From Chapter One: IN THE LAND OF MEN
Since my attack last year, when I get off work at night one of my brothers is always waiting for me in our family car, the rusted boat, engine idling, double-parked on Halsted right outside Mizzi's, where I wait tables. No one asked them to do this and we don't talk about it, but when I emerge from the steamy restaurant into the biting, steel cold of Chicago, my heart offers up a grateful sigh at the presence of one or the other of my brothers' placid, safe faces.
Tonight they all three show. Sam, nineteen, the oldest boy but four years younger than me, sits on the hood with his pointed black ankle boots wedged between bumper and car. An inch of bare skin is exposed where the boots and pants cuffs don't quite meet, which is Sam's style. It is zero degrees out, according to the radio, factoring in wind chill, but Sam doesn't wear a coat.
"Too cool to feel cold?" I say.
He shells out a pittance of a smile. "Let's go." He hops off the hood to hold open the front door and presses my back with his palm. Sensing his eyes casting about protectively behind me, I catch my first whiff of something gone awry.
"I love a warm car," I say, settling in the passenger seat with my hands in front of the blowing heat vents. My other two brothers sit in the back the way the youngest always do. I say to them, "Hey."
Sam slams the driver's door and jerks us out of Park. He drives as if our transmission is not automatic, shifting into low or neutral frequently, keeping one hand active on the thin metal stick. Even as his older sister, I stay a certain nervous distance from Sam. Beneath his meticulously maintained smooth surface is a rage that can erupt and break windows or punch walls.
For a time I just ride along in the warmth, quietly losing my waitress aches. Lately I've found real comfort in these pocketlike moments of heat and peace, which can be as refreshing as deep, unconscious sleep. I breathe out, at last, hating to end it, but knowing I must. "So, what's the occasion?"
Sam grimly says nothing, flicking his eyes to the rearview. I turn, catty-corner, to Donald. Seventeen, the worrier, he looks alarmingly pale in the passing streetlights. His hand is in a fist under his nose as he bites a fingernail, staring desperately at the sidewalk and storefronts like a trapped dog. Donald has ulcers, migraines, all the ailments symptomatic of early adulthood. Beside him, Les, the family baby, seems more rosy-cheeked than usual, as if he's siphoned off Donald's color to top his own. But even happy Les has an uncertain smile on his face and watches Sam for cues. His teeth chatter, despite the car's abundant warmth.
Without taking his eyes off the panel van in front of him, Sam says tightly, "You got any plans tonight?"
I point at my chest. "Me? You're talking to me?"
"That's right. Anything you were going to do?"
"Is something wrong?" I ask, simultaneously anxious and annoyed that they are protecting me by withholding. "Is it Dad? Has something happened to Dad?"
"No," Donald says, looking at his watch. "Time for WBN News at Nine. Pistachios and beer."
From behind me, Les pats my arm soothingly. "Dad's cool," he assures me.
Sam catches my eye and we share an older siblings' smile, as if over Les's head. "He's fine," Sam says.
"And here you guys are. So what could it be?" I sit back, relieved: My family is alive. Lesser scenarios occur to me. A surprise party. An unexpected friend waiting at the airport. A trip to the police to clear up some minor infraction before my father discovers the offense. But here we are, enclosed and fine and balanced. I enjoy, for a second, suspense's tantalizing luxury. "So when do you tell me, guys?"
Sam stops uncharacteristically at a yellow light. We rock forward with inertia, rock back. Pedestrians, loaded down with afterwork, early Christmas shopping, plunge into the crosswalks, heads ducked in irritation against the cold. Telltale forest-green Marshall Field's sacks swing from their gloved fingers. It's late and they're homeward bound. A man carries a paper funnel of flowers, shielding it with his chest, turning his back to protect this gift for some woman. Ashy snow blows up in the six-way intersection, sings along the cracks in our car doors, and the taxi in front of us decides to turn left; a signal begins flashing. Generally, this draws a heavy lean on Sam's horn, but tonight he simply waits.
"You have a decision to make," he says.
Les adds excitedly, "A very important decision. Mega-important. Man, it's big, really big. Life and death, you could say."
Sam frowns into the rearview mirror at Les, his profile so sharp and grown-up I have a sudden moment of wonder: My brother's a man. I quickly look at Donald has he, too, crossed the line? But no, Donald has no beard, no jutting jaw, no buried rage. He shakes his young head pessimistically, eyes still glued in appeal to the passing world.
The light changes.
"We got your perp," Sam says to me as we take off again and slide around the taxi. He shifts his eyes momentarily from the road to my face. He's a dangerously handsome man, the family heartbreaker, and his direct gaze has a life volition, power of its own.
"Perpetrator!" Les shouts gleefully. "We got your perpetrator! That guy! He's in our trunk."
Copyright © 1992 by Antonya Nelson