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What Ellen Can’t Give

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The first time she watches her son with Michael, Ellen is amused to see her baby boy still acting like a kid and not the cool teenager he tries to be. He’s following Michael with hero worship in his eyes. It makes her remember when Joe was little and wasn’t this strange mix of boy and man who mopes over the oddest things and can be set off by the most inconsequential of words. Michael treats her son well and it’s all that she would ask of him. Treats Joe like a brother and it makes her heart ach to think that she never got to give Joe a brother of his own before Steve died. When he was little, Joe had told her he would have liked a brother because then he’d have somebody to play with, but then he found Sam and David and he didn’t ask for a brother anymore. She’d asked him once, in a fit of masochism, if he still wanted a brother hoping to hear no but afraid that he still secretly did want a sibling. But he said a brother would be better than David’s sister but he didn’t want a little kid to hang out with not when he had Sam and David besides Emily was enough of a pain they didn’t need another one. Her heart had broken a little when they were baking cookies and he’s said maybe a little brother would be good so he’d keep Emily out of their way. It was so much worse because Joe hadn’t even been paying attention when he said it, just a casual comment that slipped from his chocolate smeared mouth. After Steve it was too late for any brother to happen for Joe but then Michael Duss arrived in Oakdale. Now Joe has an adopted brother.

Michael lets Joe help him with his mechanical projects and teaches him how to look after a car. Joe comes home with grease and oil under his nails and on his clothes but they are old rough clothes so she doesn’t mind, not when Joe’s smile is so shiny bright. Michael has a big black beast of a car that looks like it should belong to a James Dean wannabe instead of a friendly, helpful high school student with a bright smile and endless patience. When she asks, he tells her he got it from an uncle for his sixteenth with instructions to look after it well. There is something wistful in his expression that reminds Ellen of eight year old Joe talking about the fair after it leaves town.

Michael never mentions the uncle again. His mother just smiles small and tight and says that Michael’s uncle is very busy so they don’t see him. Ellen thinks that maybe this uncle isn’t on the best of terms with Michael’s family. She remembers her Steve’s brother, Allan, who nobody talked about except to say he’d gone to the city. He only showed up once at their place in Oakdale when Joe was still a baby. Ellen remembers him as the opposite of Steve, dark and slim and quiet where Steve was light and burly and constant sound – always talking always laughing. She’d loved to listen to Steve ramble on about whatever struck him. She can remember Allan and Steve sitting together talking quietly and Allan bouncing baby Joe on his knee and playing peek-a-boo with him. They never saw Allan again and Steve was quiet for a week afterwards. It scared her. So Ellen never asks about the uncle who gave Michael a car that dwarfs his slim frame but she makes sure that Michael knows that if he wants somebody to talk to she’s there for him. Ellen never pries instead she invites him to dinner and says nothing about Joe’s grease stained clothes. All she ever asked was for Michael to treat her boy right and that’s what he does. In Michael her son has the brother she could never give him.