Study Guide

A Bottle of Milk for Mother

by Nelson Algren

A Bottle of Milk for Mother Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Bottle of Milk for Mother” is an interrogation story that pits a young Polish hoodlum against an experienced, cynical police captain. From the time that he is brought into the interrogation room until he is led to his cell, Bruno struggles to maintain his composure, to use his street knowledge of law, and to avoid implicating his friend and accomplice Benkowski. Unfortunately for Bruno, while he succeeds in shielding Benkowski, his case is “well disposed of,” and he is left to tell himself, “I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow.”

Rather than have his men tell their story about the robbery and shooting of the drunk, Kozak insists on Bruno telling his own story. From the start, Kozak assumes Bruno’s guilt, as well as Benkowski’s, and Bruno is quickly reduced from denying knowledge of the drunk to explaining how the one shot must have “bounced.” Kozak dismisses out of hand the “just getting a bottle of milk for Mother” explanation, and then he attacks Bruno’s ego. First, Kozak breaks Bruno’s valuable spring-blade knife, a symbol of his manhood, and Bruno winces “as though he himself had received the blow.” Then Kozak calls Bruno “Lefty,” thereby appealing to his vanity, for he is proud of his pitching prowess, but also encouraging him to talk. Just as the appeal to motherhood fails, so do his appeals to identification (“I’m just a neighborhood kid”), to political interference (he “innocently” refers to his ties to the “alderman,” Kozak’s brother), to ethnicity (he claims that he spoke Polish to the drunk and tried to make him a better Polish “citizen”), and even to patriotism (his gang is not the Warriors but the “Baldhead True American Social ’n Athletic Club”).

As Bruno continues his story, Kozak abruptly intervenes with questions that assume Bruno’s guilt. When Bruno talks about his pitching arm, Kozak interjects, “So you...

(The entire section is 785 words.)