The Way I Remember It

It was as if everyone in Bridgeport, Texas, had won the lottery on this perfect seventy-five-degree day in June. I couldn’t imagine a better Sunday. After finishing a Soduka, I looked into my new neighbor’s backyard from my second-story back porch and saw a blue “Happy One-Year-Old Birthday” banner flutter in the breeze as if announcing itself. I was glad the old neighbors who had chained their mutt to a shadeless stake were gone. A square box wrapped in craft paper sat on the weathered picnic table. The neighbor’s screen door swung wide, swatting away tall uncut grass as a long-bearded grandfather carried out a highchair, his waist straining against red suspenders. His middle-aged son, wearing a camo T-shirt and faded blue jeans, followed, holding a squirming baby, who happily slipped into the highchair and clapped his tiny hands.

Three generations stood before me. The father’s sullen, unshaven face became gleeful when he held and moved the box back and forth in front of the baby like an animated cartoon. Part of me wanted to yell, “Happy birthday,” but I didn’t want to disturb their special moment. I was content to sit back, sip iced tea, and wait for the unveiling.

The father handed the box to the grandfather, and he cocked his head as if acknowledging his son should have the honor. The father ripped off the paper, opened the box, and removed a black gun.

That couldn’t really be a gun. I stared with my mouth open as the baby held out his hands and wiggled his little fingers just out of its reach. Then the grandfather placed the end of that shiny black pistol into the baby’s mouth, who sucked on it like a new toy.

I gasped. My brother Tim had put the loaded barrel of a pistol in his mouth, he told me, when he thought about how to erase the fractured images of Iraq living in his head.

These two men in their backyard turned to one other and laughed. The father removed the saliva-sticky gun from the baby’s mouth, who wailed from being denied his toy. The father wiped the gun against his pant leg, stuck the gun down the back of his jeans, and scooped up the crying baby. The grandfather held open the screen door. Afraid to move or call out, I merely listened to the baby’s wails until they subsided. My brother Tim was my best friend and the only person I wanted to share what I’d witnessed, but I didn’t know if I could.

I called him, letting it ring three times before trying again so Tim would realize it was me. My incoming calls had a special ringtone, but he didn’t trust that. His mind didn’t trust much.

“Who is this?” Tim asked.

“It’s me. Allie. Can I come over?”

I imagined him sitting on the floor, back against a wall, knees pulled up tight, and his face gaunt.

“I just want to talk. I won’t make you leave the house.”

When our parents divorced, they separated Tim and I. Tim lived with our macho Dad, and I lived with our neurotic Mom. I was six and felt like my mom had turned into an evil stepmother because, even though she let Tim and I speak by phone, she wouldn’t let us visit each other’s house. Maybe that’s why when Tim and I became adults, we practically lived at each other’s home, dropping in whenever we wanted. However, in the six months since Tim had returned, he’d hardly let me come over.

“I can bring ice cream,” I said jovially, hoping he’d recall our time together before leaving for his last tour of duty.

We had finished breakfast at the diner where I worked as a waitress. Tim sat across from me, dressed in his uniform with his duffle bag at his feet. After we talked about how hard it was growing up and how much I needed him, he took my hands and reassuringly said, “Just because bad stuff happened to us, it doesn’t mean we have to remember it that way. Our parents aren’t around to prove us wrong.”

I squeezed his hands, not wanting to let go, acting more like a child than my thirty-six years.

“Hey,” he said, removing his hands and smiling, “I imagined Mom let you skip school whenever you wanted.”

I laughed and said, “I imagined Dad let you eat ice cream for breakfast every day.”

Over the phone, trying to keep my words light, I asked, “Is Rocky Road still your favorite?” But my concerned tone betrayed me.

“Maybe another time, Sis…Okay?”

“Promise?” I restrained myself from pleading or rambling on about how much I loved him, wanted to help, and needed him—especially after what I had witnessed today. I let the word promise hang in the air as if giving it more space would help Tim see it not as a demand but as a chance to rebuild our sibling bond. I hung on the line, as I listened to my brother’s steady breathing, which I took as a good sign, and recalled that same breakfast morning at the diner. Tim had slid his duffle bag out from under the table to leave and pulled out cash to pay for our meal. I pushed his hand back and said, “You owe me. Now you gotta come back.”

My grip on the phone tightened as my voice quivered, “Come on, promise?” But Tim hung up. With the phone pressed against my ear—not ready to end our connection—I pretended he was listening and told him everything. About that baby and the gun. The images they brought up, seeing my only brother believing for a moment that there was no other way out. And the outrage and frustration at how little control we have over what our parents do to us. I silently hung on the line, waiting for clarity, as if speaking the truth, like a confession, would dissipate those images and my anxiety. But they remained stuck, and that night, I barely slept.

Why would anyone, especially a parent, give a baby a gun? Was it a joke? How safe would anyone be in that house? As hard as I tried, I could not imagine that gun as anything except real and deadly, and in my life, I’d imagined a lot.


The next morning, I sat on the diner steps an hour before my Monday morning shift, staring at the overcast sky that must have felt like it, too, had seen something so abhorrent it wanted to hide. I fueled my cigarette’s angry red embers with inhales and crushed the cigarette butt beneath my thick-soled black shoes, and paced as if motion might shake away yesterday’s scene.

I considered confiding in Sheila, the other waitress. She’d known me before I entered high school. She had worked at the diner the day I burst through the doors to announce that I’d won Saturday’s Cash4Life. I was sixteen, and a guy I believed cared about me had humiliated me, so I needed something big and dramatic to feel better. So I imagined how happy I’d be if I’d won, and I waved an expired lottery ticket in the air as if I had. Customers yelled, “Good for you, Allie.” Sheila’s ample body squeezed me as if trying to get that last glob of ketchup out of the bottle. Despite Sheila being only ten years older, she was more of a caring, doting mother than my actual mother ever was. She and my brother were the only ones who didn’t laugh at me when everyone discovered I’d made it up. As much as I loved Sheila, if I told her, she’d tell Eric, the diner’s owner, and then the whole town would hear about it, and who knew if anyone would believe me?

Sheila’s red truck ku-thumped in and out of a pothole as she entered the parking lot. When Sheila stepped outside, she asked, “Who kept you up half the night?”

I ran my fingers through my short, matted, dark brown hair, but there was nothing to be done about my pale, long face that, without sleep, left me looking drained. I straightened my thin shoulders, but that didn’t stop my mood from pulling me down.

As Sheila unlocked the diner’s front door, she inquired kindly, “Is it your brother?”

I thanked her for her concern but said, “No, it’s…” What? An ordinary day where there’s a house next to mine with a baby, a gun, and adults who find humor in the perverse?

“It’s nothing. Just tired,” I said as we entered the diner.

How was I going to make it through the day? I glanced out the windows and saw the sky now cloaked in blackness. While Sheila brewed coffee, I refilled the salt and pepper containers by rote. Eric, also the cook, entered through the back kitchen door to begin his prep. The large soup pot clanged as it hit the burner, the heavy refrigerator door swooshed open and closed, and diced onions soon sizzled on the grill. Eric tuned the radio to soft rock. His knife rapidly hit the cutting board, slicing through carrots and celery. The sound had always reminded me of a renegade percussionist, but it had triggered another response in my brother.

One day, after coaxing Tim into the diner for lunch, I came out of the kitchen with an order of fries and saw him in the corner booth, eyes fixated on the front door as he stared at both something and nothing like he was in shock. I walked over to him slowly, still holding onto the damn fries. The customer who ordered them grabbed my arm, making me spill them and drop the French fry basket that clanged on the floor. Tim ran out, and I ran after him. Later, he told me it sounded like shrapnel ricocheting off vehicles just beyond the initial blast where the soldier he had mentored like a son had been blown apart.


I thought if my brother could spend years entering buildings held by the Taliban, not knowing if one room or the next was booby-trapped, and defuse bombs, I could dismantle emotionally charged images of the baby and turn them into something less triggering.

The pummeling rain sent two family clusters dashing through the entrance, dripping wet, as they headed to opposite sides of the diner.

“I’ll take the family with the baby,” I told Sheila. I brought a highchair and menus and returned later to take their orders. The smiling mother let her baby play with a spoon like a tiny seesaw, making him giggle. “Everyone ready?” I asked, slipping the pen from my apron’s ink-stained pocket. After placing their order, I returned with a yellow crayon and a paper placemat, reimagining the neighbor’s baby by picturing him getting something safe, like a colorful box of crayons. I seated that wholesome image so firmly in my brain that my grin made Sheila ask me what I was so happy about.

I was about to give a noncommittal reply when I noticed the rain-streaked windows fogging up and mouthed, “Tips,” knowing bad weather in our small town brought in more customers, not fewer, and increased my odds of replacing what I’d seen yesterday with something new.

After I exchanged one baby image for another, I kept my eye out for an alternative father, a man who looked like he would never give a baby that unthinkable gift. This substitute dad, who would help me mentally erase the real dad, needed to appear gentle. When a young man with dimples came in for a to-go coffee, he smiled with a warmness that seemed lodged deep inside, as if people with dimples held on to their kindness longer than the rest of us. I imagined that sunny disposition radiating protectively over that baby and dreaded when he paid his bill and left because next, I needed to reimagine the gift itself.

I tried picturing it as a plastic water pistol or made of licorice. But no customer summoned up anything besides what it was. And, yet, it was the grandfather’s actions that were the hardest to unsee, watching the baby’s mouth suck and drool over the end of that long-barreled gun. Oh, how I wanted my brother to help me make sense of the senseless, to help me unsee what should never be seen. But I understood it was up to me.


Around noon, with sleep deprivation draining my physical reserves and my mental ability to conjure anything besides what I’d seen, I grew forgetful. As if forgetting everything was now the only way left to cope. This resulted in my forgetting to place orders, placing wrong orders, bringing food out cold, and ignoring customers; even Sheila stopped making excuses for me when I neglected to give a big table their check before they gave up on me and left. When Eric called me into the kitchen and told me to snap out of it, I imagined perhaps in time, like my brother, I eventually would.


An hour later, the rain stopped, and the former high school quarterback, who I’d lost my virginity to, pranced in with his arm around his latest conquest, a girl with an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt and nineteen-year-old giggles that morphed into snorts. I had been so stupid back then to think he’d wanted anything more from my gangly, low-esteem, shy self than to prove to his buddies how easy it was to win a bet. The couple scooted into a booth in my section. I tried to get Sheila to switch with me, but she had a large party and wasn’t about to give it up.

My exhausted body was unable to fight the rush of anger going haywire inside me. I was pissed and frustrated that twenty years later, he still had this unnerving effect. His cockiness got under my skin, causing me to recall my shame, especially after seeing my brother’s face when he found out. I don’t know if Tim had been upset about not keeping me safe, but I know the hopelessness of being unable to protect the ones we love.

I stood there, throat dry, unable to speak.

“Get this,” he said to his girlfriend. “Allie, here, won the lottery once, didn’t ya?”

Every time he came in, which, thank goodness, wasn’t often, he said the same thing to provoke me, and every time, I laughed it off. But this time, it was different. My mind raced. I wanted to throw something. I wanted to run out of the diner, like my brother had, to escape. Escape this moment! Escape what I’d seen yesterday! Both feelings collided into one as my eyes darted around for help.

I caught Sheila’s reassuring smile: You got this, girl.

Did I? I thought. How? When? I squeezed my eyes shut, desperately trying to block out everything, including his snickering. Then I heard something. Faintly at first, until the attagirl cheers grew louder as I recalled the morning everyone believed I’d won the lottery. There was wild applause, confetti napkins, echoes of congratulations, and endless enthusiasm in the air as if anything was possible. Anything!

So, I used the powers of my imagination to picture that baby unscarred by a birthday his innocent mind wouldn’t even remember. With each slow, deep breath, I forced myself to imagine that child growing up to live a perfectly safe and normal life. As my breaths lengthened and my anxiety left, I held onto that image until it was more real than what I’d actually seen.

Next, I imagined my brother joining me at the diner for breakfast, saying, “Told ya, sis, I always pay my debts,” and me then telling him a beautiful story of what I imagined his days on tour were really like—from peaceful, pink-streaked sunrises to flights of songbirds keeping vigil over him at night.

Then him saying, “Yeah, sis, it was just like that.”


Sylvia Schwartz studied literary fiction at The Writers Studio and One Story in New York. Her stories have appeared in several anthologies and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has been published in Five on the Fifth; The Dillydoun Review; Page & Spine; The Write Launch; BOMBFIRE; Bright Flash Literary Review; Ariel Chart International Literary Journal; the Potato Soup Journal; Savant-Garde; Bold + Italic Magazine; Bull & Cross; Edify Fiction; The Airgonaut; The Vignette Review; and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society. She is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine and can be reached at