Teenagers twine around each other and complain to me about the lame music. Do they think I can do anything about it? “Manager” isn’t the same thing as “Management” at Dogs ’N More. I’m the hinge on a greasy door that lets in frantic moms who can’t control their kids, horny teenagers feeling each other up, sullen cashiers who figure they’re too good for a hot-dog shack. You come to Dogs ’N More, you get what’s coming to you.
Which is what I say to myself every morning, every night. Me with my Bachelor’s in Business. Me with the used BMW I’m still paying off even since it got sideswiped, because there’s no way out of the contract I signed when I told myself a Beamer would look right in the corporate parking lot. I subscribed to GQ until seeing it in my mailbox made me mad.
My brother Randy was pissed when I let the subscription go. He had liked the articles about ties and protein diets, and he said I’d left him with nothing but daytime TV. This was not even close to true—for starters, he could try washing a dish once in a while. But he says that the sink is hard to reach from his wheelchair, and anyway, I’m the one who does most of the eating. True that.
I bought the wheelchair he liked, the one with a narrow wheelbase that he could maneuver. I found the one-floor condo with the accessible pool. We never talked about it. I was the one driving the night he went through the windshield and broke his neck. He was drunk, I was not. He had a nose full of coke, I did not. He grabbed the steering wheel, screaming with laughter, just when a SUV showed up in the opposite lane. It took all my strength to wrestle the wheel away from that SUV, and bury the nose of Randy’s stupid Jeep in the post of a speed-limit sign. Randy was three feet deep inside a bush planted next to the highway. The city eventually billed me for that bush.
The bill sat with all the others on the kitchen counter. Hospital, convalescent hospital, doctors I’d never heard of. The ambulance alone was close to $1,700. “Who was operating the vehicle?” asked all of the insurance forms. In the end, I declared bankruptcy. When I was interviewed at Dogs ’N More, the supervisor told me I was lucky to get another shot. He could have been snotty about it, but he actually looked sorry. I appreciated that.
After work I stop by the grocery store and bring home dinner. I know what Randy likes—pork chops, fried potatoes, ice cream. Beer. I buy it, he drinks it, neither of us says anything.
On the weekends I’ve started doing a little construction work. I don’t have skills, but I can carry buckets and mix cement, and we need the money. When the alarm goes off at five-thirty on Saturday morning, sometimes I just stare at it. Randy’s a light sleeper, and he hears the alarm from his room. He doesn’t see why I need it to ring four times before I get up.
I’m bad at the work. Once I dropped a nail gun from a rafter, and no one has forgotten that. I’m soft on the shoulders and around the waist, and I get sunburned. At the end of one day when I had stepped in wet concrete, the guy working next to me asked what I was doing there, anyway. “My brother’s a paraplegic,” I said. It was the first time I used Randy as an excuse, and it seemed fair. He uses me often enough.
One morning I got to the site early. It was July, and the sun was already high, the sky blue and shiny as enamel. I stared at the clean lines of the rafters against that sky for fifteen minutes, until a crew member drove up and we started unloading the truck. “Nice morning,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not bad, getting out of the house.”
“Sometimes it’s the only part of the day that hasn’t gone straight to shit.”
He let that ride before he said, “I’m going to take a big guess that things aren’t great for you at home.”
“It’s nonstop party.”
“Things get better. Hang in there.” Studying his clipboard with the day’s schedule, he was imagining I had a wife at home, slamming around the kitchen, or maybe a kid who didn’t want to read. He wasn’t thinking about changing a twenty-six-year-old man’s catheter.
It had been another nice day, pre-accident, summer tipping into fall, when Randy and I went to a party at a guy’s house whose parents were gone. I was too old, already out of college, but they were Randy’s friends and there was a girl I wanted to see. When she smiled her mouth quivered a little. She said no when I asked her to dance, but then she said, “Ask me again after the sun goes down.” So I did.
“No,” she said again, but she pulled me outside, where the sky after sunset looked almost green. The neighborhood was nice—every direction was swimming pools and lawns and clusters of flowers that looked like bouquets coming out of the ground. My heart was beating hard up high in my chest. Randy was somewhere inside, taking care of himself. When I kissed the girl, her mouth quivered under mine, and I kept kissing her.
Later, before the guys who lived there told me to take my brother home, she and I sat in lawn chairs, looking at the party going on inside. “It’s like watching a TV show,” she said. “They have no idea we’re here.”
“We could run away,” I said.
“Maybe in a minute. Right now this is just right.” Her fingertips grazed my wrist, a touch so light I could have been imagining it.
The air was sweet and warm, and I felt my pulse moving in me like a steady current. Lights were on everywhere—patio lights and pool lights and street lights, but all I was aware of was the girl and the dark, where I wanted us to go.