The Midwest |

In Case I Don't Call

by Bruce Johnson

When they were young, Michelle and her little brother shared a line in the basement. Their parents got them this line because Michelle insisted, since it seemed all the other girls in her grade had their own lines. And her parents obliged, because really there was no better argument Michelle could have chosen—in all matters of parenting, they deferred to what they took to be popular opinion.

The only one to object was Alan. He was five years younger than she was, and he hated having to “field her calls,” as he put it, hated having sole responsibility to write down his big sister’s messages. But what was worse, the thing that really got him yelling, was that so many of Michelle’s friends mistook him for her. His voice hadn’t changed yet, and countless times Michelle came home to a yellow post-it stuck to the receiver, a scribbled name and number and an angry command: Tell your friend I do not sound like a girl!!!

Now Alan wore a red dress and light makeup, rouge on the cheeks, a thin layer of lipstick that matched the polish on his nails. He served her steak from a cast-iron skillet, bloody, on an old ceramic hand-me-down plate from their childhood. Baked potato on the side, sour cream and chopped chives. In the center of the table, a bowl of salad topped with shredded carrot for color. The women’s clothes were something new, a thing of the last six months or so. His features were naturally feminine, something she had always been jealous of. Model-skinny, high cheekbones, pouty lips and long lashes. Though he wore makeup, he didn’t need much.

“I almost made a wine reduction,” he said. “But I remembered you like it plain.”

He set an open bottle of red down in front of her. The table was small and round and just big enough for the two of them, pushed up against the corner of his kitchen.

She nodded. “Wine’s for drinking,” she said. She poured herself a glass.

Last week when he called Michelle to invite her to a homemade meal at the small house he rented, she’d silently ticked off all possible reasons in her head—he wanted to borrow money, he needed help moving, he had some message for her to relay to Mom and Dad. Once he’d invited her over under similar circumstances to sell her knives, some Cutco-knockoff he’d started working for and shot all his money into. Or maybe he had some crazy news to share, some sudden elopement now that that was legal. She wondered what her reaction to this would be. Something about family made her frame things this way—as if her reaction were something outside of herself, outside of her control.

“I want to ask you for something,” was all he’d tell her on the phone.

“Yeah, I figured.”

“You may not like it.”

“I figured that, too.”

Things weren’t always easy between them. An age difference of five years was an eternity in child-time. Her little brother, her baby brother. When she was in middle school she railed against her parents when they made her let him tag along with her, and made him pay with the sort of verbal barbs only an elder sibling can deliver. When he was still years away from being called fag or queer by kids his own age, she started to make fun of his skinniness, his hair, the effeminate lilt to his voice and walk. She made sure every one of her friends knew all the most embarrassing moments from his life so they could make him relive them—the time he had to be dragged from the theater when he started crying at the start of Finding Nemo, or when he wet the bed for fear of the ghost she told him haunted the bathroom at night.

She was mortified now to think of all this, all the hard times she’d given him. By the time she reached high school she’d become fiercely protective of him to compensate and remained so on into adulthood. When his ex-boyfriend recently ran around on him, Michelle concocted a whole list of revenges Alan made her swear not to carry out—slashing the man’s tires, egging his house, using the key Alan still had to get inside and sell the man’s best possessions on eBay. But she and Alan still fought often; every time he called she had to think for a moment whether she needed to act mad when she picked up. And she always picked up.

Now she sat and ate while Alan made conversation to avoid asking her whatever he wanted to ask. She tried to remember if she’d ever seen him set out cloth napkins before, if she’d even known he owned any. They talked about her new job, corrections officer at the medium-security-level jail in Kearney, a job she’d moved two hours away for, away from Lincoln where they’d always lived. They talked about his new job at a home improvement store, getting things off high shelves and assembling various pieces of furniture. He complained they wouldn’t let him wear earrings. He was twenty-two now, she was twenty-seven. They both had half a college degree. His major had been theatre, hers remained forever undeclared. She wanted to tell him he should go back to school, but it seemed hypocritical. Anyway, she reminded herself, he was a grown man now. It wasn’t her place to worry. He got enough of that from their folks.

“Is this what you wanted to talk to me about?” Michelle asked. “Your new job?”

“No, of course not,” he said. “Least not exactly.” But he did not elaborate.

After dinner he put her plate, fork and knife in the sink with a squirt of soap and a thin layer of bubbly water. She followed him to the living room and sat down beside him on the couch. He crossed his legs at the knee and turned toward her. His legs were smooth. She felt her cheeks grow warm when she wondered how much of his body he had shaved.

“So?” she said.

“So. I have a business proposition.”

“Then the answer is no. Last time you borrowed money it took you three times the amount of time you said to pay me back.”

He narrowed his lipsticked lips, confused. “Last time I borrowed money I was seventeen,” he said.


He shook his head. “You don’t need to put in any money. I’m going to pay you. All I need is for you to check in on me. You work security now, right? I want you to work security for me. Earn a little extra cash on the weekends.”

He said, “I’m going to be meeting some men.”

He explained her role first, in simple logistical terms. She began to understand some of her responsibilities and flashes of what she would be doing, with no real grasp of the overall situation or what he was planning to do. Who were these men? They didn’t sound like friends.

He said he would make a point to have it happen in Lincoln, and she could be at his house if she wanted, watching TV, eating Fritos, sipping beer. She would have her night stick, they gave her a night stick at Kearney, didn’t they? And all she had to do was have her phone on. He would tell her what time he would call, and he would call. Nothing to it.

If he didn’t call, though—which he would, he stressed he always would, ninety-nine point nine nine percent—then he’d need her to come check up on him. She’d have the address where he’d be. She’d come check up and extricate him if he needed to be extricated.

“Extricated,” she repeated.

“It means get me the fuck out of there.”

“I know what it means,” she snapped. “But I don’t understand. Who are these men you’re meeting? Why are you afraid? Are you in trouble?”

“I’m not afraid. I’m cautious. I meet them online.”

“So they’re dates.”

He opened his mouth then seemed to think better of it and shut it again. He laughed a nervous laugh that reminded her of their mother and strafed his eyes toward the kitchen, the sink filled with tepid water and dirty dishes.

“I guess you could say that,” he said.

She looked away, hoping she had misunderstood his meaning.

“I’ll pay you well,” he was saying now, as if that were the issue. “What do you make at Kearney? I’ll pay you that, or a little more, if you want. I’m sure you can use some extra cash.”

She shut her eyes, literally shut her eyes, so she did not have to look at him looking at her. “Where do you meet these men?” she asked.

“There are some sites. Craigslist, for one.”

She opened her eyes. Her brother had that cowed look like when he used to get yelled at as a child, or beaten up at school.

“To think when Mom calls I tell her you’re doing well.”

“I am doing well, thank you. Though I’m surprised she asks.”

“They’ll lend you money.”

“I don’t want their money. I don’t want anything they have.”

“What do you want, then? What is it we didn’t give you?”

She wanted to say Why can’t you just be normal? but stopped herself, ashamed. Michelle often resented her own slide into normalcy, the slide that seemed inescapable now in her mid-twenties, as if she were a grain of sand filing with all the others toward the funnel of an upright hourglass. She’d moved two hours away for the job at Kearney, not because she was passionate about law (far from it, in fact) but because jobs for dropouts were hard to find and the money wasn’t bad. It was the sort of work a sixteen-year-old version of herself would have made fun of, blowing smoke from a joint out the car window, snarking about all the jerkoffs who worked for the prison system. Now she couldn’t smoke weed, her job drug-tested. The people she met in Kearney were the small town types good for a beer and some sports talk and little else, and most of the time she spent her evenings at home, having a Budweiser and a Hungry-Man TV dinner in front of some sitcom.

As for her question—what is it we didn’t give you—she knew it was ridiculous. Their father understood little past the year 2000. A daughter who took another girl to prom, not because she liked girls but just to piss people off. A son who started crying on the third day of flag football practice when he was made to run laps with grass-stained knees. At the dining room table their father complained of having to explain these things to his friends, the other workers at the rubber plant, saying things like You know Jimmy’s boy, he’s about to skip a grade or Tim’s girl’s on the pep squad at her school, how bout that. Instead he was stuck with two children who always got good grades but constantly cut class, then dropped out of college—an offense he took as a personal affront to all the opportunity afforded them by the long hours he’d worked over the years. And then their mother, who never had anything to say, who faced the world with a perpetual look of silent disapproval, who when her husband badgered their son about why he never had any girlfriends and asked one day in a half-joking but fearful tone if Alan was “queer or what,” just turned her head and said, “Stop it, Roger, you’ll make me sick.”

She wanted to ask her brother: What more could I have done? What more could you and I have done for each other? She felt her anger flare. But we turned out all right is how she ended every story she told about her childhood, on the rare occasions she did talk about it.

Alan generously ignored her question. “I know people who have done it here and there,” he said. “It sounds no less pleasant than stocking shelves.”

“It’s illegal.”

“My sister the saint.”

“It’s dangerous,” she said.

“Not if I have you checking in on me,” he said. He took a clove cigarette from a pack sitting on the coffee table and offered her one. She took it though she didn’t normally smoke. She needed something to do with her mouth that wasn’t scold.

He lit hers, then his own. He tugged absently at the hem of his dress. “You’ve been checking up on me my whole life,” he said. “Making sure I was okay. Might as well get paid for it, right?”

Prostitution was a thing she was not exactly against, not in theory. She was not one to tell women or men for that matter what they could or could not do with their bodies. She’d heard stories of the way it was in Europe, state-regulated brothels, everything clean and safe and on the up and up. That seemed fine. But she knew women here, she’d met them at Kearney, awaiting trial in their tiny cells. These women’s lives were shot through with heartache and missed opportunity. Whether they were the ones out in the yard, lifting weights and getting in fights over everything from tampons to mobile phones, or the ones who rarely left their cells and looked so skinny they might squeeze through the bars, they all carried with them an air of hopelessness that reminded her eerily of her mother.

“If you want to talk about it,” she said, “we can talk about it. But I’ll tell you right now, one hundred percent, I will not do it. I can’t control you but I don’t have to support you. I won’t do it.”

“Fine,” he said. He took one last long drag of his cigarette and stabbed it out in the ashtray. “But I will tell you, then, one hundred percent—” a mocking tone here, the voice they used to use to mimic mandates from their mother— “I’m going to do it, whether you help or not. I only wanted to give you the opportunity to help make it safe. I can find someone else. I just asked you because you’re the biggest badass I know.”

She tried hard not to be flattered. She was a “bulky” woman, that was her mother’s favorite word for her, in those moments that made her wish that she, like her brother, no longer talked to her parents. When she was in the fifth grade and had been called fat by one of the more popular girls, Trish McKinley, she’d handled it the only way she knew how: she beat the shit out of her. And she wasn’t fat, not really. Her bulk was all muscle. A brief suspension and a stint of counseling appointments later, she was free of those schoolyard taunts forever.

It was, she’d realized with a stab of unease years later, not far from the jail yard rules she’d heard batted around Kearney: pick a fight the first day and win, then everyone will know not to mess with you. Here, too, she saw the line between criminal behavior and normal behavior grow fingernail thin.

“I know people who have done it,” Alan said again. “Turned tricks.”

She could tell he enjoyed saying this phrase, the kitsch of it.

“I do too,” she said. “They’re in jail.”

It wasn’t that he needed the money, he told her, at least not in the way she thought. He had a job, thirty hours a week, the maximum they could give him without offering benefits. He made rent and paid bills okay, had money budgeted to go out drinking one night a week. It was the kind of average, comfortable existence she could see terrified him to think could stretch out for another forty-five years until retirement. He didn’t want this measured life where he had just enough to scrape by and even build up his savings if he really scrimped, but no money to travel and no vacation time to take even if he did come by the money.

He seemed to counter her counterarguments before she said them, speaking in the matter-of-fact way people gave PowerPoint presentations in offices on TV. He had no delusions of glamour, he wanted to make that clear. He had those friends who did it, and they’d told him stories. The clients were mostly overweight or elderly. They had eczema patches and wheezing breath, or some hard to pin down mental handicap. Once one had an oxygen tank with tubes clipped to his nose, the occasional hiss of escaping air. But time with oxygen tank man would lead easily to sharp new dresses, a flat screen TV. Lifting a few fat rolls to get at what was underneath was nights on the town, a fund for early (and more comfortable) retirement. In one hour he could make what he made in a full day of work. Which of the two was more demeaning, then? Besides, he said, these people needed people like him. Elderly people paid for all sorts of companionship, that was natural.

“Listen,” he said, frowning down at a place on his thumb where the polish was chipped, “I don’t want what you have. What you and Mom and Dad have.” He took a big red gulp now straight from the wine bottle, all decorum dissolved, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I don’t want our parents’ lives,” he said.

She had all sorts of things she wanted to say to this, meant to explain if not excuse their parents’ shortcomings, while acknowledging how difficult things were for her and (mostly) for her brother. That it was not their parents’ fault, not entirely, the world they were raised in was drastically different than the world now, the perceived needs (or lack thereof) of children a world away.

Instead she said, “I am nothing like our fucking parents.”

What followed was her dismissal from his house, after the volume and pettiness of their conversation gradually rose until they were shouting at each other, culminating in a slammed screen door with her on the other side of it. Alan had told her that, on the contrary, she was exactly like their parents. Old-fashioned prudishness, a stubborn insistence on the value of hard work and the American dream, and worse of all the judgment, the unsolicited advice about everything from what job to take to what men to date. And Michelle had called him lazy, a fuckup, someone sure to end up in a jail cell somewhere fermenting fruit in the water tank of a state-owned toilet. A woman in bifocals watched curiously out the window of a neighboring house until she saw Michelle looking and darted her head back inside.

The first call he made was an angry voicemail he left on her phone before she even got out of Lincoln. It cajoled her for being a bad sister and homophobic to boot, daring to tell him what rights he had to do what he would with his own body. The next one, another call she silenced, came right as she pulled up to her house in Kearney. “I’m sorry,” the voicemail said simply. The voice was tired, ragged, torn up from tears and cigarette smoke. “Please call.”

She waited a couple days to respond, as long as she dared. She wanted to wait longer. She had perfected a kind of artistry in protracted silences. Silences that conveyed anger at first, then sadness, and eventual indifference. It was then that whomever she was feuding with would cave. Her mother calling to apologize for whatever comment she had made about her weight, some friend who’d stiffed her on borrowed money, a lover who had made eyes at one of her friends. With Alan it had always been that he’d had some emotional outburst, and he’d call to laugh and say maybe he was on the rag, a joke that offended her mildly but she always let go because she was relieved to hear his voice again.

But this time she had no such opportunity. She had issue with her brother’s scheme for a variety of reasons—its legal concerns, its ethical implications, what people would think of him (and her, she had to admit she worried about how having an occasional prostitute for a brother would reflect on her)—but the part that made her finally pick up the phone, a breathless feeling of pride-be-damned panic pounding at the inside walls of her chest cavity, was that she worried for his physical well-being. Her kid brother was beanpole thin, sexy in a dress, feminine in all the worst ways. This was only one in a long string of what she considered bad sexual decisions—he was always going for the biggest, gruffest man he could get his hands on, then acting shocked when he was mistreated. He needed to be protected, he had that part right at least. So she sat in her spare living room in Kearney, picking at a hole in the upholstery of her secondhand couch, and dialed him up.

There was a pause when he picked up and she heard him puff at a cigarette.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” she said, wishing now he hadn’t seen her do so just a couple days before.

 “That’s the strangest start to an apology I ever heard,” he said. “I’ve got a date tonight. This might not be the best time to talk.”

“A date?” she asked. “What type of date?”

He laughed. “The old-fashioned kind. Not business, pleasure. Hopefully not too old-fashioned, you know.”

“And the other thing?”

“I’m still waiting for you to say yes.”

That was good. She had hoped he would say that. She’d thought about it and finally decided that she’d known her brother long enough to know she wasn’t going to change his mind with words.

So she took a deep breath and said what she’d planned to say, just as she’d planned to say it: “All right, then, let’s talk money.” And after arguing for a higher price long enough to convince him she was serious—Come on, Alan, this is illegal, you’ve got to pay more than my day job—Alan told her to be in town next Saturday and they hung up.

She had an old pair of handcuffs in her glovebox she intended to use. She took them out in her brother’s parking lot and tested the key several times, watched them clasp and unclasp, then shoved them in her back pocket. One of her exes had left them at her house. He had thought they could use them in the bedroom and she had laughed in his face. It was just the sort of thing Alan would make a joke about, handcuffs in the bedroom—he loved the sort of risqué jokes you could tell at parties, those jokes that made her uncomfortable in a way she couldn’t explain.

She knew she couldn’t police her little brother, not anymore, not really. But if he was going to revert to childishness, to acting out, shortsighted behavior with no nods to adult responsibility, then she was going to treat him like she did as a kid. Physical restraint, maybe a good punch or two. She’d make sure he missed his “date.” She hadn’t punched him in over a decade, and she was sure it would hurt much more now. She had a sense that this was what he wanted, had always wanted. Why else would he have told his big sister his plan? He had to have known her reaction in advance.

He was in his living room putzing about nervously when she arrived, which he stopped just long enough to let her in and set a bottle of wine and a glass on the table for her, along with a bottle of mineral water. He gestured to the old tube TV in the corner, said if the remote didn’t work at first just smack it a couple times. It was after dark and the end table lamp that lit the room had a light bulb out, so her eyes had to adjust. He started to explain everything to her, how he’d write down the address where he’d be, it wasn’t far, fifteen minutes away max. He’d call promptly at 10:00, if it turned 10:01 and he hadn’t called then she needed to come get him immediately, but whatever happened just stay calm. This was perfectly safe, all just a precaution. He wore a pair of sharp black jeans and a silk sport shirt. She hadn’t seen him this dressed up since high school graduation.

He cracked his knuckles nervously and wiped his palms on the back of his pants. He laughed that twittery laugh that again reminded her of their mother, but this time it was a bit higher, like he was trying to do an impression of his normal laugh but couldn’t hit the right pitch. “Jesus,” he said. “I’m nervous!”

She stood between him and the door. She crossed her arms.

“Do you need anything else?” he asked, motioning at the water, the wine.

“You’d better sit down,” she said. She stood as tall and straight as she could, feet slightly parted, as broad-shouldered and doorway-blocking as she could be. “You had to have known I wouldn’t let you do this.”

“You’ve changed your mind?” She could tell by his tone he was annoyed. “Because we’ve been over this. With you here, there’s nothing to worry about. Oldest profession in the world, isn’t that what they say?”

“You want me to protect you,” she said, “I’m here to protect you. Sit down.” She stepped forward and put her hand on the back of his neck, a pressure somewhere between motherly and hostile. She tried to maneuver him gently toward the couch.

He knocked her arm off. “Hey. Cut it out.”

“Don’t be a child,” she said. “Sit down.”

He shook his head. “Forget it,” he said. “I shouldn't have asked you. I thought it might make you feel better, doing the security thing. Keeping me safe. It was for your benefit, not mine.”

He tried to step around her and she sidestepped into his path.

“Sit down,” she said.

“Come on.” He tried to dart around her and she shoved him up against the wall. His head slammed and he stumbled, almost fell. “Jesus,” he said, and she saw his eyes flick to the glimmer of the handcuffs as she pulled them from her back pocket.

He stepped backward, further into the room, and put a hand to the back of his head to check for blood. She felt a flare of satisfaction at this. He hadn’t hit his head that hard.

“In case you forgot,” he said, his eyes now steadying on hers, “you are not a real cop. You only handle people who are already behind bars.”

When Alan was young, he’s become briefly obsessed with wrestling after his parents gave him a used Nintendo system that came with a WCW game. He’d spend hours on the thing trying different holds, mashing the buttons until the lettering wore away. Then he’d hand a controller to Michelle and try to teach her to pull off some new move he’d discovered, shouting “Up B! Up B!” until, laughing, she’d set the controller aside and lift him up and throw him down playfully in her best imitation of a body slam.

These were the moments she thought of when she stepped forward to grab him, to wrestle him to the ground and pin him there as she cuffed him. She paused mid-step, though, as she realized she wasn’t exactly sure how to do that. How was she supposed to hold both his hands still, and buckle the cuffs as well? And restrain him too? She cursed herself for not watching a couple YouTube videos of cops doing this before she came.

While she was deliberating, Alan stepped forward and—in a move all too reminiscent of that old wrestling game—put his leg behind hers and shoved her to the ground. She’d never been struck by him, not as an adult, and even with what she was trying to do she hadn’t expected it. It seemed impossible, even as it happened, little Alan toppling her to the ground. She landed on her back and felt the wind rush out of her, and an eyewatering pain started to spread across the back of her head.

Breathless, stunned, she started to lift her head but it was too late. She saw a blur of feet speed past her, and Alan slamming out the screen door.

At ten to ten she was sitting on Alan’s couch, ice pack wrapped in a dish towel pressed to the back of her head, watching the muted news. The lump was the size of a small marble, warm and tight beneath her hair, and the ice didn’t seem to be helping. She sipped a cup of tea, trying to stay alert, trying not to keep looking at her phone. She had resigned herself to waiting until ten, to make sure he called. She hadn’t decided yet what she’d do when he returned.

She’d tried to run after him, out the front door, once she regained her breath. But he was gone, car screeching out the driveway and up the street. A few minutes later his text came through. I’m about to walk in! it said, as if nothing at all had transpired between them. Wish me luck! I scheduled another text message to come your way at 10:01 with the address where I am, in case I don’t call. I’m putting this on silent, so don’t bother responding.

At five to ten she did what she had told herself she wouldn’t do, crack open the wine bottle. She wanted to stay alert but her nerves were fluttering so she took a drink, then another, and started to pace. She knew it would be ten on the dot when he called, or close to it. He’d told her the man was paying hourly, that after all this trouble he was still on the clock.

Glaring at the phone on the table, she realized that there was a part of her, small but swelling larger, that she had previously refused to recognize. A part of her that did not want the phone to ring.

No, she wanted to be right. She wanted to be the one to show up at the supplied address, to drag the other man (pervert!) from his house by the hair and slam his head to the pavement, to beat his face to a bloody mess with the night stick she’d refused to use on Alan.

At 9:59, the phone rang. A cheery but embarrassed brother, saying everything went fine and that he was on his way now. He asked if she was she still there. “Of course,” she said, blood pounding in ears, eyes threatening tears, war cry stifled in her throat. “Of course I’m still here.”