(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Pet Milk” is told from the perspective of a young man as he recalls his youth in an ethnic neighborhood in Chicago and the course of his relationship with his girlfriend in the year after they graduated from college. The story begins with the narrator musing in midwinter about the patterns made by the addition of Pet evaporated milk to a cup of coffee. The swirls of the mixture lead through a series of associations to the thought that evaporated milk is an emblem of an earlier time in his life when a first-generation family had to find an adequate substitute—Pet milk for fresh cream—to compensate for the limits imposed by their economic condition.

Images from his grandmother’s home establish something of the ethos of an urban community in which “all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together” and then lead toward a more recent time when the swirl in a liqueur glass in a Czech restaurant connects the past to the recent present when the narrator and his girlfriend, Kate, have begun to spend time together for drinks after work. The restaurant has been designed to give the residents of the neighborhood a touch of their origins in Europe, and an older waiter’s continental charm encourages the romantic aura that is gradually enveloping the young couple.

The story shifts at this point to the immediate present on the narrator’s twenty-second birthday, a warm spring day in May. To celebrate, he orders champagne and oysters, a conspicuously...

(The entire section is 610 words.)