214 West Euclid Ave

by Madeline Kinkel

His cigarettes were on the floor so I took them. I went to the backyard. Once, last winter, I shoveled snow into the carton and put it back next to where he was sleeping on the couch. That day, it was hot and there wasn’t even a puddle. I put the package into the garbage and moved bags of trash to hide it. In school, they’d told us so many times about what cigarettes do to lungs, to bodies, the chemicals and how they killed a person, and I needed him to be alive forever.

Inside, Ben was still asleep on the couch with his head covered.

I went upstairs. The door to Ben’s room was closed and locked. I passed our dad’s room on tip toes. He was at work but I liked to be careful. I went to my room and looked out the window. Every few minutes a car would pass. I stayed low against the sill so they couldn’t see me. It was bright. There were still six weeks until seventh grade started, and the summer was everywhere.

Eventually there was noise of the television. I went downstairs. “Make me breakfast,” he said.

“I don’t want to,” I said.

Ben gave me a look like I didn’t have a choice. I went to the kitchen and got out a package of frozen waffles. The end of one was thick with white frost. I toasted them. I took them to him on a paper towel since none of the plates were clean.

He didn’t ask me about his cigarettes because I was not supposed to know about his cigarettes. I found out everything I wasn’t supposed to and knew more than anyone thought.

Our green armchair was broken. There was a dent in the back that made me fall in. I sat there anyway. He was laying on the couch.

“Why are you here,” he said.

“I want to watch TV,” I said. “Fine but shut up.”

He was watching Jackass and I did not say anything. Even when it got gross and I couldn’t look. It was the kind of day when I just waited for it to be over. I was hungry but he had eaten the last of the waffles.

“I’m hungry,” I said. “Okay,” he said.

“We don’t have any more food,” I said. I knew he would be angry at me for talking but I said it anyway.

There was a commercial on the television for the army, people jumping from planes, landing in the desert, running with guns. I imagined for a moment that I was strong, that I had powers like the heroes in cartoons, that I stood in front of the soldiers as they ran and blocked every bullet, that I stopped them in their tracks so they couldn’t hurt anybody.

“What do you want me to do about it?” I looked out and didn’t say anything. “Fuck it, want to go to McDonald’s?”

“I don’t have any money.”

“My treat.”

I was still in pajamas, shorts that I had gotten from Goodwill that were too short, and I hadn’t shaved my legs for a few days. Ben said we would use the drive through, so it was okay.

We went out to his car. His car was low to the ground and old, and I did not understand how he got it or how it went. He was only three years older than me and didn’t have a job. I was small in the seat. There was a cigarette in the middle console. He took it and started to smoke. He turned the car on. There was a song on the radio that I didn’t know. It was loud. He drove with one arm slung over the wheel. He leaned way back and smoked with his other hand. The song said the same line over and over.

He did not stop at any stop sign. I was wearing my seatbelt and didn’t say anything. “Can I get a Big Mac and a medium fry,” he said to the box. He looked at me. “Plain cheeseburger,” I said.

“That’s all? Come on,” he said. “And a plain cheeseburger and a strawberry milkshake. You still like that, yeah?” I nodded.

I thought he smiled as he handed me the bag. I wanted the drive home to last forever. The smell of smoke and oil and grease. The windows down. The music, loud. Moving low and fast. I did not like the music, but I liked the way it surrounded us. Everybody in town knew Ben. Even my sixth-grade teachers knew his reputation and looked at me funny. I liked how it was to be next to him, in public.

He parked. Went inside to the television we had forgotten to turn off. I followed him. Sat in the chair. The milkshake was loud in the straw. He started to play Grand Theft Auto. When I was younger, that game used to make me cry, but I got used to it.

Someone knocked at the door. “It’s Chris,” he yelled from outside.

“Yo,” Ben said. He got up. He had one hand on his pants to hold them up. I covered my legs with a blanket. He opened the door for Chris and they pressed their fists together.

“Hey Sarah,” Chris said. “What’s up.”

“Not much,” I said. Chris had pale skin and dirty brown hair. He didn’t used to smell so bad. I was less than nothing to Chris, but because of who my brother was, people like him, the people I saw going in and out of our house, boys with greasy hair and baggy jeans and girls with straightened hair and lip gloss, they treated me different.

They went upstairs and turned on a stereo. It was a band I hated. I changed the channel to The Justice League. I could hear them laughing. When they came out of Ben’s room they always stank and acted like I didn’t know why.

I wanted to go outside but there was nothing to do outside, and it was hot, so I stayed and watched television as the house started to smell bad all over. I couldn’t finish the shake and part of it melted into the green chair.

I went to read in my room and heard them coughing.

Some things I heard from people at school, some things he told me when he was messed up. He told his friends that he always had a bag in his pocket so he would always have something to sell or trade. One night when he was on something, he told me the real reason. If things got bad, if he got caught, if there wasn’t a way out, he had a way out. Swallow it all quick in one go.

I collected the things that fell out of his pockets, the things he forgot to hide before he passed out on the couch. He never asked about it; I was not the person who would have known where things went.

Upstairs, my room was hot, so I opened a window. Someone in the other room raised their voice. I knelt down and fished beneath the mattress. I took out the small Ziploc bag with two pills still in it, and the other bag, full of white powder. I couldn’t tell the difference between oxycontin and oxycodone. I looked at the bags for a while until I got bored.

I put them back and lay on the bed. I picked up my book and started reading. I guess I fell asleep because I didn’t hear the front door, or the way it started. The workday was over and I woke up to the noise and kept my eyes closed.

“This is my house,” he said. There were fists on Ben’s door.

Ben had made his own lock so no one could get in his room unless he let them in.

“This is my house,” he said. “You can’t smoke in my house.”

Normally it was another person in the family who called the cops, but they didn’t live here anymore, and Ben’s friend was still in his room hearing everything, so I waited, and did not know how it would end this time. They yelled back and forth, and he pounded on the door, and I was both embarrassed and glad that Chris was there. I wanted to pull a blanket over my head but did not want to make sound, so I stayed still with my eyes closed.

“This is my house,” he said.

I kept my eyes closed. I was lying on my back with nothing covering me. In the book I was reading, the main girl could turn into animals. I thought about what animal I could be. I kept my eyes closed and thought about transforming into a panther, sleek and big and hidden. My paws did not make a noise against the carpet. I slunk to the door and nudged it open, just to see. The hallway was hot and dangerous and close, but I was all muscle and claw. He was there and he was pounding on Ben’s door, but I was there leaping. One pounce and there he was, beneath my paws. I pushed him down, held the pads of my paws over his throat. I roared so loud and so close that he could feel my spit on his face. I opened my eyes and looked at myself. I was still just a girl.

After a while, the noises stopped and I heard him walk downstairs. I opened the door an inch and looked. The hallway was empty. There were no new marks on the door to Ben’s room. I heard the sound of the news.

I went downstairs and sat in the green chair. He was sitting on the couch. His eyebrows were pushed together and his mouth was an upside down u. A muscle in his jaw was twitching. Tom Brokaw was saying something about the war in Afghanistan. The world was somewhere else, somewhere where we would never be. Things were happening that I couldn’t stop. I watched and I waited.

The Simpsons were on when Chris walked past. He didn’t say anything to me when he left. Our front door had a screen that slammed after him.

Ben came downstairs then, with a blue cup in his hand. Ben was in the kitchen, getting water, opening the refrigerator when he got up from the chair.

“Don’t you ever talk to me like that again,” he said. “Don’t talk to me like that in front of people,” he said. “Don’t you dare,” he said.

“What the fuck are you going to do,” he said.

On the television, there was a man called Bleeding Gums Murphy. I wished they had not named him that and covered my own mouth when they showed his teeth. There was still a pink smudge from where my milkshake had melted on the chair. I licked a finger and tried to rub the mark out.

In the kitchen their faces were close together. “This is my house,” he said.

I heard a noise that I didn’t know what it was. The man with bloody gums was playing saxophone.

“Don’t you dare,” he said.

“What the fuck are you going to do,” he said.

I tried to look at the television and I wished I was still in my room. I tried to think about what animal I would want to turn into, something small, to go back upstairs, but I couldn’t make up my mind. I thought about mice.

“This is my house,” he said.

The television was not loud enough. I didn’t want to turn it up. I imagined myself as a bee, buzzing upstairs, but that didn’t feel right. I thought about ants, and spiders, and flies. In the summer our kitchen was full of fruit flies and I did not like them and did not want to be one, not even just to get back to my room. On the television Lisa and the man were playing saxophone together. I remembered how, in science class, we’d watched a video of an octopus getting out of a jar. They told us that octopi don’t have any ears, and don’t experience sound, and can escape any enclosure, even at the zoo. I thought about shrinking, growing tentacles, and slinking up the stairs, and the way the world would get quiet.

When they were done in the kitchen, Ben walked through the living room and did not look at me. There was a slam outside when he closed the car door. He drove away and I was left in the house.

The phone rang so I went to get it.

“Hey,” Cody said. “Some of us are going to a movie tonight. You want to come see The Village?”

“Sorry, I don’t have any money,” I told him. I knew it had stopped but I still didn’t want him to hear anything, so I hung up. Sometimes, I wished there would be someone else there to see when things happened so I wouldn’t have to try to explain it. Someone other than the cops. I didn’t know what they would think of me or us and so I stayed off the phone as much as I could and never invited anybody over.

I went back to the green chair. He was sitting on the couch breathing heavy.

Nothing happened for hours and then he went to bed. I stayed downstairs to keep the door unlocked and the lights on, in case Ben was coming home. I wanted him to know who was awake and who was asleep from just looking at the house.

The local Iowa news was on, so I closed my eyes. I thought about giving Ben the pills I had hidden under my bed, because then he would be excited to see me for a little. He might even smile at me. But I wanted to get some money for them, and if he knew I had them, he would take them without asking. I thought about him coming home angry, him coming home hungry, and how nice it was when he noticed me in a good way.

Sometimes, after things got loud and he left, or the cops got called and he left, or something got found and he left, sometimes, when he came back after, late at night, he took the remote without asking. Even if it was my favorite show that I had stayed up on purpose for. I told him not to do that but he was big and strong and wasn’t afraid of waking anyone up, so I would get stuck watching MTV or a movie I didn’t like. Sometimes when he got back late, he asked if I could make him food. He was nicer on those nights. Once, we had frozen tilapia in the fridge and I fried it at midnight, the sizzling happy everywhere. I hated fish but I liked it when he felt okay.

I hoped that if he came home that night he wouldn’t ask for me to make food, since he had eaten the last waffles earlier and the freezer was empty. I fell asleep on the couch with the television still on.

 

 

#

 

 

Sometimes there were just days like that. People came and went and I watched and waited. The house was unlocked and unleavable. That summer was like every summer, hot and small.

There was no wind and the sky didn’t end.

I was home alone and heard a car door slam. I got up to go look through the window to the street. There were five men, pale and long, getting out of the car in front of our house. Two of them had bats that they swung against their open palms. They were looking at the house and walking toward it. I wanted to hide in every direction. I turned off the television and ran upstairs. The front door was not locked. I did not know them but if they were here, they knew us. I went to my room and looked out. They were on the porch. They were laughing. They rang the doorbell. Their car was brown. Someone opened the door. I did not breathe. I got beneath my bed and waited.

Weeks ago, when they came the first time, Ben had been home. He was watching television with me, and then he was holding a metal baseball bat and saying, “Get upstairs and no matter what happens, don’t make a goddamn noise.”

I did not know where Ben was this time. My door was closed but did not lock.

Underneath my bed, I picked up the small bags of pills and powder. This would not be enough to get out. Not enough to sell to anyone and not enough to take. The plastic felt strange in the sweat of my hand.

I heard them coming up the stairs and saying mean things about our house, and meaner things about Ben. Ben had done all sorts of things to his door that I did not understand, but I knew that if he wasn’t home the only way in was to break the door down. From where I lay beneath my bed, I could see their shoes in the crack below the door.

There was a sound that I didn’t recognize, metal and scratching.

And then, below. The open and shut. The screen door slapping. I closed my eyes tight and begged to everything that the person who came home was not Ben. There were feet on the stairs. The metal sound stopped.

“Shit,” someone whispered.

I held my hands over my eyes and waited. Please, I thought. Please, please, please. One of the men coughed. Someone got to the top of the stairs.

I squeezed my eyes shut and did not breathe. “Who are you?” he said.

“We’re looking for Ben, is he home?” one of them said. “I guess not,” he said.

There was a moment of nothing when none of us knew what was going to happen. I held my breath and started to count.

“We’ll, uh, try back later,” someone said. They walked down the stairs without hurrying but they weren’t laughing anymore. The front door closed and their car made a noise that kicked and then they drove away.

“Sarah?” the door opened. I did not breathe or move. I had counted to twenty when the feet walked away, but he left the door open.

I stayed under my bed until it got dark out and I could hear Tom Brokaw downstairs. I got out and took my book in my hand and put the pills in my pocket. The world was so far away. I stayed there for a second, in the dark room, looking out the window. The streetlamp near our house was on. It was quiet outside. Even if I left, even if I walked until I couldn’t walk anymore, there would only be more fields and towns just as small and dangerous as ours. Everything was spread out and the places that mattered were so far away.

I went downstairs and asked about food.

 

 

#

 

 

Two days later, when Ben came home close to midnight, he asked me to make something for him and I didn’t tell him what happened while he was gone. Our dad was asleep, and Ben turned on The Daily Show. I put in a frozen pizza for him and stood in the doorway to the kitchen. Ben was stoned and being nice. Sometimes I thought he didn’t really like me, but even if he didn’t, he still wanted me to be safe and would get angry if he found out I wasn’t, and I didn’t want to make him angry, so I waited for the pizza to finish cooking and didn’t say anything.

As he ate, I thought about what I would tell him, eventually. How the men came to our house, what they looked like. He would raise his voice and ask me to describe them, so he could find them and make sure they didn’t come here again. I would do my best to remember their faces, their bodies, their car. I wouldn’t tell him about the things I kept in my pockets. He wouldn’t tell me why they came. I wouldn’t tell him how I hid when our father came home. He wouldn’t tell me where he went when he was gone. I wouldn’t tell him how afraid I got when the yelling started and he wasn’t here. He wouldn’t tell me what he was on. I wouldn’t tell him about the looks I got, about how red and close his face got, about the spit that landed on my cheeks when the yelling got loud, about the way his hands squeezed my shoulders together when I couldn’t tell him anything about Ben, about how, when Ben wasn’t home, there was no one to call the cops and no one to see.

Ben offered me a slice of pizza and I took it. He told me that our president was a war criminal and I told him I knew. I waited until he fell asleep and took the cigarette package that he left out. The carton was stuffed with his bag of pills. I tried to count how many there were but gave up. I tucked it under the blanket close to his body and didn’t take anything for myself.

I didn’t change the channel after he passed out. I put my feet up beneath me in the green chair and closed my eyes. I would sleep there, so that in the morning, if the noises started, I would be there to see, and he wouldn’t have to tell me what happened, and after, if he was hungry, I could see if we had anything for breakfast.


Madeline Kinkel is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared in Yemassee, Puerto del Sol, and Heavy Feather Review. She co-translated a book of Lida Yusupova’s poetry, forthcoming from Cicada Press. She was an Aspen Words Emerging Writers Fellow in 2020.