John Hazard


John Hazard lives in Birmingham, Michigan. He has taught at the University of Memphis and, more recently, at Oakland University and the Cranbrook Schools in suburban Detroit. His fiction has been published in Corridors and South Dakota Review, while his poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared widely in magazines, including Ploughshares, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Shenandoah, Slate, New Ohio Review and The Gettysburg Review. His 2015 book of poetry is Naming a Stranger (Aldrich Press).


On the sofa across the room my niece Evie looked up from Entertainment, stared for a moment, and said, “What’s that?”

I explained the kit for testing blood sugar.

“You’re gonna make yourself bleed?”

“Just a drop,” I said.

Her nose and mouth twisted sideways, and I thought corkscrew. “Does it hurt?” she said.

“The needle? Not usually.” I stuck my finger and held the blood drop to the test strip. “Owwwww,” she said, shaking her hand as if she were injured. “Gross.” Then, quickly, “What does it say?”


“Is that good?”

“No. But you guys get a trophy for just showing up these days, so I’ll give myself a B-.”

She ignored my lame dig at modern kids—what else should she expect from a middle-aged bureaucrat of an uncle? “Can’t you make it better?”

“Maybe,” I said, “if I lost forty pounds. But maybe not.”

“Never?” she said. “Yes, you could.”

“Maybe. Well, yes, I probably could.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Forty pounds? Try it sometime.”

I started to add something about sitting all day—the padded chair, the office building, my long-suffering translations of human behavior into legal English. Or was I imposing legal English onto human behavior? My life as a D.C. paper shuffler would bore her—as it should.

“Yeah,” she said. “And then you’d be Uncle Ted the stick. No, wait—Uncle Stick. I kinda like it. But Uncle Stick would never get a woman.”

So at thirteen she’s analyzing my love life—that is, its absence. “I thought girls liked six-pack abs.”

“Well, yeah, but you’re into the famous forty-somethings. So if you were . . . you know . . . ripped or whatever . . . you’d look like you were trying too hard. You know?”

She was pleased with her analysis and grinned a little, then got serious again. “Mom thinks you don’t want a girlfriend. Of course, she’s usually wrong—about everything. But maybe not that. Where have all your women gone, Uncle?”

“I don’t know. And if I knew, it’d probably be a long, dull story.”

“My dad used to say that. All the time.” For humor she tried to lower her voice to a baritone like Ron’s and said, “Long story, Evie, long, hard story.”

I was at a loss when she brought up Ron. The separation between him and my sister Judith had been messy. “Ron’s a serious guy, all right.” I said. “But plenty funny when he wants to be.”

“I’m skinny,” she chirped. The kid could topic-hop. Or did she want to avoid anything I’d have to say about her father.

“I know. Why don’t you eat?”

“I do.”

“Well, eat more.”

“And get gross? Ben at school is gross. Lauren’s almost gross.”

“Like me.”

“You’re not gross,” she said—so casually that I believed her. “Get over yourself.” Then, maybe concerned she’d gone too far, she said, “You don’t really think you’re gross, do you?”

“I suppose not. Do you think you’re too skinny?”

“Nah. I’m good.” Then she heard herself and was embarrassed for a second.

“Absolutely,” I said.

She ignored me and nodded at the glucose meter and pen. “I want to try that,” she said.


“Yeah. I do.”

Where in the world had this come from? “Why?”

“I don’t know. Just curious.”

“Well, you’ve gotta get used to it, and it looks like you’ll never need to.”

“It didn’t hurt you a minute ago. Besides, I’m tough. Even Tater says so. He uses me to yell at the other girls. ‘Evie’s not worried about her shins.’”

“Tater?” I said.

“Soccer coach. I know, dumb name, but that’s what he’s been forever. His real name’s Tate, and his hair’s kind of red, and he’s got kind of a belly, even though he’s tall, so I guess somebody back in the day said he looked like a sweet potato. At least that’s what Marcie told us.”

I didn’t trust this guy. Girls’ soccer? Middle school? It smelled a little. “Why don’t you call him Yam?”

“Yuk,” she said. “Sounds like gagging. Besides, that’d make him a computer geek, and Coach is cool.”

“Well, I think I’ll call him Yam.”

“You don’t even know him! You’re weird.”

I knew the Tater type—long on slogans and jock humor. “Winners never quit.” They made me want to yell, “Here comes nuance! Here comes ambiguity. And it’s bigger than a score sheet!” I never did, of course. I’d get looks. And I was a coward. So I had dessert instead.

“So you’re Miss Jock-ette. Evie Jock-e-tina. Hardcore. I should’ve known. How many touchdowns so far?”

“Holy shit.”

“Holy what? Where’d you get that mouth, Missy? Besides, what happened to mackerel? Isn’t mackerel holy anymore?”


“Holy mackerel?”

She gave me a blank stare. Apparently she’d never heard it before, but that didn’t sidetrack her. “Do you think I’m gonna forget about your needle because you got me onto soccer?”

“The truth?”

“Don’t bother,” she said. “The truth hurts, Uncle. Hand it over.”

“No, kiddo, I don’t think so. Your mom could wake up any minute, and there you sit, sticking yourself? That’d be a little hard to explain. Besides, I’m used to the sticks.”

“You mean, like, a callus?”

“Well, it’s more like learning where the tough spots are. But sometimes I miss.”

“Why can’t you hit the same tough spot every time?”

“Not sure. I guess the spots are too small. Or the needle’s too big. Or I’m a moron.”

“But when you did it just then, you didn’t even wince.”

“Got lucky,” I said. “Sometimes I jump a little.” For comedy I tried to wiggle in a spastic way. I tried to look stupid for her.

“Oh my god!” she said.


“That was really dumb.”

“Yeah. Dirty work, but somebody’s gotta . . . you know.”

“Promise you’ll never do that again.”

“Okay, okay.” She liked her confidence, and so did I, but I wasn’t sure how deep it went. “So when it hurts,” she said earnestly, “it hurts really bad?”

“Not really. A sting, I guess. Mostly it surprises me. You know? You think you’ve got something down, you think you’ve got a system . . . then wham.”

“I like surprises,” she said.

“What is this, channel surfing?” But she was entertaining. There was more warmth and humor and honesty in her in these last few minutes than I’d experience in a week at the office. “How come all kids say they like surprises? Especially girls.”


“Drama Queen.”

“Bite me.”

Uh oh. How much sass was okay? It was kind of fun, certainly a release, and it kept me current on youth-speak, which might come in handy someday, though I didn’t see how. “Can a girl say that?”

“Say what?”

“Bite me.”

“Dude. A girl can say anything.”

She would keep escalating, so I tried to return to the most recent topic I could remember, though coherence didn’t feel important. “So if I said I had a surprise for you, you’d be glad.”

“If that’s all I know, yeah.”

“You’d figure it was a good surprise.”

“Sure,” she said. “Wouldn’t you?”

“I doubt it. I’ve never liked surprises.”

“Even good ones?”

“Never had one,” I said—and immediately regretted the self-pity in it.

“Wow. Uncle Sunshine rides again.”

“Right. Uncle Sunshine the Stick. Ridin’ down the canyon.”

“I don’t believe you’ve never had a good surprise. Think harder.”

“Okay, okay. Just a minute ago,” I said. “The needle didn’t hurt this morning.” I didn’t mean to get back to that, and shouldn’t have, but there it was.

I tried to reroute us again. “And until this morning, it had been years since a chick called me a dude or said ‘bite me.’ That was a surprise, and it was not entirely bad. Just a little inappropriate maybe.”

But she hung on. “I thought you said it only hurt once in a while.”

“I did. But I still expect it to hurt every time.”

She paused. “Why?”

“Well, I suppose the glass is half-empty.”

“Yeah. You and Mom. What is up with you Milligans?” She was peeved, and in Judith’s case, she deserved to be. But she was also concerned; she really wanted to know, and I liked that.

“Born that way, I suppose.” If she were an adult, I might have whined on about my dreary work and the series of women who sooner or later found me dull.

“Born that way?” she said. “I doubt it. Maybe you should hit the gym after all. Get a little tango goin’ up there in noggin land.”

“Yeah, Uncle Sunshine. Tango Ted. Whatever.”

She ignored me. “I want to try it,” she said.


“Your needle thingy.”

So much for diversions. “What if it hurts?”

“It won’t.”

“But what if it does?”

“You think I’ll cry, don’t you. And your big sister will beat you up?”

“What are you, the Gengis Khan of girls?”

“I try,” she said. She looked down again, trying to hide a grin that was forming. “I have Gengis envy.”

This was not a fair fight; I was completely over-matched. “We’d have to ask your mom, you know.”

“No, no, no! She’d freak. She’s such a wuss.”

“Whoa! Where’d that come from?”

“She just is.”

“But why?”

She paused long enough to decide whether to go into it, then plunged. “She didn’t exactly tough it out with my dad, did she.”

I knew I couldn’t sidestep this forever, and we’d skirted it for the day and half they’d been visiting. The Milligan way: when in doubt, avoid unpleasantness, including facts. Do a dance.

“Your mom and dad—that was complicated, kiddo.”

“Not really. She thought he was a psycho, but all he did was get mad sometimes. Or quiet.” But Evie was getting a little loud, and Judith had once again been firm about needing rest.

“Well, I suppose.” I nodded at the spare room where my sister was sleeping, then pushed down on the air with my hands to say we needed to keep our voices down.

Evie tried. In an earnest whisper, she said, “You don’t believe me?”

Judith was one of those people who could fill a room with words. Usually they were unnecessary, superficial, suburban words, but I’ll take almost anything but silence.

Evie and I had never talked like this. The kid was work, but I’d never liked her so much. As long as we were this far into the wreck, we might as well go on.

“I believe you, Evie. But I’ve also gotta tell you, I’ve heard it was more,” I said. “I’ve heard he went off for days. Or didn’t speak for days. I heard he threw a chair across the room.”

“Not at her!”

Again, I pushed down on the air. “Well, I guess not. I wasn’t there.”

I was! All he did was kick the chair. She was being a nagging bitch—again—and when he kicked a chair, it fell into the dining room table. One time! Big deal.”

“Easy,” I said.

“Whatever.” Her eyes were moist, but she was under control. “Sorry! But talk about drama queens . . . I’m really sick of it—Mama and her . . . spells. My dad’s a good guy. If there was ever any fun at home, guess where it came from.”

“I know. He’s a good guy. For sure. But can you see how she might be scared?”

“Scared? Sure. That’s who she is.” She was giving no ground. This was judgment—the mother according to the child. I couldn’t be sure Evie was wrong, and even if she was, maybe she’d earned some excesses of her own.

“You’re never scared?” I said.

She looked at the floor.

“Could you look up for a minute?”

She did.

I said, “Everybody gets scared. So enough with this soccer-warrior business. You get to be scared sometimes.”

“Yeah, yeah. That’s what everybody says. It’s a bunch of church crap. Church in a can.”

“What a cynic. You’re twelve, for Chrissakes.”



“And I don’t care,” she said. “It’s true. All she does is go to work, come home, go to her room. She works, she cries, she sleeps. Except for moaning about how depressed my dad is.”


“My mother’s the great weeping willow, and I’m supposed to think he’s the one that’s mental.”

“Evie,” I said. And then with more authority than I felt, “You will get through this.” That felt canned too; I knew she wouldn’t buy it. Maybe I didn’t either.

She said, “Why don’t you just say ‘This too will pass’—like the moron preacher she dragged in for help. Give her a little trouble and she goes out for a hired hand-holder. All together now, let’s get touchy-feely. Yay, God—never gives you more than you can handle.”

I stared past Evie’s ear, and she stared across the living room at the kitchen doorstop. If we made eye contact, I’d be the one who blinked. Judith did tend toward theatrical martyrdom, and Ron could be charming as hell when his brain chemistry was stable. He was wittier and more entertaining than Judith. But sometimes he just went away, mentally, for days—drifted into a solitary, blank place, which I assumed was dark and empty.

Also, wasn’t there some kind of party line I had to hold here—the adult world view or something? Shouldn’t I be Evie’s middle-aged man who isn’t a slogan-spouting preacher or redheaded coach? Or psychiatric in-patient?

Maybe everything really was about blood, after all, though I hoped not. My work centered on government and business law, but tales from other attorneys, plus a gram of common sense, taught me long ago that family bonding could be more about extortion than love.

“Evie, I’m sorry if you’ve heard it all before. And from people you don’t like. But preacher or no preacher, it’s still true—this will pass. It’s not just a bumper sticker.”

Would she have a fit about that? At thirteen, maybe there’s only the present moment. I couldn’t remember.

I waited for a few seconds. “So this is another way you have to be tough. And I won’t lie—it might be hard.”

She looked straight at me. I think she was looking for a way to get back to sarcasm—the easy route.

“She’s hung in there,” I said. “And as your dad got worse, she stayed put. It’s been a couple of years now, and she’s still right there.”

“She tricked him into a nuthouse! She knew the shrink would push for live-in. How does that add up to hanging in there?” She looked at the floor and collected herself. Then almost plaintively, she said, “I’m telling you, he wasn’t that bad. She just can’t take anything.

I thought about reaching for her hand, but it would have been too much. We weren’t a huggy bunch.


“What!” she hissed.

I tried to move cautiously. “Maybe there was more than you saw.”

“I saw plenty,” she said as if her words were lead. Her eyes welled again, but only a little. She was probably wondering what she wanted to say, or what she could say without cracking her veneer. Then came the blurt: “If she dumped him, she could dump me. She’s tired, so I have to be perfect. She’s a fucking sissy, and it’s wearing me out.”

I took a breath. “Can you look up here, please.” I waited. “It’s a trial separation. He’s getting some help. I want you to promise me you’ll hang in there for your mom. She needs people in her corner.”

“Not as much as Dad does.”

“Well, maybe so,” I said. “Who knows?”

I do. That’s who. She’s got a bunch of soccer moms calling and texting, and some of them are just getting off on the drama. So don’t worry, Mom’s not alone. Not even close.”

“Okay. I get it.” I waited, counted to two. “I think I just mean . . . maybe you still need her, even with all the mess.”

She didn’t speak but gave me a look that said, “Of course I do. And I hate knowing that. What did you think all this was about?”

I was drained. Maybe I could do no more. I let a few seconds drag by, then said, “Well, at least she’s not fat.”

She gave me the face that said, “Huh?” Then came a flash of relief. Whatever our dark adventure had amounted to, maybe it was over.

“After all,” I said, “you’re only twelve.”

She tried to look bored and irritated. “Thirteen,” she said flatly.

“Eleven. And going down.”


“Real women do kick boxing.”

“God,” she said, partly in fatigue and partly to chastise me for lame humor. “You’re a very old man, Uncle. No wonder—” She stopped. She was trying to meet in the middle, find the right tone, but she was on the verge of something meaner than she intended. Humor and pain—even at her age she knew the connection was strong and things might get away from her.

“Will you do what I said? Just hang in there.”

She took her time. “And if I don’t?”

I didn’t expect that. I tried to cover. “I’ll be talking to this coach of yours, this Tater Man. This Lord Garlic the Red.”

“Oh, please,” she said and picked up the wrinkled comics.

I let her stare at them for a few seconds. “You’ve already looked at those.” Then it was out of my mouth: “Will you call me if it gets bad?”

This surprised both of us. She squinted at me.

“I mean it,” I said. “Call me anytime. She’s my sister. You’re an only child, so you don’t get that, at least not entirely. I want you to call me twice a week—at least—whether you need to or not. Study her. Be a snoop. Rat on her. Or, just tell me what you had for lunch.”

I paused. I didn’t want to sound like the preacher she hated, so I tried to change it up. “Be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Be germ warfare, just drifting around, but, you know, germ on a drone, looking harmless. In The Great Bowel Bacteria War, be one of the good bacteria—“

“What in God’s name are you talking about?”

“—part of a team of good bacteria, the healthy gut—”

“Please shut up.”

But she was fighting back a smile. I felt like a parent tickling his baby, forcing it to laugh. Was that about the infant’s pleasure or the parent’s grip on a throttle? Once again, the parental extortion syndrome: if you love me, laugh; if you love me, be happy. Or at least don’t be sad. Don’t even be troubled, ever. Not for a moment of your life. And how dare you not love me. How dare you miss The Good Ship Happiness after all I’ve given you.

“Send in reports,” I went on. “Seriously. Be a mom to her.”

Now she was looking at the floor. She wasn’t signing any blank check.

“Will you?” I said.

“Jesus. Okay, okay.”

We sat for what seemed a long time. She fingered Entertainment, but made no move to read it. After a while she said, “I still want to try that needle thing.”

Shit. “I guess you’re not gonna let go of this . . .”


“You’ve seen your own blood before?”


“In soccer, no doubt. And old Tater-Red-Ass would vouch for it.”

Again she smothered a grin. “Yep.”

“You swam through blood and swamps across two continents.”


“Would it be our secret?”

“No. I’ll go bawling to Great Mother Sissy Freak.”

“Well, I don’t need her freaking at me,” I said.

“So you do know what I meant before.”

“Of course. She’s my sister.”

Maybe we were okay. “Tell you what,” I said. “Let’s do the needle. The hell with it. You’ll live. We’ll test you up one side and down the other and call it educational.”

She almost smiled, but then her expression shifted—pinched eyebrows, the right brow higher than the left—the corkscrew. The detective. She nodded at the small black pouch of equipment that looked like a puffy deck of cards.

“What all’s in there?” she asked.

I told her, and she half-sneered, half-mumbled back at me, “Flex-pen. Test strips. Lancets . . . sounds like school supplies.”

“Well, yeah, I guess so. Never thought of it that way.”

“Why lancets? Why not needles? And why not shots? Shots full of big needles?”

Did we just make a hairpin turn? “Interesting. I guess I don’t think about it anymore. I suppose—”

“Why don’t they call it the fucking vampire kit?”

“They should,” I said.

“Why don’t you people ever say what you mean? ”

You people. Every adult, except Coach, I suppose. And Ron, the good dad.

“Maybe the truth is overrated,” I said.

“Like making sense is overrated?” she said. “Everything’s a hype? Everybody’s selling something. Maybe that’s what’s down the road in your wonderful adulthood. I hate it already.”

“I hope not. And I don’t think so.” I sat there for a second, then held out the black pouch. “Should I put this away then?”

“Yeah. Put it away.” She waved her fingers as if she were flicking a mosquito. “I lost the urge.”