The Impossible To
Kill Me Game
By Po Bronson
first published in the anthology, Writer's
THIS IS HOW WE LIVED:
the year my mother met Michael, she and a friend owned a used bookstore near
the Pike Place Market in Seattle, and after school I rode the 32 James downtown to help
her shelve boxes of donated books and pester the panhandlers until they moved from the
entranceway. It wasnt much of a store---I had to go to the Vietnamese restaurant
next door to use the bathroom---but Mom made enough money to cover mortgage payments and
buy us new shoes every eight months. Mom encouraged me to read, but I faked it by
memorizing the descriptions on the jackets and copying any drawings that were inside. We
closed at six and took the 11 Madison home, getting off to buy dinner at Dicks Fast
Food, where we ate in time to catch the next bus. We split up and stood in both lines to
get to the window faster, winking at each other when the servers told the man in front of
me that they didnt make fish sandwiches and couldnt take the catsup off his
cheeseburger. Mom loved hot fudge sundaes and ate only those, while I hauled home a bag of
six burgers and french fries for my older brother and me.
Ron was a sophomore at the high school and that winter had
basketball after school until five-thirty. He played football in the fall, basketball in
the winter, and track in the spring, in which he threw the javelin, but he was no bit-shot
teenager---he never went out on dates and didnt even own any albums. Girls
didnt call at night, and he didnt go out with friends. Instead he listened to
the radio a lot and couldnt fall asleep without it on. He listened to the late-night
talk shows where people called in to talk about their sexual problems. At six foot four he
was so skinny that Mom still bought his belts and underwear in the boys department.
He wore leg weights strapped to his ankles and every day practiced jumping behind our
house---he would jump as high as he could and soon as he landed take off again. He did
this in the dark after he got home. He had read about the training in Sports
Illustrated, and to my knowledge it worked; fifty times in a row, then a two-minute
rest. Ten sets a night. He could reverse-dunk a basketball.
Ron bragged to me that he would be sixteen soon and would drive to
Montana by himself that summer, despite that fact that we had no car. Our grandparents
lived in Missoula, and he wanted to drive the hay truck and herd cows on their range. In
three months, he would gain fifty pounds and five years of experience, come back with hair
on his face and muscles on his bones. Or maybe not return at all---get a job with the
state game warden and spend his days in the mountains chasing poachers and counting
We had a game that we played, the Impossible to Kill Me games. Ron
would invent a situation in which I was sure to die, and I would invent ways to save
myself. He would slowly increase the impossibility of saving myself, and I would become
more and more inventive. "Ive pushed you off a cliff," he would say.
"Youre falling toward jagged rocks below."
"Before I fall, I flip around and grab your shoelaces," I
"You cant hang by my shoelaces," he would argue.
"Your fingers couldnt grip that hard."
"I could if I had to save my life. Unless youve been
there, you cant say I wouldnt be especially strong."
"Then I would hit your hands with rocks until you fell."
"The cliff is slightly sloped. I would crash through bushes
growing on its side until I was going slow enough to stop myself."
"No, the cliff is a cliff of cement. Theres no bushes
growing." He would begin to get angry, as if I was cheating. I would begin to laugh,
which would only make him angrier.
"Im carrying a huge umbrella," I would say. "I
open it and float to the rocks."
"Theyre jagged rocks. You werent listening."
"So maybe I break both legs. Maybe I break both legs and wrench
both knees, but Im still alive."
Mom let us know that life in the city was not easy, and the rain and
the cold did not make it any easier. She often said her lungs were better suited to
To make it a little easier for her, Mom had a few rules. We had to
take the garbage out every night, so the kitchen wouldnt smell like french fries in
the morning. She wouldnt let us turn up the thermostat, but because she didnt
get up in the morning until just after we had left for school, we abused this rule with a
fifteen-minute tropical blast. Most of all, Mom screamed if she had to take a cold shower.
Our water heater was small, could only keep two showers worth of warm water, so when
I turned twelve she made Ron shower at night. Hed been taking morning showers for
three years, and it was my turn. As a result, he went to bed with his hair wet and woke up
with it molded into awkward sculpture. A wet comb never seemed to bring it back to normal,
and I envisioned my brother being known at the high school as the skinny boy with the
Michael was Moms boyfriend. Ten years before, he had written a
memoir about growing up in Tacoma a second-generation Greek immigrant. But he
couldnt write anything more after that, and instead sold mens suits at a
downtown department store on commission. He didnt have any kids but had been married
once. He told us that he had lost all his body hair after his divorce, and this seemed
strange because he was a hairy man, with bushy black curls on his head, eyebrows, and
forearms. When he ate dinner with us, I sat across from him and squinted my eyes and tried
to make the hair go away. Mom had met him in line at Dicks Fast Food. He had a
studio apartment near there. I was with her. She recognized him, she had seen his picture
on his book in her store. When we had our food, we sat down together on the orange plastic
benches outside Dicks, and twice Michael gave me money for scoops of double-mint ice
cream. At school that day I had learned about centrifugal motion---its how we get
the water off the lettuce---and I demonstrated the principle for him by swinging around a
pole. We missed three buses. When we got home, Ron was already out back jumping into the
darkness, and his hamburgers were cold. I watched him from the window, silently counting
sets with him, listening to the scuff of his shoes as he fought the five-pound lead sacks
belted to his ankles. Thirty-two. Thirty-three. I could hear his high-school coach in the
background, Frank McCuskey, who taught history war by war and was old enough to have
fought in several, warning Ron that hands on the hips between sets was a sign of weakness.
Forty-eight. Forty-nine. Forty-nine and a half. Fifty.
A few weeks after the night at Dicks, Mom and I went to West
Seattle for one of Michaels soccer games, where he played on a team with fellow
Greeks. We went straight from the store, transferring from the 5 Central to the 42 Alki
down by the Rainier brewery; she had invited Ron, too, but he lied and said he had a
history paper due.
The game was in a small outdoor stadium under the lights. I knew
nothing about this strange European sport, but Michaelss team had silky royal blue
uniforms with skull-and-crossbones patches on the shoulder. It couldn't have been more
than a few degrees above freezing, but these men braved it with only baggy shorts and tall
socks. Michael played somewhere on defense, and when he stole the ball he gave it a great
kick down the filed, toward the other end. That his kicks went right to the other
teams defenders didnt matter; everyone else was knocking the ball in tight
little passes, while Michaels's kicks soared fifty yards, and I assumed he was the
strongest on the field. I imagined bring him to the school yard for a kickball game and
watching him send the red rubber ball into orbit.
Mom sat beside me, her face white despite the winter cold,
completely silent until halftime, when she let out a huge breath that she seemed to have
held for the entire period. I was used to this, though, it was the same way she watched
Ron at his basketball games. Her silence was a constant prayer. Sometimes I would catch
her whispering to herself. She fears for her men in these situations, and could make a
mistake and cost their team the game, or they could tangle up legs and ankles and get them
broken. She never objected to sports and always went to our games, because she knew we
needed support. But they scared her. All those men in one place.
During the tiny breaths that followed, where she brought oxygen back
to her lungs and blood back to her face, I took advantage of this weakness and hit her up
for popcorn and hot-dog money. We didnt have much money, but the entrance of Michael
into our lives distracted us. I ate the dog and the popcorn before I could make it back to
my seat, so I turned around and went back for more. I was always hungry when it was cold.
Mom took a single bite with her front teeth from the back end of my hot dog. She was
dieting, she said.
The second half began. Mom started to talk then.
"You have to get used to them not scoring much," she said.
"Theres a fine appreciation to this sport. They dont have cheerleaders
and halftime shows."
"I like it," I answered. It was a mens game,
clearly, and Im not sure Mom could appreciate it fully herself.
"Someday youll travel, Lou. Someday youll go places
and learn about what they do in other countries."
"In Greece they drink lots of wine, I know that. And eat
"Michael told you that?"
"Sure." But he hadnt, and he didnt need to. It
was intuitive. Salty cheese, sexy women, old men in overalls and little caps working the
fields. It was better than Montana. It beat Montana hands down.
"Im glad Michael can share with you," she said then.
Its important to me."
There was a corner kick. Michael came up from the back to stand at
the rear of the crowd and then rushed in just as his teammate booted the ball hard and
straight into the mob of players. Michael ran straight at the ball and got his head on it,
flicking it backward, over the top of the goalie and into the far side of the net. With
his head! I thought they might call it back because he didnt kick it in, but he kept
on running right past the goal and then in a big circle back onto the field at full sprint
with his arms high over his head. I knew then that Michael was in our future, and it
seemed impossible that he hadnt been my real father all along. His teammates lifted
him off the ground and tried to carry him several yards, but their legs gave way and they
all spilled to the ground. I was in my seat with my arms over my head.
Mom let out another breath, and this one led into silent crying,
which she disguised by reknotting her scarf around her neck at the same time. She asked if
I was hungry again. She took my hot-dog napkin and blew her nose. She straightened her
This is what Michael and my mother would do at night: they would get
out a bottle of wine, sit around the table, and talk. For years I had asked to be excused
as soon as I could finish the last of my peas or french fries. Mom never minded, because
Ron and I would only argue at the table anyway, or play Impossible to Kill Me, or shave
off our calluses with a steak knife. Ron would brag about how long he could keep his
finger in a candle flame, and I would challenge him, and then we would argue over whether
he had counted too fast. But then, when Michael appeared, I suddenly wanted to stay at the
table and listen to their talk. Michael convinced my mother that a shot glass of wine
every few days wouldnt hurt a twelve-year old. Michael always brought copies of
magazines with him, for my mother to read a fascinating article hed found, and they
would discuss it together. While they talked, I copied the little drawings that were
tucked in at the bottoms of the pages.
I liked to hear my mothers voice with a mans, talking,
two voices in a dining room, and sometimes I got so relaxed I fell asleep in my chair.
When I woke, it would be close to midnight, the lights would be dimmed, the portable radio
would be tapping out a light jazz tune, and Michael would be waltzing my mother across the
kitchen floor. For a while I would pretend to still be asleep, but when they started
kissing I would go upstairs quietly, and I would hear Rons radio, more talk shows. I
would open the door to his room and very slowly turn down the sound to nothing. I would
stand over Rons bed and watch him sleep. Sometimes I reached out and touched his
hair, which was still just slightly damp, hours after showering.
A couple of Saturdays later, Mom sent us down to Michaels
department store for new suits. The store had a sale, and it was time, as Mom told us when
we walked out the door, to dress the part of the young men we were quickly becoming. It
was early February. It had snowed more the night before, and in the streets this had
melted and refrozen into invisible ice patches. Our crowded bus kept getting stuck on the
hill, and we had to get out to lighten the load and walk to the bus stop ahead, then get
back on. By this time we had lost our seats, and since I couldn't reach the overhead
railings, I hung on to Rons parka. He kept jerking it away from my grip and I tried
to stand for a while, but as the bus lurched I stumbled and reached out for his parka on
the way down. From the floor I noticed he has his leg weights on. When Ron picked me up,
he said, "Okay, stop that," like a parent and it made me laugh. When I
wouldnt stop laughing, he started in on a scenario.
"Youre taped into a seat on a bus. Big wide strips of
that gray tape they use for pipes. Youre the only one on the bus, and the bus is
headed down an icy hill without any brakes. At the bottom of the hill is a brick
"That wouldnt kill me. I would be protected by the frame
of the bus."
"Yes, it would. The bus would crunch up like an accordion, with
you in it."
"Then my faithful dog Sparks chews me free of the tape, and I
rush to the wheel of the bus and steer it down a side road."
"You dont have a dog. You havent had a dog since
Teddy died when you were six."
I lied. "Michaels going to get me one for my birthday. He
"This is before your birthday. This is right now."
"Then Ive been eating these special seeds that make my
saliva able to dissolve any glue, and I spit on the tape to free myself."
"That would take too long."
"I work very fast under pressure."
"Then Ive chloroformed you before taping you in.
"I only look unconscious. Im faking it. These special
seeds also make me immune to chloroform. In fact, not only do I avert disaster, but I
drive the bus all the way to Montana."
"No way, youd be dead."
"Id be a game warden. Id be arresting
poachers." I think he would have hit me if the bus hadnt been full of
witnesses. But soon it was our stop, and once off the bus we gave up arguing. Ron walked
ahead of me, as if he didnt want anyone to think we were brothers. Once he turned
around and warned me not to touch anything when we got in the store. None of this mattered
to me. A doorman swung the great gold doors open for us, and then I smelled the warm air
and the perfume that all the dressed-up ladies were spraying onto themselves. I considered
stealing a small bottle for Mom, but she would know I had stolen it, so I kept my hands in
my pockets until I got to mens suits.
The walls were covered in dark shiny wood, and the carpeting was so
thick that I didnt make any sound when I walked. Glass cases of ties circled the
room. Michael had told me about the ties---no two the same. I looked carefully, checking
his assertion, tried to find two that were identical. Then Michael found us. He helped us
off with our coats as if we were regular clients, then went to measuring us, down our
inseams, around our waists and chests. He whistled when he measure Rons shirt
sleeve. Rons arms were extra long, they could almost reach his knees, like a
"Ill have a hard time fitting you two, he said. He
got on the phone, called downstairs, and asked for someone to bring up a blue suit in my
dimensions. Michael told me they usually kept stuff in specials sizes in the basement. I
knew he was just calling the boys department, but I didnt say anything. It
would be a suit.
While we were waiting for that to come up, Michael took a long look
at Ron. He went off and came back with a herringbone wool jacket, which fit the chest and
shoulders but barely covered his elbows. Then Michael came with a hug one that almost
covered the wrists but was big enough in the body for two Rons. They tried some more, and
then Michael had to sit down. He was sweating lightly on his forehead.
"Look," he said. "I can get something specially
"They have stores for people my size," Ron said.
"Maybe youd like a tie for now. Why dont you pick
"Yeah, Ron," I said trying to help. "No two ties the
So I got a suit and Ron got a tie. Michael showed him several ties,
but Ron just shrugged his shoulders and took the nearest one, blue with gold squares.
Michael offered a quick lesson in tie knotting, and Ron answered that he was too old for
Boy Scouts. I wanted to wear my suit out of the store, like new shoes, so we waited for
Michael to have it pressed. I gave him my old clothes, and he said he would bring them
that night to dinner. I had a new suit. It was light blue, with wide lapels and white
buttons that were probably carved from elephant tusks. We took the elevator downstairs.
Everywhere I walked, I caught glimpses of myself in the mirrors an window reflections. I
told Ron that the tie looked nice, but as soon as we were outside he yanked it from his
neck and balled it into his pocked.
"What do you remember about our father?" Ron asked, when
we were waiting for the bus.
I said I remembered what he looked like and that he sold insurance
in a big building downtown. I said I remembered going to his office and looking down at
all the little cars on the freeway. His secretarys name was Mary. But I didnt
really remember any of these things. They were just things that Ron and Mom had told me
"You know what I remember?" Ron said. "I remember his
suits. They werent cheap polyester like the one youre wearing. I used to camp
out in his closet in the dark, wrapped up in his old army-issue sleeping bag, eating
roasted peanuts. His suits used to hang down and tickle my ears. They were wool, and
scratchy. They smelled like smoke. Then next morning Dad would find peanut shells in his
shoes, and would come into my room, where I was sleeping, and wake me up by slapping the
shoe against the wall, right over my head. In a couple days I would go back to his closet.
I liked it in there."
"Sure," he said. "I made drawings on the walls that I
never got in trouble for because nobody bothered to bend down and look. When Dad moved out
and took his clothes, my drawings were revealed. I got away with it because so much else
was going on."
"Wow." I tried to sound impressed.
"What do you mean, wow. Is that all you can say about a
father leaving a family?" Ron didnt look at me as he talked.
"Why do you lead Mom on with Michael? Do you want her to get
hurt again, is that what you want?"
"You make her think its going to be all okay with
"Man, sometimes you can be so stupid. What do you think
were getting these suits for?"
"Because theyre on sale?"
"Its so well be men, and so well be able to
take care of ourselves."
I didnt know what to do. I started to get cold, and I wished I
hadnt given my parka and mittens to Michael. I was hoping that if I gave my face
just the right look, one of the taxicabs would stop and give me a ride home for free.
Several buses went by, they werent ours. I turned my lapels up to cover my neck,
even though I knew it looked stupid. It was a thin suit, a spring suit, fabric made from
plastic, and I could feel the slight wind as if I werent wearing anything. I wanted
to stand close to Ron so hed block the wind, but for every step I took toward him he
took one away from me. Finally our bus came, and I got a seat next to a huge black lady. I
tried to smile and make her like me, but my teeth were chattering and my breathing made me
sound like I was growling at her.
Michael came that night just as Mom was setting dinner on the table,
so they didnt get a chance to talk between themselves. Michael didnt say
anything to Ron about the suit. Normally Michael liked to have a feast at the end of a
hard week, and he liked to talk a lot. But now he was quieter. He kept his elbows off the
table and sat his glass down carefully and looked around at us only when he had his glass
to his mouth like it was his first date with Mom all over again. Then Mom asked me to do
the dishes, and she and Michael took the bottle of wine into her bedroom, which was on the
same floor as the kitchen. They left the door open, and they were talking in hushed
voices. I decided to have some ice cream, and I ended up eating the whole two quarts,
right from the box, with a soup ladle. The ice cream made me really cold again, and I
tried to wish warm air out of the heater vents. I expected Michael to spend the night---it
was Saturday---but before too long he came out and closed the door behind him, walking
straight through the living room and out the front door. After about fifteen minutes Mom
came out with all her clothes on, the bottle empty at least a few days ahead of schedule.
I was in the corner of the kitchen with only the stove lamp illuminating the room, and
when Mom cracked the refrigerator the light caught me in the corner.
"What are you doing there, Louis? Youre not spying on
your mother, I hope."
"I was eating ice cream. I did the dishes."
"Why dont you have the lights on?" She closed the
refrigerator, turned on a light, and then stuck a match and lit a cigarette. Itd
been a while since Id seen her smoke a cigarette---because she hadnt wanted us
to start, shed smoke only in her room when we werent around, or in the store
in the mornings---and I knew something was going on if shed smoke one in front of
"I was saving electricity. I thought maybe we could turn on the
heat if I turned out the lights for a while."
"Is that what youd like, Louis, to turn the heat on? You
can do it if you want. Go ahead. Fire it up. I wouldnt mind a sauna. I wouldnt
mind a little warmth around here."
I wasnt going to do anything then, but she spun the dial on
the thermostat, and I hear the old furnace boom in the basement and the blast of the pump
"There you go, Louis. Thatll make everything all right
for you now. You can be happy now."
"I didnt say it would do that, Mom."
"No, of course you didnt. Where are your friends Louis?
Its Saturday night. Dont you have friends you should be out with?"
I didnt say anything then. I didnt bring friends home
mostly because Ron would give me a hard time in front of them, and when you dont
bring people to your house you dont get invited to theirs. I wanted to leave, but I
also didnt, because I felt she needed me then, not in her usual way but in
Rons way---she needed me to be angry at.
Then Mom said, "Come over here, Louis." And I did that, I
went and stood next to her, where she leaned up against the fridge. "Would it bother
you if I opened another bottle? Theres one in the cupboard over the sink, if you'd
get it." So I did that, and I opened it., and I poured her some, but not much. It was
red wine, and Ron had told me that was the strongest kind, and I didnt want her to
have much more.
"What does Ron teach you, Louis? Does he teach you how to be
nice to girls?"
"Your father used to say that he couldnt wait until you
two got old enough and he could teach you about that." Then she reached out to me
with her arms and pulled me to her body. I was almost as tall as she was, only a few
inches shorter, and it was easy to hug her lightly. But when I started to pull away, the
hug over, she said, "No, youll never get a girlfriend that way. You have to
hold them for a long time."
So we stood there in the kitchen, holding each other, for several
minutes. I was afraid to move, afraid to hug her any tighter or any softer. "When
some man does come along to teach you about women, Louis, you remember this: you remember
we like to be hugged. Dont let them skip over that part when they start talking
about the other things."
"I wouldnt do that," I said. I could smell the smoke
in her hair and on her clothes.
"You just stand here and hold. You dont try anything, you
just make her feel good." Finally she let me go. "Why dont you see what
your brothers doing upstairs?"
The next morning, Ron came in my room around nine-thirty and woke me
up with a slap on the shoulder, saying I had to rake the lawn so he could burn the leaves.
He threw a pair of jeans at my chest and said Id slept through breakfast and had
missed my chance to eat. I got a glass of milk then went outside. Ron had already started
a fire in one of the garbage cans, which he had set down into he middle of the yard. He
was burning the regular garbage, and it bled a deep black smoke that refused to rise to
The rake wasn't any help against leaves stiff with frost, so I had
to use a pitchfork. I didnt know why we had to rake the leaves on that day, or in
the winter at all, but it was either Moms idea or Rons, and I would surely
lose an argument against either. Ron stood guard by the fire and shoveled my growing pile
of leaves onto it. For a moment the fire would appear to go out---all that frost dripping
onto the flames---and then the smoke would seep through again. In about twenty minutes I
had done half the yard, and the neighborhood air was dark gray. The garbage can couldn't
hold all the leaves, and burning them didnt seem to reduce their size, so hed
let the fire leap from the can into my pile. He shoveled some snow around it as a
protective ring and told me not get too close, he was in charge. The neighbors started to
call. First Judy Lightfoot from the house behind ours, and then Mr. Cable and Mr. Hawkes.
What the hell were we burning? Who the hell was supervising it? Did we have a permit or
should they call the cops? Mom took the calls, and it only made her mad at them. She stood
by the door in her faded jeans and gray turtleneck and told us to keep going and make lots
of smoke. Light the whole world on fire, she said. It started to snow lightly, but she
didn't let it stop us. She waited until we were finished, and then she disappeared into
her bedroom before I had a chance to talk to her.
For dinner that night Mom picked up little boxes of chicken and
mashed potatoes. We ate and did not argue. Mom stared out the window at the falling sleet
that kept the world hidden. Even our black ashes were hidden from sight under a sheet of
ice. Ron finished quickly and did not ask to be excused when he left to watch television
"Its Rons birthday soon, isnt it?" Mom
I nodded. "A few weeks."
"What do you think he really wants?"
"He wants to go to Montana. He wants to drive there."
"Is that it, huh? Its that simple?" She let out a
I didnt know what she meant by that. I pulled one of
Michaels magazines closer and started to flip through the pages.
"Well, maybe I should let him. Hed do a lot better
hitch-hiking across the country than I would."
"Its cold there this time of year. People turn to ice
statues just walking out to the car."
"Is that what he said?"
"And if you go out to feed the horses in the yard, sometimes
its snowing so hard that when you turn around you cant find your house."
She laughed a little. She started crumpling up our chicken boxes and
napkins and threw them in the garbage. After she rinsed our glasses and put them away, she
went back to the window.
Then she said, "We were close, you know. It was almost
But she didnt answer. She went to the hallway closet, where
she put on her yellow suit coast and scarf, which made her look like a schoolgirl at
college. She came back into the kitchen only briefly.
"I cant stand this," she said.
"Im going to Michaels," she said. She opened
the front door, and I could feel the draft. "Ill be back." Then she left.
So this is what I did: I sat at the kitchen table, reading the backs
of cereal boxes and milk cartons, waiting for them to return. I waved my chicken bones
over the candle flame until they were striped black zebra bones. I poured a glass of wine
for myself, a real one, not just a shot glass, and I pulled out a stack of magazines to
thumb through. I read old jokes over and over, but it was better than the milk cartons. I
forced myself to laugh. Then I practiced laughing, because Michael had a laugh that
boomed, and I wanted to have a laugh like that. It came from somewhere way in the back of
his head, at the base of his skull, and it vibrated his nose as it came out.
Of course Ron came downstairs and wanted to know what was so funny.
He had just taken a shower and his hair was combed in place. I said nothing was funny and
that his hair looked nice. He asked where Mom was, as if I had kidnapped her, and I told
him what had happened.
"She said she'd be back soon," I added.
Ron nodded. "What are you reading?"
"One of Michaels magazines. Theres a fascinating
article on the future of atomic energy."
"There is not."
"Sure there is." I had read the introduction in the table
of contents, just the way I read the flaps on Moms books. "Now they not only
explode the atoms, they collapse them. The atoms implode."
"They disappear. Poof! Youve heard of black holes, this
is how they start. They eat laboratories and buildings and earth. Its happening all
over the East Coast." I hid my lies by offering him the magazine. "Here, read it
yourself if you dont believe me."
"Nah." He opened the refrigerator, then closed it. He did
the same with a couple of cabinets. "I made a basketball court in the television
room," he said. "You want to see it?"
I followed him upstairs. He had pushed all the chairs and the couch
up against the walls. A coffee can was nailed above the doorway, and a strip of masking
tape marked the free-throw line a few feet away. A small Nerf ball sat in the middle.
Ron spotted me fifty points, and we agreed to a game to a hundred,
which took about fifteen minutes. I failed to score a single point. It was impossible to
get the ball in the can unless you stuffed it, which I could not quite manage. My balance
was off from drinking the wine. Each time Ron drove past me and stuffed it, he also called
a foul, which put him at the free-throw line. He couldnt make the shot either, but
he could leap past me for the rebound. He had no need to dribble---he could cover the
court in two steps---and sometimes he passed the ball to himself off the walls. Once,
wrapped up in his defense, I tried his trick and accidentally threw the ball out the open
window, where it soaked up a puddle like a sponge. Ron wrung it out and then dove past me
for the last few buckets. Several times I expected him to get angry or dispute my calls,
but he was all business, with a killer instinct that could not be stopped once begun. He
gave no pointers, and throughout the game his only words were the increasing tally. At one
hundred it was as if he woke from a trance sweaty and open-eyed, wondering what I was
Still Mom hadnt come home.
I sat down on the couch, and he turned on the television.
"Are you hungry?" I said.
"You already had dinner."
"But not a feast. I always feel like having a feast at the end
of a hard week."
Ron kept flipping channels. "You havent had a hard
week," he said. "Youre in sixth grade."
"Maybe we should call her," I said.
"Yeah, we probably should." Ron went for the phone book.
"Whats his last name?" he asked.
I didnt know. He had always been Michael to me. Not mister
anybody. Not like the old boyfriends.
"Stupid," Ron said. He threw the book on the floor.
The book! I ran down to Moms bedroom and looked at the book
Michael had written, which she kept under her pillow. There was his last name,
Ron got a busy signal.
"Michael probably got a call from his sister in Tacoma," I
We sat on the couch and didnt say anything for a while. Ron
went into his room. I could hear the radio going. They were talking about cars. The wine
had made me sleepy, and I curled up. I thought I would go to sleep like that, just like
when Mom and Michael were around, but I couldnt get comfortable that way, so I went
to bed. I stole some pillows from the sofa chair in the living room and put them on the
foot of my bed, so from under the sheets it would feel like a dog was sleeping there.
When I woke, the snow had turned to rain, and the world was turning
to mud. I ran downstairs to Moms bedroom, but she wasnt there. I ran back
upstairs and pushed Ron. He told me to go away and threw a pillow at me, but I
"Theyre not here," I said.
"Mom. Mom and Michael."
He got out of bed and turned off his radio. I could see his ribs
under an oystery blue skin that hadnt seen sun in years. We sat on his bed. The
gutters on our roof had flooded and the rain ran right down the window.
"Do you think we have to go to school today?" I asked.
"You can do what you want."
"It doesnt start for a couple more hours anyway.
Itll probably start snowing again by then."
We sat there for some more time and just watched the rain. I wanted
to know what time it was, but Ron didnt use an alarm clock. He believed he could
condition himself to wake up at an exact time every day just by picturing the time in his
mind before he went to sleep.
"Theyre probably stopping off at the pound," I said.
Then, a while later, I added, "And at the grocery. Theyre
probably planning a big brunch for us. Smoked ham."
Ron pulled a blanket off my head and threw it over his shoulders.
His hair was all bent up on one side. I took the other blanket and put it around my
"And at the bakery," I said. "You know how Mom likes
"Look, dont you get it? Theyre not coming
"You see how happy they are with each other. They want to start
a new life together. They want to have new kids of their own. They dont want to have
anything to do with us."
"They're probably halfway to California by now, cruising
through the Siskiyou mountains in Michaels Impala."
"But Mom left all her stuff..."
"Thats her old stuff. Its her old life. Shes
not taking that with her. Do you think Dad took anything with him when he left?" Ron
spoke with scorn, not for my mother but for me, for not seeing this earlier.
"She said shed be back."
"But she didnt say when."
"But, Ron, were alone here."
"Shut up. Youve got your suit, you can handle it."
I was numb. I was scared. Ron took me into the bathroom. We stood
next to each other facing the mirror, the top of my head came even with his shoulder.
"What do you see?" he asked.
I saw myself. I saw his bent hair. I looked into our eyes for
something else. I thought he was going to talk bout how much older he was than me, how my
face would thicken and an Adams apple would grow in my throat and how my wavy hair
would begin to curl. I expected a sermon about how I was going to have to grow up fast.
How Id have to become more like him.
"Now step on the toilet," he said. The toilet was right
beside me, its rim had been pushing up to my shin. When I stood, my shoulder came even
with Rons, our eyes on equal level. "What do you see now?" he asked.
I turned to the mirror. But now my head was above the mirror, I
could only see my mouth and neck and trunk extending down to my feet on the led of the
"This is how I live," he said. "I have to bend down
to see myself."
I could only see his mouth as he talked. I couldnt see his
eyes, I didnt know where they were looking, but I imagined they stared off to the
upper right, as if he were talking to someone else.
"I have one for you," he said. "This ones going
to kill you for sure."
"No," I said. "Its impossible to kill me."
He was finally getting to me, all his meanness.
"I break both your ankles with a spike mace, and youve
lost three quarts of blood. Then I tie you in ropes and throw you into a pool of starving
great white sharks."
"Great whites hate the taste of rope," I said.
"Not when they havent eaten in two weeks. Not when
"I quickly swim to the bottom and pull the plug on the pool.
The water runs out and the sharks are left yapping like harmless poodles."
"Youre still bleeding."
"But Im still alive," I said.
"Yes," he said. "Youre still alive."
Ron ran out of the room and went into his, where he started packing
a duffel bag with his clothes. He picked out his jeans and his rugby and flannel shirts
and rolled them into tight balls.
"What are you doing?" I said.
"Ill be sixteen in two weeks anyway," he said.
"I might as well get a head start."
The bag quickly filled. He unplugged his radio and put that in
there, along with a toothbrush and a towel. He went down to the kitchen and got a small
knife and a can opener and three cans of beans. He didnt even have to think, he was
just checking off a mental list that he must have gone over many times.
"I was going to wait til summer," he said. He zipped
up the bag and set it outside his door. "Look," he said. "I could give it a
week. Weve got some food downstairs to live on, and that would give you a couple of
days to get your own bag and make some plans. I was going to take the umbrella, but you
can have it."
I didnt know what to do. I thought I could handle this but I
just couldnt, not with Ron around. I decided to go back to bed, to crawl under the
covers and kick the pillows onto the floor. I didnt want to believe him, but I found
myself making plans. I still had the house, and I could just live here on my own, go to
school during the day. I could get a job in the afternoons bagging groceries and steal
some food from the storeroom. I wouldnt even have to tell anyone that my mom was
gone. The milkman brought a half gallon of low-fat and some cottage cheese on Tuesdays. I
could eat cottage cheese if I had some jam. Then I remembered we had most of last
summers raspberry jam in the freezer. It would be okay. It would be tough on my
birthday and on holidays, but people lived alone all the time.
Wed come so close---Michaeld been there, in our lives.
It was almost working. I drew my legs up to my chest and closed my eyes and counted to
ten, then I went over my plan again. People lived alone all the time.
I heard a car outside, its doors opening and closing. I threw off
the covers and ran to the window as I heard voices, two voices. Michaels Impala sat
at the curb. In one arm Michael held an umbrella over Moms head. Draped over the
other arm, protected by a thin layer of plastic, was a brown herringbone suit.
With my arms high over my head, I ran, first in tight circles, then
out my door and into Rons room, victory on my lips. But he was not in his room. I
could see him through his window---he was out back again, jumping, lead sacks on his bony
ankles. He jumped from a puddle and landed in his own footsteps, taking off again before
the water could cover his shoes. His pants, shirt, and hair clung to his body. Near the
tops of his jumps his face clenched.
With the sleeve of my pajama top I wiped away the mist on the
window. From his bed I stole a green wool surplus blanket and draped it over my shoulders,
and I watched my brother and said nothing, even as I heard the front door open and the
voices come closer, calling our names: "Lou? Ron? Louis?" In ten minutes
Id be downstairs, trying not to crack the yolks on the eggs Mom had bought as
Michael checked the length of Rons new trousers. But at that moment I had lost my
thoughts---I counted up toward fifty, waiting for his set to end.