Decades ago, when my brother was about ten and I around fourteen, he began to spend an extraordinary amount of time in his room. We lived in an apartment in a sketchy neighborhood in the Bronx. There were muggings, petty and not so petty thefts, and a few cases of violent crimes. Still, we played outside and often in the apartments or homes of other kids. We had a lot of fun outdoors, so when Mikey began to linger in his room for hours, day after day, this told me that something was amiss.
Whenever I would barge into his room, as is the universal act of annoyance of every sister, I noticed that he would be kneeling or sitting by the closet. When I would ask him, “What’s up?” he would give me a sly smile. Sometimes he would just start to laugh. Determined to find out what was going on, I began bursting into his room often.
One day, I broke in and shouted, “Ah ha!” only to find him on the floor maneuvering his miniature toy soldiers in battle. He looked at me as I stood inside the doorway to his room, and we both started laughing hysterically.
“Come on tell me. What are you hiding? I swear I won’t tell Ma,” I pleaded.
“Nope. There is nothing going on,” he said.
He watched me as I scanned his room squinting my eyes like the detectives do on television when they don’t believe a suspect. My eyes moved from a Hulk poster to a Spiderman one. I surveyed his bureau, and looked under his bed. I walked over to the closet and opened the bi-fold doors, but there was nothing out of the ordinary to be found. My brother grinned at me and swung his head to the side, moving his brown wavy hair off his face. Defeated in my quest to discover his secret, I walked out of his room.
But sisters are a determined lot, so one day when Mikey was out of the apartment, I went into major snoop mode and performed a more thorough reconnaissance of his room. My first move was to his closet, which revealed nothing but a few games, clothes, baseball cards, and some sticky candy wrappers. I moved onto the chest of drawers where after glancing at my blonde thin self in his mirror approvingly, I ransacked his clothes, and unrolled all of his sock pairs. I shoved his bureau with the side of my body in order to look behind it. Once again, there was nothing.
Then one day, after he had come in from outside, I hid and waited quietly in my room. My ear to his wall, I listened and heard the doors of his closet rolling on their tracks. Tiptoeing down the hall in my bare feet, I flung open the door to his room.
My ten - year -old brother was sitting on the floor by the closet with a brown paper shopping bag full of money. There were ones, fives, tens, twenties, fifties, and one hundred dollar bills mixed loosely in the bag. My mouth fell open.
“Where the heck did you get that?” I asked excitedly.
“You swear you won’t tell Ma,” he said.
“I promise,” I replied.
He said, “Me and Paulie were playing hide and seek in George’s house, and when we were hiding in his mother’s bedroom closet, we found it. Paulie has his bag and this one is mine.”
“Oh man, you mean there is more,” I said incredulously.
“Yeah, so don’t tell Ma!” he shouted.
I picked up a fistful of money and said, “Don’t you think somebody is going to come looking for this? Aren’t you afraid?”
My brother said that he’d had the money for a month, and had seen the kid whose house the money had come from plenty of times since.
He added, “His mom either runs the numbers or sells drugs.”
“So they don’t even miss it? Oh wow! How much is there in this bag?”
“Oh my God! So what are you gonna do with it?” I asked
“You better be careful!” I said.
“Promise you won’t tell her,” he said again.
“I aint telling her nothin. She’ll tell Antny and he’ll gamble it away,” I replied.
In DNA only, Antny was our father. He was also a convicted felon, and a compulsive gambler. He physically abused our mother, never supported us and came and went as he pleased. Neither one of us could stand him.
So there was no way either one of us was going to tell our mother about the money because we were afraid of the consequences. We figured, she would either try to give it back and unwittingly make my brother a marked man or tell Antny who would then gamble it away in a flash.
But a few days later, as Mikey and I were sitting on the floor of his room staring at the bag of money and dreaming of the fun that might be had with it, our mother charged into the room. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who had noticed a change in my brother’s behavior.
My blonde, big-boned, stern mother made an imposing figure as she stood over us.
“What is this?” she asked wide-eyed in astonishment.
My quick thinking brother said, “I found it stuffed in between the big bushes near the A&P behind the houses down the block.”
The A&P in the neighborhood had recently been robbed at gunpoint while I was there, so this was not that far fetched of a story. My mind raced back to the scene where three guys wearing ski masks had come in with sawed off shotguns as I stood waiting in line with a half gallon of milk.
“So this is the robbery money,” said Ma.
Snatching the bag by its handles, our mother walked out of the room and contacted Antny.
My brother pleaded with them to buy a car or do something other than gamble the loot away. But under the guidance of Antny, all of the money was lost at the racetrack in one week.
My ten – year - old brother would have done a better job of spending it.