BlogButton.jpg (39872 bytes)


The Impossible To Kill Me Game

By Po Bronson

first published in the anthology, Writer's Harvest 3

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 wasn’t 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 Dick’s 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 didn’t make fish sandwiches and couldn’t 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 didn’t even own any albums. Girls didn’t call at night, and he didn’t go out with friends. Instead he listened to the radio a lot and couldn’t 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 grizzlies.

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. "I’ve pushed you off a cliff," he would say. "You’re falling toward jagged rocks below."

"Before I fall, I flip around and grab your shoelaces," I would say.

"You can’t hang by my shoelaces," he would argue. "Your fingers couldn’t grip that hard."

"I could if I had to save my life. Unless you’ve been there, you can’t say I wouldn’t 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. There’s 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.

"I’m carrying a huge umbrella," I would say. "I open it and float to the rocks."

"They’re jagged rocks. You weren’t listening."

"So maybe I break both legs. Maybe I break both legs and wrench both knees, but I’m 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 California.

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 wouldn’t smell like french fries in the morning. She wouldn’t let us turn up the thermostat, but because she didn’t 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. He’d 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 uneven hair.

Michael was Mom’s boyfriend. Ten years before, he had written a memoir about growing up in Tacoma a second-generation Greek immigrant. But he couldn’t write anything more after that, and instead sold men’s suits at a downtown department store on commission. He didn’t 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 Dick’s 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 Dick’s, and twice Michael gave me money for scoops of double-mint ice cream. At school that day I had learned about centrifugal motion---it’s 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 Dick’s, Mom and I went to West Seattle for one of Michael’s 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 Michaels’s 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 team’s defenders didn’t 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 didn’t 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. "There’s a fine appreciation to this sport. They don’t have cheerleaders and halftime shows."

"I like it," I answered. It was a men’s game, clearly, and I’m not sure Mom could appreciate it fully herself.

"Someday you’ll travel, Lou. Someday you’ll go places and learn about what they do in other countries."

"In Greece they drink lots of wine, I know that. And eat olives."

"Michael told you that?"

"Sure." But he hadn’t, and he didn’t 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.

"I’m glad Michael can share with you," she said then. It’s 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t 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 wool hat.

 

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 wouldn’t hurt a twelve-year old. Michael always brought copies of magazines with him, for my mother to read a fascinating article he’d 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 mother’s voice with a man’s, 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 Ron’s 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 Ron’s 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 Michael’s 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 Ron’s 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 wouldn’t stop laughing, he started in on a scenario.

"You’re taped into a seat on a bus. Big wide strips of that gray tape they use for pipes. You’re 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 wall."

"That wouldn’t 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 don’t have a dog. You haven’t had a dog since Teddy died when you were six."

I lied. "Michael’s going to get me one for my birthday. He told me."

"This is before your birthday. This is right now."

"Then I’ve 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 I’ve chloroformed you before taping you in. You’re unconscious."

"I only look unconscious. I’m 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, you’d be dead."

"I’d be a game warden. I’d be arresting poachers." I think he would have hit me if the bus hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 men’s suits.

The walls were covered in dark shiny wood, and the carpeting was so thick that I didn’t 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 Ron’s shirt sleeve. Ron’s arms were extra long, they could almost reach his knees, like a gorilla.

"I’ll 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 didn’t 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 made."

"They have stores for people my size," Ron said.

"Maybe you’d like a tie for now. Why don’t you pick one out?"

"Yeah, Ron," I said trying to help. "No two ties the same."

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 secretary’s name was Mary. But I didn’t really remember any of these things. They were just things that Ron and Mom had told me over time.

"You know what I remember?" Ron said. "I remember his suits. They weren’t cheap polyester like the one you’re 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."

"You did?"

"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 didn’t 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?"

"No."

"You make her think it’s going to be all okay with him."

"Isn’t it?"

"Man, sometimes you can be so stupid. What do you think we’re getting these suits for?"

"Because they’re on sale?"

"It’s so we’ll be men, and so we’ll be able to take care of ourselves."

I didn’t know what to do. I started to get cold, and I wished I hadn’t 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 weren’t 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 weren’t wearing anything. I wanted to stand close to Ron so he’d 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 didn’t get a chance to talk between themselves. Michael didn’t 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? You’re not spying on your mother, I hope."

"I was eating ice cream. I did the dishes."

"Why don’t you have the lights on?" She closed the refrigerator, turned on a light, and then stuck a match and lit a cigarette. It’d been a while since I’d seen her smoke a cigarette---because she hadn’t wanted us to start, she’d smoke only in her room when we weren’t around, or in the store in the mornings---and I knew something was going on if she’d smoke one in front of me.

"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 you’d like, Louis, to turn the heat on? You can do it if you want. Go ahead. Fire it up. I wouldn’t mind a sauna. I wouldn’t mind a little warmth around here."

I wasn’t 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 igniting.

"There you go, Louis. That’ll make everything all right for you now. You can be happy now."

"I didn’t say it would do that, Mom."

"No, of course you didn’t. Where are your friends Louis? It’s Saturday night. Don’t you have friends you should be out with?"

I didn’t say anything then. I didn’t bring friends home mostly because Ron would give me a hard time in front of them, and when you don’t bring people to your house you don’t get invited to theirs. I wanted to leave, but I also didn’t, because I felt she needed me then, not in her usual way but in Ron’s 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? There’s 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 didn’t want her to have much more.

"What does Ron teach you, Louis? Does he teach you how to be nice to girls?"

"No."

"Your father used to say that he couldn’t 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, you’ll 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. Don’t let them skip over that part when they start talking about the other things."

"I wouldn’t do that," I said. I could smell the smoke in her hair and on her clothes.

"You just stand here and hold. You don’t try anything, you just make her feel good." Finally she let me go. "Why don’t you see what your brother’s 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 I’d 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 sky.

The rake wasn't any help against leaves stiff with frost, so I had to use a pitchfork. I didn’t know why we had to rake the leaves on that day, or in the winter at all, but it was either Mom’s idea or Ron’s, 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 didn’t seem to reduce their size, so he’d 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 upstairs.

"It’s Ron’s birthday soon, isn’t it?" Mom said.

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? It’s that simple?" She let out a sigh.

I didn’t know what she meant by that. I pulled one of Michael’s magazines closer and started to flip through the pages.

"Well, maybe I should let him. He’d do a lot better hitch-hiking across the country than I would."

"It’s 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 it’s snowing so hard that when you turn around you can’t 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 working."

"What, Mom?"

But she didn’t 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 can’t stand this," she said.

"What, Mom?"

"I’m going to Michael’s," she said. She opened the front door, and I could feel the draft. "I’ll 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 Michael’s magazines. There’s 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 Mom’s books. "Now they not only explode the atoms, they collapse them. The atoms implode."

"So?"

"They disappear. Poof! You’ve heard of black holes, this is how they start. They eat laboratories and buildings and earth. It’s happening all over the East Coast." I hid my lies by offering him the magazine. "Here, read it yourself if you don’t 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 couldn’t 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 doing there.

Still Mom hadn’t 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 haven’t had a hard week," he said. "You’re in sixth grade."

"Maybe we should call her," I said.

"Yeah, we probably should." Ron went for the phone book.

"What’s his last name?" he asked.

I didn’t 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 Mom’s bedroom and looked at the book Michael had written, which she kept under her pillow. There was his last name, Asimakapoulos.

Ron got a busy signal.

"Michael probably got a call from his sister in Tacoma," I said.

We sat on the couch and didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 Mom’s bedroom, but she wasn’t there. I ran back upstairs and pushed Ron. He told me to go away and threw a pillow at me, but I wouldn’t stop.

"They’re not here," I said.

"Who?"

"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 hadn’t 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 doesn’t start for a couple more hours anyway. It’ll 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 didn’t 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.

"They’re probably stopping off at the pound," I said.

Then, a while later, I added, "And at the grocery. They’re 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 shoulders.

"And at the bakery," I said. "You know how Mom likes cinnamon rolls."

"Look, don’t you get it? They’re not coming back."

"What?"

"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 don’t want to have anything to do with us."

"They don’t?"

"They're probably halfway to California by now, cruising through the Siskiyou mountains in Michael’s Impala."

"But Mom left all her stuff..."

"That’s her old stuff. It’s her old life. She’s 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 she’d be back."

"But she didn’t say when."

"But, Ron, we’re alone here."

"Shut up. You’ve 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 Adam’s 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 I’d 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 Ron’s, 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 toilet.

"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 couldn’t see his eyes, I didn’t 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 one’s going to kill you for sure."

"No," I said. "It’s impossible to kill me." He was finally getting to me, all his meanness.

"I break both your ankles with a spike mace, and you’ve 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 haven’t eaten in two weeks. Not when they’re starving."

"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."

"You’re still bleeding."

"But I’m still alive," I said.

"Yes," he said. "You’re 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.

"I’ll 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 didn’t 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. We’ve 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 didn’t know what to do. I thought I could handle this but I just couldn’t, not with Ron around. I decided to go back to bed, to crawl under the covers and kick the pillows onto the floor. I didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 summer’s 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.

We’d come so close---Michael’d 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. Michael’s Impala sat at the curb. In one arm Michael held an umbrella over Mom’s 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 Ron’s 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 I’d be downstairs, trying not to crack the yolks on the eggs Mom had bought as Michael checked the length of Ron’s new trousers. But at that moment I had lost my thoughts---I counted up toward fifty, waiting for his set to end.