We wanted things. Things that our friends had, things that kids at school liked to show off, things that mom and dad couldn’t afford. We wanted SNES games, Starter jackets, Jordans. There were other things that we wanted, things that we couldn’t buy, but we had no way to name that wanting back then, and nobody to listen even if we could.
My brother, he wanted whatever I wanted. Like brothers do. Our childhood together was like this: I was always reaching my hand back to make sure he was close, safe. But I was older, manipulative. I could get him to do what I wanted, could get him to follow like a younger brother does.
It was winter and the wanting was worse with the holidays. The weather held snow for most of the season and there were stretches where we’d be school-closed at home, me watching my brother for weeks. After a morning of cancellation, we bundled up in our snow pants and jackets and gloves, and took to our shovels. In Haymarket Square, the townhouses where we lived, we could ask for five and they might give us ten. The big money was the big houses, the “real” houses in Strouble’s Mill, where we could charge ten and they might hand us twenty. There were the houses that would decline, too, look at us with pity and tell us they planned on taking care of it themselves. It was the same look friend’s parents gave me dropping me back at home some nights.
“Would you like us to shovel your driveway?” I’d say. I did the talking, my brother standing beside me, rose-cheeked.
They would ask how much we charged, and I would change my answer depending on what I thought I saw in the person. I was almost a teenager, I knew you could look for weaknesses in people by the way they looked at you. Sometimes they had special requests: clean off their car or dust of a bush or shovel a path to their air conditioning unit. Sometimes they paid us extra for these requests. And sometimes, only a few times, they didn’t pay us for any of the work we’d done, and I’d watch my brother beat on their door with his balled fist saying, “That’s not fair of you!”
We set to work, my brother at one end, me at the other. We had done this for a few seasons. We knew it was a way to get something we wanted. A way to prove our worth at the end of a day, talking to our parents over burnt scrambled eggs and flank steaks. The top layer of snow we tossed into the yard, quick snaps of the shovel. The hard part was closer to the concrete, the patches that had frozen. Most of the time I had to go back over my brother’s work. We’d spent five dollars on a jug of rock salt that we carried around. At the end of a job, I let him throw the salt down because he liked the way it dissolved the snow. The cash they handed us when the job was done I stashed in the waistband of my underwear.
We worked the neighborhood as long as we could without going home. There were houses that would try to feed us snacks, put mugs of hot chocolate in our gloved hands hoping to warm us. Other houses would try to outfit us with better gloves, scarves, hats, but we had been taught to never take a handout. There were the houses that invited us inside, to warm up. Most of the people offering were old ladies or moms with infants clung to their shoulders, innocent neighbors in an innocent neighborhood. One time an older man with a goatee watched us closely from his kitchen window and invited us inside when we’d finished. We declined, but still took the twenty he handed us.
There was one house that we did go inside. It had started snowing again on the work we’d just finished. The woman suggested we get in from the storm, and this time we did, leaving our shovels leaned on porch. She was older, like a grandma, like the women who volunteered at the food bank with mom every other weekend, the ones who had handed her a bag of groceries to bring home at the end of the shift. In the living room, there was a boy I’d never seen at school before. His face was so swollen on one side that one of his eyes appeared to be missing. His body was strapped into a device that seemed to twist him in two different directions, while keeping him upright, his tiny wrists held by a series of straps. His face contorted as he tried looking at us in our snow gear. He let out a low grunt, his body twitching. The woman attended to the boy.
She said, “Darren is happy to meet you.”
The woman asked if we needed anything to drink or eat, but I told her we had to go soon. My brother walked up to Darren. Darren let out another grunt.
My brother said, “It’s nice to meet you, Darren.”
Darren grunted again.
“What grade are you in?” My brother said.
“Darren isn’t able to go to school right now,” the woman said.
I waited in the hallway, watching my brother. Darren was hooked up to a machine that scared me, the sound it made, almost like it was alive. I wanted to know why Darren didn’t go to our school. There were other kids who needed assistance that went to our school. Every kid should be able to go to school and be with their friends, I thought.
My brother patted Darren’s hand, gently. My brother: kind and thoughtful and inclusive—themes that have extended throughout his life. Darren’s face lit up.
Outside, the walkway had been snowed over completely. When we left the house, we re-shoveled the layer that had fallen while we were inside. No charge. The woman almost forgot to pay us, but then she handed me five dollars. I thought about giving it back, but I didn’t.
“You come back and see Darren whenever you want,” she said, beaming.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Stay warm now.”
That night, before bed, I counted our money from the day over and over. Enough money for a new fighting game. It was supposed to snow again overnight and we could make even more. I sat in bed and listened for the hanging bells on front door to sound, then the slam. Some nights the slam was louder than others. Most nights I moved from the bed and pressed my body into the carpet, the fibers scratching my legs, soothing. I touched my ear to the metal air vent, listening for what was happening downstairs. Was that talking or yelling? Was that crying or laughing? Every night was different. But every night I only wanted to hear nothing because I knew it meant I could finally sleep. I cracked my door open, quietly. I would be able to hear better from the top of the hallway. But my brother was already huddled at the top of the stairs in his underwear, hugging his knees to his chest. When he saw me he put a finger to his lips.