Nicky arrived at the campus of Northwestern University with his parents and sister almost at midnight after an eight hour trip on the interstate. His father parked the car around the corner from Robert's dormitory, and the family walked together to the front door. On the way, Nicky wrapped his arms around himself in a futile attempt to protect himself from the cold. I need a thicker coat, he wished for one as he shivered. He reasoned that Emily must be even colder in one of the knee-high skirts she usually wore.
The door was locked for the night, but Robert sat in the lobby reading a textbook and got up to let them in when he saw them approach.
"Hey, Dad! You made it."
"Good to see you, son," Mark embraced his eldest in a tight hug.
Robert wore a baseball cap. He always did, except this time he had a Cubs one rather than the Yankees one he had always worn before. His hair, lighter in color than anyone else's in the family, curled around the edges of the cap.
After several seconds, Robert pulled himself out of the hug. "Hi Linda, Nick, Emily," he acknowledged the presence of the others.
They returned the greeting.
"I know you're studying hard," Mark spoke to Robert. "But how about taking a break and letting me buy you a soda.?"
Nicky liked the suggestion. His father hadn't allowed anyone to get a soft drink when they stopped at a burger place for supper.
"Let me show you my room first," Robert suggested.
"All right," said Mark. "Linda, you wait with the kids in the car." He gave her the keys.
Nicky wanted to see Robert's room too, but didn't ask. He figured he'd get a chance later in the weekend. His mother didn't say anything either, so he went with her and Emily while Robert retrieved his textbook and guided Mark further into the dorm.
They were so cold by the time they settled into the car that Nicky had little trouble convincing his mother to turn on the heat. However, when Mark arrived with Robert ten minutes later, he wasn't pleased.
"Linda, what do you have the ignition on for? Don't you know you're wearing down the battery?"
"It's cold, Mark," she snapped.
"For pete's sake. You have your winter coats on."
"These jackets are for Florida winters," she countered, tugging at one of her sleeves to show him how thin it was. "When are you going to buy us coats for northern winter?"
"Don't you think I know when to buy winter coats?" Mark gritted his teeth. Nicky cringed because that meant his father was about to hit his mother.
"Dad," Robert tapped his father's shoulder. "I need a winter coat too."
"We'll go shopping for some tomorrow then," said Mark, starting the car with a forceful turn of the ignition.
Nicky relaxed. One thing he liked about his brother was that he sometimes prevented their father from losing control of his temper.
They stopped at a submarine sandwich place to get their pops. In addition, Robert ordered a triple decker salami stacker.
"Don't worry, Dad," he said. "I'll pay for it myself."
"That's not necessary," said Mark, pulling a five out of his wallet to pay the cashier.
The family sat in a booth in the only corner without a window. Nicky watched hungrily as his brother devoured the sandwich. I wish I could order something more, he thought, but Dad would yell at me.
Robert got bombarded with questions from his father while he tried to eat. How's school? What's your favorite class? What's the dorm like? Do you get enough sleep? Have you joined any clubs? He provided answers between mouthfuls like fine, I don't know, okay, yeh, and nope.
"Are you seeing any girls?"
Robert stopped the sandwich half way to his mouth, and a slice of tomato fell out the end. "Of course, Dad. Half the people on campus are girls."
"I mean, anyone in particular?"
"I'm just looking."
"You have a good head on your shoulders, son," Mark put his hand on the small of Robert's back. "I know you won't do anything stupid."
Robert flinched from his father's touch. "Of course, I won't. You don't have to check up on me, Dad."
Nicky was irritated. At least Dad cares about you, he wanted to tell his brother. He never asks me how school's going.
"I'm sorry if you think I'm checking up on you," Mark pulled his hand away from Robert. "I'm just curious."
Emily became so sleepy that she leaned against her mother all the way back to the car. Robert turned down an offer to stay with the family at the motel, so Mark drove back to the campus.
"See you at eight," said the father as Robert extracted himself from the vehicle.
"Eight!" Robert blurted. "Are you kidding? Everybody sleeps on Saturday morning."
"All right, ten then."
Robert found that more agreeable, and Mark waited until his son entered the dormitory before driving on. Linda and Emily were sleeping against each other by the time they reached the motel. Mark checked his wife and daughter into one room and took Nicky with him into another. Nicky was disappointed when he saw the double bed; he had been hoping for separate beds. He and his father took off their outer clothes and climbed under opposite sides of the sheets. Normally Nicky wore pajamas, but tonight he was too tired to put them on.
He had hopes of being so tired that he would fall asleep before his father started snoring. However, he became so nervous about getting to sleep that he wasn't able to. Soon the loud rasps sounded from the other side of the bed, and over an hour passed before Nicky lost conciousness.
The next morning, the family went shopping for winter coats. Mark and Robert broke off by themselves, leaving Nicky with his mother and sister. Nicky took the thickest coat he could find, one with fur inside and a hood, and presented it to his mother.
"This is too expensive, Nicky," she said, fingering the price tab. "We have only a hundred dollars for the three of us."
She returned the coat to the rack, and searched out another one. "Here's one. It's the same thing, but ten dollars cheaper."
Nicky eyed the coat she held out for him. It looked the same, thick and furry on the inside. Almost the same. "I want one with a hood," he said. Winter was going to be terribly cold.
"We can't afford the other one," his mother told him. "If you take this one, I can buy you a hat."
Nicky resigned himself to getting the hoodless coat, and waited for his mother and sister to select their coats. His mother stopped by a display of Chicago Bears beanie hats and held one up. "How's this, Nicky?"
Nicky didn't want to wear the hat of a rival football team to the Minnesota Vikings. I'll get beat up at school, he determined. He spotted bin of plain hats nearby.
"I'd rather have one of these," he said, taking an olive green one.
They met Mark and Robert in the checkout line. Robert had a leather jacket and a stocking cap. I wish I'd gotten one of those, Nicky thought when he saw the stocking cap. I could wrap the end of it around my neck to keep warm.
"What do you want to do today, Robert?" Mark asked on the way to the car.
"I wish the Cubs were in town," answered Robert. "We could go to Wrigley."
Shucks, thought Nicky. He had never been to a baseball game, not even a spring training one in Florida.
"Can we see Lake Michigan?" asked Emily. She was ignored as Mark and Robert continued to discuss what they were going to do.
"How about the planetarium?" Mark suggested.
"I've already been there," said Robert. "And the aquarium and field museum too."
"I want to go to the top of the Sears Tower," said Nicky, not expecting to be noticed.
"That would be interesting," said Robert.
"Let's go there then," said Mark.
Nicky hopped with glee into the back of the car with his mother and sister. He was beginning to enjoy this trip to Chicago. His excitement increased during the trip downtown as he became fascinated by the freeways and skyscrapers.
After a late lunch at the bottom of the Sears Tower and a long wait in line, the family caught the elevator to the observation deck.
"Look. You can see the lake, Emily," Linda pointed out the blue expanse of Michigan to her daughter.
Nicky looked down in the other direction at sprawling Chicago. It looked like an incredibly detailed model. The traffic on the freeways of the Loop reminded Nicky of an animated film he had seen that week in biology class about the circulatory system. He also watched the tiny vehicles in the streets, and could even pick out his father's Oldsmobile parked several blocks away.
"See that stadium?" Robert pointed to the north.
Nicky did and nodded.
Robert led Nicky to the east side to show Nicky more sights. "The big street running along the lake is Lake Shore Drive, and that stadium is Soldier Field where the Bears play."
Afterwards, the family went to a movie and out for pizza, since Robert talked Mark out of getting hamburgers. These were both rare treats for Nicky.
When his father announced he was tired and heading to the motel, Robert insisted on getting left off at school against persistent pleas from Mark to spend the night with the family.
"Dad," said Robert as he got out of the car. "How about letting Nicky spend the night here?"
Nicky couldn't believe it. He couldn't remember a time his brother had taken him along.
"If you want," his father gave permission.
After a good night kiss from his mother, Nicky followed Robert towards the dormitory. Although thrilled, he was scared about how the other students in the dorm were going to treat him.
"I figured you'd like to get away from Dad's snoring," said Robert, holding the door open.
"Yes," Nicky laughed.
Robert passed by some of his friends in the hall and introduced them to Nicky. They were friendly, but Nicky still felt out of place. Robert unlocked the door to his first floor room, which Nicky was glad he was going to be able to see.
Photographs of nude women adorned the walls, and Nicky tried to look at them without appearing to be looking at them. Robert tossed his new leather jacket into a closet where all of his clothes seemed to be on the floor.
"Do you want this thing?" he held out the stocking cap.
"Don't you?" replied Nicky.
"Heck no. Dad made me get it."
Nicky gladly accepted the cap.
"You can sleep on my roommate's bed," said Robert, indicating the bed by the window.
"Where's he going to sleep?"
"He always goes home on weekends," Robert busied himself arranging some things on one of his shelves.
Nicky sat on his bed and stole more glances at the pictures.
"Do you like the pictures?"
Nicky felt his face turn red. He had been caught. "Yeh. What did Dad say about them?"
"Nothing. I suppose he thought they were my roommate's."
A few minutes later, Robert took Nicky to another room across the hall where an all-male group was starting a card game. Robert introduced Nicky as his kid brother. Nicky received friendly greetings again and began feeling more at ease. He couldn't remember any of the names he was told except for Tony, who shook his hand. Robert accepted one of the beers which were passed around, but Nicky turned down the one he was offered.
"Do you want to play, Nicky?" asked Tony as he dealt the first hand.
"He doesn't know how to play poker," said Robert.
"Yes I do," Nicky said quickly. He enjoyed the look his brother gave him.
Each of the players pulled coins from their pockets or jars they had brought with them, and placed them on the low-slung table.
"We're playing for nickels," Tony informed Nicky, who tried to think of something to say. "I'll spot you a buck."
He finished dealing before counting twenty nickels from his pile to give to Nicky. The game proceeded accompanied by loud music from the stereo. Nicky recognized many of the names of the groups on the album covers because he had heard Brian Muttilege mention them; Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and The Who. He also heard some familiar Beatles songs, and American Pie which he had listened to on the radio during the trip from Minnesota.
He played conservatively and broke even. He gladly repaid Tony the full dollar, not knowing what would have happened had he lost any money. He returned to Robert's room, even though his brother stayed behind, and went to bed feeling strange without his pajamas.
He awoke at nine the next morning and quietly read some sports magazines lying about the room while Robert kept sleeping. At about eleven, a tapping on the window awakened Robert. Nicky parted the curtain to see his father standing outside.
"Dad's here," he reported.
"Let him in," said Robert.
Nicky left for the front door to open it. His father walked briskly into the dormitory without saying a word. Nicky followed his rapid pace to Robert's room, deducing that his parents had just argued.
"Good morning, Dad," said Robert. He finished dressing by putting on a shirt.
"We're leaving now," Mark's nose twitched. "Come on, Nicky."
Nicky put on his jacket, leaving it unzipped.
"What about lunch?" Robert wondered.
"I want to get home before dark," said Mark, pulling out his wallet. He pulled out twenty dollar bills one at a time, five in all, and gave them to Robert. "Here's some spending money. I love you, son."
Nicky slipped the stocking cap into his jacket without his father noticing and zipped up. Robert took the hundred dollars.
"Yeh. I love you too, Dad."
"Are you sure you're not coming home until Thanksgiving?"
"I wish you would."
The father and son stood facing each other for several moments before settling on a handshake.
"Come on, Nicky," Mark called Nicky to follow.
Read Chapter 9.
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