The Names They Came With
Hope Lourie Killcoyne
I was born October 16, 1971, at Children’s Hospital, Pittsburgh, the day Roberto Clemente caught Frank Robinson’s sac fly in Game Six of the Series. It was the game that turned the series around. My dad never forgave me for making him miss it.
Much as I used to gripe about him, I wish the old man was still around. Not that I don’t miss my mom. But Dad was the one to watch, the one I wanted the thumbs up from. He always said I was soft like Ma, but I wasn’t. I think I would’ve done him proud, being the man’s man I’ve become. Like how I threw a kegger last July when the Pirates hired Dave Littlefield, and then another one this January to cry in our beers when the Steelers lost the AFC Championship to the Patriots. I tie my own flies, I know the best spots at the lake house—you wouldn’t want to fish in any of Steel Town’s rivers, trust me. When the need arises, I’m my own plumber, electrician, and contractor.
Women? I play the field; there are too many fillies in P’burgh to stay in the stable with just one nag. Me and the boys hang out at least a couple of weekends a month—Eddie and his half-wit kid brother, Pins; Roy, (when his wife lets him out); little Ralphie; and my next door neighbor Stanley—all the guys I grew up with here on Polish Hill. We watch the game, play cards, drink beer, whatever. I work down at the forge like my dad and his dad before him. Stanley works there, too. The rest of the guys are at Heinz. What else. I’m no giant, but at 6’3” I’m not shabby. I generally bowl my weight, 230.
Bottom line. No one messes with me.
No, that’s just not accurate. No one used to mess with me.
It’s all because of Aunt Theresa. She died last month.
The Beauty of Small Dogs
Aunt Theresa was a queer old bird. Only loved her dogs, not people, as far as any of us could tell. She never got on with the family, and never married. She moved to Philly to take a job as a bookkeeper when me and my sister Carol Ann were little. We didn’t get to see her much. Christmas time she came to us, sometimes Easter, too. Whenever she visited, or on those few times we went east to see her, you could tell there was no love lost between her and Ma. Dad didn’t give a shit, of course. Actually, he liked going out there to catch a Phillies game, even if it did kill him how good they were.
But me and Aunt T always got on okay. She was a kook but she cracked me up. She didn’t crack up everyone, though. One September, three, four years ago, me and Carol Ann and Carol Ann’s kids paid her a visit. Ma and Dad had both passed away by that point, so me and Carol Ann went out to kind of keep up the tradition—the crazy old bird didn’t have anyone else.
The twins were new; Carol Ann and her husband had only gotten them six months earlier from China, days after the kids’ second birthday. This visit was the first time our aunt had seen the twins. She wrinkled her nose at them. There was nothing western looking about them at all, they were completely Chinese: round heads, straight black hair, wide noses, and extremely slitty eyes.
Still, Carol Ann tried. “Come here, Hu-Pac, say ‘hi’ to your Great Aunt Theresa.” The kid, dressed in a miniature blue button-down shirt and the shortest, broadest chinos you ever saw, wobbled away from Aunt T toward one of the Shih-Tzus, who took off with a yelp.
“What’d you call him?” The way she pointed her chin at the kid you could see all her many whiskers. Pretty.
“Hu-Pac. And this is Shen-Li.” Carol Ann put her hair out of reach from Shen-Li’s grabbing fingers. “But you knew that, Auntie,” she said in a fake scolding voice. “They’re the names they came with, the same ones we sent you on their arrival announcements.”
Aunt T sniffed. I could tell she was pissed because Hu-Pac was running after the dogs, laughing and shrieking, and sis just let him torture them like she didn’t know what was up. Just then, Shen-Li started sneezing. Carol Ann picked up the girl in her arms, her long blonde hair covering the kid’s large head, protecting her, like. “Are you allergic, sweetie?” she cooed to the girl.
Aunt T scowled, bringing our glasses back to the kitchenette. “All right,” she said, though no one had asked her anything. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing.” Carol Ann said nothing. I felt bad for her, but what did she expect? If there was one thing I’d learned from Dad, it was that you stuck to your own kind. Made things easier, more natural. Carol Ann was more like Ma, color-blind.
The air was tense. The kid started sneezing again. “Hey, guys,” I said. “Why don’t we head down to Chestnut Street and get some air?”
It was a bright, windy day. The kids, strapped into some kind modern stroller contraption, dozed off. Aunt Theresa had all three dogs on their leads. We headed for the stores.
“Princess!” she said sharply to the smallest pooch, the one with runny eyes, sniffing madly at some apparently happening dog shit. The dog looked up from the pile of crap it was grooving on. Aunt T snapped her collar away and dragged it, toenails skidding along the concrete. “How many times have I told you that you don’t have to smell another dog’s mess to make your own? What kind of behavior is that for a lady? Now go.”
Incredibly, the dog squatted down and let out a little coil of her own. Mr. Nibbles was about to check out this latest bit of dog news but took one look at his mom and thought better of it. She groaned a bit, and leaning over stiffly, put the crap into a plastic supermarket bag, then cranked herself back as upright as she went, putting the bag into a nearby garbage can. I guess I should have helped her, but I really didn’t want to, you know? I mean, you gotta draw the line.
When we got to Chestnut Street, some old broad with too much frosted hair swirled on her head like it’d come out of a Reddi Whip can was standing on the corner of Chestnut and North 20th. She looked like trouble. Sure enough, soon as we got close, she focused her little bloodshot eyes on Aunt T. “Excuse me, madam.” Aunt Theresa looked around. “Yes, you; with the dogs and the interesting plaid pants set. Who does your hair?” You could see she was ready to hand out a business card of some kind, some beauty parlor, I guess. But T beat her to the punch. She fished around with her free hand in her pocket and came out with a card of her own. Turns out she’d had these pre-printed cards made up like some suit might have business cards printed. Only these weren’t business cards, they were mind-your-own-business cards.
“Here,” she said, handing a card to the woman. The woman, confused but interested, took it. We walked on. I turned around in time to see her flicking Aunt T the bird.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“Here,” Aunt Theresa said, showing Carol Ann and me what she’d handed the woman. It said:
I find you cocky and obnoxious.
“But how did you…” Carol Ann began.
“And this is the one I give to pain-in-the-ass tourists,” she said, fishing out a card from her other pocket.
You are tedious and self-centered.
“I order a new supply regularly.”
We buried Aunt T with a short stack of both cards in each hand, just so’s she’d be prepared for the hereafter. We weren’t being cute. It was one of the stipulations of her will. Carol Ann and I split the rest of the cards between us for laughs. Another stipulation was that her dogs, the three Shih Tzus, got all her money—ten thousand after taxes. The last one, the biggie, was that I got the dogs. First thing I thought, before I even considered what dealing with three dogs was going to be like, was that I could finally redo the deck. A man’s gotta live, and life’s too short to get it done right in the amount of time they give you.
But the dogs weren’t just a paycheck. They had personalities. And needs. Long hair to be brushed. Bows to be tied. Digestive systems. And the names they came with. Not that I didn’t try to change that.
I had Mr. Nibbles off leash in the back yard. He was sniffing the fence between my place and Stanley’s.
“Duke! Here boy!” I shouted, crouching down with my hand out.
I went back inside to the kitchen. Princess and Duchess were busy licking themselves. I had to smile, thinking of that joke Stanley always tells: Why does a dog lick his own balls? Because he can. I took a milk bone out of the box and went back outside. The dog was making his way along the fence. Methodical, like.
“Okay, Duke, boy,” I said, holding out the treat. His back was to me, long fur dragging along the ground like a mop without a handle. “Duke!” I barked. The dog turned around, came to me, and took the bone. He gave me this look like, ‘I’ll take the bone, pal, but the name’s Mr. Nibbles.’ He went back to the far end of the yard.
This was quite a blow. I wasn’t going to rename Princess—you could just tell she’d be a ball buster about the whole thing—but I was really looking forward to changing Duchess’s name to Penthouse, just so’s I could see the look on Pins’ skinny little face when he figured out I had my own “Penthouse Pet.”
I glanced over at Stanley’s house, wondering when he was going to find out about the dogs, and just how many different kinds of shit he was going to hand me for it. About as many kinds of snow as the Eskimos have words for, I guessed. Stanley could be a tough customer. He was like the big brother I never had, the big bad brother. He was only a year older than me, but his dad had died when he was just a kid, so he grew up quick. He was over at our place a lot; probably ate as much with us as he did at his own home. Ma would never turn anyone away, but she didn’t approve of Stanley’s ways.
One time, I was eleven, Stanley was twelve, it was a Sunday night, and we were watching this TV miniseries, Shogun. A few minutes into it, Stanley started making “Hi–yah!” karate sounds whenever the Japanese were talking. At first, Dad thought it was funny, but then when Stanley kept getting louder and going on about Japs this and slant-eyes that, it was interfering with the show, and Dad told him to shut up.
“Shut up, Stanley.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Petrowski.” He sucked up to my dad big time. Everyone did. Everyone but Ma.
A commercial came on, and Stanley remembered a joke. I warn you it sounds bad now, but back then it was pretty funny.
Stanley pushed his sandy blond hair out of his eyes. All the girls, Carol Ann included, always went on about how great his hair was.
“So this white guy is sitting in a Japanese restaurant,’” Stanley said, looking at my dad, making sure it was okay to continue. Dad nodded. He had suffered through enough Polish jokes in his life to enjoy hearing another ethnic group get slammed. “‘And the little Japanese waiter comes over and goes—Stanley laid on the accent thick—‘I am sick of seeing your big round eyes.’” Dad smirked. I did, too.
“And the white guy goes, ‘Then why don’t you put on a blindfold?’”
I could hear Ma clear her throat in the kitchen. She cleared her throat a lot when Stanley was around. He never noticed.
“And the Japanese guy goes, ‘Good idea. Where I get one?’” Now Stanley had the accent and the fingers making his eyes slanted thing going. Dad and I were leaning over, waiting for the laugh. A big smile lit across Stanley’s face for the punch line. “‘Here,’” the white guy said, “‘take my shoelace.’”
Oh man, we just about died. Sounds lame now, I know, but Stanley had this way of hamming it up that made anything funny. We were not a family that joked, and it felt good to laugh, just for the sake of laughing. Once I’d recovered, I went into the kitchen to get us more chips. Ma was there doing the bills. She peered at me over her glasses with this look on her face.
“What?” I asked, innocently.
“You know what.”
“Oh, Ma; it was a joke.”
“You know very well it’s more than just a joke.” I took the chip bag from the counter and made a lot of noise with it so Stanley wouldn’t hear her.
I walked up close to her and put my hand on her shoulder. I remember thinking she felt all bony and frail. “Ma,” I whispered, “Really, it’s no big deal.”
“Well it is to me. You’re not like that, Joseph.” I kissed her on the top of her head and walked back into the den.
But I am, Ma, I thought as settled back on the couch next to Stanley. I am.
Years later, I remember when Carol Ann first brought the kids over to meet me on a cold May afternoon, the day after her husband, Mike, had come back with them from China. They were sleeping, wrapped in each other’s arms, like it was them against the world.
“Real cute, Carol Ann,” I said, trying to make myself believe it.
Her husband, Mike Oronowski, put his arm around Carol Ann with this look like four parts love, one part what-the-fuck-have-I gotten-myself-into? He was a good guy—if you didn’t count the fact that he was a complete fart bucket: occupational hazard of more than one Heinz beans employee I’d run across. (I had to put a ceiling fan in the upstairs john because of him—I kid you not.) I raised my eyebrows at Mike, slapped him on the back, and got him a beer. “Congratulations, man.” He smiled, nodded, took a long pull at the beer, and put it on the counter. He went up the stairs, grabbing my Popular Mechanic on the way.
Just then, Stanley dropped by, unannounced. He and I were always dropping by each other’s places without calling first; same as when we were kids, but usually Stanley kept his distance when he saw Carol Ann and Mike’s Chevy in the driveway.
Stanley had gotten Carol Ann pregnant junior year in high school. He was a stand-up guy about it, offering to marry her and all, saying they could have a June wedding before she showed, but come April 1st, she went and had an abortion. I took her. Ma and Dad never knew. Carol Ann once told me that committing that sin was why God hadn’t let her have her own babies.
“Just looking for a wrench!” Stanley said, stepping through the doorway. “I picked you up some Dewar’s, buddy boy,” he added, putting the scotch on the table next to the door. “I know I cleaned you out last time.” Carol Ann and he locked eyes. She looked down at her new children.
“Hey, you didn’t have to go and buy me Dewar’s,” I said, steering him toward my tools in the back room. Now, at this point we weren’t kids anymore: I was 32, Stanley was 33, and Carol Ann was 34, but you just never knew with that guy, never knew what he might say. I thought: better safe than sorry. Stanley, of course, had his own ideas. “What have we here?” he asked, ignoring my arm, heading for the entwined twins on a mat on the floor.
“New arrivals,” Carol Ann said quietly.
“Huh.” He said, bending down and nodding at their sleeping forms. “Good for you, Carol Ann.” He straightened up and stared down at the kids scratching his head like they were a completely alien life form, which to him they were. I was relieved he didn’t make some wisecrack.
“Hey, Happy April Fool’s Day,” he said to me. “I must be slipping. Forgot to play a joke on you. Well, I’ll get you next year. Gotta fix the kitchen sink, the trap’s full again,” he said, walking toward the back room. Safely behind her back, Stanley took his fingers to his face and made his eyes go Chinese. I rolled my eyes and shook my head good-naturedly. But my heart nearly froze when I saw that Carol Ann had caught his act in the mirror. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me, then bent over and kissed her children’s foreheads.
April Fool’s Day. The memory of it hit me like a ton of bricks, as it never had before. This was the day I had taken Carol Ann to have her abortion. I wondered if Stanley remembered.
The Foreign Exchange Kids I'm Related To
This past February, before Aunt T died, before I got the dogs, Hu-Pac and Shen-Li came to stay with me. Just an overnight. At six-years-old, Carol Ann figured the kids were old enough to spend a night away from home. Guess whose home she picked. I can’t say no to Carol Ann, never could; she hardly ever asked me to do anything. She just wanted me and the kids to get to know each other. Family get-togethers were one thing; the kids pretty much just clung to her, so I guess she thought it was time to throw us into the pot together.
She warned me that Hu-Pac was a smart-aleck know-it-all. They’d had him tested recently and he was some kind of genius. Shen-Li, on the other hand, received her instructions from Neptune. She was a complete space cadet. I pretty much had figured that out myself. The only advice Carol Ann gave was not to pit them against each other, whatever that meant. Day of, she dropped them off without hanging around, just: here they are, have fun everybody, see you tomorrow, and out the front door. It occurred to me this might be more about her and Mike getting out than me and the kids getting together.
“So,” I said, once we’d all spent a good five minutes staring at the front door. They turned around and peered at me like they had only been aware of the horror of their mother going. Now they had to deal with me, too.
There was no point bullshitting them. “Yeah, well, let’s just try to make the best of this.” They looked me up and down in a way that gave me the willies. Everything about our relationship, which I had thought was pretty good, completely shifted because it was just the three of us. I couldn’t help noticing that they had very old faces for such little kids. Such black, black eyes.
Shen-Li drifted toward the kitchen. Maybe she’ll whip up some food, I thought hopefully. Hu-Pac put his knapsack down by the sofa. I congratulated myself again for remembering to hide the magazines I knew shouldn’t be out for their visit. “What do you have to do here?” Hu-Pac asked, looking around with the longest hangdog sourpuss you ever saw.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets. “Well… not much. But I do have 73 channels of cable!”
Hu-Pac gave me the same look I usually reserved for Pins. “We’re not allowed to watch
any more TV this weekend. We’ve already used up our one-hour allotment.” One-hour allotment?
“Well, maybe with your Uncle Joe we could stretch the rules a little…” I started. The kid just gave me that look again. Shit. No TV. A little detail Carol Ann hadn’t mentioned. Fuck.
“What do you have in the bag there?” I asked.
He unzipped the front compartment and pulled out a thick stack of cards. “Pokémon cards.”
“Oh, yeah, I heard about these,” I said sitting down on the couch. “These are really popular.” For this statement I got a No shit, Sherlock look. Reluctantly, he passed the deck to me. I flipped through, not understanding anything about the cards other than they had probably cost Carol Ann a shitload. “Hey, check it out,” I said excitedly, “this one’s in Japanese!”
Hu-Pac looked me dead in the eye. “They’re not worth as much as the English.”
“Oh.” I said. We were off to a roaring start. “Hey.” I stood up. “Where’s Shen-Li?” He shrugged. “Shen-Li?” I called, walking quickly through the downstairs. I found her in the kitchen, making some kind of witch’s brew out of mayonnaise, root beer, ketchup, and my Pilsner Urquell. “Oh no, honey. Not Uncle Joe’s good beer,” I said, taking the bottle from the table and having a long swig.
She was covered in gloop. “How’d you get this open, Shen-Li?” I asked, lifting the bottle to my lips again.
She held the bottle opener. “You’re not so spacey, are you?” She smiled at me and I relaxed a little. Hu-Pac came in and looked at us. His sister covered in condiments, me drinking a beer at ten am. And none too soon, let me tell you.
“I have an idea,” I said. Nothing like an early morning brewski to clean the circuits.
Twenty minutes later, after we’d thrown Shen-Li’s clothes in the wash and she’d changed into fresh clothes, the three of us were out in the backyard. By the end of the afternoon, we had run races (Shen-Li was fast); played Mother May I (I didn’t fool Hu-Pac once), did a few rounds of hide-and-seek (it’s hard to hide when you’re 6’3”), and finished off with monkey in the middle (they loved it when I was the monkey). I had finally learned the golden rule with these two, which I gotta say, is not unlike my rule with the ladies: less talk, more action.
Two Months Later, When I Finally Deck Stanley
The guys came over last night, six-packs in hand, ready to watch the Penguins. The dogs had been with me for a good while, now. I was worried how the night would go, especially concerning Princess. All it took was one over-friendly pizza delivery guy for me to figure out that she didn’t like people in her personal space.
They all walked in together, the screen door slapping with each entry. The dogs yipped up a storm, nearly drowning out George Thorogood on the stereo. They backed up, licking their exposed teeth; I’d never seen them this worked up before.
Stanley was the first to open his trap. I knew he would be; he’d probably seen me with them in the backyard and had told everyone about them.
“Awww, look how cute!” he said, reaching out a soot-blackened paw for Princess’s soft white head. She snapped at him. The boys all laughed. Stanley drew his hand back quickly, then tried to mug like he was so scared, which for a second there, he was. He handed out beer.
“Whoa, Joey,” said Eddie, cracking his knuckles and warming up. “Is this what you have to do to attract pussy these days?” He looked down at Duchess and spoke in a high singsong voice, “Little Miss Muffet, do you help big Joe Petrowski get some muff? Are you a little pussy magnet?”
Pins, weak-brained and usually silent, spoke up. “Y’uns don’t get it,” he said, using the Pittsburgh dialect most of us had dropped. “This ain’t to get pussy, this is the pussy!”
“Good one, Pins!” Eddie said with fraternal pride, high-fiving the half-wit.
Pins, on a roll, kept at it. “Next thing you know, he’ll be hanging out at the Warhol Museum and moving to Mexican War Streets.” Mexican War Streets, named after that war, was Steeltown’s gay neighborhood. Good restaurants, but all in all not worth the hassle. Pins was grinning like the village idiot. He’s one of those guys who tries to be funny but isn’t. He has no judgment. His reaction to the firefighters in New York City after the Twin Towers thing was “Just think of all the snatch those guys can get now. They got it made.”
The boys were doing the dozens, as usual, and this time it was all on me. The dogs retreated to their dog bed in front of the fireplace, consoling each other, it looked like. Pictures of Shen-Li and Hu-Pac smiled down on them; Carol Ann had put their first-grade portraits on the mantle last time she was over. She and Mike and the kids were coming over next weekend. Carol Ann’s doctor had given her these Clarinex samples so that Shen-Li could stay without sneezing her head off; she was still allergic to dogs, poor kid. She’s going to need that stuff for the next time they sleep over here again.
Ralphie sat down in his usual spot on the couch, his paunch rolling out over the top of his waistband as he did. He cracked open a Genny pony, licking the foam as it streamed down. “Hey, youse guys. Ease off. You’re missing the big picture here. Maybe our Joey don’t want cooze no more.”
“Oooooh!” said Roy, looking around wide-eyed at the rest, trying to egg everyone on. Pins took the bait like a wide-mouthed bass and nodded excitedly.
“Not true,” I said, putting on a Dorothy-at-the-end-of-the-Wizard-of-Oz voice. “I had quite a large gathering her last night. A regular pussy posse. Your mom was here, Ralphie. And your mom, and your mom, and Roy, both your mom and your wife were here.”
The guys chuckled. Pins looked to his brother worriedly. Eddie just shook his head, but Pins looked confused.
Stanley, who still made his eyes go Chinese or made some wisecrack when the subject of Shen-Li and Hu-Pac came up, was ready for his round two. He went over to the dogs and looked down at the three of them, fluttering there, growling softly now. His eyes flicked up to the pictures of the kids. “You know, Joey, I ever tell you how much those kids look like your brother-in-law? Didn’t he go over early to pick out the kids himself? I think he went back and adopted his own kids!”
Everyone was just about howling now, except me and the dogs. Duchess gave me a look and I thought, Yeah, I’m with you, babe; who are these assholes, anyhow. I suddenly saw myself as I hadn’t before, and it wigged me out: me, three Shih-Tzus, and two Asian kids against the world.
Stanley patted the air with his open palms. He’d had his fun. “All right now guys. I think we should all stop busting Joey’s,” he paused here, making sure everyone was listening, “chop sticks.” He hit on the last syllable hard, waiting for the laugh he knew was coming. Looking at him hamming it up in my living room—as he had so many times in the past—I thought, he’s gone over the line. But just as quickly I realized that no, he hadn’t. He was still on the same side of the line he’d always been on. I was the one who had stepped over. And I could tell right then, there was no going back.
He never got the laugh. What he got instead was a face full of big, Petrowski fist. It knocked him over backward, scattering the dogs. As he lay there rubbing his chin, I reached into my pocket and flicked two cards onto his chest: