The wind hissed through the cracks in the room Matt and I shared, and dogs filled our family’s nights with howls. We lived, back then, in a small apartment towards the far North end of Philadelphia, past Oak Lane and Kennisington, called Northeast Philly. It was 1995— the year Northeast made the news for having an alarming number of stray dogs. We were six in total: me, at ten years, my brother Matt at sixteen, plus mom and dad, a year-old sister, and Matt’s hamster, Brownie.
Our father worked late nights as a janitor and came home smelling like ammonia. Before the baby, our mother worked the day shift at a department store in the shopping district—Center City—helping women find jewelry and checking to make sure they weren’t stealing. She’d gone into labor with the baby while inspecting a woman’s receipt for turquoise earrings. Matt and I were sent home early from school, took the bus to the hospital, and waited for our father, who came rushing in carrying a teddy bear in a pink T shirt from the hospital gift shop. After a year of staying home with the baby, mom decided to pick up a few shifts on Thursday nights.
That first Thursday, Matt and I sprawled out on the brown sofa with holes in it that revealed spongy layers underneath. We turned on the TV, but mom ran in front of it to get to her room, rustled through some drawers, cursed, and stepped out with her permed hair in a ponytail, her shirt tucked into gray slacks. Before she spoke, she flipped off the old, nineteen inch TV. It shook from the force of her hand.
“Now—listen. Your sister is asleep, for now. I need you to do housework tonight. And homework. You’re not boarders here, so pitch in,” she said, left, then locked the apartment door behind her.
She’d left us a list, in deliberate cursive. Feed your sister; change baby; vacuum, clean the kitchen and the bathrooms, do homework, clean hamster cage. Each chore had a waiting check box.
Matt got up to check on the baby while I surveyed the apartment. The kitchen had a stack of dirty dishes in the sink waiting to be washed, and there was carrot baby food on the beige wallpaper. A small window led to the fire escape. The old TV needed dusting in the living room, the rug under the couch would need to be vacuumed, as would the blue rug in Matt and my room. Our parent’s room behind the TV, we’d leave alone. The yellow bathroom, which my father said was the color of piss, had a mirror I’d gotten fingerprints on and a toilet bowl with a copper-colored ring where the water settled. Five small rooms.
I saw my mother’s cleaning clothes. Considering the laugh this would get, I slipped into my mother’s rubber gloves, which stretched past my elbows, and her frilly apron. I stalked across the living room and our bedroom, imitating her hurried feet.
“Matthew!” I yelled, “This hamster cage. Clean it, you’re not a boarder here,” I rapped on the bars of Brownie’s clear cage. The hamster stood on her hind legs, as though taken aback by my rudeness.
“Hey! Don’t scare her. “ Matthew said, running to the bedroom. He hated anyone touching that damn hamster. But when he saw me standing in mom’s frilly apron, he forgot to be angry and started drowning with laughter.
I continued to parade around in my mother’s cleaning clothes all night. We cried laughing, half-assed our chores, and watched the X Files. We ate in the living room, and I told Matt I didn’t mind being left alone with him.
“You bet,” he said. “Just wait till next Thursday. Now hang up that apron, little dude.”
I hung up the apron, but my mother would later notice two spinach baby food fingerprints on it when she got home.
“Did you boys use my apron as a hand towel, for Christsake? I mean I knew having boys meant a mess but Jesus—what’s so funny?”
“Mom,” Matthew said, shaking with laughter, “Michael wore your apron while we were cleaning.”
“Michael, that apron’s for a woman, not a boy. You shouldn’t be wearing women’s things. It’s not right.”
“I didn’t want to get my shirt dirty,” I said. She must not have believed me. After that night, she started hanging the apron up in her closet.
Unsupervised time with Matthew was making me into the most rebellious fourth grader in Catholic school. He was older, cooler, sharper than me. He was a wizard, I was his willing apprentice, being introduced to a magic world of cheats:
I started writing spelling words on my hand and copying multiplication tables from the back of a textbook while we watched TV. Matt and I brought the baby into the living room so she could sit on the couch with us, and I held her one Thursday while Matt fed her peas. She spat all over the sofa and Matt’s favorite shirt—it said ‘Nirvana’ in yellow letters. He gagged at the smell and took off his shirt in the living room. Gossamer hairs poked out from the pale skin of his chest, like yellowing grass just emerging from the snow. I knew that my father had hairs like this too. I didn’t have any.
Matt said we should order pizza, since mom and dad had started giving him an allowance for taking care of the kids. He would call while I fed the baby.
“Well, why don’t I get an allowance? I help. Hey, I help, that’s not fair,” I said.
“Of course, of course you do. Why else would I buy you pizza?” Matt said.
I did not mention the money to my mother all that week, because Thursdays had become everything to me. I cherished the few months that went by, learning how to cheat from my brother, listening for what music mattered to him, and imitating adults to make him laugh. We tried teaching the baby to say our names and made prank phone calls. We gave Brownie free reign to roam the apartment and disobeyed all my mother’s rules.
Then one Thursday a girl rang our bell—a pretty girl with straight blonde hair and a pink T-shirt that said ‘Smashing’ on the front and ‘Pumpkins’ on the back. The girl ate pizza with us and played peek-a-boo with the baby on the torn-up couch. I banged around the bottle of Pine Sol in the bathroom sink, pretending to clean while they breathed words to each other on the sofa. Matt put the TV on for me and, together, they slipped into our bedroom. They moved quietly, like two people trying not to wake a sleeping child.
“Release the hamster!” Matt said, and I heard him opening the hamster cage in our bedroom. The girl giggled. He closed the bedroom door, and Brownie clambered furiously over to the living room in her hamster ball, a hollow plastic bubble with a small latch at the top that allowed her to roam the house freely without getting lost under the sofa. As she moved, it rolled with her. The baby smiled as Brownie ran in circles.
I wanted the last slice of pizza and went over to our bedroom door. I could hear a jumble of uncertain sounds, giggles and moans and movement—the creaking sound my bed, the lower bunk, made when I would get a glass of water at night. I stepped further away from the door.
“Can I have the last slice of pepperoni?” I asked the closed door.
I heard the girl laugh again, and Matt told me to have whatever I wanted. I sat on the couch and watched the baby chase the hamster around on the floor until the girl left. Matt looked down or at the TV the rest of the night, the way someone might if he were embarrassed. After he went to bed, I stayed up to cheat on my spelling homework and forge my mother’s signature on a failed quiz, thinking about the hairs on his chest and his allowance for watching the kids and the girl in my bed.
The next Thursday, the same girl brought a girlfriend with purple hair and a gangly guy with a shaved head. If my mother had seen them in the streets, she would have called them derelicts. Each had on a black band T-shirt, and the two girls wore a lot of eye makeup. They spent time in our room, emerging all red-eyed and giggly, and they laughed as I cheated on my math homework. Matt let Brownie run around in her hamster ball again.
“That hamster’s the shit,” he said, and they laughed.
His friends helped themselves to juice and sat like hungry strays, mocking my mother’s curtains and leering at the neighbors from the fire escape. It was a small, rusty set of steps outside our kitchen that protested loudly as Matt’s purple-haired friend smoked a cigarette on it. She looked like a villain from a cartoon, long cigarette and strange hair wildly out of place in the wind. In the alley below, there were dogs rooting around in the garbage, their tails just poking out of cans, and she yelled down to them. The dogs gazed up, licking their mouths, as she flicked her ashes at them.
“Gosh,” I said. “Sure hope your friend doesn’t freeze to death, or fall and die.” My father had warned us that these things would happen to anyone dumb enough to stand out there.
“Shut it,” Matt said. “And don’t even think about telling mom and dad.”
But I did plan on telling mom and dad. I would do my chores, feed my sister, and bring Thursdays to an end. I would be the grown up one. After I cleaned the bathroom, the gangly guy and his girlfriend with purple hair sat on the couch watching TV and kissing. My sister squealed with displeasure in her high chair.
Brownie skirted across the floor in her protective bubble. She loved the release from her cage and ran with a strange, tinted point of view. She roamed the house with a new understanding of its layout, its little cities within the carpets, and us, the giants who dominated her skyline.
I went into the kitchen and gave my sister some apple juice. Sulking into reading, I needed to see if Matt had fed the baby. I walked over to the living room.
“Where’s Matt?” I asked his two friends.
“Bedroom,” they grinned.
I called his name and crept over to the door, cracked it open, hunched behind the dark wood frame. I saw the girl’s naked arms, and Matt’s own arms beside her shoulders. I couldn’t see either of their expressions, just the spread of his bare shoulder blades, wing-like in the darkened room. I dodged away from the door frame and sprang back into the kitchen. Matt’s friends on the couch, purple hair and gangly guy, laughed as I bolted by.
In a few minutes, they all came into the kitchen where I was reading and feeding the baby. Matt and the girl looked ruddy, with little drops of perspiration like tears on their foreheads. Matt was glaring at me and his friends were all laughing. I wondered if they’d told him I was in the bedroom.
Matt filled a pot with water and placed it atop the blue flames to boil, making macaroni and cheese for everyone.
“Watcha reading?” Matt’s blonde, bedroom girl asked. She asked as a mother might ask a child.
I showed her the cover wordlessly.
“Oh how cute. Your brother is reading Nancy Drew.”
“Nancy Drew! My sister reads that,” said the gangly guy.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” purple hair asked.
I should have recognized the sound of cruelty in her voice. They laughed, and Matt laughed with them. My apprenticeship was ended.
I bit my tongue as the gangly guy snatched the book from my hand. They threw the book around like a football in the tiny kitchen while I chased them, too short and too slow. Gangly guy tossed it to Matthew. Matthew to bedroom girl. Back to Matthew, over to purple hair. Back to gangly guy, who Frisbee-threw it a bit too hard, past Matthew.
The book whirled into the pot of boiling water, pushing the pot back, knocking boiling water onto the cover while the underside scorched like an overdone pancake. It was too hot to grab, and it just sat there, steaming on one side, curling up in flames on the other. Yellow book on blue flames, a kaleidoscope of purple hair, pale face, red eyes and black, charred pages.
Finally, Matthew used oven mitts to throw the book into the sink, then ran water over it to put out the fire. Matt handed me the destroyed library book, looking confused, then angry. Someone opened the window to the fire escape to clear the stench out..
“We should go,” said the blonde, looking at the others, and then they left.
I should have called my mother right then and there. Evidence, in my hand, a destroyed book. But I ran to the bathroom and sobbed—facing myself in the mirror and stretching my shirt past my collarbone to stare at the hairless flesh underneath. I felt trapped inside my young skin, imagined myself unzipping along the spine and crawling out. I would leave my youth skin right here, in the Pine-Sol-scented bathroom, like a snake.
“Get out of the bathroom, dude. I’m showering,” Matthew said.
I faced the door and put my shaking hand around the handle, opening it to find Matt waiting on the other side. He looked away from me as he spoke.
“It’s no big deal. I’ll get another book. I’ll pay for the book with the money mom and dad have been giving me. It’s no big deal, right?” he asked. I shrugged as he closed the bathroom door.
Matt turned on the shower, and I pictured him—stripping down, the hairs on his body, the allowance in his pants on the bathroom floor, the girl’s smell still on him, his friend’s laughter making him smile as he poured shampoo into his palm. His hamster, with oblivious enthusiasm, rolled by me in a swirl of green plastic and brown fur through my tears. I could hear Matthew humming in the shower, and that sound made something in me clench.
I picked up Brownie in her hamster bubble and stumbled into the kitchen, opened the little latch on top, stuffed it with paper towels, and placed the plastic bubble, paper towel side down, onto the stove.
Just three clicks and the blue flames were on. A deep breath and it began.
I don’t remember the smell, like you’d think. I guess my nose was too filled with snot. I remember the sound, Brownie’s banshee wails and my sister choking on applesauce and smoke as the plastic bubble became a ball of fire. Their squeals filled the kitchen in frightening atonal chords.
Matt screamed from the shower as the smoke detectors sounded. Outside, I hid on the fire escape, the winter wind punching me—frozen, from fear and cold, trying not to move or make any noise on the squeaky stairs. I hugged my knees close to my chest with my back to the brick wall, and I shivered outside in the snow. Icy tears ran down my cheeks. In the alley below me, a small dog, his ribcage visible under brown fur, was digging through the garbage left by the bigger strays—picking through fragments of empty egg shells and stripped bones. The dog was alone, and there wasn’t much for him.