My sister Jessie White was standing in the parking lot outside Hoffman Hall to avoid her husband’s friend, or aunt, or godmother’s son, or someone’s wedding. At first I thought she’d told me it was a baptism, but she informed me I had a terrible memory. Her excuse was that it was family weekend and she wanted to see me, but she was lying.
“Let me in!” she squawked through the phone. She honked when I didn’t immediately appear at the window.
“Stop it!” I said grabbing my wallet and keys from the desk. I ran down the stairs, slipped on the last one and caught myself on the railing. I found her black Ford Focus parked in a handicapped spot.
“Mom baked these for you.” She held an eight by eight inch pan with a foil cover. “They’re brownies. They’re good too.” She strolled towards me with her suitcase rolling behind her. “There’s another bag in the trunk and my computer bag is up front. Be a darling and get them for me.” She had a drawl even when we lived in Illinois, but it grew worse since attending Ole Miss.
“What’s with all the bags?”
“I told you I’d be comin’ to visit. You didn’t really think I’d only stay for a few hours, did you?”
I lugged the two bags towards the curb where she stood when I heard a yelp. In the back window, a dog shoved its brown nose against the glass, then licked the snot marks. “Jessie?”
“That’s Bear. We’ll get him in a minute,” she replied and walked away leaving her other bag for me. “Now y’all gonna come and open the door?”
“Hold on.” I jogged to her and opened the door, but she was filing her thumbnail so I pushed her through.
“Hey!” she stumbled forward. “Where am I going now?” she asked.
I walked past her, bumping her with one of the bags. “Sorry.” I curled one bag on my shoulder, the laptop case bounced against my thigh as I dragged the third up the two flights of stairs. One of the clasps scraped the brick wall. Then I led her down the hall, past the bathroom, to room 210. I tossed the bags on the bed.
“Careful!” she yelled and unzipped one of the suitcases. She held up her perfume bottles to the light then set them on my desk.
“Where do you expect to sleep?” I asked. “I live in a single so I’ve got eighty square feet for me. At least half of it is taken up by the furniture.”
“I’m taking the bed.” She rummaged through my closet for hangers and hung up her shirts then her pants and even a dress. She pulled out a pair of sandals, a pair of heels, and then some running shoes and set them on the closet shelf. “I’m sure your little girlfriend would let you crash with her.”
“I’m not sleeping on the floor.”
“That’s up to you, honey, but I get the bed.” She zipped up her bag and set it on the floor. When she examined the room, she swung her purse around and knocked a cup of water off the desk.
I threw a towel over the wet spot then stepped on it. “Why are you here?”
“It’s family weekend.” She clasped her hands in front of her chest, a gesture of devotion to family.
“It’s parents’ weekend,” I said.
“Oh shush. Where’s your bathroom?” she asked with her hand on the doorknob.
I peeled a dried callus. Over the past month, the ones below my fingers had swollen from lifting weights. “Why?”
She just looked at me with her skinny arms folded.
“This is an all guys’ dorm. There’s no women’s bathroom. You have to go—“
She held up a hand, “Grow up, Little Brother.”
I led her to the bathroom, dragging her by the wrist. I peeked inside, then said “Make it quick.” I stood with my arms crossed outside the door. No one walked by.
Five minutes later, she pushed through the door and the dry hinges popped as it swung shut. “It smells in there. And you’re out of soap.”
“What do you expect to do with the mutt?”
She headed back to my room and I followed. “Oh Bear? Isn’t he adorable? He’s a Chocolate Lab and Boxer mix. They say he has some Pit Bull in him too, but he’s just the sweetest thing. I can’t possibly believe that.”
“I asked what do you expect to do with him?”
“What do you mean? He’s sleeping with me.”
“Dogs aren’t allowed in the dorm!”
“Relax. He’ll be good, I promise. He’s not staying in the car.”
“He’s a seventy pound guard dog! People walk by here every hour. Drunk kids are going to be yelling outside tonight. He’ll bark his head off at all of them! If a squirrel or bird perches in that tree, he’ll lunge for it.”
“He’s not staying in the car,” she repeated.
I gave in and Bear leaped up the stairs two at a time, tugging the leash, then stopped to sniff a crumb or dried leaf. I had to drag him up the last flight because he was chasing a cricket down the stairs and I thought I heard someone coming. The dog hopped onto Jessie’s lap when we arrived at the room. She had the television on “Lifetime” and some man was beating his wife or daughter.
“I think he needs to poo. Do you need to make a doodoo, Bear? Bear Lee? Look at me. Do you need to make a poopy?” she asked in a baby voice. “Come on, you can show me the campus now.” She shoved the leash back in my hands.
We returned half an hour later.
“That was it, huh? I’ve got to say, Little Brother, that your campus is tiny.”
I leaned against the door while Bear licked his crotch on my bed.
Jessie sat in the chair filing her orange nails. “So now what?” she asked.
“I have a lab report for Chemistry and sevety pages of Melville to read for American Lit.” The sun had set and headlights flashed through the window. I lowered the blinds.
“You’re a wild one, Little Brother.”
Someone a few rooms over yelled “Oh Jesus! I’ve gotta piss like a race horse!” Someone else shouted, “Shut the fuck up!”
“I also have to read a case-study on schizophrenics. I have a chapter on Eskimos and some Calc problems. It might be family weekend for you, but I’m swamped.”
“Let’s do math. I can help.”
“I don’t need your help.” I pushed the mutt off the bed, but he thought it was time to play and grabbed a sock from the floor. He shoved it towards my hand and when I took hold, he growled and shook his head to rip it away. “Bear!”
Jessie called him. “Hey mister. You play nice now, or Mommy’s going to spank you. You don’t want a spanking do you, Mr. Bear? No. No, you don’t.” He hopped on her lap. His tail streaked through the dust on the TV screen. “Kisses?” she asked and the dog licked her ear. “I’ll help with the math. I still remember a thing or two.”
“You know how all those inbred Southern states have such crappy roads? That’s because people like you are their engineers. Half of your graduating class can’t count higher than the fourteen teeth they have left.”
“Did my little brother just make a joke?” She clapped her hands once in minimal applause. “Now I am so very proud.”
I flipped through my math book until I found the right page. I wrote down in my notebook.
“I’m going to watch a movie.” She flipped through my book of CD’s, DVD’s, and video games and pulled out “Halloween.”
“I’m trying to work here.”
“I know. You don’t have to watch.” She stuck it in the DVD player. “Hey, remember that time you burnt down the house?”
I erased my work and began the problem again. “I only smoked up the kitchen.”
“You stuck a bagel in the microwave for twenty minutes.” She opened my microwave and slammed the door shut.
I closed my book and tossed it on the desk, but it bounced off the corner. “I was five.”
“The smoke alarm woke everyone up. Dad carried us outside where we heard the microwave beeping.”
I shook my head. “My breakfast looked like a cremated rat.”
“Dad yelled at you for an hour.”
“He always found a reason to yell.”
“You guys fought a lot.” She lay on the bed and stretched her feet into my face. Bear jumped up with her and sat on her lap. He licked her face and she laughed and flailed and nearly kicked my nose.
I grabbed two Cokes from the mini-fridge and offered her one. Then I took the chair to avoid injury. I stuck my math book on the shelf between the Psych textbook and my Bible.
She held up her soda for a toast. “To Dad?”
“Yeah.” I picked up my dumbbell and curled it once when she interrupted.
“If you’re going to work out you’d better take a shower after. I’m not sleeping in here with you smelling like an ox.”
I curled it a few more times, but Bear sniffed the weight and licked my hand. I wiped the spit off on a towel.
She grabbed a bag of pretzels and munched a few.
“Don’t get crumbs on my bed.”
She brushed the sheets twice. “There. Are you happy?”
“Now I’m going to have to sweep.”
She dropped the bag on the floor without rolling the top. The movie played a thirty-second loop of music on the menu screen. “I don’t even want to watch this now. I know! I just learned a new magic trick.”
When I was eight, she’d practice magic tricks and sometimes chained me to our minivan’s door handle for a miraculous escape, but she could never figure out the trick. Once she lost the key and rummaged through her room to find it. I stood outside for half an hour until I yanked so hard that I broke the handcuffs and slit an artery in my wrist. When she ran out and saw the blood spurting, she fainted and hit her head on the garage floor. A neighbor rushed us to the emergency room. I had to get three stitches and she had a concussion.
“It’s just a card trick.” She combed through her purse and pulled out a deck. “Here. Pick one.” She held out ten cards and I drew the two of spades. I slid it between the other cards. She shuffled them then flipped up the ten of diamonds. “Is this your card?”
“How about this?” She snapped her left hand and Bear’s ears perked up. The card in her right transformed into the two of spades. However the corner of the ten of diamonds stuck out from behind my card. “Crap. Let me try again.”
For the next three hours we watched “Halloween” through the credits, then we played the extra features, deleted scenes, and some of the commentary. At midnight, I dropped my pillow and my blanket on the floor.
Jessie said, “Hey now. What am I supposed to use?”
“You didn’t bring a pillow or cover or anything?” Bear curled up on a pile of dirty clothes and sneezed.
I grabbed my spare blanket from the closet and unfolded it for her. “Here. I don’t have another pillow though.”
“Then you can use a sweatshirt or something.” She hugged the pillow. “Put another movie in.”
“We’re going to bed.”
“It’ll help me fall asleep.” She insisted until “Halloween 2” played. I lay awake for half an hour until she slept, then turned off the TV.
Six hours later, there was a faint grey of dawn from the window and I pulled a rolled-up sweatshirt over my head. “What the hell are you doing?”
“What’d you say?” she asked and turned off the hair dryer.
“I’m trying to sleep here. What time is it?” I glanced at the clock. “6:37?! I hate you.” I tossed the sweatshirt at her. “I really do.”
She flicked the dryer on and shouted “You’re wasting your life sleeping so much, Little Brother.”
I grabbed my soap, shampoo and towel—it was already wet—and headed to the bathroom. It smelled of her Hugo Boss perfume and strawberries, kiwis, and melons from her Garnier Fructis shampoo. I splashed my face with cold water. Pink lips had smudged the mirror with a kiss. I walked to the showers and stepped over the puddle in front.
Ten minutes later when I cracked open the door to my room, Bear growled.
I hung up my towel on the corner of the mini-fridge. “Were you bathing the dog in there?” I asked.
Her phone lit up and played “Barbie Girl” by Aqua. She rocked back and forth on the bed.
“Are you going to answer that?”
The number wasn’t programmed in her phone so it didn’t have a name with it. I handed it to her.
She took it and pressed the “End” button. “What’s for breakfast?” Bear ran circles around my legs and whimpered with his ears perked up.
“Who was that?”
“We should run to McDonald’s and get Bear something. He likes Egg McMuffins.” The phone rang again.
“In a minute. Who is that?”
“So tell them. Give me the phone and I’ll do it.”
I reached for it and she exclaimed “No!”
Bear growled at me. “Calm down, boy. Just tell them already.”
“Let’s go get something for this little doody head. You like McDonald’s, don’t you, Bear? You know what McDonald’s is, don’t you, boy?” Bear licked his lips. He sat in front of the door. “Aw, good boy.” She grabbed a cup and cleaned it out with her shirt. “I need to shave my legs. You got any coffee around here?” She rummaged through the bread, Easy Mac, and Saltines on my shelves.
“You’re not doing that here.”
She opened and closed the desk drawers. “I need some coffee.”
“I don’t have any. Did anyone see you in the bathroom?”
“Is anyone up at six around here?” She grabbed a Coke from the fridge and knocked the towel onto the floor. Her fingernail couldn’t slide beneath the tab and she scratched at the top until she handed it to me.
I slid a paper clip under the tab and pried it open. “I wouldn’t know,” I hung up the towel. Bear barked at the door. “Keep him quiet.”
“He’s a dog, honey. I can’t make him do much of anything. But I promised him food so now he’s expecting some. Let’s go.”
“I have some ham in the fridge. He can have that.”
She ransacked my wallet, checking the cash, the credit cards and even the pictures. “Why don’t we just go get some McDonald’s? It’s not expensive.”
I snatched it from her. “Just give him the ham.”
She fed it to him in pieces until he scooted her out of the way and ate from the Tupperware. He licked it clean of all juices and looked to Jessie for more.
“When’d you get the mutt anyway?”
“I was headed to Mom’s and I saw him at a rest stop. His fur was matted and he didn’t have a collar. He was begging people for food but no one would give him any. This one woman even swatted him with her purse so that he’d go away. He wasn’t even being mean! He just needed someone to love him and feed him. So I got some chips from the vending machine and you wouldn’t believe how many tricks he already knew. He could shake and sit and even stand on his back legs and dance a little. And I haven’t had a dog since Lucky died when we were kids so I adopted him.”
“Isn’t Zach allergic?”
The phone rang again.
“At least turn it on silent if you’re not going to answer.”
“Good idea. So how’s life?”
I gargled some mouthwash then swallowed it. “Why?”
“We’re family. We’re supposed to care about each other and ask how life is and if anything’s wrong.” She grabbed a bar of chocolate from her purse and nibbled a piece.
“Uh-huh,” I said. “It’s good I guess.”
She asked “And school’s okay? I guess you were always a good student, so I don’t need to ask about that. How are things with your friends? Maybe your girlfriend? Are things good with her?”
“I don’t have one. Why are you asking?” I turned on the TV and sat on the bed.
The phone lit up again but didn’t play the ring tone. She laid it on the bed with the screen down. “I told you. We’re family.” She scooted next to me so that our elbows touched.
I shifted away. “That’s a crap answer. Just like why you’re here at all.”
She stared at the TV screen after I clicked it off.
“Why are you here?”
She reached for the remote but I held it above our heads. She patted her knee, but Bear lay down licking the floor. “Stop it!” She snapped her fingers and pointed. Her head rocked back against the wall. “Mom wouldn’t tell you. She told me I had to.”
“Tell me what?”
“I’m getting to it. So I called you up but instead of telling you, I lied and said I was coming up.”
“You called me a week ago. Why were you with Mom a week ago?” I asked.
“Stop interrupting me, will you?” She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees and her forehead on her palms. “I went home about two weeks ago. Zach and I had a fight.”
“How would you know that?”
“Why else would you be avoiding him?”
“We’ve fought before, but this time he stormed off and bought a motorcycle. Can you believe that? 13,000 dollars for a stupid bike. That’s part of what we argued about before. He wanted to buy one and I said it was too dangerous. But then we fought and he did it anyway and revved the engine in the driveway. So I ran out. I grabbed my clothes and called in work for some vacation time and I just drove away. That’s when I found Bear. At first I wasn’t sure where I’d go, but I ended up heading to Illinois. I practically cried the whole eight hours to Mom’s. I hadn’t called her or anything so when I got there, I circled the block a few times. You know the Wombles have their house for sale? Jenny walked in on Frank and another woman a few months ago. She kicked him out and that house is too big for just her.” She stood facing the wall. She picked up her soda but didn’t drink out. She just held it to her lips, biting the rim. “I just get so mad at him! He’s still a child. He does what he wants when he wants and—well you don’t really care.” Bear hopped on the bed and chewed on the pillow case. She smacked his butt and he yelped then went back to mumbling the pillow. She scratched behind his ears then chugged her soda. She broke off a piece of chocolate for him. “Aww! Mommy’s sorry, boy. She didn’t mean to hurt you. He never learns.”
“Zach or the dog?”
“Zach! I don’t want to do it anymore!”
“Play housewife to him. No, play bread-winner and housewife.”
“You do it for the dog.”
“Bear doesn’t buy motorcycles. And he’ll keep doing it.”
“Zach’s not going to keep buying motorcycles. And when he’s done with school—“
“I’ll still have to clean and cook. And I don’t want to take care of him when he’s healthy or even when he’s sick. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“You still are. You’re doing it for Bear. You walk him and buy him toys.”
“He’s a dog, honey. I have to.”
“You let him sleep with you.”
“He likes to snuggle.”
“You even buy him McDonald’s. I don’t think Bear asked for an Egg McMuffin. You ordered it because that’s what Zach usually gets. Bear is just a stray you picked up when you were lonely.”
Bear licked the Tupperware, but it was empty so he licked the chocolate on Jessie’s fingers.
“That’s weird.” She sprayed my cologne on her wrist and sniffed it then smelled my Gillette shampoo and body wash.
“What about Zach?”
She slammed her soda on the desk and it spilled onto her hand. “Dammit!” She wiped her hand on the bed then used a towel to clean the desk. She sipped the soda until it was gone and tossed the can in the waste basket. “You think Zach would like a dog?”
“You’re thinking of his brother.”
Bear jumped onto the bed and sat next to me. He sniffed my hands and licked them.
Jessie rubbed under his chin. “I love you, Bear.” Bear gnawed on her fingertips. “You’re probably pretty lost right now. First we stayed at my mommy’s place. Now we’re here. And who knows where you were before all of that.”
He rolled onto his side and laid his head on my thigh.
“Well you’ve got one more move ahead of you. If your daddy is okay with it, it should be your last. Would you like to meet your daddy?” She scratched his stomach and his back leg kicked.