Red Things For My Brother And I

When I was maybe seven years old, my uncle (by blood) and aunt (by marriage) divorced. This seemed perfectly fine to me, because the aunt had always been hard to judge. One minute, she would laugh along to something another adult had said, and then another she would whip her head around and blame my mother for breaking her dishwasher merely by standing beside it. Her moods could not be trusted, and I was glad that I would never have to see her again.

Not long after the divorce, my family went to visit my uncle on a weekend when he had custody of my two younger cousins. I don't think that I had been in an apartment building before, because all the hallways and identical doors confused me. When my father knocked on my uncle's apartment door, even I could hear that it was hollow and cheap. It made me want to leave. I was used to seeing my uncle in a modern-looking house with new carpets. This place had dim fluorescents, and when he opened the door, I could see that his carpet was mashed down like the dried out rug in my friend's basement after the pipes had burst.

While we took off our coats, he showed us his three rooms from a single point by the door: a bathroom, a bedroom, and a kitchen/living room bisected by the line where the linoleum ran under the carpet. None of it smelled right, and I wanted to cut out and play outside, but something about the unfamiliarity of the neighbourhood left me standing awkwardly in the living room, waiting for my cousins to arrive. My uncle took pity on me.

"I wasn't going to bring this out, but if you're careful with it, it should be okay," he said, hauling a huge wad of bright red plastic out of his bedroom. He carried a bicycle pump under his arm.

"What is that?" my father asked.

"It's an inflatable sofa. I found it next to a dumpster in an alley," my uncle said. "I patched up the holes with some glue from work, and it's good as new."

My heart picked up. "It's a doll sofa!"

No one knew what I was talking about. A friend of mine had miniature inflatable furniture that smelled like beach balls, and she would lean her dolls all over it to pretend that they were sitting on it. I didn't have much use for the dolls, but I loved to imagine myself small enough to sit on it, like a genie in a bottle.

He left me with the bicycle pump so that he and my parents could play cards. I used the pump until they were sufficiently preoccupied, and then I crawled around to one of the nozzles on the backside of the base of the sofa. I hid there between the wall and the bulk of red plastic, quietly inhaling through my nose and breathing out through my mouth into the nozzle I'd found until I nearly passed out from hyperventilation. It was nice to go unnoticed, even if the wall at my back was freezing cold and the harsh, old carpet that dug into my shoulder smelled like cat vomit.

I snapped out of my near-fugue when my little brother started shouting through the intercom from outside the building. The sofa, light as balloons, rolled away from me as I shot up, and there he was, already being pulled into the bathroom. His face was covered in bright blood.

"Kwerril did it! Kwerril did it!" he kept yelling. Blood covered his left eye so that he could not see out of it.

My mother wiped away the blood on his face to reveal three long scratches along his cheek, one of which began on the lip of his lower eyelid. I wasn't too little to feel the collective nausea at the thought that my little brother had just about lost his eye to a squirrel.

It wasn't just any squirrel that had attacked him, either. A bunch of wild black squirrels had escaped from the city zoo and taken up residence in my uncle's neighbourhood. They were noted for their aggression, but had proved impossible to round up effectively. Nearly thirty years later, the squirrels are still there.

The rest of that evening in my uncle's sickly-hued, nouveau bachelor's apartment is a blur of jumping on the inflated sofa with my cousins while our parents played cards under a yellow kitchen light and my brother slept on the coats in my uncle's bed. The parts that mattered had already wedged themselves into my pockets. These things sit unshakable in the back of my head, and my mind plays as theatre for them again and again: the camouflage of a relatively weightless red sofa with hidden nozzles for blowing and my brother's red-streaked face, tight with fear at his temporary blood blindness.