in. Milo threw Georgie two sofa pillows while I dialed into the game. I caught the signal, adjusted the volume, and took my seat next to Georgie on one of the pillows he had laid out. This had become our routine for day games. We had it down cold, with precise efficiency that looked as smooth and free-flowing as a six-four-three double play.
Milo drew three candy bars from the brown bag and tossed two to Georgie and me. Then, he cautiously patted the bulky pocket on his pants. “Now we’re living good,” he said.
“Yeah,” Georgie said, squinting at me.
We leaned our backs against the couch, quietly opening our candy bars so we could hear the starting lineups being announced, watching ourselves in the reflection of the dead television set.
The four of us were in the kitchen and waiting for Milo, who was in the bathroom. Mom was at the stove, stirring a saucepan of green beans. Every two minutes, she bent down and peeked at the pork chops cooking in the oven. The oven light burned out a week before, so she had to open and close the door to make sure nothing inside got charred. It was the first day of September.
“They’re fine,” Dad told her as she peeked into the oven.
He was at the table with me and Georgie, pretending to peruse the newspaper, the front page headline in big black letters: “Recession Continues; So Does Heat Wave.”
Mom closed the oven and went back to the beans. She had been ignoring Dad for weeks. He asked a question? She didn’t answer. He needed to find something in the apartment? She pointed to me or Georgie. Things had bubbled over.
The sound of Milo’s flush came through the walls. Mom rapped the spoon against the saucepan and Dad ruffled the newspaper. I peeked at Georgie. With a smile on his face, he held up three fingers. I reached over and punched his shoulder. He covered his lips with his hand.
“Hey Dad?” I asked.
“Are we going on vacation this year? Before school?”
The newspaper froze in his hands. Mom stopped stirring the beans.
Georgie rubbed at his shoulder. “Well, are we?” he asked.
Dad folded up the paper into a lumpy rectangle.
I could see his eyes searching for the words. Instantly, I knew we couldn’t go that year. I felt guilty for asking.
Before Dad could get the explanation from his throat, the bathroom door unlocked. Milo shut the light off and started waddling to the kitchen. He gingerly sat himself down at the table. Looking guilty of something, he spoke softly. “Smells great, Nina.”
Mom just stirred.
“How’s it been, Milo?” Dad asked, surely glad to get off the vacation topic.
“Pretty good,” Milo answered. He rubbed the sweat on his neck. “The Cubbies are still in the playoff hunt. That’s a shocker. They’ll probably miss out on it, though. Not a shocker.” Then, he pushed his napkin into the collar of his t-shirt. “Um, Nina?” he started.
“How about the job hunt?” Dad asked.
Milo nodded his head. “Good,” he said. “I’m going to start looking again this week. I realize that I’ve been a heel around here, not pulling my weight and all.” He twisted on his chair. “But now I’m ready,” he said. “Sometimes you need a good kick in the rear. I don’t see how you guys have put up with me.”
“No, no, no,” Dad said, waving his hand. “Get out of here. You’ve been fine.”
“No,” Milo said. “I’ve been a jerk, but things are going to change. I don’t have a lot of money right now. I’ll have to tap into my savings.”
Mom stopped stirring.
Dad shook his head. “You’re not paying anything.”
Mom rapped the metal spoon hard against the saucepan.
“What about groceries?” I asked. “Or laundry?”
“Hey,” Dad said to me. “Butt out of this one.”
“It’s all right, brother,” Milo said.
“No it’s not,” Dad said. He leaned into the table and sent a cold stare into my eyes. “Some people around here need to know when to be quiet, especially when they don’t know what they’re talking about.” He looked back to Milo. “And you’re not taking anything from your savings. You’re my brother. You’re our family.”
Mom took the saucepan off the burner and spooned some beans on each of our plates. She slammed the spoon onto Dad’s plate.
“No Pete,” Milo said. “I have to chip in. It’s fine.”
“But you’re saving your money for that trip,” Dad said. “Remember?”
Milo’s face flushed. “Yeah, I know. But I want to do this.”
“Where’re you going?” I asked Milo.
“It’s none of your business,” Dad said.
Mom placed the saucepan back on the stovetop. She bent down and opened the oven to stare at the pork chops.
Milo kept at it. “Let me help out, Pete,” he said. “I’m your big brother. I’m calling the shots on this one. You guys have been great to me. Let me give back.”
Dad exhaled before agreeing. “Not too much, though,” he instructed Milo. “You save that money for your trip. We’ll cover the rest.”
“Jesus,” Mom whispered to the pork chops.
“They’re fine!” Dad screamed.
Mom slammed the oven door. She choked the handle of the spoon and went back to the beans.
“Done deal, then,” Milo said, his voice cracking. “Okay, Nina?”
Mom turned to us. Sweat had dampened a few strands of hair that had fallen out of her ponytail.
“And about that oven,” Milo continued. “My buddy’s the best. He’s great. He can fix anything, and he’ll do it for free. Just let me talk to him, Nina.” He twisted in his chair again. “It couldn’t hurt,” he said. “It’s the least I could do.”
Mom rubbed her fingers into her neck.
“It’s the least,” Milo added. “Please.”
Mom pulled the loose strands of hair back over her ears. “Fine,” she exhaled. “Thank you, Milo.”
“Whoa!” Georgie said. “Did everybody hear that? She thanked him! She thanked Uncle Milo! Wow! First the Cubbies, now this! The year of the impossible! Where’s my tape recorder? I got to get this down.” He looked into the living room. “Mom, you have to say it on tape,” he said. “Where’s it at?”
“Here,” Milo said.
He went into a pocket of his sweatpants and pulled out the small recorder. “It was under the bathroom sink.”
My lips went dry when I saw that recorder in Milo’s hand. Georgie’s eyes were wide and his shoulders seemed to slump below his chest.
“What are you keeping that thing in the bathroom for?” Dad asked.
Georgie drew a finger over the hollow black gap that was his mouth.
“Did you listen to it?” I asked Milo.
Milo looked to Mom. “No,” he said. “I didn’t hear a word.”
During the last week of summer, I got a job at the corner drugstore working for Mr. Pasch, a squat man in his early sixties who always complained about a hernia he had been suffering from for twenty years. I worked for a couple of hours every day in the afternoon and continued to do so after school started. I organized the cramped stockroom, swept and mopped the floors, and refilled the shelves after the college kids loaded up on snacks and condoms. At first it was tough, since the unchallenged muscles in my 13-year-old body weren’t used to the lifting and squatting. After a few days, though, my body worked itself into a conditioned shape that allowed me to develop a simple, efficient routine that made the shift pretty easy. It felt good to work. I got paid shit, but what little change went into my pocket beat the emptiness it had replaced. More importantly, I was finally able to get out of the apartment. I felt I was growing up—lifting myself out of the crack and onto solid ground.
My dad had approached me about the job. I was sitting at the window while watching Mr. Chin and The Man in Black dance their kabuki on the corner, both with smiling faces. “Hey Michael,” he said. “I got a proposition for you. There’s a job for you at Mr. Pasch’s store down at the corner. You’d be a stock boy. Nothing big.”
I asked what Mom thought about it.
“That’s the funny thing,” he said. “She thinks it’s great. We think you should do it.”
I said okay, and that was that.
I asked my mom about the job the night before my first day. Everyone was in bed. Milo was out. We were at the kitchen table. She was in her robe, paying the bills. Her reading glasses were perched on the curve of her nose. I asked her why she wanted me to work and if she needed the money. If we needed the money.
“No,” she said bluntly. She dropped her pen and ran her fingers through my hair. Usually I wouldn’t let her do that, but it felt good at the time.
“You’re a good boy,” she said. “You’re a good young man. But no, we’re fine. We could always use money, but that’s not why I want you to work. I think a job would be good for you. You’ve been cooped up in this place all summer. It hasn’t been fair. Georgie’s one thing—he can’t take care of himself. But you, you can go out there and be fine. I trust you. You know who the bad guys are.”
“It hasn’t been that bad,” I said. “Except for Milo bumming around with us.”
Mom looked to the apartment window, to the electric orange glow the city slipped through the blinds. Her eyes had that look. She leaned into me. “You know who the bad guys are, right?”
I nodded, then looked down at the kitchen table and flattened my hair with my hand. “Maybe seeing me work will make Uncle Milo want to get a job of his own,” I said. “Then he could leave.”
When she heard that, Mom grabbed two handfuls of her own messy hair. “Oh, don’t jinx it!” she said. “Don’t get my hopes up! It’s the only dream I’ve got left!”
“Shut up,” I said.
“Oh please, Michael, no!”
“His buddy fixed the oven,” I reminded her. “You owe Milo that one.”
Her smile lessened to a grin. “Milo has his moments,” she said, nodding. “They’re few and far between, but he has them.”
She picked up her pen and went back to the bills. I stayed with her until she was finished.
And so I worked. And I worked hard. One afternoon, around rush hour, after I swept the stockroom and hung-up my apron for the day, I caught The Man in Black on the corner with Milo. They were standing close together, leaning over each other’s shoulders, exchanging an awkward handshake. They separated quickly—The Man in Black leaving with a smile and Milo facing me with guilty eyes and a hand quickly stuffed into his pocket.
I didn’t say a word. I just stared while honking commuters filled the void. A moment later, a traffic cop came up to me. I didn’t think he saw Milo or The Man in Black because he put his hand on my shoulder and calmly asked me if I was all right. As a rush of commuters came between us and Milo, Milo pulled the legs of his sweatpants up to his calves and quickly made himself disapper. I looked up to the officer and told him I was fine.
I couldn’t say for sure what happened, though I had seen enough that summer to connect the dots. When I went to bed that night, Milo was still out. When I woke up the next day, he was gone. His things, too. When Georgie asked Dad where Milo went, Dad just shook his head.
“He had to take care of some things,” he said.
“Did he go on that trip of his?” Georgie asked.
“Is he coming back?” I asked.
In the split second after I asked the question, I swear I saw a small glint of happiness come up into my father’s eyes. “No,” he said. “Probably not.”
“Good,” Georgie said. “I mean, I like Uncle Milo. But man, he’s screwed up.”
“Hey,” Mom said. “We don’t talk like that.”
“It’s true,” Georgie said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Mom replied. “Everybody’s got their differences. Nobody’s perfect, and no one gets along with everyone. But nobody’s better than anyone else.”
“Georgie,” Dad said. “Go get your tape recorder. I want to get that on record. Your mom likes Uncle Milo. She just said she did.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“That’s what it sounded like to me,” I said.
“Who asked you?” she said.
“Hurry up, Georgie!” Dad said. “She’s losing it! She’s turning mean!”
Georgie jumped off his chair, ran out of the kitchen, and headed for our room.
“How was work?” Dad asked me.
“Decent,” I said.
“I filled a prescription there yesterday,” he told me.
“When?” I asked.
“After you got off work,” he said. “Mr. Pasch says you’re doing a good job. That’s good.”
“And I do talk to customers,” I said.
Dad grinned. “Mr. Pasch said that, too.”
“All the time,” I added.
Dad looked over to Mom and winked at her.
They smiled at each other.
Tim Gorham lives and works in the Omaha area. As a graduate from the University of Nebraska’s MFA in Writing program, he has had work published in many journals, such as The Coe Review, Temenos, Forge, and The GW Review.